Thursday, 22 March 2012

13 / Grief split 7"

13 are one of those bands that SERIOUSLY deserve the reissue compilation treatment, or at least to be more recognised and appreciated among those who like it low and slow.
That gets said by just about anyone who writes about them these days, so if everyone is calling out for it, why the fuck hasn't it happened yet? Baffling.

The way most people who weren't there first time around (I would have been about 5 when this was released!) hear about this band is probably through their guitarist, one Liz Buckingham.
After 13 disbanded, Liz did a stint in sludge bruisers Sourvein, before joining the second incarnation of Electric Wizard after their original rhythm section left to form Ramesses.
ANYWAY, that's how I first became aware of 13, and how I came to own this excellent little slab of sludge.

I'm pretty sure this is one of the original pressings from '93, it has GRIEF-003 etched into the vinyl's center, which makes me think it's the version released by Grievance Records, but if anyone could let me know for sure, I'd appreciate it!

Since 13 are the band that I'm rather obviously ranting about, their side is up first.
'Wither' opens their side with dry, rasping feedback, before a drumfill that sounds like 45 on 33 starts the song with a very literal bang. Alicia Morgan's voice was trailblazing, there really weren't many female sludge vocalists around back then. You can barely tell her guttural, feral growl is even human, never mind determine the gender.
It's backed by a simple but effective riff which is slightly uptempo for the genre, this is more groovey than painful. Just over a minute in and it mutates into a straight-ahead chug, the drums taking a back seat to the air-pushing power of the riff.
Three minutes in things change pace again to an even more relaxed groove, variations on a theme. Listening to this and knowing the type of stuff Liz would go on to write over a decade later, you can really hear just how much influence she's had on Electric Wizard since she started playing with them. This style of playing is unmistakably her own.
The track comes to a halt with a final snare hit, and fade to fuzzed out bliss.

'Plague' starts as a bass rumble, barely audible before the driving guitar plays for a couple bars, then things really kick off with all instruments really locking in together. Alicia's ruined throat tops the whole thing off, her vocal lines following the rest of the band perfectly.
A lot of sludge, especially these days, is too loose, unconsidered, with barely any thought given to making something you can almost dance to. Which may sound like I'm missing the point of the genre, that it's meant to be taken as needed for pain exclusively. But I like songs with my sludge, something you can bang your head to more than once a minute. Personal preference, I guess, and 13 play EXACTLY the brand of roaring, buzzing aural bleach with swing and swagger that I favour.

I'm basically just rambling about how much I dig this band instead of actually 'reviewing' the record, but to hell with it, just go download it, stream it somewhere, or if you can find a copy, buy it. Hopefully if enough people express interest in them, someone will actually release that compilation I mentioned earlier. 13 deserve it.

Grief's side features only one track, 'Falling Apart', and they perfectly exemplify the insufferably-slow side of the genre. Not that I mean that as a bad thing, I love it just as much for different reasons. When I've had the worst of days, Grief play the songs that accompany those days in my head. The crawling, painful sounds giving voice to wasted hours and thoughts I wish I didn't have.

I don't have much to say about this side as I was into this record for 13's tracks. Oh, did I mention that already?

Since their releases are nigh on impossible to track down in physical formats, go grab downloads from this great, comprehensive discography write-up

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Crippled Black Phoenix - (Mankind) The Crafty Ape

For once I'm not going to delve too deeply into how I got into the band or whatever, because no-one really cares, and I have far more important things to say about this record and this band. Suffice to say I am a fan of everything Justin Greaves has turned his hand to, from the spastic powerviolence of Hard To Swallow, the inhuman, vomitous sludge of Iron Monkey, through his playing on Electric Wizard's 'We Live', his cacophonous collaboration with Sunn O)))'s Stephen O Malley, Greg Anderson and Cathedral's Lee Dorrian in Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine, through to his singular vision and most far-reaching project to date, Crippled Black Phoenix.

Okay maybe I am delving a little, but seriously, this man never fails to keep my interest no matter what he's playing. So it was with great expectation and excitment that I picked up this latest double-LP.

The first thing I want to talk about was my initial reaction.
When I saw the cover art for this album, I won't lie, I was a bit disappointed. All the previous releases have been beautifully presented in meticulously vintage designs with a very olde world feel, looking more like ancient tomes you'd find hidden in an old library, so seeing this modern, garish illustration of a guy with a dog's head was a bit of a contrast. But that's when I remembered the old saying, to never judge a book (or record for that matter) by it's cover. So I handed over my money for the music within.

The first time I heard a single note of the album I was with my girl, also a fan, and we listened through the whole thing probably with our standards set by previous albums. And again, on first impression I didn't quite get it. All the constituent elements were there, the grandiose, sweeping songs, the progressive use of unusual instrumentation, but it just didn't click with me on first listen.

A week later, and I'm packing up all my records before I leave the country indefinitely. I figure it needs another spin before it's consigned to a cardboard box for fuck knows how long. That's when it hits me. I don't know what makes this time any different, maybe I'm just in one of those moods where I'm willing to dig a little deeper, read between lines and to really listen.

This album, despite it's relative obscurity in the grand scheme of things, is subversive. Re-read the list of Greaves' previous endeavours. All of those bands and releases are working within very much underground idioms, hiding their messages beneath tortured cries and impenetrable walls of distortion. I always regard certain musical and ideological cultures as preaching to the converted to some degree. Despite my own affinity for genres like crust punk, sludge, d-beat, grind and various other forms of aural bleach, your man-on-the-street isn't going to listen to Discharge and re-think his views on the horrors of war, or hear Napalm Death and be interested enough to read the lyric sheets extolling anti-corporate sentiments. The people who listen to that music are already aware, they have their opinions and ideas, and they find affirmation in hearing it set to appropriately ugly music.

Crippled Black Phoenix are subversive. You can achieve further reach working WITHIN the system, than AGAINST it. Maybe I'm reading too much into the lyrics, which have had similar themes in every release prior to this one, and Greaves and co are just making the music they want to hear for their own enjoyment.
But it has to be more than that. They have too much to say, and working these words into something that could easily appear in Q, Classic Rock, or even NME (and that is by no means a slight, this is intelligent music, well-crafted songs played by talented musicians) reviews, features and end-of-year lists may well just expose them to people who aren't used to this perspective on the state of things. It feels like a clarion call to anyone with the ears to hear it.

There is a consistent theme of rebellion, of free thought, and of rising up against the status quo, challenging apathy and complacence. Lyrics such as "He who speaks up gets shot down. Choose to follow, choose to drown." and "Apathetic men awake to some nightmare unfolding. Don't complain. Cut and fight. For until battle comes, we're the slaves to a beat of an unchellenged drum." call to mind, at least for myself, another free-thinking man working within subversive mediums; Alan Moore. Read his most famous works, don't dare view the atrocities that are their Americanised screen adaptations, and hopefully you'll see what I'm talking about.
I'm getting off topic, but that itself is the beauty of this album. It makes you think. It makes synapses fire, creates connections in your mind, encourages you to dig a little deeper into the message.

From the lyrics to the artwork, which I initially dismissed as no good just because it was different to what I knew, everything is presented in stark terms, the messages writ large in ink, bold propaganda-esque black-on-red graphics, absolutely no concession made to ambiguity.
This is why I will never understand the modern propensity to dismiss physical product, ignore approaching artwork (both audio and visual) as a complete package. That illustration I thought so ridiculous upon first seeing it? That means something. But it's not until you dig a little deeper, read and hear the words behind it, that you'll understand just what it represents, and how significant and appropriate it is within the context of this album, this band.

I told you I had plenty to say, right? I guess at some point in this 'abum review' I should get around to talking about the music, eh?

The opening of the whole 80-minute opus is a robotic command to Use Your Anger To Creatively Destroy Your Oppressors. It sounds like Styx if they decided to adopt Orwell as the basis for lyrical content rather than pidgin-Japanese nonsense. Crashing guitar and drums follow, at a speed reminiscent of Greaves' days in Iron Monkey. The old dog has a thousand new tricks though.

Tolling bells and swooping synths start off 'The Heart Of Every Country'. Gentle, plaintive acoustic picking fades in for a couple of minutes before bright, clean guitars wring out aching melodies. It's strange to think that this could appeal to just about anyone, musically. It perfectly embodies what I said about it's subversiveness, it's accessibility allows it the possibility of radio airplay. Well, it would if there were any stations/DJs with even a shred of taste and free will. The lyrics themselves almost speak of this very idea; "To see, you must immerse yourself in common creed". The words of the wolf among sheep.

The almost-lounge louche-ness of the rhythm guitar during the verses, and liquid flow of the occaisional lead is something I enjoy despite myself. It's a far cry from what I usually listen to. I loathe guitar solos for the most part, but somehow I never get bored of Karl Demata's playing. It never feels like showing off, it's always in the service of the song. Also, there's some hammond organ in there, which anyone who's read any of my other reviews will know always does it for me. Fucking love a bit of hammond, I do!

Drum circle rhythm and vaguely eastern harmonies are the backbone of 'Get Down And Live With It', and marks the return of Daisy Chapman's vocals, a low-in-the-mix croon. Those drums rumble and drive her into the cry she lets out when singing the titular phrase before she's joined by regular (and now departed?) vocalist Joe Volk, telling you to do the same, to "get down and live with it, or shut your mouth you prick", managing to convey subtle threat without sounding brattish and immature. Kicking against the pricks who deserve kicking.
The song shifts down a gear, the drums becoming more subtle, accompanying only piano and ebow. it's like the calm after the storm.

A brief Floyd-ish interlude follows, the demented pulse of footsteps on board, the ticking of an enormous clock, the beat of a heart, and frantically tolling bells before we receive 'A Letter Concerning Dogheads'.

More of that doomed tempo and lush organ, while the words decry the authority of churches and ruling classes, exposing the myth of cynocephaly. Jazzy lead and crunchy rhythm guitars, ringing piano notes, before it all comes together in a mournful march to the end.

The closest thing the album has to a single is next, it has a video and everything, look!

You can see and hear for yourself the aesthetic I've been banging on about, the masked defiance, all wrapped in the guise of a driving, driven, 'rock song'. I don't need to talk too much about this one since you can hear it for yourself, save to say I like it. It's a bit repetitive, but not to the extend that it outstays it's welcome. Though for ideal infiltration purposes, they ought to have made it run for only 3:30...

'Born In A Hurricane' parps in with some blaring brass, which no matter what the band, is just a massive no-no for me. But I stick it out because it only happens a couple of times. Now this one DOES only last for about three-and-a-half minutes, but it's much less of a verse-chorus-verse structure. It just goes and goes, never pausing except to annoy me with those brass noises. They play through the second half of the song, and... could it be... no... it actually works?! Preposterous. So turns out I don't ENTIRELY hate the horns. Still, no more, please. The pace picks up, sounding downright FUNKY. The man who once blasted out nihilistic powerviolence beats is now jamming on funk-rock songs with horn sections. Strange, how life goes sometimes...

The second record opens with 'Release The Clowns', dual guitar strums leading to a disorientating, woozy verse. Vocal duties are once again split between Volk and Chapman. Classic guitar soloing leads (get it? christ I'm unfunny...) the track to a close.

'(What?)' is a weird little mandolin-led gypsy polka-sounding thing, Greaves occaisionally yelping 'what?' throughout for fuck knows what reason. It's like a Tom Waits session that Tom forgot to show up to. Bizarre.

'A Suggestion (Not A Very Nice One)' comes off sounding like latter-day Clutch, of all things, at least to my weird ears. Even the lyrics have that short, sharp, vague phrasing so beloved of Neil Fallon.

My writing/imagination must be getting lazy as I go on, because all I can think of are comparisons for each song. I'll try and make this the last one.
'(Dig, Bury, Deny)' sounds like the audio equivalent of the hopeless trudge across desolate wastelands that I picture every time I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Sparse, haunting, minimal, it's like tumbleweed and dry wind. It's a pallette-cleanser into the incredible 'Operation Mincemeat'.

Crippled Black Phoenix have lamented World War II before, on previous album I, Vigilante. The track there, 'Bastogne Blues', is actually very similar to this one in tempo, instrumentation and atmosphere. I hope it's a trend that continues with future releases.
The way Volk's vocals sing speculatively of The Man Who Never Was, with a low, sombre croon is just perfect. When he's joined by Belinda Kordic's multi-layered voice, the effect is just... urgh. Ridiculously good.
The piano, funeral march drum, mournful violins... it's just as good as it gets. There are horns in this song, though I cannot find a fault with even that.
Play this back to back with 'Bastogne Blues' and get me to look at photos of fallen soldiers if you ever want me to choke up.

The final side, the last twenty minutes of music is comprised of only two tracks, the instrumental 'We'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive/Faced With Complete Failure, Utter Defiance Is The Only Response'.
I actually can't describe these. I mean, I could, but really, it's gotten to the stage where if I haven't intrigued and convinced you of this album already, then you should buy it just to hear these tracks alone. The very definition of epic. Not as a lazy description the way most people use the word to describe anything and everything, these sounds truly are cinematic in scope. Please just listen for youself and give my poor typing fingers a rest.
The final seconds close out with the same motif that opened this musical statement of intent. The words scream at you from the speakers and the liner notes pictured below...

I really hope that wasn't boring to sit and suffer reading through. I just really need people to appreciate this band, to look a little deeper than 'a cool band name to appear in my library', and to fire up their brains.
This is not background music, and this is a band who are more punk than the endless Dis-clones hawking their wares on revivalist trends.

Please go buy it, download it (legally, in exchange for money, you cheap prick), go see them live, anything.
Read the lyrics, the annotated explanations of the songs, figure out for yourself the significance of the doghead, research Siats, realise the significance of Glyndwr Michael, think for yourself, but pay attention to the thoughts expressed within this album.

Buy (Mankind) The Crafty Ape from MLG

Get hold of all previous releases from Invada

And read more about Mr Greaves in this fucking brilliant interview

Rise Up And Fight.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Uzala - S/T LP

I normally don't put much stock in the opinions of other people in regard to music. It's not through any desire to seem individual, or out of any sense of elitism, fuck knows I'm far from either of those, I'd just rather make up my mind about things for myself.
But most people who are familiar with the underground heavy music scene will have heard of Grim Kim, PR tyrant, writer for both digital and print publications, merch seller, and generally awesome lifer. In her various occupations, she turns people onto new bands at every opportunity, and has been responsible for bringing several awesome bands to my attention, like Coffinworm, Wolvhammer, and now Uzala. I'm glad there are people out there who are able to turn me on to new music, who rarely steer me wrong.

Through various reviews and track streams I saw mentioned through Catharsis PR (hey bands, these things work, look, I bought a record because of one!), my attention was grabbed by phrases like 'soaring and sorrowful female vocals', 'sludgy doom with occult flavour' and 'seriously riff heavy'. Reading that it had been produced by Blake Green of fellow Boise, Idaho doomed souls Wolvserpent (read my review of their excellent 'Blood Seed' here), I was pretty much sold. It was a late, cold night in December when I sat down to give them a listen, and goddamn am I glad I did! Within a couple of tracks, I was emailing At War With False Noise to place my pre-order. It finally arrived. Here goes...

The sound of a solitary guitar creeps out of the speakers, and thus Batholith opens the first side. A second, more mournful guitar joins it soon after. It's a haunting, atmospheric sound.
With so many bands heralded as 'doom' these days, it can be hard to find the gems amongst all the boring just-crank-out-any-old-notes-slowly-through-a-fuzz-pedal-and-an-Orange-amp bullshit. So many 'doom' bands just aim for playing as slow and as loud as possible. I'm not saying I'm any authority on the subject, but no, that's not all there is to being a doom band. It's an atmosphere, a feeling, a tone, a mindset, and yet it's so open to encompassing all sorts of sounds and styles.
From the first notes of the first song, I just know that Uzala is one of the bands that gets it.

The production is perfect in it's imperfections. The notes crackling and buzzing into the air before the whole thing kicks up a gear into a faster-tempo stomp, Darcy Nutt's vocals ringing clear through the cacophany. One of the guitars takes on a proto-black metal tremolo sound, giving the faster sections an atonal, eerie edge. The sound of the full band at once is a wall of sound, the drums driving it ever onwards before it collapses abruptly into second track, The Reaping.

This one has much more of that traditional doom plod, before Darcy's voice reigns again, and there's some liberal use of wah pedal, giving the song a far more vintage Vitus sound than the first track. Goddamn, I'm trying to be analytical and descriptive, but all I really want to say is that it fucking rocks, as cliche as that sounds. I'm kind of gutted they aren't touring more, especially as I know Darcy and fellow guitarist Chad Remains (which is the best Autopsy-inspired name ever) are regulars at Tilburg's Roadburn Festival, which I'll be attending in a few weeks. Why they didn't end up on the bill is a mystery, they'd be perfect.

I'm getting distracted. The Reaping continues it's doomed psych procession before fuzzing out into the opening notes of Ice Castle. Accompanied by huge thunder-on-the-horizon cymbal splashes, that atmosphere I talked about earlier is fully present here. It's an unsettling, creeping thing, an audible sense of dread. A wailing, wah-ing guitar screams over the funeral-pace riff. It returns a few times in this track. I don't have much to say except this is fucking brilliant.

The tempo kicks up a few notches in what I think might be the next track? It's a pretty seamless transition, and with vinyl it's always hard to tell. So this may or may not be Fracture.
Vocal duties aren't always handled by Darcy, Chad also has a fearsome voice in a whole different way. It's much more of a blackened rasp, a roaring, primal thing. It's a Jekyll and Hyde effect, the controlled riff-heavy restraint of the first few tracks suddenly developing into this snarling, thunderous thing. The drums pound away, backing a real banger of a song that I'd love to spill beer everywhere to in a dark, dingey room somewhere.
The song and side fade out with an ominous cackle from Chad.

Side B opens with more necromantic growls and battering drums in, funnily enough, Wardrums. Vocals are split between the two distinct styles at various points, constrasting just how wide-ranging the dynamic of this band can be. Also, can I just say, that riff! Fuuuck. This thing has serious groove.

Plague is an epic in the truest sense of the word. Slower than anything else on the record, the sounds that emit from my speakers during this one are just... fucking great. I can't think of any more clever ways to phrase it. The guitar tone, the 1bpm drums, the soaring vocals that I read so much about, all of it. The effect is hypnotic, the kind of thing that has me swaying around in dark rooms forgetting that anyone else even exists, the notes vibrating around my skull.
This is music that has real soul, a thing so often lacking in heavy music, which can sometimes become a 'whos heavier/slower/more evil than the rest' competition. It's refreshing to hear a band just play some actual songs with actual riffs.

Gloomy Sunday closes out the album brilliantly, a cover of a song which I'm not familiar with, but Uzala make it their own with this version. It sounds perfectly suited to their tone and playing. I'm interested to check out the other versions of it, especially since the lyrics are as truely doom as they come:
'Sadly one Sunday I waited and waited
With flowers in my arms for the dream I'd created
I waited 'til dreams, like my heart, were all broken
The flowers were all dead and the words were unspoken
The grief that I knew was beyond all consoling
The beat of my heart was a bell that was tolling'

That bell that was tolling could be the same one piercing through the rain in the song that started it all. Like I said, doom as fuck. The song fades out, the needle lifts, and I'm so fucking glad I paid attention to this band.

Okay, I'm gonna sew on the patch that comes with the record onto some old tattered denim and spin it again.

You can hear this album for yourself over at Uzala's bandcamp
And order it from At War With False Noise, if there are still copies left

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Cathedral - Twylight Songs

I ended up with this record because my awesome girl surprised me with it one weekend, having picked it up for super-cheap at a metal market. I was so damn excited to hear it, so I put it on, not knowing what side I had facing up, nor what speed it should be played it. Safe to say, the moment the needle dropped and the speaker's crackled to life, the excitement kinda drained outta me...

The first side is Reaching Happiness, Touching Pain, which appears on the band's doom-as-fuck album Forest Of Equilibrium. What I failed to notice when glancing at the tracklisting is that it's the 'Autumn Jade Mix', which starts off similarly enough, with annoying trilling flutes and all, but this mix is entirely devoid of dread. The slow crawling electric guitar has been replaced by... well, nothing.
It carries on just flute before the drums crash in, accompanied by some barely-audible, not-quite-acoustic twang-y dribble of a guitar. The first time we listened to it I think we ended up rolling around laughing. This is just bad. I mean, I love Cathedral, and I appreciate their experimental streak, but by the time Lee Dorrian's croon kicks in, sounding lost without the backdrop of doom distortion, I was officially disappointed.
It carries on like this for like 8 minutes before it collapses, basically exactly the same as the album version except without the heavy, creeping guitar tracks. So it's doom metal with the very heart of all that makes it doom metal ripped out. Shit.

The B side is a cover of Sabbath's 'Solitude' which is suffixed by the words '(inebriation mix)', which should instantly set off alarm bells. Everyone knows Cathedral contributed this song to the Nativity In Black tribute album that came out in the 90s, but the version that's on this record seems to be the same music, with a VERY pissed-up vocal take from Dorrian. Words are slurred and sung off-key, and... well I just fail to see why anyone would ever want to hear this version of this song.
Owning this record is a pointless exercise in completism.

I was selling it on ebay, but that ended for far too little money. Gutted.