New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: February, 2022

Laura Guarch’s Thoughtful, Optimistic Songcraft Seeks to Inspire Us Through Tough Times

Singer Laura Guarch has a hazy, often tender, soul-influenced voice, echoed in her enveloping, lush songwriting. You could call her music psychedelic pop, art-pop, neosoul or avant garde and you wouldn’t be off the mark, Her debut album Krëodylia is streaming at Spotify.

Guarch comes across as a defiant optimist: themes of empowerment for both self and society permeate her songs’ alternately spare and lavish arrangements. The opening number begins as a playful, quirky Sophia Rei-style vocalese pastiche and quickly expands into a spare, warmly triumphant waltz, Guarch switching between Catalan and English. “Reclaim yourself” is the message.

The second track is Body in Pain, a surprisingly bubbly, anthemic number. It’s an exploration of empathy: the injured parties here await what seems to be certain rescue. That resolute hope for the future carries over even as Guarch’s voice rises to shivery heights in Circulo Lunar, an aptly starry sonic ritual.

Posi-Truth is a vividly metaphorical narrative of societal upheaval that reaches an explosive peak. “Drain the lake so there’s no place to hide,” is the chorus. The atmosphere calms with Boira (Fog), Guarch’s voice atop spare, echoey piano awash in drifting electronics.

With its stately cadences, Fleeting Light is about catching those rays rather than letting them disappear. Naufrags (Shipwreck) begins delicate and wary, then rises and falls with spare, purposeful piano and a full band. This imagistic portrait of a world sent spiraling to the bottom in the 2020 plandemic is the most album’s most striking number.

Guarch’s plainspoken lyric about reconnecting with compassion resonates over a lattice of trippy, distantly Beatlesque licks in A Loving Sound. Guarch multitracks herself as a one-woman choir in Sediments, rippling piano contrasting with drifty atmospherics. The final cut is Spring With Me, a cheery entreatment to embrace the promise of a new season. Let’s hope we hear more from this thoughtful, inspiring new artist.


A Friendly Pitchblende Night Drive With Suss

New York instrumentalists Suss have carved out a unique niche playing big-sky nocturnes more evocative of the wide open spaces of the west than, say, Long Island City. That’s where the band are pictured on the cover of their very accurately titled latest album, Night Suite, streaming at Bandcamp. This time, they’ve switched out the locales of the mind conjured up in their previous work, and switched in an overnight trip on Highway 66 from Gallup, New Mexico to the desert town of Needles, California, just across the Colorado River.

As the convoy drift out of Gallup, casual flickers from reverb guitar, pedal steel and starry guitar pedalboard textures begin to creep through the shadowy calm. Flagstaff, Arizona turns out to be a patchwork of stillness punctuated by the occasional passing big rig, fluorescent-lit all-night diner or distant train whistle, or so it would seem.

Further into Arizona, there’s Ash Fork, the most expansive tableau here with its organlike high-lonesome washes of sound. If Pink Floyd were a Tucson band, they would have sounded like this. Guessing that’s Pat Irwin’s guitar flaring gently over Jonathan Gregg’s pedal steel and Gary Lieb’s gently keening synth.

Hints of southwestern gothic – that’s either Bob Holmes or Irwin on guitar – reverberate on the low end. static misting the mix when the convoy reaches Kingman. The distant ghost of a Lynchian ballad wafts in as the group pull gently into their final destination

Punchy, Driving Female-Fronted Sounds From Portugal’s Kandia

Portuguese heavy rock band Kandia take their name from a term for blinding light. Their new album Quaternary – streaming at Spotify – blends punchy intensity with trippy keyboards. The riff-centric attack looks back to European acid rock of the late 70s, with a techy sheen from ten years later.

Ominous suspense-film keys and strings rise through the album’s brooding intro, Anthropocene, then the band launch into Obliterate, a swaying mix of metal crunch and sweeping, gothic-tinged 80s sounds.

Guitarist André Da Cruz builds a brief maze of multitracks before frontwoman Nya Campos Cruz brings in a silky electronic atmosphere that disappears just as quickly in the roaring chorus of The Flood: “How long, how long til it gets here?” Her English is strong, and she seems like a perfectly good singer; too bad that there’s autotune popping up awkwardly when least expected.

Bassist Bernardo Lima and drummer Hugo Ribeiro work a jagged Rage Against the Machine style rhythm in Fight or Flight. Then the band blend gravelly growl and an increasingly dissociative ambience in Until the End.

“We are waking up, we are planting the seed,” Cruz wails over a syncopated, machinegunning kickdrum attack in the defiant Turn of the Tide. The group go back to funkmetal guitar and freeze-dried bass, with flashes of death metal and hip-hop, in the next track, Pbp. They follow that with Deathwish, an ill-fated mashup of gritty riffage and corporate urban pop.

Murderers, featuring saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby, is a more straightforward hip hop-flavored metal hybrid. Other bands might do A New Dawn as a roaring anthem; Kandia switch out big chords for a dust-devil dance. “The green has turned to grey,” Cruz observes over plucky, echoey U2 guitars in the final cut, Holocene. “Is this what we are?”.

An Ambitiously Translucent Debut Album by Flutist and Singer Alex Hamburger

Alex Hamburger is a graceful singer and a thoughtful, lyrical flutist. Her sonic home seems to be the instrument’s midrange: shrieking extended technique is not her thing. And she has a fearless political sensibility. Her debut album And She Spoke – streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates womens’ strength and resilience. Her songcraft is vivid and she doesn’t waste notes throughout this 2019 recording.

The opening number, Waking in the City is built around lyrics by Maya Angelou. Hamburger sings with a crystalline focus over a bass drone: “And I, an alarm. awake as a rumor of war, lie stretching into dawn, unmasked, unheeded.” Pianist José Luiz Martins and bassist Doug Weiss stretch themselves in tandem with a lithe hook, drummer Chase Kuesel building suspense on his cymbal bells and hi-hat, the bandleader’s lines dancing as the morning tableau unfolds. Martins spirals and ripples before Hamburger brings everything in for a soft landing.

The piano runs a brooding riff as she sings the opening verse of La Desesperación Es la Pasión Verdaderamente Humana – a setting of an eloquent and pretty inarguable text by Ana Maria R. Codas. Hamburger’s flute provides reedy hints of Colombian music before it’s suddenly over: the group keep you wanting more.

Martins shifts between piano and starry Rhodes in a balmy take of Geri Allen’s Unconditional Love, offering a fond but kinetic solo before Hamburger takes a purposefully strolling one of her own. It Comes Unadorned is a setting of lyrics by Toni Morrison – is the tune “strong enough to cast a spell?” This one is gentle but resolute, Martins looping a wary modal hook, Hamburger rising from disquiet in an account of casual serendipity.

She does Mary Lou Williams’ What’s Your Story Morning Glory as a steadily syncopated blues, Weiss taking a balletesque verse to set up Hamburger’s low-key, imaginatively ornamented solo, Last Chance Lost, a Joni Mitchell tune, gets a sober, stoic, brief interpretation over low lights, then the band segue into a plainspoken, earthbound jazz version of the Beatles’ Across the Universe.

The album’s final and strongest cut is Burning the Letters, a simmering, flamenco-tinged jazz waltz. It’s reason to look forward to whatever else this eclectic artist has cooking.

Eclectic, Imaginatively Arranged Soul Stylings From Lunar Noon

On her new album Symbolic Creature – streaming at Bandcamp – multi-keyboardist/songwriter Michelle Zheng a.k.a. Lunar Noon contemplates the empowerment that the act of questioning triggers, and how we assign meaning to otherwise completely random objects and events. The takeaway, she seems to say, is up to us.

Many but not all of the tracks could be classified as soul music. Zheng likes textures, a mix of the organic and the icily techy, plus layers of vocals, recorded over the web with a rotating cast of players in the summer of 2021. She cites Susanne Sundfor as a major influence, reflected by the wide range of styles covered here. Flickers of Chinese folk music sometimes bubble to the surface, whether melodically or in the choice of instrumentation. Some of the song titles reflect a Japan trip Zheng took which seems to have ended badly.

In the album’s brief opening number, Rabbits, as she sees them, are gospel creatures, in a slow waltz awash in strings The second track is Ginkgo, a trip-hop number with stark cello, koto, and operatic backing vocals, a more ornate take on what Fiona Apple was doing in the mid-zeros.

Blippy keys contrast with washes and pulses of sound in track three, Peregrine; then, picturesque percussion and harp percolate through The Rain, which becomes more of a soul-infused rain dance.

Anywhere, a jaunty soul strut, has artfully assembled layers of starry electronic keys. Provenance has an elegant sweep beneath Zheng’s achingly soaring vocals; Ash gets more of a robotic, psychedelic atmosphere.

Cold cyborg vocals contrast with the lushness of Suspension. Zheng shifts gears with Meteor, its spare, shuffling beat anchoring a tune that hints at warmly enveloping soul balladry. The same spareness persists in Alchemist, up to a catchy, determined lead vocal and a big, driving piano solo: it’s the album’s most forceful song.

Another strong track is Yellow House, a chamber-pop waltz with classically-inspired piano. The best and catchiest song is Daylight, a big art-rock anthem where Zheng switches between lingering bittersweetness and an energetic sway. Hypnotic cell-like piano riffs permeate the closing cut, Gold, which brings to mind early My Brighest Diamond. It will be interesting to see which of these many directions Zheng decides to follow in the coming months or years.

Thoughtful, Jangly, Reverbtoned Songs From Squirrel Flower

Lo-fi tunesmith Ella Williams a.k.a. Squirrel Flower got the thumbs-up here a couple of months ago for her Planet (i) album. She works fast: her new one, the Planet ep, is streaming at Bandcamp. The music is more roughewn, spare and intimate this time out: there’s a ton of reverb on everything, including the vocals.

The opening track, Open Wound has spare slide guitar mingling with Williams’ spacious acoustic strums, building a moody nocturnal ambience. “I was an open wound looking for a good time,” she muses. Aren’t we all.

Track two, Your Love Is a Disaster is something everybody can relate to! It’s actually not a vindictive kiss-off but a reflective, nocturnal, gently jangly reflection. Williams works a desperate/depleted dichotomy in Unravel, a slow, echoey tableau and then channels a low-key afterwork ambience in Long Day’s Done. “You don’ t need to hold it in your hands to know what it’s worth,” Williams observes.

The album’s driftiest, most opaque song is Sitting in Traffic, although Ruby at Dawn, awash in Stereolab-style synth, is a close second, Williams winds up the album strongly with Live Wire: “Don’t slip, or skid, or move, or breathe, or laugh, or die, or turn, or touch me, don’t do anything,” she warns, “I’m a live wire.” It’s about as far from the AC/DC hit as you could imagine. Squirrel Flower’s next free-state gig is on March 4 at Ruins, 2653 Commerce St,, corner of Prior St. in Dallas, time/price tba

Firebreather Return With a Grimly Focused New Record

Swedish metal band Firebreather‘s latest album Dwell in the Fog – streaming at Bandcamp -is much more straightforward and doom-oriented than their previous work. It’s less ornate, more focused, keeping the black metal and NWOBHM influences at a distance this time. Slow tempos, big hooks and a wall of chords rather than solos are the rule this time out.

The album is well titled: the music is more of an immersive roar than a crush. The opening track, Kiss of Your Blade has gritty distortion on the guitars and the bass, a brooding minor-key hook over a churning 6/8 groove, a few hints of Iron Maiden twin harmonies, and a weirdly syncopated interlude. That sets the stage for the rest of the record.

The album’s title track rises out of an ominous flange bass intro to a grimy, enveloping chromatic dirge, frontman Mattias Nööjd’s guitar in tandem with bassist Nicklas Hellqvist’s stygian chords over drummer Axel Wittbeck’s dynamically shifting attack. Finally, six and a half minutes in, we get a fleeting bluesmetal solo.

Wittbeck’s relentless waves pound the shoreline while the rest of the band work a menacing chromatic growl in Weather the Storm. A brooding intro gives way to a catchy descending riff in Sorrow, which is angrier than it is sad, Wittbeck once again coloring the music with his judiciously placed rolls and volleys. Nööjd finally cuts loose with a steady heavy blues solo.

They pick up the pace a little in The Creed with slurry chords and a hypnotically charging bridge. The band save their heaviest artillery for the album’s final cut, Spirit’s Flown, Nööjd’s machete picking, uneasily resonant leads and guttural roar over the gravel of the bass and increasing agitation from behind the kit. And then suddenly it’s over. It’s early in the year, but in its own bludgeoningly clear way, this is one of the best albums of 2022 so far.

In Memoriam: Gary Brooker

Gary Brooker, the visionary pianist, main songwriter and frontman of pioneering art-rock band Procol Harum, died last Friday after a battle with cancer. He was 76.

If the Beatles invented art-rock, Procol Harum were the world’s first fulltime art-rock band. Blending epic classical grandeur, expansive psychedelia, proto-metal grand guignol and occasional goofy theatrics, they were the first rock band to include two keyboards. Brooker’s piano typically filled the role of rhythm guitar, with Matthew Fisher’s baroque-inflected organ and Robin Trower’s guitar sharing leads.

Procol Harum were also unusual in that lyricist Keith Reid was an official band member, but did not perform with them. Utilizing a flowery, ersatz Byronian vernacular, Reid’s lyrics could be ridiculously over-the-top. Yet they could also be venomously succinct, notably in protest songs like Conquistador or As Strong As Samson.

Brooker developed his signature throaty, expressive, soul-inspired vocal style in the early 60s while fronting British band the Paramounts, who played covers of American R&B hits. He brought along his bandmates, Trower and drummer Barrie Wilson, when he founded Procol Harum in 1967. Although they put out ten frequently brilliant albums in their initial incarnation, their biggest hit single proved to be their first release, A Whiter Shade of Pale, a mashup of Bach and Blonde on Blonde Dylan surrealism. The song is reputedly the UK’s most-played radio single of alltime, as indelibly linked to the decade of the 60s, via innumerable film and tv scores, as Jimi Hendrix’s cover of All Along the Watchtower is here.

Procol Harum were both utterly unique and years ahead of their time: gothic before gothic rock existed, and metal just when that style was sifting out of long-form psychedelia in the early 70s. Although pop acts had made orchestral records as far back as the 1930s, Procol Harum were the first rock band to record a live orchestral album. That 1972 release, Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, remains one of the greatest and most foundational art-rock records ever made. Although their influence has waned in recent decades, they had an enormous impact on their similarly ornate colleagues from the 70s, including Pink Floyd, Supertramp, the Strawbs, Nektar and Jethro Tull.

After what was left of the original Procol Harum broke up in 1977, Brooker served as Eric Clapton’s musical director, sang with the Alan Parsons Project and recorded with Kate Bush as well as putting out a handful of R&B albums under his own name. He regrouped Procol Harum in 1991 as a touring project and ended up recording three studio albums with a new supporting cast, although the music lacked the fire and spontaneity of Brooker’s earlier work.

Beyond the live orchestral record, the group’s best studio album is Shine on Brightly, a commercial flop in 1968 despite being the first rock record to feature a sidelong suite, arguably the band’s deepest plunge into psychedelia.

In the fall of 1991, a future daily New York Music blog owner made the long trip to the Town Hall in Manhattan from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn with his girlfriend to see Procol Harum perform their first American concert since the 70s. With Tim Renwick playing a volcanic recreation of Trower’s leads, it was a transcendent show, most of it captured on an old lo-fi Sony walkman recorder. The recorder disappeared with the girlfriend, but the tape remains in this blog’s archive.

Darkness and Drama on Soprano Misha Penton’s New Release

First thought, best thought? Sketchy tags aren’t usually a good way of describing music, but in this case, the note on the folder here containing singer Misha Penton‘s new short album Radiant Poison holds up. “Weird witchy avant goth” was a first observation: “Operatic industrial soundscapes” would be just as accurate. As a bonus, the ep comes in two versions. The audio is streaming at Bandcamp, with matching video at Vimeo.

The first track, Visible Darkness has layers of operatic vocals over similarly echoey, icy ambient accents and textures. The template is much the same in Shore Pines & Spider Silk, George Heathco’s uneasily portentous guitar lingering amidst the shifting sheets of sound and Penton’s arioso leaps. The final number is the title cut, which “rises from the desert” to a redemptive narrative spiced with Heathco’s flaring leads, backward masking, and ominous drumbeats from Chris Becker. Penton is based in Houston: adventurous Texas listeners can keep an eye on her gig page for upcoming performances.

Javon Jackson Reinvents Rare Spirituals with Nikki Giovanni’s Help

For his latest album, which hasn’t hit the web yet, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson asked poet Nikki Giovanni if she could suggest ten spirituals that he ought to record. She gave him a list with only a small handful of standards: otherwise, the tracks on The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni are on the rare side. What’s more, the album marks possibly the first time this century that Giovanni has been featured on record as a lead singer.

She picked the ballad Night Song as a salute to her old friend Nina Simone. Since Jackson’s current home state, Connecticut, was locked down, he had to fly to Giovanni’s home in Virginia to cut the vocals. Pianist Jeremy Manasia plays spare, resonant chords beneath Jackson’s balmy lines as bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter provide whispery rhythm; Giovanni’s weathered evocation of being alone in a bustling crowd packs a wallop.

The first of the spirituals is a straightforwardly swinging take of Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, a beautiful, stern minor-key tune, Jackson’s cantabile lead giving way to Manasia’s biting chords and elegant rudiments from Hunter.

Of the well-known numbers here, Wade in the Water makes a good segue, Jackson adding some spicy flourishes to his sailing lines, Manasia rising and falling before Christina Greer joins in to speak Giovanni’s scarily prescient words on how it’s up the outcasts and nonconformists among us to keep an otherwise soulless world alive.

The quartet reinvent Swing Low Sweet Chariot as a sly, slinky calypso jazz tune. yeah mon! By contrast, another familiar favorite, Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord draws a straight line back to somber Birmingham-era Coltrane as well as Miles Davis. The group’s take of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is much the same, with a regal, glittering, Mulgrew Miller-esque solo from Manasia.

But it’s the obscurities that everyone is going to want to hear. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms is an aptly warm lullaby of a melody, Jackson giving it a calm midtempo swing and a misty-toned solo.

I’ve Been Buked (as in “rebuked”) has special historical resonance since Mahalia Jackson sang it at the Lincoln Memorial on the day of Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington speech there. Williams bookends it with stark bowing, Jackson letting the clouds drift away before Manasia’s glittering solo

Lord, I Want to Be a Christian, a duo arrangement for piano and sax, has an aptly reverent ambience. The group cut loose with a carefree swing in the closing number, I Opened My Mouth to the Lord, only to wind it out with a wary intensity. Gravitas and unselfconscious depth galore on an album which will no doubt be sought out by jazz and gospel fans alike.