A guide to musical bridges confusing dreams and reality

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness (2010)

  Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness

   Sludge without the metal? That was my first thought once I finished listening to Harvey Milk's A Small Turn of Human Kindness. The extremely slow, stop-and-start rhythms are here, as are the loud, sustained vocals. But there's no heaviness, no brutality. It sounds like a metal record that has just undergone a catastrophically botched appendix removal.
   Musically, A Small Turn of Human Kindness is unlike anything I've heard recently. The melodies are all played on extremely thin guitars with almost no bottom end and don't even really sound like melodies, closer to major scales with a few wrong notes most of the time. The drums are standard sludge faire - very low tempos and half time drops everywhere. The vocals are a strange mix of mere shouting, lots of sustain and a minimal effort to to follow the melodies. Its pretty similar to early SWANS stuff but more shout-y and less Tibetan monk. The bass is barely audible and follows the melodies almost exactly. There are plenty of bass drops and stop-start sections as well. Most of the play time, this record is sludge metal at its most codexical, but there is something missing: it sounds as if the entire midsection of the band has been cut out, like there is a track or 2 missing. In the latter 2 tracks some synths and pianos are used to greatly confusing and novel effect, as well.
   In terms of production, A Small Turn of Human Kindness is well done on almost all fronts. Everything is audible and the drum kit has a special sense of room that makes it stand out as more "live" than the rest of the band. Every note the guitar and bass play are distinguishable, but they have absolutely NO BALLS until the disc's last 2 tracks. There are some really awesomely heavy riffs and rhythms happening thru this record but they don't come off as such because they have no low end whatsoever for most of the record.
   I will be blunt about originality: I'm sure I have never heard a record like this, but I'm confused about whether that is a good thing. It would be a great thing if it were given the balls it deserves production-wise. Like most of the stuff I review on this site, its not at all for the mainstream metal listener; this is a record that will probably confuse you at first, and if not you will be bored right out of your skull. It will be right up your alley if you are mainly into heavily experimental metal (ie. Sunn O))), Dillinger Escape) because it takes many big leaps in terms of instrumentation and despite the misjudgements in envelope, its really innovative and sticks together as a record in its own weird, depressing way if you are willing to take it in as a whole.

Production - 6
Composition - 7
Originality - 9 
Overall 7.33

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: Celeste - Morte(s) Nee(s)

Celeste - Morte(s) Nee(s) (2010)

   Celeste is a 4-member French black metal/doom act currently on Denovali records. They have released 1 EP and 3 full-lengths, of which Morte(s) Nee(s) is the latest.
One of the first things I noticed about Morte(s) Nee(s) was the vocal effort. The band's singer has a really unique sounding technique; its a blend of black metal and hardcore but the drive lies in a lower part of his voice so that it approaches a more punk oriented sound, and the tiny hint of a french accent add up to a genuinely interesting performance. They're also mixed well enough to where I can hear some of the french lyrics from the titles (although I don't speak french xD). Unfortunately, there is little more than tremolo-picked atonal and minor key melodies sparsely separated by death metal breakdowns as far as the rest of the act is concerned. The formula repeats on most of the tracks with little to no variation. There is some sense of build and release within each track but little to none over the album as a whole. An exception is the menacing doom track "(S)", which features some terrifying samples and a sludgy rhythm and sub-bass that provides a nice break from the blastbeats found within most of the rest of the album.It leads into a slight downshift in tempo and agro on the second half of the disc, culminating in a plodding, slow end on the last track, but it isn't enough to justify classifying it as a true doom album.
   Its clear from the outset that Morte(s) Nee(s) aspires to a black metal production aesthetic. The focus here is on heaviness rather than brutality, so the guitar and bass overlap a great deal. The kick drum cuts through nicely but the rest of the kit does a similar wall-of-sound act with the bass and melodies. Even the vocals fade into the rest of the band on the decay, in true black metal style. Once again, however, the black metal elements are a catch-22; most of the time the meat of the guitars sound thin and distant and the highs blend with the cymbals to create sort of a "white-out" effect that might be just the ticket if you really, really love black metal (on an aesthetic level) but can get pretty annoying upon listening to the disc all the way through. Its different from a Swedish-basement borne black metal cut because it has a definite professional  "sheen"; it sounds as if in mastering the standard technique of applying a little boost to the upper-upper range (14-20K) was used, and in my humble opinion, tasteful mastering shouldn't be a part of black metal lest we get results like this. In general the effect doesn't mask the melodies and rhythms, so everything is still hearable. On a more positive note, the vocals are always at home and sit perfectly well inside the dark roar of the rest of the band.
   Morte(s) Nee(s) is an interesting specimen originality wise. The album is a combination of some really original elements (the vocal style, the "pro-black metal" production) and some questionably executed canonical ones. (mostly in composition). It passes the litmus test of "I haven't heard anything that sounds extremely similar" but the elements that give it originality can be somewhat niche based. I would recommend this disc to anyone who has a fondness for both black and doom metal (could you call it "blackened doom"? who cares.) as it does do transitions between elements of both rather seamlessly. I would avoid it if all you listen to is OG black or death stuff, of if you decidedly dislike the blacker forms of heavy music.

Production - 6
Composition - 7
Originality - 7.5
Overall 6.83

Monday, October 25, 2010

No review today...

Sorry guys, but Ive been busy with some VST stuff recently so I don't have the time  to get a decent review posted (I mean I could write a garbage one real fast and put it up LOL but nobody wants that) so here are some YouTube vids of older stuff you probably haven't heard, and if you have you're awesome and you should listen again.

The next 2 albums Ill be reviewing are Harvey Milk's A Small Turn of Human Kindness and Celeste's Morte(s) Nee(s). Stay tuned!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Review: Rosetta - A Determinism Of Morality (2010)

Rosetta - A Determinism of Morality (2010)

Rosetta is a quintessential post metal band from Philly, formed in 2003. The majority of their music deals thematically with humanity's relationship to the otherworldly, as Rosetta's members all have a vested interest in astronomy. To date they have released 1 demo, 2 splits (with Balboa, Year of No Light and East of the Wall) and 3 full lengths, of which A Determinism of Morality is the most recent, released May this year.
   A Determinism of Morality makes no pretense about new directions, but contains significant improvements on existing characteristics. All the familiar elements of Rosetta are here - post rock style guitar interludes, sustained hardcore vocals and a razor edge balance between pentatonic and minor key progressions and melodies that give this band their unique sense of the epic. As a matter of fact, this penchant goes even further here, in an even grander sense of build (ie. "Blue Day For Croatia"). Vocals are also much more formidable this time around; they are much closer to center stage. Now that they are easily heard in detail, its apparent that Michael Armine has a superior vocal technique for this style, as the vocal track really slices through the mix and has all the right frequencies.
   Production on A Determinism of Morality is nothing to gush over, but fully adequate. There is a nice sense of space through most of the tracks but one cant help feel that the bands style demands a bit more, well, space. Instead of conveying the otherworldly ambiance of Wake/Lift, this album often uses slightly out of place sounding reverbs and delays to highlight different parts of the tracks. As usual, being someone who works with pro audio, I'm just nitpicking and it wont come anywhere near ruining the listening experience. The rhythm section on this disc is especially well mixed, with the bass, snare and kick cutting through the dense atmospherics like butter. Lastly, it sounds like a cliche and something I say about every album I review, but Rosetta's drummer (Bruce McMurtrie Jr.) is top notch, especially on the opening track; the tom work is exquisite.
   I couldn't be justified in giving a ton of originality points to A Determinism of Morality as it is mainly improvement on existing elements. However, theres no doubt that Rosetta has its own sound that sets them apart and any improvement therein is certainly welcome. Overall, this is a disc that will please just about anyone who likes heavy music. Its just conceptual and atmospheric enough to shimmer and glisten without sounding cheesy, and the excellent vocals and rhythm breakdowns will satisfy anyone who just wants to headbang.

Production - 8
Composition - 8.5
Originality - 7.5
Overall - 8.0

Thursday, October 21, 2010

   Om - Live Conference (2009)

   Let me start off this review by saying that if you have never heard Om, this is not the album for you to go out and buy. Om has released 4 studio albums and 3 split/singles, so go for one (any) of those first if this review sparks your curiosity. The reason for this caveat is that this band is one of the most original forces to emerge in the metal universe in quite some time. consisting of Al Cisneros (of Sleep) on bass and vocals and Emil Amos (Grails) on drums, this band blends monotonic, Tibetan-chant style vocals with half time drum and bass rhythms that border on religiosity because of the heaviness therein. Seriously, they're amazing and deserve to be heard at their best.
   While I am not implying that Live Conference (named so because it is a live rendition of their studio album Conference of the Birds) doesn't deserve to be heard, it will give you a very skewed perspective on the act if its all you've ever heard from them. Conference of the Birds is executed with such devoted regularity in rhythm that it very well cause you to get a little closer to escaping samsara if you listen to it enough. And so it goes with all of Om's studio releases; very long, very meditative reflections an all sorts of eastern-religion themed concepts, and all without the use of pronouns. Live Conference is not played this way, and its apparent from even the first few notes of "Flight of the Eagle", the first of 2 tracks. The song is has a much higher tempo than the album version, and than Om's other live release (Live at Jerusalem). Cisneros takes the relatively simple rhythm parts from the original song and absolutely goes insane with them. Theres a great deal of improvisation and it strays pretty far from the studio ideal most of the time. It isn't that its badly executed; its well above and beyond the technicality you will hear from most bassists with record deals. What makes it so unnerving is that its almost the diametric opposite of the aesthetic of the studio version of Conference. All that said, it still rocks really fucking hard.
   "At Giza" (track 2/2), in this reviewer's, opinion, actually manages to improve on the original. Where the studio version had a good sense of dynamics and tension, the live one amplifies these senses five fold. The newly introduced changes in tempo between sections go very far toward reinforcing the mystical and mysterious atmosphere of the song, and the extra sense of dynamics from a live recording (where there isn't a fuckload of multiband compression piled on) fit the song extremely well.
   The production quality of this live recording is very good. Listening on my M-Audio monitors I could hear even the ambiance of the crowd and room in extreme clarity, and Cisneros manages to get his bass to sound more or less the way it does on the studio version of Conference. At times the drumming has a bit of a strange dynamic insofar as the volume individual hits can vary pretty widely, but none of them are obnoxiously loud or too soft to hear clearly.
   All in all, this is a record for pre-existing Om fans, and not even all of those. If you are shallow enough to be afraid that your view of the band will be permanently altered by this record in light of the changes I mentioned, stay away from it. If you have never heard Om before, stay away from it. If neither of those apply to you, its a pretty enjoyable listen that offers an new perspective on a monumental studio album.

Production - 9
Composition - 7
Originality - 7
Overall - 7.6

NOTE: YouTube doesn't have anything straight from the Live Conference album so here's a different, more true-to-the-original performance instead

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thou - Summit (2010)

   Thou is a downtempo metal act that blends elements of doom, post and sludge metal, with predominately black metal vocals. Formed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2005, they have released 2 demos, 8 splits, 5 EPs and 3 full lengths, of which Summit is the most recent, released July 2010.
   Production on Summit is a mixed bag. On the bright side, there's a really nice, soft sense of atmosphere that begs you to get lost in it. The guitars and bass do a lot of arpeggiating, and this, coupled with the fuzzy tone used throughout the disc, makes them into a typical "wall of sound" sort of ordeal. (quite ideal for the genre Thou are working in). The drums are played and recorded with a good deal of dynamics, preventing them from becoming fatiguing to the ears. The vocals are particularly nasty for sludge/atmospheric metal - there a blend of about 3 parts black metal to one part hardcore - but they are sat extremely well in each track, and the high end is rolled off quite a bit; they never stray into irritating territory. These production elements combine to create a bit of an oxymoronic envelope - this is a sludge metal album that is actually PLEASING to the ears almost all the way through. Its a double edged sword because its so much less aggressive sounding than most recent metal you will find out there. It seems that those responsible for mastering this album made very judicious use of compression, which makes me very very happy (as someone who does a lot of recording/mixing/mastering himself) but will undoubtedly turn some metal fans off. You'll have to decide for yourself if you see it as a good thing, its much more subjective a situation than any other album I've reviewed.
Composition on Summit made me smile almost as soon as I turned the disc on. It begins with a lightly distorted pentatonic arpeggio that sets the tonal theme for the rest of the album - theory-wise, this is about the furthest thing from "death" metal you will be able to find that is still metal (aside from post-y ultra melodic stuff like Jesu). The album as a whole has a very profound and contemplative aesthetic that shows through in all elements of composition. This is nowhere more apparent than the first section of "Another World Is Inevitable" - its a major progression in 3/4 with some extended (9th i believe) chords, something you don't see often outside of jazz and more sophisticated pop, and pretty much never in metal. There are many such sections on the album. They are all very heavy in a sonic sense, but much like listening to Naja or Jesu, they will most often not sound at all negative or threatening. As I previously mentioned, the drums are executed with a similar sense of poise and control.
Summit is an incredibly original sounding album. I have never heard a more laid-back approach to metal that in the end, sounds just as heavy as anything else on the market. The fact that we have black metal vocals going over some truly profound progressions (instead of the usual "lets play whatever sounds most atonal" approach found in black and death metal) is enough to make any metalhead take notice. This coupled with the unique production style (which I count as a positive) separates Summit from the rest of the post-metal crowd in more than a few ways.
This is not an album to get yourself psyched up to go to the gym by, or to cathartically listen to when you get dumped by your bitch of an ex. This is a disc you will need to actively listen to and sort through to truly enjoy it. That said, its an absolute feast for fans of bands like Mouth of the Architect, Nadja and Neurosis - musicians who make an effort to sound dense and original enough to warrant repeated listens. If you are looking for something to mosh and bang your head against the wall to, go to one of my other reviews and pass this up. If you're looking for something truly original that will keep you occupied, and your listening attention span doesn't require blastbeats and shredding, you will love this album.

Production - 7.5
Composition - 8.5
Originality - 10
Overall - 8.7

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Zoroaster - Matador (2010)

Zoroaster - Matador (2010)

   Zoroaster is a doom/sludge metal band formed in 2003 in Atlanta, GA (USA) from the disbanded remnants of Terminal Doom Explosion. To date they have released 1 split, (with Music Hates You) 3 live discs and 4 full-lengths, of which Matador is the latest, released July this year.
   The production effort on Matador is pretty solid all around. Most of the instruments cut through when you listen for them, which is an achievement considering that some sections of the disc use a ton of reverb and delay. The drone-ier parts of the album highlight this; these passages really capture that "from the mountaintop" aesthetic that stoner music strives for ("Old World" is a prime example). There is a huge sense of space and distance here that comes across as very real and very professionally applied.
   The composition of Matador is a template of standard-faire, Sleep-esque stoner/psychedelic revelrie. Some songs very strongly echo Sleep's Holy Mountain (ie. "Ancient Ones", "Trident") in both envelope and the way they are written. They always manage to sound updated, however, and the heavier/distorted vocals in particular excell by using true metal technique, as opposed to mere shouts. There are elements of drone, punk, and black- and death-metal which surface (vocally) over the length of the disc, which is a sure sign of a very talented vocalist. Effect useage, as expected, is generally very tasteful and fits the overall sound of the disc. At times it borders on overkill, ("Firewater", "Matador") but the sharp mixing job manages to keep it from being fatuiging. As is the case in many bands in these genres, Zoroaster's drummer keeps things moving with grace and style through the whole album, and of special note is the tom work on songs like "D.N.R".
   Matador's biggest downfall is that it isnt the most original thing to be produced in this kind of music, not by a longshot. If you are a follower of heavy stoner and psychedelic music, there probably isnt anything on this disc that you havent heard an approximation of before. All the standard tennents are here: huge sonic space, mostly pentatonic, slowed down riffing, guitar solos with tons of phase and flange, and vauge themes of religion and transcendance. What sets Matador apart, however, is the sense of professionalism with which its excecuted. There is no blunter way to put it: this is a very well mixed and engineered album, an although this is an improvement over the standard, it doesn't mask the quintessence of most of the disc.
   Matador's relative lack of originality does not keep it from being a standout album. Though it might not bring you satori or invent any new genres, it knows what it is and what it needs to do, and does it very well. The disc is unlikely to satisfy those who listen mainly to the more insiduous and technical types of heavy music, as it rarely comes across as threatening or brutal . On the other hand, if you have been in wanting for some well excecuted anthems in the Sleep lineage, buy this disc, put it on and turn it all the way up; you will be glad you did.

Production - 9
Composition - 8
Originality - 6
Overall - 7.6

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jucifer - Throned in Blood

Jucifer is easily one of the more interesting metal acts still active today.  Formed in 1993, this husband-and-wife team have both toured relentlessly in the US and churned out around 10 albums and EPs in the past 17 years. Frankly, what gives them staying power is a wonderful sense of variety and experimentation, with the technical ability to back it up. The bands roots are in punk and sludge, but each album sees the introduction of much more melodic and conceptual motifs, that is, until this 2010 release. To be as forward as possible: If you like raw, evil sounding music, go buy this album, you don't even need the rest of this review. If, however, you are expecting the same kind of variety and sonic space to be found on albums like If Thine Enemy Hunger and L 'Autrichienne, you are going to be at worst, disappointed, and at best, awestruck.
   The production efforts on Throned in Blood make for an incredibly raw experience. Reverb and delay are hardly, if at all, used, and thus the disc sounds as if you are listening to a pre-mix recording session. Its almost a "live" quality without the atmosphere and crowd. That said, it falls flat in a few areas, most noticeably the drum kit. Crash and ride cymbals are way too loud in certain passages and make the kit sound a lot smaller that it has on previous Jucifer records. Some listeners may also find the guitar tones used to be underwhelming and sloppy, but I feel the way the guitars and bass have been recorded really serves the purpose of making this album sound as brutal and evil as possible. You can hear every little buzz, feedback squeal and speaker clip as the amps used are being abused by Valentine's death-y riffing.
   The first couple of times I listened to this album, I was taken aback by the mix of styles present in its compositional elements. This is nothing new for Jucifer. (its actually the main reason why L 'Autrichienne was received so favorably.) This time around, the mix of styles is from the much more dense part of the metal pool. Its kind of like watching a rare and flashy martial art - you stare in confusion and awe until it knocks you flat on your ass. From one moment to the next its difficult to say what kind of music this is; It has the stop/start dynamics of grunge and indie, it had the speedy diminished riffs and double bass of death metal (minus the solos), vocals have the sickly rasp of black metal, and occasionally the tempo slows and the pentatonics come out, a la sludge. Once again, however, and very much like the production on this album, it compositional decisions can be iffy a few tracks where slower sections can sound out of place amid blast beats and tremolo picking. If nothing else, it sacrifices continuity to reinforce the brutality of the tracks, which is something you'll have to come up with your own opinion on according to your taste in heavy music. 
   I can honestly say this album as a whole isn't like anything Ive heard previously. It mixes enough stylistic elements to take you by surprise, ans still manage to sound absolutely evil. The vocals on this album deserve accolade for managing to sound absolutely possessed. Often they are a layering of high, female rasps and low male death growls singing the same lyrics, and in my opinion, this is an underused technique (see: Nanda Devi) I really appreciate seeing more of, as it is simply terrifying. The "live" sounding approach to recording is also appreciated because it isn't an aesthetic that a lot of musicians subscribe to. Albums in these genres are supposed to sound polished and have a massive sense of atmosphere, but Throned in Blood is a massive middle finger to those glossy approaches, and having the balls to release it as is leaves one no choice but to give this disc plenty of originality points.
   In summary, this is an album that I believe will please most metal fans. If your taste in metal is for reverb-drowned, symphonic prog wankery, you are not going to find much to like here. As I said in the beginning of the review, however, if you subscribe to the more abrasive and hellish forms of heavy music, you have no excuse not to give this disc a listen. It has enough variety to stay interesting all the way through, and that special sense of raw-ness and brutality that those who actively listen to metal can't get enough of. 

Composition - 8
Production - 8
Originality - 9.5
Overall -  8.5

Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: Elodea - Voyager (2010)

Elodea - Voyager

Track Overview: 
Becoming One With The Desert - a 15 minute dissertation on all things post-metal
Polymers Are Forever - a 7 minute dissertation on whatever else you want to call all of your other favorite types of metal
Fraction Of The Whole - Think Dillinger Escape Plan + queludes; all the quirkiness and technicality minus the uncontrolled rage and breakneck speed
Revolve - another 14+ min post-metal quintessence (half Oceanic-era Isis, half Mastodon)
Nullentropy - A sludgy, coma inducing beat down of an album closer that ends in eastern tinged coma

  The production on this album is pretty typical of sludge these days; the guitar tones are thick and syrupy, the vox are somewhat pushed into the background and the drums cut reasonably through the wall of sound. There's a certain sense of resourcefulness to this album insofar as a great deal of atmospheric and spatial effects are convincingly achieved without piling on the effects, which is a welcome departure in this genre. At times the drums can cut through a bit heavy-handedly, but nowhere enough to be obnoxious.
   In terms of composition, I like this album more and more each time I listen to it. It manages to shift gears and change directions a great number of times without losing a sense of continuity, and this is a mark of true musicianship. Not only does it manage to keep your attention progressive-style, but there is a definite sense build-and-release over long periods of time on songs like  "Becoming One With The Desert" and "Revolve". It is often trying on patience when a band attempts to sound "epic" or "progressive" simply by throwing a bunch of different time signatures and effects together, but Elodea escapes this trap gracefully, and simmers, smolders, burns and erupts with a great deal of compositional taste. Instrumentation is mostly excellent; as are the vocal efforts are surprisingly versatile and layered for a sludge band. Finally, kudos go to the bands excellent drummer; some of the double bass runs on this disc are just sublime.
   Elodea's Voyager rings a few bells where similarity to other bands is concerned. Often I am reminded of the Homeric Thresholds of Imbalance, which Battlefields released last year, as well as The Atlas Moth's very solid A Glorified Piece Of Blue Sky (both excellent albums and bands if you are heavily invested in this style). Elodea differentiates itself as a band, however, by taking cues from related genres, and this is most clearly illustrated in the excellent second track "Polymers Are Forever" which is practically a study in modern metal, showing elements of death-, core-, post-, and thrash-metal in a single 7-minute song. And although it might make you nauseous to try to imagine a band throwing that many envelopes together on a single track, it is pulled off with a sense of nuance, grace and patience that can only come from a great deal of attention paid to musicianship.
   I highly recommend this album to fans of metal of most any style. Its slow and crushing enough to satiate sludge freaks and has enough technicality and atmosphere to appease almost anyone else who likes heavy music. Just about every nit I tried to pick with this disc is simply not enough of an issue to write about. An added bonus is the finesse with which its all executed. Seriously, if you like metal, check these guys out, you will be glad you did.

Production - 8
Composition - 9.5
Originality - 9
Overall - 9.0

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Kylesa - Spiral Shadow (2010)

Kylesa - Spiral Shadow

   Kylesa's latest full-length begins the ass-kicking right away, with the stoner-tinged "Tired Climb", alternating between Mastadon style pentatonics, chopped syllable shouts and tranquil female vox over tantrum drums. "Cheating Synergy" takes it down a notch with wider, distorted screams and some rhythm guitar hammering. "Drop Out" brings the somberness full circle, with a dynamic shifting between minor-key rants and chorusy clean guitar interludes. It becomes militant halfway through, building and exploding into a blackened waltz complete with a tribal drum breakdown that returns the song to its beginning riffs. "Crowded Road" introduces some interesting upper register verse rhythms before breaking down into a diminished driven march, then follows the albums pattern of returning to its opening sections. "Don't Look Back" takes a more positive emotional turn, with its massive, major key verse progression shifting gears among phase shifted lead and more shouting. "Distance Closing In" is essentially a doom song overlayed with some death riffing and some added speed. "To Forget" is a solid stoner anthem, with big, dropped tuning riffing and high-altitude vocal melodies. "Forsaken" quickly follows with the albums heaviest riffing, and shifts abruptly to the title track, which is an airy, proggy affair ending in a bit of Tool-esque guitar brutality. "Back and Forth" follows, coming off more like an early Mars Volta or late ATDI schizo vision, with its dreamy vocal processing and airy guitars. Its quit refreshing and original at this point in the album. "Dust", the album's final track, shifts between lackadaisical arpeggiating and focused, low register singing, and builds eventually into a wall of melancholic shoegaze, a very appropriate end to the disc.
   The production on this album is no doubt adequate for the style, but at times the rhythm section blends and bleeds into the guitar and vocal parts, and vice versa, making each difficult to distinguish. A bit more discretion would have improved this album's sense of space quite a bit. On the plus side, Kylesa has one of the more talented drummers Ive heard recently, and this albums mixing does well to makes sure you don't miss a beat of the drum track. 
   Compositionally, this album disappoints in a few key ways. Firstly, it lacks a strong sense of continuity between each songs component parts. Sections lack motifs and recognizable progressions between each other, making most of the tracks feel pasted together, or even a bit random at times. Secondly, the vocal style of both the male and female singers is unimpressive. Often it is no more than monotonic recitation (reminiscent of At The Drive In but much further in the background and with much more predictable meter), and at times sounds out of tune. It rarely matches the energy of the rhythms and this really diminishes the impact of some of the albums heavier sections (ie. "Distance Closing In") The better news is that this bands rhythm section can truly crush when it wants to. On tracks like "Tired Climb" and "Forsaken", the guitar, bass and drums are pretty much seamless and conjure up some truly heavy atmospheres. The guitar tones and textures are nothing to write home about but are gritty enough to where you get the point quickly. Also well done are the effect and reverb-laiden lead sections, which balance out the density of the rhythm with a bit of breathing room (especially on the title track).
   The most original thing about this album would have to be the calm, lower register female vocals. They almost sound lifted from another style at times and don't always mesh well with the quicker rhythms in some tracks, but they work well to produce an envelope I haven't heard much of in the sludge style. The heavily processed vocals on "Back and Forth" achieve a similar effect. 
   Overall I would give this disc a listen if you have been following Kylesa for some time, or if you want to hear some metal mainstays executed with a more alternative approach. If you are looking for something exceptionally heavy, however, this album wont satisfy.

Production - 8
Composition - 6
Originality - 6.5
Overall - 6.8

Review: Dax Riggs - Say Goodnight to the World (2010)

Dax Riggs - Say Goodnight to the World

   Dax Rigg's latest musical offering opens with a title track. Thin, bluesy guitar meanders over thick, bluesy bass and this is a theme that will be repeated time and again on this disc. "I Hear Satan" is a slightly wider anthem to occult paranoia. "You were born to be my Gallows" is a reserved, almost jazzy love number, followed by "Gravedirt on my Blue Suede Shoes", a rock-and-roll shuffle that doesn't spare on the pagan lyrical themes and blues-crooner vocal bends. "Like Moonlight" is a somber and melancholic ballad reminiscent of Agents of Oblivion era releases. "No One Will be a Stranger" is a simple pop rock song taken to the next level by impeccable vocals. Dax's rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel" is downright haunting. It echoes with emptiness, and you can feel the loneliness as its sung the way you can feel the devastation in a Son House or Muddy Waters track. "Sleeping With the Witch" is a drunk folk hymn doused in LSD, Dax's ethereal vocals blowing the simple progression into the stratosphere. "Let Me Be Your Cigarette" follows as a stoner-toned anthem to desire, not skimping on Dax's excellent upper register. The album ends on a desperate note with "See You All In Hell Or New Orleans", an absolutely haunting croon-fest whose unsettling cadence is reminiscent of some of the more sinister things to come from The Mars Volta.
   The production on this album is probably its strongest selling point. You can practically smell the spilled beer and pot smoke in the air, and you always feel as if a drunken bar brawl could break out at any moment. The atmosphere of the album does a great job conveying the gritty, soulful torment that Dax and his varied bands have become so expert at projecting musically. This time around, however, their surroundings follow suite and everything sounds exactly in its right place. At times the album even coveys a mid-60's production aesthetic that smacks of The Velvet Underground and The Doors, yet sacrifices no clarity or substance.
   Compositionally, this release is both exactly what you might come to expect from Dax Riggs and yet an entirely new direction. None of these tracks are particularly "heavy" in a "metal" sense, yet the imagery they portray and the gritty atmosphere they invoke give this album huge balls. Dax's vocals are as impressive as always; a delightful blend of whiskey-driven wails ("Heartbreak Hotel") and virtuosic falsettos and vibratos ("You Were Born To Be My Gallows"). At times some of the leads are a bit thin while the bass can come through in a very "live" way, so a little shift in the spotlight would have been welcome. The argument could also be made that some of the reverbs and echoes are overdone, but not by so much as to sound cheesy.
   It wouldn't be right to speak a great deal about the originality of this album for a few reasons. For one, Dax has been making music for damn near 20 years and his voice is instantly recognizable. Each musical project he has undertaken has had a different musical envelope, yet he has rarely deviated from the style he has had from the beginning. You are either going to love it or loathe it, and that's that.
   The bottom line is that if you like some of the other acts Dax Riggs has been involved with over the years (Acid Bath, Agents of Oblivion, etc) you will most certainly want to give this album a listen. Even if you aren't familiar with Dax's catalogue, this disc offers something for almost anyone; the lower key numbers are probably well executed enough to elicit a reaction from fans of jazz, blues, and country fans, and the heavier tracks have way more substance than anything you'll find on rock radio these days. Next time you go out for a 6 pack or some papers, grab this album. You wont be disappointed.

Production: 9.5
Composition: 8
Originality: 8
Overall 8.5/10

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: Nadja - Autopergamene (2010)

Review: Nadja - Autopergamene (2010)

   This latest release from Canadian drone dreamers Nadja is typical of the band in structure. Two diffuse 25 minute songs encapsulate a much denser 7 minute piece on the album, which is nothing out of the ordinary for these masters of the incredibly slow and epic. The first track, "You Write Your Name in My Skin", begins with a slow, swelling, ever multiplying layered structure of bass, feedback, static and distant violin that never fails to sound in tune. Really, for the first 11 minutes, that's it. The track doesn't actually pick up a rhythm until 12 minutes or so. And what a rhythm it is. While the sonic envelope of this album is pretty much identical to most of the band's previous releases (the horn-like drones in the background of the heavier sections are a welcome novelty), the drum section here takes on a much more solemn timbre, and the rest of the instruments follow suite. This album's opening track moves into emotional territory that isn't so often traveled for Nadja; this track is genuinely solemn and downbeat. There is a certain specific emptiness and sense of loss or demotion that really comes through, and as the song progresses, the full monolithic enormity of the tragedy at hand becomes ever more apparent.
   The album's midsection, "You Write Your Name In My Head", is immediately fucking heavy, exploding with a chugging rhythm section and an ear splitting static drone that just does not quit. The melodic feedback swells behind the rhythm retain the depression present in the first track, but multiply and introduce a new element of danger which is quickly reinforced by sinister screams and growls.
   The album's third and final track, "You Write My Name In Your Blood", begins with relatively peaceful, tonal acoustic guitar chords under plenty of delay and reverb.
Backward swells follow and reinforce the heavy but quiet state of mind so far induced.
Soon the same rhythmic and bass motifs from the first track come crashing in (around 8:00) but at an even slower pace than before. By 19:00, the momentum has again dissipated, this time giving way to layers of feminine drone-whisper-and-low-singing over the ever-present bass rumble and some quiet, responding male vox, seeming to sing the track's title.
   The production on this album, while adequate and by no means unlistenable, seems to introduce a lot more harshness into the spectrum than most Nadja releases. The high-frequency static drones and splashes of feedback are particularly cutting; they jump right out and assault the ears. While this may be fully intentional, and while it certainly makes the overall sound of the album more formidable, it significantly degrades the stamina of the disc (unless you are looking to give yourself some headaches). Again, it doesn't come anywhere near making the album unlistenable, but it is an issue to keep in mind. Drums on this album cut through with more force and clarity than other Nadja releases, and it is little surprise considering how well composed they are.   
   In terms of composition, this is unmistakeably a "Nadja" release. All the familiar elements are here: feedback, drone bass, massive drums playing at extremely slow tempos, and all the distortion in the world. This disc has a very distinct feel, however, that few other releases from the band exhibit strongly, and that feel is in the album's poignancy. The drum part for the first track absolutely crushes and is easily one of the best things about the album, and combined with the incredibly somber melodies and progressions, it makes for an coldly intense emotional experience. There is nothing technically daunting going on here in terms of theory, but a whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Also making a welcome return are distorted and buried vocals, a la Touched, in the album's middle track. The way that they integrate with the ambiance and sound scape surrounding them is absolutely fascinating and you wont really hear it anywhere else.
   All in all, this is both a departure for Nadja and a reaffirmation of the bands winning formula. If you, like me, happen to really like that formula and also happen to have the time to sit down and actively listen (and a sound system you can trust), pick this one up.

Production - 6.5
Composition - 8
Originality - 9

Overall 7.8

Review: Unerathly Trance - V (2010)

Unearthly Trance - V

   V begins with "Unveiled", a quarter time lament of mud-covered guitar and bass. Horizon-wide guitar melodies overlay upper/mid-range screamed and shouted vocals in this somber and dynamic opening. It fades into "The Horsemen Arrive In The Night", a short and chaotic slug fest that is every bit as ominous as the name implies. "Solar Eye" sways with raw, building rage that becomes almost catchy as the furious waltz rhythm is maintained until the end of the song, its hooks made of insane rage. It grows brighter with anger until "Adversaries Mask I" begins, a doomy ballad with sinister monotone vocals and an insistent guitar to match. The song degrades into loud, sludgy desperation midway through, ending the way it began. "Adversaries Mask 2" Offers a torrent of feedback over warmongering drums and Napalm Death style battle-growls. "The Tesla Effect" explodes over the rigidity of the previous track, with a pronounced stop-start dynamic and deathly vocal narration that reinforce the continued ominous atmosphere. The song ends on an exceptionally brutal, machine like tantrum of guitar and full-throttle vocals. "Sleeping While They Feast" is wide open, with huge chords and arpeggios, and standard-fare post-metal sustained vocals. It ends in a destructive, manic crisis and is quickly followed by the unglued opening of "Submerged Metropolis", whose quieter parts echo with watery doom. The guitar riffing toward the end of the song is appropriately liquid, and a great atmospheric touch. "Current" emerges next, as likely the most mainstream track on the album. Its a midtempo beatdown peppered with dying-breath torrents of swirly guitar and suspended rhythms. "Physical Universe Distorts" forces on the listener the worst of all trips; a near-standstill tempo, massive rhythmic blows and unsettling, agonized vocals. "Into a Chasm" brings us out of the rut, with a terrifying hook and the rhythms to back it up. It settles into a searching groove toward the end of the song, and in fades "The Leveling", the longest and most epic track on the disc. The spoken word vocals and ambient bass slow it to an almost standstill, black and absolutely unforgiving.
   Production on this disc is tastefully done, skirting the boundaries between the clinical standards so characteristic of big name studios while avoiding veering into "the whole band is playing simultaneously in a tiny room" territory. Its a very natural sounding recording that balances a sense of space and clarity among each instrument with a slightly organic envelope, without the presence of badly engineered reverbs or fake sounding delays. The vocal tracks exhibit this perhaps more than other parts of the recording, maintaining a constant dirtiness without overshadowing other parts of the spectrum. When spatial effects are audible on the vocals or other tracks, they add to the mix rather than cheapening it. The tightness of the bass and guitar tracks deserves mention as well; they excel at extending one another yet sound together as one force. The cleaner guitar melodies maintain a sense of width thruought the album that does not compromise their substance, a welcome touch in these days of over-processed and noisy, gimmick-driven engineering and composition in some of the more extreme varieties of music.
   As far as lyrics and composition go, this is quintessential sludge material. The album's rhythms are not just successful in evoking that addictive, edge-of-sanity rage that makes us all return to the genre time and again, they are a textbook study. Unfortunately, its a double edged sword; there really isn't anything groundbreaking or revolutionary to be found here. The guitar, bass and melody tones are standard-fare for the genre, albeit they show a good bit of discretion in how tightly they mesh with one another. Themes of desolation and hopelessness are the order of the day, both musically and lyrically. The tracks "Solar Eye", "The Leveling" and "Physical Universe Distorts" deserve special mention, the first for its unparalleled execution of a rhythm that actually moves the way the sludge gods intended, and the latter two for their absolutely uncompromising darkness that borders on the unmusical. Their sheer sparsity makes them more oppressive than other tracks (and other bands) where ornamentation is used to convey the doom. For this reason, the album never reaches a point of sounding contrived or carelessley composed. All in all, tasteful.

Production - 9
Composition - 7
Originality - 5.5
Overall - 7.1

Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: Nadja - Sky Burial (2010)

Review: Nadja - Sky Burial (2010)

   Upon first hearing Nadja about a year ago, there was one thing about their releases that jumped immediately out at me: this is a one of a kind act. Their penchant for extremely primal and slow, but incredibly linear build-ups and wind-downs in musical momentum, the expert handling of distortion and feedback as both an ornament and a melodic device, and most importantly, the incredible knack for crafting distorted guitar and bass tones that seem to fill up the entire room (or your entire head, if you're using headphones) and beyond (not to mention the sensitivity toward rhythm that getting those massive tones to fall into some sort of meter must require), cement releases like Touched and Desire in Uneasiness as some of my favorite records of the past few years.

   Enter this 2010 release on. Sky Burial's first track, "Jaguar", is a near 19 minute ambient meander through deep-space bass rumble, swells of glassy, bell like echoes, the band's trademark thick, clipped static ornamentation, rotating distortion and distant snippets of conversational voices. The first 5 minutes of the track serve as a mellow introduction to forthcoming and much more foreground bass swells. By the 8 minute mark, slightly distorted bass and sparse feedback make the track extremely busy in terms of ambiance, but no rhythm or direction is yet present. Each sound source continues to build and layer until it reaches a typical Nadja density level at around 12 minutes, and drops the voices. The remainder of the track sees each part of the aural spectrum reaching a limit in volume and distortion, providing an oscillating heaviness well worth the band's name, and purifying into guitar/bass drone and feedback.

   The second, and last, half of Sky Burial, titled likewise, answers the voids present in the first. Its insistent drum machine rhythm begins almost immediately, whipping some structure into the wandering feedback still present from the first track, and settling on a single bass note drone foundation. Nadja's signature thick-as-molasses rhythm notes begin around 2:15, while timed, melodic feedback soars well above and around the tightness of the rhythm section. This blueprint carries on for the next 5 minutes, invoking an expansive sway worthy of the album's title. The song really picks up around 7 minutes when a monolithic octave-based rhythm breakdown occurs, the meter goes double time, and a melodic flood of feedback-laden single notes takes over the upper registers. Around 14:20 some funky delay is added to parts of the drum track and from there the track slowly winds down to the chopping of the rhythm and a bit of phaser.  
   The best news about this release is that those who admire Nadja for their trademark elements - long builds and fades, universe-width distortion in the bass and guitar tones, and a supreme ability to evoke a mood of meditation and reverence will enjoy it quite a bit. All of the things that make this band a force of their own are present here, and upon the albums completion a sense of distance traveled and spatial altitude are certainly present. (In this case, you certainly can judge this album by it's title.)

   While long-time Nadja fans will know exactly what to expect from this album, it goes without saying that it could easily become grating or (God forbid) uninteresting to those with no previous interest in the band or the drone/dream metal universe. The songs near 20 minutes each and require nearly half their span to really begin moving, which is a recurring theme, but not ubiquitous in Nadja's catalogue. If you are more of a fan of Touched, rather than, say, Desire in Uneasiness or Bodycage, you will probably find this disc tiresome if you don't have the 40 minutes to actively listen and absorb each layer and nuance. Other than the extremes in length, the only other complaint I have concerns the drum machine; it just isn't as convincing as it could be. The samples sound a little dated and considering the creative heights the bands drum section has reached on releases like Touched and tracks like Absorbed in You. I feel something is lacking when Sky Burial really begins to move, namely a better cymbal sound and a less dance-y overall timbre in the rhythm.

   Overall, if you are a die-hard fan of this band, or simply want a sludge album to really mull over and chew on, Sky Burial will not disappoint you.  Fans of the more primal and less ambient components of sludge and doom metal territory would do well to spend their listening time elsewhere.

Production - 7.5
Composition - 9
Originality - 9

Overall - 8.5

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