New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: dreampop

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.

Lo-Fi, Melancholy Jangle and Swirl From Clever Girls

Clever Girls are a throwback to the lo-fi jangle that was so popular in the UK in the late 80s and early 90s, and also occasionally the singalong catchiness of the 50s. The group frequently beef up their sound with lingering dreampop resonance. Frontwoman/guitarist Diane Jean sings her forlorn, angst-infused lyrics in an unadorned high soprano. Their new album Constellations os streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Come Clean is a distantly regretful, 50s-tinged waltz through a lo-fi 21st century prism, skeletal and then rising closer to ornate but not qutie. That sets the stage for a lot of what’s to follow: plenty of loud/soft contrasts and sudden, unexpected, explosive peaks.

Jangly, spare guitar shifts to dissociative ambience, then crunch and a big dreampop-infused coda in the second track, Lavender. Remember Pluto is a famous New Order tune as Comet Gain might have done it.

Bassist Tobias Sullivan introduces Womxn with a little ba-BUMP noir cabaret as guitarist Winfield Holt adds simmer and shards, drummer Rob Slater chilling in the distance through the reverb. Built around a catchy, rising three-note riff, Baby Blue is awash in even more of that reverb and distant dreampop sonics.

The group follow the album’s title track, a found-sound miniature, with Spark and its Oasis chorus. Stonewall is a surreal mashup of cloying pop and post-Velvets grit, while Saturn is unexpectedly upbeat, bouncing along with Sullivan’s bass, They close the album with Fried and its plainspoken, seething images of a relationship unraveling. 

Horsehunter’s Crushingly Psychedelic Set at Last Year’s Day of Doom Festival Immortalized on a New Live Album

In a stroke of genius, the organizers of the Day of Doom Festival at St. Vitus in Brooklyn last year decided to record it. They’re now releasing the recordings; the first was a wickedly psychedelic set by Summoner. The latest one in the series is Horsehunter’s Day of Doom Live, streaming at Bandcamp. These albums’ sound quality is consistently excellent, no surprise considering the venue’s tremendous PA system.

As these records remind, not all the bands at the festival were straight-up doom metal: the loosely connecting thread was dark psychedelia. Horsehunter have throat-shredding vocals and build immersive, dynamically shifting atmospheres that brings to mind early 80s no wave bands like the Ex and the dreampop of My Bloody Valentine as much as any kind of metal. For a band who can be dangerously loud, they’re sometimes shockingly quiet.

There are only four tracks here: only their first number, Witchery, is less than ten minutes long. They open that one with feedback shrieking from guitarists’ Michael Harutyunyan and Dan Harris’ Flying V and Les Paul, bassist Himi Stringer and drummer Nick Cron building to a hypnotic, enveloping gallop and then a series of bludgeoningly tricky rhythms.

Bring Out Yer Dead, the first of the epics, shifts from a spare, funereal, circling riff to a long series of variations on gritty, thick cinderblock chords. They bring it full circle, hauntingly.

Nuclear Rapture has allusive Sabbath chromatics over an undulating mathrock-tinged sway, an unexpectedly minimalist, low-key funeral march midway through, a tantalizingly brief thicket of machete tremolo-picking and finally a big payoff with a completely haphazard guitar solo.

Decaying for a bit to more sheets of feedback, they segue from there into a practically seventeen-minute version of Stoned to Death to close the set. This is where the doom wafts in, from a syncopated Electric Funeral riff, to a spine-pounding doublespeed break, crazed exchanges of guitar shredding and tarpit atmospherics.

This blog has been agitating for years for artists to release more live albums, considering that it’s infinitely cheaper to record a show than rent studio time. Who else had the presence of mind to record a live set at St. Vitus, or any other good metal venue? Let’s hear it.

Relentlessly Anthemic, Enveloping, Desperate Epics From Paysage D’Hiver

As Paysage D’Hiver, Swiss multi-instrumentalist Wintherr (the name is a German pun) has built a vast, distinctive, obsessively focused body of work that blends elements of dreampop, no wave, black metal, classical and film music. It’s often impenetrably dense: the guitars typically sound like they’ve been recorded through a brick wall. Yet Wintherr’s towering neoromantic themes are just as catchy and anthemic, He likes endless washes of chords, with simple, purposeful minor-key riffs layered over them. He doesn’t take solos here, at least in the traditional sense. The vocals are in German, his guttural roar buried deeper in the mix than anything else, even the bass: this is a pretty trebly record.

The name of the project – French for “winter landscape” – reflects a single existential metaphor: an interminable winter walk. There is a plotline with a lot of jump cuts: the beginning and ending have already been released, or so it seems at this point. Narrative-wise, this latest epic installment, Im Wald (In the Woods) falls somewhere in the middle and is streaming at Bandcamp.

This is a long album, two hours worth of songs that go on for almost twenty minutes at times. With its relentlessly pummeling beats and loops – all of which sound organic – it will jar you awake at high volume: it’s great driving music. Yet at low volume it’s soothing, validating Wintherr’s sense for a good tune. Loops of what sounds like a man walking pretty briskly across muddy terrain are interspersed between the songs. Wintherr breaks up the relentless, reverb-iced attack with calmer, more brooding interludes where keyboards (or a keyboard patch) come to the forefront.

There’s a point where the music recedes to a forlorn minor-key guitar loop and the walking man sets up camp for the night. Everything gets more orchestral, desperate, and slightly more rhythmically diverse from there: a recurrent riff toward the end is absolutely bloodcurdling. It’s hard to think of a more apt album for the year of the lockdown, so many of us trudging onward, atomized and alone, running out of money and food and losing hope, one eye on the road ahead, the other on the Trace and Track gestapo and the spectre of the death camps. And they said it could never happen here.

Thoughtful, Attractively Enveloping Nocturnes From Swimming Bell

Swimming Bell play slow, pensively lingering, atmospheric songs that draw equally on Americana and ambient music. Their new album Wild Sight – streaming at Bandcamp – brings to mind Neko Case or Tift Merritt as produced by Brian Eno, maybe. Washes of pedal steel and vocal harmonies figure prominently in frontwoman Katie Schottland’s songs. Her narratives are subtle, full of small, allusively telling details: they invite you in for repeated listening.

Good Time, Man begins as a hazy, atmospheric, wistful summertime tableau awash in Oli Deacon’s pedal steel. By the time Schottland’s intricate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar kicks in, it’s clear that this is a breakup scenario.

Deliciously icy tremolo guitars clang and ring out over a slow, swaying 6/8 groove in 1988, unraveling into a starry dreampop mist at the end: it seems to be a sad childhood reminiscence.  The pedal steel returns along with tasty, looming bass clarinet in For Brinsley, a Brinsley Schwarz homage: “Don’t lose your grip on love,” is the mantra.

“She’d lost the medal but she’d won the fight,” Schottland recalls in We’d Find, the enveloping sonics coalescing into an indian summer haze. Cold Clear Moon, a Tomo Nakayama cover, is catchy, steady and spare, the acoustic and electric guitar textures, glockenspiel and contrapuntal vocals building a hypnotic interweave.

The band follow Wolf, an echoey, circling vignette, with Got Things, a glistening anthem and the album’s catchiest, most straight-up rock number: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Rose Thomas Bannister catalog.

Left Hand Path is a front-porch folk tune with delicate electronics and steel twinkling in the distance. Schottland launches into Love Liked You slowly over National steel guitar, the band methodically rising into a slow, crescendoing, Hem-like sway: the swirly atmospherics are the icing on the cake. The album ends with Quietly Calling, a lush, crepuscular waltz that could be the Grateful Dead in a sharply focused moment: “You were listening to prove that you could while I was trying to be good,” Schottland intones. What a refreshing and individualistic sound: let’s hope Swimming Bell figure out how to make another album like this, clandestinely or otherwise.

A Dark, Noisy, Psychedelic Swedish Blend of 90s Indie Rock, Dreampop and No Wave

Kall are another one of those bands who sound like no other group on the planet. Their attack is part unhinged 90s indie rock, part no wave, with a little dreampop and a rhythm section that’s heavier but also busier than you typically find in any of those styles. Add lead vocalist Kim’s guttural black metal rasp and you have one of the most distinctively psychedelic acts around. They have a thing for loops and really like long songs. Their latest limited edition vinyl album Brand is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with Rise, beginning with a sun-seared, disjointedly lingering solo guitar intro, building to an even more scorching, reverb-infused, careening minor-key drive. The band’s two guitarists, H. and Fix, team up for a roar that strongly brings to mind Thalia Zedek’s legendary 90s band, Come.

Fervour has contrasting, loopy, lingering rainy-day guitars over bassist Phil A. Cirone’s lithe, trebly lines until the distortion kicks in. Sax player Sofia blows noisy sheets of sound as the volcanic layers grow thicker.

Eld sounds like Yo La Tengo playing an early Wilco song, drummer Peter guiding its increasingly complex, Sonic Youth-tinged trajectory before everybody drifts away for a summery sax break.

The seventeen-minute epic Fukta din Aska has a hammering, hypnotic Astronomy Domine feel that rises and falls between noisy SY interludes and sparse, spacious sketches. When the sax wafts in, it’s very evocative of Brooklyn band Parlor Walls‘ early work,

Hide Below could be enveloping early zeros favorites Serena Maneesh, rising in thirteen minutes from drizzly and atmospheric to more gusty terrain as the bass bubbles and the drums pummel. The band wind up the album with Fall, shifting from a funereal bass pulse to elegantly brooding guitar variations, a long scream and a drift through hints of doom metal to a slowly swaying, psychedelic peak.

By the way, the lp cover illustration is also excellent: a real metaphor for this point in global history. The Swedes, who DIDN’T lock down, know this better than pretty much everyone else.

A Fiery, Intense, Wickedly Catchy New Album From Above the Moon

Above the Moon are one of the few real feel-good stories in the New York rock scene in the last few years. The fiercely catchy guitar band followed an oldschool career trajectories, playing their first shows in dumps, slowly and steadily building a following which before the lockdown was coming out to see them at regular weekend headline gigs. Auspiciously, the band are still together, waiting out the lockdown (at least as far as officially sanctioned shows are concerned) with everybody else.

And they keep putting out great short albums. Their latest, Stay Awake, is streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe because of post-2016 election circumstances, it’s their angriest release yet. Frontwoman/guitarist Kate Griffin has been a charismatic presence for a long time, but in the last couple of years her vocals have become more savagely spine-tingling than ever.

The album’s first track, I Was Asleep Before is one of their catchiest, an anthem to mobilize and take control on what seems to be many levels. “Don’t know what you’re waiting for – I’m not waiting anymore,” is the big chorus, lead guitarist Shawn Murphy adding dreampop shimmer and keening upper-register riffage over drummer John Gramuglia’s relentless drive.

Chris Mangin’s bass bubbles and simmers in the equally anthemic second track. It’s one of the band’s funniest songs, about somebody who’s dealing out so much shit that “I could plant a little garden in your mouth,” Griffin wails

“One is too much but a hundred is not enough,” she observes enigatically in Just Stay, a dis to a wishy-washy guy and a musical throwback to the band’s earlier, more jaggedly 90s indie-flavored roots. Get Yours (Karma) is a little slower and more atmospheric; it brings to mind late 90s/early zeros Lower East Side legends Scout. The twin-guitar slash hits redline in the album’s last track, Birthday, a richly detailed kiss-off anthem over a pummeling 2/4 beat. This band absolutely slayed at Marcus Garvey Park last year; let’s hope there are still some indoor venues left in business where Above the Moon can play when that’s legal to do that again.

Gale-Force Sonics From Ardours

Ardours’ music is both minimalist and maximalist. Their melodies are hard-hitting and insistent; their sonics are titanically enveloping, a distinctive, densely icy blend of Mogwai postrock and European metal that sometimes drifts into dreampop territory. Their brooding but crushingly kinetic album Last Place on Earth is streaming at youtube.

Kris Laurent’s crunchy guitars anchor swirling, synthesized orchestration in the opening instrumental, What Else Is There: imagine a heavier Eluvium. Catabolic is a considerably louder mashup of sweeping Mogwai grey-sky postrock, anthemic rock and swirly early 90s dreampop. We finally get a rapidfire, spiraling tapped guitar solo midway through the album’s title track, which has more of a straight-up, sludgy metal atmosphere.

The wry motorik synth-disco intro to Design doesn’t hint at the dense wall of guitars it’s going to hit. “We will comprehend the design of the end, remember tomorrow what scene is around the bend,” frontwoman Mariangela Demurtas (also of Tristania) intones soberly. The band work that same dynamic a little later on, opening The Mist with a desolate but lush string theme before the guitars explode.

They build the hammering Lost Moment out of an insistently elegant twin-guitar riff to a towering neoromantic angst. Then they construct a wall of guitar and keyboard resonance around a catchy anthem in Therefore I Am: “Don’t swallow the bait,” Demurtas warns. Truths is much the same: grimly enigmatic verse, anthemic chorus.

The most straight-up rock anthem here is the swaying, guardedly optimistic No One Is Listening. The group wind up the album with Totally, a pulsing, minor-key new wave hit in heavy disguise. In a demimonde where so many bands ape the most popular ones, it’s freshing to discover an act as individualistic as Ardours.

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.