(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Recording review - Deltron 3030, Event 2 (2013)

Finally: dense lyrics, wicked flow, and great musicality

Fans of the original Deltron 3030 album could be forgiven for thinking that they’d have to wait another 1030 years to get the sequel. The tight team of Del the Funky Homosapien, Dan “the Automator” Nakamura and Kid Koala created a near masterpiece back in 2000, weaving an Afrocentric sci-fi tale of a hip hop techno-revolutionary rising up to challenge the corporate New World Order. After achieving critical success, it didn’t take long for rumors to surface that a follow-on project was in the works. By 2006, Del confirmed that they were making quick progress. Nakamura even projected a 2007 release. But after repeated delays, it seemed like “Time Keeps On Slipping”, their single from the original album, had the straight dope, “No one knows the time, pass me by.” Even after the group performed new material at the Luminato festival in June 2012 and released teaser tracks earlier in 2013, it was hard to believe that they’d really deliver the sequel. But defying past experience, they’ve finally released Event 2.

With all the hype and hoopla, it’s inevitable that many fans will find fault with the album’s darker mood and comedic missteps. Not quite a direct descendant of the original Deltron 3030, the storyline reflects themes from the intervening decade of real life: one percenters wallow in greed while banks fail and the government uses external threats to dominate the people. The first episode had its own cynical view of society’s gatekeepers, especially in the guise of the music industry, but Event 2 has internalized much of the pessimism that’s come in the wake of 9/11 and economic collapse. Our hero, Deltron Zero makes the journey from first responder in “The Return” to deification as Osiris, god of life and death, on “City Rising From The Ashes”. The negativity doesn’t hurt the narrative because it provides Deltron Zero something to fight against. The larger problem is with the balance of tension and release. The skits are designed to offset the heaviness of the story. With Del’s incredibly dense lyrical flow, that becomes even more important. Unfortunately, the album’s lighter moment fall flat. For example, where MC Paul Barman’s segment on the first album, “Meet Cleofis Randolph The Patriarch”, captured his voice and humor, the “Lawnchair Quarterback” tracks with David Cross and Amber Tamblyn or chef David Chang’s “The Future of Food” all drag on as stilted improvisation. The Lonely Planet’s “Back in the Day” could pass as a Firesign Theater castoff as they shuck their way through a goofy old fart riff, where the best moment is a weak meta-level joke, “Back in the day before time travel was easy-peasy, but now we go back, re-rap to make it sound repeaty/ Back in the day before time travel was easy-peasy/ Back in the day before time travel was easy-peasy…

Honestly, though, rap album skits are always a bit lame. Even if there’s not enough sweet for the bitter, the real test lies in how well the crew delivers on the main tracks. Fortunately, Event II has plenty to offer in this regard. After the preamble of “Stardate”, they dive right into the story with “The Return”. The heavy beat and record-scratch accents pair up with an open, post-rock progression as Del outlines the dystopian background: privateers fighting an authoritarian government as society falls apart. After the hook announces the return of Deltron Zero and Automator, the song breaks into a freefall descent. The next verse features Deltron Zero and his posse making their first impact, rescuing a woman from drugged-out muggers. This song features all three members of the collective in top form. Del’s lyrics are denser than ever before, packed tight with plot points and detail. His conversational flow is rhythmic but sometimes the slant rhymes almost slip past because of his idiosyncratic phrasing. Kid Koala’s turntable riffs skitter along the edges, especially in the choppy breaks. I’ll give Nakamura the credit for the musical vision of the piece, which offers at least three distinct sections. Del’s voice may drive this tune and the rest of the album, but Nakamura’s musicality gives the project its concept album depth.

By “The Agony”, Deltron Zero has set his sights a bit higher and is moving against the empire with a ship and a mercenary crew. Backed by moody funk, the tight-fitting lyrics just roll out, “Superior technology wielded by the oddity/ The loose cannon, the lyrical mage and prodigy/ Deltron probably.” The bass and horn skeleton of the groove is balanced by occasional swooping string fills.

My favorite song is “What Is This Loneliness”. It’s a slight interlude in the flow of the story, with Del and guest rapper Casual swapping verses about interstellar aliens. Casual’s gruffer tone is a welcome contrast and he lays down some solid lines, “Damn, who would volunteer/ To bounce extremely low frequency rhymes off the ionosphere/ Tell all alien life, ‘I’m in here’/ So, your vessel? It could get commandeered.” The chorus offers a soft pop reprieve from the heavy verses. Damon Albarn sings it with an accent that suggests David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, which fits the space opera feel of the piece.

It’s tempting to judge Event 2 against Deltron 3030, or rather the idealized memory of the predecessor, and find it lacking. But listening to both side by side, each has its own voice and strengths. It’s been a long wait for the follow-up, but it’s worth it to hear the growth of all of the contributors.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Recording review - Pontiak, Innocence (2014)

Bite-sized chunks of roiling guitar

Let the ritual of fuzz begin! Heat shimmers, metallic grind, throaty roars, and muted growls - a multitude of textures awaits on Pontiak's Innocence. The Carney brothers have an innate grasp on "What Would Black Sabbath Do?" It goes beyond a mere enthusiasm for retro classic metal psychedelia; the three of them seem ensnared in the heady, distorted echoes of 1970. Despite the psychic weight of that history, they still set one foot forward towards the modern era, bridging the gap by emulating the neo-psych acid-trails of bands like The Flaming Lips. Their unique balance depends on that mix of moods and it's mostly effective. The album is full of great song ideas and ballsy riffage. The one weakness is that they seem to tire of  the tunes before they fully ripen. Innocence's 11 tracks run just under 33 minutes, which would be great for teen idol pop fluff. But these songs deserve much better treatment.

Both of the first two tracks, "Innocence" and "Lack Lustre Rush", set up solid grooves, the first with a Cream-meets-Sabbath bass-heavy guitar throb and the latter with a thick drum-propelled gut-punch. But neither idea is developed to completion. The hard-rocking "Lack Lustre Rush" sinks twisted roots into punk nihilism and metal head-banging. Van Carney laconically speak-sings his lines over the static-tone wash of heavily abused cymbals. On the first listen, the speedy drum fills at 2:12 sounded like the signal for a bridge that would open the track up. Instead, they were merely an unadorned solo to put the piece to rest. That lack of stamina wasn't just a missed opportunity to expand into new directions; it drew attention to the song's tonal uniformity.

Fortunately, the third track, "Ghosts", offers redemption. The song kicks off with an octave-counterpoint whipsaw guitar that sounds like shred-head parody of The Knack's "My Sharona". But there's nothing to laugh at as the frantic pace and distorted riff relentlessly turn the screws tighter. The drums mutate the beat from the initial nervous tic into regular waves of roiling guitar grind. By the time the vocals float out over the throbbing terrain, you get the sense that somewhere deep in Heavy Metal Hell, a dark angel is finally getting its black leather wings. The bridge provides some respite from the tightly wound drive with a quick run of cut-time chord changes. The brief solo is a feedback-fueled bit of black-psychedelic beauty. Notes drip into the void of the implacable rhythm and then bow out for the next verse to come in. This time the drums are clearly taking the song out when they kick into overdrive. This climax sets up a radical break in the tone with the next track, "It's The Greatest".

Here Pontiak shows a new side by leading off with a reedy organ. The lingering chords and relaxed drumbeat borrow a lot from David Bowie's "Candidate" (Diamond Dogs, 1974). After the pressure of "Ghosts", the laid back mood is a relief. Even the hippy-dippy lyrics are a splash of cool water, "My God, It's the best afternoon we've had/ Nothing but to do this. Right on, it's the greatest." This sends the album in a new direction for the next couple of songs, which favor The Flaming Lips style of trippy folk-flavored rock. The interlude serves its purpose and lets us catch our breath before Innocence falls back under the thrall of their metal-flaked influences with "Surrounded By Diamonds". The heavy Super-Fuzz tone sets up a choppy strobe-flicker of rhythm guitar to support the Ozzie-style vocal.

The album showcases Pontiak's feel for sculpting distortion into all kinds of shapes. Skewed reflections of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Tommy Iommi, and Jimmy Page make their appearances, but the band still shows plenty of originality, albeit in bite-sized chunks. Here's to hoping that their next release will dig deeper into the tunes.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 1/27

Monday, 27 January (Bluebird Theater, Denver C)
Tuesday, 28 January (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
White Denim

It's been a few years since I last saw White Denim (review), but at that time, the roller coaster ride of driving acid soul exploded their studio work into a rich world of tonal mayhem and evocative jams. Since then, they've added another guitarist, but maintained a stable line up. So the group has settled in and developed their "turn on a dime" arrangements to perfection.

Tuesday, 28 January (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Wednesday, 29 January (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)

Like jam-band royalty, Trey Anastasio is checking in for a two night residency at the Ogden. In theory, that would support a larger number of people to get their fix, but I'm guessing that the attendance will be about the same group over the two shows. Anastasio has not always translated his talents within the studio, but live shows are where he always shines. 

Wednesday, 29 January (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

The benefits of living in a college town now include visits from agent provacateur Jello Biafra and his touring act, The Guantanamo School of Medicine. The outspoken frontman from the Dead Kennedys has roots in Boulder, so he's not such a stranger, but this is the only nearby stop on this tour. Biafra tackles controversial subjects and positions in a spoken-word context and while he often offends, it's important to note that he can be very thought-provoking to the open minded.

Friday, 31 January (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)

Denver's regularly scheduled Shredded Beats engagement generally offers up a fine run of artists, packing the hall with an eclectic mix of musicians, hip-hop performers, experimentalists, and visual artists. This winter's three night engagement features Swollen Members (night one), Deltron 3030 (night two), and Hopsin and Dilated Peoples (night three). The truth is that you should catch all three nights. But if you have to pick a single night, I recommend the Deltron 3030 show. Fresh on the heels of 2013's long awaited Event II, Dan the Automator and Del the Funky Homosapien are touring with a live backing band to fill out the sound. Get buried under that flow!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mixtape: In the event of weasels. Robot zombie weasels.

This special purpose mixtape is a new occasional feature. Let me know if you like it.

This particular one is intended for those times when you find yourself beset by weasels. Of course, there's always another shoe to drop. In this case, it's the unfortunate realization that these are no ordinary weasels. Here's your soundtrack, now get busy!

(YouTube playlist)

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - "Tune Grief " (Mirror Traffic)

Where would we be without foreshadowing? Join the weasels in their lair and listen to the preparations. Ruled by reckless abandon and thrashy joy, they're psyching themselves up to come out and meet you!

Gogol Bordello - "Super Taranta!" (Super Taranta!)

The song begins as you're minding your own business. The jaunty Eastern European accordion at the start captures your last moments of innocence. Eugene Hütz's anguished shout just before the drums kick in is perfectly timed to cover your own shout of surprise. Now the battle is underway. Remember to pace yourself. Oh, and watch out for that one sneaking up on your left side.

Frank Zappa - "Rat Tomago" (Sheik Yerbouti)

Your yelling is just barely audible over the guitar shredding rasp of the weasel's music. So, this is what they listen to on the battlefield... Looking across the room to the only door, you steel yourself for the slog through a rabid multitude. You wonder why they aren't listening to Zappa's "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" and decide it would have been too obvious...

King Crimson - "Thrak" (Thrak)

You're  making good progress when a shadow falls across the doorway. You find yourself facing the largest weasel you've ever seen. Rather than a mere six to eight inches long, this one is six to eight feet! He somehow signals to the others and they clear a space before him. With no other choice, you step forward...

Metallica - "The Struggle Within" (Metallica)

You summon your courage and face the vicious giant. He mouths along with James Hetfield, trying to demoralize you, "Struggle within/ you seal your own coffin." But you shrug that off and pick up a fortuitously placed implement of destruction. You weigh its heft and begin your assault. He falls back from your relentless flurry of strikes. If you can defeat him, the rest should be easy.

Finally! He falls.

Garage a Trois - "Sprung Monkey" (Emphasizer)

The smaller vermin reel in shock to see their champion taken down. You figure this is the time to beat it, but you can't help but look at your vanquished foe as you pass. He's still twitching...no, wait. He's rising up again. Despite his mortal wounds, something seems to be animating him and setting him against you still.

God Is An Astronaut - "The End of the Beginning" (The End of the Beginning)

Okay, no problem. A quick stab should take care of this. Except that generates no response. Now, he seems even more intent on getting you. Damn, I hate zombies. What's it going to take here?

A trickle of sweat stings your eyes, but you remain resolute. You have to. You finally deal the decisive blow and smash the giant zombie weasel's skull. Wait a second...what was that weird flash of light?

Glitch Mob - "Animus Vox" (Drink The Sea)

The corpse seems to melt, revealing the metal skeleton within. Suddenly, you notice the glowing eyes of all the smaller weasels around you. They generate their own light as they mechanically press forward, closing in on you. Shrill squeals can no longer disguise the whir of tiny gears.

Daft Punk - "Fall" (TRON: Legacy)

You slip into a zone: pivot, strike, parry. If you can just keep in motion...Time blurs and then ceases to exist.

Zoe Keating - "Legions (Aftermath)" (One Cello x 16 Natoma)

The next thing you're conscious of is the pain. Muscle cramps and a host of small cuts and gouges go a long way towards explaining the ring of twisted and ruined mechano-weasels around you. Hearing hints of motion from within the piles, you realize that the time has come to leave this place. You resolve to avoid late afternoon visits to Starbuck's in the future.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Recording review - Silencio, The Politics of Lonely (2013)

Soft focused and saturated, an enchanting taste of memory

There is a moment of clarity when will and intent drop away, a moment that exists outside of time. Buddhists call it satori. On The Politics of Lonely, Julien Demoulin and Silencio circle that point, trying to intuit its shape. But they recognize that the surest way to approach it is to let go of the search and drift idly, letting the currents carry them. Dreamy and relaxed, the album is a trance journey that skirts the edges of space music, New Age and experimental post-rock. This new album is more rhythmically engaged than the band’s last release, When I’m Gone (2012), but still aims for a hypnogogic state on the borderlands between sleep and consciousness.

The pieces are evocative, often sounding like they’d pair well with short videos—“The City” has a shimmery underwater feel that could serve as the soundtrack for an old film loop. It’s easy to imagine the soft focus and saturated colors of home-shot Super 8. All the action onscreen would be silent and the music would rest upon it with the distance and detachment of memory. Maybe this is the loneliness indicated by the album title, but, if so, it’s a thoughtful remove. The reminiscence is split by staccato piano stutters that suggest a set of hidden meanings that never quite coherently connect. The second time through, the song is caught in an eddy of navel-gazing. The languorous flow is distracted by the glistening ripples, by worlds of possibilities.

The songs on The Politics of Lonely are anchored by Demoulin’s guitar and Bernold Delgoda on percussion, along with Nicolas Lecocq on keys. The guitar and piano take turns leading, while Delgoda’s drag beat rhythms ensure that any progress is slow and measured. Synthesizers and electronic treatments flesh out the pieces, adding an ambient vibe that meshes with the reverberating melodies. Several of the tracks also feature Lénina Epstein on bass, most notably “Old You” and “Bridges”. This latter tune follows in Pink Floyd’s footsteps, borrowing a little from both Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. A looped guitar figure slowly sways from one chord to another while Epstein’s bass swoops between the two root notes and the drums groove along lazily. The piece seems content to wander from pole to pole, but then it comes to a halt as if blocked. The guitar probes with single notes, as if searching for a way around. The drums stumble along as the other instruments make their tentative forays. The rising swell of synths signal a change in perspective and a crystalline path forward is revealed. It’s not clear where it will lead and the moment freezes on the brink of a decision.

The album is enchanting as it explores world after world, traveling to the hazy heart of Limbo or mapping the drifting boundaries of unknown dream dimensions. Each track is a meditation, where a different mantra reigns. The universal truths they reveal are found in the rolling waves of synthesizers and guitars cloaked in echoes. On repeated listening, Delgoda’s percussion stands out as the distinguishing element. His nuanced playing magnifies the differences in mood and keeps Silencio from slipping into any single genre. His structure pulls the album away from the gravity well of space music and pushes it in jazzy and progressive directions

How close do they come to enlightenment? As close as the heat shimmer wash of a desert sky or as far out as taking mushrooms and watching dust motes dance in the sunlight.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 1/20

A very short list this week.

Thursday, January 23 (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Friday, January 24 (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Saturday, January 25 (1st Bank Center, Broomfield CO)
Disco Biscuits

5_A_177 Disco Biscuits Whenever the Disco Biscuits make it to Colorado, it's a celebration. Whether it's at Red Rocks or an indoor venue like the Ogden or the 1st Bank Center, the band creates a riotous celebration of light, rhythm, and music that insistently drives the crowd to dance.

Thursday, January 23 (Moon Room at the Summit Music Hall, Denver CO)
Friday, January 24 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
The Toasters

In case you didn't get enough ska last week with Reel Big Fish, another great opportunity is on tap this week. Local ska masters, 12 Cents For Marvin and The A-Oks, will also be performing. Get rude!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Concert review - Reel Big Fish with Suburban Legends, Mighty Mongo, and The Maxies

17 January 2013 (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)

Aside from getting pelted with somebody's half-full mixed drink while taking pictures of Reel Big Fish, I've got little to complain about. Well, I could also mention the traffic between Ft. Collins and Denver. It took longer than expected to get down to the Gothic and we arrived shortly after the Maxies came on stage. This means we missed the secret opening act: Reel Big Fish drummer Ryland Steen performed a solo set to promote his new album, This Magnificent. I wish I had caught it; sampling the album on iTunes, it would have been interesting to hear how he translated the driving rock sound into solo guitar arrangements.

But traffic is a constant pain and rowdy crowds are a fixture at hyped up ska-fests, so let's dive right into the bands.

024 Maxies
The first thing you notice about The Maxies is how well the band leader moves for a fat guy. Actually, that not true; the first thing you notice is that the band are all sporting crazy masks and distinctive red and white costumes. Aside from the kitschy outfits, the band also hid themselves behind a family of pseudonyms: Maximum Maxie, Android Maxie, etc. Oh, yeah, they also had a polar bear on stage and claimed to be the biggest band in Greenland.

007 Maxies
It's all a glorious gimmick, but the band committed completely to the conceit. Lead singer Maximum Maxie was a frontman determined to affront. Like a super-hero (villain?) Don Rickles, he abused the audience with a sneer and a wink. He taunted the crowd, singling out people to mock and making one outrageous statement after another. This only let up when he turned his insults to the other bands playing with them on the tour. Meanwhile, the rest of the group clowned around, capering around the stage like deranged mimes. That barely-reined comedic chaos drove the set and spurred the whole venue to party.

020 Maxies
The group's stage work fit well with the smart ass punk attitude permeating the songs. Each tune was a power punk explosion of tight chops, catchy riffs, and irreverent lyrics. In deference to the skankers, the band threw down a chank beat now and again, but neither that nor their masks could disguise their punk roots. It was a high energy set from a well-practiced group and cheap shot one-liners added just as much character as the costumes. Their own press says it best, "More PUNK than ROCK. More ROCK than PUNK!"

069 Mighty Mongo
When a band kicks off their set at a ska show with the heavy reverb of Dick Dale's "Miserlou" AND a member is playing a wicked-ass keytar, you know you're in the throes of cognitive dissonance. After the Maxies' in-your-face performance, Mighty Mongo initially seemed a bit restrained. But that impression faded as they quickly gave us a taste of their stage personas and made it clear just how much fun they were having. Bass player Alex Card in particular had an outsize personality, moving from rock god pose to self-consciously Caucasian rapper without a pause. Those shifts were scripted into the setlist, but, like a good actor, Card owned the role at any given time, laughing his way through a hip-hop call and response ("When I say 'hot', you say 'dog'!) or earnestly singing an '80s style rocker.

074 Mighty Mongo
Fellow singer Lindsay Vitola balanced him out with an exuberantly wholesome performance. She had a strong voice and a warm stage presence. Completely at home in front of the crowd, she danced and bounced along with joyful abandon, but locked right into the mic to nail her part. The early songs in the set emphasized her keytar work but even more would have been welcome. Instead, she focused on her singing. She and Card had worked up some great vocal arrangements, trading verses then harmonizing on the choruses.

065 Mighty Mongo
Mighty Mongo's setlist skipped across a stream of genres, favoring alternative rock and '90s pop, but they leveraged enough ska to satisfy the crowd. Of course, it didn't hurt when they brought in Chris Lucca from Suburban Legends for a couple of tunes including a solid rendition of "Never There" by Cake. Tapping into such a versatile sound, the band had the crowd moving from start to finish.

145 Suburban Legends
The sound check teased us when bass player Brad Polidori riffed through a taste of Rush's "Limelight". That served as fair notice that the band would pepper their set with a host of interesting covers. Their show actually opened with the hard punching "High Fives" (Rump Shaker, 2003). A perfect blend of catchy pop, driving beat, and ska breakdowns, this song jump started the audience. The music was super high energy enough but Suburban Legends demonstrated the value of their experience playing at Disneyland and crafted every moment to wring out maximum entertainment. Whether it was Vincent Walker charming the crowd, the tight stage choreography keeping everything in motion, or the big reveal of their trademarked backdrop, the band never wasted an ounce of opportunity to create a big splash impression.

112 Suburban Legends
While Walker and the horn players performed the most intricate stage moves, all of the band had their parts.  Walker was an incredibly dynamic frontman, working the edge of the stage, and projecting theatrical facial expressions that played all the way to the back of the room. In fact, it's clear that they're well prepared for much larger venues than the Gothic, but that didn't dampen their enthusiasm.

121 Suburban Legends
Their Disney background bubbled to the surface as they ran through several company classics, from turning "Duck Tales" into a rousing party anthem to channeling the spunky arrogance of "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" from The Lion King. Walker even traded roles with guitarist Brian Klemm so Klemm could take "Kiss The Girl" (The Little Mermaid) over the top. Klemm topped himself, though, with a spot on Neil Diamond impression for "Sweet Caroline". Several of the Disney tracks are available on the band's recent EP, Dreams Aren't Real But These Songs Are.

141 Suburban Legends
The non-stop extravaganza stage presence is great, but it plays so large that it could make Suburban Legend as mockable as the latest boy band. Fortunately, they understood that and remembered to give the occasional wink that acknowledged the campiness, balancing the sincerity with satire. And it helps that they weren't just a set of dance moves and posturing; their musicianship was top notch. The arrangements could be infectiously poppy, but they knew how to bring in a rocking solo riff or nail a horn blare in tight formation to give the music the right edge. This made them a fine match up for the headliners.

195 Reel Big Fish
Last year, Reel Big Fish landed high up in my list of favorite shows for the year, largely based on their fun, party atmosphere, great songs, and frontman Aaron Barrett's wildcard humor. They tore up the Gothic during their set, inciting the mosh pit to reach for the edges of the room and the tunes were as droll and sarcastic as ever. Barrett seemed in even better form than last year's show. But with trombonist Dan Regan retiring from touring, the act lost some of the stage repartee magic that Regan helped create. Saxophonist Matt Appleton, proud beneath his mohawk, did his best to contribute to the mood, but I missed the good-natured sniping that Barrett and Regan had developed.

186 Reel Big Fish
That said, the band still put on a hot show that rocked their fans. After the precise choreography of Suburban Legends, Reel Big Fish seemed fairly loose and relaxed, but Barrett and the band made more karate kicks than you'd have seen in an Elvis show. Otherwise, Barrett was content to spin across the stage while the horns coordinated some of their movements. But while the stage blocking was left to chance, the music was locked down into the groove. Lead guitar would take the dive and fall just as the horns burst in to clamor for attention. The bass and drums insistently propelled the songs with well-oiled synchronization.

194 Reel Big Fish
The set list favored the group's early material, leading off with "Everything Sucks" and later hitting crowd favorites like "I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend" and "Beer". Dropping the banter, Reel Big Fish flew through the songs, juxtaposing old with the new: "I Dare You To Break My Heart"  led to "Good Thing" before the band transitioned back up the timeline to "Your Guts (I Hate Them)". One of the funniest moments came in the set up for "Sell Out". They launched into a deadpan ska cover of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe". After nailing the chorus, Barrett said, "Yes, we're going to play the whole song." Then they challenged the men in the audience to start the second verse, but immediately detuned into chaotic discord before rebooting into "Sell Out".

210 Reel Big Fish
Lindsay Vitola from Mighty Mongo joined the band for a pair of their classic male/female duets, "I Know You Too Well To Like You Anymore" and "She Has a Girlfriend Now". Vitola brought her own character to the parts, acting out and holding her own with Barrett. Their chemistry was perfect.

214 Reel Big Fish
The encore skipped the multi-genre romp of "S.R." that they often perform in favor of "Thank You For Not Moshing", but they still closed with their iconic cover of A-ha's "Take On Me", which I think I've finally heard more often than the original. Gladly.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Recording review - ÄÄNIPÄÄ, Through a Pre-Memory (2013)

Dramatic textures mired in experimental murk

Can you get too much of a bad thing? A bass beat rumble and detuned guitar strums set the foreboding mood at the very start of Through a Pre-Memory. Joined by an artificial snare and strangely reverberating voices, the ironically named “Muse” is like a gateway into schizophrenic darkness. The dissonant chord progression climbs a couple of steps in an irregular repetition, but, like Sisyphus, always slips back to its starting point. Within the first two minutes, the bleak, defeatist feeling is almost overwhelming and it’s daunting to realize that the track still has another 19 minutes to run. The sonic palette extends to include additional ghostly intrusions: short, insectile squiggles of electronic static like a bad patch cable and jarring echoes of noise that might have their roots in an abused guitar. At 5:22, Alan Dubin from the doom metal band, Khanate, makes his first appearance. Hosting us on our haunted house tour, he roughly shouts a few lines from the writings of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The experimental experience transitions into a new ethereal realm, dominated by squeals, squonks and otherworldly echoes. Eventually, at 12:23, Dubin returns to assault us with a rawly screamed accusation that begins, “When/ At night/ I wait for her.” His feral ranting is matched by a metal guitar grind. At this point, it’s so disturbing that it’s easy to look back fondly on the welcoming embrace of the song’s beginning.

Of course, ÄÄNIPÄÄ is not interested in creating pretty music; they’re more engaged in capturing dramatic moments. The two members each have their own experimental approaches that find complementary expression in this duo. Mika Vainio, of Pan Sonic, has long crafted industrial-flavored electronic soundscapes, calculated to evoke tension and doubt. Guitarist Stephen O’Malley leverages both his doom-metal aesthetic and the heavy droning darkness of his band, Sunn O))), to find textures that evoke a hypnotic nihilism. The two artists connected when their bands collaborated on a 2009 cover of Suicide’s “Che”. On this project, they grant themselves full freedom to explore the shadows together.

The remaining three long-playing tracks on Through a Pre-Memory provide their own sojourns through soul-crushing, twilight realms. None of this is cheery, but “Toward All Thresholds” finds the most peace. It slowly thaws to reveal a strange, ambient locale, surrounded by the low buzz of unseen creatures. As night falls, swirls and swoops of sound briefly drift close then dart away. This disorienting sonic sculpture gradually collects details and transitions from a natural space to a grander view of alien artifacts. Vainio’s bass-heavy techno throb underlies this section like a mechanical heartbeat while O’Malley’s guitar accents the piece’s throaty hum with splashes of awe-struck fear. The machine-like drone grows until all is paralyzed. A sharp cut-off and we pass through the doorway, spending the final two minutes in a barren zone, having lost all sense of direction.

It’s very evocative music. This kind of murky catharsis has its satisfying moments, but ÄÄNIPÄÄ pushes so deeply into obscure spaces that the pieces start to drag and lose power. Dubin’s harsh vocals on both “Muse” and the last track, “Watch Over Stillness / Matters Principle”, do contribute to the fearful atmosphere, but ultimately become more of an annoyance. Like most experimental forays, it’s all a matter of taste, but Through a Pre-Memory was too bitter-metallic for me.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Recording review - William Onyeabor: World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who Is William Onyeabor? (2013)

A mysterious Afro-funk story with little but musical clues

One look at the title reveals the standard marketing technique: bait the hook with a rhetorical query and hope that people will be intrigued enough to buy the album. But it turns out that it’s a legitimate question without a clear answer. Who Is William Onyeabor? The facts are fairly slim. He’s a Nigerian musician who released several Afro-funk albums starting in 1978. His songs turned up on African music samplers like Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970s Funky Lagos and Joe Tangari’s Africa 100 bootleg playlist. A few years later, he became a born again Christian and dropped out of the secular music scene. Since then, he’s shown no interest in discussing his past, neither his earlier work nor his post-recording life. When Luaka Bop put this project together as the latest in their World Psychedelic Classics series, Onyeabor refused to participate, leaving them with a fairly vague biographical background. Plenty of tantalizing details have emerged over the years – a Russian film school, a personal recording studio and a village chiefdom – but there’s no real narrative and little corroboration.

If the liner notes can’t resolve the question, then we’re left with Onyeabor’s songs, which graft P-Funk party music onto African roots. The American inspiration is obvious as he demonstrates his love of ‘70s era funk, soul and disco, but his core remains deeply Nigerian, sharing many elements with his countryman Fela Kuti. Lyrically, he borrows from both traditions. Just as George Clinton built extended grooves around short, memorable slogans, Onyeabor bases his tunes on simple statements, chanted repeatedly. But where P-Funk favors a hedonistic kind of humor, with lines like “Get up for the down stroke,” or “Here’s a toast to the boogie/ We’ll funk to that, bottoms up,” Onyeabor’s message is generally more direct and serious. For instance, on “Good Name”, he preaches, “Good name is better than silver and gold,” and warns against ethical compromise. These proclamations are more in line with Fela’s Afro-beat chants.

Onyeabor’s music walks a similar thin line. He assembles his Afro funk grooves under the influence of drum machine beats and analog synthesizers, but the trance-like surrender to rhythmic repetition is very African. The P-Funk and Fela influence is clear, but the songs break from both those sources with a sparse simplicity. There are layers and polyrhythms, but they rarely get more than three or four strata deep. Aside from the female singers, it sounds like he recorded most of these parts on his own.

The opening track, “Body and Soul”, sets the formula for the whole career-spanning compilation. In this case, the basic structure is built around a simple guitar riff, a steady drum beat and synthesizer fills. The keys take center stage, as Onyeabor experiments with a wide variety of synth textures. Aside from the requisite string pads and electric piano, he finds some wilder modulations that come straight from the Mothership. Deeply danceable, this track has the strongest P-Funk vibe, recalling “Chocolate City”. The only drawback is that the piece is a bit long-winded, running over 10 minutes. His musical ideas could have easily fit in half that time, but Onyeabor covers the same ground again and again, hypnotized by his own beat. This aesthetic serves as a litmus test for the album; listeners who can engage with the repetition will appreciate the nuanced meditative vibe.

Over time, I have found myself drifting in and out of appreciation. While I enjoy his basic funk approach, the outlier tracks are the ones that prove most interesting. In particular, the distinctly reggae sound of “Heaven and Hell” stands out. Compared to many of the other songs, it has more lyrical density and the wah-wah guitar fills and horn punches provide a richer set of interactions. Similarly, the Afro-beat feel of “Something You Will Never Forget” offers more diversion with horns, tight guitar figures and more varied syncopation.

I still don’t know who William Onyeabor is, but his music suggests that he’s somewhat obsessive, finding comfort in repetition and subtle details. His lyrics stake a moral ground that’s certainly in line with his later religious conversion. The rest is a mystery. I’d like to think that he’s channeled that same focus to his current contemplation.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 1/13

Recommended shows for the next week across the Colorado Front Range.

Friday, 17 January (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Sunday, 19 January (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Reel Big Fish

097 Reel Big FishLast year, Reel Big Fish made my shortlist of favorite shows. Their tight arrangements, fun stage banter, and smart ass attitude created a perfect storm of ska entertainment. They have a couple of shows this week in Denver and in Ft. Collins, so there's no excuse not to see them!

Saturday, 18 January (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Panic! At The Disco

From wild theatricality (A Fever You Can't Sweat Out) to Beatlesque pop (Pretty...Odd) and back to stylized, artsy pop (Vices & Virtues and Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!), Panic! At The Disco has maintained a dedication to entertaining presentation and an aura of off-beat sensibility. In many ways, that makes them a better live act than in the studio, although their albums have been pretty decent..

Saturday, 18 January (Soiled Dove, Denver CO)
Stanley Jordan

Jazz guitar wonder, Stanley Jordan shows that jaw-dropping technique can be fully harnessed to the needs of the music. In his earliest days, his two-handed melodic playing style amazed audiences and the influential ripples spread well beyond jazz. These days, Jordan has matured as a player, but continues to push the boundaries of his instrument while making beautiful music. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Recording review - Beats Antique, A Thousand Faces - Act 1 (2013)

Every taste offers another intriguing melange

Beats Antique may let their guest artists step up front and show their faces, but the exotic blend of Gypsy flavored electronica reveals the band behind the mask. The songs may vary quite a bit, but there's an open minded aesthetic and familiar sonic predilections that will satisfy long-time fans. That established audience is the target for A Thousand Faces - Act 1. The self-released album spawned a Kickstarter project to create an innovative stage production that would show off the new music and their fans quickly responded to support the vision. It's hardly news for a band to turn to crowd-funding, but many of their supporters may not directly benefit from the show if they live off the tour route. Beats Antique overcame that challenge because their fan base appreciates their cross-disciplinary artistic vision and can buy into the thrill of patronage.

Like their other releases, A Thousand Faces is as influenced by Zoe Jakes' choreography as it is by musicians David Satori and Sidecar Tommy Cappel. The sinuous and exotic "Kismet" is inseparable from Jakes' dancing. Sarod player Alam Khan begins the song with sly glances and calculated deliberation. The song quickly picks up an Arabic belly dancing tonality. As the tune feints forward and then retreats, it's easy to imagine the accompanying dance that weaves along with the spidery creep of the rhythm. "The Approach" also reflects a strong physicality. The Latin horns follow along behind a stalking beat. Like a ritual march or parade, the piece has a heightened theatricality, but it's powered by an aura of nervous excitement. The first half plays larger than life, but it slides into a sparser section full of bass menace. Squiggling electronica weaves around a slide banjo riff for a short interlude before the track returns to the opening pursuit.This has all of the elements that make Beats Antique great. A cultural stew of influences come together, expressed through acoustic and electronic instruments with a rhythm that demands movement and engagement.

A Thousand Faces has its stranger facets as well. "Doors of Destiny" is tossed out as a surrealistically comic interlude. The game show conceit is amusing, but the wonderful Eastern European Gypsy vamp lets it stand up to repeated listening. About two minutes in ("You chose door number two" *meow*), the tune melts down and turns into a dark, dubsteppy roller-coaster. Whooping highs inevitably give way to stripped gear lows. I only wish this musical interlude was longer. The other oddball is the Les Claypools collaboration, "Beezlebub". Claypool's distinctively glitchy bass style is blended with bass grinds and bubbles. The piece captures his off-beat funk and quirky vocals but fits them into the Beats Antique sonic universe, almost as if they're remixing Primus.

The songs evoke a host of different moods and flavors: Balinese-tinged anticipation on "Charon's Crossing", momentous electro-pop with "You The Starry Eyed", and a cinematic turn featuring a sly alien presence on "Viper's Den". Despite all the costume changes, though, it's unequivocally a Beats Antique project and among their finest.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 1/6

Friday, 10 January (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)

Okay, so this is completely speculative. This Friday, the Larimer Lounge is hosting a tribute band lineup. Normally, that wouldn't wake us up here at JJM, but this looks to be something very special. The opening acts, Fool For a Day and Skulls, covering Rage Against The Machine and The Misfits respectively, are probably just fine, but the wildcard is Metalachi. They bill themselves as the "Ultimate Metal Mariachi tribute band." Their cover of Ozzy's "Crazy Train" alone fills my heart with joy!

Sunday, 12 January (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Monday, 13 January (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
Earl Sweatshirt

Earl Sweatshirt is making his victory lap after his great 2013 album, Doris. Solid rhythmic flow, great beats, and deeply personal and gritty lyrics caught the ear of numerous critics last year. At the same time, he can also draw on his work with Odd Future to offer a good mix of styles. He'll be hitting Ft. Collins and Denver on this arm of the tour.

Sunday, 12 January (Moe's Original Bar B Que, Englewood CO)
The A-Oks

043 The A-OKs The A-Oks won me over when they opened for Skyfox and Discount Cinema last November (show review). Their set was over-charged with ska-punk energy. Nearly getting hit in the head by a trombone slide didn't deter me in the least. This show at Moe's marks the release of a new live album. Come out and hear exactly why you need to add it to your collection!