Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Insect Warfare – Noise Grind Power Death

April 21, 2009 • Survivalist Records

Ah, the EP. Arguably the best format for punk music, and especially so for its more abrasive subgenres like noisecore. An on the aptly-titled Noise Grid Power Death, the format shines: fifty-three songs compiled into one blistering eight-minute track. The long-string-of-microsongs structure isn't anything new—the Gerogerigegege have been doing it for years—and while it seems neat to have a legendary band like Insect Warfare try their hand at it, I came away from this EP feeling a bit dissatisfied.

I imagine it's tough to come up with so many tiny vsongs all at once, since here each song is practically identical to all the others. It's impossible to say anything about the songwriting, then, so the listener instead has to focus on the textural aspects of the record instead. But I won't say the EP's sound is inappropriate: There is no guitar, just incomprehensible noise which is either gratingly high feedback or toneless static; the vocals aren't too different. Generally I prefer my grindcore with a cleaner, riff-filled guitar style like Discordance Axis, but sometimes the noisy stuff can be good too. Here it's a bit too formless, though, and it's tough to pay attention to.

So eventually I realized that the whole thing is basically a drumming exposé. The drumming is quite good, though, I'll give them that; though it's mostly mindless blasting it's definitely skillful and there are a lot of nice fills.

But after listening to this EP a handful of times I still don't really understand the point of it. As I mentioned, the songs aren't memorable in the slightest, and they are even sometimes downright silly—half of them have a ridiculous tempo countoff from the drummer at the beginning, the purpose of which is lost on me as it usually doesn't even feel like the countoff is the same tempo as the rest of the song and nobody else follows the drums anyway.

I know this kind of music is definitely not always for everyone—heck, even the band themselves admitted it won't appeal to all their fans—so I guess that for what it is, it's not bad. But for me, personally, noisecore is still something I'm not too terribly fond of and this EP hasn't really done much to make me any more fond of it.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Kohma – A Final Storm

April 14, 2010 • Selective Notes

As I've mentioned, I like listening to and talking about Cult of Luna quite a bit, so naturally I'm a fan of Khoma, a sort of sister band made up of two of Cult of Luna's guitarists and an unrelated vocalist (I'm not sure who plays bass and drums, to be honest). I was instantly enamored by their second album The Second Wave and its fusion of Cult of Luna's heavy, doomy sludge and a sort of alt-rock sound, two things that seem like they wouldn't naturally go together but somehow Khoma manages to pull off. Their third album A Final Storm is more on the same theme, which is both a good and a bad thing.

In fact, one could argue that this is the exact same album as The Second Wave. Sure, the riffs are technically different, but it's still all the same structure: melodramatic, wall-of-sound choruses sandwiched by plodding and calm verses driven by the occasional violin or piano, with a bit more squeaky-clean production than your average Cult of Luna album. While I still like The Second Wave a lot, by this point the novelty has worn off a bit and The Final Storm is a little tiring. Simply put, there's nothing new here—any song here could easily have gone on the last album, except that few of them are very memorable because they are all so similar.

I don't want to make it seem like I dislike this album, though; the individual songs are mostly quite good—"Osiris" is a standout track, with a great sound: the fast riffs and clever chord changes remind me of the best parts of The Second Wave. "Mist" is another of my favorites, with its somber background vocals and ambient strings. The rhythms can get nicely groovy, too, which works well with their sound. If I had one complaint about the sound itself, it's the vocals—they're not terrible, but they're a little obnoxious and there is far too much singing overall. It's a minor complaint, though.

But even if this album succeeds at the song-by-song level, on the whole I'm not that excited. It's just more of the same thing from Khoma, a sound that I'd rather get from their last album (or, heck, Cult of Luna—why beat around the bush?). It's a good album to throw on every once in a long while, but it simply does not have the staying power it should, and Khoma needs to start branching out a bit more if they are to release anything after this.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Seven Nautical Miles – Every Ocean Reversed

September 22, 2008 • Sound Devastation Records

I listen to more sludge metal than is probably healthy, especially the Isis school of atmospheric, post-rockish stuff. However, I can be a bit too picky about which albums I enjoy, and it's all too easy to shuttle more obscure albums like Every Ocean Reversed into the long list of releases I heard once or twice and then ignored. But Seven Nautical Miles was actually quite a pleasant surprise, even if it still doesn't touch my favorites in the genre.

Sonically, this album is very similar to Cult of Luna (basically my favorite band of all time), mixing soft clean sections with pounding, heavy, doomy riffs and tortured vocals to create grandiose compositions. It's a tried-and-true formula, and though most bands have a hard time pulling it off Seven Nautical Miles doesn't. It's probably because a lot of their heavier bits are actually very simple, and when it comes to making this type of music sound heavy, simple is usually better. Simplicity, combined with repetition: it's part of what made Cult of Luna and mid-era Isis so captivating, and it's what works here.

Of couse I'd be lying if I didn't say that this album is sadly a bit formulaic. The quiet-buildup-loud-quiet-buildup-loud structure dominates most of the songs, a structure which any post-rock fan is decidedly sick of by now. The band doesn't go to any lengths to add any unique elements to their sound, relying entirely on the songwriting to carry their very standard instrumentation. Simplicity can be a good thing but it doesn't always get you as far as you need to go. I'm always happy to revisit Callisto's True Nature Unfolds for the saxophone, or Cult of Luna's self-titled album for the cello, but haven't found much reason to come back to Every Ocean Reversed very often. The songs are all very similar and it's hard to pick out particular segments I like, though as a whole the sound is pretty strong.

So regardless of its shortcomings, I still think it's a good album, even if I only think so for biased personal reasons—I'd love to hear another thousand Cult of Luna albums, so a soundalike or two are sometimes enough to satisfy me—but I don't know if I'd recommend it to someone who wasn't as much into sludge metal as I am. It's already kind of a niche genre, so most people aren't going to get a lot out of Every Ocean Reversed, but I'm enjoying it regardless.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Record store haul: February 26, 2012

Today I took a lovely trip down to Used Kids Records of Columbus, Ohio, my favorite record store so far, to see what kind of goodies were in store for me today.

Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (LP, $8)

I'll always consider Swans to be a favorite of mine, even if their latest album (this one) didn't really do too much for me. It's good, to be sure, maybe not Children of God or White Light from the Mouth of Infinity good, but it's still the same Swans I've come to enjoy. Foreboding and claustrophobic, although not as interestingly experimental as Soundtracks for the Blind was. (But a nice bonus: no Jarboe!)

Wolf Eyes – Human Animal (LP, $8)

This one was a pleasant surprise. Used Kids usually has some neat avant-garde-ish stuff, but I didn't expect to find one of my favorite Wolf Eyes albums there. Sadly, the vinyl version doesn't have the No Fucker cover "Noise Not Music" that the CD has, but that's okay. It's also in really nice condition, which is always a plus (a lot of used LPs I've seen at Used Kids can be particularly grimy), especially for a six-year-old album.

Black Dice – Peace in the Valley / Ball (7", $3)

This one was a bit of an impulse; aside from Beaches & Canyons Black Dice hasn't done much to impress me, but it's on a blue splatter vinyl so how can I resist? Being one of their earlier releases, even before Beaches & Canyons, though, it's pretty decent. Throbbing, noisy rock sort of stuff. Also, it was apparently supposed to come with a forty-page booklet of artwork, but mine didn't have it—just an empty pocket where it's supposed to go. And the sleeve smells vaguely of cigarettes. What a gyp.

This Moment in Black History – About Last Night / 7th Heaven (7", $2.5)

TMiBH is my cousin's band, and it was pretty neat to see this single buried in the giant punk 7" boxes. It's pretty typical of their style, somewhat noisy garage punk, although it's debatable whether "About Last Night" is good enough to warrant its own single. And I'm not sure if the audio quality on "7th Heaven" is terrible or if it's a result of my turntable not really liking 7"s with the larger jukebox-style holes. They're so hard to center.

Infidel? / Castro! – Bioentropic Damage Fractal (2×CD, $3)

It's not often one finds good double albums, and even less often that they're a mere $3. This one is another spastic sound collage / mad avant-garde electronic / cybergrind sort of thing (like a heavier and noisier Revolutionary Pekinese Opera Ver.1.28). It's an incredibly difficult album but well worth it if you are one to stomach lots of brain-wrenching noise and beautiful ambient drones.

Godflesh – Songs of Love and Hate boxset (2×CD+DVD, $14)

I was never really that much into Godflesh until I discovered Songs of Love and Hate via Spotify, and was instantly captivated by its catchy, nigh-hip hoppish brand of industrial metal. So naturally I was quick to snatch up this boxset, which contains both that album and its companion remix album Love and Hate in Dub PLUS a DVD of music videos In All Languages. This was probably my favorite find, and I'm really looking forward to checking out the remixes and videos.

Olivier Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps (cassette, $1)

Hot on the heels of my recent review of this piece, I found this tape conveniently lurking about. I haven't listened to it yet, but I'm sure it's just as pleasant as the version I've already heard.

Big Audio Dynamite II – The Globe (cassette, $1)

I only got this for my girlfriend, I don't really care for Big Audio Dynamite (or The Clash either, really). But I do really enjoy how this era of music was really big on tapes and there are always lots of good '90s releases at Used Kids to dig through.

I didn't realize, unfortunately, that Record Store Day is in a mere two months. I'll have to squeeze some budget out for that.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Alcest – Les voyages de l'âme

January 6, 2012 • Prophecy Productions

Few people were looking forward to hearing new material from Alcest this year as much as me, especially after seeing them live last year. Even though Écailles de lune fell a little bit under my expectations (how can one follow up their godly debut album, anyway?) I was excited for this one. While it's a bit more of the same thing heard on the last album, it certainly isn't bad, even though it still can't stand up to the first one.

The sound on this album is pretty much identical to that of Écailles de lune—melancholy riffing with electric guitars, very basic drumming, and 99% clean vocals (Neige's awesome screaming pops up in just a couple places, and I do miss it). While it's still enjoyable, it is admittedly getting a bit generic and I feel like I can't tell the difference at all between the two albums. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is obviously up to the individual listener; I tend to see making the same album twice in a row as generally (not always) a bad thing, even if it's a really good album. Here I find myself getting bored (maybe jaded?) a bit more often than I think I ought to be (see "Beings of Light", five minutes of repetitive and generic black metal riffing).

But again, it's definitely not a bad album by any means, and Alcest probably isn't going downhill just yet. There are still some truly great moments on the album, and even if some songs seem to drag on there are points where the riffs and atmospheres are really great, such as the end of the title track, about 2:20 into "Faiseurs de mondes", or most of "Summer's Glory".

Like I said it's still nowhere as good as Souvenirs d'un autre monde and I didn't expect it to be—Alcest has gotten a bit too comfortable, perhaps, and we'll probably never hear anything diverse and interesting from them like "Tir Nan Og" anytime soon. But there's still life in the band and Les voyages de l'âme is still good, even if it's not exactly what I want from Alcest at this point.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Olivier Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie / Quatuor pour la fin du temps / Thème et Variations

July 22, 2008 • EMI Classics

I'm always hesitant to listen to anything labeled "modern classical". It's such a diverse label you could get anything—a work like Gustav Holst's The Planets (one of my all-time favorite works) is so far from something like Karlheinz Stockhausen: epic, romantic majesty vs. cold, impenetrable dissonance. Olivier Messiaen is a composer who I'm not very familiar with but, even aside from him sounding like a very interesting individual, his work holds up as some modern classical that I can definitely appreciate and enjoy. This particular compilation presents older recordings of three different works: Turangalîla-Symphonie, Quatuor pour la fin du temps (the famous "Quartet for the End of Time", the piece that attracted me to this album in the first place) and Thème et Variations for violin and piano.

Turangalîla-Symphonie somehow manages to straddle the position between the aforementioned Planets and Stockhausen album I reviewed; it's composed on a grand scale for a large group, with some very dramatic and distinctive melodies and motifs, although it often jumps into more chaotic and dissonant segments, giving it a very disorienting and anxious feel. Normally I'd probably hate this kind of thing, but here I think it actually works pretty well; Messiaen keeps things way more interesting than I thought at first and it's impossible to get bored listening to this piece (although its length—ten movements! the nerve!—can be a bit daunting, and that means it does drag a bit near the end). There are a lot of nods to romantic period music (one of my favorite styles), but it never gets too sappy or droll thanks to the overall variety the piece has.

It's a bit of a tough piece to get into, though, and on my first listen I found it pretty alienating. Fortunately it's grown quite a bit on me, and I think it's helped me understand the more experimental side of modern classical a bit more, since it helps to balance out its serialist-type segments with more melodic bits. And, of course, I just like it—it's simply a really neat piece overall (although the slide whistle is more than a bit silly).

Quatuor pour la fin du temps presents a different side of Messiaen. It was written during his time as a prisoner during World War II, which helps explain the odd selection of instruments—it was apparently the only selection of professional musicians in the prison at the time. Now knowing a bit of history about the piece has made me listen to it in an entirely different way, as I can tell that the music is entirely appropriate for the situation.

Like Turangalîla-Symphonie, the Quatuor employs a lot of dissonant melodies, but obviously with much more sparse instrumentation. This really lends itself well to the very thematic approach taken with the piece, which mostly evokes the apocalypse (the book of Revelation was inspiration). Therefore the suite isn't just "sad" in the typical sense: it conveys a feeling of utter despair throughout; the music is often very slow and reflective, and when it isn't slow it's to contrast the despair and make it that much more intense. A standout example is the third movement, "Abîme des oiseaux" for solo clarinet, which alternates between low, incredibly slow droning notes and flittering runs (inspired by birdsong, in Messiaen fashion) that conflict brilliantly. I also enjoy the use of unusual tempos: movement III is merely 22 beats per minute, and movement V is "infiniment lent"—"infinitely slow".

Thème et Variations is a bit more generic compared to the first two pieces on this release, and it sounds like a lot of the other serialism pieces I've heard. It's kind of a shame that it was included because it's pretty much impossible to follow up Quatuor pour la fin du temps, let alone outshine it, and the movements are very short and breeze by so fast that it's just not very memorable, making it very difficult to comment on. It would have been nice to hear these on their own release, one that could do them justice, perhaps alongside similar duets. It's certainly not bad, and the last movement is quite beautiful in its own right, but I can't help feeling like the whole piece simply shouldn't have been included.

Still, if you're looking for something to help ease you into either Messiaen's work or the more atonal side of modern classical in general, this is definitely a recording to pick up. Both Turangalîla-Symphonie and Quatuor pour la fin du temps are fantastic works that should not be missed; I'm definitely glad I finally heard them myself.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

KK Null – Peak of Nothingness

December 2000 • Hushush

KK Null is one of those names in underground music that I seem to have heard quite a bit before I actually heard anything by him, despite the fact that he has (reportedly) released over a hundred albums. With that kind of prolificacy, it's difficult to keep quality control (something I've written about before) and albums by such artists are always a crapshoot. Unfortunately, with the album I chose, things didn't turn out so well.

Despite his reputation for particularly loud music (see his band Zeni Geva in particular, they are pretty good), Peak of Nothingness is a very quiet album. It has an incredibly sparse sound, somewhere on the border of noise and musique concrète, with each track consisting of just one or two sounds at a time—soft pulses, whining drones, mechanical swellings, glitches, things of that nature. To me it's a very alienating experience, kind of like listening to those sound effect CDs that are just random, unconnected, meaningless sounds one after the other. Here, it's like that, where every track is stretched out to a couple minutes, but it feels just as meaningless and impersonal.

I'm not going to say it's the fault of this particular album that I feel this way, though; I've always found this sort of music to be really difficult to get into. The very repetitive music and minimal production results in a sound that isn't terribly engaging; but on the other side of things, it's too abrasive and random to be considered decent background music. So I'm a bit lost as to what the point of this kind of music is. I can definitely see some of these tracks having use as, say, source material for a more involved album, but on their own there just really isn't much to them.

Somewhere out there though I'm sure there is someone for whom this album will be appealing—after all, musique concrète as a genre does have a significant fanbase if I'm not mistaken. But I won't count myself among their ranks and I won't count myself as a fan of Peak of Nothingness; it simply doesn't have much of anything that appeals to me. Like my distaste for indeterminacy, I feel kind of bad blaming the album itself for being in a style that's out of my taste range, but what else can I do?