Odds and Ends – February 18, 2019

Odds and Ends is a segment where I do brief reviews of albums I either didn’t prioritize for longer-form reviews, or ones for which I don’t have that much to say.

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Band: Cosmocracy, Inc. | Album: A Ride Across Your Mind | Genre: Progressive rock, Psychedelic rock | Bandcamp

This is a delightful album. It’s a high-energy, progressive garage rock piece, and it’s a ton of fun. The guitars have a distinctly bluesy twinge, and the keyboards lend a wide, galactic atmosphere. The bass tone used here comes across as downright funky. The vocals are a little rough and weak, but I’m hoping that’ll be improved on future releases. This band have some room for improvement, but they’re starting off strong.

Score: 80/100

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Band: The Emerald Dawn | Album: Nocturne | Genre: Progressive rock, Neo-prog | Bandcamp

The Emerald Dawn take progressive rock back to the sound of IQ and Marillion on this album, meaning it’s quite synth-heavy. It keeps the tempo down for the most part, moving smoothly along, and the drums often impart a jazzy feel. I’m not the biggest fan of the sound palette on this album, and I wish they would have mixed it up a bit more. And like many, many progressive rock albums, the songs (all 8-20 minutes) have a tendency to become unfocused or drag at moments. But if you’re a big fan of IQ or other neo-prog acts, give this a go!

Score:  73/100

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Band: Gum Takes Tooth | Album: Arrow | Genre: Krautrock, Noise rock | Bandcamp

Gam Takes Tooth provide an interesting brand of experimental rock. It draws in equal parts from krautrock (particularly its more electronic end) and noise rock, to make a buzzing, pounding, hypnotic record, where texture and atmosphere are more important than technical instrumentality. My one major complaint is that it runs long. Songs have a tendency to wear out their welcome, despite strong underlying ideas.

Score: 75/100

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Band: Laktating Yak | Album: Origin of the Yak | Genre: Zeuhl, RIO | Bandcamp

This is a great, weird, noisy album. The music is high-energy, chaotic, and dissonant. Strange guitar chords help the music plow forward as squealing violins screech over top. Laktating Yak use dissonance to great effect, but they don’t wallow in it or let it become overpowering. It’s a deftly-used tool. These guys remind me a lot of Corima, in that this is a brand of zeuhl that sounds very much from the American Southwest.

Score: 83/100

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Band: Shrezzers | Album: Relationships | Genre: Technical metal, Pop | Bandcamp

This is a bizarre release. And it’s not good-bizarre, like a good zeuhl album or a Frank Zappa release. This is confusing, weird, and just not enjoyable. It takes aspects of djent and other sorta-proggy variations of technical metal and mashes it up with electronic pop elements. The clean vocals are cheesy and overwrought, though the harsh vocals are surprisingly good. There are a couple decent tracks here, but mostly it sounds like someone was a big fan of both Plini and Top 40 pop and couldn’t quite make those two work together. I’m sure there’s an audience for this, but this is a marriage of two genres (pop and djent) that I deeply dislike.

Score: 27/100

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Band: Sight: | Album: Heroica | Genre: Stoner metal, Post metal | Bandcamp

Sight have a lot of good ideas on this album. They remind me a lot of Elder, in that they’re proggy, cosmic, stonery metal. The riffs are strong and heavy, and a lot of moments on this album have a great energy and experimental spirit. I do have one big gripe here. And it’s a really big one. It’s that’s that five of the seven songs are structured nearly identically. The first three-quarters is quiet and calm and mellow, but the last section is all proggy metallic bombast. After a while, it began to strongly grate on me. It’s unfortunate, but I really do wish they could have been more varied in their writing. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the two songs which don’t hem to this pattern are my favorites.

Score:  68/100

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Band: The Sonic Dawn | Album: Eclipse | Genre: Psychedelic rock, Garage rock | Bandcamp

This sounds like the band listened to Nuggets and decided to just ape what they heard there. The musicianship is fine, but there’s nothing original or particularly interesting here. Everything’s drenched in echoes and reverb, and the band are doing their damnedest to sound like they’re a garage band from 1968. There’s the occasional interesting jazzy flourish or particularly catchy hook, but this is nonessential.

Score: 59/100

Album Review: Piah Mater – The Wandering Daughter

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Band: Piah Mater | Album: The Wandering Daughter | Year: 2018 | Genre: Progressive metal, Progressive rock, Death Metal

From: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil | Label: Code 666

For fans of: Opeth, Riverside, Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson

Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon | Apple Music

Piah Mater are a Brazilian trio performing a style of progressive death metal highly reminiscent of Opeth’s classic material. That’s not an easy sound to execute, but these guys pull it off excellently. Had Mikael Åkerfeldt and his crew put this out, this would be hailed as Opeth’s best album since Watershed.

After the brief, idyllic opener, growls and aggressive, chugging death metal riffs take the spotlight and drive “Solace in Oblivion” forward. As is to be expected of a band so heavily drawing from Opeth’s sound, these extended pieces have frequent breaks of quiet jazz guitar and moments of soaring clean vocals. Many of the softer moments would not feel out of place on a Camel album. The narration on this song is pretty corny, but it’s a minor issue overall.

This pattern of snarling riffage gets a reprieve on “The Sky Is Our Shelter”. This song is one area where Piah Mater actually exceed Opeth. The latter’s ballads often feel tepid and uninspired, but this song slinks along with fluid guitar lines and warbling keys to create a calm yet tense piece of music. The eventual entrance of distorted instrumentation is impactful in a way rarely achieved in many metal ballads.

The closing epic “The Meek’s Inheritance” is another highpoint. Clean and growled vocals frequently swap the spotlight. The music rarely lets up in intensity, serving to augment the lyrical condemnation of human greed and its impact upon the world. After a brief jazz interlude, the song’s finale kicks into high gear. Haunting, echoing clean guitar arpeggios soar over the distorted foundation.

Not everything on this album is amazing, though. While the comparison to Opeth is mostly positive, it is also unavoidable. Piah Mater ape Opeth hard. The similarity at times is so uncanny it’s distracting, and it’s particularly egregious in the opening minutes of “Earthbound Ruins”. “Sprung from Weakness” doesn’t do much to stand out either, and all the longer tracks are undermined by poorly-developed moments, blurring together into an indistinct blob.

I’m looking forward to this band’s future output, but I also really hope they diversify their sound or do something to differentiate themselves. I like Opeth, and it’s fine to draw inspiration from them. But hearing a band that sound almost exactly the same sucks some of the fun out of discovering new music.

Score: 79/100

Album Review: Numidia – Numidia

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Band: Numidia | Album: NumidiaYear: 2019 | Genre: Psychedelic rock, Progressive rock, Blues rock

From: Sydney, Australia | Label: Nasoni Records

For fans of: Elder, Erkin Koray, Quiet Child, Pink Floyd, North African blues

Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon | Apple Music

There seems to be a correlation between regions that are mostly desert and the production of psychedelic blues. The American Southwest has a fertile scene, and the Berber peoples of the Maghreb and Sahel have given birth to a unique fusion of blues, blues-rock, and their own native traditions. Maybe it’s something about the vast stretches of empty land that leads to this particular brand of earthy, mantra-like rock music. It would make sense, then, that Australia would have some contributions to this sound.

Numidia are a quintet hailing from Sydney (which, notably, is wetter than the Pacific Northwest or the British Isles) that plays a brand of meditative, desert-tinged blues rock with the sensibilities and stylings of classic 1970s progressive rock acts blended in. Explicit overtures are made toward Middle Eastern and North African music as well.

Their self-titled debut album swims gleefully in fuzzed out guitars. The rhythm section pushes the music along with purpose, and the Hammond organ and synthesizers help fill the gaps. They deftly move between driving rockers and moments of mellow meditation, often in the span of the same song.

Almost as if putting out a mission statement, this album opens up with “Türkü”, a reinterpretation of a Turkish folk song, which was notably first translated into the vocabulary of rock music by legendary Turkish guitarist Erkin Koray. But where Mr. Koray’s version of “Türkü” kept its folk flavors, Numidia have turned it into a snarling, lurching, metallic monster. The riff that the song is built around keeps the tension high, and the bass growls with a level of distorted aggression not often heard outside of certain metal subgenres.

After this opening assault, “Azawad” is a comparative idyll. This song’s roots are in Tuareg blues, and it floats along with harmonized vocals and gradually-building instrumentation. The guitars slowly pile up, the drums crash ever more aggressively, and everything builds to quite the satisfying crescendo.

The title track is the most overtly proggy composition on the album. The riffs are jagged and irregular, reminding me a lot of “Türkü”, and Hammond organ receives its most prominent mixing here. Despite being the second-shortest song on the album, it’s complex.

“Red Hymn” is another highlight. It’s a slow-moving, smoky, soulful piece. Mostly instrumental, the sparse lyrics are chanted in a near-mantra over simple percussion and jangling, blues-inflected guitar licks for the first few minutes. Just shy of the halfway mark, the song shifts into movement reminiscent of “Maggot Brain”. A sorrowful guitar solo, channeling David Gilmour, builds over thundering bass as the tinkling guitar arpeggios and pounding drums build to an intense climax.

I can’t find much fault with this album. I’ll openly own up to having a low tolerance for most blues and blues rock, and there are a few points—particularly in quieter moments, like the closing “Te Waka”—where the music feels less purposeful and more aimless and meandering. But this album does not wear out its welcome, nor does it ever reach the levels of tedium I often feel when listening to a lot of modern blues rock. Numidia have made a bold, aggressive first impression with this debut album, tactfully mixing influences as disparate as Tuareg folk music and Pink Floyd.

Score: 84/100

Album Review: All Traps on Earth – A Drop of Light

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Band: All Traps on Earth | Album: A Drop of Light | Year: 2018 | Genre: Progressive Rock

From: Stockholm, Sweden | Label: AMS

For fans of: Änglagård, Magma, early King Crimson, Wobbler

Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon | Apple Music

Any discussion of All Traps on Earth requires at least briefly discussing Änglagård, the band’s progenitor.

Änglagård were one of the best (read: one of the few good) progressive rock acts of the 1990s. They put out two classic albums, Hybris (1992) and Epilog (1994). These releases brought the sounds of classic ‘70s prog acts like Yes and Gentle Giant into a new era with a fresh twist and breathed new life into the long-out-of-favor genre. Those two albums deserve every bit of the praise they get. In 2012, 18 years after their last one, Änglagård put out their third album, Viljans Öga, to much acclaim. (I like it overall, but I think it’s too long and doesn’t do anything too special.)

Based on their past release schedule, Änglagård’s next album won’t be out until 2030, so in the meantime, the band’s bassist, keyboardist, and drummer have formed All Traps on Earth. This band’s debut, A Drop of Light, feels very much to be the spiritual successor of Viljans Öga. Both albums are mostly-instrumental, feature vast, Mellotron-soaked suites, and display a high degree of complex songcraft. But both also feel like they’re lacking some impact.

The state of progressive rock had changed massively between Epilog and Viljans Öga. Dedicated prog festivals sprang up; bands like Porcupine Tree and The Mars Volta rose to prominence and went defunct; and progressive metal pushed the boundaries of progressive rock music. Progressive rock was on the creative and cultural upswing by 2012, and one could argue that Änglagård helped kick this off, along with bands like Spock’s Beard and Dream Theater.

What was fresh in 1994 had become ossified by 2012, and especially so by 2018. The members of All Traps on Earth seem to recognize this, and I do give them credit for trying some somewhat different musical tricks on this album. Bands like Yes and Camel are still heavily referenced, but there are some stranger influences here. A lot of the weird rhythms and honking reeds in the opening opus “All Traps on Earth” remind me a lot of Magma or Lizard-era King Crimson. They also deploy dissonant chords to great effect in building an all-around-creepier atmosphere than most of Änglagård’s work.

The song “Omen” stands out as well. It starts off alright, but the middle section features some impressive musicianship full of jagged, irregular riffs reminiscent of some of Frank Zappa’s work. And the fact that the bass is so crunchy and prominent is a refreshing change of pace, generally speaking.

I do have issues with this release, though. Two things in particular stick out to me, and both are problems very common in progressive rock: the songs might be complex suites, but there’s not always a lot of logical progression to them; and this whole album is just too damn long. When your average song length (disregarding the two-minute interlude “First Step”) is north of 15 minutes, you’re going to have to work hard to keep the listener engaged, and that’s made even more difficult by this being an instrumental album.

This problem is especially acute on “Magmatic Warning”. The band sound like they’re trying to be weird here, and it simply comes off as forced. A lot of sections, both in this song and on this album as a whole, tend to sputter and plod along. The technically impressive playing does not do anything to actually elevate the album.

On the whole, I like this album. Just like how I like Viljans Öga—on the whole. In both cases, I think if the bands had done some structural reworking—perhaps put out an album of five or six eight-minute songs—it’d be a more engaging and overall more satisfying listen.

Score: 65/100

Lesser-Known Gem: Эпос – Илья (Epos – Ilya)

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Band: Эпос (Epos) | Album: Рок-Былина Илья (Rok-Bylina Ilya) | Year: 1989 | Genre: Progressive rock, Progressive folk

From: Leningrad, USSR (now Saint Petersburg, Russia) | Label: Мелодия (Melodiya)

For fans of: Magma, Batushka, Sigur Rós

I have an inexplicable affinity for Eastern Bloc progressive rock. I suppose it extends to music from oppressive regimes more generally, but Communist Europe had a rather thriving artistic scene (outside of Albania). Epos was among the most distinct groups to come out of the Soviet Union, a bizarre blend of cosmic synthesizers, earthy strings, and haunting vocal arrangements. That being said, there is almost no information available about the band. The musicians’ names are listed on the back of the record sleeve, but the (English-language) internet holds very little background about the group. Even looking through the first two pages of Russian-language Google results didn’t yield anything at the time of writing.

This album tells the story of Ilya Muromets, a folk hero of the Kievan Rus. It bills itself as a “rock-bylina” (a bylina being traditional East Slavic style of epic poetry), and this album is one of relatively few that actually feels uniquely Slavic.

Starting with an ethereal synth drone and haunting female vocals, this piece makes an immediate impression. The opening “Izdolishche” (“The Outlook”) maintains an expansive atmosphere that manages to feel close and oppressive through nervous violins and off-kilter bass and drum runs. At about the halfway point in this song, the rock structures dissolve into somber vocals over violin and cello before closing out with its previous tense atmosphere.

“Vladimir – knyaz” (“Vladimir the Prince”), the second track here, dives deeper into Russian folk traditions. It does not take long for this song to move away from the relatively accessible rock structures of the opening track and into an extended stretch of a cappella harmonies of alternating male and female vocals. The ensemble’s vocal tracks weave together in a way that is rarely heard in modern Western music, evoking Orthodox chants. Nearly the entire eight-minute runtime passes without instrumentation.

Where the preceding song ended calmly, the third track, the titular “Ilya Muromets” opens with a bang of strings and drums. It’s on this song where the competing threads of Russian folk and progressive rock really begin to weave together. The complex vocal arrangements once more take the lead, underpinned in equal parts by synthesizers and violins. Tension builds and resolves a few times over this song in alternating slow and fast moments

This album’s closer, “Bitva” (“The Battle”), is its real highlight. This album’s brief runtime has been building toward this point. Previously-addressed music themes are revisited and reinterpreted, and this is where rock influences are most obvious. Orthodox chants are underpinned with skittering drums and droning synthesizers. The whole affair ends on a relatively gentle moment, with the keys laying a broad groundwork for the vocals to float over.

This is possibly the most uniquely-Russian sounding rock album I’ve heard, and it’s a pity it isn’t more widely-known. I love when an act can really imbue experimental rock music with a unique national flavor, instead of just playing Anglo-prog with non-English lyrics. Unfortunately, as far as I can find, though, the only way legitimately to acquire this album is to buy a physical copy from a collector on a site like Discogs, which is unfortunate. Three of the four tracks (Tracks 1, 3, and 4) are available on YouTube, at least. Should anyone know of a place to stream this album in its entirety, let me know, and I’ll edit this post to include a link.

Score: 92/100

Album Review: Kekal – Deeper Underground

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Band: Kekal | Album: Deeper Underground | Year: 2018 | Genre: Progressive metal, Black metal, Electronic

From: Jakarta, Indonesia | Label: Hitam Kelam Records

For fans of: Agalloch, Atheist, Kayo Dot

Buy: BandcampAmazon | Apple Music

Kekal have been around for two decades, but this may be their best album yet. The band’s signature sound of complex black metal, catchy pop sensibilities, and wonky electronics comes together in a way more balanced than anything else I’ve previously heard from them. This is a huge improvement over their last release, 2015’s Multilateral, which was an uneven effort. Throughout much of this band’s discography, they’ve often had a hard time getting the black metal and electronic influences to meld effectively.

Here, however, Kekal have dialed back the electronic elements of their sound. Bloops and bleeps are saved for interludes and building texture and atmosphere. It’s rare for synthesizers to take the spotlight for any extended period of time. This isn’t some purely black metal shredfest, either. Yes, a lot of the metal here is extreme, but the band also mixes in gentler sounds, ample interludes, and surprisingly accessible moments.

The lyrics are highly political, as they always are with Kekal. The band addresses topics such as wealth inequality, religious hypocrisy, environmentalism, and anticapitalism. They’re unsubtle as hell, so Kekal won’t win any awards for wordsmanship, but that just means there’s less room for ambiguity. If the point is for the listener to hear what they’re saying, they’ve accomplished that goal.

The opening track, “Root of All Evil”, is one of the best songs on the album. It starts with thunderous drums and crushing walls of guitar before transitioning to a slower, jazzier verse with heavily-phased vocals. The chorus is massive and ominous, an excellent choice for a song addressing the social ills of capitalism. The electronic interlude starts off awkwardly, but it recovers quickly. Warbling synths eventually give way to a twisting guitar solo before closing with a reprise of the heaviest part of the song’s opening.

“Sanity Away from Sanity”, the second track, is a better example of how Kekal fuse black metal with electronics. The song opens with synth loops, and the harsh, blastbeat-laden verses are supported with synthesizers that effortlessly glide over the chaos.

“The Many Faces of Your Face” offers perhaps the fullest integration of the two genres. The first two minutes see slashing guitar lines atop a drum loop with pulsing synths. The song’s conclusion reverses this formula, with the metal elements coming to the fore and keys taking on a supporting role.

This wouldn’t be a Kekal album with a seemingly out-of-place pop song. “Revealment” features a wave of distorted guitars throughout the song, and the middle eight is undeniably black metal. But this is not a metal song. It’s a damn good pop song with a black metal interlude. This piece is an absolute earworm.

“Triple Evil”, the album’s penultimate track, is the weakest one here. It’s a moody, atmospheric interlude. It’s material like this which has frequently bogged down past Kekal records. It’s a necessary palette cleanser, but it could have been shortened or given more focus.

“End of Hegemony” is a fantastic closer and in some ways acts as an encapsulation of the album as a whole. It careens from tremolo-picked riffs underpinned with honking synthesizers to polyrhythmic electronic breaks and back to metallic shredding at a moment’s notice.

If you’re a fan of weird, experimental, extreme metal; political music; or both, I cannot recommend this album enough. This was my personal favorite metal album of 2018.

 

Score: 93/100