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Category: film music

Revisiting a Prophetic Movie Score From the 80s

When he wrote the score to the 1987 movie Robocop, did composer Basil Poledouris know how prophetic his use of a percussive imitation of a newswire ticker in the title theme would turn out to be?

The movie may be old news but the story was prescient. We all know how the lockdowners would love to tap into the movement to defund the police in order to eliminate the police completely, and replace them with their own for-profit gestapo – at taxpayer expense, of course.

Considering how well represented the tech oligarchs are among the lockdowners, it’s easy to imagine where this could go. The plodding, towering, impossible-to-camouflage Robocop itself may be a quaint artifact of 80s dystopia, but we’ve seen how drones have been employed, from Minneapolis to California, to spy on protestors. It doesn’t take rocket science to extrapolate from there.

How well does Poledouris’ score hold up by itself? It’s better than the movie: and there’s crushing irony in how organic it is, and how poignant much of the orchestartion is as well. Poledouris goes for lavish symphonic swellls rather than shock and awe, distant unease in lieu of sheer horror. The narrative may be futuristic, but the soundtrack is old-fashioned classical, with echoes of Shostakovich at his most martially sarcastic, Holst and Respighi at their most dramatic, as well as bombastic 19th century types like Berlioz. You can still hear it at Spotify.

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.

Another Side of a Grimly Prophetic Post-9/11 Masterpiece

Pianist Vijay Iyer offers some eerie context for the new album InWhatStrumentals – streaming at Bandcamp – an instrumental version of his classic 2003 In What Language collaboration with hip-hop artist Mike Ladd. “We were just coming to terms with the facts on the ground, which today seem frighteningly ordinary: mounting intolerance and hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and other nonwhite people; traumatic raids of immigrant communities by the INS (later Homeland Security); the prospect of endless, amoral war waged under false pretenses; the callous neoliberal agendas of globalization and disaster capitalism; and an unprecedented power grab enacted under cover of jingoism and feigned incompetence.”

Plus ça change!

What differentiates this from the original is that there’s no lyric track. This turns out to be the rare hip-hop album whose music is as turbulently cinematic as the lyrics. The original album title was taken from a quote by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who a few months prior to 9/11 was detained while trying to catch a connecting flight at Kennedy Airport and then sent back, rather than being allowed to continue on his way. The gist of Panahi’s question is that reason and common sense are useless when dealing with little Hitlers.

Listening to the music without the voices of a parade of people persecuted during the wave of anti-immigrant paranoia after 9/11 is a bit strange, and removes a whole layer of context. But that music has held up magnificently. The opening number, the first movement of the suite The Color of My Circumference has Iyer’s darkly swarming piano rivulets over anxious, insistent, circular rhythms. Eventually drummer Trevor Holder and bassist Stephan Crump join the pummeling attack, Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto sax and Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet floating overhead. Everything soon fades out.

Along with Ladd’s coldly techy layers of spy-movie keys, cellist Dana Leong figures heavily into the ominous swirl and staggered pulse of The Density of the 19th Century. Throughout the rest of the album, the disquiet is relentless, whether from guitarist Liberty Ellman’s bordering-on-frantic, circular riffs, Akinmusire’s forlorn, desolate lines, Mahanthappa’s enigmatic bhangra riffage, and Holder’s tense, practically motorik rhythms. Some of these themes are over in little more than two minutes, others take more time to draw you into the vortex. Sometimes the bustle of these airport scenarios masks the sinister forces lurking at the gates, other times that cold suspicion and assumption of criminality is front and center. So when the band pivot toward warm roots reggae in Taking Back the Airplane, or offer calm, enveloping hope in Asylum, the effect is especially striking.

The artists are donating proceeds from sales of the new record to organizations supporting immigrant groups and communities of color imperiled by the lockdown.

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.

The Dream Syndicate’s Most Epic, Psychedelic Masterpiece: A New Double Vinyl Record

The Dream Syndicate distinguish themselves from the legions of jambands out there with the sheer intensity and focus of the guitar duels between bandleader Steve Wynn and lead player Jason Victor – and their songs’ carefully crafted narratives. One of the band’s signature moves is to take Wynn’s tightly wound three-and-a-half-minute riff-rock gems and thrash the hell out of them.

Their new double viinyl album, The Universe Inside – streaming at Bandcamp – takes a turn in a radically different direction. It’s a suite, by far the band’s most psychedelic record: history may judge this as the fullest realization of the vision Wynn introduced on the band’s influential debut, The Days of Wine and Roses. There are element of jazz, art-rock and latin music here, but ultimately this is its own animal.

Bassist Mark Walton more or less loops a catchy, dry, trebly riff as Wynn and Victor triangulate in a spare exchange with guest Stephen McCarthy’s lingering guitar-sitar to open the album’s twenty-minute first track, The Regulator. Shards of reverb and sputters of sparks from the amps punctuate those succinct phrases amid the swirl and pulse: Chris Cacavas’ echoey electric piano becomes the icing on this space cake. With drummer Dennis Duck and percussionist Johnny Hott’s supple shuffle groove, Carlos Santana’s late 60s jams come to mind, but also Isaac Hayes’ sprawling psychedelic soul vamps – and Meddle-era Pink Floyd, and Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch film themes.

There’s a spoken-word vocal that concerns soothing the soul and blown fuses, both things this band know something about. Marcus Tenney’s one-man horn section wafts through the mix – some sax, some trumpet, sometimes both, frequently evoking Sonny Rollins’ work on the Stones’ Waiting on a Friend. It ends as you would expect it

The groove expands, the spacerock becoming more drifty in the second track, The Longing. This tragedy occurred “Like it happened moments ago, distant across the chasm…the harder you try to fix it, eliminate, deep-six it, all that remains is the longing,” Wynn sings, pushing against the top of his register.

The three six-string guys – that’s McCarthy on six-string bass here – trade off warmly major-key Ticket to Ride phrases as Apropos Of Nothing gets underway. It’s a classic, cynical, allusively grim Wynn narrative

What were you expecting
What did you become
Apropos of nothing
Chain reaction before the fall

And just when the band have lulled you into an alterred state, they hit a crunchy, roaring What Goes On drive.

The sardonic jousting that introduces the instrumental Dusting Off the Rust – a line from The Regulator – is one of the album’s funniest moments. This one’s a gritty slinker, a trippy dichotomy of punchy riffs and swirling cascades in the same vein as the spidery Topanga Canyon Freaks, from Wynn’s iconic 2001 Here Come the Miracles album.

The record’s final cut, The Slowest Rendition rises from a web of aching bent-note cries, to a pummeling drive and then a brooding, summery haze. Elegantly animated interplay aside, it’s one of Wynn’s most haunting, death-fixated songs. “Chaos flickers in the night” on “this silent, darkening, empty beach,” his disembodied narrator bracing for what comes next as the sax winds down. It’s an apt ending from the guy who wrote John Coltrane Stereo Blues. If there’s still a reason, or a means, for music blogs to exist at the end of 2020 – let’s hope there are – you will see this high on the annual best album of the year list here

Some Sobering Context For Tredici Bacci’s Latest Funny Video

Tredici Bacci make very funny videos. But the best joke in the lavish, cinematic band’s latest one, Defino De Venezia, is musical rather than visual. It starts at about 1:58 – but it won’t be as funny if you don’t watch from the beginning

What’s most amazing about it is that all seventeen people who play on it recorded their parts while sequestered – via Zoom, most likely. This is a case study in how video connections enable musicmaking, but also how they imperil it. On one hand, getting seventeen people in seventeen different places to sound anything like a cohesive unit is quite the feat. Bandleader Simon Hanes obviously went deep into his address book for the talent to pull this off (musician credits are listed below the video).

Let’s also give props to mixing engineer Myles Boisen for whatever mojo he was able to work to tighten everything up.

And that right there is the problem. You can’t fault anybody involved with the project, really. It’s just that Tredici Bacci are a funny band. Onstage they tend to be loose and spontaneous, and they can swing like hell. And that kind of magic, which really defines them, is missing here. Everybody seems so fixated on getting their parts right that there’s literally no chemistry. Which testifies to the limits of this kind of technology.

Obviously, anybody can take a stab at improvising over a video connection. But the camaraderie that enables a good jam can never be there. Not to be a killjoy, but ultimately this only underscores the undeniable truth that virtual reality can never be more than a pale imitation of the real thing, good jokes or not. And it’s frustrating to have to wait for the day when all this madness is over and we can see Tredici Bacci play live, for real, and not from six feet away. Ok, six feet away from the band, for sure, but not from each other.

The New Women of Doom Compilation Salutes Females Playing Dark, Heavy Music

One of the most promising developments in heavy music over the last few years is the increasing prominence of women, and not just as lead vocalists. The new compilation lp Women of Doom – streaming at Desert Records’ Bandcamp page – celebrates that diversity with a lineup that transcends any kind of typecasting. While there’s first-class doom metal here, there’s also art-rock, postrock and cinematic tableaux.

Bassist High Priestess Nighthawk and her band Heavy Temple open the record with Astral Hand, which ends with a melodic series of screams. Getting there is just as much creepy fun, through tricky tempo shifts, hypnotic downtuned lows, Maiden-ish twin guitar riffage and allusions to Middle Eastern modes.

Year of the Cobra bassist Amy Tung Barrysmith takes a turn on keyboards in Broken, a horror-film theme with words. Swedish band Besvarjelsen skulk and gallop slowly through the stormy minor key intensity of A Curse to be Broken, frontwoman Lea Amling Alazam’s vocals half-buried in the mix.

Royal Thunder bassist Mlny Parsonz lends her luridly soulful voice to two tracks here. A Skeleton Is Born is a surreal, psychedelic mashup of oldtimey steel guitar blues, drifting spacerock and stadium bombast. She cuts loose even more on the album’s closing, minimalistic piano ballad Broke an Arrow.

Gwyn Strang’s ethereal vocals contrast with Sean Bilovecky’s hypnotic crunch in Marrow, by her band Frayle. New SubRosa spinoff the Otolith contribute Bone Dust, a wash of ominous violin and guitars hovering above a swaying Frankenstein pulse. Another SubRosa alum, guitarist Rebecca Vernon takes a turn on piano for A Shadow Covers Your Face, a moody, circling solo instrumental from her new project, the Keening.

Doomstress‘ Alexis Hollada contributes Facade, a similarly minimalist number that doesn’t bear much resemblance to her regular band’s relentless, chromatic assault. And Irish vocal powerhouse Lauren Gaynor belts out over an ornate, classically-tinged firestorm in Deathbell‘s Coldclaw.

Dynamic, Intense String Themes From One-Man Orchestra Christopher Tignor

Violinist Christopher Tignor occupies a unique place in the New York music scene, where the worlds of new classical music, improvisation and ambient psychedelia intersect. For a guy who plays a lot of brooding, overcast music, he’s a very entertaining performer, often doing the one-man band thing with a kickdrum and his trusty loop pedal. His latest album A Light Below is streaming at Bandcamp.

What’s new about this is that it’s hardly all grey skies and moody atmospherics. The first number, Flood Cycles has warmly drifting, coccoony sheets of sound, Tignoer gradually brightening the picture

Loopy, shivery strings and a dramatic, thumping beat make their entrance in Your Slowly Moving Shadow, My Inevitable Night: the majesty and drama rise as Tignor overdubs himself into a one-man symphonic ensemble.

Known By Heart is closer to his earlier work, alternating between hazy unease and ominously crescendoing cumulo-nimbus ambience: imagine a Noveller piece for string orchestra instead of guitar loops. Tignor builds A Mirrored Reliquary from steady, spare overlays to an elegant, plaintive, baroque-tinged theme and arresting swirls – and then brings it back down.

I, Autocorrelations (that’s the title) is a bracingly lush, loopily syncopated dance in 12/4 time. The dancing pulse continues, for awhile at least, in the album’s most epic track, The Resonance Canons, a partita. Echoey pizzicato loops leap beneath shimmery metal gongs, then an enveloping atmosphere return, followed by an oscillating, gamelanesque interlude. Tignor runs an otherworldly, pinging, microtone-spiced riff over organ textures as the looming lows rise; the ending is unexpected.

He winds up the album with the only slightly less expansive What You Must Make of Me, an increasingly disorienting web of simple, translucent motives mingling over a muted piledriver beat; then they filter out, leaving the most anthemic ones in place. The coda seems to be a guarded benediction. Good to see this rugged individualist expanding his sound into new terrain.

Darkly Drifting, Reverb-Drenched Soundscapes From Sonar Atmosfera

Since the late  zeros, guitarist Thomas Simon has worked a darkly cinematic, swirling sound that veers from anthemic post-Bauhaus rock, to ominously epic instrumental tableaux, to hypnotic loopmusic. His latest project, appropriately titled Sonar Atmosfera – streaming at Bandcamp – is a collaboration with psychedelic tropical band Baianasystem‘s João Milet Meirelles. In a lot of ways it’s one long, brooding theme, but the subtle variations are very psychedelic. It’s a great late-night, lights-out listen.

Simon’s guitar flickers and crackles, awash in reverb and smoky atmospherics as the album’s first track, Feel the Hope gathers steam. A drumbeat enters the picture and suddenly this one-chord jam takes on a swaying insistence, akin to a trip-hop take on Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell.

The second track, Resist is completely different, a lot closer to Baianasystem’s woozy, loopy dub: halfway through, Simon’s spare, resonant phrases add a distant ominousness. The guitar snarling in Live For the Run subsides for a couple of momentary, Bauhaus-like lulls. The two segue from there into The Trip, with its spacious, low-register, bell-like accents and steady, syncopated drum loops.

Blippy, motorik beats and Space Invaders sonics contrast with Simon’s allusive chordlets and menacing chromatics in A Dream. Fight With Love, a brief postapocalyptic scenario, has snippets of movie dialogue. The eleven-minute epic My Story slowly rises from atmospheric minimalsm: Brian Eno’s Apollo comes to mind.

The album’s most hypnotic, loopy number, Condor Jam is built around a simple 1-4-5 reverb guitar riff spiced with gritty, distorted motives. Manic World finally reaches that point, a chilly dancelfloor thud pushing Simon’s spacious, cumulo-nimbus phrasing out of the picture. Simon’s forlorn, desolate, clanging phrases and chords ring out over shifting textures in the album’s final epic, On Land.

Relentlessly Uneasy, Dystopic Soundscapes From Austin Rockman

Today’s pick for music here is cold, mechanical, dystopic…and trippy as hell. There’s a lot going on in electronic composer Austin Rockman‘s new maxi-single Sonde Aim/Seek No End – streaming at Bandcamp – so it’s more persistently uneasy than it is desolate. If you need about thirteen minutes to get lost in, this will work.

The rhythmic center of the first track is a loop of what sounds like the needle on a turntable bouncing off the face of a weatherbeaten record. Fleeting doppler smears pass through the sonic picture in a split second, echoed by low rumbles; eventually, keening, minimal highs and fragmentary backward masked effects begin to take centerstage.

The second is a more grimly hazy, echoey tableau, with slowly shifting sheets of sound in place of dopplers: as with the A-side, Rockman eventually brings the highs up in the mix. Neither piece offers any kind of resolution: life is like that.