Sunday, April 29, 2007

the latest wave of reviews

Air Conditioning -- DEAD RAILS [Load Records]

I've been hearing about this band for a while now (good things, to be sure), but this is the first time I've actually heard them, and I am not disapponted. This thuggish trio from Allentown, PA take the standard power-trio format (drums, bass, and guitar) and turn it into an excuse for sordid displays of alienated sonic violence on four tracks of deranged, pounding noise and distortion. The album is only about thirty minutes long, but that's plenty of time for the band to impress their unhealthy desires on your reeling psyche -- between grotesquely distorted bass, psychotronic guitar, and whacked-out percussion rudeness, they make a righteously unholy din that often devolves into pure aggressive white-noise filth. They don't often bother with singing (and when they do, the yelling can barely be heard over the screeching din), and they are awesomely adept at making truly ugly sounds with their otherwise ordinary instruments. This is harsh, loud, confrontational stuff, the kind of intense audio hate designed to clear rooms in a hurry; the band toured with Prurient a while back, and I can only imagine how obnoxious that must have been. Sure, there are some vaguely psychedelic moments like "I Run Low" (which is built more around throbbing bass noise than anything else), but mostly it's an exercise in face-peeling with beats bathed in the kind of warm, fuzzy distortion that you only get from seriously overdriving poor, helpless li'l amplifiers or deliberately hitting analog tape way too hard. Gruesome and exciting stuff, absolutely.

Load Records

Asbestosdeath -- DEJECTION / UNCLEAN cd-ep [Southern Lord]

The operative word is "Sleep," for this is the late-eighties band that evolved into that legendary stoner / doom band. The band -- essentially Sleep plus guitarist Thomas Choi (who went on to play in Operator Generator) -- didn't last very long, and recorded only four tracks available on two obscure 7" singles that have been out of print for eons. Now thanks to the fanatics at Southern Lord (and at the specific request of the band), you can hear what all the fuss was about without blowing huge chunks of your paycheck on Ebay. And it sounds like... um, Sleep. (What, you expected it to sound like something besides Sleep? HAH!) A somewhat grungier Sleep, perhaps, but that could just be the limitations of remastering from the original source material (or the harsh, death-metal influenced vocals) -- but that doesn't matter, because what you get are moments of intricate picking and jazzy drums followed by soul-crushing heaviness (with more jazzy drums). Four distortion-laden songs, approximately twenty minutes, plus a look into the murky beginnings of one of doom metal's most notable bands; what more could you ask for? Anybody down with Sleep, OM, or High on Fire really needs to hear this. Even those new to the concept could stand to hear it, for there is much greatness at work here in the lumbering riffs and unorthodox drum patterns. Swell, swell stuff indeed.

Southern Lord


The mighty fightin' minimalists of Bloomington return with more hypnobeats and simple (but highly entrancing) electrodrone riffs. The riffs themselves frequently sound like looped outtakes from soundtracks and blaxploitation flicks, with some additional "processing" for extra weirdness, and the beats are usually the kind that would have greatly improved NIN's last album if Trent had been smart enough to think of them first. (Unlike Trent, Bobcrane do not embarrass themselves with awesomely stupid lyrics -- in fact, they make the supremely elegant move of not bothering to sing at all, so much the better to hear those swingin' beats and whacked-out drone-o-rific mutant riffs.) What sets Bobcrane apart from most other technoish bands working similar territory are a talent for catchy melodies and a superior grasp of dynamics -- despite the minimalist nature of the songs, the sound flowing over the near-constant machine beats continues to evolve so it never grows stale. (It helps immensely that the songs are short, so they don't have the chance to wear out their welcome.) Many of the songs open or close with eerie, droning ambience and sound-on-sound antics descended from Frippertronics, but with few exceptions the beat eventually returns to helpfully guide the listener to rhythmic nirvana. Swank stuff, and stuff you should grok as soon as possible.


Cry Blood Apache -- INDUSTRY MIXTAPE VOL. 1 [Ghetto Pagoda]

Imagine if the guys from Suicide were raised on the streets of Austin thirty years later, rather than mid-70s Noo Yawk, and you might begin to get a glimmer of the madness at work here. Outside of the intro / outro bits -- straight-up hip-hop beats with thuggish commentary and toasting from Tha Notorious J.G.C. -- this is highly devolved Suicide worship filtered through minimalist power electronics, fractured pop, gangsta rap, and a particularly opaque / black sense of humor. (Speaking of humor, they get bonus points for taking on Dianetics in "Silent Birth.") One track, "Interlude - A Message From Endal (Skit)" is built around a phone message from a former member complaining about the band using his picture on the cover the album; another, "Retaliation Rap by MC Pahn," is a series of disses against those who would dare defame the band, sort of like the Geto Boys hosing down indie rock pretenders. Fat beats + proper respect for the Rev + black humor + more fat beats = your reason for tracking this down.

Cry Blood Apache


Even in the constantly-expanding realm of what constitutes black metal, Norway's Furze is a deeply weird band. Despite the band's limited discography (this is their third album), the band has been around in one incarnation or another since 1993, making them (okay, it's really just one guy plus the occasional "studio musician") definitely old-school, but while the blackened atmosphere, poisoned guitars, and drumming (courtesy of Frost on a few tracks) put their aesthetic squarely within the tradition of second-wave black metal bands like Burzum, Mayhem, and Emperor, the overall sound is much more chaotic, dragging in bits of symphonic passages, strange backwards sounds, highly unconventional (to say the least) structures, and a tendency toward pure chaos. Highly dramatic, theatrical, and obsessed with death, Furze's sound continually shifts and takes wild stylistic turns, never giving the listener something concrete to hang onto for more than a few minutes at a time. To make things even harder to grasp, this is actually a concept album of sorts split into two sections -- the first four songs comprise the cycle of the first half of the album's lengthy title, while the last four comprise the second cycle. The only real difference I can see between the two halves of the album is that the latter stuff is a smidgen closer to being "traditional" black metal (whatever that means in these swinging hipster times, I know), but only in the sense that, say, Venus is "closer" to the sun than Earth. There's definitely a serious old-school vibe all over the album, even when everything dissolves into weird experiments in sonic confusion. Bonus points for the old-school kitchen-sink production, all the more to distance them from the likes of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth -- this is the sound of a band that would rather convince you to jump off a building than to buy their shitty overpriced t-shirts. Members of Celtic Frost have nothing but good things to say about them, which should tell you something. (Assuming, of course, you have the good sense to understand that Celtic Frost are worthy of eternal reverence.)

Candlelight Records

Government Alpha -- VENOMOUS CUMULUS CLOUD [PACrec]

You know what to expect here, and you get what you expect -- namely, six tracks of pure eardrum dynamite. Government Alpha may well be the loudest band in the world, and they certainly have no use for concepts like subtlety or mercy; their entire reason for existence, in fact, appears to lie in turning skulls into soup through high-energy bolts of pure white noise delivered at maximum volume. This album is perfectly in keeping with the rest of their oevure, and sounds like everything else they've ever done (whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your perspective), meaning it sounds like dense clouds of screaming noise and high-pitched wailing that dissolves into the sound of buildings being detonated into oblivion with powerful explosives. The only real difference from one track to the next is the arrangement of the cascading waves of terror and the methods of destruction; everything is full-on, beyond intense, louder than loud, and totally in your face. There are some supremely ugly displays of whining, chittering, screaming earhurt on this disc -- it's the sound of machines eating themselves, air raid sirens being overdriven until they implode, and a willful desire to penetrate your eardrum with a whole handful of steel needles. You don't know what real sonic terror is until you listen to a Government Alpha disc. This one is no exception to that harsh and unrelenting rule. Bonus points for the swell psychedelic artwork.

Government Alpha

Grayceon -- S/T [Vendlus Records]

Think of the band as a balancing act: Hyperactive drummer Zack Farwell's playing is straight out of the King Crimson / The Fucking Champs metal-fusion school of thought, while guitarist Max Doyle switches seamless between intricate folk-picking and progressive metal styles... and they just form the rhythmic backdrop for the electric cello lines and ethereal singing of Amber Asylum cellist Jackie Perez Gratz. The result is a bizarre collision of metal, jazz fusion, folk, and prog rock. It's definitely bizarre-sounding at first, and on paper there's no way it should work at all without dissolving into hilarious wankfests, but on disc it works really well indeed. Of course, you're going to need patience to listen -- with the exception of "Song For You," which is just under four minutes, everything else is really long (the fourth and final track "Ride" is twenty minutes). A lot of what makes it work comes down to the interplay between Gratz and Doyle, especially in the inventive and often inspired chordal voicings -- but don't let that fool you into believing this is a protracted exercise in wimpiness, because their sound is often awfully metallic. The end result is sort of like RED-era King Crimson and The Fucking Champs with Kate Bush (or Liz Fraser) on the mike. They certainly don't sound like anybody currently running around in metal circles, that's for sure. Exotic-sounding and a lot more listenable than you might think from the unorthodox lineup.

Vendlus Records

Jazzkammer / Howard Stelzer -- TOMORROW NO ONE WILL BE SAFE [PACrec]

In 2004, two noise-loving lunatics from Norway (Jazzkammer) toured the US with a avant-garde tape improviser (Howard Stelzer). This disc is a document of that bizarre pairing, with one track by Jazzkammer ("Requiem for Officer Robby Barker," recorded live at the Artspace in Richmond, VA), one track by Stelzer ("Last Night at BLD," recorded live at BFD Warehouse in Columbus, OH), and one unholy collaboration between the two ("Tomorrow No One Will Be Safe," recorded live at SOMA in Bloomington, IN). Unlike a lot (some would say most) discs from this label, this is not a full-on experience in eardrum sandblasting; Jazzkammer are fond of lengthy pauses of silence and minimalist electronics, although sooner or later those quiet passages and almost-subdued experiments in repetitive sonic motion inevitably explode into moments of gruesome sonic violence. Their aesthetic involves actual dynamics, a tendency toward minimalism, and the use of what frequently sounds like damaged equipment; they're less about beating you over the head and shoulders with jagged bursts of audio violence and more about lulling you into a false sense of security, THEN beating you over the head with (brief) bursts of audio violence. Stelzer, it turns out, favors lots of bumping and thumping and the occasional deployment of high-pitched bombing runs, but mainly he likes forcing tape recorders to do things they were never meant to do. As with Jazzkammer's track, there are relatively subdued moments that burst into tapebabble and screech hell, but mainly the noise is more in an "experimental" vein than anything resembling harsh audio conduct. The collaboration track is denser and more cluttered, with a fondness for repetitive sounds and lots of thumping about, but not as catastrophic as you might expect from having all of them onstage at once... but the wailing noise hell they generate at times is distinctly more painful. It's not a writhing, seething wall of white noise, but your mother (or girlfriend) will still hate it. Limited to 500 copies.

Howard Stelzer

Merzbow / Carlos Giffoni / Jim O'Rourke -- ELECTRIC DRESS [No Fun Productions]

Just the personnel alone should scare you -- the names involved conjure up visions of pure burning chrome and chopped-up noise hell. Between Merzbow's fondness for noise death, Giffoni's equally noisy love of volume and chaos, and O'Rourke's penchant for chopping everything up and reassembling it into new vistas of caustic sound, this is a meeting of minds with serious potential. Recorded live in Tokyo with Merzbow in an all-analog mood (rare these days, since he discovered the joys of laptop-induced chaos), the action is centered primarily around the use of analog synths and filters (plus some handmade instruments and various effects on Merzbow's end, and microphone abuse from O'Rourke), and over the course of one fifty-minute track, they make good on their promise. This is seriously chaos-driven, noise-laden stuff; it's impossible to tell who's doing what, but the sonic topography here is bumpy indeed, with twitchy synth yelps doing battle with groaning walls of distorted filth as the clotted sound ebbs and flows through varying degrees of thick audio soup. It sounds like all three of them are frequently going in totally separate directions, only occasionally coming together (or laying back and leaving room for one player to "solo" for a few moments) before descending into uncontrolled chaos again. This is what Merzbow was talking about when he coined the term "rainbow electronics" -- they cover the entire tonal spectrum (and maybe even discover a few previously unknown wavelengths) over the course of this disc, and you will not be surprised to learn that from time to time it all turns into a near-impenetrable wall of white noise. There's lots of rhythmic crunchiness mixed in with the wild flights of sound, though, and while stylistically this is a full-on throwback to old-school noise and industrial (especially Throbbing Gristle), it's also a pointed reminder of what industrial music could have been if it hadn't been overtaken by beat-heavy machines and co-opted for the dance floor. Despite the aforementioned rhythmic moments, there's no way you can dance to this. Psychedelic noise has rarely sounding this consistently good. This is music for demolition ceremonies; press play and prepare to be swept up in a tsunami of noise....

Carlos Giffoni
Jim O'Rourke
No Fun Productions

Secrets of the Moon -- ANTITHESIS [The Ajna Offensive]

This black metal band from Germany was formed in 1995 and this is the band's fourth release. I haven't heard any of the previous releases, so I can't offer any insights into their development, but this is definitely a dark, heavy album with a serious occult / satanic fixation, although unlike many of their Left Hand Path brethren, they are a bit more oblique in their lyrics, preferring to insinuate rather than beat you over the head with more obvious paeans to The Horned One. They also feel free to deviate from the norm in other areas, beginning with their dark and clanking bass sound (with a feel that owes more to industrial music than traditional black metal), which adds a unique tone and texture to their sound. They are also not shy about invoking the spirit of death metal in their punishing riffs (or in the occasional solo -- I have the feeling their lead guitarist rightly worships Slayer), but they cloak their attack in black metal structures, harnessing the power of endless repetition and abrupt dynamic shifts to more atmospheric moments.Their approach is the best of both worlds -- the brooding mystery and experimental sounds / structures of black metal are augmented by blunt riffs designed to step on your face over and over while the lead guitarist spits out shredded metal shavings in true death metal style. At times slow and monochromatic, at other times absurdly fast and lost in thick, metallic fog, they are never anything less than dark and menacing. The quiet, melodically hypnotic passages are eerie and brooding, and provide a perfect counterpoint to the punishing thunder that frequently follows, plus they have the freezing guitar blur down to a science. They get major props for holding fast to the spirit of black metal without being enslaved by the genre's trappings (and just for being ridiculously sinister and heavy). Bonus points for the lengthy and gorgeous booklet, which includes not only lyrics and liner note info but a lot of mysterious and often disturbing pictures.

Secrets of the Moon
The Ajna Offensive

Sewer Election -- SEX / DEATH [PACrec]

More caustic, ear-shredding audio pain from the label that probably gets a kickback from audiologists treating an endless stream of listeners suddenly crippled by tinnitus. This time the sonic hell is courtesy of Sweden's Dan Johansson, who favors (big surprise) the wildly violent and overamplified power electronics approach that reduces "music" to the sound of buildings being blown up and the burning remains sawed into even smaller pieces by chainsaws. What you get are three tracks of buzzing, howling, bleating wall-of-noise abuse, nearly an hour of the audio equivalent of having knives driven through your skull while being beaten with chains during a bombing raid. Forget about twee concepts like "musical direction" and "structures" and "melody" or anything like that -- this is pure efx-induced electronic angst that veers wildly from catastrophic junk noise to painful high-pitched screeching, with no warning as to which direction the attack will come from next. The three untitled tracks here were originally issued as a double-cassette on Harsh Head Rituals many moons ago; here they have been remastered for maximum digital unpleasantness at a highly excessive volume (the way good noise should be). Bonus points for the droning buzzsaw sounds and alienated, bass-heavy death drone in the second track, which takes its own sweet time in building to a claustrophobic wall of sonic mung before ending as it began, with vile electrodrone and washes of oceanic white noise. The final track takes up half the disc at thirty minutes and is a return to unpredictable vistas of disemboweled junk noise and misanthropic audiohurt, a growing sonic hate that just keeps getting denser and thicker and uglier as it goes. Limited to a thousand copies; get 'em while they're hot.

Sewer Election

Watain -- SWORN TO THE DARK [Ajna Offensive]

Watain was formed in Uppsala in 1998, making them relative latecomers to the field, but you'd never guess it from this, their third official full-length. They sound so much like old-school, "true" black metal (and more specifically, similar to bands like Mayhem and Urgehal) that you could be excused for thinking they were one of the bands who helped invent black metal. Frankly, this is the way black metal is supposed to sound -- loud, dark, aggressive, obsessed with speed and heaviness, and fronted by a guy who sounds like he's coughing up nails every time he opens his mouth. No wonder Celtic Frost tapped them for tourmates. Watain are an actual band (as opposed to one or two guys making fuzzed-out albums with a four-track in some basement under a snow-covered mountain), and they tour regularly, and it shows -- the band is tight, focused, and hideously driven. The lyrics are all about their eternal, undying luv for The Horned One and all that, but unlike a lot of bands mining the traditional lyrical staples of black metal, they sound like they really mean it -- these guys want to carve you up and sacrifice you to Satan (but only after you buy the album first; priorities count here), or at the very least, they want to pound their hymns to black, wasting hate into your skull in the hopes that you'll do yourself in and save them the trouble. Barring some moody passages that exist mainly to keep the album from sounding too monochromatic, they mostly blaze with psychotic intensity, although when they slow things down a bit it becomes obvious that their enormous potency lies in the ability to churn out brilliant, soul-crushing riffs of eternal creeping death. (It helps immensely to have a truly manic drummer who could hold his own with Hellhammer or Repe Misanthrope.) By combining death metal's love of speed and almighty riffs with the harmonically discordant guitar sound of bands like Mayhem and Burzum, they achieve a thick and rich sound like a musical steamroller; by anchoring this sound to a take-no-prisoners approach and actual songwriting (rather than just stringing some cool riffs together or merely playing fast in an endless monochromatic blur), they easily solidify their position as a band worthy of your reverence. Even at their most melodic they sound awfully evil, and the rest of the time they're heavy enough to snap your spine like a twig. You need this.

The Ajna Offensive

v/a -- UNTITLED (3-cd box set) [Public Guilt / UndeRadar / Epicene Sound Systems]

Talk about your cases of major sensory overload.... This is one of the most elaborate packages I've ever seen, with three cds, each attached to a stiff paper rectangle with art on one side and liner notes on the other, contained in a 5x6 box bound with a gorgeous red paper band festooned with gold ink. (The swank artwork appears courtesy of four of the set's players -- Shaun Flynn (WZT Hearts), Christopher White (Magicicada), Matthew Reis (Teeth Collection), and Jason Zeh.) And then there's the tracks -- 55 of them, to be exact, by the likes of Noveller, Gerritt, Thurston Moore, Burning Star Core, Oblong Box, Dead Machines, The Cherry Point, Darsombra, Hum of the Druid, Destructo Swarmbots, Sword Heaven, Guilty Connector, Panicsville, and a whole bunch of others from the not-so-well-known to the totally obscure. (Look here for a complete listing, plus a handful of MP3s to whet your appetite.) If you ever needed an opportunity to wade through more than three hours of experimental, noise-laden sonic disembowelment, this is it, dig?

Given the vast stylistic differences between all the various artists, it's no surprise that there's a wide variety of sounds represented here -- everything from pure white noise to glitch electronica, disturbed power electronics, mutant cut 'n paste collages, and just about anything you can think of that's founded on a noise-addled launch pad -- but the advantage of having such a project curated by labels immersed in the field is a high degree of quality control. Unlike most various-artist compilations, there's a distinct shortage of filler here -- most, if not all, of the material here is pure prime meat, whole-grain noise goodness. The wild diversity of artists on hand also makes it possible to keep things from growing static, and one of the best things about this box set is the sequencing; rather than grouping like-minded artists into blocks of sound that might grow tiring, the tracks are aligned in such a fashion that one noise style flows into another (and sometimes those shifts are dramatic indeed), which helps to keep things fresh despite an intimidating running length. Another useful byproduct of the sheer volume of participants is that the tracks are all relatively short (most are under the five-minute mark), which keeps the artists focused (well, theoretically), and prevents the discs from bogging down.

Each disc has a slightly different feel -- the first disc is heavy on the white noise / sputtering sounds / glitch tip, while the second disc leans more toward drone / ambient / kitchen-sink and heavy reverb pieces, and the third disc favors pieces built around heavy repetition. Within those nebulous constraints, though, there's plenty of variety and unexpected surprises on each disc, and the quality level is phenomenal, with some of the best and most unusual tracks coming at times from the most obscure artists. Given that the entire package sells for less than twenty bucks, and is almost certainly a one-time deal that is unlikely to be repressed when it eventually sells out, you'd be a fool not to glom onto this pronto if you're familiar with more than a handful of the artists or looking for a great way to sample a lot of them at once, or just plain into weird mutant sounds. It's an astounding release on every level, and one of the best various-artists compilations you'll ever hope to hear.

Epicene Sound
Public Guilt

Vopat -- SOMETIMES IT WILL [Inam Records]

The enigmatic Vopat returns with more swell white-noise drone guitar. Working in the same sonic ballpark as My Bloody Valentine, Red House Painters, early Mogwai, mid-period Swans, and pretty much anything combining melodic (and often overdriven) guitar with drone-o-rific soundscapes and the occasional burst of pure symphonic sound, the ten tracks here are a journey through oceanic sound and beautiful noise, usually at slow to middling tempos. Vopat is an instrumental band -- there are no vocals to detract from the psychedelic sounds and often intricate playing -- and the decision to have the disc mastered by Jerry Tubb at Terra Nova Digital Audio in Austin was a wise one, bringing all the details sharply into focus rather than allowing them to be lost under the roaring waves of sound. Some tracks have beats, some don't; some are sparse and near-ambient, while others are thick, crushing walls of distorted noise; the only constant is a serious commitment to transcendent guitar lines, massive drone, and processed sound. Experimental, introspective, and engaging, the songs are helped immensely by startling and unexpected dynamic shifts and layers of sound that ebb and flow. (Impressive guitar chops don't hurt, either.) Vopat continue to surprise and impress, and this disc -- probably limited, like the rest of their output -- is well worth seeking out.


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