Telescope, Telescope: Truth and Revision

Posted in Reviews on December 12th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

telescope telescope

It’s a question of timing. We hear a lot about what’s commonly considered the Psychedelic Era, which ran roughly from 1966 to 1970 and could be considered the ground out of which the first movement of heavy rock was subsequently born. The succession isn’t so clean, of course. It wasn’t one right into the next. But trends came and went and different sounds were picked up at different times enough for a narrative to emerge, so that’s what it is. The Psychedelic Era.

Newcomer Barcelona duo Telescope offer a reminder with their three-song debut short release that the story is never quite that plain, and that each detail has the potential to be hiding its own devil. Comprised of multi-instrumentalists Esteban Garós and Luis Pomés — the latter also of Lewis and the Strange Magics — the two-piece have an immediately deceptive modus, rife with aesthetic specificity that seems geared toward capturing the very moment when the British Invasion and the subsequent movement of pop-rock first began to take on psychedelic overtones.

In other words: when The Beatles started smoking pot. There’s proto-lysergic elements at work in Telescope‘s three initial tracks — “With Your Truth,” “Adrift” and “Not Your Game” — but no hint of anything like a bad trip taking place and Garós and Pomés, who also self-recorded while Pomés handled mixing and mastering, never lose the sunshiny pop flair that lies beneath the resonant fuzz of their tones.

The result of this effort may only be 11 minutes long, and it may ultimately lie somewhere between a demo and an EP when it comes to the actual reality of how it will relate to their work going forward — that is, one doesn’t want to read too much into it with the project being so new — but it’s a significant stylistic achievement that nestles itself warmly into a sonic place few bands inhabit or would dare to try inhabit. Telescope do this without snark, without irony, and with a sense of character in their songcraft strikingly developed for it being their first offering.

One might give partial credit as regards that songcraft to Pomés‘ prior experience in Lewis and the Strange Magics, whose twisted take on classic garage rock isn’t entirely divorced from the semi-retroist vibes Telescope bring to proto-psych in these three cuts, but in comparing approaches, the new duo is far less theatrical, and by focusing sonically on the years closer to ’64-’66 rather than ’67-’70, they also position themselves in a fascinating niche as regards how rock and roll began to use the studio itself as an instrument.

telescope

The drums on the straight-off-Help! bouncing closer “Not Your Game” are particularly Ringo-esque and sound recorded live, but along with that and the running bass, there’s a later flourish of synth and the vocal harmonies over top there and the Mellotron that pops up in the swinging “Adrift” speak to what were the very beginnings of studio experimentation that, in just a few years’ time, would produce records like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Are You Experienced? and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. That sensibility begins on “With Your Truth,” which opens and is also the longest track (immediate points) at 3:55.

A gentle guitar line swirls in backed by bright-tone fuzz and sets itself to easy-dreaming a quick verse that seems to hop into the volume swell of the hook, with a strut of low end that continues the smooth and crisp groove into the next verse and chorus, after which a short solo takes hold, leading back to the chorus and toward the couple quick instrumental measures that close. It is so forward, so traditionalist in its structure and so sincere and gimmick-free in its execution that one can’t help being swept up by it, and as “Adrift” cleanly takes hold with its opening bassline and the aforementioned Mellotron, the more blown-out vocals over the laid back instrumental progression give a feeling of variety to the EP that is no less subtle than the nuance of their style, Garós and Pomés showing an early chemistry between them in terms of performance as much as writing.

And I don’t know that I ever thought I’d find myself using a phrase like “the tambourine makes it,” but as regards “Not Your Game,” it also happens to be true. It is precisely the kind of touch that lets the listener know just how schooled in what they’re doing Telescope are, which seems all the more crucial their first time out, and it’s one more nod to the pre-psych age that also allows the band to sneak in more modern elements and weirdo touches, giving them, in essence, a familiar foundation on which to build a sound of their own. That they do so with yet another hook of such quality is all the more to their credit, but in line with the cheerful and sunshiny mood of the release overall and the temporal thematic, that quality is an additional aspect tying the EP’s tracks together.

In thinking of how a debut long-player might take shape, it’s important to keep in mind just how tight records from this (that) era were. As “Not Your Game” fades out, one is reminded of strong-handed producers keeping things radio-friendly with editorial tape-cutting and so on. A question Telescope will have to answer for themselves as they move forward from this debut EP is just where they want to put themselves in that balance, and how they can still manage to bring diversity of songwriting to a release while keeping individual pieces to such brevity.

Certainly it’s been done before — that’s the whole point. I’d love to hear Garós and Pomés take on a sentimental ballad, or an unabashed love song, or even the stuff of a mega-catchy toss-off single. There’s so much potential in their debut EP that it’s difficult to imagine the various directions in which they might grow, but they’ve set the task in front of them and they push through this introductory statement in such a manner as to make one think that wherever they end up, it will be a joy to follow along. Here’s looking forward to looking back.

Telescope, Telescope (2017)

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Review & Full Album Stream: The Atomic Bitchwax, Force Field

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on December 7th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

the atomic bitchwax force field

[Click play above to stream The Atomic Bitchwax’s Force Field in its entirety. Album is out Dec. 8 on Tee Pee Records.]

The seventh full-length from veteran New Jersey heavy rockers The Atomic Bitchwax would seem to mirror the mania of their work ethic over the last several years. That is, it’s ready to go. Released by Tee Pee Records and given the title Force Field, it continues a thread of hard-hitting, riff-bending, head-spinning vitality that one found typifying the personality of 2015’s Gravitron (review here), marked by the delivery of the band’s trademark hooks at blazing tempos and with a harder-edged production style than one found on their earlier material.

In hindsight, this thread may have begun on 2011’s The Local Fuzz (review here), which, in what seemed a reactionary move at the time, was comprised of a single-track instrumental riff-fest, essentially pummeling the listener with turn after turn for 40-odd minutes. Gravitron and Force Field — if their next album title doesn’t involve the word “plasma” somehow, I’m going to be personally disappointed; perhaps even “plasma inducer?” — make fitting complements to each other because of consistency of style between them, but both seem to have emerged at a sprint from out of where The Local Fuzz had positioned the three-piece of bassist/vocalist Chris Kosnik, guitarist/vocalist Finn Ryan and drummer Bob Pantella.

It seems that in a way that couldn’t be appreciated at the time, The Local Fuzz could have been a pivotal moment in terms of the Bitchwax figuring out their course as this increasingly established lineup of the band took shape following Kosnik and Ryan first bringing in Pantella (known for his work in Monster Magnet, of which Kosnik is now also a member) on 2008’s TAB4, following Ryan‘s coming on board with 2005’s 3 (discussed here) — which, perhaps coincidentally, also boasted a track titled “Force Field.” In any case, where TAB4 demonstrated a sheen in its production and delved into more mid-paced and semi-psychedelic songwriting, nearly a decade later, The Atomic Bitchwax come across post-The Local Fuzz almost as a different band — they are supercharged, unforgivingly tight, and aggressive as they burn through Force Field‘s 12 tracks and 34 minutes, offering mere seconds of letup along the way.

And even those, relatively speaking, hit pretty hard. Eight of the 12 inclusions on Force Field clock in under the three-minute mark, and none of the rest touch four — the longest is “Alaskan Thunder Fuck” at 3:48 — and though the verse of “Crazy” seems to straighten out the otherwise winding style of riff that has been a hallmark of The Atomic Bitchwax‘s work since their 1999 self-titled debut and very much is here as well, a tense line of keys and, later in the track, tambourine, assure that the energy level is consistent with surrounding pieces like the full-boar “Shocker” and the instrumental “Fried, Dyed and Layin’ to the Side,” which follows.

If the effort the band has been fatigued at all by the uptick in touring they’ve undertaken in the US and abroad over the last several years, Force Field utterly refuses to show it. From opener “Hippie Speedball” through “Earth Shaker (Which Doobie U Be)” and into the landmark chorus of “Shell of a Man” and the unbridled scorch of “Houndstooth” and ‘Tits and Bones,” The Atomic Bitchwax execute fuzzy fury with precision and sound like a band with no time to waste on anything less than that.

the atomic bitchwax

Through this barrage — one might call it an “assault” were the tones not still so welcoming and their attention to melody still so much a factor in their approach overall — there are times where it seems like a miracle the songs manage to stay as memorable as they are, but in addition to the unshakable foundation of Pantella‘s drumming, variety in the arrangements of vocals between Kosnik and Ryan helps emphasize standout moments across what might otherwise be a totally blinding span, and beneath Force Field‘s surface, the complexity and nuance brought to its progressive turns prove that while it’s in a rush, it was not itself rushed in the making, which is a huge difference in the overall outcome.

As to that outcome, what one takes away from Force Field particularly in the context of Gravitron before it is how much The Atomic Bitchwax at this stage have managed to bridge the gap between classic boogie and the inherent intensity of the US East Coast. Songs like “Shocker” and the penultimate “Super Highway” aren’t shy about their punk aspects, but the groove even of a go-go-go-run-run-run piece like “Super Highway” or the preceding “Humble Brag” remains prevalent, even if one finds it overarching the quickened pulse, rather than resulting directly from, say a nod riff or undulating progression.

In that, it’s “Hippie Speedball” at the outset that sets the tone effectively by striking a balance between thrust and memorability that the band continues to proffer in dynamic fashion. Listening to Kosnik‘s run on bass under Ryan‘s solo during the first solo in the opener, the message regarding chemistry resounds, and the call and response in “Earth Shaker (Which Doobie U Be?)” only reinforces the idea, but the truth is it’s everywhere across Force Field how unreal this band has become in crafting songs that are both fiery and likely to leave a lasting impression.

As is their wont, they shake up their approach with the closer, and in this case, “Liv a Little” with its organ, synthesized-sounding handclaps, blown-out vocals and somewhat slower pacing recalls classic glam rock more than some of the psychedelia they’ve touched on in the past or the poppier vibes they’ve elicited in pieces like “Ice Age (Hey Baby)” from Gravitron, “Wreck You” from TAB4 or even the spacey “Half as Much” from 3. Even with the semi-shift in style, “Liv a Little” over in 2:42 as if to highlight the crispness of Force Field on the whole and the sheer will with which The Atomic Bitchwax at this stage in their tenure — nearly 20 years since forming, nearly 10 with this lineup — keep their material so lean and, indeed, forceful. Their style is utterly their own, and they sound like a band having a blast while pushing themselves physically and aesthetically. Accordingly, while dizzying, Force Field makes for an absolute joy of a listening experience.

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Review & Full Album Stream: Shadow Witch, Disciples of the Crow

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on December 5th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

Shadow Witch Disciples of the Crow

[Click play above to stream Shadow Witch’s Disciples of the Crow in its entirety. Album is out Dec. 15 on Salt of the Earth Records.]

Proffering eight tracks of ominous heavy blues, Shadow Witch sneak out their sophomore full-length, Disciples of the Crow, in some of the darkest hours of 2017, which seems somehow fitting considering the somewhat apocalyptic vibes on hand. Even a faster cut like the more classically metal “Stranger Skies” has a kind of Biblically-informed fire and brimstone despite its lyrical references to red dawns and yellow kings, and certainly the earlier pair of “Reap” and “Cruel” that follow opener “Love Could be Like This” have those elements at work as well as vocalist/mellotronist Earl Walker Lundy injects the material with a preacher’s soulfulness that becomes no less a defining factor than the multi-layer progressive shred guitarist Jeremy H. Hall brings to the second half of the aforementioned “Stranger Skies.”

Peppered with samples throughout — crows on the title-track (premiered here), a thunderstorm to open the six-and-a-half-minute “The Sea,” a spoken part and tolling bell later into “Cruel,” etc. — what might otherwise be a straightforward heavy rocker is given depth of character and atmosphere (samples are also provided by Lundy), but that foundation in dead-ahead structuring is very much present in the drumming of Doug Thompson and bass work of David Pannullo, who are charged as the rhythm section with keeping Disciples of the Crow moving at the clip it does. A decidedly smooth tonality from Pannullo and Hall, perhaps with the exception of the penultimate three-minute blaster “Beneath the Veil,” adds another level of intrigue overall, making the manageable 36 minutes of the record an all the more fascinating proposition worthy of repeat visits.

In the case of the latter — the fuzz — one might liken it on “Love Could be Like This” or even the stomping title-track to the round-edged warmth of Clutch‘s Elephant Riders, though it’s important to keep in mind in doing so that Shadow Witch‘s approach on the whole draws more from metallic traditionalism amid its heavy rocking pulse. Further, if one wanted to draw a line to the Maryland stalwarts, Clutch‘s “Impetus” might be just as appropriate for the immediacy of momentum with which “Love Could be Like This” begins via Thompson‘s drums. It’s also pivotal to remember that the vision cast throughout Disciples of the Crow brims with a willful, purposeful bleakness of mindset. Consider “Cruel,” with the vaguely of-our-times comment, “Your creature comfort/Honey that don’t mean a thing to me/And your social justice/Well the bell it tolls but freedom it don’t ring.”

shadow witch

This examination of privilege, kind of a chorus led into by the first verse, comes with a grim sonic turn, and while one wonders at the perspective overall with which Shadow Witch are approaching the ever-shifting, ever-manic, ever-tragic modernity in which we somehow continuously spiral, the blue-collar perspective is as clear as the adoption of bluesman’s language to present it. This is more of a theme earlier on, though even “Beneath the Veil” drips back to reference the yellow king in the lyrics again, and Disciples of the Crow sets up a nearly bipolar personality for itself with the title-track rounding out side A and “Stranger Skies” beginning a more careening side B with shades of Iron Maiden in its gallop. The flaw in that argument is not accounting for the acoustic aspects of “The Sea” or melody-fueled angular chug of closer “Dead Heroes,” but when one considers Leviathan-era Mastodon for the former or perhaps even late-’90s Tool for the rhythmic chop of the latter — at least before it straightens itself out in the hook — it’s not too much of a stretch to think of them as a more metal manifestation either than some of the earlier pieces.

Wherever Shadow Witch are coming from on a given track or in a given verse — and yes, one is reminded of Soundgarden‘s “Rusty Cage” as Lundy intones “I’m gonna break…” twice near the end of “Dead Heroes”; hard to imagine that’s not on purpose given the song’s title — the cauldron brew they concoct from that complex recipe is very much their own. Their 2016 debut, Sun Killer (discussed here), worked with a similar potency, but Disciples of the Crow is more memorable in its progression and comes across as more efficient in how it’s been crafted. While of course there are tempo shifts, most notably between the pair of the patient “The Sea” and the ensuing thrust of “Beneath the Veil” — the longest cut running headfirst into the shortest — the work Shadow Witch are doing here never feels like it’s in more of a rush than it should be, and for that, there isn’t a single track among its eight that doesn’t end up with some standout aspect emerging, particularly after a couple times through.

United by the foreboding ambience, the quality of the riffs and by Lundy‘s accomplished melodicism as a singer able to hone a dramatic feel without ever leaving behind the idea of serving the material itself rather than the other way around, Disciples of the Crow sets its own terms for its brand of accessibility, and while Shadow Witch are without a doubt speaking to the converted, the nuanced voice in which they do so leads one to think the converted will find the message well worth receiving. As well, for the fluidity of the front-to-back listen despite the turns between the first four songs and the second, in addition to the shifts nestled into side B between “Stranger Skies” and “The Sea,” “Beneath the Veil” and “Dead Heroes” — the last one feeling almost like a bonus track by the time it’s done — Disciples of the Crow is a considerable achievement for Shadow Witch and a firm declaration of who they are aesthetically and their potential to continue to develop along these lines. A moment of arrival? Maybe, but there’s enough drive at root in their sound to make me think they won’t be staying still all that long.

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Review & Track Premiere: Purple Dino, And Now What?!

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on December 4th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

purple dino and now what

[Click play above to stream the premiere of ‘Soul on Fire’ from Purple Dino’s And Now What?!. Album is out Dec. 14 on Vault Relics.]

Just by looking at its comic-style cover art, with the dude passed out after drinking (which you know because of the bottle in his hand; as opposed to if someone had hit him in the head with a shovel) on the ground in what appears to be a park, surrounded by pigeons and detritus as a decidedly un-Barney-esque mascot for the band sits on a filthy bench, one might be tempted to ask the titular question of Purple Dino‘s second album, And Now What?! The lighthearted visual impression of the Vault Relics release is something of a contrast to the darker, simpler line drawing that adorned the Xanthi, Greece, four-piece’s 2014 debut, Jurassic Bar — though that also worked on the themes of dinosaurs and drinking — and while it might set up an expectation toward classic-style skate punk, the truth of And Now What?!‘s seven-track run is more complex than a single root influence can explain away.

Punk is part of it, as the riffing in the midsection of a song like “2day” demonstrates, but sure enough, that same track draws just as much on jangly surf guitar and semi-metallic crunch in the guitar work of Doukas Kostoglou, so even there nothing is easily pegged. Fronted by vocalist Ristas Kosmas, with Stef Dimou on bass and Mitsos Angelakis on drums, Purple Dino make the most of this varied course throughout And Now What?!, and while they wind up sounding like a group functioning under multiple songwriters or at very least a purposeful will to try something different for their compositions — to wit, the earlier metaloprog chug of “Her Ride” and the later brooding groove of the penultimate “Out of Me” — the album never feels unduly disjointed or like it’s making turns it doesn’t want to make. It doesn’t bumble through, in other words. It ties together.

It would be wrong wording to call that process graceful, if only because Purple Dino never seem to be shooting for “grace” as an aesthetic focus. Instead, their rock comes across as somewhat brash amid its deceptively far reach, but as cuts like the catchy opener “Soul on Fire” and the boozy rolling centerpiece “Show Me” prove, the most pervasive unifying sense is that all of these songs are stage-ready. There isn’t one piece of And Now What?! that wouldn’t serve a decided function in a setlist, and the energy in Purple Dino‘s delivery comes across in part born in the wake perhaps of groups like Truckfighters and their Greek countrymen in 1000mods — though a sonic comparison to neither would be completely accurate — even in the more spacious comedown moments of “Out of Me” on side B.

purple dino

Likewise, the preceding “Isolated,” with its blend of airy guitar early and a later payoff in cowbell-inclusive drumming and nodding riffing, seems charged with the direct purpose of inciting a crowd to move. As goals go, it’s an admirable one, but a full-length isn’t a show, and so Purple Dino‘s And Now What?! needs to find a way to unite its disparate parts in an overarching flow that’s not just pretending to be a concert, which really the production is more crisp than to allow. It accomplishes this via a subtle underlying element serves as an origin point for much of the sound-swath and, indeed, the stylistic interpretation of the cover art as well, and that is the various styles of heavy that first emerged in the 1990s, be it grunge on “Her Ride,” closer “Unknown Destination,” the post-Alice in Chains aggression in the middle of “2day” — not to mention the dialed landline-phone sample there as well — or the last-minute scream and flushed-toilet that cap “Out of Me.” If you’re looking for the place where their metallic side comes from, that would seem to be it.

And as a loose source, that vibe works smoothly with Kosmas‘ vocal style and the tonality of Kostoglou‘s guitar and Dimou‘s bass, the punch of which begins “Soul on Fire” at the very start of the record. But just as they don’t draw just from the well of a single sound, neither do Purple Dino limit themselves to one decade of influence, and the more modern facets — the production and the ultimate heavy rock that arises from their meld — come complemented by a somewhat classic side A/side B feel that puts the first four tracks of And Now What?! in position to be broadened by the final three, with “Isolated,” “Out of Me” and “Unknown Destination” longer on average than their predecessors and seeming to push farther out as they move one into the next, the swagger of “Show Me” before dissipating somewhat amid the ensuing stretch in “Isolated,” which establishes itself early with outreach of guitar and bass topped by a vague sample to up the post-rock spirit before the main riff kicks in circa the one-minute mark.

There is no epiphanous, grand summary on And Now What?! — no single track to bring all the sides together under one hook or progression — but for all the threads that Purple Dino weave, there’s never a sense that they become entangled by them, and instead, there’s an efficiency even to “Out of Me” that puts the emphasis on the consciousness at work beneath its exterior. Purple Dino, in other words, are in control of their craft, and not the other way around. They command this material, and much to their credit, that command doesn’t stop them in the slightest from sounding like they’re having a good time even in the record’s moodier stretches. Rather, it becomes another endearing facet of the overall personality, and lets them bring their listeners along for the ride as it happens, rather than simply leaving heads spinning with an offputting series of unexpected twists. Somehow, it all works. And in answer to the album’s central question, and now — hopefully — Purple Dino continue to build on it.

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Eternal Elysium, Searching Low and High: Found at Last

Posted in Reviews on November 30th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

eternal-elysium-searching-low-and-high

To be sure, if you’re looking to start a collection of underrated and ripe-for-broader-appreciation riffage, there are probably few better ways to kick off than with Eternal Elysium. The long-running Nagoya-based outfit trace their stoner rocking Sabbathian loyalties back more than 20 years at this point, and they have a discography chock full of memorable songs that have gone rampantly undervalued in their time. Accordingly, one can only applaud the efforts of Ukrainian imprint Robustfellow Productions in giving due homage to Eternal Elysium‘s 2005 fourth album, Searching Low and High, which from the initial boogie of “Reefer Happiness” through the Hendrixian strut of “Twilight High” and into the depths of 16-minute jammer finale “Green Song” makes just about a perfect lead release for what’s been dubbed the Robust Relics Series.

Given new cover art by Yura “xNinja” Nagorniy and a complete 2017 remix and remaster courtesy of Eternal Elysium founding guitarist/vocalist Yukito Okazaki, the new version of Searching Low and High is comprised of 10 songs and runs a suitably robust 73 minutes thanks in part to the inclusion of two bonus tracks, “Eternal Elysium” (13:53) and “The Spiral Conclusion” (6:59), but even without these, it’s a substantial work of heavy rock idolatry, digging into the roots of the style and focusing less on nuance of presentation than quality of songcraft. That’s not a tradeoff you’re ever going to hear me complain about, and indeed, the band works it to their advantage even for a weirdo interlude like “Approaching Stranger on the Electric Trail of Dreams,” efficiently bringing a sense of atmosphere to the otherwise straightforward attack of the subsequent post-grunge of “No Isolation.”

Following their 1996 debut, Faithful, the next two Eternal Elysium records — 2000’s Spiritualized D and 2002’s Share — were released by MeteorCity, marking their introduction to North American audiences. They’ve had a number of EPs and splits out along the way, including one in 2007 with Black Cobra, and have issued two full-lengths since Searching Low and High in 2009’s Within the Triad and last year’s excellent return, Resonance of Shadows (review here).

Originally issued on Diwphalanx Records with a follow-up vinyl through Hydro-Phonic in 2011, Searching Low and High finds Eternal Elysium at an interesting point in the arc of their overarching progression, confident enough four records deep to throw a little country swing into “Before the Morning Comes” as might a Pepper Keenan-fronted C.O.C. or to play off acid folk on the 1:42 aside “Hazy Sublime” earlier, but well aware that the core of their approach lies in the thickened groove of a song like second cut “Not So Far,” which answers the faster initial rollout of “Reefer Happiness” by unfolding a doomer nod before turning at its halfway point to madcap stoner punk that here jumps from one channel to the other as it makes its way through its careening course toward a solo-topped bookending slowdown.

eternal elysium

The opening salvo, followed immediately by the aforementioned “Hazy Sublime,” represents the very roots of what works best about Searching Low and High, but Eternal Elysium aren’t content to rest on that alone, and the substance of the album proves more varied and more satisfying than it would if they stuck to the same ideas across the span. And it’s precisely there that the band’s experience as songwriters becomes most relevant and, frankly, easiest to discern.

Earlier outings showcased no shortage of fervent stonerism and were righteous in doing so, but with Searching Low and High, Yukito, bassist/vocalist Tana Haugo and drummer Antonio Ishikawa move fluidly between a more varied swath of influences in a way that, in context, seems to provide a model they’d follow even on Resonance of Shadows, planting their feet firmly and moving outward from there. As the organ-laced “Before the Morning Comes” jives into the psychedelically languid “Green Song,” the trio effectively draw the listener along this path as they go, and the final act of immersion into drift is made all the more satisfying by its dynamic ebbs and flows throughout, guitar leads taking the fore of the new mix with a steady rhythmic foundation behind.

Capped with a fadeout and feedback, “Green Song” gives Searching Low and High a fitting conclusion — gone with no return — but the bonus tracks assure that the proceedings aren’t done yet. The eponymous “Eternal Elysium” appeared on the band’s demo in 1992 and “The Spiral Conclusion” featured on their 2012 split with SardoniS, but both were also on the Hydro-Phonic vinyl as well, so they’re hardly out of place here, and if you’re prone to complain about an extra 20 minutes spent with Eternal Elysium coming out of your speakers, you’re probably not taking on a reissue of Searching Low and High in the first place. Another jam. More nodding riffs. Zero argument.

It will be fascinating to see where Robustfellow takes its Robust Relics Series from here. Of course, I’ve discussed on numerous occasions the treasure trove of pre-social media heavy rock and roll that exists both in and out of current print, so there’s no shortage of fodder for the imprint to dig through and stand behind for reissue should it choose to do so, but in beginning with Eternal Elysium, a clear signal and a high standard have been set, and whether Searching Low and High will ultimately mark a departure point into the discographies of other acts or a series of revamped offerings from the Japanese rockers on their own, its arrival is as welcome as its riffs are timeless.

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Slow, V – Oceans: Drawn by the Ebb

Posted in Reviews on November 29th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

slow v oceans

Belgium’s Slow isn’t the first one-man outfit to wade into the aural cess of funeral doom metal by any means, but it goes in particularly resonant fashion. Helmed by multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and recording engineer Déhá Amsg — whose lengthy pedigree of projects includes Clouds, El Camino, Yhdarl and We all Die (Laughing), among a slew of others — the band’s name is properly written as the all-caps acronym SLOW, standing for ‘Silence Lives Out/Over Whirlpool,’ which was also the subtitle of the first full-length I from the project in 2009. The five-track/57-minute V – Oceans is the latest release, issued by GS Productions earlier in 2017 and picked up by Italian imprint Code666 for wider distribution, and it is a gloriously grueling affair.

Funeral doom has never been and will never be for everyone. By its very nature, it is an extreme form of music. With Slow, the pieces on V – Oceans each top 10 minutes, and the only time there’s much of an escape from the ultra-lumbering, churning tempo is in the 14-minute centerpiece “Déluge,” which veers eventually from its piano/keyboard intro into blastbeats. Otherwise, songs like “Ténèbres” and opener “Aurore” carry forth a wrought emotionalism through largely indecipherable echoing growls and dramatic but not necessarily theatrical arrangements, placed in such a way next to each other as to evoke an overarching linearity to which a lyrical narrative is also set — the theme, of course, drawing on the image of the ocean.

This also isn’t exactly new ground for the style — Germany’s Ahab and defunct UK practitioners Undersmile spring readily to mind, but there are many other examples of groups donning watery themes in funeral doom — but the manner in which Slow takes up this charge is emblematic of what distinguishes Déhà‘s work on the whole throughout the album. In the case of the lyrics, it is the specificity of the imagery put to the songs, the thread of plot that gets woven across “Aurore,” “Ténèbres,” “Déluge,” “Néant” and closer “Mort” that helps make it so immersive, just as it is the nuanced depths of the mix and the intricately balanced arrangements of guitar, keys, bass, drums, vocals, etc. that take place therein that so effectively complement the aquatic mindset.

slow

For the first time with the band, Déhà brought in an outside party — Lore Boeykens, with whom he also founded the Ter Ziele blackened doom duo in 2016 — to work with him on lyrics, and the results are stunning and evocative. The first line of “Aurore” is “Moving into deep waters,” and in a way, that’s the story right there. That’s what’s happening in that song and all that follow, whether it’s the hypnotic undulations that cap “Déluge” or the flourish of spoken work in that song and “Ténèbres” before it or the patient unfolding and foreboding piano that starts the dirge march of “Néant” after. It is no coincidence that the tracklisting moves from “Aurore,” translating from French to ‘dawn,’ to “Néant” (‘nothingness’) and “Mort” (‘death’), as that is precisely where the story of V – Oceans winds up. It is a drowning told through poetry.

As beautiful, serene and resolved as it is sonically brutal and punishing, V – Oceans lets Déhà and Boeykens explore this resounding bleakness of spirit with a conceptual splendor, and as “Néant” resigns itself with the lines, “These dark seas now feel almost comfortable/I give in/May this darkness absorb me,” there’s a swell of keyboard melody that has an almost choral effect (just past the 10-minute mark), as if reaffirming the decision that’s been made. This is a crucial moment for Slow thematically, and perhaps the apex of the album, but to call it that is an oversimplification of the work, which is clearly meant to be taken in its entirety and experienced for the fullness of the headphone-worthy wash it presents. “Mort” caps with a post-death vision of one’s body in the water — “Here my remains drift for everyone to see/This wreck/My failure/Begone with the ebb” — following a description of the undersea voices that lured the protagonist/speaker into the sea in the first place set to chugging guitar, and another choral swell to answer that of “Néant” prior arises at about four minutes in to mark the shift into the final phase of V – Oceans, which stands out for its multi-tiered sense of weight and for the sense of conclusion it brings to the proceedings in their entirety.

I do not know how V – Oceans was composed, i.e., whether it was written as a single song or as individual cuts that Déhà and Boeykens subsequently worked to tie together in both the plot and instrumental presentation, but among the album’s most prevalent features is an overwhelming feeling of completeness, of a front-to-back arc — beginning, middle, end — that concludes in heartrending fashion in its final chapter. Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise coming from an project that’s been around for a decade and released a full-length on every odd year like clockwork since 2009, but it is as realized in concept as in execution, and while it may not be groundbreaking in the grander scheme of the genre, it nonetheless brings forward the elements that can make funeral doom at its best so affecting.

Slow, V – Oceans (2017)

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Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Vol. 1: What Your Love Tells You to Do

Posted in Reviews on November 27th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

uncle-acid-and-the-deadbeats-vol-1-1

I don’t remember exactly when I made the decision, but at some point, amid an unceasing insistence of YouTube recommendations, I told myself that I wasn’t going to listen to Vol. 1 by Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats until I could do so on a physical format. The likelihood of this happening? Just about nil. My understanding is that maximum 100 copies of the original Killer Candy Records self-released CDR version were pressed, and I’ve seen numbers quoted as low as 20, so barring some lightning-strike/winning-lottery-ticket-type oddsbeating or an unspeakable act of generosity, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that would ever be found, and likewise, the London-based band didn’t seem all that interested in putting it back into the public sphere — where, to the rest of the universe who probably just streamed it, it was anyway.

Listening now to the Rise Above Records reissue of Vol. 1, pressed to CD and LP in giving-proper-due form, this was unquestionably the incorrect choice on my part. Like most paths we take that lead us to willful ignorance, just the wrong way to go. I denied myself a crucial context in which to place Uncle Acid‘s subsequent three records — 2011’s landmark Blood Lust (discussed here), 2013’s Mind Control (review here) and 2015’s The Night Creeper (review here) — but more than that, I missed out on the seething rawness of “Dead Eyes of London,” the hook of opener “Crystal Spiders,” the psycho-surf of “Vampire Circus” (not to be confused with the Earthride album of the same name) and the organ-laced madhouse shuffle of “I Don’t Know.” Granted I didn’t know what I was missing, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t missing it.

More the fool I, then, because particularly for those who became Uncle Acid fans around the time of Blood Lust — which Rise Above picked up for release in 2012 following the explosive reception that sent the band almost immediately to the fore of the heavy underground before they even really began playing shows in 2013 — Vol. 1 should be considered essential. One can hear the roots of “I’ll Cut You Down” and “Death’s Door” in “Crystal Spiders” and the later ultra-fuzzed-out swinging highlight “Do What Your Love Tells You,” and more than that, these pieces and others like the eight-minute “Lonely and Strange” stand up on their own as examples of the rare level of craft that has typified Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats‘ work throughout their tenure: memorable songs executed with a deep-running sense of vibe that, as Vol. 1 affirms, has been theirs all along.

uncle acid

Parts of the album are somewhat rudimentary compared to the more careful arrangements that would follow by the time the band — led by Kevin R. Starrs, who’s more “shadowy presence” than “frontman” here — got around to Mind Control, but that’s the idea. They’re supposed to be. The nodding “Witches Garden” buzzes its guitar alongside a running line of organ in a manner that makes character of its rough edges, and seems all the murkier for that in a way that feeds into the mood of the record overall. Of course, this is hearing it with the hindsight of the ensuing seven years and all that Uncle Acihas gone on to accomplish — not to mention a remix and master by Starrs — but while Vol. 1 isn’t shy about its flaws or moments of indulgence, it not only serves as an important documentation of the beginnings of the band’s development, but brims with the creative force that still drives them. Again, it’s as much worth hearing Vol. 1 for what it has to offer on its own as what it brings to the wider Uncle Acid discography.

For example, the aforementioned “Lonely and Strange” offers deceptive nuance at the end of side A in its blend of acoustic and electric guitar, hypnotic repetition in its rhythm, a charmingly clumsy transition at the 4:30 mark, and a long stretch of classically heavy rocking instrumental wistfulness that’s unlike anything the band would again conjure. A plotted-seeming solo is met with fervent crash cymbal before dropping to organ and noise freakout to resume with even more aplomb, and it rounds out its last minute with a dive into Sabbathian acoustics and bass.

To complement this, the band brings “Wind up Toys” to close out side B and end the record with a sense of motion that echoes the ’60s surf horrors of “Vampire Circus” but has even more of a rockabilly-style motoring to its core riff early before shifting into an acoustic bridge around two minutes in and from there departing on an extended guitar lead that carries through the remaining five-ish minutes of the track. That’s something Uncle Acid would just about never do at this point. Their approach has tightened to a degree that, unless they were brazenly breaking their own rules, it seems unlikely they’d indulge such a departure from structure once they’ve established it so clearly.

Nonetheless, it’s the kind of thing a band does early in their run when they’re figuring out who they want to be as players and as a group, and to have that moment preserved on Vol. 1 only makes this reissue more justified. Add to that the consideration that The Night Creeper seemed to be endeavoring toward a harsher bite than that of Mind Control before it, and one could further argue that Uncle Acid were at least on some level looking to come full circle in bringing the lessons they’ve learned since together with the bare-flesh authenticity of this material.

There are arguments to be made on either side of that, I suppose, but what’s more important is those arguments can be had now that Vol. 1 has seen an actual release, and that those who never had the chance to take it on before — or who did have the chance but were just too much of a dope to do so — can finally do so. In their aesthetic contribution and in their sheer level of songwriting, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats are among the most important heavy bands of their generation, and Vol. 1 provides an essential look at their origins and a killer listen besides. It is not by any means to be avoided, in whatever form.

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, “Crystal Spiders”

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Frank Sabbath, Are You Waiting?: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Weird

Posted in Reviews on November 24th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

Frank Sabbath Are You Waiting

It’s a hell of a question, if you think about it. Well, are you waiting? And if so, for what? The implication would seem to be that French weirdo rock trio Frank Sabbath is directly addressing their audience, but even then, it’s pretty open as to what they could be asking. Are we waiting for the three-piece themselves? Are we waiting for Are You Waiting?, which is their third album behind last year’s Telluric Wanderers (discussed here) and their 2015 self-titled debut (review here)? Or is it a question about the question itself, as in, what are we waiting for? And if so, what’s the answer? Shouldn’t we just dive in, to the four-song/34-minute long-player and just about everything else?

Are they asking about the way we’re living our lives, or is it like when you’re at the grocery store and you can’t tell if someone is actually on the checkout line or if they’re just mesmerized by the slew of magazine covers and candybars left there to be impulse purchases. Excuse me, are you waiting? To some degree or other, aren’t we all?

The answers aren’t exactly forthcoming throughout Are You Waiting?, but the immediate affect the question has lingers and would seem to play directly into the band’s intention to shake their listeners out of a comfort zone. With a parabolic structure of two six-minute tracks — opener “Goat” (6:40) and closer “Sasume” (6:00) — bookending two longer jammers in “Lazarus” (11:25) and “Take the Lead” (10:09), the record sets itself up for mirrored-style vinyl sides, but works with a linear flow as well, each piece seeming to offer something of its own to the overarching freaked-out entirety.

The expectation going into Are You Waiting?, which arrives in a handmade CD sleeve under the banner of the band’s own Bermuda Cruise Records imprint, shouldn’t necessarily be that Frank Sabbath — who continue to have very much picked the correct moniker — will never lock into a solid groove together and rock out because they’re too busy being oddballs. Apart perhaps from “Sasume,” the abundant and maybe-Japanese lyrics of which seem like a questionable choice at best, politically and in terms of the raw sonic outcome, there’s very little on Are You Waiting? to evoke that check-us-out-we’re-weird, post-Mr. Bungle performative sort of experimentalism. It’s more about sonic quirk.

Despite “Sasume” and despite the fact that “Lazarus” and “Take the Lead” both have lyrics, it’s probably fair to say the album is mostly instrumental, since that’s where the bulk of its impression is made, and as they start off “Goat” with an immediate freakout before guitarist Jude Mas, bassist Guillaume Jankowski and drummer Baptiste Reig tap into a kind of uptempo, low-end-driven surf rock, the spirit is immersive in its blend of grunge skronk and offkilter rhythmic turns. Maybe more immersive than one might think, in fact. Subtly, Mas and Jankowski set a theme of interplay between the guitar and bass that will continue into “Lazarus” and be most effectively put to use in “Take the Lead,” and this happens with a bit of subterfuge via the overarching groove being propelled by Reig‘s drums, which by the time they get to the opener’s fifth minute is practically space rock in its thrust.

frank sabbath (photo robin levet)

They cap that launch with another freakout to mirror that at the start, and it’s not until a couple minutes into the fuzz-drenched “Lazarus” that the first lyrics on Are You Waiting? arrive, following nuanced lead guitar work and a corresponding fluidity of bass that in tone and in terms of what Jankowski does to complement the work of Mas and Reig both, qualifies as being of the “must-hear” variety. They slow down at about three minutes in to make room for the verse over a heavy psychedelic drift, but are soon enough on their way again, and though they might seem to meander, I’m not at all convinced Frank Sabbath don’t have an underlying plan at work in their extended solos and instrumental stretches, making their work progressive rather than haphazard or merely the manifestation of jams put to tape.

“Take the Lead” further demonstrates this idea with a fluidity that not only makes it a highlight of Are You Waiting?, but sets Frank Sabbath apart from the bulk of European heavy psych in terms of their chemistry and the approach they undertake, which seems as much inspired by Samsara Blues Experiment as Zappa himself. But it’s ultimately the patience of the execution itself that one finds most encouraging when it comes to the basic listening experience, and that makes the goof-off rush of “Sasume” something of an atmospheric crash landing as it rounds out the LP.

This is obviously by design, and I’m not going to hold their having a fun against Frank Sabbath or anyone else for that matter — at least not most of the time — but there’s something about the way the Japanese language is used in “Sasume” that comes through more like someone doing an impression of old samurai movies than actually speaking the language. Lyrics are spoken, seemingly back and forth between the band members, while beneath they do lock into a more than solid groove, once more held together by the bass and drums as the guitar goes off where it will. “Sasume” rolls out a stoner rock-style instrumental hook and spends the final two of its six minutes first in a layered guitar solo and then with a late inclusion of keys/organ that signals a rhythmic turn into the last big push that ends.

It is the nature of experimentation that sometimes ideas work and sometimes they don’t, and while I’m not prepared to call “Sasume” a dud for the effect its increased pace has on the final statement the album makes overall, it feels nearly like an element of minstrelsy is at play, and even if that’s born of an appreciation for the Japanese language and culture, it’s almost too easy to read it into another context. Still, and again, Frank Sabbath acquit themselves well throughout Are You Waiting?, and while we may never get the response directly to that question, the sense by the time the record is done is that the trio have only just started to really explore the heights their chemistry might attain and the reaches they might yet conjure as songwriters.

In that sense, yes, we are waiting, but they’ve certainly provided plenty to chew on in the meantime in their most realized work to-date.

Frank Sabbath, Are You Waiting? (2017)

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