New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: art-rock

A.A. Williams Sings Gloomy Songs for a Gloomy Era

A.A. Williams plays slow, toweringly crescendoing, gothic-tinged art-rock with world-weary noir cabaret overtones. If you feel “alone with nothing at all,” as Williams intones at the end of the second track on her debut album Forever Blue – or as washed-out and pale as she characterizes herself later on the record – this is your jam.

The first song on the album -streaming at Bandcamp  – is All I Asked For Was It to End, an elegant, brooding, soul-tinged piano ballad slowly rises to an angst-fueled art-rock sweep with distantly searing slide guitar soaring overhead: “All I asked for was to end it all,” Williams quietly insists. It reminds of the quieter side of the Bright Smoke’s Mia Wilson.

The second track, Melt rises out of a spare bass-and-vocal verse to an only less skeletal waltz that follows a slow upward climb to majestic grandeur: “These choice will come back and I will go back into the night again,” Williams asserts. Dirt – an original, not the Iggy Pop classic – begins with hints of classic country and grows more envelopingly Lynchian. But at least there’s hope: “I never thought that I could hold on,” Williams muses through her wide-angle vibrato.

With her stark reverb-guitar intro, Fearless is another track that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bright Smoke catalog. Williams’ ominously overdubbed vocal harmonies and the unexpected descent into a death metal-tinged abyss provide a welcome, unexpected jolt.

Glimmer is a gloomy Britfolk-tinged waltz with smartly terse orchestration and the expected big crunchy crescendo. The album hits a hypnotically minimalistic interlude with Love and Pain, and then its most enigmatic track,Wait: basslines figure heavily in in both songs.

Williams closes the record with I’m Fine, a single bell tolling before the somber piano intro. It’s an apology for being depressed all the time. In the year of the lockdown, there’s no shame in that: it makes you one of the gang. Let’s just not let being depressed stop us from demanding our rights. No more lockdowns again, ever!

Epic, Sweeping, Gothic Nocturnes From the Moon and the Nightspirit

Don’t let the Moon and the Nightspirit’s name, or the title of their new album, Aether, lead you to think that this is hippie-dippy new age bullshit. Gothic psychedelia would be a more accurate way to describe the Hungarian band’s sound. They sing in their native language. The record is a suite, more or less; it comes with lyrics and English translations, which have a mystical focus. They like long, hypnotic, slowly crescendoing tableaux with both folk and classical influences.

Stately piano and frontwoman ‘Agnes Toth’s misty vocals blend with a whirl of white noise as the album’s opening, title track gets underway. From there Mihály Szabó takes over the mic, rising from a whisper to a roar as this one-chord jam hits a pummeling, imaginatively orchestrated sway. It comes full circle at the end.

That pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the record – streaming at Bandcamp and available on both purple and black limited-edition vinyl. The second track, Kaputlan Kapukon At (Through the Gateless Gates) has spare, circling twelve-string guitar and eerily tinkling piano over the slowly swaying neoromantic angst.

Toth moves back to lead vocals as the drifting minor-key vamp of Égi Messzeegek (Celestial Distances) gathers force; that bagpipe guitar is a tasty touch. Ringing twelve-string poignancy returns along with graceful, incisive harp above the oscillating loops and disquieting close harmonies in A Szarny (The Wing): it’s the album’s best and most majestic track.

With a deep-space twinkle from the harp and the keys, the album’s most hypnotic soundscape is Logos. The group follow a slow series of layers rich with somberly picked guitars, spare piano, keening microtonal violin and a wash of vocals in A Mindenseg Hivasa (Call of the Infinite). The suite ends with Asha, its Balkan folk illusions and a loop receding to the edge of the universe. Turn on, tune in, you know the rest.

Ted Hearne Catches a Grimly Pivotal Moment in New York History

Fort Greene will always hold a special place in this blog’s heart. It was a satellite office for the better part of a couple of years.

Browsing at Greenlight Books. Tacos at Castro’s. Secret theatre staged by the sharpest ten-year-old dramatist on the planet. Bluegrass music. Perfect made-to-order sandwiches at Fulton Finest Deli, coffee and the Sunday Times in Fort Greene Park. Stoop sales, organic herbs from the community garden, a pair of headphones left curbside at the most serendipitous moment. The Biggie Smalls mural on the corner. The Waverly Avenue Halloween block party.

An irresistible, devastatingly smart brunette cultural critic who would soon move on to the Ivy League from her city college professorship. You get the picture.

So what the hell does Ted Hearne‘s lavishly epic new album Place- streaming at Bandcamp – have to do with all this? As the narrative coalesces, his critique of how gentrification has devastated the neighborhood takes on a withering focus. Charles Mingus is cited as an influence, although that’s through a glass, darkly. This is Hearne’s most psychedelic rock-influenced album to date, and in that sense, his most accessible, which could be construed as a positive development considering the abstruseness of, say, his 2015 album The Source, a shout-out to American heroine Chelsea Manning

The record begins innocently and minimallistically with a father and his six-year-old son asleep next to him, and ends with “projectile vomit of the stars.” Lavish gospel interludes give way to acerbically kinetic chamber pop, psychedelic funk, glitchy autotune, abrupt channel-switching non-segues and High Romantic orchestral angst, and then back. You could call this Hearne’s Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. He’s known as a singer, but his piano work here is solid, especially when it comes to the gospel stuff. He also shares the mic: Saul Williams, Ayanna Woods, Isaiah Robinson Josephine Lee, Steven Bradshaw and the Chicago Children’s Choir contribute passionately.

“Is it ok to say ‘white supremacy’ in white spaces? Is it ok to say ‘Your kind ain’t welcome here’? Is it ok to say welcome?” Woods asks in the album’s first disquietingly hip-hop influenced interlude. It’s here that Hearne’s satire reaches redline. In typical yuppie fashion, children serve as pawns in the status game in a twee dystopia where “We’ve got pop-up shops that give out water for free.”

“The land is mine, and the land was mined,” is one of several particularly telling refrains. Hearne addresses both the Great Migration out of the former slave territories, as well as the yuppie puppy infestation of the past twenty years or so. “Systemic prejudice, don’t blame me,” the future McMansion owner blithely insists – as he buys into a system that’s about to crash, with potentially lethal results. The avant garde has long been an insular demimonde largely funded by and targeted to the idle classes, but Hearne seems hell-bent on changing that. If there’s reason, or time, or necessity for a music blog to exist at the end of 2020, you will see this on the best albums of the year page here.

First-Wave Punk Era Legends Wire Put Out Yet Another Timely Album

Imagine if the Clash were still going strong, still making smart, relevant records.

What if Ian Curtis had gone off his prescription for barbituates, quit drinking, got his epilepsy under control, and Joy Division were still together?

One of those two bands’ contemporaries, Wire, are still together, and even arguably better than when they were beginning to define what would come to be known as postpunk and new wave. By quirk of fate, they were also one of the last bands scheduled to play Brooklyn before the lockdown. Sadly, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll get amother American tour out of Wire this year, but they have a typically strong new album,10:20, a collection of first-class outtakes and new material  streaming at Spotify.

Their previous release, Mind Hive, was their most dystopic yet. This one is more allusive. As the album title implies, the lyrics are all about foreshadowing and the clock winding down, although the music is generally more upbeat. They open with the steady, hypnotic Boiling Boy, glistening with the group’s icy chorus-box guitars: “Lock up your house,” is the mantra as the chords change suddenly from major to minor. Bassist Graham Lewis’ subtly shifting lines pack a psychedelic wallop.

The big stadium guitar hooks that introduce the second cut, German Shepherds, seem to be a red herring (this band’s deadpan sense of humor is legendary). Likewise, the lyrics’ seemingly mundane imagery masks a grim scenario. The next track, He Knows has a slow dreampop sway and a very cool major-on-minor trick.

Underwater Experience has a lickety-split, practically hardcore punk drive: it could be an outtake from the Pink Flag sessions redone with digital production values. The Art of Persistence has eerie early 80s Cure jangle blended in with the album’s catchiest and yet most counterituitive changes – it involves a murder mystery and ends cold. Small Black Reptile also brings to mind the Cure, but in blithe mid-decade pop mode – which is almost certainly sarcastic.

Pulsing loops echo behind a seemingly easygoing post-Velvets sway in Wolf Collides. The album’s final cut is Over Their’s, marching toward the precipice and ending with a drone – or is that a flatline? Some hall-of-famers refuse to quit – and in Wire’s case, that’s a good thing.

Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit – Best Rock Record of 2020 So Far

Since the early zeros, songwriter Ward White has been on a creative tear matched by few other artists, ever. In context: Bowie in the 70s; Aretha in the 60s; Elvis Costello from 1977 to about 1985; and Steve Wynn pretty much since birth. Hall of fame company. And White just doesn’t stop: his tenth and latest album, Leonard at the Audit, is streaming at Bandcamp. In terms of searingly literary lyricism set to imaginative, catchy rock changes, White is pretty much unsurpassed these days.

This particular record is probably the closest thing to White’s sinister nonlinear song cycle Bob – rated best rock record of the year here in 2013 – that he’s released since then. The album title reflects parallel narratives: Leonard Cohen’s 1960s flirtation with Scientology, and a seemingly mundane but actually much more grim story that looks back to the deadly geopolitics of the Bob record. Is this a sequel? Maybe.

The opening track, Bubble and Squeak, is White at the top of his imagistic, slashing game. A creepy cast of characters from the deep state along with an undertaker’s assistant make their entrance, none of them identified by name. “If you tangle with the Pharisees, be prepared to give up a son,” White warns. Musically, this sounds like the Police, built around a recurring guitar figure that White calls “seasick.” The band – Andrew Bird keyboardist Tyler Chester, Jakob Dylan drummer Mark Stepro and bassist John Spiker – maintain a low-key new wave pulse alongside him.

White goes for a more lush, ornate, briskly backbeat-driven feel in Not the Half, probably the only song to date to make the connection between Dylan Thomas final post-barroom collapse and lockdown-era respirator deaths. Above the watery web of guitars, the story references a hostage but also issues of artistic posterity or lack thereof.

The voice of a seemingly stoned and enlightenment-fixated Cohen alternates with someone whose marriage is going to hell on the express track in the similarly enveloping, jangly Ice Capades – or maybe it’s just a single narrator. The journey to the center of White’s songs is always a challenge, but an irresistible one.

Awash in hazy mellotron and icy chorus-box guitar, the Pink Floyd-inflected title track weighs the sacred against the profane – alongside what might or might not be a plane crash. The next song’s “Kleenex/Phoenix” rhyme is one of White’s funniest lyrical moments ever, and the litany of 70s references afterward are just as amusing, as is the central guitar hook – in a skeletal art-rock song about a contract killing, no less.

Likewise, the opening clang of Edmund Fitzgerald Is a Wreck (DAMN, White nails everything 70s here!), a sick, distantly late Beatlesque, characteristically image-rich Wisconsin death trip.

The backdrop shifts ten years forward into allusive 80s powerballadry with Try Me. The suspense and the black humor are relentless:

I was talking to the funeral director
Asking him how much this might all cost
He said “It’s hard to put a price on a relationship with God”
I said “Try me”

The surrealism reaches fever pitch in Dreaming of Dentistry, a druggy El Lay tableau akin to Floyd doing a sneering take on 70s lounge-pop with more than a hint of southwestern gothic. Dead People Fucking is one of White’s more Costelloesque numbers, referencing James Joyce, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and others with wry imagery that’s part Shakespeare, part Warren Zevon.

White sets the ominous gambling metaphors of You Gotta Have a System to a slow, lingering sway:

Lucky with queens, but not in spades
I told you to hit me!
Diamonds retreat where the heart invades
You might as well double down

He winds up the record with the Bowie-esque Pornographic Ennui, connecting the bloody dots between dirty pix and police state ruthlessness:

He was a man who liked machines;
On cocaine it was guns, on beer, anything that runs on gasoline

If it still makes sense for there to be such a thing as a music blog in December 2020 – let’s hope there is – you’ll see this again, high on the best albums of the year list.

Disquieting, Enveloping, Psychedelically Layered Sonics From Lord Buffalo

What was this haunting, savagely layered one-chord epic with a weird, possibly Pacific Island title doing on the hard drive here? Turns out that it’s Raziel, the seven-minute opening track on Austin band Lord Buffalo‘s latest album Tohu Wa Bohu, streaming at Bandcamp. They like slow, menacing themes; they don’t change chords much but they make them interesting.

That particular song is the missing link between the Friends of Dean Martinez’s southwesern gothic and Mogwai’s grim, cold concrete council estate tableaux. Through D.J. Pruitt and G.J. Heilman’s layers of guitars over the slow, steady beat, the heathaze is impenetrable, and frontman Pruitt makes that clear. But he holds out hope, dodging shards of reverb as they filter through the mix.

The band pick up the pace, building to a steady stroll with Wild Hunt, which has two chords, smoky sax, Brockett Hamilton’s piano and a Nick Cave influence along with the guitar torture. Troubled music for troubled times.

“This is the night, she don’t need nothing at all,” Pruitt intones, cold and deadpan, as the third track, Halle Berry gets underway, jagged quasi-funk guitars over a murky slink. Very early 90s New York gutter blues, a slower take on the Chrome Cranks maybe.

Dog Head comes across as a strung-out blues take on Joy Division’s The Eternal. “Be careful, you don’t know this song,” Pruitt warns as Patrick Patterson’s violin joins the guitars and the cloud congeals to toxic density. The title track is a slow, loopy mashup of jagged 70s no wave and early Dream Syndicate.

Cicadas cry, vehicles break down and night looms in all too soon in Kenosis, a mashup of understated Oxygen Ponies menace and sunbaked My Education atmospherics leavened with tinkly vibraphone and piano. The band open Heart of the Snake as a venomous take on an early 60s summer-house theme, then bring in creepy layers of organ and guitars: Alec K. Redfearn‘s work comes to mind. They segue from there into the loopy, careening Llano Estacado to wrap up the album in a ball of flame. You might ask why, in a time where we need to focus on shutting down the tech Nazis who keep flipping the script behind the lockdown, that it makes any sense at all to listen to something this amorphous and escapist. Hey, we all could use a break right about now.

Perchta Mash Up Ancient Brooding Tyrolean Themes With a Heavy Rock Assault

Austrian band Perchta sound like no other group in the world, blending haunting, otherworldly, ancient Tyrolean folk themes into their heavy, mysterious assault, part art-rock, part black metal, part thrash. Their frontwoman takes her name, and the band’s, from a Juno-like pagan goddess revered in antiquity as a protector of the group’s home turf in the rugged, mountainous northern part of the country. Boomy standup drum, wood flute and a rippling zither-like instrument are just as likely to appear in their songs along with crushing, multitracked guitars and co-leader Fabio D’Amore’s growling bass. Their latest album Utang – streaming at Bandcamp – is available on both black and white vinyl.

The album’s instrumental intro sets the stage: spare, ominous bits of melody from the zither mingle within hovering, static-flicked electronic ambience. The first track, Erdn is a blast of thrash with icy, swirling dreampop-inflected guitar (uncredited at the Bandcamp page) and a trio of brief acoustic interludes over gritty, trebly bass.

The band’s frontwoman whispers in Tyrolean dialect over sparse, rainy-day zither in Långs, then the band work tensely pulsing chromatics in Åtem, which comes across as an amped-up take on a medieval peasant work song.

The band follow Summa, a brief, anguished zither-infused invocation with Gluat, juxtaposing a rainswept folk theme with pounding, atmospheric, menacing chromatic guitar crunch.

They revert to skeletal, ominous zither folk with Herest, a good launching pad for the album’s epic centerpiece, Wåssa. It’s the only track on the album where the intricately fingerpicked acoustic intro carries over into the raging electric rock that follows, in this case a slow, menacing, practically ten-minute anthem.

From there they segue into Winta, another invocation whose enveloping outro brings the album full circle. The bonus cd package includes acoustic versions of Gluat and Wåssa, neither of which came with the promo for the record. The world needs more disquietingly individualistic bands like this.

Smart, Stormy, Fearless Art-Rock From Victoria Langford

Singer/multi-keyboardist Victoria Langford writes lush, sweeping yet very sharply sculpted songs. She has a strong, meticulously nuanced, expressive voice and a venomous sense of humor. She likes swirling, stormy orchestration and using religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst. Her debut album, simply titled Victoria, is streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine a more organic Radiohead, or a young Kate Bush at half the volume.

The album’s first track is Psalm, Langford’s spare Wurlitzer and insistent piano contrasting with Brett Parnell’s nebulous wash of guitars. The phantasmagoria hits redline with the second song, Coney Island, a harrowing, achingly intense tableau awash in a roar of sound and creepy canival effects:

I see stars
From the back
Of your hand
You bury me
Alive

At a moment in time when domestic abuse is rising with all this endless quarantining, the song has more relevance than ever.

Langford’s cynicism hits a peak in Savior, a brief, thumping parody of dancefloor pop:

You think everyone wants to fuck you
You are a victim or most wanted on the streets
You like to think that you are Kanye
But sitting on your ass won’t make those beats

I Found Hell Looking For Heaven is an instrumental, a majestic title theme of sorts, Leah Coloff’s stark cello blending with Langford’s symphonic keyboard orchestration. The string into to Boboli Gardens, cello bolstered by Sarah Goldfeather and Andie Springer’s violins, is even more plaintive, Langford’s piano shifting to a hazy, country-tinged sway.

The Radiohead influence comes through the most clearly in the slow, brooding What Might Have Been, right down to the glitchy electronics and tinkly multitracks behind the starkly circling piano riffs.

Rob Ritchie’s guitar lingers amid a whoosh of string synth over Joe Correia’s bass and Evan Mitchell’s drums in Be a Dragon, a surreal mashup of hip-hop and Radiohead with a fearless Metoo-era message. Langford winds up the record with The Truth, a pulsing, unapologetic escape anthem: It’s rare to see an artist come straight out of the chute with something this unique and individualistic, a stealth contender for best debut album of 2020.

Solace and Inspiration From One of the World’s Greatest Musical Visionaries

Fear, fear drives the mills of modern man
Fear keeps us all in line
Fear of all those foreigners
Fear of all their crimes
Is this the life we really want?
It surely must be so
For this is a democracy and what we all say goes

In times of crisis, we turn to visionaries, because they see more clearly than we do. When Roger Waters put out his album Is This the Life We Really Want in 2017, he sure didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he had something important for us. While he doesn’t reference pandemics anywhere on the record, there’s never been a more appropriate time to to take an hour or so and absorb what he has to say than there is right now. It’s still streaming at youtube – with far fewer interruptions where you need to hit the mute button to kill the ads than there were when it first came out.

That cynical quote is from the title track. Once again, Waters – always a big-picture guy – gets it. We see all the President’s men in their surgical masks and we assume we have to be wearing them too – after all, those guys are all oligarchs, or wannabe oligarchs, and they look just like us! Or, they look like how they want us to look.

Beyond Waters’ own simple acoustic chords, there isn’t a lot of guitar on this album. That track, with its bell-like sonics and litany of people and faces – which bring 1983’s Every Stranger’s Eyes full circle – is the exception. Otherwise, it’s mostly strings and the former Pink Floyd bassist’s marvelously spacious, picturesque, gospel-inspired piano.

The album is symphonic to the nth degree, with several themes and variations. A ticking clock (or a bomb) that references Dark Side of the Moon is one of them. The melodies of a couple of iconic Floyd numbers from The Wall also figure into the equation. Lyrically, it’s as shattering, and insightful, and genuinely foundational as anything Waters ever wrote. In the years since, he has gone on to other equally important things – like advocating for Palestinian and Bolivian freedom fighters – but musically he’s as relevant as he’s ever been.

On one hand, Waters’ catalog reads like a doomsday book. Withering cynicism notwithstanding (and there’s A LOT of that here), his hope for a future based on compassion rather than greed remains unshakeable after all these years. At the end of the record, love conquers all: this apocalyptic news junkie gets off the screen.

But he reminds us never to forget past and present atrocities. Refugees on the run and and drone murders are recurrent themes: the bravery of being out of range tragically remains as much of a meme as it was when Waters put out his equally visionary Amused to Death album in 1992. Or for that matter, since long before Dark Side: “’Forward!’ He cried, from the rear, and the front rank died.”

Broken Bones, with its stately piano and grim strings, is one of the keys to this:

Though the slate was never wiped clean
We could have picked over them broken bones
We could have been free
But we chose to adhere to abundance
We chose the American Dream
And oh Mistress Liberty
How we abandoned thee
…Little babies mean us no harm
They have to be taught to despise us
To bulldoze our homes to the ground
To believe their fight is for liberty
To believe their God will keep them safe and sound
Safe and sound
Safe and sound
We cannot turn back the clock
Cannot go back in time
But we can say “fuck you,”
We will not listen to
Your bullshit and lies

Smell the Roses, another key track, sounds like Floyd’s Have a Cigar with good lyrics, calling bullshit on the military-industrial complex with characteristic down-to-earth elegance:

Wake up and smell the roses
Close your eyes and pray this wind won’t change
There’s nothing but screams in the field of dreams
Nothing but hope at the end of the road
Nothing but gold in the chimney smoke
…This is the room where they make the explosives
Where they put your name on the bomb
Here’s where they bury the buts and the ifs
And scratch out words like right and wrong

And there are a lot of really funny moments here. Trump gets snuffed out – or at least cut off mid-sentence, which for him is the same thing. Waters turns the “classic rock” radio staple Run Like Hell into a love song, which doesn’t come across quite as optimistically as that transformation might imply. And the reference to Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album is particularly spot-on. In a year where all the old paradigms are dying  faster than the abandoned patients in your average nursing home, this challenges us to reinvent ourselves. The alternative is in Waters’ narratives here, and in many grim songs from throughout his career. Is that the life we really want?

Defying Category With Svjetlana Bukvich’s Rich, Dramatic Compositions

As a composer, Svjetlana Bukvich has made a career out of jumping off cliffs and landing on her feet. Few other artists are able to bridge such a seemingly ridiculous number of styles without seeming the least bit out of place. Most, but not all, of her vibrant, dramatic, often darkly bristling compositions are electroacoustic, imbued with an irrepressible joie de vivre as wel as both a striking clarity and embrace of the absurd. It seems that she just writes what she wants to and lets everybody else figure out how to categorize it..or just leave it alone and enjoy its vitality. Her new album Extension – streaming at Spotify – is by turns surreal, futuristic, troubling and triumphant.

She plays zither harp through a maze of effects, joined by Susan Aquila on electric violin and David Rozenblatt on percussion, on the album’s opening track, The Beginning, flitting space junk and dancing, pingponging phrases over stygian washes. Bukvich builds the hypnotically circling prelude Utopia around a simple, insistent, wordless vocal riff spiced with her own bright electric piano, flickers from Jacqueline Kerrod’s electric harp over terse syncopation from bassist Patrick Derivaz and drummer Wylie Wirth. Is this art-rock? Indie classical? Does it matter?

Singers Kamala Sankaram and Samille Ganges harmonize uneasily over Bukvich’s dancing synth lines in the album’s title track: imagine an Ethiopian contingent passing through Jabba the Hut’s space lounge. Once You Are Not a Stranger is featured in three different versions throughout the album. Derivaz dips low to open the first one, string quartet Ethel building a pensive series of echo riffs overhead.

Janis Brenner sings a much more minimalist take of the second over the composer’s spacious piano chords. The lush final version, which concludes the album, switches out the string quartet for the Shattered Glass String Orchestra,

Graves, with Bukvich joined by Kerrod, Wirth, Nikola Radan on alto flute and Richard Viard on acoustic guitar comes across as a moody, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged art-rock dirge. Sankaram brings both gentle poignancy and operatic flair to Tattoo, backed by Bukvich’s brooding piano and orchestration.

The bandleader switches to synth, teaming up with cellist Raphael Saphra and bassist Joseph Brock for Stairs, a similarly uneasy miniature. Then Jane Manning trades off with Sankaram over Bojan Gorišek’s piano and Bukvich’s wry electronics in the Balkan-inflected Nema Te (You Aren’t Here, You Aren’t There). Fans of acts as diverse as Radiohead, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, exploding pianist Kathleen Supove and postminimalist composers like David Lang will love this stuff.