Saturday, December 17, 2011

Subrosa – No Help for the Mighty Ones

March 1, 2011 • Profound Lore Records

I had never heard of Subrosa until I picked up their newest album on a recommendation, but I can say with confidence that No Help for the Mighty Ones is one of the finest albums of this year and definitely among my favorite doom metal albums of all time. It's masterfully crafted, full of amazing sounds, and the songwriting is absolutely fantastic. I don't listen to doom metal as much as I used to; a lot of the stuff I've heard lately has been really generic-sounding and as such has mostly turned me off from the genre, even though it's something I should be really into. But this album is an exception to all those boring albums I've heard. While at its core, the songwriting stays true to a very doomy style with crushing guitar riffs, really solid drumming, and a very dark and brooding atmosphere, Subrosa throws a lot of elements into their songs that help them stand out.

Most noticable is their near-exclusive use of clean vocals; normally I would say that would hurt a doom band's sound, but they employ a female vocalist whose voice fits the music surprisingly well—it isn't over-dramatic or mixed too high, so it blends in perfectly. Sometimes she also does some low growling sort of vocals; these are rare but they sound great. I haven't heard many female-fronted bands use harsh vocals and that's something I think the world needs more of. And for anyone who really likes the vocals, "House Carpenter" is a very folky-sounding a cappella piece. It sounds nice but I'm not a huge fan (it's not really my style of music). I will admit it fits pretty nicely in the album, though.

Another subtle but ever-present element is the use of violin; from what I understand the band actually has two full-time violinists who round out the sound really well. They switch between hanging in the background playing guitar-like riffs or coming out for some "soloing"; either way their presence is totally justified in the band's sound and it works really well. The band uses some other odd instrumentation here and there, such as the zither (I think?) in "Stonecarver", the harmonica in "Attack on Golden Mountain", or the music box at the end of "The Inheritance", which is weird but I really like how it finishes off the song. Such odd instruments are always the sort of thing you wouldn't expect to work in an album like this, but they're all pulled off really well, a testament to the talent of the band.

I am probably a bit biased in liking this album so much though—their sound does have a bit of sludge metal influence, with a lot of the riffage, tempo, and atmosphere reminding me of Cult of Luna, my all-time favorite metal band. I'm not saying they're ripping anyone off—far from it—it's just that their songs have a atmospheric and musical quality that I am already a huge fan of. The violin parts, especially, take me back to the band's self-titled album which had a lot of cello parts in it. I think cello works better in general, but it's not a slight against Subrosa. Similarly, Subrosa is able to write music that alternates well between beautiful and melodic to dirty and dissonant while meshing these moods together perfectly. "Whippoorwill" is probably my favorite track and falls mostly on the "beautiful" end of that spectrum (it's practically sing-along-able at times), but even coming right after "Attack on Golden Mountain" which is a very dark and brooding song it fits perfectly; the flow is pretty much always spot-on like that.

In fact I can hardly think of a single thing about this album I don't like. As I mentioned earlier, the songwriting is fantastic all the way through; even though most of the songs are sort of long they never get boring or over-repetitive, something a lot of doom albums have problems with. No Help for the Mighty Ones is a very recommendable album, one of the best I've heard in a while, and I'm excited to see where this band goes in the future.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Merzbow – Merzbient

November 1, 2010 • Soleilmoon Recordings

Masami Akita is nothing if not prolific. In addition to releasing dozens of albums every year, he has put out a few impressively-sized box sets, Merzbient being thus far the second-largest released (the thirty-disc Merzbox is a challenge I have yet to attempt). This particular collection is older works from Merzbow's analog days with a supposed "ambient" twist. I say "supposed" because the extent that any of this album is actually ambient is bascially just adding a lot of reverb to everything. But it's actually got a pretty diverse run of sounds going for it (one would hope, being twelve discs long), although I hesitate to judge whether the whole experience is actually worth it.

I spent two entire days at work listening exclusively to this album: the first six discs yesterday, and the second six today. It was a very difficult thing to do, and it was one of the most difficult albums I've listened to in general (bested so far, that I can think of, only by another twelve-disc musique concrète compilation). Now I don't think the intention is to listen to the whole thing all at once, and I certainly don't expect anyone to do so but, despite a lot of archival-compilation sort of albums I've heard coming off like a general mish-mash of random tracks, this thing actually holds together really nicely as one giant work. It's difficult to explain how since it's not your typical album and it's structured differently from how I'm used to, but for the most part all the discs go together pretty well.

Anyway, on to the content itself. Like I mentioned before, what we get here is Merzbow's take on ambient music, but it really isn't ambient at all. The majority of the tracks consist of light noise and junk metal sampling (a staple of early Merzbow) all drenched in a heavy reverb with the occasional background droning. Here and there Merzbow shakes it up with some more typical harsh noise (discs 8 and 9) and some improvisational messing-about (disc 5). That's basically it in a nutshell. Analogous to Merzbow's output in general, the quality of the album varies throughout. For me, the highlights are discs 1–3 (typical noise but with a lot of really interesting sampling that gives it a nice surreal atmosphere) and discs 7–9 (taking a turn for the harsh; slipping into more normal Merzbow territory, which is pretty refreshing after six discs of lighter stuff).

However, despite spanning twelve discs, there isn't quite as much variety overall as there ought to be. This means the album probably lends itself better to sampling snippets here and there rather than taking it in all at once or in disc-size chunks; for each track, the same particular section can go on for at least fifteen minutes, which isn't exactly exciting to listen to but would be good for random access. Also, the discs I didn't mention above (4–6, 10–12) I found to be pretty boring and not really worth listening to, which is part of what made the album so difficult. They are all pretty similar with uninteresting noise and samples with lots of reverb and little else to keep things fresh. These parts seem very amateurish to me; granted, they were recorded during Merzbow's early period but I know that he was cranking out better material at the time. Hearing these pieces is pretty unsatisfying; they definitely overstay their welcome and often repeat sounds heard on other discs (4, 6, and 7 are all very similar).

If this collection was cut down to just the six discs I liked the best, I could see this as being a pretty strong album (not as strong as I would have hoped, and it still wouldn't come close to my Merzfavorites), and anyone reading this review first has the opportunity to check out my recommended abridged version first (again, discs 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, and 9) if desired. I'm not going to recommend it to anyone but the more hardcore Merzbow fans, but for those looking for something a little different from what they're used to from Merzbow this isn't a bad place to look. In general, though, Masami Akita really hits his stride with his harsher creations and should leave the ambient material to others.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Swankys – Never Can Eat Swank Dinner

September 1987 • King's World Records

Oh, Japan. Sometimes your imitations of Western music are admirable and pleasing; other times they are silly and confusing. The Swankys seem to fall in the latter group. They played first-wave-style punk rock (about ten years too late) and, while their version isn't too bad compared to a lot of other early punk I've heard, the album still isn't terribly great.

Probably the first thing anyone would notice about this album is the vocals. Now, early punk in general has had its share of annoying vocalists, but this guy takes the cake as far as I'm concerned. It might be partly due to the fact that I don't understand Japanese (understanding the vocals is a bit more important for me when it comes to punk), but even aside from that his style just sounds bad. I can imagine him singing the whole album with his tongue sticking out. It literally sounds like that.

The instruments, though, are all great from a technical point of view; both the guitar and drum lines are more interesting than other comparable albums, so the individual riffs are good to listen to.

So what is it about this album I don't really care for? Well, I guess it comes down to the compositions themselves. This band could probably have been really great with some more solid songwriting. Even though the riffage is nice, the songs on the whole can get a bit repetitive; it doesn't help that they already sound really derivative of late '70s punk, especially the more brain-dead silly stuff that I never cared for. After about five songs or so I'm ready to pack it in; there isn't really anything to miss out on during the second half. Yeah, it's already a decently short album at a half-hour, but it doesn't do much to deserve all that running time.

I'm not a fan of '70s punk so I'll pass on this one, although fans of that style probably won't be disappointed. Instead, I might consider looking into their previous album under the name Gai, which was some very lo-fi crusty hardcore stuff (and you can already tell it's much better).


Friday, December 2, 2011

Ondo – Mahavishnu

February 2008 • Paradigms Recordings

Ondo is yet another one of those super-underground-ultra-obscure bedroom ambient artists, with the following anomaly: his (of course, it's just one guy) album Mahavishnu is actually pretty decent. The average ritual ambient and drone mix is littered with interesting and somewhat experimental bits thrown in to keep it a unique album.

For this sort of self-produced album, I have to say I'm really impressed with the sound itself. The droning is aggressive and deep, sometimes tonal but still very un-melodic; they sound just about what my ideal version of drone should be. It sounds like several different sound sources were used for the different tracks (some synth, some guitar, perhaps) so no two drones sound the same. The ambience is well-done—dark, creepy, and full of different sounds and textures; sampling, noise, the whole lot. Unfortunately there isn't much else to say about it (I mean, there never really is much to say about dark ambient), except it's good. I like it.

My one major complaint about Mahavishnu is that the album doesn't flow particularly well (actually, it doesn't flow at all), making it seem a bit like a compilation of various tracks. Often the tracks just stop abruptly rather than fading into the next one, making listening to the album a somewhat jarring experience. Also there are some bits that don't really fit in with the rest of the album (like "Second", which is just random guitar noise) whose existence makes little sense.

Still, this album is mostly good and shows a lot of promise. It's not focused enough to take very seriously, but when it's good it's up there with some of my favorite drone and dark ambient stuff. Overall it's probably not recommendable because it feels so rough but I'm hopeful for Ondo's newer releases.