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[Review: April in the Orange, ‘In the Mirror Under the Moon’]

It’s difficult to place a label on exactly what this latest cassette offering from Rochester’s Cae-sur-a label is. April in the Orange’s In the Mirror Under the Moon, at first, comes across as something within the so-called ‘freak-folk’ vein. It certainly has the trace elements, such as simple song structures with lazily strummed, easy chord progressions backed by spacier, meditative soundscapes. But to apply that label to this Michigan duo would unfortunately lump them in with a certain group of artists that shall not be named and are currently popular on the college rock radio stations; the inappropriately named ‘indie’ bands that sleepwalk their way through their own songs. Those types of bands are much too sweet, much too polished, much too… palatable.

Which isn’t to say that Samantha Linn and Andrew Barrett’s dual-guitar and duet vocals are unpalatable; in fact, they’re overall sounds is much more enjoyable than other contemporary acts of their ilk. This group tends to be quite a bit darker; even when most popular indie bands these days get ‘dark,’ they’ve still been polished so much that they’re positively sparkling. Not so here; songs like “To a Lost Family” are truly unsettling in a subtle yet noticeable way. The dissonance in the articulation of the acoustic guitar comes and goes in a way that you can anticipate exactly when it will be coming back. Yet, it still feels haunting and slightly nerve-wracking each time.

“Same Old Mystery” is one of the more propulsive tracks; the guitar, while still relatively mellow, stomps along, underpinning a yearning for love. A fuzzy guitar punctuates the phrases with little fills that are ever-so-slightly metrically off, demonstrating that despite the simple declarations of desire within the song, there is something deeper and darker going on underneath. These desires have disinterred more complex and perhaps darker emotions as well, emotions that are brought to the surface by the distant droning of some primal energy in the song’s bridge.

“Outsideinsideeverywherenowhere” starts off in perhaps the most placid way possible; by mimicking a slow, tremolo-laden phrase that sounds like it came off a doo-wop record from the ‘50s. It slowly picks up, little by little, adding short, jagged stabs of a second guitar. The pace quickens, ethereal, seemingly wordless backing vocals enter as the chorus is repeated infinitely like the mantra of a cult waiting for the apocalypse. A third guitar enters, this one more violent than before. The vocals become more and more disheveled, the guitar solo more dissonant and frantic until the whole thing sputters out, leaving one final, less perturbed recitation.

The final track, “Morning Never Came,” is an epic thirteen-minute recording that perfectly closes out the cassette. The beginning of the song is much like the other, with a quiet folk arrangement of guitar and gentle keyboards. It introduces a few more keyboards, swooping and bubbling underneath the guitar, slowly coming up in the mix before receding as the vocals reenter. This pattern repeats a few times before the vocals and acoustic guitar suddenly drop out for good and a mix of swirling, effects-laden instruments step in to pick up the slack. Tiny little melodies can be picked out here and there, and the overall effect is one of serenity. Slowly and steadily, bits and pieces of dissonance are pulled in and out. Just as things seem to be at their most calm and reserved–when the listener has been able to settle into a nice, tranquil lull of comfort–another guitar enters, this time angry. Whereas the other instances throughout the album were merely disturbing, this one is truly frightening, like the destructive buzzing of a mechanical wasp’s wings. It gets louder and louder as the listener gets more and more claustrophobic. But it carries on for several full minutes until the tension is almost unbearable. Finally, the tension breaks with a single strum of a resolving chord, and the album is over.

So for those of you who want something in a similar vein to all of those other indiefolk bands that are, underneath the surface, just kids getting high on cough syrup, give this a spin. Judging by just how bleak things can get without even rising above a whisper, this duo is on something else entirely.

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Review by Liam McManus

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[Review: Torus, ‘Basement Tapes’]

Torus is a three-piece group from Rochester, NY, that plays what could be called ‘doom dub.’ Far from the peremptory party-club-danceteria style dub, this type is full-on nihilist. Don’t bother dancing, ’cause the world is about to end and you might as well just relax and wait for it.

Basement Tapes is a deceptively concise three-track EP; one of the tracks is seventeen minutes long, however, making the total runtime of this album just shy of the traditional vinyl LP length of thirty minutes and change. Having a song like this that goes on so long is really the only way that a genre like this can function.

The entire point of dub is to lay down a groove and throw everything but the kitchen sink at it, often in the form of repetitive, hypnotically spiraling barbs of minimalistic riffage. And that’s exactly what you get in the epic “Undefined Wolf Lust.” The band most definitely takes their time settling in; the first four minutes consist of the trio playing their instruments in the most bare-boned manner possible, a way that can barely be referred to as ‘performing.’ A chord is stabbed here, a cymbal is struck there, over and over as the intensity is ratcheted up at such a snail’s pace that it is nearly imperceptible. Finally, the song fades out and in again with more frenetic rhythms from the bass and drums, but still naught but an echo, a muddy remnant of a chord that begins building once more. The groove changes and settles several minutes later into something that would sound completely at home on PiL’s second album, Metal Box. The drums, played by Ariel Cruz, start emphasizing a syncopated hi-hat and snare combo and the guitar, played by R. Scott Oliver, slips in and out of the familiar reggae chicka-chick rhythm; this is new-wave obeah, the sound of all the dead punks being pulled from the grave by electric witchcraft. All the while, the relentless bass of John Horner pounds on a discordant riff. Someone’s gonna get hurt tonight…

And indeed someone does on the next track, the appropriately titled “Doom Snippet.” I do not write this purely for the sake of creative liberties; while listening to this track through headphones, I had to pause it several times because I was positive that things were falling down and/or apart in other rooms of the house. It was, in fact, only an unflinching punishment of sludge metal, trekking in like Hell on horseback slowly making its way up from the pits. The beasts reach level ground and howl with waves of feedback thunder, and the double-bass drums propel them higher.

After a slice of evil like that, the final track, “Jesus Igloo,” sounds oddly upbeat (at least initially). A gentle major key arpeggio is overlaid with a sweet melody that sounds as though it is being played on a children’s instrument. The rhythm section bashes away unaware and unencumbered by anything resembling form and structure until the guitar, too, gives in and the entire band carries on in scorched-earth chaos. For a while they stir the primordial stew until finally the fluids coagulate and the shapeless takes shape; another slow, heavy batch of riffing, as the rebirth of the world comes to so closely resemble how it looked immediately before the demise.

This is most definitely some heavy, doomy stuff. One of the interesting things about this group is the tightness of the rhythm section. The songs largely sound like there is more than a bit of improvisation. But at the same time, there are certain hits and drops, especially on the first track, that is seems unlikely that these are the result of improvisation. And being able to make a rehearsed speech sound like it is coming off the top of your head is an enviable talent. A head-banging collection of minimalist doom. Listen for yourself.

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Review by Liam McManus


[Review: Underground River, ‘Endless Air; the Other Side of Happenings’]

Underground River is a two-piece band from Binghamton that specializes in music that combines one of the most perennially traditional genres, folk, with fringe-sounding music and production techniques, a la groups like Flaming Lips. Their new LP, Endless Air; the Other Side of Happenings, out on Oneonta-based Owl Records/Blood Dirt Cassettes, epitomizes a strand of quiet, nightmarish Americana.

Opener “Modern Man” takes the premise of alt-country to a much darker place than the genre usually occupies, with the more traditional elements being mixed with newer ideas. The gentle finger picking and almost pastoral lyrics are dour to begin with and only get more so as the song progresses. Then comes touches of static and feedback and ethereal background vocals that sound like they’re being broadcast from a radio signal that has been bouncing around in space since the early 1900s. The song gets more and more claustrophobic and tense, but its greatest trick is hanging a noose around the listener’s neck without ever tightening it; the cliché eleventh-hour eruption that so often comes with a song like this never arrives, thankfully.

Other songs continue this trend of inverting country/Southern rock stereotypes: “In the Sand” prominently features a string of jarring feedback laid across what would be a typical country groove (replete with twangy guitar fills) were it not slowed down to a stoner-metal tempo. The song proceeds to disintegrate at a gravely pace until finally disappearing. “Angel in the Snow (Chalkboard Blues),” a track in 3/4 time, falls somewhere between a shuffle and a waltz. The song features guest vocals from Jade Soto of Summer People (also out of the Binghamton region), with her voice dancing wistfully around the steadier lead vocals of singer Hunter Davidsohn. “Cure Me Slowly” is a lament on life of fraught, lost potential with a chorus of spirits beckoning a protagonist onward to further misery and solitude.

Perhaps the creepiest parts of the album are when the darkness is stripped away and the band plays it a bit straighter, such as with “Dandelions,” a single chord gospel-tinged track that is a portrait of what the Carter family would sound like if they were all strung out on junk. Midway through the song a backwards loop is introduced that sounds like a fading heartbeat as someone ODs into a blissful afterlife.

Although the album is predominantly dark (and even the brighter moments are still rather bleak), there are occasional rays of light; “Precious Stone” is as close as it gets to a straightforward, heartfelt ballad, complete with a plaintive cello. The song would easily find a home as a song with more mainstream like-minded artists were it not for one simple subversion; the muted, garbled vocals hiding beneath the mix that pull the song apart like gremlins attacking a well-oiled piece of machinery. The vocals slow down into an eerie, possessed voice that emits waves of unease.

Other songs delve much deeper into the feedback and noise that is used as mere confection on other tracks; “Golden Spinach” is built around a droning mishmash of synthetic sounds and modal harmony punctuated by bits of electric guitar that resemble a dull knife (which can be far more terrifying than a sharp one, mind you).

The most fully realized song on the album is “We Are Not Friends,” a song that marries the conventional verse-chorus structure with foreign-sounding elements; a modal harmonic structure, tom-heavy percussion that recalls Africa, or ancient India, or any tribal civilization, and an understated vocal that sounds not unlike a monk slipping into a trance and being unable to purge a mantra no matter how much it is repeated.

“And the Rest Goes on Forever” is perhaps the most subdued track on the album, closing the album out with a final weary declamation. A bubbly synth rises to the surface only to be pulled back down to the depths. Splashes of keyboard and vocals arrive and are shown the door, and beyond the final droning note, the last sound heard is of someone shifting in a seat, as if to signal that the story is over and it’s time to go.

This album is full of great moments. But it certainly isn’t party music, unless you and your friends are into sitting in a circle pondering desolate existentialism. This is more “dark night of the soul” kind of music. And it is very dark. But very good.

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Review by Liam McManus


[Review: Aidan Baker, ‘The Specturm of Distraction’]

Aidan Baker‘s opus The Spectrum of Distraction is a monumentally ambitious work from the Toronto artist that was produced in collaboration with a number of percussionists who are well-known and well-respected within the fields of heavier and more artistically enterprising groups such as Swans, Slowdive, the Jesus Lizard, and Killing Joke. With a group like this, it needs not be said that the drumming throughout the two-hour album is nothing short of fantastic. Each of these players vigorously displays their virtuosity across a wide swath of songs that take from such genres as metal, no wave, jazz, reggae, industrial, shoegaze, and more.

The overall album is a massive testament to seeing an idea carried out to its fullest potential. That idea is to have an almost overwhelming group of tracks that can be chopped up and reassembled endlessly to take full advantage of the ‘shuffle’ function of most modern music players and create something that is new and unique each time it is played. Many artists are influenced by literature, usually something pretentiously highbrow, but Baker was instead influenced by the ‘choose your own adventure’ style of children’s books, right down to song titles that suggest a plot without forcing such themes down the throat of the listeners. This approach is stretched out over the course of 96 songs that range in length from three seconds to seven minutes.

The album is split up into two parts. The ‘OCD’ side tends to be the more ‘clean’ sounding, as a number of the songs are bereft of the heavily distorted guitars that populate the ‘ADD’ side. There are a number of highlights here, such as the droning “The Deadly Shadow” that is powered by gymnastic drumming. It’s a powerful piece of juxtaposition to have a dynamic rhythm section overlapped by instruments that stay the same while changing, much like the water in a river constantly re-configures itself while it flows. Elsewhere, “Invaders From Within” combines herky-jerky rhythms with a repetitive guitar figure that sounds like Burning Spear playing the blues. “The Green Slime”, with its fuzzed-out bass and guitars heavy with delay comes off sounding like Mission of Burma if they were re-imagined as a jam band, as the bass holds down the groove while the drums shake and shimmy, allowing the guitars to fluctuate and build into a hypnotic trance. Likewise for “Space & Beyond”, which finds its trance in the constant cymbal splashes and tom-heavy drumming. Combined with the buzzy guitar that seems to appear out of cheesy sci-fi movie, you get the soundtrack of tribal warfare on some far-off world. “Forgotten Days” builds its suspense by layering several instruments that are largely playing out of time with each other, like a song that everyone is expecting to begin but never does. Right at the end where it appears as though all of the instruments have aligned and are about to start playing together, the song suddenly cuts off. However, due to the concept of the album, it trickles into a completely different song instead. “You Are Microscopic” is a piece of sublime beauty, where endlessly circling slices of guitar turn into a near-impenetrable wall of glorious noise as the drums spur them on, and it slowly transforms into something far more sinister. What started out as something lovely becomes something frightening. “Killer Virus” is understatedly creepy and ominous, a portent of bad news that falls on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, the ‘ADD’ side mostly revels in a sheen of metallic thunder. A good number of these songs sound like they were pulled off any number of doom, stoner, or sludge metal albums, with their ridiculously heavy, nearly impenetrable textures of fuzz. “Mystery of the Secret Room” features a simple pentatonic riff that sounds like AC/DC on some bad meth, with another section sounding like a classic punk track from the late 1970s. “Trouble on Planet Earth” combines a dub baseline from hell with squiggly guitar murmurs and minimalist drums. “Blood on the Handle” is one of many tracks that features a headbanger of a riff that morphs into something a bit more subdued and spooky. “Race Forever” upends its own title with a preposterously slow, sludgy riff that seems pulled straight off Sleep’s legendary “Dopesmoker” album. “The Planet Eater” is like the “Stairway to Heaven” of the entire project, as it builds up more and more over seven minutes from quiet tinkling of the keys to an unstoppable tidal wave of pure noise by the end. “The Antimatter Formula” borrows a swinging, jazzy rhythmic background and lays an unnerving chord progression atop it that goes in bizarre directions and modulations before settling into a more typical Sabbath-y stop-start groove complete with the aerobic drumming a la Bill Ward. “Beyond the Great Wall” calls to mind the fantastic work of contemporary bands like Russian Circles that do similar things within the framework of heavy instrumental music. “The Phantom Submarine” employs some jarring polyrhythms between the drums and the guitars that produce a haunting effect of never quite settling down, made more jarring by the fact that this is one of the fewer tracks on this side where the guitars are completely clean. “Prisoner of the Ant People” features nothing more that angry, buzzing feedback that calls to mind a colony of insects intent on ravaging the world.

There are moments of remarkable congruency that appear every so often that help to strengthen the concept of constant rearranging of the pieces. Oftentimes consecutive songs will lead directly into each other not only with the tone of the instruments but with tempo as well, creating a completely smooth transition from one song to the next. It is rare that two pieces will be completely foreign to each other and will produce an overly dissonant, cacophonous texture.

One thing to recommend would be to not intersperse the songs from the two different ‘sides’. The disparities in their sounds are quite jarring when placed together, in contrast to the way that the individual sides retain a certain cogency regardless of the track order. But if you’re more adventurous than I am, go right ahead and mix the two together.

There is one inherent flaw in the concept of cutting everything up and rearranging it randomly; if your music player stops when it has played all of the songs rather than looping until hitting the ‘stop’ button (as mine does), there is a very abrupt and awkward finish where it sounds as though the music has yet to resolve, because it still does. Even if there were a track designated as the ‘final track’ to provide musical resolution, it would immediately be removed from that context once the songs were put in random order. Furthermore, even if your music player does loop the songs ad infinitum, at some point you will have to hit the ‘stop’ button, which will similarly cause a sudden lack of musical resolution. Whether or not this will bother you is completely personal; to me it was the only real flaw on an otherwise highly pleasurable listening experience.

Overall, the unique concept of listening to these tracks in a completely random order is absolutely essential to enjoyment. I tried in vain to listen to it in ‘order’ (that is, in the sequence in which they are actually presented) and the effectiveness of the music was blunted. The tracks flowed together somewhat indistinguishably, and although it was really the same exact music I had already praised and enjoyed, the fragments of music were too easy to predict and they quickly fell into that area of ‘unlistening’, where we are listening to music and are aware of its presence but are otherwise preoccupied with something else and therefore unable to pick out or recite any melodies or rhythms of what has transpired. It is astounding how such a simple thing as rearranging the order of the pieces can produce such a vastly different picture. Just like a classical painting such as the Mona Lisa being chopped up and restructured in myriad ways, this album can produce an outrageous number of products through the use of the same elements. You can still see the face and the details of the background, but the way it has all been put together is new and exciting. And best of all, unlike many albums that may lose appeal after time and several listens, this album will be fresh every time it is put on, and will always offer some new soundscape, a new journey for the listener to embark on. This level of replay will have people coming back for seconds, thirds, etc.

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Review by Liam McManus


[Review: Bear Flames, ‘EP 1, EP2 & Rehearsal Demos]

Buffalo noise-rock group Bear Flames features a trio of the city’s musical mainstays including drummer Jim Abramson, guitarist Scott Valkwitch, and bassist T. Andrew Trump (and at one time also briefly included other notable artists Jax Deluca and KG Price). While the group had been on a lengthy hiatus with the three core members working on an array of outside projects (i.e. Poverty Hymns, Totem Pole, Downsampling, Tenet/Octet) they have recently reunited to perform live and work on new recordings. Before moving into this next phase, however, the group has (re)released two EPs and some demos that were recorded between 2006-2007 in a single collection.

This group of songs demonstrates that Bear Flames’s music is both fresh–despite being recorded over five years ago–and pleasantly familiar. Fans of any number of post-1970s musical genres will instantly hear a number of recognizable and appealing sonic elements, but will also be exposed to a number of different and interesting musical ideas (specifically the ideas of unconventional song structures that are prevalent throughout the music heard here).

The debt that they owe to the New York bands that populated the No Wave movement of the late 1970s is apparent from the first note to the last, right down to the cover of DNA’s “Blonde Redhead.” Songs like “Radio (Friendly)” and “Sabbath” are built around simple, chiming chords rife with slightly unusual intervallic structure. The chord progressions tend towards the minimalist, exploring the same trance-like grooving that No Wave experimented with (think Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Theoretical Girls, etc., but slightly less abrasive and pretentiously ‘arty’). And of course, there is a heavy emphasis on ‘noise’, i.e. dissonant soundscapes that tend to evoke moods concurrent with the music around them; discomfort, paranoia, impending doom, and destruction all come to mind when listening to these barrages of amplified lightning.

The band possesses a powerful rhythm section that reminds me largely of Nomeansno; a style of playing by Trump that is both relatively simple and grounded yet sufficiently in the place as the ‘lead’ instrument (check out “Future of the House” for a good example). Abramson, meanwhile, is able to shift from absolute bare-boned to frenetically charged patterns at the drop of a hat and right back just as easily, as he does on “Bad Knee.” This leaves Valkwitch (who also handles FX duties) ample room to swing between the extremes of caustic atonality and feathery, chiming chords. The result is a band that is orchestrated in a very tempered way, where no one member overshadows another.

There are a number of standout tracks here, such as a “Social Security”– which starts out as a mock-up of what disco may have sounded like if acid was the drug of choice for the time instead of cocaine — with a wonderfully dissonant loop that seems to suggest running for your life while you dance. The song erupts in the middle, breaks apart, and regroups into a much more melodious but no less unnerving second half before once again falling apart.

Another great track is “Future of the House” where sections of hard-rock riffage alternate with more subdued sections of an almost dublike nature with the rhythmic entanglement of tremolo-bass and syncopated hi-hat. “IFSS” starts off with a tremendously flighty, off-kilter 3/4 strut before metamorphosing into a jumpy, even cheery 4/4 groove and finally combining the two in a beautiful moment of fusion before finally settling back into the original time.

This mixture of grooves is one of the defining features of the group, where they build up only to destroy and then rebuild often using one or more elements from the original construct. See “K/K” where the minimalist bass travels from two disparate sections, staying more or less the same while everything else around it shifts. This kind of trick shows up in a number of songs, and is thrilling each time.

To put it simply, there is a lot of really interesting, exciting music to be had here, especially the tracks recorded in 2007. Highly recommended for anyone into No Wave, post-punk, plain old punk, alternative, etc. Well worth your time.

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Review by Liam McManus 

[Review: Velvet Elvis, ‘No Rules in the Wasteland’]

Here we have some good ol’ fashioned heavy riff-based rock. Rochester-based experimental rock group Velvet Elvis takes its cues from a number of different eras of metal music: from the earliest bad-trip blues of groups like Black Sabbath and Sir Lord Baltimore, to the fantastical imagery of power metal groups from the early ’80s like Dio and sludge metal like Saint Vitus, through the boom of ‘stoner’ metal in the early ’90s with bands like Kyuss and Monster Magnet, to the current revival of ‘doom’ rock in the form of bands like the Sword and Electric Wizard.

So, I don’t want to encourage any use of illicit substances, but when listening to this, it would certainly make sense to smoke ’em if you got ’em.

The use of the term ‘stoner’ metal is certainly not a misnomer when applied to this cassette from the cae-sur-a imprint (also from Rochester). This particular group of songs, like much of the genre, sounds like a 45 being played at 33 rpms. There isn’t really any other explanation for why it is so incredibly slow. But getting high does have an effect on the perception of time and makes the lethargy of the songs here sound completely natural. Imagine the typical image of crazy headbanging kids at a metal show with their hair whipping all over the place. Now slow the footage down and you have this kind of music.  And truly, the strength of music like this comes from the tempo; like a herd of elephants, it crushes everything in its path not because of any malicious intent but because the sheer magnitude and power behind it is incapable of gentility.

And the pace of the music tends to dictate that songs will stretch out much further than the normal three-to-four minute range. The first song here, “No Rules in the Wasteland,” is actually fifteen minutes long, managing to encompasses everything great about this genre; incredibly drawn-out song structures centered around simple power-chord grooves, shifting dynamics, and emphasis of the rhythm section over any complicated harmonization. This is a fantastic song, and for all the metal super-fans there are some nice little touches like the slow-phased guitar in the beginning, an acknowledgement of this genre’s past.

While this song is fifteen minutes long, it never gets boring. In fact, it only gets more interesting when, halfway through, it breaks down and reformulates into an even slower groove for much of the remaining time. There are only a very few examples that would serve as a better introduction to this genre, and since the other one that comes to mind (Sleep’s “Dopesmoker”) is quite ridiculously long, this song has a bit of an edge.

The next two songs are much shorter but no less interesting. “Pretty Girls In Lace” uses the same kind of curious, swing-like rhythm that has popped up in metal ever since Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots.” This kind of jazz rhythm has always somehow fit in well with the half-time feel of this slower music. In particular, the beginning of the song barrels forward, finally settling into a groove that is slow enough before revealing that it was a complete fake-out; the song goes into half-time and begins in earnest about a minute in.

“Stop and Think” employs riffs and chord progression that deviate from the standard pentatonic scale and use several chromatic notes. Combined with the jittery, nervous drums, the song has a very unsettling texture.  The final section of this song, another slow jam with bits of vocals coming out of every corner, sounds like the soundtrack to a human sacrifice at a black mass. The final track is similarly unnerving; “Where’s Your Marlboro Man Now?” is an odd piece of musique concrete with spoken word over guitar feedback and what sounds like cars driving down a dark, rainy highway at night.

There are a few things that make this cassette a standout among works of this genre. The first is the production; the entire album sounds as though it is covered in a muddy veneer, making it very authentically ‘sludge’ rock.

The second is the presence of a female vocalist. The lack of women in rock, and heavy metal specifically, is a trend that has thankfully been changing over the past few decades. The singer here, Karrah Teague, is a little frightening in parts, especially when belting out long, sustained notes in the background of “Stop and Think.” For whatever reason, female vocals in a metal context are far more disconcerting (in a good way) than male vocals. Perhaps because of their rarity, perhaps because of the social mores that girls are ‘nicer’ than boys, whatever. It works.

The third reason that this album is superior is because of the rhythm section. Too many bands, especially metal bands, put way too much of the spotlight on the singer and the guitars. They forget that what made Black Sabbath truly great is that they possessed perhaps the greatest rhythm section in rock history. Velvet Elvis, likewise, has an incredible rhythm section. Since this music relies so heavily on rhythm and groove, this is an absolute necessity and the band measures up to the standard much better than most.

I would suggest laying down with your headphones on, turning off all of your lights (except for your lava lamp) and zoning out to Velvet Elvis, a great, heavy experimental rock band with lots of potential. That’s exactly what I did.

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Review by Liam McManus


[Review: Ghoul Poon Presents Do the Fright Thing, Vol. 4]

This compilation from Upstate label Lo-Fi Kabuki Records is a mixed bag of twenty Capital region acts all united by a few different elements, most notably the broad idea of each group submitting ‘scary’ songs, as in songs that fit neatly into the overarching theme of ‘Halloween music.’ Some of the songs are very explicit in their references to the one widely recognized holiday that seems to acknowledge and even encourage darker, more experimental music; the words ‘Halloween’, ‘ghost’, ‘blood,’ and ‘haunting’ appear in several of the song titles, while others are somewhat less conventional but no less moribund, sporting titles such as “Cannibal Bride” and “We’re Not Dead.”

The accompanying music might be a little shockingly subdued for listeners who see the titles and automatically expect the kind of over-the-top death metal that a release presented in this manner might be expected to contain. Instead what we have is a set of songs that seem to take a number of cues from underground music of the 1980s, specifically post-punk and the music generally associated with that term.  The heaviest influence on these groups across the board seems to be Wire; the manic energy and even danceability of the group’s overall early catalog is married to the slightly more sublime flirtations with synthesizers that appeared throughout Chairs Missing (1978) and 154 (1979), as well as the lo-fi nature of their 1977 debut Pink Flag.

This amalgam shows up in varying degrees throughout the majority of the songs here and is on full display in the best two tracks on the compilation, “We’re Not Dead” by Hungry Wives and “The Haunting Party” by Severe Severe. The former relies heavily on one of the main ingredients of dark music; a propulsive beat courtesy of the drummer leaning on the toms and ignoring the typical crashes, which are mixed low, largely substituted by a tambourine. The result is not unlike the furious drumming of some kind of jungle death cult, banging out a primitive rhythm that captures the desperation of the vocals and lyrics. The latter song similarly employs the rhythm section to create a sense of impending doom by likewise forsaking the cymbals and shifting the emphasis to the relentless pounding of the snare drum, creating an effect of being chased through the woods at night by a madman who continually revs his chainsaw in anticipation of chopping you up. These two songs are not too much alike, the tempos and instrumentation are very different, but they share an approach in that they conform to the typical verse-chorus form. Other songs here flirt with this but often eschew it in favor of a more open-ended experimental approach that forgoes any discernible structure, which at times can lead to admittedly mixed results. But these two songs revel in it and are, as a result, the most successful pieces of music on the compiliation.

Other songs tend to lean one way or another in the balancing act of Wire’s musical spectrum; “Witch Hunt!!” by Black Andy is a nice sketch of what might serve as a slice of a larger work. There are some nice minimalist rhythms, as well as atonal intrusions by the synthesizer, and is one of the better tracks. Similarly, “Blood and Guts” by Bleeding Hands is a somewhat interesting little bit of lo-fi almost in the vein of early Redd Kross, and makes its point with a walls of guitars and synths overdriven until they are little more than furious sheets of white noise.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the pieces that delve very deeply into the synthesizer predilections, such as “Traps” by Todd Is New Each Moment, “Blood Angel” by Moondoon, and “Hause” by Mr. Owl. These three cross the line and lapse into dance, trance, rave, even disco-esque music. A wonderful use of synths is displayed on Matthew Carefully’s “Four Halloween Dreams” and Kite Person’s “Doom at the Door,” both of which manage to not overwhelm the listener with way too many layers of faux-instrumental nonsense, and in the case of Kite Person’s track even manages to smuggle in some beautiful, haunting (pun intended) vocal melodies.

Beyond the basic Wire, Magazine, Bauhaus et al. references there are a few songs that sound explicitly like other acts from around the same time period. That’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing; some of them can pull it off very well. The Grave Surfers turn in a pretty good tip of the hat to the Jesus & Mary Chain in “Sid & Necromancy,” right down to the laconic delivery of the Reid brothers. Swanfeeder is able to deftly ape some of the signature moves of the Birthday Party in their own “Show You,” where the production is claustrophobic with the lead guitar sounding like it was pulled from Dick Dale’s nightmares in the middle of a bad trip. The titular Ghoul Poon turns in “Hell Rides a White Horse,” which sounds almost exactly like something Eric Gaffney would’ve turned in to the early Sebadoh records; double-tracked vocals droning about dark subject matter over a sparse rhythm and meandering guitar leads.

Scattered throughout the album are four hip-hop tracks that fit in well with the same lyrical/musical themes. The best is definitely Oddy Gato’s “Kings of Halloween.” Gato knows the elements of a successful track. Firstly, he seems to understand that good hip-hop comes not just from being able to rhyme but being able to produce a clever turn of phrase. Secondly, he doesn’t try to overextend himself by singing as well. Thirdly, it is short; once he has made his point and said his piece, he is done.

So, lots of stuff here, and depending on whether or not you have a soft spot in your heart for certain genres that were prevalent in the underground of the 1980s music landscape and are contemporaneously beloved by certain niche communities, then you will like this. Like most compilations that attempt a cross-section of a certain basic locality, there are bound to be a few songs that endear themselves to the listener more than others. Try to find the gems here, of which there is a good number, and you’ll be satisfied.

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Review by Liam McManus