Review & Full Album Premiere: Varego, I Prophetic

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 13th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

varego i prophetic

[Click play above to stream I Prophetic by Varego in full. It’s out Feb. 15 on Argonauta Records.]

Sure, Varego have the piano intro. Sure, they have all kinds of progressive nuance. They’ve got the six-and-a-half-minute title-track full of Voivodian sci-fi weirdo crunch. They’ve got the off-in-the-distance, spaciously-mixed vocals of bassist Davide Marcenaro. But you know, listen to the start of that title-track, or to the central riff from Alberto Pozzo and Gerolamo Lucisano of “When the Wolves,” or the intensity of Simon Lepore‘s drum changes in closer “Zodiac,” and Varego are still very much a metal band. Shades of Judas Priest can be heard throughout in Pozzo‘s and Lucisano‘s guitars, and while they’re definitely just shades — since it’s not like Varego are carbon-copying, well, anyone — that gives the clean 36-minute run of I Prophetic a foundation from which it’s working its way out. I don’t think they’d call it space metal or cosmic metal — the latter somehow would imply less psychedelia, so might fit as a tag, though “Zodiac” and others do touch on the ethereal as well — but it’s definitely in that nebulous region where “progressive” becomes a catchall standing in for saying the band are conscious of what they’re doing as songwriters.

There are eight tracks on the Argonauta-released I Prophetic, counting the aforementioned piano intro “Origin,” and while they open with the catchiest of them in “The Abstract Corpse” and thereby answer the question of what might’ve been if Primordial had been from Mars instead of Ireland with a fervent forward drive that stands tall among any of those to follow — at least before they hit the brakes — the Italian four-piece subsequently find themselves expanding parameters of structure and sound alike on the title-track and only continue to go further out from there. Regardless of genre, one might read I Prophetic as a kind of linear path. Following the brooding “Silent Giants,” which opens the second half, “When the Wolves” provides some measure of grounding, but still, it’s clear by that point that there’s really no coming back, and the closing wallop of “Duelist” and “Zodiac” bear that out.

So what is it? It can’t just be the echo on Marcenaro‘s vocals. Looking back to 2016’s Epoch (review here), their second album, it seems like I Prophetic has a tighter, sharper overall approach. Its songs are more sure of their purpose, and that underlying foundation of metal weaves itself like a thread throughout the tracklisting. One can hear that even on side A capper “Of Dust,” which moves from its initial progression toward more expansive fare while still holding to a core groove in the drums and bass. The interplay of the two guitars is definitely part of it, and the breadth of the mix is definitely part of it, but as “Of Dust” ends with a guitar solo, there’s still something so intentionally traditional-metal about the proceedings. Craft has definitely become more of a factor for Varego, though, and as the abiding buzz of the guitars work alongside the drifting bassline at the mellow-but-tense outset of “Silent Giants,” the sense of atmosphere becomes all the more prevalent.

varego

After “When the Wolves,” which at 3:03 is the shortest non-intro inclusion here, that continues into “Duelist” as well, and the more Varego depart from their sludgy beginnings, the more they seem to find themselves out there in the cosmos, frozen like in some lump of comet ice charting an irregular orbit all their own. Individualism suits them, unsurprisingly, but one doesn’t necessarily get the feeling they’re done growing. “The Abstract Corpse” howls into its barrage after its quick drum-fill introduction, and together with “I Prophetic” itself, it forms a statement of purpose that’s varied and rich, not without melody, but coated in effects — the title-track will earn them some Monolord comparisons, particularly as it moves into a bigger riff after the verse around the two-minute mark — and working on its own level. The end stemming from their means isn’t entirely clear yet, but the unsettling element of I Prophetic — its refusal to simply be one thing; metal or sludge, progressive or traditional — is part of its appeal and in the end, the basis for its success.

With Epoch, Varego made the transition from a five- to a four-piece lineup. With I Prophetic, they refine their approach to a striking degree, making it all the more their own and all the more intricate. Even “When the Wolves,” which is the most willfully straightforward thrasher included, has a level of sonic detail that begs for multiple listens and a kind of mental dissection: “What are they doing here?” The answer to that question, though, requires stepping back and taking the album in its entirety. What they’re doing is melding heavy metal to their own purposes. It’s not about homage to the past so much as building off the past, their own as well as that of others. It takes time for a band to discover who they really are in terms of sound — and, I suppose, everything else — but it feels like Varego have found themselves here, and like I Prophetic works so fluidly across its span to move outward from where it begins, one would expect the band to do no less their next time out in continuing to progress along the line they’re drawing.

A key, perhaps telling moment is shortly before three minutes into “Zodiac,” when the song hangs a left and slows down in the guitar, vocals layering over what’s clearly the final march. They ring out for a while to end it, but before that, they stake their claim on a marked distance from where they started out in “The Abstract Corpse,” and the spectrum they’ve run in that time — still an utterly manageable 36 minutes — is an accomplishment unto itself. Do I think they’re done growing? No. This kind of progressive songwriting rarely stagnates. But I Prophetic serves a crucial function as that moment of arrival for them, and of course thereby sets up the inevitable departure to follow. Varego have come into their own. What they do now is entirely up to them.

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Argonauta Records website

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Old Mexico, Old Mexico: Out Past Walls

Posted in Reviews on February 11th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

old mexico self titled

It’s hard to tell at some points whether Old Mexico‘s Old Mexico is a tale of one album, two albums or three, and not really being able to determine that ultimately winds up part of the fun. A collaboration between Dead Meadow‘s Jason Simon, Arizona-based acid folkslinger Trans Van Santos (aka Mark Matos) and jazz drummer Dave Mihaly released through Union Zero in the US and Cardinal Fuzz in Europe, it’s possible to take its six tracks/37 minutes all as one thing, as is, straight through. That’s one album. Sure. Nifty. Cool. It’s two albums because of the way its near-14-minute opener and longest inclusion (immediate points) “Past the Western Wall” seems so much an entity unto itself even taken in kind with “The Old Ones,” which is Simon‘s other included composition. And it’s three albums because Simon, Matos and Mihaly each lend material. And maybe it’s even four albums because it’s also the kind of album that if you try to take it by the numbers, you’ll just be doing it wrong. So, yeah.

However one chooses to read it, the key to Old Mexico‘s Old Mexico is an open mind. With a liberal dose of saxophone from Michael Bello — who didn’t write any of the six songs, but is sort of the unsung hero of the record nonetheless — and Mihaly‘s smooth drums behind most of the songs, at least when he’s not switching to guitar, as on his own “Stellar Jay,” on which he also sings, and instrumental closer “Madeline Kahn,” there’s an underlying jazzy sensibility to some of the songs. It’s truest of “Past the Western Wall,” which should rightly be a focal point for anyone taking on the LP. It can’t help but be. It’s right there in front. But hearing Matos take lead on the weirdo Westernism of “Neon Tree” and the stoned ramble “Black Matador,” one could just as easily tie Old Mexico to folk, and certainly there’s a familiar forward progression to at least the verses of “Past the Western Wall” and “The Old Ones” that one could argue stem from Simon‘s songwriting method. The best approach might be not to tie it at all.

An album that begs for a truly open listening experience? Bands say that all the time. It’s rarely as true as it is with Old Mexico. A modus of craft is affirmed throughout, but that modus changes of course as the songs themselves change in terms of composer and arrangement. And the best answer that results in the most satisfying listening experience is to go with it. Follow it out. There’s a clue in the name of the project: California. At least the Southern and Central parts of the Golden State. Maybe that’s what’s being summarized here; a bit of desert strangeness met with San Francisco’s hippie refinement, running up and down a dreamed-up mellow Pacific Coastline while the sun sets 10 feet out over the water. I wouldn’t know, but it fits. There’s a lot here that could fit. I think that’s part of the point too, when it’s all done and percussion-laced homage to the immortal Ms. Kahn has been paid.

Old Mexico

Freak jams like that in “Past the Western Wall,” so molten and hypnotic, but still so nuanced and so conscious, don’t happen every day, and if that was the impetus on which the rest of Old Mexico was built, fair enough. It’s an impulse one hopes they follow again, getting even weirder in the process. But it’s not the whole story of the album. There’s an unfolding that happens before that leadoff is even three minutes in, but Old Mexico aren’t just getting lost either. It’s not until after 12 minutes in, but “Past the Western Wall” makes its way back across the grand distance it creates to the verse, and ends not in a jammy culmination, but in subdued melody, giving one the impression that what’s ultimately crucial to the album is the exploration through songwriting and collaboration itself. These people working with these people. To that end, the contributions of Bello on sax can’t be ignored any more than the grounding effect of Mihaly‘s voice on “Stellar Jay,” or the Wurlitzer of Jon Randano or the manner in which Jason Crimele (who recorded three tracks while Stefan Lirakis recorded the other three) shifts from bass to drums to percussion as need be.

But even with them and the backing vocalists and other contributors, it’s Simon, Matos and Mihaly at the forefront of the songs. The turn from “Black Matador” to the soft-swinging “The Old Ones” tells some of the tale, as the two six-plus-minute tracks groove from peyote-bombed desert-jazz-folk to the nighttime vibes and contained spaciousness of a more rock-style arrangement. “Neon Tree” is a highlight for its twang ahead of the ritualized tribute/ode “Madeline Kahn,” on which anything around that jangles or clangs seems to have been put to some measure of use, but no single cut on Old Mexico really leads to an understanding of where the album as a whole is coming from — not even “Past the Western Wall,” glorious though it is.

Instead, it all feeds into the totality of the listening experience, which again, becomes less about parsing it and more about everything coming together. It might be tempting to pick apart Old Mexico‘s work based on who wrote it or who recorded or who played on it — and that might be fun, at least to certain, admittedly demented kind of listener — but the overarching crux of Old Mexico is more about the resulting sonic spread from everyone. It’s an album, not a split. What one hopes coming out of it is that it’s also not a one-off. With the recognition that these are busy people with other projects, and exploration so vast only seems to set up the potential for going further. I wouldn’t guess what a follow-up might entail, but in hearing the way in which this first outing eases its way into a desert skyscape and seems to dissipate there in the atmosphere, I’d sure like to find out.

Old Mexico, Old Mexico (2019)

Old Mexico at Jason Simon’s Bandcamp

Old Mexico at Cardinal Fuzz Bandcamp

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Geezer, Spiral Fires EP: Light in Darkworld

Posted in Reviews on February 8th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

geezer spiral fires

If Geezer sound different on Spiral Fires, part of that is because they are. The Kingston, New York, trio have charted a marked progression over the last five-plus years, shifting from slide-guitar-prone heavy blues rock to a jammier take with a foundation in songcraft, unafraid to swagger into an ether of whiskey vapor and heavy enough to land on solid ground when they so choose. Guitarist/vocalist Pat Harrington is the last remaining original member of the band, and on Spiral Fires, he and bassist Richie Touseull — who joined in 2015 ahead of the release of their 2016 self-titled LP (review here) — welcome new drummer Steve Markota to the fold. It’s worth noting that despite the turnover in personnel, Geezer have been able to remain steadily prolific over their time, and the four-song/25-minute Spiral Fires EP follows 2017’s Psychoriffadelia (review here), which only furthered the momentum built by the self-titled after 2015’s Gage (review here), bolstered as well by the band’s participation in Ripple Music‘s The Second Coming of Heavy split series (review here), 2014’s Live! Full-Tilt Boogie tape (review here) and sundry odds and ends going back to their 2013 debut, Electrically Recorded Handmade Heavy Blues.

Along with tours in the US and Europe, the continued stylistic growth evident in Geezer‘s studio work has made them a stronger, more confident band, as well as furthered the chemistry between Harrington and Touseull, who interact fluidly on the included jams throughout Spiral Fires. It may well be they’re testing the waters with Markota in the group ahead of either shows or more writing — something’s always next — but if that’s the case, then simply put, the dynamic works. Spiral Fires is Geezer‘s most out-there release to-date, and though it’s relatively brief — Geezer have always enjoyed an EP-style release; Gage was an EP originally — it flows smoothly throughout “Spiral Fires Part 1,” “Spiral Fires Part 2,” “Darkworld” and “Charley Reefer.” The latter two, which will no doubt comprise side B of the forthcoming Kozmik Artifactz vinyl, both geared more toward hooks, and particularly the closer has a bounce that stands among Geezer‘s sonic signatures, Harrington‘s tone always molasses-thick, but able to move nonetheless. They’re not strangers to boogie, and if that’s what a given listener is looking for, that’s where they’ll find it.

But even that is cosmically directed, and it demonstrates how much Geezer‘s reach has grown that they’re able to conjure such a molten vibe even over what’s ostensibly intended as a one-off recording session. The two parts of “Spiral Fires” of course run one into the next, but that transition is marked by a turn from dense riffing and more forward verses from Harrington to a mellow breadth topped with guest vocals. From roll to spread. It’s important to note that “Spiral Fires Part 1” begins with a wave of synth, since that has a subtle effect on the listener’s expectation that would be different, say, if the guitar or drums had led off. They tease a spacey course there and then make their way in that direction over the course of the nodding opener, cutting short the central riff at the end but still maintaining a direct tie to “Spiral Fires Part 2,” with Markota‘s drums setting the bed for some effects interplay as the track gets going.

geezer

Each side of Spiral Fires has a shorter song and a longer one, in that order, and “Spiral Fires Part 2” doesn’t quite hit the seven-minute mark as does “Charley Reefer” still to come, but it’s an open spirit just the same and while Touseull lays down a smooth bassline, Harrington winds lead guitar overtop where verses might otherwise be. They don’t feel missing, those verses, in no small part because Geezer are so assured in what they’re doing that they simply carry the listener along with them on this outward course. The vocals arrive after five and a half minutes into the total 6:57, so obviously not a focal point, but the quick appearance from Pam Grande (Grande) adds a psych-soul element that, if it’s a context Geezer want to continue to explore in their songwriting, well, that’d be just fine. Though it also begins with a quick splurge of effects, “Darkworld” is a marked shift in atmosphere, with the riff emerging from that initial wash and set to workmanlike punctuation by Markota‘s snare and the steady rumble of Touseull‘s low end. Its lyrics would seem to take on more of a straightforward social commentary position, and that’s fair enough for the more grounded path of the song as a whole.

“Open your eyes/Empty the cages/A new fire rages,” intones Harrington near the midpoint of the track, and the message of “Darkworld” is pretty clear without being overtly politicized or too much of the chaotic and polarized moment in which America is embroiled. All the while, the song moves forward efficiently as the only track under five minutes on Spiral Fires, the section where it might otherwise jam out — and indeed might live — instead keeping to a shorter repetitive course that devolves into swirl at the finish, letting “Charley Reefer” emerge from silence with a transitional keyboard line at the start soon joined by a guitar line reminiscent in its warmth of Colour Haze, and gradually easing its way into the verse riff. There’s some shuffle to “Charley Reefer,” as noted, and it shares a commonality of method with “Darkworld” in its verses and choruses, but at 7:38, it brings the two sides of Spiral Fires together and jams out from about minute-four onward, first building to a fervent wash and then drawing back to quiet and relatively minimal stretching.

All the pieces are still there — guitar, bass, drums, effects/synth — but the tension dissipates and Geezer draw down “Charley Reefer” with a live-feeling psychedelic devolution that ends cold sure enough but along the way serves as no less a reminder of the command the three-piece wield over their sound at this point. Even Markota in making his first appearance is able to bring a softer touch on drums to correspond with that finish, and it’s no less a satisfying moment than Geezer at their heaviest earlier in the track or back on side A for “Spiral Fires Part 1.” The question with an EP is always how indicative it might be of future output, and I don’t know to say for sure, but Spiral Fires fits in the line of their overarching development, and when it’s done, there’s little question left as to whether or not it’s the farthest outward they’ve yet pushed. As a fan of the band, I only want them to keep going.

Geezer, Spiral Fires (2019)

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Geezer on Bandcamp

Kozmik Artifactz website

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Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, Yn Ol I Annwn: Mirages and Beginnings

Posted in Reviews on February 7th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

mammoth weed wizard bastard yn ol i annwn

In a few short years, Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard have made themselves one of the most essential up and coming heavy acts in the UK. The Wrexham five-piece of vocalist Jessica Ball, guitarists Paul Michael Davies and Wes Leon, bassist Stuart Sinclair and drummer James Carrington began their assault of ethereal and cosmic doom with Nachthexen (review here) in 2015, and since then, they have issued two albums — 2015’s Noeth Ac Anoeth (review here) and 2016’s Y Proffwyd Dwyll (review here) — and a split last year with Slomatics (review here), each one taking a mark stepped forward from its predecessors. The latest footprint left by their ongoing progression is the eight-track/65-minute Yn Ol I Annwn on New Heavy Sounds, which finds the five-piece not only continuing to embrace Welsh language for titles — the translation is “back to go” according to a major internet company’s matrix — but actively pushing their style to new degrees of individualism.

For those who’ve been listening, Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard have each time out managed to surpass their prior work — in cosmic doom, one thinks of the run Ufomammut had earlier in their career, say from 2004-2010, as a comparison point — while remaining prolific and building significant momentum behind them. Yn Ol I Annwn feels like a moment of arrival, and for more than just its monolithic hour-plus runtime. In the four-minute “Du Bist Jetzt Nicht in der Zukunft” — “you are not now in the future,” in German — Ball‘s echoing and ethereal melody tops a wave of keyboard that’s boldly poppish, and the penultimate “The Majestic Clockwork” brings in strings to introduce what soon enough becomes its central chugging lumber, adding breadth to an already vast atmosphere, and maybe a bit of humor as well. These are surface impressions, striking on initial listens, but the truth of the band’s evolution runs deeper.

In the wash of effects created by Davies and Leon, and particularly in the emergent use of synth alongside the guitar, Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard come into their own with more of a reach than they’ve ever had before, and demonstrate a burgeoning mastery of their approach. Introduced by the John Carpenter-style keyboard pulses of “Tralfamadore” — bonus points for the Vonnegut reference — Yn Ol I Annwn unfurls a multifaceted showcase of craft and performance. It’s not just the dip into synthpop on “Du Bist Jetzt Nicht in der Zukunft,” or the resonant echoing of the prior “Fata Morgana” that makes it so, either. A variety of structure and general approach brings a feeling of movement to the proceedings from the beginning swirls of “The Spaceships of Ezekiel” onward, and as the thickened riffs enter the fray and the first deeply-weighted march soon gets underway with Ball‘s melodic vocals floating overhead, the feeling of consumption arrives early and holds for the duration, even as Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard introduce shifts between shorter songs and longer ones.

Three cuts on Yn Ol I Annwn top 10 minutes: “Fata Morgana” (12:08), “Katyusha” (13:24) and closer “Five Days in the Abyss” (10:12). “The Spaceships of Ezekiel” is the longest of the rest at over eight minutes, and the way the songs are paired two-per-side so as to allow for a double-LP playthrough gives the listener a feeling of never quite being settled. Similar to how they bounce from language to language in their titles — here in English, there Welsh, there German, Russian, fictional, etc. — it’s not as if Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard rev themselves up through a couple shorter tracks and then lumber into extended material and flatline. Side B is only 16 minutes long with “Fata Morgana” — its early subdued guitar and later wash of crushing riffs and nod — and “Du Bist Jetzt Nicht in der Zukunft,” but that’s a pivotal moment in itself in that it reverses the structure to come on sides C and D.

mammoth weed wizard bastard

Simply, it goes longer-to-shorter where sides A, C and D work shorter-to-longer. That reversal, like a brief interlude on some albums or the odd acoustic track or something like that, is enough to give all of Yn Ol I Annwn a feeling of unpredictability to which the actual sound and arrangements correspond. As the band moves through the spacious and mournful title-track and into the instrumental triumph that is “Katyusha,” they mark an outward path for the second of the two LPs that showcases not only the depth of the mix in its layers of keys and guitar, bass and drums, but just how immersive the flow of the album has been up to that point. As dense as their work is and as much as it rolls itself forward in apparent steamroller fashion, it is likewise hypnotic in its repetition — another lesson perhaps from Ufomammut — but worthy of close attention for moments like the post-midpoint chimes in “Katyusha” or the aforementioned cello in “The Majestic Clockwork.”

That later track is would seem to be the apex of Yn Ol I Annwn as it pushes faster in tempo than anywhere else on the album dares to go, Carrington building intensity on his snare hits measure by measure until finally cutting out to a concluding rumble and wave of effects, but “Five Days in the Abyss” answers back in quiet/loud trades that are as otherworldly as any sci-fi influence manifested in the circuitry of its cover art could hope to be. Soft at first, the finale swells for a verse and recedes again, and when the full brunt returns, there’s pretty clearly no coming back. The last march begins shortly before the six-minute mark and ascends to a full wash of vocal melody before a guitar solo comes sweeping to the fore to lead the way out. It is psychedelic and blissful, but still weighted by low end at its fade, though Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard go to the album’s end as gracefully as they entered with “Tralfamadore.”

For all the side-flipping involved in a 2LP, Yn Ol I Annwn is remarkably linear, and the expanse it charts is thoroughly its own. If this is what Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard have been moving toward over their prolific half-decade, then it’s easily been worth the journey, but with the glimmers of arrangement manipulation and the affecting emotional crux in the vocals, one does not at all get the sense they are done growing. That is, I’m willing to commit to Yn Ol I Annwn as being their highest achievement to-date, but there remains an open and seemingly ongoing exploration at the root of their sound. Billed as the final act in a trilogy, this may in fact just be the start.

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Review & Video Premiere: The Asound, Impalement Arts

Posted in Bootleg Theater, Reviews on February 5th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

the asound impalement arts

The Asound, “Triple Saints” official video premiere

[Click play above to watch the premiere of The Asound’s video for ‘Triple Saints.’ Their second album, Impalement Arts, is out now on Rusty Knuckles Music.]

There’s a blistering, sandblasted sensibility to the noise rock The Asound have come to make, and though their beginnings nine years ago on their debut split (review here) and roughly concurrent 2010 self-titled EP (review here) were more in the vein of straightforward heavy rock, the North Carolinian trio-turned-four-piece have since taken a turn for the confrontational, and that seems to suit them in attitude as well as execution. As founders Chad Wyrick (guitar/vocals), Jon Cox (bass) and Michael Crump (drums) welcome guitarist David Easter, they take on an even fuller-sounding production than that heard on their 2017 split with Intercourse (review here), allowing the complete brunt of what they’re doing to make its impact felt. Impalement Arts is at least their second long-player, but the back catalog is nebulous over the last nine years with singles, EPs and splits and pressings through Cox‘s Tsuguri Records imprint making their way to the merch table in limited quantities.

Either way, it’s the most professional-sounding output they’ve had to-date, and while some of its songs go back at least five years — “Chief of Thieves” previously appeared on a 2014 split with Mark Deutrom (review here) — the clarity and breadth of production by Brandon Hamby at Dead Peasant Studio makes it all the more vital, right up to the Floor cover, “Loanin'” that caps side B of the 43-minute long-player. In that time, The Asound pack an intense 12 songs into Impalement Arts, and while the title-track and songs like “Pseudo Vein” do more than hint at some of the heavy rocking foundations of the band, even these moments are purposed into a whole that is brash and dynamic in kind, easily changing tempo and working into and out of winding progressions with an overarching threat of violence that’s right there at the outset of the chugging opener “Wolves Will Feed” and continues as a uniting factor throughout. It’s not that they’re void of melody — they’re not, and Wyrick‘s throaty vocals are quick to show that in the chorus of “Wolves Will Feed” — just that that melody comes with bruises.

Much to their credit, The Asound never come across as rushed throughout Impalement Arts, and as “Dead Rat Cinders” lunges forth with its initial roll and foreboding hey-anyone-remember-when-Mastodon-was-a-noise-band barbarism, the tension they create is a chest-tightening atmosphere at once engaging and disaffected. Still, they’re not out of control, and for having put the record to tape in three days, they sound positively poised as “Throne of Compulsion” winds its way into its first verse with an interaction between lead and rhythm guitars that resolves in a gritty staccato verse topped with Wyrick‘s gritty shouting. These first three tracks — “Wolves Will Feed,” “Dead Rat Cinders” and “Throne of Compulsion” — are all under four minutes long, but together make for a purposeful opening salvo that introduces not only the sound of Impalement Arts, the tones and general aggression of delivery, etc., but also the mood, which “Throne of Compulsion” subtly begins to expand.

the asound

There’s an underlying current of metal amid all the drunk-punk foundations in the songs, and while there’s lumber and plod fast and slow for just as long as you please, the structure of Impalement Arts is still positioned to engage the listener by bringing them gradually into the sphere of the band’s songwriting. “Throne of Compulsion” gives way to “Pseudo Vein” — both appeared on the band’s second self-titled EP in 2016 (review here), as did “Moss Man” still to come on side B — which flows easily at a more relaxed tempo across its five minutes, coming to a head late and feeding more or less directly into the instrumental title-track and the quicker “Triple Saints,” which strips down the approach of the initial trilogy to its sans-frills core and explosive core. It’s a fair enough ending for side A, and leaves the pummel to speak for itself, which it does all the more after the title-track, which is downright friendly in comparison.

The interlude that precedes “Moss Man” on side B is a trap. You turn the volume way up to hear what’s going on, and then all of a sudden Crump‘s drums kick in to puncture your eardrum. You win this round, The Asound. At just under five minutes, “Moss Man” is a highlight of Southern-style noise rock — I tag it as “Southern” a bit for the lead guitar that ensues and a bit because it reminds me of Lord — but while it departs for a long and nearly hypnotic instrumental stretch, it does return to its verse at the end. That’s a crucial structural shift, and “Commanding the Sword” follows with a tempo slowdown that suits the overall tonal largesse well and still carries some searing aspect to its soloing, this time pushing further out until the end as the band continue to screw with their own formula effectively.

“Chief of Thieves” is the longest inclusion at 5:36 and deep-dives into a willfully repetitive break that seems to build on what “Moss Man” was doing in terms of trance-induction, while providing Impalement Arts with a suitable culmination in its thickened and rumbling finish that makes the angularity of “Masters of the Mind” all the more of a blast — as though The Asound got the business out of the way so they could really let loose. Perhaps it’s an answer to “Triple Saints,” but either way, its blown-out push is a good time reward that the Floor cover “Loanin'” backs up in method and theme. There’s no bomb tone, but The Asound do well to bring the two-minute cut into the context of the rest of their album, and while I’m not sure they needed it after “Masters of the Mind,” neither is it detracting from Impalement Arts in any way, its long fade giving them the means to a graceful exit for a record that’s spent so much of its time being brazenly ungraceful. That contrast speaks to what has always been a strength of The Asound, which is the consciousness behind the physicality of their work. They know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and Impalement Arts delivers exactly the kind of punishment they intend.

The Asound, Impalement Arts (2018)

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The Asound on Bandcamp

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Review & Full Album Premiere: Hey Zeus, X

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 30th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Hey Zeus X

[Click play above to stream Hey Zeus’ debut album, X, in its entirety. It’s out this week on Argonauta Records.]

Hey Zeus have been kicking around Boston’s heavy rock underground for last six years to some degree or other, following in a tradition of straightforward, catchy, well-composed heavy rock that’s no less a cultural institution for the city than local-sports worship, yelling shit at pedestrians from moving vehicles and drinking. Signed early last year to Argonauta Records, their debut full-length, X, follows a 2014 split with White Dynomite (review here), and other tracks posted as singles such as “Caveman” (premiered here) and “Richard the Elder” (posted here) in 2016. A penchant for covering Deep Purple — legit — that manifests on X as a duly head-spinning take on “Bloodsucker” also goes back to the band’s earlier days playing live, so it seems safe enough to argue that X is the realization of multiple years of putting the material together and refining it, and as the resulting nine-song/29-minute offering arrives nearly six years to the day from the band’s first show, one can hear those efforts in the tightness of composition throughout.

Songs like “Richard the Elder,” opener “These Eyes,” “Save Your” (as opposed to “saviour”) and careening speedsters like “I Don’t Want It,” “X Marks the Rocks” and closer “Queens” realize a hooky, engaging energy that vocalist Bice Nathan gleefully puts over the top, though in the company of guitarist Pete Knipfing, bassist Ken Cmar and drummer Todd Bowman, he’s hardly the only one catching that charge. And as much as a comparison to erstwhile Beantown kingpins Roadsaw feels inevitable, perhaps even more relevant is the connection Knipfing and Bowman share from their prior outfit Lamont, whose dedicated sans-frills urgency seems as well to inform some of the writing in X. It should be to the surprise of no one that Hey Zeus can get the job done — the job, by the way, is kicking ass — given the time they’ve spent honing their approach, but that hardly makes the record a less impressive debut. Quite the opposite.

And though one might look at X and find it short at 29 minutes, it’s not so much that there’s anything lacking in terms of what the band wants to convey, but just that they’ve packed it all into that time. That’s not just a question of speed. Even “Gilded,” or “Caveman,” which is the longest inclusion at 3:53, varies its tempo in order to find the right niche of groove that suits the song. They’re not forcing that feeling of electricity to what they do — it’s just there. No coincidence that the Deep Purple song they take on was from In Rock, which was arguably that band’s most lethal of outings, but there’s more to X than just rushing through a collection of songs. Nathan brings a subtle sense of arrangement to the vocals and finds melodies between the distorted lines of Knipfing‘s riffs. Cmar‘s rumbling bass proves essential early on to the drive of “I Don’t Want It,” and is unrelenting, and though Nathan adds percussion later in a break within “Save Your,” Bowman‘s drumming is intermittently furious enough to cover that ground anyway, shifting fluidly from the swinging finish of “Richard the Elder” to the classic riff rock strut of “Caveman” and the starts and stops that permeate “Queens.”

hey zeus

So what do we have? Rock album. Heavy. Rock and roll. Sharp songs. Crisp performances. Clear, full production value. Boot-meet-butt energy. Cool. What separates Hey Zeus from multitudes working from essentially the same elements, however, is the level of their craft and the way they use it throughout X. While I don’t think it’s anyone involved’s first record, it’s still the first record from the band, and their dynamic is not to be understated as a pivotal factor in their approach. The interplay between Knipfing and Cmar on guitar and bass during the former’s solos alone stands as testament to the work they’ve done in terms of developing a conversation between players, and with Bowman as the grounding force, they’re able to smoothly shift tempos and moods at a measure’s notice, making their songs less predictable even as they’re en route to an immediately familiar chorus. Throw in a healthy dose of attitude from Nathan and the chops to back it up, and not only carries forward the legacy of Boston’s heavy rock history, but seeks to find its own place and build upon it.

Or maybe they’re just looking to down some beers and have a good time, blow off steam from hating their jobs and whatever else. That’s no less valid a take. What’s important are the results they get across this collection of songs, and one of the great strengths of X is the momentum Hey Zeus amass as they wind their way through the progression of tracks. Even the Deep Purple cover, which though lacking organ is otherwise pretty loyal to the spirit of the original, feeds into the thrust of the material surrounding, picking up from the breather ending of “Caveman” and leading the way into “Queens” at the finish. It’s part of an overarching push that begins with “These Eyes” and continues through everything that follows; the classic “set the tone” spirit of the opener indicative of the proceedings on the whole, and though it’s easy enough to tag the whole thing as straight-ahead, all-go, etc., Knipfing does find room to slide some Southern edge into his guitar on “Save Your,” and the gang shouts behind Nathan on “X Marks the Rocks” is no less an important sonic detail.

What those convey, once again, is the work that’s gone into this material. While not staid at all — shit, it barely stands still long enough to be heard — X has a foundation it’s building from. As much as they might try to convince you otherwise, Hey Zeus didn’t just throw these songs together and — whoops! — come out with an air-tight collection of tracks that just happen to throw a punch in the gut as they run past. But at the same time, they do successfully balance that level of songmaking with the vitality that’s so central to making it all function. That might be the record’s great accomplishment — it feels true to a live experience without losing hold of itself as a studio outing. And it may have taken Hey Zeus more than half a decade to get to this point, but it’s hard to take X as a whole and not consider it worth the effort on their part.

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Review & Track Premiere: Green Lung, Woodland Rites

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 28th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

green lung woodland rites

[Click play above to stream ‘Let the Devil In’ from Green Lung’s Woodland Rites. Album is out March 20 on Kozmik Artifactz.]

London’s Green Lung announced themselves with the 2017 single, Green Man Rising (review here), and have worked quickly since to distinguish their sound from the bulk of the UK’s nigh-on-saturated heavy underground. Through last year’s Free the Witch EP (review here) and now their Kozmik Artifactz-issued debut full-length, Woodland Rites, the five-piece unit have worked efficiently to develop a stylistic take drawing from classic rock and metal as well as nature-worshiping Britfolk, garage doom, goth rock, solo-era Ozzy, as well as contemporary countrymen standouts like Alunah, Elephant Tree and even Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, the latter of whose influence can be heard in the creative vocal arrangements of frontman Tom Templar.

With a steady stream of organ lines from John Wright alongside Scott Masson‘s guitar, Andrew Cave‘s bass and Matt Wiseman‘s drumming, Green Lung offer righteousness of performance and put songwriting first throughout and draw thematically from pagan-style horror films in the lyrical play between sex, nature and evil, but manage to avoid a trap of misogyny that most of those films didn’t, and as the opening salvo of “Woodland Rites” and “Let the Devil In” gets underway in picking up from the intro “Initiation” — the beginning quiet guitar of which proves crucial in setting the atmosphere for what follows — the point of view of the lyrics remains more about ritual than discrimination. The choruses of songs like “The Ritual Tree” and “Call of the Coven” and even closer “Into the Wild” are catchy, and not unfortunately so for what they’re actually saying. Even the willfully sleazy nunsploitation hook of “Let the Devin In” — “Sister, you’ve been told that making love’s a sin/Open up your heart and let the devil in” — manages to capture the spirit of the grainy cinema from which it derives and periodically samples audio while leaving behind a dated objectification. This is but one element working to the advantage of an early contender to stand among 2019’s best debut albums.

And at no point throughout Woodland Rites‘ witch-rocking eight-song/42-minute run is craft sacrificed to theme one way or the other. Masson offers several solos that are marked accomplishments in and of themselves, including that in the apex of the penultimate “May Queen,” which is well plotted and complemented by Cave‘s bass and Wright‘s work on keys, but even beyond those performances or that of Templar across the earlier cuts or closer “Into the Wild,” there’s an overarching thoughtfulness to the LP’s construction that speaks to a specific intent on the part of the band. Its tracks break cleanly into two four-song sides, but more than that, each side has a progression of its own and a function that makes the entire album stronger while clean and clear in its own mission.

green lung (Photo by Sally Patti)

Each works its way toward its longest song in “The Ritual Tree” (6:49) and “Into the Wild” (6:51), respectively, and while this is nothing new, tapping into classic elements of sound and structure is part of the point stylistically. In addition, the movement from “Initiation,” which comes across an awful lot like something that might be played to introduce the band live, directly into the “Oh lord yeah!” that starts the title-track and through “Let the Devil In” to the end of side A with “The Ritual Tree” is not only fluid, but based around a quality of memorability in the material that conveys a sense of mood and ambience without giving up its direct impact. Wiseman‘s crash in “The Ritual Tree” is no less a standout than the melody that accompanies, and as the organ fills out that melody, Templar sounds smooth and comfortable over the rolling progression in a way that for many vocalists would prove awkward.

Going by a classic side A/B dynamic, the first half of Woodland Rites would be the place where the up front is upfront, and the second where they then branch out and expand their overall reach. The whole record is a multifaceted showcase of progression, but indeed, Green Lung follow the pattern and shift in side B from “Templar Dawn” and the Sabbath-swinging “Call of the Coven” to the mellowing out that happens in the first stretch of “May Queen,” which flows easily into its swell of volume before it hits its midsection, only to recede in the second half for another verse and rise again as it rounds out. This is a marked change of structure from what’s come before, and it signals not only the intended growth on the part of the band and their bringing that to bear, but their ability to work in multiple songwriting contexts and still maintain their sense of composition. Further, “May Queen” feeds directly into the initial riff of “Into the Wild,” which is tasked with summarizing the proceedings and lives up to that ably while pushing further and highlighting the promise so present in what Green Lung are doing. Another excellent guitar lead begins to draw the closer down, and “Into the Wild” ends somewhat suddenly but with a considerable impression that the band know that and are doing it on purpose.

The message there, and indeed of the album as a whole, would seem to be that Green Lung aren’t actually finished — which is fortunate. As quickly as they’ve cohered their take on heavy and found a recording partner in Wayne Adams of Bear Bites Horse Studios — who also helmed the EP — to bring their vision forward, I wouldn’t predict where they might go in terms of following-up their debut, but Woodland Rites is a significant opening statement for them to make, and if they have it in them to do the gritty work of honing their approach, could be well en route to a marked individualism that, in complement to their songwriting, is the stuff of something truly special. But as much as it’s an exciting showcase of what could be, and as much fun as it is to think of what Green Lung might go on to accomplish, it’s worth recognizing that wouldn’t be the case were Woodland Rites not as strong and as complete an offering as it is.

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Swallow the Sun, When a Shadow is Forced into the Light: Of Love and Death

Posted in Reviews on January 25th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Swallow the Sun When a Shadow is Forced into the Light

The immediate question, of course, is what happens? What happens when you force a shadow into the light? As per the memorable, layered screams of the title-track to Finnish melodic death-doomers Swallow the Sun‘s seventh full-length, When a Shadow is Forced into the Light, “It rips through your chest and burns like a fire.” Fair enough. That chorus sweeps in from an acoustic-led verse and thanks in part to backing from string sounds — that is, whether it’s strings or keyboard — gives a sense of grandeur that very much works to define what follows across the 52-minute/eight-track Century Media release. A largesse of production value helps as well, and that’s nothing new for Swallow the Sun, who since their 2003 debut, The Morning Never Came, have melded emotional resonance, elements of extreme metal — Mikko Kotamäki has made a trademark of switching fluidly between screams, growls and clean singing, and stands among the finest metal vocalists currently active — and clarity of sound into a melancholic vision of death-doom that has only become more their own with time.

Cumbersome as it is, the album’s title derives from the lyrics to “Broken Mirror” from founding guitarist Juha Raivio‘s Trees of Eternity project, and much of the material here deals with the personal loss of Aleah Stanbridge, who was that outfit’s vocalist as well as Raivio‘s partner, and who passed away from cancer prior to the release of their 2016 debut, Hour of the NightingaleRaivio would subsequently form Hallatar and release 2017’s No Stars Upon the Bridge (review here) using her poetry as lyrics. There is an according sense of longing and mournfulness to When a Shadow is Forced into the Light, which follows the late-2015 triple-album, Songs from the North I, II & III (review here), that can be heard in songs like “Firelights,” “Upon the Water” and even the guttural apex of the penultimate “Here on Black Earth.” Swallow the Sun are no strangers to working in an upfront emotional context, and one of their great assets as a band has always been their ability to balance aspects of extremity with a very human heart.

When a Shadow is Forced into the Light cannot and should not ultimately be separated from the circumstances surrounding its making any more than it should be from the rest of Swallow the Sun‘s catalog. In both it and its companion EP, Lumina Aurea (review here), there isn’t so much a feeling of catharsis — that comes later — as a palpable grief. Summarized best perhaps in the direct address in the lyrics to closer “Never Left,” there is little mistaking the in-the-thick-of-it feel of genuine mourning, but as the band — Raivio (who also handles keys and jouhikko, a bowed instrument used in Finnish traditional music), Kotamäki, guitarist Juho Räihä, bassist Matti Honkonen, drummer Juuso Raatikainen and keyboardist Jaani Peuhu, as well as guests here and there — move through “When a Shadow is Forced into the Light” and into “The Crimson Crown” and “Firelights,” neither do they let go of their craft. A complex style of songwriting is fitting for the richness of their sound, and they bask in it, but as noted, the title-track has a hook, and so do “The Crimson Crown,” “Firelights,” “Upon the Water,” “Clouds on Your Side” and “Never Left.”

swallow the sun

“Stone Wings” and “Here on Black Earth” are directed otherwise structurally, but even they have standout moments, whether it’s the throat-ripping screams backed by melodic lines in the latter or the sudden volume swells of the former. And you know, I take it back, “Stone Wings” does have a hook, as well as Raivio‘s jouhikko while it makes its way to its engrossing, double-kick-bolstered crescendo. The point is that although there’s an obvious emotional consumption happening throughout When a Shadow is Forced into the Light, that’s brought into what Swallow the Sun do. They’ve always had a wistful sensibility to them. They’ve always dealt with loss as a working theme, and in some ways, the work they’re doing here is very much consistent with where they’ve been in the past, but the foundation they’re working from is different, and it’s real. The grief is real. The sadness is real. The loss is real. It’s performative by its very nature — as in, it’s an album and people are performing on it — but there’s no sense throughout that Swallow the Sun are doing anything other than seeing Raivio work through this pain.

The tagline for the record has been “love is stronger than death,” as posted by the band in discussions leading up to the release. If that’s their summary of the theme, fair enough — “Never Left” would seem to be the point at which that idea most comes to the fore — and it’s easy to argue that their ability to find balance between this point of view and an already established songwriting modus speaks to the experience and skill of the band as a group. When a Shadow is Forced into the Light is never more mired than it wants to be, never held back. The title-track and “The Crimson Crown” — both over seven minutes long and the only songs to hit that mark aside from “Never Left” as the corresponding bookend — form an initial salvo that characterize so much of the rest of the material.

In its immersive blend of acoustics, string sounds, differing vocal approaches and the smoothness of its overall craft, the song “When a Shadow is Forced into the Light” seems to accomplish everything Swallow the Sun brought to Songs from the North I, II & III in a single track. It is a cinematic arrangement and poised execution that nonetheless has its basis in an emotionalism that’s still raw. But what the song and indeed the rest of the album that shares its name do so well is to take that rawness and shape it into something encompassing and beautiful. If that’s what it means for love to be stronger than death, if that expression is what comes out of the brutality of the loss that’s behind its making, then When a Shadow is Forced into the Light is its own best argument for the maxim’s truth.

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