Sunday, February 10, 2008

the latest reviews for february

A Death Cinematic -- EPOCHS SHIFTING OUT OF TIME [self-released]

The name is certainly appropriate -- the melancholy tracks on this 13-track release frequently sound like the audio soundtrack to an epic experimental film, with an
approach that draws from the same aesthetic as the first Godspeed You Black Emperor! album and a guitar sound descended from the first wave of shoegazer music (especially My Bloody Valentine's penchant for bent guitar sounds, although this is practically the only MBV-influenced album I've ever heard that manages to largely avoid poaching from LOVELESS in a really obvious way). The tracks (instrumental save for a few sample snippets here and there) tend to be sound collages steeped in ambient sounds, possibly from field recordings, over which passages of lonesome processed guitar play out like outtakes from an existential spaghetti western. This is a fairly quiet, reflective album for the most part -- there are places where the drone occasionally turns dark, and in the case of "from beneath the mountains they attack," the distorted guitar sound actually approaches heaviness, but these are merely the exceptions that keep the album from lapsing into into an ambient coma. There's a cohesive vision and an air of genuine mystery to these tracks that's impossible to manufacture, and it's that elusive, instantly memorable sound that sets this apart from other ambient sound-collage offerings. This one of the most unique of such recordings I've heard since the synapse-shattering Cold Electric Fire album IN NIGHT'S DREAM WE ARE GHOSTS -- in fact, this could be the ambient-light counterpart to that album's claustrophobic paranoia. Highly recommended listening.

A Death Cinematic

Another Kind of Death -- SLEEPLESS EVERY NIGHT [Underhill Records]

Spain's answer to highly aggressive mathcore don't waste any time, opening the disc with an explosion of sonic violence that continues unabated until the sixth track, the slower and more atmospheric instrumental "And I Chose You From Dead." With that exception, the album is essentially track after track of bruising fury and elliptical riffing accompanied by harsh, barking vocals. Angular guitars playing complicated, tortured riffs and extremely kinetic percussion propel the band forward, awash in a turbulent sea of violent motion; the guitar sound encompasses harmonic tones and shards of melody that are subjugated by a thundering obeisance to pure heaviness and endless angst. There's an element of catchiness to the squalling guitar sound that keeps the band listener-friendly even as their arrangements grow more ornate and their need for speed turns everything into a sonic blur akin to a train jumping the tracks. Similar in essence to bands like Mouth of the Architect and The Dillinger Escape Plan, but with more obvious roots in hardcore as well as the more technically refined aspects of math rock, this is an album that manages to combine technical metal's more ridiculously baroque excesses with the more straightforward attack of hardcore, with favorable results. An intense listening experience in every way imaginable, the album's strength lies mainly in the band's uncompromising attitude and exceptional tightness. Commanding riffs don't hurt, either.

Another Kind of Death
Underhill Records

Bloody Panda -- PHEROMONE [level-plane]

The band -- and this release in particular -- has been compared to Khanate a lot, and singer Yoshiko Ohara has been compared way too much to Yoko Ono, but these comparisons are lazy at best and misleading at worst. The band is certainly dirgelike, and the bass tone does bear some resemblance to the slow wasting ooze James Plotkin favored in Khanate, but the drummer is much busier and the guitar is not quite so monomanically focused on sheer creeping doom. Frankly, this sounds more influenced by Corrupted (especially on the first track, "Untitled"), and Ohara's ethereal, droning vocals have much more in common with the largely wordless vocalizing of Pirako from Suishou no Fune. Despite the obvious psych influences and Ohara's unique vocal style, though, this is unquestionably doom, and high-grade doom at that; the four longish tracks (ranging from over six minutes to nearly thirteen) are slow, plodding excursions into depressed misery, heavy on the mystery and psychodrama, light on the hope and optimism. (The four moldering caskets featured on the cover of digipak might be a clue to the band's attitude.) It's interesting that the band (who prefer to perform live wearing executioner's masks, not that this has anything to do with the music itself, mind you) is from New York, because if I didn't know this already, I would think this was a Japanese band -- they certainly have a more eastern approach to doom than American or European bands. This is great stuff, and highly recommended.

Bloody Panda

Circus Maximus -- ISOLATE [Sensory]

And here you thought Norwegian metal was all about corpsepaint and burning down churches, but no -- they're down with progressive power metal too, it appears, or at least this band is. Their sound is progressive and highly technical, but with plenty of power metal's fondness for anthemic tunes and ballads. They mine the same musical territory as bands like Dream Theater and Kamelot -- we're talking about lots of melodic guitar and keyboards, an ornate and grandiose vision punctuated at times by galloping drums and power-metal harmonies, not to mention plenty of bombastic singing. The songs are complex and full of compelling, hook-laden riffs and melodies, but despite the dizzying speed of many of the solos and the relative heaviness of the rhythm section, this leans far more toward prog-rock than anything else; the metallic content is mainly of the power-metal variety, more interested in being catchy and listenable rather than blackened and tortured, like so many other metal bands currently coming out of Norway. There's no denying the band's considerable chops, and their progressive bent has a distinctly symphonic and theatrical flair, but the band's real roots are obviously in eighties-era power metal; this album has less in common with most of today's metal than it does with classic prog-metal from the late eighties and early nineties. Given that a lot of current metal bands seem to have eschewed melodic sounds entirely in favor of ugly machines fighting to the death in a blender, this is maybe not such a bad thing. Old-school power metal fans and prog-rock devotees will like this one.

Circus Maximus

Dynamic Brown Hips -- WAVE THE OLD WAVE [eh?]

Maybe they really meant "no wave," because this is the sound of barely-controlled chaos, recorded live in concert onto a a one-track tape deck (where did they even find one of those at this stage of the game?) in Bloomington, IN way back in June of 2007. The ensemble includes sax, percussion, trumpet, slide trombone, violin, recorder, upright bass, and stupid mike tricks; the sounds the players elicit from said devices bear little resemblance to the sounds those devices were intended to make, and the free-form structures of the title track (the first of three pieces) are very free indeed. Moments of joyous cacaphony in which all of them play at once with complete disregard for conventional structures segue into passages of minimalism where one or two instruments will poke along playing as little as possible until everyone chimes in again with the crazy bleating of tortured instruments. The other two pieces -- "all the money is gone, pt. 1" and "... pt. 2" -- feature a smaller ensemble (trumpet, sax, and percussion) and the same recording strategy, and are just as chaotic and jumbled as the first track, perhaps even more so. On the first part, there are moments where the individual instruments solo at length in between the more noisy ensemble parts; the second part is more of the same, but with much more aggressive percussion along with the bleating of the mouth instruments. Stupendous new vistas in free-form clatter.


Eddie the Rat -- INSOMNIA SOUND BIBLE [Edgetone Records]

Peter Martin is basically Eddie the Rat, but for the first two years of the band's existence, he was joined live on stage by an ensemble of twelve equally eccentric musicians (recruited from bands like Zen Guerrila and Secret Chefs), and between the more epic pieces in the band's repertoire, they played the shorter ones that make up this album. The liner notes also suggest that this should be considered as a companion piece to the live album FOOD FOR THE MOON TOO SOON and the currently unreleased album JUST ANOTHER SPIN-CYCLE IN THE BLACK HOLE OF SPIRITUALITY. As with other ETR releases, this is experimental rock at its most esoteric, with sounds made with violins, cellos, trumpets, clarinets, percussion, homemade instruments, and lots of disparate vocal stylings (everything from harmonizing to strange chattering and bursts of solo vocalizing). It's all perversely exotic-sounding stuff, frequently resembling a swirling sonic stew than anything resembling conventional songs, with plenty of instrumental chaos and exotic-sounding percussion; the overall sound is indeed dreamlike, resembling the jumbled thoughts and visions of a jet-lagged traveler on the verge of sleep, drifting steadily into that twilight stage of consciousness where outside stimuli becomes warped and slotted into the more fanciful language of dreams. There are some startlingly folk-like moments -- the sleepy "Piecemeal 835 Blooze," for instance -- and a few tracks like "There Ain't No Reason" that sound like actual songs (strange songs, but still songs), but most of what's on display here more closely resembles the hallucinatory sound of wave transmissions from the dream world. This is abstract music for those crossing the threshold between the waking world and the inner landscape of dreams, with all the peculiar logic and mystery that such a juxtaposition entails.

Eddie the Rat
Edgetone Records

Elvenking -- THE SCYTHE [Candlelight USA]

Metal is all apparently all about sub-genre cross-pollination these days, sure, but combining folk and power metal seems like a strange concept to me... but it works, at least for Italian band Elvenking. Combining folk and metal is a pretty difficult proposition, but on this -- the band's fourth album -- they manage to make it work by putting the metal first and the folk second; the songs are predominantly power metal with folky intros or, on other occasions, folk instrumentation added into the mix. There are other interesting touches as well -- the borderline industrial / electronica intro to "Poison Tears," for instance -- but it's mainly about the mainstays of power metal: hefty riffs, thick slabs of melodic guitar, and the soaring, impassioned vocal attack originally popularized by bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. The most folk-like song, "Totentatz," is also the one with the most interesting percussion, loping tribal drums that are accented by folk guitar strumming and melodic flutes; outside of this track, however, the folk element is mainly secondary to metal, cropping up mostly in the intros and sometimes (as on "Dominhate") as interludes within the songs. The union of the two genres is well-done, though; these are excellent musicians and the songs are all good, solid, quality examples of progged-out power metal. I suspect the band will go down better in Europe than in America, where metal audiences seem to be currently fixated on an entirely different approach to heaviness, but that's no fault of the band's.

Candlelight USA

Gnaw Their Tongues -- REEKING PAINED AND SHUDDERING [Paradigms Recordings]

This is what we in the review community like to call, in our most scientific nomenclature, real scary shit. Imagine an unholy and perfect mixture of Abruptum's whacked-out penchant for unnerving anti-music and screaming, Sutcliffe Jugend and CON-DOM's obsessive and harrowing use of sound bites, Khanate's droning and unhealthy fascination with psychopathic urges, and any early Swans performance built around grim-sounding noise loops they made when Gira was in a real bad mood. This is seriously one of the most hellish-sounding releases I've ever heard (and after having listened to somewhere in the neighorhood of ten thousand albums, some of them among the most disturbing things ever recorded, that's saying something); "nihilism, tied up and burning" is one of the most obnoxious-sounding things EVER, opening with ominious black-ambient drone and distant thudding and wailing that quickly turns into furious pounding and gross-sounding black metal guitar over a bedrock of scary noise. And then the "vocalist" starts screaming like he's being disemboweled with a rusty icepick. And then it gets even scarier. The rest of the album isn't quite so intense, but it's still way more evil than anything I've heard since Khanate's THINGS VIRAL or the first Abruptum album. The six long tracks of audio immolation are matched by the packaging, which incorporates some seriously morbid artwork into a DVD-case packaging. Mere words cannot convey how badly you need this if you're as fixated as I am on grotesque, evil-sounding stuff that straddles the line between music and pure misanthropic noise.

Gnaw Their Tongues
Paradigms Recordings

Marina Hardy -- PINK VIOLIN [eh?]

By now I think it's pretty obvious that the esoterically-named sublabel of Public Eyesore is a repository for albums that are weird even by PE's idiosyncrastic standards, and this one -- from solo artist Marina Hardy -- is a perfect example the sublabel's aesthetic. The album's fourteen tracks are more akin to sound snippets from wildly different universes; to say that this is one of the most varied releases you're ever likely to hear would be a severe understatement. While Hardy draws from a wide (and wild) palette of sounds, her main instruments of sonic confusion appear to be violin and sampler; her use of these items is far more exotic than many might consider possible, though, encompassing everything from droning ambience, shred-o-rific homages to Eddie Van Halen, the jaunty sounds of a diseased calliope, broken-down oompah band jigs, lo-fi electropop, acid-drenched country twang, and things even more difficult to describe. By the time a few tracks have gone by, it becomes obvious that there is literally no way to predict what will come next -- one thirty-second song is nothing but the very distant sound of clattering -- although she does appear fond of zoned-out drones, which turn up on a fairly regular basis, and may well be the solitary linchpin holding this abstract album together. There are some great sounds here; the versatility of the violin plus liberal sound processing gives her plenty of room to move in very different directions, and the addition of sampler and other unnamed gadgets just expands the possibilities of sound even further. Weird and wonderful, and probably unimaginable appearing on any other label other than this one.

Marina Hardy

Light Pupil Dilate -- SNAKE WINE [Lifeforce Records]

Hailing from Atlanta, GA -- a city that does not exactly leap immediately to mind as a hotbed of metal -- this band has one of the goofiest names in a field currently overflowing with ridiculous names, but at least the band makes up for it with a crafty mix of old-school metal, punk, prog rock, and emo (the old variety, not the new one that's been co-opted by metal bands with members too young to have even been alive when emo first debuted in the D.C. area). They also have a really good drummer, which is definitely a big key to churning out complicated, constantly shape-shifting music like this. Crushing Sepultura-style guitar riffs give way to howling melodic tornado guitar, dizzying tempo and time signature shifts abound, and for a band that's essentially metal (I think), they spend an awful lot of time sounding like they're simultaneously channeling the spirits of King Crimson and Jawbox. (The singer especially reminds me a lot of Jawbox singer J. Robbins.) Even more intriguing is the way the guitarist approaches soloing on "Big Open," sounding like a metallic version of Coltrane and his mighty sheets of sound. Like Jawbox, the band is surprisingly melodic for purveyors of such complex heaviness; unlike the prog-rock and math-rock bands doubtlessly lurking in their musical pedigree, they are not ashamed of throwing in straight-up metal riffs from time to time, just to remind you that they are a metal band after all underneath all that art-rock jazz. Strange but good.

Light Pupil Dilate
Lifeforce Records

Random Touch -- A TRUE CONDUCTOR WEARS A MAN [Token Boy Records]

One of the best things about this highly prolific improv collective is how they manage to routinely put out albums of impressive variety while still retaining an identifiable core sound, and this -- their eighth release -- is no different in that respect. This time around, the emphasis seems to be on unusual sounds and unexpected directions; this is one of their most restless collections yet, one in which their normally more languid groove (still evident on tracks like "A Slow March Becomes a Flight") is often rudely interrupted by increasingly active percussion and psychotronic psych guitar. It's not all about the klang, though -- "Skipping" is a largely ambient piece punctuated by subtle percussion and guitar frippery, and "Plainclothesman Tuesday" includes lovely piano runs over a minimalist and spacious rhythm (there's more fine-sounding piano and background ambience in the title track as well) -- but strange experiments in processed guitar take the center stage for tracks like "Mixed Up With Who?" and provide uneasy sounds in "Naked Feet in the Dark." The rhythm section is fairly muted throughout the album, for the most part focused more on providing a drifting, ambient background and a steady (if sometimes subliminal) rhythmic pulse behind the unorthodox guitar stylings. It's definitely one of their more unusual outings, with a sound that's a bit darker and more brooding than ever before -- more unsettling and unpredictable than formally oppressive, especially given the nature of the occasional abstract vocalizations -- although they still continue to mine the ample territory of spacious sound far more so than most bands these days. Vague and abstract without being directionless, enamored of unusual sounds without turning into a full-on psych freakout, this is the sound of the band capturing the sound of space-age dreamers on the edge of sleep's vast and yawning abyss.

Random Touch
Token Boy Records

Rob Rock -- GARDEN OF CHAOS [Candlelight USA]

His name may not be that familiar to current metal listeners, but the former singer for Impellitteri has a lengthy power-metal pedigree dating back to 1983, and along the way he's played with more well-known names like Rudy Sarzo, Tommy Aldridge, and Tony MacAlpine (in M.A.R.S. Project Driver) and Rudi Axel Pell. He's been pursuing a solo career for most of the past decade, and this is his fourth solo release. Rob Rock's favored style is balls-out power metal, something that hasn't really been in vogue in this country for at least a decade or so, which may explain why he enjoys a bigger status on the other side of the big puddle; if this album is any indication, it certainly isn't for the lack of chops -- this is top-notch melodic power metal, played by a phenomenally heavy and tight band who are confident enough in their ability (and metal cred) to allow brief flourishes of electronics to creep in from time to time. Mostly, though, the songs are driven by big riffs and melodic guitar, backed by a thoroughly crushing rhythm section (the drummer in particular is big on brute force) and topped by Rob Rock's soaring vocals. This is comparable to mid-eighties Judas Priest and the like, only much heavier and with considerably more consistent songwriting. Technically speaking, this is Christian metal -- a fact Candlelight has kind of soft-pedaled in their promotion for the album, possibly because of the cognitive dissonance inherent to finding this artist on a label overrun with considerably more heathen bands, and almost certainly because of the American metal scene's disdain for Christian rock -- but you would probably never know that from the album's presentation, and this is certainly not the wimpy sound most metalheads associate with Christian metal. (In other words, this is not Stryper.) If you are heavily into power metal, there is absolutely no way to dislike this album -- between excellent songs, playing that's both stellar and impressively punishing, and an unquestionably impassioned delivery from Rock himself, this is one of the most potent power metal releases to appear in years.

Rob Rock
Candlelight USA

Shelf Life -- RHEUMA [eh?]

Even for an eh? release, this is kind of severely cryptic, with four long slices of sonic weirdness by unnamed personnel, helpfully presented with titles like "DPJJPABDPDABBT." The first track consists of layers of long-form drone that shifts in texture and tone while someone makes strange scrabbling noises and arcane devices mutter and hum in the background, with a sonic backdrop that occasionally includes a distant conversation and frequently devolves into what approaches white noise; the next three tracks are essentially variations on the same theme (and maybe even remixes of the same source material). Droning noises, scraping sounds, discordant sound effects, disembodied vocals that crop up from time to time, and a general feeling of otherworldliness are the constants between the four tracks of noise-encrusted alien drone. Simultaneously soothing in its ambience and unsettling in its sheer weirdness, these four slabs of hypnotic ambient drone are saved from turning into sonic wallpaper by the presence of near-random sound and effects, and often resemble interstellar star drone as overheard on a radio slipping in and out of frequency. Amorphous but strangely compelling stuff.


The Vision Bleak -- THE WOLVES GO HUNT THEIR PREY [Napalm Records]

These German purveyors of gothic horror metal are a strange beast, combining the bombast of gothic rock, horror themes, and a thorough grounding in early thrash and power metal into something that verges on a symphonic meditation on horror themes. Their basic sound owes much to early thrash and power metal bands weaned on the same themes -- think early Iron Maiden, early Florida death metal, pretty much any of the horror-themed bands of the mid to late 80s, really -- but they leaven that sound with gothic keyboards and a singer who sounds like metal's answer to Andrew Eldritch. As scary as that may sound, it's a combination that largely works, mostly because the musical scales tip in favor of the crushing metal parts, with the keyboards serving mainly to introduce pieces and provide background atmospherics. The centerpiece of the album is a trio of songs called "The Black Pharaoh Trilogy" that mines the lyrical territory most associated with Nile, albeit with a more old-school metal sound that's also awash in majestic keyboards. The final part of the trilogy, "The Vault of Nehpren-Ka," is one of the heaviest tracks on the album, even with keyboards, driven by an insistent rhythm section and some interesting drum breaks. "The Eldritch Beguilement" is nothing more or less than straight-up speed metal with gothic vocals, while the eerie "Evil Is of Old Date" opens with neo-folk guitar over an increasingly frantic rhythm before eventually morphing into a raging speed anthem. The album's interesting mix of styles and enthusiastic metal riffing should make it highly appealing to those who like a bit of goth with their metal.

The Vision Bleak
Napalm Records

Voodooshock -- MARIE'S SISTER'S GARDEN [Exile on Mainstream Records]

The bio thingy acknowledges the band's debt to such seminal doom bands as St. Vitus, Cathedral (the band's first release was on Lee Dorian's Rise Above Records), The Obsessed, Pentagram, and Revelation, but makes no mention whatsoever of Warning, the obscure UK band this one most resembles (to my ears, anyway). It also neatly manages to avoid mentioning the band that is Ground Zero for all doom (probably because it goes without saying), Black Sabbath, although there's no way to escape that band while listening to the album, because much of this sounds like mid-period Sabbath minus the cocaine excess, foolish studio experiments, and (one hopes) hideous fashions, plus the addition of a singer who can actually sing. This band's big innovation in all things doom is to emphasize the jazzy feel and lurching, sideways rhythms of Black Sabbath's weirder songs, rather than the blind worship of heaviness qua heaviness that seems to obsess so many other Sabbath-influenced bands. Voodooshock's aesthetic is also far bluesier than that of most recent stoner rock bands, with the result being that this album of all-new tunes sounds genuinely lifted from the early seventies era, only with better production; they also have actual songs as opposed to just lots of nifty-sounding riffs strung together and played real slow, which puts them miles ahead of most current stoner-rock bands. The band's measured approach to songwriting means there's no filler out of eleven tracks -- no small feat -- and their fanatical devotion to all things doom means that they have the classic sound of slow, wasting doom down to a science; they also get bonus points for not abusing guitarist / vocalist Uwe Groebel's impressive lead guitar skills, which are employed in short, unexpected bursts to maximum effect. Sure, it's very, very retro, but impressively so, and after all, this is a genre where the sound (and instruments and amplification) of the past are inherently resistant to feeble attempts at modernization. Classic-sounding doom doesn't get much better than this.

Voodoo Shock
Exile on Mainstream Records

Wolfpack Unleashed -- ANTHEMS OF RESISTANCE [Napalm Records]

This is the album Metallica should have made after ... AND JUSTICE FOR ALL instead of that weak, whiny exercise in naked commercialism (you know, the one with the black cover). The singer sounds just like Hetfield before he completely ruined his voice, the riffs are huge and heavy and mostly rapid-fire and sound very much like outtakes from MASTER OF PUPPETS, and aside from some brief pretty moments thrown in for contrast, it's just one runaway riff after another. Not bad for a bunch of dudes from Austria, of all places. None of it is terribly original (they even use "Killing Fields," as direct a Metallica reference as you can ask for, as one of the titles), but it is all very, very heavy, very angry, and absolutely true to the sound old-style thrash -- in fact, this album sounds like the nineties never happened, which in metal terms is probably a good thing indeed. Ten songs total, including two versions (a radio edit and full version) of "Religion of Control." This would be a fine album to listen to while waiting to see if the next Metallica album is going to be as hideous a sonic abortion as ST. ANGER.

Wolfpack Unleashed
Napalm Records