Sunday, July 27, 2008

Neurot Roundup

It's part of the Neurot Recordings mission statement to only release albums that are created by members of the Neurosis nuclear and extended family or share their penchant for originality and epicness. Chalk up two more victories and a semi-victory for this recent trio of Neurot releases:

U.S. Christmas - Eat the Low Dogs (Neurot Recordings, 2008)

U.S. Christmas kick up dust clouds in their native North Carolina and send them up into orbit on Eat the Low Dogs. There ain't an untreated guitar tone to be found on the album, and in fact there's not much in the way of a proper riff, either -- everything is a quiet-to-loud surge of pulsing noise crusted with space barnacles, like a less Celtic, more psych Primordial. U.S. Christmas evoke Neurosis in the galactic dynamic shifts of their droning dirges, and the profusion of non-musical sonic detritus is reminiscent of Noah Landis's contributions to the Neurosis gestalt, but that's where the similarities end. 

U.S. Christmas - "Say Sister"

"Say Sister" and "Silent Tongue" inflate chest-beating Appalachian howling with cosmic portent, yielding an even more awe-inspiring "heavy country" sound than the last Across Tundras record. Songwriting takes a backseat to interstellar whooshing on Eat the Low Dogs and that's just fine considering the uniqueness of U.S. Christmas's sound. Crazy Horse riding the tail of a comet? Yes please. Dunno about screaming, but in space, everybody can hear you twang.

Soak up some more cosmic country from U.S. Christmas at the band's MySpace site.

Grey Daturas - Return to Disruption (Neurot Recordings, 2008)

If I take off my critic's hat (it's a beret, actually) and let go of my urge to encapsulate this album with some grand platitude like "noise is the new punk!" (it always was, really) and try to just hear it as I would any other record, Grey Daturas' third album Return to Disruption is pretty difficult to listen to, just a big wave of distortion that may or may not coalesce into a guitar chord, may or may not be framed by a drum beat, might be channeling hardcore rage or just basking in white noise. Not to say that the circuit-frying instrumentals "Beyond and Into the Ultimate" or "Answered In the Negative" are devoid of structure -- even a a full-song crescendo is a compositional form. But it's a pretty limited form as forms go, and it's the better of the two tricks that this Melbourne pony has, the other being the improvised motherboard fart track, on display on "Balance of Convenience" and "Undisturbed." Near-total wastes of time -- these shorter droppings are not so explosive/creative as standalone avant-noise pieces go,  nor do they relate meaningfully to the longer tracks surrounding them, so they come off as irritating ear-cleansers. Put back on the critic's beret and Return to Disruption becomes a squealing electric "fuck you" in the face of instrumental post-rock and its insistence on pretty textures. But I can't in good faith recommend a record just because it sounds more like Sonic Youth than Red Sparowes. Grey Daturas sure can raise one hell of a racket, though I'd probably be lukewarm about Return to Disruption if Sonic Youth released it, too.

Come on, feel the noise at the Grey Daturas website.

A Storm of Light - And We Wept the Black Ocean Within (Neurot Recordings, 2008) 

Sounds like Neurosis. Packaging looks like Neurosis. It's on the label founded by members of Neurosis, and features Neurosis member Josh Graham. And yet it's not Neurosis? Unfathomable! A Storm of Light frontman Graham may not have had much of a hand in the Neurosis songwriting department over the years (he's responsible for the visual aspects of their live shows), but by the sound of the note-perfect mimesis on And We Wept the Black Ocean Within he's soaked up the creaking-boat doom of latter-day Neurosis, especially the excellent Given to the Rising. However well-worn And We Wept's theme of ocean-as-unconscious is in the metal world (see Mastodon's Leviathan, Isis's Oceanic, Ahab's The Call of the Wretched Sea, Thrice's Alchemy Index Vol. I&II: Fire & Water), it makes for fine accompaniment to the album's roiling tidal sludge, simpler texturally than your average Neurosis album but just as finally wrought by guitarist/vocalist Graham, bassist Domenic Seita (Tombs) and drummer Pete Angevina (Satanized). 

A Storm of Light - "Mass"

Here's the catch though: with the exception of the album's centerpiece "Mass", which lodges in yr skull like a whale harpoon with deep-sea riff heaves and the anthemic chorus "I could have saved them / I could have sunk down," And We Wept just sounds like a second tier Neurosis record. First rate second tier Neurosis mind you, and I'll take Graham's quality, unadventurous doom over his harder-to-swallow but more innovative work with Battle of Mice and Red Sparowes. Still, you're better off starting with the original, then plumbing the sludgy depths for A Storm of Light if ya just can't get enough. Heh...unfathomable.

Swab the sonic poop decks at A Storm of Light's website

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Stebmo - Stebmo (Southern Lord, 2008)

I remember the day I got this record, straight from the hands of Southern Lord's Greg Anderson late in 2007. He had just received a box of finished copies at the office and was all aglow with excitement. Anderson was more stoked on hyping a moody jazz album by a virtually unknown quantity than he was hyping the upcoming Ascend album or the Burning Witch re-release, both of which had him on 'em. I find myself half-empathizing with the guy, in that I'm not totally sold on Stebmo for its jazz merits, but it's great to finally hear a full-length statement from Steve Moore (aka Stebmo), who has floated around the Pacific northwest for years as a collaborator and peripheral member of a great many fantastic bands.

Metal listeners will know Moore best for his role in the rebirth of Earth as excavators of deserted dust bowl towns. Moore's trombone called ghosts to Hex; his organ, wurlitzer and piano seeped into the wide-open spaces of this year's The Bees Made Honey In the Lion's Skull. On these albums, as well as the Sunn0)))/Boris collaboration Altar and his extensive work with occasional Sunn0))) guest Jesse Sykes, Moore has proven himself a formidable colorist and master of atmosphere. Same goes for Stebmo, 'cept this time Moore's rich textures fill warm jazz shapes instead of desolate drone-metal expanses.

'Course this being the genre-agnostic Moore, Stebmo references jazz in a whole variety of ways, only occasionally invoking the traditional "heads 'n solos" bop jazz structure (see the Vince Guaraldi-grooving "Blind Ross"). More typical is the loopy soundscaping heard in "Happy Ending" and "Majika," with their loping beats, sweet melodies and woodwind beds courtesy of Doug Wieselman. Improvisation ruffles the edges of Stebmo but doesn't define it. Personally, I would have preferred more chances for the individual band members and guests to shine. Eyvind Kang's viola mesmerism on "Dark Circles" deserves more time. Moore can be a wonderfully outside-the-box piano soloist, but on "Rathdrum" and "Tough Luck" he's just vamping aimlessly.

What results is an album that's pleasant but uninspired. Groups like Tin Hat Trio and the recent ensembles led by Todd Sickafoose (he plays upright bass on Stebmo) work at the same combination of jazzy interplay, old world wistfulness and chamber ensemble elegance with less pedestrian results. Moore and producer Tucker Martine (Jesse Sykes, Sufjan Stevens) are going for a certain aesthetic here, one that places mood and color above all else. There's a lazy charm to the slow-shifting chords and textures on Stebmo; the album does display plenty of compositional sensitivity and musical subtlety. Ultimately it doesn't eclipse Moore's extensive work as a sideman, and in fact sounds pretty bland on successive listens. 

Visit the Stebmo web page.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Heavy Metal Elegy for Joey

Joey (right) eyes the stacks at Real Groovy in Wellington, New Zealand (2003)

A couple days ago, my good friend Joey Lutz died. He was wading in shallow water at a beach in northern Panama when a wave swept him away and he was dragged underwater. In my mind, he died heroically - he was standing erect, defying that wave to do its worst. I imagine him contemplating how happy he was to be in such an exotic place in the minutes before it happened. Joey took nothing for granted. We first started hanging out in New Zealand in 2003 on separate study abroad programs, just two pensive Jewish kids from Los Angeles in the most beautiful country on earth. He was the one that learned to drive reverse stick-shift so that we could get out of Wellington for the day and explore the less populated areas. He tried (and failed) to make inroads in the Kiwi standup comedy circuit, just because. And he was always appreciative of the simple joy of grabbing a pint of Tui after class. 

Joey (center) poses with his barbershop quartet, which he wanted me to join

After we returned from New Zealand, Joey remained an infrequently seen but extremely valued friend to me. We hiked, went to lunch, chatted about our parallel relationship triumphs and woes. He took me to my first reggae concert. In exchange, I introduced him to Mayhem, Emperor and Dissection. I always left his company lightened, smarter, smilier. When I was with Joey I could just be. And maybe because his role in my life was as a friend whose philosophies and quiet strengths I admired, rather than as a constant companion, the pain I feel at his loss isn't a sharp pain - it's a dull ache, an absence where there once was possibility. 

Metal pumps me up. It helps me unwind. It stimulates me intellectually. It conveys the sorts of emotion that I don't express myself. But there are a few things for which I would not think of turning to metal, and consolation while I mourn for Joey is one of them. To be sure, the metal community has shown strong support for its departed sons. Think of those who still mourn for Cliff Burton, all of the fundraisers and benefit concerts held for Chuck Schuldiner before and after he died of brain cancer, the outpouring of love and support for Dimebag Darrell following his murder, the on-stage shout-outs that death metal bands gave to Decapitated's drummer Vitek after the bus accident that killed him. But when it comes to manifesting this support, this desire to memorialize in musical form, there are precious few examples of metal songs that get it right. 

Sorrow and absence feature heavily into the work of classic gothic doom bands like Katatonia and My Dying Bride, who prize existential loneliness as the highest virtue. That's not where I'm at though. That kind of introverted sorrow, projected outward in mopey roars and slow tempos, seems selfish in the face of actual death. It wallows in self-pity instead of suggesting the difficult path towards making meaning out of the loss of another. Death metal strikes me as having the opposite problem. So much of it takes takes an analytical approach towards death -- Carcass describes how it happens biologically, Slayer criticizes those that make it happen, Deicide and Immolation explain why Christ deserves it -- that there is little room to explore any emotional reaction. With the exception of anger of course, but as unfair as it is that Joey left this earth too early, anger isn't part of the way I process his death. The cold-blooded surge of death metal feels too aggressive to me to connote the sadness of loss.

And still, taken on their own terms, the following metal songs deal sensitively, I think, with the pain of loss in a way that is uniquely metal. I offer up this virtual Heavy Metal Elegy mix for my good friend Joey Lutz. May he be carried aloft by a storm of guttural vocals and spiraling guitar solos on his way to the other side.  May he rest in peace.

Pantera - "Cemetery Gates" from Cowboys From Hell (Lyrics)

Testament - "Afterlife" from Formation of Damnation (Lyrics)

Kingdom of Sorrow - "Screaming Into the Sky" from Kingdom of Sorrow (Lyrics)

Death - "Open Casket" from Leprosy (Lyrics)

Black Label Society - "In This River" (dedicated to Dimebag Darrell) (Lyrics)

Aletheian - "An Open Grave" from Dying Vine (Lyrics)

Side B:

Zao - "A Fall Farewell" from When Blood and Fire Bring Rest (Lyrics)

Hate Eternal - "Tombeau" from Fury & Flames (Lyrics)

Thank you to Greg Burk and Keith Emrick for their helpful suggestions about what to include.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hydra Head roundup

I tend to assign personalities to the record labels I know well enough to characterize. Southern Lord is a pensive basement-dweller, well-read and thoughtful but bearing some appealingly dark secrets. Victory's a dunderheaded jock that never met a problem it couldn't solve with its fists and a healthy dose of emotional suppression. Ipecac is a rambunctious, snot-nosed twerp with too snide an outlook on life to care about harnessing all of his brilliant ideas into something coherent.

It's been years since Hydra Head moved on from its early A&R policy of only signing American metalcore bands whose names begin with "C" (Cave-In, Cable, Coalesce, Converge, etc.), and it's only getting tougher to subsume the label's roster under a single personality type. Well good riddance, meaningless organizing principles. Hydra Head honcho Aaron Turner would likely tell you that his only guiding criteria is to release good shit that has something to say, and with the following trifecta of recent HH releases, I'm inclined to take him at his hypothetical word:

Gridlink - Amber Gray (Hydra Head, 2008)

Back in 2000, Hydra Head released the final studio album (The Inalienable Dreamless) by one of grindcore's all-time greats, Discordance Axis. Eight years later and we're treated to two albums of new material from DA mastermind Jon Chang. The first, the Headbanger's Karaoke Club Dangerous Fire EP by Hayaino Daisuki, cranked out half an hour's worth of melodic thrash metal in just fourteen minutes. And now comes the debut full-length from Chang's long-gestating Gridlink project, which hits the fast-forward button on Reign In Blood. Drummer Bryan Fajardo (ex-Kill the Client) beats his snare faster than most death metal drummers can double-kick. Guitarist Takafumi Matsubara (Mortalized/Hayaino Daisuki) somehow plays speed metal riffs at ludicrously extreme velocities with no audible sloppiness. And as always, Chang screams like some emasculated pterodactyl. There's barely any breathing room on Amber Grey, and for its eleven minute run time, that's just fine.

See if you can handle this shit on Gridlink's MySpace page.

Clouds - We Are Above You (Hydra Head, 2008)

So apparently Steve Brodsky isn't the only member of Cave-In with a jones for un-metal side projects. Album number two from Cave-In guitarist Adam McGrath's other band Clouds skimps on the heavy, turning instead some ragged riff-rock ("Feed the Horse"), raging Motor City punk ("Heisenberg Says"), countrified psychobilly ("Year Zero" and "Playing Dark"), hardcore ("Motion of the Ocean" & Horrification") and even straight up alterna-rock ("Glass House Rocks"). It's a willfully scattershot affair, delivered with the energy and conviction of a dude with a muse too powerful to be contained by genre boundaries. Clouds turn the portentousness of McGrath's other band on its ear, going for straightforward riffing and joyful, imperfect, human vocals.  So what if We Are Above You doesn't have the staying power of Until Your Heart Stops? It's a hoot right now.

Lustmord - [ O T H E R ] (Hydra Head, 2008)

If the dark soundscapes on this umpteenth album by Welsh sound designer/ambient composer Brian "Lustmord" Williams remind you of one of those atmospheric hazes that Tool uses at some point in like every single song, ain't no coincidence: Lustmord worked on some of Tool's DVD singles, contributed to the title track off 10,000 Days and collaborated with Maynard James Keenan on his awful Puscifer project. Music this spacious and, in conventional terms, uneventful usually works as background mood music and nothing else. But in his 28 years on the job, Lustmord has learned how to charge his subterranean drones with the sonic depth and emotional resonance that almost sort of pull  [O T H E R] into the foreground. Tool guitarist Adam Jones guests somewhere, as do King Buzzo of the Melvins (payback for the Melvins/Lustmord collabo Pigs of the Roman Empire) and Aaron Turner. No clue which of them is playing where, and it doesn't much matter either -- their guitars get mushed together with reverberating synths, gong hits and distant wind howls into a slowly morphing cloud of black goo. The album's best absorbed during the evening hours for sure (DO NOT TAKE DRUGS BEFOREHAND), but I listened to [O T H E R] in broad daylight and it still creeped me out. 

Friday, July 11, 2008

Nefastus Dies - Urban Cancer (Candlelight, 2008)

So intimidating is the onslaught of whirring guitars and blastbeats on Nefastus Dies' debut Urban Cancer (originally released in 2006) that it's pretty easy to miss the complexity of the songwriting -- most of the Canadian black metal band's time signature and tempo changes get lost amidst a hail of belt-fed drumming and a pretty restricted dynamic range (i.e. really loud). The intensity rarely flags, and yet there's a fiery melodic bent to Urban Cancer that gives the each song that de facto narrative quality so necessary when it might stretch out between 7 and 13 minutes. The rhythm section certainly pays in blood and sweat, and keyboards are used as light harmonic accents instead of de-fangers. Jury's still out on whether vocalist Ill-Fate is holding up his end of the bargain though. Often his vocals are layered with no particular relation to the rhythmic patterns underneath, and he delivers most of them in an angry scream far better suited to his former band, the Canadian metalcore standard-bearers Ion Dissonance. It's odd to hear a homicidally angry dude unleash heady philosophical conceits, as with this decidedly non-anthemic bit from "Primal Chaos Layers:"

"For a mind that seeks perfection
Understands that he may not subtract himself
From basic laws that cluster reality in its whole
What is subsequent is a spiritual nightmare"

But hey, I s'pose I'd prefer poetry set to Ill-Fate's arsenal of screams and pig squeal over meaningless gibberish in a more "pleasant" black metal rasp.

Visit Nefastus Dies on the web, or listen to 'em on MySpace.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Ascend - Ample Fire Within (Southern Lord, 2008)

Most doom metal uses outsized musical gestures to express outsized ideas. Those slow, plodding chords in "Iron Man" are the indomitable steps of the title character; My Dying Bride's elegiac power chords represent the decay of the soul; the sparsely planted, monolithic guitar slabs on a Monarch! record are freshly erected tombstones for happiness. So what to make of the debut by Ascend, a collaboration between Southern Lord founder Greg Anderson (Sunn0))), Goatsnake, Thorr's Hammer, etc.) and his old pal Gentry Densley of Salt Lake City's Iceburn Collective? Doomy Melvins tropes are present in the processional majesty of "The Obelisk Of Kolob," which makes the case for the trombone as a necessary intensifier of heaviness. Towering riffs crumble on the awesome title track too. And yet Ample Fire Within is not content to bludgeon its way into our crania like so much doom -- it's far more patient than that, even wiser.

It's weird to think of music as feeling (as opposed to sounding) old, but Ascend does just that. "Divine" is a field recording from a cave that's been uninhabited for billions of years, almost pulseless, free of momentum, with liquid guitars and electric piano commingling in brackish pools. Densley slurs and growls his words (" Who should come to claim the throne/But king of carrion, the crow/His darkness grows/As he licks the skeletons white and gleam") with subterranean glee. The oldness continues on "V.O.G.," a plodding ritual waltz of fuzz bass, pagan drumming and lysergic guitar leads, courtesy of Void's Bubba Dupree and Soundgarden's Kim Thayil. Ten-plus minutes of stoned supplication, all Tuvan drone and dehydrated un-riffing. Densley chants "God only knows how we made it this far/Everybody knows/We must be monsters, too" in a monastic drawl, and there's acceptance in that line. The vibe is post-ominous. It's a hymn to the monster inside.

It's a knowing pun, that album title, 'cuz there's a smoldering yet "Ample Fire" to this album but also an "Amplifier" that's turned inwards as often as it blasts outwards. Anderson and Densley value the interstices between their doom outbreaks just as much as the guitar thunder itself, if not more so, and guest Ascenders Steve Moore (trombone, wurlitzer, organ) and Andy Patterson (drums) help 'em fill in the gaps with atmosphere that veers from Earth-y twang to the spacey abstractions of 70s prog. There's mystery to Ample Fire Within, a quality that ya don't often get from the primally powerful but often didactic doom metal genre.

Hear samples of Ample Fire Within on Ascend's MySpace page.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Copremesis - Muay Thai Ladyboys (Paragon, 2008)

Call me old fashioned, but I'm a man who thinks that fetishes are only hot when they're unveiled discreetly. Which is one reason why pornogrind and ultra-brutal death metal do absolutely nothing for me. Maybe a pubertal 12-year-old with nothing but his fantasies to go on would think that the CD booklet for Copremesis's debut Muay Thai Ladyboys, which proudly displays photos of smiling Asian she-males, and artwork featuring an elephantiasis-afflicted version of same, was truly transgressive. But when you combine exploitative imagery and laughably over-the-top music, as Copremesis do on Muay Thai Ladyboys, it's hard to believe that they have anything more serious on the brain than shock and extremity for its own sake. Not that seriousness is necessary for great grindcore - on the contrary, awesome bands like Graf Orlock and Fuck...I'm Dead wield ferocious senses of humor. There's a difference between lighthearted and infantile though, and Copremesis definitely lean towards the latter.

God bless Copremesis for undermining the hyper-masculine, hetero-centric bent of brutal death metal by glorifying tranny culture (if indeed that's what they're doing -- vox are unintelligible and lyrics aren't printed in the liner notes). But that's really the only kind thing I can say about Muay Thai Ladyboys, an album so musically one-dimensional that it's more fun to talk about than listen to. Ultra-br00tal breakdowns test sub-woofer capacities, ticklish tech-grind bits test attention spans, WAY too upfront pitch-shifted vocals stay between gurgle and barf range the whole time, and drums sound like a maniacal typewriter. Brutal death is supposed to feel cold, impenetrable and unrelenting. It's not supposed to make you yawn.

Listen to Copremesis on their MySpace page.