Thursday, September 10, 2015

Guapo—Obscure Knowledge (Cuneiform)

Obscure Knowledge maintains Guapo’s penchant for sinister splendour. The UK quartet mix genuine tunefulness with discord and drone, never shying away from unexpected transitions or joyous bombast. They always maintain a balance between psychedelic repetition and steady development during a piece of music. They’ll get stuck into a particular groove and then blow it apart at just the right time. Coming along relatively quickly after 2013’s History of the Visitation, Obscure Knowledge at first feels like the previous album’s close relative. They’re practically twins, if you just compare the track lengths: starting with a long 'un, followed by a brief, more abstract linking track, and ending with a mid-length track. Both albums are 42 minutes long. Uncanny! I don’t know whether this is coincidence or by design, and ultimately I don’t care. They definitely haven’t written the same album again. The tracks all cross-fade into each other, and a musical motif or two repeats from track one to track three, making the album a seamless listen if you so desire. (The album's press releases emphasizes that the album is in fact a single track indexed into three sections.) Obscure Knowledge sounds more assertive than its predecessor. Slashing, discordant moments abound. Guitarist Kavus Torabi gets in some screaming leads during the first few minutes of the untitled opener. Drummer David J Smith skitters around his kit with a more orchestral approach than the usual rock drummer. When he drops into a beat in the last few minutes of the opening section, its grounding effect is all the more pronounced. Since denting my brain with Five Suns (over 10 years ago!), Guapo are still the archetypal “heavy prog” band in my mind. Nobody that I’m aware of does what they do. Every release is a major event, and Obscure Knowledge is another album worth studying and savouring.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Difficult 2014—Part Three

Sorry for the delay; there was a massive screwup behind the scenes with my year-end posts. I’d continued work on A Difficult 2014, writing some pretty comprehensive reviews for the remaining ten albums. The final two posts in the series were looking good...and then I lost everything due to a corrupted goddamn USB stick.

Motivation and inspiration are hard enough to come by these days, and this incident nearly finished me for good. However, I didn’t want to leave anyone hanging, so to salvage the situation, I’ve:
  • Sacked the Difficult Music IT department.
  • Reimagineered my top ten albums of 2014 and posted them below with pics and some half-remembered, half-assed blurbs below.
Taurus—No/Thing (self-released)
Definitely the most unsettling album I heard all year. The duo of Stevie Floyd and Ashley Spungin wield twisting riffs, spoken word samples and loops, and well-crafted noise to create their harrowing, intensely human vision.

Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell—Check ’Em Before You Wreck ’Em (Rise Above)
They’re rocking it loose and trashy this time out—more MC5 than Budgie, say—but these three greasehogs are loveable as ever.

Archspire—The Lucid Collective (Season of Mist)
Vancouver`s Archspire are resolutely inhuman and punishing in their approach to tech death. They also seem to be aware that they’re steering the genre down absurd pathways of speed and virtuosity. It’s those moments of breakneck eccentricity that make this album a thing of wonder and awe.

Earth—Primitive and Deadly (Southern Lord)
After taking their music to the brink of dissolution on the two Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light albums, I was hoping Earth would make a shift. Indeed they did. On Primitive and Deadly, the riffs are more vigorous, the songs more concise, and incorporating vocalists Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi was a genius move. This is the closest thing to a real rock album they’ve made since Pentastar.

Wounded Kings—Consolamentum (Candlelight)
The Wounded Kings do doom with just the right amount of grandeur: not overly dour, with no trace of camp or archness. Sharie Neyland’s vocals are pitched perfectly atop the power-chorded riffs (shame she’s left the band). A touch of Mellotron adds a macabre edge. It’s odd which bands catch on and which don't. Consolamentum is as good as the Pallbearer album, yet The Wounded Kings remain a bit of a secret.

Opeth—Pale Communion (Roadrunner)
Reviewed in full at

Morbus Chron—Sweven (Century Media)
Swedish death metal always had a pronounced weird streak, and Morbus Chron carry on that same mind-bending spirit. Sweven spirals up to the astral plane with unusual chord voicings (I understand the album features no powerchords at all), a murky yet listenable mix, and no choruses to speak of. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a concept album. Is Sweven the product of alien intelligence or some youngsters raised on Entombed, King Crimson and Rush? Either seems plausible.

Pallbearer—Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore)
Regarding Pallbearer’s debut, Sorrow and Extinction, I decided that I liked the demo better. Yes, in that instance I had to be that guy. The demo was a pleasingly simple recording, while the album overcompensated, I felt, with production that smothered the songs with brutal volume. I was happy to hear that Foundations of Burden was sonically richer experience, and the songs had evolved to match the production. Factoring in a much-improved live sound, Pallbearer really deserve all the acclaim they're getting.

Yob—Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot)
Reviewed in full here.

Motorpsycho—Behind the Sun (Rune Grammofon)
My number one album of 2014 is a bit embarrassing to me... Embarrassing because I hadn't discovered Motorpsycho earlier. What kind of music nerd am I? This band has been kicking for 25 years and I didn’t have a clue. I think they’ve even played Vancouver before, the idea of which makes me want to punch myself in the face for missing out. I’d seen the name, but the name alone wasn’t enough to clue me in to how awesome they are. Motorpsycho may be veterans, but they sound fresh and vital to me. The songs on Behind the Sun embody everything I value: they’re varied, quirky but not cute, organic (they could have existed in 1974 or 2014), rocking, and wickedly played and crafted. They do not let up either; the quality never wanes as the record progresses. Each song, whether a ballad, rocker, or instrumental epic, declares its supremacy. “Ghost” will bum you out and bruise your heart (Mellotrons can do that); “On a Plate” and “The Promise” will set you thrashing upon your comfy couch. The album also features the inimitable Reine Fiske on guest guitar, for those who like to keep track of what he gets up to. Some of the best bands are like private societies, with their own discourse communities and iconography. I feel like I’ve learned the secret handshake after absorbing this album. My top discovery of 2014 is also my favourite album of 2014.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

March into April

Achim Kaufmann/Jeff Younger/Dylan Van Der Schyff March 31 at Merge
Pianist Achim Kaufmann came to town for two sets of stormy improv at Merge. The music roiled and boiled as the trio pushed towards the limits of what was playable on their instruments. Younger grappled with his guitar and blew into its pickups. Kaufmann scraped cups and glasses along the piano's surface and crouched down to prod at the instrument's interior. Van Der Schyff used mallets, brushes and sticks to play the kit—I mean, literally the kit—the shells, the rims, even the threads on the lug nuts. He's a master, and was often the primary shaper of each piece as it unfurled. The direction and development of the improvisations was some of the best I'd heard in this particular genre/field/scene.

The Unsupervised, April 1 at The Emerald
The Emerald, tucked away on Gore Avenue in Chinatown, is a comfortable room with a decent beer selection. The Unsupervised are an excellent band whom I hadn't seen in quite a while. They look to be ramping up activity again with new material from bandleader Jeff Younger (him again) and a new bassist, James Meger. They got right up to speed with older numbers like "Inches" and "Strands" (from Elevator) leading into the new songs that they plan to record and release in 2016. The only bummer was the volume from the punk show going on next door, which was bleeding into the Emerald. While I enjoy "TV Party" as much as the next guy, it didn't mix well with the gig I was trying to listen to.

Magma, April 2 at The Venue
Jesus wept. This little band called Magma came to town. If you didn't see the show, I can't help you much. It was a normal gig in that I experienced (a) the ritual humiliation of trying and failing to get a t-shirt and (b) buying an overpriced can of good old Pilsner. Aside from all that, it was more like going to church than a rock show: a new kind of church where solemn, centuries-old European liturgical tradition crosses streams with the funkiest, most-inbred, taking-up-serpents, maniacal Christ-as-conjurer Deep-South God botherers. And then aliens arrive and tractor-beam the whole works into the mothership for some mind-melding and deep probing. It was kind of like that, but way better. It was rhythm, madness, skill, confusion, awe, joy, and just...holy shit.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Difficult 2014—Part Two

A FORMAL HORSE—s/t EP (self-released)
I started to listen to these things called podcasts in 2014, and it was during Sid Smith’s Podcast from the YellowRoom that I first heard A Formal Horse. “I Lean” was the tune, and I immediately drove over to the British five-piece’s Bandcamp page to get their five-song EP. They combine metal, jazz, and prog rock into appealing songs that are complex, yet compact, full of shock dynamics and interesting diversions. The EP features three vocal songs and two brief instrumentals that highlight the band’s musicianship and restless, meticulous approach. “I Lean” is still the standout track for me, lurching as it does between an eeriness that reminds me of Thinking Plague at their most accessible and sections that attack with prog-metal fervour. And because I rarely hear vocalists who impress me nowadays, it’s worth noting that the band have someone special in Francesca Lewis. Her precisely sung, unaffected style is one of their biggest assets. Just to be able to apply gravitas to lines like “No-smoking signs on a sex booth/lackeys cooking cats on a tin roof” is no small feat. Based on the 20 minutes of material on hand here, A Formal Horse get 2014’s most promising newcomer award.

HORSEBACK—Piedmont Apocrypha (Three-Lobed)
The tension between black metal and Krautrock and post-rock in Horseback’s music is mostly gone now, yet Piedmont Apocrypha remains a compelling listen. Horseback sounds more grounded and comfortable. If I’ve read the liner notes correctly, Jenks Miller credits the musical direction to moving to the country “closer to the trees than to other people” and to the sight lines from his back porch. His approach focuses more on clean guitars and the lonely rural twang…reminiscent of mist hanging over barren fields. The spirits of Neil Young and Gastr del Sol lurk in the title track and “Consecration Blues.” The album embraces everything sparse and airy until the last track, the 17-minute “Chanting Out the Low Shadow,” where vocals get growly and guitars get dissonant and things get heavy in a primitive blues way, building up to a bombastic climax. Another fine example of American art rock, and maybe Horseback’s most distinctive work yet.

LED BIB—The People in Your Neighbourhood (Cuneiform)
I’ve been ladling praise over this hard-riffing British jazz quintet for a few years now, and I’ll continue to do so, because The People in Your Neighbourhood is another excellent release (they also put out a live record this year). There’s little to choose between this album and their last couple—they all deliver a walloping. Maybe they venture out further this time—the detours away from the head of each song are more severe. These excursions can range far and wide, but the tenor sax team of Pete Grogan and Chris Williams always snap you back to attention with their piercing attack.

ARTIFICIAL BRAIN—Labyrinth Constellation (Profound Lore)
Some of the best cover art this side of Effigy of the Forgotten is the first clue that this is pretty crucial tech death. In an attempt to describe their sound, I’d say Artificial Brain occasionally come off as a more accessible Gorguts. Their songs have dissonant and spacey parts, yet the structures are compact and anchored by powerful down-to-earth riffs. The recording is a little murky but still punishing, with vocals mixed low enough to complement, not annoy. Many thanks for their show (part of a surreal bill with Gigan and Pyrrhon) at the Red Room here in Vancouver, with a guest vocalist who apparently flew in for a single gig because their regular singer couldn’t cross the border. That’s dedication to the cause.

HEDWIG MOLLESTAD TRIO—Enfant Terrible (Rune Grammofon)
Headliners on an excellent day at the 2014 Jazz Fest, the Hedwig Mollestad Trio laid down pretty much what I later heard on this album: hard-rocking jazz fusion based around heavy riffs, a solid rhythm section, and Mollestad’s versatile guitar work. They get comparisons to Black Sabbath—fair enough, given their penchant for covering the Sabs—but mostly they remind me of the Dixie Dregs in their solos and song structures. If the riffs first get the head nodding, then what the band explores after the main themes provides the real substance and excitement.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Difficult 2014—Part One

2014 had some ups and downs, like any other year. The ups were good, the downs were utterly terrible. Losing my father-in-law this summer was the biggest blow. It was awful, but he went out in typical Charlie fashion, calling the shots right to the end, and we were all there for him.

Overall, I had my health, my job, and my friends, I played plenty of music and took some nice trips. I got to see Yes, King Crimson, Nik Turner's Hawkwind and (Steve Hackett's tribute to) Genesis all in the same year. I'm truly a lucky individual.

I didn't make much of an effort to keep up with new music in 2014. This year's four-part roundup will comprise 21 albums that I bought and enjoyed. There's a bunch of honourable mentions and reissues that won't get full blurbs, but I'll which collect in a future post. As was the case last year, I'm not assigning numbers to these entries because honestly, I couldn't tell you if there was an appreciable difference in quality between album #12 and #11. Just assume that I'm saving my absolute favourite stuff for part four of the roundup.

SLOUGH FEG—Digital Resistance (Metal Blade)
The first song on Digital Resistance, “Analogue Avengers/Bertrand Russell’s Sex Den,” reels and jigs most proggily; a ways off from the Maiden/Lizzy galloping harmonies we’re used to from Slough Feg. The title track brings back the British/Bay Area steel, and we’re off on another solid collection of Slough Feg material. Some of it sounds a bit too familiar, but then a song like “Laser Enforcer” jolts you back to the reality of just how fine a band this is. Hats off to (now ex-drummer) Harry Cantwell for playing like a cross between Brann Dailor and Bun E. Carlos. Drum performance of the year! CD

GOAT—Commune (Sub Pop)
Commune is a solid album, but it didn’t blow me out of the water the way their debut did. The riffing is less chunky, moving instead towards airy trills that remind me of Six Organs of Admittance or Popol Vuh. Their rhythm section remains solid, though, leaving no doubt that this material would work live. “Gathering of the Ancient Tribes” concludes the goatritual in fine goatstyle, bringing back some of the afro-psych heaviness of the debut. GOAT are holding steady. It’ll be interesting to see if they find bold new ways to be weird on the next LP. Vinyl with die-cut cover and MP3 download

PINHAS/YOSHIDA—Welcome in the Void, PINHAS/AMBARCHI—Tikkun (Cuneiform)
"These two new albums...document two of Pinhas’s latest collaborations. Together they paint an expansive, vivid portrait of his globetrotting, playing-in-the-moment modus operandi." Reviewed in full here. CD/DVD

MOGWAI—Rave Tapes (Sub Pop)
Rave Tapes is confident, measured and often very pretty. Mogwai always impress me. By now it’s pointless to think of them as part of any movement. It’s not instrumental post-rock, it’s Mogwai music. They can do what they like. On Rave Tapes they’ve expanded their sound in subtle ways, working synthesizers into their music without changing their basic approach. They retain their eeriness and dark humour (on “Repelish” they sample a Christian LP warning against subliminal Satanic messages in rock music: “They sing backward in human voices”) and go brightly cinematic when it suits them, as on “Deesh,” which recalls eighties Genesis jams like “Home by the Sea” and “The Brazilian.” I’m more than OK with that. Green vinyl with die-cut cover and MP3 download

SHELLAC—Dude Incredible (Touch and Go) 
I kept up with Shellac through their first singles and couple albums, then I lost track of them. Dude Incredible’s arrival seemed a good time to catch up. Turns out they’re keeping it real tight. This excellent album’s main problem is that it never quite recovers from the excitement and terror of its opening track, which builds from a typically taut Shellac groove before breaking into a gallop that’s more like “Run to the Hills” than anything Big Black ever did, while Albini shouts about male bonding and hand-to-hand combat—I interpret it as a mock epic about a bunch of Jersey Shore rejects or businessmen out on the town...which is probably wrong. “Holy shit!” is the only possible reaction to the onrush. So what if the album never hits that peak again? Hearing these guys playing together is a pleasure, especially on some of the twisty bits on side two. Vinyl, includes CD

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tago Mago: Permission to Dream, by Alan Warner (33 1/3 Books)

One of the best things about Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series is how much leeway the writers have. They’re free to use autobiography or fiction, or concentrate exclusively on the minutiae of rock lit—music analysis, interviews, an artist’s history, release dates, critical reception, press clippings—to tell the story of the album in question. Alan Warner definitely mixes his modes in his volume on Can’s Tago Mago (1971). We learn about the author’s developing musical interests and record-buying habits as a teenager isolated in small-town Scotland during the late ’70s. Stepping away from his personal history, he also gets down to the nitty gritty of the double album itself; for example, detailing the tape edits on “Halleluwah” (side two of Tago Mago) and interviewing several Can members about their time recording the album. The interviews are also tinged with autobiography, because as Warner explains, he has befriended and even collaborated with the band in the years since he dedicated his debut novel Morvern Callar to Can bassist Holger Czukay.

The autobiographical sections are fascinating and hilarious. I’m predisposed to being interested, though, as I’ve been an Alan Warner fan ever since my wife-to-be gave me The Sopranos to read right before we started going out. His descriptions of his interior life as an “aloof, pretentious, eccentric” boy fumbling his way towards musical sophistication are priceless. Curious to push through the heavy metal vernacular of his peers (“Each one of my friends was emotionally sympathetic and spiritually aligned to the activities of Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow,” he says) he buys dodgy post-breakup Sex Pistols albums and a Weather Report LP with a compelling and mysterious cover, and finds much of interest, especially in the latter. The search for anything by Can, inspired by John Lydon referencing Can and their drummer’s “double beats” in one of the weekly music papers, leads him to the big city, Glasgow, and the Virgin Megastore where he eventually acquires the holy grail—Tago Mago.

Any serious music fan can relate to the impressions that Warner describes on his journey to Can—the unforgettable impact of an album’s arrival, and the profound meaning that an inanimate object can instantly possess: “I remember the euphoria of being on the train home, splitting the cellophane wrapping all the way around, to peel it completely free and open up the concealed centrefold sleeve…” Passages like that make me I think, Okay, Warner, can we have 200 more pages of that, please? Tell us about all your records, man!

However, it’s a 33 1/3 book, and the format won't allow for 200 more pages, so Warner uses the second half of the book to discuss the history and philosophy of analogue tape editing, the evolution of the band, and the genesis of, and curiosities to be found within, the tracks on Tago Mago. He includes snippets of conversations with Michael Karoli, Irmin Schmidt, and Jaki Liebezeit, purveyor of the double beats. For some, having only half a book devoted in-depth to Tago Mago might not be enough. There is plenty more Can documentation they can seek out. I was left happy, and curious to hear more of the Can discography, as well as hear many of the members’ solo releases, which Warner often references. I was inspired to get out the album and listen along as he detailed each track. And by the end of the book I was an even bigger fan of both the author and his subject.