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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Earth -- A BUREAUCRATIC DESIRE FOR EXTRA CAPSULAR EXTRACTION [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.)
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).
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?
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.
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
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.
Brandon Nickell -- AND IF YOU SET THIS MIND OF MINE AFIRE THEN ON MY BLOODSTREAM I YET WILL CARRY YOU [Isounderscore]
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.
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.
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.
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.
Swans -- MY FATHER WILL GUIDE ME UP A ROPE TO THE SKY [Young God]
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.
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.