Nightfist, "The EPic"
The immediate reaction I had to my first airing of this CD is probably quite common: It's impossible, at first, to believe that this is genuine. Thankfully, the intensity and craftsmanship of the music lend a great deal of credibility, and after repeat listens I am less and less inclined to challenge the band on whether or not their hearts are truly in this. I grew up listening to Slayer, Anthrax, and Metallica, sporting the worst mullet on the planet and a backpatch on my denim jacket to strike fear into all those who opposed. As I grew older, I got into Yes, Dream Theater, and even some King Crimson, and learned how expansive one could make rock sound. Nightfist have taken the works of these and other collective metal and prog-rock influences and bettered them, even if only here and there on their first release. If their bio is indeed true and Nightfist's members are recent high school graduates, then color me doubly impressed, as there's not one slip-up is to be found in these louder-than-love anthemic passages, and that kind of skill is rare on music so technically precise as this. The prologue and epilogue come off a bit forced, like an afterthought, detailing the warrior's journey in two brief monologues; thankfully they let the music do most of the talking. Furious drumming, blazing guitars and mad-scientist keyboards abound, and the songs take on a life of their own. I saw the warrior, put upon by so much strife, swinging his sword and crushing enemies with one blow, striving towards the final battle. The entire CD is a metaphor for this up and coming band, and at this rate they'll be the stuff of legends sooner rather than later. - Rob Devlin
SHALABI EFFECT, "PINK ABYSS"
Osama "Sam" Shalabi's new full-length album with his group Shalabi Effect is a bit of a departure from recent solo outings, which focused on improvisation and textured electronic instrumentals. The musicians assisting Shalabi on Pink Abyss are predictably drawn from the ranks of Montreal musical collectives and supergroups such as gy!be, Do May Say Think, Set Fire To Flames and Broken Social Scene. Personally, I don't care if I never hear another pompous album of under-written, overblown mediocrity from these unshaven, ponytailed bores. But Sam Shalabi has always been a separate proposition from the unappetizing uniformity of much of the Montreal scene, his material showing a bit more personality and a greater sphere of influence, incorporating psychedelic rock and ethnic textures into his dark, jazz-inflected music. Pink Abyss is billed as Shalabi Effect's first pop album, a claim which doesn't really stick, but the retro-baroque Curt Boettcher stylings of "Blue Sunshine" come very close, even if it is eventually upstaged by a squall of gurgling hashish-filtered electronics. The album's highlight comes early, the sexy jazz of "Bright Guilty World," an adaptation of "Bali Hai" from South Pacific, which changes the lyrics into an indictment of the imperialist policies of George W. Bush. The silky vocals of guest Elizabeth Anka Vajagic evoke the sultry smolder of Sara Vaughan and the exotic intrigue of Yma Sumac, though I find it rather distressing that the liner notes give no indication that the track is a cover of a classic Rogers and Hammerstein song. "Iron and Blood" is a slowly simmering folk-improv jam, which incorporates tabla and a beautifully anthemic guitar solo. It's in the region of bands like Sunburned Hand of the Man, but it's better produced and pulled off with a lot more panache. Successive tracks use the same instrumentation and techniques, but are able to achieve varied results which mostly succeed. "Kinder Surprise" takes a cue from pastoral psychedelic acts like Boards of Canada, with its pacific washes of analog synthesizer and samples of frolicking children. It's not very original, but it makes for a gentle coda to a quietly charming and accomplished album. - Jonathan Dean
After a string of arguably mediocre releases, Laibach return with an unparallelled strength and urgency that basically invalidates the scores of modern post-post-industrial electronic body music polluting dark clubs and college radio programs with horrible lines about deadly love obsessions or other similar whiny crap. Laibach have proven in the past with albums like Kapital and Opus Dei that they are capable of forceful electronic masterpieces, and with records like Krst-Pod Triglavom: Baptism and Macbeth, their love for theatrical grandeur show their ability to step out of the mold with anthemic treasures. Teamed up with two of NovaMute's techno champions Iztok Turek and Umek, the results are nothing less than stellar. While plenty of european guys dress in black proclaiming that we can dance as the world crumbles, Laibach is hands down the most convincing. There's no equal for the gritty, low lead voice and choral vocals combined with the loud and punchy syntheitics on tracks like "Du Bist Unser," and songs like the "Achtung!," "Hell: Symmetry," and the album's single "Tanz Mit Laibach" (a nod to DAF) could easily set any rivethead-filled industrial dancefloor on fire. There are other uses for the record too: I personally found myself saved by it on public transportation, which I absolutely hate taking when the inclement weather prevents me from cycling in to work and the loathsome commuters sniffling, sneezing and forcing me to stand piss me off. Doublep-tracked vocals on songs like "Ende" are ear-ticklingly delicious. English-sung songs can almost be too comical to bear, some times. "Barbarians are coming...they'll burn down your cities and Disneylands...they will turn into snakes and you're better off dead if they crawl in your bed" is almost laughable on the song "Now You Will Pay," making me long for a German version so I don't shoot water out of my nose. There isn't a dull milisecond and the album never loses its strength. Be very careful, however, as the music can be so hypnotizing, that potentially damaging loud volumes are quite desirable. - Jon Whitney
Asmus Tietchens, "Biotop"
The second in Die Stadt's ambitious reissue project covering 18 of Tietchens' early releases, 1980's Biotop sees the artist venturing further into the quirky pop idiom that his debut Adventures in Sound only hinted at. Each track is a rich, two-minute exercise in Tietchens' inimitable melodic style, filtered through vintage synths and drum machines, receiving their own portraits in the liner notes. Tietchens has also imagined a troupe of synth-wielding goofs as his backing band (Das Zeitzeichenorchester?"the time-signal orchestra"), all with names that are anagrams of the composer's, including Stu 'The Cute' Sins. This brand of humor helps to foreground the music inside, which, for all its melodicism, comes with a noticeable sense of detachment. While similar in mood to the surreal, coldly cinematic electropop of his contemporaries, Der Plan, and modern-day wunderkind Felix Kubin, Tietchens' Biotop pushes the pop further into space, weaving heady, claustrophobic atmospherics in and out of each robotic beat and dated synth whirl. This music does show its age, but it almost works in favor of the strange environment conjured. Even at its most bouncy or sweet, Biotop keeps a bizarre, grainy distance, invoking the kind of antique futurism groups like Trans Am wish they had it in them to create. Tietchens has said that, at the time, he was intentionally writing songs with no bass lines, in order to erase any commercial potential the record might have. Listening today, however, I'm thinking his plan may have backfired as many of these songs approach what I'd imagine radio jingles of the future to sound like. Coincidentally it was Tiechens' mentor Okko Bekker who said that the sparse and concise nature of these songs reminded him of radio time-signals, kind of like old-fashioned station-IDs. For such a (relatively) straight-forward piece of work, Biotop strikes me, ironically, as lacking the personality that makes many of Tietchens' more inaccessible, recent releases stand above the rest. That said, the album is a fascinating, elusive little creation, valuable apart from its status as a document of the brilliant musician's formative years. - Andrew Culler
Kontakt der J?nglinge, "n"
The fourth CD release from Asmus Tietchens and Thomas K?ner's collaborative project Kontakt der J?nglinge, n is the duo's strongest work to date. Like their other releases, the disc is drone-heavy, consisting of one 40+ minute live improvisation, dominated by huge bell tones and what sound like recordings of rushing wind, delayed, looped and exploded along a slow evolution. While previous efforts warranted descriptors like "barren" and "bleak," based on their preference for more acute, concr?te-associated sounds or sparse assembly, n is the first Kontakt der J?nglinge release to which these words apply in a comprehensive way. Tietchens and K?ner work together in seamless fashion, arranging sounds that define the boundaries of spaces rather than concentrating on details or events within. The piece succeeds in avoiding the more recognizable or associative sounds that appeared on earlier releases while creating a rich, more easily inhabitable sound-world, in this case something like a vacuous region of deep space. The title, a break from the linear titles of the first three collaborations (1, 0, -1), also suggests that this fourth disc deals with sounds of a more elemental nature or offers a purification of the ideas posited by its predecessors. Just words, yes, but very few things can fill a room like this. - Andrew Culler
"Pop Ambient 2004"
I'm not sure where the "Pop" is in Kompakt's new Pop Ambient 2004 compilation, but the 'Ambient' is there in droves. Oddly, the tracks on Pop Ambient 2004 are all created by different artists but nearly all sound as if they came from the same laptop or studio. When I think of Ambient music compilations, I'm immediately drawn to the History of Ambient series that was released in the early 90's that broadly defined ambient music as drifting, mostly pleasant, and spacious sound collage without much identifiable character. That same set of criteria could be aptly used to define what's going on with the work of the artists included here; it's music primarily concerned with tone rather than narrative or contrast. Each song on its own feels quite a bit like an extended interlude that might be used in some way to bridge two more dynamic songs together. I think of all the great intros and breakdowns of songs that find a way to meander out of structured writing and into drifting repetition and all of the pieces here share some of that tendency. What Pop Ambient 2004 feels most like is a collection of hung moments. I see a woman waking up beside her lover, and as soft light peeks in through the window she takes a moment to question what she's even doing there. Another track conjures a pond somewhere frozen over with children skating on it, but one of the children is stooping down, examining a crack where the February ice is just beginning to melt. Those kinds of moments have finally found a soundtrack, but rather than a score that plays through those moments to a conclusion, these songs all hang in the air like a snapshot drying on a line in a photo studio. Each song's moment becomes more and more clear as the song loops away with a simple, understated melody, and then each moment fades back out like film undeveloping itself. I'm not sure that a collection of moments like this is something to listen to straight through as it tends to feel like an overly-designed experiment in form, but taken alone, almost every track here serves a noble purpose. - Matthew Jeanes
Devoted followers of cult obscurantist acts like Nurse With Wound have become accustomed, over the years, to their favorite music being issued in absurdly limited "special" editions, created to be hopelessly obscure within a month of their release. I couldn't recount all of the instances when I have heard of a new release being offered in a limited, numbered edition of 100 handmade copies on transparent vinyl, with unique art objects, the first 10 orders including an exclusive bonus 7" smeared with the artist's bodily fluids, and one extra special copy containing a golden ticket entitling the holder to visit the artist's home and take liberties with their pet. As frustrating as these ultra-limited releases can be, ardent devotees still hold out the hope that with vigilance, cunning and a fair amount of cash, they can possess their own piece of the dream. Now, the lovely, talented and extraordinarily perverse folks at Bronson Unlimited Records have just upped the ante and blown all hope into the stratosphere with the release of one of the more unique limited editions in recent memory. Goat Wound is a tribute to the work of Nurse With Wound - 25 artists from around the world anonymously contributed an original untitled piece as an audio tribute to Steven Stapleton. The tracks are divided among six 3" compact discs with individual, reversible interlocking puzzle panel covers, a Goat Wound postcard and a pewter goat statue, all of which is housed in a handmade, art inlaid wooden box. The catch: This is truly a one-of-a-kind tribute to Steven Stapleton, and only Steven Stapleton. As unbelievable as it sounds, Goat Wound is limited to only one copy, which was shipped directly to Cooloorta Farm upon its completion. No one, not even the label itself or the artists involved, will ever be able to own a copy of the set. In addition, the 25 artists have each relinquished all copyright claims to the work on Goat Wound, freeing Steven Stapleton to use the music as raw materials for future sound sculptures, should he choose. The only relic that remains for the curious public is Bronson Unlimited's fantastic Goat Wound website, which in addition to photographs and information on the unique project, contains one minute MP3 extracts from each of the tracks, as well as an "exquisite corpse" patchwork of all 25 one-minute samples sequenced into one long track. The sounds on Goat Wound traverse a staggering number of techniques, from the haunted mental echoplex of the first track to the murky, industrial soundscapes of track six. Elsewhere, artists use minimal electronics and dusty drones, primitively recorded vocal ululations and Negativland-style plunderphonic radio broadcasts. Many tracks take a cue from Nurse With Wound, focusing on surrealistic sound design and ambient sound sculptures which are by turns cold and clinical, whimsical and amusing or tense, hallucinogenic and frightening. Track 22 is a highlight, utilizing recordings of what seems to be the voice of Mr. Stapleton himself, snatches of conversation that segue into a vibrant summer sound collage of barking dogs and children at play. I admire the artists and creators of Goat Wound, and the enormous amount of care taken in anonymously producing such amazing sound art that they knew no one would ever hear, save one oddball farmer in Ireland. If you can't live without your own copy, I suggest you start planning a covert operation to liberate it from Cooloorta Farm. Just imagine how much money you could auction this for on E-bay. - Jonathan Dean
Of all the tracks included on the Brazilian volume of the excellent Love, Peace, & Poetry psych comp series, Sound Factory's "Let's Go" is by far the strangest. The song tries at a fairly generic, surf-influenced groove, but comes off sounding more like a cautionary tale against heavy acid use, a hideously top-heavy mix capped off by singer Kevin Brennan's falsetto, so bad it's honestly not even funny. The song is a sad but perfect introduction to the band's single, thoroughly obscure album, reissued last year by Shadoks. Sound Factory cannot be explained away as an amateur psych record or even as a novelty for the collectors market alone. Something about the group protects them from seeming either too incompetent or too generic for the adventurous listener. Seven of the songs are covers (Cream, Traffic, Jefferson Airplane, and Blind Faith among others), lending the automatic charm that comes with foreigners borrowing so directly (and almost exclusively) from the British/American rock canon. Portuguese accents get bent awkwardly around Robert Johnson's wail, and a Tropicalian lilt is brought to the stodgiest of thick, white rock, shoddily-played and cheaply-recorded; while it might be easy to call this music unoriginal, it's impossible to say it's no fun. Missteps like "Let's Go" transcend camp value because they are almost too obtrusive or annoying for even a committed novelty enthusiast to stomach. Novelty gets left behind for a stranger, more rarified appeal, as if the group's unintentionally off-kilter approach prevents them from being so quickly placed or dated. A few moments of truly exceptional musicianship further complicate things. The guitar and bass players are undoubtedly skilled, their inventive parts frequently coming into odd juxtaposition with clumsier sections. Brennan's solos are at times masterful Hendrix-isms, made more enticing by their frequent burial deep in the mix, and drummer Trajano's shaky croon gives two Steve Winwood classics a fragility that, professional or not, lends a new beauty to the tired songs. The result is a record charming for its amateur-ish exuberance but also thrilling in the way the band conquers its limitations, managing an addictive, if idiosyncratic sound. - Andrew Culler
For 20 years, Matthew Bower's Skullflower has been widely influential in the noise scene, evolving a signature sound over time to incorporate the amplified drones, repetition and ?ber-psychedelic noise that characterizes the recent works. Bower's sister group Sunroof! uses similar distortion-pushing strategies, but serves as an outlet for gentler, trancelike, even transcendent applications of dissonance and noise. Cloudz is perhaps Bower's most meditative album yet, taking a clear step back from atonality and adding fuller instrumentation that threatens to add melody and rhythm to the abstract sound sculptures. 2003 was a banner year for Matthew Bower, with the release of Skullflower's trance-metal masterpiece Exquisite Fucking Boredom, the subsequent tour with Vibracathedral Orchestra, and now Cloudz, which is probably Sunroof!'s strongest album yet, with the possible exception of 2001's double-album Bliss. Cloudz climbs into a rarefied strata; noise that is blissed-out and beatific, but also intense, shamanistic and loud as hell. "Machine" creates a cushion of distortion that lifts a scattered piano melody into the jet stream, before transforming into a maze of electronic blurps, redolent of the giant god-computer in the sky detailed by Philip K. Dick in his Gnostic exegesis. Further into this astral temple of cumulonimbus gnosticism comes the urgent dot-matrix rhythms of "Grasshopper," followed quickly by the ratcheting beats and lysergic reverberations of "Viva." "Zero" is a bright evocation of Krautrock, something like a Neu! track scrubbed with steel wool: motorik beats smeared with high-pitched glitches and squiggles. "Universal Acceleration" is a floating steam calliope bubbling up into the heady, stoned atmosphere on a pillow of Nintendo sound effects. "Tornado Rose Canoe" is the highlight, a senseless electric guitar solo that shoots straight for the third-eye and throws off all manner of hallucinogenic streamers. "Silver Nazi Suicide" is this set's most challenging track, a richly detailed 12-minute excursion into carnivalesque bells, horns and shakahuchi that absolutely hypnotized me. The insect drones of "Primavera" and the clean, hicupping digital washes and vocoderized chanting of "Silver Zero" end the disc on a note of futuristic nirvana. After being pushed into the loftiest firmaments of this heavenly temple of drone, I've been ushered into a binary landscape of mantra-spewing robot gods. After a few more spins of Cloudz, I hope to master their language. - Jonathan Dean
The incredibly prolific Hugo Girard (Vromb) is at it again with a conceptual album called Rayons that attempts to sonify rays of light. Interestingly, light is usually considered a source of warmth and even happiness, but through Vromb's clinical microscope, light appears to be incredibly, well... dark. The rhythmic synthesizer patches are modulated in a variety of ways to recall the behavior of light any any number of different situations but in truth, what Vromb accomplishesmore than the sonic equivalent of light is that of electricity. There are crisp popping rhythms and undulating tones that reflect perfectly the kind of green-hued oscilliscope screens in the mad scientist lab from which Rayons seems to emit. Perhaps it's not really light that Vromb is after here, but electromagnetic energy in all its forms and with all of its arcane behavior. If that's the case, then it's really a simple feat to try and accomplish with electronic synthesizers which are basically applying methods of electrical resistance and waveform oscillation that do most of the job right when you flick on the switch. That is to say, Vromb does a deft job of composing with these tools, but the tools he employs are already the most obvious with which to approach a rigid and calculated approach such as this. There's little joy and emotional connection here to the concept of light, which was a layer of depth I was listening for whenever this disc was playing. It would make a great soundtrack to a science film about particle behavior or electrical conductivity, but it's not the kind of record that allows me to close my eyes, and imagine the warmth of light beaming down. There's some beautifully stark photography that accompanies the disc and fans of buzzing electric sound design will love it, but the whole thing never amounts to its stated intentions with the kind of depth that Vromb is no doubt capable of.
- Matthew Jeanes
Cerberus Shoal/The Magic Carpathians, "The Life & Times of,..."
North East Indie
So far, this split series has been a smorgasbord of tasty morsels that left me coming back for more. It had to happen sooner or later that there would be a dish that I'd want to pass on, and that's the case with Life & Times. The Shoal have gotten the closest to becoming one with the other band on this edition, but the results are not particularly remarkable or noteworthy. In fact, a lot of it comes off like filler, or a perpetual wait for something that may or may not ultimately arrive. The first track, though featuring some nice atmospherics and vocal effects, is nothing more than an introduction of what the listener is about to hear, as well as a thank you for listening thus far. It's unnecessary, as most are probably buying the EP on the name recognition of Cerberus Shoal alone, and it's a bit heavy-handed in areas, like a long-winded Sunday gospel about the importance of holding your head up. After that, the music assumes the shape of a low gurgle and whisper routine, slowly raising over a low chirp into the peaks and valleys of various melodic experiments. I had grown fond of the bombast of previous collaborations and thought maybe this was just a temporary departure, but it continues for the whole release, never quite forming a congruous whole. There is hope on the third track, "Continuumed," as structure seeps in and a true song emerges, but then the fourth track offers more of the same sonic tinkering. Unfortunately, the end result sounds like just some knob twiddling and experimentations with effects and small chord progressions and melodies rather than a true collaborative effort on sweeping compositions like the previous CDs in the series. I was left missing the latter, and though their is obviously a great deal of creativity and talent at work, it just didn't affect me the way I'd hoped it would. - Rob Devlin
The story of this release is something to the effect of this: Mark Bell had these songs on a tape for a friend, who loved them so much, he encouraged their release. From the get-go, that should be a signal that even Mark Bell would probably not disagree that these songs aren't completely finished. There's no question in my mind about the production talents of Bell. From the first minute of Sheath, LFO's first full-length release in seven years, the instrumentation is sharp, vibrant, captivating, and pleasing. However, the melodies all throughout are dull, repetitive, forgettable, and almost always completely lacking a good sense of motion or counterpoint, something LFO was quite capable of doing on 1991's legendary breakthrough Frequencies and spots on 1996's Advance. Basically, unlike any great duo who once had an amazing formula, Mark Bell needs Gez Varley (G-Man). It's all too remeniscent of popular 1980s duos when one member left and the remaining member continued to use the name (OMD wasn't the same without Paul Humphreys and Tears for Fears wasn't the same without Curt Smith). I do, however, agree with the decision to keep vocalists out of the studio. It's often a sign of an instrumentalist giving up when they decide their melodies aren't strong enough to stand on their own. The closest the album comes to a strong number is the single track "Freak," where Bell's Speak-And-Spell from "We Are Back" gets dusted off for the electronic voice's return. It's fun and has a lot of bumping bass kicks but as with the rest of the album, could use a driving lead instrument melody of some sort. - Jon Whitney
Kyrie Eleison, "The Complete Recordings 1974-1978"
Hindsight is 20/20: wide-eyed dreamers of yesteryear once marveled at the thought of flying cars that would dominate our world's skyways and freedom from the ever-present red menace that threatened to consume or way of life. How na?ve, they were. Today we lurch around in behemoth sport utility vehicles and the followers of Lindon LaRouche still annoy us at many urban street corners. Now, those fantasies seem somewhat outmoded, antiquated, and quaint. So too, I feel, is much of the realm of progressive rock that cropped up in the 1970s. What aspired to find depth and insight in what had before been trashy rock music too often mushroomed into purple prose and exercises in rambling fantasy imagery. Case in point: Kyrie Eleison, yet another compilation of recordings from a "lost" band, overlooked in its time and ready for their moment to shine. Rather than coming off as an artifact to be studied and appreciated, The Complete Recordings reveals itself to be much more of a fossil, thin and desiccated, utterly without context, and to put it simplywith no meat on its bones. Tentative, Phantom of the Opera organ tones lull along the slow melodies that buffer up against distorted guitar and thick thud drumming. Nothing particularly remarkable stands out, even in their grandiose solo sections where the members launch into perfunctory aping of obvious influences like early Genesis. The lyrics are mystifying, but not in a majestic way, merely in that they don't seem to have been worked with much. The influences now seem more akin to Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On" and "Gollum, the eeeevil one." On "A Friend," they blow the lid off of this whole civilization sham with lines like "You know you're caught in the trap / A trap of human beings / Calling yourselves society / A trap," a decidedly dark albeit banal claim that they fail to back up with the preschool sing-a-long style lines that follow: "If a friend is happy / It's pleasure for you / If a friend has lost something / It's a loss of yours too." Anarchy and fraternity all in one song, it's something that most bands would not be able to pull offand Kyrie Eleison is one of those bands that can't. They stumble further in their quest to encapsulate what is wrong with our societal trap on another track, declaring "You can hate the world / It will hate you / 'cause it's wars is hate / And hate is a war / You are a wonderer." (I copied that from the lyric sheet, that's not a mishearing.) Somewhere in the middle it seems to lose any kind of syntax or meaning. From "Reign": "I'd like to kick you in your bums / But brothers would take their giant guns / Shoot brutality into my brain." For sure a daft line, but not a terrible capsule review of this overblown compilation. The Complete Recordings seems like another example of basement diving music archivists looking to pass off the chaff of its era as a maligned work of wonder. Track down the lyrics sheet if you can, as it can be rather amusing. - Michael Patrick Brady
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