A band’s early days are often a mishmash of releases, songs cobbled together from rehearsal recordings and put out as demos with live tracks from shows or different sessions. A few songs are copied for friends one week, and the next a demo is professionally pressed under the same title. That’s just part of promoting a new band. You try and get as much out there as possible. As such, when I opened the mail and found this surprise copy of Dozer‘s 1998 demo, Universe 75– the tape gifted to me unexpectedly by Lansing, MI’s Postman Dan, who’s come up around these parts a few times over the years and will again before the next week is out — it wasn’t a shock to discover that its tracklisting differed from what’s largely been settled on as being Universe 75.
I know the story behind this tape, know that Dozer guitarist Tommi Holappa sent it to Dan when Dozer were putting out their early material, that it came with an orange flyer that had Han Solo on it firing a blaster the laser of which was the Dozer logo, and if you can’t trust Postman Dan, you can’t trust nobody, so its authenticity is without question as far as I’m concerned. I damn near wept when I opened the package and found it.
What’s commonly regarded as Universe 75has six tracks, and this tape — dubbed onto a Maxell 100-minute blank cassette, though of course it reaches nowhere near that mark time-wise — has four. “Supersoul,” which opens, is the only song shared between the two. It and “Captain Spaceheart” – written in the liner here as “Captain Space Heart” — also appeared on Dozer‘s 2000 full-length debut, In the Tail of a Comet, while “Centerline” and “Tanglefoot” showed up later in 1998 on the first of the two Dozer vs. Demon Cleanersplit releases.
At this point, Dozer was Holappa, guitarist/vocalist Fredrik Nordin, bassist Johan Rockner and drummer Erik Bäckwall, and these songs were recorded at the end of Jan. 1998 by Bengt Bäcke — here given the nickname “Action.” Of course, he’d come a long way by the time he was continuing to work with Holappa in Greenleaf and tracking that band’s albums, but even in ’98, Bäcke knew what he was doing. The sound of the tape is raw, and the bass is way, way high in the mix, but overall it’s clear enough to get a sense of the songs and where Dozer were coming from stylistically in some of their earliest days, Nordin sounding more directly indebted to Kyuss‘ John Garcia than he even would by the time In the Tail of a Cometwas released, and the band seeming to work at full stonerly jamble on “Captain Space Heart” only to up the swing as “Tanglefoot” closes out.
As a longtime nerd for Dozer (obviously not as long as the Postman), I felt incredibly fortunate to hear these songs at all, let alone to be able to sit with them and think of them in context of the Borlänge four-piece’s pre-debut-LP progression. They were prolific as they solidified their sound, and over singles, EPs and splits with Demon Cleaner and Unida, they honed a reinvented — maybe “relocated” is the word? — take on what was then desert rock that of course would turn them into something different entirely over their years together, which hopefully aren’t done as they continue to play shows periodically. A snapshot of one of Sweden’s greatest contributions to heavy rock as a young band is something genuinely special, and I know I’ll cherish it in a cool, dry place for years to come and use it as fodder while I continue to campaign for a compilation of their pre-album material.
As the title hints, IV: Ronkonkoma is the fourth short release from Tucson, Arizona, duo Methra. After bustling their lineup over the course of the last few years and putting out material on 7″ and 10″, a split with Godhunter, and digital, they’ve arrived at the duo of guitarist/vocalist Nick Genitals and drummer Andy Kratzenburg and the latest five-track outing, which clocks in at just over 21 minutes, finds them exploring the line between deathly sludge and more traditionally riffed doom, Nick switching his vocals between low-register guttural growling, raw-throated screams and Sabbathian cleaner singing following opener “Breatharian (Supreme Master Ascending),” which unfolds the start of side one with a thickened lumber stood out all the more by the use of a sample talking about breatharianism, which has its roots in Hindu philosophy but is essentially the practice of staring at the sun for nourishment.
The subsequent “Blessings” showcases more of the variety in Nick‘s vocals, with a chorus that’s made almost sneaky in how catchy it is by the viscous tones surrounding. Particularly for a duo, the sound throughout IV: Ronkonkomais full and demented more in the manner of Midwestern sludge — think Fistula and the many deeply troubled branches on their family tree, though I acknowledge the “meth” part of the duo’s moniker might be a factor there — than Methra‘s more metallized Tucson countrymen and drummer-sharers Godhunter, but particularly on tape a sense of rawness is maintained in “Honest Men” and perhaps most of all on side one finisher “Slumscraper,” which builds to a punkish noisy fuckall sudden stop leading to another sample, this one talking about slicing heads off with a cutlass. It’s a long way from charmingly dopey New Age spiritualism, but by then, Methra have indeed made it a journey.
Most curious about the tape is that “SBS” occupies side two all by itself. Listening first to the digital version, I wondered if maybe the one on the tape was extended somehow, if Nick and Kratzenburg just rode that chugging riff for 20 minutes to even it up, or if there was a long sample to make up for that time, or something to draw side two out to match side one, but nope, the cassette of IV: Ronkonkomais the same as the mp3, and though “SBS” fakes its ending on both before crashing back in for a few more measures, the tape has a long silence following. If it was Methra‘s intent to single the song out — it’s not like you actually have to sit there and listen to all that nothing, what with this modern age of fast-forwarding and whatnot — they did it, and “SBS,” with its anti-having-a-job lyrics and air-pushing groove, earns its place well with a modus consistent with “Blessings” and “Honest Men,” only pushed further with a longer runtime and a sense of build added to by Kratzenburg‘s frantic snare work and Nick‘s vocal tradeoffs.
If the way they want to go is to keep belting out shorter offerings, then IV: Ronkonkomaseems to set them up well. Methra weren’t far off from putting the pieces together on 2012′s self-titled digital release, but the latest installment builds on that in a way that makes them sound even more solidified, and if Nick and Kratzenburg choose to continue as a duo, they’ve given themselves ground on which to progress while also establishing a style that smoothly bridges subgenre gaps and comes across as inherently their own. The edges are rough, but that’s the idea. Don’t be fooled. Methra know what they’re doing. And if they want to take on the task of a debut full-length, they’re ready for that too.
Manitoba instrumental bass/drum duo Sphagnum take their name from a slow-growing underwater moss, so despite their pornogrind logo, one doesn’t necessarily come into their debut Lodge 318 tape expecting blastbeats. The four-track self-release toes the line between an EP and a demo by being the first outing from the band — bassist Doreen Girard and drummer Cameron Johnson – and keeping to an under-25-minute runtime, but the fact they believe in their material enough to do a professional physical pressing at all (imagine such a thing!) makes me inclined to lean more toward EP, and ultimately it matters little either way. Girard and Johnson keep a minimal, vibe through parts alternately sparse or overwhelmed by distortion, depending which pedal is kicked on, and Lodge 318has a live, in-the-room feel while still coming across clearer than a simple rehearsal recording.
There are a lot of bands out there calling themselves “doom jazz,” and to their credit, Sphagnum don’t take it that far — they call it the more charming “dad rock,” among other things — but their open, feel-it-out-along-the-way approach winds up with a jazzy feel anyway during parts of “Winter Clover” as the time signatures seem to go out the window in favor of lurching spasms of low end and crash. Johnson brings some order via a steady kick later in the track, but both he and Girard seem to revel in the freakout side of things. The shorter “How Can the Wind with its Arms,” which opens side one, gets on a bit more of a steady roll, though with just the bass and drums for the duration, a strange or absurdist sensibility remains in the near distance, the two players managing well a rare feat in being a heavy bass/drum two-piece in this day and age without immediately sounding like Om.
Part of that has to be tone. You can hear a bit of Cisneros on side two’s “Summerfallow” if you force your ears to do it, but Girard‘s tone seems less bent toward peaceful aims, and if Sphagnum are looking for enlightenment, they’ve got a funny way of showing it. Johnson winds his way along the toms and “Summerfallow” kicks into full-tone assault before dipping back down to the open atmospheres and slow crawl from whence it came, and a silence precedes the foreboding cymbal hits and rumble of 7:49 “Remain in Light.” If there’s anywhere on Lodge 318where one can imagine vocals topping the proceedings, it’s on the relatively straightforward first couple minutes of the closer, though by the time they’re halfway through, Johnson and Girard are bounding along angular tom runs and bass punctuation which in turn lands them in a quiet couple seconds before the final distorted explosion — a tone dripping in mud met by steady cymbal work to create a tension that’s nigh on excruciating.
And that’s how they leave it. Even Lodge 318‘s payoff retains its course feel, and rather than bring the song to quiet, as on the preceding “Summerfallow,” they end “Remain in Light” cold on the march. Flipping the tape back over, it’s easy to get the feeling that, in the longer run, Sphagnum will branch their sound out more, experiment with different instrumentation, arrangements, and that various elements and influences will show up alongside what they present here. In that sense, Lodge 318comes across like the beginning point of a progression about to be undertaken and all the more warrants the physical presence. If these songs are any indication, Girard and Johnson have the potential to get plenty weird, and that suits me just fine.
It is deceptively hard to get a handle on where Luleå, Sweden, rockers Lightsabres are coming from. Their debut tape, pressed and then re-pressed in limited edition by 808 New York (mine is #50 of 80), is called Demons, and while it’s quick at about 17 minutes long, and blown out in the lo-fi sense, it’s not to be mistaken for a demo. Eight tracks are presented four on each side, both sides start with an intro piece — “Fangs” and “Teeth,” respectively — and there’s cohesion and flow enough in what Lightsabres do that even if they weren’t working with a label to release it (there’s also vinyl out on Hink Inc.), to call it a demo would be selling it short. From the psychedelic ambience they pull off in the intros and side two’s closing “Demons,” the distorted stonery of side one opener “Black Hash,” and the stripped down punkish sneer of its side two counterpart “Born to Die,” Lightsabres tie together disparate elements with natural-sounding ease and come out of the release with a highly individualized garage-grunge that makes the memorable songwriting of “Fly Like a Bird” seem like fortunate happenstance.
Maybe it is, I don’t know. Maybe the members of Lightsabres – evidently content to remain nameless – showed up, pressed record, and that’s what came out. Either way, the heavy-pop bounce of that track is something most bands would have to work at. It’s as accessible as they go and well placed at the end of side one, following the rawer push of “Eyez,” on which the vocals come across even rougher than “Black Hash.” An unexpected turn, but one they pull off with apparent ease, and side two’s more psychedelic vibing affirms that Lightsabres have a broad creative range to go along with the effectiveness of their presentation. Post-rock guitar wisps begin “Teeth” only to be joined by air-moving bass fuzz, and while “Born to Die” strips away some of the prettier, melodic aspects, its half-time drums and noisy lead wash later on can’t cover up a basic heavy rock feel. Perhaps the most punkish moment of Demonsis the first half of the Ty Segall cover “Caesar,” which breaks just before the first of its two minutes into manipulated, floating notes moving backwards and forwards in hypnotic motion toward the closing title-track, which takes a more minimal, spacious approach and finds dual vocal layers coming together for a moment of crooning before flipping the whole thing backwards to maximize an experimental, anything’s-possible sense of uncertainty.
The edit on the tape of “Demons” is different than that on the digital version, and the download also has an extra track, “Red Light,” that serves as a centerpiece between the two sides, so if cassettes aren’t your thing, Lightsabres still have something to offer for your pay-what-you-will. There’s also reportedly a follow-up to Demonscalled Spitting Blooddue out shortly, and the band seems to have some shared membership with psych rockers Tunga Moln, so expect to hear more from this promising outfit one way or another.
Some combinations in life, you just can’t go wrong. Ed Mundell and a wah pedal, for example. This proved to be the case last year when Mundell‘s jammy trio with bassist Collyn McCoy (Trash Titan) and Rick Ferrante (Sasquatch), the cumbersomely-named The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic, made their self-titled debut (review here), as it proved to be the case so many times over the guitarist’s years holding down leads in Monster Magnet and The Atomic Bitchwax. Well, further affirmation is welcome by me, and Mundell, McCoy and Ferrante seem only too pleased to provide it on the new tape EP, Through the Dark Matter.
A front-and-back j-card with blacklight-sensitive art from Brad Moore meant to invoke Miles Davis is included with the bright-orange cassette, which is pressed through Orbit Unlimited Records in a numbered (the numbers are also blacklight sensitive) edition of 200 copies. CDs were made available for the power trio’s recent European tour alongside Sasquatch, but 500 of those were made, so the tapes are somewhat harder to come by. Understandably, since the recording job by Snail‘s Matt Lynch at Mysterious Mammal Studios does so well in capturing the live dynamic between The UEMG‘s members, whether it’s Ferrante and McCoy stomping out on side 2′s “Day of the Comet” or Mundell setting an initial mood with minimal effects ambience on the introductory “Small Magellanic Cloud.”
Like the self-titled, Through the Dark Matteris clearly instrumental in its focus, but The UEMG do introduce some vocals for the first time to their studio work, McCoy stepping in for a suitably bluesy delivery on the Willie Dixon cover “Spoonful,” which is the centerpiece of the CD/digital version but closes side 1 of the tape following the intro and the jammed-out title-track. The effect its placement has is to ground the tape somewhat — these cats can jam, and when they do, they go pretty far out — a hook and start-stop funk-wah lead line reminding me no less of Clutch now than when I first streamed “Spoonful” and “Through the Dark Matter” here in April, and the relatively straightforward, traditional structure sits well between “Through the Dark Matter”‘s cosmic pulsations, the bass-heavy push of “Day of the Comet” and the space-jazz blissout of “Large Magellanic Cloud,” which closes out side 2, guitars, bass and drums all seeming to intertwine even as they stretch out in their own directions.
While it’s a relatively short 26 minutes — you wouldn’t call Through the Dark Mattera full-length, though it flows well — The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic‘s EP is all the more worth digging into for how natural it sounds coming from the band. Lynch is an experienced engineer and gets a clear, professional sound here that plays well with the Rhodes McCoy adds or the layers in Mundell‘s guitar, but the overall vibe is that The UEMG could more or less show up somewhere, plug in and make this happen. Maybe that’s a testament to the experience of the players involved or the several years they’ve already been jamming together, but whatever it is, a short release that plays out with such substance is an accomplishment that makes Through the Dark Mattera worthy follow-up to the debut. Wherever their voyage next takes them, I doubt it’s going to be much of a challenge to follow.
The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic, Through the Dark Matter EP (2014)
Easy to imagine the artwork meetings between the bands and Clayton Jarvis of Abom Designs involved the phrase, “Make it like in my nightmares” somewhere along the line. The four-eyed cat’s stare on the cover the new Failure Records and Tapes split cassette between Indiana-based acts Bo Jackson 5 and The Mound Builders makes sure the release is going to stay with you one way or another. There are only three songs on the thing, split up with The Mound Builders on side one and Bo Jackson 5 on side two (the included download reverses the order), and it’s done in a little over 17 minutes, but the liner is glossy, the art gorgeous if also horrendous, and both bands have enough time to make an impression.
In the case of Lafayette’s The Mound Builders, the double-guitar five-piece return with the same lineup from 2011′s Strangers in a Strange Land(review here) and show steady development of their Southern heavy rock sound. I still hear a good deal of Alabama Thunderpussy in their two inclusions, “Sport of Crows” and “Barroom Queen” — not a complaint — but the recording this time, particularly in Jason Brookhart‘s drums, is a little more metal, and that blends well with the thrashier gallop and the DownII-style turns of “Barroom Queen,” guitarists Nate Malher and Brian Boszor touching on “Stained Glass Cross” in the chorus while bassist Ryan Strawsma thickens the groove and vocalist Jim Voelz straddles the line between burly soul and a gruffer delivery. “Sport of Crows,” which appears first, has Strawsma more at the fore of the mix with a clean but resonant tone. It’s a little more aggressive than one might think of for riff rock, but that influence is there as it was on the full-length. Particularly in comparison to Bo Jackson 5, The Mound Builders come across as aiming for a steady, professional crispness in their sound, and that suits the material well.
There’s a few seconds’ delay for the side change, since Bo Jackson 5‘s “Bo Blacktop” is longer than “Sport of Crows ” and “Barroom Queen” together. The song, which follows their late-2013 full-length debut, checks in at just under nine minutes and has a much more homemade vibe almost immediately than did The Mound Builders. The Logansport duo of guitarist/vocalist Adam Gundrum and drummer Jason Perdue recorded live in what they’ve dubbed The Spacement, and “Bo Blacktop” sure enough sounds like a rehearsal. I like that, especially on a tape, so their noise rock riffing and jagged, semi-progressive punker edge works captured naturally, incongruous as it may be with what The Mound Builders are doing at the outset. Some memorable vocal lines from Gundrum hit before the riffs turn meaner, and “Bo Blacktop” drives hard toward what seems like an inevitable noisy finish. When it gets there, the cymbal wash from Perdue is almost abrasive, but the recording cuts off as if to underscore Bo Jackson 5‘s garage-punk fuckall, and as averse as I generally am to bands playing off celebrity names for their monikers — it’s a brand of irono-cynicism that will be a laughable mark of this decade in years to come; or maybe I should just lighten the fuck up — Gundrum and Perdue made me a fan by the time they were finished.
It was my first time hearing Bo Jackson 5, and they don’t have a lot in common with The Mound Builders, but sometimes it’s better to be surprised with something like this, and when I popped in the tape, part of the fun was not knowing what was coming. The split was a Record Store Day special, and limited to 100 copies, so I’m not sure how many are left or will be left to pick up from the label. The Mound Builders are already at work on their next outing, which will reportedly combine a new recording with a comic book, and Bo Jackson 5 recently opened for Supersuckers and will no doubt make a cowbell-laden return soon. I’ll keep an eye out.
The Mound Builders/Bo Jackson 5, Split Tape (2014)
I haven’t walked away from seeing Clamfight play in the last four years without thinking to myself how devastating a live act they’ve become, so their new live tape, Thank You Delaware, is a welcome arrival as documentation of that phenomenon. Released by Contaminated Tones Productions with the first 20 copies in a limited blue liner, the six-song set seems to have been recorded late in 2013 in a North Jersey club called Dingbatz. At very least, that’s where the pics in the j-card insert come from, and at the start of side two — actually the sides are divided into “Side Clam” and “Side Strips” — drummer/vocalist Andy Martin makes some mention of being in Jersey playing with Tarpit Boogie, so it seems like a safe assumption. The title is a gag as it winds up, since at the end of the set, Martin says, “It’s been real, Delaware,” when they’re most definitely in NJ. They can thank whatever state they want, I’m still going to be on board.
That bias level for the Maple Forum alums and my personal affection for these dudes – Martin, lead guitarist Sean McKee, guitarist Joel Harris, bassist Louis Koble – no doubt colors my opinion of Thank YouDelaware, but I’ve found since the “tape revival” began that some of the stuff I enjoy most of all are releases just like this one; live, raw recordings that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s not a bootleg, because it’s on a legit label — Contaminated Tones specialize in varying forms of extremity — and endorsed by the band, but it’s of that ilk. The label on the tape is pasted on, there aren’t a lot of them around, and while it’s not a DAT-in-the-pocket audience recording from 1974, neither is it overly clean in such a way as to detract from the impact of the live feel. A solid balance, in other words. You get the brutality from “The Eagle” and you get a taste of McKee‘s soaring lead work in the jam around the title-track from 2013′s sophomore full-length, I vs. the Glacier, from which the bulk of the material on the tape comes.
“The Eagle” and “Sand Riders” as a one-two are more or less staples of Clamfight gigs, and they sit well together in that role. I’m glad to have a live recording of “Block Ship,” and “Ghosts I Have Known” was a favorite from their 2010 debut, Vol. 1, that doesn’t always get played, so cool to hear that put to tape as well. If you’ve ever gone to see a band and then heard one of their live albums, you know that sometimes they can come off completely different recorded. Vocals are off, there’s too much separation. You lose the feeling of watching them. With Thank You Delaware, the four-piece’s wall of noise and vicious stage domination is preserved. It’s a big, heavy-slamming sound, and it rounds out at its most raucous with “Stealing the Ghost Horse,” though the intro jam has since developed even further than how it sounds here to boast some of McKee‘s best lead work. The tape finishes with excerpts from an interview conducted by Contaminated Tones in 2010 that recounts, among other things, some vomit-related band shenanigans. Very Clamfight, to say the least.
If you’re not into tapes, fair enough. I’m not likely to change your mind about that. For those not immediately biased along format lines, Thank You Delawaresuccessfully captures the thrashing heft that Clamfight bring to their live performance. Maybe it’s a fan-piece and I’m a fanboy, but that’s not about to diminish my enjoyment at all, and if you’ve dug into I vs. the Glacier, this makes a more than satisfying companion.
Clamfight, “Ghosts I Have Known” from Thank You Delaware (2014)
Seems odd to say it, but Crowsisn’t the first 18-minute single that Netherlands-based post-metal four-piece Ortega have released in their time together. The last one was late-2012′s The Serpent Stirs(review here), and as the follow-up to that and reportedly the precursor to a new full-length album, Crowswinds up making a lot of sense with its limited tape release through Tartarus Records, a black-ink-on-grey-box unfolding with a handmade feel to match the Groningen group’s intricate heavy/ambient tradeoffs throughout the song’s 18 minutes. The program repeats on both sides of the tape, which has crows and branches printed on it, and for what’s purported to be a demo track, the sound is awfully full and the band is awfully tight, leaving me to wonder what they might look to change going into the album — that is, how much more there is to build on from what they have here. It’s almost unfair to use the word “cassingle” for a song that’s en EP unto itself, but technically I suppose that’s what Crows is.
And taken on the level of a single, it’s a strikingly cohesive one, with guitarists Alex Loots and Richard Postma trading between thick waves of riffing and sparse atmospherics, ambient squigglies floating into the sonic space of a mix that, again, is done little justice by being designated as a demo. Bassist Frank de Boer distinguishes himself in the song’s midsection with a surprisingly warm tone, while drummer Sven Jurgens manages to keep the proceedings fluid for the most part without falling into the trap of the Isis drumbeat (you know the one!), which is one of the core challenges at this point of post-metal percussion styles — how to make it not sound like Panopticon. Postma handles vocals as well when they arise, his assured growl topping the later payoff of a fervent instrumental build playing out in a rising tide of start-stop chugging; a measured, restrained groove finally letting loose just in time for the growls to reemerge. For those familiar with the style, Ortega‘s take won’t be wholly strange, but Crows remains asolid execution of the progressive aspects of post-metal and even over its extended course doesn’t dull the attention more than it intends to do with hypnotic repetition of parts.
It’s easy to imagine “Crows” paired with another piece of similar length as opposing vinyl sides as Ortega‘s next long-player, but I guess we have some time yet before we get there. Fair enough. Maybe by then I’ll have it figured out what exactly makes Crowsa demo.
Many of the influences Copenhagen five-piece Demon Head are working with will seem familiar. Of course there’s Sabbath, Pentagram, etc., and one can identify points of Witchcraft in the production of their Demo 2014, now available as a limited-to-100 purple cassette through Caligari Records, and some of Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats‘ garage-style shuffle, but what the four-track release really showcases from the Danish newcomers is swing. Fast or slow, their riffs wind their way around the listener’s consciousness, and with the bass of Fuglsang and drums of Wittus – middle and last names or initials only, depending on where you look – Demon Head never stray too far from the soul-corrupted boogie that serves them well here as they follow-up 2013′s Chaos Island Rehearsal 2013with more developed but still raw and doomed rock.
The blown-out croon of Ferreira Larsen recalls ’80s metal conjurations on opener “Undertaker,” but is malleable ultimately to what’s called for by a given song, and his style helps distinguish Demon Head from the Uncle Acid jangle that’s clearly influenced “Undertaker” and shows up on the eponymous closer as well in its oozing, dirt-packed groove. A rough recording plays well on tape — the four-song program repeats on both sides — and Demo 2014is most definitely a demo, but the songwriting is there and Larsen, Wittus, Fuglsang and the guitarists, both named Nielsen (presumably they’re related), don’t come off as so loose as to be self-indulgent or unaware of where they’re headed. “Ride the Wilderness” seems to be a band mantra, and as the second cut after “Undertaker,” it’s a faster push to set up the Witchcrafty turn to doom of the shorter “333″ (alternately listed as “III” and “Three”), which leaves a mark lyrically and in the crashing lurch that gives way to a satisfying but not grandiose build before a deft slowdown returns to the chorus.
On the European edition, issued by Smokedd Productions with a different cover, “333″ and “Ride the Wilderness” appear to be switched, but the Caligari version serves the overall flow well, the four songs moving smoothly between each other, getting progressively more doomed until “Demon Head” finishes with nod enough to tie everything else together, a bluesy lead in the first half perhaps foreshadowing developing guitar antics that will show up in increased volume next time out. They’ve got more than an ample amount of groove to justify the physical release — the j-card liner folds out to eight panels with art and recording info on one side and lyrics on the other — and as Demo 2014 fades out from its noisy ending, the tape bodes well both for what Demon Head might do and how they might do it. In terms of their overall approach, there’s room to grow into a more individualized take, but as noted, they’ve got the swing down, and that’s already more than an awful lot of bands.
When drummer Matt Couto handed me what I was told was the last remaining copy of Keefshovel‘s demo tape from Nomadic Behavior Records the other night, Ichabod frontman John Fadden, who was standing nearby, succinctly (and jokingly) asked, ” A demo tape? What the fuck is this? 1983?” That’s pretty much the root critique of the “tape revival” as a whole. Unlike vinyl, which enjoyed some level of reverence even as CDs came up in the ’80s and ’90s and digital media took hold in the late ’90s and 2000s, tapes were left to the stuff of homegrown noisemakers. Their central usefulness — that is, the ability to be recorded on and recorded over — was undone by CD-Rs and file trading. Romanticism for analog warmth and nostalgia aside, there’s little a tape can offer beyond physical presence that I can’t get from a zip file. It seems a reasonable argument to make that tapes went further away than vinyl did because other formats offered the same appeal in a better form. Vinyl broke songs into sides and sounded better. CDs were later made recordable, and digital files were more convenient. You might as well put out an 8-track. It’s an understandable position.
Yet, in revisiting Keefshovel‘s three-song Demo ’13 (first reviewed here), the cassette does sound different, rougher, meaner than the digital version. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the stereo to which my tape deck is hooked up — call it a mid-fi — but whatever it is, the New Bedford sludgers’ rawness makes yet another case for the validity of tapes as a format. They’re cheap and they sound harsh. What part of that doesn’t work? The label on Keefshovel‘s tape is clearly a sticker, and mine has bends in it. The “demo tape” is a classic medium, and in a time when so much of the focus of aesthetic is on celebrating the past while updating its influence into a modern sphere — so many of the criticisms of tapes could also be made about vinyl as well, and that’s before you even get to bands recording analog, vintage sound and style, private presses, etc. – I guess I just don’t see how tapes are any different. They don’t offer vinyl’s clarity. Big deal. Listening to Keefshovel‘s mp3s again, I prefer the nastiness of “Christmas in Brockton” with the tape’s compression. It’s royal viciousness either way, and only gets more so when the vocals kick in on “A Seed in the Rough,” but as far as I’m concerned, the more format the merrier. At least they got to put it out.
I’ve gone through the tracks before — link above — so I’ll spare you that, but with the black and white art, one-sided J-card and already-gone availability, Keefshovel‘s Demo ’13taps into a valid and elsewhere-honored tradition that shows itself as vital simply through the reaction its existence can provoke on both ends. Put into two sides, “Christmas in Brockton” and “A Seed in the Rough” face off well with the 10-minute “Germ,” and while I don’t know what the future holds for the band, they were able to situate these three songs in an established modus that, while the continued subject of discussion in itself, has obviously stood the test of time. I’m happy to have gotten a copy.
Some part of me feels like I just need to finally have it out with these songs. Late last fall, when Tucson, Arizona’s Young Hunter issuedthe three tracks “Welcome to Nothing,” “Trail of Tears” and “Dreamer” online as the Embers at the Foot of Dark MountainEP, there was no doubt in my mind that it was one of 2013′s best short releases. The 18-minute collection has become a staple in the months since its release, perfect for killing late night silences, and in Ohioan‘s Tetralogía Lavaplatos, it has a match. The two recordings share personnel, a spirit born of the land from whence they come and some lyrical themes — albeit manifested differently in texture — so it’s only fitting they’d wind up together, Ohioan‘s four songs, “Madrugada Sonora,” “Fat Children (with Privilege),” “Herida de Llorona” and “Dogshit in Plastic Bags” showcasing American drone-folk of varied intent and poetic critique to complement Young Hunter‘s emotionally-resonant spiritual weight.
The tape arrives in a hand-made package, the cover on front, a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on back that reads, “People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.” A piece of black tape seals the cardboard, which unfolds to various stamped symbols and the tape itself, black with gold paint, accompanied by a download card and folded sheet with lyrics for Young Hunter‘s songs and the two of Ohioan‘s that have them. The sides on the outside have “YH & OH” stamped on them, and it’s a fitting answer to Young Hunter‘s 2012 CD outing, Stone Tools, which showed similar depth in presentation. For a format as maligned as tapes often are, this split (limited to 200 copies) is one more argument for the validity of them as an outlet for creativity. Still, once one puts the thing on and presses play, there’s very little else that matters.
Droning at the start, “Welcome to Nothing” bursts Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain to life with terrifying lucidity. Young Hunter frontman Benjamin Blake intones at the start, “Abandon those around you/Do not be afraid…” beginning a verse that plays out a subtle build over the song’s first minute-plus before the drums and full-breadth guitars kick in. Even on tape, the sound is huge, the pulse vital, the mood darkened by the continued drone that becomes the out-front riff of the verse. A chaos swirl is given push by pounding drums — both Adan Martinez-Kee and Matthew Baquet are credited on the three tracks, I don’t know who plays where — and “Welcome to Nothing” is at a running pace the tension and drama of which is contrasted by the subdued delivery of the vocals. Crashing drums and a lead line from the guitar provide a sort of instrumental chorus while the hook resides in the refrain of the verse, the line “Welcome back to the void,” serving as an anchor up to the cacophony that rounds the track out and cuts echoing into the beginning of “Trail of Tears,” a single, spacious guitar introducing the line that will be the song’s central figure as a series of drum hits slam home punctuation.
I do not mind saying that there are several “holy shit” chill-up-the-spine moments on the Young Hunter side of the tape, and the unfolding of “Trail of Tears” is one of them. The band reels back and then lets loose a staggering nighttime landscape, guitars doing coyote howls to set up the first verse, Julia DeConcini joining Blake atop the complex wash from guitarist Mike Barnett, guitarist/keyboardist Samuel Christopher (who, like DeConcini, also appears with Ohioan) and bassist Michael Huerta, all of them and the drums coming together to create this rumbling, presence that both consumes and grooves, “hey-heys” and “ooh-oohs” showing up for an understated chorus before the keys and guitars duke it out in multilayered solos. The stomp from the beginning of the track reemerges in the second half as the foundation for a build the culmination of which is the tape’s most singularly devastating moment of tonal largesse and impact – Neurosis worthy — the drums pulling back to half-time at just the right moment and immediately afterwards starting in on the beat that is the foundation for “Dreamer,” the shortest of Young Hunter‘s three inclusions on the split.
By this time, Young Hunter have crafted a dense atmosphere, dark but not cultish or silly and earning its heaviness through control and presence. “Dreamer” essentially breaks into three parts. Guitars match the drum beat step for step and develop from there in a tense push that opens wide for an airy verse before trading back. The major change comes with the line “See the bones left where the spirit wakes up,” which marks the beginning of a build that will lead to the split’s most driving payoff, Blake coming to the fore over the maddening drive to ask, “When you gonna wake up?/Are you gonna wake up when you die?” ending the apex in screams not black metal-influenced like some of those on StoneTools, but rawer, more primal. And just to show that even as they’ve gone so far out, Young Hunter aren’t so out of control as to snap back with a hit of the snare, return to the original guitar rhythm/drum beat and cap “Dreamer” with a bookend to underscore the accomplishment of its songwriting. The several minutes of silence that follow offer well-appreciated opportunity for recovery.
Ohioan‘s take comes from another angle. Both “Madrugada Sonora” and “Herida de Llorona” are instrumental, the first launching the dark-folk/Americana outfit’s side with a bed of drone. More even than Young Hunter, whose songs prove distinct almost in spite of themselves, Ohioan‘s material gives the impression of being meant to be experienced as a whole. Extended waves of guitar notes make for a minimalist beginning, layers weaving in throughout “Madrugada Sonora” in a subtle and cautious build that comprises the first five minutes of Tetralogía Lavaplatos — something I’ll readily admit I only know because of the digital version of the EP. On the tape, it blends together seamlessly, and even when more distinct feedback arrives, it’s hard to know exactly where “Fat Children (with Privilege)” starts, though there’s little obscurity once the vocals begin. O Ryne Warner (who also appears with Young Hunter and has contributed bass to Ghost to Falco, from Portland, Oregon) is credited with co-engineering and mixing, as well as “other shit” in the studio, and listed first among a host of others as “faculty” — all info online; no personnel info with the tape liner — so I’m relatively comfortable presuming its his voice recounting the tale in the lyrics of “Fat Children (with Privilege),” but don’t quote me.
He’s joined throughout Ohioan‘s four songs by the aforementioned Christopher and DeConcini, as well as Connor Gallaher, Andrew Collberg, Jeff Lownsbury, Jeff Grubic, Sasha, Geoff Saba, Ryen Egglestein, Jim Colby, Isadora Moreno-Frisby, Alexandra Cer and Benjamin Ford-Sala (who also did the art for foldout), though who’s doing what is a mystery and to delve into speculation seems like overkill. The lyrics of “Fat Children (with Privilege)” are less about the titular youths themselves than the cultural excesses of wealth and hubris they’re meant to represent. It’s Howl meets service-industry blues:
“I cleansed every dish That the rich tooth missed I fed their fat children With privilege On skin On organs And flesh With the skin Of my friends,”
And isn’t long in going on to talk about a “life, ever spent, paying rent” — something Young Hunter touched on as well in “Dreamer” with “Another life spent chasing paychecks” — the disillusion with adult consumerist life indicative both of creative restlessness and the core of resentment that bleeds through the remainder of the track. Where Young Hunter crashed and slammed, Ohioan seethe, though in Angels of Light-esque form, there’s a swell of volume and lurching heft as well near the end of the track, topped by strings (real or inorganic) and multiple vocals as it is. The song breaks back down to its root frustration and silence precedes the instrumental “Herida de Llorona,” a twanging, guitar of country’ed sweetness offering some contrast to the gnashing teeth in the prior cut’s finish.
That atmosphere of sentiment for the impossible — something other countries rightly shake their heads at but is nonetheless a core element of American culture — continues into “Dogshit in Plastic Bags,” though neither the title of the song nor its lyrics would draw one to that notion. If it was Ohioan‘s intent to toy with contrast, they did a more than able job of it, the words barely spoken in sweet, patient melody as the lines, “Our legacy will be dicks drawn on bathroom walls, empty windows and dogshit in plastic bags outside the mall” provide the capstone for what would otherwise superficially appear as a dreamy, wistful country exploration, complete with pedal steel and slow, soft drumming. They do not linger after those lines are delivered with cadence that seems to playfully distract from the message itself, and the split concludes in a fashion rather unassuming considering the scope of what’s played out over the course of the prior 40-or-so minutes.
Last I heard, Blake had moved to Portland, Oregon, so if there’s a future for Young Hunter or what that might look like, I don’t know. Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain remains a substantial contribution either way. Ohioan, nebulous as they are, have several other releases to dig into available via their Bandcamp — 2011′s Balls Deep in Babylon catches the eye — in some alliance with Infinite Front, which seems to be an artist collective as much as a record label. Fair enough. What remains true for both acts is the essential nature of the work they’ve given here. I’m not sure if a tape does it justice. I’m not sure what format would — some form of audio tattoo? But a tape makes sense coming from two groups who’ve obviously stood under a huge desert sky and realized how little it matters one way or another, so a tape it is. Recommended.
One rarely expects in putting on a song called “An Eighth of Meth Scabs” that it’s going to be the most accessible fare on the release, but with the Fistula and Radiation Sickness split tape on Die Song, that’s how it works out. The two Midwestern outfits — Fistula with their roots in Cleveland, Ohio, Radiation Sickness in Indianapolis — each unleash an overwhelming barrage of sonic filth on their appointed side, and while Radiation Sickness are more in the vein of Repulsion-style grind and thrash, they find common ground with Fistula‘s we-broke-into-your-house-and-ate-all-your-pills-yes-even-the-multivitamins sludge in punk-bred malevolent fuckall, both acts meter out punishment with apparent glee. If such a thing is possible, they do sound like they’re having fun making all this noise.
Though they formed in the late ’80s, Radiation Sickness had broken up and gotten back together circa 2010 before releasing their first full-length in 2012, and while Fistula have seen a number of lineup changes through their tenure — like, a lot — serving as a kind of hub around which Ohio’s sludge has addled its collective brain, and released splits over the last couple years with Monkeypriest and Necrocannibalistic Vomitorium, their material here stands itself out. Recorded in 2012 with the personnel Scott “Wizard” Stearns on guitar/drums, Corey Bing on drums/guitar/bass/vocals, Aaron Brittain on vocals/samples, Dan Harrington on vocals and Mike Burns on bass, Fistula‘s three songs — the aforementioned “An Eighth of Meth Scabs,” plus “The Time We Bought Dope from the Cops” and “Dark Side of the Rusty Spoon” — only further indicate how much the band’s extremity seems to be waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. When and if it ever does, Fistula have a mountain of a discography waiting of limited EPs and splits, and their continually unhinged, violent approach has only proven more lethal with time.
In addition to the tape, of which 100 were pressed, the split is also coming soon on 12″ vinyl in an edition of 300 copies from Ivory Antler. It’s my first exposure to Radiation Sickness, who squeeze nine shorter tracks where their compatriots found room for three, though on the tape, it all melds together as something of a wash of abrasion and fast drums. But for “Reflections of a Psychotic Past,” which was helmed by Bob Fouts (formerly of Apostle of Solitude), their material was recorded by Carl Byers and comes through fittingly raw, songs like “The Death We Choose” and “Tripping in the Seas of Sadness” pummeling with little by way of compassion or regard for decency. Instrumentally there are some leanings toward crossover hardcore punk, but the vocals of Doug Palmer tend more toward the brutal and push Radiation Sickness in an extreme direction, which no one on board seems to want to argue with. I wouldn’t, anyway.
If you’re looking for something progressive or melodic, or something from which you might glean a reason to keep trying to make your way through the day, search elsewhere. Neither Fistula nor Radiation Sickness are in the business of doling out hope, and the common ground they find across this tape turns out most to be in the vicious misanthropy at play in both their sounds.
Technically speaking, the limited-to-50-tapes Demo isn’t Green Dragon‘s first outing, though it is the North Jersey trio’s first on their own, their debut having been on a 2013 split tape with Purple Knights (review here). The three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Zack Kurland, bassist Jennifer Klein and drummer Nathan Wilson released a video for an earlier recording of “Downflame,” which opens this cassette, late in 2012, but in the time since, they seem to have dropped the “The” from the front of their name and come further into their sound. Demo is exactly that: a rudimentary showing of what Green Dragon have to offer sonically, and its four songs — the aforementioned “Downflame,” as well as “Psychonaut,” “Earth Children” and “Book of Shadows” — strike with the urgency and exploratory feel of a band’s earliest going. So if it isn’t precisely their first release, it’s not far off.
Kurland, who was also in Purple Knights and Sweet Diesel , leads the trio’s charge in gritty riffs and blown out vocals. The tape repeats all four tracks on both sides, and altogether each side is just over 14 minutes long, so any way you go, it’s a quick look at Green Dragon‘s approach, which nestles itself somewhere between garage shuffle and doomly grooving. Klein and Wilson add a fervent swing to “Psychonaut,” pushing the song’s Motörhead-style riff into more swaggering territory as Kurland drawls out intonations that would be nearly indecipherable were it not for the included lyric sheets in both the cassette and CD versions of the release. They never get into the same kind of malevolent psycho-delic melodicism as Uncle Acid, but some of the sway in “Earth Children” and the guitar in “Book of Shadows” hint in that direction if presenting a ’90s alt-rock crunch, while “Downflame” shows more of a classic metal root, hitting its stride in Iron Maiden-style hits and gallop in its second half.
A steady underpinning of Sabbath influence serves as a uniting factor and whole the key is remembering that it’s a demo release, Green Dragon show off some sonic fluidity between the tracks as the feedback that ends “Psychonaut” fades out an into that which starts the rolling bass groove of “Earth Children.” It might be me reading into it, but the second two cuts feel more complex than “Downflame” and “Psychonaut,” with “Earth Children” pushing more into psych ground and hitting a fuller stride in the bridge after its second chorus, leading to Kurland ‘s repeating the line, “Earth children are free,” and “Book of Shadows” sounding altogether more patient and assured in its pacing. If those are earlier or later in terms of the songwriting, I don’t know, but listening to the demo front to back — and then flipping over to side two and doing so again — it’s easy to read a narrative of progression into the material. At that point, whether or not it’s there is a secondary consideration (though still relevant of course). You can hear it.
What that might mean for Green Dragon‘s progression remains to be seen, but the balance of elements they devise on Demointrigues as a solid demo should, and the gnarl in Kurland‘s guitar and Klein ‘s bass feels particularly suited to the compression of a tape, though I’ll say as well that both the CD and digital versions work with a little more frequency room to space out. Think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure release. “You’ve just encountered a Green Dragon…”
Exploratory heavy rockers Space Mushroom Fuzz may have decided to call their second tape boxed set Back from the Past, but it’s actually comprised of some of their most recent material. The prolific Boston space/jam/heavy rockers led by Adam Abrams (also Blue Aside) self-released four full-lengths last year between April and December, and all four — Man in the Shadow (April), A Possible Paradox (August), Stealing Some Time (November) and Burning the Almanac (December) — are gathered here, pressed DIY in an edition of only 20 copies (I got number 4, as I hope everyone does who winds up with one) and sold on the cheap for $8 through Space Mushroom Fuzz‘s Bandcamp. At two bucks an album, it seems fair to call Back from the Pasta bargain even before one actually cracks it open and listens to the music, which upon play shows development over the course of the year and the band from the jammy sensibilities of their older material to a kind of garage space rock, Abrams a steady presence on guitar and vocals, as well as periodically working on drums and bass despite being joined in those roles by Clay Neely (Black Pyramid) and John Belcastro on drums, Scott Levine on bass for Burning the Almanac, and for a couple songs, Steve Melanson on saxophone.
More than anything, the mission of Space Mushroom Fuzz seems to be to weird out and have a good time. I can dig that. A studio project, that they’d have a slew of releases isn’t necessarily much of a surprise, and that there’s a glut of material doesn’t seem to take away from any kind of completeness in the songs — that is, sometimes when I band is geared toward putting out a lot of stuff, things can get rushed so they can move onto the next project. Abrams as the driving force of Space Mushroom Fuzz allows songs to develop to a natural point across these four albums, so that the layers of effects in “Gallopie” and “Wreckage” from Stealing Some Timeare as much a part of the atmosphere as the root riffs and verses (at least verses in the case of the latter, since “Gallopie” is instrumental). In addition, I don’t know if it’s just because there’s so much of it all right next to each other, but it’s easy enough to read a sonic clarity coming into focus from one side of the tape to the next. The albums are positioned such that side one of tape one is the oldest album, Man in the Shadow — still less than a year old — and it runs through so that side two of tape two is the newest, Burning the Almanac. Finding a narrative arc there isn’t hard, and by the time Burning the Almanac comes around andLevine has joined his bass with Abrams‘ guitar and Belcastro‘s drums, Space Mushroom Fuzz sound that much more like the full band they’ve become.
That seems to be something the band acknowledge themselves on Burning the Almanacopener “The Cosmic Evolution,” though if I’m to be completely honest, I’ll say it’s an evaluation I made after hearing the digital version of that record, because when I flipped the tape over to listen to side two for the first time, my player promptly made a feast of it. Technical difficulties on my part notwithstanding, Space Mushroom Fuzz continue to be somewhat elusive as an act, working around a center of space rock that’s off-center and feeling its way through an ongoing progression even as it results in more and more recorded output, but in cases like Back from the Past, it’s interesting to have them step aside from time to time and take a look at what they’ve done. Their prior tape set, Seeing Double (review here), worked similarly if not as expansively, and the compilation format suits the project. As a lead player and the figure devising these songs and directing their progression, Abrams presents a gleefully strange take on psychedelia, weaving into and through convention en route to something decidedly and purposefully different. One might expect Space Mushroom Fuzz to lead with their newest work and move backwards from there, but listening to it front-to-back, their being counterintuitive seems to be part of the fun.
Space Mushroom Fuzz, Back from the Past (Dec. 2013)
Newcomer Houston trio Funeral Horse only pressed 100 copies of their debut tape, Savage Audio Demon — its title seeking to describe a deceptively wide stylistic range in classic demo fashion — but from what I understand, at the time of this post a few still remain for sale. The three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Paul Bearer, bassist Jayson Adams, and drummer Kevan Harrison (apparently since replaced by Chris Larmour) formed in 2013, and sure enough, Savage Audio Demon has a feeling-it-out kind of vibe across its six songs presented three-each on two sides, but both within the tracks and in the presentation of the cassette, which is professionally dubbed clear red plastic and packed with a six-panel (the inside is blank) glossy J-card containing the art, tracklisting, thanks list and links (not that you can click a piece of paper, but it’s good to know anyway), they make it clear that they have some idea of what they want to do as a band, whether it’s the Om-style drone-infused meditation of opener “The Fedayeen” or the stripped-down punk ragers “Crushed under Shame and Misery” and “Invisible Hand of Revenge.”
The Melvins come up as an influence at several points throughout Savage Audio Demon, most notably on side two’s “Wings Ripped Apart,” but though the recording is raw and the vocals on the punkier songs coming across somewhat dry — obviously not on the megaphoned verses of “Funeral Horse” — what stands out most about Funeral Horse‘s debut is that they seem not only aware of the influences under which they’re working, aural and perhaps chemical, but actively striving to craft something of their own from them. At the start of side two, “Scatter My Ashes along the Mississippi” provides a steady Southern heavy bounce that serves as the bed for the highlight of the tape, gradually fading in over the course of a vaguely cultish first verse before speeding up to a more aggressive second half. A chop in the guitar line toward the end of that song feeds the warts-and-all feel of the recording, but they tie it up nicely with a return to the initial riff, leaving the leadoff cut as the real mystery of the release. Probably it could’ve closed just as easily as it opens (immediate points for starting off with the longest song; always a bold move), but it’s the background drone, the Cisneros-style vocals and the meditative spirit — though actually the breaks in the central progression remind most of Orange Goblin‘s “Cities of Frost” — that ultimately distinguish it from everything else on the tape.
Particularly because it arrives first, it throws the listener off guard when they shoot into the faster, more garage-sounding “Crushed under Shame and Misery,” but it’s easy to figure that was the idea in the first place. And while “The Fedayeen” is somewhat incongruous with the rest of what follows, it serves its purpose as as the opener in establishing an expectation that Funeral Horse can immediately and effectively work against. Call it trickery if you want, it’s hard to argue with the results, and in the end, it’s “The Fedayeen” that makes me the most curious about where Funeral Horse might go stylistically after Savage Audio Demon and in what direction their sound might continue to develop, or if the sides of their personality will cohere into something else entirely. It’s a common-enough experience in listening to bands getting their feet wet, but nonetheless true about what the trio accomplish on their first tape that it’s an enticing prospect to see how the progression might play out across their blend of punk, heavy rock and doomed riffing.