Sunday, September 30, 2012

Woods of Ypres - Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light

For many of those in the metal community, David Gold’s (guitarist, drummer, singer and songwriter) sudden death in a car crash was a tragic, sobering event. His band Woods of Ypres was prepping for a tour in support of what he evidently thought of as his best album yet, and the music that he poured his heart and soul into was only just beginning to see a larger audience under Earache records after nearly a decade of obscurity. Despite the tragedy of losing a truly unique heavy metal songwriter on the top of his game, with Woods 5 - Grey Skies and Electric Light, Gold managed to go out with a bang, releasing what many (including this listener) consider to be his swan song.

Woods of Ypres’ 5th effort continues down a similar stylistic path to Woods 4: The Green Album, replacing almost all black metal elements with melodic doom metal in the vein of Katatonia and Warning. The clean vocals that largely dominate the album are mournful, expressive and largely pushed to the forefront of the mix. Gold bolsters a rich, commanding baritone that’s often double-tracked with a higher octave – it’s bold, booming and forceful, and an incredible improvement from previous albums. The vocals largely carry the central melodies of the songs, a departure from the riff-oriented songwriting approach of many other metal bands.

Opening track and album highlight Lightning and Snow marries melodic sensibility with startling amounts of muscle and energy; Gold sounds absolutely rejuvenated and inspired right from the start, and continues for an incredible 5-song winning streak right up until Adora Vivos. The latter is perhaps one of the band’s best songs; the verses blast away with purpose and vitality, and Gold’s vocals soar and shimmer over the life-affirming (and infectiously catchy) chorus. Despite the stellar songwriting, the production largely strips the guitars and drums of much heft – they sound thin and airy when they should be robust and muscular, especially given the vitality and energy of the aforementioned songs. Fortunately, this is only a miniscule gripe.

The album ends with two tender piano-driven ballads that swell with solemn grandiosity, and for 8 minutes you forget that you’ve been listening to a metal album this whole time. It’s a rare treat when a metal band can pull of a traditional ballad-like song with such heart, soul and sincerity as Finality and Alternate Ending, rather than simply being ham-fisted filler to break up the monotony. Both songs are heartbreaking perseverations on a lost love, and they’re exhausting to listen to – even if you’ve never really had your heart broken, you’re left feeling like you did.

A common criticism of Woods of Ypres singles out Gold’s nakedly blunt lyrics. Never one to muddle his message with complex metaphors, vague symbolisms and the like, Gold prefers to state the nature of his emotions with simple declarative statements. On paper, his blunt and unorthodox approach seems silly and simplistic, but when married to the memorable vocal melodies and Gold’s passionate delivery they become endearing very quickly, taking on a kind of awkward, yet achingly honest charm. By the end of the album it becomes hard to imagine it any other way.

Another thing to notice is the eerily prophetic nature of the lyrics when paired with Gold’s death right upon the album’s release. Gold’s choice of lyrical themes have always been dismal (check out Suicide Cargoload and Wet Leather off previous album Woods 4), but some lyrics seem oddly synchronistic considering his death in a car accident – on album closer Alternate Ending, Gold sings “back on the highway, under the moon, my final moments, still wondering about you…” I'm certain the similarity is a simple coincidence, but it does add another dimension of poignancy and poetry to the song, and the album as a whole. It’s a tearjerking reminder of the tragedy of losing such a unique, inspired musician. Both Finality and Alternate Ending paint a picture of a man spending his last moments thinking of the woman who broke his heart. One can only hope Gold was in a better state of mind in his final moments, and given the career-best piece of work and bona-fide doom metal classic that Woods 5 – Grey Skies and Electric Light came to be, I’d like to imagine he was.

“A moment of silence for the dead, but not one moment more. The dead are to be forgotten; we are here to be adored.”

Not on my watch, Mr. Gold. You may be gone, but your legacy remains. An artist like David Gold deserves to be remembered, and with Woods 5, may there never be silence when we think of him.

- Swede Potato

Monday, September 24, 2012

SleepResearch_Facility - Deep Frieze

                In an isolated arctic landscape, the frigid wind howls by. As snow continues to relentlessly fall, the temperature drops lower and lower, causing the heart to slow to a nearly fatal place, as the extremities begin to lose all sensation. As this lonesome, freezing death approaches, the true hopelessness of the situation finally sets in; a truly grim end is about to be met.

                Dark ambient music has its basis in being terrifying or bleak, creating an eerie atmosphere out of minimal sounds and noises that give one the impression of being lost, feeling hopeless, or dying. Often dark ambient albums are quite thematic, with themes ranging from an isolated outer space (Lustmord’s The Place Where the Black Stars Hang) to the miserableness of a desolate earth (Brain Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land), and all sorts of other morbid topics and tales of horror. Yet one album stands out as being one of the most thematically grandiose dark ambient pieces ever produced, and that album is Deep Frieze by SleepResearch_Facility. An album which conceptually represents being stranded and freezing to death in a harsh Arctic landscape, Deep Frieze successfully manages to surround the listener in a freezing miserableness that goes beyond a biting cold discomfort of the body, to a painful affect of the mind and soul.
SleepResearch_Facility is a musical project intended to place listeners into a deep unconsciousness via sleep-inducing ambient sounds, a concept which perfectly matches up with the hypothermic album at hand. As the body temperature drops increasingly lower, all internal organs begin to slow down as their functionality ceases, making the body slower and the mind sludgy, as tiredness begins to approach and the entire self peacefully slips into death. The album itself is a perfect musical representation of this freezing death, with hauntingly ethereal synthesizers that sound distanced from the listener, rumbling bass that vibrates the mind like a glacial earthquake, and effects representative of wind howling by and other natural noises. Each track name corresponds to coordinates for various locations in Antarctica, which is fitting in that each track sounds as though it could have been a field recording from anywhere in this icy desert, making the album all the more haunting and real.
Deep Frieze begins by making one feel completely isolated from all mankind and at the utter mercy of the cruel landscape, as the opening track (79®S 83®W) leads itself to sound as if it was just a natural recording the Antarctic (representative of the aforementioned field recording effect), complete with blizzard-like wind noises and a sort of ambient hollowness that one gets from being surrounded entirely by nature. The second track, 72®S 49®E, continues this eerie pattern of desolation by implementing the use of very distant-sounding electronic noises and ethereal synthesizers, which gives one an even greater feeling of being completely isolated from the world. This portion of the album is completely immersed in the icy theme, yet the rest of Deep Frieze introduces a new, more anxious-feeling tone.

Within the final three tracks on the album, one slowly begins to hear more unnatural noises, sounds which are most certainly made by a living life form, yet do not belong in the lonely landscape of the Antarctic. Distant noises can be heard that sound like a walkie-talkie beeping, or blips reminiscent of a radar-scanning system, giving the impression that perhaps the listener is not as isolated as previously imagined, but is rather in the presence of something very mysterious and haunting. This presents an entirely new theme to the album, one that produces large amounts of anxiousness and suspense at the thought that perhaps one is not as isolated as previously thought, and rather is in the unnerving company of someone, or something, else. This adds a slight element of horror to the album, a theme which is common amongst almost all dark ambient albums, and is indeed a defining theme of the genre itself. Towards the end of 86®S 115®W, very distant voices over some sort of speaker can be heard muttering indecipherable words, over sounds of static that sound like a radio attempting to pick up a signal. This extra element of suspenseful horror, with the possibility that someone is there watching you, observing you as life slowly slips away into the harsh icy landscape, is what makes Deep Frieze go above and beyond being a normal dark ambient album to a magnificently thematic audial experience.
While SleepResearch_Facility intended for this album to lull one into a deep, restful sleep, it instead ended up producing an album so foreboding, haunting and surreal that attempting to sleep while listening could possibly result in quite hellish nightmares. It’s difficult to find an album that presents its concepts in such a compelling way as Deep Frieze, the themes of which are as bleak as they are real, depressing as they are engulfing, and overall very unnerving and unsettling. The album goes above and beyond a listening experience as it fully engages many other senses and evokes terrible thoughts to mind that leave the listener wondering: is it worse being completely alone and abandoned in a harsh wilderness, or worse knowing that someone, or something, is there watching you?

- Richard Cory

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Those Poor Bastards - Satan is Watching

It really is a shame what country music has been twisted into over the years. What was originally a unique form of American folk music is largely stigmatized nowadays to be an antiseptic, artistically vapid, lowest common denominator form of music that capitalizes on crass (yet profitable) “redneck” caricatures and imbecilic jingoism. It’s a cynical, commercialized mockery of a musical style that originally gave a voice to the downtrodden, the poor and the miserable.

However, the idiosyncratic duo Those Poor Bastards shakes off those conventions with absolutely zero mercy. Lead by singer, guitar player and songwriter Lonesome Wyatt and backed by The Minister (bass, drums, banjo, etc), Those Poor Bastards could best be described as raw, gothic country music that plays like a Tim Burton movie if he decided to displace any and all of his family friendly quirkiness. The music of their 4th full length Satan is Watching is largely rooted in Appalachian old time music and old school country, with a flavor of Murder Ballads era Nick Cave and a psychotic, God-fearing Tom Waits (and maybe a tinge of lo-fi punk rock). The production is raw and seedy and the performances stagger and stumble along like those of drunken, doomsday-preaching street musicians.

Opening number This World Is Evil lays down the duo’s stark, bleak approach with a minimalistic instrumental array of harsh guitar fuzz, barebones percussion and a quiet flute played over Wyatt’s manic, desperate condemnation of a world of sin, where “they’ll hang a man before his trial, just to watch him suffer”, and all the while “Satan is watching as you sleep”. There is no relenting from here; each song paints a horrid lyrical picture of a world that is not unlike Hell itself, and the music augments this with raw, dirty, minimalistic arrangements. Indeed this terrible band of tribulated troubadours have no interest in diluting the message of Those Poor Bastards with bells, whistles and fancy production tricks; instead, the music reflects the immorality, the inhumanity and the insanity of this perceived Hell on Earth.

A curious (and particularly effective) characteristic of Satan is Watching is the lyrical subject matter, nearly all of which is steeped in over-the-top expressions of guilt, misery and ultra-conservative Christianity. Bear in mind, this is not your average soccer-mom, mainstream Republican type of ‘conservative’ Christianity – this is apocalyptic, fire-and-brimstone, atavistic Christianity (the two members are “registered Holiness Preachers”, if their Facebook page is to be believed). Closing number and perhaps the best track on the album No One brings together all of the album’s themes together in an intimate and chilling fashion – featuring only fingerpicked guitar and Wyatt’s cracked, quivering voice, he sings “My body is a thing corrupt and wrong – it is guilty, yeah it is guilty/My soul is the thing that’s dragged along – it is innocent, Lord it is innocent.” This theme of demented Christian self-loathing is common on Satan is Watching, further exemplified by Swallowed By Sin and Crooked Man, which sports a truly messed up singalong chorus that is far catchier than it has any right to be.

Whether or not you align yourself with self-loathing Old Testament Christianity, it’s hard to resist the raw, passionate intensity of such an extreme worldview. On that note, those who can’t enjoy music that communicates a radically disagreeable message should probably steer clear of Those Poor Bastards (unless, on the off chance, you are a self-hating, old timey Christian, in which this is probably right up your alley). However, if you’re the rare soul who can appreciate some sincerely dejected music (or would like to foul up the delicate little ears of an unfortunate Toby Keith fan), Satan is Watching will be just your cup of bitter, black tea.

- Swede Potato

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Kashiwa Daisuke - Program Music I

Within the first two minutes of the musical epic that is Program Music I, the listener becomes surrounded by amorphous groupings of musical phrases and field recordings, all blended in a sort of arbitrary manner.  For me, it does nothing less than provide a subtle level of theatrics to the entire piece that I don't shake for the rest of the album.  Nothing seems to make sense at first, be it the sound of a dissonant piano phrase, layered on top of a girl's gentle laughter, followed by the lulling sounds of dripping water, to the eventual, (What I interpret it to be, as you will understand further on) sound of a train beginning to leave a train station.
As the title implies, this album is a program piece, meaning the music is intended to purvey a story to the listener.  Bearing this in mind, it's not surprising that as you listen to this amorphous blend of sounds and music, there is a sense of purpose to it all that you can't dismiss.  The first half of this album is composed of a single song called Stella, a 35 minute track that relays the plot of a book written by Kenji Miyazawa, known as Ginga Tetsudō no Yoru, or Night On The Galactic Railroad.  The story revolves around a youth named Giovanni, who is something of a social outcast due to various issues in his family, such as a sick mother needing constant care, which garner the attention of ridicule in school.  Sounds such as children's laughter and a train picking up speed are all hints at the underlying tale being told.  On a particular evening, on the night of a Star Festival being held in Giovanni's home town, rather than visit the festivities, he is visited by a mystical train, capable of transiting the Milky Way itself.  Accompanied by his friend, Campanella, Giovanni begins his journey to distant worlds hidden in the stars.  Throughout the rest of the song, many different musical styles and devices are used, covering a wide spectrum of moods and sensations.  The build up of a moving piano melody will give way to the intensity of a climactic drum kit layered over an orchestra of strings in the foreground.  At various moments in the piece, grandiose layering of electronic and orchestral styles will crash and lull in movements as different segments of the story are being portrayed. 

Stella does nothing less than transport me into a far off and mystical locale, lined with suggestions of space travel and different worlds filled with the unknown.  This piece strikes me in a way none other has.

Complimenting the first piece, with it's own varied and grand arrangement, is the second track on the album called Write Once, Run MelosThis piece, not seeming to bear a suggested storyline, is the companion to Stella in that much of it's music and style is inhabiting the same aesthetic space left by StellaTo me, it acts as the second movement in a double feature, giving a description and idea of the universe that the story of Stella inhabits.  The details in the background, not overt in their expression in the first piece, now bare center stage in Write Once, Run Melos.  A tour of the same stars traversed by Giovanni and Campanella in their journey on the Galactic Railroad.

Kashiwa Daisuke, a notable Post-Rock artist from Japan, began his solo career in 2004 and has released an array of pieces bearing his musical style.  Based from his music, he enjoys creating blends of Classical and Electronic Post-Rock, with other notable releases such as 88, April. #02, April. #07, and 5 Dec.

- Dragon Zlayer

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Enigma - MCMXC a.D.

Good evening. This is the voice of Enigma. In the next hour we will take you with us into another world, into the world of music, spirit and meditation. Turn off the light, take a deep breath, and relax. Start to move slowly, very slowly. Let the rhythm be your guiding light.

Speaking the words above, a woman’s sensual voice lulls you into a sense of comfort and security, of spiritual awareness, for the journey that is the dually thematic New Age experience of MCMXC a.D., an album that is bold in its combined usage of New Age transcendental serenity and ambient house music. The dueling themes of staunch religiousness (the type that can be seen in the Catholic Church emanated by the choral voices of monks) and passionate sexuality permeate the listener throughout the album, putting one at a constant battle between tranquil meditation and erotic release.

The entire genre of New Age music is often overlooked or simply cast aside as being meditative spiritual nonsense, fit only for consumption by vegan, yoga matt-totting modern hippies. While a key component of the New Age movement truly is meditative relaxation and inner-peace, the genre of New Age music in itself is quite expansive and deep, incorporating upon various other genres such as ambient minimalism and neo-classicism. Enigma’s MCMXC a.D. is no exception in New Age music in that the album makes use of a number of sub-genres to create a wholly ethereal experience. The album itself was a landmark in New Age music, serving as a huge influence for the then-popular movement (the album was released in 1990, which is what the Roman Numerals in the album title read), going double and triple platinum in countries across the world, and even reaching an amazing 4 million sales in the United States. Upon listening to the album, however, it is easy to see why MCMXC a.D. became so hugely popular, as it left a huge impact on what New Age music was and what it had the potential to become.

MCMXC a.D. is largely based on the opposing themes of religion and sexuality, themes which thematically are quite contradictory yet musically mesh together almost seamlessly. Religion is presented throughout the album through the Gregorian-like chanting of Benedictine monks, creating an overall solemnly meditative experience. In contrast, the concept of sexuality is musically represented through the use of erotic bass-beats of ambient dance-hall house music, which (although generic sounding at times) captures the essence of one’s heart thumping sonorously as a sexual encounter climaxes.

Both themes of religion and sexuality duel majestically in a key track on the album Principles of Lust (a 12 minute track composed of three sub-sections), the first section of which, Sadeness, is representative of the albums highest musical and thematic potential. What begins as a sobering monk chant suddenly kicks into a slow, trance-inducing dance beat backed by ethereally synthesized effects and instrumentalization representative of a Peruvian pan flute. The battle throughout the song between a collective of monks and the riveting sexuality produced by the hypnotic rhythm of the synthesized bass reaches its peak with a woman panting, as if worn out by a powerful orgasm, before resuming the regular pace and beat of the song.

Mea Culpa serves to be another key track on the album, and one of the more “danceable” on the album, with its use of a more fast-paced bass rhythm. What this bass lacks in hypnoticism (compared to other tracks like Sadeness) it makes up for with being much more upbeat than many of the other rhythm tracks on the album. While the spoken female words throughout Mea Culpa are representative of the rest of the album in being very sensual, this track also features a major downfall instrumentally that can be seen on various other tracks throughout the album: namely, pathetic sounding guitar solos. These guitar solos give parts of the album a very dated sound, and unfortunately take away from the hypnotic, trance-like vibe of the rest of the album.

At its best, MCMXC a.D. replicates the satisfying mesh of musical stylings as heard in Principles of Lust and Mea Culpa. At its worst, the album can be a bit repetitive in its sampling of generic-sounding house beats that add nothing in particular to the track itself. The album can also tend to be cheesy in its use of guitar solos intended to enhance the overall etherealness, but unfortunately have a particularly stale “generic 1980’s sound” to them. However, as a New Age album it remains nonetheless extremely impressive in its varied use of musical genres and instrumental effects/experimentation, proving that New Age music was not meant solely for a bizarre underground of free-thinking spiritualists, but could also appeal to a wider mainstream audience of everyday people from every stretch of life.

- Richard Cory