Review & Full Album Premiere: Yawning Man, Macedonian Lines

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 11th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Yawning Man Macedonian Lines

[Click play above to stream Yawning Man’s Macedonian Lines in full. It’s out June 14 through Heavy Psych Sounds.]

Between 1986 and 2005, Yawning Man released no albums. Between 2016 and 2019, with the advent of Macedonian Lines on Heavy Psych Sounds, they’ve now released three. That debut outing was 2005’s Rock Formations (discussed here), and it helped lead the band toward not just the subsequent Pot Head EP, but also to the 2007 release of their demo tracks,  The Birth of Sol (discussed here), and 2010’s sophomore studio album Nomadic Pursuits (review here), which launched what has unquestionably been the band’s most productive decade to-date. Solidified as the trio of guitarist Gary Arce (also Big Scenic Nowhere, Ten East, Zun, etc.), bassist Mario Lalli (also Fatso JetsonBig Scenic Nowhere, etc.) and drummer Bill Stinson (Chuck Dukowski, etc.), Yawning Man has at last begun to capitalize on the incredible reputation that precedes them as one of the founding architects of Californian desert rock.

For the last several years, they’ve toured in Europe and — more surprisingly — the US, releasing a split with Fatso Jetson in 2013, Historical Graffiti (review here) in 2016 and last year’s The Revolt Against Tired Noises (review here), the latter beginning the alliance with Heavy Psych Sounds, to which Lalli‘s outfit Fatso Jetson are also signed. Arce, whose drifting guitar tone is as much a signature for Yawning Man as any band could have, has always been involved in a number of projects and continues to be, but a successive-year turnaround for Yawning Man full-lengths is simply unprecedented in the band’s 33-year history. Yet Macedonian Lines, with six tracks and an almost humble 31-minute runtime, offers not just a batch of new jams from a trio of nigh-unmatched sonic fluidity — somewhat ironic since, you know, the desert and all — but also a showcase of the potential that’s been in their dynamic all along, waiting, essentially, to be honed by the players involved. Stinson is not an original member, but he plays like one, and Lalli and Arce are, and the chemistry between the three of them, especially as it’s been honed on tour over the last few years, is at a new level in these songs.

And it’s appropriate, then, that the material throughout Macedonian Lines would find its root in live performances, coming together around jams from the last tour. Bookended by its two longest cuts in leadoff “Virtual Funeral” (6:49) and closer “I Make Weird Choices” (7:25), flows like a short live set, the three-piece building momentum as they move through the title-track and into “Melancholy Sadie” — presumably that’s as opposed to “Sexy Sadie” — as well as “Bowie’s Last Breath” and “I’m Not a Real Indian (But I Play One on TV),” all of which check in at under five minutes long. Being born of jams, it speaks to the band’s songwriting process that the finished products would end up on the shorter side, as Yawning Man seem to be moving toward an efficiency of delivery — five of the eight cuts on The Revolt Against Tired Noises were over five minutes — that, somewhat incredibly, doesn’t take away from the laid back spirit of the LP itself.

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Especially with the memorable melody the guitar brings forth on “Virtual Funeral” accompanied by piano and Lalli‘s rumbling bass beneath, as well as Stinson‘s drums tying it all together, Macedonian Lines works quickly to immerse the listener in its atmospheric warmth, easing into “Macedonian Lines” with a speedier, winding guitar line that’s still very much in their wheelhouse before opening up to a broader progression, building and releasing tension in a way that even just a few years ago the band likely wouldn’t have done. It’s a different kind of awareness and engagement with the audience happening on Macedonian Lines, and the feel throughout is very much like a second album — which it is, of their tenure on Heavy Psych Sounds — in terms of how it builds on what The Revolt Against Tired Noises introduced idea-wise about who and what Yawning Man are as a group. Here, they offer gracefully expansive arrangements of guitar, bass and drums, setting their sights on open spaces and conveying not just the soul of the desert or some idea of what they’re expected to be, but of how they’ve grown and are still progressing as players. Matured and maturing still.

“Melancholy Sadie” is anchored by a bassline that lives up to the title, and the weight Lalli adds to “Bowie’s Last Breath” is likewise crucial, as he and Arce set up in a you-go-high-I’ll-go-low attack as regards frequency range with Stinson cutting through the tonal wash with a punctuating snare even as his crash adds to the methodical, patient patterning of the bass and guitar. Stinson is more than timekeeper, but he’s not an overly flashy player, and part of the reason he has come to fit so well in Yawning Man since joining in 2011 is he allows the string section room to breathe. The longer cuts emphasize this more, unsurprisingly, but even the march he brings to “I’m Not a Real Indian (But I Play One on TV)” resounds with purpose and continues the momentum into the serene beginning of “I Make Weird Choices,” a culmination with far-back keyboard flourish — though I’ll allow that could be guitar effects — that echoes the trance-inducing aspects of the opener even as it calls to mind more of a heavy post-rock feel in its quiet-loud tradeoffs, taking what might otherwise be verses and choruses and setting them up not in opposition to each other, but as complementary elements toward the same purpose.

The same essentially applies to the work of Arce and Lalli throughout Macedonian Lines, as they are two players with different mindsets who come together for the common end of defining Yawning Man‘s ultra-influential sound. Macedonian Lines, though ultimately brief, is a triumph of the cohesion between their two strong personalities, and a showcase of what has not only let the band survive their long tenure, but to do so in such a way as to be more vital now than they’ve ever been. I don’t know if Yawning Man will have another album out in 2020, or what their future will bring, but as they ascend to their rightful place in the forefront of desert rock consciousness, their ongoing progression seems bound to inspire yet another generation of players. As a fan, I hope they keep the momentum going.

Yawning Man, “Macedonian Lines” official video

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Electric Moon, Hugodelia: Space Comes to Feldkirch

Posted in Reviews on June 10th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

electric moon hugodelia

The opening title-track of Electric Moon‘s latest live album, Hugodelia, pretty much tells the story. Not literally telling, since like the vast majority of the German psych-exploration trio’s work, it’s instrumental, but still, it gets the point across. “Hugodelia” itself is a 20-minute stretch that seems to start out with the band — guitarist Dave “Sula Bassana” Schmidt, bassist/occasional vocalist “Komet Lulu” Neudeck and drummer Pablo Carneval — kind of getting their bearings, almost like they’re waking up, and then that’s it: they’re gone.

Real gone.

It would be hard to overstate how much of a treasure in psychedelic heavy jamming Electric Moon have become over the decade they’ve been together. Fueled by Sula Bassana‘s effects-soaked guitar — and released on his label, Sulatron Records — the band are one of few whose reach extends to the genuine heart of lysergic creativity. The tonal flow and effects wash conjured by Sula and Lulu is not to be taken for granted, and though they’ve seen a couple drummers come and go, including Carneval, who was there at the outset, left, and came back, the chemistry he brings to the lineup proves itself essential quickly on “Hugodelia” and the live 2LP’s subsequent three extended tracks, four if you count the digital-only bonus cut “Ween.”

A 65-minute set, give or take, Hugodelia came to life in Austria on the night of the final concert at Graf Hugo, a venue in Feldkirch, on the western boarder with Switzerland, and the sense of homage comes through plainly in the offering itself. In listening, “Hugodelia” doesn’t just set the mood for open creativity and mellow-heavy vibes. It also carries the sense of homage that rings through the entire proceedings, as that jam wraps at 20:30 and leads into “Transmitter,” which goes to 20:34, and the two shorter, complementary side-consumers “Cellar Grime” (12:37) and “Cellar Slime” (10:25), both of which feature guest guitar from Erich Coldino, who was one of the promoters for the venue. It seems fitting to have Coldino take part directly in what’s clearly already a special occasion for the band, and his post-rocky lines come through Sula‘s amp to fill out a melody alongside the chugging space rock rhythm of “Cellar Grime” like, indeed, he was meant to be there. Like they planned it all along.

And yeah, they probably did, but Electric Moon‘s stock and trade is still at least somewhat based around improvisation and capturing the moment as it happens. They are one of few acts out there — Denmark’s Øresund Space Collective come to mind as another, but Electric Moon are more consistent in terms of their lineup — who so purposefully base what they do around jamming. That is, plenty of bands jam, but Hugodelia demonstrates once again that Electric Moon are able to capture the listener’s attention and imagination by letting go and seeing where the music takes them in a way that nearly no one else can.

electric moon

Even before Coldino sits in, “Hugodelia” and “Transmitter” offer 41 minutes of a kosmiche supreme, the momentum of the opener carrying well into “Transmitter” as Sula‘s guitar noodles early over a plotted-seeming rhythm held together by Lulu and Carneval and the band builds toward a post-midsection spaceout that arrives with Hawkwindian motorik thrust before winding through a nebular field of bright colors and hallucinatory serenity. I’ve said this about Electric Moon live records before, and I’ll probably say it again when the next one comes through — any minute now — but if it weren’t for the audience cheering between songs, they would be viable as studio releases. In terms of sonic clarity and a feeling of purpose behind them, they want for nothing. Electric Moon are not a band who go through the motions live in order to support an album. Each show, especially those that eventually are pressed to LP and/or CD, is part of the overarching mission to the heart of the sun.

Thus Hugodelia is a two-fold event. Coldino finds his place quickly enough in “Cellar Grime” and the more linear, drift-into-wash “Cellar Slime,” which follows, but the strength of the rhythm section in keeping the flow and groove steady is a highlight unto itself, particularly of the finale. It is difficult not to put too much narrative to it — it was their last time in this place that clearly they enjoyed playing, the last show there at all, reportedly, and the guy who booked it was taking part; clearly emotions would have been riding high — but that too speaks to the evocative nature of Electric Moon‘s work and their ability to convey feelings through cosmic jamming. It’s not just ambience for its own sake. It’s as deep as the listener is ready to go with it.

By now, 10 years on from their outset, that should be pretty deep. For the band, Hugodelia is one more check-in — a live album in a series of given under various titles and artwork packages also put together by Lulu — but what it also makes plain is the level of soul put into what they do. “Ween,” which was tracked in Vienna, is a 23-minute-long bonus track, and it starts off with a hypnotic, molten progression even before the drums enter as the three-piece gradually, with expert patience, embark on a journey to and through a crescendo of stratosphere-shattering energy and cap with residual comedown noise. Another day at the office for Electric Moon, maybe, but still so vital to understanding where they’re coming from and what it’s their intention to capture in sound.

This is the part where I tell you not everyone’s going to get it. And it’s true. It’s always been the case with Electric Moon, psychedelia as a whole, and, in fact, everything. But what distinguishes Hugodelia among the universe surrounding is how much reward is offered for active engagement with it. How much the listener gleans from listening. The bottom line — such as one can perceive direction amid such aurally-induced vertigo — is that Electric Moon continue to hone an approach that is something truly special in or out of heavy psych, playing with a character that has only grown richer and more immersive over time, and presenting it with a charge that is purely their own. Hugodelia is a welcome reminder.

Electric Moon, Hugodelia (2019)

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Review & Full Album Premiere: Eternal Black, Slow Burn Suicide

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 7th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

eternal black slow burn suicide

[Click play above to stream Slow Burn Suicide by Eternal Black in its entirety. Album is out June 13.]

At least as regards rock and roll, the sound of New York City has always been one fueled by grit and concrete. From the speed-pop of the Ramones to the bruiser noise of Unsane, New York has always been at its best when it manifests the intensity of its surroundings in an almost unconscious fashion, and that would seem to be precisely what’s happening with Eternal Black‘s second full-length, Slow Burn Suicide. Because for sure while the trio, in following their 2017 debut, Bleed the Days (review here), speak directly to NYC-based influences like early Type O Negative, River Runs Red-era Life of Agony, Cro-Mags — right about when RoadRacer became Roadrunner — bringing that aggression and heft of presence into the context of the traditional doom of their first record, they do so in a manner that sounds overarchingly natural. It’s clear they were consciously pushing themselves as songwriters — the returning lineup is guitarist/vocalist Ken Wohlrob, bassist Hal Miller, and drummer Joe Wood — and in so doing, they’ve entered into conversation with influences beyond the standard fare for doom.

Across nine tracks bookended by the into “All These Things Destroy You…” and the outro “All These Things (Slight Return),” Eternal Black cast the identity for themselves that the debut and 2015 self-titled EP (review here), returning to record at Suburban Elvis Studios with Joe Kelly and Kol Marshall at the helm for a tonally consistent work that’s nonetheless a marked step forward from where they were two years ago. On tracks like the post-intro opener “Lost in the Fade” and the rolling “The Ghost,” they tap into this omnidirectional aggression, and even as “Sum of All Your Fears” hits into a chorus ripe for comparison to Deliverance-style C.O.C. — especially followed by the solo as it is — the band maintain their downtrodden atmosphere instrumentally and lyrically, taking what they want from the past and making it their own.

This is pretty much the ideal in all cases, but it especially suits Eternal Black to step into the role of representing trad doom from New York, where the style has never had the same foothold it’s enjoyed for decades a few hours south in Maryland. But from the moody, atmospheric notes and strums that launch the brief “All These Things Destroy You…” onward into the tom hits that build tension at the start of “Lost in the Fade” with feedback roiling behind, Eternal Black is both things: New York and doom. The gang-style shouts in the chorus of “Lost in the Fade” only further demonstrate the point, and the band retain a sense of impact to go along with the thickness in Wohlrob and Miller‘s tones, the hook coming around after a brash verse that keeps a raw feeling despite being produced for clarity.

eternal black

“Lost in the Fade” is the longest song on Slow Burn Suicide, and a highlight, but it doesn’t feel artificially extended or any longer than it needs to be to make its point, and “Below,” which follows, reinforces the core approach of the album, with Wohlrob‘s vocals offering a guttural, low-register melody and riding a groove that, had it been on the first record, I’d probably liken to The Obsessed, while keeping a more understated chorus en route to a sharp finish. This in turn brings “The Ghost,” with smooth hi-hat work from Wood in the nodding verses and more angular turns in the bridge, eventually leveling out to a longer instrumental section ahead of the solo and closing verse riffery, which is as fitting a march as one might make to “Sum of All Fears,” which is the centerpiece and a straightforward showcase of what Eternal Black are bringing to their second LP in terms of atmosphere, lyrical depth, largesse of groove and tone, and the focus on mood throughout. Four years on from their inception, they’ve succeeded in manifesting their sound from the roots of their inspiration, and “Sum of All Fears” might be the point on Slow Burn Suicide where that’s most palpable.

Though of course there’s plenty of competition in that regard, and as “A Desert of No Name” takes hold, it does so by renewing the rhythmic bounce early and moving in its middle third to a percussion-led instrumental break — not quite a jam, but not far off — as Wohlrob pulls a quick solo overtop. They move into a speedier section to finish as one last verse sneaks in at the end, and “Three Fates” provides an interplay of acoustic and electric guitar for an interlude leading to “Saints, Sinners and Madmen.” That track is also the last before the outro “All These Things (Slight Return),” which means essentially it’s surrounded on all sides. Think it’s meant to be a standout? The purposefulness of its positioning is met by its slow-crawling lurch — as with any doom worthy of the name, the bass is the secret weapon, and Miller locks in on “Sinners, Saints and Madmen” in an effective reminder of that — and Wohlrob tosses out the album’s title line amid further grim plodding.

The song is only four and a half minutes long, which is kind of surprising given the ceremony leading into and out of it, but it picks up its pace somewhat to give a fair-enough end, though the outro’s arrival — worth noting the “Slight Return,” at 2:22, is a minute longer than the intro — does much to underscore the true message of Slow Burn Suicide in terms of the consciousness and forward-moving will of Eternal Black‘s work. That can be heard in their songwriting here all the more with the consistency in terms of production, and what while what they do remains thoroughly doomed, it’s their doom. Listening to “All These Things (Slight Return)” as it dissembles at the finish, one does not at all get the sense that Eternal Black have finished exploring the parameters of what “their doom” is, but they take important steps here and find themselves exploring new ground even as they plunge deeper into the foundations of their approach.

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Review & Full Album Stream: Death Hawks, Psychic Harmony

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on June 3rd, 2019 by JJ Koczan

death hawks psychic harmony

[Click play above to stream Death Hawks’ Psychic Harmony in full. Album is out June 7 on Svart Records.]

Nearly a decade after their inception, Tampere, Finland’s Death Hawks are rewriting the script on where synth-led prog, psychedelia, and pop meet. Psychic Harmony arrives via Svart Records as their fourth album, and it takes the dreamscape aspects that showed themselves throughout the deep-ranging melodies of 2015’s Sun Future Moon (review here) and pushes them into a mega-lush wash of synth, periodic bouts of sax and a glamourized emotionality that comes through in slow-burners like “Re-Run” as well as in the disco-fied “Whisper,” which seems to nod at Blondie‘s flirtations with funk and eminent danceability. The returning four-piece of vocalist/guitarist Teemu Markkula, bassist/vocalist Riku Pirttiniemi, drummer Miikka Heikkinen and keyboardist/saxophonist Tenho Mattila present 10 tracks for a fluid single LP tied together by style amid varying moods driven as much if not more by keys as by guitar, the band showcasing a vision of pop sexuality that’s as much ’70s androgyny as it is krautrock exploration.

These would seem to be contrasts until one actually listens to Psychic Harmony, which lives up to its title in bringing into a single context such a swath of impulses, and making something deeply human at the same time so much of it is based around synthesizer. It is a significant leap or sidestep in sound even from the preceding Sun Future Moon, let alone anything that came before it, but here too, it is the focus on melodicism that makes Psychic Harmony within the band’s sphere even as it seems to expand the radius thereof, and Markkula‘s voice throughout is a uniting factor the contributions of which are not to be understated. Pirttiniemi has his parts as well, and Nicole Willis contributes a guest spot to acoustic-led closer “I am a Tree,” but still, Markkula helps establish the mood in which much of the album is operating, and the vibe set forth in “Secret Isle” at the outset is one that holds firm across nearly everything that follows, wherever else it might go sound-wise.

And that vibe? Well, it starts with the sound of a needle hitting a record. The idea isn’t just that you’re listening to a vinyl album, but what Death Hawks are shooting for immediately is the idea of being transported through the audio that comes — that cinematic otherworldliness of the keys that start the song and the outward voyage that ensues from there. It’s as though they’re signaling to their audience the intention for the music to take them someplace, and the lyrics to song bear that out as well. Psychic Harmony itself becomes that secret isle, and as the opener moves into the multi-color wash of “Like Lovers Do,” with a change in the vocals, sax buried far back in the mix and keys pushed far forward with voice overtop, the feel becomes all the more spacious, the world created in “Secret Isle” seeming to open wide with programmed beats and a second half that seems to purposefully lose itself in the moment.

death hawks (Photo by Sami Sanpikkila)

“Re-Run” follows and seems to work in the same vein initially, but even after the synth handclaps arrive after about a minute in, the feel is more mellow, with the mix completely filled out from top to bottom with rhythm and melody. Piano enters at the two-minute mark and “Re-Run” moves into its jazzier break, with the sax included as well, but the chorus returns with layers of vocals, leading just to Markkula‘s voice echoing through the chorus toward the title line again, ethereal sounds following and echoing away to lead out and toward the all-things fusion of the instrumental “Aleya,” which only furthers the atmosphere built to that point with horn harmonies and keys coinciding and a movement from mellow jazz to a more grandiose wash at the finish, bringing about the presumed side A capper “Synchronicity,” with a more prominent beat and effects-laden vocals, repetitions of the title word that make it seems almost like an advertisement from the future, and that shift into a stretch of dance-drift and end with fading swirl noise.

Bass beat starts “Whisper” at the (again, presumed) launch of side B, with a more direct play on dance pop that ensues, the aforementioned disco flush coming through not with the urgency of cocaine that actually typified so much of the material from the era with with the song is conversing, but a more laid back mindset, third eye open and ready to get funky. Still, the chorus lands with more insistence thanks in no small part to the beat behind it as well as the layers of vocals, so a guitar solo isn’t out of place when Death Hawks come around to the final section of the song. It’s the kind of thing that would have an extended dance mix in another time, another place. The drama continues in “A Room with a View” amid keyboard starts and stops, krautrock nuance and the prominent layers of vocals that emphasize the bright and progressive mood soon taken further with the arrival of the saxophone. I’d say “Play for Rewind” brings the proceedings back to ground, but yeah, that’s clearly not where Death Hawks are interested in going with Psychic Harmony.

Instead, they they move forward in deceptively efficient upbeat prog-pop form with a drum motion that increases subtly in intensity until at about 3:10 into the total 3:32, it moves to a double-kick to finish out, cutting to silence ahead of “Scent of Life,” a penultimate single-worthy piece that does indeed recall some of the album’s earlier moments, feeling familiar not in the sense of repeating anything, but of adding to what’s already there. It is the crescendo for the album as a whole, without question, and the departure of “I am a Tree” — the purposeful connection to earth, to the ground that “Play for Rewind” so readily rejected — is palpable, but through the prominence of voice throughout, maintains a complementary place with the other tracks before it. Like much of the album, it is beautiful and it knows it, but it is not content to let that self-awareness carry it. And as Death Hawks have thrown open the doors of perception here and discovered such shimmer on the other side, I would not expect their journey of discovery to stagnate anytime soon.

Death Hawks, “Re-Run” official video

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Sleep, Live at Third Man Records: The Botanist Goes to Nashville

Posted in Reviews on May 29th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

sleep live at third man records

‘The Vault’ is a quarterly subscription service from Third Man Records, the Nashville-based imprint, record store, studio and apparently live venue owned by Jack White, formerly of The White Stripes and currently of Jack White doing whatever the hell he wants, which would seem to include putting out Sleep records. The subscription fee is $60 per quarter, so not nothing, but the pull is that the releases are exclusive and limited, and at least in the case of Sleep‘s Live at Third Man Records, that $60 breaks down to $15 per each different-colored LP of a quadruple-LP box set release. It almost sounds sensible at that rate. I don’t know what releasing Sleep did for subscriptions, but the package in which Live at Third Man Records arrives is equal parts gorgeous and heavy — that is, you feel like you’re carrying records when you hold it, because you are — and with this kind of release, that’s definitely a piece of the experience, like the poster and patch also included.

The other part is a two-hour live set from Sleep — vocalist/bassist Al Cisneros, guitarist Matt Pike, drummer Jason Roeder — recorded in Dec. 2018, months after the release of their awaited album, The Sciences (review here), and its companion single “Leagues Beneath” (review here), that finds the landmark trio playing much of the record to a duly salivating audience, as well as classics from 2003’s Dopesmoker (discussed here) and the mega-influential 1993 sophomore outing, Sleep’s Holy Mountain (reissue review here). It is, essentially, a fan piece, special in hindsight for those who were there to see it and a work for the rest of us plebs to chase down however possible. For what it’s worth, I don’t imagine anyone who is a more than casual Sleep fan doing so would regret it. The sound throughout the 11-song set is raw in live-set-recorded-to-acetate fashion, but that does no disservice to the material, and the band of course sound spot on. If they didn’t, Live at Third Man Records probably wouldn’t exist. It’s about as close to a sure thing as you can get, again, if you’re a fan.

They open with “Leagues Beneath” and then go directly into the trimmed down version of “Dopesmoker” they’ve been playing live for however long. It’s broken up into “Dopesmoker Pt. 1” and a much-shorter “Dopesmoker Pt. 2” and when one factors in the subsequent “Holy Mountain,” that already covers sides A, B and C in basically three songs. Welcome to the Sleep show. It’s as though they knew their audience showed up wanting to get pummeled by riffs so they got it out of the way quickly so they could get down to the business of… more pummeling with riffs, I guess. But what a way to go. Cisneros‘ vocals sound right on in a way that demonstrates how much he’s found a way to meld the newer, less guttural vocal style of the more recent songs with his throatier past, and his vocal patterning in “Dopesmoker” only adds to that meisterwerk’s unique appeal.

sleep

Of The Sciences, only “Antarcticans Thawed” isn’t aired (or the title-track intro, if you want to be technical about it), and a slowed down version of “Sonic Titan,” particularly in following “The Clarity” (review here), which was released in 2014 as a standalone single and the band’s first studio work in more than a decade, which also hits the brakes on tempo to some degree, is a righteous highlight, with Roeder‘s march setting the pace via snare taps that do justice to original drummer Chris Hakius while adding his own sense of purpose to each crash that accompanies. Likewise, Pike‘s solo shred is a fitting reminder of his near-unmatched stage force. “Sonic Titan” accounts for side E all on its own after “The Clarity” and “Aquarian” on side D, and from there, the three-piece dig even deeper into The Sciences, with “Marijuanaut’s Theme,” “Giza Butler” and “The Botanist” one into the next.

The difference is a live version of “Sonic Titan” had appeared on the 2003 Tee Pee release of Dopesmoker, but the other three were exclusive to the new record. The band break into the manic groove of “Marijuanaut’s Theme” after “Sonic Titan,” and then follow with “Giza Butler”‘s mellow intro and omega-riff later. With the languid, solo-topped “The Botanist” as a comedown after that, it’s as dynamic as Sleep have ever sounded on a recording, and absolutely representative of what they do on stage, whether it’s Cisneros announcing “The pterodactyl flies again over emerald fields” as part of the weedian storytelling of “Giza Butler” or Roeder‘s final tom fill in “The Botanist.” Closing out with “Dragonaut” is essentially a victory lap.

One more full dose of fuzz overload is applied, and Sleep ride the dragon on Mars all the way to unmatched stoner supremacy. The recording ends with Pike‘s guitar feeding back while the crowd cheers, which is a pretty efficient way of saying it all. I don’t think Live at Third Man Records is a release for a novice Sleep fan, and I also think that if one hasn’t seen Sleep since The Sciences came out, something of the context here will be lost. However, I also don’t really think Sleep have casual fans. This isn’t a band you maybe put on every now and again because, eh, whatever. This is a band that incites worship, as the increasingly rabid response to their post-reunion run has shown.

As they’ve shifted back to being a working band promoting a new album, touring, headlining festivals, etc., they’ve not only harnessed a new generation of followers, but they’ve managed to give those who would pay homage a fitting altar to do so. They’re as much a community as a band at this point, and Live at Third Man Records is more than just a companion to The Sciences. It’s a document for and of that community at a pivotal moment, just months after the surprise release of that studio album, capturing the band as they set about that work. Not everyone’s going to get it, but isn’t that part of the appeal too?

Sleep, “Dopesmoker” live at Third Man Records

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Dopelord, Weedpecker, Major Kong & Spaceslug, 4-Way Split: Finding a Place

Posted in Reviews on May 27th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

dopelord weedpecker major kong spaceslug split

They come from Lublin, from Wroclaw, and from Warsaw, and they bring riffs in bulk, but what’s even more striking about the four-way split from Polish heavyweights Dopelord, Weedpecker, Major Kong and Spaceslug — in that order — is the level of diversity between the bands and just how much of their own personality each one brings to the proceedings. These are four of Poland’s best, to be sure, but by no means representative of the entire underground in the country — that is, they’re not Poland’s only four heavy bands, nor do they represent the entire stylistic swath of their compatriots (Sunnata and Belzebong walk by and wave) — but in terms of groups who’ve emerged over the past five-plus years in order to make an impact on the wider European sphere, they’re a suitable representation, and with an exclusive cut from each act involved, the self-released CD and LP makes an all the more fitting sampler of what Poland’s long underrated scene has to offer. It’s telling that 4-Way Split is a DIY release, and it’s also telling that, having come out in February, most of the LP editions and CDs are mostly if not entirely sold out.

The underlying message would seem to be that Polish heavy deserves a broader look it hasn’t yet gotten, and the audio from each of these bands lives up to that narrative. They each have their own measure of accomplishments and have developed an identity of their own, whether that comes in the form of Dopelord‘s tonal largesse or the grunge-infused melodic wash of Spaceslug, and as this release demonstrates, the bands aren’t so much united by a singular approach — they don’t all sound the same — as they are by the fact that each one has embarked on finding its own place in terms of sound. Some of this can be related to geographic spread, with Lublin, which is home to Major Kong in the west, while Spaceslug‘s native Wroclaw is further east and Warsaw, from whence come Dopelord and Weedpecker is a bit further north on the eastern side of the country. But the diversity of influence would seem to speak more to a general creative will than the fact that these acts simply represent different scenes within the country.

Even just Dopelord and Spaceslug, in opening and closing the release and both representing the capital, have markedly different approaches. It’s the former’s “Toledo” that provides the seven-minute leadoff/longest track (immediate points), and Dopelord, who’ve kicked around since the 2012 release of their debut, Magick Rites (discussed here), show that they, almost in parallel to a band like Monolord have managed to carve an identity for themselves out of a core Electric Wizard influence. There is perhaps a bit of subtle commentary as a sample tops the initial bassline saying, “A city of the dead… the living dead” as “Toledo” gets started, but while what ensues may be informed by zombie horror, its procession is nonetheless emblematic of the band’s reaching toward an international aesthetic, taking something from outside and making it their own. This is essentially the story of how any “scene” organically develops, and as Poland’s scene has over the course of this decade, like Greece or even Australia, Dopelord have helped pave the way for others to follow.

dopelord weedpecker major kong spaceslug vinyl

One might say the same for Weedpecker, who by now have become a progressive enough group that some part of them probably wishes they had a different moniker. 2018’s III (discussed here) was their label debut for Stickman Records, and their “Rise Above” inclusion on 4-Way Split would seem even to push past that offering’s gorgeous melodic wash. Still holding to the weighted tones of their early work, they too would seem to have found their niche in terms of style, and at just five and a half minutes, “Rise Above” conveys that achievement with telling efficiency. It’s at least a minute shorter than anything they had on III, so it might be indicative of some tightening of their craft in the future, or it could just be a one-off. Either way, the flow Weedpecker hone in that relatively brief time is essential to understanding where they come from as a unit and what they bring to this release and Polish heavy as a whole, so mission well accomplished.

Side B leads off with the instrumentalist Major Kong, who bring forth the 6:11 “The Mechanism” and tap into a core modus of riffing that would seem to know no borders. Theirs might be the least nuanced of the four cuts here, but even for the lack of vocals there are backing swirls deep amid low end and other bits of sonic detailing, bass runs, etc., to dig into, and they demonstrate that if you’ve got groove, you’ve got everything. Some of Major Kong‘s work in the past has tended toward a burlier plod — the trio’s last LP was 2017’s Brace for Impact — but “The Mechanism,” while still out to leave a bruise or two, doesn’t want for melody. It is a clear-headed take on instrumental heavy rock that is pulled off with a live-feeling energy and finds the band able to portray a sense of structure even without the use of traditional verses and choruses. No doubt it should, as Major Kong have been at it for the better part of a decade, but the firmness of their purpose is refreshing and shows yet another side of Polish heavy.

Speaking of, I’m not sure another Polish band have come along in this decade who’ve been able to make a mark as quickly as Spaceslug. The three-piece have worked quickly to issue three full-lengths since 2016 — 2018’s Eye the Tide (review here) was among the year’s essential releases — and the 4-Way Split capstone “Ahtmosphere” underscores their ongoing creative growth, with laid back push into a tonal and melodic wash that, even as the central line becomes, “The atmosphere is gone,” indeed wants nothing for ambience. A solo takes hold in the last minute to bring the track toward its drawn-out conclusion — things fall apart, or maybe just roll to a stop — and “Ahtmosphere” rings out to 6:53 to bookend with Dopelord‘s “Toledo” and further highlight the sense of identity so crucial in what these bands are doing.

Each one has their root influences, and each one has done the work necessary to push past them and discover who they really are as a band. That’s not necessarily a process with a solid ending — who they are will inevitably continue to change — but this split feels like a declarative moment on the part of some of Poland’s strongest acts, telling those who care enough to hear them that their home country deserves consideration as a significant contributor to the greater European underground. They make the case well, and loud.

Dopelord, Weedpecker, Major Kong & Spaceslug, 4-Way Split (2019)

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Review & Track Premiere: The Lord Weird Slough Feg, New Organon

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on May 24th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

the lord weird slough feg new organon

[Click play above to stream ‘Headhunter’ from The Lord Weird Slough Feg’s New Organon. Album is out June 14 on Cruz Del Sur Music.]

For nigh on 30 years, The Lord Weird Slough Feg have served the greater good as classic metal’s gift to heavy rock. Or are they classic rock’s gift to heavy metal? Or metal’s gift to heavy? Plus Celtic influences? Whatever. The point is, across 10 full-lengths and a swath of other singles and splits, etc., the band have become one-of-a-kind practitioners of the metallic arts. New Organon is the San Francisco-based outfit’s first long-player in the five years since 2014’s Digital Resistance (review here) came out on Metal Blade, and it finds them reunited with Cruz del Sur Music for the first since 2009’s Ape Uprising! and 2007’s Hardworlder. It’s a solid fit, considering Slough Feg‘s traditionalist approach, and New Organon feels like a purposeful stripping down of tones and general vibe. Perhaps unsurprisingly to those familiar with Slough Feg‘s work, that suits the material well.

Across 10 tracks and a LP-prime 37 minutes, the four-piece of founding guitarist/vocalist Mike Scalzi, fellow guitarist Angelo Tringali, bassist Adrian Maestas — who takes a lead vocal on side B’s “Uncanny” — and relatively-new drummer Jeff Griffin (John Dust also plays on the album), set about renewing the faith of the denim-clad faithful while at the same time mining the lecture notes of Scalzi, a philosophy professor, for lyrical themes. From the Rousseau through Sartre, Plato through Francis Bacon, from whose work the title derives, Scalzi turns cerebral and existential query into the stuff of fist-pumping proto-thrash and heavy rock and roll. It does not seem like a coincidence that they should re-don their full moniker for the effort, having gone simply by Slough Feg since 2005’s Atavism instead of the full The Lord Weird Slough Feg, since the atmosphere in the clear but sans-frills production and the basic structure of the songs is no less directed to the band’s own roots than those of heavy metal itself. They are among the most woefully underappreciated acts in metal, too bizarre it would seem even for the most brazen of self-declared nonconformists, but all the more righteous for standing alone.

“Headhunter,” which opens, is also the longest track at just over five minutes (immediate points), and the band waste no time whatsoever in letting the listener know the order of things. Guitars intertwine in tense riffing for an early verse over tom runs and the chorus bounds through not quite paying off that tension, but driving it forward nonetheless. A post-midsection movement of starts and stops offset by NWOBHM-style lead work — not the last of it to come — leads to a more ripping-style solo and back to the verse telling tales of piles of shrunken heads and so on. It’s a rousing start to New Organon, and it leads to the brooding and likewise tense “Discourse on Equality,” on which the drums time quick stop-start thuds behind matching guitar/bass chug with a lead line sprawled over with the vocals.

slough feg

It is stomach-tightening, and when they finally let go a little bit and blowout consecutive solos in the back half of the track, it’s a palpable relief as, the go-where-they-want mood set, Slough Feg move into “The Apology,” with a creeping verse and a more standout hook, which perhaps is rivaled only by the title-track still to come as the strongest of the record. “Being and Nothingness” follows, and as every Slough Feg review must at some point include a Thin Lizzy reference, there’s mine, but even more striking is the initial thrust of the song’s intro, which emphasizes how well the band ties together thrash and classic heavy rock. New Organon is a dirtier-sounding album than anything Slough Feg have done in some time, and it’s meant to be. They’re digging in and inviting those who can get on board to do the same, but “Being and Nothingness” isn’t about accessibility. Cut short in its solo and giving way directly to the start of the title-track, it’s a moment meant to dangerously careen near the edge of oblivion, and it does that successfully without losing itself in the process, perhaps finding its completion in “New Organon,” with Scalzi donning Bacon’s perspective for the chorus, “The sum of my knowledge will conquer the earth/And the sons of my college will rise/And give birth.” Take that, scientific method of old!

The title-cut rounds out side A with more fervent chug and ripping soloing, squeezing in a last verse effectively amongst the fray, and turns over the proceedings to “Sword of Machiavelli” and an immediate shift in vibe. Slower and more fluid in its groove, it finds Scalzi‘s vocals more laid back and an almost garage-style feel to the drums and tape-worthy guitar. The shortest inclusion at 2:17, it soon gives way to the sharp, early-metal-style “Uncanny,” which brings Maestas into the vocalist role, which is a change that further builds on the signal sent by “Sword of Machiavelli” that the second half of the album represents a shift from the first. That holds true for the swaying strangeness of “Coming of Age in the Milky Way,” taking its title from Timothy Ferris’ 1988 book of the same name.

Near as I can tell, that’s as modern as the philosophy gets on New Organon, which is fair enough, and the more laid back sensibility that accompanies feels like a massive change from the tightened-fist of “Discourse on Equality” and “Headhunter,” turning back to the Thin Lizzyism on “Exegesis/Tragic Hooligan” with acoustic and electric guitars woven together effectively in the chorus, ahead of the fitting summary that is closer “The Cynic,” with one last megadose of soloing amid a roll-credits melody and something of a return to where Slough Feg came from on the first half of the record. Of course they end on a fading guitar ringout — how could they not? — but as ever with the band’s material, there’s more at play throughout New Organon than riffs and leads, and it’s in the less-tangible nature of what they do that one finds their personality. The sound of struggle in Scalzi‘s vocals. The quick turns of bass and drums. The willful way in which they set their own rules and then play at breaking them. The Lord Weird Slough Feg are unique even among classic metal loyalists. I don’t know if they’ll ever get their due for the quality of the work they’ve done over their time, but they’re clearly engaged in a broader conversation.

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Review & Full Album Stream: 1782, 1782

Posted in Reviews on May 23rd, 2019 by JJ Koczan

1782 self titled

[Click play above to stream 1782’s self-titled debut in its entirety. Album is out May 24 on Heavy Psych Sounds.]

If you go and look up the year 1782 in Wikipedia, you’ll find a rundown of what are considered the noteworthy events that happened across that 12 months. It’s a lot of war and governmental action, people being born, people dying — basically the stuff you’d expect when you think of who was keeping records in the 18th century. None of it is the story Italian doomers 1782 are telling however. The Roman two-piece of Marco Nieddu (vocals, guitar, bass) and Gabriele Fancellu (drums, backing vocals) are focused on the later witch trials in Europe, in particular the case of Anna Göldi, who indeed was tortured and eventually decapitated by the Swiss state in 1782 as a witch after she allegedly put needles in the milk of the child of the family for whom she was working as a maid. In 2007-2008, the Swiss government acknowledged it as a “miscarriage of justice,” so better late than never, but Göldi is considered the last witch to be executed in Switzerland if not wider Europe and her story — including an affair and child with the head of that household, who was married and had her arrested — is emblematic of the treatment of women at the time.

The two-piece don’t take an outwardly critical stance on the subject matter, but neither are they glorifying chopping ladies’ heads off, which is something of a relief. The eponymous “1782,” which appears as the last original cut of the eight inclusions ahead of closer “Celestial Voices,” a Pink Floyd cover with guest vocals and organ, is instrumental, but in “She Was a Witch” and the slow rolling subsequent track “Black Sunday,” they seem nonetheless to be passing judgment of their own on the reasoning of centuries past; fair enough given the enduring spirit of masculine entitlement to control over a woman’s body and life. More than direct commentary, though, 1782‘s self-titled debut — which runs eight songs and 39 minutes delivered through Heavy Psych Sounds with a guest appearance from label honcho Gabriele Fiori (also of Black Rainbows, Killer Boogie and The Pilgrim) on guitar for the aforementioned “She Was a Witch” — prefers to stake its claim in dense-fog doom and nodder groove.

Nieddu‘s vocals are pushed low and echoing in the spirit of true post-Electric Wizard witch doom, and as a result, the tonality surrounding feels all the more viscerally massive. The recording’s overarching rawness — the album was produced by Alfredo Carboni at RKS Studios in Sardinia — only bolsters the bleak aesthetic and makes moments like the chanting toward the end of “The Spell (Maleficium Vitae)” come across as especially resonant ahead of the wah-bass finish. The album begins, suitably enough, with the ringing bell of “Intro (…To the Church)” and moves quickly into the riff-led “Night of Draculia,” a shorter and quicker leadoff that may or may not tie into the witchy thematic but makes a rousing introduction to the sound of the record more generally, with Fancellu‘s drums thud and crash backing the thick guitar and bass tones and Nieddu‘s vocals left to cut through that swamp of low end. The later, hooky “Oh Mary” is more angular, but still something of a complement in terms of overall approach, with the vocals particularly blown out at the forefront of the mix.

1782

That leaves the trio of “The Spell (Maleficium Vitae),” “She Was a Witch” and “Black Sunday” as the doomed heart of 1782, as well as the point of the switch between sides A and B, but the latter seems to be less of a concern for the band than a linear flow from front to back. As they push deeper into the villainous fuzz and damned melodicism, the sense of plunge is palpable, and their take on doom, well informed by the likes of Saint Vitus and of course Black Sabbath, nonetheless holds a modern edge in its willingness to cast off the trappings of frill in favor of the most straight-ahead-into-the-abyss vibe possible. Small turns here and there like Fiore‘s guitar solo in “She Was a Witch,” or the already-noted chanting in “The Spell (Maleficium Vitae),” or the organ showing up in the second half of “1782” in order to tie it more fluidly to the capping Floyd cover, do much to distinguish individual pieces, but clearly 1782 are thinking in terms of their first offering as a whole experience.

And it is their first offering. They are a new band, formed in Dec. 2018 and hit the studio this past February. Nieddu and Fancellu have worked together previously in the band Raikinas — whose vocalist, Alfredo Carboni, sings on “Celestial Voices” while Nico Sechi adds Hammond beneath — and that prior experience helps stave off some of the formative feel that might otherwise typify an effort from a group so nascent, but there’s little doubt in listening that 1782 are doing the work here of finding their sound and their place in the sphere of doom, discovering what they want to say with their sound and how they want to go about it. There are moments where the album feels disjointed, as in the jump from “Oh Mary” to “1782,” but the band make clear their foundation in these tracks, and as an initial connection, it still proves largely cohesive thanks in part to its conceptual basis and tonal consistency.

It is one to grow on, and listening to the hint at vocal harmony in the second half of “She Was a Witch,” 1782 give hints of their intention to do just that. In the meantime, their debut under the banner of obscure history gives them an immediately distinguishing place from which to grow. They’re neither strictly traditional doom nor cult rock, stoner riffing nor retro-style throwback, but there are of course elements of all of them at play and more besides. Where 1782 might lead them, I’d expect natural progression around what they’re doing here, with a mindset toward craft coming forward in kind with the clear purpose in their overall sound. They may stay this raw and they may not, but it works for them here.

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