Hexvessel, When We are Death: Transmigration

Posted in Reviews on February 5th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

hexvessel when we are death

There have been, are, and no doubt will continue to be any number of people touting the work of Finnish outfit Hexvessel in hyperbole of one sort or another. Between their accomplished songwriting, a crisply defined aesthetic and ethos, sonic individuality and evocative emotionality nodding at a plethora of obscure influences out of the pantheon of lost and worshiped classics — not to mention how well the Tampere-based band has recontextualized these elements into their own take — they’ve made an easy target for high-minded praise since their debut full-length, Dawnbearer, showed up in 2011 and its follow-up, No Holier Temple, landed in 2012, both through Svart. Fair enough. Different groups resonate on different levels, and Hexvessel push their resonance further via charismatic vocalist/guitarist Mat McNerney, who’s been a central presence all along but comes even more forward on When We are Death, which in addition to being Hexvessel‘s third LP is also their debut for Century Media.

With guitarist Simo Kuosmanen, bassist Niini Rossi, drummer Jukka Rämänen, percussionist/backing vocalist Marja Konttinen and keyboardist/violinist/trumpeter Kimmo Helén alongside McNerney, the six-piece explore depths of arrangement they had not previously dared to seek out, and the resulting 11 tracks/47 minutes of When We are Death present a bold stylistic shift for a group who had established a niche and an influence in touting environmentalist/naturalist psychedelic folk. When We are Death reaches outside those and most other confines, brazenly, and while I won’t decry the sweet progressive fuzz of “Sacred Marriage” from No Holier Temple or the effective sense of ritual Hexvessel brought to their songs previously, they pull off a multitude of stylistic shifts across songs like “Earth Over Us,” “Drugged up on the Universe,” “Hunter’s Prayer,” “Mirror Boy,” “Cosmic Truth” and so on, and range well beyond what I think even the most fervent of praise-heapers might have expected were their limitations.

It is no minor accomplishment. Between the organ-laced trad-psych bounce of opener “Transparent Eyeball” and the brooding, pun-happy accusations of closer “Shaman You,” When We are Death pushes through diverse material that, in less capable hands, would come across disjointed or incongruous. Hexvessel avoid this trap in part by executing the underlying theme — as the title hints — of death. 10 of the 11 tracks make some sort of direct reference to death, dying or being dead in the lyrics — only “Shaman You” is left out, and that has no shortage of betrayed sensibility — and whether it’s a tertiary line like “Please leave me here to extinguish and die” in “Teeth of the Mountain,” tossed off in a verse en route to the chorus or the hook of “When I’m Dead,” “I’ll remember you/I’ll remember you/When I am dead,” that serves as the catchiest of the album delivered with goth-psych aplomb following verses on which a duly theatric McNerney channels Elvis via Peter Murphy, death is an ever-present spectre. You might say that’s the human condition, but it ties When We are Death together in a way that emphasizes the universality of the whole work rather than splitting it apart into some stylistic patchwork.

hexvessel

McNerney‘s performance is also central in this regard. No less amorphous vocally than the songs, he’s equally at home in the darkened space rock of “Drugged up on the Universe” (“Mainline a secret vein of the universe and you will find — death”) as he is on “Green Gold,” which paints a reincarnation scenario of the speaker in the lyrics returning as a tree and is arguably the closes Hexvessel come here to their past work, and that confidence is pivotal to how fluidly the band lead the way through their various changes, even unto the King Crimson-style chase late in “Mushroom Spirit Doors” — Rämänen‘s snare work should get special mention — and the atmospheric spaciousness cast in “Cosmic Truth.” Hooks are deceptively memorable throughout with the exception perhaps of “When I’m Dead,” which is consciously all about its chorus, and between the shifts in keys across “Earth Over Us” and the soft tones in the second half of “Teeth of the Mountain” behind an electrified guitar solo and the leaps that When We are Death makes as it moves from “Mushroom Spirit Doors” — as tripped out as the title suggests, and a structural triumph — to the percussive “Hunter’s Prayer” and into “Shaman You” to finish out, Hexvessel‘s defining statement comes through in exactly how unwilling the album is to be defined beyond its core theme.

Among the good many things that When We are Death is, it is not simple. I’m by no means a touchstone for perception, but I was three times through before Hexvessel‘s apparent intent started to sink in, and it may take a while for the material to grab hold of the listener’s consciousness. This ultimately becomes a strength, since while the group’s songs are accessible, they still provide enough of a challenge to make it worth coming back for repeat visits, and that balance is rare — a release that still maintains a pop sensibility while refusing to dumb itself down to broaden appeal. There may be those who feel loyal to the sound Hexvessel established on Dawnbearer and No Holier Temple and the subsequent 2013 EP, Iron Marsh, who likewise need time to adjust to the diverse methods presented here, but the answer to that is the obvious craft that has gone into making these songs, the rich details that “Cosmic Truth,” “Green Gold” and “Hunter’s Prayer” offer and the improbably fluidity that Hexvessel build as the album moves through its course, excitingly careening but masterfully directed. It’s not intended to be simple, or humble, or plain; it’s intended to be encompassing and vast, and it is precisely those things.

Hexvessel, “Cosmic Truth” official video

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Century Media Records

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Mountain Tamer, Mountain Tamer: The Burning Mind (Plus Full Album Stream)

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 4th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

mountain tamer mountain tamer

[Click play above to stream Mountain Tamer’s self-titled debut in full. Album is out Feb. 12 on Argonauta Records.]

Tripped out trio Mountain Tamer made a lasting impression in 2015 with their vowel-less Mtn Tmr demo (review here), and they follow and expand on that initial offering with a self-titled debut on Argonauta Records. The three tracks that featured on the demo — “Dunes of the Mind,” “Satan’s Waitin'” and “Sum People” — return on Mountain Tamer, but the shift in context is striking as the three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Andru, bassist/vocalist Dave Teget and drummer/vocalist Casey Garcia carve out their niche somewhere between the lurching grunge of “Sum People” and “Knew” and the heavy psych freakouts of “Mind Burner” and “Pharosite” that bookend.

Based in Santa Cruz, California, their style is more intense overall than a lot of the chilled-to-the-max guitar-heroics of the post-Earthless set, but not necessarily born of wildly different influences in classic heavy rock, punk and desert jams. The result across the eight-track/40-minute span of the album is a work that’s as gritty as it is lysergic, elements of noise rock in the catchy “Knew” resting fluidly with the garage rock strut of “Wolf” as the fuzzier “Vixen” blends the two with hairy lead tones and molten percussive build. Still, a psychedelic haze settles in almost immediately on “Mind Burner” at the record’s laid back opening, and that seems to inform everything that comes after one way or another, and as driving as Mountain Tamer get, their overarching atmosphere is headier than it is aggressive.

In that way, they’re very much of their coast, but the multi-vocalist approach, their penchant for departing from structure into jammy flights on cuts like “Dunes of the Mind,” “Vixen” and “Satan’s Waitin'” and the swing they present in their underlying groove is markedly their own. Following the steady fuzz layering of “Mind Burner,” “Knew” picks up with the catchiest chorus of Mountain Tamer, delivered more in a shout backed by melodic vocals in a way that reminds of Nick Oliveri-fronted Queens of the Stone Age but never tips over into directly doing the same thing.

mountain tamer

“Knew” gets maddest in its second half, but it’s never actually out of control, and AndruTeget and Garcia bring it around to a last run through the hook that makes it all the more a highlight en route to the longer, farther-ranging “Dunes of the Mind,” which airs out the guitar tone in initial thickened boogie and stretches into psychedelic atmospherics later on, a slowdown setting up the all-thrust finale, cut short at the end of the track. Variety continues to be a running theme as “Vixen” picks up with a shoegaze-gone punk pulsation, guitars shooting from one channel to the next as the band leaves the verse behind, jamming out, coming back, jamming out, coming back again for a final bluesy push that rounds out side A with a reinforcement of the acid rock traditionalism on which a lot of Mountain Tamer‘s extrapolations are based. All those dudes were running blues riffs through wah. Nearly half a century later, so it goes again.

As one would hope, side B weirds out a little but more. “Wolf in the Streets” goes cowbell and howlin’ at first, but finds its crux in a heavy psych build that features some of the album’s best guitar/bass interplay in its instrumental payoff before the final chorus, and the familiar strains of “Sum People” (also listed as “Sum Peeps”) pick up with a drawn-down version of the intensity that came forward on “Knew,” that before-grunge-had-a-name disaffection presented through slogging toms and resonant vocal fuckall as a thesis with which it’s hard to argue. Even here, Mountain Tamer find room to jam, and the ending of “Sum People” leads particularly effectively into “Satan’s Waitin’,” which launches with a foundation of bass and shifts through a spacey verse into jazzier drum-led rhythmic fare topped with stoned guitar on its way back to wherever the hell it came from, ending with a drawl on the hook and that bassline.

Remember when I mentioned weirding out? There it is. Then comes “Pharosite” to play the one side directly off the other — somehow the tones are warmer as they do — on a mostly instrumental capstone topped with shaker, a few rock-as-tribal shouts and a riotous noise and cymbal finish that, frankly, the album well earned. It wraps on a quick fade as if the band ran out of the room, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was actually the case, since the energy they put into the presentation of these tracks seems to come with corresponding wandering of attention. That’s not to say the songwriting isn’t focused, just that it’s multi-directional. That invariably will be a plus as Mountain Tamer move forward, but it’s also essential in making their debut as raucous and switched on as it is. And it is.

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Mountain Tamer on Bandcamp

Mountain Tamer website

Argonauta Records

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Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree: The Weight of Now

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 29th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

elephant-tree-elephant-tree

[Please note: Click play above to hear the premiere of “Dawn” from Elephant Tree’s self-titled debut. Album is out April 22 on Magnetic Eye Records.]

London four-piece Elephant Tree got off to an encouraging start in 2014 with their first EP, Theia (review here). Also their first outing for Magnetic Eye Records, it successfully blended psychedelia and sludge, here exploring the sitar provided by Riley MacIntyre that added space and classically mystical presence to the guitar of Jack Townley, Peter Holland‘s bass and Sam Hart‘s drums, there showing a screamier, harsher side that in many contexts would be far enough from the other side to be out of place. Their self-titled LP, also on Magnetic Eye, abandons the screaming and replaces it with a resonant heavy psychedelic roll boasting rich arrangements both of tone and vocals, contributed by Townley, Holland and MacIntyre, establishing a niche within a model of thickened, dense fuzz cut through by melodic and harmonized singing.

I dug the EP, but the album leaves no question at all that the shift in approach — however permanent it may or may not be — was the right move for this material. Running 38 minutes and comprised of seven tracks and the preparing-for-immersion intro “Spore,” Elephant Tree‘s Elephant Tree offers molten heaviness, memorable songwriting and a sense of overarching cohesion that I have no doubt will make it one of this still-new year’s most satisfying debut full-lengths. That sounds like hyperbole, but the songs live up to that level of promise from the initial snare hit and fuzz-roll of “Wither” to the piano that finishes closer “Surma.” Really, there isn’t a weak moment front to back.

Most of the titles are single words, and that gives a sense of simplicity to what’s a more complex progression than it initially lets on, a sense of humility to go with familiar shades throughout, “Wither” reminding of Quest for Fire‘s “Confusion’s Home” in its central riff, or “Aphotic Blues” bringing to mind Mars Red Sky‘s signature blend of melodic fragility and elephantine tone. But the album is Elephant Tree‘s own, ultimately, and that proves to be among its great strengths. Its songwriting is no less distinctive than its vocal flourishes, “Wither” enacting quick hypnosis in its first half and breaking to a long march and airy guitar squibblies in its second as if to maximize the element of space in the world that “Spore” seems to be entering at the start.

There’s a hook in there, make no mistake, and it’s the first of several landmarks in that regard, the nodding “Dawn” picking up the psychedelic cue and running with it via a scorcher solo placed as if to remind the band took part in Magnetic Eye‘s Hendrix tribute (review here) last year as the central groove continues to unfold underneath, each verse ending with a far-back shout that sticks through not with aggression, but a message of positivity. Quickly enough they’re on to the acoustic-centered “Circles,” which brings perhaps the album’s catchiest chorus, “As I fly I can name all the places/And time is a ghost/The sky just the same as the ocean/A space between me and my home,” delivered with emotional presence to match its sonic resonance and poetic imagery. Unplugged layers and overlaid tones, as well as the echoing voices, further the atmosphere of the prior tracks while greatly broadening Elephant Tree‘s reach, adding further depth to the whole even as it stands out to leave a singular impression.

elephant tree

Speaking of, “Circles” gives way to “Aphotic Blues,” and the latter is without a doubt the highlight of Elephant Tree. Not the longest track — that’s closer “Surma” at 7:20 — but with not only a maddeningly catchy chorus, but a purposeful, gorgeous use of call and response harmonies, a choice riff and as righteous a groove as the band have on offer throughout that leads to a droned-out break and a crashing apex and finish that I can only wish was another four minutes long. Hard for anything not to seem like a comedown after that ending, but “Echoes” meets its task head on with bluesy, laid back and swinging low end at the start and a megachorus of its own, not to mention the watery psychedelics of its midsection and the urgency of its capstone lyrics, ending quiet to shift into the relatively straightforward take of “Fracture,” which pushes the vocals back behind the guitar and blows them out a bit in the early going, giving a rawer vibe at first that remains melodic and only gets more so as the song progresses.

A big slowdown near the end is given due setup, Hart‘s cymbal roll making a lot from a relatively simple, slow crash in terms of maximizing nod, and when it comes on “Surya” finds Hart‘s drums and Holland‘s bass in the lead before the guitars kick in at the first verse. The closer is given the weighty task of summarizing Elephant Tree‘s preceding songs while also finding room for something new, and it succeeds in that, but as with the best of go-ahead-and-get-lost-in-it songcraft, it lives up to its intent without being too showy about it. Another solid riff, another catchy hook, another memorable harmony, another twisted lead, but positioned differently and set to engage with one last show of the fluidity that led the way into the album and leads the way out with the aforementioned piano stretch.

As with any promising debut, Elephant Tree‘s Elephant Tree showcases vast potential for future growth, where they might go sound-wise and the strong foundation of songwriting they might use to get there, but that shouldn’t distract from the immediate satisfaction this self-titled offers. While it’s exciting to imagine future contributions and what direction the band will head, their work stuns even at what might prove to be its outset.

Elephant Tree preorder at Magnetic Eye

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Black Cobra Premiere “The Messenger” from Imperium Simulacra

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 22nd, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

black cobra (Photo by Raymond Ahner)

There’s just over a month left to go before Black Cobra release their fifth long-player, Imperium Simulacra. Also their first for Season of Mist, it was recorded by Jon Nunez of Torche and arrives at the decade point since the oft-nomadic San Francisco duo made their raging debut with 2006’s Bestial, and almost a full five years since their last outing, the wintry Arctic chronicle, Invernal (review here). Like its predecessor, Imperium Simulacra seems to work off a central theme, this time the more esoteric relationship between humans and technology. Social commentary is inherent in the subject matter, but though he’s mostly shouting outward from a furious, thrashing churn of riffs and Rafa Martinez‘s crashing drums and steady double-kick, guitarist Jason Landrian isn’t preaching on songs like “Obsolete” or  the opening “Challenger Deep” so much as he’s exploring the ideas, nodding at SepulturaSlayer‘s “Piece by Piece” and the thickened gallop of High on Fire‘s riffing all the while, the two-piece having long since made this intensity and combination of elements their own through years of bash-it-out road work and studio development.

The half-decade interim between records is noteworthy, but Imperium Simulacra answers that with considerable progression displayed in its tracks. At 48 minutes, it is the longest Black Cobra album by at least nine minutes (all the others are 39 and under), but it’s also the most diverse. “Challenger Deep” and the subsequent title-track reinforce the maddening throttle that Landrian and Martinez have made their hallmark, but even in them, there’s a poise to the execution that demonstrates just how much the band has black cobra imperium simulacramastered its form. Clocking in over the eight-minute mark, “Fathoms Below” is not only slower — that in itself is a noteworthy shift in approach, at least to some degree — but more atmospheric, breaking at its midsection to creeping, sparse guitar before igniting a darkened thrash chug that carries it through the final verses and out on a surprisingly doomed note; a different, new take on Black Cobra‘s sonic forcefulness. It’s the longest song they’ve done, and the later “Dark Shine,” at 7:21, is the second-longest, so clearly there’s an intentional drive to explore (and devastate) new avenues of expression. Ragers like “Eye Among the Blind” and the centerpiece “The Messenger” continue to assert aural dominance, the latter locking into a particularly satisfying groove later on, ready to incite a non-karate mosh or at least give the crowd an excuse for next-day sore necks.

About that: There can be little question that Black Cobra‘s primary impact has always been made on stage. Landrian and Martinez have sharpened their attack to a razor line, and while their studio work has served to document that process, it’s always been the case that they’re the proverbial “live band.” I’ve both seen them wear out rooms and been worn out watching them — they’re perfectly willing to out-rock everybody. What Imperium Simulacra does to answer this is it broadens the scope of the songwriting. Invernal was not lacking in atmosphere, but “Fathoms Below” pushes that further, and the new album’s theme feels more concretely represented in the songs. Touches too like the pairing of “Obsolete” — a catchy blastbeater, sans frills at 2:47 — and “Dark Shine,” which starts off with quiet guitar and rolls its initial groove before taking off, perhaps even showing a bit of influence from tourmates YOB (though if I have my timing straight, the album was recorded when they hit the road together) to go with their established methods, show clearly the dynamic range that Black Cobra have grown over their 15 years. Closing duo “Sentinel (Infinite Observer),” with more adventurous and atmospheric lead work, and “Technical Demise,” a final full-on violent outburst, cap Imperium Simulacra with a once-and-for-all showcase of what has made Black Cobra a name brand in underground metal, taking tonal thickness and pounding rhythms and executing them with signature relentlessness.

For the simple fact that Martinez and Landrian approach the new ground they cover throughout its span with the same assurance they bring to the more familiar elements of their arsenal, Imperium Simulacra is the richest Black Cobra outing to-date. Even if that wasn’t the case, however, the band’s sheer unwillingness to sacrifice their overarching urgency — no matter what the pace of an individual track might actually be — remains singularly righteous.

Black Cobra‘s Imperium Simulacra is out Feb. 26. I’m thrilled today to host the premiere of “The Messenger,” which you can hear below, followed by the band’s upcoming tour dates with BongzillaLo-PanAgainst the Grain and Kings Destroy.

Enjoy:

“Imperium Simulacra” is out February 26th on Season of Mist and is available for pre-order here: http://shopusa.season-of-mist.com/catalogsearch/result/?q=Black+Cobra

Pre-order the collector’s bundle from IndieMerchstore here: indiemerch.com/blackcobra

Tour Dates with Bongzilla and Lo-Pan:
2/26/2016, Madison WI, High Noon Saloon &
2/27/2016, Iowa City IA, Oasis &
2/28/2016, Fargo ND, Aquarium &
3/1/2016, Missoula MT, The Palace &
3/2/2016, Spokane WA, The Pin &
3/3/2016, Seattle WA, Highline &
3/4/2016, Vancouver BC, Rickshaw Theater &
3/5/2016, Bellingham WA, Shakedown &
3/6/2016, Portland OR, Star Theater &
3/7/2016, Sacramento CA, Starlite &
3/8/2016, San Francisco CA, Milk Bar &
3/9/2016, Santa Cruz CA, Catalyst &
3/10/2016, Los Angeles CA, Viper Room &
3/11/2016, San Diego CA, Brick By Brick &
3/12/2016, Mesa AZ, Club Red &
3/13/2016, Albuquerque NM, Sister Bar &
3/15/2016, Denver CO, Marquis Theatre &
3/16/2016, Kansas City MO, Riot Room &
3/17/2016, Ft. Worth TX, The Rail Club &
3/18/2016, Austin TX, SXSW,
3/19/2016, Austin TX, SXSW #
3/20/2016, Houston TX, Fitzgeralds #
3/22/2016, New Orleans LA, Siberia #
3/23/2016, Tampa FL, Orpheum #
3/24/2016, Miami FL, Churchills #
3/25/2016, Orlando FL, Wills Pub #
3/26/2016, Atlanta GA, The Earl #
3/27/2016, Asheville NC, Mothlight #
3/28/2016, Richmond VA, Strange Matter #
3/29/2016, Philadelphia PA, Kung Fu Necktie #
3/30/2016, Pittsburgh PA, Altar Bar #
3/31/2016, Hamden CT, Outer Space Ballroom #
4/1/2016, Brooklyn NY, Saint Vitus #
4/2/2016, Somerville MA, ONCE Ballroom #
4/3/2016, Pawtucket RI, The Met #
4/4/2016, Montreal QC, Foufounes Electriques #
4/5/2016, Toronto ON, Mod Club #
4/6/2016, Detroit MI, Loving Touch #
4/7/2016, Cleveland OH, Grog Shop #
4/8/2016, Chicago IL, Reggies #

Black Cobra and Lo-Pan on all dates
&= Against The Grain 2/26-3/17
#= Kings Destroy 3/19-4/8

Black Cobra preorder at Season of Mist

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Black Cobra website

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Mars Red Sky, Providence EP: Alien Technology

Posted in Reviews on January 21st, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

mars red sky providence ep

Before they issued their second album in 2014, Bordeaux heavy psychedelic rock trio Mars Red Sky offered up a short collection of tracks in 2013 called Be My Guide (review here) that, along with a prior 2012 split/collaboration with countrymen Year of No Light, helped to serve as a transition between where they started out on their 2011 self-titled debut (review here) and where that sophomore outing would ultimately take them. When it arrived, Stranded in Arcadia (review here) was nothing short of revelatory in its sound, leapfrogging the warm-toned fuzz of its predecessor and pushing further into psych and more adventurous songwriting without giving up the soulful melodic fragility of the debut or the heft provided by the guitar of Julien Pras and the bass of Jimmy Kinast.

As Be My Guide ultimately served to pave the way for Stranded in Arcadia, so too does Providence work in direct conversation with the full-length it precedes. If anything, more efficiently so. The title of the closing track “Sapphire Vessel” ties to the lyrics of “Apex III” from the forthcoming Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soul), and Providence acts as a showcase for another significant forward step the band — Pras, Kinast and drummer Mathieu “Matgaz” Gazeau — has taken in what’s become one of underground heavy’s most exciting creative progressions. Comprised of three tracks and pressed up via Listenable Records, it is a brief glimpse of things to come, but offers plenty of substance as more than just a supplemental outing, giving the band space on its second side to flesh out experimentalist tendencies and bring some of their on-stage openness of form to a studio release in a way they haven’t done before.

Helming the recording of “Shot in Providence” is Gabriel Zander, returning to the producer role he held on Stranded in Arcadia, which was recorded when the band was in Brazil. Providence was tracked in Bordeaux, but there are of course traits continued from the one into the next. The track starts dreamy and coated in wah before unveiling the chugging riff that will serve as its core and jamming outward from there en route to its first verse, Pras arriving at about the minute mark to setup the hook with themes of alienation, repetitions of “I was shot in Providence” that will recur in each subsequent verse, and hard rhymes with that line atop that bouncing riff, which Gazeau meets head-on with tom runs and a hi-hat that seems to carry the load as far as time-keeping goes.

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Just before 2:40, they abruptly shift back to the intro and top it with a chorus before quickly turning again back into the next verse, making the same change again and fleshing out a lead before stopping after five minutes in and gracefully unfolding a spacier verse of far-off guitar and vocals, building to an explosive heavier push — you’ll know it when Kinast comes back in — that serves as the beginning song’s peak. They’re content to ride that groove for a few measures, and rightly so, but soon enough they pull back on the pacing and open up to Stranded in Arcadia-style largesse that’s as forceful as it is righteous. A languid chorus finishes out in residual tones and echo that cap side A of the vinyl, leaving side B to pick up with “The Homesick Deaf,” which was recorded live in Bordeaux in May 2014 and is comprised of ambient and field recordings by Julia Al Abed, who was a guest at the show, which was dubbed “Into the Mars Red Sound.”

Beach sounds, birds, laughing children, quiet, emergent swells of guitar, a gradual drum/bass progression, and finally sirens and shouting would seem to make up the bulk of the four-and-a-half-minute “The Homesick Deaf,” though to be quiet honest I’m not sure of the exact moment when that ends and when “Sapphire Vessel” begins. Pras enters over a spacious guitar part for a verse, but the real course for the track seems to be set when the acoustics and electrics start to weave together, the former vigorously strummed alongside struck low-end piano, the latter patterning out wispy lead-line melancholia in multiple layers. Cello enters. The result is beautiful.

“Sapphire Vessel” moves forward patiently but with purpose, building along the way but never losing its evocative, wistful feel, and eventually it arrives at a point where a chorus shows up, and other elements begin to work their way out. The guitars go and come again, the piano seems to step back, and finally the song ends in a fashion that seems ready to shift right to the Apex III (Praise for the Burning Soulintro, “Alien Grounds.” The CD version of Providence includes four live bonus tracks recorded in the late hours of 2015 culled from prior releases, but the crux of the EP’s accomplishment is to step ahead from where Mars Red Sky were on Stranded in Arcadia and into where they’re going with Apex III. It shows that even the ground between the two can be a gorgeous, vibrant and expansive place.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that I will be hosting the band at the first-ever The Obelisk All-Dayer in August at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn, and that they’re being paid for that appearance. I think if you look at the review links above, there’s sufficient argument to be made that I’d be writing about this EP even if that were not the case.]

Mars Red Sky, “Shot in Providence” official video

Mars Red Sky on Thee Facebooks

Mars Red Sky BigCartel store

Listenable Records

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The Skull Stream “The Longing” & “The Skull” from New EP

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 20th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

the skull

In Fall 2014, Chicago doomers The Skull offered up their debut album, For Those Which are Asleep (review here), on Tee Pee Records. For a few years prior, the band had been kicking around as a solid five-piece, mostly playing out with takes on classic material from Trouble, of which vocalist Eric Wagner (who also has a new solo album out) and bassist Ron Holzner were members during what might be called that band’s peak era. The Skull has seen a number of other players come and go around WagnerHolzner and guitarist Lothar Keller, including former Trouble drummer Jeff “Oly” Olson and guitarist Matt Goldsborough, who has filled in with Pentagram for Victor Griffin. And their evolution continues in 2016. Their new self-titled five-song EP, called simply The Skull, finds the trio of KellerHolzner and Wagner joined by former Pentagram drummer Sean Saley and Witch Mountain guitarist Rob Wrong and presents the first new studio material from the group since For Those Which are Asleep in its leadoff track “The Longing.”

The classic doom swing of Trouble‘s landmark works lives on in The Skull — not to mention Trouble, who are also still active — but even as Wagner and Holzner continue to pay homage to what that band did, The Skull has its own progression under way as well. The LP showed that and the EP does likewise, whether it’s the high-low pairing of vocal the skull the skull eplayers in the chorus or the solo shredded out over the song’s transmoded “Hole in the Sky” riff. “The Longing,” which lives lyrically up to that title in describing a particular kind of soul torture, is paired with a remake of the Trouble song after which The Skull are named, taken from the 1985 sophomore outing of which it also served as the title-track. A cover, since Wagner is the only member tying the band to the album (Sean McAllister played bass on that record), tapping into Trouble‘s Christian lyrical themes and meeting them with an updated tonality, production, and sense of depth in the mix, which remains even in the furious thrashing apex late in the track, in which the guitars put on another clinic and Wagner pushes his voice to the point of breaking without going over that line.

Admittedly, the new studio material — these two songs — is a draw, but 2016 will see considerable touring from The Skull as well, and in addition to the perhaps-underappreciated “A New Generation” from For Those Which are Asleep, the recently-recorded live tracks “Assassin” (another Trouble cover, from Psalm 9) and “Til the Sun Turns Black,” captured just last month at Reggies in Chicago, make a solid case for the band’s live dynamic, even with this still-new lineup, and as they make ready to head to Europe for the first time — not before they represent their hometown in supporting Sleep at Thalia Hall on Jan. 27 — it seems apparent they chose to name the EP The Skull not just because of the Trouble tune they’re covering on it, but because of how well it represents the various sides of what they do, whether that’s reinterpreting a classic, forging ahead in developing their own identity, or bringing both to the stage with vitality that helped craft that legacy in doom in the first place.

The Skull‘s The Skull EP is out Jan. 22, and its studio tracks are available now to stream on the player below. More info on the release follows, as well as The Skull‘s tour dates, of which there are many.

Please enjoy:

New song, “The Longing” and updated take on “The Skull”. Also, ‘A New Generation” + 2 live tracks, recorded 12.4.15 in Chicago.

THE SKULL recently recorded two songs for a 7″ single for Tee Pee Records to be released in April. “The Longing” is a bluesy doom metal traditional Skull song while B-side “The Skull” is an updated version of the classic song that originally appeared on Trouble’s 1985 record of the same name.

1. The Longing
2. A New Generation (from “For Those Which Are Aleep”)
3. The Skull
4. Assassin (LIVE in Chicago)
5. Til the Sun Turns Black (LIVE in Chicago)

“Having named the band THE SKULL after the classic horror movie of the same name it seemed fitting to do an updated version of a song I co-wrote called “The Skull” for its 30 year anniversary,” commented vocalist Eric Wagner. ” Its the perfect B-side and Lyrically resonates in the World we live in Now….and it happens to be the name of our band. Funny how that works out.”

THE SKULL recorded their packed concert December 4th at Reggies Rock Club in Chicago and picked two additional songs to add to the new EP/CD. “Till the Sun Turns Black” a heavy Bluesy number and the crowd favorite “Assassin” will join “The Skull” and “The Longing” (from the 7″) as well as the single “A New Generation” from their critically acclaimed debut record “For Those Which Are Asleep.”

“We are eagerly anticipating having the EP in our hands and for sale at our SOLD OUT pre-tour show with SLEEP at the Thalia Hall in Chicago, added bassist Ron Holzner. This year is starting off with a bang and gonna be a busy one.”

THE SKULL ON TOUR:
Jan 27 Thaila Hall Chicago, IL w/ Sleep
Feb 26 Little Devil Tilburg, Netherlands
Feb 27 Poppodium Q-Factory Amsterdam, Netherlands
Feb 29 Underground Koln, Germany
Mar 01 Forum Bielefeld, Germany
Mar 03 Klubsen Hamburg, Germany
Mar 04 Bandhaus Leipzig, Germany
Mar 05 JUZ Klex Greifswald, Germany
Mar 06 Ucho Gdynia, Poland
Mar 08 Paunchy Cats Lichtenfels, Germany
Mar 09 Chemiefabrik Dresden, Germany
Mar 10 Cassiopeia Berlin, Germany
Mar 11 Framus & Warwick Music Hall Markneukirchen, Germany
Mar 12 Backstage München, Germany
Mar 14 Explosiv Graz, Austria
Mar 15 Museum Obchodu Bratislava, Slovakia
Mar 16 Dürer Kert Budapest, Hungary
Mar 17 Viper Room Wien, Austria
Mar 18 Weekender Club Innsbruck, Austria
Mar 19 Freakclub Bologna, Italy
Mar 20 Jubez Karlsruhe, Germany
Apr 14 Roadburn Festival Tilburg, Netherlands
Apr 15 Roadburn Festival Tilburg, Netherlands
Apr 16 1000Fryd Aalborg, Denmark
Apr 17 Stengade København N, Denmark
Apr 19 Truckstop Alaska Gothenburg, Sweden
Apr 20 Revolver Oslo, Norway
Apr 21 Onkel Aksel Kristiansand, Norway
Apr 22 Tribute Sandnes, Norway
Apr 23 Inside Bergen, Norway
Jun 18 HellFest Clisson, France

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Conan, Revengeance: Brutal Refinement

Posted in Reviews on January 19th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

conan revengeance

Over the last six years, the threatening rumble and mad-dash intensity of Liverpool’s Conan has grown to become one of the most reliable presences in doom. Like bomb-toned clockwork, they have issued releases on even years — in 2010, it was the Horseback Battle Hammer EP (review here), in 2012 the debut full-length Monnos (review here), in 2014, the sophomore outing Blood Eagle (review here), and now in 2016, a pivotal third LP in Revengeance — and while that might seem like schedule-beating, each offering Conan have made to this point has brought something new to their core sound. Some of that is circumstance. Blood Eagle was the band’s debut on Napalm Records and the first to be recorded at Skyhammer Studio, owned and operated by longtime Conan producer Chris Fielding and founding Conan guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis.

The band’s methods were well established by then, their ultra-lumbering riff-led doom, minimalist war-cry impressionist lyrics and an overarching sense of drive to be as brutal as possible, regardless of volume at any given moment, but Blood Eagle brought a sense of sustainability to Conan‘s growth, set them up for a payoff that Revengeance delivers like so many heads on silver plates. The circumstances have changed again. In the two years since the last album, Davis has brought Fielding into the band as bassist/vocalist, and Rich Lewis of Intensive Square has joined on drums. These are not minor changes. Once again recording at Skyhammer with Fielding at the board, Conan not only have the benefit of executing these six songs/48 minutes (their longest LP yet) with two years of growth as a touring act — including in North America — under their collective belt, but of being all the more self-sufficient in the recording process. More and more, Conan has become an in-house operation.

While in context that might call to mind all kinds of images of renegade mercenary warriors, battle axes, bloody limbs a’flying and so on, to be fair to the material on Revengeance itself, it’s fair even to understate it and say that that self-sufficiency is to the benefit of the songs. Front to back, Revengeance delivers the punishment that has become Conan‘s hallmark, but there are distinct markers of growth as well even from Blood Eagle, and they begin to show themselves quickly on opener “Throne of Fire” as Davis and Fielding come together vocally over a chorus slowdown from a galloping verse. Davis‘ voice is in a higher register that will be familiar to listeners of the band, while Fielding has a more guttural approach, and as they trade off on the subsequent plodder “Thunderhoof,” the dynamic of Revengeance becomes clearer. Conan are using two vocalists as they never have before.

Fluid and tight shifts in pace on “Throne of Fire” and the steamroller nod of “Thunderhoof” are nothing new, but there’s development in the opening salvo that sets much (not all) of the course for the record, and the rest of Revengeance makes good on the promise of the first two songs, rounding out side A with the well-I-guess-we’ll-just-have-to-play-even-slower chugging of “Wrath Gauntlet” — Lewis distinguishing himself through the adaptability of his crash-heavy approach — and foreshadowing album-closer “Earthenguard” with some flourish of slow-motion wah swirl in its midsection. Psychedelic Conan? The three-piece are no strangers to a cavernous sense of space, in this incarnation or any other, and all things are relative, but it’s something that might perk up the ears of those who’ve been following the band over their last few releases. For what it’s worth, on “Wrath Gauntlet,” they keep it to a couple brief measures and then end the song with a return to the all-black-and-grey thunderchug, fading out gradually to end the side or, on linear (CD or digital) formats, set the listener up to be punched in the face with the immediacy of the title-track.

conan

With just a few seconds of feedback as warning, “Revengeance” is off at full-speed, Lewis d-beating behind an all-intensity progression from Davis and Fielding. They lose nothing of the album’s overarching thickness for playing faster, but “Revengeance” outdoes even “Foehammer” from Blood Eagle or “Grim Tormentor” from Monnos in offering even less letup in its first half. They slow it down drastically later on, but its first three minutes are genuinely jarring, and that’s exactly what they’re supposed to be, Conan not letting either themselves or the listener become too comfortable. “Revengeance” rolls to a grueling finish and gives way to the middle-ground riffing of the penultimate “Every Man is an Enemy,” which is ultimately similar to “Revengeance” in overarching tempo structure, but pushes toward a less devastating execution, bouncing early with just a touch of stoner flair and dooming out in its later reaches with a bit more of that wah that will show up again after the feedback cuts out and the 12-minute “Earthenguard”‘s launch-riff answers the question of what might happen if these guys ever decided to cover Sleep.

Might sound silly, but the track proves that’s a question well worth asking and answering, playing out with a more ethereal charge that’s about as far removed from “Revengeance” as one would think Conan could possibly go and still sound remotely like themselves. “Earthenguard” is a crawler, like “Wrath Gauntlet” before it, but in addition to putting Fielding at the fore vocally for the two verses — one near the start, one near the halfway mark — the track is notable for being the only time I can think of the band has touched on an improvisation-type feel. Jamming, in other words. At 7:20, there’s a crash where the drums and bass cut out, and the remaining near-five minutes of the song are given to an oozing progression over which is laid a languid, drawling solo that, if it wasn’t made up on the spot, sure feels that way.

Again, all things are relative, and it’s not like Conan are going full-improv space rock or anything like that, but clearly having the (physical) space to explore their sound at Skyhammer and having the well-earned capacity for directing their own growth has resulted in forward creative movement. “Earthenguard” is tucked away neatly at the end of Revengeance, and like “Wrath Gauntlet,” it fades slowly to end its side, but the song is a standout in their to-date catalog nonetheless, and epitomizes the band’s ability to progress without sacrificing their already-established aesthetic. That is the underlying message of Revengeance as a whole: That while Conan may have become a reliable presence, that doesn’t mean they’re to be taken for granted or that they have nothing new to offer. With Fielding and Lewis in the lineup, Davis seems to be bringing his vision of the band closer to reality, and as a step in that ongoing process, Revengeance is no less essential than any of its predecessors. Another notch in their battle helm, and more blown eardrums for the fortunate.

Conan, “Revengeance” lyric video

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Mammoth Grove, Suncatcher: Taking the Long Road

Posted in Reviews on January 18th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

mammoth grove suncatcher

Calgary heavy psych three-piece Mammoth Grove make their full-length debut with Suncatcher. Recorded in May 2014 and issued late in 2015, it’s a nine-song/46-minute collection self-released on CD that maintains the live, natural feel of the band’s two prior EPs, 2012’s Taste of What’s to Come (review here) and 2011’s self-titled (review here), but arrives with an immediately distinguishing element as well in the shared vocal duties between guitarist Devan Forster, bassist Tad Hynes and drummer Kurtis Urban. It seems to be Forster in the lead role at least most of the time if not all of it, but Hynes and Urban join in for backing harmonies on songs like “Gateway” that add a ’70s progressive feel to what are otherwise somewhat understated grooves.

Indeed, much of Suncatcher seems to thrive on playing seemingly disparate ideas off each other in mood or instrumental theme. Opener “The Storm” and “Sun Dance” create a sense of space that “Long Road” and “Rollin'” push against in swaggering, swinging fashion, and while distinctively weighted, Mammoth Grove‘s tones are never overblown, so the end result is almost like a shoegaze band decided to look up and start having a good time. Suncatcher bleeds that spirit. It’s evident in the starts and stops of “Choppin’ off Goblins,” and the sparsely-guitared back half of “Sun Dance,” held together by drums and vocal harmonies as it builds back to the earlier chorus. Even in titles like “Choppin’ off Goblins,” “Rollin'” and “Burnin'” — the album also ends with “Kirstin,” but one doubts it’s actually about somebody named Kirsting — Suncatcher is open in its informality, and that winds up being one more inviting aspect as the tracks play out across its span.

There’s no pretense about any of it. Even in grandly harmonized moments in “Burnin’,” “Gateway” or the chorus of “Long Road,” Suncatcher holds to its organic, stage-ready feel. Prior outings were recorded live, and there are flourishes of Echoplex effects and instrumental layering throughout that make it seem more like basic tracks were built on in the studio before vocals were laid down, but there’s a vibrancy at work nonetheless. “Long Road” doesn’t just pretend to have vitality, it actually has it, and as Mammoth Grove make their way through the midsection of the album with “Rollin'” and “Burnin’,” that doesn’t diminish. From “The Storm” onward, they seem intent on bridging the divides they’ve set up, between the natural and constructed, the grand and humble, brash and contemplative. The fact that they’re hard to pin between one or the other of any of those sides, and the fact that the songwriting is strong enough to carry them as they play to these different sides, make Suncatcher all the more successful.

mammoth-grove

Hooks are subtle, but made for repeat visits, and that’s another factor that begins with the bass/drum unfolding of “The Storm” and continues through the opening salvo of “Long Road” and “Sun Dance,” which begins quieter and moves fluidly into its still-upbeat-but-more-spacious second half en route to the momentum building of “Rollin'” and “Burnin'” that sets up what feels like it might be intended as a vinyl side switch as “Gateway” and “Choppin’ off Goblins” take hold. Not that the flow doesn’t continue, but the classic boogie at the core of “Gateway” and the higher-impact starts and stops of “Choppin’ off Goblins” — which vocally reminds of a shoutier The Golden Grass, who’d not yet made their debut when Suncatcher was recorded — feel distinct from what came before them, and all the more so as they make their way toward the closing duo of “Silver Lagoon” and “Kirstin.”

Mood shifts considerably on that closing duo, which one into the next also comprise the two longest cuts on Suncatcher at 6:48 and 7:12, respectively. “Silver Lagoon” picks up as it moves toward its middle third, but drops back again to a slow-swirling psychedelic blues as it turns over to classic lead guitar and bass work and shifts into a quiet verse and a crescendo finish that makes it clear the swagger preceding wasn’t just about empty sonic boasting. The track bleeds directly into “Kirstin,” with its sparse opening guitar and backing effects setting up Mammoth Grove‘s most spacious feel throughout. Its feel is different because of that intro, but the verse/chorus substance of “Kirstin” isn’t outlandishly different from an earlier cut like “Burnin'” or “The Storm,” but it makes a big finish in its last minute with crashing, kicking drums and sustained harmonies that close Suncatcher on one of its larger notes.

As a whole, it makes a cohesive ending and summarizes the breadth of the songs before, but as part of that, it also maintains that somewhat restrained feel, aware of its place on the proverbial dance floor. As Mammoth Grove skillfully tightrope that delicate balance without falling, their awaited debut long-player, even approaching two years since it was put to tape, both pays off the considerable promise of their earlier EPs and offers further intrigue as to what avenues they might take as they continue to grow. Some of their methods are familiar, but Suncatcher is nonetheless a brew working from its own recipe.

Mammoth Grove, Suncatcher (2015)

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