27 November 2008

Akimbo – Jersey Shores

(2008, Neurot)

There was a time when quiet-loud dynamics were enough. You had a quiet bit, a loud bit, and everyone was happy. It’s getting a bit stale now, though. I blame Isis, and why not? Other than the fact they don’t seem to have any particularly loud bits these days. It would be nice if a band offered some context – perhaps lyrical – to quite why their music is so violently swinging from one extreme to another.

As if by chance, along comes Akimbo, with an album doing just that. Not only is the music very well constructed, with eclectic song lengths, impressive performance and killer riffs, but it all means something.

There are two terms most rock writers try to avoid: ‘prog’ and ‘concept’. If they do use them, it’s always in the context of ‘this is a concept album. But not like that. Hey, come back!’ Well this is not a prog album, though there are similarities with one, notably the journey the longer songs take the listener on.

Jersey Shores is, however, a concept album. The songs are lyrically connected by one theme, which carries through into the artwork and even the music itself. This is where it gets really interesting. The album is about a spate of shark attacks in New Jersey in the first world war era. While the music is strong on its own, it is when reading the lyrics (and very helpful prose elaboration) that the overall quality hits you.

Last year, Phantom Limb, by Pig Destroyer, was the album it paid to read the lyric sheet to. Its stream-of-consciousness narrative about psychotic thoughts was so well-constructed that it made the explosive audio almost secondary.

Jersey Shores’ lyrics don’t have quite the same effect. Rather, they go beyond augmenting the sound, into ostensibly shaping what the music does. During the quieter moments, the listener can visualise the ominously still waters. Every time the aural tumult kicks in, you know those enormous, tooth-filled jaws are ripping into an unwitting swimmer, be it Charles Bruder or young Lester Stillwell.

The latter gives his name to the biggest musical triumph on the album, an eleven-minute epic with numerous kick-ins and break-downs. It would ordinarily be a work of dynamic ferocity that most post-metal bands could only dream of. With the concept attached, you know the first explosion coincides with the shark attacking the boy, who was out swimming with friends. It all comes crashing in again when Stanley Fisher dives into the water in an attempt to save him. Riffs savage the ears as gnashing teeth mutilate his thigh. His wounds would prove fatal.

While this marriage of concept and music elevates Jersey Shores clear above the majority of Akimbo’s contemporaries, the music stands strong in isolation. ‘Great White Bull’s maniacal, lumbering thrash is heightened by its relative brevity. The title track, which closes the album, explodes with the impotent rage of the human when confronted with such attacks of nature. After the attack subsides, we are left with the sound of the shallows, still once more, as a lone guitar picks out a melody of contemplation.

Every sequence on this album means something. The introduction creates that Jaws false sense of security. The vocals are primal, but massively effective, as vocalist/bassist Jon Weisnewski reaches high notes with a ferocity usually reserved for panic attacks. The reference points are all present and correct: the raw riffery of peak Neurosis. The near-Krautrock bass pulse extravaganza that inexplicably breaks out at one point. The period of calm in ‘Lester Stillwell’ that make you almost expect Henry Rollins to begin delivering. The sheer drops off the peaks of bludgeon into thin air, on a scale comparable to Botch’s majestic ‘Man the Ramparts’.

More than any of that, though, is the clear sense that here is a band turning its influences into mere ingredients. Jersey Shores is not about sounding like this band or that scene. It is merely three men – Akimbo – at the top of their game. And whether you call it post-metal, sludge or noise-rock, Akimbo is at the top of the game.

18 November 2008

Wolves Akimbo!

Less than a week ago, I received two fantastic albums from the mighty Southern Records. Both initially impressed, and both have grown on me ever since. Proper initial thoughts are in the works, but here are some pre-initial thoughts. Hey, if that’s possible anywhere, it’ll be here.

First up is Jersey Shores, the Neurot debut of one Akimbo. Pimped to me (desperately, I might add) on a message board as some metal Chimera combining Converge, Clutch and Mastodon – or something – the album flew under my radar. People started banging on, so I eventually decided to give it a go.

Jersey Shores is an epic, in the proper sense. No 20-minute drone cop-outs here, just well written, dynamic pieces of rock. The premise (there is a premise!) concerns itself with a spate of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916. The booklet features the lyrics as well as more fleshed out versions of the vignettes.

The music fits the lyrics, one moment ominously calm, when suddenly the frenzy hits and nobody gets out alive. The singing is noteworthy, as it’s not classically good, but brings the feeling, and even gets with the high note roars.

I since learned this is their sixth album, following two on Alternative Tentacles (very Neurosis) and a few more elsewhere. So taken have I been with this record, that I have ordered the previous four on vinyl. Expect obsessing!

The second album, while slightly less impressive at this point, is the still-standout Oceans of Delicate Rain, by Rye Wolves. Like Akimbo, Rye Wolves are a power trio from the Pacific north-west of the United States. Unlike Akimbo, they have just released their debut. Like Akimbo, they sound slightly like Neurosis. Like Akimbo, they are more exciting than Isis, Pelican et al. Again, this will be blogged in due course.

One thing before I go: what is it with these bands and expanses of water? Of course you had Isis with their magnum opus, Oceanic, in 2002. But we’ve also had:

• Ahab – who seem far less fun than Captain Ahab – who released The Call of the Wretched Sea in 2006;
• Mastodon releasing Leviathan in 2004;
Teeth Of The Sea, and their Orphaned by the Ocean this year;
• German band The Ocean, who started out with Islands/Tides, in 2001 (predating Oceanic!)

And now we have this pair. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out there are more examples of this trend, though I don’t expect a Reynoldsian level of reaction to this. Of course, we can logically trace this line back to Neurosis. They had the track ‘Become the Ocean’ on Through Silver in Blood, and Nick Terry specifically described them, in a review in October 1997, as ‘oceanic metal’. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. I dunno, it's because the music is supposed to be powerful, but not overtly aggressive. Ebbing and flowing at a monumental scale, right? Apparently.

Jackie-O Motherfucker – The Blood of Life

(2008, Fire Records)

In a move not dissimilar to RTX, JOMF have released a quasi-live album. The Blood of Life was recorded in one go, one night (November 29 2007) in Holland. Their last record, Valley of Fire, was a delightfully mellow slice of music that fit the cosy winter indoors to a greater degree than expected. It also made for an effective companion purchase to Radiohead’s In Rainbows.

The Blood of Life contains the last album’s title track, as well as renditions of JOMF family favourites ‘Hey! Mr Sky’ and ‘The Grave’, as well as the traditional ‘Lost Jimmy Walen’. The record closes with the sprawling ‘The Blood of Life’, more on which later.

Authenticity seems rather a big priority with this scene. As noble as their motives surely are, I always infer dishonesty when people nowadays attempt ‘legitimate’ blues/folk. It just seems a bit wrong, whether it’s this lot, No Neck Blues Band or the Black Keys. It is inherently inauthentic, a fact that cannot be changed by the hiss of tape-legitimacy, despite the evident goodwill.

The Blood of Life isn’t a bad record. It’s really rather good, once you get past the signifiers of scene. When I say this is more an alternative rock album than anything else, I mean that in a positive way.

The sedate(d) vocals are vaguely reminiscent of Thurston Moore, and the regular guitar arpeggios and sing-song melodies recall a simpler time. A time of Hoon and Farrell, of ‘Say Hello 2 Heaven’ and ‘Rotten Apple’; just shorn of the gloss and accessibility. This is presumably not what JOMF were shooting for, but it is what it is.

Listening with a critic’s ear, I cannot avoid the (seemingly intentional) flat notes, the repetition and the lack of something of which to grab hold. Like the last Lustmord, this is mood-dependent music: if you are ‘chilling’, on a ‘bean bag’, smoking a ‘jazz’ cigarette, it should more than likely prove enjoyable.

Also like the Lustmord, the most impressive song is the epic. I’m not sure why the longest of a set of similarly-paced songs should be the best (logic would suggest it’d be boring). But, whether its expanse provides more space in which to dwell, to appreciate – or whether it is due to the force of sheer inertia, ‘The Blood of Life’ is where it’s at.

An intriguing document of where a band was on one particular night, The Blood of Life makes for a fine appetiser for the next album proper, due early next year. On its own merits, this stripped-down, subtle grower may try your patience before it has time to take root.

16 November 2008

Cash mountain

While I'm here - and complaining - I have to mention something that would be amusing if it wasn't so fucking sad. I like vinyl. I like when bands get their old albums re-pressed on vinyl. Keeps the eBay hucksters and flippers disgruntled and prices low. Hooray to that, I say. But it chagrins me to a great degree to see idiocy like this carny trick.

Mastodon are a really good band. After an inauspicious start (their debut wasn't a patch on In the Eyes of God, the Today Is The Day album half the band played on before their 'Stodon days), they released two damn fine albums in Leviathan and Blood Mountain. So they have released three albums, the last even attaining the status of 'token metal album' on the magazines' year-end lists for 2006. How much would you pay for their collection to be pressed once more on vinyl?

I'll clarify matters. On top of the three albums, there is an odds-and-sods collection, Call of the Mastodon. Throw in a live set and how much would you pay? Relapse tends to release their LPs for about $16. So 16 x five is $80. Sounds fair, even if I don't really want odds, sods, or live sets.

How about $268 if you're in Europe. (Or $275 if you read the small print.)

Looks to me like someone saw the money Isis made from selling extortionate career box sets, and thought 'hey, they hadn't even been good for the second half of that decade!* Imagine how hard we're gonna coin it'. The really sad thing is it will sell out. Even sadder, 90% of purchasers will make a profit when they re-sell on eBay in six months or so. Cynical, moi?

There will be some really good music in that box set, but that price is ridiculous. You can't even pretend to be in it for the music when you charge amounts like that for a retrospective on a three-album band. And I do wish Relapse would stop with the goddamn splatter vinyl. That joke isn't funny any more. Solid colours please. Or just black vinyl. Some of us like to listen to our records.

At least this version of Blood Mountain seems to be on two discs. Shame they couldn't have done that from the start.

* Prove me wrong with yer next record, Isis. Prove me wrong. Or just do another Old Man Gloom album instead.

Just a minute...

I recently received a vinyl copy of Just a Souvenir, by Squarepusher. That is to say I bought it. It should come as no surprise when I say it is a contender for my album of the year. Fools write it off as 'muzak'. Please let me know exactly which muzak rocks as much as 'Delta-V' or 'Planet Tensor'. Far too many people these days think they are record copany executives, consigning music to the (recycle) bin if they are not immediately enamoured with it. Screw them.

Anyway, that is not the point of this post. The point of this post is to mention how thin and flimsy the record itself is. I'm sure Warp records never used to be like that. Not my Big Loada. Nor even recent albums like Mira Calix's Eyes Set Against the Sun or Boards Of Canada's Trans Canada Highway. They were satisfyingly sturdy pieces of work, much like the vinyl pressed for Planet Mu or Hyperdub. I love their records.

Perhaps I am over-reacting. Indeed, I am yet to even give the album a listen in its wax state. Perhaps it sounds fine. I just hope it's not a portent. Credit crunch and all that. Lea was telling me his copy of the new Gang Gang Dance album is similarly unimpressive, so I might order the U.S. pressing in. If there's a difference.

13 November 2008

Teeth Of The Sea – Orphaned by the Ocean

(2009, Rocket)

At some point this decade, some clever soul coined the term ‘post metal. Goodness knows why; perhaps they were bitter at post rock almost completely petering out by 2002. (Can you name a band not from Japan who is any good at post rock?) Regardless, the term ‘post metal’ is now roaming the land, and it apparently refers to bands influenced by Neurosis.

Some would extend the meaning to ‘bands influenced by Neurosis and Isis’ (or, more insultingly, ‘NeurIsis’), but that is tautology considering Isis started out as little more than a Neurosis tribute band. They are now little more than a sleep aid, but that’s for another post.

What amuses me about post metal is the fact that none of it is actually what one would call metal. I don’t mean that in the snotty sense that an old rocker would say Korn or Tool wasn’t metal, but more in the sense that most of it lacks any discernable hall mark of metal.

Justin Broadrick was once in a metal band. Pelican is on a metal label. Isis was once a metal band. But none of those facts mean what those artist are now playing should be deemed metal. The Angelic Process was a great band. Nadja are pretty good. I would describe both as really heavy indie. Old school indie, like My Bloody Valentine or early Cocteau Twins/JAMC.

This is not a diss post. A lot of it is really good. The mentioned Angelic Process: released a fantastic album last year, and the story of the band (man) is genuinely upsetting. Neurosis have been known to enjoy their moments in the musical sun. Earth, Hyatari and Kayo Dot have released some of the most compelling albums of any stripe this decade. Grails and Across Tundras are both galloping across the prairie with their epic tales of not-doom.

Because it’s not doom, is it? The riffs lack that earthy solidity that has characterised slow metal since February 13 1970. Sabbath to Rainbow, to Venom, to St. Vitus, Trouble, Candlemass, Cathedral, Electric Wizard and Iron Monkey. The darkness is not there, and if there is a crushing power present, it is benign, almost accidental. Kyuss were heavy, but blissfully so. They weren’t metal or doom. Cheap journos called them ‘stoner’, but I always preferred ‘desert rock’, as the riffs rustled up by them and their kind (Masters of Reality, Karma To Burn, Fu Manchu) were far more effectively thought of as aural sandstorms. Riffs the size of dunes – and almost as free form, with periods of expanse, wherein the mind could wander for days at a time.

I mentioned Grails and Across Tundras, perfect examples of what would in another age have been desert rock. However, in this Southern Lord era where doom is cool and all must have the aegis of metal bestowed on it, we get… well it’s not quite metal… post-metal? Yeah, sure.

Following in the footsteps of these bands, and the revitalised Earth, comes Teeth Of The Sea. If they are not new, they certainly are to me. I have no research to back this up, but I assume they are nothing to do with Mouth Of The Architect. They plough a similar furrow, though, of the epic, post-Neurosis rock vistas.

‘Only Fools on Horse’ is almost an all-of-the-above option. Throbbing bass, the threat of looming thundercloud, but with a USP of brass instrumentation. It rather hints of Morricone, but without that touch of genius. It’s not bad, though, and certainly quite heartening a start.

‘Latin Inches’ builds momentum gradually. The percussion is engaging as guitars gently shimmer over it. Then comes the Bargeldian guitar clatter; that axe-as-rhythm that is so sorely missing from the Bad Seeds these days. It adds texture, and still promises bludgeoning to come. ‘Coraniaid’ is a brief dabble that continues the promise. It is still rather ominous, but you find yourself checking your watch.

Thankfully, ‘Swear Blind the Alsatian's Melting’ (they have to be English with a title like that) changes the mood. Its slow, clear arpeggio is reminiscent of the quieter moments of the incorrectly maligned last Tool album. The trumpet returns to add colour, and an actual rhythm enters the mix. Something danceable! It doesn’t last long, but provides optimism as the structure gleefully degenerated into slow guitar squeal, brass drone and bass threat.

The majority of the second half of the album is taken up by two songs – ‘Dreadnought’ and ‘Sentimental Journey’. These mini-epics (aren’t they all?) bring the mood, and the tempo, back down to a crawl. There’s more trumpet on this one. I’m sure they want the instrument to become for them what the sax has for Wolf Eyes – their chosen deadly weapon – but it instead makes Teeth Of The Sea sound rather too much like the Chumbawamba of the post-Oceanic scene.

The brief ‘Knees Like Knives’ initially brings to mind the Mars Volta’s ambient preamble of synthesised nature, but gets lost in the foliage, from which ‘Sentimental Journey’ emerges.

This final song on the album builds, and builds, and actually goes somewhere. Admittedly, the song implodes, instead of exploding, when it is due to kick in, but at least some noise turns up. It seems that – for the most part – one can define post metal as ‘metal without the catharsis’. If that is the case, Orphaned by the Ocean is a fine example. As an album of rock music, an artistic statement on which the band can hang its collective hat, it embodies the sub-genre at its most anodyne.

04 November 2008

An Albatross – The An Albatross Family Album

(2008, Eyeball)

These Pennsylvanians follow up the fantastic Blessphemy (Of the Peace-Beast Feastgiver and the Bear-Warp Kumite) (2006) with another detonation of manic Deep Purple-inspired grind. While outwardly very similar to the last album, An Albatross’ style is sufficiently individual to fuel another half an hour of cosmic bomb-blast.

…Family Album is a stylistic frenzy of splattercore guitars and screams. The skeleton of the piece suggests the late Blood Brothers’ ashes being ground up and snorted by zombie Nation Of Ulysses. Married to this, though, is a very 1970s sense of pomp. While Blessphemy… was like a monster of rock LP played at 45rpm, An Albatross mainly use the keys here as Slayer-esque stabs of rhythmic punctuation. A fine example of this is ‘...And Now Emerges the Silver Pilgrim’, an upwardly firing helter-skelter of pure strife.

The pace drops during ‘The Hymn of the Angel People’. Ostensibly the epic of the album, it beings in promisingly Bungle fashion before unravelling in over-long monologue. While no bad thing in itself, the quasi-mythical content fails to prevent the piece dragging. So much so that it negatively affects the flow of the album; Captain Ahab’s ‘Ride’ this is not.

The mix can sound cluttered at times, but ‘The Psychonaut & the Rustbelt’ is one of those occasions it all comes together. Zorny as fuck with saxophone squirking out the main phrases, it manages to be both extremely catchy and inordinately horrible. In a good way.

‘3,000 Light Years By Way of the Spacehawk’ is the real epic here. Beginning in a bluster of violin and latter-day Swans drone that combines to recall the Quebec of a decade ago, we’re soon plunged into a hyper-gravity world of sly black metal speed-riffing. And then all of the above at the same time, as it builds, builds, builds. Just when you think it can’t maintain integrity any longer, it doesn’t.

When winter’s setting in again, thoughts turn to the albums of the year. …Family Album is not concerned with such trifles. This is an album more like The Ramones, I Get Wet, Punk in Drublic or Reign in Blood: if you want a 30-minute blast of pure energy and enthusiasm, this is for you. And sometimes that’s all you need.

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