Aidan Baker -- EXOSKELETON HEART [Crucial Bliss]
The ever-prolific Aidan Baker returns with two long slices of live guitar drone, each one clocking in at just under or just over thirty minutes. The first one, "interior," is a vast and unfolding panorama of reverb-soaked dream drone nearly 28 minutes in length, beatless and celestial, with a sound owing much to the German dream-music band Troum; the extended piece is less about structure, melody, or anything resembling conventional song structure and more about drifting through cascading waves of tone and depth, allowing new elements of tonal sound to gradually develop like billowing fog. Like most of Baker's work, solo or otherwise, it's extremely minimal and requires a fair amount of patience to absorb, but it's worth the effort to do so; few people in the school of minimalist drone have as solid a grasp of dynamics and tone as Baker, and despite the length of the piece, it's never boring. The second piece, "anterior," is even longer (just over 32 minutes) and -- in the beginning, at least -- even more minimal than the first, centered around a shrill (but not overly loud) drone that rises and falls in volume, akin to the wavelike motion of the ocean, gradually increasing in volume over time as more depth is added to the texture and additional drones appear, eventually culminating in a lovely cathedral-style drone that builds in intensity before resolving in a dissolving slo-mo wash of spaced-out fuzz that finally ends in a high-pitched drone that slowly fades into nothingness. Stellar work from Baker, as usual, and limited to 300 copies that will probably go quickly (which is your cue to act now if you want in on the heavy drone action, and you should).
Blut Aus Nord -- ODINIST: THE DESTRUCTION OF REASON BY ILLUMINATION [Candlelight USA]
Wasn't I saying something last time around about the recent emergence of quality black metal from France? You can add this band to the list -- this album, the band's fifth, is excellent stuff, raw and minimalist without being totally primitive, atmospheric and dark without succumbing to pure cheese, and filled with unrelenting, old-school guitar vileness. The rampaging drums (often bearing a mild industrial feel along with the traditional blackened beats) and knitting-needle guitars are bolstered at times by dark keyboard washes that are simple but highly effective. They favor guitar riffs that are frequently dissonant, mostly fast, and filled and with howling shards of near-monochromatic melodicism; at times the guitars rhythms are distinctly cryptic and unconventional as well. Shrouded in layers of reverb and distortion, possessed of a severely antisocial (and totally uncommercial) vibe, this is work more concerned with occult atmosphere and the mysteries of the unknowable than with any kind of current trends or some fey desire to "please their audiences." It helps that unlike a lot of black metal bands, they make truly worthwhile use of droning, brooding keyboards, but the real meat here is in the serrated tornado guitar and relentless rhythms. Heavy, fatalistic stuff, and highly recommended.
Blut Aus Nord
Freedom Call -- DIMENSIONS [Steamhammer / SPV]
This is the seventh release by German power metal band Freedom Call, and it's a hard one to pigeonhole, bearing traces of prog-rock, thrash metal, a dinstinctly European sound, and an awful lot of keyboards. Extremely melodic and usually up-tempo, this is the kind of thing that rarely goes over well in America (especially now, when the musical climate of metal and hard rock appears to be fixated on brutality, simplicity, a general ban on keyboards outside of black metal’s morose droning in the name of atmosphere), which is too bad, because there's probably an audience here (a small one, true, but still) for melodic hard rock, and this is a good band. The material is a tad grandiose for my personal taste, but there's nothing wrong with the songs, which tend to sound like a updated take on NWOBHM with heavy prog theatrics thrown in just to make things that much more interesting. They make really startling use of backing vocals on tracks like "United Alliance," resulting in a harmonic vocal sound that hasn't been fashionable in this country in ages, one that's a whole lot more distinctive (and listenable) than the cookie-monster vocal approach that has become standard operating procedure among most American metal bands these days. There are moments of highly melodic, classically-tinged playing on tracks like "Words of Endeavour" as well, and each song has its own distinctive flavor, but they are all unified by the interplay of flashy guitar and keyboards over a solid rhythm section. It's probably not heavy and brutal enough for the average American metalhead, but progged-out devotees of power metal who have been lamenting the disappearance of melody from metal will want to hear this.
Hatesphere -- SERPENT SMILES AND KILLER EYES [Steamhammer / SPV]
This Danish metal band is not quite classifiable as pure thrash metal, but they're close; they favor a big, thick sound, fast and blinding guitars, and machine-gun drumming, but they slow down to mosh now and then as well, demonstrating that they're not totally obsessed with speed and more speed. They are also not afraid to employ melodic guitar along with the huge stop 'n start riffs, which makes them far more accessible than a lot of equally heavy thrash bands. "Drinking with the King of the Dead" is probably the most melodic song on the album, opening with a decidedly non-metal guitar line and gradually growing denser as the rest of the instruments come in, then turning into full-blown metal with a nice, crunchy riff and heavy drums. "Let Them Hate," with its highly melodic opening riff and a series of equally catchy riffs that appear when the rest of the band comes in, is a close second in the catchiness department; the rest of the songs work at striking a balance between catchy melodicism and high-velocity intensity. There's nothing particularly ground-breaking here, but it's well-done, with plenty of shifts in tempo and dynamic attack to keep things interesting, and certainly not lacking in full-blown ferocity despite the lust for melodicism.
George Korein -- TOO MANY DAYS [G Records]
This solo album from one of the members of Infidel? / Castro! shares that band's affinity for abruptly shifting soundscapes and textures, not to mention a serious fondness for processed sound and sheer noise -- but this is not a noise album, but rather a pop / rock album that has been severely deconstructed and disrupted by an unconventional approach to background sound and the use of droning noise. Bursts of jagged noise shrapnel give way to bouncy synth-pop on "Writhe, Sally, Writhe" that is boosted into overdrive by absurdly distorted bass, while everything is overdriven, distorted, and processed in a deliberately grating manner on "Constant Confrontation." The absurdly jaunty toy-piano sound of "Lonely Fun" is in complete contrast to the increasingly hyperactive, broken-beat sound of the drum machine behind it; "The World Is Your Ashtray" combines gothic-sounding symphonic keyboard washes frosted with noise and a morose, plodding beat; and "Termite Anthem" features dueling keyboards, one cheesy and one gruesomely distorted, along with clattering drums and squeaky melodies. The rest of the songs (fifteen in all) are every bit as strange, and sometimes stranger. This is pop-rock noise for the future, a sound made from the reassembled leavings of half a dozen genres dominated by the heavy use of efx processing, noise as a texturing device, and an extremely eccentric musical vision. Those already hep to Infidel? / Castro! will want to check this out, along with anybody interested in hearing a really different approach to the combination of pop and noise.
Light of Shipwreck -- FROM THE IDLE CYLINDERS [Crucial Bliss]
Ben Fleury-Steiner is both the mind (and hands) behind this drone project and Gears of Sand Recordings, the label responsible for releases by Aidan Baker, Encomiast, Mikronesia, and other drone / ambient artists. Light of Shipwreck is very much in that vein, with three long tracks heavy on the drone quotient, but unlike most drone acts, Light of Shipwreck is fond of tribal beats and percussion along with its droning walls of blissed-out noise. The opening track, "I Rode and Am Riding on an Ocean of Violent Lights," features heavy blocks of oceanic ambient drone that occasionally fade in intensity to accommodate Krautrock-influenced tribal rhythms; the sound is at times thickened by sheets of electrofuzz and heavily-reverbed percussion on top of that, making for a sound far more densely textured and motion-oriented than the average drone epic. "I Watched and Am Watching a Cold Dead Sun Rise and Explode" is a bit more conventionally ambient, filled with cyclotron drones and reverbed guitars, but also prone to bursts of elliptical rhythms and understated percussion; it's also largely dominated by a swirling, hollowed-out tone like the sound of some faraway din being channelled through the world's longest metal pipe, and toward the end, heavy beats and notes processed through shimmering ping-pong delay that grow denser and louder as the loping beat continues. The final track, "I Swallowed and Am Swallowing the River Ganges," fades in with tribal percussion, a sound that is eventually joined by more drone sounds, followed by stuttering jump-cuts between a motif like a processed foghorn and other startling noises, all of which grow in volume and intensity before shifting to more percussion as the noises recede. The piece undergoes a number of other tonal, texture, and volume shifts as it progresses, and the percussion comes and goes, before finally ending in a shrieking flurry of cycling noise that gradually fades out. It's nice to see elements of rhythm and percussion incorporated into drone pieces, especially ones this imaginative. The title, incidentally, is a reference to now-deceaseed Objectivist poet George Oppen, a major influence on the album's imagery. Limited to 200 copies.
Light of Shipwreck
Luasa Raelon -- INTO THE VOID [Crucial Bliss]
The five tracks of brooding, dark-ambient drone on this disc are the work of David Reed, better known to some by his other project Envenomist and his noise label snip-snip, which has released material by Conure, Marax, Hive Mind, and many others, including other releases by his own two bands. Armed with iced-out synths and dark electronics, weaned on the likes of Troum, Yen-Pox, Lustmord, Megaptera, Lull, and early black metal, Reed's work here is straight-up dark ambient with a heavy drone quotient that recalls the early days (and darkest efforts) of the early isolationlist movement. Most of this sounds like a cold wind after dark blowing through the empty ruins of ancient cities built by alien civilizations; it's all very sinister and Lovecraftian, subtle and restrained, and oh so very dark. The sound is dominated more by the synths than the efx boxes (which are mostly used to provide texture and grit to the drawn-out and often subterranean synth washes). This sounds like the soundtrack to an obscure science fiction horror film (which may explain the totally boss artwork that amplifies on this theme), especially one invoking the inexplicable terror of Lovecraft's Elder Gods; at the same time, though, it bears a distinct relation to early 70s prog-rock, often resembling a more forbidding and drone-laden answer to Tangerine Dream. At low volume this is actually more soothing than unsettling, like a dream-music release by Troum, but at higher volumes it becomes distinctly more oppressive and laced with dread. All of it is excellent, and a pleasant thing to discover, given that I already liked what Reed was doing in Envenomist. Limited to 200 copies, and like all the Crucial Bliss releases, it comes swaddled in ultra-swank full-color packaging.
Naked Mall Rats -- SOMEWHERE ON THE INTERNET [self-released]
This is one of the many side-projects of George Korein, one-half of Infidel? / Castro!, so it's no surprise that it turns out to be a deeply strange listening experience. A concept album about the internet, the fourteen tracks here were conceived through several hours of unrehearsed jamming between George, Dylan Sparrow, and Keith Abrams that George later edited down to an album's worth of something relatively coherent; George, Dylan, and Liz added vocals later (plus some eccentric sitar and glitch-electronica overdubs). Like the subject parodied and dissected in the lyrics, the music here is esoteric and sprawling, a flowing series of near-random jams marked by the deranged collision of devolved funk-pop, avant-garde freejazz, glitch-electronica, and pure sonic strangeness. There's a black (and sometimes prurient) sense of humor to the lyrics that's matched by the sheer perversity of the music, which is strange and unfathomable one moment, then surprisingly poppy and catchy the next... but always genuinely unpredictable, no small feat at this juncture in the history of recorded music, by which point new ideas are hard to find and even more rare to hear. Strange, perverse, inexplicable, at times even wonderful, and definitely one of the more unusual listening experiences you're likely to ever encounter.
Naked Mall Rats
Tom Nunn -- IDENTITY [Edgetone Records]
Nunn is a composer and improvisational artist who generally performs using original, homemade instruments built from common materials and amplified with contact mikes, and this solo release features three such inventions -- the "Hybrid Mothics," consisting of three triangular boards festooned with bronze rods, a curved line of finishing nails, and a textured surface, to be played with wooden dowel mallets, combs, steel rods, a large spring, a knitting needle, guitar picks, and bows; the "Octatonic T-Rodimba," a sheet of plywood with three v-shaped tiers of threaded steel rods bent at 90-degree angles and tuned in an octatonic scale (alternating major 2nd with minor 2nd), designed to be struck with wooden mallets or plucked by hand; and the "Crustacean," a 32-inch diameter steel pole supported by toy balloons and adorned with bronze rods of varying lengths, designed to be struck with any number of implements. Nunn employs these three exotic instruments throughout the ten tracks here, harnessing a wide palette of extremely unusual sounds to create pieces that are at times reminiscent of the sound of a bizarrely-tuned xylophone and at other times the sound of pure tonal chaos. Despite the lack of electronic processing -- what you hear is what came directly out of the instruments -- there's some truly otherworldly sounds happening here, along with more melodic tones rendered in a highly percussive manner. The back of the cd case helpfully lists not only the track listing, but the instruments used and the tools used to strike them, which allows you to get some idea over the course of the album as to what sounds the individual instruments can produce. The Crustacean emits deep, droning ambient sounds when attacked with bows, a sonorous and haunting sound worth exploring in more depth; the Mothic and T-Rodimba produce more percussive and textured sounds, lending a great deal of variety to the different pieces. It would be interesting to hear how these instruments could be used in a more structured, less improvisational context. As it is, the album is most interesting, and full of sonic surprises.
October File -- HOLY ARMOUR FROM THE JAWS OF GOD [Candlelight USA]
It's somehow appropriate that the band appears to be named after a Die Kruezen album, because they are every bit as elliptical and uncompromising as that legendary Touch & Go band, if considerably more metallic in nature. The poop sheet accompanying this disc makes prominent mention of Killing Joke, Prong, New Model Army, and Swans, which is fair enough, but I suspect the Die Kreuzen connection is probably more relevant than any of these -- certainly the band's politics and angular ferocity (along with their unexpected approach to both song structure and ability to extract melody from guitars bordering on white noise) has more in common with DK than any of these other bands other than Killing Joke, and the only real Killing Joke connection I can discern (outside of a tendency toward repetitive heaviness, which Jaz and his pals didn't exactly invent) lies in that fact that Killing Joke vocalist produced the album and appears as a guest performer. The band's musical lineage is far less important, however, than the fact that they are one of the most intense listening experiences to come down the pike in some time -- they don't play their songs so much as they bludgeon their instruments to death while the vocalist rages about murder, war, religion, rape, the failure of humanity, and other angst-filled topics. They're not as monochromatic as that description might make them sound -- surprises abound, like the pretty melodic break in "High Octane Climate Changer" and the near-funky beats that follow. The one song that truly does deserve the Killing Joke comparison is "A Sun That Never Sets," although it sounds like KJ on massive steroids and welded to scorched-earth black metal guitar. Otherwise, while some of the beats are indeed reminiscent of the Joke and Prong, the band's claustrophobic vibe of innate heaviness (and pure steamroller approach) demonstrates they have plenty to offer on their own. This is especially true of their enormous and hate-filled guitar sound, which owes as much to black metal as to post-rock or traditional metal. Bonus points for the amazing cover art.
Axel Rudi Pell -- DIAMONDS UNLOCKED [Steamhammer / SPV]
German guitarist Axel Rudi Pell is not exactly a household name here in the US, although he's been a significant force in the European hard rock and metal scene since the formation of his band Steeler (not to be confused with the American metal band led by Ron Keel and at one time including guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen); he left for a solo career in 1989 and has since unleashed a whole pile of solo records, the latest of which is this one, a covers album featuring unorthodox and highly melodic reinterpretations of material by Riot, U2, Chris Rea, Kiss, Michael Bolton (!!!), Free, Montrose, Phil Collins, The Mission, and The Who. Of the lot, American listeners will probably be most familiar with the ones by U2 ("Beautiful Day"), Kiss ("Love Gun"), Phil Collins ("In the Air Tonight"), and The Who ("Won't Get Fooled Again"). Pell is a seriously melodic (you’re going to see that word frequently in this review, which should tell you something about Pell’s musical agenda) guitarist, and his band's sound is akin to a more European answer to Journey or Aldo Nova -- very 80s-sounding, in other words -- and the band's sweet-sounding, radio-friendly sound will probably be the kiss of death for a lot of metal listeners on this side of the big pond. If you're into melodic metal, though, this is highly listenable stuff -- I'm generally kind of dubious on the whole concept of cover albums, but Pell has an interesting way of reinventing the songs here (the acoustic version of "Love Gun" totally smokes the original, frankly), and his version of the Michael Bolton tune "Fool's Game" is much, much heavier than the original (not that this would be difficult) and absurdly catchy (yes, I know I'm going to hell for actually admitting to liking anything by Michael Bolton, but such is Pell's genius -- how many people could make Michael Bolton listenable?). His space-rock, jazz-fusion remake of "In the Air Tonight" is nearly unrecognizable, with lots of fuzzy guitar, melodic soloing, and no gated drums, and thus he gets bonus points for making the beer commercial soundtrack listenable again; on the other hand, there's way too much stuff going on in the Who remake -- it's not bad, but it just proves that it's really difficult to improve on The Who. This is a good starting place for American listeners interested in hearing what Pell is all about, and for fans of flashy, melodic hard-rock guitar.
Axel Rudi Pell
Raging Speedhorn -- BEFORE THE SEA WAS BUILT [Steamhammer / SPV USA]
The band returns with its fourth album and a lineup change, introducing new vocalist Bloody Kev (formerly of Hard to Swallow) and new bassist Dave Thompson (ex-Scurge), and a change in direction -- while earlier releases were in the vein of Black Sabbath, now they appear to have discovered more modern purveyors of metal like Neurosis as well, and the resulting sound is an interesting mix of extremely old-school, blues-derived hard rock and esoteric prog-metal made even more unusual by the use of two vocalists (apparently inspired by Kev's former band, ironically enough). The album is heavy, very heavy indeed, but not without nuance and dynamics, and while the song structures are rooted primarily in British rock and metal, the powerful, intense drumming and insistent, often-dissonant guitar work add a fresh dimension to a sound that essentially owes more to classic hard rock than modern metal, especially with the addition of Kev, whose harsh, declamatory vocal style is more reminiscent of hardcore than hard rock, and makes a nice contrast to the band's melodicism. The songs are mostly uptempo and insistent, full of busy drumming and grinding, knife-like guitar riffs, but as the eerie opening of "Who Will Guard the Guards" proves, they are fully capable of holding your attention even at slow speeds. Dark, angry music with an awareness of the sounds of the past but every bit as interested in moving forward into the future, with a thick but crisp sound captured well by excellent production.
Scissor Shock -- TEASE THE SKELETON ep [DFRP]
The unclassifiable glitch-noise band from Columbus returns with a new EP of damaged sounds and anti-tunes, eight slices of perverted riffs, exotic sounds, obtuse structures, and weird noises all configured into random-sounding tracks of... well... randomness. “Random” is probably the operative word with this band; despite their noise tag, their individual albums sound surprisingly different, and they are less about blowing up your ears than figuring out new and quixotic ways to scrunch together sounds that have no business coexisting in the same audio space. Revolving around Adam Cooley (the only full-time member), their approach to randomness is nowhere near as random as you might suspect -- there’s definitely a thoughtful kind of madness behind the construction of these audio blips -- but their approach is sufficiently arcane to make it nearly impossible to guess what will happen next, no matter what they’re doing at any given moment. The only real constant is that everything tends to sound like a damaged cd, one warped by heat or some other accident in such a fashion that everything is speeded up and skipping; this is the sound of enormous amounts of information being force-fed into intensely short increments of time. Contrary to some of their earlier releases, there’s very little harsh noise on this one, but instead many, many, many snippets of what were probably ordinary, entirely recognizable sounds before Cooley and co. started whittling them down and tying them together in bizarre musical strings. There are lots of frantic, broken beats and peculiar pinging sounds amid the sonic wreckage, along with what might be actual guitar riffs here and there or just samples from bargain-bin records. Any way you slice it, the EP is a strange listening experience, to be sure. Good, interesting, and heavy on the damaged-sound tip... but strange. Very strange.
Skullflower -- IIIRD GATEKEEPER (reissue) [Crucial Blast]
Crucial Blast's reissue of this iconic Skullflower album, originally released in 1992 on Godflesh guitarist Justin Broadrick's HeadDirt label, is a welcome development in the Skullflower chronicles. Long considered the leading fan favorite, this disc has been out of print ever since HeadDirt went under, despite its ready availibility on the used market, and the reissue (in a gatefold digipak) improves on the original artwork without getting carried away and boasts remastered sound that is a serious improvement on the original release. (It also includes epic liner notes, but modesty prevents me from commenting on that since I wrote them.) This is only one of two studio albums (the other is LAST SHOT AT HEAVEN) featuring the classic (but short-lived) lineup of Matthew Bower on guitar, Stuart Dennison on drums, and A. DiFranco on bass, and for various reasons, it remains one of the band's most focused discs; there's no filler here, no extraneous frippery or dodgy experiments, just nine tracks of savage psychedelic noise-rock so adept in its whirling-knives guitar skronk and leviathan bass heaving that it pretty much opened the door for the whole field of free-form noise rock now dominated by the likes of Sunn O))), Earth, and a million other heavy-drone bands. Unlike most of the early albums, which were recorded piecemeal with shifting lineups, or the later albums, which were either essentially singles compilations or considerably more ambient outings, this was recorded by one lineup in a short timeframe, and is consequently far more focused than anything else the band has ever done (with the possible exception of XAMAN, the album with Stefan Jaworzyn on guitar that was recorded prior to this one). It's also one of the band's heaviest albums -- only INFINITYLAND in consistently heavier, if nowhere near as sharp and focused -- and the combination of Dennison's heavier than lead drums, DiFranco's overwhelming bass crush, and Bower's genuinely psychotronic noise guitar is entirely too much to resist for any discerning noise-dronehead. The improved remastering makes it far more obvious than before just how out-there Bower's guitar playing was, and just reaffirms that the band was ahead of their time, especially on this release. You need this, period, and with any luck it will turn out to be just the first salvo in a whole series of reissues of the band's back catalog, most of which is hopelessly obscure and tragically out of print.
Yes, Collapse -- FINAL DIAGNOSIS [Crucial Bliss]
This is the final release from the Dayton, OH trio of Dan Rizer, Josh Fink, and Matthew Reis; for many years they were one of the centerpieces of the noise / drone label Epicene Sound System, releasing a steady stream of incredibly obscure limited-edition cassettes, cd-rs, and splits with similar bands. Last year the band more or less ground to a halt when the band members moved away, but before it all ran down the drain, they tossed this material into the hands of Crucial Blast to release as part of the ongoing Crucial Bliss series. What you get are nine tracks of highly unpredictable, often virulent clotted sonic grue -- screeching, buzzing, freaked-out sound collages whipped together from amplifier hum, metal tapes, efx boxes, stuff being broken, huge processed sounds, and more sonic effluvia than you can even begin to imagine, all shaped into streams of ambient sound that abruptly disintegrate into epics of sonic flagellation. There are some moments of near-ambient washes and drones, but mostly it's a series of violent, abrasive exercises in earhurt heavy on the imagination and low on the respect for your ears. This is not so much harsh noise or even standard noise rock as much as it is the cunning juxtaposition of a great many annoying / alienating / otherworldly sounds, clustered together for maximum mind obliteration and subjected to some pretty creative mixes, especially by noise standards. Like a terrible and blood-soaked collision of art-rock, free improv, sound collage, and noise, the results are alternately hypnotic and sonically horrifying, at times buried in a cyclone of harsh noise din, at other times fixated on heavy repetition, but mostly aimed at prying loose the hinges of your subconscious with jarring segues, inexplicable sounds, unpredictable dynamics, and a pure lust for audio ugliness. Powerful, uncompromising stuff that's far more nuanced and layered than your average noise album made through efx-box overkill. Limited to 150 copies, which I bet won't last long, given the band's standing among collector scum.