JON ANDERSON: 1000 HANDS, CHAPTER ONE

(BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

Jon Anderson has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in the world; as lead vocalist for prog rock titans Yes for the bulk of their storied career, his pipes became the vocal signature on dozens of vibrant rock classics such as “And You and I,” “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” Why Anderson is not still with Yes can best be left to another discussion, but the man still has a commanding, healthy sounding voice; he hardly seems to have aged at all despite his nearly 75 years of age. 1000 HANDS, Anderson’s latest opus, has been gestating for a number of years and earned its title at least partly from the exaggerated number of individuals who contributed to it. That includes former Yes associates like Steve Howe, Alan White and the late Chris Squire. So it stands to reason this dense new album will be of interest to Yes fans, but it’s also just a solid musical offering that anyone into lush, upbeat pop with classical leanings should be able to appreciate. It’s filled with spritely melodies, Anderson’s lyrical optimism and plenty of engaging instrumental interplay.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: DEBORAH ANDERSON)

The album is bookended by two versions of a simple mostly acoustic song called “Now” in a brief into, then “Now and Again” as the fuller light rock song that ends the record (Howe guests on guitar here). “Ramalama” is a fun little piece that Anderson has said emerged from vocal exercises he was in the habit of doing. While one Anderson sings a repetitive “Dit di da,” another sings some lyrics about light, togetherness, finding your center and other standard Anderson concerns. The piece may remind some of Yes’ album 90210, especially the Rabin-penned “Leave It,” which I thought was extraordinary, myself. I’m hearing a banjo on this number, I believe, and that is kinda cool. By the time this song ends, it has thoroughly grabbed you and demonstrated Anderson’s absolute love of sheer sound, a real trademark of this iconic composer. “First Born Leaders” is an unlikely marriage of calypso and gospel stylings, featuring Larry Coryell guesting on guitar, a small choir and Anderson opening with a burst of smooth a cappella. “Everybody wants what they cannot have/Everybody needs what they cannot see/Everybody wants what they haven’t got at all,” goes the repeated chorus, and that’s pretty dang down to Earth for ol’ cosmic Jon. This is a melodic, upbeat tune that should please most music fans.

JON ANDERSON, 2016 (photo credit: JOE KLEON)

“Activate” features classical guitar and flute (by none other than Ian Anderson) and is one of the two tracks Chris Squire guests on, but at nearly 9 minutes is slightly too new agey for my taste. Anderson can’t stop his searchingly humanistic lyrics from simply pouring out in this song, and truthfully, they resonate quite well for the most part: “In accordance with the facts of life, we resolve to show the truth,” goes one lyric; “Don’t get in the way of the light that shines” is another. But I especially love this directive: “All you gotta do is mesmerize my heart and soul,” something I wish more artists would keep in mind. And the very poignant verse “And the only way we have of contacting you for sure/Is the melody of music and the harmony of love.” Although Anderson has voiced such sentiments countless times, I love the context here and it really moved me as a fellow musician. I only wish the song itself had contained more of the delicate beauty Anderson has been known to effortlessly conjure at times.

JON ANDERSON with ANDERSON PONTY BAND (photo credit: ROBIN KAUFFMAN)

“Makes Me Happy” and “I Found Myself” are sugary pop truffles, the former a ukulele-featuring melodic rush that could get the kiddies dancing; it has uncommon musical efficiency and a genuine spark of joy. The unlikely guests here include Rick Derringer, the Tower of Power Horns and, golly, the “human beatbox,” Michael Winslow. Clearly Anderson kept the sonic palette wide open for this outing. The latter is a romantic love song that features acoustic guitars, violin and (I think) a double-tracked vocal by Jon, before a woman’s voice responds in pure affirmation of his loving expression. If you’re into birds, you’ll notice the prominent call of an Eastern Phoebe throughout, so either Anderson had his windows open when he recorded this, or he made it a point to include sounds of nature in the mix. Again, it’s worth noting the simplicity and directness of tunes like this; no cosmic couplets needed to be transported somewhere special.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: TAMI FREED)

The next three songs represent a sort of climactic and Yes-influenced sequence, with “Twice in a Lifetime” featuring instrumentation that evokes “Turn of the Century” a bit, and “WDMCF” (“Where does music come from?”) featuring lovely harmonies, a piano showcase by Chick Corea, and the kind of celebration of MUSIC that Jon Anderson has made a career out of (see “Awaken” and “Sound Chaser” among others). If you’re a fan of Yes, go straight to this track and turn it up loud; it’s the best song here. There is something riveting about hearing Anderson sing “Music, music/Music… come up, music come up” that hits the bulls-eye of Anderson’s many thematic targets. He’s the right guy to ask “Where does music come from?” and although he might take 20 minutes or more to answer such a question in conversation, here he does it in a sublime five and a half minutes. Stellar, man. “1000 Hands (Come Up)” is the second song in a row to repeatedly use the phrase “come up,” and here we get some overtly jazz stylings (Billy Cobham joins the ensemble), some fancy keys (Corea again) and a sharp bit of violin by Jean-Luc Ponty. Not to mention Squire again making a welcome appearance. Anderson sounds more casual and circumspect on this 8-minute-plus track, and it feels like slightly new territory for him. The whole intricate arrangement comes over like the work of a composer/sonic architect who has been around for a long time and is still searching for sparkling new sounds.

Which Anderson HAS been, and clearly IS. When he sings “Come up with me” on that previous song, it’s not just an invitation to listen, it’s a plea to move your entire vibration to a higher level in life. That’s sound advice, no pun intended, for this era in particular. Anderson may sometimes be cloying, and the overall success of his solo work (and even some Yes recordings) depends on how organically his aesthetic and lyrical explorations nestle into those intricate proggy sound beds his band is known for. When everything gels, the results are transcendent (stuff like “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise,” and at least a couple of tracks here). When it doesn’t, or if you ain’t in the mood, the love-peace-togetherness vibe can get a bit tiresome. But it’s immensely reassuring to have a good Jon Anderson album out there right now, and to hear him sounding happy and caring about humanity as only he can. High vibration, go on… indeed. This enduring musical soul is more than worth listening to on these matters, and would that EVERY legendary musician could still sound so focused and healthy at his age.


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.


JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES: INVASION

(SELF-RELEASED; 2019) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

John William Lowery, better known as John 5, currently plays guitar for both Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie and even logged time with David Lee Roth in the late ‘90s. His solo spans some fifteen years and nine studio albums, beginning with VERTIGO in 2004. His latest release with his band, the Creatures, INVASION is the topic of this review.

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5, Logan Miles Nix, Ian Ross) (publicity photo)

The album’s title track opens with some percussion and the eerie sound of wind whistling through the darkness; the creepy vibe almost reminds me of a Rob Zombie project, with its dark, percussion-fueled sound. A filtered guitar with a phaser slides over the top, playing a simple melody ‘til the end. All in all, the tune sets a good tone for the album. “I am John 5” starts with a robotic voice repeating “I am John 5” over and over again before the blistering lead kicks, something we’ve all come to expect from John 5. The tune shifts to the chorus, then into another solo section, even faster than the first and up an octave. The song breaks into a really groovy clean section with a funk feel and back into another phenomenal solo, extremely clean and distorted. This song is incredible! John does instrumental songs and albums as good as, if not better than some of the accepted greats (Satriani, Vai, Gilbert, Malmsteen). A badass riff kicks off “Midnight Mass.” The drumming on this one is also not to be overlooked… Logan Miles Nix is a monster on the kit. The song is an incredibly good metal track, even looking past the soloing (which, as always, is brilliant and super technical); it sounds like a cross between groove and extreme metal. The second half of the tune has the best riff and best soloing, as John breaks up the shred style for a minute, adopting a blistering Blues style that’s definitely killer. “Zoinks,” the only song I’d heard from the album before I sat to listen to the whole thing, is my favorite John 5 song to date and is VERY close to my favorite instrumental guitar piece of all time. It has everything you could possibly want: It begins with an amazing, slapping bass riff from Ian Ross that has enough pop and funk to make Flea jealous before moving into a section that sees John incorporating shred and sweeps and tapping into the overall melody; repetition of this part throughout the song is what won me over. About two and a half minutes in, the number breaks as the slapping part comes back heavy before John tears into a high speed solo with a really cool ascending and descending lick and a ridiculous sweep at the end before heading back to the original melody shortly before the end of the track. “Howdy” explores John’s “chicken pickin’” abilities. For those that are unfamiliar, chicken pickin’ incorporates your middle finger, ring finger and pinky finger, as well as a pick in your strumming hand to play extremely complex (usually Country or banjo-style) licks on the guitar. It’s extremely difficult and there are only a couple guitarists within the world of metal music who can do it well. As an avid banjo player, John 5 is one of the few. Along with the chicken pickin’, John adds some “traditional” Country licks over the two-step Country beat, very reminiscent of Les Paul and Chet Atkins. The tune also features a harmonic section in the middle that is really cool. About two minutes in, we’re hit with a VERY Les Paul-inspired section of licks that is beyond cool. After, the beat speeds up extremely fast and John breaks out an actual banjo! What a cool song!

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5 playing with Rob Zombie, 2016) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The album’s second half kicks off with “Crank It”/“Living With Ghosts,” which has a very strange sound indeed, sort of metal mixed with EDM at the start; when the melody/solo comes in, it’s just an absolute showcase of 5’s abilities. He does such a good job bringing the solo to you in a way that doesn’t feel excessive. It is incredible! The middle section between the two tunes slows things down with a clean section leading into a heavy, dirty rhythm guitar as John goes into a slow melodic solo with a wicked two guitar harmony section. There’s more insanity as the soloing heats up. The song ends after one more round of the dark, slower part. “Cactus Flower” opens with a quote from the Stephen King movie CARRIE and goes into a very different direction than anything we have heard so far on this album: The guitar sound is cleaner, the pace slower. It’s a great song for allowing yourself to drift away… super moody and great at evoking emotions, making you feel what John was trying to convey. The opening salvo of “I Want It All,” an arpeggio sweeping lick into a very intricate sliding lick, just shows how absurdly talented and amazing John 5 really is. The song dropped my jaw a couple times; as a guitar player, I’m in shock… it definitely showcases John’s abilities. Nestled toward the end of an album of killer music, “I Want It All” is a must listen. John throws a talk box in throughout the song, intoning the track’s title whenever there’s a break from the soloing. The main riff is full of everything you could want: Emotion, shred, distortion, unbridled technical prowess… just a killer track, an absolute GEM for any guitar player or fan of guitar instrumentals. To this reviewer’s ears, “I Like the Funk” almost sounds Tom Morello-inspired, FULL of that man’s emotion and undeniable groove. It’s got plenty of wah, pop and slapping, with some moments of absolute killer shred and insane bends that just make you… move. There’s a really awesome section at about 2:50 in, a call and response with a sample of a female singer (Lisa Forman) saying/chanting “I like the funk” and 5 just RIPPING licks afterwords. As a point of interest, Cinderella’s Fred Coury plays drums on the cut. The last song on the album is “Constant Sorrow,” a cover of the folk classic “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” written by Dick Burnett in 1913 and first recorded by Emry Arthur in 1928; it’s the song that George Clooney’s character sings in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?. Side note: My favorite version comes from a 2002 live Alison Krauss and Union Station. If you’ve never heard of Union Station, PLEASE PLEASE go check them out; they play Bluegrass and Country and are incredibly talented and woefully underrated. The song’s appearance here is John 5 paying tribute to the tune’s message and staying power. As always, John’s version is full of technical wizardry and skillful playing. I don’t know what more I can say about it; it is a solid instrumental cover and a really cool way to close out this album.

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5) (publicity photo)

If you have the time, sit yourself down and give the whole thing a listen. There is not a bad song on this album. I loved it! Every second is something worth hearing. If there is a complaint, it would be this: I would have liked to hear him slow things down just a bit more; I feel like those slower moments are the ones that make it original, setting it apart from other people. All in all, though, a solid 9 out of 10 and one of my favorite guitar albums ever. If you ever had any doubts about John 5’s talents, this record goes a long way in showing that he really is an incredible musician, one of the best guitarists on planet earth. He’s made great progress with these solo albums, with his playing maturing and changing, while still maintaining his original style. So, what are you waiting for? Check it out!


SCOUT DURWOOD: COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE

(EP; BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

There are a few ways to be funny in a song. One is to do a straight-up parody, a la Weird Al Yankovic or, in the old days, Spike Jones. Another is to offer a song packed with wryly humorous observations about human life and behavior, which John Prine and Harry Nilsson did quite often. And you can generate laughs with complete bizarre vocals and instrumentation, too… I have plenty of examples of that in my record collection… Ween comes immediately to mind. But to make electronic pop music with silly, often riotous lyrics that you have to pay attention to in order to fully enjoy, well, that’s a bit different. And for actress/writer/comedian/singer Scout Durwood, the sheer panache needed to produce something like COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE, a 5-song digital EP that is undeniably entertaining, is worth pausing to appreciate. Durwood can count TAKE ONE THING OFF, a 22-episode digital TV series which got plenty of attention (and her debut recording of the same name) among her previous accomplishments, and a stint on the Oxygen Channel’s FUNNY GIRLS. She’s also done at least one comedy special. Born in Kansas City but based in LA these days, Durwood seems to be an unstoppable bundle of energy. With many different talents already on display, it’s curious that she wants to record goofy original songs. But she’s done just that here.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

Durwood lures you in subtly, by starting this EP with “Steal UR Girlfriend,” an infectious, synth-driven rocker that sounds commercial and catchy from a distance… something that no one would object to casually. Start listening to the lyrics, though, and you realize something different is going on here. It moves real fast, but I caught lines like “I’ll take your princess home and I’ll ‘Leia’/You thought you’d have a threesome, but you left with your Han solo.” There was also a reference to Justin Bieber and a recurring phrase about a “predatory lesbian.” Durwood can sing and manipulate words and she’s a hottie, so there are plenty of ways she can get attention. To make you tap your feet and laugh a bunch seems genuinely ambitious to me. “I Don’t Want to Hold UR Baby” is next, and you gotta watch the YouTube video to fully appreciate this bit of nuttiness. Surrounded by dancers of both genders clad in ridiculous pink swimming attire, Durwood speaks assertively for the contingent of folks who, that’s right, have ZERO interest in holding your cute little infant. “”You’ve always wanted to be a mom/So you know, so you know, so you know/I’ve never even wanted to be an aunt/Maybe I could handle like a distant aunt, like a once a year aunt/Who drops off a gift and gets high in my car/Cuz babies freak me out.” This is zany stuff period, but coming from a woman, the comedic impact is undeniable, and Durwood wrings every bit of mockery the topic clearly inspires, from both the song and the video.

For those of us who are writers and musicians, “Sad Ukulele” is some kind of classic, though, with endlessly quotable lyrics. “Sad songs are inappropriate when you sing them on a ukulele,” Durwood begins, playing said instrument almost guiltily. The simple theme here touches on unsatisfying relationships, a sad tale of a sick old man in Durwood’s building and his cat that may need care, and random bursts of existential dread that eerily come close to actual conversations I’ve had with one of my own musician friends. “Sometimes I wake up in the dead of night/Having a panic attack that sexual slavery exists… what dark part of humanity can possibly explain it?” After many lines of this sort, Durwood can only conclude “It’s hard to acknowledge social justice on a ukulele.” To hear such sentiments sung in this context is somehow both bold and blackly comic, underscoring how, in many cases, laughter may be the ONLY remedy for some of us. “Sky Dancer” is a kind of exaggerated dance song with raps included… Durwood’s musical approach does allow her to explore this kind of musical setting, but the arrangement feels a bit frantic and cluttered to me. Much better is “Sexually Implicit,” a creatively ribald wordplay exercise that’ll having you listening close to catch everything. Mostly the listed words either SOUND sexual or are sex-related in nature. But Durwood mixes it up for maximum silliness. “Nut butter, Oedipus, oral, panties, peacock, penal code, pendulous, penultimate, pounding… pro bono,” one section goes (not totally sure about a couple of those). This is actually, by my reckoning, a pretty ambitious song, and a listenable one. Maybe Durwood will inspire some listeners to look up a few words, or to just get in the mood. But she’s doing something fun, witty and even literate here, and it’s been a while that I’ve been able to say that about a pop offering.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

I haven’t heard Durwood’s previous full-length recording, so I can’t make comparisons. I can only say that, as a newcomer to her kooky, upfront talents, I was truly entertained by both the music and the two videos I watched. Anyone likely named after a beloved character in Harper Lee’s classic novel immediately puts me in a certain frame of mind. And this “Scout” is doing some “mocking,” all right – birds, babies, business and a whole lot more. Well worth your time if you want to giggle at life’s absurdities and enjoy a fresh, bracing new talent.


A FRAGILE TOMORROW: MAKE ME OVER

(MPRESS RECORDS; 2015) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

South Carolina four-piece A Fragile Tomorrow features the brothers Kelly – Sean and Dominic, two of a set of triplets (the third passed away several years back), and their non-multiple sibling, Brendan – and bassist Shaun Rhoades. MAKE ME OVER is the group’s fifth studio album and first for indie label Mpress Records; lead vocalist Sean Kelly is the primary songwriter and his glam rock tendencies drive the sound, so… fans of Marc Bolan, David Bowie and, for the power pop-minded amongst you, Cheap Trick, strap in for one heck of a fun ride!

A FRAGILE TOMORROW (Brendan Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Sean Kelly, Shaun Rhoades) (photo credit: TOM MOORE)

The album kicks off with Sean’s paean to the legendary Slade vocalist and glam rock icon, “Make Me Over (Noddy Holder).” Actually, the track is Kelly wondering if pursuing the rock and roll lifestyle is really worth all the trouble: “Maybe we can start all over/Change our name and make me over.” Now that I see that in writing, that happened to Holder and his band before glamming up their image and purposely misspelling key words in song titles. The song features a pulsing, hard rock undercarriage, courtesy of drummer Dominic Kelly and the double whammy of bassist Shaun Rhoades (he of the standard electric variety) and guest musician, Ted Comerford (he of the twelve-string version). And, just that quickly, this record is off and running. “Tie Me Up Again” slows things down a bit, though it is equally as introspective as the first song. There are guitars aplenty from Sean and his non-wombmate brother, Brendan; I’m reminded of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (in a very jangly and precise way) and very early psychedelic Alice Cooper (via a sped up guitar freakout, a la Glen Buxton). The number also features a string quartet (cellist Ward Williams, violist Rachael Jones and violinists Diana Brewer and Lyais Hung, who crop a few more times later on), quite a nice addition. Musically speaking, “Billion” is sort of Beatlesque thing which quickly morphs into a spry little Power Pop affair that could very easily have outstayed its welcome; as is, it kinda ended at the perfect time. A ton of cool guitars keep things interesting, as does the bouncy drumwork. Another lush, jangley, pop tune, “One of Two, Two of Three,” hearkens back to such 1960s psychedelic-pop acts as the Jefferson Airplane, Roy Wood’s (and, later, Jeff Lynne’s) the Move, PET SOUNDS-era Beach Boys, as well as early ‘60s Phil Spector produced “Wall of Sound” records. Even the “trippy” title and the lyrically vague implications are drawn from that same general time period and fertile asthetic; the words still ring agonizingly true today: “One of two, two of three/Everything is as it seems/It’s not black and white, cut and dry.” Next, we have “Kissing Games,” a heartbroken power pop ballad that SOUNDS far happier than the words imply. It’s actually more of a self-empowering note that this person is finished being used and is taking control of his own life for once. The string quartet returns and is more upfront than on “Tie Me Up Again.” Rachael Sage offers up some very nice piano and bassist Rhoades delivers one of his best performances here. “Tell Me How To Feel” is shiny, poppy and pretty with a definite “Then He Kissed Me” vibe during the intro and with the drums throughout. It’s one of the few tracks here to feature the group’s four core members alone; only the odd guitar signatures save it from being the most disposable song on the record. The first lines of “In My Mind” says everything you need to know about A Fragile Tomorrow and MAKE ME OVER: “Oh, unrequited love/It’s kind of my thing.” Shimmery and solemn, the number is another “everything PLUS the kitchen sink” kinda thing with sleigh bells, timpani, guitars of varied stripes and, of course, the string quartet. Even though it seems like the song is about to take off a couple of times, it remains in first gear all the way… Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A FRAGILE TOMORROW (Brendan Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Shaun Rhoades, Sean Kelly) (photo credit: TOM MOORE)

Hit Parade” is about the ultimate search for that ever illusive “Hit Single.” Unlike most of the rest of the album, the song features the four band members exclusively along with an actual guitar solo; it’s very catchy, in an XTC sort of way with lyrics that include: “Same old turn of phrase/Here’s your chord change/Please make way for the hit parade/All my dignity’s gone.” That pretty much sounds like every musician I’ve ever met! “Interlude” is an odd little ditty that features absolutely none of the actual band members, with samples by Michaelangelo, drums by Russ Broussard (even though I really didn’t hear them) and, naturally, the by-now obligatory string quartet. “Siouxsie” is obviously a song about X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene. With vocals by Dominic and guest artist Mark Hart (of Crowded House fame) providing organ and lap steel, it is actually a tune extolling the (many) virtues of Siouxsie Sioux and her undeniable influence on – not only punk and Goth – but popular music in general. It’s fun and bubbly and you may catch yourself humming along to the melody… in a totally anarchic punk kind of way, of course. John Cowsill and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson add their voices to “Everybody Knows,” another wicked swipe at stardom. The track is sort of a lo-fi avant-surf masterpiece with a guitar/trumpet (the latter provided by Clay White) interplay that’s echoey and (maybe) backwards; that alone makes the song, at the very least, quite interesting. “Can’t You Hear Me” is another cool power pop thing that features, of all things, a singing saw performed by the multi-talented Clay White. Everything is hitting on all cylinders on this one; it’s a definite favorite on what is a fairly solid record. I think that the term “bonus track” may have been applied to “One Way Ticket (Coda)” simply because it features Joan Baez (THE!) and Indigo Girls Amy Ray (on mandolin) and Emily Saliers (on banjo). I mean, those are some heavyweight names right there! Did I forget to mention that the cut also features White and his saw? This song alone makes MAKE ME OVER worth owning. Yeah… it is THAT good. Of course, you get the additional bonus of the first twelve songs, too. So, what are you waiting for? Pick up your very own copy from your favorite dispenser of fine music… now!


NYAH: DISCONNECTED

(EP; INRAGE ENTERTAINMENT; 2020)

InRage Entertainment is a Los Angeles-based artist development company formed by Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Bruce “Automatic” Vanderveer as sort of a proving ground for up-and-coming talents. Hailing from Florence, Oregon, sixteen year old Nyah Vollmar is the first non-Californian signed to their roster. One listen to Nyah’s debut EP, DISCONNECTED, tells you why. The multi-talented teen (she sings, she writes her own music, she dances, she acts) is light years ahead of many singer/songwriters who’ve been in the game for more years than she’s been alive. Are there moments throughout the five tracks that highlight the fact that she is only sixteen (fifteen when the tracks were recorded and, in many cases, younger when the songs were written)? Sure. But, her vocal prowess more than makes up for any cringe-worthy teenage moments.

NYAH (photo credit: JEREMY DAVID CREATIVE)

The opening tune, “Midnight,” is a pumping, ethereal piece of Pop confection with a slight Middle Eastern vibe, particularly in the percussion. Nyah’s vocals are strong and confident, while maintaining a rather wispy quality… kinda like early Stevie Nicks. The number starts strong and finishes the same way. “Empty Spaces” features some nice acoustic guitar and keyboards, lending a more rocking sound to the proceedings. Producer Vanderveer’s multi-layering of Nyah’s voice bolsters the already hefty sounding lead vocals. A brief return after a full stop presents a whimsical, 16 year old’s idea of a “wild” remix (vocals sped up to a chipmunky squeal and otherwise manipulated). Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but it does work.

A Thousand Wishes” is a love story to a best friend, a family member, a planet misunderstood and hurting. The lyrics convey a very mature concept for someone who just turned old enough to drive. A very cool Middle Eastern/Asian vibe in instrumentation and vocal melody lines inform “Legends In the Stars,” a girl-meets-boy narrative, unfortunately hampered by standard-issue Pop-production tropes. The tune, thankfully, is saved by Nyah’s lyrics and flawless vocal performance. Undoubtedly, my favorite track on the unfortunately short EP is “Flowers On My Grave.” An ebb and flow of piano-driven orchestration on the verses and a throbbing Pop Punk intensity on the choruses is the perfect combination for the dark sentiments of the song: “Would you care to be so kind as to lay flowers on my grave/Let them wither, let them fade so I don’t die alone.”

NYAH (photo credit: JEREMY DAVID CREATIVE)

As with any collection of songs, DISCONNECTED is not without flaws. Those flaws, however, are minor and in no way detracts from the whole of the work. Nyah appears to be on the verge of something wholly spectacular and I am definitely excited to see where she goes from here.


JUST AFTER ZERO: ALCHEMEDIC

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

Any time a new artist releases a full CD, they should be applauded. It takes a whole lot of courage and chutzpah to put a disc out these days and to feel you have something worthwhile to add to the cultural dialogue. For the listener, your general response will be based on two things: “What is different about this entity?” And maybe, “Do the songs grab me?” What we’ve got here is a Saint Louis act called Just After Zero, the musical brand name for one John Liming, who has a flair for observing the nonsensical, consumerist realms of existence, impressive musical chops, and a preoccupation with the sometimes-cinematic and sometimes just taxing side of life. There is cynicism and humor running through these ten songs, and above all, a keen diarist’s sense of the absurd. Fortunately, Liming has the raw beginnings of a pretty original style here, with a healthy dose of David Byrne-ish quirkiness (although Liming’s lyrics are more personal and his delivery less detached) and a touch of Nick Cave’s brooding but vulnerable side. The inherent drama of his vocal delivery works fine when the arrangements match it, which fortunately they do on at least half the compositions on his debut, ALCHEMEDIC. And you get the sense you’ve just met a highly original new songwriter.

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

Liming wisely begins the disc with his strongest track, “Coming Down,” an ultra-cool little chunk of sonics with edgy acoustic guitar, bass, and an insistently simple drumbeat that you’ll tap your foot to. He’s in masterful control here; the guitar playing is terrific, with an economic and surprising electric solo a couple moments in and possibly the best vocal on the record. There’s a vague sense of threat that the narrator is sharing, with the line “I should get out of this town” repeated enough to qualify as a hook. Musically, this is just a solid song all the way. “Backlot” starts with a similarly bracing riff, although it is shorter, and keeps the attention on Liming’s voice. This may be an acquired taste for some… but he doesn’t really sound exactly like anyone else, which I’d say is good. There is a slight tinge of implied paranoia but also a strong sense of survival determination that makes the journey he takes you on less jittery than it might have been otherwise. My favorite of his odd little tunes is “Electric Cicadas,” which is Liming adding memorable flourishes to the template he’s created for himself. There’s undeniable punk-ish energy happening here. “These electric cicadas got me down,” he sings repeatedly, with a brittle, wiry electric guitar solo popping up at just the right moment. And I like the “Oh, no, no, no” exclamation, the best use of that kinda thing since Paul Simon in “Paranoia Blues.” Good stuff, with kinetic energy!

“Building Code Under Fire” will remind you of a Talking Heads title, “Love Goes to a Building on Fire,” and it takes on messed-up societal processes, a thing Liming seems to think about a great deal. The drama is supplied entirely by Liming’s vocals and a solid acoustic guitar track. Then it’s time for an atypical highlight, “Harvest Song (C’est la Vie),” which is airplay worthy. Serious existential contemplation is taking place here, as Liming sings “I met the devil in a truck stop, he was waiting for a ride/He snapped his fingers to the radio that was playing from inside.” A little bit later, we get “I met the devil in a truck stop and he reeked of kerosene/He said, you better pay attention when you see the things I see.” This is a well-constructed tune that features the most singable chorus on ALCHEMEDIC, and it’s fun to ponder what might have prompted this composition. Another voice and acoustic guitar thing, the song proves Liming cares about the songwriting process… he has good ideas to spare, certainly one of the requirements for an adventurous new artist. “Only Monika” is a somewhat dour little tune that may have a girl’s name in the title but clearly it’s NOT “only Monika” causing the blues here. Then we get another surprise – “Tex Mex,” which is a rather zippy little instrumental that shows Liming can really play guitar, quite energetically, in fact. This is a nice trick for a newcomer to have up their sleeve. And “Irene’s Call” begins with part of a computerized voice talking about credit eligibility, which the subsequent song then proceeds to make a mockery of. Liming’s close attention to the irritations of modern life should provide him material for plenty of future songs, no doubt. He does sarcasm pretty well.

JUST AFTER ZERO (Adam Long, John Liming) (uncredited photo)

At times, a few of these songs aren’t too far past demo stage; Liming benefits from the ones that feature drums, which were played by Ralph Noyes. Liming handles guitar, bass on some songs and of course, vocals. There is a theatrical bent to many tracks, and when Liming gets the balance just right, as on “Coming Down,” “Electric Cicadas,” “Backlot” and “Harvest Song,” you really feel you’re being courted by a bracing new talent. The man has something to say, an eccentric style and presence and a pretty good flair for arrangements. I think we’re going to hear more from him for sure, and the riffs and refrains from some of these tunes are already firmly lodged in my brain. That seems like a pretty good sign to me.

ALCHEMEDIC can be ordered from Bandcamp at: https://justafterzero.bandcamp.com/album/alchemedic. Physical CDs can be ordered for $10 from JustAfterZero@gmail.com.

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH JOHN LIMING OF “JUST AFTER ZERO”

Q1: What is the significance of branding yourself as “Just After Zero” rather than your own name?

John: Truthfully, I was tired of people mispronouncing my last name. The original plan was to go by “One”, a three-way reference between the track from Metallica’s …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL album, which was the first guitar song I learned in high school, my status as a one-man act, and coming up with the name around 1:00 AM the morning before my first open mic. But I worried about it getting mixed up with “Won” and “1”, so I switched over to the more memorable and easily communicated “Just After Zero.”

Q2: Every artist ends up getting asked about their stylistic touchstones or influences. So, what are yours? They don’t just have to be musical artists. But what would you say are the things that led you to making your kind of music?

John: Funnily enough, my biggest influence is from film, not music. I’ve always been a big fan of low budget horror movies, particularly the shot-on-video variety that popped up after the renaissance of cheap VHS camcorders and digital editing software. It’s fascinating seeing filmmakers not much better off than myself just throw themselves at a production and make something on a shoestring budget with precious little technical skill, driven only by a desire to make the movies that scared them as teenagers. The movies end up sweaty, generally ugly, and always fascinating in their interpretation of universal fears. They taught me to not shy away from imperfection, or at least not to trade technical competency for impulse. This inspiration also serves as fodder for a few songs on ALCHEMEDIC, specifically “I Write Horrorshows,” “Backlot,” and “Building Code Under Fire!,” all very literally about the different aspects of cheap production values. Musically, a huge influence of mine is Primus’ Les Claypool. His ability to turn mundane people and places into macabre jokes and character studies is uncanny and guides a lot of my songwriting efforts. Also, “Puddin’ Taine” makes for a fantastic vocal exercise before a performance along with “Life During Wartime” from Talking Heads’ STOP MAKING SENSE album. That’s my hot tip to any musician readers out there.

Q3: “Electric Cicadas” is one of my favorite songs of yours. It’s got a hypnotic weirdness to it. What inspired this song? How would you summarize it for the casual listener?

John: Glad you like the song! I once had to fill out a ReCAPTCHA to log into a website (one of those tests where you type in a couple of words to prove you’re not a robot) and my words were “electric” and “cicadas.” I started thinking about how ungodly irritating a robotic cicada swarm would be (a combination of obnoxious clicking and bits of hot metal banging into windows at all hours, aluminum legs landing unprompted on your arms with no malice but no real purpose, nobody’s really quite sure why anybody invented something so loud and invasive but surely somebody had a good reason for it), and the words sounded fun to say together. So the song just wrote itself as an acoustic guitar song I could play on the open mic circuit. Then when I got the chance to do a full treatment of the song, I took the formerly human acoustic guitar parts and stripped all the warmth out of them with aggressive gates and filtering to get the feeling of chaotic sterility across.

Q4: Is it fair to say you are more of an introvert than an extrovert overall? What kind of release does music provide for you? It seems on the evidence that you are pretty driven… is there tension for you between ordinary survival type stuff and the energy and focus it takes to make music?

John: I’m an introvert normally, but Just After Zero provides me the chance to be an extrovert for a few hours at a time. In fact, this entire musician gig just started as a New Year’s resolution to play guitar at an open mic to convince myself to get out of my apartment a little and meet some new people. And as it happens, the Saint Louis open mic scene is bustling enough to support an independent musical career almost all on its own.

Music, to me, is the chance to tell a good joke or spark a conversation. When I learn something new (You ever notice how Building Code Under Fire is on every Universal movie newspaper? Wonder what’s up with that.) or come up with a weird hypothetical (You think there’s somebody out there that’s so down in the dumps that a call from a telemarketer is actually a formative event in their life?), the first thing I want to do is tell the nearest person about it. Music is a chance to share that insight and maybe, if I’m lucky, make somebody smile or think about that next spam call a little differently. There’s value in that. Making music is effectively a survival type activity at this point. I get twitchy and hyperactive if I go too long without it, so in that sense it jives really well with the more mundane psychological requirements like sunlight and spicy food.

JUST AFTER ZERO (John Liming) (uncredited photo)

Q5: Let’s imagine that this guy, we’ll call him Buford T Injustice, a fictional record industry dude, agrees to a meeting with you after hearing the awesome song “Coming Down.” He seems like he wants you to be honest, but you’re not sure. What would you say to him about your goals and aspirations for your music? How much compromising would you be open to, to sell records? If he pairs you up with some known producer, how much freedom would you give the producer? If Buford starts pissing you off, could you tell him you don’t like this direction, or would you quietly take all his suggestions under advisement?

John: I would approach Buford and ask him directly what he saw in “Coming Down” and what, specifically, he wants to see in my future work. I would expect some compromises to be asked of me and I would evaluate them fairly against what Buford would give me in exchange. I wouldn’t necessarily think of it as a chance to just sell records, though. I would try to think of it as Buford getting me in touch with people who want to hear my music, an extremely valuable resource for the increasingly dense musical landscape we’re living in. I would accept the chance to work with a producer on the condition I still get to play guitar and write my own songs. One of the unique aspects of a one-man band is that you don’t get a lot of creative input or pushback, so that could be a really good chance to take Just After Zero somewhere interesting.

Buford’s pissing me off would be a shame but I’ve worked for irritable bosses before. I would try to keep impartial and determine how much of the friction is actually impacting Just After Zero’s music. Some personal disagreements and irritation are a small price to pay for a publishing deal. If the music begins to suffer or my existing fans start disagreeing with the direction, it would be time to consider hitting the road.


EPHEMERA: SEASONS

(EPHEMERA MUSIC; 2020) (UPDATE BELOW)

The last time I had the chance to review a new album by Ephemera was late 2004, just after they released their brilliant fifth CD, MONOLOVE. I’d already grown so fond of this sublime Norwegian female pop trio by then, that I wondered if they were simply too good to be true. Who makes music this sparkly so seemingly effortlessly? The gorgeous, impossibly gentle voices employing flawless harmonies; economical and universal lyrics that summed up dilemmas about life and love in simple but relatable terms; inventive arrangements that seemed to always have one extra “earworm” than you’d expect, and a genius producer in Yngve Saetre. Ephemera had already won the equivalent of the Norwegian Grammy (called the “Spellemannprisen” award) for Best Pop Group twice for previous albums, and enjoyed at least one international hit with “Girls Keep Secrets in the Strangest Ways.” MONOLOVE was seemingly a gift for “deep listeners,” as it was a sonic treasure for those who liked more complex textures in their crystalline female pop, and it was a creative peak of sorts for the band. So, were they too good to be true? Or were good things just not meant to last? One couldn’t help but worry when the trio vanished after 2005 into the Norwegian cultural wilderness. Though the group’s songs are in English, there simply weren’t any articles in either language for a while, that made clear what happened. As year after year passed, the dedicated fan would have had to dig deep to discern Ephemera’s plans, and there were no clues on solo albums such as Christine Sandtorv’s FIRST LAST DANCE or Ingerlise Storksen’s ALL THE GOOD THINGS. You were free to speculate, but you probably were just gonna have to WAIT. The simple explanation, however, was that the three women all got married, had children at varying intervals and chose to live a calmer life for a while. They needed a break after five straight years of being a busy Nordic pop sensation; some reassessment was in order. But fans had to be delighted when an unexpected pair of new singles, “Magic” and “Hope” (words aptly associated with this trio), turned up in the latter half of 2019. Yes, they still had the gift! And now at last we are treated to their sixth album (seventh if you count the compilation SCORE), simply titled SEASONS. The girls love one-word titles! It appears right in the middle of a daunting, world-wide pandemic. And it is, simply, a soothing little gem. Whew! We’ve still got one of the finest girl groups in the world out there, serving up wisdom and life stories. Det er en lettelse!

EPHEMERA (Jannicke Larsen Berglund, Ingerlise Storksen, Christine Sandtorv) (photo credit: CECILIE BANNOW)

All the truly great artists have a sound, a style that contains their own flavors and seasoning. Ephemera are purveyors of lilting pop music which alternates between little stories that feature a melancholy undercurrent (sometimes overt, in fact) and upbeat, rapturous odes to love, self-realization, and getting lost in life’s beauty and wonder. They have a gift for making the listener rapturous, too… a few listens to any of their best songs and you start feeling like the world is a bit more awesome than you told yourself yesterday. There is unquestionably a vibe of empathy and inclusiveness in Ephemera songs – they are NOT detached or cynical. They are with YOU all the way, whether you’re mourning a loss or celebrating new love. They make you feel cared about, a somewhat rare trait for most pop ensembles. And with songs like “When the Best Ones Are Gone” and “Heartbeat,” both written by the luminous Christine Sandtorv (although that first tune is sung by Jannicke Larsen Berglund in a mode of absolute goddess-like wisdom and understanding), you can hear the most effective element in music holding you tight: Universality. Few things are more powerful than a great song at making you feel or at least ponder the ups and downs of life. “When the Best Ones Are Gone” is simply one of the most achingly beautiful songs Ephemera have ever recorded, with a gorgeous piano arrangement and a patient introduction of their patented harmony that pays off stunningly. “Everything falls apart/Everything breaks up/Somehow you must start/To pick up the pieces/And your broken heart,” sings Berglund, and then the trio together. If those simple words don’t get absolutely stuck in your head after a couple of listens to the haunting arrangement here, well, you may wanna have your ears checked. The concluding bridge is vintage Ephemera, with the word “undertow” standing out. It could have been an alternate title for this whole record. And “Heartbeat” has a similar timely impact, with Christine’s acoustic guitar and a more elemental but evocative keyboard part setting the scene: In her most sincere, winsome voice, Sandtorv sings “Do you have a heartbeat/Hidden hopes and dreams/As long as you have a heartbeat/You can get back on your feet.” Simply reading such lyrics won’t convey the power of hearing them sung sweetly amidst airily perfect instrumentation. And hearing such things in the midst of a dire time for humanity is overwhelmingly emotional. Many of us are sick right now, or angst-ridden. But the doctor is IN, with the name “Ephemera” on the office door. The doctor will see you now, and the prescription is some beautiful songcraft…

And there is so much more. Ingerlise Storksen is truly one of the most distinctive vocalists in all of Scandinavia; I shouldn’t try to analyze what she does because it is so transcendent when she’s at her best. And she IS here, on “Stranger,” a leisurely sung, dramatically paced slice of perfection with surprisingly minimal lyrics. The theme here is sadness over the sometimes inexplicable distance between people – in this case, the titular but unknown subject. A repeated sequence of four glistening high tones is soon accompanied by a lush string arrangement, on its way to setting up a chorus you won’t forget. The world holds its breath, and then there is a dramatic shift in Ingerlise’s delivery as she sings: “Birds are flying away/I can no longer count the days/I run but time keeps lead/I pray to see you again.” This passage is not merely a peak moment on SEASONS, but one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard on a record. In a single moment of emotive ecstasy, aiming for musical heaven and getting there, Ingerlise will surely have some listeners fighting back tears. The economy of the whole track is simply a marvel, and the sheer vulnerability this trio manages to capture in songs such as this is unprecedented. Then there is Berglund’s songwriting contribution, one of my absolute favorites, called “The More You Give.” Not generally as prolific as her two partners, Berglund has been responsible for some past Ephemera gems such as “One Minute” and “City Lights.” Her tune here is a potent combination of dreamy and weary, with at least three memorable earworms (or “hooks”). As the band’s keyboard player, she often lays down distinctive synth parts that are sometimes merely textural, sometimes the most memorable adornment in a song. They’re always beautiful, and they are truly an Ephemera trademark, especially the repeating swirl of coolly descending tones we’re treated to here. “You always want to be the best you can be/And you always want to see all that there is to see/Just remember to let them deep into your heart/All of those who were there for you right from the start,” she sings; a simple enough sentiment given emotional heft by the sterling arrangement, and the way Berglund’s more laconic delivery contrasts with Sandtorv’s sweeter voice on a couple of lines. Simply great stuff. It seems to UP the sophistication factor for Ephemera, as does Ingerlise’s “Too Good To Be,” a disarmingly sincere missive to someone about, probably, a commitment issue. It’s slow and patient, and true to Ephemera form, vulnerable and beautiful. A gradually ascending piano progression at the end is accompanied by that trademark eerie synth ascending right alongside it, and then the familiar vocal blend – did I mention that this group serves up melodies that always burrow deeper into your psyche the more you listen? And that few acts anywhere manage the splendiferous arrangements that these three women and their uncannily sympathetic producer achieve, song after song? Golly, and I haven’t even touched on the big singles yet: “Magic,” which revels in the band’s full three-part harmony and a can’t-be-beat Sandtorv melody that really DOES bring the magic, and “Hopeful,” a rocking Storksen tune that is probably the most upbeat, conventionally “fun” tune on the album. But the thing is, Ephemera just aren’t conventional. Not by a long shot. Yes, they write catchy tunes that you can tap your foot to, and yes, they experience all the same deep, conflicting emotions YOU do. But these three women happen to be uncommonly gifted as songwriters and arrangers. They’ve been at this for 25 years now (they formed in 1994 and their first CD, GLUE, came out in 1996), they have an enduring, resonant friendship, and by now, they really understand that not only is music a superlative way of delivering portraits of the deepest of human experiences, but they have a quirkily brilliant, musically distinctive and uncommonly delicate way of doing so. There are other girl groups out there, for sure, but Ephemera, like their tunes, offer something both “Hopeful” and something rich in the kind of recorded “Magic” that has earned them fans around the world. SEASONS is a short album (37 minutes) – it’s not as meaty as MONOLOVE, not quite as winkingly industry-friendly, perhaps, as AIR, their acclaimed 2003 effort. But SEASONS comes into a world where the music industry is kind of a mess, royalties are diminished, artists are working with much more restrictive circumstances, and the world itself is in grave peril – the current pandemic being just one sign that civilization has to learn and grow, or it may just burn out. When the stakes are high, Ephemera music sounds better than almost anything – it’s comforting, wise, communal, gently lulling, and always with an ear to your heart. Save yourself an expensive psychiatric bill – just listen to these Norwegian muses instead, and try to remember what a beautiful, exhilarating challenge life can still be…

EPHEMERA (Christine Sandtorv, Jannicke Larsen Berglund, Ingerlise Storksen) (photo credit: CECILIE BANNOW)

SEASONS is available digitally on iTunes, Tidal and Spotify.

EPHEMERA (Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen Berglund) (photo credit: DYVEKE S NILSSEN)

(UPDATE) It’s a mixed blessing that the first new Ephemera album in 15 years would arrive in the midst of a global pandemic. That limits promotional activities and public appearances severely. On the other hand, when they can release a video for perhaps the album’s most beautiful song, one that should be seen by everyone, the healing effect and “we’re all in this together” vibe are profoundly moving. Here is the new video for “When the Best Ones Are Gone.”


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.


THE DOMINO KINGS: THE DOMINO KINGS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2019)

If you have followed the music scene in Springfield, Missouri even casually for the past twenty years, you probably know who the Domino Kings are. Steve Newman, Les Gallier and Brian Capps are absolute stalwarts in the music community in this distinguished Ozark burgh; on every other weekend, one or more of them are probably playing somewhere (all three perform in multiple combos). And, when the legendary Lou Whitney was still alive, manning the controls at “The Studio,” the famed downtown recording site, these guys and their many associates would be in and out for music-making duties with regularity. At the turn of the millennium, the DKs released two punchy, well-received recordings – LONESOME HIGHWAY and LIFE AND 20, signed at the time to Slewfoot Records. Capps left the band after that second disc, but Newman and Gallier carried on with two more mostly decent records. Then Slewfoot went away and so did the music industry as most of us knew it. The three musicians still turned up at each other’s shows periodically, and once in a while there were even Domino Kings listings on the local calendar. But there was no particular reason to think there would be another DKs record, especially with all three original members as a focused unit. They had no label, they had widely varying schedules, and Springfield’s most famed studio went away not long after Lou Whitney’s death from cancer in 2014.

THE DOMINO KINGS, circa 2000 (Brian Capps, Steve Newman, Les Gallier) (uncredited photo)

Ah, but here’s the thing that casual fans couldn’t have known. In 2011, before Whitney died, he got the boys into the studio for another go-round. Yes, the original trio. A record was made, we heard, but then… silence. The great and powerful Lou got sicker and sicker and headed for that never-ending music festival in the sky. There was a feeling that the motivation to put out the new record wasn’t really there. I know, ‘cause I tried to ask the band about it a few times. It was in the category of “shelved,” it seemed. And, whatcha gonna do if ya ain’t got no label? Happily, we finally have that answer: PUT IT OUT YOURSELVES. This self-titled fifth album is now available, and it’s a corker. If you’re a longtime fan, you’ll definitely be smiling at the rollicking sounds on this new, Whitney-produced tunefest. “A nice surprise” is a good way to sum it up.

,  The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

THE DOMINO KINGS is an uncommonly democratic affair: Four songs penned by each musician, plus a short group instrumental at the end. There’s a palpable atmosphere of cooperation, and a consistent groove that just won’t quit. Newman, the trio’s truly stellar guitarist, offers up absolutely RIGHT-sounding tunes such as “The Only Thing She Left” and “Nobody Knows,” tunes that won’t leave once they lodge themselves in your brain. The influence of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard among others lurks in the background, but Newman’s songs have a casual truthfulness about the head-scratching nature of chasing love that rings clear and true. His best here is perhaps “2nd Luckiest Guy,” which is a foot-tapping, melodic number that documents the angst of having lost your gal to another, watching HIM take the prize love thang that you blew it with. The tune does this with about as much wit and musical verve as any song I’ve heard lately. I wrote in my notes that “the scenarios these guys write about are truly relatable for most of us guys.” And you have to tip your hat to the flawless arrangements of songs like this, as well as Newman’s vibrant guitar playing. At THAT, there is no fear of him coming in second. “How Does Gone Feel?” is a smidge lesser of a tune overall, but still kickin’.

THE DOMINO KINGS, 2015 (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: STEVEN SPENCER/SPRINGFIELD NEWS-LEADER)

I’ve always been a fan of Les Gallier’s approach to songcraft; the word “pretension” is not in his vocabulary, and he’s a tremendous hooksmith. His raucous number “Another Drunken Fool” is a gritty little hard Rockabilly tune that has an admirable toughness about it, possibly masking some real bitterness – the kind of thing listeners can ponder privately. Imagining this one coming together at the studio makes me smile. The band is having FUN here, undoubtedly. But even better are “Can’t Be Too Much Longer” and “Some Kinda Power,” easily two of this album’s best songs. The former makes plain the impatience of waiting for new love when a couple of situations ended badly, and it does so with sterling songwriting and the whole band laying down an awesome guitar-driven groove. Oh, and by the way, Gallier is a fantastic drummer; his style has been referred to as the Tulsa shuffle, but no matter what you call it, it makes an impression and always sounds like a master enjoying every minute of his work. “Some Kinda Power” is big-time Rock ‘n’ Roll in the service of pondering what it is that women do to men to make them wig out. “I can open up your tight jar/And I can fetch your little car/I can answer your every call/You can make me do it all/Cause you hold some kind of power over me… you hold the power like a freight train/Every time I lose you gain/You hold the power that stops my go/Every time you tell me NO,” the lyrics relate. The band is simply firing on all cylinders here, with superb Newman guitar work and Mister Gallier singing the living crap outta this number. Marvelous stuff.

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

As for Brian Capps, primarily known as the band’s standup bass maestro, he has proven his chops as a solo artist, with the Kings, with the commercial stint he did for some years with “Branson on the Road,” and in his current incarnation as half of The Widowmakers (with Cliff Boone), serving up classic Country and early Rock and Roll, show after show. Capps’ vocalizing on the first two Kings’ recordings was some of the best in the genre, and gems such as “Two Nights Without Sleeping” and, especially, “Alice” were definitive examples of angst-ridden existential hard Country. That latter tune is permanently in my “Liquor-fueled rockers about pain caused by manipulative women” Hall of Fame. It is literally a perfect example of a miserable real-life scenario being turned into life-affirming bar-room sonics. Although the songs here aren’t quite as transcendent, “I Don’t Want To Forget” and “Devil’s Den” come close, with insight and self-awareness beyond the ability of most songwriters. These songs deserve to be covered widely, and “Devil’s Den,” which Capps recorded in a very different version on an early solo album, gets a just as fetching take here with the Kings crowning it musically. Awesome stuff. And it’s a delight that “Saturday Night is New Year’s Eve,” a song I’ve heard in several versions, really hits its stride with the Domino Kings doing it up proud here; the energy feels right, which wasn’t quite the case in at least one prior version.

The Domino Kings (Steve Newman, Les Gallier, Brian Capps) (photo credit: TINA CARL)

Some songs on this album feel LIVE all the way, Gallier’s “Would You Let Me Be Your Man” being perhaps the best example, and Capps’ “I Don’t Want to Forget” close behind. There is no muss, no fuss overall. Spontaneity and pure GRIT dominate the atmosphere, and Whitney clearly was not interested in polishing anything too much in the studio. LIFE AND 20 may have been a bigger, more attentive production, but there is a raw feel to the proceedings here that serves the sound of the Domino Kings quite well. This is a fun, energetic platter. The concluding instrumental, “Thrown Clear” is a zippy little energy burst that puts the topping on the freewheelin’ atmosphere displayed throughout the recording. They can play fast, these guys, and this song shows it, although the whole album moves at a brisk tempo… no filler at all. It is worth stating clearly that Newman, Gallier and Capps are all veterans at the art of traditional, rootsy American songcraft, with the ability to construct hooky tunes in a familiar musical milieu around simple, often wryly humorous but always universal lyrics about man’s favorite pastime (which doesn’t always produce the desired romantic results). If there’s an art to pairing upbeat arrangements with sometimes sad or restless themes, these guys have mastered it. The music of this band soundtracks a simpler world: Where men chase after women, women decide whether they want to be caught or not, bars are always at least half full, and musicians gigging in the corner always know at least half the greatest Country and Rock and Roll songs ever written and are skilled at getting the patrons out on the dance floor, ready for another shot after that. This world is reassuring, timeless and full of promise and enthusiasm. Just like this kick-ass trio themselves.

(Not available in stores but you can order the Domino Kings recording by sending check or money order made out to “Domino Kings” for $10, to Domino Kings, c/o Brian Capps, PO Box 612, Lebanon, MO 65536)