Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Agalloch—Marrow of the Spirit (Profound Lore)

At this point in their existence, a new release from Portland’s Agalloch generates near-Neurosis levels of anticipation. They take their time between albums—it’s been four years since Ashes Against the Grain came out. We know the new album will be good, but we don’t know what kind of good: which of the band’s many strengths will be emphasized, what new elements will come into play, what will the production reveal (or conceal)?

The cover depicts a bleak, impressionistic winter scene with ravaged trees and mottled snowfall. The Agalloch logo is drizzled in varnish across it. It’s in keeping with the classy and subtle presentation of their previous releases. They’re a greyscale kind of band. The first track (after the cello-based intro “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness”) is called “Into the Painted Grey,” so we know for sure that we’re not in a Technicolor world. As the song takes off with (relatively) new drummer Aesop Dekker’s punishing blasts, it’s apparent that Agalloch are exploring darker climes than the more gaze-y, spectral Ashes… did. The lead guitar work is much more pronounced as well. Instead of hanging back and providing polite texture, the solos cut through. Guitarist Don Anderson’s work with Sculptured proves he can shred, and he’s doing it with Agalloch as well.

“The Watcher’s Monolith” continues these themes in a sparser, mid-paced fashion, with a piano coda that eases us into the album’s centrepiece “Black Lake Niđstång.” This track has gained a lot of praise as the “must hear” song on Marrow of the Spirit, and justifiably so. It’s the longest (I believe, at 18 minutes), most startling song Agalloch have tackled so far. It begins as a dirge, slowly piling on the drama with additional tympani and classical guitar. This is the album’s most post-rock passage, which is a sound they’ve steered successfully away from, on the whole, with Marrow of the Spirit. The track goes some remarkable places that I won’t describe here. I want music to surprise me, and I trust you do as well.

To close the album, there’s the more familiar folk metal feel of “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires.” “To Drown” smoulders on the embers of the fire that came before, acoustic guitars and cello to the fore, giving way to a chilling and forlorn squall of guitars. Marrow of the Spirit ends a triumphant year for Profound Lore and establishes Agalloch as one of the titans of modern metal. I bought this too late in 2010 to honestly claim this as my album of the year, but it’ll be the album of the rest of the winter anyway.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Kylesa with Baptists and Haggatha, Dec. 2 at the Media Club

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a show that was less than well attended. Maybe it’s the gigs I pick, or maybe the overall live scene’s really healthy right now. From reading bands’ tour blogs, those bad nights of playing to a few old alcoholics and the bartender’s dog still happen, but bands hitting Vancouver must do fairly well out of it. The word definitely got out about Kylesa prior to Thursday night’s gig at the Media Club. Last time I saw them was opening for Mastodon at the Commodore, where they played to a typically distracted, trickling-in crowd. This time they were welcomed by a full house as bona fide saviours of rock, kicking ass with a borrowed backline to a crowd that roiled and surged with every song.

Local four piece Haggatha started the night with some astringent sludge/doom savagery. Their low-frequency vibrations really helped work free the gunk in my cold-wracked chest. Everyone around me was probably feeling the same somewhere in the sweetbreads as Haggatha pounded their guitars in dogged pursuit of the fabled “brown note.” Praising a band for being loud is kinda like those stupid Coors ads that claim their beer is the coldest beer, like we're supposed to be impressed by that. Are we touting the quality of the beer or the refrigeration? Am I reviewing the band, or their amplification? Anyway, Haggatha's amps were working a treat and I'm sorry that I had to mention Coors here. If Haggatha were a beer they’d be the most tar-like, gut-punishing stout imaginable. Eight per cent at a minimum. Yes, they were loud and yes, they were damn good.

Baptists were spazzy and hyperkinetic, starting with a Converge-like flurry of songs before settling into Jesus Lizard territory mid-set, then launching into more chaotic material by the end. Those enervated by Haggatha’s attack shook themselves off and got slamming. To finish, the singer flung himself into the crowd, while I made a note to look up their drummer to see if he played in any other bands. The kid was a monster.

With the local bands showing so strongly, this was Kylesa’s crowd to lose. Thankfully they built on what had come so far, adding their double-drumming attack and catchy material to drive the room into an even deeper frenzy. They played for about an hour, touching on the best tracks from Static Tensions (I was glad to hear “Running Red” in particular) while working the new album, Spiral Shadow, which I picked up at the show. Kylesa are simultaneously lean and fat (phat?). They have two of everything: two drummers, two guitarist/vocalists. Although the bassist has no partner, he also plays keyboards, so he’s on double duty. They make an imposing sound, but it’s all in service of some tidy material—three and a half, four-minute bruisers in the main, with the occasional spacey interlude that reminds me that this was a band who were on that Syd Barrett tribute from a couple years ago. If using the opening bands’ backline was a problem, it certainly didn’t show. Guitarist/singer/producer Philip Cope had an interesting habit of glancing sideways in the middle of songs, as though he was keeping tabs on his bandmates, making sure everyone was still with him. No worries; they were killing it, powering through their set plus an encore, sending everyone home happy and setting the stage for an even bigger show next time they make it up here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dimmu Borgir with Enslaved, Blood Red Throne and Dawn of Ashes, Nov. 21 at the Rickshaw Theatre

Here’s half a concert review, or, to be precise, a review of half a concert. I was most interested in the meat in the Dimmu/Dawn sandwich, so I timed my arrival accordingly. My strategy almost backfired, because there was a long lineup outside the Rickshaw—it was an all-ager, so they were checking IDs, giving out wristbands, etc. While I wait I overheard some amusing banter between some dudes behind me about how they would look back on all these metal shows when they were old men of 40. Hey, guys, the fun doesn't have to stop when you’re 40.

The Rickshaw is seeing a lot of metal action these days. Local promoters The Invisible Orange (not to be confused with Invisible Oranges) favour it for their all-ages gigs, now that the Croatian Cultural Centre isn’t having shows. The Rickshaw is definitely a good space—basically a movie theatre with the seats removed from the front half of the house—although it lacks some character beyond its splendid neon sign outside. The sound system is inconsistent as well. Sometimes bands sound stupendous; other times I may as well be listening to a cassette pumped through a ghetto blaster turned full up. I often walk out the place thinking, “If only that show had been at the Commodore…”

I got in just as Dawn of Ashes were playing their last song. It was difficult to tell what they were going for. Combining masks and costumes with nondescript black-ish metal, what I heard and saw didn’t make me want to investigate them any further.

I’d never seen the venue so packed. While I was pleased for the promoters, I found it hard to find somewhere to watch Blood Red Throne do their thing. I like BRT quite a bit; their blocky, no-nonsense death metal rolls like a tank. When I interviewed mainman Tchort for a Green Carnation article a few years ago, I got the sense that BRT was where his real passion lay. And it’s true, BRT have been a lot more productive than GC lately, and here they were all the way from Norway. They didn’t sound like much at first. I was especially perturbed by the lack of bass in the mix. The busy, trebly bass playing is one of the most defining elements of their sound. After a few songs, it all came clear, popping and tapping in all its 5-string Warwick madness. Every song started with a quick pap-pap-pap-pap on the snare, which is just great style. Although they never sounded terrific overall—I heard one guy afterward pleading with the soundguy to turn it up for the next band—BRT made a strong impression, inspiring some punishing pit action.

Enslaved have long been near the top of my wish list of bands to see live. Getting a 45-minute set after nearly 15 years of fandom was a tad cruel, but I’ll accept such treatment for now. With such a time restriction, they focused on the new album, playing three songs from Axioma Ethica Odini and one each from Vertebrae, Ruun, and Isa. Again, the pit went nuts, proving that people will mosh to anything. Bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson was a charismatic master of pagan ceremonies, gesturing to emphasize the lyrics even if it meant playing with one hand occasionally. Lead guitarist Ice Dale was the band's MVP, stepping up for some impressive solos. After a brilliant rendition of "Isa" they were finished, and I was left wondering how big Enslaved could be if they toured as hard as Opeth out here. They were already a big draw on the night. Let's have a headlining show if they ever sail their longship this way again.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Young, moderately loud, and not so snotty: high school albums

The Deciblog recently published Laura Pleasants of Kylesa’s list of five albums that remind her of high school, and asked, via their Twitter feed, people to submit lists of their own. I heeded the call, then thought that a fleshed-out version might make a decent post. So, here we are.

I wish I could say that I had a better time in high school—cutting class, sticking it to the man, barfing O’Keefe’s Extra Old Stock while leaning out of a speeding Datsun 510. None of those things happened. I was really crappy at being a teenager. I was never high in high school. I’m pretty much the same person I was when I was 14, except that the peach fuzz ‘stache is gone, and I can talk to girls now.

Oh, and music was almost all crap when I went to high school. When I started grade eight, Keith Moon, Bon Scott, and John Bonham all died in quick succession. Foreigner were big. Michael Jackson and music videos happened. When I graduated, Duran Duran were huge. If I could sum up high school with one phrase, it would be “a state of constant discouragement.”

In no particular order, these were some of the records that kept me going.

“In the high school halls, in the shopping malls...” Signals isn’t my favourite Rush album of the period (Permanent Waves came out just as I turned 14, followed by the untouchable classic Moving Pictures), but I remember it being more ubiquitous than most. My first day of senior high at Burnaby Central, I heard Signals drifting out of someone’s car in the parking lot. Rush were growing up, for better or worse. The songs focus on late adolescent concerns. "Subdivisions," of course, lent some sympathy to bored suburbanites, “New World Man” was like a social studies class in song form, “Digital Man” was in sync with budding comp sci majors, and “Losing It” was a sobering dose of reality for those of us enjoying the best years of our lives. Signals was a senior high wake-up call. Time to put away childish things and get serious.

AC/DC—Back In Black
Talk about ubiquitous. This was the Nevermind of its day; the album on which a former cult band exploded into the mainstream. This record got so much play that I’ve never actually owned it. We got into AC/DC with Highway to Hell, and its soon-to-be death-tinged mystique, but Brian Johnson and the band’s thunderous intent took things over the top. We played most of these songs in our band, with Willingdon Black gritting his teeth at my attempts to “improve” on Phil Rudd’s beats (I was a deluded little bugger). Back in Black was more than just a party record—we studied it and learned from its lean, mean songcraft. WB and I have since been in many bands together and separately, but when we’re collaborating on songs, we speak the same Back In Black-derived language. I wish more bands today would learn from it as well.

Iron Maiden—Number of the Beast
Like Back In Black, this album was an event, albeit of a more cultish variety. “Wrathchild” got some airplay and I thought it was a damn cool song, so when CFOX premiered the new Iron Maiden album in its entirety, I was there, rolling tape and getting blown away from “Invaders” onwards. (Although I despise file-sharing and the havoc it’s wreaked on 21st Century music consumption, I never bought into the “home taping is killing music” argument back then. Just one of the many hypocrisies I live with daily.) As with AC/DC, a new singer helped bring new popularity to Iron Maiden, along with an album that was obviously an instant classic. I saw them at the Coliseum sandwiched between Girlschool and Scorpions later that summer, so suck on that. On second thought, things kinda ruled when I was in high school!

Marillion—Script for a Jester’s Tear
I realized that I’d be a progressive rock fan for life when a copy of Close to the Edge made the rounds between my friends, and I was the only one who could stomach it. My enthusiasm for Yes and ELP in high school was tainted by the knowledge that they’d both peaked a decade ago. There was nothing fresh and new to get excited about. I tried really hard with 90125, which was a quality pop album, but not really Yes. Genesis had no mystique either; they were all “No Reply At All” or “Illegal Alien.” Marillion came along in the nick of time (i.e. before I had to buy another Saga album). Script... had intrigue, especially because the North American edition didn’t come with a lyric sheet. I dove right in, puzzling over every sonic detail, trying to figure out what the concept was, man. They were my favourite band for five years.

Pink Floyd—The Final Cut
Although it didn’t take long to suss out that this wasn’t really Pink Floyd, we bought into this album wholeheartedly. I was a bit too young/naive to get fully into The Wall when it came out, so The Final Cut was it—it was new, it was ours. We loved the cover (not by Hipgnosis, I now realize), we loved the “holophonics by zuccarelli labs ltd.”, the swearing on “Not Now John,” and Roger Waters’ Falklands-inspired bitterness. Hey, I was bitter too—Thatcher and Reagan seemed callous and out of control, and nuclear annihilation surely awaited us all. Along with The Day After and If You Love This Planet, The Final Cut fuelled the fear and secret hope that I’d get to see two suns in the sunset and high school would suddenly become the least of my worries.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Zevious—After the Air Raid (Cuneiform)

Zevious are “way out” and “too much.” The trio slips me a mickey on “Where’s the Captain?,” opening the album with a skittering bit of electric jazz. Just as I’m settling back for a John McLaughlin Extrapolation-style outing, they shut her down and burst into some powerful, angular King Crimson/Voivod damage. Then the madness escalates as the song breaks into detailed micro-skronk sections that remind me of Dysrhythmia or Behold...The Arctopus. Looking at the personnel involved, all this makes sense—Dysrhythmia’s Jeff Eber plays drums (joined by brother Mike on guitar), and the album was recorded by Colin Marston of Dysrhythmia, Arctopus, and Krallice. Zevious represents a jazzier take on the tech/math/prog thing. They’re tight, but the tones they employ are occasionally mellow. Bassist Johnny DeBlase plays both electric and upright, and Mike Eber operates in a slightly distorted middle ground, only cranking it up when absolutely necessary. He offers the strongest contrasts on “The Children and the Rats,” shifting between gentle picking and sudden, atonal squalls. Amongst all the riffs and motion-sickness rhythms they make space for lots of guitar solos and a couple drum spotlights on “iNCITING” and “Glass Tables.” The guitar solos are when Zevious loosens up and takes off—it’s great to hear the rhythm section churning away while the guitar clears a path of its own. I’ll admit to feeling worn down by the second half of this album, such is the jazz battering they dish out. But the more I listen to After the Air Raid, the easier it gets to absorb it a single pass. McLaughlin, Williams and Pastorius may have tried it first, but Zevious are a trio of doom for today.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Not Difficult Music

Television seems so neat and tidy these days. With so many damn channels available, you’d think there'd be anarchy. But no. Every channel has a niche audience and a mandate, with carefully targeted programming to match. I sort of miss the 13-channel cable TV service that we had until the mid-‘80s. Every channel had to be all things to all people. They all had news, they all (even PBS) covered sports in some way. There weren't many shows to go around, and programmers sometimes had to draw from unusual sources to fill up the schedule. Now, with every special interest tucked away in its own channel and so many TV shows in production, the chance of coming across something completely surprising is a lot lower.

Here in Vancouver we pulled in a wonderful little station called KVOS on channel 12. Based in Bellingham just across the border, it primarily catered to Canadians. In its heyday, KVOS carried a lot of syndicated American programs (still does, actually), but when 10 PM rolled around, they packed up old Glory and unfurled the Union Jack. It was time to give Canadians heaping platefuls of the televisual equivalent of mushy peas and sausage rolls: old sitcoms like On the Buses and Man About the House, lowbrow sketch/variety shows like Benny Hill and Dave Allen at Large (I always thought Allen was ultra-cool, presiding with his whiskey and fags). In a slightly more upmarket vein, KVOS also gave us lots of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and—god bless them for all eternity—Not the Nine O’Clock News.

Not the Nine O’Clock News was a lot fresher than the other KVOS fare. The episodes were only a year or two old when they aired here. It was also skewed a lot younger—it felt like the next generation on from Python. Today it’s remembered as the place where Rowan Atkinson got his start before he went on to Blackadder and Mr. Bean. Even back then, it was clear he was the star in the cast, although the other three players were excellent themselves.

The show had a freewheeling format, interspersing studio sketches with fake news reports and film footage of royalty and politicians edited for maximum laughs. The only reliable segment was the closing song, where they would skewer some musical trend or artist. This was one of the strongest elements on the show—not only were the cast great singers and impressionists, the songs themselves were catchy as hell and offered an interesting insight into music at the turn of the ‘80s.

Here’s a rundown of my favourite NtNOCN songs.

It’s odd to think there was a time when Kate Bush was considered a lightweight flash-in-the-pan pop star. We should be so lucky today. This one’s a little mean-spirited, but Pamela Stephenson’s imitation is spot-on, as is the mangled arrangement of “Them Heavy People.”

Mainstream culture couldn’t help but overhear the rumblings of the NWOBHM as headbangers and rivetheads elbowed their way into pubs and festivals across the country. As with many satires of heavy metal, this isn’t a very good metal song—it's more like bad Status Quo. But it slightly predates “Bad News,” and there’s an exploding head.

Another thing about NtNOCN was that its naughtiness threshold was higher than anything else on TV at the time. The writing usually aimed higher, but any mention of “tits” or “shit” would send me howling. I never actually saw this song on the show; I heard it via one of the three NtNON albums the BBC released.

By the way, there is a significant Difficult Music angle to all this, as some of these songs (including the one above) were co-written by Chris Judge Smith, founding member of Van der Graaf Generator.

Is this ska? Two-tone? Whatever it is, it’s damn funny. Rowan Atkinson in fine form.

This song doesn’t seem intent on parodying any specific musician or style, but it does show how times have changed. To my knowledge, no fatwahs were issued as a result of this.

I don’t know what prompted this one. I can only guess that the CB radio fad arrived in England well after it had died in the U.S. Anyway, this song even features the truck driver’s gear change towards the end. It also inspired the second NtNOCN LP, Hedgehog Sandwich. 1:09 cracks me up every time, as does the line “you can listen to the wireless.” That’s some burly trucker’s tough-guy talk right there!

Like most great British shows, NtNOCN ran for only a few years (27 episodes) before its cast and writers dispersed. Atkinson, as I mentioned, went on to worldwide fame. Smith and Jones did their own show, Alas Smith & Jones, which was more quality sketch comedy in the NtNOCN style. Smith also directed The Tall Guy and Bean, amongst others. Pamela Stephenson joined the cast of SNL during one of its most turbulent periods, and made little impact. She’s now a clinical psychologist and still does television. First-season player and writer Chris Langham went on to do a ton of acting, writing and directing until some unfortunate, not funny at all, charges sidelined his career.

A lot of this material is available on The Best of Not the Nine O'Clock News, a two-DVD set from BBC Worldwide/A&E/New Video. It's a shame the original shows aren't available in North America, but this edited compilation hits most of the high points.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Blood Revolt—Indoctrine (Profound Lore)

There’s metal, and then there’s extreme metal. Blood Revolt make extremist metal. Indoctrine puts you in their blast zone, where they will cut you down. This Irish-Canadian collaboration—vocalist AA Nemtheanga (Primordial) joining Albertan war-metal stalwarts C Ross and J Read (Axis of Advance) on guitars and drums respectively—attack this album like a suicide squad, knowing this is their one chance to get it right. Anything less than total destruction would be a failure.

When this project was announced, I had difficulty envisioning how an emotive vocalist like Nemtheanga would mesh with the musical style of his bandmates. Primordial’s music provides space for singing, whereas Axis of Advance’s razor-wire hyperblast had been augmented exclusively by snarling, rasping vocals. It’s a testament to the strength of this collaboration that neither party has compromised at all. Nemetheanga plays his part to the hilt; howling, growling, speaking and whispering in his portrayal of someone whose internal struggles with faith and truth lead to a destructive act of martyrdom. It’s a bravura performance that is, I imagine, informed by his Irish heritage as well as by the ongoing insanity in the Middle East. Read and Ross are utterly furious throughout, firing off rounds of stirring, filth-encrusted riffs like Bolt Thrower in overdrive. The production is pretty much perfect, favouring the thick distortion of Scandinavian death while maintaining the raw scrape of past AoA recordings. The drum sound is especially effective—their natural resonance is more in the spirit of jazz records than modern metal production. I don’t usually think of drums as an emotional instrument, but here they sound truly angry, a rage stoked by the punishment that Read doles out with each snare/tom/snare/tom roll outburst.

Don’t think of Blood Revolt as some side project formed to indulge someone’s career frustration or musical fancy. Indoctrine stands on its own as the product of three musical extremists pushing each other to the limit. To paraphrase the album’s opening line, their aim is true and their hands are steady. If your listening habits reside at the ragged extremes, you’ll ignore this at your peril.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Egg—The Polite Force (Decca/Esoteric)

Egg’s second album, The Polite Force (1971), saw them maturing on all fronts. They’re far more focused and heavy. The album has only four tracks, with none of the quirky filler interludes from the first album. Once again, everything is good humoured and down to earth even as the band churn away with great complexity. Save the philosophy and mythology for Genesis and Yes—Egg were more concerned with having a high-minded good time. The classical reinterpretations from the first album are gone (save for a bit of Bach heard in “Boilk”) in favour of concentrating on their own identity. Mont Campbell’s vocal style is still ultra-sauve, but more even keeled. “A Trip to Newport Hospital” is apparently the most beloved track on the album, and I can hear why. The intro riff is right doomy, as prog goes—almost as if it’s sprung from Iommi’s mangled fingers, mashing down on organ keys rather than against that maroon SG (there’s some more of that fuzz in “Long Piece No. 3”)—before it traipses off into jazzier realms. It’s a big comfy couch of a song; a vibe that comes to mind when people discuss the Canterbury sound—an easy-going, nostalgic aura created by young men for whom nostalgia seems a premature mindset. “Contrasong” is a punchy jigsaw of a tune, embellished by a horn section stabbing at the accents. “Boilk” is a rather indulgent 9-minute collage of field recordings, found sound, mellotron noodling, and feedback. Those were the times, man. “Long Piece No. 3” which takes up the entire second half of the album, is where Egg really flex their muso muscles. This dazzling, disorienting exercise actually has several very accessible, catchy nuggets scattered amongst the riff salad. It sounds like Egg weren’t pursuing dreams so much as transcribing, then performing them. It was all too much for Decca, who begrudgingly released The Polite Force after sitting on the tapes for several months. After that, the game was up for Egg for the time being. The trio moved on to separate projects (the Egg family tree encompasses The Groundhogs, Khan, Hatfield and the North, National Health, and Neil from The Young Ones!) before reuniting for 1973’s The Civil Surface.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cynic with Dysrhythmia and Intronaut at The Venue, July 26

“Where's all the huge ’dozers?” asked Mrs. Mule soon after we’d gotten our bearings inside The Venue on this balmy Monday night. She was right—by the standards of most metal crowds, our fellow concert-goers were clean cut and slight of build (and not a little farty, unfortunately). None of this surprised me, seeing as we were attending the progressive metal bill of the summer. During Cynic's set, Paul Masvidal himself called it a geekfest. That made it official. The audience eyed fretboards as carefully as the musicians did; too amazed to mosh, I imagine.

I’ve wanted to see New York’s Dysrhythmia for ages, and they made it worth the wait. They rocked with full force, raging through their sadistically complex material. I don’t know how music like this gets made—how do you get these riffs across to someone else, how do you arrive at these song structures? The band obviously have a superb working chemistry. Their personalities and approaches mesh well in performance. Colin Marston reminds me of Voivod’s Blacky, whipping around his half-head of long hair and sawing away at his bass. Drummer Jeff Eber grits his teeth with the concentration it takes to make it through the set. Kevin Hufnagel stays relatively relaxed, save the occasional deep headbang, directing all his energy into his hands. Despite carefully tuning up between every song, their set kept up the momentum, from the conventionally rocking “My Relationship” early in the set to the blacker, more dissonant recent material towards the end.

I missed Intronaut the last time they came through town, opening for Mastodon. The Californian four-piece have fashioned a progressive sludge sound that is more appealing to me in concept than execution. They’re killer musos, all right, and the band is tight, but the balance seems off. I’m always happy to hear bass featured so prominently, and the drummer was cracking me up with the most ridiculous fills—basically soloing through the entire set. I didn't hear them meshing well as a rhythm section, though. With the bass taking the lead, I wanted to hear the guitars rise to the challenge and add distinctive voices of their own, but they stuck to their own corner. I could see and hear the complexity of what they were doing; I just didn’t feel it. Sometimes everyone did lock in, and the band sounded rich and deep. Groove was in their grasp. Too bad it happened only occasionally.

Last time I saw Cynic in Vancouver they were opening for Meshuggah (no shortage of ’dozers at that show) and then I saw them last autumn headlining Noctis III in Calgary. Both shows were in support of Traced in Air and were quite similar as a result. The Calgary show was naturally an expanded version of the Vancouver gig. This tour had the Decibel-sponsored angle, where they would play the dB Hall of Fame album Focus in its entirety. The first half of the set did indeed comprise “Veil of Maya” straight through to “How Could I”, with no announcements or fanfare, just some trippy lighting and projection effects as the band did their thing. The crowd knew what to expect and cheered on numbers like “Veil of Maya” (in which the vocal mix suffered from early-set teething problems), the mind-bending “Uroboric Forms,” and personal favourite “Textures”—which always struck me as their most King Crimson-ish song, an influence that Masvidal attests to in the actual Decibel Hall of Fame piece. The second half of the set was much more eclectic, devoted to Traced in Air and a couple sundry items. “Integral Birth” was performed twice, first by Paul Masvidal solo as a beautiful acoustic number, then in a full electric version to end the concert. The space between was filled in by Traced in Air numbers like “Evolutionary Sleeper” and “Adam’s Murmur” as well as new track “Wheels Within Wheels” and a number from their post-Focus Portal demo. Cynic performed everything with impeccable style and delicacy, which might not be what you want from a good metal show, but on the occasion of this geekfest, they were the perfect headliners.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hellbound on my Trail

Here's some of my recent work for hellbound.ca, where Sean Palmerston's been very generous in letting me blather on at irregular junctures. The site's developed a cool little community of writers and readers, and I'm pleased to be part of it.

Our biggest recent undertaking was the Canada Day feature on Rush, which also coincided with the release of Beyond the Lighted Stage on DVD. A mass nerd-out ensued, and you can bet I was there to say my piece.
Favourite Rush album
Favourite Rush song
Review of Beyond the Lighted Stage

Jex Thoth, the enigmatic psych-rock entity, released an EP that's had some mixed reviews. I dug it myself.
Jex Thoth EP review

Tom Warrior's book on the Hellhammer years is a fascinating hybrid of coffee table/art book and autobiography, and Bazillion Points have done an unbelievable job putting it together. I feel good just knowing this book exists.
Hellhammer: Only Death is Real book review

As with this site, I'm mainly reviewing stuff that I've bought, although Sean's sent a few promos my way. Profound Lore's Worm Ouroboros was one of them. It's an ephemeral but rewarding record. It took a number of listens before I could capture it in a bottle and be able to see it clearly.
Worm Ouroboros album review

Another promo was the latest from Steve Morse. I was really into this kind of thing about 10 years ago; now not so much. I can't fault the playing, production or even the writing. It's just so damn competent and breezy. I reserve ratings of "7" for such records.
Steve Morse album review

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Egg—s/t (Decca/Esoteric)

The music on this L.P. is not dancing music, but basically music for listening to. It is harmonically and rhythmically complex, designed to be as original as possible within the confines of the instrumental line-up; so its [sic] pretty demanding on the listener’s attention. –notes from the original LP

They come across as polite and eager to please in the liner notes, but in truth, Egg were like ELP’s bratty siblings, building lopsided-yet-intricate sand castles in the shadow of ELP’s Stonehenge. They had a whale of a time with what I consider the “rock” organ trio format (bass/drums/organ, as opposed to the jazz organ trio of guitar/drums/organ), jamming in strange time signatures and rocking up the classical canon. In common with the Canterbury rockers they eventually fell in with, Egg were whimsical and jazzy, and wrote songs with long titles (with a parenthetical bit at the end). Their first album was released to little fanfare on Decca’s Nova imprint in 1970. It captures this endearing outfit larking about with various ideas from free-form noise (“Blane”) to classical interpretations ("Fugue in D Minor" and the various movements of “Symphony No. 2”) to furious jazz/rock workouts (“The Song of McGillicudie the Pusillanimous [or Don’t Worry James, Your Socks Are Hanging in the Coal Cellar with Thomas]”). Ahem.

Keyboardist Dave Stewart went on to play with loads of people, including Hatfield and the North and Bill Bruford. His sound is in tandem with Hugh Banton’s churchy style, often lending a dreamlike air. Drummer Clive Brooks is a nimble player—he’s gotta be to keep up. And Mont Campbell (who seems a great character based on his contributions to Prog Rock Britannia) manhandles that bass like Jack Bruce and sings with a kind of lounge-y lilt. It’s hard to say whether he’s having a laugh with his singing (it was a few years before Bill Murray’s bit on SNL), but it fits the absurdist bent of most of the material.

This Eclectic Discs reissue* is fully annotated and expanded with a “lost” track (a segment from “Symphony No. 2” that was withdrawn to avoid objections from Stravinsky’s people), and a remarkable early single. The A-side, “Seven is a Jolly Good Time,” actually extols the joys of writing songs in odd time signatures, moving through bars of 4, 5, 7, and 11 as it progresses. As an educational tool, it’s awesome; as a single, it was a dismal failure. But no matter. Egg were kids hepped up on the endless possibilities of the new decade, with no precedents, no safety nets, and not much of an audience, unfortunately. But with critics and their record label on their side, Egg would get another crack at it with The Polite Force in 1971.

*Eclectic Discs is now Esoteric Recordings and is still your source for mind-blowing stuff.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Woods of Ypres, with Mother Died Today, Archspire, First Reign, June 26 at the Biltmore

With these bills stocked with mainly local acts, there’s often one band that isn’t quite up to snuff. Whether they lack experience, chemistry (“What’s up with the guy in the Shadows Fall shirt?”), or are just the wrong band for the gig, you’re left feeling “Oh. Oh, man. I wish I wasn't seeing this.” I'm happy and proud to say that the local metal scene is so strong now that such onstage mishaps are extremely rare.

Saturday night brought another strong lineup to the Biltmore. Each band had a distinct, fully formed approach and delivered it with the conviction, sweat and discipline required to perform metal properly.

It was an early show, with an 11 PM curfew to make way for the dance party crowd. Kudos to promoters The Invisible Orange and the bands for ensuring the night went off like clockwork—quick changeovers and no BS. I barely had time to grab a beer between sets.

Victoria’s Mother Died Today came on at quarter to 8. Their name may be a turnoff (Camus references are cool though) but the fourpiece were actually a blend of European death and folk-metal influences with killer singing and drumming. Their drummer had an interesting ¾ scale double-kick kit, and he just dominated the thing. This was their last gig due to their drummer leaving—a real shame, because they’d obviously put in a lot of work to reach this point.

Archspire took the gig to a new level of extremity. They were a sweep-picking, hyper-blasting juggernaut, with members drawn from Gremory, Every Black Minute, Muspellheim, and Artep. Watching out one of their guitarists at work sent sympathy pain shooting through my hands. They destroyed with speed and precision, and I expect to see them climbing higher and higher on future bills.

First Reign have style both in the musical sense—progressive death metal is their thing—and visually. One guitarist sits cross-legged on a drum stool. The bassist wields a rad Rickenbacker and, by contrast, rocks out the whole time. Their singer is an excellent, imposing front man, whose head nearly scraped the stage ceiling. Musically, it was an onslaught of elaborate, heavy material; almost too much to take in for a first-timer like myself, so I hope to catch them again soon.

After roaring out with “The Shams of Optimism,” David Gold admitted that Woods of Ypres were actually the least heavy band of the night. Be that as it may, he and his crew did have the best songs, and it’s clear that those songs are connecting with people. Woods’ second Vancouver show saw plenty of fans headbanging, especially towards the end of the set to “The Sun Was In My Eyes” and “A Meeting Place and Time.” During their last, ill-fated, Vancouver stop, Woods IV: The Green Album hadn’t yet been released, so it now featured more prominently in the set, highlighted by the burly double-shot of “Suicide Cargoload/Halves and Quarters.” “They sort of sound like Mastodon!” exclaimed a newcomer behind me. After “A Meeting Place in Time” from Against the Seasons ended the set, they encored with a new song (instrumental at this stage). The new Woods touring lineup isn’t quite as road-seasoned as it was last year, but I’m sure they’ll be in crushing form soon. They got a great response and could have played another song if it hadn’t been the 11 PM witching hour; time to pack up the gear and head out to their next stop. Our spirits were so buoyed that we stuck around for some of the dance party (heard some Joy Division). By the time we left the club, the Woods van was gone, headed south for a string of new adventures.

You can follow the Woods of Ypres tour blog at the Deciblog (first instalment here).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Nels Cline Singers—Initiate (Cryptogramophone)

The artwork for this double album is dominated by marvellous photos of the CMS detector at the Large Hadron Collider. The images echo the shape of the the CDs within. Collider would have been a good name for the album, actually. The trio of Cline (guitars), Devin Hoff (bass), and Scott Amendola (drums) smashes together a number of styles and influences on this grab bag of rocking jazz noise, with often blinding results.

Their music has as much in common with jazz as it does avant-rock. Let’s call it improvisational rock. Some of these pieces build and climb towards howling climaxes like Godspeed! You Black Emperor or Isis (Aaron Turner, take note if you’re looking for new collaborators!). The Nels Cline Singers also have a lot in common with Southern Lord fringe-metal bands like Earth and SUNN O))) and Eagle Twin, where black metal and drone mix with Bill Frisell, Eyvind Kang, and La Monte Young. I found Initiate in HMV’s Jazz section, but really, it could have been filed anywhere.

Disc two, recorded live in San Francisco, is especially loose and wild—anyone arriving late might have thought they’d come to a Boris concert by mistake. On “Raze,” that’s exactly what they do. “Fly Fly” is an avalanche of glorious noise. “Thurston County” is, as you’d expect, an homage to Sonic Youth. It’s easy to imagine Mr. Moore crooning along with its pounding melodic riffs.
Anyone dismayed by having their earholes singed by all that just has to sit tight, because as I said, the Singers can lay down just about anything with gusto. “Blues, Too” is a delicate tribute to Jim Hall. “Sunken Song” is a rollicking “actual” jazz number. The live set closes with their take on Weather Report’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz.” With a setlist running from the aforementioned face-melters to funky 70s fusion, this must have been quite a gig!

The studio-based disc one has much the same mix of material, captured with a little more restraint. There’s lots to explore in this sonic curiosity shop: the slow-building pulse of “Mercy (Procession),” the spacey sounds in “Red Line to Greenland,” some acoustic folk-jazz on “Grow Closer,” and the kling-klang mechanoid atmosphere of “Scissor/Saw.” I want to say there’s something for everybody on this album, but it’s not a question of wading through the tracks to find something you'll like—it’s all killer. Adventurous and visceral, The Nels Cline Singers make serious music that’s easy to enjoy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Entombed-Left Hand Path (Earache)

Entombed’s debut album, Left Hand Path, was released 20 years ago, and it’s still looking and sounding pretty spry. I clearly remember first seeing the cover, with its menacing Dan Seagrave artwork and “Crushing guitars—Mass death!” sticker. My friend Ken had bought the album based on that boast, and I picked it up soon afterwards. It was one of the first metal albums I bought on CD, purchased on the same day as Rush’s Roll the Bones. You can guess which one struck me as the more vital, exciting record.

The songs are good, of course, in that catchy way of early death metal. The Swedes’ style combined a Discharge-ish approach with chunky, nascent DM riffing of Carcass, Autopsy, and Bolt Thrower. Entombed—just teenagers at this point—had a flair for song introductions that drew you in and for placing memorable choruses within the mayhem. Invisible Oranges (who are much more on the ball with the metal anniversary celebrations than I am) makes a case for the opening title track and “But Life Goes On” as the most noteworthy tracks, which I wouldn’t dispute. "Left Hand Path" is epic, framed by a frantic opening and the legendary Phantasm-inspired outro—the only stretch on the album that’s not bent on flaying you alive.

“But Life Goes On” is a much different song. It’s more direct and catchy, descended from thrash titans Slayer and Kreator and rendered in Entombed’s own sounds of death. My pick for an underdog track is “Supposed to Rot,” the shortest song on the album. From start to finish, it’s pure brutality. It doesn’t waste a split second. The opening riff—all 14 seconds of it—is my favourite part of the album.

Aside from the songs, Left Hand Path’s real legend was built on its guitar sound. The combination of Peavey amp and Boss Heavy Metal pedal has passed into metal folklore by now. The guitars are out of control—so much so that they seem to play themselves. Any trace of human gesture, like pick noise or palm muting, is obliterated by the ooze, giving the impression that the riffs are generated by an unseen, supernatural force. When I think of Left Hand Path, that thick paste of frequencies comes immediately to mind. Crushing Guitars—Mass Death!

Left Hand Path isn’t one of those forgotten or underappreciated classics. It’s earned its share of kudos over the decades. It’s been inducted into the Decibel Hall of Fame and 20 years later people are still discovering it. Long may it rest in festering slime.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Slough Feg with Funeral Circle, May 29 at the Red Room

I wasn’t actually sure this gig would happen. I saw no posters, and found no listing in last week’s Georgia Straight. I had a ticket and some faith, but even the latter deserted me just before I left the house. A call to the club confirmed that The Gates of Slumber (who were to be second on the bill) were crossing the border and the gig was still on.

Mrs. Mule and I met up with Scum at the club, where the doors were closed. The doorman said that they’d be open at 8 (an hour later than scheduled), so rather than loiter around in the rain we went down to Steamworks for a pint.

Returning to the club, the doors were open and some sort of metal show looked to be imminent. The crowd was sparse, but any concerns over the lack of atmosphere went out the window once Funeral Circle took the stage. It took only a minute for me to realize that this band is something special. In fact I’ll say they’re the best local metal band I’ve seen in some time. It’s rare to see a young band—most of the quintet looks barely out of their teens—that has such a strong idea of what they’re all about. Funeral Circle are doom personified! We’re talking pure doom in the Reverend Bizarre, Candlemass and Witchfinder General vein. In fact, they closed with a Witchfinder General cover, before coming back for one final song (as there was additional time available) and dedicating their set to Ronnie James Dio. Performance-wise, they gained confidence as they went. New singer Revenant especially came out of his shell during the last few numbers, with his gestures becoming more dramatic as he hit the high notes with aplomb. I picked up their Sinister Sacrilege EP (released by no less than ultra-doom stronghold The Miskatonic Foundation) for further contemplation.

During their set, they announced between songs that The Gates of Slumber wouldn’t be playing. (According to the promoter after the event, their touring drummer didn’t have a passport, which got them denied at the border.)

Having been blown away by Slough Feg at Noctis III in Calgary last autumn, I expected a good time. I wasn’t disappointed. Mike Scalzi and co. performed with sheer style, skill, and energy. There’s no po-faced posturing, no menace in what they do. Slough Feg simply rock. It’s seamless too, with only the briefest of stage patter (“Thanks for coming out to the Red... What’s this place called? Red Room!”) to interrupt a rapid-fire set list that didn’t favour any one album, as far as I could tell. I know for sure they played a couple tracks from Atavism and Ape Uprising (“Simian Manifesto” and household favourite “Shakedown at the Six”), as well as a new song. They have their material DOWN. There’s no time for uncertain glances and head-nodding cues when they’re busy scurrying across the stage, engaging the crowd, putting on an effing clinic in twin-lead guitar mastery. It was overkill, but that’s what metal’s about, and we loved it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hellhammer—Demon Entrails (Century Media/PDR)

Now that I’ve reviewed Tom Warrior’s latest project, let’s go way, way back to his first recordings with Hellhammer. He documented this era in Only Death is Real, THE metal book of 2010 so far. The only thing that remarkable compendium didn’t include was a soundtrack. Fortunately, Century Media released just such a thing in 2008.

At the time of their first release, most bands are like teenagers—reckless, ill-groomed, and pumped up with new possibilities. When Swiss legends Hellhammer put out the Apocalyptic Raids EP, they were toddlers, artistically—apt to fall down, smear peanut butter on the cat, and forget to use their “inside voice.” After the EP’s release, critics gave them a unanimous “time out,” during which Tom Warrior and Martin Eric Ain’s balls dropped and they emerged kicking and screaming with the mighty Celtic Frost.

But even before Apocalyptic Raids, Hellhammer took their first baby steps via the demos compiled on this two-disc archival release, Demon Entrails. If you’ve heard Apocalyptic Raids, you can imagine what the Hellhammer demos must sound like. The sonics are indeed grim. Yet, some promise seeps out of the murk. Hellhammer knew what they were going for, even if their ambitions far outstripped their abilities.

Disc one contains the entire Satanic Rites demo from December 1983. This was the band’s first session in a real studio, an occasion tainted by the last-minute loss of their bassist. Described in one of the funnier episodes in Only Death is Real, the band learned that Stephen “Evoked Damnator” Priestly had gone shopping with his mother the morning of the session. “In our view, he had dishonored the name Evoked Damnator,” rues Warrior, who had to record the bass parts himself. They’re pretty much inaudible. With the production being a write-off, the band still manages to upchuck some interesting material. The ambitious “Buried and Forgotten” is an early version of “Necromantical Screams” from Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion, one of their most grandiose tracks. “Triumph of Death” is another gnarled masterpiece—probably Hellhammer’s greatest achievement. Here it’s a couple minutes shorter than the agonizing Apocalyptic Raids version, and better for it. The riffs carry more headbanging momentum. The rest of the tracks reflect Hellhammer’s speedy punk-metal sound. “Maniac” even verges on rock ‘n’ roll, and stands out along with “Euronymos” and “Messiah” as the best of the blackened polkas.

Disc two steps back six months in time for the Triumph of Death and Death Fiend demos, both recorded in one session at the band’s rehearsal space (the latter title was never released). Intoxicated with the idea of recording, they laid down their entire 17-song repertoire. The sound is truly noxious, but better balanced than the Satanic Rites demo, with Steve Warrior’s Cronos-inspired bass sound holding it own against Warrior’s guitar slop. The band bulldozes through everything with little attention to quality control. Were it not for their zeal to release everything, they could have tossed out at least half this material from the outset. Some of the important elements are in place, like Warrior’s biting guitar sound. The rest of the good stuff seems to happen by accident: “Death Fiend”’s punkish energy and the (hobbled) stoner rock groove of “Bloody Pussies,” for example. The band’s first thrash at “Triumph of Death” is even shorter and faster than the version on disc one. Blinded by metal, leather and hell, Hellhammer were still scrambling for control over their material in terms of performance and songwriting.

While none of this was acceptable to the metal establishment at the time, hearing it now that "raw, primitive BM" is an accepted subgenre underlines Hellhammer's unwitting influence. It’s interesting to hear their sound develop from elements of the NWOBHM (especially Venom) along with a more cruel approach using Sabbathian power chords in semitone clusters. Demon Entrails demonstrates that Hellhammer were a departure point where metal took a stern, uncompromising direction that led to the second wave of black metal. Demon Entrails isn’t exactly a listening pleasure, but it is an undeniable piece of metal history.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Triptykon—Eparistera Daimones (Century Media/PDR)

Born from pain and steeped in death, Triptykon has roared to life. Triptykon is Tom G “Warrior” Fischer’s new project following the ugly demise of Celtic Frost only one album into their comeback. Monotheist, the comeback album in question, brought them much acclaim (it was Terrorizer's album of the year), but to me it offered little of the raw, elemental riff satisfaction of classic Celtic Frost; only hyper-compressed sound smears and cringe-worthy attempts to out-extreme Celtic Frost’s blackened disciples. I pulled Monotheist out for another listen just before Triptykon’s release date, and it was still a miserable experience.

I checked out some Triptykon material online and read the advance reviews. Buying the thing still felt like a small act of faith...one that was rewarded. With Martin Ain and the drummer purged from the lineup, Triptykon have written actual heavy metal songs rather than trying to scare the bejeezus out of us. Eparistera Daimones is more down to earth, despite that fancy title. Like Monotheist, it’s ridiculously down-tuned, but there are riffs, clearly delineated sections, and quick shifts in tempo—the building blocks of memorable songs. The ill-logic of classic Celtic Frost prevails.

The album’s first 11 minutes whizzes by as “Goetia” unleashes a barrage of colossal riffage. Again on the similarly hefty “Abyss Within My Soul” and “In Shrouds Decayed,” the riffs do most of the work. The song structures will be familiar to anyone raised on heavy metal in the ’80s. Remember when metal songs had “thrash parts” and you’d anticipate the final sprint on songs like “No Remorse” or “At Dawn They Sleep”? That’s what “Descendant” does, and it sure made me smile. For out-and-out thrash, there’s “A Thousand Lies” which should have a Speed Metal logo slapped on it.

The inevitable genre experiments and diversions come late in the album. “Myopic Empire” bogs things down a bit; a B-side quality song with a piano interlude inserted in the middle. Neither element is very compelling. “My Pain” continues the exploration in a Massive Attack or Anathema mode, yet it’s not bad, barring some clunky spoken word passages. The album bows out with “The Prolonging”—a 20 minute mass of deformity pulled from the same agony bag as much of Monotheist; occasionally headbangable, but mainly a thing of ghastly wonder.

The angst-ridden vocals are up front and discernable, to their detriment. I’ll always prefer the cryptic, garbled approach that rendered songs like “Jewel Throne” so mysterious. (My reissue of To Mega Therion has lyrics, but I’ve avoided looking at them.) Warrior has transcribed the frustration of the last few years too literally at times (“You betrayed me to my face,” “As you perish, I shall live,” and so on), resulting in vindictive tirades a far cry from the mystique of old Frost. But stripping away that mystique seems to be Warrior’s mindset these days—see also his often painfully revealing book on the Hellhammer years, Only Death is Real. Anger and revenge inspired Warrior to form Triptykon and release a far better album than Monotheist. I can't argue with the results.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Red Sparowes with Caspian, April 30 at The Biltmore

I hadn’t done much research beforehand, so when I visited the merch table and saw Caspian t-shirts bearing a mutated CBC logo, I assumed they were a Canadian band. Not so, as they announced their Massachusetts origins early in their set. They really threw themselves into it, and sounded great in the process — a five-piece instrumental blend of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine and whichever heavy post-rock act that’s caught your gaze. The only issue I had with their music was that it was almost constantly advancing towards or retreating from an apex point. Sure, dynamics are important, but I also like music that stays put and tells me what it’s about. Instead I’m standing there thinking, “Is this one done? No, it’s starting up again.” Overall, an excellent band, though, and their set’s all-percussion finale was a nice touch (and a nod to Neurosis?).

Kudos to Red Sparowes for not heading back south from Seattle whenever they come up the West Coast. This was the third time I’ve seen them. They always create a great atmosphere — the music and visuals make for a grand spectacle. The music’s standalone quality is impeccable as well. Three-guitar bands usually carry a passenger (hello, Iron Maiden), but Red Sparowes are actually able to orchestrate all 18 strings and create a huge sound that doesn’t rely on simply piling on and overwhelming with volume. Because of the Biltmore’s low ceiling, their projection was reduced to a horizontal sliver of light above the stage (how we miss you, Richard’s on Richards). Still, with the lower two-thirds of the visuals spilling over the band members’ and audience’s heads, a definite vibe was achieved. The band’s undergone some lineup changes since I last saw them, and their music has only gotten better. The pedal steel is a genius move, with those sliding guitar notes taking their sound into Pink Floyd Obscured by Clouds territory. Brilliant stuff, and my only regret was that I didn’t choose a vantage point with fewer distractions. Instead I stood behind a fanboy with an iPhone. Man, that’s a bad combination. I try to live in the moment, but it’s hard when someone’s scrolling through their music collection, looking up song titles to show to a friend. Neglecting one’s research before the gig is one thing, but doing research during the gig...well, that’s just bad form.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis—White Lunar (Mute)

Spooky music by spooky guys with spooky facial hair. You all know Nick Cave. Warren Ellis is one of the Bad Seeds and 1/3 of the Dirty Three. They recorded some of this music for movies; the rest came from their own vaults. Disc one presents selections from the soundtracks for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Proposition, and The Road. The liner notes claim that the disc has “the big themes, the orchestra and the songs,” yet what I hear on instrumentals like “What Must Be Done” is intimate and delicate. When the orchestra is employed, as on “Song for Bob,” it provides shadings rather than bombast; a backdrop for Cave’s or Ellis’s sparse melodies. The resulting music is restrained yet powerful. Some pieces are built from loops or drones, like “Martha’s Dream.” The songs from The Proposition get increasingly listener friendly, progressing from the pulsing, scraping “The Rider No. 2” to “Gun Thing,” a malevolent ballad, and concluding with “The Rider Song,” which resembles a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds track. After the set from The Proposition, the selections from The Road feel like an extended orchestral piece. They almost sound hopeful, except when the “The Journey” blackens the skies for a few minutes.

Disc two, described as “fractured, haunting and sometimes badly behaved,” is still of a piece with disc one. The overall feel is more ethereal and exotic, and yes, haunting. These are fairly friendly ghosts, though. “Halo” is based on a soothing three-note loop. “Magma” consists of voices joining in a wordless mantra, like Gregorian monks brought in for a Beach Boys session. The selections from The English Surgeon soundtrack are at times similar to the music on disc one, gently orchestrated with piano and violin conversing overtop. Glimpses of menace come through “Window” (from The Girls of Phnom Penh) and “Zanstra,” a tense interlude powered by Ellis’s jagged bowing. And for bad behaviour, stick around for the coda to “Sorya Market” if you don’t mind getting your mellow harshed. Throughout, Cave and Ellis sound like equal partners, staying out of each other’s way, yet unafraid to assert their voice/instrument when it serves the music’s mood. White Lunar is a rich compilation that shows that Cave, a devastating lyricist, can be equally effective letting the music speak for itself.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tributes to the Long Gone

Tribute albums seemed to be everywhere in the early ‘90s. Everyone was covering everybody. They were essentially novelty records, listened to once or twice, then filed away or offloaded at the used CD store (which is where I picked up many of the tribute albums in my collection).

I'm kind of a sucker for them, though. For me, tribute albums were a chance to get a rare track by a favourite artist or maybe discover someone new via a cover version that went above and beyond the original; a nugget of beauty that would justify the whole the purchase. For instance, a Jethro Tull tribute on Magna Carta (kings of the semi-authorized cash-in tribute album) yielded Roy Harper’s “Up the Pool,” a thing so perfect it makes me tear up.

Too often, though, with tribute albums you’re wading through inferior remakes, where the only revelation is how superior the originals were. Rock and roll flounders when it doesn’t have that spark of original inspiration. The artists who stand out on tribute albums are the ones who manage to rekindle that spark and fire up some music that plays to their own strengths.

MOJO Presents: The Madcap Laughs Again

This is a first for me, and possibly a new low: reviewing a free CD from MOJO. Actually, it’s not that free. I pay $14 for the magazine itself; I’m sure they tack on a few extra bucks for the plastic sound disc. The album (from the March issue) consists of every track from Barrett’s first solo album, The Madcap Laughs, covered by MOJO favourites both old (REM, Robyn Hitchcock, Marc Almond, Hawkwind) and new (Besnard Lakes, Field Music). This makes a nice companion to Like Black Holes in the Sky, the Barrett tribute album from 2008, which featured metal/ stoner/sludge bands covering songs drawn mainly from Piper at the Gates of Dawn and other Barrett-era Pink Floyd. What both these tribute albums reveal is the resiliency of Syd’s songs, their ability to retain their core strength no matter how wildly their interpretations vary from the originals. If anything, The Madcap Laughs Again demonstrates this quality more dramatically. The foundation of The Madcap Laughs was Syd playing his songs acoustically. According to those present, it was a victory just getting him enthused to play new material and into the studio; I imagine that any attempt to building a new band around him might have spooked him into another withdrawal. Some songs were left as they were, others were overdubbed (with great difficulty given Barrett's erratic timing and song structure) by producer David Gilmour and assorted players. These two tribute albums have given other artists a shot at fleshing out Barrett’s often skeletal songs.

The album opens with one of those magical tracks that I mentioned in the introduction. Field Music tackle “Terrapin” and just nail it, I'm glad to say, because “Terrapin” is one of my all-time favourite songs. They take the sparse, languid original and recast it as something like a Revolver-era Beatles track—it reminds me of “She Said She Said.” It's pop ecstasy and a brilliant surprise: I had no idea that the song could do that. Race Horses do a similar thing to “No Man’s Land.” The original is murky and unkempt; the cover sports pinstriped trousers and a ruffled shirt. Fab! J Mascis sounds suitably wounded on “No Good Trying,” and his deranged guitar leads stir up a storm of psychoses.

Some artists' takes on Syd are downright genial. Hawkwind’s “Long Gone” is a mad boogie raveup, while Captain Sensible’s straight reading of “Octopus” comes with a nod and a wink. In the past, my main problem with MOJO tribute albums has been the tendency for new artists to cover songs using a default “mope” setting, an easy trick to give a song a false sense of gravity. The over-sincere approach is the antithesis of the rocked-up cover version from the punk era—see The Dickies “Nights in White Satin,” et cetera. I don’t get that feeling of forced irony with this album. People projected a lot of things onto Syd Barrett: he was a madman, genius, a failure, a pioneer. This album emphasizes and reveals perhaps Barrett's most important achievement: his music’s power to endure and inspire others.

Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum)

I used to play in a blues band, but I had to step away from it, not least because I couldn’t relate to the music. I’m just a white boy (a very white boy) and I don’t know nothing about no blues. Colin James must like what he does; let him fly the flag. But maybe there's hope for me and the blues. Junior Kimbrough (July 28, 1930–January 17, 1998)—he was the shit. He had that dirge/drone thing going on, a pure sound from the heart, through the fingers, and out to the world. I discovered him on a documentary called Deep Blues, where his segment haunted me for months. This 2005 album brings together disciples like Jon Spencer, The Fiery Furnaces, Mark Lanegan, and Cat Power. White folks with the indie-rockin' blues. Iggy and the Stooges bookend the collection with two takes of “You Better Run.” The band is on it, hard, but Iggy takes too much license. The best stuff lies between those two tracks. The artists are all respectful, digging hard into the some pretty impenetrable material and unearthing their own grooves and riffs, revealing many different shades of Junior’s blues. Outrageous Cherry work up “Lord Have Mercy on Me,” into some heavy shit. With that riff, Led Zeppelin would have nicked it had Junior been more famous 40 years ago. Another highlight is The Heartless Bastards' soulful version of "Done Got Old." Erika Wennerstrom's got quite the voice; she makes you believe it. This whole album is a rewarding project no matter how you come at it—as a Junior Kimbrough fan, as a fan of the blues, or of any of the artists featured here. The liner notes say it best: "Though the world doesn’t need another tribute record, it does need to know about Junior Kimbrough."

Friday, March 19, 2010

YØGA—Megafauna (Holy Mountain)

YØGA deal in pure sound, delivered in bursts of confusion and terror. The duo of Vatten Häst and Eld Anka don't give us much to go on, aside from the sound. The credits in the CD are minimal: no producer, no studio, no equipment lists, no thank yous to everyone they met on the road. Obscurity adds to the intrigue. Megafauna comprises 12 roiling vortexes of synths, guitars, drums and noise, swirling with soot and scattering debris across fields of sonic loathing. It’s like Darkthrone lighting incense and blissing out with Popol Vuh, with Kevin Shields mixing the results. The song titles reference a flying witch, the hidden people, a treeman, a warrior, the dreaded chupacabra. YØGA drag us down onto the mouldy earth, cowering from misshapen things glimpsed amidst the trees. Sometimes a riff works its way up from the mire—the martial doom theme of “Treeman” is especially strong—but when it does, the atmospheres over top threaten to snuff it out. No clean sounds exist on Megafauna. Everything is filthy, perverted beyond its natural resonance and oscillating out of control. Each track is its own little world—all fearful, haunted places—and the flow within each one demonstrates YØGA’s consideration for composition. Chaos resides on the surface, yet all is controlled inside. Sick minds are clearly at work, and I hope they're well stocked with ideas. I want to hear where they go next.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Cheer-Accident—Fear Draws Misfortune (Cuneiform)

Me: Hey, honey, I have the latest album from Cheer-Accident here. They got their name from a category of greeting cards. Mind if I put it on?
Wife: Be my guest, Mule.
(I fire up the CD player and “Sun Dies” begins playing)
Wife: (laughing) What the hell, Mule?
Me: Jesus, it sounds like Gentle Giant throwing up. Sorry.

Chicago’s Cheer-Accident thrive on absurdity and perversity. Nothing travels in a straight line. Their songs bend, snap, fall over, bounce back. They’re like Thinking Plague’s drunken uncle, spilling beer, cracking wise, and hogging the stereo at family gatherings with way-out records selected just for the occasion. As Cuneiform puts it, “Recommended if you like: Art Bears, The Association, Faust, Magma, Nomeansno, Steve Reich, Shudder to Think, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, This Heat, Time of Orchids. Playing simultaneously.”

Which is true and not true. Yes, they sound like a clustercuss at times, but they’re also capable of great beauty, and they never stop being fun. A trio at its core (all three members write), Cheer-Accident includes an impressive cast of vocalists and brass and wind players on Fear Draws Misfortune. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the melee when everyone gets going. The songs (and despite the chaos, these do feel like songs) sometimes bleed and segue neatly into one another, just in case you weren’t disoriented enough. Although the whole album is terrific, there are some standout tracks. “According to the Spiral” is a languid little gem that glides on an elusive rhythm, while “Blue Cheadle” is a compelling jumble. “Humanizing the Distance” traverses several movements and constantly shifting arrangements to unwind with the entire band playing a lovely extended riff that dissipates to a single guitar. The song heaves a great sigh. Beware of “The Carnal, Garish City,” however—I just have no idea. Are they singing in French? Is that supposed to be duck? You’re on your own with this one.

The band are stingy with the lyrics and other mystery-busting documentation, so I don’t know what it all means, but I’m on board nevertheless. I’ll champion them and take them to my breast as though I were comforting an orphaned porcupine. They’re lovable and cute, but those quills can be a bitch.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Rotting Christ —Aealo (Season of Mist)

Rotting Christ’s basic sound is extremely masculine, even by metal standards. It’s precise and regimented. The band is in lock step and fit to fight. Even when they bring in contrasting elements, like reed pipes or female vocals, their warrior stance doesn’t flinch at all. The vibe on Aealo is inclusive— “Come, do battle with us. Together we are stronger.”

The opening title track is a mad rush of sound that reminds me of Hüsker Dü’s "New Day Rising" with its four-on-the-floor momentum. The wailing female voices add a disorienting twist that transforms the track into something truly novel. Above all, no matter how elegantly they’re constructed and adorned, songs like “Eon Aenaos” are catchy. Every last detail has been honed, right down to the guitar solos, which show some serious time invested in composing them rather than being tossed off to fill obligatory solo space. It’s impressive that the guitars are frequently playing three or four different lines at once, yet nothing is lost or muddled. I wouldn’t accuse Rotting Christ of “grooving,” but when they hook up the wah-wah pedal on “Demonon Vrosis” it’s hard not to get ensnared by the rhythms they lock into. “Noctis Era” is the album's ultimate anthem, with its Celtic-sounding guitar harmonies (you could play them on a tin whistle) mixing with band leader Sakis’ desperate screaming and “hoo! ha!” gang chants in the background. The guitar riffs are so simple that a beginner could pick them up. This all may sound like it’s a dumbed down play for accessibility, but there’s nothing dumb about it.

Guests contribute to the Rotting Christ arsenal. As co-vocalist on “Thou Art Lord,” Alan Nemtheanga is in his element. The track is the sort of battle-ready, passionate metal that his band Primordial trades in. Nemtheanga’s commanding voice provides a nice foil to Sakis’ rasp, making the track an album highlight. Diamanda Galas adds half-spoken vocals to a metal arrangement of her own “Orders from the Dead.” Some listeners may be turned off by her domineering incantations; others may find the track an impressive, imposing album closer.

I’ve never followed Rotting Christ’s career too closely, but I’ve gained a new appreciation of them via Aealo. Their eleventh release is a superb piece of work full of deadly intent, craft, and a cunning mix of elements, and I’d believe anyone who says it’s their best album to date.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tatsumaki: Voivod Japan 2008 DVD

When the final conflagration is extinguished, the only things to survive will be cockroaches and Voivod.
The Tatsumaki DVD demonstrates that Voivod can withstand any calamity and charge into new territory like the Korgull of old. My review is here at hellbound.ca.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Difficult 2009, 5 to 1

5. Cobalt—Gin (Profound Lore) “This record is a springboard to fuck the universe.” With a statement like that, plus a dedication to Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, Cobalt’s deadly intent is obvious. They pull it off, too, with an approach that mixes black metal with churning, tribal rhythms derived from Neurosis and Tool. Gin is cunning, electrifying, and unnerving. In the building climax to “Two-Thumbed Fist,” instrumentalist Erik Wunder carefully layers speed and chaos until the whole thing threatens to fly apart. Wunder’s music for Cobalt has the organic feel of a great band. Gin’s razor-wire sonics are entwined with vocalist Sgt. Phil McSorley’s experiences in the Middle East. I hear centuries of hate and sudden violence. This, I’m afraid, is World Music.

4. Astra—The Weirding (Rise Above) The prog is dank and dingy, and everything (including the band members, I assume) belches smoke. Review here.

3. Mastodon—Crack the Skye (Reprise) More concept, less filler. Of all the albums I heard this year, I had to jump the biggest chasm from dismay to delight with this one. Review here.

2. Converge—Axe to Fall (Epitaph) Converge are simply a great rock band. They push and pull in all directions over the course of Axe to Fall because they can, and because they’d get bored otherwise. From deathly grind to noise rock to whatever the gothic waltz of “Cruel Bloom” represents, it all sounds utterly true to Converge. You gotta hear these guys play.

1. Napalm Death—Time Waits for No Slave (Century Media) This is how it’s done.
Review here.