Wednesday, September 9, 2015

...And Now For Something Completely Different

...And Now For Something Completely Different
         At one time, this blog served a different agenda. It was an outlet; a tool for opening my inner release valve so I could reconcile the past.  I had loyal readers who were very supportive, and I’m still grateful for the time they spent reading each entry. Their encouragement and suggestions were always welcome, and not one of them told me to simply “get over” the past and move on (even if that’s what they were thinking).

         I've come to realize that those blog entries are over six years old. As such, they have little bearing on the present. In essence, the blog has become dead space when it could be used for something more relevant. It will therefore be re-purposed in a manner that reflects a current endeavor, which is to reacquaint myself with music as a whole.

         To be blunt, this is a project born of necessity. My appreciation for music has wandered far from that nexus of passion, art, and energy that it once occupied. There was a time when I would regularly spend an entire evening spinning records and weighing their relative merits against each other. Whether I was looking for a thread of similarity between two seemingly unrelated albums (The Who's Live At Leeds versus Blue Oyster Cult's Some Enchanted Evening, for instance), or trying to figure out the exact year when Iron Maiden began to incorporate progressive influences alongside their New Wave of British Heavy Metal swagger, I was always striving to raise the bar for music geeks everywhere.

        In the years since then, I have consumed a veritable shit load of music. On the average day, I hear at least three complete albums, often back to back. But aside from a couple of releases that immediately hit the mark, I end up forgetting a lot of stuff that deserves more attention. While it's true that most music doesn't move me enough to warrant a second listen, I have a constant, nagging feeling that a lot of potentially great albums are slipping through the cracks. This is particularly true of releases that are less immediate, but more gratifying over time. And as any enthusiast will tell you, those are usually the best albums of all! The problem has reached a point where, aside from the usual standbys (Rush, King's X, the Who, Jethro Tull), there are few albums in my repertoire that get multiple listens before they fall by the wayside.

This is not an acceptable state of affairs. The "one-spin" approach to music appreciation has effectively degraded the quality of my listening experience. I'm certainly "hearing" a lot of music, but I'm not really "listening" to much at all. It would be easy to blame the digital age, especially given its penchant for immediate gratification (where pretty much every album is available to the casual listener, all the time). But I chose to follow its neon trail. This has led me off a metaphorical cliff, where hundreds of albums have become a homogeneous mass; one that is amorphous and undefined. I know there has to be more to those records than I’m hearing, but their sheer volume and availability has turned me into something I despise: a passive listener.    

       This blog is an attempt to remedy the situation. By documenting every album that graces my ears, I am creating a sort of insurance against passive listening. I have further decided to add comments for each release, which will serve a dual purpose. First, they will remind me of what I found remarkable about a particular album. This will help considerably when I go back to decide which ones require deeper consideration. Secondly, I am averse to the idea of presenting albums in a straightforward "list" format, with only a few arbitrary tidbits of information to identify them. It may be impossible to discard the notion (completely, anyway), but I have no desire to see any album or artist get lost in the multitude of entries. Thus, the comments will also serve as a means of distinction. Every release here is a unique entity, regardless of what I think of it on an artistic level. Something about these albums compelled me to spend time absorbing their contents. Out of respect for their creators, I will treat them accordingly.


Zach Hill & Mick Barr - Shred Earthship

I've read that Zach Hill considers this his best performance on record. That alone makes it worth a spin in my book. There was a time when Hella, Orthrelm, and Lightning Bolt occupied considerable space in my disc changer, so I was pretty psyched about hearing this for the first time.That being said, Hill's drumming, while remarkable, isn’t really distinguishable from anything else he’s done. In fact, I think some of the stuff he recorded for Hella and Marnie Stern is better developed and more interesting (from a listener's standpoint, at least). As expected, Mick Barr is delightfully indulgent in all his minimalistic glory. However, his guitar histrionics essentially mirror what he's already done with Octis and many solo outings. Despite my misgivings, Shred Earthship is compelling enough to get at least one more spin.  

Family Vacation - s/t

Powerviolence from the great state of Washington. Quite enjoyable for the die-hards among us, but probably rote and predictable for anyone else. You already know if this is your thing, so leave it at that.

Boreal Tundra - Schizophrenic Delusions

This one-man black metal project is fronted by a guy named ‘Herrwulf’, which (if my tenuous grasp of the German language serves me) means “Mr. Wolf”. The sound he has achieved here is appropriately grim and forbidding, with occasional keyboards that add a symphonic element. I’m generally not fond of music that includes the term “symphonic” as a descriptor, but Herrwulf keeps those parts to a minimum. In fact, the songs have a certain creepiness about them that is more atmospheric than anything else. ‘Schizophrenic Delusions’ might not redefine the genre, nor does it really stand out from similar albums I’ve heard this year. But it’s a competent and well-executed effort with its own special appeal.      

Terror - The 25th Hour

Vicious hardcore from these Buffalo-based stalwarts. Sure, it's formulaic and by-the-numbers, but true originality is pretty elusive these days. Sometimes, I would even say it's overrated.

The Who - Live at Hull

Recorded in 1970, this full set contains both hits and obscurities. As a fan since childhood, I consider myself pretty well-versed on the Who's discography. So imagine my surprise when I found three unfamiliar song titles on the back cover. The sound board mix is less than ideal, but pretty damn good considering when this stuff was recorded. Highlights include "Summertime Blues", "Heaven and Hell", and some key selections from 'Tommy' (which was probably the album they were supporting on this tour). My only gripe is the questionable track sequence, which places " I'm A Boy" between "Overture" and "1921" (??????). Anyone who appreciates concept albums knows that you don't randomly throw a non-album track between its first two songs! It's hard to imagine the band consciously ruining one of their greatest achievements this way, so I am left to wonder what the hell happened.


Plague Rider - Paroxysm

I've seen this UK group compared to Gigan, but their style isn't exactly a carbon copy. In fact, the melodies sound more like Decrepit Birth than anything else. Regardless of how that might sound, I'm digging this album a lot. It's a little spacey and atmospheric in spots, but 90% of it is well-executed progressive death metal.

Edge Of Sanity - Crimson

This eight-part masterpiece is Edge Of Sanity's defining moment, as guitarist/songwriter Dan Swano moves through various moods and textures across its 40-minute (on the nose!) run time. Every section is expertly written and performed, and nothing seems ill-conceived or out of place.  Generally speaking, this is mid-90s melodic death metal from the country that practically defined that genre (Sweden). However, Swano expands beyond those parameters with a more progressive approach. Sadly, Crimson was followed by 1997's Infernal, an album that didn't impress me much (for reasons I don't recall). Thus, I never bothered to check out anything Swano recorded under the EoS moniker beyond that point. However, hearing this amazingly dynamic record again (for the first time in many years), might convince me to give Infernal another spin.
Edge Of Sanity - Infernal

I couldn't wait! I had to dig up my old CD copy of this record for another go-round. Opening track "Hell Is Where The Heart Is" hits the mark early, with complex riffs and a memorable chorus. Second track "Helter Skelter" moves along at a manic pace, with a recurring bridge that sounds like vintage Trouble or Pentagram. But then "15:36" comes off as a contrived example of straightforward stoner rock, with a cheesy melo-death chorus that doesn’t help matters. The remaining tracks (thankfully) abandon the stoner crap, but none of them comes close to the mastery of that opening salvo. In fact, most wallow in a shallow pool of forgettable riffs and dime-a-dozen melodies. Unfortunately, I'm starting to remember why this album got shelved 18 years ago, in favor of Opeth's Morningrise and my newly-acquired remaster of Dismember's Like An Overflowing Stream (with the Pieces EP tacked on for good measure). Infernal certainly has its moments, but Swano shoots off way too early and leaves us with nine tracks of uninspired wankery.

Dissection - The Somberlain

Listening to Edge Of Sanity's finer moments put me in the mood for some earlier releases that came out of Sweden's melodic death metal scene. It was between Eucharist and Dissection, and The Somberlain is where I landed. Even at this formative point of his career, Jon Nodtveidt was penning some of the genre's strongest material. His songwriting talent shows on every track of The Somberlain, with strong musical themes that translate well across the album’s entire duration. There are three acoustic interludes that provide a short respite from Nodtveidt’s sardonic blitz, but most of the album charges along at speeds that vary from a heavy plod (“Mistress of the Bleeding Sorrow”), to a mid-paced gallop (“In The Cold Winds of Nowhere”) to the speedy pummeling of “Heaven’s Damnation”. I’m sure there are nuances here that I’ve either forgotten (or missed altogether) over the years, so I look forward to providing some follow-up comments the next time I take this 1993 genre classic for another spin.


Woundvac - Disgraced Convert 7”

Grinding thrash from Phoenix. Despite the lo-fi recording, the riffing here is fairly tight. I really like the dissonance in songs like “Indulge Beyond”, as it creates a powerful sense of unease. Then there are the lyrics, which show maturity in both expression and the chosen subject matter. The tone of resolve in songs like “Worn With Honor” hits hard, especially the line, “I have chosen enemies / who mistake kindness for weakness”. Well done.

Akercocke - Choronzon

Despite being a fan for several years, I only recently learned the origin of this band’s peculiar name. Apparently, Akercocke is the name of a monkey in Robert Nye’s interpretation of the German legend, Faust. Not only does this simian speak perfect English, but he’s quite articulate as well. But getting back to the band

Akercocke is probably best known for their open devotion to Satanism, and they have certainly enjoyed the notoriety that comes with it. Knowing this makes their lyrics seem a little less cartoonish and more genuine, which is certainly worth a few points.

Akercocke has long been considered "progressive black metal" by the press, and it seems like a fair description. The riffing on Choronzon is extremely tight and razor-sharp, with plenty of breaks for more subtle passages. The ambiance is appropriately dark and mysterious, which lends the proceedings a sort of "otherworldly" vibe. Lastly, the heaviness here suggests some death metal influence, which is tastefully executed. Highly recommended.

Pantheist - O Solitude

England’s Pantheist always held an interesting place among funeral doom’s most notable acts (e.g. Skepticism, Shape of Despair, etc). For one thing, their melodic propensity runs in a slightly different direction. It's a tough thing to describe in terms other than "melodramatic" or "overwrought", but such adjectives seem a little pejorative. ‘O Solitude' is their debut full-length, and it sets a genre standard in terms of raw emotion.

Primitive Man - Home Is Where The Hatred Is     

Punishing sludge/doom with vocals that bellow tales of a world gone horribly wrong. These guys used to be in a Denver-based group called Clinging To The Trees Of A Forest Fire, and it's a shame they never received an award for "Most Appropriate Band Moniker." Getting back to Primitive Man, there has always been an apocalyptic vibe to their music; one that constantly reminds me of my own mortality.

Black Tongue - The Unconquerable Dark

I’ve seen ads where this British “doom-core” outfit are compared to a lot of bands, but only The Acacia Strain seems relevant. Mastodon? Besides using one of their song titles as a moniker, no. Meshuggah? Maybe a little here and there with the rhythmic syncopation, but otherwise, no. Neurosis? Whoever writes ads for Century Media must be having a good laugh at our expense, because there’s no way!  Nonetheless, this stuff is incredibly abrasive, and its “doomier” aspects are soul-scarring in depth and intensity. The songs mostly dwell in that contentious area known as “deathcore”, which will earn more than a few detractors. But as someone who openly praises Oceano and Suicide Silence (whose Eddie Hermida contributed guest vocals to one track), I am enjoying this considerably.     

The Catalyst - Freak Out the Squares

This punk/noise rock outfit hails from Richmond, VA, and its members are apparently very active in the local scene. Their sound is effects-laden, discordant, and alternates between aggressive sections and trippy jam sessions. I’m not a fan of the latter, so for me, the album tends to drag a bit. This is especially true during the longer tracks (“Thirsty Like Water Thirsty”). In fact, even the balls-out stuff like “Just Like The Last Scene In The Karate Kid” is listenable, but unremarkable. Think I’ll pass on this one.

Torch Runner - Endless Nothing

Torch Runner is easily one of the best metal-oriented hardcore bands from the great state of North Carolina (a distinction they share with Young And In The Way). I can’t call them “metalcore” due to how that term is misapplied these days, but it would have been a perfect match 15 years ago. This stuff is heavy on conviction and venomous in delivery.       

Deafheaven - New Bermuda

Accusations of insincerity have dogged these guys since their inception, but who gives a fuck? Certainly not me, because Deafheaven has consistently churned out impressive albums the whole time. Yes, it’s essentially black metal with saccharine-sweet melodies, but the lyrics give these songs a certain bitterness that is intriguing. My fascination with this band started with the ‘Sunbather’ album, and ‘New Bermuda’ just sweetens the pot. I’ll be going back to this one for sure.   

Cloud Rat - Qliphoth

In essence, this is melodic grindcore. The “melodic” tag usually has me thinking  “catchy 3-chord bullshit”, but Cloud Rat doesn’t necessarily go that route. This works best in songs that  employ melody without making it too obvious, but there are cheesy moments here and there (“Bloated Goat”). Thus, it gets shit-canned.  

Guttural Slug - Megalodon

Brutal death metal from Denmark. This stuff bludgeons from start to finish. There is little point in breaking it down track-by-track, because Guttural Slug is pretty elementary in their approach. Nonetheless, Megalodon shows them playing to their strengths.  
Aevangelist - Enthrall to the Void of Bliss

Blackened death that leans heavily toward the abstract. I’d say these guys fit under the “avant-garde”  banner, currently headed by Portal, Deathspell Omega, and Grave Upheaval. Between the dissonant riffs and unconventional song structures, this album is a definite win for me. I liked their previous two albums considerably, but this effort seems more focused and coherent.