Wednesday, October 28, 2009

We’re Gonna Rise Above (Some More)

Hawkwind are one of the great unsung influences in rock, especially from the North American perspective. Monster Magnet is the only stateside band I can think of that’s copped to their influence. Back in England, the entire “space rock” genre can be traced back to them, and Litmus are definitely carrying on Hawkwind’s tradition of blissed-out, cosmic hard rock. Aurora features the requisite pounding beats, whooshing noises and time-stretching jam interludes. Refreshingly, they also incorporate their forefathers’ passion for strong melodies and hooks. Hawkwind may have been hyper-conceptual space cadets, but they also had hits. When Litmus kick in the afterburners, as on “In the Burning Light” or “Stars” they sound like an ultra-polite Motorhead (go figure). But for every supernova there’s a cloud of cosmic dust: “Kings of Infinite Space” is a drone-based anthem, and “Ma:55°N Rift” is a scorching instrumental that fills the black hole that Porcupine Tree left when they went to a major label and moved away from their style on Signify and Stupid Dream. Very English, very fun. When on “Red Skies” the guitarist lets loose with his Keith Richards-style licks, the bass growls like an angry thing and everything else goes “whoosh!” you’d be forgiven for thinking the Mother Ship’s about to land.

The Gates of Slumber—Hymns of Blood and Thunder
This well-seasoned Indianapolis trio arrived last year with their third full-length, the loud-and-proud Conqueror on Profound Lore. Hymns of Blood and Thunder delivers more of the same, but with more intensity and better songs. TGoS play proper doom metal, as Odin intended. You know the deal: “For fans of St. Vitus, Trouble, and Black Sabbath.” Like a less dour Reverend Bizarre, their approach is untainted by death growls or double bass. Their songs breathe; the main riffs are substantive and the melodically powerful vocal lines play off of hanging guitar chords. Songwriters Karl Simon and Jason McCash provide informative notes explaining the stories behind each song, which is cool. However, you don't need any of that behind-the-scenes stuff to realize that “The Bringer of War” is totally badass. “Descent Into Madness” (based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, readers) is the epic, highlighting some new elements to their sound in the form of synths, and a David Gilmour influence, manifested by Karl Simon’s guitar solo. They lob another curveball with “The Mist in the Mourning,” a medieval/folk lament based on words that Simon wrote in a "drug-induced haze in a London hotel at 4 in the morning." True to Rise Above's roster of talent, The Gates of Slumber have style, taste, and imagination, even within the smoke-filled, sweaty, despair-ridden, resin-caked, beer-soaked confines of dooooooom.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We’re Gonna Rise Above

England’s Rise Above Records has long been one of my favourite labels. Proprietor Lee Dorrian has great taste in working with bands that, while not exactly being “retro”, usually embody old-school values in recording and presentation. Spanning styles from the whimsical minstrelsy of Circulus, to the musty proto-metal of Witchcraft, to the agonizing doom of Moss, Rise Above bands make records that sound live and natural.

Although the label started as a way for Dorrian to stay off the dole and release 7-inch singles by the likes of Napalm Death and SOB, it soon began to specialize in doom, via the Dark Passages compilation (left), and picking up bands like Orange Goblin, Sheavy, and Electric Wizard along the way. (See Terrorizer #177 for the full story.)

These days Rise Above releases bands representing a handful of different scenes: metal, prog, stoner rock, folk, and (as ever) doom. And whatever scene a given Rise Above band represents, you know they’re going to have that “X” factor of individuality, quirkiness and coolness that inspired Dorrian to sign them in the first place.

Rise Above releases have usually been difficult to track down in stores. A couple years ago, selected new titles got picked up for distribution via Candlelight USA. Now they appear to have a full partnership with Metal Blade for North America, making the latest Rise Above releases affordable and easy to find in mainstream places like HMV.

Over the next couple days, I’ll reviewing four Rise Above albums I’ve picked up recently.

Firebird—Grand Union
Five albums in, and Bill Steer and co. never fail to rock righteously. Grand Union is another satisfying album of power-trio blues/rock that’s beautiful in its simplicity and lack of pretension—guitar panned left, bass coming through the right, drums and vocals up the middle. The nine originals and three covers explore the usual Firebird territory, which resides in the 35-year-old parameters drawn up by Robin Trower and Humble Pie. Grand Union is a little more blatantly bluesy than 2006’s Hot Wings. For every outright rocker like “Blue Flame” (love the cowbell) and “Jack the Lad”, there’s a laid-back shuffle in the form of “Release Me” or “See the Light.” While it’s all effortlessly enjoyable, I sometimes worry about Firebird’s lack of obvious progression. Steer’s guitar playing certainly keeps improving—the slide work on “Silent Stranger,” “Release Me” and “Caledonia” is impressive—and his turn on the harmonica during a rip-roaring cover of Duster Bennett’s “Worried Mind” is very cool as well. He might mess with the formula by working with guest vocalists, or keyboards, or doing a live album of new material. Really, though, as long as Steer’s into what he’s doing and still releasing albums, I’ll take Firebird any way I can get them.

Astra—The Weirding
Man, Astra sure saw me coming. This kind of low-tech psych/prog gets me all hot and bothered. Earlier this summer I complained about Wobbler’s songwriting shortcomings. Astra have many of the same sounds at their disposal, but they deploy them much more carefully, devastating as they go. I can best describe them as a hybrid of Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath. The 15-minute title track is one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, combining pastoral vocal melodies, masses of Mellotrons, some jamming reminiscent of “Echoes,” and heavy guitar riffs. It’s Meddle meets Master of Reality, and it slays. Not all the following tracks have as much to chew on. “Silent Sleep,” for example, milks its components to create an epic when it could have been a perfectly serviceable album track in the style of “Seven Stones” by Genesis. “The River Under” plods a bit as well. “Ouroboros” is the other key track, opening with a strong theme of Goblin-esque Mellotron choirs before segueing into a space jam—kudos to the guitarist(s) (sorry I can’t ID the chap—three band members have guitar listed as their first instrument) for keeping it moving forward to its final movement, which sounds like Opeth of all things. Great ’70s-obsessed minds think alike, I guess. It’s hard to believe that Astra are from California, as The Weirding sounds like it was hatched in a Welsh forest. There’s a whiff of a creative anachronism society about it (the drums in particular sound purposely primitive), but the woody I pop every time I play this album does not lie—they're for real.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Noctis Fest, Part II

It took a while to write, but you can read my roundup of the live action at Noctis III at

I didn't expect to find any good record stores in Calgary, but what do I know? When we went for lunch with Jenn's friend Elise on Saturday afternoon, I spotted Recordland. Aside from the name, I wasn't actually sure that this bunker-like edifice contained any records. All the windows appeared to be boarded up, and the door was one of those wire mesh-reinforced deals featuring little more than a "Come in, we're OPEN" sign. I was a bit nervous going in. Would I come out again? Were the Devil's Rejects in there?

Recordland turned out to be awesome. I found the CD section first, but ended up ignoring it once I saw the portal into the vinyl catacombs.

Suffice to say I could have spent all day in there. Fortunately, I could recall some items on my want list, so I went in pursuit of a few specific items. I found:
  • Miles Davis, Agharta
  • UFO, Force It
  • David Crosby, If Only I Could Remember My Name
  • Def Leppard, High and Dry (1984 reissue with extra tracks for my pal Shockk)
If Noctis IV happens next year, I'll have to mount an all-out assault on the place.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dethklok, Mastodon, Converge and High on Fire, October 4, Orpheum Theatre

Not that you could tell by reading this blog, but October's been an action-packed month for me. Jenn and I spent the first weekend in Calgary, taking in the Noctis III Metal Fest and Conference. It was spectacular, and, provided the organizers (Scarab Metal Productions) didn't take a bath on the thing, I'd like to go back next year. You can read my conference report here.

We went to Portland the weekend after that to staff the Anvil Press table at Wordstock 2009. Portland was great—what I saw of it anyway. We were down in the convention center 8 hours a day, talking to people who visited our table and trying to sell some books. The latter task didn't go so well. Jenn sold a couple copies of Sugar Bush and the one Jen Currin fan we met bought a copy of The Sleep of Four Cities. Then you'd get the people who'd stand there and read Heroines or I Cut My Finger start to finish, then put down the book and walk away. Being polite Canadians, we could only smile at these tools and thank them for stopping by. We need some passive- aggressive tactics next time, like matching "We are not the Bookmobile" t-shirts or something.

Portland had some awesome record stores, two of which I found during the couple hours that Jenn let me loose on Sunday. Anthem Records was a cool hole-in-the-wall with a ton of obscure avant CD-R and cassette releases and a buttload of black metal. They had YOB t-shirts as well, which I passed on, having loaded up on metal tees in Calgary. I bought an issue of Oaken Throne—Anthem was the only place I'd ever seen it.

The nice kid at Anthem directed me to Everyday Music, which I found up past Powell's Books. Awesome place. I could have dropped a ton of money there, but I restricted myself to a few finds from the vinyl bins: Eagle Twin, The Unkindness of Crows; Web, I Spider; and Lone Star, Firing on All Six.

Between Calgary and Portland we also saw Dethklok, Mastodon, Converge and High On Fire at the grand ole Orpheum. I wouldn't put the show in my top 5 for 2009, but it was pretty good. The crowd was a little more colorful than your average metal audience: lots of young kids, parents, people in costume, and “regular” people. Despite expecting Converge to be lowest on the bill, High On Fire were first on, but they rocked as I expected. I’m sure they had a couple new songs in there. Converge were great, though a little perplexed to be playing a seated venue like this. Jacob Bannon had some sweet mic-swinging moves and probably covered a few kilometers running back and forth across the stage. The new album is out tomorrow and will blow all of us away, believe me.

Mastodon played nearly the same set as their Commodore show in the summer. They had the visuals to accompany the Crack the Skye recital, then rounded out the set with one song each from the previous three albums. We had a much better view than we had at the Commodore, which was the reason I went to this show. None of the bands used a drum riser, I suspect because the edge of the back-stage video screen was so low, and the kit would have obscured the view. I noticed Troy Sanders did some Tom Araya-style half-assed playing during his singing parts on CtS, but he came into his own on the older numbers. Their vocal mix for the first few tunes was very bad, too, like the sound guy didn’t realize there were four singers in the band. You could hear Brann OK, Troy and Brett not at all, and Bill (who sang least) was by far the loudest. Puzzling.

Dethklok put on a very slick show, consisting of animation up on the big screen with live musical accompaniment from the deliberately anonymous band (which included Mike Keneally of Beer for Dolphins, Dethklok creator Brendon Small, and Gene Hoglan). The way everything was synced up was impressive, and Small is clearly a crack musician. I'd hate to think what would happen if their click track failed, though. More than at any other metal show, improv was not an option! They played an encore with no visuals behind them, after which Small finally addressed the audience and introduced the “real” band. Gene got a big cheer from the crowd, naturally. The set lasted an hour, which was just right. I don’t feel like I have to wait six months before I’ll want to watch my Metalocalypse DVDs again.