Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Toby Driver - In the L... L... Library Loft (2005)

Rating: 9.6

Far too often I hear that nothing new is being done in music, and finally I have found the perfect CD to throw back at the naysayers. While there are plenty of bands who are consistently pushing new ground, few are doing so as blatantly as Toby Driver’s many projects (Maudlin of the Well, Kayo Dot, Tartar Lamb, solo), and In the L… L… Library Loft might just be his most innovative yet.

Instead of pioneering and perfectly a new style of music, In the L… L… Library Loft sees Driver take four unique ideas for how to structure his pieces, then explore what he can do with them. Because of this, he is not likely ever to have much widespread influence on how songs are structured—the ideas are so unique that if anybody else were to use them it would almost certainly be blatant copying—but his ideas ought to provoke a shift (at least in avant-garde circles) in the way people think about composition and structure, inspiring future composers to similarly play with unique composition ideas.

As the title of the CD would suggest, In the L… L… Library Loft is the stuff of nightmares. The whole CD exudes a dreary, haunting atmosphere, scarier than any songs built merely around diminished chords. The best example of this is the opener, “Kandu vs. Corky (Horrorca),” which just might be my favorite Toby Driver composition yet. Compositionally, it is a drone piece, but, as I’ve mentioned, the song structure is atypical. In this case, the song is built to resemble a bell curve. On the small level, each individual drone starts soft, then gets louder, and finally returns to softness before giving way to a new drone. The drums, on the other hand, start slowly, gradually increasing in speed, then slowing down at the same speed they initially sped up. In fact, one of the most powerful moments in the song is when the drums and the violin both follow this pattern on top of each other. On a larger scale, the song itself also follows a bell curve, starting out as a simple, haunting drone, then builds in both complexity and power (though not much in volume or speed), finally returning to a closing drone. The climax of the piece is one of those musical miracles, one of the most powerful sections I’ve heard.

The rest of the CD never gets quite as intense as the opener, but it never gets dull, either. “The Lugubrious Library Loft” is composed for instruments played by two people; that is, for every one instrument, there are two musicians operating it (even vocals). For the piano, there is someone hitting the keys and someone controlling the strings (resulting in odd but pleasing tones). The vocals are the most interesting, however (though they only appear for the first part of the song). Toby Driver forms the notes and sings them as “aaahs,” and Mia Matsumiya then inserts her lips, teeth, and tongue into his mouth to enunciate the syllables. The result is, again, oddly pleasing. Like it’s predecessor, the song builds up to a fantastic climax.

“Brown Light Upon Us” is the closest thing to a misstep on the CD, as the concept behind the song does not play out when listening. Toby Driver recorded this song a room away from the microphones on the theory that it would sound best listened to from a different room. While it is still a nice piece of music, there are no audible benefits I notice from listening while in a different room. There are also times I feel it is a tad too long, but on the whole it is actually a very good (if somewhat standard sounding) drone composition (though it does perhaps go on a bit too long). To close out In the L… L… Library Loft, however, Driver returns to what definitely works. He describes it as one of the most bleak and haunting pieces he has ever written, and I can in no way argue. On this song, he experiments—not with song structure—but with the sounds a trumpet can make. For the first half of the song, the trumpet is played to produce an almost breathy tone, while on the second half the trumpet emits a microtonal wail. However, the song is actually based mostly around strings and piano, and is very much a strength in Toby Driver’s catalogue.

On the whole, In the L… L… Library Loft is a tremendous release that further establishes Toby Driver as one of the composers on the frontier of modern music. He may not ever revolutionize the world of music, but I’ll be damned if I can think of anybody who deserves to do so more. In the L… L… Library Loft is a flat-out masterpiece, one of the greatest CDs to have emerged from the progressive music scene in recent years.

Kayo Dot - Don't Touch Dead Animals (2007)

Rating: 9.0

After wowing progressive rock listeners with both their perfect (literally) debut Choirs of the Eye and their almost as good follow-up, Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue, Kayo Dot have returned with an EP split with doom metal band Bloody Panda. I am not familiar enough with the Bloody Panda material to review it (though I would recommend checking out their debut full length, Pheromone, as it’s quite good). Thus, I will restrict this review just to the Kayo Dot half, the song “Don’t Touch Dead Animals.”

“Don’t Touch Dead Animals” is split into two parts, each introduced with a short spoken poem by violinist Mia Matsumiya (who is featured on vocals because Bloody Panda also have a female Japanese vocalist). The track marks somewhat of a shift in sound for Toby Driver and co, but it is still recognizable as distinctly Kayo Dot, holding true to Driver’s compositional style and disdain for traditional song structures.

In some sense, this song is a mixture of Choirs and Dowsing; the first part is jazzy in a similar manner to “Aura on an Asylum Wall” from the latter, and the second utilizes heaviness similar to “Marathon” from the former. In the first part, a powerful trumpet duals with dissonant, swirling violin, building up to a semi-climax, then fading away in a seeming anti-climax. Then, however, Mia begins her monologue that opens part two, and the song fairly immediately climaxes with some awesome crazed vocals from Mia and more fantastic trumpet work, as well as some heavy guitar riffing. This relieves the tension of the anti-climax wonderfully, bringing the track to a powerful resolution.

But how does it mark a compositional change for Kayo Dot? Well, the song is far less minimalist than either of their other CDs. For the first time (in a Kayo Dot song), there is a lot happening that all exists in or near the song’s foreground. Sure, on their two full lengths there was generally a lot happening, but it was done in a subtler manner. Here, on the other hand, it is more obvious (though still fairly subtle). While both good on the whole, both the semi-climax and the full climax are simply too full at times, and it’s impossible to comprehend everything at once. That is the one major flaw with this song. However, if Driver can take this style of composing and perfect his technique, he should be able to deliver a third masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas '07: Maudlin of the Well - Bath/Leaving Your Body Map (2001)

So what's Follycle going to do with his blog for Christmas, you ask? Well, seeing as I'm a Jew, I really don't *have* to do anything. But I'm a nice guy, so I will. And today's gift is the upload and review of two tremendous CDs, Bath and Leaving Your Body Map by Maudlin of the Well.

I hope you enjoy them as much or more as I do.

Rating: 9.4/9.1

Toby Driver is famous in progressive rock circles these days largely because of his current main band, Kayo Dot, whose two albums have made waves. However, before Toby Driver was well known, he was in this obscure, out-of-print metal band named Maudlin of the Well, and what a band it was. They managed only three CDs, the latter two of which were released as companion pieces.

Maudlin of the Well is, in essence, about what you might expect if Kayo Dot were to write actual songs instead of the flowing pieces that mark their sound. Whereas Kayo Dot is using radical new song structures, Maudlin of the Well innovated slightly more quietly, twisting existing song structures in new ways. The result is what one might call astral metal. It mixes the ambience of post-rock and the aggression of metal, but not at all like post-metal bands such as Isis. Instead, Maudlin of the Well’s sound is built around its hypnotic qualities.

Bath is the more melodically inclined of the companion CDs, even in its most metal moments. One listen to the first song, “The Blue Ghost/Shedding Qliphoth,” with its two short musical phrases that intertwine with a beautiful melody, displays this fully. When it hits you the right way (which takes a few listens), it becomes absolutely transfixing. Following this is “They Aren’t All Beautiful,” which seems at first to be the polar opposite. It is based around a mish-mash of three or four brutally heavy riffs. However, repeated listens (which are needed to grasp all the complexities and subtleties) show that this death metal cocktail is just as hypnotic as the atmospheric textures of “The Blue Ghost/Shedding Quliphoth.”

Throughout the rest of the CD, the music hovers within the range established by the first two songs, often mixing the two. This is best seen in “The Ferryman,” which starts with beautiful organ followed by even more beautiful guitar strumming, then grows into a tremendously heavy monster, then mixes the organ with the riffing. Also notable is “Heaven and Weak,” which starts out very beautifully (in the traditional sense), then grows into a massive bone-crushing riff. In between these, however, is a section that has a textural riff, vocals, and a guitar solo all going at once. However, it is structured in such a way that it doesn’t sound cluttered. That is truly the genius of this CD. It takes convention and turns it on its head, mixing that that seemingly shouldn’t be mixed and making it sound good, and, most importantly, keeping an entirely uncluttered sound where other bands would be unable to do so.

Almost immediately, Leaving Your Body Map establishes itself as different beast than Bath. Whereas “The Blue Ghost/Shedding Qliphoph” barely got loud at all, and even then only at the end, “Stones of October’s Sobbing” lets only a minute and a half go by before entering an interesting with an only mildly heavy backing and “cookie monster” (though still decipherable) vocals in the forefront. Once the ultra-fast riff enters, there’s no doubt, and for the rest of the CD, Leaving Your Body Map continues this trend of being more immediate and heavier. That said, the album still has the same effect as Bath, inducing a trance-like state on the listener. It manages it in different, faster, louder, and more initially exciting manners, but it is ultimately the flip side of the same coin as Bath.

Leaving Your Body Map retains the complexities and subtleties of its predecessor. Just listen to the section that I mentioned in “Stones of October’s Sobbing.” In that section, a mildly distorted, non-aggressive guitar line is mixed with highly aggressive growled vocals and a beautiful woodwind phrase that pops up again and again. Even when the CD seems obvious, such as on “Gleam in the Ranks” and “Riseth He, The Numberless (Part 1),” there is more going on than meets the eye. On “Gleam in the Ranks,” a guitar line races through a set of tight-knit riffs, backed by a pounding rhythm and dynamic vocals. Little things pop up at each turn, however, such as the keyboards that show themselves near the beginning. “Riseth He, The Numberless (Part 1)” achieves the same effect in a different manner. After a one minute introduction on the trumpet, it shifts to what seems to be a straightforward death metal song. However, there is not one riff but three or four, each similar in feel but at different speeds and with slightly different notes.

It is these types of subtleties that make Bath and Leaving Your Body Map such interesting albums. However, they are more than just complex “astral metal” CDs. There is also the purely beautiful on each. The four “Interlude” tracks are all fairly simple, beautiful instrumentals, and songs such as “Sleep is a Curse” from Leaving Your Body Map and “Geography” from Bath are similarly gorgeous. The subtleties may make the CDs interesting, but it is the diversity that makes them so ultimately captivating. As Bath and Leaving Your Body Map both show, Maudlin of the Well are one of the greatest bands the world of metal has seen. Extremely recommended.

Here you go.

Maudlin of the Well

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Kayo Dot - Choirs of the Eye (2003)

Rating: 10.0

Music is very much a subjective term, as I have learned "the hard way." Because of my liking of bands who live on the often-tedious fringe between music and noise, I have often been confronted by those to object to my "non-music." Even for a band as inherently musical (not to mention supremely important) as This Heat, I have been requested (ordered, more like) to "turn off this, this... NOISE," the last word spat out with a venom more suited for a murderer or a terrorist. I can only imagine the reaction I would get if I were to play music more along the lines of Merzbow or, as is pertinent to this review, Kayo Dot.

Kayo Dot, spearheaded by Toby Driver, is one of those bands on the fringe I mentioned above, but not of the same sort as most. Rather than an uncompromising, noisy, perhaps even ugly sound, Kayo Dot's music is, quite distinctly, beautiful. Sometimes, this beauty is obvious, such as at the start of "The Manifold Curiosity," where a delicate melody (played on some woodwind) is backed by a hesitant drumbeat and slightly distorted guitar. Similarly, "A Pitcher of Summer" starts with clearly beautiful, acoustic guitar based music. Other times, however, the beauty is not so obvious. The beginning of the opening "Marathon" is noisy and chaotic, holding a disguised beauty that only becomes apparent after repeated listens, when the album finally starts to make sense.

That, in a nutshell, encapsulates the utter brilliance of Kayo Dot's debut, Choirs of the Eye. It is beautiful from start to finish, and it takes time to appreciate. Make no mistake about the latter, especially. I had Choirs of the Eye for at least six months before I finally "got" it. I could put this down to its outright inaccessibility, but I think there's more to it than that. After all, I am no stranger to music that is "out there," and even the most difficult CDs rarely take more than a month to grow on me. No, what took me so long to appreciate Choirs of the Eye is its subtlety. At every moment there are little things that add the perfect touch to the music, making the atmosphere at that moment just right. The way that these elements affect the music are not readily apparent, and thus the CD is not immediately striking. Take, for example, the hesitant drums on "The Manifold Curiosity," the monologue that begins "Marathon," and the entire section of "Wayfarer" that begins around 6:30. The first two seem almost like afterthoughts at first, only starting to make sense after multiple listens. While both of those augment more obvious aspects of the music around them, however, the section in "Wayfarer" is notable in that it is composed almost entirely of subtleties. The quiet strumming, the slow, steady drums, the barely audible sound effects - all are insignificant taken alone, and indeed the entire section seems insignificant at first, but once you realize how each element fits with the others, it becomes one of the most powerful parts of the album.

So it is with the rest of the CD. Even when the music is beating you senselessly over the head (such as on the end of "The Manifold Curiosity"), there is more happening than first meets the ear. Even now, after countless listens, I find new subtleties each listen. You want to know the only other CD I can really say that about? CAN's Tago Mago, which just happens to be my favorite CD. Kayo Dot's Choirs of the Eye reaches a similarly high level because of it's command of subtlety. That is the triumph of Choirs of the Eye and the key reason I regard Toby Driver as a modern musical genius (in the company of John Zorn, among others). So, in case any of you haven't realized this yet, Choirs of the Eye is most definitely music. Some of the greatest music ever made, as it happens.

An undeniable masterpiece.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Skinny Puppy - Too Dark Park (1990)

Rating: 9.5

The soundtrack to a nightmare.

One of the bigger names in the world of industrial music, Skinny Puppy created an industrial masterpiece in Too Dark Park. It truly is the soundtrack to a nightmare. With the "lyrics" consisting largely of spoken lines such as "he's losing his mind; he feels it going," "downward, downward, downward, downward," and "are you afraid," this is an album that will sen shivers down your spine from start to finish. Of course, the music behind these ominous lyrics is just as much responsible.

The songs are built around electronic beats backed by samples of horror films, along with driving bass lines and a few other elements, managing to create sparse soundscapes that sound deeper than they actually are. And, of course, it's all done in a way to maximize the horror factor. Take, for example, "Tormentor." While it starts innocently enough with a beat that is actually quite catchy, as soon as the first sample comes in, it starts descending into the netherworlds, never rising again. And then, of course, there's "Grave Wisdom," which has to rank as one of the ten scariest songs I've ever heard.

Don't be fooled into thinking that this album is accessible because most songs have at least semi-recognizable beats. While it certainly isn't as abrasive as, say, Throbbing Gristle's music, it is far from what you would play at parties. Instead, it's more along the lines of the background music to a virgin sacrifice of old. "Spasmolytic" highlights this aspect with its almost tribal beat, ritualistic chanting, and trance-inducing bass-line. All of this, of course, pounds along with an intensity rarely seen in music.

Despite it's inaccessibility, there is an underlying catchiness to the music. The repetitive nature of the songs can easily lure the listener into a trance, only to be thrown off-guard by the positively evil vocals. As such, it's one of those rare CDs where two opposing elements (in this case the abrasive and the meditative) are perfectly balanced to create a unique effect where the music simultaneously falls at both ends of the spectrum. That's a special feeling, and this album explores it perfectly.

The real clincher for Too Dark Park, however, is its astounding consistency. From the first second to the last, there is not so much as a weak moment. Every song is roughly on the same level (though "Grave Wisdom" and "Spasmolytic" stand out to a degree), and that level is tremendously high. There are no songs that come out of nowhere to ruin the mood (think "Not Now John" on Pink Floyd's The Final Cut); in fact, each song seems to build on the last, increasing the intensity until it finally ends with "Reclamation," which may well be the most intense of the lot.

This determination to go out with a bang, coupled with the juxtaposition of opposing elements and stunning consistency makes Too Dark Park one of the best CDs I've discovered recently. You are missing out if you haven't heard this masterpiece. I give it my highest recommendation.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Honeyelk - Stoyz Vi Dozeveloy (1979)

Rating: 5.0

Within every genre are a fair share of obscure bands/albums, zeuhl not excluded. In some cases, it's impossible to understand why these bands are obscure given the high quality of the music. In other cases, it's not hard whatsoever to see the (admittedly cruel) logic behind the obscurity. Honeyelk, sadly, is one of the latter. While certainly not bad, their music is really only for the decided zeuhl fanatic.

For one thing, the music itself is only okay at best. While it has some nice keyboard work, even that is overshadowed by the far more exquisite work in that regard by Magma, Koenjihyakkei, Weidorje, Eider Stellaire, Eskaton, and just about any other well-regarded zeuhl band you can name. The keys mostly consist of jazzy chords, leaving some sort of jazz instrument to play the leading melodies, which are mostly decent but not entirely interesting or timeworthy. That's not to say they're bad, just unengaging. I will point out, however, that the drumming throughout Stoyz Vi Dozeveloy is top-notch, giving the music life where it would otherwise have none. Accompanying this is some wonderful driving bass guitar that makes for a killer rhythm section. Unfortunately, just a rhythm section is not enough in the world of zeuhl, and the other instruments fail to live up (except for the vocals). In addition, the songwriting is only decent, with several points where the music stops in order to transition to another section, rather than actually transitioning musically.

The music is not the biggest problem with this CD, however. In fact, I find it quite enjoyable from time to time. The real killer for this album is the sound quality. While I normally don't care too much about sound quality, it's poor enough here that even I take notice. For a true audiophile, I could see it as a huge inhibition to enjoying the album.

That aside, this album really does have some moments of brilliance, particularly during the instrumental sections where the rhythm section is dominant. This one is really only for the zeuhl completionist, but it's a good album nonetheless. Or, I should say, it's a decent album nonetheless. All-around, it really comes across as average, and thus the obscurity is understandable, what with all the really good music coming out almost every day (or so it seems).

Stoyz Vi Dozeveloy

Archaia - Archaia (1977)

Rating: 7.7

Of all the strains of progressive rock floating around, the one that most consistently earns the bombastic label so often smeared across the entire prog genre is zeuhl. Not that that's a bad thing, of course. If you've heard the albums that most deserve the title (albums such as Magma's M.D.K. and Koenjihyakkei's Angherr Shisspa), you will know that they consist of some of the most amazing music ever released. Naturally, however, that characteristic doesn't carry over across all Zeuhl CDs. Archaia's sole release, a 1977 self-titled, is one of those Zeuhl albums that shies away from the bombast of Magma and Koenjihyakkei (the "Japanese Magma").

Instead of dominant jazz influences and operatic vocals, Archaia opts for a single vocalist and a far more stripped down rock sound (though without any drums, just some percussion). This they augment with electronics, creating a highly trippy yet distinctly Zeuhl sound. In fact, I'd go so far as to list this among the top five trippiest CDs I've ever heard, up with the likes of Brainticket's Cottonwoodhill.

At this point, if you're a Zeuhl-head, you're probably drooling at the sound of what I've described. Is such drooling warranted? Yes, to an extent. This CD will strike every listener differently, even dedicated Zeuhl-heads such as myself. When I first got the CD, I was underwhelmed, but it quickly rose to rank among my top 15 CDs of all time. Only two months or so later, however, it had fallen to below where it was after my first listen. To complete the cycle, of course, more recent listens have seen it again rise a bit in my eyes. And thus, while I wouldn't call it genius, it is a CD every fan of Zeuhl should hear.

There are some parts of this CD that are absolutely incredible, but these are balanced by those that are less so. For example, the opening two songs pack an incredible punch. In particular, "L'Arche Des Mutations" stands out as a zeuhl quasi-epic within the framework of the CD, taking trippiness to new heights and sounding amazing the entire journey. "Massa Confusa," on the other hand, never quite recovers from the terribly dated sound effects that plague its beginning. Other than those two highs and that one low, the album is fairly consistent, however. The only other notable problem I can point out is on "Le Festin Du Lion Vert," which starts out as the most interesting piece on the CD, then devolves slightly in decent but much less interesting tribal percussion.

Unfortunately, this CD is out of print (though one can always hope Soleil Zeuhl will re-reissue it on CD), and the LP often fetches $300 or more. As such, you're not likely to get your hands on a copy unless you're willing to download it. That's not a reflection on the quality of the CD, however, just on Zeuhl's obscurity. I heartily recommend this gem to all who love Zeuhl and want something different from Magma. This gem just might be the one you're looking for.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

This Heat - This Heat (1978)

Rating: 9.7

Those who claim that the 1980s had nothing to offer by way of good music miss out on some of the greatest bands in the history of progressive music. The 1980s saw excellent releases from bands in both the first and second waves of Rock In Opposition (which officially began in 1978) as well as the burgeoning movement known as post-punk, a genre that, while not entirely progressive, was by its very nature inherently progressive, and which drew greatly from progressive ideals (just as the original punk bands did). Chief among these post-punk bands, at least for me, was This Heat, who remain to this day one of my favorite bands, largely due to their excellent Deceit album. However, their eponymous debut should not be overlooked, as it, too, is an excellent album (though, for the record, it was released in the late 1970s).

Even if you don’t like punk music, don’t automatically dismiss This Heat. While they are post-punk, they sound nothing at all like the Sex Pistols. In fact, they are more musically aligned with bands such as Faust than they are with any of the punk or even post-punk bands of the time. If you don’t like Faust, you might have more of a problem with This Heat, but even then, I’d still urge you try them because they manage to condense the musical explorations of Faust into a more concrete structure. Don’t get me wrong, this album is still remarkably obtuse and does not invite confidences, but it is, at least, easier to see (at least at first) where this album is going than it is with Faust.

Enough with the Faust comparisons, however, as This Heat carved their own unique niche in the musical world. They manage to combine the best aspects of all sorts of krautrock with the frontal assault of punk in ways no one had done before or has done since. On songs like “Not Waving,” we can hear strains of Zeit by Tangerine Dream, but mixed with the off-kilter vocals of Charles Hayward. This is a song that will take a while for the listener to figure out where it’s going (unless, of course, you’re a fan of Zeit). If you don’t think that’s what you want in your music, however, have no fear. “Horizontal Hold,” the first real “song” on the album (“Testcard,” which opens and closes the album, is merely electronic buzzing), rocks like few others while still incorporating aspects of the dissonance that made Faust legendary in the krautrock world.

The rest of the album lives somewhere between these two extremes. “24 Track Loop” is a bouncy track using… 24 track loops. The unimaginative title masks what is a very imaginative song, one of the best examples of electronic music ever conceived, and it doesn’t even sound like electronic music, really (at least, not in the sense of Kraftwerk or even Tangerine Dream). On “Water,” the drones of “Not Waving” are mixed with the extraordinary drumming of Charles Hayward. It is this drumming that is the crucial element in the brilliance of This Heat. While the contributions of the other two members should not be ignored, Charles Hayward was the mastermind of This Heat and it is his drumming patterns that lift This Heat’s music onto the high pedestal on which they belong. He is a serious contender for my favorite drummer, and you need only listen to “Twilight Furniture” and “The Fall of Saigon” (which, not coincidentally, are, along with “Horizontal Hold,” the main highlights on the album) to understand why. He is not a drummer that excels, as Chris Cutler (another contender) does, in variation. Instead, he is best viewed as a “beat creator.” His drum beats rank among the very best, up with those of Can’s Jaki Liebezeit (the third and final contender).

Unlike their magnum opus, Deceit, This Heat is not a concept album. However, the lyrics do reflect the band’s political leanings. For example, in “Twilight Furniture,” we hear Hayward croon, “careless talk costs lives,” and, of course, it’s not hard to guess what “The Fall of Saigon” is about. The lyrics tend not to rhyme, and the vocalization is probably as close a human imitation of the drones of “Not Waving” as can be achieved, but the effect is marvelous. I do not lie when I say that This Heat rank among the greatest lyricists of all time. This is seen better on Deceit, but the lyrics here still reflect this. As for the vocals, some will complain about the lack of emotion present and that Hayward doesn’t have a great voice, to which my response can only be what I’ve already said: “the effect is marvelous.” The vocals on Deceit are probably better (they are certainly closer to standard vocals, which isn’t really close at all), but they’re so good here that I see no point in nitpicking.

The only three tracks I haven’t talked about yet are “Diet of Worms,” “Music Like Escaping Gas,” and “Rainforest.” These are arguably the weakest songs on the album, which is really saying something, since they are excellent drone pieces that expand on the pioneering work of the original krautrock greats. I especially point to the captivating (even though it’s extraordinarily simple and slow) guitar work on “Music Like Escaping Gas.” In the midst of the seemingly freeform, we have this one obvious element of structure, and I find I must, once again, repeat myself: “the effect is marvelous. On “Rainforest,” a bit more happens, but it is still similar in style to the previous two, building up to the amazing climax of “The Fall of Saigon.” When I listen to these four songs (including “The Fall of Saigon”), I find they tend to meld together into one, each picking up where the last left off.

When the weakest three songs on an album come one after another and still manage to captivate you completely, you know you are dealing with something special, and special is exactly the word I would use to describe This Heat’s eponymous debut. The only fault I find with this album is that the closing “Testcard” goes on for too long, but this is such a minor fault when all the actual music on the album is so perfect. I would recommend that you try some of the songs from this album and from Deceit (using e-music or Rhapsody or a similar service) and, if you like it, shelling out for the amazing box set Out of Cold Storage, which presents everything This Heat produced with the added bonus of an amazing and informative booklet. Some of the best music ever creating, hands down.

Yeti - Volume, Obliteration, Transcendence (2004)

Rating: 9.2

Some wonder whether new genres are possible anymore. I would say yes, and I would offer Yeti as proof. While the 1970s are widely regarded as the peak of progressive rock (and, please note, I would agree with this), it is modern prog bands that throw off all shackles of categorization. In fact, each modern band I really like seems to be unlike any other band. Whether that’s because they jump around from style to style (Mr. Bungle, Estradasphere) or simply because they’ve created something completely new (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), these bands truly embody the creative spirit, and that is what so endears them to me.

Yeti, a fearsome threesome from Texas, of course, is no exception to this rule. In fact, behind Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, I would say that they are the most exciting band around today, and their most recent accomplishment, 2004’s Volume, Obliteration, Transcendence is a big reason why. This is music that will take you to new worlds you never dreamed possible. From slow and brooding to pounding and brutal, this album covers the entire spectrum, and it does so with ease. This is a band that cannot be pigeonholed, and I’m sure the members of Yeti would scoff at those who try.

Yeti’s innovative musical concoction spreads its roots far and wide, drawing nutrients from everywhere and using them all to build a focused and unique sound. They pull aspects of space rock (effects), post-metal (guitar), avant-garde (arrangements), and particularly zeuhl (vocals, bass) to paint their musical landscape. I don’t know about you, but metal and zeuhl are two genres I would not expect to see together, but Yeti pulls it off admirably. It is those two styles that form the crux of this album, with screaming guitar lines mixing with wonderful bass and synth work to form something that, as I’ve noted, defies all categorization attempts. The drums drive from the backseat, relentlessly pushing the album forward as the nearly indecipherable vocals lend a dark atmosphere perfectly fitting the album.

They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and that was never truer than here. At a mere fifty-three minutes (“mere” by modern standards), that may seem incorrect, but so much power is stuffed into those minutes that two things happen. First, the album seems to fly by; one second you’re starting with the spacey intro of “Cusp of Something,” and the next second, you’re hitting the gigantic climax about nine minutes into “Black Pills.” Second, you cannot possibly imagine how so many good ideas could be condensed into such a short time; it feels like this album should be a double CD (or, at least, fill up the entire eighty minutes a CD allots). This album is a monster, truly living up to the band’s name.

Volume, Obliteration, Transcendence is not going to be for everyone, I must warn. If you don’t like your music loud and heavy, you probably won’t like this beast. If you don’t like slow music that takes time to get where it’s going, again, this album isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you want a musical adventure you won’t soon forget, there is probably no better album than Yeti’s Volume, Obliteration, Transcendence to sate your appetite. This is not for the faint of heart, but for those brave souls willing to test their mettle against the monster residing in the mountain’s harsh atmosphere, I urge them to seek out the Yeti.

Purchase at your own risk. It’s a glorious one.

Straw Factory - Straw Factory (2007)

Rating: 2.4

As a reviewer for Progressive Ears, I occasionally get sent albums to review. Usually, these are albums that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise. Sometimes, I get sent an album that is a real gem; other times, I get sent a dud. In the case of Straw Factory’s eponymous debut, neither of these is the case. Straw Factory is an album that is best described by the phrase “unrealized potential.” I can see the makings of a very good band in this release, but it just doesn’t reach that level.

The music is relaxing and pleasant, focusing on acoustic guitar and soothing vocals. It never really gets to the point where it rocks, and it’s not interesting enough to hold my full attention. The interesting ideas it presents do not tie themselves together into a cohesive whole. Perhaps the best way to sum up the overall effect of these flaws is that this is a very passive album. It’s not going to go out and grab your attention. If you want to enjoy it and sink into the music, you have to put in most of the effort. Because of that, the music suffers from a lack of replay value.

Not everything goes wrong, however. The music is very soothing and pleasant, a very soft type of alternative rock. The vocals are also quite nice (even if the lyrics are bland), relying on one main singer and several backup singers. These good traits are best seen on the songs “Vultures” and “Airplane,” which, not surprisingly, are the songs that do the best job of actually sucking you in, rather than making you do the work. The way I see it, if, on their next release, Straw Factory are able to emphasize these traits on all their songs, they could put together a strong album.

On this release, however, they have not done so. This is the type of album that sounds nice while you’re listening to it, but once it’s over, you have to wonder if it was really worth it. It’s not memorable, in short. While it’s a far cry from being a band album, it’s quite bland overall. A common comment on their Garageband page (which, so far as I can tell, is their only website) is that all the elements are there to make some really good music, except that their music lacks passion. You really can’t say it better than that. I hope these guys improve over time, because this album shows that they have the potential to become a good band. They’re just not there yet.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The 1000 Year Plan - In Theory & Practice (2007)

Rating: 6.6

Math rock is one of the genres I have most recently gotten into, to such an extent that I would nominate the album Mirrored by Battles as one of the top candidates for album of the year (2007). Of course, that’s not the only good math rock CD of this year; I know of at least one other, In Theory & Practice by The 1000 Year Plan. While not quite at the level of Mirrored, In Theory & Practice is still a wonderful album without a weak song on it.

In theory, given that it’s math rock, you might expect the music to be cold, impersonal, unwelcoming. In practice, however, the only really unwelcoming thing about this album are the annoyingly long (and somewhat stupid, if you ask me) track titles. Otherwise, the music, while still lower in emotional content than non-math rock, actually does manage to speak to the listener on multiple levels, making for an interesting listen, to say the least.

In theory, again given that it’s math rock, you might expect the music to be technical. In practice, you would be correct. The musicians definitely know what they are doing, and they execute it flawlessly. And thus what is just an “interesting listen” before becomes a captivating listen. While technical skill does not a good album make, it can certainly help, and this is one of those cases.

In theory, you’d expect any band to at least have some clear influences. In practice, that holds true for the 1000 Year Plan. While I can’t namedrop references as I’m still new to the genre, In Theory & Practice sounds like most other math rock I’ve heard. There definitely is a sense of a lack of originality to the album, to be perfectly honest.

In theory, that makes it somewhat unessential, as it’s been done before and it’s been done better. In practice, on the other hand, the strong songwriting means that should appeal to all math rock fans. I can’t see it becoming a landmark of the genre or spreading out into the mainstream of music, but for the realm within which it exists, it is definitely very good and worth hearing.

In theory, music like this would earn fans for itself. In practice, however, I would recommend to the band to use the internet a bit more; a Google search of “the 1000 year plan” and “in theory and practice” came up with zero results.

Imogene - Imogene (2006)

Rating: 7.2

Imogene is a new band who gave earned some attention for their semi-unique instrument combination and the places they take it, and it’s not hard to see why. Using a distorted eight string bass, a four string bass, keyboards, and drums, Imogene attempt to keep themselves away from retro throwbacks, and, with that goal in mind, have released their self-titled debut. Imogene is a very good album, combining psychedelic elements with strong grooves with atmospheric keyboards and just the slightest hint (at times) of heaviness. In their own words, if one had to reference them to other bands, they might be called “Pink Sabbath” or “Radio Queens of the Stone Head.”

Both of those are certainly good analogies. Every so often (such as in the song “Paper Dolls”), a riff comes by that calls to mind memories of Paranoid, perhaps even backed (again, as in the case of “Paper Dolls”) by the types of keyboards that wouldn’t sound out of place on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” or one of Radiohead’s more atmospheric works. “Seraphim,” on the other hand, is almost pure Radiohead, what with the tight drum beat and the very Hail to the Thiefesque keyboards, admittedly with bass instead of guitar, though that’s a small subtlety that doesn’t really shine through. That song looked more at the atmospheric end of Radiohead, however, and so we also have “Not to Be” and “Wasteoids,” which take their cues from heavier, crunchier Radiohead songs like “Myxamatosis.” I’ve admittedly not heard Queens of the Stone Age, so I can’t compare, but given the accuracy of the first three comparisons, I can only assume it holds true for the fourth. In this sense, they don’t quite succeed at their goal of not sounding retro. They sound different, for sure, but much of what they do finds very strong roots in older, established sounds.

But, as I said, they do sound different. The vocalist gives the music a very drugged-out atmosphere, taking a cue or two from stoner rock. Just give “Wormwood Raindrops” a listen. Or just listen to any random song, and you’ll hear something different. That’s the key success of this album. It manages to reference a lot of well-known and well-liked bands and musical styles, then combines them in interesting manners to create compact, concise songs that simply work well together. Indeed, despite the variety of influences present on the album, it sounds like a remarkably cohesive whole. The quality is almost unchanging throughout (though I will note that the last two songs are significantly weaker than the rest), making for a remarkably even listen. Nothing really stands out (though I do have an affinity for “Wormwood Raindrops” and “Seraphim”), but nothing lets down either (until the end), meaning that I can listen all the way through without ever finding myself bored. That is itself quite an accomplishment.

Thus, even though Imogene haven’t quite conquered the retro aspects of their sound, they have managed to create an excellent CD that stands up well on its own but also leaves plenty of room for improvement. I fully expect that these guys will achieve even greater heights in the future. In the meantime, however, I think I’ll just through on Imogene again.

And again.

Monday, December 10, 2007

John Zorn - Six Litanies for Heliogabalus

Rating: 9.6

In all of avant-garde music, there is nobody quite like John Zorn. His immense discography covers everything from minimalist classical to downright noise, showing each composed with the utmost care and mastery. Never is that clearer than on Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, the third album in his Trevor Dunn/Mike Patton/Joey Baron collaboration. Six Litanies catches Zorn displaying his love for extreme metal, though it goes far beyond the confines of that genre. Because the core of the sound is created by drums and distorted bass (with Patton babbling over the top), it never quite sounds like metal, though it is clearly heavy and loud.

Like so much of his work, Six Litanies blends improvisation and composition in a unique manner. In this case, John Zorn composed some of the music and conveyed the rest of the performers orally, directing their improvisation. This is no different from Moonchild and Astronome (the other two of his works with Patton, Dunn, and Baron), however. So what is it that makes Six Litanies not just a great CD overall, but the best of the three? Well, whereas the other two consisted only of Baron’s drumming, Dunn’s distorted bass, and Patton’s manic vocals, this one sees Zorn expanding the sound, adding Ikue Mori on electronics, Jamie Saft on organ, and a female trio on vocals, in addition to playing the saxophone himself. Thus, whereas on Moonchild and Astronome the softer sections often seemed sparse and occasionally even a tad dead, here they come to life with atmospheric vocals and organ, creating textures that make sure it never gets boring. Also, because this is the third CD in the series, the performers are better able to sustain the improvisations, and Zorn has worked out some of the (admittedly minor) compositional kinks that appeared on the first two in the series.

The end result is a fantastic CD. The heavy riffing sections combine Zorn’s stunning intelligence and critical thinking skills with the sheer bone-crushing power of metal, showcasing the greatest aspects of both. The softer sections, as I have noted, carry themselves perfectly, providing relief for the listener and advancing the “plot” of the music at the same time (a rare yet refreshing combination). The most interesting parts for me, however, are the improvisational sections where the performers really let loose. There’s nothing quite like hearing an organ pounding with the intensity of a guitar whose amp is on 11, drums played by a squid, bass that could replace the guitars in Meshuggah, and a saxophone that’s free-jazzing on acid all going at the same time, with, of course, Patton going apeshit over the top of it all. Of course, it’s not all like that: “Litany IV” is purely a vocal solo for Patton, who showcases his unique vocal stylings in full force, running through the gamut of all the many ways he can manipulate his voice (though forgoing some of the more disgusting ones that made for some awkward moments on Astronome). “Litany IV” is one of those things that so often gets described as “a good idea that just doesn’t sound good,” except that in this case it sounds fantastic. And the rest of the album is just as good, if not better.

There’s really not much more to be said about this release. It’s a masterpiece from start to finish and probably the greatest CD of 2007. In terms of a genre, the only way I can think to classify this is as extreme-free-cool-jazz-metal-with-Mike-Patton, but even that fails to indicate everything this album does so well. It’s probably not a great starting place into the world of John Zorn (I’d recommend IAO for that), but it ultimately stands up as one of his very best works. Only for the very open-minded or lovers of extreme avant-garde. If you are either of those, however, there can be no better CD for you.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Horde Catalytique Pour La Fin - Gestation Sonore (1971)

Rating 9.8

Every so often, a band's music is given the label "post-apocalyptic," but rarely does the music actually deserve it. In the case of Horde Catalytique Pour La Fin and their sole recording, Gestation Sonore, however, there can be no doubt whatsoever. Not only does this CD deserve the label, it positively defines it. There is no music more appropriate to be playing should an atomic world war come around. Just look at the band's name for starters. It translates to Catalytic Horde for the End, the end of course implying the end of the world (or, at least, one would assume).

But aside from the name, what is it about Gestation Sonore that makes it more deserving of the post-apocalyptic label than any other music before or after? Well, it is dissonant, difficult, obtuse, and downright frightening, and yet it is also beautiful. It lacks any notion of form (at least as you know it), and yet it possesses a flow most artists would die to have in their music. It creates bleak soundscapes only to disrupt them violently with bursts of action. It appeals to the heart, yet simultaneously bruises the mind and shreds the ears. In short, it is one of the best CDs you will ever hear, assuming you can tolerate the lack of any hooks, any flake of accessibility.

Make no mistake about the unaccessible nature of this music. Gestation Sonore makes Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica sound like radio fodder. Even those who, like I, have trained their ears to be open to any sort of sound will need time to get into this music, simply because the first listen (and probably several subsequent ones) will be spent trying to figure out exactly what is happening. At some point, however, it will all start to make sense, and it's true beauty will start to show through.

And what beauty it is. It's not beauty in the traditional sense, but it is beauty nonetheless, though the effect is hard to describe. Suffice it to say that if you listen to this album, around the fifth listen or so you will start to see what I (and others) mean when describing this music as beautiful. And even if you don't, you must still marvel at this album, for Gestation Sonore is the work of mind-readers, I guarantee you. How else could the notes come together so perfectly in this 100% improvised setting? How else could these musicians create music that resounds with enough power to steal away the listener's breath from start to finish? I honestly couldn't tell you, but I know from listening that, somehow, it happened. Perfectly.

This CD may only appeal to a small minority of the music-listening community, but if you are one of those few, this will strike you as one of the greatest things ever to happen to music. And, indeed, that is exactly what it is.

Gestation Sonore

John Zorn - I.A.O. (2002)

Rating: 9.4

And so my reviews of Zorn continue. This time, I am visiting his 2002 release, I.A.O., an album that, like every other in his discography, is distinctly Zorn, yet also different from most of his other work. Indeed, I am constantly amazed at the consistency with which Zorn can find something new and interesting to do, even though he has over 100 CDs to his name (and more if you include other bands that he's been involved with). Nevertheless, he does it with striking consistency, and it seems that no matter what he does, he does it phenomenally, and I.A.O. is no exception.

This time, Zorn forgoes expanding the list of pioneering ways he has blended improvisation and composition (game pieces such as Cobra, file card pieces such as Spillane, etc). Instead, he focuses on the meditative quality of music, producing three wonderfully repetitive and trance-inducing pieces of music. Each has a different instrumentation and thus a different atmosphere, and apparently it's all tied together by some strange philosophy of Zorn, but what really matters is that it shows another side of Zorn the composer/critical thinker. And, as that is what makes Zorn my favorite modern composer in the first place, this album should be a fine addition to any Zorn catalogue.

And indeed it is. Every piece on here is wonderful, a well-crafted slice of musical hypnotism. Don't think that this album is going to be boring because of its tremendous repetition, however, as I.A.O. is an engaging listen from start to finish. The opening "Invocation" is a piece built around organ drones, creating a haunting, eerie sound that bounces in between comfort and discomfort, all while sounding amazing. On the other hand, "Lucifer Rising" is a stunningly beautiful piece composed of looping female voices. If you know his album Mysterium (another gem), this piece is similar to "Frammenti Del Sappho," except without the often disturbing high notes of the latter piece. Instead of mixing beauty with the ugliness (the good kind) to keep you on your toes, "Lucifer Rising" maximizes the beautiful aspect of the female voice, allowing it to lull you into a dream.

That's certainly not all there is to see on this album, however. The highlight (if not "Lucifer Rising") is probably the thirteen minute "Sex Magick," which sees Zorn exercising a love of tribal rhythms. This piece is purely drums and percussion, and it (at times) makes me wonder why any other instruments are needed in the world of music. While John Zorn has done a better drum-only piece, From Silence to Sorcery's "Gris-Gris," this is still a wonderful example of how drums can create lush and layered music without sounding showoff-y in the least. And, for the sake of clarity, please note that this piece (and "Lucifer Rising") came before "Gris-Gris" and "Frammenti Del Sappho."

Don't think this CD is all grooves and beauty, however. Zorn's music has always shown a love for the extreme, and that manifests itself here in the second to last track, "Leviathan." Here, Zorn uses his tremendous skill to fit death metal - of all things - into the pattern of the songs on the CD. While he does not succeed completely - "Leviathan" does feel somewhat out of place - it is such a wonderful song that I cannot really fault him for including it. In fact, all I can fault him for (on this album, at least) is the slightest of dead spots that's present in the middle of "The Clavicle of Solomon." Other than that (short) section, this album is a clear masterpiece, one of Zorn's finest efforts. Some of his later work may be slightly better (I'm thinking of Magick and Mysterium in particular), and his career highlight is clearly Naked Ciy, but I.A.O. might just be the best introduction to the world of Zorn. It's fairly accessible yet wonderful at the same time, and it's hard to ask for much better of an introduction, considering that we're dealing with the king of extreme avant-garde.

Need I say it? I guess I must. Highly recommended to all.