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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Recording review - Thurston Moore, The Best Day (2014)

Meditative drones and thrashing dissonance - a return to electric form

In the beginning was not the word, but a drone: a tone to form the backdrop for all the sounds that followed. Some of those later voices may vie for attention, assert their individuality against the cosmic hum, but eventually they surrender and rejoin its embrace. The Best Day is a celebration of that drone and the rich textures that surround it. While Sonic Youth long used feedback and resonance to build cathartic walls of ecstatic noise, Thurston Moore distills that approach here to create a set of sonic meditations.

Amid the rich jangle of alternate tunings and ringing dissonance, it would be easy to imagine this as a new Sonic Youth album, to pretend that the band was back together. The Best Day breaks from Moore’s last couple of solo records where he explored cleaner acoustic guitar tones, and this project is certainly closer to Sonic Youth’s 2009 finale, The Eternal, than Moore’s Demolished Thoughts (2011). Even so, Moore isn’t trying to recreate the past or falling into old habits. More than just missing Kim Gordon’s distinctive voice and bass work, this music has a different intent. Where Sonic Youth harnessed chaos and cleansing discord for its own sake, Moore captures an idée fixe spawned from static and nervous energy and nurtures it until it transcends its roots. Just as the Velvet Underground painstakingly created their own musical language to convey their experiences —a burning itch, a seductive languor, or a glimpse of oblivion—Moore uses his guitar to search for the patterns that express his current mental space, with ideas like the acceptance of outside forces and the release of expectations. Sonic Youth fans have already trained themselves to surrender to the swirl, and they’ll find plenty to enjoy here, but The Best Day is ultimately more coherent and less nihilistic than the band’s classic material.

The first track, “Speak to the Wild”, invokes the album’s meditative mood with opening harmonic chimes that invite us to center ourselves. Then the song launches into the rhythmic two-cycle flow of the verse: strumming broken by brief pauses, the guitars providing the focusing breath. Moore’s terse lines have a Zen clarity (“Remove your rings/ And meet us near the fire/ Extinguish things/ Of earthly desire”) immediately followed by cryptic allusion (“The King has come to meet the band”). The guitars are arranged as foreground and background voices that are locked into near unison and the piece has plenty of open space to let them ring. The solo break is restrained, starting with simple phrases against a buzzing drone, and then it slides into a staccato meandering riff before locking into a crystalline Robert Fripp-style section. The intensity builds but finally collapses into a variation on the chimes from the start. Instead of signaling the end, the song kicks off all over again to remind us that time is a cycle and everything repeats.

As The Best Day develops, Moore varies the sonic palette, but the album maintains a taut drive that never allows for complacency. They aren’t all as meditative as the first couple of songs; the title track, for instance, leaps between a thrashy deconstruction of jug band music and a motorik, upbeat alt-rocker. But the shift in tone still isolates a clearly identified mood to settle into. While most of these tunes take their time to fully soak into the listener’s consciousness, there is one tight little morsel that doesn’t even reach three minutes. “Detonation” would have fit well on The Eternal, with sloganeering lyrics and a snappy new wave edge. The contrast between the jabbing verses and the accelerating instrumental spiral creates a strange sense of disconnection for such a short tune. While this fun bit of fluff easily fits into Moore’s oeuvre, it feels a bit out of place in this context. If nothing else, though, it provides a counterbalance that shows how well the rest of the album holds together.

If “Detonation” is the shallowest point, the peak is the seven-minute instrumental, “Grace Lake”. First, a fluttering sprinkle of notes proves that Moore’s acoustic experiments were worthwhile as they suggest the glint of sunlight on the lake surface. In counterpoint, a purposeful motif arises, giving the song direction. The band effortlessly navigates through a series of changes, accreting momentum and meaning along the way. Finally, they break through a barrier, moving the track into full-on psychedelia. The bass throbs, fractured delay-box echoes gurgle, and a guitar hangs on a single, modulating tone. As it swells into feedback whine and everything else slips away, it’s like we’re at the beginning of everything. This is Moore’s love song to the everlasting drone. Then the spell breaks and we’re back on the lake, but the memory of that tone lurks at the edges, like background radiation.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Recording review - The Melvins, Hold It In (2014)

Super group offers metallic crunch and twisted art noise

Some visitors are conscientious, happy to drop by and help with the chores, but they’d never overstay their welcome or be too forward. Others are more domineering, taking over the house and disrupting everything. On Hold It In, Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover of the Melvins invited Paul Leary and J.D. Pinkus of the Butthole Surfers to the party, and these guests moved in and joined the family. Rather than mere featured performers, Leary and Pinkus became equal collaborators on the album, which couples the Melvins’ characteristic metallic crunch gristle with the Surfers’ twisted art noise. That combination stays true to each band’s modus operandi while offering some very interesting surprises.

The super group eases into the partnership with “Bride of Crankenstein”, which has the Melvins taking the lead. The sludgy heavy metal opening sets up a steady methodical grind. The track is dedicated to a classic head-banging groove. Basso rhythm guitar provides a rough foundation for buzzsaw accent fills, while the background is choked with chaotic static. The bridge opens up the tune, beginning with a flickering electronic reference to Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” that ushers in a new harmonic progression. The song rips into these chords to soften the ground for a pair of guitar solos that show off Leary and Osborne’s different styles. First, Leary lets fly a burst of loose, double-stop bends that decay into sloppy chromatic flail, releasing some of the simmering tension of the piece. Osborne closes out the interlude with a brief but wicked run that starts out as a smooth wail before tightening into a sweet bit of shred.

Two songs later, we get a better sense of this four-headed beast with “Brass Cupcake”. At first, it’s just a crunchy rocker with an interesting vocal arrangement. Osborne gamely lays out the surrealistic, simplistic lyrics, while Leary periodically drops in to repeat whatever line just passed by with a scream, like a disturbed Greek chorus. Those intervals of echolalia are backed by distorted waves of guitar. The tune then falls into a low-fi Van Halen breakdown before moving into a strong, hard rock bridge. But the rock crumbles into a spacey, Alice-in-Wonderland ending, full of warped fragments. With no firm sense of transition, we find ourselves immersed in the following trippy track, “Barcelonian Horseshoe Pit”. Deep in avant-garde Butthole Surfer territory, we’re trapped in a disoriented fun house with weird tonal flashes which are mutated and chopped with back-mask. This ungrounded drift lasts for a solid two-plus minutes before coalescing somewhat into a dismal pseudo-song that takes its inspiration from Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. Amid drum solos, hazy confusion and bits of baleful guitar, the band tenders this as their soundtrack for when the nightmare monsters finally tear through and press themselves into our world. This song pairing shows how the two bands complement one other, a yin-yang of driving rock and amorphous experiment.

Like much of the Melvins’ back catalog, Hold It In may focus on heavy proto-grunge, but actually delivers a range of musical flavors. The band’s staying power owes a lot to their out of the box thinking. While Leary and Pinkus help that along here, there are other intriguing side steps, like the electro-pop feel of “You Can Make Me Wait”, the deconstructed garage glam of “Eyes On You”, and the zombie western twang of “I Get Along (Hollow Moon)”. One of the best is the meandering track, “The Bunk Up”. A stutter beat rhythm sets a nü-wave funky mood with an angular punch while the theatrical vocals are reminiscent of The Tubes’ more artsy work. That initial section gives way to an edgy perspective of an arena rock bridge. As that wraps up, rather than just falling back to the opening changes, the tune roams further afield with a mellow jam band groove, full of back-masked melodic musing. Eventually, the lazy flow finds its way back into the dark, with sneering vocals and a goth metal gait. There’s nothing predictable about it, but it truly satisfies.

Osborne has long idolized Leary for his playing and Hold It In is probably all he could have hoped for. In any case, it succeeds in showing how well the Melvins could integrate the Butthole Surfers’ avant-garde spin into their musical house. The album features a fair amount of redecorating and adjustment, but all time-shares should run this smooth.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Recording review - The Electric Mess, House on Fire (2014)

Vivid performances and smoldering personality will take you back
Browsing through retro-inspired rock band offerings is like picking your favorite movie franchise reboot. Occasionally, an album strikes a nerve, but nothing can really replace dropping the needle on The Velvet Underground and Nico, sinking back into thrashy joy of The Pretenders, or sampling the cream of late '60s psychedelic pop bands from Northern California on a Rhino collection. It's hard for younger bands to slide in deeply enough to get past the simple surface characteristics, and those that come closest to the elusive feel rarely have enough personality to be memorable. The Electric Mess beats those odds and adroitly covers the musical dive while lead singer Esther Crow and her drag alter ego, Chip Fontaine, provide the personality to close the deal. Their last album, Falling Off the Face of the Earth (review), was notable because the band's clear love of primitive rock came through in beautiful fidelity . On House on Fire, they capture the raw energy of the garage more strongly than ever, with emphasis on raw. Although these tracks never devolve into muddiness, the engineering isn't quite as crisp and nuanced as Falling. But The Electric Mess makes up for it by bringing a vivid spark to their performance that puts the listener right at the edge of the stage, looking up in wonder.

I've already talked about the lead single, "Better to be Lucky Than Good", with its Lou Reed characters and story line propelled by Patti Smith proto-punk. Fontaine's smoldering voice scratches like a warm woolen blanket, selling the song with jaded nonchalance. It's a strong piece to lead off the album, but it also turns out to be fairly representative. Its big finish barely leaves time to catch your breath before they launch into the tight power pop rock of the title track. This time, Dan Crow's guitar paces restlessly within a cage of organ fills and vocals. In constant motion, Crow occasionally lets it loose enough to wail or throw itself against the bars, but when the solo comes around, it's clear that he hasn't run out of ideas as tears his way across the fretboard.

Later, on "Get Me Outta the Country", Crow's guitar slips off the leash and romps its way to Shredsville. This would be a great tune to catch live, to feel the primitive rite intensity and just hang on for the ride. But even while the lead slips out into the weeds, the rock steady drum work and anchoring bass hold it together. The Electric Mess wraps up the tune with a fade-out ending, a technique that's fallen out fashion, but this captures the loose unwinding that a live version would expand upon.

Lead singer Esther Crow spends most of House on Fire in her Chip Fontaine drag persona, with his hoarse growl and macho attitude giving the songs an earthy grounding. On "She Got Fangs", Fontaine's rough huskiness is the focal point against the moody psychedelic sway. His tale of seductive entrapment and then becoming the hunter himself is a simple enough story, but his swagger recalls Van Morrison fronting Them on "Gloria". While he hits his strongest stride on the thrashy blues sprint of "Beat Skipping Heart", my favorite Fontaine moment is the campy and theatrical spoken word section on the "Leavin' Me Hangin'", where he calls out his quarry, "Girl, I wandered the streets looking for you. Saw a couple of your friends, all tarted up. They lied and said they didn't know where you were . Girl,you ain't no Queen of Sheba and I ain't no piece of liver. But you never deliver." It's another case that calls for the live experience to see how far he'd push it.

Esther Crow takes her first real break from Fontaine on "There's Nothing You Can Do", which features keyboard player Oweinama Biu on lead vocals while she drops into a supporting role. Biu summons a good sense of desperation that fits the mood of the piece and it's a nice change to hear the two of them singing together.

House on Fire wraps up with a little bit of a bait and switch. "Every Girl Deserves a Song" initially sounds like a wild instrumental coda to the previous tune, but the minute long vamping builds to a climax only to fall into a delightful Mod pop song. Esther Crow summons her inner Cher (a la "The Beat Goes On") and brings a touch of hippy girl soul to her singing. Her laid back vocals gloss over the jarring disconnect between the frantic intro and the opiated groove, providing a warm embrace of lotus-eating bliss. Her lyrics bridge Summer of Love pop and its hidden underground scene, "Why don't you bring some Percocets / To help me cool my jets / Why don't you bring an unapproachable vamp / Just to round up the tone of my amp." Dan Crow's wah-wah guitar and Biu's ringing organ tone complement the song with their own patchouli-scented textures. Along the way, the tune also conjures the perfect psychedelic descriptor in the phrase, "Fizzy Bacchanal", which is begging to become a band name at some point. After the amphetamine immediacy of the other tracks, this gentle letdown is a sweet closing note from whatever alternate past that The Electric Mess is channeling. Rather than conflict, it recharges the listener enough to tackle "Better to be Lucky Than Good" all over again to ride that tiger one more time.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Recording review - King Tuff, Black Moon Spell (2014)

Arch humor from a garage glam creepster

Here’s the pitch: We’ll raise T. Rex’s Marc Bolan from the dead and partner him up with the Cramps, then polish the act to create the perfect bubblegum pop band for a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon series. Call it “So King Tuff!” What makes the act so irresistible is that Kyle Thomas, King Tuff’s alter ego, has found an ideal balance point between tongue in cheek irony, lo-fi garage glam, and creep-show trappings. Thickly distorted guitars and pounding drums provide a battle-axe edge to Black Moon Spell that grounds his lilting vocals and occasional forays into psychedelic excess. Or maybe it’s the other way around and arch humor and goofy lyrics keep the walls of noisy rock jams from sinking into the sludge. Either way, the combination results in an intense but fun listening experience, where the songs themselves aren’t necessarily that impressive, but they’re thoroughly entertaining. For example, “Headbanger” follows its croaking, demonic intro with tight, eighth note chunks of guitar just to set up the poppy, teenage love song lyrics, “Me and you, we got a true connection/ I knew it when I saw your record collection.” A shared love of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest is the only sign King Tuff needs to recognize his soulmate. The smooth, pop hook chorus repetition, “Bang your little head,” is propelled by a metalloid guitar riff that summons a sweet tang of cognitive dissonance. It’s simultaneously fluffy and visceral, and it’s also completely silly. With lines like,”Shaking off our clothes on the grave, where rock and roll was buried/ Making out to ‘Make Me Shout,’ in the back of a cemetery,” it’s impossible to take it seriously. Except the music is so compelling…

Of course, King Tuff doesn’t jump straight to the punch line. Black Moon Spell opens with a run of less campy tracks. First, the title tune includes a solid instrumental section that establishes his hard rock credentials. Then he tosses out a low budget, entry level rocker and some acid-soaked garage psychedelia to soften the listeners so “Headbangers” will hit all the harder. That sensibility rescues the album from pure parody; King Tuff has the discipline to tone down the wink and nod for enough of the songs so that when he drops the subtlety, the listener is primed for it. It also helps that the oddball songs don’t follow a strict formula. On the one hand, “I Love You Ugly” sounds like a T. Rex interpretation of Tuff Darts’ “(Your Love Is Like) Nuclear Waste” that bleeds off all of the bile to leave behind a residue of simple non-judgmental love and left-handed compliments. By contrast, the raw rocker “Madness” leads with a ridiculous boast, “King Tuff is my name/ I got madness in my brain/ Pleased to meet ya/ I’m gonna eat ya/ Cause I’m batshit insane,” which turns out to be his idea of a pickup line.

While the humor forms the core of Black Moon Spell‘s attraction, the camouflage tunes have their appeal as well. Probably the best track on the album is “Black Holes In Stereo”, which cleverly repurposes record album spindle holes as a pathway to transcendence. The verses are wordy, backed with a poppy, up-tempo beat, but the chorus kicks it into overdrive with a single line mission statement, “There’s a black hole on your stereo/ And all you gotta do is go, go, go…” The echoed mayhem of that last word repeats like stars slipping away from a rocket hitting warp speed.

Near the end of the album, King Tuff loses some of his focus with a couple of sun-dappled psychedelic tunes that call back to his earlier releases, but don’t quite fit here, despite being quite pleasant. He also chose to close out the record with a straight ahead retro rocker rather than going for the laugh one last time. Regardless, the essentially weird mix on the album isn’t diminished by either of these decisions. If this were a cartoon, I’d be tuning in just to see where King Tuff would go next.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Recording review - Alain Johannes, Fragments & Wholes, Vol. 1 (2014)

Time-boxed creativity yields pearls of improvisation

Sometimes, it can be be excruciating to bring all the pieces together. Scattered and disjoint, they may not quite fit together into a coherent whole, but leave some out and some important facet is glossed over and missed. Fragments and Wholes, Volume 1, the latest solo project by multi-instrumentalist and producer Alain Johannes deals with this explicitly, drawing on roughed out sketches and nicely framed pieces alike. Where his 2010 release, Spark, sculpted the dynamic tension between genres and tone to create a beautiful love letter/eulogy to his late wife, Natasha Schneider, Fragments and Wholes sacrifices coherency in the interest of jump-starting creativity. Each of the 12 tracks rose out of small pearls of improvisation, fleshed out as much as possible in the short amount of time Johannes allowed himself to record the album. Like Jonathan Coulton’s Thing A Week series, the tight time constraint means that not every piece achieves the same impact, but the trade-off is that the momentum demands a quick, instinctive approach to writing and supports a feeling of immediacy.

Given Johannes’ work with Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, and Eleven, along with his studio work with Chris Cornell and Soundgarden, it’s not surprising that several of these songs serve up some heavy drive and grungy darkness, but the twist is that he channels his other big influence, The Beatles, through a chain of psychedelic touchstones shared with Lenny Kravitz, Eric McFadden and Robyn Hitchcock. In fact, his vocals and arrangements often seem modeled on Kravitz, down to the DIY multi-track construction of auteur clones recording each instrumental nuance.

The first couple of tracks on Fragments and Wholes, “All the Way Down” and “Whispering Fields”, work that softer side with an airy folk-pop and a simple, late night acoustic moodiness. Like most of these tunes, they’re both relatively tiny morsels, but each packs a lot of flavor into the small space, with plenty of layers to support repeated listenings. While these two pieces show off Johannes’ lush side, he follows up with “Saturn Wheel”, which dives deeply into the shadows. Ending all too soon without real resolution, this is one of the “fragments”, but the brooding tension evokes Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” as interpreted by Soundgarden. The thick guitar and restless bass snake together, allowing glimpses of Dick Dale surf guitar fills to add some sinister glints. Even when the song slips into a dreamier interval, the relentless drive never sleeps. The solo is brief to help keep the song under three minutes, but it offers a hint of wicked depravity, barely contained within the pentagon that Johannes summoned it in.

In general, Johannes does a good job of filling out the smaller sketches, often creating miniaturized versions of the song ideas that trade off running time for packed plies of detail. Of these, the best may well be "Petal's Wish", which reminds me of Elvis Costello's classic jazz experiments blended with a taste of "Shipbuilding". Still, it’s the longer running tunes offer the most satisfaction. “Kaleidoscope” is a rich Beatlesque pastiche that manages to cross-pollinate elements of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” with Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. The reedy melodies meander against a solid drone. At the same time, Johannes is able to bridge his influences here, bringing in grungy processional feel borrowed from “Black Hole Sun” and then dipping deeper into darkness with the chorus. The vocals are detached and dreamy, but the music has an obsessive immediacy that made it my favorite track on the album. The dynamic drop for the close is just icing to seal the deal. Later, the four minute “Jack of Wands” offers a sense of Queens of the Stone Age trying to tap into the disquiet of Jethro Tull’s "Aqualung", The bridge slides into a Lennonesque disorientation and the lyrics remain oblique and poetic, leaving little more to grasp than the dark mood and the threatening sense of totality, "From stick to leaves."

Spark was one of my favorite albums back in 2010, and while Fragments and Wholes doesn't achieve the same heights, it's clear that Johannes is working to push his creativity to its limits. Time-boxing his work on this project forced him to make tough artistic decisions and live with them, and I think the experiment was a success.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Recording review - Megafauna, Maximalist (2014)

Languid vocals and razor-edged guitar in a powerhouse setting

Calm, slowly evolving musical mantras and crisp, fractal reflections: the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass seeks transcendence rooted in an intellectual purity. From the urgently thrashing opening moments of the lead-off track, “Eggs”, Megafauna stakes out an antithetical position on Maximalist. The band rejects measured movement and icy clarity for a visceral punch and a swirling confusion of moods. They draw on a jumble of inspirations: the classic hard rock guitar of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple crosses swords with progressive complexity reminiscent of Trail of Dead and El Ten Eleven, while the vocals waver between Björk’s breathy oddness and Amanda Palmer’s theatrical insistence. Bandleader Dani Neff also has a rich tonal range that recalls Annie Haslam’s work with Renaissance. Her versatile voice is adept at veering from soft vulnerability to no-nonsense sternness. Regardless of whether she’s preserving her distance or coming on ragged and strong, Neff has a sweet girlish tone, but there’s nothing dreamy or vague about her guitar playing. This creates a delicious contrast between her languid vocals and razor-edged guitar work. Those hard rock riffs anchor the tunes and show off both her technical chops and how she controls the mood with dynamic shifts.

The songwriting on Maximalist is also top-notch. The tracks mutate and twist in interesting directions, rising above their initial perspectives. Take a tune like “Precious Blood”. It starts with a lazy, descending guitar line that paints a sense of midnight ruminations. The echoes on Neff’s voice become ghostly whispers to accompany her through the darkness. As she sings the line, “We are still waiting/ For something big,” it foreshadows the sharp punch of ringing guitar that follows. Driving power chords set up the next transition to a Black Sabbath inspired bit of flaming metallic melody. As this climbs into a heavier version of the chorus, it’s hard to recall the haunting feel at the start, but Megafauna flawlessly negotiates the dynamic drop to take us back there, this time ratcheting up the pressure. Neff’s solo is an evocative bit of shred that embodies a fight against inertia and an inevitable end. “Precious Blood” is a treat, not just for the balance between soft and loud, pensive steps and headlong rush, but also for the way Megafauna works together to encapsulate those swings into a narrative flow.

As front and center as Neff is to Megafauna’s sound, she couldn’t pull this off without the strong support she gets from her rhythm section. Like all power trios, they walk a fine line between backing the song and stepping forward to fill it out so the guitar can break loose. Greg Yancey’s bass lines fall into unison with Neff’s riffs to lock them into the pocket, but he also brings a thick thundering tone that stands in for rhythm guitar when that’s necessary. Zack Humphrey’s drumming is phenomenal. He’s fairly busy, with lots of syncopation and fills, rarely dropping into straight time. But where a lot of flash drummers lack an appreciation of nuance, Humphrey’s ear is impeccable and he can maintain the energy as he drops back to leave enough space for the vocals to step up.

Retro hard rock and metal form the foundation of Maximalist’s spirit -- listen to the “Immigrant Song” vibe on “Hug From a Robot” -- but their progressive side opens up many of these pieces for wider explorations and stranger sonic palettes. From the desperate angular guitar of “Haunted Factory” to the rich post-rock dissonance on “Chromatic Fantasy”, Megafauna expands well beyond mere head banging and impressive shred without slipping into self-indulgence. Maximalist lives up to its name, incorporating these wild musical gestures to create a bridging world where fans from all over can find something to love.

As an added treat, here's the video for the earlier release of "Precious Blood" on 2012's Surreal Estate: