Live Review: Maryland Doom Fest 2018 Night One, 06.22.18

Posted in Features, Reviews on June 23rd, 2018 by JJ Koczan

maryland doom fest 2018 night one poster

Over the last four years since its inception, Maryland Doom Fest has become a defining force for its many-storied local scene and for the Eastern Seaboard at large. Its reach nowadays goes well beyond those imaginary borders, of course, but its lineup has always remained cognizant of its core inspiration and purpose — you’re always going to find some Maryland doom at Maryland Doom Fest. 2018’s roster of acts, which is the broadest in terms of style and geopgraphy to date, is no exception. With headliners The Obsessed, Windhand and Weedeater, Maryland Doom Fest 2018 reaffirms its commitment to the oldschool groove and its newer-school interpretations, even as acts like HorseburnerUnorthodoxCavern, DuelEarthrideCaustic Casanova, and many others with them, speak to the same meld of styles and origins.

I could go on all day about that, but as ever with festivals, there’s little time for musing amid the 15-minute set-changeovers and sheer onslaught of stuff to catch. Held as ever at Cafe 611 in Frederick, Maryland Doom Fest 2018 boasts a lineup of 32 bands — nine tonight, 12 tomorrow and 11 on Sunday. My goal? To see all of them. Front to back. Staring down the barrel at the outset it seems nigh-insurmountable, but the truth is it’s going to be a total blast and I know it.

Travel south to Maryland from Massachusetts, with an about-to-be-eight-month-old, is a days-long process, and I’m reminded that two years ago when I made the trip, I was bogged down by a car breakdown and about to start a new job the following Tuesday. It was insane. I’m sure 2018 will be much more relaxed. Ha.

Enough preamble. Let’s boogie:

Horseburner

Horseburner (Photo JJ Koczan)

I’m not sure the world knows it’s anxiously awaiting the third full-length from West Virginian progressive heavy rockers Horseburner, but it probably is. First band of the weekend and they had heads banging both onstage and off. They were exciting to watch, and their 2016 album, Dead Seeds, Barren Soil (review here) — which was reissued last year by Hellmistress Records; the vinyl was in the merch area to the side of the venue — remains a favorite in its manifestation of what might’ve happened had Mastodon become a heavy rock band while keeping their initial heft instead of going ultra-prog as they did. There were some technical difficulties in the drums, but no real delay, and the trio dynamic — could’ve sworn they used to be a four-piece — played well during the set, with no shortage of crunch in their tone but an overarching groove that they never seemed to relinquish. The record’s good, but they’re better live, with the melodies cutting through the push and a bit of hop-into-the-crowd interaction in the finale.

Geezer

Geezer (Photo JJ Koczan)

Back in January, New York psych-blues jammers Geezer announced they were working on a new album. Accordingly, the triumvirate of guitarist/vocalist Pat Harrington, bassist Richie Touseull and drummer Steve Markota shared three new songs for the Maryland Doom Fest 2018 crowd. I hounded Harrington after they finished for the titles: “Spiral Fires,” “Dig” and “Black Owl.” The latter provided some highlight low end work from Touseull, and it was “Dig” with a particularly fuzzed out guitar solo and a bit of cowbell from Markota that I’m dying to hear a studio version of. Supporting their latest release, Psychoriffadelia (review here), they also celebrated 2016 self-titled (review here) at the end of their set with the memorably catchy “Dust” and the spacious “Sun Gods.” Having made their debut in 2013, they’ve moved into veteran status and stage presence relatively quickly, and I took particular interest in a lack of slide guitar from Harrington, wondering if perhaps he put it down in order to focus on more intricate styles of playing in the newer songs. Seems like maybe an interview question to file away for later. In any case, they pulled a packed early crowd and were well known to them, playing out the story of a band whose potential is being realized at that very moment for all to see.

Bailjack

Bailjack (Photo JJ Koczan)

Double-guitar four-piece Bailjack had the distinction of being the first Maryland-based act at the festival. Based out of Boonsboro, they had four songs on the setlist, none of which seems to have stemmed from their 2016 debut, Show Me Your Heart. I’d been fortunate enough to see them once before down this way (review here), but they struck me all around as a tighter and more cohesive band. Guitarists Jason Barker and Blake Owens shared lead vocal duties effectively, changing up the soulful and classic heavy rock moods between them with support from Ron “Uncle Fezzy” McGinnis (also Pale DivineAdmiral Browning, Thonian Horde, etc.), which left drummer Andy Myers as the only one without a mic. He kept plenty busy with the locked-in groove of “Predominantly Green,” though, which like just about everything else they played was deceptively complex in its execution, working around a straightforward groove with personality and depth. They were a fitting complement to Geezer‘s ultra-roll, and at one point while they played I looked around and couldn’t believe we were only three bands into the night. The vibe was so set and so thick in the room that it felt like everyone had been there for a day already. Awesome.

Lightning Born

Lightning Born (Photo JJ Koczan)

North Carolina’s Lightning Born played Maryland Doom Fest last year as well, but as they went public earlier this month about signing to Ripple Music for the release of their debut album this Fall, it seems only appropriate that they should make a return appearance. Their bassist, who just so happens to be Mike Dean of Corrosion of Conformity, just happened to be in France playing another festival — some little shindig called Hellfest or something like that; ha — so filling in was guitarist Erik Sugg‘s Demon Eye bandmate, Paul Walz. I don’t know if it was Walz‘s first time holding down bass duties in Lightning Born or what, but he obviously knew the songs well, and despite some hi-hat difficulties at the outset for drummer Doza Hawes (ex-Hour of 13), once they got going, they were locked in and clearheaded in their intent between heavy rock, doom and classic-style songcraft led by the powerful presence of frontwoman Brenna Leath (also of The Hell No). My first time seeing them and they did nothing but impress, and even putting the pedigree aside for a moment, it’s easy to see why Ripple — who already had a showing in Geezer and would have another before the night was out — would pick them up. Not only do they make the most of their members’ experience in terms of knowing what they want to do, but they obviously have the chemistry between them to make it happen. Would be interested to see them with Dean, and I won’t say he wasn’t missed — nothing against Walz‘s work, it just happens to be that that’s Mike fucking Dean we’re talking about and anytime you get to catch him play is a win — but Lightning Born might as well have named themselves Lightning in a Bottle, as that seems to be what they’ve got.

Disenchanter

Disenchanter (Photo JJ Koczan)

This was by no means Disenchanter‘s first trip to the East Coast — they’ll also be (relatively) back this way later this year for Descendants of Crom in Pittsburgh — but it was the first time I’ve been lucky enough to see the band play. Having toured from their home in from Portland, Oregon, over the last week, the trio sounded like it. Pro shop. Guitarist/vocalist Sabine Stangenberg expressed the band’s gratitude for being included in the lineup and sent out “Green Queen” to any pot smokers in attendance. There may have been one or two. She and bassist Joey DeMartini and drummer Huwy Kilgora Williams set forth a set that pushed even further into the doomed elements that Lightning Born featured in some of their riffs, but had a distinguishing factor that marked them out as a West Coast act nonetheless. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was; tempo? Melody? Rhythm? I actually kind of lost myself while they were playing trying to get an answer. They fit right in with the lineup in tone and influence, to be sure, but there was still some individualized edge to their approach that was a standout factor. Eventually I whittled my hypotheses down to the upbeat nature of their grooves and was willing to leave it at that and, oh, I don’t know, just enjoy the rest of their set, but whatever it was, it made them a highlight of the evening at Cafe 611. Glad I finally was able to watch them.

Thousand Vision Mist

Thousand Vision Mist (Photo JJ Koczan)

Statistically speaking, three out of the four top acts for the evening could be called locals, and Thousand Vision Mist, who also played Maryland Doom Fest 2016 (review here), and a fest-associated gig during last year’s edition, came supporting late-2017’s Journey to Ascension and the Loss of Tomorrow (review here), their debut album. Between that record and having seen them before, they were pretty familiar to me as well as to the assembled in front of the stage, but guitarist/vocalist Danny Kenyon, bassist/vocalist Tony Cormulada and drummer Chris Sebastian still had a few surprises up their collective sleeve in terms of the twists and turns of their material. By the time they started, it was clear just what a special night this was. The flow of bands was right on, each group pulling something different together from the one before while still making sense in the overall context of the night, and with Kenyon‘s roots in Life BeyondThousand Vision Mist maintained a Maryland doom feel despite not really playing doom so much as doom strung through a filter of progressive metal. Precise, driven and complex, they nonetheless had a central groove to tie it all together, and even when Kenyon broke a string, prompting an interlude from emcee Dave Benzotti, they were able to pick back up and end out as though nothing happened. The place was jammed in any figurative sense you want to think of it, and Thousand Vision Mist signaled a turn toward the headlining portion of the night. Right band, right slot.

Unorthodox

Unorthodox (Photo JJ Koczan)

A decade has passed since Unorthodox issued their last album, Awaken, via The Church Within Records, but if you want to be fair, that album came a full 14 years after 1994’s sophomore outing, Balance of Power, which was of course preceded by their 1992 debut, Asylum, but their set was still enough of an event that both Bobby Liebling of Pentagram and Dave Sherman of Earthride — pivotal figures in this scene if ever there were any — stood at the side of the stage to watch them. From their beginnings as Asylum, whose 1985 demo, The Earth is the Insane Asylum of the Universe, saw reissue via Shadow Kingdom in 2008 (review here), guitarist/vocalist Dale Flood has remained the sole founding presence, and as he’s now based in Nashville, Tennessee, he’s settled in with bassist/vocalist Blake Dellinger and drummer Alan Pfeifer, both also of the band Flummox, injecting a youthful vigor into the rhythm section that seemed to bring Unorthodox‘s classic downtrodden MD doom to life. They even had a new song, called “Horus,” that found Dellinger taking lead vocal duties, and Flood couldn’t help but smile as the set played out, the crowd eating up every single second of the rare live set. New album? Hell if I know. To my knowledge, Unorthodox played the first Maryland Doom Fest in 2015 and as I recall were going to play 2016 as well but didn’t end up making it, so I’m not sure I’d count this set as indicative of a full return to activity, whatever that would mean anyway, but if they wanted to build something from it, that vitality was right there in the band waiting to be harvested. They killed. End of story.

ZED

ZED (Photo JJ Koczan)

For my up-at-5AM-usually-asleep-by-nine ass, it was getting late, and I don’t mind saying so. Ibuprofen for a sore back; protein bar for stamina; water on the face for refreshing; water down the gullet for sheer survival — these are the essential tools of the sober weekend festival. One could simply pound six or 12 beers and none of it would matter, I suppose, and from the look of the dudes falling asleep in the side room of Cafe 611, some had clearly gone that route, but the truth was that ZED were all the shove I need to get through to the end of the evening. Everything else was overkill in comparison to their noise-tinged heavy rock, one riff after the next crunched out at max volume through the guitars of frontman Peter Sattari and Greg Lopez, the bass of Mark Aceves adding even further heft to be shoved forward at an impressive pace considering the mass of it by drummer Sean Boyles, who when the Bay Area outfit were done turned around and held up his hat to deliver the message “fuck everything” as plainly as possible. New song “Strippers” signaled a follow-up in progress to their 2016 third album, Trouble in Eden (review here), and one assumes that will arrive like its predecessor via Ripple Music, given how hard ZED were repping the label, from Lopez‘s beanie to Sattari‘s Freedom Hawk hat and Ripplefest shirt to Aceves‘ High Priestess tee. Gotta fly that flag, and they did it proud with a raucous delivery that lost nothing of its professionalism for its blanket electricity. Seemed like the crowd up front was pretty familiar with their stuff — at one point I also looked over and saw fest co-organizer JB Matson singing along stage-side — but I’d be willing to be they turned a few heads as well and made some new fans. It was that kind of set. If “fucking a rock” was a genre, that’s what ZED would be.

The Obsessed

The Obsessed (Photo JJ Koczan)

I don’t think there’s anywhere you could put The Obsessed on a Maryland Doom Fest bill except at the top. That’s where they were in 2016 and it’s where they deserved to be again. Would Maryland doom exist without them? Maybe, but certainly not in the form it has today. It’s been an eventful couple of years for guitarist/vocalist Scott “Wino” Weinrich and the outfit in which he cut his teeth beginning back in the late ’70s when they started under the moniker Warhorse, but with their first album in 23 years behind them in 2017’s Sacred (review here) on Relapse, the trio of Weinrich, bassist Reid Raley (see also: Rwake) and drummer Brian Costantino were as classic as one could ask and a reminder of just how much of a blueprint for the style The Obsessed have always been. Copious touring in support of Sacred has made them maddeningly tight, and with a blend of new material and old in the set, they spoke to where they are today as well as where they came from — perfectly on theme for the night and the weekend as a whole. As the last of the nine bands playing, they shut the place down and it’s hard to imagine there’s any more one could’ve asked for when they were done. The Obsessed, like basically Pentagram and no one else of the region (Black Sabbath being, of course, universal), are essential and foundational when it comes to Maryland doom. Maryland Doom Fest 2018 welcomed them accordingly, and honestly, I think if they played every year here for the next five headlining one of the nights, they wouldn’t meet with any complaints. From “Sacred” itself to “Neatz Brigade” and “Sodden Jackal,” they proved how hard the heart of this scene and this aesthetic continues to beat. Oh yeah, and they were unbelievably loud. Like, might-as-well-take-your-earplugs-out loud. So, you know, bonus.

After flailing toward a 24-hour gas station and a 90-minute ride back to the town of Sparks, where I’m staying, I crashed out around 2:30 and was up a tragically short time later. Still, first day was excellent and there’s nothing I could ask of a leadoff night that wasn’t delivered. Maryland Doom Fest 2018 day two kicks off in a couple hours and, hell’s bells, I need a shower, so I’m gonna get on that, but there are more pics after the jump if you’re interested.

Thanks for reading.

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Review & Video Premiere: Black Elephant, Cosmic Blues

Posted in Bootleg Theater, Reviews on June 22nd, 2018 by JJ Koczan

black elephant cosmic blues

[Click play above to stream the video premiere for ‘Walking Dead’ by Black Elephant. Their album, Cosmic Blues, is out July 20 on Small Stone Records.]

Though they stay pretty much within the sphere of heavy rock throughout, the actual sound of Italian four-piece Black Elephant is much more nuanced in its refusal to simply do or be one thing. Within the first three tracks of Cosmic Blues, their second album and debut on the ultra-respected purveyor Small Stone Records, the band bounce around between hard-hitting riffs, psychedelic spaciousness, noisy crunch and meandering jams. Only then do they break into the three-minute riff-winding boogie and straight-ahead drive of “Walking Dead.” And yet, as the opening semi-title-track “Cosmic Soul,” the not-at-all-a-cover “Helter Skelter” and the 1:44 instrumental “Chase Me” play out, there’s nothing particularly jarring in the transitions wrought by guitarist/vocalist Caravelli Alessio, guitarist Giacosa Massimiliano, bassist De Stefanis Marcello, and drummer Brunzu Simone.

Particularly with Alessio belting out the vocals as he does on the swinging “Baby Eroina” later, or in the more subdued verses of “Cosmic Soul,” for that matter, there are elements of classic Swedish heavy rock at play in terms of style — that foundation in classic heavy rock melded with a post-’90s grunge groove — but Cosmic Blues is quick to establish its own identity in the sonic meld and thorough in its expansion thereof. The outing totals a relatively quick seven tracks/34 minutes, but that’s more than enough time for Black Elephant to convey their variety of influence, and it’s worth noting that while they seem to make a point of changing up their take throughout, doing so never seems to come at the expense of an individual song itself. From “Cosmic Soul” onward, they go pretty far out, and yet by maintaining a firm commitment to underlying structure, their feet never seem to leave the ground.

A striking balance, and it speaks to the eight years Black Elephant have been a band that they should be able to roll out the languid solo-topped nod early in “Baby Eroina” and move into and through the boogieing midsection of the 7:31 track — that’s the longest on the record, with “Helter Skelter” pretty close at 7:04 — and back to the central riff with such smoothness. Sure, Cosmic Blues has its jarring moments. Following the penultimate also-semi-title-track “Cosmic Blues for Solitary Moose,” the opening push of closer “Inno” hits like a slap to the face, but that’s what it’s meant to do, and this too becomes part of Black Elephant‘s overarching purpose. There’s a strong commitment to vibe throughout, and to be sure, the record has a front-to-back flow that holds firm throughout, but as many wandering solos as there are — they include a particularly resonant one in “Inno,” as one might expect for the finale — the band seem to have an eye on the overarching impression they leave behind them.

black elephant

It’s a positive one, gaining from the different faces Black Elephant show throughout and the efforts they make toward consistency in line with that. Hard not to consider the two longer tracks as highlights. With the extra room in “Helter Skelter” and “Baby Eroina,” Black Elephant flesh out stylistically. In the earlier cut, that means knocking out a noise rock riff early and taking it into a heavier groove before shifting via wah-drenched lead work into its jammed-out midsection, gradually getting more and more minimalist as it goes, only to build excitingly back to the chorus and end with some added crunch. “Baby Eroina” — funny how I keep wanting to put an ‘h’ in front of the second word — is looser in its march overall, but saves its trippiest guitar work for its ending, instead putting out thick distortion and funky vibes in its early moments before launching into its mostly-instrumental second half.

Those are by no means the only highlights of Cosmic Blues — I’ll take nothing away from the effectiveness of “Walking Dead”‘s momentum-maximization at the album’s center or the effectiveness of the brief “Chase Me” before it in capitalizing on a will toward sonic adventure — but they’re striking as focal points just the same, and like “Inno,” they do well to summarize the most important aspect of Black Elephant‘s methodology, which is that rather than jump from one sound to the next, they bring this diversity of ideas into their own approach. The difference is ultimately one of coalescence. Black Elephant are able to shift into and out of parts of songs without losing either their forward momentum or, in the case of some of the jammier moments, themselves in the process. This is what makes the album flow instead of having it be disjointed the whole way through. The intent is writ large throughout Cosmic Blues, but in kind with the album’s variety is that strong sense of identity that feels crafted with such care, and that’s what makes the collection work so well and ties the songs together, longer or shorter.

While Black Elephant don’t necessarily go anywhere that heavy and/or psychedelic rock hasn’t gone before, they do an excellent job of finding their niche in the genre and do even better in tipping the balance in their aesthetic to one side or the other. Some will dig it for its variety. Some will dig it for its familiarity. And some will just dig it because riffs. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and the varied appeal speaks to Black Elephant knowing their audience — as with many bands in the genre, they play with a fan’s love for it — and knowing how to communicate their ideas through sound. Eight years will no doubt help that effort, but Cosmic Blues stands on its own outside of the time it took the band to realize it, and instead, calls back to its influences and inspirations and invites them, and everyone else, to check out how it all came together in the end. It would be hard to argue against doing so, and I find I’m not inclined to try.

Black Elephant, “Cosmic Soul”

Black Elephant on Thee Facebooks

Black Elephant on Bandcamp

Small Stone Records website

Small Stone Records on Thee Facebooks

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Review & Track Premiere: Mountain of Smoke, Gods of Biomechanics

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 21st, 2018 by JJ Koczan

mountain of smoke gods of biomechanics

[Click play above to stream ‘Tyrell’ from Mountain of Smoke’s Gods of Biomechanics. Album is out July 7.]

Crush wins the day quickly on Mountain of Smoke‘s second album, Gods of Biomechanics. The Dallas-area duo of bassist/vocalist Brooks and drummer PJ bludgeon efficiently on the 10-track/33-minute outing, and expand their lineup through working with pedal steel guitarist Alex, filling out the bass/drum sound with an atmospheric breadth that can be heard on songs like “Caesium Beams,” making the material all the more memorable as well as being brutal and extreme. As with their 2014 self-titled debut, which was issued through Do for It Records, the theme that ties all the songs together is drawn from Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-noir classic Blade Runner. Songs are based around the story of Ray Batty (Rutger Hauer) and named after characters from the film — “Leon,” “Tyrell,” “Zhora” — and as the band already seem to have covered the main characters in their debut with “Decker,” “Rachel,” “Pris,” and so on, and they also begin to dig into ideas expressed in the movie, places or other elements.

Accordingly, we get “Tannhauser Gate” which is mentioned in a sample of Rutger Hauer at the end of the subsequent and pummeling “Orion’s Shoulder,” “Incept” referring to the concept of when a replicant is ‘born,’ and “Retirement” for when they’re killed. Samples from the film — which I’m just going to assume everyone reading this watched at least once when they were in their 20s — are sprinkled throughout, providing transitions and making sure that Mountain of Smoke stick with the plot, as it were. In addition to giving the audience something to latch onto for a record that, put to tape by Michael Briggs at Civil Audio in Denton, TX, both bludgeoning in its execution and largely indecipherable on first listen when it comes to the blown-out growls that serve for most of the vocals, the theme also lends aesthetic nuance to Mountain of Smoke‘s sound, which if the point hasn’t gotten across yet, is anything but subtle.

Rather, it is a style built for volume. The litmus test for duo-violence used to be Black Cobra and I suppose now it’s probably Germany’s Mantar. For what it’s worth, Mountain of Smoke have more in common with the latter than the former in terms of their overall approach, though of course it varies. Less outwardly thrash, they’re nonetheless given to driving moments throughout Gods of Biomechanics, whether it’s the closing title-track, the rush of “Tannhauser Gate” or the stabbing verse of “Retirement.” Amid the thrust come massive rolling grooves. Massive, as in, of mass. From the moment “Incept” picks up from its leadoff sample at the album’s open, its huge low end plod becomes as much of a running theme as the film itself. That instrumental opener leads way via another sample — just of the score — into “Tannhauser Gate,” which revels in its thrust and brashness. Who could argue? Like much of the record, it’s a speaker-blower, and the pedal steel shows itself pivotal as well when it comes to adding a sense of space to the proceedings.

mountain of smoke

That too will become more and more apparent as the rest of Gods of Biomechancis plays out, through “Orion’s Shoulder” and “Caesium Beams” and the High on Fire-worthy bombast of “Zhora,” and into side B on “Retirement,” “Leon,” “Tyrell” and the title-track. So really just everywhere save perhaps “Incept” and its counterpart “Morphology” which gives the second half of the album its own instrumental launch. I don’t know how full-time a member of the band Alex will be, if the two-piece has become a trio, but his work winds up being crucial here just the same. As mentioned, the pedal steel adds breadth and a sense of space to the songs, but it also works in concert with the Blade Runner theme, since with the echo behind it and often played in sustained notes, it cuts a direct line to the kinds of otherworldly melodies Vangelis brought to the original film’s soundtrack. That was largely synthesized, but if one thinks of it on an interpretive level, the comparison holds up.

And the effect that has on making Gods of Biomechanics seem all the more complete in terms of concept and delivery isn’t to be understated. Mountain of Smoke‘s first offering was rawer and hit with plenty of force, but was more abrasive and not nearly so methodical. Gods of Biomechanics mounts its attack with some feeling of calculation behind it. The band aren’t simply crashing through the wall, they’re sneaking around it — though one hesitates to use a work like “sneaking” when it comes to something so obviously meant to be played as loudly as possible. Either way, not to be lost in all the holy-crap-this-is-heavy hyperbole that’s sure to be tossed the album’s way is the fact that Mountain of Smoke‘s sound isn’t just about bearing an inhuman amount of heft, or about describing scenes from a movie, but about entering a creative conversation with that work, and the pedal steel, siren-like at the start of “Retirement” or riding the fury of Brooks‘ riff on “Leon,” is a major part of what allows it to do so.

Its inclusion feels organic — as opposed to it feeling android, I guess — as an extension of the band’s overarching purpose, and as they slam into “Tyrell” and “Gods of Biomechanics” at the record’s back end, the statement they seem to be making not only engages with its subject matter, but brings it to life in a new, fascinating and oddly appropriate way. The risk with bands working on a single-theme as Mountain of Smoke are is that, at a certain point, they might run out of things to talk about once all the characters and ideas from the movie are covered. Would they write a song about the 2017 sequel? The sans-monologue directors cut version of the original? I don’t know, but they wouldn’t be the first group to come up against that issue, say screw it, and successfully move on to other thematic ground, so maybe I’m worrying about nothing. More important for the moment is the success throughout Gods of Biomechanics in putting their listeners in that always-dark, always-raining world where the threat always seems to be present and the danger always seems to be right there waiting. So too is the case here as Mountain of Smoke dream of electric sheep and awaken to be unbridled in their aural instensity.

Mountain of Smoke on Thee Facebooks

Mountain of Smoke on Twitter

Mountain of Smoke on Bandcamp

Do for It Records website

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Funeral Horse, Psalms for the Mourning: Blues for the Daredevils

Posted in Reviews on June 20th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

funeral horse psalms for the mourning

Any given song, any given part, any given measure, Funeral Horse can and will go wherever they please. Somehow, that’s what makes them work. Where so many bands would claim themselves as experimentalists and drown themselves and their audience in self-indulgence, somehow, Funeral Horse instead manage a genre-spanning balance of songwriting that nonetheless retains a sense of the truly weird. Psalms for the Mourning is the underrated Texans’ fourth album on Artificial Head Records behind 2015’s Divinity for the Wicked (review here), 2014’s Sinister Rites of the Master (review here) and 2013’s Savage Audio Demon (review here), and in addition to marking the first appearance of bassist Clint Rater alongside guitarist/vocalist Paul Bearer and drummer Chris Bassett, it’s also by far the longest stretch they’ve had between outings.

Three years is a pretty standard stretch for bands on an 18-month touring cycle, but Funeral Horse have never hit the road to such a degree (though they did come east that one time to play The Obelisk All-Dayer in Brooklyn in 2016), but the truth is I think the material on the eight-track/39-minute LP benefits from that extra time. I don’t know how many songs Funeral Horse might’ve written over the course of that time, or how many they ultimately decided to put to tape — that is, whether this is everything produced since Divinity for the Wicked or not; I’d speculate not — but to listen to tracks like the punkier opener “Better Half of Nothing,” the woeful blues that follows in “No Greater Sorrow (Than My Love)” (video premiere here), and even the uptempo keyboard-laced pop bounce that shows up in the second half of “Divinity for the Wicked” that seems to cite its own precedent in later Ozzy-era Sabbath, Psalms for the Mourning would seem to be the band’s most cohesive outing yet.

Their style, as ever, is based in no small part on toying with sundry influences between doom, punk, heavy rock, blues, country and anything else that might come their way, but in the blown out “California here I come” hook line of the penultimate “Burial of the Sun,” and in the barroom-jam-into-cacophony of the eight-minute “Emperor of all Maladies,” there’s a greater sense of maturity and purpose underlying. That’s not to say that Funeral Horse — who thrash away on “Sacrifice of a Thousand Ships” only after the bit of finger and piano in the side A-closing interlude “1965” — have been at any point lacking purpose, but even in the production of Psalms for the Mourning, their adaptability is being steered by hands not only capable as they’ve always been, but more confident and assured of the moves they’re making.

funeral horse

It’s right there in the sound of the record itself as well as in the subtle way both “Better Half of Nothing” and “Sacrifice of a Thousand Ships” give their respective halves of the album a speedy opening, or how sub-three-minute closer “Evel Knievel Blues” takes a sudden turn into watery-vocal country like some long-lost Ween cut. What has made Funeral Horse‘s work so hard to pin down over the last five years is their seeming tendency to not have a core sound, instead just to jump from one vibe to another in willfully jarring shifts over the course of their outings. Fair enough, but the truth of the matter is that is their core sound, and Psalms for the Mourning proves that most plainly in ways Divinity for the Wicked seemed to hint at. It’s not about expanding from a root so much as leaping branch to branch with a genuine feeling of revelry in doing so.

Granted, much of Psalms for the Mourning is pretty downtrodden, regardless of tempo. “Better Half of Nothing” and “No Greater Sorrow (Than My Love)” paint a pretty dark thematic picture at the outset, and “Emperor of all Maladies” touches on raw doom rock before the already-noted jam brings it to its feedbacking finish, and after “1965,” the aggro thrust of “Sacrifice of a Thousand Ships” and nodding initial blues of “Divinity for the Wicked” before its odd and resonant finish sets a foundation for the speedy, shuffling escapism of “Burial Under the Sun,” a highlight for its channel-spanning solo late and in-spite-of-itself catchiness, capping with a minimalist piano line before the twang of “Evel Knievel Blues” provides an epilogue of fuckaroundery that reminds the listener everything in life is ridiculous anyway. That ending, given a lot of the bum-out before it, fast or slow, almost has a nihilist twinge to it, but in the context of Funeral Horse‘s work overall, it somehow makes sense.

Come to think of it, that might be what’s at their core. That somehow, all of it makes sense. Even when it doesn’t, that not making sense makes sense. I’m not sure I’d have said the same thing about their debut — in fact, looking back, I didn’t — but one of the aspects of Psalms for the Mourning that shows how far Funeral Horse have come as a band despite personnel changes is the sheer unwillingness to not be itself. While there are still verses and choruses throughout, and “No Greater Sorrow (Than My Love)” might be their greatest achievement in terms of craft to-date, what most works about the album is its ability to carry across an overarching flow while staying so outwardly disjointed. It’s simply not something a newer band could pull off, let alone to the degree Funeral Horse do here, but they’ve been a beast unto themselves since their start, and as they continue to grow and push themselves forward it should be little surprise to anyone who’s heard them that they’d stay that way.

Funeral Horse, Psalms for the Mourning (2018)

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Review & Track Premiere: Pushy, Hard Wish

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 19th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

pushy hard wish

[Click play above to stream the premiere of ‘Blacktop’ by Pushy. Their debut album, Hard Wish, ships in July from Who Can You Trust? Records and is available to preorder now.]

Classic heavy rock played with conviction, heart and an obvious appreciation for the finer things in life when it comes to riffs — there’s a lot to like immediately about Pushy‘s debut album, Hard Wish. Delivered like their prior split 12″ with Ragged Barracudas (review here) through Who Can You Trust? Records, the awaited release from the Portland, Oregon, outfit conjures a fuzzy vision of ’70s heavy that does more than just boogie, though of course there’s plenty of that as well. From earliest AC/DC to Thin Lizzy, to ZZ TOP, to King Crimson, to a sudden turn from stripped-down KISS strut into an atmospheric prog-out on “If I Cry,” it’s record that makes a point of going where and doing what it damn well pleases, and it even manages to include a wah-drenched revamp of their catchy original demo, “El Hongo” (discussed here) and its eight-track/40-minute run makes for an engaging, organic, live-sounding listen that makes the advice “take it easy” seem like time-honored wisdom.

Comprised of guitarist/vocalist Adam Burke (formerly of Fellwoods), who’s also responsible for the paintings on the front and back of the LP, as well as having done art for this site and a universe of others, Crag Dweller‘s Travis Clow, Neal Munson of Billions and Billions and Ron Wesley of Hosmanek, the four-piece set an easygoing vibe from the very first crashes and shuffling grooves of opener “Fanny’s,” and while they might careen from one influence to the next and offer a bit of zleaze (yup, spelled with two ‘z’s) here and there, it’s all in good fun and Hard Wish succeeds in casting its own identity from the varied elements that make it up, whether that’s the gallop of “Nasty Bag” or the arena-rock grandiosity in the beginning of “If I Cry.”

And there’s a flow at work. Wrapping up side A after “Fanny’s” and second cut “Nasty Bag,” with its nyah-nyah-nyah opening and street-rocking swing, “Blacktop” offers a first glimpse of Pushy‘s progressive side, digging back to the first King Crimson record like it ain’t no thing and pairing that with a proto-burl riff that in most hands would be repelled from the prior stretch like magnets refusing to touch but is absolutely made to work here. By the time they’re rushing through delivering the title-line, Pushy have expanded the context of “Blacktop” an album’s worth, and the fuzzy nod that emerges from there and turns back to the central riff is pure gravy. Only then does “If I Cry” build on the prog edge of “Blacktop” with its own relatively patient beginning and midsection break, the guitars leading the way through about a minute of instrumental exploration that gives way to silence before a volume-swelling solo emerges to wind the way back to the central rhythm, which gets topped with its own victory-lap of a lead before they noodle their way to the end. From that somewhat hypnotic finish, “El Hongo” eases its way in to start off side B with room for a bit of its own psychedelic meandering amid a landmark-feeling hook that’s a standout from the album as a whole.

Pushy 2018

The boogie is writ large over the secondary leadoff, but at five minutes, it’s not necessarily a mirror of “Fanny’s” at the start of the record, which had a shorter clocktime and more straightforward structure without the midsection departure that some of the longer songs make. In that regard, “If I Cry” is something of a foreshadow for the 10-minute closer “Lay of the Land” that follows “El Hongo,” “Lonesome Entry,” and “I’ll Be Gentle,” the latter two of which are also of the shorter variety. No doubt that vinyl considerations came into play when putting together the tracklisting with four songs per side, getting the runtimes close, and so on, but it’s worth pointing out that it works exceedingly well in terms of the front-to-back, with “Fanny’s” setting the tone literally and figuratively while smoothing the way into “Nasty Bag” and the three tracks that follow before “Lonesome Entry,” which is the shortest of the bunch at 2:27, ignites a speedy Cactus-style brashness with Burke‘s vocals hitting a higher register to match the more frenetic pacing of the verses.

Naturally, those are offset by more midpaced transitional sections and though it’s the shortest inclusion at 2:27, Pushy still squeeze in those tempo shifts before the before the cold ending brings on “I’ll Be Gentle” brings forth more boogie vibes and hooks in both its verse and chorus. There’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the lyrics — if I’m not mistaken there’s a reference to a “velvet hand” — but the classic feel of the songwriting and the live-style vibe of the recording come through just the same as on “Lonesome Entry” and really everything else before it. And it’s fitting that the two shorter cuts should give way to “Lay of the Land” at the end of the record, which not only makes the most of its two guitars but brings the rhythm section as well to some of its finest moments.

It’s an unenviable task to summarize what Hard Wish has thus far brought forth in its scope of formative heavy, but most if it appears within the more extended finale, from the patient and progressive opening to the subdued verses and the greater build and release that happens later on. Some parts seem to be begging for organ accompaniment, but I guess one has to leave some ground to cover on a sophomore outing, and as their debut, Hard Wish basks in its inspirations without falling into boogie rock cliché — except where it wants to, as on “I’ll Be Gentle” — and sets up a balance of straight-ahead and more exploratory movements to be toyed with from here on out. It’s a sound that, should Pushy be interested in such things, they can keep growing and expanding, since as we know the realm of classic heavy rock is by no means relegated to the past, and the chemistry between players on display throughout Hard Wish is of the sort that can’t be faked, least of all in such a stage-born-sounding context. From a Pacific Northwest so bent on partying, Pushy bring just a touch of class to the proceedings and remind that not all good times need to be overblown to be memorable.

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Review & Track Premiere: Lord, Desperation Finds Hunger in All Men

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 18th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

Lord Desperation Finds Hunger in all Men

[Click play above to stream ‘Mutilation Rites’ from Lord’s Desperation Finds Hunger in All Men. Album is out Aug. 24 via Heavy Hound Records.]

As though in a direct effort to feed the gluttons for punishment, Southern sludge metal extremists Lord return with their third album in three years. Issued as their fifth full-length overall through longtime outlet Heavy Hound Records, the 10-track Desperation Finds Hunger in all Men is a beast unto itself within the Lord catalog. While I don’t know if there’s a vinyl release planned, it’s probably fair to call it a double-album anyway, since at 66 minutes it’s more than twice as long as the Fredricksburg, Virginia, outfit’s previous outing, last year’s Blacklisted (review here). I don’t want to harp on it, since ultimately the length of the release is more a symptom of Lord‘s deeply varied and expansive stylistic expression, rather than a cause of it. That is, they’re writing longer songs because the songs have gotten longer, not because they sat down and wanted to write longer songs. But it’s a striking shift after the last record, and nothing they’ve done to-date, whether it was 2016’s Awake (review here), 2011’s Chief (review here), 2007’s Built Lord Tough or anything else along the way, has touched that kind of length.

Brief though it was, Blacklisted was especially striking in the maturity and the sense of consciousness it brought to Lord‘s often chaotic approach, blending elements of thrash, sludge, doom, death metal, noise, Southern metal, etc., as it does. Without giving up their sense of abrasion or brutal edge, Lord were nonetheless able to wield their sound as a weapon — I’ve been back and forth in my head calling that weapon sharp or bludgeoning, but the truth is it can be either depending on the track — and to shape their material into something that built on what they’d done before and still held that rawness at its core. Part of that, of course, came down to the vocals of Steven “Frank Palkoski” Kerchner, whose soul shines through in both his harshest screams on opener “No Sunrise on the Third,” the growls and shouts of “At First I Didn’t Believe It” and the utterly vicious “Have a Look for Yourself” and in the cleaner singing on “Whispering Snakes,” “Scorched” and the 12-minute experimentalist closer “This Lonesome Linger,” which pulls back the distortion on Chris Dugay‘s bass and Willy Rivera‘s guitar (Todd Weurhmann also plays guitar in the band but doesn’t appear on the record) and the fury in Tony Petrocelly‘s drumming to finish semi-acoustic despite an underlying tension as a bass drum thuds to signify the shift into the track’s near-operatic — yup — midsection, marked out by layers of guest vocals accompanying Kerchner, who also provides the percussion. Like the album as a whole, it is not a minor undertaking.

Nor is it meant to be. Engineered by Petrocelly — who’s since left the band only to be replaced by Jesse Hottle, who’s also left and been replaced for shows by, wait, Petrocelly, as well as Tommy Emanuel, while the band looks for a permanent drummer; so it goes — Desperation Finds Hunger in All Men is easily the strongest production Lord have ever had. Whether it’s the noise at the start of the tracks, the heft that emerges in 10-minute side-A-or-LP-1 finale “La Fleur du Cobalt” or the arrangement of vocals atop the rolling lumber of the later “Mutilation Rites,” Lord‘s aural assault has never seemed more thoughtful than it does here, and the sound is crisp and clear in “Nature Knows No Kings” despite the wash of noise that comprises so much of the song, and rather than work against the band’s extremity, it only enhances it, bringing it into focus in much the same way the songwriting seems to have grown in its purposefulness. Lyrical themes of oppression show up throughout, though a decent amount of the vocals — the growls especially so — are largely indecipherable, but what comes through is delivered with sincerity and rather than a celebration of brutality as so much of extreme metal can be, Lord bring a critical eye and an examination both thoughtful and inward as well as outward.

lord

To wit, the one-minute interlude that follows “La Fleur du Cobalt,” simply dubbed “August 11, 2017,” arguably the most striking piece on the record. With no instruments, it is simply an insect-song-backed succession of voices describing a person’s journey through suicidal depression and out the other side. In all seriousness, when it ended with the line “Today started out well,” I damn near wept. It gives way immediately to the stomp and metallic riffing of “Whispering Snakes,” but the effect in terms of mood-setting remains, and holds firm even as the second half of Desperation Finds Hunger in All Men moves into the nine-plus-minute “Mutilation Rites” and the penultimate “Have a Look for Yourself,” which bashes its count-in and from there unleashes a three-minute torrent of trashing intensity, galloping drums beneath circle-headbang riffs, growls and gang-shouts, and an air-tight execution that, even when it releases the tension it’s built, still seems to be grasping the listener by the throat. This, like the rest of the record surrounding and like “This Lonesome Linger” afterward, is done willfully.

I’ll cop to being a Lord fan. Happily. And while I might quibble with the facts of the title “Nature Knows No Kings” — true there’s no royal hierarchy specifically, but dominance is found in varying forms everywhere in nature whether it’s the head of a pack, an invasive plant species or one animal eating another; this is not an intrinsic justification for capitalist or governmental oppression; don’t get me wrong: no gods, no masters — I acknowledge that I hear Desperation Finds Hunger in All Men with a limited-at-best level of impartiality. Even granted that I think it’s a fair observation to say this is simultaneously Lord‘s broadest-ranging and most cohesive achievement yet, and especially as the third offering since Awake seemed to truly signal a new era for the band — their preceding EP, 2014’s Alive in Golgotha (review here), might be considered a prelude — it brings their attack to another level of refinement.

It would be easy to listen to Desperation Finds Hunger in All Men and celebrate it for its extremity, for the righteousness of its aggression. And I’m not arguing against that. What shouldn’t be lost in that experience is an appreciation for the intent behind that extremity, because that’s what truly signifies how far Lord have come and their continuing drive to progress as a group. There’s always going to be chaos in their heart. It’s how they hone it and what they craft from it that makes them such a special band.

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Review & Album Premiere: King Heavy, Guardian Demons

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 15th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

king heavy guardian demons

[Click play above to stream King Heavy’s Guardian Demons in full. Album is out June 22 on Cruz Del Sur Music.]

From the first strains of opener ‘Guardian Demon,’ King Heavy make plain their intentions for their second album, Guardian Demons. The Cruz Del Sur-delivered six-tracker runs 43 minutes and follows the model of classic, traditionalist doom metal. More to the point, not just doom, but doom for doomers, by doomers, and of doomers. With bassist Daniel Pérez Saa, guitarist Matias Aguirre and drummer Miguel Canessa based in Chile and vocalist Luther Veldmark making his home in Belgium, they may not be a band who gets together every week for rehearsal in the practice space — or they may be, at least instrumentally — but they’re certainly schooled in the ways of the genre.

Candlemass are arguably the biggest single influence on cuts like “Guardian Demon” and “(Death is But an Extreme Form of) Narcosis,” which follows, but it’s not the only one. Saint Vitus, Black Sabbath, Reverend Bizarre and probably dozens of their acolytes all have a role to play in King Heavy‘s sound, which makes no attempt to hide or mask its base of inspiration. Still, it seems to be a Leif Edling-esque style of riffing that holds the day, given encouraging sweeps of double kick in the drums and lumbering marches alike. They never crawl, exactly, but there’s plenty of stomp throughout anyhow, and the communication from band to audience is clear and without pretense. They’re a doom band. That’s where their heart lies. They present their sound without pretense otherwise, and as such, feel particularly sincere in their sonic homage and will to carry forward the mission of their forebears.

So just how doomed is it? Quite doomed. Doomed enough that its third track, “Doom Shall Rise,” is written in apparent tribute to the festival in Germany that ran between 2003 and 2013 — which also happens to reportedly be where Veldmark and Saa first met in 2005 and they decided to form a band. Sadly, they’d never get to play there. That track contains references to Mirror of Deception, The Well of Souls — presumably the band, but it’s also a Candlemass song — Procession, Shepherd, etc., and if you ever needed a clear line of a group communicating on the same level as their listener, that’s it. It’s not only King Heavy sharing their own work, but sharing their love of the stylistic terrain in which it resides. After the opening provided by “Guardian Demon” and “(Death is But an Extreme Form of) Narcosis,” it’s as though the band finally comes out and says what they’ve been insinuating all along in terms of their passion for doom and their sense of belonging in and to it.

As ever for the genre, there’s a bit of an us-vs.-the-world sensibility to it, but that’s as traditional as the Veldmark‘s Chritus Linderson-esque vocal on “(Death is But an Extreme Form of) Narcosis,” switching between gruffer shouts and smoother, mournful crooning, even as the riff and rhythmic push signal a triumph in progress. Likewise, lines like “Doom shall rise, and rise again,” and “Tonight, doom shall rise,” make the point firmly and without question, and the band leave little to mystery as Veldmark moves into Cathedral-esque layering in the second half of that song, which rounds out side A with a burst of energy that only continues on the especially catchy “Cult of the Cloven Hoof,” which the shortest inclusion at 5:19, but which underscores the point of the tightness and self-awareness in the band’s approach. That is to say, even with just one record behind them in their 2015 self-titled debut (also on Cruz Del Sur), they present themselves as having a clear idea of the doom they want to make and the knowledge of just the right shifts in tempo, melody and groove to make it a reality.

king heavy

A grim reality at that. After tracking on separate continents last time around, King Heavy brought Veldmark to Chile to record his vocals this time around, and the difference would seem to be palpable in the chemistry of the band. One would expect an uptick there going from a debut to a sophomore effort no matter the circumstance, but their feeling more like a band rather than a project is evident in the cohesion here, and with the context of the studio circumstances in consideration, it makes sense as to why. “Cult of the Cloven Hoof” is a fitting example of their execution. It’s tight, grueling in its slower stretches, righteous in its quicker parts, and it unfolds a sound that’s as timeless as one could ask. It leads to the more unhinged, 10-minute-topping “Come My Disciples,” which one might expect to be an Electric Wizard reference, but goes elsewhere sonically essentially by not departing the place it already is, but slowing it down.

“Come My Disciples” feels more open than much of Guardian Demons, with a drawn out solo in its second half that’s glorious in its miseries, particularly with the rumbling low end beneath holding down the central riff. Dead-on doom. Their closer, “As in a Nightmare,” brings them back to ground with a shorter runtime, resumed trod and Veldmark‘s command of his voice. As they have all along, they offset slower and quicker stretches in “As in a Nightmare,” and do so with a sharpness of attack that leads them to the big rock finish that closes out, a wash of cymbals and guitar and bass noise fading into oblivion at the close.

Guardian Demons isn’t a record made for everybody, and King Heavy isn’t a band for everybody. Their doom is like a scratch test to see who will get it and who won’t, and for sure, some won’t. But more likely than not, they couldn’t care less, since the audience they’re speaking to is bound to embrace them all the more for the feeling of exclusion of the outside. True doom? One hesitates to believe in any kind of authenticity enough to call something “true,” but there’s no doubting the sincerity behind the murky havoc King Heavy wreak on their second album.

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Astrosoniq, Big Ideas Dare Imagination: Celebration

Posted in Reviews on June 14th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

Astrosoniq Big Ideas Dare Imagination

One year ago, on June 3, 2017, Astrosoniq lost one of their own with the passing of programmer, booker and friend Bidi van Drongelen. Bidi was known throughout the Dutch and greater European heavy underground as the head of Bidi Bookings and his passing was and continues to be deeply felt by those who knew him. Among the tributes in his honor is Big Ideas Dare Imagination — note the first letter of each word in the title — which is the fifth full-length release for the Wizards of Oss and, fittingly enough, an experiment unto its very making, with a core duo of Ron van Herpen (guitar, bass) and Marcel van de Vondervoort (drums, programming, recording, mixing) employing a succession of vocalists across six widely varied tracks running a total of 40 minutes.

Some play guitar or bass as well, and Otto Kokke of Dead Neanderthals adds scorching saxophone to the penultimate “Vision Factor,” and Astrosoniq vocalist Fred van Bergen and bassist Robert-Jan van Gruijthijzen — who with keyboardist Teun van de Velden (not featured here) rounded out the basic five-piece that appeared on the last Astrosoniq record, Quadrant (review here), in 2009 — both make appearances as well. Of all the singers involved, van Bergen is the only one to show up twice, on side A closer “Mindless” and the aforementioned “Vision Factor,” while van Gruijthijzen helms the vocals and lyrics on opener “King,” plays bass on that song and second track “The Great Escape,” and contributes to the writing of that song and “Mindless.” It doesn’t get any less complex from there. Ah hell, here’s the tracklisting with guest personnel:

1. King (RJ van Gruijthijzen on vocals, bass, lyrics)
2. The Great Escape (RJ van Gruijthijzen on bass, Rob Martin of RRRags and Bliksem on vocals/lyrics)
3. Mindless (Fred van Bergen on vocals)
4. Keppra! (Joris Dirks of Moodswing and Agua de Annique on vocals, bass and guitar)
5. Vision Factor (Fred van Bergen on vocals, Otto Kokke on sax)
6. Freezen (Fred Händl of A.P. Lady adds lyrics for Mark Watson’s spoken word and Peggy Meeussen of Bliksem’s singing)

Astrosoniq aren’t strangers to switching up their sound. Going back to their 2000 debut, Son of A.P. Lady (discussed here and here) and across 2002’s Soundgrenade (discussed here), 2006’s Speeder People (discussed here), and the aforementioned Quadrant, there’s been very little outside their purview in terms of style. Country, funk, metal, psychedelia, space rock, weirdo noise, on and on. They have been and remain a deeply creative band. The difference is that on Big Ideas Dare Imagination, that extends to the makeup of the band itself.

In that way, it would be a mistake to judge Big Ideas Dare Imagination like a conventional album, because it isn’t one. Astrosoniq‘s project here isn’t simply to make another record, but to memorialize their friend and compatriot, like sitting shiva in a recording studio. One has to wonder if a fifth Astrosoniq LP would even exist without van Drongelen‘s passing as the driver. After being sidelined for several years owing to health problems on the part of van de Vondervoort, the group had made a sort-of return to playing live, but it’s entirely possible they wouldn’t have reconvened for new material, and even if they did, it almost certainly wouldn’t have been in this form/format. It could be argued, then, that Bidi should get some credit on that tracklisting too, for inspiration and for being the driving force behind pushing the band to create a new work. Certainly though, the clear dedication to him shown in the outing speaks to this.

astrosoniq bidi van drongelen

And of course, though it’s also a record about more than just its songs, Big Ideas Dare Imagination also does work to fit in the Astrosoniq catalog. It’s helpful that longtime listeners of the band know to approach with an open mind, because even with the vocal swaps that follow the ultra-memorable, sort of bizarrely lurching hook of “King,” there is a root beneath that feel contiguous with what they’ve done before. Ron van Herpen‘s riffing style, varied in its influence and execution, but always crisp and classy, is present throughout the drift and later drive and apex of “The Great Escape” and the more down-to-earth turns of “Mindless” as well, which has elements of classic metal in its sharper edges but still remains firmly entrenched in heavy rock, particularly with van Bergen‘s vocals in the forward position and van de Vondervoort‘s uptempo timekeeping. The side A finale might be the most grounded stretch of the album but it’s by no means the only rocking moment. From the grit-fueled, noise-backed stomp of “King” onward, Astrosoniq hold firm to who they are throughout all the changes, which is all the better, because of course the changes are a part of who they are.

Joris Dirks‘ performance on “Keppra!” is an immediate standout. Taking it next to its side A-opening counterpart “King,” it’s a far more fragile-sounding and emotionalist vibe, with a semi-indie spirit in its fluidity that reminds my East Coast US ears of Cave In‘s post-punk, but the guitar solo that emerges just before the halfway point is more rocking at its foundation. Between his vocal style and adding bass and guitar to the song, there’s no question Dirks makes “Keppra!” his own, and following the long instrumental stretch that begins with the already-noted solo, a turn back to the verse and chorus wrap it up smoothly just in time to have the sax at the start of “Vision Factor” hit like a punch in the face. In its way, this too is quintessential Astrosoniq — knowing what the song needs and being creative enough to make it happen, without concern for genre or expectation, being always in service to the song itself.

It’s that spirit that has allowed Astrosoniq to get as outwardly strange as they sometimes will over the years — everything they do, they do in the name of songwriting. It’s the expression of an idea that’s paramount. The sax in “Vision Factor” leads the way in a freaked-out second half of the track with a steady space rock chug beneath, and “Freezen” pairs thick-English-accented narration and a soaring chorus (that’s Watson and Meeusen, respectively) with a thickened thrashy riff beneath, creating a tension that each hook pays off even as it provides some reprieve with the drum gallop holding steady. The story being told paints a picture of a character being kidnapped and murdered by a man, maybe a time traveler, coincidentally (or not) named Marcel, and at just under 10 minutes, a full narrative unfolds, finishing Big Ideas Dare Imagination on its farthest-out note yet and with the music dropped out, the line, “But as we know, Marcel was not a kind man,” the record ends.

The impression the album as a whole makes is, naturally, contrary to that final statement, and indeed both van Herpen and van de Vondervoort and their cohorts seem both kind and genuine in giving tribute to their friend and still maintaining the band’s always-forward mentality. Again, while it’s not a record to be judged by conventional criteria, one can’t help but admire the creative process at work across Big Ideas Dare Imagination — they dare logistics too, it would seem; can’t be easy to coordinate among this many players — and though the circumstances of its happening are unfortunate, the album is nothing but a triumph of spirit. I didn’t know Bidi well, but it’s hard to imagine Astrosoniq‘s homage wouldn’t bring a smile to his face. It certainly does to mine.

Astrosoniq, Big Ideas Dare Imagination (2018)

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