William Bowers -- POST MODERN [Haute Magie]
Minimalist electronic music -- it does a body good, doom childe. Which brings us to this, the latest release by William Bowers (after previous albums under the names Christgau’s Last Stand and Narshe), in which he channels prime-meat Virgin-era Tangerine Dream by way of early Aphex Twin. Both of those bands, in the periods in question, were pioneers in the concept of using electronic equipment and sound processing to create interesting textures chained to relatively simple arrangements that derived much of their power from hypnotic repetition, an idea that first emerged in Tangerine Dream’s PHAEDRA and culminated in Aphex Twin’s SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS VOLUME II. A similar thought process is at work here, one that nods in the direction of these aforementioned artists (and possibly Brian Eno as well) while presenting an original sound and vision. The nine tracks on this album are built mainly around minimal synth warbling and repetitive sound textures and melodies designed to evoke the feel of the city at night; while there are elements of techno to the sound, what little percussion exists on tracks like “Art Nouveau” and “Subway Tourist” are simple and muted. Many of the tracks, in fact, have no percussion at all, or else percussion that is nothing more than a simple looped beat; on “Happy Wandering,” the closest the album comes to anything resembling a traditional techno track, the beat is almost nothing more than muffled static, which is then overlaid with bright arpeggiated melodies that weave together to form a new and persistent rhythm of its own. Other tracks, like “Skyscraper Nat’l Park” and “Atlas,” are closer to exercises in brooding dark ambient sound that is sometimes leavened with cryptic bursts of processed sound deliberately at odds with the more symphonic sounds. It’s interesting to note that Bowers often manages to employ sounds that, in a different context, might be considered nothing but noise, but which here are incorporated into genuinely beautiful melodies, giving those melodies an unusual and sometimes haunting texture. It takes a lot more talent than you might think to create music this consistently engaging from such minimal arrangements and simple sounds. Highly recommended listening. Limited to 100 copies.
Cau-Cational Betreet -- DREDGE [Neigh Music]
I have no idea what's up with the strange name, but these cats are a three-piece noise-improv outfit from England and boy, do they make a fearsomely glorious racket. I don't know what they used to compose the five slices of mondo noise on this disc, but it's hard to believe only three people (a drummer and two guitarists) can conjure up such a vivid, swirling vortex of sound. The opening track, "Rot Gut," is a violent burst of near-random cacaphony punctuated by wild drum beats and what sounds like the two guitarists trying to outdo each other in coming up with the most violently shred-o-rific noise; "Foul Meadow" is a bit closer to an actual song, sort of like death metal by way of shrieking noise guitar, and "Vortice Churner" is a noisier version of dark ambient suitable for use as the soundtrack to a Shinya Tsukamoto short film; "Slurry Dump" infuses a hefty element of doom to their enigmatic noise bleat, while "Bilge Tank" -- at over sixteen minutes -- is their epic assault on the senses, and by far their most psychedelic, sounding very much like the unholy spawn of a primitive noise-rock band and Les Rallies De Nudes on a serious acid bender. This is what they call brilliant shit, doom childe. And real obscure -- the band doesn't appear to have a web site, and the label's site appears to be down, so how you're going to hear this whole-grain goodness is beyond me....
Matt Davignon -- LIVING THINGS [Edgetone]
It's hard to believe all the sounds on this album were made with a drum machine, but there it is, listed as the sole instrument. Of course, those drum machine sounds have been heavily filtered and processed, and probably cut up and the pieces reconfigured as well, so the results sound nothing like what you would normally expect from a beat box. The resulting sounds are a mix of dark ambient, electronica, and psychedelic music, with tones that more often suggest synths and woodwind instruments; occasionally there are sounds vaguely recognizable as beats, but they are sparse, intermittent, and not employed for the normal purposes of timekeeping, which just adds to the mysterious nature of the recordings. The ghost of the drum machine can still be detected, though, in the heavily rhythmic feel to the proceedings -- even when the sounds don't even remotely resemble beats, they still appear in patterns as repetitive figures. What I like best is the really disconcerting tonal palette, one I associate more with the extreme end of dark ambient; in a lot of places the ambient sound has an alienated, hollowed-out sound that's one step removed from being something off an industrial record, or perhaps a grim interlude from an atmospheric black metal tune, but here that sound is employed in more of a psychedelic context. There's definitely a heavy experimental vibe to the sound construction and arrangements, too, which keeps things interesting. Peculiar indeed, but the execution makes it clear that the concept works much better than you might expect.
Desalmado -- HEREDITAS ep [Greyhaze Records]
If the heavy-ass sounds on this EP remind you of Sepultura, there's a good reason: not only are they from Brazil and obviously steeped in Sepultura's influence, but the album has a raw intensity on par with the early, stripped-down Sepultura releases. With six tracks flying by in fifteen minutes, they get their point across in a hurry (the opening track "Condenados Pelo Odio," at 3:51, is the longest track here), and while their grinding metal thrash unquestionably owes a lot to Sepultura (particularly their classic album BENEATH THE REMAINS), they are far more concise than Sepultura ever were. They're also every bit as heavy, especially when they slow down and deliver crushing breakdowns (there's a particularly effective one in "Miseria Escravatura"), although their songwriting skills could use some sharpening -- their punishing attack grows mildly repetitive after a while, which may well be why they opted to debut with a short slice of heaviness rather than the full-length (which they're currently working on, and which is being produced by Sepultura's Jean Dolabella) -- but they surely do not lack for chops or fierceness. This is a highly promising taste of what is sure to come on the full-length scheduled to appear later this year. Available as digital download or a 10" vinyl EP.
Enablers -- BLOWN REALMS AND STALLED EXPLOSIONS [Exile on Mainstream]
San Francisco's Enablers embrace a pretty bizarre aesthetic: spoken word welded to a weird variant of prog-metal. It's not hard to see why Neurot Recordings (who released their first two albums) found them so appealing; but now, with their second album for EOM, they've drifted even further out into left field, with a wildly eclectic sound that builds on the interlocking metallic riffs of guitarists Joe Goldring and Kevin Thompson and jazzy drumming of Doug Scharin, adding a wild variety of sounds on top of this core to create a most unusual sound. Throughout the album, no matter what extraneous sounds have been piled atop the band's basic tracks, it's the core elements of the band's aesthetic -- the spoken-word vignettes and a sound that meets somewhere in the middle of prog-rock and jazz -- that carry everything forward. While their songs are surprisingly accessible for such an avant concept, they're definitely far removed from anything resembling pop or traditional metal. It's worth noting that they could never pull off something so bizarrely ambitious if they weren't such unquestionably skilled musicians; it also helps that they have interesting and fresh ideas about song arrangements, in which they manage to move in unexpected directions without sounding forced. The next time somone tells you there's nothing new or interesting happening in music these days, throw this on and demonstrate otherwise.
Exile on Mainstream
End of Level Boss -- EKLECTRIC [Exile on Mainstream]
More proggy weirdness from a label that's become increasingly eclectic and out-there as of late, this time by London's End of Level Boss, whose third album features a new rhythm section and more technical prog in the vein of King Crimson and Magma. I can see their appeal to the label in that their vocalist sounds like he was drafted from a power-metal band, but the band itself is all about oddness, with complicated time signatures, bizarre shifts in tempo and dynamics, and a tendency to spiral off in a dozen different directions within the context of any given song. They take the weirdness of Voivod to a new level, with an attack that is heavy without being strident, and while they share technical death metal's fondness for ornate guitar lines and twisted song arrangements, they are less inclined to add excessive distortion to their sound, and as a result they frequently sound more like a post-metal band after being bent into pretzel-like shapes. It's weird, but it's a good kind of weird.
End of Level Boss
Exile on Mainstream
Massimo Falascone / Bob Marsh -- NON TROPPO LONTANO [Eh?]
More arcane sounds from the more eclectic branch of Public Eyesore (which is really saying something), courtesy of Falascone (sax, samples, electronics) and Marsh (violin, voice, more electronics). This is some seriously disjointed, almost hallucinatory stuff -- working together as a severely avant free (extremely free) jazz duo, they immediately transform their core sound, rooted in the interplay between sax and violin, by piling on a dizzying array of bizarre sounds through the use of a sampler and various forms of electronic processing. Just to make things even more peculiar, Marsh provides a twisted form of fragmentary vocals at what seem like random intervals, contributing snippets of phrases and odd grunts; much of the time his vocals appear to have been chopped and screwed, and in the context of already unpredictable playing, it often sounds as if you're listening to a tape that was left to warp in the sun. Throughout the ten tracks, they work tirelessly at tormenting their instruments and gadgets into bending the shape of sound into funny balloon shapes, to intensely disorienting effect. Those not down with the eccentric charm of the fringes of the improv world will probably find this unlistenable, but if it's mutant sounds you seek, this is definitely worth a listen.
IfIHadAHiFi -- NADA SURF + 3 ep [Latest Flame]
These are facts, dudes and dudettes: the four wholesome-looking lads (not five, despite what the NATIONAL REVIEW seems to think) of this compact rock 'n roll army are from Milwaukee, WI; the EP's enigmatic name is a tit-for-tat response of sorts to the band Nada Surf, who borrowed their name for the title of a 2010 album of cover songs; the "+3" segment of the title apparently refers to the tracks from a mythical single that may or may not be released in conjunction with the EP; and said EP will be available on vinyl (with a bonus download of their recent protest song "Imperial Walker") and cd (with the bonus track included). They're also on tour, playing to a series of largely empty rooms, which is too bad, since I'm pretty sure a band this energetic has to be swell live. Their sound is essentially a loud collision of no-wave noise, hyperactive punk rock, and drill-sergeant barking that's far more catchy than that description suggests -- you can dance to this, assuming you have enough energy -- and titles like "Minotaur Documentation," "Spy in the House of Fuck," and "Arson, You Let Me Down" suggest not only a surreal sensibility but a black sense of humor as well. The intensity (and sonic density) of their sound is matched by the heavy preponderance of swell riffs and, buried under the sonic mung, a surprising level of melodicism that helps considerably to separate them from the more pedestrian noise-rock pretenders. You can get a whiff of their politics on the bonus track, "Imperial Walker" (which is currently available for download on their Bandcamp site for a measly buck, which will go to Russ Feingold's new Progressives United PAC), a short and frantic burst of scorn directed at the doofus currently attempting to run their home state into the ground.
Latest Flame Records
Lake of Tears -- ILLWILL [AFM Records]
I know next to nothing about this Swedish band, who formed in the early 90s, broke up for a few years around the turn of the century, then reformed again a few years later (the story of a great many death metal bands), but this is a pretty engaging piece of work. The sound they have on this album is supposedly a new direction of sorts, but since I haven't heard any of their previous work, I have no idea how any of it sounds by comparison. It's certainly European-sounding (especially where the face-melting solos are concerned), and like most Swedish metal, highly melodic, but the song structures (and tempos) owe much to early death metal. I especially like the rhythm guitar sound, which owes a lot to early Noise bands like Celtic Frost and Kreator, but while their songs are nowhere near as thrashed-out as those bands, they are well-constructed and largely free of the unneccesary ornamentation that trips up a lot of death metal bands who inevitably get too clever for their own good. They're also considerably catchier (it must be a Swedish thing). The emphasis on melody almost guarantees the presence of a ballad, and sure enough, "House of the Setting Sun" is a brooding sonic epistile that creeps along while constantly threatening to explode into something more aggressive without ever actually doing so. It's the only moment of anything resembling tranquility on an otherwise aggressive and remarkably focused record, though, and the album as a whole is certainly a respectable piece of work.
Lake of Tears
Lid Emba -- TERMINAL MUSE: BLUE [Stickfigure Records]
This is the second installment of a color-themed trilogy from Atlanta, GA's Lid Emba (actually one Sean Moore), with seven tracks of heavy rhythms swaddled in dark-ambient drone and noise. Early works by Cluster and This Heat are big influences on the experimental sounds that manifest themselves here; the opening track "dawning" brings the noise immediately, with stuttering bursts of static and keyboard drone that lead into "macedonia," with more machine-like processed rhythms doing battle with some truly avant, manic drumming that keeps rolling off in different directions without ever completely abandoning the beat. The fascination with processed noises and erratic beats continues on "stuttercrow," which sounds like a demented futuristic take on calypso music -- a transmission from the lost islands of the future, perhaps? Things shift into a more downtempo gear on the lengthy "iscariot," where ominious drone and slow, muted beats are the dominant feature; the piece evolves through the gradual layering of sonic textures and subtly growing dynamics, but never so much that it loses its languid feeling. The tracks that follow, "dusking" and "zakula," mark a return to the beats and noise combination of the earlier tracks, although the latter is initially less agitated than the others, even with the inclusion of some static-laden loops, although it becomes more intense over time without becoming strident. The final track, "macedonian," is a supremely devolved remix of "macedonia" by James Plotkin (who also mastered the disc) that turns the track into something even more bizarre and explosive. As strange as it is sophisticated, this is definitely a worthy exploration of the fields of experimental sound first investigated by the likes of Cluster, Eno, and This Heat. Art kills, indeed.
Mournful Congregation -- THE UNSPOKEN HYMNS [20 Buck Spin]
Now this is what doom metal should sound like: painfully slow and monumentally depressing. Hailing from Australia since 1993, they are early proponents of the funeral doom scene that includes equally desolate acts like Skepticism and Asunder, and this collection of tunes now being made available in the US for the first time is the reissue of four tracks originally only available on splits with acts like Worship, Stabat Mater, Stone Wings, Orthodox, Loss, and the godlike (and sadly defunct) Otesanek, plus a bonus cover. The first track, "Left Unspoken" -- a remixed version of their contribution to the four-way split FOUR BURIALS -- sets the dirgelike pace with creeping drums, drawn-out fuzz guitar, mournful vocals, and an atmospheric sound that's every bit as menacing as the song is slow (and believe me, it is real fucking slow). The other four tracks are every bit as slow and dirgelike -- it takes them over forty minutes to run through the bunch -- although each one has its own surprises, such as the folk guitar motifs and ornate solo of "The Epitome of Gods and Men Alike" (from the split with Worship). "A Slow March to the Burial," from their split with Stabat Mater, features a breakdown of sorts where they approximate doom-mosh (sort of) with a brief passage of double-time riffing... of course, at tempos this stunted, their version of double-time is not exactly speed metal. "Descent of the Flames," from their split with Stone Wings, is a return to the hellish simplicity of the first track, spiced with spooky acoustic guitar passages amid the soul-crushing doom. They wrap things up, appropriately enough, with a cover of "Elemental," originally by Finnish funeral doom pioneers Thergothon, an act so obscure that even serious doom enthusiasts may well be unaware of their existence (they formed in 1990 and split after the release of their one full-length album in 1994). Mad props to 20 Buck Spin for rounding up all this obscure material in one convenient package. In even better news, it turns out this is just a prelude to the forthcoming agony of their new full-length, which the label will release in November.
20 Buck Spin
Neurosis -- SOVEREIGN ep [Neurot Recordings]
This is the latest installment in Neurot's masterplan to reissue their flagship band's earliest output, and it's significant for several reasons: one, it was the band's first release on Neurot (with the vinyl farmed out to Hydra Head); two, it bridges the gap between their classics TIMES OF GRACE and A SUN THAT NEVER SETS; three, this reissue includes a new and previously unreleased track, "Misgiven." Where TOG was the album where they began to move away from their hardcore roots into more experimental realms (including ambient music, found sound, and more unorthodox arrangements), and ASTNS was the point at which they began making music without worrying about their ability to play it back in a live context, this EP forms a link between the two, with tracks that are an extension of the sound they began exploring on the previous album, but still (probably) playable live. Their psychotronic approach to post-metal on this release centers heavily around repetitive tribal drumming and songs that move from bass-heavy riffs through ominous passages of simple but haunting playing before eventually growing heavier and more complex. With the exception of "Flood," which clocks in at a paltry 4:15, these are mostly extended songs designed for multiple movements and journeys through different levels of conflicting emotion (and levels of sonic intensity to match), culminating in the morose title track, which takes over thirteen minutes to club you into submission. The bonus track exclusive to the release, "Misgiven," is a grim and (intentionally) torturous exercise in deep-down bass hell and grinding, squealing feedback that is considerably different than the rest of the EP, if every bit as emotionally exhausting.
PAS -- PURE ENERGY OUTPUT SESSIONS [PAS Records]
This musical collective from Brooklyn, NY, spearheaded by one Robert L. Pepper, are an experimental audiovisual group with roots in dark ambient and processed sound who have collaborated in the past with the likes of Z'EV, Philippe Petit, Steve Bersford, Visitor Q, the Vultures, and a multitude of other like-minded artists across the experimental / industrial spectrum. They also curate events such as the annual Experi-MENTAL Festival and have performed not only in the US and the UK but in places as far away as the Netherlands, Greece, and Poland. They obviously have an impressive pedigree, and their experience in the gestation of weird sounds is reflected in the tracks on this disc. Their approach, while evidently informed by the early industrial sound of bands like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Z'EV, is complex enough (and layered with the additional spicy bits of dark ambient and electronica) that it's largely impossible to even guess how the sounds in their exotic soundscapes were made. Is that a sampled and processed vocal chorus in "Travel Into"? What's the source of all that clanging that acts as a counterpoint to the heavy bass rhythm in "Explanation Without Words"? What's making all those high-pitched wailing sounds in "Faith," like an army of dying pipe organs? Such mysteries abound on just about every track. While it's true that these tracks are more accurately described as soundscapes than actual songs, they certainly aren't thrown together -- there's a cohesiveness to the way they collect and layer the elements in their sound collages, and their approach to tone is considerably different than that of their industrial forebears. Much of this, in fact, more closely resembles (at least in tonal quality) the early work of Tangerine Dream or Cluster, despite the fact that their approach and compositional aesthetics have more in common with the industrial movement that came a decade or so later (especially on tracks like "Piano Music For Volcano Eruption," "Joy," and "Sunrise of the Distorted Mind," where they briefly channel the spirit of Einsturzende Neubauten). Their background strongly suggests they are hardly novices at the art of constructing experimental soundscapes; the tracks on the disc easily confirm their talent for such, and this is definitely worth seeking out and hearing.
Peste Noire -- L'ORDURE A L'ETAT PUR [Transcendental Creations]
It comes as no surprise that this is the work of a French band, because only the French could interpret black metal in such a willfully perverse manner. This sounds like an unholy, puzzling union between French black metal, the obscure and operatic horror-obsessed band Devil Doll, early Butthole Surfers, and an oompah band tripping on serious quantities of mescaline. Seriously, leader Famine is credited with, among other things, "chicken imitation" (a first, I am sure, for a black metal band of any stripe). I'm not sure what to make of this (hell, I'm not sure what any rational person could make of this), but they certainly get points for originality. When the clouds of perversity part from time to time, the band bursts forth with some really manic, lo-fi black metal that manages to capture the spirit of second-wave black metal primitivism without obviously aping the sound of the classic band everybody these days likes to "borrow" from (Burzum, Darkthrone, Emperor, and so forth). The best track (and the closest they come to anything even remotely in keeping with traditional black metal) is probably "J'avais reve du Nord," a 21-minute epic featuring, among other things, ethereal female vocals, pagan-style fingerpicked passages, and plenty of intensely rampaging war metal. Even then, their raging black metal tends to devolve into weird experimental sound collages and other sonic craziness, to point where it's hard to tell if they're a black metal band with an experimental bent or an experimental band dabbling in black metal. Either way, it's one of the strangest black metal listening experiences you'll ever hear, and definitely recommended to those seeking a new take on an increasingly moribund genre.
Pestilence -- DOCTRINE [Mascot]
Here we have yet another old-school death metal band, originally formed in 1986 in the Netherlands, who have recently reformed (in 2008) after a long silence (in this case, fourteen years). This is their second release since reforming, and features some interesting changes; the lineup has been reshuffled to include Obscura bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling, who played with the band in its final years, and new drummer Yuma van Eekelen (also of The New Dominion). Original members Patrick Mameli (guitar, vocals) and Patrick Uterwijk (guitars) round out the band, but they bring an added surprise of their own this time around with the introduction of eight-string guitars, whose addition has forced Mameli to sing in a higher register to avoid his vocals being lost in the low-edge guitar crunch. I'm new to the band, so I can't comment on how much difference there is between this and earlier works (although since I know SPHERES mixed jazz fusion and guitar synths into their sound, I think I can safely assume this -- a far more brutal and metallic album -- is vastly different than that one), but this certainly holds up respectably as a weapon of sonic aggression, especially given the age of the primary members. (It helps that the drummer, who has the most physically demanding job here, is still in his early twenties.)
The album itself has progressive elements that echo back to their earlier days, most notably in the opening track "The Predication," which is basically Mameili doing an increasingly frantic-sounding spoken word piece, and the sound of strings at the beginning of "Dissolve," but their main focus is heaviness, sheer blind heaviness. The technical aspect of their sound manifests itself in bizarre, complex rhythms, and there's plenty of nods to their progressive side in solos that frequently take on a jazzy feel, but the speed at which they perform and the ferocity of their attack are pure throwbacks to the early days of thrash / death metal. They do a fine job of striking an excellent balance between technical prowess and sheer brutality, and Mameli's change of vocal direction only helps with the intensity of their sound. They even manage to infuse their heaviness with openly catchy riffs at times (as on "Sinister" and "Deception") without blunting the violence of their sound or their progressive vision. This is definitely not the work of guys coasting on previous accomplishments, and whether you're an old-school Pestilence fan or new to the fold, this is worth checking out.
Qing CIA -- RURAL SOUND ANIMATION II [Neigh Music]
This sounds like it should have been released on Public Eyesore -- nine people (some actual musicians, some not, possibly all liquored up) got together and used whatever they could get their hands on, from real instruments to chairs and playing cards, to make three tracks of... of... well, something. For improv music -- although now that I think of it, incidental music might be more accurate -- this sounds awfully close to soundtrack music, at least on "The Tale of a Woman's Horse." These agents of the random ply their inscrutable trade in similar fashion on two other tracks, both of them long, one of which bears the awesome title "The hideous neighbor and his unusual hands," a title Dostovesky probably wishes he had thought of (or would if he weren't still so very, very dead). Is there much ugliness lurking in the sonic omlette? O mas oui, there most certainly is. Is it interesting, nay, even illuminating? Sure, as long as you're down with the whole random-sounds improv dealio. What are your chances of acquiring this deathless treasure? Not very high, seeing as how the label appears to have vanished, with a website that appears to have disappeared as well. Maybe you'll get lucky and PE will somehow dig this up and reissue it, but I doubt it.
Random Touch -- TRIBUTARY (2 x cd) [Token Boy Records]
I know these cats are prolific -- since 1999, they've released at least one and sometimes two albums a year, most recently last year's REVERBERATING APPARATUS -- but here they are again, with not one but two discs of free improv encompassing 23 tracks in just under two hours. As usual, the trio consists of Scott Hamill (guitar, bass, and related efx), James Day (keyboards), and Christopher Brown (drums, percussion, vocals, and other odd noisemakers), and this outing finds them in a relatively mellow mood -- there's still plenty of unpredictable flow and chaos to their approach to improv, but with a few exceptions, it's mostly in the melodious realm rather than the cacaphonous. The first disc, entitled FLOW, opens with one of those exceptions; "To Be Hear" is all over the place, with a wide variety of sounds overrunning each other and culminating in a mad burst of wild dissonance, but the tracks that follow -- especially "Just So" -- are considerably more restrained, even meditative at times, although the use of distorted vocals (a recurring motif) appear on "More," which, despite its relatively mellow vibe, has some brief stabs of dissonant sound. Strange processed sounds are a regular part of the band's sound, especially on "How Blessed We Are," where insistent drumming, mutant vocalizing, and what sounds like various instruments being disassembled create a surreal listening experience. Eerie keyboard drone and wailing sounds play a big part in the sound of "Intend," where shifting dynamics (especially in volume), trilling guitar sounds, and enthusiastic free drumming ratchet up the excitement level.
The eleven tracks on the second disc (entitled FLOWER) are a bit more electronic in nature, but otherwise not radically different than the material on the first disc. "Inhalation" overlays electronic bleeps and dark ambient washes of sound over muffled bursts of percussion, while an electronic pulse forms the backbone of "From the Inside Out," over which mumbled vocals and errant bursts of odd sound come and go even as the density of sound builds into something much heavier and complex than the track's initial minimalism might have suggested. "Languid Limbs" largely lives up its name with a relaxed and jazzy feel that nevertheless manages to incorporate some unusual sonic textures and periodic bursts of percussive thunder, while the electronic rhythms make a return in "Gaining Orbit." Percussion and polyrhythms are the focus of "Festival of Inattention" and "The Opposite of Memory" (the latter of which also features more distorted vocals and electronica), while tracks like "A Rain of Grace" and "Into the Guns" are more subdued and restrained (although every bit as quixotic in their use of mystifying sounds and textures). The entire double-disc experience is very much in keeping with their most recent attempts at exploring the boundaries of sound in a manner that meets somewhere at the intersection of free improv, world music, and ambient drone, all while sounding like the world of a remarkably eclective live band. Enigmatic but intriguing, as always.
Token Boy Records
Same Sex Dictator -- FROM BENEATH YOU IT DEVOURS [Longway Records]
Now here's an obscurity: the band's second album, originally released on LP by Longway Records (which is apparently now defunct, so if you want a copy, you'll have to contact the band directly at email@example.com). These days the band is a duo (Lee Cizek on bass, synth, piano, and vocals plus Justin Straw on drums, percussion, and vocals), and while I think they originally started out as a hardcore band, they're certainly a far different beast these days, with progressive and doom elements to their sound. In fact, they remind me at times of The Body -- another duo with doom-prog leanings -- although they're nowhere near as catastrophically slow and heavy as that band. (Well, "Turning State's Evidence" is pretty slow, and certainly heavy enough for my tastes.) The subject matter varies (although with titles like "The Shocking Discovery," "Get Out of My Dreams and Into My Trunk," "Turning State's Evidence," and the title track, it's obvious those subjects tend to be morbid ones), but the dark, oppressive sound is a constant. Cizek's ominous guitar sound -- frequently modified by a battery of efx boxes, especially on the title track -- coupled with Straw's complex, proggy drumming and tortured howling create a genuinely forbidding sound. Still, there are surprises: the almost-funky fuzz-synth sound of "Beyond Thee Anti-Lord Beat," for instance, and the spaced-out dark ambient intro (accompanied by pounding, stuttering drums) of "The Redeadening," along with various electronic flourishes that appear from time to time among the other tracks. It's these extra details that elevate the band's sound to something more than just glowering doom; while their essential core is one of bleak heaviness, their fondness for prog rock and experimental sounds give them a much broader and more interesting sound than that of your average doom-rock enthusiasts. This is excellent stuff, as heavy and uncompromising as it is weird and different, and well worth seeking out despite its obscurity.
Same Sex Dictator
Sarabante -- REMNANTS [Southern Lord]
It's no surprise Southern Lord would be interested in this Greek crust / hardcore band; they are supremely intense, with a tremendous level of energy that never lets up in the 34 minutes it takes them to plow through eleven songs. What is a bit surprising is how melodic their sound is, even when delivered at train-wreck velocity. Their vocalist is a yelling kind of dude straight out of the old-school hardcore handbook, and their drummer has more of a crusty edge to his driving attack, but it's unquestionably the guitars that are the band's secret weapon. Their riffs are infused with a level of melodicism that's unusual for a band this willfully intense; of course, those melodic sounds are frequently disguised as bursts of audio shrapnel (as on "Revelation"), and played at such hellsonic speeds as to often sound like a whirling hall of knives being aimed at your ears. They slow down just a smidgen on "Our Day of Torment (Here and Now)," even pausing for a brief and deceptively simple guitar passage before racheting up the intensity level again, but outside of this and a few moments of respite (like the one that comes in the middle of "Remnants"), they remain fully in whirlwind mode for most of the album. Did I mention that they are intense? The album is available as part of the label's underground series, limited to a thousand copies.
Secret Druid Society -- RESTLESS [First Fallen Star]
I never imagined Sydney, Australia to be a prime breeding ground for deep ambient drone, but that’s what we have here -- seven tracks of apocalyptic deep drone that’s both cold and majestic, with a symphonic sound that nevertheless owes much to the alienated minimalism of the original isolationist movement. Clouds of sound billow and drift, with a sound that’s deep and harmonically rich, and while nothing much happens -- as with the best minimal death drone -- it happens (or doesn’t happen) with style and enormous panache. The gorgeous digipack cover features snow-covered mountains enshrouded in fog and sun-dappled clouds, and those images are very much in tune with the clouds of sound emanating from the seven tracks on this album. It doesn’t hurt that the recording quality is excellent, with plenty of depth to the layers of sound; this is definitely not a four-track bedroom album. Excellent stuff, and far more soothing and tonally enraptured than the average dark ambient album. Limited to 500 copes.
First Fallen Star
Squash Bowels -- TNYRIBAL ep [Selfmadegod]
Polish grindcore is always nasty, hateful stuff, and this gory variation of the same is no different. Originally released in 2000 by the Czech label Obscene Productions, this version contains the original six tracks in a a six-panel digipak with new artwork and a redesigned layout. I don't know if they bothered to remaster it or not (is it sensible or even legal to remaster grind albums?), but it's grind the way grind should sound -- lots of hyperactive pounding and growling, propelled by a drummer so fast and yet so tight that it's hard to believe he's human and narrated by a vocalist who alternates between demented howling and guttural burps. I'm not so thrilled by the abrupt fade at the end of "Dark Corridors," and like most grind albums things tend to get a little repetitive (all the more reason it makes sense for this to be a short EP), but they liven things up with plenty of fitful stops and starts, diseased machine noises scattered through the tracks, and a truly ugly (and deliberately so) drum sound in "Zema Inpa." The brief passage of ominous dark ambient sound in the middle of "Black Thing" is a nice touch, too. As with most (maybe all) grindcore, it's pretty much impossible to tell what the vocalist is yelling about, but then again, with a name like Squash Bowels, do you really want to know?
Trophy Wives -- OLD SCRATCH [Latest Flame]
They hail from Louisville, KY, but they have less in common with that city's favorite (obscure) sons Slint than with roots rock -- not only do they have a vaguely alt-country (by way of Neil Young) feel much of the time, but this is a band that seriously believes in the disappearing art of the guitar solo. This is an old-school rock album advanced by an airtight rhythm section and a twin-guitar attack of considerable finesse; of course, none of this would matter if they didn't have good songs, but that they have in spades. You can tell they're out of step with the times (and in a good way) by the fact that they've been together since 2007 (they added a second guitarist two years later), yet they are just now releasing their debut album, which has given them plenty of time to write and craft a stellar body of tunes. They also offer a satisfying variety of sounds and stylistic permutations: bracing hard rock with fizz-laden guitars and brilliant, twisting solos on "A Taste of Your Medicine" and "Bad Tattoos," the poppier fare of "Crooked Cross," "Reacher," "Let Us Roll," and "Nick of Time"; hard rock infused with new wave hooks on "Bad Song" and "Death on the Radio"; the punkier, and even the uptempo vibe of "Nobody's Home" and "King Cab." There's something for everyone here, in an excellent body of songs made all the more appealing by some truly incendiary guitar playing and BIlly Bisig's equally impassioned vocals.
Latest Flame Records
Village of Spaces -- ALCHEMY & TRUST [Corleone]
They used to be called Uke of Space Corners County, but apparently nobody could get the cryptic name straight, because now they’re back with a new (and better) name to go with their new album. And wonder of wonders, their eccentric sound has morphed into something even more accessible than ever while still remaining obscure and mysterious. A heavy psychedelic country-folk vibe has crept into their sound, making them resemble a catchier answer to Six Organs of Admittance with actual songs and beautiful harmony vocals from Dan B. and Amy Moon. Country guitars and other country-related instruments like mandolin give the album a gentle and folky feel, and the singing is simply gorgeous; only the mystical lyricism of tracks like “Ovum’s Influence” and “Mountainside” hint at the band’s more eccentric origins. Still, this is hardly a traditional country-folk album, despite the convincing playing and mellow textures -- the Faheyesque guitar and background drone of “Montanta Telephone” and generally slow tempos, coupled with a certain element of drone inherent to many of the tracks, make their sound too weird to appeal to a country audience. Fans of the pastoral psychedelic movement of recent years, though, will find much to like here.
Village of Spaces
Whitehorse -- PROGRESSION [At A Loss Recordings]
The latest offering from Australia's morose masters of ugliness is a strange work of severely damaged art, incorporating elements of doom, noise, and sludge metal to create something slow and truly oppressive. The first track, "Mechanical Disintegration," lives up to its title, opening with noisy sounds like a washing machine being demolished before lurching into soul-crushing drums and a titanic riff that often fades into screeching feedback before coming back to life again, then finally ends in a grotesque burst of violent noise. All of this, mind you, is accompanied by a vocalist who sounds like he's in the process of heaving up some of his vital organs. I have a feeling there's a lot of heavy rotation of early Buzzoven albums in the band's backstory (and maybe Eyehategod, too), but their glacial pace and downtuned heaviosity owes just as much to Winter and dISEMBOWLMENT, and the affinity for destroyed sounds and noise that pervades all the tracks is something else entirely. They pick up the pace a bit in "Progression" and "Control, Annihilate" without losing any of the opening track's heaviness; the latter is made even scarier by bursts of cyclone noise that periodically threaten to drown out the elephantine riffing. The real descent into hell, though, comes courtesy of the two lengthy exercises in abject bleakness that take up the final twenty minutes of the album, "Time Worn Regression" and "Remains Unknown," both so unspeakably heavy that they threaten to collapse time and space into a black hole. If you're down with desolate, hopeless, slow wasting doom, then you need this, and you need it bad.
Originally released on cd by Sweat Lung Records to sell on their American tour earlier this year, At A Loss is now making this available in both digital and vinyl formats. Given how bass-heavy and loud it is, I suspect hardcore fans of the band will want the vinyl version.
At A Loss Recordings
Wolves in the Throne Room -- CELESTIAL LINEAGE [Southern Lord]
Olympia's unorthodox black-metal hippies, the ominous offspring of Weakling having its way with a dozen Krautrock bands, is back with its first full-length studio release since 2009's BLACK CASCADE. They may have started life as a brilliant but reductionist Weakling clone, but their own identity has solidified over the past few albums as their artistic vision has become increasingly more amibitious and their songwriting skills considerably more refined, and this is definitely the culmination of their aspiration to operatic metal godhood. As the final installment of a trilogy that began with TWO HUNTERS, this album is the obvious pinnacle of the albums, every bit as infused with drama as the previous two but even more sophisticated in its arrangements and the album's pacing in general. While bearing all the hallmarks of the previous work -- Aaron Weaver's furious drumming, the operatic tenor of Nathan Weaver's guitars, and the lustrous vocals of occasional singer Jessika Kenny -- there is far more emphasis this time on the ambient and prog elements of their sound, and the songs are arranged and sequenced in such a manner that the entire album flows in a series of movements, moving from the serene opening moments of "Thuja Magus Imperium," dominated by ambient sound and Kenny's gorgeous vocals, before moving into the more traditional black metal sound, which itself is augmented by proggy synths and moments that revert back to the motif of ambient sound and choral vocals. The seven tracks form an epic journey through a whirlwind of emotions and sounds, expertly shifting dynamics at just the right moments, shaded with subtle touches throughout (especially where the mix is concerned), before reaching the journey's apex in "Prayer of Transformation," which builds in epic movements from a slow beat and droning dissonance to a static-laden drone that rises in both volume and intensity before abruptly fading away to a dying wind. On this album, they also manage the neat trick of simultaneously fulfilling the expectations of their listeners and the promise of the earlier albums while realizing the actual sonic context of their vision in new and unexpected ways. This should go a long way toward cementing their growing reputation as one of the best (and most sonically diverse) American black-metal acts, especially now that Ludicra -- one of the few bands capable of matching them in diversity and imagination -- have called it quits.
Wolves in the Throne Room
Robert Ziino -- PLAYING IN HELL [Experimental Artists]
I must say, I approve of the BDSM-oriented artwork, although I have no idea what it has to do with the album proper (although a few of the tracks, with titles like "Perverted Games" and "The Dominant Submissive," definitely echo the artwork's theme). Even among experimental artists, Ziino is a bit eccentric -- as a structural formalist of sorts, his albums generally consist of tracks of equal length (this time they're five minutes each), built on loops and tricked-out with all sorts of weird sonic effluvia. This one is no different in that respect; from the first track, "Hoarding the Algorithm," which features plenty of delirious sax bleating over a kick-heavy percussion loop, to the final track "Ignorance is the Enemy," which features psychotronic wailing and fuzzy bass electronics over a minimalist beat, each track is built on the backbone of a monochromatic loop, with strange experiments in devolved sonic textures taking place over the top. The predetermined structure of these tracks may be formal, but there is definitely variation in the strategy of each individual track: "Faded Death" is built on an electronica loop with overlaid sounds that shift in density and dynamics, "Perverted Games" is built on a warbling synth loop with an oscillating sound and spiced up with all sorts of electronic bleeps and bloops, and "Yes Master" returns to the use of percussion for its loop and derives the rest of its sound from synth squiggles that climb up the scale. The underpinning of the title track is a deep bass drone, while "The Dominant Submissive" is built on a loop of swirling, high-pitched electronic tones. Rhythmic intensity is definitely a major motif here; I don't recall his earlier albums being quite this focused on the rhythms, and here those rhythms are interesting enough to provide a highly listenable context for the rest of his bizarre forays into sonic otherworldliness.