Anathema, The Optimist: A Fine Day to Return

Posted in Reviews on June 2nd, 2017 by JJ Koczan

anathema the optimist

A significant reason Anathema‘s The Optimist succeeds as it does is because it doesn’t attempt to recapture a moment that’s long since gone. The album, which is released by proggy Peaceville offshoot Kscope Music as the follow-up to 2014’s Distant Satellites and is upwards of the UK-based melodic progressive rockers’ 13th full-length, depending on what you count — they’ve had a couple offerings reworking prior material — is intended as a sequel to 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit (reissue review here). Accordingly, one almost looks at the title The Optimist as ironic at first, as that turn-of-the-century outing had depression and near-suicidal mania so much at its core, but optimism is something the previously-grim Anathema seem to have discovered within their own sound circa 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, and they don’t necessarily cast it off for The Optimist for the sake of pretending to be something they’re not aesthetically.

From the quick electronic pulses that rhythmically transition from intro “32.63N 117.14W” to the ocean waves that start closer “Back to the Start” — that being a direct reference to “Temporary Peace” from A Fine Day to Exit — the six-piece are free to nod at the work they’ve done before, but their songwriting in no way feels beholden to it, even if they’re picking up a story where they left it some 16 years ago. This has been a consistency throughout their career, as Anathema have always embraced change and development within their style and generally managed to bring their fanbase — of which I’d consider myself a part — with them for the ride, and just because they’re looking back in theme doesn’t necessarily mean they’re giving up that approach. Vocalist Lee Douglas might be taking on the voice of our main character’s consciousness in lead-single “Springfield” when she asks, “How did I get here?,” but the arrangement behind her is by no means playing to a darkness that is no longer there.

Crucially, as melancholy as they get, particularly in the back half of the record, the band — led, as ever, by vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Vincent Cavanagh and guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Danny Cavanagh, with Douglas sharing intermittent lead and backing vocal roles, bassist Jamie Cavanagh, keyboardist Daniel Cardoso and drummer John Douglas — don’t try to remake or directly reinterpret “Panic,” the frenetic emotional and sonic apex of A Fine Day to Exit. After “32.63N 117.14W” starts the journey — if one plugs in the coordinates, it’s a beach off the coast of San Diego; presumably intended to be where the cover art of A Fine Day to Exit takes place and where this take begins — with our character getting in his car and hearing on the radio, among other things, an Anathema song, “Leaving it Behind” picks up with a fervent energy and burst-forth hook the tempo of which will inform even quieter moments like “San Francisco” before finding more direct complement in the later track “Can’t Let Go,” but the bulk of The Optimist‘s 11-song/hour-long runtime is given to lush, patient and deeply resonant emotional fare.

Vincent and Lee bolster an abiding instrumental flow throughout by switching lead-singer duties. He soars in “Leaving it Behind,” she answers back on the subsequent “Endless Ways” over a hair-stand-on-end instrumental wash, and after a ringing phone leads directly into the title-track from there, the two come together over an orchestral swell and rhythmic push held together by John‘s drums and a crescendo of lead guitar. Piano plays a large role throughout, including in “San Francisco,” on which more pulsations are met with crashing cymbal sounds in a five-minute instrumental push that ends in traffic giving way fluidly to “Springfield” as the centerpiece of The Optimist‘s linear presentation. Slower and patient in its build, “Springfield” rolls forward but maintains an airy feel thanks to the echo on Lee‘s vocals, the piano line that remains at its core and the light tone of the lead guitar, but the questions it asks as it moves into its voluminous peak would seem to be the essence of what the album is looking to express and a moment of direct relation to the character of The Optimist himself; a crucial moment on the record given its due in melody and flourish.

anathema

Gentle ride cymbal and keyboard string sounds back Lee‘s vocal highlight performance in “Ghosts,” and a sense of stillness pervades that the quicker, more active rhythm guitar and drum progression — not to mention the far back keyboard swirl — of “Can’t Let Go” immediately contrast, Vincent taking over on vocals as if to emphasize the dynamic that has been at play all throughout The Optimist to one degree or another, and the meticulousness with which Anathema at this stage in their career present their material. A swell of guitar near the halfway point of “Can’t Let Go” arises and brings another melodic wash, but never gets louder than it needs to be, with Danny adding backing harmonies before a long fadeout brings the sound of a door opening and our main character sitting down to watch television/listen to the radio comes on quietly, giving us a sampled line of A Fine Day to Exit opener “Pressure” before the piano-led minimalism of “Close Your Eyes” quickly takes hold, drums and horns sound arriving in the second half behind Lee‘s voice to draw out a jazzy, lounge-style vibe.

The shortest non-intro track at 3:43, “Close Your Eyes” nonetheless distinguishes itself from its surroundings with this semi-experimental feel, and a voice whispers, “It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s just a dream. Go back to sleep,” before piano begins the penultimate “Wildfires.” The title-line is delivered in drawling, effected fashion, as is the verse that follows, but an electronic urgency rises in the mix gradually, and at the 3:19 mark, the guitars and drums explode to prominence and a fullness of impact that lets the listener know they’re arriving at the conclusion of the narrative. Vincent‘s voice informs in repetitions, “It’s too late,” over his own lead guitar, and the song cuts to toy piano and guitar to transition into the aforementioned wave sounds that drift into “Back to the Start,” a six-plus-minute grand finale that works on a linear energy as a payoff for the entire course of the album preceding. In its melody and arrangement, it is among the most memorable stretches of The Optimist despite coming at the end of a long and varied trip, and when it’s over, our character walks up, knocks on a door and a voice says, “How are you?” And then it’s over.

One last thing The Optimist shares in common with A Fine Day to Exit is a tossoff, silly, home-recorded-sounding hidden track, but instead of the John Douglas goofing around, this time it’s primarily a child’s voice we hear. That last-minute acknowledgement of time gone by is subtle but evocative of the spirit of The Optimist as a whole, which though it revives a narrative thread the band clearly felt was unfinished, reshapes the story into one that sounds fresh in perspective and execution coming from them as they are today. Anathema‘s creative growth as songwriters has never stopped, and as a result, no two of their albums have found them in the same place in terms of sound. That remains true here, and even as they look to their past, they push brazenly ahead into their future, as ever.

Anathema, “Springfield” official video

Anathema on Thee Facebooks

Anathema on Instagram

Anathema on Twitter

Anathema website

Kscope Music webstore

Kscope Music on Thee Facebooks

Kscope Music on Twitter

Tags: , , , , ,

Dali’s Llama, The Blossom: Cast in Sand

Posted in Reviews on June 1st, 2017 by JJ Koczan

dali's llama the blossom

Its cover art might be purple, but the heart of the new Dali’s Llama EP, The Blossom, is all blue. As in, the blues, and the having of them. It’s virtually impossible for me to listen to the band or even see their name without the word “underappreciated” coming to mind, so let’s get that out of the way first — they’re underappreciated — and having said that, they here offer three songs and 18 minutes of new material through their own Dali’s Llama Records and push even further into DIY with guitarist/vocalist Zach Huskey sharing in the recording duties as well.

That’s a departure in itself from last year’s grimly-titled Dying in the Sun (review here), which like the bulk of Dali’s Llama‘s prolific string of releases was helmed by Scott Reeder (KyussThe ObsessedFireball Ministry). Reeder plays a role on The Blossom as well, sharing a recording credit with Huskey for closer “Bacteria,” while Huskey and Mike Jacobson recorded opener “Longtime Woman” (video here) and middle track “Like I Do,” which is probably as close to a general mission statement as Dali’s Llama have ever come. To wit, the lines, “Don’t wanna hear about your trips around the world/I don’t have your money, fame, or dozens of girls/But that don’t mean I lose/I just wanna live like I do,” sum up the general attitude with which the band would seem to approach the world around them; a fervent individuality very much indicative of their home in the Californian desert. Dali’s Llama, in other words, know who they are, and they know why.

Granted, with The Blossom as their 13th release, that should be the case. They’re nothing if not experienced when it comes to songwriting and being in the studio, but it says something about the creative will of Huskey — joined in the band by bassist/vocalist Erica Huskey, guitarist Joe Wangler and drummer Craig Brown — that they continue to try new things as well, like stepping into the recording process. While 2007-2012 found them releasing a new album about every year, Dying in the Sun followed four years after 2012’s Autumn Woods (review here), and with a quick turnaround, it leads one to speculate if The Blossom signals a boost in productivity to come.

dali's llama

Either way, it’s a relatively quick listen that, in addition to being bluesy, emphasizes the low-key vibe that has persistently worked so well in Dali’s Llama‘s material. Zach retains some light punker root in his vocals, but the groove is all laid back in “Longtime Woman” and “Like I Do,” which feel very much of a pair, with the former rolling out a groove not unlike some that pervaded the band’s Halloween-party-esque 2010 outing, Howl Do You Do? (review here), while the latter steps forth its un-aggro righteousness in a riff-led, barroom-ready shuffle early before giving into solo-topped lumbering for the bulk of its second half. Each of the first two songs has a hook to offer and finds Dali’s Llama locked into a jammy spirit, hitting on either side of the seven-minute mark — “Longtime Woman” in addition to opening is the longest track at 7:06 (immediate points), while “Like I Do” checks in at 6:43 — and working fluidly one into the next to set up the turn of approach that arrives with “Bacteria” (4:44) rounding out.

While “Bacteria” is by no means Dali’s Llama‘s first acoustic-centered track — Autumn Woods finished with the mostly-unplugged desert grunge of “Resolved” as well — the mood is particularly intimate, with the lyrics, “I’m getting older/No one wants to look at me anymore/Bacteria/They just go and wash their hands of me,” cloaking perhaps a bit of introspection in some clever wordplay. The shift from “Longtime Woman” and “Like I Do” is immediate, with the downward-sloping bounce of the centerpiece giving way to plucked notes that make it easy to imagine Huskey and Reeder working alone in dim lighting at the latter’s The Sanctuary studio. Some reverb on Huskey‘s vocals adds presence, but the underlying impression is still one of rawer emotionalism, and where “Resolved” incorporated a late electrified solo, it’s worth noting that “Bacteria” stays quiet for its duration, some backing percussion deep in the mix as it moves toward ending on its title line, capping The Blossom on a resonant and somewhat surprising note.

A band 13 releases in and offering the unexpected? One more reason I can’t say their name without the immediate word-association of “underappreciated” springing to mind. Dali’s Llama may remain the desert’s best kept secret when it comes to songwriting, but like they do, they’ll keep moving forward anyway, and while parts of “Longtime Woman” and “Like I Do” feel like they’re playing to the band’s strengths, the jammier feel also shows the chemistry the four-piece have developed over their time with this lineup around Zach and Erica, and while that may or may not be a path they’ll continue to walk — they’ve been known every now and again to veer into experimental outings like the aforementioned Howl do You Do? — it makes for an engaging short release that, like the many offerings surrounding it in Dali’s Llama‘s catalog, is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Dali’s Llama, The Blossom (2017)

Dali’s Llama on Thee Facebooks

Dali’s Llama on Bandcamp

Dali’s Llama Records website

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Demon Head, Thunder on the Fields: Ventum Procellarum

Posted in Reviews on May 29th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

demon-head-thunder-on-the-fields

A central question posed by Demon Head‘s second full-length, Thunder on the Fields, is whether or not a band can still capture sonic lethargy while coming across as energetic and excited at the prospect of doing so. The Copenhagen-based five-piece — comprised of the all-initials lineup of vocalist M.F.L., guitarists B.G.N. and T.G.N., bassist M.S.F. and drummer J.W. — of course answer in the affirmative, and on the seven-track/40-minute follow-up to their 2015 debut, Ride the Wilderness (review here), they set themselves to the task of proving this hypothesis in briskly executed, semi-vintage-style heavy doom rock that’s proto-metallic in its central influence but by no means trying to pretend the last five decades of genre development never happened.

Released through Caligari Records on tape and The Sign Records on CD/LP, Thunder on the Fields also reaffirms a key proposition laid forth by its predecessor — namely that Demon Head know precisely where they want to be in terms of aesthetics. The Danish-lyric opener “Menneskeæderen” (translates to “cannibal”) and the later, push-minded “Hic Svnt Dracones” (video posted here) pair up as leadoffs for a classically-constructed side A/B LP or tape, and in their propensity for rolling grooves, for moody, low-register vocal melodies and for interplay between swing and rhythmic bounce, Demon Head make a convincing argument for vibrancy in languid execution. If Thunder on the Fields wasn’t actually recorded live — and I don’t know that it was or wasn’t, though they apparently locked themselves in a cabin and went direct to tape — it comes close enough to capturing that feel, and if the question is can a band sound like a downer without actually being one, Demon Head confirm a resounding yes.

Those who took on the debut — and if you didn’t, I suspect after digging into Thunder on the Fields, you might be tempted to go back and do so — will be relieved to note the persistence of that natural vibe, and with the opening thrust of “Menneskeæderen,” which winds its leads over crashing rhythm tracks between its chorus and verses, and into the lumbering start of “We are Burning” that leads to a tense interplay of guitar noodling and jagged, angular percussive stomp, Demon Head are doing little to hide it. Thunder on the Fields, ultimately, is less about fixing what isn’t broken than taking what the band was able to accomplish their last time out and moving ahead with its development. A pretty common narrative, but justified in the progression they show in their songwriting and in the momentum they manage to conjure, regardless of pace.

demon head photo lalla oledal

The title-track, which follows “We are Burning,” is a highlight both in terms of its own hook and the flow already set up by the cuts surrounding, and no doubt youth is still a part of the equation when it comes to Demon Head — there’s a certain burgeoning maturity of approach, but they’re still a young band and that’s how they come across — but on the basic level of their construction and willingness to shift themselves from nodding doom to the jangly strum of “We are Burning” within the span of a measure, they demonstrate the ability to hold the reins on a sense of chaos in their execution that can only be the result of a band actively working to become stronger in their presentation. Sorry, but it just wouldn’t work otherwise. And likewise, the slower title-cut, which is still just four minutes long, drives knowingly toward a righteous apex and tracklist centerpiece “Older Now” revives a grim boogie that seems by the end of its own four-minute run to have made efforts to tear itself apart, only to find a firm, steady foundation in the layer beneath.

A tolling bell, acoustic plucking and some longer runtimes signal a clear difference in intent for Thunder on the Fields‘ side B, but the overarching atmosphere remains largely consistent between the record’s two halves, and as “Hic Svnt Dracones” gets underway, it further notes how far Demon Head have come in the three short years since their Demo 2014 (review here) and the Demon Head b/w Winterland (review here) found them worshiping at the altar of Pentagram and how much they’ve been able to craft their own sonic footprint in that time. “Hic Svnt Dracones” is full of motion once it kicks in from that intro, but winds up in a patient place behind its soulful post-midpoint solo, and in picking up tempo again just before its end, it reinforces its own structure and sets up the drawn-out standalone riff that starts “Gallow’s Omen” (video posted here) as all the more of a focal point. There’s still the nine-minute closer “Untune the Sky” behind it, so I wouldn’t necessarily call “Gallow’s Omen” the most sprawling inclusion, but being jammier on the whole makes it all the more distinct in its surroundings, as Demon Head seem to find a balance between the more taut execution of cuts like “Older Now” and more open-feeling methods.

One might expect “Untune the Sky” to further let loose in this regard, but the finale is defined by its plotted course, sleeking through early verses toward an acoustic-inclusive midsection en route to a classic-rocking shuffle of a crescendo and comedown that remains vibrant thanks in large part to the memorable guitar work, lead and rhythm. The guitars have been a major component of the album’s success all along, so it’s only fitting the final statement should underscore the point. They do so fluidly, and Demon Head cap their second outing with one more affirmation of the vitality that has become one of their core appeals along with their depth of tone and varied songcraft, as well as the impression that their growth is in progress and the steps they’ve taken with Thunder on the Fields will continue to lead them forward into whatever they might do next.

Demon Head, Thunder on the Fields (2017)

Demon Head on Thee Facebooks

The Sign Records on Thee Facebooks

Caligari Records webstore

Freight Train mailorder

Tags: , , , , , ,

Review & Track Premiere: Five Horse Johnson, Jake Leg Boogie

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on May 25th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

five-horse-johnson-jake-leg-boogie

[Click play above to stream ‘Hard Times’ from Five Horse Johnson’s Jake Leg Boogie, out June 30 on Small Stone Records.]

The world in which Jake Leg Boogie takes place is one of grit, sneak-around-the-back-door blues, cheap hooch and the kind of swagger that can only result from the imbibing thereof. Issued via Small Stone, it is the eighth album from Toledo, Ohio’s Five Horse Johnson and the first since 2013’s The Taking of Black Heart (review here), and though that world might feel like a pipedream compared to some of the grim realities of modern existence, there are few acts who can sell the idea as well as the five-piece. They reunite here with original drummer Tim Gahagan, and after 22 years, their love of heavy rock and blues continues to be the core aspect that defines their work. With the rough-edged vocals of Eric Oblander out front, the riffing of Brad Coffin (also vocals) and Phil Dürr defining the course and the righteous classic rockery of bassist Steve Smith in the rhythm section alongside Gahagan‘s swing and push, Five Horse Johnson are as they should be throughout the 39-minute 10-tracker: Kicking ass, taking names, and fostering no regrets in the process.

Through cuts like “Magic Man,” “Little Lonely” and “Daddy was a Gun,” they weave tales of sleaze and professional-grade troublemaking, starting off with the Southern-style ruckus of the hook of the opening title-track, which is among the shorter songs at 2:40 but gets down to business almost immediately with a bouncing riff, room for a harp solo from Oblander and what sounds like a bit of slide on the guitar. One way or another, Five Horse Johnson are up to no good, and that sounds just about right. “Magic Man” brings together ’70s rock and blues in a fluid push that continues to build momentum from the opener, setting its place in Springfield, Missouri, and no doubt referring to a real-life incident involving some “bad company” that’s probably best not inquired after.

For a lot of what Jake Leg Boogie will do stylistically, the ground is already set. Five Horse Johnson aren’t a band known for nuance so much as getting drunk and still blowing everyone else off the stage, but the stomp and attitude they bring to the material here as “Cryin’ Shame” rears its riff back and lurches it forward again aren’t to be understated, and neither is the quality of songcraft that lies beneath them. Like both “Jake Leg Boogie” and “Magic Man” before it, “Cryin’ Shame” complements its boozery with a righteously and unabashedly welcoming chorus, and even as the opening salvo shifts into the slower-strummed, more-subdued “Ropes and Chains” — acoustics and electrics seeming to run side by side — Five Horse Johnson refresh their audience with an engaging verse/hook interplay before turning just past three minutes into a more boogie-laden instrumental finish to provide transition into the uptempo side A finale, “Hard Times.”

Thus far, the band has worked quickly and efficiently in offering true-to-their-nature heavy blues rock, but “Hard Times” is a standout for its craftsmanship and for the classically motoring riff at its center. It is very, very American. Chevys, whiskey spelled with the extra ‘e’, consciously ogling a lady standing right next to her dude — it’s all right there. “Hard Times” pushes through its four minutes so sure of itself and its place that one almost has trouble believing the lyrics, which of course are about hard times, but as it ends the first half of Jake Leg Boogie, it also marks the shift into the ultra-effective midsection of the album, which continues its up-jumped shuffle with “Smoke Show” before moving into the longest inclusion here, “Little Lonely.”

five horse johnson

It’s worth nothing that “longest” in this context means 4:53. No matter where Five Horse Johnson head on Jake Leg Boogie, they don’t lose sight of the album’s core mission in delivering sans-frills heavy blues. After the scorching leads on “Smoke Show,” “Little Lonely” draws back on the pace somewhat but makes up for it with a sing-along chorus and sleek groove, setting up the faster return of “Overload,” which offers more primo harp from Oblander, and the semi-finale of “Daddy was a Gun” — thereby making the speaker of the song a “son of a gun,” if it’s not obvious. Perhaps the clearest blues preach on offer, “Daddy was a Gun” also speaks to the closeness between Five Horse Johnson and Clutch, with whom Oblander has guested on tour and whose drummer Jean-Paul Gaster sat in on the last Five Horse record.

Still, they retain the consistency of their approach as they move toward the end of the record, which comes with the turn of the appropriately-named “Last Song,” a surprisingly quiet and sentimental short bookend to “Jake Leg Boogie” — the opener and the closer are the only cuts under the three-minute mark — that departs from some of the swagger in favor of an airier atmosphere, still soaked by Southern humidity but with an on-the-porch blues noodling guitar line and a tambourine as its only percussion, it’s a definite change nonetheless, and after all the brash crotchal thrust they’ve brought to bear across Jake Leg Boogie, they end on a note of understatement, as though to reaffirm we-didn’t-mean-no-harm sensibility that’s behind a string of nine liquor store robberies represented by the preceding tracks. “Boys will be boys,” said the cops.

More than two decades on, Five Horse Johnson have little to prove, and Jake Leg Boogie is accordingly less about taking over the world than about the band doing what they’ve always done well in affecting a controlled but still boozy tumult. With the return of Gahagan on drums, and consistency in presentation from working with longtime producer Al Sutton at Rustbelt Studios and cover artist Mark Dancey, the band are very much in form, and the world they create for and through these songs is as inviting as it is raucous.

Five Horse Johnson on Thee Facebooks

Five Horse Johnson website

Small Stone Records on Bandcamp

Small Stone Records on Thee Facebooks

Small Stone Records website

Tags: , , , , ,

Review & Full Album Stream: WhiteNails, First Trip

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on May 24th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

whitenails first trip

[Click play above to stream First Trip by WhiteNails in its entirety. Album is out Friday, May 26, via Magnetic Eye Records.]

Quebecois six-piece WhiteNails make a resoundingly cohesive impression with First Trip, which telegraphs its self-awareness even unto its title. Delivered through Magnetic Eye Records, it is the debut release from the Canadian outfit, not just their first full-length, and as an opening argument it speaks to the band having come together last year with some clear idea of what they wanted to do sonically, in form and maybe general style if not the direct specifics of cuts like “Dead in Time” or “Damn Judas.” A mission to make catchy, uptempo, soulful heavy rock, perhaps, and First Trip is the result of that from the first-name-only lineup of vocalist Darcy, guitarists Danahé and Taylor, bassist JP, keyboardist Vince and drummer Maxx, who for all the personnel — they also bring in guest vocalist Gab Shonk on the aforementioned “Dead in Time” — don’t come across as overblown in the slightest.

Throughout the eight-track/41-minute offering, they endeavor to hone a foundation of songwriting to underscore the boogie in cuts like “In My Blood” and the thrust of opener “Shanghaied,” and though their arrangements are full, it’s perhaps in part thanks to the vocal command of Darcy that the record remains grounded, as from the leadoff onward, his presence as a frontman comes through in verses and chorus alike, whether he’s surfing the riff of “Shanghaied” reminding somewhat of Black Thai‘s Jim Healey or calling to mind Gozu‘s Marc Gaffney in “In My Blood” and the layered harmonies of “Silver Linings.” Gozu, in some of their harder-edged post-Queens of the Stone Age swagger, would seem to be an influence across the board.

Still, those vocals are well-balanced in the mix, and the aesthetic remains modern throughout, with a full and willfully distortion driving Danahé and Taylor‘s guitars that finds its most-doom moment in the penultimate “Brazen Bull” after a variety of executions playing around the central heavy rock theme in terms of pace, push and the structure of the riffs that lead, be it the all-forward movement of “Shanghaied” welcoming the listener to First Trip by pulling them through an open doorway of accessibility, or the ultra-catchy companionship that track finds as “Damn Judas” leads off side B. Some of the titles convey a sense of darkness, whether it’s the chugging “Done and Gone” or “Dead in Time,” which come back to back after the opener, or “In My Blood” and “Damn Judas” later — even closer “The Crooked Lake” seems to have some measure of threat in the use of “crooked” — but it’s not until “Silver Linings” that one finds that darkness beginning to come to fruition.

whitenails (Photo Caroline Perron)

And though their cover art might lead one to go into the album immediately searching for an Uncle Acid influence, the amount of strain required to hear it in the riff of “Damn Judas” is enough to make me think it simply isn’t there at all. Okay then. Basically, the crux of First Trip sets itself toward pursuing a solid execution of varied heavy rock songcraft, and it most certainly gets there, building in momentum through the first five songs — if one is listening on CD/DL, the linear momentum flows notably well; I haven’t heard a vinyl edition but the track structure is definitely two-sided — before shifting into that darker terrain on “Silver Linings” and “Brazen Bull” and airing out a bit of psychedelia on “The Crooked Lake,” which marks the most patient stretch of the record and a departure from the preceding ground covered.

Particularly for a debut, it would likely be enough for WhiteNails to acknowledge the need for aural diversity, let alone actually bring it to fruition in the manner they do, but they find a balance between consistency of tone and changes in structure and mood that hints either at prior experience among the members in bands together or at an especially quick-in-developing chemistry at work. One way or the other, the reward is palpable throughout First Trip, up to and including the closer, which with its more prominent keys and fluid guitar lines nods at Vangelis-style atmospherics early and drifts into a markedly satisfying linear build in its second half to pay off the album as a whole. It’s a long way from the party vibe of “Dead in Time” or “In My Blood,” which would seem to be the most motion-minded cuts along with “Damn Judas,” which is a highlight overall, but it serves as an encouraging last-minute defiance of the expectation WhiteNails have already put in effort to establish.

That is to say, they’ve set forth their rules and then almost immediately, gleefully broken them. Again, this is something a penchant one generally expects a group to develop over time — and WhiteNails may yet have more anti-conventionalism up their collective sleeve; I wouldn’t speculate after only one release — but it serves notice to anyone willing to hear it that the band are not at all finished growing. So be it. While the destination where that growth might take them ultimately in terms of style feels open to a range of possibilities, it seems safer to bet that the underlying quality of songwriting will be a continuing factor from WhiteNails as they move forward, as it proves to be the essential statement made by their impressive and cogent first offering.

WhiteNails on Thee Facebooks

WhiteNails on Bandcamp

WhiteNails website

Magnetic Eye Records on Bandcamp

Magnetic Eye Records on Thee Facebooks

Magnetic Eye Records webstore

Tags: , , , , , ,

Elder, Reflections of a Floating World: Building on the Moment

Posted in Reviews on May 23rd, 2017 by JJ Koczan

Elder-Reflections-of-a-Floating-World

It would be impossible and improper to separate Reflections of a Floating World from the context of its predecessor. 2015’s Lore (review here) was a bold statement of arrival by Massachusetts trio Elder, a no-doubter Album of the Year, and a marked stylistic leap from 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring (review here) into a bright-toned and progressive vision of heavy rock and roll that even the 2012 Spires Burn/Release EP (review here) did not fully foretell. It paid off the potential that guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo, bassist Jack Donovan and drummer Matt Couto have shown since their 2008 self-titled debut (discussed here), and though the six-track/67-minute Reflections of a Floating World doesn’t represent the same kind of broad stylistic shift overall, it nonetheless pushes further along the richly individualized path they found their last time out and expands both the sonic palette and the lineup itself in key ways.

Like LoreReflections of a Floating World arrives with lush, beautiful cover art by Adrian Dexter on Armageddon Shop and Stickman Records, and like Lore, it was recorded by Justin Pizzoferrato at Sonelab in Easthampton, MA (feature here), so listeners shouldn’t necessarily be surprised at some commonalities between the two records, but in composing and piecing together these tracks, Elder also brought in keyboardist/guitarist Mike Risberg — a bandmate of DiSalvo‘s in the side-project Gold & Silver, who released their debut, Azurite & Malachite (review here), in 2014 — who’ll also tour with the band as a fourth member, as well as Mike Samos, who contributed lap steel guitar, electric mandolin, theremin and other sources of flourish to the textures of tracks like “Staving off Truth” and the penultimate atmospheric stretch, “Sonntag”; essentially a five-man jam edited into a lengthy interlude between the band’s more common, fluid part-barrage process of songcraft. The additional arrangement elements were something hinted at in Lore‘s title-track, but it’s on Reflections of a Floating World that these ideas are more completely brought to fruition, and Elder are a more complete and, frankly, a better band for refusing to do anything other than make the songs they want to make by any means necessary.

That alone could be taken as a sign of the maturity that in part defines the course of Reflections of a Floating World, but the album’s prevailing sensibility comes through in the graceful manner in which it moves from part to part, song to song, while building toward a cohesive whole that offers the listener a guided immersion few acts in the US or elsewhere can match. They begin with a half-hour opening salvo of three extended tracks in “Sanctuary” (11:41), “The Falling Veil” (11:40) and “Staving off Truth” (10:43) before digging even further into proggy textures with “Blind” (13:39), “Sonntag” (9:01) and closer “Thousand Hands” (10:01), and the consciousness of the flow they craft isn’t to be understated. “Sanctuary” starts with guitar establishing a full-toned riff joined in seconds by bass and crashing drums and in under 20 seconds an album that will do nothing if not take its time to say what it wants to say is quickly in motion. One does find that Elder have grown more patient in their execution, but also more clever. They tease payoffs and turn elsewhere in “Sanctuary” to buck expectation; a sign of compositional confidence and the knowledge that their audience will follow them on their winding paths, which, if past is prologue, they of course will.

elder

Turning through gentler breaks, heavy roll and a vast-sounding lead, “Sanctuary” hits the six-minute mark and moves into a psychedelic stretch it will build from twice-over, and its poise in doing so becomes an important factor in the album as a whole — something that the slow, soundscaping intro of “The Falling Veil” takes up immediately. If “Sanctuary” was the rocking opener, “The Falling Veil” is where Elder introduce more of Reflections of a Floating World‘s progressive elements, with Risberg making himself known on Mellotron as the song begins its post-midpoint instrumental push into the plotted known-unknown, finding there a winding dose of riffing that brings a sudden stop and move into the drifting intro to “Staving off Truth,” which further works to unite the heft and the scope of presentation thus far brought to bear, and I’d gladly argue, succeeds in that, representing a moment of balance for Reflections of a Floating World and emphasizing in a not-overblown manner the way in which Elder have continued to develop over the last two years, expanding rather than remaking, but committed as ever to their sonic and stylistic growth, shown as much in the lush depth of their mix as in the sweeping current that runs under all of it.

Performance is also a factor in this. As crisp as Reflections of a Floating World sounds with the spaciousness in Couto‘s drums, the resonant push of Donovan‘s bass, Risberg and Samos‘ contributions and DiSalvo‘s alternately airy and dense guitar work and more-confident-than-ever-before vocals — he features in the initial verses of “Blind” in a braver way than he ever has — the album is vital in spirit. It explores, but doesn’t linger, and while their live show has always been somewhat rawer than their studio offerings, it’s clear Elder are retooling that balance somewhat as they revamp their lineup and expand their overarching scope as they do in the second half of this record. “Blind” is the longest inclusion at just under 14 minutes and starts with blown-out drums before moving into organ-topped rhythmic and melodic sway, a long and engaging instrumental midsection providing the crux and a winding finish easing into “Sonntag” with a dead stop similar to “Sanctuary” and “The Falling Veil” earlier. “Sonntag” starts quietly but pulses and quickly introduces its improvised-seeming course, which unfolds patiently as a languid, almost Euro-style prog jam marked out by guitar noodling over a steady line of bass and drums.

If there’s a point of utter departure for Elder on Reflections of a Floating World, “Sonntag” would be it, and though it would be strange to call a track that’s nine minutes long an interlude, the effect is basically the same: A moment for the listener to catch their breath before they head into closer “Thousand Hands.” It just so happens that with Elder, that moment lasts longer and finds the band adventuring into sonic territory they’ve never before covered. Go figure. They fadeout the jam and cap “Sonntag” with a drone before the shimmering guitar line that starts “Thousand Hands” launches, reviving the earlier momentum but still affected by the peaceful context of the stretch before it. One would expect “Thousand Hands” to be the payoff for Reflections of a Floating World as a whole, and it indeed does hit that mark in its late crescendo, but it also effectively summarizes the progressive ideology that is truly at heart in the narrative of the album: Elder mature, established, quickly becoming one of the most important American heavy bands of their generation.

That’s the story here. And if the question coming into Reflections of a Floating World was just how Elder would emerge from the considerable shadow cast by Lore, the answer is they emerge shining. Their aesthetic movement has always been forward-directed, and though it seemed like they found the answer they were looking for with their previous record in terms of sound, they’ve apparently embarked on an entirely different subset of questions. As a fan, I still have no idea what Reflections of a Floating World might portend for Elder‘s future, and I’d no more suggest that their next record might build directly off this one than I would’ve suggested this one would build off the last, but one way or another, three-piece or four-piece, proggy meander or crushing riffs, Elder remain a special band whose sound has only become more their own over time, and Reflections of a Floating World is another Album of the Year candidate that finds them at the to-date height of their collective power.

Elder, Reflections of a Floating World (2017)

Elder on Thee Facebooks

Elder on Bandcamp

Armageddon Shop

Stickman Records

Tags: , , , , ,

Review & Video Premiere: Siena Root, A Dream of Lasting Peace

Posted in Bootleg Theater, Reviews on May 19th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

siena-root-a-dream-of-lasting-peace

[Click play above to see the premiere of Siena Root’s video for ‘No Filter.’ Their new album, A Dream of Lasting Peace, is out May 26 in Europe and June 23 in the US on MIG Music/MVD.]

Among those playing classic-style heavy rock, there are few who do it with the conviction of purpose or the soul of Sweden’s Siena Root, and that has remained true in the 13 years since their 2003 Nasoni-delivered debut, A New Day Dawning, despite some significant shifts in personnel and sound. Their fifth studio full-length, A Dream of Lasting Peace, finds the Stockholm five-piece indisputable as masters reveling in the form, even as new frontman Samuel Björö makes his studio debut with the band following the departure of Jonas Åhlén after 2014’s Pioneers (discussed here).

Founding bassist/vocalist Sam Riffer and drummer/vocalist Love “Billy” Forsberg continue to resonate as the core of the group, and if their last outing captured them still in transition style-wise after splitting with guitarist/sitarist KG West, whose psychedelic ambience was a huge part of the craft of their early work on albums like the aforementioned debut, 2006’s Kaleidoscope (discussed here), 2008’s Far from the Sun and 2009’s Different Realities (discussed here), these 10 tracks/44 minutes show RifferForsbergBjörö, guitarist Matte Gustavsson and organist/keyboardist Erik “Errka” Petersson well in command both aesthetically and in terms of performance. Throughout the release, Björö shines as a singer and Petersson and Gustavsson play off each other — see the penultimate light-step boogie of “Imaginarium” — in a fashion that would and should make peak-era Deep Purple fans blush with delight.

A Dream of Lasting Peace offers touches of psychedelia in the drifting bluesy jam of “The Piper Won’t Let You Stay” and stage-ready vitality across the likes of “No Filters,” “Outlander” and the bouncing funk of “Tales of Independence,” but primarily, the album lands its impact with the strength of its hooks and the balance of its execution across this range of mostly positive-vibing moods. Siena Root are not a dark band, and they never have been, and A Dream of Lasting Peace sounds like the people who made it were having a good time in a way that proves as infectious as the chorus of opener “Secrets” and “Tales of Independence,” which follows in a righteous opening salvo that continues to build momentum as it shuffles into the more laid back “Sundown.” Harmonies pervade a more patient fluidity, but with Petersson‘s underlying organ line and toss-off lead flourish from Gustavsson, the melody is ever at hand, and an instrumental break at 1:48 into the song’s unassuming 4:19 gives the organ space for a solo complemented by guitar and propelled by the creative drumming of Forsberg, who adds chimes just before a tom roll signals the change back into the verse that reintroduces Björö on vocals.

It would be a worthy single with Riffer‘s bass as the foundational element, but it does just as well here as a transition into the even more subdued blues of “The Piper Won’t Let You Stay,” the longest inclusion at 6:08 and a graceful instrumental swell that seems drawn forward by Björö, who delivers his most impressive performance of the record in what feels like a showcase track despite a midsection crescendo that offers crisp, thicker guitar and key work and dynamic changes in tempo and volume. As they sleek their way through the crashing end of that song and into the organ rumble that starts “Outlander,” the return to a more energetic chorus and classic structure marked by its starts and stops is a welcome finish to side A, and the manner in which Petersson and Gustavsson end the track first together, then just with Petersson‘s keys, couldn’t feel more appropriate as the fadeout begins.

siena root

Already through the first half of A Dream of Lasting Peace, there is no level on which Siena Root aren’t delivering. In performance, in the quality of their songwriting, in the balance of clarity and natural feel of the recording itself and in the spirit driving them, they come across as revitalized, and if Pioneers was their way of exploring the possibilities of where their classic influences might take them post-West, here they take the lessons they learned from that experience and use them to grab the reins of their approach and hone something truly special. Traditionally, one would find a band experimenting a bit more on side B, and the Purple-hued rush of “Growing Underground” teases that possibility a bit in a direct call and response from Gustavsson and Petersson that’s just flat-out fun, leading to “Empty Streets,” which seems at first to echo “The Piper Won’t Let You Stay” but finds Riffer delivering a highlight bassline in tandem with the organ late as part of a rousing apex built outward from a nigh-on hypnotic but still progressive meandering.

The shorter and more straightforward “No Filters” has a push to echo “Secrets” and “Tales of Independence” early on, and makes a suitable centerpiece for side B as it regrounds Siena Root heading into the jazzy instrumental “Imaginarium” and subsequent closer “The Echoes Unfold,” which offers a spacious ending with echo on Björö‘s voice to fill a void of stopped guitar and keys and temporarily paused drums and bass. The play of volume and push that ensues is no less poised than anything preceding, less bluesy than “The Piper Won’t Let You Stay,” but thoroughly satisfying in its winding chorus and in the key-led ending section, which takes hold at about the three-minute mark and carries through to the long fade just past five minutes in, casting a symmetry with “Outlander” and once again feeling wholly befitting the course Siena Root have set overall.

Given the obvious care put into their presentation and the level of realization Siena Root attain within these tracks and through the overarching flow they create between them, A Dream of Lasting Peace is a joy that feels sculpted specifically to cast a celebration among the heavy rock converted. The band have their niche, to be sure, but they’ve long excelled in their work and their latest only furthers that thread while also setting them on a sustainable path going forward. Their lineup has always been subject to change and it’s entirely possible it will be in the future as well, but these songs hit on a balance worthy of being considered a highlight in their discography and if they serve as a model for the band to follow, at least for a while, that can only be to the benefit of players and fans alike. A no-doubter to stand among 2017’s best in classic and progressive heavy rock and roll.

Siena Root on Thee Facebooks

Siena Root on Bandcamp

Siena Root on Instagram

Siena Root website

Siena Root at MIG Music

Tags: , , , , ,

Review & Full EP Stream: Godhunter, Codex Narco

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on May 18th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

godhunter codex narco

[Click play above to stream Godhunter’s Codex Narco EP in full. It’s out this Friday, May 19, on Battleground Records and Baby Tooth Records with sale proceeds going to Planned Parenthood.]

Tucson, Arizona’s Godhunter have always had a violent and/or aggressive edge to their approach, but most of what they’re demolishing on their latest EP, Codex Narco, are the expectations listeners might have of them. Delivered through Battleground Records and Baby Tooth Records with cover art by Bailey Illustration as the result of a few tumultuous years on the part of the once-sludge metallers, Codex Narco only tops out at about 21 minutes, and as it moves between the intro “A Dread of Some Strange Impending Doom” and outro “Distant Fading Screams of a Dying World,” rest assured, the fare is still suitably dark, but the band nonetheless hugely expand their sonic palette even from what it was two years ago on their Endsville split with Destroyer of Light (discussed here), let alone on their prior 2014 full-length, City of Dust (review here), which remains their only long-player to-date. They were a six-piece at that time and have since pared back to a core trio of guitarist/sampler David Rodgers, guitarist/keyboardist Matthew Davis and drummer Andy Kratzenberg, all of whom are spread out geographically.

The fact that Codex Narco‘s tracks were written via internet exchange between these three might ultimately be a factor in the aesthetic outcome of the EP, but that’s not to discount guest appearances from CHRCH vocalist Eva Rose on the aforementioned opening/closing pair, or Josh Thorne of Thorne on “Like Glass Under Black Fingernails” and centerpiece “Cocaine Witches and Lysergic Dreams,” or Methra‘s Nick Genitals on the penultimate Tegan and Sara cover, “Walking with a Ghost,” which here becomes a blown-out vision of doomwave with additional guitar from Clayton Bartholomew (Mountaineer) and bass from Demon Lung‘s Adam Sage. Nick Genitals contributes bass and guitar as well to the opener and closer and to the ambient “Unarmed Combat,” and Sage handles low end on “Like Glass Under Black Fingernails,” “Cocaine Witches and Lysergic Dreams” and “Walking with a Ghost” while Bartholomew also plays guitar on “Like Glass Under Black Fingernails,” “Our Blood is Poison” and “Cocaine Witches and Lysergic Dreams.”

One imagines it was quite a chain of emails by the time these songs actually started coming together, or at very least a barrage of Dropbox notifications, but however it was done, the wash that Codex Narco creates ties together this dizzying interchange of personnel, and with a headphone-ready depth of mix unlike anything Godhunter have produced before, these tracks offer atmospheric weight to coincide with their sheer tonal density. Interplay between shorter pieces like the intro and outro, the sample-topped rumble and feedback of “Our Blood is Poison” and the bass-and-drum “Unarmed Combat,” which seems to recount for 100 seconds a military experiment drugging soldiers and finding them refusing to train, the two longer tracks “Like Glass Under Black Fingernails” (5:53) and “Cocaine Witches and Lysergic Dreams” (5:45), and the unabashedly poppy “Walking with a Ghost” (2:31) ensure a steady flow from one piece to the next, and but for its runtime, Codex Narco could just as easily pass as an LP as an EP in terms of how its component pieces feed into and off of each other.

godhunter codex narco lineup

Davis‘ work on synth and keys becomes a huge factor in tying the release together as a whole, whether he’s playing to the post-punk chug and hook of “Walking with a Ghost” or adding electronica-style tension beneath the massive and blasted buzz tones of “Cocaine Witches and Lysergic Dreams.” No doubt a mastering job by the esteemed Brad Boatright had something to do with bringing the various tracks in line as well, but the handling of the synth and keys in the mix alongside the guitar and bass casts a scope behind the trades between screams and clean vocals on “Like Glass Under Black Fingernails” that proves as immersive as it is aggressive, and where in the past Godhunter have been driven to confront, to attack, Codex Narco feels more inwardly-directed as an examination, more personal, and thus more likely to draw listeners along with it on its brief but substantial path.

It’s the kind of release for which reviewers might generally fall over themselves to invent descriptors — which is an impulse that “doomwave” above notwithstanding I’m going to try to resist — but when one sees vague-eries like “post-sludge,” “sludgegaze,” “doomtronic” and so on, it’s a sign that at very least Godhunter are doing something of their own and something original, which on Codex Narco more than ever, they definitely are. RodgersDavis and Kratzenberg haven’t by any means abandoned their aggro tendencies or their underlying sense of purpose in creation — sales of the EP benefit Planned Parenthood and an anti-suicide video for “Walking with a Ghost” is reportedly in production — but they’ve successfully achieved a stylistic turn that even for those who’ve experienced their various experiments on collaborations with Secrets of the Sky (review here) and Amigo the Devil will no doubt prove a surprise. Still, even if one approaches Codex Narco anticipating the band Godhunter were on City of Dust, they’ve always warranted and encouraged a kind of open-mindedness that should make it relatively easy for listeners to get on board with the moves they have made and may or may not continue to make.

When it comes to the aftermath of this EP, that’s really the big question: whether Codex Narco, with its slew of guests and lung-collapsing soundscapes, is a sign of the future direction for Godhunter or a one-off experiment. Given the accomplishment and the fluidity of these songs, I’m inclined to hope for the former, but less than ever does it seem reasonable to predict what the band might do doing forward. Codex Narco is a quick listen, but it presents a huge shift in method and practice for Godhunter, and that’s as much palpable in the audio as it is in the context in which the EP arrives. What has remained most constant about them, however, is the boldness with which they’ve undertaken these changes, and that seems to be the thread that unites all of their work: They’re going to do what they’re going to do, on their own terms, without compromise. Whatever else might swirl around it, righteousness persists.

Godhunter on Thee Facebooks

Battleground Records on Bandcamp

Battleground Records website

Battleground Records on Twitter

Battleground Records on Instagram

Baby Tooth Records on Bandcamp

Baby Tooth Records on Thee Facebooks

Tags: , , , , , ,