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.

Heat - Labyrinth (This Charming Man, 2014)Heat – Labyrinth (This Charming Man)
One of the many retro hard psych rock bands Germany has produced lately, Heat released their debut Old Sparky in 2012, a year that also saw great debuts from fellow Germans Kadavar and Orcus Chylde. They site heavy psych and proto-metal bands like Wishbone Ash, Atomic Rooster and Jerusalem, and they do a great job of invoking the spirit of heavy prog, psych and hard rock from that era. Before the Germans got a handle on these sounds, there are of course the Swedes like Graveyard, Witchcraft, Horisont, Dead Man and Troubled Horse. The album might sound deceptively simple on first glance, but they throw down the prog gauntlet early on with track 3, the 9+ minute “The Golden Age.” Not every composition is awe inspiring, but they swing as well as rock.

Opeth - Pale Communion (Roadrunner, 2014)Opeth – Pale Communion (Roadrunner)
On their 11th album, Opeth’s days of surprising their fans are over. Though pissing off certain fans is a given. It’s interesting that Damnation (2003), which was pretty much full-on acoustic folk, was much more accepted than the full-on prog of Heritage (2011). Partly because the songs are better on the former. And of course they’re easier to get into than the complicated structures on the latter. The latest sounds pretty much like the sequel to Heritage, but with some major improvements in songwriting, such as the almost catchy “Cusp of Eternity.” The sound is a little more geared toward their 70s influences of King Crimson and Gentle Giant rather than the more slickly modern recent prog. However, by the last few tracks that average over 7:30, it can get a little boring. The sound is gorgeous, and those who are into it will find some rewarding headphone time. But as much as I like a lot of prog, I do miss the power and tension where their progtastic impulses fought it out with their savage death metal past, particularly on Ghost Reveries (2005) and Blackwater Park (2001).

The Wytches - Annabel Dream Reader (Heavenly, 2014)The Wytches - Annabel Dream Reader (Heavenly)
A young British band that draws on twangy surf the psychedelic garage noir of The Cramps and early post-punkabilly of The Birthday Party complete with occult horror lyrics. This might as well be musical crack to people like me. And on songs like the devilishly tuneful “Wide at Midnight” and “Gravedweller,” they live up to their promise. They don’t uphold those standards through the whole album, though. By the second half it feels like they’re repeating themselves, and maybe needed a little more time to develop their songs.  Kristian Bell’s tortured, screamy singing starts to sound more whiny in the end, like an exhausted and frightened Black Francis. But it’s a really promising debut, and I could totally see them developing their sound into something more muscular and assertive, and diversifying the vocals.

Merchandise - After the End (4AD, 2014)Merchandise – After The End (4AD)
After several cassette releases, Tampa Bay, FL’s Merchandise hit all the right post-punk buttons with the excellent Children Of Desire (2012), an alluring mix of Joy Division inspired darkwave and post-Jesus & the Mary Chain fuzz. After the transitional Totale Night EP (2013), the band has self-produced their all-out pop assault as promised. And like a lot of pop albums, it’s a mixed bag. When it nails a great tune, it’s transcendent, such as the earworm candy jangle pop that’s an unlikely union of Felt and Interpol, “Little Killer” and the gorgeously loping Lloyd Cole influenced “Enemy.”  ”Telephone” is particularly interesting, a kind of stupidly simple lyrical hook adorned with a great guitar line that could have been a lost outtake from Television’s second album. It’s loaded with insouciant confidence. However, many other tracks are meandering dirges completely lacking in hooks. I mean, if you’re gonna go pop, go all in. I don’t know what they’re trying to get at, some sort of lost alternate reality 1985 recording where Scott Walker collaborates with Talk Talk? Actually that sounds pretty awesome. Too band the rest of the album doesn’t quite measure up.

Wolf - Devil Seed (Century Media, 2014)Wolf – Devil Seed (Century Media)
Sweden’s strongest, most consistent advocates of the New Retro Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal. Their seventh album since 2000 is more of the same, but hella fun. It’s a tough call whether it’s any better than their last album, Legions of Bastards (2011). On first few listens I’m definitely enjoying it more than countrymen Portrait’s Crossroads. And in regards to somewhat purist traditional heavy metal, it measures up closer to the latest from Grand Magus, Dark Forest, Darkest Era and Vestal Claret.

Blackwolfgoat – Drone Maintenance (Small Stone)
Droney jams from Darryl Shepard, it tells a story through crackly announcements throughout the album. Otherwise it’s hypnotic guitar stylings, but very original and worth the effort.

Ty Segall – Manipulator (Drag City)
Ty Segall is an extremely prolific San Francisco based garage psych musician who is responsible for well over two dozen albums. I listened to nearly all of them and as suspected, he spreads his creativity a bit thin. His talent is undeniable though, and on his latest, he seemed to spend a little extra time honing the songs and recording them well. Possibly his best, definitely a good way to enter his often shambolic world.

New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers (Matador)
More of the same on Canadian indie power poppers’ sixth album, which if you’re a fan, is no bad thing.

The Bug – Angels & Devils (Ninja Tune)
Kevin Martin has done some amazing stuff, and based on his work with God, Ice, Techno Animal and King Midas Sound, he’s probably a genius. I rated The Bug’s first few albums highly too at the time. From 1998 to 2008, their proto-dubstep and rotating guests dipping into dub, grime and dancehall seemed edgy and futuristic. It hasn’t dated well though, and this album might some brilliant moments, but I keep getting bad flashbacks to the late 90s when people thought drum ‘n’ bass was going to take over. Fuckit, I just can’t get in the mood for this!

Royal Blood – Royal Blood (WB)
A slicker, more muscular British White Stripes with catchy choruses and decent riffs, this is the kind of polished version of garage rock that could get some huge mainstream love. It’s very immediate and likable on the first few listens, but I suspect the charm might wear off quickly.

The Haunted – Exit Wounds (Century Media)
Swedish death thrash! More of the same, but better than their last.

J. Mascis – Tied To A Star (Sub Pop)
This is his third solo album, and it’s well done acoustic based stuff. I like acoustic sometimes, but J bores me to tears when he’s not plugged in, sorry.

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Double Dose of Doom: Pallbearer & Cardinals Folly

Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore, 2014)Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore, 2014)
When I saw Pallbearer live after releasing their debut album Sorrow and Extinction (2012), it was clear that they take their doom seriously. With such somber subject matter, some might wonder how else one would expect them to be. But there are plenty of doom bands that emphasize other aspects, such as campy love of horror kitsch loaded with obscure, nerdy humor. Doom might not be the first metal genre to bring to mind “party music,” but it exists! Pallbearer aren’t out to ruin your party, but they’ll be there for you after, at 3 a.m. when your girlfriend has dumped you. Not that they’re exactly about romantic breakups, but rather more colossal calamities like bloodlust, crippling regret and the end of time. They’ll make your problems seem not so big a deal. Continue reading

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The New Christs – Incantations (Impedance, 2014) & Hits – Hikikomori (Conquest Of Noise, 2014)

New Christs - Incantations (Impedance, 2014)Someone coming across The New Christs’ latest album Incantations in the top ten for the year in the post-punk and garage rock charts at Rate Your Music could easily believe they’re a relatively new band. The sound isn’t exactly brand new, but the menacing edge and vital songwriting suggests an energy not normally associated with ones pushing 60. But they’re not so new, having been a band in varying forms since 1981, lead by the not so young Rob Younger, best known as the lead singer for the legendary Aussie sons-of-the Stooges Radio Birdman from 1974-78. Along with The Saints and The Birthday Party, they established templates in punk and post-punk that would be followed by bands in Australia and throughout the world. Continue reading

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New Albums of the Week

Summer is usually a slow time for new releases, but the first week of August has turned out to be full of great ones. Blues Pills’ debut of course is already strong contender for my year-end top 13.  Read full review here. There’s more than a half dozen other new albums totally deserving of attention too.

Brimstone Coven (Metal Blade, 2013)Brimstone Coven – Brimstone Coven (Metal Blade)
This is actually a reissue of last year’s self-released II, with their 2012 debut as bonus tracks, remastered.  Formed in Wheeling, WV in 2011, Brimstone Coven specialize in heavy psych, doom and proto-metal with occult themes. With high profile releases in recent years by The Devil’s Blood, Ghost and Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, some might question what this band has to offer that’s special. The answer is some freaking brilliant songwriting and harmonies.  Metal Blade certainly recognized this and signed the band. I don’t normally focus on reissues, but clearly not enough people heard this band previously, and they need to.  It can be fun to dig in and identify possible influences, such as perhaps Jack Bruce in the Big John Williams’ vocals, and plenty of obscure proto-metal influences. But it all comes down to their craft, mastery, musicianship and range. Think in terms of the level of Witchcraft (either the band or the magic, you pick). The arrangements, flow and mood of this album perfectly match the songwriting. Fans of the aforementioned bands and Purson and Blood Ceremony won’t be disappointed.

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Blues Pills – Blues Pills (Nuclear Blast, 2014)

Blues Pills - Blues Pills (Nuclear Blast, 2014)While Blues Pills is a brand new name for many, their debut full-length has felt like a long time coming, given that they turned some heads just six months after forming by releasing the Bliss EP (2012). They sounded fully formed and experienced despite the fact that their guitarist was just 16 years old. Rhythm section Cory Berry (drums) and Zach Anderson (bass) were playing a 2011 gig in France with their previous band Radio Moscow, and they were hugely impressed by the opening band, featuring guitar prodigy Dorian Sorriaux. Sorriaux lived and breathed music at an early age, with ZZ Top being his first favorite band at the age of 4. He began playing guitar at 9, with Rory Gallagher, Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) and Paul Kossof (Free) as additional influences. Later that year Cory and Zach met Swedish singer Elin Larsson in California. They started writing music together and sent Dorian demos. By December, they became the Blues Pills, with the two Americans, who were originally from Iowa, moving to Sweden to establish a home base in Örebro. Let’s hope their experience assimilating into a new culture is going more smoothly than Greg Poehler is portraying in his comedy Welcome To Sweden! Continue reading

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Psychedelic Psummer Rundown + Extra Blues, Prog & Metal

Mastodon - Once More 'Round The Sun (Relapse, 2014)Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun (Reprise)
After the first week, Mastodon entered the Billboard Album Chart at #6. That’s a pretty great placing for a metal album, even though some think it somehow means metal is in decline since one of its best bands can’t sell as much as Metallica. Durrr, no. That makes no sense. With metal fests flourishing around the world and tons of sold out tours, metal is doing just fine. But there are so many genres now, no one is going to agree on one singular band to represent metal. Though if you go strictly by sales the past few years, then I guess it’s a close race between Avenged Sevenfold, Linkin Park and Five Finger Death Punch. While it is true that fewer metal albums take the top positions in the charts, look at who we had in the top 100 in 2002 — Creed, Linkin Park, Nickelback, Puddle Of Mudd, P.O.D., Kid Rock, System Of A Down, Incubus, Korn and Staind. So yeah, who gives a flying rat’s ass? Continue reading

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Doom Goes Boom in June

I would normally associate doom metal with later in the year, like November, when everything is dying. But with summer festivals and early summer release schedules, the time to doom out really gets going in June. Last year, of course, Black Sabbath made history when their Rick Rubin-produced reunion album 13 made history by souring to #1 on both the British and U.S. Billboard album charts, a first for doom. This got me cautiously excited about the prospect that mainstream would go crazy for doom (see Doom Goes Pop), or at least recognize it as a thing. You know, a genre of music worth noting and seeking out as the logical conclusion of the blues. But no. Most see Black Sabbath as just plain metal, or worse, Ozzy’s backing band. Saint Vitus or Trouble won’t be haunting the Billboard charts anytime soon.

But on a smaller scale, doom does seem healthier than ever. Doom bands are getting top billing in at least a dozen festivals in Europe between April and October. Tours in the U.S. are still sporadic, and sadly the great Days Of The Doomed IV was the last one, but the Scion Fest in Pomona, CA shows there’s still a growing audience. Bands like 40 Watt Sun and Pallbearer have gotten a good amount of attention in the music press beyond the usual doom and metal blogs. Wo Fat - The Conjuring (Small Stone, 2014)And bigger names like Down and Corrosion Of Conformity continue to pay homage to doom. And there’s a killer batch of doom albums that were released in June. Probably the most impressive release of the month was Wo Fat, The Conjuring (Small Stone) on June 17. The Dallas, TX band’s fifth album is the best example of their unique voodoo blues-doom-boogie fusion. Read the full review here.

Serpent Venom - Of Things Seen & Unseen (The Church Within, 2014)Serpent Venom – Of Things Seen & Unseen (The Church Within)
This band has been steadily growing on me since they released their debut Carnal Altar on the German label The Church Within in 2011. It’s an addictive mix of traditional Sabbath worship, blown-out Electric Wizard distortion, and lyrics that delve into occult pop culture and horror. The second album, produced by Chris Fielding, who produced fellow Brits Electric Wizard and Conan, refines the formula only slightly, holding on to that gloriously heavy, fuzzed out sound. While five of the seven songs on the debut stretch beyond 8 minutes, the new one is more concise with just two of eight going to epic length. The playing seems both looser and more fluid, reflecting the years spent gigging and rehearsing. Gary “Gaz” Ricketts’ vocals have become stronger and unique too. Continue reading

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Days of the Doomed Fest IV

Days Of The Doomed IV (2014)What better way to celebrate the summer solstice by ducking in from the 15.25 hours of daylight in a Wisconsin metal bar and doom out to up to a dozen bands (22 if you also went Friday).  I was unable to make it the first day, missing out on what were reportedly great sets from Bible Of The Devil (who I get to see every year at the Alehorn Of Power festivals), Apostle Of Solitude, Orodruin, Blackfinger (former Trouble singer Eric Wagner’s band) and Las Cruces.  I was most excited to see Brimstone Coven, who’s second album II (2013) made my year-end top Lucky 13 last year, and the mighty and mysterious Jex Thoth, who despite being from Madison, WI, rarely performs in the U.S. Continue reading

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Wo Fat – The Conjuring (Small Stone, 2014)

Wo Fat - The Conjuring (Small Stone, 2014)Since the enthusiastic reception at last year’s Roadburn festival in Tilburg, Netherlands and Desertfest, London, and their recent high profile slot at the Freak Valley festival in Netphen, Germany, one might assume Wo Fat is a European band. It’s understandable, as to my knowledge they have never extensively toured the United States much beyond their home base in Dallas, Texas. To be fair, their brand of heavy psychedelic stoner rock is most appreciated in Europe, where there is a series of a dozen festivals that specialize in their genres. Continue reading

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1988 – Buyer’s & Seller’s Remorse

When I started buying CDs in the summer of ’88, it brought a new consideration to my music buying decisions. At $10 to $16 a pop new, it was not a small investment, especially when I was making only $5 an hour at my two summer jobs. My plan was to continue buying used tapes and checking out stuff via my college radio station library, and only buy CDs of albums I’d want to keep for life. My first purchases of Joy Division’s Substance, the Dukes of Stratosphear Chips of the Chocolate Fireball collection (XTC’s psychedelic alter-ego) the 80+ minute Mission of Burma collection and PixiesCome On Pilgrim/Surfer Rosa combo set a high standard. The new releases that fall by Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Naked Raygun, Eleventh Dream Day and The Feelies seemed sufficiently epic to justify the cost too.

I got a little excited and optimistic based on those albums, and thought there was even more instant classics around the corner. I ended up with a small pile of slow growers that disappointed me so much at the time that I sold them within a couple months. I taped them before I did so, and  over the years ended up wearing out or losing the tapes, and spent the following decades hunting down the same albums all over again. Looking back they are all pretty much underrated now, and overdue for critical reassessment and in most cases, reissues.

Game Theory - Two Steps From The Middle Ages (Enigma, 1988)Game Theory – Two Steps From The Middle Ages (Enigma)
I’d heard cuts from early stuff like Blaze Of Glory (1981), Pointed Accounts of People You Know EP (1983), Distortion EP (1984) and Real Nighttime (1985) while listening to KUNI in high school. Their lightly psychedelic jangle pop was distinguished from others like Let’s Active and R.E.M. with Scott Miller’s unique vocal melodies and bookish lyrics that gave them a distinct sound, despite sharing producer Mitch Easter. Big Shot Chronicles (1986) remains my favorite, but Lolita Nation (1987) got a lot of attention for being an ambitious double album that measured up well against the ones that year from The Cure and Hüsker Dü. Their final album, Two Steps From the Middle Ages, disappointed some because it didn’t quite reach the heights of the double, or the consistency of Big Shot. But in retrospect, it was a great album that rewards deep listening. Miller went on to make several albums the following decades with Loud Family, and I’m guilty of neglecting those too. Sadly, he died last year, and never got to enjoy the fruits of a nicely curated reissue program. A label like Secretly Canadian, who reissued the full double album version of the Jacobites‘ Robespierre’s Velvet Basement (1985) or Captured Tracks (box sets of Cleaners From Venus and The Bats) would do the music world a great service in reissuing the long out of print Game Theory albums. YouTube sometimes has full versions of out of print albums. I can’t find Two Steps but here’s Lolita Nation.

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