Armagedda -- I AM ep [Eisenwald / Nordvis]
The Swedish black metal band Armagedda has apparently called it quits, but they coughed up one last EP of material before vanishing into the abyss, and their final four songs are black indeed. The barbed-wire guitar sound, simple but pounding drums, and raw-throated vocals often remind me of Akitsa, but they're not (quite) as monochromatic as that band. They're also much angrier, and when they pick up speed or the drummer becomes even more aggressive, totally punishing. There's nothing subtle or sophisticated about the band's sound, which is totally old-school necro style, and a deeply hateful necro at that. The first track, "Den Skrivna Eskatologin," is the most uptempo of the bunch, kicking off the album with a blazing fury; things slow down a bit (but remain every bit as angry) with "De Vanhelgade," a track whose tempo and simple, martial beat initially make it sound like an Akitsa song, until the drumming grows more complex and furious and the guitar riffs somewhat more convoluted -- not by much, just enough to make them peculiar and assymetrical. The mid-tempo title track is the closest they ever come to being catchy, while its two-chord guitar fizz and plodding drums keep it firmly in necro territory. They finish with another galloping song, "Cold Eon," that leans toward being a tad too generic for its own good (at least until it slows down about a third of the way through), but makes up for that flaw with its furious enthusiasm. Raw, necro and filthy -- this is not a bad way to bow out.
Aspectee -- MORBEN [First Fallen Star]
The debut album by Germany's Aspectee (a side project of Evoke Scurvee's Michael Frenkel) is essentially nine tracks of some of the most forbidding dark-ambient drone ever laid down. The opening track "stuhlmann" sounds like the musicial embodiment of fading light from a dying sun, appropriately setting the tone for an album that's more about dark sheets of cosmic sound than anything resembling what most would consider actual music. The album has a dark soundtrack vibe that's not accidental -- the band's Myspace page lists mainly films like BLADE RUNNER, TWIN PEAKS, and THE MACHINIST as influences -- and it's not hard to imagine any of this being co-opted for use in brooding art films about destroyed landscapes and dissolute lives. The late J. G. Ballard would have approved of this, I'm sure. There are some gritty harsh noise textures in "newin" along with the swirling keyboard drones, and elements of noise creep into the vast droning plains of "aspectee," while the tinny, high-pitched drone cycling through "betho et" resembles a cold wind blowing through an empty cemetery. Really, though, the main motif running through this album is a persistent vision of cold, dark emptiness, and an unnerving sense of cosmic dread that's positively Lovecraftian. Bleak and beautiful, but probably not for the suicidal. Limited to 500 copies.
First Fallen Star
Dense Vision Shrine -- TIME LOST IN OBLIVION [First Fallen Star]
This release, from a project helmed by Karsten Hamre, is a simultaneous release with another album under his own name (reviewed later in this post), and welds gothic conventions to a dark ambient core. Grandiose, frozen keyboard washes are accompanied by noises that sound very much like the processed sound of animals yelping and insects buzzing. Some tracks, like "Chapter III - Through Fjords and Burning Skies," have titles suggesting a black metal aesthetic but music that's surprisingly subdued in nature and owes far more to classical conventions than anything remotely resembling metal. Things are not always so abstract: in "Chapter VI - Through Eternity," muted percussion provides a rudimentary beat as swirling bursts of noise rise in periodically violent fashion, cutting through the cold keyboard drone; eventually the percussion mutates into something less static and more primitive. Strange electronic frippery shows up again (along with more simple percussion) in "Chapter VII - The Guardians of Staglieno" and "Chapter X - The Girl Next Door," but otherwise the tracks are largely rooted in symphonic keyboard swells and endless expanses of glacial drone. As with Hamre's other release, the sound is often beautiful and simultaneously disquieting, and the two releases share a similar packaging format, housed in a dvd case and limited to a thousand copies, with the first five hundred also containing a dvd of visual imagery for use in live shows.
Dense Vision Shrine
First Fallen Star
Dusted Angel -- EARTH SICK MIND [Mankind Records]
The debut album by this California band is difficult to easily pigeonhole (always a good sign), but it's definitely a throwback to 70s doom, in both sound and style. It's not persistently slow, wasting doom by any means -- there's a lot of variety to the tempos and parts, and especially to the ever-evolving guitar riffs -- but the guitar / vocal sound unquestionably owes a lot to classic Black Sabbath and St. Vitus. This also hearkens back to a time when bands spent a lot of time jamming out the kinks in songs until they had a collection of distinct, memorable songs with original, intelligent riffs and structures. For a band being marketed as doom, the structures of these songs are actually fairly convoluted, and while the rock-action riffs are definitely heavy, they're also complex and unusual. There are also a lot of them: whereas most of the bands one might cite as an obvious influence on these guys were fond of building songs out of two or three key riffs, Dusted Angel employs many, many riffs within any given song, and even when they return to earlier ones, they don't do it in a formulaic format. Their songs twist and turn in all sorts of unexpected directions as a result. The five members of this band include former players in Bl'ast, Spaceboy, and Gargantula, and they all turn in consistently swank performances. This band deserves the kind of hype that Howl has been getting lately for an album that's nowhere near this good. If you're old-school, you should definitely seek this out.
Encoffination -- RITUAL ASCENSION BEYOND FLESH [Selfmadegod]
Hey, this is some creepy-sounding stuff that does a fine job of straddling the line between old-school death metal and doom. The groaning, foot-dragging product of the duo Ghoat (vocals, guitar, bass) and Elektrokutioner (drums) fuses death metal's early guitar sound to the stunted tempos and generally suicidal sound of dISEMBOWELMENT with exceptionally unnerving results. The ritual-sounding opener "Procession" paves the way for "Nefarious Yet Elegant Are the Bowels of Hell" (my vote for the niftiest song title I've heard in ages), which is essentially a lot of washed-out death metal guitar fuzz over absurdly slow drumming, with a sound like a slow-moving tsunami rattling the walls of a submarine. The zombie-like guitar sound is impressive; that it tends to drown out the drumming might be a minor drawback for some, but the muffled, strangulated sound that creates is absolutely fine with me. This is ugly stuff, scary in the way a Hammer horror film soundtrack is scary, like a poisonous gas cloud disguised as music. I dare you to listen to this late at night with the lights off. This album is already available as a cassette by Ritval Death Offerings and on vinyl thorugh Psychedelic Lotus Order; it's only fitting that such a bizarre and exquisitely retro album should take its time about making it to the digital format. All must hail the masterful use of slow motion and excessive reverb in the name of all that is unholy and occult.
Karsten Hamre -- THROUGH THE EYES OF A STRANGER [First Fallen Star]
Formerly aligned with such projects as Arcane Art and Penitent, Hamre's first release under his own name is a series of seven dark-ambient passages in the vein of Lustmord, dark and drifting, often symphonic in nature. The Lustmord comparison is apt, for Hamre favors minimalist and subterranean soundscapes composed of distant keyboard drones, sheets of processed sound steeped in reverb that ebb and flow in sudden movements like giant waves crashing on a beach, and the use of incidental sounds that may be field recordings. The works on this disc frequently resemble sounds of the country that have been processed and repurposed to serve a naturalistic aesthetic; this basic feel is sometimes adorned with processed sounds of a mysterious nature that could be anything from modified electronics to mutated sounds of animal noises. On "Chapter V - Through Past Times," there is a percussion element as well, a simple but persistent pounding in the background like a loop of someone pounding nails in a coffin -- a sound that provides a certain rhythm as a counterpoint to the howling drone and periodic chatter of muted electronics. The main aspect of the album, however, is its minimalist use of mysterious sounds, an enigmatic approach that yields subdued yet unsettling results. Packaged in a dvd case and limited to a thousand copies; the first five hundred come with a dvd featuring visuals used for live performances.
First Fallen Star
Ron House -- BLIND BOY IN THE BACK SEAT [Columbus Discount Records]
Maaaaan, I've got to start reviewing CDS releases as soon as they arrive, because it's happened again -- this album has already sold out. * WUPS * Nevertheless, they sent me this swell, swell copy and thus I'm gonna review it... you'll just have to look for your copy on Ebay until the label gets around to reissuing it, when and if that happens.
Anyway, Ron House is a guy flung from the same musical orbit as Mike Rep, Tommy Jay, Dan Howland, and other important Columbus punk luminaries. Originally a member of such bands as the Twisted Shouts, Moses Carryout, and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, he's apparently been a significant musical force and visionary of the Columbus scene since the late 70s. This LP collects a cherry-picked handful of important tunes by Twisted Shouts, Moses Carryout, one track with Tommy Jay and Mike Rep, and several with Kim Workman and Mike Rep. The tunes in question exhibit a peculiar punk-folk vibe not unlike the sound of the recently unearthed set of tunes by Tommy Jay and Mike Rep, driven largely by House's treble-heavy guitar action and nasal vocals. Like a lot of archival material on CDS, the vibe here is distinctly lo-fi; I don't see any info on the recordings, but I'm guessing at least some of this is of the homebrew, four-track variety. That raw, immediate sound just adds to the charm of these ragged but earnest songs, which combine nods to the avant garde with a punked-out pop-folk sensibility that's transformed into something edgier by the insistent, treble-happy guitar attack (a sound that's inspired as much by surf music as by Joy Division or the Dead Kennedys). This is the real essence of early punk -- an original style rooted as much in pop as anything else and indifferent to the slavery of fashion. For devotees of the Columbus scene, this is a pretty important artifact; even for those previously unaware of said scene, it's still definitely worth seeking out.
Columbus Discount Records
Innfallen -- THREE DAYS OF DARKNESS [First Fallen Star]
This is interesting: while this album is a dark-ambient epic with industrial overtones that sounds like it could have come from the Tesco-Disco orbit, it's the product of an American band (from Illinois, of all places). The sound reminds me of a more droning and subdued version of MZ.412 -- heavy on the evil and atmospherics, but minus that band's more metallic leanings. A concept album based on the Catholic prophecy involving three days of darkness following God's decision to unleash evil spirits and demons to walk the earth as a response to man's unending wickedness, the eight tracks here form a series of movements chronicling the reign of terror of those three days (no mean feat, given that the album is entirely instrumental). The album's sound is forbidding but not overwrought, often combining droning keyboards with sweeping waves of heavily reverbed sound and processed electronic noise; this is dark ambient from an industrial perspective, with a resulting sound that's every bit as creepy as you might imagine. Some of the tracks like "Day Two (Gnashing of Teeth)" sound like throwbacks to the isolationist movement, featuring amorphous elements like wind noises, fading drones, clattering sounds, and other disparate elements that cohere into a whole that radiates despair and pessimism. Despite the album's dark and melancholy overtones, the songs themselves are relatively subdued -- there are no overt fireworks here, just a creeping glacial drone that occasionally includes industrial elements. The packaging is as austere as the album's sound: the disc comes enclosed in a stiff cardboard booklet adorned with sepia-toned art of a gothic nature that includes a cover painting of Death on a pale horse wielding a sycthe. Impressive stuff, and limited to a thousand copies.
First Fallen Star
Robert Poss -- SETTINGS: MUSIC FOR DANCE, FILM, FASHION AND INDUSTRY [Trace Elements]
The former Band of Susans leader Steve Albini once called "an enormously underrated guitar theorist" is back with his first full-length release in eight years, a compilation of fourteen tracks mainly commissioned for the arts (hence the title), and it's very much a continuation of the sound he began exploring on DISTORTION IS TRUTH and CROSSING CASCO BAY. (In case you're wondering what took so long between albums, he's been busy doing location sound for the likes of ABC, the BBC, Discovery Channel, and the Learning Channel; he's currently running the sound board for Suicide -- yes, that Suicide -- on their latest European tour.) If you've heard either of the two previous records, then you know that the heavily electronic and processed sound realm in which he now works bears little resemblance to the distortion-laden sheets of sound he used to lay down when the Band of Susans brought the rock... and yet that band's ghost puts in a spectral appearance from time to time here. "With Music No. 2 (excerpt)," for instance, is built around a looped version of the main riff that anchored "Sometimes," only here it's surrounded by wailing drones and ambient sound. Then there's "Tourniquet Revisited," an orchestral reinterpretation of sorts of the original LOVE AGENDA song "Tourniquet," in which the song is reduced to its drone elements and augmented with strings to interesting effect.
The rest of the album is mainly informed by electronics -- the amazing cover picture, featuring a vast array of pedals, sound processing modules, and cables everywhere says volumes about where those mysterious sounds on the disc are coming from -- in service of repetition, wave-like sound, and (of course) the almighty drone. One of the best tracks is "Inverness," nine-plus minutes of steadily building rhythmic drone and hoverbot sounds that could have been lifted from a science fiction film soundtrack; about halfway through, simple but effective bursts of percussion add a new element as the sci-fi sounds grow increasingly agitated. "Concordance" is a surprise -- a waltz built around a repeated, tinkling guitar arpeggio buoyed by a gentle rhythmic pulse; it's easily the most accessible thing on the album. Distortion and feedback show up on tracks like "The Pleasure of Stillness (live excerpt)," "Trio (excerpt)," "Other Stories Interlude," and "Feed Forward," often in the form of piercing wails that weave in and out of the electronic sounds or burst forth in great droning waves, but it's on "Stare Decisis" where the feedback really takes on a life of its own, wailing and droning in the background behind a series of pinging electronic loops for over eight minutes. Toward the end, the droning sound is joined by minimal but upbeat percussion, a development that's most pleasing. "Border Piano Walk" is another intriguing slice of the unexpected, built around brief and repetitive bursts of treated piano. This is all good stuff -- Robert's adventures in the avant-garde remain consistently interesting throughout the album, which is yet another testament to his continuing desire to expand the boundaries of sound. Let's just hope we don't have to wait another eight years for the next one, huh?
Gil San Marcos -- DOMES lp [Bombay Cove]
First off, I love the way the vinyl looks: camouflage splatter green. It's heavy vinyl, too, playable at 45 rpm for that maximum fidelty sound, if you can dig it. Then there's the sound, which mixes elements of noise, reverb, and hypnosis in pretty much equal measures, as befits something recorded with a wide array of noise-making gadgets and efx pedals. The back cover of the sleeve helpfully details all the particular gadgets employed in creating each of the six tracks, just in case you want to acquire a bunch of arcane gear and recreate the noise thrills yourself. Each side contains two studio tracks and a live one. Reverb and delay are applied to a percussion-like noise on "smoke film," then to even more violent sounds, as electronic tweeting is added to the mix; the sound alternates between reverberating bursts of sonic action and blasts of noise. The title track is more drone-o-rific, although that drone comes in the form of squealing noise washed out by reverb, a sound that grows steadily louder and more chaotic as the piece progresses, only to devolve into a hum-heavy drone that eventually fades out. The first side's live track, "triple crown parquet," recorded in New Orleans, is the minimalist sound of something processed through a delay unit being struck followed by repeated iterations of the same sound; different sounds emerge in this pattern, eventually forming in clusters, then returning to individual sounds, to disorienting effect. On the flip side, "every clock and wristwatch" opens with pealing feedback before descending into the glorious spectacle of uncontrolled noise chaos that can only come from massive efx pedal abuse (along with the use of tape feedback and a modulator). There's more feedback, along with plenty of rumbling low-end sonic distress, in "sterling chambers," and "mass grave," another live recording (this time in Nashville), ends the album on an appropriately grotesque note, with drones playing out in the background while the clanging noise up front approximates the sound of a garbage disposal grinding shards of glass metal. This is swell stuff, with plenty of enticing, noise-laden textures and a high level of variety from one track to the next.
Gil San Marcos