Review & Full Album Premiere: Kungens Män, Trappmusik

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 10th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Kungens Män trappmusik

[Click play above to hear the premiere of Kungens Män’s Trappmusik, out today on Adansonia Records.]

Ye weary souls in search of psychedelic serenity, look no further than the Trappmusik, the latest in a line of offerings from Swedish explorers Kungens Män. Issued through Adansonia, the seven-song/78-minute affair is a mostly-mellow blissout, well beyond the point commonly reserved for consideration as “manageable,” but who cares when the waters they wade in — or scuttle, since these kingsmen seem to have a thing for shellfish, and, one assumes, puns — are so warm? Take the 15 minutes of utter joy in “Vibbdirektivet,” a directive of vibe that’s not only easy to follow, but an utter joy in the doing, with unashamed guitar shimmer and a subtle rhythmic luster to match.

Its subdued take is enough to make even the snare and fuzz meandering of 10-minute opener “Fånge i Universum” seem active by comparison, topped with cosmic echoes of psaxophone (that’s a psychedelic sax for those who can dig it) as it is, and one supposes that cut is more active in its way, but in terms of general scale, it’s still much more about setting an atmosphere of patient, graceful flow than shoving its way into the vacuum of space. Dug in and jazzy in its spirit, Trappmusik is affecting in the manner in which it unfolds across its span, from that leadoff to the trip-hop-via-krautrock-and-more-sax progginess of the subsequent “Senvägen,” which leans harder on the bassline for more of a nighttime richness but still finds its way into the trance of the 2LP overall.

The album is a kind of semi-departure for Kungens Män, who were last heard from only months ago on Dec. 2019’s Hårt Som Ben (discussed here) — which itself followed Feb. 2019’s Chef (review here), which followed Aug. 2018’s Fuzz på Svenska, which followed July 2017’s Dag & Natt (review here), which followed 2016’s Stockholm Maraton, 2015’s Förnekaren (review here), and so on through a slew of live and studio offerings dating back to their start in 2012 — in that it tips the balance in their sound in this mellower direction, but it doesn’t seem like that should be read necessarily as a statement on the band’s part of some future direction.

Rather, Trappmusik appears to have been recorded during the same session in May 2019 as Hårt Som Ben, at Silence Studio in Värmland, Sweden. The band — a listed lineup of drummer/percussionist Mattias Indy Pettersson, synthesist/programmer Peter Erikson, guitarists Hans Hjelm, Mikael Tuominen and Gustav Nygren, with contributions as well from others — reportedly recorded 13 hours of improvised music over the course of three days with engineer Isak Sjöholm, so indeed Trappmusik as the second may not be the last LP to come from that session, but is less perhaps an indication of intent going forward in terms of the band’s growth than it is a question of how this particular release was whittled down from those expansive recordings.

Its purpose is contained, in other words, and thus the editing of the material becomes an instrument unto itself. The framing. The process of selecting and choosing to highlight moments like the shift from airy guitar adventuring into percussive chill in “Tricksen för Transen” and the folkish keyboard of “Främmande i Tillvaron” — the latter entirely appropriate in its position as the centerpiece; its sunbaked golden hue not only rests smoothly alongside “Vibbdirektivet,” which follows, but gives Trappmusik a manifestation perhaps even more fitting than its own 17:50 title-track, which closes in much jazzier and more generally uptempo fashion — plucking these pieces out from the hours of what was tracked speaks to a sense of meaning behind the sheer construction of Trappmusik itself.

Kungens Män

Inherently it is a record that seeks to tell a story or portray an idea, and that is not only rooted in the traditions of Swedish folk and progressive and psychedelic rock, but in the fleeting ambience of these moments as they’re captured — there and gone, sunlight or moonlight, in the flight of escapist fantasy from the rigors and anxieties of the day-to-day. They call it their “chill out album,” and fair enough, but that doesn’t necessarily encompass the entirety of the mission, and it’s also not as if Trappmusik is only doing one thing for all of its rather considerable span either.

“Senvägen” and “Främmande i Tillvaron” could be different bands for the sonic disparity between them, and though the five-minute bass, guitar, drum mood-setting of the penultimate “Lastkajen” is hardly more than an interlude sandwiched between “Vibbdirektivet” and the expansive “Trappmusik” itself, its purpose in setting up that turn is further evidence of a master hand at work in terms of setting the overarching, grander progression of the album in motion even if the closer is inevitably going to consume an LP side on its own. That would be, presumably, side D, and with a more active bassline, far back toms and a returning saxophone in a suitable bookend to “Fånge i Universum,” the album finishes on maybe its most movement-based note.

The bass and drums bounce, and the guitar and brass seem to engage in a conversation based on mutual far-out-ranging. They go and go and go. It’s still trance-inducing to a degree, but one gets shades more of krautrock than the spaced procession of the opener, and it’s a palpable shift between the two. There’s still some tricky echoes working on the saxophone as it dissipates just before the seven-minute mark and lets the bass take the foreground — it gradually winds its way back and out again en route to the last slow-to-a-stop — but the general impression is more earthbound and less given to float than Kungens Män earlier on.

One wonders if perhaps that’s an indication the next offering will be their jazz record? If so, they’d hardly be the first to realize the connections between improvised psych and jazz, but as they have in the past, they make those connections their own as they round off Trappmusik with that gentle letting go, emblematic as it is of the soul and intention behind the collection as a whole and the underlying consciousness at work in making it. A gorgeous celebration waiting to be celebrated.

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Review & Full Album Premiere: Seven Planets, Explorer

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 5th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

seven planets explorer

[Click play above to stream Explorer by Seven Planets in full. Album is out Friday on Small Stone Records. Preorders available here.]

Seven Planets‘ third album and first for Small Stone Records, Explorer, is a simple-enough proposition on its face. The West Virginian double-guitar instrumentalist outfit on paper — things like “instrumental” and “West Virginia” — inherently bring to mind Karma to Burn, who are more or less the kings of the form of straightforward, (mostly) sans-vocal heavy rock and roll. But Seven Planets wind up on a different trip with Explorer, and the surface impression is really just the beginning point for what they have to offer on the eight-track/36-minute Explorer, a follow-up to their 2012 self-titled (review here) and 2008’s first LP, Flight of the Ostrich, both self-released. Eight years between records is no minor stretch, but with a recording credited to the band and mix helmed by guitarist Leonard Hanks, joined in the band by guitarist James Way, bassist Mike Williams and drummer Ben Pitt, Explorer‘s tracks by and large carry an easy groove marked by tonal warmth and fluidity between the players.

It may have taken Seven Planets eight years to put a record out, but whatever might’ve been behind that delay — life? — listening to the languid, semi-bluesy nod of the title-track, it’s easy to believe they’ve been jamming all the while. Beginning with “Vanguard,” they bring together elements out of heavy rock riffing and heavy psychedelic immersion, something that, for the first record, I compared to Clutch offshoot The Bakerton Group. The same applies to Explorer at least in the use of Tim Sult-style wah on lead guitar lines, but perhaps to a lesser degree than on the preceding release, since, as Explorer hints in its title, the band seem to be working here to find their own space and sound here in a progressive step forward from where they were those years ago. The drift of “Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress” shows a patience in unfolding its bluesy undercurrent and builds up over its first 90 seconds or so toward a momentary wash before receding again, cycling through with a solo overtop and shifting in its second half to a surprise bit of boogie before, in the last minute, the jam seems to take an improvised turn led by the guitar before coming apart.

That moment is important and feels particularly honest, if somewhat understated. The title-track follows in its own liquefied near-seven-minutes of flow, but the exploratory feeling is palpable at the culmination of “Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress,” and the fact that the band let the song follow its own path organically, even as it dissipates, is admirably honest and speaks to their ethic and lack of outward pretense overall. Not that their material can’t be thoughtful or planned out, as the initial unfurling of “Explorer” itself certainly seems to be, with hints toward prog structures and a spacier thematic as depicted on the Alexander von Wieding album art, but it’s the ability to move in either realm and to subtly shift between mindsets that gives Explorer as a whole its sense of character throughout its relatively brief runtime. As the title cut settles into its funky bounce moving toward the midpoint, with Pitt‘s drums and Williams‘ bass leading the way through the encompassing jam — something backwards layered in — it’s no challenge for the listener to go along with the groove as they make their way to the finish of the album’s longest track.

seven planets

The spirit of the material is nothing but warm and welcoming throughout, and certainly that’s emphasized in the title-track, which gives way to a quicker, solo-laced boogie in “206,” the presumed end of side A, as the two guitars hold sway over the creation of a swirl of effects and a central riff cutting through. Like “Vanguard” at the outset, “206” feels like something of a snippet, but it moves smoothly into “Seven Seas” — the only piece besides the title-track to reach over six minutes — and provides a buffer between the more psychedelic vibe of the two longer stretches when listening to a linear (CD/DL) format; a well-intentioned pickup in energy and momentum that, like the rest of what surrounds, asks little more of the listener than a nod-along. “Seven Seas” is particularly notable as the beginning point of side B as it leads to “Great Attractor,” which — and not just for the inclusion of organ (or organ sounds) lurking in the mix — makes for the most hypnotic one-two dive on Explorer. With the drums still acting as a grounding factor, Seven Planets are never in any real danger of floating away, but their drive toward meandering here and there in the guitars makes the later moments of “Great Attractor” a mirror for “Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress,” even if the ending works out smoother.

Shuffle blues guitar takes hold in the penultimate “Grissom” with a due sense of space, picking up at the end before dropping out and hitting on the beat into the rush of closer “The Buzzard,” which immediately begins the speediest movement on the record. Feeling more plotted than “Grissom” or some of the other material, the finale works around a winding riff with suitable rhythmic push and a summarizing feel in the interplay of lead and rhythm guitar, resolving itself in a last shove that, as they have at several points throughout, cuts away just as it seems to reach a head. Seven Planets never reach the same kind of jammy elevations as, say, their labelmates in Austin, Texas’ Tia Carrera, but neither do they seem to want to. Rather, their melding together of different styles and plays back and forth between constructed and off-the-cuff material and parts — sometimes, it seems, within individual tracks — is a distinguishing factor for their sound and ends up being the basis for much of Explorer‘s personality. Eight years after the first offering, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise to find that Seven Planets have progressed as a band, but they’ve also managed to hold onto the essential instrumental conversation between them that allows those improvisational stretches to shine through.

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Review & Full Album Premiere: OZO, Saturn

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on February 4th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

ozo saturn

[Click play above to stream Saturn by OZO in its entirely. Release is Feb. 7 on Riot Season Records. Preorders here.]

It seems fitting that OZO should make their debut roughly concurrent to scientists unveiling the highest resolution to-date images of the surface of the sun. The Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, three-piece are ostensibly led by guitarist/bassist Mike Vest, known for his drone plunge in BONG and the spacey reach of Blown Out, among a slew of others. Joining Vest for the five-track debut album, Saturn (on Riot Season Records), are Ballpeen‘s Graham Thompson on drums/mixing/mastering, and alto saxophonist Karl D’Silva (a bandmate of Vest‘s in Drunk in Hell), and together, the trio burn through improvisational pieces of varied tenure but largely united purpose, as though someone flipped a switch and said, “okay, go,” and off they went. Entirely instrumental, the record wails through most of its 38-minute run, Thompson‘s drums not so much holding progressions to the ground as propelling them up from the surface into the airless ether, as heard on the shorter “Side Way,” just three-plus minutes, but a jazzy vibe that urges listeners to pick their favorite Coltrane for a comparison (Alice!) and roll with the heady, dug-in spirit. They are gone and gone and gone.

Would be almost unfair to call it self-indulgent, since that’s the idea. The exploratory go-ness of these pieces, especially as a first offering of any sort from OZO, are a clarion to free-fusion tweakers and anyone anywhere slightly out of phase with their surroundings, the just-don’t-fit feel comes through resonant through “Lifeship” at the outset and again in the resilient echoes and avant drum expressions of closer “Centuries.” Of course, an obvious focal point for the LP are its two broadest jams, “Saturn” (12:47) and “Nuclear Fuel” (11:06), which together comprise the majority of Saturn‘s runtime. While “Lifeship” and “Slide Way” burn out cosmic and “Centuries” harnesses an emergent wash of noise alongside its noteworthy rhythmic freakery, it is the drift and shove of “Saturn” and the encompassing howl of “Nuclear Fuel” that ultimately define the album, appearing in succession as they do after “Lifeship” as though OZO were aware of the challenge being issued to their audience — a sort of dare-you-to-keep-up mentality that seems as much a repellent for squares as a clarion to the lysergic converted. Come get down, come get obliterated. Fair.

The nature of extreme music is to seek not just a specialized listenership, but a that-much-deeper connection therewith on account of the rareness of the bond. One suspects that with OZO, those who can match wits with the band’s interstellar scorch will line up to do so again and again, which is fortunate since there’s already a second record in the works, titled Pluto. Walking through Saturn‘s fire unscathed is no easy feat, of course, but in addition to Vest loyalists, the jazzy appeal of these tracks should open as many minds to what OZO are doing as it might close. One way or the other, they’re doing it, and the resultant response feels like a secondary consideration at best.

the sun

That is, none of this material comes across as having been written with an audience in mind. I don’t say that as a dig against it, since I don’t think that’s what OZO wanted to do in the first place, and they stay true to their mission throughout. It just means they’re working on a different level and toward different ends. To go further, none of this material comes across as having been “written” at all. More like it was found, or perhaps pieced together out of elements floating in the air around the room where the instruments were set up. The inherent value of Saturn comes in capturing an expressive moment, the urgency of what’s being done and the traditionalism of free jazz as a forward-reaching reaction against form.

VestD’Silva and Thompson sound like people who find the conventional boring. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t, but it’s the portrait they paint in the burning oranges and reds and yellows of Saturn, a sense of heat duly depicted on the album’s cover. However off-the-cuff it may be — I don’t know if it’s entirely improvised or if there were overdubs after the fact or what — the feeling of spontaneity in that moment is what’s most being sought, and it’s what’s most prevalent throughout the five pieces that comprise the album. The songs leave no room for compromise. The commitment to outward-directed freakery is unflinching, and for many if not most who take them on, OZO will simply prove too much. Like a machine burning overload. That, too, is a purposeful intent on the part of the band. They’re willful in abandoning normality for the swirling chaos that consumes “Nuclear Fuel” in its later reaches, and the dream-sequence distortion of “Centuries” that wraps up is high order psychedelic noir that is just as likely to melt minds as expand them.

Dangerous? To a point, maybe. I don’t know if OZO are ever at risk of really falling apart here, and if they did, it would be easy enough for it to become all part of the non-plan, but as they move through the liquefied abrasion of “Lifeship” into the title-track, the feeling of something unhinged and vital is palpable. Credit for that should and must go to Thompson, who instead of trying to harness some cohesion and structure from out of all this churning brew becomes part of the freakery, no less exploratory than D’Silva‘s channel-spanning horn echoes or Vest‘s effects-laced guitar. As noted, OZO are already working on their next full-length, which one can only imagine will continue their through-the-temple-into-the-brain plunge, and however the two works may ultimately relate, their debut burns with an intensity worthy of standing alone as it inherently does in sound and style. Saturn presents a vision of psychedelic and space rocking extremity rarely honed to such a degree, and its vibrancy borders on blinding, which is all the better for OZO to catch you off-guard with their next hairpin turn. Hu-mans beware.

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Galactic Cross, Galactic Cross: Ghosts of a New Dimension

Posted in Reviews on January 31st, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Galactic Cross Galactic Cross

One can only hope that the Chamber of Commerce in Frederick, Maryland, someday is made to understand the cultural treasure the city has in hosting the epicenter of American doom on the Eastern Seaboard. In addition to, in recent years, playing host to the Maryland Doom Fest, Frederick has long been home to a scene of players and bands that has evolved over time into a creative force spanning decades, and from Pentagram to The Druids and Faith in Jane, the Chesapeake-regional underground crosses generations and styles as a true artistic inheritance should.

Galactic Cross make their full-length debut as a new project fronted by one of Frederick’s most pivotal figureheads in bassist/vocalist Dave Sherman, whose vocal croon and croak will be quickly recognizable to anyone familiar with his work in Earthride, or Weed is Weed, though of course his pedigree goes back further to the likes of King Valley, Wretched, Shine/Spirit Caravan, and so on. Completed by drummer Tony Saunders, who played on Internal Void‘s demo in 1995 and Minds Eye before and after that, as well as Trilogy and presumably others, and ace-in-the-hole guitarist Brian Virts, Galactic Cross are a recent advent with obviously deeper roots, and there’s sense of connection that permeates their songwriting, whether it’s the grungey riffing of penultimate hooky rocker “Queen of the Damned” or the earlier punk-via-Motörhead burst of “Electric Ghost.”

Pressed through to vinyl Energy Ring Records with lush artwork by Norb Czufis and Martin Kenny, the eight-song/32-minute long-player carries a brisk sonic clarity — brought to bear by Kenny Eaton at Monrovia, MD’s Mystery Ton Studios with mixing by Brad Divens (Fixintogetmixin Studio) and mastering by Carlos Silva (C1 Mastering) — and finds the three-piece fluidly shifting between tempos and weaving in elements of classic Maryland-style doom amid the more heavy rock-minded impulses, beginning almost in medias res with a quick drum introduction and quickly locked-in groove on opener and longest track (immediate points) “Spellbound.”

The leadoff features a highlight melodic vocal from Sherman as well as some C.O.C.-style sweeping backup vocals, but it’s also the first of several standout performances from Virts, who plays guitar with the technical precision of someone who’s genuinely spent years studying the craft — about three seconds of research reveals he’s the owner of the Moon Star Guitars shop — and who brings soul and suitable purpose to solos and riffs alike. On the subsequent “Lonely Unicorn,” Saunders casually tosses out impressive fills in one-after-another fashion between measures as the central rhythm is established in a start-stop roll that the subsequent guitar-led instrumental “Nominal Confusion” seems only too happy to perpetuate. “Spellbound” had a bit more blues to its proceedings, with fuzz on the bass and the vocal effects, but the subtly shifting tempo en route to “Electric Ghost” is something listeners might miss at first but that becomes essential to the overarching flow of Galactic Cross as a whole.

As its arrangements are largely straightforward, relying more on basic songcraft than the pedal board or other studio chicanery to make a point that one imagines sounds no less vital coming from the stage, things like those changes in tempo become essential the band’s ability to create a sense of variety in their approach, which they succeed in doing. The malleability of Sherman‘s voice between the catchy “Lonely Unicorn” and a cut like “Electric Ghost” — also the shortest on the album at 2:28 — is not to be understated in its importance in this either.

Galactic Cross Galactic Cross front back

That side A closer is a rager and he meets the task of keeping up with Saunders‘ gallop, the sudden finish of the song only appropriate in sealing the deal of what the first half of the album was pushing toward. Another turn arrives in the intertwined acoustic and electric guitar of “Inter-Dimensional,” which lands in a swampy kind of psychedelia with what sounds like jaw harp in the background reminiscent of nighttime frog calls. It’s instrumental, so basically an interlude or side B intro, depending on the format through which one is listening, but still longer than “Electric Ghost” and it allows Galactic Cross to work in more spacious elements they may build upon going forward. If their next album had a “Planet Caravan” of its own, it would be well earned.

“Hollywood Truther” is a high point as Sherman calls “guitar!” at around two minutes in and Virts answers with another impressive stretch of soloing atop the steady roll of Saunders‘ drumming. The prevailing vibe is a return to the modus of “Spellbound” if perhaps a bit more tinged with classic doom in its main riff — something that the closing title- and eponymous “Galactic Cross” will push further — but between those two, “Queen of the Damned” touches on a straight-ahead rush of heavy rock that’s a well-placed and catchy energy kick.

One could make arguments for “Galactic Cross,” which is the only piece aside from the opener to run longer than five minutes, as being the best vocal performance Sherman has recorded to-date. He finds his place easily atop the slower progression and complements and is complemented by his bass and Virts‘ guitar, singing clean without necessarily losing the throaty edge that has heretofore defined him. He has made himself a singer as well as a frontman of marked charisma and personality. The chemistry shared among him, Virts and Saunders is writ large throughout Galactic Cross, even as a debut release, and neither should details like side A of the vinyl ending ultra-fast with “Electric Ghost” and side B ultra-slow with “Galactic Cross” pass unnoticed, as they speak to a consciousness of how the material is being presented to the listener that goes beyond the individual tracks themselves.

Maybe these guys are friends who’ve known each other for however long and finally decided to get a band going, I don’t know, and likewise, I don’t know their intentions from here on, but Galactic Cross portrays a sound worth continuing to expand and chase and develop as well as songs that, in the immediate, engage some of the signature components of Maryland heavy while setting out on their own path of heavy rock and hooks. Right on. Somebody please alert the local officials.

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Review & Track Premiere: The Spacelords, Spaceflowers

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 30th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

THE SPACELORDS SPACEFLOWERS

[Click play above to stream the title-track of The Spacelords’ Spaceflowers. Album is out Feb. 21 through Tonzonen. Preoders are here.]

They say that in space, no one can hear you fall into a trace of repetitive heavy psychedelic bliss. Germany’s The Spacelords — guitarist Matthias “Hazi” Wettstein, bassist Erhard “Akee” Kazmaier and drummer Marcus Schnitzler; all of whom are also responsible for sundry other effects and/or noises — wrap up a trilogy of three-song full-lengths with Spaceflowers, taking what began on 2016’s Liquid Sun and continued with 2017’s Water Planet (review here) for their fourth release total on Tonzonen Records including last year’s live outing, On Stage. Whether they’re in the studio or not, the trio emit a cosmic vibe of marked depth, and in the three extended pieces of Spaceflowers, they bloom in true fashion, each one seeming to spread out in all directions at once, circular petals opening wide to catch the light of some strange sunlight and thereby be sustained. To say the least, 24-minute opener and longest track (immediate points) “Cosmic Trip” is nothing if not aptly named.

“Cosmic Trip” is joined by “Frau Kuhnkes Kosmos” (11:43) and the closing title-track (13:35), but its course is set early and maintained well throughout the 49 minutes of the proceedings overall, which isn’t short for an LP in this day and age, but doesn’t find The Spacelords at all overstaying their welcome. Be it Schnitzler‘s deceptively intricate kick timing in “Frau Kuhnkes Kosmos” — he was doubling for a while with Electric Moon, whose Sula Bassana put out The Spacelords‘ 2014 album, Synapse (review here), but parted ways with the band in 2016 — or the patient underlying wash of effects and the close-your-eyes-and-get-carried-away bassline in the second half of “Spaceflowers” itself, The Spacelords bring a personality and vibrance to their material, and though the overarching vibe is serene, they aren’t by any means still throughout these proceedings.

On the contrary, while “Cosmic Trip” and its side B counterparts want nothing for fluidity and are plenty atmospheric on an almost preternatural level with all of the effects surrounding the guitar, bass and drums — not separate from them at all but still bolstering the individual performances as Wettstein demonstrates early in the synth/guitar intertwining of “Cosmic Trip” circa the five-minute mark — they’re never entirely still throughout Spaceflowers. And neither are they overblown or launching the motorik space rock hyperdrive without sonic call to do so. In fact, while never really subdued in the sense of fading to drone or anything like that, they find a marked balance that allows them to explore without departing mid-tempo push. The build that ensues across the first eight minutes or so of “Cosmic Trip” pays off in satisfying fashion and gives way to joyous guitar drift kept in this dimension by Kazmaier‘s gotta-hear-it bass tone and Schnitzler‘s drumming, and gradually, patiently, pushes itself forward again, this time over the longer stretch of the remaining two-thirds of the song.

After the guitar solo arrives and eventually shifts into the riff that the drums and bass change with immediately — it’s announced by the drums, but let’s call it 22:22 into the 24:20 — it becomes clear to what all of the progression has been leading, and that obviously-prior-constructed move underscores a key factor in The Spacelords‘ approach throughout Spaceflowers in that these three songs do not at all come across as being “just jams.” That is, while there are no doubt improvisational elements at work and in all likelihood a great deal of jamming took place to put them together — and given the flow throughout, there was likely a proportionate amount of jamming in the recording process as well — there’s at least a blueprint being followed. They never come close to what would be commonly regarded as structure in the verse/chorus sense, and nor do they want or need to, but neither are they floating through the galaxy without a mission.

Tonzonen Records Labelnight 3 The Spacelords

Given that, and taking into consideration Spaceflowers as the purported end of a trilogy of releases — they had two early self-released studio albums that seem to be unavailable and at least one other live recording, so fair to say it’s at least their sixth LP overall — one has to wonder if there’s a narrative taking place in the tracks or across the progression from Liquid Sun to Water Planet to this album. If there is, and it’s fun to think there might be, then perhaps it could be derived even just from the titles of the three full-lengths in question. A star, a planet, a landscape. Is this The Spacelords describing entering a strange solar system with a different kind of life source and discovering what sort of life might flourish there? Have we landed? The best answer I can give is “maybe,” which is to say that listening to the tension in the latter half of “Frau Kuhnkes Kosmos,” and the ensuing space-hippies-bathing-in-soundwaves vision of “Spaceflowers” itself, it’s open for interpretation.

Certainly the latter could be viewed as a landing point, even as Wettstein‘s guitar seems most to soar and the band — kudos to whoever is handling the organ sound there, whether or not it’s an actual organ — push to a rousing and, again, planned-seeming finish. Its mellow beginning picks up gently from the centerpiece before it, and it unfolds with a lighter sense of gravity but still brings a welcome and by-then-characteristic blend of earthy groove and floating guitar. It would be difficult for a single instrumental piece to serve as the summary of three albums’ worth of outward journeying, even one 13 minutes long, but “Spaceflowers” nobly pushes in its midsection into a section of thicker riffing before embarking on its final cosmic sprawl and solo-led ending.

It’s by no means the first such build on Spaceflowers, but it emphasizes the point of the power trio dynamic in the band, with the rhythm section functioning to hold the central groove together as the guitar — and more, in this case — adventures through the outer reaches of the great kosmiche beyond. Is this The Spacelords‘ last time at the helm of their particular starship? One doubts it. The creativity on display in these tracks and the will they put into making them does not seem the sort to be dissuaded, and the progressive aspects even in the final moments of the title-track make it plain that in terms of the band’s own story, the end is the beginning. Another trilogy ahead? A full saga? Could be. WettsteinKazmeier and Schnitzler clearly show they have the readiness to paint the universe as they see fit, so really all the listener has to do is be ready to go and be gone.

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Review & Full Album Stream: Big Scenic Nowhere, Vision Beyond Horizon

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 29th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

big scenic nowhere vision beyond horizon

[Click play above to stream Big Scenic Nowhere’s Vision Beyond Horizon in full. Album is out Jan. 31 on Heavy Psych Sounds with preorders here.]

At the heart of Big Scenic Nowhere is the collaboration between guitarists Bob Balch and Gary Arce, and if it came to it, that would probably be enough of a band to go on. The project inherits its name but not much else (aside the guitarist himself) from an older side-project of Arce‘s splintered off from his main outfit, desert rock progenitors Yawning Man that released a demo circa 2012. Balch is of course known for his tenure in Fu Manchu, but over the years has established himself apart from those landmark fuzz rockers in Sun and Sail Club and with the ongoing guitar instructional series Playthisriff.com. After getting together to jam, the two guitarists founded Big Scenic Nowhere and worked toward bringing in outside collaborators for their first studio foray, 2019’s sprawling and proggy Dying on the Mountain EP (discussed here), that was issued as a part of the Blues Funeral Recordings limited Postwax vinyl subscription series.

That release, inherently somewhat feeling-each-other-out in vibe, introduced Mos Generator‘s Tony Reed and The Well‘s Lisa Alley and Ian Graham as vocalists and contributors, as well as Per Wiberg (Spiritual Beggars, etc.), Thomas Jäger from Monolord and others along the way. Big Scenic Nowhere‘s debut full-length, the nine-song/44-minute Heavy Psych Sounds LP Vision Beyond Horizon, is almost entirely more cohesive in its purpose, blending some of the proggier elements of the EP into washes of Mellotron and Wurlitzer on side-ending pieces like “Hidden Wall” and “War Years” as Tony Reed becomes an essential third collaborator in the band alongside Balch and Arce.

At least according to the LP credits, Reed has a hand in writing five of the nine songs on Vision Beyond Horizon, including solo composition on the 95-second second-track hardcore punk blaster “The Paranoid,” on which his son, Kylen Reed, plays bass — and which changes the entire context of the opening of the record — as well as highlights “Mirror Image” and the penultimate “Tragic Motion Lines.” Balch, whose relative tally as regards songwriting is eight compared to Arce‘s four, would seem to be the driving force behind Big Scenic Nowhere at least at this stage.

However, given the breadth of the progressive, desert-hued rock they harness, the fact of multiple songwriters at all, and the work others like vocalist/guitarist Alain Johannes (Queens of the Stone Age, etc.), bassists Mario Lalli (Fatso JetsonYawning Man) and Nick Oliveri (Mondo Generator), keymaster Wiberg and drummer Bill Stinson (Yawning Man) are doing throughout, it doesn’t necessarily feel right to base expectation for future modus on what’s happening here. That is, just because it’s mostly Balch writing songs this time doesn’t mean it won’t be Arce and Reed jams next time, and so on. The nature of the band feels more fluid than that, and as players, BalchArce and Reed revel in that fluidity. It becomes an essential component of the album’s success and the band’s potential.

big scenic nowhere

That’s a rare angle to take to head toward “encouraging debut,” but frankly, Big Scenic Nowhere are putting themselves in the position of being a rare band, and the varied persona they present on this encouraging debut is a big part of why. It’s the nature of “supergroups” to be uneven, but particularly the changes in vocalists weave a path through the proceedings that benefits from the changes. Whether it’s Johannes channeling DavidBowie-via-JerryCantrell on the crashing-in opener “The Glim” and resurfacing on side B’s mellower “En las Sombras,” or Graham and Alley bringing their underappreciated cult-style duet arrangements to side A’s “Then I Was Gone” and the later counterpart “Shadows from the Altar,” Big Scenic Nowhere not only serves as a showcase for stellar performances, but elements like Arce‘s signature tone, Balch‘s choice riffing and Reed‘s taking point on the majority of tracks — he sings on “The Paranoid,” “Mirror Image,” “Hidden Wall,” “Tragic Motion Lines” and subsequent closer “War Years” — are all the more standouts in tying the material together.

Whatever their future plans or creative whims might be as regards these remote/fly-in collaborations, they serve on Vision Beyond Horizon to help define who and what are as a group, and the instrumental arrangements as vast enough to accommodate the shifts, be it the spooky boogie of “Then I Was Gone” and “Shadows from the Altar” or the emergent fuzz-laden rollout of “Hidden Wall,” which approaches the seven-minute mark and closes side A. That they’re able to harness consistency at all is a considerable achievement, but that they do so in such a fashion as to make change the constant effectively doubles that. “The Paranoid” also functions in this way, establishing early on in the overarching procession of the album that Big Scenic Nowhere are able and willing to tread whatever ground they see fit. If it opened or closed, it would be too easy to write off as an intro or afterthought. As it is, right after the immediately dug-in, Mellotron-laced midtempo groove of “The Glim,” its brash thrust is the proverbial suckerpunch for arriving so unexpectedly.

But that’s also what makes it fun.

As with most debut full-lengths, it’s hard to listen to what Big Scenic Nowhere — the core writing team of BalchArce and Reed — bring to Vision Beyond Horizon and wonder what might come next and into what direction their style or output might ultimately turn. If there’s an answer to be found in these tracks, it’s that they’re able to capture a multifaceted complexity of songwriting that highlights individual players while still serving a broader aesthetic purpose, and that basically, they can do whatever the hell they want with their sound. If Dying on the Mountain was an initial foray into working together, Vision Beyond Horizon lives up to its title in having the poise and confidence of its approach to earn the listener’s trust that, if something didn’t belong, or wasn’t doing what they intended, it wouldn’t be there. It may be next to impossible to predict what Big Scenic Nowhere might do from this point forward, but listening to Vision Beyond Horizon, it’s easy to know it will be worth finding out.

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Deathwhite, Grave Image: Funereal Portraits

Posted in Reviews on January 27th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

deathwhite grave image

Pittsburgh robe-clad four-piece Deathwhite have heretofore managed to keep their identities secret. A few initials have floated around — DW, AM, LM, and so on — but after forming in 2012 and issuing two independent EPs in 2014’s Ethereal and 2015’s Solitary Martyr, then signing to Season of Mist ahead of their 2018 debut album, For a Black Tomorrow (review here), the fact that they’ve managed to hold actual names back from public consciousness is fairly impressive in a day and age where immediate access is the norm. One suspects, listening to Grave Image, the all-the-more-accomplished follow-up to For a Black Tomorrow, that Deathwhite as a collective view this as an aesthetic choice.

That is, it’s not necessarily a choice made to drum up a faux-rocker mystique so much as an extension of their sound and general presentation. This makes the fact that their material on songs like “Further From Salvation” and “A Servant” is so emotive and personal-seeming something of an irony, but perhaps this too is the idea. Their anonymity forces the listener to focus not on individual players or elements, but on the entirety of their craft, which is deep, purposeful and a cross achievement in style and substance, bringing the emotional severity of European-style death-doom to the fore with an ever-present sense of melody that refuses to lose its grip.

In the early “In Eclipse” as well as the title-track a short time later, one is reminded of mid-period Katatonia or My Dying Bride, or even the odd-Americans-out in Novembers Doom — the specific moment when that league of bands gave up largely gave up guttural death growls but still had an audience expecting them. Some from-the-ether whispers in the verses of the otherwise gorgeous “In Eclipse” are about as close as Deathwhite comes to abrasive vocals — and that’s probably close enough to scare off the squares — but like the decision to hold back their names, the restraint they show in not breaking out in roars across the weighted sprawl and midpoint breakdown intensity, albeit fleeting, of “Among Us” or the subsequent chugs of “Words of Dead Men” are emblematic of the sense of mission behind Grave Image overall. Deathwhite have a bleak vision and Grave Image is the latest and to-date most vivid incarnation of it.

They are by no means the first to marry beauty and darkness in metal, but what stands out in Grave Image even in relation to its predecessor is the factor of songwriting. Deathwhite have managed the feat of making atmosphere and expressiveness work in conjunction with memorable, dare-one-say catchy, material. Their choruses are stuck-in-the-head fodder for later revisits, and though of course there’s a contemplative feeling to the style as would be demanded in the first place by the tenets of genre, the one does not detract from the other.

Rather, from the outset of “Funeral Ground,” “In Eclipse” and “Further From Salvation,” Deathwhite never lose sight of the fact that they’re playing songs, writing songs, in a traditional style. Their arrangements are by no means lacking complexity or dumbed down in order to be more broadly accessible — it would be incorrect to say otherwise — but they are engaging their audience in these tracks one way or another, and that feeds into rather than pulls back from their overarching purpose and intent with Grave Image. A fine line trod skillfully and surely.

deathwhite

“Grave Image” itself and “Among Us” would seem to be the final pieces of the first vinyl side, which puts “Words of Dead Men” as an impact-laced side B opener, but even the 48-minute runtime of the proceedings speaks to the workings of a different era, not the classic LP form that’s dominated so much of underground music, but the linear presentation of compact discs in the 1990s, and sure enough, Grave Image is best taken in this manner — front to back without even a break in the middle for a side flip. To pretend most who take it on won’t be doing so digitally is folly anyhow, but that works to Deathwhite‘s advantage as the second half of Grave Image progresses, pushing deeper into the open-feeling stretches and quiet/loud trades and lyrical pleading, “open up my eyes” of “No Horizon” and comparative rush at the outset and later keyboard-choral bridge of “Plague of Virtue.” Is it wrong to hope Deathwhite‘s third album incorporates strings somewhere in its proceedings?  If it is, I don’t want to be right.

The longing is palpable in “A Servant” but not overwrought in a dramatic sense, and amid a wash of guitar and understated percussive accomplishment, the penultimate of the total 10 tracks presents a bookend with the highlight opening salvo that began the record, with six-and-a-half-minute finale “Return to Silence” following suit, taking instrumentally soft-edged verses, guitar that’s outright pretty, and setting it/them against more intense bursts in the chorus, “Return to silence/Return to dust/Return to stillness/Return to us.”

A final, cold dropoff is sudden when it arrives, but beautiful, and of course it seems all the more appropriate that “Return to Silence” should close Grave Image, since the song itself leads to the silence at the end of the album, which also becomes an encompassing factor in play for Deathwhite, as well as indicative of their engrossing, multifaceted attention to detail. It is that, ultimately, which allows them to deliver the songs as fluidly as they do, but it’s worth noting that the behind-the-scenes work and thought so clearly put into Grave Image does not at all pull focus away from the songwriting itself, which I’ll reiterate is among the album’s greatest strengths, along with its melodic delivery, aesthetic awareness and willingness to bring its audience into its sphere via craft.

As Deathwhite make the conventions of style function to their own ends throughout Grave Image, it is easy to lose sight of the achievement if only because of the resonance of the material is so affecting emotionally, but that in itself is a triumph of the intent behind its construction. Dark in spirit, Grave Image nonetheless soars, and its success in doing so is a testament to Deathwhite‘s driving vision. Whoever they are, they’ve created something special.

Deathwhite, Grave Image (2020)

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Review & Track Premiere: Lowrider, Refractions

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 24th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

Lowrider Refractions

[Click play above to stream the premiere of ‘Red River’ from Lowrider’s Refractions. Album is out Feb. 21 on Blues Funeral Recordings with preorders here.]

Peder Bergstrand on “Refractions”:

“’Red River’ has been with us since maybe 2001-2002… It’s the first riff we wrote for our second album, we even recorded it in 2003 — but it just one of those songs that needed to mature to become what it was intended to be. It feels so right that it’s the first one out of the gate from this forever-in-the-making album, and it couldn’t feel more like the perfect amalgamation or Lowrider then and Lowrider now. Absolutely STOKED to share it with you.”

Then and now, it is an elite class to which Lowrider‘s work belongs. Few single albums have helped steer the course of the European heavy underground to the degree of their MeteorCity-issued 2000 debut, Ode to Io (reissue review here). Along with fellow Swedes Dozer, as well as Colour Haze, Orange Goblin and a select group of others from around the continent, they helped pave the path of the emergent stoner rock scene at the turn of the century, taking lessons from California desert heavy and inherently bringing something of their own to the creative process that more than a generation of bands has learned from in their wake. Two key differences between Lowrider and those other bands who made such a mark at the time: they were very young and they only did the one record. Both are crucial when it comes to understanding how their first full-length in 20 years, Refractions — released through Blues Funeral Recordings — manages to sound so vibrant in its 41-minute front-to-back.

Comprised of bassist/vocalist Peder Bergstrand, lead guitarist/vocalist Ola Hellquist, guitarist Niclas Stålfors and drummer Andreas ErikssonLowrider‘s youth gave Ode to Io an imitable energy, and with Refractions, in “Red River” and “Ol’ Mule Pepe,” that original, vital spark is honored and expanded upon in a way that’s mature but by no means “old-sounding.” That is, as much as one might and probably should consider Refractions a “comeback” album, Lowrider do not come across in pieces like the organ-laced second cut “Ode to Ganymede,” the eight-minute side A finale “Sernanders Krog” and the 11-minute closer “Pipe Rider” like old men trying to recapture past glories.

Rather, the great triumph of Refractions, which also saw limited issue last year through Blues Funeral‘s Postwax vinyl subscription service (and for which I had the honor of doing liner notes), is to acknowledge the accomplishments Lowrider made two decades ago but not be restrained by them. This is where the fact of their only having been one prior full-length comes most into play. Lowrider had a couple other releases — a 1997 split with Sparzanza (discussed here), their 1998 split with Nebula (discussed here) — but their legacy and influence was localized almost entirely in Ode to Io, and that essentially set that record up as a monolith in time.

One record. And they were basically kids. Bergstrand was a teenager.

It doesn’t even seem fair. How could a modern incarnation of Lowrider possibly be expected to live up to such a standard? Refractions meets this question head-on. It does not shirk the responsibility Lowrider have in following their debut — and that may have something to do with why it’s coming out now when their reunion began at Desertfest some seven years ago — but it shows that Lowrider are different people than they were at 17 or in their early 20s, etc., and it brings new character and breadth to their craft that is more progressive than one could have reasonably hoped.

lowrider (Photo by Anna Liden Wiren)

In particular, Bergstrand‘s time fronting the pop-tinged melodic rock outfit I are Droid — whose underrated 2013 second LP, The Winter Ward (review here), still resonates — doesn’t seem to be forgotten, and even as “Pipe Rider” builds its forward wash of fuzz leading to the jam that will carry Refractions to its finish, its vocals deep in the mix bask in a melody more complex than anything Lowrider have done previously. That song is twice-over pivotal to Refractions, since its lyrics directly acknowledge the central task of the album in carrying forward what the band were into what they are: “Give me something new…Fragments from our youth,” and so on (that’s a point I raised in the liner notes as well, but it applies just the same).

And preceded by the instrumental pair “Sun Devil/M87,” the finale’s arrival is all the more an occasion on a side B, expanding on the lushness of “Ode to Ganymede” in tone and depth while finding its own course much as Lowrider themselves do all across the album, whether it’s the hooky nod and crash — I’ll just say outright that Eriksson‘s drums are a highlight unto themselves across the entire span of the record both in what he’s playing and the production value — of “Red River” or “Ol’ Mule Pepe” with Hellquist taking the lead vocal spot on the latter. At five minutes long, that brash rocker is paired well as the side B leadoff counterpart to “Red River” opening Refractions as a whole, but its vibe is even more of a standout for drawing the clearest line between the stoner rock of Lowrider‘s past and the heavy rock of their present, manifesting the Kyuss idolatry that fueled the band’s early work into a shuffling riff that’s righteous in its genre familiarity even as they take ownership of it.

Especially with the turn into “Sun Devil/M87” afterward, one gets the impression that even as Lowrider know the formidable task they’re facing, they’re still unafraid to have a good time here. It doesn’t all need to be a serious we-put-out-a-very-important-record-20-years-ago museum piece. It’s still rock and roll. “Sun Devil” is a wah-solo-topped blast, and “M87” picks up at the divide with a bassline from Bergstrand that sets a fuzzy course of pulled notes hypnotic in their repetition that end up a perfect lead-in for the closer, which again serves to mirror its side A counterpart in “Sernanders Krog” while at least in part telling the story of what Refractions is intended to be and what it means to the band. These are central moments for Lowrider, and they make it obvious on all six tracks that, while they know that Ode to Io means a lot to a lot of people, the best justice they can do to that album is to leave it in its place. So that’s what they do. Beautifully.

Refractions has been thus far received with a considerable amount of album-of-the-year-type hyperbole. Though it’s early in 2020 for such assignations and with the prior Postwax release, I admit I’m not sure if it counts as 2019 or not (or if it matters), but as a fan of Lowrider‘s past accomplishments, I can’t disagree with the excited sentiment around these songs. The album succeeds in every way in bringing Lowrider into the present and finds them indeed reflecting on the past, but refusing to lose themselves in it. As an entire generational shift has taken place in terms of audience over the last 10, let alone 20, years, Lowrider reestablish their place among heavy rock’s most momentous purveyors. If their new album is an occasion, it is one to which on every level they live up.

Recommended.

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