DUNES | Take Me To The Nasties | ALBUM REVIEW

Dunes | Take Me To The Nasties | Album review

Review by: Graeme J Baty

 

Here’s a band that I’ve followed since their early days. That said, technically it still is the “early days” as the band have only been going since around late 2016. They’ve been consistently brilliant live and have carved their own little niche in the Northeast scene.

What they do, they do really well and it’s impossible not to adore their sound. Some critics might be a bit harsh in comparing them to some obvious influences (that will not be mentioned here!). It’s all too easy to dismiss music that way and not truly enjoy it for what it is. Dunes make fantastic anthemic riff-fests with tongue in cheek witty lyrics. There is nothing quite like them in the local scene and they’ve been a delight to witness as they evolved from their fist lineup as a four-piece then moving smoothly to three-piece as guitarist Scott departed. Since then they’ve released two well received EPs and have played countless gigs around the country.

At long last we get their debut LP! The LP will be released on legendary Durham based label Sapien Records (We Are Knuckle Dragger, Big Lad, Steve Strong). I’ve been basking in this rifforama album for a month or two and have been trying to put it into words. I’m not sure I can. To me, Dunes is more of a feeling than a definable sound. They bring a smile to my grumpy face.

The title track ‘Take Me To The Nasties’ kicks off the record and is classic Dunes. A well-placed track allows them to set out their stall and prepare you for a hook and riff barrage. Ten meaty tracks, smashed out in just under 43 minutes. It’s a no-nonsense, no ostentation album that will draw you back for repeated listens. Denim Casket proves the album standout and has become a live favourite recently.

The sound and production is really solid, the bass tone is simply lush, that coupled with one of the finest drummers in the region and the magic touch of singer/guitarist John Davies, everything he seems to be involved with turns to audio gold. The production recorded at their rehearsal rooms by Graham Thompson remarkably captures the Dunes sound and brings a vibrant live feel, yet polished and subtle. It’s the perfect balance for a band like Dunes. No gross over production and endless overdubs. The sound is minimal and all the more impactful for it.

It’s an album that you just want to crank up and bob your head until it hurts. Which, I must admit I have done, sorry neighbours! Dunes are a good old fashioned hook driven party band. It’s simply impossible not to smile and adore this record.

Out on 6th Sept 2019

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.

PILE | Green and Gray | ALBUM REVIEW

Pile | Green and Gray | Album review

Review by: Graeme J. Baty

Pile return with Green and Gray bringing a softer edge, yet retaining their distinctive alternative-rock guitar god sound. Lead singles Hair and even Bruxist Grin hint at a mellower approach but don’t be fooled there are some moments of sheer intensity that will send shivers up your spine.

Pile have managed to carve their own distinctive sound, the type that proliferated 90s alternative scene, just damn fine guitar-based music that has in recent years has fallen out of favour. It’s not unreasonable to compare them to Built To Spill, bringing elements of Shellac chaos and Jesus Lizard hooks or maybe even some Pavement. Fans of said bands will find a comfortable home with this music and also that they have discovered one of the USA’s best-kept secrets. Pile have been around since the mid-2000s and have built a following and reputation with their previous six albums.

Firewood is a slow building opener, seemingly confirming my suspicions that this might be a chilled record. Those suspicions are happily crushed on the following track; Your Performance a complex math-rock-esque stomper.

On a Bigger Screen brings pure venom and throat ripping performance from Rick Maguire and gives confirmation that the album will not be a slow plodder. This is fantastic stuff! A Labyrinth With No Center brings a lush singalong anthem that twists, distorts and delights.

The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller is another colossal vocal performance of sheer ferocity and anger at the hypocrisy of the subject matter, to the point where you can imagine his vocal cords being permanently damaged. It’s an incredible performance beautifully captured by the engineer. The mid part of the record is a riotous affair and shows them at their strongest.

No Hands brings the record full circle to a mellow close. It’s an incredibly well-written record and masterfully sequenced. They are truly the new kings of alternative rock.

Available via Bandcamp and the usual outlets with a vinyl version coming soon pile.bandcamp.com/album/green-and-gray 

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.

LUNGBUTTER | Honey | ALBUM REVIEW

Lungbutter | Honey | Album review

Lungbutter - Honey - album review
Lungbutter – Honey

Review by: Graeme J. Baty

I knew little about the band going into this review. The name grabbed my attention immediately. They have to be interesting with a name like Lungbutter right? A quick listen confirmed by suspicion. Some utterly delicious detuned guitar tones and spoken word groove of lead single Flat White appealed instantly. A slice of American alternative taking me right back to the 90s with a delightful mixture of Sleater Kinney and early period Sonic Youth, coupled with beat poet lyricism. The Montreal trio take that sound and reinvent it to something modern and thrilling. Utterly refreshing in a world of over produced cringe-worthy auto-tuned vocals. Lungbutter serve up primitive and thrilling sounds.

Bravo proves a highlight of the record with it’s catchy detuned hook that you can almost sign along to. Almost, I can confirm that you can dance to it as I am doing right now! Curtain is another standout. A one minute punk-rock  pounder.

Eleven songs in under 34 minutes gives the perfect length. Ensuring it’s not too much yet leaving you wanting more.

It’s a mighty fine debut offering some fabulous sounds that will be adored by those of us who still mourn the loss of Sonic Youth and the chasm their split has left in the alternative music world along with some deep lyrics to explore with repeated listens.

Honey is out on Constellation Records on 31st May 2019

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.