Wednesday, July 31, 2019

JULY 2019

Surveillance - Man [Various]
Since I presented an utterly essential east Canadian platter of recent vintage last time, how about I just do it again?

Simply put, the sole 7" by Halifax's Surveillance is perfect. After scanning Wikipedia's list of musical groups from Halifax, I feel comfortable proclaiming Surveillance to be the greatest band in Halifax history based on this record alone.

"Death" tears out of the speakers sounding like a scuzzed out Visqueen, the most effortless of power pop moves played in a truly beautiful ugly fidelity. A delicious piece of sticky ear candy rolled in dirt and lint. The equally tasty "Bud" eases off the gas while staying in the red. Vocalist/guitarist Rachel Fry knows how to coo with guts, making the perfect foil to the clangorous production. At one point, I recall having "Bud" stuck in my head simultaneously with "Dream Police" and "Way of the World" (by Cheap Trick). The three of them were rabidly tussling for my brainspace, fragments of each of the songs all colliding with one another. Empirical proof that Surveillance literally writes hooks that compete with Cheap Trick's.

When I first got this record, I kept playing side A over and over. With these two songs it was already a perfect single. The flip could have been a 5 minute recording of the trio puking up bad seafood or whatever they eat up in Halifax and I wouldn't have felt the least bit shortchanged. At some point, I resolved that I would fight the urge to drop the needle on the A side for the umpteenth time and venture forth and flip the record, with the full expectation that it couldn't possibly hold a candle to the first side. And you know what? It might actually be better.

At about 4 minutes, the titular "Surveillance" is seething and comparatively epic. The charming sweetness of side A is gone but it's no less infectious. Raw, cathartic and 100% alive with angst, "Surveillance" makes a strong case to be the best of three sure-fire #1 hits (on my charts). Even with the accompanying lyric sheet I'm not quite sure I know what's being sung about but I feel it without question. If you have any interest in the past three or four decades of rock music, this is as essential as they come.

A band called "Surveillance", a record called "Man", and a label called "Various", that's a recipe for a search engine nightmare so I've helped you guys out: seems like Various and the band still have copies so buy that shit and thank your lucky Nova Scotian stars.

Prana Crafter - MindStreamBlessing [Eiderdown/Cardinal Fuzz]
Seattle's Eiderdown Records is creeping ever closer to the 10 year mark and in that time they've established themselves as one of the go-to outposts for modern psychedelia. No easy feat! In conjunction with Yorkshire label, Cardinal Fuzz, Eiderdown is reissuing one of its tapes as an LP for the first time, so if you weren't one of the lucky few to get Prana Crafter's MindStreamBlessing in your cassette deck, you can now get it on your turntable.

The world is filthy with one-man psych units but Prana Crafter a.k.a. Will Sol stands apart, or sits cross-legged or whatever. Sol avoids the trap that less astute psych-mavens fall into of overprocessing everything with effects, leaving a soupy haze that blunts the impact (there's a pun in there somewhere that I'm feeling too lazy to tease out). The recording and production is vitally important to the record's success: the guitar fuzz has hair on it, the percussion sounds dry and woody coming from the corner of a small room, the keys have a graceful amount of warble. There's a lot of detail to take in for those that really want to listen. But even pitch-perfect production is nothing without the tunes and Sol brings them in spades.

"At Agartha's Gate" is an inimitable opener, with a chiming guitar line that wiggles deep into that brain of yours and never leaves. Cushioned gently by organ tones, it's a plaintive little wonder and I won't blame you for replaying the track a few times before you jump in to the rest of the record. Sol does a quick about face on "As the Weather Commands" where he unleashes The Shred immediately over hand drums. Somehow, from its wildfire beginnings, the track resolves into one of the silkiest moments of the LP. Sol makes a habit of these juxtapositions, as on the drifting "FingersFlowThroughOldSkokRiver" which is roused awake into a Appalachian-style rave-up.

The second side features some strong tunes as well. "Mycelial Morphohum" takes on a creepier tone and it suits Sol nicely. Fuzzy oscillator drones, disembodied chatter and rumbling tones make a fertile bed for his excursions on untreated acoustic guitar. "Luminous Clouds" takes this idea and ups the ante, taking MindStreamBlessing to its most dramatic and blistering point. Weaving piles of fuzzbox debris in and out of a hypnotic repeating arpeggio, Sol shows some serious compositional chops here, keeping things dangerous but finely controlled. MindStreamBlessing's final chapter "Bardo Nectar" jumped out at me immediately when I first jammed the tape way back when and its luster hasn't waned one bit in the years hence. Saving his catchiest tune for last, Sol walks up the neck dropping a heck of riff as he goes and layering on multiple melodic counterpoints to make the whole thing sing. A finely honed piece of work. And like literally every release Eiderdown has birthed, the LP oozes lustrous visual beauty. Looks good. Sounds good. Feels good. Total package.

Takahiro Mukai - Helplessness [Degenerate Trifecta]
I'm a perpetual neophyte when it comes to techno. Acid is the one with the 303 and the hi-resonance filter sweeps right? I'm woefully unqualified to be writing about techno, but when techno cassettes show up at the door, duty calls (even if it means I'll be embarrassing myself). I have no teknowledge bank up in the noggin to pull from to offer up detailed analysis. I can provide little more than a rating of It Bangs or It Does Not Bang so that's what I'll do.

Luckily for a tech-no-nothing schmuck like me, Seattle's Degenerate Trifecta label offers up online liner notes for its releases helping me suss out what branch of the techno tree my heart is thumping along with. Detroit techno? German club techno? Broken techno? (Now that last one sounds intriguing.)

Degenerate Trifecta dropped this tape titled Helplessness by Japan's Takahiro Mukai earlier in the year and when I read the aforementioned notes by DT, I was admittedly apprehensive at the word "glitched". I remember the Glitch (sub)genre being in vogue in my younger days and, to be honest, it always sounded a bit annoying to me. I wanted techno to kick my ass like that popular Prodigy record (or was that electronica? Is that different than techno? I know nothing!) not sound like a beat up CD. But to my surprise and glee, Helplessness doesn't sound like that, it sounds good!

With a name like Helplessness, you get the sense this could be real dark and scary, or maybe a moody downer thing, but I think this stuff is catchy. This fueled some big time apartment cleanup so, if anything, I'd be lobbying for a reissue under the title Helpfulness.

Mukai starts out unassuming enough with a grinding low frequency sawtooth and unbothered drum loop. The lead-off track "#422" acts like it doesn't need your attention but quickly gets under your skin. It's minimalist not so much in sound (there's no silence) but there's like only three things happening max at any given point. Reminds me a bit of that Ssleeperhold LP from some years back. "#424" is more active without betraying the modus operandi. Rolling along on a sinister bass groove, a calm, cool and collected Mukai layers on some tastefully chattering filter squelch.

Conversely, "#425" is a reluctant freakout, like the sequencer lost its meds and is just trying to keep it together for one more jam. Things expand a little with "#426". Lost of bubbling, babbling and skittering slowly moving between the channels over a mid-tempo trot. Mukai switches his synth to the "idling car motor" preset and closes with "#428", a slowly throbbing concoction of syncopated electronic clatter culminating with an even thicker saw than the tape began with.

It bangs.

Preening - Greasetrap Frisbee [Ever/Never]
Back in my impressionable years (early 2000s) no wave influence had a bit of a resurgence in the contemporary indie scene (Ex Models' update on DNA has always been my favorite of that ilk) but I can't think of a band mining that neo-no wave territory since then that has really turned my head. But Oakland's Preening have with this EP, and I think they might be onto something.

Preening pack five jams into this small 33rpm platter, first of which is "Associated Press" which is as good of a thesis statement as any--deliciously jittery, hitting harmonious and dissonant notes in all the right places. Near the end it sounds like there may be a power drill in there somewhere. The track sums up Preening's sound: a stripped down power trio channeling late 70s Contortions. Not a guitar in sight just like that Playboy record I raved about last month... Which begs the existential question, if the band is playing bass, drums and sax, then who's playing the drill?

The trio is comprised of Bay Area skronk vet Max Nordile (of dual-sax duo The Blues, Uzi Rash and a hundred other things, as well as, FNU Clone inc.'s preferred hornblower), and Alejandra Alcala and Sam Lefebvre on bass and drums, who are both new to me. Nordile and Alcala split vocal duties, and I think the trio is at its best with Alcala at the mic. Nordile's vocals on "PO Box" and "Poison" lean a little goofier without enough of the edge that Alcala brings. Plus, the more Nordile sings, the less time he's got to huff and puff on that horn of his, and I really like when he does that.

The brief title track is a highlight, nodding toward a This Heat-style collage aesthetic but the final track "Face/On" is the obvious hit. Armed with a delectable sax riff that just won't quit, Nordile volleys between playing it straight and twisting it up like a pretzel and unfolding it again. The rhythm section is tops, surprisingly sparse and tastefully plodding, the perfectly sturdy yin to the saxophone's elastic yang. Alcala's vox are totally on point too, adding just a touch of brimstone. Really, really good.

Adrian Knight - Vacation Man [Galtta]
Considering Adrian Knight had such a huge hand in Nick Stevens's fantastic tape last summer, I was very keen to take a listen to Knight's new tape when it arrived earlier in the year. After dropping something like 15 releases in the past decade (not to mention his work on other people's projects like Stevens), the ever-prolific Knight rolls with a very distinct style and, admittedly, it's taken me a bit of time to figure out how I feel about it. To be honest, I'm still not quite sure, but that almost always turns out to be a good thing in my experience.

After a brief intro, Knight launches right into his patented concoction of jazz-funk-space-pop. Sounding like what would be ruling the charts in 2135 in a movie from 1996, a jump through a wormhole would no doubt reveal a host of socialites grooving to the title track along with their nano-vapor cocktails or whatever the party animals are ingesting at that point in time. The production is thick. So much going on at every moment. Palm-muted guitar plucks, multi-tracked vox, swinging bass, complex percussion and copious amounts of synthesizer. You almost don't even realize it when David Lackner drops in with his woodwinds because they're so thoroughly processed and blended into the arrangements.

I'm surprised that it has taken me so many years to realize this but I see a similarity in Knight and Canadian electro-pop weirdo Man Made Hill. But where Man Made Hill makes the decision to play it strange, Adrian Knight makes the stranger decision to play it straight. Knight really leans into the glossy kitsch and cheese factors that often shroud themselves in irony (if not make themselves the target of punchlines) and embraces them guilelessly with great vigor. It's easy to respect something so pure.

The one thing that holds me back is Knight's vocals aren't strong enough for my taste. They have a tendency to get lost in the hyperactive mix, perhaps blending in too well. That may be by design, as Knight seems to revel in blurring the edges of the bevy of elements in each track, and I may just not be aligning with his aesthetic. That's probably why I went bananas for the Nick Stevens tape; it features so many of the signature qualities I enjoy about Knight's work but with a more compelling vocal presence at the center.

With all that said, there are plenty of great tunes here, like the aforementioned title track and back to back romps "Waiting to See" and "Anna Marie"--the latter of which features the hook of the album courtesy of a plinky synth. Everything considered, the tape is a hell of a lot of fun. If you've ever wanted to groove like it's 2135, look no further.

Gary Wrong Group/Wizzard Sleeve - Halloween Violence [Jeth-Row/Pelican Pow Wow]
The mark of a great split is when you can never settle on which side is your favorite. After the first few rounds, Wizzard Sleeve was the leader but Gary Wrong Group has been sneaking up ready to pounce and wrestle the belt away. Both projects are lead by Mr. Wrong so it figures quality is equally high across both sides.

Gary Wrong Group deliver "Dream Smasher" which grinds along in no particular rush, layering on plenty of thick fuzz, sci-fi synth seasoning, samples of glass shattering and a casio-style vibraphone lick that totally seals the deal, transforming this sucker into a total earworm. Gary creeps along muttering about violent dreams in stereo. What I like most about this track is, despite the preceding description, it's quite pleasant to listen to. The track seems to just be smoothly gliding along for I'm guessing 5+ minutes, very dreamlike and otherworldly in its particularly odd and ugly way.

"Loupgarou" on the Wizzard Sleeve side ventures forth with a lobotomized lope. Dragging knuckles and dragging its cloak and sickle as you drag your feet when it takes you to your final resting place. The Sleeves summon swirling visions of an exotic alternate-universe Flipper who only played through busted theater sound systems after midnight movies. Nocturnal sludge.

Whichever side you pick, Halloween never sounded so sick. (The B side label is an iridescent moon, which is pretty choice.)

Drunkdriver - Born Pregnant [Parts Unknown]
Born Pregnant*, Drunkdriver's debut LP, is nearing the 15 11 year mark which is a bit crazy to think about. The band apparently disintegrated at the end of the decade due to drummer Jeremy Villalobos being accused of sexual assault and Load deciding to scrub their, at the time, upcoming follow-up from its catalog. (This lead the band to self-release the LP which I still have yet to come across in my record store travels.)

Liberated from the shackles of having a bass player drinking 1/4 of their beer on tour, Drunkdriver consisted of drums, guitar and Michael Berdan's agonized screams. Berdan's angsty shouting and cry-for-help liner notes were fine but never particularly moved the needle for me. The real reason I'm still listening to (and writing) about Drunkdriver in 2019 is that guitarist Kristy Greene is a speaker ripping terror.

I'm over here like a maniac with a loupe in hand trying to make out her gear on the dingy inner sleeve photo, jonzing for some clue as to how she gets this soul-quaking, building-crumbling tone. (Metal Muff, Morley A/B box, Boss tuner. Interesting!) I'm not sure there's been a guitarist who has so thoroughly and successfully melded rock guitar and undiluted harsh noise. I listen to the record in that way too; I never pay attention to any of the, I don't know, let's just say 8 songs, and I definitely couldn't name one without glancing at the jacket first. I view the record as two side-long blasts of face-melting sonic savagery, thanks to Greene. To be honest, I still get a little scared to pull this one out cause whenever I play it, I feel like this could finally be the time the whole hi-fi goes up in a blaze. Nothing left but a ruinous pool of melted plastic, charred metal, and smoking rubber.

Greene never released any music post-Drunkdriver that I'm aware of (please correct me if I'm mistaken!) and that's a goddamn shame. Such an incredible talent with so many more faces to melt. I, for one, feel cheated.

*Fat Worm of Error definitely one-upped DD on their album title game when they dropped Pregnant Babies Pregnant with Pregnant Babies the following year on Load. Just ignore this whole spiel regarding the (incorrectly asserted) album release dates. I don't know how time works.