Review & Track Premiere: Orodruin, Ruins of Eternity

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on September 13th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

orodruin ruins of eternity new cover

[Click play above to stream ‘Forsaken’ from Orodruin’s  Ruins of Eternity. Album is out Oct. 25 on Cruz Del Sur Music. Preorders available now for CD and LP.]

A 16-year differential from one album to the next is significant. Bands have formed, flourished, and broken up in that time. A generational shift in listenership has taken place. Production styles have changed. The list goes on. Fortunately, good doom is timeless, and so it is that Orodruin return from Mordor with Ruins of Eternity, their sophomore LP behind 2003’s rightly vaunted Epicurean Mass (review here). It’s true that the Rochester, New York, three-piece haven’t been totally absent in that time, having put out the Claw Tower… And Other Tales of Terror compilation in 2004 as well as a self-released demo in 2011 and an EP in 2012 — both around performances as the Days of the Doomed in Wisconsin — and guitarist John Gallo released two full-lengths with his other outfit Blizaro, 2010’s City of the Living Nightmare and 2016’s Cornucopia Della Morte (review here), as well as a comp drawing other other work, and also a 2014 solo album under the extra-letter moniker John Gallow called Violet Dreams that dug into his root influence in the work of Paul Chain.

But even with these and the inevitabilities of real life on the part of Gallo, vocalist/bassist Mike Puleo and guitarist Nick Tydelski, to go more than a decade and a half without a proper album release is a long time. And yet Orodruin have been missed all along. They always seemed to maintain there would be another record, and their absence was conspicuous as bands like The Gates of Slumber and Apostle of Solitude moved to the forefront of American doom, let alone relative newcomers like Magic Circle. The nine tracks/47 minutes of Ruins of Eternity serve as a compelling reminder why. Absent longtime drummer Mike Waske, who left the band in 2018, Puleo takes on those duties admirably, and the dynamic between his bass, soaring vocals and the NWOBHM and epic doom-inspired guitars of Gallo and Tydelski stands up to anything in the style you’d want to put it next to, including titans of the form like The Skull or Candlemass, albeit more raw in production than the latter.

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider the guitar heroics in the second half of “Into the Light of the Sun,” the mournful plod and standout melody of “Letter of Life’s Regret” — which appeared on their 2011 demo as well — and the opening gift that is “Forsaken,” which turns after three minutes in and repurposes the speedier riff from Black Sabbath‘s “Falling off the Edge of the World” to its own righteous ends. It would be cliché to say that after 16 years, Orodruin sound on Ruins of Eternity like they haven’t missed a beat, but, well, it’s also true. Granted, it helps that the style of doom they’re playing is loyal to a particular sonic ideal and has its roots in a lost era of ’80s underground metal — even if they came across as dated, that would only work to their advantage — but Ruins of Eternity, even with “Letter of Life’s Regret” and presumably other tracks being of older origin, feels vital. As the chugging march of “Man of Peace” takes hold from “Forsaken,” the Iommic character in the guitar takes on further nuance and deceptive pacing in the verse en route to a more open chorus, the song trading back and forth this way until the lyrics have told their story and a stop brings about the guitar solo section and the return to the central nod at the finish.

orodruin

This is doom songcraft at its most essential, and a message toward the front of Ruins of Eternity to the converted that time has not dulled Orodruin‘s affinity for the style or its substance. As “Grave Illusion” adds more complexity of mood en route to “Letter of Life’s Regret” and the galloping “War on the World,” the experience of the album grows richer, but keeps to the central vibe at its heart. True doom is about bringing character to homage, adding personal perspective to what’s come before. Orodruin do this across Ruins of Eternity with enough grace as to emphasize just how much has been missed by their not putting out an album every two, three or even four years. Is it a chance to affect the scope of doom that’s gone forever? Ruins of Eternity provides a compelling argument otherwise.

As the album moves into its second half, with “Into the Light of the Sun” balancing tempo shifts and dug-in moodiness en route to its aforementioned standout shred and “Voice in the Dark” toying with structure amid a particularly resonant vocal from Puleo, there is some sense of pushing deeper into stylistic reach, but the core mission remains firm. Likewise, “Hell Frozen Over” starts out at a slow burn, picking up to emphasize tone rather than the riff itself, solos panning from one channel to the other ahead of a last tempo kick and some layered harmonies and a last crash-out at the apex that brings about the closing title-track. Somewhat amazingly, “Ruins of Eternity” is the only song over six minutes long on the record that shares its name, and it launches with a commanding stomp ahead of solo-laced swing and a quiet midsection stretch that explodes into faster push, in turn bringing about a slowdown into pure gruel that is as fitting a way to cap Ruins of Eternity as one could possibly ask.

All the while, Orodruin never lose their sense of poise, never lose sight of what they want to do as a band, and never forget that even more than the misery, it’s the song that matters most. It’s hard to listen to the album and not think what might’ve been if this was their fifth or sixth album instead of their second, but that it exists at all is a victory, and that it finds them in such exceptional form all the more so. They’ve rewritten the story of who they are as a band here, and while one wouldn’t predict what the future might hold for them — particularly as they’re short a drummer for playing live — Ruins of Eternity brings into focus just how special Orodruin are and just how much it’s been worth waiting for this one to show up. That’s no easy task, considering, but they nail it.

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Monolord, No Comfort: Truth Found in Time

Posted in Reviews on September 12th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

monolord no comfort

Guitarist/vocalist Thomas Jäger, bassist Mika Häkki and drummer Esben Willems, collectively known as Gothenburg’s Monolord, have had an impact on this decade of heavy in a way that few bands who actually belong to it have done. Their rise in influence and stature would seem fast were it not for all the work they’ve put in over the last five-plus years, touring, writing, recording and releasing. A streak of three massively successful outings on RidingEasy Records in 2014’s Empress Rising, 2015’s Vænir (review here) and 2017’s Rust (review here), as well as an increasing tour profile in Europe and the US, led to Relapse Records getting behind the fourth, and the six-track/48-minute No Comfort is the result, recorded by Kim Gravander with mixing by Willems and containing the band’s most atmospheric and complex material to-date. That continues a pattern of growth that Empress Rising set in motion as well as a next-stage-arrival communicated through the greater stylistic reach of Rust, and sure enough, No Comfort takes Monolord‘s sound to places it’s never been, from the Floydian stretch of quiet in the penultimate “Alone Together Forever Divided” to the mournful dirge of “Larvae.”

Those hoping to dig into the riffy primitivism of their earlier work will find a measure of solace — that’s not to say comfort — in opener “The Bastard Son” and the shorter “The Last Leaf,” which follows, but even in those, Monolord dig into hypnotic repetition and aren’t afraid to pull the rug out from under their roll in order to make a statement in terms of mood or feeling. Nor should they be, frankly. Such moves are well in their wheelhouse by now, which only emphasizes the compressed timeline of their growth as a unit. It’s been a half-decade since their first record. Some bands don’t even manage to put out a follow-up in that time. Monolord have made a career, established themselves as one of the most pivotal heavy acts in the world, and in No Comfort, landed at a new echelon of substance and style. Not too shabby.

And there is little mistaking No Comfort as anything other than one of 2019’s best releases. Topped with striking cover art by Alexander Fjelnseth, the offering carries an emotional affect even in the solo in the second half of “The Last Leaf,” an overarching spirit of melancholy residing in its layers in a way that one wouldn’t necessarily anticipate, even after Rust. Make no mistake, Monolord‘s core approach is still based around riffs and the pummeling therewith, but their methods have shifted, are shifting, and even the title No Comfort feels like the declaration of an ideal they’re chasing as they push themselves toward more resonant songcraft. It’s obviously not the way the vinyl would work — that would be three songs on a side, each with two longer songs (the second longer than the first) sandwiched around a shorter one — but if one takes No Comfort in thirds, its progression becomes all the more evident.

monolord

They have always and continue to excel at creating a sense of march. Willems as a drummer is a master of it, and the riffs brought to bear by Jäger and made even thicker and more vital by Häkki‘s bass are plenty of dirge fodder to be sure. But even as they plod their way through the side A finale “Larvae” after “The Bastard Son” and “The Last Leaf,” there’s a turn evident toward a doomed melancholy. “Larvae” and the subsequent melodic highlight “Skywards” — it’s (probably past) time to start considering Jäger as a vocalist rather than a guitar player who sings, even with the steady use of effects on his voice — take the initial shove of the opening duo and prove even more immersive, drawing the listener deeper into No Comfort‘s ambience without giving up the heavy vibe to do so. This ends up as one of the record’s great strengths: Monolord‘s ability to grow without compromising who they are and have been thus far into their tenure.

Those effects on Jäger‘s vocals play a part in that, as they continue to sound overwhelmed by his riffing, creating a sense of largesse, but it’s clear in every element that makes No Comfort just how in command Monolord are of their craft, and their material here both signals and succeeds in its intent, as “Alone Together Forever Divided” and “No Comfort” add to the sense of longing so prevalent in “Skywards.” “Alone Together Forever Divided” is the shortest track on the outing at just over five minutes, but it’s the structural change that gives it its effect on what surrounds. The bulk of it is quiet, atmospheric guitar set to a mellow roll, quiet and led more by the vocals than a riff, though there’s a definite groove behind, held together by Willems and Häkki, that moves toward a burst of sonic weight in the second half, a nod taking hold for a time before receding again to let the quiet guitar finish out in contemplative fashion. It’s a marked and purposeful change in approach, essentially turning Monolord‘s methodology on its head, but given how they’ve led into it across the songs prior, including “Skywards,” it also makes sense, and works double as a lead-in for the the 11-minute title-track that rounds out.

With trades in volume as they move through the verses and chorus, the mood on “No Comfort” itself remains primary, and summarizes well the balance of heft and inward-looking sprawl that the songs before have brought together. In linear format — CD/DL — the outward movement of “No Comfort” is even more resounding, but however you take it, No Comfort is the triumph Monolord need at a crucial moment for the band. They have not given up on the root appeal of bashing out wave after wave of dense riff barrage, but they’ve also stayed true to an impulse toward sonic evolution that points the way forward for years to come. Four albums in and just getting started? Maybe. Whatever happens and however No Comfort is received, it is an album that clearly states and meets its own goals. It sets its terms and then brings the listener along its path. It affects the mind of its audience. It is not to be overlooked.

Monolord, “The Last Leaf” official video

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Review & Track Premiere: Alunah, Violet Hour

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

alunah violet hour

[Click play above to stream ‘Hunt’ by Alunah, from Violet Hour out Oct. 11 on Heavy Psych Sounds. Bassist Dan Durchmore says of the track, “During the writing process, it became clear that different dynamics were emerging. ‘Hunt’ is built on our earlier style, but becomes its own entity as the song unfolds. Some of us consider this a favourite to play, so it feels right to let it loose ahead of the album release.”]

The tumult of a few chaotic years of reorganization brings UK doom rockers Alunah to a new place with Violet Hour, their fifth full-length. It’s also their first for Heavy Psych Sounds after issuing 2017’s Solennial (review here) on Svart,  2014’s Awakening the Forest (review here) through Napalm, 2012’s White Hoarhound (review here) on PsycheDOOMelic (then Napalm, then PRC Music) and 2010’s Call of Avernus (review here) on Catacomb, but really, the fact that each one of their records has come out through a different label is the least of it. Just months past the release of SolennialAlunah bid farewell to founding vocalist/guitarist Sophie Day in Sept. 2017, announcing little more than a month later that Siân Greenaway had taken on the role of lead singer. Founding guitarist David Day remained in the band alongside bassist Dan Burchmore and drummer Jake Mason — also an original member — through last year’s Amber & Gold EP (review here) that was the studio introduction to some of the sonic shifts taking place in the band, but earlier in 2019, David Day followed Sophie‘s lead in splitting from the band he helped form, and guitarist Dean Ashton was brought in to fill the role.

So Ashton, who has also handled bass for NWOBHM legends Diamond Head since 2016, is the newest member of Alunah, but apart from Mason, who’s been drumming since the start, in 2006, the longest-tenured member is Burchmore, who joined in 2013. Six years isn’t nothing, and certainly the rhythmic fluidity of the eight-track/42-minute Violet Hour has plenty to say in arguing for the development of the dynamic there, but to trade out your guitarist(s) and vocalist in a riff-led band over the span of two years and still turnaround with an EP and album feels somewhat miraculous. Either Alunah — whose sound has always locked into a relatively laid back groove, marked by some shuffle here and there, but mostly comfortable in a thickened doom roll topped with righteous melody — thrive on this chaos, or it’s been an incredibly stressful time.

And though there are some ways in which Violet Hour feels like a second debut from what’s essentially a new band — Call of Avernus also followed a test-the-waters EP, way back when — a striking amount of the approach remains in accord with their past work. No doubt production from Chris Fielding at Foel Studio has a hand in that as well. Greenaway demonstrated her craft and charisma on Amber & Gold, and whether it’s the outwardly sexualized “Trapped and Bound” or “Hunt,” the ultra-catchy “Hypnotised” or the more doomed “Unholy Disease,” the personality of her work here is both malleable to the mood of the groove behind her and of a steady, engaging melodic quality. As both sides of the album feature four songs with two shorter-ish cuts leading into two longer-ish ones, there is a sense amid all the circumstantial fluster in which the album arrives that there’s still an overarching plan at work, and that goes a long way toward letting the listener relax and take Violet Hour on its own merits, which of course is how it’s best heard.

alunah

After the EP, it’s less of a surprise that Alunah have moved away from some of the nature-worship that previously defined their lyrical themes, but “Dance of Deceit,” the penultimate “Velvet,” the closer “Lake of Fire” and “Hunt” still have an organic sensibility to how they play out, and though “Trapped and Bound” provides an almost jarring push at the outset, as the entirety of side A seems devoted to trickery and dark seduction between that launch, “Dance of Deceit,” “Hunt” and “Hypnotised,” the energy with which Alunah carry across the material only bolsters the notion of Violet Hour as a new full-length debut from what’s essentially a new band. The advantage they have, however, is a clear sense of direction and an immediately apparent awareness of who they want to be and what they want to convey as a group, which even as they build chemistry together in this new form over time, is only an advantage for them.

Is it fair to judge Violet Hour by the standard of Alunah‘s other offerings? Probably. They did keep the name. But what Violet Hour does in relation to, say, Solennial, isn’t so radically different from what that album did coming off of Awakening the Forest. It builds on what came before and progresses toward new ideas and new manifestations of a high quality songwriting process that, speaking as one who’s been a fan of the band for some time, is thankfully still intact despite the changes in personnel, as “Hypnotised,” the side-B-leadoff title-track and “Lake of Fire” can easily testify. The lushness of Greenaway‘s layered harmony arrangements bodes well for future ongoing progression — more of that would only be welcome — and though Ashton has been in the band a mere matter of months, his contributions of harder-edged tone and lead work mesh well with the long-since established coherence between Burchmore and Mason.

Violet Hour may have arisen through a turbulent stretch for them, but the songs stand true and want for nothing either in aesthetic or performance. Perhaps tellingly, as “Unholy Disease” takes off in its second half, the band seem particularly steady locked into that faster stretch, but there’s much to be said for the slow-rolling payoff in the hook for “Lake of Fire” as well, so if the band are growing, that’s the most consistent thing they could possibly do. That’s what Alunah have always done. One has learned the hard way over the years not to attempt prediction of what their situation might be in the future, but Violet Hour is a bold stride, and an album rife with character, melody, heft and impact. No doubt there will be those who write it off because of the lineup changes — that’s just the way it always goes with this kind of thing — but it’s their loss in the end, and easy to imagine fresh ears catching on as well. Fair enough, as Alunah set a whole new high standard from which to work as they continue forward, which one hopes — without predicting how it might happen — that they do.

Alunah, Violet Hour (2019)

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Review & Full Album Stream: V, Led into Exile

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on September 10th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

v led into exile

[Click play above to stream V’s Led into Exile in full. Album is out Sept. 13 on Suicide Records and the band will have shows in Sweden on Sept. 29 with Horndal and Jorm and Nov. 7 with Dopelord and Zaum. Info here.]

Based in the Swedish county of Dalarna, which includes towns like Borlänge, Na?s and Falun and borders against Norway in the west, four-piece outfit V offer a fair bit of stylistic nuance amid outwardly crushing sonics. The band began presumably in much different form some 25 years ago, but Led into Exile is their second full-length for Suicide Records behind 2017’s Pathogenesis (discussed here) and a 2016 EP, VI — I’d assume that’s ‘V-1’ rather than just ‘six’ in Roman numerals — that was recorded in 2006 and released in late 2016. With guitarist/vocalist/synthesist/recording engineer Andreas Baier having been involved in a number of projects over the years, from Afgrund to the currently-running Besvärjelsen, one assumes V‘s longer tenure includes a fair amount of time not really active, but with guitarist Jonas Gryth, bassist/vibraphonist Marcus Lindqvist and drummer Daniel Liljekvist alongside Baier, V tap into a post-heavy amalgam of atmospheres on the six tracks of the Led into Exile LP, dividing into two sides and playing toward European-style post-metal — Amenra more than Cult of Luna, to be sure — with shades of hardcore and yet more extreme doomed fare laced throughout.

With fervent crash and lumber, V‘s songs work in linear fashion to squeeze the air from your lungs as only their kind of rhythmic churn can, crafting a tension that’s affecting in mood and ambience. Beginning with “Broadcast from the Shadows,” each side of Led into Exile works in a pattern of running a longer song into a shorter one, then putting an even longer one after that — three tracks on each side. This underlying structure speaks to a sense of purpose in what V are doing, and indeed there’s a kind of aesthetic poise to the material, whether it’s the chugging pummel of “Illviljan” — ‘ill will,’ in Swedish — or the acoustic guitar, vibraphone and vocal-based “None Shall Rise Again,” which might owe an even heavier sonic debt to Scott Kelly than the nod-inducing opener.

There’s a not insignificant shift between sides A and B, but the YOB-esque intro to side A capper “Hostage of Souls” has a definite sense of reach on its own, and the same is true of “Broadcast from the Shadows” and “Illviljan” preceding, as intense as they are. The leadoff cut is clearly intended to hook the listener not with an ultra-catchy chorus, but with a standout riff met with massive rhythmic plod, as well as a bit of floating guitar along with Baier‘s throaty, echoing-in-a-chasm or screaming-into-the-void shouts, and it works. At 5:57, 3:58 and 8:02, respectively, “Broadcast from the Shadows,” “Illviljan” and “Hostage of Souls” set the pattern that “Phantasmagoria,” “None Shall Rise Again” and the closing title-track will mirror, but the differences in approach aren’t to be understated. What V seem to excel at is conveying intensity of purpose. As the quick drumming behind the angular riff of “Illviljan” takes hold, punctuated with a popping snare before a stop brings it to the next stage of its evolution as it makes its way back eventually to where it came from, the depth of Led into Exile is writ large in the raw tones and harsh edge V communicate.

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It’s a modernist brutality, with sharp corners and little interest in quaint notions like mercy. The longer “Hostage of Souls” offers turns from hypnotic and quiet stretches to explosive lurch, breaking around its midpoint to a near-silent ambience of minimalist guitar and (after a minute or so) vibraphone that carries through to its finish in creepy and echoing fashion. Of course, on LP, there’s a side flip between them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if “Hostage of Souls” and “Phantasmagoria” (7:50) were positioned as well with the lead-in from one to the other in mind as well as the overarching mirrored structure of the album, such is the flow from that quieter second half of the one into the outright onslaught of the other. And “Phantasmagoria” continues to build on that, demonstrating plainly the side B method of pushing further into the elements and roots that side A has established.

And while the individual tracks that comprise it are longer, that’s just as true in terms of breadth as it is in runtime. The departure from lurching onslaught into the acoustic “None Shall Rise Again” is a drastic-feeling turn that, while still fair game in terms of the sphere in which are working on Led into Exile, shouldn’t be overlooked. And the fact that it stays acoustic for its 5:31 duration says something in itself. It sets up the nine-minute punch of the closing title-track with an opportunity to both make an impact with a turn back toward more tonally weighted riffing, and that’s not one V let pass them by. Angular churn and biting, echoing vocals are met with an undercurrent of synth after the first minute, a chug and march with an outward feel cutting after about 3:30 into the total 9:09 in order to give headphone-worthy ambient guitar its space to set up the final push.

That last march will take hold at 6:40 and explodes into heavy post-rock tones and clean vocals for a surprising and melodic crescendo that carries Led into Exile to its finish. Even after the shift in the second half of “Hostage of Souls” and the cleaner-if-still-guttural vocal turn in “None Shall Rise Again,” that concluding section is a final expansion of the context for the album as a whole, once more speaking to the conceptual structure on which the two sides are working even as it adds more to the raw palette from which they’re drawing. And it’s worth noting that, for a style not exactly known for its brevity in songwriting, they get there in relatively efficient fashion, thereby rounding out a record that is both clear and varied in its purpose and unflinching in its sonic resolve. I don’t know what V might’ve been doing during those long stints on the backburner, but clearly activity suits them in terms of establishing a forward progression, which is exactly what they do in these songs.

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Review & Full Album Premiere: Pelegrin, Al-Mahruqa

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on September 9th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

pelegrin al-mahruqa

[Click play above to stream Pelegrin’s Al-Mahruqa in full. Album is out Friday, Sept. 13.]

The fluidity Parisian three-piece Pelegrin conjure throughout their self-released debut album, Al-Mahruqa, finds them easily crossing lines between styles like post-rock, prog and heavy psychedelia, and as their first outing, it blends them with marked poise. Comprised of five tracks running a total of 40 minutes, it is a purposefully immersive listen, drawing its audience in throughout the nine-plus minutes of opener “Majoun” — named for a Moroccan fruit and nut confection often used as a hash jam edible — and moving with grace through “Farewell,” “The Coldest Night,” “Dying Light” and the closing title-track, each one adding to the story arc of the album as a whole while creating a sense of journeying further through its psych-infused desert expanse. The title Al-Mahruqa seems to be taken from the name of a Syrian village, and given some of the sonic influences at play throughout, that seems a fair enough place for guitarist/vocalist François Roze, bassist Jason Recoing and drummer Antoine Ebel to end up, though of course one has to consider the civil war that’s raged in Syria since 2011.

Whether that’s taken into account on Al-Mahruqa — one would wonder how it couldn’t be — the French trio do well in establishing the voyage early in “Majoun,” which opens with a smattering of voices and a percussion-laden departure over winding, ebow-style guitar in Middle Eastern minor key. An immediate touchstone on paper would be Om, and perhaps in some way they’ve been a conceptual influence, but the actual experience of Al-Mahruqa shares little in common with that Al Cisneros outfit, other than perhaps a gaze directed at the region and an overarching interest in the mystique surrounding desert spiritualism. “Majoun” unfolds in heavy rolling fashion with deceptive smoothness, almost catching one off guard by the time it’s made its full impact, a drop-out after five minutes causing reflection on how far one has already come, and indeed how far there still is to go through the energy buildup that follows and pays off in a hard-hitting shove only to give way to a call to prayer that leads directly into the drifting guitar at the outset of “Farewell.”

Already, Pelegrin have made their intention plain. Al-Mahruqa is not at all lacking for character, but neither is it simply letting things happen. I have no doubt some of these parts and stretches were born in the studio or rehearsal space in off-the-cuff fashion — Roze recorded and mixed, while Wo Fat‘s Kent Stump mastered — but whether it’s the louder post-rocking sun-bake-into-desert-triumph that marks the early crescendo in “Farewell” or the more patient and masterful roll that ensues when the cycle comes around again, no single element feels haphazard. Even when the effects seem to create a wash, that wash has a purpose serving the overall song the album of which it’s a part. Given that general level of consideration, it’s perhaps less of a surprise to see it extend to the structure of the record as well, which alternates between longer and shorter tracks in such a way as to maximize the flow between them without the listener getting too caught up in one expectation or the other.

With “The Coldest Night” as the centerpiece, Pelegrin embark on a pivotal stage in their travels with a due sense of increased heft, rightly considering their interaction with those making the trip along with them as they thicken the fuzz in Roze‘s guitar and the thud in Ebel‘s drumming — Recoing‘s bass isn’t lacking weight either, since we’re on the subject. Still, it’s the floating lead over top that takes hold just before the eight-minute mark that lets one know they’ve gotten to where they’re going, and it’s that lead guitar that remains floating on the fade after the rest of the layers have made their way out. And when that goes? Footsteps. How could it possibly be anything else? Pelegrin have made the point thoroughly by the time “The Coldest Night” is through that they’re going from one place to another, taking the listener from one place to another, but those footsteps only reinforce it.

And as the penultimate “Dying Light” touches on a post-metallic march with a still-gentle verse overtop that takes off into a solo, there’s a somewhat more aggressive undertone — it’s in the drumming as well as the 5:21 song nears its midpoint — but the atmosphere stays consistent with “The Coldest Night” and the material preceding both through its measured pace and through its melodic insight. These are no less prevalent as themes through Al-Mahruqa than the concept that bears out across its tracks, but of course less explicitly stated. “Dying Light” caps with lead and rhythm layers of guitar in conversation with a formidable nod of a groove, drifting at their finish into what sounds like a field recording of ritual chanting and percussion, in turn giving way almost immediately to “Al-Mahruqa” itself.

As the only cut to top 10 minutes, the closer earns immediate distinction among the rest of the album — not to mention it’s the title-track — and with additional percussion alongside the drums and a more uptempo initial stretch, it holds to that sense of ritual that closed “Dying Light.” They slow it down soon enough and play back and forth across volume shifts and across an instrumental hypnosis that works well in crafting an otherworldly vibe, but it’s ultimately a heavy, crashing march that rounds out the capstone of Al-Mahruqa, that terrestrial ending followed by the sound of a rainstorm and then a noise that could either be water going down a drain or a door closing scraping on rock. Something concluding, whatever it is. Pelegrin leave a likewise heavy silence when “Al-Mahruqa” is done, giving a due reminder that in fact their journey is only beginning — this is their first album. What it might lead to, I couldn’t say, but the collision of elements and styles at play throughout is only loaded with potential for future expansion of style, arrangements, and general reach, though even if nothing of the sort takes shape, it remains plenty full-sounding as is. Still though, something here makes one think that perhaps Pelegrin are a band with a clear progression in mind. An effect of all that journeying, perhaps.

Pelegrin, Al-Mahruqa (2019)

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Live Review: Nebula, Sasquatch, Mirror Queen & Geezer in Brooklyn, 09.07.19

Posted in Reviews on September 9th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Nebula (Photo by JJ Koczan)

It had all the makings of a classic Saturday night at Saint Vitus Bar, including a few classics along the way from the bands playing. I was trying to remember the last time I saw either Nebula or Sasquatch, and I know that at least in the case of the former, it was well before the fabled Brooklyn venue opened in 2011 — they haven’t toured widely since, what, 2010, for the LP version of Heavy Psych (review here)? — and I think as regards Sasquatch, it might’ve been when they were supporting their second album, II (discussed here). That came out in 2006, so definitely a long time. Now that I think about it, it’s been a couple years since I last saw Geezer as well, and only Mirror Queen, who played Desertfest NYC (review here) this past April, can I say it hasn’t been an absurdly long time.

There were reportedly a bunch of relevant shows happening in Brooklyn at the same time, from The Budos Band to Siege, but whatever. I knew where I wanted to be, and I knew I wanted to be there early. I actually got to the Vitus in time to catch the end of Geezer‘s soundcheck, and it was a quick reminder of why I was so excited to see them again in the first place. The Kingston, NY, trio have new recordings currently in progress, and unless I’m missing something — as I said, it’s been a while — the bulk of what they played was new. They finished out with “Charley Reefer” from earlier 2019’s Spiral Fires EP (review here), but beyond that and maybe one or two others the riffs to which called out their origins, the point of it having been too damn long was underscored by how fresh Geezer‘s material was, rife with ride-this-groove slow-motion boogie and an engagingly jammy soul from guitarist Pat Harrington, bassist Richie Touseull and drummer Steve Markota. The first bottom line is they were on earlier than they probably should’ve been — hazards of a four-band bill and an 11PM curfew, I suppose — and they killed it just the same, the smoothness of their roll easing those there in time to see them into what was already working on being a great night.

Mirror Queen, long since an NYC staple whose current incarnation features — in addition to founding guitarist/vocalist Kenny Sehgal, also of Tee Pee Records fame — guitarist Morgan “Can’t Help but Boogie” McDaniel, who held down low-end for a time in The Golden Grass, alongside bassist James Corallo and drummer Jeremy O’Brien, also had a swath of new material to showcase. I don’t know their recording plans, but they’re embracing classic progressive heavy rock in a big way and by all appearances even more than they did on 2017’s Verdigris (review here), their most recent LP. They played one song from that in opener “Poignard” and the title-track from 2015’s Scaffolds of the Sky (review here) before launching into new songs “Inside an Icy Light,” “A Rider on the Rain” and “The Devil Seeks Control” and a take on “Stairway to the Stars” by Blue Öyster Cult that would not be the last set-closing cover of the night. As with Geezer before them, their new stuff only made me look forward to what the New Year might bring, and though they had some technical trouble with a persistent buzz and some crackling this-or-that, their bouncing rhythms seemed to make up for whatever time they lost sorting it all out. Kind of know what to expect from them at this point, but that does nothing to lessen the appeal, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ll admit there have been chances — not many, but at least two — for me to see Sasquatch in the last couple years, and for whatever reason I haven’t been able to make it work. Their lineup, with Roadsaw‘s Craig Riggs on drums/sometimes-vocals, guitarist/vocalist Keith Gibbs and bassist Jason “Cas” Casanova, was unstoppable. Front-to-back energy of the kind where you can tell each of the players is challenging the others to keep up. Around hyper-memorable songs like “More Than You’ll Ever Be,” “Rational Woman” and “Bringing Me Down” from 2017’s Maneuvers (review here) and the much-appreciated “Chemical Lady” from their 2004 self-titled debut and “New Disguise” from 2010’s III (review here), they seemed to have some new songs in tow as well — “It Lies Beyond the Bay,” if I’m reading the setlist right? — but either way, if you could get kicked in the ass by a breath of fresh air that somehow also kind of smells like motor oil, that would be like seeing Sasquatch live. Yes. It is an experience of mixed-metaphor hyperbole-worthy heavy rock and roll of the kind that makes you want to believe not only that we live in a gilded age for the genre, but that future generations of those with any clue whatsoever will some day come up to those who were there and ask what it was like to see that band in their day. And if you’re wondering, this most certainly was their day. New album next year? That’d be just fine by me.

Speaking of new albums, did I ever think Nebula would put out another record? I wouldn’t have called it impossible, but until they got back together for Desertfest in 2018 — credit where it’s due — I don’t think I’d have considered it overly likely. However, they gave 2019’s aptly-titled Holy Shit (review here) its fair outing, with “Messiah,” “Witching Hour,” the Luciferian “Man’s Best Friend,” “Let’s Get Lost” and “The Cry of a Tortured World” aired alongside classics like “Fall of Icarus,” “Aphrodite” — which opened; my god — and the ultra-languid-and-still-somehow-aggro “Anything from You” and “To the Center,” which only brought out the spirit of how much Nebula are a punk band even if one that’s been left out in the California sun to bake until, well, baked. Guitarist/vocalist Eddie Glass‘ return feels triumphant, and not just because the record rules, and he and bassist/backing vocalist Tom Davies and drummer Mike Amster — who seems to have become desert rock’s drummer of choice, as he’s also now joined Mondo Generator; his adaptable style and obvious power behind the kit make it hard to think of a band from out that way in which he wouldn’t mesh — brought out the tech they referred to only as Ranch from the stage to play second guitar, which only filled out the sound further.

Under rainbow-hued lights, they demonstrated not only why it’s proper to think of them more than 20 years later as a classic band, but why Nebula are a band that underground heavy rock needs now, at a time when shut-the-fuck-up-and-chill seems to be in such short supply. Late in the set they included a version of “Out of Your Head” that made me want to go back and get to know 2003’s Atomic Ritual all over again, and the jammy “Sonic Titan” was more than welcome as well. I could’ve done with “Down the Highway,” but you can’t have everything. As it was, there was an event scheduled for after the show — a Smiths/Morrissey party or something like that — and so Nebula were scheduled to be done circa 10:45. They played for another 10 minutes and, in true punker fashion, threw in a cover of The Stooges‘ “Search and Destroy” to close the night, playing it with conviction enough that it felt like the song should’ve thanked them afterward. Righteous, it was. A righteous blowout.

Also classic? The traffic I hit heading back to Jersey. Midnight on a Saturday at the Lincoln Tunnel? Yeah, your trip’s gonna take twice as long as it otherwise might. Still, I got back to my ancestral homestead around 12:30 — the Morrissey party was probably in full swing — and crashed out in short order, ready to call the night a complete win as few could hope to be. Nebula and Sasquatch head west from here en route to Northwest Hesh Fest later this month and a capstone gig in San Francisco thereafter, but whether it’s now or next time, if you have the opportunity, take it. I can’t say it any simpler than that.

More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.

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Review & Video Premiere: Sun Blood Stories, Haunt Yourself

Posted in Bootleg Theater, Reviews on September 6th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

sun blood stories haunt yourself

[Click play above to stream the premiere of Sun Blood Stories’ video for ‘See You on the Other Side.’ Haunt Yourself is out Sept. 20.]

The fourth full-length from Boise, Idaho’s Sun Blood Stories continues the forward progression of purpose and creative scope that has played out in their work over the last six years. It has not been that long since the trio unveiled their third LP, 2017’s It Runs Around the Room with Us (review here), and yet the 12-track/45-minute Haunt Yourself unveils a fluidity and a personality all its own, marked by a soul and emotionalism in the vocals of slide guitarist Amber Pollard and guitarist Ben Kirby (both also add bass synth to the recording) and a floating post-rock psychedelia that is admirably given shape through the drumming of Jon Fust (also keyboards). As has been their wont on past offerings, they find footing in an early hook — thinking of tracks like “The Great Destroyer” from the last record or “West the Sun” from 2015’s Twilight Midnight Morning (review here); their debut, The Electric Years, came out in 2013 and was more formative — this time moving from the swirling fog of “TIME” at the outset to the interwoven vocals and forward rhythm of “Up Comes the Tunnel” (video posted here), wherein their sound hits arguably the thickest point it will on the entirety of Haunt Yourself.

With this, they set up a broad and experimentalist range the richness of which is not to be understated, from the emotional crux of songs like “No One Can Hear You Dream,” with its repetition of “In the end we all will…” whether the answer is burn, die, and so on, or “All the Words in Meaning” (video posted here) just before it with its vocal lashing out or the earlier “Everybody Loves You,” on which the resounding feel is less comforting than the title, Pollard seeming to take on the role of that voice in your head that tells you how much better off everyone would be if you were gone. “Everybody loves you,” you see, “When you’re dead.” This is its own kind of aural brutality apart from any sonic impact Haunt Yourself may or may not make — and the bulk of the album is striking in its patience and gentle delivery — but if you ever needed a lesson in conjuring emotional weight, here it is.

That’s not necessarily new territory for Sun Blood Stories, but their progression has made them more pointed in their approach, such that pieces like the bluesy “At Once in All Directions” or even the ultra-fluid jam in the early cut “See You on the Other Side” that follows “Everybody Loves You” both serve an overarching intent that covers Haunt Yourself as a whole, and the album resulting is built from the conversation between the songs that comprise it. Something something whole, something something sum of parts, but if my assessment is trite, that doesn’t necessarily make it less true as regards the front-to-back listening experience. And make no mistake, front-to-back is how Haunt Yourself should be taken. Each track seems to have a singular purpose, but those never veer too far from the overarching goals of the record as to disconnect from it. Ever-conscious of flow, Sun Blood Stories make this even easier by dividing the tracklisting into three three-song sections, each beginning with its own interlude.

sun blood stories

Those pieces, “TIME,” “LIKE” and “SMOKE,” never go much past two and a half minutes, but together work not only to provide an underlying theme to Haunt Yourself, but also to bring the album into context of their past, as Twilight Midnight Morning featured the cut “Time Like Smoke” as well. And whether it’s in “See You on the Other Side” or the penultimate “Approaching Shadow,” the sense of drift throughout Haunt Yourself is especially prevalent, but at no point do Sun Blood Stories let it go anymore than they choose to. That is to say, while even the cover art speaks to a notion of working against traditionalist structure — something time (like smoke) has proven the band to be quite adept at — they never lost sight of where they want the listener to be throughout the proceedings. Given the breadth of “All the Words in Meaning,” “No One Can Hear You Dream” and “At Once in All Directions” in the record’s middle third, that’s an accomplishment unto itself, but moments like Kirby coming forward in “At Once in All Directions” or Pollard doing the same with a somewhat buried highlight vocal performance on “7 Swords” do a lot to orient anyone who’d take on Haunt Yourself, and that proves to be another way in which the songs each enhance the listen of the album as an entire work.

Following the final interlude piece “SMOKE,” “7 Swords” leads the way into the Western airiness of “Approaching Shadow,” one of only two songs to top six minutes — the other is “No One Can Hear You Dream,” longer at 6:40 — and the 2:21 closer “Shimmer Distant,” a layered-vocal Pollard/Kirby duet that feels like an epilogue after the payoff of “Approaching Shadow” and ends with a final volume swell that cuts out to silence. It’s a fair enough and still somewhat unexpected ending for Haunt Yourself, giving the feeling of answering back the earlier explorations without discarding the psychedelic flavor thereof.

This is emblematic of a maturity in Sun Blood Stories‘ approach, which one would expect for a band on their fourth record, having solidified their lineup and seemingly figured out who they want to be as a group as much as any of us figure out who we want to be ever in any context at all — at least the direction they want to go, perhaps? One way or the other, the individualized progression they’ve undertaken suits them beautifully, and both in the chemistry of the performances between KibyPollard and Fust and the atmosphere that comes across so thickly amid still-memorable songcraft, Haunt Yourself succeeds on every level of expression it engages, and as the fruit of the three-piece refining their processes as established across the work they’ve done since making their debut, it speaks to the root creativity so central in driving it. I won’t predict where they might go next time out, except to say forward along their own path, and all the better for that.

Sun Blood Stories, Haunt Yourself (2019)

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Review & Track Premiere: Holy Serpent, Endless

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on September 5th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

holy serpent

[Click play above to stream ‘Hourglass’ from Holy Serpent’s Endless. Album is out Oct. 18 on RidingEasy Records. They’re on tour in Europe now (dates here).]

With their third full-length for RidingEasy Records, Melbourne, Australia’s Holy Serpent would seem to realize the vision of heavy they’ve been chasing for the last half-decade. The four-piece bring forth six tracks across the 40 minutes of Endless, which continues a theme of single-word titles from its predecessor, 2016’s Temples (review here) — their 2015 debut was self-titled (review here) — and with them, set out into an expanse of tone, and lush, patiently-delivered roll, shuffle and melody. It’s the latter that proves most crucial, as guitarist Scott Penberthy‘s vocals come across with more distinction and confidence throughout and work to make songs like “Daughter of the Light” all the more consuming. Joined by guitarist Nick Donoughue, bassist Dave Bartlett and drummer Lance LeembrugenPenberthy crafts lush and psychedelic vocals in the tradition of Mars Red Sky even as he and Donoughue dig into riffs that remind alternately of newer Windhand‘s take on grunge — particularly on the penultimate “For No One,” also the longest track at 7:44 — or of a hybridized Uncle Acid buzz and Electric Wizard lumber on opener “Lord Deceptor” and side A finale “Daughter of the Light.”

To this context, however, Holy Serpent add a marked personality of their own, with howling guitars intertwining on “Daughter of the Light” and an uptick of doom metal in second track “Into the Fire,” even as the layers of vocals drawl out over the midsection of the song. The light/dark blend of melody, crunch and sprawl gives Endless a psychedelic earthiness; something that, in the past, the band has referred to as “shroom doom,” but never quite captured as completely as they do here. That’s fitting enough for the narrative of the “third album,” but cliché or no, the work they do in these tracks is a manifestation not to be discounted simply because it makes a convenient story. The simple fact is Holy Serpent have written a collection of songs that brings their approach to a new echelon of presence and execution, and Endless deserves to be in the conversation of the best heavy psych offerings of 2019.

In terms of setting a mood, Holy Serpent do so with a natural flair, their riffs providing a foundation from which the song is expanded, “Hourglass” adding either keys or effects or else I’m just hearing things during the verse for further melodic flourish. This leads the way into a three-song side B that answers back the complete control over the proceedings the foursome display through the first three tracks: “Lord Deceptor,” “Into the Fire” and “Daughter of the Light.” The opener is especially important for the lead-in it gives not just with its own post-Witchcult Today riff, but with how it uses that in order to make its own statement about who Holy Serpent are and have become. Its depth of mix is essential, and it unfolds in a way that’s either hypnotic or enthralling depending on how one wants to listen to it, and easy as it is to get lost in the spirit of the piece by the end of its 6:47, which meets head on with the snap-back-to-consciousness of the more uptempo intro to “Into the Fire.”

holy serpent endless

Rest assured there’s plenty of plod and tonal heft there as well, but a more swinging take after the opener does well in furthering the scope of Endless overall. Again, it’s not that Holy Serpent are the first ones ever to establish this kind of dynamic, but it’s how they do it and the fluidity with which they conjure in the process that makes Endless such an engaging listen. “Daughter of the Light” seems to meet “Into the Fire” and “Lord Deceptor” halfway and so is a fitting summary of where the band have taken the album to this point, but it’s still not the final word as regards the story of the growth that the band have undertaken over the last five years, as “Hourglass,” “For No One” and the closer “Marijuana Trench” (as opposed, one assumes, to Marianas) are still to come, each one bringing something to add to the strength of Endless as a whole.

The midtempo push of “Hourglass” is met by a deceptively catchy lyric and guitar line, and the slower-faster interplay between “Lord Deceptor” and “Into the Fire” that started the record seems to meet its mirror image in the faster-slower transition from “Hourglass” into “For No One.” A plodding, crashing, deep-running vision of stoned grunge is met by vocal harmonies and creative layering in the verse hook, and while Windhand has already been noted as a touchstone for the style, Holy Serpent effectively make the case that there’s more in weaving heavy psych fuzz and flannel-and-Doc-Martins stylizations to be explored. I don’t know what it might lead to, but “For No One” sounds like a definitive forward step, and that’s always welcome as far as I’m concerned. A noisy finish seems like it might be the apex of Endless as “Marijuana Trench”‘s standout goofball title makes it seem somewhat of a drawdown from the prior cuts and its acoustic-based intro is a departure as well, but the wash into which the band launch as the song plays out is not at all to be discounted because they made a weed pun, and if anything, it builds on the considerable accomplishments before it in crafting a humming universe of noise.

That is the course of Endless, and perhaps some of the reason it feels like such a moment of arrival for Holy Serpent is because the songs do so well in setting their atmosphere and dwelling in it. Australia has a well-populated underground scene, Melbourne specifically so, but I have a hard time thinking of another band from the region who’ve been able to take influences from the sphere of modern heavy and turn them into something so complete and individualized. I don’t necessarily think Holy Serpent are done refining their processes — which is only good news, frankly — but it does seem like they’ve come to a new understanding of who they are and who they want to be as a band, and that has resulted in an LP that is refreshing and engrossing at the same time. Mine it for sonic details or put it on and let your brain melt; there’s really no wrong way to go.

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RidingEasy Records website

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