Friday, September 28, 2012

Nylithia with Scythia and Terrifier at the Rickshaw Theatre, September 26

You really can’t go wrong with an all-local metal bill in Vancouver, such is the strength of the scene these days, and this show just reinforced that view. With folk metallers Scythia heading out on tour (including a stop at Calgary's NOCTIS Metal Fest tomorrow) and a new EP release to celebrate, they decided to hold court at the Rickshaw along with a couple of other killer local acts.

First up was Terrifier (formerly Skull Hammer), a new—to me—quartet who blew me away almost immediately with some tight thrash/death. Although the band most assuredly has no weak links, what stood out for me was that both guitarists could shred like crazy. They weren’t shy about it, either, as they freely traded solos during songs like “Scum Ridden Filth” and “Welcome to Camp Blood.” Polished yet absolutely devastating.

Scythia opted for the middle slot on the bill and played most of the material off their new For the Bear EP. Scythia are all about the gung-ho spirit—all galloping rhythms and reeling melodies. They’ve rejigged the band a bit lately, dropping the keyboards and toughening up their sound by adding Brian Langley (Tyrant’s Blood/Infernal Majesty) on second guitar. They apparently haven’t convinced him to put on a kilt yet, but he was well into the spirit of things. A Scythia show is typically a maelstrom of fun, and this gig was no exception. As if the costumes and oboe-festooned folk-metal tunes weren’t enough, they had Vancouver’s premier metal belly dancer, the beautiful (and brave) Mahafsoun Faroogh, join them on stage for “Voice of the Blade.” Fancy! All in all it was a memorable sendoff for a  tour that’ll see them travelling to Montreal and back, after which those stage getups are gonna need some serious Febrezin’.

Nylithia closed the show by giving us all a right good thrashing. They’ve developed into one of Vancouver’s deadliest acts. Again, there are no weak links in this quartet, and the energy and mayhem they produce is incredible. Guitarist Royce Costa is especially phenomenal. The guy is like five guitarists in one. As he fires off frantic, single-note riffs, alien Voivod funk grooves or crazy solos, he’s intensity personified. The fact that he’s got three bandmates who can keep up with him and keep it tight is just as impressive. Worthy headliners for sure, on this or any other night.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Jeff Younger’s Devil Loops—volume two (

We last heard from our Jeff when he released the debut from his jazz colossus The Unsupervised. Since then he’s focused on solo work and a summer tour across the country doing workshops and gigs with his Devil Loops project. In May this year, he took off to the Okanagan to record volume two over a couple days (I reviewed volume one here). The six tracks represent six performances of six spontaneous compositions—no overdubs or editing, as he points out in the album notes. As such, the sounds are abstract and elongated, with Younger allowing himself to harness any sound that the guitar might possibly make. Interestingly, he doesn’t use any overtly "spacey" effects such as chorus or flanging; he's cooked up his own special sauce of loop/delay, pitch shifting and volume pedals, and some distortion and reverb. Cavernous drones, cosmic reverberations, industrial scrapings, video game bleepblorps, and tiny insect noises fade in, mingle, then fade away. There’s even some passages that feature recognizable “guitar playing” where you think, “Oh, I bet this guy plays jazz,” especially on “Roomies,” where gentle guitar lines tumble over each other, always threatening to align without ever doing so, with beautiful results. Overall, it’s a surreal and often soothing listen that reminds me of early Cluster or Tangerine Dream—not that I’d pin any of those influences on a self-directed, schooled musician like Jeff Younger, but you know, if you're into the German ambient spacenoise, you might get into this. In less-considerate hands, such freedom and minimalism could devolve into some sadistic feedback assault, but Younger’s approach is much more inviting. This edition of Devil Loops paints an intimate soundworld that ducks away from big gestures and grand climaxes. For such an uncompromising, gutsy endeavour, it has a generous soul.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pagan Altar—The Time Lord (Shadow Kingdom Records)

It’s always exciting to hear a new release from Pagan Altar, even when the material isn’t all that fresh. The Time Lord EP is a spruced-up CD version of a vinyl-only release that I Hate Records put out in 2004. The EP comprises five demo recordings dating as far back as 1978—way, way before heavy metal became the self-sufficient mini industry that it is now.

Pagan Altar were perfectly positioned to make a splash during the NWOBHM, yet it took the rise of the Internet to bring them out in the open. It’s a mystery to me why they didn’t get signed to a specialist label like Neat or Ebony at the time. Maybe their downtrodden and macabre Olde English style wasn’t what labels were looking for. They didn’t fit in with more fresh-faced and energetic bands like Saxon, Maiden or Leppard who were cracking it commercially, or extreme bands like Venom, who had an immediate appeal to the growing legions of freaks out there. Maybe if there’d been a doom scene beyond Witchfinder General and Trouble, Pagan Altar would have risen from obscurity more quickly. They've found their niche now, though, alongside the likes of Pentagram as once-obscure, now-revered forefathers of doom.

Elderly the songs may be, but there’s no expiry date on these babies. Blow off the dust, wash off the soot, and they’re still pretty tasty. “Highway Cavalier” is a hard-charging slice of biker rock about livin’ free and easy (and that’s how it’s gonna be) that rules even if the drum set sounds like something salvaged from a tip. The title track is the EP’s high point, partly because it's a heavy metal song about space. It has a Hawkwinded charge to it before opening up in its final act for some wonderfully drawn-out southern-rock soloing. The next three songs all ended up on Pagan Altar’s debut, Volume 1, and feature more of the band’s Sabbathy side, especially on "Judgement of the Dead." The recording quality is brittle but damn if there isn’t some impressive bass playing rising above the hiss. It’s almost as if they recruited Geezer himself for the session. On the nine-minute “Reincarnation” vocalist Terry Jones gets to showcase his unique, raspy style. Even in the band’s youth, he sounds like a wise old sage. It's probably down to the trebley recording, but that razor-wire guitar tone during the song's scorching climax sure works for me.

While it’s not the perfect place to first approach the Pagan Altar, there's no denying that this EP features some excellent material. These recordings aren’t exactly up to Martin Birch’s standards, but they’re well up to the job of capturing Pagan Altar’s mystique; the band's raw despondence and devotion to the macabre corners of heavy metal. Nobody writes and plays ’em like this anymore. Kudos to Shadow Kingdom Records for making this release available again.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Janel & Anthony—Where Is Home (Cuneiform)

Janel & Anthony’s music is both personal and personable. I like that they’ve chosen to feature themselves on the cover of Where Is Home, posed amongst quaint objects, musical and otherwise. They could have used a photo of a derelict barn or a misty birch grove for the cover, but they didn’t. There they are: “We’re the two people who made this music.” Even before the record gets played, we have names and faces; a human connection to the art that lies inside the jewel case.

Janel Leppin and Anthony Pirog are both active in the Washington DC experimental music scene. They make music separately and together. This is their second album as a duo. Janel plays cello and guitar; Anthony plays guitar. Those instruments create the foundation of their sound, but they also use looping to build layers and establish backdrops for solos. A few other instruments—various keyboards and percussion odds and ends—are in the mix as well. There are some jazz and folk flavours in their music, but they’re blended into the duo’s own elusive style. It’s detailed and exploratory, spacious and often wistful, and very well mannered. No single instrument dominates the space. Janel and Anthony clearly have a high-functioning, harmonious musical partnership.

Their songs are for the most part tight and disciplined with ear-grabbing, repeating themes and space reserved for non-indulgent soloing. The rapid-fire “Big Sur” is some kind of a gypsy bluegrass hoedown, driven by Leppin’s ostinado, Pirog’s twangy picking, and some exciting unison runs. Many of the other tracks are more sombre, like the wistful “Leaving the Woods” and its gliding guitar lines, volume swells, and of course, the cello moaning away, not shying away from its status as the world’s saddest instrument. “Mustang Song” has them both on guitar, picking out a haunting tune that’s like a tidier, more elaborate take on what Earth are doing these days. Linking most of the longer tracks are short, spontaneous-sounding pieces that vibrate in sympathy with their neighbours and keep the album flowing. Of these, “’Cross the Williamsburg Bridge” and “Auburn Road” stand out as lovely little tunes.

For all their inventiveness in making such elaborate music as a duo, Janel & Anthony’s music brims with emotion and personality. Where Is Home is a gem, and seriously cool from start to finish.