T.G. Olson, The Broken End of the Deal: Distill and Ferment

Posted in Reviews on August 24th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

tg olson the broken end of the deal

The odd dichotomy that has taken hold in the output of T.G. Olson is that he’s just about completely reliable but you never quite know what you’re going to get. We’re now three years removed from Electric Relics (review here), the last full-length from Olson‘s main outfit, Across Tundras, but in that time the guitarist, vocalist, auteur and DIY packaging specialist has hardly kept still. To wit, he’s put forth no fewer than six solo offerings, including 2013’s The Bad Lands to Cross (discussed here) and Hell’s Half Acre (discussed here), 2014’s The Rough Embrace (review here; vinyl review here), 2015’s The Wandering Protagonist (review here) and The Boom and Bust (discussed here), and 2016’s Quicksilver Sound (discussed here), along with a 2016 Across Tundras EP, Home Free (discussed here).

These all arrived in much the same way as his latest outing, The Broken End of the Deal — via Bandcamp, name-your-price download with a possible follow-up physical pressing on tape, CD or vinyl, usually in a limited, dirt-cheap handcrafted package, tossed into the great digital ether almost completely sans fanfare. Perhaps the underlying truth of Olson‘s work is that he’s too busy writing new releases to promote the ones he’s already finished, but either way, the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, by way of Nashville, Tennessee, by way of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native brings out some of his richest and most complex soundscaping on The Broken End of the Deal, effectively marrying two sides of his prior solo material that have grown together over time so that cinematic drone and barebones Americana almost impossibly coexist and flow in parallel across eight tracks/28 minutes that nonetheless keep a strong current of improvisation at their core.

In addition to helming the recording, Olson played all the instruments — some I wouldn’t even guess what they are — on The Broken End of the Deal, and he’s worked in this form enough times by now that it’s clear he knows what he’s going for sound-wise, though his process is still well open enough to let happy accidents happen when they will. Organ adds a gospel inflection to the end of the drone-folk opener “Tough Break” and the following “Hope Slivers,” as well as the closing duo of “Always Turning Away” and “Walk the Lonesome Valley,” and while one doubts that bookend is coincidental, it’s hardly the full tale when it comes to the scope of the album. And at 28 minutes, it is an album. In its construction, flow and ambient depth, The Broken End of the Deal builds a fluid full-length momentum, and though some tracks are barely more than on either side of a minute long, like “Green Sahara” (more organ there as well), the string-infused “Hum” or the aforementioned “Always Turning Away,” they add to what longer pieces like “Tough Break” and eight-minute album highlight “Blisslessness” accomplish in atmosphere and overall breadth.

tg olson

Tied together by a spirit of persistent twang, Olson‘s vocals, and overriding melancholy, as well as background drones that fill spaces that otherwise might give way to minimalism, The Broken End of the Deal allows its arrangements to wander, “Hope Slivers” blending acoustic and electric guitar, organs, drones, harmonica and voice, as well presumably as two or three other things Olson had in the room at that time. It’s the fact that nothing feels out of place or like it pushes too far that makes the songwriting such a standout. “Green Sahara” gives way to open-country psychedelia, an ethereal pastoralism that one wishes were more than 1:21, but “Blisslessness” hums in on guitar noise and flute and keys, and unfolds a full experimentalist dronescape almost completely departed sonically from “Tough Break” or even “Hope Slivers,” but still of the same spirit and among the most evocative of Olson‘s individual solo pieces.

The transition into “Hum” comes with a fade out and back in, and the briefest cut on The Broken End of the Deal at just 55 seconds long digging quickly into a foreboding swirl before the more immediate guitar/drone/vocal start of “Distilled to Nothing” begins, Olson‘s verse delivered quietly and still with plenty of effects, but nonetheless forward in the mix in a way it isn’t on earlier tracks. Repetitions of the title line, “Distilled down to nothing,” seem to hint at the root message of the record, but that this dirge should come with such a complex wash of sound is a contrast that shouldn’t be overlooked. Olson‘s done barebones before — though written and recorded completely on his own, this isn’t necessarily it. At 1:12, “Always Turning Away” breaks in half and plays out first forward and then apparently again backward as though to underline the experimentalist heart in the work overall, and closer “Walk the Lonesome Valley” brings prominent guitar strums, organ, far-back voice, drone and percussion, which I think might be a first since “Tough Break.”

Like its predecessors, “Walk the Lonesome Valley” is both familiar and captivating in being so out of place in this universe, an oddity that you already seem to know, like when you’re dreaming you have a hole in your head and that’s just always the way life has been. It makes its own sense. I’m not sure I’d call it an apex in the traditional sense, but the soulful kind of falsetto comes to a head later in the track with guitar and organ backing, and the end of The Broken End of the Deal comes with a quick fade, which no doubt is the result of Olson needing to get to work on the next album. All kidding aside, these tracks mark a pivotal next step in continuing to bridge the various facets of Olson‘s songwriting modus, and in so doing prove themselves to be anything but broken. I would not venture to guess what might come next for him as a songwriter, and I don’t think he would either, but whatever it might be, he never fails to move forward with each outing. Reliable, even if you don’t know what you’re going to get.

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Across Tundras/T.G. Olson on Bandcamp

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Suma, The Order of Things: Chaos to Chaos (Plus Track Premiere)

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 23rd, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

suma the order of things-700

[Stream Suma’s ‘Bait for Maggots’ by clicking play above. The Order of Things is out Oct. 11.]

A new Suma record doesn’t happen every day. Now in their 15th year, the Malmö, Sweden-based outfit have always stayed active through a variety of splits, compilations and EPs, and they even had a live tape out last year for a fortunate few who were able to grab one, but it’s been six years since their last proper studio full-length, Ashes, and that certainly feels like long enough. The four-piece of drummer Erik, bassist/vocalist Johan, guitarist Peter and noisemaker Rick traveled to Portland, Oregon, to track The Order of Things with Billy Anderson, who also helmed Ashes and the prior 2006 outing, Let the Churches Burn, and if that’s not enough to make the album an event — and it is, make no mistake — the fact that it arrives through no fewer than four different labels should say something about the level of support for Suma‘s churning, deeply atmospheric sludge.

Argonauta and Init Records have CDs, Throne Records the LP and Tartarus Records the cassette, so The Order of Things is nothing if not well represented, and Suma pay back the faith shown in them with 57 minutes of destructive post-metal spread across seven tracks. I’ve talked before about how something oppressively heavy can feel like it’s filling your lungs, and Suma do a better job of that than most. Their fourth album doesn’t necessarily reinvent their methods from what they conjured on Ashes, which Argonauta also reissued last year, but in the interim, they also parted ways with vocalist Jovan, moved Johan into that role and brought in Rick for samples, drones and other assorted ambient contributions, so some measure of sonic shift is inevitable.

Mostly it sounds like progression. To wit, the 13-minute “Education for Death” late in the record. I’m not sure “highlight” is the word for something that seems to plunge so deep, but either way the thudding tension Suma create is gloriously excruciating, cave-echo vocals swirling in the background behind apocalyptic tone and stomp. Much of the album plays back and forth between longer-form material and three shorter atmospheric pieces, the first of which, “The Sick Present,” opens. I’d call it an intro but for the fact that it’s still over the four-minute mark, but it does the work of immersing the listener in the darkened space Suma will continue to build and tear down across the subsequent pair “Bait for Maggots” and “RPA.” The sense of discomfort is almost immediate, and as “Bait for Maggots” begins its chugging pulsation, Suma seem right at home in the midst of that tempest. Johan‘s shouts are commanding throughout but far back enough in the mix to be obscured by the paramount groove that emerges, led by Peter‘s guitar.

suma

Mercifully, “Bait for Maggots” gives due payoff to its onslaught, and in so doing sets up the key dynamic for the rest of The Order of Things, which is the play between foreboding, tension, and release. “RPA,” which follows directly, isn’t quite as linear as “Bait for Maggots” or the later, aforementioned “Education for Death,” but it too offers a thrust built on making the listener’s blood boil before finally letting go. Because it’s so inhuman(e)-sounding and because of the samples and effects wash, etc., there’s an almost industrial element to “RPA,” but the crux of Suma‘s effect on their audience still comes from the madness that seems to be at the root of their delivery and the weight and density with which their material lands.

While, again, that’s probably not new for anyone who’s dug into AshesLet the Churches Burn, their 2003 self-titled debut or any of their sundry shorter outings, it does still feel like the band has pushed forward, and the direct contrast of heft with atmospherics moving from “RPA” into the dream-haunting samples of “Being and/or Nothingness” shows that well leading into “Education for Death” itself, which is the longest inclusion at 13:36 and doesn’t even begin to think about releasing its grip around the listener’s throat until nine minutes in, and even then, it’s another minute-plus before they get there. Beautifully crafted, challenging in the hearing, but when they do finally roll out the apex, building to an all-grey swirl of noise, the result is fitting. The penultimate “Disorder of Things” continues to push forward at a faster clip from where “Education for Death” tore itself to shreds, the wash and crash becoming overwhelming. There might be vocals, and that’s the most honest assessment I can give you. Its ferocity is just about unmatched by anything else on The Order of Things, but “Disorder of Things” is also a lead-in for the quiet post-rocking guitar squibblies that give a spacious start to 12:37 closer “The Greater Dying.” Not a minor title and not a minor way to finish their record either.

That righteous space will continue to open up as Erik enters on drums, and Suma roll out a patient, masterful and consuming groove as they thrust ahead toward the crash-heavy peak of the song, bringing about something of a change in structure as they hit that crescendo closer to the middle third and dedicate about the last three minutes to a long fade of guitar, cymbals and other ambient noise. I wouldn’t speculate on how long they could actually keep that line going past the fade, but the impression is perpetual all the same, and the sheer fact that after all that bludgeoning, Suma would let their listeners go so gently, drifting, into the album’s finish can really only lead one to conclude that the overriding message of The Order of Things is death. I don’t know if that’s what they were going for, but it’s certainly the takeaway from the work itself, and Suma‘s contemplation thereof resonates in its intensity and breadth alike. They are a rare band, and woefully underappreciated.

Suma on Thee Facebooks

Suma on Bandcamp

Argonauta Records website

Init Records website

Tartarus Records website

Throne Records website

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Review & Full Album Stream: Lizardmen, Cold Blooded Blues

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

lizardmen cold blooded blues

[Click play above to stream Lizardmen’s Cold Blooded Blues in full. Album is out today on Stone Free Records.]

At some point, it makes sense that at some point heavy rock and roll would veer back toward grunge. Of course the roots of the sound go back further, but if one looks at the branch of riff-driven fare that began to surface in the mid-to-late ’90s, it was basically the other offshoot of grunge and noise rock which, unlike nu-metal, received no commercial push. What makes a release like Lizardmen‘s Stone Free Records debut full-length, Cold Blooded Blues, engaging is the bridge it then creates between grunge and what heavy rock has become in the quarter-century since that style first came to public consciousness.

The Osnabrück, Germany-based trio of guitarist/vocalist Nikki, bassist Niklas and drummer Tore might leave something to question at first as to where the “blues” part of the record’s title comes from, because early tracks like “Dust,” “Turn the Screw” and “Seven” don’t really interact with that aesthetic, but by the time they get around to “Prey to the Lord” and “Steady Rolling Man” and even the early-Truckfighters fuzz of closer “The Cannibal,” they’ve broken out the slide guitar and a swinging groove to match. That change occurs right at the midpoint of Cold Blooded Blues, as “Karma” gives way to the stomp of “Mammoth Creep” — countrified and tin-can vocalized in a way that reminds of Larman Clamor — and so the album winds up with a distinct two-sided feel that only emphasizes how vinyl-ready its eight tracks/44 minutes seem to be.

Admirably, Lizardmen skirt the issue of ’70s boogie rock almost entirely in their revisiting of heavy rock’s sonic past. Well, mostly, at least. Part of that might be generational — many of the bands who started in the late ’90s and early ’00s with a heavy ’70s influence were tapping into their youth; Lizardmen are clearly younger — but there’s plenty of retro rock around these days and no shortage of it from Germany, so to hear a band come along with something of a different take is immediately refreshing. Despite its bummer album art — because violence against women is awesome, right? — Cold Blooded Blues digs in early on “Dust,” “Turn the Screw,” “Seven” and “Karma” to a sound that rolls out weighted fuzz tones and rawer vocals atop dirty, thick low end. Nikki is a vocalist of noteworthy presence and developing style, and the bounce and pulled notes on “Dust” seem to come from a place pre-Queens of the Stone Age.

lizardmen (Photo by Bob Sala)

It’s a vibe “Turn the Screw” follows up with a more melodic take that brings to mind underrated UK troupe Crystal Head, building in intensity early only to find catharsis in a wash of wah and prominent tom hits in the second half before a noisy final chorus closes out. With a tambourine behind it, “Seven” has more of a party sensibility and a friendlier fuzz, but “Karma” contrasts that quickly with lines like “Everything’s going down the drain” and “I never gave you my heart/But you fucked it up anyway,” etc. This been-done-wrong spirit ties into the bluesier side B still to come, but doesn’t quite yet make the sonic leap, holding to its gritty snarl for the duration and rounding out with some impressive snare work from Tore.

As for the task of making that leap, it falls to the aforementioned “Mammoth Creep,” heavy on kick drum, slide guitar and lyrics like, “I’m working nine-to-five to keep you satisfied.” Familiar all around, but in the context of where Lizardmen were only minutes prior, a considerable shift to get there. They carried themselves well through the earlier rockers and they do likewise through “Mammoth Creep,” “Prey to the Lord” and “Steady Rolling Man,” basking in fuzz-tinged blues that only grow more engaging as they move forward, “Steady Rolling Man” proving to be a catchy highlight of the record that seems to bring in some of that grungier perspective as well as its hook efficiently states, “I ain’t got what you need — fuck off.” Sometimes the simplest statement is the way to go.

Closer “The Cannibal,” also the longest track here at over nine minutes, presents something of another turn. It brings in elements of psychedelic jamming for a surprisingly hypnotic midsection after opening with some of Lizardmen‘s largest-sounding fuzz and shouted vocals — best nod on the record, hands down — and plays itself out on a huge march topped by echoing vocals that manage to come back to a central upbeat riff for a measure before crashing out to a noisy finish. There isn’t much blues about it, ultimately, but the groove is there and it nonetheless ties Cold Blooded Blues‘ two halves together while also building on them in a different way. It will be interesting to hear if Lizardmen can work going forward to bring the varies personalities developing in their sound together or if they’ll keep the feels distinct and just build a multi-faceted songwriting approach from them, but the framework they set down on Cold Blooded Blues should offer plenty of intrigue among the converted seeking a next step from modern heavy.

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Lizardmen at Stone Free

Lizardmen on Bandcamp

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Baby Woodrose, Freedom: Long Way from Home

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

baby woodrose freedom

[Stream Baby Woodrose’s ‘Mind Control Machine’ by clicking play above. Freedom is out Sept. 16, 2016, on Bad Afro Records.]

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Denmark’s Baby Woodrose, who remain an underground phenomenon despite being one of the most pivotal European heavy rock bands to come along in that time. That’s not an exaggeration. As scenes have cropped up, gotten big, and died, Baby Woodrose have persisted with an unmatched love and execution of heavy, psychedelic garage rock, and they have remained largely unmatched in the form since their inception. The era of their 2001 debut, Blows Your Mind!, was revisited with the 2014 compilation Kicking Ass and Taking Names (review here), but it’s been four years since Uffe “Lorenzo Woodrose” Lorenzen (who’s also spent part of that time with his other band Spids Nøgenhat) and company issued their last proper full-length, 2012’s Third Eye Surgery (review here).

The effects-soaked, mind-expanded, recorded-to-tape Freedom is the band’s seventh album. Put together with the lineup of Lorenzo Woodrose on guitar/vocals along with, guitarist Mads Saaby, organist Anders Skjødt, bassist Kåre Joensen and drummer Hans Beck and issued through longtime label home and respected purveyor Bad Afro Records, the record continues on from where Third Eye Surgery left off in some ways, basking in bright tones and more expansive sonic reach, but keeps the core of classic post-13th Floor Elevators psychedelia and the infectious hooks that have typified their material all along. Lorenzo is, quite simply, a master of the form, but as much as Freedom‘s nine tracks/37 minutes are a show of the well-established strengths in his approach — good luck getting “Mind Control Machine” or “21st Century Slave” or “Mantra” out of your head — the material likewise pushes those strengths forward as well.

The title Freedom, the Black Power-reminiscent cover art (at least that’s how my American eyes see it) and the title-track itself, which reinterprets an old slave spiritual as a righteous psychedelic declaration — one might recall Richie Havens played the song at Woodstock and Clutch referenced it as well in “Motherless Child” — that succinctly encapsulates the album’s central theme of thought control at the hands of a wrongly directed dominant culture. “I don’t believe in your concept of reality,” Lorenzo states in the hook of opener “Reality,” and the lighter strum and fuzz of “21st Century Slave” works smoothly in contrast to the cynicism at the song’s heart, but as with some of Baby Woodrose‘s best and certainly their more recent output, there’s a tinge of melancholy under the upbeat, classic songwriting. That’s certainly the case in “21st Century Slave,” so it’s all the more fitting that the stomp of “Open Doors” — on which both Joensen and Skjødt shine early — should follow immediately.

At just over three minutes long, “Open Doors” is a highlight, and it also marks a lyrical turn, departing from the direct social critique of the first two songs to offer an alternative in the psychedelic lifestyle. Instead of “your concept of reality,” it’s “open doors in my mind.” That swap is subtle, but pivotal, since it helps establish the core conflict of Freedom as a whole, which one might boil down to squares vs. heads, but of course is expressed on a more complex level than that. After “Open Doors,” an immediate swirl of keys and/or effects begins the push of “Mind Control Machine,” a song that quickly makes its way “up the stairs to the 13th floor” and which “21st Century Slave” referenced in its lyrics. Likewise uptempo but more intense than “Open Doors,” it brings back the critical aspects of the first two tracks lyrically while expanding the scope instrumentally toward more expansive psychedelic terrain. That effects swirl — Echoplex? — never quite dissipates, and the song is richer for it.

baby woodrose

Centerpiece and shortest cut “Peace” is the departure that ultimately ties the entire album together. The subdued, still-tripped-out 2:27 track is probably the closer of the vinyl’s side A, but more than that, it provides a landmark as one of four single-word titles that between them draw a narrative progression for Freedom as a whole that begins with “Reality,” moves through “Peace,” finds “Freedom,” recites its “Mantra” of “I’ll never stop/I can never get enough” before finally disintegrating blissfully in the space rock jam of eight-minute closer “Termination.” “Peace” and “Freedom” work especially well together — on all levels, I suppose — as the former patiently hypnotizes the listener and the latter picks up with a near-immediate sweep, consuming with a depth of tone that pushes Lorenzo to the fore, his vocals watery as he recites “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” in a manner that’s as honest and personal as it is homage.

Freedom‘s crux arrives in a call and response of the title-line of the title-track, and “Red the Signpost” kicks in with a noisier and spacier motion, running quickly through verses and its chorus, its almost frenetic solo, in under three minutes that breaks things up with perhaps the album’s most energetic moment. “Mantra” is slower and more groove-minded at the start, like a moodier take on some of the album’s earlier vibes, but the lyrics once again turn personal with repetitions of the above-quoted hook. A multi-layered solo is spacious but short en route back to the verse, as Baby Woodrose prove efficient once again in making their point and getting out; songwriting so tight it’s a wonder all the light that does can escape at all.

Closer “Termination” is nothing short of a psychedelic wonder. At 8:27, it’s easily the longest inclusion, but more than that, from its patient unfolding to its effects-wash build, Hawkwindian thrust, proclamations of doom in the lyrics surrounded by a warm cosmic gorgeousness that almost makes you think it’s going to be okay. The song flows immaculately between more active verses and spaced-out jamming, lyrics arriving in the second half after a jam soon to resume has pushed even further out. Baby Woodrose carry forth once again after the last lines are done and proceed to the album’s final build, which its a suitable payoff but is telling even in its ending, Freedom ultimately setting itself free in a final minute of effects swirl and lone, space guitar plucking out wistful notes that fade out to close.

If one takes Lorenzo as the auteur of Baby Woodrose in terms of the songwriting, that’s probably fair enough — there’s no doubt he’s at the center of the record — but the full-band live feel of Freedom would seem to express ideas no less pivotal to that concept than the railing against a sterile culture one finds in the lyrics to songs like “21st Century Slave,” “Reality” and “Mind Control Machine.” All of this feeds together to make Freedom a more than worthy next step in Baby Woodrose‘s hopefully ongoing progression, and that is perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to it.

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Preorder Freedom at Bandcamp

Bad Afro Records website

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Blues Funeral, The Search: Harbingers and Paragons

Posted in Reviews on August 17th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

blues-funeral-the-search

A fervent undercurrent of metal runs beneath the progressive atmospheres of The Search. It extends even to the liner notes of the CD, which not only contain the full lyrics, typed out clear with credits, but notes included for which of the two guitarists — Maurice Eggenschwiler and Jan “El Janni” Kimmel, both also vocals — is taking the solo in that place. More often than not, it’s one, then the other. Shades of oldschool thrash there, but the debut full-length from the Houston, Texas, four-piece owes much more of its crux to prog metal and heavy rock than to anything so raw as younger Slayer. Still, the dogwhistle blows to those who might hear that particular frequency, and the spirit of precision that was always an undercurrent both of thrash — underproduced as it was — and the NWOBHM manifest in these vinyl-ready six tracks/41-minutes, topped off with artwork by David Paul Seymour.

The band was founded by Kimmel, Eggenschwiler and drummer Cory Cousins in 2014 following the hiatus of Sanctus Bellum, and in bringing on board bassist Gabriel Katz, they’ve also shifted their sonic focus toward grander fare. Tonally, The Search, which was recorded and mixed at Lucky Run Studio in Houston, adopts a heavy rock feel, but as it’s presented in such a clean, clear style — and maybe standard tuning? — the overarching impression becomes that of the band’s reach rather than their heft. That’s fitting for the traditions in which they’re working, from Uriah Heep to latter-day Opeth — also noteworthy that Kimmel handles keys, specified by the band as Nord, which Opeth‘s Per Wiberg also used — and with the shared vocal duties, they bring something of themselves fluidly to what winds up being an ambitious debut release.

Variety in the songwriting extends to within individual tracks as well as between them. With the exception of the penultimate title-cut at 9:45, songs range around five to six minutes long, but as Blues Funeral show immediately with the blend of Thin Lizzy bounce and proggy lead work in opener “Autumn Dream.” A previously posted live version had reminded me of Beelzefuzz, and though that’s less the case tonally on the record, some element remains, though the context of The Search immediately broadens with “Harbinger,” the shortest track at 5:19, which takes the central groove of Black Sabbath‘s “A National Acrobat” and successfully repurposes it to suit a rhythmic base for vocal harmonies dressed out with flourish of acoustic guitar, choice ride work from Cousins and later thickening of tone behind the soloing of Eggenschwiler and Kimmel.

blues funeral

Something of a darker feel results than anything either “Harbinger” or “Autumn Dream” before it offered, but the rush of “Planet Void” and the urgency of its push assure Blues Funeral aren’t mired one way or the other. With more impressive dual-vocal work and nods vocally and in the riff to Iron Maiden, it’s Katz‘s low end again that holds the proceedings together as the guitars are prone to launching into momentary fits of scorch, only to return to the verse shortly thereafter, as though nothing ever happened. The vocals are dry at least for the most part, and I don’t think some treatment of reverb would hurt, but as it stands they effectively emphasize harmonies when intended, as in the chorus of “Planet Void,” which is revisited just before a final solo — from Kimmel — brings the first half of The Search to a close.

Kimmel adds organ to “Paragon of Virtue,” and with the creepier doom vibe that follows, it would seem to mirror the Beelzefuzzing of “Autumn Dream” while, again, putting its own ’70s-inspired spin on it. The organ rises to prominence in the mix before all drops out leaving light, intricately-plucked Akerfeldtian guitar as the bed for an instrumental midsection — solo included, naturally — that builds guitar harmonies in layers before shifting into its next phase of lower-toned chug behind another solo section. A little Ritchie Blackmore circa Rainbow would seem to be the initial basis for the start of The Search‘s title-track, but there’s a more patient take in the album’s longest cut — it meanders a bit, purposefully — before sweeping in with organ to its first verse at around the two-minute mark, and the classic heavy rock style still holds its complement of metallic vibe, Katz‘s bass getting a moment to shine early for its heretofore underappreciated tonal warmth.

With more spacious vocals, “The Search” offers a hook as well as proggy expanse, and even after it veers into a more extended organ solo, it takes the time to bring back the chorus and keep the composition itself as the focus, rather than the execution. One might’ve expected Blues Funeral to follow it by ending with a lighter, more melancholic feel. They go the opposite route. “Palmdale” rounds out with nigh-on-thrashy riffing and a leveled-up push from even what “Planet Void” brought to bear, delivered with a down-to-business efficiency and a Candlemass-style soaring vocal that serves to highlight how skillfully the band is able to mesh their influences together.

By the time they get there, of course they end with a solo-topped big rock finish. Well earned. Keeping in mind that The Search is their first outing — preceded by no recordings so far as I know — Blues Funeral meet their considerable ambitions head on, while also setting themselves up for stylistic expansion in any number of directions. They effectively bridge gaps between the classic and modern, rock and metal, and metal and prog worlds, and, most encouraging of all, sound like they’re only going to keep growing.

Blues Funeral, The Search (2016)

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Wretch, Wretch: Deep Freeze, Deep Thaw (Plus Track Premiere)

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 16th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

Wretch wretch

[Click play above to stream ‘Icebound’ from Wretch’s self-titled debut, out Aug. 26 on Bad Omen.]

Doom has anxiously and rightfully awaited the return of Karl Simon to the fold. Formerly the guitarist/vocalist for The Gates of Slumber, Simon formed Wretch shortly before the untimely passing of Gates bassist Jason McCash in 2014, that band having called it quits some months earlier after the release of a final EP, Stormcrow (review here). The Indianapolis outfit make their self-titled debut on Bad Omen Records with seven tracks that in some ways stand very much in line with what Simon brought to The Gates of Slumber and in other ways are a marked departure. Bassist Bryce Clarke and drummer Chris Gordon both make a striking impression as the rhythm section, particularly in the Judas Priest cover “Winter” and the tempo-shifting “Icebound,” which follows, but a lot of Wretch‘s Wretch is Simon directly confronting the death of a close friend, and even in stylized moments like the churning, mostly-psychedelic instrumental solo showcase “Bloodfinger,” that sincerity and intensity of feeling are palpable.

The Gates of Slumber told stories about conquerors and monsters — Wretch seem more grounded in the actual pains of living on. Of course, anyone who has heard Simon‘s prior work will recognize crucial elements like the early NWOBHM darkness and, in closer “Drown” particularly, the influence of Saint Vitus‘ Dave Chandler‘s style of lurch-riffing. What Simon has managed to do throughout his career — and most especially on the final The Gates of Slumber album, 2011’s The Wretch (review here), from which this band takes their moniker — is bring something fresh to that influence and to that of Scott “Wino” Weinrich, preaching a true doom ethic that has both won over and created converts for more than the last decade.

Wretch‘s Wretch is hard to separate from this context, but it’s important to note that the album does have a personality of its own that’s separate from what The Gates of Slumber might’ve done even on a follow-up to their last offering. A seven-track run provides a dense but manageable and varied 33-minute listen, and between the gallop of opener “Running out of Days” and the hook of the subsequent “Rest in Peace” — not a Trouble cover, but no doubt nodding in that direction — on which Simon delivers the lines “Set me free/Let me rest in peace” in such a manner as to make one wonder who the speaker in the song is, himself or McCash, the new band is quick to establish itself as something separate. That one-two punch — the leadoff track crashing directly into the second — gives Wretch an immediately distinct feel, and it’s one that feeds into even the later crawl of “Drown” or “Icebound” or even the minimal guitar interlude “Grey Cast Mourning” that separates them.

wretch

A general downward trajectory in tempo for the linear front-to-back listen, Wretch split the album neatly into two sides, and though the whole thing is downtrodden, it’s clearly side B where that comes through most in the material, though even the Wino-style solo layering of “Bloodfinger,” which is as close to classic psychedelia as anything I’ve ever heard Simon play, and probably closer — Gordon does an excellent job holding down a central groove to give the guitar space to flesh out — there’s an underlying melancholy. “Winter,” which originally appeared on Judas Priest‘s 1974 debut, Rocka Rolla as “Winter/Deep Freeze,” plays that up as well even as it basks in “War Pigs”-esque bounce and an element of swirl that feeds off what “Bloodfinger” accomplishes before it in expanding the overall scope of the record.

As “Winter” fits thematically with “Bloodfinger”‘s instrumental feel, so too does “Icebound” pick up smoothly in lyrical theme from “Winter.” The eight-minute cut is the longest on Wretch and while its main riff brings to mind The Obsessed and is trad doom of the highest order, the three-piece find room as well to sneak a bit of boogie into the midsection, which is unexpected and satisfying in kind, particularly following a wah-soaked solo from Simon. They return to that main riff without ceremony and ride it through a verse and shift into a long minute-plus fadeout that ends the song and brings on “Grey Cast Mourning,” a 2:34 piece for standalone guitar that reinforces the emotional crux of the album in its atmosphere of grief and melancholy. It’s an interlude, but both for how it splits “Icebound” and “Drown,” and for what it brings in mood, is more than justified in its presence. Its peaceful meditation makes the “I Bleed Black”-ish riff of “Drown” feel that much more weighted as it introduces the album’s closer.

A massive, rolling nod ensues, Simon‘s vocals buried under his and Clarke‘s tones and coated in effects, and it becomes clear quickly that Wretch are hitting bottom as regards the atmosphere of the record. I’m not sure if there could’ve been a more appropriate finish for the self-titled than “Drown,” which not only contrasts the relatively upbeat — at least in pace — beginning of the album, but emphasizes the spiral that led them to that point while mirroring that downward movement in the lyrics with masterful cohesion. The end comes with a final crash from Gordon and a short ring-out, leaving the listener with the feeling that there’s more to say. This too is no doubt purposeful on the band’s part, and it ultimately makes their debut all the more resonant, as if to ask what good it would do to keep going, emotionally or practically. In taking these issues head-on, Wretch‘s Wretch would be grueling were it not for the work the early portion does in building forward momentum, but as it stands, the balance positions the album among 2016’s best in doom. It is brutally honest, conceptually and aurally weighted, and, one hopes, cathartic.

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Second Grave, Blacken the Sky: March into Oblivion (Plus Track Premiere)

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 15th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

second grave blacken the sky

[Click play above to stream ‘Afraid of the Dark’ from Second Grave’s Blacken the Sky. Album is available now from the band.]

It is a dark and metallic churn that dominates Blacken the Sky, the ominously titled and awaited debut full-length from Massachusetts four-piece Second Grave. In its tone and structural cohesion, it is for all intents and purposes a metal record, but its pacing and atmosphere find their roots in classic doom as well — rarely does a “doom metal” tag serve to actually be so descriptive, but Second Grave cover both sides of that equation well across the formidable 55-minute/nine-track span of Blacken the Sky. Having been lucky enough to see Second Grave play on several occasions, it’s not really a surprise either that their first album would be so assured of its purpose or that it would display such poise in its execution.

If nothing else, it’s been three years since their second EP, Antithesis (review here), followed their 2012 self-titled initial offering (review here), so it’s not like the lineup of guitarist/vocalist Krista Van Guilder (ex-Warhorse), guitarist Chris Drzal, bassist Maureen Murphy and drummer Chuck Ferreira haven’t had time to compose the material and sculpt their aesthetic into what they want it to be, and as songs like opener “No Roam” and “Afraid of the Dark” and the 11-minute “Death March” demonstrate, they’ve clearly gotten there. Where Blacken the Sky meets its truest success is in melding moody ambience and oppressively heavy riffing — the way the band veers into extremity with Van Guilder‘s searing screams on “Bloodletting” or the loosely doomedelic initial two minutes of “Death March,” before the actual march begins and provides Second Grave‘s debut with a worthy crescendo.

No doubt Blacken the Sky will be the introduction for many listeners to Second Grave, but because it’s so put together it’s almost difficult to think of it as the band’s debut. Recorded by Benny Grotto at Mad Oak over the course of just four days — an immediately impressive feat given the amount and depth of the material — the sound is full but not at all unnatural, and some late variety in the interlude “Processional of Lies” and the quiet, layered harmonies of the closing title-track reinforce the brooding sentiment while also building outward from it and expanding the overall context from what the earlier onslaught of “No Roam,” “17 Days” and “Below the Seas” established at the start.

second grave (Photo by Samantha Fraulein-Thursday)

Whether or not Second Grave are planning a vinyl release, I don’t know — they’d either have to shorten the record or go 2LP, which seems prohibitively expensive; a limited run of 100 CDs is being pressed — but there is a notable change of intent signaled with “Bloodletting” at the album’s midpoint, following the melodically rich “Afraid of the Dark” and chugging “Below the Seas” with some mindful scorch and viciously dark energy, and the progression only continues to grow from there. That shift is welcome after the initial trio, which seem to put up a wall of forceful doom and dare listeners to scale it in order to reach the rest of what Second Grave have to offer. Atop the steady roll of Ferreira‘s drums and Murphy‘s bass, Drzal and Van Guider offer fluid riffs and intricate solos, and Van Guilder is steadfast in her vocal command, but the intent is clearly that those three songs should start Blacken the Sky with plodding miseries, and they do. One might say they’re living up to the title in setting the tone.

From their first EP and through the 18-minute two-songer that followed, Second Grave have always shown an affinity for form and structure, and Blacken the Sky does likewise, using the screams in “Bloodletting” and “Death March” to send a clear signal of apex in much the same way that instrumentals introduced each half of their self-titled. The central difference here is the context in which that symmetry arrives. If “Bloodletting” is the peak of the album’s first half — it’s the centerpiece in the tracklisting — and “Death March” the peak of the second — it arrives with two cuts still to go — then those two peaks would seem to serve remarkably different purposes overall. Of course, “Death March” is paying off the album as a whole, but one might say the same thing of “Blacken the Sky” itself, though the means there takes a significant shift.

I wouldn’t call the ending a departure necessarily, since it keeps to Second Grave‘s structural tenets pretty firmly, but in its sheer sound it offers something different from even the droning interlude “Into Oblivion” before it, and while doubtless some will compare it to the subdued side of Windhand — because, you know, ladies — the truth is that Second Grave are coming from someplace else entirely in terms of influence. It’s especially telling that after so much tumult and rage, they would finish quietly, underscoring the patience that’s been present in the songs all along beneath that tempestuousness. One doubts they built the album structure with the intent of giving a glimpse at their progression under way, but after three years, it doesn’t seem impossible to think they have some plan in motion for their future development. Certainly the consciousness at root in these tracks is the work of a band aware of who and what they want to be. As a debut, there’s nothing more one could ask of Blacken the Sky, but by no means is that the sum total of what is delivered.

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Electric Moon, Live 2015 – Zeiss Planetarium Bochum: Voyages in Sunburst

Posted in Reviews on August 10th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

electric moon zeiss planetarium bochum

There are a few things to know about Electric Moon‘s new live album, Live 2015 – Zeiss Planetarium Bochum, released digitally on their own Sulatron Records. First, it has six songs. Second, all but two of those six are over 24 minutes long. Not a one of them is under 15 minutes long. Do the math and that adds up to a runtime of 2:24:28. That’s a hell of a show, and largely unmanageable for any kind of physical release, but it works for the expansive, exploratory, and largely improvised far-ranging space-psych that the German trio proffer. The liquefied jams of Dave “Sula Bassana” Schmidt, bassist/sometimes vocalist Komet Lulu and drummer Marcus Schnitzler have always kind of existed outside of time anyway, so somehow this long-form excursion suits them as they conjure headphone-worthy immersion in richly-effected guitar and synth swirl, deep and warm bass tones and percussive drive capable of holding it all together.

Accompanying the album is a note from the band informing listeners that Schmidt had some technical difficulties during the gig, which does indeed seem to have been held at a planetarium (where they’ll play again in Nov. 2016), and that when it was done both his guitar amp and his Korg Polysix synthesizer — not a minor factor in their sound — were broken. They out-rocked their gear, in other words. Proceeds from sales go toward repairs. Sure enough, there are some clicks and pops audible in the guitar after 24:43 opener “Star Factory” recedes and elsewhere as well, but the overarching impression on Live 2015 – Zeiss Planetarium Bochum is so much more about the krautrock trance the band elicits that it’s easy to pass over those other noises without even realizing they’re there.

Likewise, one might snap back to consciousness 10 minutes deep into “The Last Words of Mr. P.” (28:21) and wonder how the three-piece got from the subdued synth interplay to just a thickened push of a crescendo. They did so gradually, of course, Same way they always do it, but what stands Live 2015 – Zeiss Planetarium Bochum apart from other live outings the band has done like their Live 2012 One and Two (review here), and certainly from their studio work to-date is the scope of the work itself. Not just that it’s longer, but what that extra space in time allows Sula, Lulu and Marcus to do in terms of making the vibe come to life across such a massive span.

electric moon

Each of these jams would eat a side of vinyl whole, if not more than that, but as “The Last Words of Mr. P.” gives way to the particularly space-rocking “Air to Space” (the shortest inclusion at 15:47) and the bass-led experimentalist build of “Radio Contact was Lost” (19:38), they bring quality no less than quantity, the band having long since established a crucial chemistry between them that continues to shine and grow with each subsequent release. That’s audible as Lulu and Marcus hold together the spacey thrust on “Radio Contact was Lost” and Schmidt sets about creating a wash of swirl that seems to grow more intense with each rhythmic cycle, propelled by the drums with the bassline holding steady but increasing its tension as well. At about 14:30, they hit the peak and ride it until just after the 15-minute mark, but even there, Lulu keeps that bassline going, so when they pick it back up, the song remains fluid, the vibe tripped-out, the mood engaging.

Electric Moon aren’t a new band at this point, so that they should be able to bring this level of mastery to the form of heavy psychedelic jamming maybe isn’t such a surprise, but the scale at which they do it on Live 2015 – Zeiss Planetarium Bochum is a statement unto itself. The album ends as it began: with two massive slabs of jammy adventuring. Both “Close Encounter of the 4th Kind” (26:29) — which might just be the highlight of the release, though I won’t take away from the appeal of “Air to Space” — and closer “Sunburst Odyssey” (29:29) have their own development cycle. The former moves through a quiet synthy opening smoothly into guitar-led build, peaks and falls back before finding a sort of middle ground, where Schmidt‘s airy dreamscape guitar feels particularly resonant, while the latter, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a bit of everything. It starts off with quiet hum, then throws in some synth.

It moves through krautrock jamming, deep-space atmospherics, emphasizes the balance of high and low end in what Electric Moon do in its second half and ultimately asks nothing more of the listener than perhaps a bit of mind expansion in the process of letting go and following the band along their extended but still welcoming path. Ever prolific in the tradition of their style, Electric Moon have a new studio album in the works and as “Sunburst Odyssey” meanders its way toward its finish in some world other than this one, I can’t help but wonder how much of the synth integration that typifies Live 2015 – Zeiss Planetarium Bochum will show up there as well. We’ll find out in time, of course, but if anything’s for sure it’s that more than half a decade on from their first offering, Electric Moon keep growing and changing, and here they admirably maintain a cohesive atmosphere across what to many acts would be an utterly impossible stretch. Hard to imagine anyone leaving this show dissatisfied.

Electric Moon, Live 2015 – Zeiss Planetarium Bochum (2016)

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