Sunday, September 19, 2010

"and the rain came down."

Dan of Earth -- ... I CAN STILL SEE THE X 3" cdr [Colbeck Labs]

How can you not like an artist with such a fabulous name? DOE uses homemade electronic gadgets and acoustic devices to make cryptic tracks of electronic noise and enigmatic samples (or vocals; it's often hard to tell). The five tracks on this EP are dominated by the use of strange sounds and rhythmic noises in the background as baffling sample clips (including what sounds like female voices reading off numbers on secret broadcasting stations on "Erdos Number") play over the noise. He avoids the use of standard instruments, preferring to create ominious waves of dark-ambient sound and eccentric noises with the aforementioned gadgets and bits of found sound; the results are often eerie and disorienting. The abbreviated length of the format also prevents him from getting carried away, and thus the five tracks provide intriguing listening without overstaying their welcome. Bonus points for the apparent nod to LORDS OF CHAOS on the inner sleeve.

Dan of Earth
Colbeck Labs

Delplanque / Oldman -- CHAPELLE DE L'ORATOIRE [Eh?]

Mathias Delpanque brings the laptop and objects, Oldman brings the acoustic bass, electric guitar, and more objects, and the duo -- captured live at the Chapelle de L'Oratoire in Nantes, France in September, 2007 -- use these eclectic items to create four lengthy slices of freely improvised soundscapes. As with most of the albums released on Eh?, these pieces are less about songs in a conventional sense and more about textures, dynamics, and the juxtaposition of odd sounds. The first track ("Part 1") makes effective use of the stage space and the healing power of reverb, with repetitive mechanical sounds and mild clattering playing out over gradually building washes of drone and occasional bursts of twangy guitar; the sound starts out in minimal fashion and eventually grows fuller and denser over thirteen-plus minutes, before eventually doing a slow fade into oblivion. "Part 2" is more of a drone-oriented affair; there are more muted mechanical sounds, true, but the piece is dominated mainly by free-floating swells of what might be reverb-heavy bass or guitar. Those swells do grow to apocalyptic proportions on occasion, but otherwise the piece noodles along in soporific dark-ambient fashion, drifting like fog across a midnight landscape. In "Part 3," the focus is more on cryptic noises made by the aforementioned (and unidentified) objects, as short bass and guitar lines plunk away periodically in the background. "Part 4" is essentially a variation on the same theme -- different sounds, more reverb, same basic vibe. The interesting thing is how subdued the album is as a whole; despite the convergence of unusual sounds, the muted approach to the noise-making and the application of ambient drone in the background renders the album quiet most of the time, which makes the few moments of rising sound all the more dramatic when they appear. This is also considerably creepier-sounding than the average improvised album, which only adds to the mystique.


Del Rey -- INMEMORIAL [At A Loss Recordings]

It's only fitting this band should come from Chicago, because their eclectic, technically accomplished post-rock metal sound probably owes as much to that town's avant-garde and experimental scene as to anything more traditionally metallic. Their use of instruments not normally found in metal (the Chinese guzheng, Japanese taiko drums) and propensity toward instrumental epics of flowing, melodic parts is certainly reminiscent of bands like Tortoise and Gastr del Sol (minus the razor-blade jump-cut edits). And then there's the inclusion of Jason Ward, co-owner of Chicago Mastering Studio along with Shellac's Bob Weston, and the guy responsible for recording all of their releases, whose work in the studio (and on the songwriting) has paid off by invigorating and streamling the band's unpredictable, prog-influenced sound. The songs, while sounding totally modern, are also often reminiscent of RED-era King Crimson -- lots of simple, melodic guitar lines and restrained playing from the rest of the band that builds into ringing sheets of harmonic fury and aggressive percussion. Like the best post-rock instrumental bands, they make up for the lack of vocals with an exquisite understanding of dynamics and carefully-constructed songs that play out in mesmerizing fashion despite often long lengths. Varying levels of structural and tonal complexity, baroque layers of shifting sound, and impressively intricate playing executed with unwavering control make the band's songs formidable epics of post-modern soundtracks. There are a lot of instrumental post-rock / metal bands littering the sonic landscape these days, but this band is definitely one of the better ones.

Del Rey
At A Loss Recordings

Exsanguinette -- ... AND THE CREEK DON'T RISE [Solponticello Records]

Well, no wonder I'm impressed by the machine-gun drumming on (most) of the tracks on this sort-of-demo; the guy sitting on the drum stool is Brann Dailor, still the best thing about the prog-metal critic's favorite Mastodon. The leader of this eccentric collection of experimental and free-metal death jams, though, is Killick (best known for his H'arpeggione recording of Slayer's REIGN IN BLOOD a few years back), appearing here on guitar and electronics; the two of them are joined by Liz Allbee on trumpet, shell, and electronics, and Larry Ochs (of the Rova Saxophone Quartet) on tenor and sopranino saxophones. Thanks to the genuinely different nature of the players, the tracks range from face-peeling freemetaldeathjazz to bizarre, near-ambient noise experiments and racuous tracks dominated by mutant sax and trumpet bleating over unpredictable percussion and strange electronic frippery. The album, as it happens, is actually two albums on one disc -- the first seven tracks constitute the formal album, and those tracks are followed by remixes of the same tracks with new titles. As audacious as the band sounds on the formal tracks -- especially the sax and trumpet players, who are not shy about making their presence known -- the remixes are even more whacked-out, frequently swaddled in heavy reverb and remixed into a hazy state of distant oblivion. The approach to the remixes is often so radical that they might as well be completely different tracks, which just adds to the album's bizarro quotient. Bonus points for the fantastic (and fantastically creepy) wraparound cover illustration, which you have to see to fully appreciate.


Geometric God Mind -- MESSIAH COMPLEX [self-released]

This is some bizarre shit, all right: demented fuzztone guitar and warbling synth bleats racing into the sun on an acid-drenched journey to the heart of psychedelic glory. On "Pernicious Odyssey of a Fantastic Atom," the rhythms lurch from slow to frantic at unpredictable intervals, accompanied by whacked-out synth burbling and fuzzy, fizzy guitar stolen from a mescaline-addled garage rocker's bad trip. "My Submarine Is a Genital, My Brain Holds Swirling Depths" lives up to its name with garage-rock drumming, burbling synth madness, more of those fizz-happy guitars, while "Surfing the Tsunami" retains most of this madness and adds vocals that sound like they're coming from the bottom of a submarine spinning in circles. This song sounds like what might have happened if the Cramps had been fixated on mutant 50s exotica and space-rock novelty albums instead of demented rockabilly singles. The same demented combination of garage rock, synth prog, and surf music continues through the other two cuts, with equally psychotronic results. Wonderfully strange and lo-fi, this is like a warped electronic take on outsider music.

Geometric God Mind

Hull -- SOLE LORD [The End]

Yes, I know, there are way too many bands now who appear to have been weaned on Isis and Neurosis, but this one is different. For one thing, they have three guitarists (shades of the almighty Band of Susans), and while the Isis / Neurosis influence is unquestionable, they also appear to have spent a lot of time listening to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and lots of acid-eating 60s and 70s psych bands. In fact, despite the moments of pure testosterone-fueled, doom-laden thunder that crop up from time to time, much of this sounds like a psychedelic jazz combo masquerading as metal dudes. The ten songs on the album aren't so much songs in the traditional metal sense as they are movements in one long epic of shifting tempos, moods, and styles, encompassing everything from brief bursts of traditional doom, psychedelic passages, mutant free jazz soloing, and even kitchen-sink noises (in "Wrath of the Sands"). There are some seriously tripped-out sounds happening here, anchored by a drummer with one foot in the metal camp and one in jazz territory, and despite the presence of three guitars, there's plenty of space in their sound, especially when the jazz noodling gets going. I'm ambivalent about the vocals -- while the album is largely instrumental, there are times when somebody's bellowing death-style over the top, a strange move for such a jazzed-out, proggy band... although I must admit hearing three guys bellow in harmony is definitely an attention-getter. Still, there's no question they sound better when they're keeping their mouths shut and letting the guitars do the talking. One of the best things about this band is their ability to shift at a moment's notice from beautiful, spaced-out jazz playing to soul-crushing, distortion-heavy doom. The three guitarists also do a fine job of mixing up their textures; with different players going through clean, processed, and distorted tones at different times, they have a large tonal palette with which to work throughout the album, and they put those differing levels of texture to good use. This is an excellent album that's nowhere near as much of an Isis / Neurosis clone as some reviews would suggest, although the unorthodox vocal approach may still bum some people out.

The End

King Giant -- SOUTHERN DARKNESS [self-released]

I didn't know anybody was making music like this anymore -- this band flies the Southern rock flag loud and proud, brutah. Of course, since this is 2010 and not 1970, the riffs are louder, harder, faster, and owe as much to Motorhead or Pantera as they do to Molly Hatchet or Blackfoot. The groove is pure 70s southern boogie, though; the promo poop sheet references the likes Clutch, Down, and Corrosion of Conformity, all of which is true enough, but tracks like "Solace" and "Potter's Field" make me think more of early ZZ Top with nastier-sounding distortion pedals. They have a bit of country-rock in the DNA, too -- think Hank Jr. in his drinking days -- fully on display in "Mississippi River" and the moody "Desert Run" (although I'm pretty sure Hank never did it this way with an eight-minute tune). There's plenty of redneck-style bellowing and blues-laden solos, and when they slow things down (as on "Shindig") and get heavy, they achieve a mind-meld of southern rock and stone-cold doom that's convincing in its creepiness. (Of course, they speed everything up toward the end, but fortunately not for long.) They even do a respectable cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Needle and the Spoon" (a much heavier, grittier cover, true, but still entirely listenable). If you like any of the current heavy bands worshipping at the southern-rock shrine (Down immediately comes to mind), you'll like this. How you'll get your hands on it is another question, since the band is unsigned, but I'll bet you could start by hitting the link below.

King Giant

Mark Mandeville -- NO BIG PLANS [Nobody's Favorite Records]

This album reminds me a lot of the early Black Heart Procession albums, only more traditional and less spooky. Echoes of artists like Steve Earle and John Prine also resonate throughout the album, but this is still a more updated form of alt-country, with a modern production sound and a style that still retains plenty of the genre's traditions. It's interesting to note that while this album shares the same personnel as the Raianne Richards album reviewed further down in this post -- Mandeville on guitar, banjo, bass, and vocals, Jerry Fels on drums / background vocals, and Raianne Richards on background vocals -- the albums sound totally different, as if they had been recorded decades apart by different bands. This just goes to show how important the songwriter's role is in the band -- just by switching places up front, Mandeville and Richards have managed to make significantly different albums devoted to different eras of country / folk sound. While this album may be the one with moderately more modern sound, though, it's still completely rooted in the country / folk idiom; its feel is a bit more urban and closer to the classic Nashville sound, but it's still closer to traditional country stylings than most of what passes for country music these days. The harmonies between the three singers are also straight out of the Carter Family songbook, which doesn't hurt. Ten songs, all of them swell and impassioned, and well worth checking out.

Mark Mandeville
Nobody's Favorite Records

Place of Skulls -- AS A DOG RETURNS [self-released]

I lived in Knoxville, TN (this band's hometown) for four years, and I can fully understand how that city's countrified vibe would drive any respectable metalhead into the garage to churn out proto-Sabbath riffs just to annoy the neighbors. I would assume that's how guitarist / singer Victor Griffin got his start in the 70s (during which Knoxville was truly a metal wasteland, trust me) with the formation of Pentagram, a band so revered by the stoner rock / doom community that jsut mentioning their name will cause the average doom childe to fall prostrate on the floor in gibbering worship. Of course, nothing good lasts forever, and Pentagram eventually broke up (only to reform and break up again several times; I think they're currently semi-active, but with them, it's hard to say), and during one of those periods of inactivity, Griffin formed this band with bassist Lee Abney and drummer Tim Tomaselli. (Wino, of Obsessed / St. Vitus / seven million other bands, was on board for five minutes or so, long enough to appear on their second album, before splitting to form the now-defunct Hidden Hand.)

Which brings us to the current release, their fourth full-length, currently without a home (although I can't imagine that's going to be the case for long). Rather than blather on at end about the individual tracks, I'll just say that this is exactly what you already expect, given Griffin's pedigree. Musically, it's very much in the same ballpark as earlier Pentagram and St. Vitus -- slow, dirge-like, with plenty of blues-derived guitar soloing amid the Sabbath-styled crunch and the occasional pretty arpeggiated guitar part (like the intro to "Though He Slay Me"). The one thing that will be a real eye-opener for those not hep to Griffin's personal history, though, is the openly Christian lyrics. A lot of doom bands have been secret Christians, but most of them (especially Black Sabbath and St. Vitus) have cloaked their Christian sentiments in more opaque lyrics. Griffin, though, makes his Christian leanings crystal clear on one song after another. Regardless of what you, the listener, might think about his uprfront declarations of faith, the sound is firmly in the canon of classic doom with mild psych influences (Griffin, like Dave Chandler, still believes in the healing power of a well-oiled wah pedal), only with much better songs than most of the current stoner-rock and doom bands of modern vintage. Pass it up if the Christian content makes you queasy, sure, but just know that you're missing out on some quality old-school doom.

Place of Skulls

Raianne Richards -- SIMPLE IN THIS PLACE [Nobody's Favorite Records]

Richards is young, but don't let that fool you; this is actually her fourth album (following a solo album recorded at 18 and two albums with the folk chamber trio The Accident That Led Me To The World), and it sounds more like the work of a considerably older musician. More to the point, she sounds like more like an old-school singer from the 70s country scene; musicially speaking, this album has more in common with that decade's Americana sound than anything else. You could be forgiven for hearing this and mistaking it for a long-lost obscurity -- there's very little evidence of current trends here, and while it's definitely in alt-country territory, it has nothing in common with the current version of twangy pop with banjos and black hats current masquerading as country music. Accompanied by Mark Mandeville (guitar, bass, banjo, vocals) and Jerry Fels (drums, vocals, and the occasional use of Casio keyboard), Richards -- who plays various instruments as well and is the lead vocalist -- presents eleven songs here that are both varied and thematically consistent. At least part of the album was written in a tiny cabin in the woods of Temple, ME, and the sound of much of the album accurately reflects the vision of a songwriter distanced from civilization, beholden only to her guitar. The understated drumming by Fels on some tracks and Mandeville's twangy, economical guitar accompaniment do a lot to embellish the tracks for variety's sake without diminishing their essential simplicity, and her sonorous, breathy vocals are a consistent highlight of all the songs. The album is excellent and better yet, she and Mandeville are currently on tour, taking these songs (and others) to the people. Those who appreciate the joyous sound of imaginative, well-played Americana should definitely investigate.

Raianne Richards
Nobody's Favorite Records

Ember Schrag -- JEPTHAH'S DAUGHTER ep [Eh?]

Her previous album featured Schrag fronting a full band; this time around it's just her and a guitar. With a playing style reminiscent of Edith Frost and a voice recalling both 60s hippie icon Melanie and the always-fabulous Kristin Hersh, the stripped-down sound of this four-track EP is every bit as arresting in its own way as the previous album. These are subtle, subdued acoustic guitar ballads, devoid of flash but soaked in character and a peretually unsettling sense of mystery. They're also short, ranging from two to four minutes in length, and as such, they get the point across without needless meandering. Schrag proves that it's hard to go wrong with just a guitar, good songs, and a distinctive voice. It's a bit strange to hear an album like this, with its stark country folk sound, on this particular label, but that just demonstrates the label's smarts at not being boxed-in by its identity as a prime source of weird improv sound combos. Schrag is a welcome addition to the label's roster. She's also currently touring the US, so you can go check her out yourself if you are so inclined (and you should).

Ember Schrag

Tom Thumb -- WE NEVER DIE [self-released]

Andy Arch is Tom Thumb, and his songs straddle the divide between folk music and pop. Working mainly with just guitar (or sometimes banjo), stripped-down percussion for accompaniment, and a melodious country croon, his aesthetic calls to mind Appalachian mountain music infused with startling pop hooks. While the guitar and percussion remain at the core throughout the album, other instruments appear at times -- "Cabin Building" prominently features what sounds like an electric organ, for instance -- but even with additional instrumentation, the songs remain spare and largely unadorned. The most interesting thing happening here is his ability to weld catchy pop stylings to songs clearly rooted in old-school country / folk music; it's a unique and arresting sound made even more individual by distinctly unique voice. Excellent, well-crafted songs and a highly original playing style certainly don't hurt his cause, either. At times he evokes the sound Springsteen might have gotten circa DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN had he eschewed the pomp and grandiose arrangements, and as with Springsteen, it's his deft lyrics and plaintive voice that are his greatest attributes. Bonus points for the beautiful piano playing in "Polished Improv," which is just a reminder of how rare it is to hear one of music's best instruments these days.

Tom Thumb

Valdur -- RAVEN GOD AMONGST US [Bloody Mountain Records]

They come from California but sound like they were raised in Scandanavia, and this album -- recorded with the band's own money and released on drummer Sxuperion's own label -- is rife with allusions to old-school black metal. The brief and moody intro that serves as a cold and brooding moment of calm before the eight barely-controlled explosions to come is straight out of the early 90s black metal playbook, and the sound on the rest of the tracks is defined mainly by aggressive blitzkreig drumming and tortured guitar strumming that sounds like a hive of angry bees searching for foolish humans to sting to death. True, the songs themselves aren't terribly exceptional or original-sounding, and there are some questionable editing choices (like the puzzling, unexpected slow fade at the end of "Great Abyss Unfold"), but they unquestionably have the classic sound of early, primal black metal down cold. It's all aggressive, forbidding stuff steeped in angst and misanthropy, and outside of the aforementioned issues it's all well-executed, so if you lust for a throwback to the early days of Mayhem, Immortal, and Darkthrone, you'll probably like this.

Bloody Mountain Records

Warning Light -- FURTHER ON [Stick Figure Recordings]

Composer D. Haddon, armed with a towering stack of synthesizers and some efx gadgets, takes the opportunity on his debut album to unleash ten tracks of "eternity drones," an apt description for the droning, floating instrumentals that hover on the edge of twilight sleep. Unlike a lot of current practictioners of drone music, his sound is almost devoid of bass, preferring instead to cycle through the higher frequencies, with a resulting sound that's light and dreamy, deep and cosmic, with more than a few nods to LaMonte Young and the more ambient-leaning Eno. The album opens with the reverb-heavy sound of ping-pong tones resembling the work of a xylophone as keyboard drones gradually join in, followed by high-pitched synth bleating, and the melancholy sound sets the tone for the entire album. The songs are really more like brooding ambient slices of the soundtrack to an unsettling dream, one that's not quite a nightmare, but not terribly soothing either -- there's an implicit threat of darkness creeping at the edges, even while the tones are beautiful in a space-rock kind of way. The drones themselves are sometimes processed to give them new textures -- on "Infinite Stepstones," they appear to be fed through a ring modulator, giving them a wavering, seasick rhythm, and "Northern's Requiem" is filled with ringing, bell-like tones -- and the judicious use of effects often takes what would be ordinary drones to new and interesting places. There's a high level of quality to the drones, which drift and ebb in unexpected waves, with numerous layers that build and evaporate; sometimes the heavy drone action is accompanied by simple but haunting piano lines (as in "Nights on the Vacant Sphere"), and the keyboard drones appear in a wide variety of textures as well, creating a sonic landscape that's far more complex than most albums crafted around minimalist drones. As cosmic excursions into the drone-filled psyche go, this is one of the better ones.

Warning Light
Stick Figure Recordings

Watain -- LAWLESS DARKNESS [Season of Mist]

People all over the metal blogosphere have been pissing their pants over the latest release from Sweden's Waitain, and now I see why: this is a pretty awesome album. While it's unquestionably still a black metal record, their method of sonic attack and song structures are often a throwback to the early days of thrash; more to the point, their affinity for melodicism (they are from Sweden, after all) makes the album surprisingly accessible. I don't think it's much of a secret that Watain are ambitious and want to transcend the black metal ghetto for more mainstream popularity, but what's surprising is that they might actually succeed at achieving this without turning into musical sissies. They haven't abandoned the satanic misanthropy or gone soft musically (although they do appear to be embracing consistently better production values), and their aforementioned melodicism still owes more than a small nod to Dissection (big surprise, since guitarist Erik Danielsson is a Dissection alumni), but they're definitely thinking big. Unlike a lot of bands who currently try to move up the ladder of success via hype and shameless promotion, Watain have decided to go the much harder (but considerably more satisfying) route of creating bigger and better riffs for heavier and more intense songs. They have a reputation for being one of the most intense bands in black metal today, and the songs on this album don't disappoint in that respect; most of them successfully combine the raging, baroque structures of old-school thrash with the diabolical sound of first-wave black metal. As the second track "Malfeitor" makes clear early on, they are not opposed to imbedding their blood-curdling and frenzied metal attack with surprisingly melodic solos, and while their drummer's insane levels of aggression provide a consistent theme of bombastic punishment, they are not afraid to slow things down at time to properly demonstrate their affinity for melodic passages. Better still, this time around they have two long songs ("Wolves Curse" and "Waters of Ain") that take up 25 minutes of the album and are mind-boggling collections of one mind-blowing riff after another couched in epic rivers of soul-crushing metallic sound -- songs that are not just big and ambitious, but bold and spilling over with well-deserved confidence (or arrogance, whatever -- this is black metal, after all, the two are pretty much the same, and it doesn't matter if you can pull it off, right?) that's backed up by masterful playing and gut-wrenching passion. They may well be making a play for the brass ring that will leave lots of people pissing and moaning about them selling out, but they sure as hell aren't pandering. You like melodicism along with being whipped with chains and a boot to the face? Then you definitely ought to hear this.

Season of Mist

Wolfshade -- WHEN ABOVE [Wraith Productions]

Aaaaaah, more swell black metal from France... what is it about France that breeds such bleak-sounding metal? Wolfshade, the one-man band of the enigmatic Kadhaas, comes across like a minimalist, lo-fi cross between early Bethlehem and mid-period Burzum -- it's all about the mournful keyboard drone, minimalist drumming, and reverb-drenched ambient guitar that sounds mainly like keyboards with distortion. There's also plenty of space in most of these songs, periods where the repetitive drumming takes center stage, as well as opportunities for the guitar to break out simple but effective melodies that work well against the frozen keyboard washes. On some of the songs, particularly "Au Tombeau de illusions," the guitar work edges into folk-metal territory while the drums and keyboards remain firmly in the realm of depressed black metal, which makes for an extremely interesting sound. The band's monochromatic vibe of total, unrelenting bleakness is only enhanced by the harsh, pained vocals, which conjure up images of Bethlehem, Burzum, and maybe even Silencer. This is the kind of depressed black metal I like best: minimalist and hypnotic, but not so simple as to induce boredom, with percussion that keeps things moving without being overly complicated, and keyboard / guitar sound that mixes elements of ambient sound and melodicism in a subtle, intriguing manner. This is probably the best such album I've ever heard in a while, maybe even since the Mortuus album that came out about a billion years ago (or so it seems), especially since I've largely given up on Bethlehem. Highly recommended.

Wraith Productions