Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Skepticism - Alloy

This is the seventh and final installment in my overview of the Skepticism discography. I am really getting sick of typing the name Skepticism…
Obviously, all this typing Skepticism is simply in celebration of the fact that, after five year of silence, one of my favorite bands released a new album. I had no idea why I walked over to the local punk and metal store that day. I had no money, wasn’t really in the mood for anything heavy, but for some reason I went into the shop and fingered through the new release bin. There it was, Skepticism - “Alloy”, 2008, I couldn’t believe it.
“Alloy” begins with the intensely soulful lament of “The Arrival”, which is six and a half minutes of majestic folk melodies twisting and writhing around within a down-tuned monolithic tomb of sludge. Halfway through this song, Skepticism take a quick breath before exploding into one of the most emotional and evocative passages that they’ve ever written. They could not have picked a more perfect song to open this album; it perfectly heralds a new chapter of development and growth for this band. “March October” is the second piece and it is a real bone crusher. It is built around one central palm-muted powerchord, which is an interesting minimal counterpoint to the melancholy bravado of the previous piece. Massive pipe organ clusters are sounded in unison with the open guitar chord. Eventually they build up additional melodies rhythmic constructs around this simple motif. In some ways this song does seem a little anti-climactic after the glorious opening song, but soon “March October” picks up the pace a bit and leaves the chord-crunch motif in favor of more fluid passages. The third track, “Antimony” is an organ and drum fueled raging stomp; articulate melodic patterns riding on disciplined rhythmic eruptions. Skepticism has retained the same line-up since their debut album, and all members have gained tremendously in their personality and performance on these albums. There is a wise deepening to the scope of this music. The vocalist is becoming even more expressive and intimate in his delivery. If the gain on their guitar amps wasn’t turned up so loud, the music Skepticism would seem more like an electric classical chamber ensemble rather than the clean skeleton of a heavy metal band.
“The Curtain” carries on with this aged manifestation of anthemic liberation through painful doom. The fifth track, “Pendulum” is a hypnotic and lengthy endeavor that alternates clean tone verse with heavy distorted chorus-like instrumental passages; all lead by beautiful synth string sounds… did they get a mellotron? Finally, “Oars in the Dusk” ends this album; itself a progressive doom masterpiece within a masterpiece. By the coda of this song, I felt like perhaps they saved their most dynamic and accomplished composition for the finale. The cryptic organ passages sound like they could come straight from a Vierne symphony. The song only lasts six minutes, but it somehow finds its’ way through more passages and predicaments than any other song in their repertoire.
The whole song could easily be a triumphant introduction to what will hopefully become yet another chapter in the saga of Skepticism.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Skepticism - Farmakon

This is the first time I heard Skepticism. It was 2003 and I was getting curious about this “funeral doom” style I had been reading about. At first, I did not get it, but slowly this album enveloped me in its strange world. I kept having this mood that could only be satisfied by the environs of this particular album. The big difference between this album and all the other Skepticism offerings is the expressiveness of the performance and the new depths of the material. This is a lively and fully realized crystallization of everything unique about this band.
The first track is called “The Raven and the Backwards Funeral” and it is a reworking of the first song on the “Process of Farmakon” EP; though you might not even recognize it, as this version is stripped of its experimental treatments and rendered even more sophisticated and effective. Shrouded in the new developments of the band, these arrangements are filled with fluid guitar work and the most active and dynamic drumming yet. The vocalist is by far the most expressive and poetic yet.
The menacing outro of the first track features staccato pulsing on the organ, falling into silence which soon reveals a glorious, chord picking build up of the second track. Just as the build-up reaches its climax, the band explodes into the lush melodic forces of “Shred of light, pinch of endless”; which may be their most emotional songs. Sad, swaying, unforgiving devastation surrounds you, as Skepticism churn through the changes of this beast, coloring the air with synth strings and sullen distortion. The folksy strains of “Farmakon.Process” lead an ominous and epic reworking of the second track on “Process of Farmakon”

This album is a breathtaking journey that seems to go on forever, and then you realize that you have only made it about half way through and that the last three tracks are all nearly fourteen minutes long. The bluesy shoegaze stomp at the end of “Farmakon.Process” fades immediately into the ritual ambiance of the “Untitled” fourth track. The synth strings drone over minimal thunder of the tom drums as the guitarist flirts with a new set of chords to meditate on. Eventually the distortion eclipses the clean tones of the guitar, making spacey drones for a very intimate and frightening vocal passage to sit upon. This ceremony is then punctuated by loud reed organ chords and screeching vibrato synth strings. There is really no way to describe this song, other than to say it is easily the most terrifying and unusual song in the Skepticism catalog. Eventually the tribal pulse of the song degenerates into a black abyss of dark rumbles and heavy breathing. Once the ritual comes back to life, you finally get to hear this band of Finnish misanthropes really let loose. The song turns into a harrowing finale of screaming and pounding on every instrument in their arsenal. There is even a bit of humor in the witchy chorus of voices at the end. Now that they’ve got that out of their system, we snap back into the doom metal meat and potatoes. “Nowhere” is a backpedaling cycle of mystical refrains and anthemic melodies delivered in alternations between Earth-like clean-tone slowcore and crushing powerchord doom metal… for fourteen minutes and nine seconds. The highlight of this song is the illuminating qualities of the massive keyboard sounds that start to dominate the mix, about eight minutes in. The contemplative head-bobber “Nothing” closes the album, featuring an epic set of riffs, pounding rhythms, and another shadowy keyboard breakdown before driving home the final motions, heading towards another stirring coda and fading off into eternity.
This was an excellent way to be introduced to this band and it still stands as one of their finest hours. The workmanship, passion, discipline and emotion that went into this album will always seem striking and impressive to me.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Skepticism - Process of Farmakon

Beginning with what sounds like the pumping of mighty pipe organ bellows, “Process of Farmakon” introduces the latest progressions in the sound of Skepticism. Recorded in 2001, this EP is the only document of Skepticism in the five years between “Lead and Aether” and 2003’s devastating full length “Farmakon”. Already you can hear the roots of the upcoming onslaught. Skepticism sounds fuller and heavier than ever. The vocals are the most expressive they have ever been. The sounds of the organ are immense and organic sounding. The song writing is trickier and more unusual as well. They plod through dozens of changes, each time deepening the scope of this new territory. While the sonics and the vocals are much livelier, Skepticism is still working entirely within the bounds of their original formula; just making it increasingly more rich and refined. Both songs on this EP are reworked on the upcoming full length, but this EP offers the opportunity to really stretch this material out. They are mixing this material for it’s hallucinogenic properties; strange whispering, bubbling water sounds (not unlike a bong session, actually) and the mechanical sounds of the organ are brought out front in the mix. There is even a discordant organ solo halfway through the second piece, after which the bong sounds take over and fade us into silence. After an entire minute of silence, the rumbling of the tom drums starts to pick along with the soft hum of the organ; this leads to two minutes worth of ominous droning over minimal beating on the drums and then the band calmly winds down to nothing. The riffs and vocals on this EP are gripping and dramatic, the dynamics in their songwriting has brought forth a new level of tension in their music. Their growing confidence in musicianship caused them to fearlessly tread just a few steps outside of their militantly minimal murk. This is a very exciting release, not in the least because it is a seventeen minute preview of where this band is going and what is to come.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Skepticism - Lead and Aether

1998 saw the release of Skepticism’s second full length album. This record begins with a couple massive stabs from the pipe organ. This part sounds a lot like the big chords at the end of the “Ethere” EP. “The Organium” comes thundering with the usual Skepticism magic. This album is clearly a distillation of everything they have been working on since the finishing “Stormcrowfleet”. The sound and styles have all been carefully sculpted over the years. It is almost too consistent, making this album seem a little predictable after spending a long time with the preceding two EPs.

The second track offers the familiar stomp of “The March and the Stream”, this time all stripped down. There is no piano, no church bells, no whispering, but still beautiful in this simplistic rendition. “The Falls” is filled with romantic melodies, really hinting at the kinds of gorgeous progressions that are to come, including a stunning breakdown at the halfway point and another breakdown, this time featuring an acoustic guitar, just a few minutes later. “Forge” is classic hypnotic sludge, crawling along through murky and depressive riffs, and reaching towards an epic pounding climax. “_Edges_” continues at the sludge pace of its predecessor, but lines its cold drone with majestic synth lines that fill the mind with ancient landscapes and sorrowful remains.

The final track is a new version of the song “Aether”. This time it is more subdued than the first version, on the “Ethere” EP. The playing is way more lifeless and disconnected. You get the impression that maybe the guitar player is falling asleep. Soon we come to a dramatic extended synth breakdown, which is a nice break after an entire album worth of pounding doom. Of course, this breakdown only lasts a couple minutes, and then back to the death march… eventually the drums fade out leaving only guitar noise and then silence. After fifteen seconds of silence, Skepticism comes crashing back in with a powerful, mid-paced coda, only to fade back into the ether for good. Though it may be sounding a little “typical” to me, now that I am listening closely to their complete discography in chronological order, “Lead and Aether” is a great album from a brilliantly unique and singular band.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Skepticism - Aes

This EP charges right into ceremonious and hypnotic sludge riffs lead by keyboard synth strings, buzzing guitars and mind-numbing bass throb. The sound here is a touch more synthetic than on “Ethere”. Eventually piano, clean guitar strumming and whispered vocals take over and twist around for a few bars until it’s time to bring back the fuzz. This piece is quite relentless, as it is a 28 minute long song that does not let up. This band does not use a 28 minute track to showcase their more experimental side; this is just a half hour of funeral march death doom. Though this material seems a bit underdeveloped at times, there are still some impressive moments. There are gravity defying tempo changes, ever growing slower and deeper, leading us into a nightmarish chasm of colossal repetitive motion. While the guitar stays on an extended monotone crunch riff, the keyboards continue to flow through a never-ending maze of lyrical melodies. At the 10 minute mark they drop in a heavy pipe organ line that lingers for about 30 seconds and then disappears, not to be heard again. About halfway through the piece, the action deteriorates to a lifeless lumbering drone. It is almost a little tedious, until the vocals creep back in and start stirring the mood back to life. Then the keys take the lead again, building anticipation for when the guitars come crashing back in. 10 minutes later, you even get treated to some nice lead guitar soloing. On “Aes” and “Ethere”, you can really hear a band attempting to stretch out so that they may better realize and redefine their own unique style. Many of the experimental aspects of “Ethere” and the deconstructive exercises within “Aes” demonstrate the bands journey towards learning their own limits and feeling along the boundaries of their brave musical vision.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Skepticism - Ethere

In 1997, two years after their first album, Skepticism released this EP. This must be a solidification of the intent behind their “Aethe Kaear” demo from 93, both have two ten minute long tracks, followed by the song “Chorale”. The first two tracks on “Aethe Kaear” reappear in a more refined form on “Stormcrowfleet”. The first two tracks on “Ethere” will reappear on the “Lead and Aether” album, released a year later.
“Ethere” marks the first in many subtle progressions in the sound of Skepticism. Upon playing this EP, one notices a much cleaner sound than heard on “Stormcrowfleet”. You can hear the space between each instrument. The record begins with the sound of church bells, massive drum beating, synth strings and whispered vocals. After two and a half minutes of this we are treating to the heavy drone of Skepticism’s patented alien guitar tones. “The March and the Stream” is easily one of Skepticism’s first true masterpiece funeral dirges. After the first round of verses takes place, a minimal piano melody takes the lead, the guitars and vocals fade away, leaving Skepticism to sound not unlike Bohren & der Club of Gore. At the seven minute mark comes a surprise, the drums pick up the pace a bit while somehow sounding even more resonant and the guitars get into a clean toned melodic strumming groove. Of course, this all quickly leads crashing back into another verse of ugly doom. After another round of church bells the band winds down, even further, until they are completely lifeless; drawing to a close one of the finest moments in their early catalog.
“Aether” comes thundering in with epic synth string keys riding across the melancholic murk. Although the riffs are still relatively simple on this release, you are starting to hear the echoes of an emerging talent in songwriting. “Aether” also featured the unlikely appearance of an acoustic guitar, strumming the chords of the outro. This EP finishes with the organ-fueled anthem “Chorale”, which is about as close to a pop hit as Skepticism ever recorded. It is short, catchy, memorable and rousing, even.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Skepticism - Stormcrowfleet

For some reason, Finland has produced a large share of the most unique and innovative bands within the tiny and obscure world of Funeral Doom. Aside from Skepticism, other notable Finnish bands include: Thergothon, Wormphlegm, Aarni, Tyranny, Umbra Nihil, Shape of Despair, Unburied and Stabat Mater. Some bands maintain a cult approach utterly primal and noisey Metal (Wormphlegm, Stabat Mater) and some moved on to experiment with more clean, eclectic and academic approaches (Umbra Nihil, Aarni); however they all do come from a basic foundation of super slow rhythms, droning distorted guitars, dark and melancholic riffs, hypnotic atmosphere and low growling vocals.
Thergothon, Unburied and Skepticism are the root bands in this area, all coming from the early 90s dank basement death/doom scene. Unburied released two demos and then disappeared. Thergothon released only one demo and one very beautiful full length album called “Stream from the Heavens”. Skepticism released one 7” and one demo before their debut full length, “Stormcrowfleet,” came out in 1995. Skepticism just released their fourth full length (ninth release, including demos and EPs) album, “Alloy”, in 2008, making Skepticism nearly 20 years old and possibly the longest surviving band of this scene.
I first heard Skepticism when they released their third album, “Farmakon”, in 2003. At first I did not understand this music at all, even tried to sell the CD to a couple friends, but in the end I kept going back to this record until one day I was completely enamored with it. Eventually I managed to collect all of their releases (except the demo tape) and I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this band had remained very consistent over the years. Always working with depressively slowly tempos, stunning melodic guitar work, heavy pipe organs and keyboards, and the dry throat rumbling of the vocals, but it seemed that every release saw them progressively getting more comfortable within their unique and highly personal soundworld.
With “Stormcrowfleet”, Skepticism laid out their sonic manifesto that they would stay faithful to for the entire existence. Their debut 7” merely shows them playing competent death/doom sludge, but their full length album is a newly realized vision of the band. Using slower tempos than ever before and also marking the start of heavy keyboard use within their sound. The keyboards have always been a big draw for me personally. Often sounding like natural reed or pipe organs and always mixed to sound just as powerful as the guitars. On “Stormcrowfleet”, they had not yet perfected the classic pipe organ sound that they would later dwell on; most of the keyboards here are synth strings or electric organ sounds. The production on “Stormcrowfleet” is also much crustier than the rest of the Skepticism albums. You can still hear some of that death/doom rehearsal basement sound here, whereas future offerings go for a slightly cleaner and more controlled sound. Another major difference about “Stormcrowfleet” is the use of nature-inspired imagery and lyrics. After “Stormcrowfleet”, all of Skepticism’s albums look and sound like futuristic pharmaceutical products.
For many people, I can see how “Stormcrowfleet” is their favorite, the warm organic mysteries of the art and lyrics, the fuzzy underground sound of the production, the undeveloped rough edges of a visionary young band. My feeling is that Skepticism actually kept getting better and better with time (in fact, “Alloy” may turn out to be my most favorite Skepticism album yet), but if you are new to the band, this might be the perfect place to start.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Amebix - Monolith

Considering how many Amebix patches you can see on kids at any given crust punk show, you gotta wonder why more of those bands don’t sound like this. In his “Rise of Crust” article, Felix Von Havoc pointed out that bands inspired by hardcore and grindcore, like Doom or Napalm Death, should be more specifically referred to as Crustcore; while bands like Amebix and Hellbastard represent the original usage of the term Crust Punk. This makes sense, because it is apparent that bands like Amebix are way more influenced by Hellhammer, Hawkwind and Motorhead than by Discharge. At the time of hearing this album, it had been a long while since I had started losing interest in hardcore Punk; beyond jamming the occasional Black Flag or Bad Brains to kick start some fun.
When I heard “Monolith” I was totally in love right away. This was just as feral as any great Hardcore record, but with a dark atmosphere that was captivating and cinematic, the riffs were oblique and powerful drones, the rhythms were hypnotic and driving, the vocals were growled like a reckless young Lemmy, and they even had a band member named A Droid who played synth and keyboards.
There are obviously some real characters behind this music. The entire record gives you the feeling of gritting your teeth on a speeding motorcycle ride through some post-apocalyptic wasteland. Every instrument is played and mixed at epic proportions. At the front of every mix is the thundering bass and grinding vocals of The Baron. His moody songs are visionary tales of hopeless futurism mixed with fleeting images of glory through the eyes of a broken survivor. There is something terrifying about this ride.
Amebix were a controversial band, all of their albums were way too dark and heavy for the punk scene of the time; and “Monolith” was their ultimate swan song. After the “No Sanctuary” 12” EP and the full length metallic crust masterpiece “Arise”, 1987’s “Monolith” found the band making one last grasp for the perfect realization of their unique vision. Imagine if Hawkwind sounded EVIL, or if Motorhead sounded EPIC, or if Venom was twice as heavy and never corny, or if Black Sabbath was twice as fast with half as many riffs, or if Hellhammer traded in their Satanism for sci-fi biker anthems. There are actually very few traceable and obvious influences that can be accurately cited when discussing Amebix. There were a few other bands at the time, who were attempting similar mixtures of extreme metal with squatter punk, like Hellbastard, Deviated Instinct, and Sacrilege; all of whom are well worth checking out. Then there was a second wave of bands that used the Amebix template to good effect; such as Axegrinder, Apocalypse, Acrostix and Misery. More recently, quality bands like Sanctum and Stormcrow have also cited Amebix as a major influence. In the end, still there is nothing that sounds quite like the sci-fi caveman heavy metal of Amebix.

The classic Amebix logo, based on a self-portrait by Austin Osman Spare.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Wormsblood - In the Stars

Mysterious blackened stench-Metal from Wisconsin, this album collects tracks from a wide variety of sources scattered throughout the history of the band. I will use this post to attempt to explain the already long-winded history of this young band.

The story goes that Wyrdskull originally attempted a solo project, called Qliphothic Necromancies, in 2002. This project only recorded 6 songs (a total of 11 minutes worth of music), none of which has ever been released.

Fed-up with struggling to do everything alone, Wyrdskull joined forces with guitarist Apaculus, vocalist the Lung and multi-instrumentalist Crimson Maaritkitaka to form the band Battery of Ogun. Battery of Ogun recorded three original songs and one Beherit cover which were supposed to be released as a split with Wolfmangler in 2003. Eventually the Lung left the group, the remaining members changed their name to Wulfcult and canceled the scheduled split release.

As Wulfcult, the trio recorded 20 minutes worth of material and began shopping the demo to friendly labels. Just as an offer was made by Terrorwolfe Records to release this demo, Wulfcult decided to abandon this material and start over again. Apaculus left the group to pursue solo material, leaving Wyrdskull and Crimson Maaritkitaka to begin anew. The only material kept from the Wulfcult sessions, the song “Thundercall (intro)”, opens this collection.

Wyrdskull then founded the band Wormsblood and invited the Lung and Crimson Maaritkitaka to join him for an initiation ritual and free form psycho-sonic performance at the height of wintertime, January 2004. After this night of howling at the moon, the Lung moved on to many other projects and Crimson Maaritkitaka fulfilled his dream of moving into the deep north woods.

Now again, Wyrdskull was left to create this music alone. “The Grave Hill” demos were recorded in the end of Spring, 2004. Wyrdskull performed all instruments and vocals, using a few ambient segue provided by Crimson Maaritkitaka. This was released on cassette by Skullfucking Tapes (label later changed name to Cult Cassettes).

After this, Wyrdskull recorded the “Hexennacht” sessions, mostly ritual black ambient works that were the inspirations for founding the Burial Hex project (this collects “From these fields (we can see the stars)” and “Ritual of bone and horn / a houndish child arises” from these sessions). During this time, Wyrdskull also recorded the “Urfyr” cassette for Skullfucking Tapes (never re-released).

In 2005, he recorded the “Murder” sessions (from which “Ritual Use of the Athame”, “Axis of Apator”, “In the Stars” and “Tolling beyond this lunar trance” is featured on this collection).

In 2006, Wyrdskull was joined by Vragknacht the Two-Handed on drums. This duo recorded the “Odal” sessions (one track from these sessions is featured here, called “the First dim shinings (of those about to awaken)”. These sessions were to be released in their entirety on vinyl by the Mad Monk label, but nothing ever materialized.

In 2007, Wyrdskull was joined by Vragknacht the Two-Handed on drums and guitarist Russellus Halfricus, this trio recorded the “Swords Swallowing Swords” sessions; live rehearsals that produced two songs, both featured on this collection (“Siege” and “Street Jammer”).

Russellus Halfricus and Vragknacht both left the group shortly after these intense sessions, leaving Wyrdskull to record the “Inheritor” sessions alone. These sessions yielded the songs “The Marriage”, “Inheritor” and “Fyrnsidu”, all of which are release here.

In 2008, Vragknacht and Apaculus rejoined Wormsblood and recorded the “Bounds Beaten” sessions (none of which is issued on this collection). As of 2009, the group is working with a new line-up, Wyrdskull continues to take on lead vocals, keyboards and other special effects. Crimson Maaritkitaka remains a mysterious inspiration, occasionally reaching down from the northlands to help his kin in their earthly pursuits. As we gaze into the future, it seems Wormsblood may be moving into all new directions, as the band has recently been augmented by a new unnamed drummer, Vragknacht has moved his two hands over to keyboard and synth, Apaculus remains as guitarist, and rumor has it they’ve added two unnamed bass players as well. Who knows what the future will hold for this grim collective.

“In the Stars” is basically an anthology collection of all the memorable songs from over five years worth of experimentation. It was originally a self-released cdr, later reissued on cassette by Fauna Sabbat. Now it is seeing proper reissue on vinyl by the mighty Aurora Borealis label. As a supplement to this collection, Barbarian Records is releasing “Mastery of Creation Demos” CD/LP which includes “The Grave Hill” demo and the entire “Bounds Beaten” and “Odal” sessions.

WORMSBLOOD discography: (links forthcoming...)
The Grave Hill cassette / Skullfucking Tapes, 2004
Urfyr cassette / Skullfucking Tapes, 2004
In the Stars cdr / self-released, 2007
In the Stars cassette / Fauna Sabbat, 2008
In the Stars CD,LP / Aurora Borealis, 2009
Mastery of Creation CD,LP / Barbarian Records, 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Allan Holdsworth - Sand

Chopsmonkey Allan Holdsworth is one the most enigmatic musicians ever to bend a string. A long and storied career includes stints with everyone from John Stevens to Gong and Soft Machine. He was a founding member of horrific mershproggers UK and has released a series of headscratching solo albums, beginning with 1976's "Velvet Darkness" and continuing to the present day. He combines oddly constructed fusionesque riff structures with alien soloing worthy of Greg Ginn, but all covered with a nauseating production sheen calling to mind the worst Miami Vice-style excesses of the 80s and bizarrely reminiscent of the recent solo work of James Ferraro if you squint your ears tightly enough.

During the time when 1987's "Sand" was recorded, he had set aside his guitar for the most part in favor of the Synthaxe, a freaky-looking MIDI monstrosity which he insisted on using to trigger only the most quease-inducing New Age synth textures available, although his playing is far too harmonically weird to appeal to the sort of folks who might normally enjoy these kinds of sounds. One can at least be grateful that this particular album leaves off the wretched Wetton with Down's Syndrome vocals that tainted his earlier LPs.

While his oeuvre remains thoroughly indigestible, in the right state of mind it succeeds in conjuring up a cosmos all it's own, a bizarro world where Robert Fripp and Kenny G might jam out covers of Black Flag's "The Process of Weeding Out" after a long night spent nodding on cough syrup. There's a wealth of strangeness here that should prove fruitful to any and all interested in the more twistedly kitschy end of today's underground scene. Check it.

- ((KE))

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Esoteric - Epistemological Despondency

Something about trying to relax in the depth of wintertime told me to sit back and get all lost in a thick blanket of funeral doom; but there is nothing relaxing about this album.
“Epistemological Despondency” is Esoteric’s debut full length album from 1994. Esoteric do create masterful and brain-freezing sludge, but somehow they have always been able to take it much farther over the top than most any other Doom Metal band. One major factor, on this album especially (they toned it down a little bit on later efforts), is the truly hallucinogenic qualities of their sound effects. Every moment of this album is overdosed with universe-swallowing phaser and endless delay. It is obvious that these people really were taking drugs and worshiping Satan while they were recording this album.
Which is exactly why this album is not a relaxing wintertime blanket, these sounds are agitated, shaking with drug-induced tension and confusion. It is true that these kinds of “production techniques” might often lead to a sloppy mess of a record, but somehow Esoteric manage to keep it together. You can still clearly hear every instrument, and every other sonic nuance, of this horrible trip. As the journey into thee cosmos of depression wears on, you start to realize that you are quite lost. This is a 2xCD set and there are only six songs on it. Every song is merciless, mixing the heaviest psychedelic death grooves with panic-inducing vocal attacks. As you listen closer, you start to hear witchy acoustic ephemera creeping into the mix. 10 or 15 minutes into a song, they might even add a blast of spacey synthesizer. All the swimming effects and the guttural intensity of the vocals can really make you queasy after a while. This album is relentless. By the time you make it to the last song, the 26 minute long “Awaiting My Death”; you might find yourself impatiently awaiting death too.
This year Esoteric really made a mark with their 2008 album “Maniacal Vale”. It is cool to finally see this band getting some recognition, including the #10 spot on Terrorizer’s top 40 albums of 2008. Though, I have not yet listened to the entire album yet, Esoteric have always been a consistently uncompromising band. I can only assume that “Maniacal Vale”, like all of those before it, is nearly two hours of bone crushing doom; utterly saturated with completely psychotic special effects. I did get the pleasure of previewing a track from it, and I can say that it sounds like Esoteric have not changed much about their basic formula. There has certainly been an upgrade in recording quality; it is a very powerful sounding record while still retaining some of the old psychedelic murk. The riffs sound a little less groovy, but more contemplative and even a little beautiful. The decadent charm of their debut may always remain my personal favorite, but I am always excited to hear anything that this band creates.

Esoteric's website

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Beherit – H418ov21.C

“Death Doom will never die!” proclaims the insides of this strange, futuristic album. Even from the cover art, it is hard to believe that this album is by the uber-cult Finnish Black Metal band Beherit. Many of us are already familiar with their first two albums, “Oath of the Black Blood” and “Drawing Down the Moon”. “Oath of the Black Blood” was not a Beherit-authorized official release, merely a bootleg of a couple Beherit demos. This makes the epic dark science masterpiece of “Drawing Down the Moon” thee first official Beherit album; thus making 1994's “H418ov21.C” the second Beherit album with only one EP recorded in between. This is certainly not your typical sophomore release from an extreme Metal band, more like if said Metal band traveled 200 years into the future to record their follow-up effort.
There were a few hints of what was to come, like the thick cosmic atmosphere of “Drawing Down the Moon”, the space imagery on the cover of “Drawing...”, the electro pulse of the drum machine-fueled Black Metal “Messe Des Mort” EP, etc. This band had obviously made conscious steps to evolve well beyond the simple brutality of their early demos.
“H418ov21.C” reminds me of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity”. Both albums tend towards isolating basic elements in a song and break them down further into fetishistic compositions based solely on sound design and atmosphere. For example, the track called "Fish" is simply a blur of synth church bells that quickly fades into a pounding electro kick drum that plays unaccompanied for three minutes. This is pure electronic music with occasional evil vocals or whispering being the only obviously human aspects. The frightening vocals growling over some overdriven keyboards and sluggish stomping drum machines give the opening track some sense of “death doom”; however the album quickly veers into an entirely synthetic world of lifeless and icy cold nightmare industrial. Hardly an “ambient” album, in the drifting synth soundscape sense of the word, each track on this album is a unique and highly conceptual track of romantic sci-fi minimalism.
With this album, Beherit only further cemented their status as one of my personal all-time favorite bands. I love that they felt so completely free to change styles of music entirely while still keeping their old band name and logo. While no longer playing Black Metal, it is obvious that their inspirations are still coming from a dark and sinister place, but their music has somehow transcended the confines of any genre.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Aksak Maboul - Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine

Though usually lumped in with the RIO scene of the late 70s, Aksak Maboul stand out as one of the more indefinable recording artists of the era. A Belgian duo that released two albums, "Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine" is their home-grown debut from 1977.
For those unfamiliar with RIO (Rock In Opposition), it was a small group of European avant-prog bands that played several festivals together, organized by members of Henry Cow. The basic function of RIO was to act as a DIY organization involving underground artists acting entirely outside the grip of the mainstream music industry. My favorite bands from this "scene" are Univers Zero, Art Zoyd and Aksak Maboul.
The bands forming what is known as RIO do not really have a ton in common musically. It could be said that they all have an interest in mixing together a very wide range of musical influences, though what these influences are and how they are mixed together tends to vary incredibly from band to band. However, the very nature of what I can imagine to be a typical RIO band, is to be completely original, iconoclastic and indefinable. Perhaps all that these bands have in common is that they are all so individualistic that they have very little in common.
"Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine" is a full length LP loaded with 17 tracks. Most of the tracks are odd instrumental chamber rock miniatures featuring all manner of instrumentations, including primitive electronics, a drum machine, saxophones, clarinets, farfisa organ, piano, voice, plenty of percussion and much more. One of the most unique aspects of this album is the handful of songs that feature the drum machine. The sound is not far from the electronic shuffle of an early Kraftwerk experiment, or perhaps a jazzier take on the pulses of the first Harmonia record. These songs, along with the enchanting electro-tease of the opening track, make this album some kind of proto-techo discovery. The rest of the album is a steady stream of overlaping ideas and brilliant composition. It evokes everything from French lullaby, childhood dreams, futurist fantasy, Middle Eastern folk musics, surrealist Jazz, Eric Satie, Olivier Messiaen, Duke Ellington, angular fusion, Indian Classical, European folk musics, a touch of island madness and has the thin arms of European prog rock just barely holding the whole thing together. It really is impossible to describe this album accurately and I'm sure it will sound completely different to each set of ears that hear it.
Unfortunately this album is rather hard to come by, but there is a nice official CD reissue put out by Crammed Discs. I was able to obtain one from the kind folks at Wayside Music.

Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine
password: sakalli

Monday, January 5, 2009

M83 - Saturdays=Youth

After hearing this album 6 or 7 times at my place of employment (a record store, big surprise, eh?), I was struck by how fresh and exciting this music was starting to sound despite its decidedly retro stance. Looking like a John Hughes film and sounding like something straight off a vintage Creation or 4AD Records releases, this albums deals out the tracks like from a pack of trading cards featuring classic eighties artists. You will hear all your favorite sounds from the warm and fuzzing likes of The Jesus & Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine; then you will be cast off your course by a deep space siren with the introspective warmth of Kate Bush (track six even has the phrase “hounds of love” in the lyrics); and you even be given a few shots of serious dance floor justice, especially on track five which reminds me of a Derrick May/Rhythm is Rhythm production.
There are a lot of retro 80s bands cropping up these days and I have a tendency to ignore all of it. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond musical memories of growing up in the 80s (Peter Gabriel, Eurhythmics, Tears for Fears, Soft Cell, Michael Jackson, etc); but it seems very easy to dismiss outright hipster attempts to cash in on sounds and ideas that were popular over 20 years ago. After this album had properly soaked into my brain, I started to notice a couple songs that seemed to really stand out as being original. I don’t know if it is just coincidence, but it seems to be the songs that feature both male and female vocals, like “We own the sky” and “Too late.” It is with these songs that M83 seems to have distilled a perfect mixture of all their influences into something both modern and timeless.
Perhaps it is just the updated and increasingly deep layers of modern production that have helped M83 to avoid sounding like just some shallow tribute band, or maybe they have really accomplished what they set out to achieve in creating this album. Upon repeated listening, each song seems to have something uniquely compelling about it. Not sure if it will have much lasting impact on me, but where better than a blog like Mercurial Dose to write about something that could potentially be anything from a stone classic to nothing more than the flavor of the day? Either way, it’s been a really fun day holding hands at the roller rink.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Human League - Travelogue

As mentioned earlier, I recently took a new look at the pop music of the early 80s. I will use this post to explain one particular quirk that was a driving force behind this recent investigation. I first heard Kraftwerk in 1992 after buying a cassette of “The Mix”, at a mall in Florida while on family holiday. Admittedly “The Mix” is not the best intro to Kraftwerk by any means, but I did not know the difference and it was easy to become totally immersed in this strange new music. Over the years I have been on many Kraftwerk binges, but this recent phase including a thorough exploration of some of the pop music that had been directly influenced by them.
Though their lineup and sound would drastically change by the time they started having big hits in the mid-eighties, The Human League started as a straight faced, Kraftwerk worshiping, electro-future pop outfit that was nearly peerless. Today I have been listening to their second album, 1980’s “Travelogue”, which is a stone classic of stark bunker funk and electro-pop. This stuff makes you feel like you are living on the set of Blade Runner. Songs like “Toyota City” show off the League’s talents at crafting memorable floating instrumental cyber soundtracks just like the best of John Carpenter, Brian Eno or the heroic Deutsch duo themselves. Most tunes are pure pop pleasure, yet every moment is anchored in a pool of dark synthetic textures brought back from future worlds. The only human element to this music is the thin veil of catchy melodies delivered by a dreary and haunted vocalist. His words are a steady stream of modern paranoia. “...Someone wants my job, it’s someone in this building, someone is spreading rumors, I don’t feel I can stay here…”
Though “Travelogue” may be my favorite Human League album, I also highly recommend checking out their debut, 1979’s “Reproduction”. Especially if you can find the remastered editions on Caroline records (released in 2003), because they have been so kind as to add some tasty instrumental bonus tracks of the finest in pulsing, minimal bunker synth vibes.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Charles Tournemire – L’Orgue Mystique

Here is the first installment of what will likely be a reoccurring topic. My interest in the French pipe organ traditions started with hearing Olivier Messiaen’s Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle. To me, it was a shocking and strangely futuristic piece of music that was able to satisfy my aural lusts on so many levels. At the height of my fantasy was the image of Messiaen himself, perched at the helm of this amazing pipe organ, controlling the stops, hitting the buttons, and really pushing this musical beast to it's utter limits. In the 1930s, Messiaen was blowing the congregation away with his pulsing harmonic slabs of noise, radical dynamic shifts, brain-piercing and body-shaking timbral creations, wandering oddball modalities, all composed simply for the glory of God.

Obviously I needed to hear more and quickly discovered the endlessly complex sound worlds of Messiaen, Charles Tournemire, Jean Langlais, Jehan Alain, Naji Hakim, Louis Vierne, Alexandre Gilmant, Marcel Dupre, Charles-Marie Widor, and so many others. French symphonic organ music begins with two gentlemen; Astride Cavaille-Coll and Cesar Franck. Cavaille-Coll was a mad genius who combined the extremes of 19th century Science, Art and Music to design immense pipe organs that could replicate over 100 symphonic sounds and play them all at once. These organs were literally the 19th century equivalent of a modern polyphonic, multi-timbral synthesizer. Cavaille-Coll installed these monster organs into cathedrals all over the world, but his most amazing masterpieces are in France. With nearly a dozen glorious musical monuments in Paris alone.

Cesar Franck was living in France at this time and he took an interest in composing for these new symphonic organs. In 1858, he became organist at the newly-consecrated Sainte Clotilde Basilica in Paris. In 1868 Franck published Grande Piece Symphonique, a 25 minute organ symphony, igniting several generations of French organists who will go on to compose all manner of musical and symphonic innovations specifically designed for performance on this singular instrument. Franck was also an important composition and organist instructor for many of the most influential French composers, including Widor, Dupre, Vierne and Tournemire.

In 1898 Charles Tournemire took over Franck’s former chair as titular organist for Sainte Clotilde. He quickly became famous for his intense improvisations, and despite his ability to easily play any of the common church organ music of the day, he spent every service completely lost in improvisation. In 1932 Tournemire finished L’Orgue Mytique which was a massive work, covering the entire Catholic liturgical year; 51 sets (or Offices, as they are called) of five movements each, based on the Gregorian chant of the day. I can only imagine it to be one of the most exciting and ambitious musical events of the century. What would it be like, returning to Sainte Clotilde each Sunday, for an entire year, and hear every single installment of this wild music?

I have been listening to Sandro Muller’s recording of the 2nd, 17th and 48th Office; volume 14 in this cycle, released on CD by the Cybele label. This is a high quality recording given a very passionate and thoughtful reading by Muller on the “Marienorgel”, Stiftsbasilika Waldsassen. Though not a French organ or a direct student of the French organists, this disc is nonetheless a terrific example of the power of this music. Of course, it is always interesting to hear this music performed by an organist in the French lineage and performed on the organ it was written for. However, there is no reason to discount the inspired performances that this music is finally seeing from young organists around the world. Aside from Muller's cycle on Cybele, recordings of the L’Orgue Mystique are hard to come by. There were only a few releases of the cycle and most of them were expensive boxsets that are now out of print.

Though these pieces are all thoroughly composed, they still have a flowing improvisational feel to them. Tournemire’s obsessive improvisations had thoroughly influenced his composing towards the end of his life. The music is moody and often takes you from graceful beauty through queasy transitions and into uncertain terror, always somehow returning to that dark redemption in those cascading Gregorian melodies. The third movement of the 17th Office is entitled “Elevation” and it is a very tense and unusual combination of dissonant phase cycles with pure tone modulations that are similar to the electronic feedback manipulations heard in Power Electronics. The hammering bass tones and roaring drones of the low end explorations are heavier than most Sunn O))) records. Then how he can write these brilliant gestures, to take him from one end of the frequency spectrum to another is even more mind bending. All the impressive aspects of symphonic pipe organ music are here in spades, but what always stuns me the most is Tournemire’s ceaseless flow of melodic star-searching mystical improv journeys. At the climax of every Office comes a moment when you are forced to sit back in awe at just how consistently inspired Tournemire’s holy reflections are, no matter what the instrument may be.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Jan 1st, 2009 : Death In June – “Nada!”

Don’t know why I put this album on today. Some rare occurrence where I both have an impulse to listen to something totally out of context of that day’s train of thought AND actually take said impulse seriously and go grab it off the shelf. I have been through 3 or 4 Death in June phases over the years. I didn’t respond well to “Nada!” or anything about his music at first. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Douglas P and his oddball marketing and somehow kept coming back to investigate his music. Over time, I did grow to like certain albums, especially the nightmare folk collage of “All Pigs Must Die.” Eventually I grew curious about “Nada!” in particular because of the artwork. It is a beautiful b&w photo session of three young men in uniform, acting out some kind of reverent ritual in the tombs of a cemetery. I downloaded it and attempted to listen again, but still did not feel anything special about the music. It seemed imbalanced and awkward; being a confusing mix of dark new wave racket mixed with stiff folk tunes. A few years later I had the opportunity to buy a few Death In June CDs for a fair price and one of them was “Nada!” I remember thinking that, though I did not care for the music, it would be worth owning just for the artwork. Today I put in this album expecting to at least be able to analyze what I did not like about it; instead I heard something totally new about this album. How is it, that upon the forth or fifth exploration, suddenly every nuance of a piece of music can suddenly make sense. The opening track, “The Honour of Silence”, is a chilling piece of psych folk doom. This song is made up of deep vocals drenched in reverb, background choral hum-along, subtle martial drum accents, droning acoustic guitar, and a slight flamenco air to the entire proceedings. There is no seguing to prepare you for the electro-industrial stomp of the next track, “The Calling (Mk II)”. This basic pattern continues for the duration of the album, alternating between pulsing darkwave and romantic chamber folk; all perpetrated within a passionately haunted atmosphere. The young Douglas is also being much more expressive with his vocal range on this album than he would on later albums. Perhaps it is because I am listening to “Nada!” again after spending a good part of this winter reexamining the pop music of the early 80’s (was on a huge Human League/OMD/New Order binge just a month ago), but somehow this album has gone from sounding tediously amateur to strikingly innovative.

Death In June - Nada! (1985)