Review & Full Album Premiere: Sons of Morpheus, The Wooden House Session

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 21st, 2019 by JJ Koczan

SONS OF MORPHEUS THE WOODEN HOUSE SESSION

[Click play above to stream Sons of Morpheus’ The Wooden House Session in its entirety. It’s out Feb. 22 on Sixteentimes Music.]

It happened, as one might imagine, in a wooden house. The proverbial cottage in the forest, to which a band withdraws to remove themselves from the distractions of real life, society, obligations of employment and/or family, and all the rest of everything that’s not making music, in order to trap themselves into a creative mindset. In the case of Swiss trio Sons of Morpheus, The Wooden House Session is the second release they’ve been able to cull from undertaking this experience early in 2018 — the first was a split with Berlin’s Samavayo dubbed The Fuzz Charger Split (discussed here) that came out last May — and its six-track/33-minute run speaks to both the intimacy and the urgency of the experience, as the band self-recorded and effectively captured a live feel in so doing. Part of what let them do that might be owed to the fact that Schüxenhaus Ins, where they tracked, is also a venue hosting shows.

So maybe it’s not so much the getting-lost-on-purpose impulse as it was they found a cool spot and dug the surrounding way-out vibe, but either way, as guitarist/vocalist Manuel Bissig, bassist Lukas Kurmann (who also mixed) and drummer Rudy Kink embark on The Wooden House Session, they nonetheless play to the narrative of working to get out of their own heads as a collective and pursue something truly special as a band — to discover who they are. That may be what The Wooden House Session does, and if it is, fair enough. It’s their third album behind 2017’s engaging Nemesis and their 2014 self-titled debut, and so a kind of natural maturing point five years on from their first record, and with a somewhat rawer tone in the guitar and bass, they’re able to bring a grunge sensibility to tracks like “Loner” and “Nowhere to Go” in a way that the slicker production of Nemesis likely wouldn’t. Dirtying up their sound works in their favor.

That’s shown quickly as the introductory “Doomed Cowboy” melds together the Western-style imagery of the album’s artwork with the foreboding atmosphere and the dense tonality toward which its title hints. In the span of a little more than three minutes, its effective wash of crash cymbals becomes surrounded by siren guitars and full-on noise assault as a sludgy march takes hold and deconstructs to abrasive feedback and noise. It’s nasty, but it’s supposed to be, and it doesn’t last long before Kurmann‘s bass starts the bounce of “Loner,” which gets under way with more scorching lead lines from Bissig, swinging drums from Kink, and the album’s first vocal lines. Those familiar with the band will already know the primacy of Queens of the Stone Age as an influence in Bissig‘s vocals and in some of the style of riffing.

sons of morpheus

It’s less true on The Wooden House Session than it was on Nemesis, and whether that’s owed to the circumstances of the recording or just a general result of having toured more and worked to develop a more individual approach, it suits him and the band as a whole. “Loner” plays back and forth between restrained verses and a let-loose hook, but grows spacious in its back half, with a solo taking hold over broad-sounding echoes, and a concluding bluesy lick that speaks of some of the ground later to be covered on the extended closer “Slave (Never Ending Version).” Before they get there, “Paranoid Reptiloid” digs into my personal all-time favorite conspiracy theory, which is that of the lizard people secretly running the earth and using humans as food and fuel — otherwise known as capitalism — amid another right on hook and a more extended instrumental break that gets suitably freaked out for the subject matter, held to earth somewhat by the punctuation of a cowbell amid the barrage of crash, but still churning in a way that Sons of Morpheus haven’t yet showed on The Wooden House Session. They draw it back to the chorus deftly at the end, underlining that their priority is songcraft, which again, holds true until the finale.

The fuzz on “Nowhere to Go” is particularly satisfying, and arrives in surges of volume that answer multi-layered vocal lines with a fervent sense of strut before the track turns to its more fully-toned midsection and a rousing melodic ending. The Wooden House Session, very subtly, has been toying with structure all along, and it continues to do so with “Nowhere to Go,” but especially with the push in the second half, it’s arguably the most switched-on summary of the album’s appeal. They back it with the shorter, catchy “Sphere,” which serves as a penultimate moment of straightforward push before “Slave (Never Ending Version)” takes hold. It’s arguably the most Songs for the Deaf that Sons of Morpheus get, but by the time they’re there, the context of what surrounds is enough to still make it their own. And that’s only more true when one considers “Slave (Never Ending Version)” behind it. A shorter edit of the track appeared on The Fuzz Charger Split, but the full spread of it here tops 13 minutes and becomes a defining moment for The Wooden House Session, fluidly turning from the verse/chorus trades of its early going to a free-sounding exploration that makes its way farther and farther out as it goes.

They ride the central riff and the chorus progression for a while, then over time let it d/evolve into its own space, the change happening right around the nine-minute mark as Sons of Morpheus make it clear that no, they’re not coming back this time. The last few minutes of “Slave (Never Ending Version)” are given to building a jam up to a considerable wash of noise and then letting it end naturally, and as they do, they highlight not only a strength they haven’t yet really shown on the album — i.e. for jamming — but further capture the atmosphere and narrative of The Wooden House Session‘s making. This organic sensibility has been at root in the material all along, but “Slave (Never Ending Version)” brings it forward in such a way as to make it the perfect capstone for the release and the listening experience. Their titling the album after where/how it was made would seem to hint to it being something of a one-off outside the normal album cycle. If that’s the case or not, there are valuable lessons for the band to learn from its construction, and one hopes those carry into whatever it might be they do next.

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Review & Track Premiere: Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree, Grandmother

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 20th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree grandmother

[Click play above to stream ‘Cinitus’ from Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree’s new album, Grandmother, out Feb. 28.]

It’s not just that the direction Germany’s Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree take on their second album, Grandmother, is unexpected. It’s that they take that direction so well and so completely. The Stuttgart-based four-piece of guitarist/vocalist Simon Weinrich, guitarist Lucas Dreher, bassist Christopher Popowitsch and drummer/vocalist Marc Dreher made an impressive debut in 2017 with the similarly concisely-titled Medicine (review here), and thereby reveled in an expansive take on heavy psychedelia. Song structures were fluid, tones by and large were warm, and where vocals came up, they added to the overarching atmosphere of mellow exploration. In short: cool vibe, good record. The kind of thing that would make you want to chase down a follow-up.

Now, with Grandmother — a word that, like “medicine,” is bound to evoke some kind of image or emotion or at least association in the mind of just about anyone who sees it — the four-piece present through Pink Tank Records four tracks over the course of an expansive 45 minutes, infused with a linear dynamic split between its two sides. I’m not ready to call it post-metal, but there are times where its post-heavy psychedelia comes close, though as they show in the consuming 17-minute opener and by far longest track (immediate points) “Cinitus,” they’re no less likely to drone out on some cosmic doom à la the criminally undernoticed Mühr than they are to burst into a cacophonous echo of space rocking thrust before crashing into a massive roll and devolving to interweaving wisps of guitar effects. Really, “Cinitus” is an album unto itself — or at least an EP — but paired with the seven-minute “Craving” on side A, which presents a more straightforward linear build with vocals more direct in the mix, it highlights the scope that Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree have so readily taken upon themselves. It’s not just about sounding big or broad — though they have both at their disposal, certainly — but about emotional conveyance through aesthetic expression. It is gorgeous and complex in kind.

Like a relationship. Like family. It’s never all joy, and it’s never all misery. It’s a concept or a theme that runs deep enough to encompass anything, and at the same time still be open to the interpretation of the listener. As “Cinitus” careens its way toward the massive rolling slowdown that hits just before the 10-minute mark, a stretch of vocals seem to call up from beneath the guitar to provide an essential human presence ahead of the drift to come, and it’s one more way in which the band showcase the thoughtfulness of the shift in sound presented throughout Grandmother. This is not the clumsy donning of a style. This isn’t a band trying something on to see how it fits. One gets the sense that somewhere in the two short years since MedicineBees Made Honey in the Vein Tree decided they wanted their sound to do something else, and as a unit, they consciously made a choice to work toward that.

Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree

Their success in that regard is writ large throughout “Cinitus” and “Craving,” as well as “Grandmother” and “Dionysus” on side B, which both run about 10 minutes to convey something of an evening out even as their structures remain varied within themselves, with the former patiently moving through a spacious progression underscored by tension in the drums and rumbling low end, while the band hold back the full blastoff for the latter — though perhaps the closer’s most effective moment is the stretch in its second half where it drops the wash of noise and lets the vocals carry a moment of clarity ahead of the finale. Either way, the ambient sense of Grandmother is crucial to its execution throughout, and for all the consciousness that may be at work in the band’s growth from the first album to the second, they don’t at all lose sight of the emotional context they’re bringing to the proceedings. In the pulls of the guitar in “Cinitus” or the way “Grandmother” resolves itself in a combination of stomp and surge before a last wash of cymbals and resonant guitar gives way to a sampled rainstorm, the songs are as much gut as brain. It’s the malleable direction of one over the other that makes Grandmother such a resounding offering.

The pairing of the title-track and “Dionysus” is especially telling in that despite their similar runtimes — recall “Cinitus” is more than 10 minutes longer than “Craving” back on side A — they’re deceptively different in the ground they cover. If one puts a narrative of mourning to the progression of songs, then the reference to the goddess governing wine and song — Bacchus to the Romans — might be seen as a repast, especially after that rainstorm. But either way, it is where Grandmother finds its ending, and there is a palpable sense of letting go as the last verse recedes just before it hits 7:30 and begins to transition into the last wash that serves as its culmination. Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree are never out of control, in that moment or elsewhere, and that’s something they reinforce with a last return to the quiet guitar line that serves as central figure to the closer as they make their way out.

But that sense of control, too, is fluid, and if anything has carried over from the band’s prior outing, it’s their ability to hold sway over longform structures, toying with the listener’s consciousness while retaining a full hold on what they’re doing. They have taken on this breadth of approach in such a way that makes it easy to think they’ve “found” their niche and will from here work to refine it. That might happen, or it might not. But for a band who already seemed so sure of their take to turn elsewhere is remarkable. It shows not only are Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree capable of such a thing, but they’re bold enough to actually do it and pull it off. As to where that might take their craft going forward, they’ve also just made themselves far less predictable, which is another of Grandmother‘s noteworthy achievements.

Bees Made Honey in the Vein Tree, Grandmother (2019)

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The Munsens, Unhanded: When it’s Time to Let Loose

Posted in Reviews on February 19th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

the munsens unhanded

Though The Munsens call the mile-high environs of Denver, Colorado, home, their roots are along the Northeastern Seaboard in New Jersey, and sure enough, their debut full-length was recorded across the Hudson River from New York City in a town called Hoboken, which claims distinction as the birthplace of both Frank Sinatra and baseball. They’ve been looking for their sound over the course of the last five years, tracing their way through stonerly crunch on the 2014 Weight of Night EP (review here) and 2016’s moodier Abbey Rose EP (review here), but as Shaun and Michael Goodwin, who handle guitar and vocals/bass/cover photography, respectively, and drummer Graham Wesselhoff embark on their first album for Sailor Records, the five-track/38-minute Unhanded — which it’s worth noting is shorter than Abbey Rose by about two minutes — takes on a much more extremity-fueled approach, basking in sludgy groove and harsh, biting vocals.

There are moments where their prior fuzz shines through, as in the early going of penultimate cut “Bleeding from the Ears,” but The Munsens seem to be bent toward plodding their way into a vision of sludge that’s informed by brutality as much as heft, and indeed the centerpiece track comes across like slowed-down Mantar, their deeply weighted tones as captured by Mike Moebius at Moonlight Mile/Hoboken Recorders coming through all the more tectonic for their lumbering pace. But tempo too is malleable, and even in the 10:54 album opener and longest track (immediate points) “Dirge (For Those to Come),” the three-piece offset plod with blasting intensity. The result there as in several places on Unhanded is a sonic brutalism that is clearheaded in its intent and striking in its fluidity. They are not by any means friendly-sounding, but “Dirge (For Those to Come)” underscores at atmospheric approach late in its going, topping the nod-paced cacophony with an airier guitar solo that skirts the border of the hypnotic. Having become multifaceted certainly doesn’t hurt them, and the prevailing vibe throughout Unhanded is that The Munsens are hereby laying claim to the sound they’ve been seeking for the last five years.

It’s a convenient narrative, if nothing else, but there is evidence in the songs to back it up. The four-minute pummel and sway of closer “Rivers of Error” showcases The Munsens at some of their nastiest before its long fade brings the record to its end, but in the downtrodden riffing of second track “Pitiful” leads to a fervent gallop that’s straight out of heavy rock, even if its tones are coated in filth and the earlier vocals are guttural shouts reveling in their viciousness. That might be residual influence from what they were doing a couple years ago on Abbey Rose, but I don’t think so. The prevailing spirit of Unhanded seems to be more about honing who The Munsens are as a band. Even the title could be read as speaking to this kind of liberation — a sense of letting go. That’s what The Munsens seem to be doing here, and it’s a riskier proposition than was Abbey Rose.

the munsens

Certainly that release and Weight of Night — also recorded by Moebius; it’s a partnership the bass tone alone proves they were correct to resume — were dark, but the shift in vocal style puts them in a different category of bands entirely, and the ease with which their material careens from its noise-caked mania to either a slowdown or even just as standalone guitar as in the midsection of “Unhanded” itself willfully takes on that risk. If they alienate some heads, well, screw it. Plenty of skulls in the sea. The sense of crush they bring to Unhanded is purposeful and they wield it well, but even the act of taking it on in place of some of the far-back cavernousness of Abbey Rose is a bold move. The Munsens could have easily continued the path they were on, but frankly, Unhanded comes across front to back as more honest, and as the trio bask in this newfound freedom, it provides them with an energy of performance that bleeds into even their most lurching moments, as well as the brash onslaught of a piece like “Pitiful” or “Dirge (For Those to Come)” at its most raging.

But that’s just one way of taking Unhanded. The fact remains that by reuniting with Moebius, the Goodwins and Wesselhoff may indeed just be indulging an experiment of sound, and as resolved as they feel here, may be carried elsewhere by creative whims or the demands of future craft — i.e., “where the songs take them.” Given the context of Unhanded set against Abbey Rose and Weight of Night, I wouldn’t speculate, and while it’s telling that the newer release earns the distinction of being their first album while the prior EP had a longer runtime, that’s only part of the presentation, and it’s just as easy to regard the aesthetic shift as working in kind with Unhanded‘s overarching thematic, which is focused on a modern decay of environment and discourse. Lines like, “Not in my most fiendish of dreams/Could I have foreseen/Revolt so toothless/Preoccupied while pockets get lined,” from the title-track are tied to the current American social sphere, and likewise “Mountains of mistakes, ‘the promised land’/Rivers of errors flow with no delay/Buried in shit on our judgment day” from the finale, but neither goes so outwardly political as to name names.

Maybe next time, maybe not. The point is not to know. The Munsens have made their way to where they are on Unhanded by means of a genuine creative exploration, and for being their first long-player, they sound remarkably sure of themselves and what they’re doing across the bleak five-song span, but one would be blind to think they’re finished growing or don’t have more to say in terms of style as well as substance. Will they end up blending some of the aspects of their past work with what they do here? Will they push further into extreme metal? Have they secretly been a black metal band all along and just not told anybody? It’s entirely possible their next offering could arrive and be as unrecognizable from Unhanded as Unhanded is from their earlier output. If this record proves anything, it’s that The Munsens are in their element when it comes to taking chances.

The Munsens, Unhanded (2019)

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Review & Video Premiere: SÂVER, They Came with Sunlight

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 19th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

saver they came with sunlight

[Click play above to play ‘Dissolve to Ashes’ from SÂVER’s debut album, They Came with Sunlight. Album is out March 8 on Pelagic Records.]

They Came with Sunlight isn’t just the first full-length from Oslo three-piece SÂVER, it’s their first offering of any kind as a band. Released through Pelagic Records, it runs a punishing and atmospheric 51 minutes through six tracks of extreme and densely atmospheric sludge that, despite being so dig into the dirt, nonetheless maintains a progressive spirit in both composition and presentation. That SÂVER would know what they’re doing shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise, though, as the members are all pretty well familiar with each other. Markus Støle (drums) and Ole C. Helstad (bass) shared tenure in the also-crushing Tombstones before Støle and guitarist/vocalist Ole Ulvik Rokseth put out an album as the duo Hymn in 2017. As SÂVER brings together all three parties, the new group unquestionably benefits from that familiarity. In nuanced moments like the far-back shouts that offset the chugging central riff of lead single “I, Vanish,” or the maddening tension cast as “How They Envisioned Life” crosses its halfway point, they demonstrate a clearheadedness to their approach and a dynamic that’s new in this form but well established sounding.

They put it to use, primarily, to punish everyone and everything in their path. With opener “Distant Path” (11:03) and closer “Altered Light” (12:34) bookending They Came with Sunlight as its two longest inclusions and the first of them exploding to life after more than 90 seconds of quiet tension-building, SÂVER quickly put the challenge to the listener. Rokseth‘s vocals enter over massively weighted tonality like Neurosis at their most belligerent, and the intensity is striking particularly in the context of the band having just spent over a minute and a half with quiet amp noise setting up the suckerpunch of that first jolt. Patience and intensity, working together toward an end of extreme atmospheric purpose. It is brutal, and gorgeous as well, as “Distant Path” hits its late slowdown in excruciating feedback and lumber, devolving to noise as “I, Vanish” immediately jolts into its prog-metal-style chug.

Rest assured, I don’t mean gorgeous like floaty post-rock guitars or warm low end. SÂVER‘s craft is no less greyscale and freezing than their promo photo, but there’s a beauty to that as well, and “I, Vanish” reminds of the hard edges and distinct angles of brutalist architecture once brought to bear sonically by Meshuggah, though the three-piece never lose their central groove on “I, Vanish” or elsewhere in the name of rhythmic experimentation. Still, that mechanized churning finds its footing in the seven-minute track and is joined by an overwhelming push of screams and crashing drums, a version of noise methodical but still feeling chaotic before it drops to the drums and bass in the midsection in order, presumably, to catch its breath before the next assault. When that comes, it’s shouts that lead the way back into the central riff, which in turn gives way to mountainous low end and crash and screams at the finish, a full assault of volume through which the guitar is still able to cut with a lead line that seems to pull up just as everything else ends.

Saver (Photo by Mikkel Fykse Engelschion)

Since the first half of the tracklist runs from longest song to shortest and the second half from shortest to longest, one might call it a ‘U’ shape, but the linear motion of the 5:55 “Influx” is pivotal anyway. Essentially a soundscape, it gradually builds from an initial drone to crashes that are a whole different shape of punishment, essentially leaving the listener waiting for a payoff that, given the runtime, it’s obvious isn’t coming. That’s a play, of course, but even the fact that SÂVER would be bold enough to use six minutes of atmospherics for such a purpose speaks to the intent at work behind They Came with Sunlight. When the second half of the album opens with “How they Envisioned Life,” it does so at their slowest pace yet, and the crawl only makes their sound that much more malevolent. There’s a chug-and-hold modus at work, but it doesn’t matter, because by the time they’re past halfway through, the level of violence is so high whatever they’re doing it’s all directed toward that end. With “Dissolve to Ashes” and “Altered Light” still to come, I won’t call it an apex for the album, but just before “How They Envisioned Life” hits its sixth minute, there’s a kind of last shove before it starts to fracture en route to the slowdown that ends it, and it so clearly conveys the idea of total human exertion — that moment when a person has pushed out their last breath and has to double-over from the effort — that it’s hard to think of it in any other way.

Accordingly, “Dissolve to Ashes” couldn’t possibly be better timed. With a line of effects/keys/something woven through, the penultimate inclusion starts relatively mellow and stays that way for some time, delivering the album’s title line as its opening lyric in the first non-harsh vocals of the outing. There’s madness to come, rest assured, and it is all the more a cacophony for that quiet moment preceding — the power of contrast — but even that later barrage is indicative of the control SÂVER exert over their material and the willful nature of their conjuring. With just “Altered Light” as the finale and longest track, They Came with Sunlight ends on perhaps its most ambitious note and after quiet/loud trades, it is once more the tension that seems to be at the core of what they’re doing. After a long stretch of bass and drums at the outset, the guitar picks up to lead the way into the first heavier section, with screams cutting through as the song passes its halfway point, and there’s a receding after seven minutes in as SÂVER regroup for the last movement.

There’s a surge of volume, sure enough, but it’s restrained compared to some of the others throughout, and instead, at about 10 minutes in, the three-piece introduce a winding chug that will carry them out. They top it with shouts and screams, but it’s the tension that ultimately holds sway, not a payoff, and they end cold, as if the dead silence after was no less an element at their disposal than the guitar, bass and drums. As I’ve been writing this review, I’ve had to go back and check how many times I’ve used the word “excruciating” for the level of cruelty with which SÂVER execute their grim, concrete vision, but it’s worth emphasizing that They Came with Sunlight offers more than just noise or aggression for their own sake. There is a conscious underpinning at work and as these three players take on this new progression, even at its beginning stages, the potential is writ large across the devastated landscape they convey.

SÂVER, “I, Vanish” official video

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Live Review: Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar, The Obsessed & Mothership in Boston, 02.16.19

Posted in Reviews on February 18th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Corrosion of Conformity (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Not every venue in the Boston metro area has been turned into yuppie-fuckbox condos as yet, and so it was with what felt like due urgency I crawled out of my hole in the frozen New England ground and headed to town to catch Corrosion of Conformity headlining on a four-band bill shared with Crowbar, The Obsessed and Mothership. That urgency would smash face-first into a hurry-up-and-wait half-hour of driving around the block of the Brighton Music Hall looking for a place to park, but I still made it in time to be there moments after doors opened. It was going to be a good night. The show was sold out, and rightly so.

The C.O.C. crowd is always an interesting mix. Metallers, rockers, stoners, boozers: mostly but not entirely dudes. As I leaned on the barrier waiting for the show to start, a father was telling his son about the bands playing. So one way or another, there were multiple demographics at play. The lineup would serve that well.

I was back and forth while the night played out, but even when I was standing off to the side of the stage in the kind of hallway to back bar, the sound was full and the production, lights, etc., were dead on. The short version is it was a joy to witness and I felt stupid lucky to be there, but of course there was more to it than that. Here’s how it went:

Mothership

Mothership (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Before Dallas trio Mothership went on at 7:30PM to launch the night, I overheard a guy telling his friend he knew nothing about the band. I didn’t look back after the band started to see, but no doubt he like the rest of the place had his ass blown out of the room by the classic rocking three-piece. Kelley Juett is a ’70s-style madman shredder on guitar, and his energy quickly became a catalyst for the crowd. With Kyle Juett holding down primary vocal duties and bass and Judge Smith behind on drums, Mothership were way less an “opening” band and way less of a “support” act than they were a warmup for the rest of the show to come. There was not a head in the room that was not into it by the time they were wrapping up “Angel of Death” from their 2012 self-titled debut (review here), and as it was their second time touring with C.O.C., they were pro-shop all the way through. Though this was my first experience seeing them live — something for which I’ve long been overdue — the impression I’ve gotten from all their work to-date has been they’re a live band, and they brought that to to the stage at the Brighton Music Hall. They’ve put in significant road time over the last half-decade-plus, and it showed. With Kelley and Kyle headbanging away and Smith twirling a drum stick every now and again, they were a reminder that rock and roll doesn’t have to be a joke to be a good time. Short set, but killer set. Killer band. Will see again as they headline the first night of this year’s Maryland Doom Fest.

The Obsessed

The Obsessed (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Theoretically, The Obsessed are touring behind their 2017 return album, Sacred (review here), which was their first record in more than two decades, but really, it feels like anytime you get to see The Obsessed, it’s less about any single album than the sheer groove that holds sway for however long their set might be. With the inimitable — not for others’ lack of trying — Scott “Wino” Weinrich as the founding principal on vocals and guitar, Brian Constantino on drums and Reid Raley (also Rwake) slow-headbanging on bass, The Obsessed came across way less as a reunion band than a working one. This was their first night of the tour — I’d thought they’d joined earlier, but nope — but if there was rust being shook off or anything like that, it didn’t show. Theirs was a different kind of presence from Mothership to coincide with the doom-infused sound, but songs like “Streetside” and “Neatz Brigade” are nothing short of landmarks and a significant chunk of the foundation of what one generally thinks of as “traditional doom,” so yes, I was glad to be there to bear witness. Standing by Raley‘s side of the stage, the floor shook from the low end, and each pulse of Constantino‘s kickdrum was easy to feel in the chest. Topped off with Wino‘s signature tone and blues-drenched solo style, it was less of an assault of volume than a celebration of it, and The Obsessed‘s legacy — coming up on 40 years since their first demo — remains utterly vital to the landscape of modern doom.

Crowbar

Crowbar (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Right down to business with “All I Had I Gave” opening the set, which was enough to get a heartfelt “fucking a” out of me. Founding guitarist/vocalist Kirk Windstein, as ever, introduced them by saying they were Crowbar from New Orleans, Louisiana, and as far as the room was concerned, there was no more explanation necessary. There was barely space to stand but somehow the crowd parted for a mosh, and the four-piece sludge progenitors ate it up, drummer Tommy Buckley making a bid for being the hardest-hitting of the evening through “To Build a Mountain” and “The Cemetery Angels,” which found him, Windstein, guitarist Matt Buckley and bassist Shane Wesley all locked into a massive, build-up-into-slowdown chug that had heads nodding front to back. They played nothing from 2016’s The Serpent Only Lies (review here), going only so far as “Walk with Knowledge Wisely” from 2014’s Symmetry in Black, but with “Planets Collide” and “Like Broken Glass” tucked together as a grand finale, I’m not sure there was anything more I’d have asked of them anyhow. As Crowbar celebrate 30 years, their history remains someplace between metal, sludge and even hardcore, but whatever genre elements one might want to tag, they are an act unto themselves, and with Windstein as the central figure, they pummeled and pounded Boston to a pulp of local sports logos, blown eardrums and sticky dried beer. This was the best I’d seen them in a while, and for being so perennially downtrodden, their spirits seemed awfully high.

Corrosion of Conformity

Corrosion of Conformity (Photo by JJ Koczan)

There wasn’t one act on this bill I wouldn’t call veteran, even if the degree to which that applies might vary. Still, there’s an unmistakable presence when C.O.C. takes the stage. It’s not just Pepper Keenan, either. From Woody Weatherman on one side of the stage to Mike Dean on the other, Corrosion of Conformity were unquestionably the headliners of what had already been a great night. They came on with “Stonebreaker” from 2005’s In the Arms of God and with Eric Hernandez on drums in place of Reed Mullin, they stomped and stormed through “Wiseblood” and the newer “Wolf Named Crow” from last year’s No Cross No Crown (review here) before making highlights of “Diablo Blvd.” from 2000’s undervalued America’s Volume Dealer and “Seven Days” from 1994’s ultra-landmark, Deliverance (discussed here), the 25th anniversary of which they’ll be celebrating later this year at least in Europe and probably also the US — they’ve already been announced for Freak Valley in Germany and one suspects more will come. “Vote with a Bullet,” even for being the first song Keenan fronted the band, seemed a little past its date in light of a culture of mass shootings, but it’s still catchy, and “Seven Days” reined in some of that vibe, while “Paranoid Opioid” reminded of the band’s punk roots and of course the final salvo of “Albatross” and “Clean My Wounds” served as reinforcement of the heavy Southern groove that’s helped make C.O.C. an institution for the last however many decades. After all the righteousness that preceded them, it was their show without question, and they delivered on any level of expectation and then some.

Special thanks to Liz Ciavarella-Brenner for hooking this one up, and thanks to you for reading. Many more pics after the jump.

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Demon Head, Hellfire Ocean Void: Own the Hour

Posted in Reviews on February 15th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

demon head hellfire ocean void

There are those who’ll argue against there being any room for growth in a retro aesthetic. That the style is inherently stagnant. It sounds old, therefore it sounds redundant. It’s an argument as simple as it is ridiculous and Copenhagen’s Demon Head give a compelling glimpse at why by means of Hellfire Ocean Void. It is their third full-length and first through respected purveyor Svart Records, and it manifests a theatricality and progressive sense of drama all its own while staying loyal to an underlying classicism. As songs like “The Night is Yours” and “In the Hour of the Wolf” dynamically blend aspects of gothic post-punk, dark psychedelia, doom and proto-metallic tonality, the five-piece — a returning lineup of vocalist Marcus Ferreira Larsen, lead guitarist Thor Gjerlufsen Nielsen, rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Birk Gjerlufsen Nielsen, bassist Mikkel Sander Fuglsang and drummer Jeppe “No You Can’t Know My Middle Name” Wittus — bring individualism to established styles by crafting a blend that is theirs alone.

To be sure, this has been their trajectory all the while. Their second album, 2017’s Thunder on the Fields (review here), built fluidly on the prior 2015 debut, Ride the Wilderness (review here), and in that context, Hellfire Ocean Void is another forward step in the series — but it’s a big step. That can be heard as “In the Hour of the Wolf” picks up from the jangly “A Flaming Sea,” in which Larsen delivers the title line, and shifts in its second half to hypnotic progressive guitar lines as it moves toward its final, sweeping solo. It can be heard in the folkish vocal harmonies that begin side B with the acoustic-led intro “Labyrinth,” the way in which scorching leads of the subsequent “Strange Eggs” draw down the tempo ahead of the final dirge march, or how closer “Mercury and Sulphur” seems to pull the various sides together into one cohesive entirety for its eight and a half minutes. Simply put, this is the record that those who’ve caught on to Demon Head have been hearing the potential for up till now. It is the realization of their promise as a band.

Much of the noted drama involved can be traced to the vocals, and again, that’s been a steady factor in Demon Head since their beginnings five years ago with Demo 2014 (review here) and the single Demon Head b/w Winterland (review here), but neither should the work of the Nielsens on guitar be understated in its contribution. Even Wittus‘ crash cymbal seems to have a grand purpose in crafting the wash by the time “Mercury and Sulphur” is hitting its payoff, and sure enough the last piece to go from that track is Fuglsang‘s bass, so indeed, it’s everybody. And it’s a question of confidence, definitely. Demon Head are fast veterans at the half-decade mark, and while they haven’t spent six months out of each year touring and playing festivals, they’ve done a fair share of road time, so they should be as sure of themselves and what they’re doing as they are. They sound throughout the eight songs/40 minutes of Hellfire Ocean Void like a band experienced in the studio, who know how to balance live energy of performance with the opportunities for sonic expansion that recording allows.

demon head

Their scope, their sheer sonic reach, has never been so broad, and as the album opens with the quiet piano introduction “Rumours,” the intent of grandeur is clearly stated. And yet Hellfire Ocean Void isn’t overblown. It isn’t consumed by its own progression at the expense of the songs. Demon Head‘s naturalist tonality keeps them grounded, and their level of songcraft assures that even as “The Night is Yours” and “The Flaming Sea” provide an initial showcase of the band’s intent in conveying the maturity of their approach and how far they’ve come, their work is still catchy and engaging on a basic structural level. That remains true even in the wider soundscaping of “In the Hour of the Wolf,” with its goth disco animalia, the delightfully and willfully bizarre “Strange Eggs” and the patiently expansive and doomed “Mercury and Sulphur,” which comprise a movement unto themselves of nuance and character, but have their hooks nonetheless.

Further, Demon Head evince a whole-album approach not only within the songs, but in the patterning of the album itself. From “Rumours” into “The Night is Yours,” “A Flaming Sea” into “In the Hour of the Wolf,” “Labyrinth” into “Strange Eggs” and the penultimate “Death’s Solitude” into “Mercury and Sulphur,” Hellfire Ocean Void shifts from shorter-track/longer-track in such a way as to directly portray the dynamism of the band and a feeling of stylistic diversity. In particular, “Death’s Solitude,” with its xylophone (I’m pretty sure I hear that elsewhere too, unless I’m imagining things) and tension-building tom runs, acts as a direct line into the finale in such a way as to make one believe it was written precisely for that purpose. It’s longer than “Rumours” or “Labyrinth,” and the quiet guitar of its first half seems to foreshadow the breakout that comes circa 1:20 in, but after that, it’s the vocals in a showcase over an instrumental tempest that ultimately holds sway and moves into the closer after a quick fade to set up the stark strum of guitar at the start of “Mercury and Sulphur.”

It’s one more moment in which Demon Head so carefully but so naturally prove themselves to be masters of their sound. Hellfire Ocean Void is not necessarily immediate — it may take a few listens to completely unveil its scope — but when it does, it’s all the more satisfying a listening experience. And it’s worth noting that even as they reach this new echelon of craft, Demon Head maintain an abiding lack of pretense. As far out as they go, they don’t lose themselves in the work, and they don’t lose sight of the songs. The difference that makes across the LP’s two-sided span is massive when it comes time for “Mercury and Sulphur” to make its final outward plod; a stretch that is neither over-the-top emotionally nor failing to connect in terms of affecting a mood. With Hellfire Ocean VoidDemon Head serve notice that they’ve been underrated up to this point in their tenure, and not only reaffirm and manifest their own forward potential, but that of their genre as a whole, even as they grow beyond its confines.

Demon Head, Hellfire Ocean Void (2019)

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Review & Full Album Premiere: Red Eye, Tales From the Days of Yore

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 14th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

red eye tales from the days of yore

[Click play above to stream Red Eye’s Tales from the Days of Yore in its entirety. Album is out Feb. 22 on Alone Records.]

Spanish four-piece Red Eye give some credit to the history and natural environs of their home in Antequera, Spain, in helping them conjure their sound, and that may well be true. What the consideration of the karsts — limestone formations jutting from the earth; you would see one and say, “oh so that’s what those things are called!” — and centuries of culture don’t necessarily account for is the skillful hand with which the double-guitar outfit blend influences from modern and classic doom together to create the amalgam of their Alone Records debut album, Tales from the Days of Yore. It is a substantial work even when not considering its 51-minute runtime across just six tracks, but with largesse of tone tying it together and a songwriting modus that draws at any moment from Pallbearer on “Azathoth” or Pentagram on “BHC” or Sleep on opener “Encounter,” Red Eye — the lineup of guitarist/vocalists Pablo Terol and Antonio Campos, bassist Antonio Muriel and drummer Ángel Arcas — dig into epic vibes on “Hall of the Slain,” engage a psychedelic sludge on “Yagé” and plod out in mammoth style on closer “Waves” before the semi-hidden track “Halcyon Rhythms” closes out with folkish acoustics and flute.

The question there, of course, is where were the folkish acoustics and flute hiding for the rest of the album, but there it’s important to remember Tales from the Days of Yore is Red Eye‘s first album, and while their accomplishments throughout are significant, this may just be the beginning of a larger progression. Maybe next time, more flutes and acoustics. In the interim, it’s not like the preceding stretches of Tales from the Days of Yore are lacking anything for fullness of sound. “Encounter” serves notice early as the opener and longest track (immediate points) by beginning with a fading-in swell of distortion-drenched guitar, and it’s a full minute before the drums join. Soon enough, the drudge is underway, and Red Eye cast their lot in a nodding rhythm and focus around that central riff, one guitar dropping to feedback before the throaty first verse begins. The immediate touchstone is earlier Sleep, but in its second half, the rumble fades from “Encounter” and quiet guitars intertwine for a stretch to build back up to a full-blown solo and last riff-out, so immediately, Red Eye refuse to be beholden to one single impulse in songwriting. That only continues to serve them well throughout the rest of what follows.

Both Terol and Campos would seem to contribute vocals to the verses of “BHC” — the acronym standing for “Black Horse Carriage” — and the shift in approach from the opener is palpable even as the tempo remains on the slower end and a lumbering groove continues to hold sway. Some of the underlying swing in the chorus seems to tip a hat to Elephant Tree‘s sense of melody, but just before the midpoint again, “BHC” drops to atmospherics. Backward guitar, other noise and general drift take the fore until the bass — or very low guitar — picks back up to introduce the solo-topped section that closes out. One might expect them to return to the hook, which is arguably the strongest on the album, but instead they crash into a fadeout ahead of “Azathoth,” a more active stomp and (single) melodic vocal echoing out over the likewise mournful riffing until, indeed, a midpoint break brings them down to a subdued stretch of mood-setting. This time, subtle tom hits hold the tension and when they return, it’s not to a solo, but huge riffing and compressed-sounding semi-spoken vocal declarations — the righteousness palpable — but sweeping guitar leads the way out nonetheless, the three first tracks diverse in their approach but united in structure.

red eye

Time for a change, and “Hall of the Slain” is it. A faster tempo, a more prevalent Sabbathian swing and a catchy chorus make the early going of “Hall of the Slain” a jolt of energy well placed to continue to expand the band’s horizons, and they change the structure as well, going quiet in the first half quickly to tease a longer break to come. It’s a minute difference, but a difference all the same, and the contrast it sets up with the impressive tonal plunder on the other end isn’t to be understated. Vocals become chanting incantations in the midsection and the quiet stint — could use some flute, maybe? — heralds the return to the song’s central instrumental figure. There are no more vocals, but the repetition in the second half of “Hall of the Slain” works well to set up “Yagé” which starts off with airy psychedelic guitar and gradually makes its way forward for the first three minutes-plus, the patient linear build ably making the turn to full-tonality sound organic. While they’ve incorporated different influences all along, “Yagé” is as far into alternate structuring as Red Eye have thus far gone on Tales from the Days of Yore, and the shift suits them, a last verse ending with a shout and faster riffing taking hold momentarily as a solo seems to call back to the song’s beginning in an effective bookend.

That leaves “Waves” as the finale, and there’s no way it’s anything but. At about five and a half minutes, it’s a somewhat scaled-down summary of what Red Eye have done throughout, bringing together various ideas and loud/quiet tradeoffs, but the level of plod is upped in such a way that it couldn’t be anything but the conclusion, and very likely the band knew that even as they were writing it. It crashes to a somewhat unceremonious end, but “Halcyon Days” takes hold shortly thereafter, carrying the next several minutes with classic prog flair in a flute-led jam met with percussion and strummed guitar, ending with some conversation and laughing. For a band who already has room in their songs for such things, it would seem only natural to combine this apparent underlying influence with the heft they otherwise bring forth — hard to pull off live in the studio, but not impossible — but again, Tales from the Days of Yore is a debut album, and among its crucial functions is to set up avenues for future growth on the part of the band. It does that and more, providing a deep-running listening experience that shows Red Eye as thoughtful in their use of structure and pace as well as schooled in the style in which they’re establishing their roots for future development.

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Review & Full Album Premiere: Varego, I Prophetic

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 13th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

varego i prophetic

[Click play above to stream I Prophetic by Varego in full. It’s out Feb. 15 on Argonauta Records.]

Sure, Varego have the piano intro. Sure, they have all kinds of progressive nuance. They’ve got the six-and-a-half-minute title-track full of Voivodian sci-fi weirdo crunch. They’ve got the off-in-the-distance, spaciously-mixed vocals of bassist Davide Marcenaro. But you know, listen to the start of that title-track, or to the central riff from Alberto Pozzo and Gerolamo Lucisano of “When the Wolves,” or the intensity of Simon Lepore‘s drum changes in closer “Zodiac,” and Varego are still very much a metal band. Shades of Judas Priest can be heard throughout in Pozzo‘s and Lucisano‘s guitars, and while they’re definitely just shades — since it’s not like Varego are carbon-copying, well, anyone — that gives the clean 36-minute run of I Prophetic a foundation from which it’s working its way out. I don’t think they’d call it space metal or cosmic metal — the latter somehow would imply less psychedelia, so might fit as a tag, though “Zodiac” and others do touch on the ethereal as well — but it’s definitely in that nebulous region where “progressive” becomes a catchall standing in for saying the band are conscious of what they’re doing as songwriters.

There are eight tracks on the Argonauta-released I Prophetic, counting the aforementioned piano intro “Origin,” and while they open with the catchiest of them in “The Abstract Corpse” and thereby answer the question of what might’ve been if Primordial had been from Mars instead of Ireland with a fervent forward drive that stands tall among any of those to follow — at least before they hit the brakes — the Italian four-piece subsequently find themselves expanding parameters of structure and sound alike on the title-track and only continue to go further out from there. Regardless of genre, one might read I Prophetic as a kind of linear path. Following the brooding “Silent Giants,” which opens the second half, “When the Wolves” provides some measure of grounding, but still, it’s clear by that point that there’s really no coming back, and the closing wallop of “Duelist” and “Zodiac” bear that out.

So what is it? It can’t just be the echo on Marcenaro‘s vocals. Looking back to 2016’s Epoch (review here), their second album, it seems like I Prophetic has a tighter, sharper overall approach. Its songs are more sure of their purpose, and that underlying foundation of metal weaves itself like a thread throughout the tracklisting. One can hear that even on side A capper “Of Dust,” which moves from its initial progression toward more expansive fare while still holding to a core groove in the drums and bass. The interplay of the two guitars is definitely part of it, and the breadth of the mix is definitely part of it, but as “Of Dust” ends with a guitar solo, there’s still something so intentionally traditional-metal about the proceedings. Craft has definitely become more of a factor for Varego, though, and as the abiding buzz of the guitars work alongside the drifting bassline at the mellow-but-tense outset of “Silent Giants,” the sense of atmosphere becomes all the more prevalent.

varego

After “When the Wolves,” which at 3:03 is the shortest non-intro inclusion here, that continues into “Duelist” as well, and the more Varego depart from their sludgy beginnings, the more they seem to find themselves out there in the cosmos, frozen like in some lump of comet ice charting an irregular orbit all their own. Individualism suits them, unsurprisingly, but one doesn’t necessarily get the feeling they’re done growing. “The Abstract Corpse” howls into its barrage after its quick drum-fill introduction, and together with “I Prophetic” itself, it forms a statement of purpose that’s varied and rich, not without melody, but coated in effects — the title-track will earn them some Monolord comparisons, particularly as it moves into a bigger riff after the verse around the two-minute mark — and working on its own level. The end stemming from their means isn’t entirely clear yet, but the unsettling element of I Prophetic — its refusal to simply be one thing; metal or sludge, progressive or traditional — is part of its appeal and in the end, the basis for its success.

With Epoch, Varego made the transition from a five- to a four-piece lineup. With I Prophetic, they refine their approach to a striking degree, making it all the more their own and all the more intricate. Even “When the Wolves,” which is the most willfully straightforward thrasher included, has a level of sonic detail that begs for multiple listens and a kind of mental dissection: “What are they doing here?” The answer to that question, though, requires stepping back and taking the album in its entirety. What they’re doing is melding heavy metal to their own purposes. It’s not about homage to the past so much as building off the past, their own as well as that of others. It takes time for a band to discover who they really are in terms of sound — and, I suppose, everything else — but it feels like Varego have found themselves here, and like I Prophetic works so fluidly across its span to move outward from where it begins, one would expect the band to do no less their next time out in continuing to progress along the line they’re drawing.

A key, perhaps telling moment is shortly before three minutes into “Zodiac,” when the song hangs a left and slows down in the guitar, vocals layering over what’s clearly the final march. They ring out for a while to end it, but before that, they stake their claim on a marked distance from where they started out in “The Abstract Corpse,” and the spectrum they’ve run in that time — still an utterly manageable 36 minutes — is an accomplishment unto itself. Do I think they’re done growing? No. This kind of progressive songwriting rarely stagnates. But I Prophetic serves a crucial function as that moment of arrival for them, and of course thereby sets up the inevitable departure to follow. Varego have come into their own. What they do now is entirely up to them.

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