Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Coffinworm – Great Bringer of Night

May 25, 2012 • Flenser Recordings

It usually takes a top-quality band to produce a demo worth making into a full-fledged release. Great Bringer of Night's tracks originally appeared on their demo and have received a remastering treatment from none other than James Plotkin. The band does indeed sound miles better because of it, though it's arguable whether it was worth remastering in the first place.

Coffinworm has a very slow, plodding sludge/doom hybrid sound, although it has a very dirty and angular edge to it accentuated by a bit of black metal and punk influence here and there. The guitar riffs and vocals can sound very tortured at times, and the repetitive and somewhat groovy drums accentuate this. It's an interesting style, although nothing particularly unique (in fact I could probably repeat my Inter Arma review here and it would describe Coffinworm equally well).

Unfortunately there is a bit too much plodding for their own good. Many of the tracks seem to stomp along aimlessly in blind frustration and tension without release. They do pull off a good style contrast with the faster songs, namely "Start Saving for Your Funeral" and "Spitting in Infinity's Asshole", which are consequently the two better songs; still, the songwriting feels very lacking with a lot of repetition and passages that go nowhere.

It's not a horrible experience, of course. The band is proficient and they really aren't that bad, even if it is tough to pay attention to what's going on most of the time. My ultimate recommendation for Coffinworm is to move on. You probably have a good thing going but you are dwelling on these same tracks too much—after all, this is the third time you've put them out (demo, first album, demo re-release). Write something new, something different, and leave your demo tracks behind you. It's okay to let go.


Monday, July 30, 2012

Liars, Unknown Mortal Orchestra

July 28, 2012 • A&R Music Bar, Columbus, Ohio

I know, right? Going to a Liars show after I trashed WIXIW? (I didn't trash WIXIW, I gave it a 6, what are you talking about?) Anyway, I know a good time when I hear of it, and it's been a while since my last concert—too long. So to the A&R Music Bar I went, one of the stuffiest venues I've ever been to on one of the stuffiest days we've had yet. And, well, it was fun.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Never heard of them before, but they weren't bad. Some kind of psychedelic spacey groove rock thing, like T. Rex and Dinosaur Jr. making sweet reptilian love in orbit around the sun. Their music wasn't the most memorable, as they seem to have a really weird sense of melody resulting in songs that are very un-catchy; however their rhythm was bang-on most of the time, especially on the groovier tracks. I feel like their drummer is a lot better than he makes out to be and was holding back for the sake of their style. Anyway, not really my kind of thing, but not bad either.
5Most Bored-Looking Bassist Award


They say some bands are studio bands, and some are live bands. Liars is definitely a live band, as everything they played just sounded so much better and more interesting in concert. What is a quieter, more ambient track becomes a droning, pulsing wall of sound; a moderate rocker becomes a monstrosity of tribal drumming drenched in feedback and groaning synthesizers. It was also a heck of a lot more danceable, almost regardless of style, and the crowd took advantage of that. Most of Liars' set came from WIXIW, of course, with a handful of songs from Sisterworld and "Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack" from Drum's Not Dead (and maybe "Drum and the Uncomfortable Can" too, I think? regardless I wasn't the only one really excited to hear something from that album). Anyway, it was definitely an awesome show and everyone had a great time even if some of the audience members were kind of douches. It happens. Absolutely worth seeing even if, like me, you didn't care much for their latest album.
8Loudest Show That I've Ever Seen Award

Friday, July 27, 2012

Stephen O'Malley & Steve Noble – St Francis Duo

March 5, 2012 • Bo' Weavil Recordings

Apparently people will praise anything just because a certain person's name is on it... and it doesn't always apply to the most mainstream stuff. Here we have everyone's favorite drone doom star doing some free improvisation for us, and it's just mind-boggling.

For nearly eighty minutes, Steve Noble spazzes out on the drums while Stephen O'Malley creates incessant feedback on his guitar. And during those eighty minutes, absolutely nothing happens. It's just sound for the sake of sound. There's no mood, no tension, nothing pleasant. At least the two musicians are coordinated with each other insofar as crescendo and decresecendo are concerned... but it ends there.

O'Malley's guitarwork is pretty far removed from his Sunn O))) sound—here it's often quite dreamy, with lots of reverb and dissonant strumming up in the higher register, kind of like a more laid-back and slowed-down Acid Mothers Temple with the occasional low-end grinding. Meanwhile, Noble is all over the place, furiosly banging on toms and cymbals like he was filling out the ending to the longest free jazz piece that ever existed. And it clashes horribly. O'Malley is standing still while Noble wants to take off in every single direction at once. It simply doesn't work. At least Noble gets interesting—he seems to have a very diverse drumkit at his disposal, which is pretty cool—but he isn't nearly enough to save it on his own.

I'm not gonna ask you again, Stephen O'Malley... stick to Sunn O))), for everyone's sake.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Black Dice – Mr. Impossible

April 9, 2012 • Ribbon Music

I owe a lot to Black Dice. Their debut Beaches and Canyons was the album solely responsible for getting me into more unusual music, especially noise—you could say it fundamentally changed the way I listened to music after I heard it. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when I consider how they've gotten steadily worse ever since, and I haven't really enjoyed anything else they've put out, aside from the just-okay Creature Comforts. Mr. Impossible, being their sixth album, unfortunately fits their downward trend all too well.

I think the biggest problem with this album is simply that they are trying to do too many things at once and are mediocre at all of them, instead of focusing on one thing and perfecting it. Clearly, they are aiming for some sort of heavily rhythmic loop-based sound—I guess they've always done the looping samples thing, but here it's more obnoxious than anything. None of the samples seem to fit together and there is always way too much going on at once; it's almost always barraging the listener with something new, as if to scream "Listen to me!!" nonstop. And the samples themselves are a mixed bag; some sound okay, but a lot are grating, especially when looped as they are—the processed vocal samples are the worst offenders (just listen to "Brunswick Sludge", man that is bad).

There are instances where Black Dice hit on something that works, and there are a few solid tracks—"Pinball Wizard", "Spy vs. Spy", "Carnitas"—and the occasional throwback to their better days, like the awesome vocals in "The Jacker" (sadly the only good part of that piece). Some of the rhythms and drum lines are pretty solid too, occasionally reminding me of a more electronic version of Raccoo-oo-oon.

But that's about it. Most of the tracks are just annoying. As much as I try to ignore my bias of what Black Dice "should" sound like, I can't enjoy this album. I can't even say it's a grower—after four listens it still sounds like it did on the first: bad.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Om – Advaitic Songs

July 24, 2012 • Drag City

You're going to hear some bias in this review. I never liked Om. I have always found their style of music to be incredibly boring—glacial tempos, mind-numbing one-note guitar lines, overly-simplistic drums, drawling and monotonous vocals. I don't even know why I bothered to check out Advaitic Songs in the first place. I guess there's no way I could have known that my opinion of them would completely turn around with this album.

Aside from "State of Non-Return", the annoying stoner rock style is basically gone, in favor of a similarly plodding but much more interesting "drone-rock" sort of thing. Finally, the slow repetitive rhythms work in Om's favor, and instead of boring rock we are treated to a variety of different textures and instruments (string ensembles, synthesizers, tabla, and plenty of other traditional Arab instruments whose names I don't know, just to mention a few). Apparently they've been playing with Arabic styles since 2009's God is Good, which I passed on, and that continues here. And they are apparently great at fusing this style with their own into something that isn't quite rock, but isn't Arabic music either. Maybe it's not unique, but it's definitely unusual, and it sounds awesome.

Another one of the best things about this album is the drumming. It's still very repetitive but somehow it's way better here than I remember on their first two albums. It's very punchy, for lack of a better term, and carries the other instruments and holds everything together really well. Take about three and a half minutes into "Gethsemane"—the drums and bass form a really great infectious groove. It's almost like some kind of minimalist krautrock. (As others have pointed out, the drummer is new, which explains the change. He also played in the great band Grails, which I thought was cool.)

The vocals are still a bit dull but I guess they finally fit the music much better; you could equate them to some sort of monophonic chanting (I guess they don't call themselves Om for nothing). But aside from that, I can't think of much to complain about—they keep it pretty interesting nonstop, and there isn't really a track here I don't like (though "Gethsemane" and "Haqq al-Yaqin" deserve special mention).

So there you go—more proof that some bands do get better with age. I hope they keep up this trajectory.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

False Light – False Light

June 12, 2012 • self-released

Sometimes, there are days when I just want to have my ears mercilessly pounded with sound until I can't feel anything anymore. False Light is pretty good at doing just that: it's one of the heaviest punk releases I've ever heard, and very much in a good way.

The sound is pretty simple, with typical grindcore/powerviolence blastbeats, intense shouted vocals, and heavy muted guitar, occasionally punctuated by slower doomier sections. It's a very effective contrast, of course, and they make it seamless (the really low and dirty guitar tone helps). Sometimes they even set up a really neat rhythmic groove (see "Lung"), as well—they have a surprising amount of diversity considering the length of this EP. (And man—that ride bell in some of the blastbeats. Unexpected, and awesome.)

I've probably made it more than clear in previous reviews that I love this kind of super-intense punk, so it's probably no surprise that I wholeheartedly recommend this band, and I hope they stick around and put some more stuff out soon.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Nile – At the Gate of Sethu

July 3, 2012 • Nuclear Blast

I was never much of one for Nile (I missed the boat on a lot of popular death metal acts back in the day), but I find their brand of ancient-Egypt-tinged metal to be mostly pretty cool (at least, Annihilation of the Wicked is pretty neato). Their new album, though, is a bit different; it's hard to say if it's a competent band deciding to go in a different direction or simply losing their touch.

To be fair, At the Gate of Sethu is very competently-executed metal. Technically, everything is perfect: great drums, nicely chugging and arpeggiating guitars, and the songwriting isn't bad either—it manages to not get as complicated as a lot of death metal albums get (something I dislike) but it doesn't stray into overly-simple and repetitive nu metal either. (That's not as ridiculous as it may sound.) And there are more than a few neat riffs, the main one in "Supreme Humanism of Megalomania" being one of my favorites.

In general, though, the album feels a bit empty. Yes, I have the same problem with it plenty of other people seem to, that a lot of the Middle Eastern flair that gave their old music character is gone. It shows up now and again, especially in the two interludes but not much at all outside of them, reminding you what it could have sounded like. I'm all for bands and musicians progressing with their sound—it's boring if you do the same thing over and over again, of course—but this seems like a step backwards.

Maybe not. There are plenty of people for whom the Egyptian thing was a gimmick and are more than happy to hear Nile playing more traditional death metal, and more power to them. Because, again, for death metal it's pretty darn good. Legendary? Definitely not. Memorable? Pushing it. But listenable? Absolutely. Worth a shot if you are into tech death, and I enjoy it more or less, but I wouldn't go much farther than that.


Friday, July 20, 2012

El-P – Cancer 4 Cure

May 22, 2012 • Fat Possum Records

Five years is a long time for a musician, and I imagine it feels even longer in today's incredibly volatile hip hop scene. I'd all but forgotten about El-P besides occasionally spinning I'll Sleep When You're Dead some years ago, but it sounds like he made those five years count and has been keeping up with the crowd.

Consequently El-P's production style has changed quite a bit since I'll Sleep When You're DeadCancer 4 Cure has really futuristic-sounding beats with unusually-fast tempos and tons of densely-packed samples. It's a lot more chaotic than its predecessor and always sounds like it's running as fast as it can to get to the next section, bludgeoning the listener into submission on its way. It's a very unique experience, although it's more or less in line with the direction hip hop has been taking this decade into more electronic and avant-garde areas. It's not at all surprising to find El-P doing this.

It's hard to discuss the beats as there's just so much to them—pitched vocals, hardcore drum beats with an occasional Southern twist, dissonant techno melodies, and samples from anywhere and everywhere, like El-P just overturned a vat of pop culture onto the album. It works, too, though the usage of the occasional pop or dubstep-ish beat is, while interesting, sometimes out of place.

Cancer 4 Cure manages to be nicely consistent throughout, so odds are if you are loving one track you'll find the rest to be just as enjoyable. Personally I'm finding the majority of the album to be simply decent, though there are a couple definite standout tracks. In addition to three great closing tracks, "Tougher Colder Killer" is probably my favorite, with its '90s throwback samples combined with some really great heavy beats and guest spots.

Speaking of which, the guest spots in general are very well done; El-P seems to have picked some rappers whose voices contrast well with his own, so every performance is memorable. I don't know who any of these other guys are, but they do a pretty fantastic job.

Better than I'll Sleep When You're Dead? Debatable. Better than most hip hop I've heard from the last few years? Absolutely (though that's not to stay it doesn't have its contenders). Even though this isn't really one of my favorite hip hop sounds (I generally prefer a more laid-back approach than this rapid-fire sound) El-P has definitely created something his fans will certainly enjoy. I'm liking it myself, and even if I'm not totally enthralled, he's not going anywhere just yet.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Esbjörn Svensson Trio – 301

March 30, 2012 • ACT

Man, this was a hard album to write about. I've been listening to jazz for quite some time but haven't done many jazz reviews, and I didn't realize how difficult it can be to put this kind of music into words. It doesn't help that 301 is pretty unique as far as jazz goes. Of course, knowing that the group (sadly no longer around) was from Sweden and shared a bassist with Dan Berglund's Tonbruket should have tipped me off—apparently I've been listening to a lot of European jazz without knowing it lately, but there's been a lot of good stuff coming out of there since the turn of the millenium.

If nothing else, this group is definitely very talented when it comes to their writing. Every track on this album has its own feel to it: sometimes it's your standard boppin' trio stuff ("The Left Lane"), sometimes they take that sound and totally turn it on its head ("Inner City, City Lights"), sometimes they produce something that is completely unexpected ("Houston, the 5th"). And they do it without being an irritating free-jazz band either, as most of the tracks are still heavily dependent on improvisation and solos. But it's all done with the group having a common focus and creating a consistent sound.

It's a sound I enjoy, too, both flirting with fusion and being almost cinematic at times. There is a lot of focus on repetition and building up a groove to create a specific mood. I suppose that's something you get a lot with smaller groups such as this one, but for me it's nice to hear less of a focus on extravagant soloing and more of tension and texture. (Of course you have your exceptions, like the frantic guitar-like basswork in "Three Falling Free part II", but of course it serves to add to the feel of the piece and not show off the skill of the bassist.)

I find it a bit strange, actually, that 301 seems to have flown under most people's radars; most posthumous albums get much better treatment, especially when they are actually high-quality like this and not junked outtakes. (If these are junked outtakes, then I guess there is some truly superb music in Svensson's back catalog.) Definitely one to check out.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pete Swanson – Man with Potential

November 21, 2011 • Type

Pete Swanson is half of the legendary (and sadly disbanded) noise/drone duo Yellow Swans, who I've been a fan of for some time. Man with Potential isn't his first album, but it's his first on a more well-known label (I think) and first to get some decent publicity, so it seems. It's a very interesting listen, though probably not one that will appeal to many.

It's not hard to hear traces of the old Yellow Swans sound in this album—washes of droning synths and static are as prevalent as ever. The sound also includes densely-packed jumbles of clipped, glitchy electronic sounds, all of it backed by heavy, stilted bass beats. If it sounds like a bizarre combination, it is—although after a few listens as I've gotten used to it, and there are a lot of neat subtleties to be found somewhere in the chaos. It's interesting, if nothing else.

The album does get a bit repetitive, though, and each track is basically the same formula: start with the high-pitched glitchy noises, slowly evolve into the ambient droning, rinse and repeat. Yes, each track has its own sounds and textures, and it doesn't quite do the exact same thing every track, but still.

Anyway, it's still a decent album. I like how it straddles the gap between electronic music and straight-up noise, a fusion which I don't hear often but happen to like quite a bit. The textures and composition of such are well-done and mostly pleasant to listen to. I'm not enthralled, but it's definitely not bad and is worth a few listens, even if it doesn't live up to my impression of Yellow Swans.

Bonus review! The extra disc, entitled Man with Garbage, might actually be better than the main event. It's much darker, more sinister, and definitely harsher, though it still has the same basic makeup of Man with Potential (glitchy synths and droning noise). The electronic elements (like the house beats) are downplayed in favor of a more intense wall of noise, and (for me anyway) it's a bit more enjoyable.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Liars – WIXIW

June 4, 2012 • Mute Records

I never know how to feel when a band I've been a fan of for a long time goes and changes their sound on me. Sometimes you just want more of the same thing; other times a fresh sound is long overdue. In Liars' case it's a bit of both—I liked their noisy, brash style of rock but at the same time Sisterworld didn't have a lot of staying power. WIXIW, strangely enough, manages to satisfy on both counts, even if it's not the best thing they've done.

This time around Liars is a lot more soft and dreamy, with subtle industrial and electronic undertones. It seems like they've gone with a much simpler approach than on the harsher and heavier Sisterworld. Almost entirely gone are the drums and guitars and any semblance of "normal" rock music; instead we get droning synthesizers, techno beats, strings, and of course the tribal drumming (some things never change, anyway). At most points it would be hard to recognize it as being Liars if one didn't know beforehand, at least if it weren't for the vocals and the occasional throwback melody (e.g. "Who Is the Hunter").

I'm really enjoying the stripped-down sound; it seems to allow Liars to create more effective moods—whiplashing from dreamy ambience to sinister churning in just the first two tracks—and it works pretty well. Although every track has a different instrumental makeup and tone, things seem to flow nicely enough and the album feels sonically cohesive and consistent.

However, it's painfully obvious that Liars aren't yet comfortable in their new skin. Despite feeling that the album holds together well, the individual songs aren't their best. Only about five tracks stood out to me as being particularly good, while the rest were simply not very memorable (though none were terrible). To be fair, that's about how most Liars albums stand with me as their music is usually pretty impenetrable, and on the whole I enjoy WIXIW in stride, even if I can't remember what it sounded like later. On the other hand this is easily the most accessible album of theirs I've heard yet (and I think I've heard all of them at one point or another), so who knows what that means.

So anyway, I suppose I'm enjoying this album, albeit in a mostly-superficial way and I highly doubt I'll ever consider it as good as Drum's Not Dead. Still, it's an interesting experiment and it will be neat to see where they take it in the future.


Gojira – L’enfant sauvage

June 26, 2012 • Roadrunner Records

It's been a while since I listened to Gojira—From Mars to Sirius, in fact—and this new album seems to be on every metal fan's radar this year. I have to say I'm not terrible enthralled by what I'm hearing so far; not bad, certainly, just par for the course.

In two albums not much has changed: Gojira still has their death metal riffing, their wide-open and spacy atmosphere, their prog flourishes, and (of course) plenty of pick scrapes. Anyone who liked what they heard on From Mars to Sirius (as I did) will easily be able to get into the mood of L'enfant sauvage; probably a good thing.

But I feel like their songwriting skills have taken a turn for the worse. There are some cool moments (the verses during the title track have a pretty neat groove going) but some tracks just totally fall flat. "The Axe" is a good example, especially coming right after the decent title track. It's a horribly generic song with very boring riffs and drumming that sound like they didn't have much effort put into them.

And unfortunately I get that feeling about a lot of the album. They've hit on a solid formula, but I can only take this endless chugging for so long when it's so monotonous (and this is coming from someone who still digs Catch Thirtythree). When there isn't a lot to differentiate the songs from each other, it's so difficult to get into the album and enjoy it.

I dunno. Maybe I'm taking it all the wrong way, and it's just supposed to be a metal album and nothing more. If you find entertainment in it, fine; if not, that's fine too. It's okay, but I won't be returning to it, especially when From Mars to Sirius seems to be all I'll need from Gojira.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Purity Ring – Shrines

July 24, 2012 • 4AD Records

Never say nothing good can come out of dumb fads. Remember the whole witch house thing that was really popular with artsy underground artists back in 2008–2009? Okay, so I liked some of it, even if it was kind of silly. But finally something amazing has come out of that scene—Purity Ring's fantastic debut album. It doesn't seem like the kind of thing I'd like at all but I can't stop listening to it.

In fact I think a pop shift was exactly what witch house needed; I always liked the production style but most bands were missing something. I guess that something was a really solid sense of melody and vocals to realize it. Shrines has catchy hook after catchy hook, and the vocals play off the synths and samples really well to bring everything together. Sure, those choruses can get a bit too saccharine for my tastes now and again, but on the other hand it's a nice contrast to the spacey, jittering, echoing production.

Speaking of which, the album has an incredibly consistent sound. With just a couple exceptions, each track is pretty much the same thing, which is great if you happen to like what they are doing. I do, and I think the over-consistency is a strong point on this album (which is rare for me to think), though I can completely understand it boring the pants off other people, especially those for whom the chintzy drum and synth programming is unappealing. But when unique elements come into play they stand out in a great way, such as the male vocals on "Grandloves", which are one of my favorite parts of the album.

And now I'll tear down everything I said with this: Purity Ring shouldn't have released this, and should have stayed a singles band instead. (Or an EPs band at best.) I love their music but Shrines can be hard to digest all at once (for reasons stated above). Most of these songs are strong enough to stand on their own (something they've already demonstrated); the weaker ones don't bring anything extra to the album format and the overall flow isn't terribly good.

Regardless, I am still probably gonna keep this one in rotation for a long time. I'm not sure if it has any more staying power than the mostly-forgettable witch house from whence it came, but time will tell. If nothing else, best ethereal pop album of 2012 for sure, am I right?


Agalloch – Faustian Echoes

July 11, 2012 • Licht von Dämmerung Arthouse

I have barely had time to dissect Marrow of the Spirit yet (yeah, I have a big backlog) and then Agalloch dumps a new EP on me. I love their albums but their EPs are usually not worth it, so I was a bit wary of this one, and rightfully so. It's not bad but it's a bit generic and forgettable. Of course it's interesting to hear them do something not-very-experimental on an EP—in fact the music is very typical of Agalloch, sounding mostly like the atmospheric black metal they did on Marrow of the Spirit combined with the slightly paganistic / folky side of their very early material. It's a sound many fans will be very familiar with.

Unfortunately this also means that there's nothing new to hear on Faustian Echoes. Honestly, for me, the only things keeping this EP interesting are the spoken word segments and the dark folk segments—hey, that sounds like I just described The White, doesn't it? Okay, so I do like the brand of black metal they play here as well, but again I might as well listen to Marrow (or, to be fair, any one of the dozens of US black metal albums that came out in the last ten years). It's something I like but enough is enough, you know? I really love the ending, though, both the metal outro and the spoken word / folky part. Obviously they are still talented songwriters, even if this particular release doesn't do a lot for me.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Eric Fourman – No Refills

May 13, 2012 • self-released

Music is confusing. Do I like free improvisation, or do I simply like anything noisy and drony? Or could it just be another quality release from Eric Fourman, who seemingly can do no wrong when it comes to ambient. As a one-take recording, I'm definitely impressed with the complexity and cohesiveness of this album.

Like his studio work, No Refills opts for the densely-layered route with lots of different synth sounds and effects all overlapping one another. Being recorded all at once, however, naturally lends a different approach to the composition and buildup; each track starts off fairly simple and grows in on itself as more sounds and loops are added. I think this approach works quite well, allowing the listener to ease in to the music—what starts as a simple melody or drone becomes a wall of sound without anyone noticing.

There is also quite a lot of melody in this album, for an ambient work at least; synths arpeggiate wildly throughout "Use Care", often clashing with each other. It's an interesting approach, although I must admit I like the more minimal approach of Lyrica better as it's a bit "safer". The dissonance that occasionally crops up in "Use Care" and "Dangerous Machinery" works sometimes, but not always. "Pregabalin" doesn't have this problem as much, opting for a much slower droning approach, which to me works a bit better.

The sounds and textures themselves, however, are still excellent. Despite a somewhat narrow population of synth voices there are still plenty of interesting ones. The wavering echoy main line and deep rumbling bass of "Pregabalin" is a particularly awesome combination (it reminds me quite a lot of Blade Runner's music, which is always a good thing—though with those cliché spaceship noises near the end, I wouldn't be surprised if that's exactly what he was going for).

I won't say it's my favorite release from Fourman yet, but it is definitely some of the best free improv music I've ever heard (I guess ambient / drone / noise stuff works better for it). Definitely recommended, and another reminder that there's so much more of his work to get into; why haven't I done that yet?


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Daniel Maze – Skuba

April 1, 2006 • Standard Klik Music

Skuba is one of the other few releases I heard eons ago when Standard Klik Music was still around. You may recall my recent review of Balkan Tropics; like that EP, Skuba is a small peek into a place I wasn't familiar with but it intrigued me. Now that I'm more familiar with glitch and ambient music, it doesn't have that same foreign appeal, but I still like it.

It helps that the EP has a really nice atmosphere; the closest thing I can think of to it is Fennesz: droning ambient synths and strings backing crackly, rhythmic noise and deep bass rumbles. But it's very subtle music—it hangs in the background, keeping to itself, and is easy to get distracted from. Not that that makes it bad, of course; at the same time it's incredibly relaxing. Fortunately that doesn't come at the cost of simplicity, as the music can get quite intricate at times with multiple layers of background ambience and foreground sounds, so attentive listening isn't difficult if one wants to take that route.

Again, fans of Fennesz and similar artists will find familiarity here, and it's not too generic to skip over if it sounds appealing. While most glitch is annoying to me, Skuba instead is peaceful and lovely.


Monday, July 9, 2012

Napalm Death – Utilitarian

February 27, 2012 • Century Media Records

Another day, another Napalm Death album. One of the oldest grindcore acts and still going strong after thirty years is nothing to sneeze at, of course, though I haven't been keeping up with them aside from hearing their debut Scum and a couple albums around 2005/2006 (The Code Is Red... Long Live the Code and Smear Campaign). In the six years since, it sounds like they haven't changed one bit; whether that's a good or bad thing is up for debate.

Admittedly, for a bunch of old farts they still have their chops; the technical aspects of the album are quite good. It may often be a bit slower-paced than your average modern grindcore and death metal, but they still play well. The drumming is nice and varied (and when it gets blasty it's very solid), the guitars are what you'd expect (kind of thrashy at times, deathy at others, with the occasional punk riff), and the vocals are the same as ever.

But Utilitarian still suffers from the same problem I had with The Code Is Dead and Smear Campaign, and probably moreso: The songs simply aren't very memorable. Perhaps I'm simply jaded, but I feel like a lot of these songs are just retreading the same stuff I've heard from plenty of other death metal bands lately. Of course there are some exceptions; for instance, I really like "The Wolf I Feed" which has this punk / industrial fusion thing going on. So it's apparent they still have a few tricks to pull out now and again and their sound isn't totally stale.

I didn't really expect to be totally amazed by Utilitarian though, and I more or less got what I thought I would: An entertaining album, if somewhat rehashed and disposable, and I'll probably forget what it sounded like in a few months. I wish they'd stick more to grindcore than death metal, but whatever makes 'em happy.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Front End Loader – How Can We Fail When We're So Sincere?

March 11, 2002 • Redline Records

An Aussie friend of me recommended Front End Loader as one of those kind of bands who are well-liked in their own country but never made it out for one reason or another. It's a shame because, based on this album alone, this band is really damn good at what they do. Normally, this kind of catchy throwback-rock isn't much of my thing, but Front End Loader manages to put together more than a few great songs in a way that still seems pretty fresh (and it came out ten years ago).

Perhaps it comes with the experience of being a band that's been around for a while but never became successful enough to get knocked into a niche like Cog (my other favorite Australian rock band)—the amount of blues and punk influences attest to that. Heck, even their "ballad"-type track "Original" is probably one of the best on the album. Like I said in my last review, it takes talent to put together an album with a lot of different styles that works as a whole: Front End Loader has done it pretty well. Where else can you hear a punk song that has a bridge that sounds like David Bowie wrote and sang it, but it still fits?

It helps that the songs are all incredibly catchy, to the point where I'd call at least four or five of them legitimate earworms. I guess there's something about their sound that appeals to me on some fundamental level—maybe that they sound like a lot of the '90s alt-rock bands I heard when I was a kid that my dad's cover band would play, combined with some of the punkier stuff I like nowadays and the slight exoticness of their Australian sound. But even that aside, they do write some excellent lines that are simply fun to listen to, and really, isn't that all that matters when it comes to this kind of music? I think so, anyway.

There isn't much to say about the technical side of things, except that I really like the prominence of the bass guitar and the gritty distortion it brings out on a few tracks. The guitars also pull off an impressive array of effects and manage not to overdo it—everything fits in well with the mood they're going for.

I won't say this is entering my all-time favorite albums, but Front End Loader is definitely going to get moderate rotation in my library for the foreseeable future. Plain and simple rock, and sometimes that's just all you need.


Philm – Harmonic

May 15, 2012 • Ipecac Recordings

So Philm is the new band from Dave Lombardo, who has been all over the map over the decades with his older bands (most notably Slayer and Fantômas). I was never much of a fan of either, but I decided to try Philm out just for kicks to see if it was interesting. I suppose it sort of is, but it's definitely not for me.

As expected, Philm's music runs through a combination of styles—sometimes incorporating heavy-metal-styled blasting, sometimes punk or stoner rock grooving, sometimes psychedelic blues riffing. As I've mentioned probably too many times, it takes a lot of skill to pull off genre stew and make it work. Lombardo may be talented, but I don't think the band quite has what it takes to get it together all of the time.

So for me, something about the songwriting just feels wrong, like it was an album made to test the waters with a specific band and see how it goes. It seems like the songs tread a lot of stoner and alternative rock clichés, when it isn't descending into rambling and bluesy solos. I get the feeling that Philm made the album solely for their own enjoyment and experimentation without taking into account if an audience would enjoy it.

That's not to say that it's necessarily bad. There are more than a few technically interesting and cool bits, such as the plethora of different guitar tones on display and the impressive drumming, not to mention that it can get pretty catchy from time to time. So from a technical standpoint, it's got its positives. Musicians who play similar music can probably appreciate what's being done here.

I'm not really a fan, though, as the album just feels too detached for me to get into. (And I didn't even get a chance to mention the atrocious vocals!)


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ahab – The Giant

May 25, 2012 • Napalm Records

I remember first hearing The Call of the Wretched Sea and being thoroughly impressed by it: for me, it was something new, a dark voyage through the most heavy and despairing funeral doom metal. It opened me up to a lot of similar bands as well, so I have them to thank for that. But something must have happened between their debut and The Giant (I admit I skipped their second album), because this album doesn't come close to the same level their debut did.

While Ahab still brings the doom, they seem to be trying to jump on the post-metal bandwagon, of all things; there are plenty of delay-laden clean passages, lots of lighter melodies, and lots of clean singing while some of the heavier parts and the death vocals feel very forced. It barely sounds like the same band at all—of course that's not a bad thing if the music is still good, but I don't think Ahab quite has a handle on this kind of sound yet. While the songs aren't bad, the singing comes off as really cheesy and the music seems like it is always trying to get really heavy but never quite makes it.

Taken on its own merits, The Giant is still a pretty decent sludgy doom album. Maybe it's a bit generic, maybe it's a bit corny. But it's not horrid. It has some good crunchy riffs, nice melodies here and there (the middle of "Aeons Elapse" and end of "Deliverance" are two of my favorites), and the general atmosphere is alright; but there still isn't much to say about it because as a whole the album just isn't very interesting. It just reminds me of plenty of bands I'd rather hear instead—Earth, Corrupted, Giant Squid, or of course Call of the Wretched Sea.

Needless to say I probably won't be returning to The Giant. Ultimately, it's just okay; again it's not bad but if four listens wasn't enough to convince me that it's worth keeping around, I doubt any more will.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Old Man Gloom – No

June 26, 2012 • Hydra Head Records

I've always been pretty iffy towards Old Man Gloom's output, despite usually being the kind of thing I'd enjoy—heavy sludge combined with weird atmospherics and noisy drone, not to mention some excellent players in the band. Seminar III: Zozobra has so far been their only album to impress me much (though to be fair, it's been ages since I listened to the band), and I am having a really difficult time getting into No.

The band doesn't seem to have changed much since Christmas eight years ago. We still have, as I mentioned, the jagged sludge riffing that betrays the band's connections to both Isis and Converge, the droning interludes à la House of Low Culture, and Turner's strained and ugly vocals that sound more like those of Zozobra (the band) (coincidence?). The sound as a whole is equally strained and ugly, with tense breakdowns and frequent changeups, though they're not afraid to lock into a groove now and again.

Despite everything, I still can't get into Old Man Gloom's approach to songwriting. Most of the time it seems like a chaotic mishmash that's impossible to follow: the first song alone goes from a nice hardcore sludge riff to doomy pounding, then gets these bizarre dissonant blastbeat sections out of nowhere, to just noise and ambience. This kind of diversity isn't inherently a bad thing but I don't think Old Man Gloom handles putting the pieces together very well. Maybe I'm too used to the more traditional structures of Isis and Zozobra (the band); No's shorter tracks have that more traditional structure to them and I find them easier to listen to. So maybe it's just me. (And, to be fair, "Common Species" isn't really representative of the album as a whole, but it still doesn't make a great opener.)

There are moments of goodness, though; "The Forking Path" has a great shimmery opening, and "Regain/Rejoin"'s Torche-esque melodies are really neat as well. The ambient / noise segments are also quite good for a metal album, especially the despairing opening to "Shadowed Hand"—especially as it leads into some really great riffs, making it probably my favorite song on the album.

I'm still on the fence with No, however. It's got a lot of good things going for it, but it's still a very difficult listen, and even after hearing it five times now I still stumble through it. Fans of Turner will probably enjoy it, since not much has changed, as long as they don't expect anything revolutionary.