Review & Track Premiere: Blues Funeral, Awakening

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 14th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

blues funeral awakening

[Click play above to listen to ‘Shadow of the Snake’ from Blues Funeral’s Awakening. Album is out Aug. 25.]

Immediately the sense from Awakening is one of continuity. To make their second full-length, and their second in as many years behind July 2016’s The Search (review here), Houston four-piece Blues Funeral returned to Lucky Run Studios to record and mix with Jeremy Dudman and Mike Mikulka. Like the debut before it, the sophomore outing features six tracks, five of which run between five and six-plus minutes long, plus one cut that branches out longer — last time it was the title-track, here it’s 8:21 closer “The Gathering Dust.” Like the debut before it, Awakening features the dual-guitar-led lineup of guitarists/vocalists Maurice Eggenschwiler and Jan “El Janni” Kimmel (the latter also keys), bassist Gabriel Katz and drummer Cory Cousins (the latter also backing vocals on “Awakening” and “Casimir”), a mastering job by Collin Jordan at the Boiler Room, artwork by David Paul Seymour and a sound that toys with the lines between progressive and classic rock, classic rock and classic metal, and classic metal and doom. Listening to songs like opener “Shadow of the Snake” and “Illusions of Reality,” it’s pretty clear that Blues Funeral had plenty about their debut they liked and wanted to use as a model to build from.

Fair enough. Given how solidified The Search was in its approach and the cohesive presentation that it brought forth from the band, one isn’t inclined to argue, but just because that record and Awakening share core aspects doesn’t preclude growth on the part of Blues Funeral either. Rather, as a group and as individual players, they demonstrate a forward-looking mentality in terms of their own development that seems to have been taken on with willful purpose, and like other let’s-have-a-guitar-fight-except-it’s-not-really-a-fight-and-also-we-harmonize, prog-fueled outfits of their ilk — the underrated likes of Valkyrie and Corsair come to mind most readily, as well as newer Beelzefuzz — Blues Funeral do justice to their influences in their own progression as much as through the sonic foundation from which they work.

Melody is central throughout. Awakening‘s six tracks run a manageable 39 minutes and while for the bulk of that time there’s more rhythmic motion going on or more active lead-taking than one would generally classify as “pastoral,” the material is rife with nuance, be it in the form of the layered-in acoustics of “Casimir,” the organ that accompanies the initial bounce of “Shadow of the Snake,” the mellotron in “The Gathering Dust,” guest vocals on “Firedrake” or even just the way “Awakening” itself so skillfully blends metallic and heavy rocking impulses, taking cues from Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and later Opeth in its blend of organ and guitar and the clean delivery of the vocal harmonies between Kimmel and Eggenschwiler, which prove throughout once again to be central figure of Blues Funeral‘s sound, as well as a tasteful example of their development as songwriters and players.

The two guitarists and Cousins played together in the less prog-rocking Sanctus Bellum, so they weren’t strangers coming into Blues Funeral or anything, but among the elements of the newer outfit established on this follow-up is the ongoing shaping of a personality all its own, increasingly distinct as it digs into the soul-infused boogie of “Illusions of Reality” and subtle vocal arrangement complexity there as complemented by Katz‘s highlight bass performance in the quieter lead break in the midsection. Once again, melody is the root, even from the rhythm section.

blues funeral (photo Grooverock)

Couple this with a firm sense of two-sided intent. The first three tracks — “Shadow of the Snake,” “Awakening” and “Illusions of Reality” — are rockers. The title-track especially feels dug into a more crunching tonality at its launch before opening to its more flowing chorus, but it and the two pieces surrounding are defined by a more straightforward lean on hooks and structural classicism. At 5:05, “Illusions of Reality” is the shortest inclusion on Awakening, and its uptempo push is friendly, warm and inviting in a good-times-listening-to-ThinLizzy fashion that even vaguely metal-derived songcraft rarely dares to be. Blues Funeral, as much time as they spend with Eggenschwiler and Kimmel‘s guitars at the fore, are aiming to directly engage their listeners on Awakening‘s side A, and their success in this effort is precisely what allows them to hold a sense of full-album fluidity as the subsequent side B begins to branch out its more expansive modus.

Now, are Blues Funeral going experimental black metal drone? Nope. While all three are longer than “Shadow of the Snake,” “Awakening” or “Illusions of Reality,” tonally and atmospherically, “Firedrake,” “Casimir” and “The Gathering Dust” stay consistent with what the first half of Awakening has on offer — and they’re correct to do so — but each of the last three pieces also has some bit of flourish to stand it out from its surroundings. Perhaps “Firedrake” is the most obvious, with the already-noted guest vocal appearance from Kelly Cousins Adams (sister to Cory) marking a departure from the choruses delivered by the guitarists together and the tradeoffs between them. Complemented by particularly righteous Nord from Kimmel and guitar ambling alongside the keys’ winding course — also another must-hear bassline from Katz — “Firedrake” holds a patient and flowing presentation that, while in its last third gives into some doomier-feeling riff and solo work, also sets up the arrival of the acoustic/electric blend that will continue in “Casimir.”

One does not imagine the similarity in title to Led Zeppelin‘s “Kashmir” is coincidental, as Awakening‘s penultimate track takes on some loosely Eastern-feeling scales in its intricate barrage of leads and has a narrative drama in its verses no less born of classic heavy rock. Resolution, as it will, comes in a last solo punctuated by ride bell from Cousins and a sudden stop to let “The Gathering Dust” take hold on its own terms — a thrust of NWOBHM-style poise is backed by carefully-woven drawn-out lead lines (perhaps the most Akerfeldtian moment on Awakening, especially with the key section and riff that follow), and suddenly the point of emphasis becomes how much Blues Funeral have been able to build and maintain a momentum across the album’s span while still allowing individual songs their moment, not sounding rushed or hurried in any way, but never still either.

The guitars are key in this, of course, but it’s a whole-band function just the same, and another example of Blues Funeral‘s second offering having moved ahead from the first. As the closer makes its way through more harmonized soloing in its middle and toward its instrumental, also-solo-topped final minutes, and ends in classy fashion with a quick wash of cymbals and pulled-string scorch, the message is no less plain than it has been all along that the foursome have a determined idea of what they want to do as a band, who they are as players and songwriters, and how they should be working together toward the common goals of their processes. The value of that isn’t to be understated when it comes to making Awakening work as well as it does. Given the progressive feel they elicit throughout, that underlying consciousness couldn’t be more appropriate, and it is one more way in which Blues Funeral earn the listener’s trust in terms of the moves they make here and, invariably, those that will follow their next time out.

Blues Funeral on Thee Facebooks

Blues Funeral on Bandcamp

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Blues Funeral Hit the Studio this Weekend to Record Awakening; Album Art & Tracklisting Revealed

Posted in Whathaveyou on May 16th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

blues funeral

Today, Houston’s Blues Funeral reveal the David Paul Seymour cover art for their forthcoming second album, Awakening. On Saturday, the progressively-tinged heavy rock/metal four-piece actually hit the studio to record the thing. Ha. The follow-up to their 2016 debut, The Search (review here), will reunite the band with Jeremy Dudman and Mike Mikulka at Lucky Run Studios for recording and mixing, and as Seymour did the front-piece for that outing as well, it seems like they’re definitely not fixing what wasn’t broken about their first time out. With a likewise quick turnaround from one batch of songs to the next, I’ll be interested to hear how the last year of doing shows and developing this material finds them having progressed from where they were with The Search. I guess we’ve probably got a little ways to go before we get there.

So be it. “Band hits studio” is always one of my favorite kinds of stories to post, since it’s one of the best times a band can possibly have together, so all the best to Blues Funeral as they embark on the making of Awakening. I’m happy in the meantime to unveil the cover art and the tracklisting, which you can see below:

blues funeral awakening

Blues Funeral – Awakening

Houston’s Blues Funeral to Enter Lucky Run Studios 5/20 to record Sophomore Album ‘Awakening’

Houston-based progressive metal quartet Blues Funeral will enter Lucky Run Studios on 5/20 to record their sophomore album. The band will once again be working with Jeremy Dudman and Mike Mikulka for recording and mixing. ‘Awakening’ is the follow up to the band’s self-released debut, ‘The Search.’ The cover art unveiled here continues the longtime collaboration with artist, David Paul Seymour.

“‘Awakening’ is a groove-laden slab of progressive metal inspired by the music of the 60’s and 70’s,” comments the band. “The sound on this record is very much a continuation of many of the ideas explored on our debut record, ‘The Search’. We maintain our focus on things like guitar harmonies, organ, and harmony vocals. That said, ‘Awakening’ takes those ideas and pushes them into some areas that may surprise some listeners. With this record, we feel that we’ve really challenged ourselves with the arrangements and are looking forward to tackling this in the studio!”

Track Listing:
1) Shadow of the Snake
2) Awakening
3) Illusions of Reality
4) Firedrake
5) Casimir
6) The Gathering Dust

https://www.facebook.com/bluesfuneralofficial
https://bluesfuneral.bandcamp.com/

Blues Funeral, “Shadow of the Snake” Live

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The Obelisk Presents: The Top 20 Debut Albums of 2016

Posted in Features on December 15th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

the obelisk top 20 debut albums of 2016

Please note: This post is not culled in any way from the Year-End Poll, which is ongoing. If you haven’t yet contributed your favorites of 2016 to that, please do.

Of all the lists I do to wrap up or start any given year, this is the hardest. As someone obviously more concerned with first impressions than I am and thus probably better-dressed once said, you only get one chance at them. For bands, that can be a vicious bite in the ass on multiple levels.

To wit, you put out a great debut, fine, but there’s a whole segment of your listeners who’re bound to think you’ll never live up to it again. You put out a meh debut, you sell yourself short. Or maybe your debut is awesome but doesn’t really represent where you want to be as a band, so it’s a really good first impression, but a mistaken one. There are so many things that can go wrong or go right with any LP, but with debuts, the stakes are that much higher because it’s the only time you’ll get the chance to engage your audience for the first time. That matters.

And when it comes to putting together a list of the best debuts of the year, how does one begin to judge? True, some of these acts have done EPs and singles and splits and things like that before, and that’s at least something to go on, but can one really be expected to measure an act’s potential based on a single collection of songs? Is that fair to anyone involved? Or on the other side, is it even possible to take a debut entirely on its own merits, without any consideration for where it might lead the band in question going forward? I know that’s not something I’ve ever been able to do, certainly. Or particularly interested in doing. I like context.

Still, one presses on. I guess the point is that, like picking any kind of prospects, some will pan out and some won’t. I’ve done this for enough years now that I’ve seen groups flame or fade out while others have risen to new heights with each subsequent release. It’s always a mix. But at the same time, it’s important to step back and say that, as of today, this is where it’s at.

And so it is:

KING BUFFALO ORION

The Obelisk Presents: The Top 20 Debut Albums of 2016

1. King Buffalo, Orion
2. Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree
3. Heavy Temple, Chassit
4. Holy Grove, Holy Grove
5. Worshipper, Shadow Hymns
6. Vokonis, Olde One Ascending
7. Wretch, Wretch
8. Year of the Cobra, In the Shadows Below
9. BigPig, Grande Puerco
10. Fuzz Evil, Fuzz Evil
11. Bright Curse, Before the Shore
12. Conclave, Sins of the Elders
13. Pale Grey Lore, Pale Grey Lore
14. High Fighter, Scars and Crosses
15. Spirit Adrift, Chained to Oblivion
16. Bellringer, Jettison
17. Church of the Cosmic Skull, Is Satan Real?
18. Merchant, Suzerain
19. Beastmaker, Lusus Naturae
20. King Dead, Woe and Judgment

Honorable Mention

There are many. First, the self-titled from Pooty Owldom, which had so much weirdo charm it made my head want to explode. And Iron Man frontman Dee Calhoun‘s acoustic solo record was technically a debut. And Atala‘s record. And Horehound. And Mother Mooch. And Domkraft. And Spaceslug. And Graves at Sea? Shit. More than a decade after their demo, they finally put out a debut album. And Second Grave‘s full-length would turn out to be their swansong, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the thing. There were a lot of records to consider in putting this list together. As always, it could’ve been a much longer list.

For example, here are 20 more: Swan Valley Heights, Arctic, Blues Funeral, Teacher, Psychedelic Witchcraft, Nonsun, Duel, Banquet, Floodlore, Mindkult‘s EP, Mountain Dust, Red LamaRed Wizard, Limestone Whale, Dunbarrow, Comacozer, Sinister Haze, Pants Exploder, Akasava, Katla and No Man’s Valley. That’s not even the end of it. I could go on.

Notes

It was a fight to the finish. There’s always one, and as late as yesterday I could be found kicking back and forth between King Buffalo and Elephant Tree in the top spot. What was it that finally put King Buffalo‘s Orion over Elephant Tree‘s self-titled? I don’t know. Ask me tomorrow and the answer might be completely different.

They had a lot in common. Not necessarily in terms of style — King Buffalo basked in spacious Americana-infused heavy psych jams while Elephant Tree proffered more earthbound riffing and melodies — but each executed memorable songs across its span in a way that would be unfair to ask of a debut. The potential for what both bands can turn into down the line played a part in the picks, but something else they share between them is that the quality of the work they’re doing now warrants the top spots. Orion and Elephant Tree were great albums, not just great first albums.

From there, we see a wide swath of next-generation encouragement for the future of heavy rock, whether it’s coming from Sweden’s Vokonis or Philadelphia’s Heavy Temple, or London’s Bright Curse, or Los Angeles duo BigPig. The latter act’s punkish fuzz definitely benefited from guitarist/vocalist Dino von Lalli‘s experience playing in Fatso Jetson, but one hopes that as the years go on his own multifaceted songwriting style will continue to grow as well.

A few offerings weren’t necessarily unexpected but still lived up to the anticipation. High Fighter‘s EP prefaced their aggro sludgecore well. Ditto that for the grueling death-sludge of Massachusetts natives Conclave. The aforementioned Bright Curse, Merchant, Fuzz Evil, Atala, Bellringer, Holy Grove, Wretch and Worshipper all had offerings of one sort or another prior to their full-length debuts — in the case of Bellringer, it was just a series of videos, while Wretch had the entire The Gates of Slumber catalog to fall back on — but each of those albums offered surprises nonetheless.

It would’ve been hard not to be taken by the songwriting on display from the likes of Holy Grove, Year of the Cobra, Pale Grey Lore and Beastmaker, who between them covered a pretty broad variety of atmosphere but found ways to deliver high-quality crafted material in that. Those albums were a pleasure to hear. Put Boston’s Worshipper in that category as well, though they were just as much a standout from the pack in terms of their performance as what they were performing. Speaking of performance, the lush melodies from Church of the Cosmic Skull and classic progressive flourish were enough to make me a believer. Simply gorgeous. And one-man outfit Spirit Adrift shined, if in that matte-black doom kind of way, on an encouraging collection of modern melancholic heavy that seemed to hint at sprawl to come.

As we get down to the bottom of the list we find Pennsylvania ambient heavy post-rockers King Dead. Their Woe and Judgment was released digitally last year (2015) but the LP came out earlier this year, so I wasn’t quite sure where to place them ultimately. I know they got some mention on the 2015 lists somewhere, but while they’re an act who’ve flown under a lot of people’s radar as yet, I have good feelings about how they might continue to dig into their sound and the balance of bleakness and psychedelic color they bring to their material. They’re slated for a follow-up in 2017, so this won’t be the last list on which they appear in the next few weeks.

Like I said at the outset, putting out a debut album is a special moment for any band. Not everyone gets to that point and not everyone gets beyond it, so while a list like this is inherently bound to have some element of speculation, it’s still a worthy endeavor to celebrate the accomplishments of those who hit that crucial moment in their creative development. Hopefully these acts continue to grow, flourish, and build on what they’ve thus far been able to realize sonically. That’s the ideal.

And before I go, once again, let me reinforce the notion that I recognize this is just a fraction of the whole. I’d like it to be the start of a conversation. If there was a debut album that kicked your ass this year and you don’t see it here, please drop a note in the comments below. I’m sure I’ll be adding more honorable mentions and whatnot over the next couple days, so if you see glaring omissions, let’s have ’em.

Thanks for reading.

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Blues Funeral, The Search: Harbingers and Paragons

Posted in Reviews on August 17th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

blues-funeral-the-search

A fervent undercurrent of metal runs beneath the progressive atmospheres of The Search. It extends even to the liner notes of the CD, which not only contain the full lyrics, typed out clear with credits, but notes included for which of the two guitarists — Maurice Eggenschwiler and Jan “El Janni” Kimmel, both also vocals — is taking the solo in that place. More often than not, it’s one, then the other. Shades of oldschool thrash there, but the debut full-length from the Houston, Texas, four-piece owes much more of its crux to prog metal and heavy rock than to anything so raw as younger Slayer. Still, the dogwhistle blows to those who might hear that particular frequency, and the spirit of precision that was always an undercurrent both of thrash — underproduced as it was — and the NWOBHM manifest in these vinyl-ready six tracks/41-minutes, topped off with artwork by David Paul Seymour.

The band was founded by Kimmel, Eggenschwiler and drummer Cory Cousins in 2014 following the hiatus of Sanctus Bellum, and in bringing on board bassist Gabriel Katz, they’ve also shifted their sonic focus toward grander fare. Tonally, The Search, which was recorded and mixed at Lucky Run Studio in Houston, adopts a heavy rock feel, but as it’s presented in such a clean, clear style — and maybe standard tuning? — the overarching impression becomes that of the band’s reach rather than their heft. That’s fitting for the traditions in which they’re working, from Uriah Heep to latter-day Opeth — also noteworthy that Kimmel handles keys, specified by the band as Nord, which Opeth‘s Per Wiberg also used — and with the shared vocal duties, they bring something of themselves fluidly to what winds up being an ambitious debut release.

Variety in the songwriting extends to within individual tracks as well as between them. With the exception of the penultimate title-cut at 9:45, songs range around five to six minutes long, but as Blues Funeral show immediately with the blend of Thin Lizzy bounce and proggy lead work in opener “Autumn Dream.” A previously posted live version had reminded me of Beelzefuzz, and though that’s less the case tonally on the record, some element remains, though the context of The Search immediately broadens with “Harbinger,” the shortest track at 5:19, which takes the central groove of Black Sabbath‘s “A National Acrobat” and successfully repurposes it to suit a rhythmic base for vocal harmonies dressed out with flourish of acoustic guitar, choice ride work from Cousins and later thickening of tone behind the soloing of Eggenschwiler and Kimmel.

blues funeral

Something of a darker feel results than anything either “Harbinger” or “Autumn Dream” before it offered, but the rush of “Planet Void” and the urgency of its push assure Blues Funeral aren’t mired one way or the other. With more impressive dual-vocal work and nods vocally and in the riff to Iron Maiden, it’s Katz‘s low end again that holds the proceedings together as the guitars are prone to launching into momentary fits of scorch, only to return to the verse shortly thereafter, as though nothing ever happened. The vocals are dry at least for the most part, and I don’t think some treatment of reverb would hurt, but as it stands they effectively emphasize harmonies when intended, as in the chorus of “Planet Void,” which is revisited just before a final solo — from Kimmel — brings the first half of The Search to a close.

Kimmel adds organ to “Paragon of Virtue,” and with the creepier doom vibe that follows, it would seem to mirror the Beelzefuzzing of “Autumn Dream” while, again, putting its own ’70s-inspired spin on it. The organ rises to prominence in the mix before all drops out leaving light, intricately-plucked Akerfeldtian guitar as the bed for an instrumental midsection — solo included, naturally — that builds guitar harmonies in layers before shifting into its next phase of lower-toned chug behind another solo section. A little Ritchie Blackmore circa Rainbow would seem to be the initial basis for the start of The Search‘s title-track, but there’s a more patient take in the album’s longest cut — it meanders a bit, purposefully — before sweeping in with organ to its first verse at around the two-minute mark, and the classic heavy rock style still holds its complement of metallic vibe, Katz‘s bass getting a moment to shine early for its heretofore underappreciated tonal warmth.

With more spacious vocals, “The Search” offers a hook as well as proggy expanse, and even after it veers into a more extended organ solo, it takes the time to bring back the chorus and keep the composition itself as the focus, rather than the execution. One might’ve expected Blues Funeral to follow it by ending with a lighter, more melancholic feel. They go the opposite route. “Palmdale” rounds out with nigh-on-thrashy riffing and a leveled-up push from even what “Planet Void” brought to bear, delivered with a down-to-business efficiency and a Candlemass-style soaring vocal that serves to highlight how skillfully the band is able to mesh their influences together.

By the time they get there, of course they end with a solo-topped big rock finish. Well earned. Keeping in mind that The Search is their first outing — preceded by no recordings so far as I know — Blues Funeral meet their considerable ambitions head on, while also setting themselves up for stylistic expansion in any number of directions. They effectively bridge gaps between the classic and modern, rock and metal, and metal and prog worlds, and, most encouraging of all, sound like they’re only going to keep growing.

Blues Funeral, The Search (2016)

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Blues Funeral on Bandcamp

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Blues Funeral Enter the Studio this Weekend

Posted in Whathaveyou on May 20th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

blues funeral (Photo by Grooverock Photography)

Tomorrow, May 21, dual-guitar proto-doomers Blues Funeral will enter the studio to record their debut full-length. What’s been given the title The Search will comprise six songs to be tracked at Lucky Run Studios in the four-piece’s native Houston, Texas, for a total runtime of 41 minutes, give or take. As for who’ll be at the helm, it’s Michael Mikulka, who owns Lucky Run and is known for engineering Kyuss‘ early LP Wretch. Though both would fall under the general umbrella of “heavy,” those legendary desert rockers shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a comparison point when it comes to Blues Funeral, who as the live clip for “Autumn Dream” below shows, owe much more of their approach to organ-laced classic doom, marked out by the combined vocals of guitarists Maurice Eggenschwiler and Jan Kimmel.

Kimmel also handles organ on the track, and the harmonies of voice and instrument in combination with the key work gives an impression not unlike Beelzefuzz, though obviously the processes behind it are different. Kimmel, Eggenschwiler and drummer Cory Cousins come out of the band Sanctus BellumBlues Funeral is rounded out by bassist Gabriel Katz — and the new project has some of that same underlying metallurgy, but it’s still clear that they’re working to establish their own sound as well.

No word on a release date yet for The Search, but you can find album art by David Paul Seymour and some comment that Eggenschwiler was kind enough to give on the upcoming studio time below. Blues Funeral will also open the Houston date for The Obsessed, The Atomic Bitchwax and Karma to Burn tour on June 9, and that info follows:

blues-funeral-the-search

Maurice Eggenschwiler on recording:

“It’s crazy to think that we’ve already been playing together as a band for over a year. Though our music tastes are all fairly varied, we all share a mutual affinity for music from the ’60s and ’70s. Especially some of the music that really has a pronounced inclusion of Hammond organ. While we were playing together in Sanctus Bellum we’d always talked about a project that would allow us to bring in more of that shared influence, but never had the time to do it. When Sanctus needed to go on hiatus for a bit, we were finally given that opportunity and from November 2014 to date, we’ve had the chance to write and perform the six songs that are ultimately going to end up on this record… as well as a few others that we’re currently working on arranging and will unveil later. The album title, The Search, was taken in part from the first song that we arranged as a band and is also a bit of a nod to the idea that we’re searching to find that perfect blend of all our influences in this project. We’ve been thrilled to really push the boundaries of our songwriting with this project and are very excited to finally get the music out on a consumable format. We’re excited for what the future holds.”

Blues Funeral is:
Jan Kimmel (El Janni) – Guitar, Nord, Vocals
Maurice Eggenschwiler – Guitar, Vocals
Cory Cousins – Drums
Gabriel Katz – Bass

Blues Funeral live:
June 9 Walter’s Downtown, Houston, Texas w/ The Obsessed, The Atomic Bitchwax & Karma to Burn

https://www.facebook.com/bluesfuneralofficial
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZiv893LiFGmuOIYI9xO4iA

Blues Funeral, “Autumn Dream” Live, Jan. 31, 2016

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