Monolord, Vænir: Top of the Lake

Posted in Reviews on March 26th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

monolord vaenir

As slow as some of their riffs are, heads have turned correspondingly fast toward Swedish tone constructionists Monolord. They leave little mystery as to why. Their 2014 debut, Empress Rising, garnered vast attention with its onslaught of riffs and volume-as-ritual appeal, and their sophomore outing, titled Vænir after the largest lake in Sweden an released, like the first LP, by RidingEasy Records, is sure to follow suit. Comprised of six tracks that offer minimal variance from the band’s central ethic of earth-moving low end and buried-deep watery vocals, Vænir taps into a kind of neo-primitivism in stoner-doom riffing. The point is that it should be overwhelming, and there are times where it is. With elements repurposed from the likes of SleepElectric Wizard, a keyboard-less Ufomammut, and even some of YOB‘s spacious minimalism in a midsection break on Vænir‘s closing title-track, the Gothenburg three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Thomas V. Jäger, drummer Esben Willems and bassist Mika Häkki conjure a sound that’s at once simplistic and increasingly easy to see as their own, pushing into deep, chest-vibrating rumble while keeping enough of a handle on their songwriting as to make Vænir a memorable experience for more than the impact factor. That’s not to take away from that either, however. Primarily, the impression Vænir leaves is like a flag planted on a holy mountain, Monolord staking a claim on a time-honored ritual of volume and sonic excess. It is heavy, in other words. Very heavy. It knows it’s heavy and it knows that heaviness is something worth celebrating. By the time the explosive opener “Cursing the One” is through with its nine-minute rollout, arguing against it seems futile.

There is a large difference between those who worship heaviness and those engaged in building their own temple of it, and to Monolord‘s credit, they seem engaged in the latter, poised toward the development of an individual sensibility within a tricky host of familiar impressions. As much as Vænir‘s tones could be heard as a godsend for heads itching for that ever-elusive (until you look) next nod, the real miracle of the album is that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Häkki‘s bass and Willems‘ drums are essential to this, as they manage to keep a song like “Cursing the One” or its more open, loose-swinging follow-up, “We Will Burn,” together, but the atmospheric effect of the vocals, awash in effects and universally deep in the mix — purposefully obscured — isn’t to be understated. Not only does the placement of Jäger‘s voice give it the opportunity to slice through the wall of distortion created by the guitar and bass, which it does effectively throughout Vænir, but it makes the whole thing sound even bigger and otherworldly. “We Will Burn” shifts into Conan-esque rolling groove in its back half, finishing by hammering down a stonerly-headbanger of a riff that leads into the classic-styled intro of “Nuclear Death,” which sets up a comfortable mid-pace push with wraparound drum fills and a crashes only to pull the rug out from the whole thing as it approaches its fourth minute. A thudding slowdown is met by a watery verse and grueling solo, and while the pace is revived somewhat with a kick-in from Willems, the impression is made. “Nuclear Death” would seem about as far into the abyss as Vænir wants to go, but in truth, it’s really just the beginning of the album’s next stage.

monolord (Photo by Hank Henrik Oscarsson)

The first of two cuts on Vænir to top 10 minutes, “Died a Million Times” is the most landmark hook included, and Monolord put it to good use. Its opening minutes set a quicker tempo, and before a line of vocals arrive, the song is already catchy, a stoner bounce counteracted by the fact that it should be too heavy to even get off the ground. It does though, and a quick verse leads to the chorus, which plays off the title line to particularly memorable effect — as much as Vænir has a signature moment that summarizes what the record is about, “Died a Million Times” is it. Verse and chorus cycle through again and a stop leaves just Jäger‘s guitar to act as a bed for a sample from the 1960 film adaptation of H.G. Wells‘ The Time MachineHäkki‘s bass coming in shortly before the captured lines, “I don’t much care for the time I was born into/It seems people aren’t dying fast enough these days,” signal a return for Willems and full-tonal burst, leading to a combined solo and final chorus that crashes to an end with rumble and amp noise to carry it out, leading into the two-minute interlude-plus of “The Cosmic Silence,” a sort of “Planet Caravan”-meets-“Paint it Black” progression where the guitar and percussion are as obscure as the vocals have been all along. It’s a stylistic turn that fits well where it is but is perhaps late in arriving — I don’t know what it would do to the vinyl structure to have something similar, or different for that matter, earlier in the album too — though its purpose seems to be as much to allow some recovery between “Died a Million Times” and “Vænir” as to establish its own quiet, serene psychedelic vibe. Ultimately, it succeeds in both, and when “Vænir” kicks in, its slow, crushing churn feels all the more weighted for the lead-in. “Vænir” breaks roughly into three movements: the early plod, the spaceout and the final jam.

Of those (and yes, it’s a simplified categorization), the middle spaceout probably adds the most to the context of Vænir overall. The lumbering initial progression and the well-rode capper reaffirm a lot of what has worked all along on the record, but its in that expansive soundscape of guitar that the closer really establishes its own dynamic, following impulses that have, again, been there the whole time, but reinterpreting them similarly to how Monolord has successfully taken the lessons of their key influences and used them to create something new from them. A relatively new band (formed in 2013) of experienced players, the chemistry between JägerHäkki and Willems is markedly developed even for a sophomore outing, but there’s a sense that Vænir isn’t the sum total of what Monolord have to offer stylistically. That is to say, while their sound has been well established over their first two albums, the trio has also still left themselves open avenues for progression should they choose to pursue them. Whether they will and what shape their evolution will continue to take is anyone’s best guess, but with Vænir, they effectively demonstrate that Empress Rising was no fluke and that their intention is to leave a footprint befitting the deep heft they bring to bear across these songs.

Monolord, Vænir (2015)

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Monolord on Bandcamp

RidingEasy Records

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Ice Dragon, A Beacon on the Barrow: Journey to Light

Posted in Reviews on March 25th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

ice dragon a beacon on the barrow

In the world of Ice Dragon, six months between releases is kind of a long time. Not their longest stretch, I don’t think, but for the band who issued two full-lengths last August and September about two weeks apart — and who might put out another at a moment’s notice — it’s a notable span of time. And more than their prolific level of output, the growth of their aesthetic range over the last eight years since they released their 2008 self-titled debut (discussed here) has been even more impressive than their ability to self-record and release albums with little more ceremony than making a Bandcamp post public. Recent outings like the Aug./Sept. pair, Seeds from a Dying Garden (review here) and Loaf of Head (review here) have delved into psychedelic serenity and weirdo lysergic rock with equal abandon, the band seeming at times to follow a conceptual path sound-wise if not in narrative terms, but then also pushing against that impulse when their whim takes them elsewhere, as on the brash opening salvo of Loaf of Head. Their latest work, a half-hour full-length dubbed A Beacon on the Barrow, seems interested in bringing together these impulses with a sensibility of riffing more akin to the medieval, cavernous doom they conjured across records like 2010’s The Burl, the Earth, the Aether and 2011’s The Sorrowful Sun (both reviews here), but one of the five-track outing’s great strengths is that it keeps the anything-goes unhinged vibe of their later work, so that as A Beacon on the Barrow progresses, the material itself ranges further sonically and stylistically. Recorded, as ever, at Ron’s Wrecker Service, and with the (presumed) lineup of vocalist/drummer Ron Rochondo, guitarist/bassist Carter, bassist/guitarist Joe and drummer Brad, Ice Dragon continue one of the underground’s most intriguing progressions, rife with classic swagger and a truly open creative feel. They continue to bend genre to their will better than most of the few who actually try.

And unlike much of their other material — an exception perhaps in 2013’s Born a Heavy Morning (review here) — this record does follow a narrative course. Or at least it’s easy to put one to the consecutive titles “The Rider,” “The Journey,” “The Arrival,” “The Light” and “The Return,” and imagine that the songs are shifting according to where the story goes. Lyrics, which are included in the post with the album, are vague enough to be taken as chapters or not, but as the uptempo riffing and stonerly vibe of “The Rider” launched A Beacon on the Barrow, there’s little doubt Ice Dragon have movement in mind. While later cuts like “The Arrival” and “The Light” venture pretty far into doom, and even the chorus of “The Rider” itself has a slowdown, the momentum given to the album by its first cut, with its unabashed hook, ethereal vocal layering and near-Songs for the Deaf-style rush, proves invaluable as the story continues to play out. “The Rider” cuts its pace for a second-half doom weirdout, but the effect is accomplished anyway. “The Journey,” sure enough, is a march. Or at least a stomp. Or a slog. Big drums slam hard behind a winding riff, and a careening current of noise comes to the fore in the midsection, the progression resuming in the raw-throated verse, the song ending with the riff repeated topped by rhythmic screams. It seems for a minute there like “The Journey” isn’t going well, but inevitably it leads to the centerpiece of the album, “The Arrival.” Also the longest cut at 8:18, “The Arrival” is complex in its structure, early frenetic vibing topped by grandiose spoken word after a full-thrust verse leading to a stop, long pick-slide and swaggering chorus, cycling back through, and halting, after five minutes in, for a longer break before the chorus kicks back in, that leading to a stop of its own and some flourish of amp noise and drone that would seem to act as a signal for the oddities to come in “The Light” and “The Return.”

ice dragon

“The Light” immediately constructs a wall of megafuzz under which the vocals are buried, an echoing, indecipherable drawl that moves atop the slower verse, which gives way to a tense bridge that, later in the track, takes hold following a feedback-soaked dirge of psychedelic doom, a riff emerging but the shape of the song overall more amorphous than would allow for calling it a central figure. Briefly, they cut to just an intake of breath, then that original bridge line returns, this time met by obscure incantations that devolve into screams as the tension continues to build. It finally comes to a head and crashes out, the last 40 seconds or so of the song’s 6:47 given over to quiet amp hum that one almost expects to surge again at any time. With “The Return” still to go, it’s already been a considerable voyage. A Beacon on the Barrow‘s seven-minute closer is hauntingly beautiful; an experiment in subtle melodicism, drone-riffing and psychedelia gone right. “The Return” holds onto the rawness that has been pervasive all along and is by now a signature element in Ice Dragon‘s aesthetic, but its spaciousness and fluidity bring something new to the table for them as well. They’ve done plenty of droning in their time, but the way the guitar layers interlace across “The Return,” the way its instrumental course ebbs and flows, makes it something special. The band never fails to offer a twist of some forward-thinking sort or another, and as much as A Beacon on the Barrow updates some of their doomed impulses in cuts like “The Journey” and “The Rider,” it pushes ahead with “The Return” with a boldness as much Ice Dragon‘s own as the roughness of their production, ending their latest album with a humming resonance that gently gives way to silence. Those who’ve followed their growth in the last several years will know that when it comes to their material, anything can happen at any time, but A Beacon on the Barrow isn’t without its moments of surprise, and whether a listener is hearing Ice Dragon for the first time or the 30th, there’s as much weight in the creativity of these tracks as there is in the tones.

Ice Dragon, A Beacon in the Barrow (2015)

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Ice Dragon on Bandcamp

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Live Review: Enslaved, YOB, Ecstatic Vision and Witch Mountain in NYC, 03.21.15

Posted in Reviews on March 23rd, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

enslaved 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Driving the four-plus hours from Massachusetts to NYC to see Enslaved, YOB, Witch Mountain and Ecstatic Vision on Saturday wasn’t the practical choice, but it was the only choice. True, three of the four would be much, much closer to me this week, but to catch them in a bigger room and with Witch Mountain wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to miss. I left much earlier than I needed to, leaving as little as humanly possible to chance in terms of sitting in traffic, stressing out, etc. Turned out to be one of the easier rides south that I’ve had.

A positive omen? Maybe. I had time to hit Academy Records before the the show, which was a rare pleasure, and plenty of opportunity to catch my breath before doors to Gramercy Theatre opened. Last time I was there was for PentagramKings DestroyBang and Blood Ceremony, and as ambivalent as I was at being back in Manhattan itself, it would prove to be a night surrounded by old friends, laughs and good vibes. More than anything, that made trip worthwhile.

But there was a show on as well, and a killer one at that. An early start for a packed night had Witch Mountain on at 7:30, and here’s how it went from there:

Witch Mountain

witch mountain 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

A couple new faces in Portland’s scene-preceding four-piece, Witch Mountain. Very new, as it happened. As in, this was their second show. Led by founding guitarist Rob Wrong and drummer Nate Carson, the band had played Pittsburgh the evening prior, and that was the first gig with newcomer vocalist Kayla Dixon and bassist Justin Brown (also of Lamprey). Night two of the band’s Mk. III lineup was a short set, but they made the most of it and showcased the potential for continued growth. Dixon had a distinctly metallic presence as frontwoman, and the entire band, Brown included, seemed to relish the opportunity to have a bigger stage on which to unfurl their doom. Again, their time was brief, but “Psycho Animundi” from last year’s Mobile of Angels (review here) more than ably demonstrated Dixon‘s vocal range, while “Veil of the Forgotten” and particularly the end of “Shelter” from 2012’s Cauldron of the Wild (review here) thrust into an almost power metal presentation, already edging up to the boundaries of a shifting personality for the band. Especially for it being night two, it was an encouraging sight. I’d expect over time Witch Mountain will loosen up further in presence as they continue to tighten sonically, but I felt fortunate to see that process at its beginning.

Ecstatic Vision

ecstatic vision 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Of the four bands on the bill, I wondered most about how Ecstatic Vision‘s sound would translate to the spaciousness of Gramercy Theatre. The Philly three-piece would hardly be the first act in history to play space rock in a high-ceiling room, but for their being a newer band despite the experience of guitarist/vocalist Doug Sabolik and drummer Jordan Crouse in A Life Once Lost, it was a point of curiosity. Some of Sabolik‘s flourish, the chimes on his mic stand and melodica, weren’t as prevalent as they had been when I saw the band open for YOB at the Saint Vitus Bar in December (review here), but they did well all the same, and bassist Michael Connor‘s tone came through the house clear and warm in kind. Their custom lighting, the rope lights around the drums, strobe, and so on, left Connor more or less out of the equation, and that seemed to create some imbalance on stage, but unless you happened to be the black metal purists positioned in front of me as I watched Estatic Vision space out on encompassing, fluid psychedelic jams, there was little to argue with as they warmed up and settled into their engaging vibe. They still don’t have much recorded but are expected to make a debut sometime later this year on Relapse. Still worth keeping an eye on.

YOB

yob 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Would YOB do “Marrow” in that room? Yes, they would. Three of the four cuts from last year’s Clearing the Path to Ascend (review here) — also my pick for the best album of 2014 — were aired, with opening duo “In Our Blood” and the scorching “Nothing to Win” leading to the aforementioned 19-minute record-closer, which was followed in turn by the title-track of their 2011 sixth album, Atma (review here), the Eugene, Oregon, three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt, bassist Aaron Rieseberg and drummer Travis Foster crisp in their delivery but not at all dead-eyed in the here’s-another-show way one might expect after their having spent the better part of the last three weeks on the road. The run with Enslaved ends this week, but YOB will continue to tour their way back west before returning in May to the East Coast for Maryland Deathfest in Baltimore. In New York, their response showed a considerable crossover response from the clearly-there-for-Enslaved contingent, particularly as the culmination of “Marrow” hit and they followed it by the gallop-laden “Atma,” which seemed all the more furious in comparison. I’ve seen YOB at least five times in the last 12 months and have yet to come out of a set without any regrets. Foster‘s snare was loud in the house mix, but so was everything else, so, you know, it kind of worked itself out. Every accolade YOB gets, they earn. I know they did that European stint last year with Pallbearer, and that was a month-plus on the road, but it’s still a change to think of YOB as a touring band after their years of keeping shows limited. While I wonder what the rest of 2015 will hold for them, I also couldn’t help but notice how sustainable and decidedly un-worn they looked on stage, like they could just keep going. I doubt they’d have met any complaints if they had.

Enslaved

Enslaved (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Last time I saw Enslaved in New York was early 2013. They played the Bowery Ballroom (review here), which is a not-insignificant space in itself, but not as sizable as the Gramercy, and I think it says something about the long-running Norwegian outfit’s growing US fanbase that their return to Manhattan would be in a larger venue. They’re supporting the release of their 13th full-length, In Times (review forthcoming) on Nuclear Blast, but new material or old, they had the room on their side from the word go. Bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson joked with the crowd between songs, and by the time they got down to playing the title-track from In Times laughingly promised the crowd that it would be the last new song they played. For what it’s worth, I didn’t notice much of a change in reception for recent or older material. Sure, a song like “The Watcher” from 2008’s Vertebrae, with its mega-chorus, or a by-now staple like “Ruun” from the 2006 LP of the same name is bound to get a response, but “Thurisaz Dreaming” and “Building with Fire” sat well alongside those and “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” from 2012’s RIITIIR (review here), and wherever the band headed, the crowd went along. Of course, their stage presentation was air-tight, Kjellson holding down a frontman role flanked on either side by guitarists Ivar Bjørnson and Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal, while keyboardist/vocalist Herbrand Larsen made a case for up-front featuring of his own with stellar command of the clean-sung parts — I saw Enslaved for the first time eight years ago at SXSW, and I’d mark Larsen‘s growth as a vocalist among the foremost catalysts enabling their musical progression in that time; that growth was, I’ll note, already underway for several years by then — and drummer Cato Bekkevold sat swallowed up by his expansive kit surrounding. They came out one at a time to start their set and for the encore, and each time Bekkevold sat down, he disappeared. Good for a laugh, but he also used that whole drumset, and flawlessly. Their encore was “As Fire Swept Clean the Earth” from 2003’s Below the Lights, “Fenris” from 1994’s sophomore outing, Frost, and the title-cut from 2004’s landmark Isa, and when it was over, there was nothing left for the audience to do but leave, having so thoroughly been handed its ass on a platter by the five-piece, whose reach seems only to continue growing with time.

If you want the short version, the show was a win, but what made it even better was seeing old friends throughout the night and catching up, and that was something that continued even as security started shuffling people out of the downstairs lounge. On my way back north on Sunday, it was the memories of good times and good music that seemed to make the trip shorter, both thoroughly appreciated.

Speaking of old friends, this review is dedicated to Loana dP Valencia of Nuclear Blast, alongside whom it has been my complete and utter pleasure to work for the last decade.

More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.

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Acid King, Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere: Reborn in Fuzz

Posted in Reviews on March 19th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

Acid-King-Middle-of-Nowhere-Center-of-Everywhere

San Francisco riff pioneers Acid King put out their last album, III, on Small Stone in June 2005, which means that the April release of Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere — their fourth full-length and first for Svart Records — is just two months shy of exactly one decade later. The entire climate for heavy rock has changed in that time, a generational shift that has seen stoner riffs go from the fodder of empty barrooms to headlining major festivals, and to say that Acid King‘s return has been awaited is to understate it. The trio have played new songs live for some time, and a new album has been in the works for at least six years, but to actually have it materialize is, particularly for fans — and make no mistake, I’m writing as a fan of the band — something genuinely special after so long. And as much as the story of the album is that it finally exists, one could just as easily read it as the reunion of one of heavy rock and roll’s most successful collaborations; that between Acid King and producer/engineer Billy Anderson. If Lori S.‘ guitar tone is a gift from the gods of fuzz, Anderson‘s production is the means by which it’s translated for human consumption, and neither is less essential to the ultimate success of Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere than the other. Together with drummer Joey Osbourne and bassist Mark LambLori oversees nearly an hour of languid, lava-flowing riffage on Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere‘s eight tracks/54 minutes, and the four-minute “Intro” isn’t done before the album engulfs the listener in a wash of gorgeous tonal warmth that only recedes with the last feedback of “Outro” about an hour and a galaxy later.

Twenty years on from their debut, Zoroaster, and 16 post their landmark sophomore outing, Busse Woods – for my money among the finest stoner rock records ever made — it’s hard not to cast Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere in hyperbole. Its spacier moments, like the penultimate semi-title-track “Center of Everywhere,” or the howling post-intro opener “Silent Pictures” lend atmosphere to the unbridled sonic heft of Lori and Lamb‘s tones, and the vocals play into the laid back, echoing sphere brilliantly, layers swirling around each other as though laced one into the other, the mix huge and warranting excessive volumes. “Into” feeds into “Silent Pictures,” which feeds into “Coming Down from Outer Space” a shorter cut at under six minutes but one of the record’s most essential and commanding hooks — setting up the full-album flow that continues for the duration, songs as immersive as they prove memorable over repeat listens, the choruses simple and subtle in the wash of heaviness, but speaking on an almost subconscious level as the nod unfolds. “Silent Pictures” wails and careens, seems to have little flourish but is brilliantly psychedelic, and the biker-movie rollout of “Coming Down from Outer Space” is nothing if not classic Acid KingOsbourne‘s swing and crash propelling the more grounded verse and chorus, leading to “Laser Headlights,” which seems to find some compromise between the two positions, solos at its midpoint and conclusion serving as mile-markers for just how far into the cosmos the three-piece have ventured so far, beacons for a subspace message back to command HQ. The second half of “Laser Headlights” beams (get it?) with dense, fossil-fueled riffing, and though they end cold and sudden, maybe to signal a side or LP switch, the shift into “Red River” is no less fluid than anything before it, which is to say… what was I talking about? — Exactly.

acid king (Photo by Raymond Ahner)

With the next three tracks, the aforementioned “Red River,” “Infinite Skies” and “Center of Everywhere,” Acid King push Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere over the line between victorious resurgence and masterpiece. Between them and the subsequent “Outro,” they comprise a second half of the album that expands the breadth of spaciousness established on “Silent Pictures” and “Coming Down from Outer Space,” making offerings of unfuckwithable groove and all-that-is-right-in-the-world vibe that move seamlessly one into the next. Each piece is distinct within the whole it creates — “Red River” marked out by a particularly resonant vocal performance and choice basslines, “Infinite Skies” by its thickness, hook and later solo work, and “Center of Everywhere” by its bubbling nebulousness — but the real pleasure lies in being carried across the duration by the smooth and engrossing overarching feel of the material. Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere becomes almost like two albums in one, in classic 2LP style, but even taken in a linear format, its entirety more than satisfies. “Center of Everywhere” is perfectly placed as the (pre-)conclusion, its nod is expansive and a slow-moving swirl makes a fitting complement to “Intro” and “Silent Pictures,” slamming to a halt as it wraps with just Lamb‘s bass remaining to fade out before Osbourne‘s drums lead the way into the final jam of “Outro,” a refrain of “Intro” that underscores both the full-album intention and just how effective Acid King are in pulling off that intention after a decade away. I’ll say flat-out that Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere is the best record I’ve heard so far in 2015, and that Acid King‘s return isn’t just a win for them, but for the style of heavy they helped establish years ago. With almost a second-debut’s spirit and freshness, it offers a vital look at a band not so much readopting a form as pushing forward boldly to top it, and its reach has the potential to span distances even greater than those its tones create. A complete, front-to-back triumph. Recommended.

Acid King, “Red River”

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Svart Records

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On Wax: Lé Betre and King Buffalo, Split

Posted in On Wax on March 18th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

le-betre-king-buffalo-vinyl-and-cover

It seems unlikely at this point that I’d need to once more trumpet the quality of STB Records‘ vinyl. The NJ-based label has quickly thrust itself to the fore of American heavy rock purveyors, bringing forth limited releases that seem to be gone before they’re even out and delving into next-generation heavy rock with an ear for tone and a consistently mindful presentation. In the case of the split 12″ between Sweden’s Lé Betre and New York’s King Buffalo, the vinyl is, of course, already gone. Second pressing coming soon. Numbers were limited — 350 or so copies in white, orange, white and orange or clear with orange splatter — but as with everything STB puts out at this point, speed is required if you actually want to get a copy. Pressed to 180g white vinyl with a two-sided liner (one side for each band) le-betre-king-buffalo-vinyl-side-band evocative cover art, the Lé Betre and King Buffalo split does justice to the up and coming nature of both bands.

That in itself is saying something. Lé Betre also released what was apparently a super-limited, 30-copies-only edition of their 2014 debut album, Melas, through STB that likewise vanished as soon as it arrived, and it’s from that album that most of their material for this split comes. Three out of their five tracks, “Gowns and Crowns,” “Snake Eyes” and  “By the Great White Lights,” which has a companion piece included on the prior release, seem to have their roots on Melas, the four-piece of guitarist/vocalist/pianist Marcus Jonsson, guitarist/vocalist Anders Westman, bassist/vocalist Roger Lysén and drummer Jonas Sahlberg tapping into Graveyard-style blues rock without going full-retro in terms of the production, a song like “Jesper Eriksson” pushing vocals forward amid a steady roll that’s open and natural-sounding, but not nearly as analog-minded as one might expect going into it. Keyboard and/or organ plays a large part as well, and with the due fuzz and strum, it’s hard to tell on “Gowns and Crowns” where the guitars end and the keys begin, but that winds up being half the fun. Soulful if familiar, the jangle of “By the Great White Lights” makes a suitable centerpiece to side A, though handclap-infused closer “Mother,” also the longest Lé Betre inclusion, is their most resonant take, providing a better look at the band’s balance of organic flow and tight songwriting than earlier, shorter cuts, catchy as those are.

I’ll admit to some pretty high anticipation when it came to hearing new material from King Buffalo, whose 2013 demo (review here) still gets regular plays. Then a four-piece and now a trio — if you’re looking for former guitarist/vocalist Randall Coon, check out Skunk HawkKing Buffalo seem to have solidified some of their jammier impulses. Of their three inclusions, closer “Providence Eye” is the only one that previously appeared on the demo, and it was re-recorded by guitarist/vocalist Sean McVay along with the two new tracks, “New Time” and “Like a Cadillac,” which both follow suit from Lé Betre‘s jammy songwriting blend, if with their own, more pastoral take. McVay, bassist Dan Reynolds and drummer Scott Donaldson started out with a noteworthy chemistry and have only pushed it forward over the last year-plus, as a comparison of the two versions of “Providence Eye” shows, but “New Time” and “Like a Cadillac” tell more of the story of their progression, taking the swing and molten vibe of their looser, longer demo material and tightening it up with more structured songwriting. le-betre-king-buffalo-front-coverI’m dying to hear what these guys come up with for a full-length, and what experimental edge they might be able to bring to that form in acoustic parts, keyboard interludes, etc., but the commitment to a natural sound King Buffalo show on this split shines all on its own and wants little for expansion. They were on the right track before, they’re still on the right track. It’s good to know, and hopefully they keep writing.

While it would be inappropriate to call either band “established” at this point, both seem to be heading in that direction, Lé Betre following their Melas album, King Buffalo following their demo and lineup change, and it’s particularly remarkable that Lé Betre, for whom this split is ostensibly the first North American release, would get the A side and King Buffalo the B, considering the latter act has toured at least on the East Coast and is native to the region from which the label also hails. I chalk it up to STB and both bands making the decision to put exposing Lé Betre to as many ears as possible a top priority, and that proves a worthy cause as the Swedish act’s five songs play out. Lé Betre‘s bluesy inflection and King Buffalo‘s rural roll wind up giving a glimpse at where European and American heavy rock are headed, and wouldn’t you know, they fit together very, very well.

Lé Betre, “Gowns and Crowns”

King Buffalo, “Providence Eye”

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King Buffalo on Bandcamp

STB Records

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Blackout, Blackout: Cavetone

Posted in Reviews on March 17th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

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Blackout‘s self-titled full-length debut is going to get its point across, even if it has to roll right over you to do it. About 18 months after releasing their debut EP, We are Here (review here), the Brooklynite trio enter RidingEasy Records‘ worldwide search for the biggest riffs with their first LP, a seven-song monolith of thickened tones, blown-out vocals and molasses-churning groove with enough lumber in it to replenish your favorite rainforest. Perhaps its most distinguishing feature is its unrepentant primitive stylization. That is, Blackout are not interested in carving their own niche so much as caveman-clubbing the impulse to do in the first place. Blackout‘s 38 minutes offer little deviation from the central theme of play-loud-play-large, and guitarist/vocalist Christian Gordy, bassist Justin Sherrell and drummer Taryn Waldman seem to delight in such a weighted presentation of a classic punker ethic, keeping simple what, when done so well, requires no complication in the first place. Like We are Here before it, Blackout carves neatly into two sides — all song titles single words — and was clearly intended to convey a vinyl listening experience, but the album goes a step further in affirming that what seemed formative on We are Here is, in fact, the basis for Blackout‘s aesthetic. They weren’t just screwing around, and they weren’t about to go off and sacrifice the heaviness working so much in their favor in the name of progression. One can hear growth on Blackout‘s self-titled from the prior EP, but it’s more about how assured the three-piece sounds in what they’re doing than about an uptick in stylistic range.

This is fortunate. While one may have expected that Blackout‘s stomping MelvinsSleep and (inevitably) Sabbath idolatry would’ve led them to more intricate explorations, the album’s better off for not. A solid minute of feedback buildup introduces opener “Lost,” which delivers its chorus late but makes for a resonant, rumbling launch nonetheless, the first of four on side A and followed by the eponymous “Blackout.” Subtle layers of guitar in the beginning give way to a raucous, shouted hook before a stop sets up a chugging, thudding build that returns to full heft just before the three-minute mark but keeps a slower tempo until about the last 20 seconds, at which point it returns to the hook to finish out. In many ways — tonally, ethically, and for the most part structurally — the course of Blackout‘s Blackout is set. Closing duo “Tannered” and “Human” on side B are longer and push into jammier roll, but as a sample of what the album has to offer, the first two tracks serve well, the underlying sense of chaos in the opener standing in as a preview of the noise wash that also closes. Third cut “Nightmare” picks up with Sherrell‘s bass and Waldman‘s drums before the guitar joins in, but Gordy isn’t far off, and the slowdown and echoing drawl of the vocals feel both in character for the band and a nod to the tempo shifts that make their material fresh and exciting despite its familiar elemental makeup. “Nightmare” has a touch more atmosphere to it than “Blackout,” which is the shortest cut on Blackout at four minutes, and the end-section freak-jam is a highlight of side A, which caps with the marching “Sprites.”

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Side B picks up with “Cross,” which seems to herald business as usual, right down to the wailing over the slowdown in its midsection, but proves immersive nonetheless as its pushes toward a false ending and beyond with commanding, hypnotic repetition that seems to be interrupted by a final verse before a big rock finish that sounds drunker than it probably is ends the song. The primary impression of Blackout‘s second half, however, is in “Tannered” and “Human.” Like the song “Blackout,” “Tannered” appeared last year on Blackout‘s live-recorded Converse EP (review here) along with a cover of Fleetwood Mac‘s “The Chain” that, if the self-titled’s album art is a reference to Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks‘ 1973 Buckingham Nicks debut, at least means it wouldn’t be the first Fleetwood Mac association. Here though, “Tannered” is more assured and volatile. Vocals are layered in shouts and screams, but too deep in the mix to be abrasive, and by the time Blackout get there, pretty much anything goes. Vocals come forward late and the song ends cold, leading to the seven-minute “Human,” which is the longest of the record and follows a linear course pushing to the apex of its final movement with plenty of room for a squibbled solo in the meantime. There aren’t too many surprises on Blackout, and it’s not like GordySherrell and Waldman are hiding anything up their collective sleeve, but what makes the album work is precisely that. It’s a raw, honest and unremittingly heavy full-length debut makes zero effort to pretend to be anything it isn’t, and ultimately, it would seem unfair to ask anything more of it that what’s delivered. Fuck it, riff out.

Blackout, Blackout (2015)

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RidingEasy Records

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Live Review: Elder, Mos Generator and Magic Circle in Providence, RI, 03.06.15

Posted in Reviews on March 9th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

mos generator 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

It was the release show for Elder‘s third album, Lore (review here), put out and put on by Armageddon Shop, but also the launch for the Massachusetts trio’s tour with Mos Generator, bringing a new incarnation of the long-running West Coast heavy rock outfit east for the first time. With Magic Circle taking a break from recording their forthcoming second album to open the show with plenty of material of their own to unveil, newness was a sort of running theme for the night. Parking near AS220, however, was not. After chickening out on a spot in front of a hydrant — kudos to whoever took it — I wound up in a pay lot before magic circle 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)making my way into Providence’s foremost tour-stop for the first time.

Sandwich orders named for playing cards — Jack of Clubs, Queen of this or that, etc. — were shouted out from a counter opposite the bar, and the place was packed. It sold out, but I was early and managed to get in. Doors opened at 9PM and already there was a decent amount of people who showed up. Magic Circle can be pretty elusive, and by that I mean they’re not on Thee Facebooks, so the chance to see them on such a sans-filler bill wasn’t one to pass up. Armageddon Shop labelmates of Elder‘s, though much more entrenched in doom, they got going maybe a little after 9:30 and it was easy enough to see why AS220 was the kind of place where out-of-towners play. It’s a decent-sized room that still gives an impression of intimacy, with a wide stage, lights if you want them — Magic Circle frontman Brendan Ratigan asked almost immediately that they be turned down — and what seemed like full sound going through the house P.A. Standing in front, I wasn’t in the best place to judge the latter, but the two guitars of Magic Circle came across well if that’s anything to go by.

Their 2013 self-titled debut (review here) brooked little argument in Magic Circle (Photo by JJ Koczan)cuts like “Winter Light,” “Rapture” and “Scream Evil,” which were aired, and since the last time I managed to see them was their first show, just over three years prior, their presence on stage had evolved markedly, Ratigan‘s theatrical movements timed to the changes from drummer Q and bassist Justin DeTore, or the riffing of guitarists Chris Corry and Dan Ducas, which seems to have gotten even more in line with traditional/classic metal on their newer songs. They didn’t give a name for the second record, but “The Damned Man,” “Lightning Cage” and set opener “Journey Blind” were distinguished by faster tempos offsetting doomed riffs and an aggressive — in the case of “Lightning Cage,” almost thrashing — rendering. That might have been a symptom of the live setting, or it might be Magic Circle tapping into their Boston hardcore roots. In any case, they made it work and having gotten a taste, I’m even more intrigued to find out what the whole of their sophomore outing will bring upon its arrival later this year.

They had new material. Mos Generator had a new band. Founding guitarist/vocalist Tony Reed swapped out drummer Shawn Johnson and bassist Scooter Haslip for Scotty VanDweller and Sean Booth, respectively, earlier this year, Mos Generator (Photo by JJ Koczan)and as I understand it, at least part of the reason why was to facilitate touring. Reed announced from the stage that it was Mos Generator‘s first time on the East Coast in many years, and AS220 gave them due welcome as they ran through songs mostly from 2012’s Nomads (review here) and last year’s Electric Mountain Majesty (review here), making highlights of “Beyond the Whip,” the slower “Early Mourning” and the title-track of the latter, which offered the evening’s most unabashed boogie. “Lonely One Kenobi” and set-finale “This is the Gift of Nature” featured from Nomads and provided a fitting showcase for the burgeoning dynamic between ReedBooth and VanDweller. They had been playing more or less nightly since the middle of February, and if I’m not mistaken, had driven two days from Minneapolis to Providence for this gig, so while one might’ve gotten the sense of this version of the band being a recent advent — and mind you, if I didn’t know that going in, I’m not sure I would have — they’d already had a couple weeks to start smoothing rough edges, and it showed.

And since it’s worth specifically pointing out, I stood in front of Booth‘s bass amp for mos generator 3 (Photo by JJ Koczan)the set and his tone was an absolute delight. VanDweller had more than enough swing to carry across Mos Generator‘s classic influences, and Reed made a charismatic frontman — the only other time I’ve seen him on stage was with Stone Axe, in which he played guitar and handled backup vocals — goading the crowd after each song and reminding the room “We’re working hard up here!” before laughing at how long he’s used that line, but in true West Coast form, Booth fed his bass through a Verellen Meat Smoke preamp, and at least from where I was positioned, there was a good part of the set that played out like a commercial for the thing. Obviously that’s not all there is to developing a tone, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Mos Generator will be back on the Eastern Seaboard this summer for the Eye of the Stoned Goat 5 after finishing out this tour and, if I’m not mistaken, hitting Europe, and I’ll look forward to checking out how the intervening time on the road has brought them together.

elder 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)So we’ve gone from new material to new band, and with Elder, it’s a new album. Lore turned plenty of heads in the weeks leading up to its Feb. 24 release through Armageddon Shop (Stickman Records in Europe), and positioned as the evening’s headliner, drummer Matt Couto, bassist Jack Donovan and guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo gave the album its due, playing it front to back for the packed-out AS220. No doubt the room would’ve been more familiar with the record a little further down the line, but it’s hard to call it a release show two months later, and “Compendium,” “Legend,” “Lore,” “Deadweight” and “Spirit at Aphelion” had no trouble winning the crowd over. Though it was upwards of 20 degrees and still very much winter outside as the sheets of ice and piles of dirty frozen snow on the sidewalk could attest, up near the stage it was broiling hot, and it’s not exactly as if Elder‘s winding riffs are simple or like the spiraling prog-rock apex of “Legend” requires little effort. Like Reed and company before them, Elder were also working hard up there.

For a good cause, though. Elder will spend most of the rest of this month on tour, hitting SXSW, the Midwest and of course the East Coast, and while they’ve done strings of dates in Europe before, and while they’ll play Psycho California this May ensuring at least a little time out west, their arrival as a “touring band” feels due. They could complete this run, do the Psycho CA fest, and not book anything else for the rest of the year. That’s entirely possible, but I don’t think it’s the way things are going to play out, and the vitality they showedelder 2 (Photo by JJ Koczan) on stage looked sustainable. That is to say, Elder seemed ready at AS220 for the task they’d set for themselves. Their sound has progressed from the stoner roots of their 2008 self-titled through 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring (review here) and the subsequent 2012 EP, Spires Burn/Release (streamed here), and Lore is a fitting snapshot of where their creative evolution is now: Clear-headed, crisp in its delivery and the beneficiary of some of the best elements of their prior work. I missed the extra Mellotron-esque guitar layers in what on the record is the highlight moment of the title-track, I’ll be honest, and there were some kinks to iron out in changes elsewhere, but their enjoyment of the songs felt earnest, and they played like a band hitting their stride, which is more than one could feasibly ask for the first night of a tour.

One could see it even in the visual continuity on stage between DiSalvoCouto and Donovan, elder 3 (Photo by JJ Koczan)their comfort with each other’s style. Right down to how they stood, with Donovan turning to face the others, completing a sort of semi-circle with DiSalvo also angled slightly inwards and Couto in the middle, facing out, they looked like a professional band who had sorted out what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. Their sound was the same way, and though they’d played for an hour, when they were done and the house lights came up, people were still shouting for more. Rightfully so. On a night where each act had something fresh to offer the room, Elder not only presented their third album to mark the occasion of its release, but stood on the precipice of a new era for themselves, and jumped, loudly, into its beginning.

More pics after the jump. Thanks to you for reading, to John Pegoraro for the company and to Fred Struckholz for the poster.

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Ruby the Hatchet, Valley of the Snake: Tracking the Behemoth

Posted in Reviews on March 5th, 2015 by H.P. Taskmaster

ruby-the-hatchet-valley-of-the-snake

If right now has a sound somewhere within heavy or heavy psychedelic rock, it probably isn’t far off from what Philadelphia’s Ruby the Hatchet conjure on their second full-length, Valley of the Snake. Released through Tee Pee Records with jaw-droppingly righteous Adam Burke cover art, it is a vinyl-tailored 40 minutes that looks back to ’70s acid rock stylistically via a few choice modern influences, and is crisp, clear and melodic while still offering a satisfying if deceptive sonic heft. Highly-stylized but substantial beyond that, its six cuts speak to the growth of a quality songwriting process, and where 2012’s Ouroboros cut its teeth in shorter bursts of boogie and more upbeat swing, Valley of the Snake melts down those impulses into a molten overarching groove that plays out through longer, more complex tracks. Vocalist Jillian Taylor, guitarist John Scarperia, bassist Mike Parise, drummer Owen Stewart and organist Sean Hur thus craft an exceptionally fluid overarching sense of vibe within which the individual pieces of Valley of the Snake play out. One can hear the impact in recent years of bands like Witch Mountain, whose dirty blues seem to have a presence in side B opener “Unholy Behemoth,” and Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, whose garage-rock style is writ large over the album’s production and to whom “Vast Acid” seems to directly refer in both its riff and in a lyrical nod to that band’s most infectious hook, “I’ll Cut You Down.” With atmospheres intensified and fleshed out by Hur‘s organ and sundry echoes on the guitar and vocals, Ruby the Hatchet nonetheless bring an air of individuality and craft a niche for themselves within these familiar elements.

Between “Vast Acid” and the preceding opener “Heavy Blanket,” the album’s most immediate impression is one of stomp and swing. “Heavy Blanket” in particular brings to mind the nodding clarion “Seer” that launched Witch‘s landmark self-titled debut in 2006, but Taylor‘s vocal layering and the organ present a different context. It’s an immediately fluid groove, opening wide after a 16-second fade-in, and the roll that ensues is as welcoming an introduction as one might ask of Ruby the Hatchet, who make a turn around the halfway point to a more instrumentally focused second half built on vibe and culminating in a twisting finish and sustained organ note that drops out just so the quick start of “Vast Acid” can seem to hit harder. Scarperia‘s guitar seems to be leading the way, a solo is layered on top of organ and bass and plays out intertwining with the central riff, but Taylor is a formidable presence throughout Valley of the Snake, and ultimately there’s a balance found between them, HurStewart and Parise, resulting in warm tones that never step too far out of the mix. “Tomorrow Never Comes,” which follows, begins with poignant acoustic guitar and unfolds from there to a coherent high point of the album, with fluid tempo shifts and a feel somewhere between more traditional doom and Ruby the Hatchet‘s already established commanding rhythmic movement. At 8:49, it is the longest inclusion on Valley of the Snake, but it uses its time well, pushing through a speedier middle before slowing back down and ultimately finding a swirling space between the two sides as it builds to its apex and finishes out with just enough feedback to remind the listener of the danger behind and ahead.

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Symmetry and structure play a large role throughout Valley of the Snake, both within the songs and in how the record is put together. On side A, two five-minute songs lead to the longer “Tomorrow Never Comes.” Side B mirrors this with the six-minute “Unholy Behemoth” and “Demons” pushing toward the finale of the title-track. The change is more aesthetic. “Unholy Behemoth” is riffier, more insistent, and pulls back from the intangible melody of the organ on “Heavy Blanket” and “Vast Acid” to feature a somewhat darker take. Taylor carries the verses easily in slower pace, but “Unholy Behemoth” picks up in its second half to a more familiar boogie, leading to the grainy ’70s bikerisms of “Demons,” which signals its tension through Stewart‘s hi-hat early and cuts back as it approaches the halfway point to establish a back and forth of pace that plays out again on a smaller scale, capping with a slowed-down deconstruction, the undercurrent of keys winding up the last remaining element of prominence along with some amplifier hum. That leaves only “Valley of the Snake” remaining, and the seven-minute closer is the highlight of the record that bears its name. Like “Tomorrow Never Comes,” it starts with a foundation of acoustic guitar, but stylistically it’s a departure from just about everything else on the album, unfolding with a grace that speaks more to Fleetwood Mac than Uncle Acid, further progressive sensibilities showing up in the full-weight apex — is that a line of flute? — that follows the hypnotic earlier pastoralisms. I’m not sure a complete album in that style would work, but “Valley of the Snake” speaks more to the potential of Ruby the Hatchet than anything before it in balancing heavy acid rock and unashamed pop grandiosity. They finish big, as they’d almost have to, and end their second album with a debut’s hopefulness for what future risk-taking might bring. Whether or not “Valley of the Snake” becomes a model in style or method will have to remain to be seen, but the closer demonstrates plainly the band’s potential and just what it is they might bring to the sphere of heavy psychedelia going forward. Some will cling to the catchy familiarity of the first couple tracks, and I won’t argue against that, but to hear what Ruby the Hatchet really have working for them, one might find it worth the effort to dig a little deeper.

Ruby the Hatchet, Valley of the Snake (2015)

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Tee Pee Records

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