A week late and a dollar short, but finally here…
STANDING DISCLAIMER: It would be ridiculous to try and do Full Disclosure on these. Just assume I know everyone here at least via the Internet, and most of them in person. You’ll be right far more often than wrong.
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Lady Beast, Lady Beast (Bandcamp, 2012)
I grew up in the Pittsburgh music scene, so I kind of prick up my ears whenever I hear someone talking about new music from Pittsburgh. Especially if it’s metal, since I spent my high school years there, and that corresponded with the golden age of hair metal. Lady Beast, therefore, were kind of like a magnet for my iron filings. As soon as I heard about this project, there was no way I was not picking this album up, and finding out it’s a name-your-price download on Bandcamp certainly didn’t hurt any. As far as it being Pittsburgh metal, I really couldn’t ask for more, and I love this album with all my fist-pumping little hears, but it suffers from a touch of the same problem that marred a few of last year’s releases for me (most notably it’s the problem that kept Exivious from hitting my beat-of-the-year list)—this is backward-looking music. I have no problem at all with bands who want to evoke the sounds of eighties metal, but if you don’t tweak it a little, do something to make it your own, then you end up sounding like an Iron Cross cover band. This is solid work technically, and gets played often at Goat Central (especially in the car), but it needs a little something to distinguish it.
“When Desire Is Stronger than Fear”.
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Babymetal, Babymetal (Toy’s Factory, 2014)
Nothing, absolutely nothing, about Babymetal should work. It’s three junior-high-school-aged girls (none of whom, according to Wikipedia, were at all familiar with heavy metal before being recruited for the band) singing, mostly, generic Japanese idol music (Babymetal is a subsidiary of Japanese idol band Sakura Gakuin) over a weird hybrid of death metal, vocaloid-flavored pop, and the occasional techno keyboard line. What about this doesn’t say “I’m going to suck”? And yet Babymetal have been wowing Japanese record-buyers for a couple of years with hot-selling singles and sold-out shows. It’s one of those cases where you put together a whole bunch of things that don’t fit and magic happens. As is usually the case in Japanese pop, their first full-length doesn’t have a great deal of new music on it; if you have the singles, you’ve heard a decent amount of this already. If you haven’t, though, why not? Check out a tune or two on Youtube (I am quite partial to “Ijime, Dame, Zettai”, the group’s anti-bullying anthem, and “Catch Me If You Can”). You will either wonder what the hell you’re listening to or come away a lifelong fan. Better yet, you may well do both.
“Ijime, Dame, Zettai”.
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Nyodene D, Edenfall (Malignant Records, 2012)
Over the past five years, I have seen Nyodene D evolve from an enthusiastic, if kind of generic, powerelectronics project into, well, something that could catch the eye of Malignant Records. What changed? Probably a million things, but the most obvious externally is that Aaron Vilk developed a sense of dynamics (I suspect this happened when he started collaborating with Stephen Petrus in the side project Lupus Sol, which was much quieter than anything Vilk had done previously.) I have three Nyodene D releases shuffling on the player right now, Pig (2008), I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (2009), and Edenfall, and the difference is stark. I still like those old releases a great deal; powerelectronics is supposed to be crude. But Edenfall is playing on a whole new level. It is still recognizably powerelectronics, but with a whole host of other influences that most PE bands still haven’t assimilated, even the guys who’ve been around since the eighties. The closest analogue I can come up with on the PE side of things is Satori; Edenfall has that same creeping sense of ominousness on tracks like “Anasazi” that powered Satori classics like “Power of the Gun” and “Pressurehead”, while the more straightforward face-blistering of “Damnatio Memoriae” evokes my favorite Satori track, “Heel”, but with more range. And, oddly, a more meditative feel, if you’re the kind of person who can meditate in the middle of an electrical storm when you’re wearing brass knickers. All that said, Vilk saves the best for last, with “Borne on Vulture’s Beak, I Am Carried to the Heavens”. The powerelectronic roots are undeniable, but this is as promising a slab of death industrial as I’ve heard since I first discovered Steel Hook Prostheses. As I write this, there’s a new piece of Nyodene D vinyl ready to drop, and I can’t wait to hear it.
The title track.
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Enter the Haggis, The Modest Revolution (Bandcamp, 2013)
After EtH’s 2009 album Gutter Anthems—their best in a decade, since Aerials—drummer James Campbell retired and was replaced with Bruce McCarthy. Those of you who are not drummers are probably not aware of just how much influence over a band’s sound a drummer can have. The band’s first album with McCarthy on the throne was 2011’s Whitelake, and a more different beast than Gutter Anthems one would be hard-pressed to find. I gave it one spin, and my wife and I agreed that it was…nice. (You can hear that tone of voice, right?) It took almost two years for a single track on that album, “White Squall”, to find its way into regular rotation. By that time, they were close to dropping their next disc, The Modest Revolution. I was waiting with bated breath to find out if Whitelake was an anomaly or a new direction. The timeframe worked out badly—I picked up The Modest Revolution and got the chance to run through about five songs before I started writing Desert Island Disc, during which I listened to very little external music. But those five songs convinced me that “new direction” was the winner, and I shelved it. Fast-forward to October 2013, the first time I was seeing EtH live in over four years. Not surprisingly, a great deal of the music they performed on that tour was from the last two albums, and seeing those songs live, they finally made some sense to me (though I’m not going to say any of them will ever supplant “One Last Drink” or “Andromeda” or “The Death of Johnny Mooring” or “She Moved Through the Fair” at the top of my EtH favorites list). I went back and listened to Whitelake and The Modest Revolution, and started getting them into rotation, and I like them better now. TMR, which riffs on a number of stories from a single edition of the newspaper, still has that same adult-contemporary feel as Whitelake did; it seems the band’s days of arena-rock anthems like “The Litter and the Leaves” are gone for good—but there are some very good acoustic-ballad-y songs to be found here. “Can’t Trust the News” is tailor-made for radio-friendly single-dom, while “Blackout” is the type of ballad Trevor Lewington has gotten very good at writing over the past five years (viz. “The Ghosts of Calico” and “Broken Line” on Gutter Anthems and “Getaway Car” on Whitelake). I admit, six months later a lot of the rest of it still kind of runs together for me; if you are new to the great Haggis, start with their defining albums—Aerials, Soapbox Heroes, and Gutter Anthems—but once you’re an established fan, you’ll want this one.
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Atomic Cockbombs, Neural Interference (Mortville Noise, 2014)
Despite the fact that my favorite release on Mortville to date is the Wuzor comp, which could reasonably be described as stoner metal, every time I pick up a new Mortville release I’m half-expecting grindcore. The song lengths on Neural Interface told me I was in for something different, but come on—Atomic Cockbombs sound like they should be opening for Deathwank and Ear Bleeding Disorder, if you just go by the name. You—or I, anyway—couldn’t be more wrong. I thought I knew where this album was going when it kicked off with “Visitors form the Dark Beyond”, which has a kind of dark industrial feel with a touch of techno to it, overlaid with a sample from, I think, The Outer Limits. But the album did its best to throw me off almost immediately. “Somnambulist Cult” starts out the same way, though the sample has switched over to the last scene from John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. (You’ve already scored big in my book if you’re liking mid-eighties Carpenter enough to sample it.) And then, while the beatiness never really goes away, the track is gradually covered with a thick, nasty layer of digitally-produced noise. I mean, these guys could BE products of the late-nineties Cleveland noise scene. And then, just when you’ve got yourself acclimated to this new and interesting place, then comes “Filth Abhors Filth” a few tracks later, and it adds deep drone to the mix. I have no freakin’ idea who Atomic Cockbombs are, but I need to book them for a show. Right now. If you were to ask me to build the perfect band’s sound, I would probably come up with Atomic Cockbombs. This is currently in the lead for Album of the Year 2014.
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Pipe Dream, Horizon (Bandcamp, 2013)
If you follow me at all on antisocial media, you are probably already well aware that I consider Pipe Dream, four high-schoolers from Cleveland (who go to Hawken, my wife’s alma mater), the best traditional-music band in northeast Ohio right now. Their first EP, Circles, was an engaging blend of pop songcraft that mutated with every track (live, these guys switch stations on a fairly regular basis; all would seem to be multi-instrumentalists) and a weird lyrical blend of emo, fantasy, and cynicism. They followed it up with another EP, Horizon, and the fact that their material disappeared from Bandcamp soon afterwards (I know they haven’t broke up; they released a new single via Youtube about a month ago) has me thinking that it may have gotten these guys a label deal. They deserve it. The title track to Horizon is the best thing they’ve done so far, combining all of the previous elements with a kind of bottomless existentialism that I find astonishing in someone who hasn’t yet reached twenty—not that someone of that age isn’t feeling it (you all remember how angsty high school was, right), but that they actually get it right from the perspective of someone who graduated from high school damn near thirty years ago now. The other three tracks show them pushing into other, more conventional, pop topics with the same introspection and thought; “Dark Summer” is exactly the sort of love song the hitmakers in Hollywood keep trying to write (and failing utterly). This may well be the best EP of 2013.
The title track.
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Natasha’s Ghost, Shimmer (FUA Records, 1999)
One of the best pieces of news I got in all of 2013 was that Natasha’s Ghost were working on their first new album in fifteen years. Until then, Shimmer was their swan song, and while it’s a hell of an album, it always left me wondering where they would have gone with another album. Soon, I’ll find out. See, the problem with Shimmer is that it’s not really an album, at least not in the sense of their last one, 1996’s Everything Under the Moon. EUtM is a very solid, consistent four-star album. It all coheres as an album, and nothing really stands out; any of its eleven songs would have been as good a radio single as any other. Shimmer is EUtM‘s polar opposite; it is rougher and far more inconsistent. When I was writing Desert Island Disc I said something along the lines of on Everything Under the Moon, the band were at 95% for every song, while on Shimmer, they were at 90% fro some, 95% for some, and then there’s “Falling Up”. That is a 100% song. For my money, it is one of the best pieces of straight-up rock and roll that has ever been recorded. So what would have happened had they taken that ball and run with it, and managed to produce an entire album that good? No one knows, though now we can change that to “no one knows yet” and hope for the best. As far as a recommendation goes, because Shimmer is such a variable album, I don’t think it’s where a new fan should start with Natasha’s Ghost; if you find yourself loving “Falling Up” (and who wouldn’t?), pick yourself up a copy of Everything Under the Moon first and get familiar with their sound, but Shimmer should be your second stop.
The official video for “Falling Up”.
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Abingdon Boys School, Abingdon Boys School (Epic, 2007)
Abingdon Boys School, one of the many creative outlets headed by music and fashion impresario Takanori Nishikawa, is best known in America for “Howling”, the opening them for the Darker than Black anime. Based on that, which is just a huge, huge song—high-energy hard rock with a ridiculously catchy chorus and some really amusing Engrish in the bridge (I’m pretty sure they were unaware of the real meaning of the term “gang bang” when they were writing lyrics about guns)—I figured I’d take a listen to the rest of the album. I originally felt like all those teen girls who bought the second Marilyn Manson release on the strength of the “Sweet Dreams” cover, though I don’t think ABS meant to pull the same kind of bait-and-switch. A year later, I understand a lot more about where Nishikawa and co. are coming from on this album, but it took a lot of spins to get it all to mesh in my head in any sort of coherent way. About the only thing the rest of the album has in common with “Howling” is the crunchy guitars, though they tend to be mixed down in other tracks, and in general the music has that same sort of “everything is influenced by hip-hop” feel that I get from a lot of the J-rock albums that have come across my path over the years. To be honest, it still grates somewhat. That makes roughly half this album drive me batty, though some of the more hip-hoppy tracks achieve a sort of unintended listenability thanks to more of the amusing Engrish I mentioned in re “Howling”. The other half of the album may be good enough to tip the balance in its favor for you if you’re used to the oddly compelling mix of metal and upbeat Jpop that typifies Japanese hard rock bands (if you like The Yellow Monkey’s cruchier stuff, you’ll love this), but I’d take a listen on Youtube before dropping the big bucks necessary to pick up a Japanese album from a native source (average MSRP on a Japanese CD, translated, is about $30 and shipping).
“Howling” live in 2010.
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Rie Fu, Tobira Album (Sony, 2007)
I discovered the music of Rie Fu like most people in America familiar with her did: via anime. There are few American anime fans who can’t hum a few bars of “Life Is Like a Boat”, the ending theme for the first season of Bleach, or “Tsuki Akari”, the ending theme for Darker than Black. I’m not sure how many Americans have delved father than that into Rie Fu’s catalog, and that’s a shame; no one who knows me would be surprised when I say that I am an unabahed fan of Jpop, and for my money, Rie Fu is doing it better than anyone else in the game right now. The pinnacle of her career to date: 2007’s Tobira Album, which loses the hesitancy of some of the early recordings (Rie Funakoshi came to music young; her first album was released before she was twenty years old) and is just starting the experimentation that would grace later albums. (Thankfully, Rie Fu’s version of “experimentation” did not take her down the techno track followed by artists like Ayumi Hamasaki; 2012’s Bigger Picture, her first with a credited backing band, sounds more like Rie is channelling Anneke van Giersbergen than anything else.) It’s got an instant hook for the anime kids, since this is the album that spawned the immortal “Tsuki Akari”, but there’s way more to it than that. The album’s opener, “5000 Miles”, throws down the gauntlet from the outset, defining the pop you’re going to get here; it is lusher and far more orchestrated (swelling volins!) than Rie Fu’s earlier work, but it keeps that sense of wide-eyed innocence that has always made her work so endearing. From there, the album almost seems as if it’s a showcase for Funakoshi’s ability to write a hit-friendly single, split almost evenly between sentimental ballads (“Tsuki Akari”, the title track, etc.) and more upbeat stuff (“Smile”, a rockin’ live version of “Sunshine of My Day”, etc.). Were this an album from an artist less humble and self-effacing, I would probably be calling this disc a piece of pretentious show-off-iness, but Rie Fu is such a sweetie, both in interviews and in performance footage I’ve seen, that I can’t imagine this album having been made with that sort of cynical eye. Seven years after its release, Rie Fu has released a handful of other albums (and a greatest hits comp, 2001’s I Can Do Better, that’s so good I suspended my usual no-comps rule on the Best of the Year lists to include it), all of which are up to her usual standards of excellence, but Tobira Album still sits at the top of the heap.
“5000 Miles” live in 2012.
(*For the record: it did not occur to me until I was writing the reviews earlier this week that I had grabbed the albums whose music frames Darker than Black.)
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Murderous Vision, Spirits of Old, Spirits of New (Bandcamp, 2014)
In Janury 2014, Live Bait Recording Foundation label head and sole member of Murderous Vision Stephen Petrus lost everything but the clothes on his back (of which there were not many at five in the morning) and all of his earthly possessions save a single box he was able to grab on his way out the door when the house he was living in burned to the ground. Lean times ensued, but Petrus has been involved in the experimental music scene for much of his life—2014 marks the 20th anniversary of Murderous Vision—and he’s got his priorities in order. After he found a new place to live (back in Fairport Harbor, OH, where Live Bait Recording Foundation was originally chartered), thanks to a couple of very successful fundraisers and a lot of donated gear, Petrus was able to turn his attention to getting out some new Murderous Vision material. (Hey, it’s in the blood.) And thus we have Spirits of Old, Spirits of New, the first tracks recorded in the new digs. If you’re familiar with the work of MV, there’s nothing surprising here, though MV has done so many different things over the years that that doesn’t tell you much. This is in the death industrial vein, with some severely mixed-down rhythmic elements surfacing now and again (think Suffocate: The Final Breath here). It’s good stuff, but as it is made special by the circumstances surrounding it, it’s kind of one of those “you hadda be there” releases; those unfamiliar with Murderous Vision should probably hang out with the Ghosts of the Soul Long Lost comps or the recent Black Hellebore: A Quiver of Arrows before heading down this path.
“The Canopy of Sorrow that Remains”.