Sunday, April 1, 2012

where, o where, are my april showers?

Abazagorath -- S/T cd ep [No Visible Scars]

New Jersey has black metal bands? Especially one that's been around since 1995? This is news to me. Even more surprising, this -- their first release of any kind since a 2008 split with Blood Storm (thank Ra for internet discographies) -- comes to us via a label I've so far associated mainly with noise and post-industrial / dark ambient releases. Why they take so long between releases and how they came to be part of the NVS roster are a mystery to me, but it's not necessary to know these things to appreciate the album's grotesque charm. This is basically raw, primitive black metal in the vein of early Burzum (with a few European flourishes, especially in the guitar solos) -- not terribly groundbreaking, sure, but certainly competent, delivered with an appropriate level of blackened angst, and peppered with the occasional surprise (like the aforementioned guitar solos, bursts of silence in "The Antigod," the parts where everything drops out but the drum and bass in "Lapse," and the intro to "Storms of Destruction," which pits an almost bluesy melodic guitar against a mournful synth drone, to startling effect). They're not even remotely breaking new ground here -- although given their roots in the early USBM scene, that may well be the point -- but this is certainly a respectable offering of old-school sound with modern production values (meaning, you can actually tell what's going on instead of everything sounding like it's lost in fog and enshrouded in darkness, plus the drummer sounds like he's playing a real drum set instead of whacking away at cardboard boxes). Bonus points for the vaguely Cthulhoid goat-demon on the cover.

No Visible Scars

Aspectee -- JOUR CINQ [Black Drone]

The second album from German drone-master Michel Frenkel is every bit as drone-laden and darkly intoxicating as his first release was, once again straddling the thin divide between dark ambient and pure drone. There are elements from one track to the next that keep them from turning into one hour-long passage of cosmic drift -- the scratchy sampled voices in "espe," the chattering machine rhythm of "illicit," other variations here and there -- but mostly the tracks are differentiated by subtle shifts in tone and layering of sounds. Outside of the occasional snippet of sampled speech, the tracks are entirely instrumental, nothing more (or less) than a series of immense synth drones ebbing and flowing in their intensity, shifting from dark to light, filling up every available space with enormous clouds of sound. The album's simplicity is the source of its effectiveness; the purity of the drones, laden with rich and wordlessly evocative emotional content, creates a soothing trance state for the listener, one broken only by the abrupt silence at the album's end. Some may find it a bit too minimalist, but devotees of pure, unbridled drone action will be pleased.

Black Drone

The Blind Shake -- SERIOUSNESS lp [Learning Curve Records]

The three Minneapolis men that are The Blind Shake have a mission, and that mission is to rock. You, them, the world -- all must bow before their mighty magnetism. With the Blaha brothers on guitars and madly flailing drummer Dave Roper riding drag, appearing on stage in matching black uniforms, they unleash hardcore's primal energy through impossibly catchy tunes that channel Husker Du's punk-pop chops through the devolved prism of Devo's eccentricity. Imagine a noise-rock band playing surf guitar in service of frantic yet tuneful bursts of energy and graft that onto one of the most spastically entertaining stage presences ever and you begin to see the everlasting light, doom childe. So how catchy are they? They are this catchy: I saw them for the first (and so far only) time at SXSW and had "Hurracan" and "They're All Gone" running through my head at work the next week, after only one listen. It doesn't hurt that their songs are short, stripped-down, and utterly to the point (not to mention filled with insanely memorable hooks and a noise-rock energy equivalent to dropping a vial of nitroglycerin on your favorite dance floor). Rarely has noise rock been this absurdly approachable without sacrificing an iota of energy. There are thirteen (lucky thirteen!) songs on this album and they are all amazing. The album is on translucent vinyl and comes with a download card, too. If you aren't already counting out your dollars to acquire this masterpiece, then you are a fool and a knave and a sissy and all sorts of things you shouldn't want to be.

The Blind Shake
Learning Curve Records

Book of Shadows -- FESTIVAL OF SHADOWS (2 x cd) [Lonktaar]

Two discs worth of whole-grain goodness from Austin's best psych band? It's enough to make the mind reel. And reel your mind will, for the band's sound -- a lysergic combination of psych, drone, ambient sound, and experimental ideas -- is both dreamlike and alien, a series of spiritual mantras beamed from the subconscious of another world. Two discs worth of mutating sound just gives them that much more room to stretch out and bombard you from all directions.

The first disc opens with plenty of cosmic drift and near-random plinking and plunking on "Scudder," where things spool out aimlessly behind Sharon Crutcher's dreamlike vocalizing before finally coalescing into a series of stuttering guitar rhythms and a more focused line of drone. The two tracks that follow -- "Never Seen" and "La Reistance" -- are more of the band's patented twilight drone sound, all billowing sonic fog and drone evoking the feel of a dreamer on the edge of sleep. There's some truly psychotronic guitar wailing on the lengthy "Cheer Up Charlie," but most of the tracks are considerably more muted and generally percussion-free (although when beats do show up, as on "Never Seen 2," they are minimal and lend a stately feel to the proceedings). On "The First One From Sunday," Sharon's wailing, wordless vocals are nearly swallowed by clanging machine noises, static, and other devolved sounds that eventually turn into an endless stream of droning guitar noise like water running through a deep canyon. "Overdubs in Elgin" is driven by a sparse, one-note drone accompanied by intermittent bursts of sound, an interesting respite from the fuller sound of the other tracks. The disc ends with "Gardens of the Ancients," the most uptempo track (and at over twelve minutes, one of the longest) on the disc, the work of a full band including drums and bass, with springy guitar riffs and swirling sounds flowing over a steady beat; the result sounds like a lost ST-37 track (which, given guitarist Carlton Crutcher's presence, it may well have been at one time).

Disc two is more of the same, with eleven tracks this time, opening with the melodically lethargic "Psychic Driftwood Dragonfly" and continuing through more tracks of ambient drift and drone. The tracks on the second disc are more diaphanous and ambient, like soundtracks to an endless dream in the wee hours of the morning; one track bleeds into the next, lulling the listener into a hypnotic state. Then along comes "River World," a long, sprawling track that's practically an album into itself at over 33 minutes, filled with swirling guitars and exotic sounds evoking an extended out-of-body experience. After this lengthy sojourn into the land of the magic mushrooms, the last two tracks -- "Slyphsong Song 2," with its chittering hoverbot UFO rhythm and mystical drones, and "The Magician," powered by dark drone and even more UFO sounds -- act as a palate cleanser, bringing the disc to an elegiac close. Beautiful stuff, and limited to 44 copies.

Book of Shadows

Book of Shadows -- HANGED MAN [Reverb Worship]

How utterly appropriate to find Book of Shadows on a label called Reverb Worship, especially with this particular album, which is indeed swaddled in serious amounts of reverb. Right from the very first track, "The Beach," everything -- but especially Sharon Crutcher's ethereal vocals -- is enveloped in clouds of reverb and echo, as if the song had been recorded in a cave the size of a cathedral. "Bring Ginger Candy" is unusual in that it's one of the few times Sharon's vocals are decipherable (albeit mysterious), while the otherworldly vibe is only intensified by droning UFO noises and a languid but hypnotic keyboard motif. The rest of the album's twelve tracks unspool in a similar fashion: delicate fingerpicked guitar melodies, disembodied vocals, and acres of reverb like fog creeping through a field just before dawn. This is one of their more subdued albums, almost sleepy at times, but it's also one of their most gorgeous, a lovely series of excursions through tripped-out territories. Hypnotic, repetitive passages appear again and again, like the looped sounds on "Woman Is The Altar," and there are more swell UFO drones on "Ring Pass Not" (along with equally swell bleatings from a theremin), but the main musical themes that recur again and again are familiar ones -- lots of minimal guitar textures, otherworldly vocalizing, and an endless river of reverb-soaked drones. In other words, all the swell things you have come to expect from one of their albums. Limited to 50 copies.

Book of Shadows
Reverb Worship

Chapeau -- EVERLASTING PILL [Bankruptcy]

After long eons wandering in the desert picking fresh beats from stunted, dying trees, Chapeau -- Ontario's enigmatic gift to fat beats, strange noises, and devolved experiments in electronica -- is back. The opening track, "In Girum Imus Nocte," fades in with grinding machine noises and a mournful piano line, and before long a jaunty synth bass line and drums are joined by hellish black metal screeching; as time goes on, the beats grow more intense and the howling more protracted, until the beats evaporate and everything dies away in a wave of noise like cars colliding. You'd never think so many different styles could interlock so well, but they do.. oh, how they do. "Late Night Idol Talk," powered by a tick-tock beat and a warped synth riff, incorporates more squealing noise and sonic effluvia without ever losing sight of the almighty beat, and there's plenty of grotesque noise content in the deceptively-titled "Pleasure Electronics" as well (along with more muted black metal screech). "Cloue a Terre" opens with buzzing, grinding noises and slowed-down vocals that fade into a heavy martial beat accompanied by muted hum and, eventually, synth drone and more slowed-down vocals as the song's intensity grows exponentially until it cuts off abruptly; "Egyptian Days" follows in similar fashion, but leavened with some truly paint-scraping noise that comes and goes, like the ghost of techno possessed by diabolical noise spirits. "Black Fasting" hearkens back to the techno-driven sound of the earlier tracks, and is pleasant enough, but the album takes a stark turn into seriously dark territory with "The Night So Long," in which news samples dealing with rape and necrophilia are equally matched in ugliness with stuttering, lurching bursts of white noise, and the final track "Et Consumimur Igni," where the techno beats and occasional wild sheets of noise are welded to a morose black metal sensibility. Swank, my troubled little losers; oh so very swank.


Chapeau -- THE COUNTY REEVE [Bankruptcy]

As if the above weren't enough, Chapeau has since released another fine album for your listening pleasure. It's very much in the same vein as the previous album, although there are a few surprises this time around -- like the droning intro and featherlight tinkling on "Starlings," for instance -- but mainly the songs here are working the same techno / noise axis as the songs on EVERLASTING PILL, just in a different variety of ways. Heavy beats and machine noises feature heavily in "Crypt of the Arrow," for instance, along with more of the black metal shrieking vocals underneath the heavy machine grind, and "The Bowl" is another track that combines glitch noise elements and simple, muted piano with slow beats. "E.O.A." and "A Sleeveless Errand" carry on in similar fashion, advancing the band's previous work in grafting twisted noise onto techno beats (or, in the later case, dispensing with beats entirely). "Huron Carol" is one of the more interesting ones, with a drum sound and beat that could have been lifted from one of the early Godflesh albums, but it's less heavy than hypnotic, and the droning bass and gothic synths probably owe more to post punk luminaries like Public Image Ltd. and the Cure. The final track, "Weather," is one of the more bizarre tracks on the album, sounding like a tweaked techno interpretation of a honky-tonk song being buzz-bombed with the occasional burst of noise and eccentric, reverb-laden vocals. Overall, it's not quite as flat-out amazing as the previous album, but it's still a solid listening experience that manages to tie together several different genres in a highly unorthodox and interesting fashion.


Corephallism / Gnaw Their Tongues -- split 10" [Lascivious Aesthetics]

First off, major bonus points for the lurid BDSM-themed cover art (hop over to the label site's link below to see it for yourself). What we have here is a split between two decidedly extreme acts wallowing in the dark, bloody trough that separates primitive black metal and noise: on one side, the side project of Boston's Shane Michael Broderick, best known as one half of Twodeadsluts Onegoodfuck, and on the other, the one-man sonic terrorist known as Gnaw Their Tongues. As you might expect, this release is a serious act of ugliness. Corephallism contributes two tracks, "Abandonment" and "Rapes of Convenience," opening on the first track with an ominous synth drone that grows denser and darker as Broderick shovels on passages of gruesome power electronics. It's claustrophobic and eerie without being strident, and the second track is similar but more equally divided in the balance between drone and noise. Both tracks are supremely creepy. On the flip side, Gnaw Their Tongues offers up "A Moral Guide To Self-castration and Necrophilia," which features what sounds like an undertaker pounding nails into a coffin over an ocean of black drone and crashing noises like barbarians tearing down an ancient city gate, complete with the shrieking lamentations of those being raped and slaughtered (or maybe the other way around, given the song title). It's violent, murky, unsettling stuff, stripped of the operatic and classical overtones of the band's most recent full-length work in favor of something that sounds more like soldiers on the rampage, looting and pillaging and breaking glass by throwing bodies through windows. Listen to this while under the influence of illicit drugs and you can guarantee yourself some seriously hideous nightmares.

Gnaw Their Tongues
Lascivious Aesthetics

The Desolation Singers -- THE BLOOD BETWEEN US [Hand / Eye]

Old-time followers of TOTDA may wonder whatever became of former reviewer (and The Does guitarist) Neddal Ayad; well, he's right here, contributing sleazy noise by way of the blues, in conjunction with mysterious vocalist Madame B. The eight tracks on this album are an eerie and swamp-laden mixture of groaning guitar noise, buzzing amp drone, intermittent folk guitar, and a mutant sensibility gained only by cross-breeding goth and doom by way of some very primitive blues. "Desolate" is a pretty good all-purpose description of what's going on here; the sound is murky and doomed, even on the folkier tunes, and titles like "Hanged Man," "Circle of Crows," and "Tear You Up" are extremely revealing of the band's morbid sentiments. Fully in keeping with the band's backwoods modern primitive outlook, the recording is exquisitely lo-fi, which perfectly suits these songs, adding yet another layer of mystery to the proceedings. They make their connection to the country folk blues explicit with their cover of the traditional standard "John the Revelator," and just to cement the folk connection, Stone Breath guitarist TimeMOTHeye contributes a sprightly guimbri-banjo to the final track, "Shaking Tree." Such brooding, spooky sounds; you need.

The Desolation Singers

Ed Schrader's Music Beat -- JAZZ MIND [Load Records]

Don't be fooled by the title; this has only the vaguest connection to jazz, and then only in a purely metaphysical sense. It would be more accurate to describe the band's sound as minimalist post-punk, especially since the minimalist theme extends not only to the short, stripped-down nature of the songs, but to the band itself, a duo composed of Ed Schrader (vocals, floor tom) and Devlin Rice (bass, vocals). Schrader frequently sounds like he's channeling the ghost of Ian Curtis, and the band's sound hints strongly at influences like early Swans, Wire, and Joy Division; like a demented take on drum 'n bass, it's all about the rhythm, dudes and dudettes. Sure, they get a little help from their friends now and then -- Matmos provides an extra layer of sound on "Gem Asylum," "Air Show," and "Right," and Randy Randall adds guitar textures to ""When I'm In a Car" and "My Mind Is Broken By the Sound" -- but most of the time the focus is squarely on the duo's catchy beats and fuzzed-out bass lines. Given the limited amount of instrumentation provided, it's no surprise that the vocals carry much of the melodic action, especially on "Gem Asylum," where the song is almost nothing but vocals and a spare, hypnotic bass riff. The vocals also frequently act as a bridge between bursts of drumming, which gives them plenty of opportunities to tinker with the song structures despite the overweening minimalism of it all. Some of the songs, like "Sermon" and "Rats," uncoil with an explosive violence, but most of the tracks are closer to the mid-tempo, catchy approach of late new wave / early post-punk bands, more concerned with memorable melodies and rhythms, all the better to establish an emotional connection. They also have the good sense to keep a lid on the song lengths (with only one exception, the tracks range from one to two and a half minutes) so the spare presentation doesn't grow monotonous. Their approach may be a tad eccentric, but it's also unspeakably catchy, and definitely worth checking out.

Ed Schrader's Music Beat
Load Records

Generalissimo -- LOVE WITHOUT MERCY 12" lp [Arbeit Macht Dinge]

I can't decide if Bay Area malcontents Generalissimo are a band or a propaganda machine; aside from their militaristic name, they dress as soldiers (complete with jackboots) and pose for photos in full uniform while waving patriotic flags, and their website and album visuals appear to be heavily influenced by cold-war Soviet propaganda posters. Are they America's answer to Laibach, armed with guitars instead of synths? I dunno, but I know this: they rock with military precision. This is clearly a band that believes in discipline and lots of it -- their tightly-wound songs unfurl with a complete lack of filler, which is all the more impressive when you consider that they have three guitarists in addition to the rhythm section, which could be a sonic train wreck of epic proportions if it weren't for their remarkable restraint and stellar songwriting chops. In keeping with the totalitarian presentation, they avoid individual credits on the album (and the website), which makes it difficult to single any one member out for praise -- you have no choice but to view the band as the rock version of a statist collective rather than a collection of individuals, which is kind of interesting.

The songs themselves are straight-up, black coffee rock whose roots can be traced back to both hardcore music and (to a lesser extent) riff-driven grunge / stoner bands like Queens of the Stone Age and Melvins, although they're way better than the former and nowhere near as idiosyncratic as the latter. Unlike a lot of those bands, Generalissimo are beautifully concise: the longest of the eight tracks on this album is only 3:40, and half the tracks are under three minutes. They are no strangers to bombast, though -- in addition to the singer's decidedly Wagnerian vocals, the band has a tendency to build toward controlled explosions of sound, especially on the opener "National Razor," and while their riffing leans toward the fast and frantic, their sound is never sloppy or uncontrolled. Even on the instrumental track "Billy Club," the band rocks with authority, and on "Proletkult," they not only bring the fuzz-laden noise on top of the monster riffs, but they open with riffs that gradually work their way out of sync in a distinctive way before bursting forth into full rock glory. They loosen up (well, a little) on "Silver Skin," enough to offer up some exquisitely squealy noise guitar and even get downright pretty on "Vojvoda," another instrumental, one that opens with lovely fingerpicked acoustic guitar before they bring the rock. They even turn Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers" into a hard-rocking military march filled with lots of swell lead guitar. How can you possibly resist such whole-grain goodness, especially with such a well-executed presentation? As an added bonus, you can slow the album down from 45 rpm to 33 rpm and hear them magically become really catchy death metal.


Generalissimo -- "Iron Heart / Silver Skin" 7" [self-released]

More swellness from the rocking statists of Generalissimo, this time in the form of two short but potent blasts of swaggering riff-rock. "Iron Heart" creeps along like a thief skulking through the night, occasionally bursting into epic jolts of heaviness as the full band kicks in, and when the solo arrives, it's short but sweet and propels the band forward in an even higher gear as they ride out the song with a growing sense of bombast. On the flip side, the version of "Silver Skin" here is a different, noisier mix (maybe even a totally different recording) of the same song from the recent album, with even more high-octane energy. Both songs are excellent, and the single -- limited to 500 copies and also available for download at their Bandcamp site -- makes a fine, inexpensive introduction to the band.


Chris Hartford -- LOSING SEASON [self-released]

Hartford is the guitarist for Cathedral and Rum (a band that may or may not be active now), a name that may be familiar to long-time readers of TOTDA. This album, his first solo effort, is nevertheless the work of a band (that includes, among others, former Captain Beefheart guitarist Moris Tepper on two tracks), and those familiar with the sound of Cathedral and Rum will notice that the ten tracks on this album are very much in the same vein as that band's sound. That sound, for those not familiar with Hartford or his earlier band, is a countrified mix of folk rock and blues in service of melancholy songs about love, loss, and life. This is what radio people used to call "soft rock" back when I was wee (back in the days when albums came out on vinyl and Nixon was still in the White House); I suppose they call it something else now, but that doesn't change the sound. This is the sound of real musicians making real music playing real instruments without the help of loops and gadgets like Autotune. It's retro, but it's retro in a good way, and as with the best music, the focus here is on the songs, rather than flashy instrumental gimmickry (although these are indeed excellent players). From the beautifully maudlin opener "57 Watts" to the closing title track, the band -- powered by guitar, bass, drums, various forms of organ and piano, mandolin, banjo, and acoustic guitar -- lays down one accomplished song after another, heavily layered songs with a wide variety of sounds that work well at making each song distinctly its own. For those worried about the presence of a guitarist associated with one of the most bizarre and uncommercial acts ever to attain prominence in this country, never fear: Tepper's contributions (guitar on "Never Let You Go" and strings on "Losing Season") are very much in line with the sound of the rest of the album, and if I hadn't told you so, you would have no idea that such an eccentric luminary was plugging away in the background. (It's also worth nothing that the album was recorded and mixed at Tepper's studio in Del Rey, CA.) This is a beautiful and understated album that mines the best parts of country, blues, and rock to create memorable and affecting tunes, the kind of album that people rarely make anymore. Fans of singer-songwriter bands and musicians like The Band, John Prine, and Townes Van Zandt should seek this out.

Chris Hartford:

Hurry Up Shotgun -- S/T {Seismic Wave Entertainment]

Here comes yet another excellent band from Oakland, CA, and yet another opportunity to wonder what it is about Oakland that spawns so many amazing bands. Seriously, just a small sampling of Oakland bands and musicians would include Neurosis, Dimesland, Abscess, Brainoil, Erase Errata, Totimoshi, High on Fire, Victory and Associates, Alaric, Carla Bley, Del the Funkee Homosapien, Sheila E, Fred Frith, John Lee Hooker, Henry Kaiser, Harry Partch, Pharaoh Sanders, Tupac Shakur, Sly Stone, Generalissimo, Weasel Walter, Asunder, Ghoul, and Ludicra (RIP)… and that's just the ones I know about. So what's the deal? What's in the water there that generates such an endless cornucopia of whole-grain goodness?

One key to the puzzle lies in the city's location. Oakland is part of the San Francisco Bay Area (which also includes San Jose, another musical hotspot that is home to the likes of Noothgrush, Sleep, and Xiu Xiu), and its proximity to San Francisco itself -- one of the largest and most diverse cities in the US -- means that there is plenty of opportunity for any fledgling band to see (and learn from) bands and musicians of all genres. It also helps to keep in mind that Oakland's history is riddled with social, racial and political unrest; from the colorful antics of the Hells Angels (whose Oakland chapter is one of the organization's oldest and largest) to more recent controversies over the police handling of the Occupy Oakland movement and the shooting of an unarmed man by a BART police officer in East Oakland, the city has always been embroiled in issues related to civil rights and political unrest, which always makes good fodder for bands. It's also one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, partly due to its location in a border state and its designation as one of the busiest shipping ports in the country. Oakland is also a city that takes the arts seriously: not only does it have an abnormally high concentration of artists and musicians, it is home to the internationally famous jazz club Yoshi's. So obviously the city makes a perfect breeding ground for intense, diverse music grounded in real-world concerns.

Which brings us back to that swell Oakland band called Hurry Up Shotgun. (Do I know what the name means? I do not.) They get compared to Husker Du a lot, which is fair, but there's a lot more post-punk and art-rock in their DNA; Craig Eastman's pinging bass sound reminds me a lot of the Cure and Joy Division, and I suspect their compact, minimalist songwriting is equally indebted to the likes of Wire and Gang of Four. (It's worth noting that several of the album's ten tracks are under three minutes, and the longest is just barely over five and a half.) The songs themselves are tightly-coiled exercises in fat-free playing with just enough flash in just the right places to make you realize just how controlled their songwriting is; their obvious technical talent (especially where drummer Adam Kayne is concerned) is only overshadowed by their enormous discipline in not squandering that talent on endless jams, pointless soloing, and the kind of excessive behavior favored by bands who can't resist the urge to show off. These songs are also incredibly catchy, filled with hummable melodies and invigorating riffs, made all the more so by that aforementioned discipline. My favorites are "Swim," which opens with a watery processed guitar sound before the drums kick in; the jaunty, mid-tempo "Garbage Destinations," which is dominated by spare but spot-on guitar playing and lyrics that may or may not be about the anthropological curiosities inherent to rummaging through someone else's garbage; "Little Pieces," a song built on eerie processed sounds; and "Girl From CA," an unspeakably infectious song that would be the album's first single if they were on a label obsessed with charting singles. The real truth, however, is that all of the songs are excellent.

What really sets them apart from the current wave of spiky-sounding post-punk revivalists currently radiating from the West Coast, though, is their approach to vocals and lyrics. To begin with, guitarist Austin Pitts and bassist Craig Eastman both sing, and they both favor a variety of singing styles, both across the length of the album and often within individual songs, and their unorthodox approach creates some highly unusual textures; they never quite approach the extremity of Sleater-Kinney's habit of having the two vocalists sing totally different lyrics at the same time, but they certainly share that band's affinity for contrasting vocal sounds. Their lyrics are equally unusual, eschewing the straightforward reporting style of most bands in favor of more abstract themes couched in obscure, mysterious metaphors that impart a definite feeling while still leaving plenty of room for interpretation. This is a huge plus in my book. (For concrete examples, check out the actual lyrics at their Bandcamp page.) This band is the real deal; you would be foolish not to investigate.

Hurry Up Shotgun
Seismic Wave Entertainment

Lucio Menegon -- SONIC DEMONS [Edgetone Records]

NYC guitarist / electronica artist Lucio Menegon has crafted in this album a strange concept album about Lucifer's attempts to regain his sonic virility through an alchemist wielding a diabolical sonic weapon called the Debigulator; in the process of using this gadget, however, the alchemist unleashes an entropic molecule called The Killer Green, capable of destroying the universe, a molecule that is of great interest to Vulcan, who offers to free the alchemist from his Faustian bargain in exchange for said molecule. There's more to the story -- much more, all of it equally convoluted -- and the eerie, heavily-processed music that accompanies this concept is every bit as strange and otherworldly. Assisted by a number of guest artists (including Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven and Laurie Amat of the Residents), Menegon creates thirteen tracks of damaged electronics and noise welded to efx-laden cosmic guitar textures. It's strange and often disorienting stuff, but the sounds and textures are so alien, so cryptic, that they are fascinating in their own right. Ultimately a mix of dark ambient sound, noise, and extremely experimental guitar, the album makes for interesting listening indeed, and comes with a libretto of sorts explaining the action implied by the actual songs.

Lucio Menegon
Edgetone Records

Krisoffer Nystroms Orkester -- OVERLOOK HOTEL [Malignant Records]

KNO is the ongoing collaboration between Swedish dark-ambient giant Peter Nystrom (Megaptera, Negru Voda) and Norwegian industrialist Kristoffer Oustand (V:28, Plague Machinery), and this is their second release. This is the cd version of an album that was released earlier on vinyl in a limited edition of 217 with completely different titles for the tracks, a dark-ambient / industrial concept album revolving around the Overlook Hotel, the haunted location of Stephen King's novel THE SHINING (and the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name). Those familiar with the film's soundtrack, featuring eerie and unsettling electronic and classical works by Wendy Carlos / Rachel Elkind, Gyorgy Ligeti, Bela Bartok, and Krzysztof Penderecki, will find that this album shares some similarities to the soundtrack's use of uneasy drones, but because this is a collaboration between guys weaned on industrial sounds as well the dark-ambient genre, there are some heavily percussive moments, especially on "Vulgalina Fever," a pounding death march that carves a forbidding swath through fields of wailing synth drone and indecipherable snippets of conversation. Bits of conversation swirl throughout the album, although it doesn't appear to be from the original film (unless it's possibly the dubbed dialogue of a non-English version of the film), and the tracks flow without stopping from one to the next, driven mostly by ominous drones and unearthly-sounding synths, with infrequent bursts of overloaded activity (such as the fuzzed-out rhythmic element of "Helvetesfallet") and the periodic appearance of white and pink noise mixed into the dark-ambient drone. Distant tribal percussion shows up again in the enigmatic "It's A Test," along with more of the unnerving death drone that pervades the entire album, and about two-thirds of the way through, an element of buzzing noise briefly appears as well. When they're not introducing elements of industrial sound and noise in the mix, they do an excellent job of emulating the spooky classical sound of the original soundtrack, especially on the subdued yet forbidding final track "Astronaut 47." Fans of Nystrom's earlier work will definitely appreciate this, along with anyone interested in well-executed dark-ambient work.

Kristoffer Nystroms Orkester
Malignant Records

Psychotic Quartet -- SPHALERON [Eh?]

It's fitting that the first track by this quartet -- Dan Blackberg on trombone, Evan Lipson on bass, Katt Hernanden on violin, and Michael Evans on drums -- should be called "Entropy is Information," because their sound is very much the musical equivalent of entropy in action. Like a musical pictograph of the art of entropy, the musicians break forth with enigmatic snippets of sound that rarely come together, but instead weave around each other. It's not as chaotic as you might expect, but certainly a far cry from traditional music, and punctuated with subdued passages that border on total silence. The chaos arrives in earnest on "We are all 11 or 26 Dimensions," as mighty bleating from the trombone announces an orgy of dissonance and furiously pinwheeling sound of a highly improvisational nature. The three remaining tracks -- "Seething Form of Potential," "Quantum Entanglement," and "Particle Zoo" -- play out in similar fashion, with each member's instrument taking the lead on each new track before culminating in an orgy of whacked-out sounds in the final track. Like most releases on the label, you'll either find it fascinating for the sounds and tones and textures or you'll find it utterly unlistenable; either way, there's plenty of interesting stuff going on here, assuming you have the background (or the will) to decipher it.


Skin Area -- ROTHKO FIELD [Malignant Records]

Even by my standards, this is a strange and incredibly enigmatic piece of work -- but a highly interesting and compelling one. The album's title is apt; in the same way that abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko used fields of color to create paintings obsessed with form and space rather than conventional landscapes or portraits, Swedish conceptual artist Martin Bladh and sound artist Magnus Lindh create abstract soundscapes built from layers of sound and tonal color. With a sound rooted equally in the experimental, dark ambient, and industrial realms, the band's third album (after two on Cold Meat Industry, an affiliation that speaks volumes about where they're coming from), the duo has created a complex and often disturbing series of interlocked soundscapes whose compositions defy easy categorization. There is also an added layer of complexity to the album's construction, as the first four songs are mirrored by alternate versions on the second half of the album, and connected by the track "Void," a dark ambient transitional piece. Things are further complicated by the fact that the mirror tracks are not, in fact, true duplicates of the original songs, but more akin to the original songs as seen through a distorted mirror and obscured by new, darker layers of sonic paint. If that weren't confusing enough, the album's dark themes of madness, fear, sexual anxiety, and personal ruin make the album a highly unsettling listening experience.

"Threshold" makes the album's bleak themes apparent from the very beginning, with voices shouting back and forth across the stereo channels as abstract sound rumbles in the background, reciting the neuroses and symptoms of a patient, possibly a paranoid schizophrenic, touching on such disturbing topics as sexual dysfunction, paranoia, and incest. The three tracks that follow -- "In the Skin," "Rothko Field," and "Hypnagoga" (the transitional state between being awake and asleep, a state dominated by such phenomena as hallucinations and sleep paralysis) are tracks built from differing layers of electronic, noise, and keyboard textures, accompanied by occasional percussion and intermittent vocals. The tracks grow darker, noisier, and more dreamlike as they progress toward the album's centerpiece, "Void," a brooding and hypnotic dark ambient piece whose tonal palette moves inexorably from light to dark, emulating the descent into a nightmarish dream world. After that, the mirror tracks work their way backwards, from "Hypnagoga (II)" to "Threshold (II)," and the original shape and theme of the tracks are distorted and painted black. The vocals become more surreal and gauzy, the sound becomes even more abstract… and in the lengthy "Rothko Field (II)," the dream finally slides totally into the nightmarish abyss, punctuated by terrifying, unpredictable percussion and more unsettling vocals over a bed of ominous pink-noise synth drone. The intensity ramps up even further on "In the Skin (II)," with the heaviest and most persistent percussion of the album battling a storm of noise and synth drone, and the album ends on an oblique note with the brief "Threshold (II)," whose lyrics hint at what could be redemption or damnation for the unrepentant patient. Rarely has a concept album been executed in such a cogent and terrifying manner. This is the first time I've heard of Skin Area, but after hearing this, I'm definitely going to have to double back and pick up their earlier albums.

Skin Area
Malignant Records

Sky Burial -- TRANSMISSIONS FROM THE VOID [Crucial Blast]

MIchael Page continues to be a busy guy; this is at least Sky Burial's third release in the past year, and I'm pretty sure at least one more looms on the horizon. In terms of packaging, though, this is one of the band's more elaborate releases; it comes in a clear hard-shell dvd case in a limited run of 200 and includes a set of ten luxurious full-color art cards designed by Atom Black, as well as a one-inch badge. The cards themselves are a series of enigmatic, blue-tinted paintings resembling deeply occult versions of the Rorschach test inkblots (assuming Herr Rorschach had called upon the services of H. R. Giger when designing his cards). The presentation is simply stunning; this release is worth owning just for the packaging alone.

The music itself is one long, 45-minute track soundtrack to cosmic drift, and the album's title is utterly apt; this is definitely music that sounds like it was beamed from the exploding gas cloud of a distant, dying star. Heavy on the synth drone that's dominated the last few releases and firmly in the dark-ambient territory of Lustmord's more mystical releases, this is an extended and slowly evolving soundscape whose movements and transitions are relatively subtle, borne along on billowing clouds of sound as winding sheets of noise unspool in the background along with occasional snippets of minimal percussion. This is one of the most drone-o-rific releases in the Sky Burial catalog, with a slow rhythmic pulse that might well hypnotize you into an early sleep state if it weren't for the swirling, shifting sonic textures eddying in the background. The nearly-static synth drone and narcoleptic feel of the track in general is reminiscent of the more early, amorphous albums by Tangerine Dream; this is music designed for contemplation of the cosmos, suggesting a journey of incredible distances through the empty void of space, and consequently the track avoids sudden, jarring movements in favor of gradual shifts in tone and texture. It's not quite in the "nothing happens" territory of Main's more abstract albums, but it's certainly one of Page's most subdued and delicate-sounding works. Mesmerizing and dreamlike, this is definitely an excellent addition to the Sky Burial canon. And a limited one, remember, so grab it while you can….

Sky Burial
Crucial Blast

Sujo -- DIASPORA [Inam Records]

The always-engimatic (and always uber-swank) Sujo returns with seven new tracks of ominously blissed-out drone noise and another beautifully creepy (or is that creepily beautiful?) cover by Megan Abajian. Sujo's monolithic sound is comparable to the more droning instrumental tracks from My Bloody Valentine's landmark shoegazer epic LOVELESS, but darker, creepier, and much closer in spirit to dark ambient / drone than actual rock music. It also incorporates plenty of harmonic noise, and while the tracks are generally percussion free, there are a couple of notable exceptions -- "Famir" unfolds in majestic fashion over slow, simple beats, and there are some seriously violent, punishing beats on "Tamil," where the beats eventually recede into the background while the guitars sound like they're being sucked into a black hole, only to return in more subdued form under a bed of granular noise and edgy guitar drone. There's also some intensely hyperactive drumming in "Landing," which is accompanied by some serious interstellar noise drone. The rest of the tracks are more drone-oriented (although "Six Days" does open with some nifty, crunchy noise, and there's plenty of harsh noise grimness in "Sayan" as well), and those drones are as heavy as they are mysterious. As with pretty much everything by Sujo and guitarist Ryan Huber's other band Olekranon, this is super-limited (to fifty copies), but like everyone else with good sense these days, Sujo is now on Bandcamp, where you can stream (and buy) this and other equally limited releases.

Inam Records:

Sutcliffe Jugend -- BLUE RABBIT [Crucial Blast]

UK power-electronics legend Sutcliffe Jugend came to ugly, seething life in 1982 as a side-project of Whitehouse alumnus Kevin Tompkins, and while their existence has been an on-off affair since then, they have been responsible for some of the most harrowing examples of audio terror ever recorded, with albums like WHEN PORNOGRAPHY IS NO LONGER ENOUGH and THE VICTIM AS BEAUTY. After sitting out most of the early part of the millennium's first decade, they returned in 2005 with a new mandate and, to some degree, a new sound, relying less on the shock tactics of their earlier work and more concerned with the exploration of harsh sonic textures. This trend culminates in their latest work, which is actually closer to a dark-ambient album than the power-electronics they've previously been known for; while there is a certain level of noise content present, it is deployed in a subdued manner in the context of tracks largely driven by doom-laden synth drones, nearly subliminal clanking noises, and muttered vocals that hint at uneasy subjects. While it's difficult to make out the lyrics, given the extremely disturbing nature of the printed lyrics to the title track, that may be just as well; the band has obviously moved toward depicting an even darker level of human depravity than before, which I never would have imagined possible until seeing those horrifying lyrics. (What the lyrics are, exactly, I prefer to leave for listeners to discover for themselves, but trust me, they're deeply unpleasant.) What's most interesting about this album, aside from its surprising level of restraint, is the minimalist feel of its textures and the shift from direct, violent confrontation to the more subtle and protracted strategy of creating a growing sense of complete and total dread. Take "The Bad Mannered Prophet," for instance; I have no idea what Tompkins is mumbling in the track, but the wavelike drones, cryptic noises like a dying piece of machinery, and increasingly dark synth drift add up to a dirge that's too filled with menace to actually be soothing, but too restrained to be outright terrifying. The level of restraint at work here is such that when moderate-sounding hits on a tom drum appear in "Feeding the Mouth That Bites You," it's actually jarring at first. Things get even more interesting when they manage to work in a proggy synth sound on "The Good Child," something I certainly never expected to hear on a Sutcliffe Jugend album, although other keyboard-generated sounds grow progressively more dissonant and horrific as the track plays on. It isn't until the final track, "The Death of Pornography," that the band's seething power-attack of old makes any kind of serious appearance, and even then it's only sporadic, sandwiched in between episodes of piercing synth wail and mysterious pinging noises. While the track's intensity never rises to the level of anything from, say, PORNOGRAPHY IS NEVER ENOUGH, the sounds do grow and coverage with a growing urgency that eventually creates a certain kind of claustrophobia; as mysterious as the band's intentions may be, there is nevertheless a suffocating power in the eternally wailing synth and the scratching, skittering noises weaving in and around it like flies circling a dead body. The band's change of tactics will probably polarize their fan base, but for those willing to venture out of the traditional comfort zone of power-electronics, this will certainly be an unsettling listening experience.

Sutcliffe Jugend
Crucial Blast

T.O.M.B. -- UAG [Crucial Blast]

The name stands for "Total Occultic Mechanical Blasphemy," which is a description as accurate as it is succinct; the album title is an abbreviation of "Uncovered Ancient Gateways," the album's first track, and their aesthetic is a perverse one, to say the least. Operating in the outer realms of sonic ugliness where black metal, industrial, and noise collide in a desecrated graveyard after midnight, the band's sound combines the grotesque conceptual obsessions of bands like Stalaggh and Abruptum with the dark, oppressive black industrial / noise approach of bands like MZ.412 and Wold. Starting with field recordings made in places like abandoned sanitariums like Pennhurst State Hospital in Pennsylvania and the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Kentucky, as well as morgues, cemeteries, and other similar places considered haunted or prone to paranormal activity, the band combines ambient field recordings with recordings of them using those sites as percussive instruments (beating on walls, gravestones, hospital beds, and so on). Some of these sounds are further processed into shrieking walls of reverb-heavy wailing and noise; these unnerving sounds, which are even more disturbing if you are aware of their source, are combined with physical percussion beatdowns that would make Einsteurzende Neubauten proud. The result is eleven tracks of sheer audio agony guaranteed to make you want to hide under your bed crying for your mama if you're foolish enough to listen to this at night with the lights out. This is seriously scary-sounding shit. It's not quite as deliberately horrifying as Stalaggh's albums (which are supposedly created using the screaming and wailing of psychotic mental patients) or as willfully abrasive as the average Wold album, and it's far more structured (despite the randomness of the sounds involved) than Abruptum's classic albums, but it's still definitely well within the same genre of antimusic designed primarily to scare the shit out of you. The deeply unsettling nature of their sound is only reinforced by the hellish black and white photography that adorns the cover and the booklet. Their use of excessive reverb and black, swirling clouds of sound also echo the rumblings of early Lustmord and Brighter Death Now; in fact, this sound very much like it could have been an early Cold Meat Industry release. If any of the bands I've so far referenced mean anything to you, then you really need to hear this.

Crucial Blast

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