19 A.D.D. -- DEAD RIVER [Level 36 Recordings]
Wow -- underneath all the hip, psychedelic packaging that accompanies this disc, there's an actual metal band whose hyperkinetic art-metal style manages to reference past masters as diverse as Judas Priest and Last Exit. Hailing from Denver, CO and originally formed in 2006 under the name Black Helicopters, the band -- an intense power trio playing largely instrumental music (some tracks, like "Sailing Blinde," do feature sampled snippets of conversation) -- debuts here with fifteen tracks of highly energetic and complicated riffing that combine post-rock, prog, and technical metal. Their high-velocity attack frequently sounds like RED-era King Crimson colliding with Blind Idiot God; this is a band fond of tricky time signatures and complex playing, yes, but there's no question they come from a metal background more than anything else. There are some non-metal tropes that crop up from time to time -- the slow and heavy "Slomosexual" (one of the heaviest songs on the album) ends in swirling noise and machine rhythms, for instance -- but mostly the album is track after track of heart-stopping, spine-twisting technical metal gymnastics unmarred by the kind of ridiculous lyrics and vocals that taint many otherwise similar sonic offerings. Fans of bands like Mastodon who are less than thrilled with the vocal excesses of said bands should look into this one instead.
Level 36 Recordings
Art Jerks -- DYSPHEMISM TREADMILL [BatHotAxe]
This obscure and deliberately cryptic release is hard to classify and even harder to explain, but it probably helps to know that two of the key members of this band are George Korein (formerly of Infidel? / Castro!, as well as many other bizarre collaborations) and Yanni Pappadopoulos (guitarist for Stinking Lizaveta), which should provide some nebulous starting point for most of those interested in the band. (Sax player Dan Scofield is also a member of Shot x Shot, and drummer Ricardo Lagomasino comes from Capillary Action, making this is an underground supergroup of sorts.) Given that all of the members come from sonically adventurous, eccentric bands with improv / free music leanings, it's not terribly surprising that the album has a loose and improvisational feel that is roughly akin to a collision between indie-rock, free jazz, and metal. The drumming is propelled by high energy and unexpected rhythms, while the guitars (provided by YP and Korein) combine a peculiar kind of alt-country twang with shred-o-rific passages as sporadic sax bleating sails over all of it. The sound is unusual and unpredictable without being bizarre for the sake of bizarre, and the loose, off-the-cuff feel of the proceedings makes me wonder if this didn't come about as the result of rehearsal room jam sessions or something of that nature. If your're a fan of any of these artists or their bands, this is worth tracking down, but good luck on finding it; the BatHotAxe site appears to be down and since this is a cd-r release and probably a limited run at that, your chances of finding it directly without contacting one of the artists is pretty slim. Start with George (see the link below), since he's the guy nominally in charge of BatHotAxe. Feel free to ask him what a "dysphemism treadmill" is while you're at it.
Bosch -- S/T [Token Boy Records]
The images of distant galaxies that adorn the cover of Bosch's debut release perfectly encapsulate the band's sound, where the idioms of improvisational free jazz and cosmic space rock collide. The trio consists of Random Touch drummer Chris Brown and two members of Flash to Bang Time, bassist Kevin Sims and keyboard player Charles Greenleaf. Their instrumental specialties are merely starting points for each of them in the context of this spaced-out improv power trio, though, as they embrace a number of other instruments and sound-making devices (percussion, toys, guitar, effects, loops, and groove box, among others) in their quest for more far-out sounds. They recorded the thirteen tracks here in the space of 48 hours, over four complete sessions, and the results reflect their collective experience in a wide variety of bands. Brown generally provides the driving pulse that allows the other two to improvise freely; on the tracks where percussion is a more loose and muted affair, vocals -- sometimes treated, alwas peculiar -- take up the slack, providing a new element of sound that provides even more variation to the tracks. Much of this work can be directly traced back to the lineage of ground-breaking artists like Sun Ra, John Coltrane (especially the INTERSTELLAR SPACE album), Faust, Can, and maybe even early Tangerine Dream. The basic sound is that of a free-jazz trio, but this energetic sound is broken up by more experimental tracks based more on the use of experimental keyboards and effect-laden gadgets, and there are times when the gadgets are unleashed in the midst of the band's cyclonic free-improv sound. They take advantage of the unorthodox properties of gadgets and studio wizardry to add layers of exotic mystery to their basic sound, and to push the boundaries of opportunistic sound available to them through the inspired use of toys, gadgets, and effects boxes, and as a result they end up with a unique and fresh sound that combines the best aspects of improv and classic rock. Their debut is surreal and enticing, and holds great promise for future space expeditions.
Token Boy Records
Cromwell Street -- RAIL EATER [Deadsix Communications]
Chris Stepniewski is a prolific guy; he records under a number of different names and releases plenty of albums, all of them variations on the same general concept -- namely, techno beats + bursts of noise / static + eerie atmospherics = lots of percolating sonic energy. This album, the first under the new name Cromwell Street, is no different -- the fourteen tracks here are a mix of frantic, heart-stopping beats leavened with bursts of nosie and more brooding, atmospheric moments filled with the subterranean sounds of a fully functional dungeon. The easiest (and most obvious) reference point for the band's sound is that of early Skinny Puppy, especially in the sound and feel of the beats and the use of noise, but unlike that band, this is an almost entirely instrumenal effort, with much of it sounding like music for dark soundtracks to obscure independent movies. Heavy on the blackened beats and not shy about mixing in filth-encrusted sheets of noise, this is techno for those who are left cold by the sterile, too-clean sound of most techno albums.
Ekasia -- UNDERGROUND GHOSTS [F.I.R.]
This Romanian band, originally formed under the name Mysterium, has been around since 1996, although you could be forgiven for not having heard of them; their releases so far have been on small, obscure labels in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and this, their latest, is no exception. While they are theoretically a black metal band, their sound on this album is actually closer to an exotic mix of pagan ritualism, darkwave, goth, and operatic psychodrama -- imagine Christian Death, Laibach, and Devil Doll collaborating on an album with classical and operatic elements, and you have some idea of the enigmatic sound happening here. Weirdly enough, some of this -- especially the more obviously darkwave-influenced material -- reminds me a lot of the obscure 90s post-industrial band Masochistic Religion. Tracks like "My last letter" are driven by simple rhythms and piano melodies, and garnished with mournful vocals, reverb-heavy atmospherics, and sound samples in the background; other tracks, like "Ghosts," are more akin to grotesque monologues backed by dirge-like atmospherics. The overall effect is that of a dark, post-industrial opera soundtrack with occasional musical performances, an album in which the forbidding atmosphere is paramount. The band is theoretically a metal band (or so claims the Encyclopaedia Metallum), but the only thing on here that even comes close to being "metal" is the pounding, near-industrial "Broken wings of the angels," which ends abruptly and is followed by a piano dirge leavened more mournful vocals and a cacaphony of voices in the background (the album's closing track, "Portraits"). Regardless of what genre this might or might not belong to, it's excellent, spooky stuff, and fans of histronic, brooding darkwave would do well to seek this out.
Illusion of Safety -- PROBE [Peridition Plastics]
Chicago's unclassifiable art-rock act Illusion of Safety -- actually a free-floating collective of revolving members collaborating with Dan Burke, the group's only constant member -- was a ubiquitous presence in the world of experimental audio back in the 80s and 90s, and while the band has been flying under radar for a while now, it has never been completely inactive, continuing to release work up to the current day. Since 1983, Burke and various collaborators have released classic albums such as CANCER, FROM NOTHING TO LESS, WATER SEEKS ITS OWN LEVEL, and BAD KARMA, employing the use of field recordings, electronic and acoustic instruments, creative editing, and a serious commitment to unexpected avenues of composition to create interesting (and occasionally unnerving) audio documents that defy easy pigeonholing. This tendency to avoid that which is easily grasped may well explain why the band, despite its status as innovators and considerably prolific nature (with key releases on well-regarded labels such as Silent, Staalplat, Soleilmoon, Complacency, and others), is still largely an underground phenomenon.
Which brings us to PROBE, the obscure 1992 Staalplat release recently reissued (with different artwork) by Peridition Plastics in a limited run of 500. Approximately an hour long and consisting of four untitled tracks, this album is notable for the early appearance of Jim O'Rourke, who was still a composition student when this album was recorded. (It's worth noting that this was recorded around the same time as his legendary Staalplat release DISENGAGE, an album not far removed in concept and intent from this one.) O'Rourke has recently begun reissuing archival works of his own, so this reissue appears as a most opportune time, as it provides valuable insight into his early work.
Illusion of Safety's revolving cast of musical characters has resulted in a lot of albums with wildly divergent sounds, but every IOS album I've ever heard has contained two consistent elements: long stretches of minimalist non-action, and a tendency toward jarring, unsettling jump-cuts. Both of these elements are very much in place on PROBE, especially on the first two tracks, lengthy exercises in minimalism that take up nearly 45 minutes of the album. O'Rourke's talent for razor-blade editing was the most interesting aspect of the early Gastr del Sol albums, and that same approach is on display here; long passages of droning, subdued electronics or almost nonexistent sound lull the listener into a complacent passive state that is abruptly shattered by catastrophic bursts of completely unrelated sound and fury. It would be interesting to know for certain who contributed what to this eerie, unsettling sound; I'm guessing that Burke came up with the original sounds and O'Rourke did the editing, but that's purely a guess (and probably a wrong one, at that). The sound on these tracks is not particularly heavy or threatening -- most of it, in fact, is nothing more than the minimal, droning sounds of what could be synthesizers or the processed sound of idling machinery -- but after the first couple of abrupt segues into completely unrelated (and frequently mystifying sounds), the act of listening is changed by the obvious implication that the subdued, frequently even soothing, sound currently happening could be disrupted in violent fashion at any moment. The edits come at totally unpredictable intervals, making it impossible to guess when the next jarring shift in sound will come, creating a peculiar kind of tension that contradicts the nature of the sound that takes up most of the listening time. This strategy is employed a bit differently on the shorter tracks, which are a bit noisier and less reliant on the long stretches of minimalism; the middle section of the third track is fairly noisy and then drops into a quieter passage of distant, heavily-reverbed sounds that eventually fade away into nothingness, while the final track (and at under five minutes, the shortest) is a mix of almost nonexistent sound and bursts of crowd noise and snippets of beat-heavy music, giving it a sound that is in marked constrast to the rest of the album.
Illusion of Safety
Katchmare -- GROOM LAKE [Scissor Death]
This release comes with a short black and white zine attached, featuring drawings by Nick Hoffman (also the mastermind behind Katchmare); the drawings are vaguely reminiscent of a less-psychotic Mike Diana, but their disconnected nature makes them no more than a series of cryptic images that tell no story (or perhaps they're present simply for you to make your own story with them). The drawings, though, are not the main attraction to this package; that would be the amazing sound of the attached cd-r, featuring twelve beautifully sinister dark-ambient drone works created with guitar and computer as sound sources that were obviously then heavily processed to create something bordering on a sonic torch of the mystics. The best part of these sparse but spacious tracks is their intense minimalism; Hoffman successfully resists the urge to shovel on anything unnecessary, and the result is a series of intensely bleak yet gorgeous soundscapes firmly anchored in a compelling lo-fi buzz and hum. This is the sound of the midwest in winter, of landscapes buried beneath sheets of snow and rendered soft and monochromatic, a sound that's both beautiful and desolate, and far more emotional than you might expect of droning feedback. If you are enslaved by the healing power of drone, you absolutely must hear this.
George Korein -- CONTENT PROVIDER [self-released]
Even for George, this is pretty weird. The packaging consists of an unlabeled disc in a white sleeve stamped only with the name and title -- no track titles or any other information -- and the "content" provided is... um, strange. Very, very strange. The first track consists of thundering guitar riffs swaddled in noise that burst forth and disappear into extended lapses of silence; some of the guitar sounds are bathed in reverb and sound like dark-ambient feedback. The next track is an experiment in eccentric vocals over what sounds like slowed-down machine sounds; the track after that consists of looped sounds that fade in and out, at times rising in volume and distortion levels; and so on. Each track is a new permutation on ways to destroy music and reconfigure it as sound for an army of dying robots. There are fourteen tracks in all, and they are all (with the possible exception of the handful of vocal tracks, which are discombulating in their own right) exercises in demolished anti-music, especially the seventh track, which is nothing more or less than the sound of mutant riffs taken from a skipping cd. This is strange, disorienting stuff, similar in nature to what he did in Infidel? / Castro! but far more extreme and obsessive. For fans of experimental sound only; those expecting actual music should look elsewhere (like, say, that Art Jerks disc reviewed earlier in this post).
Locrian -- TERRITORIES lp [At War With False Noise / Basses Frequences / Bloodlust! / Small Doses]
Here we have an album so immense, so blackened, and so heavy that it required four separate labels to lift it off the ground and cram it down your throat. Part of what makes this one so heavy is the additional firepower they bring to the game -- their diabolical fusion of noise, drone, and black metal is augmented by additional sonic death courtesy of guests Andrew Scherer (Velnias) on drums, Blake Judd (Nachtmystium) on guitar, Bruce Lamont (Yakuza) on sax and vocals, and Mark Solotroff (Bloodyminded, Anatomy of Habit) on electronics and guitar. With the duo of Locrian backed by a full band, the result is a sound that's louder, thicker, and goes off in more directions than ever before. The opening track, "Inverted Ruins," makes this clear from the beginning, with plodding drums, bowel-scraping noise, and a serious commitment to skin-crawling dissonance. "Between Barrows" opens with an ominous cyclotron drone that could have been lifted from one of their earlier albums, but soon it is overlaid with eerie cymbal washes straight out of the Book of Khanate and more power-electronics hum, and as the piece progresses, the drone and crackling noise are embellished by dark ambient washes and eerie feedback drones, all playing out in languid but anguished fashion, like an unsettling prelude to violence. That violence finally arrives in "Procession of Ancestral Brutalism," where -- after an uneasy introduction of vaguely atmospheric ambient noise -- a buzzing guitar, pounding drums, and pained howling swaddled in mountains of reverb usher the album firmly into pure, antagonistic black metal territory. "Ring Road" returns to the more familiar pleasures of grinding, near-industrial tones and screech-laden power electronics, a deliberately grating sound that evolves into a dark, throbbing drone made even more threatening by the alienated noises that rise and fall in the background; the song eventually dissolves into a swirl of static and devolved black metal guitar wailing, like a lost soul disappearing down a rabbit hole. "Antediluvian Territory" is not quite so sinister but every bit as eerie, with a plinking guitar figure creeping across a burnt ambient soundscape of fogged-out noise and cryptic tonal dread, while "The Columnless Arcade" ends the album with an orgy of noise fed through enormous amounts of delay and echo as huge, shuddering drone action threatens to topple the entire sonic architecture into a cold, poisoned ocean... and then the pounding drums, treble-heavy black metal guitar, and hellish vocals burst forth without warning and the sonic destruction REALLY begins. What a way to end a completely filler-free album. Heavy, heavy stuff, o my brothers and sisters, heavy stuff indeed. If you haven't been smart enough to worship Locrian yet, you really should pick this up and get with the program.
At War With False Noise
Moonflare -- ALL THE WORLD IS BRIGHT WITH JOY AND MAGICAL DELIGHT [Cubic Pyramid]
This is pretty cryptic -- the cd-r is limited to fifty copies, recorded by a mysterious artist in Portugal, released on a label apparently in Egypt, and consists of two tracks (one long, one short) whose titles are impossible to divine from the nifty put puzzling artwork. The long track, clocking in at over thirty minutes, is a hypno-jam consisting of an endless beat that eventually fades out and layers of ambient sound and bell tones that are gradually swallowed by droning white noise that gradually becomes louder and more tinnitus-inducing. Toward the end the swirling cloud of squeal begins to fade away, replaced by what sounds like an extremely slowed-down bass riff that clangs along like the slow-motion process of a fan belt working itself loose from some cosmic machinery. The second track, which is less than six minutes long, is a bit more ethereal, with a middle-eastern guitar sound processed through hollow-sounding reverb and augmented by shimmering drones that rise and fall in the background. Both tracks are rooted in a kind of slowly-expanding minimalism and cosmic-rock sound that's ideal for tripping without the aid of chemicals. Intriguing, even if it is hopelessly obscure (although it shouldn't be).
Shelf Life -- COURTESY [Psychic Oscillator]
So here we are with another offering from this prolific but cryptic free-improv band, this time recorded as a duo of Joseph Jaros and Bryan Day. The opener, "morning parlance," is a barely-organized collection of freely improvised sounds -- erratic percussion that may or may not involve an actual drum kit, scratching sounds that may or may not have originated from a guitar, the occasional piano note, and other mysterious sounds of indeterminate origin. The preponderance of sounds doesn't quite rise to the level of being terminally busy, but it's hardly sedate, either; rather, they strike a nice balance between action and inaction. The percussion is a bit more prominent on "afternoon parlance," and there's less emphasis on random sounds; much of the action, in fact, revolves around a squiggly, wiggly guitar motif processed through an efx box in such a manner as to resemble the sound of a guitar vibrating itself to pieces. Changes in dynamics and unexpected bursts of chaos are evident on this piece as well. The final track, "evening parlance," is one where the percussion is the prominent element; it's minimal but busy, and there's plenty of loud, echo-laden clanking to go along with it, as well as intermittent squeals and shrieks from the guitar in the background. The album's overall sound is a curious mixture of restraint and sporadic energy, and a display of unfettered sound that leaves each player plenty of room to move.
Skullflower -- STRANGE KEYS TO UNTUNE GODS' FIRMAMENT (2 x cd) [Neurot Recordings]
The only thing better than new Skullflower is two cds worth of new Skullflower. Their latest release, on the label run by guys from the band Neurosis, is very much in the same vein as recent offerings such as PURE IMPERIAL REFORM and DESIRE FOR A HOLY WAR -- which is to say, it's all screaming feedback and dark, dark drone. As usual, the liner notes are so minimalist (just track listings, sir) that it's anybody's guess who is actually playing, but since there don't appear to be any drums, I'm guessing it's Matthew Bower and Lee Stokoe. Whoever it is, they're making a brain-frying racket. The tracks all run together, but the tone and character of each song is sufficiently different enough to make it clear when the break occurs, which has not always been the case with their previous releases in full-on skronk mode. Early fans of the band will want to know that this, like most of the post-reformation releases, has no bearing whatsoever on the band's earlier sound -- this is full-on guitar noise, nothing more than a series of dark, forbidding soundscapes built around the sound of guitars turned up to eleven and processed with a variety of noise-laden efx boxes. This is definitely one of their most punishing releases, with a scouring sound reminiscent of the sandblasting fury of PURE IMPERIAL REFORM, but with the more experimental bent of the recent vinyl-only releases, VILE VEIL and TASTE THE BLOOD OF THE DECEIVER. Not everything is pure sonic violence -- "Gateway to Blasphemous Light" features some genuinely beautiful-sounding celestial feedback drone -- but the vast marjority of the anti-music on here is a loud, screeching, hellish din filled with tinnitus-inducing squealing, the sound of shrapnel swirling down a garbage disposal, and monolithic jet-engine drone. It's not for the weak, okay? Some might argue that two lengthy cds worth of this is an exercise in overkill, but those people just don't understand that in the right hands, overkill is not only good, it's absolutely divine.
TL0741 -- MAGNETIC INJURIES [HC3 Music]
I have no idea what the band's name means, but the band is actually Pat Gillis, armed with synths, effects, an affinity for tape manipulation, and an aggressive attitude toward the healing power of noise. This is a remastered version of an earlier limited release on the even more obscure label Panic Research Audio with two new tracks, and the band's second full-length release. The ten tracks on this album are explorations of the rhythmic possibilities of harsh noise, a series of unsettling vistas of corroded sound and the abuse of high-frequency generators; Gillis frequently shapes his blocks of sound into machine-like rhythms, but the results sound less like any traditional concept of music and more like the sound of giant robot warships preparing for battle. There's a distinct cosmic rock vibe to a lot of the material here, with lots of moaning, wailing reverb-heavy effects and what sounds like bursts of deep-space radio transmissions. At times (especially on 'Through Blast Radius") it sounds like he's mixing in field recordings as well as electronically-derived sounds, creating even more variety to his textures. Regardless of the noise content -- which is quite high at times -- it's the droning space-rock quality that sets this album apart from most excursions into rhythmic noise. Weird and hallucinatory, but highly compelling and recommended.