New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: October, 2020

Surprisingly Subtle Shades of Grand Guignol for Halloween

Murky piano, distantly tolling bells, ominous low brass and an operatic singer. Sounds like Halloween, right? Today’s release day for David Hertzberg‘s one-act opera The Rose Elf – streaming at Spotify – and that’s how it opens.

That overture rises with an eerie tinkle of piano to a cold stop. The narrative draws on a Hans Christian Andersen fable which reads more like the Brothers Grimm. Samantha Hankey sings the part of the Elf, with Andrew Bogard, Sydney Mancasola and Kirk Dougherty in double roles. Robert Kahn conducts a chamber ensemble behind them with meticulous menace.

Phantasmagorical upper-register piano over hazy strings is a big part of the picture, as are Hankey’s agitated flights to the heights. Stark cello! A doomed, foggy baritone voice! Pregnant pauses! Are we having fun yet, Lurch?

What distinguishes this from classical heavy metal cliche is Hertzberg’s enigmatic sense of melody. This music lingers and doesn’t move around much despite numerous dynamic shifts beneath the singers’ full-blown angst: it’s the High Romantic from a somewhat calmer five thousand feet. Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Charles Gounod are points of comparison, as are Stravinsky and Prokofiev at their most predictably carnivalesque. Euntaek Kim, the ensemble’s emphatic, dynamic pianist makes the icily glimmering, marionettish parts count. And percussionist Bradley Loudis also excels in a richly suspenseful, colorful performance.

A True Ghost Story

[Editor’s note: since the house in this story is for sale, the owners have requested that the location not be disclosed. They also asked for some personal details to be changed, in order to protect their investment. Beyond that, the events here are one hundred percent true]

In late December 2018, I went out of state to dogsit for a couple who’d gone to their vacation home in Maine. If the idea of heading so far north for the holidays seems odd, this young family had good reason. Over the previous several days, the wife had been spooked by inexplicable bumping and creaking noises, and what she characterized as a general sense of dread. She was especially concerned that her infant son might be adversely affected as well. Redrum! Redrum!

I was left with a generous supply of wine, a fridge full of food, and the dog. As a wannabe ghostbuster, I watched him closely for reactions to unseen forces. Obviously, animals’ senses in general are more finally attuned than our own, so a dog reacting to something humans can’t perceive doesn’t mean there’s a ghost in the house. On our many walks together, along the road and through the woods, this lovable creature – a ten-year-old shepherd mix – was a typical canine, sniffing and pawing and psyched to be marking new territory. He didn’t seem the least bit unnerved.

When I dogsit and we go for a walk, I like to take a different route each time, because animals like variety – and the excitement wears them out, and then they can sleep and not bother me while I’m working.

That strategy worked out perfectly: if this house was haunted, the dog was either oblivious or didn’t care. And other than the usual sounds of winter – the furnace or hot water heater clicking on, wind in the trees, sleet on the roof and the deck – I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

About five days into my stay, I was on my laptop multitasking and listening to an album online. It was around ten in the evening. I hadn’t had anything to drink, nor any other mind-altering substances.

As with most albums, there were a few seconds of silence between tracks. About eight tracks in, the song ended and I suddenly heard the carefree laugh of a middle-aged woman erupt in my headphones. In the background, I could hear people milling around, sounds of silverware and glassware: there was a party going on. Then the noise vanished as abruptly as it had begun and the next track on the album began to play.

The song was Don’t Fear the Reaper.

I pulled off my headphones. Silence. The dog was asleep in the next room. My curiosity piqued at long last, I checked every room in the house along with the basement and the attic. Nothing. If I had company, it wasn’t revealing itself – anymore, at least.

I put my headphones back on and cued up the track which had played right before I’d heard the woman laugh. When the song ended, this time there was only silence before Don’t Fear the Reaper.

Through some quirk of the web, or wifi, did I catch a split second of somebody on Zoom? Was the computer somehow picking up on the audio to somebody’s Instagram, or a movie, maybe?

When the owners returned, they were reassured to learn that beyond this one incident, my stay had been uneventful. The wife explained that the previous owner had been her mother-in-law, who had died about a year before. The two women had despised each other, which could account for the daughter-in-law’s experiences right before I got there.

I also learned that the mother-in-law loved to throw parties, especially around this time of year. Had I received a festive greeting from beyond the grave? Maybe the Reaper isn’t such a scary guy after all.

Radical Reinventions and Faithful Facsimiles of Black Sabbath Classics

Why on earth would anyone want to hear an album of Black Sabbath covers? If you play heavy music, sure. The new Best of Black Sabbath [Redux] vinyl compilation – streaming at Bandcamp – underscores how imaginatively a good band can reinvent songs that half the world knows by heart more than it serves as a cautionary tale about musical hubris.

A handful of the covers here faithfully replicate the bludgeoning riffs, macabre chromatics and Middle Eastern allusions of the alltime foundational heavy metal band. Take Hippie Death Cult‘s Fairies Wear Boots. It’s perfect. Maybe a little extra drum roll, a little extra digital sustain on the guitars, but otherwise it could really be Sabbath. As anyone who spent their formative years learning this material will tell you, it’s deliriously fun to play. And beyond the fun this band are obviously having with it, what’s the point?

Likewise, Caustic Casanova‘s version of Wicked World is musically spot-on: they absolutely nail the long jam that quickly goes doublespeed, then quadruplespeed. The B-52s vocals are, um, original.

Other versions on the record are subtly altered. Leather Lung give Hole in the Sky a haphazard, wide-angle swing beat, screaming punk rock vocals and a hint of goofy tremolo on the big riffs. Summoner‘s lithely jagged take of A National Acrobat suggests that Tony Iommi might have been listening to P-Funk or Rare Earth before he came up with this one.

Sweet Leaf is what it is – Black Electric’s version sounds even more dense and stoned, and just as funny as the original. A great pickup group consisting of CKY’s Chad Ginsburg, Fireball Ministry guitarist James Rota and bassist Scott Reeder, and drummer Jess Margera do a no-BS take of N.I.B. with another funny moment: they put a talkbox on the bass as they fade it up.

But music that was game-changing at the time tends to reward those who dare change the game even more. Case in point: the version of The Wizard here is a revelation. Mooner completely remake it as heavy latin psychedelia with deliciously trebly bass, sultry vocals and a flute in place of Ozzy’s hyperventilating harmonica.

Similarly, Solace’s Electric Funeral has a bone-chilling, whispery, Doors/Frank Flight Band vibe fueled by tremolo organ and jangly guitar, although they can’t resist bringing in the heavy artillery here and there. Howling Giant‘s Lord of This World also has a little organ, smartly shifting textures and clever references to another Sabbath classic (which isn’t included on the album, maybe because it was covered, awfully, by Blondie).

Slowly developing their cover of Solitude out of minimalist cello-driven art-rock works hauntingly for Brume. Elephant Tree‘s decision to remake Paranoid as bizarrely atmospheric sludgecore also pays off heavily. Building their version of Sleeping Village around a hypnotically cantering, opiated groove turns out to be a big score for Saint Karloff.

Rwit is an unexpected and solid choice of cover tune; Rwake‘s practically ten-minute version has a bizarre contrast between expertly layered, understatedly menacing guitars and screamo vocals.

There are a couple of duds here. The idea to make Kristin Hersh-style dreampop out of Planet Caravan was brave, but it never rises above the level of generic. And Never Say Die is an awful song that sounds like Thin Lizzy and shouldn’t have made the cut.

Innovative Piano and Vibraphone Tunes From Miki Yamanaka

Today’s Halloween installment concerns vibraphonist and pianist Miki Yamanaka’s Human Dust Suite album, streaming at Bandcamp. She takes inspiration for the record’s five-part centerpiece from Agnes Denes’ famous 1969 black-and-white photograph, which shows what’s left of a corpse after it’s been cremated.

Full disclosure: the suite is on the quiet side and far more of a celebration of being alive than anything overtly macabre. Take the opening segment, Brain, a warmly bounding piano theme propelled by the circling grooves of bassist Orlando le Fleming and drummer Jochen Rueckert, saxophonist Anthony Orji providing balmy ambience overhead.

The fleeting second part, Hatsu is centered around hypnotic twin riffs from both vibes and piano over an insistent drumbeat. As she often does throughout the record, Yamanaka opens and closes the unsettled, low-key, pulsing part three, Tummy, on vibes and switches to piano in between; Orji’s terse solo matches the pensive atmosphere.

Feet Go Bad First is a similarly moody, modally-tinged number punctuated by dancing bass solos. The suite’s conclusion, Party’s Over begins even more darkly but quickly rises to a brisk swing with tight, purposeful solos from Orji and the bandleader.

The album includes six other tracks, most of them on the thoughtful side and characterized by unexpected shifts from light to dark or the other way around. The opening number, Pre School has a rapidly strolling groove, pointillistic piano from Yamanaka and calm sax from Orji. The album’s most epic tune, March, is a jazz waltz, Orji rising to bubbly heights after a sober intro from Yamanaka, who follows a similarly triumphant, lyrical tangent afterward.

First Day of Spring begins as a tender ballad but gains momentum and gravitas on the wings of Yamanaka’s incisive chords. O 2017 is a brief, strolling pastoral theme with overdubbed piano and vibes.

After the Night is the album’s strongest and darkest track, Orji lighting the way warily over Yamanaka’s circling, moody phrases; then she completely flips the script, fueling a long upward drive. She winds up the album with the genially shuffling Berkshire Blues: western Massachusetts hill country seems to suit her just fine.

A Pretty Close to Perfect Score For This Year’s Halloween Celebrations

Just the two opening notes of Daniel Hart’s 2017 soundtrack to the film A Ghost Story are a dead giveaway that it’s not going to be just a rehash of old monster-movie cliches. The pregnant pause after that stunned violin riff speaks volumes. If you want a musical backdrop for this year’s Halloween party – you’re not going to let the lockdowners ruin your Halloween or anyone else’s, are you? – this electroacoustic score is a good choice. It’s still streaming at Spotify.

The soundtrack’s first movement is a dead ringer for Philip Glass in sinister mode. After that we get fluttery wave motion, stygian voices from the deep and lumbering footfalls over brooding ambience. Somber minimalist cello…allusions to Angelo Badalementi’s iconic Twin Peaks soundtracks…tinkling piano and melancholy violin over grey noise. And a deliciously moody faux-baroque song! Tracks six and eleven, a pair of cliched 90s-style trip-hop pop songs, are something to skip if you’re making a playlist out of this.

What we don’t get is cheesy Iron Man or Godzilla themes: this is all about persistent suspense, and ultimately, loss. This ghost can’t come back and knows it. That’s why he’s hanging on by his nails.

Beware of Greeks Bearing Loud Guitar Amps

Balothizer are among the most recent heavy psychedelic bands to realize how delicious haunting old Greek folk tunes sound when you crank up the volume and hit the distortion pedal. The obvious comparison is New York’s own Greek Judas, who, like Batholizer, are one of the few rock acts releasing new material these days. Check out the Brooklynites’ latest single, Snakey Song, which is probably the most succinct number in their repertoire of heavy metal versions of hash-smoking and protest songs from the 1920s and 30s..

Balothizer have a whole new album, Cretan Smash, streaming at Bandcamp. The eerie Arabic-influenced chromatics and fearless pro-freedom content of music from Crete are everywhere here, starting with the epic, defiant first track, Jegaman, kicking off with a slashing cadenza from guest violinist Stratos Skarakis. Frontman Nikos Ziarkas multitracks sizzling electric lute riffs over Pav Mav’s gritty, galloping bass and Steve J. Payne’s pummeling drums as the song veers between speedmetal and a slow, relentlessly doomy sway.

The second track is Peace, a slow, grimly stomping anthem until the shreddy stampede out. You want grim? The third number, Aleppo – a bitter exile’s tale – gets reinvented as sort of Greek Motorhead, but with more of a hypnotically propulsive drive, while the fourth, Ponente Levante, a vengeful chronicle of finding nothing but trouble in the world, has an even faster, circling attack.

Foustalieris, a popular tune with a witheringly metaphorical revolutionary message, has elegantly echoey acoustic twin lutes to kick things off, then the band barrel through to a long wah-wah stoner jam. They close the record with their most epic number here, Anathema, a shoegazy slowcore tune. Watch for this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.

The Vol. 4 Redux Compilation: Better Than the Black Sabbath Original?

The Vol. 4 album is where Black Sabbath started to go to hell. That was where Sabbath first ventured out of the doom metal they’d singlehandedly invented, toward a bludgeoning take on art-rock and FM radio-oriented heavy pop tunesmithing, with uneven results.

Maybe it was the demands of the record label, a new album every year becoming an impossible task as far as maintaining the insanely high creativity of their first three records. That job proved to be too much for just about every band from the radio-and-records era, so it’s probably not fair to fault the godfathers of heavy metal for dropping off the fourth time around.

So if you’re going to cover a Sabbath album, it makes sense to do this one.

Seriously – does anybody really want to hear somebody like Zakk Wylde put the bite on, and tap, and divebomb his way through a cartoon copy of the iconic first Sabbath record?

That’s why the new vinyl compilation Vol. 4 Redux – streaming at Bandcamp – is worth owning if metal or heavy psychedelia is your thing. it’s better than the original. Ten different bands take turns, some of them completely reinventing these songs, others just adding their own inspired and often amusing touches. Interestingly, pretty much all the vocalists seem to be shooting for Ozzy impersonations, and pretty much every band’s drummer rises to the challenge of nailing the great, underrated Bill Ward’s nimbly swinging attack.

Wheels of Confusion, by Thou  begins as brittle death metal that warms up with the long fuzztone jam at the end. Tomorrow’s Dream, by the Obsessed, is both fuzzier and more haphazard than the original – and closer to the way Sabbath would play it live. On one hand, the sonics of Vol. 4 are luscious: on the other hand, it’s more dense and, let’s admit it, slickly produced than the first three records.

The track that no band in their right mind would want to have to cover, obviously, is Changes. Yet High Reeper defy the odds, reinventing it as gritty doom metal: no keyboards on this one. FX, the dissociative free jazz-scape, gets a wry, quote-filled riff-fest of a remake by Sleep guitar icon Matt Pike.

The closest thing to the original here is Spirit Adrift‘s inspired, straight-up cover of Supernaut, complete with space-bubble sonics before the last verse. Green Lung‘s version of Snowblind takes the original to the next level, thanks to John Wright’s smoky roto organ and guitarist Tom Templar’s lighter, twin lead-fueled touch.

Whores blend sludgy menace and loopy whippit guitar in a slow, tarpit take of Cornucopia: let’s face it, the original was little more than a hodgepodge of riffs. The big surprise here is Mos Generator mastermind Tony Reed’s starkly elegant, baroquely orchestral version of Laguna Sunrise.

Haunt‘s St. Vitus Dance, for what it’s worth, gets a machinegunning attack that sounds a lot like Molly Hatchet. After all this, the macabre chromatics, funereal gallop and surgically unhinged guitars of Zakk Sabbath‘s Under the Sun is a surprisingly serious and mighty payoff.

Ward White Finds New Levels of Creepiness in a Proto-Metal Classic

Back in June this blog got all wound up about how Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit was the best rock album of 2020 at that point. Four months down the road, it’s still as strong a contender as any. White is sort of a heavier, more psychedelic and menacing Elvis Costello. Since White’s landmark non-linear art-rock record Bob topped the best albums of the year list here in 2013, violence and death have become recurrent themes in his music, even if that’s usually implied.

Although White very rarely covers other artists (under his own name, anyway – he played bass in Rawles Balls for awhile), when he does he has impeccable taste and always finds new levels of disturbing content. A few years before he got brain-drained out of New York for Los Angeles, he pulled out a plaintive, haunting take of the BeeGees’ Nights on Broadway that would rip your face off.

To celebrate Halloween this year, White has released another unlikely cover, a grimly atmospheric reinvention of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter. Hearing White in full-on crooner mode, soaring and then almost whispering over John Spiker’s desolately drifting reed organ is pure evil: the calmest moments are the most lurid. And the ending is priceless. Siouxsie slayed with her version, but this is just as good.

Ride the Highway to Hell with the Death Wheelers

The Death Wheelers play heavy psychedelic rock instrumental soundtracks to imaginary sleazy biker flicks. They like gritty, gear-grinding bass, heavy drums and guitar textures that shift from sandpaper distortion to blue-flame Lynchian twang, Their new album Divine Filth – streaming at Bandcamp – is the heaviest one yet.

They open with a swooshy, crunchy title theme that’s over in less than two minutes, slide guitar hovering over Max Tremblay’s chainsaw downtuned bass and Richard Turcotte’s drums. Ditchfinder General is an epic mashup of a twisted ba-BUMP theme as early Sabbath would have done it, along with the Stooges’ TV Eye, thrash metal and spaghetti western textures.

Suicycle Tendencies is a heavy biker theme: imagine Agent Orange covering a Davie Allan & the Arrows tune, with an outro by Sabbath. The title track is a gritty battle theme where the whole gang unites against the enemy, throttles rumbling at full volume beneath Ed Desaulniers and Hugo Bertacci’s shreddy wah guitars.

Lobotomobile, a creepy spiderwalking horror surf tune, is the album’s most gleefully phantasmagorical track. Corps Morts starts off like a heavier Radio Birdman, decays to grim sludge and then rises from the lagoon. Murder Machines – Biker Mortis, true to its title, is part horror film theme, part evilly strutting Harley chopper rock.

The voiceover that kicks off Motorgasm – Canal Pleasures Pt. 1 is pretty priceless: the song. part Isaac Hayes psychedelic funk, part crunchy stoner riff-rock, is just as tongue-in-cheek. Chopped Back to Life is a 70s stoner boogie repurposed as crispy all-terrain vehicle music.

Road Rite shifts between hardcore punk and a strutting, vaguely Stonesy tune. The group close the record with Nitrus, a pummeling horror surf number, like Strange But Surf with distortion and a chunkier rhythm section. It’s the band’s best album so far and one of the most entertainingly cinematic releases of the year.

A World Premiere From 1716 and Other Lively Entertainment From Augusta McKay Lodge

One of the most electrifying aspects of Italian baroque music is the degree of improvisation involved. As in much of Middle Eastern music, dynamics and embellishments are typically left to the individual soloist. A listener has to dig deep into the liner notes of violinist Augusta McKay Lodge’s new album Corelli’s Band: Violin Sonatas by Corelli, Carbonelli, Mossi – streaming at Spotify – to discover that those interpretations are hers. And she matches that impetuous energy with depth.

Lodge has a lithe, strikingly nuanced touch, a flair for the dramatic, a colorful vibrato but also a finely attuned sense of the music’s emotional context. And if you think that every worthwhile piece from the 18th century has already been recorded, guess again!

Lodge opens the album with a world premiere, Giovanni Mossi’s Sonata No. 9, op. 6. With its opening prelude centered around a gorgeously melancholy, melismatic riff that recurs with some tasty chromatics in the fourth movement, it’s on the serious side. And it’s a triumph for Lodge, with her rapidfire triplets in the second movement and her almost breathlessly fleeting pauses in the third. Throughout the album, a supporting cast including Elliot Figg on harpsichord, Doug Balliett on violone, Ezra Seltzer on cello and Adam Cockerham on theorbo and guitar play elegantly alongside her.

Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli is arguably even more obscure than his contemporary Mossi, but his music deserves to be far better known. His Sonata No. 10 comes across as Vivaldi Jr., its stately opening giving way to a brisk ballet of counterpoint down a circular staircase. Stark guitar/violin contrast dominates the third movement, then the group wind it up with a jovial bounce.

Arcangelo Corelli, whose highly ornamented violin style inspired both of these lesser-known composers, is represented by his Sonata No. 3, op. 5, a springboard for Lodge’s quicksilver cadenzas and griptite staccato alongside the rest of the ensemble.

She goes back to Mossi’s catalog for Sonatas No. 1 and 3 from his op. 1 book. The group dig in with unexpected vigor for for the former’s brooding yet meticulously agitated introduction, plaintively Vivaldiesque exchanges and flurries. They give the latter a colorful but more expansive approach.

Lodge winds up the album with Carbonelli’s lilting Sonata No. 9, a showcase for her sensitivity of attack, particularly in the somber processional of a first movement, the shivery embellishments of the second and the melancholy waltz that winds it up. Pop a cork on the barolo, but savor the moment: don’t overindulge like the robber barons whose salons were where this music probably debuted, and who probably weren’t paying much paying attention.