Friday, August 31, 2012

The Contortionist – Intrinsic

July 17, 2012 • Season of Mist

I raved plenty about The Contortionist's breakthrough EP Apparition, with its original style that successfully fused deathcore with progressive metal; their first full-length was just about as good for the same reasons. But it seems the band is starting to drift a bit from their original sound—which is completely understandable (no one should be stuck playing the exact same thing their whole career), but I'm not terribly excited about the direction Intrinsic is taking.

There aren't really any surprises for anyone who's heard Exoplanet: there's the same incredibly technical guitar riffs and drum lines, plenty of palm-muted detuned chugging, and the occasional light melodic bridge. What threw me the most was the addition of clean vocals, and how way different they are from the harsh vocals: they're very soft and airy, which sounds a bit strange alongside the incredibly heavy riffing. They have their place now and again, in the lighter and more atmospheric sections, though they can still be a bit jarring (especially opening up the album as they do). There are a few other additions like lots of keyboards; I don't remember offhand how much keyboard there was in their earlier material, but if there were any they definitely didn't form a core part of the band's sound as they do on Intrinsic. That, combined with some spacey vocal effects, gives the whole thing a very sci-fi feel at times, which is interesting.

The unfortunate thing about Intrinsic is that it mostly gets rid of one of The Contortionist's most defining aspects—their deathcore sound. They were just about the only band who could do deathcore well (probably because of the prog fusion) but here it's almost totally gone in favor of more straightforward progressive metal and math metal, kind of like Gojira minus the death metal. Some people will see this as a positive change, but personally I think it makes them seem a bit more generic and thus there's much less reason to listen to Intrinsic over Exoplanet. They still do pull out a really awesome breakdown here and there, like near the end of "Cortical" or all of the Meshuggah-esque "Solipsis", but they are so few and far between it's disappointing even though they are good.

While it has its moments, on the whole I'm not totally thrilled by Intrinsic. I preferred the old Contortionist because they were unique, even if they were a bit silly. Intrinsic is still a decent album and I'm sure plenty of people will get enjoyment out of it, and I've gotten a bit myself, but I can't say it's an improvement.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tape – Opera

November 2002 • Häpna

Is it just me and my personal cultural bias or is there an abnormal amount of amazing avant-garde-ish music coming out of Sweden these days (as if I have to tell you again)? Okay, Opera is a ten-year-old album at this point, but still. This time we're dealing with what I like to (jokingly) call "folkbient"—light, airy, textural acoustic pieces. But that sort of undercuts just how captivating and plain good this album is.

Opera's sound is quite simple: light and floaty acoustic guitars accompanied by a wide variety of backing instruments and gitchy atmospheric noises, all played in a sort of aloof improvisational way. Yet the album still sounds incredibly focused, as if everyone has a specific job to do, and a very concise vision of what the end product should sound like—and it's gorgeous. Sometimes the music is full of electronic glitches and little spurts of processed sound, sometimes it's droning and somber, sometimes it's very abstract, but nothing ever sounds out of place.

Such consistency is probably a result of the fact that Opera seems to be a very carefully composed album, and the attention to detail is a big part of what makes it so good. This goes especially for the wide array of instruments that make appearances on the album: the random saxophone that appears out of nowhere for a few seconds, the harmonica, the accordion, processed strings, I could go on. They always seem to know exactly what sounds should go in a piece and aren't afraid to go out of their way to find something that fits, and the way that these different sounds and textures and noises build around each other and grow sort of organically... it's those kinds of details that make each piece truly special.

What else to say? Opera is simply excellent. Sure, maybe it's not particularly unique in its style, but at least it does it better than any other group I've heard up 'til now. Beautiful, sad, haunting, and worth every minute.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Earthrise – Eras Lost

June 19, 2012 • self-released

Yes, it's true! There is a good sludge full-length out this year! Hooray! No, really, it's about time; everything except Islands has been disappointing, but Earthrise has filled the void well.

As expected, Eras Lost takes the slow, plodding approach a lot of the time, keeping things ferociously heavy when it can, though there is a bit of prog influence here and there with some polyrhythmic mathy bits and whatnot. The album therefore pretty much runs on its riffs, but they're strong riffs to be sure—very powerful, sometimes catchy.

On the whole, the songwriting is decent, but the band doesn't really do much to push the bar and try anything new for the genre, so it's entirely understandable to feel jaded when listening to this album. The songs also have a tendency to wander—many of them don't have a "main" section to build on, instead going from one part to the next, often very quickly, which is fine sometimes but usually here it makes the music hard to follow.

On a smaller scale, though, the instrumentation is fantastic. The drumming is a highlight for sure; it never seems to get repetitive or stale and does a great job at backing up the guitars and keeping things interesting. The guitar lines themselves are fairly typical—lots of chugging and textural sustains, nothing new for sludge metal—but I suppose they do exactly what they ought to: be heavy, be dissonant, make some nice feedback.

Okay so it's not fantastic, but it's at least decent and there are a few moments of greatness here and there. It's definitely enough to tide me over until the next great metal album of the year.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Endura – Black Eden

1996 • Red Stream Inc.

Endura was an old dark ambient group from the '90s, an era when the genre was already pretty well-established and ready to branch out, and it's interesting to hear something a little earlier than I'm used to. I don't know if Endura is considered important in the '90s ambient scene or anything, and the genre has come a long way since, but they're still an interesting listen.

One thing that caught me off guard at first is that for dark ambient, it's surprisingly melodic stuff; most tracks have a definite rhythm and melody—even if just a monotonic bass line—around which they're built, setting them apart from the more sound-collage-oriented dark ambient I'm used to. It sounds very '90s, if that makes any sense; sometimes it's not too far from darkwave stuff like Dead Can Dance in parts.

As always, though, the focus is on texture, and Endura do a great job at that. There are plenty of different samples and noises they use to build their atmospheres and they don't go overboard; usually things are kept pretty minimal in order to maintain a dark and isolating atmosphere, and for the most part it works quite well. The use of elements like simple drones, groaning voices, echoing percussion, and the like seems obvious and maybe a bit tired but for this album it is effective (usually, anyway; "The Sun No Longer Sets Me Free" simply sounds cheesy and a bit annoying).

Where the album falls a bit flat is in Endura's decision to incorporate a little bit of neoclassical darkwave into a few tracks, as I mentioned earlier. Sometimes it works out alright, and sometimes it doesn't. Take "The Devils Stars Burn Cold" or "A Golden Heresy": layered synth strings, sung vocals (on the former), well-established and repeating melodies—sure, they'd fit well on a typical darkwave album but I don't know what they're doing here. Coming after the very grim and minimal "The Left Hand of the Dead", "The Devils Stars Burn Cold" feels really out of place, and "A Golden Heresy" also feels simply wrong in closing the album. They're not even bad songs; I'm just confused as to why they're here.

Endura definitely isn't for everyone—not even for your average ambient fan—and it's not something I'm going to want to listen to often, if much at all after this, but it's definitely an interesting release, if only in a historical sense. Then again maybe some darkwave purists will get a kick out of it. Who knows?


Special bonus: The whole album on YouTube!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Swallow the Ocean – Swallow the Ocean

January 22, 2008 • self-released

Swallow the Ocean is a sludge band that I've had kicking around in my library for some time now—I don't remember where or how I heard of them—and their sole release, this little debut EP, still stands as one of the best metal releases I've ever heard.

Simply put, this band does just about everything right when it comes to playing good metal. The songwriting is fantastic, with a perfect balance between angular stop-start riffing and smoother melodic lines and between crushingly heavy sections and quiet bridges; the vocals sound pretty awesome as well (both harsh and clean, and tastefully done); great guitar tone and drum lines... there really isn't anything about it I don't like.

You wouldn't think it for this sort of sludge metal to be catchy—usually that's the more stoner-influenced stuff—but Swallow the Ocean manages to make every song memorable and completely headbangable. (You know what I mean.)

Admittedly it is a bit silly that there are just as many interludes as there are regular songs, giving the EP that kind of grandiose album feel but with a bit less meat to it. It's not really a bad thing, just a bit weird, and it makes the EP feel a bit padded unnecessarily.

Regardless, as I said before, it's still fantastic and highly recommended. And when it finally does get old, apparently we finally will be hearing some new material from them soon, after six long years. Here's to hoping it's half as good as the songs here.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Adrift – Black Heart Bleeds Black

June 2012 • Alone Records

Adrift is another one of those relatively-obscure sludge bands that I know of from some random blog, though their first album that I heard, Monolito, was decent if a little unmemorable. With their new one Black Heart Bleeds Black, they still aren't up there with the greats although they have shown a definite improvement.

Althought it definitely falls squarely into sludge metal territory, Adrift's sound does have a very mathy edge to it—lots of polyrhythmic riffs, complex drum grooves, fast tempos, and such—though they don't let technicality get in the way of being heavy when they need to be. It's a bit difficult to describe what's going on most of the time but they do use a lot of common "post-metal" tropes, like low-end dissonant guitar lines tightly meshed with higher melodic lines. The faster tempos and complex rhythms help keep things interesting and fast-paced and Adrift changes things up quite a bit.

I guess my main problem with Adrift is that, despite being pretty good, their songwriting is really unmemborable. Maybe it's just me, but none of these songs really click with me and it's hard to get into a groove with what they are doing. It's weird, because this isn't bad music... sitting here thinking about it, it's good, but later when I think about the album as a whole I can't really remember what I liked about it.

Despite enjoying this album, I have a feeling it's not going to get many spins in the future and I'll once again forget what Adrift sounds like. It's a shame, because they're a pretty good band, all things considered, and probably worth checking out for a lot of people—just not me.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Aphelion – Lay

July 2008 • Shadowgraph Records

I'm usually not a big fan of "scary" media—horror films and video games, that sort of thing. Scary music, on the other hand, I enjoy (maybe on some kind of masochistic level, but still). Aphelion's Lay is probably one of the first albums I ever heard that really freaked me out. It doesn't really do it to me anymore, but it's still a really neat experience.

Most of the music could be called "death industrial"—a very heavy, fast, highly-distorted, and dark kind of industrial. There are beats buried pretty deep down that are easy to miss, and would probably be missed if it weren't for the repetition in the samples and bass lines overtop them. And pretty much all of Lay is an incredibly dense wall of sound—bass hits, screeching distorted noises, voice samples, heavy glitches, all assaulting the listener at high speed and high volume. Every once in a while, something more upbeat will play, only to be mercilessly cut off by something incredibly dark (see "Chest Cavity"). It's all really well done.

It can get a bit tacky, though; tracks like "Circumlocution" have a beat texture and pattern that reminds me of some of the sillier speedcore stuff I've heard (especially repetitive cymbal crashes), which poorly contrasts with the darker and more serious sampling and ambience in other tracks.

I was also disappointed by the fact that most of the tracks are incredibly short—around two minutes on average—which isn't really enough time to get a good mood going for the most part. This is sort of a compliment in a way, because many of the tracks should have gone on a lot longer (like "Frozen Birds" of "Be Still", one of the best and creepiest). On the other hand, because of some of the unnerving and disturbing samples, maybe that's a good thing.

In general, though, Lay is pretty darn good as long as you aren't listening to it alone and in the dark. It's not the best industrial album, or the best scary album, but it does its thing well enough.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Islands – Islands

July 28, 2012 • self-released

With a name like Islands (and me reviewing it), really, what were you expecting besides more sludge metal? Their debut might be a little bit unoriginal, but it's still pretty impressive and chock full of good songs, showing that the genre isn't quite done yet.

Although, they could be trying to appeal to me specifically; after all there are a few similarities between several tracks on this album and your average Cult of Luna—similar guitar riffs, similar song structure, the same sort of beat-heavy pounding drums. Of course Islands does put their own spin on it; everything sounds a bit more abrasive than average, even the clean post-rockish stuff, both in production and in the way their music is played (like the vocals, especially raspy for this kind of music); I am liking the extra roughness, I've had enough squeaky-clean sludge production anyway. The post-rock sections are very reminiscent of mid-era Mogwai with steady rhythms and twinkly echoing guitars, but don't seem at all out of place. The transitions from one style to the other are well-done and sound very natural; see "Clouds Mistaken for Smoke", basically one long buildup but every step of it is justified with different textures and riffs.

The songwriting itself seems to be a bit hit-or-miss. Some tracks, like the opener, tend to be a bit repetitive and thus not terribly interesting; others are brilliantly written and/or catchy, like the second track "Hand Built View", which is packed full of awesome riffs, great buildups, and nicely contrasting textures; or the fast-paced "March"—probably the album highlight, incredibly catchy and awesome. Fortunately the album has more of the latter than the former, so it's not much of a complaint. Sometimes repetition isn't so much of a bad thing, anyway; technically "Clouds Mistaken for Smoke" is the same thing repeated over and over but it's difficult to notice as the way it's played changes so much.

I won't be surprised if a lot of people crap on Islands for putting out this kind of album in 2012—we've had enough post-rocky-sludge in the last decade, haven't we?—but if you're not sick to death of it yet, as I am not, Islands is a really good example of the genre. Sure, maybe they're doing nothing new, but they're polishing up what has come beforehand and doing a fine job at it. I'm pretty excited about this band and where they take it from here.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Emuul – Crawling Across the Rafters

2010 • Anathema Sound

To be honest, I hate reviewing albums like this. Crawling Across the Rafters was one of those love-at-first-listen albums and I am afraid that digging into it too deep will ruin the magic somehow. I guess that's why I tend to avoid reviewing most of my favorite albums—that, and sometimes it's just hard to explain why I like something.

Well, I like Crawling Across the Rafters; I like it a lot. It's one of those albums that gives me that little euphoric rush when I hear it. Of course, it's in a style I already like: very slow and heavily melody-based, like Deathprod or a more electronic Stars of the Lid. Emuul's sound is simpler than either, with just a few different voices playing at once most of the time, although its simplicity definitely works to its advantage. Most of what happens on the album is just one main melody (or drone) with sound effects that accentuate the mood, something common with a lot of dark ambient, but it works equally well here.

I guess what really does it for me is the general tone and atmosphere going on through. It an incredibly beautiful and elegant album; you have shimmering drones and echoing clean guitar, very subtle melodies that sink in almost on an unconscious level because everything moves so slowly (which is the perfect speed, by the way). And it can get to be an emotional trip, too, from the incredibly dark "Without Breathing" to the uplifting "Haunting with M" and closing with the painfully sad "Firenze" (just listen to those heartwrenching vocals).

Anyway I apologize that this review is probably terrible, and I can't really think of much else to say as there really isn't a single thing about this album that I don't like. Just know that Crawling Across the Rafters is brilliant and one of the best ambient releases I've ever heard.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Arbor – The Plutonian Shore

July 13, 2012 • self-released

Like many others, I am of the opinion that Agalloch is a fine band. They've got their own thing going and they do it well. One thing we don't need, though, is any more Agalloch copycat bands, and Arbor is a perfect example of why. They put in a decent effort, but the end product winds up being bland and unoriginal.

Anyone following United States-based black metal lately can probably guess exactly what they're going to get out of this album: melodic guitar lines, an abundance of folky clean guitar bridges, heavy yet blast-free drumming, overdramatic clean vocals, and the like. On the surface it's not too bad, with one exception: the singing. Oh god, the singing. Just calling it "bad" doesn't do it justice. This guy can't sing at all. I'm amazed they let him actually record for this album, especially since the instruments are all performed quite competently. It makes hearing the singing that much more jarring. (The harsh vocals are hit-and-miss—sometimes they're well done and sometimes they sound awful. I'm not sure why that happens.)

The songs themselves can get a bit uncomfortable to listen to as well, simply because their arrangements seem very sloppy. While they write a lot of nice individual sections with some catchy rhythms and riffs, putting them together is a problem. They never seem to want to stick with one section for more than a few seconds at a time and are constantly switching back and forth from heavy sections to soft sections. It's also quite jarring, and makes the songs incredibly difficult to follow—not to mention less memorable since for each one there's nothing unifying to keep your bearings.

None of that is helped by the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, they don't have a very original sound; they are working with a lot of black metal clichés and aren't bringing much new to the table. For someone who isn't much into the genre I suppose that might not be a problem, but for me at least all I can think of is how much I'd rather catch up on other black metal.

Arbor may have some talent, but The Plutonian Shore isn't a very good display of that talent. Maybe a couple years maturing will be better for their sound but right now they are definitely skippable. In the meantime I'm off to refresh myself on Marrow of the Spirit.


Friday, August 17, 2012

Swans – The Seer

August 28, 2012 • Young God Records

So Swans are pretty serious about this reunion, I suppose. My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky was an alright, if unmemorable, start; but I can tell the gloves are coming off with monstrosity that is The Seer. It might still not be as focused and consistent as their early material, but it can definitely hold its own in their discography.

This album comes off, to me, as a combination of My Father... and their other landmark double-album Soundtracks for the Blind: The Seer is just as grand in scope, as you can tell just from looking at the track lengths. Somehow it still has a very rock-oriented sound, much more homogenous than Soundtracks' sound which jumped from drone to ambient to rock and back. There's still elements of all that here, especially the rock and drone, but organized differently, much more like My Father... was. It has a very hypnotic repetitive sound, like a stripped-down version of Branca's The Ascension—some sort of droning psychedelic no-wave post-kraut-rock abomination. All par for the course for Swans, naturally.

One thing I hear mentioned a lot, and complained about a lot, is the album's length. Yes, it's a long album with long songs. Does it justify the longness? That's debatable. Unlike Soundtracks which had a lot going on over its two discs, The Seer has fewer ideas and just expands on them for a longer time. It's a different approach, not necessarily better or worse, but for me there are definitely some filler sections and repetition that could be done without. Some of the tracks' runtimes are entirely justified, like the two long tracks on disc two (oddly enough), but I don't really see the point of bits like "The Wolf" or "The Daughter Brings the Water" or the obnioxous "93 Ave. B Blues", or the longevity of "Mother of the World", which is fine but doesn't do much to justify ten minutes.

But when The Seer gets good, it gets good, and most of the tracks are shining examples—"A Piece of the Sky" is one of the best and one of the album's highest points; it has fantastic composition and an excellent last third to justify twenty minutes of the listener's time; not a minute is wasted. I just wish they could have kept up that kind of quality for some the shorter tracks. Of course there are a few that are really cool—I like "The Seer Returns"' almost hip hop-like beat, or the way "Avatar" and "The Apostate" use tubular bells and tribal drums to evoke a tense and foreboding atmosphere, or the pure furious intensity of "The Apostate"'s intro. Just great.

While My Father didn't do a lot to nab my attention, The Seer has done the job just fine, and it's clear that Swans (and Gira especially) still have it in them, even if they might not have the chops to produce two hours' worth of amazing music at once quite yet. Like all Swans albums, on the whole it's nothing I find amazingly mind-blowing, but it's consistently as good as most of the rest of their material and anyone who liked their other stuff will find something to love about The Seer. It almost feels like they never left us at all, and hopefully they won't do it again anytime soon.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Year of No Light / Altar of Plagues

April 2012 • Radar Swarm / Music Fear Satan

I have always seen split releases as more of a curiosity than anything, and an annoyance at worst, like trying to get the complete discography of one band you love but having to sit through some painfully bad stuff on the other side (I'm looking at you, Corrupted). So when one comes along that I know I'll enjoy both halves of, it's a good thing. Usually splits are for one more popular band to promote another, but I'm not really sure who's promoting who here—I have stuff by both of these bands and they seem equally obscure to me. Anyway, even if like me you are familiar with either, this split is probably best avoided—it's not a great moment for either band.

Year of No Light's track is pretty typical atmospheric sludge, although this track seems a lot more generic than what I've heard on Nord. "Møn" is your average slow, heavy, plodding, doomy metal that slowly builds up over its ten minutes to a wall of sound, but it barely does anything on the way. There's just one riff in the last two minutes and it's not a satisfying payoff to the buildup, and then the track just ends out of nowhere. I suppose it makes okay background music, but it's simply not interesting to stand on its own. (Some vocals might have helped a little bit.)

Altar of Plagues' side fares a bit better, but not by much. It still has a painfully long buildup (I guess I shouldn't have expected less from either band), but they at least do a little bit more in the time they have. I was a bit disappointed to hear more of a sludge/doom sound here as well instead of their usual black metal sound, which they only put back on after the lengthy eleven-minute intro, and it doesn't even sound like the band at all. The climax of the song is alright, if a little underwhelming, but like the other side I feel let down.

I know split releases can often be a place for bands to try something a bit different, but this whole release feels kind of wasteful to me. Both bands have put out fantastic albums before, but here it seems like they didn't want to put any effort into what they were doing. I just hope this isn't the sort of direction either band takes in the future.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Aesop Rock – Skelethon

July 10, 2012 • Rhymesayers Entertainment

There'll always be a special place in my library for Aesop Rock; after all, he's the reason I listen to hip hop, and Labor Days and None Shall Pass are still two of my favorite hip hop albums ever. So naturally I was pumped as hell for Skelethon, almost to the point where I knew the real thing couldn't live up to my expectations. Well, it did. Somehow he's completely outdone himself and Skelethon just might be his best yet.

First of all, what the hell has Aesop Rock been doing hanging out with Blockhead all this time? Not that the tracks Blockhead produced on his older albums were bad—far from it—but Aes' beats are killer through and through, and he finally has managed to put out a full album of entirely his own production instead of the odd track here and there. The end result is awesome. It's not too different from his older stuff; it has lots of rock samples (check the catchy-as-hell guitar lick on "ZZZ Top"), very ethereal-sounding synth effects, hard-hitting drums... It still sounds very much like any given Aesop Rock album, and the production is still going to appeal to anyone who enjoyed his older stuff, but here it's simply so much better in every way. It's tough to describe exactly what's going on here, but there's a definite atmosphere going on through the whole of the album—I don't want to say it's necessarily "dark", but it's definitely darker than None Shall Pass and almost melancholy in places ("Zero Dark Thirty", "Gopher Guts"), the kind of mood I already love. It's like he's deliberately playing to my tastes. The album isn't without Aesop Rock's silly and fun humor, though, as there is a small handful of much more upbeat tracks to balance things out ("Racing Stripes", "Grace").

His rapping is the same as always—rapid-fire abstract word salad which I've always been pretty ambivalent about—although it seems like his rhythmic skills have improved quite a bit. Maybe it's a side effect of making his own beats and being able to tailor everything to himself better, but he's constantly meshing his vocal rhythms with the beats which makes everything feel more unified. His older stuff often felt like the beats and rhymes were made completely separate and just mashed together later (which wasn't always a bad thing) but Skelethon feels more deliberate, and it feels great.

As usual, I don't really pay attention to the lyrics, but from the bits I catch here and there he's the same as ever. The artfully-descriptive "Ruby '81" reminds me a lot of Labor Days' "No Regrets", one of its better tracks because of its lyrics. So that's a good indicator, if nothing else. (But I'm not one to talk about lyrics, really, so I'll leave it there.)

The only misstep on the album I can even think of might be the female vocalist on "Crows 1" and "Racing Stripes"; I feel like she interrupts the album in a way and it's a bit jarring (and she's not very good, either). Those tracks (and "Crows 2") mark the inevitable middle-of-the-album slump but gladly it's not much worse than the rest of Skelethon (the great beats on "Racing Stripes" help) and it picks back up just fine afterwards—just about every other track on the album is really good, with maybe just one or two tracks total I'd cut if I had the final choice (and they're not even that bad).

I hardly need to restate how much I'm enjoying this album—but better than Labor Days? It's entirely possible. I'm not sure yet; it needs more time to sink in, but I will say the five-year wait from None Shall Pass was absolutely worth it. If, in another five years, we get another album that's as improved on its predecessor as this one was, I just might wet myself.


Special bonus: The whole album up on YouTube! Thanks Rhymesayers, you're the best.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Baroness – Yellow & Green

July 17, 2012 • Relapse Records

I've been following Baroness since their first album, finding out about them through their similarity to Mastodon (probably like a lot of other people). I haven't listened to them much since their second album Blue Record was pretty disappointing, but Baroness has now gone in a totally different direction and gone are the crunchy metal guitars and sludgy aesthetics. I'm not sure if I'm totally sold on what Yellow & Green is offering but the end product is admirable, if nothing else.

From sludge metal to grooving hard rock—is the change good or bad? or neither? I don't know. They still have the same southern twang and the same penchant for writing some pretty catchy hooks, and there are more than a couple memorable choruses throughout. However I find their sound to be relatively tame and safe—I don't want to say "poppy", because it's not, but it's headed that way. In fact you could still say they're paralleling Mastodon's career with the increased accessibility (though Mastodon has still kept things pretty heavy, but that's neither here nor there). To me, at least, the songwriting is still good on a small-scale level—individual riffs and whatnot—but on a large-scale level it's a bit of a bore and some songs are really predictable.

Not to mention that even Baroness can't escape the curse of the double album. Nine out of ten double albums I hear are always half-crap and could be easily trimmed down to one good disc; Yellow is significantly better than Green so it seems at first like the whole thing is constistently good, but unfortunately it's not so. Only "Green Theme", "Board Up the House" (which wound up being my favorite track across both discs), and maybe "The Line Between" are particulary good on Green and could easily replace a few not-as-good tracks on Yellow for one killer album. (And no, it's not just because I prefer the heavier tracks. "Board Up the House" really isn't heavy.)

However despite my personal preferences for the individual songs, they still succeed decently enough at a double album—moreso than most bands—since they have really expanded their musical repertoire; Yellow & Green isn't just two discs of straight-up hard rock and there's plenty of psych, folky stuff, and some metal thrown in. Depending on the listener this can come off as inconsistent and patchworky; others might consider it ambitious and a display of Baroness' songwriting talent. I fit somewhere between those two and I can see it both as being a good thing and a bad thing.

I can tell I won't ever come to enjoy this album as much as I like their first two, as my appetite for this style of music was pretty low to begin with. On the other hand Blue Record was a step down and another sludge album probably wouldn't have been particularly good. Yellow & Green seems like an album you really have to sample for yourself to know if you'd like it or not since it's so different and almost seems like it's aiming at an entirely different audience. I dunno. Like I said, like it or not, it's still a pretty impressive album.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Numb – Numb

March 1, 2011 • self-released

Numb is yet another crust punk / sludge fusion sort of band, a style I haven't gotten tired of yet although its days in my library's rotation may be numbered. The band calls their self-titled debut an EP, but to me if feels a lot more like a full album; though its quality is consistent throughout, I'm not finding a lot of replay value in it.

The sound is right up my alley, though: lots of heavy, sludgy riffing with deep death metal vocals, contrasted with faster sections that verge into grindcore territory with blasting and angular guitar lines, in addition to some more straightforward crust punk in between. It's something I've heard a lot and written about before, but every band seems to do it slightly differently. Numb seems to prefer switching back and forth rapidly, and it works pretty well in keeping the listener on their toes, not to mention the slightly jazzy flair that crops up now and again—see the beginning of "Cower", for example—that reminds me slightly of Le Scrawl. It's pretty neat.

"Pretty neat" is about as far as I'll allow it, though. Superficially I'm enjoying Numb quite a bit, but this release gets a bit tough to listen to. Each track is basically the same thing, and half an hour is pretty long (at least by punk standards) so listening to the whole thing becomes tedious and I feel like it should have been about half as long. Maybe I just have a shorter attention span for this kind of stuff than I used to, I dunno.

Still, it's not bad. I like where Numb is going and I'll probably keep an eye on them to see if they can put out anything a little more focused and varied. In the meantime this is solid, especially for a debut, so even if it's not necessarily my thing I'm sure plenty of fans of this style can get into it.


Friday, August 10, 2012

잠비나이 – 차연

February 3, 2012 • Sony Music

Dear anonymous person who recommended me this album: I may not know who you are, but apparently you know me all too well—this is pretty damn amazing. 잠비나이 (or Jambinai) is probably the only Korean band I've ever heard up to this point and apparently I'm missing out on a lot, if it's all as interesting as 차연 (or Differance).

차연 combines heavy post-rock with traditional Korean music, resulting in a pretty crazy fusion the likes of which sometimes remind me of John Zorn-style stuff. You've got your standard guitars, bass, and drums, but there's also some folky-sounding singing and instruments whose names I don't even know (the video for "소멸의 시간" displays one or two though). They have a sort of Mogwai-plus-Godspeed-plus-Boris thing going, if I must compare to other bands, but the added folky elements make it so unique that it's hard to say. (Maybe they sound more like Japanese post-rock such as Mono, but I haven't listened to Mono in ages.)

The songwriting is also pretty diverse—some tracks are very heavy, edging into metal and punk territory, while others are more ambient and traditional post-rock. Most tracks focus on just a couple different riffs and play up a wall of sound with layers of stringed instruments and percussion, and it seems like no matter which style they tackle they do it well. The more ambient and light-post-rock tracks (such as the gorgeous tracks "감긴 눈 위로 비추는 불빛" and "Connection") are standout favorites for me; they have a very beautiful longing mood to them. It's also neat to hear them launch straight from that into something heavy like "구원의 손길"'s aggressive opening.

Simply put, this was exactly the kind of thing that post-rock needs to get out of the slump it's been in for the past decade. And 잠비나이 is doing it exactly right by keeping things really interesting, really unique, and really fresh. Totally worth your time.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Titan – Burn

June 29, 2012 • React with Protest Records

Maybe it's having listened to so much sludge metal lately that everything is just becoming a blur—but I swear I've heard albums like Titan's Burn before: decent, but uninspiring and plain (and thus hard to review).

Burn consists mostly of relatively generic, safe sludge metal—your typical heavy and pounding drum lines, chord-progression-based riffing, screamed vocals, and the occasional tint of suffocating doom metal. It's nothing I haven't heard a hundred times before, to be honest, and I won't say Titan does it better than everyone else either. They aren't bad by any means, but as something of a sludge veteran Burn simply isn't very interesting—it's almost as if I can predict everything they're going to play next. It sounds like an album that should have come out ten years ago; there's no experimentation or surprises here to be had and as such it's hard for me to get into and enjoy.

On the other hand, being generic isn't necessarily such a bad thing. I suppose that for anyone not familiar with the genre Titan might be a decent place to start, as Burn doesn't throw anything unusual at the listener—just riffs and screams, sludge distilled to its essence. It's also actually is pretty catchy here and there with palm-muted chugging and such, though again even that gets old after a while.

So I hope my ambivalence towards Titan doesn't put anyone off who might think it sounds interesting. Like I said, it's not a bad album; Titan is a competent band and their music is fine. It's just not for me, or probably anyone else who's heard more than ten or twelve sludge albums already. But for the uninitiated, this might be a good place to get a quick taste.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Vatican Shadow – September Cell

June 18, 2012 • Bed of Nails

I've known of harsh noise artist Prurient for some time now, though I was never really much of a fan for one reason or another. This sideproject of his, Vatican Shadow, is however a completely different thing altogether—instead of unforgiving noise, it's more of a subdued electronic/industrial project. And it's pretty darn good to boot.

Each of the four tracks is more or less the same thing: fast, thumping, low-end-heavy drum beats, accompanied by slightly dissonant, droning synthesizer and the occasional background noise. (The last track has a more ambient sound to it without the drumbeats, which is also pretty effective.) The EP has a muffled, futuristic sort of atmosphere that I find really enjoyable (though it's not as pronounced as, say, Burial). You can tell they were written by a noise artist, though; even though they have good buildup, the endings are either simple fadeouts or just nonexistent; "September Cell (The Punishment)" practically ends in the middle of a note. It's a bit strange, but a small nitpick I suppose.

Anyway I find myself enjoying September Cell for the most part. If nothing else, I'll keep an eye out for future Vatican Shadow material because I see some potential here. (Apparently there's been quite a lot of Vatican Shadow stuff out in the last year or so; I guess I could look into that.) All told: nothing mind-blowing or particular original, but a neat little experiment for sure.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ära Krâ – Ferne Tage

April 15, 2011 • self-released

Ära Krâ is a tough band to review—they're another group I really don't know much about, just another 2012 metal release on my radar and I have tons of those. This one doesn't impress me terribly much, though it isn't horrible.

Ferne Tage has a very interesting sound—it's definitely metal of some sort, but takes influences from all over the map: melodic death metal and black metal are most prominent. They manage to fuse them pretty effectively, and sound decent while doing so. The drumming ranges from slow deliberate beats to blasting, sometimes in the same song; the guitars are very expressive and have a lot of really nice riffs. I dislike the vocals though; the vocalist is always doing this mid-range scream (that sounds a bit like the Dillinger Escape Plan) no matter what the rest of the band is doing. It gets old fast.

It's an interesting album and, if nothing else, relatively unique. However it's not terribly interesting to me—at least, after several listens I'm not really inclined to ever hear it again. It's just another metal album, really.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Taboo – Fallin' Up

2011 • Touchstone

I received this book as a gag gift (on the cheap when Borders went out of business) but I thought I'd read it anyway just for kicks. I've never liked the Black Eyed Peas, but I figured if nothing else it'd be a look into how pop superstars run their music careers, and having heard a few of their songs before I'd at least have a bit of context to work with.

Hence my incredible disappointment when I found out that this book is not about music. At all. I was hoping for at least some discussion of songwriting or production techniques or anything, but no luck. For the purposes of this book the Black Eyes Peas could have been magicians or cabaret dancers or clowns; it wouldn't have made any difference. That leaves the only reason to read this book being if you were really interested in Taboo solely as a person, and I was not—even less so after finishing it, because that guy is an asshole.

The story itself is actually pretty dull; it starts out alright, if in a semi-cliché rags-to-riches ghetto tale, with Taboo rising in the ranks of b-boy dancing; but after he joins his bandmates just a few chapters in he basically rides their coattails the rest of the way. Aside from the copious descriptions of drug and alcohol use, nothing ever really happens to him (nothing interesting, anyway).

And when the partying and drug use is described, it only seems to serve to drive home the book's backwards moral: If you're successful and/or rich, you can get away with anything. There are plenty of cases in the book where this sort of thing happens; the worst offender is probably their trip to St Maarten where several band members and crew are driving drunk and/or high, get pulled over, thrown in jail, and are let go anyway simply because they had a show the next day. A combination of superstar-level fame and incompetent police work results in no consequences and no lessons learned. What's the point?

Yes, he does make a drastic improvement and sobers up at the very end, and supposedly works hard to get there, but it doesn't make me have any more sympathy for someone who has already proven themselves to be an utter asshole for 90% of the book. It all left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Additionally, despite having an editor help him out, the book is very amateurly-written. Its style seems to be some weird hybrid of a newspaper article and a campfire story—half of the paragraphs are one sentence long, making the book read in a very uncomfortable way. The patchwork vocabulary (it's pretty obvious someone broke out a thesaurus at random just to add impressive-sounding long words) and very jumpy storytelling (where the focus switches between events almost at random, perhaps in a ridiculous attempt to keep things chronological) doesn't help at all.

Needless to repeat, I was not remotely impressed by this book and I'm a bit surprised at myself for somehow making it all the way through. It is not even worth digging out of the bargain bin, regardless of how much one likes the Black Eyed Peas (in that case, wait for's biography—he's the true hero of the story and seems like the one only deserving of his success).

Friday, August 3, 2012

Recondite – On Acid

April 2, 2012 • Absurd Recordings / Acid Test

My exploration of house music continues with something a bit more modern: Recondite, another name I've never heard of but figured I'd look into just for kicks. On Acid is, as its name implies, acid house, with a subtle and effective minimalist attitude.

It's an incredibly simple album—heavy and deep bass beats, with plenty of melody carefully laid on top and a light hint of reverb. It has a sort of underwater sort of sound going on, like something you'd hear in a futuristic documentary about ocean depths. It's almost hypnotic in the way it slowly draws the listener in, carries them along, and lets them go. The use of dynamics in the album is amazing most of the time—take the swelling middle section of "Harbinger"; it's incredibly tense but resolves it in a very satisfying way.

To my plebeian ears, On Acid has the drawback of being a bit samey and repetitive; though like a lot of minimal electronic music it has the advantage of not really requiring the listener's full attention. On the other hand some of the music is so catchy that it's hard not to stop and take it in, such as when the groove really gets going in the upbeat "Petrichor" remix.

Then again I already have a bit of a bias towards more ambient, minimal electronic music (well, and extreme stuff on the other side of the spectrum too), but I think my appreciation of On Acid is well-founded. It's a great album, and just another reminder that there's so much more I need to be looking into.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Homewrecker – Worms and Dirt

May 26, 2012 • A389 Recordings

More modern hardcore! Is it obvious yet that I can't get enough of the stuff? I hardly know anything about Homewrecker, but they're a relatively new band who are showing a lot of promise for a genre that might be a bit stagnant with some really neat sounds and styles.

Homewrecker's songs are filled with high-speed punk riffing combined with a super-heavy, chugging metal sensibility, sometimes switching back and forth between quick blasting and slow thrasy riffs. It's a neat combination—of course their sound is nothing necessarily original (I hear shades of Napalm Death in there, among other bands), but that doesn't mean they aren't creative with it. Despite the occasional slow tempos the songs are very fast-paced, so the band is always keeping the listener on their toes and it doesn't ever get boring. They also throw in the occasional despairing ambient bridge here and there just to keep the mood bleak, only to jarringly jump back into some of the angriest punk I've heard. (And that's jarring in a good way.)

And it's all over just as soon as it starts; even though Worms and Dirt has a relatively average runtime for a punk album at just over twenty minutes, there's so much to it that these guys could probably fill an album twice as full and it'd still be just as interesting. Homewrecker is definitely a band to watch and I'm eager to see where they go in the future.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dead Can Dance – Anastasis

August 9, 2012 • PIAS Recordings

Arguably one of the most important and influential groups of the late '80s/early '90s, Dead Can Dance was too good to last, for a while at least... but after sixteen years they cam back out of nowhere with a new album and it's almost like no time has passed at all.

As usual, it's difficult to describe this album without either going into excruciating detail or overgeneralizing. The music sounds influenced by mostly Indian and Middle Eastern culture, picking back up on the shift the band was already headed towards since their European-styled earlier works with Into the Labyrinth. And they do it well, needless to say; the huge variety of instruments is carefully arranged in a way that is both exotic and accessible.

"Children of the Sun" is the definite standout for a variety of reasons. As the opener, it functions basically as a way of saying "Hey! We're back!"—which is a pretty smart idea. It's also incredibly catchy by darkwave standards, both with its vocal melodies and the backing instruments; practically everything about that track is perfect with a great sense of majesty that the group is known for.

Unfortunately, for me at least, the superiority of that opener makes the rest of the album seem a bit weak in comparison. However it's not much weaker, and there are plenty of very solid tracks to go around ("Agape", "Return of the She-King", and "Opium" are probably my other favorites). They haven't lost their creativity and style during the hiatus, so given that one enjoys their other albums this will be enjoyed as well.

Personally I'm very impressed by Anastasis (if you couldn't tell). I don't know if I'd call it the best Dead Can Dance album yet (that's probably still Within the Realm of a Dying Sun for me, though I haven't been listening to them as much lately as I should be) but it's an absolutely excellent comeback album, and probably up there with the best of this year so far. Definitely recommended.