Sunday, January 13, 2013

the final transmission arrives (aka thanks for all the listenables)

NOTE: I am sure absolutely no one will be surprised to discover that I didn't manage to finish working my way through the review pile. Of the stuff that remains, some will get sent back to the appropriate bands / labels, and a few will end up being reviewed at some point on the new blog. But probably nothing of consequence will happen until I finish the long-overdue Korperschwache album still in the works. Regardless, it has been a pleasure to meet and work with so many labels and bands over the years who have been generous with their time and promotional materials, and while I won't miss being constantly behind, I will miss the unexpected treasures that regularly showed up in my mailbox / inbox, and for being regularly introduced to new and amazing bands I never would have heard of otherwise.

Speaking of the new blog, where I will occasionally blab about whatever interests me (including music), it can be found here:

Now, on to DEAD ANGEL's final round of reviews:

Nels Cline / Elliott Sharp -- OPEN THE DOOR [Public Eyesore]

Talk about a meeting of the minds, this is an inspired pairing of two of the experimental and avant-garde scene's greatest guitarists. Cline may be best known these days as the lead guitarist of Wilco, but he has a long and illuminating pedigree in the world of experimental music, while Sharp (best known for his long-running band Carbon) has been a fixture in NYC's no-wave / avant scene for over thirty years. Most of this five-track album is actually a lost album that was recorded in 1999 and intended for release for one label, then another, that both tanked before they could release the album; fortunately for the rest of us, PE head banana Bryan Day somehow heard the recording and offered to put it out, and here it is, with the original four tracks followed by a live recording at The Stone in 2007. Anybody who's heard either man play probably has an inkling of the experimental sound of this album, but even those in the know will probably be thrown for a loop by their decision to play strictly acoustic guitars. As a result, the studio tracks sound very much like John Fahey in one of his more out-there moments; amazing neo-folk guitar runs do battle with warped chords, strange progressions, and unorthodox sounds. Even more amazing is how tuneful it is in spite of its abject weirdness; they have a highly unusual approach to the concept of guitar duets, to be sure, but they express their ideas with considerable style and a surprising level of melodicism. The live track that rounds out the album is in a similar vein, albeit a tad more avant than the preceding material and a bit closer to the quixotic sound familiar to PE listeners; it's choppy and less melodic, turning less on melodic content and more on perverse, staggered rhythms, but still every bit as mind-bending as the rest of the album. Definitely an eye-opener.

Guinea Worms -- SMILES lp [Columbus Discount Records]

The Columbus, OH garage band with the perversely ugly name returns with more squalling rock that perfectly fits the CDR aesthetic -- to wit, loud and aggressive rock made by dudes with their amps turned up real loud. The wormy ones tend to be considerably less frantic than many of their label mates, though, and their mid-tempo death march leaves plenty of time for their full-bodied guitar chords to cut through your skull and curdle the soup inside. The vocals are mixed so low you'll never figure out what the singer's yowling about, especially with those heavy drums thumping away, but you're not listening to this band for their commentary, are you? No, you're listening for that big beat and that exquisitely overmodulated guitar sound that's right on the perilous divide between squealy harmonics and dissonant crunge. There are a few curveballs, like the song where the guitar sound resembles a pained pipe organ over a swaying sea-chanty beat, but for the most part this is straight-up, no-frills garage rock with scorched-earth guitar and drumming that's solid without being flashy. The bottom line is that, as with so many albums from this label, everything rides on the guitars and the beats, and both are pretty happening here. Worthy of your aural inspection.

Sky Burial -- THERE I SAW THE GREY WOLF GAPING [Small Doses / First Light]

I'm sure I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, but I genuinely believe Sky Burial is one of the best dark ambient acts currently in existence. Originally formed by Michael Page as a side-project of his harsher-sounding Fire In The Head, it has since become his dominant musical exercise, with a back catalog of consistently excellent releases that have grown progressively more ambitious and expansive in their sounds. This album continues the theme of building on (and surpassing) the sound and feel of previous albums with the introduction of vocals (and abstract vocalizations) into the mix of cosmic drone rock, electronica, and musique concrete sounds; it also features a number of like-minded guest artists, including Jarboe (Swans), Danny Hyde (Coil), Bridget Wishart (Hawkwind), and Troum, among others, who add expansive touches to the ominous sheets of drone billowing like cosmic vapor throughout the album. In contrast to the past few Sky Burial albums, this one returns to shorter compositions -- of the eight songs here, three are approximately ten minutes long and the rest four to five minutes -- but it still all flows in such an organic fashion that they all appear more as movements in one long suite than separate pieces. While the album is largely focused on the same majestic cosmic drone that has always been the center of the band's sound, there are elements of percussion in tracks like "Incantare" and "Shedding the Husk" that add an extra weight to the sound, and the use of unorthodox vocals in unexpected places adds an additional element to the proceedings while also raising uneasy expectations about what might come next. Mutated electronics on tracks like "Carne[val]" bring an extra dimension to the album's sound, with new textures that create an album flow that is much different from previous ones. With each new track comes unexpected sonic treasure, and the cumulative result is an album of such dark and ominous grace that it easily qualifies as one of the best dark ambient releases of the year. The artwork is every bit as impressive and thoughtful as the album itself, with stunning black and white cover art by Thomas Hooper, with an eight-panel poster that is housed with the cd in an Arigato pack. Limited to 500 copies, and as usual, if you are down with dark ambient sounds, then you are a fool -- a fool! -- if you do not make the effort to snag this.

Stone Breath -- THE SNOW-WHITE GHOST-WHITE STAG [Deep Water Acres]

As hard as it might be to imagine, this is the first live album from Stone Breath, but it was certainly worth the wait. Recorded live in State College, PA on March 31, 2012 and featuring the most current incarnation of the band (Time Moth Eye Renner on vocals, lute-guitar, banjo, and harp; Carin Wagner Sloan on vocals; Brooke Elizabeth on vocals, dumbek, bodhran, and tambourine; and Don Belch on six and twelve-string guitars and lute-guitar), this succinct but powerful live performance finds them reeling off flawless and haunting versions of the strongest tracks from their most recent releases. For those not already hep to Stone Breath and their unique sound, they are best described as an apocalyptic folk band harking back to an era before the invention of electricity, a band with aesthetic roots in nature, the unnatural, and the spiritual world. This is acoustic music that manages to be beautiful, ominous, and otherworldly, often at the same time, music that hints strongly at the great and terrible beauty of a natural world unmoved by human concerns, as well as the thin line separating the worlds of the rational and the supernatural. The band encapsulates these themes in songs like "The Night Birds Psalm," "Where the Crows Go," the title track, and my personal favorite, the deliciously morbid "To Sleep With Skeletons." They also include a few traditional tunes like "Bedlam Boys" and "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier," although their renditions of these songs make them sound distinctly their own. Part of what makes this such a strong album (aside from the amazing playing and excellent recording) is the selection of such strong material cherry-picked from various albums, but if you are new to the band and find this to your liking, I have good news for you: the full-length studio albums from which these songs came are all every bit as good as this one. 

Sujo -- KAHANE lp [Fedora Corpse Recordings]

After seven years worth of obscure and mysterious cd-r releases, the always enigmatic Sujo finally gets a vinyl release… and a swell one it is, in every sense of the word, from the fuzzed-out tunes themselves to the swank packaging. The opening track "Evocate" sets the tone for the album, fading in with resonating guitar lines and growing layers of ambient noise and scratching sounds; before long, the repetitive guitar melody is drowned out by machine noises and a growing sonic fog that increases in volume and intensity as the track unfolds. A big beat arrives in "Achille," along with plenty of grinding industrial noise and strange melodies smothered by apocalyptic layers of sound; toward the end, the beat fades away, leaving only a swirling ambient cyclone of noise. There's a heavy hypnotic beat running through "Kahane" as well, accompanied by more fuzzed-out noise swaddled in reverb, a cathedral of sound that's both majestic and ominous. The flip side of the album is taken up by two lengthy tracks: the first one, "Entebbe," another noise-encrusted track that's heavy on the superior drone action, waxes and wanes with bursts of corrosive fuzz and high-pitched UFO noises until it ends with baroque acoustic melodies over a bed of reductive noise, while "Frei" opens with a whirling hall of sonic knives that resolve into processed melodic guitar and a pounding drum rhythm and muted, rasping vocals, sounding very much like a hazy shoegazing take on black metal. To pile on the awesomeness, the album comes in the form of heavy colored vinyl (tarnished gold with a splatter motif), housed in a recycled, hand-stamped jacket, along with a color postcard illustrated by Erik Waterkotte containing liner notes on the flip side. It's also worth noting that the album was mastered specifically for vinyl by James Plotkin (Khanate, OLD, Jodis). Swell, swell stuff, not to be missed.

The Tunnel -- SULTRY DAGGERS lp [Glorious Alchemical Co.]

San Francisco's The Tunnel returns with another album filled with seedy tales of sin and vice ripped straight from the Nick Cave playbook, but this time their swaggering but sophisticated death-rock is rounded out by unexpected bursts of overdriven surf guitar (check out the opening track "Shed the Skin") and not-so-subtle nods to Killing Joke and Chrome. I'm hazy on how the band came together (this is their third album), but one of the integral components of their sound is vocalist / guitarist Jeff Wagner, whose earlier work in The Tunnel of Love -- especially his twisted lyrical obsessions -- formed the aesthetic nucleus that has since been rounded out by the ass-quaking rhythm section of bassist Sam Black and drummer Patrick Crawford. With their help, the eccentric sounds of Wagner's solo work has been transformed into something considerably harder-rocking, while his eternally debauched vocal delivery and sordid lyrics keep the band's vision locked in on an endless parade of sad losers and grifters. The band is essentially a death-blues band (well, sort of) in the vein of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or Crime and the City Solution, but that is only the bedrock of a sound that is leavened with riffs and noisy sounds cribbed from a wide variety of sources, and while the driving rhythms of Killing Joke and strange effects of Chrome are an obvious influence here, there's plenty of other eye-opening influences guaranteed to keep things interesting. For instance, "Trigger" (my favorite track on the album) is driven by a big beat, gnarly pounding bass, and a hypnotic, clanging guitar riff that could have appeared on an early album by Public Image Limited or Gang of Four, along with psychotronic noises Helios Creed would have been proud to claim as his own. Tracks like "Devil's Reach," "Rumbler," and "Subterraneum" are dominated by doom-laden bass heavy on the fuzz and equally in sync with blunt-force percussion, but then the title track is more brooding and subdued, with a gorgeously spooky guitar sound drenched in reverb that's reminiscent of the more recent work of Earth. Even better, blues-soaked guitar lines are liberally sprinkled everywhere, just adding to the general seediness of the band's sound, and Wagner's often-deranged delivery, in which he does an excellent impersonation of a desperate man at the end of his rope (and probably on the wrong end of a gun), is so convincing that you would never guess this is a guy who spends his daytime hours fiddling with electron microscopes. And like the album that came before, the songs are all masterfully constructed and the album is completely filler-free. You must hear this, and fortunately for you, it can be downloaded for free via the link below (although you really ought to spring for the highly affordable vinyl, especially given the album's swank packaging and tripped-out and highly colorful cover).