New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: art-rock

High Romantic Drama and Heavy Metal Crush From Reasons Behind

A brief lullaby on a music box opens The Alpha Memory, the 2016 album by melodic metal band Reasons Behind streaming at Bandcamp. That bit of a tune hardly hints at the ornate crush that will begin seconds later. The group are more classically-influenced and keyboard-oriented than most, and Elisa, their frontwoman, has a disarmingly warm, intimate delivery: she’s not just out for banshee vengeance.

“There’s something growing inside of me, traveling on a one-way track,” Elisa sings with understated drama in the album’s first big anthem, Under the Surface; then the machinegunning doublebass drums and guitar roar kick in.

Guitarist Gabriel and drummer Riccardo (no last names here) go lickety-split in a tricky beat behind Elisa’s resonant vocals and Dige’s elegant keys in The Chemical Theater. With Your Light is a turbocharged pop anthem assembled around a swaying, atmospheric interlude and a momentary, spiraling synth solo. The moody piano solo at the end segues into Starlight in the Shades, Elisa rising to an operatic intensity over a surprisingly enigmatic, rising and falling backdrop.

The simple piano theme On Butterfly Wings is a showcase for the unselfconscious poignancy in her vocals. With its twin guitar/keyboard solo along with Enrico Goya’s Steve Harris-ish bassline, the album’s heaviest song is The Ghost Under My Skin

The break for string synth and bass in the similarly pummeling 1000 Fading Lives is over too soon. Elisa’s operatic chops glisten over spare, pensive piano and string synth as the title track gathers force. The album ends up coming full circle.

There’s an element who are going to hear this and say, jeez, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Cartoon gramd guignol. Grow up, New York Music Daily! That’s ok. Sometimes it’s fun to feel like a kid again, lying on the floor with headphones blasting something like this, playing air drums, and looking forward to being able to drink in a bar instead of hiding out at home

Elegantly Melancholy, Wordless Vampire Anthems From Rik Schaffer

Beyond members of the World Economic Forum’s taste for adrenochrome, vampirism usually falls into the cartoon category as far as Halloween is concerned. This year, composer Rik Schaffer has opened up a rich vein of his themes from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines at Spotify. He couldn’t have picked a more appropriate year to splatter the world with this, considering how many hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by the various lethal injections being promoted by the WEF and the Gates Foundation. How serious, or completely cartoonish, is this music?

This magnum opus is all about epic grandeur, punctuated by infrequent portrayals of ridiculousness. This is the uncommon soundtrack that’s also a good rock record. Schaffer’s themes for the game frequently draw on 80s goth, but not in a cliched way. Where innumerable film and video composers embrace chilly synth soundscapes, Schaffer uses guitars for the most part. Sometimes they’re minimalist, as Daniel Ash would have clanged out circa 1980. Other interludes here evoke bands as diverse as Slowdive, the Church and Roxy Music.

Schaffer likes all kinds of icy chorus-box sounds. Loops figure heavily into this, whether a tentative folk-tinged acoustic phrase, a merciless motorik theme, or vast, windswept vistas awash in a chilly mist. In the rare moments when the bass percolates to the surface, it’s delicious. In general, Schaffer’s songs are more majestically melancholy than grim or grisly: a vampire’s life is a sad and lonely one.

He moves methodically through ornate spacerock and whimsical trip-hop with a hint of disquiet, to a gorgeously textured, bittersweetly vamping anthem without words awash in torrents of organ and stately chorus-box guitar. Dissociative atmospherics encircle a goofy dance club tableau. A long return to moody shoegaze sounds sets up an imaginatively flamenco-tinged coda and an unexpectedly Beatlesque outro. Who would have thought that a video game theme collection would be one of the best albums of 2021.

Revisiting a Lush, Lynchian Treat by the Lovely Intangibles

The Lovely Intangibles are a spinoff of Lynchian cinematic band the Lost Patrol, one of the most consistently disquieting New York groups of the past twenty years or so. This project features the core of the band, lead guitarist/keyboardist Stephen Masucci and twelve-string player Michael Williams, plus singer Mary Ognibene and drummer Tony Mann. Their 2015 debut album Tomorrow Is Never is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, No Amends, has everything that made the Lost Patrol so menacingly memorable. That lingering reverb guitar, those icy washes of string synth and deep-sky production, and Ognibene’s breathy, woundeed vocal harmonies are a good fit.

The Dust Settles Down is basically a catchy 80s new wave ballad lowlit by ominous spaghetti western guitar: imagine Julee Cruise if she could belt. Opening with dusky guitar jangle, Tell Me When takes on a gusty, string synth-driven ba-BUMP noir cabaret tinge.

Beatlesque riffage punches in and out of the sweep and swoosh of Do As You Please. The album’s title track ripples and glistens, Ognibene’s voice channeling a cool but angst-fueled intensity: the kettledrums and snappy bass are an aptly Orbisonian touch.

Masucci’s icepick reverb guitar and looming bass propel the anthemically waltzing It’s Just Like You. Then the band sway through the gorgeously bittersweet early 60s-influenced Will You Surrender: you could call it Theme From a Winter Place.

The most straight up new wave number here is Divine. They close the album with Relapse, a broodingly twinkling tableau. Play this with the lights out – if you can handle it,after all we’ve been through over the past year and a half.

A Heavy Psychedelic Gem From 2016 Takes on New Relevance

The ancien regime gets old and feeble and increasingly entitled. They’ve repressed the peasants for so long they think they can get away with new levels of sadism and torture.

But they’re doomed to fall. How many times have we seen this throughout history?

The French royalty, 1789. The Russian tsarist regime, 1918. The Nazis, 1945.

The Gates Foundation, 2021.

You live your life in palaces
Raised up inside your head
Time shield from the world
Underneath your bed
Trapped in the materials
Insatiable until you’re dead
….So scared that you will fall, out of touch
…You think it’s fun
Using words instead of guns
Hiding in a cell
Without a door or even walls
Knowing how to feel so scared
That you will fall
Out of touch in your palaces

That song, Palaces, is the high point of heavy psych band Panic in Eden‘s album In the Company of Vultures, which hit the web about five years ago and is still streaming at Soundcloud. It starts as a brooding acoustic folk ballad and then shifts from 70s stoner metal to four-on-the-floor punk fury and eventually an outro straight out of LA Woman. Who knew it would be so prophetic?

The rest of the record is strong, and psychedelically diverse. The chromatic menace of the intro to the first track, Out For Blood, is a false start: it quickly turns into a web of 70s bluesmetal riffs set to tricky rhythms, Slade meets Rage Against the Machine. Who’s to Blame is a surreal mashup of early Genesis and Led Zep stumbling through open-tuned acoustic blues. The catchy anthem War on the Rocks could be political….or just a kiss-off anthem to a femme fatale.

Passerby is a 70s psychedelic epic with a bizarre, mythical lyric: “Is it wrong to question what we’re taught?” frontman Lucas McEachern finally asks. The group follow the mutedly sinister instrumental White Elephant with the spiraling riffs and clanging guitars of Could It Be You, which wouldn’t be out of place on Nektar’s Down to Earth album.

Hang with Shapeshifter through the math-rock to the psychedelic freakout. The band finally go over the edge into dystopian circus rock, as they’ve been hinting all along in The Waltz. They close with the cynical, diabolical heavy blues of A Revelation At Its Finest.

A Characteristically Brilliant, Surprising, Slashingly Lyrical New Album by Changing Modes

Changing Modes have been one of the best bands in New York since the zeros, when they began releasing a formidable series of catchy, ambitious, individualistic rock records. Their music features layers of keyboards and vocal harmonies from frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam, enigmatically virtuosic and often slashing lead guitar from Yuzuru Sadashige, with drummer Timur Yusef colorfully negotiating the songs’ serpentine, shapeshifting rhythms. As the years went on, their playful lyrical edge grew angrier and more politically-inspired, particularly as the Metoo movement gained momentum. Their latest album Wax World is streaming at youtube.

From a performance point of view, what’s most amazing is that it sounds as lush and contiguous as the rest of their catalog, considering that Yusef – one of the most colorfully nimble players in town – recorded his tracks remotely from the UK.

The opening number, Audio Polaroid, is a searing, sardonic commentary on IG-era narcissism: “Audio Polaroid never will fill the void,” the two women harmonize over a surreal blend of reggae and skittish new wave. The ultimate message seems to be that it’s never more than a memory – and a hazy one at that.

Griffiths and Pulliam exchange lyrical lines and harmonies over haphazard Beatles blues in Nothing to Say: “You’re selling your soul on ebay, you’re selling secrets that aren’t yours to give away,” Pulliam accuses. Strychnine is not the Cramps classic but an slyly blippy, very subtly venomous, new wave-tinged original with a hilarious intro.

Stasis Loop rises out of an evil morass of feedback and horror-movie keys, a macabre, picturesque account of the early days of the lockdown in New York, “Stuck in a place where nobody waits for summer or fall…playgrounds are empty, their friends are all gone and even their masters are someone else’s boss.” It might be the best song of 2021.

The band maintain the chilly ambience in Autumn, a vehicle for Sadashige’s enigmatically skeletal guitar leads. Likewise, the rainy-day guitar clusters, keening organ and plaintive vocal harmonies in Glass of Winter. If this song is any indication, Sadashige was a great surf guitarist in a past life and has graduated to jazz.

Solitary, a brisk punchy new wave/punk number, speaks for itself: this time the grisly joke is the outro. Yusef’s gracefully tumbling Atrocity Exhibition-style drums bookend On an Island, a gorgeously symphonic, surreal esape ballad. Baritone saxophonist Sawa Tamezane caps off Haze, a ba-bump cabaret-tinged number, with an incisively lyrical solo.

The band close with Undertow, a dynamically shifting, baroque-tinged anthem, late Beatles through a glass darkly. Changing Modes’ records have been ubiquitous on this blog’s annual Best Albums of the Year page since day one and this one will be high on the list for 2021.

An Evocative, Majestic Single and a Hometown Gig by South Dakota Group Howling Embers

For South Dakotans looking for an interesting show this coming Saturday, Oct 23, there’s an intriguing one at the Cave Collective at 406 5th St. in Rapid City; cover is eight bucks. The screamo opening act aren’t anything beyond generic; hometown folk-punk headliners Crust After Curfew are new, pissed off and still figuring out a sound. And the 8 PM act, Howling Embers‘ only recording is a name-your-price single up at their Bandcamp page.

But that instrumental, Taiga, is a good one. How much great plains desolation does it bring to mind? It’s more of a spacerock song, actually. It starts out as a spare, jangly and distantly ominous tableau, then grows starrier, shifting to a forlorn and much more lushly orchestral melody before the crush kicks in. The duo of guitarist Ben Lemay and drummer Luke Gorder obviously have a lot of sounds up their sleeves. Listeners on their home turf will be able to find out what those are this weekend.

An Epic, Visionary Reflection on Lockdown-Era Horror and Resistance From Mostly Autumn

On one hand, it’s bizarre that there hasn’t been more music about the lockdown. On the other hand, studio time was hard to find for awhile, and many musicians are playing their cards close to the vest, fearing that they’ll lose part of their audience if they dare question the brainwashing and fear propaganda that the corporate media unleashed on us in the spring of last year.

British band Mostly Autumn are one of the few and the brave. Their new album Graveyard Star – streaming at youtube – is a throwback to ornately catchy 70s bands like Renaissance and Supertramp, and most obviously, Pink Floyd. The lyrics are straightforward and thoughtful: the characters in these songs long to be free, under the sun, out in the fields, and hold their ground as the walls crush in against them. The melodies here rise from a somber restraint, through dirges and black-sky ambience to a thunderous, stadium-worthy stomp. And ultimately, the band’s message is optimistic, notwithstanding the visceral pain and longing that pervades this vast and in many ways visionary album,

The group comprises Olivia Sparnenn-Josh and guitarist Bryan Josh sharing lead vocals, with Iain Jennings on keys, Angela Gordon on flute, keys and vocals, Chris Johnson on guitars, Andy Smith on bass and Henry Rogers on drums.

Solemn synth chromatics give way to a baroque-tinged, gothic organ melody as the album’s epic, twelve-minute title track gets underway. A Floydian spacerock tableau unfolds into a steady anthem, then the guitars kick in: it’s a metal symphony but with a more focused, Gilmouresque attack.

“I hedge my bets on stormy seas, it’s a long way home tonight,” Josh sings grimly over looming, cumulo-nimbus orchestration in The Plague Bell. The loping, moody spaghetti western rock of Skin of Mankind, an existentialist lament, comes as a real surprise: these guys are a great surf band! Guest Chris Leslie’s violin solo peaking out in tandem with Sparnenn-Josh’s vocals is one of the album’s most spine-tingling moments.

“Voices like a ghost calling history up again, if I wasn’t growing up I sure as hell am now,” Josh reflects over a lush bed of acoustic guitars before the electrics kick in mightily in Shadows, a bristling commentary on lockdown alienation and solitude.

“The deeper that you bleed, the further you will reach…the harder you love, the harder that you hurt,” Sparnenn-Josh muses in the stately, jangly ballad The Harder That You Hurt, but even here, she refuses to concede to despair.

She reflects on escape throughout a long, desolate drive in Razor Blade, the music lifting from a piano-based dirge to Floydian majesty and wrath as Josh moves to the mic. When Sparnenn-Josh intones “Hang me on a satellite,” the irony is crushing – as is the desperate coda.

Sparnenn-Josh speaks to the interminable hopelessness of the early months of 2020 in This Endless War, as the music slowly reaches up from a dirge to a shrieking, vengeful Gilmouresque guitar solo.

The border closure and “x-ray town” in Spirit of Mankind raise the ugly specter of what we’ve been battling since the spring of 2020, but the song is a tribute to the indomitability of the resistance against it, “A phoenix rising through these flames.”

Back in These Arms starts out with allusions to a famously mechanical Pink Floyd theme and morphs into a Celtic-tinged stadium rock anthem. Josh sings defiantly of how, if we all join forces, we can reclaim our world from fascist domination: “Freedom’s burning in our veins, never let it go!”

Sparnenn-Josh sings Free to Fly with a delicate, restrained hope over Jennings’ gentle piano lullaby and eventually a web of synth that reaches orchestral heights. The Diamond is the most opaque song on the album, but paradoxically one of its catchiest, a wistful reflection of rebirth from a bankrupt system “pre-designed to fall apart.”

Josh sings Turn Around Slowly, an endlessly shapeshifting, circling, metaphorically loaded seafaring anthem that makes a towering coda:

Is there any danger when love blows a fuse
There’s a clown in the looking glass, a world full of fools…
We’ve been locking down, slow, too far, too long

In its meticulously composed, breathtaking and sometimes charmingly retro way, this might be the best rock record of 2021.

Prophetic, Hauntingly Gorgeous, Insightful New Music and Spoken Word From Tessa Lena

For the past several years, investigative journalist Tessa Lena has been one of the most prophetic and poetic observers of how digital technology has empowered creeping fascism on a global scale. With last year’s lockdown here in New York, her work gained traction exponentially. Her Substack feed quickly became a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of what’s happened since.

But she’s also a breathtakingly powerful singer and instrumentalist. Last summer, she took one of her most succinct and portentously accurate pieces, The Physical World Is the Only World We Have (a longer version of the lyrics appears here) and turned it into a gorgeous mosaic of spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged soundscape. Her wordless vocals as she reaches for the sky will give you chills. A good digital approximation of an electric mandolin, or a balalaika, maybe, adds spare bittersweetness. The whole piece is streaming at her podcast, Make Language Great Again. Tessa Lena’s commentary is as grimly funny as it is insightful and poignant:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow.
Facts are fiction,
Love is screen.
Gossip’s trending,
Trends are mean.
Hear, hear,
Where’s the joy
Ask Alexa.
She’ll annoy.

We are all losing our minds….I know that long-term stress is very effective in turning off human ability to think straight. Once we’ve been battered for a long enough time, our sensory patterns will be damaged sufficiently, and we’ll be so exhausted and hungry for any semblance of joy that we’ll accept anything to be allowed to do basic things in the world. To breathe. To laugh. To be a little bit alive, to be a little bit free, no matter how short the digital leash. We are like frogs in a pot of water that is warming up. We are getting used to it…we are at a major crossroads, and I am positive that the time to be fully human—not cyborg—is now….

Something terrible is happening to us, and it is not a drill. It is very complex and very trivial. It is imminent and cumulative. Every small fragment of the disaster can be explained in a respectable way, but the big picture is terrifying. We’ve given up our senses and our ancient instincts, but our leaders have no heads. We are not in good hands. We are shackled to a broken algorithm. We are on our own, and the sooner we realize it, the better our chance of surviving.

Castle Black Take Their Dark Unpredictability to the Next Level

Castle Black started out as a haphazardly noisy power trio and have grown into more of an art-rock band while never losing their punk edge. Frontwoman Leigh Celent has kept the group going after the 2020 lockdown with a rotating rhythm section, and managed to make a scorchingly eclectic new short album, Get Up Dancer, streaming at Bandcamp. Since this is a pretty dark record – aren’t they all, with this band – it fits the bill for today’s episode in the ongoing, October-long Halloween celebration here.

It’s great to hear these tracks all fleshed out in the studio after seeing the latest version of the trio roar and slink through them at their show in Long Island City a couple of months ago. The first cut – the title track, more or less – is Radio Queen, a sleeker, more trickily rhythmic take on careening early 80s punk, like the Vice Squad classic Last Rockers but way tighter.

Likewise, the metric shifts in Another Grand Delusion, a gorgeously serpentine, angst-fueled anthem awash in Celent’s signature reverb and roar. Her machete guitar riffage, Scott Brown’s tersely ascending bass and the tumbling drums blend to raise the heartbroken angst in Talking About Those Nights to redline.

Knife in My Heart is a revenge fantasy, part ba-bump cabaret, part echoey psychedelia, part searing powerpop, Celent on keys in addition to guitar. An icy high/low guitar/bass contrast gives way to a burning chorus in That Little War: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Thalia Zedek tunebook. Same applies to the last song, Sorry, the album’s most darkly enveloping number. It’s rewarding to see Celent refusing to stay in one place and find dark new avenues to explore. Count this as one of the most intriguing and best rock records of 2021.

Sarah Aroeste Brings a Vanished Balkan Hub of Sephardic Culture Back to Life

Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste‘s cousin Rachel Nahmias survived the Holocaust, smuggled across the border from Macedonia to Albania in the trunk of a car. A Muslim family there hid her from the Nazis for the duration of the war. At 103, she’s still with us.

Her family wasn’t so lucky. After the Nazis took them off to Treblinka, a neighbor pulled the mezuzah (a religious home-sweet-home totem) off the door of their home, planning on giving it back to them when they were liberated. Along with more than seven thousand, mostly Sephardic Macedonian Jews, they never made it back. At times like this we need to remember the Holocaust. Evil was in full bloom then, and it’s in full bloom now: ask an Israeli or an Australian.

Aroeste’s latest album Monastir -streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates the rich history of the Macedonian city now known as Bitola, where her ancestors had roots before leaving for the US in 1913. There’s a small army of Israeli and Macedonian musicians on this, playing a mix of Sephardic and Macedonian folk songs and originals.

Aroeste sings the opening track, a hypnotic, mantra-like anthem celebrating a newborn’s arrival, with a restrained joy, Yonnie Dror getting his shofar to channel dusky digeridoo lows. Vevki Amedov’s magically microtonal Balkan clarinet joins with an animated choir in the irrepressibly jaunty Od Bitola Pojdov (Bitola Girls). Crooner Yehoram Gaon sings an elegantly bolero-flavored take of the Ladino lost-love ballad Jo La Keria over producer Shai Bachar’s elegant piano and Dan Ben Lior’s acoustic guitar.

Odelia Dahan Kehila and Gilan Shahaf join voices on a gorgeous, bittersweetly undulating new Hebrew take of the popular Balkan folk song Jovanke, Jovanke, reinvented as a glittering piano-based ballad. Sefedin Bajramov takes over the mic on Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen, a lilting, carefree Macedonian folk tune about a guy on the prowl who meets a cute Jewish girl – and wants to be Fyedka to her Chava.

A Bitola children’s choir sing Estreja Mara, a popular post-WWII tribute to a freedom fighter killed by the Nazis at 21. Macedonian opera star Helena Susha sings En Frente de Mi Te Tengo, a brass-fueled ranchera-style ballad.

One of the album’s most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers is Aroeste’s original version of Espinelo, a medieval tale of an infant thrown into the ocean as a newborn since he was one of a pair of twins, considered at the time to be bad luck. He survives and goes on to Balkan fame. Baglama player Shay Hamani and kanun player Yael Lavie enhance the brooding Middle Eastern ambience.

The album’s final two tracks pay homage to Aroeste’s ancestral city. She leads a rousing, plaintive choir over an intricate web of acoustic guitars in an original, Mi Monastir, then soars over a bouncy backdrop in Bitola, Moj Roden Kraj, an early 50s hit for Macedonian folk-pop singer Ajri Demirovski. This an all-too-rare work of musicological sleuthing that’s just as fun to listen to as it is politically important.