New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: art-rock

Violinist Sana Nagano Releases a Pyrotechnic, Savagely Relevant New Album

Violinist Sana Nagano’s new album Smashing Humans – streaming at Bandcamp – is a feral, grimly picturesque suite inspired by Michael Ende’s 1973 dystopic sci-fi novel, Momo. Nagano’s narrative mashup is an incredibly timely parable. As she explains, “The Orange Monster and the Humans in Grey are taking over the Paradise Planet where Smashing Humans and Bunnies, Poops and Polyrhythmic Santa Clauses co-exist in a euphoric way.” This will resonate with fans of doom metal and the darkest side of art-rock as well as the jazz crowd.

The ringleader of this evil enterprise is the Orange Monster, a Bill Gates type who grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time. “His apple parents named him Orange for obvious reasons and told him he is ugly and they wished he was an apple. At school he was bullied for being the only orange in the entire planet. The universal criminal organization Timesaving Bank scouted him for his skillful negativity, which led him to sell his soul to the shadow side in return for a sense of belonging.”

Nagano gives him a whole track to himself toward the end of the record. She opens with a battle theme, Strings & Figures. The group – also including Peter Apfelbaum on sax, Keisuke Matsuno on guitar, Ken Filiano on bass and Joe Hertenstein on drums – march in cynical lockstep up to a searing, sirening guitar/sax/violin conflagration, Filiano maintaining a deadpan cartoon bounce. From there they coalesce with a jagged, vintage 70s King Crimson intensity. It’s amazing how tight this band remain despite the polyrhythmic complexity and relentlessly searing attack of so much of this music.

Track two, Loud Dinner Wanted pictures the Orange Monster about to enjoy his prey as an aspic. Insistent, hammering riffs and eerily dancing tritones give way to a horror interlude anchored by Filiano’s booming chords and Hertenstein’s minimalist stomp while the rest of the crew shrieks and struggles. Nagano glides uneasily as the dancing pulse returns; Apfelbaum flutters as Matsuno bends, clanks and wails.

Nagano loops a creepy chromatic riff while the rest of the band throw off dissociative shards and flickers to begin Dark Waw, a mini-suite depicting a shadow universe. Peevishly persistent skronk fades down into haggardly divergent, trilling voices and then some creepy math-metal.

Nagano and Apfelbaum introduce the Humans in Grey with a menacingly simple insectile theme: these cold figures immediately join in a macabre march. As a parable of consumerism – or as just an evil, loopy, noisy theme – it packs a wallop. The rhythm drops out; the group shiver around in an increasingly poltergeist-like atmosphere, Nagano leading them back up into an increasingly bellicose vortex.

She reflects on the concept of a shadow self in The Other Seven, the rhythm growing more lithe and then ceding to deep-space menace, Matsuno’s death star twinkling and then resonating morosely in the distance. Hertenstein’s terse, playful solo introduces Chance Music, which grows to a pulsing Butch Morris/AACM type massed theme. This is a pivotal moment in the narrative, so no spoilers.

The Orange Monster portrait is titled Heavenly Evil Devil. It seems he learns to jump through increasingly complicated, distantly Balkan-flavored hoops, but, be careful when you fight with monsters, etc. It would be a spoiler to give away the ending, which is fantastic: let’s just say that this might be the best album of 2021.

Get a Killer Heavy Playlist, Save an Iconic London Venue

[Editor’s note: stranger things than an album mysteriously disappearing from the web have happened over the past year. But isn’t it suspicious that a charity compilation whose proceeds benefit a UK live music venue would suddenly vanish without a trace? Such a campaign, after all, goes completely against the lockdowners’ interests. In the New Abnormal, the arts are illegal, and the only entertainment is online, where it can be surveilled. If and when this returns to the web, this page will be linked to the audio]

The Black Heart is a beloved, intimate music venue located in London’s Camden Town, and home base for the wildly popular, annual Desertfest. It’s also one of the city’s top spots for heavy music. And since the Boris Johnson regime turned the UK into North Korea, the Black Heart has been cold and dead. There’s a crowdfunding campaign going to keep the venue from shutting its doors forever, and an incredibly diverse, mind-opening 38-track compilation, Countershock, streaming at Bandcamp [but now conspicuously missing] and available as a name-your-price download with all proceeds going to help the club.

It’s an amazingly eclectic playlist, something for everyone: many different extremes of heavy psychedelia, plenty of doom metal, stoner boogie, thrash, a little death metal and postrock too. Cool as it is that so many well-known touring bands have come out in support of the club, this is also a great way to discover some of the UK and Europe’s best undeservedly obscure talent while helping a good cause.

The obvious stuff is as good as you would hope: none of these bands phoned in their contributions. Year of the Cobra‘s chromatic dirge The Battle Of White Mountain is a prime example, especially when the bass rises and circles behind an oscillating guitar break about five minutes in. Most of these songs are long: the shortest one is Sasquatch’s My World, but it’s a galloping, fuzztone riff-rock gem. And Chingus, by ZED, makes a great segue.

Heavenly Manna, by Salem’s Bend is another killer cut, a mix of sledgehammer riffs and ominous, enveloping, lingering calm, with an incisive wah guitar duel over an unexpectedly lithe pulse. Also on the heavy psych tip, Ritual King‘s Dead Roads has twin fuzztone bass/guitar leads, unexpected tempo shifts and tantalizingly short guitar and bass solos.

So many of the more obscure tracks are just as relentlessly strong. Skraeckoedlan contribute Universum, shuffling heavy biker-ish rock in the R.I.P. vein with tasty downtuned chordal bass and a new dawn fade of a bridge. Miss Lava‘s shapeshifting, funereal The Wait also has more than a hint of Joy Division, especially as the bass pierces the gloom. And the way Morag Tong‘s We Answer slowly closes in on the abyss is one of the album’s most mesmerizing moments.

You want great drums? Try Possessor’s unexpectedly nimble Coffin Fit. Heavy, heavy funk? Mount Kong, by Purple Kong goes off the scale. Carnatically-inspired wailing over bludgeoning riffage? Ashurbanipal’s Request, by Lowen is for you. The Lunar Effect reward your perseverance with the most obvious and hilarious Sabbath homage as the next-to-last track here. It’s impossible to think of a better payoff than the screaming solo that winds up Butcher in the Fog‘s Electric Van Gogh to close the mix on a high note. Once we overthrow the lockdown – which we’re going to have to do, otherwise it’s New Abnormal forever – these bands make a good bucket list to check out when we get unrestricted, unsurveilled concerts going again.

A Broodingly Direct, Terse, Haunting Art-Rock Suite From Cattivo

Is Israeli art-rock duo Cattivo’s haunting, phantasmagorical album Le Marchand De Rêve a lockdown parable, in terms of the bill of goods the lockdowners tried to sell us, even as one rationale after another was debunked and collapsed under the weight of its own lies?

Probably not, actually: the two musicians recorded it before the lockdown, so it’s more likely a tale of personal betrayal. But it’s definitely an album for our time, and it’s up at Bandcamp. Omer Farkash plays guitar and organ and sings in a girl-down-the-well voice. Udi Berner contributes viola, piano, theremin, organ and glockenspiel.

They open with a drifting, point-of-no-return intro and then pace gloomily through the title track, a stately minor-key theme, Farkash’s guitar playing steady, funereal broken chords over a somber haze of keyboard-and-viola orchestration.

Berner plays mostly solo on piano through a triptych of somber preludes: the miniature Avec Sa Jambe De Statu, the Le Grand Parcours Solitaire – how’s that for a a title for the year 2020 – and finally, a more emphatic yet spacious conclusion, Tu Vois Je N’ai Rien Oublié. The album winds up with a final variation with funeral organ and quavery viola.

Lingering Mystery and Lynchian Sonics From the Royal Arctic Institute

If you have to hang a label on the Royal Arctic Institute, you could call them a cinematic surf band. They have a Lynchian side, a jazzy side and also a space-surf side. Their latest album Sodium Light is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, the vampy Prince of Wisconsin has an easygoing sway, Gramercy Arms keyboardist Carl Bagaly’s bubbly Rhodes piano giving way to bandleader John Leon’s reverby twang and then grit. The distant wistfulness in Christmases At Sea is visceral, the jangly mingle of guitar over David Motamed’s tense bass pulse and Lyle Hysen’s muted drums.

We Begin on Familiar Ground is a real chiller: the big bite at the beginning is just a hint of what’s to come over spare, creepy, mutedly lingering ambience. The trick ending, and the searing guitar solo from And the Wiremen‘s Lynn Wright, are just plain awesome. Is this a lockdown parable? Who knows: the album was recorded clandestinely somewhere in the tri-state area last year.

The fourth track, Different in Sodium Light is a return to balmy Summer Place calm, Wright adding just a tinge of ominousness with his elegant solo. The final cut, Tomorrowmorrowland is the closest thing here to And the Wiremen’s ominous, Morricone-esque southwestern gothic, with a slashing organ break. On a very short list of rock albums released in 2021 so far, this is one of the best.. And it’s available on cassette!

Another Gorgeous, Mesmerizing Middle Eastern Rock Record From King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard might be the most prolific psychedelic band in the world. Over the past several years they’ve released more albums than just about anyone other than Satoko Fujii or the Pocket Gods. Their epic double live album Chunky Shrapnel ranked high on the Best Albums of 2020 page here; their latest, simply titled L.W. is streaming at Bandcamp and might be even better.

From the first few crashing notes of the opening number, If Not Now, Then When? it’s clear that this is going to be one of their gorgeously uneasy Turkish-influenced records, a theme and variations: a Turkish rock symphony of sorts. Frontman Stu Mackenzie’s guitar and Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s blippy keys mingle in a microtonal Near Eastern mode over the disco-ish strut of bassist Lucas Harwood and drummer Michael Cavanagh.

With its oudlike melismas, track two, O.N.E. is where all the guitarists, including Cook Craig and Joey Walker join the slinky snakecharmer mix. With all the guitars hitting the baglama-like chromatic riffs of Pleura, the intensity grows while the rhythms get trickier.

Supreme Ascendancy has spikier, harplike textures, swirly organ and even an even more bracing microtonal edge. Incisive acoustic riffs, echoey electric washes and a little acidic Turkish zurna oboe permeate the mellotron drift of Static Electricity, arguably the album’s best and doomiest track. East West Link makes a good segue: it’s sort of the radio edit, with a buzzing, burning guitar/zurna duel over Cavanagh’s clip-clop beat.

They bring more of a fuzztone garage rock attack to the hypnotic Ataraxia. Rippling, kanun-like keys take centerstage in See Me, Harwood’s tense hammer-ons fueling the big crescendo. The band close with a track they call K.G.L.W., a serious epic where they bring everything full circle in their heaviest attack. These lizard kings have made more good albums over the years than just about anybody and this is one of their very best.

Haunting, Epic Minor-Key Art-Rock From Empyrium

Empyrium play a somber, stark, tersely constructed blend of Mitteleuropean folk noir and 70s-style art-rock with tinges of metal and the High Romantic. How high does their latest album Uber den Sternen (Over the Stars) reach? For the rafters, mightily, here and there. Elsewhere, it’s a beautifully gloomy record, streaming at Bandcamp. Not a single substandard cut here: it’s awfully early to be talking about best-of-the-year lists, but this one’s high among the best albums of 2021 so far.

The first track, The Three Flames begins as a slow, subdued waltz, Markus “Schwadorf” Stock’s spare fingerpicked guitar mingling with cello, then the drums kick in and the race is on – he plays pretty much everything here. Thomas Helm’s operatic baritone is a surreal contrast; buzzy lows from the guitars and mellotron flute at the top complete the sonic picture. There’s a plaintive, artfully fingerpicked interlude to survey the wreckage of some unnamed society, then the staggered waltz beat returns and the layers of guitars rise with a symphonic intensity. It sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Track two, A Lucid Tower Beckons on the Hills, comes across as a variation on the theme: same sad waltz tempo, louder guitars, bitterly heroic twin leads, and is that a cimbalom echoing morosely from the back of the mix? The Oaken Throne is not about a medieval latrine; instead, it’s a terse, elegant dirge which seems to concern some kind of forest spirit.

Moonrise, an instrumental, has a web of nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitars over drifting ambience. The Archer (yeah, these archetypes are kind of World of Warcraft) is a Steppenwolf character roaming the valley in this slowly swaying minor-key anthem.

The Wild Swans has the album’s most metalish vocals but also its most symphonic architecture: gorgeously brief classical guitar solo, hazy mellotron interlude, crushing guitar orchestration and an unexpectedly hypnotic detour. The most unselfconsciously beautiful moment here is the instrumental In the Morning, with its spare classical piano and strings. The album ends with the titanic title track, shifting from jackhammering intensity, to starlit rapture, operatic longing and an unexpected sense of triumph: a hard-won victory maybe, but victory nonetheless.

A Sharply Amusing New Record From One of New York’s Best Psychedelic Bands

For the better part of ten years, the Academy Blues Project were one of New York’s most consistently entertaining psychedelic bands. They got as far as the Rockwood, where they held down a long series of big-room residencies. Their annual Big Lebowski tribute was as much a giveaway to their sensibility as their sly, surreal live show. And unlike most rock acts in town before the lockdown, carefully scheduling gigs to maximize turnout and ensure future bookings at a handful of coveted, profit-strapped spots, these guys would take random dates at some pretty out-of-the-way venues just to keep the vibe fresh. It was always fun to catch them at an intimate space like Shrine, or Long Island City Bar, on an off night.

Although they’ve released a  handful of eps, their new album The Neon Grotto – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length record. It’s like discovering your cool stoner uncle’s stash of artsy psychedelic records from the 70s. The obvious influences here are the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan, but there are also echoes of acts as diverse as Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band recorded the basic tracks right before the lockdown. After their members were scattered to the winds by the summer of last year, they finished it over the web. The seductive surrealism and archetypes in Meera Dugal’s album cover art make a perfect visual companion.

The opening number, Athens to Corfu, could be the good-natured Hollywood Hills boudoir soul tune that never made it onto Steely Dan’s Aja record. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy tremolo-picks feathery washes and sunbaked, echoey blues, keyboardist Ben Easton starting out with starry Rhodes piano and drifting into an oscillating swirl, bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom kicking up the waves at the end. There is nothing remotely Mediterranean about this song other than the lyrics’ clever wordplay.

Turbulence, the second cut, could pass for a late 70s track by the Who: the metaphors reach cruising altitude and the brief, celestial bass-and-guitar interlude midway through seems devised for much more extended jamming. The album’s instrumental title track opens with a sideways Grateful Dead reference and then hits a steady backbeat pulse, Levy spinning his catchy riffage through an icy vintage analog delay pedal.

The album’s big epic is Rock Song (Don’t Step in the Gooey Parts), an aptly dramatic, tongue-in-cheek musical history of geological formations, from lava to ossification. The big sunburst intro brings to mind early Santana; from there the band truck like the Dead to an uneasily jangly Nektar bridge and then rising and falling echoes of Pink Floyd.

Make Believe, a big concert favorite, is part Blackberry Smoke newschool southern rock, part White Album Beatles. Prevailing Winds has Genesis written all over it, from Easton’s elegant piano intro to Levy’s big vocal peak.

All Will Be Revealed begins as a deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud:

And the innocents forget who’s master and who’s slave
Packing peanuts in their trunks, they join in the fray, they join the parade

Then Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to Levy’s savage guitar outro. Who knows, this song could be more prophetic than anyone ever could have imagined.

They close with the instrumental Little Island, Big Volcano, Levy adding amusingly balmy Hawaiian flavor with his slide. It’s still early in a year where there haven’t been many rock records released, but at this point this is top-ten-of-2021 material. What’s even better is that the band have two other albums planned for release this year.

Titanic Art-Rock and Metal From the Phantom Elite

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Phantom Elite’s new album Titanium – streaming at Spotify– is a pop record with heavy guitars. It’s a mix of metal and loud symphonic rock, awash in contrasting textures and guitar multitracks, horror-film synthesizers and all kinds of elegant classical and artsy 70s rock touches. Frontwoman Marina La Torraca’s powerful vocals look back to blues a lot more than opera or classical music, a welcome change from the sound that female-fronted European heavy rock acts tend to reach for. And where so many heavy bands fixate on apocalyptic horror, this group channel defiance and resistance against the evil around us.

Max van Esch’s creepy, doomy guitar chromatics don’t kick in until the vast sonic cloud clears and the chorus of the first track, Conjure Rains kicks in.

A tricky, math-y guitar synth intro opens The Race, a desperate all-hands-on-deck anthem awash in symphonic layers of guitars and unexpected sharp turns. The noir classical piano intro of Diamonds and Dark hints the band’s going to in a menacing Hannah vs. the Many direction, but instead drummer Joeri Warmerdam hits a machinegunning drive and La Torraca bends upward, optimistic amid the orchestral gloom. It’s a good anthem for the worst time in human history.

The synth solo that opens Worst Part of Me is just plain funny, but the song is not: “Victory is so unreachable,” La Torraca laments as she reaches for a “glass of something” to keep her sane from the troll chorus in this doomed anthem. The band take Glass Crown from an action film theme to a darkly catchy fist-pumping stadium singalong. The epic title track is slower and surprisingly optimistic, with a surreal, spacy, icepicking bridge and an unexpectedly successful, blues-infused detour into late-period Jeff Beck.

With its squiggly synths and four-on-the-floor chorus, Bravado is the closest thing to a big pop ballad here. The symphonic angst reaches a peak in the ominous changes of Silver Lining, van Esch slowing down and turning in his most intense solo here.

They follow the brief, blues-tinted instrumental Haven with Deliverance: “Bury all the demons from the past away from me,”  La Torraca orders, the band slowing down into doomy sludge until the pace picks up again. They close with Eyes Wide Open, which seems like La Torraca taking a stab at autosuggestion, to “scream like no one’s listening.” Except that everyone is listening – and it’s about time.

Haunting, Epic Grandeur From the Grimly Mighty Katla

The cover image of Icelandic art-rock band Katla’s new album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness), streaming at Bandcamp, shows a hooded man standing between a huge snowdrift and what could either be a snowed-in bridge, or the skeleton frame of some kind of industrial building. Either way, this haunting song cycle is one of the most darkly gorgeous releases of the year.

To the less familiar, Icelandic folk music has an especially enigmatic, otherworldly quality since some of it veers in and out of traditional western scales. Einar Thorberg Gu∂mundsson’s ominously drifting synthesized orchestration and layers of burning guitars rise and fall over drummer Gu∂mundur Óli Pálmason’s slow, funereal sway. The music here typically follows an arc that has more to do with classical music than any kind of traditional pop verse/chorus pattern. Most of the songs segue into each other. The lyrics are in Icelandic: smartly, the record comes with a lyric sheet.

Gu∂mundsson eventually enters with an angst-fueled intensity over gritty guitar distortion in the opening track, Ást orðum ofar (seemingly a love song), eventually segueing into the slow, enveloping, grim Villuljós (Error Light), a gracefully elegaic, fingerpicked folk riff looping in the distance. The sway grows toward a conflagration as Gu∂mundsson’s guitars pick up and spiral around. There’s a lull for a ticking loop and brooding orchestration, then the music slowly makes its way toward sheer horror in theinstrumental Likfundur a Solheimasandi, a simple funereal drumbeat adrift in the vastness.

Sálarsvefn (Sleep of the Soul) is also a dirge, forlorn belltone guitar over smoldering, anthemic minor-key changes; finally, it hits a gusty peak with the doublebass drum going full tilt in the background. 

A creepy music box-like synth riff kicks off Vergangur, a glacial, disquieting blend of ancient-sounding Icelandic folk themes, peak-era early 80s Iron Maiden, noisy Finnish punk in a Sielun Veljet vein and macabre, droning psychedelia.

Hvítamyrkur (Dark Light) has a somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo. The duo finally pick up the pace with an elegant gallop in Húsavíkur-Jón, gathering force from a serpentine drive toward crushing majesty.

The album’s ttle track is an art-rock masterpiece, a twelve-minute snowstorm epic that rises from a surprisingly delicate, Chopinesque intro through dissociative nubulosity and grimly triumphant turbulence. This trek through the wasteland doesn’t seem to end well.

The moment when the nocturnal pastorale that introduces the fifteen-minute Svartnætti (Dead of Night) comes as a shock. From there they sway through a smoldering pagan folk anthem and variations. Ironically, even with the symphonic coda, it’s the simplest and most straightforward song here. A lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Sweeping, Majestic Bosnian Noir From Amira Medunjanin and Trondheim Solistene

One of the most gorgeously haunting albums to come over the transom here in the last couple of years is Bosnian chanteuse Amira Medunjanin’s 2018 symphonic record Ascending with Norwegian string orchestra Trondheim Solistene, streaming at Spotify. A lot of these songs are popular staples of the Balkan repertoire, but they’ve seldom had as much towering, angst-fueled grandeur as Medunjanin and the ensemble give them here.

The first track, Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano (Where Are You, Love) begins with a well-known, haunting blues riff from the strings. Medunjanin has never sung better, utilizing a plaintive rubato as the orchestra hold a mutedly fluttering minor-key resonance behind her. What a way to start the record.

Sve Pticice Zapjevale (All the Birds Were Singing) is just as haunting, Medunjanin’s tender, almost whispery voice over pizzicato violins and a velvety lushness behind that. The orchestra and piano pick up the pace dramatically and then hit a suspenseful lull in Oj Meglica (The Mist), a pillowy, bouncy, cabaret-tinged ballad.

Snijeg Pade Na Behar Na Voce is a dynamic, imaginatively orchestrated Romany  winter dance…with prepared piano and orchestra, and an epic sweep, and an elegantly fanged piano solo that put the many other versions out there to shame. The angst-fueled ballad Si Zaljubiv Edno Momce has a spare, windswept, moodily expectant atmosphere, with eerily tinkling piano, spare guitar and distant airiness.

Medunjanin’s version of Moj Dilbere has a slinky, Egyptian-tinged chromatic sweep anchored by the low strings. She and the ensemble begin Ja Izlezi Gjurgjo (Get Out, Gjurgjo) with a gentle, drifting ambience and shift toward more emphatic, joyously dancing territory.

They keep the sweep going in Êto Te Nema (Since You’ve Gone), rising back and forth longingly out of a terse acoustic guitar melody. Hearing the ecstatic Romany brass tune Ajde Jano Kolo Da Igramo done with a genteel pulse, a piano and a string section is a trip, but it works.

The album’s shortest number is Tiho Noci Moje Zlato Spava, a pensive guitar-and-strings instrumental lullaby. They bring the album full circle with Nestaces Iz Mog Ivota (You’re Going to Leave Me), with a conspiratorial, wee-hours piano ambience. Nobody knows the poignancy of living in the shadows like the Eastern Europeans.

So where the hell was this blog when the album came out? Back in 2018, New York Music Daily’s focus was live music in New York. Waiting for the moment Medunjanin would come back to town at a price the general public could afford proved to be futile. But we still have this record.