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Avant-Garde Music

JOE OLNICK: WINK OF AN EYE

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

You gotta have patience to appreciate straight drone music. You know that expression people commonly use where someone talks too much? They’ll say of the party in question, “Oh he just drones on and on… ” In other words, someone is making a repetitive noise that someone else quickly gets tired of. Many listeners would say that about a lot of ambient music, especially the sub-genre that is primarily drone-based. But as a devoted ambient acolyte, I appreciate a good immersive drone, and Joe Olnick offers three of them on this here self-released outing. Olnick is a guitarist and producer mostly known for a sort of rock/funk/jazz hybrid that his Joe Olnick Band traffics in (“Funky Traffic” and “Downtown” earned spins on college radio). But he also digs ambient, and has been exploring the possibilities of what the guitar can do when, well, you process the shit out of it so it doesn’t hardly sound like a guitar anymore. WINK OF AN EYE apparently began as brief sections borrowed from an earlier ambient recording called BRIGHT PAINTINGS, and Olnick used what he calls “advanced processing techniques” to conjure up some layered space music.

There are only 3 pieces on this disc, curiously titled “Slow Funky Buildings,” “Slow Bright Buildings” and “Slow Modern Buildings.” All three are, you got it, slow. These are drones that can work as background ambience, and they are pleasant and captivating enough to hold your attention should you choose to pay it. But you won’t be suddenly bombarded by rude sonic bursts of weirdness, either. The “Slow Funky” track is most assuredly NOT funky… it’s made of subtly changing soundwaves that might remind you of a wild seashore, where the water comes into shore dramatically and then recedes. “Waves” is really the best word to describe this stuff. Not that much happens, but it’s still hypnotic. At 26 minutes, the “Slow Bright” track is longest, and it starts off more abrasive and metallic than its predecessor. I was reminded of Fripp and Eno’s “An Index of Metals,” only not as ominous as that opus. Olnick is not out to unnerve anyone; this really seems to be an exercise in how ambient a guitar can get when you manipulate the output very thoroughly. The answer? VERY ambient. You could possibly drift off to sleep with this one, although I wouldn’t call it “serene” or anything. “Slow Modern Buildings” does approach a kind of serenity, though. It’s a modest 11 minutes long, and turns the “evocative” dial up to at least “7.” You could take chunks of this piece and use ‘em in some arty indie film or documentary about wild places. Without any such context? You basically get a Joe Olnick ambient drone trio, which will be enough for some of us. No less than the legendary Robert Rich mastered this recording, which should tell you two things: One, it sounds terrific and enveloping, and two, Rich thought highly enough of the sonic excursions here to put his name on them.

JOE OLNICK (publicity photo)

You could say of virtually ANY ambient disc, “it’s not for everyone.” And this may bore non aficionados, for sure. But there is something very comfortable and unassuming about Olnick’s relaxed space music; he offers it up with the confidence that some folks will find it worthwhile. Olnick is NOT one of those artists who simply “drones on and on” without purpose. He’s got plenty of other things on his plate, but knowing he is into at least the occasional drone-fest makes WINK OF AN EYE rather special. I was a contented participant in the conversation that Olnick started with this release.

JON HASSELL: VERNAL EQUINOX

(NDEYA RECORDS; 2020 reissue)

Some artists stubbornly resist pigeonholing. I could put any number of Jon Hassell records on (and I have a fair number) at a social gathering, and I’d bet that at least one listener would come up and say, “What the heck is THIS?” It’s strange music, that’s all. And being helpful by saying “it occupies a space between ambient, Miles Davis-type jazz and world music” may or may not prepare the uninitiated. Hassell himself would eventually start branding his recordings as “Fourth World,” to signify a kind of foreign, multi-ethnic sound that, while centered around his very distinct trumpet style, would also take you somewhere new. A sort of “traditional” sound from a country that doesn’t truly exist.

JON HASSELL (David Rosenboom, Jon Hassell in 1977) (uncredited photo)

His first official album was VERNAL EQUINOX, which initially came out in 1977. It has now been remastered and reissued on Hassell’s own label. It’s kind of a disorienting little beast of a record, but it was original enough to catch the ears of Brian Eno, who wrote liner notes for this edition. Eno, of course, would go on to collaborate with Hassell on POSSIBLE MUSICS in 1980, and to produce a few records for the artist after that. For whatever it might illustrate, the noted music website Pitchfork included VERNAL EQUINOX as one of their “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” (it was listed at #47). And the evocative, often spacious quality of Hassell’s compositions does indeed fit comfortably into an ambient (albeit the edgy reaches of the genre) mode.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Most of the six pieces here are exotic, a bit misty-sounding and in thrall to the otherworldly timbre of Hassell’s trumpet. The instrument is sometimes processed to sound either partially muted, or vaporous, wafting through the air of whatever planet it’s coming from. “Viva Shona” features birdsong and sparse background instrumentation, the trumpet placed front and center. “Hex” lets Hassell carry on a very distinctive conversation, his tones developing in such a lively manner that you listen close to catch the amazing process as it evolves. What sounds like rainstick and bass adorns the background. Most listeners will be especially riveted by the two centerpiece tracks “Blues Nile” and the title track. The former piece gives us a slightly distorted, granular-sounding drone over which Hassell delivers sonic bursts that sound for all the world like a warning or “call to attention” for the citizens of an alien culture. Could be a pending invasion from that tribe over the hill! The clear separation between the trumpet and the sharp-edged drone is dramatic and compelling. Around the climax of the piece, Hassell lets loose a series of notes going up and down the scale of his chosen key, and you’ll likely stop whatever you’re doing to listen closely. As for the nearly 22-minute “Vernal Equinox,” it’s thoroughly engrossing, setting up a sparse but hypnotic landscape of background drone, hand drumming and a casually meandering trumpet, as though Hassell were patiently walking a lush rainforest trail, stopping to observe here and there but recording his observations in music with great passion at appropriate intervals. It’s a marvel, this track. I can only imagine the reactions of listeners encountering it for the first time. Things finish off with the short closer “Caracas Night,” with nocturnal nature sounds and some Miles-style blowing to bid you adieu in a slightly more traditional manner. It’s not a long album, this outing, but it will definitely make you feel like you’ve been somewhere.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Hassell’s later outings with Eno would bring him more acclaim (POWER SPOT is one of those distinct offerings), and there is more textural richness on the dramatically titled THE SURGEON OF THE NIGHT SKY RESTORES DEAD THINGS BY THE POWER OF SOUND and DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA, to name just a couple of gems. But it started here, with …EQUINOX. He’s a genuinely visionary player who took a much featured instrument and did things with it no one had ever done before. That takes a special kind of musicality and love of exploration that should certainly be celebrated.

BRENNER AND MOLENAAR: UNINVITED SAVIOR

(NEFARIOUS INDUSTRIES; 2020)

It’s a lonely life sometimes, being an ambient music fanatic. You move about each day among the uninformed, knowing you’re not like them, knowing that only this weird droning stuff speaks to you, while they’re behind the wheels of their cars uninhibitedly singing the chorus to some hip hop or indie rock thingy they recently heard streaming. Sometimes you get pulled into a conversation where you gotta answer questions like, “What IS ambient?” (this happened to me just recently), and you mumble something like, ‘Well, it’s this kinda background music that’s also interesting, that you can immerse yourself in if you want to.” Your well-meaning friends might have HEARD of Brian Eno (“didn’t he have something to do with U2 for a while?”), but start dropping names like Stars of the Lid, Biosphere or William Basinski, and more than likely you’re gonna get blank looks. That’s okay, though. I’m proud of being able to explain why ambient is NOT the same as “new age,” what qualities characterize “dark ambient,” and how some drones really transport you to another realm, while others just…drone on and on. Kinda like some of your friends. And if you get TWO ambient aficionados in a room together, well, it’s likely gonna be a LIVELY discussion. And those guys will probably stay friends. Ambient has that effect.

BRENNER AND MOLENAAR (Dave Brenner, Christian Molenaar) (photo manipulation: DAVE BRENNER)

So, David Brenner, known for his gritty sonic excursions in GridFailure, and Christian Molenaar of San Diego’s Those Darn Gnomes, have made this 82-minute monster dronefest that doesn’t really lend itself to an “easy” review. I could tell you that it sounds like the inhabitants of a nearby planet enduring yet another stormy day in the harsh environment on their planet, or you in a sort of druggy state driving your car, caught in a relentless traffic jam where you only move a few yards every 10 minutes or so, and you’re losing your ability to tell reality from haunting scenes from your subconscious, which are intermingling randomly, your desire to just sleep continuously stymied. Or, I could quote from an actual press release for this’un, which reads: “Infusing vocals, electric/acoustic/bass/pedal steel guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, organs, xylophone, harmonica, 1970s cult field recordings, resynthesis, tape manipulation, contact mic and power electronics effects, and other instrumentation tactics embodied in a vaporous haze, the three lumbering movements range between 20 and 35 minutes in length, suspending the listener within its abyssal vacuum.” I kinda like that phrase “abyssal vacuum.” Because for sure, this heavy dose of sound is dark enough to change your perception, your sense of WHERE the hell you are. “Burial Delerium” (unsettling title, that) is rather hypnotic and indicative of an unfriendly environment, sonically speaking, with sirens appearing a third of the way through, and some recognizable guitar stuff breaking the potential tedium of the ultra-thick drone. As the press release says, there is also plenty of other stuff going in and out of the mix.

As unsettling as this track might be, it’s almost PRETTY compared with the mega-darkness of the nearly 26-minute “Transfixed.” The music journal CAPTURED HOWLS has a good line: “Feels like the disorienting soundtrack that might be playing in the waiting room outside an executioner’s chamber.” I was going to say that this music would be appropriate to accompany footage of some hopeless middle east slaughter, like seeing dozens and dozens of innocents in northwest Syria blown to smithereens as they try to flee the madness of relentless attacks. It’s THAT dark, desolate and grim. The prominence of big bass flareups and elements of distortion would likely make it impossible to relax to this stuff in any way. T’ain’t pretty. When it ends, you may feel grateful.

BRENNER AND MOLENAAR (Dave Brenner, Christian Molenaar) (photo manipulation: DAVE BRENNER)

Oh, but the aural carnage is not over yet. We go from a 20-minute track to a 26-minute track to the 35-minute “Hallelujah (27 Years).” It begins with a background organ that is rather soothing compared to what preceded it, although it doesn’t last long. That’s soon swallowed up by abrasive background static with not-quite-decipherable human dialogue in the foreground. The dialogue grows more prominent until you can start making out distinctive utterances like “I have a terrible burning feeling inside.” Which you, the listener, may have in your eardrums by this point, in fact. A section that follows could be appropriate for watching the end of the world unfold: It’s just all-out apocalyptic, crossing the line from “ambient” to what I would call “hardcore experimental music.” Thick, unsympathetic dark drone. In a lengthy section about halfway through, the drama intensifies when two combative voices go at it again, possibly a pissed-off exorcist and a devilish entity of some sort. Byrne and Eno might have dug this sort of thing when they were making MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS, but that album was easy listening compared to the relentless stuff assaulting the listener here. “In the name of Jesus,” one voice yells late in the mix, “You are defeated, Satan.” God, I hope so. I wouldn’t want this quarrel to continue much longer…

You may wonder at this point, “Well why, then, would I want to subject myself to this kinda thing?” It’s a valid question. There’s a place for punishing music, otherwise extreme death metal and the like would have no audience. Personally, I find most contemporary pop on the radio almost as unpleasant as this. And I’ll certainly allow that this brutal last track pushes the limits; I would likely NOT leave it on my car stereo past maybe the 20-minute mark unless I was in one of THOSE moods. It’s relentless. That said, I admire the aesthetics here. Clearly Brenner and Molenaar put serious hours of recording into this project. They wanted to create a dark, swirling SOUNDSTORM, something you could get completely lost in and overpowered by if you’re that sort. And I’d genuinely love to hear their thoughts on good and evil and the state of the world today. This record is somewhat of an apt soundtrack to the completely deteriorating state of modern civilization and morality, a real end-times missive. No, it won’t be anyone’s idea of a good time, except the most depressive fans of super dark drone-based ambient, perhaps. But it does carve out a space at the very edge of a certain kind of listening experience, and the experimental freedom you can claim when there are no commercial considerations to bother with whatsoever. I admire this UNINVITED SAVIOR project. And I did get caught up in a big chunk of the maelstrom these two guys plunge us into. But no, I won’t listen to this before I go to bed, or driving on a scenic road or anything. I mostly listen to ambient to remind me of the beauty and hope that are still out there. UNINVITED SAVIOR sounds a little too much like the wretched results of greed and hate that are pretty much wrecking up the world these days. If you need that catharsis, okay. But don’t say you haven’t been warned.

KRISTEEN YOUNG: LIVE AT THE WITCH’S TIT

(SELF-RELEASED; 2017)

Holy crap, where did THIS thing come from? I’ve heard some Kristeen Young stuff before and thought it was unusual and compelling, but this record… whoa, mama! It’s full-on ass-kicking weirdness of the kind I used to revel in at the turn of the millennium. Young has been compared to Kate Bush before (her tendency to favor the higher registers, her unconventional delivery), but she also reminds me of a couple of Scandinavian singers such as Sofia Hardig and an artist whose name escapes me. Point is, there is a focused, melodious quality to Ms Young’s voice that you hear at times, but she is making the case here for high-stakes sonic melodrama. Young is a wild thing, untamed and sometimes scary. She takes a risk in virtually every song, and it’s breathtaking. You don’t hear stuff like this very often. And despite that title, this is NOT a live album. It’s Young’s eighth studio album and, although Tony Visconti is listed as co-producer and he has worked with Young for many years, this album was largely recorded just after David Bowie’s death; Kristeen has said Tony was not around that much. Bowie’s passing and the release of BLACKSTAR affected his availability during the sessions. Guitars growl, the bass lumbers around not necessarily keeping it linear, and Young herself stalks these soundscapes like an utterly fearless musical predator. It’s really quite glorious.

KRISTEEN YOUNG (uncredited photo)

In “You Might Be Ted, But I’m Sylvia,” a title that invites discourse, Young carefully balances some emotive, disciplined singing with a series of loud, boisterous piano octaves. At the one-minute mark, a ferocious sound emerges that sounds at first like it could be an attacking animal, but no, it’s an ominous synth sound distorted to resemble a primitive electric guitar, that bites instead. It’ll take a piece right outta ya if you aren’t prepared. “There’s a chance he might disappear,” the singer tells us, before intoning the song’s title, powerfully, preceded and followed by a hypnotically dissonant piano interval banged over and over, taking you prisoner. You CANNOT remain indifferent to the sound slicing into your ears here. You’ll either find it enthralling, as I did, or you’ll run away with your tail between your legs. “Why Am I a Feelmate” turns up the electronica, and takes things into territory occupied by the Knife (I’d be real surprised if Young was not familiar with Karin Dreijer). The vocal is spooky, partially distorted, and the music seems to celebrate chaos. And yet, Young’s control over this boundary-bashing sound is remarkable. I honestly feel rather inadequate to describe it. It’s thoroughly modern and thoroughly uninterested in anything but its own path. You can follow, yes, but you better stay a few steps behind, or something vicious may chomp into you. “These Are the Things I’m Not the Most” (another fascinating title) reminds me of what might happen if the Residents tried rapping for a bit, except the musical wilderness Young is wandering through here might freak out even the Residents. Yes, I just said that. This is really, truly strange rock music by any normal standard. But it DOES rock, and it does move and it does pulse. And it clubs you over the head sometimes, and it contemplates the universe sometimes, and it steps back with its arms crossed and simply stares at you sometimes. Often, in fact. And you don’t want to look away, cause that would make you a wimp. And you will be, some of you. This will put hairs on your chest, honestly. Or send you crying to Mommy.

KRISTEEN YOUNG (photo credit: TONY VISCONTI)

In “I Love You SOOOO Much,” Young sings “I have always been so alone… everything I say/No one can translate,” probably the album’s most self-revealing lyric. The relatively restrained keyboard and pretty-ish vocal really WANT to walk through the door that says “NORMAL,” but they end up entering the room next door, which is labeled “ACCESSIBLE BUT OFF-KILTER.” Young is just too much of an original spirit, after doing this thing for quite a few years, to settle for anything predictable. An early Eno-evoking guitar solo sees the track out the back door, and suddenly the tune ends. Lordy. “Catland” begins with a child’s voice wanting to coax a sound out of a “kitty cat,” but you just KNOW that kind of cuteness will be short-lived. It is. The song quickly turns into a crazed rocker with tempo and chord changes that the likes of Zappa might have admired. There is no attempt to please the audience here at all, unless you are, like me, in the audience that adores flat-out weird music. The word “challenging” was meant for discs like this. And it goes on and on: “Monkey On My Breast,” “I Know You Are a Coward” (you ARE, by the way, if this record overwhelms you), the short and sarcastic ghostly mini-song that calls itself “Everything About You is Always More Important Than Anything About Me,” which is pretty much the full lyric, uncharacteristically. “Come to the Party” offers another insistent piano track before rubbing your face in all sorts of other sounds. Young seems to be issuing an important psychic missive here, but you may or may not receive it. You are probably already whimpering in the back room by now. But she closes with “Different,” certainly the most obvious adjective that timid listeners will apply to this record. There is real melancholy at work in this song, and as this wildly original artist sings “But I’m different” repeatedly, it’s actually a bit touching. I have no idea in the world how audiences have responded to Kristeen Young in the past, and the fact that she is from Saint Louis has me beaming with pride right now. This record is absolutely fucking KILLER. Except for the newest Low album, there isn’t an album that has made a stronger impression on me this year. It’s insane, it’s fresh, it’s completely unpredictable, it’s weird as hell, and apparently proud to be so. Kristeen, I think I’d be afraid to talk to you in person, but allow me to say, totally sincerely, THANK you. Thanks for kicking every kind of ass in the world and showing that yes, a female singer/songwriter can beat most men when it comes to breaking the well-established rules of the game, and not have to apologize in the slightest. I’m in awe of this record. No, it wasn’t recorded live, but my God, does this thing have an unstoppable LIFE force flowing all through it.

DANIELSON: SNAP OUTTAVIT

(JOYFUL NOISE RECORDINGS; 2018)


Love ’em or hate ’em, Danielson, as they have been called for a while (used to be Danielson Famile), have given the pop world one of the most aggressively original and impossible to ignore musical styles ever conceived. That’s not easy to do, and it has something to do with Daniel Smith’s remarkable falsetto voice (he doesn’t use it ALL the time, but it’s there in abundance on the early albums), the crazily off-kilter arrangements and the blend of sweet sonics (the female members of the troop have light, soothing voices which contrast effectively with Smith’s style) with lyrical wildness. It’s no longer a big deal to talk of Smith’s sincere brand of Christianity; there is literally nothing about that which should influence your response to the music anymore. Smith is after bigger game anyway; he has the instincts of an impassioned art rocker, and the razor-sharp focus of your favorite classic rock singer/songwriter. I have been a fan of Smith’s creation since his family’s masterpiece of a second album, TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPING BLOCK. I delighted in hearing the extreme reactions of friends here and there upon encountering this highly original sound. While often challenging and a bit abrasive, I could handle anything Master Smith and company could throw at me. Therefore, it’s a bit odd to report that SNAP OUTTAVIT, a recent five-song Danielson EP, is… accessible. Sorta commercial. Easygoing. There isn’t a single track that would make anyone I know gripe, “Take that off, please!” It’s still original, of course.

The title track features, well, the title, chanted over and over by Smith while his wife Elin and sisters Rachel and Megan sing a contrasting ethereal chorus. It’s kind of strange but definitely not unlistenable. And that weird “chorus,” if you can call it that, stops here and there for a fairly normal verse or two, that sounds like, well, a singer/songwriter with something to say. Whatever that might be. “Dry Goods Dry Power” was released previously on a limited-issue vinyl EP; it’s a catchy, “normal” sounding rocker with a propulsive two-chord structure overall. Sure, there’s an eccentric middle section that has some of Smith’s patented falsetto, but not that much. It certainly is not weird compared to, say “Good News For the Pus Pickers” or “Cutest Li’l Dragon.” By the time you reach “Pendulum Mania” on this disc, you’re sort of WANTING the weirdness, if you’re a dedicated Danielson fan… and this tune mostly delivers. The girls keep singing “Swinging back and forth/Swinging back and forth now,” while Smith goes on about some convoluted topic that moves in a nice non-linear fashion, thematically. This is an imaginative song, and I have no idea what it’s about, but it’s Danielson. I like it!

DANIELSON (David Smith, Elin Smith, Rachel Galloway, Andrew Smith, Daniel Smith, Megan Slaboda) (publicity photo)

Then we get to “On Purpose,” the first song to break the five-minute mark. Here, Smith does a thing he does so well and that I used to dream about doing in a studio myself: chanting a commonly used phrase over and over, in this case, “What do you know?” It’s eminently listenable, beginning with subtle marimba and a surging background sound before that repeat phrase kicks in. Yeah! Best song here, methinks. The structural ambition of Smith’s songs is really a thing to behold, and this’un shows it quite nicely. But again, it’s not abrasive. It won’t drive anyone from the room. In fact, I can imagine some favorable “Hey, what are you playing right now?” type responses. “Who Hears Twell Van Dunder” is the kind of bizarro Danielson title that every album features examples of: What you get here is spoken voices saying things like “So happy to see you” and “Been thinking of you” and tingly marimba notes, before a childlike melody kicks in. I’m betting the children’s voices belong to Danielson offspring, and that everyone had a good time recording this gently ruminative little number. This is family music, all right. But not the family you know down the street. It’s the very talented, very original Danielson family, Mister. They play music. They sing combinations of things you’ve never heard before. They are passionate, driven and in love with life. And even if this modest little disc doesn’t truly blaze new trails, it’s a nice little reminder that one of the most original acts in pop is still out there, doing their thing. It’ll do fine until and if, Smith feels like launching another wacky full-length into the sonic universe. If you’ve never given Danielson a chance before, well, this might be a good time to “snap outtavit.”

PRIMUS: GREEN NAUGAHYDE

(PRAWN SONG RECORDS/ATO RECORDS; 2011) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS


For those of you who have been living under a rock, Primus is an experimental fusion rock band that incorporates more genres than I can even begin to list here. They have a sound that is completely original, theirs and theirs alone. The trio formed in 1984 in San Francisco, California coalescing around the songwriting talents of bassist and vocalist Les Claypool. Guitarist Todd Huth and Claypool, were later joined by drummer Jay Lane, though both Lane and Huth departed the band at the end of 1988. The GREEN NAUGAHYDE lineup is composed of Claypool alongside Larry LaLonde on guitar and the returning Lane on drums. The three-headed beast has had many different lineups over the years, Claypool having been the only constant. GREEN NAUGAHYDE is the group’s seventh studio album.

PRIMUS (Larry LaLonde, Jay Lane, Les Claypool) (publicity photo)

The opening minute or so of “Hennepin Crawler” features some ethereal bass soloing and swooshing effects, then immediately bursts into a classic Primus bass line of the type that only Les Claypool can come up with. The slinky guitar playing and pumping drums make this track really groove and with Claypool graveling out the vocals in his signature way, it starts the album off in a definitively Primus way. The next few tracks are a journey, honestly; really easy to just sit back and get lost in. “Last Salmon Man” is a nice continuation of the opening track.There’s a very strange bridge leading into the chorus that is definitely original. LaLonde’s guitar is the one that shines in this track, with the solo and the bassline behind it sucking you in, getting you lost in the extremely well crafted soundscape. This album is meant to be listened to as an album which, in the singles era is super refreshing. I found myself really enjoying the record, almost losing my place and forgetting what track I was on a few times. That rarely happens to me. I thoroughly enjoyed GREEN NAUGAHYDE and you can absolutely tell that there was a ton of effort put into it by Claypool and company. If you are a Primus fan, then this will not disappoint; even if you just enjoy listening to masterful musicians play their instruments, you’ll find something here for you, as well.

PRIMUS (Larry LaLonde, Jay Lane, Les Claypool) (photo credit: TAYLOR CROTHERS)

There are a few tracks here that attempt to make a statement on the state of current events. Those, you will either really enjoy or choose to skip. I’ll be honest, there are a couple on here, like “Eternal Consumption Engine” that really ruined the groove I had going, and pulled me out of the experience. All in all, I liked this album a lot, though. Claypool is as badass as he has ever been on the bass; there are some seriously original moments on the album and a few gems that I originally overlooked: “Eyes Of The Squirrel” is a brilliant, bass filled ride into madness. “Lee Van Cleef” is by far my favorite track from the record, from the popping bassline all the way to the commentary about how everyone moved on, preferring the younger Clint Eastwood over legendary Western star Lee Van Cleef. Musically, it is an incredibly catchy song that you’ll find yourself singing and humming for quite awhile. It’s an instant addition any Primus “greatest hits” compilations. “Moron TV” is an absolute masterclass on funky bass playing. Les proves, in this song, why he is consistently placed on lists of greatest bass players of all time; there’s a thumping bass line that incorporates chords, slaps, and tempo changes that are just crazy. With high and low harmonized vocals and another slinky guitar line from Larry, with Claypool spitting out lyrics underneath that flow extremely well. Another absolute gem. All in all, I would highly recommend GREEN NAUGAHYDE as one to put on your “listen to” list, but you’ll definitely want to set aside enough time to digest it as in its entirety. That’s where it really shines!

ADRIAN AARDVARK: DYING OPTIMISTICALLY

(EPIFO MUSIC; 2018)

Upon first seeing the name, Adrian Aardvark seemed to me a devouring angel, an agent of the bleakest of Black Metals. Nah… just kidding. In fact, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album but, I gotta say, it isn’t at all like anything else I’ve heard before… not even close! I mean, it looks and smells like a rock and roll record, spliced with a fair amount of Americana and not a little bit of angst. Even so, my initial thoughts were leaning toward “Ah! Someone’s rich father has bought studio time for his son and his friends to record an album. Kinda like the Shags, woefully untalented but determined to become a band.” After a couple of songs, however, I began to warm up to, even appreciate, what this motley crew were attempting to convey. Oddly enough, while researching the band for this piece, I was amazed to discover that DYING OPTIMISTICALLY is the group’s seventh release since 2008 (and the first since BONES POSITIVE, an EP released in 2014)! I cannot honestly conceive of how I could have missed anything for the last ten years called Adrian Aardvark, though I am now old enough that such things do escape me upon occasion. Anyway, on to the review…

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee) (photo credit: JERRY CADIEUX)

The first thing that you notice on “Just Us” is alluded to in rather veiled terms up above: Everything (wait… make that EVERYTHING) seems woefully out of tune, with the singer, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, sounding alarmingly like a drunken karaoke enthusiast. Somewhere around the two minute mark, things almost come together, as a fuzzy bass (or, is it a cello?), insistent drumming and the scraping of a violin keep the thing from totally going over the cliff. Bonus points for – unlike the short prelude/introduction/tune-up that starts the song off – everything ending together. “If Only” definitely sounds like a drunken lament to a litany of “what if’s” in a relationship gone very wrong. Stott-Rigsbee lists his transgressions before admitting, “Yes, I am ashamed of my insecurities/Yes, I am ashamed of my stupid feelings.” Here, the music kinda sounds more in tune and of one mind, occupying a certain feedback/drone frequency that is not unappealing. In fact, the discordant buzz of the whole mess is really starting to grow on me. The cello takes a more prominent spot on “Peace In a Loving Way,” with Shannon Stott-Rigsbee droning away masterfully. The lyrics seem as though they are wedged into a melody that is simply too small to adequately contain them; try, for instance, to fit the first verse into any standard rock format without breaking your tongue: “Through updates, versions and brand new postages/The letters inside remain the same as they travel to/You through signals unseen, speaking words/Floating like waves whisper your way.” It ain’t easy. Even so, at less than two-and-a-half minutes, it feels like you’re in and out almost before you realize that the sound – and, in fact, the entire record – is actually becoming, not only palatable but, begrudgingly enjoyable, as well. The bizarrely-titled “Young Pharaohs and Horses” comes with an equally bizarre video… as it should! Drummer Daz Bard adds a bit of trombone to the proceedings, with Shannon chiming in with a scratchy (whinnying?) violin part; the weird, out-of-place gang vocals, like just about everything else on this album, are no doubt added to merely muddle the lyrical issue. Four songs in and Christopher is starting to come across as more of a true musical genius, as opposed to the offspring of a wealthy Daddy Warbucks type bankrolling his kid’s musical aspirations. “I Don’t Wanna Love No More” is a step back for me. It isn’t necessarily that the sentiments aren’t spot-on in a society of individuals struggling to find their place but, the acapella (aside from three drum rolls somewhere in the middle) delivery – impassioned as it is – just doesn’t do it for me. “Little Girl,” however, is a completely different beast. Despite some rather questionable lyrics: “I am a little girl in a big big world/My dress so clean and my hair is curled” and “Don’t you want to ride with me/Don’t you want to sleep with me” (allusions to Christopher Stott-Rigsbee’s… uh… fluid sexual identity, I know, but… still… ), this is the most fully realized, hardest rocking and most in-tune song so far. A throbbing bass line (Catherine Harrison-Wurster… on the upright, no less) and a frantic vocal performance from Christopher highlight the number.

Creaky Wooden Floor” opens the second half – continuing the strong showing from “Little Girl” – with more weird metaphorical (metaphysical?) lyrics about beets and elephants. The song is pretty nifty, in a New Country kind of way and is delivered, like the previous four tracks, in a short, punk rock fashion. On “Get Gotten,” a chunky guitar riff rides along for a spell before being joined by a very nice violin part; the unmelodic, unnerving howls of Stott-Rigsbee deliver quite an impressive effect. Somewhere about two minutes in, the whole thing shifts gears amidst a beautifully shambolic break before completely collapsing in upon itself at the end. I may have just crowned a new favorite track! There is an insistent hint of didgeridoo (a masterfully understated performance by Christopher) throughout “Horny Wildebeast,” which seems perfectly natural given the song’s title. After a rather rambunctious start, the final four minutes or so seem to settle into a nice mid-tempo with – dare I say? – quietly elegant violin and cello dancing over the top. “Oo Ra Ra” and “The Sun” form a sort of intermingled couplet, with melody, choruses and chanting kinda running through the two-as-one pieces (or, piece, as the case may be). The former is a surprisingly melodic bit of falderol with lyrics somehow befitting the proceedings, such as “Put down the knife, we don’t have to fight/We can make love till morning’s light.” The number eventually devolves into the type of musical chants that the “natives” in all of those old Johnny Weissmuller movies are so fond of. “The Sun” blasts forth from that, a forceful, blistering piece of noise of the type I find so appealing. The lyrics here tend to lean toward a rather cogent warning from everybody’s favorite ball of light: “Feel my heat/Feel the cancer/You can’t be given life/Without being given death.” Oh, Sun, you’re such a kidder! A cool, unexpected blast of the Blues, filtered through various other styles of what has generally become known as “Americana” may, at a mere five-and-a-quarter minutes, prove “Misery Shaker” to be Adrian Aardvark’s magnum opus. Time changes and style shifts glide together seamlessly, held together by the superior percussive efforts of Daz Bird.

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee) (uncredited photo)

As mentioned at the outset, I was totally unprepared for the musical onslaught of Adrian Aardvark and was, initially, taken aback by the complete atonality of the first track but… I must say that I have been richly rewarded by sticking with the program, seeing it through to its brilliant climax. Heck, I may just have to revisit the group’s Bandcamp page and listen to their other releases… after I’ve rested up a bit from this DYING OPTIMISTICALLY experience.

JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS: GUILTY OF INNOCENCE

(MELODIC REVOLUTION RECORDS; 2017)

The music of Stratospheerius is a frenzied, brilliant amalgam of the Blues, Progressive Rock, Funk, improvisational Jazz, Classical and orchestral music, along with just about any other genre or sub-genre you can come up with. I’m not sure, but… there may also be a bit of the kitchen sink in there somewhere. Led by virtuoso violinist Joe Deninzon, a man sometimes referred to as “the Jimi Hendrix of the electric violin,” the quartet comes closest in spirit – if not in actual sonic delivery – to the early music (through, say, 1976’s ZOOT ALLURES) of Frank Zappa and his various groups. The resultant sound is a chaotic rush of genuine (and genius) eclecticism. There is certainly more than a little of something for everyone on the band’s fifth release, GUILTY OF INNOCENCE.

JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS (Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Lucianna Padmore, Jamie Bishop) (uncredited photo)

The record kicks off with “Behind the Curtain.” With lyrics like “Welcome to the circus/It’s your biggest nightmare/Wear the scarlet letter/Scrutinized forever” and “Put your mask on/And tuck your shirt in/Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the song acts as a sort of catch-all warning against the behind-the-scenes machinations that fuel the music industry or intolerance or political correctness or… You get the point. With a heavy, pound-yer-face-in riff-a-rama approach, bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore lay down an exceptionally tight groove allowing Deninzon and guitarist Aurelien Budynek to go crazy with wicked dueling solos. As an opening salvo or as a stand alone piece of music, this one is a near-perfect shot across the bow of accepted norms. “Take Your Medicine” is a nasty little piece of work about “glass houses” and “casting the first stone.” It’s a bass heavy blast of funkiness with Joe’s violin filling in nicely for a full horn section. Guitar, violin and vocals add a rather hard rock urgency to the proceedings, with another dose of wild soloing, a feature that lends a certain Zappa-esque quality to this record. According to Mister Deninzon, the title track (“Guilty of Innocence,” for those with a short memory span) was “inspired by my 2012 stint in jury duty and deals with crime and punishment. I was presiding on a rape trial and the guy who I thought was guilty got off practically scot-free.” Padmore and Bishop lay down a modest Ska-influenced groove, while spastic violin leads and muscular metal riffs drive the tune. The violins and bass take on an almost operatic quality during the break and, just because I enjoy mentioning musical touch-points to give the reader a better idea of what to expect, the song’s chorus has a very Who-like feel, melodically speaking. Piling on to that musical heritage, let me say that if you’re a fan of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones or the previously mentioned Frank Zappa, you’re gonna love this one. “Face” is a sombre little ditty, sort of a slow burn piece with scathing lyrics about people (lovers, partners, friends, perfect strangers) who are more than willing to openly attack you just for the pure enjoyment: “These scars ain’t healing/It’s too late to make amends/I dodge the bullet/Your tongue flies across the room/Build up the callous/’Til I grow numb to the doom and gloom.” A very Hendrix-ian solo by Deninzon adds a certain psychedelic (or maybe it’s “psychotic”) mania to the number. The introduction to the frantic retelling of the Muse hit “Hysteria” features glass-shattering soprano Melanie Mitrano before a warbling high-register vocal from Joe takes over; the latter fits the surrounding chaos of the tune perfectly. There’s a certain “Flight of the Bumble Bee” quality to the always on-point violin work, highlighted by a massive solo, all backed impeccably by the metal leanings of Stratospheerius.

Affluenza” is another funky number with “ripped from the headlines” lyrics about people who believe themselves superior to “the little people” and, therefore, above the law because of that superior wealth and high standards of living. The song has a kind of Living Colour rock vibe happening, with lyrical barbs aplenty over sharp jabs of guitar and violin. Guest performer Rave Tesar adds an oddly appealing set of synthesizer “bloops,” giving the whole thing a cool late ‘70s funk sound. A hard(ish) rocking, progressive sort of pop-metal thing with Queen-like aspirations, “Parallel Reality” is choke full of breathy vocals, an absolutely killer rhythm (and a melody line to match) and, of course, the usual high-minded violin/guitar interplay that makes this band and this album essential listening. “Game of Chicken” starts out sounding like it coulda been an OVER-NITE SENSATION outtake, but then turns into sort of a Kansas prog-pop kinda thing. The playing and soloing remain top-notch and raise the piece out of what could have been a severe abyss of doldrums. The wholly (holy?) improvisational “Dream Diary Cadenza” is a muscular, solo violin freakout rife with flashes of Hendrixisms, Van Halenisms, Beckisms, Zappaisms and any other guitar genius ism that you could ever bring to mind. A brilliant workout from a master technician of his chosen craft. “Soul Food” is a nearly thirteen minute extravaganza with a veritable orchestra of guest artists: Melanie Mitrano, Rave Tesar, guitarists Alex Skolnick (!) and Randy McStine, violinist Eddie Venegas, violist (?) Earl Maneein and cellists Patrice Jackson and Leo Grinhaus. The piece is epic in every musical sense of the word and is, truly, a fitting end to a superb album. You owe it to yourself to obtain GUILTY OF INNOCENCE; you can do so by visiting CD Baby, Amazon or any of the other “usual places” and, naturally, at the group’s Bandcamp page.

FRANK ZAPPA: QUAUDIOPHILIAC

(BARKING PUMPKIN RECORDS/ZAPPA FAMILY TRUST/DTS ENTERTAINMENT; Audio DVD, 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

To say that Frank Zappa was ahead of the musical curve – WAY ahead of the curve! – is, quite possibly, the understatement of this very young millennium. Recently, FZ’s eldest male offspring (the one titled “Dweezil”) discovered an old tape box, dated March 1, 1970, bearing his name (that would be “Dweezil.” We just went through this – in an earlier parenthetical aside – at the beginning of this impossibly rambling and circumlocutious sentence). The box contained a very early, unimaginably expansive recording of what would eventually become “Chunga’s Revenge,” recorded in an unto then unheard of separation/mix called “quadraphonic”; this recording, in fact, preceded the whole quadraphonic rage (“rage” may not be the best way to describe it, though… the process never really caught on with anyone other than audio geeks of the highest form) by several years and today’s hip new sound, Digital 5.1 Surround Sound by nearly three-and-a-half decades! That recording (in the guise of “Chunga Basement”) is now released in all of its four-channel glory, alongside nine other such experiments recorded by FZ and his various groups (Zappa, the Mothers, and… Dweezil, the proposed name of the new group with which Frank recorded this version of “Chunga… “). Dweezil (the son, not the band), after inquiring as to the existence of other like-minded recordings, has sequenced the ten tracks culled from the vaults of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, not chronologically, but with an eye (an ear?) toward maximum listenability. So, how’d the kid do? Let’s examine, shall we?

Frank and Dweezil Zappa (uncredited photo)

QUAUDIOPHILIAC begins with two of Zappa’s orchestral pieces, the first (“Naval Aviation In Art?”) comes from the much-contested LATHER (an historic four-album set that was whittled up and edited into five separate albums – STUDIO TAN, SLEEP DIRT, the two-record set LIVE IN NEW YORK, and ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES, the latter being the place that this tune eventually saw release); the second is a re-worked, unreleased “Lumpy Gravy” from the same session that spawned the former. The two tracks combined clock in at a robust 2:39. The third track comes from the same source, but features – for the first time here – a signature FZ guitar solo. The previously unreleased “Rollo” is everything that made you fall in love with Zappa’s music (except without the pee-pee and fart jokes): Intriguing time-changes, adventurous arrangements, squiggly guitar leads. This, friends and neighbors, is truly the stuff of which FZ’s legend was made!

Aynsley Dunbar, Frank Zappa (uncredited photo)

A previously unheard version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” retitled “Drooling Midrange Accountants On Easter Hay” by Dweezil, is next. The new name comes from an FZ quote in which he discusses the record business in – as you can tell – his usual glowing terms; this spot-on diatribe is now edited over an alternate arrangement of the tune. The next two songs – SHEIK YERBOUTI’s “Wild Love” and SHUT UP ‘N’ PLAY YER GUITAR SOME MORE’s “Ship Ahoy” – feature several musicians who cut their teeth in Zappa’s late ’70s bands: bassists Roy Estrada and Patrick O’Hearn, guitarist Adrian Belew, vocalist Napolean Murphey Brock, and uber-percussionist Terry Bozzio. Though the songs are familiar, the four-channel mixes bring out the hidden intricacies inherent in all of FZ’s music. The much bally-hooed (just how much? Well, check out the first paragraph of this here critically-motivated piece) “Dweezil” tape rears its magnificent head next. Apparently, Dweezil would have been a kind of Mothers super-group in a standard four-piece rock setting: FZ on guitar (and, presumably, vocals), Ian Underwood on keyboards, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and Max Bennett on bass. As far as I know, Zappa’s reasons for retiring Dweezil after this single recording session has never been revealed. Obviously, Frank decided to reconvene the Mothers in a newer, harder-edged version and to maintain his steadily growing solo career, as well. “Chunga’s Basement,” now, is merely a glimpse of what could have been.

Frank Zappa (photo credit: FRANK LEONHARDT/ASSOCIATED PRESS IMAGES)

The next two tracks are the oldest of these recordings, aside form the Dweezil tape. An unreleased live recording from 1974, “Venusian Time Bandits,” features three more impressive Mothers: George Duke, Chester Thompson, and Tom Fowler. While FZ usually went large – as on the WAKA/JAWAKA title track which follows – it is in the stripped down arrangements for four-piece combos that his own virtuosity is featured in its best light; there is no doubt as to the genius he displayed as a composer, a conductor, an arranger, a band leader. The thing that these smaller groups shows is that Zappa was an unselfish (though demanding) player. He was more than willing to stand aside and allow his bandmates to shine, but was able to play rings around just about anybody you could name when he chose. “Waka/Jawaka” is a prime example of FZ standing aside, allowing his compositional and arranging skills to dictate how the other musicians move the music along. “Basement Music #2,” a piece culled from the soundtrack to the BABY SNAKES movie, finishes the set off in fine fashion. Chil’uns, if the newly discovered mixes don’t sell you on this one, then the unreleased stuff is surely enough to convince each of you to become a QUAUDIOPHILIAC! Dude, this just reminds me how much I miss FZ… hopefully there’s more to come.

LIARS: TFCF

(Mute Records; 2017)

Liars have managed an unprecedented feat in my music world. The art punk band that, until their new CD was the work of duo Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, have now made 8 albums in a row that I have loved. In the past 30 or so years, no other artist has made that many consecutive albums that knocked me out. Radiohead and Wilco were in the running, but then each made an album that failed to floor me. So Wilco stalled at 7 in a row. That leaves Liars in this unique position… a band I love who have never made an album I didn’t find thrilling. Their debut in 2002, the bizarrely titled THEY THREW US ALL IN A TRENCH AND STUCK A MONUMENT ON TOP, was responsible for one of the most memorable listening experiences I’ve ever had on the road, with a 30-minute closing track that absolutely marked them out as authentic weirdos. The follow-up, THEY WERE WRONG, SO WE DROWNED, was kind of a song cycle about witches and witchcraft, with some seriously spooky stuff on it, and some willfully perverse anti-commercial compositions that dared you to like them. I did, though… something this band was doing sounded like no one else, and seemed to be the product of an aesthetic that was hard to pin down. Their music combined chants, tribal percussive elements, odd fragments that could be haunting for a spell and then disappear, ambient passages and, sometimes, kick-ass driving rockers. Through it all, the voice of Angus Andrew, which sometimes he’d use to actually sing and sometimes he’d employ in the service of controlled atonality or spooky asides, served as a sonic trademark; Liars established their sound early on, one that was never less than intriguing and that featured fascinating stylistic variations each time out. It was weird, hypnotic, rhythmic and mysterious. It wasn’t for everybody, but so what? It was for ME, that’s all that mattered. In just 15 years, this eccentric band have made 8 albums I love. That’s a damn good track record!

LIARS (Angus Andrew) (uncredited photo)

But when I heard that Hemphill had left the band before this new CD, I was seriously worried. My first reaction was anger.… what, Aaron, being in one of the most fascinating bands of the new millennium wasn’t enough for you? Was Angus too controlling? Was your own muse being stifled? Not enough records being sold? I really wanted to know WHAT happened, and in the pre-release publicity, I read that Andrews wasn’t too happy about the departure. He went back to his native Australia after shuffling around multiple locations between the US and Europe, and set about making TFCF on his own. He remarked that he felt like a “bride being left at the altar” or somesuch, and indeed, the unsettling cover photo shows a dejected looking Andrew sitting by himself wearing a bridal gown, an uneaten cake nearby. It’s the most off-putting Liars cover, but in context, it makes sense and it’s quite sad. As a fan, going into this record, you had to be wondering if this was going to be the first Liars album to fall short – if the departure of Hemphill was gonna reveal that Andrew REALLY needed someone else to rein in his weirder artistic impulses, of which there were many. What were we in for, anyway?

The answer, miraculously, is another great Liars record. Here is proof positive that Angus Andrew is a true visionary, a singular composing talent who has enough adventurous ideas and experimental willfulness to keep the Liars sound fresh and flowing. One big surprise is the prevalence of acoustic guitar on this album. “The Grand Delusional” begins right away with a bit of sombre picking… haunting and evocative. “We said we would ride/We said we would take them out to sea,” Andrew sings, and it could be a reference to his ex-bandmate or a metaphor for something else. It doesn’t really matter; it’s lovely and cryptic. There are two songs that have a specific recurring line that must surely have something to do with the pain of Hemphill’s departure. “Staring at Zero” is short but it has a fairly typical ominous Liars rhythm track over which Andrew sings “Why can’t you shoot me through the heart?… We both were broke right from the start.” Sounds like admitted self-pity to me, and when it segues into some singer/songwriter-y acoustic guitar again right away, the effect is not typical Liars at all, and yet startling in that Liars way. Fascinating stuff. On the memorably titled “No Tree No Branch,” one of several songs that has echoes of Radiohead (past albums had even more songs somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke and company), the recurring lyric that sticks in your head is “If you listen you’ll hear that sound right there in my mind.” It’s true, we DO hear that sound and the rapid, demented keyboard bit over which it’s sung is captivating. This goes right into “Cred Woes,” possibly the most quintessential Liars track on the album. With a truly insistent simple percussion track and an ascending synth line that is sort of an earworm for those of us into this kind of weirdness, Andrew goes on about something obviously important to him but you won’t necessarily make out all the words. You also may not be able to read them in their tiny white type over green background flora as presented in the CD booklet. No matter; something compelling is being presented here, something dramatic and original. It has never mattered to me personally if I could understand everything Andrew was singing on Liars recordings. Some of the most memorable moments are slow and contemplative here: “Ripe Ripe Rot” is like an Eno-esque, slightly sour ambient track with a subdued Iggy Pop-style vocal. “You don’t remember what I said/And it’s time again to explode your heart/Yeah it’s time again to let go,” Andrew sings, with a resigned sadness. This dissolves into a big slice of ambient drift that would be pure hymn-like afterthought if not for the repeating dissonant machine sound that laces it, but maybe that’s the point. Andrew is still carrying on, still indulging his sense of sonic wonder… but his brain is surely hurting, and he’s up to something more than prettiness. In fact, he’s always been up to something partially inscrutable, something where others may not go gently. Liars albums take WORK, and I’m glad this one is no different. It’s one of the shortest Liars discs, but a worthy successor to 2014’s MESS. Sorry about your bandmate, Angus, but hell… you’ve proved you don’t need ANYONE, right? You’re one of the most interesting guys in rock, and I for one plan to follow you wherever you go.