Archive for September, 2019

Young God / Mute 25th October 2019

Christopher Nosnibor

On receipt of the new Swans album, I posted on Facebook that I was ‘too excited to download it.’ This wasn’t sarcasm or bathos. The arrival of a new Swans album is always an event of no small magnitude, and with a certain sense of duty to deliver a review of a band I’ve revered my entire adult life comes a certain weight of responsibility to do justice. Swans have always been more than merely a band, standing as a sonic entity with almost infinite capacity to overwhelm. And they haven’t lost that.

Their last three studio albums, The Seer (2012), To Be Kind (2014) and The Glowing Man (2016) redefined epic and over their course took extended improvisational forms to a logical conclusion, each with a duration in the region of two hours.

Given the tone of Michael Gira’s statement about the end of the iteration of the band who produced these albums, Leaving Meaning brings two substantial surprises, the first being that many of the personnel from the previous incarnation remain present, and the second being the speed of its arrival. Kristof Hahn remains in the latest lineup, which also features eternal mainstay Norman Westberg – arguably as integral to the band as Gira himself – albeit only on some tracks, and Thor Harris, Phil Puleo, and Christopher Pravdica. They’re joined by an immense cast of contributors including The Necks, Baby Dee, Anna and Maria von Hausswolff, and Larry Mullins.

Leaving Meaning sees Gira take a slightly different and more openly collaborative approach to the realisation of his ideas, and it’s a more concise record in comparison to its predecessors. It’s all relative, of course, but in context, ninety-three minutes is concise.

Because of its sheer enormity, Leaving Meaning isn’t an album it’s entirely appropriate to dissect, and it’s constructed in such a way that it is very much best experienced as an album rather than dipped into. That means its effect is optimal when experienced in a single session, but that also means – as was the case to an even greater extent with its predecessors – that it requires a significant commitment of time in a time-pressured world. But then, Swans’ music has the capacity to lift the listener out of time and into another zone altogether.

The longer tracks are considerably shorter than even most off the shorter tracks on the last three albums, with the twelve-minute ‘The Nub’ being the album’s longest track.

Intro segment ‘Hums’ is appropriately-titled, consisting of just two minutes of cascading, hovering drones interwoven for create a soft ambience. ‘The Hanging Man’ revisits the nagging, dizzying cyclical bass motifs of numerous extended workouts from the last trilogy, and grinds it out for ten minutes. Anyone who’s familiar with the band’s extensive back-catalogue will be aware that this style of composition harks back to the band’s dawning and has remained a trademark of theirs, as well as Gira’s solo work. Paired with Gira’s vocal delivery, which switches from a monotone drone to a maniacal holler of elongated vowels and jabbering ululations and monosyllabic barks and yelps, it’s vintage Swans that threatens a climax around the mid-point but saves the real intensity for the finish. It’s less about volume than plain, bludgeoning repetition.

‘Amnesia’ is not the same ‘Amnesia’ as on 1992’s Love of Life. Perhaps Gira’s forgotten about it. It is, however, a brooding acoustic-led folk song. At heart. One of the things that constitutes a significant point of departure on Leaving Meaning is the return to sparser structures: gone are the immense sustained crescendos and pulverising explosions of discordant noise. There’s an altogether more mellow feel about Leaving Meaning. That said, there are orchestral and choral surges which punctuate both here and elsewhere.

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‘Sunfucker’ is another classic Swans composition built around endless repetition, and with its backing vocal chants serves as an apocalyptic counterpart to ‘I Am the Sun’ from The Great Annihilator. Tapering off to drones in the mid-section, it suddenly explodes into a stomping glam bash. It’s bewildering, unexpected, everything all at once and probably the most daring and adventurous thing Swans have recorded in their entire career.

‘The Nub’ is gloomily funeral. Ethereal, haunting, but ultimately bleak in mood; ‘Some New Things’ is mantric, looping, hypnotic, while ‘My Phantom Limb’, one of the album’s standouts, has stronger echoes of Greed-era’s tortured pounding. It sits at odds with the rest of the album, but then so much of the album sits at odds with itself it feels right in a perverse way.

So what do we take from this? More or less what we’ve take from Swans over the last thirty years: with their ever-shifting parameters but constant core focus and the creative vision of Michael Gira always the driving force, Swans never cease to evolve, but never cease to be Swans, and are immediately identifiable as Swans, however far out they go.

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Bohemian Drips – BD011 – 4th October 2019

Christopher Nosnibor

There’s not much beauty on the face of this. But it is outstanding, I’ll give it that.

The Berlin-based trio trade in a kind of angular, grungy 90s alt-rock hybrid. With Josefine Lukschy’s scratchy vocals and the off-kilter country leanings that characterise the first song, ‘Flap’, I’m reminded of Thalia Zedek’s 90s act Come, and it’s a Come / Hole / Solar Race vibe that defines this six-tracker.

You wouldn’t exactly say it’s big on tunes, but it is big on attitude, not to mention messy guitars spluttering out stop/start noise and a busy, sinewy mess of busy lead lines over some tense bass. ‘Tadpole’ brings jarring Shellac-inspired racket paired with some twisted Rage Against the machine meets

As song titles go, ‘Stuck in a Turd’ is nothing if not memorable. It brings a kind of mangled cyclical jazz groove to the fucked-up riff party ‘you’re nothing but a speck of dust!’ Lukschy spits venomously and manages not to sound comedic, which is quite an achievement.

‘I want to tear your heart out!’ she hollers as the opening line to the last song, ‘Welcoming the Awful Being’, another choppy, lurching math-tinged grunger. And it’s a killer finish, too: after some meandering, it all comes together in a climactic sustained crescendo, a space-rock workout that drives the EP to a rush of a finale.

In the tidal wave of retro and revivalism, this kind of slanted alt-rock that exploded in the late 80s and early 90s and defined what many – myself included – consider a kind of golden era when alternative broke into the mainstream and the standard and selection of noisy alternative bands was incredible, never really went away. But right now, it seems like there is more – which is most definitely a positive. Especially when that more is represented by crackers like this.

AA

Dog Dimenion Cover

Closing out a long year spent on the road, singer/songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle has revealed her final music video to accompany her 2018 album On Dark Horses. Directed by Mitch Wells (Thou) and starring the song’s muse and inspiration, Blake Armstrong, the video for ‘You Don’t Have to Cry’ is poignant and affecting and further solidifies Rundle’s place as one of music’s most dextrous minds.

Watch the video here:

4th September 2019

There are two ways of going about reviewing albums: the easy way and the hard way. The easy way is to crib to the max from the press release, paint yourself as an expert on every artist however obscure they may be, while making on-point comparisons suggested by the band and their PR. The hard way is to ignore all that, listen painstakingly and go out on a limb on your opinions based purely on instinct and past experience. The hard way is to appreciate that however much you yearn to wrote objective reviews, no-one ever responds to music in a purely objective way, and reviews which take a truly objective stance are incredibly tedious to read – and to write for that matter.

So I know nothing about Kristeen Young, and expect that the cover art doesn’t really convey much of what she or her music is about. Then again, expectations exist to be confounded, and while The SubSet isn’t about goth dressmaking, the somewhat baffling choice of image is in keeping with Young’s quirky style.

‘Less Than’ crashes in by way of a starter with everything all at once: Eastern-inspired grooves collide against electronic bleepery while her vocals allude to Kate Bush in their delivery – and that’s a defining feature as she squeaks and soars her way through the album’s ten tracks. It’s an effective style that’s well-suited to the music.

Experimentalism is a prominent factor on The SubSet, and the fact there are hit-and-miss elements are par for the course and in no way detract from the overall experience: ‘Everyday Subtraction’ begins as a rather mediocre mid-pace dance cut, but steps up the drama as Young shifts her vocals unexpectedly into full-on operatic mode, while ‘In 3rd Grade’ is a tense, driving electropop shoegaze effort that throws in nods to early Garbage (back when they were exciting), before playing out on a delicate piano and soft, subtle bass and a sudden, unexpected burst of noise. When I say ‘hit and miss’, there really isn’t much miss: it’s just that some moments are more striking and distinctive than others, and Young strikes what’s probably an appropriate balance between weird and accessible to afford herself the potential of a wider audience.

‘Pretty Twogether’ is vintage electropop with a warping twist and some extraneous noise, propelled by glitchy percussion, while ‘Marine Combo Dadd’ is a semi acappella shanty with dreamy, psychedelic overtones, and it sounds incongruous, that’s because it is: once gets the impression Kristeen Young revels in creating moments of uncanniness, of oddness that are only a fraction removed from the familiar, but far enough to sit just the little bit uncomfortably. It’s a strength she works to, and well.

If The SubSet is a wildly unpredictable affair, it’s all the better for it.

AA

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New Heavy Sounds – 11th October 2019

Christopher Nosnibor

Cold in Berlin’s evolution has followed a fairly steady but swift arc: having emerged in 2010 with the spiky attack that was Give Me Walls, Rituals of Surrender represents their fourth album. That’s a respectable work rate, and over that time they’ve remained true to their dark, post-punk gothy roots, but have become progressively slower and heavier, the guitars growing sludgier, doomier.

In musical circles, there is always a ‘new strain’ emerging, even if said strain is a revisioning of an older strain. Not so long ago, it was post-punk revivalism, then there was a vintage heavy metal return, which in turn spawned the emergence of a stoner / doom / sludge hybrid. Cold in Berlin, having crashed in on the post-punk tidal wave are now more closely aligned to another more niche strain of the latter, namely colossally heavy female-fronted bands who bring an ethereal and emotive aspect to the sludgy / stoner / heavy template. Is it lazy journalism to bracket Cold in Berlin’s latest offering alongside Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard and the last couple of albums by Chelsea Wolfe? Perhaps, but the references are at least instructive in terms of establishing a certain thread of stylistic commonality. But for every similarity, there are equal differences, and Cold in Berlin are most definitely a unique proposition in the way they balance the instrumental heft with Maya’s powerful vocals.

The album gets straight down to business with ‘The Power,’ which prefaced the arrival back in early September, accompanied by an appropriately moody, horror-hinting video. The bass and guitar grate and saw in unison over a slow tribal march. The tension builds and breaks in a landslide to a mammoth chorus.

The nine tracks on Rituals are heavy – plenty heavy – with some killer riffs. But that weight and the overloading overdrive is not at the expense of accessibility: the songs are clearly structured and benefit from strong and defined choruses.

Lyrically, the album is strewn with funereal imagery of death and decay, coffins and caskets, yet somehow manages to avoid cliché. The songs also pour anguish. ‘There is grief that tastes good in your mouth / there is grief that takes years to scrub out / There is darkness buried beneath my skin / there is darkness at the heart of everything’, Maya sings, pained, at the start of ‘Avalanche’ against a sparse sonar-like bass boom and a weeping drone of feedback before the drums and power chords come crashing in with crushing force. Can there be onomatopoeic instrumentation? If so, Cold in Berlin have mastered it, the pulverizing

The ritual aspect of surrender is never far from range: ‘You could string her up / you could string her up her body’s a temple for your love’ Maya sings commandingly on ‘Temples’ against a thunderous grind of heavily distorted guitars. Elsewhere, ‘Monsters’ is tense, intense, and grand, drama radiating from every note, and Rituals of Surrender is outstanding in its consistency.

Blending hefty riffology with full-lunged brooding, Rituals of Surrender sees Cold in Berlin occupy the space between doom and goth, emerging like Sabbath fronted by Siouxsie. And they do it so well: this could well be their definitive album.

AA

Cold in Beerlin - Rituals