Sunday, August 12, 2012

the avalanche begins....

NOTE: While I am tragically unemployed, I'm taking advantage of the sudden abundance of free time to deal with the enormous backlog of reviewables. This post is primarily devoted to whittling down the long list of digital promos (which are mostly metal albums); the next one will be largely devoted to physical releases. I'll keep rotating and posting until everything is done, and probably posting once a week in the process. I'm hoping to be completely caught up on reviews by the middle of September, so if you've been waiting to see something here, well... it's coming, finally.

Antigama -- STOP THE CHAOS ep [Selfmadegod]

After a couple of full-length releases on Relapse Records, Polish grind enthusiasts Antigama have shuffled a few players (original vocalist Lukasz Myskzkowski is back and they have a new bassist and drummer) and returned to Selfmadegod for a six-track ep. I don't know what previous lineups sounded like, but this is a pretty punishing one, especially with the addition of former Vader and Christ Agony drummer Pawel Jaroszewicz, who sounds less like a human being than a constant series of controlled atomic explosions. This is a grind album, so the songs are absurdly fast and frantic, but their version of grind has far more in common with metal than punk; there's plenty of wild flailing around, sure, but it's all controlled and unnerving in its precision, and supremely heavy as well. There's no telling what Lukasz is yelling about (I can't even tell what language he's hollering in), but he certainly sounds quite hostile, just the way a good grind screamer should. With the exception of the last song, the songs are also admirably concise, with the first five tracks each under three minutes. The final track, "The End," is a surprising departure from the rest of the album, a brooding ambient / electronic piece whose dark, menacing atmosphere is the only thing connecting it to the rest of the album. This brief but brain-scouring effort should keep fans happy while the band readies a three-way split with Noisear and The Kill and prepares to record another full-length album later in the year. 

A Whisper in the Noise -- TO FORGET [Exile on Mainstream]

You can tell they must be good, because Steve Albini -- after recording their first album THROUGH THE IDES OF MARCH in 2002 -- took them to Europe to open for Shellac, where the album was well-received enough to earn them a spot on the bill at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in 2004. At some point West Thordson (leader and primary songwriter) joined forces with violinist Sonja Larson, and for the most recent album, took over drums and recording duties himself (although it was mastered by Stefan Bruggerman, the label's own mastering expert). On this album, Larson is not just a player, but an equal part of the songwriting team, with baroque and gorgeous results.

The band's sound has been compared to Sigur Ros and Mogwai, but they make me think more of the first wave of 4AD bands like This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins; their use of orchestral instruments in service of melodic pop song structures and ambient sound to add texture and color are very much in the same ballpark, especially with the addition of Larson's ethereal vocals. The swirling clouds of sound are broken up by more immediate sounds -- the crashing drums in the distance that appear intermittently in "A Sea Estranging Us," or the hypnotic piano melody in "All My" -- but in essence the album's core sound is minimal yet complex, with bare-bones percussion and simple but elegant melodies on piano and violin that are wrapped in clouds of sonic gauze. Their less is more approach makes for an extremely spacious sound, and their talent for assigning just the right instrument to play just the right melody -- especially on "Your Hand," one of the most beautiful tracks here -- has a lot to do with what makes them so good. It's rare to see a band so adept at balancing melodic pop and ambient sound without drifting away in a wispy cloud of nothingness or becoming mired in impenetrable layers of sonic effluvia. Highly recommended.

Aura Noir -- OUT TO DIE [Indie Recordings]

Right up front, I really like the old-school look of their album cover, which looks like it could have been the cover of some totally obscure 80s thrash demo. The sound is pretty old-school too; they're from Norway, so of course the obvious thought is that they must be black metal (and since the band has included at one time or another members of Mayhem, Immortal, and Dodheimsgard, that's actually a pretty reasonable assumption), but while they share a lot of black metal's stripped-down and primitive aesthetic, their riffs and song structures are closer to death metal. That's especially true on "The Grin From the Gallows," which is slow and heavy and filled with both crushing riffs and droning but melodic lead guitar lines. "Priest's Hellish Fiend" is another good one, too, with a persistent groove, more punishing riffing, and plenty of suffocating dread. The album doesn't offer any real surprises, but it's a solid collection of death-obsessed tunes steeped in ferocity and ugliness that's worth your attention.

Brokaw -- INTERIORS [Good To Die Records]

The big name getting everyone's attention here is Stuart Dahlquist, bassist and former member of Burning Witch and Goatsnake, but he's hardly running the show here -- this is very much a group effort (other members include vocalist Mike Henderson, guitarist Rick Troy, and drummer Rich Medic), and a pretty interesting one at that. There's some painful, squealing feedback introducing "Ambulance Red" to remind us we now live in the era of noise, but the feedback gives way to something much funkier, stranger, and harder to pigeonhole, a sound that's hard to easily encapsulate. The promo poop sheet throws out names like Melvins, Hammerhead, The Fall, and even Miles Davis, but it's probably more revealing to note that while there's some truth to these name-checked influences, there's a lot more happening than that, and it all comes together in really unexpected ways. The rhythm section favors stop 'n start drum patterns embellished by bass lines like a metallic version of 70s funk, while the guitarist's sound like John McLaughlin on a noise kick and the vocalist favors a howling yelp closer to the blues-rock bleating of guys like Joe Cocker (and maybe even Sly Stone during his most drugged-out period). Despite all the nods to eras gone by, though, this sounds surprisingly modern -- no small feat in itself -- and far more original and cohesive than a pastiche of weird influences. Bizarrely enough, a lot of this album sounds like the soundtrack to a lost 70s blaxploitation film, the kind where the sound coming from the band mirrors the action on the screen. It's heavy without being stupid, baroque in its weirdness without being affected, and possessed of a certain black, deadpan sense of humor. One thing's for sure: nobody else around right now sounds like this. If you step up to this expecting a rehash of Dahlquist's previous bands, you'll probably be disappointed, but if you approach it with even an ounce of imagination, you may surprised by what you find. Bonus points for the swank titles "Politicians By the Pool" and ""You Didn't Invent Sex." You can check out the album for free by visiting their Bandcamp site at the link below.

Burning Love -- ROTTEN THING TO SAY [Southern Lord]

I'm not sure what they were thinking when they put so much effort into making a good album (including the good decision to have it recorded by Kurt Ballou) and then gave it such a mediocre cover. Seriously, the cover (which is nothing more than a handwritten depiction of the band's name) looks like it was conceived and executed on the spot at the last minute. What's up with that? Aside from the cover issues, this album -- their second -- is a competent merging of melodic punk and hardcore angst, with songs whose crash and burn energy are wrapped in melodic sheets of sound that make them far less monochromatic than some of the label's other hardcore albums. The album's relentless grooves are only enhanced by touches like the extended melodic soloing in "The Body" and "Made Out of Apes," and the chunky riffing in "Pig City II" is a nice break from the rest of the album's tendency toward nonstop forward velocity. The album's one big drawback is one that's inherent to most hardcore albums -- unless you're really familiar with the nuances of the genre, after a while most of the songs tend to sound alike. Still, they get a great guitar sound and their drummer adds plenty to the band's restless energy quotient. Too bad about the album cover, though.

Cocks Arquette -- S/T [OSCL Records / FTU Industries]

This is certainly a strange way to do business: aside from the massive weirdness quotient radiating from the tracks, the album was recorded live with no overdubs and the album is being released in different formats by two different labels (cd and digital versions from OSCL, limited vinyl edition from FTU Industries). The album itself is pretty bizarre -- after a short, throwaway introduction, the album settles into three long tracks (ten to thirteen minutes each) that sound like an art-metal band taking its cues mainly from PIL's METAL BOX. That's especially true on "Pointlessly Vindictive," where minimalist percussion pounding and histrionic yelling alternates with long stretches of nothing much more than guitar feedback and eccentric noises. Things start to cook a bit more on "This Changes Nothing," in which the rhythm section tortures the same beat and riff for infinity while strange guitar noises swirl and clatter along, with a bleak and murky sound that's almost totally devoid of midrange. Toward the end the percussion and noise die away, leaving a simple repeating guitar riff that is eventually joined by thuggish bass and more simple percussion, forming a nearly melodic sound that threatens to turn into a new direction for the song… only to end. "Then Leave" opens with lots of cryptic rumbling noise and sweeping oscillator sounds that lead into a clipped machine rhythm followed by a genuine metal riff that they proceed to beat into the ground. Add more sweeping synth / oscillator-fu and the vocalist's pained howling and you have a death march to the cold, black ocean… so heartwarming! One of the things that interests me most about this band is how they have five players yet manage to sound like they have only three most of the time -- this is a band that really believes in the policy of playing only what's needed, when it's needed. Strange, yes, but strangely compelling, although probably not for those who can't hang with the healing power of endless repetition.

Cop Problem -- S/T 7" [War Torn / Prejudice Me]

Philadelphia's Cop Problem have toured with bands like Converge, Trap Them, and Dropdead, so if you know anything about those bands, you probably have an inkling of what to expect on their debut single, where they drop three fast-paced tracks in under nine minutes. Their frantic attack is rooted heavily in punk and hardcore, and while they're certainly energetic and competent enough, there isn't a whole lot of variety in the track here -- just lots of pummeling drums, bumblebee guitar, and angry shrieking from vocalist Deborah Cohen, who does her best to sound like a possessed demon. The exception comes at the tail end of "Blinded By Power," in which the guitarist breaks out a pretty melody and she abandons the shrieking for clean vocals, providing a striking contrast to the rest of the song. With any luck, that will be a starting point for them to expand the range of their delivery on future releases. 

Deadkill -- S/T 7" [Good To Die Records]

Hey, I kind of like this… sure, it's nothing but a straight-up throwback to the 70s punk sound of bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Sex Pistols -- in other words, punk bands whose roots were in rock 'n roll -- but it's done really well, in short bursts of catchy fury. Based in Seattle and containing former / current members of Himsa, Meices, and Absolute Monarchs, the band cranks through four short but potent blasts of old-school punk that rock hard with no filler. There are no pretenses toward art here, just one catchy song after another filled with buzzsaw guitars, simple but punishing drumming, and plenty of angry shouting. The four tracks speed by in well under ten minutes, and they're so catchy that you might well find yourself flipping the single over and over, playing it again and again. I'm normally less than enthusiastic about retro-sounding bands, but I can live with it when they sound this good.

Desalmado -- S/T [Greyhaze Records]

Brazilian shredders Desalmado made plenty of waves last year with their HEREDITIAS album, which I recall as being seriously influenced by Sepultura, so it's a little weird for me to see them being referred to as a grindcore band now. It's certainly true, though, that they have moved beyond their Sepultura influences into something far faster, heavier, and grind-oriented; there's nothing on this album over three minutes long, and the cumulative effect of their shot-from-a-cannon velocity and the short, short songs is a feeling similar to being run over by a steamroller. There are more songs this time -- fifteen of them, to be exact, in just 31 minutes -- and they are supremely heavy and considerably more complex than those on their debut. I especially like the way they open "Delirio" with slo-mo sludge hell before bursting into an insane grinding tirade of super-fast everything. When they slow things down a fraction, as on "Falso Profeta," it gives them an opportunity to hammer riffs into your skull more effectively, but these moments are few (and even then, the song is not exactly slow). The only drawback to their fearsome intensity is that sitting through the entire album in one sitting can be really exhausting, but that's a good problem for a grind / metal band to have, right? And while they're certainly relentless, there's no filler here, just a series of violent explosions of fierce, jet-propelled rage. Heavy, heavy, heavy; you must hear.

Dog Shredder -- BRASS TACTICS 12" ep [Good To Die Records]

They have a terrible name, to be sure, but they make up for it with a really swell album cover and a sound so bizarre I can only imagine the reactions of those who witness them live. That sound, as demonstrated on the three battle-themed tracks here, is one that marries art-damaged metal with a distinctly perverse form of prog-rock and tops it off with an absolutely unhinged vocalist who sounds like Freddie Mercury doing Whip-Its. Half the time it's hard to tell what they're doing because there's so much going on -- a drummer and keyboardist who sound like they're channeling Emerson, Lake and Palmer on fast-forward, a bassist who anchors it all to reality with inexplicable bass runs, and (as mentioned earlier) a vocalist so over the top that when he appears, he takes the madness to a completely new dimension. This is all kind of busy for my taste, but there's no question they have amazing chops and an unusual vision. This is just what you need to make your modern prog-metal fantasies come true.

Enabler -- ALL HAIL THE VOID [Southern Lord]

Look, it's Southern Lord, with another super-heavy hardcore album! I dunno, man… this is really heavy and well-done and everything, but with the exception of a few tracks, it sounds pretty much like every other hardcore album the label has released in the past year or so. Part of that's a problem inherent to hardcore, where bands seem to obsessively hew to a formula that must be engraved in stone, but it doesn't help that the label just keeps releasing a steady stream of the stuff. There's no question that the band's heavy, like a truckload of bricks falling on your skull, but outside of the swell cover art (which looks more like a black metal album cover anyway) and those handful of tracks I mentioned, this is essentially a nonstop barrage of breakneck speed, bludgeoning riffs, and angry yelling that's largely interchangeable with a dozen other band's currently on the label's roster. Granted, the opener "F.A.T.H." does an impressive job of faking out the listener with a mournful acoustic dirge, but in less than a minute that's replaced by the full-blown hardcore assault. There are some really good, memorable riffs in some of the songs, too, like "All Hail the Void" and "Save Yourself," and the mutant space-guitar sound of "They Live, We Sleep" is the album's most unexpected moment, but otherwise it's more of the same violent pummeling you can find on too many similar-sounding albums. Hardcore fans who aren't so picky will find it highly listenable, though, despite its drawbacks.


Japanese thrash. Yes, it still exists. And yes, it still sounds as absurd as it ever did. Which is not to say it's bad; far from it -- but it's definitely a different experience to hear a yelping Japanese vocalist over the standard-issue old-school thrash madness. They do have the sound down -- super-fast drumming, squealy treble-heavy guitars sawing away like bumblebees, twisted riffing played at such a speed you can barely tell what they're doing… they even manage to capture the peculiar sound inherent to 80s production values. As for their aesthetic, well, titles like "Die in the Pentegram," "Stench of Hell," "Toxic Tormentor," and "Merciless Onslaught" should make it clear they're stuck in the past when it comes to topics… but at least their topics are appropriately metal. There's absolutely nothing new happening here -- in fact, I'm pretty sure that's completely beside the point -- but as thrash attacks go, theirs is pretty potent, if not exactly revolutionary. 

From Ashes Rise -- "Rejoice the End / Rage of Sanity" 7" [Southern Lord]

Now I can get behind this. It's hardcore, sure, but considerably more imaginative than a lot of the recent hardcore releases coming from the label lately, and more to the point, it's intensely melodic, especially on the A-side, where the melodic sensibility is augmented by heavy, heavy riffs and a song structure that actually allows for rising and falling dynamics. The flip side is a bit darker and more driving, but still shot through with plenty  of buzzing melodic guitar and more intense drumming. The band is currently in Portland, OR, but originally from Nashville, a scene where stellar chops are pretty much mandatory to stand out from the crowd, and that definitely helps them here. (Of course, since this is the band's first release in nine years, having plenty of time to hone the songs to perfection probably didn't hurt.) There's no telling if a full-length will follow, but if it does, it should be well worth your attention, just like this single.

Furze -- PSYCH MINUS SPACE CONTROL [Fysisk Format]

I like Furze, even though I find them largely inexplicable, precisely because they're so unfathomable and unpredictable. The original aim of black metal was to express a clearly individual expression within a metal framework without consideration of commercial appeal, and while that goal has largely been lost in the past decade or so as black metal has turned into a genre bent on aping certain artists for commercial gain, Furze hasn't forgotten this. The band has taken its own sweet time assembling this album, too; it was recorded in three different studios over a period of ten years, although you'd never guess it from how coherent and focused the album sounds. What's really interesting is how they've managed to tie 60s and 70s acid-rock and psychedelia together with black metal's dark, primitive sound, and the result is an album that sounds like a long-lost treasure of psych weirdness. 

"Occult Soul, With Mind" opens a primitive yet compelling riff and drum sound heavily influenced by early Sabbath, but the eerie, wailing vocals take the song to another place entirely, especially when the middle of the song turns into some heavily-reverb slo-mo guitar drone over pokey drums. Imagine Sabbath on Quaaludes and LSD, playing a song that threatens to fall apart at any moment but never quite does -- for over nine minutes, no less.  Even more bizarre is "Psych Mooz Space Control," where they sound -- seriously -- like a black metal version of UMMAGUMMA-era Pink Floyd, with a guitar sound heavily reminiscent of "The Narrow Way" and chord progressions that sound cribbed from several other Pink Floyd songs of that era; it sounds like they picked the best bits from half a dozen songs and retooled them to fit a black metal agenda, and as wacky as that sounds, it actually works really well. "Reaper Subconscious Guide" is even more surreal, with a fuzzed-out guitar sound straight out of the Hellhammer playbook grinding out weird proto-biker rock riffs out over unearthly choral vocals in the background. The one time they really sound like a traditional black metal band -- well, for a minute or two, anyway -- is on the closing track "When Always Ready," but then it's filled with a wide variety of bizarre vocal styles, including a strange half-crooning sound drenched in reverb that sounds like Gira from the early Swans channeling Tom G. Warrior circa INTO THE PANDEMONIUM. Weird, yes, but supremely attractive in a stylish and demented sort of way.

Godhunter -- WOLVES ep [self-released]

This five-track ep, the latest release from Tucson, AZ's Godhunter,  is a pretty good introduction to the band, who throw down a heavy, brooding mix of sludge metal with hardcore leanings. They open with "(Stop Being) Sheep," in which a hypnotic pinging bass line is gradually joined by drums and fuzzed-out guitar, slowly building in dynamics and intensity, finally settling into a groove after more than three minutes, at which point the harsh vocals finally come in, classic sludge-style. A lot of their sound, especially on tracks like "Wolves of the North," is not far removed from that of early St. Vitus, which is definitely a plus in their favor, but they're far more aggressive; where St. Vitus were depressed, they're angry, which lends a grim edge to their sonic attack. "Powerbelly" is another heavy, rumbling tune with a serious strain of St. Vitus in its DNA, along with a great (and hypnotic) guitar line to go with the slo-mo drums and bass crush; it shifts into a higher gear about halfway through, picking up the pace a bit, without losing any of its innate heaviness. Then they kick the speed up a notch on the groovy but unfortunately named "(Dead Hooker By the Side of) The Road," which is indeed most heavy, but it's probably just as well you can't tell what the vocalist is raging about, because with a title that it's almost certainly offensive. Nevertheless, if that's your idea of a good time, this is certainly a band that delivers the goods, and at 32 minutes, they don't wear out their welcome, which is always a good thing.

Graveyard -- THE ALTAR OF SCULPTED SKULLS ep [Pulverised]

Oh, I like this: ugly, ugly blackened death metal so overdriven and fizzy that it borders on white noise. Spanish purveyors of death know how to drag your dead, bullet-riddled corpse through the dirt, all right. This six-track ep features four new tracks plus two older tunes than have been remixed and remastered, not that you'll ever know the difference, and the poop sheet references the likes of Autopsy and Asphyx, which is reasonable enough, but these guys are way filthier (and nowhere near as eccentric as Autopsy). The recording itself is primitive and lo-fi enough to appeal to old-school heshers, but clear enough that you can tell what's going on, with a special emphasis on the splatterfest solos that leap out of nowhere from time to time. The rest of the time it's all brutal beats, corrosive guitar, and churning riffs designed to keep you as unsettled as possible. They also buck the current trend of endless, epic trudges through the kingdom of riffdom by keeping everything down to three or four minutes, which keeps things hopping. Ugly, ugly, ugly; I greatly approve.

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Nate Hall -- A GREAT RIVER [Neurot]

What a strange concept -- Appalachian music gone psychedelic. Hall is a troubadour in the vein of Dylan or Townes Van Zandt, but he speaks primarily through the idiom of mountain music, and here he takes it one step further into mysterious realms by drenching the songs in heavy reverb and other effects. The starting point of these songs lies in simple, acoustic guitar figures that are transported into another dimension via the heavy use of effects. On tracks like "Dark Star," his plaintive vocals are nearly drowned out by the ringing guitar strums as he plays a passage over and over; on "Kathleen," the arpeggiated guitar notes resonate endlessly over a minimal bass line, accompanied only by his mournful vocals. Some of the tracks, like "Chains," are a bit more restrained in their use of effects, sounding much closer to the original feel of mountain music that obviously serves as Hall's main inspiration, and the largely acapella lament "When the Stars Begin to Fall" also dredges up the barren ghost of a long-forgotten and unadorned gospel tradition. For music played almost entirely on acoustic guitar, this is pretty apocalyptic stuff. The sound he gets here is not entirely new -- this is sonic territory that John Fahey was known to frequent on occasion, especially toward the tail end of his career ("Electric Night Theme" could have appeared on RED CROSS, for instance) -- but it's certainly otherworldly and haunting, and surprisingly doom-laden for something that pretty much avoids all the standard trappings of doom. People who think of Neurot solely in terms of its flagship band Neurosis might find this more than a bit eye-opening, but the label deserves massive kudos for releasing such a stark and mysteriously beautiful album.

Hollywood Burnouts -- EXCESS ALL AREAS [Rock Road Records]

They say you shouldn't judge a book (or an album) by its cover, but sometimes that cover is incredibly accurate and tells you everything you need to know. That's definitely the case here, where a fancy logo with lots o' sharp points and the ass shot of some girly-girl squeezed into tight black leather and a studded metal belt combine with the band name and title to strongly suggest that this will be a glam / hair metal offering. And what do you know -- that's exactly what it is! Big surprise, huh? As hair metal goes, this is reasonable enough, with echoes of Warrant, Motley Crue, Ratt (especially Ratt), and other similar 80s bands with big hair, big riffs, and an obsessive need to solo over everything. They even have the obligatory drippy power ballad, "A Part of My Heart," completely with tinkly piano and morose lyrics about the girl who went away, but for the most part this is super-catchy hard rock about girls and partying -- you know, the good things in life. There's nothing original happening here and it's incredibly retro, but they know what they're doing, and if you pine for the glory days of hair metal, they're worth checking out. I prefer my hair metal a bit more decadent and snotty than this, but glam metal fans (especially the female variety) should find this of interest. And yes, they look exactly like you expect.

The Moons In June -- HAPPY TOLUENE [self-released]

Now this is how you combine the past with the present: four guys with fretless bass, an army of guitars, samplers, sequencers, gadgets, and beatboxes, all channeling the essence of Krautrock, shoegaze, and early Suicide to form abstract soundscapes anchored by minimal beats, resulting in a sound that falls somewhere between Suicide peaking on acid and My Bloody Valentine deconstructing their songs on the fly. The first track, "a brow down dubby shame," is one of my favorites -- over a looped beat, the rest of the band makes psychotronic sounds resembling a dust storm on a barren planet. "exit ticks" is a bit jazzier, but still very much in the post-rock neighborhood, and the brief "expectations (exceeded)" is another track driven mainly by a minimal rhythmic pulse and lots of free-floating shards of sound, but "sly tree turn" is a dark and mysterious slice o' drone evoking the feel of an unmanned space capsule drifting through the cosmos. The last three tracks are long ones, taking up a good thirty minutes of the album, the best of which is probably "Dude, where's my palace of wisdom?" -- a track that starts out with more of the free-floating cosmic drift so prevalent on the rest of the album, only to turn into an actual song with jazzy beats and the feel of a cocktail band playing in an interstellar space bar. Cool stuff with a heavy post-rock feel and just enough swing to keep things happening and plenty of drone action to keep the droneheads smiling, too.

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