Friday, February 26, 2010

WOLD "WORKING TOGETHER FOR OUR PRIVACY" (Profound Lore)

Imagine you've been taken from your home in the middle of the night. You've been blindfolded and gagged; you've been bound both hands and feet and have no idea where you are or what time it is. It is so very cold; your restraints aren't tight or horribly constricting but they allow for little to no movement. You wake up frightened because there's no point of reference and no clues as to the situation. Suddenly something clicks on and the world starts to spin, woozy and nauseating and painful. You're slowly slammed from one surface to another, like you're tumbling in some sort of drunken circle, almost like someone has thrown you into a human-sized dryer. But there's no heat. Rather a number of pockets rip themselves open and a flood of screaming cold air washes in, a flux of snow and sleet raining against you and soaking you in their heavy, chilling miseries. Around and around you turn, becoming further drenched in cold and flake. And then suddenly it's over, and you're thrown out into the stillness. Your blindfold falls from your eyes and mysteriously your bonds come unbound. There is no else around and everything is pitch black. You know it's night but you don't know how. There is nothing. The landscape is open and dead and vast. The darkness is infinite. Still the wind wails and whips, but the snow has wound itself down into a withered collection of small tornadoes blowing here and there. Wolves howl in the distance. It's so fucking cold. You are growing more and more uneasy. Not frightened but very uncomfortable and physically drained. You hear something cutting through the wind. Something humanoid but not human. You don't know how but you you know this thing wants to abuse you. It wants to degrade you. In the midst of all this winter and all this night this thing wants to reduce you. This is what Wold sounds like.
For lack of a better reference many people group Wold in under the black metal genre but their relationship to the sound is aesthetic at best. Certainly they capture the wintry, isolated aspect of BM better than most practitioners but there are no songs to speak of in their catalogue, only roaring noise assemblages that may or may not at one point have been actual compositions. With each release they've refined this devolution further, sinking deeper and deeper into a pit of pure white noise as nullifying and entrancing as it is harsh and impenetrable. "Working Together For Our Privacy" is an EP follow-up to last year's massive "Stratification" and continues the bleak path plotted out on that record's sojourn. "Working..." opens up with a piece that SOUNDS more song-like than Wold have been in some time, with the hints of drums and percussion cut up and edited into some beyond-the-winds clang and howl while the fuzzy walls of UHF white-outs blast away over everything. It's all looped so all the sonics just cycle in against themselves, creating a dizzying swirl of possible but improbably real time noises. It doesn't recede in volume across its three tracks but "Working..." becomes ever gentler as it progresses, lulling you into a sort of auditory snowblindness as chilly and burying as a mountain slough. I'm unsure of the exact intent behind this release but this mellower approach is an interesting one; i'm impressed that Wold have sacrificed none of the violence in their achievement of this torpor. It isn't without unease, either-the feeling that something bad will happen is never very far from the surface, and in that respect i see them moving ever closer to the ideologies on display in recent Prurient albums. Not the defining work (that would be the masterpiece "Screech Owl") but a satisfying detour from a challenging band.

HAYAINO DAISUKI "INVINCIBLE GATE MIND OF THE INFERNAL FIRE HELL...OR DID YOU MEAN HAWAII DAISUKI?" (Hydrahead)

I'll say it right away so there's no confusion: YOU NEED THIS. If you consider yourself a person who has any sort of interest in extreme music, then this record belongs in your collection. I don't care if you don't like metal because that isn't the point. The idea is intensity and there is no band currently operating (with the exception of perhaps Cobalt) that delivers this much of it. This is the absolute flatline. This album will crush you and leave bloody smears across the road where you used to stand. This album completely fucking destroys, and it receives my highest recommendation.
It's no secret that Hayaino Daisuki's last album, "Headbangers Karaoke Club Dangerous Fire," was one of my favorite releases from last year. I listen to it regularly. When Hydrahead announced new material forthcoming many months ago i found myself in an intense state of anxiety, waiting with baited breath, checking dates and statuses and dissolving into a state of unbridled, frightening need. Now it's here. Four songs in twelve minutes. Some might say that such a meager amount of music isn't enough to constitute an "album" proper but a better question is how much more of this anyone could really stand. It's just too fucking punishing, too sweat-soaked and adrenaline fueled to be consumed in anything other than these sparing doses. It's more than enough-i have a hard time imagining taking in a "true" full length from these guys, because so much would escape you. This is the purest distillation of metal. It's triumphant like no other band. It is the zenith of what metal can achieve.
So who are these guys? I'm going on and on like you're well-acquainted (and some of you may very well be.) This is one of Jon Chang's post-Discordance Axis projects, the other being hypergrind assault vehicle Gridlink. Gridlink bears more in common with DA; Hayaino Daisuki is Chang's tribute to all the metal he loved as a teenager, obscure groups both Japanese and American and Slayer in particular. The music is beyond anything i've heard in the metal arena; it's blindingly fast without resorting to blastbeats and gorgeously melodic without losing any of its blunt force impact. It's like a bruise made of pretty colors, a rainbow of pain, the feeling of pushing yourself past where you know your body can go. I've used the description "Dragonforce on crack" because it's the best approximation as far as speed and melodicism are concerned; forget everything else because Dragonforce are really stupid. Hayanio Daisuki are as much a physical presence as a musical one; i would kill to see these guys live because i can't properly visualize what it takes to play music this levelling. Chang screams his lungs to shreds and again cements himself as probably the best metal vocalist currently out there-all high end, throat-shredding screams, taking Tom Araya's vision to its logical extreme. It seems like Chang is on some mountain screaming down, afraid that if he doesn't start coughing up blood from his attempts we might never hear him. It's fucking amazing. Gone are the guttural earthquakes that populated DA's albums-there is no vestige of death metal left. Hayaino Daisuki are so in the red all the time they make Boris sound like Taku Sugimoto. The guitar and drum work is blinding-fast, fast, fast and beyond tight. It's stop on a dime level shit, but there is no start/stop here-it shreds all the way through, every song. The Slayer influence becomes even more pronounced on this set though, with the band lurching into some proper Slayer-esque halftime breakdowns replete with shitloads of ride cymbal and china crashing. It's a further progression from the unrelenting aspect of the first record and shows Hayaino Daisuki further mastering the craft of metal.
There's no irony here, not even a trace of it. This is unabashed love for speed and headbanging thrashing. "Reign In Blood" was as important to them as it was to me, and for all the same reasons. Whether you can identify with the lyrics to "Angel of Death" is beside the point-that isn't what matters with this sort of music. Chang has often said that all his Hayaino lyrics are just old Japanese ghost stories reconstituted; despite that specific sourcing he remains oblique enough that the words can resonate and have a hundred different meanings to as many people. There's a tiredness but also a tenderness. This is a band unafraid of sentiment and that makes their stance even more uncompromising and their music even more polarizing. The delivery is what hits the hardest and if you can't appreciate that then this shit is lost on you. This is everything i think music should be.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

SEVEN THAT SPELLS with KAWABATA MAKOTO "COSMOEROTIC DIALOGUE WITH LUCIFER" (Beta-Lactam Ring Records)

Is it possible to be both recidivist and derivative at the same time? In the case of Seven That Spells the answer is yes, totally, without apology, and fuck you if you think this somehow makes the music less enjoyable. This band's major (and perhaps only, from the sound of it) influence is Acid Mothers Temple and they wear that influence so proudly on their sleeve that not only could you not tell this record from an AMT release if you heard them "earfolded," they've gone ahead and brought in Kawabata Makototo himself to shred all over this mindmelter of an album. This is a band that is obviously completely unconcerned with identity or how they're received amongst the psychedelic community; the only thing that really matters here is plugging in, dropping out and laying waste to everything in front of you with an arsenal of screaming guitar effects. It's a guitar orgy, a loveletter to the sonic capabilities (and limitations) of the electric guitar. I haven't heard wah pedals suffer so much abuse since Matthew Bower dropped acid in a basement and recorded "IIIrd Gatekeeper." It's total sound spasms. The two guitars are panned hard left and hard right and sound so much alike in every respect (phrasing, tone, speed, accouterments) it's impossible to tell which one's Kawabata and which one's the guy who wishes he were Kawabata. It's all noise and improv here. Much like AMT a short riff will be introduced and the rest of the band will jump in and beat it down until it becomes reduced to one gaping chord, bleeding fresh, wounded psychedelia from its soon to be festering pulpy laceration. Only on the second track does the band show any hint of compositional thought, wherein the main motif is an eerie but rockin' Slavic/Eastern modal hybrid that explodes into a garden outer-fringe amplifier clipping and pseudo-heroic guitar, replete with all manner of whooshing echo and synth blurb. If Cotton Casino where still in AMT she'd probably be getting a royalty check from these guys. The only other reprieve is the final track, a 15 minute suite of delayed-wah pedal air pushing, like a vacuum in reverse, the sound of void nullifying while someone takes a ridiculous "alone in the practice space" rock solo over the top of it all. The hubris of this album is beyond belief, but that isn't to say it's bad. Quite the contrary. It's a head-nodding, zone-out drug-hazed affair of the highest order. I'm just not sure whether it's from Romania (as Seven That Spells supposedly is) or Japan.

Monday, February 22, 2010

BURZUM "BELUS" (Byelobog Productions)

At last. The culmination of years of waiting and wondering. I don't know if i can really accurately convey what Burzum means to me and how much Varg Vikernes's music has informed my listening, how much influence i've taken from his albums and overall how much i've learned about the true, honest, pure overwhelming power of music. Half the problem with reviewing this record is staying objective, and the other half is trying to assign it some sort of relevancy in a modern black metal context. I don't know that i can do either; i don't know if the latter is even possible. I suppose some background info is necessary: Burzum was the black metal project of one Varg Vikernes, disciple of Euronymous, guitarist for Mayhem and generally considered the founding force of black metal as a genre. Vikernes and Euronymous were close friends, with Vikernes at one time being a member of Mayhem and living with Euronymous for extended periods of time. For reasons still unknown to this day a falling out took place and Vikernes murdered Euronymous, receiving a prison sentence of 21 years. Much speculation regarding the reason for the attack has arisen in those near two decades since, the stronger theories postulating that Vikernes murdered Eurononymous because he (Vikernes) felt that his friend had "betrayed" the black metal community that he had founded and was becoming nothing more than a posturing mouthpiece without convictions. Before his incarceration Vikernes released four albums under the Burzum moniker, crafting a sonic wonderspace that would culminate with the genre-defining "Filosofem", an album that was as influential to modern black metal as Black Sabbath was to all of metal in general. Whereas before the genre's practitioners had put forth an extremely raw and fast thrash-informed sound, with the only compositional emphasis being placed on pomped up synthesizer overloads disguised as atmosphere, "Filosfem" took the music in an entirely different direction. Here was an album that embraced the true idea of transcendence through music, that repetition and harsh frequencies, as well as intense melodic sensibilities, could be a gateway to leaving consciousness behind. That simplicity could be a psychic pathway to hypnotism. It was an album heavy in psychedelics and possessed of an incredible compositional depth, with Vikernes showcasing a mindbending talent for crafting layers of intertwining guitars that all sounded as part of one buzzing, cacophonous, riotous and entrancing whole. Whilst imprisoned Vikernes released three more albums, but his incarceration meant that the only instruments available to him were synthesizers and computers-thus the triptych of prison albums are wholly ambient exercises, not without their merit, but bearing little resemblance to the furious, otherwordly haunted black metal of before. Varg himself has since stated his unhappiness with these synthesizer exercises, although their very being, and the conditions they were constructed under, speaks volumes about the will and vision of their creator.
For years Burzum devotees have longed for the day of Varg's release, waiting for him to deliver on the promise of new Burzum material free of instrumental constraints. In May of 2009 Varg was granted freedom; he immediately set to work crafting the new Burzum opus and now it is upon us, to be received as we will. Obviously expectations are high; Vikernes has claimed again and again that he feels no connection to the black metal scene whatsoever and that the music he creates is entirely born of him, to be processed as the listener will. This singularity is evident all throughout "Belus"; upon first listening the general feeling is that for Vikernes, the last 15 years have never existed. Their is no evidence of outside influence on this record at all. It picks up right where "Filosofem" left off and expounds upon the ideas presented there, at times referencing the earliest sounds of black metal but mostly sounding as completely alien and removed today as "Aske" must have sounded in 1991. It's astonishing that the concept has remained this clear in Vikernes's mind for so long.
Made up of mostly lengthy compositions, "Belus" is most similar to "Filosofem" in its approach. The idea and promise of transcendence runs strong throughout the album with all of the songs featuring ultra-hypnotic repeated motifs and many featuring extended instrumental sections as well. Each song is a blur of guitars running in a million different directions, yet all harmonically intertwined and connected, sounding at once pinpointed and glitchily hyperactive and scatterbrained. The melodies and progressions present are straight 1991 black metal, with massive weeping minor chords obliquely played against one another, creating a feeling of medieval counterpoint and woozy unease, like the notes should make sense together but somehow don't. It's a jarring, masterful effect, one that Vikernes pioneered so many years ago, so it's no wonder that he's such a master of it now. Opening track "Belus' Dod" best exemplifies this sound, with its baroque chords and scratchy half-time structure hearkening back to darker days. I can only think of two bands who are currently operating in this mindset, Gorgoroth and Mayhem, both members of the old guard as well (and modern day Mayhem is sadly prone to extended prog/hyper math speed exercises, while Gorgoroth maintains a more neoclassical approach.) After that the album as a whole fords a path of true mesmerization, each song becoming more and more simple riffwise but more and more complex with regard to melody juxtaposition and guitar layering. The eleven and a half minute hypnodirge "Glemselens Elv" runs through several minutes of unfettered, wiry guitars repeated ad infinitum for maximum thrall, while all sorts of counterparts run to and from, weaving a dense blanket of crisscrossing notes. "Keliohosten" opens with a pummeling blast beat/guitar endurance test but soon gives way to open string dirging and chunkier, more precise riffing with melodies soaring over the top, becoming at once dreamy and droning. "Sverddans" represents the one true call to the Burzum of old, a song that must certainly date back to 1991 or before; this track is very much in keeping with Vikernes's thrash metal roots and sounds like some cross breed of Slayer and Celtic Forst-but even in this number Varg can't resist some lightning quick frenetic guitar work, like a black metal version of "Flight of the Bumblebee." "Kaimadalthas' Nedstingning" is to me the most interesting track, bearing an almost Alcest-like pomp and presence, with its wide open, gorgeous melodies and dream-pop structure. It's hard to even view this track in the black metal context, even despite its dissonant thrashy opening riff, because its so damn lovely-about three minutes in and Varg switches everything up, letting myriad vocal pieces do the work that the guitars have been shredding away on for so long-varying spoken word and half sung phrases are played alongside one another to create a tapestry of looping, choral harmony while the guitars chime away on a simple open arpeggio. It's masterfully done and a welcome surprise. "Morgenrode" again rides the dirge for a good eight and a half minutes, a grinding slow paced assault made up of sparse open minor chords played against that ever constant open string, devolving further and further into circular nowhereness until it falls right into the majestic closing track, the near ten minute instrumental "Belus' Tilbakekomst," as glorious an evocation of oceanic narcolepsy as has ever been summoned by the likes of My Bloody Valentine or Mogwai. Here the drone lords over all, with guitars entering left and right, becoming ever more saturated in the mix, leaving sorrowful swells of huge open chords wallowing in their own echoes and reverbs. Over and over and over, and infinity, and listening to it, i really wish it was. I don't think Vikernes has ever conveyed his philosophy better than through this track, a sobbing lament for the times and customs of old, a paean to the forgotten laws of nature and the otherwordly forces that guide them.
I will eschew any discussion of Varg's personal politics-for me they do not matter as far as the music is concerned, and the feelings that i get from listening to "Belus" have nothing to do with hate or pride. It's simple beyond-ness, a levitation and a projection. This is a record that gets inside you and whisks you away. It goes further and further as it presses on. As i said before, there is little to nothing in common with modern black metal on display here. There is only Varg's very singular, self-contained vision. It's an artistic statement of impressive strength in that its so impervious to outside definition. Is it the best black metal album ever written? Will it rewrite the template for today? No. Is it an outstanding, mesmerizing black metal album that towers beyond most anything else being released right now? Yes. Quite simply, there is no one else doing this, and there is really no one else capable of doing this. A lot of nights i'll feel that certain musics were born of a very particular time and mindset and that even though strong genres have arisen as a result, there is nothing than can replicate the feel of those original musics. Burzum is evidence of that. Tons of great artists have followed Varg's path, artists whose work i greatly admire-bands like Xasthur, Leviathan, Shining, Make a Change Kill Yourself, Lifelover, etc-but none of them have, nor ever will, reach the high standard set by "Filosofem." Only Varg himself is capable of reaching that height again, and with "Belus" he comes eerily, frighteningly close. Ave, Burzum. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

NEIGE ET NOIRCEUR "PHILOSOPHIE DES ARTS OCCULTES" (Brise-Cul Records)

Latest demo from the rapidly evolving Neige et Noirceur, this time a digestible three song EP spanning about 24 minutes. This is easily the best and most accomplished work i've heard from the project. By now the formula is perfected-an expository ambient intro followed by an epic slab of raw and freezing black metal sorcery, ending with a longer ambient piece to soothe things out. The intro sets the tone, a sound sample lifted from some old film whereby someone, presumably a witch or warlock, is accused of traffiking with the devil and general effrontery to God. Warbling synth tones suggest the brain melting power of magicks and a dissonant, barely tuned acoustic guitar picks out an elegiac melody while the accused recants and begs mercy. Then the black metal explodes. Immediate and punishing blast beats totally annihilate while a hurricane of frigid guitar screams over your ears, The vocals are way more upfront this time around and nowhere near as processed, adding an extra layer of harshness to the already chiseled proceedings. This song shows Neige et Noirceur operating at a much higher level of black metal competency-there are amazing riffs strewn throughout, repeated into looping, loping infinitudes, including one head-banging half-time destroyer that would make even the mighty Leviathan bow down in reverence, and a texturally complex dreamy sort of progression that wouldn't be out of place on a latter period Mayhem album. Totally triumphant. The third song is the expected hall of ambience to carry us out, but much creepier than previous demos. The baroque style piano explorations are reintroduced here to great effect, lending that same weirdo circus feel until they wash into an overload of synthesizer haunt that sounds like an alternative soundtrack for John Carpenter's "Halloween" franchise. Weird, weird sounds, utterly of the night and as equally indebted to slasher film posturing as they are to the pomp of early '90's symphonic black metal. An astounding record by any measure. I can't wait to hear what this project does next.

DANIEL MENCHE "ODRADEK" (Beta-Lactam Ring Records)

Thematically cloudy transmission from the always provocative Daniel Menche, as challenging an artist as his contemporary (and collaborator) Kevin Drumm. Menche is firmly allied to the pure noise school and his records frequently deal in massively processed percussive sounds rendered into earth-moving drones, but he's also capable of tremendous serenity and placid beauty as evidenced by more recent outings. Despite its frightening and surreal cover art this album is more along the lines of the latter style, showcasing two extended compositions that lull the listener into an extreme state of hibernation-like torpor over their near hour long runtime. The first piece is more traditional Menche fair, hitting the pavement with a thick low bass heavy drone, gradually overlayed with shredding drum sounds. It sounds like the audio remnants of stars exploding millions of miles away within the confines of giant cardboard boxes. Eventually the drums bleed out into rivulets of pure tone and join the initial drones, cresting in volume and power until their end. The second piece is the more confusing of the two. A near unchanging drone is introduced and grows in prominence over a spoken word reading of a Kafka short story in the original German. The vocals become part of the drone, delivered in an unwavering monotone, without expression or acknowledgment of the prose's intent. The recitation is quickly drowned out by the cascade of droning loveliness, or maybe, as in the first piece, everything just runs together until one aspect is indeterminate from the rest. As a whole i found this record to be incredibly narcoleptic. In spite of the intensity of the approach, Menche is still able to enthrall the listener and take them into a state of hyper-relaxation. I wish i had a better grasp of what he had hoped to achieve with the reading of the Kafka story; i really don't see how this music matches up with the tone of Kafka's work in any way. Regardless, Menche has created another impressive tower of drone to add to an ever-increasing canon of engaging works.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

NEIGE ET NOIRCEUR " CREPUSCULE HIVERNAL SANS FIN SUR LES TERRES DE LA GUERRE" (Hypnotic Dirge)

Neige et Noirceur continue their campaign to completely polarize the black metal community with this epic blast of frigid monotony, replete with stark nighttime imagery (again, gorgeous) and a feeling of total numbness, the sound of physical defeat through exhaustion, the inability to continue because to go any further would constitute further existence. Consisting of three tracks, "Crepuscule..." continues down the frozen path layed out by "L'Abime..." and takes it further out into the frosty void, following an increasingly singular and enclosed vision to its only possible extreme. Track One is a pointlessly short expository intro made up of some glacial wind sounds rubbing against some rocky crag clanging. It only lasts about two minutes so it's barely worth mentioning-it really ONLY functions as an intro to get your head in the right place. Track Two is the meat of the album and wastes no time getting right to the vicious black metal-from the outset a molten guitar drops in and dominates for a full four minutes playing-get this-only one chord. The drum patterns change underneath but Spiritus hammers away on one chord and one rhythym and i can't help but be floored by this reversion to the true primitivism of black metal. Melody is irrelevant when there's this much attitude and aura. After that the guitars drop out and give way to more of that "abandoned winter castle" ambience, a nightmare of endless echo and howl and whispers of movement across of drafty dreary stone halls, a droning buildup to another eruption of raging guitar atavism, this time imbued with a simple repeated melody line, anxious and terse. Still only the barest illusion of an actual "riff" and another master class in black metal composition for isolationists. This structure repeats ad infinitum until the song gives out at around 26 minutes, having imploded under its own massive pretense. Track Three is entirely given over to moonlight ambience, the howling winds endlessly reverberating while chains rattle and wolves howl under a fat and waxy moon. You could be in a forest, you could be in the deepest wastes of frozen space and forgotten medieval time-it doesn't matter because they both speak to the same idea of bleak misanthropy, the absence of any living thing, the pure spirit of loneliness. This may well be one of the best studies of emptiness to grace the genre.

NEIGE ET NOIRCEUR "L'ABIME DES JOURS, L'ECUME DES NUITS" (Hypnotic Dirge)

Part of the outstanding Quebec black metal underground (probably comparable only to France proper in terms of quality bands and releases) Neige et Noirceur are one of the forerunners of the extremely niche genre known as "ambient black metal." Only a handful of entities are working within this confine, and from what i've heard much of the standard BM community feels distanced from and outright hostile towards this genre. I've no idea why, as these are easily some of the most extreme sounds currently ululating from the depths and display a marked creativity and depth when compared to other, more stagnant genre exercises. This double CD collects two early demos and is an excellent example of Neige et Noirceur's infant sound and the juggernaut of spaced black metal that they are now churning out. CD One is the newer material; why they sequenced it this way is a mystery. It is composed of two epic tracks spanning 42 minutes and runs a gamut of sound. Things open with about 8 minutes of haunting windblown frigid ambience, as if sole member Spiritus brought a tape record out into the Canadian night and just let it run. Similar in sound to the winterscapes of Dapnom, but with a greater emphasis on nature and paganism (i.e. the sounds of rain, waterfalls, howling wolves, etc.) Some classically tinged baroque harpsichord enters next, steeped in echo. I found this section of the piece to be the most intriguing as it displays an enormous amount of instrumental talent but also has an almost comical feel to its renaissance wandering; it's like Spiritus is daring you to take this seriously, and if you do, then you're complicit in it. Afterwards the black metal swarms in and it is wholly furious and unrelenting. It sounds very far away and cold and is more or less a constant blastbeat with some seriously icy guitars roaring away underneath. Vocals are processed way beyond comprehension, becoming a pillar of white noise crumbling away behind everything. It is intensely cosmic and overwhelming, a hypnotic endurance ritual engineered for maximum headfucking. Track two delivers more of the same but in a shorter runtime, or maybe track one is just so overpowering that i don't rightly recollect what track two is all about.
CD Two suggest an obvious difference in both sound and aesthetic. Comprised of six tracks running a mere 24 minutes, this is much more raw and traditional black metal fare. While no less intense, the epic feel is scaled back quite a bit and i found myself missing all those elitist keyboards and synth flourishes (they're here, too, just used much more sparingly, more as interludes rather than parts of the compositions.) The recording here is very lo-fi and everything totally SCREAMS, ultra-loud and distorted and totally in the red, like Boris doing black metal. It's more an assault than anything else; the auditory violence found within is very impressive. It's over all too quickly but the experience is draining in the best possible way.
The allegiances and influences here are obvious. Burzum is referenced in both the reverence of nature and the massive, meditative, enthralling song structures; Immortal and Emperor are both homaged via the neoclassicism of the keyboards/synth and the overall complexity of the arrangements. The easiest comparison is to the mighty Paysage D'Hiver, and, to a lesser extent, the cosmic nihilism of Darkspace. This is a dark frontier of black metal- i was so impressed by this record that i acquired several other Neige et Noirceur albums (i hope to review them shortly.) I must also say that the artwork on this album is beautiful and does much to convey the ideals and aesthetics that this project is striving for. An essential release.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

ALAN LICHT "YMCA" (Family Vineyard)

I've worshiped at Alan Licht's altar ever since Matt St. Germain sold me a cassette of one of his live shows out of the back of a van almost 10 years ago. It was a duo performance with saxophonist Tamio Shiraishi and it was (and still is) one of the most hellacious slabs of buzzsaw guitar noise horror that i'd ever heard. Licht's guitar was absolutely vomiting distortion, belching it up in a thick endless stream, an ocean of Turbo Rat puke that stretched into forever. That cassette changed my life and i sought out everything i could from Licht, eventually stumbling on the equally life-shattering "Plays Well" which still has the distinction of being one of my favorite records EVER. Alan Licht's recordings changed the way i thought about guitar and and music in totality and helped me approach my own compositions in a freer, more open way. It was one of the most important discoveries of my musical trajectory, equal to my experiences with both Burzum and Birchville. So yeah, i love Alan Licht. The guy's a genius.
"YMCA" is his first solo outing in several years, since dropping the epic 2CD sprawl of "A New York Minute" and his first in a long time to be totally derived from guitar. "A New York Minute" was a monster of sound exploration, a massive dissertation on the hypnotic power of minimalist repetition combined with the fucked-upedness of psychotic cut and paste techniques, using live guitars and the usual assemblage of found sounds and pilfered vinyl grooves to devastating brain-clouding effect. The last few years have been spent moving away from that space and retreating into more minimal provocations in both solo and group work, and not all of the groupings have been successful. While his performances with Loren Connors have never strayed far from their slow-burning warmth other pairings have been grating and pointlessly challenging, as though Licht needed to remind everyone that he's an AVANT-GARDE guitarist.
So it comes as a welcome surprise that he chooses to return to solo guitar. This is where Licht has always shined for me, whether it's the overdriven Bardo Pond level onslaught of "Rabbi Sky" or the simple, head-nodding deluge of feedback and disco beats on "The Old Victrola." He's pretty much without peer as a practitioner of guitar maximalism. But every true artist must grow and every approach must change, right? Well, yes and no...this album shows Licht working both sides of his musical personality and while the results are at times both lovely and harrowing the overall result is something slightly less impressive than the career-defining works that came before. "YMCA" is one continuous 45 minute piece split into two distinct movements by the limitations of the vinyl format (and again, i have to ask, what the fuck? what purpose does interrupting the flow really have other than the boutique collector's appeal of wax?) and occupies two arenas well-quiet and loud. Side A is the former, as Licht starts slowly, building crystalline loops of neon-bright guitar spotlights out of feedback and looped drones. It's icy and austere and quite beautiful, like standing in the middle of the Antarctic continent on a windless, moonless night. The drones build a bit in thickness and some slowly picked arpeggios are introduced, giving the illusion of a chord progression. Before you know it, 20 minutes have gone by. Flipping over to Side B finds the piece picking up where it left, with the arpeggios eventually giving way to the trademark Licht roar of distortion. What i found most interesting here was the actual tone of the guitar-whereas earlier albums were drenched in uncontrolled throbbing fuzz the tones here seem borne much more of traditional metal, super compressed and hyper-processed, like the ridiculous tightness of Megadeth's "Countdown to Extinction" tone crafted into rainbow colored building blocks that Licht tosses against each other until they spit and grate and circuit each other out. Behold the awesome power of electricity indeed. Afterwards things wind down and Licht exits the stage to a smattering of applause.
I know from all the adjectives that i'm tossing out it seems like i think this is some sort of masterpiece. By any other guitarist, it would be remarkable, and it's a pretty awesome display of mastery over the instrument and its residuals. It's just that Licht is so good at this stuff, he can do performances like this in his sleep, and i just don't see anything being pushed here the way it is on previous works. I hope this is a reinvigoration for Licht, a renewed interest in making the guitar roar again. It's a decent start.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

HEATHER LEIGH MURRAY "DEVIL IF YOU CAN HEAR ME" (Not Not Fun)

Heather Leigh Murray was at one time the third member of Charalambides. I also suspect during that time she was the lover of either Tom or Christina Carter, perhaps both. I have no proof of that, only a feeling-a project as rigidly self-contained as Charalambides would not permit another unless they were on incredibly intimate ground with the members. Heather graced two or three albums and a handful of live performances and went on to become one half of Christina Carter's Scorces project, an interim stop betwixt the continuing nakedness of Charalamabides and the emotional starkness of Christina's own recordings. From there she went on to the UK, where she now is one half of the excellent Volcanic Tongue store/mailorder in Scotland and the lover/collaborator of noise maniac David Keenan, proprietor of the excellent At War With False Noise label. To some degree i distrust Heather Leigh Murray. I feel that she has used her connections to further her own musical ends and those ends are extremely limited, talent-wise. Had she never hooked up with Tom and Christina i wonder if anyone would even know her name. As is, i do know, and i own a number of non-Charalambides recordings that she appears on, this being one of them, an album under her own name and presumably being her own statement. Not Not Fun is a totally boutique label more focused on a "who you know" mentality than actual quality so i view this release with a fair amount of skepticism. The title is an obvious play on the Robert Johnson legend; Heather Leigh distorts the idea of the blues for her own purposes on these three songs, each an extended exploration of pedal steel guitar and voice, an aimless journey more concerned with the route than the actual arrival. I feel as though Miss Murray chose the pedal steel not for its own unique instrumental qualities but for the fact that very, very few avant/noise musicians have chosen to work with it, and that said distinction would grant her an immediate sort of recognition within the scene. Pedal steel guitar is notoriously difficult to play and pretty much disposes of any who would dare make it their servant; unfortunately electricity and delay make it possible for anyone to seem like they know how to manipulate a stringed instrument. And such is the downfall of Miss Murray. These three songs all heavily reference the outsider mystique of Jandek and vaguely recall the passionate obscurity of early Sonny Sharrock but it's just amateurish wailing with little thought or consideration put in. This is the true argument against delay-it creates ideas where none had before existed. That isn't to say that Miss Murray is without personality as a musician-much of her work with Scorces and Tarpis Tula is idiosnychratic and dark and interesting-i just don't feel that she has the brass or the depth to hold up as an artist of her own merits. She just released an LP with Chris Corsano that apparently pushes everything waaaay into the red and goes for blood all out-i'm incredibly curious to hear what's happening there and to see if working with Corsano adds the expected level of urgency to her playing. At the very least it has to have a little more passion than this troglodytic dud- Robert Johnson may have sold his soul but at least the devil gave him fire. Heather Leigh Murray is just playing with ash.

WHITEHOUSE "QUALITY TIME" (Very Friendly/Susan Lawly)

Eerily subdued mid-90's record from Whitehouse. Normally trading in extreme electronic detritus and harsh, raging white noise attack Whitehouse instead opt for a much more "subtle" demonstration of what they do. Recorded by none other than Steve Albini the obvious expectation for this record is harshness and i find it telling that Whitehouse choose to go for a more calming sound here, trading on their own reputation and that of their chosen engineer. The sixtracks making up "Quality Time" all traffic in restraint sonically; even those few moments that scream out from a noise perspective are presented in a such a manner as to be almost soothing and comforting, like a gentle hand stroking a frightened kitten. As punishing as these sounds become, they never reach any level of grate, instead levelling out at frequencies and volumes that showcase a sort of relaxing effect. The lyrics are, as always, misogynistic and violent, conjuring up images of women reduced to completely subservient demeaned positions in life, capable of being either whores or victims of abuse and little else. Men are cast only as sexual beings with little judgment passed on their motivations for so being and that's probably the most disturbing aspect of Whitehouse's overall aesthetic. Despite a track title like "Just Like A Cunt" there's never a feeling of overindulgence because these guys have been doing this since their inception. They've never pretended to be otherwise and that honesty promotes a willingness to bear witness to their statements. Peter Sotos casts his ever-increasing shadow over the group on this record; his interest in both anonymous, violent sexual encounters and power via child abuse hold a sickening grasp over the subject matter at this point in the band's career. By far the most disturbing track is "Baby"-three minutes of a youngster gurgling in the bathtub, rendered into something horrifying by the addition of low end bass rumble and an endless editing of the infant's vocals into something resembling prolonged, agonized sobs. It paints an incredibly difficult portrait and few artists would be willing to even think of descending into such a bleak, morally void realm of existence. Who does this kind of shit? How could you even populate that headspace and fit in to normal society? Whitehouse offers no answers, but their depiction of the question is frighteningly arresting.

NOVELLER/AIDAN BAKER "COLORFUL DISTURBANCES" (Divorce Records)

A short lackluster outing between two drone guitar explorers. Noveller is the project of an uber-cute "filmmaker" (hot sure if she has any actual films to her credit) named Sarah Lipstate and she boasts a previous album on Carlos Giffoni's No fun label. Her side is comprised of two pieces, both of which are centered around simpled delayed guitar treatments that are sampled and spun around on themselves to create a simplistic circular effect. The odd thing is that these pieces never really evolve or change, they just hang around and do the same thing over and over and over. To some this may be the very definition of drone but the best examples of the genre are actually those pieces that slowly and gradually change over their course, doing so so slowly and glacially that they soothe the listener into a feeling of numbness and calm. Noveller's pieces come nowhere near that, instead choosing to use a second overdubbed (or sampled) guitar to suggest the chord changes and thereby alter the mood of the two pieces presented. It's simple drone 101 and not very effective and i wonder why this girl is getting so much attention for her recordings. Maybe time will prove me wrong but this is pretty unengaging, obvious material.
Aidan Baker's side fares a little better but considering his vast discography in this arena it's hard to credit him with anything other than a simple pass for this recording. A single 20 minute piece of gentle guitar feedback is turned in, resulting in a slow-burn demonstration of delay euphoria, one chord stretched to its absolute limits before it begins to break apart. Baker's piece is very calming and meditative but lacks any sort of real presence or personality; his contribution instead wanders aimlessly for 20 or so minutes without going anywhere of note, serving only to massage the listener lightly without working out any real knots.
Perhaps both artists felt limited by the time constraints of the 12" format-having written before about the limitations this spectrum places on the true headspinners i can see how both artists would feel compelled to turn in half-assed tracks for fear of abandoning larger, more worthy ideas to the appetite of wax-but perhaps this is simply a cash-in trading in on an established name (Baker) and one that is seeing a lot of positive press (Lipstate). I fear the latter, as Baker has certainly reached deeper zen states with his drone recordings, and Lipstate is an unproven entity (granted, i've only heard bits and fragments of her No Fun album) with little to her credit aside from assorted rumblings. The end result is a decent enough slab of quiet, but nothing coming close to having an identity of its own.

GROUPER "COVER THE WINDOWS AND THE WALLS" (Root Strata)

I've followed Liz Harris, aka Grouper, since she came out of nowhere a few years ago and helped birth the "hypnogogia" scene. I'm pleased to say that i have her very first CDR, limited to 200 copies and numbered in her own hand. Since then a dearth of releases have erupted and i've done my best to keep up but finances have limited what i've been able to attain, as well as aesthetic choice on my part (i WILL NOT own a release by Inca Ore even if Liz has a split with her, because Inca Ore are awful), leaving a few gaps in my Grouper collection. Root Strata have realized the collector's plight and have opted to reissue this twice-pressed LP in CD format, making a lovely record more available to the snoozers cross the land. The key word here is "lovely" and i'd be hard pressed to find an adjective more suitable to describing what Liz Harris does-her music is absolutely, dreamily beautiful, seeming to come from some other world where dreams are made into soft friendly pillows and comfort becomes a physical presence that hangs and floats in the air, waiting to envelop the anxiety-wracked people who need it the most. Her music is a blanket, truly, so very soft and warm and inviting. Some of the music cognoscenti may argue my placement of Liz in the hypnogogia genre. While her first two albums were exercises in prolonged narcoleptic dronescapes that sounded unreachably far away and removed her last few records have been incredibly intimate and (gasp) song-driven, culminating in last year's breathtaking "Dragging a Dead Deer Up A Hill," an approach that would seem to distance her from the lulling and futronic style sounds of most hypnagogues; i feel that hypnogogia is based much more on effect than ingredients. So even though Grouper is mainly a guitar/effects driven project (most hypnogogia is keyboard/synth derived) i feel Liz encompasses the goal of the genre so much better, that is, to massage the listener into states of deep contemplation and relaxation while still projecting a sort of haze as to emotional intent. "Cover the Windows and the Walls" was the record before "Dragging..." and shows the obvious progressions of Liz working towards a more "accessible" sound. Songs are tempered into shorter run times and actual lyrics, rather than just vocals, rise to prominence. The album opens with the title track, the most "song-oriented" of the seven tracks that make up "Cover..." and right away the beauty unfolds. Played on a heavily delayed and echoed acoustic guitar the song instantly reminds me of Yo La Tengo, and particularly Georgia, whom Liz Harris sounds very similar to (i'm surprised that no other review has ever mentioned this.) This track could have been an outtake from "I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One." After that things slide into a more oceanic pull and the sounds are thrust upon the listener. You feel as though you're being pulled ever downward into something warmer and warmer, and while the bottom seems infinite and totally expansive there's no denying the closeness you feel to the author of these works. Liz is clutching you tight as she brings you out and that connection makes the gorgeousness of these tracks all the more so. From the simple and sad chord progressions of "Opened Space" to the massive sludge onslaught of "You Never Came" these tracks carve away at the heart like a knife of memories and touch, the vocals washing over you as delicate as a rainy mist, as soft as a feather dipped in warm milk. It's an epic journey at once reminiscent of Tim Hecker or Ramesses III but borne of much more organic materials and therefore capable of reaching a much more guarded place. Much like her kindred musical soul Fursaxa, Grouper creates music that is only of the artist, and while certainly not devoid of influence the personal vision so strong that it seems not of this world. This is essential listening for anyone even remotely interested in drone music and i cannot recommend it more highly. A total washout in an ocean of murked-out mystery bliss. Lovely.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

IRRWISCH "DEMO 2008" (Those Opposed)

Blazing, cloudy black metal from the Netherlands. Cloaked in ethereal fuzzy guitar tones as washed out, dense and blurry as the muted browns of its oceanic cover art, Irrwisch's five song existential paen sings of a sorrow unabsorbed and a disenchantment with being that runs almost as infinite as the sky. This is a particularly haunted record, draped in gothic atmosphere and bleeding out angst. Those Opposed have always trafficked in some of black metal's most depressing practitioners and this is no exception, following in the footsteps of Austere, Lyrinx and Bosse to create a bleak statement of emptiness, hopelessness and negativity. Yet still a sort of reverence rises above all of it. Maybe it's just the cover art, with that vast, dark, tormented ocean warring against itself and the heavens above it, but i feel again the awesome power of the natural world on display, the feeling that humanity is such a puny, infant, immaterial thing when weighed against the awesome age of the world as is and has always been. The future is but a minuscule allotment of years and then all will be still again and all the petty concerns and worries that we wrung our hands over during our time here will evaporate into the nothingness they once were before, disappearing into the larger, indifferent consciousness that preceded us. From nothing back to nothing. It never mattered and it never will.
And what of the music? It reaches for transcendence and largely achieves it, displaying the "time warping" quality discussed a while back. Irrwisch stretch everything out but the means are violent rather than apathetic. The guitars are so huge and raw that they just float and hang, barely changing, manifesting themselves as swirling chaotic masses of electric tone, hot as the sun and as buzzing as an unrelenting migraine. Two (!!) basses cradle it all in a swath of low-end fuzz and grumble, making for a thick and syrupy sonic soup that drowns the listener in its saturation. The drums are insane, all over the place, replete with endless fills, head-spinning ridework and all manner of start/stop craziness but for all their hectic motion they never detract, only drive everything forward, pushing and pushing like a door that you needed to get into was going to snap shut any second. There is not enough time and there's no way to make it pass fast enough, a sentiment that i have felt in my own life many times over. In capturing a certain sort of despair and highlighting the complexities of modern emptiness through music, Irrwisch have done a phenomenal job. A fantastic demo from an extremely promising entity.

DEN SAAKALDTE "OL, MORKE OG DEPRESJON" (Aesthetic Death)

The first demo by black metal "supergroup" (and yes, it sounds horrible to me, too) Den Saakaldte, comprised of members of some of the underground's most elite hordes, including Gorgoroth, Shining, Diabolicum, Ondskapt, Koldbrann, Nidingr, Slavia, Dodheimsgard and In the Woods. With such an esteemed pedigree and so many harsh, uncompromising records credited to the members' other projects you'd think Den Saakaldte would have a difficult time even beginning to deliver on the obvious expectations for this endeavour, but i'm pleased to say that this record meets all of those expectations and trumps them, crafting a dense, frightening slab of black metal with a truly obscure vibe and an oppressive feeling of depression and anger haunting the whole affair. The title translates to "Beer, Darkness and Depression"-a very telling turn of phrase when you consider that although black metal has a reputation as a very dark and melancholy music, most of the people involved in it enjoy getting fucked up and can even view their music from tongue-in-cheek sort of perspective. Already Den Saakaldte play on that in their title and the sounds contained on this demo further amplify that intelligent, distanced yet involved stance. There are six tracks here, three of which are actual songs spanning 8-12 minutes each, 3 of which are shorter pieces composed for keyboards, field recordings and computers and serve to advance the claustrophobic and terrified feeling evoked by the record's name. The three "ambient" (for lack of a better descriptor) pieces are extremely industrialized and almost comical in their imagery, creating pictures of a disturbed circus of the mind where all the performers are limping drunkenly to some withered "oom-pah pah" style waltz. It's the sound of an insane asylum brought to vivid life via sound only, made all the more impressive by the fact that one member is responsible for these interludes, the absurdly monikered (but no less grim looking) Honey Lucius. The tray inlay card identifies this album as "sick music for sick individuals" and it's largely due to Lucius's contributions that such a boast is proven accurate. The interludes reference both David Lynch's soundtrack work and the playful terror of Mr. Bungle in equal measure. They're totally demented in the best possible way. As for the actual black metal tracks-wow. These are complex, dissonant but utterly engaging songs, made all the more entrancing by the repetition of key riffs and a masterful display of layering by guitarist and lone songwriter Sykelig. His time spent in Gorgoroth studying under Infernus was not in vain; each of these riffs are black metal by the books, razor sharp and melodically intriguing while still being dizzyingly precise and meticulously composed. Some tracks bloat with three or four overlapping guitar parts, not a one of which are wasted or indulgent. They all serve the composition and add to the melodic weight of the pieces, creating harmony out of conflicting intervals and in some instances a sense of true beauty and feelings of sorrow and regret. This is far from being suicidal black metal but the emptiness asserts itself easily and insinuatingly, lending a significant psychological heft to a work already steeped in imbalance. Two tracks walk a disorienting path even further, with Lucius adding simulated horn bleats (saxophones, primarily) that sound like film noir jazz skronk woozing drunkenly across their assigned passages. It's a tremendous atmospheric exercise. But even with all that to recommend "Ol, Morke og Depresjon" it's the vocals that are the true star and really take this record into the great black metal beyond. Masterfully performed by the seemingly omnipresent Niklas Kvarforth (Shining, Livsnekad, etc) the vox occupy every possible violent emotional terraform, from screaming black metal outburts to low death metal style growling to gorgeously paganesque clean hymnal singing to grossly tense, threatening croaks and whispers. Earlier i made reference to Mr. Bungle and it wasn't just in passing; Kvarforth is a musical magician of some accomplishment and i don't think it's unfair or inaccurate to refer to him as the Mike Patton of the black metal world. In both aesthetic and delivery as well as timbre he bears striking resemblance to the avant-garde vocal master and his display of that influence never sounds contrived or disingenuous. It's another instance of a really talented individual needing to meet the demands his creativity places upon his life and art, and while there are few (if any) vocalists in black metal who can match Kvarforth for pure misery and pain injected into every utterance there are even less who can put forth this much variety, texture and emotion in a vocal performance. It's a mindblowing testament.
I haven't been this impressed with a black metal record in some time. Given the people responsible i shouldn't have been surprised but here i sit all the same, marvelling at how fucking awesome this. I'm going to go have a drink and listen to it again.

Monday, February 15, 2010

SELF-INFLICTED VIOLENCE "A PERCEPTION OF MATTER AND ENERGY" (Eerie Art)

Deep-rooting black metal heavily indebted to depresso-post rock that becomes more and more impressive as i reflect on it further. With their name being as such you'd expect an onslaught of regret and self-loathing on par with such acts as Austere and Shining but instead you're presented with a very somber, stately, deliberately paced 46 minutes of spaced out, extremely melodic black metal bearing as much in common with the Deftones and the Cocteau Twins as the aforementioned wrist-slitters. I recently heard someone use the term "time warping black metal" to describe the approach of bands like Krallice and Weakling, and in terms of both of those artists' approaches the term certainly fits-so much unrelenting musical violence, delivered in epic states of blurring fuzzblast and endless repetition to incredibly trance-inducing states of mental thrall and hypnosis. But there's another approach to time warping, that being the gratuitous use of delays and echoes along with languid, restless and somewhat lazy performances of simple, dreamy song structures, and it's this approach that Self-Inflicted Violence gravitate to with considerable success. There's no energy here to really speak of. Things move along without much emotional investment or physical prodding-these songs just drift and exist until they peter out of their own accord. No one tries very hard and the songs lope along at the pace of their own being. That isn't to say they're void of ideas or attractions-they're just brought into breath and left to hang for the listener to affix their own meanings to. As a portrait of incredibly bleak existential angst, the depiction of despair and boredom and melancholia as defined by Munch's "The Scream" or Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," "A Perception of Matter and Energy" succeeds brilliantly. There is a feeling of restlessness and unfulfillment at work, a gnawing feeling that everything isn't as it should be and that something is always going to be wrong. This record does not wallow in depression and unhappiness; rather it shines a light on the smaller, more biting sorrows that chomp away at us day to day, illuminating all the missing bits of flesh that will eventually become infected, festering wounds of sorrow and failure. Promises will become broken, friendships will decay, love will turn to bitterness, but this record paints a picture of a time and place before those things happen. It's an idea that they will, an acknowledgement (by you) that they could, and a cold sense of fear and discomfort that begins to seep into your psychic being. There's a lot at work here and i find it remarkable that what at first seems like a fairly average black metal album eventually piles up all this emotional shit on you, shit that isn't anger or depression or sadness but something else more intangible, something that skirts the confines of definition. The few reviews i've read regarding this album have all rated it fairly low, saying that it isn't original in the slightest and it doesn't reach the peaks inhabited by loftier suicidal BM bands. While there is some truth to those assessments, i think the point is being missed. This album strikes me as a much more intellectual exercise, a nebulous statement of philosophy that goes beyond just being music. I think it's an incredible achievement.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

NADJA "UNDER THE JAGUAR SUN" (Beta-Lactam Ring Records)

I love Nadja. Let's get that out of the way first. Almost the same way that i love Skullflower, or Campbell Kneale, or Boris. They're pretty much in that "can do no wrong" camp that i shuffle certain artists off to. Said confidence in the artist's vision makes it all the more disheartening when i have to step back and say that no, this one isn't too great, i was wrong, you are not musically infallible. Such is the case with "Under the Jaguar Sun", Nadja's first (and hopefully only) foray into the dreaded "let's make multiple CD's that have to be played simultaneously to get the full effect" mentality-it's just too fucking hard for the listener to set that shit up to engage with properly, and more often than not the focus is so much on making interesting "stereo" style sounds that the goal of making an awesome record is lost. It happened to Boris when they made their lamentable (but superbly monikered) "Dronevil" double album, and it's happened to Nadja now, but at least Nadja had the presence of mind to turn in one decent album, which also at least contains one totally monumental, definitive song. The label blurb states that although the discs are designed to be played in tandem, both represent a unique style and "work equally as well on their own." Would that such a boast about these projects was ever true. Go ahead and put it to the test-tell me that each disc of "Zaireeka" is cool without the other three playing with it. Tell me that "Dronevil II" has anything even barely passing as interesting pressed on it. You can't, because they don't. It's a terrible gimmick and any decent band would have just put all those sounds on the one record and made the songs as they had originally intended before they got to thinking that the easiest way to come up with multiple discs of material would be to just separate the sounds and give the listener a fucking headache trying to sync them up to play properly (adding to the WTF-edness of this argument, at least for Nadja, is that they have no shortage of material whatsoever. this is a band that has about 30 albums in a five year span).
So Disc One, titled "Tezcatlipoca (DARKNESS)" is the album proper, consisting of five tracks stretching 60 minutes in length, and it's a fairly decent Nadja effort. It's not near as bludgeoning as "Corrasion" (my fave) or "Touched", although two of the tracks are remarkably heavy (the aptly titled "Windstorm" and "Earthquake"); instead it hovers more in the "drifting/floating" realm of Nadja's output, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the live album "Trembled" as well as the masterpiece that is "Bodycage". All the hallmarks are there-the swirl and whorl of blissed out, delayed guitar effects, swarming all over the headphones; the dense, monolithically textured fuzz guitars; the simple monotonous ultra-distorted bass; and of the course, the stumbling, staggering, massively echoed drum machines loping along like they were drunk or sleepwalking. Aidan's vocals come as both soft, panning whispers and ultra-low pitch-shifted sub-death pulsations, hearkening back to the band's roots as a doom metal vessel. It's all the standard glorious mess of headfucking sonic goop that Nadja churns out so well, and then we reach the nadir-the absolutely, achingly beautiful-but-so-fucking-crushing wallop of "Earthquake"-15 minutes of pummeling repetition, a larger than infinity ultra-melodic bassline swathed in scores of fuzz guitars and delerium echoes, like Jesu's fractured pop vision filtered through the sound aesthetic of Electric Wizard. So fucking good. This is seriously one of Nadja's best tracks EVER and it's inclusion here is more or less what propels me to rate this as a slightly higher than average Nadja effort.
But wait. There's still that second disc. This is the addendum material. Entitled "Quetzalcoatl (WIND)", it's an hour of vague and near pointless somewhat ethnic-flavored drone. It's super boring to listen to, not at all transcendent or meditative and i can't imagine it adding much of anything to the album as presented on disc one. Why the fuck is it even there? Presumably to cause you problems under the guise of granting you a totally immersive true-stereo listening experience. All it will do, in actuality, is cause you anger and distress as you try and move all your stereo shit into the same room and press the play buttons on two units simultaneously. Ugh.
Add these elements together and you've got a fair Nadja record. For anyone new to the group, this is NOT the record to start off with. For the obsessives like myself, you've gotta have it on the shelf. You just don't have to listen to it all that often.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

KLANGMUTATIONEN "SCHWARHAGEL" (Utech)

I first heard of these guys when Holy Mountain released an LP of theirs last year. I didn't pick it up because i was broke as fuck, but i remember the blurb describing them as some sort of Malaysian free metal avant-garde destruction unit. Tonight i was rooting through a box of new stuff and deciding what to listen to to review and this, their entry in Utech's outstanding "URSK" Series, jumped out at me. Utech is a label that traffics heavily in drone and noise and the URSK series has been nothing but quality, boasting such noiseniks as Skullflower, RST, and Final among others so i was expecting quality. On the other hand i had a terrifying suspicion that this album would bear more than a passing resemblance to the pointlessly obscure dissonant-shred of another Holy Mountain band, the supremely boring Zdrastvootie. Neither idea really applies. Free from drums, Klangmutationen wallow in a dark, scathing brand of noisy ambience. Comprised of four pieces but really consisting of just two (parts I and IV are short, worthless bookend "intro" and outro" experiements), "Schwarhagel" explores two different extremes in a mysteriously unengaging way. "II" is a throbbing mess of scraping guitar drone, drifting along in a weird comfort zone that becomes very relaxing despite its anxious attack. Things become much noisier when the two saxophones come in, bleating away like the Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman of the free-jazz world, yet for all their lungbusting the track still retains its comforting mellowness. It's like Borbetomagus without the nihilism. "III" tosses the warmth aside and becomes an all-out guitar assault. I'm hard-pressed to pick out any other instrument within this 20 minute meltdown (although they may be there, maybe all the frequencies are just blending together) and if the whole thing weren't so fucking boring it'd be an amazing piece in the Masayuki Takayanagi vein, a natural spasm of amp clipping and pure overdrive. I really wanted to like this album, and i'm honestly not sure why i have such an ambivalence toward it, but i just don't feel involved when i'm listening to it. The best noise albums are immersive as well as assaulting and Klangmutationen, while certainly good at manipulating their instruments, are not very good at manipulating the listener's mind.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

VIBRACATHEDRAL ORCHESTRA "SMOKE SONG" (VHF)

The trilogy winds down with the most gooped-up entry, the totally eastern continent fetishizing opus "Smoke Song." Again split between two sides, albeit this time more trance-induction minded, VC brings the raga-esque jams with a fervor and a purpose, and maybe even a wry smile. Side A is given over to two songs, the title track and a much shorter piece that may as well not even be there considering the time it eats. The title track, however, is a different story entirely, one of VC's most droning mutations of enthnography, a continent-humper if there was one-this sounds like every stereotype you've ever had of an Indian bazaar, all noise and mosquitoes and heat and sweat and buzz and pulse. You can practically feel the throngs of people thrown up against you, the endless shouts and beckonings to explore this or that. It's a dirty, overpopulated cornucopia of dizzying bliss. Side B continue along the same lines except in a much more relaxed manner, bringing to mind the soothing drones of La Monte Young, a forever droning din of bowed metals and buzzing slack. It's an absolute brain melter, for sure, and it's records like these that make me sometimes wish i still enjoyed pot. The window is wide open with this one. Reflecting on the trilogy as a whole i'm perplexed as to why VC didn't just choose to release a double CD; maybe they felt only the most dedicated cosmonauts would indulge this as an actual trilogy and that the three LP format would appeal to a wider cross-section of potential fans. For me, you need all three. It doesn't make sense otherwise. But for the uninitiated any of these records could serve as a starting point. The majesty of drone awaits you with open arms.

VIBRACATHEDRAL ORCHESTRA "JOKA BAYA" (VHF)

Volume two of the trilogy, following a similar pace as the last with side one given over to shorter expositions while side two is one epic composition. In this case both sides are far more wasted, resulting in a much more heightened sense of cosmicness. The controls truly are set for the heart of the sun. Side A is comprised of five short demonstrations of various psychedelia, from post-Danubius flavored symphony attempts to raga-esque zone-outs basted in hashish logic. The only complaint about any of them, as usual, is that they're all too fucking short. As much as vinyl seems to be the preferred format for this style, it sure doesn't suit it. These pieces are limited by their edits-there is no start and stop to any of them-so you know the vinyl is only serving as a limitation here. While the quality of the tunes is never in question the methodology is. Side B aims to correct that with a wrenching narcoleptic jam, one of the most pummeling takes in VC's recorded history, the drums absolutely propelling the piece to an apex that it may or may not have wanted to get to. It's as though the drums are putting the song under martial law. Incredibly "tribal" and forceful, driving the composition to its inevitable collapse beneath its own ambition and aimlessness, a wash of piano style notes giving way to a sterile, relaxing drone that carries things through to the end. Another communique from the damage dimension, another primal scream from the ooze.

VIBRACATHEDRAL ORCHESTRA "THE SECRET BASE" (VHF)

The first album in a trilogy by the ever-changing Vibracathedral Orchestra. It's good to have this ensemble back and making music again. While Neil Campbell's been off sowing his dance oats in the oft-boring Astral Social Club, poor VC has been left in psychedelic limbo. Now Neil's back in the fold, vacuuming in members of Total for the ride and a sweet return to form it is. Side A is the full on bastardization of ethnic world music that VC does so well, coming off like a less technical offshoot of the Sun City Girls, with two tracks that are all wah-ed out guitar wanking and static noise loops draped on top of repetitive rhythmic percussions of hand and kit variety. Nothing changes as far as intensity is concerned but these two tracks lope about in a psyched-out wonderland, coming off like a more acid-drenched travelogue of Robert Mills. Side B is the destroyer here, a massive communal zone-out built around No-Neck style psychic linking, hushed feedback looping and a cold industrialized percussion that may or may not be man made. Perhaps a little of each. I was amazed at the inherent coldness of this track once it gets going-it's not as oppressive as, say, the Swans, but it's a much more frigid take on ethnography than i expected from this group. The distancing doesn't diminish it's zone-out effect though, and the album as a whole is a good 35 minutes of culture-hopping resulting in a thorough brain massage. VC is another band for whom the vinyl format seems a limitation but as the first third in a trilogy this a solid mess.

BURNING STAR CORE "INSIDE THE SHADOW" (Hospital Productions)

C. Spencer Yeh is a violinist by trade and a drone agitator by choice. His instrument and chosen genre suggest an allegiance to obvious forebear Tony Conrad and true, some of Yeh's recordings tread the same well-worn path that Conrad blazed near 40 years ago. But there's a multitude of facets to Yeh's presence within the noise community and a multitude of approaches as exemplified by his exhausting discography. For me his work is hit or miss-some of it is incredibly boring and pointlessly noisy and some of it is masterful bordering on flawless. Picking and choosing which works to invest in, then, becomes very difficult indeed, but Hospital Productions seems to bring out the best in Yeh so picking up this reissue was a no-brainer. A glorified EP of three extended drone workouts, two of which are different takes on the same piece, "Inside the Shadow" finds Yeh inhabiting a distinctly warm place, a comforting sort of drone, that, while tense and somewhat aggressive on "Inside the Shadow(w. metals)", is more devoted to a pure path to relaxation and immersion, foregoing the jittery improvisational qualities that make of much of his output. "Inside the Shadow" is riffed on twice, both as opener and closer, and i'd be curious to hear Yeh's thoughts on both takes. The first attempt is the more jarring, a blending of violin, synthesizers and various"metals" being banged upon, creating a bell-like ringing effect that creates a real sense of disassociation from the comforting drone beneath. This presentation of tension and distraction creates a sense of unease throughout, as though Yeh wants you to feel further away from the comfort of the drone than you'd like to. This sort of control is interesting; it's almost a sexual expression of dominance over the listener-i can make you happy or i can torment you. "Now United" is a simpler affair- a violin excursion marked by gorgeous hoedown style playing doubled or triple tracked against itself to create a brainmelt of utter proportion. This is the piece that recalls both Tony Conrad in its mission to numb you into transcendence and Henry Flynt in its co-opting of historical and geographical musical languages. At seven and a half minutes it's far too short but serves as an intense example of what Yeh is capable of delivering at his best. "Inside the Shadow" is then revisited to close things out, this time as a shorter drone coda, with all the aggravating metals removed. This makes all the difference, as the piece becomes a fluffy, thick dreamcloud of droning beauty, growing in its intensity until it becomes an all-enveloping crackle of tape manipulation and dense tone. So, so lovely and fogging. I can't think of this as a major work in Yeh's canon but it's an enjoyably consistent outing from one of drone's more mysterious practitioners.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

SKULLFLOWER "STRANGE KEYS TO UNTUNE GODS' FIRMAMENT" (Neurot Recordings)

Skullflower is the only band that could soundtrack the apocalypse. As the years have worn on, Matthew Bower has refined his vision to such a singularity that no one currently operating in the musical world can match what he does or even begin to come close to replicating it. Everything pales in comparison to this; there is no keeping pace with genius. Far beyond mere amp torture and reaching past the limits of auditory bombast to a world where the drone is the idol, where the message is one of adulation and engagement, where the journey and the destination are one, "Strange Keys" is a monster of an album. It isn't a statement so much as a declaration of war, or maybe just Bower's sneer as he says, "I dare you." But Matthew Bower has nothing to prove at this point and that's part of what makes this whole thing feel so visceral and honest. There is a darkness here; it's rendered in both the music contained within and the artworks on display outside-the stark black and white engravings of vaguely religious iconography, the photographs inside showing sexual torture, angels falling from the sky, medieval villages aflame and a Renaissance era depiction of melancholy-but there's a light, too, not an optimism but a more beautiful rendering of the same ideals. Interspread amongst all the violent noise guitar eruptions there are equally violent displays of heavenliness. "Enochian Tapestries", for instance, wallows in a wash of massive Tim Hecker-esque fuzz blur while Bower's trademark high-end whine caterwauls over everything, sounding like a weeping requiem and an aching paean to the idea of happiness. A thorough listen to "Gateway to Blasphemous Light" reveals an exploration of strained melodies beneath it's overwrought echoes, the guitars ringing bright and molten as they look to carve a piece out of the sky. It's not blasphemous in the sense that it's profane-it's blasphemous in the sense that people just aren't ready; it's a truth they aren't prepared for yet, much like ancient ideas of the world being round, or the earth revolving around the sun.
"Strange Keys" is split across two discs, each with its own identity and aesthetic. Disc One is the more varied of the two and seems to be Bower acting alone (although i don't really know, as the album lists no credits whatsoever). If that's the case then these six pieces show Bower toying with the idea of what Skullflower is and what the band as a vehicle is really capable of. Two years ago, using the word "beautiful" or "heavenly" to describe anything Skullfower churned out would be entirely remiss; in 2010 the lines are less distinctly drawn and we see Bower bringing in more ideas and sounds from his other projects, most notably Sunroof!, who have always seemed to be the day to Skullflower's infinite night. This sort of self-cannibalizing would seem like a cop-out in the hands of a lesser artist but with Bower it's all about opening up the third eye. While there is no shortage of sheer noise blowouts on this disc (check the opener "Shivering Aurora") the surprise and delight comes in the explorations, of Bower operating outside the comfort zone and expanding Skullflower's musical palette. It's exciting to hear this band evolving and morphing right in front of me; i feel like the idea of noise is being reivented again and we're really only beginning to hear what's possible.
If Disc One is the exploration then Disc Two is the conquering of that world by force. Horrific, bloody, enslaving, merciless force. This is the maelstrom that recent Skullflower albums have demonstrated, the perfect assault engine for auditory onslaught, the whirling, howling scream of a million guitars, like a Rhys Chatham symphony gone completely over to the dark side, as physical a force as it is a musical one. The monstrous weight of disc two leads me to believe that Bower here is operating in full band mode with the help of Lee Stokoe and drummer Stuart Dennison. Much like on last year's "Malediction" the drums are audible as the proceedings begin and then just get buried as the guitars grow and shriek and multiply. A recent article by David Keenan suggested that Bower has been listening to a lot of Richard Wagner and this half of "Strange Keys" certainly lends credence to that rumour-opening track "Nibelungen" is as symphonic a piece as Bower has ever penned, imbued with a crushing density and Satanic pomp that i have never heard in a Skullflower recording. There's a return to structure in this piece, itself a telling notion, and the skillful layering of both noise and melody suggests Bower's engagement with Wagner's work is more than a passing fancy. This approach resurfaces on the epic closer "Rheingold" as well (even the titles of these two pieces seem "german"-it can't be coincidence!), the guitars swelling and climbing to an almost impossible peak of bombastic airpushing until the entire thing just collapses. Sandwiched between those two monoliths are four tracks of utter terror and evil, focusing on Bower's other most noted influence as of late-arcane magick ritual and an interest in all things occult and Satanic. If the third eye can be opened, then so can a void and so can a gate, and across these four hymns Bower seeks to rend open those portals and let whatever dark forces reside there into our universe to wreak havoc let blood. These songs reach such a nadir of volume that it sounds like you're standing in the middle of a great roaring conflagration, being burned alive. Maybe you're a witch. Maybe Bower is the devil.
To me, Skullflower are absolute perfection. I hold Bower in the highest esteem and think of him as one of the true musical geniuses of the modern age. Personally i hold him up with two other visionaries, Campbell Kneale and Varg Vikernes, both individuals who used music as an outlet for intensely personal confessions wrought into sound. It would be easy for me to say that Kneale represents the beauty, Varg the darkness, and Bower becomes the template onto which both artists inscribe their ideas (maybe a bit of a reach, since all three have operated independently of each other and have grown into their aesthetics naturally). I feel that this is really important, intense and gorgeous music, the sound of the end, the utter collapse of everything. There is no one else making this sort of music who is able to operate at this level of mastery. Probably the best record of 2010.

VOLAHN "DIMENSIONES DEL TRANCE KOSMICO" (Klaxon)

Incredibly obscure cosmic black metal from the lead singer of Ashdautus. Both projects traffic in dissonance and alienation but where Ashdautus seem to be exploring a more personal sort of torment and despair, Volahn are more interested in the tenets of magick, ritual and Satanism. This is truly "old school" black metal, a record that is cloaked in a sort of amateur arrogance yet delivers on all its pretense. When i saw the band live last summer they weren't all that impressive-the set was mostly a wash of terribly over-echoed guitar dischord and formless shrieks. The record sounds totally different from that performance. There's a heavy mystical bent from the instant the needle drops. There's a lot of echo and reverb on this recording but not so much that the music becomes a shapeless effects wraith. "Dimensiones..." opens and close with some extended classical guitar, referencing flamenco in technique but traversing a much more arcane path melodically. Again the dissonance is apparent but not consuming-just enough to scramble your brain a little and confuse the idea of what you want to hear. After that the bands flies out of the gates at breakneck speed, pausing only a few times here and there to start up a new riff or let in a few moments of ambient atmosphere. I'm heavily reminded of "Nattens Madrigal" era Ulver-all tremolo picked high end guitar lines and garage level production, with a deceptively large amount of complementary guitars thrown in for weight and texture. The whole thing is shockingly well composed and Volahn's approach is really quite different from what most black metal is offering up today. No surprise that this piece of elite nostalgiah is released by Klaxon, the label operated by Bone Awl whose mission seems to be unearthing the most obscure practitioners of true black metal, the bands who still feel it's a tool for the transference of evil and a mystical power unto itself. Volahn have not made an easy record, but like Ulver before them the majesty is all in the detail and the dedicated listener will find ample rewards.

Friday, February 5, 2010

SKULLFLOWER/LIMEPIT "SPLIT" (Posh Isolation)

I'm very wary of Skullflower on vinyl. While i hold Matthew Bower in the highest regard and consider his output to be near perfection incarnate, i can't help shake the feeling that on the vinyl format he's taking us all for a bit of a ride. Skullflower, especially present-day Skullflower, is all about the long play, the stretch toward the infinite, with songs that seem cut out of an endless body of guitar wail. The time limitations of the LP make Skullflower's aesthetic problematic and for that reason every piece of wax i have from them feels trunctuated. This side is no different. Two songs appear here, one of which, "Serene and Terrible Noontide Abyss", made its debut on a previous album, the live exposition "Walpurgis Night." This studio version lends little improvement and i find it impossible that Bower, who seems to record all day every day, couldn't muster up a new track for this split. So one strike there, and yes, it does pain me to issue a strike against Skullflower. The new track, "Necklace of Kalas", is 15 minutes of near joyful ecstatic amplifier skree, a reach for the light and probably one of the most honestly optimistic pieces i've heard from Bower since the last Sunroof! album. It's all high end glissando and heavenly choir-esque deviation, a ritual rather than requiem. This is an excellent track.
Limepit, a project devoted to sludge noise torture and comprised of members of Sarah's Charity (a guitar destruction unit that released an album on Bower's Heavy Blossom imprint) contribute two unholy tracks to the flipside. It's almost unbelievable but the Limepit tracks outshine the Skullflower one in every regard. This is terribly hateful music, drenched in depression and anger and regret, a liturgy and a confession both, the disgust reaching an almost Whitehouse level of misanthropy. This is total waste, the sound of nihilism rendered into belches of pungent amplifier puke and feedback-laden string torture. Thick and droning, like Earth's worst nightmares brought to vivid unflinching reality. This isn't safe music. Ultra-distorted hyper processed vocals shriek over everything, screaming lyrics that remind me very much of Prurient's vague isolationistic approach to loneliness. The whole thing is a scream, a cry, an expression of pain and hopelessness. At the sum this is an incredible pairing of two explorers of utter emptiness.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

AVARUS "TOOSASSA" (Ultra Eczema)

Holy fuck. This is some serious "outer limits" shit. I barely even know how to start. I have lots of records by Avarus but none of them go as far out as this one does. They're a communal collective from Finland and for the most part they've trafficked in extreme krautrock-fetishizing drone anthems born of a deep reverence and interaction with nature. Much of their music is acoustic and what electric instruments there are seem to be used sparingly and with the utmost consideration, as if a deadly weapon were being brandished. It's a very deep sort of communion, a very internal sort of music being made manifest into the outer world. What Avarus does is not like what anyone else is doing. This album sees them moving FAR beyond those arenas into a totally free-form spontaneous and improvisational sort of throwdown, an immersive session of music making where nothing is verboten and every idea has validity as well as life. This is fucked up brain goop of the ultra confusing variety. I won't even try to tell you it makes sense because it doesn't. It's crazy weird and so, so messed up. Imagine a bunch of retarded muppets dancing around a campfire in a thick cold wood in the dead of night, all of them ululating and making fart noises and raspberries, howling and stomping. Imagine that for whatever reason they have several broken synthesizers, kazoos and a drum set. They're playing them with abandon. That's what this record sounds like. It's enthralling. It's born of another realm with few ties to this one. These guys are in tune with something much deeper. I don't know if it's the communal living, the endless sex or a demolishing amount of earthen drugs and shamanic ritualizing but the end result is some seriously numbing mindfucking. Every now and then a drone will surface and hang around for a bit, tantalizing you with familiar sounds of Avarus records past but for the most part "Toosassa" drifts around in electroacoustique jelly, oozing all over and coating your ears in weirdness. It's frightening but you can't turn away. Like some sort of foresty art installation, a tapestry of natural and prehistoric sound. The true spirit of primitivism that black metal only dreams of touching, completely free and devoid of any commercial concern. This is the root, this is the infinite. This exists because it always has-it just takes the right tuning to receive it.

THE HEADS "TILBURG" (Rooster)

Massive slab of controlled chaos distilled into a psychedelic nihilistic attack courtesy of the Heads, recorded back in 2008 on a gig opening for the Wooden Shjips. Maybe it's just the super stark black and white cover art referencing death but there's a seriously negative vibe here, a sort of commune with pessimism not heard since Les Rallizes Denudes or Fushitsusha circa the mid-1980's. The Heads are not as free form nor as assaulting as either of those groups but the spectre is there, shrouded over the performance like a hanging stench of rot. The Heads just don't give a fuck. The attitude seems to be akin to, "fuck it, fuck this show, fuck these fucks in the audience, let's just plug this shit in and burn it all to the fucking ground." It's dangerous, cold psychedelia best digested in a more secure state of mind. Things start off icy with an assortment of blurping space noises eerily reminiscent Acid Mothers Temple at their most northern, like the guitars were tuning forks designed to pick up signals from the moon. The whoosh and blur grows until the band vomits into a lumbering doom riff worthy of Sabbath after an all-nighter, all crash cymbal gravity and hanging sludge. Some wasted, monotone vocals appear and disappear just as quickly, adding to the idea that everything's just an afterthought and only the present space matters. The band continues to tear through three "songs" that are equal parts Stooges and Comets on Fire blended up with Tony Iommi's most genre-defining riffs, churned out with little regard for audience engagement or reception. The second half of the set finds the lads wrenching a consistent, demolishing groove out of all that fuzz, riding the crest of destructive repetition to a lofty peak on Mt. Recidivism, where all the great riffs go to die. Graverobbing never had a better endorsement. The set closes out with the 15 minute damage display of "Spliff Riff", a horror show of delayed guitar waste and effect-laden air-pushing that seems to cascade forever, the thick bass and endless high-hat punishments absolutely fucking drilling it into you until it's done, just like that. Frank Kozik said that the Heads were his favorite band. Frank Kozik also liked to eat aspirin by the handful, chase it with a full bottle of cough syrup and listen to Electric Wizard "really fucking loud." Frank Kozik knew his shit. This LP totally destroys.