Monday, July 4, 2011

"my my, hey hey / it's a national holiday."

NOTE: I have begun epic recording sessions for the follow-up album to Korperschwache's EVIL WALKS, and I expect those sessions to continue through the summer, so keep that in mind if the schedule gets erratic or the reviews skimpy.

A Fucking Elephant / El Drugstore -- split cd [Nefarious Industries]

This split cd contains five tracks by A Fucking Elephant and four by El Drugstore, both bands from New Jersey, both heavy on the technical prog-metal tip. First up is the band with the rude name, and they come out swinging on "Blue Crab Fantastic," in which ominous hypno-guitars and an increasingly complex battery of percussion settles into a weird, loping groove and plenty of complicated drumming that becomes increasingly ornate as the track evolves. The remaining four tracks are very much in the same mold -- twisted guitar figures, absurdly complicated drum patterns, esoteric time signatures, and the occasional burst of agitated vocals. Their sound is considerably more hairy and fuzzy than that of the average prog-fixated metal band, which keeps their King Crimson-style action from turning sterile and lifeless; it's unusual to hear a band this obsessed with technical proficiency and baroque compositions sounding this heavy, which is a major point in their favor. The guitar sound in particular is dense and thick, most often swaddled in distortion, lending an extra layer of texture to the progged-out vibe.

The remaining four tracks are by El Drugstore, and while that band shares much of AFE's affinity for proggy metal, their method of attack is considerably more linear. Not necessarily any less complex, mind you, but definitely more linear -- they don't fly off in as many directions, and they favor song structures that are a bit closer to conventional metal, if filled with lots of really technical riffing and complex drumming. Unlike the other band, they are also completely instrumental; there are no vocals here to get in the way from the impressive musical gymnastics. Like King Crimson (an obvious influence on both bands), they manage to sound impressively gifted in the technical chops department without turning into a boring shred-fest -- there's plenty of instrumental wizardry going on, no question, but it's all in service of engaging, ornate, and considerably original songs. This album is definitely recommended to prog-heads who like their complicated jams rendered with some serious physical weight.

A Fucking Elephant
El Drugstore
Nefarious Industries

Aurvandil -- YEARNING [Eisenwald]

You know what's beginning to really annoy the hell out of me? Bands who insist on using Roman numerals to denote their recording and release dates. Mind you, this doesn't aggravate me nearly as much as bands who don't bother to put the proper playback speeds on LP labels, but it's still irritating. Which brings us to the first full-length release (after an avalanche of demos, splits, and one EP) by Aurvandil, apparently a one-man band from France (joined here by mysterious session dude Wiederganger on drums, whoever that is), a solemn purveyor of grandiose depressive black metal in the footsteps of Burzum and Bethlehem. He's also down with the pagan folk-metal scene as well, although that influence makes itself known mainly as flourishes and additions to the basic sound. The album opens with "Yearning -- Prelude," a melancholy acoustic dirge that's somber without being strident, but the songs that follow are squarely in the mold of minimalist, lo-fi black metal pioneered by Burzum and slavishly duplicated by about a billion others. Most of the material is mid-tempo with occasional bursts of speed, and while it's competent enough -- the wailing keyboards in "End of an Age" are a nice touch -- it's also nothing you haven't already heard, and many times at that. It is extremely well-done, however, and the acoustic interludes that crop up from time to time are genuinely beautiful, a nice contrast to the blackened necro tooth-gnashing that forms the basic bedrock of the band's sound. This is especially true of "Walking -- Interlude," a spooky acoustic passage that's the most haunting thing on the album. In fact, the acoustic guitar work is the one thing that elevates this into something more than a mere Burzum clone, and the single biggest reason to hear it. As for the overweening Burzum worship, at least they steal from the right albums.


Black Pus -- PRIMORDIAL PUS [Load Records]

Have a burning need to annoy your neighbors / roommate / people in hearing distance of your MP3 player of choice? Look no further! My, but this is obnoxious (and I mean that in the nicest way). You would expect nothing less from a member of Lightning Bolt, right? This is the fifth release from Black Pus -- the first available on vinyl -- and its piercing noise-rock aesthetic is similar to that of Brian Chippendale's better-known band, only applied in a different manner. Here he uses layers of exquisitely devolved drum loops, some stringed intstrument (or possibly a keyboard; given the level of sound processing involved, it's hard to tell) and lots of crunchy noise to create a series of highly rhythmic sonic irritants. Some of the tracks like "Cave of Butterfly" and "Favorite Blanket, Favorite Curse" approximate the demented rhythmic approach of late-period Arab on Radar, but here there always several levels of sonic chaos happening at once, resulting in a headache-inducing sensory overload. Squashed robot vocals churn away in the mix from time to time, not that you'll ever guess what he's saying (that must be why he helpfully provided lyrics for a couple of the songs in the liner notes), and there's plenty of squealy, squidgy sounds that are probably the result of a guitar being severely tortured, but the beauty of this album is that it's impossible to tell how he's getting such supremely hideous sounds. This is the deeply perverse sound of hallucinating robots disassembling themselves. It frequently sounds like he's channeling the spirits of several No Wave bands all at once, in a tidal wave of sonic ugliness so gruesome that it's beautiful in a deformed sort of way. Fans of Lightning Bolt will rejoice; those not down with the noise crown will hide under their desks and pee in their pants. I dare you to play this for your mother. Seriously, I dare you.

Black Pus
Load Records

Blackwolfgoat -- DRONOLITH [The Maple Forum]

This is bizarre shit, doom childe. The unique vision of Darryl Shepard of Milligram fame, the six tracks on this super-limited release (limited to 100 hand-numbered digi-sleeve copies with art by Alexander von Wieding) are an unusual combination of minimalist, machine-like percussion and strange sounds that might be processed guitar. On "Building Buildings," a persistent, monochromatic beat hammers relentlessly as squiggles of melodic sound chime and churn over it; on "Ruane," one chugging rhythm and another consisting of exactly one perfectly-timed note interlock in a hypnotic motif that is eventually joined by dancing melodic lines. Repetition and minimalism are the big keywords here; Shepard may be from stoner / metal bands, but this has far more in common with Philip Glass than it does with anything derived from Black Sabbath's sonic footprint. "Tyche" creeps into territory that's a tad more familiar with a big, fuzzy guitar sound, but it's every bit as minimalist as the other tracks. "Fear of Stars" features a funky robot bass loop that's gradually overlaid by brief bursts of melodic bleating and supremely sparse electronic percussion, while the buzzing drone guitar returns on "Event Radius" in the form of droning waves of wavering feedback. The title track is fifteen minutes of ping-pong repetition and growing layers of melodic guitar snippets for the first half, followed by loud, hairy drone guitar that grows louder and denser as the piece goes on before eventually trailing off into silence. This is certainly one of the more original-sounding albums I've heard in a while.

Maple Forum

Fungus Brains -- RON PISTOS REAL WORLD 12" [Load Records]

For our next amazing feat of musical science, we'll hop into our favorite time machine and head back to 1983, landing in Melbourne, Australia -- home of the Fungus Brains, a band featuring current Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner that was active from 1982 to 1987, as part of the same scene that spawned the Birthday Party (a band whose existence was coming to a close just as the Fungus Brains were getting started). Prior to his involvement with Fungus Brains, Turner played in Sick Things, who were actual contemporaries of the Birthday Party, so if some of that band's sound seems to have seeped into the musicial consciousness of Fungus Brains, that should hardly be surprising. (The Stooges circa FUNHOUSE would probably be an equally appropriate reference point.) Why Load decided to resurrect this lost treasure is anyone's guess, but it's a good thing they did, because this is too good to remain hoplelessly obscure. Similar in nature to the Birthday Party and other Melbourne bands of the time, they nevertheless distinguish themselves with swell songs and make a credible stake for their own identity with a wailing horn player and a truly eccentric (some might say obnoxious) vocalist who sounds like a bird trapped in a man's body.

Things open with a heavy bang on "Hairbrush," featuring some seriously hairy bass and pounding drums behind bleating horns and psychotronic guitar; by the time the aforementioned birdman starts his bizarre cheeping, you know you're in for a wild ride. On song after song, the band fashions tunes out of a ramshackle sound heavy on the bass and murky guitar, often sounding like they just made the song up on the spot and were taped running through it for the first time -- yet, despite this decidedly loose approach, they swing with a vengeance, and those arrangements are a lot tighter than they initially appear. This is garage rock driven by jungle rhythms and demented horns; it's hard to imagine any of them sitting still to play this stuff, that's for sure. That tribal feel is especially obvious on "Death Dance," where loping drums and a squiggly, snake-like guitar sound keep things hopping; hooting and hollering in the background just adds to the song's twisted charm. Things get even noisier on "Goin' Down," almost to the point of white noise over a demanding beat, and on "Car Accident" -- the final track of the original album -- the band descends into near-total cacaphony punctuated by the vocalist's frantic yelping and held together only by the drummer's simple but insistent beat. As an added bonus, this reissue tacks on two songs from the same era -- the slower, destroyed-by-blues "St. Kilda" and "Where teh Fuck is Wal," a song that's every bit as cryptic and inscrutable as its title suggests. This is swell stuff, and anybody down with the Birthday Party and the Australian post-punk bands of that period should definitely grab this while it's available (which may not be long, given the original's rarity and the fact that this run is limited to 650 copies).

Load Records

Harm's Way -- ISOLATION [Closed Casket Activities]

This opens up with one of the nastiest-sounding things I've heard in a while on a metal album, a track called "Scrambled" that's largely dominated by a bludgeoning, overmodulated sound filled gruesome crackling, like an unholy mating of industrial metal and noise; it eventually turns into an overdriven hardcore death march topped by truly psychotic-sounding vocals, which is not quite as soul-scraping, but still plenty intense. They do favor breakdowns, something that's normally the kiss of death for me, but their version of the almighty breakdown is really seismic in its heaviness, which certainly helps. Like many hardcore metal bands, they suffer a bit in the variety department; their complete and total commitment to unwavering heaviness means the tracks start to sound a like after a while, which is kind of a drag, but the tracks are all consistently good, and the bowel-scraping industrial metal approach makes tracks like "Becoming" sound like the studio is caving in around them. Relentlessly confrontational and noisy like the Unsane but considerably more metal than noise-rock, this is about as subtle as a gun in your face and as heavy as a battleship being dropped on your head. Crunchy, crunchy guitars and a vocalist with an attitude problem go a long way toward alleviating the variety issue, and this is definitely a pinnacle of soul-crushing brutality.

Harm's Way
Closed Casket Activities

Brett Hinds presents -- FIEND WITHOUT A FACE + WEST END MOTEL [Rocket Science]

I'm not a particularly huge fan of Mastodon and I'm ambivalent about Brett Hinds. Sure, he's a swell guitar player and everything, but his reputation as rock's current King of the Wild Men is something of a distraction, and I have to wonder how long he can keep that up before he ends up locked up or dead. Still, I guess that's his business.... I have to admit he sure must have a lot of energy, because in addition to his Mastodon duties, he's also found time to play in two other bands, Fiend Without A Face and West End Motel, and thanks to the swell people at Rocket Science, both of those bands are represented here in one place for your listening pleasure. And unlike a lot of side-projects, these are not bands in which he shuffles through cast-off material from his main gig; these two bands are not only totally different from what he does in Mastodon, but supremely differernt from each other. FWAF is essentially a rockabilly / surf band, while WEM is in more of an Americana vein, and I'm frankly surprised to discover that he not only has an interest in either genre in the first place, but that he plays equally well in both. In fact, I actually like what he's doing in FWAF more than anything I've heard him do in Mastodon. (Well, maybe with the exception of "Cut You Up With A Linoleum Knife.")

The first disc is the first album from FWAF (two more discs are already in the can, waiting to be released), with Hinds squiggling away surf-style in front of a rockabilly band, and I can see why this would hold much appeal for him -- in sharp contrast to Mastodon's heavily-produced epic, overblown prog-rock, this is essentially a bunch of guys whipping up tunes on the spot in the garage in between cases of beer. The songs are short and to the point (the longest three are just over three minutes, and several are under two), completely lacking in pretension, and bursting with energy in a style that's been out of style for at least forty or fifty years. Some of the tracks (like "New York") even feature a rollicking boogie-woogie piano, and the vocals (when Hinds bothers with them, which isn't often) are best described as a throwback to drunken garage rock. The album's entire vibe is one of an endless party, with a sound that's a neat combination of Dick Dale and the Stray Cats. The recording itself is as basic as you can get without descending into lo-fi, and surprisingly authentic in its recreation of surf-rock and rockabilly. They get bonus points for "Get Straight," an exquisitely devolved surf-rock cover of Devo's "Whip It."

The second disc, featuring the first WEM album (a follow-up is currently in the mixing stages), is another thing entirely -- seven tracks of Americana that references old-school country icons like Chet Atkins and more modern acts like Tom Waits and The Pogues. Opening with an amusing spoken-word bit called "The Confident Wino" that segues into "... And We Are Here To Entertain You," the rest of the album plays out in a moderately more serious vein. The Tom Waits influence really shows up on the slow and brooding "She's On Fire," and the twangy country-rock feel to the whole album is a marked contrast to the sound of the first disc. What's most impressive, though, is how Hinds fits into the sonic picture with considerable restraint and lots of tasty guitar playing. This is the work of an actual band, not just Hinds overplaying in front of some hired guns, and an entirely respectable entry in the Americana canon. For a guy who gets more attention for his drunken antics in public these days, Hinds sure turns out to be full of surprises, huh?

Fiend Without A Face
West End Motel
Rocket Science

Isolation -- CLOSING THE CIRCLE [Eisenwald]

Talk about taking your time to get things right -- this, the band's first album, comes five years after the release of their first demo (with two others and a split in between). Their first demo found them working in the area of depressive black metal; the second had more of a doom vibe, while the split material was more atmospheric, and here they bring all of these elements together in a highly original and sophisticated form. Structurally speaking, the songs on this album owe a lot to the depressive metal aesthetic popularized by Bethlehem, but they also have an almost symphonic grandeur without lapsing into the outright bombast of the average symphonic metal band, and they have extensive melodic chops that are emphasized on tracks like "This Moment." By drawing judiciously from several different genres and putting serious thought into integrating those different sounds in their compositions, they come up with highly sophisticated songs that often move in unexpected directions without sounding forced. The highlight of the album is the lengthy instrumental "Nomad," in which an exceptionally melodic movement alternates with much heavier passages without sacrificing any of the melody, building in intensity over time before pulling back again. One of the most compelling things about this album is the wide variety in the vocals; guitarist / vocalist Johannes Schmid speaks in places and sings in others, calling up different textures and emotions with his shifting vocal styles. Another important element at work here is the stellar bass playing of Andre Jonas, whose playing is distinct without being obtrusive, adding an extra layer of texture and melodicism to the tracks. The tracks themselves are also significantly different from one to the next, while still retaining a recognizable identity that gives the album a thematically consistent sound. The end result, while obviously influenced by the aforementioned genres, is something original and very much its own. Highly recommended.



What I like most about Isounderscore albums is that they are, almost without exception, every bit as mysterious as they are excellent. Their latest release by Rale, aka Los Angeles sound artist William Hutson, is one of their most mysterious outings yet -- synth-driven minimalism that recalls the early days of Illusion of Safety, where volume and dynamics are of utmost importance. The LP consists of two side-long pieces that are as much about open space as they are about sound; there are lengthy passages of near silence interspersed with the electronics. The first side opens with a swell of electro-drone that quickly dissolves into an extended period of silence before the next movement of drone action floats upward, with a different tone, only to gradually lapse into silence again. This sound-to-silence motif recurs again and again, each time bringing forth a new set of sounds -- buzzing synth action, wailing feedback drones, crunchy (but not strident) noise, found sound -- with each new movement. The sounds used are simple (especially the synths, which are used to produce monotone drones), but the manner in which they are layered is fairly complex, and in conjunction with the rising and falling volume dynamics, creates the audio impression of a boat at sea passing through various zones of unidentifable activity. These themes and motifs are continued on the second side, with an opening sequence that marries rich and abundant synth tones with layers of noise and quickly fades into a muted, wavelike drone. Over time, crackling noises are introduced and the drone swells upward into something louder and denser. The drone eventually dissolves into a bed of crackling noise like static that continues for some time until the ominious, droning synth sound gradually returns. Noise textures emerge over time, appearing first as an undertone but eventually becoming every bit as prominent as the synth drone, and the fluctuating tension between these sounds continues, eventually dwindling into a short silence that is followed by a dark, droning coda. The journey from beginning to end is marked both by a judicious sense of composition and a stellar ear for sounds; despite the man's minimalist approach, there is very little sense of repetition thanks to the constantly evolving sounds and textures. In other words, another winning slice of audio enlightment from one of the country's most consistently interesting labels. Limited to 300 copies, and housed in a distinctive flourescent blue sleeve with a stamped geometric design by Brandon Nickell.



Rowland sure has some interesting obsessions: one of her earlier albums consisted of songs about vending machines, and now she's back with a concept album about architecture. Well, sort of. The first half of the album's title (and the title of the opening track) is a reference to the papal decree against 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart, and the second half of the title (also a song on the album) is a reference to US spy satellites. The medieval painting by Simone Martini, "Miracle of the Child Falling from the Balcony," also serves as a source of inspiration (and as the cover art). So right off the bat there's some peculiar intersections of the old and the new, along with art and architecture. As far as the sound goes, Rowland provides piano, organ, guitar, bass, and vocals; Pete Stalsky and Andy Tester are the rhythm section, playing drums and electric bass, respectively. Despite the use of relatively standard instruments, weird sounds abound, although mainly as elements of incidental sound. Some of the songs -- the title track, "Ladybird," and "Mordecai," for instance -- are more traditional, built around piano, organ, and vocals, and these tracks are ethereal and beautiful, with or without Rowland's gentle vocals. Other tracks, like "Dreamcatcher," are considerably more odd, mixing the aforementioned instruments with bell-tones, strangely dissonant guitar figures, and growling bass lines."The City of the Unexpected Universe" incorporates all sorts of strange rhythmic sounds into the track, noises that compete with a droning pipe organ, while "Murky Millay" approaches the sound of glitch electronica through the unconventional use of their instruments. Rowland strikes a happy balance between the old and new sounds, and this bold approach to mixing traditional and far more experimental sounds makes for a listening experience full of unexpected surprises.

Jess Rowland

Unearth -- DARKNESS IN THE LIGHT [Metal Blade]

I'm afraid I showed up late for the Unearth party (like, real late), so I have absolutely no idea what their earlier albums sound like, but this one is certainly heavy. I do know about the one big difference between this one and the earlier ones: they switched drummers this time around -- apparently the original guy wasn't metal enough for them -- employing the services of Killswitch Engage drummer Justin Foley. (There's another connection to that band, too; the album was produced by KE guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz.) As drummers go, he's certainly punishing, and his pounding, straightforward drumming drives the material with ferocious enemy. I'm personally not so enthusiastic about the band's constant reliance on breakdowns, but they at least do that well, and Foley is totally in sync with the rest of the band regarding the stop 'n start rhythms. They also have the good sense and focus to keep the songs relatively short -- only one song is over four minutes, and then only by a few seconds -- and they have a great, harmonically rich guitar sound, but their insistence on one breakdown after another makes for a really choppy sound, and contributes to a creeping sense of sameness from one track to the next. The best thing about the album, to me, is their furious and overdriven guitar sound, one that manages to be brutally intense and surprisingly melodic at the same time. The times they do deviate from their standard attack, as on the proggy intro to "Equinox" and the hypnotically melodic guitar intro to "Shadows in the Light," are all too brief and make me wish they had more moments like that on the album. Still, if you're okay with breakdown-heavy metal, this is unquestionably heavy stuff, delivered with an unremitting level of ferocity.

Metal Blade

Voivod -- WARRIORS OF ICE [Sonic Unyon Metal]

I have to admit, I was really nervous about this release. While this is not the band's first live album (that would be VOIVOD LIVES, released on Metal Blade in 2000), this is the first one since guitarist Piggy's untimely death in 2005, recorded in December, 2009 at Club Soda in Montreal, featuring guitar from new guy Dan Mongrain; it's also the first live album to feature original bassist Jean-Yves "Blacky" Theriault and original singer Denis "Snake" Belanger. Turns out I had nothing to worry about -- while Piggy's astro-infinty guitar sound is pretty much impossible to replace or duplicate, Mongrain does a respectable job of fitting in with the rest of the band, and the entire band is in fine form (although Snake's delivery isn't quite as smooth as it was in the band's heyday, but age will do that to you). The 15-track set list is drawn mainly from their first six albums (plus two from their latest album INFINI) and includes some of their best-known (and just plain best) tracks like "Nothingface" and "Astronomy Domine"; it's a filler-free set, too, and the band's sound is closer to the raw, ripping sound of their early albums than to the more proggy feel they evolved into by the time of NOTHINGFACE and ANGEL RAT. It definitely sounds like a live album, too -- loud, intense, and chaotic -- but the sound is relatively clear and sharp, if overdriven, and the band's energy level remains consistent from start to finish. I haven't heard the other album and thus have no idea how it compares to this one, but the band has nothing to be embarrased about here, and the song selection makes it a pretty interesting peek at the band's early, classic albums.

Sonic Unyon

No comments: