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The 100 Best Songs of 2021

This is a playlist. Click on song titles for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpage. There are hours worth of listening here: you might want to bookmark this page. The point of this is not just to cull the best songs from the Best Albums of 2021 list, but also to include singles, and videos, and tracks from other records that for one reason or another aren’t on that one,

Given the choice of a fierce, plainspoken, feel-good singalong protest song, a totally disconsolate one, or a much more complex, artful powerpop gem, which would you pick for best song of the year?

Subjective as this list is bound to be, there are three main contenders. The big outlaw country hit that everybody’s blasting at all the protests is Blind Joe‘s I Will Not Comply. It’s Woody Guthrie for the 21st century. It’s catchy, it’s optimistic, and everybody can relate to it.

The flip side of that, metaphorically speaking at least, is Silent War, by songwriter Five Times August. It’s a solemn waltz:

They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits

Then there’s Irene Pena‘s The Summer Place. Over a catchy late 70s/early 80s powerpop tune, she paints a witheringly detailed picture of family dysfunction by the seaside. As a portrait of the dark side of human behavior (without touching on lockdowns or muzzlemania), it’s Elvis Costello-class, as vividly cynical as anything Black Box Recorder ever did. And in a normal year, it could have topped this list.

This year, the #1 slot goes to Five Times August. He hadn’t even recorded the song yet when he debuted it at a massive rally held by Texans for Vaccine Choice in Austin at the peak of the summer heat. And as sad as it is, at the end he implores us to “Take back your freedom and fight for your life, stand up before it’s all gone.”

What’s optimistic about this list is that despite the current state of the world, there are more funny songs on it than ever before. What’s less optimistic is that there was less recorded music released in 2021 than in any other year since the 1940s. One suspects that artists have written infinitely more material than they’ve been able to record in the past twenty-two months. Whatever the case, there’s still an embarrassment of riches here.

Beyond the next ten songs or so – the creme de la creme of 2021 – there’s absolutely no order or ranking to this list.

Five Times AugustGod Help Us All
One of the great protest songs of the past year or so: “Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now…Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?”

Five Times August – Jesus What Happened to Us
One of the first protest songs banned from youtube, no surprise considering the lyrics. It’s Eve of Destruction with a locked-in, lockdown-era focus: “Keep staring at your smartphone, get dumber every week,”

Tessa LenaThe Physical World Is the Only World We Have
The longest song on this list, a bracingly immersive mosaic of savagely funny spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged sounds by the polymath singer/investigative journalist and host of the philosophical podcast Make Language Great Again:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow

Mostly AutumnTurn Around Slowly
An endlessly shapeshifting, circling, metaphorically loaded art-rock seafaring anthem that makes a towering coda for their album Graveyard Star, one of the most vivid portraits of lockdown-era terror released to date.

Slowhand and Van – This Has Got to Stop
Anybody who wants to subject Eric Clapton to any more crippling mandatory shots will be stopped dead in their tracks, the guitar icon wants everybody to know. Van Morrison’s response is more quietly seething.

The Armoires Homebound
One of the most spot-on, witheringly cynical lockdown songs written so far is this Louvin Brothers-style country waltz originally released under the pseudonym The Chessie System. The title is a cruel pun. From the album Incognito

Ward WhiteEasy Meat
Reduced to lowest terms, this cinematic, imagistic powerpop narrative is about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.
From the album The Tender Age.

Changing ModesStasis Loop
A macabre, picturesque account of the early days of the lockdown in New York that rises out of an evil morass of feedback and horror-movie keys. From the album Wax World

Van MorrisonDouble Bind
A slow, slinky minor-key soul protest anthem: “It’s always the opposite of what they say
…Trying to police everyone’s mind,” the Celtic icon warns. Arguably the best song on the album Latest Record Project No. 1

Van MorrisonWhy Are You on Facebook
Over a jangly, bluesy Highway 61-era Dylanesque backdrop, Morrison wants to know “Why do you need secondhand friends?” Funniest track on his album Latest Record Project No. 1

The Academy Blues Project –  All Will Be Revealed
A deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud: Ben Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to guitarist Mark Levy’s savage guitar outro. From the album The Neon Grotto

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard Static Electricity
Slinky electric saz-driven microtonal Turkish-flavored psychedelia from the album LW

The Pocket Gods – Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday
Crushingly sarcastic as it may be, this creepy, barely two-minute synth-rock song arguably captures the relentless gloom and hopelessness of the plandemic better than any other song released to date. From the album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall

Van MorrisonHe’s Not the Kingpin
A soul-infused, sinister look at how the forces behind the lockdown ambush each other: “He’s just the fall guy – follow the money, follow the story, ” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1

The Felice Bros. – We Shall Live Again
A big folk-rock epic that’s as poignant as it is funny – and creepy: “The clouds are at the winds’ command, a great extinction is close at hand.” From the album From Dreams to Dust

Gary LourisDead Man’s Burden
An eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic pondering questions like transcending the residue of unsustainable evil left over from the Cold War, from centuries of ravaging the environment and anything else that got in our way. From the album Jump For Joy

Fanfare CiocarliaThe Trumpeter’s Lament
A sizzling Romany circus rock bolero and the most phantasmagorical song on their latest album It Wasn’t Hard To Love You

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra – Christopher Muscat: Mesogeios
A magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key portrait of the Mediterranean featuring soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance. From the album Contemporary Colours

Volur – Death Cult
Menacing tritones, a Bartokian string interlude, towering crescendos, a skull-shredding violin solo, and what sounds like throat-singing by dead monks. Title track from the art-rock/metal band’s latest album.

KatlaHvitamyrkur (Dark Light)
A somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching forward drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo in this Icelandic metal dirge. From the album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness)

Gabriel Alegria’s Afro-Peruvian Sextet – The Mask
A stark urban noir soul tableau behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved. From the album Social Distancing

Sana NaganoLoud Dinner Wanted
Insistent, hammering riffs and eerily dancing tritones give way to a horror interlude anchored by booming bass chords and a minimalist stomp in this shrieking, dystopic tableau from the jazz violinist’s album Smashing Humans

Tiffany NgDark Matters
The carillonist rings out big emphatic splashes of color within an allusively menacing, hypnotic bell choir. Title track from her latest album

The JCA OrchestraRomapole
A colorfully bellicose Turkish-inspired big band jazz epic. From the album Live at the BPC

HK et les SaltimbanksDanser Encore
The mighty Romany jazz-flavored protest anthem that became the unofficial theme for this past year’s protests throughout Europe. The point is that we’ll dance again…but not the way the totalitarians want us to, literally, “on a chord chart.”

Dave Specter and Billy Branch – The Ballad of George Floyd
The Chicago blues guitarist and blues harpist build a slow, venomously simmering groove: “Eight minutes of torture, begged for mercy, then he was killed.”

DisturbiosSurf Gnossienne
Matt Verta-Ray’s spare guitar over his wife Rocio’s tremoloing funeral organ blend for a haunting reinvention of the Erik Satie classic. From the band’s first album

TsibeleMir Veln Zey Iberlebn (We Will Outlive Them)
When the Nazis marched into Lublin, Poland in 1941 and rounded up the Jews there, they were as sadistic as usual. Driving the population out into the fields, they commanded the captives to dance. Their response was this song, a defiant Middle Eastern-flavored singalong recreated by the New York klezmer band as a seven-minute epic.

Ward WhiteLet’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight
Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in this Bowie-tinged capsule of road rage. From the album The Tender Age

Azure RayAlready Written
An allusive, bittersweetly devastating psychedelic pop gem: “Now I’m somewhere between what I hear and when I listen, try to write it down but it’s already written – how I miss those days.” From the album Remedy

Bare Wire SonFingernest
Spare, Lynchian guitar figures fuel an emphatic, pulsing, hypnotic dirge, rising to Comfortably Numb proportions. From the album Off Black

Nick WaterhouseVery Blue
Gorgeous, Orbisonian early 60s style Nashville noir, complete with desperately hammering piano, bittersweet major/minor changes and flurrying early ELO strings. From the album Promenade Blue

The Brooke Maxwell Ensemble – Be Safe Be Good
Although this searing satire of everyday paranoia was written before the lockdown, it resonates even more now. From the Ride the Cyclone soundtrack

Carola OrtizCorro per la Nit
A harrowing nocturnal chase scene, through a werewolf intro, to leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls. From the Spanish clarinetist’s album Pecata Beata

The Armoires – Great Distances
A soaring but poignant lockdown-era tableau that could be the great harmony-rock tune the Jayhawks left off Sound of Lies. Originally released under the pseudonym The Gospel Swamps. From the album Incognito

Changing Modes On an Island
Drummer Timur Yusef’s gracefully tumbling Atrocity Exhibition-style drums bookend a gorgeously symphonic, surreal lockdown escape ballad. From the album Wax World

Five Times AugustSad Little Man
A vindictively hilarious, singalong folk-rock portrait of the evil Dr. Faulty and all his flip-flopping

The Speed of SoundTomorrow’s World
“We were offered Star Trek, but they fed us Soylent Green,” guitarist Ann-Marie Crowley sings to open this dystopic retro new wave tune. From the album The Museum of Tomorrow

BesarabiaOroneta
A lush, slashingly chromatic, trickily rhythmic Andalucian-tinged dance with eerie, Bulgarian-tinged vocal harmonies, From the album Animal Republic

James McMurtryOperation Never Mind
A slashing, spot-on, cynical, twangy critique of American foreign policy misadventures in Afghanistan before Biden’s disastrous pullout: “We won’t let the cameras near the fighting. that way we won’t have another Vietnam.” From the album The Horses and the Hounds

RC the RapperJust 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.”

Five Times August – Outttayerdaminde
A rapidfire Subterranean Homesick Blues flavored broadside that pokes savage fun at soyboys and other narcissists run amok on Tik Tok.

Acoustic Syndicate – Bertha
A cover of the Grateful Dead classic, with 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?”

Changing ModesNothing to Say
Frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam dismissively critique social media over haphazard Beatles blues. From the New York harmony-rock band’s latest album Wax World

Castle Rat Different Dirt
A killer fuzztone doom metal dirge in a grimly sludgy Electric Citizen vein.

Nikolaj Hess ECM Country
A brooding, expansive, windswept waltz, the pianist playing suspiciously blithe, light-fingered, bluesy lounge phrases over the mournful, Lynchian swells of the string section. From the album Spacelab & Strings

FortidPandemic
A stomping, Middle Eastern-tinged chromatic black metal anthem that seems to address repression more than it does any perceived threat of a virus. From the album World Serpent

Caamaño & AmeixeirasManeo de Cambre
A bracing, Andalucian-tinged waltz from accordionist Sabela Caamaño and violinist Antía Ameixeiras with a plaintive solo from powerhouse guest clarinetist Carola Ortiz. From the album Aire

Erkin Cavus and Reentko DirksMaksim
A lingering, Satie-esque Turkish twin-guitar instrumental: with its sepulchral echo effects, it’s the most desolately gorgeous track on the album Istanbul 1900

The Armoires  – I Say We Take Off and Nuke This Site From Orbit
A seethingly Beatlesque critique of social media – the quote at the end of the song is too good to give away. From the album Incognito

Bare Wire Son Saved Alone
Menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs, whispered vocals, a lulling organ interlude and ragged crescendo in this grim World War I tableau. From the album Off Black

Katayoun GoudarziSweetest
The Iranian chanteuse’s rapturous setting of a famous Rumi poem, ney flute trading off mysteriously with Middle Eastern-flavored sitar. From the album This Pale

Van Morrison – Duper’s Delight
A pulsing midtempo ballad that could be about a femme fatale, or lying lockdowners: “You don’t notice when they’re trying to confine you, you don’t notice when they doublecross.” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1

Menahan Street BandDevil’s Respite
A slinky, darkly anthemic oldschool soul instrumental from the album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band

Here Lies ManCollector of Vanities
Afrobeat as Black Sabbath might have played it: funereal organ, punchy chords, allusive chromatics. From the album Ritual Divination

Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! BandPush Come da Shove
Mozartean exchanges of voicings, careening swing, elephantine, undulating drums and a firebomb of a false ending on the most wildly turbulent track from the big band jazz album Still I Rise

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic DogThe Activist
The protean, agelessly relevant guitar icon takes aim at limousine liberal yuppie puppy entitlement in this hilariously verbose parody of cancel culture. From the album Hope

Langan Frost & Wayne – The Alchemist of Hazy Row
A sobering Kinks-inflected psych-folk narrative with a darkly enigmatic violin solo and a trick ending. From the band’s debut album

The Speed of Sound – Impossible Past
A knowing chronicle of revisionist history set to enigmatic new wave rock: “Duck-and-cover A-bomb drills among dark satanic mills.” From the album The Museum of Tomorrow

Sarah McQuaid The Day of Wrath, That Day
An eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre guitar instrumental: McQuaid is known as a singer, but she wails on the frets. From the record The St Buryan Sessions,

The CCCC Grossman EnsembleDavid Dzubay: PHO
Not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook for playfully maximum impact in the most animated and strongest piece on the album Fountain of Time

Lia SampaiUna Llum (A Light)
A slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. From the Catalan singer’s album Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation Hidden in Plain Sight),

Anbessa Orchestra Gobez (Brave)
This single is more spacy and atmospheric than the incendiary, guitar-stoked Ethiopian jam they used to slay audiences with in summers where people congregated freely here in New York.

Ward WhiteOn Foot
A brisk new wave/powerpop murder ballad whose cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. From the album The Tender Age

Ward Hayden and the OutliersNothing to Do (For Real This Time)
Jangly bluegrass-tinged highway rock with a chilling lockdown-era narrative: “This is what happens when you wake up, all the cool kids in the class, just actors in a mask.” From the album Free Country

Willie Nile – Blood on Your Hands
Steve Earle guests on this stomping, venomous Americana rock broadside aimed at oligarchs everywhere: “There’s bodies piled up down on Blueblood Street.” From the album The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout – Sheba
Surf Ethiopiques recorded in the backroom of a legendary onetime speakeasy. From the album The Boog At Sunny’s

Cate Von CsokeCoyote Cry
Link Wray meets Morricone somewhere in the Australian outback. From the album Almoon

Sam LlanasAutumn Is Falling
A Nashville gothic-tinged, metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time, spot-on for 2021. From the album Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

Abigail DowdApple Trees
A chillingly metaphorical tale of plans suddenly derailed, set to spare, brooding folk noir. From the album Beautiful Day

The Colorist Orchestra and Howe Gelb Tarantula
A clip-clop southwestern gothic opening credits-style instrumental theme from the desert rock icon and European art-rockers’ debut collaboration Not on the Map

Opium MoonWisdom
More than eleven minutes of austerely enveloping, gracefully violin-driven Middle Eastern and Indian-flavored rapture. From the double album Night and Day

Esquela Oradura
A grim account of the Nazi massacre of the French village of Oradour Sur Glane in 1944, set to snarling guitar-fueled desert rock. From the album A Sign From God

Space SummitAncient Towers
Lush, richly clanging layers of guitar permeate this mighty, allusive art-rock anthem from twelve-string maven Marty Willson-Piper’s latest project. From the album Life This Way

SwerveEbbs & Flows
“Try to fight this feeling, that I’m gonna die up on this hill” – political Oasis, like one of that band’s good rare b-sides. From the album Ruin Your Day

Victory BoydThe Star Spangled Banner
The 2021 equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s version. Boyd’s is intricate and acoustic, a protest against totalitarianism instead of the Vietnam War.

Carola OrtizCarmeta
Her bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in this instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette to a slinky, tricky Balkan groove. From the album Pecata Beata

Becca Stevens and the Secret TrioPathways
The art-rock singer contemplates a refuge “away from the noisy crowd, where I can see the pale stars rising,” over a magical blend of the Balkans and catchy American janglerock. From their debut collaboration

Monsieur DoumaniTiritichtas
An undulating, loopy, rembetiko-inspired chromatic theme with half-whispered lyrics about a trickster archetype. From the album Pissourin

Antonis Antoniou Doulia
Circling chromatic bouzouki riffage over a trippy groove permeates this icy Balkan-tinged psychedelic tune. From the album Kkismettin

Perry Carditis & the mRNA’s – Christmas medley
Coffee and Covid published this ridiculously entertaining spoof of infomercials for holiday albums, with updated lyrics for the age of lethal injection campaigns. Scroll down for the video.

Nirvana A – Pure Blooded
One of the funniest protest songs of the past year, set to the tune of the silly 70s Foreigner lite-metal hit Hot Blooded.

Dennis DavisonThe Guise of Comedy
A twisted, phantasmagorical 60s-style psych-pop tune from the former frontman of the late, great Jigsaw Seen

Castle Black Radio Queen
A sleek, rhythmically tricky take on grim minor-key early 80s punk. From the album album Get Up Dancer,

Dan BlakeThe Grifter
A complex and crushingly cynical, bustling jazz portrait of a would-be political savior with a dark undercurrent and a spot-on sax solo out. From the saxophonists’s latest album Da Fe

DictaphoneIsland 92
A trippy, shadowy rembetiko-ish noir theme fueled by bass clarinet. From the album Goats & Distortions 5

Lake Street Dive Hush Money
“You can’t win the game so you wanna throw it, but I’ve got a whistle and I’m gonna blow it,” singer Rachael Price insists, over a Beatlesque, quasi trip-hop sway. From the album Obviously

Icon of Sin – Clouds Over Gotham
Shifting between gentle, early Genesis-tinged interludes, a fullscale stampede and nightmarish symphonic angst, the Brazilian metal band captures the anguish of the early days of the lockdown here…but if their prophecy comes true, we will rise again! From their debut album

Shuky Shveiky – Espinelo
One of the most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers on
Sarah Aroeste’s album Monastir, exploring the global pre-Holcaust roots of a Macedonian center of Jewish culture

Frankie & the Witch FingersMepem
A heavy, dark psychedelic soul jam with wah guitar and organ. Like Nektar covering War, with a surprise ending

The Shining TonguesAnnihilation
A wealth of dark textures: fuzztone repeaterbox guitar, symphonic keys and a lush bed of acoustic guitars. The most lavishly orchestral track on their debut album Milk of God

Dot AllisonThe Haunted
A spare, stark art-rock epic about ghostly presences, both phantasmic and psychological. From her album Heart-Shaped Scars

White Lightning – 1930
Little did the Minneapolis heavy psych band realize that when they released this rare Move-influenced protest single in 1969, how relevant their historical parable would be fifty years later. From the compilation album Brown Acid: The Twelfth Trip

The Airport 77sBad Mom
The funniest, most satirical track on the powerpop band’s hilarious album Rotation: this horrible parent lets her kids play with water pistols!

Black River DeltaSolitary Man
Not a cover of that awful Neil Diamond song. Set to a brooding web of acoustic guitars, this original is a harrowingly detailed account of the slow decline of a member of the crew of the Enola Gay. From the album Shakin’

Kristy HindsMiss Morocco
An icy Bliss Blood-style noir cha-cha: ‘Put her up in a sweet hotel, so sweet she didn’t notice the smell.” From the New Mexico chanteuse/ukulele player’s album Strange Religion.

MantecaIllusionist
Guitar noir reverberations plus darkly bluesy horns and keys over a cantering, boomy rhythm in this brooding instrumental. From the album The Twelfth of Never,

Davheed BehrooziRoyal Star
Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky done as a jazz waltz, more or less. From the album Echos

Charming DisasterOurobouros
Arguably the noir rock superduo’s hardest-rocking song. A phoenix in the making, or just a pile of bones? “Is this annihilation or metamorphosis?”

Jack Grace Smokehouse Discrepancy
A smoking mashup of surf rock and Booker T. instrumental soul, From the album What a Way to Spend a Night

Mike NeerAfrican Flower
A lingering, steel guitar-driven Big Lazy-ish take of the Ellington classic. From the album Keepin’ It Real

Los Tangueros del Oeste – Zamba Zefardim
An elegant, shapeshifting klezmer-tango theme from the album Alm Vieja

Olcay BayirKayip Cocuk (Lost Child)
Brooding, hypnotic trip-hop rising to an imploring, accusatory peak. “Who can give me my future? Take your dirty hands off from my hope and dreams,” Bayir sings in Turkish. From her album Inside (İçerde)

Emily FrembgenButterfly
“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” the folk noir singer relates gently in this chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. From the album It’s Me or the Dog

Peggy James – Joan of Arc
A venomous, fire-and-brimstone political broadside set to a mashup of Badfinger and 70s Nashville pop from the album The Parade

The ReducersLet’s Go
Written back in the 80s when traveling the world was something everyone did. This chugging punk-pop hit with a sizzling Hugh Birdsall guitar solo might be the high point of the band’s archival album Live: New York City 2005

Lauren AndersonYour Turn
A big orchestral ballad, the blues belter’s emotionally devastated narrator out on the highway, driving through a haze of wine and tears. From the album Love on the Rocks

Warish Say to Please
“Burn your bridges to stay warm!” guitarist Riley Hawk hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s sonics and a tantalizingly messy guitar solo. From the album Next to Pay

Ensemble Mik NawoojMozart on Joy
A wickedly clever mix of famous riffs by the ingenious classical/hip-hop ensemble, rapper Sandman cutting loose with one of his most sharply ironic lyrics. From the album Death Become Life

Tribal SeedsVampire
Grittily orchestrated late 80s Burning Spear-influenced roots reggae – what a trip. From the album Live: The 2020 Sessions

Delgres – Lese Mwen Ale (Let Me Go)
A scrambling, vindictive Mississippi hill country-style blues escape anthem. From the album 4:00 AM

Daz Band – We Are the 99%
The most authentic folk song on this list: haphazard, catchy and pissed as hell

Holding Fort with Castle Black in Long Island City

The sun goes down behind a phalanx of shiny steel-and-glass speculator properties close to the water in Long Island City Friday night. On one hand, it’s a good omen to see a loud guitar band playing so close to what on the surface seems to be a high-income residential complex.

But it’s empty. Those condos are just game pieces, hard assets for people who did well in the big pharma boom of 2020 to move their money into before that market tanks. Those boxes weren’t designed for human habitation – rats, on the other hand, should do well there. They make the average public housing project look like Fort Knox.

Speaking of fortresses, Castle Black are the band playing on the back of a flatbed trailer at the edge of the parking lot beneath the empty condos. Frontwoman Leigh Celent’s roaring Fender guitar gives the power trio a punk sound, but they’ve become more of an art-rock band over the last couple of years.

None of the songs in the set follow a standard verse-chorus pattern; one of them is in 9/4 time. Maybe the band name is meant to reflect the labyrinth of bridges in her songs.

This is a new version of the group. Celent is the only remaining member of the original trio, and she keeps taking on more responsibilities. This time out she has keyboard pedals for string synth and organ textures, and that requires a lot of split-second footwork. Most of the time it works. The samples of movie dialogue are extraneous: Man or Astroman worked that shtick to death.

The new drummer is having fun negotiating the sudden metric shifts and tricky changes, saving his furious volleys and flurries for the occasional big crescendo. The new bassist plays a longscale Gibson, with a pick. Like the drummer, he also chooses his spots to go way up the scale as the songs peak out.

Celent’s fragmented imagery tends to be surreal, sometimes ominous or desperate: the punk and the 80s goth influences obviously play a part in that. Between the jangle, and the roar, and the occasional swoosh from the pedals, the sound of the band has come to resemble late 70s Patti Smith more and more, although the rhythmic complexity gives this group a completely unique sound.

There’s tons of new material in the set: Celent obviously went on a creative tear during the lockdown. Radio Girl, one of the more straight-up punk numbers, seems to be a cautionary tale about the perils of fame. There’s another new one, maybe titled Sorry, that has more of late 70s/early 80s postpunk edge. Other songs bring to mind the Breeders. Celent has come a long way since growing up in public, playing the Bleecker Street strip.

The group close the first set with one of their best and most haunting songs, Dead in a Dream. The album version has a finely polished sheen and layers of guitars; this version has a careening danger. The ominousness in Celent’s uncluttered, midrangey voice picks up and they end the song cold.

There’s another set – who would have though that Castle Black had enough material for two sets? Meanwhile, the parking lot is still radiating too much heat to put a beer down for more than a few seconds. Everybody in the band has a tallboy; dehydration is real. From an audience perspective, in this case it meant that time had come to hit the shade, and the train.

Castle Black’s next gig is a very rare acoustic one on Aug 28 at 3 PM at the Greenpoint Terminal Market, on Market St. past Kent Ave on the water. Take the G to Nassau Ave.

Yet Another Killer Short Album and a Williamsburg Gig From Ferocious Power Trio Castle Black

Over the last couple of years, power trio Castle Black have put out a series of ferociously smart, edgy short albums. Watching the group develop from a promising, messy punk band into a sleek, relentlessly dark, complicated beast has been one of the real feel-good stories in the ever-shrinking New York rock scene. Their latest release, Dead in a Dream is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the album release show this July 9 at 9 PM at Muchmore’s; cover is $7. For people worried about not being able to get home from Williamsburg on the L train, the venue is a leisurely five-minute walk from the Lorimer St. station, and the G train is running all night.

The first couple of tracks on the new ep blend dark garage rock with shapeshifting psychedelia. Throughout U Do the Same the band veer between time signatures, new drummer Joey Russo handling the tricky changes and also addiug gritty intensity on bass.

Frontwoman/guitarist Leigh Celent begins the moody Know Me, Anyway with a wall of feedback, the song rising from a plaintive verse into a venomously catchy chorus: “You don’t know me, anyway,” she intones as the storm builds toward gale force..

The title track is a creepy, sabretoothed masterpiece, Celent working the contrast between her lingering, jangly lines and savagely insistent chords, up to a series of brooding, psychedelic interludes. It’s one of the half-dozen best songs of 2019 so far, and the band play the hell out of it live.

Yet Another Enigmatic, Unpredictable Short Album and a Bushwick Show From Power Trio Castle Black

Marauding power trio Castle Black are a rare feel-good story amidst the wreckage of what was once a thriving New York rock scene. They tour relentlessly and put out one scorching short album after another. Their latest release, The Gods That Adored You – streaming at Bandcamp – picks up where their magnificent Trapped Under All You Know left off, yet it’s a lot more minimalist and straightforward. Their next hometown gig is on Jan 17 at 8 PM at Gold Sounds in Bushwick. Cover is $10, and since we’ve been granted a gubernatorial reprieve from the dreaded L train shutdown, it looks like there will be subway service in that part of Brooklyn.

The album has five tracks, divided up into Part A: Fucked and Part B: Adored. The Fucked diptych opens with Man on a Train, its endless exchange of unexpected chord changes like a New York take on first-wave Bay Area punk legends the Avengers. The bassline that opens the second part, River, hints at disco before frontwoman Leigh Celent’s distorted guitar chords and drummer Matt Bronner’s galloping clusters kick in. Celent keeps getting more and more ambitious as an instrumentalist: this time, she adds layers of feedback and some strange, spacy textures.

Part B begins with Sierra, an echoey, hypnotically pulsing murder narrative awash in icy chorus-box guitar…until the distorted burn of the guitars and the drums kicks in, anyway. A Cigarette, Saved alternates between spare, chilly echoes of Joy Division and punchy punk insistence: the mantra is “I’m in love with the way you think.”

Celent’s distantly anguished vocals over delicious, grimly catchy chords blend with bass swoops and a galloping art-rock interlude in the album’s most ornately gorgeous song, Linen. Castle Black aren’t particularly retro, but songs like these remind how musically talented and outside the box those first-wave punk bands were. In that sense, Castle Black do justice to their ancestors without imitating them.

The 50 Best Albums of 2017

Scroll down for links to stream each of the albums here…except for the very newest one, which happens to be #1.

The best and most relevant album of 2017 was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. This haunting, epic five-part suite is not a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011, but rather the Tokyo-born pianist/bandleader’s reflection on personal terror and horror in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in world history.

Fujii’s stock in trade is not political music. Her vast catalog – over eighty albums as a leader or co-leader since the 90s – encompasses everything from epic improvisational soundscapes, to dark, acerbic piano compositions, rainy-day Japanese-flavored jazz-folk and collaborations with a global cast of artists. This may be her greatest achievement to date, as lush and sweeping as it is anthemically tuneful. And as a response to greed-fueled attempts to cover up the deadly environmental damage caused by the meltdowns, it’s as savage as Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies or Charles Mingus’ political broadsides.

It’s not streaming anywhere at present (end of December 2017), but it’s just out and available from Fujii’s Libra Records. Watch this space for a link! 

Vast research and triage went into the rest of this list. If you count multitasking as listening, an extremely ambitious listener can digest maybe three new albums a day. That’s about 1200 albums a year. An extremely ambitious music blogger can sample several thousand and then attempt to make sense of the very best. As in previous years, these albums are listed in rough chronological order considering when they were received here, rather than in any kind of hierarchical ranking. Which would be absurd, anyway – if an album’s one of the year’s fifty best, it’s got to be pretty damn good.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Ward White – As Consolation
The best rock record of 2017 is a surreal, twistedly psychedelic, ferociously literary masterpiece, from the guy who also put out the album ranked #1 here in 2013. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here
Iconic noir songwriter Steve Wynn regrouped his legendary, influential 80s band, who picked up like they never left off with a mix of psychedelia, dreampop and volcanic jams. Listen at youtube

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Son of Skooshny – Matchless Gifts
Wickedly lyrical songwriter Mark Breyer, longtime leader of powerpop cult favorites Skooshny, carries on with this richly jangly magnum opus, which collects his best songs of the last ten years or so. Listen at Bandcamp 

Phil Ochs  – Live in Montreal 10/22/66
What’s the iconic 1960s political firebrand doing on a list devoted to new music? This is new – a never-before-released set of many of his most shattering songs. It’s probably the definitive solo acoustic Ochs album. Listen at Spotify 

Charming Disaster – Cautionary Tales
The New York noir supergroup – led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – expand their palette from murder ballads to apocalyptic anthems, spy themes and a novelty song that had to be written. Listen at Bandcamp 

Alice Lee – The Wheel
The long-awaited new album by one of the most brilliantly lyrical, sardonically insightful, captivating soul singers and songwriters to emerge from this city in this century. Listen at Bandcamp 

Changing Modes – Goodbye Theodora
Postapocalyptic art-rock, noir surf and snarling dreampop are just the tip of the iceberg on the keyboard-driven, female-fronted cult favorite New York band’s seventh album. Listen at Spotify

The Mehmet Polat Trio – Ask Your Heart
Serpentine, uneasily picturesque, dynamic Middle Eastern, African and Balkan themes from the virtuoso oud player and his eclectic group. Listen at Spotify 

NO ICE – Come On Feel the NO ICE
The Brooklyn What’s Jamie Frey continues as part of this careeningly diverse group, arguably the best band to come out of Brooklyn in the past five years. Fearless soul-rock, unhinged post new wave and loud, enigmatic anthems with a killer, spot-on sense of humor. Listen at Bandcamp

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Morose, muted, characteristically slashing acoustic waltzes and orchestral pop from the perennially relevant psychopathologist. Listen at Spotify 

The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Sardonic, bitingly insightful new wave for an age of greed and narcissism from this era’s preeminent powerpop supergroup. Listen at Spotify 

Orkesta Mendoza – ¡Vamos A Guarachar!
The world’s darkest and slinkiest southwestern gothic psychedelic cumbia noir mambo band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Los Wemblers – Ikaro Del Amor
That a four-song ep could make this list testifies to how genuinely incredible, and improbable it is. Legendary in their native Peru, where they started almost fifty years ago, this psychedelic cumbia family band jam as eerily and otherworldly as they did when they first emerged from the jungle. Listen at Spotify 

The Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation
Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this collection of kinetic Turkish psychedelic rock and funk seems even more current in this era of surreal cross-cultural mashups, comprising songs by artists including Erkin Koray, Asik Emrah, Ali Ayhan, Deniz Ustu Kopurur and others. Listen at Spotify 

The Sadies – Northern Passages
The moodily jangly Canadian gothic cult favorites’ hardest-rocking and most psychedelic album. Listen at Bandcamp 

Morricone Youth – Mad Max
The iconic New York noir cinephiles’ first release of the year – one of a planned fifty recordings of scores for films they’ve played live to over the years – is far darker and more southwestern gothic-oriented than the road warrior film’s plot. With a Karla Rose vocal cameo, too. Listen at Spotify 

James Williamson and Deniz Tek – Acoustic K.O.
Two iconic guitarists who largely defined the uncompromising Detroit proto-punk sound of the 1970s flip the script with an acoustic ep of lushly orchestrated Stooges classics. Listen at Spotify 

Andina: Huayno, Carnaval and Cumbia – The Sound of the Peruvian Andes 1968-1978
Seventeen trebly, reverby, even rarer tracks than the psychedelic cumbia unearthed by Barbes Records on the iconic Roots of Chicha compilations. Los Walker’s are the best-known group here; Los Compadres del Ande, Los Jelwees and Huiro y su Conjunto, among others, are also included. This isn’t just chicha, either: there are horn bands and cha-cha groups here too. Listen at Bandcamp

Melange – Viento Bravo
The Spanish Nektar jangle and swirl and spiral through one brooding, psychedelic art-rock mini-epic after another. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Legendary Shack Shakers – After You’ve Gone
Unstoppable after twenty years on the road, the iconic ghoulabilly/noir Americana band dive deeper into their twisted, swampy roots. Guitarist Rod Hamdallah makes a furiously triumphant return. Listen at Spotify 

Mames Babegenush – Mames Babegenush With Strings
Dynamic, lush, soaring, swooping brass-and-reed-fueled original klezmer dance numbers and anthems from this powerhouse Copenhagen unit. Listen at Spotify

Briga – Femme
The Montreal-based violinist’s eclectic, incisive mix of Romany, Balkan and klezmer sounds, with a little psychedelic and hip-hop flavor. Listen at Bandcamp

Saffron – Will You
Magical singer Katayoun Goudarzi and sitarist Shujaat Khan team up with Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries, pianist Kevin Hays and others for this hypnotic, otherworldly reinvention of centuries-old Indian carnatic themes. Listen at Rockpaperscissors 

Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa
Newly digitized, rare, otherworldly 1970s and 80s Somali psychedelic rock, funk and Afrobeat from cassettes and master tapes buried to hide them from bombing raids. Amazing stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Arthur Lee & Love – Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings 1970-2004
Four sprawling discs comprising most of this psychedelic rock legend’s best songs, which he rocks the hell out of in concert. Most of this stuff is previously unreleased, and further proof that Lee’s career was far from over by the time he was done with Forever Changes. Listen at Spotify 

Steelism – Ism
Friends of Dean Martinez meets Morricone Youth in this surreal, catchy mix of keening steel guitar-driven instrumentals. Powerhouse soulstress Ruby Amanfu guests on a track. Listen at Spotify 

Neotolia – Neotolian Song
Pianist Utar Artun’s acerbic, moodily cinematic, sometimes jazz-inspired Turkish ensemble with the great Jussi Reijonen on guitar and oud. Listen at Soundcloud 

Dalava – The Book of Transfigurations
Slashingly eclectic ex-Lou Reed guitarist Aram Bajakian and his singer wife Julia Ulehla join forces and reinvent haunting, often harrowing Moravian folk songs with a psychedelic edge.Listen at Bandcamp 

Vigen Hovsepyan – Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music
The evocative singer/guitarist’s brooding, eclectic ballads and anthems from decades past, featuring the great oudist Ara Dinkjian. Listen at Spotify 

Money Chicha – Echo in Mexico
This is psychedelic south-of-the-border funk band Grupo Fantasma proving how deeply they can go into heavy psychedelic cumbias. Listen at Soundcloud

Castle Black – Trapped Under All You Know
Layers of reverb guitars flickering and roaring through the shadows, Leigh Celent’s power trio put out the best short rock album of 2017. Listen at youtube 

The Sweetback Sisters – King of Killing Time
Hard country, early 50s style from the eclectic, purist, badass duo of Emily Miller and Zara Bode with a great band behind them. Listen at Bandcamp 

Clint Mansell – Loving Vincent soundtrack
A classic 21st century horror film score. It’s not a horror film per se, but you can see the madness coming a mile away. Listen at Spotify 

Ella Atlas – The Road to Now
Enigmatic, allusively torchy singer Tarrah Maria’s band put out one of the most Lynchian releases of the year, joining forces with Lost Patrol guitar mastermind Stephen Masucci. Listen at Bandcamp 

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
On which the well-loved Aussie psychedelic band took their initial leap into eerie, Middle Eastern-tinged microtonal music. Listen at Bandcamp 

Nina Diaz  – The Beat Is Dead
The Girl in a Coma bandleader gets ornate and cinematic with this dark, 80s new wave-style collection. Listen at Spotify 

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
High-voltage, rat-a-tat original Balkan brass anthems from this huge Brooklyn ensemble fronted by Charming Disaster’s Ellia Bisker. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Warlocks – Songs from the Pale Eclipse
Jangly, punchy, catchy 60s Laurel Canyon-style psychedelic rock – in lieu of a new album by the Allah-Las, this one will do fine. Listen at Bandcamp 

Galanos – Deceiver Receiver
With a gutter blues influence, some Thee Oh Sees dark garage-psych and some Black Angels ambience, this group are sort of the X of creepy 21st century rock. Listen at Bandcamp

Chicano Batman – Freedom Is Free
Organist Bardo Martinez and his shapeshifting band swing kaleidoscopically between latin soul, Zombies-style psych-pop, hard funk and Isaac Hayes-style epics. Listen at Bandcamp

Bridget Kearney  Won’t Let You Down
One of the year’s catchiest albums features Lake Street Dive’s killer bassist playing most of the instruments, through a mix of powerpop and new wave-flavored sounds. Listen at Bandcamp  

Algiers – The Underside of Power
Politically-fueled punk soul meets postrock meets postapocalyptic film score in gritty singer Franklin James Fisher’s ominously smoky narratives. Listen at Spotify 

Eric Ambel – Roscoe Live Vol. 1
One of the most distinctively brilliant, entertaining rock guitarists of the last couple of decades at the top of his game at an upstate outdoor festival with a killer band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Red Baraat – Bhangra Pirates
Wave after wave of undulating, crescendoing, cinematic, insanely danceable original brass-fueled live bhangra jams. Listen at Spotify 

Olcay Bayir – Neva/Harmony
Quietly intense new versions of ancient Turkish ballads and Balkan songs from the nuanced Turkish singer’s debut album. Listen at Spotify 

Gogol Bordello – Seekers & Finders
Amazing how fresh and energetic the original Eastern Bloc punks sound after all these years. Tight, catchy, never boring. Listen at Spotify

Ihtimanska – Yuz Yuze
A low-key but bouncy duo album of biting, minor-key Turkish and Bulgarian tunes from the duo of reedwoman Ariane Morin and accordionist Yoni Kaston. Listen at Bandcamp 

Daniel Ruiz – Purple Bird and Other Strange Songs
A haunting mix of of Doors and Nick Cave-influenced dark psychedelic rock and pop  from this Spanish songwriter. Listen at Bandcamp

Castle Black Bring Their Towering, Magnificently Dark Roar to Arlene’s This Saturday Night

If you run a music blog, it’s especially validating to watch an artist or an act deliver on the promise of their early days.  A couple of years ago, power trio Castle Black weren’t all that tight, and they were still getting the hang of their instruments. But it was obvious they had something that most rock acts in this city don’t have: fearlessness. For one, they don’t fall back on all the lazy indie rock guitar cliches – the moveable chords, the open chords, the pilfered New Order and Cure licks – that all the richkid Bushwick bands use. Do Castle Black even know what a cliche is? OK, last Friday night at the Well, there were a couple of choruses during the band’s blistering, careeningly triumphant release show there for their latest short album Trapped Under All You Know that were pretty Ramonsey. But all punk bands do that.

Otherwise, it was impossible to tell was coming next, except that it was bound to be loud and hard and intense – and catchy. At the release show at Matchless this past winter for their video Dark Light, guitarist Leigh Celent was starting to really flex her chops as the savage lead player she’s always wanted to be. This time out, she was that person – and bassist Lisa Low is flexing too, with a lot of riffs instead of just a booming low resonance. Drummer Matt Bronner, who was the best musician in the band when they first started, now finds himself propelling one of the most powerful and interesting bands in town.

Celent is really cutting loose on the mic now too. She finally unleashed that wounded wail in all its vengeful glory in the night’s best song, in fact one of the year’s best songs, Broken Bright Star, through all sorts of permutations. finally bringing it full circle to the haggard, elegaic blown-tube opening riff. Watching as the band built steam from from there, through the bitterly anthemic Sabotage, the serpentine, jaggedly noisy Dark Light and then Next Thing, echoing 70s Patti Smith, was just as much fun.

A new number, Man on a Train followed an unpredictable path of doomed late-night imagery. Low’s suspenseful epic-Buzzcocks rumble as Rise slowly got underway gave Celent a long launching pad to burn out of. They ended the show with some of their catchiest numbers: Blind Curtain, which sounded like powerpop Blondie on steroids; Seeing in Blue, the new album’s opening track, smoldering with Fender Twin amp roar and machete postpunk riffage; and the sardonically funny classic punk encore, One Track Mind. Castle Black will probably do a lot of this at their next Manhattan gig this Saturday night, September 2 at 10 PM at Arlene’s. Cover is $10.

Ferocious Power Trio Castle Black Put Out One of 2017’s Best Short Albums

In an era when gentrification, the demise of one venue after another and subway closures all down the line at night have landed one crushing blow after another on the New York music scene, Castle Black’s rise to become one of this city’s best bands is as heartwarming as it is improbable. A couple of years ago, they were playing the usual cruddy circuit of bottom-tier venues that most new bands never gain enough traction to leave. Since then, Castle Black have put out a succession of ep’s, each one better than the other and emerged as a relentlessly touring powerhouse.

Armed with a couple of vintage Fenders, guitarist/frontwoman Leigh Celent has grown into a powerful and distinctive player equally at home with noise and melody. Bassist Lisa Low anchors the music with a looming ominousness while drummer Matt Bronner ranges from rapidfire four-on-the-floor punk to doomy metal to the occasional departure into unorthodox meters, holding the beast to the rails. The band’s latest ep, Trapped Under All You Know is streaming at youtube. They’re playing the release show on August 25 at 10 PM at the Well in Bushwick – they’re definitely loud enough to drown out any of the other bands rehearsing in the upstairs rooms there.

The album’s first track, Seeing in Blue kicks off with Bronner’s boomy tom-tom rolls, Celent building an angst-fueled nocturnal scenario with her guitar and her vocals. It’s part Avengers roar and part enigmatic late-period Bush Tetras, with a little Cramps menace. And it’s as catchy as all those references

Broken Bright Star is one of the half-dozen best songs of 2017, hands down. The catchy, doomy opening guitar riff brings to mind the Vice Squad classic Last Rockers, rising to a richly jangly mesh of guitar multitracks on the chorus. The point where the verse suddenly dips down to just Celent’s vocals, and then explodes with a wrathful guitar chord, will give you goosebumps.

Blind Curtain is just as anthemic and catchy: imagine a two-guitar version of Blondie covering mid-80s Husker Du. The album stays in that relentlessly troubled zone with the distantly Joy Division-inflected last cut, Rise, Celent’s roaring, reverbtoned guitar shards flickering through the “shadows as they rise, again and again again.”  Brief as this is,  you’ll see this album on the best of 2017 page here in December if we’re still all here.

Power Trio Castle Black Blast Through a Tight, Killer Set in Bushwick

Doesn’t it feel great when you stumble on an up-and-coming band who end up fulfilling their promise, and them some? Castle Black‘s sizzling set Friday night at Basement Bar in Bushwick had the fearlessness and outside-the-box creativity of classic punk rock. A lot of people assume that punk music is just three chords and a fast beat, but the reality is that the artists in the first wave of punk bands went into punk because they wanted to do something more fun and also more sophisticated than they could within the cliched confines of 70s dadrock or hippe blues. Castle Black delivered that kind of defiantly individualistic energy with equal parts guitar-fueled savagery and sardonic humor.

It’s amazing how tight this band has become over the past six months: constant gigging will do that to you. And yet, their music hasn’t lost its raw edge, or persistent unease, or outright menace. And they’re a lot of fun to watch live. Guitarist Leigh Celent played most of the set on her Fender Jazzmaster, changing to a Mustang when she wanted to switch out grit for reverb and resonance. She rocked a vintage Runaways t-shirt and jeans, with a wiry intensity in both her vocals and stage presence.

Back-clad, dark-eyed bassist Lisa Low made a stark contrast, distant, enigmatic and seemingly haunted. She ran her Fender Precision bass through an amp turned way up, then varied her attack on the strings for an unexpected amount of sublety. But when she stepped to the mic and traded vocals with Celent, she was no less forceful. If you could find the perfect picture of a rock drummer circa 1981, that would be Matt Bronner. Head down, sticks in the air, focused to the point of tunnel vision, he made the band’s sudden detours into some unexpectedly tricky metrics look easy, as one song shifted into 10/4 time, another one with some deviously teasing syncopation. And he’s not the kind of guy who tries to beat the sound into the drums: instead, he lets it out, for extra low rumble.

The band opened with the skronky postpunk of Doing Time Pass. Celent is an interesting guitarist: she likes catchy hooks, but just when things might get predictable, she veers off into noise. There was a little Andy Gill, or maybe Arto Lindsay in her jagged lines, but mostly it was just her. The band roared their way into Leave It with a slow, stalking groove, like a vintage Buzzcocks epic that they suddenly took doublespeed into anthemic Avengers territory, then back again.

This Old Town, with its uneasy shifts between major and minor, was a biting, bitter portrait of deadend hopelessness. Just when the catchy, Joan Jett-flavored Premonition sounded like it was going to sway along with an easygoing highway rock beat, Bronner and Celent bit down hard. They took that drive to an angrier level with Sabotage and then segued into the night’s best song, the ominously ferocious Secret Hideaway. After a confident run through the endlessly unanticipated, haunting dynamic shifts of Dark Light – Castle Black’s Last Rockers – they closed with their single The Next Thing, with its offhanded references to both stoner metal and classic punk. Castle Black’s next New York gig is July 29 at 10 PM at the Parkside; for the Hoboken crowd, they’re also at Maxwell’s the previous night, July 28 at 8.

Meet Darkly Noisy, Catchy, Up-and-Coming Castle Black

Castle Black are the kind of band you want to catch on the way up. Right now, the power trio are running on inspiration. They’re pushing the limits of their chops, careening through a bunch of styles – oldschool punk, abrasive post-Bush Tetras postpunk and noisy later-period Sleater-Kinney indie aggro, to name a few – on their way to really crystallizing a sound of their own. If this is as far as they get, they’re a lot of fun live. If they keep at it, they’ve got a high ceiling. Both guitarist Leigh Celent and bassist Lisa Low sing; drummer Matt Bronner is the kind of uncluttered rock player a band like this needs. Right now they’re making their way up from crappy venues – their youtube channel has a lot of good live stuff from the odious Bitter End, for example – to good places like Matchless. Their next gig is tomorrow night, December 19 at 8 PM at Leftfield, the old UC Lounge space at 87 Ludlow St. just south of Delancey; cover is $10.

At this early point in their career, they’ve got the tunes, and a consistently dark vision. All a band like this needs to do is keep playing, and grow beyond just playing scales, or noise when just a little something from outside the box would set them apart from the rest of the pack. The stuff at youtube is tantalizingly haphazard. There’s Premonition, which has a sludgy country feel and then picks up steam; the epic Dark Light: A Plague Revisited, with the eerie foreshadowing of its opening hook, to a series of unexpected up-and-down tempo shifts; The Next Big Thing, with its trippy, oscillating white noise and mashup of stoner metal riffage and viciously chugging oldschool punk rumble. Song of Winter is the simplest of the songs, and catchy as it is, sounds like a very early one. Someone Hear Me shuffles and careens along over a noisily embellished blues scale as the cymbals build a hailstorm behind the roar. Doing Time Pass puts a noisier spin on a vintage Gang of Four riff and then goes in a more straight-up direction.

They’ve also got an ep, Find You There, streaming at their music page. The opening track, This Old Town builds from an aching, tense postpunk verse into an ominously lingering chorus, an allusive tale of kicking around a hopeless place where bad accidents happen, and you’re so numbed by the pain that you feel nothing when they do. It’s their best song so far. There are also cleaner studio versions of Doing Time Pass and The Next Thing, plus their funniest number, Psychic Surgery, sort of the early Go-Go’s doing boogie rock.