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Category: review

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

A Killer Halloween Multi-Band Extravaganza in Sioux Falls

All it takes is a brief exposure to the free world outside New York to realize the ugly truth that music is way better there. And not just because concerts that everybody can go to actually exist once you leave the five boroughs. Case in point: the five-band Metalween extravaganza in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on the 30th. It’s a stadium-worthy lineup in a comfortable, inexpensive club with cheap beer. The show is ten bucks and starts at 8 at Bigs Bar, at 3110 W. 12th St.

The opening act, slowcore Egyptian expats Grave Solace are cinematic, hypnotic and savagely gloomy: the hammer blows only hit every few seconds. Their dirges have organ and tolling-bell piano along with all of the slow, resonant guitar changes: in Egypt, people smoke a lot of hash.

At 9, the brilliant, politically sharp, antiauthoritarian Silence Is Madness unleash their wildly diverse blend of stoner boogie-influenced sounds, ornate art-rock, heavy psychedelia and conscious hip-hop metal. The next act are a trip to the parking lot. After that, there’s Agony of Defeat, who play a mix of 80s-style goth and industrial metal with hip-hop lyrics: ironically, like Insane Clown Posse with less of a Halloween vibe .

At midnight, Sioux Falls’ own Pray for Villains headline. Their debut ep is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. Just when you think the first track, Ego, is going to be a funereal epic, they pick it up, thrash it and bring it home symphonically. Track two, The Lesson veers between distant 90s metalfunk influences, machinegunning thrash riffage, a bizarrely pastoral psychedelic interlude and a pagan feast of furious fret-tapping.

Sweet Vengeance, the final, apocalyptic freedom fighter anthem on the Bandcamp page, has trickier rhythms and doomier changes. With the download, you also get Saving Face, a more straight-ahead, catchy Priest-like track. Pray these villains make it to the east coast someday…or that this blog escapes New York for the Black Hills.

Ambient Sonic Comfort From Austin Rockman

The last time electronic composer Austin Rockman was featured on this page, it was for a couple of chilly, disquieting down-the-drainpipe tableaux. This time out he’s totally flipped the script with his latest album Our Own Unknown, streaming at Bandcamp.

It’s a warm, bright, enveloping series of soundscapes. Allusive implied melody is one of Rockman’s most persistent and effective devices: he leaves you humming something that he only hinted at. A lot of the pieces here start out spare and echoey and grow more lush or increasingly textured. Sparse guitar-like accents typically develop more resonantly as Rockman brings the lights up.

There are a couple of moments where he falls back on tropes like simulated tape wow effects, or in one place, a spastically arrythmic loop, but he takes the listener back to the womb from there. Contrasts are on the gentle side, and striking when they’re not, as in the interludes where he runs crackles akin to a film projector against shifting sheets of simple, single-note melody. But most of this is a soothing musical hug with enough going on where it won’t send you off to dreamland. And who couldn’t use a hug right about now?

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.

Another Edgy, Highly Improvised Masterpiece From Gordon Grdina

Gordon Grdina is the rare jazz guitarist who plays a lot of notes, yet manages to find a way not to waste them. His music has always been more about mood and narrative than merely a display of gritty chops on guitar and oud, both of which are scary-good. Since the late teens, he’s been on a wild creative tear, which does not seem to have been adversely affected by the lockdown. He got a solo album out of it, and now also has a richly textured, edgily conversational new quartet record, Klotski, just out and streaming at Bandcamp.

Grdina calls the band Square Peg. Violist Mat Maneri and bassist Shahzad Ismaily play with their typical purpose, choosing their spots. Christian Lillinger is just as much colorist as timekeeper behind the drum kit. The album is a highly improvisational uninterrupted suite of variations on cell-based melodies. The camaraderie is high spirited, matched by a meticulous focus: jazz improvisation is seldom this outright tuneful.

Resolutely unresolved viola wafts around over Lillinger’s rustles on his hardware to introduce the album’s opening number, Impending Discomfort. Then Grdina’s guitar angles in, sparely. Maneri wryly responds in kind to Grdina’s slide licks; a steady, brisk stroll develops, Ismaily playing suspenseful, terse polyrhythms. The fireplace tableau that results pits Maneri’s yellow flames over Grdina’s deep-ember sputter.

Grdina calls the next part Escherian, Maneri in contrast to Lillinger’s black reflecting pool, Grdina running loops beneath Ismaily’s smoky ambience. The Halloweenish drollery the quartet link arms and eventually stroll into is irresistibly funny, especially when you hear where they go with it. A little obvious, maybe, but the fun these guys are having is visceral.

Maneri and Grdina have additional fun exchanging volume knob-style washes over Lillinger’s flutters and Ismaily’s wise, steady, sparse pulse in Bacchic Barge, before the bandleader takes centerstage with a solo that’s more Juno on the prowl than Bacchus falling off the boat. His matter-of-fact contentedness as he switches to oud contrasts with the unexpected wrath Maneri and Ismaily pull from the shadows.

Pitchblende bass, bucolic viola, scrambling oud and rises and falls from the drums permeate Sulfur City, up to a snarling march that Ismaily eventually colors with blippy, harmonium-like synth, finally luring Grdina into the brambles.

The quartet work sagaciously expansive chords out of a simple, well-used blues riff as they move methodically through Kaleidoscope, Maneri’s giddyup phrases and shivery harmonics balanced by a contiguous attack that his bandmates rise and pull away from. A bit of a sepulchral surprise sets up the lively, bubbling segue into Microbian Theory, once again developing out of a familiar minor-key blues lick. The descent into plaintive washes afterward might be the album’s most offhandedly gripping interlude.

Murk and vampy acidity interchange in Sore Spot, a catchy, tolling metal anthem in spiky disguise. Lillinger fuels the suite’s coda, Joy Ride, with a tricky quasi-Balkan circle dance groove, Ismaily’s hypnotic riffage anchoring the bandleader’s increasingly volatile, blues-infused meteor shower. It ends unresolved.

Brooding, Cinematic, Synthesized Dancefloor Jams From Reza Safinia

Keyboardist and composer Reza Safinia likes diptychs and triptychs. Kraftwerk and the rest of the icy, mechanical, electronically-fixated bands of the 70s are a big influence. The techier side of Arabic habibi pop and suspense film music also factor into his hypnotically propulsive instrumentals. He likes long jams that go on for nine or ten minutes at a clip. There’s a pervasive darkness in his work, but it’s closer to a flashing digital billboard approximation of evil than the genuine, ugly item. His latest album Yang is streaming at Bandcamp. If you need dance music for your Halloween party this year, this will do just fine.

He opens it with Yantra, a habibi pop Exorcist Theme of sorts, a choir patch from the synth rising behind the chimes and flutters. Watercolor is an insistently rippling piano theme teleported into quasi-diabolical Alan Parsons Project hyper-gamma space.

Shiva is also a throwback, closer to Tangerine Dream’s mechanically pulsing, hypnotic mid/late 70s themes, then morphs into a moody, motorik theme closer to the title’s Indian destroyer spirit. Eddy begins as such a close relative to an iconic/monotonous green-eyed New Order hit from the early 80s that it’s funny, but then Safinia does a 180 and brings down the lights.

Loopy, warpy, increasingly warm and playful sequencer riffs intertwine in the next track, Dream.

Vitruvian is closer to 21st century EDM here, a picturesque bullet train passing through a padlocked nighttime industrial wasteland of the mind. And when you least expect, Safinia transforms it into an angry anthem.

Prana is even techier and, ironically, more breathless. Shushumma doesn’t get interesting until the playful clockwork counterpoint midway through. Wary, surrealistically echoing phrases filter through the mix in Helix: this transhuman DNA is twisted! Then all of a sudden it’s a whistling, windy nocturne, and then an increasingly droll, squirrelly theme.

Funkbible is the lone dud here: that phony cassette wow effect is annoying. Safinia brings the album full circle, more or less, with the trip-hop Tantra.

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.

Sarah McQuaid’s Starkly Lyrical New Live Album Captures a Dark Zeitgeist

Songwriter Sarah McQuaid was into the early part of a marathon 2020 tour when live music was criminalized throughout most of the world. Since she’d planned on making a live album while on the road, she made one closer to home, solo acoustic in the charming, medieval Cornwall church where she sings in a choir. The result is the vinyl record The St Buryan Sessions, streaming at Bandcamp. McQuaid has made a lot of good, darkly pensive albums over the years and this might be the best of them all, a quasi greatest hits collection that promises to have lasting historical resonance, capturing the zeitgeist of a moment that the world would rather never revisit.

Even the guarded, seductive optimism of What Are We Going to Do, in the stark solo electric version here, is far more muted than the original. The record is notable right off the bat for having the only recording of McQuaid singing Sweetness and Pain – a troubled but ultimately hopeful, plainchant-inspired mini-suite – as a contiguous whole. She does that a-cappella, taking advantage of the church’s rich natural reverb and what could be more than a two-second decay.

That reverb also enhances both McQuaid’s guitar and piano work. There’s a similarly resolute sense of hope through dark times in the second song, The Sun Goes On Rising. McQuaid’s voice is strong anyway, and here she reaches back for power to match the anxiousness and uncertainty.

If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous – what a song title for the fall of 2021, right? – brings to mind Richard Thompson‘s solo acoustic work, McQuaid starkly fingerpicking an enigmatic blues behind her loaded imagery. For the record, the vocal harmonies are live loops.

She switches to piano for The Silence Above Us, a brooding, slow, nocturnal waltz which seems practically prophetic, considering the events of 2020. One Sparrow Down is an understatedly grim little swing tune about a cat-and-bird game, McQuaid backing herself with just a kickdrum.

The sparkling open-tuned guitar melody of Charlie’s Gone Home, one of McQuaid’s earliest songs, contrasts with the elegaic narrative. The rainy-day jazz guitar backdrop dovetails more closely with the volcanic portents of Yellowstone, McQuaid capping it off with a slashing flourish.

Time to Love is the sparest, most hypnotic number here and makes a good segue with her similarly sparse cover of Autumn Leaves where she really airs out her upper register. Live vocal loops enhance the somber reflections on mass mortality that pervade In Derby Cathedral: yesterday the church crypt, tomorrow the world.

McQuaid loves open tunings, best exemplified by her eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre phrasing over an ominously swooping bassline in the instrumental The Day of Wrath, That Day. She keeps the subdued atmosphere going in, the pall lifting a little in The Tug of the Moon.

She returns to piano, adding gravitas to Michael Chapman’s Rabbit Hills, pulling it closer toward pastoral Pink Floyd territory. The closing number, Last Song is a requiem for McQuaid’s mom – a musician herself – and a reflection on the enduring strength of intergenerational traditions.

Troubled Music For Troubled Times From Mary Ocher

One of the more darkly intriguing albums to come over the transom here in the past couple of years is German singer Mary Ocher’s The West Against the People, which is still streaming at Bandcamp. It’s hard to think of a better way to describe what the world’s been through since the lockdown began, isn’t it? And the music itself tends to be grim, grey and unrelenting, with a skeletal late 70s/early 80s no wave influence.

The album begins with Firstling II, a shifting, echoey vocal soundscape, drifting further toward desolation. There are two versions of To the Light here: the first with Ocher’s watery, quavery vocals over oscillating organ and a shuffle beat, the second with elegant piano and echoey electronic washes, more evocative of the song’s understated desperation.

Zah Zah, a simple, catchy dub-influenced bass-and-drums loop is also reprised later as a brief electronic interlude. My Executioner is a coldly marching, minimalist no wave march: “We come face to face, my butcher,” Ocher snarls, “How do you deconstruct fear?”

Pounding drums and carnivalesque synth underscore Ocher’s cynical defiance in Authority’s Hold: it could be an early Creatures song. Gritty wordless vocals contrast with blippy synth in The Irrevocable Temple of Knowledge, while Arms is unexpectedly calmer and seems more improvised.

With its pulsing, echoey synth, The Endlessness (Song For Young Xenophobes) could be Carol Lipnik in especially minimalist mode, Ocher’s voice jumping to spectacular heights. Washed Upon Your Shores is even more rustically simple, just vocals over a persistent high bass note and rattly percussion.

Ocher revisits a dub milieu with the spoken-word piece The Becoming, featuring Die Todliche Doris. “It is not uncommon to think of acts of unnecessary violence,” Ocher demurs in this sardonically detailed tale of revenge. Ocher closes the album with the eeriliy loopy Wulkania, a collaboration with Felix Cubin.

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.