Tagged: avant-rock

Long-Winded Small Talk

The Dwarfs Of East Agouza
Bes
UK / USA NAWA RECORDINGS NAWA005CD CD (2015)

A recent chapter in ex-Sun City Girl Alan Bishop’s saga of map-hopping exploits catches him in Cairo-based cahoots with like-minded lunatics Sam Shalabi and Maurice Louca for a turbulent turn in team-building. At the risk of selling it as Bishop’s thing, The Dwarfs of East Agouza sound like they might have been distant cousins of the Sun City Girls, had they grown up in post Arab-Spring Cairo instead of Phoenix. But it’s very much an egalitarian effort; blending distinctively non-western percussion, rambling microtonality and the awkward/irascible brand of echo-peddling psych-rock the Girls would lapse into now and again. And as per efforts such as Valentines From Matahari, there’s an assurance that the music’s charms will not be immediately evident.

What’s quickly clear however is that all sense of restraint has been canned: jams ring out in all directions for up to thirty minutes and ain’t about to stop for your peace of mind, nor mine. Or else they ramble on in muttered tones like Bishop’s Uncle Jim in caustic toad mode. In few other conditions could ‘Baka of the Future’ fake it as a sampler track, where itching beneath a bouncy bassline and narcotic organ riff we hear the signature scrapings of Alvarius B’s Jackson Pollock guitar. Skip through the 10-minute excursion and witness the trio almost suffocating in its own smog; the boys getting their groove on where most of us experience mental problems. Yet despite this airborne aggravation, their initial aimlessness achieves lucidity in all cases, and after repeat playbacks their sounds soak deeper into the nervous system.

For all the music’s purported lack of polish, there’s also a sense that the Dwarfs are trying hard not to sound like they’re trying hard. They want not for impish mischief nor discipline, and were it not for poly-musician Louca’s rhythmic chops and unseated tonal stylings, Shalabi and Bishop’s jagged and disgruntled string manipulations would be on much shakier ground. His horse-powered hand-drumming brings calm cohesion to the same chaos his shape-shifting keyboard modulations help to create; encompassing the whole nine yards between Arthur Russell-style organ stabs on ‘Hungry Bears Don’t Dance’ and opiate-drowned dream imagery in ‘Resinance’, both of which aim to resituate us in less defined modes of being. I will take this opportunity to remind you to buy his excellent solo album, Salute The Parrot.

The 30-minute ‘Museum of Stranglers (I-III)’ is everything you’d expect from a cosmic, side-long closer: A climatic creatio ex nihilo in dead air of echo pedal guitars; flutters of Alan Bishop’s recent post-skronk saxophony; the wooziest, most Lovecraftian electronics to manifest thus far; psych-rock tropes unleashed in full force; long stretches of little evident interest; time folding between threadbare lows and celestial highs where oblique and charged power lines soar, bestial purrs and gurgles taper to zero and an inverted, no-wave reprise (of sorts) of the opening theme marking our return to the point of origin. Even for a group with such avowedly irrational proclivities this lurching epic is a perversely gratifying patience-tester; the longer one listens, the stronger the sense of dissociation. A worthy debut to be sure!

Love Over Gold: This Is Not This Heat Live

This Heat at the Barbican Sat 4 March 2017

Second outing for this unusual musical venture which calls itself This Is Not This Heat; two original members from the trio This Heat, plus a number of additional musicians drawn from the worlds of art-rock, free improvisation, and just plain good music. Not the first outing; it came, out of nowhere almost, to Café Oto for a two-night residency in February 2016, which I completely missed. Reports were good – emotions ran high; loyal fans in tears, listeners travelling long distances from beyond the seas to catch the event.

I was overwhelmed by the Barbican night, the power and the beauty of the music. The songs and tunes from the band’s concise output (2 LPs, one 12-inch) which I know so well were running through my head, playing in parallel to these new versions performed on the stage. I’m going to try to account for why it was such a success.

Collaborative, for one thing. Musicians including James Sedwards, improvising bass player John Edwards, violinist and keyboard player Merlin Nova, drummer Frank Byng…not to mention star names Thurston Moore and Chris Cutler. These players are not only able to produce highly convincing versions of the “original” arrangements, but also brought new ideas, new “textures”, to each piece. Purists may have wanted an exact replica of the albums This Heat or Deceit performed on stage, in the manner of acts at the South Bank (which I have seen and enjoyed) that gave us Forever Changes and Pet Sounds, classic albums re-created live on stage, by well-drilled experts. Instead, we got much more, something much deeper.

When I think of added depth…I heard it in the tunes, and most importantly, in the songs. Oh the songs! This Heat wrote great songs! 1 I almost forgot how, on record, there’s such a striking mix of voices, high and low tones, weird harmonies clashing, the grain of many voices, unexpected intervals that leave you breathless. That rich quality was built on, by the trio of dedicated vocalists Jenny Moore, Luisa Gerstein and Laura Groves, joining Hayward and the other singers; a polyphony of voices. The harmonies now became unbearably beautiful. Conversations, previously obscured in the original recordings, suddenly came forth. Meanings were enriched, and deepened. Obscure lyrics – beautiful poetry – were suddenly now audible, and readable like books. Most prominent successes to illustrate this: ‘Music Like Escaping Gas’ (“There She Blows…”), ‘The Fall of Saigon’, and ‘Independence’. And how could I forget ‘Sleep’, on stage a bittersweet delight of unbearable poignancy, an achingly brief moment which you wish you could have put in a bottle like vintage wine. Heck, all the songs benefited from this process of blending avant-garde doo-wop and Gesualdo madrigal singing, by way of angst-ridden post-punk groanings. I’ll say it again – This Heat always wrote great songs, and didn’t just make a “noise” or free-form experiments in the studio. Let’s move the spotlight away from Scott Walker’s latest over-contrived pieces for one moment, and give Charles Hayward his due as a composer.

Pause. Perhaps my readers would like a more prosaic account of the evening at The Barbican. Well, This Is Not This Heat came on after the interval, preceded by two solo sets by the original members. The one by Charles Hayward was a mix of icy-cold romantic and melancholy songs with him performing on the grand piano and crooning. But he also moved strangely about the stage rattling percussion. Even more strangely wheeling a speaker around in a pram. The speaker made a droning sound. Hayward wailed like a baby, but this seemed to have been part of a much wider domestic narrative about a sad commuter returning to his “happy” home in the evening. A bleak view of life to be sure, but an honest one. Hayward was not one for effusive communication with his fans, and entered and left the stage with a very becoming deal of modesty. Charles Bullen, who now cuts a remarkable figure with his Victorian whiskers, was even less demonstrative. Barely looking at us, he sat behind his table on which may have been mounted a prepared guitar of some sort, and set to work with deliberation. What emerged was incredibly minimal tones in a slew of repeated phrases that nearly drove this listener mad – a kind of restricted cross between electronic Gamelan and Terry Riley. Yet something struck home. Overheard in the lobby afterwards: “Yeah, but you can still hear This Heat in that stuff, somehow.” Good observation, stranger. In between these acts: screening of a film by the 1970s structuralist film-maker John Smith called The Black Tower. unlike Peter Gidal and the more hard-core members of the London Film-Makers Co-op, Smith decided to meet the audience halfway, and went back to telling stories in the 1980s, hence this unsettling suburban fable about the pernicious and unseen effects of an unknown outer force (most likely a metaphor for monopoly capitalism).

Then This Is Not This Heat after the interval. A crowd-pleasing ending with green laser lights. Who would have thought that it would be possible to play ‘24 Track Loop’, originally a concoction of the studio mixing desk, on stage? Hayward may say it’s now possible to do that because technology has improved now, but I think there are other factors, other reasons that have brought matters to this point.

To try and explain what I mean, let’s revisit that collaborative theme. At one level, I think it means something that it takes 14 musicians to build one This Heat, indicating the power of the original trio must have been…quite considerable. But I am probably imagining those 1980s gigs (I never saw the band at the time) to have been more than they were. But perhaps it also takes 14 musicians to create this reconstruction, this reimagination of the songs and the tunes, to make them even greater than before. The nuances and details are all there on the original records – incidentally inviting one to go back and re-examine those grooves, where not a single second was wasted in communicating through sound, gesture, word, music, editing, layering…

The team effort also says something to me about how, through music, we can build on stage a working model of how human relations could change, how society could work better. Even if it’s just for two hours on stage, we can learn from it. John Stevens, the UK improviser, believed strongly in this possibility, and manifested it in all of his directed team efforts, harnessing the energy of great musicians to show a way of living, working and doing that was a model of how a co-operative society could work. I’ve always thought This Heat believed in that too; at the Barbican, they proved it.

Some media write-ups and appraisals have pointed out the gap between the original This Heat and this event; for instance, the concert handout tells us it’s been 40 years since the band’s first gig in 1976. Well, maybe this isn’t really a gap; I would argue that it has in fact been a necessary waiting process, a maturation. The band This Heat had to exist in the 1970s and 1980s, in order to influence musicians Thurston Moore and many others (becoming a “cult” band, I suppose, much as I hate that term), and the impact of their work sunk into the culture in a gradual way. Think of it as a slow release of benign energy, a healing and changing power. The time is now right for that cycle to complete; by bringing their own history, with This Heat DNA mixed into it, the 14 musicians were able to realise the “perfect” version of This Heat we saw in March 2017. If I am right in these fervoured ravings, maybe the event says something about the way culture ought to happen; it’s not instant, it’s slow, and mysterious, but when it works – it’s a glorious and unstoppable force for good.

Comparisons therefore with, say, Young Marble Giants, and their reunion gigs, are probably not in the same league. I love YMG and their 1980 album. But somehow their music got hermetically sealed into a 1980-1981 time capsule, and its influence has not really rooted itself in culture, other than being a reference for “hip” bands to name-check, often by people who have little real understanding of their music. I am fairly sure their “reunion” gig at Meltdown in 2015 (I did not attend) would have been pretty much the exact same songs played the exact same way, with no evidence of a deepening process. Sure, a rock fan addicted to the cult of personality and some idea of “authenticity” might well say that seeing the “original members” trumps everything. But This Is Not This Heat gives us a different angle on that. This is Not This Heat, it’s This Heat Plus.

  1. Hayward has spoken movingly of the songs greeting him like old friends, saying “where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you”.

Totally Masked Out

Finding much to enjoy on the LP Antifree (OSR TAPES OSR#48) by CE Schneider Topical, the singing duo of Christina Schneider and Zach Phillips, an album recorded in 2015 in Brooklyn. You may recall we just recently noted their contributions to a blue flexidisc from Belgium, and their appearance on the record by Maher Shalal Hash Baz, plus the highly active Zach Phillips has come our way before on records by Blanche Blanche Blanche and Big French. He plays a lot of the instruments on this LP, but so does Schneider, who has a songwriting credit on all but one of these 17 songs, and she’s the lead vocalist throughout. Antifree is a highly entertaining record of what I call “avant-pop”, a term I’ve used to describe diverse bands such as Family Fodder, Jack O’ The Clock, The Residents, Amos & Sara, and many other offbeat melodicists. If we could characterise most of the songs on Antifree, I’d point out the bizarre and highly inventive melodies, which (unlike most conventional pop) don’t rely too heavily on repetition, or a simple verse-chorus structure. There’s something more ingenious going on with the songwriting. Secondly, I’d draw attention to the unusual musical arrangements, using adjectives like “eccentric” to describe the sound and the instrumentation. There’s a lot of guitars, and tight drumming, but also some old-school non-digital keyboards, such as the Clavinet and the Wurlitzer piano, the latter an instrument favoured by Hamilton Yarns, that charming UK band of underground popsters. Zach’s technical skill here (he engineered it) has been to achieve this natural home-grown sound using an open-reel tape recorder. Nothing tweaked, and it shows; Christina’s assured vocal performances shine in the mix, and the music hasn’t been bled dry by digital reworking, meaning each song soars for its few brief minutes on earth.

I’ve tried on today’s listen to engage with the lyrical content of these non-rock songs, with their titles such as ‘Female in Images’ and ‘Exit All Seasons’, and find them completely cliché-free; not a hackneyed phrase in sight. But I’ll also admit defeat; the lyrics are slightly impenetrable. Somehow Christina keeps the subject at arm’s length for the duration of the song, with her unexpected turns of phrases that really keep the listener on their toes. She also sings them totally straight, by which I mean without affectation or vocal tics. I feel that I ought to be able to decode these songs in time, but it’ll take a few listens. I’ve previously compared this duo’s records to Brian Wilson Beach Boys productions, and think this is still valid, but these songs don’t have the innocence of Pet Sounds (mind you, in 2016, who does?!), and it feels like a lo-fi Wilson production pushed through a modern, suburban, and ironic filter.

As an album that keeps on perpetually surprising the listener, Antifree comes highly recommended, as a unique example of contemporary American songcraft. I see Mark Kramer did the mastering, and this record often puts me in mind of another personal favourite “avant-pop” duo, Bongwater, which Kramer led with Ann Magnuson. Luke Csehak of The Lentils plays lead guitar on one track, and Billy McShane adds saxophone to another. The charming surreal cover art was painted by Matthew Thurber. From May 2016.

Drei, He Said

At first glance, the European trio Bader Motor may appear to be offering us nothing more than a very knowing take on Krautrock records, with their obvious quotes from Kraftwerk and Neu! LPs, and probably other Germanic references too. However, I’ll forgive any project which has Fred Bigot as a member, considering my fondness for his solo records where he mixes electronic noise with rockabilly in a highly enjoyable manner. not to mention the unusual Melt Famas record with its over-amped guitars and drums. Bader Motor are Bigot with Arnaud Maguet and Vincent Epplay – the latter played with Jac Berrocal and David Fenech – and the three have appeared together before on Musique Pour Les Plantes Des Dieux in 2009. This record, Drei drei drei (VEALS & GEEKS VAGO17 / LES DISQUES EN ROTIN REUNIS LDRR #056), not only has the clever Krautrock pastiches assembled by these French wags, but also offers their slightly sardonic version of electropop, disco, and general Euro-murk – the sort of banal aural wallpaper that might blight your continental tour at any point between the airport, the shopping mall and the cafe. This may be what the threesome have in mind when they speak of “a new class of space [rock] and Riviera Krautrock”. Riviera Krautrock?! What does that even mean? I can’t think of anything worse than experimental music recast as another consumer / lifestyle option for the “Riviera set”, those rich buffoons wearing expensive sunglasses and swimsuits, if indeed such a thing even exists any more outside of 1960s travelogue movies, but I’m prepared to believe Bader Motor are up to something vaguely subversive and sarcastic. As it turns out, this LP is an enjoyable listen with its edgy mix of user-friendly beats and melodic drones combined with odd, queasy noises, rough textures, and outpourings of filtered glorp. From 12th August 2016; available as an LP or download.

Skate Mutie from the Fifth Dimension

Impressive record by one-man American powerhouse Matt Weston on his four-track release Skate For The Lie (7272music#009). I was interested enough to browse his back catalogue, much of which seems to consist of self-released items on his own 7272 Music label, and without hearing them I do have the impression that Skate For The Lie is just a tiny glimpse into what this fellow is capable of. He credits himself with just percussion and electronics, but there seems to be so much more going on in just these four short tracks, many more instruments at work. On ‘You’ve Got That Song’ he sounds like an entire band, performing some wayward brand of outer-space funk-rock noise. There’s also the intense over-crowded explosions on ‘The Old Man With The Burning Eyes’, where it’s like about two or three punk rock bands having a friendly punch-up in a sweaty basement. Real energy music, and “maximal” in a way that I enjoy tremendously, by which I mean there’s no time wasted with wispy nuances of drone and fiddly digital manipulations.

What exactly is Matt Weston doing? I’m not sure. This particular release, we are told, “features multiple realisations of architectural site-specific electroacoustic notation”, a sentence that begs at least three pointed questions. Notation? I’m prepared to believe he’s a composer of some sort, but this stuff comes across as so spontaneous, so very much of the moment, that it’s not immediately obvious to me at what point he pauses to look at the music score. Admittedly, ‘Tarrings and Featherings’, a stark piece of restrained but strong drumming, resembles avant-garde percussion music in places, but there’s also a lot of hearty scrape-and-bang malarkey that would terrify most classical timpani players. ‘This Machine Kills LRAD’ is even more stark, but has bursts and eruptions of electronic noise that you could use to dig up half the pavements of Manhattan. If that’s Matt Weston’s notion of “electroacoustic”, I’ve no complaints, but it’s a long way from INA-GRM, Clyde. As to the claims about being site-specific and having some connection to architecture, I’m at a loss to explain, but one does feel a certain grandiosity in these hefty, industrial-ish, man-sized blocks of noise and sound, as if one were being overshadowed by the tower blocks of New York. He doesn’t mess about and he gets straight to the point.

If we put aside these abstracted ideas about music, we should also note this album “explores themes of loss and defiance”, which may refer to some personal crisis in the life of this Chicago-born musician who currently lives in Albany. The title, and Jeremy Kennedy’s cover art, remain a little obscure, but I could say the same about many of the other intriguing titles in his catalogue, such as Kidnapping Denials or The Last Of The Six Cylinders. I do like a musician who evidently dreams of being mistaken for Herman Melville one day. Lest you think Weston is some undiscovered lone genius, in fact he’s got friendly collaborators by the dozen – there are ample instances of his collaborative work with other bands, singers, improvisers, rockers, jazzers, and avantists of all stripe, a resume of which would probably leave you feeling quite sick. Two regular gigs to look out for are Arthur Brooks Ensemble V, and Arc Pair, a duo with drummer Amanda Kraus. Many thanks to Matt for sending this. There’s also a cassette edition available as Tape Drift Records TD76. From 3rd August 2016.

HØST: a wild ride into the most deranged realms of acid BM fury

 

Holokauston, HØST, New Zealand, The Dark Thursday, digital album TDT71 / Ukraine, Depressive Illusion Records, floppy diskette FNR218 (2017)

As debut extreme / experimental albums go, “HØST” by Holokauston, a one-man BM project based in India, is as mind-destroyingly extreme and bleedingly raw as any I’ve come across before. The music ranges from melodramatic synth-orchestral soundtrack music to primitive punk BM throb and pummel, all shot through with a demented and disturbed genius. As far as I can tell, the album is the work of Holokauston head honcho (and sole member) Arjun Somvanshi who produced it as well. I dunno what conditions Arjun S played under and what the studio was like but whatever, wherever it was, it must be one helluva hellfire-n-brimstone hellish place to be where churning guitars are chopped up into brain-destroying metal shuriken slivers that cut every nerve and every cell connection, the chainsaws wheeze with demon minds of their own, the drums throb and pulse in response to an unholy life force and the entire recording ends up a juddering, broken, psychotic beast on the rampage. Guitars spew industrial-strength liquid acid that corrodes and melts down machinery. Amazing how the fluttery pounding drums quickly take over your own heart beat and force your head and body to judder in time to the insane outpourings as well. The vocals range from angry crabby groaning and demented mutterings to screams and howls.

There do exist moments of the most astonishing clarity in which acoustic guitar melodies flow easily and breathy clear-toned voice sighs but these times are very brief and highlight the unhinged nature of the songs. In these moments, the production is clear and sharp, much better than what I would have anticipated for a self-produced album, probably made at home, in a country (India) where electricity isn’t always reliable and blackouts occur most days. After the album’s halfway point, the songs become much louder and sharper, and a lot more frenzied, so I assume the recording wasn’t all done in one hit. The riffs and melodies are much clearer and the racket turns out to be much more ordered and less chaotic than you might think. Arjun S really does play guitar and drums well and the more I listen to this album, the more cohesive the songs actually are in spite of their looseness.

All the way through you’re treated to a wild and exhilarating ride in sheer crazed acid BM fury but the craziest parts turn out to be the intro and outro title pieces which are truly bat-shit exercises in experimental synth keyboard / piano retarded noodling. I really had a great time with this album – the only downside is when it all ends and I have to readjust to the real world.

I’ll Be Your Mirror

Hello New York (OSR TAPES OSR60) is the “American” album, I suppose, by Maher Shalal Hash Baz, that highly eccentric Japanese band led by Tori Kudo that continues to baffle listeners across the globe. I think they may have caused a flurry of interest in the UK around 2000, when Stephen Pastel started to put out some of their records on his Geographic label, but copies of these never reached us. Matter of fact we don’t seem to have been graced with their music since 2009, when we heard the bizarre double CD C’est La Dernière Chanson which was recorded with the help of some local French players. It comprised over 200 songs, a fact I mention just to remind you of one of the many quirks of the Maher Shalal Hash Baz approach to playing and recording songs.

The tradition of “working with the locals” appears to continue on Hello New York, as he’s joined by some American players including Christina Schneider and Zach Phillips from CE Schneider Topical (Zach is also the owner of OSR Tapes), and clarinet player Arrington de Dionyso who has amazed us in the past with his wild solo records and with the group Old Time Relijun. How did Tori Kudo feel about playing in New York? “One of my dreams has come true,” he states on his modest sleeve note here, worried about whether his voice carried well when he said “hello New York”. Did he say it to an audience? These are live recordings, in case you were wondering, but done in a studio in Brooklyn. Packed crowd of eager fans at Madison Square Garden next time, let’s hope.

I can see why civilians struggle to listen to the music of Maher Shalal Hash Baz; clearly it sounds as though it’s being played “badly”, and when writing about it I always reach for the metaphor of a school band attempting to do easy-listening music. But it’s done this way deliberately, and the odd arrangements are what gives the music its character. Even so this particular record might be a way in for many listeners, as it’s got something of a rock vibe; for one thing, they set out to cover a Velvet Underground song (‘Sweet Jane’, rendered here as ‘Dulce Juana’), and at least half of the tunes resemble VU songs and jams that never existed. This may be because of the large number of guitar players who are credited on the sessions – eight in all, including Kudo. But it’s also endearing and exciting to hear the band attempt even the simplest rock syncopation in their rhythms, only for it to come out extremely clunky, with the percussion, xylophone and clarinets soon revealing their shortcomings when it comes to playing streetwise rock, or even gentle loping Indie-rock rhythms. This may be one of the things Pastel found so appealing in the first place. It certainly grows on you.

Playing ‘Sweet Jane’ is Kudo’s way of greeting New York, by paying homage to that most New Yorkian of rock bands. It’s clear he not only loves the band, but he’s taken every one of their recordings to heart in a way that shames even the most dedicated VU collector-nutcase; his rendition of ‘Sweet Jane’ is not only accurate and complete, but also a radical remake; it reveals unexpected nuances and meanings in the song. The song is echoed, I would claim, by a song which proceeds it on side one, called ‘Haarp’, which is dominated by Schneider and Phillips performing the sort of snappy off-colour repartee which Lou Reed would normally have carried out by himself, playing all the parts in his dramas of seedy low-life.

Kudo’s other way of greeting New York is to have played some John Cage music, apparently. Good move, given Cage’s position as some sort of patriarch of the New York school. I don’t know if this high experimentalism of Kudo shows up on the grooves. We do have some of his characteristically odd compositions, such as ‘Banksy’, scored for woodwind and percussion – less than a minute of deliciously perplexing gentle notes arrayed according to a weird logic. It’s not easy to summarise this elusive music, but one key characteristic is “brevity” – short tunes that end as soon as they begin, leaving many question marks at the end, although the longer workouts such as ‘Miss You My Baby Doll’ and ‘That’s All I Would Get’ tip the balance in the opposite direction, making their one simple point over and over again. Another key characteristic is “everything playing at once”, by which I mean no solos and no single instrument is especially highlighted. Great polyphony. Yet it coheres, and we can hear everyone clearly in a delicious jumble of music. One sense it takes some discipline and talent to be able to keep this many musicians under control without producing a horrible noise. There is an anecdote about Phil Spector and his enormous studio bands…which I’ll save for another time.

This endearing record feels more “chaotic” (in a good way) than the few Maher Shalal Hash Baz recordings I have heard, so perhaps Tori Kudo picked up some of the “energy” of New York that everyone talks about. It’s reflected to some degree in the back cover photos of the sessions, created by Christina Schneider, brilliantly collaging and overlaying her own images. A riot of colour, instruments and stands everywhere; almost like a dream in miniature of the Arkestra. Kramer (of Shimmy Disc fame) did the mastering, and the LP is 53 minutes long! From 19 May 2016.

30th January update: many thanks to Ed Walsh, who points out this cover is a pastiche of a 1973 LP by Silverhead.

6th March update: many thanks to Zach for pointing out it’s Christina & Arrington doing the vocal back-&-forth on “Haarp”.

Black Wisdom: taking dissonant black / death metal into dark ambient and prog-rock realms

Grey Heaven Fall, Black Wisdom, Russia, Aesthetics of Devastation, CD AOD-2 (2015)

True it is that French avant-garde black metallers Deathspell Omega have spread their influence widely across the world and across metal genres, and most bands who fallen under DSO’s spell have been content to follow in that band’s shadows and rarely venture beyond to take the Tao of Dissonant Metal into new territories. One band who might prove the exception is Russian trio Grey Heaven Fall on their second album “Black Wisdom” with a despairing message about the nature of God as a capricious, even psychotic and nihilistic being who demands humanity follow Him in His less-than-godly image, only to reject and damn His faithful when they obey His decrees. GHF play a straightforward and melodic song-based style of dissonant black / death metal, very similar to DSO in sound but easier on the ear in its structures and rhythms, with many surprises for those expecting yet more DSO hero worship and nothing else.

The first half of the album plays out in fast-paced minimal black / death style, dominated by grating raspy vocals filled with a mixture of anger, frustration and hopelessness. The long songs reach epic heights of sorrow and tragedy thanks not only to the dense and layered music and the intense emotion in the vocals but also passages of solo lead guitar that deliver even more pathos, as if there was not sadness enough already. The turning point where we start to sense that GHF are staking out their own territory comes with “Sanctuary of Cut Tongues”, a completely dark ambient piece springing from some hitherto hidden depths where black smoky mists block out the light and discourage entry, and only a forlorn guitar and distant chanting are evidence of spirit activity within. From then on, the remaining tracks stand out for their musical diversity: “Tranquility of the Possessed” includes slow doom elements along with the usual blackened death and “That Nail in a Heart” features a passage of downbeat urban blues guitar melody transitioning into a soaring prog-rock lead guitar solo of incredibly dark loneliness, and later a taut but delicate descent into a quiet atmospheric coda after more black / death rumble.

Parts of the album, especially in its second half, could have been edited for length and the production doesn’t quite do the music justice – it’s clear enough but doesn’t bring out the band’s full power. The drums especially don’t seem as thunderous as they should be for such intense and complex music. Apart from these admittedly technical details, the album is a very good and thoughtful effort. GHF certainly have the ambition, vision and technical chops to carve out a long and distinguished career. They do need to have a more distinctive sound away from the DSO worshippers: taking their music into realms of atmospheric, even psychedelic prog-rock might be one way of achieving that.

Red Giant

Fine instrumental music from Møster! on their album When You Cut Into The Present (HUBRO MUSIC HUBROCD2565), where Kjetil Møster and his men turn in five lively performances with a rock set-up that’s a framework for Kjetil’s sax melodies and the guitar efforts of Hans Magnus Ryan. Last noted this band for their 2014 album Inner Earth, where Steve Hanson responded warmly to their “heavy prog” vibe. I would concur…in places we can find traces of “jazziness” in their playing, and it’s not just because of the agitated sax blowing, but the fact that they don’t follow conventional verse-chorus structures or time signatures, and instead tend to keep blurting it out for eight or nine minutes at a time, in a sprawling jam-session style, provided we can use that phrase without any suggestion that this is flabby, self-indulgent or shapeless music. Rather, Møster! are as taut as a spelunker’s climbing rope (I’m using imagery suggested by the front cover, and I just hope they actually go cave exploring on weekends, thus validating my speculation) and punch their messages home with close attention to dynamics, energy, and concision. Come to think of it, their drummer Kenneth Kapstad may be one of the more important members in that regard. Whereas a lot of Hubro records tend to be a little too pleasant and countrified for me, this album delivers a strong avant-rocky punch to the bread-basket. The album title is derived from a William Burroughs quote, which is in fact completed by one of the track titles here, but it looks as though that’s about as this band goes as regards flirting with underground culture or experimenting with cut-ups. From 12 July 2016.

The Irrepassable Gate: an uneven recording with good moments … and some very long ones too …

How does the cliche go? “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here …”

Ash Borer, The Irrepassable Gate, Canada, Profound Lore Records, CD PFL174 (2016)

If you’re thinking “there’s no such word as irrepassable”, well you’re wrong now because US West Coast black metallers Ash Borer have just brought it into being. Go on, is there another word in English that expresses the sense of wanting to pass over or through a threshold or portal, finding yourself stuck, yet being unable to go back, and being possibly condemned to remain in eternal limbo? This is the sense I have with the title of Ash Borer’s most recent album after a long hiatus of three-and-a-half years after the band’s last release. The cover art also conveys an impression of an occult temple entry into another dimension, one that will have a dramatic effect spanning the rest of your life if you dare try to go through; and if you don’t, you’ll remain in a child-like state forever, unable to progress to a higher spiritual level or state of conscious existence.

The title track is a mighty roaring guitar-dominant beast rampaging through its jungle domain, all thudding drums, whining guitar and subterranean growling vocals. The sound is very clear and the style of music is close to very melodic, clean-sounding BM with thrashy elements. Any pretensions to being ambient BM are being left behind and Ash Borer is becoming a full-fledged guitars-n-drums band. This in itself presents a challenge to Ash Borer to convey atmosphere, mood, intense emotion and their full, densely layered style without the help of keyboards. Stretched over 11 minutes, the title track appears a bit one-dimensional as the band concentrates on piling riff upon riff and plows its path speedily and relentlessly, forcing listeners to follow as best they can. The slower, bass-heavy (in its first half anyway)”Lacerated Spirit” is more successful at carving out a three-dimensional sound and distinct atmosphere with feedback drone and an experimental bent. Likewise “Lustration” is another step further into the twilight world promised by the album title with deep drone, repeating guitar strum shrouded with echo and moaning voices and effects suggesting the presence of ancient spirit beings.

The album does have its bombastic moments and at times these and the long passages of never-ending blast-beat drumming, guitar noodling and background demon wailing can start to sound like filler material. There may be some fine melodies and moments where the music is intense and unsurpassable but when songs are very long and get carried away by constant repetitive fidgeting, no matter how technically good that is, such jewels can be missed. Listeners who find the second half of the album something of a drag (I have to say I did) can spend some time with the songs to their halfway points and shoot through to the final track “Lustration II” which is a return to the slower, complex doomy BM style of earlier songs like “Lacerated Spirit”.

As you can guess by now, this album was a very mixed bag of good, avant-rock music and longer scrabbling pieces of endurance-test proportions. The experimental ambient avant-rock style of tracks like “Lacerated Spirit” and the two “Lustration” pieces unfortunately doesn’t extend all the way through and the distinct sounds these have compared to the more straight-ahead melodic BM of the rest of the album make “The Irrepassable Gate” a very uneven recording. Well, Ash Borer didn’t exactly promise us a smooth ride through what may very well be a transition phase in their career. It seems that “The Irrepassable Gate” symbolises a formidable challenge for the band at this crucial moment in their history, whether to advance in a different musical direction or stay as they are, as it is a listening experience for its audiences.