A Dusted Review: String Studies by Deas (January 27th, 2015)

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Luke Younger’s Alter label is aptly named, given the way releases he puts out tend to manipulate and transform the very foundations of the music genres they approach. Take Basic House’s Oats, from 2013, an album with a title evoking Basic Channel and dance music but the music on which was traversed by tense industrial drones, gristly textures and an overarching atmosphere of unease. Dance music for people with a queasy stomach, maybe. Younger’s music as Helm also straddles genres, taking ambient and drone and flipping them over to reveal a noisier undercurrent upset by samples and found sounds that evoke decaying landscapes and shadowy back alleys. And so it is with String Studies, a rare foray on record into electronics by Robbie Basho-inspired guitarist Cameron Deas (apparently his real name), an album that bears few traces of the Englishman’s instrument of choice, even as it forms the basis of these eight tracks.

String Studies is a tricky work to define, but I suppose it sits most accurately in the electronic category known as “glitch”, made famous by alva noto and Ryoji Ikeda on Raster-Noton. All eight tracks are dominated by sheets of scabrous, high-pitched electronic crackles, as if Deas has managed to amplify the internal sounds of a broken computer as it tries vainly to run through its programmes. Like all glitch, this is not easy music to digest, the polar opposite of easy listening, but where so much of the genre seems to these ears a bit sterile, there is something lurking under the layers of mulch on String Studies that encourages, and the rewards, repeat listens.

This is almost certainly down to the source material. Deas uses samples of his 12-string acoustic guitar as the basis for each composition, filtering them through a modular system to produce what are, under the circumstances, astonishing results. The temptation is to try and strain through the gristle and crunches to try and piece together the pieces’ origins in the acoustic world, and indeed at times this bears fruit. On the second track, for example, what sounds like a solitary chord is amplified and laden with echo, its cavernous resonance piercing Deas’ synthetic textures like a tolling bell. At times, rather than guitar strings, the source sounds come across as piano notes extended and reverbed, which is a remarkable transformation and one that acts as a curveball against unhelpful expectations. Consciously or not, the listener is compelled to create his or her own sources for the sounds heard under the electronics, and it’s a measure of Deas’ control that these half-grasped intimations are often contradictory and varied, especially when one considers the minimalism of his set up.

However, it’s better to draw away from the fine details and allow Deas’ music to unfurl as a whole rather than a sum of parts. Essentially, and despite a certain resemblance to Sun Ra’s Strange Strings that, I kid you not, goes beyond a similarity of title, String Studies is a sort of glitchy noise album, with the kind of massed textures that define the works of The Rita or Younger’s Helm project, albeit in a completely different style. At times, submerged by the onslaught of crippled tones, it seems that disembodied and not particularly friendly voices are calling out from beyond the scratchy ether Deas creates, at others he seems to embrace a caustic form of minimalism. String Studies is cold and abrasive, but it’s not inhuman. You just need to embrace it to find the depths Deas plays with.

A Quietus Review: The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? by Nazoranai (December 12th, 2014)

It feels weird writing this about a record that has Keiji Haino on it, but it sounds like all involved in making The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? were having one heck of a ball in the process. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s the vibe you get. And why not? After all, all three of Haino, Oren Ambarchi (on drums here) and Stephen O’Malley (of Sunn O))) fame – here on bass) have done more than their share for the cause of serious experimental rock music (and beyond), so fair dues to them if Nazoranai has become their way of letting their hair down (OK, Keiji Haino’s hair is always down, so that’s a shit metaphor). These are three amazing musicians, but there’s no hiding from the fact that The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? has a silly title and is essentially made up of four unending jams that could have been made by three drug-fuelled hippies getting off on hearing Blue Cheer for the first time. Three hugely talented hippies, I’ll grant you, but they’re still having a laugh.

In many ways, it should come as no surprise to find that Keiji Haino likes a bit of fun as much as the next man, and indeed at every one of the multitude of gigs I’ve seen him perform, I’ve been straining my eyes to spot an indiscreet sardonic smile creep to his lips. Here’s a diminutive 62-year-old man with waist-length grey hair plugging away at his indefatigable muse with nary a regard for trends or even previous musical history. After forty-odd years of it, he must be either mad, a joker or a visionary, and maybe, just maybe The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? proves he’s all three. After all, this isn’t the first album the man’s been involved with to sport ridiculous album and track titles, and I don’t think one can solely put that down to something being lost in translation. When it comes to Nazoranai, they read like cheeky haikus, and The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? certainly abounds with the sort of opaque mystery and brutal musical deconstruction-cum-poetry that has defined the best (read: most serious) of Haino, O’Malley and Ambarchi’s work. Second track ‘Will Not Follow Your  Hoax Called History’ features a slovenly groove and some truly morose soloing on guitar from Haino, whilst elsewhere he hops from his axe to air synths, always producing similar vats of molten feedback. Rest assured, even if this is a bit of a “fun” album, fans of Haino’s singular form of non-rock mayhem will get all their requisite hits.

In fact, in many ways, The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? shares some similarities with the work of Haino’s other trio featuring Ambarchi, as part of which they are joined by Jim O’Rourke. It’s just that here, with O’Malley bringing his particular brand of monomaniacal doom worship as opposed to O’Rourke’s instrumental dexterity, the accent is on heaviness and volume rather than pushing the boundaries much. Effectively, this is a power trio, nothing less and little more, and for all that these three love a bit of improvisation and noise, you can hear the history of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Blue Cheer, Cream, Sleep and Grand Funk Railroad pulsating through these four tracks. And I think there are very few rock fans out there, especially of the harder variety, who haven’t at some point dreamed of being in a power trio. There’s something about the limited format that has consistently led to the most stripped-down, over-amped and gloriously plodding rock & roll you’ll ever hear, even as today technology allows duos and even solo acts to get in on similar action.

So, no, The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? is not a key release by any of these three dudes. But it’s heavy like Mainliner is heavy, Ambarchi’s drumming is like a whirlwind of cymbal crashes and Haino’s guitar could carve boulders out of mountains. It’s a fun slab of obnoxious rock-gone-mad, and sometimes that’s all you need of an evening.

A Dusted Review: Draconis by Skullflower (October 30th, 2014)

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Listening to the music of Skullflower is a psychedelic experience in the same way that staring at a blank wall or ceiling in the dark whilst on acid, drunk out of your skull and/or high on grass (delete as applicable) can be. It’s as overbearing and unwavering as the open-ended violin drone compositions of Tony Conrad or the blasted walls of sound spat out by the likes of Vomir or the Rita. It’s proof that a full-on sonic assault can, in the right context, be as blissful and, I’ll say it again, psychedelic as the tripped-out musings of a Grateful Dead or Amon Düül II. It just takes more patience and a willingness to enter into labyrinthine minds of Matt Bower and Samantha Davies. Bower, in particular, has been ploughing this arcane, extreme furrow for the best part of 30 years, gradually honing it until he’s reached something approaching “tantric noise,” like Pärson Sound with the acoustic circular melodies replaced by unending acidic mechanical bile.

For Draconis, the duo returns to the absolutist vein of 2006’s Tribulation and Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament from four years later: this latest album, is impossibly long. The tracks bleed into one another like melting glaciers and the primitive song structures of 2011’s superlative Fucked on a Pile of Corpses are whittled away by saturation and excruciating volume. But compared to those two releases, Skullflower have been given (or gave themselves) license to flesh things out a bit, notably via the lush packaging. The album comes in a six-panel double-digipack, complete with a 16-page booklet overflowing with lush illustrations and bizarre photographs that both detail Draconis’ thematic concerns and deepen the mystery.

Bower has long had a fascination with arcana and mythological lore, although his focus is, as ever, enigmatic. The paintings that adorn these pages are abstract yet sinister, with vivid colours and strangely animalistic shapes creating an unerring sense of moody drama, as if we’re gazing at ancient humankind’s primitive attempts to recreate the legends of the earth’s creation or the epic battles of Norse mythology. Obscure symbols crop up here and there, whilst sketches and texts evoke trees, dragons and pyramids under the stars, drawing lines in myth and science from the north of England to Bhutan via ancient Egypt and the Hindu goddess Kali. Keeping things as vague and mysterious as possible only accentuates the album’s heady form of lyrical psychedelia. I cannot pretend to understand Bower and Davies’ vision, for I do not have their knowledge or imagination, but it sucks you in like a tornado, because you can’t help but try to figure it out.

“Tornado” is also a great metaphor for the music on Draconis. Each track on disc one is a veritable maelstrom of noise with extensive layer of “strings” (live they focus on guitar and violin, but sometimes I swear I can hear synths on Draconis, albeit bludgeoned into abstraction by effects) superimposed and swirling around one another like gales of wind blowing in every direction at once. Disc two is slightly more nuanced, from the two-minute opener “Alien Awakening” (there are aliens in here as well!) that sounds like Keiji Haino recorded in a wind tunnel mid-solo to the epic musical tapestry of 15-minute closer “Dakshinikalika” via “Dresden Spires”’ crumbling blocks of industrial crunch.

These are some of the most epic and evocative tracks ever released by Skullflower: huge slabs of metaphysical noise with the awe-inspiring primeval-ness of ancient stone circles, ice-capped mountains or ruined industrial buildings. In translating nature’s mystery and majesty into noise, Skullflower have thrown a curveball into the genre’s progression, taking out of sweaty club spaces and into somewhere more spectral, contemplative and, yet again, psychedelic. It’s no wonder the band mention Popol Vuh on the label’s website.

But should anyone reading this be tempted to regard Bower and Davies as little more than two slightly unhinged hippies with a taste for noise and post-pagan mumbo-jumbo, I urge you to check out their back catalogue and anything else you can find on them. There’s a vein of sly, sardonic humour that runs through their entire work (encapsulated here by a picture of their cat looking bemused in the booklet), whilst all this sturm-und-drang conceals first and foremost a deep sense of humanity: our past, our present, our future, our emotions and our fears.

It’s hard to tell if this hour and fifteen minutes of noise and drone is a definitive Skullflower statement, but it does what all great music must: it throws open the doors of possibility, asks more questions than it answers, and aims for something beyond the mundanities of reality.

A Dusted Review: This World Is Not My Home by Kleistwahr (October 15th, 2014)

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This is going to sound much more disparaging than intended, but the music of Gary Mundy’s Kleistwahr can literally shift a hangover. But I swear on it as a cure for next day alco-flu. A few years back, Mundy (as Kleistwahr) was the first act on the third day of a Festival celebrating the legacy of his influential and much-missed Broken Flag label. The previous night’s back-to-back onslaught of Matt Bower’s Black Sunroof! and Consumer Electronics had been visceral, not just because of the harsh music they threw at the audience, but also because I’d rather unwisely downed what felt like six gallons of beer along the way. It was therefore with painful skull and some trepidation that I approached the stage for Mundy’s solo set, knowing the man’s predilection for high volume.

But instead of making my head pound more, the sonic waterfall he unleashed swept my brain clear, leaving me light-headed, alert and gasping for more. Mundy is capable of similar feats of intensity as one half (or occasionally a third or fifth) of his most famous act, Ramleh, and maybe it was the after-effects of the previous night’s over-indulgence, but on that afternoon, noise had never felt so beautiful to me.

I’ve been desperate for a new Kleistwahr album ever since. 2007’s The Return (Outer Bounds of Sound) was an excellent record, but failed to replicate the emotional and physical catharsis that Mundy provides in a live setting. This World Is Not My Home, which comes delightfully wrapped in a sleeve aping classic Broken Flag releases, feels like a concert recording, 39 uninterrupted minutes of blasted noise, subsumed melodies and aching drone. Armed with a gaggle of his trusty effects pedals, an electric guitar and a primitive synthesizer, Mundy builds up a noise suite of endlessly shifting tempos and form, each phase gracefully bleeding into the next. As if recorded live, This World Is Not My Home seems to kick in mid-way through a drifting guitar solo, with Mundy displaying his dexterity on that instrument via a pained, sweeping motif that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album. Very quickly, however, the noise kicks in, with gritty wall noise vomiting over a sinister vocal sample. At times, with both guitar and noise generators, the saturation reaches a feverish level, straining the very extremes of pitch and timbre.

As brutal and harsh as Kleistwahr can be, however, there is more to This World Is Not My Home than just power electronics. I’ve already mentioned Mundy’s talent as a musician, but more important is his humanity. He probably won’t thank me for writing this, but his approach is atypically sensitive for a genre that relies more often on misanthropy and aggression. In an interview I did with him and his alter ego in Ramleh, Anthony diFranco, Mundy explained to me that the lyrics on their most recent (and astounding) Malediction album include the line “Please forgive me” repeated over and over, like a despairing, self-flagellating mantra.

For all the throbbing gristle and shades of darkness on This World Is Not My Home, its principal feeling is one of melancholy, its title hinting at the despair of someone who feels he doesn’t belong in the world. The album is the expression of Mundy’s attempts to find his space, and as the track draws to a close on a sea of wailing feedback and his inchoate vocalisations, one is assailed by an acute sense of loss, mournfulness and, deep within these static grooves­– hope. This World Is Not My Home is the most emotionally affecting noise album I’ve ever heard, and is therefore somehow positively reassuring, despite the gloom.

It reminds me why I was so impatient for it to see the light of day, and in its dying moments, as Mundy’s voice reaches for a naked emotionality, it becomes hard to stem the tears. That’s not what a noise album is supposed to do to you, but then, as this album makes abundantly clear, there isn’t another noise artist like Gary Mundy.

A Dusted Review: I Shall Die Here by The Body (August 15th, 2014)

I Shall Die Here sits at the confluence of different genres without ever sounding confused, incoherent or ill-defined. Quite the opposite in fact: these six tracks are as solid as a boulder slamming relentlessly towards you down a mountain side. I Shall Die Here is, put simply, the most brutal and unforgiving album released in many a year, one whose sheer extremism even puts most black metal to shame.

And it is a metal album at heart, but drummer Lee Buford and singer/guitarist Chip King made the bold move to pitch their traditional-sounding heavy doom into a black hole of new found textures, turning in the process to The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic. On paper, the two-piece’s taut riffage and plodding drums might not have lent themselves to Krlic’s more subtle, shadowy and echo-laden world, but by working so closely in tandem (it is generally hard to tell whose input one is hearing at any given time, beyond the drums, vocals and guitar), the result is a spectral nightmare vista where The Body’s metal is opened up from the inside and spread outwards, the resultant spaces filled with murky textures and morose electronic drones.

It’s a bit of a cliché for doom metal bands to ladle on misanthropy and despair like custard over an apple pie, but few do it as well as The Body. The album and track titles all allude to pain and misery: “To Carry the Seeds of Death Within Me,” “Alone All the Way,” “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain,” but the duo (and Krlic) resist the temptation to just hurl anguished screams and overdriven riffs at their listeners, instead exploiting the sense of emptiness and desolation that has become the hallmark of much of the post-dubstep electronic scene, from Logos and Wen’s urban dystopias to Krlic’s own oppressive electronica.

“To Carry the Seeds of Death Within Me,” for example, opens the album with a distorted scream (I can’t tell if it’s electronic feedback or a heavily manipulated vocal, but either way, it’s unsettling) and monolithic, repetitive drum crashes from Buford. The use of repetition locks the band and the listener into an oppressive cycle, enhancing the sense of unease as mauled guitar sub-riffs and incoherent vocalisations by King join the fray. The track builds up, but also ebbs and flows, with Krlic’s shimmering electronics upsetting the rhythmic forward motion and incremental voume increase, destabilising any sense of familiarity as full-on metal makes way for echo-laden near-silence and metronomic electro beats. It’s disorientating, and all the more emotionally potent for it, especially when a last choked scream from King segues into the muted sampled voice on “Alone All the Way.”

On the face of it, “Alone All the Way” is a more “traditional” metal salvo, but again, the rhythm is constantly shifting, and King’s voice is little more than a distorted shriek, all meaning lost to the winds. Buford really shines, as another quasi-dubstep middle section makes way for a rolling martial drum-beat that sounds like it could have featured on an Oneida or Boredoms record. It’s almost psychedelic, or even funky, and another sign that nothing is as it seems on I Shall Die Here. “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain” is another highlight, with gristly electronics and hypnotic beats combating with King’s murderous howl, the track slowly building into a full-on conflagration where noise, industrial and shades of mutated techno collide into a furious maelstrom of sound. I feel a bit too much has been made of the “noise” aspect of The Body and I Shall Die Here, but “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain” certainly sounds like something you’d hear on a Cold Spring release.

I Shall Die Here is not an easy record to get through, and its unrelenting fury and horror will be too much for many. Chip King’s screams can also grate at times, although he mixes things up nicely as the album progresses. But for those with a strong constitution, I Shall Die Here is a reminder that metal needn’t be restricted by the conventions laid down over the past four decades, that it’s a genre that, when opened up and broken down into individual parts offers a wealth of experimental possibilities. In The Body’s case, they’ve used Bobby Krlic’s influence to project a world of darkness and death, and all power to them because, in doing so, they’ve created one of the most haunting and terrifying metal albums since the legendary Khanate broke up.

A Quietus Review: Delta by Mai Mai Mai (June 9th, 2014)

Delta is one of those albums that feels like it has emerged, fully-formed and wonderfully weird, from a parallel universe or sickly secret society that we’ve never heard of but always suspected might be lying underneath our own. In reality, this mysterious world is the multi-faceted musical underground of Italian capital Rome, for which Toni Cutrone is one of the foremost poster boys as Mai Mai Mai and in noisy, psychedelic bands like Hiroshima Rocks Around, not to mention through his work as a venue owner, label boss and organiser of the Thalassa festival in the Eternal City. It makes sense, therefore, that Rome seems to inhabit Delta, an album that is as busy as its home city, and just as enigmatic.

More specifically than Rome as a whole, it’s the working class, socially and ethnically diverse district of Roma Est, the setting for many an iconic Italian film, that informs much of the capital’s underground scene, but Mai Mai Mai’s music feels more outward-looking. Cutrone is a well-travelled individual, born on an island in the Aegean sea, and, of course, the title itself hints at the other historical giant of the Mediterranean, Greece. Delta stretches back and forwards through time, reaching into the past to toy with Cutrone’s memories and the wider scope of history, before re-imagining these capsules of the past in a muddled, genre-less present and future. The memories are suggested by field recordings garnered from around the Mediterranean, echoing Cutrone’s childhood spent following his parents from country to country and dissolving distinct references into a pool of combined sound worlds. Instantly, the UK “hauntology” scene of Demdike Stare and others springs to mind, but there is a playfulness behind Mai Mai Mai that many a British act seem to lack. Tracks bubble with wobbly analogue synthesiser lines and drones, consistently disturbed and unsettled by bursts of gristly noise. Beats are dropped casually into tracks, deployed sparingly but with subtle rhythmic force. Delta feels alchemical, a smartly distilled collection of sounds brewed together into a heady cocktail of genre-less, arrhythmic post-everything.

There are nonetheless certain references points that emerge as signposts across the four tracks that make up the album. Second track ‘Βυζάντιον’ is a listless slice of electro/noise/drone, all moody sci-fi synths and muted post-dubstep micro-beats, but the presence of a Christian choir in the background unsettles the track’s dynamic, injecting a pall of unease. Italy is a country dominated by Catholicism, but Cutrone draws a curious parallel between the established church and an inchoate form of paganism, as if the churches of Italy had all been built on the smouldering ashes of wicker men. Equally, the sound lexicon of Italian giallo and gothic horror is forever close toDelta‘s shifting surface, imbuing the album with a distinct sense of unease and threat, and the Catholic references only seem to enhance this, echoing Goblin’s soundtrack for Dario Argento’s baroque masterpiece Suspiria. Elsewhere, modernity and the past collide viciously on ‘τετρακτύς’, which sounds like early Cabaret Voltaire recorded in an abandoned Fiat factory.

At 29 minutes, Delta doesn’t really deserve to be called an album, but Cutrone deserves admiration for how much he crams into such a short space of time, preventing the listener from ever locking the record into the straightjackets of genre and influence. Cutrone emerges as a wholly individual character, similar to the likes of Failing Light, Hacker Farm or 1612 Underture, but equally completely different. Delta is a weird object, and unlike anything else you are likely to hear in 2014. I can’t wait to hear what happens when he stretches things out a bit

A Quietus Review: Altamont Rising by Shift (June 5th, 2014)

 

As Paul Hegarty noted in his marvellous book Noise/Music: A History, noise is defined by what it’s not: it’s not melodic, it’s not song-based, it’s not accessible. It’s meant to be hard to listen to. Thing is, though, if you go to a noise gig in some backroom of a pub, fans like me might be being challenged, but we’re fucking loving it, and audiences rapidly transform into moshing hordes of delighted head-bangers, regardless of how abrasive or loud the music is. Meanwhile, textures from noise have percolated their way into more mainstream genres, from dub-pop to dance music. So, in 2014, can noise still make a listener feel uneasy or prone to declaring “this is not music”?

I don’t know the answer, although my Vomir records tend to make my friends roll their eyes or scream at me to turn the stereo off, so maybe it’s down to personal taste rather than something inherent to noise. Whatever the case, Altamont Rising by Swedish noise-head Shift is certainly a troubling listen, and a sharp reminder of the visceral potency of harsh noise. As the title suggests, Willford takes the tragedy at the 1969 Altamont festival – where a black teenager, Meredith Hunter, was killed by Hell’s Angels during the Rolling Stones’ set – as a starting point to explore dark and sinister themes. Also plundered are two films, Apocalypse Now and Valhalla Rising, and Shift uses these three topics to misanthropically take up position against humankind’s fractious relationship with nature, clearly concluding that homo sapiens is, in general, a pretty crap species. Fair point, but, as so often with noise, any clear position is hard to pin down, drowned in waves of crashing noise, with only snippets of brutal sampled movie dialogue or re-worked Stones’ lyrics indicating where Shift stands, albeit obliquely. Such ambivalence is typical for noise and power electronics, and will do nothing to dispel the long-standing debate about how the genres lead to or allow the expression of far right political views. I don’t know where Shift stands on such matters, and in such circumstances it’s better to leave interpretation behind and focus on the music.

In Shift’s case, it’s pretty simple: Altamont Rising is a gnarly beast of pure harsh noise that somehow feels refreshing in 2014, even if it breaks no new ground. After so much genre cross-pollination in noise, getting assaulted by a full-on blast of saturated electronics and gut-shaking sub-bass feels like a release, a return to basics done well, in the grand tradition of Whitehouse, Merzbow (circa Venereology) and The Cherry Point. The aforementioned sampled dialogue (notably grisly when taken from the violent viking film Valhalla Rising), deployed on ‘The Raptors Talons Tore At Their Flesh’ and ‘Rising’ are buried under waves of garbled harsh tones and ever-shifting drones, whilst Shift’s own vocalising is a hideous, incomprehensible shriek of the kind you’d expect on a black metal album.

On ‘They Don’t Suffer Enough’, the vacillating bursts of noise develop a kind of propulsive forward momentum, the shifts building up like ruptured backbeats overdriven in an apocalyptic harsh techno set performed at the end of the world. The album’s apex is ‘Shelter’, on which, over the sound of the Altamont crowd’s chaotic terror, Shift howls the iconic lyrics of the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’, “Rape! Murder! It’s just a kiss away,” like a demented sanatorium inmate. If there’s nothing new or particularly edifying about Altamont Rising, it fills the noise brief of being difficult to enjoy and standing at the antithesis of what music was traditionally meant to represent. In the somewhat aimless world that is the noise underground in 2014, it feels almost like a call to arms.

A Dusted Review: To Be Kind by Swans (May 15th, 2014)

Three full studio albums into their reinvigorated latest phase, and Swans’ ability to surprise remains as potent as ever  To Be Kind might just be the most startling and uncompromising of the trio, although these qualities take time to unveil themselves.

The first three tracks sound almost a mile away from the up-front claustrophobic density of predecessor The Seer; they are built around more conventional rock idioms. Opener “Screen Shot” is a moody rocker driven by a repeated bass line, slow-building rhythmic crescendos and Michael Gira’s mantra-like, often one-word, lyrics. It’s deceptively simple, and not a huge leap from the kind of traditional, slightly gothic, alt-rock that dominates a lot the indie airwaves, although it preserves a lot of that strange ingredient that makes Swans so unique. For this jaded ex-rock fan, for whom Swans have long been one of the few remaining ties I have to the music I grew up on but have since left behind in favour of jazz, metal and the avant-garde, the first twenty-five minutes of To Be Kind had me nonplussed, but I of course should have known it would never a simple task to approach this album.

Swans don’t do convention, even in the frame of their own music, and this version of the band is surely the most musically flexible yet.

The overt rock influences (there’s a hint of Jesus Lizard here and there, and a fair bit of sludge metal at times) might have something to do with the Texas studio where To Be Kind was recorded, but probably mostly serves as a reminder that adjectives like “intense,” “loud” and “brutal” only paint part of the Swans picture. Indeed, not only can Michael Gira display a more mellow side both solo and with Angels of Light, but percussionist/drummer Thor Harris is also a member of moody alt-country outfit Shearwater. And to imagine that this fertile territory would not be allowed to creep into the Swans sound is naive.

Where The Seer was overpowering and mighty from the beginning, several tracks onTo Be Kind are punctuated by wide spaces and almost stripped-down arrangements. Gira, of course, burns with the same fitful fire as ever, as displayed by the psychotic delivery on “Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett),” responded to by sinister chuckles and laughs from the other musicians, or the hysterical shrieks of “Your name is fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” on “She Loves Us.” Even when Gira injects some oxygen into Swans’ broiling miasma, the listener is never let off the hook.

This is increasingly obvious as the album advances. By the time the thirty-four minute maelstrom that is “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” reaches its midway point, it’s as if one has descended into an infernal, sun-blinded desert realm of pain and angst. In what may perhaps be the best sonic metaphor for Swans’ barely restrained fury, the sound of stamping and snorting horses emerges from the seething tides of feedback and drone, before the track pitches back into its roiling tornado of sound.

“She Loves Us” is no less ferocious, a quiet beginning giving way to an almost free-form barrage of competing instruments played at full throttle, rendered even more unstable by Gira’s unhinged vocalizations. “Kirsten Supine” is more nuanced, at times even quiet, but still sees Swans go for the jugular with repetitive percussive crashes over Godspeed-esque open-ended guitar solos and sinister roars and snarls in the background. “Nathalie Neal” may open with delicate chimes and mandolin sounds, but before long an insistent, motorik backbeat has kicked in and the guitars are fizzing and seething back and forth across the sonic spectrum, building into one of those crescendos of noise, light, darkness and beauty that only Gira seems to know how to do so perfectly. For music so loud, To Be Kind is fucking hypnotic.

The point, essentially, is that even when it sounds like Swans may be going down a more traditional route, with clear influences from the back catalogue of rock history, to assume so would be to chase the reddest of herrings. To Be Kind, precisely because it is so deceptive and is controlled by musicians of such superlative talent, is quite possibly even more assertive and imperial than The Seer, which is saying a lot. It’s scary to imagine where this band could go from here. Scary and thrilling.

A Dusted Review: Teenage Tapes by D. Edwards (March 24th, 2014)

Delroy Edwards is best known for his seductive yet stripped-down house concoctions for labels such as L.I.E.S. and L.A. Club Resource. You won’t hear much of that on Teenage Tapes, his debut “album” which sees the light on the aptly-named (and Boomkat-affiliated) Death of Rave. Connoisseurs of Edwards’ music have always known that there was more to him than a desire to get bottoms shaking on the dance floor, but surely even that awareness will do little to prepare for the gnarly sounds that bubble out of these two sides of vinyl.

First things first — the fact that this record is being promoted as an album is beyond ridiculous and tantamount to mockery of anyone who actually gives a shazam about what the word “album” means. Clocking in at a miserly 29 minutes, Teenage Tapesis, and I cannot be too emphatic about this, NOT an album. It’s an EP, or at best a mini-album, and to advertise it as anything else, given the price of vinyl, is little more than contemptuous on The Death of Rave’s part. Rant over.

It’s all the more of a shame, because Edwards’ bedroom experiments have a lot going for them, but are immediately hamstrung by perceptions. As limited as the music on Teenage Tapes is, Edwards still comes across as an adolescent ingenue, drinking in a wealth of styles and refracting them through the prism of his bedroom window. With a bit more time to absorb these refractions, one might have been able to find hidden layers of meaning.

On an album of such a short running time, however, the standouts were bound to be the long ones, especially when Edwards cracks out the drum machine and indulges in what he’s perhaps best at: beats. The third track (they’re all untitled), marries grim synthetic noise with juddering beats, halfway between William Bennet’s Cut Hands project and the dance floor. The closer, “Untitled 8” I guess, has a jerky bass pulse that’s straight out of the UK post-punk scene, whilst the sixth track sounds like a minimal techno exercise, only shorter.

The other, shorter, sketches ping between moody ambience and gristly noise, with the fifth track sounding as headily brutal as a Werewolf Jerusalem CD, only — once again — shorter.

I’m reminded of the two archival releases by erstwhile Skullflower guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn, both released this year. Like Teenage Tapes, they collate the archival works of a noted underground player, recorded when said individual was barely out of short trousers. But where Eaten Away By Shadows and Drained of Connotationdisplay a prescience and innovative spirit way beyond Jaworzyn’s age of the time,Teenage Tapes often feels unfinished or stunted.

I’m sure a great many musical wannabe has, in his or her spare time, dabbled with arcane synths and random noise generators. Stefan Jaworzyn shows how potent this naive experimentation can be. But, more often than not, such exercises are best consigned to memory, which is something Delroy Edwards probably should have born in mind when he stumbled across these teenage tapes.

I’m not saying these are bad sounds, no matter how ridiculous Death of Rave have been in selling Teenage Tapes as an album, but one has to wonder what point is served by presenting them to the world.

A Dusted Review: From All Purity by Indian (February 5th 2014)

It seems that the most frequent conversational leitmotif of the past decade, when extreme metal fans congregate, is “Where do we go next?” Since the advent of sludge, black and doom metal in the ’90s, most steps forward in the genre have been subtle ones, mere inches where before we witnessed leaps.

The shadow of Black Sabbath still casts its deathly pall, even if it has been enhanced and pushed further by the likes of Mayhem, SUNN O))) and Eyehategod (among many others), so room to maneuver in interesting ways has become increasingly restricted. Check out the Encyclopaedia Metallum, and the sheer number of bands to have emerged since 2003, nearly all playing a variant on existing formulas, is simply staggering. Every month I’m sent promo copies of handfuls of metal albums that all sound pretty much the same. It seems that originality in metal, a genre I’ve cherished since I was about 15, is becoming increasingly rare.

Maybe Chicago’s Indian has this problem nailed. On its fifth album, From All Purity, the quartet (quintet if you count producer Sean Patton on “noise”) simply consolidates the best aspects of doom and sludge and then does a bit of exciting tweaking, instead of vainly trying something revolutionary or ground-breaking or merely reiterating previous material. From All Purity will never have the impact of Earth’s second album, Khanate’s self-titled debut, Take As Needed For Pain by Eyehategod or Sleep’s drone doom bible Dopesmoker, but it contains all the important ingredients that made those records so essential. Indian adds a bit of its own character, and even if it doesn’t bound the band forward, then at least it sets it apart from the crowd. Patient evolution as opposed to misguided genre crossover (I’m looking at you, Deafhaven) or, worse, unimaginative cliché.

Before all that, though, Indian makes sure it gets the basics right, which it does with supreme confidence. With the exception of the bizarre “Clarify,” these tracks are all about fuzz-drenched riffs, drums that crash like demonic machinery and a singer who doesn’t so much scream as tear disjointed words from his throat as if trying out a new but unsuccessful form of ritual suicide.

Dylan O’Toole is so outrageously hysterical, I’m almost close to comparing to some of the modern metal-vocal greats such as Alan Dubin or Attila Csihar. Tracks like opener “Rape” and “The Impetus Bleeds” may crumble under the combined force of cranked up guitars and implacable rhythm, but that doesn’t prevent O’Toole from imposing his presence. With every harsh, unhinged shriek, he paints a picture of a man at his wit’s end.

You only need to listen to his voice to know that a track title like “Rape” is no mere slice of gratuitous provocation, as is the case with many extreme metal bands. Indian follows the paths of Eyehategod and Acid Bath in plunging headlong into the dark abyss of human nature, returning to scream its misanthropic fury at the world’s face. It’s a shame the production doesn’t push the vocals further up the mix, as hearing O’Toole with more clarity must be beyond unsettling.

So far, so very typical of extreme metal, even if Indian stretches out mightily far. Listen closely, however, and extra textures begin to reveal themselves under the familiar riffage and drum pounding. Patton’s hyper-saturated electronics swim like a bleary, broiling sea underneath the main melodies (if you can call them that), bubbling up through the interstices to dump extra layers of gristle over the other instruments, like a blind painter slapping brown acrylic on an already-finished painting.

The rest of Indian responds unexpectedly, dropping back to open up spaces between claustrophobic maulings. These touches are fleeting, and easily overlooked, but they do add flesh and gunk to the album’s five overtly metal tracks.

Which leaves “Clarify,” the most daring track I’ve heard by a full-on metal band I’ve heard in quite some time. Ditching drums, bass, and, as far as I can tell, guitars (bar the odd bit of feedback), the band unleashes a mean-faced four-minute slab of fractured noise, over which O’Toole’s vocals descend into gargled, incoherent squeals. Even with the slow-burning slab of doom that is closer “Disambiguation” coming straight afterward to reset the balance, it feels like “Clarify” is a mission statement of sorts from Indian, a way to reach into new realms of noise.

Will they dare plunge even further next time out? Here’s hoping. Maybe metal has yet some wild new territory to explore.