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Album Reviews Coming Soon: Queen Elephantine - Kala, Karg - Weltenasche

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Album Review: Pelican – Forever Becoming

“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks” – Warren Buffett.

It’s certainly a nifty quote that seems to sum up how instrumental post-rockers Pelican have handled the loss of guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec. Rather than lament his undoubted songwriting talent, they have decided to sink their teeth into a whole new sphere of attack and, aided by the faultless integration of Dallas Thomas and his love for the big, brassy riff, they have dragged their sound out of the doldrums and into the kind of powerful groove-mongering that ignited fellow Chicagoans Russian Circles‘ career.


Forever Becoming, Pelican’s fifth full-length, is an album full of surprises. It seems that, somewhere along the line, expectations of it pre-release had fallen and, judging by the flurry of mediocre reviews that have been rushed out so far, it has been sorely underestimated post-release. There’s no doubting that perceptions of the band will have changed in line with their new artistic direction, but considering the album has to be listened to as a whole to be fully appreciated and will probably perform most admirably in the live arena, it seems a bit too early to be nailing it to a cross.

Oddly, their previous efforts have all featured strongly in their recorded formats, but have never shaken souls when performed. The reason for this may be that each one’s lighter touches and deeper level of atmospheric layering can so often get lost in the sound-desk, the roof cavities or the ether. Combine that loss with their music’s expansive drift and their “heads down” approach to performance art and you can imagine the fleeting impression they make on the less ardent fan. That will all change now that Forever Becoming has dropped – its almighty bottom-end and relentless groove will snap necks and burst chests.

The tour-de-force, ‘Deny The Absolute’, is nothing less than a conveyor belt of riffs. One after another after another, the guitar patterns cycle and build, each welding itself to the track’s backbone – a combo of surprisingly uncomplicated drum thunder and an equally compelling bassline that grinds and fizzes throughout. Together this all creates a series of wall-to-wall grooves that will swallow everything in its path. ‘The Tundra’ sucks up a little piece of High On Fire‘s sludge-packing inferno and breathes back a bitter rancour that ditches itself into a swaggering rut that rumbles forth down a doom-ridden path into gritty feedback. ‘Immutable Dusk‘ flexes more stoner muscle pitching bass-loaded menace and winding aggression into a series of warmer tones that rapidly completes their reformation into a confident position of power.

What’s most impressive about all this is that they haven’t just sandblasted their former attack to achieve this razor-sharp edge. They have blended the new with everything that has made their albums so eloquent in the past, beefed up on the parts that needed bolstering, tightened their focus and produced an album that flows from track to track with a silken elegance. Gone are the zig-zag of emotions and the song-by-song paucity. No, you can simply lose yourself in the basal journey of Forever Becoming and emerge out the other side believing it to be one single thread. As an example, the eight-minute two-tiered multi-coloured wanderlust of ‘Thredony‘ clashes heads with ‘The Cliff’ which in turn touches base with the motivational bliss of ‘Vestiges‘ in such a way that you would hardly notice the dip between the threesome.

When they do back off, we get the album bookends. Polar opposites, opener ‘Terminal‘ offers a soft foray into the darkness, backed by a hefty heartbeat of falling tom strikes whilst the stunningly rich, glorious tapestry of closer ‘Perpetual Dawn’ provides wave after wave of warmth and euphoria to bathe in. They form the preface and appendix to the book that you simply can’t put down. Once you turn that page, absolute absorption in the rhythmic drive and mind-expanding layering is not an option. It’s the aural equivalent of having all your pleasure receptors firing off at once. They haven’t showed anything like this kind of combined dexterity, determined pacing and gut-deep fury before.

Enforced change can be such a difficult process, so the initial human reaction is to fear the unknown, to err on the side of caution. Pelican, however, have laughed in the face of such dithering and have grasped their opportunity with gusto, swapping their elegant sailing boat for a stonking great powerboat and, boy, ain’t it a beaut. With turbos like the one on this bad boy, they really are ready for lift off. Keep your eyes peeled for those end of year lists – judging by its sleek lines and almighty wake, Forever Becoming should feature strongly.

Also online @ Heavy Blog Is Heavy = http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/2013/10/29/pelican-forever-becoming/

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Album Review: Russian Circles – Memorial

October is the month when the two leading instrumental post-rock groups right now, Russian Circles and Pelican, will go head-to-head with their album releases. Pelican’s newbie, Forever Becoming, dropped on the 15th and this Russian Circles album will go global two weeks later. With both Chicago bands mining the same rough musical seam, you’d think the two might have clashed sooner, but it has never been an issue previously because of their distinct stylings. However, of late, Pelican’s albums have been heading into the heavier, more groove-laden territory of Russian Circles, whilst Russian Circles have been experimenting with the more emotional layering that was Pelican’s calling card. So with both albums coveting the same aural space, which should you be spending your hard-earned cash on?

Lucky for me that’s a loaded rhetorical question as are the minefield of hypothetical questions that it should inspire someone to ask the pair of them. Thankfully, Russian Circles have many other skills that define them so that if both bands continue on this collision course, they might just miss each other by a whisker. The trio are a band known for their love of earthy grooves and skidding strings. These things are present and correct in this latest release with “Deficit” skidding with the best of them and “Lebaron” showing off more groove than a Massey Ferguson. In the past, they have also had a penchant for the immense, teasing build but that is less of a feature here with only “Burial” approaching anything close to the full crescendo.

What’s changed most notably of all, especially over their last couple of albums, is the number of times they plump for the aching beauty of a soft, multi-layered soundscape. Each one of “1777″, “Ethel”, the tacked-on intro “Memoriam” and it’s elegiac title-track reprise all pull on the heartstrings by evoking images of vast sweeping panoramas; the band plunging us into the heart of a bubbling ocean or pulling us up to gaze upon a torrid sonic vista. All the tracks have been treated to a well-polished production. Brandon Curtis has worked hard with the band to create the effects they wanted and bassist/keyboardist Brian Cook has had a large part to play in the process.

There is a strong synth mark stamped on this album and that has been key to the change of focus for the band. It’s presence has resulted in the peripheral level of introspection that Russian Circles’ instrumentals sometimes evoke being ramped up into an experience that becomes disconcertingly intense as you progress through. The songs will transport you to disconcertingly personal places and moments so that with each new movement, comes a new experience. Focus the mind and “Memoriam” is suddenly nothing more than a slow, two-chord whispering wind, which whips up into a gale as the battlefield of “Deficit” is revealed – the horses hooves, rat-a-tat drums and call to arms are all present and correct.

Likewise, “1777″ has the power to dump you onto Industrial Age streets where a steady bowing sound rings out and pistons pile-drive their way into an eventually seizure. Here, the music has a  more visceral keenness to it with dark, menacing tones. Dig deeper and you’ll discover the desert plains of “Cheyenne”, the ocean swells of “Ethel”, right through to the warbling night creatures that inhabit the title-track, a place where guest vocalist Chelsea Wolfe wanders ghost-like, barefoot and alone.

It is true then, that Russian Circles are no longer pushing back the walls of post-rock acceptability, and also true that their albums don’t bite down as hard as they used to, but it is still definitely true that they wield the ability to compose the most beautiful, thought-provoking pieces of music. They have matured from the band that grabs hold and shakes you, to one that insists on forming the subtle backdrop to your life. There’s something sad about that simple realisation – that Memorial is, to all intents and purposes, a safe, unspectacular album. Let’s hope it doesn’t become their epitaph. They deserve a bolder eulogy than this one.

Also online @ The Line Of Best Fit = http://thelineofbestfit.com/reviews/albums/russian-circles-memorial-139742

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Album Review: Ihsahn – Das Seelenbrechen

“It’s true, some wines improve with age. But only if the grapes were good in the first place.” Abigail van Buren’s quote is especially apt when applied to Ihsahn’s solo career. Having spent his youth blowing us away with metal giants Emperor, he has become ever more legendary since. His thirst for exploring the outer reaches of his beloved black arts has resulted in what is, arguably, his finest material – his A-trilogy, in particular, has resulted in him being equally lauded amongst lovers of the aggressive and more passive ends of the metal spectrum. With last year’s Eremita and now, Das Seelenbrechen, his latest album, it seems he has really been throwing caution to the wind so you’d better buckle up for this.

Translated as “the soul breaking”, the title refers to Nietzsche’s thoughts on the self-destructive nature of humanity, so it’s no surprise to find it continuing where his Nietzsche-inspired Eremita left off. What’s new here is the all-consuming darkness that he, in tandem with Leprous’ Tobias ├śrAndersen, have managed to generate in Ihsahn’s Norwegian studio. What they have created is a series of sprawling, almost cinematic soundscapes that seem as organic as they are industrial. With all but the minimalist of jazzy overtones dropped and fearless songwriting employed we get a vast array of crepuscular tones that seem to drag you deeper and deeper into the pervasive shadows of the man’s bottomless imagination.

As a consequence, progression through the album isn’t as straight-forward, as on previous ones, with a real hotchpotch of ideas thrown at us. It is a zig-zagging journey that takes us from the vitriolic black death of “Regen” and “NaCl”, past the jarringly smooth trip-beat of “Pulse”, down the drum avalanches of the “Tacit” twins before we are finally dumped in the slow-moving lakes where “M” and “Sub-Ater” reside. Along the way we find ourselves experiencing his usual combination of scathing and hushed vocal, but here it is all threaded through a mixture of effects with battering drums and guitars and it is definitely not the unerringly cohesive experience that we may have been used to. Certainly, the doom-laden “M”, the noisome “Tacit 2″, the industrial wasteland of “See” and the disconcertingly unconnected build of “Rec” feel out of place here – like random, unfinished thoughts that cry out for more than just the weird loops and patterns they hang off.

There’s still plenty that does fit this abominable construction of Ihsahn’s and monsters like “Regen”, “NaCl”, “Sub-Alter” and even the panic-stricken rumble of “Tacit” will burrow in deep, blotting out the light, forcing introspection upon the voyeur. There’s so much here that feels like it could have burst forth from a future Opeth if they had stayed the path. This is them but taken to a whole new level of macabre.

Ever since the completion of After, it feels a little like Ihsahn has struggled to find a solid direction and Das Seelenbrechen, coming just a year after his last, certainly seems a trifle lost. His songwriting prowess cannot be doubted, so perhaps he has just rushed his thought processes this time. It’s a small error of judgement that you wouldn’t usually associate with a man of his experience. The wine may, indeed, be a little corked this time round but it doesn’t mean its vintage isn’t shining through.

Also online @ Ave Noctum = http://www.avenoctum.com/2013/10/ihsahn-das-seelenbrechen-candlelight/

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Album Review: Antlered Man – This Devil Is Them (New Heavy Sounds)

The PR blurb for London’s Antlered Man describe their new album as “dark” and “weird”. Though they might not be the most complimentary descriptors, they’re not a million miles off with that. You’d certainly have trouble boxing them up into a genre. For the sake of argument, let’s have a crack at “artsy punk/rap meets rock/sludge in an explosion of psychotic avant-garde posturing”. Yes, that’ll do.

After firing out their debut album, Giftes 1&2, last year the band wasted no time hitting the festivals and managed to squeeze in 15 last year. Fairly impressive when you consider the 100 other tour dates they managed in 2012. There’s a definite hint of the on-tour in-jokes in the theatrical writing style of this sophomore album – the song titles alone suggest that much.

They’ve definitely gone in heavier here with This Devil Is Them as the ludicrously-titled opening track, “The Ballad Of Hamhock Fullsleeve” attests. The lunatic fringe is properly out in force as something akin to Melvins meets Tool meets Tomahawk meets These Arms Are Snakes emerges like the thrashing, writhing, triple-headed, multi-tentacled behemoth it is. You try and pick which limb or mouth to focus on first out of that little lot. If the panic-stricken drum rolls and carefully-placed guitar pings don’t explode your noggin, then the gut-busting bass, twinkling chimes and unhinged vocal (which waits until well over 3 minutes to pitch in) undoubtedly will.

All too often Antlered Man ask too much of their listeners. No-one in his right mind could like the entirely dislikeable character of “Claude The Ideal Bloody Gentleman” with its dissolute, padded-out structure or the 2-minute skittish mania of “My Surname, My Cum” – a last-track “fuck you” to the listener that isn’t appreciated.

Elsewhere “GDZ” oozes along the soft buzz and fluorescent tonal mix of Torche, “Ian Will Break Again” bristles like Kongh whilst speed-rapping like Senser. “Phony Tough” settles down and flies true with a beautifully hewn groove which “Salute Da Calm” follows with an echo-laden acknowledgement to the shoegaze of Slowdive. Star of the show, however, must go to the stoned drone of “Audition Tapes For Hades” which, whilst obviously overstretching itself to reach the 10-minute mark, glows with an eerie menace as Damo Ezekiel-Holmes finds his true calling as a softly-spoken angel of death.

Lyrically, when a band is firing mucky, attention-seekers like “My surname, my cum” and “This practical genius-like yeast infection” it’s very easy to dislike them (though vocalist Damo does apologise with “Sorry sorry sorry, what a criminal last line / There’s a mean streak in me when these fuck-ups are mine!”). However, when they do pull out hooked doozies like “Sweetheart, I couldn’t protect you / No matter how hard I tried” or “Girls couldn’t hit us with a running jump, Gods couldn’t hit us with a death-defying stunt” they know to ram them home with concerted repetition.

On the plus side, the groove on this beast is vast when it settles down – the latter half of the album should please the sludge fiends amongst you. The first half will sit pretty with the punks. Most will agree, the odd burst of rapping is more for show than it is essentially integral to the music and a high degree of patience and diligent attention is required to fully comprehend their ADD-afflicted concept. With so much content packed into such a small space, like a boxer on amphetamines, it’s generally going to miss as many times as it hits.

Also online = http://www.avenoctum.com/2013/10/antlered-man-the-devil-is-them-new-heavy-sounds/

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Album Review: Secrets Of The Sky – To Sail Black Waters

Most debut albums tend to be rough-and-ready and recorded in a day by the lead singer’s dodgy Uncle Frank who happens to own a beat-up old eight-track. Well, perhaps not quite that punk, but they do usually veer towards being more of a “bish-bash-bosh” affair  – they certainly don’t usually take eight months to record and emerge with the kind of sprawling, cinematic layering that To Sail Black Waters features – three cheers for engineer / producer Juan Urteaga’s (Testament, Machine Head) patience and perseverance. But then everything about Secrets Of The Sky is unusual.

They hail from Oakland, California yet have been signed by Italian record label Kolony Records who have been specialising in “recruiting lost souls since 2008″ (their roster includes artists based in far-flung fields such as Australia, Andorra and Jordan). SOTS consist of six members, half of whom contribute with multiple instruments – their lead vocalist, for instance, also plays keyboards and violin. Most mind-boggling of all is the music itself which draws on a wide range of inspirations and still manages to intricately weave these genres together to create something truly fresh and exciting.

Best described as an atmospheric, doomy, subversively black, richly progressive and bollock-janglingly heavy metal band, they mostly meander across the exploratory black paths of Enslaved and Ihsahn but don’t seem afraid to thread unusual sonic touches that evoke the output of artists like Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, Cult Of Luna, Isis, Opeth and Agalloch. The monstrously huge and intricately-layered production is ocean-deep and rich with the multi-part vocals proving the vital finishing touches. It’s a rare thing to find 5 different forms of vocal attack yet here Garett Gazay treats us to his room-shaking roar, a gravel-toned scathing, an emotion-tugging clean and a menacing whisper. The fifth comes completely out of the blue – a haunting crystalline chanting; an emotional clarion call that will draw tears.

Wading through we get an “Echo Beach”-riff and an oblique Machine Head-esque lick that both shake up the stormy wilderness of “Winter”. A crushing triple-guitar death rattle opens “Decline” but this soon shifts into a strong folky vocal sequence. Constantly shifting, it’s not long before we get a burst of something wholly more epic, almost Bladerunner-esque, as a proggy twin-synth set kicks in. Elsewhere, we get the hearty dark tones of “Sunrise”, a pitch black doom skewed by a switch-up into a softer shoegaze motif.

Star of the show is the 11-minute “Black Waters”. With a title like that how could you not expect to hear Opeth in this, yet here Secrets Of The Sky fearlessly dive into their subject matter of death with real abandon and without restriction. A whispered vocal over plinking minor chords gently pad their way into what turns out to be a dangerously-deep groove – necks will snap. This is the belly of the beast and it will grip you like a vice, carving you open for that heart-wrenching finish.

With surprises at every turn you’ll continually find yourself expecting this wildly original album to jar you by twisting the knife too much and yet these four songs, no more are needed, flow like a dream, drawing you further and further below the surface. It is a debut like no other and marks these Californians out as real forgotten heroes. They may have slipped through the major label net the first time but that won’t happen again now that this behemoth of a record is finally ready to drop.

Also online @ Ave Noctum = http://www.avenoctum.com/2013/10/secrets-of-the-sky-to-sail-black-waters-kolony-records/

Album Review: Nirvana – In Utero: 20th Anniversary Edition

It’s 1993 and the nation’s disaffected youth have their new anti-heroes. Nirvana, as a consequence, are being battered by the unrelenting, uncaring glare of the media and it is tearing them apart. With their last album having sold 30 million copies, they have gone from being an unknown garage band to being one of the most controversial rock ‘n’ roll groups of all time. Whilst Kurt may have been at the epicentre of it all, the whole band are cursed with the knowledge that the next thing they write together is going to be dissected and assimilated like never before. Could they, should they, serve up another Nevermind?
 
Honestly, with that ravenous, yet faceless, trend-following populace watching their every move, In Utero never stood a chance. Yet what eventually emerged was shockingly brittle, confrontational, heart-wrenching and violent – in essence, it was an undeniably effective resolution to what was, at the time, an impossible question. As expected, it was hauled over the coals and begrudgingly accepted; an album that failed to be Nevermind and yet burned with a raw quality so intense that it could only increase the band’s value as a commodity. Reflecting on what turned out to be such a short time spent in the spotlight, Nirvana managed with these 12 songs to challenge and change us as fans.

20 years have passed since that time and this fan can still be found regularly spinning these tracks; others have been recently spotted on MySpace writing short stories based on the song-titles (‘Rape Me’ is a particularly savage read). Of course, with it being a 20th anniversary, the record label is about to release what Cobain would probably have called a cash cow. These deluxe multi-format reissues are however, of course, being marketed as a commemoration to a little slice of historical greatness.

And great it is. From the swaggering fire that burns through ‘Serve The Servants’ and continues on through the lumbering, grunge-loaded ‘Very Ape’ to the populist abandon of ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’, ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ and the overtly simplistic ramble of ‘Dumb’. From the sonic bombardment of ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Tourette’s’ and ‘Milk It’ to the Freudian psychology and fertile emotions embedded within ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, ‘All Apologies’, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and the menacingly vitriolic ‘Rape Me’. The songs remain as affective today as they were effective.

Elsewhere, you’ll find Grohl’s lush ‘Marigold’, the droll ‘Moist Vagina’ and the menacing ‘I Hate Myself And I Want To Die, all there for folks who don’t have any of their other “found down the back of the sofa” rare releases. Apart from those and the fresh instrumental finds, ‘Forgotten Tune’ and ‘Jam’, the real selling point here is the tacked-on Live & Loud DVD. It’s a pretty clean recording of their 1993 gig at Seattle’s Pier 48 and comes with its own set of extras tacked on (the highlights of which are the rough cover of The Cars’ ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ and Kurt’s impromptu drum solo during rehearsal).

 
Playing like a chunk of history, every visual performance of Nirvana’s is worth grabbing hold of and the video of this post-release December 1993 gig is no different. Here, upon their familiar angel-adorned barbed-wire stage, Dave’s flying mop of hair, Krist’s bouncing and Pat’s lurching are mere sideshows to the static Kurt with his manic eyes, grinding teeth and twisted smiles. It all starts with a wail of feedback which prompts an immediate wave of crowdsurfers (and occasional shoulder-jumper) to rise up and pay homage. Predictably, the band play straight through with only the occasional break to tune-up or to launch the odd personal insult or sarcastic comment – anything to break the tension. Somehow amidst all this innate ferocity it remains an oddly sterile, yet utterly absorbing affair. In this nude state, the music is brutally effective, and by the end we’re being pitched into chaos as Kurt gobs and goads his audience whilst all around him the band lay waste to their kit and props.

There really is a veritable deluge of ephemera attached to the deluxe editions of this release, so there is certainly plenty for fans and collectors to hunker down over. Be warned though, there is plenty of dross to wade through until you’re able to reveal anything of true value. If you’ve got the cash to splash, amongst all the bonus tracks, live cuts and B-sides, you’ll find a complete 2013 mix of the album by original engineer Steve Albini alongside the original 1993 version. None of this changes the fact that 20 years on, as one of the most passionate and reactionary albums ever made, it remains a masterpiece of mind over matter and deserves being lauded over in this manner. The real genius, of course, lies with the fact that whilst holding up a mirror to their own neuroses, they managed to reflect our own back at us.