A Death Cinematic -- A PARABLE ON THE APORIA OF VENGEANCE AND THE BEAUTY OF IMPENETRABLE SADNESS [Simple Box Construction]
There's ambitious, there's grandiose, and then there's the latest release from A Death Cinematic -- two cds of dark, apocalyptic noise-drone housed in a highly elaborate package, limited to 250 copies. You have to actually see one of the band's handmade, meticulously crafted cd cases to truly appreciate the effort that goes into the design and production of the packaging; it's fitting for a guy who went to art school that his musical project should be equally focused on the physical package. The band's visual approach (if not the packaging itself) is vaguely reminiscent of early releases by Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and the fuzzy, soundtrack-oriented vibe shares some elements of that band's sound, but the work here is purely instrumental and devoid of politics (at least overtly), and shares as much with dark-ambient and noises genres as it does with soundtracks. The eleven tracks are long, haunting, and bear titles like "When I leave I wish to kill the sun" and "Their blood crawls through frozen fields and dead nights" -- baroque and creepy titles are the band's signature, really, just as much as the mix of tinkling guitars and scratchy noises. The sonic depths of the tracks themselves are considerably more amorphous, consisting of abstract noises, found sound, and some of the most ghost-like guitar outside of an early Brian Eno or Roxy Music record. There's no particular concept or overweening plan to the pieces, just a slow, steady flow of unnerving sound and fragmented melodies that suggest an impending act of doom that never quite arrives. Haunting minimalism is at the core of the band's aesthetic, a sound that's actually enhanced by its low-tech origins (all the material was recorded to four-track in an attic). There's no question that two discs worth of dissociative drone and evaporating guitar is a lot of death-ambient to wade through, but it's all good. Disquieting, yes, but good.
A Death Cinematic
Aeolian Race -- LANDLOCKED NATION [Reverse Feed Records]
I'll bet these guys have a lot of Pink Floyd albums in their collections, especially the early ones. And some of the mid-period King Crimson ones, too. This is not just a throwback to seventies acid rock, though; their drummer, who was last to join the band, has a background in jazz and rock that comes in handy, and also keeps the band from succumbing to prog-rock cliches. A lot of other sounds not typically associated with prog-rock show up, including nods to metal, funk wah guitar, folk music, new wave and ska rhythms, and even pop. Prog-rock and psych remain at the core of the trio's sound, though, although their approach is nowhere near as measured and stuffy as the music of their biggest (apparent) influences. The result of the melding of all these different influences and directions is an album that's definitely rooted in prog / psych tropes, but still poppy enough to appeal to people beyond prog and psych circles. There's plenty of tripped-out freakouts and psychotronic guitar to keep the acid-heads happy, but the more pop-oriented structures and vocals make their potential appeal much broader than one might first suspect. This is definitely worth checking out.
Reverse Feed Records
Clew of Theseus -- MERIDIAN [Cathartic Process]
For a guy I've never heard of, Ben Brucato sure hangs out with the right people: since he first started recording in 1997, he's appeared on splits and collaborations with Bastard Noise, Black Sand Desert, Richard Ramirez, and Sewer Election, and he has also performed at several Bay Area noise festivals. This is his first full-length release, and the information that accompanies the disc is not exactly forthcoming -- the track titles are rendered in symbols, and the liner notes consist solely of a brief explanation of when and how it was recorded and a telling Camus quote, "We are free to stoke the crematory fires or devote ourselves to the care of lepers." That ominous quote effectively captures the dark, disquieting feel of the album, where Brucato uses acoustic sounds, guitar, synth tones, and (mostly) muted power-electronics to create shifting dark-ambient soundscapes. For a noise artist, Brucato's surprisingly subtle about his harsh aesthetic, and less inclined to rely on volume as his primary tool of expression. What makes the seven lengthy tracks work is a wide variety of sounds -- some harsh, others midly psychedelic in a noisy way, much of it ambient drone -- and careful layering and attention to tone, texture, and dynamics. These are not static structures, but instead pieces that evolve in layers and density. The album's textured approach makes it more intriguing than threatening -- this is not a stereotypical harsh-noise album, but one that straddles the vague borderline between noise and dark-ambient. Interesting stuff, and highly recommended.
Clew of Theseus
Custodian -- I [Syzmic Records]
Now this is swell: eight tracks of crunchy, no-frills noise, violent exercises in screeching pedal-fu delivered with a complete lack of pretension and the ferocity of a lunatic beating people to death with a hammer. It may or may not be "art," but it sure makes an excellent auditory exfoliant. The tracks are untitled, short, and diabolically focused; the entire album (eight tracks total) plays out in less than thirty minutes, just enough time to give you a sonic beating you'll remember without becoming tiresome in the process. There's nothing here you haven't heard before, sure, but innovation is hardly the point with noise; the point is peeling your face off one layer at a time with the widest variety of sick tones and howling dissonance, and in that respect this album succeeds in spectacular fashion. This is power-electronics descended from the original movement, which was far less concerned with art than with sonic brutality. The simple but effective cover art doesn't hurt, either.
Days Between Stations -- S/T [Bright Orange Records]
Originally released in late 2007 and still making its way into the public consciousness, this has gotten a lot of attention and rave reviews in psych / prog circles, and after finally hearing it, I can understand why: this is amazing stuff. The group is actually a core duo of guitarist Sepand Samzadeh and keyboard player Oscar Fuentes, who employ various sidemen to flesh out the sound of their execursions into inner and outer space. In the hallowed tradition of old-school space rock, the album frequently sounds like the work of jazz musicians with an early Pink Floyd fetish playing while under the influence of heavy psychedelic drugs. It's a sound that could be a disaster, but these guys are good, so instead it comes across as idiosyncratic yet highly catchy drone-rock that borrows equally from jazz and psych. It's also a sound that's simultaneously retro and modern. The vocals (provided by different singers on different songs) are mainly wordless wailing in the vein of Clare Torry's immortal contribution to Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky" (which is really appropriate, given the album's obvious debt to THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON). Snippets of conversation and heavily processed vocals appear on some of the later tracks as well. Despite the retro sound and obvious references to prog / psych landmarks of an earlier era, this is not derivative-sounding music; in fact, this is some of the most original-sounding work I've heard in years, especially in the prog genre. Part of their success in this regard lies in their ability to be subtle, sometimes even minimalist, and their willingness not wallow in technical expertise simply for the sake of showing off. The seven tracks are well-crafted and structured so as to flow from one into another, and while the playing is consistently stellar throughout the album, it's never flashy; the various instrumentalists add plenty of color to the sound (especially in the case of the saxophone player on "Laudanum") without ever becoming a distraction or disrupting the songs. Fans of old-school progressive rock and psychedelic music will want to hear this.
Days Between Stations
Bright Orange Records
Dukkha -- HAIL AND FAREWELL cs [Peasant Magik]
Now this is the kind of death-drone I like best -- shuddering walls of dark, overmodulated drone augmented by other stuff for contrast (in the case of "Creswellian," barely-audible keyboard wailing). Repetition is a big part of Dukkha's aesthetic, too; after opening with some warped sound bites, "Hordron" settles into a hypnotic groove built on a twangy guitar riff and wafting sheets of drone. This basic structure is enhanced over time by various other sounds, some percussive, others more ethereal, none of it jarring enough to distract from the hypnotic background, and it ends in a great, pulsing drone that is pure black bliss. On the flip side, "The Finest Clothes Turn to Rags" starts out with steady but innocuous drone that eventually turns dark and distorted without warning, a sound that devolves into harsh overmodulation and muffled screeches only to end abruptly with a bright pinging sound. The final track, "Chromes Gone Home," is a return of sorts to the shuddering black drone that kicked off the cassette, only this time the drone is stark, huge, and largely unadorned. This is great material from start to finish.
Flowerday -- SNUFF VICTIM cs [Cathartic Process]
This is what we call noise with no socially redeeming value -- in other words, the good stuff. What you get is thirty minutes of efx-pedal obscenity like the audio equivalent of blood boiling in your veins, a non-stop cascade of virulent sonic filth heavy on the crunchy avalanche sound and brimming over with brutal angst. About as subtle as beating someone to death with sticks and every bit as satisfying, the two pieces are different in execution but equally ugly in their intent; the one on the A-side is big on crunchy, chaotic violence, while the track on the flip side is more of a cranked-up hiss 'n screech affair with the crunchiness buried somewhere underneath. The sordid quality of the noise tracks is matched perfectly by the moderately rude cover art, including an inner picture clearly paying homage to the legendary poster for the infamous 70s expliotation film SNUFF ("The film that could only be made in South America... where life is CHEAP!"). Of the two tracks, the B-side is my favorite -- it's a tad more monochromatic, but severely more headache-inducing and single-minded in its blind, stupid screech-fury. Great sounds; bonus points for the simple but swell artwork.
Gareth Hardwick -- CARNATIONS cs [Peasant Magik]
There's not much happening here, but I like it a lot. On the first side, endless sheets of drone rise and fall like waves in the ocean, with a sound that could be a mildly distorted keyboard or a guitar fed through a lot of reverb; over time, other drones and near-subliminal effects appear, barely audible in the sonic fog that is the main drone. The tone has a cathedral-like vibe as well, making it stately and mesmerizing. On the second side, the drone is more metallic and tinnier -- not in an ugly way, but definitely edgier than the drones on the first side -- and at times joined by other drones that alternate between harmony and dissonance. The rhythm of the drone speeds up and slows down in incremental fashion at various times, preventing the drone from growing static, and toward the end the multiple drones are stripped away until just one penetrating drone is left, a drone that ends without fanfare. Apparently a guitar was used on one side and an organ on the other (probably the A and B sides, respectively), but it's hard to tell which instrument made which sounds. Not that it matters; the entire cassette is brilliant in its minimalist simplicity.
Guillotine -- BLOOD MONEY [Pulverised Records]
Originally a side project formed by two members of the Swedish band Nocturnal Rites, they released exactly one album (UNDER THE GUILLOTINE) in 1997 before going on hiatus for the next decade as they concentrated on their main band. Now they're back -- to take advantage of the current lust for retro thrash, I guess -- and their second album is actually pretty damn good. Granted, they have a band name so unoriginal that they share it with dozens of other bands, but when they first started there probably weren't so many of them, so they get a pass on that count. It's also true that they sound an awful lot like Slayer circa REIGN IN BLOOD, but there are worse things than sounding like Slayer did in 1986, trust me. What they lack in originality, they more than make up for in sheer aggression -- they sound like guys who like to break shit when they're not playing -- and their level of ferocity is equally matched by really cool riffs played with savage precision. These are no sissies, and their recreation of first-wave thrash madness is a lot more authentic-sounding than the work of most of the current crop of thrash revivalists. Their lyrics don't sound particularly illuminating or earth-shattering, but only a fool listens to this kind of music for the lyrics, and the parts that really matter (eyeball-slicing riffs, skull-fracturing drumming, enraged shouting, etc.) are the parts they do really well. I'm still not completely sold on the need to unearth a genre that's been dead for a decade, but if you're going to wallow in the murky floodwaters of the current thrash revival, these guys at least know what they're doing.
Hellgrammite -- S/T cs [self-released]
This two-track demo tape featuring two former members of Tundra and Gods Among Men is in much the same vein as their earlier adventures in avant-metal, referencing such heavy and sludge-o-rific acts as Black Sabbath, Swans, and Melvins along with more exotic metal types like Voivod and Neurosis. This bare-bones, lo-fi demo cassette is essentially a teaser (I think) for the real album (a full-length 12" LP) that's coming down the pike later this year, and was probably recorded mainly to send out to clubs for booking purposes. In other words, it's not exactly what you would call overproduced, but you can tell what the band is doing and what they're doing is weird and heavy without slavishly ripping off any of the bands that have obviously inspired them. The two songs in question are "Solutions, Excuses" and "Sliver Ingot Ergot" -- the tape design makes their order unclear, but it doesn't matter because you can listen to both songs on their Myspace page (which most of you will have to do anyway, because I'm apparently the only person on earth left with a cassette player). Just to prevent any confusion, this is the Hellgrammite from Seattle, not the one in Ohio. (How two bands in two different states came to adopt the same unusual name is a question you'll have to decide for yourself.)
Katchmare + Antler Piss -- AUTOMATIC WEDDING cs [Scissor Death]
This brief (twenty minutes) but intriguing release is apparently a collaboration by mail between Katchmare and Antler Piss, with one track on each side. "Kettles of Horn" is mostly agitated harsh droning with various overmodulated examples of things thrumming, vibrating, or threatening to break up; it's not an all-out assault on the senses, but it's still pretty obnoxious in its own way, and thoroughly grounded in subterranean screech. It bleeds with repetitive, throbbing drone and the distant din of whirling knives before grinding to a halt in a series of echo-laden disruptions. The flip side, "Ancestor," employs some different sounds and a more fluctuating set of dynamics, but is otherwise pretty much in the same ballpark, aesthetically speaking. The collaboration in general has a reasonably good level of quality and an interesting approach to textured sound collage, and the tape's brevity keeps them from lapsing into extended self-indulgence or tedium. The liner notes are pretty much nonexistent and the artwork (a photo of rocks in a riverbed) is simple and divorced of any relation to the album or song titles, which just adds to the mystery vibe.
The Lindsay -- DRAGGED OUT [Manup Music]
It's too bad the label that released this album is now defunct, because this is one of the best albums I've heard all year. (It was technically recorded and released in 2006, but an album this good deserves all the attention it can get.) Hailing from Columbus, OH and featuring former members of The Hitchcocks and Fat Girls By the Snack Table, this album is a perfect mind-meld of garage rock and full-on psychedelia. In fact, this could pass for early-seventies acid rock if it weren't for the explosive bursts of frantic, often dissonant guitar that's obviously more influenced by the punk and skronk that came later. Part of what makes this album work so well is the band's exceptional proficiency and the equal distribution of musical weight in their playing; unlike a lot of their current contemporaries, the band is an actual band, rather than one really good player and a bunch of bandmates acting as sidemen. They're also considerably more democratic than many current bands, with everyone getting an eventual turn in the spotlight. At the same time, they're clearly focused on the songs rather than the players, and as good as they players are, the songs are even better -- heavily steeped in an undeniably retro sound, yet filled with original riffs and ideas. For a band with such a retro sound, they do an amazing job of creating a sound that captures an earlier musical era without slavishly aping that era's cliches. There are nods to punk, skronk, and noise in their sound, but none of that can obscure the fact that this is close to a pure psych revival. This is the way psych records are supposed to sound, and I'm nothing short of amazed that there are musicians of the current generation capable of not only faithfully recreating that sound, but doing it with such enormous taste and originality. This is the sound of genius at work, and I hope they have better luck with their next label whenever they get around to putting out a second album.
Locrian -- BURYING THE CARNIVAL cs [self-released]
Here comes another swell cassette from Locrian, self-released in a run of 200 copies, with more elegantly minimalist artwork printed on a metallic gold inlay card. The A-side track, "burying the carnival," is the same track that appeared on the split cassette with Continent reviewed a few issues back (and on the full-length cd reviewed even more recently), but the B-side, "exhuming the carnival," is a longer, darker, more complex variation of the original track's concept. A slow-cycling drone forms the rhythm, over which other things gradually begin to happen: faint, plinking guitar notes, then guitar parts fed through ping-pong delay, then more guitar lines playing busier patterns, and so on -- the slo-mo drone loop stays constant, but everything else above it grows and expands, becoming denser and more convoluted as the piece progresses. Some of the guitar passages toward the end are like brief, fluttering explosions of psychedelia, and regardless of what the guitar is doing, there's generally some strange, interesting sounds hovering in the background. The guitar histronics eventually recede into muted ambient noodling and squeaking as the background drone fades out, leaving only a brief segment of ghostly processed guitar playing for the last thirty seconds or so before abruptly dying away. As usual, this is excellent stuff.
Sean McCann -- THE TRUTH IS MARCHING IN cs [Peasant Magik]
There's some heavy tremelo action going on here -- this is the sound of calliope music rendered psychedelic through lots of efx abuse and copious amounts of windowpane acid. The structure is loose (to put it mildly) and the sounds are mysterious and varied; on the first side, two relatively chaotic, busy segments are bridged by brief and subdued snippets of watery, flanged noises. The whirling, swirling noises float by like dandelions in the wind, constantly in motion but never harsh or unsettling. Toward the end, an actual rhythm surfaces in the form of a simple snare beat and bass line to accompany all the floaty noises; the piece finally ends with unpredictable horn lines that fade away. The second side offers similar sounds executed with a different strategy, one in which a rumbling bass line is dominant from the very beginning. A steady stream of processed melody lines, like spinning tops, proliferate throughout the piece, growing and receding in density. The sounds are never terribly complex, but there are many of them, which makes for a fairly busy form of psychedelia. Everything comes to an abrupt halt at one point, and what follows is (at first) a more straightforward drone that bursts into percussive sounds and rumbling. This segment eventually drifts into more subdued drones and some peculiar squeaking noises, which in turn segues into more watery sounds as the drone's tone takes on a different character. This is an interesting take on the drone ethos, one that takes a kitchen-sink approach to sound while still remaining firmly anchored in drone territory. Limited to 100 copies.
Metaconqueror -- OF STEEL, BONE AND FIRE [Syzmic Records]
I don't know much about the band -- apparently the side-project of one of the members of Steel Hook Protheses (about which I know even less) -- but this is apparently the band's second or third release and it's absolutely brilliant, a seething black cloud of rumbling noise and dark ambient fog that falls somewhere between muted power electronics and excessively ambient black metal. The sound of this disc is reminiscent of Cold Electric Fire, MZ.412, Brighter Death Now, and maybe the original Cold Meat Industries aesthetic in general; it's far more about the bleak atmosphere and obsessive, forbidding sound than it is about any proper notion of "songs" or anything resembling music with commercial appeal. Some of this is seriously scary-sounding shit, with no hint of irony or the sense that any of it might be a joke; no, this is pure audio blackness, not quite as willfully obnoxious as Abruptum but every bit as indifferent to anything save audio suffering. Low key but nevertheless most unsettling. It's good to see that the industrial death-ambient genre is not yet dead.
Ovo -- CROCEVIA [Load Records]
It's Ovo, so you know it's going to be strange... and it is, oh yes it is. Their second album for Load is just as weird and cryptic as their first, but heavier and more direct -- it's weird, yes, and Stefania Pendretti's eccentric, sometimes even scary, vocals are unnerving in the way they channel the spirits of Patty Waters, Diamanda Galas, and Lydia Lunch all at the same time, but the musical bedrock is a bit more accessible this time around. Or maybe everybody's gotten used to music getting weirder and what was really out-there a few years ago is not quite as unfathomable anymore. Either way, this is deliberately strange stuff, but the weirdness is stuffed full of boss beats, squiggly but entrancing rhythms, and a penchant for perversity that's both beautiful and repellent at the same time. The rest of the sounds are rooted in a dub-like bass hell and scratchy, crunchy sheets of noise that waft up from the sonic mung from time to time. Bruno and Stefania are married, which may explain their unusually potent synchronicity; one can just imagine them in the early stages of dating, bonding over Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and Harry Pussy albums. On the other hand, their well-honed attack on this album could just as easily be attributed to lots of playing and touring. (Well, and maybe hallucinogenic substances.) Whatever the reason, their peculiar form of musical madness is really happening on this release -- the combination of quirky, frantic drumming, grotesque vocal bleating, and grossly devolved noise works really well, and is pretty damn entertaining at the same time. Bonus points for the synapse-frying artwork.
Sepultura -- A-LEX [SPV USA]
I have fond memories of early Sepultura (ARISE is one of the great early classics of death metal), but a that was many, many years ago, and in the meantime the band has undergone some drastic changes, including the departure of both Cavalera brothers. Ergo, I was kind of nervous about this album -- the first without either of the Calavera brothers, and also the first with new drummer Jean Dolabella -- especially since it's also a concept album based on the Anthony Burgess novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Turns out I didn't have that much to worry about; while there are a couple of nu-metal moments (did Brazil not get the memo that nu-metal is dead?) here and there, most of the album is filled with fast, crushing riffs, angry vocals, and impressively inventive drumming. There are some decidedly non-metal touches, including the occasional use of acoustic guitar passages, and the album's rhythmic feel is frequently a marked departure from the standard thrash metal parameters (credit the drummer for this). Vaguely industrial touches creep in from time to time, and the album as a whole has a layered and complex sound. They even use classical musicians from San Paulo on "Ludwig Van" to illustrate Alex's obsession with Beethoven. I'm not sure why now is the time for a concept record about Alex and his sullen droogies, but at least this is a respectable, even interesting, exploration of the book and its ideas. The best (or at least most obviously metal) songs include "What I Do?," "Metamorphosis," "Conform," and "Strike," but the entire album is a solid piece of work, and definitely one of the band's better efforts.
Xiphiidae -- WAKE OF THE HOODS cs [Peasant Magik]
How do you explain the inexplicable? There's some exotic-sounding shit happening on this cassette. The first side's "Bed of Waters" appears to be a sound collage containing processed guitar skronk, field recordings, strange clattering noises, and unearthly drones hovering like night fog in the distance. It sounds very much like the audio portion of a film where everything would make perfect sense if the visual aspect were still available, but without the visuals, everything becomes mysterious and impossible to recognize while still retaining a vague sense of familiarity. There are some swell noise passages amid the other sounds, streams of overmodulated and distorted sound that threaten to drown out everything else before receding again. On the flip side, "Basin Shepherd" is just as mysterious, with sounds that are even more enigmatic; again, the piece feels like the audio portion of an experimental film. It's not the most structured piece of work, to be sure, but it's not aimless, either; there's a method to the distribution of sounds and their placement in the mix, no matter how inscrutable, and a steady direction to the flow of sound that is more than merely random. It's strange, but accessibly strange, and certainly unpredictable as well. Limited to 100 copies.