New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: art-rock

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.

A Characteristically Brilliant, Surprising, Slashingly Lyrical New Album by Changing Modes

Changing Modes have been one of the best bands in New York since the zeros, when they began releasing a formidable series of catchy, ambitious, individualistic rock records. Their music features layers of keyboards and vocal harmonies from frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam, enigmatically virtuosic and often slashing lead guitar from Yuzuru Sadashige, with drummer Timur Yusef colorfully negotiating the songs’ serpentine, shapeshifting rhythms. As the years went on, their playful lyrical edge grew angrier and more politically-inspired, particularly as the Metoo movement gained momentum. Their latest album Wax World is streaming at youtube.

From a performance point of view, what’s most amazing is that it sounds as lush and contiguous as the rest of their catalog, considering that Yusef – one of the most colorfully nimble players in town – recorded his tracks remotely from the UK.

The opening number, Audio Polaroid, is a searing, sardonic commentary on IG-era narcissism: “Audio Polaroid never will fill the void,” the two women harmonize over a surreal blend of reggae and skittish new wave. The ultimate message seems to be that it’s never more than a memory – and a hazy one at that.

Griffiths and Pulliam exchange lyrical lines and harmonies over haphazard Beatles blues in Nothing to Say: “You’re selling your soul on ebay, you’re selling secrets that aren’t yours to give away,” Pulliam accuses. Strychnine is not the Cramps classic but an slyly blippy, very subtly venomous, new wave-tinged original with a hilarious intro.

Stasis Loop rises out of an evil morass of feedback and horror-movie keys, a macabre, picturesque account of the early days of the lockdown in New York, “Stuck in a place where nobody waits for summer or fall…playgrounds are empty, their friends are all gone and even their masters are someone else’s boss.” It might be the best song of 2021.

The band maintain the chilly ambience in Autumn, a vehicle for Sadashige’s enigmatically skeletal guitar leads. Likewise, the rainy-day guitar clusters, keening organ and plaintive vocal harmonies in Glass of Winter. If this song is any indication, Sadashige was a great surf guitarist in a past life and has graduated to jazz.

Solitary, a brisk punchy new wave/punk number, speaks for itself: this time the grisly joke is the outro. Yusef’s gracefully tumbling Atrocity Exhibition-style drums bookend On an Island, a gorgeously symphonic, surreal esape ballad. Baritone saxophonist Sawa Tamezane caps off Haze, a ba-bump cabaret-tinged number, with an incisively lyrical solo.

The band close with Undertow, a dynamically shifting, baroque-tinged anthem, late Beatles through a glass darkly. Changing Modes’ records have been ubiquitous on this blog’s annual Best Albums of the Year page since day one and this one will be high on the list for 2021.

An Evocative, Majestic Single and a Hometown Gig by South Dakota Group Howling Embers

For South Dakotans looking for an interesting show this coming Saturday, Oct 23, there’s an intriguing one at the Cave Collective at 406 5th St. in Rapid City; cover is eight bucks. The screamo opening act aren’t anything beyond generic; hometown folk-punk headliners Crust After Curfew are new, pissed off and still figuring out a sound. And the 8 PM act, Howling Embers‘ only recording is a name-your-price single up at their Bandcamp page.

But that instrumental, Taiga, is a good one. How much great plains desolation does it bring to mind? It’s more of a spacerock song, actually. It starts out as a spare, jangly and distantly ominous tableau, then grows starrier, shifting to a forlorn and much more lushly orchestral melody before the crush kicks in. The duo of guitarist Ben Lemay and drummer Luke Gorder obviously have a lot of sounds up their sleeves. Listeners on their home turf will be able to find out what those are this weekend.

An Epic, Visionary Reflection on Lockdown-Era Horror and Resistance From Mostly Autumn

On one hand, it’s bizarre that there hasn’t been more music about the lockdown. On the other hand, studio time was hard to find for awhile, and many musicians are playing their cards close to the vest, fearing that they’ll lose part of their audience if they dare question the brainwashing and fear propaganda that the corporate media unleashed on us in the spring of last year.

British band Mostly Autumn are one of the few and the brave. Their new album Graveyard Star – streaming at youtube – is a throwback to ornately catchy 70s bands like Renaissance and Supertramp, and most obviously, Pink Floyd. The lyrics are straightforward and thoughtful: the characters in these songs long to be free, under the sun, out in the fields, and hold their ground as the walls crush in against them. The melodies here rise from a somber restraint, through dirges and black-sky ambience to a thunderous, stadium-worthy stomp. And ultimately, the band’s message is optimistic, notwithstanding the visceral pain and longing that pervades this vast and in many ways visionary album,

The group comprises Olivia Sparnenn-Josh and guitarist Bryan Josh sharing lead vocals, with Iain Jennings on keys, Angela Gordon on flute, keys and vocals, Chris Johnson on guitars, Andy Smith on bass and Henry Rogers on drums.

Solemn synth chromatics give way to a baroque-tinged, gothic organ melody as the album’s epic, twelve-minute title track gets underway. A Floydian spacerock tableau unfolds into a steady anthem, then the guitars kick in: it’s a metal symphony but with a more focused, Gilmouresque attack.

“I hedge my bets on stormy seas, it’s a long way home tonight,” Josh sings grimly over looming, cumulo-nimbus orchestration in The Plague Bell. The loping, moody spaghetti western rock of Skin of Mankind, an existentialist lament, comes as a real surprise: these guys are a great surf band! Guest Chris Leslie’s violin solo peaking out in tandem with Sparnenn-Josh’s vocals is one of the album’s most spine-tingling moments.

“Voices like a ghost calling history up again, if I wasn’t growing up I sure as hell am now,” Josh reflects over a lush bed of acoustic guitars before the electrics kick in mightily in Shadows, a bristling commentary on lockdown alienation and solitude.

“The deeper that you bleed, the further you will reach…the harder you love, the harder that you hurt,” Sparnenn-Josh muses in the stately, jangly ballad The Harder That You Hurt, but even here, she refuses to concede to despair.

She reflects on escape throughout a long, desolate drive in Razor Blade, the music lifting from a piano-based dirge to Floydian majesty and wrath as Josh moves to the mic. When Sparnenn-Josh intones “Hang me on a satellite,” the irony is crushing – as is the desperate coda.

Sparnenn-Josh speaks to the interminable hopelessness of the early months of 2020 in This Endless War, as the music slowly reaches up from a dirge to a shrieking, vengeful Gilmouresque guitar solo.

The border closure and “x-ray town” in Spirit of Mankind raise the ugly specter of what we’ve been battling since the spring of 2020, but the song is a tribute to the indomitability of the resistance against it, “A phoenix rising through these flames.”

Back in These Arms starts out with allusions to a famously mechanical Pink Floyd theme and morphs into a Celtic-tinged stadium rock anthem. Josh sings defiantly of how, if we all join forces, we can reclaim our world from fascist domination: “Freedom’s burning in our veins, never let it go!”

Sparnenn-Josh sings Free to Fly with a delicate, restrained hope over Jennings’ gentle piano lullaby and eventually a web of synth that reaches orchestral heights. The Diamond is the most opaque song on the album, but paradoxically one of its catchiest, a wistful reflection of rebirth from a bankrupt system “pre-designed to fall apart.”

Josh sings Turn Around Slowly, an endlessly shapeshifting, circling, metaphorically loaded seafaring anthem that makes a towering coda:

Is there any danger when love blows a fuse
There’s a clown in the looking glass, a world full of fools…
We’ve been locking down, slow, too far, too long

In its meticulously composed, breathtaking and sometimes charmingly retro way, this might be the best rock record of 2021.

Prophetic, Hauntingly Gorgeous, Insightful New Music and Spoken Word From Tessa Lena

For the past several years, investigative journalist Tessa Lena has been one of the most prophetic and poetic observers of how digital technology has empowered creeping fascism on a global scale. With last year’s lockdown here in New York, her work gained traction exponentially. Her Substack feed quickly became a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of what’s happened since.

But she’s also a breathtakingly powerful singer and instrumentalist. Last summer, she took one of her most succinct and portentously accurate pieces, The Physical World Is the Only World We Have (a longer version of the lyrics appears here) and turned it into a gorgeous mosaic of spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged soundscape. Her wordless vocals as she reaches for the sky will give you chills. A good digital approximation of an electric mandolin, or a balalaika, maybe, adds spare bittersweetness. The whole piece is streaming at her podcast, Make Language Great Again. Tessa Lena’s commentary is as grimly funny as it is insightful and poignant:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow.
Facts are fiction,
Love is screen.
Gossip’s trending,
Trends are mean.
Hear, hear,
Where’s the joy
Ask Alexa.
She’ll annoy.

We are all losing our minds….I know that long-term stress is very effective in turning off human ability to think straight. Once we’ve been battered for a long enough time, our sensory patterns will be damaged sufficiently, and we’ll be so exhausted and hungry for any semblance of joy that we’ll accept anything to be allowed to do basic things in the world. To breathe. To laugh. To be a little bit alive, to be a little bit free, no matter how short the digital leash. We are like frogs in a pot of water that is warming up. We are getting used to it…we are at a major crossroads, and I am positive that the time to be fully human—not cyborg—is now….

Something terrible is happening to us, and it is not a drill. It is very complex and very trivial. It is imminent and cumulative. Every small fragment of the disaster can be explained in a respectable way, but the big picture is terrifying. We’ve given up our senses and our ancient instincts, but our leaders have no heads. We are not in good hands. We are shackled to a broken algorithm. We are on our own, and the sooner we realize it, the better our chance of surviving.

Castle Black Take Their Dark Unpredictability to the Next Level

Castle Black started out as a haphazardly noisy power trio and have grown into more of an art-rock band while never losing their punk edge. Frontwoman Leigh Celent has kept the group going after the 2020 lockdown with a rotating rhythm section, and managed to make a scorchingly eclectic new short album, Get Up Dancer, streaming at Bandcamp. Since this is a pretty dark record – aren’t they all, with this band – it fits the bill for today’s episode in the ongoing, October-long Halloween celebration here.

It’s great to hear these tracks all fleshed out in the studio after seeing the latest version of the trio roar and slink through them at their show in Long Island City a couple of months ago. The first cut – the title track, more or less – is Radio Queen, a sleeker, more trickily rhythmic take on careening early 80s punk, like the Vice Squad classic Last Rockers but way tighter.

Likewise, the metric shifts in Another Grand Delusion, a gorgeously serpentine, angst-fueled anthem awash in Celent’s signature reverb and roar. Her machete guitar riffage, Scott Brown’s tersely ascending bass and the tumbling drums blend to raise the heartbroken angst in Talking About Those Nights to redline.

Knife in My Heart is a revenge fantasy, part ba-bump cabaret, part echoey psychedelia, part searing powerpop, Celent on keys in addition to guitar. An icy high/low guitar/bass contrast gives way to a burning chorus in That Little War: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Thalia Zedek tunebook. Same applies to the last song, Sorry, the album’s most darkly enveloping number. It’s rewarding to see Celent refusing to stay in one place and find dark new avenues to explore. Count this as one of the most intriguing and best rock records of 2021.

Sarah Aroeste Brings a Vanished Balkan Hub of Sephardic Culture Back to Life

Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste‘s cousin Rachel Nahmias survived the Holocaust, smuggled across the border from Macedonia to Albania in the trunk of a car. A Muslim family there hid her from the Nazis for the duration of the war. At 103, she’s still with us.

Her family wasn’t so lucky. After the Nazis took them off to Treblinka, a neighbor pulled the mezuzah (a religious home-sweet-home totem) off the door of their home, planning on giving it back to them when they were liberated. Along with more than seven thousand, mostly Sephardic Macedonian Jews, they never made it back. At times like this we need to remember the Holocaust. Evil was in full bloom then, and it’s in full bloom now: ask an Israeli or an Australian.

Aroeste’s latest album Monastir -streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates the rich history of the Macedonian city now known as Bitola, where her ancestors had roots before leaving for the US in 1913. There’s a small army of Israeli and Macedonian musicians on this, playing a mix of Sephardic and Macedonian folk songs and originals.

Aroeste sings the opening track, a hypnotic, mantra-like anthem celebrating a newborn’s arrival, with a restrained joy, Yonnie Dror getting his shofar to channel dusky digeridoo lows. Vevki Amedov’s magically microtonal Balkan clarinet joins with an animated choir in the irrepressibly jaunty Od Bitola Pojdov (Bitola Girls). Crooner Yehoram Gaon sings an elegantly bolero-flavored take of the Ladino lost-love ballad Jo La Keria over producer Shai Bachar’s elegant piano and Dan Ben Lior’s acoustic guitar.

Odelia Dahan Kehila and Gilan Shahaf join voices on a gorgeous, bittersweetly undulating new Hebrew take of the popular Balkan folk song Jovanke, Jovanke, reinvented as a glittering piano-based ballad. Sefedin Bajramov takes over the mic on Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen, a lilting, carefree Macedonian folk tune about a guy on the prowl who meets a cute Jewish girl – and wants to be Fyedka to her Chava.

A Bitola children’s choir sing Estreja Mara, a popular post-WWII tribute to a freedom fighter killed by the Nazis at 21. Macedonian opera star Helena Susha sings En Frente de Mi Te Tengo, a brass-fueled ranchera-style ballad.

One of the album’s most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers is Aroeste’s original version of Espinelo, a medieval tale of an infant thrown into the ocean as a newborn since he was one of a pair of twins, considered at the time to be bad luck. He survives and goes on to Balkan fame. Baglama player Shay Hamani and kanun player Yael Lavie enhance the brooding Middle Eastern ambience.

The album’s final two tracks pay homage to Aroeste’s ancestral city. She leads a rousing, plaintive choir over an intricate web of acoustic guitars in an original, Mi Monastir, then soars over a bouncy backdrop in Bitola, Moj Roden Kraj, an early 50s hit for Macedonian folk-pop singer Ajri Demirovski. This an all-too-rare work of musicological sleuthing that’s just as fun to listen to as it is politically important.

Sparely Powerful, Lyrical Catalan Songcraft From Singer Lia Sampai

One of the most stunningly direct, potently lyrical albums of the year is Lia Sampai’s latest release Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation from Catalan: Hidden in Plain Sight), streaming at youtube. Sampai sings with a disarmingly intimate, nuanced delivery and writes striking, imagistic lyrics, with a fearless political sensibility. Her images can be charming and quirky one second and venomous the next. While there’s a definite flamenco influence in her music, there are also elements of Portuguese fado, pan-Mediterranean balladry, art-rock and tinges of jazz, nimbly negotiated by acoustic guitarist Adrià Pagès. Some of the songs are simply guitar and vocals, others feature terse strings in places.

She opens with La Caixeta (The Box), a stately, romantic waltz that’s part fado, part flamenco and part vintage Parisian chanson. The doll imagery in the sparse, angst-fueled second track, La Nina comes across as more of a reflection on reconnecting with an inner conscience than with an inner child, Lia Manchón’s violin and Ester Trilla’s cello adding pensive ambience.

La Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) is a coy mashup of a dramatic Spanish waltz and a Dylanesque talking blues. Sampai follows a suspenseful trail of eerie, allusive images, up to a duende-fueled peak in Pinyols de Gel (Hailstorm), Pagès’ attack growing more unhinged along with her.

The shapeshifting political broadside Una Llum (A Light) is a real stunner, a slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. Sampai wrote this in 2019, but it has infinite more resonance in the year where the World Economic Forum terrorists are throwing everything they have at us to try to keep their global takeover attempt from going off the rails.

Iris is a delicately waltzing, enigmatic, metaphorically loaded narrative about a dancer (or maybe a stripper). Weeping willow metaphors take centerstage in the stark, grim Salze Vell:

Que dins de tant de vent lo plor és silenci,
Com una paraula que interdiu algú.
I les fulles se revolten encriptades
D’una música que sols entenem junts
Plorem per amunt!
Plorem per amunt!
Alcem un crit de pena i llibertat

[rough translation]

A scream drowned by the wind
Like a forbidden word
And the leaves spin, encrypted
With a music that only we understand
Let’s scream it!
Let’s scream it!
Scream from sadness, for freedom

The catchy, lilting Joc de Miralls (Game of Mirrors) seems to an examination of how recognizing your shadow in someone else can be liberating, if a little scary.

Pagès’ starry electric guitar rings out over Emili Bosch’s synth in Astronautes, a playful outer-space love song. Sampai winds up the album with the understatedly haunting L’Endemà (The Day After), the strings lush and moody as Gerard Morató’s piano mingles with Lluís Pérez-Villegas’ glockenspiel. Sampai’s Christmas party narrative is joyous and not a little defiant, but there’s a sinister undercurrent. What a perfect song for a year when dictators are trying to tell us how many people we can invite to our private holiday celebrations.

Lush, Majestically Jangly Art-Rock and Spacerock From Guitar Icon Marty Willson-Piper’s Space Summit

Space Summit picked a good bandname: they’re a trans-global collective of spacerock and art-rock luminaries. Marty Willson-Piper, this era’s foremost twelve-string guitarist, pulled the project together. He’s the architect of the many, luscious layers of guitar and bass on their new album Life This Way, streaming at Spotify. The obvious comparison is Willson-Piper’s old band, Australian legends the Church in their energetic early years. If melodic, impeccably crafted guitar sounds are your thing, this is your holy grail.

Interestingly, the opening track, I’m Electric comes across as a more direct, snarling take on the kind of drifting midtempo spacerock the Church played throughout the 90s. Willson-Piper brings the roar down on the choruses, where Dare Mason’s keys, Olivia Willson-Piper’s strings and Nicklas Barker’s mellotron float in.

Harmony singer Phoebe Tsen shadows frontman Jed Bonniwell on the album’s title track, Willson-Piper’s quasar guitars and the mellotron providing a lushly textured backdrop. Ancient Towers has an aptly majestic minor-key jangle and clang, austere violin blending into the mix, drummer Eddie John adding the occasional tumbling flourish.

Queen Elizabeth’s Keys is a coyly strolling, chiming look back at 60s British psychedelic pop with a current-day digital sheen. Uneasily close-harmonied vocals float over the increasingly bristling guitar intertwine and insistent beat of Deep Paisley Underground. Then the group shift gears with Fold With the Light, its more broodingly anthemic acoustic-electric layers giving way to more of a sunshine pop feel.

They mix up the riffs, from lingering steel guitar to gentle chime and drifting atmosphere in Marlowe, one of the album’s more intriguing narratives. The Four Horses of Venice has more of an orchestral folk lushness, Willson-Piper finally firing off a tantalizingly brief, savage solo.

The dreamiest track here is Dome of Light, Willson-Piper’s sinuous leads piercing the veil. The band bring the album full circle, more or less, with the allusively ominous If You Believe. Now for the surprise: all this was recorded in diverse sonic environments all over the world. Credit Mason for pulling this together into such a lavish, contiguous mix.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just Say No, one of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.