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