Abel Ashes -- EAT PLASTIC AND OTHER EXPERIMENTS [self-released]
Even by my standards, this is a pretty eccentric album. Multi-instrumentalist Abel Ashes has a peculiar sense of humor and surrealist sensibility highly reminiscent of Frank Zappa circa JOE'S GARAGE, with an experimental neo-jazz sound to match. (When you have band members like Marcos Fernandes and others from the West Coast free jazz / experimental scene in your band, it's not quite as hard as you might think to match Frank's instrumental genius.) This is actually a reissue featuring the original album's ten tracks plus ten solo pieces recorded from 2000-2009 and four live recordings featuring Eric Hensel that were recorded at Lestat's Coffeehouse in San Diego in 2001. In the same way that Zappa combined elements of early rock and roll and doo-wop with jazz and progressive rock, Ashes combines a poetic lyrical sensibility (he was originally a poet before moving on to more musical endeavors) with a musical sound that straddles the divide between progressive rock and free jazz. If you're familiar with Cheer-Accident's idiosyncrastic approach to prog rock, then the eclectic sound on display here will be familiar. The solo pieces are even stranger and, by and large, even more experimental, often delving into the pure exploration of sound rather than anything resembling actual songs, while the final four tracks -- the live ones recorded with Hensel -- are every bit as bizarre as anything else on the album, but more intense and immediate. Recommended for enthusiasts of eccentricity and those still pining for the late, lamented Zappa.
Cock E.S.P. -- HISTORIA DE LA MUSICA COCK [Breathmint / Little Mafia / Sunship Records]
The diabolical (and often farcial) noise attack unit of longtime Twin Cities resident Emil Hagstrom has been warping minds and baffling sensibilities since 1993, and Emil's 17th full-length album -- helpfully subtitled "A Tribute to Experimental Music, 1910-2010" -- is a twisted homage / parody of the Cock's chosen genre and influences, featuring 125 tracks grouped into eleven different sections with hilarious titles referencing experimental incons, important albums, and other aspects of culture that have been placed in the Cockblender and pureed into noise masquerading as art. If there's a method to Emil's madness regarding the track grouping, it completely eludes me, but with titles like "4.33 Inches," "What's THIS Lube For...!," "Tol Cormpt Noise Noise Noise," and "Dude, Where's My Contact Mic?," it doesn't really matter -- the important part is that the brief tracks (125 of them in 38 minutes, remember) encompass just about every splinter faction and schism of noise / experimental music you can possibly imagine. Recorded over a period of two years with a lengthy number of conspirators, contributors, and collaborators (including past / present members of Pain Teens, Twodeadsluts Onegoodfuck, Smell & Quim, Blowfly, Suffering Bastard, Ovo, and Weasel Walter, among many, many others), the album unfolds like a devolved connection of historical music snippets. Don't let the zaniness fool you, though -- this is a well-produced album of constantly changing sounds and noises sequenced in a manner that in both unpredictable and highly entertaining. As for the sound itself, everything is there -- and I mean everything; harsh noise, art-damaged disco, experimental sound, musique concrete, power electronics, peculiar samples, your neighbor's dog being set on fire, whatever... it's all there, stuffed into a constantly-evolving mix of sonic madness carefully sculpted into a dense mass of artistic befuddlement. Guaranteed to open up your third sphincter or your money back! Massive bonus points for the super shit-hot full-color art and packaging (on high-quality glossy cardstock in a resealable polybag); hit the band link below and see the discography for a look. Limited to 1000 copies. If you think you don't need this, you are wrong and I feel sorry for you.
Dan of Earth -- SHED A SOFT MONGOLOID TEAR 3" cdr [FTAM]
The earthbound Dan returns with more cryptic experiments in sound, steeped in mystery and heavy on the samples (especially on "Dog," which is essentially a series of barely-coherent and overlapping conversations set to an ominous bass drone). Dan's sound palette is derived from an unnamed series of homebuilt electronic and acoustic devices (and C++ programming -- does this mean a PC is involved somewhere?), and it translates to a murky and baroque sound that's eerie and often disquieting without being violent or harsh; even with a beat (as on "It Is the Golden Hour"), the strange near-ambient sound washes cycling in the background are subtly unnerving. The sounds on "Carrizo Plain" are even more exotic and minimal, like steel washers rattling in a cup while deformed sirens bleat endlessly in the background; "A Happier Orbit," the track that follows it, is similar but even more subdued in its draining minimalism. The final track, "Tourette's Machine," lives up its name, with erractic squealing and electronic barking noises that eerily mimic an Tourette's sufferer firing off random bursts of sonic chatter. Strange but intriguing, with some extremely devolved sounds, and unlike many such experimental efforts, the short running time means the weirdness never overstays its welcome.
Dan of Earth
Daniel Christian -- HOLD YOUR BREATH [self-released]
It isn't often you see country-rock albums in rotation in the DEAD ANGEL listening booth, but I'm glad this one showed up in the mail, because I like this a lot. Not only are the songs excellent and the playing superb, but the album's sound strikes a nice balance between the country-folk and rock, with elements (such as the opening piano of "Corners") that echo the country-rock sound of the 70s popularized by the Eagles, and Jackson Browne. To some degree it's an extremely retro sound, but given the stale and overproduced nature of most modern country-rock, that's not such a bad thing. With a songwriting style comparable to a more laid-back Steve Earle and the later, more subdued moments of Tom Petty, the album is engaging and highly listenable without being breezy or too lightweight. At fifteen songs and sixty minutes, some might find the album too long, but fantastic songs like "California Song," "Other Side of the Ground," and "Summer's Gonna Roll You" more than make up for any such deficiencies.
Echtra -- PARAGATE [Temple of Torturous]
Talk about epic, this band does it: the album is nothing more or less than two tracks, "Paragate I" and "Paragate II," each one 23 minutes long. Stylistically, the band is down with the drone -- the first track opens with a mournful acoustic arpeggio that is repeated endlessly as dark, distorted drone guitars slowly and methodically rise and build around it. Eventually the arpeggio undergoes subtle changes as the rest of the band's sound grows thicker and denser, with distant pounding drums and a choral sound that might be vocals or processed guitars. Around the fourteen-minute mark, the acoustic guitar fades away as an ambient guitar drone becomes the predominant sound. The track continues to evolve into something more akin to a black metal drone, until it segues into the second track, where the acoustic guitar returns, this time with a more complex and melodic feel, and the background continues to subtly change in both tone and texture. Around the six-minute mark, everything but the acoustic guitar drops out, only to have another guitar return as a harmonic counterpoint. The new sound grows in volume until everything else abruptly kicks back in several minutes later, creating a new wall of fuzzy, ambient sound. Eventually the sound dies away to a singular guitar drone that is in turn replaced by minimalist acoustic strumming and, later, enormous power chords alternating with the acoustic guitar. Acoustic and electric passages continue to alternate for the rest of the track. The band's talent for pacing and textural variety keep the tracks from becoming stale, no small feat given the moderate tempo and song lengths. Definitely a band to watch, especially if you're down with the drone.
Temple of Torturous
Pilesar -- RADIO FRIENDLY [Public Eyesore]
This is weird and avant-garde, yes -- no surprise, given that it's a Public Eyesore release -- but it's also surprisingly accessible, and while it's probably really not quite as radio-friendly as the title would suggest, it's still immensely catchy. Led by Jason Mullinax in conjunction with a long list of collaborators, the eighteen tracks here frequently sound like pop songs that have been perverted through strange aesthetic decisions, the unorthodox use of instruments, and a tendency to use whatever recording equipment happens to be available. Despite the avant-garde roots, Ween is actually a useful reference point; Mullnax appears to share that duo's quirky sense of humor and urge to hopscotch from one musical genre to the next (not to mention their tight songwriting chops). There's a heavily rhythmic element to the album (especially in the form of percolating synths that pop up on tracks like "Umbrella") that definitely sets it apart from most PE releases and contributes heavily to the album's accessibility, a sensibility that reaches its apex on "Gator Wrasslin'," where an infectious synth rhythm and complex beat is joined by an otherworldly guitar that manages to be noisy and melodic at the same time. The accompanying poop sheet (for reviewers only, so sorry) references Frank Zappa, The Residents, and Boredoms, all of which are obvious influences, and should go a long way toward hinting at the sheer bizarro factor involved here. Still, for something so deeply weird, it comes awfully close to living up to the title, assuming we're talking about a radio station on Mars.
Seeded Plain -- ENTRY CODES [Creative Sources Recordings]
The latest release (or one of them, at any rate) from this prolific duo finds improvisational artists Bryan Day and Jay Kreimer using a variety of homemade instruments cobbled together from many unusual sources to create bizarre soundscapes in a live setting. The five tracks here were recorded in Kreimer's own studio from 2009-2010 and they all sound pretty otherworldly; it's hard to imagine (even after having seen them perform) what kind of twisted devices they're employing to construct these puzzling sounds, but there's certainly no shortage of textural sounds littering their largely open sound pieces. Their sound occupies a nebulous space that discourages easy description -- too random to be actual songs, not quite random enough to be pure noise -- and places much of the emphasis on the method by which sounds are obtained more so than the actual sounds themselves. It's an intellectual approach that yields perverse results on disc; the sounds are interesting but disconnected, and there's a strong sense that the presentation was probably more revelatory in its original context, with visual cues to match up with the quirky sounds. Nevertheless, the disc remains an intriguing artifact of improvised sound, even if you have to guess at what they were doing to raise such a clatter.
Creative Sources Recordings
Sujo -- "Qatada" 3" cdr [Inam Records]
The ever-mysterious Sujo returns with twenty minutes of ominous, watery guitar drone and amp buzz over the course of one track that's a throwback to the original sound of the early isolationist movement. The flow of sound is not totally random, but definitely far more unstructured than the last few Sujo releases, and it's heavy on buzzing noise and dark sounds with sinister intent; this is uneasy music for rituals in darkened rooms, dark ambient noise in the vein of Sky Burial. This is music that sounds like it was made after dark with the intention of being played after midnight. Spooky, unnerving stuff, and like everything else by Sujo, highly recommended. The release is limited to fifty copies, so don't sleep on it....
Inam Records: firstname.lastname@example.org
Testa Rosa -- II [self-released]
Everything about this album is amazing -- the songs, the performances, the artwork, everything. This is the way pop albums should be made. The eleven tracks on this album are all built around the gorgeous vocals of Betty Blexrud-Strigens (who also plays guitar and organ), and the quartet plays with phenomenal grace and subtle verve; this is pop music, yes, but unlike most of what passes for pop music these days, this is music with a sophisticated sound that has more in common with Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, and Elton John's early work -- and with the vaunted 4AD sound of the 80s and 90s that made albums by the Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, and Lush so listenable -- than any of the current chart-toppers featuring one-name artists hiding behind a homongenized army of faceless hit producers. The best part of the album -- outside of the beautiful singing and consistently transcendent playing from everyone in the band -- is how polished the songs are, with plenty of subtle nuances that will undoubtedly translate into the rewarding experience of hearing something new each time you come back to the album. This is obviously the work of people who have spent a great deal of time and effort working out all the inherent possibilities of the material and trimming away all but the most essential parts. Normally I'd say it's a crime that such brilliant music remains unclaimed by a major label (the band released the album themselves), but given the way the music business has slid into the abyss over the past decade, it's entirely possible that was a deliberate move on the band's part, to avoid being swallowed by a self-destructing beast. In addition to the sublime music, the album is graced with some of the best artwork I've seen in a while; see more of it (including the digipak inner art, which serves as the header on their web page) at their site via the link below, where you can pick this up el cheapo (along with the rest of their catalog, including a free EP).
Matt Weston -- THE LAST OF THE SIX CYLINDERS [7272 Music]
The latest work from percussionist and composer Matt Weston is a tribute to the late Bill Dixon, a mentor and collaborator of Weston's whose colorful quotes provided the titles of the three tracks on this disc. On the first, "You've got to now how to wear a hat," Weston's bustling percussion is all but hidden beneath a roiling storm of noise generated by sound effects and the unorthodox use of wind instruments; toward the end, the storm of sound fades out and the last few minutes are dominated by strange, distorted sax bleating and other tortured sounds. "I don't want success, I want adventure" is not quite as noisy but every bit as chaotic, with loose percussion forming a bedrock over which shrieking saxes and other bursts of sound issue forth in erratic fashion. The rumbling percussion in "The reward has got to be that this is what you do" forms a noise in its own right, sounding like a train passing in the distance, as more sax bleating burbles in the foreground. Eventually some other wailing makes an appearance, although courtesy of what instrument I have no idea; whatever it is, it definitely sounds unsettling. This is an improv sound that incorporates elements of free jazz and, strangely enough, old-school industrial music (especially Throbbing Gristle), with intriguing and occasionally disconcerting results.
Winter -- INTO DARKNESS [reissue] [Southern Lord]
The legendary (and incredibly obscure) New York death-doom trio Winter existed just long enough to cough up one classic and highly influential album (that, uh, would be this one) and an EP before splitting up. That album, originally released in 1990 on Future Shock and later reissued in various configurations by Nuclear Blast and others, sometimes with ETERNAL FROST tacked on, has now been reissued again in a limited run on disc and vinyl. For a lot of people, the album's legendary status begins and ends with the songs themselves and their withering, oppressive sound, one that was unique back then and still better than most of the most of the work by bands they inspired. For some, though, it's equally interesting to note the album's status as one of the earliest sources of the droning, heavy, slow-motion sound of doom / death metal, a transition point between several different genres leading into the doom-drone scene that has come to dominate the post-metal landscape in the past decade. If you weren't there, it's hard to imagine how alien this sounded to most listeners at the time, even those already into doom or death metal. At a time when most metal bands were obsessed with speed, Winter played much of the time at tempos as stunted as any on an early Swans album, and the droning, ambient, effects-laden elements of their sound had more in common with obscure experimental albums than anything in metal. Winter's sound was so unusual and well-formed at the time of the first album's initial release that it was hard to imagine its origins, but there are clear nods to early Celtic Frost in the album's vocals and combination of simple but powerful guitar progressions with sparse but complex drums (especially on "Servants of the Warsmen," which could easily pass for a slowed-down outtake from EMPEROR'S RETURN).
At the same time, they predate a number of similar-sounding but better-known acts floating around at the same time or a few years later, including Disembowelment, Grief, 13, Unearthly Trance, and Khanate, all bands with similar influences, styles, and sounds; in fact, Khanate's freezing and near-motionless bass tone sounds just like the bass sound on tracks like "Goden" and "Power and Might." You could make a compelling argument, now that I think of it, that Khanate basically sounds like Winter at half-speed with the rock elements removed and replaced with a high degree of psychopathic intensity (especially in the vocals). They were contemporaries of Earth (although this actually predates the release of Earth's first album) and Eyehategod, both bands who then shared certain elements of Winter's sound, especially when playing downtuned passages at stunted tempos, but Earth were never really metal and Eyehategod, despite their intense and murky riff-wrangling, were never really metal either (or drone, for that matter). While Winter were obviously very much a metal band, their sound was so strange and disorienting for its time, and a large part of Winter's appeal to cultists (and probably the same thing that has kept them obscure) is the difficulty in putting them in the context of any particular sound or scene at the time. The rest of their appeal is in their intensely anti-social vibe, both musically and as a band who didn't care what anybody thought about what they were doing.
A large part of the album's appeal on a purely musical level is how claustrophobic and heavy it is; the rest of the attraction is the album's surreal and incredible slowness (although subsquent doom bands would continue to inexorably drop the tempo, a tendency that finally culminated in Khanate's complete breakdown of time and sound). The dark, oppressive atmosphere is made even stranger by some truly unusual-sounding drums -- simple but heavy, raw and stark yet more complex than you might think on first listen, with a blunt-trauma sound that a lot of people have since tried, mostly without success, to replicate -- and the occasional unexpected burst of efx-created sound. A lot of people point to Earth as the starting point of drone doom, but I wonder if this isn't a more appropriate touchstone, especially since the jazzier and more experimental elements of Winter's sound have remarkable similiarities to work of the past few years is the experimental wing of doom / drone metal, while its overall sound and vocals put it squarely in the tradition of bands like Celtic Frost and Coroner.
If you're wondering why this particular obscurity is getting a (justly-deserved) chance of reaching and influencing a whole new audience more than twenty years after its intial appearance, it's because the band has reunited (for how long is anybody's guess) to play in April at the 2011 Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands and this reissue is essentially a tie-in of sorts. Southern Lord is offering the album (in original track listing, without bonus tracks) and what appears to be the original artwork with additional material, on 180-gram vinyl (white or black) in a heavy gatefold sleeve or a compact disc; both versions come with an 18-page booklet. I don't know how limited the run is, but this is an excellent chance to hear a remarkable album the way it was originally meant to be heard, and Southern Lord is also offering some attractive package deals including t-shirts for those who like broadcast their listening habits.