Wednesday, June 30, 2021

June 2021

Here is the long delayed second batch of reviews of 2021. I've had a bunch of personal stuff going on this year that has vacuumed up what little free time I had coming into the year so its been tough getting done the amount of writing I want to, let alone getting anything done on a regular monthly schedule. I still have a bunch more great stuff to write about so stay tuned. I'm hoping the second half of the year will allow for more time to dedicate to writing.

Eyes and Flys - New Way to Get It [no label]
Eyes and Flys, Buffalo’s best band nowadays (at least in the purview of this coastal elite), dropped a new single earlier in the year and not only does it continue their strong showing, it might be their most complete and best single to date. 

This 7” finds the Flys doubling down on their punk energy [times] pop touch [divided by] sub-par fidelity (the sweet sounding kind) formula they’ve been experimenting with. I think they’re getting somewhere. The titular “New Way to Get it” is one of their finest songs yet. Acoustic strums and peppy handclaps are nestled into the band’s slashing energy with Pat Shanahan’s raspy shout made even more sandpapery with plenty of gain on the mic. The song functions as the band’s modus operandi in my mind. In a world where everyone seems to be lost in the 21st century spotified wilderness (and incessantly complaining about it), Eyes and Flys have returned to the ways of the DIY forbearers making home-made 7” singles of (seemingly) home-recorded tunes with all rough edges kept intact as valuable, essential qualities. New way to get it, indeed. 

“Free to Go” is squeezed onto side A, with measured amounts of jangle sprinkled into its fast ‘n chunky riff formula. The B-side is a Nerves cover, “Many Roads to Follow”, which features some Spector-y bombast at bargain basement costs. 

Three songs, all good and all unified in their aesthetic. Eyes and Flys have tried a few different things in their previous singles but I think they may be honing a “sound” now. I’m excited to hear what the next one’s like. 

Monokultur - Ormens Väg [Ever/Never] 
More high quality shit from the Big Apple’s most highly respected cultural center, Ever/Never Records. Ormens Väg is the Swedish duo Monokultur’s second LP for the label and if the caliber of this record is anything to go on, I hope they snapped the act up to a six-album deal. Monokultur have the rare ability to seem really strange to the straight-laced crowd and deliciously poppy to a weirdo like me. From track to track they aren’t even weird in the same way, nor do they deliver hooks in the same way. 

I have a hard time pinning down Monokultur which is the most exciting/aggravating thing to encounter as someone tasked with writing about music. The duo manages to show many sides of themselves while maintaining a seamless atmosphere through the album. “Demokrati” has me asking “are they the 39 Clocks of the new millennium?” “Pennen I Handen” recalls the bleary-eyed folk-pop of Ignatz. At times I’m getting a kind of somnolent Comet Gain vibe (like on “Bär Deras Saker”). If David Lynch ever plans on making another Twin Peak he oughta book Monokultur for a month-long residency at the Roadhouse. I can already envision the molasses throb of “Decennium” and its 50s rock & roll meets synth spook stew playing over the end credits. Monokultur might be at their best on tracks like “För Sent” and “Människor Och Träd” which marry a strong grasp of melody with a detached, sometimes mumbling vocal. The songs seem to be blown along like a leaf in the wind, drifting but determined to find a home. 

I might be zeroing in on an analog for Monokultur and it’s Maths Balance Volumes (if they weren’t quite so damn weird). Both groups are similar in that they seem creatively restless, willing to try new things and break a few rules, but will never (or may be unable to) get away from whatever special recipe makes them sound like them. And, hey, if Monokultur turns out to be my new Maths Balance Volumes, they are indispensable. 

Mystic Inane - Natural Beauty [Cleta Patra/La Vida Es Un Mus] 
Just because 2020 was the year of terrible surprises, doesn’t mean it was bereft of kickass surprises. #1 on the list: new Mystic Inane!? I had long given up hope that arguably the best discography of the 2010s would grow any larger but it fuckin’ did. I don’t know if these were recordings from years ago when the band was active. I don’t know if the quartet reconvened for one last rodeo. And I really don’t care. I got more Mystic Inane, something I never thought possible. I’m playing with house money for the rest of my life. 

Natural Beauty tempo-wise is the most hardcore MI record as we don’t get any nasty “Deep Creep” trudges or unhinged frothing at the mouth a la “Eggs Onna Plate”. But that’s a-okay because we still get four great, speedy songs out of the deal. 

Lead by a sick riff and riotous snare rolls, it is impossible to not start a mosh pit on the disco floor when “Death of a Disco Spiv” is blaring. “Mystic Ignorance” (pronounced “muh-sssstic ehhhh-nunce”) might be the best of the bunch shifting between an angular riff and ringing chords lending bombast to MI’s workmanlike punk ethos. “Peckerwood Nero” is my daughter’s favorite, as she started singing along to the “ooh ooohs” at just 1.5 years old. Mystic Inane really knows how to connect with the children. 

Candice Metrailer is one of the finest guitarists of recent times and she kills it on this record as usual. Her lead at the end of “Mystic Ignorance” is so good and so brief it kills me. Her interplay with Nathan Cassiani’s work on bass is one of the things that has always made Mystic Inane special and this is no different on Natural Beauty

Mystic Inane was one of the best bands around during their brief tenure so (if you haven't already) buy all their records and enrich your life. 

Opposite Sex - High Drama [Spik n Span] 
Ah New Zealand, surely the greatest contributor to rock music on a per capita basis. Must be something about the culture there because they’ve cracked the code. Great bands have stayed together and stayed great making strong records one after the other, avoiding burnout and conflicting egos and whatever other reasons that cause bands to splinter. 

Well, here comes a member of the new guard, Opposite Sex (who have been around for at least a decade themselves―not exactly new), with a new record High Drama on a label named for one of the country’s greatest contributions to music of any era. I have Opposite Sex’s last record Hamlet (they got a thing for drama) and it has some great songs (noise rock excursion “She Said”, chamber ballad “Complicity” and the Snapper-y kraut-punk raveup “Regicide” to name a few). The LP found the band trying on several different hats and looking good in most of ‘em, but High Drama seems to strive for a more unified sound. There are no guest contributors or dramatic left turns into different genres and as a result the band sounds even more confident. I don’t even hear any overdubs, very much a band in a room vibe. Opposite Sex is clearly comfortable with their sound and who they are as a band.

High Drama opens on a ferocious note with “Shoots Me like a Knife”. With male-female vocals playing off each other, a rollicking rhythm section and mangled guitar, Opposite Sex sound like the B-52s if they were the types to beat your ass with a bicycle chain. Equal parts pep and savagery. This idea of taking two sides of a dichotomy and smashing them against each other carries on throughout High Drama. There are two main poles in NZ underground history, Flying Nun and Expressway, and while the band sits somewhere in between, they lean heavily toward Expressway’s oddball embrace of noise and distaste for convention (especially on a track like “Nico”). “Robotica” captures both sides with a an Aislers Set-sy evocation of 60s girl groups existing simultaneously with Live Skull-esque guitar grind. The drifting twang of “Breath in a Dish” vaguely calls to mind The Renderers, another NZ band that carved out its own little hole, not quite sounding like anyone else. 

“Combine Harvester” swerves all over like an intoxicated driver, bopping along in aggressive but bouncing fashion. The jauntiness brushes uneasily against a wah-wah’d feedback frenzy and bassist and singer Lucy Hunter's serene singing of the chorus “You were the love of my life / Now I don’t care if you fall / Into the long, long loving arms of the combine harvester”. Behind the mellifluous veneer, Hunter sounds pissed and hurt and pulls no punches. Discarding any sugarcoating whatsoever, Hunter gets as blunt as possible on the unfettered indictment of misogyny, “Dick on a Throne”, over a slinky bass line and freelancing guitar recalling one of my favorite Birthday Party tunes “Yard”. 

High Drama’s centerpiece, however, is clearly the nine minute “Owls Do Cry” which features Hunter’s best vocal work. Working from a coo to out and out rage and back again, her peculiar phrasing leads the loping, feedback dappled tour de force through its peaks and valleys before unleashing her voice at the summit to rip the song apart seam by seam. Closing on “Dinosaur” is a bold move since it stands well apart from the preceding album. Lead by male vocals, its loose, rambling nature belies the simmering tension that steadily builds with no release granted. The gambit pays off as High Drama leaves you with more questions than answers, eager to flip the record and start again.
Von Hayes - Wa La! [no label] 
Philadelphia’s Von Hayes first came to my attention with Moderate Rock, a fine CD of GBV-indebted pop perfectly suited for my car stereo. Wa La! is the two-piece’s follow up (naturally named after a quote in a letter from Tobin Sprout included on the jacket) and a massive step forward in my eyes (and ears). Top to bottom this is a great set of songs, not a runt in the litter, and there’s more variation and inspiration to the arrangements as well. 

 Wa La! is loaded to the hilt with earworms, I’ll only touch on a handful but rest assured they’re all present and accounted for on record. The album kicks off in perfect fashion with 65 unplugged seconds of “Topy” forging headlong into the martial snare rolls of home-brewed stadium rocker “I’m Tired”. Von Hayes know how to bookend as they send you off on the soaring “Message to the Sparkled Egg Star” so in love with rock & roll you’ll want to start your own garage band. Between those high points are a bunch more high points: the solemn, weary “No Title #11” takes its chances throwing a lonesome vocal on a bed of scraping violins and it pays off in spades, “Zamp” is smeared with Like Flies on Sherbert-ish idiot-savant guitar overdubs colliding into one another, “I Had No Idea it was Today” is a soulful mid-tempo number that’ll get under your skin like a depressed tick, “Decades in the Breaking” is a “California Dreaming” for a new generation, and some Strapping Fieldhands influence comes to the fore in the shambling psych-folk spectacular “Quarantine Dreams”. 

I’ve been listening to Wa La! for months now and its charms have yet to fade. This is one that’s gonna stick. I don’t make year end lists but if I did Wa La! is the kind of thing that would go on ‘em. Recommended!

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Auxiliary Out x I Heart Noise Mixtape // Side B: IHN

Here is Side B of the collaborative mixtape* AuxOut is creating together with label/forum/blog I Heart Noise comprised of choice 2021 tunes. 

6 favorites from the year so far as picked by IHN: 

2. Patricia Brennan – Solar [Valley of Search]

Check out AO's picks on Side A HERE

*not actually a tape in any way, purely archaic parlance in these digital times.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

APRIL 2021

Freelove Fenner - The Punishment Zone [Moone] 
Having recently released such charmers as Lithics’ Wendy Kraemer EP and Tashi Dorji’s and John Dieterich’s Midden, it’s not surprising that Phoenix’s Moone Records would have an ace up its sleeve. The Punishment Zone is the first recording in seven years from Freelove Fenner, the Montreal-based trio that gave the world one of the best songs of the last decade. Freelove Fenner’s music exists out-of-time to a degree due, in part, to the group’s eschewing of 21st century recording methods (digital software, screens, etc.) opting instead for a 100% analog and fastidiously documented recording process. The results bear this out as each collection of songs they release is ornately crafted and polished by hand to a stunning gleam. 

The biggest reason to get excited about a new Freelove Fenner record is that they simply don’t sound like anyone else. At least nobody I’ve heard. I can put on my rock critic cap and get sort of close: a more dexterous Young Marble Giants, a sprightly version of Run On’s marimba-led tunes or the negative image of The Raincoats where the ragged edges and loose threads are perfectly hemmed, the blaring and scratching supplanted by purring and gliding. The Monochrome Set with a heart of ice? Maybe Marine Girls fit in there somewhere? None of those comps are really satisfying or especially accurate. Freelove Fenner is certainly entrenched in the last four decades of indie pop (particularly the kind emanating from across the pond) but somehow emerged a hardened gem with a clarity index all its own. 

Well, if artist comps aren’t going to work, I better start throwing adjectives out. If “crystalline” had a sound then here you go. The Punishment Zone is effervescent but never sugary, like what I imagine an extremely expensive bottle of champagne to taste like. I’ve settled on “lucid dream pop” for my shorthand descriptor of the band’s music. It’s narcotic but in perfect focus; no sounds are blurred or buried. No sound is misspent. In fact, the record ends with “Whatever Grows” which is built on a chugging synth riff, a far cry from anything in the shoegaze sector. Yet, I can’t escape that listening to The Punishment Zone in broad daylight makes me feel like it’s midnight. The record’s opening notes of “Find the Man” play in my head constantly, like the clandestine password to gain entry to a nocturnal club of unfurling shadows and occasional shafts of diffuse light. The crisp groove of “New Wave Pool” is something that will never permanently vacate your mind and the carefree jaunt of “Perfect Master” will make you feel happy. That’s right, this record will make you happy! What more could you hope to gain from a spinning plastic disc? 

Diamonds take time and so do Freelove Fenner LPs. Immaculate doesn’t happen overnight, The Punishment Zone took seven years! You could wait another seven years for a new Freelove Fenner record, but you’d be a damn fool when you can hear a new Freelove Fenner record right now. I suggest you live in The Now. 

Dan Melchior - Odes [Cudighi] 
An instrumental solo guitar album is a your-mileage-will-vary proposition in my mind. Albums of the ilk, generally speaking, are reliably enjoyable but there’s also so damn many guitar players out there recording instrumental guitar albums. You have to be doing something truly different or otherwise special to stand out from the crowd. And as a guitar player, there’s a particular hurdle that any such album needs to clear: is listening to someone else play guitar more engaging or rewarding than me actually grabbing my guitar and playing myself?

This cassette, Odes, by the prolific punk-of-all-trades Dan Melchior clears that hurdle. Melchior has released a shit ton of records; I haven’t heard most of ‘em (though I recommend the two he did in collaboration with Russell Walker (The Pheromoans) for Kill Shaman) but I definitely hadn’t heard him in an instrumental mode before. Sadly, Odes has a tragic inspiration as Melchior dedicated the album to his late wife Letha Rodman Melchior. 

The first side is fantastic from the moment you push Play. The plaintive acoustic guitar in “Louisiana Honeymoon” sets the tone, drifting listlessly until joined by a second glistening guitar forming a magical partnership. As someone who enjoyed a Louisiana honeymoon, the track brings up lovely memories for me. “The Story of Love” hits me hard every time, my eyes start watering when I hear the first few notes. It’s this quality that makes Odes so special. 

There’s no technical virtuosity on display, each song features two (maybe three?) tracks of guitar, one playing a cyclical arpeggio and the other improvising in consonant fashion. It’s simple, but very pretty. However, the way Melchior recorded the songs is instrumental to their beauty. Recorded on a 4-track and a karaoke machine with the reverb button engaged, notes emanate and drift from the fuzzy ether, blending and blurring with one another. “Night Song” truly sounds like a song playing in someone else’s memory. Incidental sounds and imperfections pop up in subtle ways giving the music a genuinely human character. 

An analog signal, and its inexact and unreproducible harmonic nature, is as close an inanimate entity gets to an organic lifeform in my estimation and Melchior uses this to express so much without uttering a single word. Odes is a testament to the literally indescribable power music holds and the depth of feeling it can imbue. It’s repetitive. It’s meditative. It’s mournful. It’s truly remarkable. 

Preening - Dragged Through the Garden [Ever/Never] 
Last time I checked in on Oakland’s Preening, I said they are the only neo-no wave act I’ve gotten on board with since my teen years. That fact has remained. Their sound hasn’t changed drastically since then, still most clearly channeling James Chance and his merry band of petty criminals, but I do think Preening comes across a bit more refined on Dragged Through the Garden, a new 12” on Ever/Never, the trio’s first release of the 2020s. I know “refined” is a ludicrous word to use in the same sentence as Preening, but the chaos is more cleverly controlled and consistent on Garden so what do you want me to say? “Distilled” is too clinical and I quite like the mental image of Preening earning a certificate from Emily Post. 

Previously, I would have said while Preening doesn’t forsake the groove but they never let it get in the way of their skronk, but the sword swings both ways on Garden. The rhythm section of Alejandra Alcala (bass) and Sam Lefebvre (percussion) are totally locked in over all 12 inches, delivering on-point, unconventional patterns throughout, grounding the songs without sacrificing the least bit of oddball intrigue. Speaking of oddballs, Max Nordile (name a band, he’s been in it) heads up the rag tag trio putting his lungs on full display whether heaving frequencies through his saxophone or not. In the past I’ve stated I prefer Alcala’s vocals (who sadly provides only secondary vox on the record) and that Nordile’s vocals are kind of annoying. On Garden though, his voice seems to have taken on a new Boredoms-like character, so either Nordile’s vocals are exactly the same as they’ve ever been and I’ve just finally grown accustomed to them, or he’s found the right brand of annoying vocals that tickles my fancy. 

“No Season” immediately stood out and stuck with me after a single listen with Nordile’s “na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na no season!” whittled into my brain with a pocket knife. Easily the catchiest number here. Off kilter sax lines drive “Economy Head” and “You Gave It Away” in an almost Psychedelic Furs-ish fashion (think “Dumb Waiters”) while Alcala and Lefebrve edge “Autocon” just a little into the mutant disco direction, suggesting the trio might be capable of ushering in a full scale 1980 NYC renaissance on their own. “Face/On” (from Greasetrap Frisbee) remains Preening’s high water mark but it’s got competition in “Rapt Fashion” calling to mind a guitarless take on the esteemed Ex Models and their ability to meld spastic abrasion and contagious hooks. 

While the trio homes in tightly on history’s no wave rippers, the end of each side brings a left turn of sorts. “Red Red Lava”, for instance, is more in line with Nordile’s whacked out solo work, curdled no-fi slop with a sax melody struggling to find its way out. The EP’s finale, “Extortion (Version)” was assembled by Andy Human (name a band, he’s also been in it) and Brett Eastman who mixed and mastered the record. I’m pretty tired of the lazy tacked-on “dub version” thing so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it after spotting it at the end of the tracklist. To my pleasant surprise, the track actually isn’t all that “dub”. Instead it’s a bit more reminiscent of early industrial-experimental-whathaveyou acts like Cabaret Voltaire or This Heat. From what I can tell, Human and Eastman pulled all the sounds from the previous 15 minutes and sculpted them into a mechanical lurch that belies the funked up wig outs that preceded it. Plus points for subverted expectations. 

Spiritual Mafia - Alfresco [ANTI FADE/Ever/Never]
From “In a Big Country” to the Fairlight to Lubricated Goat, Australia has an ironclad claim as one of the most important countries in rock history. It’s certainly one of my favorite countries rock-wise; I buy any interesting-looking record I come across if I can confirm it originates from Australia. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed. I’ve even fantasized about doing a write up just on Australian records I have in my collection, but let’s face it, I don’t even have enough time to stay on top of the stuff in the mailbox that I should be reviewing. Fortunately for me, the debut LP by Spiritual Mafia is the best of both worlds. It’s a brand spankin’ new mailbox arrival and a bonafide Antipodean top end killer. 

From its inception, Ever/Never has been a US pipeline from the land of Oz having put the likes of Australian ex-pat rockers DeGreaser, Ballroom and The Wilful Boys in American earholes. Meanwhile ANTI FADE has spent the last decade documenting the heavies of the Australian scene. So even though the ragtag gang, assembled from across the far reaches of the land down under (there’s even a banana bender in the bunch), is a complete unknown, it’s got some unfuckwithable backers making you take notice. Once you hear Alfresco though, it makes sense why those bastions for good tunes would be all about these guys. The record is a bloody bonzer! Miraculously, Spiritual Mafia has emerged with their own sound from day dot. ...That’s no small miracle. 

Alfresco is loaded with paeans to outdoor dining, taking baths and lounging poolside. That makes them sound like they could be a shambling goof troupe with a gutful of piss a la Taco Leg. But oh no, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Spiritual Mafia sounds imposing (but not abrasive). The lyrics are quotidian (yet sinister). The singer sounds like Dugald Mackenzie (RIP) but on sedatives. (I like him.) Spiritual Mafia gives off a curiously casual vibe, like they’re barely lifting a finger yet still rock hard enough to put you in an ambo. I’m not sure I’ve heard anything quite like them before. 

The first thing you hear is the single note staccato guitar of “Lunch”, not so much a kick in the pisser as an insistent, mounting pressure on the pisser like a swollen prostate. It gets the pulse pounding and the bass thumps the track to life as the singer literally invites you to lunch. “Body” pulls the same trick with a good 30 seconds of the same chord before dropping the hook in arguably the catchiest tune on the record. Atmospheric turntable scratching crops up on “Body” and all over the album. Lest you think there’s a wave of neo-nü metal acts plaguing the golden shores of Australia (that’d truly be the last wave), Spiritual Mafia employs turntables like fellow Aussies The Stickmen used to, casting a spectral pall over the proceedings. Take your party elsewhere. 

Speaking of partying, “Smiles” is a quasi-KC & the Sunshine Band cover, making liberal use of the lyric “That’s the way I like it” in a tonedeaf deadpan. I’d definitely party with the bros but they got a softer side too. Put your sunnies on and relax cause the tight little number “Poolside” is actually filled with beautiful melodies if you really listen. You'll be ready for a cuddle in the sunshine in no time.

It’s hard to say which track is most memorable, but the two 10+ minute behemoths at the end of each side certainly make an impression. “Hybrid Animal” is a psych-grunge dirge jam with a distinctly Australian flavor. Alice in Chains meets Exhaustion? I don’t know what the constant shouting of “three legged dog” means but it makes perfect sense. (Maybe I’m onto something with that Alice in Chains bit?) Has there ever been an “Australian PIL”? Cuz Spiritual Mafia might be it after slinging the hefty bass groove on “Bath Boy”. Synth swirl drowns everything out at one point turning the hypnosis hallucinatory. I’m sure the lyrics have a sordid connotation that I’m blissfully unaware of so I’ll just take them at face value and sing them to my daughter while I give her baths. Finally some dad rock for the discerning listener. No surprise it came from the land down under.

Six songs not a minute wasted. Find me a better record this year. Go on, find one! Grab a coldie cause it’s gonna be hard yakka mate. 

Vicious Fence - Dropout [Total Life Society] 
Vicious Fence - Primitives [Total Life Society] 
Vicious Fence is a newish band led by Cleveland-based Matthew Wascovich and featuring members of Mudhoney, Urinals and AuxOut fav, Slovenly. Debuting with simultaneous 7" singles (with a studio album reportedly in progress) Vicious Fence is wasting no time. 

Given the past sonic transgressions of this motley crew, the most surprising thing to me is how “classic” Vicious Fence sounds, which isn’t a bad thing in the least. There’s a punk heart beating inside satisfying, decades-tested songwriting moves. That each song is stuffed with a hearty dose of Hammond B3 organ surely adds to the retro-now vibe. 

Of the four songs across the two singles, “Dropout”, is the easy pick. A rollicking two minutes that demands repeated needle drops after the first go round. A terse riff is dressed up in flanger with aforementioned organ moves propelled by heavy toms. The flipside features the pensive, downcast “Same Cell Different Paint”. Attacking from a different minor-key angle, the band dares to invoke the classic Brainiac refrain “nothing ever changes” (ballsy move for an Ohio-based band) and acquits itself well. Wascovich’s vocal style reminds me of someone that I still haven’t been able to identify and it’s driving me crazy. I guess I’m gonna take that failure to my grave. It’s a classic, complete single: rave up on side A, ramp down on side B. 

The other single is good too and a bit different. “Primitives” rolls along with a wistful bounce, congealing into an unexpected mid-tempo blues stomp. An easy groover to be sure. “Primitives” is backed with a track called “Humanoid Front” which suggests there might be some Edge/Creed brain scanning going on but the number is 50s rock & roll to its core with a seesawing chord progression in the chorus. 

All in all, two quality singles made by seasoned vets. I’m curious to see what they do across an entire album.