Archive for June, 2009

Astra- The Weirding (Rise Above)

June 25, 2009

 Astra

 

   It’s official- the New Wave of Psychedelic Prog (a term that seems to have won out over the equally applicable New Wave of Progressive Psych) is here to stay. The phrase was originally coined, in somewhat tongue in cheek manner, over on the Head Heritage Unsung forum to describe Astra’s Brighton-based Rise Above labelmates Diagonal, and their fellow travellers Wolf People, but San Diego’s Astra have firmly claimed the genre for their own.

In truth however, there’s little on The Weirding, the band’s debut album, that’s ‘new’ at all: this record wouldn’t have sounded out of place at any point between 1969 and 1975. And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find any one album of that era that so magnificently covered all bases and magnified the cliches of the genre- right down to the Roger Dean-like, airbrushed fantasy art sleeve- to such epic and marvellous extent. Astra draw on the West Coast psych, hard rock, folk rock and metal end of the prog spectrum- there’s none of the real experimentalism of Van Der Graaff Generator or King Crimson here-  but within this limited range they’ve produced a record of such epic grandiosity and occasional sublime beauty that it’s hard not to be swept away by its obsessive dedication to its own metaphor. 

 It begins with ‘The Rising of the Black Sun,’ an appropriately anthemic instrumental overture of prancing, duelling guitars that sets the scene perfectly for the fifteen minute title track. A wistful flute introduces a vocal melody partway between Saucerful of Secrets era Floyd and Argus era Wishbone Ash, describing the environmental desecration of the planet (a loose concept- you knew there had to be one- for the record), before wah-wah guitars usher in a Black Sabbath-esque bridge and then a languid, space rock middle section. Then it does it all again on the way out. 

‘Silent Sleep’ once more recalls Wishbone Ash, with its Mellotron, double-tracked guitars and rather fey close-harmony vocals, although the endless descending arpeggios and chorus-effect guitars also bring to mind the 80s gothic rock of The Mission or The Cult, while making said bands seem almost restrained and under-achieving in their approach. Burbling analogue synths usher in the ballad-like ‘The River Under’, before the audacious seventeen-minute instrumental, ‘Ouroboros’ in which, like the titular snake that devours its own tail, Brian Ellis’s guitar winds in and out of organ and Mellotron dominated soundscapes, working itself up to a state of apopleptic fury before returning to its previously established melodic theme- and then dropping back in the final five minutes to let the moog synth take the high ground once more. It all builds to a spectacular, Kashmir-esque conclusion of hard rocking guitars and mellotron strings.

After that, ‘Broken Glass’ is a brief oasis of calm, an almost acoustic psychedelic ballad, fading directly into ‘The Dawning of Ophiuchus’ which itself is a five minute instrumental prelude to the closing track, ‘Beyond to Slight the Maze.’ This revisits to some extent the title track, giving The Weirding a somewhat circular feel. Its descending chords more than ever before suggest some early seventies Pink Floyd/Black Sabbath hybrid, as pastoral verses give way to doomily anthemic choruses and an extended, keyboard-dominated outro.

At nearly eighty minutes, this largely instrumental and unashamedly grandiose album can start to seem like a drag if you’re not in the right mood. There’s pomp and prettiness galore, but little to genuinely involve you- it’s all flash and mirrors, and for all the muso showmanship the songs are actually simple and repetitive affairs at bottom, following the same repeated descending chord structures throughout. But that said, its easy to succumb to its obvious, sentimental charms, particularly in the company of a bottle of good red wine or certain other combustible comestibles when one’s inner 70s rock man emerges cro-magnon like from his sub-conscious cave. Ridiculous, overblown and out of time as it may be, something about The Weirding is also quite wonderful.

The Present- The Way We Are (Loaf Recordings)

June 19, 2009

 

The press release: “Touchstones include the music of La Monte Young, Dimitri Shostakovich, Wolfgang Voigt, Cluster, Black Dice, Claude Debussy, Aphex Twin, Can, Arthur Russell, Boredoms and Brian Eno, and yet it sounds like none of these.”

 Well, there’s a thing. Reminiscent of the then-unknown BS Johnson punting his first book to publishers with the casual claim that he’s the sole heir to Joyce and Beckett; both hugely self-aggrandising and off-putting to anyone hoping to make commercial capital from your work.

The Present’s debut album, World I See came out last year and was an interesting, intermittently engaging and admirably experimental work, mainly noted due to its Animal Collective connections. The Present is the project of NYC based Rusty Santos, producer of Panda Bear’s rightly-acclaimed Person Pitch LP as well as AC’s Sung Tongs, working in this case alongside a couple of mysterious accomplices known only as Mina (who brings the Japanese pop and folk influences), and Jesse.

With The Way We Are, Rusty, Mina and Jesse have not only followed up with an almost indecent swiftness, they’ve leapt light years ahead. If The World I See sounded pretty way out last year, now it sounds like faltering baby steps compared to The Way We Are.

The album doesn’t play all its aces at once, though it’s clear from the off that this is gonna be a heavier trip than its predeccesor. Opening track, ‘Medman’ sounds like vintage Radiophonic Workshop stuff; incidental Dr Who music soundtracking some Silurian or Sea Devil-like monster emerging threateningly from the deep… it even reprises the clunky, ominous rhythm of the classic theme tune. ‘Saltwater Trails’ is more atmospheric and subtle, but no less sinister once it catches ahold, like sirens luring you out into deadly quicksand… at first alluringly ethereal, then before you know it you’re up to your neck in musique concrete, and all kinds of degenerate spirits and marsh ghosts are being unleashed around you.  In fact, if the first track was Dr Who, this is Sapphire and Steel– voices of long-dead children echo in the distance, some spooky playground chant, the unknowingly departed mutter feebly to each other as all manner of psychic disturbances crack the ether. Do not play this with the lights out or under the influence of… well, actually, maybe do. It could be awesome. If you want your hair to turn white overnight, say.

Fading imperceptibly into ‘Space Meadow,’ we’re suddenly in smoother climes, three-and-a-half minutes of retro sci-fi ambience, inside the head of a valium and synthi-martini dosed 24th Century housewife awaiting her space pilot hubby’s re-entry to their satellite dream home, blissfully orbiting a cold dead planet. But ‘Shapeshifter’ marks the moment when she realises that someone’s spiked her drink: time speeds up and slows down in jerky bursts, her spatial perception starts strobing erratically, and all her digital labour-saving gadgets are malfunctioning and bursting into disobedient half-life at once. Is that the sound of an oxygen leak? Is that hubby knocking at the window, floating lifelessly asphxyated in space?

 ‘Press Play’ finds us back where we started, in vintage Dr Who territory: some hallucinatory March Of The Cybermen, intense, claustrophobic and quasi-operatic. It’s another mini-masterpiece of wordless electronic dread, but all of this is merely an overture for the album’s epic, 32-minute title track: the main act, the thing itself.

Solid clusters of sound dominate the first two minutes, like pressurised steam hissing from between solid metal plates. But then a distant, almost tribal rhythm emerges from behind the lonely singing of satellites, the ancient ghost of earth mysteries and rituals bleeding through into the modern machine age of digital communication and virtual language. After about five minutes this phases into an almost random confluence of urban noise, like jumbled radio waves passing through space, industrial vibrations with still the hint of the natural underneath it all and, for all the confusion, a sense of order, of directedness, even of a serenity beneath the chaos, just waiting to be tuned into. Indeed, as we approach the ten minute mark the chatter falls away and only a profound drone remains, like a mighty ray of light or some universal omnichord. Delicate piano melodies dance around an ineffable alien core that is still somehow warmly familiar. The planet breathing? There is something of Gaia theory to all this, of an alternative Koyaanisquatsi for the more complex, digitally-rerouted 21st Century.    

At the fifteen minute mark, nothing and everything is happening: in the new age minimalist stakes we’re nearer to Steve Reich than Phillip Glass. Gradually, more thin sonic layers are slipped in, one on top of the other, building up the levels of sound almost imperceptibly until, another ten minutes on, you realise you’re dealing with a veritable cacophony: still Reichian, but Richard James and Boards of Canada have dropped in for tea, and Eye from Boredoms is banging at the door. And after half an hour has passed, you realise it’s not a tea party at all, but a seance: calling up all the brutal, unquiet spirits of our age. And then, with an unsettling suddenness, it’s over. And silence doesn’t sound the same as it used to anymore.

The press release: “A kaleidoscopic trip influenced by New York City, The Ocean, Mountains, The Sun and the Trees, Andy Warhol, Yukio Mishima, David Lynch, Friedrich Nietzche, Buddhist Mantra, Mass Transit, Cats, Birds and life. Life in all its myriad complexity and confusions, in all its transcendent beauty and its horrendous brutality.” Which normally I would dismiss as pretentious twaddle. But in this case, one feels they might actually be understating things.

The Way We Are is an ambitious, breathtaking, resolutely forward-looking record. Not for the faint-hearted, nor the jaded thrillseeker. But for those interested in the serious and thoughtful avant-garde of digital music, look no further.  

  The Present? Sounds like the future to me.

The Warlocks- The Mirror Explodes (Tee Pee Records)

June 14, 2009

   The Warlocks’ last album, Heavy Deavy Skull Lover, was a sprawling, self-indulgent freak of a record, pushing the sonic envelope in terms of way-out guitar sounds and atonal feedback dirges. The first impression of The Mirror Explodes (the band’s fifth), is that they’ve taken a step back and made a calmer, more conventional and reflective album. These things are relative, of course: the Stooges/Velvets/MBV influences are still obvious, but the drums are less pounding, the feedback more controlled, the evocation of some manic, chemically-assisted blitzkrieg on the end of the night replaced by a sense of hollow entropy, of momentum lost and ravens come home to roost. More than ever before, singer and songwriter Bobby Hecksher is at the heart of this record, which seems to map out a disturbing personal odyssey, the details of which are left mercifully undisclosed, while the overall tone is all-too-clear.    

   Opener, ‘Red Camera’ starts off like classic Warlocks- a slow monotonous Stooges riff, mogadon drumming, and glassy, echoey shards of space-rock digital FX. Bobby’s haunted, off-key vocals recall Lee Renaldo- the George Harrison of Sonic Youth- on his minor-key, one-per-album SY songs like ‘Mote’ from Goo. The lyrics, as throughout the album, are all-but inaudible, but random phrases drift out, ominous and sinister. “I’ve already been there- to the hospital.” The feeling is lost, lonely, cavernous and lysergically damaged- an epic bad trip.

   ‘The Midnight Sun’ pastiches Isn’t Anything era My Bloody Valentine, with monotonously strummed acoustic guitar, plangent waves of detuned feedback and droning, submerged vocals as everything is sucked backwards while still struggling forward, caught in the gravitational pull of some self-inflicted black hole. ‘Slowly Disappearing’ also recalls early nineties British ‘shoegazing’ bands (Lush, Chapterhouse, Slowdive, Pale Saints), but there’s none of the celebratory yearning or reaching for beauty of classic shoegaze. Once again, the mood is despairing and disoriented; anguished isolation. Bobby sounds like he is indeed slowly disappearing- down the plughole, perhaps.

   ‘There is a Formula to your Despair,’ despite its slightly embarrassing Sixth Form Emo title, turns against the tide slightly: here is hope, albeit of the most stoic kind. Bobby’s high, cracked vocals climb over a pulsing, echoing, minimal blues that recalls Spiritualised or Spacemen 3, but perhaps most of all Galaxie 500: “Everyone feels this way.” It’s a palette cleanser of sorts for the album’s centrepiece: ‘Standing between the Lovers of Hell’ is a slow-burning, stomping psychedelic monster, a churning, caterpillar-tread groove broken in two by an echoing Sisters of Mercy guitar solo. This will surely be the defining song of the live set when they tour this album over the summer.

   Unfortunately, after ascending to this peak there’s nowhere else to go but down. Which isn’t to say that ‘You Make Me Wait’ is inferior:  but despite Banshees-esque chorus bass and guitars moving like tectonic plates, it still seems closer to Bobby’s old allies/rivals the Brian Jonestown Massacre, which could also be said of the stripped-down, shoegaze blues of closer ‘Static Eyes.’ Between them, ‘Frequency Meltdown’ is a six minute instrumental jam that, while effective enough, sounds like a warm-up number or a studio outtake.

   Undeniably flawed then, but still creepily fascinating, The Mirror Explodes may turn out to be The Warlocks’ most memorable statement. Bobby sounds bewildered, burnt out and betrayed, and whether his demon is drugs, depression or just life turning to shit in the everyday manner matters little. The specifics may be obscure, but it’s the generalities that we can all identify with at some point or another. The title is apt: The Mirror Explodes is a record to keep you company in the wee small hours, when you look at your reflection and it all comes apart and the shards cut you bloody, your only companion through a dark night of the soul. Like Skip Spence’s Oar, Syd’s Barrett, or more recently, the Television Personalities My Dark Places, it’s uncomfortable, unsettling, but profoundly real. The Mirror Explodes is a damaged classic.

Black Moth Super Rainbow- Eating Us (Memphis Industries)

June 5, 2009

This is my first encounter with the excitingly named Black Moth Super Rainbow- a Pennsylvania collective made up of the even more excitingly named Father Hummingbird, Power Pill Fist and best of all a gentleman who rejoices in the given moniker of The Seven Fields of Aphelion (what were his parents thinking?) alongside the rather less excitingly named D. Kyler and a frontman simply known as Tobacco.

I wonder whether Tobacco has actually smoked so much of the stuff that he’s had to have a full tracheoctomy, and has had his voicebox replaced by a vocoder device? This would explain much, as the vocals throughout Eating Us are uniformly compressed and robotic. Instrumentally, there are loud, tumbling drums, distorted organ, burbling bass and sweeps of synthesised strings. In a nutshell, Eating Us sounds very much like Moon Safari by Air. Which is not neccesarily such a bad thing, it’s just that it’s all a bit… 1997.

So ‘Dark Bubbles’ cuts from gently picked acoustic guitars to an avalanche of crashing drums, while ‘Twin of Myself,’ is all sparkly post-disco and “chilled electronic beats” (or should that be beatz?) as I believe the young people say. Indeed, this will probably be the hit of the summer amongst the kind of folk who go to festivals like Beachdown and The Big Chill, and will doubtless soundtrack many a beery Sunday roast in trendy pubs with low distressed wood coffee tables and big soft sofas.

Titles like ‘Tooth Decay,’ ‘The Sticky’ and ‘Bubblegum Animals’ nail the problem: it’s all a bit too sickly sweet, too much like pink candy floss. Only ‘Iron Lemonade’ brings a sinister edge to proceedings, conjuring up an image of brightly painted wooden soldiers advancing down the Yellow Brick Road, bayonets at the ready, while B52 bombers swoop low over the emerald city.

At best, you could see this as a 21st Century update of 60s soft psych and sunshine pop, but for that you’re better off with somebody like Caribou; to me this already sounds both dated and soporific. Pleasant enough, as a stoned soundtrack to a baking summer afternoon, but it’s a comfortable regression, not a bold step forward. Groovy names notwithstanding, this is hippy womb music; kicks, visions and epiphanies not included.