Goblin Cock, Necronomodonkeykongimicon: Misanthropic Conjurations

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

12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007}

In 2015, Rob Crow quit music. In 2016, he’s put out two records, both with full bands. The first of them was You’re Doomed. Be Nice., which came out in March on Temporary Residence Ltd. under the banner of Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place, and the second is a return from the long-absent Goblin Cock, a third album, given the title Necronomodonkeykongimicon and issued via Joyful Noise Recordings.

Crow, who here is clad in a robe going by Lord Phallus and is probably best known in indie circles for his work with Pinback but has had a hand in a wide variety of outfits over the years including his own solo work and the delightfully bizarre Optiganally Yours, may not be much for retiring, but that can only be good news for any fan of quality songcraft. He’s proven time and again to be the kind of writer who can make a hook out of just about anything.

It’s been nearly eight years since the last time Goblin Cock had anything out — their second album, early 2009’s Come with Me if You Want to Live (discussed here), still gets periodic revisits — and it would seem that in light of what has no doubt been a tumultuous year-plus for Crow, that the perfect vehicle for giving the universe a big ol’ middle finger was already right at his disposal.

That, ultimately, would seem to be the impetus for Goblin Cock as a whole — there are levels on which they seem to be fuckall incarnate — but across their now-three albums beginning with 2005’s Bagged and Boarded, they’ve never been lazy either in songwriting or performance, and as the 13 tracks/36 minutes of Necronomodonkeykongimicon demonstrate, that continues to very much be the case more than a decade later. Hell, even naming the record clearly took effort on some level.

While the overall quality underlying the structures of the material is consistent, that’s not necessarily to say nothing has changed in Goblin Cock over the course of the last eight years. Necronomodonkeykongimicon actually speaks most of all to what was Crow‘s intention when he first put it together: to make a metal record. I wouldn’t say either Bagged and Boarded or Come with Me if You Want to Live were overly metal in their execution, though both were excellent heavy and/or stoner rock.

This time, while one might say the same of the mega-catchy “Flumed,” “Your Watch” or opener “Something Haunted,” the entire outing hits with a harder edge, marked out by copious gallop and double-kick bass in cuts like the chug-happy “Montrossor” and “Island, Island,” or “The Undeer” and “The Dorse,” while still retaining variety in its presentation that comes out more with repeat listens. Only slower and more spacious closer “Buck” reaches past the four-minute mark, so the songs are quick one into the next, and whether it’s the forward-thrust intensity of “Youth Pastoral” or the more swinging “Your Watch.”

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Whatever tempo they’re using at any given point, whatever the lyrics — “Something Haunted” boasts the lines “Fuck shit and fuckin’ fuck you” — the songs offset the kind of toss-off, joke-ish nature of the band through their sheer memorability. That’s always been the thing about Goblin Cock, and while Crow and company — whoever that company might be, if anyone — are very clearly having a good time in these tracks, they’re by no means screwing around when it comes to presentation. The band is tight, the songs are tight, the performances are spot on. A telling moment is when Crow holds a note vocally across multiple measures for so long in “Flumed” that it becomes comical. Yeah, you have to laugh at it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also really impressive.

And is Necronomodonkeykongimicon more metal than Goblin Cock were before? Probably. But by the end of the record, after the ups and downs in mood of “Stewpot’s Package,” “Bothered,” “World is Moving” and the two instrumentals, “Youth Pastoral” and the aforementioned “The Dorse” — both of which are perfectly placed to provide the tracklist with a shift in vibe without sacrificing momentum — it really doesn’t matter anymore. Or maybe it does, but the thing worth emphasizing about Goblin Cock‘s brand of metal is that it seems to be put together with zero preconceptions about what “being metal” means, or otherwise it’s actively working against them.

Crow has a long history of experimenting around pop forms, and maybe it’s fair to see Goblin Cock as a genre-based extension of those impulses, but if it was just an exercise in toying with sound, I’m not sure Necronomodonkeykongimicon would work as well as it does. It’s less narrative than was Come with Me if You Want to Live, the lyrics feel more personal — there’s no song about Billy Jack, for example — as though the closer of that record, “Trying to Get Along with Humans,” became a point at which “Something Haunted” could pick up after so much time passed.

When the drums on “Buck” have thudded out and the song has pushed out its last proggy keyboard line, I think the album in its entirety can only be said to benefit from Crow‘s background as a “metal outsider.” He has fewer restrictions. He brazenly takes the material where he wants it to go or is otherwise willing to let it go there on its own, and these songs are hammered out in a way that metal, as known by pitiful mortals, is often simply too indulgent either in its technicality or its chestbeating aggression to engage. Lord Phallus, it seems, knows no such boundaries.

Goblin Cock, Necronomodonkeykongimicon (2016)

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Neurosis, Fires Within Fires: Reflecting Forward

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

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A new release of any sort from Neurosis should be seen as reason to celebrate, and their 11th studio album, Fires Within Fires, has hit with no shortage of fanfare, critical fawning, wax poetry, etc. I won’t necessarily disagree with most of it, but it’s hard to separate the record, which of course is released on the band’s own Neurot Recordings, from the context in which it arrives.

Part of that is narrative. The post-metal progenitors began marking their 30th anniversary in the past year, and with Fires Within Fires, they take on the task of summarizing their unmatched sonic progression in a variety of interesting ways, not all of them sonic. At the same time, one of the most pivotal aspects to what Neurosis do — and I’m writing as a fan — has been the forward-thinking crux, the willingness to push into uncharted places, relentless in passion and creative spirit.

Fires Within Fires representing that as well as pulling in aspects from the band’s past without being overly cerebral or coming across like a commentary from the band, by the band, about the band, might be its greatest triumph. Rather, in marking their history, Neurosis — the five-piece of guitarist/vocalists Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till, bassist/backing vocalist Dave Edwardson, drummer Jason Roeder and keyboardist/noise specialist Noah Landis — conjure here some of the rawest sounds they’ve elicited in more than a decade.

That idea applies even to the five-track/40-minute runtime. Fires Within Fires is the shortest Neurosis full-length since 1990’s The Word as Law, and the visceral nature of opener “Bending Light” mirrors that paring-down process in its sound. At the same time, Fires Within Fires caps with “Reach,” which presents the most ambitious melodic vocal approach of the band’s career, so even as they reflect, that becomes part of an overarching ongoing pursuit.

This gives the album, produced by Steve Albini, who’s helmed everything they’ve done since 2001’s pivotal A Sun that Never Sets — which seems to find some reference here in the penultimate “Broken Ground” (probably not on purpose) — a certain front-to-back linearity. Especially with its somewhat truncated span compared to more recent Neurosis outings, be it 2012’s Honor Found in Decay (review here), which was an hour even, or 2007’s Given to the Rising, which was 10 minutes longer than that, the shorter stretch makes Fires Within Fires easier to take as a whole work as well as in terms of its individual pieces and what they accomplish.

Their recordings with Albini have always been very tied to their live presentation, so Fires Within Fires isn’t necessarily any more “stripped down” in its presentation than any of their other collaborations, but it does carry that rawer feel in the material itself, in the full-boar lurch of centerpiece “Fire is the End Lesson” as well as in the still-tense atmospherics of second cut “A Shadow Memory.”

Landis, whose contributions in eerie sampling and manipulation of sound, as well as keys, etc., continue to bolster the material well, immediately complement the initial rollout of “Bending Light.” Crashing in, the opener weaves its way forward on an intricately-toned guitar lead, quiets down to lull the listener into a false sense of security and then at 3:40 slams into its verse, Kelly‘s guttural sneer unmistakable as it spits the lines, “Watching through the eyes of a crow/I let it guide me/I let it guide me/I let it in/The end is endless/And washing [or watching] over me.”

The rhythmic repetition there is important, and comes up again shortly with the same line, “I let it guide me,” before Kelly and Von Till come together to deliver and repeat the lyric, “Peeling the skin away reveals the heart,” which could easily be read as a declaration of intent for the album itself (though again, probably not), their insistence as they belt it out four times in a row punkish in its intensity. Following a slowdown, Von Till takes the fore vocally and the track lumbers and undulates to its finish and into the airier start of “A Shadow Memory,” the shortest cut on Fires Within Fires at 6:50.

Within the first minute, its forward motion is underway, the guitars and keys accenting each other as Roeder, as ever, gives fluidity to what for most drummers would be impossible to interpret (without his blueprint). Von Till and Kelly work through a call and response on vocals and drop out for a moment of ambience before a section of drawn guitar line reminiscent of “Water is Not Enough” from Given to the Rising hits and carries through the halfway point, after which they stop and then shift again into a more direct thrust. That will serve as the capstone movement, and the guitar line returns to tie it together, behind another effective dual vocal that only adds to the manic feel before swirling noise ends cold and cuts into the immediate impact of “Fire is the End Lesson.”

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Also on the shorter end (6:54), it reverses the structure thus far of subdued intros into bursts forward, though it does build with much credit to Edwardson at the low end until they move through the two-minute mark, cutting out some of the wall-of-noise push to air out keys and what sounds like strings but could just as easily be a sample or other manipulation from Landis — it can be tricky sometimes to tell — but the thrust revives with a rising, consuming wash of noise and guitar, all seeming to come to a head and then only growing more abrasive, finally cutting out just past five minutes in to the same progression that answered the first payoff, which by this time has an almost soothing presence.

They finish with repeated lines before dropping to feedback to set up the gorgeous wash of keys that begin “Broken Ground.” One might be reminded of “A Sun that Never Sets” from the album of the same name by Roeder‘s drumming and the vocal that emerges, and as “Broken Ground” moves into its apex, it might seem to be speaking to the genre-foundational “Stones from the Sky” off that same record, but Neurosis today is a different beast than they were 15 years ago, and they shove what might be Fires Within Fires‘ standout riff into a chorus that holds its volume and opens into lines of what sounds like (but likely isn’t actually) flute behind the vocals, dipping back right away into the verse before a return to the quiet guitar, keys and drums of the intro just past the halfway point brings Von Till back for a more subdued delivery.

At 5:39, they kick back into that riff and take it through another chorus, and though it seems fair to expect them to ride that through the remaining three minutes, they instead cut back again and end quiet, watery effects on a few final lines on a long drift with just a current of noise remaining. The closer and longest track, “Reach” (10:37) begins almost like its predecessor, but the mood is immediately different, the drums accenting a march that Von Till meets with melodic singing in a voice usually reserved for his solo work.

Not only that, but soon enough Kelly joins in and the two duet in a way that I’m not sure has ever happened on a Neurosis record. A build has begun, however, and carries through the next verse and joint-vocal chorus, and at 4:30, they shift into what will be the ground level for Fires Within Fires‘ last push, a long section of melancholy guitar lead over patient and quiet, but tense, guitar, bass and drums.

You know it’s coming, you just don’t know when, but at 7:59, “Reach” lunges forth its crescendo, a vicious and somewhat angular rhythm very much the band’s own that moves back and forth between the guitars at the fore, brings in Edwardson on backing vocals — he’s a weapon not often but effectively used — and teases its finish with words that rhyme with the title before the guitar, bass, drums, keys and everything else drops away and the final call — “reach” — is delivered, the band basically living up to that promise in manifesting the undulled searching that has been their core for the last three decades. In the end, it only takes them one word to say it all.

The visual side of Neurosis‘ output — from the artwork to their years spent accompanied by Josh Graham‘s video presentations during live sets — has always been a major element in conveying theme. With Honor Found in Decay, there was a strong sense of ritual, and the open gray space of 2004’s The Eye of Every Storm was no less appropriate than the charred and fossilized flesh of 1993’s Enemy of the Sun.

With the Fires Within Fires cover by Thomas Hooper, we see several elements that factor into the story surrounding the album, from the burning world representing passion to the key that might very well be just that — the key — in saying passion is central to the band and what has sustained them. Also important and thematic through the package are circles, in both the world on the cover surrounded by ethereal lines that could well be taken as spirit, as well as on back and inside, and this too plays into the notion of Neurosis taking a rare moment to examine themselves and what their time together has wrought for them as artists and people.

I’ve made a lot of comparisons to their past work, and I think those hold up to scrutiny (or I wouldn’t have made them), but at no point do I believe Neurosis sat down and said, “Okay, now we’re gonna reference ‘Through Silver in Blood.'” Instead, it’s more likely these connections emerged naturally as the songs came together, and while at some point they had to consciously acknowledge they were doing something different than before — if only in realizing Fires Within Fires is 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor — I’m not convinced that’s anything so far removed from their usual method of making a record.

Still, the circles. One thinks of ouroboros, of ends as beginnings. It may well be that Neurosis have come full circle and they’ll draw that circle to a close, a completion, but just as likely, the turn in approach they present here may signify a new beginning for the band as much as punctuation for their first 30 years. What can be said for certain is Neurosis will keep moving forward, as it’s all they’ve ever done, and even as they may or may not be looking back, they refuse to stop changing on Fires Within Fires as well. Recommended.

Neurosis, Fires Within Fires album teaser

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1000mods, Repeated Exposure To…: Potential for Lasting Effects (Plus Track Premiere)

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

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[Click play above to hear the premiere of ‘Loose’ by 1000mods. Repeated Exposure To… is out on CD/DL Sept. 26 with vinyl Oct. 30 via Ouga Booga and the Mighty Oug Recordings.]

With their third full-length, Repeated Exposure To…, Greece’s 1000mods affirm their place at the head of the pack of European heavy rock and roll. I mean that without qualification. Not just Greek heavy, but Europe as a whole. They were already leaders in their home country after their 2014 offering, Vultures (review here), which followed their 2012 Valley of Sand EP (discussed here), their 2011 debut LP, Super Van Vacation (review here), 2009’s Liquid Sleep EP (review here), and their first short release, Blank Reality, which came out in 2006, but a full decade later, the Chiliomodi four-piece have become bona fide masters of the form.

Released through their own Ouga Booga and the Mighty Oug RecordingsRepeated Exposure To… derives its name from the photo on its cover, the warning on the tube amp that reads, “Warning! Repeated exposure to high sound levels (more than 80 decibels) may cause permanent impairing of hearing.” And so it might. Nonetheless, for 1000mods, one might take that as a credo under which they’re operating throughout the album as a whole.

Repeated Exposure To… runs at eight tracks/51 minutes and is easily the band’s most realized offering yet, produced and mixed by themselves with George Leodis and mastered by Brad Boatright with a crisp feel that demonstrates the professionalism they’ve hard won over the course of the last several years on the road throughout Europe, making their name internationally and coming to fully represent not only the vibrancy of Greece’s well-populated underground, but their own take on classic riff-driven songwriting, which finds its greatest accomplishments to-date here in cuts like “Above 179,” “Loose,” “The Son,” “A.W.,” “Groundhog Day” and “Into the Spell.”

A returning lineup of bassist/vocalist Dani G., guitarists Giannis S. and George T., and drummer Labros G. set the tone with the aforementioned opener “Above 179,” which declares its fuzzy roll outright and meets it head on with a galloping chug and the first of many resounding hooks. The tones are full, the drums sharp, the vocals cut through perfectly — it’s clear right from the start that it was a production with effort behind it; more an attempt to make an album with its own energy than represent a live show in raw form, and that works for the material as “Above 179” slows down and crashes into the riff that launches the subsequent “Loose.”

Tied with “The Son” as the longest tracks on Repeated Exposure To… at 8:41, “Loose” finds tension in the drums and builds toward its verse over the course of its first minute, a swing taking hold that finds interplay opening to its chorus, memorable almost immediately upon entering the ears. It’s only part of the impression “Loose” makes, however, as a thicker push kicks in to back a bridge and they move into a solo section at the halfway point that leads to a quiet section as part of a plotted instrumental jam that moves through the remainder of the track. Even as tight as they’ve shown themselves to be just a couple songs in, 1000mods let “Loose” live up to its name.

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Its somewhat more hypnotic and long-faded finish is a smooth setup for the boot-to-the-ass that is “Electric Carve,” a 3:37 rush topped by more aggressive vocals in its chorus that’s the shortest inclusion at 3:37 and arguably the most intense — a barnburner, though one not quite willing to let go of the overarching groove 1000mods have built over the album’s early going. That turn of approach is all the more noteworthy as “Electric Carve” splits the difference between “Loose” and “The Son,” which holds to its swinging progression more than “Loose” but also has plenty of room for another extended instrumental section in its second half, changing the context in which it and both the tracks around it arrive. Again, 1000mods benefit from experience, from professionalism, and Repeated Exposure To… is a stronger record for it.

The play back and forth in thrust continues with the faster “A.W.,” though in this instance it’s the guitar doing the screaming following a quick intro line that seems to play directly off Monster Magnet‘s “Powertrip” prior to a chorus of “I know I’m living in a bottle,” that proves no less infectious. A slowdown at the halfway mark builds back up to full-throttle push and where both “Loose” and “The Son” left their hooks behind to go exploring, “A.W.” cuts the runtime by about 50 percent and reinforces the underlying notion of songcraft that’s been there all along by returning to what becomes its signature line near the finish.

Though it gets somewhat swallowed up by the closing duo that follows in “Groundhog Day” and “Into the Spell,” the subsequent “On a Stone” rolls out yet another showcase chorus and plays successfully off a mid-paced vibe that serves as a fluid transition into the ending section while satisfying in its structure and the ground it finds between the drive of cuts like “Electric Carve” and the more spacious material elsewhere on Repeated Exposure To… — a category in which it seems fair to include “Groundhog Day,” if only for the largesse of its central groove.

Both the penultimate track and the closer top seven minutes, and comprise between them an immersive finale for 1000mods, “Groundhog Day”‘s roll a standout moment for the album as a whole and put to effective use as a kind of instrumental chorus in the first half of the song until about three and a half minutes in when the drums signal a shift into the righteously half-timed solo section that will cap the remainder, a lone guitar line leading into “Into the Spell,” which announces itself with echoing guitar backed by bass and an emergent drum line over the course of its first minute-plus before the main riff makes its presence felt. If there’s anywhere on Repeated Exposure To… that 1000mods show their roots, it’s in “Into the Spell,” with a line drawn directly to Kyuss that still shifts back and forth into the more individualized jam while also keeping a forward motion overall.

Like the album overall, it’s not a minor accomplishment, and as they move from raucous, good-times heavy into the long fade that ends side B, it becomes increasingly clear what a special moment for the band Repeated Exposure To… has managed to capture. Like Dozer was once able to do in successfully transcending their early influences to create something individual from them, so too have 1000mods produced a work of such quality built from the strong foundation of their two prior full-lengths. I won’t attempt to conjecture as to future impact they or the band might have, but these songs hit with an effect that feels geared toward longer-term appreciation, and the immediate sense is that Repeated Exposure To… might just get even richer with time and, suitably enough, multiple return visits.

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Live Review: Høstsabbat 2016 Night Two in Oslo, Norway, 09.17.16

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

hostsabbat-2016-poster

I slept. I slept and slept and slept. Then I wrote. Then I slept more. Then I wrote more, and by the time I was done with all that writing and sleeping, it was almost the start of Høstsabbat‘s second night. An earlier launch and more bands, but still a lineup of unmistakable quality, I didn’t want to miss any of it.

I’d hardly call myself an expert on the place, but Oslo seems like a really cool town if you like bands. On the 10-minute walk from the hotel to the Arena Vulkan I passed no fewer than three places that looked like they might host a rock show on any given night. Maybe that doesn’t sound like that many, depending on where you live, but it’s an embrace of culture that doesn’t exist in the place I’m from. Again, no expert, but that’s the initial impression.

Before I jump into the wrap of the day, I want to extend a personal thanks to Ole Helstad, Jens Storaker and all involved with the festival for having me over. The chance to see Oslo at all and to see these bands in this place is something very special and they clearly believe in what they’re doing. Rightly so. The vibe throughout the weekend was fantastic and I went almost the whole show without having beer thrown on me, so mark it a win for sure. Skål.

Here’s how night two went down at Høstsabbat 2016:

Reptile Master

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Post-sludge played through three guitars (plus bass) geared toward general tonal push, Reptile Master were an aggressive start to the day. I remembered the band from the release of their 2015 debut, In the Light of a Sinking Sun (track stream here), on Blues for the Red Sun Records, but live, the Tromsø five-piece made much more of an impression, bassist Rolf Ole Rydeng Jenssen and guitarist Nicolay Tufte Østvold set up facing each other with their mic stands crossed so as to accentuate the dual screams that permeated their set. They also had a split with Black Moon Circle out earlier this year, but their sound is much more crushing in its atmosphere, holding a tension even in its quiet moments without coming across as a post-metallic Neurosis clone. In that, the general pissed off nature of the material served them well as a distinguishing factor that changed the context even of those quiet moments, and the nod factor only became more prevalent as they went on. They’ve clearly started to make a mark in Norway, if the early crowd was anything to judge by.

Wild Rocket

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It was my first exposure to Dublin’s Wild Rocket, whose debut album, Geomagnetic Hallucinations, came out in 2014. Much as the night before at Høstsabbat had shifted vibe almost on a per-band basis, they were a significant jump in style from what Reptile Master had on offer, trading off between driving heavy rock and more spaced impulses, like that moment when the song “Motorhead” became the band Motörhead. About 25 minutes into their set opening the Vulkan stage upstairs, they announced it was time for their last song, warning, “It’s kind of a long one.” Fair enough. More people came up as their time went on — it was early yet — and they very clearly turned a few heads, including mine, with that final space jam, seeming to push further out in a way that recalled to my mind some of Death Alley‘s post-Hawkwind cosmic triumphs, though in the case of Wild Rocket, the interstellar was even more of a factor with the inclusion of keys. Their set still wound up short at roughly 35 minutes, but it was a welcome sampling of what they’re about, and their energy was infectious.

Mammoth Storm

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Arguably the most impressive headbanging I saw all weekend came from Mammoth Storm bassist/vocalist Daniel Arvidsson, and there was some stiff competition. The Swedish four-piece rolled out huge, clunky riffs on the Pokalen stage in a spirit that found them aptly named. They weren’t far off from what Reptile Master were doing tonally, but ultimately less angry, less atmospheric, and more about the heft itself than the cathartic expression derived therefrom. Still, they were way into it. Formerly a trio, they were on tour earlier this summer with High Fighter and Earthship, and the Høstsabbat crowd seemed to be the beneficiary of that experience. Their first album, Fornjot, was issued late last year by Napalm Records, and while they seemed to be figuring out some elements of presentation, no question they had their direction sorted, all skull-pummel and unrelenting push. Heavy band playing heavy music, is the bottom line. It was an easy set to enjoy and another jump to a different style from the band before them; that once again would become something of a running theme throughout the night.

Kollwitz

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To wit, Kollwitz. Quite simply a band I’d probably never get the chance to see anywhere else, the Bodø six-piece proffered vicious post-metal with a hardcore edge, the intensity of Converge met with the strict chug and strobe lighting of Amenra. They had the most crowded stage of the festival, but still plenty of room upstairs at the Arena Vulkan to thrash around, and they took advantage of it, their motion tied to the undulating lumber of their songs. They were another band I’d never heard before, which was by design — that is, I knew they were playing and could’ve checked them out, but sometimes it’s fun to go into these things blind — but they hit the decade mark in 2016 and came across with the command of an experienced act. Rarer for acts of their ilk, their material had a kind of direct thrust, and even when they did drone out an ambient section, quieting down all that push, percussion, screams, keys, and so on, it was plain enough that it was a temporary situation before the assault began anew. In accordance with the tenets of the style, they were cerebral and bludgeoning in kind. There’s nothing else I would’ve asked of them.

Jeremy Irons and the Ratgang Malibus

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Shit they were good. Come over from Stockholm, Jeremy Irons and the Ratgang Malibus were among the bands I was most looking forward to seeing this weekend, and they were quick to justify that anticipation. Most of what they played came from 2014’s Spirit Knife (review here), and that was zero reason to complain as they nestled into the classic groove and modern energy of “Wind Seized” after the opening cut “Andra,” which may or may not have been new. They’d get more tripped out as they went on, vocalist/guitarist Karl Apelmo — whose voice sounds even better live — leading the charge with guitarist Micke Pettersson, bassist Viktor Källgren and drummer Henke Persson all on the same page, fluid and vibrant. They tapped into four decades’ worth of Swedish heavy rock without losing sight of their own personality, and their play between the boogie of ages and a modern soulfulness was exceedingly well met, especially with the psychedelic range that emerged later on with “Fog by the Steep” and “Point Growth” closing out. How they’re not playing every single festival this fall, or, you know, all the time, I have no idea. Excellent band, and clearly still growing as well. Put them on the road with Radio Moscow immediately.

Siena Root

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Sweden’s Siena Root have been making the festival rounds across Europe over the last several months while working on a follow-up to their 2014 album, Pioneers. Next month, they’ll play Smoke the Fuzz in Athens, and they’re veterans of the likes of Freak Valley, Dome of Rock and so on. I said on the social medias that seeing Siena Root took some of the sting out of knowing I’d never get to watch peak-era Deep Purple play live, and while that’s perhaps simplifying their appeal, I think the comparison holds up, with the classic ’70s vibe Siena Root bring to life in their songs, costumes and delivery, the focus on interplay between the organ of Erik “Errka” Petersson (the only full organ setup on either stage at Høstsabbat) and the guitar of Matte Gustavsson, and the powerhouse vocals of Samuel Björö, the robe-clad guru bass from Sam Riffer and the swing-ready drumming of Love Forsberg. They were unabashed fun, all-in, and a pro execution that wasn’t at all staid. So genuine were they in their performance that it made me think it might be time to start considering Siena Root in the same league as Spiritual Beggars when it comes to crafting their songs and representing a natural lineage to the birth of heavy.

Slomatics

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They were the one. Slomatics. The headliners for the Pokalen stage were the band I was most dying to see all weekend, and the disappointment factor was zero. The Belfast trio of guitarists David Majury and Chris Couzens and drummer/vocalist/noisemaker Marty Harvey rolled out some of Høstsabbat‘s most satisfying riffs, and with a set spanning back to 2012’s A Hocht for “Tramontane,” “Return to Kraken” and closer “Beyond Acid Canyon,” and included “Electric Breath” and “Supernothing” from this year’s stellar Future Echo Returns (review here) as well as a host of cuts from 2014’s Estron (review here), they crashed, bashed and rumbled so loudly and so righteously that when it came to it, I just couldn’t remove myself from the front of the stage. Not only that, I did something I hadn’t done the entire time at the Arena Vulkan, which was to remove my earplugs part-way and let the full brunt of the volume hit my eardrums directly. That, I soon enough realized, was a mistake, but even so, the fact that the impulse was there should say something. Slomatics don’t get out of Ireland much, so to have them in Oslo was something special, and their performance showed it. A joy of ultra-heavy revelry. It was reportedly their first time playing “Supernothing” live, and I felt ridiculously lucky to be there to witness it. They’re the reason my neck is sore today. Don’t even care.

Truckfighters

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Very much the headliners for the fest as a whole. Immediately. No warmup. All go. The Swedish fuzzdudes left nothing to mystery as to why they were atop the bill. No place else to put them, frankly. They played in front of a banner so huge that it didn’t fit the Vulkan stage and all you could see from the crowd was the word “TRUCK,” but that was enough to get the point across. I’d had the good fortune earlier in the evening to sit and interview bassist/vocalist Oskar “Ozo” Cedermalm about the band’s new album, V (review pending), and some of the growth the group has undertaken over their last couple records, the push past straightforward desert-style groove into more progressive territory, and something I wondered about was how they would continue to strike that balance onstage when it comes to songs like “Calm Before the Storm” from the latest record. The answer is basically they just do. Cedermalm still headbangs, guitarist Niklas “Dango” Källgren is as kinetic as ever, jumping in circles, running from one side to the other of the stage, generally playing the madman role and doing it well. They had a new drummer — Marcus was the name I got, if he has a last name or a Truckfighters-style nickname, I don’t know it — who will reportedly be one of two joining them on their Euro tour this fall, and from what I hear they’ll be back in the US in spring, but the gist of watching a Truckfighters set is the excitement of how much they put into playing their songs, and whether they’re fast or slow, upbeat or melancholy, that continues to be the case. I stuck around to the finish because not only were they killing it, but the setlist didn’t have “Desert Cruiser” written on it — though they did include “Mexico,” which was a nice touch — and I was curious to see if they could actually get away with not playing that song, ending instead with “The Chairman” from 2014’s Universe (review here). They wound up using it for an encore, closing out the evening and the Høstsabbat as a whole with a sing-along of the chorus that continued even after they left the stage. I’m not sure a more suitable ending would’ve been possible.

It was right after they finished that some dick behind me decided to launch the rest of his beer into the crowd. Jerk move, but a great set, and I wasn’t exactly fresh and clean as it was by that point. I’d been watching the end of the show with the Slomatics guys, and said a few goodnights before making my way out. Always sad to walk out of an even like this for the last time, knowing that it’s over, but this was a special time and a special event, and those things have a tendency to be fleeting. All the more reason to treasure the memories of them.

Thanks again to everyone involved for having me over. I am humbled by the experience and deeply, deeply grateful for the opportunity. I wouldn’t presume to think I would be, but if I was invited again, I’d be here in a flash.

Flight takes off bound for JFK Airport via Copenhagen in about two hours. I very much appreciate you reading and know full well that if you didn’t, I wouldn’t get to do awesome stuff like fly to a festival in Oslo for a weekend, so thank you, thank you, thank you.

More pics after the jump.

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Live Review: Høstsabbat 2016 Night One in Oslo, Norway, 09.16.16

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

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As much as that kind of thing can be, the flight over had been a joy. By that I mean I slept. Driving past awesome trees and Euro-looking buildings en route, I got into Oslo and to the hotel in time to crash for a couple more hours before the first night of Høstsabbat kicked off at the Arena Vulkan. My first time here, my first time there, but the impression was immediately positive.

Høstsabbat is held across two stages in the Arena Vulkan, which is the Norwegian word for “volcano.” The Vulkan itself is upstairs. A sizable spot. High-ceiling, well lit (when Bong weren’t playing), great sound, bar off to the side. Downstairs is the Pokalen; a smaller performance space but with bar seating, tvs playing the fest schedule on a loop and a mellow vibe. Also great sound. The whole venue is tucked away on a side-street with an international market across the way filled with fish, meat, cheeses, bread, beer, coffee, tea, restaurants, and there are tables outside for smokers or those who might just want to catch a breath. All is immaculately clean — until beer is spilled on it, of course — and welcoming.

The first of the two nights comprised a seemingly manageable six acts, each with an hour set allotted, alternating between the stages downstairs and upstairs, playing one at a time. I won’t lie: by the time Conan were going on to headline, I was falling asleep sitting on the barricade in the photo pit, but for seeing them and Bong, as well as bands I’ve never caught before in Day of the Jackalope, MaidaVale, Cult of Occult and Wobbler, the evening was a joy for its variety and for the level of performance each band brought to the stage, whichever stage they happened to be on.

I’m thankful to be here. Here’s how it went down:

Day of the Jackalope

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Earlier this year, Oslo natives Day of the Jackalope released their self-titled debut EP on 12″ vinyl. To open Høstsabbat on the Pokalen stage, they would play all five songs from it — “Waste,” “PTSD,” “Profiteer,” “Take it Back” and “New Lies” — as well as a cover of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Manic Depression” and several others that I’ll assume were new. Their sound was a heavy boogie blues rock, and depending on the moment one could hear a strong influence from self-titled-era Clutch with some of Orange Goblin‘s gruffness thrown in, particularly in the vocals of Anders Hellestveit, joined in the band by guitarist Jens Andreas Storaker (also one of the organizers of the fest), bassist Lars Brodal and drummer Bård Sigurdson. They made a highlight of “The Salvager,” broke out a shaker for “PTSD” — had to wonder if there was a comment there — and some cowbell for “Agitate (Vaskebrett)” and pulled in a solid early crowd to start the day off with a raucous and weighted groove.

Wobbler

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My first encounter with Wobbler came just last month when they were announced as the final addition to the lineup for the fest. However, upon checking them out, they were immediately one of the bands I was most looking forward to seeing. The Hønefoss five-piece dug immediately into lush classic-style prog, marked out by the keyboards and synth work of Lars Fredrik Frøislie. The risk with a style like theirs presented in a live setting is it can feel staid if the band doesn’t keep a focus on delivery — all of a sudden, you’re just watching dudes noodle — but Wobbler avoided the issue entirely and had a vibrant performance, with vocalist/guitarist Andreas Wettergreen Strømman Prestmo providing a frontman presence backed by the lead work of guitarist Geir Marius Bergom Halleland and given a dynamic foundation from bassist Kristian Karl Hultgren and drummer Martin Nordrum Kneppen. Their material — still largely unknown to me, though they made a compelling argument for purchasing both their albums downstairs in the merch section; if I had any krone, I would have — was fluid and at times gorgeous, but didn’t necessarily give up thrust for indulgence, thereby striking a rare balance between progressive and heavy rock.

Cult of Occult

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Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, French foursome Cult of Occult made ready to unleash a vision of sludge so extreme it bordered on the grotesque. Primal. Brutal. All that fun stuff. They’d have the biggest crowd of the night for the Pokalen stage, and they treated it to nothing less than a bludgeoning, like Bongripper taken to a place of vicious misanthropy. Yup, and they were heavy too. Deadlight Entertainment put out their third album, Five Degrees of Insanity, in 2015, and from it, “Alcoholic” was recognizable for its resounding “fuck you all” chorus during which the crowd did indeed get flipped off from the stage. They played pretty much in the dark, at least at the beginning, and that felt about right for the hate-laced filth on offer in their sound, the sole communication with the audience coming in raised beer cups and near the end when drummer Rudy was the only one left on stage — they deteriorated their set-finale, departing the stage one at a time, vocals, guitar, then bass, to leave the drums as last to go — and he waved the cheering crowd on, fists pumping in the air in slow motion to his crashes. There’s an element of spectacle there, even if they’d never admit it, but in their tones, screams, lumber and push, they were righteous and unrepentant in their delivery. Not really where my head is at, but hard not to respect what they were doing and the grueling intensity with which they were doing it.

Bong

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I know I’ve seen UK dronelords Bong before at Roadburn 2010, but that was six years and probably that many lineups ago for the band, whose prolific ritualizing continues to yield immersive fruit and whose live incarnation as a trio on the Vulkan stage at Høstsabbat had to be one of the most tonally claustrophobic performances I’ve ever witnessed. And that’s not a small room to make it feel like the walls are closing in. After trying to take pictures of them in the dark, I went and poured myself a cup of much-appreciated free water at the bar and watched as the ripples created by their sheer volume and low-end frequencies danced in a circle of geometric patterning that looked like the alien communication it truly was. With guitarist Mike Vest starting out the show by taking a violin bow to his guitar, bassist David Terry dramatically quoting Lovecraft or something like it and adding throat-singing chants and Conan drummer Rich Lewis filling in on drums, Bong were a litmus test for how much assault earplugs could actually take. Downstairs, between bands at the Pokalen, they played Parliament, which was an enjoyable irony, but after catching my breath and making sure my head wasn’t going to explode, I was back up to watch Bong again, their slogging sound just too much the soundtrack for my jetlag to be missed any more than medically necessary.

MaidaVale

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As time has gone on and the heavy rock underground has kind of moved past the hey-let’s-pretend-it’s-1972 ethic of vintage worship — at least for the most part — the impetus has been toward blending the classic and the modern, so that clarity of sound and tone don’t need to be sacrificed to tap into an essential swing. Swedish four-piece MaidaVale arrive at this moment and make themselves right at home. Their debut album, Tales of the Wicked West, came out last month on The Sign Records, and from it they plucked the tracks “(If You Want the Smoke) Be the Fire,” “Dirty War” and “Standby Swing,” among others. The swing, by the way, was not at all on standby. It was front and center and thrust forward by the bass and drums as vocalist Matilda Roth met it head-on, dancing and soulfully pushing her voice to its limits as the lineup of Linn Johannesson, Sofia Ström and Johanna Hansson behind her left no question as to how a group who just released their first album might come to headline the night on the Pokalen stage. The songs were fluid, the bounce in the drums refreshing, and the tones warm and classic-feeling, again, without tapping directly into retroism. As they belted out “Dirty War” late in the set, they sounded very much like a group at the beginning of a growth process, but their stage presence was formidable all the same and the sense one got was that their progression will only make it more so as time goes on. Need to check out that album, is the bottom line.

Conan

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Five bands and five distinct looks at different kinds of heavy at Høstsabbat, and then suddenly it was time for Conan to come on and — as they will — destroy everything in their path. By the time they went on at midnight, I was hours past dead on my feet, but to see “Thunderhoof” into “Battle in the Swamp?” Oh yes, easily worth it. You can sleep anytime. Conan don’t just happen every day — or at least not in the same city. That was actually the most striking impression. It’s been a little more than a year since I last saw them, they’ve gotten even tighter with the lineup of guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis, bassist/vocalist Chris Fielding and the aforementioned Rich Lewis on drums. The stage dynamic between the three has been (war)hammered out and they were absolutely on fire, Lewis adding some of his own flourish to the gallop of “Gravity Chasm.” As a unit, all pro. I was also struck by what seemed to be an emergent YOB influence from Davis in his vocals. As Fielding has come to handle lower-register growling parts, Davis‘ exploration of cleaner singing has a tinge of Mike Scheidt to it that’s somewhat unexpected, but fits well repurposed into the shouting context of “Hawk as Weapon.” They were locked in in such a way as to make me think that their next album will be something really special. I won’t say a bad word about early 2016’s Revengeance (review here), but Conan made it plain to see they’re more than ready to move forward to their next vista of smoldering landscapes during this earned-through-devastation headlining set, and I’ll look forward to when they get there. Until then, “Total Conquest” never sounded more apt a title.

Night Two kicks off in a couple hours, so I gotta get ready. Thanks for reading. More pics after the jump.

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Ahkmed, The Inland Sea: Bliss and Water

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

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Marked out by their tonal warmth and immersive progressions, the long-form fluidity of Melbourne trio Ahkmed makes a welcome return with The Inland Sea, the band’s first full-length since 2009’s Distance (review here). That outing was also released by Elektrohasch Schallplatten — which, if you know the label run by Stefan Koglek of Colour Haze, should be about as far as you need to read in this review to let you know you should get on board.

After seven years, there have been some notable shifts in Ahkmed‘s sound, veering away from post-rock more pure heavy psych jamming, here presented in raw, mostly-instrumental form across five extended tracks — “Kaleidoscope” (10:44), “The Inland Sea” (12:53), “Last Hour of Light” (20:09), “Pattern of Atolls” (11:54) and “The Empty Quarter” (15:31) — totaling a satisfyingly symmetrical 1:11:11 runtime.

Not a minor investment in terms of the front-to-back listen, but the dreamtones and spaciousness of the title-track, the graceful manner in which the songs unfold and the varied atmospheres between them assure that the journey remains engaging for the duration, drummer John-Paul Caligiuri adding vocals over the slow wash of “The Inland Sea” (though that might be a sample; it’s kind of obscure in the mix) and the subsequent centerpiece after the hypnotic opening of “Kaleidoscope” to bring a definitively human presence to the material just when it seems to be pushing out further and further.

Also the introduction of new bassist Finn Rockwell, who comes aboard to replace Dan McNamara, alongside Caligiuri and guitarist Carlo IacovinoThe Inland Sea casts out cosmic with a natural chemistry and patient execution, indulging itself as a release like this invariably must, but not doing so in an offputting or pretentious fashion.

That can be a hard line to walk, but Ahkmed make it work in the best way possible — by simply doing it. From the fuzzy guitar line that starts “Kaleidoscope” onward, the three-piece ease their way into progressive spacedelia with an underlying command that speaks to the years they’ve been at it, Caligiuri and Iacovino having started the band circa 1998.

As they approach 20 years in and mark their resurgence from a dormant period, The Inland Sea lacks nothing for vitality, though admittedly they’re not exactly shooting for uptempo party rock. That’s not to say their delivery isn’t energetic or they don’t sound like they’re making the music they want to be making — quite the opposite, actually — just that the trance that takes hold about halfway through “Kaleidoscope” and continues into “The Inland Sea” would seem to be closer to the endgame goal the album is pushing toward.

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It’s about the texture and spirit that emerges from the material; something to get lost in. They build “Kaleidoscope” to a formidable apex and end it with a fading wash to let the title cut take hold with two builds of its own, patiently marched forward by cymbal washes as the guitar spaces out, the song almost dividing in half for when one part ends and the next one starts.

By its finish, it too gets to significant proportion, but the difference in ambience is noteworthy, and another balance Ahkmed strike subtly throughout The Inland Sea as “Last Hour of Light” — an obvious focal point, for even more than its sheer length — arrives with about two minutes of introduction from the guitar before the vocals and quiet drums join in. At this point, the ethereal mood is fully constructed, but Caligiuri does have a grounding effect when he starts with the first verse, something to give a sense of place to what can seem to be so willfully formless.

At first, it seems like “Pattern of Atolls” might be trying to bridge the the two sides between Ahkmed‘s post-rock and more heavy psych liquefaction, but it winds up pushing further, thickening its tones in the second half and pushing into territory more outwardly heavy than anything The Inland Sea has yet offered. Caligiuri returns on vocals earlier in the track but recedes into the molten flow that seems to rise up after his lines are done, and it’s Rockwell whose low end seems to signify the heft to come, fuzzed-out as it is.

They start to dive into a payoff but hold back, saving it for the end of the song, which feels about right once they hit the nine-minute mark and crash into a blown-out final three minutes that cap with bass-noise swirling directly into the guitar intro of “The Empty Quarter” — the most purposeful transition they’ve yet made and one that ties the final two tracks together in a way that brings to mind a linearity that The Inland Sea invariably wouldn’t have as a 2LP, on which “The Empty Quarter” and “Pattern of Atolls” would each likely occupy a side.

Maybe that’s Ahkmed acknowledging the digital/vinyl companionship, the sort of symbiotic the most and least physical formats have developed over the years since Distance, or maybe it’s just the way the songs flowed the best. I wouldn’t hazard a guess. Either way, the closer follows a similar pattern of a guitar intro leading to a verse that shifts into a jam quiet, louder, quiet again, noisy for a bit, then at last arriving at the groove that will carry it out.

To listen to The Inland Sea by this time and look for intricacies almost feels like missing the point, which is clearly to let the album wash over you and move you from one end of its span to the other. Nonetheless, “The Empty Quarter” and the four cuts before it do offer a depth of experience for those willing to dig in — headphones recommended — and the spaces they evoke seem vast enough to hold a presence until next time. Hopefully that’s not another seven years.

Ahkmed, The Inland Sea (2016)

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Brant Bjork, Tao of the Devil: Desert Iconic (Plus Lyric Video Premiere)

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

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[Click play above to watch a lyric video premiere for Brant Bjork’s ‘The Gree Heen.’ Tao of the Devil is out Sept. 30 on Napalm Records.]

Brant Bjork didn’t invent desert rock, but there’s nobody who more closely epitomizes it or whose work has become so synonymous with it. Whether one is considering his pioneering work in Kyuss and Fu Manchu, the stylistic exploration undertaken with Ché or his 17-year solo career, which has undoubtedly become his greatest contribution at this point, in songwriting, style and persona, Bjork is a singular icon and a touchstone of the desert underground — by now a worldwide phenomenon long grown out of the confines of its initial Southern California home.

His second through Napalm Records after 2014’s righteous Black Power Flower (review here), the newest outing, Tao of the Devil, is also the second to feature the backing of The Low Desert Punk Band, with guitarist Bubba DuPree (formerly of Void), bassist Dave Dinsmore (Ché) and drummer Ryan Güt (who makes his debut here replacing Tony Tornay), and it presents eight songs/50 minutes in a spirit of celebrating the laid back, soulful groove of which Bjork has long since established himself a master, while tightening the songwriting some from the last outing, so that tracks like opener “The Gree Heen” — with a roll worthy of Goatsnake — and “Luvin'” stand out early and the later section of the record gives way to longer-form jamming on “Dave’s War” and “Evening Jam,” which run nine and 13 minutes, respectively, and are smartly divided with the ultra-languid mega-vibe of the title-track between them.

Counting outings with The Operators (not quite a full band, but still some other players involved), The Bros. and The Low Desert Punk Band, as well as those solely under his own name — the most recent of which was 2010’s Gods and Goddesses (review here) — Tao of the Devil is upwards of the 11th full-length to bear Bjork‘s name, and longtime fans will to some extent know what’s in store.

Hard to imagine seeing that as anything other than cause for jubilation, and be it the classic ’70s boogie of “Humble Pie” that takes hold after the massive stoner-is-as-stoner-does riff of “The Gree Heen” or the in-conversation-with-the-blues slow-motion shuffle of “Biker No. 2” later on, which gets a sleek pulled-string solo as it moves into its second half and boasts one of the album’s many resonant hooks, if it’s a familiar form, it’s one still changing and progressing as well.

In that way, “The Gree Heen” sets the tone for a lot of what follows it, in that it’s instantly memorable, though its thicker tones are actually something of an aberration in themselves and go unmatched throughout, despite a more aggressive lyric and rhythmic push on “Dave’s War” before the jam takes hold — marked out by lines like, “No ass left to fuck/No cock left to suck/Well you must be on top” — but if it’s the songwriting that stands out across Tao of the Devil as much as Bjork himself, the songwriting feels like it’s more than up to that considerable task.

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I’ve jumped around a bit in the tracklisting to this point, but it’s also worth pointing out the flow from one song into the next and just how easy Bjork and company make it to traverse the album from to back. From “The Gree Heen” through the funk hypnosis of “Evening Jam,” it’s a collection that speaks directly to its audience with a complete lack of pretense about needing anything more than a good time and maybe to crash for a couple days if that’s cool? Won’t be more than a couple days, I swear? Awesome. You’re the best.

To the point, the early personality that comes through in “Humble Pie,” “Stackt” (video posted here) and “Luvin'” digs deep into quality, classic songwriting after the opener’s larger push and weedian anthemic — the first lines, “I got all that I need/I got the gree-heen,” tell the tale — and it’s probably fair to put “Biker No. 2” in that category as well to comprise an A-side that hits its target head-on without fail. I don’t actually know where the vinyl split is, but it’s likely with “Dave’s War” leading off side B, and between that track, “Tao of the Devil” and “Evening Jam,” which by the time it hits nine minutes in has morphed into minimalist progressive bass noodling, only to surge forward again in grander-finale fashion — still pretty laid back, which works — side B opens wide from the crisp delivery of Tao of the Devil‘s first half, only really letting go when it wants to as it jams out toward natural-sounding purposes.

“Evening Jam” may just be that — the jam they recorded that evening — but it’s also the perfect closer after the moody, bluesy title-cut, and the liquefied transition from “Dave’s War” to it and into the wah-twang intro of the closer isn’t to be underappreciated. Not that Bjork needed to demonstrate he knows how to put a record together, but such stretches, particularly when paired with the depth of songwriting, organic tones and spirit of the earlier tracks, only serve to reinforce his position as the Godfather of Desert Rock.

Tao of the Devil‘s greatest victory might be in how much of Bjork‘s own it seems to be even as it expands that definition from its predecessor, and its honesty is crucial to that success. It’s a rare figure who earns that kind of hyperbole, but it’s even rarer to find someone who 17 years on from their first LP is continuing to grow and refine their craft in the way Bjork does on Tao of the Devil, adding to his signature approach here and reveling in a full-band dynamic there as he presents yet another piece in his catalog that should be considered essential to longtime fans and novices alike. Very clearly one of 2016’s best albums.

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Napalm Records website

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The Well, Pagan Science: Conversion for the Agnostic (Plus Track Premiere)

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on September 14th, 2016 by H.P. Taskmaster

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[Click play above to hear a new track from The Well’s Pagan Science. Album is out Oct. 14 on RidingEasy Records.]

In 2014, Austin trio The Well offered up Samsara (review here), their first full-length, on RidingEasy Records. The album wasn’t a revelation in style from what they’d accomplished on their 2012 single, Seven (review here), or the subsequent First Trip EP, but it was a definitive step forward and, to my ears, represented a key piece in the arrival of a new league of US bands ready to take up the mantle of heavy rock.

With the follow-up, Pagan Science (also on RidingEasy), guitarist/vocalist Ian Graham, bassist/vocalist Lisa Alley and drummer Jason Sullivan confirm that supposition. They’ve put in no shortage of road time in the interim, and that would seem to have affected the songwriting in making their material tighter, with shorter, crisply executed songs that manage to fit four more tracks in and still only be five minutes longer than the preceding outing at a vinyl-able 44 minutes.

Not only that, but the arrangements of Alley and Graham‘s vocals, as heard on songs like “I Don’t Believe” and the closing Crosby, Stills and Nash cover “Guinnevere,” as well as the flow between tracks particularly earlier in the proceedings, how “Skybound” picks up from the curiously but rightly placed second-track interlude “Forecast” and leads directly into “A Pilgrimage”‘s tales of gypsy woes all speak to the growth the three-piece have actively undertaken over the last two years, and it makes Pagan Science an expansion of reach even as it seems to have tightened the reins on some of the loose, jammy feel of the first LP.

As in the best of cases, songs feel written to stand out and run together in kind. The band returned to work with producer/engineer Chico Jones at Micro Mega Studio (Mark Deutrom also worked on the last one) earlier this year, so there’s some consistency in overall sound. From the harmonies that signal the beginning of opener “Black Eyed Gods,” The Well still skulk around a murk somewhere between garage doom, heavy psych, classic stoner and yet-undefined Sabbath-born impulses.

Riffs lead the way through the shuffle of “Black Eyed Gods,” and the effect of pairing that with the 41-second low-end noise wash of “Forecast” isn’t to be understated in giving Pagan Science an open sensibility immediately.

The drive of the speedier “Skybound” is introduced and from there, The Well dig deeper into the heart of what their second record is all about — Graham and Alley coming together vocally over Sullivan‘s steady roll busting out memorable tracks that remain spacious in their intent and echo while working around a deceptive structure that even in a longer cut like “Skybound,” which is one of four songs to top five minutes, though none hit 5:30, holds the material together even as they directly tie songs into another to create the whole-album spirit.

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“A Pilgrimage” has a landmark chorus and laid back solo that should translate well to the stage if it hasn’t yet, with Alley and Graham trading parts back and forth to conversational effect and though “Drug from the Banks” seems to shift the narrative, its build and chug balance an airy feel in the verse and far-back hook that keep the momentum going, underscoring the efficiency that’s taken root beneath the spiky leaves of The Well‘s sound.

Further in that argument, the chants that mark the arrival of centerpiece “Byzantine” make that song feel all the more appropriate for its position and its gradual unfolding, but it’s still under four minutes long, despite leaving a much grander impression.

I’m not sure where the vinyl split is, if it’s before “Byzantine” or after, but that track is a definite landmark for Pagan Science either way, and “One Nation” picks up with Graham‘s vocals introducing the hook before the rest of the band crashes in with a two-and-a-half-minute nod of some lyrical social comment cloaked in suitably ethereal language.

Could that be The Well showcasing a punk side? Possible, but it fits nonetheless, and “One Nation” ends with a cymbal wash that leads into the ultra-languid bass-highlight start of “Choir of the Stars,” the back half of the album’s own instrumental (save for some samples that may be shouting, may be dogs barking; it’s all pretty obscure) that works to a mirror the effect of “Forecast” in broadening the context of its surroundings. Again, it’s just three minutes, but the effect is longer lasting.

With a sort of Eastern minor-key flair that draws on Om without directly emulating them, “Brambles” introduces the closing trio with a purposefully repetitive course no less memorable than that of “A Pilgrimage” earlier, and “I Don’t Believe” provides immediate complement in that regard, with its long-since-dropped-out-of-life righteous vibe and sing-along section in the second half leading to a faster charge to close out.

Might be fair to think of “Guinnevere,” since it’s a cover and since “I Don’t Believe” caps with such a push, as a bonus track, but it works exceedingly well with the rest of the material here and offers one last vocal highlight from Alley and Graham while taking the central progression of the original and turning it into a more malevolent, thickened riff backed up by atmospheric noise.

It ends Pagan Science on a somewhat understated note, but if anything, The Well‘s second offering makes the clear point that the band is ready to keep rolling onward on their forward course, progressing and expanding and refining what they do as they go, but going most of all. As a part of that up and coming surge in American heavy rock, they only prove themselves more crucial here.

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