New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

A Gorgeous Live Recording of an Iconic Renaissance Choral Epic

Taken out of historical context, the Green Mountain Project’s final January 2020 concert performance of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 – streaming at Bandcamp – is epically electrifying. Considering the hideous events of the past nine months, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Outside of Sweden, Nicaragua, Moscow and a few (slowly growing) parts of the world, it is illegal to either perform, or invite audiences to attend. How fortuitous it was that the ensemble decided to go out when they did – with a bang. This is a particularly high-voltage performance.

Choir directors Jolle Greenleaf and Scott Metcalfe first staged the iconic Renaissance choral work at St. Mary’s Church in midtown Manhattan in January of 2010. It became an annual tradition, finally winding up a year ago, the impassioned voices joined by strings, the period brass of the Dark Horse Consort, and organist Jeffrey Grossman. This massive double live album isn’t quite the complete show: brief, more mundane moments of call-and-response have been omitted. The group sing it at a slightly elevated Venetian pitch, as choirs where the composer was employed four centuries ago would have. Another fascinating accession to tradition is that most of the mass is sung one voice to a particular part, and every one of the soloists rises to the occasion.

Maybe because this is a concert recording, there are places where the instruments are as loud as the voices, occasionally even more so, everyone benefiting from the space’s immense amounts of natural reverb. The choir and instrumentalists handle Monteverdi’s intertwining counterpoint effortlessly and seem to relish hitting the big swells. Angels duel in strong, elegant, melismatic vocalese. Women soar over the men’s steady river of lows and the lustrously balanced orchestration: the wordless sonata that opens the second disc is a lush, majestic highlight.

Another welcome feature that older listeners typically take for granted is that this recording is divided up into a mere 24 tracks, a handful of which go on for almost ten minutes at a time. It’s not quite the equivalent of a vinyl record, but happily this album eschews the recent and incredibly annoying tendency for record labels to slice classical pieces up into dozens of fragments, presumably to maximize Spotify nanopayments.

Tantalizingly Heavy Freebies from Riding Easy Records

In 2021, record labels are like video stores were twenty years ago. Riding Easy Records are the rare label who have managed to carve out a successful niche – in all things heavy. Stoner boogie, doom metal, psychedelia, biker rock, they’ve got you covered. Their Xmas 2020 mixtape – a free download at Bandcamp – is an obvious ploy to get you to stock up on their vinyl. And practically everything they put out is worth owning on vinyl, as this playlist confirms.

There’s an insane amount of music here, seventeen tracks. Some of these acts are well known, others less so, and many have received coverage here. Take the Goners, who mash up psychedelic garage rock with metal riffs and whose album Good Mourning recently got the thumbs-up. They’re represented by the album’s most bizarre track, Down and Out, a blend of Ventures and early Iron Maiden with a spacy interlude for horns. Go figure.

Here Lies Man, an Antibalas spinoff who metalize Afrobeat, open the mix with I Told You (You Shall Die), a killer minor-key number that could be a heavier Budos Band with a mellotron. Lake, by Spelljammer, has brisk fuzz-and-wah bookending the surprisingly slinky sludge in between. Warish‘s hammering Say to Please looks back to Queens of the Stone Age, while Deathchant‘s Holy Roller is a surreal mashup of heavy 70s boogie, screamo and hip-hop.

Alator’s Lost and Never Found has vintage Sabbath gloom and catchiness, plus a cool funeral organ solo. Biker rock band the Death Wheelers earned a good Halloween month review with their latest album, whose title track is the chugging faux-bikesploitation theme Divine Filth. Death Is Coming, by R.I.P., is a more 70s-oriented throwback to Bon Scott-era AC/DC and Judas Priest.

Hellfire‘s Victims moves forward in time about seven or eight years to the new wave of British heavy metal and Iron Maiden, whose catchiest, poppiest side they emulate. Headbang, by Rapid Tears, and the Mopptops’ Our lives are pretty standard-issue Nuggets garage nostalgia at slightly higher volume

The ersatz Hendrix of Randy Holden’s Blue My Mind appears on the reissue of the former Blue Cheer guitarist’s extremely rare 1970 vinyl debut, Population II. First State Bank’s lysergically multitracked Mr. Sun and Debb Johnson’s politically volatile heavy soul single Dancing in the Ruin are also 70s rarities digitized and resurrected on the latest volume in the popular Brown Acid compilation series – they’re up to eleven now, just like Spinal Tap. And Gypsy, by Indianapolis psychedelic band Ice, is the strangest rediscovery here, a bizarre riff-rock tune with hints of the Moody Blues and the Move. Riding Easy Records reissued their lone, similarly surreal 1970 album, The Ice Age, last June.

Thomas V. Jager, frontman of Monolord, contributes The Bitter End, a lo-fi gothic ballad evoking a well-known Animals hit. The album’s final cut seems to be a stoner joke: no spoilers. Download and enjoy.

Fascinating, Rare Choral Music From Georgia

In the Georgian language, zedashe means “jug.” The Republic of Georgia is home to one of the earliest wine-making civilizations, and also a deeply rooted tradition of choral music. So it’s no surprise that one of the country’s most celebrated choirs would call themselves Zedashe. Their latest album Silver Sanctuary is streaming at Bandcamp.

Traditional Georgian music sounds like nothing from the surrounding areas. Much of it is stark yet resonant. It follows neither traditional western, Arabic or other levantine scales or harmony. Zedashe are serious scholars, blending all sorts of large and small-scale songs from across the centuries with new arrangements, some based on musicological fragments they’ve unearthed over the years. Various configurations of the men and women of the ensemble join voices throughout this rather epic 22-track record, occasionally bolstered by drums, panduri and chonguri lute, accordion and bagpipes. Some of the songs feature lyrics in endangered regional languages including Chan and Megrelian.

Irony and hardship permeate this material. Unrequited love is a persistent theme, as are drinking and war. Couples bound for arranged marriages long for their true loves. Fables illustrate age-old human foibles. One of the songs salutes Queen Tamar, a 12th century strongwoman and patron of the arts. Others chronicle struggles against Russian invaders.

The longer, slower numbers tend to be more hypnotic and drony; the shorter, more kinetic ones often feature a lot of call-and-response. There are also a couple of impassioned solo performances.

And in keeping with this month’s theme here, this music is illegal to either perform or witness in most parts of the world. For anyone who missed this past year’s ACDA/NATS/ChorusAmerica webinar, most professional choirs don’t expect to be able to either rehearse or perform (outside of Sweden, Nicaragua, Moscow, or a small county in Idaho, anyway) for the next two years. Isn’t it about time we all raised our voices together against this madness?

Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo Put Out a Gorgeous, Bittersweetly Intimate Album of Boleros

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón has released some of the most exhilarating and forward-looking jazz in recent years, from his exploration of his Puerto Rican roots, to a string quartet collaboration. His latest album El Arte Del Bolero – streaming at Bandcamp – is much more straightforward but no less dynamic. Recorded live for a webcast last September, it’s a mix of classic boleros played as an intimate duo show with his longtime pianist collaborator Luis Perdomo, the guy who’s probably the ideal candidate for this kind of material.

Both artists had already played many of these tunes together over the years, although not typically in a duo setting. And much as boleros – on this side of the Atlantic, anyway – tend to be melancholy or mysterious, the duo span a huge range of emotion with them here. They also don’t constrain the songs to a bolero rhythm.

They take their time to open the album with an expansive take of Benny More’s Como Fue, Zenon playing the vocal line solo with a surprising mistiness before Perdomo enters the picture. Zenon rises to a gracefully leaping optimism as Perdomo lowlights his chords, then channels his usual gravitas in his own solo. At the end, they bring the song full circle.

They follow with a practically ten-minute, hauntingly spacious version of Alma Adentro. the Sylvia Rexach classic and title cut from Zenon’s 2012 album. Zenon nails the song’s searching, practically desperate quality, Perdomo echoing the theme with his judicious, emphatic chordal work and variations. And yet, as Zenon does occasionally through the set, he offers hope with a crystalline, melodica-like tone in the upper registers.

He rises to a more insistent drive in the third track, Ese Hastío, a remake of the Ray Barreto hit Piensa En Mi. Again, Perdomo anchors it with his lingering, soberly glistening lines. Zenon takes inspiration from how the great tres player and songwriter Arsenio Rodriguez reputedly wrote La Vida Es Un Sueño after discovered that the eyesight he’d lost in childhood couldn’t be restored. There’s hope against hope in Zenon’s balmy, cautiously sailing phrasing over Perdomo’s bittersweetly regal backdrop and quiet hailstorm of a solo.

The two hit as much of a peak as there is here with their version of singer La Lupe’s famous 1960s hit Que Te Pedí, from Zenon’s bounding solo intro, through a somberly unembellished couple of verses, to a trick ending – no spoilers! They bring the set full circle with a somewhat subdued yet animated version of crooner Cheo Feliciano’s Juguete, Zenon finally cutting loose with a long, flurrying solo, as he’s been threatening to do all along. Two of the most lyrical players in jazz, or any other kind of music, at the top of their game…quietly.

Almost a Year Later, a Sofia Talvik Song From the First Days of the Lockdown Still Resonates

Conventional wisdom is that if you play music from outside your native idiom, you pretty much have to be better than the natives to get any cred. Swedish Americana ongwriter Sofia Talvik is. She was finishing up a tour in Winnsboro, Texas when the lockdown came crushing down. Nine momths later, where are we? This delicate, distantly chilling song, Meanwhile in Winnsboro, ponders that same question. “You forgot all the luxury you’ve got as you brace for the end of the world,” is a recurrent theme. Now we know where it went: into the pockets of Amazon and the rest of the lockdowners.

Starkly Haunting, Richly Orchestral Metal From Volur

Volur’s music is stark yet orchestral, relentlessly gloomy yet adrenalizing. They sound like no other band in the world, blending black metal, Nordic folk and psychedelic 70s art-rock. The trio have the starkness of early ELO, the theatrics of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, guy/girl harmonies and grimly mythological lyrics that unwind slowly over terse, purposeful drums and layers of stygian bass. The lead instruments are Lucas Gadke’s bass and Laura C. Bates’ violin, creating a persistently raw, haunting presence no matter how ornate the overdubs grow. They like long songs. Pretty much everything on their killer new album Death Cult – streaming at Bandcamp – is in the eight to twelve minute range.

This is one of those records that’s best experienced as a whole, lying on the floor with a good pair of headphones. The group open hypnotically with Inviolate Grove, rising slowly to a plaintively orchestral sway, hitting a wounded, anthemic riff and then cutting loose with drummer Justin Ruppel’s tricky, math-y rhythm and a thicket of machete picking.

The violin hits a searing peak as the second track, Dead Moon gathers force with a slow, steady, heroic theme, Bates’ avenger-spirit vocals roaring eerily in the depths of the mix. The album’s mightiest epic is the title cut, starting with a menacing tritone and a morose string interlude that could be Bartok. Migthty peaks and muted moments with what sounds like throat-singing by dead monks paired against nimbly melodic bass eventually descend into shrieking disintegration, only to return with a vengeance. The violin solo afterward will rip a hole in your skull.

An artfully arranged baroque chorale, a harrowingly circling action film theme of sorts and scorching wah-wah bass all figure into the closing number, Reverend Queen. We need more bands as fearlessly individualistic and unpredictably interesting as Volur.

A Massive, Exhilarating Double Album From the Spektral Quartet

One unexpectedly entertaining feature of the Spektral Quartet’s lavish double album Experiments in Living is an “online card deck emulator” that facilitates very strange, quirky yet also insightful ways to create playlists from its vast range of material. Modeled after a tarot deck, it’s meant to defamiliarize the listener and, one suspects, lure them into hearing something they might not otherwise choose. Plenty of diehards will see the Ruth Crawford Seeger quartet here and immediately dial up all four movements, in order. But the card deck is a cool idea: it never hurts to listen outside the box. And if you just want to listen to the album inside the box, literally, it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

The material ranges from the well-worn to the once-and-still-radical to the more recent, adventurous sounds the group are best known for. How do they approach the Brahms String Quartet No. 1? The first movement seems fast, a little skittish, very acerbically rhythmic: they’re keeping their ears wide open. Even if you find the music impossibly dated, this version definitely isn’t boring. Those echo effects really come into sharp focus!

By contrast, the nocturnal second and third movements come across as careful, pastoral tableaux, the changes very proto-ELO. The group – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – cut loose on the intertwining finale. The close-miked clarity of the individual instruments in the mix is superior: Rolen’s quasi-basslines have a welcome presence.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 is right up their alley, from the first movement’s icepick exchanges to its hypnotic yet restlessly acidic counterpoint and a paint-peeling ending. Dynamic contrasts are subtle but striking, particularly in the more muted second movement. Balletesque precision alternates with sullen sustain and soaring highs in the third; the quartet’s unexpectedly slinky groove in the fourth is a revelation. Defiance has seldom been more resolute than this.

It’s a hard act to follow, but the Seeger quartet is every bit as gripping and a brilliantly contemporaneous segue (1931 for her, 1927 for him). In a word, wow. The ensemble attack it with a light-fingered, sometimes almost fleeting pointillism, an endess thicket of echo effects and sudden tradeoffs in the first couple of movements. The griptite resonance of the third seems almost backward-masked as phrases or single notes pass around the sonic frame; the group, particularly Rolen, really dig in vigorously up to a sudden end that’s just as coy as Schoenberg’s.

The first of the 21st century pieces is a Sam Pluta diptych, a shivery, punchy round-robin punctuated with droll, often cartoonish extended technique: harmonics, white noise, things that go bump in general, all of it amusing to hear and brutally hard to play.

Flutist Claire Chase joins the quartet for Anthony Cheung‘s 2015 suite The Real Book of Fake Tunes. Her assertive, rhythmic swells balance with the strings’ pizzicato bounce, then a microtonal haze sets in, punctuated by wry echoes and leaps. The third segment, with its stark microtonal chords and flute scurrying amid them, is edgy fun, as is the alternatingly whirling and grittily suspenseful fourth part. The conclusion bristles with good jokes and peek-a-boo riffage: it stands up amidst some very formidable material here.

Singer Charmaine Lee, who writes and improvises in phonetic language, teams up with the group for her surrealistically playful 2018 piece Spinals. This is what the word “sillypants” on the tarot card generator will get you, complete with what sounds like turntable scratching, whether acoustic or electronically generated.

The quartet close with George Lewis’ String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living, from two years earlier. Keening glissandos and flickers dance and swing over chugging, sputtering, often ridiculous riffage, with circular, microtonal clusters punctuated by droll flicks and punches. Definitely sillypants – with daunting extended technique and a little horror movie ambience to keep you (and the band) on your toes.

Purist, Upbeat, Dynamically Retro Swing Songs From Gemma Sherry

Singer Gemma Sherry escaped her native Australia before the lockdown. Considering how the lockdowners have turned the country into the Southern Hemisphere’s North Korea, she was lucky to get out when she did. On her sarcastically titled album Let’s Get Serious – streaming at Bandcamp – she shows off a purist retro 50s sensibility and an often devious sense of humor. Musicians love to play on records like this because it gives them a chance to cut loose and have fun, and Sherry is contagious when it comes to that.

Sometimes that humor is pretty broad, sometimes it’s more subtle. With her irrepressibly chirpy, cheery delivery, Sherry plays up the hokum and innuendo in the album’s opening number, Blossom’s Blues. So do pianist Rick Germanson and guitarist Paul Bollenback, the latter doing a little B.B. King flutter before nailing one of the punchlines.

Sherry approaches Give Me the Simple Life with a more pillowy delivery as the band strut behind her, propelled by bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer George Coleman Jr. The addition of Joseph Doubleday’s vibraphone in the spare, boleroesque take of Too Much in Love to Care gives it an unexpected, understatedly lurid Blue Velvet lounge feel.

Likewise, the delicate take of Try Your Wings, beginning as a wistful guitar-and-vocal duet, is a heartfelt change of pace. Sherry also does much of The Alley Cat Song as a jaunty duet with Wheeler, She plays up more wistful self-effacement than snideness in the Blossom Dearie classic The Gentleman Is a Dope (for a badass version that’s 180 degrees the opposite, check out Joanna Berkebile’s new recording).

There’s striking modal sternness in Why Don’t You Do Right, fueled by Germanson’s resonant, incisive chords and Bollenback’s biting solo: this Great Depression-era hit has special resonance in a year where forty percent of New Yorkers can no longer pay rent. Sherry drifts back into slinky latin noir in Whatever Lola Wants, Germanson relishing the role of creepy lounge lizard. It’s the best song on the album.

The group give a chipper early 50s feel to Straighten Up and Fly Right, complete with drum breaks and spare vibes. It’s hard to disassociate Sherry’s remake of Go Away Little Girl from a certain version that plagues mallstore radio mixes. She winds up the album with a tiptoeing, lighthearted take of The Doodlin Song, which will definitely drive the party poopers out of the room.

The Silkroad Ensemble Release a Haunting, Surreal New Osvaldo Golijov Epic

Over the past practically three decades, the Silkroad Ensemble have been the world’s great champions of a blend of music from south Asia, through the Arabic-speaking world and the west. Their latest album, Falling Out of Time – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises a single, lavish, thirteen-part tone poem by contemporary classical composer Osvaldo Golijov, which hauntingly dovetails with the group’s esthetic. It may be the most stunningly accessible orchestral work the composer has ever written. It’s certainly the most eclectic, drawing on such diverse idioms as Indian music, classical Chinese theatre, jazz balladry and sounds of the Middle East.

This is a frequently operatically-tinged work, tracing a surreal, grim narrative surrounding the death of a child. Mythical creatures and archetypes are involved. The introduction, Heart Murmur rises from a brooding, skeletal Arabic-tinged taqsim to a darkly catchy, circling ghazal-like melody over a dancing, jazz-inflected pulse and the achingly intertwining voices of singers Biella da Costa and Nora Fischer.

Night Messengers is a stark, increasingly imploring nocturnal tableau, the womens’ voices wary and enigmatic over an all-star string quartet comprising half of Brooklyn Rider – violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords – with violinist Mazz Swift, and cellist Karen Ouzounian.

That sudden, stratospherically high harmony in the enigmatic Come Chaos is a real shock to the system: is that a voice, Wu Tong’s sheng, or a theremin? No spoilers!

Uneasy, fragmentary flickers from the strings followed by Wu Man’s pipa join to introduce the simply titled Step, rising to a harrowing intensity. The Lynchian dub interlude afterward comes as another real shock.

Shane Shanahan’s tabla and the singers’ acidic harmonies take over the hypnotic ambience as In Procession, a portrait of mass bereavement, gets underway, Kayhan Kalhor’s muted, desolate kamancheh solo at the center amid the string quartet. Troubled atmospherics waft and eventually permeate Walking, the suite’s drifting, central elegy, lowlit with echoey kamancheh, Dan Brantigan’s desolate trumpet and Shawn Conley’s spare jazz-inflected bass

An ambient lament featuring spiky pipa in contrast to Jeremy Flower’s synth foreshadows Fly, which with its aching ambience and jazz allusions mirrors the centerpiece. Go Now, the suite’s most immersive, restlessly resonant track, features a long, plaintive kamancheh intro, a similarly aching, vivid duet with the violin. Da Costa reaches for the rafters with the pipa trailing off morosely at the end.

Akeya (Where Are You) is a dissociative mashup of orchestral 1950s Miles Davis, Etta James moan and kabuki theatre, maybe. The ensemble hint at rebirth and redemption in the closing tableau, Breathe. Is the nameless dead boy at the center of the story a metaphor for the hope and joy that was stolen from us in 2020? What a piece of music for our time!

Lush, Thoughtful, String-Driven, Vastly Eclectic Tunesmithing From Alice Zawadzki

Singer/multi-instrumentalist Alice Zawadzki writes distinctive, individualistic songs that blend jazz, chamber pop, western classical sounds and occasional Korean influences. Her songs are on the slow side and typically take awhile to unwind. She likes atmospherics, has a mystical side and writes pensive, generally optimistic lyrics. Her lush, dynamically shifting album Within You is a World of Spring hit the web about a year and a half ago and is streaming at Spotify.

It opens with the title track, a blustery Asian flourish from the string section – Simmy Singh snd Laura Senior on violins, Lucy Nolan on viola  and Peggy Nolan on cello – quickly giving way to Zawadzki’s terse, modally vamping piano. It’s the missing link betwen Ghost in the Machine-era Police and Hissing of Summer Lawns-era Joni Mitchell. Rob Luft’s guitar adds enigmatic sear to the mix; bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer Fred Thomas take over the dancing drive from there. In her leaping, energetic soprano, Zawadzki sings this soaring encouragement to leave the dark side behind.

She goes even further up the scale, spare piano over lingering atmospherics in the second track, Gods Children, finally picking up with a spacious guitar solo over a slow, anthemic drive.

“Superior Virtue was my protection, and I could gaze over the abyss all day without falling,” she intones over the drone of the strings and the occasional piano flourish in the third track, Nolan’s viola soaring plaintively over a twinkling, balletesque pulse as the song gathers steam.

Zawadzki sings the bouncy love song Es Verdad expressively in Spanish, Thomas on tenor banjo throughout a surreal mashup of bluegrass and 1970s nueva cancion. The otherworldly melismas of Hyelim Kim’s Korean taegum flute to introduce The Woods, a mystical nighttime spoken-word forest tableau that builds to a twinkling waltz.

Keeper is the most straight-up rock anthem here, with triumphant, gospel-infused harmonies, a resonant guitar solo, dancing bass where least expected over steady Pink Floydian piano chords. Witchy strings come together over a trip-hop beat after an introduction that’s painful at high volume in Twisty Moon, a surreal mashup of soukous and circus rock. Zawadzki closes this fascinating and stunningly original album with O Mi Amore, a balmy ballad infused with spiky banjo accents.