Tuesday, March 30, 2010

SYLVESTER ANFANG II "COMMUNE CASSETTEN" (Blackest Rainbow)

A short LP follow-up to last year's massive brainfuck on Aurora Borealis, which was one of my favorite records for 2009. This time the Fang are in a more organic mindset, turning in 6 songs across 40 minutes and turning the intensity waaaaay down. This sounds like what it most likely is-a bunch of long-hairs getting together in barn and jamming out. Gone are the AMT-worshiping torrents of electric guitar scuzz damage, replaced by hand drums and lackadaisical chord strumming alongside an attitude of pointless meandering. It's much more in league with the band's original incarnation, the more occult themed Sylvester Anfang (and yeah, they're different. look it up.) Here you're reminded that this is indeed a commune of people living together out in Belgium dabbling in drugs and the outer fringe waste of extreme psychedelia.
The goal of "Commune Cassetten" seems to be a demonstration of natural improv without the need for things to build up to anything. It's probably the result of lots of editing and a shitload of late night stoner jams, where ability is thrown away in favor of chasing down a feeling and a place in time. There's nothing epochal about what's happening here, but there are the beginnings of something transformative if you're receptive to it. You are lulled into a very easy going sort of space-there's a lot of disconnection on display here but nothing approaching real dissonance or atonality. Even the more wicked bits are played with a sense of calm; this is a group so in tune with one another that the process of making music becomes an endless walk through the night and the fire. Nothing is verboten; everything is allowed.
The songs themselves all hover in a very Krautrock place. Constant keyboard drones hover in the background and sometimes take center stage, leading into a hypnotic trance state while soft and robotic drums propel everything over the hill. Guitars rarely reach distorted levels but solo endlessly, moving all over the neck hitting both right and wrong notes with equal aplomb. The bass lines are the key here, locking everything down and holding these bonfire revelations to the loosest grasp of reality; if you figure that the rumbles are closet to the earth then it all makes that much more sense.
Sylvester Anfang II are one of my favorite groups in modern psychedelia; this record just serves to whet my appetite for more, perhaps something harder and more damaged, perhaps something more drifting and removed from this earth. Only time and whimsy will dictate the group's next major manifestation. Until then we're left to bask in the damage and try to make sense of it all, or surrender to it utterly. Whatever you feel like, i guess.

OBTAINED ENSLAVEMENT "SOULBLIGHT" (Napalm)

Obtained Enslavement's third album, and by far their most accomplished working within the confines of symphonic black metal. I'm frankly bewildered as to how a band would even write and rehearse music this involved, especially an underground entity like this. For me this record pretty much represents the apex of the symphonic black metal style. There were some other strong efforts by more well known hordes in the genre's infancy but the style quickly became bogged down under its own arrogant pomp, devolving into the comical style of black metal practiced by the likes of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth (trust me, this album is worlds away from either.)
"Soulblight" saw it all coming together, a logical progression from the previous outing, "Witchcraft." As i have yet to find and hear their first album (Obtained Enslavement material is VERY hard to come by) i can't speak yet as to the evolution from that point. "Witchcraft" was an excellent album on its own, the only problem being a sort of disconnect between the black metal elements and the symphonic ones. It was an album slathered in baroque Renaissance ambience; the piano and keyboard arrangements were at times overwhelming. Such a division made the album more challenging than it maybe needed to be. On "Soulblight" the band took the time to rein in the orchestral flourishes and meld the music a little more subtly. All of the piano and keyboards were still present; now they were married closer to the guitar lines.
The whole thing is ridiculously complex but never in an alienating, progressive sort of way. All of the songs are longer explorations and the guitars lead the way throughout, all high end melodic skree and crusted over dustwinds of scathing white hot distortion. It's an earful, to be sure, although the rare moment of respite surfaces, like the gorgeous clean guitar lines in the title track or the simple barreling hypnothrash breakdown in the middle of "Nightbreed." Pest's vocals are at their absolute best; this is probably my favorite performance from him since Gorgoroth's "Under the Sign of Hell" (one of the greatest, most uncompromising black metal albums ever.) Here he sounds like he's choking on bile and dirt, coughing up blood and anger with each sickening ululation; combined with the "elegance" of the arrangements it creates a striking dichotomy that i have never really been able to wrap my head around.
I think that dichotomy is what i like best about Obtained Enslavement. Even though they were writing this really involved, layered music they were still raw as fuck, and never more so than on "Soulblight." The whole thing is an unrelenting juggernaut of dirty sound engineering. The drums are way forward in the mix so you hear ever double bass thunk (it saddens me a little that you don't really hear this sort of drum-centered production in metal anymore), the guitars are so hot you can hear them clipping out the tape, resulting in all sorts of small unwanted distortions, the bass is a goopy mess of rancid fuzz and sludge. Throw Pest's vocal agony over the top of everything and you've got a volatile mix of ear-shredding elements. There's really no polish here; this is seriously underground black metal.
After listening to "Soulblight" i get a much better picture of why some fans felt betrayed by the style of black metal that Obtained Enslavement went on to dabble with on their final album-almost all of the symphonic elements were abandoned, leaving a much leaner, more minimalist-leaning band bent on exploring the connections between lust, thrash metal and the roots of rock and roll. I love that final album, but it is very different. If you're looking for full sound immersion, though, "Soulblight" is a masterwork.

Friday, March 26, 2010

CHURCH OF MISERY "HOUSES OF THE UNHOLY" (Rise Above)

The back of the inner booklet reads, "NO DRONE. NO POWER AMBIENT. LET THEM EAT DOOM." And so Church of Misery dish up a heaping plate for your consumption and if you don't clean that fucker they're going to shove the rest down your throat. I find it interesting that Church of Misery seem to be taking a direct potshot at Boris with this album, because Church of Misery sounds exactly like their art-minded brethren if they weren't so, well, art-minded. This is classic rock rewrit with a harsher sound, but all the moves are there and unchanged. There's an obvious reverence for the style and there's no doubt that Church of Misery love this shit and have a blast bashing away at it, coming off like some alternate universe Ted Nugent on steroids where every amp is cranked to 11 and fretboards get so damn hot fire shoots off when a solo gets played. It's rock and roll, and because it's rock and roll from Japan, everything is maxed out to the ridiculous and every extreme is embraced. It's part of why i love Japanese music so much.
The formula is the same as it's always been for the Church: pick some serial killers, write some lyrics, add some sampled police and television reports and rock the fuck out. Since their inception they've changed in sound and style; "Houses" finds them continuing along the path charted out on "The Second Coming." Everything is way in the red, the songs are faster and more intense and vocalist Hideki Fukasawa absolutely rips his lungs apart. I doubt the guy is even going to be able to speak in a few years, he's shredding his throat so raw with this band. As impassioned as his delivery is it's a little one-dimensional and sometimes i miss the old vocalist-his incredibly laconic, syrupy stoned always clean vocals made a nice dreamy counterpoint to the tales of violence. But that was Church of Misery phase one, when they were more concerned with nodding off than rocking out. This is phase two, where it's tearing-faces-off time every hour of every day.
The songs are deceptively involved. There aren't many riffs or movements per song (except for "Blood Sucking Freak", which is about mentally disturbed "Vampire Killer" Richard Chase, where the song cycles through quite a few disparate riffs to illustrate Chase's volatile and nonsensical mindscape) and it seems like you've heard them all before, but if you listen more closely you hear all sorts of little flourishes and intricacies and begin to see just how much outright musicianship these guys are putting into everything. It's a consummate display of prowess done with extreme temperance and subtlety and reinforces just how good of a band this really is.
Everyone sweats it out hard, but the real star of the album is bassist Tatsu Mikami. The guy never stops. He runs his bass through a shitload of effects and basically comes off like a "Live at Leeds" era John Entwistle, always moving, holding everything down while essentially playing a 48 minute solo at the same time. Geezer Butler would be proud, no doubt.
Also keeping with tradition, Church of Misery turn in one classic cover, this time thrashing through "Master Heartache" by Sir Lord Baltimore. Jesus, what an obscure fucking pick. Just another example of the actual rock pedigree lurking behind this glorious, indulgent mess plate of rock stew. Grab your damn fork.

DROWNING THE LIGHT/EVIL "A REFLECTION OF THE PAST/WHERE THE SUN WAS NEVER BORN" (Hammer of Hate)

Incredibly terrible split release from two underground legends. I wonder if Hammer of Hate even thought twice about releasing this; how it escape anyone's idea of "quality control" is beyond me. The sad thing is such small, personalized labels really have little choice once money's been invested. DTL could have turned in a recording of Azgorh taking a shit and it probably would have seen release, just to recoup some costs.
Unfortunately that comparison isn't too far off the mark. Drowning the Light's side is some of worst-recorded music i've ever heard. There's low fidelity and then there's this garbage. It sounds like someone threw a 1985 Tascam open air recorder in a cardboard box, filled it with mud and then placed it outside of the practice space with a few blankets over it while the band ripped through five songs. It's a fucking embarrassment and no amount of weak whining about holding true to old school black metal ethos could possibly justify releasing a recording that sounded this bad. Vlad Tepes had some bad sound, yes, but never this inaudible and the songs were so good that you quickly got past the lower sound quality. DTL's five songs here aren't awful (in fact, this is a more consistent release composition-wise than some previous works) but they're so poorly captured that they're more or less unlistenable. It comes off like the work of meager amateurs rather than the fruit of well-versed black metal historians. There's no shortage of huge melodic riffs here but the whole affair is so tinny and awash in room noise and unwanted reverb that it sinks into a rancid pit of worthlessness.
Evil's side fares a little better in the sound department but not much better anywhere else. For Evil (which is a terrible name) black metal begins with Burzum's first album and ends with Darkthrone's "Transylvanian Hunger"; too bad the impeccable awesomeness of those two records doesn't manifest itself anywhere in Evil's delivery. Again, the amateurish quality of the band is shocking. These guys have a discography only slightly less vast than DTL's and have been together for almost two decades; by this point in time they should be playing together as a seamless unit. Instead they sound like two nobodies who met a few months ago and decided to start as "true" a black metal band as they could. The drummer deserves special attention for his inability to keep up with the pace of the songs; too many times throughout these tracks they just fall apart into loopy ill-timed gallops until the drummer finds the pace again. It's jarring and a little pathetic and bogs all of the material down. The only track that held even a spark of interest for me was "Wolf's Blood," whose main riff is very reminiscent of Urfaust (never a bad thing) and almost hypnotic. It's followed by a second riff as cliched and obvious as the first one was cool, though, so the song goes out on a sour note.
I really expected more from both bands, and it's been awhile since i've been this disgusted by any record i've listened too. A totally inessential release.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

DEAD AS DREAMS "THEIR STEPS BECOME UNBEARABLE" (Goatowarex)

Extremely perplexing Bay Area black metal, in that i'm not sure if i'm supposed to take the music on its own merits or judge it for what it so obviously is-a Weakling clone (i will not say "tribute") band. From the logo design to the lettering in the interior artwork to the band's fucking name ("Dead as Dreams" being the title of Weakling's one, mighty album) this is the work of one artist totally smitten with the legacy of another.
Weakling were a confusing entity in their own right and to this day i'm not sure if the band was meant as a joke or some sort of black metal juggernaut conceived of a different aesthetic. Certainly "Dead as Dreams" is an amazing, staggeringly involved and complex piece of black metal romanticism, an infinite hymn made up of five songs that still best almost any other music they're compared against. The album was a masterwork; beauty and progression woven hand in hand resulting in a record that was impossible to absorb in a single sitting. It's one of my own favorite albums, too, but it's so singular and visionary that any attempt at emulation could only seem postured and juvenile.
And so it is with Dead As Dreams. While the music itself is excellent, well-played (at times even attaining that elusive time-stretching quality so sought after in black metal of this type) and suitably epic (this is one 24 minute song) there's a lack of any sort of personal flourish or emotional investment that begins to manifest itself as a sort of artistic, intellectualized emptiness. When you're just trading on someone else's ideas there's really not much you can bring to distinguish yourself. I'm not sure why Dead As Dreams chose this direction, especially since there are some great moments on this record. It's intense and gargantuan throughout its exhaustive runtime and there are some instances of true beauty, especially at the 14 minute mark when acoustic guitars make an entrance and the whole track begins to evolve into a triple harmonized requiem descending into a pit of sorrow. It's the music though, the choice of notes and melodies, that make those distinctions possible-not any sort of personal/compositional connection with the material.
I understand loving certain bands. I understand how there are "those" records that mean more to you than anything else, and i understand filtering those influences into your own art and feeling a deeper connection to those sounds. I did it on the Dreamless album (Centaur's "In Streams" is still a major record for me) but never once did i feel like i was just ripping Matt Talbot off. I don't know how the guys in Dead As Dreams could possibly convince themselves they AREN'T trying to copy Weakling step by step. It's an exceptionally well-done magic jar act, but much like that evil, soulless spell it's just a habitation, an occupation, a wandering trip through someone else's unique dreamspace. You can pass yourself off to some, but those intimately acquainted with the subject will see the disconnect.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

ARCANUS TENEBRAE "ODIUM IN HOMINES" (Drakkar Productions)

Crude and obscure bedroom black metal heavily indebted to the Black Legions, with the shadowy spirit of Belketre looming most ghastly. This is an extremely simplistic record, one where atmosphere and idealism factor in much more than instrumental ability or compositional skill. Almost every riff is horribly chromatic and drenched in fuzz. Guitars are way up front and the drums are poorly played at best, many times so off the beat that the song becomes a weird sort of drunken, loping loop, recycling on itself woozily until momentum brings everything rolling together again. This is an ancient style of black metal, what many would refer to as "kult" but not necessarily true.
Drakkar is one of the most interesting labels in that they have been around for a long, long time and have released some of the genre's most significant milestones. Vlad Tepes, Vermeth, Mutiilation and Torgeist all had defining releases on Drakkar and in the passing years the label has always remained true to that low-fi, alienating sound while going on to unleash albums by some of the more technically accomplished black metal bands (Grand Belial's Key, Watain, Impiety.) What has become unclear is whether the "Black Legions" sound is now nothing more than a joke or an extreme reverential nod by a band like Arcanus Tenebrae. As poorly played as the majority of this album is, i have the sneaking suspicion that the musician responsible is actually quite accomplished as an instrumentalist-you can hear slight echoes of it on tracks like "Pest" and the massive guitar layering of "Hateful Blackness In The Horizon" and the outro dirge. There's a deft hand at work there and it seems as though the rest of material is being played in an intentionally amateurish fashion, presumably to attain a more primitive and necro" sound. This speaks to the worst of black metal, a style of art that's nothing more than a genre exercise. As interesting and recidivist as this album is there's the feeling that it's just an intellectual demonstration, a tour through some fanatic's record collection, a tribute to the Black Legions that's as accomplished as the previously reviewed Drowning the Light effort, "The Blood of the Ancients."
If it isn't an elaborate and well orchestrated musical hoax, then this is an amazing trip through time. The idea that someone would still be making black metal like this without any genre touchstones is almost unfathomable. Either way, it's a confusing and engaging piece of work. If you like your black metal rough, jagged and fucking cold, then Arcanus Tenebrae is an entity worthy of your attention. If distance and dissonance are off-putting to your ears, then stay very far away. I personally commend the oblique and challenging nature of this recording but proceed with a wary caution-the time of the Legions has well since passed.

SUN CITY GIRLS "PIASA...DEVOURER OF MEN" (Abduction)

A soundtrack for an as of yet unreleased film. Being that 16 years have elapsed since the recording of this soundtrack i'd say it's likely the film is never going to actually see release. Too bad because judging from the stills it seems to be a monster movie about some sort of horrific Rodan-esque creature terrifying an island populace, all done in stop motion animation. And if the soundtrack is any indicator, it's probably totally fucked.
Unfortunately with the Sun City Girls you can't really use the music as an indicator for anything other than what they felt compelled to do. The various compositions might or might not reference what's happening on screen at any given time. If taken as a whole then the soundtrack makes more sense and that's why this album works so well as a proper release by SCG, rather than a commissioned project. It's certainly one of their more cohesive efforts, having a true sort of musical identity rather than jumping all the fuck over as many of their releases are wont to do. This music all seems given over to far east ethnic exploration, bringing to mind China and the Asiatic areas specifically. Whether that's SCG's actual intent is beyond me; i'm not a world traveler nor an expert on indigenous folk musics so all i have to go on is the general feel i get and the images that music seems to evoke. I see streams of color and a dense city plaza drowned in busy moving bodies, crowds and sweat and throngs. Smoke rising from side-alley bazaars and hungry children leering at you with knives in hand and malice in thought. The stench of shit and death and cruelty hanging in the air. The very idea of foreign-ness, the feeling of not belonging, of being totally out of your element and thrust into something dirty and weird and scary. If i let the film stills enter into it then i'm reminded a bit of the native landscapes of King Kong, a dark and strange place where wonders previously forbidden to modern eyes lurk behind walls and demand sacrifice to be summoned up.
I'm impressed that SCG were able to conjure up all of this, but not at all surprised. This is an amazing group that has always shown boundless creativity and i wholeheartedly feel that any album of theirs is worthy of purchase and exploration, no matter how fucked up or uncompromising. They're simply too good at what they do to have a single uninteresting record. Maybe the film will actually see release someday but until then this soundtrack is cinematic enough. The images it's crafted in my imagination might even be better than the film itself.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

SACRED REICH "INDEPENDENT" (Displeased)

2010 reissue of this minor thrash classic. Circa 1993 the title track was tearing up the airwaves and for an up and coming metaller like myself such a harsh statement of defiance was the sweetest song in the world. I've searched high and low for this album since then and have never run cross it used or new, so kudos to Displeased for making it available once again. Sacred Reich were one of the tightest of all thrash metal bands, second only to Megadeth or Metallica round about the time of "Justice." They were masters of the start/stop ultra-nervous cocaine blitz of frenetic energy that thrash metal veered towards at its outer limits and even today there are few bands that can boast such a ridiculously pinpointed precision. Sonically Sacred Reich were an obvious precursor (or maybe contemporary/inspiration) to Pantera; sometimes it's difficult to discern whether singer Phil Rind is really Phil Anselmo or vice versa. Either way, Sacred Reich could shred with the best of them even if their creativity left a little to be desired.
"Independent" was released well into the Reich's career as well as at the tail-end of the thrash metal movement, when really only the old guard were left standing (albeit in the shadows.) According to Phil Rind at this point SR were trying to expand their sound and try different things. Whether that was a wise move is still in question, but there are some absolute ragers on this album that hold up against anything in the band's earlier catalogue. Like i said earlier, the title track totally SLAYS-it's a simple two riff masterwork pumped full of adrenalized aggression and a distaste for all modernity-when this thing came screaming out of the speakers last night i found myself pulled to my feet by some otherwordly force to start air-drumming and air-guitaring with reckless abandon. It's a really fun, energetic track full of sweet, sweet nostalgic memory for me and i fucking love it. Your results may vary.
The rest of the album falls somewhere beneath. There are other great thrashers, like "Pressure," "Prduct," and "Do It," but there are also some agonizingly slow and boring tracks like "Crawling" and the sorry attempt at power-balladeering "I Never Said Goodbye." The latter was an avenue that Sacred Reich should NEVER have chosen to explore and it reeks of cornball cheesiness and tired, rote chord progressions. Phil Rind isn't the singer that Phil Anselmo is either, so he probably just should have left that one on the cutting room floor.
Displeased fleshes out this reissue with five bonus tracks, two of which are pretty cool punk covers; the Reich sound fucking inspired tearing through Fear's "Let's Have A War" and the Subhumans' "The Big Picture". Both songs are so high energy they're perfect fits for Sacred Reich's inhumanly precise and fast thrash delivery methods (and any band that covers Fear is on their way to being okay in my book.) The other two are B-Side tracks, neither of which are terrible. "A Question" is chunky, quasi-progressive riffing repeated ad-infinitum while "Who's To Blame" is an almost amusing commentary on the endless war against heavy metal's terrible influence on the kids (remember, this was 1993.) The final track is a worthless radio edit of "Crawling", giving you a shorter version of a song that was already bad in its original form. Giving you less of it doesn't make it any less awful.
For me, this is an album from my formative days and i'm really happy to have it back. It's not a metal milestone, but it's fast enough and totally worth it just for the title track. It's full of awesome guitar solos, too.

TWILIGHT "MONUMENT TO TIME END" (Southern Lord)

Completely amazing sophomore album from black metal supergroup Twilight. Gone are Malefic (Xasthur) and Hidolf (Draugar); enlisted into the fold are Aaron Turner (Isis), Sanford Parker (Minsk), Stavros Giannopolous (the Atlas Moth) and Robe Lowe (Lichens) alongside Blake Judd, Wrest and Imperial. The last Twilight album, while interesting and even commendable at times, stank of opportunism and hokiness, as likely to be written off as some sort of underground culture joke as the unified authorship of an interesting sound experiment. "Monument to Time End," however, is easily one of the best, most beautifully composed and enchanting black metal albums i've heard in years.
I'm amazed that this is as good as it is. The debut was very much a mixed bag; made up of five mostly solitary black metal writers who created incredibly signature sounds within their respective groups, there was never really a feeling of anything meshing or coming together on the album. It was easy to listen to any random track and say, "Oh, Wrest wrote this one" or "totally Xasthur" or "That's a Nachtmystium riff." It wasn't bad, there just wasn't any sort of group identity or dynamic to what Twilight were doing. ON this outing, however, the rules have been completely rewritten. This sounds like a band, and a fucking great one at that. The only track that bears an obvious stamp is "Red Fields" which bears the compositional mark of Wrest so blatantly that it might have been a leftover Leviathan song. Otherwise it's uncharted territory, pushing the idea of black metal into whole other realms of beauty. I could probably write 20 pages on the awesome riffs crammed into these eight songs-they're all different and mindbending while retaining enough black metal classicism to encourage massive bouts of whiplashing headbanging-but they're also extremely mature with regard to texture and depth. Some of this stuff is achingly gorgeous. Three minutes into the first track and you're assaulted with one of the most yearning, melancholy black metal riffs this side of Mortifera's "Le Revenant"; you don't know whether to cry or throw up the horns. Moments like that are many throughout "Monument to Time End."
Deserving particular attention is Wrest's drumming. It's nice to hear him behind a real kit again and Sanford Parker's booming production provides the warmth and reverb that his drumming demands. It's just fucking huge, replete with fill after dexterous fill and so much flashy ridework you'll be wondering how many Rush albums he listened to in preparation for this recording. After hearing this one can only hope that the rumours are true and Leviathan is working on new material rather than languishing in the limbo of retirement. It's obvious, from even a fucking drum performance, that the man hasn't run out of ideas.
Everyone else is at the top of their game here as well. Imperial's vocals are astonishingly good; since the demise of Krieg i feel he's only gotten better at what he does. Perhaps the narrow view of that project held him back and only now is he allowing himself to open up and explore new avenues of emotional release. Robe Lowe also performs admirably in the vocal department, matching Imperial scream for throat shredding scream. Along with Turner and Judd the four of them turn in some complex choral arrangements as well as a large amount of processed vocals used as textural backdrops. It's a masterful and tasteful extra sonic layer, never overbearing but adding much in terms of depth and sound to the record as a whole. I would have to imagine much of that influence comes from Turner, who has been exploring the use of clean vocals to great effect on the last two Isis albums (the vocals are about the only interesting thing those last two albums have yielded up, IMHO.)
And of course the guitars. So, so many guitars. Almost every member of Twilight is a guitarist as well so it makes sense this record is awash in layers and layers of the stuff. As mentioned above the riffing is beyond reproach, beautiful more often than not and finely tuned to the idea of serving the songs and not taking any sort of spotlit glory. Everything is layered and placed in the proper headphone space for maximum warping results; there's a lot going on here but you never feel overwhelmed. This is the sort of album that is only going to yield up more and more of its densely placed secrets to you with each listening.
I used the word "enchanting" rather than "enthralling" at the start because this record casts a spell more than a mesmerization. It's not repetitive or hypnotic like Burzum but it's just as singular in its quest and just as individual in its sound. Twilight have recorded an absolute masterwork here, near flawless in every aspect. While referencing the cornerstones of classic black metal as well as each member's visionary work on their own projects' albums, the gentlemen of Twilight have created a thoroughly unique beast, something with more arms than a siamese twin octopus and the elegance of a Victorian banquet. I am totally floored by this album and cannot recommend it more highly. If you have any taste for true black metal artistry then you must own "Monument to Time End." It's a stunning achievement for US black metal and a high mark for the genre in general.

Friday, March 19, 2010

PORN "PORN AMERICAN STYLE" (Man's Ruin)

Porn's debut album from almost 10 fucking years ago, released by the mighty Man's Ruin label. That should be enough to tell you what this album sounds like and what aesthetic Tim Moss has always injected into his music, but in case it isn't, here you go. This is the most nihilistic side of doom and sludge metal, the pure fucked-up feelings of pointless worthlessness that seep into your being when heavy drug use becomes involved. Not that chemical abuse can't yield transcendental results and experiences; just that there's always a brutal, dirty underside and that's what Porn have always sought to illustrate with their festering, rotted guitar damage. This shit is rough. It's exactly what you expect throwing up into a toilet bowl filled with blood would sound like. It's all hate and abuse and misanthropy filtered through a shattered prism of nasty backwoods sexuality and degradation of both genders. The things you like will cause you pain. There is no growth or exploration in Tim Moss's view of sex; there is only the spilling of fluids, the sweat, the animal satisfaction and the idea of base urge. There is no caring or tenderness, no coupling. Fucked because you want to do some fucking. Pick another person and fuck them. You don't need to know anything else.
The funniest part of this is that this is their lightest album. All the elements described above are present here in abundance but as they went further Porn only served to get more hardcore and harsh, culminating in last year's beyond-levelling collaboration with Merzbow. This is a band focused on total sonic domination. You will be pushed down into the dirt by the power on display here. Guitars are eruptions of distortion and hell sludge, drums pound away hatefully until every hit becomes a dead, echoless punch in the face. Bass is throbbing with fuzz and bloated with distortion to the point of explosion, like a fat sated leech that doesn't know its own limits. If you could filter the philosophy of de Sade into some sort of musical pronouncement, this would come very very close (although Porn doesn't take themselves quite so seriously.) It's a massive mind-fucking brain massaging war on your sensibilities and nothing less than total acquiescence will be accepted. There is no integration nor assimilation, only pure uncompromising control. For a debut album this displays a remarkable thematic intensity and it's to their credit that Porn only went on to more chaotic and disparaging sonic skirmishes. Totally recommended, if you can find it.

APOSTLE OF SOLITUDE "LAST SUNRISE" (Profound Lore)

Very interesting take on doom metal. About two songs in i was asking myself why Profound Lore would sign these guys and halfway through the record i knew-it's an incredibly different, almost minimalist approach. Seemingly minimalist in definition, doom metal as a genre is actually characterized by a bloated sort of maximalism; i.e. make it as heavy and slow as it can possibly be, which much of the time results in really bland, boring one chord lurchathons that go absolutely fucking nowhere and sometimes take two discs to get you there. Not so with Apostle of Solitude. It's lean, trimmed down doom metal in every regard, and despite a 61 minute runtime the record rarely lags or seems forced.
Perhaps the biggest difference between these guys and the majority of doomers is the overall sound, especially with regard to the guitars. If this were Electric Wizard you'd expect a totally blown out ultra fat swath of harsh fuzz to assault your eardrums, as brutal in the high frequencies as it is in the lows, obviously created by a wealth of boutique effects pedals. Apostle of Solitude take a much more purist approach, approximating a tone that sounds eerily close to "just plug this fucker in and rip shit up." If pedals are being used it's a wah and a Rat and nothing else, and it's a very refreshing sound. Upon first blast that trebly, feedback laden squelch seems displaced but as "Last Sunrise" gallops along it becomes more distinctive and welcome, as you can actually hear the phrasing of notes in the solos and the scrape of fingers and hands across strings (i've always liked that unrepaired, organic feel in guitar playing, and many bands are afraid to leave those sounds audible for fear of being accused of sloppiness.) It makes you feel like you're in the practice space with these guys, just hanging out and watching them tear through a rehearsal, maybe recording a demo tape.
And there is the only real drawback to the lack of expansiveness in Apostle of Solitude's sound. It's hard, even for me, to get past the idea that doom metal need be a behemoth. AOS are so stripped down that it seems like they really ARE recording a demo, rather than a full length effort. It sounds fine, yes, totally crisp and clear, but fuck, even Sabbath had some meat on the bone. It's a difficult reconciliation, not one that sinks the album, but rather one that is hard to cram into the dominant mindset of the genre window. Sabbath are referenced and drawn from heavily throughout but never in a direct ripoff sort of way, same as the outstanding vocals reference Boris at their most melancholy and frustrated. I feel i have to expound a bit further and say that the vocals are really amazing on this album-this guy can actually sing and he's got a raw, indie style voice that owes more to Greg Dulli in tone than Ozzy but manages to feel dangerous and defiant at the same time. It's totally left-field and unexpected for the genre they're working in. I am rarely impressed with vocal performances; it usually takes some kind of extreme wailing or windy frenzied screaming to really move me so this was a most welcome astonishment.
I won't say that "Last Sunrise" is a flawless or superlative album because it isn't. There are too many amateurish, drunken guitar solos (like Skynrd on 'ludes or Quiet Riot at a 1982 bar show) and some of the song structures are too horribly derivative and classic rock infused to reach a level of proper elevation (just listen to the cheesy Dire Straits inspired clean riffing on "Letting Go of the Wheel" or the simplistic two-chord d-beat of "Other Voices") but it's a solid, individualistic effort fully worthy of being on Profound Lore, a label that somehow meshes metal recidivism with metal innovation seamlessly.
This version of "Last Sunrise" includes three bonus tracks, all covers. One is a cover of the Obsessed which brings nothing new to the table and need not have been recorded. The second is a Born Against track that i have little thought on,having no familiarity with either the original song or Born Against in general (my apologies to banal punk rock fanatics everywhere.) The third is a Misfits cover and absolutely fucking destroys; it's very nearly the best track on the record and if these guys ever decided to become a Danzig cover band i would fully endorse their endeavour. An intriguing album for adventurous doom listeners.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

TED NUGENT "DOUBLE LIVE GONZO" (Epic)

Fuck yes. What else could you possibly say? You're either into this 100% or you think Nugent isn't the shit (and if that's your stance-you're wrong.) I have never met anyone who's middle of the road on Nuge. You never hear anyone blurt out, "Oh, the Motor City Madman? He's okay, i guess. 'Cat Scratch Fever' is kinda cool." No! Totally wrong. The Nuge slays and this double live offering from near two decades ago proves just how fucking ON TOP Ted used to be. You'll never play guitar like this if you practice your whole fucking life and you'll never have a crowd full of thousands begging to hear about your latest gash conquests transformed into simple 12 bar blues head-nodders.
I'm almost not sure if i even need to say anything else about this because the above comments pretty much sum up "Double Live Gonzo." As the title implies, it's live, it's a 2LP set, and the performances are GONZO. Only the latter claim could be honestly disputed; there might be other shows out there where the Nuge gave more but on this set he's pretty fiery, sounding like some poon-enchanted auctioneer testifyin' to the fact that his guitar is incapable of playing anything sweet and soft. The only real complaint regarding this album is that it's the antithesis of everything you'd want a live album to be. All of the audience banter is so cliched and self-serving that you wonder if Ted's joking, but when you consider the time, the man and his stature during it becomes obvious that at one point in our great nation's history, thousands upon thousands were willing to pay hard earned dollars to see Ted Nugent run through some extremely well-played but rote transmogrifications of classic rock and roll. He even says as much on his run through of "Baby Please Don't Go." While retaining a hint of the original track's structure, Ted manages to transform it into a lustful quest for dripping snatch, a complete morphing into an anthem for misogyny. It's brilliant-no one could get away with that shit today without getting called on it, and no one today seems to remember that rock has always been stupidly tongue in cheek and it's meant to be that way for a reason. How much shit do you worry about in your life? Do you really need to care what such obviously cliched music is saying? If you do then you're a fucking moron.
The high point here (among many) is Side C, the one-two combo of "Stormtroopin'" and "Stranglehold," 20 minutes of pure psychedelic guitar meltdown and frontman bravado wedged between a couple layers of smooth , solid backing band formulae. You never feel like things are floating out beyond the Nuge's control but it's a languid, opiate-saoked trip all the same. Ted's recitation on "Stranglehold" here seems downright prophetic (i'm not going to repeat it here, because you should know it BY HEART) and it's that sort of dedication to the material, a true and honest belief in ROCK, that catapults this live set from the realm of "mere run through" to "ABSOLUTELY FUCKING ESSENTIAL." Buy it now or run the risk of being a pussy your whole fucking life.

URGEHAL "IKONOKLAST" (Season of Mist)

If you choose to view Mayhem as the locus solus of black metal, then you recognize two divergent paths its practitioners have taken. There is the "Freezing Moon" path, wherein melody is not discouraged but rather absorbed into the composition to create works of great spaced out alien tension, dripping with melancholic elements but still raw at its core; then there is the "Chaninsaw Gutsfuck"/"Carnage" path, wherein every melodic element is foregone in favor of complete chromatic annihilation and the only vestiges of musicality are found in the juxtaposition of strange notes and chords, sometimes resulting in a neoclassical feel.
Urgehal have always opted for the latter approach, turning in album after album of brutal, unrelenting black metal as epic as it is uncompromising. They have never been a groundbreaking band per se but they have always been consistent, occupying a space similar to Slayer's in my mindset. You know what you're going to get when you buy a new Slayer album and that's fine. It's the same with Urgehal-they've been shitting this out for so long that it can't help but be made of quality elements and if you're looking for sharp, angular headbanging black metal then you've come to the right place. "Ikonoklast" does nothing to advance Urgehal's musical vision-this is the same pungent Norwegian beast that we've grown accustomed to throughout their years of existence-but it does nothing to taint it either. From the opening track the punishment is doled out in oppressive yet digestible handfuls. It's driving and merciless, yes, but as much as there could be a formula for black metal, Urgehal delivers it with gusto and conviction. I've heard many other bands milk this sound with considerably less favorable, or interesting, results. With enough knowledge of the guitar it's easy to create obscure, dissonant soundscapes and long, wayward passages under the guise of "progression" but to make those same soundscapes furious and engaging is another matter entirely. Here is where Urgehal excel. These guys live and breathe black metal. As stupid as the photos may be, with every member decked out in metal and spikes and sharpened points, there's never been a doubt in my mind that Urgehal believe in the most antisocial elements that black metal stands for-the disgust with religion, the endorsement of hard drugs, the fetishization of violence and the general feeling of intolerance for all of modern culture. Urgehal believe in Nargaroth's proclamation that "black metal is krieg." In accordance with such a distanced, antagonistic stance "Ikonoklast" is appropriately war-like, erupting with bile-fueled vocals, crust dusted blastbeats and shredding, razorblade guitars. The atmosphere of intensity never lets up, even on the album's lengthier back end, where the tracks begin to top seven minutes a piece. There are no clean guitars, no singing and absolutely no moments of reprieve. It's as pure as black metal can be without travelling back to 1991. The most marked change in Urgehal's approach is the introduction of guitar solos to many of the songs-obviously they're aware of the risk such egotistical explorations can have on a genre as notoriously narrow-minded as black metal but Urgehal pull it off with finesse and style, laying down some serious Slayer-esque destroyers that confuse and enchant in equal measure.
While a good mile short of "groundbreaking" Urgehal have turned in a furious, competent and entirely apt demonstration of pure Norwegian black metal that should leave no fan of this style dissatisfied.

LUDICRA "THE TENANT" (Profound Lore)

More than any other band operating, Ludicra deserves to be elevated beyond the "black metal" tag. While the elements were certainly there in abundance on their first record they've steadily tread further away from the limitations of the genre and crafted a sound uniquely their own, referencing other bands but always redefining their own niche in metal. "The Tenant" sees them progressing even further, landing somewhere between Ved Buens Ende and the more stately chamber dynamics of fellow Bay Area avant-garders Worm of Ouroborous and Amber Asylum. And of course Iron Maiden.
John Cobbett's compositional hand shows all over "The Tenant"; this is an album that completely basks in the indulgent resplendence of guitar. Most of these songs feature classically metal solos and tons of harmonzied riffing-on some tracks the guitars break into intricate three part harmonzing, without any regards to the fact that such sounds can't be replicated live. The main concern is the depth of the music. Ludicra have become masters of complexity without alienation. They've found the very fine line between progressive and epic heavy metal and straddle it without fear, never falling to the depths of wankery or elitisim but always challenging the listener with riffs and structures that you wouldn't have imagined possible within their chosen genre (another reason why they should move beyond mere black metal-they're constantly pushing the boundary ever outward.)
Cobbett's years spent amongst the Hammers of Misfortune are on obvious display. Moreso than any previous Ludicra release this album boasts an extensive knowledge of metal as an art and incorporates those elements into the sound flawlessly. As stated, harmonies and guitar solos abound but on "The Tenant" we also find on new focus on vocal textures; several songs feature choral vocals and there is a stronger emphasis on Laurie's clean singing here, adding a richer dimension to the music while referencing Cobbett's earlier work with the Hammers. Like i said when reviewing Skullflower's "Strange Keys..."-self-cannibalization is normally something an artist would want to avoid, unless the vision is so singular that present and past fuse into one. Such is the case with Cobbett. This is more the work of heavy metal choosing to channel itself through one hand; in that sense Ludicra's achievement is rendered even more epic and grandiose. The album is far from unhinged, nor is it chaotic and blazing like some of their Bay Area black metal brethren-instead there is an economy and control on display, despite the fact that most of these songs top six minutes. And it's not all "metal"; other references peek through the obsidian murk as well. The massive riffing midway into "The Undercaste" reminds me heavily of John Carpenter's eerie, repetitive synth work while the arpeggios and acoustic guitars found in "Stagnant Pond" and "In Stable" are as reminiscent of Espers and Comus as they are Ulver. "Clean White Void" seems equally indebted to "Pleaser" era Harvey Milk and latter day Dead Kennedys. It's a volatile churning mix of incorporation, but Ludicra pull it off.
Metal needs more artists that are actually able to grow without losing relevancy. Ludicra are one of precious few who achieve that distinction, and the fact that they're doing it within a genre as critically narrowed as black metal speaks volumes to their talent and vision. "The Tenant" is an excellent album by modern black metal measurements-it's an even better album when measured against the distance of metal as a whole. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

DAUGHTERS "S/T" (Hydrahead)

I'll try and keep it brief, just this once. This record is fucking sick. Total sermon-on-the-mount, sweat soaked fire and brimstone "end times message" style pontification delivered via 28 minutes of ultra-crazed, tight yet waaaay too spastic rainbow colored noise rock. Daughters are pretty much in their own space here and no one's even coming close to being on the same wavelength. Think Jesus Lizard meets Atari Teenage Riot meets the Kittens with some ZZ Top thrown in and you might be some of the way there but you're a far cry from actually digesting how awesome this record is. This is lean, cut to the bone, all excess removed utterly necessary rock action. Guitars don't sound like guitars. Drums are a repetitive blurred out monster, smashing and flailing at everything. Even the air is getting a beating. Vocals are deranged, like the rant of a crazed street schizo crossed with a little of Gibby Haynes' drug prattle and a whole lot of David Yow's "holy shit i'm really fucking crazy and violent" swagger. Someone's playing some keyboards and someone's probably brandishing a switchblade. It's a fucking debacle, a gorgeous pugilistic mess. This is music to get beat up to.
Daughters used to be a sort of whacked out grind band. They've always been askew (they're on Hydrahead, after all) but on this record they are just out of the whole goddamn park. There is nothing tethering them to earth here. They sound like emissaries from a weird planet of hyper psychotic zealots determined to convert you to their sweet way of interpretation. Life is nasty and pungent and there's dirt underneath every fingernail but fucking-a is that some colourful, crazy, shimmery explosive dirt. You'd do well to scoop up a handful, take a deep whiff and tell me what you see in there. Do you see yourself getting drunk? Are you slapping someone across the face while your vision slowly turns white? Are you telling a stranger that "Magnolia" is the shit and that every character William H. Macy plays is beyond your emotional comprehension (study the lyrics-you'll get it)? Does the prospect of swinging an axe, for whatever reason, seem more and more enticing with each passing moment? Are you fluxing in and out of reality? Are the dimensions making noises at you? Are you beginning to see swarms of bees in between all of the stars? Then this record is the testimony and the salvation.
Fucking awesome.

ALCEST "ECAILLES DU LUNE" (Prophecy Productions)

Alcest's second album arrives on a wave of fevered expectation and is somewhat problematic as a result. While "Le Secret" was far-reaching romantic black metal with a melancholy sheen, it was still simple black metal. No one could have predicted the onslaught of delirious beauty that Neige would craft on Alcest's debut, "Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde." Here was black metal rewrit and born anew, forged of a triumphant wearied sadness and a resignation to the both the disappointments and the less frequent moments of joy that life could produce. It was really black metal by past association only; i played "Souvenirs..." for people when i wanted to justify black metal's artistic validity (not that i ever really felt it needed any) and give evidence of how wide open and creative the genre could actually be. The album was hailed as a modern masterpiece, a demonstration of a powerful gorgeous new sound, while followers waited with hearts filled to hear what Neige would craft next.
No one seemed more aware of the expectations for Alcest's sophomore album than Neige himself, and for that reason, i think, "Ecailles de Lune" suffers most. Neige tries to do everything he did on "Souvenirs..." again and the result is a weighty, confused set of songs that have no idea what they're supposed to be. These six tracks are bogged down with ideas and complications and more tonal shifts than necessary, as though Neige felt that the only way to make this record better and more resonant than "Souvenirs..." was to make it more involved and indecipherable.
These aren't six bad songs. Far from it. All the trademarks are there, from the clean guitars to the melancholy vocal melodies to the washes of epoch uproar via electric guitars that Neige has so perfected. But here it all seems smaller. The production is tighter and the whole record sounds as though it was crafted and played, and there's little in the instrumental delivery that convinces me Neige or Winterhalter felt any real connection to these songs at all. It feels like it was just done to be done. Adding to that is the sheen of the things-the guitars are MORE clean and diluted with effects (Ben said Cocteau Twins right away and that comparison is not off the mark at all), vocals are pitch-perfect and everything is mixed to work as part of a larger unit. Nothing stands out, whereas on "Souvenirs..." the guitars were the obvious focus (you don't earn comparisons to MBV without shitloads of guitars.) The songs themselves are longer (the album's centerpiece is the two part title track, hitting near 22 minutes) and filled to bursting with parts and movements. The vocals here are especially unbearable, as Neige feels the need to make the voice a much more distinctive element this time out, rather than the sorrowful and tired complement it was before. The choral melodies are extremely wandering and oblique, veering away from the drive of the song so often that it seems like Neige needed to remind people that he could write complex and intertwining vocal lines too. The whole thing is just a strange, off-putting exercise in pointless complexity.
Prophecy's press statement for this record has made much mention of the idea that "Ecailles..." represents a return to Neige's black metal past. Certainly the vocals are there-several songs feature Neige's black metal rasp rather than the clean sad lamentations that made up all of "Souvenirs..."-but there is nothing else in the music to give weight to Prophecy's claim. It's Alcest by the numbers, as sad as that statement is to make. "Le Secret" seems worlds away from "Ecailles...", making it hard to believe they're even the work of the same individual. If i wasn't as familiar as i am with all of Neige's various explorations i'd call bullshit on you if you even suggested such a thing. I have a sad feeling that Alcest may have run its course, and that much like Amesouers last year, Neige will dissolve the project for fear of having nowhere else to go with it musically. I can't really blame him, and i feel that my own expectations for new Alcest material has probably contributed to the disappointment i feel upon hearing "Ecailles de Lune." Maybe i'm just missing something that will manifest itself through deeper listening. I hope so. Unfortunately, i feel like i'm more correct than i want to be. There's a lack of something special on "Ecailles...", some kind of missing element. It's something personal and buried that was all over "Souvenirs..." but is noticeably absent here. Without that emotional weight "Ecailles de Lune" is just another vaguely pretty album with great cover art.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

BUCKETHEAD "CRIME SLUNK SCENE" (TDRS Music)

I remember a long time ago Buckethead albums used to be very hard to find. I have vivid memories of forking over $50 at Let It Be to acquire the 2 CD "Bucketheadland" record on John Zorn's Avant label and being all pie-eyed about how fucking awesome it was going to be (it was, and i still have it, almost 15 years later.) Now things are different; everyone knows who Buckethead is, most everyone's probably heard something by him and if not they at least know he's some sort of guitar player. His star has risen exponentially thanks to his tenure in Guns n' Roses as well as various projects with Les Claypool and scores of video game soundtracks. Along with this hard-won fame has come a dearth of new albums; at last count Buckethead's just over 50 or so SOLO studio recordings (if you factor in band/guest appearances his discography easily eclipses 100 releases.) This makes it really fucking difficult to be a Buckethead fan, timewise as well as financially. I own about 35 Buckethead albums, probably hovering around 50 if you include the Praxis material and other divers hellos and pop-ups. At this point i'm quite jaded towards and the guy and in some cases have become downright disillsuioned-every record you're going to be guaranteed some epic shredding but not every album guarantees outstanding songs. The worst albums are pointless wanking go-nowhere wah-ed out funk-athons, so insistent on their own validity that they eschew backing tracks and anything resembling a good riff in order to just throw down a few licks and call it a full-length. The best albums are total go-for-blood 80's metal style neoclassical facemelting suites, which while slightly recidivistic are not in the least bit postured or anything less than totally fucking wicked. "Crime Slunk Scene," a recent tour CD, is definitely of the latter school and may very well be my absolute favorite Buckethead album of all time.
It's easy enough to see why-every song on this album completely shreds in some form or another. Even the slightly more boring numbers, of which there are two, have at least ONE super awesome beyond good mindblowing piece of fretboard bitch-making in them that makes them seem 100% cool in retrospect. The best tracks just floor you from the get go and refuse to let you get up throughout their durations. Things start off incredibly strong on this outing, with the 1-2-3 punch of "King James" (fierce ultra-melodic metal riffing), "Gory Head Stump 2006 The Pageant of the Slunks" (equally fierce wah-ed out neofunk workout with some blistering Slayer style soloing) and "The Fairy and The Devil" (a piece reminiscent of the epic masterwork "Colma", just heavier and more rock oriented.) It's hard to even catch your breath as these three spin by but if you can make it through there's better on the way. That "better" happens to be "Soothsayer", one of the penultimate Buckethead tracks, brimming over with fiery, goosebump-inducing guitar work and an emotional weight that is rare to find in these sorts of "shred" albums. "Soothsayer" is a tribute of sorts to Buckethead's aunt and the passion and love are obvious-this track utterly slays. Nine minutes of gorgeous metal guitar fireworks haunted by ethereal slightly time-bending effects and the frantic mind-numbing fretwork that Buckethead is so famous for-it's all here and the result is an amazing song by any measure, containing what is probably my favorite Buckethead solo ever put to tape(the last outro solo-gives me CHILLS every time!) So fucking good, the album is worth it for this track alone.
The latter half of "Crime Slunk Scene" doesn't quite live up to that moutainous high but there lots of good material nonetheless. "We Can Rebuild Him" and "Electronic Sleight of Hand" are both metal heavyweights chock full of lightning guitar work and needlepoint precision riffing, while "Mecha Gigan" flattens you with some ultra-fast double bass and death-metal style riffing, referencing the pomp and splendour of the Japanese robot television shows that Buckethead so fetishizes. The album ends on something of a low note, the monotonous detuned chugfest of "Slunk Parade AKA Freaks in the Back" but listening to some detuned whammy bar dives seems a small price to pay for the crushing slice of majesty that Buckethead has just carved off the rock cake for you to enjoy. How big a piece did you want again?

Monday, March 8, 2010

SHIT AND SHINE "229-2299 GIRLS AGAINST SHIT!" (Riot Season)

Holy fuck is this album loud. It's easily the first thing that hits you-this fucker is hotwired for maximum bloodletting. Things are going to get destroyed, not the least of which might be your eardrums. I'm no pussy when it comes to volume but i had to turn the headphones DOWN a little (just a little, though-i'm still monstrous) when this came roaring in. It's not a record so much as an assault. And i guess that sums it up pretty well.
Shit and Shine are a strange, strange band, obviously birthed from the noise rock school but also having oblique distant ties to the worlds of doom metal and drone as well. Sounding like the resultant child birthed of a night of drunken revelry between Birchville Cat Motel, the Melvins and Astral Social Club Shit and Shine inhabit a headspace all their own, grinding out brutal unending noise spasms, with a heavy emphasis on blown out percussives and in-the-red guitar squalor. It's crazy stuff, man, and you'd be right to be to scared. This is not for prissy ears. This is for people who like it fucking rough, who like to wallow in the mess, who chase a handful of white cross with a fifth of codeine and then ask for seconds. Mindfuckingingly heavy damage here, with little breathing room and no real reprieve for a good solid 80 minutes. There's no introspection or philosophy at work, just good old fashioned rock antagonism like Pussy Galore used to make, just amped WAY the fuck up and with aggression to spare. This record beats it into you, no question. Shit and Shine DEMAND you take notice-there's no passive engagement with the material, no hopes for any sort of experience that isn't 100% visceral and no hope of leaving unscathed. I think seeing this band live would scare the shit out of me. I don't know if i could take it.
As stated, this motherfucker is 80 minutes long, and it feels like it. Even at its most crushingly, blindingly repetitive (and there are several moments of massive hypnorock, like Pharoah Overlord mainlined on speed and cocaine) you can't zone out-it's too damn massive and crumbling to get lost in. You're always running for your life. You might be banging your head and screaming "fuck yeah" while you do it but you're running. It's one big sonic goop, a porridge of audio horror, served up in appalingly grotesque helpings at a table where if you don't finish you're going to be killed. Do you get the idea yet? Good.
Better than most other bands dabbling in the style, Shit and Shine understand the "noise" aspect of noise rock. It's not just turning things up and fucking around with your files on the computer. it's physical-there's an immediacy to it that can't be replicated by machines or delay pedals, no matter how much sound they can bring to it. It's the fury of people hammering away at their instruments, filtering pure destructionism through their hands and onto some guitar strings or crash cymbals. How hard can you hit? How many strings can you break? Are you fucking bleeding yet? Noise is affecting because it's assaulting, yes, but also because it's primal and it satisfies an animal need for the display of power and a show of dominance. It's an ancient, evolutnionary style of music, all things considered. Anyone can dabble and make a racket but only a Promethean can bring it down from the mountain and ignite a countryside.
And it will burn.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

REVEREND BIZARRE "DEATH IS GLORY...NOW" (Spikefarm)

A sort of "odds n' sods" collection to put the final nail in the coffin of Reverend Bizarre's crushing discography, and an effort only slightly less satisfying than any of their exemplary studio output. This was an amazing band, hands down and without argument, and if you think otherwise then you're just flat out wrong. Sorry-that's the truth of it. Doom metal was a passing flirtation for me and today i hold only a handful of bands who practice the genre in high regard-Electric Wizard (though they're on a slow, steady decline), Disembowelment (broken up long ago), Worship (worthless since the singer's suicide years ago) and of course the mighty Khanate (also inactive.) Others have done good work, your Bunkurs and your Mosses and all those other English hill-dwellers who strap on an axe and quake the earth, but as a whole the genre is stagnant. The statements have been made, the envelopes have all been pushed and much like death metal by the late '90's there's just nowhere left for the music to go. Reverend Bizarre recognized that and bowed out after a mere three studio albums, alongside a wealth of b-sides, split contributions and various recorded covers and ephemera.
So what made Reverend Bizarre so great? It was a simple recognition of what made the genre what it was: the almighty RIFF. Any idiot can plug into a full stack and shred away on an open "D" chord for 60 minutes but it takes a hell of a lot more to use that length to rock from start to finish. No one would ever accuse RB of being economists; most of the albums are between 80-14o minutes in length and turned in several 20+ minute songs but there was never a single boring moment on any of those records. Their swansong, the aptly titled "III: So Long Suckers" (boldly bearing the statement "DOOM METAL IS DEAD") is easily one of the finest doom metal records ever unleashed and across its epic span it sucks you in and gets your head banging and your fists in the air for its entire duration. More than any other modern doom band, RB GOT what Black Sabbath was doing. They tuned in to the same frequency that Iommi dialed into in the late '60's and called forth a torrent of bludgeoning, simplistic headcrushers that simply showed no mercy and rocked without shame, with a sheer hedonism and lust. And it wasn't brainless, like so much metal revisionism-behind all those bruising electric belches and bone-cracking tom hits were extremely dark, atavistic lyrics that dealt intelligently with the genre's key themes: suicide, despair, apocalypse and the folly of religion. Albert Witchfinder's willingness to bare his psyche on record made RB's matted musical palette all the more endearing.
"Death is Glory...Now" is made up of both originals and covers, with one disc devoted to each (more or less.) The original material is culled mostly from RB's extremely fertile 2003-2008 period, so it all sounds of one, giving Disc One an excellent album-esque flow to it. From the tongue in cheek whiplash inducing rocker "Blood on Satan's Claw" to the tortured, agonized 25 minute tour of Albert's divorce woes on "Demons Annoying Me" the Reverend display an awesome command of mood, pace and blunt force, never letting up on the plodding intensity across the entire runtime. Albert's vocals throughout are particularly snarling and crazed; while he's always been an excellent singer these songs seem to have wrenched a a large chunk of himself out of him (the incredibly dense liner notes confirm that some of this material was incredibly mentally exhausting to perform live.) Physically just playing these beasts must have been grueling-adding emotional breakdown to the equation is a recipe for coming dysfunction, if not great art.
With the exception of the partially improvised "From the Void II" (featuring some astoundingly awesome classic heavy metal riffing) Disc Two is made up entirely of covers, some obvious and straightforward (Saint Vitus's "Dark World", Pentagram's "Broken Vows", Judas Priest's "Deceiver"), some more obtuse (Mr. Velcro Fastener's "Bend", Simo Salminen's "Rotestilaulu"). Reverend Bizarre puts their stamp on all of them, especially the Priest cover (which they of course slow waaaaay down) and the album's final track, a monolithic, crawling run-through of Beherit's black metal Satan-worshiping anthem "The Gate of Nanna", ending in a whirlwind of blackened crust covered nihilistic guitar noise waste, probably the most truly apocalyptic sound that the Reverend ever conjured up. A fine way to end a career-spanning collection for a band so enamoured with the end times, a band that operated almost solely on the strength of the three members' inability to get along with one another. All of that interpersonal distress bled into the music, leaving behind a near flawless discography of ultra-tormented disgust with modernity. We should all be so jaded.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

THOU/LEECH "WE PASS LIKE NIGHT, FROM LAND TO LAND" (Gilead Media)

A split album that succeeds on a much deeper level conceptually than musically. I appreciate wholeheartedly the thought that went into this split-NOLA doom/shoegaze juggernaut Thou teamed with Cascadian blackgaze iconoclasts Leech in a far-reaching effort to convey a sense of dread, hopelessness and infinity. With both bands contributing a near 20 minute song it seemed like a perfectly arranged artistic statement. But then the music fell flat, and everything got fucked up.
Thou's side fares a little better, as they just churn out the oppressive Eyehategod idolizing doom they're know for. A short and melodic acoustic intro brings us in and then Thou pummel you over the head with waves of thick guitar sludge and crashing, skull-splitting drums, along with those sick black-metal screams (i'll say this for Thou-their vocalist is one of the better ones working in the doom genre-very high pitched and totally, shreddingly raw) alongside a stumbling, drunken song structure that's slow enough to be punishing but fast enough to remain propulsive. Their 20 minutes moves easily, segueing into a brief coda of angelic female vocals and more MBV-style guitar-sludge strains, sort of like the Deftones' "Knife Party" played at 16 rpm. It's a decent track, nothing earth-shaking, but it doesn't do any sort of disservice to Thou's firm artistic niche.
Leech's side struggles more and that saddens me, because it's their side i was expecting more from. Obviously influenced both musically and geographically by fellow Northwesterners Wolves in the Throne Room and Fauna, Leech strive for the same levels of black metal transcendentalism and nature-worship achieved by those groups but fail miserably in execution and come up far short of the majesty of either. Repetitive guitar riffs abound along with endless whirring blastbeats but the whole thing is an amateur affair, seeming like it came out of the practice space just a week before it was recorded. It's tinny and small sounding and at times the drums struggle to keep up with the pace of the guitars, leaving everything in some confusing din of mediocrity. I'm sure in a year or so these guys will sign with Southern Lord and release some sort of masterwork but right now they're just mountain dwelling black metal dabblers-the only time the track falls into an interesting pattern is five minutes or so from the end, where the riffs collapse into a sort of thrashy d-beat and actually do some damage. Then the thing fades out for no reason only to fade back in again, on the same riff, just so it can slow down and bow out on an acoustic outro. What the fuck? I hate fade outs with a passion but a fade in is even worse, especially when it;s unnecessary in every way. I'm not saying Leech are without promise-give them awhile and i'm sure they'll get better-it's just that they shouldn't have been so eager to share some wax with a band that would easily upstage them. An added bonus: the album photography is really, really gorgeous.

RAMLEH "HOLE IN THE HEART" (Dirter)

Double CD archival reissue of assorted Ramleh activities circa 1987. It's hard to appraise collections like this because there's really no singular identity to speak of-this wasn't an album crafted to be perceived as such and as a result it's all scattershot and non-cohesive. This release fares better than most as it's all culled from the same time period and is comprised of Gary Mundy only Ramleh material; this is a band with an extensive discography and an assortment of collaborators throughout its existence-having it be the work of one person makes its assessment a tiny bit easier and lends a certain weight to whatever thematics might be found within. At first listen this appears to be a more introspective Ramleh album, free of punishing electronics and the death-heavy industrial vibe that clouds over other releases in the catalogue. The main instrument here is guitar and that places this work among Ramleh's more psychedelic excursions. No percussion, sparing over-effected vocals that sound like windwash and a sprinkling of keyboards and wheezing organs round things out, creating an almost devotional soundswirl; if it weren't for Ramleh's nihilistic attitude you could almost mistake this for some sort of prayer, as the drones become so saturating and reaching. Most of the pieces here raging guitar squalls with layers of melody buried deep beneath; on tracks like "Bite the Bolster" and "Product of Fear" those melodies are unabashedly front and center, daring and taunting. On others, like the six part "Redcap" suite, they're far more elsuive, demanding completely active listening to loose them from the torrents of electricity they're hidden under. Either way this is one of Ramleh's most visceral collections, with an emotional grip that seems strangely intimate and eerily unexpected. This is a band that sits comfortably alongside both Skullflower and Whitehouse in terms of sound and subject matter so to have something so obviously "pretty" and expansive is a bit of a shock. I use the term "pretty" very loosely-this is noise we're talking about here so how far you're willing to take the terminology is up to you-but damn if this doesn't evoke some sort of base response. On the epic closer "True Religion" 20 plus minutes of guitar destruction and swelling, choir-like organs blend together into a heavenly screech, throwing arms ever upward to the skies. It's hard not to be moved by that sort of outpour, hard not believe that there was some sort of deeper question behind the track's creation. Noise isn't always just for the sake of itself. This collection seems to be to be a sort of crossroads in Ramleh's development-on the one side you have the harsh electronic stylings of the project's infancy and on the other you have the more exploratory embrace of guitar-led infinity that would lead to the eventual crafting of actual, controlled songs a few years down the road. Here in the middle you're assaulted by the convergence, the union of these mutant ideological strains of music, a birthing of a new sound. The record cover isn't far off-while gorgeous, austere and lonely there is also a far-reaching beauty, a depiction of so much ahead. The road is certain to be hard and at times difficult and challenging but there will always be the awe and the majesty and the sense of something larger than any of us. Whether you call it religion or noise or music or war or violence is irrelevant. What matters most is how you feel.

DROWNING THE LIGHT "THE BLOOD OF THE ANCIENTS" (Werewolf)

One of several 2009 full-length efforts from DTL, this one recorded for Werewolf Records, the label owned by Werwolf of Satanic Warmaster fame. Werewolf Records occupies a very specific aesthetic space in underground black metal and perhaps that accounts for the radically different approach that DTL take on this record-here all the personal/depressive elements that make DTL so affecting are stripped away, leaving a lean 41 minutes of ancient sounding black metal so indebted to the Black Legions, Vlad Tepes in particular, that this may as well be considered a tribute album. From the sigil-laden monochromatic iconography gracing the cover to the songs themselves ("Night of Neverending Turmoil," "Lunar Reflection in Blood," "Servant of an Unholy Plague," etc.), from the band photos to the actual layout itself, everything here screams French Underground circa 1992. Not that it's a bad thing-the Black Legions spewed forth some of the most virulent, uncompromising and creative black metal to ever grace the genre-but it would have been nice to hear some of DTL's actual identity on a record as opposed to a tedious, if very skillful, homage to a specific time and place. As for the music itself, it's fine enough black metal. Straightforward, vaguely melodic and romantic but more raw and blunt than anything else, with an appropriately distant recording tone that manages to be one of DTL's best sounding despite its obvious intentional obscurity. The true loss is the vocal delivery-as i've stated before Azgorh's vox are the most distinct part of DTL's sound, a unique and near peerless instrument all their own and it's sad to hear them so contained on this album. Every song is vomited forth in the same brusque shout, no effects, no variance, just a lightly room-reverbed choke. Again, the approach and sound are completely Vlad Tepes, and done well in that manner-just sad to hear that individuality buried under aesthetic. While not an unworthy or unenjoyable record, "The Blood of the Ancients" doesn't sit on par with this project's best work-just compare it to another 2009 effort (though released in 2010), the epic and masterful "An Alignment of Dead Stars." What made that album so successful was precisely what renders this album so one-dimensional: variety. "An Alignment..." showcased every aspect of DTL's sound, from short anthemic punkers to the frigid wintry black metal on display here to the more sorrowful, yearning moments found on "A World Long Dead"; everything this band does was there and done well and despite its epochal length the material never grew wearying or unengaging. On "The Blood of the Ancients" it does both, quickly. Again, i think some judicious editing would have really helped here-this record could have been sliced apart and yielded some decent seven-inches or splits. But taken as a whole it becomes background, even to the Black Legions' most fervent worshipers. Not bad for what it is, but far from essential.

Friday, March 5, 2010

DROWNING THE LIGHT "THROUGH THE NOOSE OF EXISTANCE" (Asgard Musik)

An early EP from Australian depressive romanticists Drowning the Light, exemplifying both their best and worst qualities. A mere five songs, with one being an intro piece and another being an ambient interlude. The remaining three tracks form the meat of the record, with two of them topping ten minutes each. Things open up with "Forgotten Marshes," a short exposition for harmonized guitars and plodding mechanized drums that is actually quite mournful and yearning and sets a melancholy mood from the outset. This leads right into the gargantuan title track, the song that justifies this EP's existence and illustrates all the qualities that make Drowning the Light a peerless band when they want to be. Better recorded than the rest of the record (maybe semi-professional, definitely above garage/bedroom level) this track drops you right in the thick of the pre-suicidal contemplation, the reflection before the razor gets dragged across the wrist. Drenched in fuzz and misery, with the first part being a simple repetitive "classic" black metal progression, so obvious and rooted in standard "pop" mentality (verse/chorus/verse, big hooky earworms) but so trenchant and affecting that you can't get it out of your head. This track pulls you right into its ocean of dismal memory and doesn't let go until your lungs are full of bitter, heavy regret. There is no optimism here. The second part comes in about five minutes in and is the same melody/progression writ for keyboards/synthesizers and obviously has a more ambient, wistful tone. Drums become less pronounced and serve more as a simple pacemaker. The real star here is the vocal performance. There are few black metal vocalists who can use their voice to convey true feelings of despair, agony and sorrow and DTL's Azorgh is one of them. Soaked in reverb, distortion and echo these vocals absolutely howl and seethe and cry, displaying a frightening intensity and emotional rawness that may be too much for some listeners to take-seriously, at some points here he sounds on the verge of tears. As the track grinds on the vocals become another element of texture, a sort of solo instrument borne of torment. I've never really heard anything like it, even on other DTL releases, and it's remarkable.
If the title track exemplifies the best of DTL then the remainder of the album certainly constitutes the worst, highlighting both the terrible productions values and the regrettable weakness of the material. Editing has always been the thorn in DTL's side-this band makes the mistake of thinking all of their output is worthy of release, and while that certainly makes for an extensive (and money-making) discography that drives collectors crazy, it also dilutes what could be a near flawless body of work. "Haunted Seas" is just a terrible song, a simple Darkthrone-esque charger with none of Darkthrone's ferocity or imagination-it's just boring and the fact that it's so poorly recorded only adds to the overall disappointment. The album ends with the 12 minute "Echoes of my Demise", a track that seeks to emulate the title composition's feelings of endless sinking but simply ends up being long and dull. The riffs aren't as engaging, the sound is horrible and the whole experience becomes grueling rather than enthralling. Keeping in mind that this was one of the band's earlier demos, the strength of a song like "Through the Noose of Existance" seems all the more extraordinary-the vision, here at least, is that accomplished and evocative. But the rest of the material reeks of the amateur's hand. The title track would have made a great side of a split 10" or 12", but good as it is, it can't anchor a demo entirely. For the DTL neophyte this is not a good starting point-for the completists, you need this for the title track at least but be wary of everything else.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

VELVET CACOON "ATROPINE" (Full Moon Productions)

Quietly released last year to little acclaim and disappearing just as quickly, "Atropine" easily stands as Velvet Cacoon's most decadent illustration of their complete musical goal and aesthetic. This is a beautiful, beautiful album, imbued with an epoch, all-encompassing majesty that drapes everything near it in lavish late autumnal decasia. Velvet Cacoon have always embraced black metal's sense of isolationist mystery, mythologizing themselves early on and inviting controversy by terming their brand of hypnogogia "eco-fascist black metal"; what that moniker actually meant was something left entirely to the imaginations of the listeners, although even from the beginning a sort of affinity for and affiliation with water was hinted at. As the band's profile grew and more information began to surface it was revealed that VC was a very clever "joke"-not artistically, but rather in the fact that they took a conventional musical form and brought back all the initial feelings of outrage and misunderstanding that accompanied it. It was as "true" and "kult" as black metal could get. In time it came to light that much of the actual inspiration for the records was copious drug consumption and a fervent belief that through the application of chemicals and hallucinogenics, altered states of consciousness and dimensional projection could be achieved and some sort of transcendence attained. VC became nothing less than a hymn to the cosmos, a ritual and rite bound as one, the key and the door. Black metal was the vehicle but to fully appreciate the band's work and the meaning you had to totally immerse yourself in the recordings-this was (and still is) music to wash over you, to cloud the mind and open the (third) eye. Small wonder then that by the end of their run their swansong was this massive two disc set of flooring, obliterating drone.
Like a deep tissue massage for the brain, "Atropine" oozes out of the speakers and fills up the room, saturating everything with its inky black warmth. The best approximation of the sound would be an amalgamation of Lull, Troum and Angelo Badalamenti (and if any of those names mean anything to you, then i would urge you to buy this album right now) minus all the chilled, distanced coldness. "Atropine" eschews the usual black metal focus on alienation and instead goes for the embrace-these sounds are like a comforting, heavy dream, deep sleep rendered into physical being to lay next you and caress you until you fall under in a sweet, mesmerizing narcolepsy.
As they progressed Velvet Cacoon professed an intense interest in the ocean and all sorts of sea lore. VC mainstay Josh (no last name given) began stating in interviews that he wanted to use VC to convey the sounds and feel of the ocean, to make something vast and murky and near infinite, to make time disappear and to build a dwarfing force through music that would humble even the most jaded listeners. The black metal was always woozy and dreamy and drenched in thick, choking smoky echoes but the drones became more and more prominent, growing ever deeper with each release. It became less about opiates and valium and more about a real congruence with natural forces at work, a sort of auditory paganism that began to hold the ocean in ever-higher esteem. Where "Atropine" most succeeds is in the realization of that esteem, the carving of a deep mind basin where that vastness is made so wonderfully real. You feel like you're sinking ever deeper, being pulled under and completely filled with water, the murk and the darkness becoming more and more present. And it's so comforting, and inviting; it all just keeps sweeping over you, heavier and heavier, unending, pushing you further and further, beckoning you to keep going, keep going, keep going-there's so much more here, so much you don't know, so much you don't see, so much that you ignore. Oceanic indeed.
Velvet Cacoon disbanded after this album because Josh felt that he had realized the full potential of the project, that the apex had been reached on "Atropine." The offering had been made. He did the right thing, as i can't see any way that VC could top this-i love their black metal albums, and certainly "Genevieve" is a modern masterpiece-this is the defining moment. Dive in.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

CLIMAX GOLDEN TWINS "UNTITLED" (Conspiracy Records)

Released as part of Conspiracy Records' 10th Anniversary 12 LP box set a few years back (probably one of the most gorgeous musical artifacts that i own), i wanted to review this one just to show a contrast to the AFCGT album highlighted a few days ago. Climax Golden Twins are the core duo of Jeffrey Taylor and Robert Mills, two world travellers (Robert is a regular contributor to Alan Bishop's Sublime Frequencies releases) and devoted collectors of all sorts of musical esoterica, most notably their dedication to old Victrola recordings and 78's, which they lovingly compile in their infrequent "Old Victrola" series, as well as use as source material for some of their own more musique concrete demonstrations under the CGT banner. They have made a career out of being totally impossible to pin down and categorize and, like most damaged wunderkind artists, are amazingly prolific, boasting more releases than i could ever hope to collect. This albums shows them working several sides of their multicolour rock prism, with one larger "found ambience" piece and a collection of divers songcraft running the gamut from cloudy drift psych to pummeling garage grindcore. It's some fucked up stuff, no doubt, but done with such a deft hand that it becomes mesmerizing, like some weirdo transmission from beyond the skies piping directly to you. The record starts out challenging, bowling you over with the ambient sample symphony, laden with all sorts of weird conversational snippets and backwoods philosophizin' and testifyin', with a big soupy bloated mess of tar-thick drone wobbling underneath. Hidden even deeper underneath all that is an angelic little wisp of airy melancholy, hovering around the edges, like dust puffing out from under the folds of an old blanket. IT's there, and its aching and the strain you put in to hearing it (because its so yearningly lovely you HAVE to hear it) is testament to this band's actual compositional complexity and mastery of emotional manipulation. It's a powerful, uneasily digestible piece and in no way prepares you for the record's remainder.
It starts out languidly enough, with a gentle acoustic guitar figure touching on both loneliness and melancholy, and then a massive, squealing distorting guitar barges and in and lets loose with a raging solo, wasting everything in its path and cracking out an acid fuzz lead that would make Greg Weeks cower under a pile of unused Espers songs. Things only get better and more damaged from there as CGT turn in psyched out ragers and tribal atavistic slabs of peyote drenched primitivism. You can almost hear the jackals howling in the night as the rips in reality begin to tear ever so slightly. The last three songs drill this psychedelic excess right in, starting off with a hardcore influenced dash of drum kit abuse followed by some sort of bastardized grindcore, like Enemymine filtered through Napalm Death's earliest worldviews. It collapses right into another tribal pounder, a five minute piece of rock deconstruction and guitar scratch that sounds like the opening to Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some" taken to its breaking point. It all fades into a short piece of slightly delayed electric guitar lamentation, a drifty/floaty featherbrush of feigned innocence, the last trembling breath hinting at the true beauty that you've born witness to. CGT is like no one else and i highly recommend anything they do.