New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: rock music

A Rare NYC Appearance by Indo-Pakistani Art-Rock/Metal Warriors the Mekaal Hasan Band

The Mekaal Hasan Band sound like no other group on the planet. The fiery, guitar-fueled art-rock band blend south Asian, Middle Eastern and global metal influences into their distinctive, rhythmically tricky sound. Don’t let their constant tempo and metric shifts or lead guitarist Hasan’s Berklee background give you the impression that what they play is prog. Their latest album, Andholan – streaming at Spotify – is packed with unexpected dynamics, snarling melodies and purposeful drive, taking flight on the wings of frontwoman Sharmistha Chatterjee’s soaring vocals. They’re making a rare New York appearance on August 30 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, and they’re very popular with a Punjabi audience, so $15 advamce tix are very highly recommended.

The opening track, Gunghat kicks off with a bitingly flurrying, chromatically menacing guitar-and-flute intro before Gino Banks’ hard-hitting drums kick in and Chatterjee’s uneasily intense, elegantly ornamented voice enters, while Hasan and flutist Mohammad Ahsan Papu build a shiveringly artsy, metallic backdrop. Champakalli builds around a creepy bell-like motif before Hasan puts the bite on and they make almost gleeful metal out of it; then they go back and forth with an ominous sway.

Chaterjee builds toward imploring heights over a surealistically chiming, watery background as Bheem gets underway, then the band picks up steam, like a more darkly metallic update on classic 70s Nektar, the flute adding droll touches, almost like portamento synth. Hasan’s garish squall contrasts with Chaterjee’s stark leaps and bounds and the terse, new wave-tinged pulse of Sayon: imagine the Police with metal guitar and a Pakistani influence. Maalkauns is both the hardest-hitting soccer-stadium fist-pumper and the most distinctively Pakistani numbers here.

The album’s best song, Sindhi brings back the eerie bell-tone ambience of the second track – Hasan’s distinctively ringing, reverbtoned guitar textures, at least when he isn’t getting cheesy putting the bite on, anyway, are nothing short of delicious. Mehg opens as an airy mood piece that quickly gives way to a crushing stomp, flute and voice sailing above it insistently. Kinarey, the album’s final cut, is a diptych. Based on a raga etude, the song shifts through pensive piano and vocals to a lonesome flute interlude and back. It’s rare that you hear a band that so seamlessly bridges the gap between Indo-Pakistani music and rock, let alone one with such a nuanced yet powerful singer.

The Haunting, Mysterious King Raam Brings His Iranian Art-Rock Anthems to the Mercury

If you’ve heard of King Raam, believe the hype. The Teheran-based bandleader, who with the rest of his group plays pseudonymously, is sort of the Iranian Nick Cave. Who is this theatrical, intense Persian-language art-rock singer? He’s in his forties, born in the party city of Bushehr, and has been back and forth to the US several times. He’s collaborated with Johnny Azari and the late Ali Eskandarian, among others. He has a gram account, so it’s certain that the CIA and Mossad know who he is. He and the band are bringing their eclectic, often hauntingly artsy sounds to the Mercury at midnight on August 29; $12 advance tix are still available at the box office, open Tues-Sat from noon to 6 PM.

Iranian music in general tends to be very good and has been for centuries: even pop artists from the 60s and 70s like Googoosh are arguably more interesting and tuneful than their American counterparts. Most of King Raam’s latest album, A Day & a Year, is streaming at Soundcloud along with much of his ominously melodic, often psychedelic back catalog. The band doesn’t waste any time getting off to an powerful start with a slow, foreboding minor-key anthem, Pegasus, bringing to mind similarly brooding global acts like the Russian group Auktyon and Mexican legends Jaguares. The multitracked guitars roar, the keys twinkle uneasily and the drums have a big-room sound: a lot of care and smart production ideas went into this. English translations of the lyrics weren’t available as of press time, but consider that the song is about a winged horse and then do the math.

The moody Closing Credits (Titrazhe Payan), just pensive vocals and simple guitar arpeggios until the final crescendo, bears an even stronger resemblance to Jaguares and that band’s frontman Saul Hernandez‘s solo work. The album’s third track, Tehran has a wistful sway, part folk-rock as the Church might have done it at their peak, part Spottiswoode. The Church resemblance recurs, but more spaciously and sparely, in Distant Tomorrows, featuring guest crooner Makan Ashgevari. The Return follows, with a big, cinematic, rather triumphantly orchestrated sweep: it’s the most stadium rock-oriented track here. Its 70s folk-pop counterpart is Crosswind, one of the later cuts.

Missing Squares has a shuffle groove, surfy reverb guitars and a brass section – another Jaguares soundalike, more or less. A City Without Gates sets the spare quality of Tehran to a more propulsive, even catchier groove, with some of the album’s strongest vocals. The band brings things down with the echoey, dub-tinged piano-based Resurrection and then follows with Salvador, which rises from a rather upbeat, guitar-fueled neo-Motown drive to a swing groove and then pure Lynchian menace.

A Day Will Come is the most gorgeously jangly, bittersweet number on the album – it could be vintage early 70s Al Stewart with better vocals and production. Deja Vu, with its stomping drums, funk tinges and propeller-blade guitars, is a duet with Iranian blues artist Behzad Omrani.  The final cut is the echoey, muted piano ballad Since You’ve Been Gone.

In terms of pure tunefulness, this is one of the half-dozen best rock albums released in 2015. How horribly sad that the citizens of the nation that for centuries was the cultural capital of the world have been forced to literally go underground to enjoy music like this since the fall of the Shah (and he was no picnic either). And what a fantastic thing that artists like King Raam have made their way to the US. If anyone deserves asylum citizenship, it’s this guy and the rest of the guys who play with him.

A Killer Dark Psychedelic Triplebill in Queens

Having seen just one of the year’s best segues between two bands – in a year that’s been loaded with amazing twinbills – was there any sense in sticking around for the last band? Absolutely. Having already made the shlep out to Trans-Pecos in Ridgewood this past evening for Ember Schrag‘s potently lyrical psychedelia and Alec K. Redfearn‘s macabre, accordion-fueled psychedelic art-rock, hanging around for a rare appearance by Escape by Ostrich was worth it. The four-piece band – Willie Klein on guitar and violin, Bob Bannister on lead guitar, Chris Nelson on bass and Robert Dennis on drums – were like a no wave-tinged mashup of early Love Camp 7 (before they rediscovered the Beatles) and the Grateful Dead. They wound up a long but rewarding night with a particularly relevant, smoldeingly low-key cover of Woody Guthrie’s Deportees. Getting to that point was every bit as much fun.

Redfearn. who’s on tour at the moment, sounds like no other artist anywhere, the rare bandleader who’s iconic in psychedelic, art-rock and gothic rock circles. He also had the presence of mind – pure genius, actually – to enlist Schrag not as a guitarist but as a keyboardist. Redfearn gets his signature sound by running his accordion through a pedalboard: one minute he’s roaring like a guitar, the next he’s oscillating or adding devious wah-wah textures like Josh Camp did with his Electrovox in Chicha Libre for so long. Playing organ, Schrag harmonized seamlessly with Redfearn when she wasn’t adding hypnotic low drones or elegant baroque-flavored lines: you’d think that the band’s brilliant previous keyboardist, Orion Rigel Domisse, would have been irreplaceable, but Schrag adds her own similarly psychedelic edge. Redfearn sang in his signature powerful, brooding baritone while bassist Christopher Sadlers anchored the songs with his steady, pitchblende bowing, alternating with the occasional slinky rattlesnake groove. Drummer Matt McLaren enhanced the songs’ Balkan flavor with his sharpshooter rimshots on a kit with no cymbals. Horn player Ann Schattle supplied terse, incisive riffage when she wasn’t adding atmospherics, much like Schrag.

Auspiciously, much of the set was new material, most of the songs segueing into each other to make up a macabre suite. They opened with a thumping new number, murderous Serbian folk as done by Syd Barrett, maybe, then without stopping made their way into a swinging Balkan stripper vamp that sounded like it might be Redfearn’s classic Fire Shuffle, from his most recent album, Sister Death. As it disintegrated, radiating evil sonic radionuclides, it turned out not to be. A menacingly marionettish tune put Schattle’s horn front and center as Redfearn ran his accordion through the sonic strobe of a 1960s repeater box. The trickiest number was a Macedonian-inflected tune from Redfearn’s Exterminating Angel album from a few years ago; the darkest and catchiest material later in the set reflected a heavy Greek rembetiko influence. The folks at the Rock in Opposition Festival in France – where the band will be appearing next month – are in for a real treat.

Schrag and her amazing band – Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz on bass and harmony vocals and Gary Foster on drums – opened the night. Hearing her refer to herself as a “folkie” was pretty funny: although her first couple of albums are what she calls “great plains gothic,” her sound has evolved into shapeshifting, sometimes slithery psychedelic rock. Foster and Banister fueled the understatedly ominous flamenco flourishes on a bitter waltz early in the set, Schwartz and Schrag engaging in a brief, intense bit of trippy, contrapuntal neo-plainchant at one point. Seamlessly, they made their way through the straight-up, latin-tinged psychedelic pop of What Birds Do, the numbed Abbey Road Beatles angst of The Real Penelope and the shapeshifting Banquo’s Book, Bannister’s triplets mingling with Schrag’s hypnotically pulsing riffs. Likewise, it was impossible to figure out who was playing what throughout the deliciously clanging textures of one of Schrag’s several Shakespearean-influenced numbers, the agitatedly intense art-rock anthem Lady M.

Foster raised the suspense to murderous levels on the intro to Sutherland, an allusively creepy badlands tableau from Schrag’s most recent solo album, The Sewing Room. And although there’s all sorts of (usually implied) mayhem in Schrag’s double entendres, biblical and historical allusions, she can be riotously funny when she’s in the mood. My Brother’s Men, as she told the crowd, wasn’t actually about a goon squad: she got the inspiration from the title from the legions of barbecue joints run by brothers in her native Nebraska.

Meet the Ominous, Phantasmagorical Herbert Bail Orchestra

The Herbert Bail Orchestra work all sorts of influences into their careening, carnivalesque, noir-tinged sound: art-rock, oldtime blues, Celtic balladry, gospel and even funk. Bail plays the role of hoarse oldtime blues shouter, part early Tom Waits, maybe part Rev. Vince Anderson. The band is excellent: banjo, accordion and organ figure heavily and deliciously into their sound. Los Angelenos looking for a fun night out can catch their show tomorrow night, August 23 at 8:30 PM on an awesome triplebill at the Satellite at 1717 Silver Lake Blvd. Blackwater Jukebox open the evening with their edgy southwestern gothic punk, followed by Blac Jesus & the Experimentalists, who shift between creepy noir soul and guitar-fueled hard retro funk. Cover is an absurdly cheap $8.

Herbert Bail’s most recent album, The Future’s In the Past is streaming at Bandcamp. The band also has an intriguing Soundcloud page which offers a more current view of the wide expanse of styles they run through, many of them at once. Their latest single, You Are Beautiful (ok, ugh title, but it’s a good song) rises from a sun-streaked latesummer Britfolk intro to an ecstatic, gospel-fueled peak over a jaunty shuffle beat. Radio Tower  opens with accordion over almost a reggae bounce, with a little unexpected hip-hop flavor. The title track from the most recent album is much the same – imagine Cage the Elephant with a scampering circus-rock groove.

The best song on the page is Take Me Down, a wickedly catchy, broodingly swinging tune that’s part Nick Cave, part Walkabouts and maybe part Grateful Dead. The Big Sound brings back the towering soul/gospel intensity, something akin to how early ELO at their most disturbed might have done it. The Nature of Things succeeds where U2 failed to bridge the gap between vintage Americana and stadium rock.The rest of the playlist includes murky boogie-woogie; a Motown/ragtime mashup; a dirge that wouldn’t be out of place sung by a chain gang; a Mr. Bojangles-ish shuffle; and doomed, string-driven Nick Cave balladry. If you’re in the neighborhood, take a slug of absinthe, put on your dancing shoes and go see these guys.

Greek Judas: New York’s Best New Psychedelic Band

Greek Judas made their debut last night at Barbes. They’re amazing. Comprising most of the members of Greek rembetiko revivalists Que Vlo-Ve, they’ve reached the inevitable point where it made sense to completely and explosively electrify the colorful, gritty repertoire from the 1920s and 30s underground that they’ve mined up to this point. Wade Ripka alternated between roaring, poinpoint-precise, menacingly chromatic electric guitar leads and and searing lapsteel lines, joined by a masked rhythm guitarist who doubled on tenor sax on one of the later numbers. Slavic Soul Party drummer Chris Stromquist nimbly led the group through the songs’ relentlessly tricky changes with stomp and aplomb while bassist Nick Cudahy was the picture of cool, chilling in the back, delivering the same kind of effortless psychedelic groove that he did for so long in the late, great Chicha Libre. Toward the end of the set, frontman Quince Marcum picked up his horn and joined with the sax player for some intricate twin leads on what sounded like a brass band mashup of Macedonian folk and Led Zep.

Was Marcum running his resonant baritone vocals through a phaser? Yesssssss! And a whole bunch of other trippy, creepy patches too! When not singing in Greek, he had a lot of fun explaining the gist of the songs. This stuff is wild. A seafaring anthem celebrated smuggling untaxed cigarettes and Iranian hash. In their jail cell, couple of magges conspire about what they’re going to do once they get out: “Restring my bouzouki for me, babe, I’m coming home,” one announces, more or less. A couple of rude guys drool over a Romany girl, while another complains that his icy girlfriend has driven him into the monastery, metaphorically at least. And one of the later numbers reminded that crack whores existed in Greece in 1927 – and that crack was just as wack then as it is now. The band wound up their roughly 45-minute set with a pounding one-chord stomp that sounded like the Bad Brains playing Greek music. A screaming guitar band playing hardcore punk rock at Barbes? Damn straight. If you’re in the neighborhood and you like artsy metal or psychedelia, you’d be crazy to miss the band’s second-ever show when they play here on August 27 at 8 PM.

Ripka’s chromatically bristling spirals and leaps over Stromquist’s stately beat on the night’s opening number brought to mind killer Greek surf band the Byzan-tones. The band went for careening metal majesty on the night’s sescond number, resonant guitar snarl over an unexpectedly straight-up, hypnotic, boomy beat on the one after that. On the following tune, Ripka’s aching twang rang out over Stomquist’s tense, tight 7/8 beat as Marcum’s vocals swirled and echoed. The best song of the night was also the most Middle Eastern-influenced, a titanic blast of sabertoothed leads from Ripka’s guitar over the swaying roar of the rest of the band. This group’s ceiling is practically unlimited. First gig ever, there was a good crowd at Barbes, and that following will grow. St. Vitus seems inevitable; after that, Donington here we come!. Wait til the metal crowd discovers these guys: they’ll be able to make a living on their road til they’re in their eighties if they feeling like cranking it up like they did last night.

Young Marble Giants on Both Sides of the Pond

What’s the most unlikely band reunion ever? The Velvet Underground? Or when Pink Floyd got back together for that live tv cameo? How about this August 27 at 7:30 PM, when Young Marble Giants will play their cult favorite 1981 album Colossal Youth at London’s Royal Festival Hall? There’s karmic justice, and no little irony in the fact that thirty-five years after they first broke up, the band are playing one of their biggest gigs ever. What’s probably just as unlikely is that they’d be together to do it at all. £17.50 balcony seats are still available for budget-minded London postpunk fans.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, a stellar and similarly unlikely collection of downtown New York rock talent are getting together at the exact same hour at Hifi Bar to play the album in its entirety. Springboarded by Elk City’s Renee LoBue, the performers include folk noir chanteuse Erica Smith, janglerock mastermind Paula Carino, the Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley, Toot Sweet‘s acerbic Mary Spencer Knapp, Speed the Plow‘s John and Toni Baumgartner, along with many, many others. This is a gig where there may be as many band members as audience members in the house.

The album itself is quirky, very humbly and rather primitively recorded, and an acquired taste for some. A favorite of college radio dj’s when it came out, it’s considered one of the foundations of lo-fi music in general. As precious and prissy as so much so-called bedroom pop is, it wouldn’t be a stretch to file the record within that genre. Stuart Moxham’s minimalist, tentative guitar and simple yet saturnine keyboards made an apt backdrop for frontwoman Alison Statton’s distinctive, unassuming, low-key vocals, punctuated by Moxham’s brother Philip’s incisive if similarly simple bass work. You can check it out – or revisit fond college dorm memories – at Spotify.

Speaking of performers who’re doing the tribute show, Smith and Knapp most recently shared the stage at 2A at the end of May, on a fantastic quadruplebill with American Ambulance‘s Pete Cenedella and host Monica “L’il Mo” Passin. Passin distinguished herself with her ability to shift seamlessly between innumerable styles, from Brill Building pop, to latin soul, rockabilly, oldschool C&W and rootsy bar-band rock. Her guitar playing was just as eclectic: she’s the rare player who can do a song solo acoustic, stick a solo in the middle and have it seem perfectly natural even without bass and drums.

Knapp’s accordion work was just as diverse, running the gamut from torchy French chanson, to enigmatic bedroom pop (if anybody on this bill really GETS Young Marble Giants, it’s her), ornately theatrical art-rock and an unexpected and very successful detour toward the avant garde. Passin playfully needled Cenedella for his handful of references to ganja, in several numbers from American Ambulance’s cult classic Streets of NYC album, a bittersweet look at uneasy teenage romance in New York in the late 70s. Which was funny, since Cenedella’s blend of twangy Americana and biting Graham Parker-esque proto new wave songcraft is the furthest thing from stoner music.

The star of the show was Smith, who held the audience rapt with a mix of new material and old favorites. As she told the crowd, her songs typically fit into three distinct categories: death songs, seduction songs and despair songs. An unexpectedly seductive number was the chilling, nocturnal Nashville, Tennessee, a stark waltz from Smith’s Snowblind album. Along with similarly spare, plaintive versions of the folk standards Pretty Saro and Wayfaring Stranger, she spun quietly through the wrenchingly poignant River King, a gently swaying, Fairport Convention-ish art-folk number with a knockout punch, a metaphorically loaded tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. She also brought out a handful of new numbers: the night’s most impactful song was a brand-new one, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding, suspensefully enveloping waltz with what could be a chilling allusion to the Eric Garner murder. Although Smith’s imagery is opaque and allusive – that’s the seduction thing going on – so you never know.

And after the four onstage had wrapped up their evening, the irrepressibly charming, ebullient, wickedly tight swing jazz harmony trio the Tickled Pinks lept onstage with their bassist and guitarist and kept the audience on the sunny side of the street with a brief set of standards. “They’re all the same song,” bandleader Karla Rose (of brilliant, psychedelic noir quartet Karla Rose & the Thorns) joked, but all that counterpoint, and all those harmonic leaps all over the place, aren’t exactly easy. But the trio sang as if they’d been doing this all their lives. Which they sort of have.

Passin’s next show upstairs at 2A is this August 30 at 9, where she switches to bass to play with countrypolitan chanteuse Drina Seay‘s fantastic noir-inclined band.

Ravi Shavi Bring Their Fun Update on Retro Rock and Soul to South Williamsburg

“You guys must love Radio Birdman,” the e-zine publisher and future blogger grinned.

“Huh? Who’s Radio Birdman?” the Disclaimers‘ frontman and guitarist Dylan Keeler responded, perplexed.

This was back in 2001 or so. The Disclaimers – esteemed in New York but criminally unknown outside of town – had just wrapped up their ferociously tuneful set at the now long-gone C-Note on the Lower East Side with a menacingly stomping, chromatically-fueled garage-punk hit. Which was a dead ringer for the Australian band…except that nobody in the Disclaimers had ever heard of Radio Birdman.

The punchline here is that you have to be careful attributing influences to bands or musicians. The wheel gets reinvented sometimes. So it’s probably fair to say that while Rhode Island band Ravi Shavi are often a dead ringer for sardonic 90s cult favorites Railroad Jerk, it’s also possible that they never heard of that group. What they share with them is a love for retro rock and soul sounds and a trash-talking sense of humor. Where Railroad Jerk blended atonal indie-ness into their 60s-influenced mashup, Ravi Shavi infuse theirs with lots and lots of reverb and more of a punk edge. Clear Plastic Masks are a good comparison – and a more likely influence. But you never know. Ravi Shavi have a gig at Don Pedro’s at 8:30ish on August 29 and a debut album streaming at Bandcamp.

Frontman Rafay Rashid works a sly come-on vibe on the opening track, the vampy two-chord Indecisions. Bloody Opus is a punk rock vignette with a Modern Lovers reference at the end. Guitarist Nick Politelli makes playful soul/garage/funk out of lots of ornate 7th chords on Hobbies, with a little Chuck Berry thrown in as well. Accidental takes liberties with a familiar Motown-style tune – the band rips the dance out of it and does it as four-on-the-floor rock with a little punk snottiness.

“I need a place to crash tonight, I need a place to be,” Rashid implores in Local News. Amphetamine – an original, not the Steve Wynn classic – has a Stonesy growl pushed along by bassist Bryan Fieldin and drummer Andrew Wilmarth – when the chorus kicks in, twin reverb guitars going full tilt, it’s pure sonic redemption.

Old Man rips off Dylan’s Just Like a Woman – which might be deliberate, and a joke. Problems – no, not a Sex Pistols cover – is the album’s best track, a shuffling, chord-chopping latin soul number: “Yeah, you had a lotta problems at home,” is the mantra. But there’s a happy ending. Critters has a strutting, practically disco groove: “Who’ll shoot the ones that love you?” is the operative question. ??? The album winds up with the redundantly titled Vacation Holiday – which may also be a joke, alternating between an anxious soul pulse and meat-and-potatoes bar-band rock. This isn’t heavy music, but it’s a lot of fun.

Intense, Haunting Frank Flight Band Recordings Rescued from the Archives

For their consistently dark post-Doors vision, brilliant guitar work, epic songcraft and wry humor, it’s tempting to call the Frank Flight Band the British Blue Oyster Cult. Except that the Frank Flight Band’s output has been much more consistent and genuinely brilliant. That’s not meant as a dis to BOC, although that band’s studio output since Fire of Unknown Origin – which was a long, long, long time ago – has basically been a wash. Over the past two decades, the Frank Flight Band’s output has been much less prolific – just four albums – but with the persistent hint that vastly more material is hidden away in a vault somewhere. That myth gets some validation on the band’s latest release, The Usual Curse, streaming in full at cdbaby.

There’s been some turnover in the band across the years. Although former frontman Andy Wrigley’s distinctive rasp is missed, Maurice Watson’s croon is one of the album’s strengths; he’s sort of the missing link between Bryan Ferry and Mark Sinnis. Flight is the rare bandleader who typically limits himself to rhythm guitar and songwriting, while lead player Dave Thornley gets to flex his chops. There isn’t a lot of lead playing here, but it’s choice. Flight draws on influences as diverse as David Gilmour, Robbie Krieger and classic C&W, and Thornley’s terse, spacious, jangly, chiming style is a good fit. For whatever reason, this is the first Flight album where he doesn’t contribute lyrically.

The opening cut, Empty has a doomed sway, Flight’s elegant multitracks and Thornley’s hauntingly bluesy solo over studio drummer Terry Shaughnessy’s shuffle groove. “It won’t be only bricks that fall on the grass that lovers bear…death is in the opening sighs of every interaction,” Watson intones.

The title track begins as a real departure for this band, Watson’s angry, death-obsessed lyrics over Thornley’s web of Beatlesque folk-pop guitar; then it goes electric with an unexpected Booker T-inflected soul groove. Thornley and Flight share writing credits on The Last Train West, a dusky, jangly kiss-off anthem akin to the Doors doing highway rock.

Thornley sings his sardonic, jazz-inflected mid-period Pink Floyd-influenced ballad, Ballet Dancer. Watson returns to the mic for the album’s riveting, anguished, Middle Eastern-tinged, closing clave groove, Unrequited, one of Flight’s half-dozen best compositions. While most of the tracks here date from almost ten years ago, there are also two new tunes. As Flight explains in the album’s liner notes, “In typical FFB cyclical fashion this is the first time all four original members have recorded together since the proto basement tape ‘Leyland Road’ sessions of the mid 1990’s.” The first of the new tunes, the epic Home from the Sea mashes up southern boogie, north Atlantic folk and pensive late 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia. The second, the surf/spacerock instrumental As Far As The Eye Can See is a dead ringer for the Church circa the early 90s. While the Frank Flight Band’s definitive recording is their 2013 masterpiece Remains, this collection further cements their reputation as psychedelic cult heroes. And raises the intrigue: what else do they have in the can that we haven’t heard?

Figli Di Madre Ignota: One of Europe’s Funniest and Funnest Bands

Figli Di Madre Ignota (Italian for “Nobody’s Children,” more or less) are hilarious. The Milan-based circus rock band’s most obvious reference point is Gogol Bordello, but although there’s a frenetic Romany punk side to their sound, they’re more heavily influenced by Balkan and Turkish music. Some of their lyrics are in English, and those have the kind of surreal humor you would expect in the styles they play. But their Italian lyrics are the bomb, full of sarcastic puns, double entendres and intricate rhyme schemes. Their latest album, Bellydancer – streaming at Soundcloud – is a party in a box. If you consider yourself a fun person, you need to know about it – which is why it’s on this page today, over a year after these friendly people sent it here.

The obvious thought before writing this was, is this band still alive or did they go to Lynyrd Skynyrd Land? Happily, they are very much alive, and flourishing, and playing the Offenburg Brewery Festival in Pietra Ligure, Italy at 10 PM on August 29. The album’s first track is Istanbul, which rocks out a menacing chromatic riff – at halfspeed or quarterspeed, this could be doom metal, but this irrepressible band won’t settle for doom. The title track – in English – adds Mediterranean flavor to big 80s stadium-rock theatrics, fueled by the twin guitars of Marco “Pampa” Pampaluna and Massimiliano “Pitone” Unali. “If all you dancers were the resistance, girl, we’d need no war, no revolution,” frontman Stefano “Iasko” Iascone shouts.

The metaphorically charged Mediterranean Voodoo, built around a searing Turkish guitar riff over a tricky dance rhythm, contemplates the weight of centuries of history, much of it ugly. One of the album’s funniest songs, Escargantua, makes merciless fun of the French: their food fixation, literary pretentions and imperialist tendencies. It’s akin to an Italian take on Les Sans Culottes. Here’s a rough translation of the first verse:

Look, there’s Flaubert eating camembert
With D’Alembert, but Diderot
What is he doing? He’s drinking Pernod to death, with Hugo
“Leave some for me,” Hercule Poirot screams to him
“But you don’t even exist! Everybody knows that,”
Voltaire and Rousseau tell him

Sex Music Pasta is sort of the band’s theme song: it’s a delicious, chromatically bristling Balkan dancefloor stomp, Iascone leading a blazing trumpet section as the guitars roar and a cimbalom ripples eerily in the background. Guest Valentina Cariulo’s edgy violin drives Show Me the Way, which rises from dubwise Balkan reggae to a deliriously pulsing dance. Alternativo, a minor-key disco number, makes fun of trendoids and wannabes and is another really funny one. Another rough translation:

A little savings to live on
You play vinyl and you hang out backstage
What is fair is fair if
You choose not to choose

Tagliatella Punk is a swaying, electrified tarantella, talking truth to power about the timeworn bread-and-circuses situation at home:

Christmas movie releases, and radioactive waste,
Government crises, and celebrity gossip
Money for tanks but not for the earthquake victims…

Caravan Petrol follows a similarly edgy, bouncy tangent. Guest chanteuse Francesca Sottocasa sings Vegan in the Fridge, a wryly satirical go-go number and a slap at extremists from everywhere on the spectrum. But dudes, do you really have to put the vegan in there with the klansman and the theocons and Dianetics?

The album winds up with A Me Non Piace Niente (I Don’t Like Anything), a riotous early 21st century broadside directed at reality tv, social media, “dj culture,” trash fiction, plastic surgery, you name it. “The truth about stupid people is that you can measure them in inches,” Iascone observes. This slightly Beatlesque tarantella punk number has to be one of the best songs released in any language in the past few years – as is this album. Why was it not covered here earlier? Um…blame that computer crash here last spring.

Dark Psychedelic Bandleader Ember Schrag Joins a Killer Triplebill at Trans-Pecos on the 23rd

Ember Schrag‘s most recent gig at Hifi Bar was one of the year’s best. For that matter, the enigmatic, charismatic psychedelic bandleader’s previous show at a house concert in south Brooklyn with phantasmagorical art-rock band Goddess was pretty amazing too. Schrag and her band open the night at Trans-Pecos at 8:30 PM this Sunday, August 23, followed by intense Balkan noir psychedelic band Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores, with whom Schrag will air out her chops on creepy Farfisa organ. Groove-driven no wave cult faves Escape by Ostrich give the evening an acidic coda; cover is a measly $8.

Counterintuitively, Goddess opened the Brooklyn show with their album release performance, a deliciously macabre, theatrical suite about a genuine monster who takes over a hapless New Jersey household. As electrifying as that show was, Schrag and her band were every bit as intense. On album, Schrag’s signature style until this year has been great plains gothic: low-key, reserved, with a subtle, white-knuckle intensity and allusively murderous narratives. This year, on the heels of her release of her live Folkadelphia session album, she and her band have taken those songs as well as a whole bunch of new material into vastly more trippy, artsy terrain.

Guitar polymath Bob Bannister alluded to Muscle Shoals and Fairport Convention and Blonde on Blonde Dylan, among numerous other reference points, but always twisted those styles into something terse and erudite of his own to match Schrag’s venomously symbolist lyrics. Bassist Debbie Schwartz (formerly of the Aquanettas and a fantastic, similarly psychedelic songwriter in her own right) played a surf groove on one number, slides and hammer-ons on a handful of others, and bolstered Schrag’s soaring, distantly angst-fueled voice with her high vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, drummer Gary Foster colored the songs with witchy rimshots and cymbal splashes, misty crescendos and, when necessary, a swinging four-on-the-floor garage rock drive.

Bannister’s nimble accents mingled with Schrag’s hypnotic, circular fingerpicked hooks and Foster’s brushwork on the pensive Sutherland, an understated murder ballad and the night’s opening number. Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe, a swaying, psychedelic folk noir number, might be Schrag’s most definitive new song. She doesn’t even bother to stomp on a religious icon: she lets her shadow do it. Bannister and Schrag’s rainswept jangle blended as one on the late Beatlesque psych anthem The Real Penelope, followed by a catchy southwestern gothic clang-rock number, part Steve Wynn, part astringent 80s Boston.

Schrag likes to turn Biblical imagery inside out, and she also has a Shakespearean side, most evident in the Arthur Lee-esque number that followed that, and later the ominous Lady M, Bannister’s icepick accents taking the place of the resonant, keening Susan Alcorn steel guitar on the recorded version. From there the band made their way through another ominous waltz that also brought to mind Arthur Lee, as well as a sad, misty Laurel Canyon psych-folk anthem that exploded the Abraham myth. Schrag wound up the set with another wounded waltz where she raised her voice to a shivery Ann Wilson wail, then the slow, cruellly sardonic I Ain’t a Prophet, and a wickedly catchy janglerock song spiced with nimble triplet figures and a biting, bluesy solo from Bannister: the guy can play anything and make it his own. The Trans-Pecos show should be every bit as good.

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