Across Tundras -- SAGE [Neurot Recordings]
The band's seventh full-length album (and first for Neurot) is the latest entry in an expansive catalog of atmospheric, spaghetti-western metal. The band's sound, while definitely metallic, is firmly rooted in Americana and laced with touches of psychedelia. This unique combination of disparate elements gives them an unmistakable sound that's immediately identifiable, albeit difficult to market (which probably explains why most of their albums have been self-released). They favor epic tracks (three of them are in the neighborhood of nine minutes, and one is over twelve) that frequently culminate in lengthy excursions of psychedelic lead guitar with a sound somewhere between King Crimson and ZZ Top, and while there are vocals, the emphasis is definitely on the instrumental passages. The metallic element of the band's sound is mainly in the heavy rhythms and distorted guitar sound, but the song structures themselves owe more to the band's Americana roots, and the guitar solos -- while bursting with psychedelic tinges -- are definitely derived from country blues power. This is what real progressive metal is all about: challenging, cryptic songs that move in unexpected directions, buoyed by highly eclectic, expressive playing. Their sound is a perfect fit for the Neurot label, too, and hopefully they'll find a permanent home there.
Aerial Ruin -- VALLEYS OF THE EARTH [Vendlus Records]
Well, this is kind of interesting: Vendlus is known for releasing unusual metal albums, but this is a metal album with pretty much all the metal removed. A solo work by Erik Moggridge of Bay Area bands Old Grandad, Drift of a Curse, and Epidemic, among others, this has only vestigal traces of anything resembling metal; instead, Moggridge constructs dark, haunting tracks of solo acoustic guitar swaddled in icy reverb, with heavily arpeggiated passages accompanied only by mournful vocals. He likens the sound to Low, which is is appropriate in terms of its deliberately lethargic pacing, but this is really closer to a more organic, less-processed version of Six Organs of Admittance, or even the recent solo acoustic release by Wino. (This makes me worry, too, that this will be the new metal trend -- heavy dudes making pretty acoustic albums -- now that the business of playing albums in their entirety live has peaked.) The songs are stark and unadorned, with a vibe that's both beautiful and desolate, riveting in their lonesome darkness. Moggridge's playing style is derived from complex country blues -- John Fahey and Jack Rose would have appreciated the man's playing, I"m sure -- but the pacing and dynamics, and especially the sensibility behind the flow of each song, are what provide the tenuous link to metal (along with the occasional burst of frantic, otherworldly sound, like the solo passage in "Sacraments"). Beautiful and moving, and definitely a stroke of unexpected genius that will catch you off guard before enveloping you in its morose power.
A Life Divided -- PASSENGER [AFM Records]
This is a solid collection of European-style rock tunes that combines melodic, riff-heavy hard rock with electronic music in a package that, at times, comes close to being a less pretentious version of power metal. The electronic element comes mainly in the form of pulsing keyboards and the occasional background ambient synth wash, but the real musical meat here is in the five-piece band's command of a hook-laden, guitar-heavy sound. Radio-friendly without pandering, the album doesn't exactly break new musical ground, but the songs are good, the execution impressive, and on track after track, filled with catchy melodies and bracing riffs. The progressive nature of the song structures at times, combined with the singer's dramatic style, means the album's sound often creeps into the territory of power metal, but this is not quite as bombastic or operatic as the usual offerings of that genre. Regardless of how you perceive the band's sound or intention, this is certainly a respectable offering sure to please followers of the European hard rock scene.
A Life Divided
Aluk Todolo -- LIVE AT THE MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG cs [self-released]
This swank obscurity is exactly what its title suggests -- three lengthy tracks recorded live in Brooklyn, NYC during the 2009 WFMU Fest. Given its live origins, it's hardly surprising that this is much heavier than their albums, which are more controlled recordings; nevertheless, the sound is clear (and loud), and the band is in fine form. Two of the tracks here are, to the best of my knowledge, otherwise unreleased -- the opener "sheol," an intensely psychedelic workout filled with howling tornado guitar, and "march," an aptly-titled uptempo death march that may be the closest they've ever come to sounding like traditional black metal, punctuated by bursts of screeching, wounded-rhino guitar feedback over an intensely propulsive rhythm section. The final track is "woodchurch," from their first album DESCENSION, a slower and more hypnotic piece of work that takes on a more aggressive feel live, buoyed by earth-shaking bass and yet more wailing, moaning guitar action. It's an intense, assured performance that makes it clear the band is every bit at home on stage as in the studio, a rarity these days, and one that does not sacrifice their heavy occult vibe. Highly recommended, assuming you can find it; as far as I know, the only easy way to obtain this is directly through the band's website, and I'm sure it's a limited release that will disappear quickly.
Aluk Todolo -- ORDRE 10" LP [Ajna Offensive]
Leave it to the always-swank Ajna Offensive to bring us just what the world needed right now -- namely, new occult hypno-skronk from the mysterious and brilliant Aluk Todolo. In this case, though, "new" is not quite the correct term, since this is actually a track recorded around the time of the material that appeared on their first full-length, DESCENSION, appearing here split into two parts to suit the vinyl format. It's very much in the vein of that album's sound, too; plodding drums shuffle along in simple but cryptic rhythms as wooly bass oozes out of the speakers in near-ambient fashion and the guitars make strange buzzing noises, only to coalesce in a marching black metal sound disfigured by more sawblade buzzing and other strange bursts of sonic otherworldliness. Flip the disc over -- and this is high-quality vinyl, by the way -- and the track just gets noisier and more psychotic, triangulating an unnerving signal between the points of black metal, ritual occultism, and flat-out noise. Eventually the madness fades away into a disappearing tornado of howling guitar that turns into a buzzing drone over the simplest beat ever (and I mean that in a good way). The band already has a sterling reputation for combining elements of black metal, ritual music, mutant prog rock, and noise into something diabolically occult and beautifully sinister; this only adds to the legend. As with all their other releases, the packaging matches the music by being simple yet striking, with a heavy occult vibe. You need this, and it's almost certainly limited to some absurdly small run, so you shouldn't dally in acquiring it.
Amon Amarth -- SURTUR RISING [Metal Blade]
Swedish metal has rarely sounded as savagely aggressive as the music on this release. Amon Amarth have been around awhile -- originating in Tumba in 1992 under the name Scum, a name they later abandoned for their current appellation -- and have steadily commanded more attention with each passing year and each new album. This album offers plenty of compelling evidence that their rise to stardom has been based on genuine merit; this is a hard-rocking piece of work indeed, with Johan Hegg's thunderous vocals riding over wave after wave of blitzkreig guitars and drums. I'm not normally a huge fan of Viking metal, but this is impressive stuff -- the band's penchant for epic rock is not weighed down by cumbersome noodling, and while there is definitely more than a hint of the melodicism traditionally found in Sweden's metal scene, here the melodic content is definitely subservient to the bone-splintering riff madness and rhythmic pummeling. The band's epic sound benefits from having roots in the chunky guitar sound of early death metal; that hammering attack has been honed to precision and elevated to something more than just sheer brutality, but without sacrificing any intensity. As with their earlier releases, the subject matter of these songs revolves pretty much around war, death, more death, and the joyous clang of steel on steel; they're nothing if not focused. It's a tribute to their enormous talent that such a monochromatic vision can sound so consistently entertaining over the course of an entire album.
Argus -- BOLDLY STRIDE THE DOOMED [Cruz Del Sur Music]
The second album from Pennsylvania's Argus, featuring former Penance vocalist Butch Balich, solidifies their reputation as practitioners of a more modern form of classic doom. With a galloping rhythm section and guitar tone that recalls the more aggressive moments of Black Sabbath or St. Vitus and classic doom vocals, the ten tracks on this album straddle the line between a comfortably old-school sound and something a bit more updated. Here the doom lies mainly in their sound, especially the guitar tone, more than the tempo; while this is hardly speed metal, it's certainly far less lethargic in its pace than the work of its influential forebears. As with most doom bands, a lot rides on the guitars and vocals, and Argus excels in both of these areas. Their twin-guitar attack owes as much in its tightness and ominous attack to early Judas Priest as to Black Sabbath -- the leads are routinely stellar, oozing with old-school pentatonic appeal -- and the singer's impassioned delivery is every bit as powerful and captivating as the guitars. If there's a weak link, it's in the drumming, which is at times dominated by awkward patterns and a sometimes dodgy sound (although that could be a result of poor compression in the promo MP3 files). This should be especially relevant and enjoyable to fans of early Black Sabbath and the Scott Reagers-era St. Vitus albums.
Cruz Del Sur Music
Betzefer -- FREEDOM TO THE SLAVE MAKERS [AFM Records]
This Israeli band has two things I like a lot: a tremendously obnoxious vocalist comparable to Sepultura's Max Cavalera and nasty guitars soaked in distortion. The band is not as weird as most Israeli bands I've heard so far -- this is essentially standard-issue hard rock with fried metal guitars and a singer apparently weaned on black metal, with no real nods toward noise or industrial or experimental music, something common in Israeli metal circles -- but they're really good and intensely aggressive. They've spent the last couple of years opening for bands like Megadeth, Sepultura, and Lamb of God, so that should give you an inkling of where they're coming from; in fact, there are distinct traces of Sepultura in their DNA, even beyond the vocals, a fact made obvious by their strong, heavy grooves as much as the guitar sound. As the Sepultura comparison might suggest, they're not exactly creating an innovative new sound or anything like that, but what they may lack in originality, they more than make up for with intensity and sheer heaviness. There are worse things to imagine than an Israeli version of Sepultura, and the material on this album is strong enough to alleviate such reservations about originality.
Cynthesis -- DEEVOLUTION [Sensory Records]
This is a band featuring three members of Zero Hour and this, their debut album, was produced by Dino Alden, producer for such proggy types as Marty Friedman, Tony MacAlpine, Vinnie Moore, and the aforementioned Zero Hour, so it's hardly a surprise that it's a prog-metal affair. More than that, it's a concept album about evil industrial overlords who brainwash a shaman into becoming a puppet leader by which they can control the masses. This dystopian vision is accompanied by an unusually sedate playing style; the playing on this album is definitely progressive and filled with such un-metal moves as the piano on "Shallow World," and despite some face-shredding solos, this is not exactly a hard-rocking album. Some of that strategy may be an effort to distance themselves from the sound of Zero Hour, but whatever the reasoning is, it makes for a slow-moving listening experience. The playing is uniformly excellent throughout, but the pacing and lack of pure metallic heaviness means this is definitely going to be an acquired taste most likely to appeal to hardcore prog-metal devotees and fans of Zero Hour. Sure, "The Edifice Grin" does have a much heavier sound than the rest of the album, but by the time it arrives near the end, anybody but the dedicated prog-head will have probably moved on already to something that rocks a bit harder. Not bad by any means, but definitely not for the casual metalhead.
Death Agonies -- DUST IN THE LUNGS OF GOD cs [Cathartic Process]
Short but potent, this twenty-minute cassette by members of The Endless Blockade is, sonically speaking, a throwback to the early days of the American noise revolution. On the A-side, "Before The Span Of One's Life Is Run Out" comes on strong with harsh walls of corrupt, grinding noise and squealing audio hate. At one point everything goes silent for a few bursts of noise, only to resume with the full-on assault of rumbling, grumbling, shrieking earhurt. The tonal character of the sound evolves constantly while remaining consistently harsh and deliberately ugly, and the rapidly-shifting style of attack recalls early Macronympha and other early progenitors of power electronics. They take a different approach on the flip side's "An Unnecessary Stain," opening with bursts of compressed noise and gradually introducing a rhythmic element of machine-like throbbing that eventually becomes the main focus as the background sound becomes more chaotic, until the unstable rhythm is swaddled in a bed of hissing feedback and high-pitched whining. This gives way to a new rhythm of swirling noise that is in turn augmented by more crusty noise and bleak ugliness. After a period of clanking and thumping about that is largely devoid of the power electronics, the efx-generated grimness returns with a fuzzed-out machine rhythm swallowing the clanking sounds as the entire piece gradually descends into an orgy of white noise and psychotronic death rattles before ending in the sounds of everything in the room being broken. For a recent release, this definitely has an old-school sound. Bonus points for the cool heliocentric artwork.
Death Wolf -- S/T [Regain / Blooddawn Records]
Heavy, heavy, heavy... but it's on the label run by the main-man of Marduk, so you weren't expecting Peter, Paul and Mary, right? In fact, the band was formed in 2000 by the very same Morgan Hakansson and his pal Hrafn under the name Devil's Whorehouse (the name change came later). As far as I can tell, the entire purpose of the band's existence is so Morgan can play music that isn't atonal, hellish noise (Abruptum) or turbo-charged hell-music about running over cities with tanks and burning the bodies (Marduk). Which is not to say that the subject matter here is any lighter -- titles like "The Other Hell," "Sword and Flame," and "Unto Dying Eyes" make it pretty clear that this band is every bit as morbid and death-obsessed as anything else Morgan has been involved with in the past -- but musically speaking, this is probably a lot easier for the average metalhead to digest than the extreme sounds of Abruptum or Marduk. This band is more in the vein of classic Swedish death metal -- meaning, lots of melodic guitars in addition to the soul-crushing darkness and tempos that are nowhere near as frantic, leaving plenty of time for the gruesome riffs to pound their way into your skull. The biggest surprise, though, is singer Maelstrom's sonorous vocal sound, a cleaner and more passionate style than I ever would have expected of a band this heavy. The strong, brooding songs and surprisingly soulful guitar leads combined with this vocal approach make this a far more accessible album than anything I've heard on Regain, and while I'm sure a lot of purists weaned on Marduk and other equally uncompromising bands will find this too commercial for their tastes, it's definitely not a record to miss if you're a fan of the more melodic side of Swedish death metal.
De Magia Veterum -- THE DIVINE ANTITHESIS [Transcendental Creations]
Okay, I can get behind this. The latest side-project of the mastermind responsible for Gnaw Their Tongues, Pompidou, Aderlating, and various other grim-sounding bands, this sounds like a furious (and I do mean furious) mashup of Leviathan, Xasthur, Blut Aus Nord, and a cement mixer, recorded with iffy fidelity and played back at triple speed. It's not quite noise, definitely derived from black metal, and features a rhythm section powered by what must be a drum machine pushed to its maximum limit; the result is hyperkinetic chaos, leavened with a lot of demonic screaming. You want extreme? This is extreme. There's some seriously complex stuff happening beneath that constant shrapnel attack, although it's not easy to tell (which is probably the point), and it's not all just noise and clattering drums, although the moments of clarity are few and far between, existing mainly to keep the sound from becoming too predictably monochromatic. It also never lets up -- the seven tracks are just a long, soul-draining blur of sonic violence and mayhem punctuated by hideous, psychotic wailing. Even Marduk is not this willfully obnoxious. I think that's a good thing; your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, if you're hep to the man's other forms of sonic ruination, or just a fan of elaborately psychopathic antimusic in general, you'll want to hear this.
De Magia Veterum
Der Blutharsch And The Infinite Church Of The Leading Hand + Aluk Todolo -- s/t 12" LP [WKN]
I dunno what the dealio is with Der Blutharsch's new, unwieldy name, but their collaboration with French occultmusik masters Aluk Todolo is a brilliant one. I've never been much of a DB fan in the past, but I like what they're doing here with Aluk Todolo -- four tracks of drone-heavy ritual occult music that are a bit more traditional, structurally speaking, than Aluk Todolo's usual musical offerings, but far more exotic and sinister-sounding that what I've heard from DB in the past. The tracks are all lengthy workouts that run from ten to eleven minutes each, and it sounds like DB brought a sick-sounding analog synth to the party, so much the better to fill out the sound with haunting, harmonically-rich drone washes. The sound of the two tracks on the A-side is essentially that of Aluk Todolo -- pokey and minimal drums, hypnotic bass lines, and disturbed guitar sounds -- augmented by thick layers of keyboards, and it's a dark, beautiful sound indeed. Things heat up a bit on the flip side, where the first track features an uptempo beat and vocals that may or may not be samples; it's here that Der Blutharsch's hand in things becomes a bit more evident. The final track is straight-up electro-rock, albeit underpinned by Aluk Todolo's unorthodox take on ritual music, that -- bizarrely enough -- resembles something from Beherit's electronica phase. Excellent stuff all the way around, and possibly the most accessible thing either band has ever done. Fans of either band will want to check this out. Limited to 400 copies on absurdly heavy vinyl in a gorgeous (and minimal) sleeve reminiscent of Aluk Todolo's first album.
Der Blutharsch ATICOTLH
Mark Deutrom -- THE VALUE OF DECAY [Southern Lord]
For those not hep to the name Deutrom, this is the same hat-wearing Mark D. who spent approximately five years slapping the bass strings for the Melvins during their tenure at Atlantic, until King Buzzo booted him out of the band after the HONKY album and tour. And yes, as you are no doubt already wondering, this does sound kind of like a Melvins record... more specifically, the album the Melvins might have made after HONKY if they hadn't thrown Deutrom to the wolves. Some might take this to mean Deutrom is ripping off the aesthetic of his former bandmates, but the situation is actually a bit more complicated than that; not only was he involved with the band in other ways before joining (first by helping record and release their first album, and later as the producer for OZMA, which included his former Clown Alley partner Lori Temple Black on bass), but his three earlier solo albums and his production credits for bands like RKL, Raw Power, and Neurosis prove that he was no stranger to weird musical antics even before being asked to join the Melvins. It's probably more accurate to note that he and the Melvins are working from the same general pool of weird-ass influences (not that this will keep lotf of people from whining about him stealing from them, I'm sure).
Having said that, there's no question that the sheer weirdness factor of this (digital-only) release is definitely comparable to that of the albums he made with the Melvins. Recorded over a period of years with Deutrom playing all the parts other than drums (provided by Okkervil River drummer Cully Symington), vocals (Jet Mullen appears on "Making A Killing" and "Curtains"; Lilian Budde sings on "Love Story Pt. 3"), and violin (Darcie Deaville), the fifteen songs are a bizarre mix of space-rock, experimental sound clusters occasionally bordering on musique concrete, and actual songs (weird songs, yes, but songs) that would qualify as art-rock if it weren't for the intensely muscular bass and guitar crunch. Then there's the cryptic "Love Story," which is sliced up into four segments and scattered throughout the album, with each segment sounding remarkably different. Some of the songs, like "Buried Jewel" and "Cities of Gold," are heavy, lumbering tunes with an oversaturated guitar tone that would make Billy Gibbons weep with envy (or in the latter case, maybe Tony Iommi); other songs, like "Au Printemps" and "Blood Fairies," are closer to experimental music that's heavy on the drone. All of it, regardless of the sound and vision, is excellent, and while Symington is nowhere near as out-there as Dale Crover, he's certainly a fine drummer whose tub-thumping skills bring a lot to the table. This is every bit as weird and perversely listenable as you would expect of a Melvins alumni, and probably the best thing Deutrom has yet done outside of that band. Highly recommended, even those who distrust musicians with hats.
Drainland -- ... AND SO OUR TROUBLES BEGAN [Southern Lord]
I have no idea if this band from Dublin, Ireland took their name from the depressing Michael Gira album of the same name, but their sound has nothing to do with that album (or Gira's other bands, for that matter). This eight-track album, a compilation of two vinyl-only EPs, is aesthetically a lot closer to the sound of early Sourvein or Eyehategod -- lots of distorted, sludge-heavy guitars and shouting from a guy who sounds like he drinks his hooch straight from the bottle then eats the empty bottle for good measure. This material is unquestionably heavy enough to stand up next to any of the American sludge heavyweights, and while the very nature of the genre keeps the band focused on a certain sound, there's enough variety between the songs (and within them) to keep things interesting, especially since they favor brief passages (usually in the intros, but not always) of neo-folk guitar amid the brontosaurus rumble. Like a lot of classic sludge bands, they lean more toward punk than metal, despite the sheer heaviness of their sound, with hardcore breakdowns and rattle-trap drums to emphasize their roots. Any way you slice it, though, this is morbid, intense stuff playing with hateful vigor by guys who might well enjoy beating you senseless. Sludge enthusiasts have a new band to listen to while shooting up, dig? The cd is limited to a one-time pressing of a thousand copies, and if you like this kind of stuff, you'll be real sorry you missed out later on when you can't find this on Ebay for under thirty bucks, so I suggest you investigate it now.
Enthroned -- PENTAGRAMMATON [Regain Records]
Birthed in Belgium seventeen years ago and featuring a lineup that includes members who have played in a wide variety of extreme metal bands like Emptiness, Gorgoroth, Plague, Infected, and Nefarium, the band's eleventh release is pretty much what you would expect. This is black metal with strong elements of brutality and plenty of needle-like riffing over rampaging drums, steeped in aggression and a consistently dark atmosphere. There's nothing particularly new or revelatory happening here, but the band makes up for it with a fearsome level of intensity and bursts of blinding, jagged speed akin to a locomotive hurtling over a cliff, and they periodically incorporate elements of dark, sinister melody into their lurching riffs that appropriately complement their bombastic approach. Nevertheless, the majority of their approach lies in furious speed and barbed-wire guitar immolation, a constantly raging sound that is often overwhelming in its violent grimness. It's definitely a sound that enthusiasts of traditionally blackened war metal will greatly appreciate.
Heirs -- FOWL [Denovali Records]
If you can get past the unfortunate cover -- seriously, I don't know what they were thinking when they approved this hideous cover, and I sincerely hope they were on drugs when they did, because there's no other good explanation for allowing it exist -- this is actually a pretty respectable instrumental post-metal album in the vein of Neurosis or Year of No Light. That's especially true on the title track, where a hypnotic, endlessly-repeated guitar figure is gradually joined by the other instruments and slowly but surely builds to a grandiose wall of harmonically dense sound. On other tracks like "Burrow" and "Mother," they demonstrate a strong grasp of composition along with an excellent sense of melody and a varied palette for their guitar sounds. Their brand of shoegazing post-metal incorporates a lot of interesting psychedelic touches as well, something that sets them apart from most of their peers working in the same territory, and this album is consistently interesting as a result. Too bad about the cover, though....
Kvelertak -- S/T [Indie / The End]
Norway's latest rock export has apparently taken the metal world by storm, judging from the way everybody and his dog in the metal media has been slobbering over them for the past several months and the attention they got for their (neary curtailed) appearance at 2011's SXSW. This is all the more surprising when you realize that they sing in their native language -- no attempt to pander to the American market for these guys -- and this album was originally only available as an import item on Indie Recordings (not that this means anything anymore in the internet era, when we're all basically living in each other's backyard). After hearing this, I can understand why -- thing bring the rock, seriously, in a way that recalls bands like Turbonegro, The Stooges, and a whole host of 70s boogie-rock acts. They get compared to Mastodon a lot, which I guess I can see, but they're nowhere near as pretentious as that band, and a lot more basic in their approach to rocking the fuck out. It turns out the language thing doesn't make much difference anyway, since the singer's bracing howl is pretty much impenetrable, while the hook-heavy brontosaurus riffing and pile-driving drumming does plenty to distract your attention from the shouting. Their sound is simultaneously catchy and brutal, combining elements of punk, rock, blues, and flat-out metal into something designed to be blasted at top volume on stereos at parties while drunks wreck everything in their path.
People are calling them metal, which makes sense given their intense heaviness, but at the core they're really a bombastic garage-rock band built to party. There's nothing subtle about any of this, either -- on track after track, they blaze like someone doused them in gasoline; their guitarists (there are three of them -- bombastic, remember?) whip up a frenzied hurricane of overdriven riffs and screaming melodic din while the drummer beats on his drums like he just caught them humping his wife, and if it all starts to sound a little bit the same after a while, well, that's one of the minor drawbacks to being full-bore all the time. And really, given that this is their debut album, they can probably be forgiven in this regard, especially when you consider how much sheer unbridled energy they bring to the game. As an added bonus, the American reissue tacks on six bonus tracks, including live recordings and BBC session tracks as well as demo versions of “Ordsmedar av Rang” and “Utrydd Dei Svake" that don't sound appreciably different than the originals outside of being of moderately lower fidelity.
Made of Hate -- PATHOGEN [AFM Records]
It must be legal to listen to Iron Maiden in Poland, because this band sure appears to have been listening to a lot of them -- which is pretty bizarre, since I think they're secretly a death metal band. Their singer sure sounds like it; he does the death grunt in impressive fashion. They get compared to bands like Children of Bodom and In Flames, which is fair, although the bring the Polish death metal sound in a big way, but with far more melodicism, even when they're squiggling away at high speed (which is often). Their roots in the Polish death metal scene, with its fondness for technical playing, are obvious in the stop 'n start riffing on "Russian Roulette" and "Yes, Departed," and on one track after another they display some impressive guitar chops along with the kind of superhuman drumming that made other Polish metal bands like Decapitated famous. What sets them apart from most of the Polish death metal scene, though, is the sheer preponderance of melody in their playing, although at the speed they usually play, that often translates into the audio equivalent of a cyclone of pretty pieces of stained glass hurled at your head. This manifests itself most impressively on "I Can't Believe," which is essentially an extended technical metal solo of exceptional melodic value surrounded by chugging rhythms and monstrous drumming. The intensity never lets up, which gets a bit exhausting after a while, but there's certainly nothing weak or hesitant happening here, and that's what it's all about, isn't it?
Made of Hate
Marduk -- IRON DAWN ep [Regain Records]
Marduk sure likes tanks; this is their third release with one on the cover. The war theme is prevalent in the three tracks on this relatively short (just over thirteen minutes) EP, and as you might expect given the cover and theme, those songs are blazing examples of relentless war metal not unlike being crushed under an army of jackboots. This can be seen as a companion of sorts to their earlier classic PANZER DIVISION MARDUK, the album against which (rightly or wrongly) their entire catalog is destined to be compared, and the comparison is certainly apt for the first two tracks, "Warschau 2 -- Headhunter Halfmoon" and "Wacht Am Rhein (Drumbeats of Death," which are built on pure blinding speed; "Prochorovka -- Blood and Sunflowers," however, is slower and almost industrial sounding, opening with sounds from the battlefield that lead into a mid-tempo death march in which heavy, bone-crushing riffing is complemented by ominous, trilling guitars. The EP is available as a six-panel digipak and a vinyl version limited to 666 copies, the first 200 available in yellow.
Nekromatntheon -- DIVINITY OF DEATH [Vendlus Records]
This Norwegian trio may be new, but they sure sound old-school. More specifically, they sound like Slayer circa HELL AWAITS; in fact, the intro to "Gringo Death" essentially sounds like a spot-on rewrite of that album's title track. I'm not a particularly big fan of the new retro-thrash movement -- I grew up listening to the first wave of thrash and I don't particularly see the need for a new generation of rivetheads to reinvent the wheel -- but I can at least deal with the bands that actually sound old-school, and this is definitely one of them. They also have plenty of Dark Angel and early Sepultura in their DNA, and maybe a bit of PLEASURE TO KILL-era Kreator too, which definitely works for me. I also appreciate their brevity; of the eleven tracks here, only two are (barely) over four minutes, and most are around three minutes or less, which is plenty of time for them to spew out their gruesome riffs and warped, Slayeresque solos. In fact, the entire album clocks in at just over thirty minutes, just a few minutes longer than REIGN IN BLOOD. It's hard not to admire their purity of vision, either; there are no attempts at progressive artiness or pretentious Eurorock here, just an endless stream of blood-soaked riffs, frantic drumming, and aggrieved shouting. Despite being new, this sounds like it was recorded no later than 1986 (a banner year for the thrash genre), by a band sharing stage and studio time with all of the aforementioned thrash giants. Sure, there's nothing new here, but their intensity is real and their execution is flawless, so if you're feeling nostalgic for the glory days of thrash and wishing you could uncover some overlooked masterpiece from the era, this is certainly an acceptable substitute.
Conny Ochs -- RAW LOVE SONGS [Exile On Mainstream]
I have no idea if German singer / songwriter Conny Ochs is any relation to sixties folkie Phil Ochs, but he certainly shares Phil's propensity toward morose, doom-laden folk, which explains a lot about how he ended up on tour with Wino recently while he was flogging his own album of doom-folk. (Is that a new genre now? Is the world ready for doom-folk?) Let's just hope he doesn't follow too much in Phil's footsteps, given Phil's descent into dementia an alocholism, which only ended when he hung himself. At any rate, the pairing of Ochs and Wino makes perfect sense once you've heard this, the man's debut -- it's very much in the same vein as Wino's recent solo acoustic release, only even more stripped-down and stark, with a far more simple playing style and eerie, impassioned vocals that easily match Wino's own intensity. Encapsulating Tim Buckley's morbid lyricism and Robert Johnson's tormented drive, the album's ten songs are a mix of folk guitar and early Delta blues, in which Conny's mournful vocals waft over simple but compelling guitar figures and strummed chords. Don't be fooled by his association with Wino or what is nominally a hard-rock / metal label, though; there is absolutely nothing metal about this. In fact, the only instrumentation outside of his voice and an acoustic guitar are some unknown backing vocals on "Don't Know Her Name" and incredibly minimal percussion on a couple of tracks. The sound is certainly doom-laden, though -- these could easily have been unearthed tracks by Robert Johnson for all of their morbid feel. It's a beautiful and arresting sound, sure, but it's the sound of someone who sees the end just around the corner and has resigned himself to its inevitabilty. It's a beautiful but heartbreaking work of art, but definitely not recommended for the easily depressed.
Exile on Mainstream
Onslaught -- SOUNDS OF VIOLENCE [AFM Records]
If you're not an old fart (like, uh, me), you might not realize that despite this being only the band's fifth album, they are actually an old-school thrash band. Originally formed in England around 1983, they released three records (including their classic debut, POWER FROM HELL) between 1985 and 1989, then ended up disbanding two years later in the wake of lineup changes and the loss of their recording contract. After a lengthy hiatus, the band reformed in 2004 and released KILLING PEACE in 2007. The time off appears to have done them plenty of good, because the new lineup is bursting with energy, chops, and quality songs on this release. This is a fist in the face of complacency, featuring high-octane songs filled with blinding, heavy riffs and plenty of shred-o-rific solos. It's not all turbocharged fury, though; there are some slower-paced songs like "Code Black" and "Hatebox" that make for a nice contrast from the thrashing power violence without sacrificing any of the heaviness. On "Antitheist," they also do a nice job of combining the mid-tempo deathcrush with a strong melodic sensibility (which doesn't stop them from pounding nails through your skull as the song wears on, natch). Nevertheless, the vast majority of the album is classic brain-frying thrash delivered at supremely high velocity -- in other words, classic thrash metal delivered the right way. More proof that the US no longer has a hammerlock on quality thrash madness. As an added bonus, they close with a heavy and perfectly respectable cover of Motorhead's "Bomber," featuring guest appearances from that band's own guitarist Phil Campbell and Sodom guitarist Tom Angelripper.
OvO -- COR CORDIUM [Supernatural Cat]
The eternally puzzling Italian duo OvO continue to confound all attempts at rational thought with each new, radically different release, and this one is no different. Their Myspace page lists their genre as "black metal / classical / swing," which (true or not) gives you some idea of their deep sense of perversity. Stephania Pedretti (guitar, fiddle, hair) provides vocals that vary from a dark black metal growl to a clear, lilting soprano while Bruno Dorella handles the (usually minimal) percussion. If Pedretti's disorienting vocals (which often owe much to Yoko Ono and Lydia Lunch) weren't enough, Dorella's avant-garde drumming often veers into Ruins territory, and their songs are so exquisitely bizarre as to defy easy description. While they incorporate large amounts of noise into their sound, they are not really a noise-rock band in the usual sense -- if anything, they have more in common with Naked City or Painkiller than with the noise-rock bands people often compare them to, and their sophisticated, wildly experimental style (in both sound and composition) elevates them to a much higher level of musicianship than the average noise-rock band. Things are even more complicated on this album by the fact that this is the first time they've used overdubs, which affords them the opportunity to stretch out into even weirder territory than ever, and the fact that this is a concept record of sorts, dedicated to the memory of the English romantic poet Percy Shelley.
Which brings us to the music... the awesomely unpredictable, twisted, baroque music that incorporates elements of free jazz, death metal, avant-garde experimentalism, classical, psych, electronica, no wave, and more, as Stephania coos and shrieks, often sounding like Yoko Ono gone black metal. People who whine about how nobody's making original music anymore should listen to this band. They're so far out in left field that they might as well be orbiting Saturn with Sun Ra, although the jazzman from Saturn never aspired to be as heavy as this band is when the mood strikes them. Trying to describe the music itself is an exercise in futility; suffice to say that they make a fine art of being indescribably weird, with a sound that any devotee of truly extreme music (and not just the metal variety, either) will doubtless appreciate. Note, too, that in addition to the standard cd and download version of the album, it is also available in a limited edition that includes a cd, LP, and DVD of the band performing live. Essential listening for the adventurous.
Pale Chalice -- AFFLICTING THE DICHOTOMY OF TEPID CREATION ep [The Flenser]
The raping and pillaging of black metal's rotting corpse continues; this time, the corpse in question appears to be that of Mayhem, circa DE MYSTERIIS DOM SATHANAS. I guess if you're going to plunder the mysteries of the grave, this would at least be a good bag of bones to dig up and bring back to horribly animated life.... So what we have here are a bunch of dudes from San Francisco doing their best to remind the world of time when Mayhem was still scary and worth listening to. They even manage to improve on this diabolical vision with a more consistent approach to their craft (meaning, they only exhumed the parts that actually worked and wisely left the more flaccid attempts at dippy mysticism back in the dark, deep hole). True, despite the abundance of ear-raping riffs and blood-thinning dissonance, they never quite reach the pinnacle of the Most Evil Riff Of All Time (that would be the central riff in "Freezing Moon," natch), but they come pretty close... and they're far more consistent in their rampaging attack than Mayhem ever were. You could argue that this is the album Mayhem should have made after their flawed masterpiece, and the EPs brevity (only four tracks in approximately thirty minutes) makes for a far more focused and potent listening experience, if you ask me. There may not be anything particularly new here, but there's also no filler, and they have a much firmer grasp of black metal's atmospheric, overreaching bleakness than most of the other bands currently engaged in musical grave-pilfering. This is a respectable offering to the blackened metal gods; it may not be terribly original, but it's certainly intense enough to pass muster with the goat herd.
Pregnant Spore -- SLIPPERY SLEEP cs [Christian Pop Records]
This is deeply weird stuff, probably best described as avant-garde psychedelic noise. On "Star-Gazing in Beds of Blood (Parts 1 & 2)," strange cut-up noises bleat and squeak in a rhythmic fashion that has just enough variation to keep it from sounding like a loop but in a fashion monochromatic enough to render it hypnotic, and as time passes, space-rock keyboards rise from the background like celestial cloud music, droning and shimmering over the grotesque bedrock rhythm. Eventually the keyboards die away and are replaced by pure noise in the form of bursts of static and tortured sounds like devices being shaken apart, only to return to the original rhythmic sound as the keyboard drones emerge again, this time not quite so heavenly. As the keyboards disappear again, the grand finale arrives in a deteriorating cacaphony of diseased sound. On the flip side, "In Your Hive" is dominated by more diseased rhythmic noises, which are joined after a while by lots of groaning, wailing sounds and other forms of sonic effluvia that turn the piece into something like a low-grade acid trip. As the track progresses, the sound gets denser, thicker, and stranger... and still the bedrock rhythm persists, as the sounds laid over it grow ever more deranged. It's chaos, yes, but remarkably controlled chaos, with an unusual and interesting style.
Christian Pop Records
Same-Sex Dictator -- S/T cs [self-released]
Seattle's Same-Sex Dictator -- apparently a bass and drum duo now -- returns with a brief and cryptic cassette containing four songs of bruising, lo-fi metal (well, sort of). The first track, "Corpse Hoarder," is a furious blast of high-energy drumming and throbbing heaviness that resembles the earliest stabs at death metal, minus the obsessive guitar tomfoolery -- this is more straightforward in its sonic violence. "Cyanide Deficit" is slower and even heavier, with a sound like deconstructed grindcore played at half-speed, or maybe early Swans if that band had been coming from a more metallic background. On the flip side, "Return to Embryo Metropolis" is more bombastic but no less punishing, creeping into the ugly territories first mapped out by the early Amphetamine Reptile roster, while "Juiced Back To Life" returns to the pounding Swans-style groove and some truly distorted bass squealing. Throughout all of this, the vocalist barks like he's auditioning for the Unsane, which just adds to the intensity of their violent, ugly sound. Cool stuff; good luck on tracking it down, since there's no label or contact info.
Scorpion Violente -- UBERSCHLEISS [Avant! Records]
So sick it has to be Italian, right? Well, maybe -- one source says Italy, another says France, but the French are plenty perverted themselves, so it could be either one. Wherever they're from, they're all about the sickness -- the cover, the titles ("viol et revanche" translates to "rape and revenge," and I'm sure the title track translates into something dirty), the eye-opening cover... but most importantly, the sound, which resembles Suicide by way of Cold Cave or something equally trashy and bleak. Tubbed-out bass, spastic techno beats, ice-cold synth bleat, and gusts of sandpaper-fresh noise result in a sound that's as catchy as it is filthy. Their minimalist aesthetic shines through in the use of extended repetition that you will find either incredibly hypnotic or intensely annoying. This is what would happen if Akitsa went on a Kraftwerk-inspired techno bender using nothing but extremely cheap and damaged electronic toys scavenged from pawn shops for the least cost possible. I am certain they were all on drugs when they recorded this. Maximum bonus points for the exquisite cover art and prurient bondage pix on the insert.
Seidr -- FOR WINTER FIRE [The Flenser]
Postblackmetal -- you knew it was coming, right? This is a pretty credible (if somewhat unholy) marriage of the two aesthetics, with blackened vocals and dissonant, metallic riffs buried in a sonic fog of majestic ambient drift. Like a lot of post-metal (and black metal, for that matter) bands, they favor long songs; five of the seven tracks are well over ten minutes long, and one goes over fourteen. Some of that is simply due to their creeping-death pace -- I'm betting these guys are huge fans of dISEMBOWELMENT -- although some of it can probably be chalked up the growing tendency in metal circles toward extended workouts. Speaking of those slow-moving Australians, the spirit of the slow wasting doom they perfected in the early 90s lives on in "The Night Sky and the Wild Hun," nearly nine minutes of slo-mo fuzziness interspersed with spaced-out sitar-style interludes.
It's not all crushing death or floating doom, though; "In The Ashes" is a suprisingly pretty and melodious acoustic dirge, both mournful and gorgeous, that appears halfway through the album and provides some respite from the dark heaviness everywhere else. (At 4:51, it's also the shortest track on the album; make of that what you will.) There's also a commanding guitar motif in "A Gaze at the Stars" that comes across like an inspired mind-meld of blues and prog rock that's equally matched by the freezing solo toward the end, and "Stream Keeper" opens with a simple acoustic passage accompanied by trilling, bell-like guitars that lead into a spacious-sounding funeral march complete with reverb-soaked drums and droning single-note keyboard (or is it guitar?) lines that eventually coalesce in a thicker, heavier sound and chanted choral vocals. Still, the main focus here is the mix of post-metal and black metal slowed down to a doom-laden crawl and plugged into some serious prog-rock tendencies. Impressive, assuming you're down with the stunted tempos.
Suidakra -- BOOK OF DOWTH [AFM Records]
This German band's mix of Celtic motifs and straight-up thrash metal leans more heavily toward the latter; there may be Celtic elements running through their sound, but they're in no danger of being mistaken for a full-on folk-metal band. For the most part, their hectic, speed-obsessed attack has more in common with their current labelmates Onslaught than anything resembling pagan metal, and the Celtic influence would seem almost a tacked-on afterthought, something to merely trot out in intros and in the middle of songs, if it weren't for tracks like "Birag's Oath," which opens in suitable Celtic folk fashion before eventually turning into something far heavier and more metallic, and benefits greatly from a female vocalist with lush pipes, and "Mag Mell," which features both male and female vocals and is even closer to the traditional Celtic folk sound. Much of the time, though, the Celtic influence is incidental -- for instance, "Balor" begins like a lilting folk lament, only to burst into aggressive metal thunder and hyperspeed everything. Some tracks, like "Stone of Seven Suns," manage to effectively incorporate the Celtic influence more thoroughly and seamlessly into the band's basical metal framework, and the closing "Otherworlds Collide" -- at 1:45, basically a brief coda -- is essentially nothing more than a true Celtic guitar figure augmented by the sound of (big surprise) worlds colliding. By and large, though, this is a thrash band first and foremost -- one that has successfully integrated Celtic influences, yes, but still concerned mainly with thrashing your face off, something they do well.
Sky Burial -- DREAM DECIMATOR cs [Cathartic Process]
Even for Sky Burial -- the dark-ambient successor to Mike Page's legendary noise band Fire in the Head -- this is eerie, unsettling shit, starting with the disquieting cover by Michael Blodgett and continuing on the tape, where layers of dark, cycling drone and waves of sound build into an intense nightmare of discordant, dreamlike warbling and throbbing ambient bass tones. The sound is similar to early Lustmord, and while no mention is made of it in the sparse liner notes, much of the sound is probably taken from field recordings. The entire 60-minute cassette is one long piece, an ambitious move that would probably be doomed to failure if Page weren't so skilled in composition; as it is, the piece flows in organic movements, building and falling in terms of intensity and dynamics, always boasting a superior grasp of the mechanics of processed sound. Exotic sheets of unusual sounds float up to the surface at unpredictable intervals, with the epic drones and passages of noise going through an endless array of inventive permutations. The result is a continuous passage through the murky dungeons of industrial sound and sky-wide ambient drone that remains compelling throughout the entire journey. This cassette just confirms my ongoing suspicion that Sky Burial may be the most consistently interesting practitioner of the dark ambient arts in the US today (or at least unless the apparently-dormant Cold Electric Fire ever decides to release a follow-up to the brilliant IN NIGHTS DREAM WE ARE GHOSTS, an album very much in the same vein as this release). Essential listening for dreaming droneheads.
Summon the Crows -- ONE MORE FOR THE GALLOWS [Southern Lord]
Now this is nasty stuff, steeped in the likes of Discharge and Amebix and a healthy dose of old-school death metal (especially in the gruesome cookie-monster vocals). It's the second album from this Norwegian band and it goes by in a blur, with ten songs in approximately 25 minutes. The velocity is high and the intensity enormous; there are brief (very brief) passages here and there where they slow down just long enough to make their inevitable return to blazing speed all that much more vicious, but otherwise it's largely a blur of sizzling chromatic guitars and frenzied drumming. It's a pitiless attack that doesn't leave much room for variation from one track to the next, but you don't listen to an album like this for variety, you listen for the excruciating experience of having your face stepped on repeatedly, and in that aspect, the band succeeds on all counts. Heavy, brutal, and filled with jagged, heart-stopping riff action mired in a dirty, overcharged sound that should warm the heart of any forlorn crust devotee. Unusually for the Lord, this is a cd-only release, and limited to a thousand copies.
Summon the Crows
The Tunnel -- FATHOMS DEEP 12" LP [self-released]
Call me astounded -- The Tunnel's second album is a masterpiece of sound and design. Hailing from San Francisco and featuring Jeff Wagner (Tunnel of Love, Circus Proboscis, Jumpknuckle, Sharking Teeth), Patrick Crawford (Aus Rotten, White Gold), and Sam Black (Guilty Party, If Ever), the highly eclectic trio (aided in places by Josh Layton and Sarah Miller) bring to the table a vast cornucopia of experience in bands devoted to noise rock, metal, hardcore, goth, and Foetus-style theatrics. Which, of course, totally explains why the album sounds more like an inspired meeting of the minds from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds circa TENDER PREY, Gun Club, mid-period Swans, and Television, right? I have no idea how they got from there to here, but however it happened, it definitely worked. "Wraithes," the brief and brooding instrumental that opens the album, is dominated by a commanding guitar motif from Wagner, with a jagged tone that would bring tears of joy to Blixa Bargeld's eyes. The song that follows, "Strange Haven," is even more jaw-dropping -- a desolate drinking song that sounds like it could have been an outtake from MARQUEE MOON, but drenched in glorious guitar chords ascending in rich, stunning harmonies. Wagner's vocals and stinging guitar sound are also at the forefront of the similar but more uptempo "King of the Impossible," which builds to a hard-rocking crescendo that's totally devoid of irony -- and the rest of the band is every bit as sanguine as Wagner, presenting a level of musical talent that has largely evaporated in this era of bands piecing songs together in ProTools. The first side closes with "Fathomless Deep," a largely instrumental piece driven by a funereal piano passage and near-ambient guitar wailing that recalls the stark and terrible beauty of the Swans song "Fool."
The brilliant musical shape-shifting continues on the flip side, beginning with "The Beast-Catcher," in which they somehow manage to marry a jaunty Tejano rhythm and more of that twangy Television-style guitar to the dynamic bombast and thundering hocus-pocus drums of mid-period Swans. Have I mentioned that Wagner's guitar sound and chord choices are often reminiscent of prime-meat era Weirdos? Or that his piquant vocals resemble Jim Thirwell channeling the forgotten spirit of Johnny Cash on an amphetamine bender? And if that's not enough whole-grain goodness for you, there's the slow deathcrush blues of "Scurvye Dreames," the swinging interplay between the polyrhythmic drums and stuttering devil-guitar on "The Bitter End," and the chiming, unpredictable guitar work on the blues-laden "A Storm." How often do you stumble across an album whose every song is stunning?
Still. I see there are some of you who do not believe. So. Let's talk about the packaging. Don't be fooled by the fact that this is a self-released album; we're talking high-grade vinyl with exquisite sound, housed in a stiff jacket with frankly amazing artwork (hit the Bandcamp link below for pictures) and a handsome insert with more gorgeous art, liner notes, and lyrics. The album even comes with a download card so you can carry said swank tunes around your favorite digital listening device. (You can also download the album for free -- that's zero dollars, for those of you who are shaky at math -- at the Bandcamp site.) Might I add that they ask only a paltry ten smackolas for this handsome package? Seriously, if that's not enough to convince you that you need this, then you are wrong and I do not love you.
The Tunnel at Bandcamp
Thinning the Herd -- OCEANS RISE [St. Mark's Records]
With a sound that's caught somewhere between classic stoner rock and 90s grunge, NYC's Thinning the Herd have a style that hasn't really been in favor for a while now. While they have a lot in common, sonically speaking, with the guitar-heavy stoner rock sound of a few of Wino's less doomy bands (which may explain how they ended up opening for Shrinebuilder last spring in NYC), they also frequently resemble the working-man blues-rock of 70s bands like Nazareth and Bachman Turner Overdrive. They definitely sound like a stoner rock band, but their songs are far tighter and closer to traditional pop / hard rock tunes than the sprawling jams so common to stoner rock, and while there's more than a bit of grunge in their attack, they are far more upbeat than most of the bands of that era. It's an interesting sound, to be sure, and the band is tight without being uptight about it; the guitarist in particular absolutely smokes. It's clear, too, that the band put a lot of work into coming up with good songs and executing them well; this is a filler-free album, and at 35 minutes, it doesn't wear out its welcome, either.
Thinning the Herd
USX -- THE VALLEY PATH [Neurot Recordings]
They're nothing if not ambitious, that's for sure -- this album is one long track spanning just under forty minutes. Elements of drone, doom, and (more than anything else) psychedelia pervade this monster of epic composition, like a more esoteric and spaced-out answer to Sleep's equally monolithic DOPESMOKER. The extended piece itself plays out in a series of movements, denoted by changes in tempo and texture, but always informed by a sparkling psychedelic sound. Some of the movements are considerably heavier than others, but regardless of the weight, there is always an identifiable psych element happening, usually in the tripped-out, efx-laden guitar sounds. The pacing throughout the piece is deliberate, with some variation in tempo from one movement to the next, but not a drastic one; the track remains completely in a mid-tempo groove from start to finish, the movements marked off more by changes in tone and texture than by tempo shifts. Their sense of composition, too, is sufficient to keep things interesting throughout the entire track, no small feat for an album-length work. It's ambitious, yes, but fully realized, and very much in line with the post-metal sound (and the quality) of other offerings from Neurot.
Vastum -- CARNAL LAW [20 Buck Spin]
Featuring members of Acephalix, Infest, and Saros, this Bay Area band specializes in a modern and forward-thinking brand of death metal, one concerned less with mindless brutality and more with finding unusual ways to expand the traditionally fearsome sound of death metal. Much like their neighbors Ludicra, their approach to metal is considerably more creative and nuanced than that of the average metal band. Their approach is distinctive enough, in fact, that it's difficult to easily assess their lineage and influences, outside an obvious Carcass influence in their lead guitar sound. One of the more interesting things about their sound -- and the album in general -- is their avoidance of speed; unlike a lot of modern death metal, this is mid-paced material, and as such the riffs and drumming are more sharply defined and easier to assimilate, rather than just a titanic blur of motion speeding past like a locomotive. Aside from the dual vocals, the most notable things about their sound are the consistently interesting, often unpredictable drumming and the guitar tone. The rhythm guitar sound is heavy and chunky, but just clean enough not to be muddy, while the lead guitar sound is full and dark; the leads themselves are concise and thoughtful, appearing only when necessary, a welcome contrast from the many bands that waffle on without end at every possible chance. This is highly focused, starkly rendered stuff that proves it is possible to be intense and brutal without descending into stupidity or silliness. This is death metal for people who have grown tired of the genre's fixation with juvenilia, coarseness, and lazy tendency to merely recycle the ideas and riffs of earlier bands. Highly recommended.
20 Buck Spin
Samuel Locke Ward -- BARELY REGAL BEAGLES [self-released]
This is old-school DIY at its best -- one guy, one guitar (actually a banjo much of the time), the occasional guest (including Violent Femmes sax sideman Pete Balestrieri on two tracks), and lots of strange (but strangely appealing) songs. There is no one predominant sound here; Ward's muse wallows in punk, pysch, noise, and experimental sound, all coming together in songs whose primitive sound and experimental bent are often reminiscent of early Pere Ubu. Combining the absurdist punk aesthetic of bands like the Dead Milkman with an original delivery (including unpretty vocals that might give some pause) and the enthusiastic DIY sound of Midwest punk bands like those in the orbit of Columbus Discount Records (an appropriate reference here, since Ward's sensibility and delivery aren't all that far removed from the work of Tommy and Jay), the songs are structured in a straightforward manner but leavened with bizarre touches (distorted guitars, eccentric banjo flourishes, other strange sounds) and festooned with lyrics devoted to peculiar concepts. The seventeen tracks boast a considerable variety of sounds and genres and burst with unpredictable energy. It's a rough-sounding document, to be sure, not something that's going to pass for radio-friendly AOR twaddle, but that's precisely the album's charm.
Samuel Locke Ward