Aemae -- MAW [isounderscore]
This is scary, teeth-grinding stuff; where Aemae's previous releases were more droning in nature, this one is considerably noisier, grating stuff, especially on "PDE," which is built on harsh snippets of glitch electronica and reverb applied in the interests of sonic ugliness. There's some of the wind-tunnel drone aesthetic used to such eerie effect on the previous album, but here it's used to envelop and break up the distorted, crunchy sounds of digital noise. The use of space and passages of muted sound, even silence, is still prevalent, which only makes the harsh sounds that much more jarring when they come crashing in abruptly again. The sound on "Confound Me" is closer to that of earlier releases, with droning hum and warped tones resembling the processed sound of wind rattling through metal pipes and vents; on "Spectral Psychosis," the pipe-driven sound is augmented by what sounds like a buzzing, efx-laden violin -- the tonally disparate sounds rise and fall, working with and sometimes against each other, incorporating brief passages of silence before the sound begins to mutate, growing noisier and uglier, even harrowing at times. The sound on "Bad Entity" is more subdued and ghostly, with slow drones that ebb and flow like wire music, bearing the closest resemblance to the sound of previous releases, and is the most eerie-sounding piece here. The closing track, "The Bell Contour Memory," reprises the jarring glitch sounds of the opening track, using abrupt harsh sounds that come and go without warning over a distant rumble that draws closer as the noise content grows more extensive. With this release, Aemae continues to broaden its sonic horizons while remaining true to its grounding in experimental electronics and the unusual application of drone, silence, and minimalism.
Birdflesh -- MONDO MUSICALE [Candlelight USA]
Sweden's Birdflesh have a peculiar sense of humor, even for grindcore -- they dress up on stage in colorful (to say the least) constumes and record tunes with titles like "Wigdestroyer" and "Handicapitation," and appear to have a healthy appreciation for the theater of the absurd. This album (their third full-length, not counting a flood of splits and demos) is a prime example of classic grind, at least from the apolitical (and more humor-obsessed) wing, with 25 short bursts of manic riffing, grunting and shouting, endlessly frantic drumming, and the occasional purloined sample. There's nothing subtle or nuanced about it, just a steaming blur of downtuned riffs and ranting, mostly played at hyperspeed; they slow down every now and then to grind away in tortured fashion, sure, but that's just so you can realign your vertabrae before the hurricane of sonic destruction commences once again, urging you to snap your neck trying to keep up. For the grind-metal fan who cares less about politics than flat-out sonic immolation.
Black Sparrow -- LEGS HEAVY WITH POLLEN [dead sea liner]
More whole-grain drone goodness from UK drone label dead sea liner, in four longish slices. "Whispering Smith" is a subdued field of drone in which electronic bees hum as scratchy noises dither off and on; "Almost as good as a blizzard" proceeds in a similar vein, but with a drone that sounds more like processed white noise that gradually increases in volume, sounding very much like an approaching blizzard, and accompaniment of sorts in the form of what sounds like plinking piano notes and muffled thumping about. The drones on "When was yesterday?" are louder and more high-pitched, wailing squeals that rise and fall as grinding noises enter the fray, until the entire thing ends abruptly, seguing into the album's longest track, the exquisitely-titled "there's nothing like a friendship based on fear," where a cyclotron drone is enhanced by tinkly noises and bell tones as different sounds, noises, and textures gradually appear over the track's sixteen minutes.
dead sea liner
Canvas Solaris -- CORTICAL TECTONICS [Sensory]
Georgia's Canvas Solaris are one of the more recent entrants into the instrumental-metal sweepstakes, a genre that's starting to get a tad crowded, but they stand out by being one of the better ones. For the uninitiated, this is a sophisticated fusion of extremely complex technical metal and progressive jazz-rock, as equally indebted to Voivod and King Crimson as to math-rock pioneers Don Caballero and The Dillinger Escape Plan. Sure, they shred with the best of them, but they also are not afraid to incorporate world beat rhythms and pure jazz into their epic rock (there's only six tracks on the full-length album -- they like to explore as many different directions as possible). Unlike a lot of metal-heavy bands of a similar nature, they are not afraid to be subdued, even quiet, when the mood strikes them -- tracks like "Interface," with its muted, world-beat percussion and jazzy guitars, aren't even metal by any stretch of the imagination -- but they are also perfectly capable of monstrous metal chops (most notably evident on "Berserker Hypothesis" and "Gamma Knife") built on a ridiculously convoluted rhythm section. And then there's the epic of epics, the seventeen-minute closing track "Reticular Consciousness," which segues seamlessly from metal to jazz to other strange avenues of complex sound, adrift on a sea of endless riffs and sonorous tones; they manage to pack more moods, textures, and riffs into one song here than most bands manage on entire albums. More progressive jazz than metal, but still with plenty of heaviness, this should hold enormous appeal for prog-rock and technical-metal fans alike.
Sensory (a division of The Laser's Edge)
Cathedral & Rum -- SURREAL TYPEWRITER [self-released]
Singer / songwriter Chris Hartford and co. are back with twelve more songs that sound like the work of an alt-country band fond of distinctly un-country experiments in sound and electronic frippery. The whiskey-soaked songs of love and loss, drinking, and the country are nominally built around traditional instrumentation, but they also throw in the use of Chapman stick, DJ scratches, and found sound to create surreal sonic vignettes akin to a more acoustic-based version of the mutant aesthetic Tom Waits championed on his still-unclassifiable album BONE MACHINE -- in other words, the folkish country aspect is definitely there, but the addition of drones, scratchy sounds, and other peculiar sonic effluvia make it distinctly different from any traditional form of country music you could ever imagine. At times reminiscent of a stripped-down version of the early Black Heart Procession albums, the sometimes chaotic sound is carried by Harford's distinctive vocals, and while the extraneous sounds might be distracting to some, they don't overwhelm the actual songs, instead adding layers of texture and mystery to what would otherwise be exercises in far more traditional-sounding country rock. Strange but compelling stuff, and far more accessible than the description (which doesn't really do justice to the band's unique sound) might indicate. Check out their Myspace page and hear it for yourself.
Cathedral & Rum
Iced Earth -- OVERTURE OF THE WICKED [SPV USA]
This four-track ep, a teaser for the upcoming full-length release FRAMING ARMAGEDDON, includes one new track, "Ten Thousand Strong," and a newly-recorded version of the "Something Wicked" trilogy ("Prophecy," "Birth of the Wicked," and "The Coming Curse") that originally appeared on the 1998 album SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. Guitarist and songwriter Jon Schaffer apparently felt compelled to re-record the trilogy to take advantage of new singer Tim Owens, best known as the guy who filled Rob Halford's shoes in Judas Priest while Halford was apparently trying to become the new Trent Reznor (and who was given his pink slip when Halford came to his senses and rejoined the band), and Owens is certainly up to the job. I have never heard the original version of the songs in question, so I have no basis for comparison, but the material here certainly sounds good (and heavy). The reworked trilogy of songs is strong stuff, and the new song is every bit as good as the older material -- in fact, without advance knowledge of the history of the songs in question, there would be no way to tell they were composed in different eras of the band. This is epic fantasy metal with lots of time changes, bursts of aggressive speed, and songs that aren't too far removed from the heavier and faster moments of Judas Priest or Iron Maiden -- there's plenty of melodic content mixed in with the speed and fury, too, and if the song quality here is any indication of what's coming down the pike, Iced Earth fans (and devotees of fantasy metal in general) should have plenty to look forward to when the new double-album epic finally arrives.
Kamelot -- GHOST OPERA [SPV USA]
Kamelot, along with My Dying Bride, were one of the first bands to successfully weld symphonic goth rock to melodic metal, setting the stage for the explosion of symphonic metal bands that burst forth around the turn of the century. Kamelot prove on this album that they are still at the forefront of the genre, with complex, progressive song arrangements built on soaring keyboards and operatic male / female vocals that abound with melodic guitar. One of the things that sets them apart from most other bands in the genre is their use of violin-like keyboard sounds, a tactic that reaches back to the traditional sound of classical music; at the same time, their sophisticated use of highly melodic guitar lines woven into the keyboard flourishes gives them a highly lyrical sound. The vocals (provided by singer Khan and various guests) are never less than excellent, and the forceful playing is both highly proficient and diverse; the songs are complex and every bit as bombastic as the band's reputation would lead you to expect, leavened with a wide variety of textures and exotic instrumentation. Fans of their previous work will not be disappointed, and devotees of other equally lauded symphonic metal bands who haven't heard this band before would be well advised to check out this album.
KeyDragon -- DRAGON PROPHECY [self-released]
Yes, the album really is obsessed with dragons -- pretty much all of the fourteen tracks here are devoted to the subject -- and while the band could probably stand to work on their presentation (the graphics are kind of amateurish and the production, while not awful by any means, is a little on the lo-fi side and doesn't represent the band well, especially given the kind of music they're making here), the band is not bad, assuming you have a high tolerance for dragons. Their sound fuses elements of metal, darkwave, and goth -- think Lacuna Coil, Type O Negative, etc. -- and they have the good sense to base everything around their most obvious asset, singer Tamara Venus Star, but music this bombastic, with this many disparate elements, really needs better production to come across in its best light. This is not a bad band by any means, but it's often hard to tell what's going on in the background, and the male singer's deathlike growling vocals are no match for Star's, which makes for a jarring vocal approach at times. The keyboards and bass are also often obscured in the mix, which is too bad, because interesting things are happening back there. This is not bad, but it would have been much better with improved production (a few songs about something other than dragons wouldn't hurt either).
Memfis -- THE WIND-UP [Candlelight USA]
This is the debut album by Swedish art-metal band Memfis, with a sound that incorporates elements of death metal, technical metal, the epic drone-ambient sound favored by the likes of Neurosis and Isis, and an unorthodox approach to songwriting that mixes the DNA from these disciplines in severely mutated ways. Songs that begin with burning chrome guitars and a classic death metal sound suddenly break out into neo-gothic interludes; searing melodic guitar lines fade into ambient washes; brief snatches of electronica lead into metallic fury; slashing, stop 'n start rhythms give way to momentary acoustic passages that turn back into blazing metal again. How they're going to keep track of all these changes live (outside of endless rehearsals) is anybody's guess, but their approach certainly keeps the songs from becoming stale, and while this approach is not exactly new at this point, they are relatively artful in picking unexpected moments to segue from one sound to the next, and do it without disrupting the overall flow of the songs. This is ambitious, arty stuff to be sure, but it never bogs down in pointless self-indulgence and the arty, mysteriously gothic / symphonic parts and tangents are offset by a relentless metal attack that's equal parts energy and anger. Considering this is the band's first release, it's telling that their lofty musical goals succeed more often than not, and their ability to weld several different genres into one coherent whole should help them immensely in finding a wide audience.
The Mighty Vitamins -- TAKE-OUT [Public Eyesore]
Even by Public Eyesore standards, this is pretty whacked-out stuff, sounding like a fragmented free-jazz collision of Nihilist Spasm Band, early Pere Ubu, and a Salvation Army band tuning up while passing around a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20, especially on the opener "Get A Good Job," in which someone (via a field recording, perhaps?) rants in comical fashion about the need to find better employment while the band seemingly disassembles its instruments in the background. Improvisational in nature and experimental by design, this is cryptic stuff for unconventional listening. The four-song "Kaw River Suite (four songs for dance)" are a bit more "together" in their construction but hardly anything you could dance to, despite the title, employing heavy drone on the first segment, minimalist playing and unnatural sounds on the second, scratchy instrument abuse on the third, and the repetitive use of trilling motifs and more instrumental minimalism on the fourth. The sounds do often resemble the noises made by birds and river animals, but forget about the dancing shoes, okay? The remaining six songs cover similar sonic territory, some in more noisy and disjointed fashion than others, and while there are a lot of interesting sounds and strategies at work throughout the varied pieces, almost none of it even remotely resembles "normal" music -- in fact, much of it sounds like the work of psychotics turned loose in a music room. Still, there's a cunning (if alien) sense of playful humor -- a joke in progress that they're daring you to decipher, perhaps -- and a nebulous method to the madness that keeps it all from falling apart, not to mention the sense that the band knows exactly what they're doing even if they're hiding it from you. Strange, perverse, morbidly compelling in an irrational sort of way... it's definitely a Public Eyesore release, all right....
Pro-Pain -- AGE OF TYRANNY [Candlelight USA]
Pro-Pain was formed in 1992 by ex-Crumbsuckers bassist Gary Meskil, and while their debut FOUL TASTE OF FREEDOM sounded sort of like nu-metal before the term even existed, over the years they have morphed into more of a traditional hardcore band. This album (their tenth), is definitely in the hardcore camp, from the punk-metal sound to the politically-motivated lyrics. In fact, this album is a concept album of sorts revolving around the excesses of the Bush administration and the war on terrorism, as typified by songs like "The New Reality," "All For King George," and "Impeach, Indict, Imprison." The band has always been fond of political lyrics, but on this album they take the concept to a new level with their explicit focus on current events, including a song about the war in Iraq ("Iraqnam") and several others that directly or indirectly reference the war on terrorism and the erosion of civil liberties. The lyrics aren't exactly going to make Bob Dylan lose any sleep, but Meskil rants with genuine anger and conviction, and the music in definitely anthemic, fist-in-your-face stuff, straddling the line between speed metal and hardcore with unwavering intensity. There are no ballads here, just track after track of crushing heaviness and hoarse shouting about everything that's wrong with the country at the moment. Nuanced it isn't, but there's plenty of energy and catchy riffing (especially on "Iraqnam," one of the best tracks) to match the unbridled anger.
r.s.r. -- BLACK BOX [dead sea liner]
The highly mysterious r.s.r. (a band? a person? aliens with black boxes? who knows?) appears on this 3-inch cdr with exactly one untitled 21-minute track, but what a track it is. Black, swirling drone and white noise processed beyond redemption create a dark and apocalyptic sound that sounds like power lines revolving in slow motion inside an enormous wind tunnel far out at sea; there is no human element present here, just a moaning, droning noise schema that plays out in minimalist fashion. About halfway through a stuttering machine rhythm of sorts begins to develop amidst the howling, glacial drone wind, and toward the end, a pulsing strand of something approaching wire music becomes prominent in the mix as well, adding a celestial element to the sound... one that ends with a few seconds of what promises to become a new rhythmic element, just as the track ends. The ghostly, disembodied sound of this track not only proves that less is often more, it makes me wish I knew more about r.s.r. Excellent material worthy of drone worship.
dead sea liner
Spheric Universe Experience -- ANIMA [Sensory]
It's weird, it's progressive, it's metal... so naturally, it must be French. The strangest bands come from France, and this is no exception -- epic progressive metal in the vein of Dream Theater and Symphony X, but with an operatic vocalist straight out of the school of power metal and churning guitars to match. They frequently work up a hefty dose of speed into their symphonic metal, and there's plenty of complex, shifting dynamics (along with some intriguing samples and found sounds here and there), but it's not all just proggy noodling -- tracks like "Neptune's Revenge" burn with speed and energy, while the melancholy intro to "Stormy Dome" more closely resembles classic darkwave before turning into full-on symphonic metal. Their fondness for layered sounds and heavy keyboard use keeps one foot in gothic territory, while their penchant for speeding metal and complex rhythms is squarely in the progressive metal tradition. They even manage to marry technoish keyboard sounds to monster riffs in "Heal My Pain" and make highly effective use of the piano through much of the album. Bombastic and melodic, with excellent execution and good songs, the album succeeds as a symphonic adventure without being overly pretentious.
Spheric Universe Experience
Sensory (a division of The Laser's Edge)
Matt Weston -- RASHAYA 3-inch cd [7272Music]
Matt Weston is a Chicago percussionist and composer with an impressive pedigree, including collaborations with Kevin Drumm, Le Quan Ninh, Bob Marsh, Jim O'Rourke, and Jack Wright, among others. The five tracks here are variations on the outer limits of percussion freed from the tyranny of the beat, compositions that have more to do with the exploration of the tones of the kit and the sounds available from different forms of percussion than with traditional rhythm. The different pieces take different approaches, using different elements of percussion in addition to the kit itself, but all are, for the most part, relatively subdued -- this is not heavy drumming we're talking about -- and highly mindful of the use of space and tone. There's definitely more of an emphasis on unconventional uses of percussion (and, to a lesser degree, electronics) and a certain sparsity of sound than there is on traditional rhythm or composition -- which is not to say that the songs are formless and aimless, but they are definitely more improvisational in approach than rigorously constructed pieces, which lends an air of unpredictability to the proceedings. At the same time, despite the apparent lack of a readily discernable structure, the tracks hardly sound unplanned or chaotic, but more of an approach that is far less random than it first seems. In other words, interesting, highly listenable stuff.
Matt Weston -- RESISTANCE CRUISERS 3-inch cd [7272Music]
The second of two new releases by Weston on the new experimental label 7272Music, this one features four tracks combining subdued (if sometimes clattering) and unpredictable percussion with electronic drones (on "it's your career"), inexplicable squeaking sounds (on "lonely drive, crowded street," which also features a severe jump in the drumming dynamics that will jolt you right out of your chair if you're not careful, as well as "spying became you"), and noise / glitch electronica (on "rose is the color of your envy"). The drumming is largely sparse and subdued (with an occasional foray into more thunderous sound, just to keep you on your toes), with more emphasis on cymbals and percussion than the actual drums -- it's a sound built on the sparse use of instruments and unpredictable spaces between sounds rather than traditional rhythm, a sound rooted in a vision of the drums as a generator of tones and the juxtaposition of sounds rather than a more traditional view of the drum as a rhythmic instrument. Think of it as a series of loosely controlled experiments in randomness, or the exploration of drumming at its most free.