EDITORIAL NOTE: Some kind soul pointed out to me last week that the zip code listed on this blog was wrong. OOPSIE! That has since been corrected; the address currently listed is indeed the correct one. Those of you who have gotten the address from the earlier listing may want to make note of this for future mailings.
15 Degrees Below Zero -- NEW TRAVEL [Edgetone]
The title is apt, for the eleven tracks presented here are one journey after another through alien vistas of processed sound. The three band members employ a wide range of gadgets (laptops, keyboards, guitars, samplers, effects pedals, contact mikes, and much more) to create an equally wide range of sonic textures and enigmatic sounds, all of which are blended in an artful fashion to create heavily-layered compositions. The results frequently resemble soundtrack music, at times strongly reminiscent of the work of Howard Shore in particular. Using both digital and analog methods, they bring together disparate sounds from different sonic environments to create new contexts for their audio explorations. The sound on these tracks is engimatic, but not inaccessible; despite the use of avant-garde techniques, these soundscapes are designed to draw the listener in through the effective juxtaposition of textures and a surprising level of melodic and harmonic content for something that hardly resembles traditional music. If Eno made music for airports, this band -- at least on this album -- makes music for meditating on the balconies of hotels on the perimeter of those very same airports. Attention to detail in both the construction of the pieces and their sonic components is what makes this worth hearing; there are so many layers to the sound (and the excellent production does such a good job of capturing all of it) that repeated listens are sure to bring forth more auditory surprises.
15 Degrees Below Zero
A Death Cinematic / Beyond the Black Ocean -- split cd [Witchhouse Records]
First off, a word about the unusual packaging -- this disc comes encased in a printed cardstock sleeve inside a thin wooden case (handmade from Japanese birch veneer and laminated together over an alder veneer frame) that separates into two halves, with the cover art and back track listing printed directly on the wooden surface. This ingenious and highly original packaging was designed by Simple Box Construction, and is one of the most eye-catching cases I've ever seen. (Go here to see for yourself.) Limited to 60 copies, this split features three tracks each by A Death Cinematic and Beyond the Black Ocean, all epic soundtracks of drone, ambience, found sound, and noise. The disc opens with three tracks by A Death Cinematic, all of which are heavy on the droning noise tip, but not in the sense of harsh noise -- ADC's approach to noise has more to do with the pleasing yet unnerving sawtooth edge of harmonic distortion than power and volume. The first track, "slowly cave in the heart under the setting sun," is a perfect example of this aesthetic, dominated by buzzing distortion that rises and falls while slow and mournful melodic guitar plays in the background. The sound is distorted but still highly melodic and harmonically pleasing, with an eerie and desolate vibe. There's less noise and an equal amount of melodic content on "soon the storms will overtake us," another slow-burning soundtrack for a dying world, but it's the third track, "a thousand gray winters splinter the marrow in the bones of our dead," where things really come to a head -- the ambient soundtrack feel is augmented with creepy recurring noises like the sound of a shaker filled with bone fragments and heavy tremelo wailing as a deceptively simple yet highly evocative guitar line plays out in the foreground. ADC's sound is one of eerie, otherworldly isolation, in which simple sounds are assembled and processed in such a manner as to give them a unique and immediately identifiable character. The split is worth having just for the ADC tracks alone -- this is seriously great stuff -- but the tracks by Beyond the Black Ocean are every bit as interesting in their own right, albeit nowhere near as eerie and considerably closer to what most would consider the traditional sound of drone. The sound on "Looking Out Over Cold Mother Russia -- Launch Sequence 110393-0110" is deep and oceanic, occasionally leavened with wordless vocalizations and melodic passages resembling the sound of a calliope. A ghostly piano motif opens "The Last Flight of Icarus," fading into clouds of cathedral drone, and "Oberon Lost" is a brooding slice of classic keyboard drone that could have appeared on an early Tangerine Dream album. Quality drones + exceptional sounds + innovative packaging = all win.
A Death Cinematic
Beyond the Black Ocean
Rhys Chatham & His Guitar Trio All-Stars -- GUITAR TRIO IS MY LIFE! [Table of the Elements / Radium]
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? For that matter, how much is too much? These are questions that some may find themselves asking when sitting down to listen to this triple-cd set of live Chatham (plus others, many others). This sprawling live set celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the original performance of Chatham's classic composition "Guitar Trio," a piece for multiple guitars and drums in which all the guitars play one loose rhythm using exactly one chord (an E major 7), divided into two parts: one with the drummer playing only hi-hat cymbals, the other with the drummer playing a full kit. In 2007, Chatham -- backed by a rotating cast of players including members of Swans, Modern Lovers, Tortoise, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Thee Silver Mount Zion, and even Tony Conrad at one point -- did a 14-city tour of the U.S. and Canada in which he and the backing musicians performed parts one and two of "Guitar Trio" back to back each night; ten of those performances are collected on this release, with performances recorded in Brooklyn, Chicago, Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee. Just to make things a tad more daunting, these are long pieces; with the exception of a 6:45 excerpt from the Minneapolis show, all of them are over sixteen minutes, and one of them -- the performance of "Guitar Trio Pt. 1" from Chicago -- exceeds thirty minutes. Those not already familiar with Chatham's brand of minimalist rock (or those lacking patience for heavy repetition) will find this incredibly excruciating, but those who are hep to Chatham's particular brand of guitar mojo will find it highly interesting to hear how different the performances are, despite playing by the same "rules" each night. Chatham's music is less about traditional ideas of structure and progression and more about trance-like repetition, fluctuating dynamics, and the generation of massive overtones (an integral part of the composition's first part, where the gradually growing army of guitars creates cloudbursts of overtone-laden drone), and the one bad part about this collection is that there's no way it can match the power it must have had in a large auditorium; after all, this is music designed to be played very loud in large spaces, where the overtones have plenty of room to expand and reverberate, an effect that is largely lost when played back on a home stereo. This is still worth hearing (and owning, if you're a Chatham fanatic), though, not only for the excellent performances, but for the booklet with its extensive liner notes and swell photographs. Those who aren't so sure about the whole thing should probably check out the YouTube clips first (you can find one from SXSW 2006, featuring Thurston Moore on guitar, at the label's Myspace page via the link below).
Table of the Elements
Kreator -- AT THE PULSE OF KAPITULATION: LIVE IN EAST BERLIN 1990 dvd / cd [SPV USA]
Way back when (in 1990, to be precise), Kreator played on a bill (featuring Coroner and Sabbat, among others) at the Werner Seelenbinder Halle in East Berlin that has come to be regarded as one of their best shows ever. It was recorded and originally released on VHS with less than stellar sound quality. Now, thanks to the swell folks at SPV, the band has reissued a re-edited version of the concert in its entirety on dvd with greatly improved sound, featuring a 5:1 stereo and surround mix by Andy Sneap. Just to make the package more enticing, the dvd also includes a director's cut version of HALLUCINATIVE COMA, the long-form horror video shot by Andreas Marshall as a promotional item for the band's COMA OF SOULS album, and a short but highly interesting documentary of sorts, THEN AND NOW (directed by Niels Folta), that provides an illuminating look at the background in East Germany at the time of the concert. Oh, and it's a double-disc release; the second disc is a cd with the complete track listing (fifteen tracks in all) from the show, all of which comes in a digipak featuring stellar artwork and encased in a slipcase.
If you're a Kreator fan, you really kind of need this. The concert is indeed excellent -- true, the direction features a lot of annoying stutter jump-cuts I could have lived without, and it's shot from so many angles that the director cuts back and forth from at rapid pace that it will make you dizzy at times, but it's still an amazing and extremely intense performance. The sound is truly great, especially when you consider the circumstances under which it was recorded (in a newly-liberated East Germany, which was not exactly flush with cash at the time, and at the first such gig of its size ever in that part of the Eastern bloc), on both the dvd and cd. The track selection is good as well, featuring classics like "Extreme Aggression," "Pleasure to Kill," "Flag of Hate," "Tormentor," and a healthy selection of other cuts from the first four albums. The bonus material is nice as well, although not as relentlessly necessary -- HALLUCINATIVE COMA features the band playing a number of tracks from COMA OF SOULS (including the title track) interspersed with segments of the story of Dr. Wagner, a scientist studying violence who is driven mad and cuts up a young hottie with a scythe, then wanders out to some ruins in the woods (with his hot wife in pursuit) to conjure up some evil dude in a robe who sews his eyes shut and attacks his wife. It's standard-issue Hammer horror fare, basically, and thus not spectacularly exciting, although the band clips are ferocious and the young hottie (in fishnets, no less) is indeed hot, which is something, I guess. The documentary clip is actually a lot more interesting, featuring interviews with various promoters and fans associated with the staging of the actual event, talking about the metal scene in the Eastern bloc, a scene in which fans had to go to great lengths just to be able to get their hands on any given record or t-shirt, at a time when music activies were strictly monitored and regulated by Communist officials deeply suspicious of Western bands not officially aligned with the Communist party. It's revealing that when an interviewer asks a uniformed military guard what his purpose is at the concert, he answers that in addition to keeping order and preventing people from entering without tickets, he and his fellow soldiers are there to "prevent the audience from revolting." Given the sheer amount of material here and the fact that you can buy the package for under $23 through Amazon, the serious Kreator fan would be a fool not to scoop this up.
Lid Emba & Bobcrane -- WE SUBSTITUTE RADIANCE [Inam Records / Stickfigure]
This is an inspired meeting of the minds -- in one corner you have Bobcrane, armed with heavy beats and a minimalist aesthetic, and in the other corner stands Lid Emba (drummer and glitch electronica maven Sean Moore), drowning in a sea of psychedelic electronics. Together they create grotesque sonic landscapes of whacked-out electronics anchored by fat beats and trance rhythms, like a hallucinogenic mushroom cloud slowly dissolving in a dark dance club and bathing the dancers in radiation. Sizzling E-bow drones, glitch noises, odd keyboard stylings, clouds of reverb, feedback, and other strange noises float over enigmatic beats and repetitive lines of drone; sometimes (especially on "Stampeder") the beats get real fucked up, but mostly they settle into a trance groove. Tripped-out sound is the order of the day here; with ghostlike reverb and springy rhythms on "Toxic Utopian" and stuttering glitches and dark electronic growls on "Bird Brain"; then there's the dissonant pipe-organ sound that infects "Braille Phantom Braille" and the sheer unpredictable chaos of "Stampeder" and the ever-evolving collection of quirky noises on "Flying Dead Overhead." Throughout the album, the sonic chaos is grounded by stellar beats that are usually spare and simple, but occasionally expand into a pounding hurricane of sound. Many of the tracks sound like Bobcrane with a much busier sonic foreground, although there are passages where the beats die away and the sonic effluvia mutates into cosmic drift. The final result is beat-laden exotica for the digital age, combining elements of drone, ambient, electronic, and psych music into a heavily layered tapestry of otherworldly sound.
Bobcrane and Inam Records
Bob Marsh -- VIOVOX [Public Eyesore]
Call it truth in advertising; the enigmatic title of this disc is a reference to the main instruments present, the voice and the violin. It's a bit more complicated than that, though -- Marsh's strategy on these recordings is to use voice, violin, and cello along with samples created on a Boss Looper Station, and the vocals are treated using either a Boss Harmonizer or a Korg Kaoss III Pad, while the cello and violin are processed through a Yamaha Stomp Box and a Line 6 DL-4. The results sound about as far removed from the traditional use of these instruments as you can possibly imagine; swirling loops of ghostly, droning sound are met by unusual-sounding vocalizations and fragments of melody. It's an eerie and sometimes unsettling sound in which squelched bits of playing ebb and flow, swell and fade, and swirl around in a circular motion as Marsh vocalizes in such a fashion as to resemble an abstract notion of speaking, one in which the words are often unrecognizable and the voice is almost inhuman. Everything sounds like it's trapped inside an echo box and trying without success to fight its way out, an uneasy aesthetic made even more disturbing by the subject matter on tracks like "Bring Out the Dead." The processing tactics give Marsh the opportunity to come up with some truly mutant sounds, and he makes the most of it here, offering up looped blocks of cryptic noise and unusual vocal effects to create a series of compositions that are unnerving despite the lack of any overtly threatening content. Even for a Public Eyesore release, this is a deeply strange piece of work.
Olekranon -- COHESION [Inam Records]
The latest release from the ever-prolific Olekranon is a compilation featuring ten tracks culled from the past three releases, all of which were insanely limited (49 each). For those not already hep to the whole-grain goodness that is Olekranon, this is the work of Ryan Huber of Bobcrane and Vopat, and the sound is a minimalist take on psychedelic electronica. Spare but artful beats provide the foundation over which eerie drones, ambient electronica, and dark rhythms swirl like night fog. The tracks are entirely instrumental and make judicious use of motifs from techno, ambient, drone, and psychedelia to create spacious, clattering soundtracks for deserted cities. The beats are generally slow to mid-tempo, allowing plenty of time and space for the ghostlike sonic frippery to unfold; on some tracks like "Divit" and "As Is," the beats are so minimal and submerged as to be almost nonexistent, lost in clouds in drone and odd noises; on tracks like "Devil Effect" and "Bubonic," the beats are very much front and center, the eye of the sonic hurricane around which drones and the occasional bass throb unfold. The rest of the tracks are somewhere between these two extremes, with beats floating up at unexpected moments as inexplicable noises and rhythmic sounds cut through the drone to keep things moving. Far more accessible than it might sound at first glance, and considerably more exotic-sounding than the standard techno offering, this is an excellent place to start for those not already down with the mighty stealth-techno machine that is Olekranon. The disc comes in a elegant (and minamilist) digipak with a color insert.
Religous Knives -- RESIN [No Fun Productions]
One thing's for sure; they know how to make a heavy psychedelic racket. This quartet, featuring members of Double Leopards, White Rock, and Mouthus, have built a reputation over the past few years for devolved, psychotronic noise rock, and their latest release just is yet another collection of drugged-out sound waves. Some of the material here has appeared elsewhere; two tracks, "Luck" and "In the Back," are from a 2007 Heavy Tapes 12", "Everything Happens Twice" and "Growth" are from their side of a split cd-r with Airport War, and an alternate version of "The Sun" comes from a split cassette with Woods. The remaining three tracks -- the two parts of "Twleve Bottles and One White Cone" (including guest player David Nuss from the No-Neck Blues Band) and a live version of "In the Back" recorded live in August, 2007 -- have never been previously released. Maya Miller's tremelo-heavy organ and vocals are predominant in many of the tracks, especially the relatively restrained and haunting "Luck" and equally low-key "Growth" (where the bell-like organ tones are offset by droning guitar lines soaked in mind-altering reverb and accented by minimal percussion). The sound is thicker, heavier, and noisier on tracks like the studio version of "In the Back" (which is very different from the live version, where the buzzing organ takes a more central role in the sound) and the two halves of "Twelve Bottles and One White Cone," which would qualify as freeform psychedelic noise if it weren't for the steady drumming holding everything together. "Everything Happens Twice," with its loping beat and hypnotic bass riffing, and "The Sun," where more impossibly reverb-heavy guitars play out over an insistent beat, are closer to old-school psychedelic rock. Despite a shifting method of attack and plenty of variety between the tracks, the band forges a readily identifable sound that's rooted heavily in distorted organ tones, disembodied vocals, propulsive drumming that's equal parts improv and psych rock, and warped guitar from another dimension. This is not quite as "out there" as some of their early stuff, and far more accessible at that, but it's still plenty strange and exotic-sounding. This is psych rock for outsiders rather than hippies, and every bit as hallucinatory as anything you're likely to dredge up from psych rock's classic era.
No Fun Productions
Jim Ryan's Forward Energy Trio -- FE3 OAKLAND [Edgetone Records]
Jim Ryan is a poet, philosopher, and writer, but first and foremost he is a musician -- more specifically, a free-jazz musician using the alto and tenor sax and flute to lead like-minded musicians in the trio format. He founded Forward Energy in 1997, employing a style he developed participating for a year in Steve Lacy's weekly open-mike jams in Paris, and while the personnel may change, the concept doesn't. The ten loose, free-flowing tracks on this release were recorded in Oakland over two days in April, probably live (although the liner notes don't make this clear), with Ryan accompanied by Stephen Flinn on drums and Scott R. Looney on piano. While Ryan's free-association style and Flinn's spare and usually restrained drumming are excellent, the real highlights of this disc are frequently in the piano work, especially on the quieter tracks midway through the album. Looney's approach to the piano encompasses both traditional playing and treated methods, and his playing is both excellent and unorthodox, with a melodicism that makes a fine accompaniment to Ryan's muttering, flowing sax lines. When Ryan and Looney start to cook in serious fashion, filling up the space with notes, they burst forth with energy; when they calm down and their playing becomes more sparse, they create a languid vibe. All along the way, Flinn matches them in temperament, and all three play with such precision that even at their most "free" they hang together remarkably well. The trio lives up to its name, as there's plenty of energy on display here.
Jim Ryan's Forward Energy Trio -- FE3 PORTLAND [Edgetone Records]
Same general concept as the previous disc, but with different backing musicians (in this case, Robert Jones on double bass and Andrew Wilshusen on drums). Recorded in June, 2006 in Portland, this is similar in style to the Oakland disc, but different in sound thanks to the switch from piano to double bass, with a deeper and heavier sound. The drumming is also a bit busier at times, but still very much in sync with the other players. Many of the tracks are largely centered around the double bass, and its expressive low end creates a more relaxed feel to these pieces, calling up images of old-school nighttime jazz. The feel of this album is a bit closer to that of a traditional jazz ensemble than the Oakland set, but not by much, and there's just as much energy in the playing here as on the other disc. The two discs, in fact, make excellent companion pieces.
Sujo -- PIA (3-inch cdr) [Inam Records]
What you get here is approximately twenty minutes of droning, buzzing noise that's somewhere between the more nightmarish moments of early Tangerine Dream or SAUCERFUL-era Pink Floyd and the interstellar death-drone of Skullflower or Maeror Tri. "Pia" is one long, unrbroken piece, but there are several distinct movements; ominious, repetitively hypnotic churning noises give way to buzzing static drones, which in turn leads to a brief passage of high-pitched and reedlike noises that segues into a slow pulse backed by high-pitched wailing as deep drones begin to rise in volume, and so on -- no particular motif or texture remains around very long, and the soundscape evolves in organic fashion at a deliberate but steady pace. There are crashing noises about midway through that could be heavily-processed cymbals or something else entirely, appearing against the background of a grandiose celestial noise hum. As the slo-mo crashing continues, the background grows progressively noisier and more threatening without ever turning into a full-on sonic assault, constantly hovering on the edge of catastrophe. Eventually the clouds of deep-space torment dwindle down to just the crashing and a vibrating drone before moving onto waves of feedback and shuddering drones that eventually begin to fade out as the piece comes to an end. Like everything else on Inam Records so far, this is stellar work that is only enhanced by the nifty artwork on vellum paper.
They Live -- NO ESCAPE ep [self-released]
I got all excited when this four-track ep showed up in my mailbox, because the packaging and the song titles led me to believe it was going to be some kind of grim black metal, but instead it turned out to be Misfits worship. As Misfits / Samhain worship goes, it's not bad -- the recording is appropriately lo-fi and heavy on the treble, and the mix probably could have used some more tweaking, but they make up for the production deficiencies with plenty of punkish energy, forceful drumming, and lots of squealy guitar. There are trace elements of Joy Division and the Cure in the bass sound on "Pentagram" and "TVC," but the guitar riffs are closer to metal and the drums are consistently more punk than anything else; the band's approach welds the aggression of metal with the loose-limbed drive of punk. The vocals are harsh and histronic in the vein of Misfits, the one real constant in the band's sound (along with that squealy guitar). This is punked-out garage rock for the new millenium, suitable for pogoing or moshing or whatever the hell it is the kids do these days to damage themselves at rock shows. Best tracks: "Pentagram" and "No Escape."
To Blacken the Pages -- A SEMBLANCE OF SOMETHING APPERTAINING TO DESTRUCTION [Colony Records]
Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, To Blacken the Pages (the solo noise-drone vehicle of artist Paul McAree) is certainly prolific -- this is the fourt TBTP release in less than a year, if my sense of time is correct. At three tracks and approximately 35 minutes, this is not the longest TBTP release, but in terms of sound it's every bit as much in the same vein as the earlier material, with minimal guitar figures expanding over soundscapes of hollowed-out, droning black ambient noise. The tone is closer to black metal than anything else, but the concept and execution owe more to mid-period Earth, Maeror Tri, and especially Skullflower. "Trek In" opens with a brooding guitar figure played over and over against a backdrop of wailing noise like a dying cyclotron, ending with several minutes of nothing but droing interstellar noise. At approximately fifteen minutes, the title track is a long journey through realms of blackened drone, and it pits an equally minimalist drum beat and ghostlike guitar fragments against more of the droing comsic howl, eventually adding a fuzzed-out riff and a few extra beats as the piece progresses, and remains remarkably engaging for something in which, technically speaking, not a hell of a lot is happening (or else is happening over such a long period of time that it's difficult to track). The title track makes it clear that TBTP's aesthetic is rooted as much in the exploration of extended time scales first pioneered by artists like Tony Conrad and Lamonte Young as in pure grinding space rock. "Trek Out" -- a variation of the same theme set forth in the opening track that's even longer than the track before it -- ends the disc with more mysteriously minimal riffing buried in cloudlike ambience and drone. Excellent, as always.
To Blacken the Pages