New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: dark rock

A Gorgeous, Prophetic Protest Anthem From the Jigsaw Seen’s Dennis Davison

After years of fronting the brilliantly lyrical, psychedelic Jigsaw Seen, Dennis Davison made waves with his similarly tuneful solo debut album earlier this year. As it turned out, he has a lot more material in the can than just the tunes on that album, including his visionary latest single, The Monuments, a name-your-price download at Bandcamp.

The cover alone will creep you out: a corpse-like statue in tribute to the “Confederate States of America 1861-1865.” But look closer: the statue has been splattered with paint. Over a lush, brooding web of twelve-string guitar and bass, Davison warns of a paradigm shift. The dictator at the center of the story won’t budge:

You live in peace
Upon the gift of my consent
I’ll set you free
The day that they topple the monuments

But Davison knows that they’re going to be “ground into powder, the graven marble recast.” Take off that muzzle, hug your friends, we’re free! Watch for this at the top of the best songs of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

An Eclectic, Colorful Single From Darkly Literary Rockers Lusterlit

Lit-rock superduo Lusterlit – guitarist Charlie Nieland and percussionist/keyboardist Susan Hwang – have a vinyl single, Meat Cake, that’s been kicking around here. Time to wipe off the dust and give it a spin, at Bandcamp if you want.

The band take the title from the well-known series by graphic novelist and artist Dame Darcy. One side of the record is Wax Wolf, which sounds like a shuffling, acoustic version of X, with a neat web of voices early on. This guy “gives new meaning to ‘one track mind.’”

Hwang sings the flip side, Cutting, a diptych that shifts from a slinky, hip-hop-influenced groove to glimmering, noirish art-rock, with a message of empowerment referencing feminists from Cleopatra to Frances Farmer.

Ward White Finds New Levels of Creepiness in a Proto-Metal Classic

Back in June this blog got all wound up about how Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit was the best rock album of 2020 at that point. Four months down the road, it’s still as strong a contender as any. White is sort of a heavier, more psychedelic and menacing Elvis Costello. Since White’s landmark non-linear art-rock record Bob topped the best albums of the year list here in 2013, violence and death have become recurrent themes in his music, even if that’s usually implied.

Although White very rarely covers other artists (under his own name, anyway – he played bass in Rawles Balls for awhile), when he does he has impeccable taste and always finds new levels of disturbing content. A few years before he got brain-drained out of New York for Los Angeles, he pulled out a plaintive, haunting take of the BeeGees’ Nights on Broadway that would rip your face off.

To celebrate Halloween this year, White has released another unlikely cover, a grimly atmospheric reinvention of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter. Hearing White in full-on crooner mode, soaring and then almost whispering over John Spiker’s desolately drifting reed organ is pure evil: the calmest moments are the most lurid. And the ending is priceless. Siouxsie slayed with her version, but this is just as good.

Wildly Cinematic, Halloweenish Glam Psychedelia From the Andretti

There’s always plenty of room for over-the-top grand guignol during this blog’s annual October-long Halloween celebration, and this year is no exception. Multi-instrumentalist Joe Ferrara’s project The Andretti has a new album, Suicide Italian Style, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s one of those rare records that’s so all-over-the-place stylistically that there’s nothing else like it. David Bowie is the obvious and pervasive influence. It’s very dark, just as psychedelic, politically woke and about as subtle as Bill Gates’ needle of death – here, have a shot of cancer-causing polyurethane while we pretend to vaccinate you against a virus that doesn’t even exist anymore. But it’s a lot of fun – the album that is.

Ferrara plays pretty much everything on this epically orchestral collection, except the drums  – that’s Blake Fleming behind the kit – and the brass instruments. The first track, Il Pavone D’oro is a math-y romp with growly, trebly bass, trickily shapeshifting meters, tremoloing reverb guitar, evilly twinkling keys and echoey, Bowie-esque vocals.

With its layers of creepy keys, Equinox at Cefalù could be Morricone Youth, or a particularly dark theme from Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack. The next cut, Marquis De Sade’s Rockin’ NYE is phantasmagorical circus rock as Bowie might have done it. 

The album’s title track is a colorful, cinematic mashup of horror surf, stalker flick theme, Bowie and math-rock. The Bowie-esque – that guy again – anthem DigitalEvil has a knowing gravitas, a word of warning about lockdown-era tech Nazi snooping, and a surf rock ending. Tim Ouimette’s trumpet and Rick Kriska’s sax and flute add flair in the distance.

The Man Who Never Was is another big Bowie-esque stadium-rock ballad about a guy whose life has made him “invisible and unkind.” The Soft Side of Hell has a ba-bump noir cabaret swing, an elegy for the outsiders who’ve been persecuted by tyrants throughout history – but as Ferrara reminds, all of the greatest minds  have been heretics.

If Bowie had been a connoissseur of surf rock, he would have written New Jersey Jailbreak – maybe with a itttle help from Ennio Morricone and the early BeeGees. After that, he revisits the gritty math of the opening track with A Dismal Method.

The album’s best track is the defiant outsider anthem Palace Depression:

Mark me at ground zero
We’ll bloody well see who wins
In a world of boring madmen
Nobody goes unscathed
But your love of suffering
Doesn’t prove your are depraved
It only proves you are not brave

The instrumental See Naples and Die veers from smoky atmospherics to menacing psychedelia, surf rock and back. The album winds up with A Seedy Type of Gravity, a phantasmagorical blend of Bowie, Spanish bolero, surf rock and psychedelia rock. You just might see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.

Snarling, Cynical, Dark 80s-Style Rock From All Souls

For an American band, All Souls sound very European: a little glam, a little goth, some punk, a lot of Bowie. Their album Songs for the End of the World is streaming at Bandcamp. All the members have gigs with other groups – most notably with Black Elk – but this really gives everybody in the band a chance to show off their good taste along with their chops. Frontman/guitarist Antonio Aguilar’s cynical, very 80s-inspired songwriting proves to be as sharp as his eclectic guitar playing.

They open with Sentimental Rehash, an acidic, no wave-tinged take on the Stooges, Aguilar raising a middle finger to clueless “media-manipulated minds” over drummer Tony Tornay’s rumble.

Twilight Times has dissolute Bowie grandeur and Stones disguised as skronk, the twin guitars of Aguilar and Erik Trammell anchored by Meg Castellanos’ gritty punk bassline. From there they segue up into Winds, the album’s big, slow, cynical, apocalyptic epic, flaring with quasi-metal guitar leads and a long, grimly hypnotic outro.

Bleeding Out opens with an insistent hook that brings to mind a big 80s anthem by the Church, veers toward New York Dolls territory and then back. Slowly pulsing over echoey, growling, scrapy guitar multitracks, You Just Can’t Win has a coldly crescendoing, distant 80s menace and unexpected tinges of Indian music. Then the band kick into apocalyptic Bowie mode again with Empires Fall

Lights Out has more allusive hints of Bowie and also some late Beatles, caught between enigmatic insistence and stadium rock hooks. Jaggedness and slow, catchy spacerock collide in Bridge the Sun, with a deliciously dark, chromatic outro. The album’s final cut is Coming with Clouds, a grim, Celtic-tinged seaside eco-disaster parable: “A history of violence, knowing that the time was finally at hand,” as Aguilar puts it. This album really grows on you and demands repeated listening. You’re going to see this on a lot of best-of-2020 albums lists at the end of the year if such things still exist by the time we get to December.

Revisiting a Memorably Dark, Lynchian Album by Promise & the Monster

Promise & the Monster’s album Feed the Fire – streaming at Spotify – came out in early 2016 and remains a great source of Halloween playlist material. Their signature sound is tersely crescendoing, intricately arranged Lynchian rock anthems, an ingenue singing over a darkly bristling backdrop. As girl-down-the-well rock goes, this group are considerably louder and use more organic textures than your average Julee Cruise ripoff.

They open the record with the title track, spare acoustic guitar heavy with reverb over lingering synth, sparkling electric harpsichord and two basslines, one a Joy Division reference, and buld from there. The second track, Hunter is an emphatic 60s psych-pop song spun through the prism of 80s goth.

They take a familiar, clangy early 80s Cure milieu and add weird syncopation for Tine of the Season – an original, not the cheesy Zombies hit .

“Let them run because they cannot hide,” frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Billie Lindahl intones, deadpan and sinister as Slow and Quiet rises from a brooding acoustic folk tableau to a clanging sway. Likewise, in Apartment Song, the band built from tense acoustic sonics with shivery violin and lingering steel guitar to a catchy, waltzing deep-space nocturne.

They follow the hazy soundscape Julingvallen with the mutedly menacing Hammering the Nails, a distant shamanic beat anchoring eerie layers of jangle and clang. The most hypnotic, and idiomatically 80s goth tune here is The Weight of It All

They break out the eerie tremolo guitar, creepily twinkling keyboards and surreal faux-mariachi textures in Machines, the most recognizably Lynchian track here. The final cut, Fine Horseman, makes a good segue, awash in wafting keys, starry highs over boomy lows.

You may be wondering what the hell this blog was doing at the time this album came out and could have used the press here. The answer is that New York Music Daily was more concerned with obituaries – 2016 was a bad year for old rockers – and a monthly performance series called Murder Ballad Mondays, and concerts in general. Remember concerts? Where you could get off the screen for an hour or two, have a few drinks, and musicians could actually earn a little money? And nobody was surveilling you while you talked with your friends – in person, not via text or, perish the thought, on Facebook. And it may have been flu season, but nobody was shutting down the hospitals to create a health crisis and kill old folks, most of them people of color. And the only people wearing masks were tourists from China. How quickly people forget.

A Gorgeously Eerie Debut Album From Psychedelic Band Immaterial Possession

Immaterial Possession play deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds. Their self-titled debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The band vamp over Cooper Holmes’ punchy, chugging bassline in Midnight Wander, keyboardist Kiran Fernandes’ clarinet leaping and bounding, guitarist Madeline Polites adding eerie chromatic flourishes. Imagine the Brian Jonestown Massacre playing one of Alec K. Redfearn‘s more Balkan-tinged tunes.

With its eerie, swoopy organ, See Through Stares could be a low-key Blue Oyster Cult lurker from the early 70s with a woman out front. The album’s first big epic is Tropical Still Life, with its ultraviolet blend of starry keys and jangly, lingering reverb guitar, drummer John Spiegel’s boomy flourishes enhancing the mysterious ambience.

The instrumental Phase One follows an increasingly mechanical, marching sway – a reference to the initial deadly effects of this year’s lockdown, maybe? Bosphorus Brine has echoes of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd, Indian-tinged modal menace and keening organ. From there the group segue into the witchy, gamelanesque instrumental Circle of Bells.

Rising Moons, another organ-driven instrumental nocturne, wouldn’t be out of place in the Lost Patrol catalog. Accidental Summoning has trippy singing bowls, crazed doubletracked bass clarinet and a hypnotic, Arabic-tinged groove.

Phase Two, another instrumental interlude, has a haphazardly plucked, loopy menace. The album’s final cut, Nightcap could be tropical psychedelic legends Os Mutantes at their darkest. This one’s on the shortlist of best rock records of what has otherwise been a miserable year, although not the fault of any musicians who’re still active.

A Broodingly Gorgeous, Haunted New Soundtrack From Morricone Youth

What’s more Halloweenish than porn? You want real-life abduction, torture and worse?

Dating back to the late 90s, Morricone Youth have scored a daunting number of films, many of them classics from the silent era. Their latest release is the original score to Kire Papputs’ The Last Porno Show, a suspense flick about a kid who inherits a seedy Brooklyn X-rated theatre and decides to try to monetize it despite formidable odds. If the band’s composer/frontman/guitarist Devon E. Levins is to be believed, it’s an incredibly sad place. On one hand, this is an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack, streaming at Bandcamp. On the other, it really captures the hopelessness of an exploitative industry. Like all of Morricone Youth’s scores, it’s best experienced as a cohesive whole. For those who want a breakdown of the nitty gritty, here goes.

The main title theme is a trickily rhythmic, marionettish strut, part Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks score, part Tschaikovsky. Levins’ eerie, clanging multitracks ring out over a brooding 6/8 groove from bassist John Castro and drummer Brian Kantor in one of the longer, more haunting interludes, Method Acting.

The coldly methodical third track, sarcastically titled Best Show XXX in Town, sways above Scott Hollingsworth’s orchestral keys. Sean McCaul’s echoey vibraphone sets the stage for a tense scene in Al’s Apartment. An audition for something is involved, Dan Kessler’s Rhodes electric piano and the bandleader’s gritty surf guitar reverberating over an eerie Ethiopian pulse.

From there the music gets quieter and more melancholy. Levins breaks out his glockenspiel for creepy twinkle, viola sorceress Karen Waltuch and torchy chanteuse Sami Stevens waft into an increasingly zombie-ish picture (something the band excel at – their George Romero soundtracks are to die for).

Motorik loops give way to sarcastic 70s vintage keys lowlit by Levins’ desolate, spare guitar and finally a rise to a big, menacing peak. Levins brings the score full circle with surprising subtlety. It’s been a cruelly bleak year for albums and the arts in general: good thing we still have these irrepressible, increasingly iconic soundtrackers.

A Twisted, Phantasmagorical Memento From Knife Throwers Assistance

Today’s album is the one and only release by sprawling circus rock collective Knife Throwers Assistance. Not much remains of them on the web, other than a Bandcamp page where you can still get a free download of the live recording the haphazardly orchestrated, mostly-female band made at their final show. They liked lurid harmonies, contrapuntal vocals and unorthodox instrumentation – and their songs were pretty relentlessly creepy.

As that final gig began, the band took the stage to a weird sample collage: it’s almost nine minutes of random noise, mic checking and guitar tuning. You can start your playlist with Mr. Detective, a long, ominously vamping murder ballad. This time out the group included the founding duo of guitarist Eve Blackwater and pianist Heidi Harris; singers Bridget Rooney, Deb Zep (who also plays bass clarinet) and Tea Leigh; banjo players Christen Napier and Annie Levey; cellist Elizabeth Glushko; singing saw player Cara White; bassist Kevin Anderson and drummer Matthew Vander Ende.

The forlorn piano ballad Crow Cry sounds like Carol Lipnik trying her hand at trip-hop, with a really cool, ominously circling vocal arrangement. They follow with the ba-bump stripper theme That Cat, then Voodoo, a folk noir tune with ridiculous faux-southern vocals.

Somebody plays eerie, chromatic melodica behind the steady guitar and aching vocals (guessing that’s Deb Zep) in Freedom, a gospel-tinged tableau. “Meet me by the railroad, that’s where we mortgaged off our souls,” Blackwater musees in Second Repeater, a surreal roadtrip tale.

Hildegard You Have My Heart has all kinds of neat touches: flamenco-ish interludes, snarling cello glissandos and glockenspiel tinkling evilly as the song rises and falls. The singing saw and Levey’s flute flutter uneasily behind the insistant vocals of Unfair, then the band wind up the show, and their career, with Scarlet the Fire-Eater, a plaintive, Appalachian-tinged ballad.

The album also comes with lo-fi concert videos of Crow Cry and Mr. Detective from the band’s early days, the latter with a long, haphazard glockenspiel solo, singing saw and bass clarinet among the many other instruments gathered onstage.

Since the band’s demise, Blackwater continues as a solo artist and member of the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange, who for the better part of a year put on similarly sprawling monthly shows at Pete’s Candy Store until the lockdown drove live music in New York underground.

Best Short Album of 2020: Karla Rose’s Mysterious New EP The Living End

Karla Rose is best known among her musical colleagues in New York as a formidable and incredibly mutable singer. She can channel any emotion a person could possibly feel, from the subtlest to the most desperate. Just listen to her negotiate the tricky phrasing of My Hero – Sean Lennon’s doo-wop noir theme from the film Alter Egos – with a little cadenza at the end that will give you goosebumps.

But Rose is just as formidable a tunesmith and lyricist, with a distinctly sinister side. She is not one of the would-be femmes fatales who sprung up in the wake of Lana Del Rey – she is the real deal. Her latest release, the three-song ep The Living End is streaming at Spotify.

The title alone speaks to Rose’s fondness for wordplay and multiple levels of meaning: it wouldn’t be hubris to compare her to Elvis Costello, Ward White or Hannah Fairchild.  The first song on the record is Battery Park. Partly inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, it’s a haunting, bolero-tinged anthem that subtly speaks truth to the grisly power of Wall Street entitlement. Over the terse pulse of drummer Kevin Garcia and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen, Rose’s Telecaster jangles and clangs with the reverb full on, lead player Dylan Charles building to chainsaw volleys of tremolo-picking at the end. This version is a lot quieter than the absolutely feral attack she and the band gave the song at places like the Mercury Lounge around the time she wrote it. It’s a frontrunner for the best song of the year.

The two other songs are even more enigmatic. Moon and I is part classic 70s soul and part dreampop, Rose’s guitar building starrier, more atmospheric textures as Scott Hollingsworth’s organ hangs in the background over the low-key groove of Lorenzo Wolff’s bass and Andrew Zehnal’s drums.

The title track is a dead ringer for Lou Reed, but Rose plays the verse in a devious 12/8 rhythm to shake things up. Her message is hopeful: stay on plan and we’ll get through this. In the year of the lockdown and the muzzle, that inspiration couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.