Sunday, September 28, 2008

september's second salvo

Abstract Audio Systems -- POEMS FOR INNOGEN [Machine Tribe Recordings]

The eight tracks of interstellar ambient electronica on this disc are dedicated (more or less) to the concept of inner and outer space; the pieces float and drone like the electronic recreation of solar wind. The sound is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream's more ambient moments. Some tracks (like "flower and vine" and "the dandelion clock") are built around the sounds of a real piano, which is nice, but the entire album's sound is as lush and sumptuous as it is vast and droning. This is mysterious instrumental art with deep emotional resonance. Experimental sounds lurk in the background of these tracks, but the reverberating sounds of electro-drone are very much upfront most of the time. With the exception of "full of stars" and "dulcinea," the closing tracks and the most experimental ones, this is largely an exercise in celestial drone and tonality, a blissed-out sound that pure-drone enthusiasts should find highly captivating. It's also surprisingly more emotional than the average ambient album, which only makes it that much more interesting.

Machine Tribe Recordings

Bonechurch -- WITHIN EMPTY SPACES [Machine Tribe Recordings]

Mysterious sounds abound on this album, with eight tracks of dark-ambient soundscapes filled with otherworldly drones, brooding attitude, and inexplicable sounds. This is the audio realization of the concept of the ghost in the machine -- icy drones drift like cold white fog around disquieting noises, tracks are built on crumbling echoes of disintegration, and everything feels like anti-music made by ghosts. This is drone in service of horror soundtracks, a dark and spooky journey into pure unbridled creepiness, with a feel somewhere between classic isolationism and ambient black metal. The music may be abstract, but it's certainly not unfocused; listen to this late at night with the lights off and see how long it takes to grow truly unnerved. Strong stuff; highly recommended.

Dan Burke / Thomas Dimuzio -- UPCOMING EVENTS [No Fun Productions]

The fifteen tracks on this disc frequently bear a strong resemblance to the early work of Illusion of Safety, which makes sense when you consider that IOS founder Dan Burke is one-half of the noisemaking duo at work here. The source material was all recorded live over three nights in San Francisco, with Burke using a laptop, various objects, and sound sources while Dimuzio used a sampler, feedback, processing, and sound sources; the results were later edited and mastered by Dimuzio. Much of the material here shares the IOS aesthetic of minimal sound and extended periods of silence or near-silence, along with a certain texture of electronic noise drone that is Burke's audio signature. Ambient drone is the major force at work here, and most often the backdrop against which they overlay ambiguous samples and cryptic textures, most of the time in a fairly understated fashion. This is sound that happens slowly, deliberately, with an emphasis on minimalism and droning waves of meditative unease; it's not terribly aggressive, but it is frequently unsettling. The dark, oceanic sound that pervades much of the disc has its roots in the early IOS catalog, although that minimalist sound is augmented by layers of texture and odd snippets of sound that add a bit of aural spice to the zoned-out proceedings. It would be interesting to know who did what in terms of creating the initial sounds (just as it's equally interesting to note how much it really sounds like IOS, even though Dimuzio was the one in charge of the final editing). IOS fans and those harboring nostalgia for the first wave of isolationism should hear this.

Dan Burke
Thomas Dimuzio
No Fun Productions


This duo from Bristol (UK) claim on their Myspace page to sound like "Phil Collins on helium, slowed down," but a more accurate description might be Leonard Cohen fronting the Human League. This is their second album, and they're even catchier this time around and considerably more focused. The nine songs are all nothing but Cohenesque vocalizing over synth bleats and trance beats. The disc they sent didn't come with titles, but several of these tracks are the sheer epitome of catchiness, and even the tracks that aren't so catchy are still pretty agreeable. Their methods may be low-key and lo-fi, but the results are a lot more spectacular than you might expect given their modest origins. Most of the stuff released by Void of Ovals is pretty weird and kind of out there, but this is the closest the label's come to releasing something with actual commercial potential (although it's still plenty strange). Great, unassuming stuff.

The Dagger Brothers
Void of Ovals

Funereal Moon -- SATAN'S BEAUTY OBSCENITY / GRIM... EVIL... [Autopsy Kitchen Records]

Not to be confused with the Polish band Funeral Moon, this is the equally obscure occult black metal band from Mexico, in existence since 1993 but hardly a household name by any means, and this disc is actually two releases in one. The label approached the band about reissuing their 1996 vinyl-only release GRIM... EVIL..., and ended up with not only that, but a whole pile of new recordings, essentially an EP entitled SATAN'S BEAUTY OBSCENITY. The new stuff comes at you first, four tracks of unnerving darkness that veer from ambient soundtracks to mordant plays based on satanic philosophy to grim, lo-fi bursts of hypnotic, misanthropic black metal that takes all its cues from the old school (Bathory, Burzum, etc.). There's a fair amount of the lurching, dissonant unpredictability you'd find on any early Abruptum release, though, and that's what makes them stand out from the rest of the blackened hordes. This is creepy-sounding stuff; the opening track, "The Last Prophecy," is a spoken-word piece swaddled in depressed ambience, the track that follows ("Black Sphere") is fast and blurry but also riddled with strange-sounding guitars, and "Poison in My Heart" is a slow, crawling beast somewhere between Abruptum and Burzum at half-speed. ("Luna Funeral," the last of the recent material, continues in much the same vein.) The earlier material (five tracks worth) is similar in intention and execution, only recorded in a fashion even more exquisitely lo-fi -- near-static guitar riffs float over barely-audible drums as the vocalist croaks in an appropriately grim fashion, and while the drums are a tad more present on the faster songs, the production is still suitably primitive for such unfashionably hateful songs. Bonus points for the grotesque guitar sound and a sick vibe that's vaguely reminiscent of Beherit (even if the playing is better). This is excellent stuff, and it's a mystery why they're just now coming to light. Hopefully this and the forthcoming new full-length album will gain them the attention they deserve.

Funereal Moon
Autopsy Kitchen Records


Formed by Kai Hansen when he left Helloween in 1988, Gamma Ray has continued in the same vein of progressive power metal as Hansen's former band. This album, the band's ninth, is more of the same -- complex arrangements that leave plenty of room for highly technical shredding, lots of high-pitched singing, enormous levels of prog bombast, and more keyboards than you could ever wish for. Gamma Ray's heavily progged-out style of power metal bombast is not really my thing -- I prefer my metal heavier, nastier, and considerably more keyboard-free -- but this is not a bad album by any means. The arrangements are pretty spiffy (and relatively concise for a prog-metal band; only three songs are over six minutes long, although to be fair, the closing track "Insurrection" is nearly twelve minutes); the performances are sharp (especially the guitar playing), with the band locked together tighly even during the passages of pure blinding speed (of which there are many), and Hansen's singing, while not my thing at all, is impassioned and impressive. This is apparently a sequel of sorts to an earlier album, and while I know nothing about that, I do know that this is quality material that should hold much appeal for fans of the band and similar practiioners of prog-metal like Helloween.

Gamma Ray

Grave -- DOMINION VIII [Regain Records]

One of Sweden's earliest death metal bands (they originally formed as Corpse in 1986 before changing their name two years later), Grave remain one of the most consistently heavy bands in the death metal canon, and this -- their eighth full-length album -- is no exception. The opener, "A World in Darkness," is not only one of the heaviest tracks I've heard in a good while, but boasts a harmonically corrosive guitar sound that is the embodiment of pure audio sickness... a sound that continues throughout the album, I'm pleased to note. Their brooding metal angst works better at slower tempos -- things tend to get a bit chaotic when they ramp up the speed -- but even at fast tempos, their excruciating guitar sound keeps everything intense. Still, the best moments are the slow ones, like the bludgeoning intros to "Stained by Hate" and "Dark Signs," where things are slow enough to let the full impact of the creepy guitar sound to shave off slices of your skull. The faster moments are intense and frantic -- full of energy, sure, but considerably less controlled. The slow to mid-tempo parts are where the band saw away your consciousness with icy menace; by comparison, the super-fast parts are impressively obnoxious, but nowhere near as scary. The whole of the band's sound, though, is one of dark, oppressive fear and loathing, with surprisingly little prettiness given their status as a Swedish band; in fact, the only real melodic interlude on the album is the intro to "8th Dominion," which doesn't last long and is soon replaced by more caustic gear-grinding. This is the real sound of death metal, like jackboots walking all over your face. Nice to see that over two decades in the business has not diminished the band's capacity for ugliness.

Regain Records

Hair Police -- THE CERTAINTY OF SWARMS [No Fun Productions]

It's been a while since I last heard Hair Police, and it appears that they've grown even noisier and crankier in the meantime. The six tracks here are an orgy of sonic violence drawing from noise, metal, free jazz, and Ra only knows what else, with the trio creating an enormous racket using different strategies and tactics from one track to the next. The opener "Strict" is a swirling blast of dissonance, clattering, and busy power electronics, the audio equivalent of a room-scale version of the big bang, but the track that follows it ("Intrinsic to the Execution") is built on low-end drones that come and go at first, then are joined by peals of noise and bursts of sonic violence. The rest of the tracks fall somewhere between these extremes, relying most often on pained feedback, crunchy low-end histronics, and grinding walls of electronic noise to get the point across. There's plenty of nuance to their harsh noise assault, though, and unlike many of their equally violent-sounding contemporaries, they understand how to use dynamics in a way that keeps the intensity level constant without turning everything into a formless, endless ocean of pure white noise that quickly grows old and familiar. The sheer variety of textures and their crafty deployment insures that the individual pieces are united in a certain level of unease and unpredictability, while the peaks of volume and sheer density of sound at times renders everything appropriately forbidding. This is probably one of their best releases yet (although given the size and breadth of their discography, it's hard to say that with absolute certainty).

Hair Police
No Fun Productions

Head On Collision -- RITUAL SACRIFICE [Beer City Records]

This is true: I first this heard this disc back to back with Impaled Nazarene's first album, and it did not suffer by comparison, so there's no question it's highly intense. Hailing from St. Louis and the metallic brainchild of Paul McCauley (formerly of hardcore band Very Metal), this band is the latest entry in the re-emergence of thrash. I'm old enough to have lived through the first wave, and one of the things I find interesting about this band is that while they possess the same level of energy and most of the mannerisms of the early thrash bands, they don't sound so hopelessly derivative of them the way a lot of current thrash bands do (most of whom are very clearly reinventing the wheel built by bands like Metallica, Destruction, Kreator, Sodom, Dark Angel, and similar bands). That may be the result of their hardcore roots, or maybe they've just figured out a way to resurrect a burned-out genre with some relative degree of freshness, but either way, they sound a bit more fresh than most of the current thrash revivalists. They are also very, very intense, which certainly doesn't hurt. The eleven songs on this disc are characterized mainly by constantly pummeling drums, endless blazing guitar, energetic rhythms comparable to a train barrelling off a cliff, and the occasional whirlwind solo. The lead guitar bits are actually the most noticeable link to old-school thrash, especially that of the European variety. It's all very fast, very heavy, and absolutely serious about capturing the insane energy level that always signaled the hallmark of a classic thrash band. It's kind of early to decide if this is classic thrash, but they're certainly headed in the right direction with this album.

Head On Collision
Beer City Records

Mouth of the Architect -- QUIETLY [Translation Loss]

For a band that's heavy as hell, this is a surprisingly pretty-sounding album. Descended from the likes of Neurosis and King Crimson, the band's approach this time around is rooted in trance metal with a pleasing harmonic and melodic core buried under all the fuzz and pained shouting. There's also more than a touch of psychedelia in tracks like "quietly," where acid-drenched guitar lines bridge the movements of increasingly layered heaviness. This is definitely art-metal; the songs are all fairly long, "hate and heartache" opens with the sample of a cranky old codger railing on about the decline of civilization, "pine boxes" features an eerie sampled vocal loop as a major motif, keyboards not only make strategic appearances on most songs but actually carry most of the weight on a couple ("pine boxes" and "medicine"), and the songs are less about blazing metal riffs than the ebb and flow of thick layers of heavy, droning sound. Tripped-out guitars filtered through delay open "guilt and the like," and remain a constant presence even after the drums and ambient sound kick in, building in thickness and volume as the song progresses. Processed guitars and strange sounds are pervasive on "generation of ghosts" and "rocking chairs and shotguns" as well. The heaviest song on the album is the final one, "a beautiful corpse," which begins in a loud, oppressive fashion and only grows more agitated and violent as time goes on. I know this band's brand of post-rock trance metal is constantly compared to Neurosis and Isis, but as far as I'm concerned, they're consistently much better at this avalanche of sound attack than either of those bands. Fans of the band's previous material will not be disappointed, and those who wish Jesu's ambient shoegaze-metal would show some aggression will definitely want to check this out.

Mouth of the Architect
Translation Loss

Tartar Lamb -- 60 METONYMIES [Public Eyesore]

This collaboration between Toby Driver and Mia Matsumiya is essentially an alternate version of their regular band Kayo Dot (a band I have yet to hear); on this release, they are joined by Tim Byrnes on trumpet and Andrew Greenwald on drums. The four lengthy pieces on this disc sound like electronically processed classical music (sort of) in a postmodern, avant-garde context -- the instrumentation and composition of the pieces are very much in a classical mold, but the use of ambience, elongated notes, unusual time signatures, complex and fragmented musical figures, and processed textures as both rhythmic elements and background noise all have more bearing on modern experimental processes. It's this combination of the old and the new, the studied and the unscripted, that makes their sound so intriguing. Their use of space and the extended timing of much of the music -- with notes held for long periods and an underlying drone aesthetic -- creates a sound that is extremely open, and the excellent recording (by Randall Dunn, who has also recorded similar work by Sunn O))) and Earth) makes everything clear and easy to discern. Even when all four players are present, their playing is so sparse and the arrangements so carefully considered that they do not interfere with each other. The music that results is evocative, delicate, and highly mesmerizing. The packaging and artwork are pretty fabulous, too.

Tartar Lamb
Public Eyesore

Vader -- XXV [Regain Records]

Poland's favorite death metal sons have decided to celebrate their 25th anniversary by following the recent (and controversial) trend in re-recording old material for a double-disc collection of their best songs. (There's also a limited edition version that includes a dvd with sixteen videos spanning the length of their entire career, but that's not the version currently under discussion, so if you want to know about the dvd, you'll have to go buy that version yourself.) I'm not familiar enough with Vader's early output to know if the decision to re-record songs was a "necessary" one (for technical or copyright reasons), but unlike a lot of purists who prefer the original recordings even when they're not necessarily good, I'm perfectly okay with artists re-recording material to improve the songs or recording fidelity. The double-disc set includes 26 songs (there are three bonus tracks along with the dvd on the box set version), and they all sound pretty swank to me. One of the way I measure greatness on metal recordings is by how often I have to get up and play air guitar while the album is playing, and this set scores extremely high on the air-guitar meter. The song selection is great -- there's no filler here -- and the re-recorded versions give the disc a uniformity of excellent sound that would have probably been impossible had they simply compiled all the original tracks. (Apparently, judging from other reviews I've seen, they took some liberties with some of the recordings, including adding keyboards here and there that didn't exist before, but since I'm not familiar with the original material, I'm not really qualified to comment on that; you'll have to use Google to search for those reviews, if this sort of thing really means something to you.)

The songs are all pretty much the living definition of frenzied heaviness, too; it's hard to beat Polish metal bands for pure bludgeoning power, and Vader is no exception to that rule. The current lineup is essentially founding guitarist / vocalist Piotr "Peter" Wiwczarek and the three additional members who appeared with him on the previous full-length, IMPRESSIONS IN BLOOD, and they are supremely tight; the songs are well-executed and brimming over with superhuman drumming, meaty and memorable riffs, and an extremely physical sound with plenty of low end to go along with the sharp-edged guitar sound. The set heavily favors their early stuff (all the material on the first disc is taken from their first three albums, while the considerably shorter second disc compiles material from the next three albums and various EPs), and while keyboards do appear here and there, 99% of the time it's sheer, pounding heaviness. The later material is a fair bit more melodic than the early, considerably more riff-driven stuff, but it's all heavy as hell (especially "Dark Transmission," one of my favorites from the entire disc). If you've never heard Vader before, this is definitely the place to start.

Regain Records

Matt Weston -- NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY [7272 Music]

I can just imagine the calls Weston must have gotten from the pressing plant -- "Dude, are you sure the cd's supposed to sound like this?" This is a seriously damaged-sounding set of recordings; Weston's forte may be experimental percussion, but much of this sounds a lot closer to glitch electronica amped-up to mind-exploding levels of cut-up white noise. It's hard to tell how much of this is heavily-processed percussion sounds and how much is just pure crazed noise, but one thing's for sure -- it's highly unpredictable and frequently unnerving. Which is not to say it's totally random-sounding; even at its most cut-up and exotic, patterns and rudimentary structures emerge that hint at an underlying composition and planned sort of intent, now matter how obscure that intent may be given the audio fireworks on display. The seven tracks employ different noise strategies but all sound like music being spindled and mutilated; it's impossible to listen to this as background music simply because so much of it will inevitably make the listener wonder if something is wrong with the disc. Extreme glitch electronica that borders on white noise is the main sound pervading this release, and it's a masterpiece of deliberate sonic immolation (and clever audio manipulation), assuming you can listen to it without being driven insane. This is fine, noisy work, although I'm sure it will confuse the hell out of those unprepared for such radical experiments in audio deconstruction.

Matt Weston
7272 Music

Robert Ziino -- SLAVES FOR THE BILLIONAIRES [Experimental Artists]

Ziino returns with ten new slices of electronic frippery and drone action, each five minutes long. Looped sounds of enigmatic origin, grinding noises, and keyboard drone form the general structure of these tracks, recombining those elements into different compositions of equally hypnotic quality. Ziino has always been a bear for strange sound effects, and this album is no exception, but this time the strange sounds bear some passing resemblance to melodic content and are imbedded in highly listenable rhythmic structures, making many of these tracks some of the most accessible music he's made so far. Of course, some of the other tracks are even more out there than ever, stacking up discordant effects and wailing drones to form nearly impenetrable walls of agitated, pulsing synth hell. This is the work of an artist far more interested in audio textures and sound for its own sake rather than traditional songs with chord progressions and melodies, concepts that don't really exist here, but there's a structure to the pieces that is not merely coincidental, and the sounds are often so exotic and unusual as to be entirely captivating. Ziino is still relentlessly experimental is both sound and vision, but the new emphasis on structure and reasonably catchy sounds makes this disc a more accessible experience for the uninitiated.

Experimental Artists

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