PHARMAKON | Devour | ALBUM REVIEW

Pharmakon | Devour | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

‘Devour’ is the fourth album from Margaret Chardiet’s recording project Pharmakon, and it was recorded live in the studio by Ben Greenberg from hardcore act Uniform. The listener is encouraged to engage with the live nature of the recording, and to that end the digital copy of this album is provided in two continuous sides as well as five individual tracks.

‘Homeostasis’ and ‘Spit It Out’ begin the proceedings in a sinister but fairly minimal vein, employing looped noise, electronic drones, indecipherable vocals and the occasional beat to establish a disquieting atmosphere. By ‘Self-Regulating System’ at the end of Side A, however, the album starts to sound (for all intents and purposes) like a building site. In the grand tradition of early Einstürzende Neubauten, whirring, screeching and distorted yelling are all present.

The second side continues in similar aggressive fashion with a deluge of feedback and further screaming. ‘Deprivation’ could be a ‘Metal Machine Music’ for the 21st century, except that the production values aren’t much higher than they were in 1975. The vocals on ‘Pristine Panic/ Cheek by Jowl’ take on an insistent, rhythmic quality over a repetitive mechanical whir before further chaos ensues, and this is probably the most fertile section of the album. The relentless noise calls to mind a factory methodically destroying itself – a vision which ties in with Chardiet’s stated theme of cannibalism and human self-destruction. (Jim Jarmusch’s new film The Dead Don’t Die explores similar thematic territory.)

Not for the faint-hearted then, but if you are interested in music that pushes extremes to explore concepts then this album may well be of interest to you. In an era of randomly generated playlists, it’s refreshing when artists still encourage their audiences to experience music in longer forms.

RUSSIAN CIRCLES | Blood Year | ALBUM REVIEW

Russian Circles | Blood Year | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Chicagoans Russian Circles have been steadily releasing material since 2004’s self-titled EP, and Blood Year is their seventh LP to date.

The record begins with the mournful, restrained ‘Hunter Moon’, before segueing rapidly into album highlight ‘Arluck’. This second track begins with insistent drumming and a distorted bassline, before guitarist Mike Sullivan unleashes a series of intricate lines and riffs which jump out of both sides of the stereo field. Despite its sonic assault, the track is restrained in its layering, and therefore retains a fairly sparse quality. This allows the drums – recorded in Steve Albini’s studio – room to breathe.

Blood Year may arguably be Russian Circles’ heaviest and least compromising record yet, although the band members take their time to develop the dynamics on even the busiest tracks. ‘Kohokia’, for example, features an excellent performance from the rhythm section (Dave Turncrantz on drums and Brian Cook on bass), who anchor the piece while Sullivan runs through a varied set of textures – including an uplifting harmonic break reminiscent of 2011’s ‘Mladek’.

Most of the songs are over six minutes long – the two quieter, shorter pieces serving as introductions to each side of the record. ‘Sinaia’ is Blood Year’s longest piece, and one of its most intense. After seven minutes of furious tremolo picking, the guitars drop out altogether, leaving Turncrantz to finish the track on his own.

Judging by the relentless, sludgy riffs on ‘Quartered’, someone was ‘hung and drawn’ too… It’s a dark and stormy end from a band who have often finished their albums with quieter, pensive pieces (e.g. ‘Praise Be Man’ on 2011’s Empros, or the title track on 2013’s Memorial). 15 years into their career, Russian Circles show no signs of compromising their vision, although their ability to structure tracks and balance dynamics continues to grow.

Blood Year is available on vinyl and CD (or as a digital download) from Sargent House on the 2nd of August. Make sure you get a copy, and try to catch them live as well.

HAWKEYES | Last Light of Future Failure | ALBUM REVIEW

Hawkeyes | Last Light of Future Failure | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Hailing from Pittsburgh (correction) Kitchener, Ontario and boasting no less than four guitarists, Hawkeyes released their riff-laden first album Poison Slows You Down four years ago. Last Night of Future Failure finds the band experimenting with different styles, continuing the evolution already witnessed on their collaborative releases and soundtrack contributions over the intervening period.

Album opener ‘The Lickening‘ has a psychedelic, raga-esque feel. A strummed acoustic guitar establishes the rhythm while a synth adds texture, before the rest of the band joins in and the dynamics intensify. However, it’s a fairly restrained piece in comparison with the tracks on their debut.

‘Look At ‘Em Scramble’ is a lively slice of Stooges-flavoured rock, driven by wah-wah guitar. There’s so much going on that it’s a little hard to keep track of where one guitar line ends and another begins, but the propulsive rhythm sustains interest throughout the track’s six-minute duration.

‘Nude Karate’ starts with kosmische-style drums and a heavily modulated guitar riff. It’s another energetic and densely layered instrumental piece, in which the shifting tempo provides some interesting variation.

‘Full of Secrets’, the title of which may or may not be a Twin Peaks reference, brings proceedings to a close with an 18-minute slab of desert rock. Despite its initial bombast, there is greater clarity in the mix on this track. There is also a dramatic dynamic shift halfway through, when the track almost grinds to a halt; a minimalist section of white noise and atonal guitar tones is a nice development, before the track builds back up to a noisy finale.

Overall, the album demonstrates Hawkeyes developing their sound and tackling different styles. Fans of their debut may miss the all-out guitar assault, but the more varied structures and dynamics of this sophomore effort should attract a wider audience.

Last Night of Future Failure is available from Cardinal Fuzz from the 28th of June.

DARK MORPH | Dark Morph | ALBUM REVIEW

Dark Morph – Dark Morph | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

A palpable and sustained atmosphere of dread is not necessarily what one would expect from Sigur Rós’ vocalist/ multi-instrumentalist Jónsi, but that’s exactly what he has created on Dark Morph: a collaboration with Swedish composer Carl Michael von Hausswolff. These recordings were made using sampled hydrophone and field recordings, especially of humpback whales and the titular ‘dark morph’ heron of the Fiji islands. Von Hausswolff used the recorded sounds as the bases for drones, which were then developed into musical pieces by Jónsi.

The resulting album is a disquieting collection of pieces in the dark ambient vein of Robert Rich and B. Lustmord’s Stalker, or William Basinski’s more recent On Time Out Of Time. It’s something of a departure for Jónsi, whose collaboration with his partner Alex, Riceboy Sleeps, was more melodic and featured orchestral elements. Fans of Sigur Rós will miss his striking vocals on this release. It’s perhaps more typical of von Hausswolff’s work, which often uses found sounds and explores electricity, frequency and tone.

Opening track ‘So(ng)qe’ is built on a bed of mysterious wailing noises, which do call to mind whale song but which also have an oddly artificial, digital quality. ‘Ura Dardanella’ is ostensibly more musical, in that it uses sampled noise as a rhythmic device while a synthesizer plays a subtle harmonic progression over the top. Pieces such as ‘Wai’ and ‘Bani Manumanu’ are more atonal. The album perhaps succeeds the most when it strikes a delicate balance between its sampled sounds and its musical elements, such as on the atmospheric ‘Kavura’, where it’s hard to tell which sounds are natural, which have been manipulated and which are being generated by instruments. Overall, it’s an interesting and original piece of work, in what is shaping up to be a great year for dark ambient releases.

Dark Morph is available digitally on Bandcamp, and on vinyl from The Vinyl Factory. The duo performed in Venice last month to celebrate the album’s release.

KANKYŌ ONGAKU | JAPANESE AMBIENT, ENVIRONMENTAL AND NEW AGE MUSIC. 1980–1990 | REVIEW

Kankyō Ongaku (Various Artists) | Japanese Ambient, Environmental and New Age Music | Review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Ambient music’s origins lie in Erik Satie’s ‘furniture music’, which was designed to blend with atmospheric noise (the sound of cutlery during dining, for instance) rather than serving as the focus of attention. The term ‘ambient music’ itself was then first used by Brian Eno (whose pioneering albums include ‘Discreet Music’, ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports’ and ‘Ambient 4: On Land’) in the 1970s. ‘Ambient’ has evolved over the subsequent years to become a byword for ‘atmospheric’, and the label often overlaps with modern classical, music concrète,  jazz, post-rock, drone and even techno. There are often debates about whether or not rhythmic elements can exist in ambient music, but suffice it to say that the selections for this album appear to have been made on the basis of what sounds good, rather than overly rigid definitions.

Like Scottish whisky, ambient music is a phenomenon that has been greatly appreciated, explored and reverse-engineered in Japan. This compilation of Japanese ambient music recorded in the 1980s was assembled by Spencer Doran from Visible Cloaks. It features an elegant front cover and a title that means ‘environmental music’.

Many of these tracks call the natural world to mind, whether it’s in their titles (Takashi Toyoda’s ‘Snow’ and Interior’s ‘Park’) or in their sonic characteristics (Yellow Magic Orchestra’s ‘Loom’ features the sound of dripping water, and Akira Ito’s ‘Praying for Mother/ Earth Part 1’ prominently incorporates the sound of running water underneath its gentle wash of synths).

Joe Hisaishi’s ‘Islander’, meanwhile, is reminiscent of Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’, and closing track ‘Original BGM’ by Haruomi Hosono is a not-so distant cousin of the pieces on 1978’s Music for Airports. However, it’s natural that musicians working in this period would show the influence of such prominent figures, and while they share sonic characteristics, these are not slavish imitations and are worthwhile compositions in their own right.

One of the highlights is Hiroshi Yoshimura’s ‘Blink’: an extremely delicate piece played on electric piano with a barely audible synth accompaniment. In less than five minutes, it creates a very unique and beautiful atmosphere.

In an unusual move, Light in the Attic Records has limited the digital version of the album to just ten tracks, rather than the full set of 23. This frustratingly obliges the listener to invest in one of the expensive physical formats in order to hear the full compilation. However, the double CD and triple vinyl releases include an essay by Spencer Doran and extensive liner notes, so are bound to attract collectors.

ULVER | Drone Activity | ALBUM REVIEW

Ulver | Drone Activity | Album review

Ulver Drone Activity
Ulver Drone Activity

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Norwegian band Ulver’s name means ‘wolves’, but stylistically they are chameleons. Beginning their career in the 1990s with a trilogy of black metal albums, they then opted for a starkly different electronic approach in the new millennium with Perdition City. Next, they experimented with modern classical and ambient on 2007’s Shadows of the Sun , before digging out the guitars again for the post-rock-flavoured ATGCLVLSSCAP in 2015, and then settled on a synth-pop direction for the following year’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar. Keeping up so far?

Drone Activity, as the name suggests, sees Ulver adopting a more minimal approach. Recorded live but heavily edited in the studio (in a manner similar to the largely improvised ATGCLVLSSCAP), this year’s album consists of four pieces which are all over 15 minutes long.

‘True North’ starts proceedings with an appropriately chilly drone piece, punctuated by dissonant guitar chords in its later stages. ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ incorporates some subtle rhythmic elements and electronic effects, gradually increasing in intensity. It’s interesting enough, if a little overlong. ‘Blood, Fire, Woods, Diamonds’ occupies similar territory. Ulver’s sonic palette is richest on closing track ‘Exodus’, which briefly shifts in tone halfway through to incorporate arpeggiators and bell-like tones, before an ominous low-end storm erupts.

Back in 2010, Ulver performed one of their first ever concerts at The Norwegian National Opera. The show was released on DVD the following year, and is much more akin to a ‘live album’ (in that it features previously released material performed in front of a live audience) than this collection. Here the band uses the concert space as a venue for improvisation. It’s unclear where the live performance ends and the studio work begins, but perhaps this work was more interesting to experience in its original live setting. Time will only tell if Ulver will continue in this vein for a while or promptly abandon electronic drone for something else.

Drone Activity is available from House of Mythology in a variety of formats, including several different coloured vinyl editions.

PELICAN | Nighttime Stories | ALBUM REVIEW

Pelican | Nighttime Stories | Album review

Pelican | Nighttime Stories

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Chicago quartet Pelican was formed in 2001, and this is their sixth studio album. Their music is generally pigeonholed as ‘post-metal’ due to its largely instrumental nature, although guitarist Trevor de Brauw is dismissive of labels.

The title track’s relentless heavy riffs are indicative of the band’s current aggressive direction, signalling ‘the resulting dread and anger’ that the band feels at the current cultural climate in America. The album’s title is borrowed from associated act Tusk, whose vocalist Jody Minnoch passed away in 2014. His chord voicings, song titles and structural ideas were a strong influence on the record.

The most initially striking elements of this album, however, are the gentler, more melodic ones: opening track ‘WST’ has a slight folk flavour. It was written as a tribute to guitarist Dallas Thomas’ recently deceased father. ‘I Stared at Me’ features delicate guitar lines and an almost bluesy slide part, before it comes to an abrupt stop at three and a half minutes. Closing track ‘Full Moon, Black Water’ starts quietly before a torrent of riffs erupts, but the piece comes to a fairly peaceful conclusion.

Elsewhere, ‘Midnight and Mescaline’ is more representative: it’s propelled along by strident drums and an army of guitars. Pelican’s sound on this album is at times slightly reminiscent of fellow Chicagoans Russian Circles, although they never quite achieve that seamless a balance of melody and dynamics. They don’t quite have the ambition of English post-metallers Bossk either, but it remains an entertaining set of thunderous guitar parts and intricate rhythms. The album is densely mastered for maximum impact, which is perhaps why the quieter tracks stand out.

Nighttime Stories is available in a variety of formats from the 7th of June.

EARTH | Full Upon Her Burning Lips | ALBUM REVIEW

Earth | Full Upon Her Burning Lips | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Earth was formed in Olympia, Washington 30 years ago, and Dylan Carlson is the only remaining original member. The line-up for the band’s ninth studio album features Carlson on guitar and bass, and Adrienne Davies on drums.

‘Datura’s Crimson Veils’ sets the tone for most of the record – Carlson’s overdriven guitars play monolithic (but not unmelodic) riffs, accompanied by Davies’ slow-moving, expressive drums and percussion. At no point does the band sound quite as ominous as it did on Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, but Earth’s approach has drifted over the years from aggressive drone frequencies to angular, psychedelic-flavoured riffs which slowly envelope the listener. This approach is especially apparent on the longer tracks, and ‘She Rides an Air of Malevolence’ is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

While Carlson has deliberately toned down the use of effects, ‘Descending Belladonna’ features some whirring modulation. Meanwhile ‘Maiden’s Catafalque’, with its languorous phrasing and use of slow delay, is somewhat reminiscent of Fripp & Eno’s experiments on 1975’s Evening Star. The snakelike guitars create a disquieting atmosphere, and here the drums take a little more of a back seat.

Rhythm is very much at the forefront on ‘The Colour of Poison’, however – its abrupt stop/ start nature suggesting at times that the track has entirely ground to a halt, before it shifts a gear into Sabbath riff territory. (Lest anyone forget, ‘Earth’ was Black Sabbath’s original name.)

Carlson has certainly achieved a ‘more upfront and drier sound’ on this album. There is so much space in these sparse recordings that it almost feels at times like the guitars are setting the speed while the drums are adding the tonal colour. (That’s not intended as a criticism: Carlson reportedly felt that drums were buried in the mix on previous Earth albums and decided to grant them greater sonic space here.)

If it’s perhaps true that there was a little more dynamic range on Carlson’s solo album Conquistador from last year, this release is still a majestic beast, and Davies’ restrained but powerful drumming is a highlight.

Full Upon Her Burning Lips is available from Sargent House in a variety of formats (including double vinyl) on May 24th.

NINE INCH NAILS | 25 Years of The Downward Spiral | FEATURE

25 Years of The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails | Feature

Feature and photos by Jimmy Hutchinson

It starts with a brutal blow; then another, and another. 23 seconds in, everything explodes: ‘I am the voice inside your head (and I control you)’. Welcome to the world of The Downward Spiral.

Brian Eno described the experience of listening to Iggy Pop’s 1977 album The Idiot as ‘like having your head encased in concrete’. ‘Mr. Self Destruct’ borrows that approach and then builds a factory over the top. But it’s not all sonic chaos – there is a brief but dramatic shift in dynamics halfway through the song, and after four and a half minutes it collapses to pave the way for the comparatively melodic ‘Piggy’.

It’s the constantly changing moods and dynamics of this album that keep it entertaining – and still surprising – after 25 years. As aggressive as some pieces can be (‘Big Man with a Gun’), The Downward Spiral has plenty of quiet (‘A Warm Place’), fragile (‘Hurt’) and downright weird (‘March of the Pigs’) moments that make it a compelling experience.

Inspired by the emerging industrial scene, Trent Reznor founded Nine Inch Nails in Ohio in 1988, and later assembled a live band to tour debut album Pretty Hate Machine. Subsequent E.P. Broken marked a significant change in direction, intended to reflect the band’s live aggression (and also Reznor’s frustration with original label TVT). The band’s second full-length release is a concept album about ‘someone who sheds everything around them to a potential nothingness’, gradually abandoning their ‘career, religion, relationship, belief and so on’.

Musically, The Downward Spiral continues Broken’s use of layers of distorted guitars and synthesizers, but also features more traditional instruments such as acoustic guitar and piano, and heavy use of sampling and computer editing. As such, its principal ‘instrument’ is the recording studio, and there are plenty of unusual compositional touches.

As dense as the instrumentation and as manic as the time signatures on ‘March of the Pigs’, it abruptly dissolves into a gentle piano coda – twice. The programmed synths and beats of ‘Ruiner’ give way to wind sound effects and a raucous guitar solo from guest Adrian Belew. And infamous hit single ‘Closer’ is such a masterpiece of multitrack mixing that it’s almost easy to forget its ‘controversial’ chorus and promotional video.

Reznor’s wide palette of sounds is complemented by his varied approach to vocals: sometimes a hysterical scream, sometimes a barely audible whisper. The album is also incredibly well structured: each track segues into the next – at times jarringly, and at others with immense subtlety. It’s impossible to imagine the melancholic final notes of ‘A Warm Place’ (which borrows liberally from Bowie’s ‘Crystal Japan’) without the gradual intrusion of the hissing reeds that introduce ‘Eraser’.

Apple Music is currently describing the album as a ‘bold, no-look dive into the abyss’ – but for all its abrasive textures, The Downward Spiral is not short on melodies or hooks. ‘Piggy’ is driven by a walking bass that anchors the song, despite the occasional bursts of noise and an enjoyably chaotic drum solo (played by Reznor himself). ‘Hurt’ has gained fame outside of the album, but the cover versions usually remove its dissonant tritone – the most unique element of the song. The 14 album tracks were fertile enough ground for multiple remix releases, including the March of the Pigs and Closer to God singles, and two international variants of the Further Down the Spiral album.

The Downward Spiral was a colossal success, in an era when the mainstream was ‘salivating over melodramatic angst’. It sold nearly 119,000 copies in its first week, and ultimately over four million copies worldwide. The band stole the show at Woodstock ’94, covered head to foot in mud, and even won themselves a mention in the ‘Homperpalooza’ episode of The Simpsons. With success came pressure to tour and record a follow-up. It took Trent Reznor five years to release The Fragile – but that’s another story.

The ‘Definitive Edition’ of The Downward Spiral was released on 180-gram vinyl in 2016 (pictured). It includes an essay by John Doran. You can still order a copy on nin.com.

BLACK TO COMM | Seven Horses for Seven Kings | ALBUM REVIEW

Black to Comm | Seven Horses for Seven Kings | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

With a whir of oscillating brass, Seven Horses for Seven Kings roars to life. Brief opener ‘Asphodel Mansions’ sets an ominous tone, which gradually shifts into full-blown horror on the nightmarish ‘A Miracle No/ Mother Child at Your Breast’.

Black to Comm is the solo project of German musician Marc Richter, whose albums are generally constructed from distorted samples, looped and layered to create a disquieting ambient field. This latest album features additional rhythmic elements – tribal-sounding drums, which add an occasional urgent feel to these recordings. Richter has described a growing fondness for playing live shows, which perhaps accounts for a greater sense of immediacy.

Some of the more affecting passages on the album are the more unexpected – the squawking Berlin-era Bowie-esque sax sounds on ‘Licking the Fig Tree’, for example, or the sudden atonal voices on ‘If Not, Not’ which are reminiscent of Ligeti’s avant-garde compositions.  Proceedings seem to reach something of a culminating point on the relatively calm ‘Angel Investor’, which features layers of distorted mellotron, and leads the listener to the lengthy final track’s mournful -sounding collage of loops, distorted noises and speech samples.

Black to Comm has created an interesting and atmospheric piece of work, which is more accessible on subsequent listens (although it isn’t quite as dense and absorbing as Svarte Greiner’s ‘Kappe’, for instance). However, the longer pieces in particular create a palpable sense of dread, and the album is recommended for dark ambient and noise fans.

Seven Horses for Seven Kings is available in digital and physical formats from ThrillJockey, including a limited vinyl pressing.