New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: black fortress of opium

A Historic Marathon Weekend at Martin Bisi’s Legendary BC Studio

While booking agents clustered around the East Village at several marathon multiple-band bills this past weekend, another far more historic marathon was going on in a Gowanus basement. As chronicled in the documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio, Martin Bisi has been recording and producing some of New York’s – and the world’s – edgiest music in that space for the past thirty-five years. A couple of years ago, a dreaded upmarket food emporium moved in, sounding an ominous alarm bell. Like a smaller-scale Walmart, when that chain shows up, the neighborhood is usually finished. And with rents skyrocketing and long-tenured building owners unable to resist the lure of piles of global capital, what’s left of the Gowanus artistic community is on life support.

BC Studio’s lease runs out next year. The historic space is where Bisi earned a Grammy for his work on Herbie Hancock’s single Rockit, where Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls and innumerable other defiantly individualistic bands made records, and where a sizeable percentage of the foundation of hip-hop was born. If there’s any artistic space in Brooklyn that deserves to be landmarked, this is it.

This past weekend, to celebrate BC Studio’s 35th anniversary, the producer invited in several of the most noteworthy acts who’ve recorded over the years, to collaborate and record material for a celebratory anthology. Both a Sonic Youth (Bob Bert) and a Dresden Doll (Brian Vigliione) did and lent their eclectic pummel behind the drumkit to several of the acts. It was a quasi-private event: media was invited (look for Beverly Bryan‘s insightful upcoming piece at Remezcla). Bisi also spilled the beans and invited the crowd at his Williamsburg gig this past week, and from the looks of it, some of that younger contingent showed up to see some of the more memorable acts who’ve pushed the envelope, hard, over parts of the last four decades there. It wasn’t a concert in the usual sense of the word, but it was a rare chance for an adventurous crowd beyond Bisi’s own vast address book to watch him in action. And while he’d fretted out loud about keeping everything on schedule, that hardly became an issue, no surprise since he knows the room inside out. The most time-consuming activity other than the recording itself was figuring out who needed monitors, and where to put them.

Historically speaking, the most noteworthy event of the entire weekend was the reunion of Live Skull, who were essentially a harder-edged counterpart to Sonic Youth back in the 80s. One of their guitarists, Tom Paine couldn’t make it, but his fellow guitarist Mark C, bassist Marnie Greenholz Jaffe and drummer Rich Hutchins made their first public performance together since 1988, in this very same space. Methodically, through a series of takes, they shook off the rust, the guitar lingering uneasily and then growling over the band’s signature anthemic postupunk stomp. Watching Greenholz Jaffe play a Fender with frets was a trip: in the band’s heyday, she got her signature swooping sound as one of very few rock players to use a fretless model. In a stroke of considerable irony, Mark C’s use of a synth in lieu of guitar on one number gave the band a new wave tinge very conspicuously absent from their influential mid-80s catalog. Both four- and six-string players sang; neither has lost any edge over the years. Greenholz Jaffe ended their last number by playing an ominous quote from Joy Division’s New Dawn Fades, arguably the weekend’s most cruelly apt riff.

Of the newer acts, the most striking was guitarist Adja the Turkish Queen, who splits her time between her more-or-less solo mashup of folk noir and the Middle East, and ferociously noisy, darkly psychedelic band Black Fortress of Opium. This time, she treated the crowd to an absolutely chilling, allusive trio of jangly, reverb-drenched Lynchian numbers: a brooding oldschool soul ballad, an opaquely minimalist theme that could have passed for Scout, and a towering art-rock anthem. Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch supplied a river of gospel organ, elegant piano and then turned his roto to redline on the last number, channeling Steve Nieve to max out its relentless menace.

Dan Kaufman and John Bollinger of Barbez – who have a long-awaited, Middle East conflict-themed new album due out this spring – were first in line Saturday morning. Bollinger switched effortlessly between drums, lingering vibraphone and a passage where he played elegantly soaring bass while Kaufman jangled and then soared himself, using a slide and a keening sustain pedal. Togther they romped through apprehensively scrambling postrock, allusively klezmer-tinged passages and elegaic, bell-toned cinematics.

Susu guitarist Andrea Havis and drummer Oliver Rivera Drew (who made a tight rhythm section with baritone guitarist Diego Ferri, both of whom play in Bisi’s European touring band) backed Arrow’s soaring frontwman Jeannie Fry through a swirl of post-MBV maelstrom sonics and wary, moodily crescendoing postpunk jangle. In perhaps the weekend’s best-attended set, Algis Kisys of Swans jousted with ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Jack Natz and drummer Jim Coleman for a ferocious blast through a hornet’s nest of needle-pinning fuzztones and boomoing low-register chords, followed by a gorgeously contrasting ambient soundscape by Dave W and Ego Sensation of White Hills. It was the weekend’s lone moment that looked back to Brian Eno, who put up the seed money to build the studio.

There were also a couple of performances that echoed the studio’s formative role as hip-hop crucible. The first was when Tidal Channel frontman Billy Cancel channeled the inchoate anger of the Ex’s G.W. Sok over Genevieve Kammel Morris’ electroacoustic keyboard mix. The second was former Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey‘s New Orleans second line rap over the virtuosic fuzztone bass of Don Godwin, better known as the funkiest tuba player in all of Balkan music. Wallfisch was another guy who supplied unexpectedly explosive basslines when he wasn’t playing keys.

The rest of the material ranged from industrial, to cinematic (JG Thirlwell’s collaboration with Insect Ark frontwoman/composer Dana Schechter, bolstered by a full string section and choir), punk (Michael Bazini’s wry gutter blues remake of an old Louvin Brothers Nashville gothic song) and to wind up the Sunday portion, an unexpectedly haunting, epic minor-key jam eventually led by Bisi himself, doing double duty on lead guitar and mixer.

Music continued throughout the afternoon and into Sunday night after this blog had to switch gears and move on to another marathon: the festivities included Bert backing Parlor Walls guitarist Alyse Lamb, an Alice Donut reunion of sorts and a set by Cinema Cinema. As much a fiasco as Globalfest turned out to be that night, the wiser option would have been to stay put and make an entire weekend out of it. As Kammel Morris put it, Bisi should host a slumber party next year.

Advertisements

A Deliciously Menacing New Album and a Palisades Show from Edgy Postpunks Eula

Eula are one of the most individualistic bands in New York. As noisy as they can be onstage, the noise works because throughout their terse, relatively short postpunk songs, there’s always an underlying tune. Frontwoman/guitarist Alyse Lamb knows all the most menacing places on the fretboard and makes it to all of them on the band’s meticulously arranged new cassette album (which isn’t out yet, hence no streaming link, although a couple of tracks are up at Bandcamp and Soundcloud). Although they’ve been lumped in with the indie crowd, Eula are too edgy, purposeful and often downright Lynchian to be tagged with that logo. You have to go back a few years, to groups like the Throwing Muses at their most assaultive, or to Siouxsie & the Banshees, to find a real point of comparison. They’re playing the album release show at Palisades in Bushwick at around 11 on March 5, with psychedelic noiserock legend Martin Bisi, who produced it, playing earlier at around 9 along with a Swan and an ex-Sonic Youth: cover charge TBA. Eula will also be at Abbey’s Pub at 407 Monmouth St. in Jersey City on March 8 at around 11.

The album kicks off with Noose, which artfully scatters all kinds of eerily ringing, resonant shards of guitar over a percussively pitchblende, looping, qawwali-influenced groove. I Collapse reminds of X circa Wild Gift, bassist Jeff Maleri and drummer Nathan Rose giving it a galloping rhythm until Lamb’s guitar explodes on the chorus: “Can you handle nasty weather?” is the mantra.

Maleri’s creepy, bolero-ish bass and Rose’s murky cymbal washes open Little Hearts, which builds to another volcanic chorus before Lamb goes back to a whispery noir insistence: “And then you wake to find the circumstances are not so kind.” She anchors the snide, sarcastic Orderly in stomping, jagged, early Joy Division minimalism.

Rising slowly out of hypnotically misty jangle to a wistfully echoey sway, The Destroyer brings to mind Boston’s great Black Fortress of Opium. Like No Other also sways along, juxtaposing aggressive, late Sleater-Kinney style vocals against a swooping, looping backdrop. With its distant hints of Indian music and dark Appalachian folk, the subdued Your Beat is the album’s catchiest track.

Driven by Maleri’s gritty, circling bass, Aplomb is as punk as these songs get, followed by the noisiest number here, Meadows. The album – one of 2015’s three or four best up to this point – winds up with the trippy, disquietingly echoey Monument. Expect the band to rip these songs to shreds onstage, possibly with a power assist from some special guests.

New Documentary Film Chronicles Martin Bisi’s Legendary and Endangered Gowanus Recording Studio

[republished from Lucid Culture, New York Music Daily’s sister blog, which from time to time covers film and theatre along with jazz and classical music]

When Martin Bisi signed the $500-a-month lease for what would become BC Studio, it’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted that the Gowanus basement space would become one of the world’s most revered places to record, to rival Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland and Rockfield Studios in Wales. Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass‘ gracefully insightful and poignant new documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio chronicles Bisi’s individualistic rise to underground music icon, via talking heads, candid conversation with Bisi himself and tantalizing archival footage of bands throughout the studio’s thirty-three year history.

Bisi recorded Herbie Hancock’s Rockit while still in his teens, winning a Grammy in the process, which brought in a deluge of work. Beginning in the mid-80s, Bisi became the go-to guy in New York for bands that went for a dark, assaultive, experimentally-inclined sound. A short list of his best-known production gigs includes John Zorn’s Spy vs. Spy album, multiple projects for Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls’ debut as well as more recent work with Serena-Maneesh, Black Fortress of Opium, Ten Pound Heads and Woman, to name just a few.

In the late 70s, when he wasn’t doing sound and stage work for Bill Laswell’s Material, Bisi could be found hanging out at CBGB and offering to do do sound for bands. “I like to be around things that are happening and this was one way to do that,” he explains early in the narrative. The Material connection led to Brian Eno putting up the seed money for the studio – although after some initial ambient experiments there, the composer pretty much backed out of the picture, something the film doesn’t address. Perhaps the space was grittier than what he’d envisioned for his more outside adventures in ambient sounds.

The film vividly captures Bisi’s sardonic humor and surprising humility but also a fierce pride of workmanship and sense of place in New York history. All of these qualities inform the grimness that underscores the story. Bisi’s “blood is fifty percent coffee,” as Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, one of the more colorful interviewees, puts it, and that intensity fuels plenty of the film’s more memorably twisted moments. As the story goes, Bisi kills a rodent with a dumbbell during a Swans session and gets credit for it in the cd liner notes. Thurston Moore pulls a rather cruel practical joke on Lee Ranaldo during a particularly tough Sonic Youth take that ends up immortalized on vinyl. Fast forward about twenty years, and Viglione takes a ball peen hammer to the wrought iron stairs on the way down to the main room, the results of which can be heard on the recording of the Dresden Dolls’ Miss Me. Plenty of time is also devoted to the studio’s role as a focal point in the formative years of hip-hop in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The film winds out on a rather elegaic note, as Bisi and the rest of the Gowanus artistic community uneasily await the opening of a branch of an expensive organic supermarket, anticipating a deluge of evictions and gentrification as the neighborhood’s buildings are sold off to crowds of yuppies and trendoids. The talented drummer Sarah Blust, of Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Marmalade, eloquently speaks for her fellow musicians in the neighborhood, with a resigned anger. In the film’s climax, Bisi goes out into a snowstorm to pay his first visit to the new store: the scene is priceless. In addition to its aisles and aisles of pricy artisanal food, this particular branch of the chain is especially twee: it sells used vinyl. Bisi’s reaction after thumbing through the bins there drew howls from the audience at the film’s premiere at Anthology Film Archives.

There’s a long wishlist of stuff that’s not in the movie. Admittedly, a lot of it is soundguy arcana: how Bisi EQ’d the room; his trick for mic placements in the different spaces for various instruments; or the magic formula for how he achieves such a rich high midrange sound, his signature throughout his career, in what appears to be a boomy, barewall basement milieu. What’s also strangely and very conspicuously absent is even a single mention of Bisi’s career as a solo artist. A distinctive songwriter, composer and guitarist, his work as a musician has the same blend of old-world craftsmanship and outside-the-box adventure that marks his career behind the board. Other than a playful few bars behind the drum kit – which he appears simply to be setting up for a session – there’s not a hint that he even plays an instrument. But Bisi seems ok with that. Maybe that’s the sequel.

The 100 Best Songs of 2012

Was this the best year ever for music, or what? There could have been 500 songs on this list and they’d all be amazing. In order to give credit where credit is due, it became necessary to pare this down to just one track per artist.

Bookmark this page and visit often. Virtually every link here will take you to a stream or download of each song. Where this year’s 50 Best Albums page was all about rock, this page offers a chance to explore some of the best acts outside of the rock world. While these days, an “official release” tends to be the day someone uploads the song to youtube, there are a handful of tracks here which are so new that they haven’t made it to the web yet.

Outside of the top ten here, this list is in completely random order: trying to rank a jangly rock song against a lushly orchestrated Middle Eastern anthem, a bittersweet honkytonk song or a Serbian brass jam is absurd. So don’t think any less of the tracks at the bottom of the list: they’re all good. Rachelle Garniez, who happened to land on #99, is every bit as fun as Julia Haltigan at #9, or Lorraine Leckie at #19.

For the first time ever, this year’s top spots on the lists of best New York concerts, best albums and best songs were swept by a single group, Ulrich Ziegler. The noir guitar instrumental duo of Stephen Ulrich and Itamar Ziegler took top honors for their debut album, their album release show at Barbes in August and for their song Ita Lia, a morbidly reverb-toned, icily chromatic Nino Rota-inspired theme which you can play here. For those who’ve followed Ulrich’s career, that should come as no surprise, considering that his previous band Big Lazy pretty much ruled the top ten, year after year, at this blog’s predecessors on the web and in print.

2. Walter Ego – Sunday’s Assassin. This is an LJ Murphy song that Walter Ego used to play bass on when the two were bandmates back in the 90s. Murphy long since dropped this from his set list, and that’s too bad, because this casually lurid serial killer’s tale is one of the best things he ever wrote. Thanks to Walter Ego for resurrecting it. Watch the video

3. Mike Rimbaud – Idiot Wind. On one hand, to not put what could be the greatest rock lyric ever written in the top spot here is absurd, especially considering how Rimbaud reinvented it as straight-up, snarling rock. It’s also very hard to find: if you have Spotify, it’s here, otherwise here’s a sound snippet.

4. Chris Erikson – Ear to the Ground
Best jangly rock song of the year comes from this popular lead guitarist, who finally put out a debut album, Lost Track of the  Time, which includes this richly allusive, wickedly catchy track. He teases you with the hook and then makes you wait til the very end for the payoff. Watch the video

5. Saint Maybe – Everything That Rises
An epic masterpiece of volcanically guitar-fueled, psychedelic southwestern gothic rock from Patti Smith’s guitarist and Bob Dylan’s drummer. From their debut album Things As The Are. Play the song

6. Hannah vs. the Many – Jordan Baker. Prettiest sad noir 60s pop song of the year: girl finally finds guy she actually likes…and then the apocalypse swirls in. From the amazing new album All Our Heroes Drank Here. Play the song

7. The Sometime Boys – Good People of Brooklyn. Soaring lush acoustic chamber pop from this artsy Americana band. Frontwoman Sarah Mucho sings uneasily about her “city of trees,”  from the new album Ice & Blood. Play the song

8. Jon DeRosa – Birds of Brooklyn. Metaphorically loaded noir 60s chamber pop at its most cinematic, old guy eyeing a girl he could never have as the strings swoon behind him. From his new Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes album. Play the song

9. Julia Haltigan – Over the Fields. Looks to be too new to make it to the web yet – over careening southwestern gothic backbeat rock, the New York chanteuse amps up the suspenseful brassiness. She slayed with this at Make Music NY this summer.Stream some similar tracks

10. Changing Modes – Firewall. Nebulously narrative macabre chromatic Botanicaesque art-rock tune from this three-keyboard band’s brilliant latest album In Flight. Play the song

11. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – Fire Shuffle. This is the most swirlingly psychedelic of the many macabre gypsy-tinged tracks on the Rhode Island band’s chilling latest album Sister Death. Play the song

12. Chicha Libre – Papageno Electrico. Like Alec Redfearn above, the Brooklyn Peruvian surf rock band’s latest album Canibalismo is loaded with trippy, creepy tracks and this is the creepiest, like a Japanese video game theme done as psychedelic cumbia. Watch the video 

13. Beninghove’s Hangmen – Surf & Turk. New York’s premier noir cinematic surf jazz monsters hit last year’s list with their debut album. This is a new creepy surf track; you can catch them at Zirzamin on Mondays at 9 where they play it frequently. Play the song; stream the first album

14. Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird – Sunday After the War. Coldly wise, crushingly cynical klezmer-rock. “They’re always recruiting, after the war.” Kahn slayed with this at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past summer. Watch a video

15. Emily Jane White – Clipped Wings. The murderess leaves a suicide note at the lake house and this is it: a great story and a chilling song. From her latest album Ode to Sentience. Watch the video

16. When the Broken Bow- Giving Up the Ship. Apocalyptic ukulele waltz with bloodcurdling screams at the end from this smart, raw, female-fronted Portland, Oregon art-rock crew. Play the song

17. Lianne Smith- The Thief. Now co-leader of the Golden Palominos, Smith has been playing this gorgeous but chilling oldschool country smash for years and finally released it on her debut Two Sides of a River. Sing along: “I found out, yeah, I found out too late. ” Play the song

18. Jan Bell – The Miner’s Bride. One of the great voices in Americana music, Bell makes the connection between Appalachian music and the British folk songs it sprung from. This is a Karen Dahlstrom song about a mail-order bride going off to what looks like disappointment and early death in the old west, from Bell’s new album Dream of the  Miner’s Child. Play the song

19. Lorraine Leckie – The Everywhere Man. This party crasher has come to kill everything in his path: a wicked serial killer tale from Leckie’s elegant new chamber pop collaboration with social critic/writer Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted. Play the song 

20. The Japonize Elephants – Melodie Fantastique. Lush sweeping majestic circus rock doesn’t get any more entertaining than this. Title track from the band’s sensational new album. Play the song  

21. Mac McCarty – My Name Is Jack. Another song about a killer, and one that hasn’t made it to the web yet, from one of the darkest voices in Americana. For awhile he had a monthly residency at Bar 82, where he would always play this, and he’s got other videos you can watch.

22. Dimestore Dance Band – Wren Wren. Might as well go with two relatively brand-new ones, this being an urbane, wry gypsy-inflected number from guitar virtuoso Jack Martin and his bassist accomplice Jude Webre. The band is back together and playing this from time to time, and you can hear more of their stuff here.

23. Jodi Shaw – The Witch. In the old days, dotty old women used to get burned. The Brooklyn pianist/songwriter works that metaphor for all it’s worth in this chilling art-rock ballad. From her latest album In Waterland. Play the song 

24. Choban Elektrik – Valle E Shquiperise Se Mesme. A classic Balkan folk song done as trippy psychedelic rock with funereal organ and searing violin, from the band’s sensational 2012 debut album. Play the song

25. Eilen Jewell – Warning Signs. Her 2012 album is called Queen of the Minor Key, which pretty much says it all: this is a killer backbeat noir Americana rock tune with cool baritone sax and reverb guitar. Watch the video

26. Kayhan Kalhor & Ali Bahrami Fard – Where Are You. Anguished alienation has never been more hauntingly restrained than it is on this epic instrumental from I Will Not Stand Alone, the transcendent new collaboration between the Iranian spiked fiddle and santoor virtuosos. Watch the video  

27. Damian Quinones y Su Conjunto – Barrio. This lead guitar-fueled epic from their brilliant 2012 album Gumball Ma-Jumbo is a throwback to the classic latin soul sound of the late 60s and early 70s, right down to the inspired, analog-sounding production.  Play the song

28. Matt Keating – Punchline. Bouncy, metaphorically charged vintage soul-infused cynicism from Keating’s characteristically literate, intense latest album Wrong Way Home. Play the song

29. Clairy Browne & the Bangin Rackettes – Vicious Circle. Dramatic, intense, theatrical oldschool soul anthem that may or may not be a bitter Amy Winehouse homage. From their album Baby Caught the Bus; they killed with this in their New York debut this fall at Webster Hall. Play the song

30. J O’Brien- Cottonmouth. Classic New York songwriting: a torrent of images of the kind of twisted people, and twisted psyches, you meet on the train home after work, from the former leader of fiery mod-punk rockers the Dog Show. Play the song  

31. Out of Order – Gimme Noise. Hammering hardcore riffage from this volcanic all-female noiserock/punk/postpunk trio’s deliciously assaultive new album Hey Pussycat! Play the song

32. Beware the Danger of a Ghost Scorpion – Denton County Casket Co Typically intense, macabre, breakneck horror surf from this unstoppable Boston band’s Five After Midnight broadcast recording. Play the song

33. Tri-State Conspiracy – The Clone. The high point of their Nuisance album from 2008, the noir ska/swing band’s savage version of this was the high point of this year’s Atlantic Antic festival, a cruel broadside directed at all the posers and gentrifiers. Watch the video

34. Les Sans Culottes – DSK. Another highlight of the Atlantic Antic, this viciously funny garage-psychedelic sendup of Dominique Strauss-Kahn hasn’t made it to the web yet, but you can check out a lot of other amusing stuff from the faux French rockers here.

35. David J – Not Long for This World. The ominous title track to the goth songwriting legend’s latest album, the once and future Bauhaus bassist/playwright turned in a riveting version of this backed by Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch at the Delancey this past spring. Watch a video

36. The NY Gypsy All-Stars – Sen Sev Beni. Their latest album Romantech is full of scorching gypsy vamps driven by clarinet powerhouse Ismail Lumanovski: this audience favorite  is the best of them. Play the song

37. Auktyon – Mimo. These Russian art-rockers have been around forever, and they put out a typically surreal, jazz and gypsy-influenced new album, Top, this year. This is the best track, a haunting, towering minor-key anthem. Play the song

38. Harmonia – Songs from Vojvodina. This prosaic title doesn’t give any idea of the ferocity and exhilaration of this lickety-split suite of gypsy music from the Cleveland band’s equally adrenalizing 2012 album Hidden Legacy. Sound snippet 

39. Nathan Halpern – The Mirror. A creepy Philip Glass-ine theme from the soundtrack to the documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, written by the esteemed Brooklyn noir rocker and composer. Sound samples from the score

40. Sam Llanas – Shyne. Low-key, brooding nocturnal noir 60s pop with an Americana edge from the longtime BoDeans frontman’s recent solo album 4 AM. Sound snippet

41. Super Hi-Fi – We Will Begin Again. The darkest and most mysterious track from the twin trombone deep-dub band’s debut album Dub to the Bone (get it?) Play the song 

42. LJ Murphy – Waiting by the Lamppost. The legendary New York noir rocker has a reputedly phenomenal new album due out next year and this might or might not be on it; it’s an uusually low-key, broodingly surreal soul song. Watch the video 

43. Mighty High – High on the Cross. Of all the drugs Brooklyn’s best-loved stoner rock parodists chronicle in their songs, none is more powerful – or funnier – than religion. Play the song

44. Band of Outsiders – Gods of Happenstance. Television and the Grateful Dead may both be history but these 80s New York garage-pychedelic-punk legends are still going strong; this is the standout track from their 2012 ep Sound Beach Quartet and it evokes the best of both of those bands. Play the song  

45. Spanglish Fly – The Po-Po. Oldschool 60s style latin soul about a familiar New York crisis: getting busted for an open container by cops who haven’t yet met their quota of summonses for harmless offenses. Play the song 

46. Love Camp 7 – Beatles VI. An especially loud, growling vintage 60s psychedelic style track with one of frontman Dann Baker’s characteristically sardonic lyrics, the 60s as a gloomy backdrop to the Fab Four. From their brilliant Beatles-themed album Love Camp VII. Play the song

47. Musiciens Sans Frontieres – Legalize. This song from cinematic guitarist/composer Thomas Simon’s artsy rock-pop project won an award for best video at a hemp film festival  and you can watch that video here.

48. Marcellus Hall – Afterglow. This might not be the right title, and it doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the web, which is too bad: it’s one of the former White Hassle frontman and Americana-punk songwriter’s funniest, and most withering – and catchiest – critiques. Band info 

49. The Ryan Truesdell Big Band – Punjab. Not what you might expect to see here on a daily basis – a recently rediscovered, epic Gil Evans big band noir classic, with lustrous Indian and Middle Eastern shades. From the new album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Play the song

50 The Universal Thump – Opening Night. What an absolutely gorgeous song: late-period ELO with better strings, bigger theatrics and much better vocals from bandleader/singer Greta Gertler. She meets a girl in her dream who offers her a deal: if you bring me from the dream world to reality, you’ll never cry again. Think about that. Play the song  

51. Slavic Soul Party – Draganin Cocek. The high point of the ten-piece Balkan brass band’s scorching, eclectic new New York Underground Tapes – which don’t seem to have made it to the web yet. Stream some similar tracks

52. Magges – Ena Vrathi Pou’Vrehe. It may be all Greek to you, but even if you don’t speak the language, the ringing twin bouzouki riffs and haunting gothic undercurrent of their psychedelic classics will pull you under. From their new album 12 Tragouthia. Play the song

53. Wadada Leo Smith – Emmett Till. An epic narrative from the trumpeter’s Ten Freedom Summers concept album about the Civil Rights movement, this cinematic tale eventually hits a horrific crescendo, equal parts jazz and indie classical. Play the song

54. Bettye LaVette – Choices I’ve Made. The soul survivor took this old George Jone song and made a theme for anybody who’s ever lived to regret something or another. She sang an especially shattering version at Madison Square Park this past summer. Watch the video

55. Marcel Khalife – Palestinian Mawwal. The great Lebanese oud player and composer put out a titanic double album, Fall of the Moon this year and this is one of its high points, a lush Middle Eastern anthem with full orchestra and choir. Play the song

56. Alfredo Rodriguez – Fog. Noir soundtrack music doesn’t get any more haunting or evocative than the Cuban-American jazz pianist’s epic from his latest album Sounds of Space. Play the song 

57. Hot Club of Detroit – Midnight in Detroit. Proof that noir can be done just as well by a gypsy jazz bandk, in a minute 45 seconds. From their latest album Junction. Play the song 

58. EST – Three Falling Free. A rare outtake from the now-defunct, artsy, eclectic trio, this epic, Floydian monstrosity builds to a crushing crescendo with the piano and bass going full blast: you want adrenaline? Watch the video 

59. Israel Vibration – Ball of Fire. This apocalyptic roots reggae tune goes back almost as far as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, and it’s even better. And the band kicked ass with it at Central Park Summerstage this past August. Watch the video 

60. Klezwoods – Charambe. One of many standout tracks from their new album The 30th Meridian – From Cairo to St. Petersburg With Love, this is a wicked blend of 60s style psychedelic rock and klezmer, like something the Electric Prunes would have done. Play the song

61. Glass Anchors – Winter Home. Sadness and longing set to wickedly evocative, catchy janglerock from the female-fronted, Americana-tinged Brooklyn band’s debut album.  Play the song

62. Bobtown – Battle Creek. High-voltage noir soul anthem from the point of view of a country girl steadily losing it in northern Midwest rust belt hell, sung electrifyingly by Karen Dahlstrom. From the noir Americana band’s killer new album Trouble I Wrought. Play the song  

63. Chicago Stone Lightning Band – Tears & Sorrow. Creepy, brooding  early 70s style acid blues from the Chicago band’s considerably more energetic debut album. Play the song  

64. Single Red Cent – Dilettante. A hilarious postpunk-flavored putdown of spoiled trendoids, “stealing a page from the better bands, nothing in common with the working man.” Play the song 

65. Wahid  – Looking for Paradise. New Middle Eastern instrumental sounds: hard to imagine that just an oud and drums can create a sound that’s this majestic and intense. From the duo’s new album Road Poem. Sound snippet

66. The Larch – Monkey  Happy Hour. Wry, spot-on double entendres abound in this psychedelic new wave look at the last people you’d ever want to hang with after work. From their excellent new album Days to the West. Play the song  

67. Sex Mob – Juliet of the Spirits. Even though the noir-ish jazz quartet’s version of the classic Nino Rota film theme is nowhere to be found on the web, it wouldn’t be fair to leave it off the list: the riveting version they played at the World Financial Center this past fall might have been their first time, and it was amazing.  Band info

68. M Shanghai String Band – Sea Monster
This offhandedly eerie, symbolically-fueled, gypsy-tinged cut might be the best one on the massive Brooklyn Americana band’s new album Two Thousand Pennies. Play the song 

69. Clare & the Reasons- Colder. An icy art-rock mini-epic from the Brooklyn band, with a chilling mantra on the way out: “When will it get better?” Watch the video 

70. Animation – Transparent Heart. The epic, cinematic instrumental title track from saxophonist Bob Belden’s concept album about how New York (and the country) went to hell, as the Bush regime used 9/11 as a pretext for dismantling 200 years of democracy, and New York became a haven for chain stores and suburban yuppie cluelessness. Play the song

71. Yankee Bamg Bang – Silver Bullet. The backlash against gentrifier music is in full effect from these Bollywood-influenced Brooklyn rockers, poking fun at “love songs we couldn’t swallow from musician/actor/models.” Play the song/free download

72. My Education – For All My Friends. Syd Barrett meets Nektar in this roaring ten-minute art-rock theme,  rising to a titanic wall of frantic tremolo-picking. From their latest album A Drink For All My Friends. Play the song

73. Amniotic Fluid – Be Careful Children. Creepy cinematics with virtuoso clarinet, accordion and percussion in under two minutes. From their fiery debut album. Sound snippet

74. Theo Bleckmann & ACME – To the Night. Like Sex Mob at #67 above, the list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the rich, otherworldly debut that this crooner and indie chamber ensemble gave to Phil Kline’s new song cycle, Oud Cold, this past November. This is its high point, a feast of lustrous close harmonies. Not on the web yet, but you can check out the composer’s other intriguing song sequences.

75. Tom Shaner – She Will Shine. One of the highlights of the southwestern gothic rocker’s new album Ghosts Songs, Waltzes & Rock & Roll is a hilarious song called She’s an Unstoppable Hipster. This is sort of that song in reverse: gentrifier girl goes to the country because she’s sick of the city…or she just can’t hack it? This one’s not on the web but the first song is, in a very funny video

76. Tift Merritt – Small Talk Relations. The Americana chanteuse’s latest album Traveling Alone is the best guitar album of the year, with Marc Ribot’s noir playing off Eric Heywood’s steel and slide work. Ironically, this quiet, elegant countrypolitan number is the album’s best cut. Play the song/free download

77. Ramzi Aburedwan – Rahil. An absolutely sizzling, smashingly catchy theme for buzuq, accordion and percussion by the Palestinian virtuoso/composer, from his latest album Reflections of Palestine. Watch the video

78. Arturo O’Farrril & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra – River Blue. One of the best concerts in New York this year was the first of two nights by this amazing, titanic band right after the hurricane: thsi darkly majestic  Rafi Malkiel Middle Eastern jazz epic is arguably the high point. Watch the video 

79. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Dr. Mabuse. With piano and wordless vocals, the noir jazz legend and his protegee evoke a troubled world of the spirits. From their live album Aurora, which is on Spotify if you have it; otherwise, good luck looking around.

80. Tom Warnick & World’s Fair- The Impostor. Kafkaesque rock doesn’t get any more intense than this: watch the keyboardist/bandleader finding it impossible to refrain from jumping back into the vocals after he’s handed them over to guitarist John Sharples on this noir classic. Here’s the video

81. Terrible Feelings – Blank Heads. This female-fronted punk band sounds like a dead ringer for the Avengers circa 1979, with rich Steve Jones style production. No streaming audio, but a free download from the band

82. Karthala 72 – Diable du Feu. Horror surf guitar grafted to a classic Afrobeat vamp with evil, buzzy bass by this period-perfect Brooklyn crew. Title track from their excellent new album. Play the song.

83. Spottiswoode -Enfant Terrible. This one came out a few years back, but the veteran art-rocker killed with this savage anti-trendoid broadside at a haphazardly assembled but absolutely brilliant show in the West Village right after the hurricane. Watch the video

84. Jaffa Road – Through the Mist of Your Eyes. A luscious Middle Eastern psychedelic rock tune from the eclectic female-fronted Canadian band. Play the song/free download 

85. The Funk Ark – El Rancho Motel. In case you think that Ethiopian cumbia is a crazy idea, check out this wickedly fun, creepily surfy track from the Washington, DC Afrobeat band’s excellent new album High Noon. Watch the video

86. Deleon – A La Nana. A creepy, stately minor key flamenco-flavored waltz with banjo as the lead instrument from this excellent Sephardic rock band. Play the song

87. Raya Brass Band – Melochrino. The hard-charging Balkan brass jamband is just as good at brooding, slowly unwinding, chromatically charged tunes like this one. From their phenomenal debut album Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders. Play the song  

88. Andrew Collberg – Back on the Shore. A frequent Giant Sand collaborator, he writes period-perfect mid-80s style paisley underground psychedelic rock. This is a lush, hauning noir southwestern gothic anthem. Watch the video  

89. Tim Foljahn – New Light. From his brooding, pessimistic, absolutely haunting apocalypse concept album Songs for an Age of Extinction, this one artfully doubles the vocals: one track blithe and clueless, the other less so. Play the song

90. The Sweetback Sisters – Texas Bluebonnets
The harmonies and the melody of this oldschool western swing/Tex-Mex tune are so charming and chipper you know there has to be a sad undercurrent…and there sure is. “Those Texas bluebonnets just blew me away.” From their excellent album Lookin’ for a Fight. Watch the video

91. The Brixton Riot – Keep It Like a Secret. Snarling two-guitar rock from this New Jersey band, all too aware of how the Bush-era police state still lingers and makes you watch your back. From their scorching new album Palace Amusements. Play the song

92. Botanica – Manuscripts Don’t Burn. How the hell did the most epic, intense, grand guignol track from this era’s greatest art-rock band end up way down here? Roll of the dice. Sorry, guys. From their arguably most haunted, brooding album What Do You Believe. Play the song

93. Black Fortress of Opium – Afyonkaharisar Battle Cry. The female-fronted Boston band artfully crescendo from stately Middle Eastern sonics to a ferocious cauldron of dreampop guitar. From their new album Stratospherical. Play the song

94. Leigh Marble – Holden. The last of the anti-trendoid anthems here might be the funniest, which is ironic (in the true sense of the word) in that the Portland, Oregon songwriter’s latest album Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows is otherwise extremely dark. The title here is a Salinger reference. Play the song  

95. Marissa Nadler -The Wrecking Ball Company. Metaphorical, inscrutably deadpan, deathly noir atmospherics from this era’s unrivalled mistress of that style. From her latest and possibly best album The Sister. Play the song

96. Mucca Pazza – Last Days. An artsy, Russian-tinged accordion waltz from this titanically powerful gypsy punk brass band’s latest album Safety Last. Play the song

97. Niyaz – Shosin. A characteristically hypnotic, pulsing track from the Persian-Canadian dance/trance band’s latest album Sumud (Arabic for “resilience”). Watch the video

98.  Tribecastan – Jovanka. The darkest song on the eclectic-beyond-belief New York kitchen-sink worldbeat band’s latest album New Deli is sort of a balalaika bolero except that the web of stringed instruments is everything but a balalaika. Watch the video 

99. Rachelle Garniez – Land of the Living
The unexpectedly triumphant closing track on the inscrutable accordionist/chanteuse’s latest album Sad Dead Alive Happy, it starts with a devious dream sequence of sorts and ends with a warmly wry, indelibly New York stoop conversation. Play the song

100. Catspaw – Curl Up & Die. Let’s wrap up this list with a careening ghoulabilly track from this brooding 2/3 female New York retro rock trio. It’s a staple of their live show but hasn’t made it to the web yet – although you can hear their classic, even more haunting Southbound Line here.

The 50 Best Albums of 2012

About five years ago, people were saying that the album was a thing of the past. How wrong that turned out to be! This year’s crop of albums was so absurdly good that it felt criminal to whittle it down to a hundred, let alone fifty. And the only way of getting it down to that number was to cut out all the “world music,” including reggae and Afrobeat and most of the gypsy sounds, because there was so much of that and it was all so good.

Bookmark this page and return often. Virtually all of these albums are streaming (click the links) or are available as free downloads: consider this your place to discover some amazing sounds that were too smart for the Bushwick and Wicker Park blogs, and too dangerous for corporate radio and tv.

1.  Ulrich Ziegler – their debut album
Dating back to the 90s,  guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been New York’s most distinguished noir composer. When he wasn’t writing film and tv music, he was leading the ferociously creepy instrumental trio Big Lazy. When that band broke up (the drummer left to join Gogol Bordello), Ulrich eventually teamed up with Itamar Ziegler from Pink Noise, and then released this haunting, reverb-drenched, surf/skronk/jazz/soundscape masterpiece. Stream it

2.  Chicha Libre – Canibalismo
Chicha Libre’s 2008 debut album Sonido Amazonico landed in the top ten and this one is arguably even better, a trippy, wickedly dub-influenced mix of Peruvian surf rock, slinky Andean and latin grooves, and surrealistic psychedelic rock. There is no more fun, or more danceable, band in New York than Chicha Libre. Band info and audio/video

3.  Raya Brass Band – Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders
This fiery Brooklyn crew distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other excellent Balkan brass units by virtue of their long, scorching jams: nobody does that better. Stream it

4.  Botanica – What Do You Believe In
This era’s pre-eminent art-rock band’s most brooding, haunted album, a rich blend of gypsy-tinged melody, raw, roaring guitar, edgy piano and spooky organ. Stream it

5.  The Universal Thump – their full-length debut
The final and concluding installment of the most massive, richly orchestrated album on this list, a lushly symphonic double-cd mix of chamber pop, art-rock, psychedelia and quirky, theatrical indie pop. Stream it

6.  Rachelle Garniez – Sad Dead Alive Happy
The iconic, eclectic accordionist/chanteuse – who has sort of become the Dorothy Parker of underground rock – took a deep dive into soul and gospel sounds, with richly soaring results. Stream it

7.  The Japonize Elephants – Melodie Fantastique
One of the original gypsy bands, this enormous, theatrical circus rock crew took their game to the next level with this one. Stream it

8.  Lianne Smith – Two Sides of a River
An iconic presence in the New York Americana and rock scene since the late 90s, Smith’s debut album was legendary before it was finally released – and it’s as eclectic, psychedelic, haunting and funny as anything else on this list. And her amazing voice is better than ever. Stream it 

9.  Bobtown – Trouble I Wrought
Nobody writes more cleverly creepy acoustic Nashville gothic and bluegrass than Bobtown. With four first-rate songwriters, their sound is as diverse as it is dark. Stream it

10.  Jan Bell – Dream of the Miner’s Child
One of the great voices in Americana music, Bell made this into a concept album that linked British folk with the American country and bluegrass sounds that grew out of it  with a vivid sense of history and a tantalizing mix of classics and originals that sound like Appalachian standards. Stream it/free downloads

11. M Shanghai String Band – Two Thousand Pennies
The mighty eleven-piece Brooklyn acoustic Americana crew’s most lush, haunting, diverse and ultimately best album, ranging from gypsy and chamber pop to brooding Appalachian ballads and the rousing singalong songs they’re best known for. Stream it

12.. Love Camp 7 – Love Camp VII
An expertly wry, tuneful, catchy janglerock concept album looking at recent history through the prism of the Beatles, with a jaundiced eye and expertly labyrinthine polyrhythms. Given up for dead after the tragic loss of brilliant drummer Dave Campbell, the band has recently regrouped and is as playful and fun as ever. Stream it

13. Hannah vs. the Many – All Our Heroes Drank Here
Ferociously literate, white knuckle intense female-fronted punk and powerpop, with some noir cabaret and Jarvis Cocker-style art-rock thrown in for good measure. Stream it

14. The Larch– Days to the West
The follow-up to their 2010 masterpiece Larix Americana finds the Brooklyn retro new wavers sounding more psychedelic and more savagely lyrical than ever. Stream it

15. Lorraine Leckie and Anthony Haden-Guest – Rudely Interrupted
A blackly amusing, gorgeously orchestrated chamber-pop collaboration between the caustic social critic and the Canadian gothic rock siren.  Band info and a/v

16. Black Fortress of Opium – Stratospherical
Lush, roaring, darkly psychedelic Middle Eastern-tinged art-rock from this powerful, female-fronted Boston band. Stream it

17. Matt Keating – Wrong Way Home
The respected Americana rocker’s best single-disc album, a brooding, offhandedly menacing blend of classic soul, country and elegant chamber pop. Stream it

18. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores  – Sister Death
Not to have this album in the #1 spot is pretty absurd: the Rhode Island band’s swirling, psychedelic, gypsy-tinged art-rock masterpiece is the most downright macabre collection on this list. Stream it

19.. The Sometime Boys – Ice & Blood
The second album from cabaret siren Sarah Mucho and art-rocker Kurt Leege’s sharply lyrical acoustic Americana project finds them funkier, more lush and more intense than ever. Stream it

20. Animation – Transparent Heart
As historically important as it is richly arrranged, saxophonist Bob Belden’s collection of cinematic instrumental themes traces the decline of New York over the past couple of decades, centered around 9/11 and the fascism that ensued. Band info and a/v

21. Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone
Marc Ribot’s guitar is amazing beyond belief, and Merrritt’s pensive Americana songs and nuanced vocals are as vivid as always.  Band info and a/v

22. Out of Order – Hey Pussycat
The loudest album on this list is by this assaultive all-female Long Island noiserock/punk trio, raw but richly produced by John Sharples. Stream it

23. Changing Modes – In Flight
With three keyboards and edgy lead guitar, these women and guys play biting, lyrical art-rock and new wave-influenced sounds. Stream it

24. Chris Erikson & the Wayward Puritans – Lost Track of the Time
Erikson has been one of the great guitarists in Americana for years, in other peoples’ bands. This is his long-overdue debut as a leader, a careening, gorgeously twangy mix of Americana, paisley underground psychedelia and riff-rock. Stream it

25. Marissa Nadler – The Sister
The Nashville gothic/noir cabaret chanteuse/songwriter’s most haunting and atmospheric album since her debut, a darkly nebulous, allusive gem. Stream it/free downloads

26. Spanking Charlene – Where Are the Freaks
Female-fronted Americana punk band with  powerful, intense lead vocals, hooks that run the gamut from the Stooges to X and a potently snide, sarcastic, spot-on worldview. Stream it

27. Frankenpine – In That Black Sky
Creepy original bluegrass, Appalachian ballads and elegantly dark acoustic sounds from this diverse Brooklyn band. Stream it/free dowloads

28. Choban Elektrik – their debut album
A side project by members of Zappa cover band Project/Object, they take classic Balkan and gypsy themes and make trippy psychedelic rock out of them. Stream it

29. Slavic Soul Party – New York Underground Tapes
The wildly popular Brooklyn Balkan brass band at the top of their funky, surprisingly eclectic, intensely danceable game. Stream it

30. Saint Maybe – Things As They Are
A throwback to the paisley underground bands of the 80s like True West and the Dream Syndicate, this project by a Patti Smith guitarist and Bob Dylan’s drummer mixes surreal, apocalyptic imagery and raw, surreal, psychedelic Americana rock. Stream it 

31. Mike Rimbaud – Can’t Judge a Song By Its Cover
The New York underground rocker – who also put out an excellent album of originals last year, and constantly releases video singles – puts his indelibly New York spin on politically charged classics by Phil Ochs, Dylan, the Stones and others. Stream it

32. When the Broken Bow – We, the Dangerous Weapons
A surreal, fearlessly political, apocalyptic concept album by this Oregon band  that runs the gamut from soul-pop to careening art-rock to goth and gypsy sounds. Stream it

33. Tim Foljahn – Songs for an Age of Extinction
Grimly lyrical, pensively psychedelic noir chamber pop and Americana-influenced songwriting. Stream it

34. Demolition String Band – Gracious Days
The well-loved New York Americana/bluegrass/rock twanglers’ best electric album, an intoxicating blend of guitars, mandolins, banjo and Elena Skye’s velvet vocals. Stream it

35. The Brixton Riot – Palace Amusements
Sort of the missing link between the Jam and Guided by Voices, this New Jersey band blast their way through a series of hard-hitting, swirling, lyrically biting three-minute songs. Stream it

36. L’il Mo & the  Monicats – Whole Lotta Lovin
Americana chanteuse Monica Passin’s most intimate and eclectic album to date, with soaring harmonies from fellow Americana siren Drina Seay. Song samples

37. Leigh Marble – Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows
Brooding, bitterly lyrical songwriting with a mix of hypnotically psychedelic and Americana-flavored tunes from the Portland, Oregon bandleader. Stream it

38. Eilen Jewell – Queen of the Minor Key
Truth in advertising – Jewel excels at noir Americana, ghoulabilly, garage rock and oldschool psychedelic sounds. Band info and a/v

39. Mucca Pazza – Safety Fifth
A characteristically high-voltage mix of short but sonically titanic gypsy punk and gypsy rock songs from the brass-heavy Chicago dance orchestra. Stream it

40. Chicago Stone Lightning Band – their debut album
With a raw, guitar-fueled edge, their twin-Gibson assault covers classic 60s style Chicago blues, riff-driven stoner rock, original soul and funk. Stream it

41. Emily Jane White – Ode to Sentience
Intense, broodingly lyrical, intricately orchestrated Nashville gothic and art-rock sounds. Band info and a/v 

42. My Education – A Drink for All My Friends
The Austin postrock/instrumental band have never sounded more lush or guitarishly intense on this mix of desert rock and cinematic themes. Stream it

43. Tom Shaner – Ghost Songs, Waltzes and Rock n Roll
That such a great album would be this low on the list attests to how amazing this past year was for music. The former Industrial Tepee frontman has never written more richly or lyrically than he does on this southwestern gothic gem. Band info and video

44. Jon DeRosa – A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes
The Brooklyn crooner comes across as sort of a cross between Jarvis Cocker and Leonard Cohen, with a mix of lush chamber pop, Americana and 80s-influenced gothic art-rock. Band info and a/v

45. The Sweetback Sisters – Lookin’ for a Fight
This amazing two-frontwoman honkytonk band not in the top ten? How can that be possible? Take a look at the rest of the list. Stream it

46. Band of Outsiders – Sound Beach Quartet
The 80s psychedelic punk legends are still going strong, with a richly jangly, snaky new ep that evokes Television as well as the Jesus & Mary Chain, both groups whose careers they’ve now eclipsed. Stream it 

47. Mighty High – Legalize Tre Bags
The funniest album of the year blends roaring Motorhead-style biker rock with woozy stoner riffage and some of the best weed jokes ever put on vinyl. Stream it

48. The Weal and Woe – The One to Blame
Gorgeously harmony-driven oldschool honkytonk and 1950s style proto-rockabilly sounds from this wonderfully retro Brooklyn band. Stream it

49. Guided by Voices – The Bears for Lunch
Agelessly energetic, prolific indie surrealist Robert Pollard hasn’t lost a thing: this is the third and best release in the band’s incredibly productive 2012, not including Pollard’s own solo releases. Band info and a/v

50. Ian Hunter – When I’m President
Last but hardly least on this list, another ageless rocker from an even earlier era put out an album that could be the great lost Stones classic from 30 years ago. Band info/free downloads 

Yet Another Haunting, Intense Album from Botanica

Arguably the world’s most vital and relevant art-rock band, Botanica has a new album out titled What Do You Believe In. Inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s diabolical parable The Master and the Margarita, it’s out from Rent-a-Dog in Europe, also available on limited edition vinyl in addition to the usual digital formats and streaming in its entirety at Botanica’s site. Where does this fall in the Botanica pantheon? On one hand, it has the band’s signature blend of John Andrews’ searing, reverb-toned guitar and frontman Paul Wallfisch’s alternately fiery and funereal organ and ominously echoing Wurlitzer piano; on the other, it’s their most brooding effort to date. Existential angst, doubt and dread linger throughout most of the songs, an ambience cruelly fueled by death of Wallfisch’s mother during the recording process. Now based in Germany – which makes sense since so much of Botanica’s fan base is European – this version of the group also features Jason Binnick’s terse, melodic bass and the Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione flexing his muscles on drums. Wallfisch’s lyrics quote liberally from Alexander Pushkin and Vladimir Mayakovsky; once again, Andrews contributes three of the album’s strongest tracks including the opening cut, Judgment, an elegantly bitter classical guitar waltz that ponders the repercussions of a “deal for my ambition” where he’d “surrender all the love I’d ever known…for a moment restless on this eternal flight.” It’s a good choice of opener: the rest is even darker.

A roaring gypsy rock march, Ball in Hell is all High Romantic angst, Andrews’ slide guitar keening over roaring sheets of noise that eventually explode and overwhelm everything in their path. Dog, with its tricky syncopation and watery Beatlesque guitar, has Wallfisch’s characteristically uneasy snarl, “I wanna walk with you Jesus but you don’t exist:” yet he also intimates that ultimately we’re probably better off a little crazy, alone and somewhat horrified, than comfortably and complacently delusional. A mighty, Procol Harum-esque anthem, Manuscripts Don’t Burn has Andrews melting picks and furiously tremolo-picking his strings to a savage whirlwind as Wallfisch cynically intones about how “Manuscripts don’t burn, said the master to the poet who took all night remembering, only to unlearn that wisdom once received and never questioned is a sin.” Everybody Lies, a pop anthem in heavy disguise, explores the perils of believing in absolutes: “From the gates of hell to the Great Gate of Kiev, if we can nail it to the wall it don’t scare us at all…But oh god, oh god, stick a man on the cross and everybody lies.”

The saddest song here is the wistfully beautiful Park Bench, a plaintively nostalgic view of late-life solitude that finally hits a roaring crescendo and then descends into hypnotic, Beatlesque psychedelia. It contrasts with the caustically furtive gypsy-pop of Money (an original, not the Pink Floyd faux-jazz hit), Wallfisch’s piano eventually tumbling unsteadily into the picture alongside Andrews’ jagged metal riffage. Kingdom of Doubt, by Andrews, builds quickly to an epic intensity with more furious chord-chopping, keyboard atmospherics and Binnick’s menacing, stalking bassline and then hits a catchy yet creepy chorus that wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn songbook. And then they bring it down to a dirge before bringing it up again: horrorstricken existentialist rock doesn’t get any more intense than this.

Frictionless Skates, another Andrews song, blends flamenco guitar and tongue-in-cheek lo-fi organ over a cheeky cabaret swing and a typically sarcastic lyric. Then they reach titanic, terrified heights again with Angel, Wallfisch beginning it with whispery, apprehensive atmospherics before Andrews finally takes it up with an endless, volcanically hammering interlude that might or might not be an illustration of Satan’s estrangement from his creator/twin – like most of the rest of the songs here, it raises more questions than it answers, and it ends resolved. The album closes with the melancholy, Russian-tinged Winter’s Evening and then the uneasy, Wurlitzer-fueled lullaby ambience of Past One O’Clock, a reflection on how to proceed once “the incident’s closed,” whatever that might have been. Allusive, defiantly unwilling to settle for easy answers or any kind of cliched resolution, it packs a quiet wallop. Count this among 2012’s best rock albums alongside Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo and Black Fortress of Opium’s Stratospherical. Wallfisch plays the dark rock night he created back in 2008, Small Beast at the Delancey, on May 7 at 10 PM accompanying both his longtime noir cabaret collaborator Little Annie, Bauhaus’ David J and then ending the night with a more-or-less solo set: it promises to be one of the high points of live music in New York this year.

Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo: Best Album of 2012?

Chicha music in Peru in the 70s followed the same trajectory as the American surf music that inspired it. Along with the sounds that get pigeonholed as surf rock these days, the Ventures and Dick Dale and their contemporaries also played country, and western swing, and hotrod themes, then went through a psychedelic phase that eventually got pretty cheesy before a second wave of surf bands dove in and rescued it. Likewise, Los Destellos, Los Diablos Rojos, Los Mirlos and countless other Peruvian bands whose amazingly syncretic work has recently emerged from obscurity played a whole bunch of different styles, from straight-up rock, to electrified Andean folk, Colombian cumbias, Brazilian and Cuban-influenced styles. But by the early 80s, they’d started using Casios and digital technology, and the focus shifted to the girls shimmying onstage alongside what was left of the bands phoning in all the old vamps. Until Chicha Libre came along, brought the style north with them and introduced the rest of the world to an amazing, trippy, twangy sound that for decades had been exclusively an indigenous phenomenon.

Now the Brooklyn group leading the psychedelic cumbia revival have a new album, Canibalismo, coming out on Barbes Records (it hasn’t officially hit yet, but if you swing by Barbes, no doubt you can pick up a copy and then have a drink to celebrate the world-renowned club’s ten years in business). Even more than their classic 2008 debut, Sonido Amazonico, the new album isn’t exclusively chicha music: there’s a couple of tracks that sound like Gainsbourg, a little dub, a Mexican border pop vamp and a Santana-esque rock number. They’ve added a lot of different textures to the mix: keyboardist Josh Camp has added 80s synth and other vintage sounds along with his swirling, reverb-drenched Hohner Electrovox (a vintage synthesizer in an accordion body, marketed to a latin audience fifty years ago). Likewise, versatile guitarist Vincent Douglas gets more time in the spotlight, a very welcome development; there are even psychedelic EFX on frontman Olivier Conan’s cuatro, which essentially serves as the rhythm guitar here.

The opening track, La Plata (En Mi Carrito De Lata) sets the stage, a bouncily shuffling 2-chord chromatic vamp that gives Camp a launching pad for a million echoey keyboard settings, plus oooh-oooh backing vocals, and a disco beat pulsing from the congas and timbales. La Danza Del Millionario may have originated as a bad-guy theme written for a soundtrack to the 1921 Charlie Chaplin silent film The Idle Class: it’s a creepily direct, intense tune that puts the melody front and center rather than the effects. The downright creepiest track here is Papageno Electrico, which sounds like a Japanese surf song, reverb guitar trading on and off leads with innumerable woozy oscillating keyboard textures and equally woozy, menacingly cartoonish vocals. And the tremoloing, funereal Depresion Tropical reminds that bad times always hit the third world harder than the first

Camp contributes El Carnicero de Chicago (Chicago Butcher), a minor-key clave rock groove that builds to a sort of chicha highway anthem. The only straight-up cover here is a lickety-split version of Los Mirlos’ Muchachita Del Oriente (Asian Girl), lit up by a couple of nimble breaks by both percussionists; however, the band also nick a famous theme by Juaneco y Su Combo and turns it into a tribute to bandleader Juan Wong Popolizio, envisioning the man who lost most of his band in a tragic 1977 plane crash reunited with them in the great beyond.

The rest of the album is even more eclectic. L’Age D’Or, a slow, slinky, snide look at nostalgia has Conan doing his best Gauloise-flavored Gainsbourg rasp in his native French over electric harpsichord and echoey Electrovox. Number 17 looks back to the kitchen-sink psychedelia of Los Destellos’ classic 1971 album Constelacion (and to Henry Mancini) with its casually crescendoing trippiness, echoey vocals and absurdist lyrics (a tribute to Fermat prime numbers…all five of them). Lupita en la Selva y el Doctor is a slyly undulating tropical tribute to Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD. Ride of the Valkyries is punk in spirit if not execution, revealing how incredibly cheesy and ridiculous Wagner’s original was – it has the feel of something that the bass player might have brought in at the last minute at the end of the recording session and dared his bandmates to take a stab at. The album ends with Once Tejones (Eleven Badgers), a playful shuffling anthem with boomy percussion, intricate late 60s soul guitar and some unexpectedly keening slide work.

Is this the best album of 2012? Probably. That’s not to say that any such competition between bands exists, or that it should. It’s simply to say that this album packs more pleasure and thrills than anything else released this year so far. To put it in context, it’s right up there with Raya Brass Band’s Dancing on Ashes, Dancing on Cinders, and Black Fortress of Opium’s Stratospherical. Chicha Libre are currently on South American tour; after a series of midwest US dates, they play the album release show for this one at 9 PM on May 19 at the 92YTribeca for a measly ten bucks.

And if the press release for this album is to be believed, the cumbia revolution has finally reached the fauxhemian class: the pretty boys of Animal Collective have ostensibly been spotted sashaying around Lima, flashing their parents’ credit cards and digging through musty old crates of vinyl in search of chicha treasures. But not to learn how to play the music, of course: only to sample it.

Black Fortress of Opium – Truth in Advertising

Black Fortress of Opium: an apt name for a band whose appeal is sometimes narcotic and often violent. It’s not known if the Boston art-rock crew is aware of legendary Australian psychedelic rockers the Church, but their new album Stratospherical (streaming at their Bandcamp site) is in many respects a dead ringer for that group at their peak. With its layers of guitars, Black Fortress of Opium’s scorching 2008 debut album makes a good counterpart to the Church’s 1981 debut Of Skins and Heart. Likewise, just as their Aussie predecessors switched to a more ornate style, Black Fortress of Opium have expanded their sonics into a ringing, richly chiming, swirling, shimmering, lushly arranged web. So this album, their second, is sort of their Gold Afternoon Fix…except with vocals by a darkly charismatic frontwoman. Multi-instrumentalist Ajda the Turkish Queen sings in a penetrating, moody soprano that’s sometimes ethereal, sometimes breathy, often plaintive or menacing, depending on the lyrics. Her acoustic guitars, mandolin, tenor banjo and keys mingle with lead guitarist Tony Savarino’s layers of jangle, clang and roar for an orchestral majesty that’s all too seldom seen in rock music these days. Bass is just as important to the melody as to the pulse here, with Dave Yanolis, Joel Simches and Rich Cortese all contributing on four-string along with Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione and Joe Turner handling the drums. Is the best rock record of 2012 so far? It’s one of them.

It’s hard to pick one song over another here. Afyonkarahisar Battle Cry – which is basically the title track – builds from rhythmic suspense to an intense, pulsing chorus with swirling dreampop vocal harmonies and ringing, Middle Eastern-tinged guitar hooks, a shout-out to the capitol city of a centuries-old, wartorn Turkish opium province. Likewise, Blind begins a-cappella and grows to a dreamy, majestic menace lit up by Ajda’s spiky mandolin. It could be a requiem for a relationship, or for an entire generation, “The blind children misleading the blind.” Fata Morgana reflects on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the assassination of John Lennon over a swaying, hypnotic backdrop, lush harmonies contrasting with elegantly incisive acoustic guitar and bass as it winds out at the end. Regret and Rue, a similarly hypnotic, understatedly plaintive account of “deprivation and degradation” has a deliciously artful crescendo and a surprise sitar-guitar interlude, ending in a shower of sparks from the amps and a final death salvo from the drums. And Southern Hymnal, a blend of noir cabaret and southwestern gothic, is absolutely gorgeous, from its stately classical guitar intro, through Savarino’s chilling late-night desert baritone guitar solo, and the most album’s most evocative lyric:

Three sheets to the wind in Copenhagen
And I swear there were ghosts in the room…
You hold my hand like some kind of bible
You never really believed
You say my name like some kind of prayer
You only half-remember
You say you love me like some southern hymnal
You can’t find the pages…

The sad, elegaic ballad Unraveling leaves a mark in just under three minutes with pensive layers of accordion and mournful slide guitar, while Get the Timing develops from meandering, bucolic atmospherics to an ambience that manages to be simultaneously hopeful and hopeless. There are also a couple of crunchy, metal-ish numbers, the sarcastic Blood Diamond and Cherry Blossom, a turbocharged, apprehensive powerpop hit. There’s also a straight-up pop song, Right Around Here, the bitterness of the lyric (“I know I’m getting cheated…and I’m ok with that”) contrasting with the bright, shimmering energy of the layers of guitars. The album winds up with This Dark Cloud, a staggering vamp packed with snarling guitar textures which probably makes for great live jams.

In case you’re wondering, Black Fortress of Opium take their name from a small city in Turkey, Afyonkarahisar, which has been a major center of opium production for centuries. The official story these days is that the opium grown in the surrounding fields is for medical use. Overlooking the city is a fort perched on a gigantic rock formation, which gave the city a strategic importance for centuries, as batallion after batallion of marauding invaders took turns occupying it. At least the townspeople had opium to ease the pain of the war years.