6/19/2017

Bad hobbits die hard

REVIEW: BARROW WIGHT KINGS IN SAURONS SERVICE CD/CS (HEAVY CHAINS RECORDS & TAPES, 2016)


Depending on your perspective, this release is either AOTYmaterial or totally dubious. Or both! Whatever it is, I like it. Here's the deal: Canadian underground metal combo Barrow Wight started life as a Venom cover band. You'll be able to tell right away – vocal-wise, the singer is a dead ringer for Cronos, for one thing. Along with his gravelly gargle, the raw bass-heavy riffage on offer here likewise owes a lot to Venom. But, as maybe you can glean from their name, this band is also obsessively into the Lord Of The Rings, that's their entire theme.

Now, Tolkien is a common enough lyrical influence in metal. Heck, it sometimes seems as if almost every black metal band is named after some place or personage in Middle Earth – and Venom was the original black metal band, after all – but still, the idea of the primitive, rippin' Motorhead-ed metal of Venom mixing with the more mystical high fantasy stuff that full-on Frodo fandom can conjure is just a bit wonderfully absurd.** 

In practice it is too, in a totally enjoyable way. Barrow Wight let us know that they are aware of the absurdity – you can't title a track "No Sleep Til Gondor" without a sense of humor – but they pull it off, sounding something like a cross between Venom (or contemporary metalpunks Midnight) and their fellow Heavy Chains recording artists Tarot! I mention the latter 'cause Barrow Wight's Tolkien side isn't just in the titles and lyrics, but is also made musically manifest a time or two via elements of hoary 'hobbit rock' from the sixties and seventies not commonly associated with Venom. Just listen to "Osgiliath" with its "Astronomy Domine" sounding parts:



The strains of Pink Floyd heard here help to make Barrow Wight stand out as being not just a mere Venom clone. Elsewhere, also, occasional echoes of the acid rock of Uriah Heep, The Doors, and/or Iron Butterfly crop up by surprise. One of the most overt examples of Barrow Wight's 'psychedelic prog chocolate in my metal punk peanut butter' songwriting schtick occurs at the two-and-a-half minute mark of "In League With Sauron" when the heavy, dirty riffing suddenly gives way to some groovy organ-based jam-a-lama, unexpected and exuberant.



The result of this stylistic collision is that Barrow Wight are one of the few bands around who, probably without even intending it, could hang with the similarly screwy likes of Meads Of Asphodel and Zemial (the musty majesty of the sinister, percussive "Dwimmerlaik" really reminds me of those genius Greeks).



Can I really justify my love for this album? At the end of the day, Barrow Wight of course aren't Venom – and they're a lot further from being Bo Hansson – but they do a good job of paying tribute to their idols, delivering on their dorky (but cool) cult concept without being too silly or too serious. Bottom line, this puts a grin on my face. So, yeah. Hail Sauron and rock on! (–Allan)

*That'd be 'Album Of The Year' for last year, but that's ok, 'cause we haven't finalized our 2016 lists yet.

**Though not as odd as the Tolkien-themed dub of Prince Far Isengard!

1/30/2017

Mellows un-harshed at any speed

REVIEW: KANDODO/MCBAIN LOST CHANTS/LAST CHANCE 2CD/2LP (ROOSTER ROCK, 2016)

Man, I really, really love this! Perhaps that's no surprise, considering that in its two principals it boasts the talents of one of The Heads and one of the Monster Magnets.

That's right, joining forces for this mellow, mantric psych rock guitar opus you've got Simon Price from British psych-garage-fuzz icons The Heads who records solo as Kandodo, and you've got John McBain, former lead guitarist for doped up American spacelords Monster Magnet, circa 1989-1993 (and more recently a Carlton Melton collaborator).

Along for the ride with those two guitar guys is the rhythm section from The Heads as well, Messrs. Morgan and Maskell. So make that three Heads and one Monster Magnets! Why, then, it's not billed as The Heads/McBain I dunno, but the music does come closer to the sort of spaced-out, synth-laden kraut channelling that Price's Kandodo project specializes in than it does the more manic fuzzfestering grungery typical of The Heads, delivering all-instrumental, lengthy, super stoned hypno-jams summoning the spirits of early Ash Ra Tempel, Agitation Free, and Guru Guru for sure. More current-day comparisons could be to Carlton Melton (natch), Hills, or a really, really relaxed Earthless, perhaps. Urthona, too.

These guys know what they're doing (drugs, one might assume) and it never gets boring or aimless, as this sort of thing might from lesser lights. There's a fluency and fluidity to this that's magical. Devotees of lulling, lolling reefer-riffery should not require much further encouragement – strap on the headphones and get ready to float away on these softly flowing waves.

So what more do you really need to know? Just one thing: making me love this even more, the album is explicitly intended to be played at either 45 or 33rpm, listener's choice. That is, at 45rpm, you'll hear what's presumably the original, 'normal' speed version of the recording, titled Lost Chants – but it's also meant to be played at 33rpm, becoming the slower, lower Last Chance opusSince there are no vocals, they can do this, it works pretty well. And as probably anybody would predict, the lugubriously lovely 33rpm version is perhaps the better of the two, but it's nice to have both. These spacey grooves are already pretty monumental at any speed. Slowing 'em down just makes 'em even more enjoyably endless seeming, more somnolently enveloping, and of course 'more heavier.' A real nod scene. But then, sometimes I'm in the mood for the sharper, relatively jaunty (but still lumberous and slumberous) Lost Chants original.

Each track even has a different title assigned to it depending upon the chosen playback speed, a nice touch. For example, opening track "Blowed Out" on Lost Chance at 45 becomes "Really Blown Out" on Last Chance at 33; likewise track four "Chant Of The Ever Circling (Last Vulture)" stretches out into the "Chant Of The Every So Slowly Circling (Last Vulture)" in its slower, downpitched incarnation, and so forth. At least, that's what the internet (Discogs) tells me, though the compact disc edition I'm reviewing doesn't include the 33rpm track titles anywhere I can find. However, as a further nice touch, it has been issued as a double, with Lost Chants one one disc and Last Chance on the other, so those of us like myself who prefer cds over vinyl can hear both versions without having to invest in a variable speed CDJ player (still wish I had one of those, though...).

I also kind of wish they'd have gone and made it a triple cd, with a 16rpm disc as well. Though actually then it would have to be a quadruple cd, 'cause the 33rpm disc is already near capacity at over 74 minutes so you'd need two discs for the 16rpm version. Still, c'mon! Of course, I guess if you get the vinyl and have a turntable that spins at 16 rpm (or you own one of those aforementioned CDJs) you can still listen to that unauthorized, even slooooower version for which no alternate song titles have been provided.

Again though, whatever speed you play it at, this album is... just such a pleasant place to be. Like I said, I really love it. Heck, I've been wanting to do a write up on this literally since it came out in September, but every time I put it on, well, I get a little lost in it. Where did the time go? (–Allan)

12/31/2016

Over eight hours of (aQ) hits!

Happy New Year, folks! And good riddance to 2016, ugh. As we all know, 2016 was not the best of years and aQuarius closing was the least of it. As we look forward (with hope and/or trepidation) to 2017, maybe it's more fun to look back... before 2016 that is...

I (Allan) was browsing in Amoeba the other day, and was surprised to find a copy of this incredibly rare, limited edition cd-r in the 'various artists' section of their experimental cd bin. At the bargain price of just $2.99, I had to pick it up, especially since I realized I didn't actually already have a copy myself. In fact, it took me a few seconds after I spied the cover to even recall what the heck it was...

Back in 2010, aQuarius had a big 40th Anniversary party, and we made a massive commemorative 'mix tape' for the event, in the form of a data cd-r of mp3's – 118 tracks, approximately 8 hours and 20 minutes of music! Pretty sure Andee compiled it, with input from the rest of us. We made just sixty numbered copies available to party-goers. (This one is #18/60.)

It featured a whole bunch of crucial faves we'd hailed on the aQ list between 1995 and 2010, everything from Os Mutantes to Philip Jeck to Uz Jsme Doma to Neutral Milk Hotel to Kathy McGinty to Beyond Dawn to Hatebeak to Boards Of Canada to The Bee Gees, and (of course!!) quite a few selections from The Conet Project, as well as choice cuts from The Ghost OrchidSounds Of North American Frogs, and Sounds Of American Doomsday Cults.

We mixed in some one-hit wonders at the shop like The Jones Machine and Jud Jud, as well as highlighting tracks by longtime staples of the aQ catalog like the mighty Circle, the Thai Elephant OrchestraVillage Of Savoonga, and the Ethiopiques series. And you'll find not just one but two f'ed up cover versions of Iron Maiden songs. So many obscure faves and favorite obscurities. While not totally comprehensive (it'd have to be another 8, or 10, or 20, or 100 hours long) it's still a pretty spot-on 'greatest hits' of a lot what we were listening to and raving about at aQ back in the day. Needless to say, our eventually forthcoming 'big book of aQ reviews' will include our write-ups about ALL of these, without a doubt.

Fyi, the text on the back of this disc's Conet-homage packaging reads as follows:

"aQ40: To commemorate the 40th anniversary of aQuarius recOrds, we've gathered up some of our all time favorite tracks from throughout the store's long and storied history, songs and sounds that defined the store, and helped make aQuarius one of the most idiosyncratic sources for far our sounds in the world. Many of these gems were aQ Records Of The Week, most of them are long out of print, and all of them are amazing! A sprawling sonic mix tape for our beloved friends and customers around the world. aQ would be nothing without all of you. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your years of love, loyalty and support. And of course for loving music as much as we do!"

So, anyway, after stumbling across this quite awesome (imho) aQ40 mega-mix cd-r at Amoeba, I got the idea to edit it into a continuous, seamless mix (since it was just a playlist of individual mp3s before) and put it up on the internet to share with everyone. I split it into four parts of roughly two hours each to make uploading (and listening to) it a little easier. Here it is, enjoy – you can click through to Mixcloud to see the full track listings for each of the four parts, if you like:








12/16/2016

Jammers of misfortune

REVIEW: ULTRAPHALLUS THE ART OF SPECTRES CD/LP (SUB ROSA, 2016)

When we reviewed this Belgian unit’s previous disc, Sowberry Hagan, on the aQuarius list four or five years ago, for some reason we omitted to discuss their (ironically?) hyper-masculine name. That could have been the only review of them ever not to talk about how they chose to be called Ultraphallus. Well, gonna mention it now, if only to let you know that if you were to assume on account of their moniker that their music was especially aggro, ugly and crude, that would be an ultra-fallacy (sorry). While they are quite heavy and noisy, there’s an artier, and sometimes softer side to the Ultraphallus equation too (arty enough for the Sub Rosa label now, following an association with Riot Season).

Practitioners of a peculiar style of downer experimental sludge rock, Ultraphallus’ music on The Art Of Spectres can be a difficult, doomed-out listening experience, referencing a variety of diverse, deviant musical influences (a few they cite include the Swans, Autechre, "death-metal," and the Residents!) and rarified cinematic obsessions. For instance, one brief 1:23 interlude here is titled “The Death Of Mark Frechette,” memorializing an event which I googled so you don’t have to – Frechette, the star of Antonini’s cult classic Zabriskie Point, died in 1975 at the age of 27 in a prison weightlifting accident. Ouch.

Elsewhere, though, the album's morbid, ominous atmospheres are a bit more epic than that, Ultraphallus doing everything in their considerable power to create emotionally weighty, creepily cinematic soundscapes. A fundamental framework of shaking, shuddering drone-distortion and trance-inducing percussive pummel tends to run throughout these seven tracks, over which strange, often distressed singing occasionally intrudes. The vocals never really get deathly like you might expect; instead their stylings range from weirdly whispery to almost warbly melodic. The proceedings are also laced with electronic effects, disembodied trumpet, rhythmic reveries, and surprising moments of ambient bliss - providing more of a moody and unusual context for the slow, lumbering, ultraphallic sludgery of the guitars. RIYL: Oxbow, SwansOld Man GloomToday Is The DayThe BodyHey ColossusGnod... (–Allan)



12/03/2016

Slamz Jail special edition: Bölzer

REVIEW (WELL, SORTA): BÖLZER HERO CD/LP (IRON BONEHEAD, 2016)

On November 25th, the stylish, sludgy Swiss death metal duo Bölzer finally released their debut album following a few well-regarded eps. Compared to those eps, the eagerly awaited, but backlash-beckoning full-length has less in the way of "Wolfshook"-worthy riffs and more in the way of, um, shall we say controversial clean vocals. 

The present inmates of Slamz Jail take a listen and try to figure out what to make of it, first impressions...

Kirk: Have any of you sick metal fucks heard the new Bölzer? Lots of clean crooning.



Allan: I've been so curious, it's gotten pretty much universally bad reviews – makes me think I might like it!



Kirk: Yeah exactly! It's out officially now. You can stream it wherever. I think maybe the songs are a little long and drag a bit but they are really catchy and pretty and sad. Lots of wolf-howl croon.



Andee: The vocals are pretty painful, which makes me think Allan WILL like it.



Kirk: You think so? When I saw them live doing old songs and new the clean vocals made perfect sense. It flowed seamlessly. But the new one has basically no "metal vox.”

Andee: You know I love bad vox, but those seem bad BAD... to be fair, I've only heard one song, will check out the whole thing today.



Harry: Gonna give it a sneaky spin now.



Kirk: Curious to know what Harry thinks. My biggest complaint is just the song length.


Harry: Listening to first song...now. Enjoying the spooky Boy Scout whistling intro. This sounds immediately extremely good to me.



Kirk: That's good to hear. It's kinda got that Mithras spacey feel.



Harry: It does! But a bit more epic in the traditional metal sense of the word.



Kirk: Totes.


Harry: I think the vox are really cool.



Andee: You would.



Kirk: Yeah I don't know why people don't like ‘em.



Andee: You would too.



Harry: I dare say the vocals are putting hair on my chest in a somewhat Hellenic fashion. Lol.

Andee: This might be the most ridiculous 'metal' song i've heard in a while:





That OOOH AHHHH chorus. Woah.


Kirk: It's great!



Allan: Yeah, not bad at all, pretty cool actually... And listening to some more of the tracks on Hero right now, while I'm not ready (yet) to say it's a brilliant work of genius, it seems at least as good or better than a LOT of 'extreme metal' stuff out there that people seem to like – if different. And, honestly, I'd much rather listen to vocals like these on this album than 95% of the samey harsh/guttural/growling 'vokills' on most death and black metal releases.



Andee: Told ya! ...Things I like more than the new Bölzer: the new Witchery, the new Denouncement Pyre, and maybe surprisingly, the new Norma Jean.

Kirk: Dear god Andee.

Andee: Also the new Tomb Mold tape. New Adaestuo, new Crest Of Darkness is great too, and new KYY (rad Finnish BM)...

Allan: What's Tomb Mold? Sounds cool from the name.

Andee:



Allan: I like it... but the Bölzer is better.

11/26/2016

Got the heels, but not the squeals

REVIEW: HIGH HEELER FORCE AND FINESSE CD (SWORD AND CHAINS, 2015)

Above: possibly thee best name and logo ever?
So, Andee and I are naturally in the habit of sending each other links to check out of interesting discoveries on Bandcamp or YouTube that we just stumbled upon – mostly metal bands for whatever reason (but generally not the sort of metal you’ll find in Slamz Jail – that stuff's more appropriate to Andee and former aQ-er Kirk’s special bromance). And then we’re always thinking, hmmm, hey, guess one of us ought to make a blog post out of this or that one, y’know, do a review. Though, admittedly, not all the things we choose to share with each other really need all that much written about ’em – probably just saying, “Hey this is cool [or weird, or whatever] so check it out and give it a listen” would be sufficient, as it is for us.

For example, this, the debut studio album from '80s styled Austrian heavy metal act High Heeler, something I recently ran across randomly and sent to Andee, saying: “Hey, here’s one for you – I don't think the band is all that great (they sorta sound like Cauldron with an Austrian accent) but it's kinda cool and they perhaps have the best name/logo EVER, what do you think?”


Andee’s response: “Haha, that logo DOES rule. You're right. not the best, but pretty solid. Kinda dig the leads. Reminds me of the Scorps a little. Vocals a little tough to take…oh yeah, vocals are kind of a deal breaker. Even the gang vocals are a bit off. Too bad. If they had a really rad eighties style wailer, it'd be a whole 'nother story…”

To which I can only add, yep, too bad. Since I do love the whole idea of a band called High Heeler making retro glam/sleaze metal with NWOBHM influences, and their logo's so perfect for that. Plus, there’s even somebody in the band who spells their name "Andee," how ’bout that! That’d be Andee Overtone, one of the guitarists. Alongside C.C. Stiletto (axe), Dynamike (artillery), and Poison Poser (voxx, bass, album cover painting). Aha, right there with those jokey monikers you can see maybe the problem is that these guys just don't take what they're doing seriously enough – but that’s weird, since apparently the band has been around since 2000, having released an assortment of demos, eps, splits, and a surprising number of live VHS videotapes in the fifteen years prior to this full-length album. Clearly, they're into the humor of what they do, but it also must mean more to them than just some yuks to be at it for that long. Unfortunate that ol’ Poison Poser isn't a better singer but I wonder if maybe the band is his brainchild and thus it would be kind of tough for him to relinquish the frontman role?

Ah well, you know what, I might still pick up a copy when/if I find it for cheap – I'm a sucker for a cool name & logo plus I've got a bit more tolerance for questionable 'clean' singing in traditional heavy metal bands than Andee does (whereas, he's much more accepting of hard-to-take harsh vokills in extreme metal bands that I am, generally speaking.)

...Next up in cool trad metal bands, bad bad vocals: Scalare. OMG! (–Allan)

11/22/2016

Decriminalized smoothness

REVIEW: HASHISH A PRODUCT OF HASHISH CD/LP (SUBLIMINAL SOUNDS, 2016)

I’ll admit to having attempted to inhale once or twice in my life, long ago, with mixed results; but Andee doesn’t even drink (although, he has been known to overdo it a bit with the NyQuil when he’s got a cold). So we’re basically two drug-free individuals, bordering on straight edge in Andee’s case. I mention this just in order to say, this isn’t the first time we’ve wondered what it means that we find that a LOT of the music we both enjoy is rather overtly drug-oriented (influenced by drugs, encouraging the use of drugs, meant to be listened to on drugs, etc.). Maybe that’s not surprising, of course, since the Venn diagram overlap of ‘drugs’ and ‘music’ is a big fat one. But still, we wonder, why do we spend so much listening time in that zone? Are we hoping for a ‘second-hand smoke’ effect of some sort? Is there something that we’re missing out on, since we love the likes of Monster Magnet and Electric Wizard so much, not to mention being into bands with names like Bongripper, Harsh Toke, and Salem’s Pot, without ever getting high? (Allan also likes the ‘80s German NDW band Spliff a lot, but that’s another story).

So, when Swedish psych label Subliminal Sounds put out an album by a band called, simply, Hashish, figured that’d be one we’d probably dig too, imagining some primitive krauty drum circle thing, and/or blown out heavy stoner jamming, but it turns out that Hashish ain’t heavy or hippy like that. Nope, this is a different sort of dope music, that’s more like some sort of new age exotica, smooth and soothing, Hashish laying down a very blissful brand of space funk that’s just this side of cheesy, with percolating grooves (someone gave that drummer some) propelling the listener through lusciously synth-sizzled, serene, sunny soundscapes. Whoosh. Hashish have plenty of glide in their stride, and zip in their zap, on such cuts as “Outer Spaced” (some stoned boom bap there, with shades of “Blow Your Head” style synthesizer action). Mostly instrumental, with occasional vocoder interjections, and female vocals on “Fly Away,” A Product Of Hashish is a synth trek that folks who appreciate the (amazing) West Coast album by Studio just might want to investigate, the vibes are kinda convergent.

The main guy here is a fellow named Stefan Kéry, who was in freeky ‘80s garage psych revivalists The Stomach Mouths, by the way, and also in a band/project called Zonk whom I only know from their cover of “Sweet Leaf” on a Swedish Sabbath tribute comp - so no wonder I thought Hashish might sound like another Skogen Brinner, or Dungen, but they fit more with the strain of Subliminal Sounds releases like Ìxtahuele that celebrate an important proto-psychedelic music genre: exotica (see Patrick Lundborg’s book Psychedelia - An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way Of Life, pages 103-126, for more on that subject). The more I listened, the more I liked - and remember, it was only the music working on me. Groovy. (–Allan)