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Tag: dark music

Darkly Carnivalesqe, Mary Lou Williams-Inspired Themes From Frank Carlberg and Gabriel Bolaños

This is not to imply in any way that the lockdown has been anything other than Hitlerian evil, but it’s forced everybody to think outside the box. We’re now finding out how far outside the box artists have pushed themselves in the past year. One who’s explored unexpected territory is pianist Frank Carlberg, whose phantasmagorical new electroacoustic album of Mary Lou Williams-inspired microtonal music, Charity and Love, a collaboration with Gabriel Bolaños is streaming at Bandcamp.

Carlberg has always had a carnivalesque side, and is a connoisseur of noir, but this is arguably his creepiest record yet. It seems here that his piano is processed to evoke bell-like microtones. Sometimes the effect is akin to an electric piano, sometimes a toy piano, sometimes a carillon. Either way, the effect is persistently disquieting.

Bumping around under the lid, channeling darkly ambered blues, some of the phantasmagoria he so excels at has echoes of stride and boogie and a little crazed tomcat-on-the-keys noise in the album’s title track. Meanwhile, a loop of voices draws closer and closer to the center, becomes painfully unlistenable and fortunately is not a portent for what’s on the rest of the record.

Mary Lou, Mary Blue is a stunningly uneasy, carillonesqe piece that soon goes up and down the funhouse staircase in odd intervals that will keep you on your toes no matter how agitated or woozily surreal the multitracks become. Zodiac Impressions has an echoey, strange web of flitting, rhythmic gestures and Monklike riffs twisted into microtonal shapes, rumbling diesel motor sonics contrasting with the chimes far overhead, decaying to a creepy, sepulchral outro

A brief, murky interlude introduces Mary’s Aries, one of the starker pieces here, its spare, steadily rhythmic, chiming phrases and cascades imbued with the album’s warpiest tonalities. The duo follow that with Broken Stomp, a delicate, marionettish strut encroached on by loops and cascades. The way Bolaños layers the echoes, one long phrase following another, will give you chills.

Big Sky, Dark Clouds is a haunting Lynchian stroll that Carlberg builds emphatically and lets drift away forlornly at the end. Williams’ quote about “Whenever there’s a strong beat, people always want to degrade the music by calling it jazz,” is priceless in context.

The two follow Hop, Skip, Jump, a lively gremlin of a miniature, with the spacious, lingering chords of Water Under the Bridge, strongly evoking the otherworldly, eerie coda of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. The two close with Waving Goodbye, Carlberg opening with the album’s most darkly carnivalesque, chromatic melody, then taking a twistedly wistful turn that branches off into bizarre multitracks before the piano brings the poignancy back. In a strange way, this makes a good companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinvention of Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

Smartly Woven Southern Gothic Tunesmithing From Abigail Dowd

Rural life isn’t easy, as folk music from around the world will never let you forget. Abigail Dowd draws on that tradition, with imagistic tales which reflect how much things have changed – and also how little. She’s got a big, bluesy voice, like Lucinda Williams before the booze caught up with her, as well as way with a sharp turn of phrase and a solid supporting cast of players behind her. Travelers and outsiders figure heavily in her songs. Her new album Not What I Seem is streaming at Bandcamp.

The stripped-down arrangement in the biting, minorr-key, bluesy Wiregrasser – just acoustic rhythm guitar, lead slide guitar and steady bass – underscores Dowd’s hardscrabble tableau, where people extract everything from the surrounding woods until there’s nothing left but creosote.

“I mostly look out for myself,” Dowd’s cynical narrator relates in The Other Side over a catchy, Dylanesque sus4 riff – but she also asserts that “When you get to heaven, there’ll be many a party, but there won’t be nobody there that you know.”

Over a spiky web of fingerpicked guitars, Dowd chronicles a harrowing southern legacy in Old White House. Dowd’s fingerpicking grows more spare and enigmatic in the album’s title track, a defiant, solo acoustic individualist’s anthem.

“I remember looking for a smile, and meeting cold steel eyes,” Dows recounts as Chosin, a searing memoir of how war trauma crosses generations, rises from a hazy intro to a briskly ringing, open-tuned melody. “Stand and fight, you fool, ‘cause no one’s gonna out alive/Watch out, how many of these wounds are mine?”

Dowd looks back on an uneasy transition from southern comfort to New England chill in Goodbye Hometown. She takes that story further into a troubled future in Oh 95, a vivid traveler’s tale: “When you’re all alone you speak the truth,” she reflects.

Dowd and the band pick up the pace with Desire, a shuffling minor-key tale set in coalmining country. Alienation is a persistent theme in these songs, and the stark To Have a Friend is the most forlorn of all of them.

Drag Me Down is an unexpected turn toward acoustic White Album-era Beatles. She keeps the low-key, fingerpicked ambience going with Daredevil: “Let me be the devil on your shoulder, I’m daring you to live,” Dowd cajoles.

She takes a turn into Lou Reed territory in Sweet Love and then returns to Americana, singing a-cappela in the album’s closing cut, Silent Pines, a gospel-flavored revolutionary anthem. If best-of-2020 lists still exist when this hellacious year is over, you’re going to see this album on a lot of them.

Cello Rockers the Icebergs Take Their Dark, Distinctive Sound to the Next Level

It’s always validating to see a good band grow into a great one. Over the last few years, the Icebergs have distinguished themselves from the other acts in the cello-rock demimonde by way of Tom Abbs’ deep well of sounds, beyond that instrument’s usual sonic range, along with frontwoman/lyricist Jane LeCroy’s black humor and often searing metaphors.  O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry completes the picture with his nimble, counterintuitive, coloristic style. On their new album Add Vice – streaming at Bandcamp – they take their dark, aphoristic, individualistic style to the next level: it’s one of the best records of the year. 

It opens with Fallen Creature, an escape anthem of sorts and the catchiest song the band have ever done. Abbs runs a Brubeck-esque riff over Rogers-Berry’s’s lithely tumbling drums, LeCroy contributing a typically telling lyric: “I am a fallen creature who knows my away around the grounds,,,I know silken threads, the stickiness of woven webs.”

The second track, Chelsea – a brief party scenario –  is a witchy one-chord jam as Lorraine Leckie might do it, with snarling guitar and organ, Abbs playing basslines behind guest Martin Philadelphy’s reverb guitar. Invictus keeps the menacing 60s ambience going; this could be Rasputina covering X. “Your days are numbered, so make them count,” LeCroy advises amidst the swirl.

Willa is a slow, death-obsessed ballad, Abbs’ stark upper-register lines subtly iced with reverb. The menace continues with the defiant, starkly bluesy Made It Rain  a trip-hop take on vintage Nina Simone.

The slinky Full Fathom 5 Ariel’s Song – a Shakespeare setting – has  ghostly call-and-response over funeral organ and the cello’s layers of distorted guitar voicings. They pick up the pace with the sarcastically blithe faux cha-cha Same Symptoms, then return to sinister mode with The Way They Wanted, a chillingly imagistic anti-conformist broadside. “The closer to truth, the bigger the joke,” LeCroy warns.

Motorcycle could be a brooding RZA Wu-Tang backing track as produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Bow Spirit is a brisk minor-key shuffle with similar dubwise tinges. The band follow that with Ocean Liner, a gleefully Halloweenish garage rock number (and an obvious choice for a band named the Icebergs).

Pareidolia has a slow, staggered sway behind LeCroy’s accusatory vocals. “What are you using to rip out your eyes so you don’t have to look?” she asks over a staggered, skeletal groove and Abbs’ pickslide slashes in the album’s title track – what an apt song for the year of the plandemic and the lockdown!

The tightly waltzing Little Lamb could be a parody of helicopter parenting, or about something even more troubling. The band wind up this hauntingly expansive album with A Line, LeCroy’s wry litany of metaphors reflecting her long background in the poetry underground. “Get out of line – a line is to cross,” she reminds. Powerful words for a year that may determine the fate of the earth. 

Bright and Dark Shades of Cutting-Edge Big Band Jazz in Gowanus

Bassist Robert Sabin did triple duty the night of one of the year’s best twinbills this past Tuesday at Shapeshifter Lab, first leading his own group, Humanity Part II, then playing two sets with trombonist John Yao‘s explosive, vividly cinematic large 17-Piece Instrument big band. Yao wasn’t the only one with cinematic compositions: Sabin’s were just as vivid, and vastly darker. Nobody writes more evocatives dirges than this guy.

Guitarist Jesse Lewis opened the night’s first number, Scarecrow, as he’d often do throughout the set, building opaque washes of sound before Sabin and drummer Jeremy Noller joined him. Sabin’s compositions in this project draw as as much on classical and film music as jazz. Although this piece and others rose to lustrous peaks fueled by trumpeters Dan Urness and Matt Holman, alto saxophonist Aaron Irwin and tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby, the mood was typically somber, no surprise since Sabin’s latest album features what appears to be a corpse lying in the woods on the cd cover. Horn player Chris Komer contributed a methodically percolating solo midway through, over the group’s nebulous, midtempo swing.

Rigby’s bittersweetly minimalist tenor rose out of the mist as the group built Scarecrow to an uneasiliy soaring web of tersely echoing phrases, with a long trumpet solo out. Elegaically tolling bell-like motives permeated the wounded Tenebre. a quiet showstopper with saxes switched out for brooding clarinets as it gathered steam, Rigby’s gentle solo flickering amist angst-tinged swells, echoed by tuba player Ben Stapp. The mighty, steady, melancholy brass harmonies and eventually the creepy cha-cha that followed brought to mind Gil Evans’ iconically noir early 60s work, as did much of the rest of Sabin’s material.

After Ghost, a hypnotically resonant tone poem with some deliciously dynamic frenetic-to-calm guitar by Lewis, Sabin opened Through a Glass Darkly, prowling around in the murk with his bow. Lewis joined him with some harrowing David Gilmour phrasing, brooding modalities from Yao (who was also doing double duty) and Rigby leading the funeral procession out. The group closed with a similarly dark reworking of Ennio Morricone’s Humanity Part II and a low-key, enveloping update on the old folk song Pretty Polly

Awhile ago a certain extrovert drummer was asked to explain his large ensemble’s success. “We play jazz for tourists,” he explained. As colorful, and tuneful, and imagistically crystalline as Yao’s compositions are, there ought to be a Manhattan jazz club willing to give him a place to entertain the crowds and represent this city with music that’s every bit as accessible as the schlock that guy’s band plays but is also cutting-edge. Oh yeah – Yao already does when he plays with Arturo O’Farrill’s band and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Still, his music would resonate with a vastly wider audience.

Yao’s mighty ensemble opened with the grittily swinging Hellgate, Rigby (another guy playing the whole marathon evening) at the center between contrasting flutter and buoyancy. Slow Children, a vividly urban tableau with the composer on trombone, showcased incisive parallel voicings, Rigby pairing off against the brass and holding his own, then a warm interlude with trombone and the rhythm section over a steady clave.

Early Morning Walk took the bustle, and distant angst, up another notch, a multi-part extravaganza with hints of funk, latin soul, a ballestesque Sabin bass solo and a big rush-hour peak: what started with maybe a dog walk and a couple of errands ended with a pretty frenetic train ride. By contrast, Flip-Flop – the title track to Yao’s most recent album with this group – featured an animated, jovial conversation between Aviles and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry as the piece followed an almost impercetibly steady upward trajectory toward lickety-split intensity.

Where Sabin’s work evoked Gil Evans in the 1960s, Yao’s Out of Socket brought to mind the Miles David collaborator’s lively, blustery dance band charts from ten years earlier, winding up with the brass blazing on a droll parade riff. Jesse Stacken’s meticulously looping piano anchored the clever echo phrases in Illumination, baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro fueling a long, purposeful crescendo before Stacken added neoromantically lustrous cascades. Artfully implied rhythm shifts and hints of tropicalia figured in First Step, Alejandro Aviles’ soprano sax flights giving way to boisterous low brass. They closed with an expansive, hard-swinging take of Herbie Hancock’s Fingerpainting. There were also two resonant, minimalistic, rhythmless miniatures, designed to employ extended technique from the rhythm section as color, Yao explained. Altogether, a fiery and rewarding performance for the rest of the band, including trumpeters Nick Marchione, Jason Wiseman, Dave Smith and Andy Gravish; trombonists Matt McDonald, Mike Fahn, Eric Miller and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton and drummer Vince Cherico.

Yao’s big band is back at Shapeshifter on April 5 at 8:15 PM; baritone saxophonist Frank Basile‘s sextet opens the night at 7, with a $10 cover.

Mark Steiner and Susan Mitchell Haunt the Delancey

Every now and then, the more-or-less weekly Small Beast gathering upstairs at the Delancey will bring back an artist or two who made this the night for intelligent rock in New York back in 2008-09. A couple of weeks ago it was David J, Little Annie and the night’s founder, Paul Wallfisch of Botanica; this week it was Mark Steiner and His Problems. Steiner had a long and memorable run as the leader of Piker Ryan and then Kundera here in New York in the late 90s and early zeros. Now based in Norway, he and his only Problem this time out, longtime collaborator and violin sorceress Susan Mitchell played one of the most haunting rock shows this town has seen in a long time. And he did it with virtually all new material: he’s never played or sung better.

Steiner’s signature sound is a reverb guitar-fueled menace. In a stripped-down context like this, he builds tension by muting the strings and then letting the chords explode in a shower of overtone-drenched clang and twang. Inscrutable and methodical, Mitchell provided a sepulchral, otherworldly contrast with her custom-made five-string hybrid violin/viola, raising the sonics to the level of epic grandeur with apprehensive microtonal swirls, funereal Balkan tones and haunting, sustained atmospherics: there’s no other string player out there who achieves such high intensity so effortlessly. One of the night’s more memorable tunes was a swampy, syncopated rock song that evoked the Gun Club, Steiner’s enveloping baritone giving it a luridly seductive edge. Another more anthemic song reminded of an early song by the Church, tense syncopation giving way to a richly interwoven, roaring series of variations on an open guitar chord. Steiner switched chords counterintuitively throughout the set, but Mitchell kept up. The best of the new songs matched an ominous Syd Barrett-inflected verse to a roaring, anthemic, surf-tinged Radio Birdman chorus that picked up with a percussive ferocity at the end. They closed with a couple of covers: one a sly, tongue-in-cheek faux pop song by an Australian band, basically a litany of drugs that get harder as the song goes on, and then a macabre tango-flavored number [by Gowanus Somebody? didn’t recognize the name of the artist] that Mitchell ended with a ghostly slide down the fingerboard. Several of these songs are scheduled to be recorded, an auspicious development as it’s been awhile since Steiner put out an album.

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.

Today’s Free Download

Today’s free download comes from Stillwater, Oklahoma’s Gray Field Recordings. They’ve got a couple of irresistibly creepy tunes up at their soundcloud site, from their latest album Nature Desires Nature, which is out as a limited-edition pressing from Reverb Worship. Is this goth music? Film music? Indie classical? Ambient soundscapes? It’s a little of all of the above, it’s totally original and a lot of it is absolutely haunting. The first song, Willow Wally, is an Elizabethan gothic tone poem of sorts, the group’s frontwoman R. Loftiss’ quietly insistent vocals juxtaposed against a low, ominous drone with icy sheets of strings that eventually join forces with the drone and then swirl their way out. The other is Scared of Wolves, a menacingly theatrical, surreal spoken-word duet between predator and prey, ghostly snippets of sound (backward masking?) flitting through the mix over brooding cello, swirling layers of vocals and a lushly orchestrated crescendo. There are other tracks streaming at the site as well which are equally intense. “To Epimetheus. Love, Pandora,” says the album dedication – well put. Download them here.