Posted in Reviews on July 31st, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster
The story of Swedish heavy rockers is one of perpetual evolution. There is no point in the outfit’s 16-year history at which they were doing the same thing twice. From their 2000 self-titled debut EP on Molten Universe (someday it will be mine), through the subsequent 2001 debut full-length, Revolution Rock (discussed here), the beginnings of their association with Small Stone Records on 2003’s Secret Alphabets, the grand productions of 2007’s Agents of Ahriman and 2012’s Nest of Vipers (review here) and the sustainable touring presence they became with 2014’s Trails and Passes, which recently led to their signing with Napalm Records for the release of their next album — currently in production — they’ve never been quite in the same place as a band. And for the most part, they haven’t had the same lineup either.
Begun as a side-project of Dozer by guitarist Tommi Holappa and Bengt Bäcke, who produced some of Dozer‘s earliest work and has played bass in Greenleaf through their entire tenure, Greenleaf has evolved from a studio outfit putting out occasional records in Dozer‘s downtime to Holappa‘s main focus — a considerable swap in position. When they released Agents of Ahriman, that transition was still a ways off, but the roots were being dug. Bäcke and Holappa were joined on drums by former Dozer drummer Erik Bäckwell and vocalist Oskar Cedermalm, who was at that time only beginning to make an impression with his own band, Truckfighters. Former Lowrider vocalist Peder Bergstrand (who was also the first singer in Greenleaf) and John Hermansen, who was then in the transition between The Awesome Machine and Mother Misery, also make notable guest appearances on vocals.
I do not at all mind telling you that Agents of Ahriman stands among my favorite heavy rock records — period. Of any era. Certainly it was one of the finest outings of the aughts, and I consider it a flawless execution of songwriting and performance. Not one second of its nine tracks/37 minutes is superfluous. Led by Holappa, Greenleaf bring a character to the modus of classic heavy rock that few have been able to parallel, let alone match, both presaging and out-boogieing the retro rock movement while still sounding modern in Bäcke‘s production, melodically complex in Cedermalm‘s arrangements, varied through the guest appearances — not at all limited to vocals; Jocke Åhslund‘s Hammond featuring on “Black Tar,” “Alishan Mountain,” “The Lake” and “Ride Another Highway,” while John Hoyles (now of Troubled Horse) adds a guitar solo to opener “Highway Officer” and Linus Arnberg brings cowbell stomp to swing-happy closer “Stray Bullit Woman” — and outright unstoppable in its righteousness of groove. Front to back, it is the kind of record one could use as a textbook to teach children about the joys of rock and roll.
And if this sounds like hyperbole, it is earned in the hyper-memorable choruses of “Alishan Mountain” and “Ride Another Highway” — Hermansen‘s one-man call and response rivaling Cedermalm‘s own — and in the spaciousness of the six-minute “Sleep Paralysis,” which in its last moments finally seems to be driving toward a payoff of its track-long tension, only to cut out at the moment of impact, breaking the rule under which it seemed to be playing, in Bergstrand doing his best Mark Lanegan on the attitude-soaked “Black Tar,” and in the riffs of “Highway Officer,” “Treehorn” and particularly organ-ic “The Lake,” which was the centerpiece of the CD and on the vinyl is the beginning point for a five-track side B that only gets richer as it pushes — and, in the case of “Ride Another Highway,” propels — toward “Stray Bullit Woman” as the closing statement. A more swaggering performance from Cedermalm there never has been, and the progression over which it comes is worthy of being called Mountain-esque — not a comparison to be made lightly.
There is one last guest appearance before Agents of Ahriman is finished, and it’s Emil Leo, who after emerging from a swirl of effects asks the simple question “And now what?” Eight years after the album’s initial release — worth noting this is the first time it’s out on vinyl — we know to some extent. Dozer would issue their final (to-date; one can always hope) full-length in the form of 2008’s Beyond Colossal, and after a few years of inactivity, Greenleaf would be resurrected again, this time with Dozer‘s Johan Rockner on guitar and Olle Mårthans on drums for Nest of Vipers — Dozer bassist/vocalist Fredrik Nordin also made a guest appearance, along with Bergstrand and keymaster Per Wiberg — and began a touring cycle. That would be the end of Cedermalm‘s run with the band, Truckfighters taking priority as a worldwide touring entity and an outfit of increasing profile, and vocalist Arvid Jonsson took up the difficult mantle ably on Trails and Passes, Sebastian Olsson also stepping into the drummer role.
Greenleaf remains in seemingly permanent flux, and what their next record might bring when it arrives I wouldn’t speculate to say other than to note the reliable quality of Holappa‘s songcraft, which in partnership with Bäcke‘s production, was so plainly on display with Agents of Ahriman in its whole-album, all-killer impact. The LP version is a somewhat different experience, the sides not quite breaking evenly with the second longer than the first, but whether you’ve experienced what I consider Greenleaf‘s finest hour yet — Nest of Vipers was a grander affair and showed progression, but these songs are tattooed on my brain — or whether you’ve never heard the thing, it still proves itself to be an utterly essential listen for anyone and everyone who wants to know what heavy rock sounds like at its most right. You can say I’m overstating it if you want. You’re wrong. It’s already stood up to eight years, and listening to the vinyl, I hear no reason Agents of Ahriman won’t continue to endure into perpetuity. Recommended.
Posted in Reviews on July 30th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster
Aesthetic continues to play a large role for UK dual-vocal four-piece Undersmile, whose second full-length, Anhedonia, is out on vinyl through Black Bow Records. The Oxfordshire outfit released their debut, Narwhal (review here), back in 2012 and since then have embarked on an acoustic side-project called Coma Wall, even releasing a split called Wood and Wire between the two bands in 2013 (they also had a split with Bismuth out that year). Because that alter ego contains all four members of Undersmile — guitarist/vocalists Hel Sterne and Taz Corona-Brown, bassist Olly Corona-Brown and drummer Tom McKibbin — I wondered if perhaps some of that influence might sneak its way into the workings of the new Undersmile offering. Aside from a shared theatrical sensibility between them and an enduring penchant for slow pacing, both of which Undersmile already had in their arsenal, almost not at all.
I’ll note that Taz and Hel work together more dynamically as vocalists here than on the debut, but with a few years between and some considerable stage time throughout that span, there’s nothing to say that wouldn’t have been the case anyhow. What Anhedonia is, however, is monolithic. At seven tracks, 75 minutes, it dips below the 10-minute mark just once for second cut “Sky Burial” (8:02), and spends the rest of its time reveling in a near-complete wash of darkness and grueling lumber. One might be tempted to call it drone-doom for the overbearing plod it enacts on “Song of Stones” or opener “Labyrinths,” but the truth of the listening experience isn’t that cut and dry, and for all its (purposeful, useful) unipolar churn, Anhedonia creates rich atmospheres.
We could almost call those atmospheres colorful if we were talking about the deep purples and blacks of the album’s fitting Peacevillean cover art, but either way, they play into the stylized drawl of the material — Hel and Taz‘s vocals either sung clean or shouted, but almost always in a drawn-out delivery to match the nodding material behind, which opens gradually on “Labyrinths” and proceeds to trade back and forth throughout the album in massive swells of volume and minimalist spaciousness, an early flair of strings showing up on the opener that will play in again deeper into the abyss on the penultimate “Emmenagogue” and elsewhere. Rhythmically, the course of Anhedonia impresses perhaps most of all in that it manages to hold together and not — as one might be inclined to do while listening — stop halfway through, have a good cry for lost days and what could’ve been, and go back to the rest later.
“Sky Burial” works with similar explosive tendencies, and by the time it’s done, Undersmile‘s intent to absolutely overwhelm their audience is writ large. Pushing toward the midsection, “Song of Stones” builds to a heavy push in its middle and again near the end — strings coming forward around the halfway point of the track only to be consumed by the grueling distortion captured at Skyhammer Studio by producer Chris Fielding (also of Conan), reappear, and be swallowed again for the effort. Take that, any sense of hope whatsoever. Centerpiece “Atacama Sunburn” would seem to draw together a water theme present in the band’s past works — Narwhal had its nautical moments, as did Wood and Wire, and even their 2010 debut EP, A Sea of Dead Snakes, was a sea — and a huge vision of waves remains an appropriate image for the undulating force of Undersmile‘s groove — but the real standout of Anhedonia is “Aeris,” which follows.
As one would expect of Undersmile at this point in their tenure, it’s consistent atmospherically with its surrounding pieces, but “Aeris” offers a melodic fullness all its own, and it doesn’t quite stand in contrast to what’s around it, but it marks a definite broadening of the context. It winds up affecting the listening experience for “Emmenagogue” and closer “Knucklesucker” as well, though the finale has its own intentions, which it keeps secret almost to the very end as if to see who among those who’ve taken Anhedonia on might make it that far. After an oozing linear build for its first nine minutes, feedback transitions into faster (gasp!) riffing that solidifies around McKibbin‘s drums and shifts into a more ’90s-style noise rock, the repeated lines, “I don’t feel hollow/I don’t feel sorrow/I don’t feel anything, really,” metered out over a push of growing intensity. It slows down prior to deconstructing at the finish, but even if for just a minute, Undersmile proved it’s possible to make a sound of such enduring thickness move, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find them pushing it further next time.
Of course, with that there comes a full 74 minutes of suffocating doom, but that’s precisely the point. Undersmile‘s intent isn’t to make it easy on the listener, but to challenge their audience to plunge these emotional and sonic depths with them. As a result, Anhedonia is successful because it feels throughout its course like the four-piece are dragging you along with them on their slog through this oppressive ambience. The party album of 2015 it ain’t, but in its progression beyond what Undersmile have done before, for a more personal feel throughout and for the still-monstrous scope with which it plays out, it’s hard not to stand in awe of the wide waters the band continue to cast, be haunted by the otherworldly presence in their melodies and get lost in the tidal sway of their rhythms.
Posted in Reviews on July 28th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster
My appreciation for long-running Italian fanzine Vincebus Eruptum is well documented at this point, but I feel compelled to reiterate the admirable nature both of the work they do and the manner in which they do it. If saying that every time they put out an issue takes away from the impact of the statement, at least know it doesn’t take away from my actual enjoyment of reading the thing. As ever with issue No. 19, Editor Davide “Davidew” Pansolin and his crew have combed the heavy psychedelic and stoner underground to bring forth another quality collection of reviews and interviews in support of the genre(s) at large and their own efforts as the associazione culturale that they are and of course, the Vincebus Eruptum Recordings end of the operation, which continues to expand via releases from Sendelica, Lords of Bastard, and The Linus Pauling Quartet.
Wouldn’t you know it? It just so happens that an interview with The Linus Pauling Quartet leads off the issue! You’d almost think these things were planned out beforehand. But if there’s one thing that makes a ‘zine special, it’s the passion of the individual at its heart — Pansolin has a staff but still does a good portion of the writing himself — and Vincebus Eruptum is very obviously the labor of his love, in this case of the Texas five-piece, who in the course of the five-page leadoff feature lead him on a trip down memory lane of Houston’s psychedelic and noise scene in the post-Butthole Surfers ’90s. Very interesting stuff, and there’s even a chart at the end showing the different members who played in various bands, all the same people sharing music with each other in the way that city-wide scenes always become incestuous over time. The historical angle might make the Linus Pauling piece my favorite of the issue, but My Sleeping Karma also gave a fascinating talk about their new album, Moksha (review here), and it’s always cool to hear what the guys in Orange Goblin have to say, especially now that they’ve spent the last few years really kicked into gear as a full-time touring band.
Chats with Victor Griffin (Pentagram, Place of Skulls, etc.), Fantasyy Factoryy, Ides of Gemini and a talk with Gabriele Fiori (Heavy Psych Sounds, Black Rainbows) about the 2015 debut from his side-project Killer Boogie, Detroit (review here), all provide further points of interest, and then it moves into the review section, which brings looks at the latest from Pyrior, Acid King, Pombagira, Black Rainbows, Madre de Dios, Osso, Wild Eyes, Spidergawd, Sendelica, Child, Black Capricorn, Colour Haze and many others. They pack so much in that there isn’t always room to delve into the deepest details of a release — these are the things you have to do when you can only fit so many words on a page — but Vincebus Eruptum never fails to give an impression of what a band is going for, and of course their expertise is long since established when it comes to heavy rock. I trust their judgment as I do few other sources.
Unlike most issues that I’m fortunate enough to receive, I read No. 19 cover to cover in a single sitting. Usually I’ll jump around a bit, read something in the middle — My Sleeping Karma have the gatefold honor, right on the staple, this time around — then go back to the start, but from Pansolin‘s editorial at the beginning to the closing, packed-tight bit of news from Vincebus Eruptum Recordings after the reviews, I went front to back, and it flowed well in a way that, bouncing here to there, I hadn’t previously appreciated. Particularly so in light of Pansolin‘s editorial, which displayed a kind of wariness of the new school of heavy psychedelia. A quote: “What’s important is that these bands do not pretend to have found the Mecca feeling like having definitely made it for good just because they ended up on a label jam-packed with metal outfits because that does not mean to mechanically achieve greater exposure and instant success!” He also refers to it as “‘our’ heavy-psych scene,” which, as ever for that kind of statement, made me wonder who “we” are, and warned bands off from forgetting their underground roots just because more people are listening to the style of music now.
Striking, candid thoughts from someone who’s spent at this point more than a decade and a half in the European heavy underground, but if Pansolin sounds jaded up front, that’s gone almost immediately as soon as the interview with The Linus Pauling Quartet arrives, and Vincebus Eruptum, like always, is a party heralding some of the best heavy psychedelics the world has to offer. I’ll look forward to going front-to-back on the next issue.
Posted in On Wax on July 24th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster
Vocalist/guitarist Tanner “T.G.” Olson of Across Tundras initially self-released The Rough Embrace (review here) last year as a name-your-price download, and the newer vinyl edition of the album — pressed to 150 copies in a swampy kind of green and black swirl on a 150g platter with an obscure, almost runic, front cover and skull-and-hourglass memento mori on back — has a very complementary feel. For example, the record itself doesn’t come with a tracklist. And while one might make out the words “Rough” and “Embrace” on the top and bottom lines of the front cover, there’s little else by which it might be identified, unless you count the title etched into the part of each side after the music has ended.
That’s also how one tells the difference initially between the five-song side A, which begins with “Fool’s Gold Miner,” and the four-song side B, which begins with the moody “Uncharted Depths.” Clearly the intent is that if they want it bad enough, the listener — who no doubt bought the thing off Bandcamp to start with — should go there to get the appropriate information on the recording, mixing, mastering, tracklisting, lyrics, etc., and in reality that’s not a problem. It does give The Rough Embrace something of an artifact feel, though, which is fitting with the name of Olson‘s label, Electric Relics — also the title of the last Across Tundras album (review here), the gatefold 12″ version of which was the first release for the imprint — and also suits the music itself, which is nothing if not classically minded.
Like most folk singers of the last half-century, Olson has had moments in his work where he is almost singularly indebted to Bob Dylan, but neither he nor Woody Guthrie nor Neil Young are necessarily defining influences, and even as “Wars of Bygone Days” marches in tune to the established notions of a protest song — right down to lyrical plays on “manifest destiny” and the notion of using Christian ideals to justify sin (i.e. murder in war) — it retains an experimentalist feel. That, taken in balance with the intimacy of the performance throughout — Olson plays guitar, organ, piano, percussion, does all the vocals, and also recorded, mixed and handled the artwork himself, while Mikey Allred (also of Across Tundras) mastered — is what comes to make The Rough Embrace such an engaging listen despite a superficial simplicity.
Heard on one level, its guy-and-guitar singer-songwriterism seems easy enough to grasp, but that just can’t account for the intertwined echoing lead lines of the sweetly wistful “Sleeper Lines” or the psych-folk vibe of “To Hell You Ride,” which follows and shifts into bouts of more fervent strumming in its chorus. Olson, who has done plenty of balladeering the last several years while also retaining a penchant for droning out on offerings like 2015’s The Wandering Protagonist (review here) and 2013’s sprawling The Complete Blood Meridian for Electric Drone Guitar (review here), keeps more to the former on The Rough Embrace, but even in the subdued nostalgia of “Providence Gone Again,” the underlying organ provides a constancy of tone to complement the guitar that speaks to the other impulse.
It’s range, either way, and that range continues to expand on side B as “Uncharted Depths” gives the album’s shorter second half a quiet launch, lyrics held back until about the halfway mark and then more spoken than sung, the electric guitar ramble very much at the fore. A darker atmosphere is set, but “Out on the Fringes” has a more hopeful spirit, and no doubt it’s on purpose that the one arrives paired with the other. What they have in common is being resoundingly immersive, such that while just seven minutes between them, the more lyrical focus of the penultimate “Birdsong Chorus at Dawn” arrives almost as a surprise.
Would be wrong to call it jarring, but Olson brings the vocals forward again and recalls side A memorable cuts like “Fool’s Gold Miner” and “Wars of Bygone Days” to give side B a landing point; it’s something that, listening to the digital version one might not fully appreciate, but that the vinyl really brings out. That song is a highlight, and “Something Left to Save,” which follows, is very much a closer, a goodbye song that finds Olson singing along to himself, adding a last bit of drums and finishing with a rising drone and sample of what sounds like waves that provides a concluding wash that’s all the more gorgeous for being unanticipated. It’s one more moment that, though Olson‘s work is fluid to the point of having its own current system, is worth taking specific note of, since ultimately its from these things that the depths of his atmospherics are cast. The Rough Embrace offers plenty of those moments, but it’s the whole experience of how they’re strung together that makes it really shine.
Released to mark a month-long tour together earlier this year, the Setalight Records split 10″ between Berlin heavy rockers Samavayo and Russian genrenauts The Grand Astoria holds a few surprises along the way. Pressed to black vinyl, it’s a follow-up to Samavayo‘s 2014 joint release with One Possible Option, and for The Grand Astoria, who’ve worked with Setalight in the past on 2014’s La Belle Epoque (review here), as well as 2013’s Punkadelica Supreme (review here) and several other short releases along the way.
Though on paper it might seem like an awkward pairing — come to think of it, just about anybody paired with The Grand Astoria is kind of awkward on paper; their sound is expansive, and they’re more than capable songwriters, but you never quite know what they’re going to do next — they mesh pretty well, and with a side split between them, both bands give a quick glimpse at where they’re at stylistically without completely losing a thread going one into the other.
One might notice The Grand Astoria‘s skull-headed mascot on the cover art by Sophia Miroedova walking away from a temple — or maybe having his portrait painted in front of it? — over which Samavayo‘s sun-style logo resides in the sky. Both acts, then, are represented, one perhaps more subtly than the other. It’s much the same way with the music. On side A, Samavayo offer two tracks: “Intergalactic Hunt” (4:03) and “Soul out of Control” (8:06), while on side B, The Grand Astoria reaffirm their shift toward progressive rock with “Kobaïa Express” (11:30).
Each cut is distinct from those around it, one way or another, and “Intergalactic Hunt” stands out for its immediate sense of movement, the guitar of Behrang Alavi (also vocals) setting a tight rhythm that drummer/backing vocalist Stephan Voland and bassist/backing vocalist Andreas Voland match both in groove and nuance, building and releasing tension in the instrumental verses and chorus of the first half before shifting in the second to a bridge that gradually leads them back to where they started, the guitar line that started it all serving also as the leadout. Fitting somehow for Samavayo in terms of showing their range that they should go from an entirely instrumental track to one centered almost completely on its vocal hook.
Well, “almost completely” is a stretch. “Soul out of Control” still has its riff — a more laid back chug over which Alavi calls to mind any number of ’90s alt melodies — and at eight minutes, there’s plenty of room for Samavayo to give the song a sense of space. They do precisely that, even slowing down over the last two minutes to march the way out, but “Soul out of Control” remains a deceptively quick listen for topping eight minutes, and that too suits Samavayo well, their songwriting always at the core no matter how expansive a given track may or may not be.
And speaking of expansive, The Grand Astoria‘s “Kobaïa Express” takes its name from the fictional planet created by Magma drummer Christian Vander — or at least from the train that presumably gets you there with the minimum of stops en route — and is presented in the accompanying alien language, a morass of syllables sometimes closer to Italian, sometimes more Slavic depending on where the music is going in any particular movement. And it does go. Recorded as the six-piece of Kamille Sharapodinov (vocals, electric and acoustic guitar), Danila Danilov (vocals, keys, flute), Eugene Korolkov (bass), Vladimir Zinoviev (drums), and Igor Suvorov (lead guitar) with Ravil Azizov on clarinet, “Kobaïa Express” is nigh on visionary progressive metal, at times operatic and at times grinding, but always precise, heavy and intricately constructed.
The Grand Astoria have already followed this split up with a two-song full-length titled The Mighty Few on which each track tops 20 minutes, so we know it’s not as far as they’ll push into fleshing out arrangements and the like, but “Kobaïa Express” thrills nonetheless for its direct Magma-ism and the poise the band demonstrates throughout, and Samavayo‘s inclusions, both of which were recorded at the end of last year, bode well for what they might do on their own next outing. If nothing else, the moral of the story with their split would seem to be that that must have been one hell of a tour. Even though it’s long since over, the scope both bands show here does justice to the fact that they got together in the first place and unites in unexpected ways across a bridge of progressive stylization and heavy craftsmanship.
[Please note: Press play above to stream Goya’s Obelisk in full. Album is out Aug. 1 on STB Records (CD & tape; LP to follow). Thanks to the band and label for letting me host the stream.]
Obelisk is the well-titled second full-length offering from Phoenix, Arizona, three-piece Goya. Set for release through respected purveyor STB Records, it follows 2013’s 777 debut and their initial 2012 demo (review here), as well as a 2014 EP, Satan’s Fire (review here), and an early 2015 split with Seattle’s Wounded Giant (review here) that found them dug deep into Electric Wizard-style plod on the extended “No Place in the Sky.” What was an early version of the track there is refined on Obelisk and given due reverence in its position as the 14-minute closer, following a swath of dirge riffing, devil-worship and malevolent churn.
I can’t quite decide if the album knows how much fun it’s having as it conjures its darkened chaos-swirl, but suffice it to say, a song like opener “Nothin’ but Dead Stuff” might not be a laugher in terms of its lyrics, but from the opening watery guitar provided by Jeff Owens (also vocals) that unfolds Oborn-again over the swinging ride of drummer Nick Lose — Jirix-Mie Paz plays bass on the record but seems to have since been replaced by Ben Clarkson — to the penultimate “Echo from Space” interlude of feedback before “No Place in the Sky” takes hold, it becomes abundantly clear that Goya are absolutely dug into the grooves of their own making and are enjoying the crap out of the heavy roll they enact across Obelisk‘s nine-track/55-minute span.
That being the case makes it much easier to follow suit. Goya have their variety in structure and approach — the aforementioned “Echo from Space” serves well as a late interlude, and the quiet ritualized vibe of “The Star” after second track “The Devil’s Pray” does likewise, while “300 Eyes” cuts to the heart of their songwriting with an acoustic modus and layered vocals and “The Sun,” which follows, is a standout for its speed alone — but the crux of Obelisk‘s overarching atmosphere and the impression it leaves resides in cuts like “Nothin’ but Dead Stuff,” “The Devil’s Prey,” “Beyond Good and Evil” and “No Place in the Sky,” Goya making a case to establish their own witchcult in bouncing riffs and Satanihilist vibing. Taken on their surface, these parts of Obelisk aren’t especially surprising — 777, Satan’s Fire, that Wounded Giant split and even the early demo carried a similar influence base, but it’s what the trio have managed to bring to it of their own that distinguishes their work.
To wit, the patience of the 7:46 title-track, “Obelisk,” becomes a defining moment for more than the simple fact that the song also shares its name with the album. Its slow unfurling is deceptively graceful, and while one hesitates to call Goya subtle since that doesn’t really seem to be what they’re going for, they’ve cleverly managed to begin a process whereby having mastered their influences, they’re starting to move beyond them. That’s not necessarily a one-album process, but if you listen to the shifts between “Obelisk,” “300 Eyes,” “The Sun” and “Beyond Good and Evil,” it becomes clear there’s more to the band’s approach than buzzsaw tones and space-echo vocals.
Not to say neither of those elements aren’t present and/or put to good use, just that they’re not exclusives for the band at this stage in their development. The effect that has is that when the quicker push of “The Sun” gives way to the lumbering, weighted crash of “Beyond Good and Evil,” the latter is all the more righteous. Likewise, back on side A, the gradual buildup of “Obelisk” is all the more worth appreciating after “The Devil’s Pray” and “The Star” lead into it — bottom line: the album isn’t short at 55 minutes, but it is impeccably structured to highlight Goya‘s tonal and conceptual strengths. When it comes around, “No Place in the Sky” fuzzes to life with Owens‘ guitar setting the pace and sets itself to the complex task of tying the various sides of Obelisk together.
Cohesive as the album is atmospherically — and it is — that’s not an easy task to ask of one song, even at 14 minutes. Still, “No Place in the Sky” reinforces the mood the band has worked with for the duration, the godlessness that served as theme in “The Devil’s Prey” and “Beyond Good and Evil,” and the rolling rhythms of those tracks and the opener without losing sight of making its own impression, which it does in the second half centering around memorable cycles through and around the line, “It doesn’t fucking matter.” I’m not sure the fuckall is quite the guiding principle the band would have the listener believe — if it was, they probably wouldn’t have paid so much attention to the flow of the record between its songs — but you gotta end somewhere and, as I say, “No Place in the Sky” makes for a memorable finish, rounding out its last minute with a slowdown and crash that lets the amp buzz carry Obelisk to its conclusion.
What will be a readily accessible listen for the already converted, Goya‘s second offers evidence of growth undertaken, provides glimpses of what might develop down the line, finds the band reveling in their processes and hits like a hammer made of pills. There is little one might ask of it that it does not deliver.
[Please press play above to hear a full stream of Sacri Monti’s Sacri Monti, which is out July 24 on Tee Pee. Preorders are available here. Thanks to the label, PR and band for allowing me to host the album.]
SoCal five-piece Sacri Monti traffic in liquefied kosmiche bliss. The natural word to follow that is “exclusively,” but that’s not quite true in this case, as it would indicate a single-mindedness that neither they nor their self-titled six-track/43-minute Tee Pee Records full-length debut actually possess, the album instead working in a natural-flowing, bright toned spectrum of guitar-driven, organ-laced classic heavy psych, six-stringers Brenden Dellar (also vocals) and Dylan Donavon, Evan Wenskay (organ, synth, Echoplex), bassist Anthony Meier (also of Radio Moscow) and drummer Thomas Dibenedetto (also of JOY) touching on progressive ideas and methods without going full-on krautrock noodle or losing their sense of groove, which remains paramount through the initial shuffle of “Staggered in Lies” and the harder-hitting swing of “Glowing Grey” in the 14-minute one-two punch that leads off.
The established track record of their rhythm section should speak for itself, but it’s worth pointing out that as is the case in the best of heavy psych scenarios, it’s the drums and the bass anchoring the bulk of this material, the especially memorable “Slipping from the Day” seeming that much dreamier because of the solid foundation from which it spreads itself out. Dellar, Donavon and Wenskay enact an immersive swirl on “Staggered in Lies” and vibe remains prevalent throughout the cuts that follow, Sacri Monti‘s Sacri Monti kaleidoscoping through a wash of fuzzy distortion that seems to revel in the chaos of its own making.
Improv seems to play pretty heavily into the band’s methodology, so it’s not really such a surprise that “Slipping from the Day,” “Glowing Grey” and “Sitting around in a Restless Dream” would differ from the versions included on Sacri Monti‘s Demo 2014, released on tape by Under the Gun Records. “Slipping from the Day,” formerly a 12-minute jam, is here trimmed down to six and a half, and it proves a highlight toward the middle of the record, soaked in wah and centered around the repeated line, “Hold on, you’re really slipping from the day,” and variations thereupon. The psychedelic fervor Sacri Monti conjure isn’t to be understated, and it really is an album-long vibe, but far from monochromatic, “Sitting around in a Restless Dream” takes ’70s biker riffing and launches it into a stratosphere of swirling boogie, Dellar‘s voice echoing out as Wenskay seems to manipulate the Echoplex for further looped intricacy — just in case things weren’t freaked out enough.
At just over five minutes, “Sitting around in a Restless Dream” is the shortest of the six cuts, but it packs plenty of space into that time and one has the feeling that on any given night Sacri Monti happen to play it, it might range much further. The subsequent “Ancient Seas and Majesties” brings a turn that pushes the guitar forward, finding a middle ground between the otherworldly mastery of “Slipping from the Day” and the earthier “Staggered in Lies,” the organ seeming to follow the vocals as much as it sets matches step with the bass and drums and adds to the melody proffered by the guitar. In short, it’s everywhere, and it works much to the advantage of the song and the album as a whole.
If you thought by the time you got there that Sacri Monti had no more tricks up their collective sleeve, the languid, bluesy initialization of “Sacri Monti” serves as a swift correction, unfolding gracefully over the course of its first two-plus minutes with a building wave of keys and guitars, the latter introducing the next movement’s riff at 2:40 into the total 12-minute run. It’s mostly instrumental, which is fitting since the band have toyed with structures throughout, but when the vocals do arrive in the second half of the song one can’t help but be reminded of some of Hypnos 69‘s proggy triumphs, and Sacri Monti seem to be working form a similar base of influences in their finale.
As the song comes to its head — hypnosis long since enacted on the listener — and spends its last minute or so wrapping up, one can’t help but hope that the fivesome continue to explore that side of their sound, and begin to mold energy as readily as they do volume, resulting in a shift of atmospherics no less molten than the overarching affect of their debut. As it stands, Sacri Monti is an exciting opening salvo from an act whose promise feels written into each of its jams, and whose balance between songcraft and improvisation serves as an immediately distinguishing factor amid an increasingly crowded Southern Californian heavy psych scene.
The way their songs play out here, they’d almost have a harder time not sounding like themselves, since so much of what they do is based around the forming chemistry of their lineup that one hopes will continue to grow the more time they spend on stage. How much that will happen owing to members’ obligations elsewhere, I don’t know, but if Sacri Monti‘s debut is an alert to the lysergic converted of a pursuit under way, it’s one that well earns any and all attention paid.
Posted in Reviews on July 9th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster
British label Music for Nations went under in 2004 after 21 years of releasing landmark metal in Europe from everyone from Entombed and Candlemass and Opeth to Tygers of Pan Tang, Savatage and Legs Diamond. Now owned by Sony via BMG, it has been reactivated and a series of reissues is underway highlighting Music for Nations‘ rather formidable catalog, which includes three records by Liverpool’s Anathema, who signed to the label in 1999 after the release of their fourth album, 1998’s Alternative 4, which would be their last — for a time — on Peaceville Records.
Remastered and issued as deluxe 180g LPs (plus CDs) with liner notes by the band and distributed in the US by The End Records, the three albums Anathema released with Music for Nations are what I usually consider from the middle era of the band. “Mid-period Anathema,” is the phrase I use. Ever-progressing, always changing, one can look at the career of Anathema in three stages: Their early days of doomed extremity that made them contemporaries of Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, the middle era of melancholy influenced heavily by Pink Floyd, and the increasingly progressive work of the last half-decade plus, which has seen them return to Peaceville via its prog-minded offshoot Kscope and found them sounding happier to be alive than they’ve ever been.
Of course, that’s one way of thinking about it. Another would be breaking Anathema‘s discography into two stages — essentially “Then” and “Now” — which leaves their three Music for Nations offerings somewhat lost in the transition, and still another would be to simply say that each of their 10-to-date albums is its own era. Probably the most accurate in terms of the actual processes involved, but hardly useful in understanding the progression either of their lineup around brothers Vincent, Danny and Jamie Cavanagh or of their songwriting, which has retained a vivid core no matter how dark the material actually got. And it got pretty dark there for a while. Gloriously so.
Though 1999’s fifth album, Judgement, 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit and 2003’s A Natural Disaster weren’t close to being Anathema‘s angriest or most outwardly metallic work — for which one would have to go back to their 1993 debut, Serenades, or 1992’s The Crestfallen and 1995’s Pentecost III EPs; their rawness still eviscerating what since have become the conventions of modern theatrical doom — the three albums retain an emotional and atmospheric heft that continues to resonate even more than a decade after the fact. Each presents its own vision of the band, and each has its own sound, but over the course of the three — which The End has bundled together in special edition packages that include extras like a turntable slip mat and as the Fine Days 1999-2004 3CD/DVD mediabook — one can trace a line of vigilant creative progress, and that has always been what draws Anathema‘s discography together.
On a personal note, I’ll say that these three records particularly — I might take Alternative 4 over Judgement, but it’s close and that’s splitting hairs anyway — mark out my favorite era of Anathema‘s work. These are albums I’ve held sacred for years now, and a chance to revisit them is welcome long past the point of impartiality. I’ve been a nerd on this stuff for way too long not to call myself out on it.
Still, we dive in:
One of the most striking things about the new version of Judgement is how clear it sounds. Not that the original was muddy by any stretch — Anathema had some lackluster productions in their early going, but had gotten it out of their system by the time they came around to their fifth album — but still, the backgrounds of songs like “Deep” and “Forgotten Hope” and “Parisienne Moonlight” seem to stand out more. It’s true of the other two records as well. Vinyl compression suits the atmosphere of Judgement, which retains a lonely, brooding sensibility despite a pretty broad range of songwriting, and the flow of “Forgotten Hope” into the tense repetitions of “Destiny is Dead” is as vital as ever. In the context of these reissues, the penultimate “Anyone, Anywhere,” with its piano and acoustic blend, seems to directly presage A Fine Day to Exit, though the emergent surge of slow distortion could just as easily be traced to the preceding Alternative 4. In any case, there’s no question as to what band you’re hearing, and though its mood is as blue and deep-running as its cover art, Judgement boasts enough space for more than a fair share of breadth, Vincent Cavanagh coming into his own as the lead vocalist and carrying “One Last Goodbye” across with a flair for drama that does nothing to undercut the emotionalism of the song itself. It was the height of the CD era, and accordingly, Judgement runs long for a standard single LP at 13 tracks and nearly 57 minutes — the side split coming between “Judgement” and “Don’t Look too Far,” the latter every bit worthy of the highlight position opening the second side — but it’s time well spent or re-spent depending on your experience in the band, and in addition to being their debut on Music for Nations, Judgement was pivotal in expanding the reach of Anathema‘s songcraft. Cavanagh mentions in the liner notes that it was also vocalist Lee Douglas‘ intro to the band — she’s on “Parisienne Moonlight” and “Don’t Look too Far” — and as she became more established in the lineup, that reach would only continue to grow.
A Fine Day to Exit (2001)
As with anything, opinions among the converted vary, and mine is by no means the prevailing one on this issue. However, from where I sit, 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit is Anathema‘s best record. It has all the weight and depressive vibing of their early work but presents itself with an absolute clarity of purpose in memorable songs that stay with the listener — provided the listener lets them and isn’t too busy expecting the album to be something it isn’t or resenting it for not being that thing — long after play has stopped. Its rich melodies and textures foreshadow the progressive mindset that would come when the band resurfaced with 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here (discussed here), but as a band, they were still more about atmosphere than pinpoint execution, and A Fine Day to Exit continues to benefit greatly from the specificity of the moment in Anathema‘s development it captures. Of the three reissues, it’s also the most different from its original version. What was the album opener with its distinctive piano stokes, “Pressure” has moved to the end of side A, and now arrives after the tense pulsations of “Underworld” and before the side flip, which brings the suicidal manic chaos of “Panic” — a song whose existential torture remains writ in its confusing lyrical turns, “Air bubbles in your veins turning my hands black,” and so on — and A Fine Day to Exit‘s heaviest thrust, still beautiful for its poetic bleakness and the stark contrast that its rush maintains with the slower flows surrounding. “Panic” as the starter for side B makes even more sense with the inclusion of new opener, the previously unreleased “A Fine Day,” which provides side A with a jump at the beginning of the record, an acoustic strum giving way to a cacophony (though if you listen, that acoustic line never leaves) of crashes and jagged guitar that cuts short with about a minute to go and ends with a sweet acoustic line that feeds into “Release.” In addition to shifting “Pressure,” side A’s “Looking Outside Inside” has been moved to the second half, where it follows “Breaking down the Barriers,” which used to just be called “Barriers” and used to lead into “Panic” instead of following it as it does here. To fit the format, closer “Temporary Peace” is also a truncated seven minutes on the vinyl, down from 18 on the original version (what with the “What about dogs, what about cats, what about chickens?” and all that silliness at the end) and down from 15 on this one’s accompanying CD. Do all these changes make A Fine Day to Exit a better album? I don’t know. Talk to me in 14 years. What they do is dramatically change the listening experience, and I think it says something that with what’s really some comparatively little minor tooling, Anathema‘s sixth offering can sound as fresh as it does here. It remains one of the best records I’ve ever heard. Ever? Ever.
A Natural Disaster (2003)
After Anathema released A Natural Disaster in 2003, it would be five years before they managed to put out another long-player, and that was Hindsight, a revisit/reworking of older material. I remember wondering if they were done for some time. And in a way, they were, because when We’re Here Because We’re Here came out in 2010, they were a different band. A Natural Disaster found bassist Jamie Cavanagh back in the band alongside Vincent, Danny, drummer John Douglas (who’d played on the prior two albums as well, having come aboard for Judgement), Lee Douglas (still listed as a guest vocalist), additional vocalist Anna Livingstone who added lines to “Are You There?,” and keyboardist/programmer/recording engineer Les Smith, who makes a more significant impact on the material than one might initially think to hear the songs, but more than the lineup it established — the three Cavanaghs and the two Douglases being in the current incarnation of Anathema with drummer Daniel Cardoso — this was the record where Anathema pushed that sense of inward-looking darkness as far as it could go. A winter hasn’t passed in the last 12 that I haven’t at some point put it on to hear the kick-in of opener “Harmonium” and the sort of wandering ethereal melody of “Balance,” which follows, both songs drawing the listener into a programmed but organic-seeming world the tracks create. If one considers A Fine Day to Exit the trauma, then A Natural Disaster is the post-trauma, that moment of aftershock where damage is assessed. Of the three Music for Nations outings, it is also the most masterful, the steps that Judgement seemed to take as bold moves forward now refined to a point where Anathema could bend their own methods to suit purposes like the build-into-payoff-into-minimalism of “Closer,” or the meandering impressionism of “Childhood Dream,” the soft wistfulness of the aforementioned “Are You There?” and the bass-driven tension of the intro to “Pulled Under at 2,000 Metres,” which here makes a finish to side A no less driving than how “Panic” started side B of the album preceding — the two songs have always been linked in my mind, the outward heaviness of the other making it a spiritual successor to the one. Perhaps most terrifying of all is how comfortable Anathema seem inhabiting this emotional space, the longing that pervades “A Natural Disaster” and “Flying” at the start of side B emblematic of the range that has taken shape by this point in the band’s methods and the variety of forms their expression could, by this point, take. Backed by wisps of guitar, the piano and acoustic strum of “Electricity” provide a last human landmark before 10-minute instrumental closer “Violence” begins its movement forward and through a well-charted build and quiet finish. Far closer to being the same as it was to start with than was A Fine Day to Exit, if listening to the LP of A Natural Disaster has done anything, it’s forced me to really take on those last two cuts, where with the CD of the album that I’ve had since it was released I always tended to zone out after “Flying” and lose myself in the wash of “Violence.” Can’t say I regret paying closer attention.
Like I said, it would be five years before Anathema put out any new studio material — a couple demos surfaced on their website circa 2007 (unless my timeline is way off) for tracks that would show up on the next album; “Angels Walk Among Us” and one or two others — and by the time they did, this moment, the progression of Judgement, A Fine Day to Exit and A Natural Disaster would have taken another turn that set in motion the current stage of Anathema‘s development. They plunged deep into a sonic bleakness, maybe too deep for their own liking, ultimately, but what they were able to bring out of that depressive morass remain some of the richest and most honest looks at it a band could hope to give.