Abandoned Toys -- THE WITCH'S GARDEN [Mythical Records]
Lovely-sounding piano pieces are at the heart of this release -- some of the nine tracks are straightforward recordings of neo-classical piano playing, while others are processed into a more ambient sound and others combine the two concepts, but mainly it's about the gorgeous sound of a well-recorded piano. It sounds like a real piano, too, an upright with a full keyboard rather than a digital soundalike, and the player -- Brett Branning of the Synthetic Dream Foundation, working solo here -- knows what he's doing. More synthetic-sounding keyboards appear in the ambient pieces, where the synths are swaddled in enormous amounts of reverb and allowed to drone, which make a nice counterpart to the more traditional-sounding tracks. There are no vocals (or other instruments, for that matter) and the sound throughout is sparse and uncomplicated, wisely leaving plenty of room for the majestic piano sound to shine through, even when the sonic edges are blurred by muted noise frippery or ambient washes. The more purely ambient tracks are darker and more drone-oriented, but still relatively subdued, and even at their most ominous, hardly likely to be mistaken for gothic music. The beautiful and melancholy sound of this disc gives it a feel much different from anything else happening right now, especially in an era when it seems like the piano is almost a forgotten instrument.
Aluk Todolo -- DESCENSION [Public Guilt]
The band's debut single, released last year (or was it early this year? I forget -- it was a while ago, at any rate) by Public Guilt's vinyl-only imprint Implied Sound, met with a highly favorable reception (as well it should have, since prog-influenced occult black metal bands that are actually good don't exactly grow on trees), but that single's hypnotic sound was only a small foretaste of the madness that springs forth in full bloom on this, the band's first full-length release. Combining ritual music, occult theology, black metal, early industrial stylings, noise, and willfully bent prog-rock, what emerges here across four long, hypnotic tracks is seriously strange stuff. This is what they really mean by psychedelic music -- strange, alien, exercises in occult hypnotism designed to open up your third eye and fill it with tripped-out scenes from the black metal dreamhouse. Simple but mesmerizing beats construct the foundation over which they lay equal measures of industrial clatter, obscure noises, pure unalloyed dissonance, and an ever-evolving palette of textures that encompass everything from trebly processed faux-keyboard stylings to pure screeching noise. Cold, alien and otherworldly like the best black metal, but far more avant garde and heavily influenced by psychedelic music and Krautrock, this sounds like the musical application of ideas fostered by the likes of Aleister Crowley and Austin Osmond Spare -- in other words, ritual music for the practice of chaos magick. You don't have to be steeped in occultism to appreciate this as an engaging work of art, though; their musicial vision is strong (and original) enough to stand apart from the theological implications of their work. Mystical and revelatory, but not exactly for the faint of heart or those hoping for shiny happy poptunes.
Conure -- THE GENERATION OF OUR GRANDFATHERS [Edgetone Records]
Inspired by the documentary Paragraph 175, a film about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals in World War II Germany, this disc consists of six tracks of gritty, lo-fi power electronics with titles referring to the film ("Some Vowed Abstinence," "At First We Didn't Believe It," "Paragraph 175," etc.). Befitting such a grim subject, the noise here is primarily harsh and nightmarish, dominated by crunchy harsh noise, reverb-laden machine rhythms, and the occasional relevant sound bite (taken, I would assume, from the film, although I could be wrong about that). Repetitive electronic sounds float through a void of ambient noise at other times, and there is an early industrial feel to much of the material; droning noise bleeds into the processed sound of machinery as the intensity of sound ebbs and flows. The sounds are cold and alienated, and the effect of the album as a whole is to serve as the brooding, paranoid soundtrack to a long and terrifying nightmare. It's hardly easy listening by any stretch of the imagination -- although it's nowhere near as violently harsh and unrelenting as the description might suggest, either -- but even without the context of the subject matter, the album's sound is disturbing and visceral enough to stand on its own. Strong stuff with an advanced understanding of the science of noise (this is from a former member of Imperial Floral Assault Unit, after all), but definitely not for the easily-perturbed.
Alvin Curran / Cenk Ergun -- THE ART OF THE FLUKE [Tear Records]
The two artists at work here, both with impressive resumes and plenty of experience with various forms of sound media, have approached this recording with John Cage's concept of the happy accident in mind; using software samplers and an endless repository of conflicting sound samples (instruments, electronic noise, animal sounds, field recordings, overheard conversations, and pretty much anything they ever managed to stumble across with the sampler running), the two players have accumulated a largely random bedrock of audio tracks that they have then allowed to flow into and around each other, creating accidental juxtapositions and audio coincidences, creating a new and unexpected third river of sound. The one constant among the eight tracks on this album is that nothing is constant; captured and processed sounds flow and evolve at unpredictable intervals, with fragments of audio switching from one sound bite to the next in irregular rhythms, growing and fading in density, as different textures play out against each other in near-random fashion. It would be interesting to know how much planning (if any) went into the construction of the separate audio tracks that were then laid together; the liner notes offer no hint in that regard, not that knowing one way or the other is necessary to appreciating the layering of sound in a manner that John Cage would have undoubtedly found reassuring. Their approach creates a new order through the random neuron-firing of disparate sounds, much of it glitch electronica and chopped-up field recordings, and as the abstract painting on the cover suggests, the entire point is to create new sonic landscapes from unrelated layers of textured noise. The chance nature of sound waits to unfold for those who are willing to sit back and let it happen.
Dagger Brothers -- PEACH DENIM [Void of Ovals]
What we have here are ten tracks of bouncy electromuzak that owes as much to jungle and synth experimentation as to traditional techno. Supremely upbeat and filled with squiggly synth noises, this is bedroom dance rock from a harmonizing duo with peculiar lyrical fixations (Spiderman and "muscle mania" are among the varied themes they cover) and a tendency toward extremely short songs -- most of the tracks are no more than two minutes long, just long enough to get your groove on but not long enough to burn out (a common problem with more traditional techno albums, where the thumping beat starts to get old in a hurry if you're not in a club zoning on X with plenty of bouncing boobies to keep you conveniently entertained). It's all quirky stuff, approaching the level of being an inside joke, but the catchy beats and hypnotic squiggle-synth movements are no laughing matter. Throw in odd snippets of conversation and asides, at times deliberately ridiculous efx processing, and a general inclination to keep things light and catchy, and what you have is a short but highly entertaining listening experience. Actual liner notes would have been nice, though....
Void of Ovals
The Devil Bat -- LINGERS LIKE A GHOST [Sister Skull Records]
They're not prolific, but their infrequent releases are always worth the wait. The latest one, produced by Gretchen Phillips (formerly of Two Nice Girls, now leading the Gretchen Phillips Experience), successfully captures the latest stage of their gradual transformation from a hazy, freewheeling proto-psych unit (there's a reason they cover the Sun City Girls live, you know) into a tight and focused band drawing equally and freely from psych, rock, country, and folk traditions. The five songs on this EP are rooted mainly in a bright, uptempo country-rock sound that's occasionally leavened with other, more unorthodox elements (like the noisy acid-drenched leads and noise-laden ending in the title track and the fuzzy lead guitar in the traditional ballad "Cruel and Thin"), although the final track, "Standing at the Edge of Daybreak," does rock a fair bit harder than the rest (not that it's likely to be mistaken for heavy metal). Main vocalist Leeann Cameron (who comes across like a southern hippie version of Laura Nyro, perhaps) continues to be one of the major attractions of the band's sound, and the sharpened focus this time around on more traditional song structures and often amazing lead guitar is a welcome development. Swell, swell stuff, and the only drawback is that there's not enough of it.
The Devil Bat
Eloine -- GREEN STUMP [Public Eyesore]
More solo meandering from Brian Day, this time in five (actually six, including an unlisted track) different compositions. "10-key travelogue" features the use of multiple pianos, one playing a figure that repeats while the other plays a considerably more improvisational solo of sorts; along the way ethereal noises rumble and float by, possibly more piano sounds, possibly something else. With "silent hula," Day returns to more familiar ground -- obscure noises, bell tones, subdued guitar plinking, and a hissing bedrock ambient sound are the hallmarks of a sparse and improvised piece of an experimental nature; " a fast weepy" is similar in nature, albeit festooned with more percussive sounds and actual guitar figures from time to time in addition to the experimental sonic effluvia. There's a rhythm at work in "lda is celluloid, ldy" that sound suspiciously like he's slapping his acoustic guitar at the same time he's playing some kind of whistle; a flute and mouth harp make appearances as well, lending the piece a quiet, pastoral feel despite the boxlike rhythm sound. Processed and near-ambient noise, low in volume but high in hissing texture, forms the bedrock of "zinc cross," over which barely audible playing and what might be a metallic triangle can barely be heard; the noise is distant but persistent, and just loud enough to almost drown out what else is happening in the track. The unlisted final track, by contrast, sounds like it might well be a remix of that one with the noise turned down so the plinking guitar and flute can actually be heard, along with muffled voices that might be a conversation, might be spoken lyrics -- who knows? Cryptic and unassuming, the overall feel is that of loosely improvised folk music overlaid with experimental textures -- restrained and mostly gentle, but still laced with an air of unpredictability.
Enthroned -- TETRA KARCIST [Napalm Records]
Enthroned has been around since 1994, and their devotion to the old-school aesthetic is obvious on this, their latest release -- aside from various theatrical flourishes here and there (a pretty and almost gothic guitar intro on "Deviant Nerve Angelus," the ominous keyboards that open "Ingressus Regnum Spiritus," the rumbling thunder and ghostly voices at the beginning of "The Seven Ensigns of Creation," and so on), the music is pretty much straightforward fast-packed blackened death with obvious roots in early thrash. They favor majestic-sounding chords at times, but mostly they blaze with speed and ferocity in the vein of Marduk and Emperor, driven mainly by intense and busy drumming and wasplike guitars. At times their energy level is nothing short of blinding, and even in the slow parts they maintain a consistent level of dark, brutal heaviness that should please fans of all that is rabidly unforgiving about the more warlike wing of black metal.
Fire in the Head -- YOU TOO SHALL BURN [Nil By Mouth]
The four tracks on this 3" mini-disc cdr are short and scary noise meditations on the subject of terrorism, and as such, they're appropriately harsh and terrifying, filled with primitive electronics, grinding industrial noise, and lots of shrieking, especially on the first track, "Fallen Prey (Fall and Pray)." The industrial death drone of "In His Garden" more brooding and less overtly violent, but still filled with dread and the sense that everything could explode at any moment without warning. "Stolen Thoughts" is considerably more violent, filled with buzzing electronic drone, loud and chaotic junk noise, and harsh processed vocals reminiscent of CON-DOM or Sutcliffe Jugend, and the final track, "Hurry My Children," is driven by a gigantic cyclotron drone and more harsh buzzing, along with a strident sound bite of some unspecified militant (or is it?) giving a call to arms. Not exactly what you'd call easy listening, which just means it's vintage Fire in the Head. Compelling stuff that should be of interest to devotees of politically-inclined power electronics.
Fire in the Head
Nil By Mouth
The Fucking Wrath -- SEASON OF EVIL [Goodfellow Records]
This sounds like the next evolution of stoner rock as filtered through the crustier sounds of bands like Weedeater and Buzzoven -- it's not as brutal and monolithic as those bands by any stretch of the imagination, but it's certainly closer to thrash / punk than the average stoner band, while still retaining an obvious link to the 70s-era bands worshipped by most stoner rock bands (especially Black Sabbath, the once and eternal God of Stoner Rock). Much of the album sounds like 70s hard rock set on fast-forward and fronted by a singer who barks more than sings, with riffs that owe as much to early Metallica as to anything dreamed up by long-haired heshers in bell-bottom jeans back when Mark Farner was still a heathen. There are moments when it becomes obvious that they must have grown up with a lot of the same records as the guys in Baroness (the three members are all record-store employees, which probably has a lot to do with the band's eclectic sound), but this is nowhere near the realm of prog-rock, although it is at times every bit as fast and convoluted as anything off the latest Baroness album. Many of the songs embrace a serious lust for frenzied speed and streaming Eurocentric leads that wouldn't have been out of place on a European metal disc, but this is equally balanced by a penchant for chunky guitar sound and, again, a deep rooting in riffs and structures that recall American hard rock of the 70s. All of these elements are sandblasted into oblivion by their enormous energy and the singer's hoarse bellow, and while they prefer barreling along at breakneck speed most of the time, they sound heaviest when then slow down and beat heavy riffs through your skull. People looking for a middle ground between the ornate artiness of Baroness and the wrenching, minimalistic heaviness of Buzzoven should check out this band. It helps to be fond of blurry, nearly out of control lead playing, too.
The Fucking Wrath
Glorior Belli -- MANIFESTING THE RAGING BEAST [Southern Lord]
France seems to be the latest hotbed of filth-encrusted, old-school melodic black metal, and Glorior Belli -- appearing here with their second full-length album (and first for Southern Lord) -- are very much in that vein. Alternately mid-tempo and possessed by speed, the two constants to their sound are a profound belief in dissonant guitar and an equal reverence for heightened melodicism. The songs are dark and bleak, filled with energetic menace even during the slower parts, and anchored by solid drumming; they're also prone to abrupt shifts in tempo and subtle but effective parts inserted in selected moments to counter the tendency toward minimalistic simplicity inherent in old-school black metal. Their guitar sound often recalls mid-period Burzum, always a good thing in my book. There's nothing particularly new or innovative happening here, but the rhythm section brings a furious level of energy to the table, and the combination of barbed-wire guitar dissonance, chromatic melodicism, and excellent drumming creates a highly appealing maelstrom of misanthropic sonic violence. They're not as deeply weird or overtly occult as many of the other French black metal bands -- in fact, without knowing about where they're from, you could easily believe they were from Sweden or Norway -- and regardless of how fast they play (and there some blurry moments indeed), they remain tight as a unit and supremely focused. Dark, intense stuff that should go over well live. Bonus points for the shit-hot melodic lead guitar that closes out the final track on the album.
Goalkeeper Wanted -- MOUTHFUL OF CHERRIES [Void of Ovals]
What this disc offers is one fifteen-minute track of perverted electronica and near-random noises over a trundling beat and cymbal crashes; it's not quite chaotic enough to be noise, but so disjointed and possessed by randomness as to be nearly unclassifiable as anything else. Perhaps it's a loose interpretation of free jazz leavened with electronic moments; there's certainly enough improvised drum clatter to nudge it in that direction, even with everything else floating in and out of the mix with wanton abandon. The sounds that come and go are interesting, though -- hollowed-out drones, brief keyboard snippets, and other strange stuff, all floating over tenuous rhythms from what sounds like a fairly minimal drum kit. It's a particularly opaque and cryptic approach to experimental sound, but one worth hearing, especially since at fifteen minutes it's hardly likely to wear out the listener. Those intrigued by the (admittedly vague) description would be well advised to check out the Myspace page listed below for sound samples.
Void of Ovals
Hardingrock -- GRIMEN [Candlelight USA]
This is an interesting experiment of sorts, taking three distinctly different performers (Ihsahn of Emperor, Heidi Tveitan of Star to Ash, and Norwegian fiddler Knut Bren) from three disparate genres (black metal, electronica, and folk music) and putting them together to create something new and different. The result is an intriguing mix of metal, classical-themed electronica, and folk music filled with highly listenable melodies and (at times) rock rhythms bridged by a relatively constant layer of electronica. Obviously Ihsahn is the main draw here for most listeners, but oddly enough, he may be the least necessary element here, despite his consistently reliable vocal delivery; the exotic-sounding interplay between the other two is sufficiently intriguing to stand on its own, even without Ihsahn's vocal and guitar contributions. Having him there, though, just makes it all the better, even inspired at times. It's clear that they approached this album with the intention of truly integrating the different styles into something unique, as opposed to just going primarily in one direction and attaching elements of the other styles on top as window dressing; this is seriously different, unusual-sounding work, possibly even the harbinger of a new and distinct genre of folk / electronic metal. Exotic, yes, but far more accessible than you might think from the description, and consistently full of surprises -- fans of folk-tinged metal or the more avant wing of black metal will find this of great interest.
Jazkamer & Smegma -- ENDLESS COAST [No Fun Productions]
Now this is a real meeting of minds, recorded at Smegma's home studio in Portland during the Jazkamer / Carlos Giffoni tour in the fall of 2006, with Giffoni guesting on bass and synth. Putting psychedelic noise pioneers Smegma in the same room with Norwegian noise / metal monsters Jazkamer and turning on the mikes is pretty much guaranteed to elicit interesting results, and the five long tracks here are long on bizarre, perverse sounds and short on sanity. The five pieces here are not so much songs as they are extended treatises on the accumulation of noise-laden sounds, with plenty of humming and buzzing, wooshing and plooshing, squeaking and creaking, and a tendency toward gleeful efx abuse; much of what's here sounds like possessed machines coming randomly to life and erupting in the kind of noises consistent with random electrical surges, and what passes for "musical" passages are generally caked in distortion, fuzz, and peculiar efx, and have a tendency to come and go without warning. Randomness and a sense of unpredictability are the main constants here, along with harsh noises and buzzes, plus the occasional snippet of devolved vocal processing. While not as outright harsh as some of the more mind-melting Jazkamer material or as flagrantly otherworldly as some of Smegma's output, there's definitely a sense of interplay between the sensibilities of the two outfits, and the result is sort of a studied compulsion toward deliberate incoherence in the search for stranger and more mutant sounds... but there's still just enough thought and deliberation behind the creation of those sounds and the collapsing snippets of near-music to keep it from degenerating into complete mindless chaos. Those obsessed with linear structure and "meaning" will probably want to look elsewhere, though; this is strictly for the followers of chaos and lovers of extreme sound manipulation. Sonic confusion, anyone?
No Fun Productions
Killick -- BULL**** [Solponticello Records]
Killick is one guy recording with a 38-string harp guitar (he calls it Big Red), and if that weren't peculiar enough, the guitar in question is constructed of paper-mache with a fretless fingerboard on the lower end and conventional fretting from the 7th fret upward, and has a zither-like treble section and resonating sympathetic strings. Not surprisingly, it sounds nothing like a traditional guitar, and the twelve tracks here sound nothing like traditional solo guitar tracks. (Just to go one step beyond, Killick recorded the album himself using solar electricity.) This sounds like something you would expect to hear on Public Eyesore -- vaguely metal-influenced freejazz delivered in a pleeking, plooking stream of notes in wildly different variants of timbre and feel, like a series of whacked-out experimental metal guitar solos recorded on the most unmetal instruments around. Imagine someone playing three or four totally different stringed instruments, then taking a recording of those notes and splicing them together in near-random order -- that's what this sounds like, despite it coming from the hands of one guy with one guitar. It's bizarre stuff, no question, but oddly compelling in a really deviant sort of way, and if you're looking for something that's really, truly DIFFERENT, this is definitely it. It doesn't hurt that he's really good, although the highly unorthodox sound may be hard for some people to grok on the first pass (and maybe ever).
Moe! Staiano's Moe!kestra! -- 2 ROOMS OF URANIUM IN 83 MARKERS [Edgetone Records]
This album is actually two live performances (both recorded at different times at the Oakland Box Theater in Oakland, CA) with two different ensembles and two totally different methodologies. The first track is the first piece, "Piece No. 6: Depleted Uranium," featuring an ensemble musicians, part of a benefit show calling public attention to the problem of depleted uranium weaponry being used by the military in Afghanistan and Iraq; that piece is a standard improvisational affair, with Moe conducting an ensemble including guitars, bass, violin, cello, contrabass, drums, and voice. The other five tracks on the disc are from "Conducted Improvisation Piece No. 11: Two Orchestras in Separate Rooms," which is exactly what the title implies -- recordings of two orchestras playing simultaneous in two rooms connected by a short hallway, with Moe conducting both by running back and forth. (On the disc, the two rooms are separated in the left and right channels, making it possible to listen to either one separately by dialing the balance knob far right or left, or to hear both at once with the balance centered.) It's a bizarre concept with bizarre results, as sounds from one orchestra spill over into the other, creating unexpected connections and a stream of sound that embraces chaotic opposites at some points and startling levels of convergence at others. Like most improvisational music, there's a certain left of discordance and chaos, but -- perhaps because chaos theory posits that opposing forces of chaos create their own semblance of order -- the combination of the sound coming from both rooms frequently leads to a harmonic convergence of sorts that sets this composition apart from most improvisational scores. Both ensembles are considerably more rhythmically engaging than a lot of free-jazz improv, resulting in a core of order at the center of the swirling chaos. You don't have to care about the politics of the pieces (it may be better if you don't, actually) to appreciate the complexity of sound and the assured competence of Moe's conducting, and the recording quality is much better than you might expect for a live venue. Excellent listening for the improv fiend.
Monarch -- DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES [Crucial Blast]
This double-disc helping of lumbering, monolithic slowness consists of two full albums by French masters of doom Monarch, both previously available only on vinyl as obscure imports. And when I say slow, I mean s... l... o... w.... -- over the course of two full-length albums, the band manages to play a whopping total of five songs, all of them at a pace best described as glacial. They favor lots of space between their feedback-drenched chords, they do, and they take a long time to get wherever it is they're going, and once they're finally there, singer Emilie shrieks like the dead sister of that creeped-out dude in Khanate, so they're kind of an acquired taste, dig? It takes an enormous amount of patience to listen to a band like this, but if you're into it, they deliver thick, punishing chunks of scary heaviness like few bands ever have or ever will. Since the demise of Khanate, they are probably the best slow-motion doom band that isn't Corrupted, and in terms of glacial pacing and pure intensity, they're only a couple of baby steps behind Japan's finest purveyors of all that is morose. The first disc, SPEAK OF THE SEA, contains three long songs; the second disc, DIE TONIGHT, has two; all five songs are beyond heaviness and well into the territory of being as subtle as having an elephant fall on you. And yes, the artwork is (again) Sanrio-influenced, all the better to fool the uninitiated. If you're into slow-motion, lava-like doom, then you don't even begin to know how badly you need this, especially since the original LPs are damn near impossible to find. Be grateful that Crucial Blast had the good sense to make these albums available in one affordable domestic package; I certainly know I am.
Moonspell -- UNDER SATANAE [Steamhammer / SPV]
Much like the Sodom release reviewed elsewhere in this post, this album is a repackaging of the Portuguese band's earlier material -- their initial 1994 EP (UNDER THE MOONSPELL), the ANNO SATANA demo, and the band's first song ever, "Serpent Angel," with re-recordings of the original material. I have no idea how the original songs sounded, but the recording here is stellar, which is good, because the band's forte is in complex, progressive metal that borders on the avant garde, and I'd hate to imagine such texture-laden work being buried in a pile of sonic mung thanks to low-budget recording. The EP tracks are highly atmospheric and keyboard-laden, owing as much to folk music as to black metal, but still laced with plenty of razor-slashing guitar and energetic drumming; the ANNO SATANA songs (three of them) are equally atmospheric but a bit simpler and more direct (and as with the EP tracks, re-recorded for new, improved fidelity), not that they're likely to be mistaken for anything resembling lo-fi, primitive black metal like early Bathory. The final track is the band's first recorded song (re-recorded here), "Serpent Angel," from the demo of the same name that was recorded in 1992 when they were still going by the name Morbid God. Not surprisingly, it resembles the sound of the ANNO SATANA tracks more so than anything from the EP. From the song quality to the stellar execution of all the material here, it's not hard to see how the band rapidly became one of the biggest metal bands in Portugal. Up until now their early releases were pretty obscure, but this should hopefully alleviate that problem; certainly it's music that deserves to be heard by more people.
Motorhead -- BETTER MOTORHEAD THAN DEAD: LIVE AT HAMMERSMITH [SPV USA]
You may well wonder if the world really needs yet another live Motorhead album -- this is at least their fourth official live album, and that doesn't even include the steady avalanche of quasi-legit and outright bootleg live releases -- but they're MOTORHEAD, so it's not like they were going to ask anybody's permission to put out another one, right? I suspect that if Lemmy had his way, the band would release nothing but live albums, so just be glad the band has shown this much restraint.... So that begs the question: How badly does the devoted but broke Motorhead fan need this one? To answer that question, it may be helpful to keep in mind that this is the second one to document the current (and longest-lasting) three-piece lineup, and is essentially a bookend of sorts to their previous live disc, EVERYTHING LOUDER THAN EVERYONE ELSE; like that one, this is also a double-disc affair, recorded (like their classic first live album, NO SLEEP 'TIL HAMMERSMITH) at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on the occasion of their thirtieth anniversary. There's very little duplication between this set and the last live one, and this is one of their most varied live sets ever, covering material from the early, middle, and recent periods of their career; they even throw in obscure tracks like "Over the Top" and ""Just 'Cos You Got the Power" (one of their best songs ever, and one that never appeared on an official album), two tracks from the unfairly maligned ANOTHER PERFECT DAY ("I Got Mine" and the eternally ominous "Dancing on Your Grave"), and even dare to stun the crowd with the old-school "Whorehouse Blues" before closing with the inevitable run on the early classics "Bomber," "Ace of Spades," and "Overkill." It's difficult, to put it mildly, to assemble a crowd-pleasing mix of tunes when your career spans three decades and a ridiculous number of albums, but the 23 tracks on both discs do an admirable job of covering all the bases as well as anyone can reasonably expect. More importantly, the band is in fine form, burning from start to finish with aggressive panache and a sound that's both surprisingly clear and very, very direct (not to mention raw and loud). It may or may not be their "definitive" live statement -- it's still awfully hard to beat their first live album, which remains one of the greatest live albums ever made -- but it's certainly worth hearing.
Mouthus -- SAW A HALO [Load Records]
For a band with such an extensive catalog, it's kind of scary to consider that this is the duo's first studio recording. Nate Nelson (Religious Knives, Afternoon Penis) and Brian Sullivan (Eskimo King, White Rock) change tactics a bit for their studio outing; whereas much of their earlier material was all about sludge and noise and the inevitable lo-fi sound of live recording, this one brings a cleaner sound to the more restrained moments, such as the hypnotic chanting and neo-folkisms of "Your Far Church"... but that quickly mutates into the fried-amp chaos of "Armies Between," where screeching, buzzing guitar and a military drum beat devolve into sonic anarchy. "The Driftless" is even more obnoxious, exploding into existence with overdriven oscillator sounds and twitching wildly throughout like a electric eel thrashing in the studio, with fuzzy bombed-out bass creep and ghostlike guitar howling providing a minimal "structure" that sounds in danger of dissolving into oblivion at any given moment. Equally strange sounds abound in "Century of Divides," which is a bit less strident and considerably more rhythmic, filled with what might be the sound of skipping cds fed through lots of reverb and processed xylophones, and "Beaches Sleep Here" offers a different take on the same concept of processed and looped sounds as a rhythmic device. A jaunty rhythm and screechy sounds that rise and fall with the beat are the foundation of "Wave Through," which eventually goes on to include all sorts of sonic bedevilment, including wailing and chanting, even as the rhythmic pulse remains constant, at least until the end, when the rhythm is processed to sound like something emanating from a damaged car radio; this segues into the final track, "The Gift of Sighs," where a shaker rhythm and a piano-like guitar figure are eventually joined by a more traditional (sort of) beat and a winding, squealing, stuck-pig guitar sound that's simultaneously disturbing and amusing. Needless to say, the clarity of an actual studio recording does very little to reduce the band's innate weirdness, and listeners captivated by the band's earlier works will like this one as well.
Noertker's Moxie -- SKETCHES OF CATALONIA, VOL. 2: SUITE FOR MIRO [Edgetone Records]
Inspired by the work of Catalonia native Joan Miro, this disc is the second in a trilogy of discs offering homage to various Catalonia legends (the first lauded the work of Salvador Dali; the forthcoming one is based on the life of Antoni Gaudi). Led by composer and contrabass player Bill Noertker, the ensemble at work here includes Annelise Zamula on tenor sax and flute, Jason Levis on drums, Jenny Maybee on piano, Jim Peterson on alto / baritone sax and flute, Niels Mymer on drums, Yehudit on 5-string electric violn, and Hugh Schnick on trumpet. For such a large ensemble, the pieces are surprisingly airy and sparse; then again, the eight pieces here rarely feature more than a few players at a time, and even when the ensemble is large, the players all give each other plenty of room to move. This is cool jazz with a hint of swing, and while they're definitely in the avant garde tradition, their approach is understated enough and sufficiently rooted in traditional structures to be accessible to listeners who would normally have nothing to do with the avant garde. The standout track is "Dona del Cantir," a haunting and beautiful slow ballad that straddles the line between traditional jazz and soundtrack music, and while some of the other tracks are more upbeat, for the most part this is quiet, reflective music heavy on the woodwinds. The piano playing is frequently a highlight of the ensemble's sound, particularly on the closing track "Catalan Peasant in the Moonlight." Is this the jazz equivalent of chill-out music? I think it just might be.
Om -- PILGRIMAGE [Southern Lord]
The hype surrounding Om's latest release has been so intense that there's no way the band or the album can live up to it, and some will doubtless be disappointed that it's not some quantum leap forward in style or intent. Those people might do well to remember, however, that Om's entire existence is based around the concept of progression as measured in minute increments, and this album is no exception to that mantra. The album was recorded at Electrical Audio under the guidance of Steve Albini, so there's an enhanced level of sonic detail this time around, one at times comparable to the sound of the Slint classic SPIDERLAND (which everyone associates with Albini, despite the fact that he actually recorded the band's previous album, not that one). The biggest difference between this album and previous ones is that bassist Al Cisneros is considerably more enamored of efx boxes this time around, especially on "Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead" (the closest thing to an actual "metal" song here, and the one that most obviously acknowledges the existence of their legendary former band, Sleep). "Pilgrimage," the ten-minute opening track, is far more low-key, interested less in heaviness than the flow of minimalist riffs and trance-inducing repetition; "Bhima's Theme," despite the presence of some super-growly bass tones, is less about rocking out than allowing Cisneros to turn simple but effective riffs inside out in nearly imperceptible ways over a steady beat whose improvisation appears mainly in the fills. The album ends with a reprise of the opening track (although at under five minutes, this version is far shorter) that revisits the hypnotic bassline and subtle drumming that began the album and pushes that sound in a moderately different direction, acting simultaneously as a variation on a theme and a reaffirmation of the album's beginning vision. Despite being on Southern Lord, this is not a metal album (even if there are some loud moments); it frankly has more in common with minimalists like Steve Reich, Angus MacLise, and LaMonte Young than anything on Southern Lord's roster. It may not meet the expectations of those dazzled by the hype and the Southern Lord / Albini association, but don't be fooled -- this is highly worth your listening time, and an excellent addition to the band's growing minimalist canon.
Points of Friction -- AFTERLIFE DNA FINGER-PAINTING [Melon Expander]
It should tell you something -- a lot, actually -- that this band was initially formed in 1981 when the founding members met at a Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band performance in Hollywood. There's plenty of the good Captain's influence at work on this, the band's first release since reforming in 2004 after a twenty-year hiatus. A brief listing of the instruments involved should import some of the album's flavor: zither, sitar, egg beater, hand tools, contact microphones, vintage synths, arcane electronics, tape loops, and turntable (using ethnic music LPs), and the thumb piano. The album opens and closes with lengthy tracks (over nine minutes for the first, over fifteen minutes for the last), sandwiching three tracks of a more conventional length (between three and six minutes) in between them. The tracks themselves are less "music" than exotic sound collages incorporating a wide variety of textures and strategies, revealing a highly tactile approach to the collection and deployment of sounds. Sounds not normally found in nature collide with natural sounds blown up to a state of meaninglessness by the use of contact mikes, pieces of conversation wind in and out between looped snippets of fractured music, rumbling noises compete with disparate fragments of sound... and yet there is a sense of order in the chaos, a hidden realm of structure in which the flow of sound is not so much dictated and arranged, but rather, begun and allowed to evolve. It's not an ambient album (although there are ambient moments here and there), but Eno -- he of the Oblique Strategies -- would approve of this, I suspect. The sounds curated here are unusual enough, and their juxtaposition surreal enough, to render this one of the more accomplished sound collages you're likely to hear anytime soon. Bonus points for the surreal and mildly disturbing cover art (and the packaging design in general, which makes effective use of unusual photographs of common objects).
Points of Friction
Same-Sex Dictator -- s/t [self-released]
Hailing from Portland and including members of Tundra, Buried in the Desert, and Golden Hour, the guys of Same-Sex Dictator have absorbed the lessons gleaned from spending way too many hours listening to the likes of Birthday Party, Jesus Lizard, DOA, Neurosis, Don Caballero, and Lightning Bolt and have assimilated all of those influences (and probably more) into a charging post-rock, avant-hardcore blur of sound that sounds like it might have been recorded live (either that, or the band favors recording as a live unit). Deliberately raw and angry, with lyrics encompassing politics, personal strife, and a general tendency toward misanthropic loathing, the band frequently sounds like a hardcore band weaned more on PIL and art-rock than other hardcore bands -- they have all the drive and aggression of hardcore or metal, but then they digress into artier, eccentric moments. When they rock, though, they rock hard, and favor frantic drumming married to ornate and atypical riffs, sort of like a perverse combination of Killing Joke, Bauhaus, and Don Caballero; if they were more consciously metal they'd be inviting comparisons to Baroness and Neurosis, but as it is, they lean more toward chaotic, art-laden post-rock than anything. Whatever they are, the six songs here are compelling and interesting, and heavy enough to appeal to metalheads while retaining much that will appeal to post-rock listeners who don't care about metal at all. Their wide-ranging sound makes them hard to pigeonhole, a point in their favor, and their massive chops make such issues moot anyway.
Sightings -- THROUGH THE PANAMA [Load Records]
Andrew W.K. for a producer? The band must be moving up in the world. Their sixth release finds them the closest they've ever been to a "rock" band, which is not to say that you're likely to find any of the ten songs here clogging up rock radio airwaves anytime soon. Keep in mind that their idea of "rock" is perfectly encapsulated by the idea of covering a Scott Walker tune ("Electrician," actually from the last Walker Brothers album, before Scott went solo); even in the time-honored act of covering other musicians they manage to be obscure. (I have no idea what the original sounds like, but their cover is one of the highlights of the album, propelled by a high-pitched, wailing cyclotron guitar and a song structure so loose that it borders on being nonexistent before turning into something akin to the Beatles on serious downers.) Most of the songs at least approximate what might pass for traditional song structures, if they weren't built out of completely fractured sounds, recorded in a highly unconventional manner, and about subjects so cryptic as to be wildly open to interpretation. The songs on here, in fact, have a tendency to sound like they're being pulled apart or fed through some kind of satanic stuttering device -- this is the sound of pop music being willfully disassembled on the fly, complete with grotesque noises substituting for melodies and rhythms built from sound sources encrusted in filthy efx. There's plenty of droning noises (and noise in general) to keep the pop-rock impulses from becoming too shiny, and their inclination toward sonic perversity should do wonders in keeping them from being embraced by wannabe hipsters drawn to them solely due to their association with Thurston Moore's label Ecstatic Peace (who are releasing the album on vinyl as a double-gatefold set).
Sky Burial -- IV: OF DHARMA AND DROWNING [Silken Tofu]
For my money, Sky Burial -- the drone-o-rific offshoot of the more traditionally noisy Fire in the Head -- is one of the best pure-drone outfits happening these days. This time the drone comes in the form of freezing wind, wailing like the voices of ghosts, and the shuddering sound of steel cables vibrating in slow motion. The format this time is a three-inch cdr that comes in a mini-disc case with amazing artwork, and there's just one long track that clocks in at just under eighteen minutes, a track whose mysterious sounds evoke the feel of restless spirits wandering through a forgotten forest whose trees have been stripped bare by time and the elements. This is deep ambient drone at its most mysterious, ritual music rendered diffuse and amorphous, and far more emotionally engaging than you might expect for something so removed from traditional music. If you're down with the healing power of drone, then you need this, and you need it bad. Limited to 100 copies, so you might want to shake a leg if you intend to snag one for yourself.
Sodom -- THE FINAL SIGN OF EVIL [SPV USA]
The whole current metal nostalgia trend -- bands playing live sets of classic albums, re-recording classic albums, reissuing classic albums in new packaging or with bonus tracks, etc., etc. -- makes me kind of nervous, because that's generally a sign that metal's idea barrel has run dry (again). If there was ever an album in dire need of updating, though, it's the first EP by German thrash masters Sodom. The original EP, IN THE SIGN OF EVIL, was released in 1984 and is an important touchstone for both thrash and black metal, laying down a template for blurry guitar brutality and raw, festering evil that would inspire countless future bands, especially in the black metal arena. Unfortunately, between the band's youth and inexperience, a rushed and low-budget production, and the original label's decision to leave off seven other scheduled tracks that would have turned the EP into a full album, the resulting EP was kind of a severely lo-fi mess. This version of the album -- re-recorded with considerably better playing and fidelity by the same lineup on the original EP -- is a huge improvement over the original version in every way imaginable, right down to the new cover art. For the first time, it's possible to hear what the band was actually doing on the original songs, and the songs that were left off are every bit as good as the more famliar tracks, and musically consistent as well; the reconstituted band has successfully resisted the urge to modernize the tracks, and the full-length album finally appears in the form the band intended back in 1984. One thing the improved fidelity makes clear is that for a band often maligned as nothing more than a Venom clone, their sound owes an awful lot to Slayer. (Then again, pretty much every black metal band post-1983 is heavily indebted to either Slayer or Celtic Frost, so maybe that's not so surprising.) Anybody who ever liked the original EP but wished it had been recorded under better circumstances needs to hear this.
To Blacken the Pages -- THE URGENCY [Colony Records]
Lots of bands get compared to Skullflower; few of them really deserve it. This is one of the few that does. Based in Dublin, Ireland, the "band" is actually the work of artist and curator Paul McAree, whose background as a visual artist gives him an eye for detail that carries over into his sonic architecture on this disc, the band's debut. The disc is one long track (approximately 47 minutes) that opens quietly with droning processed guitar stuck in repeat-and-fade mode as howling bowed guitar rises and falls around the ping-pong noises; over time, the work grows noisier and more chaotic, with heavily-reverbed guitars taking on an enormous heft as the sound grows more cosmic and interstellar. The piece takes its time in unfolding, but gradually grows in density, eventually coming to resemble something akin to the drifting celestial sound of mid-period Skullflower (think CARVED INTO ROSES with a more cathedral-like tone and heavier reliance on efx processing). About midway through, the sound takes on a muted noise-drone more in keeping with the sound of OBSIDIAN SHAKING CODEX, all splintered noises being sucked into a vacuum like a whirling hall of knives funneling down an endless drain, a sound that finally settles into more a more ambient style punctuated by intermittent clanging. Eventually things quiet down and return to the beginning aesthetic of lonesome guitars pinging and shuddering through lots of delay as everything begins to slowly but surely revert to a more static desert of drone, a drone whose density lessens until the the piece ends as it began, with sonic rumbling that fades away, completing the circle. Great stuff that leans more toward the ambient space-drone end of things without ever becoming too sonically violent, and definitely worthy of attention for those who miss Skullflower's earlier adventures in formless space-drone. Limited to 100 copies and comes in a letterpress folding booklet of sort with excellent graphics.
To Blacken the Pages
To Blacken the Pages -- AND WE STARTED AGAIN, AS IF NOTHING HAD HAPPENED BEFORE [Colony Records]
The band's second disc is a bit noisier and at times far more "rocking" -- and it's also broken into three pieces of varying size as opposed to one long chunk of interstellar drone. The first track is approximately seventeen minutes of the same kind of metallic space-drone featured on the first album, only heavier and darker; with plenty of the same kind of amorphous, fuzzed-out black drone that made Skullflower great. The best (and longest, taking up most of the album) track is the second one, opening with a hollowed-out, rhino-sized guitar drone that is eventually joined by monochromatic beats and gets some serious skronk on before finally ascending into the reverberating sound of space cathedrals. The final track, around seven minutes long, is a more zoned-out affair, with lots of rhythmic fuzz and shrill reverb-heavy bleating, like a spaceship set on hover and stun. All of it is an excellent collection of guitar-driven zone 'n drone calling up fond memories of old-school Skullflower. Like the first disc, this comes in a nice letterpress foldout package and is limited to 100 copies.
To Blacken the Pages
Void of Ovals -- MERGANSER [Void of Ovals]
The twelve tracks on this disc are short slices of keyboard-heavy electronica -- not quite pop tunes, not quite techno tunes, but definitely electronic in nature and heavy on the beat, and usually buoyed by percolating synths and pealing, high-end keyboard figures. No vocals for the most part, just short bursts of twinkling keyboards and the occasional sound bite sample -- this is electronica in abbreviated form, perfect for a generation largely incapable of paying attention to anything that lasts more than a couple of minutes. Is it a statement or an aesthetic? It's hard to tell, but the sounds are catchy enough and the insistently upbeat vibe of pretty much everything here makes it perfect the worker drone in need of background music that will keep him happy and productive without getting him too excited. That may or may not be the intention, but it's certainly one possible use for this disc. There's something to be said for brevity, and the songs on this disc certainly have that down. That they're full of catchy, melodic keyboard hooks only makes the listening that much sweeter.
Void of Ovals
Xasthur -- DEFECTIVE EPITAPH [Hydra Head]
If Malefic's previous outing, SUBLIMINAL GENOCIDE, was all about the hate, then this one is more about the majesty -- it's nowhere near as relentless and deliberately monochromatic, and unlike previous releases, it features him playing real drums for the first time. Which is not to say that he's suddenly embraced pop music or something; the album's sound, while more varied than ever before, is drenched in dark, droning keyboards and shuddering, dissonant guitar, and his pained, shrieking vocals are every bit as unsettling as they have been in the past. It seems like there's a newfound balance between the keyboard and guitar dominance, with the keyboards striving more for majestic bombast than atonal droning, but the tone -- both musically and emotionally -- is still one of frozen, misanthropic isolationism. For a guy who's been relying on a box for his beats, he turns out to be a reasonable enough drummer, even on the fast tracks (where the keyboards and guitars frequently verge on chaotic white noise). It's a keyboard-heavy album, but there are moments -- especially on songs like "Funerals Drenched in Apathy" -- where the growling, barbed-wire guitar sound holds sway over all (those are the best tracks, if you ask me, but I'm a guitarist so I'm biased). With twelve tracks on the album, there are plenty of opportunities for variations in tempo and texture, although the album is unified by a cold and unremitting bleakness that persists regardless of the structure and speed of individual songs. This one won't necessarily make you want to slit your wrists the way the last one did, but it succeeds in painting a compelling picture of dark and fantastic alienation.