Quarterly Review: Loss, BardSpec, Sinner Sinners, Cavra, Black Tremor & Sea Witch, Supersonic Blues, Masterhand, Green Lung, Benthic Realm, Lâmina

Posted in Reviews on July 11th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

quarterly-review-summer-2017

Day two of the Quarterly Review and all is chugging along. I was on the road for part of the day yesterday and will be again today, so there’s some chaos underlying what I’m sure on the surface seems like an outwardly smooth process — ha. — but yeah, things are moving forward. Today is a good mix of stuff, which makes getting through it somewhat easier on my end, as opposed to trying to find 50 different ways to say “riffy,” so I hope you take the time to sample some audio as you make your way through, to get a feel for where these bands are coming from. A couple highlights of the week in here, as always. We go.

Quarterly Review #11-20:

Loss, Horizonless

loss horizonless

Horizonless (on Profound Lore) marks a welcome if excruciating return from Nashville death-doomers Loss, who debuted six years ago with 2011’s Despond (review here) and who, much to their credit, waste no time in making up for their absence with 64 soul-crushing minutes across nine slabs of hyperbole-ready atmospheric misery. The longer, rumble-caked, slow-motion lumbering of “The Joy of all Who Sorrow,” “All Grows on Tears,” “Naught,” the title-track and closer “When Death is All” (which boasts guests spots from Leviathan’s Wrest, Dark Castle’s Stevie Floyd and producer Billy Anderson) are companioned by shorter ambient works like the creepy horror soundtrack “I.O.” and the hum of “Moved Beyond Murder,” but the deeper it goes, the more Horizonless lives up to its name in creating a sense of unremitting, skyline-engulfing darkness. That doesn’t mean it’s without an emotional center. As Loss demonstrate throughout, there’s nothing that escapes their consumptive scope, and as they shift through the organ-laced “The End Steps Forth,” “Horizonless,” “Banishment” and the long-fading wash of the finale, the album seems as much about eating its own heart as yours. A process both gorgeous and brutal.

Loss on Thee Facebooks

Profound Lore Records website

 

BardSpec, Hydrogen

bardspec hydrogen

It’s only fair to call Hydrogen an experimentalist work, but don’t necessarily take that to mean that Enslaved guitarist Ivar Bjørnson doesn’t have an overarching vision for what his BardSpec project is. With contributions along the way from Today is the Day’s Steve Austin and former Trinacria compatriot Iver Sandøy (also Manngard), Bjørnson crafts extended pieces of ambient guitar and electronica-infused beats on works like “Fire Tongue” and the thumping “Salt,” resulting in two kinds of interwoven progressive otherworldlinesses not so much battling it out as exploring the spaces around each other. Hydrogen veers toward the hypnotic even through the more manic-churning bonus track “Teeth,” but from the psych-dance transience of “Bone” (video posted here) to the unfolding wash of “Gamma,” BardSpec is engaged in creating its own aesthetic that’s not only apart from what Bjørnson is most known for in Enslaved, but apart even from its influences in modern atmospherics and classic, electronics-infused prog.

BardSpec on Thee Facebooks

ByNorse Music website

 

Sinner Sinners, Optimism Disorder

There’s a current of rawer punk running beneath Sinner Sinners’ songwriting – or on the surface of it if you happen to be listening to “California” or “Outsider” or “Hate Yourself” or “Preachers,” etc. – but especially when the L.A. outfit draw back on the push a bit, their Last Hurrah Records and Cadavra Records full-length Optimism Disorder bears the hallmarks of Rancho de la Luna, the studio where it was recorded. To wit, the core duo of Steve and Sam Thill lead the way through the Queens of the Stone Age-style drive of opener “Last Drop” (video posted here), “Desperation Saved Me (Out of Desperation)” and though finale “Celexa Blues” is more aggressive, its tones and overall hue, particularly in the context of the bounce of “Together We Stand” and “Too Much to Dream” earlier, still have that desert-heavy aspect working for them. It’s a line that Sinner Sinners don’t so much straddle as crash through and stomp all over, but I’m not sure Optimism Disorder would work any other way.

Sinner Sinners on Thee Facebooks

Sinner Sinners on Bandcamp

Last Hurrah Records website

 

Cavra, Cavra

cavra cavra

The five-song/52-minute self-titled debut from Argentina trio Cavra was first offered digitally name-your-price-style late in 2016 and picked up subsequently by South American Sludge. There’s little reason to wonder why. Comprised of guitarist/vocalist Cristian Kocak, bassist/vocalist Fernando Caminal and drummer Matias Gallipoli, the Buenos Aires three-piece place themselves squarely in the sphere of their home country’s rich heritage in heavy rock and psychedelic fluidity, with earthy tones, a resounding spaciousness in longer cuts like the all-15-minutes-plus “2010,” “Montaña” and “Torquemada.” My mind went immediately to early and mid-period Los Natas as a reference point for how the vocals cut through the density of “Montaña,” but even as Cavra show punkier and more straightforward thrust on the shorter “Dos Soles” (4:10) and “Librianna” (2:45) – the latter also carrying a marked grunge feel – they seem to keep one foot in lysergism. Perhaps less settled than it wants to be in its quiet parts, Cavra’s Cavra nonetheless reaches out with a tonal warmth and organic approach that mark a welcome arrival.

Cavra on Thee Facebooks

South American Sludge Records on Thee Facebooks

 

Black Tremor & Sea Witch, Split

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One has to wonder if whichever of the involved parties – be it the two acts or either of the labels, Sunmask Records or Hypnotic Dirge – had in mind a land-and-sea kind of pairing in putting together Saskatoon’s Black Tremor or Nova Scotia’s Sea Witch for this split release, because that’s basically where they wound up. Black Tremor, who issued their debut EP in 2016’s Impending (review here), answer the post-Earth vibes with more bass/drums/cello instrumental exploration on the two-part “Hexus,” while the massive tonality of duo Sea Witch answers back – though not literally; they’re also instrumental – with three cuts, “Green Tide,” “As the Crow Flies Part One” and “As the Crow Flies Part Two.” The two outfits have plenty in common atmospherically, but where Black Tremor seem to seek open spaces in their sound, Sea Witch prefer lung-crushing heft, and, well, there isn’t really a wrong answer to that question. Two distinct intentions complementing each other in fluidity and a mood that goes from grim and contemplative to deathly and bleak.

Black Tremor on Thee Facebooks

Sea Witch on Thee Facebooks

Hypnotic Dirge Records webstore

Sunmask Records webstore

 

Supersonic Blues, Supersonic Blues Theme b/w Curses on My Soul

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It takes Den Haag trio Supersonic Blues no more than eight minutes to bust out one of 2017’s best short releases in their Who Can You Trust? Records debut single, Supersonic Blues Theme b/w Curses on My Soul. Yes, I mean it. The young three-piece of guitarist Timothy, bassist Gianni and drummer Lennart absolutely nail a classic boogie-rock vibe on the two-tracker, and from the gotta-hear low end that starts “Curses on My Soul,” the unabashed hook of “Supersonic Blues Theme” and the blown-out garage vocals that top both, the two-tracker demonstrates clearly not only that there’s still life to be had in heavy ‘70s loyalism when brought to bear with the right kind of energy, but that Supersonic Blues are on it like fuzz on tone. Killer feel all the way and shows an exceeding amount of potential for a full-length that one can only hope won’t follow too far behind. Bonus points for recording with Guy Tavares at Motorwolf. Hopefully they do the same when it comes time for the LP.

Supersonic Blues on Thee Facebooks

Who Can You Trust? Records webstore

 

Masterhand, Mind Drifter

masterhand-mind-drifter

A neo-psych trio from Oklahoma City, Masterhand seem like the kind of group who might at a moment’s notice pack their gear and go join the legions of freaks tripping out on the West Coast. Can’t imagine they wouldn’t find welcome among that I-see-colors-everywhere underground set – at least if their debut long-player, Mind Drifter, is anything to go by. Fuzz like Fuzz, acid like Uncle, and a quick, raw energy that underlies and propels the proceedings through quick tracks like “Fear Monger” and “Lucifer’s Dream” – tense bass and drums behind more languid wah and surf guitar before a return to full-on fuzz – yeah, they make a solid grab for upstart imprint King Volume Records, which has gotten behind Mind Drifter for a cassette issue. There’s some growing to do, but the psych-garage feel of “Chocolate Cake” is right on, “Heavy Feels” is a party, and when they want, they make even quick cuts like “Paranoia Destroyer” feel expansive. That, along with the rest of the release, bodes remarkably well.

Masterhand on Thee Facebooks

King Volume Records webstore

 

Green Lung, Green Man Rising

green-lung-green-man-rising

Groove-rolling four-piece Green Lung boast former members of Oak and Tomb King, among others, and Green Man Rising, their first digital single, is the means by which they make their entry into London’s crowded underground sphere. Aside from the apparent nod to Type O Negative in the title – and the plenty of more-than-apparent nod in guitarist Scott Masson’s riffing – “Green Man Rising” and “Freak on a Peak” bask in post-Church of Misery blown-out cymbals from drummer Matt Wiseman, corresponding tones, while also engaging a sense of space via rich low end from bassist Andrew Cave and the echoing vocals of Tom Killingbeck. There’s an aesthetic identity taking shape in part around nature worship, and a burgeoning melodicism that one imagines will do likewise more over time, but they’ve got stonerly hooks in the spirit of Acrimony working in their favor and in a million years that’s never going to be a bad place to start. Cool vibe; makes it easy to look forward to more from them.

Green Lung on Thee Facebooks

Green Lung on Bandcamp

 

Benthic Realm, Benthic Realm

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In 2016, Massachusetts-based doom metallers Second Grave issued one of the best debut albums of the year in their long-awaited Blacken the Sky (review here)… and then, quite literally days later, unexpectedly called it quits. It was like a cruel joke, teasing their potential and then cutting it short of full realization. The self-titled debut EP from Benthic Realm, which features Second Grave guitarist/vocalist Krista van Guilder (also ex-Warhorse) and bassist Maureen Murphy alongside drummer Brian Banfield (The Scimitar), would seem to continue the mission of that prior outfit if perhaps in an even more metallic direction, drawing back on some of Second Grave’s lumber in favor of a mid-paced thrust while holding firm to the melodic sensibility that worked so well across Blacken the Sky’s span. For those familiar with Second Grave, Benthic Realm is faster, not as dark, and perhaps somewhat less given to outward sonic extremity, but it’s worth remembering that “Awakening,” “Don’t Fall in Line” and “Where Serpents Dwell” are just an introduction and that van Guilder and Murphy might go on a completely different direction over the longer term after going back to square one as they do here.

Benthic Realm website

Benthic Realm on Bandcamp

 

Lâmina, Lilith

lamina-lilith

Smack dab in the middle of Lilith, the debut album from Lisbon-based doom/heavy rockers Lâmina, sits the 20-minute aberration “Maze.” It’s a curious track in a curious place on the record, surrounded by the chugging “Evil Rising” and bass-led rocker bounce of “Psychodevil,” but though it’s almost a full-length unto itself (at least an EP), Lâmina make the most of its extended and largely linear course, building on the tonal weight already shown in the earlier “Cold Blood” and “Big Black Angel” and setting up the tension of “Education for Death” and the nine-minute semi-title-track finale “In the Warmth of Lilith,” which feels a world away from the modern stonerism of “Psychodevil” in its slower and thoroughly doomed rollout. There’s a subtle play of scope happening across Lilith, drawn together by post-grunge tonal clarity and vocal melodies, and Lâmina establish themselves as potentially able to pursue any number of paths going forward from here. If they can correspondingly develop the penchant for songwriting they already show in these cuts as well, all the better.

Lâmina on Thee Facebooks

Lâmina on Bandcamp

 

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Second Grave Announce Breakup

Posted in Whathaveyou on August 19th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

I’ll freely admit to being somewhat taken aback by this one. It was less than a week ago that Massachusetts doom metallers Second Grave released their debut album, Blacken the Sky (review here), and today they’re announcing that their time as a band has come to an end. That record, tracked by Benny Grotto at Mad Oak, showed noteworthy promise even beyond that of Second Grave‘s two prior EPs, 2013’s Antithesis (review here) and 2012’s self-titled (review here), so it seems all the more like a shame to lose the band now, just as they were entering a next phase of their potential as a unit.

The final lineup of Second Grave — guitarist/vocalist Krista Van Guilder, guitarist Christopher Drzal, bassist Maureen Murphy and drummer Chuck Ferreira — have one last show booked for Aug. 26 at RPM Fest in Greenfield, MA, and then they’re done, but already in the announcement below of their breakup, there’s a note about new projects in the works. Worth keeping an eye and ear out for what comes next, for sure. In the meantime, Second Grave will be missed.

Here’s what they had to say:

second grave (Photo by Samantha Fraulein-Thursday)

As all things must come to an end, Second Grave too is is being laid to rest. While we are all extremely proud of the new album “Blacken the Sky”, the time has come for us to part ways.

As true musicians, everyone has either already been actively playing in other bands, or will eventually re-join the metal scene in other forms. As SG has been a special project to us, we all remain friends and supportive of each other. We have one last show to play, RPM Fest on August 26th.

Tickets are selling fast, so if you want to see the full lineup with two guitars, this is your last chance.

That being said, we want to thank all of the promotors and venues who booked us, critics who reviewed us, bands we played with, friends we made, and most importantly everyone who has to come to a show, bought our merch, and just plain supported us these last 5 years. Doom on my friends, doom on.

https://www.facebook.com/secondgraveband
http://secondgrave.bandcamp.com/
http://www.secondgrave.com/

Second Grave, Blacken the Sky (2016)

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Second Grave, Blacken the Sky: March into Oblivion (Plus Track Premiere)

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 15th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

second grave blacken the sky

[Click play above to stream ‘Afraid of the Dark’ from Second Grave’s Blacken the Sky. Album is available now from the band.]

It is a dark and metallic churn that dominates Blacken the Sky, the ominously titled and awaited debut full-length from Massachusetts four-piece Second Grave. In its tone and structural cohesion, it is for all intents and purposes a metal record, but its pacing and atmosphere find their roots in classic doom as well — rarely does a “doom metal” tag serve to actually be so descriptive, but Second Grave cover both sides of that equation well across the formidable 55-minute/nine-track span of Blacken the Sky. Having been lucky enough to see Second Grave play on several occasions, it’s not really a surprise either that their first album would be so assured of its purpose or that it would display such poise in its execution.

If nothing else, it’s been three years since their second EP, Antithesis (review here), followed their 2012 self-titled initial offering (review here), so it’s not like the lineup of guitarist/vocalist Krista Van Guilder (ex-Warhorse), guitarist Chris Drzal, bassist Maureen Murphy and drummer Chuck Ferreira haven’t had time to compose the material and sculpt their aesthetic into what they want it to be, and as songs like opener “No Roam” and “Afraid of the Dark” and the 11-minute “Death March” demonstrate, they’ve clearly gotten there. Where Blacken the Sky meets its truest success is in melding moody ambience and oppressively heavy riffing — the way the band veers into extremity with Van Guilder‘s searing screams on “Bloodletting” or the loosely doomedelic initial two minutes of “Death March,” before the actual march begins and provides Second Grave‘s debut with a worthy crescendo.

No doubt Blacken the Sky will be the introduction for many listeners to Second Grave, but because it’s so put together it’s almost difficult to think of it as the band’s debut. Recorded by Benny Grotto at Mad Oak over the course of just four days — an immediately impressive feat given the amount and depth of the material — the sound is full but not at all unnatural, and some late variety in the interlude “Processional of Lies” and the quiet, layered harmonies of the closing title-track reinforce the brooding sentiment while also building outward from it and expanding the overall context from what the earlier onslaught of “No Roam,” “17 Days” and “Below the Seas” established at the start.

second grave (Photo by Samantha Fraulein-Thursday)

Whether or not Second Grave are planning a vinyl release, I don’t know — they’d either have to shorten the record or go 2LP, which seems prohibitively expensive; a limited run of 100 CDs is being pressed — but there is a notable change of intent signaled with “Bloodletting” at the album’s midpoint, following the melodically rich “Afraid of the Dark” and chugging “Below the Seas” with some mindful scorch and viciously dark energy, and the progression only continues to grow from there. That shift is welcome after the initial trio, which seem to put up a wall of forceful doom and dare listeners to scale it in order to reach the rest of what Second Grave have to offer. Atop the steady roll of Ferreira‘s drums and Murphy‘s bass, Drzal and Van Guider offer fluid riffs and intricate solos, and Van Guilder is steadfast in her vocal command, but the intent is clearly that those three songs should start Blacken the Sky with plodding miseries, and they do. One might say they’re living up to the title in setting the tone.

From their first EP and through the 18-minute two-songer that followed, Second Grave have always shown an affinity for form and structure, and Blacken the Sky does likewise, using the screams in “Bloodletting” and “Death March” to send a clear signal of apex in much the same way that instrumentals introduced each half of their self-titled. The central difference here is the context in which that symmetry arrives. If “Bloodletting” is the peak of the album’s first half — it’s the centerpiece in the tracklisting — and “Death March” the peak of the second — it arrives with two cuts still to go — then those two peaks would seem to serve remarkably different purposes overall. Of course, “Death March” is paying off the album as a whole, but one might say the same thing of “Blacken the Sky” itself, though the means there takes a significant shift.

I wouldn’t call the ending a departure necessarily, since it keeps to Second Grave‘s structural tenets pretty firmly, but in its sheer sound it offers something different from even the droning interlude “Into Oblivion” before it, and while doubtless some will compare it to the subdued side of Windhand — because, you know, ladies — the truth is that Second Grave are coming from someplace else entirely in terms of influence. It’s especially telling that after so much tumult and rage, they would finish quietly, underscoring the patience that’s been present in the songs all along beneath that tempestuousness. One doubts they built the album structure with the intent of giving a glimpse at their progression under way, but after three years, it doesn’t seem impossible to think they have some plan in motion for their future development. Certainly the consciousness at root in these tracks is the work of a band aware of who and what they want to be. As a debut, there’s nothing more one could ask of Blacken the Sky, but by no means is that the sum total of what is delivered.

Second Grave on Thee Facebooks

Second Grave on Bandcamp

Second Grave website

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Faces of Bayon, Ash and Dust Have No Dominion: So Mote it Be

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on August 12th, 2015 by JJ Koczan

faces of bayon ash and dust have no dominion

[Please note: Album art above is not final. Use the player to stream Faces of Bayon’s Ash and Dust Have No Dominion in full. Original stream expired, and so I have replaced it with the one from their Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for allowing me to host the original premiere.]

Even Faces of Bayon themselves would likely admit it’s been a while since those outside the somewhat grim, post-industrial confines of Worcester, Massachusetts, heard from them. The trio, who released their debut album in 2011’s Heart of the Fire (review here), have continued to play steady local shows, mostly at Ralph’s Rock Diner, and they’ve ventured out periodically, but on a pretty subdued scale. In 2014, guitarist/vocalist Matt Smith (ex-Warhorse) and bassist Ron Miles (ex-Twelfth of Never) were joined by drummer Mike Lenihan, though their second album, Ash and Dust Have No Dominion, features drummer Michael Brown. Accordingly, it seems a fair guess Ash and Dust Have No Dominion — which was recorded by Black Pyramid drummer Clay Neely and mastered by Second Grave guitarist Christopher Drzal and in its final form will boast cover art by much-respected MA-based photograther Hillarie Jason — was set in motion some time ago, though just how long, I couldn’t say.

Certainly its five tracks/66 minutes sound ancient enough, but that’s more an aesthetic choice than actual age, as Faces of Bayon remind quickly of what was their initial appeal the first time out: Namely, the seamless blend they conjure between deathly extremity and stoner riffing. Stonerdeath is a pretty rare style, and even rarer if one wants to count acts who do it well, and it doesn’t quite encapsulate what Faces of Bayon bring to their longform material. You need the word “doom” in there to account for how “Concilium” (13:19) owes as much to early My Dying Bride as to Black Sabbath, or the swaps that occur throughout as Smith trades between his rasping, Paradise Lost-esque growl and nigh-on-goth, cleaner melodic singing. Stoner death-doom? Yeah, maybe. That’s not a bad place to start from.

It’s worth emphasizing the Sabbath influence, as the band does from the roll of “Concilium,” but that’s in line with Heart of the Fire as well. Second cut “Quantum Life” (12:29) is slower, lower and more grueling, the snare sound cutting through less than on the opener and the feel overall considerably darker, an initial lumber giving way to feedback after four minutes in to transition to minimalist spaciousness from which wah-guitar emerges to set the foundation that will carry through the hypnotic, mostly-instrumental remainder of the song, Smith re-emerging from the morass late to toss a final verse into the pit the band has constructed. Miles begins centerpiece “Blasphemies of the Forgotten World” (17:13) amid backing atmospherics, joined soon by quiet guitar and drums and some deep mixed singing, a psychedelic vibe pervasive despite the underlying threat of death (metal). They keep the thread going for nearly five minutes, through a verse, before kicking into fuller tonality — Miles‘ tone deep under what sounds like at least two tracks of guitar, but worth training the ear toward anyway — and the slogging pace is set.

faces of bayon

Obviously with Ash and Dust Have No Dominion being over an hour long, Faces of Bayon aren’t thinking of a vinyl structure, but “Blasphemies of the Forgotten World” does have a kind of mirror feel with album finale “So Mote it Be” in its airy lead flourish and coinciding blend of killer ride-it-out groove. Once again, Sabbath is a key factor in the riff, but Smith‘s vocals ensure that the band’s lean is less traditional and more nuanced, and it’s as the march of “Blasphemies of the Forgotten World” plays out that one realizes just how precise the niche the trio have carved out really is. They’re not death metal, or death-doom, or stoner doom entirely, but they find their way to touch on all three and more, all the while sounding like no one so much as themselves. Ash and Dust Have No Dominion becomes a significant achievement in light of its sense of identity, but SmithMiles and Brown take precious little time to rest on their laurels, instead digging deeper into the swampy mire of “Blasphemies of the Forgotten World”‘s purposefully repetitive rhythm and steady nod.

Enhancing the atmosphere, “Blasphemies of the Forgotten World” finishes about a minute before the track actually ends, feedback giving way to noise, far-back drumming and cymbal wash before “With You Comes the Cold” (4:21) gets underway. The only song on Ash and Dust Have No Dominion under 12 minutes long, it’s more of an interlude and a table-setter for “So Mote it Be” (19:11), but Smith adds some subdued lines to it anyway (some backwards whispers as well), and the vibe is almost like a more straightforward take on some of Om‘s ritualism — another line that Faces of Bayon make it sound easy to cross. When it comes on, the first 40 seconds of “So Mote it Be” are ultra-compressed, but the full tones are there, lurking, waiting. They kick in all at once and immediately one can already hear in one’s head the deathly cadence with which Smith will ultimately deliver the title line of the song — “So mote. It. Beeeeee.” in all-out death growl — though that’s still more than 10 minutes away. Given its length and the odd efficiency with which Faces of Bayon make use of that extended runtime, it’s hard not to think of “So Mote it Be” as the highlight of the album, but if anything it’s one more example of the strength of approach they’ve shown all along.

One doubts most bands could hold together songs like “So Mote it Be” or “Quantum Life,” let alone give them such a subtle sense of movement beneath an outward righteousness of monotony. The tracks would simply fall apart. But not only do Faces of Bayon stand tall at the end of “So Mote it Be” — that vocal cadence indeed carrying the track’s final movement — but they stand tall over a mess of feedback that leads them into using every single second of the closer’s 19 minutes. Ash and Dust Have No Dominion will likely be too extreme for some, too stoned for others, but it’s Faces of Bayon‘s ability to work in multiple contexts that makes the album such a success. It’s slow. It’s chugging, It’s a pummeling, brutal listen, but it’s got as much depth to it as one could want to find, and a long four years after their debut, Faces of Bayon‘s sophomore outing reaffirms how special a band they are. Easy enough to wonder what they’d be able to accomplish if they hit the road as a touring act, but for now they remain one of East Coast doom’s best kept secrets.

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Faces of Bayon on Bandcamp

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Live Review: Reign of Zaius and Gasoline Therapy in Massachusetts, 07.31.15

Posted in Reviews on August 3rd, 2015 by JJ Koczan

Reign of Zaius (Photo by JJ Koczan)

It had been just over two months since I last saw a show. Two months. I cannot remember the last time I actually let it go that long. Combination of things: Frustration with local venues, fatigue from going back to work, wanting to spend what time I have with The Patient Mrs., seeing family and so on. I’ll be honest and say I barely had this one in me, but after work Friday, I was heading to Connecticut and a loop through Worcester to catch Brooklyn’s Reign of Zaius worked out enough timing-wise that I felt like I could make it happen. I was sort of right.

Gasoline Therapy (Photo by JJ Koczan)I know I’ve said this before, but Ralph’s Rock Diner is a fucking treasure. Best venue I’ve been to in the state of Massachusetts, and that includes every single room of comparable size in Boston. Great sound, great lights, great vibe, good stage. It’s a comfortable, creative space that doesn’t feel like it was set up in 1992 and left for dead, as do so, so, so many other places. The town of Worcester itself? Not so great, but Ralph’s is where it’s at. Not many people know it, but I was glad to see a few heads hanging around the show, at least drinking and spending money if not actually upstairs checking out the bands.

There were four on the bill. Insano Vision and King Bison, from Connecticut and Pennsylvania, respectively, Reign of Zaius and CT’s Gasoline Therapy, who opened sometime shortly after 9:30PM, the room still mostly empty save for the other bands, myself and a few others. They played a familiar kind of melodically-conscious heavy rock, the sort that continues to populate New England in a post-Milligram/Roadsaw wave and a sound to which Cortez and a few others have managed to bring an individual edge to go with the catchy songwriting that is a staple of the genre. A dual-guitar approach and standalone vocals showcased Gasoline Therapy (Photo by JJ Koczan)roots between punk and metal, but the overall affect was unpretentious and not really looking for anything other than a good time.

Whether or not they got it, I’m not sure, since they looked kind of bummed out about the lack of crowd, but they played well anyway, the title-track from their upcoming Judas Goat full-length appearing late in the set before “Consumed” closed out, kind of balancing a moody atmosphere on top of more straightforward rhythms. It was a nice night, so I cut outside when they were done and as Reign of Zaius loaded onto the stage to sit in the open air for a while. The venue was playing Sabbath and people talking about other people they know and whatever else — things from which I’d likely have felt distant even if I hadn’t kept my earplugs in — but it looked like a good time anyway in the way that always does if you can actually hold down a conversation with somebody. Not a skill I have. When it was time, I sort of lumbered my way back upstairs to the big room to watch Reign of Zaius.

Just earlier in the day, I had checked out their new single “Power Hitter,” that marks their first recorded output with vocalist Leon Chase fronting the band. It had been well over two years since I last saw them play, so it would also be the first time I’d caught them with guitarist Mike O’Neil alongside bassist Davis and drummer Brian Neri. They had, perhaps unsurprisingly, much more than one song to offer, though “Power Hitter” was aired as well. This was the second night in a weekender trip, following a gig the night before at Bar Matchless in their native borough and to be followed by a stop at 33 Golden St. in Reign of Zaius (Photo by JJ Koczan)New London, CT, where Gasoline Therapy would also play.

As I watched them get started, I couldn’t help but wonder how Neri managed to put together a “Rowdy” Roddy Piper outfit so quickly. I’d only seen news of the former pro-wrestler’s death that afternoon, and I know only too well that it’s at least a four-hour trip from New York to Worcester, so let’s say they got there around eight to load in, they probably would’ve left Brooklyn at 4PM, maybe, what, an hour or two after the news broke? Did Neri just happen to have a kilt and sleeveless “Hot Rod” t-shirt laying around? Entirely possible, I suppose, since the foursome would also pay the fallen Piper homage with the song “They Live,” taking the “consume” and “obey” that appear in block letters in the 1988 John Carpenter illuminati masterpiece of the same name and turning them into a punker’s chorus, Davis shouting into his own mic to back up the wide-eyed Chase, who also managed to work a reference to sunglasses into the verse.

Fair enough. Reign of Zaius were still fairly raw in their presentation, Chase pacing back and forth and jerking his head this way and that while keeping an unnerving and unblinking stare over the reign of zaius 3 (Photo by JJ Koczan)audience. They Live would not be the only referential material either, as “This Man this Monster” was announced as being about the Fantastic Four and finale “A Farewell to Arms” was a clever take on 1987’s Evil Dead 2, complete with repetitions of “I’ll swallow your soul” and mentions by name for both Henrietta and Linda. Clearly the late ’80s was a pivotal cinematic time for somebody in Reign of Zaius, though by then the Planet of the Apes franchise from which they actually take their moniker and, presumably the thematic content for set-opener “Heston,” was long over. Until the remake, reboot, etc.

I’ll continue to keep an eye out for new stuff from them — one assumes “Power Hitter” won’t be their only recorded output, and though there were still two bands to come on the bill, I had to cut out and head south, so I made my way out past the assembled sorts outside and was gone on the quick, as though if I walked faster I-395 wouldn’t be under nighttime construction. At least I had plenty of time to appreciate the blue moon.

More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.

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Live Review: Second Grave, Lord Fowl, Wasted Theory and Birch Hill Dam in Worcester, MA, 04.02.15

Posted in Reviews on April 6th, 2015 by JJ Koczan

second grave 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Ralph’s Rock Diner had the lights on, which has been the case consistently enough to make it far and away my favorite room of its size in the state of Massachusetts. In all seriousness, the place is a godsend. Killer, huge, professionally-run sound that seems to adjust quickly to the strengths of the band playing, a good-size stage with enough room to backline as need be, space to stand, a long bar with seats if you want them, food and a whole other bar downstairs, and lighting enough so that if you want to take a picture of the band you come out with more than a red blur. If it was in Boston, it would embarrass the venues surrounding (likely it wouldn’t have nearly parking space either, but that’s a different story), but tucked away in post-industrial, heroin-plagued Worcester, it’s a secret kept mostly to locals and those passing through on self-booked tours. So it was with Delaware’s Wasted Theory, stopping in with MA natives Second Grave and Birch Hill Dam and bringing up Connecticut firebrands Lord Fowl for a front-to-back four-band bill of the kind that might incite someone like myself to drive the requisite 90 minutes to get there.

Right bands, right place, right time, it was all the makings of a solid night — kind of a mini-Stoned Goat fest, actually — and that’s pretty much how it worked out. Here’s the rundown:

Birch Hill Dam

Birch Hill Dam (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Though they hit with formidable thud either way, Birch Hill Dam are a bit warmer in tone live than on record, and that has proven to make a big difference in the couple of times I’ve caught them at shows. A double-guitar five-piece, they skirt the line between heavy rock and Southern metal, Down-style riffing delivered with Nor’easter aggression, vocalist Mike Nygard tossing in occasional screams to drive the point of a metallic underpinning home as guitarists Sam Barrett and Alex Sepe, bassist Pete Gelles and drummer Matt Neely nail down lockstep nodding grooves. “Defenders of the Cross” and “Balance” from their late-2014 outing, Reservoir, were hard-hitting highlights, but they dipped back to 2011’s Colossus for a run through the title-track and, with a little extra time on their hands, closed out their set with “Boozehound” from their 2009 self-titled debut, a chorus that has been a landmark for them over the years since meeting a culmination that, true to the sense of humor underlying a lot of what they do, ended with a growling “shave and a haircut — two bits.” Charm has, in my experience, always been one of Birch Hill Dam‘s assets, on the list with riffs, songwriting and intensity, and they did well to emphasize all of the above as they kicked off the show.

Wasted Theory

Wasted Theory (Photo by JJ Koczan)

I give credit to Wasted Theory on this one. After apparently sampling one of New England’s myriad existential delicacies — its traffic — the four-piece from Delaware showed up during Birch Hill Dam‘s set, and as they were playing second, had to roll their gear in, set up on the quick and basically go from zero to 100 with little-to-no mental preparation or squaring up. They seemed to catch their breath and hit their stride at once in the second or third song, which was to be expected, guitarists Dave McMahon and Larry Jackson (the latter also vocals), bassist Jonathan Charles and drummer Brendan Burns tapping into a style of heavy that coincided well with what Birch Hill Dam had offered up, cuts like “Hellfire Ritual” from last year’s Death and Taxes (review here) reminding of their blend of boogie and groove. Jackson introduced the band as being from “the Mason-Dixon,” which probably sounds more exciting than “Delaware” so long as you don’t think too hard about what that border actually did, and led the way into another solid hook on “Skeleton Crew,” a bonus track from a forthcoming vinyl release for Death and Taxes, due out May 10. Last I’d seen Wasted Theory was July 2013 in Brooklyn at The Eye of the Stoned Goat 3, organized by Burns, which meant this was the first I’d caught them with their current lineup, McMahon having stepped in on guitar in the interim. The sound at Ralph’s certainly didn’t hurt, but the band itself was fluid onstage even as they were getting their feet under them, and “Black Widow Liquor Run” made as suitable a closer for their set as it did for Death and Taxes. Hell of a way for them to start their three-night weekender with Birch Hill Dam and Lord Fowl, but they made the most of it in the end.

Lord Fowl

Lord Fowl (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Apparently at some point in the last couple years, at some show, Lord Fowl guitarist/vocalist Vechel Jaynes said something to me in passing about having a cold, it wound up in the subsequent review of that gig. Whoops. When he saw me Thursday, it was, “Oh no, I’m not even talking to you,” which is fair. Good to see him and the rest of Lord Fowl — guitarist/vocalist Mike Pellegrino, bassist John Conine and recently-added drummer Mike Petrucci, also of Curse the Son, King of Salem, and so on — anyhow, the band having also hit Ralph’s in May 2014 at day one of The Eye of the Stoned Goat 4 (review here). They always deliver a tight, energetic set, so to have that be the case this time around wasn’t really a surprise, but it was welcome all the same. My understanding is they’re working on new material over the next couple months, piecing together and finalizing songs before they actually get down to recording a follow-up to their excellent 2012 sophomore LP and Small Stone debut, Moon Queen (review here), but in the meantime, they dipped back to throw in “Bird of Good Omen” and opener “Cheetah” from their 2008 debut, Endless Dynamite. Both were right on, again unsurprisingly, but the one-two finale punch of “Quicksand” and “Pluto” from the second album were hard to beat, though when one gets down to talking about a Lord Fowl set, picking highlights is kind of missing the point. The whole thing is the highlight. Sit back and enjoy it. Though they’re still pretty clearly working on tightening the dynamic with Petrucci on drums — they’ll get there and when they do, watch out — Lord Fowl delivered the kind of quality stomp and roll, the brazen hooks and the onstage vitality that has become their hallmark. Seems redundant to say I’m looking forward to their next record, but I am, anyway.

Second Grave

Second Grave (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Since moving to Massachusetts almost two years ago, I’ve managed to see Second Grave three times — this show, day one of last year’s Stoned Goat (review here) and with Elder in Allston (review here) — and this was easily the best of the bunch. Of the four songs they played — “17 Days,” “Death March,” “Bloodletting” and “Afraid of the Dark,” according to the setlist — none to my knowledge has yet appeared on an official release, neither 2012’s self-titled EP (review here) or its 2013 follow-up, Antithesis (review here), and while it was also my first show seeing them with bassist Maureen Murphy (ex-Dimentianon) in place of Dave Gein, the shift in their approach seems more than one member’s difference might cause. Their new material is a little bit faster, yes, but also more cohesive, more integrated in its influences, less morose and switching off between heavy parts and quiet parts and more about rolling, swinging, sludgy grooves. It suited them well and was the most fun I’ve seen guitarist/vocalist Krista Van Guider, guitarist Chris Drzal, and drummer Chuck Ferreira have onstage, and Murphy‘s inclusion into that dynamic was seamless. And they were still very, very heavy. “Death March” lived up to its name, though “Afraid of the Dark” had a march of its own, but built to a rocking groove emblematic of what seemed to be a stylistic shift in progress, Van Guilder continuing to work in a blend of screams and clean vocals with equal command. Their material remained dark, but was less theatrical about it, and as they seemed to be allowing themselves to have a good time, they did. Their four songs was a complete set, and the blend of chugging nod and viciousness seemed to find new life in the new songs. I don’t know what their recording plans might be, but I left Ralph’s newly resolved to keep an eye out for word of whatever they do next.

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On Wax: SET, Valley of the Stone

Posted in On Wax on December 3rd, 2014 by JJ Koczan

set-valley-of-the-stone-cover-and-lp

Massachusetts-based metallers SET reside somewhere between the seemingly disparate sides vibes of thrash, stoner and doom, but from the bombastic groove of opener “Dicing with Death,” which launches their Valley of the Stone 2013 debut LP, self-released digitally and on vinyl, they’re immediately difficult to place in one or the other. Granted, the Worcester four-piece can’t play in two speeds at the same time, so it winds up being tradeoffs between fast and slow, extreme and nodding, but still, what’s most successful about the two-sided eight-track release is how much it seems to pull its elements together as a cohesive whole, cuts like the aforementioned “Dicing with Death,” or side A’s closer “The Eagle” pushing forward with breakneck weight and speed while “Magnum Opus” plods a smokier course and set-valley-of-the-stone-front-cover“Wolves behind the Sheep” works to bring the various sides to bear in one of Valley of the Stone‘s most engrossing rolls.

As a standout with a particularly killer hook, “Wolves behind the Sheep” serves to represent the stylistic breadth of the band well, blasting one second and swinging hard the next. I’ve had the advantage at this point of seeing SET play live three times now (reviews here, here and here), and seeing the fluidity drummer Tim brings to his tempo changes on stage only affirms what comes across on Valley of the Stone in that he does well in holding these songs together. That’s true throughout the album, as bassist/vocalist Andy, guitarist/backing vocalist Jeff and guitarist/vocalist Dan run off in one direction or another, telling stories of souls lost and various horrors inflicted on the unsuspecting, as much Slayer and S.O.D. as Sleep and Trouble. Their identity as they present it here is what gets carved out of the influences, something as threatening atmospherically as it is outwardly aggressive, “The Eagle” rounding out side A with its brashest vibe yet, dense low end underscoring a barrage of riffs and crash that drives through a metallic apex and into a finale of dizzying turns.

It’s fucking heavy, and I don’t think SET would have it any other way. The plot thickens on side B, though, with the creepy lead guitar on the title-track giving way to a full-on grindout followed by noise rock rumble-and-shout, the band’s command unwavering as they nod at Crowbar‘s sludge en route to the next round of swinging pummel and the Dopefight-style stoner punk of “Apophis,” catchy but less nuanced than “Valley of the Stone” or “Children of the Doomed,” which serves as the apex of the album, Jeff and Dan coming together to add a rush of lead lines to the hook. Since, like “Wolves behind the Sheep,” it’s the penultimate cut on its side, there’s an element of symmetry at work in Valley of the Stone‘s structure as well, but the more satisfying thing is the actual song, which hits the blend of extremity and groove just set-valley-of-the-stone-side-aright and shows what SET are able to do at their best. The closer, “Sacred Moon Cult” is rightly saved for last and is probably the only track that wouldn’t be a comedown after “Children of the Doomed,” but its chorus feels like it’s taking a shortcut to righteousness, as opposed to the frenetic rawness of “Children of the Doomed,” which punches through a wall rather than going around it.

Maybe at that point it’s splitting hairs, but either way, by then SET have shown their ability to cull something individual out of familiar elements, and there’s nothing more one could reasonably ask of their debut than that, though in that regard it’s worth pointing out that the vinyl version of Valley of the Stone, with its two-sided liner and dead-on black-and-white artwork makes for no less accomplishment of presentation. Some bands figure it out late, some bands figure it out early. SET would seem to be in the latter category if the debut is anything to go by, and with a sound so varied, they still have plenty to work from in terms of creative progress without much fear of stagnating anytime soon.

SET, Valley of the Stone (2013)

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SET on Bandcamp

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Live Review: Faces of Bayon, Clamfight, Wizard Eye, Bedroom Rehab Corporation and Conclave in Massachusetts, 10.18.14

Posted in Reviews on October 20th, 2014 by JJ Koczan

clamfight 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

It was madness, I tell you. Utter madness. Madness from which there was no escape, unless you went outside, which if you were me you didn’t want to do. A five-band Saturday night bill at Ralph’s Rock Diner in Worcester with Faces of Bayon — who as I understand it don’t literally run the place, but show up there often enough that one might get that impression — Clamfight and Wizard Eye up from Philly and Conclave, who as they put it were a “new band with the same old guys” opening, it was an evening to settle in and just let the steamroller run you down because, quite frankly, it was going to whether you wanted or not. GwarLife of Agony and a bunch of other bands were playing at The Palladium down the way, and that probably had some impact on the overall draw, but people came upstairs and milled about the venue throughout the night, a birthday party downstairs and balloons with “Over The Hill” on them getting a chuckle out of me on my way by.

Ralph’s at this point I consider to be a pretty well kept secret. I’ve yet to see a band there and not have the sound hold up. The room is open, the ceiling high enough to let amps breathe, the stage is the right height for it. There are stools at the bar if you want to take a load off for a minute, and the lighting — though it can change from band to band — is better than every room I’ve been to in Boston save perhaps for the Middle East Downstairs, which is also a venue that holds at least three times as many people. Were Worcester a more major urban center, Ralph’s is probably the kind of place people from elsewhere would’ve heard of, a spot that could be in league with Brooklyn’s The Acheron if not the Vitus bar, or someplace like Johnny Brenda‘s in Philly, minus the balcony. I dig it, in other words, and enjoy seeing bands there. For being maybe 75 minutes from me where Boston is about an hour and Providence about 45 minutes, I’ve so far found it’s worth the trip.

The flyer said five bucks for five bands. I paid seven as the door and it should’ve cost more than twice that. Here’s how this one went down:

Conclave

conclave 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

As I understand it, it was Conclave‘s second show, but true to their “same old guys” declaration, the members of the band have been around. Bassist/vocalist Jerry Orne counts the due-for-a-reunion Warhorse in his pedigree, and guitarist Jeremy Kibort is his bandmate in once-and-again death metallers Desolate. Completed by drummer Dan BlomquistConclave played doom like death metallers often do. Even before you get to harsh vocals or anything like that, you can hear it in the precision of the changes, in some of the angularity of their approach. Blomquist‘s kit and Kibort‘s guitar were a dead giveaway, but for being a new band, they clearly knew their way around a doom riff, and it was easy to get a sense of the balance of harshness and groove they were shooting for, the lack of pretense at the heart of their presentation, and their penchant for periodically working in faster tempo shifts, as on “Walk the Earth (No Longer)” or the set closer “Black Lines,” which seems likely to also feature on their forthcoming debut EP, Breaking Ground. And so they were.

Bedroom Rehab Corporation

bedroom rehab corporation 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)

I wondered if it had been a month since the last time I saw Connecticut’s Bedroom Rehab Corporation while bassist/vocalist Adam Wujtewicz and drummer Meghan Killimade set up their gear. Yes, it had — just over a month, in fact. Still close enough that they were fresh on the brain, though. Their set had a couple new songs to go with “Basilosaurus” from their Red over Red debut long-player (review here). They’ll record in January, and I’ll look forward to what comes out of that for 2015, but the primary impression in watching them at Ralph’s, which is also where I first saw them over the summer, was much the same, in how completely their live show outclasses their studio material. They’ve got their work cut out for them in translating the energy they bring to the stage — the consuming, noisy sensibility in both of their approaches, the variety of tone and gruff vocals of Wujtewicz — but Justin Pizzoferrato, who also helmed the debut, should be able to capture it with the right balance of rawness and clarity. At Ralph’s, they were playing the second night of an NY/MA weekender with Clamfight and Wizard Eye, and it was clear the company they were keeping was pushing them to give it their all on stage.

Wizard Eye

wizard eye 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)
Sometimes there’s a band — and I’m talking about Wizard Eye here — and they’re the right band for their time and place. They fit right in there. That was Wizard Eye as the centerpiece act in the lineup of five in Worcester. Their grooves smoother than Bedroom Rehab Corporation, more stoned out than even the newer Clamfight material — give me a minute, I’ll get there — the Philly trio rolled out fuzz and heavy with the assured vibe of seasoned veterans. They’re not a new band, formed in 2007, but with one record out it would be easy to walk into a Wizard Eye set and be surprised at how much they have their shit together on stage. I knew what was coming, but new songs “Flying/Falling,” “Phase Return” and “Drowning Day” set in well with the promise of a follow-up to 2010’s Orbital Rites, from which “C.O.C.,” “Psychonaut” and “Gravebreath” were aired, guitarist/vocalist Erik Caplan trading out guitar solos for theremin, which added noisy edge to the Iommic groove and stoner-because-stoner vibe the three-piece got across. That second album may yet be a little ways off, but from what I’ve heard it’ll be worth the wait.

Clamfight

clamfight 2 (Photo by JJ Koczan)
There are few things I’ll argue with less than watching Clamfight play. Up from Philly and sharing what I’m sure was a mightily dudely van with the Wizard Eye cats, Clamfight were primed to destroy as always, but opening and closing with new songs, they pulled away from the riffy thrash with which I tend to associate them, driving toward a more classic-rocking — and, pivotally, more dynamic — take. I knew they were growing, but they brought into relief just how far their progression was pushing them, or vice versa, and as satisfying as it was to see them tear into the title-track from their second record, I vs. the Glacier, with drummer Andy Martin roaring while lead guitarist Sean McKee tried to shake his cranium loose by headbanging it off while alternately facing and not facing the crowd, guitarist Joel Harris locked into a swaggering kind of waltz and bassist Louis Koble nestled into foundational grooves behind, it was even better to watch them come out from behind all that assault and volume and still have both the performance and songwriting hold up as they branched out. I anxiously await the chance to hear their new stuff properly recorded.

Faces of Bayon

faces of bayon 1 (Photo by JJ Koczan)
It did not seem to me that Faces of Bayon had a particularly easy task in following Clamfight, but ultimately the Fitchburg trio were on such a different wavelength that by the time they were about 30 seconds into their set, it was apples and oranges. It’s been over two years since the last (and first) time I saw guitarist/vocalist Matt Smith, bassist Ron Miles and drummer Mike Lenihan. Smith threatened a second album that night to follow-up 2011’s debut, Heart of the Fire (review here), but one has yet to surface. It wasn’t mentioned at Ralph’s that I heard, but Faces of Bayon‘s blend of stoner and death-doom impulses was a stirring reminder of why I’d been looking forward to such a thing. Riffs came slow and patient, Miles subdued on the right side of the stage while Lenihan throttled his skull-covered drums and Smith — also a former member of Warhorse — gurgled out tales of woe. Some clean singing added Euro-style drama to the proceedings, and they finished with a deathly cover of Pentagram‘s “All Your Sins,” which was shouted out to photographer Hillarie Jason, who had rolled in presumably after the Gwar show ended. By then, it was well past 1AM, but some riffs get better the later they come.

The highways were basically clear on the way home, a couple cops pulling over a couple out-of-state-plate types as I streamed past with “Oh yeah I’ve been there” empathy. Got in a little before 3AM and called it a night on the quick, once again reveling in how overjustified the trip had been.

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