Stinkeye, Llantera: Down the Gutter and into Space

Posted in Reviews on August 17th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

stinkeye llantera

If Stinkeye have anything in common with the current West Coast heavy psych boom, it’s the possibility that at any moment — any moment at all — it just might be time to boogie. But at the same time, true to their geography, the Phoenix, Arizona, trio are a little more inland in their sound, a little more suburban-skatepark-disaffection and garage-rehearsals than they might be were they otherwise basking in the coastal sunshine of San Diego. Issued by Milwaukee Junction Records and Blade RecordsLlantera is the debut full-length from the young three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Andrew Hosley, bassist Harris Smull and drummer Anthony DeMuro, and though it takes some tonal and tempo cues from the unabashed I-got-this-legally new-school stonerism of Fuzz across its span, whether it’s the Dead Meadow march of post-intro opener “Orange Man,” the Sungrazer-style vocal harmonies of the subsequent “Pink Clam,” the weirdo-born bounce of “No Spoon” or the grunged-out, semi-punk fuckall thrust of closer “Feed,” Stinkeye careen from one influence to another with fluidity more deceptive than the forwardness of their hairy tones and cymbal washes might at first convey.

Including the digital bonus/maybe-hidden track “Fink Ployd,” Llantera checks in at a thoroughly manageable 37 minutes — ready and seemingly waiting for whoever might want to pick it up for a vinyl release to do so — and is the follow-up to the band’s first outing, last year’s Llantera Demos (review here), a four-track demonstration released in October that also featured “Orange Man,” “Pink Clam,” “Llantera” and “Fink Ployd.” If that seems like a quick turnaround between a first demo and a first long-player, it is, and Llantera has its rough edges to be sure, but that ultimately becomes a part of the album’s appeal, as shown in the harsher bite of “Feed” or the manner in which “Bringer of Grief” shifts from its instrumentally jamming first half to the languidly bouncing verses of its second. Youth is very much on Stinkeye‘s side. The energy of their delivery and the sense of exploration at root in the construction of their material both benefit from the freshness of the experience on the part of the band. They’re new to their potential listenership? Well, they’re new to themselves too.

Accordingly, in addition to actually being partially comprised of the same tracks, Llantera carries forward the overarching rawness of the Llantera Demos. Produced and engineered by Dylan Thomas, “Pink Clam,” “No Spoon” and the rest of the cuts bask in a natural vibe and a variable mix that sees Hosley‘s vocals brought to the fore in volume on “Orange Man” and “Pink Clam” and the latter portion of “Bringer of Grief,” highlighting a burgeoning melodic approach that one can only hope the guitarist and the band as a whole will develop as they move forward, and pushed back into echoing trippery to allow the added percussion in “No Spoon” to flourish amid the fuzzy and desert-hued guitar leads while Smull‘s bass — with a ’90s-style funk at its core — provides the grounding force necessary to tie it all together before DeMuro‘s drums lead the way into the slowdown at the end that explodes and the tongue-in-cheek keyboard wash rounds out as the transition into “Feed.”

The smoothness of that transition, as well as that earlier between the 28-second intro “The Calm” — which functions in direct defiance of its title with an immediately abrasive push of guitar noise — and the ultra-welcoming initial roll of “Orange Man,” isn’t to be understated, but this too feels like an element in progress on the part of Stinkeye, something they’ll build on from here for their next release. Still, as righteously paced as their material is throughout Llantera, and as much as they shift from one vibe to the next — the title-track becoming a party of gang shouts and the record’s most shuffling rhythm, much thickened by Smull‘s low end and clearly having a great time getting alternative-universe surf-rock in Hosley‘s guitar over DeMuro‘s steady, handclap-worthy snare before “Bringer of Grief” more fully introduces the edgier single-word shouts foreshadowed in “Pink Clam” that will jab throughout “No Spoon” to follow — the front-to-back impression is hardly lacking flow either way. Repeat listens to the entirety, which are well earned, only make this linearity more resonant.

Add to that little hints of bizarro nuance like a possible lyrical mention of Barbara Bush in “Pink Clam” and the structural departure in “Bringer of Grief,” and Llantera becomes a decisively engaging piece of crafted fuzzy, heavy rock, infused with the sneer of garage and some noisier impulses for good measure. That, as the debut full-length from a relatively new band, it says as much as it does about their potential makes it all the more welcome, but there’s value in the breadth Stinkeye present in the here and now as well, and as much as one looks forward to hearing how they might bridge the sonic/stylistic gaps between “Llantera” and “Feed” as their methods evolve over time, the fact that they can put both of those songs together in relatively close proximity on a short-ish album isn’t to be ignored. And while one suspects that pieces like “Feed” and”Bringer of Grief” and “No Spoon” were already in the works, the quick turnaround between the demo and the long-player bodes well for future productivity too.

Llantera might be a sleeper in terms of the response it gets, but it puts Stinkeye in league with next-generation upstarts like FoggBison Machine, Salem’s BendCloud Catcher and perhaps even Slow Season (among others) in fostering a new breed of American heavy that learns from the past even as it places itself at the cutting edge of what’s to come. Of course, what Stinkeye become as they pass through the next few years is up to them — they could call it quits tomorrow and completely pull the plug on the potential shown here; it’s certainly happened before — but Llantera fills one with hope for what they might be able to contribute to this pastiche and kicks more than enough ass besides to be counted as one of the best debuts of 2017. May they continue to work quickly, may they continue to boogie at will, and may they continue to get weirder as they go.

Stinkeye, “No Spoon” official video

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Review & Track Premiere: Red Mountains, Slow Wander

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 16th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

red mountains slow wander

[Click play above to listen to the premiere of ‘Stone’ from Red Mountains’ Slow Wander. Album is out Sept. 1 on All Good Clean Records.]

With their steady rhythmic roll, jam-sounding foundations and tonally warm psychedelic affect, one almost expects the heady sounds of Red Mountains to originate from Munich, rather than the northern climes of Trondheim, Norway — nearly seven hours up from Oslo by rail — but their sound, perhaps informed by the Scandinavian Mountain chain running through their hometown, has its roots in soulful heavy rock just as much as airy drift. To wit, their second album and first for All Good Clean Records is the nine-track Slow Wander, which follows the Nasoni-issued 2015 debut, Down with the Sun (review here), and while one notes aesthetic continuity in the cover art by the esteemed Samantha Muljat — who seems to have done a number of short, digital releases for the band as well — the 47-minute offering takes decided action in moving them stylistically ahead from where they were two years ago.

Recorded outside Trondheim at Sørgården Studios with Spidergawd guitarist/vocalist Per Borten at the production helm, Håvard Soknes on the mix and Magnus Kofoed mastering, Slow Wander is maybe somewhat devious in its title in that even at its most drifting, on a cut like the vast, airy sway of “Oak” or the subsequent 10-minute blues-psych sprawl of “Endless Ocean,” there’s a clear sense of purpose maintained. And that bears fruit elsewhere in the more solidified songwriting process of vocalist/guitarist Magnus Riise, guitarist/vocalist Jostein Wigenstad, bassist Sverre Dalen and drummer Simen Mathiassen, who seem to take cues from UK heavy rockers Stubb in the soulfulness and hooks of the bouncing centerpiece “Stone,” “Cellar Door” and the earlier “Rat King,” which though slower and somewhat darker in its atmosphere contains arguably the catchiest chorus of the bunch.

Where the album ultimately succeeds is in establishing a balance between its two sides — the more rocking impulses and the wider-breadth jamming — and in conveying a direct sense of purpose in doing this. There’s no sense that anything on Slow Wander is happening by accident, whatever the name of the record might otherwise indicate. Rather, if one takes the title as advice from the band instead of a description of their own actions as regards its making, then Red Mountains are perhaps giving their listenership the best way possible to make its collective way through the tracks. From opener “Home” — like the starting point of a board game — onward through “Rat King” and “Oak” and “Endless Ocean,” Slow Wander earns not just a fleeting glance from its audience, but a real savoring experience.

red mountains

That’s not to say one should slow down playback or take a break from one track to the next and thereby miss out or undercut the flow between them, which is one of Slow Wander‘s most appealing aspects across what would seem to be its A and B sides, but just that the progression of the album as it unfolds is worth more than a passive listen, and the more one engages with moments like the echoing solo that tops the midsection of “Home” or the languid payoff deep into “Endless Ocean,” or the crunchier riffing on the penultimate “Acid Wedding” — which seems as well to sneak a guest vocal performance from Borten into its second half — the more those moments and the rest of the release repay that effort with satisfying detail of songcraft and execution. No question Red Mountains have an organic basis from which they’re working in that this material is born of jams, but whether it’s the rolling vibe of “Fog” or the nod-ready payoff of “Cellar Door,” there’s been an obvious commitment made and energy dedicated to shaping that basis into coherent, deceptively varied songs.

An argument could be made that in that process, Red Mountains are playing to style. I’m not sure I disagree, given how willful their sense of craft comes across in “Stone,” “Rat King,” “Home,” etc., but when one considers Slow Wander in light of Down with the Sun before it, the trajectory they’re on would seem to be toward a more individualized take on heavy psychedelia. Further, if playing to style is going to result in the chance to bask in the kind of immersion that “Endless Ocean” offers, then go right ahead. There is a grammar of aesthetic for any genre-based output, and Slow Wander demonstrates plainly that Red Mountains have been schooled via their influences in what they’re doing.

But again, the increase in production value between the debut and the follow-up, the precise placement of these songs — turning vinyl convention on its head with the more open material up front and the rockers in back — and even the overarching symmetry of answering the opener “Home” with the closer “Returning,” as though they knew the listener would finish the record and then immediately go back to the start to make their way around the board again, all of this shows a directed consciousness from RiiseWigenstadDalen and Mathiassen. Fortunately for them and for anyone who would take their second long-player on in a more than cursory manner, their chemistry carries through the structures they’ve built, and while it may not be a revolution in style, Slow Wander is a friendly, open-armed welcome to the converted and a forward step that affirms the potential of their debut and would seem to hint toward even broader reaches to come. There is nothing more one could reasonably ask of Slow Wander than to be precisely what it is, and in setting those terms, Red Mountains begin to lay claim to sonic territory of their own.

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Review & Video Premiere: Steak, No God to Save

Posted in Bootleg Theater, Reviews on August 15th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

steak-no-god-to-save

[Click play above to watch Steak’s new video for ‘Living Like a Rat.’ No God to Save is available now via Ripple Music.]

In the nearly three years that have passed since the London four-piece made their full-length debut, Steak‘s desert rock loyalism has taken them back and forth across the UK and continental Europe for tours and appearances at festivals like Keep it Low, Reverence Valada in Portugal, Desertfest Athens, Stoned from the Underground, of course Desertfest London — of which guitarist Reece Tee is a founder/organizer — and, most recently, Bloodstock. Even prior to the arrival of Slab City (review here) via Napalm Records, their 2012 Disastronaught (review here) and 2013 Corned Beef Colossus (review here) EPs were earning them a reputation for raucous fuzz, comic-style storytelling and a formidable, growing presence in London’s crowded heavy rock underground.

The inevitable follow-up, No God to Save, finds Steak signed to respected purveyor Ripple Music out of California, and while the foursome made a point to travel to that most golden of states’ desert to record their debut — a once-in-a-lifetime chance of which any band would be foolish not to take advantage for the memory and life experience alone, never mind the actual fuzz captured at Thunder Underground — this time they’ve stuck closer to home, putting together the 10-track/48-minute offering at Titan Studios in Watford, northwest of London, with producer Steve Sears (KrokodilGallowsDiesel King, etc.). That’s a significant change of approach in itself — not to mention geography — but with the vocals of Chris “Kippa” Haley at the forefront of forward-driving cuts like “Coke Dick” and “Living Like a Rat,” Steak reemerge on their second full-length with a deeply recognizable sound in tone and structure. They sound, in other words, like themselves.

And it comes through clearly in the songwriting that their time on stage over the last few years has helped them refine the definition of what “themselves” means. While it cut its teeth in tonal buzz and a generally straightforward build of momentum, Slab City was almost inextricably tethered to the post-Kyuss vibe it actively sought. No God to Save still showcases this influence in some of Tee‘s riffing on seven-minute opener and longest track (immediate points) “Overthrow” or the later “Creeper,” but when one examines the tracklisting as a whole, that becomes only one element at work across a much broader and ultimately richer presentation. Atop the solid foundation in the rhythm section of bassist James “Cam” Cameron and drummer Sammy ForwaySteak explore more spacious vibes beginning in “Overthrow” and throughout ensuing pieces like the bass-led “Clones,” “Mountain” and the penultimate “Wickerman.”

steak photo sam mellish

“Rough House” provides some rolling middle-ground in side B, as “King Lizard” does on side A, and instrumental closer “The Ebb” brings in acoustic atmospherics complemented by a sparse landscape of electric lead flourish and dramatic piano, cymbal hits and tom thud, and with the aforementioned thrust of “Coke Dick” and “Living Like a Rat,” there’s a firm sense of dynamics at work. But it’s the shift into this more multifaceted style that most distinguishes No God to Save from Slab City and Steak‘s prior short releases, and listening to the fluidity brought to bear as “Overthrow” shifts into “Coke Dick” and “Clones” moves through “King Lizard” en route to “Living Like a Rat,” No God to Save feels built with the intention to emphasize the variety between one piece and the next, even as the flow goes uninterrupted for the duration. If one takes “Mountain” as the leadoff for side B (also the longest track there; secondary points), Steak envision even wider expanses as “Rough House,” “Creeper,” “Wickerman” and “The Ebb” push further outward from what the first half of No God to Save already proves — namely that, while still earthy in their heft and tone, Steak are interested in expressing more than played-to-style desert rock.

That becomes the prevailing impression of No God to Save as the band groove and careen along their increasingly diverse path, and while one wonders how far they’d be willing to push that impulse before snapping back to dead-ahead riff-rocking à la “Living Like a Rat” as a focal point — they’ve jammed before, to be sure, but how psychedelic can Steak get? — the fact that they’re demonstrating multiple sides of their sonic personality establishes them as a more mature and complete unit. Add to that the sharp performances of TeeCameron and Forway, the commanding frontman-ism of Haley and the depth of mix given to the material by Sears‘ studio work, and No God to Save becomes more than just a check-in from a band who had an impressive debut a couple years back and positions them all the more as a group to be taken seriously when it comes to making an impact within and beyond their regional scene. All along, Steak have been a band with marked potential. Front to back, in its individual moments of detail and its increased range, No God to Save sees that begin to pay off.

Burgeoning maturity suits Steak well, and it’s worth pointing out that even as they learn the value of offsetting balls-out drive with more patient fare, they still deliver the material on No God to Save with a markedly energetic spirit. That too can be read as derived from their experience on various stages throughout the last couple years, but it’s certainly not something that was lacking before, and of the various aspects of their approach they’re carrying forward as they grow, no question it’s a helpful one to bring along for the ride. I will not claim to know where Steak are headed when it comes to their ongoing progression, but there’s an underlying sense of craft in No God to Save that bodes remarkably well for that journey, and as they reach new terrain in sound and substance, the core of who they are as songwriters becomes even stronger in its purposes. At this point, it’s hard to see them letting that go, and nor should they.

Steak, No God to Save (2017)

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Review & Track Premiere: Blues Funeral, Awakening

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 14th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

blues funeral awakening

[Click play above to listen to ‘Shadow of the Snake’ from Blues Funeral’s Awakening. Album is out Aug. 25.]

Immediately the sense from Awakening is one of continuity. To make their second full-length, and their second in as many years behind July 2016’s The Search (review here), Houston four-piece Blues Funeral returned to Lucky Run Studios to record and mix with Jeremy Dudman and Mike Mikulka. Like the debut before it, the sophomore outing features six tracks, five of which run between five and six-plus minutes long, plus one cut that branches out longer — last time it was the title-track, here it’s 8:21 closer “The Gathering Dust.” Like the debut before it, Awakening features the dual-guitar-led lineup of guitarists/vocalists Maurice Eggenschwiler and Jan “El Janni” Kimmel (the latter also keys), bassist Gabriel Katz and drummer Cory Cousins (the latter also backing vocals on “Awakening” and “Casimir”), a mastering job by Collin Jordan at the Boiler Room, artwork by David Paul Seymour and a sound that toys with the lines between progressive and classic rock, classic rock and classic metal, and classic metal and doom. Listening to songs like opener “Shadow of the Snake” and “Illusions of Reality,” it’s pretty clear that Blues Funeral had plenty about their debut they liked and wanted to use as a model to build from.

Fair enough. Given how solidified The Search was in its approach and the cohesive presentation that it brought forth from the band, one isn’t inclined to argue, but just because that record and Awakening share core aspects doesn’t preclude growth on the part of Blues Funeral either. Rather, as a group and as individual players, they demonstrate a forward-looking mentality in terms of their own development that seems to have been taken on with willful purpose, and like other let’s-have-a-guitar-fight-except-it’s-not-really-a-fight-and-also-we-harmonize, prog-fueled outfits of their ilk — the underrated likes of Valkyrie and Corsair come to mind most readily, as well as newer Beelzefuzz — Blues Funeral do justice to their influences in their own progression as much as through the sonic foundation from which they work.

Melody is central throughout. Awakening‘s six tracks run a manageable 39 minutes and while for the bulk of that time there’s more rhythmic motion going on or more active lead-taking than one would generally classify as “pastoral,” the material is rife with nuance, be it in the form of the layered-in acoustics of “Casimir,” the organ that accompanies the initial bounce of “Shadow of the Snake,” the mellotron in “The Gathering Dust,” guest vocals on “Firedrake” or even just the way “Awakening” itself so skillfully blends metallic and heavy rocking impulses, taking cues from Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and later Opeth in its blend of organ and guitar and the clean delivery of the vocal harmonies between Kimmel and Eggenschwiler, which prove throughout once again to be central figure of Blues Funeral‘s sound, as well as a tasteful example of their development as songwriters and players.

The two guitarists and Cousins played together in the less prog-rocking Sanctus Bellum, so they weren’t strangers coming into Blues Funeral or anything, but among the elements of the newer outfit established on this follow-up is the ongoing shaping of a personality all its own, increasingly distinct as it digs into the soul-infused boogie of “Illusions of Reality” and subtle vocal arrangement complexity there as complemented by Katz‘s highlight bass performance in the quieter lead break in the midsection. Once again, melody is the root, even from the rhythm section.

blues funeral (photo Grooverock)

Couple this with a firm sense of two-sided intent. The first three tracks — “Shadow of the Snake,” “Awakening” and “Illusions of Reality” — are rockers. The title-track especially feels dug into a more crunching tonality at its launch before opening to its more flowing chorus, but it and the two pieces surrounding are defined by a more straightforward lean on hooks and structural classicism. At 5:05, “Illusions of Reality” is the shortest inclusion on Awakening, and its uptempo push is friendly, warm and inviting in a good-times-listening-to-ThinLizzy fashion that even vaguely metal-derived songcraft rarely dares to be. Blues Funeral, as much time as they spend with Eggenschwiler and Kimmel‘s guitars at the fore, are aiming to directly engage their listeners on Awakening‘s side A, and their success in this effort is precisely what allows them to hold a sense of full-album fluidity as the subsequent side B begins to branch out its more expansive modus.

Now, are Blues Funeral going experimental black metal drone? Nope. While all three are longer than “Shadow of the Snake,” “Awakening” or “Illusions of Reality,” tonally and atmospherically, “Firedrake,” “Casimir” and “The Gathering Dust” stay consistent with what the first half of Awakening has on offer — and they’re correct to do so — but each of the last three pieces also has some bit of flourish to stand it out from its surroundings. Perhaps “Firedrake” is the most obvious, with the already-noted guest vocal appearance from Kelly Cousins Adams (sister to Cory) marking a departure from the choruses delivered by the guitarists together and the tradeoffs between them. Complemented by particularly righteous Nord from Kimmel and guitar ambling alongside the keys’ winding course — also another must-hear bassline from Katz — “Firedrake” holds a patient and flowing presentation that, while in its last third gives into some doomier-feeling riff and solo work, also sets up the arrival of the acoustic/electric blend that will continue in “Casimir.”

One does not imagine the similarity in title to Led Zeppelin‘s “Kashmir” is coincidental, as Awakening‘s penultimate track takes on some loosely Eastern-feeling scales in its intricate barrage of leads and has a narrative drama in its verses no less born of classic heavy rock. Resolution, as it will, comes in a last solo punctuated by ride bell from Cousins and a sudden stop to let “The Gathering Dust” take hold on its own terms — a thrust of NWOBHM-style poise is backed by carefully-woven drawn-out lead lines (perhaps the most Akerfeldtian moment on Awakening, especially with the key section and riff that follow), and suddenly the point of emphasis becomes how much Blues Funeral have been able to build and maintain a momentum across the album’s span while still allowing individual songs their moment, not sounding rushed or hurried in any way, but never still either.

The guitars are key in this, of course, but it’s a whole-band function just the same, and another example of Blues Funeral‘s second offering having moved ahead from the first. As the closer makes its way through more harmonized soloing in its middle and toward its instrumental, also-solo-topped final minutes, and ends in classy fashion with a quick wash of cymbals and pulled-string scorch, the message is no less plain than it has been all along that the foursome have a determined idea of what they want to do as a band, who they are as players and songwriters, and how they should be working together toward the common goals of their processes. The value of that isn’t to be understated when it comes to making Awakening work as well as it does. Given the progressive feel they elicit throughout, that underlying consciousness couldn’t be more appropriate, and it is one more way in which Blues Funeral earn the listener’s trust in terms of the moves they make here and, invariably, those that will follow their next time out.

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Review & Track Premiere: Mindkult, Lucifer’s Dream

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 11th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

mindkult-lucifers-dream

[Click play above to listen to the premiere of ‘Behold the Wraith’ from Mindkult’s Lucifer’s Dream, out Sept. 20 through Transcending Obscurity Records and Caligari Records.]

Virginian one-man outfit Mindkult quickly affirms the potential of 2016’s debut EP on the full-length follow-up, Lucifer’s Dream. Released through Transcending Obscurity and Caligari Records, the album arrives with some measure of fanfare as compares to last year’s Witch’s Oath (review here), but that’s a considerable testament to the niche that multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and producer Fowst immediately carved out for himself between doom, shoegaze, dreary psychedelia and garage cultistry. At six tracks and 42 minutes, Lucifer’s Dream gracefully, patiently fleshes out these textures and weaves them together to form not a mesh of disparate or semi-disparate approaches, but a coherent and individualized aesthetic that, were the word “kult” not already in such wide use, one might call “kult doom” in the project’s honor.

That is, though one can recognize flashes of Uncle Acid in an uptempo shuffle like second cut “Nightmares,” even that track pursues its own path via resonant lead guitar, Fowst sounds most of all like himself, and by placing more extended cuts “Drink My Blood” (8:06), “Behold the Wraith” (9:20) and “Lucifer’s Dream” (9:24) at the beginning, middle (-ish) and end positions of the tracklisting, Mindkult ensures a dirge-style vibe is maintained throughout. A rough production becomes an essential facet of the presentation in the blown-out guitar and bass tones, and whether they’re real drums or programmed, the march they elicit in “Infernals” on side B and the slow-swing of “Drink My Blood” at the outset help to ground and punctuate the downer trajectory. Mindkult, as a vehicle for Fowst in the tradition of black metal’s adopted monikers — see Wrest in Leviathan, Malefic in Xasthur, etc. — is going to bum you out and smile malevolently as it does. Accordingly, Lucifer’s Dream is one of 2017’s best debut albums, and in building out the potential of the EP before it, it also sets Fowst up for a longer term progression of songwriting and sonic persona.

The future of Mindkult will be whatever it will be, but what’s more important for the moment is the level of accomplishment that Fowst brings to cuts like “Behold the Wraith,” third of the six and the finale of side A, which fluidly shifts pace as it nears its midpoint from an initial slog to which the drawn-out, shoegazing vocals are perfectly suited, toward a relatively speedier chug. Layering in solo guitar over the rhythm adds to the sense of forward motion, and though the stretch is short-lived ultimately, it shows the deft hand with which Fowst already controls the proceedings within Mindkult. Lucifer’s Dream is rife with these moments of detail and nuance, and though from its artwork, overarching mournful spirit, loosely horror-derived thematics and sundry don’t-worry-about-all-of-us-being-doomed-because-it’s-already-happened miseries one gets a distinctly misanthropic impression, the songs themselves remain accessible, melodic and engaging. As much as “Drink My Blood” repels outwardly, it does so in a manner that engages the listener.

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Fowst‘s obscure moans and howls in “Drink My Blood” and “Nightmares” set the tone for the significant and headphone-worthy presence that “Behold the Wraith” and the five-minutes-apiece pair of “Infernals” and “Howling Witch” flesh out ahead of the title-track, a full-album flow enacted that bridges one side to the next even as it stays vinyl-ready with “Infernals” opening side B with a psycho-Satanic lyric to follow the the distinct movements within “Behold the Wraith.” Dark immersion is at the root of Mindkult‘s style, and while Fowst‘s vocals are at times buried (alive) beneath the guitars and bass — the drums are a steady but never really forefront presence so much as the strings — the intent doesn’t seem so much to create a spaciousness as to demonstrate the feeling of being lost within the whole muck that is the end product of Lucifer’s Dream as a whole.

Of course, the record succeeds in no small part because it never actually gets lost. As “Behold the Wraith” slows itself back down and heads into the mid-paced “Infernals” and the sample from the 1976 horror flick Satan’s Black Wedding (“He is pleased with you, Nina…”) that starts the speedier, hookier “Howling Witch,” Fowst smartly hones a palpable momentum to carry into the finale, which starts out at a stomp and makes its way toward wah-drenched psychedelic garage doom in its middle third. Hypnotic, it’s the kind of passage one might miss on an initial listen, but in terms of furthering Mindkult‘s potential, it opens another avenue for future exploration on the part of Fowst, and one hopes he’ll pursue it, especially since he’s able to transition so smoothly into its reaches and back toward a more grounded solo section as he delivers the title line after the five-minute mark.

A crunching slowdown provides a bridge to the return of the snare-punctuated stomp that began the closer and “Lucifer’s Dream” rounds out the album that shares its name with a marked showcase of the symmetry that’s been at the foundation of the material all along. It’s not chaos, though it might sound like it at times with the rough-hewn recording, persistent tonal buzz and so on. The truth of the matter is Fowst is more mastermind or perhaps mad scientist when it comes to Mindkult than he is conjurer, but the results of his work on Lucifer’s Dream are otherworldly just the same. Listening in the context of these tracks serving as Mindkult‘s debut, their cohesion becomes all the more striking, and once again, as much work as Fowst does here to realize the potential shown on Witch’s Oath, the affect of Lucifer’s Dream is just as much in accomplishing that as it is beating its path toward new depressive reaches still to be discovered.

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Paradise Lost, Medusa: Deathly Passages

Posted in Reviews on August 10th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

paradise lost medusa

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of England’s Paradise Lost, who in that time have crafted a storied, varied and massively influential career in doom. Whether as part of the original ‘Peaceville three’ alongside UK countrymen My Dying Bride and Anathema in the ’90s as they helped shape the decade’s course with records like 1991’s Gothic, which followed their 1990 debut, Lost Paradise, or 1992’s Shades of God, 1993’s Icon and 1995’s Draconian Times or the veering away from what had been the innovative downtrodden aggression of death-doom and gothic-doom in their sound — if not the dramatic sensibility — that came later in 1997’s One Second, 1999’s Host, 2001’s Believe in Nothing and 2002’s Symbol of Life, their evolution has divided fans and critics as only a band truly committed to following their own path can. With the release of their self-titled in 2005, Paradise Lost began to reemphasize the lead guitar of Gregor Mackintosh in their sound, and gradually since, the five-piece have pushed back into heavier and darker territory.

It’s been a decade-long process, with 2007’s In Requiem, 2009’s Faith Divides Us – Death Unites Us (review here), 2012’s Tragic Idol and 2015’s The Plague Within (review here), and with 2017’s Medusa — also their first offering through Nuclear Blast after releasing the prior four LPs and other numerous collections through Century Media — that progression toward darkened heft would seem to have hit a new zenith. From the Branca Studio artwork through the ultra-thick chug from Mackintosh and rhythm guitarist Aaron Aedy, the thudding drums of newcomer Waltteri Väyrynen (ex-Moonsorrow, among others), the heft of Stephen Edmonson‘s bass and the shifts between cleaner singing and harsh growls from vocalist Nick HolmesMedusa is Paradise Lost unabashed in their approach to doom — a sound they’ve made their own over time and one that tracks like the deeply metallic “From the Gallows” and the slogging “No Passage for the Dead” show they’re willing to reshape to their purposes on any given track.

Vital in their delivery and given added impact through the biting production of Jaime Gómez Arellano at Orgone Studios in London (see also: CathedralWith the DeadSólstafir and many others), Paradise Lost can come across as absolutely vicious throughout Medusa‘s eight tracks and 42 minutes, so that by the time they get around to the last push and rasps of closer “Until the Grave,” the organ introduction of 8:31 opener and longest inclusion (immediate points) “Fearless Sky” is a distant, mournful memory. Yet their work here is informed by an accessibility of structure as well. “Fearless Sky” is clearly intended to send a message to their audience with its overbearing crash, grueling tempo, drawn-out leads and Holmes‘ initial growls, but it also shifts into a melodic hook in its midsection — the crafters of Gothic playing very much to the gothic metal they helped craft — and once established, that dynamic becomes essential to the atmosphere and, in the end, the success of Medusa.

paradise lost

With Paradise Lost circa 2017, it’s not just about drawing solely on their early albums, or their middle period, or even the last decade’s clear-headed pummel — it’s about taking all of that and creating something with it that continues to move their progression forward. Second track “Gods of Ancient” follows the willful body-drag of “Fearless Sky” with an extremity of darkness worth of the band’s legacy that picks up its pace in the second half around a particularly punishing riff, setting up a thrust further into darkness on the shorter “From the Gallows,” which offsets a chugging verse with transitional lead lines and a more open-feeling chorus. This opening salvo consumes most of side A along with whatever else happens to step in front of it, and as “The Longest Winter” offers a breather in its atmospheric, birdsong-laden introduction, it also marks a turn toward cleaner-singing from Holmes that was foreshadowed in “Fearless Sky” but that, brought more forward and only offset by a couple guttural complementary lines, emphasize just how deeply bleak Paradise Lost get over the first three tracks. I’m not sure I’d call it a moment of hope in terms of ambience — it’s still plenty dark, plenty gray — but it’s nonetheless a departure from the rest of side A before it.

So does that mean the final four cuts on Medusa find Paradise Lost further expanding the context of the album overall? Somewhat, but they also reaffirm the emotional and tonal mire of the first half. The title-track, at 6:20, mirrors “Fearless Sky” in being the longest piece on its side (secondary points), and it begins with a quiet piano line that will reemerge throughout the entirety of the song as a focal point, a theme around which the weighted guitars and bass churn, vocals going from clean to rough in a flipped-script manner that was initiated by “The Longest Winter” before reverting to the deathly on the very-much-guitar-led “No Passage for the Dead” and “Blood and Chaos” — the latter arguably the most metallic of Medusa‘s tracks in quickness of pace and the straightforward swapping of growled verses and a harmonized chorus, Mackintosh‘s leads still a hallmark of Paradise Lost‘s sound as ever in the efficient, tightly-executed 3:51 that seems to answer “From the Gallows” in ferocity of purpose while surpassing it in catchiness level.

One might expect, given the traditional shape of the tracklist and the way Medusa unfolds across its span, that “Until the Grave” would task itself with summarizing the entirety of what comes before it, but it instead draws on the bitter mournfulness of “No Passage for the Dead” and “Blood and Chaos” and pushes them outward with keyboard flourish and steady rhythmic roll. It is a grim and thoroughly doomed finale, but I suppose in that it does actually do a fair bit of summary for what Medusa has on offer — a lack of pretense in its intention and a sharp-edged lucidity underlying the murk created throughout. A mission statement unto itself, “Until the Grave” ends simply, perhaps even in understated fashion, and leaves the listener wanting more, which for a band about to hit their 30th year and releasing their 15th full-length is no minor accomplishment in itself. Nonetheless, that Paradise Lost have never settled in terms of aesthetic, songwriting or performance has become a key facet of their longevity, and monstrous as it is, it’s only right that Medusa should stand as another richly satisfying next-step in their seemingly perpetual growth.

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Review & Track Premiere: Pagan Altar, The Room of Shadows

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 7th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

pagan-altar-the-room-of-shadows

[Click play above to stream the premiere of the title-track from Pagan Altar’s The Room of Shadows, out Aug. 24 via Temple of Mystery Records.]

Thirty-five years after recording their debut album and nearly 20 after Volume I finally saw its release, Pagan Altar put the capstone on their career with The Room of Shadows. What has been floated as the NWOBHM-era cult outfit’s final long-player is their fourth/fifth overall and arrives 11 years after its predecessor, 2006’s Mythical and Magical, via Temple of Mystery Records even more dripping in context and narrative than the simple span of time and retirement of the band. Founding frontman Terry Jones — who along with son/guitarist Alan Jones oversaw the original run of the band from 1978 through 1985 before coming back in 2004 to offer up second album, Lords of Hypocrisy (discussed here), and the EP of earlier recordings, The Time Lord (review here), before moving onto revisit Volume I in 2005’s Judgement of the Dead, and the aforementioned Mythical and Magical — passed away in May 2015 following a fight with cancer.

Pagan Altar had issued splits with Jex Thoth and Mirror of Deception in 2007 and 2011, respectively, as well as a single, Walking in the Dark, in 2013, and 2014 was supposed to see the realization of their next full-length, Never Quite Dead. It was recorded and tabled in light of the illness, and with the elder Jones‘ death, it was unclear whether or not it would ever come out. The Room of Shadows is that album. Alan, along with bassist Diccon Harper and drummer Andy Green, went back into the studio and re-recorded the instruments behind his father’s vocals, and the seven-song/46-minute The Room of Shadows stands not only as a fitting final installment to Pagan Altar‘s career and homage to the unsung legacy of Terry Jones and the band’s contributions to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and traditional doom, but also years of work making what could be argued as the most accomplished outing of their tenure.

That’s not to take anything away from Mythical and Magical, which was comprised of material written during Pagan Altar‘s first run, or Lords of Hypocrisy or Volume I, The Time Lord or anything else the Joneses have brought to bear intermittently over the last 35 years, only to say that The Room of Shadows has a nearly impossible charge before it in living up to its narrative and it does so with cohesive songwriting and without getting lost in either its doomly ambient mire or the weight of its conceptual task.

From opener “Rising of the Dead” through the landmark hook of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” the playful horror thematic of “Danse Macabre,” the Sabbathian centerpiece “Dance of the Vampires,” the proto-metal thrust of the title-track, the 10:36 grandeur of “The Ripper” and its accompanying minute-long epilogue “After Forever” — it does not seem like coincidence that one title comes from Judas Priest and the other from Black Sabbath, though neither is a cover — The Room of Shadows unfolds classic-sounding underground metal with rare clarity and poise that highlights Jones‘ vocals and presents them as part of a complete picture of what Pagan Altar still very much have to offer listeners; not just a voice from the past, so to speak, but an enduring take on heaviness that’s relevant in atmosphere as much as craft.

pagan altar

In the fluidity of “The Ripper” alone, JonesJonesDiccon and Green engage distinctly NWOBHM dynamic through multiple patient movements, loud, quiet and dramatic, with a turn to a more storytelling lyric, where earlier, the pair of “Danse Macabre” and “Dance of the Vampires” finds Terry descriptive. That there should be so much focus on death throughout The Room of Shadows — “Rising of the Dead,” “Danse Macabre,” Dance of the Vampires,” “The Ripper,” etc. — is somewhat eerie when one considers it as a posthumous release, but again, it’s the songs themselves that allow Pagan Altar to get through this material without being consumed entirely by the “last album” factor. Whatever else it may be for the band, it is a considerable achievement.

And one apparently some time in the making. “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” with its uptempo, standout chorus, dates back to the 2011 split with Mirror of Deception and late that same year was posted as representing Pagan Altar‘s next album, then due in 2012. How far back the other material on The Room of Shadows might go in terms of composition or specific recording date, I don’t know, but Alan‘s taking charge of the instrumental elements behind his father’s vocals ostensibly to give the band the best representation possible serves the dual purpose of lending a freshness and energy to the tracks. One can hear it clearly in his soloing on “The Ripper” or in the gallop of Green‘s double-kick in the second half of “Dance of the Vampires” as much as the effective atmospherics of the slower parts in “Rising of the Dead” and the initial minutes of “The Room of Shadows” itself, which also finds father and son harmonizing a tale of a scared child before taking off at a briskly punctuated, lead-topped clip; the tinge of UK/Celtic folk in Terry‘s voice not at all lost in either the subdued or the raucous moments.

Complemented by gracefully strummed guitar shimmer, that will come into play again on the 1:33 “After Forever,” which closes The Room of Shadows with a duly poetic last verse and resonant emotional finish that succeeds despite the thematic turn between the title-track and “The Ripper” before it. Pagan Altar spent three and a half decades as an underrated band, and The Room of Shadows may in fact be their final offering — though of course one never knows and there are always opportunities for live albums, lost tracks collections, etc. — but as its eponymous cut, as “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” as “Danse Macabre” and the rest of its inclusions show, they’re an act capable of finding vibrant delivery in the realms of darkness and death, and if there’s a chance these songs might carry their story forward to a new generation in terms of audience, that’s a chance well worth taking. Born of tragedy and defeat, The Room of Shadows brims with timeless victory.

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Zone Six, Live Spring 2017: Zuckerregen

Posted in Reviews on August 4th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

zone six live spring 2017

On a certain level, what you see is what you get with Zone Six‘s Live Spring 2017. Or, to put it another way, it lives up to its title — and by that I mean its four tracks were recorded onstage earlier this year. It is the second so-far-digital-only live offering from the German space explorers in 2017 behind Forever Hugo, which was posted in March, and if the band wanted to press up physical copies of either or both releases for Sulatron Records, I doubt they’d meet with many complaints. As to why the uptick in activity — you might recall their 2015 studio album, Love Monster (review here), came out following an 11-year break — the fact that 2017 marks 20 years since the band got their start in 1997 might have something to do with it, or it might just be a coincidence of having shows recorded. Whatever the case, my general policy as regards projects involving Dave “Sula Bassana” Schmidt — see also: Electric Moon, Sula Bassana, Krautzone, Papermoon (who desperately need to put out another record), etc. — certainly applies here as well.

Helming the mixing and mastering as well as drums and synth, Schmidt is joined in this incarnation of Zone Six by guitarist/noisemaker Rainer Neeff and bassist/noisemaker Komet Lulu — both of whom have also played in Krautzone and the latter of whom is a co-founder of Electric Moon — and where Love Monster also including the synth specialist Modulfix to round out a four-piece lineup, one can hardly complain about some lack of wash on the part of Live Spring 2017, the four instrumental inclusions of which top a full 65 minutes beginning with the opener and longest track (immediate points) “Touch Down Heidi,” a 26-minute plunge into acid-drenched space-scaping and swirl-laden spontaneous creation. Improv is clearly at the root, and like the best of jam-based heavy psychedelia the European underground has to offer — incredible how much of it Schmidt is involved in crafting; one waits for the day he and Dr. Space finally collaborate — Live Spring 2017 brings listeners to the very core of Zone Six‘s exploratory process, brought to bear as it happened at two separate gigs, in Heidelberg, Germany, and Liege, Belgium.

That’s particularly noteworthy as there is a difference in the audio between one gig and the other. The aforementioned opener and the subsequent “Song for Richie” (14:55) were captured by Buddha Sentenza drummer Thomas “Jesus Malverde” Traub and “Mäusedisco” (12:14) and closer “Raining Sugar Cane Ritual” (11:57) taken from a video recorded by Schmidt himself during the Belgian show, but to be honest, each piece is of a distinct enough character and the flow between them is so immersive that the listener has to make a concerted effort to notice. By the time Zone Six have made their way through “Touch Down Heidi,” which is followed by some well-earned applause that surprises nonetheless if only because it’s so easy to forget as the song plays out that human beings were there to witness it — and/or exist at all — someone taking on Live Spring 2017 is either going to be hypnotized to its procession or they’re not, and I suspect that, as a digital live outing without wider or physical distribution or promotion, those who do embark on the journey are will do so purposefully and with some sense of knowing what they’re going to get.

zone six

Does that mean Live Spring 2017 is a fan piece? Maybe. But it’s not just a fan piece, and whether it’s the emotionally resonant melancholy of the guitar in “Song for Richie,” which is dedicated to fallen comrade Richard Van Ess, or the semi-tribalist percussive force that emerges in “Mäusedisco,” there is a continual shift in presentation on the part of Zone Six that makes each of the four improvisations stand out from the others, beginning with the textured drones of “Touch Down Heidi” that give way to the album’s most Hawkwindian thrust — met with suitable howling lead work from Neeff — and wrapping with the patient and pastoral wash of “Raining Sugar Cane Ritual,” which skillfully meanders from a launch of drone and effects wash into a dreamscape progression that, even with a rawer, bootleg-style recording, rings out with decided spaciousness.

Of course, it’s chemistry between LuluNeeff and Schmidt making any of that possible, and without that basic but hard-won element, just about any release featuring 65 minutes of improv jamming would be excruciating rather than so joyously consuming, but maybe it’s not a surprise that 20 years on Zone Six are in such a place as to be able to enact that degree of interaction. If that’s what they’re looking to emphasize or at least document with Live Spring 2017, then like Forever Hugo before it, one can only call their efforts successful. As a live album, its mission is different from what a studio record would want to present, but since organic performance and root creativity is so much the point of what Zone Six do, this context suits them from the extended opener onward, and subtle touches like arranging the songs from longest to shortest or how the colors of the cover art seem to draw the eye toward the center like layers of the earth or the band’s own creative process in diagram form allow for a multi-tiered experience on the part of the audience.

And it should go without saying that for those outside of Germany or the greater European sphere who may or may not ever get to see Zone Six live, Live Spring 2017 touches on some of the distinction they bring to their sound and approach, while also giving the now-trio a chance to contemplate where the last two decades have brought them and the progressive krautrock-infused heavy psychedelia they helped shape. Campaigning for an outfit to press CDs of a digital release hardly seems like the most impartial way to wrap up a review, but screw it, I’m a fan of Schmidt‘s work in any number of outfits and I carry a deep respect for the aesthetic he’s helped foster through Sulatron Records, so take it for what it is. Live Spring 2017 may or may not ever get pressed up as it should, but even if it stays relegated to the internet’s crowded ether, it shows what has allowed Zone Six‘s work to remain vibrant for the last 20 years and the unconstrained spirit that will no doubt continue to carry them for as long as they want to go.

Zone Six, Live Spring 2017 (2017)

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