Bring Me the Head of Orion -- COURTING LEVIATHAN [Black Drone Records]
Oooo, crusty brown-sound noise drone... I greatly approve. The (one-man) band is also from Austin, which is a good thing as well. The disc contains two insanely long songs (the title track and "For He Was Many," each clocking in at approximately 21 minutes) bracketed by two much shorter pieces (the seven-minute-plus "Go Forward Patient Drones" at the beginning, and the nearly six-minute "Battle of Tails and Mandibles" at the end). The band's approach is not too far removed from that of Wicked King Wicker, only not quite so intensely soul-crushing, or perhaps the early beatless drone compositions of Earth (back when Dylan still took heroin and hadn't started wearing cowboy shirts yet). The WKW comparison really comes to mind about four minutes into the title track, where -- after several minutes of thick waves of sound -- an incredibly distorted noise guitar crashes the party and becomes the main focus of the piece. There's a lot of doom in this guy's drone, too; the long tracks especially are epics of slow, wasting death filled with distorted, crackling guitars and shuddering bass drone. The second of the two long tracks is even heavier than the first, and there's plenty of feedback drone all over the album. The ominous final track is drenched in so much spring reverb that it sounds like a wavering, warbling pipe organ; this one is less dependent on the serrated distortion of previous tracks, and centered more on the reverberating waves of threatening sound. This is deep, dark drone for metal guitars, and should be manna from heaven for those weaned on early Swans / Godflesh / Skullflower and Wicked King Wicker.
Bring Me the Head of Orion
Black Drone Records
Book of Shadows -- PRAYER WHEEL [Ikuisuus]
First off, I really like the artwork for this release -- a mauve, eight-pointed mandala in a pointilist circle and surrounded by what I assume are archaic signs of the zodiac -- and second, this is classic Book of Shadows, with lots of slo-mo drone like clouds drifting through a canyon at twilight and plenty of cryptic sounds permeating the sonic rumble. Guest players are not uncommon on the band's albums, and this time they are joined by guitarists Aaron Bennack, Jonathan Home (of the Plutonium Farmers), droning guitarist / electro-space rock wizard Douglas Ferguson (he of the wild hair and even wilder sounds), percussionist Johnny McCollom (of Primordial Undermind), Lori Varga (the film projectionist for the Butthole Surfers, here waxing fantastic with a theremin), Ralph White (Bad Livers) on kalimba, Eric Archer and Matt Thies (Numbers on the Mast, here providing guitars and gadgets), and utility players Jason Travis and Amanda Boutourline from The Ghost and Swift Moths. Incorporating so many luminaries from Austin's underground psych / art-rock scene would give this the initial appearance of a twisted supergroup album, but the truth is that the band's established ghost-drone aesthetic just means there's more players around this time to contribute to the band's floating world of cosmic sound. You'd be hard-pressed to tell where these extra players are cropping up without resorting to scouring the liner notes; while in most cases adding additional personnel to any band's album results in a train wreck of epic proportions, in this case they are all seamlessly integrated into the band's magick-saturated sound.
When I said this classic BoS, I wasn't kidding -- the nine tracks on this album are improvised excursions into slow, mind-altering dronescapes littered with cryptic and unclassifiable sounds, over which Sharon Crutcher's wordless wail floats like a disembodied spirit guide. There are definitely some intriguing moments lurking in the sea of drone: a section of "Summer Project" features a guitar (well, I think it's a guitar) playing a part that sounds like it came from an old Mingus record, and the country-folk guitar and bass playing in "Carnivale" makes the song one of the most traditional-sounding ones I've ever heard from the band (although it's leavened with just enough keyboard-generated oddness and subtle sonic frippery to keep it firmly in the psych realm). "Tea For the Blibbermon" is another interesting deviation, filled with loops and tweeting, bleating electronic oscillations in addition to the minimalist (to the point of being almost nonexistent) background drone and Sharon's occasional vocalizing. Some of the most warped, sci-fi sounds occur in the aptly-named "Astral Travel Airport Music," mainly thanks to Lori Varga and her theremin, while the shards of melody and luminous vocals on "It Might On the East Coast" are among the most moving sounds on the album. This album is just one more example of the band's undeniable fabulousness.
Book of Shadows
Book of Shadows -- TEA IN THE SIDHE [Sonic Oyster Records]
More whole-grain psychedelic drone goodness, this time featuring two lengthy workouts and three shorter ones. "Terrastock Tea Party," clocking in at over 31 minutes, is one of their more chaotic offerings -- the bedrock drone and ghostlike, wailing vocals are present as always, but there's a lot more activity happening in the background, in the form of springy guitar lines that come and go, erratic bursts of percussion, and a plethora of strange, usually unidentifiable noises that point the song perilously close to the land of improv free jazz... except this is the slowest and most sporadic free jazz you'll ever hear. Some of it sounds like a free jazz combo workout that's been slowed down to half speed and swaddled in gauzy sheets of drone. Screeching, wailing noises that might be a saxophone or something sampled from a keyboard rise up through the fog now and then as well. The density of sound ebbs and flows over time, as does the intensity. The considerably shorter five-minute title track is one of the most peculiar tracks I've heard from the band -- what sounds like a kazoo or wheezing keyboard provides a sawtooth drone over which discordant voices babble while squeaks and skronks abound. "Midsummer w / Verdi" is another long one (over 27 minutes), and this is closer to what most would expect from the band -- long, swirling drones, beatific disembodied vocals, and pulsing waves of cosmic sound. The volume increases as the piece goes on and the playing activity grows more restless as well, but eventually gives way to a more languid sensibility that continues to the end, with a sound that's still heavy on the cosmic vibe but far more spacious and restrained, at least up until the end (where there's a brief burst of electronic frippery designed to roust you from your tranced-out bliss). "Ion" is another short one -- just four minutes exactly -- and one of the more esoteric ones, filled with bass-heavy rumble and sci-fi noises, like a snippet from a soundtrack to an obscure science fiction B-movie; the twelve-minute "Major Cerridwen" continues the sci-fi theme, sort of, with the occasional bits that sound like alpha waves bouncing off satellites, but this is rooted more in their traditional affinity for dreamy, floating dronescapes. This is certainly one of their more enigmatic and unusual albums, but fans of the band (and of cosmic drone-rock in general) will nevertheless find this a worthy addition to their album collections.
Book of Shadows
Sonic Oyster Records
Book of Shadows -- TWELVE DEGREE CHANDELIER [Tape Drift Records]
Oh, now this is lovely... the Book of Shadows musical philosophy has always resolved around transcendence and matters of a spiritual nature, but this is definitely a highwater mark in their exploration of beauty through (often ambient) sound. The album opens with entrancing bell tones and gentle waves of background drone on "The Mystery of March 8th," and gradually evolves into a drifting ocean of drone buoyed by Sharon Crutcher's eerie, wordless vocalizing (a staple of the BoS sound, for those who haven't heard the band). The bell tones show up again on "Spirits in the Attic," but here the drone element is more in the vein of cosmic space rock, and minimalist beats emerge from time to time -- not with enough consistency to suggest anything so ordinary as a rock song, but often enough to provide a recurrent pulse beneath the wailing drone and tweeting, chirping synth noises. At the end of the song, the music dies away in a brief spasm of tweaked beats soaked in delay. The drift 'n drone (and occasional percussion appearance) are themes that show up in all of the album's eight songs, but there are different elements that come to the forefront on individual tracks -- such as Sharon's vocals on "Move Inside a Mountain," where she abandons the wordless wailing for a vibrato-infused style of singing that subtly changes the character of the band's sound while remaining infinitely mysterious, or the mutant rhythmic sound in "I'm a Kite" that mimics the sound of a needle stuck in the groove of a scratched LP, the twangy near-folk guitar melody that runs through ""Hitty, Her First Hundred Notes," and the reverberating, tremelo-infused guitar and field recordings of birds of "Elephant Trees" (another one in which Sharon sings in a more traditional manner). There's always plenty of heavy drone action and cosmic sounds, though, giving the songs a unified feel despite the embellishments. Aside from Sharon's occasional deviation from her standard vocal technique, this album is a bit different than most of their releases in that three of the songs were actually composed by guitarist Aaron Bennack and one by guitarist Jason Zenmoth, rather than freely improvised (their usual method of recording). I have yet to hear the band put out a bad record, and this is certainly no exception, but it's also one of their most subdued and melodic releases yet -- strange and beautiful, drawing from space rock and improv idioms while retaining a unique and haunting sound.
Book of Shadows
Tape Drift Records
Burzum -- BELUS [Byelobog Productions]
You knew they were going to turn him loose sooner or later, didn't you? What you probably didn't expect, though, was that he would return to the music world with such an amazing new album. I want to know how someone locked up for sixteen years without a guitar can come back and make an album like this. Time has wrought some changes, though; for one, this is very much a guitar album -- he appears to have abandoned the keyboard for the moment, unless it's hiding in the background somewhere -- and two, his vocal style has changed considerably (apparently to the disappointment of many, although it sounds fine to me). The guitar sound is similar to the sound on what I consider his two best albums, HVIS LYSET TAR OSS and FILOSOFEM, and the song structures are similar as well, only even more monochromatic and repetitive (and in some places, disturbingly catchy). In fact, while this is being marketed as a metal album and the guitar sound is unquestionably metallic, structurally the songs on this album have more in common with the minimalist works of LaMonte Young or Philip Glass. People who whined about the repetitive minimalim of the two aforementioned classics are really going to hate this album -- outside of a brief introduction featuring the literal sound of a hammer striking an anvil, the seven songs that follow are so sonically and thematically related that they might as well be movements in one long song. The spiraling, endlessly circling melodies are accented at just the right moments by simple but potent drum parts that prevent the songs from becoming static, and there are illuminating surprises from time to time, such as the remarkable shift in tone halfway through "Kaimadalthas' nedstigning" that alludes to the sound of classical orchestration. The best section of the album comes at the end, with two songs that run together -- "Morgenrøde" and "Belus' tilbakekomst (Konklusjon)" -- for nearly twenty minutes of cascading sheets of sound anchored by more of those spiraling circular melodies. By his own admission in recent interviews, Vikernes picked the best (and most musically consistent) songs from a backlog of older, unrecorded work, and the result is his most consistent album yet. Hopefully more such albums will follow.
Crepuscular -- DEEP SLOW MAJESTY [Black Drone Records]
They do drone in South America? Apparently so, and judging from this five-track disc, they do it pretty well. The tracks on this thirty-minute cd-ep are exactly what the title suggests -- slow, deep waves of majestic droning sound, dark and brooding without being harsh or forbidding. The sound on these tracks is the sound of celestial voices and ships streaking across the sky as they re-enter the atmosphere, all rumbling and droning and drifting. The tracks are similar in nature, but just varied enough to keep the disc interesting, and the drone action, while not harsh or violent, is still generally gritty enough to keep the tracks from floating off into the ether. A lot of it is reminiscent of the more ambient Final albums; there's plenty of bass in the drone, but the steadily evaporating high end is what gives off the celestial radiance. This is the kind of dark ambient drone made for ingesting the mind-altering substance of your choice and zoing out to the endless flow of sound. Good stuff, in other words, and highly recommended for the discerning dronehead.
Black Drone Records
Amy Denio -- TUTTO BENE [Spoot Music / CD Baby]
The latest cd from Amy Denio is a conceptual anthology of sorts: while the twenty songs on here were all composed on accordion (!!!), they were performed by a number of bands revolving around Denio, in different places and different circumstances -- in addition to some solo pieces, there are recordings here by The Danubians, (ec) Nudes, FoMoFlo, Die Knodel, Pale Nudes, Quintetto alla Busara, and one track ("Hanonew") by Denio and Petunia. Just to make things more interesting, the tracks are not grouped by bands, but sequenced in an order that makes the album flow in a more natural manner. The result is a really interesting, often surprising, and at times absolutely mesmerizing album whose sound resembles experimental artists playing world music with (as far as I can tell) entirely acoustic instruments. Not only is the instrumentation wildly varied throughout the disc, but her vocals encompass a range of styles, from traditional singing to spiritual chanting. Denio has a well-deserved reputation as a highly experimental musician, but this is an amazingly accessible album, one that could be enjoyed by anyone, not just those into the avant-garde sound that is normally her preferred mode of expression. Her exuberance and disdain for the dry and academic affectation that makes so many po-faced experimental artists so tedious has a lot to do with her ability to create music that is simultaneously unusual and highly listenable; unlike many of her contemporaries, Denio is from the school of thought that the purpose of music is enjoyable listening, not as an exercise in perverting traditional notions of sound purely for the sake of intellectual study. Of course, her lengthy background in the experimental arts (she's been releasing music, primarily through her own label Spoot Music, since 1986) means that her approach to almost anything -- even world music via an accordion -- is inevitably destined to be far more adventurous than that of the average musician. Trying to explain the sound of this album further would be madness (although I will say that "Axis," recorded with Pale Nudes, is one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing things I've ever heard), but I'll say this much: in an era where entirely too much music sounds either canned and robotic or little more than a rehash of the work of earlier artists, this is one of the most soulful and emotionally resonant albums I've heard in eons. It also tells you a lot about Denio's unique originality that, despite the songs being recorded with more than half a dozen bands, you would never know this without looking at the liner notes. Everybody -- and I mean everybody -- should hear this at least once, or better yet, own a copy. You can get yours via the link below to her CD Baby page.
CD Baby page
Overmaster -- MADNESS OF WAR [Cruz del Sur Music]
Let me say upfront that I am really, really tired of metal musicians singing about war. Seriously, this is possibly the most overused topic ever in metal (well, along with Satan, intoxicants, and witchy women). It doesn't help that the first metal band to bleat on the subject, Black Sabbath, did it better than anybody else following in their mighty footsteps. The only thing more terrifying to me at this point in the realm of metal is a band with not just one song about war, but a whole album full of them. Which brings us to Italy's Overmaster, a power metal band (more horror for the hardcore metalheads!) formed in 2006 by singer Gustavo Adrian Gabarro, originally from Argentina and formerly of the Italian power metal band White Skull. After drafting into service the drummer and guitarist of White Skull and completing the lineup with a bassist and keyboard player (from Skylark and Highlord), the band recorded this, their debut album. An album with eleven songs about... war.
As it happens, this is a really good power metal album. Regardless of my views on the wisdom of debuting with a concept album about war, the band delivers an impassioned performance on the subject, and Ra knows we need more metal albums that burn with passion these days (as opposed to technically proficient but soulless albums assembled in the studio to cash in on hot trends or just to cash in on a "valuable brand name" -- but if you want to keep buying Fear Factory albums, be my guest). As metal bands go, this one is really tight and appropriately heavy (guitarist Pino Sicari is particularly impressive throughout the album), and Gabarro is a singer from the classic power metal mode, with a voice that's sonorous and capable of effortlessly nailing all the high notes without sounding like a girl in a tight girdle. The songs themselves strike a nice balance between capturing the soaring, bombastic sound of traditional power metal -- every song is designed to be an anthem, let's put it that way -- while adding some adventurous touches (the occasional blast beat, guitar passages with a tone resembling the treble-heavy, barbed-wire sound of black metal, and rhythms that are often closer to death metal) alluding to other genres. For a genre that's rooted in ballads, the songs on this album are frequently much heavier and faster than you might expect, and they've been recorded with the fanatical accuracy and attention to sonic detail inherent to power metal standards. It's also worth nothing that their obsession with war is presented here in a multicultural context, with songs referencing ancient Greece, the Falklands war, and the Middle East. Fans of European power metal should be able to get behind this in a big way.
Cruz del Sur Music
Portal -- LURKER ON THE THRESHOLD 7" [Chrome Leaf Records]
Australia's Portal are one of the most polarizing bands in metal today; the critics and listeners falling over themselves to proclaim the band's avant-garde metal genius are equally matched by less-impressed listeners claiming the band is overhyped and their albums unlistenable sludge. The truth is probably somewhere in between; while the band has an unquestionable talent for conjuring up creeped-out sounds and visuals (the one thing everybody appears to agree on is the superior graphics and packaging of their releases), their deliberately murky production values are inevitably destined to irritate audiences used to modern metal's super-crisp studio sound. Of course, some people (like myself, for instance) find their preference for wallowing in dark sonic mung the most interesting thing about them. At their best, they straddle the line between anarchaic death metal and pure devolved noise with a consistency and oblique finesse that few bands before them have ever managed to achieve; at their most impenetrable, they sound more like the epitome of randomness, with five guys playing five different tunes at the same time and captured for sonic posterity with all the lo-fi glory of a damaged microcassette recorder buried in a sandbox. How much you dig the band depends largely on your tolerance for their decidedly untraditional approach to metal (both in terms of playing and production values).
This limited-edition picture disc single isn't the release that's going to change anybody's mind on the subject, either. The two tracks here are both taken from the band's original demo cassette, and their sound is classic Portal. On "13 Globes," intensely fast drums and equally fast technical guitar squealing rise from a crude sonic maelstrom, with an exquisitely lo-fi sound that buries the rest of it in a bleak cloud of fog; even when the tempo slows down, it still sounds like they're being slowly swallowed by a sand dune. The flip side is marginally clearer (or at least by Portal's standards) but every bit as frantic and chaotic, and this time it's a lot more obvious that while they favor perversely opaque mixes, they are far more technically accomplished than their detractors would have you believe. Even better, in true classic death metal fashion, you cannot understand a single fucking word that comes out of The Curator's mouth. The bottom line is this: if you already like the band, you'll want this; if you already hate the band, this won't change your mind. If you're undecided or haven't heard the band, this would be the perfect place to start, especially since the single's packaging and limited availability (70-gram pressing at 45 RPM, limited to 500 copies, with amazing and highly Lovecraftian artwork by Chimere Noire) means that even if you don't like it, you can always sell it for twice what it cost on Ebay a year from now.
Chrome Leaf Records
Rent Romus' Jazz on the Line w / Chico Freeman -- THUNDERSHINE [Edgetone Records]
Hey, now this is all right -- Rent Romus and his magic sax tackling compositions that are a bit closer to traditional (albeit adventurous) jazz than his usual affinity for avant-garde free jazz madness. The reason for this, it turns out, is that the album is actually a throwback to a much earlier time in his career -- the first five tracks were recorded in 1992 and released in 1994 as a cd called IN THE MOMENT that, for various reasons, was never widely available to the listening public. Since this was only his third jazz album, it is not terribly surprising that it sounds radically different from the later releases for which he has become better known. Another reason for the album's unusually retro (for now, anyway) sound can be attributed to the presence of legendary sax / trumpet player Chico Freeman, whose sound makes a nice counterpoint to Romus' sax action. Recorded live over two days in October, 1992 (the audience can be heard in the background at the end of some tracks), with a band including Jason Oilane on trumpet, Stefano DeZerega on piano (and alto sax on on one track), Ben Leinbach on drums, and Ravi Abcarian on bass, the band plows through a set of invigorating jazz workouts that are stimulating without being busy, along with more subdued pieces like "Q'Cee," a piano-driven ballad embellished with melancholy trumpet work and languid playing from the other musicians. The reissue also includes two bonus tracks ("Double Dig" and "Dali Lawnd"), apparently recorded at the same time but not released on the original disc, and they are every bit as captivating as the rest of the material. For a live recording, this sounds absolutely amazing -- sure, there's some bleed from the audience at times, but generally only at the end, and their presence never disrupts the sound of the band, who are totally in the groove at all times, with a sound that's clear and sharp -- so much so, in fact, that the dynamic changes in the rhythm section on "Thundershine" are clearly audible without distracting from the winding, wailing sax attack. This should hold tremendous appeal not only to those familiar with the work of Rent Romus and interested in hearing him at an early stage of his artistic development, but to fans of Chico Freeman as well. Even those unfamiliar with either artist who are nevertheless fans of modern jazz ensemble work can find plenty to admire and appreciate here.