Sunday, March 29, 2009

reviews, reviews, out the wazoo

Andreas Brandal -- THIS IS NOT FOR YOU [eh?]

If this were on any label other than this one, you'd call it dark ambient -- the nine tracks here are gritty but subdued excursions into drifting clouds of ephemeral sound over beds of minimalist noise, festooned with exotic electronic flourishes and spooky keyboard drones. Occasionally the keyboards become a bit more active, creeping out of the ambient territory and more into the realm of sparse prog-rock, and most of the soundscapes are imbedded with brief, unexpected snippets of jarring sound, but otherwise the flow of sound is gentle and dreamlike. It's a spare sound whose motion is mainly tidal in nature -- the sheets of ambient sound ebb and flow like tidal waves in the ocean as shimmering drones and truncated keyboard melodies play out slowly over the shape-shifting noise textures, with just enough gradually changing elements and attention to detail to keep it from growing stale and monotonous. It's a nice fusion of noise, drone, and electronica that rewards close listening, but functions equally well as background music. It's also supremely spooky, with a sound that would have perfect as the soundtrack to ALIEN during the comsic deep-space scenes. This is definitely one for the dark ambient enthusiasts.

Andreas Brandal

Emeralds -- WHAT HAPPENED [No Fun Productions]

Influenced equally by 60s-era electronic music in the vein of Tangerine Dream and the post-80s noise explosion, Emeralds use analog synths to create art-damaged soundscapes suffused with beautiful tones and enigmatic noises. Entirely improvised and recorded live to tape, the five tracks (clocking in at just under an hour) on this album are definitely all about charting new vistas of sound, and do so in imaginative fashion. Synths and guitars are the primary instruments in use here, although they sprinkle other electronics and field recordings into the mix for texture, and they use those instruments to build vast, droning cathedrals of sound that most closely resemble the early albums of Tangerine Dream. Where they differ from the godfathers of prog, however, is in using their synths primarily as pure tone generators to create harmonic clouds of sound, with far less interest in rhythm. Cheeping, chittering cyclotron noises abound on "Damaged Kids," along with strange, high-pitched bleating and seasick warbling, but this eventually gives way to skittering guitar and beautiful synth drones that rise and fall as the guitar rambles on; the synths grow louder and more overmodulated with the passage of time, overpowering everything else, and the sound just continues to evolve, unfolding with deliberate and stately grace. "Living Room" is the most subdued work here, with a morose keyboard melody floating on a frozen river of muted synth drone and what might be amplifier hum, with intermittently recurring phaser noises providing texture and tension. The final track, "Disappearing Ink," features dark, swelling keyboard drones and another hypnotic, burbling keyboard melody that plays hide and seek amid the rise and fall of those fabulous drones. Tonally rich and constructed around swirling, ever-shifting blankets of analog synth, this is one of the best electronic albums I've heard since... well, since Tangerine Dream. Highly recommended for those who can't get enough of that old-school synth sound.

No Fun Productions


The debut album by Sweden's Engel is apparently the next step in the evolution of the Gothenburg sound, marrying the region's affinity for melodic guitar and super-catchy riffs to imaginative and varied songs encompassing a wide variety of musical genres. It's definitely a metal album, to be sure, and a supremely heavy one at that, but the heaviness is accompanied by plenty of melodic passages, guitar soloing that at times borders on jazz, and layers of sound that rise and fall in density, creating a sound that's textured and nuanced without ever turning wimpy or unnecessarily florid. It's obvious that the band put a lot of thought into the construction of their songs, and unlike a lot of current metal bands, they've also worked hard to trim the fat from them; the songs are short enough to fit twelve of them onto a album less than fifty minutes long. Such consistent quality on a debut album becomes a bit less surprising when you consider that the band's members have previously been in well-regarded bands like In Flames, The Crown, and Lord Belial -- the band may be new, but these are hardly neophytes, and it shows. The vocalist switches seamlessly and unpredictably between highly melodic singing and a near-black metal screech, the guitars are a relentless engine of body-shaking riffs, and the drummer is both dextrous and punishing -- in other words, everything a good metal band should be, and proof that you can be catchy without devolving into a twee pop band. It's not hard to see why the European press has been slobbering all over the band while they were touring with Dimmu Borgir, Atreyu, and Amon Amarth; the official release of this album should give the American press plenty of opportunity to do more of the same.



Cryptic stuff, man; the group employs drums, sax, and bass in such an unorthodox manner that if you didn't know what instruments were involved, you'd be hard-pressed to guess. Even knowing what they're working with doesn't tell you how they get such weird sounds; the opening track "Cumulative Wound" is a series of squeaking, clanking, clattering noises that sounds more like someone sweeping up scrap metal than actual music, and the wheezing, grunting sludge of "Awn" is equally impenetrable. Too devolved in its sound to accurately be called free jazz, this is improvisation aimed at making severely untraditional sounds through the use of standard rock equipment. The closest they come to anything recognizable is in the muffled sax bleats on some of the later tracks and the sparse beats of "Delayed Appearance of Putrefaction," while the bass is employed mainly in service of creating noises like a dying machine captured on tape and slowed down to a crawl. This is a sound that makes no wave sound like pop music by comparison. Strange, enigmatic, and at times unsettling, it's an art-damaged aesthetic that certainly lives up to the album's title.

The Epicureans

Gold Record Studio -- LIVE AT LANEY FLEA MARKET [Edgetone Records]

Sun Ra would have approved of this eccentric double-album, not least of all because it was recorded in Oakland, CA, the same area that figures prominently in the classic film SPACE IS THE PLACE. From April 15 to May 20 in 2007, Oakland artists Jon Brumit and Lisa Mezzacappa operated an open-air recording studio -- equipped with an antique record cutter, blank plastic records, various instruments, and guest musicians on hand -- at the Laney Flea Market in Oakland, offering free recording services to any and all who cared to cut a record. Plenty of people chose to do so, including a Serbian prog-rock band, DJ Ready Red from the Ghetto Boys, and plenty of amateur musicians and solo singers. The highly eclectic mix of professional musicians, amateur players, and curious wannabes, along with the staggering number of tracks (83 tracks on two discs), makes for a highly varied listening experience. Given the nature of the project (supported by the Oakland City Council and funded by the city's Cultural Funding Program), many of the tracks are exquisitely lo-fi, and even on the better recordings there's frequently plenty of background blather from the flea market crowd, but that's okay -- it just adds to the surreal ambience of the project's aesthetic. Some of the performances are primitive and amateurish, sure, but even those efforts are interesting for their sheer bizarreness, and the work by actual practicing musicians is frequently astounding. There's certainly a high entertainment level to some of the more whacked-out pieces, especially the ones that feature free-jazz and improv music in the background for spoken word performances. The nature of this project also means there's a considerable level of variety to the tracks and a wild unpredictability to the performances. Wild, weird, and like Sun Ra's most cryptic and obfuscatory work, out there a minute.

Gold Record Studio
Edgetone Records

Heat From a Dead Star -- SEVEN RAYS OF THE SUN [Ace of Hearts Records]

The thirteen tracks on this album, the full-length debut (I think) by this British band, combine the spirit of pure rock 'n roll and the catchy appeal of pop with the edginess of punk and new wave -- echoes of bands like Joy Division, Fugazi, and the Refused appear in the band's sound, especially in the tinny, chiming guitars and pulsing, melodic bass, but the vocals and tightly-wound song structures are pure pop goodness. The energy in the songs may come from punk roots, but the layering of sound and attention to detail are more consistent with pop music; the band is essentially a power trio, but they round out their sound on the disc through the judicious use of keyboards, piano, mandolin, and castanets when appropriate. (Their lyrical stance, too, which revolves mainly around relationships and other facets of ordinary life, rather than politics or heavy intellectual themes, is considerably more attuned to the pop idiom than to punk.) This is not to suggest that they're a lightweight-sounding band, however; there's a hefty dose of attitude to their playing, along with hard-rocking percussion, and the guitars are fuzzy and razor-like just as often as they are jangly. Best of all, even at their punkiest, the guitars are drenched in melody, lending a stark beauty to many of the songs even while they're rocking out.

Heat From a Dead Star
Ace of Hearts Records

Khors -- MYSTICISM [Paragon Records]

The third album from Khors rests comfortably in the traditional of progressive, atmospheric black metal, as the opening track "Through the Rays of the Fading Moon" makes clear; building layers of gorgeous, melodic guitar (both electric and acoustic) and keyboards creates a sound that combines elements of progressive rock and black metal. It segues into "Raven's Dance," where steady but uncomplicated beats and a more traditional blackened guitar sound are joined by psychedelic guitar melodies, and from that point onward the album successfully incorporates elements of black metal, prog, neo-folk, and psychedelia into a unique and highly listenable sound. The song structures, harsh vocals, and rhythm section give the songs their anchor in the trappings of black metal, but the progged-out keyboards and occasional bursts of psych-tinged guitar take the material to another place entirely, lending a fresh sound to what would otherwise be a relatively straightforward black metal album. Excellent production and playing make the album far more accessible than many black metal releases -- this is certainly not a raw, lo-fi affair, and while the pace is insistent and commanding, the songs are not overly aggressive. Genuinely beautiful acoustic passages draw from neo-folk, too, occasionally giving off a pastoral feel. Even the more violent moments are more grandiose and majestic rather than truly violent, and it's this sense of grandeur and melancholy that mainly propel the album forward. If nothing else, this release confirms Paragon's continuing good taste.

Paragon Records

Killick -- THE AMPLIFUCKER [Solponticello Records]

Killick calls this "Appalachian trance metal," which is appropriate enough, and it's music of a most fractured sort, made with an eighteen-stringed instrument he calls the H'arpeggione or the Devil's Cello. It's an extremely versatile instrument, too, combining properties of a bowed guitar, sitar, violin, bass, and cello, and consequently the eighteen tracks here are quite different. Killick is an improv artist by nature and these tracks are more about the exploration of different tones and sound techniques than anything resembling, say, pop songs; he shares the same kind of avant aesthetic favored by labels like Public Eyesore and Edgetone, and if you're familiar with the output of those labels, you'll have some idea of what to expect here. For one guy using one instrument (even if it is a highy variable and eccentric one), there's an awfully high level of diversity to the tracks, as he employs a number of unorthodox techniques to create a surprising cornucopia of odd sounds, from shredding freejazz to percussive thumping and all sorts of pinched squeaks and creaks. If you weren't aware of the limited instrumentation, you'd certainly never guess it was the work of one guy and one instrument. Is it exotic sounding? It is. Will it mystify your mother / girlfriend / roommate who's not into experimental sound? It will. Is it worth checking out if you're hep to the possibilities inherent in using unusual instruments to create equally unusual sounds? It is indeed.

Solponticello Records

Landed -- HOW LITTLE WILL IT TAKE [Load Records]

Contemporaries of bands like Lightning Bolt, Arab on Radar, and Six Finger Satellite (and featuring members of that band and Coachwhips), this disc (and bonus 3-inch cd) rounds up some of the band's compilation tracks, material from their 12-inch lp TIME I DESPISE, a single track, and various live oddities, along with some new stuff. It's all pretty out there, driven by lurching rhythms, grinding dissonant riffs, and deeply twisted vocals. At times they sound like a tribe of primitive shamans hopping around a burning bush, using guitars, drums, and bass to call forth sleeping demons to rise and lay waste to the earth; at other times they sound like sweaty, pilled-out disco dancers trying to keep the dance moves happening even as the world turns sideways and slides down a rabbit hole. This is the kind of seasick music that initially sounds like maybe it was played by drunks, until it becomes obvious that the timing is too impeccable (and too weird) to be handled by the intoxicated. They may indeed be sober, but the wobbling, circling sound will give you the slow ovals if you get too caught up in it -- better to kick back and let it wash over you, dig? They get an exquisitely dirty sound, too, with tinny, clanging bass and brownout guitars to go with the yowling, howling vocals. For all the chaos lurking in their sound, the band is remarkably tight and driven, with machine-gun drumming on "The Biggest Shit" and exotic rhythms everywhere; they also show a healthy appreciation for blown-out noise on tracks like "Dairy 4 Dinner" and "How Little Will It Take," which boasts some of the most impressively fuzzed-out guitar ever captured on tape. The main disc's closing statement, "Hit the Land," is a joyously molten tar pit of sludge-laden noise that eventually morphs into an insistent beat and squeaky noises set on repeat. Speaking of that simulated lock-groove, I like the way many of the songs gradually devolve into endless hypno-riffing with a monolithic grinding sound, sort of like a cement mixer going round and round; it's not "musical" in the sense that, say, Fleetwood Mac is musical, but it sure feels good. The bonus 3-inch disc adds one unreleased track, "Pass the Buck," and a live one, "FM 91.1"; the former is insanely loud and crunchy, with a sound like Black Sabbath on bad angel dust, and every bit as grotesque and hypnotic as anything on the main disc, while the latter is even more obnoxious and blown-out. This is what they call noise-rock nirvana, and an excellent opportunity to grab a lot of the band's extraneous material in one convenient place.

Load Records

The Man from the Moon -- ROCKET ATTACK [Black Mark]

This is a strange affair -- the songs are the kind of earnest ballads you would expect of an adult contemporary singer-songwriter, but the guitars are pure buzzing fried-metal attack half the time, and while the Moon Man's singing voice is distinctive, it's also often kind of irritating. The poop sheet claims this is symphonic prog rock, which is sort of true, but it's a very retro and 80s kind of prog rock, which is not always a good thing. The songs are okay, and the musicianship is fine, but ultimately this is soft-rock with occasionally fizzy guitar thrown in -- not exactly my cup of tea. There is a lot of excellent guitar playing on the album, but it's not enough to counteract the muddled aesthetic that makes it difficult for me to get behind this. Fans of contemporary prog-metal with a confessional bent will be more likely to enjoy this, I think.

Black Mark

Marduk -- NIGHTWING [Regain Records]

What can I say? It's Marduk, and Marduk is Marduk. You expect blazing speed, serrated barbed-wire guitar, drums like a landslide, hateful screeching, and a blasphemous attitude problem, and that's exactly what you get. (Note that this is not a new album, but rather a reissue of the 1998 release.) There are a few surprises on this one, though -- the opening "Preludium" sounds like an industrial noise soundtrack, the sound bite that opens "Slay the Nazarene," the slow and harmonically rich guitars at the beginning of the title track, and "Dreams of Blood and Iron," the heaviest track on the album, whose dark and grinding vibe owes as much to classic doom as to black metal. The military marching drums on "Anno Domini 1476" are a nice touch, too. On the whole, though, the rest of the album is classic Marduk, obsessed with speed and power, dark and heavy, and drenched in hate. As with most Regain reissues, this comes with a bonus dvd, in this case featuring the band live at Rotterdam in April, 1998.

Regain Records

Ministry of Rites -- GRID [Edgetone Records]

The cryptic electronic soundscapes on this album are a work of collaboration between Tobias Fischer (aka Feu Follet) and Rent Romus, and the result is essentially a mixture of dark ambient and musique concrete spiced with enigmatic vocals (samples, perhaps?) and dissonant freejazz. Fischer contributes loops, electronics, field recordings, and piano, while Rent Romus contribute analog electronics, alto and soprano sax, voices, radio, and flute; I have no idea how they assembled the pieces and decided on the mix, but the finished results are certainly impressive. There's a distinctly urban feel to the proceedings, and the use of found voices and conversations is mildly reminiscent of Scanner's mid-90s experiments using misappropriated scanner recordings, but the prevalent use of severely tweaked saxes and a fondness for wrenching dissonance adds a mutant freejazz feel to the droning, otherworldly soundscapes. The sax attack isn't always dissonant, though -- on "Saturnine Shores" it's straightforward and melancholy, sounding like an outtake from the jazz nightlife of the sixties, floating over a more subdued bed of electronic noise that occasionally rumbles like an approaching thunderstorm. Strange noises that could be percussion or machinery reverberate through "Fadethrough" over more relatively quiet background drones, and similar motifs come into play on "Embers," where the mystical bleating saxes make another major appearance. The album ends with the title track, where shrill drones from processed flute compete with a rhythm hooves clopping down a sidewalk and floaty, cosmic electronica burbling in the background. The entire album is a nice and reflective exploration of tonally rich dark ambient noise and minimal but potent freejazz, and the successful collaboration invites further work in the future.

Edgetone Records

Plastic Boner Band -- ISAIAH 66:6 [self-released]

Whoa daddy -- this is LOUD. It doesn't exactly open in subtle fashion, either; the sound explodes like a bomb going off in your face and what follows is a harsh, brutal avalanche of grinding, seething power electronics. Machine-like buzzing and the sound of whirling knives howl and throb on the first two tracks with unrelenting force and a visceral intensity akin to shaving your face with an industrial sandblaster.This is less music than a punishing, aggressive assault on your senses. The third track lets up on the brute force a bit, opening with a vibrating drone that steadily grows louder and more powerful, like a giant motor trying to shake itself apart; it segues into the fourth track without stopping, at which point the vibration takes on an even deeper intensity. The fifth track is similar but adds more crunchy electronics and ends in a painful orgy of high-pitched noise shred that will probably permanently damage your hearing if you have the stereo turned up too loud. Intense, powerful stuff. And loud. Did I mention it was loud?

Plastic Boner Band

Jess Rowland -- THE PROBLEM WITH THE SODA MACHINE [Edgetone Records]

Now I've heard everything when it comes to strategies for producing unified lyrical themes on an album: the fourteen songs on this album, both composed and improvised, include lyrics entirely lifted from work emails revolving around a vending machine in the unnamed company's break room. The emails, part of an ongoing correspondence with the company's human resources department arguing over what to stock in the machine or whether to even have a vending machine at all, form the lyrical text of the album. Along with the songs featuring lyrics, there are also improvised freejazz workouts that include the sound of unwrapping items and popping bags of chips. As wacky as this sounds, the music itself is -- on the composed songs, at least -- surprisingly more like a smooth and stylish blend of the Beatles, Frank Zappa, and early 70s California soft rock like Jackson Browne. Rowland plays all the instruments except drums (that's Pete Stalsky's job) and sings, and the songs are dominated by piano and pipe organ, all sounding like they were lifted from an obscure 70s singer-songwriter album (but with occasionally more adventurous parts and considerably better production). The relatively spare songs are leavened with occasional guests playing tambura, bass, sitar, and additional percussion, but most of the heavy lifting comes courtesy of Rowland, who is a lovely piano player and often hypnotic singer. The more experimental tracks revolve around weird sounds and improvised drumming, among other things, but it's the genuine songs -- and the inherent psychodrama of people arguing over something as pointless as bad vending machine food choices -- that are the real meat of the album. Those songs are not only entirely accessible to people who don't spend all their time listening to weird music, but in fact supremely gorgeous and highly listenable. This album is just more proof that inspiration is everywhere if you look hard enough, and that real talent can turn any subject into a series of songs worth hearing.

Jess Rowland
Edgetone Records

Say Bok Gwai -- CHINK IN THE ARMOR [Edgetone Records]

What do you get when you put two guys -- one Chinese, one not -- weaned on hardcore, punk, thrash, and experimental music together? A big, noisy, shape-shifting sonic omlette, that's what. Alex Yeung and Andre Custodio mix all of these elements and more into a dense and often frantic collage of sound that's only made more confusing by the use of vocals in both Cantonese and English; the songs (31 of them, with titles like "Chow Fun Chow Not So Fun," "Return of the Monkey King," "Not All Chinese Are Good At Math," and "Year of the Cock") are short and violent attacks on your central nervous system. They tend to sound like a technical metal band veering off in a dozen different directions at once -- there are plenty of obscenely heavy riffs on hand and lots of titanic uberdrumming, but they're joined by explosive shards of noise, experimental song structures, bizarre electronics, and plenty of pure sonic craziness. The metal core is what holds it all together; Custodio's manic drumming and Yeung's buzzing metal guitar form the bedrock over which they shovel on as much disorienting sonic effluvia as they can possibly manage, and it all speeds by so far that it will take several listens to properly decipher what the hell is going on. Imagine Hatewave colliding with Lightning Bolt and that's a pretty good indication of the metallic chaos level happening here. The wild piling on of sounds is what captures your attention the first time around, but it's the heat-seeking riffs and velocity-obsessed drumming that will keep you coming back for more. They're from San Francisco, which somehow makes perfect sense.

Say Bok Gwai
Edgetone Records

Suidakra -- CROGACHT [SPV]

The poop sheet calls them pagan metal, but they sound like thrash to me. Sure, the opener "Slain" has the requisite pagan metal stamp on it, but after that it's largely a nonstop barrage of fast, violent riffing and frantic drumming with a vocalist barking like he's trying to cough up a lung. On occasion the onslaught lightens up a bit and the pagan feel does surface, especially on "Isle of Skye," "Ar Nasc Fola," and "Feats of War" (which also features the melodious vocals of Tina Stabel, a welcome respite from the aggravated howl of main singer Arkadius), but most often the pagan elements are minor parts -- introductions or interludes -- employed as a counterpoint to the relentless thrashing. This is not to say the band is bad -- far from it; on song after song they whip up an admirably ferocious tsunami of bone-shattering sound (although that metallic roar is blunted somewhat by the preponderance of wispy synths), and the more pagan-styled tracks previously mentioned are excellent, especially "Ar Nasc Fola," which is filled with intricate acoustic guitar passages and loping drum rhythms that occasionally turn militaristic. For the most part, though, this album falls considerably more into the thrash category, making it considerably heavier than your average pagan metal release. It's worth noting that they have a progressive bent as well, and a tendency toward highly-orchestrated symphonic sound; when they're raging, which is often, they sound huge, like the thunder of calvary storming the fields of war. Their sound may not be totally pagan, but their attitude sure is.


The USA Is a Monster -- SPACE PROGRAMS [Load Records]

Now this is a bit of a surprise -- the gadget-loving duo have modified their sound again, this time incorporating heavy slabs of overmodulated synth madness and progged-out vocal harmonies into their cut-up approach to sound. Imagine William S. Burroughs with a synth instead of a shotgun, jamming with King Crimson (or maybe Gentle Giant) after a long night of drinking and bonding over obscure gospel records, and maybe you can begin to grasp the significant levels of outright weirdness at work here. The lurching, often spastic rhythms are heavily fortified by layers of synth in addition to hocus-pocus guitar and obscure drum patterns, while the vocals are often delivered in a bizarre sing-song delivery, making an already warped sound even more surreal. The synth sound comes in two flavors -- creamy smooth and severely fried -- and the combination borders on the magical. At times their vocal phrasing reminds me of Sleep's DOPESMOKER, which is probably appropriate; with a sound like this, I have to believe bowls were smoked somewhere in the recording process. The synth sound is pure hyped-up prog rock, though, and their fascination for bent but hypnotic rhythms and off-kilter song structures remains just as intense as on their previous albums. This new sound is captured best on "Frozen Rainbows," where the tempo slows and speeds back up, the synths build and build until they explode in delirious and intoxicating bursts of bombast, and the fuzzed-out guitar races back and forth like a chihuahua chasing its tail. There's a deeply spiritual vibe of sorts to many of the songs, as well, which is kind of interesting. The wildest part of the whole deal is how perversely accessible it is, something I thought I'd never say about a band on Load. Catch the latest wave in the band's evolution of sound or remain hopelessly lost, doom childe.

The USA Is a Monster
Load Records

To Blacken the Pages -- NORTH [Colony Records]

Sculptor (of both art objects and sound) Paul Aree returns with more epics of drone and reverb, but while the sound -- one part Skullflower to one part reverb abuse -- remains largely the same, there are some new elements in the mix this time around. The opener, "Crossing," fades in from absolute silence into a cavalcade of heavily-reverbed percussive sounds, sounding very much like a guitar being dropped repeatedly in the world's largest cave, while two tracks, "Give to the sea" and "Lowlands," feature vocals for the first time. The use of silence is the album's secret weapon; several of the songs begin with silence and take their time fading up and building to the inevitable tower of drone. "I am screes on her escarpments," the first epic song, opens with a more restrained version of the same sound strategy employed on "Crossing" and eventually blossoms into vast sheets of drone and feedback that billow for thirteen minutes like cosmic dust trailing in the wake of a comet. "Give to the sea" fades up into a ominous cycling drone and forlorn vocals that ultimately give way to more wailing feedback and writhing drones, while "Lowlands" -- another epic at nearly fifteen minutes -- opens with dark, clanging percussion that's eventually joined by clattering sounds, guitar notes repeating endlessly, and a steadily growing thickness in the mordant guitar sound. By the time vocals appear, nearly ten minutes into the track, the droning, distorted guitar sound is so enormous that the vocals appear submerged, buried under ten tons of guitar-driven fear. The best track on the album, though, is "To be Dead," in which the fiery blasts of feedback and furnace drone play out over a simple but hypnotic beat for fifteen minutes, lighting out for the far reaches of the cosmos, anchored only by the insistent rhythm track. The track also features some of his most bowel-scraping guitar, not to mention plenty of painful high-end feedback wailing. "Night Drive" is almost as long but not quite as apocalyptic, filled with drones that sound like wind roaring through giant pipes and more endlessly repeating guitar lines, a sound less about dread than painting pictures of abandoned satellites drifting through deep space. The album ends with "August," built around the same brand of percussive rattling that opened the album, neatly bringing things around full circle. As good as the band's back catalog is, this is by far Aree's best and most consistent release, and one of the best drone-rock guitar albums you're likely to encounter anytime soon.

To Blacken the Pages
Colony Records

Twentyagon -- DANGER FANTASTIC [self-released]

The mysterious dudes of Twentyagon -- Figure 1B on accordion and keyboards, The 1943 Pyramid Tableau on bass and guitar, and 40.000 Lbs. on live drums -- may or may not be figments of one man's imagination, but the band's sound continues to evolve, and at this point sounds like a deranged drum 'n bass reinvention of the spaghetti western soundtrack. Possessed equally by the spirits of Ennio Morricone and the Residents, the nine instrumental tracks on this album draw considerable inspiration from surf music and film soundtracks (especially those by Morricone), but by processing these influences through instrumentation decidedly foreign to those original sources, come up with a really distinct and original sound that's nevertheless familiar enough to make it highly accessible. It's kind of surreal to hear the processed electronica version of flamenco guitars and warbling lines of classic surf guitar, but it sounds good, and as strange as the idea may sound, the band certainly has a concrete grasp on the form and structure of soundtrack music -- a lot of this sounds like Morricone channeled through more modern equipment with the occasional addition of fuzz guitar, and it's all incredibly catchy. The band's songwriting skills have improved immensely, too, and this is by far their most accomplished work up to this point (they have an even newer album out that I haven't heard, and for all I know that's yet another step beyond this one). Bonus points for the uber-swank Day of the Dead-influenced cover art, too.



FIR is a Romanian industrial / power electronics label, home to number of excellent but obscure Romanian acts like Narkoleptik and, and this is the label's second compilation, making its appearance five years after the first one. (Apparently they take their time about things in Romania.) The label favors bands with a distinctly old-school aesthetic hearkening back to the first wave of power electronics and dark ambient, which is cool; as this compilation indicates, there's still some great work being done in these genres in the more obscure parts of the world, and Romania is no exception. The sounds appear to be generated mainly by analog synths and pedals, with the occasional use of samples; this is not a digital workout with tracks composed in ProTools, which is a large part of why the compilation sounds so good (and so retro). The artists represented here are, Noverbia, Abbildung, Koldvoid, Ekasia, La Ghica Hainu, Hunyadi P.H., Narkoleptik, and Spectru Nocturn, and they all turn in good to excellent work that's heavy on electronic beats and dark, groaning synths. Several of the bands make good use of atmospheric samples and noises, especially Noverbia and Abbildug (whose "Lost Journey to the Hypersphere" segues from clattering industrial noises into a malestrom of dark, droning synth work that's simultaneously eerie and beautiful). My favorite track is Koldvoid's "Ephemeral," an avalanche of desolate synths that's the coldest and dreamiest track on the album, although the gritty noise and submerged black-box beats of the Hunyadi P.H. track "329 to Dementia" and the howling, reverb-soaked drones and grainy machine noises of Narkoleptik's "Morbid Obsession" are right behind it. The final track, Spectru Nocturn's "Overtaken," is a nice slice of churning mechanical rhythm and sandstorm noise, and closes out the compilation nicely. It's rare to hear a compilation that can be listened to from start to finish, but this is one of those -- the tracks are all good, with an overall vibe of dark, alien mystery. This is probably not easy to find unless you live in Europe, but it can probably be obtained directly from the label via the link below, and if you're a fan of old-school industrial / darkwave, this is definitely worth seeking out.


Oliver White -- THE ORIENT [Void of Ovals]

The one track on this disc, just over twenty minutes, is a quirky collection of diseased sounds originally recorded as the soundtrack to a 2005 film by Belfast director O'Gara Sherts. I have no idea what the film was about, but it must have been a weird one, because the soundtrack is filled with cryptic, often crunchy noises followed by ambient droning, unexpected bursts of heavily-revered percussion, and more strange noises. Tense and full of surprises, the uninterrupted flow of sound is unpredictable and occasionally violent, like the soundtrack to an arty spaghetti western filled with scenes of abrupt death interspersed with panoramic views of a desolate countryside. Weird and haunting, at times utterly mesmerizing, and filled with moments that recall the mid-90s isolationist movement, White's brooding sheets of sound carry a sense of mystery that a times turns menacing, but is mostly otherworldly.

Void of Ovals

Sunday, March 15, 2009

a cornucopia of auditory delights.

Aemae / Arastoo -- OSKATRON lp [Isounderscore]

A long time coming, this collaboration between Aemae and Arastoo Darakhshan is centered around the manipulation of sound inherent to Arastoo's live piano compositions. A bit of a departure for both artists, the two tracks on this album -- one just over eleven minutes, the other just under twelve -- begin with the resonant sound of Arastoo's piano and are augmented by artificial, otherworldly sounds contributed by Aemae. The title track is largely dominated by the piano sound, but as the track progresses, Aemae's unorthodox sound contributions -- noises, rumbling, and other strange effects -- grow increasingly prominent and more frequent in the mix, acting as both counterpoint and texture to Arastoo's gorgeous, spiky piano melodies. On the flip side, Aemae's ambient sound and textured sonic treatments are the dominating factor; what little remains of Arastoo's piano sound has been fragmented, pulverized, and completely transformed in service of the track's rumbling cinematic ambience. The two tracks are so totally different that it's hard to imagine them springing from the same sound sources, and their moods are different as well, with the flip side being far more eerie and sinister than the first side. Both sides are recorded with painstaking fidelity, however, and both offer plenty of opportunity to get lost in the detailed architecture of sound. Limited to 320 copies.


Caethua -- VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED [Bluesanct]

Clare Hubbard is the woman behind Caethua, a lo-fi bedroom recording project from upstate New York (portions of the album were recorded in North Carolina as well), and this nine-track reissue (remastered and limited to 300 copies) is a naturalistic, sometimes surreal collection of low-key tracks employing acoustic guitar, cheap keyboards, and ethereal vocals. The sound is a throwback to the nineties era of simple, homegrown recordings, although this is considerably more technically accomplished than most such efforts; it may be lo-fi, but the songs are interesting and complex without being fussy or overly complicated, with all sorts of surprising moments (the treated vocals on "Meditation," for instance) and, as the album progresses, an increasing fondness for drone. There's a rustic, pagan feel to much of this, and the album feels like it was recorded in a rural environment, far removed from the creeping artificiality of urban blight. The best track on the album is probably "Burning Yarrow," a long (over nine minutes) and ghostly epic filled with obscure noises resembling outdoor field recordings and dreamy yet ominous keyboard drones; it's haunting and mysterious, the sound of someone lost in a dense and billowing field of fog. The songs that are actual songs are simple by design and almost primitive in sound, but still highly engaging, and frequently leavened with unusual sounds and effects in the background; the entire album, in fact, most resembles an experimental folk album of sorts, like a more benign version of early Current 93, perhaps. Strange and remarkable stuff.


Croatan Ensemble -- WITHOUT [eh?]

This is brilliant -- two guys fiddling around with strings, laptops, effects, and various gadgets, creating deep-drone live improvisations littered with strange noises and highly repetitive cyclotron rhythms. Outer-space sounds abound; this is the music of spinning satellites and space stations, droning expanses of sound and noise designed to fill up the inner or outer spaces, with or without the aid of chemicals. Tracks come and go with a spaced-out flow, appearing to be the work of interstellar drone machines set on repeat -- circling rhythms meet sonorous drones and the result is akin to the soundtrack to an obscure science fiction film. Minimalist electronics help with the sci-fi sound, as bleeps and bloops enliven the sound and buzzing, twitching sounds derived from glitch electronica add bite and texture to the swirling cosmonaut space drift. These are generally lengthy pieces, which allows the drone-o-rific drama to slowly build and expand; you can lose yourself in these pieces, if you allow yourself to be carried away on the cosmic slipstream as the sound coming from the speakers slowly but surely engulfs you. The transformative power of the unending drone is a constant presence throughout the album, and its cosmic debt to krautrock is aided and abetted by the equally constant collection of blips and other futuristic noises. Did I mention this is brilliant?

Croatan Ensemble

Deceiver -- THRASHING HEAVY METAL [Pulverised Records]

Now this is what I call obnoxious -- they burst out of the gate thrashing like maniacs and rarely let up. Sure, the sound is unspeakably retro, harking back to a time when old-school thrash bands like Dark Angel, Sodom, and Destruction were making fast 'n furious albums designed to rip your face off and feed it to you... but that's not such a bad thing, especially with a band this tight and deliriously dedicated to thrashing their dicks off. Tracks like "Graveyard Lover" reveal a distinct black metal influence as well, too, especially in the excoriating yet harmonically rich guitar sound. None of this is terribly original, mind you, but it's done so well and with so ridiculous ferocity that this is a trivial issue. It doesn't hurt that Pete Flesh gets an absolutely amazing guitar sound, or that Magnus Flink beats his drums like he wants to kill them. The slower songs are grinding blasts of hate creeping into black metal territory, while the fast songs are built on the backbone of classic thrash, and all of it possesses abnornal amounts of attitude. Seriously, they sound absolutely homicidal most of the time, and they aren't kidding at all about the title. This is manly metal, to be sure, even if it is highly retro.

Pulverised Records

El Jesus de Magico -- SCALPING THE GURU lp [Columbus Discount Records]

Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that this obscure but magical band has coughed up another brilliant release, a tripped-out mindmeld of pyschedelic punk (or punk psych, depending on how you look at it). The bad news is that it's limited to 300 copies and already sold out. If you're lucky, someone will talk CDR into reissuing this sooner or later, because this is the sound of greatness -- tranced-out rhythms, burbling keyboards, and hysterical vocals make for a most compelling sound, and it's a sound that ebbs and flows in its intensity, hovering and wobbling like a UFO piloted by aliens smoking crack. This is psychedelia as made by punks on a budget in a basement while intoxicated. On the first side, hypnotic sheets of sound unfold as strange noises and vocal emanations float in and out of the mix, with three songs (the last one being exceptionally short) flowing into each other until the side comes to an end when you least expect it. The flip side is even more peculiar and mysterious, opening with "Skin This Cat Another Way," a track that is nothing more than a series of humming, buzzing noises, rhythmic in nature but not much else; this eventually turns into actual music with the murky, drugged-out sound of "Summer of Luhv." The rest of the side is filled with more circular basslines, squalling guitars, acid-rock keyboards, and warbling vocals drenched in reverb, sounding (still, and beautifully so) like the work of inveterate dope fiends. Perhaps if you're lucky you can turn up a copy on Ebay.

El Jesus de Magico
Columbus Discount Records

Guinea Worms -- "Lost and Found / Jeans and Heels" 7" [Savage Records]

Strange but catchy punk stuff, with hook-laden guitar parts and a big yet murky sound. Both songs are hard to describe but delightfully weird and catchy, driven by squealy treble guitar and lurching basslines. This band reminds me of somebody from the first wave of punk / new wave, but exactly who escapes me. In a way they sound sort of like a catchier, more accessible version of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, kind of, only with actual talent and a sense of humor. This is strange but meaty stuff, no question. Are all the punk bands in Columbus this weird yet listenable?

Guinea Worms
Savage Records

Josh Hydeman -- "Brainsickness / Phantasmagoria" 7" [Entropic Tarot Records]

Nasty, nasty stuff from one of the members of Twodeadsluts Onegoodfuck, and every bit as obnoxious as that band, too. Hydeman manages to squeeze five bursts of misanthropic noise and feedback in less than ten minutes across the two sides of this single, covering such heartwarming topics as self-mutilation, steroid abuse, domestic violence, and death -- not bad for less than ten minutes of airtime, huh? The sound is harsh but minimal, usually high-pitched wailing and vaguely textured noise bleat accompanied by grotesque, processed vocals, sort of like a poor man's Prurient. Rude without being monolithic, this is noise that is centered more on distortion and vile processing rather than a wall of sound blasting concept, more sinister and uneasy than face-peeling. Some of the frequencies in the mix will make your ears itch, too. Unsettling stuff, made even more unnerving by relevant visuals on the cover and the insert. Mastered by James Plotkin for maximum sonic evil; limited to 300 copies.

Josh Hydeman
Entropic Tarot Records

Locrian -- DRENCHED LANDS [Small Doses / At War With False Noise]

The latest exercise in audio darkness from Locrian is an interesting one, marking a shift away from pure improv noise to something closer to the territory of ambient black metal. The opening track, "Obsolete Elegy in Effluvia and Dross," opens with a simple strummed guitar pattern accompanied by menacing background drones and melodic, chiming guitar melodies, in a manner reminiscent of the first Silencer album; this unexpected burst of melodicism abruptly cuts out around a minute or so, leaving only a seething, fogbound swirl of sinister-sounding drone action. This segues into the lengthy "Ghost Repeater," in which the ambient fog grows darker and the drones get deeper until, around seven minutes into the piece, hellish shrieking ensues, followed by grating squealy noises and rising peals of feedback. The black metal influence rises to the forefront in "Barren Temple Osbcured By Contaminated Fogs" (a black metal title if ever I heard one), which is dominated by more hellish shrieking and doom-laden keyboard drones that appear to hover in suspended animation. The chiming, bell-tone melodies that appeared in the opening track resurface here as well, adding another dimension to the track's intense creepiness. The mood shifts somewhat with "Epicedium," in which a rotating cabinet drone is augmented by repeating snippets of burbling, jazzy guitar, a hypnotic sound that is eventually smothered in buzzing sheets of drone. The final portion of the official album, "Obsolete Elegy In Cast Concrete," is a synapse-shattered mindmeld of black metal's dissonance and thundering blasts of noise; a Burzum-like riff winds its way through the track beneath more grotesque howling, for much of the track nearly buried in harsh noise. All this new material is augmented by a bonus track, the thirty-minute unbroken version of an early (and now hopelessly obscure) LP release called GREYFIELD SHRINES, which is similar in tone but more of an extended journey through sonic landscapes of bleak darkness shot through with unexpected moments of melodic beauty. As usual, a great release from this Chicago duo, which comes packaged in a well-designed arigato pack that also includes a four-panel booklet.

Small Doses
At War With False Noise

Dan Melchior and das Menace -- "Mr. Oblivian / Piledriver Nightmare # 2" 7" [Columbus Discount Records]

More weirdness from CDR, this time in the form of two overmodulated tracks bathed in weird reverb and clanging, treble-happy guitar. The flip-side is also mad for ill-sounding drums. Both tracks sound like they were deliberately recorded with the VU meters bouncing in the red, then fed through some really tinny-sounding plate reverb. The result is that the band sounds like it's being heard through an air-conditioning duct, and while the band is good, that certainly lends it a certain character of sound that some might find grating. Noise-friendly listeners will dig it, though. Peppy performances and reasonably accessible material help. Make no mistake, though, this is strange-sounding stuff. I don't know anything about Mr. Melchior, but he sure has an ear for the sweetly grotesque.

Dan Melchior and das Menace
Columbus Discount Records

Outer Spacist -- "The Mind Is As Outer Space / I Talk With Telepathy Baby" 7" [Columbus Discount Records]

Between the revealing band name, trenchant song titles, and mind-bending op-art cover visuals, you would be right to expect some seriously spaced-out madness in the grooves of this single. It's pretty whacked, all right -- jumping, skittering mutant surfpunk guitar and warbling interstellar groove keyboards are accompanied by yelping vocals on the a-side, while the flip-side is up to its eyeballs in endless reverb (especially on the vocals) and twangy surf guitar stylings. The insect-like guitar solo on the latter is a miraculous thing to behold, too. I'm still trying to decide if it's really possible to sound like this without the help of serious drugs. This is great stuff -- reverb abuse is always a sign of genius, if you ask me -- albeit completely and totally psychotronic in nature.

Outer Spacist
Columbus Discount Records

Perfekt Teeth -- BEASTCRAFT I (3-inch cdr) [Public Guilt]

This is great shit -- three guys weaned on equal parts metal, trance, and drone chugging their way through one long, twenty-minute track that sounds like an art-damaged outtake from Burzum's FILOSOFEM. Repetitive, wavering black-metal tremelo guitar action blends with muted, lo-fi drums and edgy, minimalist electronics to create an endless death jam comparable to Hawkwind gone black metal. The track goes through several distinct movements, speeding up and slowing down, ebbing and flowing in its sonic density, but the monolithic riffing never quite comes to a complete halt and the entire enterprise is deliriously intoxicated with the fumes of heavy repetition and aggressive minimalism. No vocals, no interludes, and no subtlety = a burning desire to rock your face off by stepping on it again and again and again and again and again until your dentist begins dreaming of the new Porsche he's going to buy after fixing what's left of your not-so-perfect teeth. Limited to 100 copies.

Perfekt Teeth
Public Guilt

Pillow Talk -- "Downtown Unga Wunga" 7" [Columbus Discount Records]

This is actually a side project of Deathly Fighter, who have an album coming out soonish on CDR; I have no idea what that band sounds like, but this resembles an extremely overmodulated punk answer to death disco. Thumping, repetitive drum beats and weird, exotica-themed keyboards are joined by what could be an extremely fuzzy guitar or blown-out bass, creating a sound sort of like the early Butthole Surfers gone disco. The six songs (and one "skit" -- actually a few seconds of a rude telephone conversation bathed in ridiculous amounts of reverb) are short and possessed of a deliberately irritating sound that's still enormously catchy, assuming the twee keys and demented vocals don't make you want to tear the single off the turntable and use it for a frisbee. You really have to hear this to fully grasp its incredible annoyance potential. Bonus points for the lockgroove on the first side (in which the vocalist's belching "AAAH!" is repeated infinitely -- this could be a deadly weapon in the wrong hands, believe me) and "Methamphetamine Blues," credited to Chuck Berry even though I'm pretty sure this is an outright lie.

Columbus Discount Records

Quttinirpaaq -- DRAGGED THROUGH THE STREETS [Blackest Rainbow]

I have no idea how you're supposed to say the name of the band (actually one guy, Matt Turner, who is the bass player for Rubble, the band led by former Butthole Surfers drummer King Koffee that may or may not still exist), but I'm definitely impressed by the sound on this disc. The first track is straight-up doom, heavy as hell and slow as molasses, but also drenched in weird noise that may or may not be electronic in nature, a sound that eventually turns into great whirling slices of feedback competing with the slo-mo bass drone. The rest of the twenty-minute track is a swirling, seething cornucopia of bass hell, drone-fu, and strange, sinister noises. The rest of the tracks are shorter, but even noisier; some include pokey drums and some don't, but they're all quite noise-laden and prone to gruesome bursts of dissonance, feedback, and a healthy tendency toward the purely obnoxious. A phenomenally druggy sound and a visceral commitment to loudness just make things that much better. This is strong stuff, too; rarely has free-form noise rock been so deliriously entrancing. Highly recommended, if you can find it (which isn't likely, since it was released at least a year ago in a limited run of 50).

Blackest Rainbow

Quttinirpaaq -- S/T [Faunasabbatha]

This is (I think) the most recent release by Matt Turner's band with the unfathomable name, and while it's every bit as noisy and drone-o-rific as the earlier album on Blackest Rainbow, the sonic violence manifests itself in a different, somewhat more accessible (well, kinda) form on this album. There's plenty of howling feedback and squealy dissonance, but it's not quite as savage and out of control this time; there's also a bit more emphasis on beats this time around, and said beats are not as consistently drowned out by the raging tsunami of bloated skronk riding over the top. Some of the tracks are reminiscent of early Skullflower, especially on "Black Moses," where it sounds like he's channeling the ghost of XAMAN-era Stefan Jaworzyn. There's a bit more of a dreamlike and hallucinatory vibe to some of the tracks as well, like the droning "No Response." There's a fair amount of variety to the album's nine tracks, but they are all unified by a fondness for droning, howling ambient noise and steady beats. Swell stuff, limited to 81 copies. Seek yours out now, especially if you're fond of droning, dissonant skronk in the vein of Skullflower.



What we get here are three long tracks of improvised playing from a band with an unusual lineup -- three guitars, cello, bass, drums, synth, and trumpet. Unlike a lot of albums associated with eh? and its parent Public Eyesore, this is definitely not a free-jazz album, and it's not really aligned with drone all that much, either; rather, this is pure improv rock, something that would be compared to Phish or the Grateful Dead if it weren't so obviously removed from the common cliches of mainstream music. Beyond that, it's hard to describe what this music is, other than beautiful and transcendent -- the band's intention, it seems, is to create harmonically and melodically rich music without succumbing to standard notions of structure, space, and meaning. There's a psychedelic tinge to the interstellar overdrive guitar runs on "down at weirdo park," a motif vaguely reminiscent of the guitar sound of some early Pink Floyd albums, but otherwise the band occupies a sound and space of its own. While the interplay of sound occasionally builds to a frenzy, for the most part this is subdued music, more interested in the convergence of harmonious sound than tossing off sonic explosions aimed at rattling the psyche. This is what experimental rock is all about, using standard instruments in service of non-standard thinking to create new and compelling sounds.

Sad Sailor

Seance -- AWAKENING OF THE GODS [Pulverised Records]

Originally formed in 1990 as a merger of sorts between the Swedish metal bands Orchristed and Total Death, Seance recorded two albums before breaking up in 1998. Like a million other bands, metal or otherwise, they have since reunited (the reformation took place early last year), and this is their first release since resuming the metal life. I'm ambivalent about this release, to be honest -- I'm not a huge fan of Swedish death metal to begin with, and while there's no question the current lineup has plenty of energy and some eyeball-slicing riffs, most of the songs here are kind of generic and hard to tell apart, and frequently the songs seem to be more like disparate riffs strung together in vaguely haphazard fashion than actual songs. A lot of this strikes me as a paint-by-numbers approach to Swedish death metal, which is too bad, because the production is good and the playing is tight and sharp. There are some unusual touches that, had they been expanded upon or more properly integrated into the framework of the songs, might have elevated the album into a higher realm -- the bizarre effects in the opening of "Invocation," for instance, or the highly unusual-sounding rhythm at the beginning of "Flight of the Wicked" -- and some of the songs are genuinely compelling and exciting, like "Choose Your Eternity" (which is filled with razor-like stop 'n start riffing) and "Burn Me" (which is a variation on the same concept with even more punishing drumming). Overall, though, the band would have benefited heavily from the help of an outside producer, especially where the song arrangements are concerned.

Pulverised Records

Strotter Inst. -- MINENHUND [Public Guilt / Hinterzimmer]

Turntable-abuser Christoph Hess returns with a full album of fourteen untitled tracks composed from terse and cryptic experiments in wonky turntable action. Hess uses old Lenco turntables, which he modifies in various ways to create exotic, repetitive rhythms which are then processed even further with effects pedals. The resulting sound is one of dense, machine-like rhythms and damaged beats, with an aesthetic that owes as much to Steve Reich as to Throbbing Gristle. Despite his extensive use of turntables, Hess is not so much a turntable artist in the accepted sense as an industrial sound sculptor who happens to employ turntables as the main "instrument" in his compositions. The compositions themselves are dark and ominous, and this time around many of them are also leavened with spoken-word bits (some sampled and looped, some left more or less intact) cribbed from cheap records scavenged from thrift stores, giving those tracks the sound of a ghost in the machine. As you might expect of an artist more closely aligned with industrial experimentation than anything else, many of the sounds on this album are harsh and grating, and even in relatively calmer moments, this is definitely not light listening. There's an energy and inventiveness to these tracks that hasn't been seen for a while in the industrial genre, however, and some of the rhythms are even -- dare I say it? -- kind of catchy. By incorporating the aesthetics of minimalism, sound installation artwork, and industrial music through the use of modified equipment used in a manner far different than its intended design, Hess achieves a new and interesting sound that's still rooted just enough in familiar elements to keep it from being totally alien. This is an album that's all about hypnotic rhythms and textured sound, and there are plenty of different textures and rhythms to keep the concept consistently interesting throughout the disc. The overall sound is also warm and clear, with plenty of deep, throbbing bass action. As with everything else on Public Guilt, the packaging is also outstanding; the cd comes in a gatefold digipak made from recycled chipboard and includes a swell fold-out poster.

Strotter Inst.
Public Guilt

Tribulation -- THE HORROR [Pulverised Records]

This is not what generally comes to my mind when I think of Swedish death metal -- this is far heavier and denser, more interested in corrosive, crushing heaviness than melodicism, and with a sound so action-packed and thick that it often borders on white noise. (Incidentally, this is the band's first album, and they are not to be confused with the Swedish thrash band of the same name that flourished in the nineties.) If anything, they most resemble Marduk in their intensity and mushy, buzzing sonic holocaust. They aren't quite as constantly over-the-top as that band, but they come pretty close, and they share that band's penchant for rampaging hyperspeed drumming and uncontrolled guitar mania. As the album's title indicates, they are more interested in standard horror themes (as typified by titles like "Beyond the Horror," "The Vampyre," and "Graveyard Ghouls") than anything else -- they may be cribbing heavily from Marduk musically, but they don't share that band's obsession with anti-religious imagery or weird sexual fetishes. The band may be new, but their interests appear to be strictly old-school. As for the album itself, it sounds pretty much like you would expect, given such a description -- lots of locomotive rhythms and psychotic guitar raving with some guy bleating in hateful fashion over it all. There are some obligatory pretty guitar moments, especially on "Beyond the Horror," but that's just so the album won't deteriorate into a nonstop hammerfest, I'm sure. This is violent, thrashing death metal with more attitude than originality, but it possesses a level of ferocity equal to Marduk at their peak, which is not a bad thing. Bonus points for the swell horror-themed cover art.

Pulverised Records

The Tunnel -- CARVER BROTHERS LULLABY [Glorious Alchemical Co.]

One half of this musical duo is Jeff Wagner, mastermind of the eccentric experimental pop band Tunnel of Love, but apart from sharing that distinctive singing voice, the two bands are quite different. Maybe it's the influence of the duo's other half, Patrick Crawford, but this sounds closer to a sparser and more focused version of The Black Heart Procession, only with twangier guitars and a bit more artistic focus. The music is somewhere between alt-country and simple (but not simplistic) rock, with persistent, insistent drums and twangy fuzz guitar over which Wagner sings about desperate-sounding vignettes; it's both entrancing and mysterious, at times resembling the sound of the first album by the Angels of Light, only with more spaciness and electronic effects in the background. It's a hard sound to pin down, but it's an attractive and inviting sound, too. Is it post-rock, an updated form of retro-rock, or something else entirely? I dunno, but it sure sounds good. The disc comes in a gatefold chipboard digipak with swell art that's every bit as good and eerie as the music on the disc.

The Tunnel
Glorious Alchemical Co.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

the overdue post commences.

Cheer-Accident -- FEAR DRAWS MISFORTUNE [Cuneiform Records]

Chicago's most deliberately eccentric art-rock band has been around in one form or another for nearly thirty years, revolving all that time around founding member and last remaining constant, Thymme Jones (drums, vocals, and other instruments). The band's remarkable virtuosity and startling originality is matched only by their intense commitment to weirdness, a certain willfully perverse tendency toward surreal antics that have succeeded over the years mainly in making label executives nervous about the band. The band and Cuneiform have been eyeing each other for awhile now, but it wasn't until the label convinced the band to approach recording in a bit more straightforward manner that their collaboration was ensured. Of course, "straightforward" is a relative term; while this is unquestionably one of the band's most consistent and accessible albums, it's still pretty out there, and many who aren't familiar with the band's aesthetic may find it hard to grasp on first listen. Familiar elements (extensive use of piano and trumpets, droning vocals, peculiar yet catchy rhythms, improbable segues, impossibly complex passages, and a general sense of complete unpredictability) are joined by some new surprises, such as the female vocals that pop up from time to time. Some of the tracks, like "Blue Cheadle," are vaguely reminiscent of the experimental pop of NOT A FOOD and THE WHY ALBUM, but the rest of the album sounds more like an extension of the post-Bonnet direction they've favored on albums like SALAD DAYS and INTRODUCING LEMON. All of the material is excellent -- this is one of the band's most focused albums, and indeed, one of the most focused prog albums I've heard in a while, with no digressions into bizarre cuteness or whimsy. The most exciting thing about this album (outside of its excellence) is the fact that it comes after the band has been together nearly thirty years. How many bands manage to come up with such original and electrifying work after being together so long? The answer is, not many. If you've heard of the band but been put off by puzzled reactions to their admittedly perverse approach to music, this is where you should start. This already has my vote for one of the best albums of the year, and I can't imagine I'm going to hear many more as imaginative, adventurous, and unpredictable as this.

Cuneiform Records

Darkestrah -- THE GREAT SILK ROAD [Paragon Records]

Originally formed in Kyrgyzstan and now based in Germany, Darkestrah has been together for a decade; this is their fourth album, with a new one due sometime later this year. The poop sheet that came with this describes the band as pagan black metal, which I suppose is true, although this band is frequently heavier than most pagan bands -- their paganism manifests itself mainly in ornate, neo-classical acoustic guitar passages that frequently introduce or conclude songs, or else appear as brief interludes between segments of pummeling drums and furiously strummed tremelo guitars. There is a ritualistic feel to much of the band's work, but it would be a mistake to take that pagan description as an indication of any kind of tree-hugging wimpiness; this is an extremely intense band, and one that is intense without descending into desperate acts of silliness. The five long songs on this album are epic, emotional journeys into a different vision of the world; how much of that has to do with black metal or the band's Asian roots is a good question, but they certainly have an approach to their sound that's remarkably different from many of their peers. At times they remind me of a more sophisticated Baltak, or perhaps a band sharing some kind of spiritual and sonic kinship with Hellveto (especially in some parts of "inner voice"). They have a great guitar sound, one that's fizzy and o-so-black but with plenty of bite and pleasing harmonics, and an impressive drummer, and while the songs are mostly long (three exceed ten minutes, and one of those is over eighteen minutes), they don't drag; there's plenty of Burzum-styled repetition, sure, but there's also just enough variation to keep the songs from sinking into a colossal tarpit of ennui. Up until now I haven't been a huge fan of folk-flavored black metal, but this and the recent Hellveto release (highly recommended to those interested in this album) are making me rethink that indifference.

Paragon Records

Ala Ebtekar and the Iranian Orchestra for New Music -- ORNAMENTAL (2 x lp) [Isounderscore]

Ebtekar's name may not be familiar, but chances are you have heard him (or heard of him, anyway) on recordings under the name Sote. Born in Germany to Iranian parents and a long-time resident of the Bay Area in California, Ebtekar recently spent three years in Iran working with composer Alireza Mashayekhi. This double-album is the culmination of that working arrangement, recorded in Iran with Mashayekhi's Iranian Orchestra for New Music in Tehran, featuring fifty minutes worth of collaborative sound in ten compositions. The sounds presented here are a startling, at times even otherworldly, juxtaposition of traditional eastern music and western avant-garde sound. The original tracks were recorded by an Iranian orchestra led by Mashayekhi and then rearranged, altered, and processed by Ebtekar, taking the (presumably) traditional pieces into new and futuristic directions. Passages of silence and heavily modified experiments in sound are the major motifs that occur again and again throughout the pieces, along with an affinity for gritty and textured noise as counterpoint elements within the compositions. The overall effect is a re-imaging of traditional eastern sound, an updating of ancient structures and melodies for a new, postmodern world ruled by noise, distortion, and electronic sound processing. The meticulous nature of the recordings and post-studio diddling is reflected in the ambitious packaging; the fifty minutes of music here have been tracked across four sides of heavy, premium-grade vinyl for maximum fidelity, then mastered with admirable clarity by Thomas DiMuzio. The cover art and design are excellent as well. Limited to 500 copies, this should be of intense interest to those already hep to Sote's previous work and those interested in the inherent possibilities of a creative collision between the worlds of postmodern electronic and classical music of the eastern world.


Hermit Thrushes -- BENAKI [Single Girl Married Girl]

This twisted band from Philadelphia reminds me of Tunnel of Love in the sense that they apply a proggy, avant sensibility to indie-rock pop songs; judging from the pretty but fractured tracks on this album (their first), it sounds like they start with pop tunes and systematically turn them inside out and break them apart, with an end result that is equal parts intriguing and mystifying. Their aesthetic reminds me of Cheer-Accident, while their actual sound is closer to that of Tunnel of Love's equally quirky poptunes. The poop sheet references David Grubbs, which makes sense, because there are plenty of moments here that recall the razorblade aesthetic of Gastr del Sol, as well as other moments reminiscent of the man's early solo work. The sound is a combination of pop, indie-rock, noise, drone, prog, pysch, and even folk, with all of these elements combined and recombined in pretzel shapes and rooted in a commitment to unusual sounds and pulverized song structures. Despite the varied cornucopia of genres flowing over and bumping into each other, the album is surprisingly listenable -- the songs are relatively short and while they're possessed of quirky, near-random structures, the sound is frequently catchy and nowhere near as cacaphonous as the wide variety of sounds might suggest. It's definitely a different approach to pop music, but one that's more accessible that you'd have any right to expect given how many cooks are in the kitchen and what they're throwing into the soup. Fans of eccentric prog-pop by bands like Tunnel of Love and Cheer-Accident will like this.

Hermit Thrushes
Single Girl Married Girl

Eric Leonardson and Steve Barsotti -- RAREBIT [Transparency]

Now this is interesting... Leondardson and Barsotti, working in the tradition of avant-folk musicologists like Harry Partch and Luigi Russolo, invented their own unusual instruments using eyebolts, coiled springs, planks of wood, and other easily-obtained materials, then recorded nine tracks (two composed, seven improvised) using said instruments. The result is an album filled with unpredictable experiments in sound. The sound, in fact, is what matters most here; this is not an album of traditional songs, but rather a series of experiments aimed at exploring the possibilities of sound inherent in homemade noise-making devices. Structurally speaking, the pieces are relatively sparse and open, with the collection of sounds appearing in a manner that's more linear than anything else; the noises and sounds are not so much stacked on top of each other as introduced individually in succession, for the most part. The variety of sounds is astounding, from plinks and plunks to cryptic shuddering drones and many other tones and textures in between. The cd artwork consists entirely of pictures of the noise-making gadgets (roto rod, spring frame, and springboard) employed during the recording sessions, and the songs themselves are well-recorded, making all the nuances, no matter how subtle, clearly defined. This is an excellent representation of the properties of sound inherent to unusual devices.

Steve Barsotti
Eric Leonardson

Locrian -- "Plague Journal / Apocryphal City, Portents Fallen" 7" [Bloodlust!]

Talk about minimalist, this single comes in some of the most nondescript packaging ever -- white vinyl with white labels noting the sides and speed but nothing else, housed in a blank white sleeve and accompanied by a folded insert that provides the only clues to the single's content and origins. The first side, "Plague Journal," is a repetitive slice of twanging, boiling guitar noise and droning feedback upfront and other noises of considerably more mysterious origin fattening up the sound in the background. Toward the end the wailing feedback becomes the primary force of nature as everything else fades into a muted dark-ambient wash before the feedback finally dies away. The flip side, "Apocryphal City, Portents Fallen," opens with hollowed-out cyclotron sound and vague pounding noises, but bell-like tones subject to ping-pong delay soon appear in the mix, even as the harsh drone turns into a swirling, sweeping tornado of sound. The swirling, seething, psychotronic fog that eventually emerges successfully straddles the divide between noise and dark ambient, creating clouds of droning, noise-textured vapor like toxic gas billowing through the streets of a disintegrating city... only to end in a snarling lock-groove that's pretty ominous in its own right. Limited to 300 copies and, like all of the band's output, highly recommended.


Maleficia -- S/T lp [Isounderscore]

This is not Maleficia's first release -- that would be an untitled cd-r on Breaking Wheel that came out in 2006 and was limited to 120 copies -- but it's probably the first release of theirs that anybody outside of Oakland, CA will hear, even though it's not a significantly bigger press run (400 copies). Maleficia is actually the collaboration between Ilysea Viles Sunderman (viola and vocals) and Andy Way (electronics), and the heavy-duty vinyl release consists of two side-long tracks, "Making" and "Remaking." The first track opens with reverb clanking that is gradually overtaken by droning viola, processed in such a fashion that it sounds more like wind gusting through desolate canyons. As the viola continues to drone, with trembling lines that rise and fall, the clanking electronic noise in the background becomes thicker and more elaborate, until it resembles the sound of machinery at work in the distance. The tonal color of the drones changes in gradual fashion as the noise of the background begins to creep into the foreground, challenging the drones for supremacy in the mix. The depth and texture of the noise changes as well over the duration of the piece, slowly and inexorably, until the balance has shifted from being drone-heavy to noise-heavy. The track eventually ends as it began, with nothing but the clanking noises drenched in reverb. The track on the flip side of the album is similar in intent but marginally different in execution, dwelling more on the droning viola and less on the cracked electronics. A few minutes into the track, the rumbling of the electronics becomes more prominent, sweeping through the drone and adding texture to the ethereal sound. The album's cumulative aesthetic is a mysterious and powerful one, featuring a nuanced balance between drone and noise, with more depth and emotional intensity than one might expect for something so firmly minimalist. Dark and beautiful without being overly heavy or morose, the album is ultimately a monument to the mystery of ambient drone and processed sound.


The Tenants of Balthazar's Castle -- THE MOON [A.Star Records]

I like this. Seven songs bathed in repetitive noise, hallucinatory sounds, psychedelic meanderings, and a heavy dose of drone worship make up this limited-edition (200 copies) cd-r. Actually the work of one man, Michael Biggs, this album employs (I think) keyboards and processed sound to create brooding drones rooted in rhythmic pulses, some frantic and some not, with a sound that's both dark and expansive. If it weren't for the rhythmic pulse, some of this could pass for dark ambient, although some tracks (like the first track, "Opening," and "Lamplighter," for instance) are a bit too noisy to really qualify as ambient. Despite the lack of vocals, guitars, or drums -- this really is nothing but synth-driven, as far as I can tell -- the songs remain steadily engaging, with textured sounds that are not quite dissonant but still most uneasy. Biggs makes nice use of noise in his sounds, too, especially where the rhythms are concerned, which is something you don't hear often, especially in a context like this. Noise-loving droneheads need to hear this.

The Tenants of Balthazar's Castle
A. Star Recordings