Earthmass – Lunar Dawn (Keep, Relic & Ritual) (doom metal)
self released, 2012, DD EP, 20m 41s
£1.50+ name your price (CD sold out, second pressing scheduled)
In recent years the avant-garde fringes of metal have become one of the most fertile sites of musical creativity and invention; while my central musical inclinations might be towards other areas, such as jazz or folk, and while those areas certainly harbour some radically creative minds globally, the majority of music produced and performed locally to me is pretty conservative. Earthmass is one of several bands I have the opportunity to engage with directly (attending gigs, meeting the members, building an ongoing relationship as a music writer, etc.) that pursue a radical formal agenda, and really keep their eye on the ball creatively. There is no uncritical regurgitation of the tropes of heavy music here, no taking the language as given; these musicians take the musical materials of their chosen style as an opportunity to explore and experiment, to find out what these sounds can tell them (and us) about the experience of living in the world, and to create psychic spaces that do more than simply reinforce what we think we already know…
Lunar Dawn (Keep, Relic & Ritual) is a single extended composition, with very limited use of vocals, and a complete absence of grandstanding by any single instrument (no protracted guitar solos). Its primary concerns, to my ears, are the lumbering momentum of the doom metal riff, and the atmospheric potential of variations in density and texture. It is rarely rhythmically invertebrate enough to read as drone, but it shares something of that music’s aesthetic, and for me it powerfully evokes the weight and geology suggested by the band’s name. The piece has several distinct movements, in which Earthmass investigate a variety of approaches to orchestration, some consonant, some dissonant, some tonal, some sonic; the dynamic range is dramatically broad, and because the tempos are deliberate, it has an incantatory, or indeed ritual quality. This is a highly involving piece, of rare creative integrity.
Palm Reader – Palm Reader (hardcore punk)
self released, 2012, DD EP, 12m 13s
£0+ name your price
It’s amazing how many distinct ways there are of making an intense, frenetic noise with guitar, bass and drums. Palm Reader eschew the ‘post-hardcore’ label, but share some characteristics with bands that claim it. Similarly with metalcore. It’s easy to end up splitting hairs, or labeling bands based as much on who listens to them as on what they sound like; ultimately, hardcore shouldn’t sound the same today as it did thirty years ago, not if it’s a living music, but this band certainly seem to embody its core values. ‘We play loud. We play heavy. We play hard. We play fast. This band began in July 2011 with nothing else in mind’ is what it says on their Bandcamp page. If that was strictly true I doubt they’d bother being in tune, or constructing their songs this carefully, but the point is well taken. Stylistically, this music is an utterance in the long conversation punk has had with metal, going back to Black Flag’s love for Black Sabbath, and early thrash metal’s reciprocal infatuation with early hardcore. Their savage riffery bears little resemblance to the traditional three chord punk song, and Palm Reader’s lead guitarist has no time for the injunction that punk musicians with technique should keep it close to their chests; instead he riffs and solos like Kirk Hammett on whizz. The songs seem to be concerned with the personal and the psychological, in the vein of the broad swathe of post-hardcore music; they are performed with committed intensity, a lot of skill, and no identifiable compromises.
Meadows & Chestburster – split release (grindcore)
self released, 2012, CC EP, 3m 59s
A split release on cassette, with each band taking a side, thirteen songs in total: and a total length of less than four minutes. Clearly not prog rock, then. I will say something about the music, but a release like this is clearly a collector’s piece, the effort of obtaining, opening and playing it inverting the proportionality of contemporary music consumption practices. Tape actually sounds really nice, although the medium has its drawbacks, but it’s valuable now, like vinyl, primarily for its ineluctable physicality, and for the necessity of active engagement in the playback procedure. The cassette itself is bright green, nicely mismatched to the bright green of the luridly disturbing insert. The insert itself folds out to display a poster of the bizarro image above (created by the very talented Sick Mike, also responsible for the Old Man Lizard EP cover), at slightly less than A4 size, while the reverse displays full track, personnel and lyrics listings. All this is basically what you’re paying for, and it’s extraordinarily cheap at the price too. The music itself (all recorded, mixed and mastered by the prolific Paul Rhodes) is humorously demented grindcore, from both bands, leavened with a couple of amusing samples, that manages to cram a surprising amount of variety into an idiotically brief timeframe; Meadows have some less frenetic moments, such as the extended 3/4 section in the self-indulgently lengthy opus ‘Gore the Matador’ (over a minute long!), while Chestburster have more of an overheated cheap powerdrill approach, but their sounds are highly compatible. Certain to become immensely collectible the instant it sells out, I’ll advocate this release as an investment, even if the description above doesn’t recommend it to you. Personally, I think it’s the dog’s bollocks.
Digiflex – Hate The Player ft. Amy West (electro)
self released, 2012, DD single, 4m 40s
This is a relatively unprepossessing piece of vocal electro, with a decidedly hip-hop feel to its wide and heavy rhythmic structure. I say ‘unprepossessing’ because it doesn’t get right in your face with weirdness or noise, but it still has plenty to recommend it, not least the voice of Amy West, which has a strength and authority at odds with the vulnerability implied in the lyric. The song is a relatively conventional lament for the emptiness of a romantic encounter, but with enough of an off-kilter take to be interesting. This emptiness is reflected in the production’s scooped sonic landscape, emphasising the bass and treble without much in the middle; timbres are digestible but varied, and the arrangement is conventional but engaging. All in all, it’s hardly a groundbreaking tune, but it’s a nice listen with an immersive, chilled-out ambience, and very well made.
Knifeworld – Clairvoyant Fortnight (progressive/ psychedelic rock)
Believer’s Roast, 2012, CD EP, 18m 20s
I keep waiting for Knifeworld to announce another full length release, but quite honestly, their EPs have a lot more in them than most of the hour long albums I come across. Their songs are convoluted affairs, in which arrangement and orchestration are indistinguishable from composition, and the contrasts between sections (although they make perfect sense in context) are far more pronounced than is commonly the case in anything that could be described as ‘rock’. Although it has to be said that most of the time describing this music as rock is about as informative as describing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a wheeled vehicle. The musical language certainly digs into the bran-tub of rock, but Clairvoyant Fortnight sports a long enough spoon to sup with jazz fusion and twentieth-century classical music (the latter particularly evident in the use made of wind instruments). There’s some very effective sectional scoring, different pieces of the ensemble trading phrases like characters exchanging lines in a verse drama, and the timbral potential of the various instrumental resources is exploited to the full.
Without analysing the lyrics in depth, I’d risk describing the themes of these three songs as humorously dysphoric, witty and profound; the authorial voice is possessed of a certain unhinged whimsy that harks back to a distinctively British psychedelic tradition, as does the melodic and harmonic palette. Key centres are unstable and contingent, but the music is theatrically chromatic rather than overtly atonal, and serially diatonic rather than dissonant. The phrasing is rhythmically complex, with stress patterns that turn themselves inside out at a moment’s notice, but Knifeworld wear it lightly, and always sound relaxed, even loose, although the material is always performed with precision. If you were wondering where to look for rock’s avant-garde, other than the extremities of metal, it’s here: this is profoundly beautiful music, conceived and executed with outstanding musicianship and creativity.
Clairvoyant Fortnight will be released on 11 June 2012
Caution Elephant – Monster (avant-pop)
self released, 2012, DD single, 3m 11s
Two members of Caution Elephant have cropped up on my radar in the past; bassist Marley Butler releases music under his own name, and with Sagan Lane, operates ‘production company and artists’ collective’ Naplew Productions, and produces artists including Caution Elephant’s vocalist Eleanor Williams, whose Orange Peel & Paper is a discretely accomplished album, including more than convincing interpretations of two Harburg-Arlen standards. Monster draws elements from diverse popular music dialects, including rock, reggae, 2-tone and urban blues, arranged for electric guitar, electric bass, drums and voice. Its lyric is playfully disturbing, its melody is jazzily curvaceous, and its arrangement is sparse, even at its peaks of dynamics and density. Creative, intelligent, amusing, and performed precisely to the requirements of the material, this track is all an avant-pop-rock song should be. If you click the YouTube link above, you’ll also see an exceptionally good video made by the band’s guitarist Emma Reading.