Sunday, November 30, 2014

Jeff Younger's Devil Loops Volume 2 CD Release, June 18, 2014 at the Orpheum Annex

Jeff Younger continues to push his Devil Loops project into new territories, and this event was the furthest he’s pushed it yet. In my reviews of his previous CDs, I’ve noted that the music itself is layered and detailed, alternately soothing and aggressive, and rewards close listening. Younger composes in the moment with guitar, amp, and effects pedals, but also with household objects (combs and nail files) and even a new set of gestures and ways of playing—breathing into the pickups, mashing the strings, or scraping the tremolo springs behind the guitar body. Avant-rock bands like Sonic Youth have been sticking screwdrivers through their strings for decades, but Younger takes these techniques in a completely different direction. Devil Loops on CD is a deep listening experience, its abstract nature also inviting interpretations from other artistic disciplines.

That multi-disciplinary potential was fully and wonderfully realized at the Devil Loops volume 2 CD release event at the Orpheum Annex. The Annex is a big room that’s quite a shift from the kinds of intimate venues that Younger often performs in, but it was perfectly suited to this event, which combined music, dance and visual art into a often-dazzling whole. Every performer brought the spirit of Devil Loops alive in all that project’s challenging, mischievous permutations.

The night started with a playback of several tracks from the album with video accompaniment by Flick Harrison, as well as a solo dance segment by Renee Sigouin to “Queen Bee.” Sigouin was joined by fellow dancers Elissa Hanson and Alexa Sloveig Mardon for “Roomies.” To finish the first half, Younger took his seat on the huge stage (the floor, to be precise) and embarked on the first live Devil Loops music of the event. After intermission, the action got more freewheeling and frenzied, with Younger joining forces with drummer Dylan Van Der Schyff, Chris Gestrin on piano and synthesizer, and JP Carter on trumpet and effects. As the various configurations of dancers and musicians worked together, the action was so involving, the attention required so demanding, that I sometimes wanted to laugh out loud at the brave abandon of it. (I apologize to any of the dancers who came near the front row and might have noticed my agitation—I was just getting caught up in it all.) Dylan Van Der Schyff is the most creative drummer I’ve even seen—for every “out there” technique that Younger used, Van Der Schyff had one of his own. For the show’s finale, every performer was out on the floor, including Flick Harrison, who was shooting live video from every perspective for simultaneous projection on the big backdrop screen.

To see this group of performers working so well together to manifest the whole Devil Loops ethos was a testament to Jeff’s curatorial skills. Although he was at the centre of a lot of the action, he remained a calm presence, presiding over the performances as a guiding spirit, letting the ensemble of diverse talents speak for itself—and they did him and his music proud. It was a night that left my head buzzing with inspiration and endless possibilities.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Yob—Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot)

The newest release from the legendary Oregonian doom trio turns out to be the most open and expansive Yob album. With only four songs, it originally struck me as a very long EP. I felt during the first few listens that it might have lacked enough content to make for a satisfying 62 minutes. I still can’t shake that notion; however, Clearing the Path to Ascend just needs to breathe and be whatever it wants to be. Not forcing things is what Yob’s all about. In a way, they’re saying more by saying less. “In Our Blood” eases us into the album with a mere 17 minutes of everything that makes Yob great: lumbering riffs rippling with complex overtones, downward shifts into sparse strumming and shock-cut volume dynamics—the whole whisper-to-a-roar gambit. “Nothing to Win” almost takes the form of a conventional rock song with its tense-verse-and-cathartic-chorus structure. That impression is undone, of course, by the dissolution of all that during the song’s second half. But man, does it build to a huge finish. The song highlights the album’s murky production—it’s not bad or detrimental to the material; it’s just such an onslaught of competing tones. That element of the Yob aesthetic hasn’t changed. The drums fight to get through beneath the mattress pile of guitars, which is always threatening to collapse and smother you for good. The last track is really something magical, and it’s the one I’ve had to work hardest to change my perspective on. At first “Marrow” seemed bloated—a nearly 19-minute song made from about 8 minutes of material. There’s no question that it’s a beautiful set of chords with an affecting melody overtop. Mike Scheidt sings his heart out on it. Moodwise, it feels like a heavy ballad from the ’70s in the tradition of “Here Again” by Rush, “Parents” by Budgie, or Zep’s “No Quarter”. Those bands managed to say their piece in the space of 7 to 10 minutes; why couldn't Yob? Damn modern bands and their lack of self-editing. But “Marrow” develops beautifully and it does have enough content for what would have been a side-long epic back in olden times. It’s the most graceful song they’ve recorded, and when I hear the first few notes ring out, I know that I’m in for one of the year’s best pieces of music.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Z—Visions of Dune (InFiné)

Based on the liner notes for this album, Bernard Szajner (aka Z) sounds like an all-round genius—a visual artist, musician, inventor, and engineer. As the creator of light shows for Euro-prog outfits like Gong and Magma, he specialized in transforming sound to image. With Visions of Dune, originally released in 1979, the transformation is reversed: Szajner’s own visions of Frank Herbert’s universe are translated into sound. The sounds themselves are quite spectacular. Szajner bases everything on his all-powerful synthesizers, and employs a team of guest musicians to fill out the picture with guitar, bass and drums. It’s planetarium music for sure, but unruly and unsettling enough to plunge into some truly dark matter. Z’s cosmos is not necessarily a harmonious, friendly environment. The tracks are relatively short for this kind of exploratory music, especially compared to Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze’s side-long excursions. However, they often crossfade to provide seamless stretches of listening. The drones and sweeps of “Dune” are like an approaching wall of fog that give way to the percolating sequences of “Bashar” and the following tracks. Drums enter the picture on “Bashar” and “Fremen” to lay down a funky beat. The chaos and overlapping elements remind me of Heldon’s anarchic approach. The feeling of barely reined-in circuitry is very similar. Who’s winning—man or machine? The mp3 download included with the vinyl adds two bonus tracks that were originally left off the album for being “too futuristic.” Indeed, the moaning, scraping bleakness of “The Duke” and droning menace of “Spice” are interesting diversions from the main programme. Jodorowsky shouldn’t have bothered trying to cajole Pink Floyd into making the soundtrack for his own vision of Dune. If he’d waited long enough, he might have stumbled on this music instead. I’m betting Jodorowsky and Szajner would have been a good match. This album is a brave new world to discover, even 35 years after the fact.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part Five

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats—Mind Control (Rise Above)
Discovering the musty, macabre thrill-show of Blood Lust late in 2012 certainly got me primed for the arrival of Uncle Acid’s next collection of debauchery. Mind Control is less ramshackle than Blood Lust—it sounds as though everyone had learned the material before turning up at the studio, which lends certain songs (“Poison Apple”, “Mind Crawler”) the kind of punch that Blood Lust achieved, I suspect, only through happy accident. Overall, though, it’s a little less urgent than its predecessor, a little more sunburnt if not desiccated, which suits its Manson family/California nightmare theme perfectly. As with Manson, psychedelics and The Beatles enter the picture as well, especially during the “Blue Jay Way” strains of “Death Valley Blues”, which is where the album peaks for me. Sometimes they’re unfocused, sometimes songs drive towards endings that turn out to be just a mirage and they wind up wandering aimlessly across the desert. But I have to trust whoever’s in charge because the whole thing simply works for me, the songs occasionally achieving a grimy sort of grandeur, as on “Desert Ceremony.” I’m game to follow Uncle Acid and crew off whatever artistic cliff they’re racing towards next.

Blood Ceremony—The Eldritch Dark (Rise Above)
Toronto’s own minstrels in the gallery triumphed this year with The Eldritch Dark, a witchy, hooked-filled delight. What stands out most is their unpretentious celebration of a good tune and a solid riff. They're a refreshingly down-to-Earth four-piece band with spare arrangements that still made room for detailed, elegant songs like “Drawing Down the Moon” and should-be-a-hit “Goodbye Gemini.” They don’t just blindly worship at the church of Sabbath; I wouldn’t doubt they're down with Fairport Convention too. In a year when I took a wrong turn or two when it came to stoner-y stuff (man, I did not get along with that Orchid album at all), Blood Ceremony delivered in terms of originality and personality. Seeing them on tour across the country with Kylesa and White Hills this year proved that they’re for real. I’ve been curious about this band for a while, and I’m glad I picked this album to join them on.

Purson—The Circle and the Blue Door (Rise Above)
Rise Above are finding the greatest bands these days. Purson’s debut album is sheer class, confidently occupying its own loftspace somewhere in the neighbourhood of prog and stoner rock. They’re a bit like Curved Air in that they don’t swing hard in one direction or the other; they simply make a hell of a pleasing sound—maybe a little too elaborate for the mainstream, but at their core they rock hard enough for the jean jacket crowd. Singer/guitarist Rosalie Cunningham has a similar “don’t mess with me” tone to the mighty Sonja Kristina. Note that the only band on Rosalie’s thank-you list is The Beatles, so she’s clearly been inspired, songwriting-wise, by the masters. It’s worrying to see that the band that recorded the album and the current group have completely different lineups (aside from Cunningham), but here’s hoping that they can make this a going concern. Anyway, the Purson you hear on The Circle and the Blue Door are a band with a haughty allure, with songs that rock with carnivalesque abandon and defy you to write them off as merely “promising.”

Anciients—Heart of Oak (Season of Mist)
From my blurb for Hellbound’s year-end roundup: It was a thrill to watch Anciients on the rise throughout 2013. From tours with TesseracT, Death (Official), and Lamb of God to an invitation to play Roadburn in 2014, it was clear that the Vancouver quartet had arrived. Their calling card, of course, was their magnificent debut album. Heart of Oak sings with style and confidence. Each of its nine tracks reveals an innate understanding of how epic metal songwriting works, while never resorting to formula. It’s fun to imagine them in a makeshift lab in some desolate Quonset hut feverishly distilling their sound from casks labeled “Opeth,” “Mahavishnu,” “Celtic Frost,” and “Thin Lizzy,” but the truth is, there are no simple recipes for successful heavy metal. Anciients had the inter-band chemistry, taste, and, most of all, the work ethic to lay this record down, get it right the first time, and proceed to take on the world.

Steven Wilson—The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (k-Scope)
Wilson’s previous solo work (that is, the solo work released under his own name, not the early one-man-band Porcupine Tree albums) was, in the context of latter-day Porcupine Tree, a little experimental and reticent. Insurgentes was full of new ideas and interesting treatments. 2011’s Grace for Drowning was diverse and expansive, taking on classic progressive rock tropes and owning them. That double album often brought the hammer down, but not in the way The Raven That Refused to Sing does. The Raven… reduces the palette compared to the often jazzy textures on Grace…, and delivers six masterful songs. Out of all the “Steven Wilson” releases so far, doesn’t feel like a solo album at all. You can tell he poured his heart into this, as songs like “The Raven That Refused to Sing” make an emotional impact equal to their musical muscle. Lyrically, he makes a welcome break from the topical, contemporary themes of Porcupine Tree, and instead tells stories in each of the songs (although there’s surely social commentary within the sad tale of “The Holy Drinker”). Much as I like cheering for the underdog and championing certain music for its endearing imperfections, I do love this almost ruthlessly impeccable album, and have no problem putting it at the top of my Best of 2013 list.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Vancouver International Jazz Festival, June 20–July 1

A friend of mine, a man of letters and excellent taste, has a saying: all the best porn is at the library. Along similar lines, I guess, is something that I myself have discovered: all the best prog is at the Jazz Fest. Most of it is available for free too, just like those volumes of literary smut at the library.

The main outdoor stages on opening weekend were down at Robson Square and the Art Gallery. I headed there on Sunday for what I called “Norwegian Power Trios on Rune Grammofone Day.” Bushman’s Revenge provided a great moment even before they’d struck a note, as a couple gentlemen, clearly up for some jazzy-jazz, caught sight of guitarist Even Helte Hermansen’s KISS hoodie and immediately bailed on the show. Once the band got going, they produced an intense, surging, psychedelic morass of sound; very much to my liking—they reminded me of My Brother the Wind or Guapo at times. It started to warm up in front of the Art Gallery, and the guitariist’s KISS hoodie came off, revealing a Sepultura Beneath the Remains t-shirt. Although they were the first band I’d seen, Bushman’s Revenge had already won the Jazz Fest, in my view. I went over afterwards and bought their Thou Shalt Boogie LP from their drummer, who kindly threw in a promo CD version so I’d had a digital copy as well.

Even more devastating were The Hedvig Mollestad Trio, who played the same stage a few hours later and joyfully whipped up a crowd of casual onlookers with a torrent of heavy riffs and, yes, blistering solos. Wearing a sparkly red minidress topped off with an Uli Jon Roth-style headband, Ms. Mollestad was all smiles as she wielded a volatile ES-335*. Bassist Ellen Brekken was equally cheerful, but make no mistake, this band was intent on rocking the place down with their Dixie Dregs-jamming-with-Electric Wizard brain-frying jazz fusion. They were the ideal blend of showmanship and musicianship, and I, just a mere loser, did not at all feel worthy approaching their merch table after their set. However, I managed to sputter out some thanks to Hedvig, hand her some money, and walk away with a copy of Enfant Terrible. It was the best of all possible Sundays.

Friday was my first and only ticketed show of the fest, with Pugs and Crows with Tony Wilson. The show was part of the late-night series at the Ironworks, a busy festival venue at the foot of Main Street. In the years since I reviewed their first album, Pugs and Crows have thrived, winning a Juno for their follow-up collection Fantastic Pictures. While last year’s Jazz Fest show at the Electric Owl was a scorcher, this one was a little more nuanced, suitably so given the seated venue and attentive audience. You couldn’t call what guest guitarist Tony Wilson does as “sitting in”—he knows the repertoire and contributes substantially to group’s sound, which is led by Cole Schmidt’s guitar and Meredith Bates’ violin. The rhythm section of Cat Toren (piano), Russell Scholberg (bass) and drummer Ben Brown has a delicate touch, but never plays purely a supporting role. Nobody in Pugs and Crows hogs the spotlight. There’s always so much going on onstage with this terrific band that it’s hard to know where to look.

Saturday I headed to Performance Works at Granville Island for the Lisa Cay Miller Trio (LCM, piano; Andre LaChance, bass; Dylan Van Der Schyff, drums). I found them tricky and inventive, with a fine ear for extended, somewhat sinister riffs. Miller started with a solo piece, featuring what looked like mason jar lids laid across the piano strings, producing a clattering, harpsichord-like effect. I would have liked to stay for all of their second set, but I had to get across False Creek to catch two more bands at the Roundhouse.

I crossed the water in style, on the Aquabus in the company of maniac axe-god Jeff Younger, bobbing through the mega-yacht maze towards Yaletown. I arrived in time to see 4 = 4, a newish band led by guitarist Tom Wherrett and featuring Meredith Bates of Pugs & Crows, drummer Mike Magnusson and James Meger on bass. Their material was spirited and tasteful (including a Yo La Tengo song), but to be honest I didn’t see enough of them to get a real handle on their style. I wish I’d taken some notes so I could describe their sound here in any sort of detail. Wherrett is a terrific guitarist, though, and anything he’s involved with is worth hearing.

During the break I walked around the festival grounds. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything happening on the rain-besieged big stage at David Lam Park. Instead I checked out the food trucks and met my friend Smash prior to heading back to the Roundhouse hall for Sick Boss. Led by Cole Schmidt, the six-piece played a marvellous first set, sounding what I can only describe as jazzy post rock along the lines of a less bombastic Do Make Say Think. Having an oboe and accordion in the band gives them some folky textures that they take in any number of exotic directions. Debra Jean Creelman came on to sing on one song (as she had with Pugs and Crows the night before) to devastating effect. Any time she’s in the house you know you’re going to be crushed. According to Smash, she came back for more in the second set, but I was done for the day.

So although I chose a small sample of acts this year, I think I chose well. Despite some panic when I first picked up the program and tried to plan what I could see, it turned out it wasn’t very hard at all. Many thanks to the organizers for selecting such fine bands and venues, and for making it all available for free, or at a reasonable price. I can’t wait till next year—maybe I’ll get to see one of those jazz bands where someone plays a saxophone.

 *My best guess.

Monday, June 02, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part Four

Clutch—Earth Rocker (Weathermaker)
Earth Rocker sank out of sight for a while there in 2013, but returned with a mighty wallop. I bought the album when it came out—sounded great—and saw the sold-out show at the Commodore shortly afterwards—had a great time bro-ing down with all the Clutch fans. After that flurry of activity, Earth Rocker got put aside. When it was time to make this list, I put it on again and…whoa, this is a killer album! It’s a lean, punchy collection. The keyboards are gone, so it’s just guitars, drums and Fallon in fine form. A few of the tracks are instant classics (the title track, “Crucial Velocity” and “Unto the Breach” at the very least). The rest are the kind of deep cuts that keep an album raging from start to finish. How Clutch has managed to run so hot for so long is beyond me, but if they ever wanted to sell their secrets to other musicians, I’m sure they could retire wealthy men.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.)
This felt like an effort to shake things up in the Bad Seeds camp. The songs didn’t sound composed in the classic songwriter sense—you know, verses, choruses and such worked out in private and then presented to a band for fleshing out —but were clearly based on jams. “Jubilee Street,” for example, is a one-riff concept that builds to an ecstatic release, mirroring the singer/narrator's dream of transformation. Small sounds prevail: a brief bass loop; a violin lick flashes by like a sparrow; a crisp, simple beat starts a song. The results are often tense, mysterious and threatening. Throughout, Cave is laid-back but intense, giving his words an unfiltered flow to match the music, and dropping images of surreal derangement: “I got a fetus on a leash,” he claims on “Jubilee Street” On “Higgs Boson Blues,” Lucifer has “100 black babies running from his genocidal jaw.” Push the Sky Away was compelling little world of words and music, and a successful exercise in spontaneity tempered with careful consideration.

Scale the Summit—The Migration (Prosthetic)
So many notes! These Scale the Summit kids can sure play. They trade in clean, concise progressive metal in the same sphere as Cynic, except without any singing. Every song is packed with solos, rhythmic changeups, and loud-soft dynamics. The quartet obviously have many years of theory and practice behind them, but they’re using their powers for good, taking their music on the road and delivering it with authority on stage. So what gives them the edge over the dozens of bands trying to do the same thing? I`d say it`s balance, composition, and taste. The chemistry between the musicians is such that everyone contributes equally to the music’s impact, which strikes me as an impressive feat. Playing at such a high level, there’s a danger of cancelling each other out, the same way mixing primary colours together produces black. They’re focused on the songs, which are arranged in a way that respects their audience’s attention spans. Scale the Summit seem to know that you can practice scales till your hands fall off, but if you can’t entertain anyone with your music, you’ve got nothing.

The Opium Cartel—Ardor (Termo)
The second album from the Opium Cartel will charm the pants off you. If the music doesn’t make you wanna take it off and get it on, then maybe the album cover will (phew!). At this point it’s a little tough to distinguish the Opium Cartel from White Willow, bandleader Jacob Holm-Lupo’s other prog-rock ensemble. The main point of departure is that the Opium Cartel skew more towards pop music, although it’s pop music of the most lush, sophisticated sort. Remember when Peter Gabriel had hit songs on the radio? It seems that happened a lifetime ago in an alternate universe, but to me, the Opium Cartel are going for a similar kind of left-of-centre catchiness. In a better world, they would be kings (and queens) of the airwaves. There are big choruses, inventive rhythm tracks, swathes of wonderful synths, and a pristine production job. If you liked So (or anything by Talk Talk, Jane Siberry or Kate Bush for that matter), then The Opium Cartel are your bag. And aside from all the shiny sounds and sexy good times, Ardor also supplied the spookiest thing I heard all year: a spellbinding cover of BÖC’s “Then Came the Last Days of May.” Wrecks me every time.

Guapo—History of the Visitation (Cuneiform)
The return of Guapo proved to be an exciting thing. This release featured 42 minutes of new music and a live DVD of the band ransacking NEARfest a while back. Only 42 minutes of new music, though, you say? Well, that’s how long albums used to be, and that’s the way we liked it. All three tracks are quality fodder, and “The Pilman Radiant” is the best long-form track I’ve heard in ages. Reviewed in full here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Richard Pinhas—Tikkun and Welcome in the Void (Cuneiform)

It’s release day for these two albums (already in my possession through the magic of mail order). Both are demanding listens worthy of your attention. Richard Pinhas is a French guitarist/synthesizer guru probably best known for Heldon, who released seven albums in the ’70s, each one searching for the ideal blend of man and machine…and often finding it. He’s continued along the same ferociously experimental path, and has been incredibly busy lately, touring and recording with kindred spirits everywhere. In fact, he almost played down the street at the Fox Cabaret last summer, but the show fell through. (The Fox wasn’t quite ready to reopen, unfortunately, but it’s too bad the Western Front or VIVO didn’t step in, as either of those would have been an ideal venue.) These two new albums, both on Cuneiform, document two of Pinhas’s latest collaborations. Together they paint an expansive, vivid portrait of his globetrotting, playing-in-the-moment modus operandi.

Tikkun pairs Pinhas with Oren Ambarchi, a multi-instrumentalist who has worked with SUNN O))) amongst many others. It’s a CD/DVD set, with the audio portion consisting of three tracks over 69 minutes. The DVD captures a further 41 minutes of duo madness on stage in Paris. The liner notes are rather cryptic, but from what I can decipher, the CD includes contributions from Joe Talia (track 1, I think), Merzbow, Duncan Pinhas and Eric Borelva (tracks 2 and 3, I think). Track 1, “Washington, D.C. – T4V1,” has some of the relentless, industrial qualities of Heldon, with its sequenced foundation. The guitars don’t waste any time; they raise a storm almost immediately. Ecstatic noise rains down while the drummer bides his time, finally crashing in after about 10 minutes. By now the trio have almost obliterated the sequencer’s pulse as the chaos climaxes. The final 15 minutes see the storm dissipate—the guitars become more spectral, the drums die down to the ticking of the ride cymbal, creating an almost unashamedly beautiful denouement. The feedback that returns just before the end carries a definite threat, though. The next two tracks are little more static. Ambarchi (I believe) lays down some solid beats on “Toyko – T4V2” overtop a subtly shifting drone of guitar, loops and electronic sorcery. Eerie insectoid sounds dominate the opening of the final track before it all rushes headlong into a vortex of transmissions from beyond the cosmos. Overall, these dense pieces are not for the timid or overanxious. It’s music you need to sink into with a generous spirit; it rewards careful listening.

Welcome in the Void is a strange title. In my mind I always correct it to "Welcome to the Void". But this isn’t about what I want, so Welcome in the Void it is. It sounds inclusive and reassuring: “(We are all) Welcome in the Void” is one interpretation. The album fills that void with 68 minutes of free-flowing music from Pinhas and Ruins drummer Yoshida Tatsuya. There are two tracks. Part One is a 4-minute preview or overture for Part Two, which sprawls forth over 64 minutes, which may be a new milestone in my music collection (it outlasts Dopesmoker, but just barely). Pinhas’s tracks of “stereo loop guitar” and “loop stereo guitar” create almost choral melodies. The way sounds emerge and overlap reminds me of No Pussyfooting at times. Yoshida’s drumming brings out the wild side of the music—pushing and pulling with respect to tempo, or appearing in boisterous, freeform bursts—yet he gives Pinhas a lot of space. He even drops out for the final eight minutes of Part Two to let the guitarist bring the track to a soaring conclusion himself. Compared to Tikkun, Welcome in the Void is the easier listen—being strictly a duo recording with a distinct division of instruments, it’s not so much of a challenge to pick out what’s going on—and right now it’s my favourite of the two. Admittedly, this is just after a couple of listens, and my second pass of Tikkun was far more rewarding than my first.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part Three

The Fierce and the Dead—Spooky Action (Bad Elephant)
I came to this British instrumental quartet by way of guitarist Matt Stevens, whose clever, loop-centric solo albums I got into last year. The Fierce and the Dead aren’t simply a showcase for Stevens; they sound like a proper band…they are a proper band, dammit. All four musicians hit it pretty hard. TFatD do their own thing within the prog-instrumental realm, exploiting a variety of dynamics and styles. Spooky Action kicks ass with a sly smile on its face. Sometimes they’re heavy and mathy; often they’re playful. Bits of King Crimson and Voivod (if I didn’t already know these guys are fans, Kevin Feazey’s bass tone would give it away) vie with Shadowy Men and Cuneiform stalwarts Forever Einstein to provide the crucial crunchy/catchy balance. There’s a post/alt/noise-rock streak running through it too. It’s an entertaining listen and one of the most immediately appealing albums I heard all year.

Teeth of the Sea—Master (Rocket)
 The eclectic ecstasy that is Master provided one of my more memorable first listens of 2013. The dancefloor machine beat of “Reaper” had me wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Who was this band that dared commit electronica in my household? Then the live drums arrived, along with a female chorale and a ripping guitar solo beneath a barrage of synths. What the almighty hell was this? “Reaper” is the album in microcosm, though—a cunning, shifting construct that dares you to follow it to an alien destination. By the end of side one, Teeth of the Sea become an evil metal band, grinding away on a slow-mo Slayeresque riff like some project on Southern Lord. Teeth of the Sea are free spirits; you can project anything on them and they’ll reflect it back in a jillion different wavelengths. A lot of bands get the “new Pink Floyd” tag, but I think Teeth of the Sea deserve it. They capture the eccentric essence of their nation, as a collective of grim fantasists leaving psychedelic murals on damp concrete.

Gorguts—Colored Sands (Season of Mist)
Speaking of Voivod, they weren’t the only legendary Quebec-based metal band to undergo renewal in 2013. Band leader Luc Lemay assembled an avant-death metal dream team for Gorguts’ first album in 12 years. On drums, John Longstreth of Origin. On guitar, Kevin Hufnagel of Dysrhythmia. And on bass, Hufnagel’s bandmate, Colin Marston. It takes a special breed to keep up with Lemay, and these guys are well up to the job. The production and mix show some nice touches, with Lemay’s vocals mixed way back and the drums sounding quite natural for a DM album. At over an hour in length, it does lose me a couple of times, but I’ve found that, given many months to absorb it all, the songs are well structured. Certain tracks, like “Le Toit du Monde” and “Ember’s Voice” do get stuck in my head. Brutal, disturbing and haunting, it delivered exactly what I’d hoped for—a masterclass in visionary death metal in a field that has become overrun with Gorguts disciples since their 1998 masterpiece Obscura.

Voivod—Target Earth (Century Media)
Voivod invented music, pretty much. I reference them probably more than any other band. Jarring rhythms and Piggy chords follow me everywhere I go. After two albums of material built from the tracks left behind by Piggy (RIP), Voivod return as a working band, featuring the original three members plus Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain on guitar. The results are, for the most part, glorious. Mongrain is immensely skilled, and his riffs, chord voicings and use of effects indicate that he’s clearly the man for the job. Away is there with his characteristic loose-limbed thrash beats—Abaddon by way of Bill Bruford. Blacky’s bass sound? Check. Snake, as always, excels at draping powerful, memorable melodies over a complex framework. But Target Earth is a complicated album, not just in the “difficult music” sense. It should have been my favourite album of the year. Instead I’m featuring in the middle of the pack. I’m not sure why. Some days I feel that it’s a couple tracks too long, and that certain songs, like “Kaleidos”, get bogged down in recycled, post-consumer Voivod motifs. On other occasions, I’ll have shuffle mode on and some previously dismissed Target Earth track will come on and completely redeem itself. Anyway, it’s good to have Voivod around still, and I hope with Chewy on board they’ll find new ways to be weird on the next album.

VHOL—s/t (Profound Lore)
VHOL is a Ludicra/YOB alliance, and it does not mess around. This debut album engages in sustained savagery at RSI-inducing tempos. I hear echoes of early Voivod in John Cobbett’s combustible and discordant guitar playing, not to mention the blower bass tone that is revealed on “Grace.” Vocalist Mike Scheidt’s always had a versatile voice, and here he alternates between a T. Warrior bark and his higher-register mode. He does an amazing job with such caustic material. When he launches into the first verse of “Insane with Faith” the urge to break stuff is strong. And he takes a soulful turn during a moody section of “Song Set to Wait Forever” that’s very impressive indeed. These longish songs (five to eight minutes) reach terminal velocity quite quickly; however, the plateaus of noise are dotted with moments of intrigue and excitement, like the smooth, Brian May-like lead breaks in “Plastic Shaman” or the phased drum roll that takes “Illuminate” over the top. It’s great being loud and fast, but I want personality above all, and VHOL certainly have it. Such well-developed material elevates them well above the black/crust mire and makes me hope that this album won’t be a one-shot deal.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Yes—March 20 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

I’ve been lucky enough to see most of the classic prog greats—Rush, Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Van der Graaf Generator—but never Yes. When I was in high school they toured Western Canada for 90125, and while I liked that album, it sure wasn’t the Yes of the previous decade, and I snobbishly decided not to go.

I followed Yes casually for the next couple decades, occasionally checking in to little reward. The Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album was a real bummer, and I couldn’t bring myself to touch that Union enterprise. By the latter half of the '90s there was a whole new progressive rock scene to get into and the Yes soap opera just seemed silly and irrelevant. I had Spock’s Beard, the revitalized IQ, and mail-order labels like The Laser’s Edge and Cuneiform Records to keep me busy, not to mention a burgeoning international metal scene that to me represented the true spirit of “progressive”.

But now I’m old and nostalgic, and it seems that the keepers of the Yes legacy are too. When I had the chance to go to their show last week at the Queen E (thanks to the loveable Luke Meat), I did indeed seize it. The lineup of Howe/Squire/White/Downes and newish vocalist Jon Davison looked respectable, and the show’s format of presenting three classic albums in their entirety guaranteed a solid setlist, albeit an predictable one. The three albums in question, The Yes AlbumClose to the Edge, and Going for the One, contain five or six of my favourite songs of all time. I was looking forward to hearing them in a live setting.

“I saw Yes in 1974, and it cost five bucks! And you know who opened for them? THE EAGLES!” You always get these people at the old-time prog shows. I reckon I was the only person in the joint who hadn’t seen them on the Relayer tour. The lights went down at 7:30, quelling the babbling of aging nerds. Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite came on the PA; the band’s traditional walk-on music. This was just like the real thing. Hold on, it was the real thing. That gnome/hippy figure was Steve Howe, and there was Chris Squire with requisite Rickenbacker. Geoff Downes stood among three banks of keyboards. They started with "Close to the Edge" and played the rest of the album in order. It was all bang-on, especially Davison whose voice soared, note perfect all the way. Sure he wasn’t their original vocalist, but his performance was a marvellous tribute to Jon Anderson’s melodic talents.

The stage production was Spartan—nothing in the way of a “set” and minimal backline. A screen behind the drum kit presented animated Roger Dean vistas, rainbow-hued butterflies, mysterious figures in yogic poses, and other suitably-Yeslike imagery. As well, the screen introduced each song with a title card (e.g. “Siberian Khatru” Close to the Edge (1972)).

Going for the One was next, with Steve Howe kicking out the jams on pedal steel guitar. He had a good style of shoving the wheeled contraption off stage whenever he was done with it. A roadie would put it back in place when it was time for another go. Davison’s performance on “Turn of the Century” was a highlight of the GftO segment and earned him a standing ovation. “Parallels” sounded creaky in comparison; probably the only instance where I thought the band could have pounded out a song with more authority. For “Awaken” Howe put on an odd-looking headstock-less guitar. Not to be outdone, Squire emerged with a triple-neck bass/guitar contraption. Hope he has a good supply of Robaxacet for this tour! He’s not a poser, our Chris—he did indeed play on all three necks during the course of the song.

After a 20-minute intermission and some words from Howe praising Vancouver for its more European feel compared to America (“cosmopolitan” was the word he used), they embarked on The Yes Album (1971). They slayed it too, especially on Howe’s solo spot, “The Clap”. Seeing him in action live confirmed his status as a guitar god. After the musical jigsaw that is “Perpetual Change” they left the stage briefly before resuming with “Roundabout” for an encore. This started two folks dancing and going nuts in the aisle at the front of the stage. Maybe the song had been their first dance song at their wedding, in which case I wish I'd been invited to that wedding. They were allowed to boogie down until the first chorus, when they were beaten to a pulp by security and tossed out (kidding).

It really was a great night. The only downside was going home and facing the wrath of Mrs. Mule, who’ll probably never forgive me for not bringing her along. Now that this is published, I’ll never speak of this again.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part Two

Black Wizard—Young Wisdom (self-released, LP on War on Music)
A deadly distillation of all things hairy, sweaty and rocking, Young Wisdom was so good that we reviewed it twice at Hellbound last year. If it weren’t for the extraordinary debut of a certain other, related band, this would have been the local release of 2013.

Shooting Guns—Brotherhood of the Ram (Pre-Rock)
These Saskatoon proponents of “Pilsner-fuelled mayhem” are flat out one of the coolest bands in Canada. Getting to see them do their thing again at the Cobalt last year was a real treat. I don’t think Brotherhood of the Ram was out at that point, but they did play large chunks of it, I’m pretty sure. Sticking to their instrumental ethic for this six-track riff jamboree is a smart move. Having some guy yell overtop this would only ruin the party. The LP has a distinct vibe on each side, starting with a trio of swirling heavy numbers, each as untamed and expansive as the prairie landscape, then settling down on side two for a couple of more placid tracks (the Shooting Guns sound collides with latter-day Earth to great effect on “Go Blind”) before “No Fans” shuts things down with a final blowout. It’s quite a ride.

Subrosa—More Constant Than the Gods (Profound Lore)
Subrosa are a little bit magical. They’re not a heavy metal band, but damn, they’re heavy. They’re bluesy while avoiding of the obvious scales and structures of the genre. Only loss and longing remain. They’re extremely Gothic, but sure as hell not “goth”. Their violin-laced sludge trudge has a stern beauty, sort of a tar-pit-as-reflecting pool effect. I hear them less as a metal band than the offspring of the heavier strain of ‘90s alt-rock. Imagine if PJ Harvey, post-Rid of Me had bought bigger amps after and got really into Melvins, or if Slint had found that interested female vocalist and, again, got really into Melvins. This is a much louder, more confident album than their previous album. at the same time, it’s more brave in its willingness to whisper-sing its most intimate thoughts.

Boards of Canada—Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp)
I don’t know from IDM or whatever genre Boards of Canada inhabits. Everything sounds like prog to my ears anyway. Tomorrow’s Harvest, to me, is comfort music. It doesn’t try to “rock” and unlike a lot of the music I listen to, it’s not structured to shock the listener. Spooky and meticulously layered, each of the 17 tracks explores its little cluster of sounds for a tantalizingly brief time before moving on to the next track, the next idea. In lesser hands, this type of music tends to drone on for no reason than wanting to use the word “monolithic” in the press release. The discipline here is admirable, and just as there’s nothing very risky or jarring on Tomorrow’s Harvest, it also fit in with my ‘playing it safe’ ethos for 2013.

Kadavar—Abra Kadavar (Nuclear Blast)

Maybe they’re trying a little too hard, these Kadavar freaks, considering the live-off-the-floor recording, the blown-out vocals, the beards and the aged-looking cover photo. They’re like a new pair of pre-faded jeans. But damn, they fit and they feel good and it’s a classic look, right? Their genius is in avoiding being an obvious homage to any specific band. They weld together a bunch of blues and proto-metal styles to create a retro sound of their own, same as I think Graveyard have done. Stylistically, they draw from more sources than Graveyard, though, colouring songs like “Doomsday Machine” and “Dust” with strokes of arena-rock flash. Guitarist/vocalist Lupus Lindemann often sounds a bit like Klaus Meine; maybe that’s what does it. The production is minimal as possible, with a single guitar hard panned left, bass on the right, vocals straight up the middle. Nailing that perfect take must have been a nail-biting process, but the energy and excitement you can hear on Abra Kadavar was well worth it.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part One

As I said, I wasn't feeling acquisitive or inquisitive during 2013, so I'm doing 20 albums this time out. Here are the first five...

Necromonkey—Necroplex (Exergy Music)
I reviewed the madcap adventures of these Swedish boffins running wild in the analog wonderland of Rothhandle Studio here. Looks like they’ve been beavering away lately, so there’ll be more on Necromonkey here in 2014, mark my words.

Windhand—Soma (Relapse)
I love it when an album creeps up on you after making an underwhelming first impression. Soma started haunting me after the third or fourth listen. My initial thoughts were, “Well, anyone can do that.” That being super-slow, super-downtuned doom with riffs built from a handful of power chords. However, the atmosphere and, most importantly, the songs started to invade my consciousness. With Dorthia Cottrell’s distant voice providing a fragile human element wailing against the massed wattage burning through the mix, Windhand do have something special going on. To me, Soma’s combination of power and intrigue signals they’re on the verge of making a real masterpiece. I found myself wanting them to integrate their acoustic side more with the doom metal within the same song—on Soma, the lovely “Evergreen” stands on its own sandwiched between the heavy epics—but no doubt this would restrict what they could pull off live. There is one track that does pull everything Windhand does all together, and that is “Boleskine.” Half an hour in length, and equally loved and disparaged by various critics, it feels less like a song than a Beckett radio play (with guitar chords in place of dialogue), considering its feeling of dread and hopelessness and eventually an all-consuming anticipation for the end.

Earthless—From the Ages (Tee Pee)
It’s a long-running joke in my weekend basement band: whenever we decide to “just jam,” we have almost exactly 12 minutes worth of ideas and licks before the proceedings come to a sorry end. Earthless don’t have this problem—14 minutes is about the right length for them, and they have no trouble keeping the momentum up. In fact, on the title track of this all-instrumental rockfest, they smash through that time barrier and rock out for a full half hour. Eddie Glass can do incredible things on the guitar. It’s amazing that the rhythm section can keep up with him. It’s sort of a marriage between Robin Trower and electric Miles—it’s all about pushing it, prolonging the ecstatic moment and achieving hypnotic bliss. Earthless do it through Glass’s prolific (to say the least) soloing or the cavalcade of cycling riffs on “Violence of the Red Sea.”

Locrian—Return to Annihilation (Relapse)
Last year’s split with Horseback pointed me towards the new one from Chicago duo Locrian. Return to Annihilation is as bleak as its cover, a landscape scoured by washes of keening guitar, pulsing synths and screamed (and, I feel, expendable) vocals. It’s admirable in its scope and insistence in dragging you along for the ride. The 15-minute title suite is a tripartite wonder, traversing Agalloch-like dark folk, a Mellotron and Moog-dominated Italian horror soundtrack section, and a patient buildup towards a cacophonous finale. Although it’s tough to embrace something so intended to disturb, long passages and sometimes entire tracks are unequivocally enjoyable. I like the album more every time I hear it. Locrian’s alchemy of sounds bristles with invention—nobody else sounded like this in 2013.

Burning Ghats—Something Other Than Yourself
This local hardcore quartet weren’t messing around when they recorded this jarring and grim 12-inch debut. The record spins at 45 RPM; the music churns at a number of velocities, all of them pulverising. Reviewed in full here.