Review & Track Premiere: The Heavy Eyes, Love Like Machines

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 20th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

The Heavy Eyes Love Like Machines

[Click play above to stream ‘Late Night’ from The Heavy Eyes’ Love Like Machines, out March 27 on Kozmik Artifactz. Preorders available here.]

It’s been quite a first decade for the ostensibly Memphis-based four-piece The Heavy Eyes, whose members actually reside at this point in different states and who careen through the riffs of their fourth long-player, Love Like Machines, with a sans-chicanery fluidity that totally undercuts that distance. By the time they got around to their last album, 2015’s He Dreams of Lions (review here), the then-trio had refined their approach to a remarkable degree, building off the methods and the successes of 2012’s Maera and 2011’s Heavy Eyes, as well as concurrent EPs and other short digital offerings, had toured to support their work and, crucially, had found an audience hungry for more.

And though they took part in Magnetic Eye Records‘ tribute to Jimi Hendrix (review here), also in 2015, and issued Live in Memphis (review here) in 2018, there’s no question that the five-year break between their third and fourth full-lengths changes the context in which Love Like Machines arrives. But fair enough. The band itself has also changed, bringing in longtime engineer Matthew Qualls — who has helmed each of their albums, including this one — on guitar and backing vocals as a fourth full-time member of the band alongside vocalist/guitarist Tripp Shumake, bassist Wally Anderson and drummer Eric Garcia, and recommitting themselves to the prospect of recording and touring as The Heavy Eyes.

Their sonic identity remains based around their songwriting, and though Qualls and Garcia both add percussion here and there, Shumake blends acoustic and electric guitar on opener “Anabasis,” and the later pair of “Bright Light” and the especially catchy fuzzer “A Cat Named Haku” dig into highlight low end and drum compression, the overarching impression Love Like Machines makes — the album’s title line delivered in side A’s “Late Night” — is one that can’t help but be considered straightforward with such a focus on structure and such tightness of their performance. The grooves swing and aren’t shy about it, and Shumake‘s vocals and Southern-tinged lyrical patterns can call to mind ClutchAll Them Witches and Valley of the Sun at any given moment — and that’s before you get to the hyper-Queens of the Stone Age vibes of the penultimate “Vera Cruz” (with guest piano by Carmen Fowlkes) — but if The Heavy Eyes are sending a message in this sharp-dressed 10-track/34-minute outing, it’s that they’re getting down to business.

I don’t know whether they’re feeling the weight of the five years it’s taken to manifest their fourth album or what, but beneath the right-on fuzz in the guitars, the good-times hooks of “Made for the Age” and “The Profession,” and the half-intro purpose “Anabasis” serves with its acoustic/electric blend, there’s a strong sense of purpose behind the songs on Love Like Machines, and an audience engagement that comes across as being as far from coincidental as you can get. These songs, written in parts exchanged digitally over state lines and recorded in more than one session with Qualls and guest guitar appearances from Justin Toland of Dirty Streets on “God Damn Wolf Man” and Justin Tracy, who also appeared on Live in Memphis, on “The Profession.”

the heavy eyes

The latter is of particular note as regards the idea of purpose in what The Heavy Eyes are doing on Love Like Machines, since the profession in question — at least somewhat contrary to where one’s mind might go in associating the title — is rock and roll itself, and that song is nothing if not an example of the band’s pro-shop presentation, crisp and assured in its delivery and interesting to the ear without a hint of indulgence on the part of its creators. Even “Hand of Bear,” which might earn a sideways glance for a verse line like, “Copper-color skin, so you’d best beware,” in recounting a story on a Native American theme, is maddeningly catchy — “Whoa, yeah yeah/Guess he earned his name as the Hand of Bear” becomes a signature hook, backing vocals and all.

It is not necessarily a revolutionary approach that The Heavy Eyes are taking, but neither are they directing themselves to the tenets of genre, instead shaping these to suit the needs of their songwriting. Craft is primary. “Made for the Age” is the longest inclusion at 4:51, and no other song on Love Like Machines even touches four minutes (“Vera Cruz” lists at 3:59), with “Late Night,” “God Damn Wolf Man” and “The Profession” under three. Yet none of these songs or the closer “Idle Hands” at 3:09 lack character or identity.

They are deceptively rich in their mix and able to shift in meter from one to the next while maintaining an overarching flow to the whole that gives the finale a due feeling of spaciousness after the departure of very-Cali departure of “Vera Cruz” and the standout choruses in “The Profession” and “A Cat Named Haku” earlier, and the deeper one digs into the proceedings, the more nuance one is likely to find even in songs that seem so straightforward in their initial purpose. Ultimately, questions of whether or not The Heavy Eyes will be able to gain back some of the momentum that the stretch since He Dreams of Lions may have taken away are secondary.

What matters here, as Love Like Machines expresses so plainly, are the songs themselves and the energy the band have put into constructing and recording them. They leave no question as to who they are as a band or what they want to be doing, and with a decade behind them, they stand mature in their approach but still hungry-seeming, still reaching out to the crowd in front of an imagined stage, still inviting everyone to take a step forward. It would be a hard invite to refuse, frankly, and if one thinks of Love Like Machines as a live set, then it’s pretty clear The Heavy Eyes put on a hell of a show. They’re doing their part here. It’s up to the listener now to get on board, but The Heavy Eyes have only made it as easy and as appealing as possible to do so. That’s all they can do. Well, that and tour like bastards.

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Six Organs of Admittance, Companion Rises: Together and Alone

Posted in Reviews on February 19th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Six Organs of Admittance Companion Rises

As a fan of Ben Chasny‘s sometimes-solo-project/sometimes-band Six Organs of Admittance, I try to be careful not to look at too much of what he says about any given release before I form my own impressions, because what I’ve found over time is that the guitarist/vocalist/synthesist/whatever-else-ist carries a rare level of insight into his own output and brings such a firm sense of consciousness to what he does that how the record comes across in listening invariably ends up hued by what he’s said. In the case of Companion Rises — the follow-up to 2017’s Burning the Threshold (review here) — Chasny is the only player on the album and he weaves songs that vary between layers of intertwining acoustic and electric guitars and periodic washes of synth. It is a solo record, and brings out some of the intimacy of his earlier, bedroom-folk experimentations, but invariably bears the hallmarks of his overarching maturity of craft, and that’s shown early in the nine-cut/39-minute long-player with the at-least-I-think-it’s-keyboard waves undulating in the intro “Pacific” and the subsequent shift into “Two Forms Moving.”

Like good literature, these two songs are more or less giving the listener the information they need to process the context of much of what follows. A decidedly Californian vibe — Chasny is currently listed as being in Holyoke, Massachusetts, but has roots as well in San Francisco — plays out through “Pacific” and in later pieces like “The 101,” the title of which is even phrased in a SoCal manner, in which a busy rhythm of seemingly looped acoustic guitar and a plugged in solo arrives in somewhat manic fashion accompanying a bluesy paean to the coastal highway itself. The frenetic feel there is something of an extension of what happens in “Two Forms Moving” earlier, as the track realizes two progressions at once as the lyrics also tie into the title, and Chasny — who created a mathematical system of guitar playing and in 2015 released a pair of albums called Hexadic, as well as an instructional book for others, is no stranger to such conceptualism — executes acoustic and electric movements at the same time. One, then, is the companion of the other. It all ties in, or at very least can be interpreted as doing so.

With “Two Forms Moving” offering such a willfully multifaceted take, its feel becomes intense by the time the solo and the acoustic lines are shifting through their build. The entirety of Companion Rises doesn’t necessarily hold that pattern, but “The Scout is Here,” which follows directly, does. But the balance of the mix shifts, so that Chasny‘s vocal melody is more prominent, the electric guitar comes in intermittent spurts of solo flourish early on, and later shifts to a complementary role playing off the acoustic part and thus the song is more cohesive and less mindboggling on the whole. There is still forward movement in the two guitars — and there might be more than two by the time the five-minute track gives way to amp hum to close — but it’s still easier for the listener to process than some of what’s come before. “Black Tea” continues that thread, pushing the electric further down and bringing in simple percussion — it might be a hand tapping a guitar — as the singing takes on multiple layers and moves gorgeously through several verses. It is songs like “Black Tea” and the centerpiece title-track right after it that showcase why Six Organs of Admittance is still so often considered folk having long since let go of most genre conventions.

Six Organs of Admittance

If one is thinking of companionship, then that between “Black Tea” and “Companion Rises” makes all the more sense, as well as that of “Haunted and Known” and the penultimate “Mark Yourself,” the former of which takes a subdued, quiet moodiness that is as quintessentially Six Organs of Admittance as one could possibly hope for and blasts it apart after three minutes or so with a consuming wash of synth backed by far-off howls of electric guitar. It is beautiful and cinematic in kind, not rife with drama or pretense, but it feels grand just the same, and “Mark Yourself” answers back by bringing acoustic and electrics forms together once again, this time with other looped vocal arrangements and more besides, but gradually fading to a standalone line of piano, giving way to the drone soundscaping of closer “Worn Down to the Light,” which at four minutes long is an instrumentalist response perhaps to “Pacific,” though decidedly less wavy in its execution. In any case, by then, the album’s theme is well established and brought to fruition through idea and craft alike.

Ultimately, there is enough depth to Chasny‘s songwriting that the individual listener can decide how deep they want to go in their own read. Companion Rises, which even unto its sunset-thus-likely-moonrise cover art speaks to the notions it puts forth, balances richness and fullness of sound with the aforementioned sense of intimacy that comes in part simply from being a solo LP, even playing much of this material live would require a band or at least a pedal board big enough to accommodate one — a well-programmed laptop would do it too, one guesses. And even as it has to be acknowledged that although so much of Companion Rises is given to considerations of togetherness, it was made by one person alone, it seems clear through the listening experience that what’s being meditated on throughout is a sense of interaction. Place is part of it, as “Pacific” and “The 101” show, but it runs deeper through “Two Forms Moving,” “The Scout is Here” and even “Black Tea” and “Companion Rises” itself, the sweetness of the melody in that title-track at a deceptive peace with the organ line that keeps it company.

One way or the other — or, more likely, both — Six Organs of Admittance manifests loneliness and the excitement at being with others, and even if that interpretation is totally wrong and the album title has nothing to do with anything in the tracks and the whole thing is a lie meant to mislead anyone who takes the record on, it doesn’t matter. The simple fact that these songs can speak to these ideas and potentially others is further proof of how crucial Chasny‘s work is.

>Six Organs of Admittance, Companion Rises (2020)

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Review & Lyric Video Premiere: Gomer Pyle, Before I Die I…

Posted in Bootleg Theater, Reviews on February 18th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Gomer Pyle before I die I

[Click play above to see the premiere of Gomer Pyle’s ‘Laeviculus’ from their new album, Before I Die I…, out Feb. 28 on The Lab and Three Chords Records.]

A new full-length from Dutch-native heavy rockers Gomer Pyle isn’t something that simply happens every year or every other year. Or every five. Or 10. To wit, Before I Die I… is the third Gomer Pyle album, arriving as a 2LP through The Lab Records and Three Chords Records, and it follows behind their 1999 debut, Eurohappy, and its 2008 follow-up, Idiots Savants. While it’s true they’ve had a couple EPs out along the way, the latest of them being 2016’s three-song GP — which boasted “Side Kings,” also featured here as the longest track at 11:51 — three records over the course of 21 years, a one-per-seven-years average is still not a rate one would call prolific. One could spend months waxing poetic about the different world that 2020 presents as opposed to 2008, but the occasion bringing the band — with the listed membership of guitarist/vocalist Mark Brouwer, guitarist Mark van Loon, keyboardist Danny Gras (who also recorded), bassist Danny Huijgens and drummer Kees Haverkamp — together for Before I Die I… is more personal, and the clue is in the name. Like Astrosoniq‘s 2018 offering, Big Ideas Dare Imagination (review here), the title Before I Die I… is an extrapolation from Bidi, the first name of former manager Bidi van Drongelen, who passed away in June 2017. So that covers why.

As to how long some of these songs have been kicking around, the easiest guess considering the prior appearance of “Side Kings” is a mix of newer and older ideas, and Gomer Pyle‘s sound works much the same way, be it the progressive grunge of the penultimate “Your Demon,” which taps Alice in Chains-style harmonies and darkened vibes before resolving in a sudden thrust of harder-hitting noisy jaggedness, or the fluidity across 10-minute opener  “Remember the Days,” which gradually makes its way in over the first two-plus minutes and continues to unfold patiently despite an underlying rhythmic tension and a chorus of the type that one ends up hoping will be stuck in the head when it’s over, with just a current of pop-style wistfulness in the vocals that finds its payoff in the finale “Cyclus,” amid an instrumental build that the band gracefully let go into the ether after just four minutes of repeated lyrical structures and harmonizing. Across the 62 minutes and nine songs of Before I Die I…‘s span — and it is a span — the group make a case for themselves as being among the great lost generation of pre-social media underground heavy rock, but as with their countrymen in Astrosoniq, that “heavy rock” in their sound is really just a launch point for broader exploration.

Whether it’s “The Buzzer” bringing its hook after “Remember the Days” or the winding, swinging and brash “Scum Trade” or the insistent push of “Nicky McGee,” which follows — that one-two punch arriving, by the way, on the other end of the gorgeous unfurling of “Side Kings,” which is enough of a highlight that one hopes the 2LP positions it as its own side, simply because it deserves to stand alone — Gomer Pyle triumph through the varied currents of their songwriting, tying together sonic diversity through performance and distinctive tone and melody.

gomer pyle live at roadburn 2016

That’s not new math by any means, and while one wouldn’t accuse them of being revolutionary — for one thing, the word implies an urgency that despite some of their speedier grooves is undercut by the years between their releases — neither are Gomer Pyle anything resembling derivative in style. Rather, they present enough changes and shifts across Before I Die I… that one never quite knows where the next song is going to go, and that lack of predictability only makes finding out all the more thrilling as “Nicky McGee” rough-and-tumbles its way into the languid eight-minute stretch of “We Are One,” where the sweet and psychedelic guitar melody signals the emotional resonance at its core throughout the keyboard-laced linear build to come, meeting with a due payoff.

The subsequent “Laeviculus” is charged with distilling the sort of fluidity brought by “We Are One” and perhaps marrying it to some of the more straightforward impulses presented throughout Before I Die I…, but it does this across a six-minute run that still wants nothing for reach or memorability, thanks to a standout guitar solo in its second half, a particularly strong vocal, and a sense of nuance that extends to the timing of the snare hits around the five-minute mark. As it surges late and makes its sudden departure, it’s up to “Your Demon” to continue the momentum, which it does with a classic heavy rock swaggering groove, albeit one dressed in grunge melody and a quirky intertwining of guitar lines in the verse, perhaps hinting at some of the more open toying with structure that follows, but if there’s resolution to be had, it comes not only in the finality of the last thuds in “Your Demon” itself, but in the opening piano lines of “Cyclus,” which is, again, gorgeous and rife with class and sincerity without pretense, keeping a current of experimentalism in low-end electronic pulses underneath the emergent build, but finding its footing in the dramatic and sing-along ready vocals, though they’re there for a surprisingly short time.

Aren’t we all.

I did not know Bidi van Drongelen, and seeing the impact his loss had on the community of which he was a part has only made that more regrettable, but grief is universal and touches everyone at one point or another to some measure. The manner in which Gomer Pyle channel that into the scope of Before I Die I… is the type of homage not simply everyone could pay, channeling not just the sadness of losing someone who matters to you, but representing and celebrating the beautiful, complex wholeness of a life worth missing. Even separated from this context, its emotional crux is striking and powerful, and the multifaceted nature of the band’s approach stands up to whatever angle or read one might want to put to it in craft, performance and presentation.

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Review & Track Premiere: Sleepwulf, Sleepwulf

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 13th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Sleepwulf Sleepwulf

[Click play above to hear the premiere of ‘Wizard Slayer’ from Sleepwulf’s self-titled debut, out digitally March 6 with LP preorders up the same day.]

Traditionalist heavy rock has itself become a generation-spanning tradition, most especially in Sweden, where more than 20 years ago, early purveyors of hyper-stylized heavy ’70s analog-worshipers began to coalesce an aesthetic that continues to resonate with bands domestic and international. Though many of the microgenre’s once-lead advocates in acts like Witchcraft and Graveyard and last-decade comers like Blues Pills and Kadavar have moved on to more modern sounds in their particular approaches, there have been plenty of others to pick up the slack in bands like Dunbarrow, Demon HeadMaidaVale or any number of Sverige boogie acts. Newcomers Sleepwulf take a doomier approach to vintage vibes on their self-titled Cursed Tongue Records debut long-player.

Having signed to the label following two well-received singles spread widely through social media word of mouth, the Kristianstad four-piece of vocalist Owen Robertson, guitarist Sebastian Ihme, bassist Viktor Sjöström and drummer Carl Lindberg present nine tracks and 36 minutes of proto-doomed songcraft, willfully familiar as it should be but marked out nonetheless by warmth of tone, catchiness of the songwriting and the band’s clear ability to affect a mindset in their listener. Sleepwulf, which includes the two singles “Lucifer’s Light” and “Misty Mountain” on sides A and B, respectively, is a beginning point of what one hopes will be a longer-term progression, but its fluidity speaks to the band’s commitment to what they’re doing in style as well as the substance of the tracks themselves.

They are not dabbling, not getting their feet wet. They’re schooled in the methods and the modes, and whether it’s the sweeping groove of closer “One Eyed Jailor” or the shuffling jive of pieces like “Beasts of Collision” and “Tumbling Towers,” Sleepwulf effectively convey the tenets of vintage heavy doom without losing sight of bringing something of themselves to the proceedings, whether that’s in Ihme‘s soloing style or the melodies of Robertson‘s vocals, Sjöström‘s bass tone or Lindberg‘s clever snare work.

These are, again, familiar elements, and the spectre that looms over much of Sleepwulf‘s Sleepwulf is that of Pentagram‘s First Days Here, their ultra-seminal collection of early and/or lost recordings which, compiled in 2004, helped ease the path to set a generation of retro heavy in motion. And the dictates of trend have perhaps left vintage doom behind over the last few years, but that suits a band like Sleepwulf just fine as they roll through the immediately nodding riff of “Wizard Slayer” at the outset or tap Witchcraft‘s “Her Sisters They Were Weak”-riffing for their own finale.

The album as a whole is not necessarily slow in terms of pace, but seems to crawl just the same, or perhaps ooze as its tones unfurl themselves in the songs, and that makes its actually-downtempo stretches all the more effective. Cuts like presumed side A capper “Standing Stones” are spacious and emblematic of the patience that might emerge in Sleepwulf‘s sound over time, and even as it picks up pace to stand next to the likes of “Beasts of Collision,” there’s a sense of the return pending that does nothing to undercut appreciation for it when it arrives.

sleepwulf

That’s a skill in itself — to telegraph a thing and then pull it off anyway — but it speaks to the quality of the turns Sleepwulf are able to make all throughout the tracks here. They didn’t give much indication of such proclivities in “Lucifer’s Light,” keeping largely to a bouncing rhythm for the abidingly-unpretentious three-minute single, but the more insistent feel that comes to a head in “Misty Mountain” offers some clue as to where they’re coming from overall, though the subsequent “Wicked Man” — the opening line, “You were born a wicked man,” immediately bringing to mind Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats‘ “I’ll Cut You Down” — turns back to a more dead-ahead, hairy-toned style of riffing.

Rather, it’s in moments like the centerpiece interlude/side B opener “God of the Gaps” that Sleepwulf reinforce the atmosphere in which they’re working, and having done so, they’re all the more free to let loose a moment of boogie in “Tumbling Towers” as they do. You can have all the gear in the universe, record live to tape in a cave 5,000 meters below the surface of the earth with microphones made of mammoth bones or in the moldiest of decrepit low-ceiling basements, but the most necessary component to pull off a vintage approach is vibe, and that’s exactly what Sleepwulf have working most in their favor on their debut album.

Of course, the last remaining question about the band and their impressive debut is what will come next. There are a couple newer acts out there — the above-cited among them — who to one degree or another have carried across retro stylizations without losing their edge or creative progression, even if those who helped forge the path have largely let it languish. But it can be a tricky balance, and as ever, even more than the commitment to genre tenets, what’s going to help Sleepwulf most in the longer term is their songwriting, which is readily on display throughout these tracks, if in nascent form. The real trick will be to discover how Sleepwulf grow their doom over time. Will their sound expand to incorporate outside elements? What will that inherently do to the shuffle and roll that serves them so well here? Can they twist the tradition of traditionalism?

Naturally, it’s hard to even guess at this point, but even the simple curiosity should speak to the quality of the work Sleepwulf are doing and the fact that their project, whatever it ends up being, is worth pursuing, wherever it might lead. For what it’s worth, if one reads into the self-titled the idea that the prior singles were written earlier, then some of the material that surrounds, particularly in the longer side-ending tracks, does find a way to balance sonic complexity without giving up the basic sonic foundation underscoring the record as a whole. It’s another angle at which Sleepwulf‘s potential can be seen, but really, through any you might view, the picture is the same.

Sleepwulf, “Lucifer’s Light” official video

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Review & Full Album Stream: Shadow Witch, Under the Shadow of a Witch

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 12th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Shadow Witch Under the Shadow of a Witch

[Click play above to stream Under the Shadow of a Witch by Shadow Witch in its entirety. Album is out Friday on Argonauta Records.]

The two halves of Shadow Witch‘s Under the Shadow of a Witch break just about evenly into vinyl sides, each one bearing its own subtitle. The first is ‘Spearfinger and Other Cautionary Tales’ and the second is ‘Fountain and Other Love Songs.’ In this way, the Kingston, New York, four-piece of vocalist/Mellotronist/noisemaker Earl Walker Lundy, guitarist Jeremy Hall, bassist David Pannullo and drummer Doug Beans (since replaced by Justin Zipperle) introduce the two central concepts with which their third album is working, largely through metaphor, bluesy, distinctly Southern-rooted storytelling, but rife with a realization of the dark heavy rock aesthetic the band have been building toward over the course of their two prior LPs, 2017’s Disciples of the Crow (review here) and 2016’s Sun Killer (discussed here), as they’ve moved from labels like Snake Charmer Coalition, Salt of the Earth and Kozmik Artifactz to find a home on Argonauta Records.

Under the Shadow of a Witch contains nine songs and altogether runs just under 40 minutes in total, indeed opening with “Spearfinger” in immediate and intense fashion, the four-piece clearly rushing to get their audience swept up in the energy of their shortest inclusion, while on the other end, “Fountain” closes at over eight minutes as the longest cut. All between, their songs are crafted, arranged thoughtfully, and very much playing with a studio presentation toward a live energy. That is, they’re not trying to ape a live show by being overly or needlessly raw, but there is attention given in the recording by Paul Orofino at Millbrook Sound to maintaining to one degree or another the vitality with which “Spearfinger” casts such a striking initial impression. Even as the penultimate “Sour” leads into the finale, it does so on a swell of noise and layered soloing from Hall with crashing cymbals behind.

As there would be on a record with such consideration underlying its execution, there is no shortage of dynamic at play in terms of tempo and general style, whether it’s the subdued acoustic beginnings of early highlight “Demon’s Hook” or side B leadoff “Saint Magdalene” — fleeting though they may be — or the effectively-placed emergence of Mellotron in the final-minute slowdown of the former, the chorus of which lives up to its title, i.e., that hook is for sure a demon in its potential to possess. It would perhaps be the catchiest song on Under the Shadow of a Witch — the great irony of the album is that for as much as it’s meant to be taken as Side Caution and Side Love, as it were, the component tracks do so much work to stand out individually — but for the subsequent “Wolf Among the Sheep,” begun with a spoken preach and working along an anti-dogmatic theme critiquing organized religion in a manner well presented if familiar.

While we’re talking about ironies, it’s hard to imagine Shadow Witch, in terms of listeners, aren’t preaching to the converted there, but again, it’s the chorus that’s the real sway of the piece as it rounds out the launchpoint salvo with “Spearfinger” and “Demon’s Hook,” portraying Shadow Witch as a band sure in their approach and ready for consideration at another level from where they’ve been before. They have, in terms of sound, found what they’ve been looking for this whole time.

shadow witch (photo by Kristin Troost Hall)

A third album is a natural place for that to happen, but more specifically, one can’t help but be drawn to the sense of frontman presence Lundy brings to his performance here. Part of that is that his voice, presented often in layers, with harmonies and other nuances of arrangements — dude can sing, and that always helps — is forward in the mix as to stand out from Hall‘s guitar, Pannullo‘s bass and Beans‘ drums, but the storytelling elements that begin with “Spearfinger” continue throughout that lead salvo and into the lush and nodding riff of “Witches of Aendor,” which touches on metal in its later reaches as Shadow Witch are wont to do without ever giving in entirely to aggressive posturing. Through that careening, chugging finish and into the more straightforward side A finale “Shifter” — another chorus not to be discounted — Lundy‘s task is to unite the material through whatever variety surrounds, and he does so impressively while donning a host of characters and perspectives along with ample melodic command.

There are moments where the balance tips one way or the other between band and frontman, but that ends up adding to the overarching dynamic of Under the Shadow of a Witch as a whole. As “Saint Magdalene” introduces the notion of a more patient side B about to unfold, it does so with a stepped-back Lundy (relatively speaking) and a stepped-up groove, an airier guitar returning temporarily in the second half of the song amid soulful, bluesy-almost-in-spite-of-themselves vocals that lead to a rousing solo. The brashest and most aggro of the nine inclusions, “6×6” is call-and-response through the verse and crunch in the rhythm — all business — as it makes its way to the chorus and a jarring strike of guitar after the title line is delivered. If Shadow Witch are metal anywhere on their third LP, it’s in “6×6,” but that doesn’t come at the expense of songwriting, which remains top priority.

It and “Sour” make a fitting pair for a dug-in vibe ahead of the closer, keeping momentum rolling without losing the thread of complexity coinciding, even if less infectious than “Demon’s Hook” or “Wolf Among the Sheep” earlier. The eight minutes of “Fountain” that follow are time well spent, with guest slide guitar from fellow Kingstonian Pat Harrington of Geezer that’s built toward with a payoff of the bluesy aspects both in Lundy‘s singing and in the progression behind him. They cap with howling wails and intertwining solos in a fitting wash atop the solid rhythmic foundation that’s underscored the various moves made all along, and give Under the Shadow of a Witch an earned sendoff into the ether of its own making.

True to its side’s subtitle, “Fountain” is a love song ultimately, and while I’m not sure I’d say the same about “6×6” — I’m not sure I wouldn’t, mind you — Shadow Witch‘s performance across the span of the full-length as a whole, taken in sides or song-by-song, shines with the feeling of an intention fulfilled. It is the work of a band who went into the studio with a purpose, and who realized that purpose in righteous form. Preach on, Shadow Witch.

Shadow Witch, “Wolf Among the Sheep” official video

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Review & Full Album Premiere: Kungens Män, Trappmusik

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 10th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Kungens Män trappmusik

[Click play above to hear the premiere of Kungens Män’s Trappmusik, out today on Adansonia Records.]

Ye weary souls in search of psychedelic serenity, look no further than the Trappmusik, the latest in a line of offerings from Swedish explorers Kungens Män. Issued through Adansonia, the seven-song/78-minute affair is a mostly-mellow blissout, well beyond the point commonly reserved for consideration as “manageable,” but who cares when the waters they wade in — or scuttle, since these kingsmen seem to have a thing for shellfish, and, one assumes, puns — are so warm? Take the 15 minutes of utter joy in “Vibbdirektivet,” a directive of vibe that’s not only easy to follow, but an utter joy in the doing, with unashamed guitar shimmer and a subtle rhythmic luster to match.

Its subdued take is enough to make even the snare and fuzz meandering of 10-minute opener “Fånge i Universum” seem active by comparison, topped with cosmic echoes of psaxophone (that’s a psychedelic sax for those who can dig it) as it is, and one supposes that cut is more active in its way, but in terms of general scale, it’s still much more about setting an atmosphere of patient, graceful flow than shoving its way into the vacuum of space. Dug in and jazzy in its spirit, Trappmusik is affecting in the manner in which it unfolds across its span, from that leadoff to the trip-hop-via-krautrock-and-more-sax progginess of the subsequent “Senvägen,” which leans harder on the bassline for more of a nighttime richness but still finds its way into the trance of the 2LP overall.

The album is a kind of semi-departure for Kungens Män, who were last heard from only months ago on Dec. 2019’s Hårt Som Ben (discussed here) — which itself followed Feb. 2019’s Chef (review here), which followed Aug. 2018’s Fuzz på Svenska, which followed July 2017’s Dag & Natt (review here), which followed 2016’s Stockholm Maraton, 2015’s Förnekaren (review here), and so on through a slew of live and studio offerings dating back to their start in 2012 — in that it tips the balance in their sound in this mellower direction, but it doesn’t seem like that should be read necessarily as a statement on the band’s part of some future direction.

Rather, Trappmusik appears to have been recorded during the same session in May 2019 as Hårt Som Ben, at Silence Studio in Värmland, Sweden. The band — a listed lineup of drummer/percussionist Mattias Indy Pettersson, synthesist/programmer Peter Erikson, guitarists Hans Hjelm, Mikael Tuominen and Gustav Nygren, with contributions as well from others — reportedly recorded 13 hours of improvised music over the course of three days with engineer Isak Sjöholm, so indeed Trappmusik as the second may not be the last LP to come from that session, but is less perhaps an indication of intent going forward in terms of the band’s growth than it is a question of how this particular release was whittled down from those expansive recordings.

Its purpose is contained, in other words, and thus the editing of the material becomes an instrument unto itself. The framing. The process of selecting and choosing to highlight moments like the shift from airy guitar adventuring into percussive chill in “Tricksen för Transen” and the folkish keyboard of “Främmande i Tillvaron” — the latter entirely appropriate in its position as the centerpiece; its sunbaked golden hue not only rests smoothly alongside “Vibbdirektivet,” which follows, but gives Trappmusik a manifestation perhaps even more fitting than its own 17:50 title-track, which closes in much jazzier and more generally uptempo fashion — plucking these pieces out from the hours of what was tracked speaks to a sense of meaning behind the sheer construction of Trappmusik itself.

Kungens Män

Inherently it is a record that seeks to tell a story or portray an idea, and that is not only rooted in the traditions of Swedish folk and progressive and psychedelic rock, but in the fleeting ambience of these moments as they’re captured — there and gone, sunlight or moonlight, in the flight of escapist fantasy from the rigors and anxieties of the day-to-day. They call it their “chill out album,” and fair enough, but that doesn’t necessarily encompass the entirety of the mission, and it’s also not as if Trappmusik is only doing one thing for all of its rather considerable span either.

“Senvägen” and “Främmande i Tillvaron” could be different bands for the sonic disparity between them, and though the five-minute bass, guitar, drum mood-setting of the penultimate “Lastkajen” is hardly more than an interlude sandwiched between “Vibbdirektivet” and the expansive “Trappmusik” itself, its purpose in setting up that turn is further evidence of a master hand at work in terms of setting the overarching, grander progression of the album in motion even if the closer is inevitably going to consume an LP side on its own. That would be, presumably, side D, and with a more active bassline, far back toms and a returning saxophone in a suitable bookend to “Fånge i Universum,” the album finishes on maybe its most movement-based note.

The bass and drums bounce, and the guitar and brass seem to engage in a conversation based on mutual far-out-ranging. They go and go and go. It’s still trance-inducing to a degree, but one gets shades more of krautrock than the spaced procession of the opener, and it’s a palpable shift between the two. There’s still some tricky echoes working on the saxophone as it dissipates just before the seven-minute mark and lets the bass take the foreground — it gradually winds its way back and out again en route to the last slow-to-a-stop — but the general impression is more earthbound and less given to float than Kungens Män earlier on.

One wonders if perhaps that’s an indication the next offering will be their jazz record? If so, they’d hardly be the first to realize the connections between improvised psych and jazz, but as they have in the past, they make those connections their own as they round off Trappmusik with that gentle letting go, emblematic as it is of the soul and intention behind the collection as a whole and the underlying consciousness at work in making it. A gorgeous celebration waiting to be celebrated.

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Review & Full Album Premiere: Seven Planets, Explorer

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 5th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

seven planets explorer

[Click play above to stream Explorer by Seven Planets in full. Album is out Friday on Small Stone Records. Preorders available here.]

Seven Planets‘ third album and first for Small Stone Records, Explorer, is a simple-enough proposition on its face. The West Virginian double-guitar instrumentalist outfit on paper — things like “instrumental” and “West Virginia” — inherently bring to mind Karma to Burn, who are more or less the kings of the form of straightforward, (mostly) sans-vocal heavy rock and roll. But Seven Planets wind up on a different trip with Explorer, and the surface impression is really just the beginning point for what they have to offer on the eight-track/36-minute Explorer, a follow-up to their 2012 self-titled (review here) and 2008’s first LP, Flight of the Ostrich, both self-released. Eight years between records is no minor stretch, but with a recording credited to the band and mix helmed by guitarist Leonard Hanks, joined in the band by guitarist James Way, bassist Mike Williams and drummer Ben Pitt, Explorer‘s tracks by and large carry an easy groove marked by tonal warmth and fluidity between the players.

It may have taken Seven Planets eight years to put a record out, but whatever might’ve been behind that delay — life? — listening to the languid, semi-bluesy nod of the title-track, it’s easy to believe they’ve been jamming all the while. Beginning with “Vanguard,” they bring together elements out of heavy rock riffing and heavy psychedelic immersion, something that, for the first record, I compared to Clutch offshoot The Bakerton Group. The same applies to Explorer at least in the use of Tim Sult-style wah on lead guitar lines, but perhaps to a lesser degree than on the preceding release, since, as Explorer hints in its title, the band seem to be working here to find their own space and sound here in a progressive step forward from where they were those years ago. The drift of “Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress” shows a patience in unfolding its bluesy undercurrent and builds up over its first 90 seconds or so toward a momentary wash before receding again, cycling through with a solo overtop and shifting in its second half to a surprise bit of boogie before, in the last minute, the jam seems to take an improvised turn led by the guitar before coming apart.

That moment is important and feels particularly honest, if somewhat understated. The title-track follows in its own liquefied near-seven-minutes of flow, but the exploratory feeling is palpable at the culmination of “Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress,” and the fact that the band let the song follow its own path organically, even as it dissipates, is admirably honest and speaks to their ethic and lack of outward pretense overall. Not that their material can’t be thoughtful or planned out, as the initial unfurling of “Explorer” itself certainly seems to be, with hints toward prog structures and a spacier thematic as depicted on the Alexander von Wieding album art, but it’s the ability to move in either realm and to subtly shift between mindsets that gives Explorer as a whole its sense of character throughout its relatively brief runtime. As the title cut settles into its funky bounce moving toward the midpoint, with Pitt‘s drums and Williams‘ bass leading the way through the encompassing jam — something backwards layered in — it’s no challenge for the listener to go along with the groove as they make their way to the finish of the album’s longest track.

seven planets

The spirit of the material is nothing but warm and welcoming throughout, and certainly that’s emphasized in the title-track, which gives way to a quicker, solo-laced boogie in “206,” the presumed end of side A, as the two guitars hold sway over the creation of a swirl of effects and a central riff cutting through. Like “Vanguard” at the outset, “206” feels like something of a snippet, but it moves smoothly into “Seven Seas” — the only piece besides the title-track to reach over six minutes — and provides a buffer between the more psychedelic vibe of the two longer stretches when listening to a linear (CD/DL) format; a well-intentioned pickup in energy and momentum that, like the rest of what surrounds, asks little more of the listener than a nod-along. “Seven Seas” is particularly notable as the beginning point of side B as it leads to “Great Attractor,” which — and not just for the inclusion of organ (or organ sounds) lurking in the mix — makes for the most hypnotic one-two dive on Explorer. With the drums still acting as a grounding factor, Seven Planets are never in any real danger of floating away, but their drive toward meandering here and there in the guitars makes the later moments of “Great Attractor” a mirror for “Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress,” even if the ending works out smoother.

Shuffle blues guitar takes hold in the penultimate “Grissom” with a due sense of space, picking up at the end before dropping out and hitting on the beat into the rush of closer “The Buzzard,” which immediately begins the speediest movement on the record. Feeling more plotted than “Grissom” or some of the other material, the finale works around a winding riff with suitable rhythmic push and a summarizing feel in the interplay of lead and rhythm guitar, resolving itself in a last shove that, as they have at several points throughout, cuts away just as it seems to reach a head. Seven Planets never reach the same kind of jammy elevations as, say, their labelmates in Austin, Texas’ Tia Carrera, but neither do they seem to want to. Rather, their melding together of different styles and plays back and forth between constructed and off-the-cuff material and parts — sometimes, it seems, within individual tracks — is a distinguishing factor for their sound and ends up being the basis for much of Explorer‘s personality. Eight years after the first offering, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise to find that Seven Planets have progressed as a band, but they’ve also managed to hold onto the essential instrumental conversation between them that allows those improvisational stretches to shine through.

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Review & Full Album Premiere: OZO, Saturn

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 4th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

ozo saturn

[Click play above to stream Saturn by OZO in its entirely. Release is Feb. 7 on Riot Season Records. Preorders here.]

It seems fitting that OZO should make their debut roughly concurrent to scientists unveiling the highest resolution to-date images of the surface of the sun. The Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, three-piece are ostensibly led by guitarist/bassist Mike Vest, known for his drone plunge in BONG and the spacey reach of Blown Out, among a slew of others. Joining Vest for the five-track debut album, Saturn (on Riot Season Records), are Ballpeen‘s Graham Thompson on drums/mixing/mastering, and alto saxophonist Karl D’Silva (a bandmate of Vest‘s in Drunk in Hell), and together, the trio burn through improvisational pieces of varied tenure but largely united purpose, as though someone flipped a switch and said, “okay, go,” and off they went. Entirely instrumental, the record wails through most of its 38-minute run, Thompson‘s drums not so much holding progressions to the ground as propelling them up from the surface into the airless ether, as heard on the shorter “Side Way,” just three-plus minutes, but a jazzy vibe that urges listeners to pick their favorite Coltrane for a comparison (Alice!) and roll with the heady, dug-in spirit. They are gone and gone and gone.

Would be almost unfair to call it self-indulgent, since that’s the idea. The exploratory go-ness of these pieces, especially as a first offering of any sort from OZO, are a clarion to free-fusion tweakers and anyone anywhere slightly out of phase with their surroundings, the just-don’t-fit feel comes through resonant through “Lifeship” at the outset and again in the resilient echoes and avant drum expressions of closer “Centuries.” Of course, an obvious focal point for the LP are its two broadest jams, “Saturn” (12:47) and “Nuclear Fuel” (11:06), which together comprise the majority of Saturn‘s runtime. While “Lifeship” and “Slide Way” burn out cosmic and “Centuries” harnesses an emergent wash of noise alongside its noteworthy rhythmic freakery, it is the drift and shove of “Saturn” and the encompassing howl of “Nuclear Fuel” that ultimately define the album, appearing in succession as they do after “Lifeship” as though OZO were aware of the challenge being issued to their audience — a sort of dare-you-to-keep-up mentality that seems as much a repellent for squares as a clarion to the lysergic converted. Come get down, come get obliterated. Fair.

The nature of extreme music is to seek not just a specialized listenership, but a that-much-deeper connection therewith on account of the rareness of the bond. One suspects that with OZO, those who can match wits with the band’s interstellar scorch will line up to do so again and again, which is fortunate since there’s already a second record in the works, titled Pluto. Walking through Saturn‘s fire unscathed is no easy feat, of course, but in addition to Vest loyalists, the jazzy appeal of these tracks should open as many minds to what OZO are doing as it might close. One way or the other, they’re doing it, and the resultant response feels like a secondary consideration at best.

the sun

That is, none of this material comes across as having been written with an audience in mind. I don’t say that as a dig against it, since I don’t think that’s what OZO wanted to do in the first place, and they stay true to their mission throughout. It just means they’re working on a different level and toward different ends. To go further, none of this material comes across as having been “written” at all. More like it was found, or perhaps pieced together out of elements floating in the air around the room where the instruments were set up. The inherent value of Saturn comes in capturing an expressive moment, the urgency of what’s being done and the traditionalism of free jazz as a forward-reaching reaction against form.

VestD’Silva and Thompson sound like people who find the conventional boring. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t, but it’s the portrait they paint in the burning oranges and reds and yellows of Saturn, a sense of heat duly depicted on the album’s cover. However off-the-cuff it may be — I don’t know if it’s entirely improvised or if there were overdubs after the fact or what — the feeling of spontaneity in that moment is what’s most being sought, and it’s what’s most prevalent throughout the five pieces that comprise the album. The songs leave no room for compromise. The commitment to outward-directed freakery is unflinching, and for many if not most who take them on, OZO will simply prove too much. Like a machine burning overload. That, too, is a purposeful intent on the part of the band. They’re willful in abandoning normality for the swirling chaos that consumes “Nuclear Fuel” in its later reaches, and the dream-sequence distortion of “Centuries” that wraps up is high order psychedelic noir that is just as likely to melt minds as expand them.

Dangerous? To a point, maybe. I don’t know if OZO are ever at risk of really falling apart here, and if they did, it would be easy enough for it to become all part of the non-plan, but as they move through the liquefied abrasion of “Lifeship” into the title-track, the feeling of something unhinged and vital is palpable. Credit for that should and must go to Thompson, who instead of trying to harness some cohesion and structure from out of all this churning brew becomes part of the freakery, no less exploratory than D’Silva‘s channel-spanning horn echoes or Vest‘s effects-laced guitar. As noted, OZO are already working on their next full-length, which one can only imagine will continue their through-the-temple-into-the-brain plunge, and however the two works may ultimately relate, their debut burns with an intensity worthy of standing alone as it inherently does in sound and style. Saturn presents a vision of psychedelic and space rocking extremity rarely honed to such a degree, and its vibrancy borders on blinding, which is all the better for OZO to catch you off-guard with their next hairpin turn. Hu-mans beware.

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