Acephalix -- DEATHLESS MASTER [Southern Lord]
Here's the scoop: the band is from San Francisco, they play vaguely old-school death metal with modern production, they have a vocalist who specializes in the cookie-monster bleat, and this is their second album. As sounds go, their trip is not blazingly original -- this is straightforward death metal (with the occasional nod to thrash) in the vein of early Obituary, Deicide, Whiplash, and similar bands in their prime around the tail end of the 80s. The production is suitably modern, though, and while this is probably nothing you haven't heard before, they do it really, really well. The drummer, in particular, consistently sounds like a locomotive running off the tracks at full speed, and the grinding guitar sound is supremely heavy. When they get their groove on, as on tracks like "Blood of Desire" and "Deathless Master," they are absolutely crushing -- they may not be so hot in the originality department, but they have totally mastered the art of the sonic beatdown. They also have the good sense to keep the songs reasonably short -- most are around three to four minutes, and the longest is just over six -- and they know how to keep things moving. It's heavy stuff, and respectable enough as metal albums go -- just don't expect anything revelatory.
Ambassador Gun -- GOLDEN EAGLE [Pangea Media]
Grind and metal make for exquisitely unwholesome bedfellows, and this band's second album brings on the ugliness in spades with eleven songs in approximately thirty minutes. The grind end of things comes via spastic, frantic drumming, a gibbering, howling vocalist, and lots of gruesome guitar tones; the metal happens when things straighten out long enough for them to break out some happening grooves and shred-o-rific leads on tracks like "Warpainted." It's standard-issue grind, to be sure -- they're good, but they're not Discordance Axis by any means -- but they have the right attitude, and it's worth nothing this is completely a DIY production, recorded and produced by the band themselves, and issued on their own label (and through Bandcamp). Hell, they're even making the album available on cassette as well as by digital means. How can you not like a band who still believes in the healing power of cassette tape?
Ancient VVisdom -- A GODLIKE INFERNO [Prosthetic]
It isn't often you see a band that completely transcends its influences, but Austin's Ancient VVisdom are one of those bands. Led by singer / songwriter Nathan Opposition, the band is composed of members formerly doing time in hardcore bands and they freely admit in interviews to being influenced by the likes of Alice in Chains, Alice Cooper, and Rob Zombie, but they actually sound like a dark folk band with metal leanings. Most folk-metal -- especially bands coming out of Europe and its neighboring countries -- tend to sound like metal with some folk idioms thrown in, but this band is just the opposite; even on the tracks with electric guitar, it's obvious that the riffs and chord progressions are actually rooted in folk music. Their sound is rounded out by atmospheric touches reaching back to death-rock acts like Christian Death and goth music as well, which just makes the morbid atmosphere all that more pronounced. Bridging the gap between folk and metal is a task made easier by the stellar playing skills of acoustic guitarist Justin "Ribs" Mason and Nathan's brother Michael on electric guitar, but their skills would be useless without Nathan's exceptional songwriting, which manages to balance folk, metal, and gothic elements in a unique and highly memorable manner. Other reviews of this album I've seen have gone on about how evil it sounds, and while it doesn't all that evil to me -- grim and foreboding, yes; evil, no -- I suspect some of those other listeners may be reacting to the band's openly Satanic stance and their 2010 12" split with Charles Manson (yes, that Charles Manson) on Withdrawal Records. Regardless of how evil you find it to be, this is an excellent album that should hold plenty of appeal for fans of dark neo-folk.
Codeine -- WHEN I SEE THE SUN (box set) [The Numero Group]
When you think of Codeine, the NYC band whose shadow looms over the entire so-called "slowcore" movement (the first few albums by Low, arguably the most well-known band saddled with the label, are essentially Codeine with more melodic vocals minus the heavy moments), it's to think now of how short their career was (a mere five years). Yet they made the most of their short existence, issuing two full-length albums and one EP, all brilliant from start to finish, along with a slew of more obscure singles and compilation tracks. The other thing that's always been fascinating about the band is how mysterious they were -- I was an obsessive music culture junkie back in the 90s, constantly poring over just about every music magazine published at the time, and I can only recall seeing maybe three interviews, max, with the band. One of the best things about this box set, which reissues all of those albums along with a staggering number of bonus tracks, is how much light it sheds on the band via the extensive liner notes that accompany each album. In addition to essays penned by those who knew and toured with the band at time -- people like Alan Licht and Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman -- each album booklet features the band members themselves expounding on the history and circumstances surrounding each album, shedding new light on how the band perceived itself and its music. Even if you already own the band's catalog, the reissues are valuable just for the liner notes alone.
There's much more to the package than that, though. Numero Group, an archival label known primarily for its lavish compilations of obscure blues and soul music, has gone to great lengths to make these reissues (available separately and as a box set) stunning artifacts any Codeine fan is bound to appreciate. Each reissue comes packaged as a double-LP with an accompanying cd, with all the music remastered; in each case, the first LP contains the original album tracks, while the second is a compilation of rare and unreleased material, including demos from different studios, an acoustic version of "Pea," an amazing live rendition of Unrest's "Hydroplane," the Joy Division compilation track "Atmosphere," and -- of immense interest to diehard Codeine enthusiasts -- three formerly unreleased Peel Session tracks. There are 27 bonus tracks -- two more than the total of tracks from their albums, in fact -- and while not all of them are essential, even the least of them are illuminating, especially the demo versions of "Tom" and "Realize," which demonstrate how radically different they could sound with such minor variations as different tempos and different guitar sounds. In addition to the large booklet that comes with each reissue, the box set also contains a five-foot foldout poster featuring all the album covers and many of the covers for the singles and compilations, which is a nice bonus. The first 500 preorders for the box set also include a 7" single featuring live versions of "Pickup Song" and "New Year's."
The real value in these reissues, though, is the chance to introduce Codeine's stark, bleak, and utterly mesmerizing sound to a new generation of listeners. While the band's cds have never gone out of print, the band never exactly had a huge profile to begin with, and when Nirvana's NEVERMIND came out halfway through the band's existence, they (along with just about every other band on Sub Pop) got lost in the roar of music journalists scrambling to cover Nirvana's every move. Which is a shame, because Codeine were arguably the best band on Sub Pop at the time (and maybe ever; the only other Sub Pop release that comes close to matching the band's intensity and understated delivery is MANOS, the first album by the Spinanes). While they were known mainly for their incredibly stunted tempos, a characteristic that reached its apex on their final album THE WHITE BIRCH, one of the slowest albums ever recorded, the band had much more to offer than just the ability to creep along at a snail's pace. They shared with Slint a love of unexpected dynamic shifts, and more so than almost any other band associated with "slowcore," they could be incredibly loud when it suited them; it's worth noting that they, like Slint, had roots in hardcore, and they weren't afraid to turn things up when necessary to jolt their listeners. The combination of bassist / vocalist Steve Immerwahr's mournful delivery and blunt, near-suicidal lyrics gave them a gravity that few bands before or since have ever possessed, and the unnervingly high quality of their songs not only made them a filler-free band, but gave them a sound and identity that was immediately recognizable and (as many bands have since discovered) impossible to replicate. For a band with such a small catalog and such a short life, their influence has been considerable, and if you've never had the fortune to hear them, well, now's your opportunity.
Dromez -- WEEDHOUSE [Instincto Records]
This is the real deal -- five tracks of fractured sonic angst in a little under forty minutes from Austin's reigning queen of harsh noise. Things get off to an energetic start with "Path to the Tomb," featuring scathing walls of sandpaper noise and grating audio death. "Dead But Alive" opens deceptively with ambient noise and distant clanking before the ceiling caves in and Liz drops mad science in the form of what sounds like a squadron of bombers diving into collapsing buildings, accompanied by all sorts of painful screechy noises. "Sneaking Through the Hallway" is anything but quiet, filled with more jagged bursts of explosive audio violence and chopped-up sounds, and the final two tracks -- "Within the Confines of These Chains and Locks" and "Everywhere You Haven't Looked" are a little over twenty minutes of ear-frying immolation filled with a wide variety of textures and incidental sounds buried under a pile of gruesome musique concrete. Violent, painful, authoritative; you need.
Earthen Grave -- S/T [Claude & Elmo Music]
The first full-length album from these Chicago doom dudes makes its debt to Black Sabbath clear with the tolling bells and leviathan riffs on the opening title track, and when they're not being monumentally heavy they have a real strong 70s metal vibe to them. Like The Devil's Blood, they have a real retro feel to their sound, and while they're nominally a doom band (well, I think they are, maybe), there's a lot more to them than slo-mo riffing and homages to Sabbath. The lead guitarist and the vocalist in particular sound like throwbacks to 70s rock, especially on tracks like "Life Carries On," which may or may not move you, depending on your tolerance for that decade's bombastic sound. Parts of some songs fall within the realm of classic doom, but even those moments of heaviness give way to more blues-based metal and lots of operatic singing, not to mention plenty of lead guitar doodling that may cause you to have flashbacks if you already lived through the 70s. It's really weird to hear a band apparently influenced by Deep Purple and Judas Priest, especially with all the progressive touches floating around (including a classic violinist playing an electric flying V violin). Some might find the band pretentious, even bordering on the ridiculous, but there's no question they can play, and it takes some serious songwriting chops to take such a wide variety of disparate influences and turn them into something not only coherent but memorable. Stoners longing to return to a decade when it wasn't a mortal sin to own a wah pedal will love them.
High on Fire -- THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE [Southern Lord]
This reissue of the band's debut is a welcome development, seeing as how it's been out of print for eons -- it was originally released on Man's Ruin in 2000 (just a couple of years before the label went tits-up thanks to financial difficulties and poor management) and again a year later on Tee Pee Records (with different cover art and two bonus tracks). Then it disappeared into oblivion, which is a shame, because this is one of the heaviest albums in a catalog that pretty much redefines heaviness. It's also a transitional album, carrying over guitarist / vocalist Matt Pike's burly guitar sound that was such an integral part of his previous band Sleep, but placing it in a much heavier, faster-paced context. The stoner sound that kept Sleep swaddled in bong smoke is very much present, but the band is far more aggressive -- the guitar sound that opens the first track "Baghdad" may be lifted from Sleep, but the heavy thunder of the rhythm section that follows makes it clear that something new is going on, and while "10,000 Years" begins with a beat and nimble bass riff that could have been left over from the final Sleep album, Pike's psychotronic guitar and harsh, howling vocals pave the way for diabolical guitar leads that sound like the product of stoned free-jazzers setting themselves on fire. By the time "Blood From Zion" rolls around, fueled by surging riffs like muscle cars racing down the freeway, it's obvious that band has reached a new quantum state of blinding heaviness. The remaining three tracks from the original album are just more stellar examples of relentless, claustrophobic suffocation borne on the black wings of a titanic drum sound and gargantuan riffs. The bonus tracks, taken from a 7" single, include a pounding, distortion-laden cover of Celtic Frost's "The Usurper," and this new version of the album also includes the three tracks from their 1999 self-titled demo, early versions of "Blood From Zion," "10,000 Years," and "Master of Fists." Even more, the album has not only been remastered from the ground up, but also comes with a 48-page booklet. YOU NEED.
Master -- THE NEW ELITE [Pulverised]
Bassist / vocalist / mastermind Paul Speckmann has been steering Master through the mountains of metal madness since 1983 without much deviation from death metal's original formula, which is that everything that's not heavy and fast should be heavier and faster. This album is no exception, with a rhythm section that sounds like a drill press out of control and hyperspeed guitar riffing sufficiently manic to please any old-school 80s band. Master was part of the original wave of death metal, and still sounds like it -- there's nothing subtle or pretty here, just eleven blazing tracks set on "stun and immolate. There's nothing new here, sure, and titles like "Rise Up And Fight," "Remove the Knife," and "Out of Control" make their antisocial aesthetic perfectly clear, but that's all right; this is how old-school death metal should sound, and they are unapologetic about their burning desire to step on your face and strangle you with your own wallet chain. Fans of the band and early death metal will not be disappointed.
Sleep -- DOPESMOKER [Southern Lord]
If you know anything at all about Sleep, you're no doubt wondering right now: "How many times are they gonna release this goddamn album?" The answer, of course, is: until they get it right. For those not hep to the band and this legendary album's convoluted history, here's the condensed version. Their second album, SLEEP'S HOLY MOUNTAIN, released on Earache in 1992, hit the metal world so hard that London Records threw mountains of $$$ at them and claimed the rights to their third album. The band promptly spent all that dinero on vast mountains of weed and emerged from the studio many moons later with a 63-minute epic called "Dopesmoker." The label was severely unimpressed. For reasons known only to them, they butchered the track, reducing it to 52 minutes, then shelved it. Somehow, between then and the album's unauthorized release on Rise Above in 1999, the title morphed into "Jerusalem" and the song was carved up into the six sections. (The edited version also appeared as a limited promotional release and as a bootleg, both of which were about as well-received by the band as the Rise Above version.) In 2003, Tee Pee Records released the full, unedited version (plus a live rendition of "Sonic Titan") as DOPESMOKER, the only version formally recognized by the band. Now comes the Weedian -- excuse me, Southern Lord -- with what is surely the definitive version of this monumental work of endlessly repetitive stoner riffing, with new art by Arik Roper, a new bonus track (a live version of "Holy Mountain"; the vinyl edition also includes the Tee Pee bonus track), and -- most importantly -- a new mastering job by From Ashes Rise guitarist Brad Boatright.
So what's the album like? Well, it's long. Real long. If you're not down with the crown, listening to it can be an exercise in endurance… but if you can hang with the song's intimidating length (hint: periodic bong hits are helpful), it's a masterpiece of spaced-out heaviness. The song unfolds in movements (a tactic two-thirds of the band carried over into Om after the band's split), and each movement is crammed full of slo-mo riffs, drumming that channels both the spirit of world music and the looseness of free jazz into a metal context, hypnotic bass lines, and a burly guitar sound that gives the album much of its heft. The tempo is not quite as glacial as some might suggest, but it sure ain't fast, either; the effects of the band's legendary weed consumption are consistently present in the inexorable slowness with which everything unfolds. Top it all off with intermittent vocals revolving around the loose concept of Jesus as the ultimate stoner and you have metal's finest (if often perplexing) love letter to the followers of the sweet leaf. As you might expect with an ambitious concept so extreme, it leaves no room for middle ground in its reception -- you either think it's a work of genius (as do a significant portion of the doom and stoner communities) or a complete waste of time and $$$ (their original label, lots of other fools). As for the 12-minute rendition of "Holy Mountain," the (live) sound is nowhere near as good as the studio track, but it is a pretty impressive (and gnarly-sounding) performance of one of the band's signature tunes. I actually prefer the cover art from the Tee Pee version, but this is unquestionably the best-sounding version of the album (so far), and if you're like me and already own the Tee Pee version, you can just switch out the discs and have the best of both worlds.
ST 37 -- AWKWARD MOMENTS [Reverb Worship]
Having heard the band live several times, I can personally attest that their acid-fried space rock really does sound best in a live context, where you can be completely enveloped in the vast sheets of sound swirling off the stage. For those who haven't the pleasure of seeing them live, this disc makes a pretty nice approximation of the experience, collecting eleven tracks from various stops on their 2009 tour. The opening track, "Number one fan," is classic ST 37, twelve minutes of swirling psych action and an endless groove (well, at least until it ends, natch) reminiscent of Pink Floyd around the time Syd Barrett grew too crazy to keep playing with the band. Their more rock-oriented side surfaces on "The white Comanche," which is punked out enough to clearly suggest the band's pre-psych roots in other, earlier bands, and on "I was looking for my digital underground grandpa tape," which borders on white noise (although that could be a recording issue; the audio quality of some tracks is best described as lo-fi). They get pretty noisy on "Future memories" too, grinding away with mondo-distorted riffing and spaced-out guitar wailing over a slow, pounding beat, sort of like Hawkwind at half-speed; the tempo picks up about halfway through as the song becomes more noticeably psychedelic, but not by much. There's also a pretty good recording of "Maroons," one of their best songs (and my personal favorite), and an intriguing rendition of "Solaris," their hypnotic industrial / ambient / psych homage to the Soviet science-fiction film of the same name. They even include a swell rendition of their version of the TWIN PEAKS classic "Just You," always a mind-bending listening experience. Swell, swell stuff, and with eleven tracks crammed into 74 minutes, the disc lasts about as long as their average show, too. Even better, this release also comes with a totally hilarious (and illustrated!) pamphlet offering not just liner notes and track listings, but anecdotes about the band's various misadventures during the tour, some of them scatological, many of them involving the ingestion of questionable substances. Hilarious and entertaining, to be sure. Limited to 100 copies.
ST 37 -- KBDP 3" cdr [Kendra Steiner Editions]
Austin's favorite space-rock explorers show up on this disc with a 19-minute track heavy on the drone and plenty of whacked-out psych-noise guitar waffling over a mesmerizing rhythm section. The rhythmic pulse comes and goes, and the eccentric guitar noodling waxes and wanes with glorious intensity, but the spaced-out ambient drone remains relatively constant, with an assortment of unidentified UFO noises thrown in periodically for maximum head-tripping. The instrumental track ebbs and flows in volume and density, but stays true to the kind of interstellar jamming pioneered by early Pink Floyd. Cool stuff, if obscure and limited (to 113 copies), and worth tracking down.
Stone Breath -- THE NIGHT BIRDS PSALM [Hand/Eye]
The latest (well, I think it's the latest -- the reactivated band has become so prolific as of late that I've kind of lost track) from Stone Breath is an interesting combination of the old and the new. The old is represented not only by their core aesthetic -- old-time folk music played with traditional instruments like guitar, banjo, dulcimer, bouzouki, hand drums, and so on -- but by the presence of constant leader TimeMothEye and and long-time player Prydwyn ; the new element consists of new players Don Belch, Carin Wagner Sloan, Brooke Elizabeth, and the mysterious Kira. The album itself is the third chapter in their ongoing "silver thread" series, and like those albums, this one is dominated by acoustic music evoking a time long before the advent of modern music, much less electric instruments; this is what folk bands sounded like a hundred years ago, if not longer -- nothing more than a gathering of like-minded individuals playing rhythms handed down over time. This is well-crafted music that sounds like an ancient classic unearthed from the Smithsonian folk archive; if you knew nothing about the band, it would be easy to mistake this for authentic period music. One of the things that makes this album a bit different from its predecessors is the presence of three female vocalists, who provide different voices both solo and together throughout the album, to especially great effect on the haunting "The Snow-White Ghost-White Stag" and the supremely spooky "Walking Sam" (in which the band trades male and female vocals back and forth). There are some vaguely modern touches here and there -- the squeaking noises and ambient background sound of "One Good Eye," for instance -- and the themes of some of the songs are considerably more morbid than one might expect of most traditional music ("To Sleep With Skeletons," one of the creepiest songs on the album, revolves around a little boy who hears voices of the dead and likes to sit around in graveyards), but otherwise this is a largely subdued album squarely in the realm of traditional folk stylings. The musicianship is excellent, as always, and the lyrics are both haunting and evocative; in fact, this may be the band's best album yet. Highly recommended.
TimeMothEye -- UNDEATH [Crucial Blast]
This should come as a surprise to those familiar with the work of Timothy Renner in Stone Breath; it's a strange piece of work with only a tenuous relation to his regular band. Come to think of it, this is strange by almost any definition, and mondo creepy besides. There are folk instruments on this album, but they've been recorded in an unconventional manner and their sounds even further processed, and there are songs like "Wake" where the vocals have been treated to sound like a ghostly robot moaning from the bottom of a well… and then there's the use of machine sounds, clanking noises, and amplifier hum, among other things, in service of creating some really creeped-out atmospheres. There's a lot of drone action at work, too, especially on "Sheetwinder" and "Witchwinder," but much of what's happening on this album reminds me of early industrial work by the likes of Throbbing Gristle or the Grey Wolves. And then there's "Ossa Ossa," which juxtaposes cryptic conversations with liturgical singing over a bedrock of uneasy dark ambient washes. "Footsteps Fall," with its chanted male and female vocals, almost sounds like it could have been on the latest Stone Breath album, but for the presence of droning feedback and a dissonant organ sound. "Chrysalishroud" is over eleven minutes of drifting, wailing drone and ambient sound like fog drifting through the trees of a forest so thick it remains eternally impervious to sunshine, and the album ends on an appropriately apocalyptic note with "Sleepwalker / Dreamwalker," featuring mysterious, haunting vocals over an amazing cascade of serrated feedback noise that wouldn't be out of place on an early Ramleh album. As if creating an amazing and deeply spooky album weren't enough, Renner threw in a 44-page chapbook of exquisitely morbid artwork to go with the liner notes, all of which comes in a swank dvd-style case with even more unsettling cover art. Everyone with taste should own a copy of this; of course, since it's limited to 200 copies, that's hardly possible. If you're smart, you'll grab this before the copies are gone (and given how brilliant this is, I suspect they'll go quickly as the word gets out).
Venison Whirled -- XIBALA 3" cdr [Kendra Steiner Editions]
It's been a while since we were last graced with some primal drone-fu courtesy of ST 37 drummer Lisa Cameron's main side project. This outing is a bite-sized 19 minutes, but that's plenty of time for her to make the earth move using various gadgets in an unorthodox manner. The first track, "Dark Rift," employs lap steel and Tibetan bowl to make all sorts of groaning, reverberating sheets of industrial-strength drone verging on feedback, with results that sound like an electrical tower slowly shaking itself apart. The combination of lap steel and Tibetan bowl -- both undoubtedly fed through various efx pedals -- yields some highly skronk-like tones that make the drone action hefty indeed. The other track, "Vortex Compression," is just under ten minutes of pure monolithic drone with some nice fuzzy textures and a modulating tonal quality that shifts over time, just the kind of thing Venison Whirled does best. This is what experimental drone is all about. Limited to 89 copies.
Zombiefication -- REAPER'S CONSECRATION ep [Pulverised Records]
Mexican bands are obsessed with zombies now? That's new to me. They're certainly obsessed enough with death: four of the five tracks on this EP make reference to death in the titles, but of course they are a death metal band, so that certainly makes sense…. What I don't understand is why a Mexican band sent their album to Sweden to be mixed and mastered, but that will just have to remain a mystery for the ages. As for the album itself, it's five songs worth of primitive but obscenely heavy death metal with a kitchen-sink sound. "Dead Today, Dust Tomorrow" and "Deathrides" are fast and furious, but "Necrohell" slows the pace down for a more doomed-out approach and some heavy, heavy grooves featuring furious double-bass drumming and a barbed-wire guitar sound that's beautiful in its ugliness. There's more slo-mo mosh-worthy heaviness in the otherwise speed-addled "I Am the Reaper," but otherwise they're mainly about velocity, extreme drumming, and a darkly harmonic guitar sound that skates right up to the border of dissonance without sailing over the cliff into total noise. This is cool stuff with a diseased vibe of which I greatly approve. Bonus points for employing a vocalist who manages to sound powerful and completely unhinged at the same time, and for the cool cover art that manages to avoid most of the current cliches stinking up most modern metal covers.