Cheer-Accident -- FEAR DRAWS MISFORTUNE [Cuneiform Records]
Chicago's most deliberately eccentric art-rock band has been around in one form or another for nearly thirty years, revolving all that time around founding member and last remaining constant, Thymme Jones (drums, vocals, and other instruments). The band's remarkable virtuosity and startling originality is matched only by their intense commitment to weirdness, a certain willfully perverse tendency toward surreal antics that have succeeded over the years mainly in making label executives nervous about the band. The band and Cuneiform have been eyeing each other for awhile now, but it wasn't until the label convinced the band to approach recording in a bit more straightforward manner that their collaboration was ensured. Of course, "straightforward" is a relative term; while this is unquestionably one of the band's most consistent and accessible albums, it's still pretty out there, and many who aren't familiar with the band's aesthetic may find it hard to grasp on first listen. Familiar elements (extensive use of piano and trumpets, droning vocals, peculiar yet catchy rhythms, improbable segues, impossibly complex passages, and a general sense of complete unpredictability) are joined by some new surprises, such as the female vocals that pop up from time to time. Some of the tracks, like "Blue Cheadle," are vaguely reminiscent of the experimental pop of NOT A FOOD and THE WHY ALBUM, but the rest of the album sounds more like an extension of the post-Bonnet direction they've favored on albums like SALAD DAYS and INTRODUCING LEMON. All of the material is excellent -- this is one of the band's most focused albums, and indeed, one of the most focused prog albums I've heard in a while, with no digressions into bizarre cuteness or whimsy. The most exciting thing about this album (outside of its excellence) is the fact that it comes after the band has been together nearly thirty years. How many bands manage to come up with such original and electrifying work after being together so long? The answer is, not many. If you've heard of the band but been put off by puzzled reactions to their admittedly perverse approach to music, this is where you should start. This already has my vote for one of the best albums of the year, and I can't imagine I'm going to hear many more as imaginative, adventurous, and unpredictable as this.
Darkestrah -- THE GREAT SILK ROAD [Paragon Records]
Originally formed in Kyrgyzstan and now based in Germany, Darkestrah has been together for a decade; this is their fourth album, with a new one due sometime later this year. The poop sheet that came with this describes the band as pagan black metal, which I suppose is true, although this band is frequently heavier than most pagan bands -- their paganism manifests itself mainly in ornate, neo-classical acoustic guitar passages that frequently introduce or conclude songs, or else appear as brief interludes between segments of pummeling drums and furiously strummed tremelo guitars. There is a ritualistic feel to much of the band's work, but it would be a mistake to take that pagan description as an indication of any kind of tree-hugging wimpiness; this is an extremely intense band, and one that is intense without descending into desperate acts of silliness. The five long songs on this album are epic, emotional journeys into a different vision of the world; how much of that has to do with black metal or the band's Asian roots is a good question, but they certainly have an approach to their sound that's remarkably different from many of their peers. At times they remind me of a more sophisticated Baltak, or perhaps a band sharing some kind of spiritual and sonic kinship with Hellveto (especially in some parts of "inner voice"). They have a great guitar sound, one that's fizzy and o-so-black but with plenty of bite and pleasing harmonics, and an impressive drummer, and while the songs are mostly long (three exceed ten minutes, and one of those is over eighteen minutes), they don't drag; there's plenty of Burzum-styled repetition, sure, but there's also just enough variation to keep the songs from sinking into a colossal tarpit of ennui. Up until now I haven't been a huge fan of folk-flavored black metal, but this and the recent Hellveto release (highly recommended to those interested in this album) are making me rethink that indifference.
Ala Ebtekar and the Iranian Orchestra for New Music -- ORNAMENTAL (2 x lp) [Isounderscore]
Ebtekar's name may not be familiar, but chances are you have heard him (or heard of him, anyway) on recordings under the name Sote. Born in Germany to Iranian parents and a long-time resident of the Bay Area in California, Ebtekar recently spent three years in Iran working with composer Alireza Mashayekhi. This double-album is the culmination of that working arrangement, recorded in Iran with Mashayekhi's Iranian Orchestra for New Music in Tehran, featuring fifty minutes worth of collaborative sound in ten compositions. The sounds presented here are a startling, at times even otherworldly, juxtaposition of traditional eastern music and western avant-garde sound. The original tracks were recorded by an Iranian orchestra led by Mashayekhi and then rearranged, altered, and processed by Ebtekar, taking the (presumably) traditional pieces into new and futuristic directions. Passages of silence and heavily modified experiments in sound are the major motifs that occur again and again throughout the pieces, along with an affinity for gritty and textured noise as counterpoint elements within the compositions. The overall effect is a re-imaging of traditional eastern sound, an updating of ancient structures and melodies for a new, postmodern world ruled by noise, distortion, and electronic sound processing. The meticulous nature of the recordings and post-studio diddling is reflected in the ambitious packaging; the fifty minutes of music here have been tracked across four sides of heavy, premium-grade vinyl for maximum fidelity, then mastered with admirable clarity by Thomas DiMuzio. The cover art and design are excellent as well. Limited to 500 copies, this should be of intense interest to those already hep to Sote's previous work and those interested in the inherent possibilities of a creative collision between the worlds of postmodern electronic and classical music of the eastern world.
Hermit Thrushes -- BENAKI [Single Girl Married Girl]
This twisted band from Philadelphia reminds me of Tunnel of Love in the sense that they apply a proggy, avant sensibility to indie-rock pop songs; judging from the pretty but fractured tracks on this album (their first), it sounds like they start with pop tunes and systematically turn them inside out and break them apart, with an end result that is equal parts intriguing and mystifying. Their aesthetic reminds me of Cheer-Accident, while their actual sound is closer to that of Tunnel of Love's equally quirky poptunes. The poop sheet references David Grubbs, which makes sense, because there are plenty of moments here that recall the razorblade aesthetic of Gastr del Sol, as well as other moments reminiscent of the man's early solo work. The sound is a combination of pop, indie-rock, noise, drone, prog, pysch, and even folk, with all of these elements combined and recombined in pretzel shapes and rooted in a commitment to unusual sounds and pulverized song structures. Despite the varied cornucopia of genres flowing over and bumping into each other, the album is surprisingly listenable -- the songs are relatively short and while they're possessed of quirky, near-random structures, the sound is frequently catchy and nowhere near as cacaphonous as the wide variety of sounds might suggest. It's definitely a different approach to pop music, but one that's more accessible that you'd have any right to expect given how many cooks are in the kitchen and what they're throwing into the soup. Fans of eccentric prog-pop by bands like Tunnel of Love and Cheer-Accident will like this.
Single Girl Married Girl
Eric Leonardson and Steve Barsotti -- RAREBIT [Transparency]
Now this is interesting... Leondardson and Barsotti, working in the tradition of avant-folk musicologists like Harry Partch and Luigi Russolo, invented their own unusual instruments using eyebolts, coiled springs, planks of wood, and other easily-obtained materials, then recorded nine tracks (two composed, seven improvised) using said instruments. The result is an album filled with unpredictable experiments in sound. The sound, in fact, is what matters most here; this is not an album of traditional songs, but rather a series of experiments aimed at exploring the possibilities of sound inherent in homemade noise-making devices. Structurally speaking, the pieces are relatively sparse and open, with the collection of sounds appearing in a manner that's more linear than anything else; the noises and sounds are not so much stacked on top of each other as introduced individually in succession, for the most part. The variety of sounds is astounding, from plinks and plunks to cryptic shuddering drones and many other tones and textures in between. The cd artwork consists entirely of pictures of the noise-making gadgets (roto rod, spring frame, and springboard) employed during the recording sessions, and the songs themselves are well-recorded, making all the nuances, no matter how subtle, clearly defined. This is an excellent representation of the properties of sound inherent to unusual devices.
Locrian -- "Plague Journal / Apocryphal City, Portents Fallen" 7" [Bloodlust!]
Talk about minimalist, this single comes in some of the most nondescript packaging ever -- white vinyl with white labels noting the sides and speed but nothing else, housed in a blank white sleeve and accompanied by a folded insert that provides the only clues to the single's content and origins. The first side, "Plague Journal," is a repetitive slice of twanging, boiling guitar noise and droning feedback upfront and other noises of considerably more mysterious origin fattening up the sound in the background. Toward the end the wailing feedback becomes the primary force of nature as everything else fades into a muted dark-ambient wash before the feedback finally dies away. The flip side, "Apocryphal City, Portents Fallen," opens with hollowed-out cyclotron sound and vague pounding noises, but bell-like tones subject to ping-pong delay soon appear in the mix, even as the harsh drone turns into a swirling, sweeping tornado of sound. The swirling, seething, psychotronic fog that eventually emerges successfully straddles the divide between noise and dark ambient, creating clouds of droning, noise-textured vapor like toxic gas billowing through the streets of a disintegrating city... only to end in a snarling lock-groove that's pretty ominous in its own right. Limited to 300 copies and, like all of the band's output, highly recommended.
Maleficia -- S/T lp [Isounderscore]
This is not Maleficia's first release -- that would be an untitled cd-r on Breaking Wheel that came out in 2006 and was limited to 120 copies -- but it's probably the first release of theirs that anybody outside of Oakland, CA will hear, even though it's not a significantly bigger press run (400 copies). Maleficia is actually the collaboration between Ilysea Viles Sunderman (viola and vocals) and Andy Way (electronics), and the heavy-duty vinyl release consists of two side-long tracks, "Making" and "Remaking." The first track opens with reverb clanking that is gradually overtaken by droning viola, processed in such a fashion that it sounds more like wind gusting through desolate canyons. As the viola continues to drone, with trembling lines that rise and fall, the clanking electronic noise in the background becomes thicker and more elaborate, until it resembles the sound of machinery at work in the distance. The tonal color of the drones changes in gradual fashion as the noise of the background begins to creep into the foreground, challenging the drones for supremacy in the mix. The depth and texture of the noise changes as well over the duration of the piece, slowly and inexorably, until the balance has shifted from being drone-heavy to noise-heavy. The track eventually ends as it began, with nothing but the clanking noises drenched in reverb. The track on the flip side of the album is similar in intent but marginally different in execution, dwelling more on the droning viola and less on the cracked electronics. A few minutes into the track, the rumbling of the electronics becomes more prominent, sweeping through the drone and adding texture to the ethereal sound. The album's cumulative aesthetic is a mysterious and powerful one, featuring a nuanced balance between drone and noise, with more depth and emotional intensity than one might expect for something so firmly minimalist. Dark and beautiful without being overly heavy or morose, the album is ultimately a monument to the mystery of ambient drone and processed sound.
The Tenants of Balthazar's Castle -- THE MOON [A.Star Records]
I like this. Seven songs bathed in repetitive noise, hallucinatory sounds, psychedelic meanderings, and a heavy dose of drone worship make up this limited-edition (200 copies) cd-r. Actually the work of one man, Michael Biggs, this album employs (I think) keyboards and processed sound to create brooding drones rooted in rhythmic pulses, some frantic and some not, with a sound that's both dark and expansive. If it weren't for the rhythmic pulse, some of this could pass for dark ambient, although some tracks (like the first track, "Opening," and "Lamplighter," for instance) are a bit too noisy to really qualify as ambient. Despite the lack of vocals, guitars, or drums -- this really is nothing but synth-driven, as far as I can tell -- the songs remain steadily engaging, with textured sounds that are not quite dissonant but still most uneasy. Biggs makes nice use of noise in his sounds, too, especially where the rhythms are concerned, which is something you don't hear often, especially in a context like this. Noise-loving droneheads need to hear this.
The Tenants of Balthazar's Castle
A. Star Recordings