Lamp of the Universe, The Inner Light of Revelation: Timeless through Ages

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

lamp of the universe the inner light of revelation

For Hamilton, New Zealand’s Lamp of the Universe, the line between self, spirit and cosmos seems to have dissipated. Now 14 years on from its debut release, The Cosmic Union, the project has surged back to activity after a few years’ absence, resulting in 2013’s Transcendence (review here), splits in 2014 with Krautzone (streamed here) and Trip Hill, and now, the eighth full-length, The Inner Light of Revelation, released by Clostridium Records in conjunction with Astral Projection. Multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/producer Craig Williamson, as ever, is the auteur. A principle figure in establishing heavy rock and psychedelia in New Zealand during his days in Datura, who started in 1993 and released their last album in 1999, Williamson had shifted his focus from 2010 to 2012 onto Arc of Ascent, a trio whose two albums, 2010’s Circle of the Sun (review here) and 2012’s The Higher Key (review here), remain an engaging extension of Williamson‘s songwriting into the more grounded grooves hinted at on Lamp of the Universe‘s 2009 outing, Acid Mantra (review here). One thing leads to the next and to the next. Since Arc of Ascent‘s apparent disbanding, Williamson‘s work as Lamp of the Universe has had a sort of homecoming feel, but both the material he’s contributed to the splits and the two long-players are expansive and progressive, and The Inner Light of Revelation is nothing if not forward-minded. Comprised of eight tracks totaling 51 minutes, it harnesses both the lushness of sound and intimacy of vibe that has made Lamp of the Universe a singularly entity for the last decade-plus, and finds Williamson hinting toward a balance between the full-band and solo-project impulses. Less even than Acid Mantra or Transcendence, both of which were plenty laid back, The Inner Light of Revelation feels unconcerned with direction, and that peacefulness radiates outward from the very beginnings of opener “Trance of the Pharaohs.”

Acoustic guitar and e-bow hum set the foundation for Williamson‘s vocals, echoing a subtly memorable chorus, ritualized, very much in his own style — someone less familiar with his work and the fact that he was doing it first might hear shades of latter day Al Cisneros — and later gong wash provides Eastern sensibility further explored via percussion roll and insistent strumming. Arrangement has always been a central feature of Lamp of the Universe‘s work, but Williamson‘s songwriting and the sense of mood he sets and develops over the course of an album remains the core of the outfit. As a multi-instrumentalist, he builds a song like “God of One” with Mellotron, bass, guitar, sitar, percussion, drums, tambourine, multiple layers of vocals, resulting in a gorgeous psychedelic wash all the more hypnotic for the fact that it’s one person constructing it layer by layer. Of course, 14 years on, one would expect him to have a solid foundation from which to develop his ideas, but the loose swing he brings to “God of One” only underscores how special this project is. Tonal buzz, a quicker pace, sweet melody and one of The Inner Light of Revelation‘s more infectious hooks make the track a standout — it’s also the longest on the record at 8:52, though closer “Celestial Forms” is a near second — and it’s followed by “The Guiding Light,” a shorter movement centered around acoustic guitar, vocals and percussion. A folkier stretch, there’s still room for a dreamy acoustic solo in the second half, which sets the stage well for the Mellotron and sitar vibing of “Levitation,” the drums and percussion also returning as Williamson makes solid use of a relatively straightforward rhythm to enact a steady nod through the verse and a winding chorus that answers the Mellotron line with a move into swirling fuzz guitar. Transitions are fluid, the feel equal parts beautiful and lysergic, and Williamson‘s command over his sound manages only to enhance, not detract, from the psychedelic spiritual engagement of the material.

craig williamson

The two halves of the album break more or less evenly, no doubt with a Clostridium vinyl release in mind, and the acoustic/wah-electric finish of “Levitation” proves a resonant end to what would be side A. Side B, then, begins with the gradual ease of “Utopian Seed”‘s fade-in, harnessing some of the drone and backing swirl ideology of Williamson‘s 2014 splits but setting it to more grounded, less extended purpose. A bassline and guitar figure emerges, but percussion-wise, “Utopian Seed” uses only quiet, far-back tom hits to keep its beat, and the difference between that and “Levitation” or “God of One” is palpable in the ultra-molten soundscape crafted. Even here, amid the experimentalist wash, Williamson works in a chorus, though the intent is more mantra than hook, and that’s precisely the level on which it works. “Ancient Path” returns to a base of acoustic guitar and tambourine, sitar and percussion arriving soon after amid tanpura drone, expanding perhaps on what “The Guiding Light” suggested, with vocals compressed and otherworldly. The sitar and vocals lead the way out, bringing “Ancient Path” to a still-quiet apex, which gives way to the immediately rhythmic “Beyond the Horizon,” the shortest and most minimal of The Inner Light of Revelation‘s tracks. Also the shortest at 3:07, it’s the easiest to imagine in a live setting, even as a Mellotron line and echoing vocals move beyond the foot-tap timekeeping and strummed central figure. As expansive as Williamson gets here, the penultimate cut is a reminder of how effective and intimate Lamp of the Universe can be, and helps strike that balance between band-sound and solo-sound. With “Celestial Forms,” the Mellotron once again takes a central presence, ambient tones circling above the acoustic guitar and sitar and percussion and vocals. The closer recalls some of “God of One” and “Levitation”‘s movements, but is far dreamier, less drummed, and as it moves through an electrified solo to the long-fading wash of an ending, even more cosmic.

Particularly after “Beyond the Horizon,” it ties The Inner Light of Revelation together smoothly, which I suppose remains one of the most pivotal aspects of Williamson‘s work in Lamp of the Universe — that no matter how far out he goes sound-wise, there’s never any doubt of a plan at work, and even when he lets go and the song seems to carry him rather than the other way around, it’s abundantly clear he and the material are headed in the same direction. In psychedelia, Lamp of the Universe remains a blissful singular entity, and a project special for both how it has developed over time and the output that has resulted from that development. The quality of songwriting and balance of The Inner Light of Revelation should not be understated, and if there’s a singular truth being searched for here, then it seems to be found precisely in that place where self, spirit and cosmos unite.

Lamp of the Universe, The Inner Light of Revelation (2015)

Lamp of the Universe on Thee Facebooks

Lamp of the Universe on Bandcamp

Clostridium Records

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Wo Fat, Live Juju: Wo Fat at Freak Valley: Bringing the Bayou

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

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It seems unlikely that a casual listener or at very least someone who’s not already a fan would chase down an offering like Live Juju: Wo Fat at Freak Valley, which captures Dallas trio Wo Fat‘s five-song, 40-minute set at the 2014 edition of the German Freak Valley festival, held in Netphen. However, we live in a universe of infinite possibilities, so as a perfunctory notice, I’ll say that like the vast, vast majority of live releases, it’s better appreciated by those with some familiarity to the studio versions of the tracks, and that if you’re hearing Wo Fat for the first time — unless you were at Freak Valley (or somewhere else they played, I suppose), didn’t know the albums, saw them live, were super-into it and want a memento — the place to go is probably to one of their albums before you get back to Live Juju. That’s a condition of live records in general, not necessarily something related to the three-piece’s performance at the fest or anything about the recording, which is released by Fuzz Lab Records and was recorded by Jens Hunecke, but it’s a disclaimer worth putting out there anyway, should anyone happen to be new to the band. For the already-converted, Live Juju is an utter no-brainer. One of US heavy rock’s finest and fuzziest taking the stage at a major Euro fest, a setlist spanning six years in five songs recorded clean and crisp, pressed to thick-stock black LP with cover and inside-liner art by David Paul Seymour, live photos from the fest by Falk-Hagen Bernshausen (first published here) and a download code that includes a bonus 14-minute studio jam called “Dark Snow” that rumbles and grooves like the best of Wo Fat‘s latter-day explorations? If you’re already a fan of Wo Fat, there’s really nothing about Live Juju not to like.

Call it a victory lap. Guitarist/vocalist Kent Stump (who also mixed at the band’s Crystal Clear Audio in Dallas), bassist Tim Wilson and drummer/backing vocalist Michael Walter first took to European stages in 2012, then supporting their Small Stone label debut and fourth album, The Black Code (vinyl review here, CD review here). Their 2014 return trip, arriving on the heels of their fifth record and finest work to-date, The Conjuring (review here), was dubbed the “Texas Takeover” and Wo Fat were joined by fellow Dallas natives Mothership on their inaugural run. Freak Valley was an earlier stop on the tour, which lasted about two weeks. Not really what you’d call a “touring band,” in the sense of road-dogging their way back and forth from market to market, venue to venue, Wo Fat have nonetheless managed to concoct a formidable stage presence, and at least going by the audio (much as I’d like to, I’ve yet to see Freak Valley in-person), they hit stage in Netphen with no hesitation. Their set boasts highlights going back to their second full-length, 2008’s Psychedelonaut (review here), tying the material together with a fervent sense of ride-ready groove and weighted tones, Stump opting for a bluesman’s gruffness on “Read the Omens” from The Conjuring, which follows opener “The Black Code.” That song, the title-track of the 2012 album, is nothing if not a landmark hook for the band, and they faithfully give it a rendition north of 10 minutes, their motion no less fluid on stage than in the studio, rolling their way into the faster verses of “Read the Omens” before the chorus opens wide and echoing true to the outdoor space where it was recorded. Side A is just the two songs, and the flip does sort of pull you out of the live experience, but the way I wound up thinking about it was a second to tune ahead of “Bayou Juju” serving as the centerpiece of the set.

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Side B is longer, beginning with “Bayou Juju” and rolling through “Enter the Riffian” and closer “Sleep of the Black Lotus” smoothly and with enough rumble in Wilson‘s bass as Stump tears into an extended solo on the first of them that it’s easy to imagine the grasses of Freak Valley vibrating from the low end. By the time they get there, Wo Fat are full on, about halfway through and nailing it. The track, taken from 2011’s Noche del Chupacabra (review here), is a highlight, but the shorter “Enter the Riffian” from Psychedelonaut grounds the set and thus the recording with a more straightforward, less jammy movement. Wo Fat may have grown beyond the kind of dead-ahead heavy rock that Psychedelonaut offered — to their credit, keeping a balance of hooks and jams in doing so — but they use the older material well here, and Walter‘s ride-cymbal swing comes through loud and clear on Live Juju behind the winding riff. It’s the only song here under seven minutes long, but lives up to its multifaceted purpose, bleeding directly into “Sleep of the Black Lotus” with a cymbal wash and guitar freakout, Stump seizing an opportunity to tear into an improv-sounding take on the finale’s intro in front of the festival crowd. They telegraph the groove from the start, if only to bring that audience along, and it’s easy to imagine the sea of nodding heads that stood before them, maybe a puff of smoke here or there as the midsection evolves into a churning jam from the earlier verses and choruses, a model that came to light earlier and which The Black Code and The Conjuring continued to grow. Feedback and earned applause ends and the arm returns, but for those listening digitally, the instrumental “Dark Snow” further affirms Wo Fat‘s improvisational sensibilities, building from a creepy backwards-cymbal fade-in to a solo-topped roll that shares in common with its live compatriots on Live Juju just how in their element Wo Fat seem to be. That’s really the story of Live Juju: Wo Fat at Freak Valley. It’s an act who have cut their teeth and organically developed their sound across five records getting on stage and sharing the fruits of their labor. The short version? They deliver, and prove that sometimes when a band doesn’t tour all the time, nine months out of the year on the road and so on, that only makes it more special when they do. This must have been something to see.

Wo Fat, Live Juju (2015)

Wo Fat on Thee Facebooks

Wo Fat’s website

Freak Valley Festival

Fuzz Lab Records

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Enslaved, In Times: Built with Fire

Posted in Reviews on April 23rd, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

enslaved in times

I’ll admit to being somewhat late in reviewing In Times, the 13th full-length and fourth through Nuclear Blast from Norwegian progressive black metallers Enslaved, but I ultimately don’t think that’s a bad thing. The album was released in March, following about two and a half years after 2012’s Riitiir (review here), and while it is immediately identifiable as Enslaved, it marks a couple of turns that become more apparent on repeat listens. For one, it is a stripping down of some of the grandiosity of Riitiir, the preceding 2010 outing, Axioma Ethica Odini (review here), and 2008’s Vertebrae. Comprised of six songs totaling a three-sided-LP’s 54 minutes, In Times is still plenty substantial, but clocks in a full 14 minutes shorter than its predecessor, and its songwriting feels less centered on the big-chorus methodology of songs like “Thoughts Like Hammers” or the stunning “Roots of the Mountain” from that offering. The tradeoff? In Times is tighter, more efficient, and carries forward the progression of the Bergen five-piece’s sound that has been ongoing since they made their debut with the Hordanes Land EP in 1993. It is a rare band who continues to offer something new each time out beyond three or four records, let alone 13, but while In Times pares down certain elements of Enslaved‘s sound, it’s also their most progressive outing to date, songs like “Nauthir Bleeding” and the 10-minute title-track directly marrying the extreme metal roots of their early work with the boldness of melody and expansive craftsmanship that has evolved in their sound over the last 14 or 15 years, going back to when 2000’s Mardraum: Beyond the Within and 2001’s Monumension set the genre-defying course they’d continue to follow throughout 2003’s Below the Lights and the two subsequent landmarks, 2004’s Isa and 2006’s Ruun. And much to the credit of In Times, it’s not a case of black metal and melodic prog fighting it out in the band’s sound. Opener “Thurisaz Dreaming” — after a lull-you-into-a-false-sense-of-security couple of quiet seconds — explodes into ripping extremity, bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson‘s phlegmy rasp at the fore, but it’s not long before the gallop takes a turn and keyboardist Herbrand Larsen emerges with the clean vocals that have become a defining signature in Enslaved‘s approach.

The key? It works. It flows. I’ve said on multiple occasions before that Larsen‘s growth as a vocalist is among the pivotal elements — if not the pivotal element — in Enslaved‘s progression since he joined the band in 2004. That’s not to take anything away from the songwriting of the group as a whole, KjellsonLarsen, guitarists Ivar Bjørnson and Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal, and drummer Cato Bekkevold, but in hindsight, Larsen‘s first parts offsetting Kjellson‘s raw-throated cackle and Bjørnson‘s periodic roars seem tentative compared to the confident mastery he shows throughout In Times, not just a backing presence, but a leader in the band, if one situated at the rear of the stage. He leads off second cut “Building with Fire,” nails the later chorus hook of the title-track as a defining moment of the album — Bekkevold‘s precision kick work and the tightness of the five of them in general certainly don’t hurt there, either — and there’s no sense of conflict between his and Kjellson‘s vocals. Each serves a purpose in the song and both make the other seem stronger. “Building with Fire” is one of several particularly triumphant moments throughout In TimesIsdal‘s solo as they push toward the midsection a reminder of just how many weapons they have in their arsenal, but one of the key aspects of the record is that it’s best taken as a whole, rather than as individual pieces. One doesn’t necessarily have to hear it front to back to appreciate the dynamic, but more than most of their other output, it feels geared toward an LP flow, and accordingly is tighter in its expressiveness in a way that meshes well with the crisp production. To look at the tracklist, with all but “In Times” itself hovering between eight and nine minutes long, one might expect a sort of staid process, the band pushing through routine execution of an established sound, but the truth is more complex and even within and between the first and second halves there are palpable differences in structure, “One Thousand Years of Rain” once again pushing the more blackened core forward while keeping a melodic underpinning in the keys and guitar of its verse and the vocals topping its chorus and post-midsection slowdown, a Viking-style chant arriving before the pickup of the song’s finale.

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While on vinyl it requires a flip not only of sides but of actual platters, the transition between “One Thousand Years of Rain” and “Nauthir Bleeding” in a linear format — digital or CD — is one of the most telling moments of In Times‘ as-a-whole intent, the latter track something of a comedown that flows directly from the preceding extremity, gentle guitar noodling interspersed with miniature fits of aggression that gradually take hold after some sparse lines of vocals from Larsen and themselves prove hypnotic before Kjellson swirls in atop a signature gallop. It’s not as big a chorus as “In Times,” which follows, but the arrangement of the two vocalists, the progression of the guitars and keys, and the solid rhythmic foundation on which the melody plays out make “Nauthir Bleeding” an even more archetypal example of In Times‘ varied strengths. When it does arrive, “In Times” feels enough like a landing to earn its position as the title-track. An initial two minutes hypnotize with a repeated riff and some psychedelic-style swirling lead guitar, but a sudden cut to double-kick and Kjellson‘s screams snap the listener back to reality with the first verse. They cycle through twice and break into a melodic vocal highlight break that moves farther and farther out into finally deconstructing to drum thud, far-off guitar and whispered vocals, then, like the beginning of the song, it snaps back to a raging tumult, the band essentially toying with a sonic mismatch. “In Times” ends crashing and chanting rather than ripping, and while that might leave closer “Daylight” to feel like something of an afterthought, the chanted vocals and multifaceted shifts back and forth provide an underline to the point of the album as a whole, which seems to be that Enslaved aren’t a band that can be easily tagged by genre anymore, and that the creative pursuit at their center remains intact even as they approach a quarter-century’s duration. In Times ends by booking “Daylight” with the chants and stomping riff from its beginning following more twists and turns, and for a record as densely packed, pummeling and forward-thinking, its final reinforcement of structure only adds another layer by which one might appreciate its composition. I’ve said many times I’m a fan of the band I remain one, but I think even behind the sturdiest artiface of objectivity, it would be hard to call Enslaved‘s achievement here anything but significant. It’s been worth taking a little extra time to appreciate.

Enslaved, “Thurisaz Dreaming” lyric video

Enslaved on Thee Facebooks

In Times at Nuclear Blast

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Live Review: Sun Voyager in Allston, MA, 04.18.15

Posted in Reviews on April 20th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

Sun Voyager (Photo by JJ Koczan)

People who bitch about “kids these days” and the post-Millennials or whatever they’re called and their fast texting and no rock and roll obviously don’t go to house shows. Neither do I, if I can avoid, but the kids are killing it. I’ve gone on at some length before about my general discomfort at being the oldest dude in the room in a basement. Hard not to feel like an invader, like I’m somewhere I shouldn’t be, even though the kid at the door who took my $5 donation for the out-of-town acts was polite in that “I helped an old person today” kind of way. “First time here?” Yeah man, it is.

sun voyager 2 (Photo by JJ Koczan)The Womb — oddly well promoted for a secret location — has come up in Allston in part I suspect because of that neighborhood’s lacking club scene. With the extra gloss of cool added to a basement show, there’s really no need for undergrad-age rockers to even try to get into a bar, and I won’t bother to name names, but a few of the venues around aren’t offering a much better product than a basement to start with, so why the hell not? There were four bands on the bill — Creaturos, Midriffs, Black Beach and Sun Voyager — but I knew that if I was going to be stretching the limits of personal awkwardness to be there at all (something on me, not The Womb itself), I’d mostly want to catch who I was there to see and then skip out.

That was Sun Voyager, incidentally. The Orange County, New York, four-piece have been high on my gotta-see list for a while now, and since I missed them the last time they rolled through the area, it seemed like The Womb was the place to be. They’d played Brooklyn on Friday, in another basement, and were well at home in the packed-out downstairs of The Womb, the walls of the staircase lined with sundry objectificationsSun Voyager (Photo by JJ Koczan) sexual and material, men, women and products in various states of vintage undress, while the walls of the basement itself were painted with various designs. Speakers hung from the ceiling by the A/C duct, a PA was set up on either side of the corner where the bands played. Sun Voyager weren’t on when I got there, but it wasn’t too long before they set up and were ready to roll.

A double-guitar four-piece with Carlos Francisco on stage right, bassist Stefan Mersch in the middle with drummer Kyle Beach behind and chapeaued lead guitarist Steve Friedman on stage left, his slide at the ready, they mostly played material from two recent King Pizza Records tapes, a split with Greasy Hearts and their standalone EP, Lazy Daze (review here). I dug the hell out of the EP — bought the split off Mersch after their set was done — and the prior 2013 demo, Mecca (review here), and I was there in large part to hear how the material translated live. “God is Dead” and “Gypsy Hill” were immediately identifiable in the set, the former for its oft-repeated title-line hook and the latter for its slower, more pastoral rollout.

Something of a surprise in itself that “Gypsy Hill” would be such a standout, since the easier flow with which Sun Voyager play off their more forward garage rock motion of some of their other material is so much a part of what they do on their studio material, but it was nonetheless the set’s most fervent nod, children behind me jumping up and down in sub-mosh form. I laughed as this or that one bounced off or got in a good shoveSun Voyager (Photo by JJ Koczan) and proceeded to fall here and there into the others in The Womb, which started off and remained packed for the duration of my time there. Good clean fun, not so much violent intent as general excitement brought to physical swirl. Sun Voyager had a couple new songs in tow — didn’t catch titles if they were given — but that stuff too had a faster garage edge, giving me a new appreciation for the tension in Beach‘s snare work and Francisco‘s overlaying echoes, which were thankfully preserved even in the raw, basement mix.

More of a concern was how Mersch‘s bass tone would carry over, since it’s such a pivotal aspect of their recorded sound, but it came across well enough and loud, with Friedman‘s leads cutting through on the high end of the shuffling “Black Angel,” the overarching vibe post-grunge and like active shoegaze as if such a thing might exist, a brand of heavy psych waiting for some clever jerk to give it a name and thus define it. Whatever it was, the swirl was righteous regardless of the pace of its churn and Sun Voyager carried it well through the end of their set, which found them, like their studio work, moving away somewhat from the jammier reaches of their beginnings but still carrying that swing with them as they move forward. They’ll continue to grow — they’re fortunate to have a place lsun voyager posterike The Womb to do so — and refine their processes, but I’m glad I braved the weirdness of being the oldest dude in the room to see them now, since the molten, in-progress nature of their creativity made their set all the more exciting.

I hauled ass out of there pretty quick when they were done — again, nothing against The Womb, or Black Beach or Midriffs or Creaturos; it’s not you it’s me — and chuckled as I walked by a dance-club-cum-sports-bar (Hello, Boston) on Mass Ave. that seemed to be hosting a sing-along to ’90s boyband fare that those singing along to it were probably in grade school, if that, when it came out. The perfect target demo on the come-back-around. So odd, so drunk. And me, covered in kid sweat and volume, hobbling my ass back to the car with The Patient Mrs., whose coming along had made the entire thing possible to take, to drive back home with a new tape in my pocket. What year is it again? How do we mash time and place into one strange, market-value nostalgia even as we grope so readily for whatever the next thing might be? Which turn takes me to the highway? Right on.

Sun Voyager on Thee Facebooks

Sun Voyager on Bandcamp

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Ufomammut, Ecate: Oltre L’Inifinito

Posted in Reviews on April 16th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

ufomammut-ecate

For really longer even than the last decade, Italian trio Ufomammut have been engaged in a battle against themselves. Each new work from the cosmic doomers has had to be bigger, to reach farther, than its predecessor. In 2008, Idolum — their fourth album — solidified this as a central element of their process. Arriving after a 2007 collaboration with Lento, it marked a particularly triumphant moment for the partnership between the band and producer Lorenzo Stecconi, who has helmed all of their recordings since, and in a way has been a blueprint for the various thematics running throughout the band’s synth-laden crushing riffs, far-back, spaced-out vocals and dense rhythms. When their subsequent outing, Eve (review here), arrived in 2010, it had one mission at its core, which was to outdo the record before it. Composed as one long piece — something they had originally intended for Idolum — it was ultimately broken down into tracks for the CD release, but one could hardly call it a failure. For one thing, it led to Ufomammut being signed to Neurot Recordings, the label founded and run by members of Neurosis, for their next outing, which likewise expanded on Eve. Oro would be released in two parts — Oro: Opus Primum (review here) and Oro: Opus Alter (review here) — in 2012, and as they moved past their 15th anniversary last year, an occasion they marked with the XV live DVD/documentary (review here), the central question regarding their seventh album, Ecate, is whether or not Ufomammut could possibly continue their push forward into bigger, wider ranging sound. What are the limits of human consciousness translated to volume?

Any new Ufomammut album brings with it a certain “event” presence. Their works have become so masterful in their presentation of a psychedelic aesthetic and doomed tonal weight that followers new and old — a number in which I count myself — know that there’s reason to be excited. With Ecate, guitarist/keyboardist Poia, bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Urlo and drummer Vita do indeed push beyond Oro, but what they find isn’t something even more grandiose. Perhaps inspired by stopping, really for the first time, to reflect on their past work with the XV release and their “Magickal Mastery Tour” comprising songs from their catalog back to earlier records like 2005’s Lucifer Songs, 2004’s landmark Snailking, and their 2000 debut, Godlike SnakeUfomammut have arrived with the six-track/46-minute Ecate at a place that both progresses their sound and taps into its very core. Like the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. After flying through the universe in space and time, the character Bowman doesn’t find some overblown interstellar phenomenon. He winds up in a bedroom — a place where the human species is most quintessentially itself; sleeping, screwing, making itself ready to face the world around it. So too in songs like the building opener “Somnium” and bombastic, three-minute follow-up, “Plouton,” do Ufomammut explore the characteristics that make them who they are musically. Waves of claustrophobic riffs churn amid synthesized swirl and percussive thud, a largesse of sound conjured and given shape out of what seems an ether of brazen impact. Once it starts, there is no getting away from “Somnium.” It is a gravity well of tone, introducing much of what Ufomammut will unfold on the songs to come, and thus, emphasizing many of the best aspects of their style. Following the bursting supernova of “Plouton,” “Chaosecret” keeps a more open vibe through its first six minutes or thereabouts, turning for its remaining four into one of Ecate‘s most crushing moments just when it seems to be fading away, marching toward a more and more furious end.

ufomammut (Photo by Andrea Tomas Prato)

The album is structured into two roughly mirrored halves, in each of which three songs play out, two longer with a shorter one in the middle. “Chaosecret” is the longest cut at 10:47, but neither “Somnium” (9:55) nor closer “Daemons” (10:30) are far off. Following the closing slams of “Chaosecret,” “Temple” launches side B with an initial wall of feedback and more straightforward riffing, perhaps even more than “Plouton” exposing the elemental aspects of Ecate as a whole, obscure, manipulated samples playing out behind the plod, Urlo‘s vocals forward but still buried under the hypnotic riff repetitions, it taps into the overwhelming wash of Ufomammut at their finest, and transitions fluidly into the shorter, ambient “Revelation,” the four minutes of which are dedicated to developing a synthesized swirl and vast reach beyond what has already been set within the other songs. The drone fades gradually, and with the immediate rumble and rhythmic force of its early going, there’s little question when “Daemons” arrives as to what might be its intent. Its push never really subsides, though a verse emerges, still backed by fervent chugging, and leads the way back into an explosive chorus with more strange, indecipherable samples and a thrust toward Ecate‘s final resolution. No real surprise in the thunder or the rage that pays off “Daemons,” but the keyboard lines that follow and smooth the way out of the album prove even more resonant, almost cinematic, before they too fade away. Working from a conceptual basis in the goddess Hecate, who moves between the dead, living and immortals, Ufomammut remain steadfast in their commitment to progressing on the levels of songwriting and performance, but what their seventh full-length ultimately proves is that records don’t necessarily need to constantly get bigger and bigger to show that progression. Ecate tears away at anything less than needed for the band to make their statement, and as the album that will bring them to North America to tour for the first time, they could not hope to arrive carried by sturdier machinations.

Ufomammut, Ecate (2015)

Ufomammut on Thee Facebooks

Ecate at Neurot Recordings

Neurot Recordings

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Kings Destroy, Kings Destroy: Songs of the City (Plus Track Premiere!)

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on April 15th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

kings destroy kings destroy

[PLEASE: Press play above to hear the premiere of “Mythomania” from Kings Destroy’s self-titled, due out May 5 on War Crime Recordings. Thanks to the band and label and Earsplit PR for allowing me to host the song with this review.]

There is no band currently active I feel as close to as Kings Destroy, and if you’ve read this site at any point over the last five years, you’ve probably in some measure seen that relationship develop. Their first 7″, Old Yeller/Medusa (review here) introduced them in 2010 as a group of NYHC veterans — guitarists Carl Porcaro and Chris Skowronski of Killing Time, vocalist Steve Murphy of Uppercut, while drummer Rob Sefcik was in both Electric Frankenstein and Begotten — exploring heavy stoner doom riffing in a definitively East Coast style, an undercurrent of aggression never far off even at that formative stage. The subsequent debut LP, And the Rest Will Surely Perish, was released through this site’s in-house label, The Maple Forum (original announcement here), and that album further demonstrated the band’s doomly refinement in cuts like “The Mountie” and “Old Yeller,” which still feature in live sets on the regular. It was a record I was proud to be associated with in the small way I was, and one to which I continue to have significant sentimental attachment, even if everything the band has done since has blown it out of the water. Their second full-length, 2013’s A Time of Hunting (not reviewed, but discussed here), was released on War Crime Recordings and brought changes in the songwriting process with the departure of bassist Ed Bocchino and arrival of Aaron Bumpus, and the result was a genre-defying work that retained the heaviness of the debut, but set a context for itself that was neither doom nor not-doom, a strange and effective atmosphere pervading especially the reaches of side B (a vinyl is due any day now on Hydro-Phonic) songs like “A Time of Hunting” and closer “Turul.” Even the relatively straightforward “Casse-Tete” and “The Toe” had an off-kilter aspect to them, a weirdness to their attack that became, at least for me, the defining characteristic of the album.

I’ve seen Kings Destroy over 30 times in the last few years — that’s a literal figure, not an exaggeration — toured with them twice last year and would again in a minute, conditions permitting. I consider them friends, so when I say that their self-titled third album is their best work to-date, you can take it either one of two ways: Either I’m partial because of my relationship with the band, or I’m the guy who’d know better than just about anyone else, save perhaps the band members themselves and producer Sanford Parker, who’s worked with them on all three of their records (Mike Moebius of Moonlight Mile as well). Comprised of seven tracks totaling a vinyl-minded 34 minutes and topped off with Josh Graham artwork that captures the city-minded grit at the heart of its construction, Kings Destroy‘s Kings Destroy strips down the anti-genre turns of A Time of Hunting to something rawer, truer to their live presentation, and ultimately bolder in its style. When they want to, they write a fierce hook — “Mr. O,” opener “Smokey Robinson,” “Embers” — and when they want to, they delve as deep into oppressive atmospherics as they’ve yet gone — closer “Time for War.” Three albums in, their songwriting is diverse in pace and intent, but equally assured throughout, and their sound has found a place that’s unconcerned with genre even to the point of not working against it. “Mr. O,” an immediate highlight following the Beavis and Butt-Head-worthy chug of “Smokey Robinson,” is an unabashed stoner rock song and a paean to Yankees outfielder Reggie Jackson, called “Mr. October,” that’s laid out honestly enough to not care who it might alienate or how. It finds companionship in the album’s second half with the relatively upbeat “Green Diamonds,” but is nonetheless a beast unto itself within the Kings Destroy catalog. They may never do anything else like it, but even if not, it’s ground they’ve covered and covered well, with all the frenetic movement and blistering solo work one could ask. The subsequent “W2″ thuds harder — Sefcik sets the rolling groove that the guitars and bass seem to be riding — and is slower, but solidifies the concrete-and-pavement vibe of Kings Destroy‘s urban portrayal, the album depicting a city, New York, that’s both dangerous and alluring, dirty and gone, worthy of scorn and nostalgia. It’s not outlet shopping and bike lanes. It’s smoggy air and the fear of being stabbed.

kings destroy (Photo by JJ Koczan)

This atmosphere — a classic image of New York toughness — is maintained without, for the most part, playing into to the band’s hardcore past (also present; Killing Time plays sporadic shows). A confrontational sensibility emerged on A Time for Hunting, which not only was weird as hell but punching you in the face with that weirdness, and there’s some of that on Kings Destroy as well on “Smokey Robinson” or “Time for War,” with its gang vocals and slow, seething crawl, but the album isn’t limited to one angle or direction of approach. Enter “Mythomania,” the centerpiece of the tracklist. With a creeping guitar intro, subdued, open verses and hair-raising chorus payoffs leading to an apex that provides one of Kings Destroy‘s most satisfying emotional resolutions, marked out by Murphy‘s best performance here — his voice and the listener’s back seem to break at the same time at the very end of the song — and leading the way into “Embers,” which is the longest cut at 6:25 and furthers the grandiose feel with an even catchier roll. The ability to shift into and out of these modes so smoothly is one of the clearest instances of growth since their start, and ultimately it’s the balance of patience with an underlying intensity in “Mythomania” and “Embers” that makes them such landmarks for the band. When “Green Diamonds” hits, it’s something of a return to earth, a shorter, quicker pulse placed to set the stage for “Time for War,” though its value is more than positional. An atmospheric shift, it’s also the most straightforward verse/chorus hook on Kings Destroy, emphasizing the album’s little need for frills when a concise, efficient method will do, which it does. How then to explain “Time for War?” A new expression of the experimental bent that last time led to “Turul,” maybe? A nod to the increasingly blurred line between hardcore and doom? Maybe this is a cop-out, but I think it’s just another song Kings Destroy wanted to write. Its build, slow, understated, but still mean, ready to boil over, is perhaps the most “New York” of the bunch, Murphy growling over an abrasive drone and a churning riff before the gang vocals kick in. It’s both the most atmospheric and the most crushing piece on the album, and its duality suits it well.

But Kings Destroy‘s Kings Destroy doesn’t end in the chaos one might expect, and “Time for War” doesn’t build to a driving climax. It has a payoff, to be sure, but ultimately, it passes quietly into a softer drum progression and quiet guitars and bass, that drone still there to lead the way out after Sefcik‘s final crash. All the more fitting that the band should cap the record by skirting the anticipated move, since that’s been their specialty all along, from their let’s-riff-and-see-what-happens beginnings through this self-titled’s assured sense of sonic personality and well-honed, individualized take. It’s true that I’m a fan of the band, and I’m more than willing to acknowledge that I’m in no way impartial as regards their work, but the fact of the matter is I’ve been listening to this record for the better part of a year in one form or another, if not over a year, and it’s quite simply the best thing they’ve done up to now. The songs are memorable and well defined, but feed into an overarching flow that’s executed confidently now matter how far out it goes, and the translation of what Kings Destroy do live is an accomplishment unto itself. Call me biased. I’ll take a lesson from the album and not give a fuck. Recommended.

Kings Destroy on Thee Facebooks

Kings Destroy on Twitter

War Crime Recordings

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Sun Voyager, Lazy Daze: In the Here and Now

Posted in Duuude, Tapes! on April 14th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

sun voyager lazy daze

In the time since releasing their 2013 demo/EP, Mecca (review here), Orange County, New York, heavy psych rockers Sun Voyager have been more or less engaged in the business of growing their band. They’ve played local shows, done some time on the road, found a label to help push their stuff in the form of King Pizza Records, appeared on a compilation or two, and done a split release, with Greasy Hearts. Along the way, they’ve also released singles in drips and drabs, one song at a time every so often, capturing different moods and vibes still within the warm sphere of what they did so well on Mecca, but showing progress anyhow in fuzzy cuts like “Gypsy Hill” and “God is Dead.” Their new cassette, called Lazy Daze after its closing track and released by King Pizza in limited numbers (250 copies, white tape, pro case and j-card), brings together these singles and turns them into Sun Voyager‘s most established release to-date. It’s five songs from the earthy heavygaze rockers and only about 20 minutes between the two sides, but big on vibe and a right-on showing of increased complexity in their craft.

Definitely an EP for its runtime, Lazy Daze nonetheless houses an album-style flow, and while its title and some of Sun Voyager‘s shoegaze aesthetic hint toward an element of ’90s apathy — of “fuckit” made flesh — the weight of their tones and swing counteract with movement that’s exciting even in the overarching languid atmosphere of the tracks themselves. “God is Dead” is a landmark for the band. A familiar refrain, perhaps, but the four-piece of guitarist/vocalist Carlos Francisco, guitarist Steve Friedman, bassist Stefan Mersch and drummer Kyle Beach make it their own, turning “My god is dead but your god’s dead too” into a killer hook for the upbeat first half of the song and an echoing space-out over the fluid, slower jamming of the second. The song lurches to a drawling finish like a universe stretching itself into oblivion, and “Black Angel” picks up quickly with a garage-style rush that Francisco tops with reverb-soaked melody and a molten vibe that is quickly becoming a trademark of their approach. Unlike the opener, “Black Angel” holds its space-rocking motor for its entirety, so it seems only fair that “Gypsy Hill” would slow things down, and it does, but more than that, it opens wide a horizon soundscape, sunny and rural as were the best moments of Mecca — its central progression reminds a bit of “Space Queen” from that release; not a complaint — but more coherent in the songwriting and assured in its course. They weave into and out of jammy grooves, but its the nodding chorus that makes “Gypsy Hill” the highlight that it is as it rounds out side one.

sun-voyager-lazy-daze-tape-and-j-card

Launching side two, “Be Here Now” would seem to signal a change in vibe, but it’s really just a progression from where “Gypsy Hill” was headed, that song a transitional centerpiece between the two sides of the EP. A sleepy flow and peaceful atmosphere can make it easy to look past how heavy “Be Here Now” actually is when it picks up, but Sun Voyager shift so easily between louder and quieter parts that by the time the four minutes are up, you’re just absolutely lost in it. All the better leading into “Lazy Daze” itself, which earns the title-track spot with its more accomplished melody and memorable roll. Backing “ooh” vocals behind Francisco add flourish to the verse and choruses, and what works best about Lazy Daze overall is once more underlined, and that’s that even when Sun Voyager are using straightforward structures — all of these songs are shorter and have fewer actual jams than the tracks on Mecca — they’re able to maintain hypnotic listener engagement even as they weave through different songwriting ideas. I won’t at all say I hope they never kick out a full-on jam again, if only because I don’t think they’re at a point where any element of their approach should be written off entirely, but the balance they strike on Lazy Daze of approach-tightness and sonic-looseness makes the 20 minutes of the EP’s span seem much, much wider, and really makes me look forward to hearing what kinds of shifts Sun Voyager might be able to pull off over the course of a debut full-length. I think they could give it a shot at this point, and I hope they find room to branch out a bit in terms of arrangements, maybe put an organ in there somewhere for one or two songs, some acoustics or additional percussion. Because if Lazy Daze proves anything, it’s that Sun Voyager have their sound as it is down pat and are ready to move forward from here.

Sun Voyager, Lazy Daze (2015)

Sun Voyager on Thee Facebooks

Sun Voyager on Bandcamp

King Pizza Records

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Six Organs of Admittance, Hexadic: Systems and Games of Chance

Posted in Reviews on April 14th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

six organs of admittance hexadic

There are two ways by which a project like Six Organs of Admittance‘s Hexadic comes about: Genius and boredom. I suspect that for Ben Chasny, who has spearheaded the band since its incarnation before the turn of the century, it was some working combination of the two that drove him to create the “Hexadic System,” which uses playing cards in some obscure process to construct various elements of songwriting, piecing material together, picking notes and so forth. Set to be released as part of a decade-long association with Drag City as a bundle with a 115-page book explaining the system and a custom-designed deck of playing cards presumably for use by anyone who might want to give it a shot on their own, it is a challenging record conceptually and in the practice of listening that it seems fair to call Six Organs of Admittance‘s most experimental work to-date. That’s saying something. From Chasny‘s 1998 self-titled debut with Six Organs and certainly through his work with Comets on Fire, he — and a variety of other players included (or not) along the way — has maintained a fiercely creative drive. From early blends of synth and acoustics to bedroom folk to more complex arrangements, drone, psychedelia, brilliant traditional songwriting and far-ranging freakouts, it’s been a journey with more turns than straightaways, and while there’s a consistency in Chasny‘s level of performance and a progressive narrative can be drawn from one album to the next — Hexadic could be his 13th, depending on how and what you count — he’s maintained an ability to surprise each time out. So it is with Hexadic.

I won’t pretend to understand the mechanics of the record’s construction (unless the whole thing is bunk, which would be a much more prickish kind of genius), but as it’s how the songs were made, it seems prudent to include at least part of Chasny‘s explanation. Here it is:

This release is the result of years of working on a new way to compose music. We’ve been using the word “system,” but it would probably be more accurate to describe it as an “open system.” It is very malleable. The particular songs on this record were bent toward the idea of rock music. I composed 30 pieces using this system. Of those 30 songs, I chose nine that could best be worked into a rock format for Hexadic. I wanted to make a rock record. So there you have it.

…The system itself consists of different aspects, or correspondences, that can interact with each other or exist on their own. There are game, graphic, and language aspects that intersect with the plane of tonal relationships in a way that creates a unique assemblage. In fact, all of the words on the record were written using the language aspect of the system. The game aspects of the system can be played for fun or used as a compositional method. They can even be used as a performance in itself if the players are confident enough.

The work draws inspiration and uses ideas from three figures: Ramon Llull, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, and Gaston Bachelard.

Fair enough. Working on the recording with drummer Noel Von Harmonson, and bassists Rob Fisk and Charlie Saufley, Chasny uses this system of his own creation to craft nine varied tracks that run a gamut from the open-spaced jazzy post-rock of “The Ram” to the noise-caked drone of “Vestige” and the tense basslines and light guitar strums of “Hesitant Grand Light.” There are, as promised, “rock record” moments, but “Maximum Hexadic” — which is as freaked-out as Hexadic gets, with furious swirls of guitar and frenetic drums that pound away in a two-minute furious burst between the drawling, blown-out undulations of “Wax Chance” and centerpiece “Hollow River”‘s more plodding instrumental incantations — is more intricate structurally than one might expect from the quoted phrase. It’s been a long time since Chasny took shelter from the ash. Even the songs that have vocals, “Sphere Path Code C,” for example, use them not necessarily to convey an emotion or single idea in verses and choruses so much as to add another incarnation of the system itself, their patterns chaotic above likewise instrumental shifts. It’s not quite jamming, which Six Organs did plenty of on 2012’s heavy psych-minded Ascent (review here), but aurally kin to some of early Sonic Youth‘s feedback-caked excursions, with a sense of plan underlying and thicker tones. The earlier “Wax Chance” works in something of a similar form, but has a more solidified sense of verse to it, where “Sphere Path Code C” plays toward a more destructive result. All depends on what cards you draw, I guess. Or maybe not.

six organs of admittance notebook page

The more frustrated cuts like “Maximum Hexadic,” “Wax Chance,” “Sphere Path Code C” and the first half of closer “Guild” have a tendency toward the abrasive, and while the whole album is a challenging listen, it’s these most that would seem to convey the restlessness at the heart of Hexadic‘s creation. Still, an unexpected highlight is “Future Verbs,” which arrives late after “Sphere Path Code C” and finds Chasny exploring repetitions of a creeper guitar line over a slow, minimal drum and bass progression. Some ambient changes, but it’s primarily a mood piece, and there isn’t much more to it than that, but it’s one of the album’s most memorable tracks, giving way smoothly to the drone/bass interplay of “Vestige” and “Guild,” which in addition to ending Hexadic is also its longest track at 6:53, successfully ties together the unhinged and atmospheric sides of the release, starting off at full tilt and scaling back as it moves into its second half to end the album with a whisper. Fitting that Six Organs would end off by directly conveying the dynamic possibilities in the system Chasny created, since that’s essentially what the album demonstrates over its course front to back. That does not mean it will be a favorite for everyone who has followed Six Organs of Admittance even just over the last decade, but as open as the system is, it’s just as easy to imagine that Hexadic could take on a life of its own within Chasny‘s songwriting sphere and, amid other releases, become a series — Hexadic IIHexadic III, and so on. That’s getting ahead, obviously, but as much as he is able to put together in these tracks, there’s as much potential for development as there has always been in his work, that progressive thread turning, but continuing ever forward. Approach with an open mind. One of the best aspects of Chasny‘s efforts here is that if a listener doesn’t want to, they don’t have to even think about the songwriting method, the system or anything like that, if they don’t want to do so. Ignore it, if you want, and just listen to the resulting songs. Hexadic works that way, too.

Six Organs of Admittance, Hexadic (2015)

Six Organs of Admittance website

Hexadic Complete Bundle preorder

Drag City

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