Skip to content

Avant-Garde Music - 3. page

THREE LEGGED RACE: ROPE COMMERCIAL, VOLUME ONE

(UNDERWATER PEOPLES RECORDS EP; 2014)

Three Legged Race cover

Three Legged Race has been the recording project of artist and former Hair Police member, Robert Beatty, since 2002; ROPE COMMERCIAL, VOLUME ONE is his first since 2012’s PERSUASIVE BARRIER and the first in a proposed series of EPs. Beatty has also upped his game for this release, adding acoustic instruments to the mix and warping and processing everything to the point of nearly total inarticulation from the original source. There are certain aspects of the forward-thinking pieces that similarly hearken back to some of my favorite outre noise projects of the ’80s and ’90s, to wit: Skeleton Key’s clanky, creepy debut, FANTASTIC SPIKES THROUGH BALLOON; the industrial sounds of Wisdom Tooth; COMPASS (KUM’PAS) from Dalek I (later, Dalek I Love You).

Robert Beatty is Three Legged Race (publicity photo)
Robert Beatty is Three Legged Race (photo credit: JAIME LAZICH)

All Ajax Dial” is a discordant, clangorous metallic cacophony of noise, quite reminiscent of the previously name-checked Wisdom Tooth and Skeleton Key (without the vocals). Things are definitely off to a great start! After the first track, “Aside From Each Other and Together Overnight” is almost calming… almost. It features so many different textures and sounds, that it is impossible to compartmentalize. It has what sounds like distorted bells and a toy piano with some otherworldly synthesized howls, shifts to a science-fiction like soundtrack (or maybe something from THE EXORCIST, with all the bells) before it takes on an aquatic sound, almost like an exhausted swimmer sinking to a watery grave. As the howls come back in, they’re joined by some indecipherable babbling, sounding like a transmission from another dimension… all in right around six minutes. “New Government” is the sound that you hear when the record’s groove runs the needle into the center label. Add a few little Dalek I like noises bubbling just under the surface to the implied percussive impetus of that needle run out thing (and the return of the piano forcing its way to the fore toward the end of the piece) and it turns into an utterly creepy and highly listenable affair. “The Humidity Mascot” is a collection of computer blips and skrees and odd modulations over the top of a backward tape loop that sounds like a train or heavy city traffic. Beatty saves the most “musical” piece for last. “Rope Commercial” has an Indian percussion sort of thing happening, with weird, cartoony music and sound effects running over the top. The whole record is over in 18 minutes, leaving me wanting more and craving the second installment of the ROPE COMMERCIAL series. The EP is available only as a 12” picture disc; for this and more incredible music, visit the label website at underwaterpeoples.com.

UNCONSCIOUS COLLECTIVE: PLEISTOCENE MOON

(TOFU CARNAGE; 2014)

12 Jacket (Gatefold - Two Pocket) [GD30OB2-N]

The avant metal/doom jazz experimental trio Unconscious Collective is back with their second full-length, the impossibly retro-progressive PLEISTOCENE MOON, putting the best parts of Sun Ra, the Mothers, Mile Davis, Crawling Chaos and Captain Beefheart in a bag, shaking them up and dumping them out onto two slabs of 12 inch vinyl (wax, actually, but… you know what I’m talking about) that are uniquely their own. This is some seriously brain-damaged stuff! I like it… I like it a lot!

Unconscious Collective (Aaron Gonzalez, Gregg Prickett, Stefan Gonzalez) photo credit: GINGER BERRY)
Unconscious Collective (Aaron Gonzalez, Gregg Prickett, Stefan Gonzalez) photo credit: GINGER BERRY)

The first three minutes of the title track is every camper’s nightmare, with various animal and… uh… other noises (I’m thinking RACE WITH THE DEVIL… look it up). It leads into an even creepier Gothic fever dream, featuring ominous bass and drum parts (courtesy of Aaron Gonzalez and Stefan Gonzalez, respectively), a scratchy, atmospheric guitar (provided by Gregg Prickett) and other deeply disturbing noises and effects. Simply stated, “Pleistocene Moon” is the soundtrack to the scariest horror movie never made. “Tribe Apini” is fueled by a deep, sonorous bass, some jazzy drumwork and some avant guitar noodling with subtle flamenco undertones. Frank Zappa woulda been proud! There’s a jazzy vibe to “Requiem For Biodiversity.” The first section is a plaintive, emotive tenor sax thing by Mike Forbes. Aaron chimes in with a great bass line and a cool bowed acoustic bass (like a cello, no?) part. The track is very much in the free-form jazz vein that eventually turns into manic Motorhead Sherwood skronks. Prickett’s feedback and echo drenched guitar during the first 150 seconds of “Kotsoteka” comes off like soundtrack music for a spaghetti western starring face-eating demons. From that point, it’s a fairly straight forward rocker with a light jazz glaze.

Is the Spine the Dividing Line?” has an odd, but appealing jazz time signature, with requisite great work from the rhythm section and minimally intrusive guitar and horn noodling to carry the melody, which is quite reminiscent of Flesh Eaters’ magnificent “Satan’s Stomp.” The final few minutes turn rather ominous, reiterating the haunted foreboding of the first half of the record. A squalling stun guitar and solid bass/sax interplay informs “Methane Rising,” the shortest track on the album. The tune is a wicked, violent improv of noise and an unlikely groove that slowly falls apart in a deconstructive heap with Aaron plucking single notes to the fade. “The Transformation of Matter” is an almost normal sounding jazz tune with plenty of soloing and adventurous swerves and bumps along the way. The final track, “Greedy Tongue” is a percussion piece – not a drum solo – with Stefan incorporating a coil spring and other, more standard percussive instruments and running them through a blender for an other-worldly sound. Guitar and bass scratch and claw just below the surface as the disembodied voices from the first tune reappear, adding to the luncay. With the track clocking in at over eight minutes, you may think that it will get really stale fairly quickly; far from it, Stefan engages from the get-go and keeps it interesting ’til the end. The same can be said for the whole record, as five of the tracks come in at ten minutes or more. If you miss the adventurous improvisational aspects of yesterday’s musical innovators, PLEISTOCENE MOON should put that shiver back in your spine.The album is available in a downlaodable form or as a two record set from tofucarnage.com.

AMON DUUL II: DUULIRIUM

(PURPLE PYRAMID RECORDS/CLEOPATRA RECORDS; reissue 2014, original digital release 2010)

1808

Approximately a decade-and-a-half after their last true record (new material, rather than collected works or decades-old live tapes), and even longer since the involvement of a majority of the original driving forces within the group, Amon Duul II returned in 2010 with BEE AS SUCH, a self-released downloadable album harkening back to the beginning… experimental and trippy sound pastiches with transcendently hippie-chic lyricism. The original plans for the album included a physical release shortly after the digital files were posted; that scenario never materialized… until now, as the Purple Pyramid arm of Cleopatra Records has finally released the retitled DUULIRIUM on vinyl and CD. Rather like the debut of their forebears (the communal-minded Amon Duul), BEE AS SUCH seemed to be recorded as one long jam session and then edited and cut down into four separate and highly distinct tunes. I mention that because the individual tracks tend to start and end either in the middle of a note or a piece of lyric; even if it appears that the splices fit together seamlessly (as with the first two cuts), when you try to edit the two songs together, it just doesn’t work.

Amon Duul II, circa 2009 (Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, Jan Kahlert, Chris Karrer, John Weinzierl, Gerard Carbonell, Lothar Meid) (uncredited photo)
Amon Duul II, circa 2009 (Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, Jan Kahlert, Chris Karrer, John Weinzierl, Gerard Carbonell, Lothar Meid) (uncredited photo)

The disjointedness starts at point zero of the first track, “On the Highway” (originally called “Mambo La Libertad”), as the track seems to pick up right in the middle of a lyric. The song itself is all weird, hippie redux, but is not unappealing in the least. The vocals, which I assume are by Chris Karrer and Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, comes across as a rather sloppy (though, again, not unappealing) duet between Don Van Vliet and Edith Bunker (the character, not Jean Stapleton, who actually had a great voice). As off-kilter as this assessment makes it sound, “Mambo La Libertad” gets the record off to a great start. The track ends mid-drumbeat, with the second cut picking up somewhere later in the same beat; “Du Kommst Ins Heim” is total mind-warping Krautrock of the highest order. Continuing to mine a plethora of vocal styles, the (again, an assumption on my part) male part comes across as David Byrne, circa early Talking Heads. The same vocals that sounded like Edith are here, too, but much more… in tune, while spastic yodeling, operatic yowls and squalling cat mewls mingle with the odd violin scrape. We actually dig this one muchly as it totally epitomizes the word “trippy.”

Standing In the Shadow” finds Nina Hagen and Mac Rebennack vamping their way through a wicked, groove-based improvisation, fronting a Germanic Funkadelic with Lothar Meid (in the role of Bootsy) funkin’ things up on the bass guitar, while John Weinzierl adds some insane Bernie Worrell style synthesizer effects. At less than eight-and-a-half minutes, “Stil Standing” (the cut’s original title) is the shortest track on DUULIRIUM/BEE AS SUCH. In contrast, the final piece clocks in at nearly thirty minutes; listed on DUULIRIUM as two separate entities, “Back To the Rules” and “Walking To the Park,” the songs were presented under the title “Psychedelic Suite” on the original digital files of BEE AS SUCH. A mindnumbing crawl of a slow tune, “Back To the Rules” occupies the first ten-and-a-half minutes of this musical beast. Standing as a stark example of gaunt minimalism, the oddly languid pace manifests itself as a definite plus rather than a minus; the musicians almost break free at the 8:45 mark only to be reined back in by the burdensome art-damage of the whole thing. The final minutes of the piece does pick up the pace, though not much, as bassist Meid and percussionists Danny Fichelscher and Jan Kahlert drive the tune toward a real psychedelic work-out leading into a bizarre little interlude before heading full-bore into “Walking To the Park” at around the 18:30 mark. Suddenly, a leisurely stroll (a virtual Thorazine shuffle) becomes a frenzied run, perhaps as the couple in the narrative realizes that the park may not be the safest place to be. There are some great guitar runs during this section of the track, really the first time either Weinzierl or Karrer have exploited the instrument to its fullest extent on the entire record. Likewise, Knaup-Krotenschwanz delivers the album’s best performance here, falling somewhere between early Toyah Willcox, mid-period Kate Bush and latter day Marianne Faithfull. Twenty-six minutes may seem a tad like overkill but, if you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded with what is an epic masterpiece of the genre that has come to be known as “Krautrock.”

SWANS/XIU XIU

(June 24, 2014; THE READY ROOM; Saint Louis, MO)

The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)
The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)

At some shows I’ve been to in recent years, particularly smaller ones, I’ve looked at the audience as much as the performers, trying to gauge people’s reactions and suss out what kind of experience they were having. When you’re dealing with a noncommercial act like Swans, the Michael Gira-led entity that inhabits one end of the post-punk spectrum, you can’t help wondering about the fans and why this kinda assaultive sonic maelstrom appeals to them. This is not to pass judgment, as I AM such a fan. It’s just… why? How can long, discordant, punishing slabs of dark drone and indecipherable lyrics be life-affirming? Do you leave such an experience in a good mood, and just say to your concert-going pals, “Man, that was great!” the way you would after a normal concert? I dunno. But I did indeed utter “That was pretty amazing” to MY companion for the night, and I did experience SOME kind of catharsis. But I’m not sure what it was. I do know I won’t forget it.

Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)
Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)

I wasn’t overly familiar with Swans going in; I’d heard a few bits and pieces, and read some articles about them. But never had a chance to experience their sound up close before. Warning was given via a sign on the door that the concert was going to be extremely loud (helpful hint, that!), so ear plugs were clearly in order. But actually, I’ve been to louder, even though it WAS a punishing volume throughout. Things kicked off with a bizarre half hour opening stint by an incarnation of Xiu Xiu that included only founder Jamie Stewart. I’d been looking forward to hearing some songs from Xiu Xiu’s early CDs that I happened to own, but it was not to be. Stewart sat at a synth console and delivered a piercing monolithic tone that gradually got louder and louder, and gradually added other drone elements until it evolved into a squall of noisy dark ambient matter that was alternatingly hypnotic and tedious. He never said a word and never looked up, and I wouldn’t have even known this had anything to do with the Xiu Xiu I once listened to unless I’d done some research the next day. One thing’s for sure; you don’t see this kinda thing on stage in Saint Louis very often.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)
Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

The wait for Swans was short and, it’s pretty clear when you lay eyes (and ears) on a crazed codger like Michael Gira that you’re in the presence of a twisted original. It seems almost irrelevant to mention song titles, because at a show like this, only hardcore fans would care about such a thing. Swans “tunes” are really long, really repetitive and singularly immersive; variety is not what you’re in for at a show like this. But, okay… “Frankie M” and “A Little God in My Hands” were the first two tunes. Layered gongs kicked off the former, and your ears had no choice but to instantly surrender to the onslaught. I was distracted almost immediately by a comely young woman swaying to the sound, yes, swaying to a sound that most of my friends would’ve bolted from within minutes. Heck, I thought girls liked dancing to stuff with a beat and a sing-along chorus. But damn, even the weirdest and most anti-commercial of bands gotta have their female followers, I suppose. “ …God… ” began with a slashing, repeated chord or whatever you’d call the combination of tones that kicked this one off. I was reminded of Eno’s oblique strategy card, “Repetition is a form of change,” a notion that Eno pioneered and that Swans have seemingly taken to another level. No one would be able to lose themselves in this kind of sonic overload if it was truly just one continuous, unvarying tone but, the fact is, Gira’s band conjure a gargantuan symphony of strident yet structured noisetronica that is ferociously willful and ultimately transfixing. The crowd was apparently riveted, although one girl sitting next to me was peacefully reading a paperback novel half the time, and I wondered about her temperament. I wouldn’t have been able to get through a single page of any book with this kinda music in the background.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)
Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Gira has a trademark way of holding his hands out to each side, shaking them a little, symmetrically, sometimes with eyes closed. He’s a curious figurehead with his long hair and piercing gaze, and seems genuinely appreciative that he gets to do this sort of thing. My companion and I chatted about how this sort of music can only exist and, in fact, progress, if its makers are utterly serious and committed to what they do. Not an issue at all with Swans. The cacophonous “The Apostate” was next, and it was thunderous, with atonal chord play, primal sludgy ambience and a sound that struck my ears as “Da U WOOM/ Da U WOOM!” It went on for a long, long time and, again, I couldn’t help watching the Ready Room patrons, most of whom watched with rapt attention and, a few of whom attempted to move their bodies in one way or another to this crazed sound. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of thing every day, but experiencing it live was a pretty singular experience. Something almost approaching “tonal variety” came with the song “Just A Little Boy,” which made me think of the eerie Talking Heads song, “The Overload.” Straight-up dirge-y angst, the lyrics go, “Now I sleep in the belly of woman/And I sleep in the belly of man/And I sleep in the belly of rhythm/And I sleep in the belly of love.” Maybe not manifesto territory here, but Gira is clearly saying SOMETHING, and trying to do so in the context of a long, assaultive drone makes it brave and interesting. It was actually one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the evening.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)
Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Fire trucks appeared in fromt of the Ready Room two different times, once early in the evening, and once during “Don’t Go,” when the flashing red lights got the attention of anyone near the windows (including yours truly) and made me wonder whether a fire code violation had occurred, or whether the crew outside had been tipped off about something that needed to be “watched” at this show. No doubt the attendance was amazing; the line waiting to get into the RR was thrice longer than I had been anticipating. Gira gets good publicity. Anyway, the sound slabs during this number were particularly intense, with two or three bass notes played insistently while granite chunks of guitar, percussion and keys were hurled out into the crowd with abandon. My mind wandered (and a few Shock Top drafts added splendidly to the mood), and I thought that if Gira’s story was ever made into a movie, either Michael Madsen or Guy Pearce would have to be cast as the lead. Scruffy intensity was definitely called for. The one-two climactic punch of “Bring the Sun/Black Hole Man” was sometimes evocative and haunting, sometimes poundingly nasty, with lyrics almost impossible to decipher (although I’d swear I heard the phrase “Joseph is riding” once or twice). But, hey, lyrics are not the point of a Swans song. Immersive surrender to the darkest of dark waves is more in order. And, actually, I left in admiration for the perverse, primal simplicity of what Swans have to offer. Though there is little pleasure or comfort to be had in a show like this, the catharsis is real, and the visceral release is palpable. It’s important for music to stake out EDGES to explore, places where few dare go and declare, “Okay, this is what’s out here in THIS place, check it out if you’re so inclined.” I’m grateful to have experienced that thing that Swans do, even if I’ll be scratching my head for a long time over what it means, and how that girl could’ve gotten through a good portion of her book with Swans as the background soundtrack. Each to their own in this world, truly…

SWANS: TO BE KIND

(YOUNG GOD RECORDS; 2014)

image1

Have you ever liked something so much that you have a hard time describing it to your friends? Yeah, me, too. As a matter of fact, I’m finding it really difficult to put words and phrases in an order that will convey how utterly smitten I am with the new Swans record, TO BE KIND. To say that it’s “awesome” may just be the understatement of the century and, anything I do say will not give the sprawling (over two hours on two CDs or three records… there’s also a “deluxe edition,” which features a live DVD), majestic beast its just deserts. However, that is my job, so I’m going to try, song by song, to describe the wonders that are Swans’ TO BE KIND. Forgive me for the comparative shopping that I offer in an effort to give you, at the very least, a small reference point in the history of music that you may better grasp the scope of what Michael Gira and band have accomplished here.

Swans (publicity photo)
Swans (publicity photo)

The first disc starts with “Screen Shot,” a minimalist, loopy (as in circumlocutious) track with a great poly-rhythmic drum coda that turns into an unrelenting cacophony of buzzing guitars a little over six minutes in. Gira’s vocals here remind me of Mark E Smith’s very early work with the Fall. Referencing another avant legend, “Screen Shot” very well could have been the great, lost Residents song. “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” is a much harsher affair. This is the Swans sound that I was introduced to, lo, these many years ago. The next track, “A Little God In My Hands,” is the funk number. Imagine a brasher, much more abrasive Public Image Limited. “Bring the Sun” is paired with “ToussaintL’Ouverture,” but don’t feel like you’re getting slighted by this coupling… the track is right at 34 minutes long. Now that is bang for your buck! But… is it any good? Let’s examine, shall we? “Bring the Sun” is a shamanistic “Black Juju” filtered through the Cult stopping by for a drink at a Doors reunion at Morrison’s grave, with liberal doses of trance-inducing Middle Eastern chanting. As the name implies, “Toussaint L’Ouverture” is a Satanic church service evoking the name of the Black Napoleon, leader of the 1791 slave revolt in what would become Haiti. Think of it as the New Orleans Hoodoo soundtrack for the Zombie Apocalypso, with disturbing slices of buzz and drone and clatter to up the creep factor. This single, 34 minute track is never dull and never lags; it is as compelling a listen as anything on the album. To follow that up with the shortest song of this collection to end disc one may seem a little odd, but… we are talking about Michael Gira and Swans! “Some Things We Do” clocks in at an economical five minutes. The already claustrophobic feel of the track is enhanced by the low key arrangement, with Julia Kent’s strings adding an odd sense of dread. The song is a litany of, well, some things we do and Gira’s droning vocal delivery is further enhanced by Little Annie’s haunting voice shadowing his own.

Swans (publicity photo)
Swans (publicity photo)

She Loves Us” kicks off disc number two. The first four or five minutes of the piece is yet another minimalist blast of metallic power, featuring Residents-like vocals during the chorus. This leads into an evil sounding instrumental section, very reminiscent of the instrumental section of “Dream Lover” from the 1980 Plasmatics album NEW HOPE FOR THE WRETCHED (in that version, all five members of the band recorded a solo in different rooms… without knowing what the others were playing… it was a beautiful, discordant racket!). The final half of the track slowly settles into the main theme in the form of another mantric, slightly Asian sounding underbelly with a heavily processed tack piano repeating the hypnotic coda. Again, I am reminded of Public Image, with strong vocal and bass similarities, as well as guitars that slash and buzz throughout. A shaker fades in and out of the mix adding to the brutal cacophony of sound, with the final minute and a half coming on like Alice Cooper’s “Killer.” Next, “Kristen Supine” is ten minutes of an ever-tightening web of nightmare-inducing white noise drone from a variety of stringed instruments, guitar and violin being the most prominent. In an album of minimalist performances, the vocals here give the term a new meaning. “Oxygen” is a ludicrously over-the-top James Brown funk workout. And, isn’t that always the best kind? An odd Bedouin throat-chanting kind of thing opens “Nathalie Neal.” Layers of equally odd instrumentation are added – including a repeating guitar riff that could have come from an early Queen record, bells, timbrels and similar percussion instruments, a voice that sounds like an English schoolmarm teaching her students a dance – before the drums and a squadron of swirling, dive-bombing guitars turn up the heat. The title track (“To Be Kind,” in case you’ve forgotten) features an almost recognizable song structure (what could be considered a ballad) before devolving into an angry crescendo of noise over the last couple of minutes. The lyrics, like the first part of the song, are kinda starry-eyed love song stuff. The dichotomy of this track against the sheer brutality of the rest of the album is as jarring as anything else.

Swans (publicity photo)
Swans (publicity photo)

So, there you go. Like the album, it wasn’t easy, but I tried to give you a feel of what TO BE KIND is like. It will most certainly make, not just my top ten of 2014, but most such year-end lists… and, deservedly so.

BARBEZ: BELLA CIAO

(TZADIK RECORDS; 2013)

Barbez album

(This review is a long time coming. I’ve actually started and abandoned at least seven different pieces. The problem is this: every time I listen to Barbez’ BELLA CIAO album, I come away with a completely unique take on the music. After the first listen, I had a definite feeling about the music and what this review would entail. It changed after the second listening… and after the tenth… and after the twentieth. So, here finally, is an amalgamation of the seven different reviews along with some even fresher thoughts on this utterly mesmerizing collection. Strap yourselves in, kiddies… this ride, like the music, is going to get bumpy!)

I may be wrong (I have been before, so don’t look so shocked!), but I’m fairly certain that the term “son, you be trippin’” was coined expressly for use when discussing this album. First of all, look at the names of those songs (“Yoshev Beseter Elyon,” “Keter Ittenu” and my personal favorite, “Channun Kerov Rachamav”). It’s like they’re written in some foreign language or something. And, what few lyrics there are, though in English, are equally incomprehensible. I wholly understand how BELLA CIAO came to be released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. I mean, he is the guardian of the avant-garde.

Barbez (publicity photo)
Barbez (publicity photo)

Okay, so… enough bad jokes and worse puns! I’m really not too sure about the language, but as far as I can tell it’s some derivative of Slovak, although the record is based on liturgical music and songs of the Italian Resistance during World War II, all coming from Roman Jews. It still makes perfect sense for this phenomenal album to be released on a label formed by John Zorn, a man who embodies the concept of “outsider music.” You can file BELLA CIAO next to such albums as LUX VIVENS by Jocelyn Montgomery and David Lynch and just about anything by Zorn (particularly his spaghetti western period). The first track, “Shema Koli,” is a riot of calamitous medley and off-kilter instrumentation (theremin, clarinet, violin and some eerily dissonant voices). The entire album, actually, seems to pull from so many different genres that saying that it is this kind of music or that type of music does no justice to the overall intent of the work. Throughout the 11 tracks, there are elements of classical guitar and violin, a definite jazz feel to the drums and percussion, a bit of the avant-garde in the clarinets and vocals and an overall feeling of Eastern European folk styles, with each piece intricately woven to form an unforgettable whole.

Barbez founder, Dan Kaufman on stage (uncredited photo)
Barbez founder, Dan Kaufman on stage (uncredited photo)

The history of the music and the people responsible for it’s existence is as important as the music itself. In July 1943, Benito Mussolini was overthrown and a new Italian government was set in place. This new government quickly signed an armistice with the Allies. The Nazis didn’t really like that they were losing a staunch ally and retaliated by occupying Rome. The city’s large Jewish community was threatened with deportation unless they came up with 50 kilograms of gold in two days. Amazingly, the gold was secured, but – as is the case with most power-mad despots – the invaders reneged on the deal and more than 1000 Roman Jews were sent to Auschwitz by the Gestapo. Only 16 of those people survived. The album’s title track and the central theme of the song cycle, “Bella Ciao,” came out of the resistance movement; the poem (by an unidentified author) used as the lyrics became one of the most important rallying cries and an enduring artifact of the city’s defiance. The album also utilizes poems by Italian writer/filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and wartime poet Alfonso Gatto to great effect. Barbez founder and guiding light, Dan Kaufman, has constructed an important musical history of the Roman Jews, the oldest continuous residents of the city, using their liturgical music and their fierce resistance and struggle during World War II to tell their story. To that end, BELLA CIAO must be heard!

PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS

(CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2013)

psych-out christmas cover

I can’t listen to Christmas songs anymore. Not the cutesy ones like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “The Christmas Song” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”; not the Carols heard in church like “Noel” or “Away In a Manger.” I just can’t do it! I ain’t no Scrooge… I’ve done my share of caroling and was even a member of my church choir (okay, so I was asked to leave because I started singing the Hoyt Axton song when we did “Joy To the World”), but it just is not happening for me anymore. Why? It mostly stems from the absolute mindless inundation of the “holiday spirit” from, basically, the end of September through New Year’s Day. As an example, I was shopping for Halloween candy (something I usually put off ’til the last minute, but in an odd act of responsibility, I was about three weeks early) in a large box store (the Mart with all the Wals… you know the one) and, walking past one of those goofy inspirational music kiosks, I heard – I kid you not! – “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Seriously? Christmas songs the first week of October? You can understand, then, my trepidation regarding this new holiday offering.

Iggy Pop (photo credit: JEAN-PAUL GOUDE)
Iggy Pop (photo credit: JEAN-PAUL GOUDE)

But… guess what? I like it! I really like it! It isn’t as dark and menacing as, say, CLAWS (the twisted 1980 macabre masterpiece by Morgan Fisher’s Hybrid Kids) or anything produced by that stable of demented kiddies over at Disney, but it does have an underlying sense of… let’s call it familial claustrophobia, shall we? The songs are fairly standard Christmas fare, but tweaked just enough to give the listener a rather ominous vibe. The set starts off with a piece of warm and fuzzy lunacy, the opening track from Len Maxwell’s 1964 bizarro A MERRY MONSTER CHRISTMAS album. From there, we’re treated to some of today’s best psychedelic and space rock bands (with a few surprises tossed into the mix) waxing musical over the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ or the birth of Sol (for the pagans among us) or over that jolly elf favored by capitalists the world over, Santa (that last one, I suppose, works for everyone else, too). Anyway, I suppose that’s my lummoxed way of saying that you don’t have to celebrate the Christ Mass to enjoy this record… just grab your favorite – uh – whatever and give her/him/it a big ol’ smooch under the mistlethumb and dance like you’re in the mud at Woodstock!

Quintron and Miss Pussycat (uncredited photo)
Quintron and Miss Pussycat (uncredited photo)

Elephant Stone’s version of the Beatles’ “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” is as trippily poppy as you would expect from such a high-end pairing. We are off to a great start here! “It’s Christmas Day” by the Cosmonauts is an odd jangle-pop thingy, kinda like an utterly drunken Tom Petty fronting the Byrds… so, it’s got that goin’ for it. The first “traditional” Christmas hymn follows. However, “Silent Night,” as performed by synth-puppet show duo, Quintron and Miss Pussycat, is anything but traditional. The beloved tune (in instrumental form) is hardly recognizable and is more psychotic (in a bossa nova sort of way) than psychedelic. I’m not too sure that this one belongs on a compilation like PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS, but I’m glad it is… I would have hated to miss hearing it! Hailing from Sweden (where we swiped a lot of their Solstice “rituals” and turned ’em into our Christmas “traditions”) is Dark Horses, weighing in with “Jul Song,” an original that totally oozes psychedelia, from the guitars to the vocals to the (if not indecipherable) vaguely incomprehensible lyrics. It could be that the meaning was lost in translation, but it really doesn’t matter; the beauty of the piece as a whole makes it a favorite.

Sleepy Sun (Photo credit: CHLOE AFTEL)
Sleepy Sun (Photo credit: CHLOE AFTEL)

Sleepy Sun’s take on “What Child Is This,” with its creeping bass line and minimal, plodding instrumentation and “sold-my-soul-to-Satan” type vocals from Bret Constantino, introduces a new kind of not-unwanted menace to the proceedings and, when the guitar duo of Evan Reiss and Matt Holliman kick in, they drive the tune to new psychedelic heights. A cover of Suicide’s “No More Christmas Blues” from the Vacant Lots is over almost before you know it. It offers a bouncy little synth riff and an airily (or is that “eerily?”) tripped out vocal. It’s a fun track (but then, aren’t all Suicide tunes?) but pales in comparison to the surrounding offerings from Sleepy Sun and Sons of Hippies. It’s somewhat fitting that, regardless of the apparent thematic disconnect (although, as is pointed out in the press release, Christmas is indeed “the season of loving”), these Hippies should cover a song by a group of Zombies. Hippies front-woman Katherine Kelly sums up the song best: “’Time of the Season’ was fun to cover. We replaced the organ parts on the original Zombies version with layers of distorted guitar leads and gave the drums an eerie, echoed intro. The PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS compilation is unique and spooky and we wanted to be part of that vibe.” Sons of Hippies aren’t currently one of my favorite bands for nothing and this spectacularly atmospheric cover is just more evidentiary proof of that statement (double negatives aside).

Eli Cook (photo credit: REED RADCLIFFE)
Eli Cook (photo credit: REED RADCLIFFE)

With “Santa Claus,” the Fuzztones offer the first dose of overtly “traditional garage psychedelia,” with the obligatory farfisa organ, the dirty guitar sound (you know what I mean, like it’s being played through a blown amp) and a vocal that sounds like it was recorded with 1960s studio equipment. In short, all of these aspects make “Santa Claus” another favorite. Eli Cook”s “Christmas Tears” has a great bluesy stroll vibe, with Cook doing an awesome approximation of Hendrix channeling the great bluesmen of the past, both vocally and on guitar. The song also features a piano part that would have made Johnnie Johnson (the REAL “King of Rock and Roll”) proud. The Movements’ take on “Little Drummer Boy” is all swirling guitars and synths and a disjointed, ethereal vocal from David Henricksson. The one thing the song doesn’t have is… drums! Which just makes the thing all the more spooky and enjoyable. Quintron and Miss Pussycat are back (the only act to appear twice) with a more traditional vibe (or, at least, a more recognizable one) on “Jingle Bell Rock,” which clocks in at just under a minute-and-a-half. Candy Store take on Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” with their version of “Frosty the Snowman,” from a 1969 album called TURNED ON CHRISTMAS. The similarities between this anonymous studio concoction and Ronnie and the other girls is amazing, but then that’s what these “knock-off” acts were supposed to do – sound as much like the originals as possible so the record label (in this case, Decca) wouldn’t have to pay licensing fees to someone else. Anyway, it’s still a fun song.

Psychic Ills (publicity photo)
Psychic Ills (publicity photo)

Psychic Ills’ “Run Rudolph Run,” while remaining relatively true to Chuck Berry’s 1959 classic (even the vocal phrasing sounds like Chuck), muddies and sludges things up with enough over-modulated surf guitar to make Dick Dale blush. Tres Warren, the Ills’ guitarist and vocalist says of this recording: “I always liked ‘Run Rudolph Run’ because it was a song that I’d actually want to listen to regardless of what time of year it is, and Chuck Berry is as mythical as Santa Claus in my mind.” Somewhere, Don Ho is frolicking in his grave, listening to the echo-laden Hawaiian Christmas offering from Dead Meadow, “Mele Kalikimaka.” The band’s laconic approach is perfectly attuned to the odd vibe of this collection. The only thing missing is a ukelele! Another bizarre track from 1969 follows. It’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” (though it’s listed as “Jingle Bells” on this record and on the original, MERRY CHRISTMAS PSYCHEDELIC SOUND) by Korean instrumental gods, He 5. It’s really rather indescribable, which – I guess – is the entire point of PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS. After doing some checking, I did find this band’s version of “Jingle Bells” (the whole of their above named album is available on YouTube) and it is AWESOME! At a smidge under twelve-and-a-half minutes long, the traditional song morphs into “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” including a lengthy drum solo before shifting again to the Stones’ “Paint It Black” and then back to “Jingle Bells.” Probably the strangest, creepiest track on this entire compilation is the last, a fairly literal take on “White Christmas” by everyone’s favorite (latter day) Stooge, Iggy Pop. Mister Osterberg’s nearly gutteral baritone and morose, funereal reading of the Irving Berlin classic is sure to keep the kiddies up, fearing ghosties and hobgoblins will be coming down the chimney instead of the dude with the bag of toys. Ah, yeah… I guess Christmas music ain’t so bad after all.

BILL NELSON: GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST

(COCTEAU DISCS/ESOTERIC RECORDINGS/CHERRY RED RECORDS/PORTRAIT RECORDS; reissue 2013, original release 1986)

81uYNy+y-VL._SL1500_

I fell in love with Bill Nelson, his songwriting, his voice and his guitar playing in 1977, with LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE, the fantastic live release from his then-current band, Be Bop Deluxe. In the early ’80s, I rediscovered Bill through a pair of commissioned works for the stage – DAS KABINETT (THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI) and LA BELLE ET LA BETE (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), both for the Yorkshire Actors Company – and 1982’s THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS (DIARY OF A THINKING HEART); the second commissioned piece was released as a bonus record with THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS… and stands in stark contrast to the album proper’s poppy New Romanticism. I eventually discovered Nelson’s Red Noise project during a trip to the used record bins at a local shop; I initially passed on those releases as virtually every review I read at the time called it – and I’m paraphrasing here – “A disappointing attempt at electronic dance music.” Anyway, after Red Noise, finding a new Bill Nelson record in the hinterlands of Illinois became an effort in futility; now, nearly thirty years after Red Noise, comes the expanded edition of one of the man’s most well-received records, GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST (called ON A BLUE WING in North America and Australia). The new edition features a remaster of the original ten-song UK version of the record, as well as a second disc featuring the two EPs culled from the same recording sessions: WILDEST DREAMS and LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT.

Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)
Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)

There seems to be a vague theme running through …HOLY GHOST… , a theme that reminds me of Sunday mornings in a small country town or village. “Suvasini” is a short, introductory ambient piece with a nice jazzy guitar running throughout; it leads into “Contemplation,” which features a snaky kind of guitar, some mid-’80s poppy keyboards and a slinky bass line (courtesy of Iain Denby). Bill’s voice has always been sort of an acquired taste; here, he straddles the stylistic line that falls somewhere between David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. The song itself is very poetic and lyrically dense (as in, a lot of words). The only part I find objectionable is a sax part that tends to ruin the feel of the whole track. “Theology” is closer to the esoteric near-rock of some of Be Bop Deluxe’s more experimental stuff. The number rather reminds me of solo John Foxx or, maybe, a type of Enoesque Ambient rock. Preston Heyman adds an industrial (as in, machinery) percussion thing that is very cool. There’s more of that industrial sound happening on “Wildest Dreams,” a happy kinda tune that also tosses marimba into the percussion mix. You know, I really like Nelson’s more experimental pop stuff but, I gotta say… I really miss his exceptional guitar playing on some of this material; 1980’s style keyboards just don’t do it for me, though there is a great violin solo from Peter Greeves. “Lost In Your Mystery” could have been an outtake from Bowie’s LET’S DANCE sessions. The music has a very Asiatic (in reference to the Continent, not the band) and pre-programmed (it all sounds synthesized) texture and feel; it’s a very laid back song with an equally laid back vocal from Bill.

In its original form, you could listen to those first five songs before being forced to flip the record over to hear the rest of the music. That’s the way I’ve chosen to review the first disc of this reissue, picking up here with the music on Side Two. “Rise Like a Fountain” comes across as an Adrian Belew/King Crimson kind of thing… if Crimson were an ambient band. Iain Denby chimes in with a great (fretless?) bass part, plus… there’s an actual guitar solo (short though it is). There’s an unfortunate BEVERLY HILLS COP/Harold Faltermeyer synth vibe (sorry, folks… great movie, horrible theme song) happening on “Age of Reason.” Nelson’s vocals are pretty good but, I’m not sure they actually save this thing, especially once the Clarence Clemons-like sax bleats (provided by William Gregory and Dick Morrisey) come in. Simply stated, the tune comes off as nothing more than dance music for left-footed mathletes. “The Hidden Flame” continues the dance floor goofiness, though some nifty processed piano and some funky lead guitar somewhat negate the damage. As always, Bill’s vocals are a highlight, as is the stinging guitar solo toward the end. “Because of You” is up next. Now, this is more like it: Great guitar, great lyrics (“Nailed to the cross of love/Because of you”), funky bass; this number could easily have worked as a Power Station song. The album ends with “Pansophia,” a very short (less than a minute) nylon-string guitar solo laced with minimal processed piano and ambient noises. So, in the harsh reflective light of nearly three decades, the first half of GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS fares much better than the second half, though there’s enough meat on the bones to enjoy this rather dated blast from the past, mostly because… well… Bill Nelson!

Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)
Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)

And, so, we’re on to the second disc of this collection as we ponder the question: What would a “Deluxe Edition” (or reissue of any kind, really) be without “bonus material?” That material usually manifests as a vault-clearing effort to delve into the artist’s psyche at the time of the recording of the feted release. Thankfully, the minutia that practice entails is eschewed for a more slim-lined package that includes the two EP releases associated with the 1986 album… a total of eleven tracks. Even though the sequencing here is kinda wonky, for the purposes of this review, our exploration will begin with the music from the first of these releases, LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT. Following the first cut from the later WILDEST DREAMS record, the seven tracks from …SPANGLED MOMENT – five of which were issued as part of the original English cassette version of the …HOLY GHOST,,, record – follow in sequence. It should be noted that this release is more of a “mini-album,” clocking in at a little less than a half hour. “Heart and Soul” is another synthesized, mid-tempo dance tune, featuring sax and clarinet solos from Ian Nelson. This is probably as stuck-in-your-head catchy as you’re likely to hear from Bill Nelson. Nelson’s minimalist approach to guitar-playing is once again the touch point for the title track, which is awash in various keyboard texturing, a slinky bass part from Denby and another Morrisey sax solo; the track is… okay… just not great. Though brighter in tone, “Feast of Lanterns” comes off feeling like an extension of the main album’s “Pansophia.” This longer investigation of that tune’s themes features some backward guitar alongside some well-placed harmonic guitar swells and ambient keyboard for a little added atmosphere. The result is quite a pretty piece of music.

Bill Nelson (publicity photo)
Bill Nelson (publicity photo)

Illusions of You” has a nice band vibe, very happy and bright. Bill’s guitar is more prominent here than elsewhere, which is a welcome sound; everything seems to come together on this track… except for Ian Nelson’s sax solo, which somehow seems terribly out of place here. With an almost somber kinda Peter Gabriel feel that belies a sprightly Denby bass line and Nelson’s vibrant vocal performance, “Word For Word” is a slow-build non-ballad. A neat Spanish guitar solo gives way to one of Bill’s trademark ambient electric guitar solos. “Finks and Stooges of the Spirit,” besides having one of the greatest titles ever, is quite possibly the best tune from this period of Nelson’s career. It’s an electronic rocker, with a dense instrumental bed menacing just below vocals that border on the dispassionate (think Gary Numan). Since I’ve been a little hard on him, I must compliment Ian Nelson’s woodwinds; they are an integral part of this wall-of-sound production. Bill’s reverb-drenched solo leads into a short duet with Ian’s clarinet, which really adds to the (intentionally) disjointed feel of the number. Like the closer to Side One of the original LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT release, “Nightbirds” closed out Side Two – and, indeed, the entire record – in similar fashion: It’s another short ambient soundscape, this time featuring Iain Denby on bass. For pure atmospheric effect, it certainly does a nice job, as it leaves the listener yearning for just a bit more.

Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)
Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)

Now, back to the top, with the “Wild Mix” of the WILDEST DREAMS’ title track. You know how I feel about remixes… don’t like ‘em. However, this one seems to have a little more of that industrial percussion that Preston Heyman brought to the original album version, as well as a more prominent bass line and… wait! Is that an extended violin solo from Peter Greeves? Okay… I may actually prefer this version to the one found on GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS. “Self Impersonation” (or, “Self Impersonisation,” as it was originally titled), which crops up after “Nightbirds,” is another ambient thing with some heavy percussion aspects (this time, by Bill himself, who plays everything on this cut) and just enough soloing and noodling throughout to remind us that Bill Nelson coulda been a big shot rock star guitarist. Up next is another version of “Wildest Dreams.” The single mix is basically the album track cut by a few seconds and featuring a more vibrant high-end (for airplay, doncha know?). It doesn’t sound too bad, removed, as it is, from the entirety of the album. “The Yo-Yo Dyne” is another keyboard and percussion piece, with a cool pipe organ thing happening. Once more, this is all Bill, all the time. The song has an odd, Reggae feel to it – not that Reggae is odd, just in this setting. A nice way to end the record, I suppose, but a tad too repetitive to be allowed to go on for five minutes. As mentioned above, this may not have been my favorite period in Bill Nelson’s career, but there is enough meat on the bone to intrigue.