Monday, December 24, 2007

what's on santa's ipod?

Nels Cline / Carlos Giffoni / Alan Licht / Lee Ranaldo -- NOTHING MAKES ANY SENSE [No Fun Productions]

The real secret to why this works so well is that Carlos Giffoni's analog synth hoodoo forms the twitching, seismic core around which three of avant-rock's most famed (if not necessarily consistent) guitarists revolve like small exploding planets. There's no telling who's doing what, and it hardly matters -- over the course of fifty-plus minutes, Giffoni's synth drones, screeches, and pulses with seedy belligerence as the three guitarists whirl around him like an interstellar shitstorm of epic proportions. Recorded live at the now-defunct NYC venue Tonic in February of 2007, this is not psychedelic rock in the sense that most would consider it -- there's very little melodic content here, no hippiefied solos, no cosmic doodling -- but the sheer volume of different sounds (mostly guitars being violently abused in the service of making exotic, unorthodox noises as opposed to being played in any traditional fashion) and tripped-out noisemaking put it squarely in the territory of psychedelic noise. Celestial sounds and shimmering drones are pierced by violent guitar skronk; fragmentary rhythms and snippets of what almost approach being actual melodies from time to time are beaten back by towering synth drone; and every once in a while, all four players converge in a landslide of catastrophic audio violence before retreating into cosmic space drone again. This is the sound of radios tuned to stations broadcasting world music, avant rock, psych, and noise, all playing at once and disrupted by the energy of solar flares. At times almost soothing and hypnotic, at other times sounding like a herd of thundering pigs trying to outrace an oncoming avalanche, the piece flows through barely-controlled movements with considerable dynamic range, and the constantly changing ocean of sound is persistently interesting enough to keep the piece from ever getting old. (Stellar mixing and mastering by James Plotkin -- who's everywhere these days, doesn't the guy ever sleep? -- certainly doesn't hurt.) The project's aesthetic is neatly summed up in the Peter Laughner ( Rocket From the Tombs, early Pere Ubu) 1974 ZEPPELIN magazine review of Lou Reed's ROCK 'N ROLL ANIMAL reprinted inside the gatefold digipack (also the source of the album's title), an aesthetic than can be boiled down to the simple equation of many demented players + many guitars + many gadgets + massive amplication = massive brain damage for you, the listener. This is one of the best things the three guitarists in question have appeared on in a long time, if you ask me, so those hep to their skronk legacy should definitely check this out.

Nels Cline
Carlos Giffoni
Alan Licht
Lee Ranaldo
No Fun Productions

Electric Wizard -- WITCHCULT TODAY [Rise Above / Candlelight USA]

DECIBEL magazine recently made the claim that this album is even better than the band's classic DOPETHRONE, and while I'm not quite that bold (or crazy), I'll freely admit that it's a hell of a lot better than their last two albums. To be fair, the original lineup was beginning to disintegrate during the making of LET US PREY (following the tour's end, two-thirds of the band walked away to form Ramesses), and the new lineup that convened to record WE LIVE was so new that second guitarist Liz Buckingham (13, Sourvein) had joined the band only days before going into the studio to record the album. This one acts as if those two albums never happened (probably a wise idea, given the wonky experimental frippery of the first and the unfocused nature of the second), returning to the clotted-earth guitar sound and soul-crushing riffs of DOPETHRONE, only now there are two guitars wailing away and one of them belongs to Liz 13, whose playing has always been the pure definition of heaviness incarnate. New things around this time are the drummer (Shaun Rutter, replacing Justin Greaves, who wandered off to play in Crippled Black Phoenix) and Jus Oborn's cleaner vocals (still bathed in so much reverb, though, that he sounds like he's being dialed in from another dimension). Things that remain the same are the obsessive fixation with drugs (one of the songs is called "Satanic Rites of Drugula"), horror movies (check out "Dunwich," their homage to the movie version of Lovecraft's THE DUNWICH HORROR), and the occult (pretty much everything else). Their Sabbath-inspired heaviness is even more spaced-out than ever, especially on "Black Magic Rituals and Perversions," and a couple of the tracks (especially "Saturnine") sound like they could have been DOPETHRONE outtakes; there's no question that the new lineup has hit its stride. Best of all, there's no filler, just track after track of burned-out leviathan doom. If it isn't better than DOPETHRONE, it's definitely in the ballpark.

Electric Wizard
Candlelight USA

Endstille -- ENDSTILLES REICH [Regain Records]

Given that the band is from Germany, the band's obsession with war, glory, and iron crosses is probably in poor taste, but they're black metal, so that's kind of the point, right? Their image doesn't do much to dispel the popular notion that they're right-wing, but then again, when was the last time you saw a left-wing black metal band? But never mind the band's politics -- the real point is that the band is highly aggressive and phenomenally heavy, with a sound heavily indebted to war metal in general and Marduk in particular. The drumming is heavy, often fast, and mixed upfront, and the guitar sound is a blurry mix of dissonance and harmonic sizzle, with the vocals shrieked in the classic style; these are players very clearly weaned on early black metal, with an affinity for barely-controlled chaos that's held together mainly by the rock-solid and persistent drumming. Comparisons to Marduk and early Gorgoroth are reasonable, but some of the material calls to mind early Impaled Nazarene in terms of feel, speed, and ferocity. It's true that there's probably not as much variation as some listeners might like, but they make up for it with an absolutely feverish rage and hyperkinetic need to blaze. Intense and relentless.

Regain Records

Gallhammer -- ILL INNOCENCE [Peaceville]

Japan's favorite crust / punk / black metal triumvirate returns with their most varied album yet, one that makes it clear they are not limited to the oft-mentioned influences of Hellhammer and Amebix. They still have the gruesomely mulched guitar sound and churning, clanking bass tone of their previous albums, and the minimalist, fractured English lyrics that would be funny if they weren't so acidic and disturbing, and all three members contribute vocals as usual, but this time the sum of the parts yields results even more unpredictable and jarring than ever before. Part of this is most likely due to the mastering job by Darkthrone guitarist Nocturno Culto, but a bigger part of it unquestionably the band's determination to slowly but surely expand the boundaries of their sound without losing the grim, hopeless gloom that's already made them so interesting in the first place. The band's worldview is rooted heavily in despair and a morbid preoccupation with death, but this time around their obsession with these subjects has shifted from abstract musings to more specific objects of loathing, such as drugs (referenced in "Speed of Blood" and "Delirium Daydream"), homicide ("Ripper in the Gloom," "Queen of Death"), and madness ("Blind My Eyes"); the theme of being unclean runs throughout the album as well. Heaviness abounds -- slow and pounding on tracks like "At the Onset of the Age of Despair" and "World to be Ashes," fast and brutal on "Speed of Blood" and "Killed by the Queen" -- but there are more startling touches as well. "Blind My Eyes" (which boasts the catchiest riffs of the band's career so far) sounds like new wave for the black metal generation, complete with hideous shrieking counterpointed by the truly horrific sound of a young devil doll in torment and harsh military barks, and the first (acoustic) half of "Ripper in the Gloom" is undoubtedly the result of spending a lot of time opening for Corrupted. On the appropriately-named "SLOG" they slow down to a snail's pace, and the closing track "Long Scary Dream" is a dark exercise in dissonance, drone, and nightmarish vocalizations. The end of the world has rarely sounded this good. (Of course, since Gallhammer is one of my favorite bands, there is always the slight possibility I might be biased.)


Gorgoroth -- PENTAGRAM [Regain Records]

The ongoing controversy over the band's recent schism and the subsequent legal wrangling over possession of the name and logo has unfortunately overshadowed what should have been big news for the band -- namely, the newly-remastered reissue of their first three albums. That's too bad, because these are quality releases boasting improved sound and a foldout poster in each one. (Ironically, none of these albums include Gaahl or King ov Hell, who joined the band later.)

The first of the reissues is PENTAGRAM, the band's first album, originally released in 1994, two years after the band's conception. At just under thirty minutes long, it's a short but appropriately violent exercise in minimalist and primitive-sounding fury; the eight songs speed by in a blur of relentless drumming and snarling, darkly harmonic guitar that occasionally resolves into heavy riffing (marking the band's still-in-progress transition from its death metal roots). One of the album's most notable features is the unorthodox vocal stylings of original vocalist Hat, whose dark and distorted voice, possibly pitch-shifted, sounds markedly different from the vocalists of other black metal bands of the time. Contemporaries like Emperor (whose guitarist Samoth guested as a bassist on this album), Mayhem, and Burzum may have boasted more complex and grandiose songs, but none of them were as uncompromisingly direct and brutal; the sound of this album is one of black, chaotic rage, a hurricane of sonic destruction borne of deep, abiding misanthropy. Blunt, aggressive, and completely disinterested in anything even remotely resembling subtlety, this is a perfect encapsulation of early black metal's potential for alienation and aggression. Many Gorgoroth fans consider it the band's best album; it's certainly a classic release and a significant milestone in the development of Norwegian black metal.

Given the legal hoodoo currently surrounding the band, those interested in any of these discs should probably seek them out immediately; while Regain has chosen to back Infernus and the new lineup he's assembling, as of December 19, the Norwegian patent office appears to have granted control of the name and logo to Gaahl and King ov Hell (which doesn't make a lot of sense to me, since Infernus started the band and has been the sole constant member during its entire existence, but I'll be the first to admit I know nothing about Norwegian law or the real circumstances behind the split in the first place), and since they have effectively cut all ties with Regain, it may soon become impossible to get your hands on these releases. They aren't listed on the Regain website at the moment, which probably isn't a good sign....

Gorgoroth [Infernus]
Gorgoroth [Gaahl / King ov Hell]
Regain Records

Gorgoroth -- ANTICHRIST [Regain Records]

The band's second album, reissued here with remastered sound and a foldout poster, is even shorter than the debut (just over 25 minutes) and finds the band in transition, offering a somewhat improved production, tighter playing, a new drummer (Frost, on loan from Saytricon) and two vocalists (Hat left the band after recording his vocals, and his replacement, Pest, appears here offering diabolical grunts and growls). The songs are largely in the same primitive, lo-fi vein as those of the first album, although there are signs of progression in tracks like "Bergtrollets Hevn" (where Hat briefly abandons the devilish shrieking for an almost-soulful croon at one point and the guitar takes on a moderately bluesier feel than ever before), and "Possessed (By Satan)" -- the album's heaviest track -- opens with crushing riffing reminiscent of death metal before moving into black metal territory, and flows through more movements and changes in tempo than anything on the first album. The overall feel of the album is less brutal (although no less misanthropic) than the sound of the debut, and the progression of ideas keeps it from being a mere retread while still remaining largely true to the band's original sound.

Gorgoroth [Infernus]
Gorgoroth [Gaahl / King ov Hell]
Regain Records

Gorgoroth -- UNDER THE SIGN OF HELL [Regain Records]

The third Gorgoroth album, remastered and including a foldout poster, clocks in a little over 32 minutes and combines the improved playing and progressive themes of the second album with the pure blinding fury and unbridled chaos of the first. Recorded with yet another lineup (this time featuring Grim hammering away at the drums and Pest as a full-time vocalist), the band's sound intiially returns to the blazing speed and violence of the first album, with Pest offering a shrieking vocal style more in line with what most would consider the classic sound of black metal. There's more variety on this one than either of the other two, though -- from hellish, blazing speed and fury to more measured tracks featuring different vocal styles and more complex song structures -- and considerably better production, although none of this is ever likely to be mistaken for pop music by any stretch of the imagination. The album strikes a nice balance between the first album's gut-wrenching sonic violence and the second album's more progressive direction, combining them into a series of songs that evolve organically while remaining immensely heavy and forbidding. Those put off by Hat's unique vocal style on the earlier releases will probably find Pest's groaning shrieks more satisfying, and those unable to completely get behind the draining minimalism of the early stuff will find this considerably more listenable, given the material's increasing level of complexity and variation. As a bonus, the bass and guitar sound achieves a nice thick tone with plenty of low-end growl that offers plenty of bite without sacrificing the high end. In fact, some listeners may find this to be the best of early releases.

Gorgoroth [Infernus]
Gorgoroth [Gaahl / King ov Hell]
Regain Records

Inversion Effect -- A BRIEF HISTORY [Artificial Music Machine]

The band was formed in 2002, but this is their first album; if the lengthy gestation period seems surprising, it's probably because the band's three members all have full-time gigs elsewhere. A three-way collaboration between Thomas Fang of Static Storm System (field recordings, radio and scanner, turntables, circuit-bent toys), Martin McCreadle of Limiter (guitar, synth), and Dan Burton of Afreet (laptop, synth, bass guitar), with the occasional input of guest musicians, the band's aim is to create ambient experimental soundscapes constructed from a mixture of field recordings, synth drones, and repetitive fragments of actual music. Recorded over a period of three years, the eleven tracks on the album are compiled from studio sessions, rehearsals, live shows, and include material from the band's score for the silent film NOSFERATU. The results are excellent; for such a minimalist approach, there's a satisfying level of variety to the tracks, most of which invoke an eerie, after-hours vibe. These are soundtracks for the isolation generation, anchored by wailing drones and dark synths, filled with static, scratches, and stolen dialogues; now and then simple but effective melodies (and even more occasionally, beats) emerge from the sonic fog to give a rudimentary sense of form to the rivers of drone, without ever overwhelming the essentially ambient nature of the tracks. The exceptions would be "In the Shadow of the Vampire," whose repeated piano motif and strings create a feel closer to traditional soundtrack music, and "777," where machine beats and snippets of melody merge with the omnipresent drone to resemble a stripped-down merger of ambient music and techno. Abstract but well-crafted, this is an album that any hardcore drone enthusiast should find intriguing and rewarding.

Inversion Effect
Artificial Music Machine

Merzbow -- LIVE DESTRUCTION AT NO FUN 2007 [No Fun Productions]

Recorded at the recent No Fun Fest, this is Merzbow in wrecking-ball mode, dividing his attention between two laptops and an amplified sheet-metal instrument for the best of both worlds (analog and digital). Much of the forty-minute performance is indeed the epitome of destruction -- there are points where the performance recalls his early period of inflicting severe walls of harsh noise capable of producing catatonic states in the unprepared listener -- but there are more subtle moments as well, giving the work a bit more balance and dynamics than some of the material that made him legendary (especially the early works, where he was prone to turning everything up to eleven and leaving it there). The use of both digital and analog sources for the grinding noise-hate also makes for an interesting selection of tones, especially given the maximum-earhurt potential of digital distortion, which Merzbow puts to effective use here. This is a well-paced performance, too; it opens with blasting noise overload and eventually dwindles to repetitive rhythmic chattering before the wall of sound returns again like overamplified wind, and this tidal dynamic continues throughout the piece, cycling through new motifs on a regular basis. The evolving flow of free-form noise and rhythmic noise makes for a slow by steady progression through different shapes of sound and sonic textures, all of which is aided by the judicious use of layering -- at times there is only one particular sound happening, at others there are many, and the result is that the overall density of the piece grows and diminishes just as the use of different sounds and strategies progresses. At times rhythmically hypnotic and at other times just plain face-peeling, this is vintage Merzbow -- pretty impressive when you consider that Masami Akita is closing in on thirty years of performing as a noise artist.

No Fun Productions

Numbers on the Mast -- s/t [Artificial Music Machine]

Destined to become a drone classic, this album -- the band's first full-length release since their formation in 2002 -- turns out to be well worth the wait. Formed when the three members Eric Archer, Trey Smith, and Matthew Thies first met while working at UT Austin's student-run radio station KVRX, the trio has spent the past five years honing their iconoclastic drone skills at a wide range of Austin venues, including backyard parties and the Church of the Friendly Ghost, and once even at the Scarlet Woman Lodge, the local chapter of Ordo Templi Orientis. Here, in the form of four long tracks (all over fourteen minutes) and two shorter ones (approximately six and seven minutes), their long apprenticeship bears fruit in the form of dark, Lovecraftian epics of unending drone leavened with ominous noises and a deep sense of the forbidding. Armed with a battery of synths, circuit-bent gadgets, sine wave oscillators, and a small army of efx pedals, they create giant walls of stupendous drone and judiciously add other elements -- effects, samples, and processed sounds -- into the mix. The results are often as unnerving as they are hypnotic, resembling the sound of apocalyptic upheavals in the distance obscured by billowing clouds of drone. Mysterious and occult in nature, this is drone's answer to ritual music, a sound that subliminally imparts obscure mathematical secrets even as it overwhelms the listeners with a more direct and visceral approach to experimental sounds. Essential listening for the discerning dronehead.

Numbers on the Mast
Artificial Music Machine

Stephen O'Malley + Z'ev -- MAGISTRAL [Southern Lord]

Here's the deal: O'Malley, guitarist for Sunn O))), Khanate, Burning Witch, blah blah blah, recorded a guitar solo not quite nine minutes in length. He then sent this solo to the famously mysterious percussionist Z'ev, who used the healing miracle of computer technology to stretch, torture, and beat the original solo into new and exotic shapes, then added a pile of percussion, noise, and other sonic dung. The result is five tracks, each anywhere from approximately six to fourteen minutes in length, that sound somewhat similar to O'Malley's work in KTL after being brutally dismantled and reassembled over a bed of percussion and dark ambient noise. It's scary and intimidating stuff, all right, although there's not as much formal percussion as you might expect given Z'ev's reputation and a lot more scraping, crunching noise and unearthly drone. Given the nature of the collaboration, it's difficult to tell what is actually the original guitar sound and what has been processed or added, much less who's responsible for what, but the results are really interesting. Take note, though -- those coming to this listening experience expecting something that sounds like Sunn O))) or Khanate (or for that matter, Z'ev's usual experiments in tribal percussion) will be sorely disappointed; this is far more abstract, closer to dark ambient or noise than any kind of rock (even rock as unorthodox as O'Malley's main bands) or industrial music. Fans of gritty, crunchy dark ambient and noise drone, though, will definitely want to hear this. As a bonus, the disc comes packaged in a miniature reproduction of a gatefold LP with an impressive layout by O'Malley built on photographs by Seldon Hunt.

Stephen O'Malley
Southern Lord


I'm often leery of compilations because they either seem like just another excuse to push more product or, even worse, have a handful of good tracks by well-known names and a lot of filler, but this is a notable exception. In fact, this is one of the best compilations I've ever heard, built around the theme of avant-garde and experimental takes on Asian / Eastern music. With 25 artists on board (and some ambient soundtracks / field recordings from India and Burma thrown in for good measure), there's a wide variety of sounds happening on the two discs here -- encompassing Middle-Eastern guitar, trip-hop and industrial electronica with Eastern beats, sitars, guitars, all kinds of percussion, Tuvan throat-singing, gamelan guitars, Chinese dulcimers, and all sorts of exotic-sounding electronic frippery. The sheer level of variety here and the thoughtful sequencing makes the double-disc flow nicely, offering a palette of sounds that changes in marked fashion from one track to the next without ever losing its connection to Eastern / Asian sounds.

There's no sensible way to review this blow-by-blow in a compilation of 31 tracks clocking in at 156 minutes, but I will say that my favorite tracks include ones by Hop-Frog's Drum Jester Devotional ("Bubblebath"), Pyramids on Mars ("Yarari"), C.O.T.A. ("Marching Past Babylon"), Muslimgauze ("Zahal End," an unreleased track from a forthcoming release on Soleilmoon), Ramona Ponzini + Z'ev ("7M24S"), Soriah ("Tehuan"), Auto De Fe ("RoRoKoda"), Sikhara ("Fatwa"), and most of all, the song by F-Space (featuring members of Savage Republic, Man is the Bastard, and Chrome), "Shining Light," which is so utterly amazing that I had to play it about ten times in a row upon hearing it. The rest of the tracks, including five field recording / ambient soundscape pieces taken from the Soleilmoon album INDIAN SOUNDSCAPES, are equally worthy of attention. Don't miss out on this.

More info, including artist links and samples.
URCK Records

Vader -- LEAD US!!! [Regain Records]

This item from Polish old-school (since 1986!) death metal band Vader is an oddity, a cd-ep of four tracks (one of them a cover of Slayer's "Reign in Blood") and three video tracks, pressed to be sold during the band's recent tour. The audio portion features one regular track each from the previous two releases, IMPRESSIONS IN BLOOD and ART OF WAR, plus the Japanese edition bonus track from each of these releases; two of the video clips are taken from these two albums as well, and the third video is taken from THE WATCHER game. Not strictly an official release, it's still well worth seeking out, especially if you're already a fan of the band. The songs are all heavy and filled with bone-crushing riffs, the Slayer cover is every bit as heavy as (and remarkably faithful to) the original, and perhaps even a touch more psychotic-sounding... and where else are you going to find these videos (for "This is the War," "Helleluyah!!! (God is Dead)," and "Sword of the Watcher"), especially since the last one is from a game rather than an actual release? How you'll find it is another matter, since it's not listed on either the band or the label sites, but there are always avenues for the resourceful and the determined.... Great artwork too, by the way.

Regain Records

Wildilife -- SIX [Crucial Blast]

Don't let the title fool you; this is actually the band's debut, and they get off on the right foot with seven tracks of deeply fucked-up psychotronic noise metal that's part Sabbath, part Skullflower, and part bad acid trip freakout. This is heavy, mysterious stuff, with a ritualistic bent not too far removed from the occult sound of the recent Aluk Todolo album, but buried in a wall of strange noises, metallic crunch, and tripped-out psychedelia. There are folky moments buried in the primal sludge too, vaguely reminiscent of Kiss the Anus of a Black Cat, and plenty of space-rock blips and bleats, but mostly the sound is one of hypnotically repetitive heaviness and a swirling fog of electronics, noisy oddness, and unnerving but somehow catchy vocalizing. When things get heavy, they really get heavy, collapsing into a dense wall of sonic abstraction, and when they get weird, they get really weird, veering into avant-garde territory; even better, throughout the album there's a consistently sinister, otherworldly feel that sets them apart from standard-issue noise rock. If ever there was an album that totally encapsulated the label's "weird + heavy = greatness" aesthetic, this must surely be it. It doesn't hurt that every now and then they throw down and bring the rock in a truly massive way, either. Weird, unfathomable, and utterly essential.

Crucial Blast

Wormwood -- STARVATION [20 Buck Spin]

This is certainly an unorthodox approach to bringing the metal, to be sure -- to begin with, despite the unquestionable heaviness, there are no guitars on this album; instead, the band employs two bassists, and in addition to having a percussionist (also in charge of samples) playing along with the drummer, the keyboard player (who also did the album's mind-bending artwork) sounds like she's channeling a library of scores from Italian horror flicks. Just to keep it complicated, everybody contributes vocals. The resulting sound is strange and creepy, drawing just as much from prog rock and jazz as from doom and crust, featuring complex and melodic jazzy passages between the bursts of heaviness, all accompanied by strange, cryptic samples and eerie, wailing keyboards that would have been right at home on an obscure 70s prog-rock album. The band has been around for a decade, but this is only their second full-length album (along with a slew of singles and splits with the likes of Teen Cthulhu and Esoteric), and it's just full of surprises, including an unlisted track ("Gluttony," ironically following the title track) and a most peculiar interpretation of the Smiths classic "Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me." Hardcore metalheads might be turned off by the jazzier moments or the undeniable prog vibe, but to me those are the best things about the album. And yes, as you might guess from the Esoteric connection, they do favor slow tempos; given the nature of their keyboard stylings, "dirgelike" has rarely been a more appropriate term than it is here. Best of all, in a genre that's currently eating its own tail again -- with way too many bands that sound like lesser, watered-down versions of other bands -- they have a genuinely unique sound. Rarely has soul-crushing doom sounded so spooky.

20 Buck Spin

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