New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: review

Looking Back at Olcay Bayir’s Plaintive Reinventions of Silk Road Songs

Turkish singer Olcay Bayir put out her poignantly energetic album Neva/Harmony – streaming at Spotify  in 2014. It’s songs of the silk road, essentially. Much of the music is from Anatolia, the country’s easternmost region, alongside traditional material from across the surrounding area. Improvisation is such a big part of music from this part of the world that every interpretation is bound to be different; Bayir’s own style is informed by her training as a western classical singer. Her band is just as multicultural as the music; it’s less rustic than you might expect.

The opening number, Jarnana is an Albanian love song with an upbeat sway and a catchy, vamping minor-key tune, Aurel Qirjo’s incisive violin over a pretty straight-up rock groove from bassist George Tsiaousidis and percussionist Elizabeth Nott. Bayir’s plaintive vocals soar over tricky Greek rhythms with biting harmonies from the violin and Nicki Maher’s clarinet in the second track, Mia Smyrnia Sto Parathiri.

Bayir’s vocals on Mer Dan, a slowly waltzing Aremenian dirge, are much the same, clarinet and violin wafting broodingly through the mix, Erdal Yapıcı supplying an elegantly rippling solo on his ten-string kopuz lute. Maher’s low, melismatic, Arabic-tinged clarinet in the bouncy, Romany-flavored Benim Yarim is breathtaking, Likewise, Min Bêriya Te Kiriye has a brisk, almost reggae groove lit up with Meg Hamilton’s stark violin and a spiky web of textures from Yapıcı and classical guitarist Charlie Cawood.

Durme, a moody Sephardic lullaby, has rippling classical guitar, Yapıcı’s eerie fretless guitar and an aptly tender vocal by Bayir: in this part of the world, moms sing to their kids in minor keys and it’s not considered scary. The album’s big, hypnotic, nocturnal epic is Melamet Hırkas. Clarinet and violin loom over a starry, loopy backdrop from the kopuz, guitar and Erdogan Bayir’s baglama, minging with the frontwoman’s gentle, resonant delivery.

Qirjo’s somber taqsim to open Penceresi Yola Karşı doesn’t hint at the scampering energy this Balkan dance tune will hit just a few seconds later, lit up with Maher’s joyous klezmer inflections, They close the record with Lay Lay, a somber Kurdish waltz with more of those gorgeously tremoloing clarinet-violin lines that permeate this gorgeous record.

Ride the Cyclone: Funniest Album of the Year So Far

If Weird Al Yankovic, Boots Riley and Mel Brooks got together to write a musical, it might sound something like Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond’s Ride the Cyclone. In the original soundtrack’s twenty-two tracks, streaming at Spotify, no style of music is off limits to this duo’s merciless satire. American and foreign hip-hop, circus rock, corny G-rated Lawrence Welk church-parlor pop, macho Russian crooner balladry, cabaret, emo and EDM all get a good thrashing at the hands of an eclectically talented cast of singers and players.

In one typical number, the amazingly versatile band here chew up ELO, Zapp and Roger, Huey Lewis bar-band rock, 1970s top 40 ersatz soul music and then spit them out, hard. Another song starts by spoofing phony-sensitive Conor Oberst sweaterboy sounds and ends making fun of the Osmonds. The jokes are too good to give away and are not limited to lyrics. This is the rare comedy record that stands up to repeated listening because the snark and savagery comes at you so fast that if you try to multitask, you’ll miss the best parts.

The musical’s Greek chorus is Coney Island character The Amazing Karmack, whose job it is to predict the hour of a person’s death. Adding an amusing level of meta, he gets to deliver some of the most corrosively hilarious punchlines. The story begins as the St. Cassian Chamber Choir, of Uranium City, Saskatchewan arrive at the end of the train line for a roller coaster ride. As you might imagine, considering Karmack’s involvement, things are not going to be quite so carefree as the cheery Canadians expect. A headless body is involved.

The characters are straight out of central casting, with several twists: this is also a parody of musicals in general. The dorky boy dreaming of louche life in the big city; a whiny Veruca Salt type; an operatic piano-thumping wannabe Sylvia Plath; and an oligarch’s kid posing as hip-hop star all get what they deserve, right down to the minute details. Where does Misha Bachinsky, “the best Ukrainian rapper in northeast Saskatchewan,” take his entourage to drink Cristal and roll blunts? No spoilers.

If Bill Withers and Jeff Lynne had teamed up to write the worst song of their lives, it would be It’s Not a Game, It’s Just a Ride. One of the soundtrack’s funniest interludes, Be Safe, Be Good, has sobering resonance in an era of 24/7 fearmongering from the corporate media. The cruel punchline at the end comes in the form of an American Idol-style New Nashville singalong. In a year of relentless gloom and a likely holocaust looming on the horizon, we desperately need albums like this.

A Gorgeously Dark Album of Adventurous, Psychedelic Afghani Rubab Music From Quais Essar

Today’s album is on the shortlist of the best this blog has received over the past couple of years that were patiently waiting their turn on the hard drive here. Qais Essar, whose axe is the Afghani rubab lute, may not be a household word, but he’s attracted the attention of a whole slew of western musicians. His latest album The Ghost You Love Most is streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s pretty exotic compared to the bands whose artists play on it. On the other, it’s not that far removed from the Turkish psychedelia or, for that matter, some of the rock-ish sounds that came out of Iran in the 1960s and early 70s.

He opens it with The Culmination of a Sorrowful Life, a spare, slow, haunting anthem that’s practically a Nashville gothic ballad. Christopher Votek’s cello and Arc Iris keyboardist Zach Tenorio–Miller’s organ add elegaic lustre behind the stately rhythm section of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Thierry Amar on bass and Ray Belli on drums. The ending is even more surreal: they take it doublespeed, making quasi-bluegrass out of a lick seemingly ripped straight from lite-jazz guy Grover Washington Jr.

Essar’s rubab ripples, weaves and flurries frantically throughout the album’s swaying title track, spiced by delicate textures from Kamaljeet Alhuwalia on santoor and Cenk Erodgan on fretless guitar.

Journey to Qaf begins as a chilling, Lynchian dirge, Sheela Bringi’s harp contrasting with the resonance of the cello and Essar’s spare, broodingly emphatic phrasing. They eventually pick up the pace, but never so much that they manage to leave the shadows behind.  Rhitom Sarkar contributes a lingering alap (improvisation) on Indian slide guitar to open Sohini Surf, then Essar takes over and they motor along with a muted surf beat.

The group slow down again for The Simurgh, Essar’s steady, banjo-like lines, echoed by Erodgan’s shivery melismatics over Justin Gray’s stately, rising bass veena. They end the album with a gorgeously bittersweet, pastorally-tinged wordless ballad. It’s music to get completely lost in.

Haunting Music From Happier Times

While the past year has seen a lot of artists desperately mining their archives for concert recordings in order to maintain some semblance of a performing career, violinist Meg Okura’s Live at the Stone album with her NPO Trio is not one of those releases. This 2016 concert was one of the last at the iconic venue’s original Alphabet City digs before it moved to the New School, only to be shuttered in the lockdown. This particular set – released a couple of years ago and still streaming at Bandcamp – is expansive, klezmer-centric, and despite the energetic interplay between Okura, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, is rather dark.

As the initial 38-minute improvisation – divided up into six separate sections here – gets underway, Okura and Pilc are at their most orchestral. The violinist plays through a series of effects including delay, loops and massive amounts of reverb. The pianist, for the most part, maintains a glittering High Romantic gravitas.

Pilc echoes Okura’s cascades as she runs them through reverb turned up to the point of slapback. Building a series of builds variations, she’s joined by Newsome, who takes centerstage achingly as Pilc and Okura rustle and rumble underneath.

About three minutes in, Okura introduces the stark, central 19th century klezmer theme, Mark Warshawsky’s Oyfn Pripetchik. Newsome searches longingly with his microtonal washes until Pilc and Okura bring a steady rhythm back, the piano taking over scurrying, pointillistic variations. Then the violin moves to the foreground, leading the music from plaintive and insistent to spare and starry. Newsome’s stark clarinet-like tone, especially in the most somber moment here, fits this music perfectly.

Somber chromatics come front and center and remain there the longest in the fourth segment. Newsome leads the group down into minimalism, Pilc raising the energy with his jackhammer pedalpoint, a bit of a klezmer reel and a brief minor-key ballad without words. Newsome drives the band to a chilling, shivery coda.

There are two other improvisations here. The first, Unkind Gestures, is based on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, is vastly more carefree and jauntily conversational, Pilc’s rumbles and basslines contrasting with Newsome’s keening, harmonically-laced duotones. Okura opens the almost nineteen-minute closing number, Yiddish Mama No Tsuki, with a sizzling klezmer solo, Pilc following with eerie belltones down to what sounds like an altered version of the old standard Mein Yiddishe Mama. Revelry and wry quotes interchange with airy acidity, disorienting clusters, a brooding Newsome solo and surreal blues from Okura and Pilc.

One quibble: not one but two tracks cut off right in the middle of gorgeously melismatic Newsome solos, a real faux pas. People who listen to this kind of music have long attention spans and don’t care how long a track is.

A Hauntingly Relevant World War I Concept Album From Bare Wire Son

Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz records under the name Bare Wire Son. Whether kinetic or atmospheric, his music has a relentlessly bleak intensity. One obvious comparison is the gloomy, cinematic processionals of Godspeed You Black Emperor. Other dark postrock acts, from Mogwai to Swans come to mind. His latest album Off Black – streaming at Bandcamp – is a World War I song cycle, often utilizing texts from journals by mothers who lost their sons. Janusz is a one-man, lo-fi orchestra here: everything is awash in reverb, vocals often buried deep in these slow but turbulent rivers of sound.

The parallels between the Great War and the lockdown are stunning, making this album all the more relevant. Chemical warfare played a major role: poison gas in 1918, deadly hypodermics 103 years later. Propaganda campaigns of unprecedented proportions are central to both events. The drive to get the British and the US involved in the war was inflamed by stories of hideous atrocities on the part of the “Huns,” as the Germans were rebranded. The ubiquitous, multibillion-dollar ad blitz promoting the needle of death also relies on many fictions, from grotesquely inaccurate computer models, to blood tests rigged to generate false positives.

The album’s opening track, Involuntary is a crescendoing conflagration, possibly a parody of a Catholic hymn, with a cruelly cynical coda. Percussion flails out a sadistic lash beat over the organ textures in Cenotaph, struggling to rise against a merciless march that finally hits a murderous coda.

Janusz assembles Saved Alone around a series of menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs and whispered vocals, shifting from a lulling organ interlude to a roughhewn crescendo. From there he segues into CSD, a brief, portentous, organ-infused tone poem.

Simple, ominous guitar arpeggios linger over an industrial backdrop of cello, percussion and organ in Ends Below: the visceral shock about two thirds of the way in is too good to give away. The Gore is portrayed more minimalistically and enigmatically than you would probably expect, resonant washes of slide guitar and organ behind a crashing guitar loop

Close-harmonied organ textures and cello drift through Antiphon, joined by guitar clangs and slashes in The Bellows and extending through the dissociative flutters and funereal angst of Kampus. Spare, Lynchian guitar figures return in Fingernest, an emphatic, pulsing dirge rising to Comfortably Numb proportions.

Heavy Grey is the closest thing to indie rock here, although it reaches an anthemic vastness at the end. Janusz trudges to the end of the narrative with the hypnotic Red Glass and then a quasi-baroque organ theme cynically titled Voluntary, This is one of the best albums of 2021 and arguably the most haunting one so far.

Abigail Dowd Stares Down the Flood and Wins

From Johnny Cash, to Led Zeppelin, to Karla Rose, musicians have never stopped finding new uses for flood metaphors. Americana songwriter Abigail Dowd is the latest in that venerable line. For Dowd, it’s personal: her Colorado home was flooded six times in 2018, springboarding the songs on her hauntingly intense latest album Beautiful Day, streaming at Soundcloud. As a tale of resilience and triumph over adversity, it has special resonance in the year of the needle of death.

Dowd has a ruggedly individualistic persona and a thing for southern gothic; her previous album Not What I Seem got a rave review here last year. Not everything is as it seems in the allusive, wary title track, Dowd’s spiky fingerpicking leading to a doublespeed charge fueled by Alex McKinney’s dobro and Scott Sawyer’s spare electric guitar lines over the low-key shuffle rhythm of bassist Jason Duff and drummer Austin McCall. Here and there, Joe MacPhail’s Rhodes electric piano pops up, a subtle suspenseful enhancement.

Diamond is a strutting Lou Reed tune in Americana disguise, spiced with MacPhail’s smoky organ: “Sometimes I feel like a miner left behind in the dark” is the key line. Dowd’s delivery in general is more flinty on this album, especially in One Moment at a Time, a moody carpe-diem theme built around a briskly flurrying acoustic guitar riff.

The instrumental St. Vrain – the name of the creek that rose up and almost took Dowd’s home with it – has a gorgeously haunting, baroque-tinged web of guitars and is over way, way too soon: Dowd could have kept this going three times as long and it wouldn’t be boring.

Sawyer’s ominous washes of chords raise the intensity in River, a resolute Appalachian gothic anthem. Dowd stays with the brooding minor-key atmosphere in Apple Trees, a chillingly metaphorical tale of plans suddenly derailed.

The Underground Railroad escape anthem Judgment Day captures the exhaustion of life on the run and the perils at every turn. “I just want to be alone,” the haunted freedom fighter in Don’t Want to Talk About It asserts: sometimes you have to become a monster to defeat them.

Dowd’s defiant narrator throws off the shackles of original sin in the briskly stomping After the Fall, right up to a surprise ending. The she brings down the lights in the haunting, organ-fueled, enigmatic Rise Above: at what point do we have to walk through hell to get any further?

The flood metaphors reach fever pitch in Run, a global warming-era Appalachian gothic tale run amok. Dowd winds up the album with Grandmother Moon, a shamanic, oldtime blues-infused tableau. Dowd is on a creative tear right now: there must be something in that Rocky Mountain water.

A Tantalizingly Short, Heavy Album From Ancient Settlers

Spanish metal band Ancient Settlers’ new short album Autumnus – streaming at Spotify – kicks off with a catchy, plaintively circling symphonic instrumental. The first song, A Monument Restored is just as catchy, an interesting mix of 70s heavy psych and art-rock set to a pummeling mathrock beat, with a tantalizingly brief twin guitar solo half-buried in the mix.

They follow that with Die Around Me, a big anthem in densely recorded, pounding disguise: it seems like some kind of sci-fi nightmare. The final cut is Diamond Eyes, building from an ominous minor-key sway to a fullscale gallop. It makes you want to hear more of what guitarists Carlos Chiesa-Estomba and Emmy Reyes, drummer Herman Riera, keyboardist Rene González and bassist Miguel Herrera have up their sleeves.

A Colorful, Catchy, Hard-Hitting New Album From Rob Garcia

Drummer Rob Garcia has a long and storied history playing with some of the greatest creative talents in the New York scene. But he’s also a composer, with a fiercely relevant, fearlessly populist streak. His latest album Illumination – streaming at Spotify – has more of a general spiritual theme. The chordless quartet here is an interesting configuration for him, with Noah Preminger on tenor sax, John O’Gallagher on alto and Marcos Varela on bass. As you would expect from Garcia, there’s lots of good translucent energy on this record: it’s one of the most colorful and tuneful drummer-led projects of recent years.

They open with a straight-up swing tune, First Glimpse Into the Shadows, an aggressively flurrying hook giving way to judicious scrambles from the saxes as Garcia colors the music with one acerbic flourish and offbeat smack after another, Varela rising from a casual stroll to looming chords to drive a peak home.

The quartet build the title track off a bright, insistent riff, shifting from a funk-inflected groove to loping syncopation as O’Gallagher spins wildly, Preminger and Garcia shadowing him. Garcia’s variations on a gritty, chugging pulse fuel the triumphant coda.

Father Get Ready begins as a latin soul groove reduced to most succinct terms, Garcia both nibbling and chewing at the scenery, with a characteristically outside-the-box yet tersely blues-infused Preminger solo.

Little Trees has a similarly lively, coyly accent insistence that could be Afro-Colombian, plus more deliciously adrenalizing, rapidfire sax work and a rewarding duel at the end. Garcia works circular variations from his rims and toms as Silver Dagger slowly coalesces into a soulful, syncopated pastorale with more precise, hard-hitting sax work and a fondly bouncy bass solo.

Likewise, the group venture outward from the cheery, anthemically bucolic melody of Colinas de Santa Maria. The increasingly combative, quasi-fugal interweave of the saxes is a cool touch, as is Varela’s Afrobeat-tinged solo.

Garcia opens the sagely bluesy ballad Gracias with a stately 12/8 groove, a vehicle for purist blues work by the whole band. JJ Sensei – a dedication to Garcia’s longtime employer and martial arts guru Joseph Jarman – turns into a lively, swinging launching pad for feral sax, as well as a wryly expansive drum solo.

The quartet wind up the album with two tracks titled Parallels. The first begins with rather wary syncopation and straightens out as the horns simmer and reach precisely toward escape velocity. The second, a catchy, staggered, edgily chromatic funk tune, winds up the album on a high note. Garcia is really on a roll with this material: wouldn’t it be great if this same band could reconvene in the studio, or even onstage.

Dive into a Middle Eastern Treasure From Duo Sabîl

Palestinian oudist Ahmad Al Kathib and percussionist Youssef Hbeisch – better known as Duo Sabîl, meaning “on the way” in Arabic – are a major force in the Middle Eastern music scene in Europe. Their 2017 album Zabad, Twilight Tide – streaming at Spotify – is much more hauntingly lush than their previous work since they double the size of the band, adding buzuq player Elie Khoury and bassist Hubert Dupont. Pretty much every song here is a launching pad for sizzling solos from both Al Kathib and Khoury: they’re great sparring partners.

The opening number, Samal is a diptych. As the fretted instruments intertwine, the uneasy swells. flurrying chords and brooding modes of the first section bring to mind fellow expatriate and oud virtuoso Marcel Khalife’s small-ensemble work. They sprint through the clenched-teeth intensity of the second part, with long, biting solos from buzuq and oud over a lithely syncopated 9/4 beat. When Dupont’s bass finally leaves the pocket and rises, the effect is visceral.

Khoury spirals with a brooding intensity over a dancing groove in the album’s title track, Al Kathib’s machete chords and spare riffs adding a bittersweet poignancy. The two exchange biting, dynamically shifting solos throughout a prelude in the enigmatic maqam rast; then the rhythm section join them for Awalem, which has a southern Balkan feel, alternating between coy jauntiness and stinging acerbity.

Khoury chooses his spots opening a second prelude in maqam nahawand – which is closer to a minor key in the western scale – Kathib raising the suspense. It offers no hint of what’s to come with Nothern Breeze, which begins with a slow, warmly nostalgic sway; then the band leap into warpspeed.

The group build the album’s big epic Marakeb (Ships) around a simple, insistent major third riff and then exchange pensive solos: the waters are choppy but not yet perilous. They wind up the album with the simply titled Afternoon Jam, beginning with an ominously chromatic oud taqsim and picking up with edgy solos all around. If this is what they sound like during the day, just wait til the sun goes down. Never again will this blog hide an album of this kind of music away on the hard drive for so long!

Broodingly Individualistic, Haunting Russian Folk Noir From Julia Vorontsova

Julia Vorontsova plays Russian folk noir. The sound of her voice and her lute are much the same, a muted, disconsolate presence. One suspecs that her lead guitarist, Zeke Zema, would rather be playing metal, but on her 2016 album Over – streaming at Spotify – his biting, distorted lines are usually back in the mix. Of all the albums to have made it to the hard drive here over the past few years, this is one of the most haunting. Vorontsova’s lyrics – in Russian and Romanes – reflect a lot of irony, heartbreak and dissolution.

The instrumentation is spare but intricately layered, with acoustic and electric guitars and Marie-Sophie Leturq,’s resonant cello over a low-key rhythm section of Ian Walker on bass and Aaron Sterling  on drums. The quietly brooding opening track, St. Pete is just variations on an enigmatic lute riff, the drums like furtive footfalls in the snow.

The second cut, Malenitsa, is a briskly swaying minor-key folk tune lowlit with ghostly, shimmery guitar lines. Oubliette, a dark Russian cabaret number set to a rock backbeat, contains two of the album’s most haphazardly incisive guitar solos. Gently vibrato-tinged cello floats beneath Vorontsova’s delicate fingerpickng in Gretchen, a melancholy, Goethe-inspired waltz.

The album’s longest song is Gypsy, a sotto-voce, somewhat hypnotic duet. After that, Vorontsova goes back to mashing up Russian cabaret with steady, strolling, uneasy Laurel Canyon psychedelia in Alps, capped off by a moody slide guitar solo. Shivery cello and acidically hovering electric guitar mingle with Vorontsova’s nimble fingerpicking in Knight Violin.

She reverts to quiet, nebulous, overcast sonics for Nameless and its unexpectedly tricky rhythms. The album’s title track is a slow, conspiratorial, Romany jazz-tinged waltz with an unexpected guitar duel midway through.

The first of two tracks titled Prayer, an elegantly swaying ballad in 6/8 time could be Marissa Nadler in Russian – at least until the strut at the end with all the frenetically bluesy guitar. With its steady, syncopated drive and grimly gorgeous layers of guitar, Pick is the album’s mighty, understated peak. Likewise, the even quieter Prayer 2 has a macabre undercurrent. Vorontsova closes the record with Air, a spare, skeletally dancing number with bells and lots of ringing guitar harmonics. Even if you don’t speak Russian, this is a rapturously good listen if you gravitate toward music reflecting the kind of darkness that has surrounded us since March 16 of last year