Monday, March 24, 2008

the second wave of march reviews

Averse Sefira -- ADVENT PARALLAX [Candlelight Records]

Austin, TX is not exactly a location that leaps readily to mind when one mentions black metal, but it's the home of Averse Sefira, who have slowly but surely gained a reputation over the past decade as one of the best black metal bands in the US. They're certainly a formidable-sounding trio, with a sound that's unquestionably black metal without being too readily obvious about their influences. Dominated by chaotic, fractured explosions of guitar and busy, unpredictable drumming augmented by frantic but steady bass, the band's sound on this album is somewhere between the grandiose majesty of Emperor and the direct ferocity of Watain (although they don't really sound like either of those bands). The most notable aspect of their sound is the dissonant, cyclonic guitar, one that would give them an otherworldly sound if the rhythm section weren't so diabolically insistent and punishing. The eight songs all lean toward the epic -- only one is under six minutes long, and one is over nine minutes -- giving them plenty of time to drift through different textures and moods. Elements of death metal are present at times, particularly in the busy and often technical drumming, but the overall sound is definitely that of black metal, and not of the primitive lo-fi variety, either. This is a musically adept band with plenty of chops (no doubt the result of relentless touring; they play live far more than most black metal bands) and a subtle experimental bent that gives them a highly original sound. This album makes it clear why the band has developed a strong following despite their relatively low profile.

Averse Sefira
Candlelight Records

Brekekekexkoaxkoax -- I MANAGE TO GET OUT BY A SECRET DOOR [eh?]

Josh Ronsen's enigmatically-named (and impossible to spell) vehicle for strange experiments in sonic reduction and the occasional foray into performance art has rarely sounded this minimal, which is saying something, given his penchant for removing the rock, the beat, and the rhythm from his music until it resembles nothing so much as near-random trickles of found sound. Ronsen is the only artist I've ever heard who can deliberately record music that sounds like field recordings, and there's much of that perverse aesthetic at work here. He's also joined by other like-minded improvisational artists on most of the tracks -- only "shoham" and "art brings a tiny gleam, swamped by garrulousness" are solo performances -- including Jason Pierce on drums, Glen Nuckolls (acoustic guitar), Genevieve Walsh (drums, flute), and Jacob Green (percussion, electronics, oboe). The tracks are all different variations on subdued, minimalist improvisation in which the space between tonal events and the modest dynamics are every bit as important, maybe even more so, than the actual notes played and noises made. The exceptions to this largely-favored stylistic temperament are in the droning, dark-ambient solo pieces, although they are no less minimal and cryptic than the rest of the album's offerings. Those already familiar with Ronsen's output will find much to dig into here; those not yet hip to his studied but eccentric approach to all things minimal will find this an excellent starting point.


Cry Blood Apache -- NORTHERN TRAVELERS ep [Ghetto Pagoda Records]

There's a heavy dose of Joy Division worship happening in the guitar lines of this Austin trio's latest offering, a four-track EP that filters pop tunes through a new wave strainer. They've got a way more funky groove than Manchester's favorite sons, though, not to mention better pop smarts, and they hit you with their rhythm stick in a far looser and more human manner (which is pretty funny, since Joy Division had a real drummer and they have a drum machine, but perversity is the real nature of rock 'n roll). They haven't lost their fondness for the pleasures of judiciously applied noise -- for evidence, listen to the fuzzed-out bass on "The Northern Travelers" and the gritty guitar textures of "Boy's Night Out" -- but the real focus here is on short, catchy pop tunes couched in the sound of early new wave and accented by occasional shards of noise. The most uptempo song is "I Fly Towards You," but the best one is "Gone From My Mind." The only thing wrong here is that it's too short. But that's okay, because I have no doubt there will be more to come in the future.

Cry Blood Apache

Darsombra -- ETERNAL JEWEL [Public Guilt]

The second album from Darsombra, the solo experimental drone unit of former Meatjack member Brian Daniloski, demonstrates the D's growing command of melody-drenched drone. The five tracks of varying length are not so much individual songs as they are movements in one long epic of drone-o-rific transmissions from another world, one in which the almighty drone and ambient sound are enhanced by hypnotic electronics evoking the feel of dissolving pipe organs and a shimmering string section on acid. It's not all just dark ambient drone 'n doom; there are some genuinely beautiful moments, especially toward the end of "Night's black agents," where a bright, repetitive pinging emerges as the central focus, a sound that rears up again -- only processed and expanded into what sounds like an expanding universe of shimmering strings -- in "Drops of sorrow." (A similar sound / effect is the centerpiece of the album's closing track, "Incarnadine.") Then there's the recurring near-jazz melodic guitar line that shows up in "Lamentings / Auguries," adding a new dimension to the evolving sheets of drone. There's a simplicity to the album's sound that is deceptive; by allowing things to remain uncluttered, the appearance of minimal (but still evolving) motifs become far more important than they would be in a more conventionally song-oriented environment. The album's overall sound is one of meditative, radiant transcendence; it's not just music to zone out to, but music with a deeply emotional core. Heavy stuff for an album rooted in droning minimalism, sure, but it's there if you want it. And you should.

Public Guilt

dYse -- s/t [Exile on Mainstream Records]

Hailing from Amsterdam (I think -- they may be in Germany now, if their Myspace page is to be believed) and sporting an inexplicable name (pronounced doo-ze, as it happens), dYse takes a jazzy approach to math rock and are not afraid to use the studio as a sonic weapon (for example, see how they radically alter the EQ of "underlaydisk" on the fly toward the end, allowing it to dissolve in a tinny mess o' noise). Their approach to math rock is an aggressive one, though, and the hoarse, bellowing vocals hint at a history equally rooted in hardcore. They're not quite as brazenly metallic as bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, and far more enamored of a jazz-rooted sound than most American bands working similar musical territory, but they nevertheless rock every bit as hard as those bands. The best parts of their sound are encapsulated in the relentless bass sound (which may actually downtuned guitar) that's equal parts chug and clang, the varying guitar textures, and the high-octane drumming; they may break down into quieter, jazzier moments here and there, but mostly they move forward like they're propelled by a rocket sled. It's rhythmically complex but far more tuneful than most purveyors of math rock, and more important, the rhythms and song structures sound fresh -- I'm sure they're influenced by bands that came before them, but it's not obvious, and that's definitely a good thing. Even more, the beat has such sufficient swing that you can almost dance to it. At least, that is, when they're not revved-up and falling off a cliff.

Exile on Mainstream Records

Gachupin -- s/t [self-released]

Now this is an interesting and unexpected musical adventure, a captivating mixture of world beat, jazz, and Latin music featuring former Pere Ubu member Tony Maimone on bass along with former Cordero / Bee and Flower guitarists Jon Petrow (The Cloud Room) and Lynn Wright (The Wiremen) and Coba drummer Chris Michael. What originally began as a studio side project has grown to include a large group of side players drawn from New York's jazz, Afro-Columbian, and downtown rock scenes. Combining elements of the funky jazz-fusion model pioneered by Miles Davis with Brazilian, Columbian, and African world beat rhythms, the result is eleven tracks of highly contagious rhythms welded to a funky jazz idiom. Rhythmically intense and powered by equal parts funk and jazz, the songs on this disc are far more accessible than one might expect. The players (the core band and nine other players who come and go, playing keyboards, alegre, additional percussion, trumpet, and all varieties of saxophone) are all stellar, as are the songs (all instrumental, incidentally). This is great stuff; you don't have to be a jazz or world beat aficianado to enjoy these upbeat, swinging tunes.


Hellhammer -- DEMON ENTRAILS [Prowlin' Death Records / Century Media]

The short-lived Swiss band Hellhammer released only official EP in its brief existence before morphing into the considerably more well-known Celtic Frost, but given that the EP in question, APOCALYPTIC RAIDS, remains one of the most important touchstones of early black metal, it's hard to overstate the band's importance. Prior to the EP, though, the band recorded three demos (of which only two were formally released, and then only in incredibly limited numbers) that have since been endlessly bootlegged on vinyl and cd, usually from third or fourth generation tape dubs and accompanied by mediocre to awful artwork and largely fabricated liner notes. This has proven to be such an irritation to main members Tom Gabriel Fischer and Martin Eric Ain that once they finally came to grips with Hellhammer's legacy, they began making plans to reissue said material in a manner that would properly convey the truth about Hellhammer's early sound and existence.

The reissue comes in three distinct flavors: a bare-bones double-cd digipak, a deluxe double-cd media book with a poster and extensive booklet, and a triple-LP in a gatefold sleeve with a larger version of the booklet and a poster. The cd versions contain their final demo, SATANIC RITES, on one disc and the earlier two, DEATH FIEND and TRIUMPH OF DEATH, on the second, while the vinyl version devotes a separate LP to each demo (with the result that some songs common to the first two are repeated). In all cases, the remastered audio comes directly from the band's cassette copies of the original masters (which are unavailable now due to a tragic comedy of errors on the part of the original studio and engineers responsible for the initial recordings). The material from the first two demos were recorded June 10-11, 1983, at the Grave Hill Bunker (the band's rehearsal space, an underground bomb shelter) by Ronald Fuchs using an eight-track mobile recorder; due to the band's limited finances, they used only four tracks to record each session. The tracks for the SATANIC RITES demo were recorded in the first week of December, 1983 at Sound Concept Studio in Ramsen, Switzerland for a paltry 600 Swiss francs. In light of the modest recording circumstances, the cluelessness of the engineers involved regarding metal in general and Hellhammer's taken on such in particular, and the band's admittedly basic playing skills, it's not terribly surprising that the results were, to put it mildly, incredibly primitive.

Primitive doesn't necessarily mean bad, however, and these demos capture a young but highly enthusiastic band with an intriguing sound unlike anything else happening at the time; obviously influenced by Venom (and possibly, to a lesser degree, German thrash bands like Sodom and Destruction), they nevertheless had a sound that was distinctly their own. Contrary to what many naysayers (and there have indeed been many over the years, including the band members themsevles at one point) would have you believe, it's not all just a wash of white noise; the sound on SATANIC RITES is actually pretty good given the recording circumstances (even if the bass is nearly inaudible), and while the earlier two demos are considerably rougher in sound quality, the band's performance is so intense that I actually prefer them over the considerably more polished SATANIC RITES. It's worth noting at this point that the demos in question were never really intended for mass consumption; their purpose was to give booking agents an idea of the band's sound, and for use in seeking a record deal. Consequently, this collection of demos exists more for archival purposes, and should be viewed in that light, rather than as one would view an actual album properly recorded in a professional studio.

This collection isn't for everyone; Hellhammer's inherent extremity has always precluded them from mass acceptance, and the fact that these are demos (and poorly-recorded demos, at that) means their appeal is largely limited to Hellhammer / Celtic Frost fanatics and those interested in hearing the roots of black metal. Fischer and Ain made the decision early on in the remastering process not to "fix" much of what was "wrong" with these demos for fear of misrepresenting the band's essential sound, and I think that decision was a wise one -- but since the recordings were remastered from 25-year old cassette dubs of the original masters, that inevitably means that there are all sorts of imperfections in the final product, mainly in the form of dropouts and the occasional moments of fluctuating sound. Frankly, given the limitations of the original recording sessions and the band's relative inexperience at the time, this sounds a hell of a lot better than anybody has a right to expect. It's absolutely essential listening for anyone into Hellhammer or primitive black metal, and if you're going to buy it, you really should get one of the deluxe packages, if only for the extra art and the booklet.

Demon Entrails order site

Tommy Jay -- TOMMY JAY'S TALL TALES OF TRAUMA [Columbus Discount Records]

Originally released in obscurity by Old Age / No Age as a cassette in 1986, this is now available for the first time on cd and vinyl, finally giving listeners outside of the Ohio punk / pysch / weirdo underground the first chance to hear Ohio's lo-fi answer to Lou Reed. Jay was a member and / or co-producer of Ego Summit, Mike Rep & the Quotas, and the Ohio band True Believers, and this release is an early cornerstone of the Ohio underground's lo-fi movement. The Reed connection is obvious thanks to a cover of "Ocean," the final track from Reed's first post-Velvet Underground solo album, but even without that it would be evident in his tales of eccentric characters and the hazy feel of the songs, which often owe as much to the Red Krayola as to anything involving Reed. These four-track remnants of the early seventies are simple in construction and largely uncluttered (save for the occasional guitar freakout), drawing from pop, psych, and avant rock, but they're far less jaded and more humanistic than anything Reed ever did, and while definitely influenced by the work of Mayo Thompson, far less fractured and impressionistic than the sounds he favored. The sound of these bedroom songs is rustic and primitive, sometimes even eccentric, but highly endearing, and surprisingly catchy. Ghostly and mysterious in the vein of Jandek and every bit as individual in character as anything Hasil Adkins ever dreamed up, this is punk before punk existed, psych without the drippy hippyisms, and a simple evocation of rock on a highly personal level. It's mesmerizing and unusual listening, and CDR deserves mighty props for unearthing this work and making it available to the public again. The album is available on vinyl and cd (with six bonus tracks, two of them by the True Believers, on the cd version).

Tommy Jay
Columbus Discount Records

John 3:16 -- s/t [White Label Music / Alrealon Music]

This is mysterious, heavy stuff, with a sound that encompasses drone, dark ambient, and progged-out synth rock in the vein of early Tangerine Dream. The seven tracks here are mainly powered by a keyboard-heavy dark drone and lots of repetitive sonic motion -- but that motion is not entirely static, for even as patterns settle into what resembles a looped groove, their volume and texture grow and expand, often seguing into new elements of drone and ambient noise. These pieces may be instrumental and largely ambient, but they are hardly directionless, for the sound on each track steadily evolves, revealing a subtle but effective compositional process at work. Some of the tracks, especially "The Marks of Sin," feature interstellar guitar noise that sounds highly reminiscent of early Skullflower in a more drone-oriented context, while the gritty sound of "Eternal Life" calls to mind the power electronics aesthetic, but this is definitely not classic harsh noise by any means; here the noise content is strictly subservient to the almighty drone, of which there is plenty. This is the first largely keyboard-driven drone album I've heard in a while, and a genuinely excellent collection of drones at that -- atmospheric and spooky, and far darker than you might expect given the name of the "band" (actually one solo improviser) and the biblical song titles.

John 3:16

George Korein -- ANOTHER CORPSE [BatHotAxe]

Yet another strange experiment in sonic immolation from the Infidel? / Castro! noisemaker. This time around the concept is "gray metal" -- that is, quasi-ambient droning and machine bleating, heavy on the high-pitched noise tip. Much of this is basically drone noise, especially on the first five tracks (three versions of "Gleaming Corpse" and two versions of "Singsong Corpse"); it's a diabolical headfuck strategy, though, because just about the time you grow used to disconnected deep drones and drawn-out glitch noise, "Pulsating Drone" kicks in with hyperactive drumming (courtesy of Keith Abrams), sounding like a low-rent noise impression of Marduk followed by lots of squealy tone-fu. The two tracks in the middle of the album are part of a "rotodrone encroaching!" suite, and they are indeed riddled with cyclotron droning, along with other noisy effluvia and something vaguely approaching actual song structures, sort of (at least more so than the previous tracks). The remaining seven tracks, all part of the "flying corpse" suite, burn through an ever-expanding palette of strange noises, from grinding white noise to more high-pitched squealing, strange processed vocal chants, and other weirdness; by "Evasive Manuevers," the noises are starting to approach something resembling actual music (extremely devolved and noise-riddled music, true, but music nevertheless), and "Acceleration" sounds like an avant take on power metal using only severely untraditional instruments and noise over a rubbery bass line. The final track, "Flying Corpse Flies Again," sounds like the noise-age equivalent of space rock over a heavy (and simple) beat, minimalist but intriguing. As avant and utterly mutant as this sounds, I have the strange feeling it will be considered almost pop music in another few years. Well, maybe. It's certainly a different take on ambient metal / noise, that's for sure.


Marduk -- INFERNAL ETERNAL [Regain Records]

Marduk sure releases a lot of live albums -- this is the second of at least four, originally released in 2000 and now reissued. This one, however, also serves as a "best of" compilation of sorts, seeing as how its eighteen tracks (across two discs) are drawn from all the previous full-length albums (there's also a previously-unreleased cover of Celtic Frost's "Into the Crypts of Rays"). Not surprisingly, the set favors the then-current studio release, PANZER DIVISION MARDUK, from which five songs are drawn, but there are almost as many taken from THOSE OF THE UNLIGHT and NIGHTWING, as well as one or two each from the first album, HEAVEN SHALL BURN, and OPUS NOCTURNE. For a live recording, it sounds pretty good -- loud, furious, noisy, and direct. It's also amazingly fast; the set list is almost entirely composed of light-speed material, with the only exceptions being "Materialized in Stone" (seven songs into the set!), "Dreams of Blood and Iron," parts of "On Darkened Wings," and "Departure from the Mortals." Of course, this is one of the albums with Legion as a vocalist, which may be a drawback for some given the controversy over his vocal stylings, and while the album makes an impressive sonic battering ram, after a while the super-fast songs tend to run together. If what you seek is to be run over by a really vicious steamroller, though, then this is the double-cd for you. Their cover of the Celtic Frost classic is pretty swank, too.

Regain Records

Marduk -- LA GRANDE DANSE MACABRE cd / dvd [Regain Records]

Sweden's most relentless (and probably most prolific) black metal band takes a lot of flak from the haters for various perceived crimes against metal -- mainly their obsession with excessive speed above all else and a tendency toward severely minimalist song structures -- but the naysayers have apparently forgotten that attitude is 90% of the game in black metal, and Marduk definitely has attitude in extra-large portions. The funny thing is that this album is a lot more diverse than you might expect from the band's reputation. There are plenty of fast, blazing tracks here, noisy affairs where the guitars scrawl out serrated, knife-like riffing at the speed of a sewing machine while the drums pound away with unnatural vigor, but there are also slower, more doom-laden tracks that find them perfectly capable of emitting immense evil and heaviness at reduced speeds. In fact, some of the best stuff on this album can be found in the slower tracks like "Pompa Funebris 1600," and "Bonds of Unholy Matrimony"; the title track opens with some of the heaviest and catchiest riffing on the album, too, while "Summers End" features some of the most openly melodic playing ever on a Marduk release (a pointed reminder that for all their fire and blood, they are first and foremost a Swedish metal band, and everybody knows how those Swedish metalheads feel about melody). Titles like "Death Sex Ejaculation" and "Jesus Christ... Sodomized" prove that they have not lost their taste for rude blasphemy, either. Some may find the constant transition from fast and brutally heavy songs to slower, more melodic and sometimes even experimental songs to be disorienting, but it's a black metal album, for fuck's sake -- what do you expect, easy listening? This is the box set version of Marduk's 2001 album, incidentally, containing a remastered version of the cd (with a bonus track), a dvd with a nine-song live set captured in Essen, Germany on December 12, 2001, and a metal pin. The disc labeling is a tad confusing; it took me a while to realize that the disc with the title running across it is actually the dvd, which might explain why it didn't play in my cd player.

Regain Records

Martriden -- THE UNSETTLING DARK [Candlelight USA]

Did I mention a couple of posts back that the USBM scene was starting to come into its own at last or some such hoohah? Well, I was right, because this is the first full-length album from Montana's Matriden, and it's an excellent example of the American state of the art where black metal is concerned. (How good are they, you ask? Well, Emperor asked the band to open for them at their Chicago and L.A. shows in 2007, which speaks volumes about their talent.) Of course, their sound is not strictly of the blackened variety; it would be more accurate to say that they blur the line between death and black metal, combining the rampaging riffs and relentless drumming of death metal with the dark sound and more progressive / symphonic aspects of black metal. A brief neo-folk interlude in "Ascension Part 2" makes it clear that they have a progressive edge as well, but the landslide of harmonic guitar that overlays the folkiness is every bit as heavy as the folkiness is pretty. More neo-folk stylings emerge in the introduction to the title track, but that doesn't last long. Keyboards play a prominent role in the band's sound, but they generally take a back seat to the pummeling drums and thick sheets of distortion-drenched guitar. Far more harmonically and melodically inventive than most bands this heavy, the band achieves a strong balance between the more progessive aspects of their sound and the sheer metallic fury that serves as their foundation. Excellent songs and stellar playing don't hurt, either. This is a fine introduction to a promising band.

Candlelight USA

Night Wounds -- ALLERGIC TO HEAT [Corleone]

For a band stationed in Los Angeles, they sure sound an awful lot like a more modern take on NYC's No Wave movement. We're talking herky-jerky rhythms that border on devolved funk, regular bursts of squealy machine-gun guitar, seismic bass one step removed from dub hell, and a lot of anguished vocal bleating. Oh, and tortured sax. Can't forget the tortured sax. They work within a similar aesthetic as the band Coughs, but are less frantic (well, sort of) and far more enamored of dub-like bass, and while their songs are fractured in a thoroughly postmodern way, no amount of gear-shifting can hide that enormously slamming rhythm section. This would almost qualify as heavy metal if it weren't so rhythmically convoluted and frequently dominated by the sound of a possessed saxophone. Their lurching, stop 'n start rhythms often burst into a cyclone of furious drumming and uncontrolled guitar mayhem, but they're far less noise-laden than many of their contemporaries (although "Damage" does sport a serious untamed noise quotient). I'm not sure you can dance to it, but the fast parts are certainly mosh-worthy (or perhaps a invitation to pogo). Who knew that No Wave would continue to spread its unruly seed at this late juncture?

Night Wounds

To-Mera -- DELUSIONS [Candlelight Records]

Now this is strange stuff -- a bizarre and unpredictable mix of death metal, prog rock, cocktail jazz, and other strangeness featuring former Extreme Noise Terror bassist Lee Barrett and former Without Face vocalist Julie Kiss. She provides ethereal, jazzy vocals over a constantly shifting mosaic of progged-out keyboards, chugging death metal, and extreme experimental sounds in general. This is a drama-laden collision between prog and technical metal, one that's sure to perplex many listeners with its unusual approach to sound, highly unconventional song structures, and convoluted rhythms. It's certainly not your average metal album, that's for sure -- but the parts that are metal are certainly heavy enough, and while the collision of genres sounds jarring on paper, on the album it works much better than you might expect. Plenty of bands have tried to marry technical metal and prog in recent years, with varying degrees of success; this is one of the more successful attempts. In addition, for a band so willfully "out there," they have a surprisingly proficient grasp of melody, along with an advanced understanding of how to craft something coherent and listenable out of such wildly differing components. Weird, sure, but compelling.

Candlelight Records

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