TV On The Radio – Seeds (Harvest)

TV On The Radio - Seeds (Harvest, 2014)I still haven’t recovered from 2011. One of my favorite bands had released their fourth album, Nine Types Of Light, which should have launched a triumphant victory lap around the globe after releasing two essentially perfect albums with Return To Cookie Mountain (2006) and Dear Science (2008). They had gotten the critical acclaim, topping the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll in 2008, and now they were due to sell some damn albums and tour in front of shit-tons of people. But they were shot in the knee when bassist Gerard Smith died of cancer. They canceled some club dates afterwards, and soldiered on for a few more. During times like these for popular bands or even smaller cult ones, you generally see massive outpourings of love and support from fans, and craploads of media coverage. Tastefully, the band retreated from all that to recoup and heal. But here’s the fucked up part. There was a bunch of startlingly mean-spirited, sniping feedback on the new album in forums and in reviews. Then there was…nothing. A virtual media blackout (despite the amazing full-length video they created to accompany the album). It sank without a trace, and while it certainly had taken a more pop direction, this was not a surprise. But the lukewarm response was shocking, as Nine Types of Light was freaking awesome, just only barely off the peak performance of the previous album. “Will Do” should have been a huge hit. They should have been up there getting Grammys, not Arcade Fire. I still seethe with outrage when I think about it.

The band however took it better than me, because, well, they’re TVOTR, and they’re cool like that. They just stepped back for a while and got back to it when they were ready to enjoy making new music again. Seeds applies just a touch more current pop production than the last one, but it’s hardly a departure. The band were never strangers to pop melodies, going back to “Staring At The Sun” 11 years ago. It starts out strong with some subtly experimental recording techniques on “Quartz,” with gamelon-like percussion and a nice reference to their early excursions in post-structuralist doo-wop. “Careful You” percolates with bubbling synths, strong hooks and double meanings.” “Could You” kicks off with a tasty 60s psych guitar riff, a simple, circular melody and celebratory horn bridge. “Happy Idiot” is the first single, which sounds deceptively simple, but  is quite brilliant in its tension between avant rock elements with funky electronics. A pure pop song that rides a wave of tension between fun and menace. Paul Reubons is excellent in the video, and lead singer Tunde Adebimpe is rocking the bald head and beard look like a boss.

“Test Pilot” takes a turn from innovation into more purely emotional territory. It’s the sort of pop ballad that could have come from Taylor Swift, and it’s just as good or better than any of her mega hits, with a catchier chorus. “Love Stained” also shamelessly draws from MOR sounds, but sells it based on the strength of its soulful euphoria. It’s only the seventh track “Ride” that I first find any fault with the album. The ambient Eno-like piano, synth and strings stretches the intro into two minutes, and it’s just too damn long. The motorik melody that kicks in is not bad, but also not a good enough payoff for such an uneventful first third. “Winter” also doesn’t do it for me. The guitars sound like an awkward afterthought, much like R.E.M. on one of their weaker albums, Monster, and the tune is just too slight. The punky “Lazerray” is much more satisfying. “Trouble” is the third track that I’m less than happy with. It’s one of the band’s rare boring moments. It pains me to admit it, but three misses out of a dozen is hardly a disaster. And it’s certainly not enough to justify this dismissive review that it’s “just dreary.” WTF! Yes, TVOTR can get grim and droney with the best of them, as anyone familiar with “Blind” and “Young Liars” from their 2003 EP can confirm. But they still deserve the status as one of the best bands around.

They more than redeem themselves with “Right Now,” where Kyp Malone deftly balances a jaunty playfulness with thoughtful, sensual melancholy. And then there’s album closer “Seeds,” which is just massively gorgeous, challenging the transcendent “Wash The Day” and triumphant “Lover’s Day.” So in the end I suppose this could be their least great album, though it’s still more consistent than their debut from a decade ago, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. It may be their first not to make my top 10 at the end of the year (we’ll see), but it’s hard to be disappointed when I’ve got nine thoroughly enjoyable new songs that have been dominating my playlists.

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Doom Clap: Apostle of Solitude & The Skull

No, this isn’t a about a new strain of venereal disease, nor a showdown of doom covers of “Boom Clap” (Charlie XCX would do well to cover a classic doom song though). It is, however, at least the fifth time this year that two notable doom metal albums were released on the same day. I’m pretty stoked to see this, as it means that the increasing stream of new doom releases that have been ramping up the past several years hasn’t slowed down. Plenty of classic doom practitioners have re-emerged and reunited, pretty much revitalized across the board, including Pagan Altar, Revelation, Count Raven, Iron Man, Las Cruces, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Blood Farmers and of course, Black Sabbath. Doom is in the air, and the disciples have not been lazy, as the overall quality of these albums seems to get better every year.

Apostle Of Solitude - Of Woe And Wounds (Cruz del Sur, 2014)Apostle Of Solitude – Of Woe And Wounds (Cruz Del Sur)
It’s fitting that one of the best of the newer American doom bands come from a city that rivals Birmingham for being grim and depressing — Indianapolis, Indiana. Apostle of Solitude emerged fully formed with the excellent Sincerest Misery (Eyes Like Snow, 2008). Four and a half years after their second album, Last Sunrise (2010), their long-awaited third is finally here. Their sound continues down the same path of traditional rockin’ doom rooted in classic Pentagram, Trouble and Saint Vitus, with touches of psychedelia, such as on the trippy solos on “Die Vicar Die.” Chuck Brown’s vocals are a strong point. Rather than trying too hard to sound like a badass bridge troll or a meth head who accidentally gargled on toilet cleaner, his are clean and melodic with mostly well-placed harmonies. The lyrics and verses are controlled and concise, but convey enough emotion to put him up there with any of the strongest vocalists of the genre, not to mention a couple well-placed screams like on “This Mania.” “Push Mortal Coil” is another highlight that should become another live favorite with some of the best riffs and melodies. Album-closer “Luna” is their most epicly expansive, and appropriately the longest at 8:18.

Don’t be fooled by their seemingly simple style. It might seem familiar at first, but the songs are structured like moebius strips that could suck you into an infinite loop without minding at all. This is a band that’s been around the block, becoming masters of subtlety as well as heavy. While bands like Tombs, Triptykon and YOB have gotten more attention by mixing up elements of different metal sub-genres, it would be a mistake to ignore a great band like Apostle of Solitude.

The Skull - For Those Which Are Asleep (Tee Pee, 2014)The Skull – For Those Which Are Asleep (Tee Pee)
Chicago based The Skull are basically Trouble, minus original founding guitarist Rick Wartell, who continues to lead his own incarnation of Trouble. This is not uncommon in long-running metal bands, and I say the more the merrier, although Trouble’s album this year, The Distortion Field, was pretty disappointing. The Skull, however, lead by Eric Wagner, sounds revitalized, surpassing anything Trouble has done the past 20 years, including Plastic Green Head (1995). Part of this is due to Wagner, Ron Holzer, Jeff Olson and guitarists Lothar Keller and Matt Goldsborough (who they plucked from a recent incarnation of Pentagram) returning to the psychedelic roots of their creative peak in the early 90s with the two Rick Rubin-produced albums. “Sick Of It All” and “Down” ooze with foreboding atmosphere and shimmering production you don’t often find on doom albums lately. If there’s any question that they absorbed some influence from the garage-psych roots of 90s contemporaries like Soundgarden, The Screaming Trees and Alice In Chains, “Send Judas Down” should settle it. “Til The Sun Turns Black” should be familiar to those who heard it as the single released earlier in the year, a nicely swinging, bluesy chugger. The longer title track seems paced to be a kind of centerpiece, with a swirling acoustic intro that brings to mind Monster Magnet’s space rock, but soon gets much heavier. Definitely one of their best tunes. “The Last Judgement” revisits the first song Trouble ever recorded way back in 1983. When so many artists often ignore their humble beginnings, it’s refreshing to see The Skull pay homage to their roots even under a different name.

There wasn’t a lot of hype and fanfare, at least in the larger metal universe, about The Skull’s debut. So to me it kind of feels like a surprise gift of the best sort, an completely unexpectedly great album packed with memorable songs.

So who wins the showdown? That’s for you to figure out! It’s too close for me to decide right now, but I will by the end of year list. Buy ‘em both and tell me which you liked best!

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Spiders – Shake Electric (Spinefarm)

Spiders - Shake Electric (Spinefarm, 2014)There’s been yet another wave of high-profile quotes from celebrity musicians about how rock ‘n’ roll is dead and nothing rocks with passion anymore, blah blah, whine whine. All the while there’s amazing bands like Gothenburg’s Spiders rocking the fuck out right in front of their stupid faces. Rather than complain, maybe they ought to remove their ears from their assholes and spread the word about the great albums that do come out. Spiders’ 2012 full-length debut Flash Point (Crusher) was one of the best of that year along with the ones by fellow Swedes Graveyard, Witchcraft and Troubled Horse. The fact that they probably still aren’t known enough to tour North America without losing money is a freakin’ crime. Continue reading

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Doom Colossi – Electric Wizard & Witch Mountain

It’s often assumed that doom metal is merely a retro genre that refers exclusively back to the 70s and 80s. But there’s another possible story. Doom didn’t even really exist in the 70s. Sure, Black Sabbath has a handful of proto-doom songs, particularly on Master Of Reality that are clearly the launchpad of the genre. Pentagram ran with it, but no one really noticed until the mid-80s. There are undeniably some classics in the 80s from Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Candlemass, Trouble, The Obsessed, Pagan Altar and Witchfinder General. But doom is a slow moving beast, and kept growing and expanding through the 00s, and arguably is enjoying its biggest audience ever right now. Black Sabbath may have never directly acknowledged being part of doom to my knowledge, but something influenced them to revisit their early 70s sound, resulting in 13 being undeniably doomy. Pentagram was featured in a documentary and seem to be at peak popularity along with Saint Vitus, along with younger bands like Pallbearer and Witch Mountain. We’ve seen some big releases recently from Pallbearer, Earth and YOB (all of whom were featured on the covers of glossy magazines that don’t always focus on doom like Decibel and Rock-A-Rolla. Anticipation for Electric Wizard’s eighth album seems more feverish than even the tortured, extended wait between Come My Fanatics… (1997) and Dopethrone (2000).

Electric Wizard - Time To Die (Spinefarm, 2014)Electric Wizard – Time To Die (Spinefarm)
If there was ever case of my being a big fan of a band I wouldn’t necessarily want to know personally, it’s Electric Wizard. Jus Osborn by most accounts seems to be extremely difficult to work with. Alienating his biggest longtime supporter Lee Dorian and his Rise Above label was pretty pointless. They somehow figured they’d have more control over their destiny by starting their own label Witchfinder, and release the new album in May. That obviously didn’t work out, and they ended up with Finnish label Spinefarm, who has the distribution muscle of Universal Music Group. The label has developed a pretty large metal roster since 1999 and should be fine. Meanwhile, Osborn moved further out into the countryside to percolate in his misanthropic lair with wife and bandmate Liz Buckingham who joined in 2003. He lured original drummer Mark Greening back long enough to record the album before unceremoniously dumping him again, and hired bassist Clayton Burgess to replace Glenn Charman. Burgess also leads his own great band Satan’s Satyrs. Continue reading

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Goat – Commune (Rocket Recordings/Sub Pop)

Goat - Commune (Rocket Recordings/Sub Pop, 2014)Goat – Commune (Rocket Recordings/Sub Pop)
When Goat’s debut World Music came out in 2012 and immediately earned a pile of praise and attention, I had mixed feelings. On one hand I welcome a new Swedish psych band with interesting ideas of mixing Afrobeat and kosmische with voodoo-based costumes and stage show. On the other, the hype they received seemed disproportionate to the overall quality compared with some other bands in the scene. Despite a few attention-stretching lulls in the album, their whole concept was just too well executed to dismiss. They proved themselves with a captivating live show with the amazing costumes, dancing and musicianship. I don’t care whether their claims to freakish cult spiritualism is bullshit or not, they work their asses off  to create powerful experiences. Continue reading

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The Well – Samsara (RidingEasy)

The Well - Samsara (RidingEasy, 2014)The Well – Samsara (RidingEasy, 2014)
Small Stone isn’t the only indie heavy rock label that’s ablaze with a string of great releases. RidingEasy Records (they had to change their name from Easy Rider for legal reasons) looks at first like someone’s irreverent hobby label with Sabbath Worship patches, “Keep On Fuckin’” shirts and novelty cassette tape releases. But in just over a year they’ve built up an impressive roster of over a dozen bands covering stoner, doom, psych, garage, punk, hard rock in all kinds of hybrid variations. The latest this week is a stellar debut from Austin’s The Well. Since 2012 they’ve released well received records in a single and EP. Continue reading

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Shellac – Dude Incredible (Touch and Go)

Shellac - Dude Incredible (Touch & Go, 2014)Shellac – Dude Incredible (Touch and Go)
Despite Shellac’s infrequent shows and albums (Dude Incredible is only their fifth album in 20 years), I was lulled into taking them for granted for a while. Since first seeing them live in 1993 at the Lounge Ax, where they set up on the floor rather than the stage, and buying their first three singles with hand-painted art, I’ve been a fan. Steve Albini’s willingness to take those in the music industry to task for various crimes and misdemeanors generated split opinions about his music, leading some to misjudge his bands. Sure, there was always a molten core of punk rage to his work, but to see them live usually meant a lot of jokes. The trio exuded the good-natured aura of musicians enjoying what they do without the pressure of trying to win over a larger audience, impress industry execs or feed their families with long tours. They have their day jobs, and when they can, they do what they love best, making music with friends. While At Action Park (1994) is a complete classic which measures up to the finest work of the bands Albini admired the most at the time, The Jesus Lizard and Fugazi, Terraform (1998), 1000 Hurts (2000) and Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007) were solid, interesting albums, but felt somewhat lacking in urgency to my ears. Continue reading

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Post-Punk Rundown

It’s been such a great year for stoner/psych/doom that I’ve just been soaking in it like a hot spring, and neglecting other genres. I’ll always have room for post-punk, and have been following the releases pretty closely. It just hasn’t been as busy a year for high profile releases as 2012-13 (Savages, Beastmilk, PINS, Weekend, Holograms, Palma Violets, Merchandise, Deep Time, Makthaverskan, etc.). Still, there’s some albums worth noting. Not anything (yet) that’s going to haunt my top 40, but hovering just under, with the exception of some albums where post-punk is an element, but not the primary one, like the latest from Wovenhand, The Sea KingsThe New Christs, Swans and Parquet Courts. Coming up on October 20, The Mark Lanegan Band’s Phantom Radio will have some post-punk influences. “…although the Trees drew on Nuggets psychedelia, 13th Floor Elevators and Love, we were actually listening to Echo And The Bunnymen, Rain Parade, the Gun Club. A lot of British post-punk. We loved that stuff. I just waited until I was in my late forties before I started ripping it off” Lanegan told Backseat Mafia.

There was a bit of anticipation for the recently released second album by Merchandise, which took an audacious new pop direction to mostly successful ends. Interpol’s first album in four years and first since a lineup change was both anticipated and dreaded by fans, often simultaneously, for good reasons. But the results are a pleasant surprise.

Interpol - El Pintor (Matador, 2014)Interpol – El Pintor (Matador)
Interpol have been my post-punk whipping boys for well over a decade. Despite the ridiculous lyrics, the music of their debut Turn On The Bright Lights (2002) has stood the test of time. But I guess part of me never forgave them for an interview where they claimed having never heard The Chameleons, Comsat Angels, and probably some other key post-punk pioneers. That was complete bullshit, as I heard their influences all over the record. They might as well have denied knowledge of Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen and The Smiths. It’s one of the reasons I prefer metal bands, who would never be so disingenuous as to blatantly deny their obvious influences. Antics (2004) seemed a complete letdown at the time, but compared to the greatly diminished returns of the next two albums, it doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect. I admit I experienced some schadenfreude from their failure, but I still kind of hoped they could bounce back and make another great album. And so with these greatly diminished expectations, we are presented with El Pintor. It’s a promising title, a little bold and cocky sounding, though it simply translates to “The Painter.” They shed Carlos Dengler and his dark energy, and singer Paul Banks gamely took on bass duties. It’s early to say it’s a total triumph, but it’s definitely a comeback. I don’t know if they redeemed themselves by kissing Mark Burgess’ ring, or if they’re just refreshed after a long break and culling the herd. From the slow buildup to a pretty great, high energy single in “All the Rage Back Home” to “Anywhere,” “Ancient Ways,” “Breaker 1,” “Everything Is Wrong,” to even the somewhat odd pop of “My Blue Supreme,” they hit the target every time. They may never match their debut, but this is easily better than Antics, which is more than anyone ever expected.  I’m glad they stuck it out. Continue reading

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Doom Tectonics: Earth & YOB

Earth - Primitive And Deadly (Southern Lord, 2014)Earth – Primitive And Deadly (Southern Lord)
Earth and YOB are two bands that I’ve admired for years. Earth’s flawed but groundbreaking Extra-Capsular Extraction (Sub Pop, 1991) influenced drone-doom just as much as Slint and My Bloody Valentine influenced other genres that year. Like our planet’s drifting continental plates, they evolved just as gradually as the early instrumental tracks seemed to unfold, experimenting with many styles, ending up with a sort of world-weary, cactus-dry Americana on their past few albums. While requiring a bit of patience, most of their albums are pretty rewarding. But in their explorations, there was also an emotional distance that was such a given, I never even though to wonder, “what if…” Dylan Carlson did, however. After the extremely laid back acoustic based Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light Vols. 1 & 2 (2011-12), recorded while Carlson was dealing with some health issues, he’s ready to rock out with his cock out. Or at least write and record with more focus an energy than ever before. Continue reading

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New Albums of the Week

The dog days of summer are not usually the time of year I see a lot of high profile releases, which is why I was so surprised that over ten good to great albums came out around August 5th. The albums from Blues Pills, Brimstone Coven, The Sea Kings, Spoon, John Garcia, Saturn, Spiral Shades and John Gallow probably weren’t highly anticipated by a lot of people, but they were some of the best 2014 has had to offer so far. This week we’re really rolling with even more releases. With over 15,000 albums released a year, of course there’s always a lot of crap coming out, but a batch of thirteen albums worth hearing in August is certainly worth noting. My excitement isn’t quite the same as with the last batch, but they’re significant releases that all have their fans, many well worth checking out.

Death Penalty - Death Penalty (Rise Above, 2014)Death Penalty – Death Penalty (Rise Above)
This is released only in Europe so far, which I don’t understand. Staggering release dates by country is a completely antiquated practice. It’s 2014, when an album is out, it’s out. Labels and bands would be better off making sure everyone can buy it at the same time. Despite being a debut album, this has a pretty high anticipation factor, considering it’s leader is Gaz Jennings, who played guitar in Cathedral for 25 years. He recruited a couple members of the excellent Belgian doom/sludge band SerpentCult, including vocalist Michelle Nocon, and a member of Belgian death metallers Tortureama. Given how great the results were when Leif Edling of Candlemass recruited Jennie-Ann Smith for Avatarium last year, I felt there might be some friendly competition from Death Penalty. For the most part, it delivers, but leaning more towards traditional metal than doom. The performances have a nicely loose and gritty feel, kind of like a slightly slower Christian Mistress or Castle. However after over a dozen listens, I can’t quite rave about it like I expected, as a few of the songs just don’t quite do it for me feeling a bit flat. There’s great standouts like  ”Eyes of the Heretic” and “She is a Witch,” but overall it’s not consistent enough to quite measure up to the aforementioned bands, recent albums by The Oath or Satyress, or even SerpentCult’s Raised By Wolves (2011). Nevertheless, fans of Jennings’ career and his love for classic metal will find much to dig into. Continue reading

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