New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: classical rock

Frank London’s Latest Soulful Epic Commemorates Ghettoes Around the World

Frank London may be the foremost trumpeter in all of klezmer music. He’s without a doubt the most ambitious. His epic new album Ghetto Songs – streaming at Spotify – is just out today, the anniversary of the murderous Nazi invasion of the Warsaw ghetto. The album also commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish ghetto, in Venice in 1516. It’s a mix of familiar material, some of it reinvented, along with more obscure tunes.

As London acknowledges, ghettoes are complex institutions. They can be places of refuge, but historically have also mirrored the repression of the societies around them: after all, in an enlightened world, there is no need for ghettoes to exist.

Ghettoes can serve as centers of cultural continuity, but often at the price of losing contact with developments beyond their walls. This vast project underscores the kind of musical alchemy that can result when sounds from ghettoes around the world, from Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to South Central Los Angeles, are open to everyone.

Obviously, cultural cross-pollination like this flies in the face of the lockdowner divide-and-conquer agenda. The purpose of surveillance-based “health passports,” for example, is not only to kill off entire populations with the needle of death: it’s also meant to prevent those smart enough not to take it from escaping to free countries or states. Under the lockdown, the world truly is a ghetto.

That classic War hit is one of the songs on the album, reinvented with a Pink Floyd digital chill beneath London’s soulful one-man brass section and slinky organ work. He opens the record with a brief, carnivalesque, strutting take of the Italian folk tune Amore An, sung with coy glee by Karim Sulayman over the tongue-in-cheek pulse of bassist Gregg August and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Accordionist Ilya Shneyveys and cellist Marika Hughes join as Sulayman and Sveta Kundish exchange Renaissance counterpoint in a stately madrigal by Venetian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Then Kundish takes over the mic in Mordechai Gebirtig’s elegantly pulsing klezmer classic Minutn Fun Bitokn, London cutting loose with one of his signature, chromatically simmering solos.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer turns in a spine-tingling, dynamic take of the antiwar anthem Oseh Shalom over stately piano-based art-rock. Kundish brings an optimistic calm to an Indian carnatic theme, then Sulayman brings back the operatic drama over a somber backdrop in La Barcheta.

Sulayman and Kundish return to duet on the angst-fueled ballad Ve’etah El Shaddai. Shneyveys leads the charge in the lighthearted South African romp Accordion Jive. Then Sulayman and Kundish keep the party going in the flamenco-tinged dance tune Tahi Taha.

London’s pensive, sustained lines anchor Lemmer’s impassioned intensity in Retsey, the album’s biggest, most enveloping epic. Sulayman and Kundish close the album with with a benedictory duet on the Hanukah hymn Ma’Oz Tzur. As eclectically captivating as much of this is, nothing beats Sir Fank London in concert. Maybe there’s somewhere in Brooklyn’s Satmar community – who helped kickstart his lifelong plunge into global Jewish sounds – where we can see him play this summer.

Fun fact: Sir Frank London was knighted by the government of Hungary.

Haunting, Epic Minor-Key Art-Rock From Empyrium

Empyrium play a somber, stark, tersely constructed blend of Mitteleuropean folk noir and 70s-style art-rock with tinges of metal and the High Romantic. How high does their latest album Uber den Sternen (Over the Stars) reach? For the rafters, mightily, here and there. Elsewhere, it’s a beautifully gloomy record, streaming at Bandcamp. Not a single substandard cut here: it’s awfully early to be talking about best-of-the-year lists, but this one’s high among the best albums of 2021 so far.

The first track, The Three Flames begins as a slow, subdued waltz, Markus “Schwadorf” Stock’s spare fingerpicked guitar mingling with cello, then the drums kick in and the race is on – he plays pretty much everything here. Thomas Helm’s operatic baritone is a surreal contrast; buzzy lows from the guitars and mellotron flute at the top complete the sonic picture. There’s a plaintive, artfully fingerpicked interlude to survey the wreckage of some unnamed society, then the staggered waltz beat returns and the layers of guitars rise with a symphonic intensity. It sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Track two, A Lucid Tower Beckons on the Hills, comes across as a variation on the theme: same sad waltz tempo, louder guitars, bitterly heroic twin leads, and is that a cimbalom echoing morosely from the back of the mix? The Oaken Throne is not about a medieval latrine; instead, it’s a terse, elegant dirge which seems to concern some kind of forest spirit.

Moonrise, an instrumental, has a web of nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitars over drifting ambience. The Archer (yeah, these archetypes are kind of World of Warcraft) is a Steppenwolf character roaming the valley in this slowly swaying minor-key anthem.

The Wild Swans has the album’s most metalish vocals but also its most symphonic architecture: gorgeously brief classical guitar solo, hazy mellotron interlude, crushing guitar orchestration and an unexpectedly hypnotic detour. The most unselfconsciously beautiful moment here is the instrumental In the Morning, with its spare classical piano and strings. The album ends with the titanic title track, shifting from jackhammering intensity, to starlit rapture, operatic longing and an unexpected sense of triumph: a hard-won victory maybe, but victory nonetheless.

Saluting Lavishly Orchestral European Metal Cult Favorites Royal Hunt

Not to flog a dead horse, but more bands should make live albums. Swedish band Royal Hunt made a massive double live one, sarcastically titled Wasted Time, for their 25th anniversary back in 2016 and validated their reputation as road warriors. If epic drama, gothic imagery, and melodic metal with classical flourishes are your thing, crank this beast. It’s one long album – every song seems to be about eight minutes – and it’s streaming at Spotify.

What’s most impressive is how ornate and orchestral this music is: they don’t really strip much of anything down from their lavish studio productions. A rattle from Andreas Passmark’s bass, a few bursts from Andre Andersen’s string synth, a couple of Jonas Larsen minor-key guitar chords, a few baroque spirals…and the band launch into their classical-metal instrumental Martial Arts. Before you know it, they segue into the galloping River of Pain with its flangey twin guitars, surreallistically icy keyboard flourishes and tantalizingly sunbaked blues.

This take of One Minute Left to Live is part grand guignol Mozart, a little Viking chant and a lot of Iron Maiden. Take the distortion off the guitar but leave the wah-wah, get Habo Johansson’s drums to chill and suddenly Army of Slaves becomes a Donna Summer disco-pop hit with a dude (that’s DC Cooper) on the mic.

So far the band haven’t taken a break as they segue into Lies, a surreal mashup of AC/DC, speedmetal and the baroque. They finally do before the album’s title track, a new wave pop song on steroids.

Likewise, there’s an oldschool soul ballad bleeding through the crunch and roar of Heart on a Platter.

The doublebass drum really gets a workout in Flight; but first they kick this Trans-Siberian Orchestra-ish sprint off with a rockabilly shuffle. And just when May You Never Walk Alone seems like it’s going to be a power ballad, the guitars and string synth kick in and take it doublespeed.

The album’s best song, Until the Day, appears toward the end of the show: with its funereal piano, it’s the closest thing to Pink Floyd here. By now, the concert has hit a peak and the band keep it going with the phantasmagorical Half Past Loneliness. The accusatory anthem Message to God makes a good segue from there.

They encore with a comfortable take of the catchy early 80s-style Stranded and close the show in a similar vein with A Life to Die For. Some people will hear this and roll their eyes at this relic from the days when there were big record labels who spared no detail in recording stuff like this…but that’s their loss.

Haunting, Epic Grandeur From the Grimly Mighty Katla

The cover image of Icelandic art-rock band Katla’s new album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness), streaming at Bandcamp, shows a hooded man standing between a huge snowdrift and what could either be a snowed-in bridge, or the skeleton frame of some kind of industrial building. Either way, this haunting song cycle is one of the most darkly gorgeous releases of the year.

To the less familiar, Icelandic folk music has an especially enigmatic, otherworldly quality since some of it veers in and out of traditional western scales. Einar Thorberg Gu∂mundsson’s ominously drifting synthesized orchestration and layers of burning guitars rise and fall over drummer Gu∂mundur Óli Pálmason’s slow, funereal sway. The music here typically follows an arc that has more to do with classical music than any kind of traditional pop verse/chorus pattern. Most of the songs segue into each other. The lyrics are in Icelandic: smartly, the record comes with a lyric sheet.

Gu∂mundsson eventually enters with an angst-fueled intensity over gritty guitar distortion in the opening track, Ást orðum ofar (seemingly a love song), eventually segueing into the slow, enveloping, grim Villuljós (Error Light), a gracefully elegaic, fingerpicked folk riff looping in the distance. The sway grows toward a conflagration as Gu∂mundsson’s guitars pick up and spiral around. There’s a lull for a ticking loop and brooding orchestration, then the music slowly makes its way toward sheer horror in theinstrumental Likfundur a Solheimasandi, a simple funereal drumbeat adrift in the vastness.

Sálarsvefn (Sleep of the Soul) is also a dirge, forlorn belltone guitar over smoldering, anthemic minor-key changes; finally, it hits a gusty peak with the doublebass drum going full tilt in the background. 

A creepy music box-like synth riff kicks off Vergangur, a glacial, disquieting blend of ancient-sounding Icelandic folk themes, peak-era early 80s Iron Maiden, noisy Finnish punk in a Sielun Veljet vein and macabre, droning psychedelia.

Hvítamyrkur (Dark Light) has a somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo. The duo finally pick up the pace with an elegant gallop in Húsavíkur-Jón, gathering force from a serpentine drive toward crushing majesty.

The album’s ttle track is an art-rock masterpiece, a twelve-minute snowstorm epic that rises from a surprisingly delicate, Chopinesque intro through dissociative nubulosity and grimly triumphant turbulence. This trek through the wasteland doesn’t seem to end well.

The moment when the nocturnal pastorale that introduces the fifteen-minute Svartnætti (Dead of Night) comes as a shock. From there they sway through a smoldering pagan folk anthem and variations. Ironically, even with the symphonic coda, it’s the simplest and most straightforward song here. A lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild, Outside-the-Box Orchestral Reinventions of Steely Dan Favorites

Guitarist Andrew Green can shred with anyone, but he’s also a first-rate, imaginative composer and arranger. About ten years ago, he put out a deliciously shadowy album of original film noir-inspired pieces titled Narrow Margin. His latest record, Dime Dancing – streaming at Bandcamp – is an orchestral take on the Steely Dan catalog, both the hits and some deeper cuts. The charts are as playful and clever as the originals, and frontwoman Miriam Waks brings Donald Fagen’s allusively sinister, druggy lyrics into crystalline focus. Suddenly these songs make a lot of sense! What a treat for fans of the Dan.

They open with the radio staple Black Cow. This balmy neoclassical version picks up with the counterpoint between the oboe’s single-note lines – that’s either Dan Wieloszynski or Kenny Berger –  and the strings of violinist Meg Okura and cellist Jody Redhage. Frontwoman Miriam Waks sings it with a coy cynicism, then Green makes bluegrass out of it with some unexpectedly purist flatpicking.

Curto and Waks give Aja a hazy, languid atmosphere with rhythmic echoes of Steve Reich; is that percussionist Vince Cherico on tabla? And who knew that Any World That I’m Welcome To was such a wish song? Waks brings new depth to Fagen’s alienated hippie protagonist over jaunty, string-whipped salsa-rock, with a wry Spanish-language descarga at the end.

Green and Waks reinvent Reelin’ in the Years at what feels like quarterspeed, with enigmatic harmonies and a strikingly wounded vocal. Drummer Richie Barshay’s opening groove in Dirty Work is LMAO funny and too good to spoil – then the ensemble do the song as surprisingly straight-up, bubbly chamber pop with a spiraling, forro-inspired solo by accordionist Rob Curto..

They ease into Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More, reinventing it as a stark, disquieting, baroque-tinged acoustic waltz: Waks leaves no doubt about what happened to Daddy. The most obscure and least memorable track here, Everything You Did gets a strutting vaudevillian arrangement with muted trumpet. Green and crew wind up the record with a balmy, bittersweet, slowly enveloping take of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Unquestionably one of the most entertaining albums of the year.

Lush, Elegant, Moodily Orchestrated Chamber Pop from Chanteuse Z Berg

Press releases usually can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to music. The one that came with the new album Get Z to a Nunnery, by a singer who goes by the name of Z Berg characterized the record as “a little bit Francoise Hardy…a little bit Dusty Springfield on drugs..” Intriguing, no? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – see for yourself.

While Berg’s lavishly orchestrated songs are totally retro 60s, her voice is very much in the here and now. There’s a big crack in it when she reaches for a crescendo, Amy Winehouse-style. In quieter moments, her mutedly husky musings bring to mind Americana chanteuses like Tift Merritt. And either the album cost a fortune to produce, or Berg has lots of conservatory-trained friends (or dad still has something left from the old days at the formerly big record label). Sweeping orchestration and classically-tinged piano pervade her moody narratives, full of artful chord changes, dynamic shifts and picturesque imagery. It’s more valium and vodka than Prozac.

The opening ballad, To Forget You sets the stage, floating along over lush strings and a gracefully swaying 6/8 rhythm. The theme of I Fall For the Same Face Every Time is that troubled birds of a feather flock together, set to elegantly arpeggiated piano and baroque harp cascades.

“We didn’t fear the things we did not know,” Berg asserts in another 6/8 number, Time Flies, a pretty generic pop song heavily camouflaged in layers of backward-masked guitar and symphonic gloss. She shifts to a straight-up waltz tempo for Into the Night, a more delicate number that could be Charming Disaster on opium.

A gentle foreboding pervades Calm Before the Storm, the gently fingerpicked guitar, 70s Nashville pop melody and Berg’s plainspoken lyrics bringing to mind Jenifer Jackson in Americana mode. Little Colonel is one of the more skeletal and haunting tracks here, rising to a low-key baroque pop arrangement:

Dear little colonel, one foot in the grave
Fighting the war with an unsteady aim
Is that the goal, to create a crusade
With nothing for no one, so no one is saved
Or safe

It was recorded before the lockdown, but it’s uncanny all the same.

Berg and I (that’s the title) is a doomed noir cabaret number gliding along with mutedly insistent piano, strings and backward masking. Charades, a duet, is more sardonic and ELO-ish, the piano receding behind fingerpicked guitar. “It was a scream when were young and dumb, acid on Topanga Beach, in my mind we’ll always be that free,” Berg recalls in The Bad List, an anguished holiday nightmare breakup scenario: it’s the album’s Fairytale of New York. There’s also a starry instrumental epilogue. This is a sleeper candidate for the shortlist of the best albums of 2020.

Artfully Orchestrated, Gorgeously Angst-Fueled Tunesmithing From Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding

Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding play an achingly lush, angst-ridden brand of chamber pop that looks back to 50s lounge music but isn’t cheesy. Brian Carpenter‘s most noirish adventures, Ward White‘s work with Joe McGinty, and Jon DeRosa at his most orchestral are good points of comparison. Dawson’s latest album Last Flight Out is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with the slow, undulating title track, awash in strings far more stark than syrupy. Dawson sings in an uneasy, somewhat gritty tenor. Jason Adasiewicz’s rippling vibraphone enters over the lithe acoustic rhythm section of drummer Charles Rumback and bassist Jason Roebke ; the song could be about escaping an invasion, or a metaphor for a doomed relationship.

Despite the persistent extinction metaphors, there’s hope in Mastodon, a brokenhearted waltz, Rumback’s cymbal washes mingling with creepily fluttering strings and the echo of the vibes. Built around a simple, catchy string riff, However Long It Take has a steady clave beat and rousingly optimistic gospel harmonies.

The Monkey’s Mind Is on the Prowl has a cocooning, lullaby-esque atmosphere that hits a peak with a balletesque coda from the strings and then a long, hypnotic outro. The album’s starkest and best song is While We Were Staring Into Our Palms, a cautionary tale about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty:

It might have all gone differently
The chemistry failed
That tree just had to come down
Blind rage prevails
Oh say can you see?

It’s Not What You Think has a flinty, Sam Reider-esque folksiness, a wise admonition not to take things on face value. What a refreshingly original, smart, tastefully crafted album.

Smart, Stormy, Fearless Art-Rock From Victoria Langford

Singer/multi-keyboardist Victoria Langford writes lush, sweeping yet very sharply sculpted songs. She has a strong, meticulously nuanced, expressive voice and a venomous sense of humor. She likes swirling, stormy orchestration and using religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst. Her debut album, simply titled Victoria, is streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine a more organic Radiohead, or a young Kate Bush at half the volume.

The album’s first track is Psalm, Langford’s spare Wurlitzer and insistent piano contrasting with Brett Parnell’s nebulous wash of guitars. The phantasmagoria hits redline with the second song, Coney Island, a harrowing, achingly intense tableau awash in a roar of sound and creepy canival effects:

I see stars
From the back
Of your hand
You bury me
Alive

At a moment in time when domestic abuse is rising with all this endless quarantining, the song has more relevance than ever.

Langford’s cynicism hits a peak in Savior, a brief, thumping parody of dancefloor pop:

You think everyone wants to fuck you
You are a victim or most wanted on the streets
You like to think that you are Kanye
But sitting on your ass won’t make those beats

I Found Hell Looking For Heaven is an instrumental, a majestic title theme of sorts, Leah Coloff’s stark cello blending with Langford’s symphonic keyboard orchestration. The string into to Boboli Gardens, cello bolstered by Sarah Goldfeather and Andie Springer’s violins, is even more plaintive, Langford’s piano shifting to a hazy, country-tinged sway.

The Radiohead influence comes through the most clearly in the slow, brooding What Might Have Been, right down to the glitchy electronics and tinkly multitracks behind the starkly circling piano riffs.

Rob Ritchie’s guitar lingers amid a whoosh of string synth over Joe Correia’s bass and Evan Mitchell’s drums in Be a Dragon, a surreal mashup of hip-hop and Radiohead with a fearless Metoo-era message. Langford winds up the record with The Truth, a pulsing, unapologetic escape anthem: It’s rare to see an artist come straight out of the chute with something this unique and individualistic, a stealth contender for best debut album of 2020.

Solace and Inspiration From One of the World’s Greatest Musical Visionaries

Fear, fear drives the mills of modern man
Fear keeps us all in line
Fear of all those foreigners
Fear of all their crimes
Is this the life we really want?
It surely must be so
For this is a democracy and what we all say goes

In times of crisis, we turn to visionaries, because they see more clearly than we do. When Roger Waters put out his album Is This the Life We Really Want in 2017, he sure didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he had something important for us. While he doesn’t reference pandemics anywhere on the record, there’s never been a more appropriate time to to take an hour or so and absorb what he has to say than there is right now. It’s still streaming at youtube – with far fewer interruptions where you need to hit the mute button to kill the ads than there were when it first came out.

That cynical quote is from the title track. Once again, Waters – always a big-picture guy – gets it. We see all the President’s men in their surgical masks and we assume we have to be wearing them too – after all, those guys are all oligarchs, or wannabe oligarchs, and they look just like us! Or, they look like how they want us to look.

Beyond Waters’ own simple acoustic chords, there isn’t a lot of guitar on this album. That track, with its bell-like sonics and litany of people and faces – which bring 1983’s Every Stranger’s Eyes full circle – is the exception. Otherwise, it’s mostly strings and the former Pink Floyd bassist’s marvelously spacious, picturesque, gospel-inspired piano.

The album is symphonic to the nth degree, with several themes and variations. A ticking clock (or a bomb) that references Dark Side of the Moon is one of them. The melodies of a couple of iconic Floyd numbers from The Wall also figure into the equation. Lyrically, it’s as shattering, and insightful, and genuinely foundational as anything Waters ever wrote. In the years since, he has gone on to other equally important things – like advocating for Palestinian and Bolivian freedom fighters – but musically he’s as relevant as he’s ever been.

On one hand, Waters’ catalog reads like a doomsday book. Withering cynicism notwithstanding (and there’s A LOT of that here), his hope for a future based on compassion rather than greed remains unshakeable after all these years. At the end of the record, love conquers all: this apocalyptic news junkie gets off the screen.

But he reminds us never to forget past and present atrocities. Refugees on the run and and drone murders are recurrent themes: the bravery of being out of range tragically remains as much of a meme as it was when Waters put out his equally visionary Amused to Death album in 1992. Or for that matter, since long before Dark Side: “’Forward!’ He cried, from the rear, and the front rank died.”

Broken Bones, with its stately piano and grim strings, is one of the keys to this:

Though the slate was never wiped clean
We could have picked over them broken bones
We could have been free
But we chose to adhere to abundance
We chose the American Dream
And oh Mistress Liberty
How we abandoned thee
…Little babies mean us no harm
They have to be taught to despise us
To bulldoze our homes to the ground
To believe their fight is for liberty
To believe their God will keep them safe and sound
Safe and sound
Safe and sound
We cannot turn back the clock
Cannot go back in time
But we can say “fuck you,”
We will not listen to
Your bullshit and lies

Smell the Roses, another key track, sounds like Floyd’s Have a Cigar with good lyrics, calling bullshit on the military-industrial complex with characteristic down-to-earth elegance:

Wake up and smell the roses
Close your eyes and pray this wind won’t change
There’s nothing but screams in the field of dreams
Nothing but hope at the end of the road
Nothing but gold in the chimney smoke
…This is the room where they make the explosives
Where they put your name on the bomb
Here’s where they bury the buts and the ifs
And scratch out words like right and wrong

And there are a lot of really funny moments here. Trump gets snuffed out – or at least cut off mid-sentence, which for him is the same thing. Waters turns the “classic rock” radio staple Run Like Hell into a love song, which doesn’t come across quite as optimistically as that transformation might imply. And the reference to Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album is particularly spot-on. In a year where all the old paradigms are dying  faster than the abandoned patients in your average nursing home, this challenges us to reinvent ourselves. The alternative is in Waters’ narratives here, and in many grim songs from throughout his career. Is that the life we really want?