Monday, December 31, 2007

Planets—s/t (Distile)
The avalanche of quality math rock continues. I’ve never encountered an incompetent math rock band—some have clearly mastered more advanced math than others, but none have out-and-out sucked. Maybe all the potentially lame bands realize they won’t cut the mustard before they commit their naïve arithmetic to tape and embarrass themselves. Releases like this can provoke that kind of harsh self-contemplation. Planets are a number-crunching duo from Napa, California. Paul Slack handles bass, while Thomas Crawford covers “not bass,” which must equate to at least drums and guitar, based on what I hear here. I’d be interested to find out how the two of them wrote and recorded this stuff because the guitar is tightly interwoven with the rhythm section. If it was overdubbed onto bass/drum jams, it’s impressively executed. Most of the songs are the kind of skittering riff farms to which any fan of Dysrhythmia, Upsilon Acrux or Ahleuchatistas would be attuned. If I can pick out any distinguishing attribute amidst their undeniably excellent musical execution, it’s their commitment to rocking out. They’re not afraid to linger on a particularly blistering riff for a few seconds, or ride a groove for a couple minutes (as on “Return of a Dead Man”). The sound is suitably chunky as well. Rest assured, Planets will scramble your synapses (12 varied, intense tracks over 25 minutes will do that), but on a number like “Exercise!” they show they can write a tune you have a hope of recognizing on your second or third listen. The disc comes sewn inside a cloth pouch, so have scissors and a clean pant leg (to wipe the lint off the playing surface) handy if you get yourself a copy. The music’s well worth the extra prep.

Friday, December 28, 2007

OM—Pilgrimage (Southern Lord)
OM are one of those high-concept bands that proliferate nowadays. The duo—Al Cisernos and Chris Hakius (ex-Sleep)—plays stripped-down low frequency vision-quest music, with bass and drums leaning heavily on each other during longform spiritual journeys towards a kind of ambient-metal Xanadu where pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath commingle in a space/doom void. All in all, it's quite a contrast to former bandmate Matt Pike’s maximum rock and roll approach in the equally righteous High On Fire. OM's compelling power-through-minimalism approach also stands in opposition to more assaultive duos like Ruins, Hella, or Lightning Bolt. Judging by this and their previous full-length, Conference of the Birds, OM releases straddle a format between album and EP. Pilgimage lasts about half an hour, so OM are either careful composers or ruthless editors...probably both. Each of the four tracks serves a purpose and resides comfortably in the running order. We’ll not hear any complaints about “value for money” because such materialistic concerns have no place in OM’s realm. This particular saucerful of secrets opens with the title track (also reprised in shortened form to close the album), a hushed affair, with delicately plucked bass and muffled tom work, sounding like Waters and Mason jamming circa 1969. Cicernos’s whispered vocals work a stream of consciousness vibe ("Witness from mind and psychic sheath a guardian sun restrains the world projection") as do the riffs, which have an idiosyncratic internal logic that encourages acceptance instead of analysis. “Pilgrimage” fades to make way for the distorted churn of “Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead.” This startling transition, bridged by a mellow passage that plays with a few notes from the previous track, is my favourite moment on the album. Having delivered a quiet one and a loud one, “Bhimas’ Theme” mixes the two dynamics, making for perhaps the most approachable, deliberately structured piece on Pilgrimage. While nothing on the album quite matches the superb and memorable “At Giza” from Conference of the Birds, the overall flow and variety of the tracks shows some significant progression, making OM’s third major release a satisfying listening experience. Pilgrimage is a testament to their staunch focus. If they keep widening their field of vision, OM should be able to keep at this for years to come.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cortez the Killer—s/t EP (self-released)
Here’s more proof that the Vancouver music scene has entered a golden era. Though they take their name from Neil Young’s slow-burning epic, Cortez the Killer’s own music is a turbulent headrush more akin to Botch, The Refused, or forefathers Fugazi and Squirrel Bait. This fiery quintet shares a member with A Ghost to Kill Again, whose debut album knocked me on my ass earlier this year. The two bands also share a fanaticism for unpredictable action rock, although Cortez favour a harder punk rock edge compared to AGTKA’s shameless prog tendencies. Where AGTKA are sweeping and emotional, Cortez are taut and pissed off on this five-song EP. Each track writhes with rapid-fire lyrics—cryptic yet clearly imaginative political tirades whose stream-of-consciousness presentation in the booklet perfectly reflects their delivery. “Cocktails Mixed by Molotov” reimagines WWII’s Eastern Front as a hockey game while “East Vancouver Heart Attack” laments those being swept aside in the name of civic development (featuring the genius line “we all desire change but have none to spare”). Musically, flurries of hepped-up Iron Maiden licks and double bass (drummer Benjie Nesdoly turns in a heroic performance) pepper the spasmodic song structures—structures that still leave room for hooks in the form of gang-shout choruses and other vocal lines that get catchier with every listen. The songs seethe with debut-release excitement, and once Cortez the Killer catch their breath and hit the studio again it’ll be interesting to hear them stretch out across a full-length release.