Bloom Ensemble -- BLOOM [Edgetone Records]
The Bloom Ensemble is a collaborative venture featuring pianist Thollem Mcdonas, Rent Romus on sax, vox, and electronics, drummer Jon Brumit (also employing electronics and found objects here), and exotic instrument maker Steven Baker, playing a device of his own construction called The Bellows. The sound is an agitated and adventurous version of experimental free jazz, heavy on untamed percussion and wild flights of esoteric improvised sound from the rest of the players. The thirteen songs here are an engaging series of solo, duo, and group improvisations covering a wide range of sound; some of the pieces are highly chaotic and some are fairly sedate, but all of them are centered around the limitless capacity for inventive approaches to sound. Brumit in particular is in fine form throughout the album, often resembling a vibrating tsunami of sound behind his kit, but all of them in turn contribute interesting sounds, one varied configuration after another. The best moments are when they start off quietly, the instruments coming together in slow fashion one by one, until they build up a monumental head of steam that culminates in bursts of chaotic sonic mayhem, only to dissipate once again. There are plenty of such moments on the album, as well as many quieter and more spare, even elegant moments. Between these two extremes, the combo swings in a wild number of different directions, simultaneously celebrating the best conventions of jazz while standing them on end. Intense and inventive, and almost baroque in its capacity for surprise, this is an excellent example of the power of improvised music that's only enhanced by the use of electronics and unorthodox instruments.
Bloom Project -- SUDDEN AURORA [Edgetone Records]
Similar to the disc above but lighter on the number of participants, this release is a collaboration between pianist Thollem Mcdonas and saxophonist Rent Romus. With fewer instruments in the mix and a compositional bent that's closer to sixties nightclub jazz than blazing skronk, this is a more sedate and restrained album, but that's not a bad thing. Mcdonas is a fine pianist and Romus is an excellent saxophonist, and both are cognizant of the cliches of their genre and work hard to avoid them. They also play exceptionally well together; the interplay between these two is a fine thing to behold, and enlightening to hear. The most serene moments are those when the piano provides sparse, minimal backing while the sax spins beautiful, melancholy melodies, a sound that is a throwback to the cool jazz sounds of the sixties. The entire album, in fact, owes more to classic jazz than modern free jazz, and the improvisational style here is less about energy and unexpected directions than it is about the combination of two distinct styles into one collective sound simultaneously paying homage to the past and pointing toward possibilities for the future of improvisation. More importantly, the album is pleasant to listen to, providing prime evidence of what can be accomplished in the jazz idiom with two excellent players in tune with each other and determined to turn out fine work that is surprisingly accessible for something not intended to be part of the mainstream of musical thought.
Chinese Stars -- HEAVEN ON SPEED DIAL [Anchor Brain]
I have a soft spot for the Chinese Stars because the band is essentially a (marginally) more accessible version of the legendary noise-rock agitators Arab on Radar. Drummer Craig Kureck and singer Eric Paul perfected their skronk moves in that band before its unfortunate implosion shortly after the release of YAHWEH OR THE HIGHWAY, and the sound they captured on that album became the basic template for the sound of their new band. They dropped one guitarist for a bassist / keyboardist, toned down the hellish dissonance, and started leaning more toward a bizarrely discofied sound, but while Kureck's happening beats have gotten a bit less convoluted, Eric Paul's unique and instantly recognizable vocals still remain as piercing as ever. Paul Vieira's guitar sound isn't all that far removed from AoR's tinny riffing, either, although the addition of Mahi Mahi madman V. Von Ricci V on keyboards and bass certainly adds a new level of tweaked synth mania to the proceedings. This is the band's third full-length release (along with an initial EP and a couple of singles), and the first on Anchor Brain, a Providence collective that's artist-owned and interested in taking a new approach to music releases. The nine tracks, kicking off with the lead single (sort of) "Rabbit Face," are reasonably short and to the point, with lots of catchy beats and riffs; Paul's vocals may be grating to some, but there's plenty of melodic heft to his hypnotic phrashing. The songs pulse and throb with a feel that's one part disco, one part new-wave bass throb, and one (big) part temper tantrum; the songs may be well-constructed and catchy, but this is still a deeply perverse take on dance rock. Despite the addition of Von Ricci, the band's sound this time around isn't all that different from the sound of previous albums, so those already tuned into the band should be happy with this offering of nine more finely-tuned cryptic bleatings. I still have a hard time telling exactly what Paul is yelling about much of the time, but with titles like "Kill Me With Your Convenience" and "Lick It Clean," I'm guessing his subject matter is still pretty lurid. I still miss Arab on Radar, but this is a pretty good substitute.
Chord -- FLORA [Neurot Recordings]
The drone collective known as Chord -- featuring Pelican member Trevor de Brauw, Unfortunaut guitarist Kyle Benjamin, Jason Hoffman (of the darkwave band Anatole), and Phil Dole (X-Bax) -- are a conceptual band, and that concept is both immensely simple yet filled with endless sonic possibilities. Each of their compositions is based on a guitar chord (hence the band's name), with each member of the band playing one note of said chord. Within that major restriction, and a more general tendency toward droning minimalism over traditionally structured rock, each member is free to do as he pleases with that note. The band's antecedents are mostly in the vein of Alvin Lucier, Glenn Branca, and Tony Conrad, so right off the bat it's evident that this is not going to "rock out" -- unlike, say, Rhy Chatham's currently-popular (and deservedly so, although it took everybody long enough to appreciate it) approach to drone-rock, Chord's music is far more static and formless. Their sound is less about structure and far, far more about sound, and the four lengthy pieces on this disc resemble Tony Conrad's work from the EARLY MINIMALISM box set more than anything else (although Chord favors far less dissonant tones than Conrad does).
The opening track, "Am7," is probably the most formless of the bunch, with lots of extended notes droning endlessly into the ether and canyon-like reverb creating a vast, cosmic sense of space. The track drifts along like solar wind, quickly settling into a soothing ambient sound whose tone shifts just enough to keep from being totally static; the floating space drone goes on for over fifteen minutes, eventually dying out in a slow fade. "Gmaj(13)" begins in a similar fashion, all drifting drone and not much else, but then pinging guitar creeps into the mix -- not quite repetitive enough to be an actual rhythm, but not entirely random, either -- and then the bright pinging does begin to take on a repeated rhythm as the other chordal notes build and swirl around it.The tones and rhythms gradually but inexorably build in volume and intensity, then eventually die away and settle into a quieter mode, making this track far more dynamic than its predecessor. The subtle variation in tracks continues with "E9," which contains a slow but steady succession of notes played in unison, sounding more like actual chords than anything else on the album; the result is an unpredictable chord progression of sorts, with just enough repetition and rhythm to create a minimalist structure of sorts without turning into an actual song. About six minutes into the piece, the unison playing dissolves into more of the extended cosmic drone, with guitar lines subjected to different levels of processing playing off a fuzzy hum that becomes the piece's center.The final track, "Am," is a return of sorts to the opening track's sound, but this time the guitars are much heavier and more distorted, with a shuddering bass-heavy fuzz blowing through the piece, making it far more thunderous (relatively speaking -- this is still closer to menacing art rock than heavy metal, to be sure) and intimidating. There's also a considerable level of rhythmic movement this time around, too, along with a greater commitment to sheer noise. This is by far the heaviest track on the album, although it's still thoroughly grounded in ambient sound and never really resolves into an actual structure -- movements, yes, but structure, no.
This is great stuff, and the nature of the concept combined with the sheer number of chords available to them means they'll never have to worry about running out of material. It's not music for the impatient, though; this is work that unfolds at its own pace, and the subtle nature of the evolving sound may be too static for some. For those into conceptual drone, however, this should go down well. It's certainly interesting, a work of art that should hold much appeal to those fond of concept albums and those who just plain like to wallow in oceans of drone. Now if I can just figure out what the amazing but intensely cryptic cover art means....
Closer -- A DARKER KIND OF SALVATION [Pulverised Records]
The second album from Sweden's Closer is an enthusiastic, if not exactly groundbreaking, example of the current state of extreme metal, fusing elements from death and technical metal with a lurching stop 'n start attack that borrows from funk as much as nu-metal (which is just metal's answer to funk anyway, come to think of it). Since this is a Swedish band, it's not surprising that the solos -- when they appear -- are highly melodic, in counterpoint to the heavy, crushing riffs that propel the songs forward. The songs are heavy and played with verve and fearsome precision, and although there's nothing particularly new or visionary happening here, the band scores high on the heaviness meter. Probably the most interesting thing about the band, outside of some unexpectedly pretty and melodic moments on songs like "Open Your Eyes," is the rhythm section; the drummer is excellent and the bassist is probably the most imaginative player in the band. The guitars are tight and competent, and the vocalist has a screech that's appropriately scalding, and the sum of the parts results in playing that, while not exactly inspired, is good enough -- and heavy enough -- to provide the audio equivalent of comfort food for extreme metal devotees.
R. P. Collier -- LAMELLAPHONE [Lonely Whistle Music]
This unusual-sounding album features music made with a variety of thumb pianos designed by Collier, all employed (along with electronic sound effects) in the service of fourteen esoteric-sounding improvisations. (For a look at some of them, check here.) Thumb pianos, by the very nature of their design, are acoustic instruments and usually not loud, and thus the sound of these improvised pieces is restrained and fairly mellow; the use of electronic effects, however, frequently transforms the instrument's basic sound into something far more unusual. While there is no percussion on the album, there are looped sounds and rhythms -- possibly made using the thumb pianos, or perhaps made with other devices -- that often play in the background as tinkling melodies from the thumb piano play in the foreground. The sound is usually spare and haunting, and while there are tracks where a lot appears to be going on, most of the time the approach is more minimal. The use of different thumb pianos and extra processing results in a wide variety of textures along with the more common bell-like sounds. It's highly exotic-sounding stuff, like a cross between world music and improvised free jazz, and those fond of "incredibly strange music" should find this highly interesting.
R. P. Collier
Lonely Whistle Music
Custodian -- II 3-inch cdr [FTAM]
WIth eight tracks in under seventeen minutes, this is a short but highly potent blast of scourging white noise. The untitled tracks are exercises in gruesome distortion and crunch-laden glitch electronics; violent pedal-fu and diseased sound processing result in the sound of demolition and deconstruction. It's not pretty, but it is highly engaging, with plenty of texture to the clotted sounds and a reasonable level of dynamics and flow for something so steeped in harshness. Some of the tracks have a rhythmic pulse buried under the noise, and in some cases the rhythm is the primary source of noise itself. While the sound and propensity for sonic violence is thoroughly rooted in power electronics, the conceptual axis and architecture of many of these pieces recalls the early stages of industrial music (and by early, I mean the era of Throbbing Gristle, early Lustmord, and SPK). There's no political statement at work here, just the documentation of a man making ugly noises purely for the sake of creating ugly art, and doing it well. Strong stuff; recommended.
Ember Schrag -- A CRUEL, CRUEL WOMAN [Lone Prairie Records]
Ember Schrag is a woman with an acoustic guitar and a folkish bent who reminds me a lot of early Edith Frost, mostly for the brilliant simplicity of her uncluttered songs and the economy of her playing. There are other players -- Gunter Voelker (lead guitar, drums, bass, banjo, and various other instruments), Rebecca McPherson (piano), Annie Aspergren (cello), and Thad Miller (fiddle) round out the band -- but their restrained playing and the minimalist nature of the songs keeps the songs from sounding busy, and the subtle nature of the additional instrumentation means that more is revealed with each spin of the album, always a good thing. Her sound may be reminiscent of Edith Frost (and, according to the accompanying poop sheet, Nick Drake and Joanna Newsom), but some of her guitar phrasing -- especially on "Two Suns" and "Iowa" -- and her atypical lyrics make me think of Kristin Hersh as well. She has a far more conventionally melodic voice than Hersh, though, and a lyrical approach that's more poetic and whimsical than naked and highly confessional. All ten of the songs here are well-crafted and executed with just the right mix of technical facility and loose verve; there's no filler on this disc. It's quiet and unassuming, but the instrinsic appeal of such natural, unforced simplicity will grow with each repeated listen. And this is definitely an album worth playing again and again. This may not be the hot new thing or flavor of the moment, whatever that is, but a sound like this never goes out of style.
Lone Prairie Records
Gnaw Their Tongues -- ALL THE DREAD MAGNIFICENCE OF PERVERSITY [Crucial Blast]
There are moments -- especially on this album -- when I begin to seriously wonder if the enigmatic sound-mangler Mories is influenced in any way by the eccentric band Devil Doll, an equally strange band that, while not particularly metal in any sense of the word, shares with this band a perverse sensibility, a thematic bent steeped in horror, and strong tendency toward epic bombast. Devil Doll, of course, is a more genteel and operatic beast weaned on Hammer horror, while Gnaw Their Tongues is a far more savage and disturbing act whose sound is more fitting for the soundtracks to movies like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and HOSTEL. There's certainly plenty of bombast on this album, though, and plenty of darkness -- the artwork all revolves around extreme BDSM themes, while titles like "My Orifices Await Ravaging," "Gazing At Me Through Tears of Urine," and "Rife With Deep Teeth Marks" make it immediately clear that the subject matter is probably not going to involve rainbows and sunshine and fields full of daisies. If there are lyrics to any of the nine tracks here, you'd be hard pressed to discern them; as usual, GTT's sound is a black and murky cyclone of skin-crawling dissonance, black sheets of distortion roaring through underground wind tunnels, disturbing samples, and a wide variety of instruments wilfully abused and processed in such a fashion as to render their sounds fantastically ugly and largely unrecognizable. The band's sound encompasses dark ambient, black metal, old-school industrial, and noise, with all of these elements smeared over and under each other the work of an imprisoned lunatic smearing his shit all over the walls in a grotesque manifestation of art. Everything the band has done so far has sounded really dark and harrowing, and this is no exception; the only real difference from this and earlier works is that Mories has grown more consistent in his ability to harness the more extreme elements of his wild and cavernous sound, and his talent for shaping these discordant blocks of sound into compelling movements that flow seamlessly from one hellish vignette to the next has grown only sharper and more skillful. If you liked his earlier recordings, you're definitely going to like this one; if you haven't heard him yet, this is a perfectly good place to begin. Those of you fond of consuming your music in altered states should note that skipping the psychedelics is strongly recommended, at least on first listen -- this is soul-scraping stuff, and unnerving enough to hear while stone cold sober.
Gnaw Their Tongues
Hunting Rituals -- FABLED [Autumn Abattoir]
This intensely obscure release, limited to 100 copies, features dark ambient / noise artist Scott Johnson creating seven unsettling soundscapes through microphone abuse, feedback, strange strings, and occasional bursts of grinding bass. These are not so much songs or even ambient works as they are sonic attempts at abstraction, the audio equivalent of a Pollock disciple splattering paint on a canvas with a sense of randomness that, when applied often enough, becomes a pattern into itself. There are some mighty strange sounds emanating from this disc, too -- at times it sounds like an overmodulated recording of animals at the zoo captured during moments of frenzied motion. The methods employed for these recordings are so unorthodox that it's difficult, often impossible, to tell how the sounds were made or what the hell is going on. The vibe is somewhere between the uneasy sonic aberrations of Mouthus and the cosmic space chaos of Sun Ra at his most extreme, with a lot of eccentric noise-making in between. The sound grows noisier and more chaotic as the disc progresses, and by the last couple of tracks there are some seriously damaged sounds floating through the sonic ocean. The cover art also features swell graphics courtesy of Victoria Alstien. There's definitely some fascinating sounds happening here, but this is eccentric and unhinged enough that it's not for dilettantes.
John 3:16 -- THE SOLEMN TRUTH [Alrealon Music]
The sound on this disc is dominated mainly by simple but thunderous mechanical beats and deep, droning synth lines -- this some seriously repetitive and hypnotic work. Over the course of five instrumental songs, big and simple beats form the rhythmic foundation over which the band's mysterious solo composer weaves cold but harmonious sheets of synth drone. It's a loud and effective form of minimalism with techno beats and dark-ambient keyboards, and while the tempos are a bit too slow for it to really qualify as dance music, it's certainly more beat-heavy than traditional dark ambient. While the songs are relatively simple and uncluttered, there's enough variation in the synth sounds to keep things flowly nicely, and their dark, icy sound combined with the heavy beats makes for highly compelling listening.
Landed -- LIVER + LUNGS [Corleone]
Landed are the kind of band that sounds like musicians taking drugs to make music for listeners to take drugs to. This album -- a compilation of six tracks taken from various splits and singles, and a companion of sorts to the compilation that appeared on Load Records last year -- is a series of endless-sounding bad trips through the band's polluted psyche, often revolving around demonically seductive beats played over and over like a diseased loop, equally hypnotic and grotesquely overdriven bass riffs, minimalist and noisy guitar, and tortured vocals (some sampled, some croaked in the style of a man with laryngitis and a bad hangover dragged out of bed and forced to "sing" at gunpoint). Titles like "Osama Oxycontin" and "Fuck Seat Belts, Fuck Ralph Nader" are a pretty good indication of the band's collective mindset, but it's the sound that defines them -- that arresting combination of minimalist repetition, scummy fuzz-bass, weird raga sounds, eccentric vocals, and a general dediction to proudly lo-fi sound that add up into a sound that's unique and instantly recognizable. If you've heard anything else by them, you already have a good idea of what to expect here; if you haven't, this (along with the Load Records compilation) will bring you up to speed. I like this band a lot, partly because of their nasty bass sound -- few bands willfully abuse a bass the way this one does, or with such spectacularly ugly results -- and partly because of their unwavering commitment to excessive minimalism, but mainly because they are far more groove-laden than many of their noise-rock contemporaries. This is potent, hallucinatory stuff, and makes a nice warmup for the forthcoming new full-length that should materialize, uhhhh, any day now.
Machinery -- THE PASSING [Regain Records]
Nine tracks of pounding death metal from Sweden, with a wailing vocalist and -- like most Swedish metal bands -- a tendency to retreat into brief moments of melodicism before firing up the heavy metal engine again. There are surprises, though; the singing alternates between songs from melodic to death grunting, and the absolutely expected bursts of melodicism often manifest themselves at entirely unexpected moments. Then, too, for a death metal band, they seem awfully fond of black metal's monochromatic barbed-wire guitar sound, enough to employ it frequently in between the passages of fast technical riffing. The band's sound has an industrial, mechanical feel to it much of the time -- no doubt the inspiration for the band's name -- and the solos, while definitely melodic, are also clearly technical in nature. The rhythm section alternates between furious metallic chugging and lurching riffs for the most part; sometimes even the rhythm guitars take on a melodic cast, as in the beginning of "I Divine," but mostly the rhythm sections exists to assist in battering your skull with powerful beats and slashing riff death. This is powerful-sounding stuff, punishing in its sonic extremity, with a sound so rigorously athletic it will wear you out just listening to it. Of course, the presence of keyboards suggest a fondness for prog-rock, but those keyboards are generally subservient to the blazing metal power, surfacing mainly during the slower parts and introductions (another subtle nod to black metal theatrics). It's unusual to hear such a proggy-sounding vocalist in a band this technical and heavy, but it works, and the melodic vocals are every bit as impressive and commanding as the death grunts that appear from time to time. Excellent stuff, and well worth checking out.
M.G.R. y Destructo Swarmbots -- AMIGOS DE LA GUITARRA [Neurot Recordings]
The label's press release for this album is one of the funniest things ever, but it doesn't even begin to prepare you for the actual album, an inspired collaboration between guitarists Mike Mare (Destructo Swarmbots) and Mike Gallagher (Isis). Consisting of one long (forty-plus minutes) track, "Amor en el Aire," the album is a beatless duet between the two guitarists that covers a lot of ground, but mostly sounds like a series of improvised movements rooted deeply in classic shoegazer sound. Without ever getting too dramatic or heavy, the duo moves through a series of audio vignettes occasionally defined by clean passages that are pretty and melodic, but more often spare and ghostly sheets of processed sound. For an extended guitar duet, there's very little gratuitious wankery happening here; these guys are more interested in a minimalist approach rooted more in the exploration of sound and tone than any burning desire to be post-rock's answer to Yngwie Malmsteen. Hypnotic rhythms come and go amid gales of efx-laden sound, and while the dynamic between the two (and the volume level) fluctuates considerably, the sound itself never comes to a complete halt. The fusion of their sounds generates a cold light rather than heat or friction; it's a beautiful sound, but one that's more methodical and restrained than exciting and uncontrolled. As with the Chord album reviewed earlier, this is an album that takes a certain level of patience to appreciate. Those with patience, though, will definitely find it rewarding.
Murder by Static -- DANCELAND DEAD [Deadsix Communications]
This Canadian band's forte is in mixing a variety of disparate elements -- techno, drum 'n bass, hardcore, and ambient -- into a swirling vortex of thrashing beats and whacked-out sounds. These experiments in abused sound generally involve frantic, out-of-control beats and a wide variety of ill sounds and samples; the results are so energetic and whacked-out that they're compelling even when they veer into the territory of being ridiculous. I'm not sure all of these tracks completely work, but when they do, they have a high energy level and weirdness factor that's most entertaining. Of course, these are not really songs as much as they are experiments in wild sonic destruction, so your tolerance for strange instrument abuse will probably be a large factor in your possible enjoyment of this disc, but if you like the idea of devolved, deconstructed techno, this is worth checking out.
Murder by Static
Null -- OXYGEN FLASH [Neurot Recordings]
I am a huge Zeni Geva fan and at one point had a completist's obsession with Null's solo work, until he became entirely too prolific for my budget and began releasing an endless series of near-identical albums built around the use of glitch electronics. I always favored Null's guitar work more than his electronic work, so for a long time I wasn't paying all that much attention to his growing body of work. He hasn't gone back to solo guitar wrangling as I had hoped, but apparently he's managed to bring some more variety to the table where his electronic work is concerned. That's certainly apparent here; this is far more dynamic and rhythmic than his early electronica works. (Of course, given the sheer number of albums he's done since I stopped trying to keep up with them, perhaps this refinement in sound and vision is not so surprising.) I don't know if he's still using the Nullsonic, the fearsome battery of gadgets and efx pedals that drove so much of his early work, but it certainly sounds like it, and his use of those gadgets has become much more complex and layered. Many of these tracks (all untitled, as usual) begin with repetitive sounds that mutate into something else along the way or are augmented by other rhythms and bursts of sound, and much of it (especially the third track) sounds like a mad, Krautrock-influenced version of noise disco. In fact, rhythmic noises abound all over this disc, usually leavened with a wide variety of cryptic noises. One of the major strategies of these nine soundscapes is a tendency to settle into a hypnotic rhythm and ride it for several minutes, only to abruptly segue into something else entirely -- a new rhythm, a new tone, or erratic bursts of sound. Null's compositional style is still pretty minimalist, but it's nowhere near as static or monotonous as his early forays into the glitch-laden world of electronica. He still releases way too much solo work for any sane human being to attempt to keep up with, but this is definitely one of the better and more interesting ones.
Noveller -- RED RAINBOWS [No Fun Productions]
In an ironic twist of events -- the hand of fate at work, perhaps? -- this showed up in my mailbox just a few days after Sarah Lipstate's appearance in New York as of the 200 guitarists for the NYC open-air performance of Rhys Chatham's "A Crimson Grail," after which she was prominently mentioned (for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately) in many of the comments on various blogs posting about the event. It's a shame so many people seem so fixated on her age and appearance, because she has a lot going for her as both a musician and a filmmaker. I had already heard her VASOVAGAL 3-inch cdr and seen her perform, so I was already aware of her talent, but this -- her first full-length cd -- should go a long way toward cementing her status as one of the more inspired musicians of the current electro-noise wave. The first track, "Rainbows," is a shuddering series of seismic tonal drones that's simultaneously beautiful and unnerving, like a shimmering audio heat mirage encrusted in that special kind of fuzzy sonic munge that you can only get by abusing electric guitars or analog synth equipment. "Brilliant Colors," however, is less about the fuzz and more about the drone, augmented by sweeping efx noises and a rising tide of shrieking feedback mixing with the omnipresent death-drone. On "St. Powers," the soothing tone clusters appear in modulated waves of repetition, occasionally punctuated by high-pitched shards of melody; this is one of most droning and restrained tracks on the disc. "Tunnels" is another restrained one, but this is is far darker and more brooding, with waves of subterranean sound rolling back and forth, eventually culminating in growing sheets of drone and moments of shrill feedback. The final track, "Bends" (featuring guest Carlos Giffoni) opens with near-static drones that subtly shift in tone and pitch over an extended duration and eventually mutates into wavering sine-wave sounds that change tempo and volume in unpredictable fashion. There's a lot more motion to the sound in this piece than there was in the others, and a more persistent sense of dynamic shifts, and at twenty minutes, there's plenty of time for the sound to mutate and evolve. Strong performances abound on the disc -- there's no weak material here -- and this should definitely net Lipstate plenty of the right kind of attention.
No Fun Productions
Ophibre / Hunted Creatures -- split cs [self-released]
This split cassette comes in a fairly elaborate package -- the cassette is wrapped in vellum covered in a moire pattern and encased in a clear plastic case, and the case comes enclosed in a corrugated white sheath tied with string that opens up to reveal the liner notes. Ophibre's track on the first side, "a harem of moths," is a long and droning layer of synth tones that ebb and flow over a basic midrange tidal drone. As time passes, the layers of drone drift apart and work their way back together again, but in subtle fashion, with a sound that's both hypnotic and soothing; you could meditate to this, or play it in the background for relaxation purposes. It's not sonic wallpaper; there's a deceptive unpredictability to the rise and fall of the drones that keeps it from being totally static, and the burbling synth noises in the background are minimal but melodic, giving the piece a serene grace. The two tracks on the flip side, by Hunted Creatures -- one live, one not -- are also heavy on the drone tip but more mechanical and repetitive, and in the case of the live track, feature moments of thudding and heavily-reverbed percussion. Eventually the percussion floats off into more cathedral-like drones before the sound dies out altogether. The studio tracks that follows is moderately darker but every bit as drone-o-rific, filled with mutant drones like the sound of ghosts creeping through the night fog. This entire cassette is great, mysterious stuff, with simple but elegant packaging that's a direct mirror of the simple but satisfying sounds on the tape.
Overmars -- BORN AGAIN [Crucial Blast]
What they lack in originality -- at various times over the course of this album, they sound like early Swans, Godflesh, The Devil's Blood, and probably a few others I'm forgetting -- they more than make up for in bloodcurdling intensity. Hailing from France, this obscure band's second album (sandwiched between an earlier full-length and many split releases) was originally released on the Appease Me label (run by members of Blut Aus Nord), and now sees a proper domestic release so listeners on this side of the big puddle can be slowly hammered into the ground by the band's remorseless pummel. The album consists of exactly one long track, "Born Again," that creeps through several movements -- some insanely heavy, some far more brooding and mired in dark electronics -- with a pace and feel highly reminiscent of the first two Swans albums. The band's genius in avoiding tedium over such a long playing time in such a minimal format lies in their uncanny ability to switch gears exactly when the specter of tedium begins to loom, making subtle changes to beats, riffs, background noises, and rhythms; they also employ at least two singers (one female) who sing, screech, and howl as the mood suits them. Conceptually they're definitely aligned with the bands mentioned earlier, especially Swans, but in terms of pacing, audio strategy, and composition, they have just as much in common with minimalists like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. This is a compelling example of dark, overwhelming psychodrama, one in which the mood is every bit as important as the music, with a sound you expect to find happening in conjunction with some gruesome bit of performance art in the vein of Hermann Nitsch, only uglier and more debased. This is an ambitious piece of work that mostly succeeds, often spectacularly so, and I hope it's successful enough to convince Crucial Blast to reissue more of the band's output so I don't have to go scour Ebay for it.
Pack of Wolves -- BETRAYER [Arclight Records]
Well, this is kind of interesting; I didn't even know that Austin had an extreme metal band, much less one this ferocious. The band has a dark and violent sound steeped in aggressive extreme metal, with a rhythm section that's constantly in motion with blurry drums and hyperactive, frenzied riffing, and a scorched-earth vocalist riding over the top. Their songs are a little generic for my taste -- I've heard entirely too many extreme metal albums that sound like this -- but they know what they're doing, and their attack is a vicious one. More than anything, they remind of me of a more straightforward, southern version of Mouth of the Architect. The nine songs on this disc are all intensely heavy; they do have the occasional unexpected surprise (like the piano at the end of "Evaders"and the sampling early on in "Release Pt. II"), but for the most part the attitude is one of unbridled aggression. It's true they do aggression well -- they have the face-peeling attack down cold -- but they're hardly the only band these days who can make that claim, and while there's nothing wrong with the band in terms of their playing or their aggression, I'd like them a lot better if they stepped up their songwriting a notch. That said, this is still punishing stuff that's worth hearing, especially if you thought all the bands in Austin were either punk, psych, or noise bands.
Pack of Wolves
Plastic Boner Band -- s/t (cs) [self-released]
Talk about cryptic, this unlabeled cassette comes in a plastic case whose "graphics" are merely a page from a smut book with the band's name scrawled across the back -- no song titles, no liner notes, no other information, period. Just sixty minutes of screeching audio immolation. This is severely punishing harsh noise with no redeeming social qualities whatsoever, just full-on earhate heavy on the grinding wall of filth and squealing high-frequency bombardment. Listen to this at high volume at your own risk, dig? At times the overmodulated noise grows so fearsome that it just about cuts out, like it overloaded the recorder, only to fade back into the titanic bundle of squirming white noise hiss and pained feedback shrieking. Sure, it's the kind of maxed-out white noise attack that doesn't leave much room for dynamics, and whose endless audio flagellation is closer to a test of endurance than anything resembling music, but that's the whole point; this kind of hellish, full-tilt sonic degredation is for audio masochists who need their noise fix as painful and prolonged as possible. This isn't consistently in your face -- there are moments when the wall of noise pulls back to something a bit more subdued, if every bit as abrasive -- but there's certainly no danger of any of it being mistaken for easy listening. As the first side progresses, the character of the noise takes different shapes, sometimes having more of a buzzing, grinding sound than just howling white noise, but sooner or later it all comes back to the bombed-out power electronics. The flip side is just as throbbing and obnoxious as the first, too. I'm sure this is ridiculously limited, so if these words doth make your noise-loving heart pitter-patter, you should probably move soon on acquiring one of these audio delectables.
Plastic Boner Band
Secretwyrd -- PUT THE KIDS TO BED [self-released]
The core of this band is the couple of Penelope Zing (vox, lyrics, keyboards, bass) and Daniel Strobel (guitar, bass, keyboards, mixing); live they add a couple of other guys for the rhythm section. Hailing from Asheville, NC and sporting a sound rooted in goth, industrial, and indie idioms, they must stand out in a big way in that scene. While their atmospheric sound definitely takes plenty of cues from dark-ambient and goth tropes, their bass and guitar sound owes an awful lot to bands like Joy Division and New Order. Zing's vocals often hearken back to the same era as well, frequentlly channeling Siouxsie's imperious sound, and while the band's sound is unquestionably retro, it's deliciously so. and just as important (at least from my perspective), it's referencing one of my favorite musical eras. I'd certainly rather hear this than more modern acts steeped in emo or screamo or whatever currently passes for the latest fad. The seven songs on this disc aren't particularly breaking any new ground, but they're good and concise, and they steal all their moves from the best acts, always a wise decision. The rhythm section is consistently tight and enthusiastic, and while the sonic layer over that drifts in different directions at times, it never leaves the territory of melodic yet edgy art-rock heavily influenced by the first wave of postpunk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Public Image Limited, and Bauhaus. Old-school goths who miss the Batcave era should pick up on this.
Six Finger Satellite -- A GOOD YEAR FOR HARDNESS [Anchor Brain]
The swingin' dudes of 6FS were a big deal in noise-rock circles in the 90s, and their 1993 debut album THE PIGEON IS THE MOST POPULAR BIRD not only had a huge impact in the music underground but provided the blueprint for a lot of other noisy bands. They gave up the metallic funk in 2001, but after years of the various members wandering off to other projects (including the Chinese Stars), several of the original key players -- including original singer / keyboardist J. Ryan, original drummer Rick Pelletier -- reformed the band in 2008. Since then Load Records has released an album originally recorded in 2001 (HALF CONTROL), and now comes this album, minty-fresh and hot from the oven. I'll pass on rehashing the band's tortured history and twisted lineup schemas -- that's what the magic, healing power of teh internets is for, if you need to know that kind of stuff -- and just say this: you can hardly tell the band's been gone all this time. This picks up where HALF CONTROL left off, blowing the gates open with the hypnotic repetition and clanging guitar of "Hot Food" and proceeding to march through nine more tracks of classic art rock built on thumping beats, tinny and repetitive guitars, agitated vocals, and a canny sort of minimalism that allows just enough variation to keep the eternal nod from growing stuporous. This is groove-laden art rock for dancing robots, especially on "Don't Let Me," which sounds like a deeply twisted and stripped-down version of K. C. and the Sunshine Band doing a science-fiction movie theme. The band has a fondness for scratchy, start 'n stop rhythms and overmodulated synth lines, and they put these diabolical tools of sonic torture to good use on songs like "Half Life,"whose scratchy but commanding guitar riff dominates the song, and "Hearts and Rocks," which unfolds in a similar fashion. Even better, the album ends with "Rise," featuring dub-hell bass, endlessly circling drum rhythms, and all sorts of hocus-pocus noise frippery from the guitar and synth, sounding like a spaced-out cross between Joy Division, Swans, and early PIL. In fact, much of what's on this disc wouldn't have sounded out of place on METAL BOX. Every now and then a band justifies reforming with an excellent album that demonstrates they called it quits too soon; this is one of those times. As good as HALF CONTROL is, this is even better, pushing the envelope one more time.
Six Finger Satellite
SOS -- ADULT SITUATIONS [self-released]
This NYC combo's self-released album consists of twelve songs of competent groove-rock that mixes hardcore and metal in a manner that's energetic, if not terribly innovative. With titles like "Do You Want To Go Bowling" and "Wasteland Temptress," it's pretty obvious that they are not pretentious by any stretch of the imagination, a belief that's borne out by their full-bore rock and roll approach. Their grooves are highly influenced by both punk and metal, and while this is not the kind of thing I would personally go out and buy these days, the band plays well and they certainly rock hard. This isn't quite metalcore -- there are no mosh-inducing breakdowns -- but it's definitely a fusion of metal and hardcore punk, and the band burns with plenty of energy. I'm not completely sold on the singer, the weakest point of the band's sound, but then I'm not a huge fan of hardcore to begin with, so I'm probably the wrong person to be assessing his skills. The best thing about this band are the fuzzed-out, furious guitars; there are some quieter, more melodic passages for variety's sake, but mostly the guitars thrash away with wild abandon, and even when the songs are more generic-sounding than I'd like, the guitar sound and hyperactive drumming keep things relatively interesting.
Subarachnoid Space -- EIGHT BELLS [Crucial Blast]
For a band that's been around nearly fifteen years and gone through so many players that guitarist Melynda Jackson is the only original member left (former Trance guitarist Mason Jones, who started the band, bowed out several years back due to family obligations), their basic sound sure hasn't changed much. The only real difference is that since Mason's departure, the band has grown marginally heavier -- their signature sound of a steady rhythm section drowning in a vortex of cosmic space dust has taken on a distinctly metallic tinge over the past few years. The metal action shows up here mainly at the beginning and end of "Akathesia," where a lot of drawn-out and ethereal space doodling is bracketed on both ends by repetitive stop 'n start guitar riffing (which, on the tail end, turns into a heavy riff boring its way through endless clouds of swirling vapor). Even when they're waxing metallic, they're still plenty heavy -- drummer Lauren Newman is possibly the band's heaviest tub-thumper since original drummer Michelle Schreiber, and her intense rhythmic pulse is all over the album, keeping a steady beat in place while the rest of the band does the droning cosmic space blues. "Haruspex" opens with an impressive slew of noises akin to a garbage compactor backing up over various band members shouting, but the gruesome noise is just an introduction to lots of spaced-out, bell-like guitar action amid clouds of atmospheric and reverb-heavy sound. On the slower sections of these songs, wailing guitar drones often carry the weight, spreading long, piercing notes across vast tundras of dissolving sound; the more frantic moments, such as the beginning of "Bird Signs," are driven by the tandem sound of repetitive guitar riffs and surging percussion. A lot of the material here reminds me of THE SLEEPING SICKNESS, the (more or less) live album they recorded with the Walking Timebombs back in the late nineties. This is certainly one of the most intense and consistently engaging albums I've heard from them in a long time; I didn't know how much I had missed the band until this came along. Those already familiar with the band will find this a welcome addition to the band's catalog; those not already hep now have a convenient place to start. The tripped-out, semi-rude Stephen Kasner cover art definitely matches the sound on the disc inside.
Sundays and Cybele -- s/t [Gyunne Cassette]
It's entirely fitting that this band should be named after an obscure sixties film, because their mysterious vibe and folk-derived sound is definitely a throwback to the sixties psych movement. And when I talk about that era's psych sounds, I'm mainly referring to bands like the Velvet Underground and Jefferson Airplane, and maybe more than a little bit of Les Rallizes Dénudés, bands with an exploratory bent who were nevertheless firmly grounded in folk and rock conventions. This doesn't mean the band is completely retro, though; there are signs of more contemporary influences at work here, with certain elements of their sound making definite reference to Suishou no Fune and Fushitsusha. The earlier tracks (all with titles in Japanese) are the folkier ones, with lots of gentle but repetitive guitar strumming and occasional but impeccably placed bursts of tasteful, jazzy lead guitar. The first few tracks also feature lovely singing, even if there's no way to tell what the singing is all about unless you understand Japanese. You don't need to understand the words to absorb the emotional impact of these songs, however. All of these tracks are dominated by restraint in dynamics and a serious commitment to both repetition and minimalism, but the well-chosen (and gorgeous) chords and melodies prevent the songs from becoming boring, and as the album progresses, the psychedelic quotient begins to ramp up, beginning with a fluid and trilling lead guitar running through the fourth track and the sound of heavily-reverbed circuluar guitar sounds resembling a highly melodic calliope on the short instrumental track that follows. It's the sixth track, however, that really defines the album and makes it worth seeking out; opening with luxuriant female vocals over a moderately more rock-like riff and droning notes in the background that occasionally melt into trilling sounds, about five minutes into the song a rumbling guitar bursting with distortion suddenly appears, and from that point oward -- for more than ten minutes -- the group burns through an amazing space-rock psych improv that would make Keiji Heino take his shades off and weep with open envy. This is seriously one of the most amazing psychedelic tracks I've ever heard, and the sedate restraint of the previous tracks makes it that much more unexpected when it appears, and even then its utter, sure-footed magnificence is utterly mind-blowing. The brief snippet of music that follows and finishes the album functions essentially as nothing more than a coda to this amazing, mind-altering track. This is what we call greatness -- it's unquestionably one of the best psych albums I've heard in the fifteen years of reviewing stuff for this publication -- and if you worship at the altar of psych rock, especially the Japanese variety, you are an absolute fool if you're not already scouring the internet for a copy of this. (On a related note, it would be a fine idea for some swell American label with good taste to pick this up for distribution, or bet yet, to sign the band to a domestic deal.)
Sundays and Cybele
Sunday, September 13, 2009
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