Sunday, December 12, 2010

it's the season for chilly willies, isn't it?

Bison b.c. -- DARK AGES [Metal Blade]

This Vancouver band mutated out of an earlier, thrashier version; I have no idea how much of those thrash roots remained on their first album, EARTHBOUND, but their latest release is a lot closer to stoner rock with only intermittent bursts of speed to remind you of their more fast-paced beginnings. Of course, the vocals are often harsh and demanding, owing more to the principles of thrash than stoner rock, but the real story is in the riffs, and these are songs with big, brawling riffs swaddled in copious amounts of fuzz and played at high volume. Their skatepunk roots give them an energy that's sorely lacking in a lot of albums by their more stoned brethren, and their fondness for abrupt tempo changes and complicated arrangements give them a sound akin to Mastodon minus the pretension. Their aggression is intense, but not limited or monochromatic; they work themselves into a splendid frenzy of aggression bordering on white noise at the end of "Fear Cave," but are fully capable of realizing quieter and more intricate passages elsewhere, and for a band rooted in sheer blinding heaviness, they're surprisingly nimble, with a flair for interesting dynamics. They're also apparently good at self-editing; despite having two songs over eight minutes and two others nearly as long, the songs are remarkably filler-free. Each song has enough ideas and riffs crammed into it to fill another band's entire album, and this immense catalog of riffs and tricky time changes flows with the kind of grace possible only from bands with a significant amount of technical ability and the willingness to rehearse endlessly until they get everything right. Impressive, and completely worthy of all the swell press they've been getting lately.

Bison B.C.
Metal Blade

Circle II Circle -- CONSEQUENCE OF POWER [AFM Records]

For a band led by an American (former Savatage singer Zak Stevens), they sound awfully European. This is the band's fifth release (although not with the same lineup; there have been a fair number of changes in the personnel department over the years), and you'd never guess from listening to this that the band is based Florida, the home of cranky death metal. This is progressive power metal at its most bombastic, providing a busy-sounding background for Zak's operatic vocals. The rhythm section is impeccably tight, although the bass sound is a bit unusual for this genre, at times sounding processed, maybe even the work of synth bass. The guitar playing is squarely in the tradition of progressive metal, with plenty of ornate passages and heavy solo action. The songs are nearly all around the five-minute mark, with arrangements that are mainly high-tempo exercises in rhythmic propulsion designed not to detract from the vocals and guitar virtuosity, which becomes problematic after a while -- the lack of variety in arrangements and tempos causes the songs to sound an awful lot alike. Even brief flourishes like the piano introduction to "Redemption" don't do much to address this problem, which is too bad, because the band is good and Stevens is a fine singer (even if his style is kind of an acquired taste).

Circle II Circle
AFM Records

Deathly Fighter -- COMPLETELY DUSTED lp [Columbus Discount Records]

Yet another great offering from CDS, but this one is a bit of a surprise: less punk, more Krautrock, and totally hypnotic. This three-piece band started out as hardcore and somewhere along the way they mutated into an instrumental group heavily indebted to Suicide (minus the death-trip vocals) and the aforementioned Krautrock of Can, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and especially Kraftwerk. There are also strong hints of the first (and only) Sisterhood album in the droning synth sound and clanking, repetitive rhythms on "Heat" and several other tracks. The tracks are all distinctive, but built from a similar template: beats derived from techno, cosmic rock, and hip-hop, a battery of droning, bleating synths, and dub-hell bass that provides an ass-quaking low end. The synths are often employed in the creation of weird sound effects and sci-fi noises -- while they don't include solos in the traditional sense, their souped-up synths frequently break out into wild and unexpected bursts of psychedelic sound instead, riding unpredictable waves over the more melodic keyboard motifs and drugged-out hypno-rhythms. Then there are tracks like "Facing Mecca," where the melodic bass sounds borrowed from Joy Division but with a heavy dub sound, while the beat and one tinkling keyboard are pure techno... but the other synth wails and drones like a more zoned-out version of the synths from that Sisterhood album, even offering up cryptic squeals from time to time. The best part of the album is that there's absolutely no filler here; everything is brilliant from start to finish. The band may have taken an eternity to get around to releasing their first album after being around in one form or another for the past decade, but that's just given them time to get everything right. Anyone yearning for the perfect fusion of dub, techno, and Krautrock should definitely acquire this. Limited to 500 copies; the first hundred are on color vinyl in hand-printed sleeves.

Deathly Fighter
Columbus Discount Records

Dimentianon -- COLLAPSE THE VOID [Paragon Records]

NYC seems like a strange place for a black metal band to call home, don't you think? Then again, any place where skyscrapers blot out the sun and homeless people live underground in the recesses of the subway system is probably an appropriate breeding ground for musical darkness. The band's third album is dark indeed, with a particular emphasis on the more chaotic wing of black metal's obsession with extremity. The first two songs are intense explosions of misanthropic aggression centered around hyperkinetic drums and a guitar sound that's both frozen and deeply perverse (especially in "Breathe Deep," which has one of the sickest guitar tones I've heard outside of a Xasthur album), and the final two songs are very much in the same vein. The real surprise comes on "Fragmented Nostalgia," the album's centerpiece, a haunting and atmospheric dirge featuring a simple, melancholy piano riff augmented by ambient keyboards and wordless, ethereal vocals. "The Forgotten" (a sly reference to their roots -- the band originally formed in 1995 under this name), during its more restrained passages, has an old-school black metal guitar sound, but when things heat up that sound becomes even heavier and more psychotic. The best part about these songs is their variety -- while the riffs and tones are unquestionably a throwback to the early days of black metal, the constant shifts in tempo and intensity make them considerably less monotonous than many efforts by similar bands, and the sheer level of chaos present most of the time makes their sound extremely intimidating. Which, of course, was entirely the point.

Paragon Records

Khors -- THE FLAME OF ETERNITY'S DECLINE / COLD (2 x cd) [Paragon Records]

This double-cd reissue of Ukraine's Khors is a lot of black metal to digest: each disc includes the original album plus many bonus tracks (mostly remixes and demos), for a total of 26 tracks. The first album, originally released in 2005, is a competent but largely unremarkable entry in the atmospheric / depressive black metal sweepstakes, notable mainly for the guitars, which have a gruesome edge of frost-bitten dissonance that contributes heavily to the evil vibe. "Breath" is an exception, though -- a dark, atmospheric track dominated not by serrated guitars but ice-like keyboards and a simple but unsettling piano melody -- and "Spirit of Fury" has a restless, chugging rhythmic feel that's closer to death metal, while another mournful piano melody surfaces midway through the final song, "Flame of Eternity." Outside of these instances, however, there are few surprises on the band's first album, just a steady stream of metronome-like drumming, frozen keyboards, and old-school black metal guitar sound. The seven bonus tracks -- four demo recordings, two remixes, and one live track -- are interesting as archival evidence, especially since the remixes are much rawer than the album versions (almost, in fact indistinguishable in audio quality from the demos), and the live track proves that the band, unlike a lot of black metal bands who function purely as studio entities, is fully capable of acquiting themselves live.

The second album is a bit more interesting, as it shows a marked progression away from the basic tropes of black metal, moving into more progressive territory. For one thing, the riffs and song structures are more complex -- not enough so to drastically alter the band's aesthetic, true, but enough to make the album a distinct step forward in terns of songwriting. In addition, the brief, unexpected bursts of melody that appeared occasionally on the first album are far more prevalent here, even at the forefront at times (especially on the title track). In fact, guitar solos -- noticeably absent, for the most part, on the previous album -- are all over the place this time around. They have two quiet, brooding tracks heavy on the atmosphere this time, too -- "Whispers" and "The Abyss" -- and as for the rest of the album, while it has plenty of energy and darkness, everything is far more controlled and focused than on the previous album. This one comes with only two bonus tracks: an "art-rock version" of the title track and a live rendition of "Ashes." The reissue also comes with a new layout and a video for "Garnet," one of the tracks from the second album.

Paragon Records

Kickhunter -- ALL IN [AFM Records]

This is a strange album: what other kind of reaction can you have to a bunch of Germans (including Helloween's Markus Grobkopf on bass) playing music that sounds like a Southern-rock answer to AC/DC? Especially in 2010? Seriously, this album sounds like it was recorded twenty or thirty years ago. It even includes a okay but totally unnecessary cover of Blondie's 1980 hit "Call Me" and the German band Victory's 1987 radio favorite "Check's In the Mail." (Since guest player Herman Frank was once in that band, as well as Accept, this particular cover makes a bit more sense.) As I say... bizarre. Actually, there's more to them than the Southern rock and AC/DC affectations; on some songs they show a flair for electronic boogie reminiscent of 70s bands like Little Feat or Supertramp, which just adds to the album's surreal flavor. All of this 70s / 80s nostalgia is firmly welded to a power-metal chassis, though -- most obvious on tracks like "Another Tear" -- which is hardly surprising, given that so many of the players involved have ties to power metal (including Jan Eckert and Axel Mackenrott of Masterplan). Of couse, it wouldn't be authentic power metal without a weepy ballad, which explains the presence of "Feels Like Home" and "Deep In My Heart," right? I have to admit this is a nice deviation from the usual sound of power metal albums, and the band is certainly tight, but as with all power metal, how much you'll dig this depends heavily on your tolerance for bombast and guys who sing like their pants are on too tight. If that's your thing, however, you could do much worse than to check this out.

AFM Records

Necrite -- SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI [The Flenser]

Some bands like to take their time about getting their heads screwed on straight; Necrite, who have released five demos in six years and are just now getting around to a proper full-length debut, is obviously one of those bands. Specializing in a particularly grim and misanthrophic version of ambient black metal, they hail from the west coast -- meaning they come from the same scene that spawned Weakling, Leviathan, and Ludicra -- and favor a sound that owes a lot to the hellish murkiness of early Abruptum, although rhythmically the band is closer to the baroque riff madness of Norwegian heavyweights like Emperor and Mayhem. Recorded, appropriately enough, in a basement, the sound on these five tracks is simultaneously fogbound and violent, with a suicidal vibe comparable to Xasthur's bleaker moments. They're bold, too; they open with a sixteen-minute track that sounds like an epic battle taking place in a dank and claustrophobic dungeon, and the title track is a twenty-seven minute epic of rumbling noise, minimalist guitar, fogbound keyboards, and pained vocalizing swaddled in enormous amounts of reverb. The forbidding drums are definitely the work of someone weaned on Weakling, especially on "Bathing Open Wounds With Shards of Glass" (a title that neatly sums up the band's aesthetic, especially since it's filled with lots of tortured screaming). "Worship the Sunn ((O))" reveals another telling influence, in both its title and the sound of jagged waves of noisy bass feedback. Soul-crushing stuff, and an excellent debut indeed.

The Flenser

Noveller / unFact -- BLEACHED VALENTINE split LP [Saffron / Ox-Ghost Recordings]

This is one of those splits where you spend as much time wondering how it came about as you do listening to it -- the first side features three tracks from Noveller, the avant-noise / electronica musical outlet of filmmaker Sarah Lipstate, while the flip side holds four tracks by unFact, aka David Wm. Sims, the former bassist of Scratch Acid, Rapeman, and The Jesus Lizard. While it could be fun to speculate on how such an unlikely pairing came to pass, it's probably more instructive to note how well the two artists complement each other on this release. On Noveller's side, "Starve" features a pretty guitar melody that slowly but surely begins to mutate into swirls of ping-pong delay and scratchy noises, managing to be perversely accessible yet deeply mutant at the same time. The lengthy "Happiness Can't Make You Happy" is much trippier, a psychedelic art-noise soundscape filled with backwards guitar and flanged sounds that devolve into aching sheets of drone and ambient rumbling, eventually turning into a sea of high-pitched shimmering drones that could be the product of processed guitar or keyboards. "Bleached Bleach" returns to the pretty guitar melodies, but adds a swell bass line, muted noise fuzz, and foghorn synth drones to create a swell noise-pop tune that sounds like Tangerine Dream aping METAL BOX-era Public Image Limited (a sound more bands should aspire to, if you ask me).

The flip side is equally interesting; at first glance, it may seem surprising to find David Wm. Sims working the avant-noise angle, but then again, given that Scratch Acid and The Jesus Lizard both flirted with noise as an elemental fixture of their deliberately grating anti-rock, maybe it's not so surprising after all. Using bass guitars and a variety of efx boxes and looping devices, Sims turns out four tracks of strange, hypnotic sounds heavy on the bass drone and infused with lots of repetition in their sound motifs. A lot of the time the sounds are so alien that it's difficult to imagine how they were created, even knowing what instruments and devices were used, but "Valentine" is a bit more conventional in that respect, built on a slow but highly melodic bass line. By contrast, "Our Friend the Atom" is a murky stew of bass clang and drone resembling the sound of a ship swirling slowly down a waterspout as a quirky electronic rhythm dances madly across the horizon. "Returning from Antartica" opens with another melodic bass line that gradually turns into a looped riff overlaid with processed sounds akin to horns; the loop gives it a machine-like sound, but the horn-like sounds have a jazzy feel that acts as a melodic counterpoint to the constant rhythm. It's certainly an intriguing departure for a guy most people are used to thinking of in a rock context. The album itself is a nice, heavy slab of white vinyl, limited to 500 copies, and comes in a clear plastic sleeve with a download ticket so you can carry the tunes around on your favorite listening device as well.

Saffron Recordings

Unholy Two -- SKUM OF THE EARTH lp [Columbus Discount Records]

Holy Christ, these people make a hell of a racket. "These people" are mainly Chris Lutzko (vocals, maybe guitar -- it's hard to tell), Adam Smith (power electronics), and Bo Davis (drums), with the occasional synth bleat from Anthony Allman (on loan from El Jesus de Magico). Their collective attitude problem is immediately obvious from the rude totems on the cover art (an upside-down cross, spelling SSKUM with the SS lightning bolts, a general sense of primitive crudeness lifted from your average ransom note) and titles like "Sick Fuck," "(Do The) Horsecock," and "White Devil" offer less than subtle clues about where they're coming from, but even that cannot prepare you for the senseless path of destruction they wreak on the album itself. Seriously, I can't even tell which songs belong on which side -- it's just one track after another of squealing, overdriven guitar feedback, shouting, turbocharged sonic violence, howling, drums transported through time from a Neanderthal tribal war session, electronic gadgets being abused to the point of explosion, wailing, heavy Echoplex abuse, more wailing... this is the sound of psychotics with instruments. Were they on drugs when they laid these tracks down? Did they bother to tune anything before they started playing? Is it live, recorded in exquisite lo-fi by someone cowering near the stage as objects were hurled into the audience? Who knows? Who cares? Imagine the Oblivians reborn as a power electronics band and you're on the right track. This is heavy shit, brutah, seriously unhinged in the best way possible. Much of it sounds like a landslide in progress; the rest is a glorious odyssey through a sewer of excruciating white noise. If you're craving coherence, sanity, and actual tunes, you've definitely come to the wrong place, but if you're seeking the healing power of pure blinding sonic filth, well, you may just have found a new god to worship in the filthy debasement ritual of your choice (ostensibly involving heavy drugs). Limited to 500 copies, pressed on thick, heavy vinyl, in a sleeve screen-printed by hand. You need. Trust me.

Unholy Two
Columbus Discount Records

Victory and Associates / Hurry Up Shotgun -- split 7" [Seismic Wave Entertainment]

Victory and Associates come on strong with "Turn Down the Guitars," a catchy lament any loud musician can relate to, namely the eternal running battle between bands who like to play at full volume versus sound engineers worried about preserving their precious PAs. Fronted by vocalist Conan Neutron and rounded out by four other Bay area dudes (all of whom have played, alone or together, in more bands than you can imagine), the band takes pride in whipping up songs that are upbeat and clever without being forced or sappy, and this one is perfectly in that vein, with an interesting arrangement and enormous amounts of energy. The Hurry Up Shotgun track, "Paths," has a more idiosyncrastic sound; the first half of it sounds like a demented tribe of scattershot punks jumping around to bizarre rhythms along with a lot of shouting, but the second half sounds like slowed-down pop metal, like a radioactive isotope derived from the likes of late-era Husker Du. The single itself is an unusual artifact in its own right -- lathe-cut in a limited edition of 100 and made of clear vinyl with no label (making it initially confusing to figure out which side is which, although it's evident upon listening which song is which). The single version is worth owning just for the swell cover art (hit any of the links below to see for yourself). Both songs are available as downloads via the label or through iTunes, for those sad, sad souls unfortunate enough to not own a record player.

Hurry Up Shotgun
Victory and Associates
Seismic Wave Entertainment

We Insist! -- THE BABEL INSIDE WAS TERRIBLE [Exile on Mainstream]

This is bizarre stuff, and certainly not metal; in fact, the band's sound hopscotches across a number of styles that coalesce in a schizoid version of art rock. There are definitely nods to proggy bands like King Crimson and Tool, but there are also bursts of cryptic electronica and angular guitar rhythms that are one part no-wave and one part math-rock, not to mention serious nods to free-jazz and occasionally even noise. Their sound is eclectic and all over the map, but lurking in these diabolically enigmatic songs is a surprisingly catchy power-pop center. Perversely enough, despite sounding like a rabid pack of Chicago art-rock devotees weaned on Cheer-Accident and the Scissor Girls, they are actually French (which probably explains everything, now that I think about it). A lot of avant-garde bands try this approach of marrying several wildly different genres into one sound, usually resulting in a train wreck of wretched sound and vision, but in this case it works, although it's a sound so steeped in weirdness and the unexpected that it takes a while to get used to it. It helps that the entire band boasts scary levels of technical proficiency and a canny grasp of how to make wildly different sounds work together. I haven't heard a band this successful at being studiously weird since Cheer-Accident, although since they've been together for at least fifteen years, they've certainly had plenty of time to hone their approach to the sonically inexplicable. Consider this your escape hatch from the growing trend of cookie-cutter bands who all sound alike -- there definitely aren't many bands who sound like this, that's for sure. And most of them aren't this good.

We Insist!
Exile on Mainstream

Wojczech -- PULSUS LETALIS [Selfmadegod Records]

German metal, especially extreme metal, has a tendency toward the incredibly intense, and this band is no exception to that rule -- but they're a grindcore band, which means they're intense even by German standards. If they were any scarier they've have to be Polish, right? They don't deviate much from the essential grind template laid out by bands like Brutal Truth, Phobia (a big influence here), SOB, Gasp, and the like, and while they have the kind of burning, psychopathic energy found on Discordance Axis albums, they are nowhere near as complex and avant-garde as that band. This is essentially straightfoward, no-frills grind, but it's definitely good grind, with insane blast-beat drumming, crusty guitars, and an appropriately psychotic-sounding vocalist. The album's production is also significantly better than most grind albums (meaning it doesn't sound like a muffled recording of a cat heaving up hairballs playing on a damaged ghettoblaster), especially ones from overseas, which is a definite plus. The twelve tracks are all fast and furious, with only one longer than three minutes -- half the album's tracks are under two minutes, in fact -- and they are all played with the ferocious attitude of someone stepping on your face. Repeatedly. Bonus points for oodles of clanging, dissonant guitar that wouldn't be out of place on a black metal record along with the obligatory gut-wrenching hyperspeed grind.

Selfmadegod Records

Year of No Light -- AUSSERWELT [Conspiracy Records]

This album can be summed up in three magical words: epic drone metal. Four tracks, each nine to thirteen minutes long and filled with an endless sky of dense, harmonically rich guitar drone. There are beats, too, but it's the enormous guitar sound that's the star attraction here. As with all instrumental rock, though, it's the arrangements that make or break the band, especially when the band is prone to sprawling, lengthy tracks. Fortunately, the band has excellent instincts regarding how long to push certain sounds and riffs before seguing into the next movement, and they create a consistently evolving approach to dynamics by allowing the drums to come and go as the guitars ebb and flow in volume and intensity. While there are riffs aplenty in the rhythm section, the more melodic guitar sounds are less about conventional lead solos and more about waves of reverb-heavy cyclone drone. Their majestic, echo-laden sound resembles a louder and considerably more metallic update of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western soundtracks; this is music designed to play along with a visual backdrop of deep canyons and wide open skies. Their sound is every bit as subtle and detailed at times as it is grandiose -- they employ a vide variety of sonic textures in addition to the fuzzed-out riffs and caterwauling drone. Drone-rock has become something of a fad in the past few years, possibly because it doesn't take a tremendous amount of technical skill to churn out ambient fuzz rock, but few drone metal bands possess this much skill at arrangement and sheer sonic drama, and even fewer are as meticulous about consistently getting things right. This album proves they're definitely in the top tier of the drone rock sweepstakes.

Year of No Light
Conspiracy Records

Sunday, November 14, 2010

who turned down the sun?

Agathocles -- THIS IS NOT A THREAT, IT'S A PROMISE [Selfmade God Records]

The Belgian grindcore gods return with another exquisite offering of short, spastic tunes (27 of them) and iffy production -- exactly what you were expecting, in other words. It's an acquired taste, to be sure, but if it's the taste you need, they are here to deliver the illness in extra-large portions. Or maybe that should be extra-small portions: seventeen of the tracks are under a minute (one is only thirteen seconds), and only five are over two minutes. Like most grindcore bands, brevity suits them; most of the time, they get their grind on long enough to make their point then come to an abrupt, crashing halt. For a band whose songs routinely clock in at less than a minute, though, some of the best tracks here are the longer ones, especially "Gaszilla" and "Motherfucker (Swing That Axe)," where they have enough time to beat their shredded-wheat riffs into your skull with a vengeance. The beats come fast and furious, the vocals are impressively clotted, and the guitars exude the kind of nastiness that only comes from amps being driven far beyond their saturation point. There are some intriguing moments of the unexpected, like the clanging metallic bass breakdown in "God Save the Real Green Crocodile," but otherwise it's pure classic grind chaos. Those who know will rejoice; those who don't probably won't be buying this anyway.

Selfmadegod Records

Astrosoniq -- QUADRANT {Exile on Mainstream]

Oooo, spacy sounds that hark back to the glory days of "Telstar" as much as anything else, at least on the opening track "Faustian Bargain." Once the full band kicks in, there are definite strains of power metal mixed in with the spaced-out prog-rock. The tracks that follow are riff-rock heaviness in the vein of Monster Magnet and Orange Goblin garnished with liberal amounts of cosmic effects and a general spaced-out vibe that owes a lot to the more stoned years of Hawkwind. There's a nice groove and swell bass line in "As Soon As They Got Airborne," which also features some nifty guitar work rooted in both blues and prog-rock, along with plenty of sci-fi noises and related film samples. They favor crunchy fuzz tones for their guitars, which lends a heaviness to the sound that sometimes sits at odds with their proggy ambitions; as the album progresses, it becomes obvious they are entrenched in some kind of weird seventies European acid-rock revival, especially since the word "baby" crops up way too often in the lyrics (apparently no one told them that went out of style decades ago). There's plenty of energy and drive on tracks like "Bored," but those not weaned on Hawkwind and the like may find the obsession with effects distracting. Listeners pining for the glory days of hallucinogenic rock will probably find this highly entertaining, though.

Exile on Mainstream

At Vance -- DECADE [AFM Records]

I'm going to admit upfront that this is the first time I've ever heard of At Vance, despite the fact that they've released eight albums over the past decade. The band is from Germany and from the first song on the first disc, it's obvious they are a power metal band, which may explain why they're unfamiliar; European audiences eat this stuff up like hotcakes, but it's a genre that has generally never gone over well in America. Nevertheless, AFM is determined to promote them over here, and thus we now get a double-cd anthology containing selected tracks from all of the studio albums and a whole pile of bonus material: Japanese bonus tracks, a slew of covers (some of them quite surprising, like the Eagles classic "Desperado" and Supertramp's "Logical Song"), and versions of classical pieces by Vivaldi, Bach, and Beethoven. It's certainly a generous offering: sixteen tracks on the compilation disc plus twenty-one on the bonus disc equals an awful lot of At Vance to swallow in one sitting. Good news for fans of the band and newcomers looking for a well-rounded introduction to the band, but sort of intimidating in its sheer scope. The songs on the anthology disc are pretty much what you would expect of a power metal band -- lots of power, speed, and instrumental virtuosity, topped with impassioned operatic vocals -- but it's the other disc where things really get interesting. Mixed in with the Japanese bonus tracks (including a live version of "Broken Vow") are a whole string of eyebrow-raising covers, including a version of Supertramp's "Logical Song" that retains the original's feel while adorning it with plenty of metal bombast and swirling guitar wizardry, a radically retooled version of the Tears For Fears classic "Shout," and a bizarre electronics-heavy version of Deep Purple's "Highway Star." For reasons I frankly fail to understand, they also cover three Abba songs -- which is about three Abba covers too many for my taste -- but they do a pretty fair cover of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" (still a great song despite the cheese factor), and a surprisingly faithful acoustic version of the Eagles weeper "Desperado." The reinterpretations of classical fare -- a metal trope already trotted out numerous times over the years by a horde of ambitious metalheads ranging from Yngwie Malmsteen to The Great Kat -- offer them an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their significant technical chops, but if you aren't familiar with the original work then you'll miss out on a lot of the context. Still, any band capable of pulling off Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Bach's Invention No. 13 deserves your respect, dig?

AFM Records
At Vance

Clockcleaner -- AUF WIEDERSEHEN [Load Records]

The most hated band in Philadelphia has apparently gone to the graveyard now that head cleaner John Sharkey has moved to Australia to terrify people with his new band Puerto Rico Flowers, but this -- their appropriately-titled last gasp -- is a great way to go out. Sharkey bleats in his best Michael Gira imitation croon over what sounds like Rozz-era Christian Death after listening to various select records from the Amphetamine Reptile catalog (but especially the Cows circa CUNNING STUNTS), churning out four amazing slices of improbably catchy noise rock. Always an abrasive bunch, their attitude remains unchanged this time around (for evidence, see the opening track title "Pissing at the Moon"), but this time their songs are a lot closer to traditional song structures, with lyrics that offer actual narratives, and their penchant for ugliness is tempered by a gothic sensibility and some really swinging rhythms (especially in the bassline for "Chinese Town," the catchiest track). Sharkey's guitar riffs are a sick mixture of stunted but potent melodies and highly repetitive rhythms filtered through an excruciating level of squealy treble; the rhythm section throws down in simple but hypnotic fashion, leaving plenty of room for Sharkey to festoon the tracks with howling shards of reverb-drenched guitar and the occasional sheet of pure filthy noise. Sharkey claims they're a punk band, which is sort of true, but it's obvious from this EP that they also have a secret love of pop tunes (or did, anyway) that's just taken this long to make itself obvious. It doesn't hurt that all four tracks are excellent, either, making this a fine way to exit stage left.

Load Records

Ehnahre -- TAMING THE CANNIBALS [Crucial Blast]

If you need evidence of extreme metal's growing love affair with the avant-garde, this is certainly a good place to start: three dudes from Boston (plus a few guests here and there) welding the free-jazz antics of John Zorn and Last Exit to the creepy-ass dissonance of Bartok and Schoenberg over a death-metal chassis with genuinely chaotic results. I like it when bands with actual technical skill do stuff like this, because then you get the chaos and unpredictability of free-jazz with the blind, unrelenting heaviness of metal and it's like the sonic equivalent of a bomb exploding in your face with all the little bits of glass and bone fragments flying through the air captured for all posterity. Their vibe often reminds me of Zu, only heavier -- much heavier -- and far more enamored of dissonance for the sake of dissonance. Plus the "singer" sounds like Gollum after smoking a carton of cigarettes and trying to heave up a lung, always a good thing if your intention is to scare the shit out of people. Their swath of destruction is leavened here and there with trumpets (courtesy of Greg Kelley), additional vocals from ex-Milligram / Only Living Witness singer Jonah Jenkins, and violin from C. Spencer Yeh of Burning Star Core, but the main attraction here is the core trio, who wind their way through eccentric song structures rooted more in jazz and improv music (and in the case of "Revelation and Decline," maybe soundtrack music as well) despite their talent for bludgeoning heaviness. It's not all about smashing things, though; they have a surprisingly light touch at times, which only makes the heavier parts more intense, and the judicious use of noise and power electronics just adds to the already plentiful weirdness. This is strange, alien-sounding shit, like a black metal version of Painkiller, that will probably permanently rewire the circuits in your brainpan if you are foolish enough to listen to it while under the influence. This band would fit perfectly on a bill with Last Exit and Painkiller, so since both of those bands are now tragically defunct, this should serve as a panacea to those weeping for long-lost purveyors of freedeathjazz. This is actually the band's second full-length, and now I'm curious to hear what the first one was like. In the meantime, this will do just fine.

Crucial Blast

Hulk Smash -- THE HULK SMASH ALBUM [self-released]

Their Myspace site describes this Philadelphia duo's sound as "E and A sharp over and over and over again with high annoying keyboards on top, long ass songs that go nowhere," which is fair enough, but doesn't even begin to describe how deeply weird (and weirdly heavy) this band is. This is art-damaged metal that sounds like what might happen if one of the bands from Load Records -- Lightning Bolt, maybe -- got the brilliant idea while listening to King Crimson and huffing paint thinner to redefine metal by way of prog-rock. Fizzy keyboards drone over dark, repetitive chord structures that burst into violent spasms of free-jazz drumming, fuzz-encrusted guitar heaviness, and aggrieved shouting. It's not exactly a new idea, sure, but these guys turn everything around in unexpected ways, with songs that lurch from one bizarre idea to the next in wildly unpredictable fashion. The keyboards are frequently prone to vomiting up high-pitched bursts of squealing noise when they're not droning away, while the hocus-pocus guitars and baroque drumming make me think of Harvey Milk, around the time of COURTESY AND GOOD WILL TOWARD ALL MEN, practicing after eating glue sticks. This is severely out of left field, and even the genuinely bizarre keyboard antics cannot obscure the tendency toward pure blinding heaviness that eventually rises from the chaos again and again. Puzzling and inscrutable, sure, but heavy is as heavy does, no matter how whacked-out the origins.

Hulk Smash


Over approximately thirty minutes and seven songs, Hulk Smash offer definitive proof of their secret allegiance to 70s prog-rock (among other things); outside of two songs (the grinding "Intro / Herbert" and "Odor in the Court," from their initial demo), the material here consists of covers of classic tracks by King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Yes, Crucifucks, and Iggy Pop. Of course, since they are a band steeped in heaviness, their versions of songs like "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Owner of a Lonely Heart" are much different than the originals -- King Crimson and Yes never sounded as grotesque as this. Keyboards smothered in fuzz and heavy guitars transform the prog-rock classics into angst-laden displays of sonic violence as they smash and reassemble the song structures to suit their perverted whims. Their version of "Heaven and Hell" doesn't stray too far from the original, except in the crushed-larynx vocals and raw production, but it's the only cover here that even remotely resembles the original. Their version of "Brick By Brick" is light-years removed from the shiny, indie-pop sound of Iggy's original recording, crawling in the gutter like a king snake like black metal slowed down to a doom-style crawl. It's a bizarre mix of songs, no doubt, but the band covers them all with a black panache and a style that's all their own.

Hulk Smash

Locrian -- THE CRYSTAL WORLD [Utech Records]

Chicago's favorite audio-terror duo are back with an extra partner in sonic crime (Steven Hess of On, Pan American, and Ural Umbo, handling percussion and electronics) and a wildly ambitious double-album inspired by the 1964 J. G. Ballard classic of the same name. This time around their dense, dark, apocalyptic sound is informed as much by prog rock as black metal and noise, and their increasingly exacting approach to songwriting and the meticulous layering of sounds makes this album a significant step forward. The opening track, "Triumph of Elimination," is essentially a link back to their previous album, opening with an ominous synth drone and creeped-out electronic whining that spirals upwards in frequency until the hellish vocals arrive -- but there's a lot more happening in the background, including tinking bells and primitive rumbling sounds. along with nearly subliminal bursts of screechy electronics and more audible sounds of sonic distress before the track ends in a brief flurry of percussion. The considerably more spare "At Night's End" is dominated by spooky synth drones and wailing peals of feedback that rise and fall; as the track progresses, the synth drone grows even darker as processed sounds warble and bleat in cryptic fashion. Then slow-motion drums kick in and eerie, disembodied vocals take the track in another direction, one that's as hypnotic and strangely beautiful as it is ominous. Things take a turn for the unexpected in the title track, where a percolating synth line rises from the noise fog and is eventually joined by some extremely devolved percussion and gothic keyboard washes. The evil bass hum of "Pathogens" -- along with some extremely spaced-out cyclotron moves -- moves the sound back into more familiar territory, especially when the wind-tunnel noises appear, along with muted percussion akin to someone trying to break his way out of a buried coffin. Eventually the percussion turns into actual drumming, accompanied by morbid drone and noise, in which Hess plays one convoluted pattern with minimal changes for quite a while, in a cruel act of minimalist torture, one that continues long after the background sounds have faded out of existence. The next track, "Obsidian Facades," wastes no time getting underway, opening with bone-chilling shrieking and dissonant, crashing chords from a distorted keyboard before settling into a cold and frigid soundscape heavy on the reverb and swaddled in layers of fuzz and drone. As the track goes on, a gorgeous piano melody enters the equation; by the time the track finishes, it is the sole sound. It is followed immediately by baroque acoustic strumming as "Elevations and Depths" kicks off, a song also enriched by Gretchen Koehler's violin when the percussion and synth drones eventually arrive.

The second disc is one track, "Extinction," that lasts nearly an hour and encompasses a wide variety of sounds. Structurally speaking, it unfolds in movements dominated by different uses of sound and texture, and varying levels of intensity in both dynamics and the number of layered sounds. At times it's sparse and bleak, with just one drone or electronic sound happening; at other times it's a thick, soupy fog of harsh sounds and paralyzing drones. The movements flow from one to the next in seamless fashion, and while it definitely takes a certain level of patience to sit through a track this long, the steadily shifting dynamics and textures keep things moving in a brisk fashion. At times they revert back to thunderous walls of black, shrieking noise, with passages far harsher than anything on the first disc. There are also proggy moments, as with the first disc, but the vast bulk of what's here is more focused on grim electronic frippery, cold wailing feedback, and drones of the darkest kind. The sound itself is consistently dark and chilling, regardless of what's going on at any given moment; this is the sound of urban decay in a concrete jungle where the skyscrapers blot out the sun and the wretched refuse of humanity squats in abandoned buildings. How bleak is it? None more bleak, my friend. Bonus points for the packaging (a gatefold digipak resembling a miniature LP sleeve) and the grotesque artwork by Vberkvlt. Essential listening. Note that a vinyl edition is forthcoming sometime next year.

Utech Records

Mystified -- PASSING THROUGH THE OUTER GATES [First Fallen Star]

This dark ambient offering, designed as a soundtrack to death and the transition to the afterlife, comes from one Thomas Park, notable for having collaborated in the past with Robin Storey (Rapoon) and Nigel Ayers (Nocturnal Emissions). Coming in the wake of several EPs on labels like Gears of Sand, Droehnhaus, and Tosom, this is his first full-length. It's a dark and somber piece of work, dominated by subdued washes of keyboard drone, tolling bells, and found sound of an indeterminate nature. Some of the tracks, like "Lost My Body," are marked by muted and repetitive percussion, and the sounds that float up into the ether on many tracks are almost medieval in nature; this is definitely an album for ancient times. Between the airy nature of the ambient keyboards and the neo-primitive beats, the album's sound often borders on that of ritual music as much as dark ambient. The rhythms become a bit more modern, verging on the sound of electronica, on "Soul in Motion," a track that's also punctuated by eerie skittering noises. The album's overall vibe is one of bleak emptiness and vast spaces fading into darkness at twilight; it's a vaporous sound that's as eerie as it is oddly soothing. The cd comes in a paperback-sized digipak and is limited to 500 copies.

First Fallen Star

Phaenon -- HIS MASTER'S VOICE [Malignant Records]

Inspired by the Stanislaw Lem novel of the same name (about scientists attempting to decode a series of alien space transmissions), this album consists of four long (and I mean long -- two of the tracks are over twenty minutes each) slices of isolationist interstellar drift. This is truly cosmic music, heavy on the drone and drift, with no percussion or vocals and very little else to disrupt the ceaseless flow of interstellar space dust. Occasionally electronic noises burble up from the darkness, and sometimes the reverb-heavy sound swells up with surprising volume, but otherwise this is a pretty sedate affair, very much in tune with the original spirit of isolationism. The sounds here are totally in sync with the album's concept -- dark, bleak, and otherwordly -- with a terrible beauty at its alienated core. It's not for everyone; the action here is so minimal that if you're not into the isolationist sound, you may well find yourself falling asleep halfway through the album, and you have to really be down with the drone to fully appreciate the subtle nature of the tonal variations taking place over songs of such epic length. Those who are, though, will find much to appreciate here. The disc also comes in a luxurious digipak with truly haunting artwork by Eric Lacombe.

Malignant Records

Phelios -- ASTRAL UNITY [Malignant Records]

Oooo, spooky stuff -- and a serious throwback to the glory days of isolationism, welding industrial percussion to dark sheets of drone and ambient noise, with a sound that's somewhere between the early work of Lustmord and the less violent sounds of MZ.412. German sound architect Martin Stuertzer has an aesthetic that's rooted equally in ritual music, industrial sounds, and droning dark ambient. Like Lustmord, he favors vast sheets of sound distorted by excessive amounts of reverb, a sound that frequently resembles exotic machinery vibrating in subterranean caverns. His use of percussion adds another dimension to the sound, with spare beats cropping up occasionally to give the music a ritualistic feel. The layers of drone, generated by keyboards and other devices, are augmented by field recordings provided by False Mirror and integrated so seamlessly into the mix that it's impossible to recognize them for what they are. The mood throughout the album is intense and dark, often resembling the soundtrack to an Italian horror flim; Stuertzer makes the most of his battery of synths, generating icy clouds of sonic fog that float like vapor above the rumbling low end that makes everything sound so menacing. At the same time, it's the simple but hypnotic rhythms, appearing and disappearing against at unexpected intervals, that really separate the album from similar entries in the dark ambient canon. It's excellent, unnerving stuff of a quality on par with dark ambient favorites like the aforementioned Lustmord and MZ.412.

Malignant Records

Sektor 304 -- SOUL CLEANSING [Malignant Records]

You want punishment, old-school style? Then check this out: two guys from Portugal channeling the forbidding spirits of early Swans, Godflesh, Chu Ishikawa (he of the brilliant soundtrack for TETUSO: IRON MAN), Einstuerzende Neubaten, and SPK. This is a heavy, heavy album filled with thudding, pounding percussion, shuddering bass hell, and sinister noises radiating in all directions. The rhythms are as absorbing as they are ass-shaking, though, sometimes even bordering on catchy (especially on "Voodoo Machine"), while the bellowed vocals stake out a clear debt to M. Gira's bloodcurdling howl on early Swans albums like COP and FILTH. This is the sound of violence in locked underground cells, or clandestine raids by rogue military personnel. The obsession with martial beats owes as much to the early British industrial sound as it does to the Swans, and their electronic sounds are often reminiscent of early Godflesh (check out the brooding bass feedback loop on "Pulse Generator" for proof), but their delivery -- while intense -- is far less fanatical than either of those bands. Where those bands preferred to step up and scream in your face, these guys are more into hanging back in the shadows and occasionally spraying you with sniper fire just to keep you on your toes. The unholy union of man and machine yields disquieting and frequently brilliant results here.

Sektor 304
Malignant Records


When I first threw this on, I was struck by how much it reminded me of Navicon Torture Technologies... then I read the poop sheet and discovered that Theologian is actually the work of Leech, the guy behind NTT. Why the name change? Your guess is as good as mine, but if you've heard anything by NTT, then you have a pretty good idea already of what's happening here. The sound is a combination of drone, power electronics, and cosmic space rock that leans mostly toward the dark-ambient side of things. The opener, "Zero," is a good summation of everything the band is about -- big, sweeping sheets of fuzzy drone rise and fall like rockets taking off and descending over the horizon while electronic blasts of white noise explode in the distance, all accompanied by wordless howling swaddled in acres of reverb and buried in the mix. The cosmic drone rock is transformed into something far more unsettling, even threatening, by the industrial elements (not to mention all that creepy wailing). He backs off a bit on "In Times Of Need, We All Go Against Our Natures" (which is a great title, incidentally), which is essentially a free-floating sea of dread built on rumbling waves of noise and horrorshow synths droning bleakly in the background that grows slowly but steadily more intense as the track wears on. The brilliance in this minimalist set-piece is the way the tones gradually shift, growing edgier and more dissonant over time, but happening at such a glacial pace that it's impossible to tell where the sound started getting darker and more forbidding. On top of that, as if the gruesome slide into corroded sound weren't enough, toward the end hellish vocals abruptly enter the mix with enough force to make you jump about two feet out of your chair. "Unfamiliar Skies" starts in a similar vein but is soon consumed by whooping noises like electronic buzzards circling in the sky and power electronics doing an excellent simulation of a vast cave-in; it makes a fine segue into the title track, in which ass-quaking death drone swaddled in sawtooth noise eats away at the cosmic firmament, in stealthy fashion at first, then with alarming gusto. "Bearing Bitter Fruit" lives up to its name with an intense display of gritty power electronics offset by dry-ice synths, while "It's All Gone" is an epic slice of power-drone leavened with shrill waves of feedback that eventually morph into the sound of a great machine's gears grinding into dust on a faraway plain. Speaker-shredding bass drone up front, high-pitched evil in the background, vast open spaces empty of anything human... that's the band's aesthetic in a nutshell, perfectly encapsulated in this one track. The finale -- the unlisted bonus track "The Fragility of the Male Ego" -- is even more punishing, an audio hate letter steeped in bowel-wrenching power electronics, feedback, and grotesque skullfuck EQ designed to eat away at the soft parts of your mind like a hungry parasite. This is a brilliant combination of beauty and ugliness that also comes in a dvd-style digipak with mysterious, semi-erotic artwork equal to the soul-crushing sounds on the disc.

Crucial Blast

Wolfskin / Last Industrial State -- STONEGATES OF SILENCE [Malignant Records]

This is apparently the final release by Wolfskin, an enigmatic one-man band operating in obscurity for the past fifteen years, and this collaboration is with Anders Peterson, better known as the man behind Objekt 4. What you get here are five dank, creepy exercises in slow death suitable for a horror soundtrack: bleak sounds and textures sprawl out in a thick sonic fog, evoking the feel of inmates lurking in the shadows of a crumbling mental asylum. The sound is restrained but bleak, conjuring up images of solitude and madness, a sense of decay both material and spiritual; this is the stuff of nightmares you can barely remember upon awakening but keep you awake the rest of the night, sweating in darkness. It's interesting that such deeply unsettling music can be so sedate and minimalist, but then again, that's the essence of dark ambient music at its best, isn't it?

Malignant Records

Yen Pox -- BLOOD MUSIC (2 x cd reissue) [Malignant Records]

This is turning into a banner year for overdue reissues, and few are as overdue -- or welcome -- as this one. Originally released in 1995, this stunning piece of work helped define the dark ambient / isolationist movement then beginning to take shape (along with key works by similar artists like Lustmord, Final, Vidna Obmana, Lull, Zoviet France, and Robert Rich), and remains a classic in the genre to this day. Tragically, the album -- one of the earliest releases on Malignant -- went out of print almost immediately, and for reasons I don't even pretend to understand, has remained that way... until now. This reissue was worth the wait, though; the original tracks have been remixed and remastered, the already-impressive package has been redesigned by Andre Coelho (of Sektor 304) and expanded into an eight-panel DVD digipak, with genuinely stunning results, and a generous amount of additional material has been added. The first disc, featuring the full original album, has been appended with the previously unreleased track "Beneath the Sun," while the second disc is a compilation of early material that's damn near impossible to find now (the 1993 self-titled cassette, the "Hollow Earth" 7" on Cohort Records, and "Summer Skin," the band's contribution to the Relapse sampler RELEASE YOUR MIND VOL. 2).

The music itself is the main reason to own this -- track after track of dark, ominous, reverb-heavy drone that sounds like noise reverberating in vast underground spaces filled with water and not much else. It's an empty (but tonally rich) sound suitable for an avant-garde science fiction film about the isolation of deep space, a series of soundscapes more concerned with subtle dynamics and the flow of processed sound than anything resembling conventional music. Both alien and appealing at the same time, this is a sound so amorphous yet so filled with tonal character that it becomes the sonic equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot; whether you interpret the vast, swirling vistas of sound as beautiful or terrifying is entirely dependent on the makeup of your own psyche. The original album is so thematically and conceptually perfect that even the addition of the unreleased track (which sounds like it might well have been an outtake left off the original album due to time constraints) cannot prevent it from playing out as one long, continuous piece of epic drone divinity.

The tracks on the companion disc are equally interesting, if different. The cassette material, while offering up plenty of drone, also has textures more consistent with old-school industrial music and subdued power electronics. Some of the tracks like "Suction" are definite harbingers of the sound that would appear on BLOOD MUSIC, but the textures are harsher and dynamics more pronounced, and the other tracks are definitely on the grittier side of ambient. "Hollow Earth" plays out in similar fashion -- lots of reverb-heavy bursts of noise burst forth as wailing, droning noises float in and out of the mix, all to supremely unsettling effect, especially when the distorted vocals kick in. "Summer Skin," on the other hand, more closely resembles the album tracks, although it's even darker and more threatening.

The two discs are different enough, but still clearly part of the same aesthetic, to complement each other in fine fashion. Malignant was wise to include this material with the reissue package, because it's every bit as vital and eerie as the original album on the first disc. I have no idea why it took so long for this to materialize, but it's arrived in time to school a whole new generation of listeners in the art of dread. Anyone with even a passing interest in dark ambient music needs to hear this.

Yen Pox
Malignant Records

Saturday, November 6, 2010

a wee update

For those of you who don't already know, I moved to a new home at the end of October. Between the hassles of moving and having stuff packed away, this means no reviews have happened since the last post. Now that I'm settled in and (mostly) unpacked, I'll begin cleaning up the review pile, with a new post to follow by the middle of the month. With the move behind me and most of the work done on the two impending Korperschwache releases (IGNORE THE NEED on Public Guilt and EVIL WALKS on Crucial Blast), I am hoping to finally clear the entire backlog of reviews by the end of the year. So if you sent something and it hasn't shown up in a post yet, take heart -- the reviews are coming! Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

is it halloween yet?

Athorn -- PHOBIA [AFM Records]

Is this power metal? I believe it is. It's a different brand of power metal than I've grown to expect over the years, though -- for one thing, there's no keyboards, and while singer Carsten Frank definitely has aspects of that genre's sound to his singing, he also has a darker edge more in line with death metal. In fact, the band's sound straddles the divide between death and power metal; while their sound is definitely rooted in the soaring, epic harmonies and melodies that define power metal, they are far heavier than most such bands -- if it weren't for the occasional operatic vocal trill (and harmony vocals) and the progressive guitar runs, this would be a lot closer to standard death metal territory. The drummer is definitely steeped in old-school death metal -- witness the ferocious double-bass drumming in "Emperor of Ruins" -- but in the same song, the vocals and guitar solos are unquestionably from the power metal school. Their sound is built on bizarre juxtapositions that shouldn't work at all on paper, but come together with impressive results that given them an unusual sound. The band's arrangement skills particularly shine in "Phobia -- Prologue," where the two guitarists weave melodic passages in the European metal tradition that Metallica borrowed from heavily on their early albums, leading into the power ballad "Phobia," which really makes their allegiance to power metal absolutely clear. More melodic tracks like "After the End" are bookended with considerably heavier fare like "A Matter of Time," but no matter how heavy they get (which is quite heavy at times), their debt to power metal remains at the forefront. Fans of operatic metal who yearn for heavier sounds than most of those bands provide will find this of considerable interest.

AFM Records

Atlantean Kodex -- THE GOLDEN BOUGH [Cruz del Sur Music]

Don't be fooled by the name or the album title: this is not prog rock. Strip away the operatic power metal vocals and what you're left with is pure old-school heavy metal, a throwback to a time before the genre splintered into a million sub-genres. They do favor epic metal's bent for long songs -- three of the tracks here are between ten and fifteen minutes -- but by and large this sounds like a lost 80s metal album that could have been recorded around the time Queensryche and Fates Warning were beginning to move into more proggy territory. Heavy, heavy guitars and melodic solos abound, and while there's definitely a progressive bent to their song structures, there's very little evidence of modern metal's influence here. Despite the epic nature of their songs, the riffs are not terribly complex or convoluted, just heavy and to the point, and while the drumming is intense, it is very much closer in sound to bands like Manowar or Judas Priest than anything resembling death or black metal. Like most metal bands of that era, the band derives its power less from extremity of sound than crushing guitar tones and forceful playing coupled with a certain style of songwriting that went out of style decades ago. The band's playing is admirably tight and the songwriting consistent throughout, even during the longest songs, and they possess a melodic sensibilty along with the sizeable guitar heft that's appropriately suited for a style rooted in traditional metal. Occupying a space somewhere between early doom and prog-metal that's still clearly steeped in basic metal history, this should definitely hold great appeal for fans of metal the way it was before the scene splintered into a million hyphenated factions.

Atlantean Kodex
Cruz del Sur

Book of Shadows -- CHICHEN ITZA [Apolloiaan Recordings]

Rejoice, o followers of the almighty drone -- Austin's favorite zen trance masters Book of Shadows have returned with not one, but two new albums. This one features seven lengthy, zoned-out space jams that flow seamlessly from one to the next, despite being recorded in different places by varying lineups. Judging from the titles, at least three of them were recorded live (the other ones were most likely recorded live as well, but the liner notes don't make this clear), but regardless of where and how they were recorded, they're all extended improvisations heavy on the drone and UFO noises accompanied by Sharon Crutcher's distinctive, wordless siren wail. This certainly sounds like the band's classic live sound -- ambient clouds of droning sound from reverb-heavy guitar and keyboards float along, buoyed by bursts of efx-addled noises and melodies of mysterious origin. The relative lack of percussion (which shows up only on "The Song That Played Forever," an apt description of their sound in general) means there's more emphasis on the band's tendency toward drift and drone, but the use of efx pedals means plenty of bizarre sounds float to the surface as the sea of drone rolls on. This is the band at their most baroque and transcendent; with the exception of the short closer "Boysenberry," featuring some hard-strummed guitar amidst the otherworldliness, the weird noises that rise and fall in the mix are never jarring or loud enough to distract from the essential flow of foglike sound, and that sound is harmonically rich and dense enough to be a major attraction in its own right. As usual, essential listening for the discerning dronehead. Good luck on finding it, though, since it's limited to fifty copies (although chunks of it are available for streamed listening on their Myspace site -- see below). The disc comes with a fold-out sheet with liner notes and mandala-like art in a minimalist sleeve wrapped in a black and white photo of a primitive stone compass circle.

Book of Shadows
Apolloiaan Recordings

Book of Shadows -- COSMIC SOVEREIGNITY [Reverb Worship]

The second of the band's latest releases is vastly different from the one described above, but still very much in tune with the band's established aesthetic. The opener, "Parachuteless," makes that clear: Sharon Crutcher's ethereal vocals are mixed up front here, and the band's sound is far less fogbound, with keyboard washes and guitar frippery playing out over a restless beat and various forms of muted percussion. On "Witch Poem," featuring a rare (spoken) vocal turn from Carlton Crutcher along with Sharon's wispy vocal drone, the guitar is the predominant feature, playing repetitive and trance-like riffs that are half "Telstar" and half Krautrock over spare but thumping drums. "Stone Circle" is more subdued and ghostly, with a sound derived mainly from simple keyboard and guitar lines awash in reverb and processed through ping-pong delay as Sharon's voice drifts in and out of the mix. On the title track, Sharon wails over a swirling miasma of cosmic sound bordering on noise that devolves into intermittent rhythmic noises of an indeterminate origin before ending on a beatific cathedral vibe. "Therianthrope" finds the band in an even more celestial mood, with slow-pulsing drone and water-like efx reverberating through vast spaces as Sharon's disembodied voice floats above like a shimmering haze. "Buzzard" concludes the album on a more uneasy note, with its high-pitched feedback guitar and kitchen-sink sounds rising and reverberating through the murky drone. While this is not heavy metal or anything like that, it's certainly a darker and more aggressive approach to their usual drone ethos, filled with cryptic noises and unexpected dynamics that straddle the line between drone and psychedelic Krautrock. It's every bit as cosmic as the title suggests, and limited to fifty copies.

Book of Shadows
Reverb Worship

Cock E.S.P. / Twodeadsluts Onegoodfuck -- split c/s [Lascivious Aesthetics]

Talk about brevity, these bands own it: this cassette clocks in at four minutes. Four. Minutes. It takes more time than that to smoke a cigarette, dude. And then the decision to release it on cassette, of all formats, rather than, say, a 3-inch cd? Madness, I say, MADNESS! But that's what is so great about both of these bands -- their appreciation of the most ridiculous notions of extremity. Besides, somebody has to keep the cassette culture alive, right?

So. The songs. The really, really short songs. First up is TO with "Red and Brown," opening with a tinkling piano melody straight out of the Liberace songbook that is quickly swallowed by feedback, followed by a full-out assault on the senses involving severe power electronics combined with a lot of hysterical screaming. There's no way to tell what he's saying, but he sure sounds upset. Perhaps he's being tasered in the balls; maybe someone is pouring hot lead up his ass. Either way, he sounds like he'd enjoy leaping from the speakers to bite off your ear, and it's amazing he can be heard over the orgy of sonic ultraviolence in which he's enveloped. Then the song ends abruptly. Very abruptly. It's the sonic equivalent of strolling through the park, watching the birdies, and being mugged without warning -- by the time you realize steel-booted thugs are kicking the shit out of you, they've already escaped with your wallet and your watch.

Flip the cassette over and Cock E.S.P. somehow manage to be even more obnoxious on "Masshole" -- swirling sheets of atomized noise like flying monkeys flinging ninja stars at your head, accompanied by bursts of pained howling and noise harsh enough to strip paint from your walls. Like the other track, it's over just when things are starting to heat up. I guess they figured you aren't man (or woman) enough to endure the torment for much longer. As noise strategies go, getting your hate on in a hurry and exiting stage left early is a pretty good plan -- it's better to leave everyone wanting more than to wear out your welcome, right? Like most LA releases, this one is limited to 100 copies.

Cock E.S.P.
Twodeadsluts Onegoodfuck
Lascivious Aesthetics

Corrosion of Conformity -- "Your Tomorrow" 7" [Southern Lord]

I've never been a huge fan of hardcore, and thus I have never really gotten behind this band despite the fact they've been around forever, but there's no denying they're one of the best and heaviest in the genre. Given the current trend of bands reuniting or appearing with original lineups, it was only inevitable that these guys would give it a go as well, and so this features original three-piece lineup responsible for their classic ANIMOSITY. So what do you get as a result? One new song in two parts, one on each side of the platter, and an extremely energetic one at that. I'm not hep enough to CoC's history to know how this compares in sound and feel to their earlier work, but it's certainly a respectable showing for guys who haven't played together in a couple of decades. The second part, which opens with lots of squealy, whiny guitar before they get their groove on, is my favorite of the two, but both sides are good. This may be hardcore, but it sure has a southern-rock feel to it at times (especially in the guitar sound), which is all right by me. They don't embarrass themselves, so fans of the band from way back should welcome this with open arms.

Corrosion of Conformity
Southern Lord


Rarely have so many versions of tracks from one studio session been available in so many formats to so many drone-happy metalheads. In 1990, Dylan Carson, Joe Preston, and Dave Harwell entered Smegma Studios (with Carson's nodding roommate / pal Kurt Cobain and Kelly Canary along for the ride to provide background vocals here and there) and executed seven songs combining the joys of metal, minimalism, and Quualudes. The first three tracks ended up on the band's first album, EXTRA-CAPSULAR EYE EXTRACTION, while the remaining four ended up being heavily bootlegged (first on a series of obscure singles, including one playable only at 16 RPM, supposedly thanks to then ex-member Preston, and then as a long list of vinyl bootlegs, sometimes with the other four tracks, sometimes alone, often with different mixes) while the band slumbered in hibernation as Carson crawled down a hole to beat the monkeys off his back with a big, blunt stick. When he eventually emerged to once again face the blinding light of the Sunn, he talked No Quarter into reissuing SUNN AMPS AND SMASHED GUITARS with the missing four tracks appended in a (probably futile) effort to squash all the bootlegging. Now, at last, Southern Lord has graced those with a heavy jones for drone stupor with all the tracks in one place, with swell new artwork to boot.

For those not hep to Earth's scene, this is essentially ground zero for this fuzzy, blurry thing we call drone metal. Sunn O))) owes their entire existence to this album (along with a few million other bands, most of them with beards). This is where Carson, no doubt hopped up on drugs, stumbled across an entire new spectrum of metal by playing slowed-down Black Sabbath riffs over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until listeners either surrendered to the almighty drone or broke their Earth albums and threw the pieces out the window. When their first album was released (with only three of these tracks, remember), the reaction was totally polarizing -- you either thought it was the greatest thing since the recreational use of Xanax or an exercise in endless, repetitive torment. Seriously, the first three songs ("A Bureaucratic Desire For Revenge" in two parts and the eighteen-minute death march "Ouroboros Is Broken"), playing out at approximately thirty minutes, have maybe three riffs total among them. The remaining four tracks are not quite as monochromatic, but they're definitely not going to mistaken for prog rock anytime soon. "Geometry of Murder" has actual movements (and more than one riff), while the dinosaur plod in "German Dental Work" makes periodic side detours into something vaguely akin to devolved, slo-mo metal free jazz. "Divine and Bright" is still the catchiest of all these tracks, and the one closest to a traditional rock sound (albeit one smothered in thunderous fuzz bass). The final track, "Dissolution 1," lies somewhere between the two extremes of the two preceding tracks, varying between sections dominated by catchy rhythms accompanied by stunted but potent melodies and sections that devolve into mutant anti-rock.

So by now the dedicated Earth follower, who undoubtedly already has all of these tracks, is asking: why should I buy this again? Well, there's the nifty new artwork by Stephen Fowler and packaging by Stephen O'Malley, along with liner notes from Carson; more to the point, the tracks have been completely remastered. This is no small point, since the original album was poorly mastered (to put it politely), and while the mastering on the SUNN AMPS tracks was considerably better, the mastering job on this release is considerably heavier and sharper. There's far more heft to the band's already immense sound, and the blurry swathes of movement now coalesce into actual, recognizable riffs. Even if you're already familiar with the material here, you'll find new elements to the band's sound that were previously obscured by the fog-like sonic mung. It's also just plain interesting to hear all of this together as one album, available for the first time as the band meant the album to be heard. For those who have inexplicably never heard the band, this is definitely the place to start. (Those who do and grok it should move on to the band's second album, EARTH 2: SPECIAL LOW-FREQUENCY VERSION, where they removed a member and most of the rock as well, leaving only three long tracks of shuddering, quaking drone, resulting in the musical equivalent to heroin.)

Southern Lord

Godflesh -- STREETCLEANER (2 x cd reissue) [Earache Records]

This is arguably one of the most influential industrial / metal albums in the history of ever, which makes it all the more criminal that it's taken this long -- more than twenty years after its initial release -- to put out a remastered version, especially when you consider that the original cd mastering job was sub-standard and the label has always seemed indifferent to the quality of the artwork in subsequent reissues of the original disc. Fortunately, they let main God-head Justin Broadrick handle the remastering job himself, and the results are excellent -- his subtle but effective approach to cleaning up the tracks results in not only making the tracks louder and heavier, but the new level of clarity often reveals background elements previously obscured. At the same time, the remastering is restrained enough to prevent the songs from sounding totally different, and unlike a lot of modern remastering jobs, Broadrick avoided over-compressing the tracks into the brick-wall hell that has ruined the sound of many recent metal albums (DEATH MAGNETIC, anyone?) -- it's louder and heavier, yes, but not grotesquely so. This yields clearly audible results on tracks like "Locust Furnace," where a lot of the background noises surface for the first time.

If the thought of having a properly-mastered version of one of the heaviest and most terrifying albums ever isn't enough for you, Broadrick rooted around in the Godflesh archives and came up with a second disc's worth of material. It's a mixed bag, to be sure -- the original mixes of the first side of the original LP ("Like Rats" through "Head Dirt") are interesting to hear for their curiosity value, but outside of a markedly different (some might say inferior) drum sound, they aren't different enough to warrant repeated listenings, and while the rehearsal tapes of three songs (an extended version of "Pulp" plus "Dream Long Dead" and "Christbait Rising") are considerably more intriguing, they're also so poorly recorded as to be nearly unlistenable. The real meat of this disc, though, and one of the biggest arguments for picking this up even if you already own the original album, are the remaining four tracks. Two of them are live tracks recorded in Geneva in 1990 ("Streetcleaner" and "Head Dirt"), and while the sound is raw, it's definitely listenable, and provide a tantalizing look at the band's immense live power in the early days. The other two tracks are the original two-track versions of "Deadhead" and "Suction," from the TINY TEARS sessions that ended up tacked on to the reissued cd. Broadrick has long lamented in interviews that the original sound and melodies were lost in the studio versions of these tracks, and for the first time now it's possible to hear what he's talking about. If you ask me, it's worth getting this reissue just for these two amazing tracks alone -- they're taut, wiry, and filled with screeching melodic harmonies, and sound far more powerful and aggressive than the studio versions. The improved artwork and extensive liner notes are just an added bonus to what turns out to be a surprisingly well-done package.


Kristin Hersh -- CROOKED [Cash Music]

What a welcome surprise to discover an artist turning out one of her best albums more than fifteen years into her solo career. Hersh remains one of the most distinctive and consistently engaging singer / songwriters in modern American music, but her eccentric and deeply personal approach to pretty much everything means that while her albums have always been quality affairs, they have been intermittent in the accessibilty of her songs. Her eighth studio album, though, is possibly the most consistent -- and consistently listenable -- album she's ever done, solo or otherwise. Given her strong emotional connection to her music, it's not surprising that her best work is an album in which she performed all the parts, but a bigger part of the album's strength may lie in the fact that she is truly an independent artist now; in 2007 she formed Cash Music as a method of avoiding dealing with record labels and financing her recordings strictly through fan support. The resulting freedom to do as she pleases has obviously paid major dividends, for this sounds refreshingly free of outside interference -- which makes it all the more surprising how truly accessible all of the songs are. And often catchy, too, especially on songs like "sand" and "coals." The best thing about the sound on this album is her adroit juxtaposition of hard-strummed acoustic guitar rhythms with hot, often noisy electric guitar leads, a sound that's far more exciting than one might think. The album's combination of simple percussion, hypnotic acoustic guitar, and sporadic bursts of electric leads makes for gripping listening. It doesn't hurt that her voice -- one of the most unusual and recognizable instruments in modern music -- is in fine form as well. This album has been in constant rotation on my cd player since I bought it over a month ago (no small feat, given how many albums I listen to personally and for review purposes these days), and the more I listen to it, the more I think it might be an early contender for best album of the year. If you've never availed yourself of the pleasures of Hersh's music, there's never been a better time than now, especially since you can stream the tracks for free at Cash Music (see the link below).

Kristin Hersh
Cash Music

Killing Joke -- ABSOLUTE DISSENT [Spinefarm]

I have to admit right up front that I'm ambivalent about Killing Joke these days. I was a huge fan of the band in their early years, right up until the hideous train wreck that was OUTSIDE THE GATE, but their output beyond that album has largely left me cold for various reasons. This release, however, has piqued my interest for one major reason: it's the first album in over 25 years to feature the original lineup, with prodigal sons Youth and Paul Ferguson back on bass and drums. This is the lineup that made the band's first three (and, in my opinion, best) albums, and since these two players pretty much defined the rhythm section that made the band not only famous but highly influential (sorry, Raven and other post-Youth / Ferguson dudes), I'm sure I'm not the only one with high expectations for this release. (The band must have similar expectations, because in addition to releasing this in a variety of formats, including a double-LP on colored vinyl, they will also have a deluxe two-cd version called ABSOLUTE RESPECT featuring a second disc of Killing Joke covers by the likes of Metallica, Helmet, and Nine Inch Nails, among others.)

The good news is that not only has the reformation apparently reinvigorated the band and given them a new sense of focus -- this is the most consistent album they've released in a long time -- but with the original rhythm section back in the place, they have regained the sound of the early albums. While Killing Joke are largely remembered for their mix of industrial and electronic sounds, what always set them apart from similar bands then and now was the huge influence of reggae, a vital part of their sound that largely disappeared when Youth left the band after REVELATIONS. With Youth back on board, that element of their sound has resurfaced; the first four tracks -- from the opening title track through "In Excelsis" -- sound like like they could have appeared on any of the first three records. For the first time in decades, we're back to the glorious and apocalyptic sound of Jaz Coleman's nihilistic howl and Geordie's hypnotic guitar lines ringing out over a rhythm section that's the perfect fusion of punk, metal, and reggae. What's interesting, though, is when they revisit their later, more pop-centric period circa NIGHT TIME, on "European Super State" -- here the percolating keyboards are the dominant element, but pitting that against the original rhythm section yields a different sound than they one they found on NIGHT TIME. Then there's "This World Hell," in which they get in touch with their industrial side with lurching rhythms and a dank kitchen-sink sound, along with the eyebrow-raising touch of Jaz affecting a more guttural vocal style that makes him sound like Lemmy from Motorhead, with disconcerting results. This vocal style carries over into "End Game," which really does sound like a diabolical cross between Killing Joke and Motorhead in a rare mid-tempo groove.

They revisit their past again (this time, zeroing in on the era of BRIGHTER THAN A THOUSAND SUNS) with "The Raven King," a song that is not (as one might guess from the title) directly about their deceased pal Raven, but more of an indirect tribute to the man. This song is also a really good example of their ability to balance light and heavy passages within the context of what is essentially a pop song -- while the song's tempo, feel, and feather-light keyboards are unquestionably pop in nature, the rhythm section builds and releases in moments of pure heaviness steeped in the sounds of metal and industrial excess. "Depthcharge," though, is a return to the unstoppable tribal death-dance of their earliest albums, and "Here Comes the Singularity" isn't far removed from that relentless, primal sound. Just to round out the musical time-travel theme, the final track -- "Ghosts on Ladbroke Grove" -- returns to the deep-dub sound of their very first EP, but with vasly improved sound thanks to the miracles of modern technology.

It's obvious that the band put a lot of thought and work into this. What's more surprising is how well it turned out -- all twelve tracks are strong, and this album compares favorably to their earliest releases, which is no small feat given how iconic and influential those albums have become over the years. Most reunion albums are pathetic affairs in which the bands inadvertently reveal why they should have remained defunct; this one is the rare case that demonstrates how much they lost when a couple of key members took a powder early on. Given how excellent this album is (and how much it improves on the band's work of the past decade), is it too much to hope that the reunion will hold long enough for them to put out another one (or two) of this quality?

Killing Joke
Spinefarm Records

Kozeljnik -- DEEPER THE FALL [Paragon Records]

Serbia's Kozeljnik is a black metal band that isn't married to one particular style; the six tracks on this, their second album (and first on Paragon), wades through just about every form of black metal you can imagine, with particular emphasis on the depressive variety (just check out the grim and angst-laden riff that forms the backbone of "ThetruthisDeath"). Their willingness to incorporate many different stylistic shifts within their songs makes their sound considerably more unpredictable than many of their peers, and their skill at pulling off such a shape-shifting sound definitely keeps things interesting. A large part of their success lies in the strength of their drummer, who is equally at home with minimalist, Burzum-style beats as with pounding war metal aggression. Their full, intense sound is even more exceptional in light of the fact that the band is actually just a duo. It's a bit odd to hear such an old-school, almost-necro sound accompanied by epic, often operatic vocals, but if Mayhem could do it (and they are definitely a big influence here), why not these guys? While they execute the various styles of black metal with competence and gusto, they are best in the moments where the guitarist unleashes simple but harmonically pleasing riffs in the tradition of Burzum or Bethlehem. Their melodic skills also shine on tracks like "Void to Final Consumption," but its their talent for corrosive aggression that drives the more uptempo tracks like "Breeding the Apocalypse" and "A.o.t.U." There's only six tracks on the album, but that's more than enough for them to demonstrate their ample skills at crafting a highly engaging (and listenable) form of black metal.

Paragon Records

Lightning Swords of Death -- THE EXTRA DIMENSIONAL WOUND [Metal Blade]

The metal mags talk about this band like they're the new face of modern USBM or something, and while I'm not so sure about that, I'll give them this: they have a great name and a ferocious approach to barely-controlled musical chaos. The drummer is a human cyclone, flailing away with merciless abandon on everything he can hit at the speed of an ovedriven drum machine about to seize up; the guitarist spews out an endless stream of squealing audio hieroglyphics, pausing only briefly now and then to unleash slow, crushing waves of doom before blasting off into hyperspeed again; and the vocalist... well, he's the got the agonized screaming thing down cold, that's for sure. Is this battle metal? I think it is. They can do the brooding, atmospheric thing too -- the ending of "Zwartgallig," with its mournful arpeggiated guitar and howling wind sounds is prime evidence -- and the pounding mid-tempo dirge "Damnation Pentastrike" proves they can play at something less than hurricane speed, but mostly they prefer to blind you with high-speed clatter. "Venter of the Black Beast," another mid-tempo track, is built on a grinding sawtooth riff they pound into your skull for a couple of minutes before the guitarist starts churning out hyperkinetic squiggles. The final track, the nearly twelve-minute "Path to Chaos," gives them plenty of time to throw in everything including the kitchen sink -- first comes the by-now familiar hyperactive chaos, then comes a bizarre interlude of near-ambient, semi-noise doodling, followed by the drummer's heroic attempt to drum himself to death as the guitarist alternates near-psychedelic guitar lines with more frantic squigglethons, before finally exiting stage left in a sea of bass rumble and faraway peals of feedback and thunder. Marduk fans who secretly pine for that band to take on some of the more exotic psychedelic moves of Nachtmystium will love this.

Lightning Swords of Death
Metal Blade

LYDSOD -- ANCIENT AGE [Nest Recordings / Cunigulius Records]

The band's name is an acronym for "Live Your Dreams Stay Off Drugs," which is pretty funny once you listen to the album, an acid-drenched affair in the vein of Terminal Cheesecake by way of Devo that sounds like it was recorded under the influence of massive amounts of LSD. Of course, the band's sound -- a bizarre stew of psych rock, pop music, and otherworldly weirdness -- makes more sense given that Flaming Fire vocalist / mastermind Patrick Hambrecht is involved in the way-out-there proceedings. Hailing from Brooklyn and "devoted to an ideology of non-stop recording," the band's method of songwriting consisted of recording endless sessions over a year and a half, using a number of guest musicians in addition to the core of Hambrecht on sampling keyboard and J Z Barrell on drums, then cherry-picking the best pieces of this amazing pile of tape to compose twelve intensely devolved (yet somehow diabolically accessible) tunes that defy easy description. Suffice to say the instrumental tracks feature a series of brain-frying mind-melds of just about every genre you can think of, with a strong emphasis on the psychedelic side of things. Bizarre but intriguing, especially since the left-field approach to mixing and matching is designed to keep you guessing from one measure to the next. It's available as a limited (as in 115 copies) edition vinyl LP, somewhat less limited cd, and on iTunes.


Nails -- UNSILENT DEATH [Southern Lord]

Need your skull cleaned out in a hurry? Try this. Of the ten tracks here, five are under a minute and only one is over three minutes; seriously, five tracks flew by in the time it took me to smoke one cigarette. Not only are the tracks short and to the point, they're fast and brutal, like an early Amphetamine Reptile record being covered by SCUM-era Napalm Death. This is full-on, fist in your face violence from guys who sound like they have serious anger management issues. Two of those guys are Todd Jones (ex-Terror) and Taylor Young (Crematorium), so that should give you some idea of the band's pedigree. (John Gianelli rounds out the trio). Occasionally the band slows down to step on your face a few times, but that's just because man cannot live by barreling over a cliff at 150 mph alone -- the slow, trudging moments make the supersonic cannon riffage all that much more intense, dig? For a band that generally sounds like they're trying to cram an entire album's worth of riffs and beats into a tune you can hold your breath to, they're ferociously tight (but not so tight they can be mistaken for technical metal; they're all about raw, crude violence, remember), and their vocalist sounds genuinely possessed. This is music for psychopaths; we're talking torrents of sound capable of inciting mobs into belligerent rioting complete with overturned police cars and cops on fire. The album's brevity (approximately fifteen minutes) is apparently a sticking point with some people, but I think that's just about right for music this intense -- they throw you to the floor, kick your kidneys into mush, break a few ribs, then stomp on your head a few times before leaving. Like any good purveyors of sudden, physical terror, they have the good sense to get up and go once they've made their point, rather than sticking around to get cuffed by the cops. There's a reason the band's original cds and vinyl (from Six Feet Under and the band's own label Streetcleaner, respectively) sold out in a hurry; this is a band that genuinely lives up to the buzz. And now thanks to Southern Lord, you can hear why without having to scour Ebay for used (and probably expensive) copies.

Southern Lord


Sure, the title's as unwieldy as it is evocative, but there it is -- you'll just have to deal with it, won't you? (The title is actually lifted, with minor tweaking, from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's "Put Out My Eyes.") For those not hep to all things Oakland and electronic, Nickell is the mastermind behind AEMAE, with three albums under than name (one a collaboration with Arastoo) on this label and another on Black Horizons; for this one, he's used a combination of synths and voice to create five hallucinatory and drone-o-rific compositions. "Hanging On By A Golden Thread" fades in with spooky-sounding drone (could be keyboards, might be feedback) subjected to heavy tremelo action; it's a sound that rises and falls in volume and intensity, growing more harsh and tinny in tone about halfway through the piece. The trembling, wavering sound undergoes a number of additional permutations toward the end, without ever wandering too far away from its original sound. The title track follows with waves of dark, droning sound that ebb and flow like the ocean tide before abruptly transforming into jagged bursts of crunchy noise -- a sonic attack that fades away into a sound not alike blood pulsing through veins, only to return again along with cracking, splintering sounds like hard plastic being mulched. These dramatic sounds surge back and forth before fading away, at which the dark, oceanic drone returns, only to eventually be consumed by more of the crunchy white noise. "IAD Wave" is a disorienting collection of white noise and static erupting in period bursts like unruly sunspots; "Time Throne" is similar in its experimental nature, incorporating exotic chittering noises and bursts of static along with eerie pinging noises, but is nowhere near as harsh and employs more empty space in its uncluttered arrangement. The last few moments of the track are taken over by a growing cyclonic rush of drone and white noise shrapnel that abruptly cuts off, leading into the final track, "The Roughest Jewel In Your Glittering Crown (Second Key)," the studio version of a live track originally found on AND TONGUELESS I CAN CONJURE YOU AT WILL. It's a more cosmic-sounding piece using lots of reverb, with a sound not far removed from that of key tracks from AEMAE's album MAW; droning strands of sound undergo changes in tone and volume, with the effect of hearing water travel through an endless series of different-sized pipes. The sound is enormous yet amorphous; it's impossible to tell how the sound was created, and its nebulous origin, combined with the contant changes in tone, make it the closest thing there is to a dark-ambient piece on this album. Like the rest of his work so far, it's both intriguing and deeply mysterious, and well worth your attention. The cover continues the label's ongoing tradition of using geometric designs to elegantly minimal but hypnotic effect.

Brandon Nickell

The Secret -- SOLVE ET COAGULA [Southern Lord]

This is a deeply weird record, because the band (from Italy, if you care about these things) can't decide if it's a dark-drone band or raging black metal. Not that having both styles on one album is a bad thing, mind you, but it's a tad disorienting. The album opens with "Cross Builder," an amazing wall of drone and distortion accompanied by spare percussion and howling, reverb-heavy black metal vocals that builds in intensity over five minutes, with the wall of sound growing darker and thicker as the song progresses... and then "Death Alive" abruptly switches to fast-tempo black metal in a more conventional mode, a most jarring move (which may well be the point). The next several songs that follow are all equally aggressive, but don't show a lot of variation; it's not until the tenth track ("Bell of Urgency"), with its trebly Burzum-styled guitar trilling and doom-laden drums, that they back off the aggression and move in a different direction. In fact, the most interesting moments are when they back off the speed and produce a slower, far more crushing groove (as they do toward the end of "Weatherman," which also ends with an eerie chittering sound), or introduce processed sounds that are far more in keeping with experimental drone, as they do in the introduction to "Eve of the Last Day" and at the end of "1968," where the metallic rage is replaced by high-frequency feedback wailing and ambient sounds. The black metal thunder that carries most of the album is definitely impressive, but not ground-breaking; when they rage, they do it with passion and incredible intensity, but they also sound like a hundred other bands working the war-metal mojo. Given how incredible the first track sounds and their talent for wringing eerie, unearthly tones out of efx boxes at other times, it's a bit disappointing they didn't make more room for their experimental / drone side. Still, this is quality material, so your mileage may vary.

The Secret
Southern Lord

ST 37 -- HIGH AND INSIDE [Blue Circle]

The band's original intention was to be a fusion of Chrome and Hawkwind, and while their horizons have expanded somewhat over the years, that's still a pretty apt summation of their demented (and probably drug-fueled) sound. Mind you, we're talking about the Lemmy-era Hawkwind; while this is definitely the work of interstellar cosmonauts, their sound is far more heavy at times than you'd expect for a psychedelic band. The storming, fast-paced "Borg 9" is a distinct nod to their punk roots, and while "Breaking Lines" -- a Nikki Sudden cover -- opens with a twangy guitar figure that wouldn't have been out of place on a Roky Erickson and the Aliens album, the urgent, pounding bass and thumping beat that follow are closer to metal than anything else; the tenuous psych connection is maintained only by the howling fuzz-death guitar and wailing vocals straight out of the Roky Erickson playbook. (It's worth noting here that drummer Lisa Cameron played for Roky briefly -- very briefly -- at one point.) "Maroons," the opening track, is definitely old-school psych that owes as much to the Thirtheenth Floor Elevators as to Les Rallizes de Nudes, pitting uncomplicated but spot-on drumming and hypnotic, melodic bass lines against ghostly, disembodied vocals and truly psychotronic, acid-drenched freakout guitar. "Grandpa's birthday" is in the same ballpark, only far more out there, an interstellar space jam dominated by more freak-o-tronic guitar savagery that gets faster and more intense as the song plays on. Halfway through the song, the music cuts off abruptly for a bizarre and strident sample, apparently taken from a radio talk show, before resuming in even more chaotic fashion. Toward the end of the song, the chaos resolves into a slow and elegaic passage dominated by tremelo-happy guitar and lots of musical space. By the time you get to the end of the album, though, they're definitely firmly back in psych territory -- "Pamphlet of light" has the slow beat and tripped-out efx abuse found on countless Japanese psych albums, while "If you feel you're healed" is a straight-up epic psych jam that takes its own sweet time in destroying your mind. Throw in a mind-bending psychedelic cover of "Just You," from TWIN PEAKS (it's the song James, Maddy, and Donna sing together in an early episode of the second season) and a slew of morbidly funny to genuinely disturbing tape samples scattered across the album, and you have a really diverse and compelling entry into the long-running canon of Texas psych weirdness. It's too bad the band has been forced back to putting out their own albums, because this really deserves to be heard by a wider audience. You can obtain this slice of whole-grain goodness directly from the band via the link below.

ST 37

Suffering Bastard -- S/T cs [Lascivious Aesthetics]

O mas oui, I approve of this. This apocalyptic grindcore outfit from Rhode Island deliver eight blasts of grossed-out sonic ultraviolence in exquisitely lo-fi fashion. Titles like "Reeker," "Bullshit Train," "Spit in His Face," and "Gas, Grass or Ass" make it crystal clear where they're coming from, and the sound on the cassette is classic grind -- lots of thrashing drums, churning bass hell, splatterpunk guitar, and vocals so guttural that the "singer" might as well have been rolling around the gutter when he recorded them. True, the tracks sound like they were recorded on a ghetto blaster in someone's basement (which might even be true), but you don't really want to hear clean-sounding grind, do you? DO YOU? (If you do, you're wrong.) As with a lot of grindcore, the songs are so short it's easy to lose track of which one is playing, but I think "Exit 24" is the one that starts out in the slow wasting doom style of Corrupted before blasting off into the hypersonic stratosphere. One of the tracks toward the end -- "Untitled," perhaps? -- is filled with an avalanche of noise like buildings under demolition, always a nice touch. Not surprisingly for such frenzied anti-music, the total running time for all eight songs is approximately six minutes. Blastoff time commences... NOW! Limited to 100 copies.

Suffering Bastard
Lascivious Aesthetics


Whatever you do, don't call it a reunion -- otherwise Michael Gira might smite you, and he's a big guy, so you really don't want to piss him off, right? He's mellowed, though, so he might let you live; while the sound on the reconfigured band's new opus is everything you have rightly come to expect (and then some, but more on that momentarily), the corrosive bile of Gira's former lyrics have been replaced by a sensibility that's still plenty forbidding but not quite so nihilistic. Which is not to say he's turned into a sunny Hare Krishna dude -- there's a starkly religous element to the album that recalls the days of CHILDREN OF GOD, sure, but anybody capable of writing lyrics like "let's piss on the city that's burning down there" and "then I strangled your neck, because I love you too much" is probably not preparing for a new career as a televangelist. There may not be quite as much naked pain and debasement this time around, but there's plenty of angst and conflicted emotions (served with a side dish of loathing, best expressed in the title of "You Fucking People Make Me Sick," a classic Gira title if there ever was one).

The most interesting thing about the return of Swans is how Gira has managed to deflect the reunion onus through some canny moves designed to give the reformation more weight than the usual nostalgia / cash-grab status of most reunions. For one thing, he strikes a mighty blow for moving forward, rather than wallowing in the past, by not including Jarboe in the new version of the band. Original Swans guitarist Norman Westberg is on board, but everyone else is either from various touring lineups of Swans or Angels of Light (including guitarist Christoph Hahn, drummer Phil Puleo, and second drummer Thor Harris) or completely new (bassist Chris Pravdica, on loan from Flux Information Sciences). The presence of three players from three distinct periods of Swans, two of whom are also Angels of Light alumni, gives the album a sound that simultaneously provides an overview of the old band while sounding surprisingly new. Many of the tracks, in fact, sound like late-period Swans playing Angels of Light tunes, which looks good on paper and sounds even better coming through the speakers. Another pleasant surprise is how tightly-wound these songs are -- as much as I love Swans (so much that I actually like all of their very different periods, which is rare among Swans fans), even I will admit that they sometimes got carried away with song lengths, but with the exception of the opening "No Words / No Thoughts," which clocks in at 9:24, the rest of the tracks are comparatively svelte. (Yes, three tracks are over six minutes, but by Swans standards that's practically terse, and one song -- "Reeling the Liars In," one of the catchiest tracks ever to talk about peeling faces and burning bodies -- is under three minutes. It may be the shortest actual song, not including dialogue and tape loop snippets, in the entire Swans catalog.)

Which brings us to the actual songs -- nine of them, to be exact. This is one of the strongest collection of songs in the band's entire history, no mean feat, and this is also one of their most compulsively listenable albums. "No Words / No Thoughts" neatly picks up where their last studio album SOUNDTRACKS FOR THE BLIND left off, opening with chiming bell tones and what might be a distressed Rhodes organ for a moment or so before bursting into bombastic percussion. What begins as a slow death march accompanied by a disorienting sound collage eventually segues into a more aggressive beat and a growing cloud of sound that coaelsces around Gira's dark baritone, waxing and waning in its intensity and sonic violence throughout the rest of the song. The song that follows, in stark contrast to this tsunami of sound, is a stripped-down paean to revenge and retribution called "Reeling the Liars In." Short but undeniably potent, it's as catchy as its lyrics are perverse, and makes a perfect lead-in to "Jim," probably the biggest eyebrow-raiser here, because I'm pretty sure this is a waltz. If you never expected to see the words "Swans" and "waltz" coupled together, well, I'm pretty sure you're not the only one. Both of these songs also feature backing vocals akin to hillbilly gospel and acoustic instrumentation highly reminiscent of the early Angels of Light albums welded to the bombast and experimental sounds of classic Swans, a winning combination. Other highlights include the aforementioned "You Fucking People Make Me Sick," which is nowhere near as bile-filled as the title might suggest, and sports one of the best arrangements on the album and some surprising instrumentation (it opens with the liberal use of a Jew's harp, a clue that you might be in for something different). It also includes guest vocals from Devendra Banhart and Gira's three-year old daughter, an eerie but effective combination that works a lot better than it should. "Inside Madeline" is built on a military beat and another growing cloud of sound that dissolves in a wash of ambience and melodic tinkling, then settles into a slow groove highlighting the bass and the beat as the lyrics kick in -- all of which hardly prepares you for the unrelenting bombast and heaviness of "Eden Prison," featuring trumpets (!) and one of Gira's most impassioned vocal turns. Have I mentioned that the sequencing of this album is absolutely brilliant? The final song, "Little Mouth," is restrained and spare, leavened with spooky instrumental moments; the final minute or so of the song is nothing but Gira's plaintive vocal, an entirely appropriate and subdued way to end an album so heavily steeped in the grandiose.

But what, there's more! Not available in any store! This album exists in two formats -- in addition to the official album (the one with the mysterious cover by Beatrice Pediconi), there is a double-cd version available exclusively through the Young God website with different packaging and artwork by Gira himself. The second disc on this version is a 46-minute single song, "Look At Me Go," which is similar in sound and construction to Gira's disc under the name The Body Lovers (so much so that Gira has claimed this to be the second disc in that project's originally envisioned trinity of albums). Using instrumental passages, individual tracks from songs on the first disc, and additional sounds, Gira has constructed a lengthy (46 minutes, remember?) sound collage that sounds very, very different than the original album. This is the Swans version of dark-ambient, and it's a spooky roller-coaster ride of hypnotic sounds and disquieting sonic images. Those who have heard The Body Lovers will immediately know what I'm talking about. It's not as immediately gratifying (or as easily grasped) as the collection of songs on the first disc, but it's not half-baked (as some might expect from its length), and it's interesting to hear what emerges in the re-use of the album's original sounds as very different elements are juxtaposed against one another. It's a bit too loud and bombastic (there's that word again!) to strictly qualify as dark ambient, but it's more than just a soundscape -- there's plenty to latch onto here, and the sound sections flow from one to the next in varied and unpredictable ways, offering unexpected pleasures (and more than a few moments of creeping dread) along the way. If you liked The Body Haters disc, then it's definitely worth your $$$ to acquire this, especially since I'm pretty sure it's a limited edition (and judging from the fact that the Young God site is currently not fulfilling orders "due to overwhelming demand," your chances of getting it are probably growing slimmer by the minute).

Young God Records

Sword Heaven -- GONE [Load Records]

Two men, a pile of noise-making gadgets, one hive mind fixated on bumming you out -- this is the diabolical entity known as Sword Heaven. It's most appropriate that this review should follow one of a Swans record, for the endless, monochromatic rhythms and filthy sounds of the early Swans albums are an essential building block in the duo's grotesque sound. This is especially true on "Dead End," where the primitive, pounding drums sound like someone breaking cinder blocks with a sledgehammer over and over as sampled junk noise and pained howling swirl around like deadly shards of glass and steel in a slow-moving cyclone. "Driving Through Old Town" is not quite as blood-curdling, but it's certainly no move toward the sunlight -- minimalist beats pound in plodding fashion and strange noises hiccup around them. The sound is more sparse and less dependent on pure chaos, but it's no less menacing and ugly. Of course, on the final track, "So What," they return to the death-dirge approach, mixing brutal slo-mo beats with more anguished yelling, sick tape loops, pulverized electronic hell, and other sonic ugliness that does a fine job of simulating mental patients in hell expressing their eternal torment. The album is just over thirty minutes long, but that's plenty of time for them to make you feel deeply unclean.

Just so you know, this was recorded at Columbus Discount Studios (the band is from Columbus, OH, after all) and is actually their first studio album, not that it sounds particularly different from their earlier releases -- sure, there's a bit more fidelity, but fidelity is kind of beside the point for a band that metaphorically opens your skull with a hacksaw and paints the walls with what they find inside. Even studio mixers and properly-placed microphones cannot erase the band's dark, vomit-encrusted sound or blunt their caveman aesthetic. The Swans album FILTH (undoubtedly one of the key initial strands of this band's DNA) was recorded in a studio, too, and look how that turned out. If you crave sonic ugliness, this is definitely what you need.

Sword Heaven
Load Records

Ralph White -- THE MONGREL'S HOARD [Monofonus Press]

Formerly of the now-defunct punk / bluegrass trio Bad Livers, Ralph White is now well into a second career as a primitive roots revivalist, using banjo, accordion, and a kalimba -- along with various efx boxes, mostly notably a loop pedal that allows him to play two instruments at the same time live -- to create a haunting and psychedelic version of country blues. The six tracks on this album, including a stunning version of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and a radical reinterpretation of David Gilmour's "Fat Old Sun," are steeped in the stripped-down, primitive sound of old country blues and Appalachian music. The most obvious comparison is Dock Boggs, but there are traces of much more of the genre's history in the timeless sounds on this album. Despite the introduction of psychedelic elements to the sound, this still sounds very much like it could have been lifted from a 1930s shellac 78-rpm record. The authenticity of the album's sound is helped immensely by White's spectral vocals, which go a long way toward cementing the spooky yet beautiful sound on these tracks. Remember the scary hillbillies in DELIVERANCE? This is the kind of music they sat around playing when they weren't busy raping and killing city boys who made the mistake of wandering into their neck of the woods. This is music for outsiders made by outsiders, a feeling White captures perfectly. Limited to 300 copies, in a hand-screened sleeve with art by Tim Kerr.

Ralph White
Monofonus Press