Nomad Kids Republic NKR 014 $9.95 CD
Given its title, its cover, and Quak’s avowed intention to make ‘dusty’ albums, we might expect a taste of nostalgia, of painful distance about this recording; it begins with thunder. This doesn’t presage any protracted exposition of sturm und drang however; it seems rather more like the thunder heard through the windows of childhood, the thunder that tells you a rainy day will be keeping you indoors for the foreseeable future. Quak employs elements of conventional tonal practice to establish emotional conditions, and makes use of technological or human noise and natural ambience to evoke more experientially specific states of being. The sounds have an unsettling character, leavened with some notes of optimism, all filtered through a distancing crackle, and the sense of familiar objects moving in an unknown space. It’s not the sort of ambient music to simply drift off to meditationally, as its representation of experience is laden with a muted, aching dissatisfaction, but it still rewards immersive, contemplative listening of a mindful sort. The more concrete sounds imbue the ambiences with a sense of specificity, but it is a transferable, almost generic specificity, which for me repeatedly evoked my own childhood memories, leaching them of any sentimental glamour. Long Forgotten Days Under A Dust Covered Sky is painstakingly crafted, and reveals skeins of complexity with repeated exposure.
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There’s also a hint of nostalgia to Alex Ensoli’s melancholy popscapes, constructed largely through electronic production techniques, but heavily redolent of practices more associated with electromechanical methods, such as shoegaze. If I say ‘indie-pop’, there’s a strong chance you’ll think I mean something unremittingly tedious like Coldplay (who recently breached my personal embargo on hearing famous bullshit, by means of the Paralympic closing ceremony), but there isn’t really a more apposite or specific genre label for this music. It’s based on the simple structures and accessible materials of pop, but it is decidedly independent in outlook, and in arrangement and production it evinces a restless and literate creativity. The crawling psychedelia of ‘Environments’ is followed by the plangent trip-hop of ‘Green Side’, and every track is similarly rethought, rather than simply plugging all of the material into the same production formula (an approach that has its own merits, but more obviously so when recording a performing group, for example). Sometimes the texture is conventionally pop, with layers of harmony and melody riding a beat, and sometimes it’s uncompromisingly avant-garde, although always in an ear-pleasing, atmospheric manner. Tall Tales And Colourful Sounds is predominantly down-tempo, and you won’t be using it to cheer yourself up or work out to, but it has humour and generosity, and it’s entertaining as well as beautiful.
There seems to be a natural progression through the albums in this round-up, although they simply appear in the order in which I received them. From ambient, to electronic pop with atmospheric tendencies, and now to Echodrone, who run with certain of the balls so pleasingly juggled on Tall Tales And Colourful Sounds. Bon Voyage is an album of traditionally generated rock sounds, deployed in the service of immersive affect, rather than the usual rhythmic grind; that could serve as a rough description of Shoegaze though, which I’ve already written above as a genre guide, so I’d better be more specific. Even a song like ‘Pure Nickel’, which has a driving rhythmic backbone, is recorded in such a way to make all its individual attacks blend together as though part of a single continuum, like raindrops striking a roof; timbres are warm, reverbs shimmering, and the soundstage is a nebulous, open space. Most of the songs have a static quality, eschewing harmonic or phraseological convolutions, in favour of an exploration of atmospheres and feelings; and the music is very much about the songs, rather than vice versa. The album is imbued with the sweet pain of remembrance, its soft edges and warm textures enacting a distance that is still, somehow, intimate; Echodrone’s songs evoke place more than time, and the places they evoke are well worth a visit.
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Groove, texture and melody are Andre LaFosse’s main interests, if this record is anything to go by. His sound is somewhere between hard-rock and fusion, reminiscent in places of Zappa’s instrumental rock, but the product of a different set of faithfully indulged idiosyncrasies. The melodies are delivered by means of a saturated, keening lead guitar sound, that makes you want to know what it has to say, but despite the music’s central focus on melody, and LaFosse’s obviously formidable technical capacities, they avoid intricacy. In fact, for a ‘guitar record’ The Hard Bargain is remarkably short on harder-faster finger-wiggling; instead there is a rigorous focus on phrasing and emotional impact. I wouldn’t say it was ‘ego-free’ music, because it still bestrides its sonic landscape like an Earth-conquering colossus, it is still possessed of a sense of mastery, but that epic character is extremely compelling, achieving some of the characteristic atmosphere of doom metal through a rather more subtle approach to its musical materials. The feeling of the record is not exactly sepulchral, but it’s hardly frivolous either: it evinces an intensity achieved without recourse to the obvious shortcuts of excessive speed, volume or abrasion. There is a tense, teasing refusal of the tonic for extended sections of relatively simple repeated figures, emblematic of the creativity and intelligence behind a superb record that evokes a set of surgically precise emotional specificities.
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Groove, texture and melody are Andre LaFosse’s main interests, if this record is anything to go by. It could hardly be more different from The Hard Bargain, however, which presumably is why these are two albums, rather than one long one. On the release reviewed above, LaFosse’s guitar sits mainly in a context of traditional rock orchestration; on this one it doesn’t really sit at all, but moonlights as a contortionist stunt driver. And it does this in the midst of synth based beats and grooves that rarely pay any obvious homage to the established conventions of how to do texture with electronics. It’s as though he was (gasp) making it up! There’s a great diversity of sounds and timbres on Do The Math, in terms of both synthesis and guitar (the latter including some very pleasing acoustic slide). The pieces are not structured according to conventional rules of acoustic rock, engaging in neither improvisational flights of fancy, nor the aping of the redundant strophic patterns of vocal songs; instead LaFosse seems to be driven largely by an imperative to explore textures in an engaging and sequential way, his compositions progressing according to a logic of sonic transformation. This is a more overtly avant-garde record than The Hard Bargain, but it’s not really any less accessible; it certainly has more obvious humour about it, but it is no less serious, no less creative, and no less superb.
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‘Twisted creations of Satan’s dream’ apparently, this lot. It’s nice to hear a metal band espousing traditional values; although I’ve not been unhappy with recent, more sophisticated trends in the iconography of loud guitar music, it’s nice to know there are still active musicians in love with the rolling thunder of NWOBHM, thrash, and old school punk. What Osmium Guillotine do essentially, is to browse a menu of those influences, and assemble their selections into humorous yet mental slabs of song; they exemplify important virtues such as speed, volume, intensity and heaviness. It is all very old school, but like most such revivalist musics, Subhuman distills more consistent weight and lunacy into the music than was ever actually common in the 1980s. The undead, warfare, real ale and genocide are all important lyrical themes, and all ably served by their musical settings. The playing is perfect pitched to the material, neither too thuggish nor too shreddy to convince, and the included live versions of all five songs (this is really an extended EP) show that they know how to nail it in the heat of battle. Osmium Guillotine play some very enjoyable, very heavy and very entertaining music; they play it very well.
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The great thing about being a completely independent musician, is that there’s no envoy of capital leaning over your shoulder insisting that you make it shit. Even if your music is pretty much stylistically unique, marketers will want to make you into a genre of one; they will want you to make music that consistently sounds like you making music, according to a formula they can write on a press release. The idea of recording every track according to the creative exigencies of your own mood or whimsy would be anathema, which is one of the reasons why I like it so much when people do just that, as Ian Thistlethwaite does here. Heavy, dubsteppy synth bass on ‘If You Don’t Stop & Smell The Flowers’, drum machine glam-rock on ‘Livin’ It Up On A Ghost Estate’, traditional folk sounds on ‘All Rings True’, mid-80s indie-pop on ‘My Kids Think I’m Frank Turner’ (I could go on, at some length); on Don’t Parking, Please, Thistlethwaite does exactly what he feels like, and the result seems to be that his songs mean what he wants them to mean, more or less. There’s no discernible agenda, a total lack of self-importance, a lot of humour, a lot of warm-hearted sincerity, a shedload of eclectic creativity, a pronounced sense of fun, and some great music which can be as moving as it can be amusing.
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There’s an epic quality to Lacrimal Lake, but it’s not the pompous sort of epic, or the deliberately daft sort, both popular in rock, and largely concerned with the imagined activities of variously historical, demonic, political or sinister powers; The Black Tears are more concerned with the enormity of the ordinary. In these songs, the firepower of melodic hard rock is directed at the extraordinary experiences of normal people, used to represent the subjective importance of our emotional lives. In this, they continue in the tradition of a historical moment that the band avow as a stylistic touchstone, early 90s Seattle. The arrangements sport fine riffs a-plenty, but they also know how to exploit a minor modal chord sequence, and although the punk elements of grunge are not prominent, the album precisely nails that raw, impassioned simplification of early doom metal (Sabbath et al) that so informed the Seattle sound. Although they deploy the full power of their hard rock arsenal, The Black Tears’ songs are not all about the guitars, which rarely show any signs of grandstanding: this material is all about melody, carefully modulated sequences of notes, delivered by the velvet fist of Lischana Lane’s muscular voice. Great songs, well arranged, performed with commitment and fire.
Ripple Music $17.99 coloured vinyl LP $15.99 LP $11.99 CD
Bare bones rock ‘n’ roll is what these chaps are all about; and smoking weed. While various sub-genres of rock have arisen to cater to the loud guitar needs of the modern pot-head, Mighty High seem determined to demonstrate the superfluity of all such innovations. This is stoner rock of the senior academy, pleased and proud to disregard all movements in the heavy from thrash-metal onwards, although there’s a rabid street-punk feel to some of the songs, such as the sub two minute ‘I Don’t Wanna Listen To Yes’. That the band are pretty much uninterested in the cock-brandishing tendencies of their chosen discipline is clear from the superior psychedelic cartoon that graces the front of the release; this is music is all about psychotropically fueled good-times, thankfully divorced from the redneck traditions of the style (although I’m sure these boys aren’t averse to some leather, motorcycles, Jack Daniels or a nice pair of tits). So there it is: raw and earthy heavy rock, principally concerned with drugs. Depraved, insane, immoral, disgraceful, corrupting, irreligious, very well played, and enormous fun.
Ripple Music $11.99 CD
The Devil Rhythm is the second of four Ripple Music releases under the microscope today, and like Legalize Tre Bags it is an essay in the traditional practices of hard rock (unsurprisingly, as that’s the sort of music the label specialises in). There is comparatively little counter-cultural depravity in this release, however; lyrically it seems to be mainly concerned with the well-worn tropes of the genre, such as luurve, vehicles, naughtiness and so on. The music is crafted to perfection, interspersing bluesy riffery with the occasional outbreak of major harmony and hooky melody; the production is a work of professional mastery, juicing up the guitars with exactly the stylistically appropriate degree of crunch, and compressing the whole mix into a weapon, with plenty of dynamic range left over for the music to breathe in. Something rings a little bit hollow about it all for me, though: every guitar lick is phrased with total stylistic pertinence, every tune arranged for maximum dynamic drama, and for all its noise and fury, everything’s in extremely good taste. I prefer my hard rock to sound a bit more raw, as though it could collapse at any moment under the sheer weight of the musicians’ intake. This just isn’t dangerous. It’s highly accomplished, and lots of fun, but a bit too ‘classic’; I won’t be listening to it repeatedly.
Ripple Music $11.99 CD
More hard rock, and this time with more of an edge (sonically, at any rate), although nothing like as mental as Mighty High. This is a re-release of (I think) Stone Axe’s second album, with an additional CD of material previously only available on vinyl; I didn’t know Stone Axe before I got this stuff to review, but they must presumably have sold a few copies first time around for it to be worth Ripple’s bother, and deservedly so. No less preservationist than Trucker Diablo, this band nevertheless sound a lot fresher, taking the old hard-rock manoeuvres and investing them with enough of a sense of discovery for the listener to get excited. The band claim Free as a major influence, and it shows, their songs sounding more funky and soulful than heavy, and the arrangements making superb use of space and dynamics. ‘We Know It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll’ boasts a kooky spoken word vocal, and concerns the search for ‘fresh young souls’, traditional rock values in action, but as close to innovation as you can expect from a band like this. It goes some way toward making up for ‘Those Were The Golden Years’, the most revoltingly conservative rock song I’ve heard since Bob Seeger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’. On the whole though, Stone Axe II is a compelling argument for keeping the 70s alive; well written songs, that exploit clichés rather than aping them, and a fantastic feel throughout.
Ripple Music $14.99 LP $11.99 CD
My first impressions of Stone Axe are confirmed by this live album. They play what is by now a repertory style, as though they were forging ahead at the bleeding edge of pop music novelty, which is where these sounds were originally located after all. For a live recording, the sound quality on Captured Live! is jaw dropping, and it’s superbly mixed to boot; they put in a performance full of energy and relish, and for the most part with the precision and control of a studio session. This is a serious band, that boogies as hard as any of the legendary names in their chosen field. Fortunately there are no moments of explicitly ‘good old days’ nostalgia on this disc; there’s an enormous amount of brilliant music being made these days, in rock as well as other genres, finding creative ways to push forward stylistically, and although I definitely think it’s essential, and commendable, to keep stuff like this cooking, the idea that music’s not what it used to be can only be answered with a hearty sigh of relief. For anyone to hark back to a ‘golden age’ at the moment is a wee bit nutty, because as far as I can tell, we’re having one right now. Anyway, I digress: this is a really enjoyable record, and makes it clear that Stone Axe are absolutely shit-kicking live. I’ll definitely go and see them if they play in my neck of the woods