ESCAPISM

•March 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Two hours of new, unreleased, rare, and previously released material from sessions between 2008-2011. Features dark ambient, industrial, and experimental. As usual, the emphasis is on DARK. This compilation is being released through my net-label Argali Records as a free download (licensed through Creative Commons).

Grab it here: http://www.archive.org/details/ARGREC13

Kevin Drumm: Imperial Horizon

•October 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment

[I might alter this slightly, since I wrote it in one session, but it is basically the semi-complete version].

After his well regarded noise masterpiece “Sheer Hellish Miasma” was released in 2002, Kevin Drumm would, after a number of limited editions and collaborations, would release perhaps one of the best musical statements of his career: the sublime Imperial Distortion. Often compared to Aphex Twin’s landmark “Selected Ambient Works Volume II“, due to the length of the individual tracks (with none being under thirteen minutes long, and the longest reaching just shy of twenty minutes) and the manner in which both albums create solemn and beautiful soundscapes which reward both casual relaxation and concentrated listening experiences. His latest album, “Imperial Horizon” is a logical extention of the ideas first explored in “Imperial Distortion“, only now taken to their logical extreme: a single sixty-four minute landscape of sparse synths. In short: a triumph.

The previous album had dealt with themes of paralysis (“Guillian-Barre”), mortality (“We All Get It In The End”), and the tragic story of Christine Chubbuck (“More Blood And Guts”). Given that “Just Lay Down And Forget It” sounds much like an expanded version of segments towards the end of “More Blood And Guts”, it is worth explaining the meaning behind the phrase and the person behind it (Christine Chubbuck is mentioned specifically in the CD design of “Imperial Distortion” with the phrase: “Bringing You The Latest In Blood And Guts – Christine Chubbuck“).

Christine Chubbuck was a Floridian news reporter whom in 1974 shot herself during a live television broadcast (which arguably influenced the opening premise of the 1976 movie Network). It was discovered later that she had, throughout her life, suffered from several bouts of depression, focused mainly around her chronic inability to find and/or maintain a relationship with anyone. Furthermore, her self-deprecating manner often deflected any sort of compliment or consideration shown to her.

Several days before her suicide, the news director had cut one of her stories short in order to cover a shoot-out. The owner of the station, Robert Nelson, argued that the staff should focus on “blood and guts”. On July 15, 1974, she began her segment by covering several national news stories for a few minutes. After technical problems prevented a segment on a local shooting from running, Chubbuck simply stated, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.” As predicted by the script of the program she had included, she was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital and was pronounced dead fourteen hours later.

As for the music itself, it is (without resorting to cliche) immensely difficult to adequately put into words. I know I have used that phrase and conceptual convention before, but when nearly every other review and critique says something to the same effect, one knows they are probably on to something. A series of delicate, sustained synth tones solemnly proceed to evolve along the course of an hour, alongside bass hums that appear seemingly only when the mood or development of the present moment requires them to, at times disappearing completely. While there is a central theme that is cyclical throughout the work, the song is far from stagnant or boring, and headphone listening reveals a staggering amount of subtle variation and permutation with the seemingly limited auditory resources presented. Although I seriously doubt that there can be a consensus to words or phrases one can use to describe the tone of this album, I have seen the word “glassy” used several times various places, and it seems to fit well. Yet, while this may be a delicate work, I would hesitate to describe it as fragile, as there is a definite strength and confidence lurking behind the unpretentious veneer of the composition.

Ultimately, as with any good minimalist ambience, this experience is one of near- mystical qualities (even if you do not prescribe to any specific belief system) and perhaps even evoking emotional qualities. The best effects, however, are attained through listening to the album in it’s entirety, uninterrupted. Therein lies the only possible fault of the album: the sheer magnitude and scope of it’s very existence. Once you begin to listen to it, within ten minutes, if you stop for any reason, you may notice a physical difference upon ceasing, so pervasive are the tones and rhythms that one experiences. As I write this, I am finding halfway through the song, every few minutes it becomes difficult to continue typing. Not only due to the predisposition of my brain to concentrate on the song and the relative late hour in which I type this, but also due to the emotional memories and resonances that arise during listening to this work.

You perhaps might not experience this album in a manner as I have, but at the very least, if you have even the slightest interest in minimalism, ambient music, or even electronic music in general, I highly urge you to consider picking this album up. Now. It truly is the successor to Aphex Twin’s ambient work, a timeless statement of mortality, inevitability, and melancholic sadness. Highest recommendation.

The album can be ordered through most major and independent retailers.

Kevin Drumm (Wikipedia)
Kevin Drumm (Myspace Fan Page)
Hospital Productions
Guillain–Barré syndrome info (Wikipedia)
Christine Chubbuck (Wikipedia)

Swans – The Great Annihilator

•May 15, 2009 • 3 Comments




IN

“This album is actually really good in a lot of ways. Too much reverb here and there, but not as intrusive as other Swans releases…I can still listen to most of this sometimes, so that counts for something”. — Michael Gira/Young God Records 2008

Despite being reasonably skilled at various forms of textual description, I continue to find it difficult to express concisely how this album has made an incredible impact on me since I first discovered it. Failing in these attempts, I decided to observe and seek out other individual’s reactions to the album. Several phrases, in various permutations, are typical among fans of the album (although I do not know of many detractors). “The energy this album has is incredible” and “This album is currently turning me into someone more like myself” were among the most poignant phrases I encountered, not only because I attach personal significance to them, but also because I strongly believe that others will as well, once they listen to this album.

For that is the great strength of this album (and Swans in general): the ‘inherent energy’ found within their work, that almost instantly sets them apart from the ocean of disposable groups and albums which have constituted the music scene of the last few decades (and which continues to do so). While Swans initially began as a near impenetrable experimental industrial rock band (which, even then, is still an inadequate compound label) whose auditory brutality and singular aesthetic approached near-obsessive zealousness, they slowly evolved into an astonishing post-rock/industrial phenomenon. “The Great Annihilator” is a glimpse of Swans at the very pinnacle of their creative zenith which they would officially finish with their gargantuan “Soundtracks For The Blind” double album). The sheer diversity of emotions portrayed within the straightforward, yet paradoxically varied and complex compositions is staggering. To put it simply, “The Great Annihilator” is among Swan’s best work, in addition to possibly being their greatest album.

The unified sound present throughout the album is largely due to the presence of Gira, Jarboe, Norman Westburg, Algis A. Kizys, and Ted Parsons (who was also in Prong and the short-lived Of Cabbages And Kings, of which Kizys was also involved). “The Burning World” was a controversial collective of Swans and Bill Laswell associates which polarized fans, some of whom loved the album and many others (including music critics) to decry the album as a ‘compromised album’ consisting of ‘world rock’ filtered through the Swans aesthetic, resulting in an end-product that weakens the latter through the emphasis of the former (a view which, after having listened to the album, I must regretfully agree with). Meanwhile, “White Light from the Mouth of Infinity” can be viewed as the natural reaction to the experience of “The Burning World” (which Gira has apparently been consistently negative while recalling it): an expansive, wildly diverse, and overwhelmingly confident experience, featuring a few of the previous collaborators of “The Burning World” (namely Nicky Skopelitis and Howie Weinberg) in addition to many new members as well.

At this point in the various phases in which I wrote this review, usually a small voice in the back of my mind would casually suggest that I should describe the album track by track. But while this review probably deserves that sort of treatment, the truth is that doing so would be probably just as emotionally draining as listening to the album multiple times in a row (which I typically do when writing reviews, in order to keep the material somewhat focused). To begin with the obvious, the album is an extended conceptual/musical exploration time, eternity, spirituality, sensuality, the human body (both in terms of physically and as a metaphorical device), addiction, states of perception, and many other themes. Although there is an overarching motif of ‘timelessness’/’eternity’/’perpetuity’, there is also frequent attention paid to beginnings and endings (again, usually through vivid lyrical imagery rather than specific examples). If this sounds pretentious and/or overloaded in terms of the overall presentation, it is because it is. However, it is important to note that pretentiousness is often only a poor attribute to possess when the end result of endeavors fail to live up to the pretension. It is the price often paid for visionary risk-taking and ambitiousness.

The themes of eternity and time also create an interesting effect in that, while there are certainly emotional, musical, and conceptual high points and low points within the album, it is difficult to concretely state that one song is ‘more positive’ or ‘negative’ than another song or the album as a whole. An interesting detail is the titles of the intro and outro of the album, simply titled “In” and “Out”. Contained with the ‘gates’ of these tracks, the remaining songs create a singularity, in which thoughts, ideas, concepts, and themes spiral in among themselves in a slowly narrowing spiral, until the listener passes through ‘the great annihilator’ and “Out” (wherever that may be).

Musically, the album varies constantly from track to track, although there are a few constants. There is indeed a large amount of reverb throughout the album, yet it is usually utilized in a tasteful manner, and the times when it is somewhat over the top only serve to increase the impact of the song (“Telepathy” being the most obvious example of this). Also, while Gira’s acoustic moments on the album are instantly noticeable, they are also rarely given the spotlight by themselves, rather they serve as another layer to the dense aural tapestry of the given song.

In short, even if you are not a huge fan of the earlier Swans output, if you are the least bit interested in post-rock or emotive soundscapes, you need to hear this album at least once before you die. As stated in “Mother/Father”:

“There’s a place in space where violence and love, collide inside, and solid is wide. And heat is cold and birth is death. And creation and time are made from destruction”.

You are unlikely to reach this state of mind outside of this album. Highly recommended.

Young God Records
Swans Official
Swans Wikipedia
Swans Myspace
“Swans To Reform?” Article On Brainwashed

PS This is the ‘semi-final’ version of this review. Apologies for taking so long to complete it, and many special thanks to the various individuals who expressed encouragement towards seeing it finally completed. There is a very small chance I might go back at some point and restructure some of the last few paragraphs, but it is basically complete at this point. Also, feel free to comment, but any comments consisting only of “M. Gira [and/or] Jarboe suck” or “M. Gira [and/or] Jarboe are pretentious” will be promptly ignored.

OUT

Beyond Sensory Experience : No Lights In Our Eyes

•August 12, 2008 • 1 Comment

“You know what they say about funerals? There is always someone catches his death…”

Perhaps as time continues onward, the urge to experience feelings of fatalism, gloom, and/or melancholy do not seem so inappropriate or misplaced. Whether or not you agree with the alarmist proclamations of environmentalists, radical politicians, ministers, and ‘culture advocates’, there is no denying the inevitable fact that every living organism has a finite time of existence. This fragile existence is increasingly threatened by the outside environment, not only through the actions of other humans (malevolent or otherwise) but through environmental factors and statistical probability as well. In such troubled times, the need for a musical expression of this collective sadness is not only logical, but essential and even welcomed in some respects. Thus, in the same manner that Ulver’s “Shadows Of The Sun” portrayed a somber portrait of loss and longing (while using different techniques, of course), “No Lights In Our Eyes” explores themes of death, dying, and the underlying thoughts which line our subconsciousness, and how we react to such occurances.

“Next year, they think. Next week, or tomorrow. No later. But it is later than they think. They should not make life so complicated for themselves, now that they have brought about their own destruction. They cannot avoid the complexity, for death is their only alternative…”

This release completes the second “BSE trilogy”. While “Pursuit Of Pleasure” investigated themes of (naturally) sexual/personal relationships and “The Dull Routine Of Existence” explored themes of boredom, stagnation, despair, fatigue, and seemingly ‘mindless’ routine (the linear notes even state that the album was ‘recorded under the spirit of dullness’, but what this exactly means is unclear), “No Lights In Our eyes” takes this examination to its logical conclusion. Although the album tends to maintain a neutral and ambiguous stance regarding what it is attempting to convey to the listener, it can easily be argued that feelings of nostalgia, weltschmerz, mourning, loss, regret, sympathy, melancholy, and sadness are all appropriate attributes to attach to these songs.

“From one dream into the next…”

With the evolution of BSE’s conceptual backgrounds comes a pleasant evolution regarding their sound and approach as well. While this is not to say that their previous albums were necessarily bad in any way, there were at times certain elements to their songs which could (arguably) detract and/or lessen the impact they would have otherwise had. Specifically, I am referring to the slightly awkward samples found on “Pursuit Of Pleasure” and the somewhat ‘hit-or-miss’ rhythms of “The Dull Routine Of Existence”. However, it is difficult to conclusively state that these small nagging points are anything more than personal preferences, especially since they display an admirable willingness for BSE to experiment, evolve, and maintain a unique musical aesthetic. Regardless of these concerns, “No Lights In Our Eyes” is much more minimalist in construction then their previous albums, approaching ‘dark ambience’ at times, yet refusing to be pigeonholed into a specific genre.

“It seems strange that my life should end in such a terrible place…”

After listening to this album, you might agree with me that it is somewhat difficult to give a track by track description. Most of the songs feature BSE’s increasingly iconic and identifiable dark ambient backdrops, often augmented by choice samples in English and (possibly) Swedish and sparsely introspective guitar and/or piano segments. My personal favorites are “Funerals” and “Standing Silent”: the former being a dark minimalist masterpiece opening the album with the grim quote which opened this review and the later incorporating an awesome multi-segment choir movement in its midsection that seriously has to be heard to be believed. That is not to say that the other tracks are not worthy of mention: the featured track “Long The Nights” is almost frightening in the manner in which its strings hover around you, whereas “The Only Alternative” is darkly speculative in the extended contemplation of “The Only Alternative” (aided by subconscious drones and echoing choirs).

I read somewhere that this album is a near-religious experience in its funereal and somber themes and sounds. While I do not necessarily agree with this assessment, I will readily agree that it is certainly a meditative, contemplative, and intellectual experience, which continues the philosophy initiated and pursued by Beyond Sensory Experience since their first album. While their earlier albums were basically conceptual/theoretical in nature, their latest trilogy deals with the various facets of existence. How strange (or perhaps how fitting) that the exploration of endings should be one of their best works to date. Despite the fact that this album is concerned with death, funerals, and endings, it is (hopefully) not the end of Beyond Sensory Experience, but instead a new beginning.
The future looks very bright for this group. Highly recommended.

Beyond Sensory Experience Website
Cold Meat Industry
Beyond Sensory Experience Discogs
Beyond Sensory Experience Virb Site
Beyond Sensory Experience Myspace

Bohren & Der Club Of Gore – Black Earth

•November 21, 2007 • 2 Comments

Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Prowler

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Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Midnight Black Earth

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With a name that in English roughly translates to ‘Drilling And The Club Of Gore’, you might expect that the band is probably some sort of metal outfit or perhaps a musical doom unit. You would be half correct in that regard. With the members previously active during the 1980’s and early 1990’s in German hardcore/grindcore bands Macabre Farmhouse, 7 Inch Boots, and the oddly named Chronical Diarrhoea (in which their last albums would be released by Nuclear Blast and distributed by the seemingly omnipresent SPV), the members have collectively traveled many long miles from their aggressive musical origins, to arrive at a darkly comforting designation of ‘doom jazz’.

After their first two full-length LPs “Gore Motel” and “Midnight Radio” (and a five-year gap), guitarist Reiner Henseleit would leave the band and multi-instrumentalist Christoph Clöser would enter, thus the band’s tone would thus shift somewhat. Originally, as stated in the band’s biography, “…they created an unholy ambient mixture of slow jazz ballads, BLACK SABBATH doom and down tuned AUTOPSY sounds”. However, while the music was technically proficient and competent, a common listener complaint was that the music was uninspired overall, with too much emphasis given on meandering counterpoint improvisation, thus falling victim to the frequently heard complaint of ‘too much technique, not enough substance’. These points of concern would be addressed and resolved by their next album, the excellent “Sunset Mission”. Released in 2000, it is somewhat similar to the album that would follow it (Black Earth), the only major difference being that the album is somewhat more upbeat (though much more lethargic than their contemporaries), and reminiscent of various film soundtracks, especially through the very subtle string touches throughout some of the songs.

“Black Earth”, on the other hand, takes the minimalism which the band had previously been approaching, and takes it to it’s logical conclusion. Mellotron, piano, electric Rhodes, tenor saxophone, and double bass are the ingredients to this blackened minimalist concoction. Although each song is unique in it’s own regard, they all follow a basic formula: a menacing double-bass line and slow motion cymbal brushes/hits are accompanied and complemented by mournful Rhodes melodies, funereal piano movements (check out the beginning of the song “Maximum Black”), ghostly Mellotron sequences, and Christoph Clöser excellent sax playing. Gone are the ‘soundtrack-esque’ elements of the previous album. Instead, what remains is a classic release of what has been deemed ‘horror doom’, ‘death jazz’, and a dozen other labels which fail to do the sound justice. Like many other sounds of this nature, it is best to listen to the entire album in one setting, as each song flows seamlessly to the next, as if it were an extended composition. In addition, the audio mix (apparently a complaint in some of their previous albums) is crystal clear, an impressive feat given the dominating presence of the double bass (I recommend listening to this album with a stereo system that has subwoofers, as the sound takes on an intimidating physical presence in the room).

There are very few negatives to this album. Obviously, it is a huge ‘mood album’, thus if you are not prepared and/or in the mood for the type of music Bohren & Der Club Of Gore excels in creating, you might find this album too intense and/or depressive to easily digest (much more so than “Sunset Mission”). However, if you are an open-minded doom fan, a dark lounge jazz enthusiast, or simply enjoy the darker side of music and emotions, “Black Earth” is a landmark recording in all of these regards: a masterful work of a swiftly maturing band (as evidenced on their next album, 2005’s “Geisterfaust”).

PS If you are interested in the history of thrash, here is an interesting (though somewhat cynical) review of the pre-Bohren… band Chronical Diarrhoea’s ‘best of compilation’.

PPS The first video is of the track “Prowler”, from their “Sunset Mission” album. The second is “Midnight Black Earth”, from their “Black Earth” album.

PPS Epistrophy takes a curious stance regarding Bohren’s recent work, claiming that “the following album “Sunset Mission” was going to secure commercial success for the group, but more than obviously this has not been realized yet. their last album “Black Earth” saw no use in any kind of musical innovation.” Perhaps they are because of their subsequent associations with the Wonder and Ipecac labels (in which, especially with the latter, they gained more recognition than they would ever have on Epistrophy)?

Bohren & Der Club Of Gore
Epistrophy Recording (Old Bohren label)
Bohren Wonder Records Page
Bohren Ipecac Page
Bohren Discogs Page
Bohren Wikipedia Page
Culture Court Review/Interview

Ulver – Shadows Of The Sun

•October 17, 2007 • 2 Comments

“Great sorrow from the Norwegian legends Ulver. Music driven to despair, all sad and solitary, written and produced under the threat of extinction. Low-key, dark, and tragic.”

This description, found on the album’s shrink-wrap sticker, is actually quite accurate. Further suggesting that the band will appeal to “fans of: Guapo, King Crimson, Univers Zero, Coil, Nick Cave, [and] David Sylvian“, it quickly becomes apparent (upon listening) that the album really does have elements that resonate with previous works from the aforementioned artists (especially Coil, David Sylvian, and Univers Zero). It is important to note, however, that these comparisons are merely used as points of reference. There are many aspects of Ulver that cannot be readily found in the aforementioned bands (and vice versa), most notably an ethereal quality to the songs which, having been progressively hinted at in their previous albums, has been developed to a much more distinct degree on this album.

The tracks on the album all adhere to a basic structure: Kristoffer G. Rygg’s haunting and cryptic vocals (often multi-layered for dramatic effect) provide companionship to Tore Ylwizaker’s subtle synth arrangements (which are usually quite minimal, except for several moments of confident assertiveness on a few songs) alongside Jørn H. Sværen’s occasional percussive contributions (although on the Wikipedia page for the album he is credited for “miscellaneous” duties). In addition to the regular members, the album also features many beautiful moments provided by the Oslo Session String Quartet (Hans Josef Groh, Dorthe Dreier, André Orvik, and Vegard Johnsen). Finally, the album also has performances by Norwegian jazz musician Mathias Eick (trumpet), guitarists Espen Jørgensen, Christian Fennesz, and noted thereminist Pamelia Kurstin.

During the period between Blood Inside’s release and now, while Rygg was involved with several musical projects, most notably Head Control System, Professor Fate, Solefald, and Ihsahn, among others, Tore Ywlizaker took a year off to study classical composers and compositional technique. And it shows, as the album features an extensive amount of piano interludes, ranging from the pleasant to the challenging. But it is not only instrumental concerns that have benefited from this study: Rygg’s vocals have also never sounded better. While his delivery is (predictably) restrained in comparison to some of Ulver’s earlier works, it also meshes smoothly with the mood set by the music. In case you thought he would refrain completely from showing off his impressive vocal range, he does expand a bit of “Shadows Of The Sun” and “Let The Children Go”, but it is in harmony with the instrumentation: using vocals as another, expressive instrument (in figurative and literal senses, such as the multi-track introduction to “All The Love”).

The album is notably brief, containing nine tracks and roughly forty minutes of music. Ulver has removed any sense of musical or conceptual indulgence that may have been present in their present work. Instead, the songs are tightly-knit ‘movements’, more often than not flowing from one song to the next. While some of the songs can comfortably be heard by themselves, it makes for a much more effective listening session to listen to the album straight through. This also re-enforces the fact that the music has a deeply cinematic quality to it. During the songs, I often felt that they could comfortably progress and develop for twice their length (which is an unusual sentiment to feel, given the ridiculously extravagant lengths many ‘avant-garde’ artists take their compositions), but there is also a feeling that, as brief as the songs are in general, that they are complete in themselves. Complaints of frequent tempo and mood changes, as well as the accusation that the music is used more for textural purposes may be true, but that does not exactly detract from the album. After all, Pink Floyd’s “The Final Cut” often faced this and similar criticism (granted, the impending dissolution of the band and traumatic member interactions also dogged the album, something which Ulver has thankfully avoided).

The first three songs, “Eos”, “All The Love”, and “Like Music”, all smoothly segue into one another, and admirably set the mood for the rest of the album. “Eos” features mournful keyboard waves and a delicate theramin solo (quite frankly one of the most beautiful and emotional moments on the album). Soon, the magisterial sound of the Oslo Session String Quartet arrives, increasing the sense of loss and tragedy (which is magnified somewhat when paying attention to the nature of the lyrics, which feature such verses as “The sun is far away / It goes in circles / Someone dies / Someone lives / In pain”). Somewhat suddenly (but not abruptly, as “Eos” is the second longest song on the album), “All The Love” begins with an intriguing ‘multi-layer choir’ that Ulver is known for. A bit more uptempo than the first track, this song introduces understated percussion, a soaring trumpet solo and piano sequences (the instrumental section roughly two minutes in, while initially unusual-sounding, quickly impresses due to the alternating tempos of the various elements, achieving an impressive sonic effect with somewhat minimalist arrangements). “Like Music” is somewhat more erratic. With the first half similar to the two previous songs (with a small cello solo from H. Groh), it suddenly switches pace and instruments, featuring an almost atonal electric guitar solo (or synth, it’ s hard to tell) towards the end amidst strange chiming in the background.

Then the listener arrives at “Vigil”. I must admit that this was the song that initially got me excited about this album. Violin, viola, cello, piano, electronic “shimmers” from Christian Fennesz and, of course, awesome lyrics:

For all who used to be

And now are
In the dark

Light a candle
And say their name

One last time
Let them go

We will follow
When time comes

To pray for life
To begin again

A flower
Will open

On the grave

The cumulative effect that these forty-five words have, when coupled with the music, have a much greater depth of meaning, hope, and emotional impact than something of much greater length and detail. Seriously. It also ends as it began, with another impressive contribution from Fennesz.

The next three songs are a bit more direct, in comparison with the previous four. “Shadows Of The Sun”, starting with a vaguely Eastern drone (sorry, I can never remember the name of the instrument that is used at the beginning of this song), it soon launches into a pleasant synth/organ/piano midsection, but then just as quickly meander off into unknown territory, into echoing ambience, with seemingly random electronic bleeps and string plucks before dissolving into nothingness. As such, it is somewhat less consistent and harder to ‘digest’ than the previous songs. “Let The Children Go” is (arguably) the album’s most ‘upfront’ song, featuring a prominent synth foundation (with assertive stabs every so often), jazzy trumpet proclamations, and cavernous percussive barrages (of a surprisingly diverse palette of instruments). The lyrics on this song (highly abstract and philosophical, as usual) seem to address the preciousness and innocence of youth (although it is certainly open to interpretation). One of the shorter songs, it builds gradually in intensity, until, without warning, it drops you off a sonic precipice into the next song. Despite a slightly surprising sonic shift (which was perhaps expected, given that the track “Solitude” is a Black Sabbath cover). While that may come as an odd choice for some, Ulver does a commendable job with the track, featuring a pensive bass line, submerged piano chords, breathy trumpet blares, and a classic tale of love and loss (“Crying and thinking is all that I do” / “Memories I have remind me of you”).

If “Shadows Of The Sun” could be considered an exercise in mourning, then “Funebre” would definitely represent the actual funeral. The second half of the track features a lengthy piano solo, in which the ‘classical composition’ techniques are particularly evident, while the theramin returns to give the song an otherworldly distance to it. Finally, “What Happened?” (an appropriately titled song, as I will explain in a minute), begins with uneasy ‘industrialesque’ noises humming in the background, while the last piano melody slowly hangs over your head like a death sentence. A bell begins tolling shortly before two minutes. However, the Oslo String Session Quartet quickly moves in and delivers their most moving moment in the album, a fitting end for the album.

The last two minutes of the album are naught but digital silence. What happened?

If you have not already guessed, this is not a ‘perfect’ album. It is, however, extraordinarily good. It would be foolish to compare it’s merits to “Blood Inside”, as the albums are so different on both musical and philosophical levels, that direct comparisons are rendered useless. The main point to remember about this album is that it is not easily accessible. Despite it’s short running time, it will take many multiple listens before everything ‘clicks’ (trust me on this one). Also, the songs are highly symphonic and cinematic in nature, meaning (as stated earlier) that there are often abrupt changes in mood, tempo, instrumentation, and delivery. Thus, the album is highly diverse and fluid within it’s powerfully homogeneous nature (this is a good thing, as it increases it’s potency and emotional impact). On the whole, if you devote enough time to attenuate yourself to the album, you will find a beautifully depressive masterpiece in “Shadows Of The Sun”. Melancholy never sounded so good.

“In Memory Of Us All”

Ulver Official Site
Ulver Myspace
Ulver Wikipedia Page
Jester Records
The End Records

PS For better or for worse, the “Shadows Of The Sun” review is complete. I am not 100% satisfied with it (mostly little textual elements here and there to either clean up, specify, or simply change), but for the most part it is finished as it is. It was one of the hardest (and paradoxically, one of the most enjoyable) reviews I have written yet. Ulver is a hard band to review (anyone who has ever reviewed “Blood Inside” or this album will likely agree with me), because their music tends to connect with people on an emotional level rather than a physical/specific level. You are likely to relate to the reader how you feel rather than how the music was composed and performed (which is a testament to Ulver’s increasingly complex and powerful songwriting ability). Furthermore, after listening to it many times, I still do not entirely agree with the “Sigur Ros” comparisons (I know how people could make that conclusion, but most of the people who do so had a mostly negative response to “Shadows Of The Sun”).

Johnnytwentythree – JXXIII

•September 22, 2007 • 3 Comments

I recently got a copy of “JXXIII”, having seen the highly moving and effective music video for “A Minute’s Warning”, the final track off of the album. Featuring highly distorted washes of shapeless guitar noise, the accompanying video was also suitably chilling: a montage of World War II footage, complete with Stalin and his associates, Japanese soldiers being executed, and soldiers marching through St. Petersburg, interspersed with more modern clips, including latter-day ‘heroes’ Richard Nixon and the United States’ patron ‘saint’: George W. Bush. Featuring split-second text inserts with dire phrases as “Trapped by by the grave, we will not surrender” and “For forty days and forty nights, I huddled with the rest of the Midwest”, it is clear that Johnnytwentythree’s message is not one of hope and encouragement. It does, however, function well as a powerful statement against war while still being an excellent song. With such an excellent promotional movie for the album, the rest of it must be just as good, right? In listening to the entire album, however, it turns out that I committed one of the cardinal sins of musical pursuit: never judge a band by it’s single (even though “A Minute’s Warning” is technically not a single, it functions as such on YouTube and other video outlets).

The band is often favorably compared to older post-rock acts, such as Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Death In Vegas, Sigur Ros, The Beta Band and others. As I really am not familiar with most of the aforementioned bands (with Godspeed You! Black Emperor being the only one in which I have actually heard songs from), I cannot say for certain if the comparisons are entirely accurate, but I would hazard to say that they are. Yet, these frequent comparisons to post-rock’s shining stars, in addition to the frequent observation at how closely Johnnytwentythree adheres to the ‘post-rock ethic’, is not only Johnnytwentythree’s greatest strength, but it is also it’s greatest weakness as well.

One of the greatest flaws I have observed, not just with Johnnytwentythree, but with many post-rock bands in general, is the assumption that, for songs to be truly ‘epic’, you have to consistently push them past ten minutes in length. I was even startled to read in various articles that, at least for newer post-rock bands, that if your songs ‘only’ reach eleven to thirteen minutes, then ‘they are not even trying’. What? Generally speaking, it has been my experience whilst listening to post-rock bands, that the longer the songs become, the more stretched the musical ideas become. Either that, or they simply become ‘multi-part’ epics which could have, realistically, been split apart as separate songs without compromising the overall feel and flow of the album. This is especially true for “JXXIII”‘s second song ‘Ghost Soldiers’. At twenty minutes even, it is certainly a huge song. True to post-rock form, the first eight minutes are a seemingly endless crescendo and intensification, featuring floating guitar melodies, pleasant violin accompaniment (though certainly not ‘orgasmic’ violins, as I have seen written elsewhere). The drums roll along at a stately (for back of a better term) ‘militant’ pace, only increasing in complexity towards the eight minute mark. After eight minutes, the intensity suddenly increases and…the main melodic repetition is repeated again, with only the drum rhythm being substantially different. The last seven minutes of the song introduce a nice piano melody, but by then it’s ‘too little, too late’. The ending of the song (in my opinion) is actually quite a bit more interesting than the first thirteen minutes, but by that time, my interest (and attention span) has waned considerably, as I lost interest five minutes beforehand, as the need for length and ‘epic’-ness has instead only produced general boredom followed by bemused interest.

‘Red Bird’, their first song, is much better than the song that follows after it, for several reasons. First of all, the length is a ‘mere’ seven minutes, much more ‘average listener friendly’ than a twenty minute song. Secondly, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, without being needlessly prolonged or repeated. Though the ‘spoken word’ addition is somewhat awkward (and Johnnytwentythree themselves have made it clear that they are in no particular rush to add vocals any time soon). The build-up inherent in the song structure itself is also much more memorable, as it will stick in the mind much more readily than the hooks in ‘Ghost Soldiers’ will. Finally, the end of the song contains one of the strongest violin performances on the album (though throughout the entire album it remains slightly buried in the mix, which is unfortunate, given that it would sound quite a bit better if it were brought into slightly greater sonic definition).

Unfortunately, it would be beating a dead horse to give an in-depth analysis of the album’s other two songs (‘Into The Depths’ and ‘Fall Of Swords’), but ‘Into The Depths’ (thankfully) has a bit more variety underneath it’s shell (along with a strange vocal sample regarding ‘the Holy Spirit’) while ‘Fall Of Swords’ nearly falls into the same trap as ‘Ghost Soldiers’, but is saved by a slightly more energetic output (I would imagine that the Sigur Ros comparisons are strongest on this track).

So, is this album decent? Yes. Is it good? For the most part, yes. But is it worthy of the ‘2007 album of the year’ designation, which many have taken upon themselves to label it? Definitely not. It may be a pleasant post-rock excursion, but it is nothing radically different or better than any of the albums their aforementioned peers have already released. The fact that this release is, on the whole, mostly average is somewhat disappointing, given the lack of pretension on this release as compared to other post-rock bands (except for the band’s theory that their music “focuses on the creative and destructive potential of humanity” and that “This dichotomy is reflected in much of our work”). Plus, their awesome ‘art videos’ easily show that they are not afraid to stand out and make brave statements when they want to. In the end, I believe that this album will be a stepping stone for future albums, in which they continue to refine their craft, so that their next album may be truly worthy of all of the praise this one is currently receiving.

Note: The “A Minute’s Warning” video is not for young children.

Johnnytwentythree Official Site
Johnnytwentythree Myspace
Tag Team Records

Institut – Live Like Traitors, Die Like Traitors

•September 19, 2007 • 2 Comments

I once read a ridiculous analogy written about the Ministry album “Houses Of The Mole”. In the (rather clumsily written) review, after simultaneously praising and criticizing the album’s production techniques, the reviewer ends with this parting line: “Houses of the Molé isn’t really music, it’s hard tack — sustenance for wartime”. Not only is this assertion incorrect, but it was obvious that the writer had never listened to a record in which this description could be even remotely appropriate, such as the Institut album “Live Like Traitors, Die Like Traitors”. In a strange twist of irony, the Cold Meat Industry promotional text for the album is also poorly described: “Chew stone, fuel for fistfights, instead of your daily falafel” being one of the odder phrases. All of this simply proves the futile inadequecy of textual descriptions of the ravenous auditory siege that is Institut (although I will at least attempt to convey the experience in a semi-decent manner).

Released in 2003, “Live Like Traitors, Die Like Traitors” sees Lirim Cajani shed any ‘musical conventions’ the group might have ever possessed (such as the fleeting moments of melody evidenced on the album “Great Day To Get Even”) along with easily comprehensible vocals (most notable on the controversial, limited 7″ “Unto The Last Man”) to arrive at an unadultered power electronics / noise industrial experience. Featuring grinding analog electronics, shouted and wailed vocals (which are distorted beyond recognition with the “watery” vocal FX that is a mainstay on many other power electronics albums), and a handful of ‘crowd / speech’ samples, this album is uncompromising and brutal, in the same manner that the real world in which it operates in is. The closest sonic analogy I can compare this album to would be to various Brighter Death Now albums, though there are several important distinctions which must be made. While both share a penchant for lo-fi, grinding industrial soundscapes with an emphasis on intensity and varying degrees of repetition (or monotony, depending on how critical you are as a listener), Brighter Death Now often falls into the trap of ‘repetition for it’s own sake’, while the aesthetics presented by the band often feel shallow and contrived (after all, the combination of mental illness and death can only be explored for so long before it becomes old hat). Institut, on the other hand, has only one goal in mind: revolution. With recent world events rapidly flushing security and peace down an already crap-filled toilet, Institut continues to become more moving and relevant, especially since the release of “Unto The Last Man” in 2001 (with a telling number of copies released, it’s evident whose side they favor).

The first few songs are relatively straightforward, with “Move To Strike” and “New Armour” being among the more notable tracks. “Once A Man”, beginning with a brusquely distorted bass squeal, quickly adds several layers of static pulses, along with vocal samples (which I assume are being spoken in either Swedish or Russian). However, an unnerving set of choir and song samples are shot into the mix, where they float deftly in the dense electronic haze of revolution. This steadily increases for several minutes, as the choirs and distortion (free from the constraints of rhythm) swiftly increase in intensity. “Traitors” has an interesting pulsating “klaxon / warning” synth/FX in the song, while the two part “Move Over Once” / “Struggle For Life” ratchets the intensity factor several notches, as high frequency tones, heavily distorted bass sequences, and the impassioned speech of desperate foreign tongues all wage war within the songs (along with movie samples, possibly from “Scarface”, although I am not sure as this is the right movie or not).

In short, an excellent movement of revolutionary power electronics. This is ‘true punk electronics’, from (as described by a fellow band) ‘one of the most uncompromising bands on the scene’. If you are at all interested in the slightest in noise and/or power electronics, you should check these guys out.

As you can tell, I have not had any time to update recently. Plus, this very review was subject to several re-writes and revisions (plus maybe a few more if I find mistakes). Am slowly shifting to a new layout (nothing too radical). Several more reviews on the way soon (hopefully).

Vigilante Tapes
Cold Meat Industry
Institut Discogs Page
Unrest Productions (Shift / Institut news/mail order)

Mutual Mortuary

•September 3, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Continuing with the theme of ‘rare Ogre recordings’, here is another extremely short-lived side-project: Mutual Mortuary. Consisting of Bill Leeb (no longer going under the name Wilhelm Schroeder) and Kevin Ogilvie (aka Nivek Ogre), it only lasted long enough to contribute a few tracks to the early 80’s tape compilation Insane Music For Insane People (Volumes 9 & 10), along with other notable acts, including D’Archangel II (Edward Ka-Spel), Jarboe, The Legendary Pink Dots, Merzbow, Pseudo Code, Frontline Assembly, Illusion Of Safety, Nature And Organisation (!!!), and many others. Legend has it that (according to the Mindphaser website) that “personal issues” caused bad blood between the two, with the end result being that “Bill ran away with all the money from that record” (though whether it refers to the two compilations tracks or an entire record I am not sure, though I have not found any information conclusively stating/proving that a full-length record was ever created). Also, though this is somewhat unrelated, it is interesting to note that, upon hearing of a rumor that a Skinny Puppy re-union was being planed during the end of 1998, cEvin Key promptly responded by stating that: “‘I will personally not work with Bill again in my life. I think he is rude and his ego is very big and ugly'”. It is also important to note that, even if Leeb were on good terms with the Skinny Puppy members, it is unlikely that they would have included him on a reunion tour automatically, given the fact that his total input was two bass synth lines on the “Bites” album.

The two tracks (credited to “Muteual Mortuary” on the tapes, but later listed as “Mutual Mortuary” on fan bootlegs/compilations), while not being anywhere near as good as anything Skinny Puppy released during the prime of their career, are not terrible either. Both features basic drum beats, highly primitive, but still catchy and charmingly retro, keyboard melodies, and Nivek’s vocals brooding above it all. His vocals are one of the more notable points on these songs, as it has little of the virulent menace that his later albums would be known for. Instead, his delivery is, arguably, half murmured, and gives the overall impression of an extremely bitter individual, finally turned to apathy and indifference in the midst of life’s suffering (which is an unusual impression to receive from the lyrics, which in the first song includes the phrases “Please remember…I love you”. Odd, but then again, it’s just my opinion). “Hateless Insanity” features the previously stated phrases and delivery, while “Shadow Gods” is a bit darker by comparison, with Ogre ‘singing’ closer to his normal “Skinny Puppy voice”. On “Shadow Gods”, a quivering (for lack of a better descriptor) synth line propels the song along with an upbeat drum line, Nivek’s echoed and slightly snarling pondering. Personally, I prefer “Hateless Insanity” better for a few reasons: it’s odd name (“Hateless Insanity”?), it’s atypical approach (at least for the performers), and it’s slightly catchier melody, although both tracks are pretty decent overall.

As stated earlier, both tracks were released on the Insane Music compilation tapes in 1984 and 1985 respectively. These collections were then later re-released in limited CDr format in 2005 (though to my knowledge these specific collections are not available now, though I could be mistaken). Also, the Mindphaser website was offering them as a free download several years ago (this is how I acquired my mp3s of the songs), but, following a recent re-design of the website, many of their previous download offerings are no longer available (including the rare Front Line Assembly tracks “Holy War 1” and “Resuraction”). If you are interested in acquiring the “Insane Music…” compilations, I would recommend that you contact Alain Neffe to determine availability. In the meantime, I will inquire to see if anyone is offering it in download format (will update this post when I find or arrange something).

Much like the “A Chud Convention” release, this is an interesting detour: far from essential, but still a nice curiosity for those who are fans of the respective artists (although it must be admitted that these tracks are far more ‘conventional’ and ‘accessible’ than the relatively ‘out-there’ “Sorrow” album).

Discogs Page
Mutual Mortuary Mindphaser Page
Mindphaser cEvin Key Quote Page
Insane Music Website
Insane Music Discogs Page
Insane Music MySpace Site

A Chud Convention – Sorrow

•September 1, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Now this is a rare and interesting oddity if there ever was one. Though Skinny Puppy has plenty of rare releases and side-projects (W.E.L.T., The Petty Tyrants, Raw Dog, the excellent Mutual Mortuary project, and Rx), this album is one of the most spontaneous (which makes sense, considering that it was never meant to be released to the public). The album consists of two twelve-minute recordings Skinny Puppy and Belgian industrial band à;GRUMH (please do not ask me how to pronounce their name) they have created in their spare time during a 1986 European tour. Crediting Nivek Ogre and JΔ3 Seuqcaj (with the latter individual credited for all “coughs) while cEvin Key and SΔ3 Evets responsible for keyboards, sampling, and drum programming, it is a far cry from anything Skinny Puppy had created thus far (as I am not familiar with à;GRUMH’s discography, I can only assume and hope that they had/have created better albums).

Both songs are roughly the same: long form meditations of minimalist vocalizations from Ogre and whispers, coughing, and soft chanting from Seuqcaj. Imagine taking every incidental noise that ever came out of Ogre’s mouth during the recording of his albums, arrange them in a morose procession line and process them heavily with reverb, and you get a rough idea of what “Sorrow” sounds like. From what I can tell, both tracks use the same basic vocal background. The track “Patient Sorrow” concentrates more on the vocal aspect, while “Silent Sorrow” reduces the number of growls, chants, and whispers, replacing some of them with a dark keyboard drone and muted drum programming.

Despite the extreme novelty of the album, it has a certain charm inherent in it’s ‘DIY’ attitude. The production, while somewhat muddy, is still somewhat higher than what you would normally expect of a ‘for fun’ recording. In addition, the album is (strangely) quite effective in conveying a ritualistic element to the sound, with the majority of the vocalizations never forming complete words or phrases (with one exception in the second song).

While this was originally released by Play It Again Sam Records (supposedly against the will of the band members involved), the original foreign sub-label folded with the demise of Wax Trax! Thus, it has been out of print for quite some time (although, with a small amount of effort, one can easily locate it on the Internet in various forms).

Definitely not a necessary album, but a pleasant diversion for both the musicians and yourself.

P.S. If anyone can find larger album images, please let me know! 🙂

Discogs Page
Additional Info
Circle Records Info
Official à;GRUMH Website
Unofficial à;GRUMH Website
Play It Again Sam Records (Under Construction)