Ruby the Hatchet, Valley of the Snake: Tracking the Behemoth

Posted in Reviews on March 5th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

ruby-the-hatchet-valley-of-the-snake

If right now has a sound somewhere within heavy or heavy psychedelic rock, it probably isn’t far off from what Philadelphia’s Ruby the Hatchet conjure on their second full-length, Valley of the Snake. Released through Tee Pee Records with jaw-droppingly righteous Adam Burke cover art, it is a vinyl-tailored 40 minutes that looks back to ’70s acid rock stylistically via a few choice modern influences, and is crisp, clear and melodic while still offering a satisfying if deceptive sonic heft. Highly-stylized but substantial beyond that, its six cuts speak to the growth of a quality songwriting process, and where 2012’s Ouroboros cut its teeth in shorter bursts of boogie and more upbeat swing, Valley of the Snake melts down those impulses into a molten overarching groove that plays out through longer, more complex tracks. Vocalist Jillian Taylor, guitarist John Scarperia, bassist Mike Parise, drummer Owen Stewart and organist Sean Hur thus craft an exceptionally fluid overarching sense of vibe within which the individual pieces of Valley of the Snake play out. One can hear the impact in recent years of bands like Witch Mountain, whose dirty blues seem to have a presence in side B opener “Unholy Behemoth,” and Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, whose garage-rock style is writ large over the album’s production and to whom “Vast Acid” seems to directly refer in both its riff and in a lyrical nod to that band’s most infectious hook, “I’ll Cut You Down.” With atmospheres intensified and fleshed out by Hur‘s organ and sundry echoes on the guitar and vocals, Ruby the Hatchet nonetheless bring an air of individuality and craft a niche for themselves within these familiar elements.

Between “Vast Acid” and the preceding opener “Heavy Blanket,” the album’s most immediate impression is one of stomp and swing. “Heavy Blanket” in particular brings to mind the nodding clarion “Seer” that launched Witch‘s landmark self-titled debut in 2006, but Taylor‘s vocal layering and the organ present a different context. It’s an immediately fluid groove, opening wide after a 16-second fade-in, and the roll that ensues is as welcoming an introduction as one might ask of Ruby the Hatchet, who make a turn around the halfway point to a more instrumentally focused second half built on vibe and culminating in a twisting finish and sustained organ note that drops out just so the quick start of “Vast Acid” can seem to hit harder. Scarperia‘s guitar seems to be leading the way, a solo is layered on top of organ and bass and plays out intertwining with the central riff, but Taylor is a formidable presence throughout Valley of the Snake, and ultimately there’s a balance found between them, HurStewart and Parise, resulting in warm tones that never step too far out of the mix. “Tomorrow Never Comes,” which follows, begins with poignant acoustic guitar and unfolds from there to a coherent high point of the album, with fluid tempo shifts and a feel somewhere between more traditional doom and Ruby the Hatchet‘s already established commanding rhythmic movement. At 8:49, it is the longest inclusion on Valley of the Snake, but it uses its time well, pushing through a speedier middle before slowing back down and ultimately finding a swirling space between the two sides as it builds to its apex and finishes out with just enough feedback to remind the listener of the danger behind and ahead.

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Symmetry and structure play a large role throughout Valley of the Snake, both within the songs and in how the record is put together. On side A, two five-minute songs lead to the longer “Tomorrow Never Comes.” Side B mirrors this with the six-minute “Unholy Behemoth” and “Demons” pushing toward the finale of the title-track. The change is more aesthetic. “Unholy Behemoth” is riffier, more insistent, and pulls back from the intangible melody of the organ on “Heavy Blanket” and “Vast Acid” to feature a somewhat darker take. Taylor carries the verses easily in slower pace, but “Unholy Behemoth” picks up in its second half to a more familiar boogie, leading to the grainy ’70s bikerisms of “Demons,” which signals its tension through Stewart‘s hi-hat early and cuts back as it approaches the halfway point to establish a back and forth of pace that plays out again on a smaller scale, capping with a slowed-down deconstruction, the undercurrent of keys winding up the last remaining element of prominence along with some amplifier hum. That leaves only “Valley of the Snake” remaining, and the seven-minute closer is the highlight of the record that bears its name. Like “Tomorrow Never Comes,” it starts with a foundation of acoustic guitar, but stylistically it’s a departure from just about everything else on the album, unfolding with a grace that speaks more to Fleetwood Mac than Uncle Acid, further progressive sensibilities showing up in the full-weight apex — is that a line of flute? — that follows the hypnotic earlier pastoralisms. I’m not sure a complete album in that style would work, but “Valley of the Snake” speaks more to the potential of Ruby the Hatchet than anything before it in balancing heavy acid rock and unashamed pop grandiosity. They finish big, as they’d almost have to, and end their second album with a debut’s hopefulness for what future risk-taking might bring. Whether or not “Valley of the Snake” becomes a model in style or method will have to remain to be seen, but the closer demonstrates plainly the band’s potential and just what it is they might bring to the sphere of heavy psychedelia going forward. Some will cling to the catchy familiarity of the first couple tracks, and I won’t argue against that, but to hear what Ruby the Hatchet really have working for them, one might find it worth the effort to dig a little deeper.

Ruby the Hatchet, Valley of the Snake (2015)

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Ruby the Hatchet on Bandcamp

Tee Pee Records

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On Wax: Sweet Times Vol. 2 Four-Way Split

Posted in On Wax on March 4th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

sweet-times-vol-2-front-vinyl-glasses

If nothing else, the second installment in Who Can You Trust? RecordsSweet Times 7″ series is an efficient use of space. Perhaps even more than its predecessor, which also included four bands, it squeezes seemingly disparate takes on heavy rock onto two sides of what might come across as a sampler for busy heads on the go were it not for the fact that you need a turntable to listen to it. Still, an impressive feat, and all the more when one considers the ground it covers, from the sweet ’70s melodies of Brooklyn’s The Golden Grass to Italian psych-garage rockers Sultan Bathery on side A, and from the sweet classic punk of New York’s Metalleg to the doom-tease-into-Motörhead-jolt of Gorilla. All told, it’s done in under 10 minutes, depending on how fast you flip the platter, and gives a brief glance at some of what each band has to offer. sweet-times-vol-2-front-coverPlus, it comes with 3-D glasses! Because the future!

Yes, the artwork of the 7″, which is pressed in an edition of 500 copies (black vinyl) and comes in thick card stock, is colored so that the included class-style blue and red 3-D glasses make it pop out. Likely you don’t need me to tell you that’s awesome — all the more so because it actually includes the glasses — but even more of a draw are the four songs themselves. The Golden Grass lead off with “All You Have Grown” (premiered here), which at just over three minutes is actually the longest inclusion here. The trio don’t need anymore time than that to establish a resonant, bright melody and a hook, and while the track seems to end cold in comparison to some of what appeared on their 2014 self-titled debut (review here), one can hardly fault them, particularly in context of sharing the side with Sultan Bathery, whose handclap-inclusive “15 Minutes” is a fuzz-drenched rhythmic joy of primal proto-heavy. No time for frills, but a buzzsaw solo carries to side A’s sudden finish with just a second of tape hiss left over for good measure.

I feel like my hand is barely off the turntable arm before Metalleg‘s “Chained” is over. At just 74 seconds, it’s a warm-toned Ramones-style chorus the three-piece — who no doubt by now are tired of being compared to the Ramones — have crafted, and they quickly showcase a grasp for the affinity early punk showed for pop before pop-punk became a commercial force. The tone is warm and sweet-times-vol-2-side-bnatural, raw but not necessarily aggressive, which is all the better for Gorilla, who finish out Sweet Times Vol. 2 with “Three Squealer” by tossing off a measure of a riff spawned from the same muck that birthed “Under the Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes” before they gleefully pull the rug from under it and, after a couple stick-clicks, hit into the aforementioned Motörhead-style rush. Given where they’re coming from, one would expect little wasted space in “Three Squealer” and Gorilla comply ably, ending the release with one last hook and genre crossover that, somehow, fits just as well as the donations from The Golden GrassSultan Bathery, and Metalleg.

Maybe part of what makes it work is that it’s done so soon, but I’m not inclined to argue either way. Who Can You Trust? Records has already issued a follow-up to Sweet Times Vol. 2 that includes Death AlleyWild HoneyPastor and Sonic Love Affair, so they’re keeping true to the form here in working at a speedy pace. It certainly serves the bands well, so I see no reason why it shouldn’t do the same for the label.

VA, Sweet Times Vol. 2 (2014)

The Golden Grass on Thee Facebooks

Sultan Bathery on The Facebooks

Metalleg on Thee Facebooks

Gorilla on Thee Facebooks

Who Can You Trust? Records’ BigCartel store

Who Can You Trust? Records on Bandcamp

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Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth: Path Cut through Mountains

Posted in Reviews on March 3rd, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

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There’s little room left for argument after all the air’s been pushed from your lungs. Six years after issuing their initial demo (review here) and subsequent split 10″ with Mico de Noche (review here), Brothers of the Sonic Cloth at long last make their full-length debut with a self-titled release on Neurot Recordings, and whatever weight is brought to Brothers of the Sonic Cloth via guitarist/vocalist Tad Doyle‘s pedigree for having fronted underrated Seattle heavy rockers TAD or work engineering at his own Witch Ape Studio, where this album was also recorded (Billy Anderson mixed), rest assured that’s still less heft than the tones on crushers like “Empires of Dust” and the churning, 11-minute “La Mano Poderosa.” Together with bassist Peggy “Pegadeth” Tully (also his wife) and drummer Dave French (also of The Annunaki), Tad leads the charge through seven rounds of atmospheric post-sludge, the record’s 44 minutes no less concerned with ambience and mood than with gritting their teeth and bashing the listener over the head with waves of tectonic nod. It is a massive, unforgiving impression that the album leaves behind, rife with churning tension, a volume-as-ritual sense of purpose and an impact that becomes undeniable by the time “I Am” shifts into the drum-led, Neurosis-style tribalism of “The Immutable Path,” but there’s also breadth to it, and even its repetitions have a reason behind them. French‘s drums alternate between doomed marching and driving propulsion, but the hitting is consistently hard, and that seems to be true just about across the board. Even in quiet stretches, like the beginnings of “Unnamed” or “I Am” or the piano-led “Outro,” which closes, there is a tense, clenched feel that never quite lets the listener be fully at ease.

It goes without saying, but that’s obviously the point. The intensity of Brothers of the Sonic Cloth‘s Brothers of the Sonic Cloth is not happenstance. It’s pervasive, and it begins with the very start of the album, on opener “Lava,” where what might otherwise have been an intro riff expands into a three-minute song topped with growled verses and crashing at full turn-this-up-now righteousness. A turn to a jagged riff sits well on some half-time drums and vocal call and response make the track an outlier compared to what follows — the next four cuts comprise the meat of the album and they’re all nearly or more than twice as long — but it’s as honest an introduction as one could ask. The only thing missing from it is the grueling and slow, and “Empires of Dust” quickly (also slowly) remedies the issue. Its first three minutes are devoted to far-back gutturalism and dirge riffing, and even after things open from there, setting up a back and forth that plays out again over “Empires of Dust”‘s 7:51 resulting in a morose but creative and semi-melodic doom, the vibe remains pummeling. Tad gurgles out lyrics obscured by the distortion surrounding and echoes of noise end out, leading to the spacious guitar line that starts “Unnamed” on a more subdued, peaceful note, as if all that swirling malevolence was just a dream. It wasn’t. In tone and vocal delivery, the quicker thrust of “Unnamed” reminds somewhat of the last Amebix as each syllable of each line seems spit out, but the churn behind is more in league with Through Silver in Blood‘s brand of chaotic atmospherics, and after five and a half minutes, the song moves into a different cycle entirely, chugging its way toward an apex met by vocals that prove the most melodic on the album. They jump back to the churn with less than a minute to go — an effective bookend — and the 11-minute “La Mano Poderosa,” a version of which also appeared on the demo, introduces its roll with the guitar, its central progression a theme from which it deviates only twice along its march, once for an angular break in the middle, and again for a bigger finish on which French once again pulls back on the drums to let the guitar and bass sound as huge as possible.

brothers-of-the-sonic-cloth-(Photo-by-Invisible-Hour)

In its length and position, “La Mano Poderosa” is the centerpiece, but the following “I Am,” which was also a demo cut, is a more dynamic listen, following a build structure that starts quiet and brooding, makes its way toward its peak in the middle and, with a stop and scream just past 5:10 to signal arrival, rides out its groove for the remaining three minutes. To look at the waveform, there are clear indicators of increasing density, and the sound is no less marked out, but the flow crafted over the course of “I Am” makes it a highlight, and in some respects its the apex of Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, since neither “The Immutable Path,” on which Doyle joins John O’Connell on drums and layers a quiet vocal on top with droning ambience behind, nor the piano-led “Outro” approach the same kind of heft, though certainly each of the last two tracks has an atmospheric resonance of its own. That might be true even more of the two-minute “Outro,” which with just piano echoing has a disjointed feel that holds firm to its melody even as it begins to fade out to end the record. My understanding is “The Immutable Path” and “Outro” are both bonus tracks for the CD/DL editions of the album, but they have a function in the overarching mood of what comes before them anyway. No doubt part of the reason Brothers of the Sonic Cloth have garnered such a response is Tad Doyle‘s legacy and this self-titled being his first studio release since Hog Molly‘s lone outing in 2000, but this trio does nothing if they don’t set themselves apart from that legacy, and the spirit that pervades this material isn’t backward-looking in any way. That said, with six years between the demo and the album, I wouldn’t try to hazard a guess at when a follow-up might be in the beginning stages, let alone completed, but Brothers of the Sonic Cloth is an outing that does well standing on its own and its scope and sheer ferocity speak to a vibrant creativity at work.

Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, “La Mano Poderosa”

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Neurot Recordings

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Live Review: Kind in Massachusetts, 02.28.15

Posted in Reviews on March 2nd, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

kind 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

I’ve only been to No Problemo twice, but my understanding of how it goes is as follows: The taqueria closes, tables are moved, a P.A. is positioned, lights are turned off, a show happens. Somewhere in there, Roadsaw/White Dynomite bassist Tim Catz arrives. Killer tunes over the speaker, two bands on the bill, you’ll no complaints from me. It’s a laid back vibe, and yeah, the gigs don’t exactly start “on time,” but with just two bands and a free show, I’m not about to argue. Last time I was there, Kind also played, as part of an early October 2014 weekender with The Golden Grass from Brooklyn (review here), so their set this past Saturday accompanied by local bruisers Gaskill has something of a Kind (Photo by JJ Koczan)follow-up feel to it, if only because they were in pretty much the exact place I saw them five months ago.

And what a difference five months can make! This was my third time seeing Kind overall, and in roughly half a year’s time, the four-piece of vocalist Craig Riggs (also Roadsaw), guitarist Darryl Shepard (also Black PyramidBlackwolfgoat, etc.), bassist Tom Corino (also Rozamov) and drummer Matt Couto (also Elder) have gone from amorphous psych jams to, well, songs constructed out of amorphous heavy psych jams. Admittedly, the vibe’s still pretty open, but Kind‘s material has continued solidifying, and like the last two times I caught them, Saturday night provided an encouraging update of the work in progress. They had a setlist and everything!

That’s not nothing, considering it puts Kind that much closer tokind 3 (Photo by JJ Koczan) making their studio debut, which last I heard was due later this year. Now, Elder are touring in support of their just-released Lore (review here), Black Pyramid are heading to Europe in Spring and have a new 7″ on the way, White Dynomite are supposed to have a release out sooner or later on Ripple Music and Rozamov are headed West in May to play Psycho California, so exactly when Kind might have the time to put together an album is beyond me, but everything I’ve seen them play — from a liquefied effects barrage back in August to the big-riff ending of “German for Lucy” this past weekend — has made me hope they get to it at some point. As much as they’re predestined to be considered one of those bands comprised of dudes from other bands, Kind‘s musical personality differs from anything its component players’ other groups offer. Using a wah pedal and vocal processor, Riggs turns his voice into a melodic drone after verses and choruses give way to exploratory jams, and the mesh between ShepardCorino and Couto is palpablekind 5 (Photo by JJ Koczan) as they telegraph changes across the stage. Or in the case of No Problemo on Saturday, from where table six might be to where table eight was.

What’s become the core of their sound seems to be that blend between more straightforward parts — an indelible instinct for songwriting — and washes of noise. The end of the four-song set, “Angry Undertaker” found Shepard shredding away in a Dave Chandler-style free-for-all, detuning and resting his guitar against a Marshall cabinet that I’m pretty sure was Gaskill‘s while hand-stomping pedals from his knees before setting up a loop and taking a seat at the bench along the wall of the room. Behind his and Riggs‘ feedback and noise, Couto and Corino held down a fervent groove, gradually deconstructed but never totally unhinged. Between the former’s swing and the latter’s heft of tone, the foundation didn’t need much upkeep.

There were six songs on the setlist, and I’m sorry to say that “Pastrami Blaster” wasn’t aired, but along with “Angry Undertaker” and “German for Lucy,” opening duo “Grogan” and “Hordeolum” — which if I’m not mistaken kind 4 (Photo by JJ Koczan)I’ve heard parts of before, albeit in a different context — helped establish Kind‘s vibe that the band would soon, and gleefully, tear into pieces. Since the root of the band is in jamming, Shepard bridging the gap between his experiments in Blackwolfgoat and more heavy rock-minded projects, it’s welcome to see that side persist even as songs take definitive shape. The chaos they create suits them, and I doubt this will be the last time I remark on their growth as a band. Was good to check in. Hope to do so again soon.

Kind on Thee Facebooks

No Problemo Taqueria

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Crypt Sermon, Out of the Garden: Opening the Temple Doors

Posted in Reviews on February 27th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

crypt sermon out of the garden

Philly traditional doom five-piece Crypt Sermon aren’t yet halfway into album opener “Temple Doors” before vocalist Brooks Wilson tosses in his first Dio reference, copping a cry of “Fool! Fool!” from Black Sabbath‘s “Heaven and Hell.”There are few metal singers harder to take on than Ronnie James Dio, and to his credit, Wilson pays homage without trying to directly imitate on Crypt Sermon‘s full-length debut, Out of the Garden, winding up no more indebted to Dio than to Robert Lowe of Solitude Aeturnus, Messiah Marcolin of Candlemass, or Judas Priest‘s Rob Halford. These are lofty names, particularly in doom and classic metal, but the comparisons hold up throughout Out of the Garden, which is released by Dark Descent Records and follows behind Crypt Sermon‘s Demo MMXIII (review here). That first release also opened with “Temple Doors,” and the song’s hook is all the more resonant here for it, guitarists Steve Jansson and James Lipczynski, bassist Will Mellor and drummer Enrique Sagarnaga making it a launch point for the album’s seven tracks/44 minutes of oldschool revelation. In riffs and atmosphere, Out of the Garden owes more to Leif Edling or to the dual-guitar doom blueprint of Trouble than Tony Iommi – though of course you couldn’t have ones without the other — and the band’s unabashed appreciation for the doom metal of old feels genuine. Not concerned directly with the raw, slow-punk riffing of Saint Vitus or the heavy rock grooves of PentagramCrypt Sermon take a stricter view of doom, and the result here is grand without being overblown, with an ’80s-style echoing snare that only further dogwhistles their sphere of influence. They might be out of the garden, but they’re definitely still under the oak.

Chanting begins “Temple Doors,” which is fitting enough given the song’s religious theme, but the subsequent “Heavy Riders” has a more straightforward take, its chugging verses giving way to an organ-laced bridge and slowdown-into-pickup that seems like it’s just waiting to launch into the chorus of “At the Gallows End,” but Crypt Sermon handle the back and forth tempo changes smoothly and the 5:07 “Byzantium” kicks in with a rolling groove and minor-key lead that subsides to set up a linear build marked out by a repetition of the title as a chorus. It’s a deceptively effective hook, Sagarnaga punctuating the march while the guitars lumber forward, a shredding solo taking hold after the halfway point that Wilson gives appropriate room. By then, “Byzantium” has moved into a quicker pace, so the slowdown and refrain of the opening progression works well as the apex of the build, even if it feels a bit faster than the first time around. I don’t know where the vinyl split is, but my sense is “Will of the Ancient Call” — also the centerpiece of the CD/digital versions — is the closer of side A, which leaves “Into the Holy of Holies,” “The Master’s Bouquet” and “Out of the Garden” for side B. The timing works that way, anyhow, and “Will of the Ancient Call” ties well thematically with “Byzantium”‘s fascination with things lost to time and mystical knowledge and so on, though it’s a catchier track and boasts a particularly fascinating drum progression that sounds almost like there are two tracks running simultaneously. Extra snare hits can catch the listener off-guard who might be expecting something along the lines of “Heavy Riders,” but whether it’s one layer or more, it works, and the guitars and bass hold themselves together well around, Wilson of course adding soaring vocals to an already driving instrumental peak.

crypt-sermon

At 8:15, “Into the Holy of Holies” is the longest cut on Out of the Garden, and its feel is accordingly grandiose, beginning with atmospheric keys and building into acoustic guitar before the intro riff hits, thickened by the bass and given bite with quick runs of snare before the first verse starts around 2:45. To call it the “heaviest” inclusion on the album would seem to take away from what Crypt Sermon do on “Byzantium” or the following “The Master’s Bouquet,” but it’s a highlight all the same, and all the more for the melody of its chorus, which later on boasts some choice layering in the vocals over a guitar lead before they cut back to the initial push for a measure or so to end out. “The Master’s Bouquet” fades in with echoing spoken word and a clean-sung performance worthy of Johan Längquist. The song itself, the shortest on the record at 4:53, is easily overshadowed by “Into the Holy of Holies” before it and “Out of the Garden” after, but Wilson makes it a standout all the same, and since bookending is something Crypt Sermon have done so well across their debut, it’s fitting that the closing title-track should have a Dio reference of its own, this time in Wilson‘s reworking lyrics for an ending that would otherwise be filler were it not so purposeful in its construction. Was certainly filler when Dio did it. Still, the closer offers more than just its last 20 seconds in terms of underscoring just how right Crypt Sermon have gotten traditional doom their first time out, and while they’ve traded in Maryland-style riffing for more epic metal fare, it works for them, tonally, vocally and rhythmically. There’s an underlying current of extremity in some of their guitar solos and in the drums, and I’d be interested to hear how that develops over subsequent releases, but since so much of the aesthetic purpose of trad doom is in paying homage to what’s come before, there isn’t much about Out of the Garden that really needs to be messed with. Rather, the album fulfills the promise the demo held, and sets up Crypt Sermon for more fist-pumping, headbang-worthy doom to come.

Crypt Sermon, “Heavy Riders” from Out of the Garden (2015)

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Dark Descent Records

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The Midnight Ghost Train, Cold was the Ground: To Sow and Reap

Posted in Reviews on February 26th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

the-midnight-ghost-train-cold-was-the-ground

Before we get to all the stuff about how The Midnight Ghost Train are a blues rock steamroller, or about how their third album and Napalm Records debut, Cold was the Ground, is an unforgiving rush of heavy fuzz with pacing that makes a joke of most heavy rock bands’ ideas of “uptempo,” it’s worth pointing out that the Kansas-based trio haven’t gained an inch of ground over the last seven-or-so years that they haven’t clawed their way across. Creatively and in terms of profile, there’s the easy way and there’s the hard way, and The Midnight Ghost Train have chosen the hard way. Signing to a label with the reach of Napalm seems like payoff, but it comes after years of near-constant touring in the US and Europe, promoting first 2008’s The Johnny Boy EP (review here), then 2009’s self-titled full-length debut (review here), then 2012’s raging Buffalo (review here) while being largely ignored by those outside the sphere of having witnessed them play live and seen the sincerity and heart that serves as the driving force behind guitarist/vocalist Steve Moss‘ blues-madman stage persona or the frenetic energy with which The Midnight Ghost Train deliver their performances. They have worked for everything they’ve gotten — and then some — and if Cold was the Ground signals anything to their built-one-at-a-time following, it’s that the trio aren’t at all ready to sit back and rest on their laurels. Moss, drummer Brandon Burghart and bassist Mike Boyne (who makes his recorded debut here), unleash a rolling stomp that dares the listener to try to keep up, a guttural burl of vocals distinct as the band’s own barking out lines across a maddening thrust that seems to relent only so it can renew its fury to greater impact.

At the time, Buffalo was the best thing The Midnight Ghost Train had done, and Cold was the Ground is better. It’s a tighter record, more assured, not only more controlled, but more purposeful. Tonally, its fuzz is warm and natural, and Moss‘ voice is almost a growl at times, but somehow perfectly suits the momentum they build as the 11 songs and 39 minutes play out. There are geared down stretches in songs like “One Last Shelter,” “Twin Souls” and the tense, brooding manifesto “The Little Sparrow,” which boasts a spoken testimonial from Moss about the kind of regret only a true love of music can bring, but for the most part, once the intro “Along the Chasm” launches from its build-up of feedback into the first of many bouncing riffs to come — about 30 seconds into the album — The Midnight Ghost Train don’t look back. Songs like “Gladstone,” “BC Trucker,” “No. 227″ and the closer “Mantis” slam home their bluesy riffs, and while Moss is a definite frontman presence, Burghart puts on a clinic in swing on “BC Trucker,” the tom-propelled “The Canfield,” and the album highlight “Straight to the North,” which caps in dangerously exacting starts and stops before riding home a groove that’s righteous enough not to care if you call it stoner rock or anything else. You’d have to catch up to it first. Hooks abound throughout in head-spinning rhythmic turns, and by the time “One Last Shelter” swaps out its laid back opening section for the white-knuckled riffery of its second minute, it’s less about the speed at which The Midnight Ghost Train are executing their material than the precision with which they’re doing it and the dynamic between BurghartBoyne and Moss that, like everything else they’ve done, has been built from the ground up. The contributions of each are utterly essential to Cold was the Ground hitting as hard as it does, and whether it’s Boyne‘s bassline starting “Arvonia” or underscoring Moss‘ sleepless rant in “The Little Sparrow” — the question, “How can music feel so free and still take all that you have?” feels particularly poignant — or Burghart railing on his crash in “Gladstone,” the cohesion between the three of them is undeniable.

the midnight ghost train

More over, that cohesion is brought to the album with a purpose beyond teasing the live show or trying to offer the same kind of experience. Cold was the Ground is a beast, to be sure, and it has vitality front to back no matter the pace the band happen to be working in at the time, but it also establishes a flow, expands the band’s sound, shows not only the chemistry that’s developed but how their songwriting has progressed since Buffalo and where they’re at now in their delivery of lethal groove. It is, in other words, more than a gig poster, and as much as it might signal the electricity The Midnight Ghost Train create in a live setting, there’s also more to it than just that. Some bands are “live bands,” and The Midnight Ghost Train have worked hard for more than half a decade to become one, and succeeded, but for those new to their sound or already well familiar, their latest offers much more than a reminder of that time Moss headbanged really hard. Closing duo “Twin Souls” and “Mantis” sum up the album well, shifting seamlessly between creeper-riffing and the unmitigated shuffle that’s become their calling card, and especially after the quiet shift of “The Little Sparrow,” the two songs round out by not only affirming the evolution of the band stylistically, but by assuring the listener that they haven’t forgotten what’s always made them such and exciting listen. Boyne tosses in a bass fill to the closer’s first half that seems to hint at there being more to say, and Moss tears into a wah-soaked solo to set up a last verse before the final rush, which recalls “Gladstone”‘s about-to-fly-off-the-rails sprint. A solid book-end, yes, but further evidence that The Midnight Ghost Train are thinking about Cold was the Ground as more than a collection of tracks, and of those tracks as more than a collection of parts, and that’s exactly what they wind up being. They might be a live band, but it’s time to start considering The Midnight Ghost Train as songwriters too.

The Midnight Ghost Train, “Gladstone” official video

The Midnight Ghost Train’s website

The Midnight Ghost Train on Thee Facebooks

The Midnight Ghost Train at Napalm Records

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Duude, Tapes! Skunk Hawk, Skunk Hawk

Posted in Duuude, Tapes! on February 24th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

skunk-hawk-tape-and-case

While Philadelphia-based Randall Coon has a few prior digital releases under his belt for the solo-project Skunk Hawk, as I understand it, the six-song self-titled/self-released tape is the first to receive a physical pressing. The cassette is limited to 100 copies with a pro-printed tape and two-panel j-card, and finds the multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Coon — who appeared with King Buffalo on their 2013 demo (review here) and was in Velvet Elvis at the time of their 2012 release, In Deep Time (review here); both obviously based in Upstate NY — employing a variety of gleefully strange pop textures in a meld of psychedelic folk and bedroom stoner fuzz. Interestingly, the tracklist on the j-card lists the song “Frigidaire,” which closes side two, twice. The download version (not included with the tape, but available on Bandcamp) has it listed with side one comprised of skunk hawk“Water Born Devil,” “High School Ball” and “All My Heart,” and side two “There Will be Another Day, Love” (listed on the tape as “Another Day”), “Lovers of Pompeii” and “Frigidaire,” though in the download version, “Lovers of Pompeii” and “Frigidaire” are the same song. The tape also lists “Stone Embrace” on side two, so maybe there are still some kinks to work out.

My working theory is that “Stone Embrace” and “Lovers of Pompeii” are the same track with a changed title, and that that song is the middle one on side two of the tape, also the most intense of the collection, and that the actual closer of the tape is “Frigidaire,” which has a pulsing bassline and howled hook, which is accidentally listed twice on the tape but doesn’t come in the download. Nonetheless, it’s kind of hard to know what’s where, but however one chooses to listen, there’s plenty to dig into. A rawer form of “There Will be Another Day, Love” appeared on Skunk Hawk‘s 2011 EP, I Fell into the Sea and into the Earth, but other than that, the material here is new, and from the Angelo Badalamenti-style pop drama of “High School Ball” to the church organ-laced rhythmic drive of “Stone Embrace/Lovers of Pompeii,” Coon never relinquishes the experimental edge in the sound. “There Will be Another Day, Love” winds up a highlight for its insistent play of fuzz guitar and keys and Neil Young-via-Arbouretum vocal performance, but the jangly oddity and blown-out singing of “All My Heart” and the subtly-drummed vulnerability of “Water Born Devil” offer likewise satisfying results even if they take different routes to get there. If it’s confusing in a practical skunk hawk skunk hawkway, Skunk Hawk is as proportionally an engaging listen, toying with the balance between fuzzy rock and off-kilter less-frenetic Man Man-style indie songwriting in a manner that few would attempt, and pulling it off while crafting a personality of its own.

One can see easily why after several other releases, Coon might see fit to make Skunk Hawk‘s Skunk Hawk the first physical pressing from the project. I hope it’s not the last. It may be tough to figure out where one is at any given moment, but somehow that makes the listener more receptive to turns like the sneering apex of “Another Day,” “High School Ball”‘s abrasive midsection feedback or the low-mixed currents of effects noise, drones and other flourish sounds that crop up throughout. It’s not a release looking to be fully understood, and that’s one of the most exciting aspects of it.

Skunk Hawk, Skunk Hawk

Skunk Hawk on Bandcamp

Randall Coon on Soundcloud

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Mansion, Uncreation: Testimony of the Converted

Posted in On Wax on February 24th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

mansion uncreation

The 12″ vinyl packaging of Mansion‘s second EP, Uncreation, is elaborate but not ostentatious. Ever-conscious of their pursed-lip, upright-postured aesthetic, the Turku, Finland, outfit present Uncreation in a screenprinted cardboard sleeve on black vinyl, but when one digs into the thing itself, there’s much more to the release. An application is included for those who would join Mansion‘s cult — based on the Kartanoist movement in Finland founded by Alma Kartano, after whom Alma Mansion, the band’s vocalist, takes her name — as well as a foldout liner that includes lineup info and the lyrics for the title-track, presented as a sort of missal. These seem like relatively small things, and indeed, it’s not like Mansion are doing blue swirl vinyl or green translucent platters or whatever, but if they were, it wouldn’t work. They might get away with red, but even that would pull away from the black-and-white of what they do, the high contrast of the front cover and how the visual side complements the audio of Uncreation‘s four songs, which aren’t lacking anything stylistically and aren’t minimal save perhaps for a brief stretch in “Uncreation” and the beginning of closer “Divining Rod,” but of which aesthetic and atmosphere is a huge part of the point. Mansion followed the devil and deviated from this form somewhat on last year’s psych-rocking The Mansion Congregation Hymns Vol. 1 7″, but Uncreation follows suit more with their 2013 breakout debut EP, We Shall Live (review here), and works along similar lines to cast out harsh judgments amid fire-and-brimstone progressions alternating between slow doom and classic metal, the latter showing itself particularly in the apex of opener “Child Preacher” and its side B counterpart, “I am the Mansion.”

Both Uncreation and We Shall Live are comprised of four songs, but it’s noteworthy that the newer release, at 36:42, is more than 10 minutes longer than its predecessor. The material, however, is by and large older. Listening to the slow churn of “Child Preacher” and the grand crashes of its chorus, the difference does not feel like happenstance. While just four tracks, Uncreation feels and flows more like an album, and like We Shall Live, it is strikingly cohesive and developed for a first full-length. Alma is joined by backing vocalist Aleksanteri in the chorus and verses of “Child Preacher,” and the keyboard work of the latter serves as an especially pivotal element in the opener and in the subsequent tracks as well, organ sounds and otherworldly keys greatly bolstering the ambience given life by guitarists Jaakob and Veikko-Tapio, bassist Immanuel, and drummer Mikael, who also contributes lyrics throughout, which also play a major role in the effectiveness of Mansion‘s aesthetic, the A/B scheme of “Uncreation” in lines like, “We have been rewarded/Unlike the foul and sordid,” reminding that part of what makes hymns so memorable is that in another context many are nursery rhymes. Church organ opens “Uncreation,” the longest inclusion at 12:51, and builds to a head before cutting short to music-box sounds and volume swell over which Alma soon begins the first verse. Drums and distorted guitar kick in after three minutes and a roll gets underway that continues as layers become more complex in the midsection, and around 6:40, a purely Sabbathian riff takes hold to lead into some spoken word over open-spaced atmosphere that sets up the echoing croon, “Come inside the mansion/Witness uncreation/Be among the righteous/Bathing in the brightness,” etc., which gets repeated over heavier guitar as choral layering mounts and organ steps back in to finish out side A.

Not every cult act has an actual cult on which to base their philosophies — it would be like a band in Texas in 30 years adopting the tenets of the Branch Davidians; honestly, I’ll be surprised if it takes that long — but Mansion have already proven their dedication to this mesh of sound and style, and Uncreation finds them engaged in a likewise satisfying sonic development. “I am the Mansion” leads side B with Alma at the fore, playing off charisma in the resonant hook in the chorus and the slow, subtly doomed progression behind, keys once again setting the tone, until in the second half the tempo picks up and the band moves toward the apex, marked out by the lines, “I am the mansion/Who are you?” not so much questioning as challenging. Punishment has proven a regular and fitting theme for Mansion to date, and “Divining Rod,” while still Iommic in its righteous plod, follows in the spirit of “We Shall Live”‘s proclaiming, “We hall live, you will die,” the cut and dry, black and white divide set up between the saved and damned. The lead guitar toward the halfway point is a standout, but even more than that, the closer seems to flog itself into deconstruction, the second half building to a head and then falling apart amid backwards guitar, vocal effects, keys, and the steady-but-slowing forward motion of the rhythm section, ending in echoes less either of rapture or devastation or maybe both. What that might mean for Mansion‘s cult, I don’t know — I didn’t even get time to get my application in — but somehow I doubt they’ve yet met their end and their apocalyptic preaching and endtimes doom will persist, distinct not only for its specificity, but for the restraint it shows musically and how well that translates to the mindset of asceticism that is such a huge part of what they do. Except for when they give in to temptation, of course.

Mansion, Uncreation (Dec. 2014)

Mansion on Thee Facebooks

Mansion on Bandcamp

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