“It sates itself on the life-blood
of fated men,
paints red the powers’ homes
with crimson gore.
Black become the sun’s beams
in the summers that follow…”
— Snorri Sturluson, Völuspá, The Poetic Edda, ca. 1220
If someone were to give the Norse Ragnarök saga a Ralph Bakshi (Wizards, Fire And Ice) treatment, Khemmis would definitely need to be on the soundtrack. Their music is properly epic, spinning colorful imagery not far off from their fabulous album art. The Denver band’s debut just last year, Absolution, established their credentials as top notch doom scholars, paying tribute to the mighty Sabbath, Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus, along with Sleep and early High On Fire. On their second album Hunted they nailed that sweet spot between heaviness (with a bit less reliance on thick stoner grooves), and accessible, memorable tunes that reflect rock and roll influence like Thin Lizzy and early Iron Maiden. Continue reading →
Syd Arthur are a psych prog band from Canterbury, England. Given their name, one might assume the band partake in complicated, extended prog jams with inscrutable lyrics along the lines of perhaps Gong and Caravan. Despite what it’s title seems to indicate, even their first album On And On (2012), has an average song length of just over three minutes. Brothers Liam, Joel and Josh Magill and multi-instrumentalist Raven Bush (yes his auntie is THE Kate Bush) came from a background of forest party raves. They are equally comfortable with technology, bucolic elemental mysticism, otherworldly musicianship, jazz inspired improvisation and disciplined songwriting. This is all evident in sharp focus on their third album, Apricity, an archaic word which means the feel of the warm sun on your skin in the winter that sparks a yearning for Aprilness, the early days of spring. Yearning for warmer days, a better past or future, is an ongoing theme, from the first album’s “Ode To The Summer” to “Garden Of Time” on Sound Mirror (2014) to “Sun Rays” and “Apricity.” Their music has a dreamy, wistful quality that took a while to take hold, but once it got under my skin with Sound Mirror, it was stuck there, and I’ve been craving more ever since. Apricity doesn’t disappoint. Continue reading →
Like most people I like to rant a bit about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. However I wouldn’t go so far as to say the whole thing is jacked or irrelevant. Every year there’s usually a good number of artists nominated to choose from, even if there’s always at least one dubious choice (ahem, Chicago). But Cheap Trick, Deep Purple and N.W.A. were fine choices. Now artists who’s recording debut was 1991 are eligible. The number of questionable choices that could be nominated just increased exponentially, especially in the context of the dozens of overlooked 70s artists who are far more deserving before we start considering bands like Pearl Jam and Jane’s Addiction.
Well, the nominees were announced this morning and those two bands are indeed on the ballot. But there’s also some really important ones nominated, like MC5, Kraftwerk, The Zombies and Bad Brains. Yes were nominated last year and didn’t get voted in, and they’ll get my vote too. Their first couple albums features some really interesting psych prog, and even their less celebrated Going For The One (1977) is pretty awesome.
I feel like nothing needs to be said to justify the massive influence and importance of MC5, Kraftwerk and Bad Brains. They all were groundbreaking pioneers, mixing free jazz with high energy rock and proto-punk, creating the template of electro and synth pop and techno, and hardcore punk mixed with reggae.
I’m tempted to vote for ELO out of nostalgia, but The Zombies definitely deserve it more (though I’d pick The Pretty Things over them). I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone voting for Chaka Khan, Chic, Joe Tex, Steppenwolf, The Cars or Tupac Shakur, but these are my picks. The only major WTF on this year’s ballot is Journey. I’m not a fan of J. Geils Band either but eh. Compared to the artists below, they’re pretty weak sauce.
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, Judas Priest, The Pretty Things, Big Star, Buzzcocks, The Damned, XTC, The Jam, Television, Joy Division, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Soft Machine & Robert Wyatt, T.Rex, Wire, Gang Of Four, Thin Lizzy, Nick Drake, Scorpions, King Crimson, UFO, New York Dolls, Motörhead, The Stranglers, X, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Minutemen, Public Image Ltd., The Specials, Madness, Devo, Iron Maiden! Can, Neu!, Pere Ubu, Hawkwind, Suicide, Chrome, Wishbone Ash, Flower Travellin’ Band, Family, The Groundhogs, Pink Fairies, The Saints, Stray, Amon Düül II, Magazine, This Heat, The Raincoats, The Feelies, The Slits, Radio Birdman, Killing Joke, Popol Vuh, Cluster, Harmonia, Guru Guru, Gong, Magma, Heldon, Van Der Graaf Generator, Khan, Captain Beyond, Caravan,T2, Comus, Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, Uriah Heep, Atomic Rooster, November, Speed, Glue & Shinki , Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Last year’s debut from Swedish kosmische psych group Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation, Horse Dance, was a pleasant surprise, despite the fact that there’s already more than a handful of artists exploring this sound, including labelmates Les Big Byrd, Moon Duo, Minami Deutsch, Föllakzoid, Sundays & Cybele, Flavor Crystals, Eat Lights Become Lights, Camera, Papir, Electric Orange, Sungod, Fujiya & Miyagi, Peaking Lights and Cave among others. Anyone who thinks the psych scene is staid has their head far up their ass. Listen to all these bands on random in a playlist, and they sparkle and glow like neon sugary treats, representing a scintillating array of flavors and textures. Those lucky enough to be at fests like Roskilde Festival and Eindhoven Psych Lab got a sneak preview of the band, but word caught fairly quickly, as the album snuck onto a few year-end lists. Continue reading →
Over a decade after metal’s resurgence, it seems to be stronger than ever, thanks to loyal followers of it’s many diverse mutations, resisting the patterns of other popular music to fall out of fashion. Sure, metal continues to ebb and flow in and out of favor of the mainstream in its nearly 50 year history, and certain subgenres sell better than others. For the kind of bands I follow, it’s a good sign when just a single day sees the release of several heavy albums worth hearing.
Anciients – Voice Of The Void (Season Of Mist)
On the Vancouver-based band’s promising debut, Heart Of Oak (2013), it was fairly easy to spot influences such as early Mastodon, Baroness, High On Fire and mid-period Opeth. Paying homage to some of my favorite metal bands certainly grabbed my attention, and for a debut, still had just enough of their own signature prog sludge sound. While all three of those bands have drifted away from their harder edged metal roots in recent years, Anciients have actually gotten heavier on their second album, a somewhat rare event. The band’s core inspirations remain the same, but they have made progress in bending the bars to form their own niche. The diversity of their styles are often packed within a single song, such as the changes in “Buried In Sand,” including a ferocious instrumental and vocal roar, switching off with clean vocals and an atmospheric psychedelic interlude and tricky prog time signatures. It’s no surprise that it’s also the longest track at 10:46. With two other tracks at nearly ten minutes, the album stretches out to well over an hour and six minutes, but does a good job in holding my interest with plenty of great riffs such as on “Pentacle,” and progged out solos worth of Tool on “Ibex Eye.” “Worshipper” gets nasty and sludgy, and “Serpents” has a subdued doomy atmosphere. The album closes with “Incantations,” peaking with another impressive burst of energy and riffage. When any variation of style can be compared to many of the thousands of bands out there, it’s hard to expect any band to always blaze new trails. Anciients offer a fresh updated bent on styles that many miss in their favorite bands.
From their debut with World Music (2012), the mysterious Swedish cult collective Goat have remained anonymous, hidden behind masks and tall tales of their origins. A mix of psychedelic rock, Afrobeat and other folk music was a winning formula on their debut, which translated to a colorful, danceable live show. Commune (2014) attempted to fine tune their style into something darker and heavier, which worked at times. However they have the same issue that a seemingly very different artist, M.I.A. has, in that they rely too much on their magpie cultural cannibalism, and not enough on songwriting craft. Both artists have yet to make a consistently great album, and both are now floundering a bit.
On their third album Requiem, they revert to a more folk based sound that seems to be meant to be more celebratory than sinister, but is kind of a mess. At over 63 minutes it’s by far their longest album, and it feels like it, with a significant portion of meandering filler. Incorporating influences from the Master Magicians of Jajouka and Peruvian pan-pipes is all well and good, but they don’t really add value to the band’s repertoire. The Eastern style percussion and melodies of “Try My Robe” are more successful, locking into one of the band’s more convincing grooves. Continuing the title theme of “Goatman,” “Goathead,” “Goatlord” and “Goatchild,” “Goatband” leads you to a pretty mesmerizing trance. However if you recognize the bassline from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” it’s hard not to be distracted. Guitars are used sparingly, with a nice solo near the end of “Alarms,” and at their heaviest on the appropriately titled “Goatfuzz.”
While it’s their least consistent album, there’s plenty here to enjoy for fans, and I don’t doubt they can still translate it to a captivating live show.
The massive batch of releases on September 30 marked the end of the third quarter with, perhaps not a bang, but rather the sound of an avalanche. Alas, 90% of those are destined to be landfill, and that’s perhaps the only bright side of the decline in physical media sales is it could probably fit in my backyard. But there’s plenty of great music to catch up on, with a few key releases remaining before the entire music world goes list crazy starting around Thanksgiving. Some of these releases go back as far as February, but I hadn’t gotten around to writing anything about them. It’s a bit of housekeeping, as I start sorting out what my favorites are for my own end of year lists. Nothing here will likely make Fester’s Lucky 13 (I reviewed Truckfighters last week, which is a top 3 contender), but as always, there’s a lot more worth checking out. Upcoming releases from 40 Watt Sun, Syd Arthur and Wolf People are quite likely to be year-end contenders.
1. Opeth – Sorceress (Moderbolaget/Nuclear Blast)
It seemed that with 2011’s Heritage and 2014’s Pale Communion, Opeth stopped being a metal band and went full-on prog. There were hints of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s proggy tendencies throughout the death metal pioneer’s career, including naming Blackwater Park (2001) after an obscure early 70s German folk psych prog band, and some of the progressive passages in Ghost Reveries (2005). Live, however, the band still manages to shift seamlessly between new and old songs, all the while sounding like Opeth, indicating there is continuity. Their third album in the prog series is the most immediately enjoyable, while perhaps not reaching quite the heights as Pale Communion. It also features some of the heaviest tracks since Watershed (2008), including “Sorceress,” featuring a lumbering proto-metal organ-driven crunch, and bookended by the fast and furious “Era.” The first half of “Chrysalis” rocks pretty hard, adding some space age synth effects straight out of Hawkwind. “The Wilde Flowers” is a highlight, operating within a wide dynamic range, from Zeppelin-like acoustica to a couple smoking solos worthy of Ritchie Blackmore of early 70s era Deep Purple. The acoustic “Will O The Wisp” is lovely and melodic, augmented by flute, bringing to mind some late period Jethro Tull, but also most likely their most universally accessible classic rock sound. The instrumental “The Seventh Sojourn” makes use of Middle Eastern chords and percussion, which sounds great, but seems like it would be more at home on a sprawling double album rather than taking up “5:29” worth of real estate on a single disc (not counting the bonus disc of the deluxe edition which includes two additional studio tracks and three live cuts). Perhaps my main complaint of much of Opeth’s prog era is their choices of influences. I know that Åkerfeldt has some gnarly psych prog in his collection, but major influences seem to be The Moody Blues, Camel and Genesis, three of my least favorite bands of the genre. Fortunately I prefer Opeth Mk II over most of the influences, like on the creepy occult vibe of “Strange Brew,” which features some haunting atmosphere with just bass and piano, and explosive yet complex moments that recall peak Yes. “A Fleeting Glance” is just a really smooth sounding showcase that highlights Åkerfeldt’s vocals at their best, and an airy, lovely arrangement, yet another reason why Sorceress is very likely to win over new fans than anything since Ghost Reveries. There’s no telling where Opeth will venture next, but they’re always a sure bet to be worth following. Continue reading →
It’s no secret that Truckfighters is one of my very favorite bands. Their live performances provide everything I would want in a heavy rock show — intense energy, great musicianship, humor, volume, fuzz, riffs, and more fuzz. Their albums are no slouch too. While Kyuss are without a doubt the key innovators of the genre (desert/stoner/heavy psych rock, or as Truckfighters have branded, fuzz), and while Truckfighters may not be experimental or groundbreaking, they have fine tuned their style to absolute perfection on their five albums, and no small achievement. Not just in preparation for the new album, I often listen to their first four studio albums (and their recent live album), probably more than almost any other band, including Kyuss and Colour Haze. Taken as a whole or focused individually, they all still sound magnificent. Over a decade after their debut full-length, I haven’t grown tired of any of their music, which always transports me. Measured up against that body of work, their fifth album V doesn’t disappoint.
Most people balk at spending more than $20 on a pair of headphones, given the disposable history of a typical portable consumer headphones for the past 35 years. Music lovers who do invest in a full size set of over-the ear cans, 9 times out of 10 they’re terrible sounding Beats or average sounding Bose noise reduction headphones. When flagships are selling for over $1,000, and more frequently more than $3,000, it’s understandable that the audiophile world can seem inaccessible to anyone but the most fervent hobbyists, obsessed music fiends, industry professionals, or just plain rich assholes with too much disposable income. However nearly every brand with a pricey flagship offers other more affordable models that benefit from the research and technology that go into the flagships. Case in point, the latest offering from venerable German company beyerdynamic, the DT 1990 Pro, which makes use of the Tesla technology first introduced to their T1 flagship in 2011. Tesla refers to the relatively large amount of magnetic force in the driver mechanism of the headphone which renders it very sensitive, and therefore efficient. The DT 1990 Pro is arguably a more accurate reference headphone than the T1, and at $600, less than half the current price of the updated T1 ($1,399). I also simply enjoy seeing images of new flagships, because they are often great looking works of art, much like loudspeakers and bicycles.
My love for headphones, as it is with many people, is rooted in a formative experience from my childhood. I grew up in an extended family of music lovers with pretty diverse record collections. However like a lot of sensible working class folks, they did not spend much money on fancy stereo systems. Well, my grandparents’ TV-record-player-shortwave-radio-bourbon-glass-storage combo might have been pricey for them back in the day, but it wasn’t exactly hi-fi. So the first time I put on my uncle’s full size Koss headphones (probably a 1974-76 model), I felt like I was in Oz when it flips to full color, or I’d fallen through the looking glass. I’d never heard music so intimately and with such detail before, and the experience played a big part in my becoming such an insatiable music fiend. Ironically my own headphone purchases started with an early cheap Sears knockoff of the Walkman, so basically the nadir of headphone history. It wasn’t until after college that I invested in a pair of Sony MDR-V6 to spare my housemates from my music late at night. Continue reading →
As the holiday gift-buying season approaches, reissues and box sets will be vying for consumer dollars. With the decline in physical album sales, I feared that only the most mainstream artists would receive the deluxe treatments that I’m sometimes a sucker for. There’s certainly no shortage of big names. For example, back in April Metallica reissued long-awaited remasters of their first three albums. However, no alternative options were given other than to get everything — four vinyl LPs, five to six CDs and a DVD, for the whopping price of nearly $140 each. If that seems a bit obnoxious for a band that owes their initial popularity to hardcore metalhead tape traders, well, it is. But if the market can sustain that kind of bloated pricing, that’s their perogative. Eventually (after the holidaze no doubt), more reasonable versions will become available. Other reissues include Lou Reed,The RCA & Arista Albums Collection (October 7, 17 CDs, $160), including nearly all his 70s and 80s albums which Reed himself remastered shortly before his death. Much more affordable are Otis Redding – Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings (October 21, 7 CDs, $49) and just out last week, Led Zeppelin,The Complete BBC Sessions (3 CDs, $19). There’s of course dozens more, from Nina Simone to Bruce Springsteen. However, the collections that excited me are from decidedly more obscure artists. Continue reading →