New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: dreampop

Catchy Jangle and Clang and Roar

Veteran Seattle band Chastity Belt‘s new single Fake/Fear is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s not about the lockdown or any kind of fake fear.

Guitarist Julia Shapiro sings the A-side, Fake over a jangly rainy-day backdrop with a slinky, sinuous lead guitar line. As she’s done many times, Gretchen Grimm distinguishes herself as a rock drummer who really swings. The B-side is slower and more hypnotic, in a growly post-Velvets vein – not quite as catchy, which seems to explain why it’s a B-side.

Daxma’s New Album: Unlimited Shades of Grey

Bay area band Daxma play hypnotic, melancholy slowcore, akin to a missing link between Godspeed You Black Emperor and My Bloody Valentine. Vocals serve more of an instrumental than lyrical role in this music, such that there are any here. Their new album Unmarked Boxes is streaming at Bandcamp. Other than the occasional screaming guitar burst or tumbling drum riff, the pall never lifts: if grey is your color, this is your sound. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to argue with how accurately this band reflect the past twenty months’ interminable, oppressive gloom.

The first track, The Clouds Parted begins with a broodingly anthemic, looping piano riff, then the guitar crunch kicks in and the dirge is on, but with more of an opaque My Bloody Valentine feel. The band shift gears to a Dark Side of the Moon clang that grows more insistent yet hypnotic as the bass takes over the melody. The MBV cyclotron returns, interchanging with moments of minimalist calm throughout the rest of the song’s almost fourteen minutes. It sets the stage for the rest of the album’s longer tracks.

The second cut is And the Earth Swallowed Our Shadows, rainy-day guitar loops within an increasingly dense fog punctuated by aching washes of tremolo-picking. It ends calmly and stately.

The grey-sky ambience looms closer and closer to the growling bass riff that anchors the epic Hiraeth: as the tableau slowly unfolds, it’s like Mogwai covering the Cure at quarterspeed. Suadade is aptly titled: it’s more sparse, beyond the interlude where the stormclouds come sweeping past.

Anything You Lose begins with one of the album’s catchiest passages, then the melody and textures grow more densely immersive. The final track, Comes Back to Another Form, contrasts the album’s quietest sections with its most raging, sustained peak.

Saluting an Individualistic, Darkly Atmospheric Romanian Band

Negura Bunget built a distinctive career blending Romanian folk themes into heavy, atmospheric rock. The tragic 2017 death of their drummer, Gabriel “Negru” Mafa effectively put an end to the band. Now, Mafa’s surviving collaborators are releasing a new album, Zau, which isn’t online yet, although there are a couple of tracks up at Bandcamp. It’s a series of variations blending unexpectedly carefree deep-woods folk themes, juxtaposed with enveloping minor-key guitar sludge. Over Mafa’s terse rhythm, Adrian “OQ” Neagoe builds epic but minimalistic layers of guitar and keys, livened by Tibor Kati’s vocals and Petrică Ionuţescu’s one-man antique flute ensemble.

These guys love long songs. The album’s opening sixteen-minute epic, Brad begins as a breathy, distantly ominous but verdant kaval theme over spare atmospherics, summoning the wood sprites. String synth drifts through the sonic picture, Tibor Kati’s vocals drifting in as well. And then the guitar-and-vocal roar kicks in with a vengeance. Mafa’s drums are emphatic but spare and stately. Another dip to washes of echoes follows, before a coda that’s part black metal, part My Bloody Valentine.

Ionuţescu builds a surreal web of birdsong as Iarba Fiarelor (Cattle Feed) gets underway; the guitar theme that follows has more of a towering angst, until the muted chuk-chuk-chuks and guttural vocals kick in.

There’s more birdsong and atmospherics to open Obrazar (Working), then the cyclotron spins and begins to enrich the uranium, followed by a heroic theme that all too soon decays to dissociation.

The forest disappears quickly and horror reaches a peak in the sinister tritones and organ in Tinerere Fara Batranete (Eternal Youth): it’s the album’s strongest and most interesting track. They close with Toaca Din Cer (rough translation: Stroke of God), Mafa’s shamanic crescendo introducing an ornate, broodingly circling theme. Ionuţescu’s hunting horn sounds a solemn, overtone-laced farewell for a friend, winding out in an unresolved swirl as Mafa makes a final, insistent appearance.

Moodily Atmospheric New Wave and Lynchian Sounds From Brass Box

Sometimes Brass Box’s album The Cathedral – streaming at Bandcamp – totally nails a David Lynch soundtrack atmosphere. Other times the group totally nail a dark 80s new wave sound. Either way, their songs are catchy and tightly focused, frontwoman/bassist Ammo Bankoff channeling clear-eyed abandonment and despondency over the chilly echo and swirl.

The album opens with the title track, a mutedly galloping Pink Floyd Run Like Hell riff anchoring Neil Popkin and Matt Bennett’s broodingly echoey mix of guitars that explode in a ringing dreampop vortex on the chorus, Bankoff’s searching, anxious vocals awash in the icy mist.

With its resonant, reverberating deep-space sonics and wistful, starry backdrop, the second track, DDM could be the Lost Patrol. Surrender is not the Cheap Trick teen-rebellion anthem but a dead ringer for Siouxsie & the Banshees circa 1982, right down to the watery chorus-box guitar and prominent bass.

They follow the atmospheric, enveloping goth rock tune Latency with the allusively catchy Waves, which rise to some gorgeously Eastern European-tinged vocal harmonies on the chorus. Then they hit a steady, fast new wave groove with Towne, the album’s hardest-rocking track.

The record’s slowest track, Roses, comes across as a dreampop update on the more skeletal material on Unknown Pleasure-era Joy Division. The band go back to Lynchian/dreampop mashup mode with Ivory Skies and close the album with Parting Ways, a song they should have parted with prior to sequencing the record. On one hand, all the sounds that Brass Box evoke have been around for decades. On the other, nobody has figured out how to blend them quite like this.

Bleak Anthems For a Bleak Year From Blackwater Holylight

Blackwater Holylight are one of the most original and intriguing dark rock bands around. They started out as an improbably successful mashup of Black Sabbath and the Cure with a woman out front, then on their second album left much of the 80s behind for a heavier sound. Their third release, Silence/Motion is just out and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the band’s most straightforwardly dark and quietest release yet, no surprise considering this year’s zeitgeist.

The first track is Delusional: a spare, lingering dirge introduces a venomous, growling, swaying anthem. Frontwoman/bassist Sunny Faris joins forces with guest vocalists Bryan Funck and Mike Paparo for Exorcist gasp-and-rasp over Sarah McKenna’s funereal organ, guitarist Mikayla Mayhew adding simple, single-note leads over drummer Eliese Dorsay’s supple beat.

Faris is a more distant, ghostly presence in Who the Hell, a surreal blend of the Cure at their most gothic and Tangerine Dream, but heavier than either of those two bands. She and Mayhew switch instruments on the title track, Dorsay’s muted martial volleys driving a rainy-day acoustic guitar-and-piano theme toward fullscale gothic majesty, then falling away elegantly.

Imagine Sonic Youth with lithe bass, echoey keys and a competent singer, and you get Falling Faster. Faris and Mayhew exchange axes again for MDIII, a swaying, drifting, desolate theme rising toward gritty dreampop-tinged roar.

Likewise, there’s a late 80s Lush feel in Around You: it’s the closest thing to a straight-up pop song the band’s ever done. The album’s final and most psychedelic cut is Every Corner, built around a catchy, hypnotic raga riff (Faris on guitar and Mayhew on bass) until the band hit an unexpected, increasingly sinister stoner boogie interlude.

Blackwater Holylight are on tour this fall: their next free-state show is January 21, 2022 at Trees in Dallas, Texas, opening for first-class heavy blues/psychedelic band All Them Witches.

Lush, Majestically Jangly Art-Rock and Spacerock From Guitar Icon Marty Willson-Piper’s Space Summit

Space Summit picked a good bandname: they’re a trans-global collective of spacerock and art-rock luminaries. Marty Willson-Piper, this era’s foremost twelve-string guitarist, pulled the project together. He’s the architect of the many, luscious layers of guitar and bass on their new album Life This Way, streaming at Spotify. The obvious comparison is Willson-Piper’s old band, Australian legends the Church in their energetic early years. If melodic, impeccably crafted guitar sounds are your thing, this is your holy grail.

Interestingly, the opening track, I’m Electric comes across as a more direct, snarling take on the kind of drifting midtempo spacerock the Church played throughout the 90s. Willson-Piper brings the roar down on the choruses, where Dare Mason’s keys, Olivia Willson-Piper’s strings and Nicklas Barker’s mellotron float in.

Harmony singer Phoebe Tsen shadows frontman Jed Bonniwell on the album’s title track, Willson-Piper’s quasar guitars and the mellotron providing a lushly textured backdrop. Ancient Towers has an aptly majestic minor-key jangle and clang, austere violin blending into the mix, drummer Eddie John adding the occasional tumbling flourish.

Queen Elizabeth’s Keys is a coyly strolling, chiming look back at 60s British psychedelic pop with a current-day digital sheen. Uneasily close-harmonied vocals float over the increasingly bristling guitar intertwine and insistent beat of Deep Paisley Underground. Then the group shift gears with Fold With the Light, its more broodingly anthemic acoustic-electric layers giving way to more of a sunshine pop feel.

They mix up the riffs, from lingering steel guitar to gentle chime and drifting atmosphere in Marlowe, one of the album’s more intriguing narratives. The Four Horses of Venice has more of an orchestral folk lushness, Willson-Piper finally firing off a tantalizingly brief, savage solo.

The dreamiest track here is Dome of Light, Willson-Piper’s sinuous leads piercing the veil. The band bring the album full circle, more or less, with the allusively ominous If You Believe. Now for the surprise: all this was recorded in diverse sonic environments all over the world. Credit Mason for pulling this together into such a lavish, contiguous mix.

A Long-Awaited, Anthemic, Intriguingly Textured New Album From the Joy Formidable

The Joy Formidable burst onto the European festival scene in the early zeros as a sort of dreampop version of the Pretenders. Blending a dense swirl into their simple, emphatic anthems, the Welsh power trio have never wavered from a formula that works. Their new album Into the Blue is streaming at Spotify. It’s as solid a soundtrack for a brisk drive, or a trip to the gym (assuming you live in a part of the world where gyms are accessible without restrictions) as you could possibly want.

The album’s title track is built around frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s staggered, nebulously suspenseful 6/8 guitar riff, which explodes in layers of distortion on the chorus: it’s an optimistic, catchy opener. She picks up the energy with her swipes up and down the fretboard over the punchy drive of bassist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matthew James Thomas on the second cut, Cherries, down to a momentary piano break.

With the repeaterbox fluttering in the background and Bryan’s anxious, breathy vocals, track three, Sevier has an distant U2 feel. Watery chorus-box textures mingle with whiplash distortion over tricky syncopation in Interval, which at five and a half minutes is a whole lot more than that.

The band build Farrago around a simple descending riff, adding layes of noise and punches from the guitar that look back to the sledgehammer minimalism of Clinic. Bryan whispers the lyrics as Gotta Feed My Dog rises from new wave-flavored suspense, to a foggy insistence, and eventually a more fluid, psychedelic atmosphere.

Dafydd takes over the mic over Bryan’s fingerpicked, flamenco-flavored flourishes as Somewhere New gathers steam; it seems to be a childhood reminiscence. The playfully blippy, punchy 80s textures that kick off Bring It to the Front are a red herring: it’s the darkest and most memorable track here. Likewise, the defiance in Bryan’s voice in Back to Nothing, which could be the Cure through a very thick glass, brightly.

Thomas’ leadfoot 2/4 stomp propels Only Once, which also echoes the Cure but less opaquely: “Never coming home, never coming back” is the mantra. The album’s final cut is Left Too Soon, rising from a hypnotic, rainy-day acoustic waltz to a roaring, elegaic, increasingly elegaic blaze. This might be the band’s best album to date, not bad for an act who’ve been at it for practically two decades.

An Appetizing New Album From Piroshka

Piroshka is Russian for “little dumpling.” But the sound of this British supergroup of 80s and 90s rock veterans has a lot more flavor than your average pot-sticker. Their new album Love Drips and Gathers is streaming at Spotify. Guitarists Miki Berenyi (founding member of dreampop and 90s Britrock visionaries Lush) and KJ “Moose” McKillop choose their spots to echo and clang as the ambience wafts behind them. It’s an interesting synthesis of everything Lush was, from the foundationally icy dreampop of their early career through the more straightforwardly anthemic sound they ended with.

The two guitars linger and mingle in the opening track, Hastings before bassist Mick Conroy and drummer Justin Welch raise the energy. But the hypnotic spacerock ambience remains the same, at least until Terry Edwards’ flugelhorn signals an undulating crescendo out, pure late 80s Britpop.

The Knife Thrower’s Daughter has a muted, drifting art-rock ambience and one of Berenyi’s classic, allusively menacing narratives over increasingly pulsing atmospherics. From there they segue into Scratching at the Lid, another dark Berenyi lyric and icy chorus-box guitars over a brisk new wave bassline.

Lovable is the missing link between immersively artsy early 90s Lush and a big early influence, Siouxsie & the Banshees, in nocturnal mode five years earlier. With its echoing, puffing string synth and brooding minor-key ambience, VO is also a throwback to that era and one of the strongest songs on the album.

Set to a steady backbeat with layered guitar textures and a big, stabbing keyboard crescendo, Wanderlust could be a recent, poppier song by the Church with a woman out front. The album’s high point is another backbeat tune, Echo Loco, turning an old pop formula on its head: catchy, biting verse, nebulous chorus.

The closest thing to an epic here is Familiar, a rippling spacescape. They close with We Told You, a cinematic, goth-tinged mostly instrumental theme. 

One complaint about this album: Berenyi’s vocals are too low in the mix, and oddly processed in places, a move that backfires more often than not. This blog’s owner saw Lush live more than once back in the 90s and insists that she was as strong a singer onstage, maybe even more so, than she was in the studio, and there’s no reason to think that’s changed.

Piroshka are touring Europe this year, but until the specter of medical “passports” has been put back in its coffin for good, it’s not “safe” to buy tickets to a venue where at the moment you may not be able to enter without taking a lethal injection.

Azure Ray Return With a Gorgeously Lyrical Psychedelic Pop Record

It’s been twenty years since Azure Ray put out their debut album, a major influence on a generation of bedroom pop perpetrators which was finally issued for the first time on vinyl this year. In the years since, the duo of Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink have not been idle, and they have a brand new album, Remedy, streaming at Bandcamp. In general, it’s more lush and keyboard-oriented, without the group’s earlier Americana touches. The vocals are calm but strong and the lyrics are fantastic: there’s a persistent existentialist streak throughout many of these otherwise warmly shimmery songs.

“How do you say hello when you know there is no more? What do you dream about when you’re not swallowing swords?” the two ask in the opening track, a spare, Lennonesque piano ballad.

They revert to the loopy keyboard pastiches they explored on their debut album in the second track, Bad Dream, but with more of a spacy, dreampop-influenced feel. It’s a wake-up call, possibly referencing an abusive relationship.

Likewise, there’s a gentle spacerock sway to Phantom Lover, swirly keys and chilly guitar clang over a simple drum machine loop. “All we’ve got is what we’ve done,” the duo observe in Already Written, an allusive, bittersweetly devastating psychedelic pop gem that’s one of the best songs of the year:

I want to bite my tongue, I’m never great with decisions
Got a lot to be desired but never asked for permission
Thank god I was raised this way
Now I’m somewhere between what I hear and when I listen
Try to write it down but it’s already written
How I miss those days

The album’s title track has a lush hypnotic web of guitars and a lyric that seems to reference the Trump era:

Stand alone in an empty room
Scared to stay, stared to bloom
Little beast clawing at my door
I call for peace, they call for war…
I’ve disadmired old tendencies
A secret greed in the cemetery

“If you think about it long enough, you’ll question everything you know,” the two remind, over the surreal blend of acoustic guitar and drifting keys in Desert Waterfall. They stick with the spare/sleek dichotomy in Grow What You Want and How Wild: finally, seven tracks in, we get a pedal steel.

The Swan is the most sweepingly angst-fueled, orchestrated number here, a hauntingly allusive tale of a steep decline:

Another fight for the waking light
Did you lose your wings at a sacrifice
It’s impossible to understand
And what tore your fingers back from your closed-up fist
You closed your eyes with confidence
It’s impossible to understand

29 Palms, a strangely successful mashup of atmospheric Americana and balletesque chamber pop, is a soberly imagistic breakup narrative. They close the record with the techy, blippy I Don’t Want To Want To: “Inside part of me has died but I still have a photograph.” Who would have thought that Azure Ray would make an album in 2021, let alone that it would be one of the best of the year!

Vast, Relentless, Menacing Epics From Nordgeist

T sits alone in her room somewhere in Siberia and screams.

And sings in a ghastly whisper, and plays layers and layers of guitar, and records it, probably on Garageband. And releases it under the name Nordgeist. That’s about all we know about her. Glenn Branca’s minimalist multi-guitar symphonies are a good point of comparison, Paysage D’Hiver is another: endless, hypnotic epics, vast clouds of guitar overdubs, and, song length aside, a very tuneful sensibility. You really can hum – or scream – along to Nordgeist’s new album Frostwinter, streaming at Bandcamp.

You could crank up the almost fourteen-minute opening monstrosity, Winter, and notice how fast she’s tremolo-picking those chords. The woman must have strength in her wrists to match the venom in her lungs. She finally slows down to a bitter, resigned descending progression before returning to the jackhammer assault.

A drum riff and then a pummeling vortex of My Bloody Valentine digital-reverb guitar burst in over Siberian steppe sonics as she launches into The Old Wolf. It’s a muddy, hypnotic mix, guitar and bass a lot higher than the vocals and the drums, which seems intentional. Is that a wood flute way, way in the back? Is that a blunt you’re smoking? That would make sense under the circumstances.

What does Revenge sound like? A lot like the rest of the album, and until about a third of the way through it doesn’t seem to have a time signature: it just keeps going on, and on, and on for almost a quarter of an hour. Talk about getting even.

From there she segues into the last song, Sorrow, quickly rising to a galloping intensity. The past almost fourteen months have been hell. Nordgeist feels your pain.