Tagged: rock music

Hip and Deranged

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J Marks / Shipen Lebzelter
Rock and Other Four Letter Words
UK PARADIGM DISCS PD28 LP (2012)

Here’s a real one of a kind item from 1968, reissued in 2012 by Clive Graham on his own label…once in a while Graham gets his hands on some real freakeroonies, such as Beyond The Black Crack by Revd Dwight Frizzell and the indispensable Bunhill Row by Adam Bohman. Rock and Other Four Letter Words, as a partially spoken-word LP, also fits into his personal interest in the Sound Poetry genre, and he has played it on his radio show Sound Poets Exposed alongside the works of Peter Handke, Kenneth Gaburo and Lou Harrison.

The original album was put together by J Marks and Shipen Lebzelter, and released by Columbia Masterworks. The story of it is that J Marks had just compiled a paperback of this title for Bantam Books featuring photographs of contemporary rock stars by Linda Eastman, with quotes from Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, The Bee Gees, The Mothers of Invention… The record we now hear was built around his tape recordings of these interviews. I should say that this LP is very far from being the “album of the book”. In fact neither these tape snippets, nor the LP itself, really explain anything about the rock musicians or their music. Instead their statements are largely fragmented, cut up and rearranged with tremendous care to form ambiguous and witty collages. It’s form of electro-acoustic manipulation, and does in some sense qualify as “sound poetry”. At least four of the tracks here allow us to hear imaginary surreal dialogues and conversations taking place between Townshend, Page, Grace Slick, Tim Buckley, Lou Adler, the Dave Clark Five and other luminaries. In these meticulously assembled segments, can we expect the “truth” about rock music in 1968 to leak out, Burroughs-style, from these compressions and cut-ups? Hear (and read) to judge for yourself. On ‘Eine Kleine Hayakawa’, Marks edited together various out-take portions – strings of pauses, yawns, mutterings and stutterings from these genius rock stars, not necessarily to make them look stupid, but simply to create 90 seconds of gloriously loopy mouth-gibberish.

I suppose we might expect “rock music” to appear here somewhere, but apart from a “rock riff” supplied by J Marks on the first track, there isn’t much of it. There is gospel, soft pop, absurd songs, microtonal chanting, and an orchestra of session musicians playing all sorts (some of them are from a free jazz background, see below). It’s a verbal and vocal album – if I can state the obvious, there’s a lot of vocals on this album, and they’re producing a veritable tidal wave of verbal information, crashing against your brain in slow motion. “This is the Word” is the opening statement on the insert, as if we’re being read scripture from the Gospel of Rock. On top of the recorded voices and cut-ups, we’ve got two separate choirs – the Gregg Smith Singers and the Greater Abyssynian Baptist Choir, and occasional lead vocals from Marks and Lebeltzer joined by the soloists Hilda Harris and Carol Miller. Harris and Miller do a fine turn on ‘It’s True’, one of many easy-listening swoonalongs on the record, Lebeltzer recites a poem on ‘Essence of its Own’, and all four are featured on ‘Greatest Hits – Love Your Navel’, a vaudeville parody song with absurdist lyrics which would’ve felt right in place on the first United States Of America album (one of this disc’s progenitors, in my estimation; another would be Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy). Harris and Miller are also called upon to recite random words plucked from US sportscasts as the libretto for ‘Poop for Sopranos and Orchestra’, another grandiose nonsense which inflates the ridiculous into the size of a Macy’s parade balloon. To their credit, the very professional singers take it all perfectly seriously, never once cracking an audible grin. Can this possibly get any better?

Well, there’s Gregg Smith Singers who on side one perform ‘In the Middle of Nothing’ which is a gorgeous Fifth Dimension soundalike with a suitably smooth arrangement, but they also sing a remarkable free-form microtonal piece on ‘Essence of its Own’, worthy of a Ligeti choir piece. At moments like these it’s clear the record has an artistic side and the creators’ printed dedication to Karlheinz Stockhausen “who destroyed our ears so we could hear” is not merely empty posturing. Besides that, they somehow recruited Alan Silva to contract some of the session musicians, and he brought in some of his free jazz friends – Andrew Cyrille, Roswell Rudd, Stephen Furtado, Martin Alter…seems astonishing that CBS would have lavished all this money on such a bizarre project from two unknowns, but I suppose this was a more innocent time. The back cover blurb “Featuring a cast of thousands” isn’t far from the mark…and that phrase resonates nicely with the hucksterism promised by the front cover, which resembles a Barnum & Bailey circus poster as much as it’s inspired by Dada typography.

It’s one thing to zoom in on various odd aspects and single tracks of this unusual album, but the totality of it is a very well-integrated and strangely mind-sapping listen. It hangs together beautifully as a fuzzy, dream-like and hilarious-serious album. It’s a unique counter-culture statement of some sort – using themes from underground and mainstream rock, free jazz, gospel, easy listening, poetry, Burroughs cut-ups…and released on a major label. “Remarkably, it is also the first record either of them made,” points out Clive Graham in his sleeve notes. “Nothing of [their] later work compares with the grand scale of their debut.” Graham has done his research, too; J Marks appeared on one other album for the same label by the 1st National Nothing, a colourful rock-theatre combo from California who wound up in NYC. After this he seems to have become Jamake Highwater and is claiming a Native American heritage in his writings and documentary works. Lebzelter’s story is no less strange; he joined The Trees Community, a travelling Christian group of folkies who made a record called The Christ Tree in 1975, which has since acquired some of the same cultiness that attached itself to Father Yod. A fine reissue job, and particular care has been taken with the insert to approximate the wild typography of the original. Groovy! Mad! Intense & really subversive but reasonable!

Metal Birds

I’m warming to the music of Noteherder & McCloud, an English duo who are really growing on me with their odd and inscrutable noise-filled approach to saxophone and electronics. Chris Parfitt does the strained hooting with his brassy soprano while Geoff Reader supplies the crackly boxes, and they both add voice elements too. We haven’t reviewed them since 2011 (their mini CDR Field Log), and I have the sense they can be pretty raucous and outspoken when the circumstances deem fit, but The Bottle Loose In The Drawer (SLIGHTLY OFF KILTER sok043) is slightly more reflective, subtle, and drawn-out; the full length album format gives a bit more space to their unique qualities, and each track stretches out into a puff-driven event showcasing the yowlage of the human throat or the metallic bell of a ghostly sax, accompanied with requisite doses of strange alien drone or bizarre electric twittering. The duo have a very eccentric and personal approach to instant music creation which I like very much. It would probably be a mistake to characterise N&M’s music as “jazz” or “improv” in any way, and to me it feels more like they are creating spontaneous sound-art installations, doing so in any environment in need of such an artistic statement. They change things for the better, wherever they play. To my mind, local councillors should sponsor musicians like this and send them out to any given spot in the city in need of attention, and give them free rein to cure the problem with sound art. Urban blight would soon be a thing of the past. From 24 January 2013.

Label boss of above release is Paul Khimasia Morgan, who walks everywhere in crepe sole shoes, so that none may anticipate his silent advance. He’s released a short performance piece called Eaves Drop (AURAL DETRITUS audet001) and it’s the first item on his own Aural Detritus sub-label. It’s taken from a Brighton concert where he performed with Jason Kahn, who also recorded it using the spindly tubes that grow from his forehead. 17 minutes of highly minimal slow music; there’s a piercing high tone at the start, overlaid in the middle with additional elements which might have been generated by a slow-motion underwater guitar played backwards with electro-magnets by dying turtles. Then we enter a realm of uncertainty, with small boxes being rearranged on an imaginary supermarket shelf of the mind. In a short space of time this impenetrably blanked-out sound art works itself through at least three or four timbral changes, which if closely attended will assume a certain dramatic flair. We’d hesitate to describe it as a “composition”; perhaps it’s more like the outline for a composition, presented in a short pamphlet where the pages consist of pencil notations that have been 90% rubbed out using a Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser. From 24 January 2013.

Fancy cover, quality pressing, clever titles and grand ideas on Extant (THE GEOGRAPHY TRIP TRIP 002) the vinyl offering from OH/EX/OH, but only rather ordinary ambient drones within. Their musical plan is to offer a bleak and depressing experience on side one, with a slightly more hopeful message delivered on side two; this means we hear flat monochrome ambient music, interrupted only by a spoken-word quote which I suspect is a sample from a Planet of the Apes movie (it’s about a post-nuclear disaster), and a general sense that we are living through the last days of humanity with solemn music that proceeds at a leaden pace. The “Utopian Tones” of the B side make more prominent use of sequencers walking along at a brisk pace on ‘Close Encounters’, while on ‘With Nova A New Beginning’ we finally hear the identikit synth droning resolve itself into chords of some sort, instead of the usual nondescript blancmange. However, even this track is blighted with cliché, and feels like it should appear in a fourth-rate arthouse cinema film to coincide with a corny sunrise shot and a life-defining moment for the lead character. One would like to encourage this relatively new Manchester-based label (this is their second release), but this entire album is bogged down with over-familiar sounds and scant ideas. However the packaging, as indicated, is first-rate.

American players Steve D’Agostino and Ted Lee form the core duo of Zebu!, who have had their most recent record released by Feeding Tube Records – home to all that is currently bizarre in US underground rock noise. On Chill Wave (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR 082), Zebu! are clearly influenced by early 1960s surf music, a genre which was looked down on for a long time on account of its supposed naivete, but which has I think since been reclaimed into cultural appreciation, a process which may have begun with the Rhino Records compilations (The History Of Surf Music) in 1982. I’ll admit Zebu! exhibit plenty of energy in their rough music and evoke a suitably amateurish garage-rock feel through the flat recording, but I don’t like it much. They have no gift for a memorable melody, and their sloppy guitar work is an insult to the precision and care of The Surfaris, Dick Dale, The Challengers and Santo & Johnny (the creators of ‘Sleep Walk’), all of whom struck their guitar notes with a purposeful simplicity that these boys can’t hope to match. The saxophone work of guest player Peter Van Siclen is nauseating to my ears, and the band’s lapses into 1980s punk rock are embarrassing. “Classicist American instrumental ho-daddyism”, indeed!

Drei Vier, Grenadier

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From Carlin How in North Yorkshire we have split CDR Vier Mit Vier (ELM LODGE RECORDS 012a), with four tracks each by Forkeyes and Marcus HP Davis 1. They both decided to give the release a title that fits the “German 70s experimental music” vibe which they happen to have alighted on. Many aspire to imitate the holy grail of kosmische and krautrock these days, which has resulted in a lot of name-checking and bad music in recent years, but in this case we have an exception. The stuff by Forkeyes is actually quite appealing – retro-styled rock music with guitars, bass, drums and keyboards with that rough-hewn rehearsal studio sound, enhanced by very little in the way of processing. Forkeyes plays with some guts and passion and does indeed turn in a creditable emulation of the Neu! template, inflected with a certain amount of no-nonsense Englishness, although without much of the trippiness or psychotic dementia we might have otherwise hoped for. I particularly like his tracks ‘Whaletrash’ and ‘Noy’ for their adherence to these vaguely 1970s stylings, while ‘Wild Wooley War’ attempts to incorporate more modern sequenced elements and disco beats (as I call them), overcrowding the sound somewhat. Even so, full marks for energetic bouncing-about and making music that sounds like fun. Forkeyes is Mike Bryson, who used to be a member of Bogshed – Hebden’s finest, a personal favourite of mine from the mid-1980s and a band who stayed far truer to the spirit of The Magic Band than the much-vaunted Stump. Plus they had a great sense of humour. Bryson’s also a cartoonist (published in Private Eye) and may have supplied the quirky cover art, including the drawing of two ugly giants lifting up the side of a house (or is it a gigantic music centre?)

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If Forkeyes is a cocktail of Neu!’s rhythms and the thuggery of Guru Guru mixed with the melodic guitar work of prog giants like Steve Howe, then I don’t know how to characterise Marcus HP Davis 1, a musical jackdaw who has a considerable number of trinkets stowed in his nest. On ‘Slacker bidder overlord’ he’s put all the rock music elements through a mincing machine and stirs them liberally into a swirling casserole, whose rhythms and general lack of centre owes much to Acid House of the 1980s 1. ‘Rheintum Earbuzz’ time-warps Delia Derbyshire melodies through a slightly bleak wasteland of synth drones and processed guitar stabs. ‘Life in the wrong lane’ is even more of a mish-mash, attempting to reference Kraftwerk’s Autobahn with its flute samples while applying them to rhythm tracks that don’t quite match up; in his brave genre-crossing effort, the composer forgot to include things like ideas, coherence, or a melody. Of the pair, Marcus appears to be more the studio-bound musician, with his layers and mixings, compared to the lively Forkeyes who has an exciting real-time sound in all his recordings, even when he’s playing everything himself by overdubbing. Perhaps not essential, but this is an unusual slice of English underground music, parts of which have attracted notice on Radio 1 and in the pages of The Wire. From 02/11/2012.

  1. I am guessing when I say this.

Black and Blue Blues

Simon Balestrazzi sent us a copy of Hashima’s record from Italy – Simon may not actually appear on this 47-minute stretch of doom-laden rattling noise, but he is credited with the mastering and I venture to say that it’s a project laced with a palpable dose of the characteristic Balestrazzi traits, including that sense of blackened occultism and semi-magickal ceremony in the enactment of the mysterious sounds. Collapsing New Buildings (SANTOS PRODUCTIONS SNTSR08) echoes its way into infinity; it resounds with such ominous natural echo that it might as well have been performed in a long, old-fashioned corridor some several hundred metres in length and lined with civil-service styled wooden panelling decorating the drably-painted walls. One is reminded of the anecdote often told about the recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’ and how the dramatic percussion effect on that record was achieved by setting up an enormous bass drum at the end of a studio corridor for Hal Blaine to bash 1. Hashima’s intentions are far from benign, and this darkened record reeks with fugged-out screams and tortured feedback effects – much like prising open an enormous door in this ‘new building’, and the entire record is characterised by ferocious percussion work reminiscent of the demolition crew hammering down walls with sledgehammers, or ripping apart metal siding inside an elevator shaft. The other part of the puzzle is that Hashima Island is a real-life location (off the coast of Japan) and a notorious site of dereliction and ruined buildings – what was once a prosperous coal mining town in the first half of the 20th century is now a major symbol of serious neglect. Two other artists who have been intrigued by this world-famous “ghost town” are CM Von Hausswolff and Thomas Nordanstad, whose response was to make a video “installation” out of the place. I have seen this video, and believe me, it’s a haunting and harrowing experience. Perhaps Hashima is another alias for Balestrazzi? Perhaps the work was actually recorded in one of the decaying buildings on that bleak atoll? Speculation aside, I would imagine the cover art for this release is a genuine Hashima photo, and you couldn’t wish for a more palpable image of extreme urban decay. The record itself more than lives up to that visual promise! Arrived 3rd January 2013, but may have been released in October 2012.

Blue Poles (SLIGHTLY OFF KILTER sok046) is a collection of aural experiments by Paul Khimasia Morgan, recorded in various locations during 2011 and 2012. They don’t seem to have any theme or connection and are related only by appearing together on this album. They comprise field recordings, pieces where he’s working with musical instruments in various combinations, or more abstract experiments in sound art using feedback and white noise through a mixing desk. Morgan restricts himself by only allowing an interpretative dimension to appear inside his titles, some of which are like isolated fragments from poetry or the opening lines of mysterious short stories. For the rest, all description is stony-faced: he delivers only a completely factual shopping list of the objects and bric-a-brac used to create each track, noting the location and place where he did it. On this outing at least, Morgan shows himself as a devotee of the “small objects and small sounds” school of sound art, creating curious creaky episodes of rather dry rattling and rustling like a slightly more fulsome version of the later Jeph Jerman. The work may occasionally produce some odd musical notes or drones from a guitar or zither, or some low-key electro-acoustic effects where a microphone or mixing desk may interact with the activities. Largely though, Blue Poles takes a non-musical and documentary approach; the musician’s own work is treated as though it were an event taking place in the countryside, and recorded as though he were making a field recording of it. This lends a diffuse quality to each piece; it’s not clear where it begins or ends, if indeed it can be said to occupy such certain ground. Rather than finished compositions, it might be more apt to regard these as fleeting snapshots of unusual phenomena in progress. (24/01/2013)

Piatcions are an Italian psychedelic rock group who made an LP called Senseless Sense in 2011; we received an advance copy of their 12-incher, Heaven’s Sins (FC009V12), from the London label Fuzz Club Records. Three tracks in fifteen minutes, including a remix of ‘Reel Loop’ by Atom Eye. I won’t pretend that any of this music is particularly “experimental”, but I like it. It brings home the bacon in terms of solid, trancey avant-rock with all the desirable qualities – a solid beat, fuzzed guitars, trippy keyboard drones. Not as self-consciously proggy or kosmische as the retro items we often get from Sulatron Records, this is good treacly dark-drug music that’ll keep a few Spacemen 3 diehards happier for a bit longer. Allegedly, they’re great in a live situation too. (22/01/2013)

The three-inch offering by Vile Plumage is another odd ‘un sent in by Filthy Turd. The Plan Be Vile, Conceived In Shame (NO LABEL CDR) is described as a “metaphysical journey…through Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent”, and consists of lo-fi field recordings made around that undistinguished locale. The recordings have been layered with an uncertain acoustic guitar plucking the idle music of the damned like a diabolical busker in the streets of Hades. Plus menacing whispers and grunts which are occasionally dropped into the continuum. The gentle noise grows into more alarming proportions, with echoed chants, strange howling effects, and gasping women victims; all the while that relentless acoustic guitar keeps on trotting out its implacable rhythm, as though its player was grinning at us with the sinful smile of the fallen. Vile Plumage is the team of Filthy Turd and Andy Jarvis, but in true magus fashion (shape-shifting like a witch’s familiar) even their very name can change at will and they are sometimes called Vile Goldenn Plumage or Goldenn Viles. The actual surface of this recording may not strike you as especially inventive at first, but persevere ye must, since a desolate and spooked vibe runs through it; it’s as though the pair shrunk themselves into small hobgoblins to capture the sounds from the “parks, tunnels and ginnels” of the area, and at length are able to transform into the hideous horned and hairy creature on the cover. Filthy Turd continues to shine his light into odd places, and you may not like what he reveals. From August 2012.

  1. Other reports say this effect was achieved with studio reverb.

Monster Rock and Mushrooms

SEID_AmongThe Monster

Seid
Among the Monster Flowers Again
GERMANY SULATRON-RECORDS ST1202 LP (2012)

Among the Monster Flowers Again marks the debut of Norwegian band Seid. Described ominously as ‘psychedelic space-rock’, the vinyl album mixes electronic sounds and sixties organ vibes to produce something highly listenable and surprisingly accessible, especially for people slightly spooked by the phrase ‘psychedelic space-rock’.

The psychedelic overtones are especially strong on ‘The Monster Flowers’, which opens the album with a real sixties hippy vibe; segueing nicely into ‘Fire Song’ which retains the hallucinogenic theme while incorporating more thrashing guitar rock sounds.

This is a theme that continues throughout the album, with each track perched somewhere between the mosh pit and Haight-Ashbury. It’s a delicate balancing act, but, for the most part, Seid manages to keep all the plates spinning without the whole thing falling down.

The space vibe really kicks in midway through the album on ’5/4′, which is the harshest and most distorted on the album, sitting somewhat at odds with the melodic sounds that reverberate through the rest of the tracks. Fortunately, this is followed by one of the album’s standout tracks, ‘Lois Loona’, which is a bit more restrained, but nonetheless a powerful piece.

‘The Tale of the King on the Hill’ is a bit of a downer, but things pick up again for tracks eight and nine, banging out more of what this band seems to do best; gentle, melodic sounds that draw you in then build to an ear-rattling crescendo. The final track, ‘Among The Monster Flowers…Again’, unsurprisingly brings us back where we started; picking up on the vibe from track one and gently setting us back down on earth after one exciting trip.

The band describes the album as ranging from “totally tripped-out mushroom dwarves who walk through bizarre landscapes to heavy psychedelic rock”. Whether that makes you start to salivate in anticipation, or run screaming for the hills, you’re likely to find something to enjoy on this album. In short, put those flares on, get that lava lamp fired up and turn the Monster Flowers up to eleven. Just watch out for those tripped-out mushroom dwarves.

Abrahadabra: a dark black metal / shoegazer pop album of despair and foreboding

Circle of Ouroborus, Abrahadabra

Circle of Ouroborus, Abrahadabra, Kuunpalvelus, LP (2012)

One of my favourite Finnish bands, the black metal / shoegazer post-rock duo Circle of Ouroborus has been prolific over the last several years and in 2012 alone released two studio albums, several EPs, a split album and a compilation album. “Abrahadabra” is the second of the two studio full-lengths; the title is a reference to the musicians’ interest in the occult and magic, the word being made up of one vowel appearing five times and six consonants, making a total of 11 letters. (In 2011, an album “Eleven Fingers” was released.) The recording under review sees CoO in their melodic dark depressive black metal pop mode with plenty of despair expressed in the lyrics. The band’s style just about bleeds melancholy and a dark feeling of foreboding: the music is often very doomy, vocalist Antti Klemi half-sings / half-chants like a lone Cassandra warning of trouble ahead and the texture of the music and instrumentation has a forlorn air.

The sound of the album is less muddy and steamy than some of the band’s previous work and the drums are actually very crisp to the extent of dominating the music at times. Klemi’s voice, touched with reverb as ever, still sounds awkward but he hits the notes spot-on. The guitars have a slight buzzy sound but the clouds they form are light.

To be honest, no great melodies or riffs hit me on the first hearing and it’s with subsequent repeats that the album’s charms start to dawn on me. “These Days and Years to Kill” is a cry for understanding and empathy if not for help, and on this song at least Klemi finally finds an emotional depth and range in his singing that took a long time over the band’s career to coax and nurture. “Remembrance” is a slower, heavier, doomier track and might be the most metal-sounding song. “Six Hands” has an otherworldly air: Klemi’s voice is dreamy and almost floating away, and the entire song, starting with the beguiling long introduction, is urging listeners to drift away into a trance with it. For once there is a backing vocal as though Klemi’s soul has split into two and a part of it is already advancing into a realm of non-existence.

A couple of reviews I’ve seen rate “Like Silent Meadows” highly and it has a good riff in parts but otherwise it seems no different from the rest of the album. “Dementia Praecox” is the album’s longest track at 9 minutes and it’s more distinctive than the others in its rhythms and beats

I’d rate this album as fairly good but not near the band’s best. Klemi’s singing is sometimes monotonous across songs and the minimalist style of music basically serves as backdrop for the singing and lyrics. The dark melodic post-BM music rarely ventures away into another music genre. Still, CoO followers are nothing if not a devoted bunch and the band’s releases always sell very well so if TSP readers are keen on buying this album, they had better hit the Kuunpalvelus link quickly. The album cover artwork has a dreamy, mystical appearance that might have a secret message behind it.

A View that won’t Change: hard-rocking melodic proposition with mood music and ambient surprises

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Vaquez, A View that won’t Change, self-released CD (2012)

The work of one man, Andrew Phillips, but sounding much like a band of four, “A View that won’t Change” is a hard-rocking proposition with musical and sound elements borrowed from a range of genres: hardcore, post-metal, ambient and probably hiphop, to judge from the rhythms on some tracks. This work would probably be better off in the review pages of publications like Kerrang! but as it wound up in my paws instead, I’m happy to give it the time of day. It’s not really my type of hard and heavy music but I’ll give it my best shot.

Mixed and mastered by James Plotkin, that eminence grise who has featured on so many albums reviewed here yet himself rarely gets a mention in his own right, the album has impeccable production with a clear sound and slight reverb that give the music a full-bodied quality and highlights the use of mood and atmosphere across the recording. The guitars have quite a bit of grit and meanness and the shouty vocals convey emotions ranging from angry to plaintive. While not a very original recording, with all songs featuring a lot of hard rock melodies and straightforward structures, the album does include passages of sometimes beautiful and mesmeric ambience (the track “Like a King” is a good example of this).

As the album progresses, it becomes more inward in its orientation with songs displaying longer passages of quiet music and plenty of dark space in line with the album’s theme of becoming an outsider and being on the edges of society, physically at least, as in exile. Vocalist Mike Havies rallies to this direction and his voice soars on tracks like “Something Other than Here”, approximating a young Bono sometimes.

It’s bound to appeal to fans of Isis and similar heavy hitters though “A View …” is not quite as sludge-hammer; you may consider it halfway between those bands and the more commercial nu-metal groups that hog the pages of the aforementioned UK music magazine.  I’d prefer something more flowing, less structured and more unpredictable but the overall music territory Vaquez has staked its niche in has its fans who like their music to have definite characteristics and not be too amorphous.

Contact: Andrew Phillips

Vienna (by Crebain): black metal version of pretentious pop classic

Crebain, Vienna, self-released single (2012)

Curious that one-man West Coast USBM act Crebain has just one proper full-length recording to his name (“Night of Stormcrow”) besides a split with fellow Californian Leviathan. So what’s he doing with a cover version of the old 1980s Ultravox track “Vienna”, that definitive hymn to all that was overblown and pretentious about the New Romantic scene that swept Britain 30 years ago? Folks, if you were not born 30 years ago, thank your lucky stars that you didn’t have to hear the likes of Ultravox during when Midge Ure was the main singer of the band along with all the other silly pop acts like Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, Human League and Spandau Ballet. Ohhh … you mean those guys are still about?! The original Ultravox version that I vaguely remember – I’m not prepared to go back to it on Youtube.com – is a schmaltzy and cheesy synth-pop ditty with a chamber music and piano accompaniment, a bombastic style and a theme of regret at the decay of society and a lost golden age.

Perhaps because the style of the original song is ripe for parody or deconstruction and the lyrics can also be interpreted in a way that’s not only different but completely opposite to Ure and company’s original intention that a black metal version is possible. Crebain places the over-the-top thunderous drum bombast at the beginning of the song and then strips it of its frills so that the beat and original melody, done on trilling black metal vibrato guitar, remain along with the lyrics and solemn air. The hissy and screeching vocals are set some distance back in the mix: they’re perhaps the most (intentionally?) disgusting aspect of the cover and a contrast with the faux operatic original. All the violin solo instrumental parts are more or less replicated on lead guitar which strips them of their preposterous grandeur. Overall the song’s style is a fusion of black metal and rock with a heavy beat and a poker-faced stodgy seriousness.

The cover art for the promotional single features a monumental statue of a figure in neoclassical style and suggests fascist brutality and arrogance. Possibly Crebain is hinting here that society as imagined by Ultravox 30 years really wasn’t so great and that for most people it was actually inhuman and barbaric. In that context, the chorus “It means nothing to me …” is a dismissal of the fake majesty and other false values of pre-1945 Western civilisation as imagined by Ultravox.

I’d prefer that Crebain could have picked on some other 1980s song to cover although I guess if I were in his position looking for an old pop “classic” to mash into a parody that criticises the original song and its intentions, I’d hardly go past pretentious pap like Ultravox’s “Vienna”. There’s not much to the original song to begin with and by sticking very closely to the original tune and lyrics, Crebain shows up the shallowness of the song and reveals the emptiness behind it; that means there’s really not a great deal to recommend the new version. Still, it’s far preferable to the original.

As the cover version is a self-released single, it may be hard to find so you can hear it at this link. This is Crebain’s first release in several years and may herald more work and perhaps a full-length album in the near future.

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Castles in your Heart


Here’s a highlight from February 2012, Age Of Energy (NORTHERN SPY NSCD020) by Chicago Underground Duo – a glorious CD of electronics, jazz cornet, and solid rhythms. No upstarts are Chad Taylor and Rob Mazurek, who have in fact been playing together in various manifestations since the late 1990s, and in turn grew out of a renaissance of improvised music in Chicago which had been burgeoning since about 1990. They’ve had a lot of records released on Delmark and Thrill Jockey (this is their first for Northern Spy) and as this is the first I heard from them, I think that a back catalogue investigation is in order. Album contains ‘Winds and Sweeping Pines’, 20 minutes of beautiful electronic tones including perhaps some treated cornet sounds, and a piece which goes through about a dozen shifts and changes in completely unforced fashion, evoking joyous moods which contrast with more introspective and wistful emotions. Testament perhaps to their non-prescriptive and unprogrammed manner of making music. The drumming is spectacularly inventive throughout and never settles for a tedious motorik or disco beat. We only hear some recognisable cornet tones at the very end of this epic canvas, at which point the Billy Cobham fans will be leaping into the lively arena to grab a piece of this action. More suffused and understated is the track ‘It’s Alright’, a pulsating and inventive drone of textured distorto-electronica used as a platform for Mazurek’s brassy utterances. There’s also the title track, which is probably the cut most likely to appeal to listeners still seeking their thrills from 21st-century updates on Krautrock-inspired music. The rich drum sound here is something most technicians would give their right arm to achieve, smashing against the rippling waves of electronic genius-blather with zesty abandon. But it’s the tricky rhythmical base which once again is so creative, showing Chad Taylor doesn’t take coffee breaks in his mind when sitting behind his kit, and that he’s more in the lineage of a Sunny Murray than a Zappi Diermaier. Chicago Underground Duo were namechecked by the UK duo Warm Digits as one of their major influences, and you can take that to the savings & loan. Warm Digits have not slavishly copied the sounds of the Duo, but successfully emulate their passion, drive and joyful élan. Recommended. Released in March 2012, our copy received 29 February.

A very nice item is Flux (SPECTRUM SPOOLS SP010) by the American composer Robert Turman, an album he originally released on cassette in 1981. Turman’s earliest known work includes a 1979 single Mode Of Infection / Knife Ladder which he realised with Boyd Rice of NON, and because of this and Z.O. Voider he became associated with 1980s industrial music. Flux however is not abrasive grinding noise, comprising six long tracks of very gentle, melodic and understated minimal music made with piano, kalimba, tape loops, and drum machine. It’s beautiful music and the muted sound arising from this rescued cassette tape adds considerably to the charming, dream-like and restful aesthetic. A sort of less strident version of The Residents around the time of Commercial Album, mixed with Brian Eno’s ambient sensibilities, particularly Music For Airports. The press release points out the ingenious cross-rhythms in play, and praises Turman’s skills in realising this complex music while overcoming hurdles presented by the limitations of the equipment available to him, which is now regarded as somewhat primitive. Since 2009, Robert Turman has enjoyed a productive partnership with Aaron Dilloway who released albums for him on the Hanson label, and provided the scans of the original cassette for this reissue. One of the better releases from this label. Released as a double LP on St Valentine’s Day 2012.

The team of Lull, Beta Cloud and Andrew Liles all collaborated to produce Circadian Rhythm Disturbance Reconfigured (COLD SPRING RECORDS CSR139CD), a concept album which aims to suggest the effects of insomnia through sound; in fact the creators were mostly concerned with how the affliction of sleeplessness can affect the thought processes of the human brain. It might be viewed as a vaguely sinister experiment about the effects of sleep deprivation, but also an attempt at a psychological probing of those areas of the consciousness often neglected or overlooked. We received this in February and at first approach, neither ears nor brain nor sleep-sensors were particularly engaged by its empty-seeming surface, but today this album is just right; a clouded-up fogfest of supreme fugginess which leaves the listener adrift in a supremely ambiguous zone for over 20 minutes and hence meets all the requirements of unsettling music in the “dark ambient” genre. Lull is Mick Harris of Scorn, whose 1990s ambient texturising I always enjoyed when I was immersed in the field where every other record was mastered by James Plotkin, and the Isolationism compilation was my touchstone. Beta Cloud is Carl Pace, the American musician whose Lunar Monograph from a few years ago sounds intriguing. Together this pair made the original Circadian Rhythm Disturbance and released it as a three-incher in 2008; now here it is again in full, along with an Andrew Liles remix of same. Liles transforms the original completely, filling it out with horrifying explosions, scalding jet aircraft engines, sinister crackling fuzz and many other unpleasant incidents, completely undermining the menacing yet strangely soothing mood of the original near-blank murkoid statement. If we compare the two, I suppose Lull / Beta Cloud ask interesting questions about the nature and effects of insomnia, while it seems Liles is hell-bent on contributing to or even exacerbating the condition.

Got another bundle of psych-revival music from Dave Schmidt in late February 2012. Electric Moon‘s The Doomsday Machine (NASONI RECORDS 118) was not in fact released on his Sulatron-Records label, but Schmidt features as a main player of this band in his Sula Bassana guise. Throughout, muscular and dense psych-rock music in the Spacemen 3 vein. We’re warned that The Doomsday Machine is “enveloped by a gloomy atmosphere”, which may be true, but to me it’s the kind of energised and flailing gloom as typified by certain favourite apocalyptic songs of King Crimson, Andromeda, or Second Hand when they made ‘The World Will End Yesterday’ or Death May Be Your Santa Claus. The album’s title track occupies all of side one and relentlessly chugs away in a minor key with its thick, clotted sound. The drumming summons an army of skeletons, the throats of the vocalists are stuffed with palpable despair, and the wah-wah guitars in particular produce an inhuman screaming sound that is highly appealing. The rest of the album may not be as crushingly heavy as that supreme downer of an opener, but there are highlights like ‘Spaceman’, a strong contender for matching Richard Pinhas’s soaring sci-fi guitar longform excursions, and ‘Stardust Service’ which ought to bring tears to the eyes of fans of the early Pink Floyd. Ulli Mahn’s overwrought artworks are an integral part of the release, and Electric Moon have made it their personal project to reinterpret these elaborate paintings in music, thus also forging a link with the past (the painter is the father of band member Komet Lulu). All of Schmidt’s projects and releases may stand accused of having both feet firmly cemented into “retro” genres, but he and his bands do it with such conviction and pleasure that I for one cannot resist. Available as a CD and a double-LP with extras.

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Windhand: in danger of becoming a Sabbath clone, and a tired one at that


Windhand, self-titled, Forcefield Records, CDGRIMM25 (2012)

A sure sign that Windhand traffick in no-nonsense straight-ahead retro doom metal is the album cover of a rural scene in black silhouette, the branches of trees drawn in such a way as to suggest spidery fingers stretching outwards, against a purple background; this recalls Black Sabbath album covers of similar minimal two-toned design and a pastoral scene. The album is solemn riff-heavy doom with a powerful sound that contrasts with a clear high vocal, courtesy of one Dorthia Cottrell who is set somewhat far back in the mix so the lyrics are rather hard to make out unless the album is played very loudly.

“Black Candles” leads off with a slight ambient intro into the track proper which is mostly repetitive riff loop with a touch of echoing effect to give the song an occasional psychedelic feel. Although the riff is very strong, the song as a whole feels very enervated; the bland singing doesn’t enliven it much. Likewise, “Libusen” is steady-as-it-goes with a heavy riff that repeats over and over without much variation while Cottrell wails at close to the high end of her range far into the distance. It’s a graceful song, slow and majestic, and if it were a bit slower with more drawn-out droning tones and icy-cold space ambient effects, it would be an excellent song indeed.

“Heap Wolves” perks up with more melodic riffs and Cottrell’s siren vocals sounding off over the sinister roiling music and oily lead guitar. It’s clear that this lady is not only Windhand’s best asset but has the potential to be Queen Bee of female doom metal vocalists if the band can raise its profile higher among the US doom metal community and beyond; on all tracks, Cottrell commands attention even though her vocal range barely strays from the higher end and her style is basically a wailing one. If she can experiment with her style more and use the lower, deeper end of her vocal range on future songs, she is sure to go a very long way.

Individual songs are quite good without being outstanding but when put together, the album feels very tired for some reason. Part of the problem may be that Cottrell’s vocals are so far back in the mix in most songs and are so restricted in the range of sounds that for some listeners she can sound the same from one song to the next. The singing is bland and needs an injection of aggression to roughen up the tone now and again. Songs tend to be much the same in basic structure, all dependent on repeating riffs and time-keeping drums with the obligatory lead guitar solo; they rarely vary in pace and mood. There is a danger that Windhand will fall into the category of Sabbath clones of which there are far too many already. Outro track “Winter Sun” suggests in some instrumental parts that the musicians aren’t averse to improvising and playing about with their sound and upsetting people’s expectations of what a doom band should do. Some individual members in the band have talent that should be stretched a lot further.

It’s quite possible though that with this debut, Windhand are playing a bit safe and perhaps on the second album they will show us what they’re really made of.

Contact: Forcefield Records