Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Part Five

The fifth and last entry of this protracted series. I've already done my Best of 2013 list, but writing it up and fleshing it out will probably take me another full year again.

Ancestors—In Dreams and Time (Tee Pee)
It was apparent from their previous two albums that Ancestors were working up to something big. In Dreams and Time is definitely it. My god. Stretching across six immense, ever developing songs, it’s no less than an incandescent collision between Meddle and Times of Grace. The Californian quintet sounds utterly in command as they alternately soar and roar, riding on waves of fuzzed-out guitar, regal keyboards, and nuanced vocals. The piano-led “The Last Return” is sombre and ominous, while “On the Wind” features a jam that’d do Crazy Horse proud. The album culminates in the 19-minute “First Light,” a guitar-solo-powered drift across the heavens that saves their most triumphant riff for last. Nothing sounds forced or hurried; everything is delivered with patience, confident that they’re giving the listener the heaviest trip possible.

Woods of Ypres—Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light (Earache)
This is a tough one. Woods 5 slipped out in the pall of David Gold’s sudden, shocking death late in 2011. I couldn’t deal with getting Earache’s authorized online leak—doing so would have felt ghoulish to me; it was too soon. Even after the CD appeared early in 2012, I could barely confront the pallid, orphaned thing. I wasn’t looking forward to hearing a dead man sing to me. Listening to it was not a relief. The songs are obsessed with death, failure, and contemplating one’s legacy, tinged with not quite enough grim humour to dilute the despondence. It doesn’t mess around with trivial issues. Reminiscent of Sentenced and Amorphis, it’s very Scandinavian in its mid-paced, melodic gravity. Relentless catchiness renders the whole thing almost intolerably bittersweet. A dismal epic like “Kiss My Ashes (Goodbye)” comes complete with a chorus perfect for a Wacken Fest singalong. Recorded as a duo, Gold and Joel Violette’s collaboration shows a real spark, especially on the album’s centrepiece, “Silver” (where losing at love equates to losing at life: “When you’re silver, you never come first / when you’re silver, the truth always hurts”). The messages are confused and contradictory at times. Gold’s ruminations on dark nights and bad times feel like they could be unravelled and decoded forever. It’s an album for mourning a major Canadian songwriting talent and for celebrating his last, and some of his best, work.

Astra—The Black Chord (Metal Blade/Rise Above)
This album blazes from start to finish, like a psychedelic meteor shower of blazing Mellotrons, intricate drum fills, and guitar solos. I’m 15 years old again, leafing through an Arthur C. Clarke paperback and listening to Fragile when “Heart of the Sunrise” comes on, flipping the switch that sends me in pursuit of similarly powerful, majestic music to this day. The Weirding, Astra’s first album, had a couple essential tracks and a pleasing retro sound, but The Black Chord outdoes it in material, production and overall energy. The music reaches an ecstatic state during the opening instrumental “Cocoon” and pretty much stays there for the rest of the record. As with the Ancestors album, the vocals are just as well executed as the music. Note the stunning buildup of melodies and sections leading from the verse to the chorus of the title track—that’s not a case of just throwing in some words because they had to be there; that’s some inspired songsmithery. Feel free to argue that contemporary music can’t be “progressive” if it sounds like something Eddie Offord recorded in 1972. To my ears, Astra have the best tones and the best tunes.

Horseback—Half Blood (Relapse)
I like that Horseback doesn’t do just one thing on Half Blood, or across its discography in general. The hypnotic, charred grooves on Half Blood constitute the user-friendly side of Horseback’s sound. Not to discount the other stuff that Jenks Miller puts out, because I do find even his most “bitter pill” material fascinating and inspiring, but this is my favourite Horseback style—Part Rust Never Sleeps, part Neu!, part Spiderland and part…I don’t know, The Shadowthrone. The conciseness and flow of this album reflects a discipline that is rare amongst others who work in this experimental terrain, making it a downright enjoyable experience. I reviewed it for Hellbound earlier this year.

Rush—Clockwork Angels (Anthem)
I decided not to assign numbered rankings to my list this time, but I have no problem telling you that Clockwork Angels is my number one album of 2012. After years of fairly pedestrian albums (including a couple that I didn’t bother to buy), this Rush fan needed a jolt to reconnect with his first major musical obsession. Rush just seemed ordinary in their advanced years; another band who had lost their way. The Beyond the Lighted Stage documentary provided a spark, but Clockwork Angels lit the flame. I was back on their side again. Had 2012 Rush changed, or had I changed? I think co-producer Nick Raskulinecz has helped them rediscover their innate “Rushness” and pushed them to write more interesting material. The result was Rush’s first true concept album (I’ve never counted 2112 as a concept LP) with a nearly flawless selection of well-sequenced songs. What I’ll remember most about Clockwork Angels was the excitement of listening to the album for the first few times. The experience matched almost exactly how I used to hear new Rush albums when I was younger—that feeling of discovery and enjoyable disorientation, the sense that I was being issued a challenge; that unravelling the twists and transitions, lyrics, riffs and drum fills would be the reward, and that there was never any danger that familiarity would lead to boredom. Writing this in late 2013, I still haven’t grown tired of Clockwork Angels.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Burning Ghats—Something Other Than Yourself (self-released)

I'd like to think the title is aimed at the oblivious majority—the people who never look up, lost in their handheld pseudo-realities. Burning Ghats are all about confrontation. If they don’t want to destroy the passer-by, they definitely want to give him/her a good wake-up slap. This Vancouver hardcore/metal/grind quartet have pinned me against the back wall many times with their incredible live show. Afterwards, I’m left with thoughts along the lines of “What the hell just hit me?” rather than “hmm, the tempo change in the second song was kind of cool” or other such musical musings. With a 7-inch already to their name, this EP-length 12-inch (mine's on gruesome grey vinyl) has now arrived. The record provokes the same gut reaction that their gigs do, but it's allowed me to appreciate the band on a new, deeper level. The recording is punishing, the songs are cathartic and harrowing. Recorded at The Hive with Jesse Gander and mastered by Brad Boatright at Audiosiege, they certainly worked with the right people. The ten tracks vary in length and tempo, but not in intensity. The tense, drum-led trudge of “Cold People” sets a forbidding mood before “Hexes” blows it all apart with blasting, double-kicked fury. There’s little time to breathe between the relentless series of tracks that follow. “Grief Ritual” blasts by in 21 seconds. “Carry the Head” shudders and howls with pure horror. “Gold Sores” oozes forth over six minutes, and closes the album with sheets of ominous, macabre sound via guest contributors Night Mother. As a purely indie release, Something Other Than Yourself stands impressively on its own, although fans of Baptists and the rest of Southern Lord’s hardcore roster need to hear this now.

Burning Ghats' record release show is Friday, November 22 at the Astoria in Vancouver.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Part Four

Part four of five...

Diagonal—The Second Mechanism (Metal Blade/Rise Above)
The Second Mechanism recasts Diagonal as an almost entirely instrumental act that hammers away with the alacrity of Hatfield and the North or some berserk incarnation of Caravan. I loved their first album, but this is a much more confident effort. The five songs are muscular and rhythmically involved, with a bit of jazz that gives Diagonal their own, uh, angle in the old progressive game. Guitar and sax lead the way, often in unison, and the supple, surefooted rhythm section drives the machine along, aided by brilliantly earthy, no-BS recording. Compared to Änglagård, it's rather sparse—more of a live "blow session" than a studio-based audio puzzle. It really does sound like a shit-hot Peel Session. Hats off to whoever engineered this, sure, but the biggest credit must be given to a band that has their material down cold. Man, these guys can play.

Änglagård—Viljans Oga
Änglagård's long-awaited comeback is an onslaught of sophisticated progressive rock. Each of its four tracks is an intense workout, featuring themes that emerge, repeat, then fly apart in a thousand different directions. With guitars, bass, drums, mellotron and flute all intertwined, it's an orgiastic sonic tangle that almost defies easy consumption. Yet the sounds are so natural and inviting that you dive in without question. The only boner killer is the circusy passages in "Langtans Klocka"; otherwise this is dazzling from the start to finish. As someone who craves such music, I'd never complain that it's too much to take in; however, the process of making Viljans Oga evidently took its toll on the band, which started shedding members as the album neared completion.

Janel & Anthony—Where Is Home? (Cuneiform)
I reviewed this elegant and inventive guitar/cello collaboration here. I'm looking forward to hearing what they get up to next.

Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell—Don't Hear It...Fear It! (Metal Blade/Rise Above)
ASCS blast us back to 1974 with this burly blast of power trio rock, all flares, bomber jackets and sideburns. Perfect music for bombing up the M1 in one of these. Never mind the image, though—they deliver a well-worn musical style with power, grit, and not a little genius. Imagine Budgie stripped of the pastoral interludes and you've got the Shovell pretty much. Not that they don't have their eccentricities—there's that crazed-looking falcon (?) mascot of theirs and a bunch of songs that even at their most rockin' can still swing and turn down some interesting back alleys. "Devil's Island" and "Red Admiral Black Sunrise" are my kind of rock songs—speeding up, slowing down, getting loose, getting tight, and all built on a deep foundation of riff. And on "Scratchin' and Sniffin'" they've got the working stiff's anthem of the year. Put it on and I'll get the next round in.

Dysrhythmia—Test of Submission (Profound Lore)
This is Dysrhythmia's fiercest outing yet, the trio growing less and less polite as they develop and disperse their genius amongst other projects (Zevious, Krallice, Gorguts, etc.). I may praise a lot of "my" music for its retro authenticity, but there's nothing old-fashioned within Dysrhythmia's particular din. I can't trace anything further back than the early '90s in their approach. There are no solos or anything very groovy. If it resembles good ol' rock music at all, it does so for only a few seconds before lurching into something else. On the other hand, their songs are tight, especially by today's slovenly standards. Strong themes with logical linking passages let you draw a thread through each adrenalized track. I found that seeing them live and witnessing the visceral flair and concentration with which they perform this music is an essential to appreciating Dysrhthmia. They really are one of the finest bands pounding it out on the road today.

Friday, October 11, 2013

NWOBHM Sandwich

After a steady stream of great shows all summer, October has seen a crazed torrent of gigs so far. This week I took a deep breath and hit up three shows in three nights.

Raven and Diamond Head, October 8 at the Rickshaw Theatre
Locals Titans Eve opened up with a set of decent melodic death/thrash. A few twin lead passages caught my ear. They kept their stage time short, politely making way for the mighty Raven. Featuring the original core of brothers John and Mark Gallagher and drummer Joe Hasselvander, they opened up with mission statement "Take Control" and proceeded to play a wildly entertaining set. John sang through a headset mic, enabling him to mix it up with his brother. They scurried around like mad things, forming in effect a two-man mosh pit on stage. Their energy put the crowd to shame, really. Those in the audience dug it, though, even if they were largely unfamiliar with the band's crowd participation set pieces. Raven closed their set with an extended "Break the Chain" which incorporated a medley featuring bits of Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick, Budgie, AC/DC, more Sabbath, The Who, and Humble Pie. I thought for a moment that they were going for their own version of Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written, but then the "Break the Chain" chorus returned and we bade the three sweaty geezers goodnight.

Who'd want to follow that? Diamond Head were a good deal tidier but no less eager to please, entering to a recording of "Mars, the Bringer of War" and proceeding to pull out all the key cuts off Lightning to the Nations. Seeing original guitarist Brian Tatler rip into those legendary riffs was pretty satisfying. The guitars sounded great and the bass punched through in a pleasing way. The only worry was that they were breaking in a new vocalist Chas West (ex-Jason Bonham Band) who had to be summoned at the last minute because of a death in regular singer Nick Tart's family. But despite a few missed cues and a few verses sung while hunched over his lyric sheets on the ground, he did a great job, and his Coverdale-like voice worked well with the material. A few gigs into this tour, and he'll be nailing it. By the time they encored with "Helpless," they were raging, and so was the crowd—one poor girl had a hard fall on the Rickshaw concrete and had to be helped away.

Anciients, Scale the Summit and TesseracT, October 9 at Tom Lee Music Hall

First show of the tour for this trio of proggy acts of varying heaviness. After two kiddie metal acts who were absurdly irrelevant to my interests (tacked onto the bill as the last show of their own tour), Anciients came on and set things right with riffs, riffs, and more riffs. Opening with "Raise the Sun" into "Overthrone," it was clear they've become a tour-hardened machine. "Giants," "Faith and Oath," and "Built to Die"were all pounded home with groove and authority. The acoustics in the hall were very nice. Kenneth Paul Cook, their main singer, was clear and audible throughout. The intricate flow of every song reminded me of the fact that Heart of Oak is one of the best albums I've heard this year—it's high time I reviewed that magnificent thing.

Scale the Summit are the nerdliest of the nerdly and I love them. I don't know what music school they all went to, but it apparently had a two-semester course entitled "From Cynic to Gordian Knot: Studies in Advanced Jazz Metal". The instrumental four-piece combine talent and taste across compositions that never become too indulgent, although every second of what's happening on stage is jaw-dropping. I've been enjoying their new album The Migration for a couple months now, and live they reproduce its songs exactly. It's a damn impressive feat, but part of me wishes they'd take it a step further and devote a bit of time to improvisation. It wouldn't have to be a lot of time. Watching them build something out of nothing over, say, five minutes would be really cool.

TesseracT were the lesser act. I can see why people are into them, but that kind of syncopated low-string pounding non-riffing is the same kind of thing that has sent me walking out of Meshuggah shows in the past. I checked them out for three songs and then went for a beer on Granville with my buddy Smash.

Saxon, October 10 at The Venue

Now for the final course in the feast of NWOBHM that I started on Tuesday. I arrived at 9:30 and saw most of Fozzy's set, which was too bad. It's been almost exactly 30 years since I last saw Saxon. While I thought about this and my old guy status, Gerald the Rattlehead walked by sporting a "Saxon Euro Tour '81" satin jacket that I assure you was not a reproduction. Put things a little more in perspective, I guess. Saxon took the stage about 10:40 and played for nearly two hours, peppering tracks from their new album, Sacrifice, amongst unassailable classics like "Power and the Glory," "Dallas 1 PM" and, most righteous of all, "The Eagle Has Landed." They're a bit craggy, the Saxon guys, but they are unstoppable. I was especially impressed by Nigel Glockler, who must be one of the best drummers to come out of the NWOBHM. Dude had some chops. Biff Byford looked to be in an especially good mood (probably looking forward to flying home the next morning), accepting the gift of a Canadian flag augmented with a Saxon logo, draping it between two cymbal stands on the drum kit for all to see. On "Denim and Leather," he invited everyone from the opening bands on stage to sing along—there were at least a dozen of them up there. It was a damn fine way to celebrate the end of the tour, and a great end to my metal show triple-header this week.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Part Three

Part Three of Five…

Graveyard—Lights Out (Nuclear Blast)
 Seeing as Hisingen Blues was one of my top 5 albums of 2011, having Lights Out come out so soon afterwards made me wary. Could Graveyard equal Hisingen's energy and songcraft, or was Hsingen gonna be a one-off? Well, it's clear throughout Lights Out's tight 35 minutes that Graveyard still have the goods. It's not quite the throat-grabbing, gut-socking romp that the previous album was, but in a way it was smart of them to throttle back a tad on Lights Out. The rockers are good, sure, but it's the slower songs that stand out for me. It doesn't take long for the album to take it down either. The second track, "Slow Motion Countdown," is a stunner, with a classic verse/bridge/chorus structure that shows off singer Joakim Nilssen's incredible pipes. My other favourite is "The Suits, the Law and the Uniform," which is almost Australian in its mid-paced barroom rock drive. Lights Out is worthy in every way, and most assuredly establishes Graveyard as the class of the retro rock field.

Steve Moore—Light Echoes (Cuneiform)
Light Echoes is hardcore planetarium music that sucks you into an intense listening experience. As Moore says about the record, "'Songs’ are basically the last thing I want to hear when I see a guy bring a bunch of synthesizers on stage. I want to hear sounds. I want to hear what those synthesizers can do. Which brings us to this new album.” Moore's synths pulse, ripple and soar, overjoyed to play amongst themselves. No guitars or drums—the imprecise tools of savages—crash this party. The tracks are spontaneous and sprawling, yet tidy at their core. The single sequence or arpeggio that underpins each one almost dares you to let your attention drift. Themes develop gradually. Effects are tweaked to send everything waywards, like the warping that occurs during "Light Echoes II" (14:02). Listening to it is like watching footage of crystals form—the shapes reflect the entire light spectrum, and they grow with angular, flawless logic. I found it fascinating. Of everything I heard in 2012, I listened to Light Echoes the most closely.

Neurosis—Honor Found In Decay (Neurot)
Maybe the peaks of Through Silver in Blood and Times of Grace are behind them, but every new Neurosis album must be the subject of serious contemplation, if not celebration. Honor Found In Decay refines the approach they've taken on their last few albums, and provides some harrowingly beautiful passages. Listening to music is a passive experience by definition, but with Neurosis I feel like more of a passenger than with other bands. Songs rarely unfold in expected ways. Even the album as a whole takes a weird dip in the middle before coming back with two powerful tracks. As always, listening to the new Neurosis album is a process of acceptance leading to increasing admiration.

Napalm Death—Utilitarian (Century Media)
I keep expecting Napalm Death to burn themselves out with the relentless pace of their album releases, but Utilitarian finds them raging as hard as ever. It seems like they'll never slow down. While there's not much to distinguish it from their last few albums (except maybe an absence of guest "stars", save John Zorn's excellent spot on "Everyday Pox"), Utilitarian continues their streak of quality grind-infused songwriting. The horror that humans can wreak is pervasive and ever-worsening, so they certainly have no end of stuff they can write about, anyway. There's a couple good fistfuls of excellent tracks, capped by "The Wolf I Feed," which is a rabidly catchy rock 'n' roll song.

UFOmammut—Oro: Opus Primum (Neurot)
Italian doom trio UFOmammut followed up the one-track album EVE (my top album of 2010) by making something even more colossal: two albums following the EVE format, released months apart. This first opus, Opus Primum, unfolded like a doom metal "Echoes," taking almost 8 minutes to hit full volume, then unfolding over five tracks crossfaded for a continuous 51 minutes of music. Its five-note main theme/motif drifts in and out, and maybe they depend on it too much. I felt it became a little grating. As always, amazing (and heavy!) mind-expanding music that can only be faulted by perhaps being too logical a followup to EVE. Note: I would have liked to pair this review with the album's sequel, Oro: Opus Alter, but I haven't heard it yet.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Night Watch—The Night Watch

If your band features the violin, it’ll probably rule my universe. Wetton-era King Crimson to Van der Graaf (without the Generator) to Curved Air, to High Tide to Mahavishnu Orchestra to the Dixie Dregs, Skyclad, My Dying Bride—all have crushed my puny head over the years. It’s an expressive, forceful instrument, and fits perfectly into the frequency range of rock. In the hands of the right player, violin can be just the thing to keep an overeager guitarist in check or provide melodic backup for a vocal line. The Night Watch has plenty of violin, and I like the Night Watch. This instrumental quartet from Ottawa has been together since 2008. On their debut album they play a blend of European folk, progressive rock and metal. If King Crimson were abducted and brainwashed by gypsies, this music might be the result. Their style also reminds me of Estradasphere and Vancouver’s own Pugs and Crows. Catchy themes and sprightly melodies mingle with solo passages and bursts of distortion and double-kick drumming. The sudden transitions between these elements are executed with great musicianship. The arrangements and song structures on “Don’t Creep” and the 15-minute adventure that is “War Whales” are clearly the result of some intense rehearsals. Nathanaël Larochette’s acoustic guitar playing, highlighted on the album's quiet sections, is recognizable from his Musk Ox project. The only thing I found myself wanting was a more prominent role for the electric guitar. For the most part it plays support to the violin rather than conversing with it. “In the Beginning,” the shortest track on the album, gets the balance right, but overall I think freeing up the guitar and giving it some improvising space alongside the violin would benefit their future material. But for now, this is a striking, adventurous debut that'll appeal to any forward-thinking music fan.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Necromonkey—Necroplex (Exergy Music)

Lame as it sounds to admit it, but I discovered Necromonkey the same way millions of children discovered Justin Bieber—through YouTube. See, I was looking for Utopia Synth demos when I came across a treasure trove of videos posted by a funny guy in Sweden who seemingly spent every spare moment hooking up various devices and uploading the results, like so…
This fellow turned out to be famous prog-rock drummer Mattias Olsson, formerly of Änglagård, proprietor of Roth Händle Studios, and one half of Necromonkey (David Lundberg completes the duo). What is Necromonkey? Well, it’s a band that, to me at least, embodies the same inventive spirit as those videos. With Roth Händle’s droolworthy collection of analog gear at their disposal, they conjure some exotic sounds and set them to suitably cunning beats and arrangements. While the spirit may be experimental, the tunes are solid and the craftsmanship is serious. The duo are expert manipulators of sound as well as skilled composers. Sometimes their music resembles bands that the general public knows and loves, like Air, Mogwai or Tortoise. Sometimes it displays progressive rock’s flair for the dramatic, as on “Every Dead Indian,” with its tense CAN beat that transitions to an eerie second half. Some of these tunes could work as movie themes, like “Small Rome”, where the wistful piano and Mellotron provide the perfect soundtrack to a point-of-view shot of a stroll through a park at dawn. The album takes a few detours, with interludes based around just one or two instruments, from a glitchy horn section to the delicate, barely adorned bass solo on “Empty Traps and Nightfall.” It’s their fearless drive to make new sounds with old devices that gives Necromonkey its edge. On Necroplex there’s beauty to be found, fun to be had, moods both disturbing and soothing, some odd-time rough-housing, and good old rocking—nearly every track on Necroplex springs a surprise on you.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Horseback/Locrian—New Dominions (Relapse)

Although this album is a bleak listen, it’s still exhilarating to bask in the sonic collisions wrought by Horseback and Locrian. New Dominions is a reissue/compilation of collaborations and individual tracks from a pair of 2011 vinyl releases. Horseback works in a variety of modes, from the blackened Americana riff rock of last year’s Half Blood to the abstract fields of sound found on Forbidden Planet. If it’s branded Horseback, it’s going to freak you out, that’s for certain. Locrian work in the same experimental realm as Horseback, issuing a steady stream of releases on various labels, including Relapse these days. Their 2012 collaboration with Mammifer, Bless Them That Curse You (Profound Lore) is another challenging record that’s well worth steeling your nerves for.

The first two tracks are from a collaborative 12-inch EP originally on Utech Records. On “The Gift,” wind howls, guitars scrape, somebody plucks a piano’s innards, a drum pattern rises from the murk and attempts to impose order before it’s too late. “Our Epitaph” writhes in ecstatic agony for 13 minutes, with bass and tom-toms relentlessly counting out the time. Once the vocals have finished, delicate sheets of guitar and ripples of feedback take over, sounding (I imagine) like the final radio transmissions from a dying planet.

A split 7-inch first released by Turgid Animal Records is next on the program. Horseback’s “Oblivion Eaters” emphasizes the almighty drone, with Jenks Miller’s rasping vocals competing with a squall of guitars that almost sound like massed bagpipes. Locrian’s “In the Absence of Light” is full of deep-throated guitars on the edge of feedback destruction. Piano and ominous voices contribute to the haunted atmosphere. Interestingly, for a genre that often shuns the human voice—there’s no conventional song structure; no verses and choruses, after all—every track on New Dominions features vocals. They provide a human connection amidst the tortured electronics, and make the entire mood all the more despairing. James Plotkin’s remix of “The Gift” (exclusive to this release) sounds like urban demolition rather than the radiation-poisoned windstorms of the original. The remix is thus very much its own thing and an essential addition to the album. It reveals different layers buried within the original track, twisting, inverting and elongating what were already some mesmerizingly daunting sounds. It completes the cycle, ending the album by returning to the beginning, in a way. Balance restored, you’re released to the outside world again; a world that looks a little brighter than it did before.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Part Two

Part Two of Five...

Witch Mountain—Cauldron of the Wild (Profound Lore)
2012 was a good year for female vocalists, and none made a stronger impression than Witch Mountain’s Uta Plotkin. What a voice! And how refreshing it was to hear someone sing with such operatic clarity overtop some grungy blues-doom. Singers like Plotkin usually get snapped up by power metal bands, but her voice offers much more than bombast. When she takes it down on “Never Know” there some old-soul Janis Joplin vibes at work too. Cauldron of the Wild was an original brew; a clutch of affecting songs without immediate peer or precedent. Maybe that’s a rash statement—of course there’s decades of moody heavy rock that came before this—but there’s not a single moment on this album that made me go, “Oh, they’re one of those bands.” There’s a loud, proud freak flag flying from the summit of Witch Mountain.

Evoken—Atra Mors (Profound Lore)
Evoken’s fifth album turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Sorry, I mean , it turned out to precipitate a drastic plunge into gloom and despair. But the ultra-doom of Atra Mors does let a bit of light in—there’s a sliver of sunlight leaking into this dungeon. The quintet works with elements of the classic Peaceville sound, evoking Birmingham or damp Yorkshire rather than their New Jersey home. Clean guitars and synths drape the crawling doom riffs, and spoken-word passages provide emotional connection amidst the death growls. Every element enhances the drama and grandeur on the most majestic out-and-out heavy metal album I heard all year.

Six Organs of Admittance—Ascent (Drag City)
Ben Chasny teamed up with his Comets On Fire bandmates for Ascent, and the results are naturally more exuberant while still maintaining the SOoA spirit. There are still some crackling, electric songs that crank up the amps and dial down the acoustic introspection. “Waswasa” in particular is an ecstatic slice of rock ‘n’ roll, with the kind of riff you can jam on all day. The psych gets a little intense on “One Thousand Birds” and “Even If You Knew” as well. These songs are loose and open ended, with wild guitar solos out the wazoo—the sound of a band going for that “hot take.” Amidst all this is “Your Ghost,” just guitar and voice on a song as lovely as you’ll ever hear.

Goat—World Music (Rocket Recordings)
Where did these people come from and what are they on? The sleeve is patterned like a tribal blanket, offering no clues to the devilry/revelry within, save for the olde English “GOAT” typeface, which hinted that there was a bit of evil going on. Goat originated in Sweden, apparently, where someone thought it’d be a good idea to get a band together to make some kind of psychedelic afrobeat music. That must have been a strange, compelling Musicians Wanted ad. They sound out of time, beyond any instantly grasped genre. Yet they were instantly liked by anyone who heard them, and became a real breakout act for Rocket Recordings.

Mares of Thrace—The Pilgrimage (Sonic Unyon)
This spindly, twitching Brundlefly of a record improved on their promising debut in every aspect. Reviewed in full here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

April Gig Roundup

April brought a deluge of unmissable shows to town. There’s no way I could review them all in full, but here are some notes on what I saw last month.

Clutch with Orange Goblin, April 3 at the Commodore Ballroom
I honestly wasn’t that familiar with Orange Goblin, despite having read about them for years. They turned out to be a rowdy lot, riling up the crowd with their Motörhead-calibre attack. Clutch had it pretty easy after that. Vancouver sure loves them. They played a punchy set very much in the vein of Earth Rocker. That jam band they’d been transforming into was nowhere to be seen this night.

Black Wizard with War Baby and Astrakhan, April 5 at the Interurban Gallery
Two things I learned, or had confirmed, watching my buddy Kyle Harcott DJ this show. One, old records sound the best. The tone coming off that copy of Killer was amazing. Two, people will come up and high five you when you play Sabbath. All the bands were amazing at this show. Black Wizard are getting to be too big a band for the Interurban. Which is good; they should be huge. When they played “Jesus,” people went insane.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, April 6 at the Vogue Theatre
I finally got to see Nick Cave, and it was worth the wait. The band was flawless (and loud!) and the set list could not be quibbled with. What I did find interesting as a first-timer was that Cave played exclusively to the first three rows of people—those who were within his physical reach. Apart from acknowledging the balcony once or twice, he didn’t exactly bring the whole room together, or transform the theatre into an intimate space. Still, Nick Cave. Phwoar.

Yob, April 6 at the Interurban Gallery
After Nick Cave, I dashed across to the DTES in time to catch Yob’s entire set. I could not have a better life. Trying to describe Yob at the Interurban and do it justice would be impossible. If you know Yob, you know the deal—they really were crushing and transcendent. They played a big chunk of Atma and a sick, gilding-the-lily encore of “Quantum Mystic.” Mike Scheidt is one of the best guitarists I have ever seen. I’m glad I had almost two weeks to recover from that night.

La Chinga with No Sinner, Three Wolf Moon and Harma White, April 19 at the Rickshaw Theatre
This was La Chinga’s album release show (and what an album it is). No Sinner drew the biggest crowd. Three Wolf Moon are always a pleasure to see/hear. I just saw enough of Harma White to realize I was foolish for missing most of their set.

Subrosa with Eight Bells, Astrakhan and Dungeons, April 20 at the Astoria
The two local openers played on the Astoria floor. The consistently impressive Astrakhan are really pushing themselves with their epic songs. They’re reminding me of a certain other local band who’ve broken internationally this year. Portland trio Eight Bells made superb use of effects to enhance their alternately blackened and cosmic compositions. Guitarist Melynda Jackson looked so anxious up there, like it was all going to collapse at any moment; I was rooting for them. Subrosa were unexpectedly brutal in a live setting. With twin violins squalling away and guitar/bass/drums pounding with full force, it was a bulldozer of sound. This gig had an enjoyable “no-goofs” vibe. Ted was there, too, and he took some incredible pictures.

Absu with Auroch, Terrifier, and Xul, April 24 at the Biltmore Cabaret
Wow, Absu actually played the Biltmore. I caught most of Xul’s set and thought they were solid. Terrifier’s speed/thrash attack really impressed me. The always-deadly Auroch were a quartet for this gig, with Shawn from Mitochondrion on bass. The floor filled up for Absu, thus I could barely see them. I eventually found one spot where I could see Proscriptor at work, headset mic and all. Quite the masterclass.

Device with The Twitch, April 26 at the Princeton Pub
Device drummer Kyle Harcott might humbly scoff at his band’s inclusion on this list, but I was really looking forward to this show. Device represent an alternate universe where my own weekend band learns to play its own songs properly, gets a singer, and plays gigs. Good on them for getting out there and doing it. Their original material is way cool meat-and-potatoes metal (or bacon-and-eggs metal, if you prefer Metal For Breakfast), free from trends and “extreme” bollocks. And they encored with “Snowblind” and “Wrathchild.” What more could I want? A raucous yet relaxing way to end an action-packed, sleep-deprived month.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Part One

Here's the first of five installments running down my favourite 25 albums of the year. I decided not to assign numbers this year, but let's understand that the stakes get higher the further we move along, okay?

Neil Young with Crazy Horse—Americana (Reprise)
Another kooky idea from Neil Young, wherein he tackles the songbook from my Grade 4 music class, and cranks up old chestnuts like "Oh Susannah" and "This Land Is Your Land" with that familiar Crazy Horse churn. It's sort of funny at first, then the spirit of the project asserts itself. It's enjoyable—Neil Young and band certainly sound like they've got some lead in their  pencils—and not a little clever. Actually, recording these public domain songs opens up a lot of very modern issues concerning copyright, fair use, the sanctity of recorded artifacts and the monetization of songs. The album opens up a wormhole where one era in which music was shared freely flows into another era where music is shared freely. Neil Young's notes detail each song's history and describe which arrangement Crazy Horse used for the album. Some of the details he digs up are fascinating. Who knew that "Gallows Pole" probably originated in Finland?

Royal Thunder—CVI (Relapse)
"That wasn't metal!" complained a friend after Royal Thunder's set opening for Pallbearer and Enslaved earlier this year. Well, no, Royal Thunder aren't metal, but I'm here to celebrate their magnificent otherness, not complain that they don't fit in. What they are is hard to pin down. They rock, yes they do, with lashings of Led Zeppelin and the blues and Mlny Parsonz's voice launching the whole package skywards. The way songs like "South of Somewhere" flex and breathe is absolutely thrilling. Yet they avoid power chords and most other stoner rock trappings. I hear a lot of early '90s indie rock in their sound, like they're exploring an alternate universe where Throwing Muses bought Marshalls and ended up on AmRep. CVI is a bold, successful statement, and I'm betting their next album will be a major event.

Mark Lanegan Band—Blues Funeral (Sub Pop)
Mark Lanegan albums live in the bad part of town, and dwell on the dark side of life. He's one of the greatest singers of my generation and, as with PJ Harvey (his peer and equal, to my mind), whenever he releases an album you know it's going to be a heavy trip. What does a blues funeral sound like? Well, the songs take many forms, from the raunchy stomp of "Riot In My House" to the despondent dancefloor beats of "Ode to Sad Disco." The sparse arrangements sidestep obvious rock moves and defer to Lanegan's gloriously musty voice. "These tears are liquor, and I've drunk myself sick," he intones on "St. Louis Elegy." I wouldn't wish a life of misery on anyone, but for as long as Mark Lanegan keeps making records, I hope he never cheers up.

Baroness—Yellow and Green (Relapse)
A couple schools of thought arose over Baroness's two-toned double-album. People decided that it was either as a daring collection of melodic, almost mainstream rock, or a lightweight, unmetal bag of shite. Although I found "Little Things" similarity to The Northern Pikes alarming, the rest of it gave me no problem at all. The band certainly aren't as heavy as they once were, but they're every bit as musicianly. None of the 18 songs sound tossed off, and the guitar tones throughout are damn tasty, especially on disc two's opening "Green Theme." It's like a roomful of boutique pedals battling it out for wicked tone supremacy.

Pixel—Reminder (Cuneiform)
Jazz doesn't usually equate to instant enjoyment or accessibility, but this Norwegian quartet's debut album is great fun. Bassist/bandleader Ellen Andrea Wang anchors this collection of tidy instrumentals and catchy vocal numbers with strong, inventive bass lines. Actually, it's the songs with vocals that really make the album for me, especially the sassy "Call Me" and "Wake Up," whose main melody reminds me a bit of White Willow, for whom Wang also plays bass. I imagine Pixel make a lot of new friends every time they play in front of an unsuspecting jazz fest crowd. This isn't music for a stuffy club; it's more suited to an outdoor stage on a brilliant summer day. Aw, now I'm wishing it was Jazz Fest season. I don't want to be that annoying Facebook fan, but here goes: Pixel, come to Vancouver!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Guapo—History of the Visitation (Cuneiform)

This is a welcome return for a band that made a huge impact on me with their Five Suns album in 2004. Their music was raw, unapologetically bombastic and disturbing. Having been primed by exposure to Univers Zero, Present, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the British instrumental trio aligned with what I was seeking at the time. Guapo’s next two albums completed a loose trilogy, and although each of them was superb in their own right, after the final album, Elixirs, came out I thought I could hear the band’s constitution beginning to fray. They’d been reduced to two core members, and the album sounded like a band searching for direction. It’s still a fascinating listen—I heard it in a record store last summer and was reminded how good it actually was.

This is a short but nevertheless eventful and satisfying album. The band’s current lineup, which includes new keyboardist Emmett Elvin and has guitarist Kavus Torabi taking a more prominent role, easily maintains that dark Guapo power. At 26 minutes, opening track “The Pilman Radiant” dwarfs its successors. One of its most outstanding qualities is that it doesn’t feel that long. It has remarkable time-compressing qualities, maybe because it achieves a dreamlike state at several points, beginning with an extended orchestrated drone, then moving along to a somewhat macabre groove halfway through, where the swirling mix of instruments contributes to the hall of mirrors effect. Even at its most raucous, the song has an elegant flow that helps insinuate itself into the subconscious. “Complex #7” is the creepy comedown, a collection of drips and scrapes against a background hum. “Tremors From the Future” releases the tension with its shimmering pulsations and celebratory guitar slashes. You’re never quite sure which tangent it’s going to follow. The pace never slackens, though, as it shifts from thing to thing and drives towards a frenzied peak.

But that’s not all! The band and Cuneiform Records have teamed up to add a companion DVD to this handsome set. Featuring two tracks, it’s definitely a treat for fans who haven’t a hope of seeing them live. The rendition of “Five Suns” from NEARfest 2006 is pretty amazing. It’s a multi-camera shoot presented in beautiful B&W that captures this eerie epic perfectly. I won’t spoil everything that happens during the song; suffice to say that Guapo are a band that cares how they present themselves on stage, and knows how to create a memorable experience for the audience. “King Lindorm” is a simple one-camera colour presentation from Rock In Opposition 2007 that again emphasises what a powerful live act they are.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Scott Kelly and the Road Home at the Railway Club, March 9

This was initially going to be a solid night of pickin’ and grinnin’, until those magicians at Nothing Is Heavy took it over the top and announced that they’d added Scott Kelly (Neurosis and Shrinebuilder) about two weeks before the gig date. I’d just seen Neurosis in Seattle in January and now one of their main singer/songwriters was going to grace our humble, hallowed Railway Club? This would be too amazing to miss.

Mike Hodsall was up first. He took a fairly self-effacing approach in his song introductions, which he didn’t need to do. He mixed up some dark, involved instrumentals and original songs, and despite admitting to being nervous in this intimate setting, he delivered superbly. The instrumentals reminded me a bit of Six Organs of Admittance in their phrasing and overall feel. He ended the set with a cool, somewhat jazzy interpretation of "Black Sabbath," a good choice seeing as there were a lot of metalheads in the crowd.

By contrast, Johnny Wakeham was real easygoing on stage. His material was decidedly more country-oriented, complete with bouncing bass lines and songs about trucks, motorcycles, and being faithful to your woman. The tunes were uniformly terrific and performed with foot-pumping verve. He chose a cover for his last number as well, going with the Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand,” which fit in perfectly with the rest of the set—Conway Twitty also covered the song, so it's already got a country pedigree. Thanks for the earworm, Johnny—I had it in my head for the rest of the weekend.

T. Nile brought along a full band of fiddle, drums and bass, while she herself alternated between guitar and banjo. Did they ever sound good, hitting a perfect balance between instruments, every musician understanding when and when not to play. Compliments to the soundman as well. Not only was the overall sound in the room great, he took the time to make sure every act was happy with what they were hearing on stage. T. Nile’s from Galiano Island originally, and that upbringing might have something to do with the free spirit she brings to the whole thing. She had a varied batch of songs that she performed wonderfully, and her band was tight-tight-tight while still looking like they were having fun on stage. The bassist gets Difficult Music bonus points for his Rush shirt. The peak of good times on the night.

More banjo, please! Gordon Smith and Blake Bamford brought their guitar/banjo sitdown duo next. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they’re from the band Percheron, whose tape I mentioned in a previous post. They played a low-key, enjoyable set. It felt pretty intimate, like they were a couple buddies playing in your living room, telling stories about near-death experiences and other misadventures, rather than playing in a club getting more packed by the minute in anticipation of the headliner.

First off, it was strange to hear Scott Kelly talk on stage, because Neurosis aren’t too big on between-song banter, choosing to focus exclusively on crushing you to death with their music. Secondly, I hope he didn’t hear my friend and I chuckling when he asked if anybody had been at the Cruel Elephant in ’92 when Neurosis and Sleep played there. Having seen our share of shows at that short-lived venue back then, we were instantly imagining what went down, and it was little much to take. Like I need another regret in life, now I know that I missed Neurosis and Sleep at the Elephant in 1992. I’d have to ponder this later, though, because here I was at a Scott Kelly show with the man not two metres away, acoustic guitar in hand. Flanked by Noah Landis (Neurosis keyboardist, here playing electric guitar and a midi keyboard/laptop setup) and Greg Dale on acoustic guitar and the aforementioned keyboard, Kelly proved that he’s a master of heaviness no matter what format he’s working in. Give Kelly an acoustic guitar, and he doesn’t suddenly turn into some casual strummer—he’s still Scott Kelly. The songs were as weighty and solemn as Neurosis material, only without the deafening crescendos. Compared to the material on his first solo album, Spirit Bound Flesh (the only one I’m familiar with), the new songs were a bit more tuneful and nuanced…beautiful, in fact. He ended the set with “We Burn Through the Night,” which he dedicated to the family he’d be going home to as soon as the tour was done. I left the club feeling enriched and, above all, thankful, during my own trip home.

Please check out Ted Reckoning's excellent photo gallery from the night. Thanks, Ted!

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Elephant9 with Reine Fiske—Atlantis (Rune Grammofon)

Trying to slot this fantastic album into a genre is difficult. Is it progressive rock with jazz structures? Or simply hard-rocking jazz? Why bother trying? Basically, this band rips. Elephant9 keep it loose and improvisational, for the most part. Riffs give way to jamming; riffs come back again, sometimes. The major tracks on this album all clock in around 10 minutes each. They really hurl themselves into their work. The album sounds urgent—it only took them three days to record, so obviously they weren't messing around. The rhythm section rumbles like a herd of 9 angry elephants charging at you. The bass guitar has an attack and tone that will stomp your puny frame into dust. It’s like Jack Bruce and Lemmy are tag-teaming the thing. The keyboards consist of burning Hammonds and raging Rhodes pumped through some huge speaker cabs. This is one heavy outfit. The opening to “Psychedelic Backfire” is pure doom metal malevolence. Atlantis features the Norwegian trio with guest Reine Fiske (Landberk, Dungen, The Amazing) on guitar on many of the tracks. Fiske integrates well with the rest of the band. He especially finds a kindred spirit in keyboardist Ståle Storløkken as they engage in some overdriven tradeoffs. The constant push-pull of the band’s approach doesn’t leave any room for virtuoso showcases. Everybody gets their licks in while managing not to get bulldozed out of the way. This sound may have crystallized in the late 60s, early 70s with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime, even The Band of Gypsys—check out the funky riff on “Freedom’s Children” that sets up Fiske’s initial solo flights—but it’s proven to be a timeless approach. Everybody likes hearing crack musicians playing off each other at top speed, right?

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Are You Local?

I picked up some rad stuff from local talent this year, either at gigs or through Bandcamp. These are in no particular order because I try not to play favourites with my hometown heroes...although if a Difficult Music site search resulted in a dozen separate instances of "favourite local band," I wouldn't be surprised, nor would I feel bad. This is my only outlet for civic pride, really. That all this talent can emerge from a city so antithetical to the performing arts amazes me.

Weirding—Each Birth is a New Disaster LP
The hard-copy version of their Bandcamp crusher from last year proves that only doom (and vinyl) is real.

Anciients—Snakebeard 7-inch (War On Music)
The two huge, intricately riffed-but-accessible songs that started it all for Anciients, finally released on vinyl (I got a brown one). The artwork is by Cam Strudwick of Burning Ghats, of whom you'll hear more later.

Galgamex—Cult ov Death (Bandcamp)
Galgamex are freakishly extreme. On stage they're a blur of brutality. You can't figure out what's going on; you just know it's really impressive. This release renders their sound with pornographic clarity. Every greasy crevice is revealed. This 25 minutes of frantic, hammer-smashing death metal is the perfect blend of cruelty and precision, mixing Euro-death riffs and leads with Pacific NW hesher fukk-it-all desperation.

Jeff Younger—Devil Loops Volume 2
"Cavernous drones, cosmic reverberations, industrial scrapings, video game bleepblorps, and tiny insect noises fade in, mingle, then fade away" on this collection of live-to-tape loop excursions from jazz adventurer Jeff Younger.

AurochFrom Forgotten Worlds (Hellthrasher Productions promo)
Furious death metal trio unleashes hell on this full length. The material manages to be both memorable and evil, while their dual vocal attack ramps up the chaotic atmosphere.

My friend Ian gave me this two-song tape from this new band. Percheron reminds me a bit of my old favourites Radiogram. Their back-to-basics sound, complete with fiddles and banjos, arrives at a kind of downcast country music that helps one feel good about feeling bad. It's all about the benefits of putting on some Conway Twitty and climbing into a bottle for a long, lonely night.

Burning Ghats—Different Names for the Same Face 7-inch
Although these punk/grind berserkers should have a new album out this year, I got caught up with them on this 2011 release that I picked up at one of their shows. Five songs and great packaging—high joltage grind and roll. With two years of gigs behind them since this came out, Burning Ghats should be set to slay. Their full length joins the Anciients and Baptists records as my most anticipated local releases of 2013.

Hierarchies—Intergalactic Light/Computer Controlled (Bandcamp)
Electronic duo Hierarchies issued a couple of gauzy transmissions late this year. Totalling just 14 minutes—quite terse for the genre—these two tracks thrum with beauty and mystery, like lovelorn android daydreams uploaded direct to tape.

The Nautilus—The Nautilus EP (Bandcamp)
This band are too much. Like Galgamex, when seeing them live, there's too much to take in. It's all spasmodic distorto/destructo Voivod-Fripp skronk demo derby action played by regular-looking dudes. Now they can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home with this well-produced three-song EP, which reveals them as a pummeling, albeit prog-twisted, METAL band. Get on this; they'll be topping bills by next year, I bet.

Black Wizard—Mountain Bitch 7-inch
Got these tunes off their Bandcamp, but I need a real copy of this ASAP. Did I see something about Black Sabbath putting out an album this year? Whatever. Listen to this instead.