New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

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.