Sasquatch, Maneuvers: The Twists and Turns

Posted in Reviews on June 26th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

sasquatch-maneuvers

In the 13 years since they released their self-titled debut, Los Angeles heavy rockers Sasquatch have somewhat quietly — and somewhat loudly — become one of the foremost American delivery systems of straightforward, flawlessly composed heavy rock and roll. Their fifth full-length breaks with a three-record Roman numeral tradition established across 2014’s IV (review here), 2010’s III (review here) and 2006’s II (discussed here) — in being titled Maneuvers, and with a sort-of-self-release through Mad Oak Records where its four predecessors found issue through Small Stone as well as by being the first Sasquatch album to feature Roadsaw vocalist Craig Riggs on drums alongside guitarist/vocalist Keith Gibbs and bassist Jason “Cas” Casanova. Riggs also owns Mad Oak Studios in Allston, Massachusetts, where Maneuvers was recorded by producer Benny Grotto before being sent to Andrew Schneider in New York for mixing and Justin Weis in San Francisco to be mastered — if nothing else, the record has gotten around — and he steps into Sasquatch in place of Rick Ferrante, who still shares a writing credit on some of the album’s nine tracks.

And as ever for Sasquatch, the writing is the crucial element. I am very much a fan of the band and their output to-date, so if you need to, take my saying so with an appropriately-sized grain of salt, but as they have developed over the years into their own sound — Gibbs as attitude-laden vocalist, soloist and riffer, Casanova as anchor and a purveyor of high-class low-end complement and tonal richness– each Sasquatch offering since the first has been tied together through a near-unmatched-in-riff-rock quality of craftsmanship. And on Maneuvers, the thread continues in pieces like “More Than You’ll Ever Be,” the leadoff single and opener “Rational Woman” (premiered here), “Destroyer,” “Just Couldn’t Stand the Weather,” “Drown all the Evidence,” “Bringing Me Down,” “Anyway” and closer “Window Pain,” which if you’re paying attention, accounts for the whole record minus the penultimate interlude “Lude,” which at least goes to the effort of having a clever title.

Couple this essential facet of their approach with Grotto‘s as-expected full, clear and clean-but-not-overly-so production — still allowing for the punch of Casanova‘s bass in “Rational Woman” and a right-on fuzzy breadth swirling in the later, slower, key-inclusive “Drown all the Evidence” — and Maneuvers, as a title, could have any number of origins. The word itself, along with the fighter pilot featured on the cover art by Troy Goodrich, brings to mind a military context, going out on maneuvers, or trying to outflank one’s opponent. That could be a reference to the changes in and around the band itself — a convenient if unlikely narrative — the fact that they released the album with minimal fanfare ahead of a European tour, essentially outflanking their audience — also unlikely, but not impossible — or their use of “maneuvers” could simply refer to the practice of their songwriting itself, serving as another way of saying Maneuvers, the record, is Sasquatch making the moves they make, doing what they do.

Whether or not that’s where the name comes from, it’s true to how Maneuvers plays out. Sasquatch demonstrate clear, obvious mastery of their approach as “Rational Woman” kicks off at a high clip and the nod-groovy “More than You’ll Ever Be” follows with an extra dose of echo on Gibbs‘ vocals, leading into “Destroyer” (not a cover of The Atomic Bitchwax), the hook of which reinforces the push of an opening salvo from which it would be difficult to ask more than is given. It’s a first-third of the tracklist working to establish and build momentum that continues as “Bringing Me Down” expands the melodic context with some vocal harmonies (are those backing vocals by Riggs? layers from Gibbs? it’s hard to tell) in its second-half bridge to set up an all the more fluid transition into the organ-laced centerpiece “Drown all the Weather,” which along with the subsequent “Drown all the Evidence” and “Window Pain” brings in David Unger (a bandmate of Riggs‘ as singer of White Dynomite) to handle keys, only enhancing Sasquatch‘s long-embodied blend of the classic and modern in heavy rock.

sasquatch-Photo-by-Edko-Fuzz

“Just Couldn’t Stand the Weather” and “Drown all the Evidence” hit back-to-back and are the two longest cuts on Maneuvers at just under six and a half minutes each, and their pairing seems by no means to be an accident. Rather, after the raucous launch and the shift begun on “Bringing Me Down,” they stand out in the middle of the album as a point of essential listener immersion. The take and tone aren’t radically different from what Sasquatch have already brought to bear, but the keys make a difference to be sure, and where “Rational Woman” barely lets those hearing it catch their breath before shoving them into “More than You’ll Ever Be,” both of the longer tracks allow a more patient rollout to take hold amid the still-resonant hooks. Nothing more than a good band capable of working in different contexts doing just that and doing it well. The following “Anyway” almost seems to make an aside of the two/three songs before it, but brings Maneuvers back to a more grounded and straightforward position à la “More than You’ll Ever Be” or “Bringing Me Down” as they shift into the final movement in the last third.

While the total runtime stands at an utterly manageable 38 minutes (IV was 43, if you want to compare), this last set of three tracks, with the 17 seconds of “Lude” picking up after the quick fade of “Anyway” and leading into “Window Pain,” is the shortest and most deceptively efficient of them. And when it hits, “Window Pain,” naturally, serves to tie the various sides of Maneuvers together, bringing back Unger on keys and welcoming noted Boston improv specialist James Rohr (The Blue RibbonsThe Family Township) on B3 for additional flourish. It becomes somewhat curious that Sasquatch close on an energetic middle-ground — “Window Pain” is more emotional than it is a riot — but five records deep, they know the choices they’re making and one isn’t inclined to argue with either the execution of the finale, the depth of the arrangement or the manner in which it eases the listener to the silence that follows.

One might have said the same thing about the preceding album, but Maneuvers finds Sasquatch wholly mature and in unshaken command of their craft and style. They’ve been through some changes in the last couple years, perhaps, but what makes them who they are very much remains intact and pushes forward with characteristic boldness and the update of classic methods and structures that has made bridging generations of rock impulses sound so completely natural across their entire discography. Sasquatch are nothing short of a treasure in US heavy rock and roll, and their Maneuvers are sharp, refined and something special to behold. One of 2017’s best, easily.

Sasquatch, Maneuvers (2017)

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Review & Full Album Stream: Greenbeard, Lödarödböl

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 23rd, 2017 by JJ Koczan

greenbeard lodarodbol

[Click play above to stream Greenbeard’s Lödarödböl in its entirety. Album is out July 1 via Sailor Records.]

One might have to stare a couple extra seconds at the title Lödarödböl before putting the proper long ‘o’ sounds where they should be, but once that’s deciphered, a good portion of Greenbeard‘s intent is revealed. The Austin, Texas-based three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Chance Parker, bassist Dan Alvarez and drummer Buddy Hachar follow-up their 2015 debut, Stoned at the Throne (discussed here), with six tracks of correspondingly weedian craftsmanship that balances straightforward hooks with jammier impulses in clear but fluid divide. That is, in listening, one looks at a song like the eight-minute “Lanesplitter” and can probably guess that Greenbeard are about to stretch out a bit, but the trio do well to tie their pieces together, whether it’s that song leading out of aptly-named opener “Swing” or into the driving “Young Concussion.”

All told, Lödarödböl comprises six tracks pulled off over a pretense-free 35 vinyl-ready minutes, and there isn’t a weak one in the batch. With subtle shifts in tone brought to bear through a production/mix job by Matt Bayles (Isis, Mastodon, so many others) — who also adds synth to “Swing,” “Lanesplitter” and 10-minute closer “Wyrm” — a few guest vocal appearances and variety of structure, Greenbeard keep a consistent groove from song to song while playing a kind of back and forth between shorter and longer-winded stretches. Momentum is built and well maintained, and ultimately, Lödarödböl succeeds in casting an amiable interpretation of modern stoner heavy: informed but not solely indebted to the likes of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age, and jammed out in all the right places.

With their road bowl loaded, Greenbeard set themselves in immediate motion with the introductory riff of “Swing,” calling to mind a fuzzier take on earlier Red Fang in their chug and straightforward, uptempo push. Even the verse is catchy, and the chorus itself is the first of several deceptively ear-worming melodies that Lödarödböl offers, but it’s also telling and somewhat foreshadowing that “Swing” moves into its second half with the aforementioned keys from Bayles and a more laid back, languid, semi-psychedelic spaciousness added on top of that initial core chug. That tension is essential to what makes Lödarödböl function, and to have it play out directly prior to the fadeout of the album opener shows consciousness on the part of the band in terms of informing their audience of their intent throughout. Was that what they had in mind when they wrote the song? Probably not, but it’s a crucial function “Swing” plays anyway, and likewise the transition into the nodding “Lanesplitter” is smooth enough that there’s no jarring moment where one track ends and the next one starts.

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Parker‘s vocals about a minute in remind of Chris Goss in Masters of Reality in how they top the bounce, but “Lanesplitter” is headed outward, and after a little more than three minutes, the track crashes out to a just-guitar progression as the founding element of the likely-plotted jam that will carry through the rest of its eight-minute runtime, some righteous half-time drumming from Hachar and Bayles‘ organ work setting up a guitar solo while Alvarez holds the proceedings together on bass so that as they move into the more-improv-sounding next stage of the jam and build toward the crashing apex, the sense of motion remains prevalent. That turns out to be pivotal as Greenbeard shift method again into the shorter and more structured “Young Concussion,” rounding out the album’s first half with a strong hook that speaks to the Songs for the Deaf influence, stops to make room for a bit of rock-gasm, and ably returns to its chorus to finish.

Lest they be accused of not being stoned enough, ParkerAlvarez and Hachar start side B with “Battleweed.” Like “Swing” at the outset, there’s a certain amount of blending impulses in the five-minute-plus second-half leadoff, but “Battleweed” functions doubly in reinforcing not only the two different sides of Lödarödböl, but how readily Greenbeard are able to unite them into a functioning singular presentation. There may be a certain tongue-in-cheek aspect to the lyrics, but with its turn into and subsequently out of midsection boogie and casual rhythm, it’s a highlight all the same, and it comes backed by the “Love has Passed by Me,” the penultimate cut and shortest at 3:33. A sans-frills swing-and-hook masher, it thick-shuffles through its verse en route to the maybe-Kyuss referential chorus (though that was “…Passed Me By,” not “…Passed by Me” as it is here) and holds its pace for the duration, playing effectively into the bass-thickened start of “Wyrm.”

The final portion of Lödarödböl earns its extended stretch-out with a patient opening and loosely hypnotic flow, a particularly impressive vocal from Parker when the vocals arrive and a break at the halfway mark into an abbreviated crescendo. This makes for an especially welcome ending, because rather than build and jam their way out, Greenbeard actually turn back to the chorus and the central progression of “Wyrm” and ride that to the album’s end, working in defiance of expectation and easing the listener back to reality with a return from Bayles on keys and a last churning hum. In some ways, Lödarödböl is a quintessential second full-length. It clearly has learned from its predecessor, and it demonstrates mindful growth on the part of Greenbeard without giving the sense that they’ve finished the process of becoming who they’ll be as a band. That’s a convenient narrative, but they play well to it, and their preaching should have no trouble finding welcome among the ears of the already converted or those looking to be.

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Review & Full Stream: Harsh Toke, Joy & Sacri Monti, Burnout Split LP

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 22nd, 2017 by JJ Koczan

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[Click play above to stream the Burnout three-way split between Harsh Toke, Joy and Sacri Monti. It’s out June 23 via Tee Pee Records.]

Not to quibble on titles, but it’s way less Burnout than it is ignition. The West Coast heavy psych boom, centered in San Diego but with offshoots up and down throughout California in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, etc., is years underway at this point, and New York’s Tee Pee Records has proven to be among its most crucial documentarians. In bringing together Harsh TokeJoy and Sacri Monti — three San Diego bands who’ve all had albums out on Tee Pee — the long-running imprint has essentially reinforced the arrival of and camaraderie between members of one of the US’ most vibrant underground scenes. If they wanted, each of these groups could have headlined their own three-band split — there’s enough clout between them and enough other acts around to make that happen, easily — but in uniting them together, Tee Pee is going for broke in representing the particular energy and classic-minded shred that typifies San Diego’s explosive sound.

It is likewise no coincidence that Burnout — a six-song 12″ topping out at 26 minutes — should feature covers from each band as well as original material from Joy and Sacri Monti, since so much of what’s happening and what’s already happened in the heavy ’10s has owed its core approach to the heavy ’70s before it, so that to have Harsh Toke take on Roky Erickson for two tracks — something they also did for a full set at Roadburn festival this past Spring in the Netherlands — as Joy tears into “Spaceship Earth” by Road and Sacri Monti into “Sleeping for Years” by Atomic Rooster not only makes sense sonically, but effectively ties together the still-very-much-exploding current movement of bands with the crucial wave that preceded it nearly half a century ago.

I admit, that’s a pretty heady view of the mission here, and to listen to Burnout, the tracks don’t come across nearly so lofty in their aims, whether that’s Harsh Toke‘s drunk-at-the-piano dive into Erickson‘s “Burn the Flames” at the outset or the scorching, organ-soaked boogie drive of Sacri Monti tackling “Sleeping for Years” at the finish. And rightfully so. If it was pretentious or overly self-aware, the whole affair would fall flat, where in the front-to-back execution, it proves to be anything but, with both Joy and Sacri Monti right in their respective elements in both their own material and their cover selections while Harsh Toke prove to be somewhat the outliers as they leadoff the release. Not so much sound-wise — Roky Erickson‘s weirdo formative and massively influential psych isn’t out of context in their swaying reinterpretation — as in the simple concept of Harsh Toke playing songs.

harsh toke joy sacri monti burnout vinyl

Harsh Toke‘s 2016 split (review here) with San Diego scene lords Earthless — who along with Radio Moscow are very much the elephant in the room when it comes to not only the three outfits appearing on Burnout but the wider San Diego sphere as a whole — and their 2014 debut, Light up and Live, were essentially jam-based releases, and their live sets find them working in likewise methods. To hear them push through the fuzzy proto-punk of “Bermuda,” I’m not sure why they so generally avoid vocals, but the fact that it’s something that doesn’t happen all the time would seem to make it all the more of an event, and they are right at home in that track and “Burn the Flames” preceding, giving a sense of Erickson‘s character in the material while presenting it with their own energetic tack. Naturally, on a three-band split there’ are bound to be some stark leaps in sound, between groups — like on any multi-group compilation — but the speedier “Bermuda” also helps make way for Joy‘s “Your Time Ain’t Long,” the longest inclusion here overall at 5:27.

Meting out similar winding riffage to what high-speed-nodded throughout their 2016 third full-length, Ride Along! (review here), “Your Time Ain’t Long” serves as the first original of Burnout and cuts short after three-and-a-half shuffling minutes to a more languid drift, keeping some progressive tension beneath as it moves with deceptive efficiency back toward its hook. The trio count into “Spaceship Earth” for a live-in-studio feel that the raw fuzz of their tonality and echoing vocals backs up that impression. In their own composition as well as the 1972 Road track, it’s the guitar leading the charge, and even as “Spaceship Earth” moves into outside-the-atmosphere noise following an extended stretch of leads, tone provides the fuel for that ascent. Sacri Monti‘s “Over the Hill” follows immediately.

Their original, like that of Joy before them, showcases a fervent-enough ’70s influence to make its transition seamless, but is distinguished through the use of organ and the interplay there between keys and shred-prone guitar as was their 2015 self-titled debut (review here), and as a next step forward from that release, “Over the Hill” bodes well for the development of their chemistry on the whole. Their selection of an Atomic Rooster track is likewise admirable — and one has to acknowledge it must’ve been tempting, when looking at 1970’s Death Walks Behind You, to take on the title-piece — and they give the UK-based post-blues stompers their due while, like Harsh Toke and Joy before them, bringing their own personality to the presentation in a live-feeling onslaught of groove that dares you to keep up with its nigh-on-frenetic turns. It’s over quickly — so is Burnout as a whole — but Sacri Monti‘s cold finish to “Sleeping for Years” makes a fitting end to the split, since as the scene that birthed these bands also seems to do, it leaves one with the feeling of standing in front of the stage yelling for one more song.

And if they had done another, or if any of these groups came back out and did an encore, you wouldn’t find me complaining. Cities like San Diego, Encinitas, Visalia, Oceanside, and so on, have become more and more crowded over the last couple years, and I expect they’ll continue to for at least the next several years as we move toward and beyond 2020, but with the quality of output from Harsh TokeJoy and Sacri Monti both here and on their own offerings, it’s hard to argue with others wanting to pick up and try to capture some of the same vibe that’s presented as being so utterly molten across this split. In playing to their strengths, each of these bands represents some of the best of West Coast heavy psych as a whole.

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Review & Full Album Stream: Abronia, Obsidian Visions / Shadowed Lands

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 20th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

abronia-obsidian-visions-shadowed-lands

[Click play above to stream Obsidian Visions / Shadowed Lands by Abronia. Album is out June 26 on Water Wing Records. Tour dates below.]

It’s telling that Abronia‘s first album, Obsidian Visions / Shadowed Lands, should open with such a strong sense of place. The leadoff track, which begins with a sparse minute-plus of atmospheric, prairie-vibed guitar before exploding into a cacophonous wash of noise, cymbal crashes, saxophone, etc., is called “The Great Divide.” Also known as the Continental Divide, its name derives from the point along the Rocky Mountains at which water flows either to the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean. In the context of the Portland six-piece’s Water Wing Records debut, it could just as easily refer to the slashed duality of the title, that moment where the calmness erupts at the beginning, or the shift into spacious, swinging heavy Americana, folkadelia and rock that emerges therefrom.

But the important thing is there is a definite place, bound to the earth, that the opener positions the listener, since the core of the five-track/34-minute offering would seem likewise to be of and about the land. One finds this rooted in the use of a 1930s marching drum as a percussive focus throughout instead of a standard bass drum, as well as in the organic, direct-to-tape production through which the material is presented, having been tracked by Jason Powers (Moon Duo) at Type Foundry, and in the patient, methodical manner in which the ambience unfolds, creating a flow from the beginning of “The Great Divide” that is at once vividly present in its groove and seeking something ethereal or transcendent. Another great divide entirely, perhaps.

The band is comprised of vocalist/saxophonist Keelin Mayer (formerly of Eternal Tapestry), guitarist Benjamin Blake (also Young Hunter), guitarist/backing vocalist Eric Crespo (also Ghost to Falco), bassist Amir Amadi, Andrew Endres of Ohioan on lap steel guitar and James Shaver on the aforementioned marching drum and other percussive elements, and the stylistic trip on which they embark beginning with “The Great Divide” is significant. The opener is also the longest track at 8:36 (immediate points), and its instrumental fluidity carries the listener smoothly into the shimmering, sunshine-on-the-river melodica-topped folk of “Shala,” on which Mayer gradually makes her presence known vocally (it is a presence worth knowing) as she locks in with the melody of the guitar.

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Here and across the following tracks, vocals will come and go with naturalist ease, adding to the earthy psychedelic impression of “The Great Divide” and giving the whole affair a front-to-back feel of willful meandering — the band seeming to head out in the woods and set themselves to ranging. They’ll do so throughout “Shala,” the centerpiece “Smoke Fingers,” the Jefferson Airplane-esque highlight “Glass Butte Retribution” and seven-minute closer “Waning Wand,” playing instrumentals off memorable, poetic verses handed down by Mayer with suitable command. Followers of Young Hunter will find some continuity with that band’s bouncing, plucked guitar notes via Blake‘s playing, but Obsidian Visions / Shadowed Lands is ultimately less gothic in its intent, and though there’s a tension to some of the craft following the blowup at the start, it’s not until the cymbal wash of “Glass Butte Retribution” and the payoff of “Waning Wand” that the album again finds itself pushing toward a noisy crescendo, and even the last is a quick one to end the finale.

Instead, for most of the duration, Abronia affect a meditative attitude, and concentrate on an exploratory feel within their tracks. That suits the space-jazz of “Smoke Fingers” well, which has a steadily nodding rhythm and some righteous interplay of sax and guitar, and the vast, open spirit of “Glass Butte Retribution,” which might be the most straightforward inclusion on Obsidian Visions / Shadowed Lands as regards the relative simplicity of its march, but still wants nothing for atmospherics despite a somewhat minimalist impression early that moves on a linear build to crashing cymbals and a surprising final scream from Mayer with an epilogue measure of guitar behind it. It doesn’t necessarily speak for the entirety of the record in terms of mood or sound, but “Glass Butte Retribution” makes a fitting ambient summary nonetheless, and with “Smoke Fingers” before and “Waning Wand” after it, side B of Obsidian Visions / Shadowed Lands proves no less a deep, headlong dive than did side A with “The Great Divide” and “Shala.”

That said, while one imagines vinyl release was a consideration in the album’s making, by the time the nuance guitar of “Waning Wand” starts as a bed for Mayer‘s first verse three minutes into the song — almost sounding like flourish of East Asian folk — it seems Abronia as much benefit from the nonstop immersion of a digital/CD structure in that once it starts, there’s no point of interruption to draw the audience away from what the band is doing. As to that, Obsidian Visions / Shadowed Lands may well serve as a formative debut release from which Abronia will commence a sonic progression — they’ve certainly set themselves up for one — but there’s no question they establish themselves here as a cohesive unit of songwriters with a definite story to tell through their work. One hopes that as their journey continues forward, they hold onto the wandering sensibility that serves them so well here and feels so crucial in the crafting of their narrative of place and being.

Abronia on tour:
S –7/01 – Raymond, WA @ Thirst for Light Festival
R –7/27 – Portland, OR @ The Know
F – 7/28 – Arcata, CA @ Miniplex
S – 7/29 – Oakland, CA @ The Hole
S – 7/30 – San Francisco, CA @ Adobe Books
M – 7/31 – Oakland, CA @ The Nightlight
T – 8/01 – Los Angeles, CA @ Zebulon
W – 8/02 – Yucca Valley (Joshua Tree ), CA @ Frontier Cafe
R – 8/03 – Fresno, CA @ Tioga Sequoia
F – 8/04 – Sacramento, CA @ Luna’s Cafe
S – 8/05 – Chico, CA @ Duffy’s

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Review & Full Album Stream: Mouth, Vortex

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 19th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

mouth vortex

[Click play above to stream Vortex by Mouth in its entirety. Album is out June 30 on Al!ve/Blunoise Records.]

Some eight years after releasing their debut, Rhizome, and 17 years after first getting together in 2000, German progressive classicists Mouth offer their second full-length in the form of Vortex. An album that winks its ’70s influences even unto its cover art, it finds the three-piece of vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Chris Koller, bassist Gerald Kirsch and drummer/keyboardist Nick Mavridis nestled easily and immediately into headphone-ready krautrock vibes that continue to spread out across the 56-minute release, which arrives bookended by two 16-minute tracks in opener “Vortex” and closer “Epilogue.”

King CrimsonPink FloydUriah Heep, BrainticketHawkwind, and so on, are of course reference points as they invariably would be, but like US-based outfit EyeMouth distinguish themselves through the fluidity of their composition — that opener arrives in four parts: “To the Centre,” “Turbulence,” “Silence” and “Vortex” itself — through creative arrangements of guitar around various key instruments and vintage-sounding synth, and through the overarching poise of their delivery.

That they’d be patient isn’t necessarily a surprise after being together so long in one form or another, but neither does Vortex lack drive, and even as “Vortex” — also the longest track at 16:36 (immediate points) — carries through the organ-soaked/lead-topped swirl of its “Silence” portion with spoken vocals behind its instrumental build, Mouth hold to a firm sense of forward direction and don’t simply meander to suit their own whims. And after all that cascading, the eponymous portion of “Vortex” caps with ambient synth, acoustic strum and far-back layers of electric guitar in what comes across very much as a final movement, so there’s a feeling of completeness to Vortex that, informed by the extended opener, continues throughout the proceedings that follow.

On the other end of the spectrum, one finds “Epilogue,” the corresponding finale that nearly matches the opener for runtime. It’s a slowly unfolding, three-stage (mostly) instrumental jam, languid and hypnotic, that gives way to silence after three and 12 minutes and finally leads to a sitar-infused hidden track of organ-laced psychedelia. Arguably the most intentionally molten stretch of Vortex, “Epilogue” is ultimately just that: the afterword from Mouth‘s long-form statement, and while when considering the launch and the landing, Vortex is already a considerable achievement in classic prog, there’s still significant stylistic expression happening in its journey through shorter tracks “March of the Cyclopes” (6:01), “Parade” (4:02), the centerpiece “Mountain” (3:43), “Into the Light” (7:07) and “Soon After…” (3:18), as the three-piece set to balancing their impulses toward willful complexity and cosmic psychedelia.

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Despite some blown-out vocals, they do so gracefully from the start of “March of the Cyclopes,” shifting from early verses into a space-rocking midsection that draws the listener into its instrumentalist push and devolves into noise to finish out and lead into the fuzzy start of “Parade.” A more grounded shuffle at the start seems to nod at straight-ahead classic heavy rock in a way that realigns the listener’s mindset effectively, and even as church organ and other key lines play off one another, Mavridis‘ drums assure that all stays in motion as it should.

Dreamy guitar effects take hold circa the halfway point, and “Parade” also drives toward an apex like “March of the Cyclopes” before it — note how both tracks are ‘going somewhere’ in their titles; we’ll soon enough find destinations in “Mountain” and “Into the Light” — but it doesn’t come apart in the same way, holding to its chorus and ending cold on its organ line as toms start the climb through “Mountain.” Zeppelin-style acoustic strum and effected vocals hit backed by Mellotron in a secondary hook as the bouncing groove assures momentum is steadfast as Vortex moves into side B.

Cosmos and mind continue to blend on “Into the Light” — a winding keyboard line emitting a certain tension but never actually out of control or dissuaded from its forward direction — and “Soon After…,” which one might be tempted to call an interlude were its jazzy drum work and melodic wash of keys and guitar not so well executed, and though Mouth have by and large set the course that defines Vortex, the process of hearing them explore within that context satisfies all the same, especially as “Into the Light” seems to answer the more structured feel of “Parade” and “Mountain” with subtle shifts in approach, making the whole affair even richer than just its constructed layers can convey.

In wrapping the voyage, both “Soon After…” and “Epilogue” have a kind of understated triumph at their core, most especially the closer, which departs from the verses and choruses that follow “Vortex” in much the same way that the opener had little time for them to start with. This kind of parabolic oddity, coupled with the utterly liquefied aspect of Mouth‘s psychedelic lysergery, successfully conveys the experience of their years together, but Vortex is fresh and engaging despite being vintage in its form, and finds its best footing in a front-to-back open-minded listen from those ready and willing to be carried along by its resonant, expressive flow.

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Review & Track Premiere: Destroyer of Light, Chamber of Horrors

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 15th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

destroyer-of-light-chamber-of-horrors

[Click play above to stream ‘Lux Crusher’ by Destroyer of Light from Chamber of Horrors, out July 14 via Heavy Friends Records.]

The last couple years have apparently done much to hone the focus of Austin, Texas’ Destroyer of Light. Chamber of Horrors is the third full-length from the four-piece and their first standalone outing since 2014’s Bizarre Tales Vol. 2, which was followed by the 2015 Endsville split/collaboration LP (video premiere here) with Godhunter, and its seven tracks mark a significant turn of approach and mood. This could well be the result of heavy touring undertaken since Bizarre Tales Vol. 2 came out, but it feels like a conscious decision one way or the other, and as guitarist/vocalist Steve Colca, guitarist Keegan Kjeldsen, bassist Jeff Klein and drummer Penny Turner elicit their most directed and longest offering yet at 44 minutes, they also find themselves holed up in a doomed swamp befitting the Adam Burke cover art, otherworldly and ruinous as it is.

Patiently and with purpose, they roll out massive grooves like that of 10-minute closer “Buried Alive” or the preceding “Prisoner of Eternity,” on which Colca‘s vocal cadence and the march in general seems to be in direct conversation with Sweden’s Goatess more than the brash heavy rock Destroyer of Light offered on their previous outings. Flourish of organ in that track, guest vocals and samples on “The Virgin” and ambient pieces like the intro “Whispers into the Threshold” and the centerpiece/presumed side B opener “Twilight Procession” add depth and complexity to the morose vibe, and a mix by Matt Meli of Austin’s Orb Recording Studios sets up a suitable abyss into which the band can feel free to plummet. And plummet they do. Gloriously.

The first grim claw is raised not long after “Whispers into the Threshold” begins with a sample of a creaky, heavy-wood door opening into an echoing room and likewise echoing guitar (also actual whispers). It’s worth noting that at the end of “Buried Alive,” there’s a corresponding shutting of that door, and one assumes that’s the band putting their audience in the titular Chamber of Horrors. So be it. That bookend is one more example of the kind of cohesion and attention to detail Destroyer of Light bring to their third album, and the songwriting holds up to a similar standard, whether it’s the mournful wail of lead guitar and earlier shouts turning to moans in the second half of “Into the Smoke” that set the stage for more of what’s to come later or the more direct horror-worship of “The Virgin,” which with its guest vocals alongside Colca and even more dramatic take is something of an outlier in the tracklist, despite the engaging flow that’s already been crafted between the first two songs and which continues throughout. It’s almost as though, after years of being called a doom band, Destroyer of Light decided to turn around and become one.

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It suits them. The devil himself shows up on “The Virgin,” which almost feels like it was bound to happen somewhere along the line, and amid spacious lead guitar, the band unfurl an accordingly resonant melody and percussive thud to lead into the first creeper verse of an effective linear build. As with “Into the Smoke,” they’re telling a story. I don’t know if Chamber of Horrors would or should be considered a concept record, but it’s definitely thematic, and there’s a clear intent in the way it plays out piece by piece. A somewhat minimalist weaving of two guitar lines over a subtle dirge of drumming takes hold with “Twilight Procession,” and almost before the listener realizes what’s happened, Destroyer of Light have constructed a momentum that’s carried them through side A without misstep.

It’s one thing for a group to grow into a new sound. It’s another for them to arrive at it sounding already so well schooled in the tenets of the style and so readily knowledgeable about which rules they want to abide by and which they want to break. As they touch on post-Electric Wizard riffing to start “Lux Crusher” in a way that mirrors somewhat the progression at the outset of “Into the Smoke,” it again makes clear the level of nuance to which Destroyer of Light are playing, and though, as noted, “Lux Crusher” calls to mind the righteous swaying Vitusism of Goatess especially in Colca‘s vocal approach, the band bring this influence into their own sonic context, harsher shouts emerging as they roll toward the track’s chugging, feedback-laden conclusion and into its six-minute companion-piece “Prisoner of Eternity,” which begins with rim taps from Turner and clean-sounding guitar before its full rumble kicks in, signaling the end is near. Like “The Virgin,” “Prisoner of Eternity” centers more around its hook, but the addition of organ beneath and around its guitar solo adds an even more classic feel. That’s fair game for Destroyer of Light at this point, because with the 10-minute “Buried Alive,” which follows and rounds out, they engage an entirely different level of doomly traditionalism.

With perhaps the boldest take on clean vocals out front to start, “Buried Alive” reinterprets an ambience that brings to mind The Gates of Slumber, and though they’ll move into more extreme growls and a wash of noise before they’re done, the lumbering misery of their finale never gets lost in the slow-motion cacophonous melee that ensues. Once again, they cap with feedback before that door closes, and though it’s hard to know from the context of the audio whether we’re trapped in the Chamber of Horrors or we’ve managed to escape, one way or the other, the album makes a lasting and colorful impression such that, even if we’re out, we’re not unaffected by what’s been witnessed within. It’s not the most dramatic sonic turn that’s ever taken place — that is, Destroyer of Light had elements of doom even at their most psychedelic moments, and they have elements of psych here even at their most doomed — but Chamber of Horrors nonetheless represents a brazen reset on the band’s part and whether they continue to walk along this bleak path or head elsewhere aesthetically, what they’ve accomplished in pulling off the shift in these brave and willfully dismal tracks is not to be understated.

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Cortez, The Depths Below: Blood Through the Citadel

Posted in Reviews on June 8th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

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A difference of intent behind the new Cortez album is signaled immediately through the artwork. Where their 2012 self-titled debut (review here) featured an Alex Von Wieding cover of a monstrous, armor-clad version of their namesake (who was also kind of a monster, actually) with red eyes and a laser being shot from his hand as he stands in outer space, The Depths Below opts for altogether deeper-toned fare. Drawn by David Paul Seymour, the front-piece for the Boston quintet’s sophomore outing, which is delivered via Salt of the Earth Records, features a horned dragon facing off in an underwater landscape with what seems to be a naked, neutered Aquaman-style character. Still in a comic style, its stark contrast of colors — blue, green, orange — speak more to harsh edges than than the kind of straightforward heavy rock which Cortez are known to proliferate.

But therein lies the key, because The Depths Below also greatly expands the scope of what Cortez accomplish sound-wise. Comprised of vocalist Matt Harrington, guitarists Scott O’Dowd and Alasdair Swan, bassist/backing vocalist Jay Furlo and drummer Alexei Rodriguez (though Jeremy Hemond plays here), Cortez touch on varied forms of classic metal throughout The Depths Below‘s nine-track/44-minute run and offer a few surprises along the way. They’ve never really been a touring band, but their reputation as songwriters is well established going back a decade to their 2007 Buzzville Records-issued Thunder in a Forgotten Town EP, and it’s that core of craftsmanship that allows them to go where they will sonically across this material. Despite several distinct sonic turns both early and late in the proceedings, Cortez remain in complete control of their direction, and so guide their listeners skillfully from front to back.

That’s fortunate, because they lead the way through some surprisingly dark places. With a notably spacious recording and mix by Benny Grotto at Mad Oak, Q Division and Moontower Recording Studio, a chug-plodder like second cut “Poor and Devoid” and the atmospheric spirit of “The Citadel” and closer “Orison” come through as particularly open-feeling despite their underlying structure. And even more uptempo movements like opener “All Gone Wrong” — heck of a title to start with — and its later companion-piece “To the Skies” have a moodier feel, the latter keeping a rhythmic swing behind near-militaristic layers of lead and rhythm guitar in its second half, Harrington seeming to take influence from Lo-Pan‘s Jeff Martin in his vocal presentation. A significant portion of The Depths Below‘s overall impact comes from its included three-parter, which follows “All Gone Wrong” and “Poor and Devoid” and seems to tell a story through “Walk Through Fire (Part I),” “The Citadel (Part II)” and “Blood of Heirs (Part III),” the last of which also plays a crucial role as the centerpiece of the tracklisting and (presumably) the end of a vinyl-style side A.

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The three pieces act as a sort of album-within-the-album, and move from the aggressive thrust of “Walk Through Fire,” which roughs up mid-’90s chugging and adds gang vocals to its hook before a harmonized solo leads past the halfway point and into the even-more-thrashing back end of the track, setting up a contrast with the slower, ambient fluidity of “The Citadel” — a highlight of The Depths Below as a whole, but also arguably its darkest single moment, working back and forth through a downtrodden-feeling chorus toward a tempo pickup in the final third. It’s the longest inclusion at just over seven minutes, and again, is anchored by Cortez‘s songwriting in such a way as to allow for a fluid transition into the thrashing “Blood of Heirs.” One wonders if “Blood of Heirs” especially and some of the more generally metallic-feeling songs here have their root in O’Dowd‘s seemingly-defunct or at very least currently inactive other outfit, Black Thai, but either way, it would be hard to argue the shift in approach doesn’t suit Cortez, and so I won’t.

Part of that stems from overall progression of the band, though Harrington‘s vocal performance is especially noteworthy and he brings considerable frontman presence even to this studio output, whether that’s from deep in the mix of “The Citadel” or in topping the march of “To the Skies,” which leads off side B of The Depths Below with a return-to-ground hook that brings the listener back to a starting point similar to “All Gone Wrong” without directly aping that track’s impression. Each cut from here on out makes a decidedly distinct statement of who Cortez are as a band, whether it’s the grungier, somewhat melancholic heavy rock (again Lo-Pan seem to be a reference point) of “Kill Your Ghosts,” or the penultimate “Dead Channel,” which so directly calls out River Runs Red-era Life of Agony that it finds Harrington coming very, very close to rapping in a ’90s urban post-hardcore style, or the aforementioned closer “Orison,” which harmonizes over a more doomed vibe and broods its way toward a more active, chugging finish, very much a complement to “The Citadel” the way “To the Skies” seemed to speak to “All Gone Wrong.”

These changes in intent are no less striking than the sharp visual impression of Seymour‘s cover art, but once more, it’s Cortez‘s skill as songwriters that allows them to shift so drastically and still maintain their hold on their audience. Even parts that one doesn’t think of as “hooks” as an alternate word for “chorus,” whether it’s a standout riff, or bassline, or lyric manage to leave the listener with a memorable landmark — to say nothing of “Dead Channel,” on which the entire song itself becomes the standout — and that forms the basis of what Cortez ultimately bring to The Depths Below. As a group, they’ve never needed anything more than that to make their point, and they don’t here, but five years after their debut, it’s worth noting the multi-tiered development that’s taken place corresponding to their craft. They’re still very much a heavy rock band, and one suspects they always will be, but Cortez are brazenly pushing themselves to try new things on The Depths Below, and in direct contrast to the title, the results only seem to bring them to new heights of achievement.

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Review & Full Album Stream: Petyr, Petyr

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 7th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

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[Click play above to stream Petyr’s Petyr in full. Album is out this Friday, June 9, via Outer Battery Records with preorders up here.]

While the band’s ties to the world of professional skateboarding are largely unignorable — nor do I think they particularly want them to be ignored — it’s even more in the conveying of the tenets of West Coast heavy psych that San Diego’s Petyr make their introductory impression. The self-titled debut from the four-piece shuffles frenetically forth via Outer Battery Records, which also has skating ties and has delivered outings from ArcticOff!Soggy and Earthless Meets Heavy Blanket, and aside from the band being led by guitarist/vocalist Riley Hawk — son of skate legend Tony — who features alongside fellow guitarist Holland Redd, bassist Luke Devigny and drummer Nick McDonnell, their sonic affinity ties them to groups like Radio MoscowJoySacri MontiHarsh Toke and of course Earthless.

It’s a sound very much centered in San Diego and one to which Petyr bring flourish of early metal and acid boogie alike to go with the heavy psychedelic crux of pieces like the rolling “Three to Five” or the earlier Captain Beyond-style proto-prog of “Stairway to Attic,” which follows eight-minute opener and longest track (immediate points) “Texas Igloo” and the 24-second strum of “Middle Room” in establishing a varied but ultimately molten and jam-vibing aesthetic that the album continues to build upon as it moves through its unpretentious, LP-ready eight-song/39-minute course. Whatever it might owe to modern skate culture, and however centered around that the record’s narrative might be, Petyr‘s Petyr offers just as much classic heavy infusion in highlight cuts like “Satori III,” the doomier-rolling “Kraft” and the Lucifer’s Friend-esque “Stairway to Attic” that the music stands on its own, as it invariably needs to do.

It’s not long into “Texas Igloo” before magmic, layered swirls of lead guitar take hold, and if Petyr are quick in signaling there’s a journey ahead, they’re clearly eager to get it underway, though it should be noted that it’s Devigny‘s bass that actually introduces the track, as it does the Flower Traveling Band-nodding “Satori III,” and “Old and Creepy” and “Kraft,” which follow. That’s half the tracklist and as one expects for this style, the rhythm section does significant work when it comes to holding together the structure of the songs as the guitars wander the cosmos surrounding. On “Texas Igloo,” vocals arrive amid fervent push coated in watery effects à la Witch, and they’ll play an important role in conveying the hook of “Stairway to Attic” and the creeper spirit of “Kraft,” but it’s in the instrumental thrust that the overarching impression of Petyr‘s Petyr is made, and if the record seems geared toward conveying anything about their personality at all, it’s that they are primarily a live band.

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That’s hard to say without ever having seen them on stage, obviously, but particularly in pairing “Texas Igloo” with “Middle Room” at the outset, Petyr seem to be telling their listeners right off the bat that they can and will go just about anywhere they want to, sound-wise, and while I don’t know how much of their lead work is improv — certainly in this form the songs have been structured, so don’t take that to mean they’re just off-the-cuff jamming on the recording — the tracks feel very much carved out of jams and Petyr come across as a band who’ve spent their time developing their chemistry on stage and in a rehearsal space with a mind toward playing out. The energy in pieces like “Stairway to Attic,” the Sabbathian midsection of “Old and Creepy” and the near-seven-minute closing bookend “Vambo/Buffalo Stampede” back that assertion, and one finds that even to the last verse of the finale, Petyr hold firm to this focus.

As a result, their self-titled succeeds in conveying this sort of B-plot narrative that coexists with their pro-skating gnarl: The band are at work developing a powerful live dynamic that even at its earlier stages as it might be here is well able to carry their audience along the rough-edged and sometimes angular path their material takes. Because the Pacific Coast and particularly Southern California have had such a glut the last several years of heavy psych bands — really, one wonders a bit how Outer Battery snapped up Petyr before Tee Pee Records could do so — it’s that much harder for Petyr to stand themselves out from the pack, but it’s important to keep in mind that what they’re delivering here is a launch for their evolution rather than the outcome of it. The start of a process, not the finish.

I won’t endeavor to speculate on where they might go, but as much as “Texas Igloo” signals a journey for the listener, so too is it one for the band, and as they dig into the meat of side B with “Kraft” and “Three to Five,” Petyr seem to find a vibe more of their own, with a tinge of cultistry alongside their Echoplexing churn and a red-hot rhythmic fluidity that, much as they showed at the beginning with the quick gone-elsewhere excursion of “Middle Room,” maintains its refusal to be anywhere it doesn’t want to be. Modern acid rock answering the call of a classic head trip — one could hardly ask more of an interpretation of current West Coast heavy psych than that, and Petyr do well in blending the new and the old in their sound throughout “Satori III,” “Old and Creepy,” “Stairway to Attic” and “Vambo/Buffalo Stampede” in such a way as to position themselves for growth going forward. Their second LP will be a test of who they are as a band and as songwriters, who they want to be and how they want to get there, but as a first offering, Petyr‘s Petyr makes a compelling argument in its shred and its drawl for the potential of the band to distinguish themselves from within their crowded scene.

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