Review & Double Track Premiere: UFO Över Lappland, UFO Över Lappland

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on September 21st, 2018 by JJ Koczan

ufo over lappland self titled

[Click play above to stream ‘JaEDeJaE’ and ‘Lemmy on the Beach’ from UFO Över Lappland’s self-titled debut. Reissue available to order now from Sulatron Records.]

Lappland is located in the north of Sweden. All the way up. It is home to the country’s largest nature preserve, and while I don’t know if there’s a particular history of flying saucer sightings, in 1959, a slice of sci-fi cheese called Rymdinvasion i Lappland — “Space Invasion of Lappland” — was released and maybe that’s where psych-jamming four-piece UFO Över Lappland got their name from. Or maybe they’re aliens. The latter would explain the extraterrestrial vibes of their self-titled debut, originally released in 2016 by Fluere Tapes in a glittery translucent blue-green pressed in an edition of 50 copies. 50 copies. Brutal. Long gone, of course.

Sulatron Records — helmed by Dave “Sula Bassana” Schmidt of Electric Moon, Zone Six, et al — has stepped in to reissue UFO Över Lappland‘s UFO Över Lappland on CD and LP, turning the original three-track digital outing from guitarist Krister Mörtsell, bassist Christer Blomquist, synthesist Peter Basun and drummer Andreas Rejdvik into a five-song/50-minute instrumentalist sprawl that includes “Lemmy on the Beach,” which featured as a bonus track on the original tape, and the oddly-capitalized “JaEDeJaE.” The UFO may be over Lappland, but space is for sure its final destination, and the band gives it well enough thrust to get there. Opener and longest track (immediate points) “Keep on Keepin’ on Space Truckin'” begins its 12-minute cast with tense, proggy lines of looped guitar as a and a solid forward drumbeat as a bed for the lead line. Swirl comes and goes via synth and the bass makes itself felt in low end swells working on their own wavelength to underscore the groove. It’s all on the beat, all working together toward the same end, which is the thorough and early immersion of the listener to be sustained over the course of the proceedings. Bridge to engine room: take us to full impulse.

I don’t think UFO Över Lappland have the intent of reinventing space rock or heavy psychedelia, but what they do exceedingly well throughout their first album is to balance fluidity and drift in their jams with a subtle outward push. The only time they really go full-on with a Hawkwindian rhythm is, suitably enough, in “Lemmy on the Beach,” but even in “Keep on Keepin’ on Space Truckin'” there’s an underlying movement happening that carries through the track such that when it hits into its fuller-toned payoff in the second half, the shift is natural. Tied to the earlier stretch via synth, they return soon enough to the bouncing rhythm and airy guitar to close out, giving way to “JaEDeJaE,” which begins with a rumble and feedback for the first minute of its total 6:52. The shortest track on UFO Över Lappland, it continues the modus of the opener in patiently building repetitions, but there’s a keyboard line that takes forward position early and is met by fuzzy lead guitar that stands it out among its companion cuts.

ufo over lappland

Obviously there isn’t time for the same kind of stretch as in the opener, but UFO Över Lappland still find room for a suitable payoff, with the drums signaling the change with tom runs and a switch to crash-cymbal timekeeping, adding to the overall wash. Noise and a few seconds of silence make a fitting enough bed for the lead into “Podzol” (10:40), which dedicates itself to the most patient and hypnotic unfolding on the record. Not a minor distinction, given the context of what surrounds. But even with the drums setting forth a progressive motion, that itself is gradual too. It opens minimal, then synth and guitar, then bass and drums, the latter just with toms, then snare, then cymbals. It all happens in stages, and it’s not until they’re about halfway through that the full breadth of the song comes to bear. “Podzol” has a payoff of its own, but the sense is that it’s more about the trip than where they wind up, though I won’t discount the dissolution into noise that happens in the last minute either, nor how it bleeds into the subsequent “Nothing that Lives Has… Such Eyes!…,” continuing the cosmic thread forward as it gracefully takes hold.

By this point they’ve set the parameters and the coordinates are locked in. “Nothing that Lives Has… Such Eyes!…” nonetheless marks itself out with its noisy second half and a slower-rolling finish, leaving little question as to why it originally was intended as the pre-bonus track capstone of the album. There is a feeling of waiting for that payoff to arrive that’s set up through the similar structures that run throughout the first three songs, but UFO Över Lappland make sticking it out worthwhile, and “Lemmy on the Beach” resolves itself in a space rock blast that’s true to form in a way the rest of UFO Över Lappland only hinted at being, so there’s a showing of some freakout genre fluidity as well following that closer’s early going, which again pairs active rhythms with spacious guitar work and synth, finding an atmosphere outside the atmosphere but still wearing mag-boots to stay grounded.

Again, it’s that balance that’s so crucial to UFO Över Lappland‘s first outing, and while they’ve given themselves room to grow and expand their style in terms of structure, there’s a tonal reach from top to bottom in the mix that proves to be height as much as depth. It might be for the converted, but the converted won’t complain at its arrival, and especially given the here and vanished nature of the original pressing — a second round of tapes is reportedly available from the band — there’s plenty of reason to see why Sulatron would invite listeners to get lost in its vastness. It’s a pleasure to do so, and considering the original release was two years ago, one hopes it won’t be that much longer before UFO Över Lappland offer a follow-up. It would only be welcomed, however it might ultimately be beamed in.

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Review & Track Premiere: We Hunt Buffalo, Head Smashed In

Posted in Bootleg Theater, Reviews on September 20th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

we hunt buffalo head smashed in

[Click play above to stream the premiere of We Hunt Buffalo’s lyric video for ‘The Giant’s Causeway.’ Their new album, Head Smashed In is out Oct. 26 on Fuzzorama Records and New Damage Records.]

As images go, ‘head smashed in’ is as vivid as it is succinct and violent. We Hunt Buffalo, who made their debut on Fuzzorama Records in 2015 with their second album, Living Ghosts (discussed here), return with Head Smashed In as a nine-song/43-minute collection of beefed-up modern progressive-styled heavy, bordering often on metal in songs like “Angler Must Die” with the popping snare of drummer Brandon Carter backing the dual-vocal hook from guitarist Ryan Forsythe and bassist Cliff Thiessen, or in the lumbering moments of finale “God Games.”

Those stretches, though, aren’t without contrast, and We Hunt Buffalo wind up with a sneakily dynamic style that takes on heavy rock directly in cuts like “Keep it Refreshing,” which to my New England-dwelling ears seems to have a bit of Roadsaw in its chorus, and centerpiece “Industry Woes,” which engages harsher vocals but has a classic round of starts and stops that not only shows a tightness on the part of the band instrumentally, but easily crosses genre lines in a way that sounds natural and familiar while still remaining stylistically nuanced. That nuance is in part thanks to the production, which is crisp and brings out a tension in a way that Living Ghosts seemed more open and looser on the whole, but is full in its overall affect and massive sounding especially in the guitar and bass tones.

Big choruses pay off dug-in movements, and from opener “Heavy Low” through “Angler Must Die” and “Prophecy Wins” and into the instrumental “Get in the Van,” the balance between proggy detail-making, weighted force of tone and rhythm and traditional-feeling earwormery makes Head Smashed In true to its titular sense of impact without necessarily the direct one-on-one violence that “smashed” brings to mind. In the end, there are many ways to cave in a skull.

we hunt buffalo

The shouts in “Industry Woes” feel well-enough earned by that song’s theme, and they have a likewise well-placed effect on the context of the record as a whole, speaking to roots in the Mastodon-informed sphere of modern underground thrust, but for the most part, Head Smashed In works at a comfortable pace. Later, “God Games” takes on an almost post-rocking feel in its subdued verses, but even “Prophecy Wins” — the longest cut at 6:12 and the last chapter of the opening salvo — has a steady, obviously-in-control rollout that never flies too far off the handle on its way to its engaging melodic finish. “The Giant’s Causeway” finds Carter double-timing his ride cymbal in the chorus, and that adds a sense of urgency, but in that song as well there’s no danger of We Hunt Buffalo losing their way. They might be at their speediest on “Get in the Van,” but the same applies, and ultimately, the range on Head Smashed In is more about volume and melody than about tempo.

That’s not to say there’s no changing it up, as the back-to-back run of “Anxious Children” into “God Games” demonstrates, just that the impression the tracks make draws more from the trades between Forsythe and Simpson on vocals and the shifts between louder and quieter parts than playing grind on one track and doom on another. Their pacing helps draw the material together and create a flow that moves the listener from start to finish, and it’s in how they work within that sphere that We Hunt Buffalo emanate a maturity in their approach that even just three years ago they simply didn’t have. It might not come across as such on a first time through, but Head Smashed In is actually pretty classy. The performances are sharp, the mix is deep and allows for emotional resonance in the melodies that are so crucial to the memorable nature of the songs, and there is an overarching groove that results in an all-the-more coherent vibe. Very much a third album. Very much the product of a group who know what they want to do, who are steady in their approach, confident in the studio, working how they want to work and able to bring a sense of energy to their output regardless of the outward push. It’s not the kind of record a band could make their first time out.

And maybe that’s part of the idea behind the title — to mask some of that intricacy in a notion of brute force. Fair enough. Influences from the likes of Elder situate We Hunt Buffalo in a forward-thinking heavy sphere with the likes of Forming the Void, and like the lines in its cover art, which also features a smashed head or two, it’s the pinpoint details in the songs that make their third LP succeed in the manner it does. They bolster the strong choruses of cuts like “Prophecy Wins” and “The Giant’s Causeway” and “Keep it Refreshing,” while giving those who’d rightfully return for multiple listens all the more reason to keep coming back. It’s songwriting. But just like one might look at the name of the album and prejudge an expectation of what’s coming, there’s more to the proceedings in the individual pieces than their plus-sized riffs and stories about monsters. Though there’s plenty of that too for anyone who’d readily take them on.

We Hunt Buffalo, Head Smashed In (2018)

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All Them Witches, ATW: When the Process of Becoming Becomes the Process

Posted in Reviews on September 18th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

all them witches atw

It’s been a quick turnaround to get All Them Witches to their fifth album. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the four-piece have barely held still since the release of their 2012 debut, Our Mother Electricity (review here), issuing what would become a landmark in their second album, 2013’s Lightning at the Door (review here), and then becoming a touring band, signing to New West Records and continuing to press forward to bigger rooms, longer tours and an ever-present slew of digital one-off EP — the latest of which, the Lost and Found EP (review here), arrived earlier this year — singles, live recordings, and so on. Following up 2015’s predominantly mellow and melancholy Dying Surfer Meets His Maker (review here), the band broke with their LP-per-year tradition and released their fourth full-length in last year’s Sleeping Through the War (review here). Though signature elements have been retained — the restless drumming of Robby Staebler, the bluesy jams led by guitarist Ben McLeod, the strong use of Rhodes piano and other keys, the creative basslines and increasingly confident vocals of Charles Michael Parks, Jr. — no two All Them Witches records have sounded alike, and Sleeping Through the War was again a departure.

Produced by Dave Cobb, it was an elaborate production involving background singers, guest instrumentation, and a broader scope than anything the band had yet produced. In their fifth long-player, the 56-minute ATW, they have offered a willful contradiction. McLeod takes the helm as producer — Grant Husselman recorded and Rob Schnapf mixed — and the eight resultant tracks are a distinct pivot toward a more stripped-down, naturalist approach. They eschew choral vibes in favor of the raw boogie of “Fishbelly 86 Onions,” launching the album with a couple telling seconds of show’s-about-to-start noise before kicking into the song itself. Indeed, most of what follows, from the winding turns of “1st vs. 2nd” into the dreamy and jammy reaches of the closing salvo “Harvest Feast,” “HTJC” and “Rob’s Dream,” feels built for the stage, whether it’s uptempo and relatively straightforward like “Half-Tongue” or the memorable and Western-slide-tinged second track “Workhorse,” All Them Witches still manage to cast a varied atmospheric impression while pulling the arrangements back to ground.

No doubt at least a portion of the credit — a fourth, maybe? — for that goes to new keyboardist Jonathan Draper, who here steps into the role formerly occupied by Allan Van Cleave. Those are not minor shoes to fill. In addition to having been a founding member, Van Cleave‘s Rhodes melodies added to the dreamy psychedelic stretches of All Them Witches‘ jams and made their blues all the more resonant. Even more to his credit, Draper lives up to the task, and from the wildman organ in “Fishbelly 86 Onions” and the subtle background tone of “Workhorse,” he makes his presence felt as an essential component alongside Parks, McLeod and Staebler in a fashion that makes the familiar aspect his own. The personality in his playing can be heard in “Half-Tongue” and the post-midsection sprawl of “Harvest Feast,” which tops 11 minutes and follows the moody highlight “Diamond” in order to lead into the back end of the record, and though there’s a sense of his integration still being in-process — that is, one gets the feeling that he’ll have even more to say in the arrangements next time around — he steps into a collection of tracks that stand on the strength of their songwriting and performance and plays a crucial role in letting them do just that.

all them witches

From everyone in the band, there’s a gleeful sense of defiance here. All Them Witches have always enjoyed contradiction — Lightning at the Door was heavy, so Dying Surfer Meets His Maker wasn’t, etc. — but ATW might be their most purposeful one to-date. It is the band reclaiming their identity. No coincidence McLeod is producer on it. After their more elaborate production to-date, they’re keeping it in-house, holding firm to the approach that’s gotten them to where they are and, through these songs, making a statement of what they want to be as a band and how they want their material to function. Granted, that’s an awful lot of narrative to read into it, and it’s not like they have a song called “We’re All Them Witches and You Can Kiss Our Collective Ass” or anything like that, but through the focus on their performance and the sheer will with which they execute “1st vs. 2nd,” “Diamond,” the experimental-feeling “HTJC” — which for much of its run is just Parks‘ vocals in folkish form backed by bass and a gradual, acoustic-laced build — it’s not a stretch to hear that All Them Witches, either consciously or not, are doing the work of regrounding themselves, reaffirming their methods and their desire to play not just in a certain style or styles, but however they want, whenever they want, wherever they want.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was hired to write the bio for the album and spoke to Parks as a part of that process about the songwriting and recording process. But even so, in listening, I keep going back to “Fishbelly 86 Onions.” It’s not like anything else the band brings to ATW, and inarguably their most active moment on the record. As the opener, it’s also an outlier, but in the howl leading into Draper‘s organ solo before the song hits the two-minute mark, there’s so much revelry in the spirit of the track that it’s almost like a breaking out. They’ve busted through whatever confines they were in and are running full sprint toward, what, themselves? I don’t know, but hearing Parks count from one to 20 as part of the lyrics, the fuzz in McLeod‘s guitar and the jazzy swing in Staebler‘s cymbals, there’s a torrential feeling of chaosmaking that’s just so much fun-as-a-statement that it affects everything that follows. The rim-ticks of “Workhorse,” the aggression at root in “1st vs. 2nd,” the storytelling in “Half-Tongue,” the progressive tension in “Diamond,” bluesy range of “Harvest Feast,” glorious wash in the payoff of “HTJC” and meld of psychedelia and classic heavy rocking starts and stops in “Rob’s Dream” — they all seem to draw from the plentiful energetic well of “Fishbelly 86 Onions,” and there’s enough left by the final moments of “Rob’s Dream” that All Them Witches jam their way through an upbeat payoff that finds all four members of the band at the height of their powers, still not overstated, but playing through with the deceptive class and chemistry that, as much as anything else, has become a hallmark of their sound.

Even unto its title, ATW is indicative of the intent on the part of the band to stake their claim on who they are. And it’s not even a full self-titled. It’s the acronym. Nothing extra, nothing more than it wants to be. Of course, they’re still a deeply nuanced band as they’ve always been, and there’s growth in their craft and in their performance, as there’s always been, but that’s all part of what makes All Them Witches who they are. I don’t know whether McLeod will produce their sixth offering or if they’ll once again look to someone outside themselves, if that record will expand on what’s here or draw even further back. One thing it’s never been safe to do is predict where All Them Witches will end up, because while they’ve never stopped moving forward, that “forward” is a path that seems likewise to veer in multiple directions at once. The passion that drives them is not only evident in ATW but key to the album’s overall success, and it’s refreshing to hear a band who, five records deep into their tenure, can sound both mature as a unit and like they’re still only beginning their exploration.

All Them Witches, “Diamond” official video

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Review & Track Premiere: Sherpa, Tigris and Euphrates

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on September 17th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

sherpa tigris and euphrates

[Click play above to stream the premiere of ‘Kim (((o)))’ from Sherpa’s Tigris and Euphrates. Album is out Sept. 28 on Sulatron Records.]

Working around a theme of human evolution, Italian psychedelic scene-setters Sherpa showcase no small amount of progression themselves with their second offering through Sulatron Records, the six-song/42-minute Tigris and Euphrates. From their home-base in the Abruzzo region — think mountains running up against the Adriatic coastline, hillside houses of untold age with roofs of curved tile, lakes, rivers, old castles on the high ground and other things that if you saw them in a calendar you wouldn’t believe they’re real; fly into Rome and then head east — the core four-piece of guitarist/vocalist/synthesist Matteo Dossena, bassist Franz Cardone, dronemaker guitarist Axel DiLorenzo and drummer/percussionist Pierluca Michetti weave textures no less lush for their deceptive minimalism, conjuring gorgeous post-rock wash with the help of Ivano and Enrico Legnini on Fender VI and MicroKorg in closer “Descent of Inanna to the Underworld” and side B opener “Abscent to the Mother of Language” (sic), respectively, Davide DiBernardo‘s sitar on “Overwhelmed” and Federica Vignoni‘s violin on second track “Creatures from Ur.”

One might think that given all the personnel involved and the varied instrumentation, Tigris and Euphrates would arrive as some grand and overblown realization, but as anyone who heard the band’s late-2016 debut, Tanzlinde (review here), can likely tell you, that’s simply not going to be the case. Of course Tigris and Euphrates has a scope aurally and in its subject matter, but the fluidity with which that’s brought to bear and the patience in Sherpa‘s craft, the understated impact of their mellow, gradually-unfolding vision of tonal presence, aren’t to be understated. The end result is an offering that’s immersive and beautiful, foreboding at times and moodier, but never relinquishing its hold on the consciousness of the listener, the band not necessarily needing volume to make their statement heard. Whether it’s the (relative) surge in the second half of opener “Kim (((o)))” or the sitar-laced drift that hypnotizes into the fadeout of the penultimate “Overwhelmed,” the feeling of serenity never departs entirely from Sherpa‘s sound, giving Tigris and Euphrates a hopeful aspect that bleeds into every song in one way or another.

The flow between the tracks is no less resonant than the material itself, and the impression of Tigris and Euphrates as a whole work is palpable, foretold in the hints at darker tones in “Kim (((o)))” that show up in lower distortion beneath “Abscent to the Mother of Language” and in the culmination of “Descent of Inanna into the Underworld.” In this way, the tracks come together and enhance each other, not only supporting the overarching thematic intent of the record but creating a world in which that story plays out, giving a foundation for the exploratory nature of what Sherpa are doing that, like so much of the album itself, is softly and smoothly delivered. A punctuating snare in “Kim (((o))” holds a tension that speaks to the more weighted unfolding in the song’s second half — an interaction between low distortion and a lead guitar lick worthy in its warmth of a Colour Haze comparison — and the wash of noise that slowly consumes the opening track seems to find some clarity before it draws itself down.

sherpa

Immediately, Dossena‘s vocals are more forward on “Creatures from Ur” and they arrive atop a slow progression of drums, keys and quietly strummed guitar. A spacious, somewhat sparse beginning moves easily forward into more voluminous liquefaction, but the peaceful vibe persists thanks in no small part to the methodical timekeeping and waves of volume-swelling synth, Vignoni‘s violin making its presence felt around four minutes into the total 6:38 as it finds complement in the bassline and soon becomes part of the river current, ringing tones holding on at the finish to fade and transition into side A closer “Equiseto.” Also the shortest cut at 5:21, “Equiseto” — the title referring to horsetail, either the plant or the actual tail of a horse — boasts a quiet percussiveness, as a quiet backing crash and tom hits back vocals and guitar repetitions that may or may not be loops but nonetheless add an experimental edge to a particularly folkish moment on an album that for all its peace shows little outward interest in actually being folk. Or at least not subsuming itself to the genre — though one could say the same thing about Tigris and Euphrates and psychedelic rock. It’s not really interested in being anything other than itself.

This, naturally, is one of the album’s great strengths, and it continues into the harmonies of “Abscent to the Mother of Language,” vocal layers taking hold over an ultra-flowing wash of guitar and synth that works its way forward until at about 3:45, it pulls back and lets the bass set the tone for a lower, darker-toned roll that persists throughout the next few minutes, eventually receding to a bookending verse. The side B opener is both a highlight and the longest piece on Tigris and Euphrates at 7:52, and it leads the way into “Overwhelmed” and “Descent of Inanna to the Underworld,” both of which also top seven and a half minutes, where only “Kim (((o)))” approached it so on side A. “Overwhelmed” uses its time to proffer especially resonant soundscaping, its cymbal work and guitar combining to ease forward toward a split at the halfway point into the sitar-inclusive up-strummed kick, more active snare pops adding to the momentum and rhythmic course. Everything’s relative, of course, but the classic psychedelic notion of East meets West is put to effective use, and the turn from one movement to the second in “Overwhelmed” speaks to the confidence of the band’s delivery on the whole. They’re able to put the listener in the exact space they want them to be. This is not to be undervalued as an aspect of their style.

Given the smoothness of their execution throughout and the grace with which Sherpa unfurl Tigris and Euphrates as an entirety that draws strength from its individual components, headphone-ready sonic detailing — Cardone‘s bass is enough to stun on its own — and abiding ambience, it’s easy to read some kind of resolution into the finale of “Descent of Inanna to the Underworld,” which like “Abscent to the Mother of Language” before it also turns to more weighted-sounding fare, this time just before it begins its second half, drawing back quickly and launching once again to give the closer a crescendo ahead of a long fade of residual tones; an end no less encompassing than anything before it. I don’t know if Sherpa intend the story to be finished — isn’t human evolution ongoing? — but their telling is complete and enthralling in its entirety, and their ability to cast out as they do is indicative of the creative growth they’re undertaking as a unit. All the better. They may not have gotten the credit they deserved for what they accomplished on their first outing, but if they keep putting together records like Tigris and Euphrates, sooner or later someone’s going to notice.

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Conan, Existential Void Guardian: Prosperity on the Path

Posted in Reviews on September 14th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

Conan Existential Void Guardian

There’s a dual emphasis happening on Conan‘s fourth full-length in a 13-year run. First, Existential Void Guardian, which is also their third LP for Napalm Records, calls to mind just how recognizable Conan‘s sound is. They’ve subtly drawn back on some of the overbearing tonal onslaught over the years, which one can hear in songs like “Eye to Eye to Eye” in comparison to their earlier work on 2012’s debut, Monnos (review here), or the preceding 2010 EP, Horseback Battle Hammer (review here), but Conan remain one of the most immediately recognizable bands in metal, period, let alone doom or whatever other subgenre you might want to stick them in. Existential Void Guardian brings to mind just how much Conan‘s sound has become their own over the course of this decade, and yet it also emphasizes how much that sound is grown.

The pivotal moment might’ve been in 2014 when producer Chris Fielding joined the band following the recording of their second album,  Blood Eagle (review here). Taking on the role of bassist/vocalist alongside founding guitarist/vocalist Jon DavisFielding added not only his recording expertise — brought to bear at Skyhammer Studio, owned by Davis — but also his tonal weight and a vocal foil to Davis, something that Conan had worked to incorporate with original bassist Phil Coumbe but which became all the more essential with the lineup change. The impact of Fielding joining the band could be felt in their live presence and was realized in the studio on 2016’s Revengeance (review here), which updated listeners on the burgeoning dynamic between Davis and Fielding, the former’s higher-register wails complemented by the latter’s lower growls and shouts.

On Existential Void Guardian, with opener “Prosper on the Path” and the midsection of centerpiece/side A closer “Amidst the Infinite” as well as the later “Vexxagon” as particular examples, the two find a kind of shouted vocal harmony, and as Fielding takes the lead role in closer “Eternal Silent Legend,” there are more than hints of melody in his approach that even further expand the reach of the group on the whole. In kind with the contributions of drummer Johnny King (also of Dread Sovereign, ex-Altar of Plagues and others), who makes his first appearance on the seven-song/35-minute release, it all makes for Conan‘s most complex outing to-date.

One hesitates to use a word like “progressive” when it comes to Conan. Given the lumber they bring to bear on the aforementioned “Amidst the Infinite” and the gallop of “Eye to Eye to Eye,” it just feels gross and wrong, but there’s no question Existential Void Guardian is the most thoughtful Conan manifestation yet. From its evocative title — is the guardian bringing you into the void? warding off the void? keeping you there? — to the more developed lyrical ideas of “Volt Thrower” or “Prosper on the Path,” one can hear Conan moving away from the one-word-line impressionism they’ve used in the past to conjure images of violent conquering to a fuller mode of expression. Or so it seems without the benefit of a lyric sheet. That’s not to say Existential Void Guardian doesn’t have its raw moments. As “Vexxagon” settles into its final rolling groove, it does so with Davis having spit out quick lines atop the prior cacophony of riffs.

conan

And “Paincantation” is straight-up grindcore. No other word for it. It’s a 55-second blastbeaten assault — and the first 19 seconds of that is a kind of swelling introduction, while the last seven are a ringout — and the focus is pure brutality. It’s an easy pick to say that’s where King makes his presence most felt, as the wash of crash is no less consuming than the miasma of distortion churning at maximum speed overhead, but his snare and tom work in the early cycles of “Vexxagon” and the quick fills he works into the first half of “Prosper on the Path” while still holding to the central plodding rhythm aren’t to be undervalued for the tension they add to the proceedings overall. As he transitions into a kind of gallop in the first-stage of the chorus of the opener, he brings a professionalism of style and a crispness of play that’s clearly rooted in the more extreme end of metal but works nonetheless with the swing that Conan‘s songwriting requires. He’s a more than solid fit alongside Davis and Fielding. Hope he likes touring.

But the point is that as much as Conan have grown, there’s still blood dripping from their battle axe, and as much as the band’s even-year succession of releases — 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and now 2018 — has seen them bring new ideas and personnel into the fold, they’ve continued to hold firm to their ultra-low end and a brutality brought to bear amid the ensuing weight. Even as “Eternal Silent Legend,” which is also the longest inclusion at 6:53, rounds out Existential Void Guardian, with a gradual feedback-topped unfolding that riffs its way into what’s sneakily Davis‘ most melodic vocal performance with the band — trading between a few cleaner lines and a final growl — they do so en route to a massive stomp and rolling finish that’s as much a signature moment as Conan could possibly have. Thus the dual emphasis: they’ve advanced this much while still retaining their core purpose.

Every Conan record seems to be a first of one sort or another. Monnos, of course, was the first album. Blood Eagle the first recorded at SkyhammerRevengeance was the first with Fielding on bass and then-drummer Rich Lewis rounding out trio, and Existential Void Guardian is the first with King. It’s little short of amazing this can be the case while Conan‘s identity has remained so vividly cast. That’s a credit to Davis, of course, as the founder and guiding hand of their ongoing project, but it’s also a result of the natural way they’ve matured.

While conscious, nothing in Conan‘s ongoing progression has felt forced, and at the risk of shoehorning them into a narrative, it seems like their songcraft has become more complex as a result of the time they’ve spent on stage and the development of the chemistry between the players rather than heady studio experimentation. Nothing against that approach, but Conan continues to work so well as a concept because they know who they are and who they want to be, and they always have. Even as those ideas have changed with time, there are crucial elements that have remained cast in stone, and one expects they’ll stay that way as they work to push beyond the void.

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Brant Bjork, Mankind Woman: Swagger and Soul

Posted in Reviews on September 13th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

brant bjork mankind woman

Strip it down. The central mission of Brant Bjork‘s 12th studio album seems to have been to get back to basics, and that means groove. There’s ultra-funk that runs deep throughout Mankind Woman, and in songs like “Chocolatize” and “Somebody,” the godfather of desert rock crafts his most intimate-sounding release in at least a decade, if not longer. It’s a collection informed by the soulful aspects of records like 1999’s mellow-heavy desert classic Jalamanta (discussed herealso here) and particularly 2002’s Brant Bjork and the Operators, which was made under similar circumstances of close collaboration.

In this case, Bjork worked together with guitarist Bubba DuPree (ex-Void, also of Bjork‘s backing group, The Low Desert Punk Band) to write the material and bringing in recurring guest vocalist Sean Wheeler to take lead vocal spots on side B cuts “Pretty Hairy” and closer “Nation of Indica,” former Kyuss/Vista Chino bandmate Nick Oliveri and Armand Secco Sabal (who’s toured with Al di Meola) for bass spots. The result is an 11-track/38-minute easy-flowing LP that discards much of the aggressive edge of 2014’s Black Power Flower (review here) and 2016’s Tao of the Devil (review here) — Bjork‘s two studio full-lengths through Napalm Records, which also issued the live outing, Europe ’16 (review here), last year — in favor of material that is smoother and more laid back.

Sure, the title-track sleeks its way into a Deep Purple (sans organ) boogie in its second half and the fittingly-enough centerpiece “Swagger and Sway” has some element of challenge in the lyrics, “Try to do something about it/I dare you,” but the prevailing vibe on Mankind Woman is more indebted to classic soul and R&B, melded of course with the signature desert rock style that Bjork has made his own over the better part of the last 20 years. Cuts like the shuffling “Lazy Wizards” and “Pisces” early in the tracklisting are straightforward in their style — the latter with a particularly resonant hook — and follow the opener “Chocolatize” (premiered here) in finding a place where something can be heavy and soothing at the same time, empty of pretense but more than a simple run through the motions of Bjork‘s modus.

As Bjork leaves Napalm behind for Italian imprint Heavy Psych Sounds, it’s easy to read Mankind Woman as the beginning of a new era for his work, and if that’s the case, then so be it. Even Wheeler brings the soul to “Pretty Hairy,” as opposed to the sort of punker spoken declarations of “Nation of Indica” and while funk is ever-present in Bjork‘s style, to hear him directly engage it as he does on “Chocolatize,” “Mankind Woman” itself and “Somebody” is a refreshing readjustment of the balance. It’s the ultimate cliché to say an opener ‘sets the tone’ for the rest of the album, but the chorus, “It’s time to chocolatize our thing/Right on,” seems to be as much a statement of purpose for the collection as a whole as it is a standout hook on its own, and Mankind Woman indeed remains affected by its energy and deceptively complex arrangement of layers.

B-funk? D-funk (for desert)? Either way, as “Lazy Wizards” subsequently unfolds its righteously subdued groove, the impression of “Chocolatize” before it holds firm and makes an underpinning for just about everything that follows, even as “Charlie Gin” dips into garage rock, the later “Brand New Old Times” seems to take on no-frills early-Beatles-gone-fuzz-R&B hookmaking, and the penultimate “1968” unfurls itself with an uptempo swing that would’ve been at home on a second Vista Chino effort, with Bjork himself donning the John Garcia mantle in his vocal approach.

brant bjork

Mankind Woman brings no shortage of sonic variety in moving from track to track, but it’s the overarching fluidity that makes it work so well as a front-to-back listen, the steady flow of the production (helmed by Dupree as well as Yosef Sanborn, who engineered and mixed) helping to unite individualized pieces across the whole work in classic-album form. Not that a record with a song called “1968” on it is exactly missing ties to that era that saw the birth of heavy in rock and roll, but clearly Mankind Woman is speaking to that moment in more than just that one especially upfront manner.

And no complaints for that. With the exception of “Brand New Old Times” — which is the shortest cut included at 2:04 — the songs are by and large longer on side B, with “Somebody” and “Nation of Indica” tapping into the kind of jammy feel that populated some of the longer-form material on other recent long-players, but is quicker in doing so, speaking to the general reining in that seems to be happening throughout Mankind Woman as Bjork effectively resets his methodology. Likely some of it is writing alongside DuPree, but even if Bjork‘s doing so is a one-off rather than indicative of a new direction to be developed over future works, then the point still stands.

Clearly it was time for something different coming off Tao of the Devil, and that’s manifest in these tracks whatever familiar elements they might otherwise contain. For longtime Brant Bjork fans, Mankind Woman should feel like a gift. It taps into a spirit that fell by the wayside as Bjork embraced wider-scale touring — that said, he’s hitting Europe again to support this release — and a more full-band approach, and it does so without moving backwards creatively. It refuses to compromise its soul or dull-down its funkified roll, and it shows Bjork squarely in command of his style, songwriting and performance. Actually, I take that back. There’s nothing square about it.

Brant Bjork‘s legacy doesn’t — or shouldn’t — need to be recounted. From his days drumming and writing in Kyuss to joining Fu Manchu, to the one-off with Ché en route to establishing himself as a solo artist and releasing albums of diverse sound and consistent quality, he’s been nothing short of essential to the process of shaping desert rock into the multinational phenomenon it is today. Mankind Woman is true to this pedigree, but like each of Bjork‘s offerings, it has a personality unto itself and speaks to the ongoing creative growth of an absolute master of the form. Hearing it is only going to make your day better.

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The Skull, The Endless Road Turns Dark: Remaining True

Posted in Reviews on September 12th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

The Skull The Endless Road Turns Dark

There has been a place reserved among 2018’s best doom albums for The Skull‘s The Endless Road Turns Dark since before its release on Tee Pee Records was even announced. Rumors of its coming swirled at the start of the year, and really since the Chicago-based five-piece issued their EP (review here) in 2016, it’s been a question of when not if they would have a follow-up to their 2014 debut, For Those Which are Asleep (review here). That record was a work of prime doomed grit, taking the lessons of classic Trouble on which the band was founded and pushing them into a thoroughly modern context, with former members of that band Eric Wagner (vocals) and Ron Holzner (bass) at the forefront alongside guitarist Lothar Keller (Sacred Dawn) and a rotating cast of others that has included members of PentagramCarousel and plenty more.

That the current recording incarnation of The Skull features guitarist Rob Wrong (also Witch Mountain) and drummer Brian Dixon (ex-Cathedral) only makes them all the more of a supergroup, but as For Those Which are Asleep demonstrated, the band is more than a showcase for “ex-members of” to run through the motions, and fortunately for all involved — particularly listeners — The Endless Road Turns Dark continues that thread. Wrong‘s lead guitar is a standout factor from the opening title-track — also the longest inclusion at 7:06 (immediate points) — onward, and Dixon‘s drumming brings a precision march and classic thud to the eight-track/43-minute proceedings, both its impact and the tones of WrongKeller and Holzner captured with a modern fullness as a result of the production by Sanford Parker, whose work here is no less a darkened joy to behold.

The balance of clarity and heft in “Ravenswood” alone is worth the price of admission, and it’s a combination of elements that works remarkably and surprisingly well, giving The Skull a sense of departure from the barebones, sometimes-lifeless production style of traditional doom that even further strengthens the material itself. Whether it’s the gradual unfolding in “Breathing Underwater” or the wistful sensibility in the sweeping layers of “All that Remains (Is True)” near the end of the record, The Endless Road Turns Dark more than earns the spot that’s been held for it by affirming The Skull as not only a band based around classic methods and noteworthy personnel, but a crucial creative force working on their own terms and developing a style apart from their pedigree.

Wagner especially seems to have found his voice here in a new way. He’s fluid and comfortable in a mid-range melody atop cello (I think) in “All that Remains (Is True)” and works in layers of higher and lower register in the potent hook of “The Longing,” which also featured on EP, in a way that sounds confident and thoughtful. “The Endless Road Turns Dark” itself might have his most forward higher-register vocals in its chorus, but certainly there are other spots throughout — “Ravenswood,” for example — and they’re handled easily via layering amid clearly delivered lyrics that are memorable and true to the aesthetic of the band without seeming forced. On a sheer performance level, it’s a definitive step forward from The Skull‘s debut and a challenge to anyone who might think they know what to expect from him or the group as a whole.

the skull

One might say the same of a song like “From Myself Depart,” which toys with structure across its six-minute run by opening with a quiet, bass-led verse before a swaying riff kicks in and, following another trade between this verse and chorus, launches into a two-minute lead section that includes a kick into speedier tempo before the chorus and a last quiet verse close out in succession. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus-end, it ain’t, and it arrives at a pivotal moment leading off side B after “The Longing” and the deceptively spacious highlight “Breathing Underwater” round out the album’s first half in top form, doing the work of expanding the sound without really departing the central tonal context of the rest of The Endless Road Turns Dark — fucking with the formula, essentially. But doing it well, and doing it in the right spot to add further personality to what surrounds.

Not that there’s any lack of character to the record as it plays out. In the push of “Ravenswood” and the chugging “As the Sun Draws Near” — it’s hard to pick the best hook on the album and I won’t try, but this one is close if it’s not “The Longing,” which has the sneaky added benefit of prior familiarity — The Skull offer a reprieve from the slower fare in “Breathing Underwater,” the title-track and “All that Remains (Is True),” alternating between longer and shorter songs en route to the finale “Thy Will be Done,” the title of which is referenced in the lyrics of the opener, which breaks from its grueling rollout at 3:45 in order to move, albeit temporarily, into a faster section that bookends the album with a reprise of the verse and chorus from the title-track.

The sense of completion that brings to The Endless Road Turns Dark isn’t to be understated. With a dead stop before the return, the ending of the record — which actually comes in the form of a massive, nodding slowdown and long ringout, but bear with me — feels somewhat separate from the rest of “Thy Will be Done,” and one expects it’s supposed to. It not only ties together the opener and the closer directly, but it gives a full-album context to everything else between them, and as much as the individual pieces make their presence felt, that quick resurgence in the finale proves they’re part of something greater. And so, of course, they are.

There wasn’t really any doubt coming into The Endless Road Turns Dark that The Skull would deliver a quality offering — hence that whole holding a place thing — but with the work they’ve put in on tour and the lineup they’ve assembled, their sophomore full-length exceeds even the lofty expectations placed upon it. For Those Which are Asleep may have established The Skull as a unit separate from Trouble, but The Endless Road Turns Dark is where they forge a history of their own that, if we’re lucky, they’ll continue to build upon. It is nothing less than the work of masters.

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Iron Void, Excalibur: Of Legend

Posted in Reviews on September 11th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

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Iron Void‘s third full-length and Shadow Kingdom Records debut, Excalibur, is the kind of record that makes you slap your forehead and ask how no one thought of doing this before. A concept album based on the legend of King Arthur? I know that’s hardly new ground for metal in general, and it seems relatively certain another doom act has had a song about it here or there, but a whole album, capturing the plotline from the ascent of Arthur to the downfall of Camelot via righteous, classic doom? The narrative, of course, is immediately familiar in Western culture, such that songs like “The Coming of a King,” “Lancelot of the Lake,” “The Grail Quest” and “The Death of Arthur” don’t need much more than their titles to orient the listener in the plot, and Iron VoidJonathan “Sealey” Seale (bass/vocals), Steve Wilson (guitar/vocals) and Richard Maw (drums) — use that to their advantage in telling the story with nine songs across a 47-minute span that flow together smoothly without losing their individual impact.

That is, they work as part of the whole or are able to stand on their own if need be. As the Wakefield, UK, three’piece make their way to the penultimate “The Death of Arthur” ahead of the acoustic epilogue “Avalon,” their poise remains unflinching and from Merlin’s incantation at the outset of opener “Dragon’s Breath,” which may or may not actually be sampled from the 1981 film that shares the name of the album, on through the nodding riffage that follows, Iron Void pepper in vocal harmonies and hold their focus well amid the tonal fullness brought to bear by Chris Fielding at Skyhammer Studio in Fall 2017. “The Coming of a King” presents a suitably triumphant NWOBHM gallop, and “Lancelot of the Lake” tosses in double-kick drums from Maw and dual-vocals that highlight the hidden strength in Iron Void‘s approach that puts them far ahead of many practitioners of the style.

No doubt Iron Void do justice in their homage to the elders of doom. Sabbath (of course) in multiple-eras, including some of the medieval stylizations of the Tony Martin years, Saint Vitus, Trouble, etc., and included with that is a strong current of the doom-into-NWOBHM moment, acts like Pagan Altar, Cirith Ungol and Witchfinder General adding early- and mid-’80s fervor to “Lancelot of the Lake” and the subsequent “Forbidden Love,” which plays through quiet/loud tradeoffs in its verse before launching into a speedier solo section and setting the stage for a return to the verse with a moment of standalone bass that highlights one of the most crucial aspects of the band in Seale‘s tone. The low end, which is MIA on many a classic metal recording, does much of the work as the foundation on Excalibur around which Wilson‘s riffs crunch and solos soar. That’s not to take away from Maw‘s drumming, but there’s a sense of melody as well as rhythm to the bass that bridges the other two together.

iron void photo by Katrina Kendrick

While the singing and lyrics are the source of much of the memorability in the songs, by the time Iron Void move into the centerpiece “Enemy Within,” their sense of command is absolute, instrumentally as well as vocally. This speaks not only to the work the band has done across its two prior long-players, 2014’s Iron Void and 2015’s Doomsday, but also to the sheer effort and thought put into this collection. It is coordinated across such a clear beginning, middle and end that one is left wondering which came first, the concept or the tracks themselves, but either way, the fluidity with which the band move through one into the next as they tell their tale isn’t to be understated. While it’s possible to take each cut on its own — “Enemy Within” is a standout among standouts, every bit worthy of its position in the tracklisting — it’s even more satisfying to hear them progress as part of the overarching entirety, which is delivered with unstained class and wholly without pretense.

“Enemy Within” rumbles out its finish into a fade ahead of the bursting start of “The Grail Quest” and it’s clear through the pacing and tone the story is making its way to a decidedly unhappy ending. Weeping lead guitar just past the midpoint in “The Grail Quest” tells the listener everything they need to know about how it all turns out, and the subsequent “A Dream to Some, A Nightmare to Others” takes hold, there seems to be a kind of symmetry with the earlier catchiness of “The Coming of a King,” as Seale and Wilson harmonize through the hook, telling of the death of Merlin and the aftermath thereof. Maw incorporates some cowbell into the first part of the two-stage solo section in the song’s back end, and they finish with a last verse and chorus en route to “The Death of Arthur,” which starts with drum thud and acoustic guitar and unfolds its 7:33 run as, appropriately, the longest track on Excalibur. Fair enough for being kind of an important moment in the fable, but even more than the demise of the central figure, the song offers something of a relief in its sense of melody even as it brings a kind of tension in its early verses.

With subtle noodling on guitar, Iron Void move toward a swell of volume around the 3:30 mark that leads to the next movement, which is more open sounding and a bit more grandiose. A solo naturally gives way back to the quieter verse and a final weighted push ends with a wash of gong. The plucked notes of “Avalon” arrive thereafter and give a concluding chapter to the story and album both that nonetheless expands the sonic palette while remaining true to the central atmosphere at work. Harmonies arrive late for the lines, “Beyond the gates of death/I am free,” and the record closes with the latter lyric and leaves a heavy silence in its wake. They may not be the first to enact the Arthurian theme, but Iron Void make it their own in a manner that both acknowledges metal’s history and dons its proudly. There’s no irony to it, no tongue-in-cheek winking in their presentation. Excalibur is classic metal made new again, and if you can’t handle that, it’s your loss.

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