Sunday, December 14, 2008

a stoned partridge falling from a pear tree

Anael -- FROM ARCANE FIRES [Paragon Records]

The rolling tribal drums that introduce the opening track "Devil's Tongues" are the first indication that this album is going to be a bit different than the average black metal album. "Epic" is a word that's bandied about all too often where black metal is concerned, but it fits here; this is an album whose sound sprawls in a great many directions, with a feel that's both grandiose and operatic. Hailing from Germany, this is Anael's third full-length release, and most of its seven tracks are lengthy, highly orchestrated exercises in drama and shifting moods; the shortest track is nearly six minutes long, and several are in the neighborhood of ten minutes or longer, although none of it feels padded or bloated. The band's penchant for forging baroque, multi-part songs makes the extended song lengths a necessity, and with song structures rooted in classical idioms, the result is a sound that's genuinely symphonic. Aside from the inventive, constantly-evolving drumming, the best thing about the album is the guitar sound; the guitarist is alternately melodic, dissonant, and even folk-like, bult always firmly within the black metal tradition, with trance-like passages that segue from one feel to another in an organic fashion. Most impressive is their ability to retain the classic feel of dark, occult black metal without lapsing into cliches. Maybe it's because they're German, but they remind me a great deal of Ruins of Beverast in both sound and design, without necessarily sounding like that band. For a trio, they manage to get a large and full sound, one that's raw without sounding too lo-fi; it's a dark, brooding sound too, one that's controlled without being sterile, a sound of sinister beauty hinting at glimpses of eternal darkness. A perfect example of progressive black metal, in other words.

Anael
Paragon Records

Bloodsworn -- ALL HYLLEST TIL SATAN [Agonia Records]

This is scary-sounding shit, no doubt. Driven mainly by loud, blackened guitar, monolithic drums buried in the background, and the occasional keyboard drone, this is nothing less than a horrific onslaught of fury bordering on white noise. Featuring four Norwegians (I think) active in the black metal scene since the early nineties, their first two attempts at releasing a debut album were thwarted by labels going bankrupt until the Polish label Agonia picked them up, now giving them the first chance to be heard outside of obscure tape-collector circles. It may have taken them well over a decade to get to the point of releasing this album, but it was worth the wait -- the seven tracks on this album are a screaming blur of superhuman drumming and obsessive, burning guitar rage that's almost (but not quite) loud and obnoxious enough to drown out a vocalist who sounds completely possessed. As with the most convincing satanic black metal, lo-fi and primitive best defines their sound. The guitar action is minimalist with bursts of dark melodicism, and the overall aesthetic is a pure throwback to the second wave of black metal (which is not surprising, given their roots in that era). The band's power lies in their stark, aggressive primitivism and uncompromising ferocity, and their extremity is such that you will either fall to the floor in worship or find them completely unlistenable. The violence in their sound is as remarkable as their grotesque, barbed-wire guitar tone. This is what we call greatness, my friends. I just hope they don't take another fifteen years to record a follow-up.

Bloodsworn
Agonia Records

The Crowned Heads of Europe -- WITNESSETH [Sounds of Battle and Souvenir Collecting]

The kings of dark drone at SOBASC have gone out of their way to offer some truly swank packaging for this release (see for yourself at their site) -- the first 150 copies come with copper metallic cardstock paper, most of them swaddled in psychedelic foil, and the next 150 copies are almost as swank. (All versions also come with a free digital download of the album.) The band, actually a duo from Portland, OR, make the vinyl-only release worth owning regardless of the packaging with seven songs of intense, atmospheric drone leavened with gritty noise texturing and other psychedelic elements. In fact, this is as much a psych release as a drone album; the sound is droning, sure, but it's also swirling, pulsating, filled with tonal color that radiates in all directions, and mind-altering in its otherworldly audio properties. Better yet, the drones are not just drifting, floating exercises in minimalism, but actual songs with a readily discernible structure and plenty of attention to detail, especially in the layering of sounds; the sonic strata in these songs is rarely constant, and the density and texture of the tones 'n drones tends to ebb and flow in a subtle but dynamic fashion. The mood is alien and austere, sometimes even foreboding, but mostly concerned with harnessing a cryptic and uneasy mood. The tracks on the b-side are somewhat heavier and more unsettling, with a darker vibe permeating the rising and falling drones, but still not far removed from the aesthetic and theme of the a-side. This is the sound of tripping cosmonauts probing their psyches on the dark side of the moon. As good as this sounds, I'll bet it sounds even better when under the influence of powerful psychotropic drugs. All hail the mighty and forbidding death drone!

Crowned Heads of Europe
Sounds of Battle and Souvenir Collecting

Diaphragm -- SUBLIMATION [SNSE]

The artwork features abandoned warehouses and fences covered in loops of barbed wire, and the dark electronic tracks on the disc are every bit as bleak and forbidding as the artwork. Over the course of six tracks, Nicholas Pace combines elements of harsh noise, machine sounds, static, and shuddering drones to create highly textured soundscapes of urban disintegration. The tracks often sound like the ambient sound of a busy construction site -- listening to tracks like "Rachis" and "Porcelain," you can just imagine jackhammers at work breaking up concrete as cement trucks grind away under the endless blare of warning horns. The sound is not random, however; while the tracks are loosely structured, the signs of structure are indeed there, and over time in each piece, the layers of sound gradually shift so that different sounds come into focus. Static may be an element in these pieces, but the pieces themselves are not static at all. Pace's attention to detail is particularly revealed in tracks like "Party Foul I," where deliberate EQ abuse and growing layers of drone and choppy static create a suffocating, claustrophobic vibe that culminates in an abrupt drop into ambient sound that's followed by a series of unpredictably timed explosions of noise that end in a crushing wall of sonic violence. Unlike a lot of harsh noise artists, Pace gets a lot of mileage out of well-placed moments of silence or minimal sound (a tactic put to best use on "Morning Ritual - Evening Ritual"), which makes harsher tracks like "Black Watermelon" all the more excruciating when they arrive. This is excellent stuff, reminiscent of a darker and harsher version of Hum of the Druid, and well worth seeking out.

SNSE

Haemorrhaging Fetus -- PROCREATION: A DISEASE / TANGLED DESIRES [Gaping Hole]

This is a stellar example of the brick-wall, white noise attack popularized in the nineties by the likes of Macronympha and OVMN (and carried on to this day by The Cherry Point and similar bands). The three tracks on this, the band's first full-length vinyl release, are taken from two earlier (and now out of print) cassette releases, and they're all supremely catastrophic exercises in audio immolation. Vast, dense layers of white noise and crunchy power electronics create a dark, relentless sound like a sonic cancer determined to eat you whole from the inside out, then spit out the shiny white bones. There's no joy here, no melody, no deep philosophical meaning -- just grinding harsh noise designed to clear out your sinuses and scrape the inside of your skull clean. As with most harsh noise releases, this is all about power and intensity, but unlike some of the less-skilled harshheads, Anthony Shaw has a keen grip on the proper use of dynamics and an appreciation for variety in textures, which means the sound never grows stale. Deliberately ugly and impressively intimidating (in both sound and vision, given the lurid packaging), this is an album even old-school noiseheads can appreciate. Limited to 250 copies; comes with an insert including liner notes by Sam McKinlay.

Gaping Hole [SNSE]

Harry Pussy -- LIVE IN AUSTIN TX [Sister Skull]

Hot on the heels of the Load Records compilation reviewed last time around comes this, a synapse-frying document of the band's April, 1997 appearance at the Blue Flamingo in Austin. This particular date is a legendary event in Austin noise-rock circles, and was recorded (most likely on a hand-held recorder, judging from the chaotic and impressively lo-fi sound) during the band's last tour, which places it squarely in the context of the material on the Load compilation. In fact, there's probably a considerable overlap between the material on both releases; I say "probably" because the action on this disc is so out of control that it's frequently hard to tell exactly what they're playing unless you're a hardcore Pussy fan. The entire performance is only about twenty minutes long, with plenty of audience participation, and while the sound is nowhere near as professional (to put it mildly) as that of the Load release, this is probably much closer to the band's original spirit -- when the band is performing, the sound sounds more like explosions of metallic noise than actual songs, and when the band is between songs, the audience is just about as entertaining as the band. It's hard to tell one song from the next -- the poor recording quality reduces everything to the sound of madmen banging on sheet metal while firing off M-80s in metal pans, basically -- but given the nature of the Pussy's violently abrasive noise-fu, that's actually a good thing. I can only imagine how genuinely obnoxious this must have sounded in the actual venue, by all accounts a tiny, decaying shithole (like most Austin fringe clubs, come to think of it). This is noise rock the way it was meant to be heard, and it's a good, good thing that this document has finally surfaced, even if the sound is not exactly audiophile quality. Of course, an audiophile recording of the Pussy would be a contradiction in terms, so this is just the way the band should be remembered, right? This is beautifully, painfully abrasive listening, and if you're down with the Pussy, you need to hear this.

Sister Skull [c/o Venison Whirled]

Hellveto -- NEOHERESY [Pulverised Records]

For a (one-man) band most people have probably never heard of, Poland's Hellveto has been awfully prolific since its inception in 1998; this is the band's eleventh full-length album (not counting five demos, two splits, and several compilations), and its third release on Pulverised. True, most of those releases were on obscure labels in the band's homeland, but assuming those prior releases have been of this quality, that's still no excuse for this band to be unknown. (Of course, it probably doesn't help that the lyrics are all in Polish.) Best described as orchestral pagan black metal, what makes this album so unusual are the Slavic rhythms and folk stylings, so different from Western notions of rhythm, that permeate the songs. This is especially true on the album's best track, "Herezja," where those hypnotic rhythms are matched with savage militaristic guitar riffs; I have no idea what the song is about (those Polish lyrics, natch), but it sure sounds terrifying as hell. A few of the songs have moments that lapse into a more generic-sounding form of black metal -- hyperspeed drumming and blurry tremelo guitar -- but most of the time it's a more alien-sounding affar. "Milczace Sumienie" opens with fast but eccentric drums and neo-folk guitar that doesn't last long enough before bursting into one of the aforementioned passages, but after the eerie opening synth passage, "Choragiew Ktora Splonie" launches into more of the militaristic Slavic rhythms as the synth drones along with guitar that alternates choppy, minimal riffs with streaming tremelo noise. There's plenty of blazing fury on here, yes, but the best parts are ones firmly rooted in the musical heritage of the band's homeland. Highly recommended for those interested in hearing dark, violent music that isn't cut from the same cookie-cutter mold as much of today's increasingly generic black metal. The disc also comes with a multimedia video of the opening track "Taran."

Hellveto
Pulverised Records

Hourglass Drops vs. Norss -- STELLA [self-released]

Two bands from the Netherlands lay down some of the darkest and most minimal drones imaginable on this disc. The first five tracks are by Hourglass Drops, who favor a sound akin to black wind roaring through snow-covered mountains bereft of humanity, a sound that's sometimes augmented by sweeping filtered noises as well. On "They Who Were Cast Down," it's a cold, hissing drone broadcasting from someplace distant; "Morning Dew," by contrast, is a more rhythmic drone accompanied by gurgling, plinking effects. The drone on "Death of a Planet" is considerably denser and bass-heavy, but still filled with mysterious sweeping noises. The other two tracks are in a similar vein as "Morning Dew," variations on a theme of reverberating effects and shimmering, droning fog rising from a masoleum after midnight. "De Hemel Valt," the single track from Norss (at 37 minutes, probably longer than the entire rest of the album) is even darker, driven by bass shuddering, overmodulated sound, and spooky effects that come and go as the sound gradually grows even thicker, denser, and scarier. The tonal quality changes over time, but not by much; this is definitely a minimal affair, even if there's a fair amount of variation in the aural texture as the piece progresses. Definitely worth hearing, especially if you like your drones dark, mystical, and (especially on the Norss track) bordering on noise. Limited to fifty copies.

Hourglass Drops
Norss

Ginger Leigh -- MERCHANT OF DEATH [Masuno]

One guy with enough vision (and enough gadgets) can make plenty of whacked-out sounds, as this disc proves. The nineteen tracks on this disc are short musical vignettes, each one usually built around a repeated sound or effect and garnished with other sounds, some melodic, some exotic, and many just plain noisy. A black sense of humor manifests itself on tracks like "Charcoal Man," which opens with a jaunty sample promising "most enjoyable" listening and is followed by a demented electronic waltz accompanied by bloodcurdling shrieks, and "al-Ironman," which is essentially the best part of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" (the intro, natch) looped endlessly as demented noises and distorted voices battle over it. A lot of it resembles twee-electronica in the hands of a demented, noise-loving eccentric, or perhaps mutant dance music accompanied by the pipes of Pan (or maybe Zamfir). The songs aren't really structured as conventional songs for the most part, but rather assembled as layers of loops and sounds... but what an abundance of strange sounds and beats! Maybe this is exotica for the new millenium. Whatever it is, there's certainly plenty of bouncy beats and perverted sounds to tickle your inner ear.

Ginger Leigh

Kreator -- HORDES OF CHAOS [SPV]

Germany's best thrash band -- still making the rounds after lo these many years -- returns with its first studio album in five years, and it's a good one. It's not as insistently, insanely fast as their earliest material, but it's still pretty frantic, and unlike some of their more, um, "experimental" albums of the nineties, it's pure thrashing madness from start to finish (with the exception of the initially mid-tempo "Amok Run" and its pretty, melodic intro, and the brief instrumental "Corpses of Liberty" that acts as the intro to the album's final track). Unlike most of their contemporaries in the genre, they aren't mired in recreating past glories (like Exodus, Destruction, and all the others currently coasting by re-recording early albums they would have been better off leaving the hell alone) and they aren't slowing down with age (which is more than you can say for Metallica and Slayer, judging from their most recent albums). Kreator was always heavily influenced by Slayer, and it really shows on this album, especially on tracks like "Demon Prince," where they sound more like old-school Slayer than Slayer these days. In terms of songwriting they're not exactly breaking new ground, true, and at times they do sound a bit too much like Slayer for their own good, but at least they make up for these drawbacks with razor-sharp playing and a ferocious attack that borders on the truly frenzied half the time. Extra attention to the production (courtesy of Colin Richardson, producer for Slipknot, Cradle of Filth, and more) makes this one of the best-sounding Kreator albums in recent memory, too. The bonus points they lose for originality issues are more than earned back by manic peformances and a really strong batch of songs. Drummer Ventor in particular sounds really worked up on this one, which in turn just spurs guitarists Mille and Sani into even more frenzied fits of axe-strangling. It may not be their most original work, but it's certainly among their most consistent, and a straight-up punishing work of excess brutality.

SPV
Kreator

Locrian -- RHETORIC OF SURFACES [Bloodlust!]

The more I hear from the Chicago noise duo Locrian, the more impressed I am. Combining a deep appreciation for drone and harmonic noise, the six longish tracks here are actually a combination of old, out of print material and new, unreleased stuff. The tracks have been selected and sequenced, however, in such a manner that the album sounds like a coherent, cohesive statement of singular vision, as opposed to a collection of odds and ends. Part of this, I suspect (although it's hard to be sure having heard only a small sampling of the band's catalog so far), is their attention to quality control; this is a band that consistently releases excellent work. Whether that's due to routinely high-caliber performances or a good sense of what's suitable for public release is an open question, although I suspect it's the former as much as the latter. On this particular release, it doesn't hurt that everything was remastered (by Jason Soliday) for maximum conformity of audio quality.

Two of the tracks, "Burying the Carnival" and "Visible / Invisible," were previously released on split cassettes with Continent and Colossus (and reviewed by TOTDA back in August); "Gruen Transfers" is from the Scissor Death compilation NO MORE NOISE; the final two tracks, "Chiladni" and "Amps Into Instruments," are from the band's self-released (and now out of print) cd-r / double-cassette release II; and the opening track, "Drosscape," is previously unreleased. Regardless of the different sources and time periods involved with these recordings, aesthetically speaking, they're all squarely in the territory of ominous, dark-ambient noise drone; some of the pieces are more rhythmic than others, and there's a fair amount of variation in the noises and textures involved (the band favors a sound rooted heavily in the use of guitar and keyboards for the bedrock of their droning noise death), but they all share a dark, plodding atmosphere filled with swirling shards of noise and harmonic overtones, and the pieces flow together well. The sounds are sometimes harsh, but outside of an unexpected peal of really piercing feedback early on in 'Burying the Carnival," this is not work that assaults your senses with cut-up explosions and noise bombs. The pieces are more concerned with a hypnotic trance vibe and a vaguely metallic tonal quality, and above all else, the healing power of the almighty drone. If you've never heard the band before, this is an excellent place to start, especially since their earlier stuff is so hard to find. Bonus points for the simple but elegant graphic design.

Locrian
Bloodlust!

Necroblaspheme -- DESTINATION: NULLE PART [Agonia Records]

What is it about France that spawns such consistently interesting, even innovative metal bands? On their second album, Necroblaspheme combines elements of black and death metal with a moderately avant-garde sensibility, then express their extreme heaviness through complex, atypical song structures that could pass for prog-rock if it weren't for the band's soul-crushing heaviness and physically exhausting execution. This is a band with ambitious ideas and the technical skills necessary to pull them off, and the imagination to incorporate non-metal stylings like musique concrete (most notably at the end of "Wounded," where the song abruptly ends with about fifteen seconds of what sounds like a garbled radio transmission processed through a heavy noise filter) and the swirling industrial noise drone that ends "Nameless." Unlike many bands who attempt to be complex and "different" only to end up sounding like a noisy, unfocused mess, this band succeeds in their quest for complex originality without sounding forced. They are unquestionably first and foremost a death metal band, but their ability to channel sounds from several different genres into a cohesive sound gives them a depth and power that makes them a band to watch.

Necroblaspheme
Agonia Records

Olekranon -- ARMOR [Inam Records]

The latest album from Olekranon is more of the same -- buzzing, drifting drones over minimal, ghost-like beats -- and this is a good thing, because while Olekranon has been seriously prolific, the quality control has remained constantly high. This time around the drones and simple but potent melodies sound more keyboard-driven than ever before (although that could just be efx-processing on the guitars) and the drums, while still minimalist, sound more tribal than techno. The billowing clouds of sound drifting over the hollowed-out, reverb-heavy drums leans heavily toward cyclotron noises and dark-ambient washes, but there's plenty of crunchy noises as well (see the intro to "Armor") and occasional bursts of gorgeous melodicism. As always, the overall sound is dark and mysterious, and this time around a heavy infusion of repetition (especially where the drums are concerned) makes everything trance-like as well. Amid the sounds of rusting machinery and sand in the gears, the ambient noises and wind-like sounds are both alien and organic; it's hard to imagine how any of this came out of actual instruments, which just makes it all that more intriguing. The artwork is pretty swell, too; a full-color insert on stiff paper is swaddled in vellum, and both the insert and cover are adorned with exotic Bosch-like paintings by Megan Abajian. Essential listening. Limited to fifty copies.

Inam Records [c/o Vopat]

Pinko Communoids -- VOLUME ONE [inharmonik]

The band is an improvisational trio from Charlottesville, VA -- not the first place that immediately springs to mind as a hotbed of improvised sound -- and the three tracks here, totaling just under fifty minutes, were recorded live to two-track in 2006 and 2007. Their sound is sparse and more than a little bit enigmatic; the players are listed in the booklet, but not their instruments, and outside of the readily identifiable sound of squeaking violin and the occasional percussion nattering, it's hard to tell what they're using to create their spaced-out sheets of abstract sound. That sound is largely spare and uncluttered; more often than not only one instrument is playing, and even then only making minimal sounds, often processed, that sound like emanations from a vibrating spaceship. Even for improvised music this is pretty unpredictable listening -- you never know what's going to happen next, or whether it will be the sound of actual instruments or weird hovering noises, and when they do actually play musical motifs, they don't last long. Divorced from the live context, where their actions might have been a tad more comprehensible, the recorded document is severely mystifying. Interesting, yes, but mystifying nonetheless. They do have a nice feel for flow -- they understand how to keep things moving, and their improv style never descends into aimless dithering, even when they're taking a mighty long time between actions. Their use of silence (or near-silence) as a strategic motif is a large part of what makes them interesting, as it happens; that, and their fondness for eccentric noises. You can hear all of "Gust" and a segment of "Dusk" on their website, along with a significant number of other live recordings, if this attempt to explain the inexplicable has piqued your interest.

Pinko Communoids

Skullflower -- TASTE THE BLOOD OF THE DECEIVER lp [Not Not Fun]

As the post-reformation Skullflower catalog begins to pile up, one thing becomes clear: the reformed version is definitely less about rock and more about noise. The original version of the band benefited heavily from the fact that it was indeed a band, and like most bands, it had an actual rhythm section, which meant that even in their most formless moments, there was still some vestigal notion of structure to their songs. Now, with the band consisting of either guitarist Matthew Bower solo or Bower plus a utility guitarist (most recently Lee Stokoe, who has appeared on several of the latest releases), that reluctant concession to structure is pretty much gone; what you get now are free-form pieces heavy on repetitive efx mantras that play out without really going anywhere, or chaotic noise-hell explosions of sonic distress in which everything descends into the realm of sonic immolation. Both varieties of earhurt are present on this album (and it is an album, the band's first full-length vinyl release in ages), with three songs on each side. The sonic terrain is more or less in the same vein as the two most recent offerings, DESIRE FOR A HOLY WAR and PURE IMPERIAL REFORM, but there's also a psychedelic aspect to much of the material that's missing from those discs. This is not a relentless onslaught of savage, face-peeling noise; sure, there are tracks like that, but other tracks are more committed to hypnotic space-rock riffs at the center of the skronk. The distant, minimalist drum machine pulse that has cropped up as of late appears here as well, at least on some tracks, and when I say minimalist, I mean one persistent beat buried in the background, an anchoring rhythm that has little to do with the noise happening on top of it and exists primarily for the hypnosis factor. How much of this new approach lies in Bower's growing infatuation with black metal is hard to guess, but I'm pretty sure that fascination has something to do with the evolving quality of Skullflower's recent sound. Speaking of sound, this is nowhere near as loud as the average Skullflower album, possibly because of the volume limitations inherent to vinyl, but it sounds good and it's worth hearing. Good luck on finding a copy, though; it was pressed in a limited run of 500 copies and is sold out at the source already.

Skullflower
Not Not Fun

Voetsek -- INFERNAL COMMAND [Selfmadegod Records]

This is the latest trend in metal: dudes (and dudettes!) young enough (well, some of them, anyway) to be my children working hard to recreate a sound that was already growing dated before they were probably even born. (The trend just before, which still continues -- this is metal, after all -- was bands who have been around forever re-recording old classics for no clear reason, and the trend before that was bands playing entire albums live, a trend that has tragically spread to the indie-rock world, all of which just proves that there are sure a lot of easily-led sheep on this planet.) I'm also mildly puzzled as to how a Bay Area band ended up on a Polish record label, but it's a strange world after all, isn't it?

The band, one of the more entertaining exponents of the retro-thrash movement, works really hard (especially on this album) at sounding like a thrash band from the early eighties, and in this respect they are largely successful, mainly due to the serious guitar chops (something that's a lot more obvious when they slow down and settle into a mad groove). The rhythm section is solid and the guitar action is impressively frantic, the songs (seventeen of them!) are short and adorned with titles like "W.W.L.D. (What Would Lemmy Do)" and "Blueprint for the Perfect Circle Pit," and there's a black sense of humor at work through the entire album. There's very little here that's truly original -- they are basically reinventing the wheel here, just like all those other retro-thrash bands taking their turns at imagining they're 1984-era Alcoholica -- but they're intensely energetic and reasonably melodic in places (mainly during the parts played at something less than light speed). The one huge stumbling block for many (outside of the middling production) will probably be the vocals of Ami Lawless, who spends much of the album channeling the voice of Cornholio. Whether this strikes you as amusing or irritating will probably depend on your sense of humor (and affection for Cornholio). They're probably not the next Metallica (or even the next Nuclear Assault), but they're entertaining enough for those who can't get enough of the thrash revival currently taking place, and they get bonus points for being coed, having short songs, and the title of that song about Lemmy.

Voetsek
Selfmadegod

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