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Tag: dark rock

A Fascinating, Colorful Coffee Table Book by Nashville Gothic Crooner Mark Sinnis

For those who think of Mark Sinnis as one of the most prolific songwriters on the dark side of country music, there’s a lot more to the story. Sinnis chronicles that turbulent and colorful career in a new coffee table book packed with rare, previously unpublished photos along with original handwritten lyrics, show flyers and newspaper concert listings. Limited edition signed copies are available for fifty bucks.

It’s an amazing historical artifact. In so many ways, Sinnis’ personal story mirrors the history of rock music in New York since the late 1980s. At the peak of his popularity here, he fronted Ninth House, who began as a sleek, haunting art-rock group, then took a detour into haphazard jamband territory and eventually reinvented themselves as a tight East Coast counterpart to Social Distortion,

In the meantime, that popularity waned. Sinnis went from headlining Saturday night shows at just about every club in the East Village, to playing sparsely attended off-nights at a Financial District titty bar, before getting brain-drained out of the city in 2008. What happened?

The paper-and-polaroids trail starts in 1988, when Sinnis founded the Apostates, a punk band with a promising lyrical edge, who didn’t stay together long enough to find a distinctive sound. And yet, they were getting decent gigs, playing venues like the World, which booked acts like the Pixies and Jesus & Mary Chain.

Those shots of Sinnis holding a cheap red knockoff Fender bass, sporting long hair and not a single tattoo, are almost comical considering his current rig and look. But a couple of pages later, the tattoos are starting to creep up the arms, and he’s playing a vintage Rickenbacker. And Ninth House are on fire, with a New Years Eve gig at CB’s Gallery.

For Ninth House, it’s a long trail down from from there. As their old stomping ground was erased in a blitzkrieg of gentrification, they held on as long as they could, with a long-running monthly Saturday night residency at the old Hank’s in Brooklyn. Yet as bad as the gigs get for Ninth House, Sinnis is busy honing his craft at a solo artist at acoustic venues all over town, developing the “cemetery and western” sound he’s best known for today.

After an aborted stay in the Hudson River Valley – where he managed to assemble a crackerjack honkytonk band – Sinnis has found a new home and a new band in the coastal college town of Wilmington, North Carolina. And most recently, he’s switched fulltime from rhythm guitar or bass to lead guitar, a welcome development for a brilliantly melodic, economical player.

Many but not all of Sinnis’ supporting cast pop up throughout the book. There’s lead guitarists Bernard SanJuan, with his thousand-yard stare, and Keith Otten flexing his signature sunburst Les Paul. There’s a rare shot of violin goddess Susan Mitchell playing cello, and a playful vocal duet in the studio between Sinnis and Randi Russo (they nailed it on the first take). Longtime keyboardist and then drummer Francis Xavier, guitarist J.D. Fortay, pedal steel player Brian Aspinwall, banjo player/bagpiper Stephen Gara, drummer Michael Lillard, violinist Shirley Lebo and many others are all represented.

Sinnis’ lyrics can be fascinating: his writing has become much more straightforward, in keeping with the Americana tradition, but many of the older songs are absolutely brilliant. There’s an awful lot to sift through here, with rewarding results. Case in point: notice how Sinnis switched the first line of the chorus of Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me from “You got what you wanted,” to “Realize and confront it.”

These days, Sinnis owns the picturesque, retro music-themed Beale Street Barber Shop in Wilmington, where he and other North Carolina bands play frequently on the stage in the back, when he’s not making records at Sun Studios or videos at Hank Williams’ grave.

A Dark Masterpiece From the Del Sol String Quartet and Guitarist Gyan Riley

The Del Sol String Quartet’s gorgeously brooding, aptly titled Dark Queen Mantra with guitarist Gyan Riley came out in 2016 and is streaming at Spotify. It’s a great album to listen to with the lights out – hypnotic in places, but with a tightly coiling intensity. It contains three debut recordings: Terry Riley’s title triptych and concluding sixteen-minute “waltz,” along with cult favorite microtonal composer Stefano Scodanibbio’s Mas Lugares, inspired by a Monteverdi madrigal.

This music spans several different genres: there are moments that are pure 70s psychedelic art-rock, others that strongly bring to mind Philip Glass at his darkest. As the title track’s first part, Vizcaino begins, the guitar launches into an eerie downward chromatic theme, then variations on a flamencoish riff while the strings pulse in response. Riley calls, they respond, they echo, sometimes all joining together. Eventually they reach a quietly marionettish interlude enhanced by an unusual and welcome amount of reverb for a string quartet recording, the guitar a darkly bubbling presence amid the quartet’s insistence.

Part two, Goya With Wings develops from uneasily disjointed, hazy resonance contrasting with the younger Riley’s lingering, minimalist incisions, to a slowly staggered, pensive ballad that coalesces in the epic third movement after a guitarless bit. Riley’s return signals a moodily circling variation on the simmering opening theme, this time the quartet taking the lead, steady eight-note riffs popping up like evil gremlins in every corner of the sonic picture. Riley’s precise, distorted spirals lead down to a circular Indian carnatic theme; it ends unresolved.

The rest of the album isn’t anywhere near as dark. Scodanibbio’s five-part suite begins with what could be a Nordic dance, steadily pulsing eight-note echo phrases from the quartet’s individual members – violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee and cellist Kathryn Bates. It has little if anything in common with Italian Renaissance polyphony, but the other sections do, their surrealistic, metrically tricky paraphrases keening with harmonic overtones. Flight motives and haze alternate in the third movement, with an Iranian tinge.

The quartet open the elder Riley’s Tibetan-inspired Wheel & Mythic Birds Waltz with tense close harmonies, a morning theme punctuated by swoops, plucks and the occasional anthemic riff. Suddenly the birds take flight, with distant Middle Eastern and jazz allusions, Riley was close to eighty when he wrote both works here: the contemporary classical icon and godfather of American minimalism shows no sign of slowing down. Both his son and the quartet revel in the music’s constantly shifting idioms.

A Lush Lynchian Masterpiece From Howe Gelb and the Colorist Orchestra

It is nothing short of astonishing how after a long career leading iconic southwestern gothic pioneers Giant Sand, and then as a solo artist, Howe Gelb is arguably at the peak of his career as a songwriter. His latest album, Not on the Map – streaming at Bandcamp – is a serendipitously Lynchian collaboration with Belgian art-rock ensemble the Colorist Orchestra. As you would expect just from the artists involved, this is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

The group open with Counting On: “The frontlines are closing in,” Gelb mutters as the strings flutter and Sep François’ vibraphone rings eerily. It could be an especially lush Botanica number from that band’s most orchestral, mid-zeros peak.

Gelb’s voice has weathered like a good whiskey over the years, best evidenced here by his unselfconsciously saturnine delivery throughout the cover of the Glenn Campbell countrypolitan hit Gentle on My Mind.

Pieta Brown contributes two songs of her own, first joining Gelb in a duet, Sometimes I Wish, a fondly nocturnal waltz. Karel Coninx’s viola floats starkly over the enveloping backdrop from violinist Jeroen Baert, Gerrit Valckenaers’ bass clarinet and Tim Vandenbergh’s bass. Wim De Busser’s piano is a light in a windowshade alongside the twinkling percussion. Brown’s other duet here is Sweet Pretender, a hazy country ballad.

Percussionists Kobe Proesmans and Aarich Jespers anchor the lilting latin-tinged groove in Dr Goldman, a distantly sinister, enveloping twilight tableau: imagine a warmer, less synthy version of Australian legends Flash & the Pan flown in to the Arizona desert..

The closest comparison to Leonard Cohen here is Thyne Eyes, a semi-bolero gently spiced with De Busser’s plucky prepared piano and the gleam from François’ vibes. Gelb half-sings, half-whispers Ruin Everything in his weathered baritone, the album’s most hypnotic, atmospheric, subtly gospel-tinged ballad. “Now you’ve mastered the art of the undone,” he intones.

The album’s most unselfconsciously gorgeous track is Tarantula, a dusky opening-credits theme with Gelb on what sounds like a reed organ. A single, fleeting moment of menace from the bass clarinet could be the most breathtaking point here.

Vandenbergh’s spare, dancing bass gives More Exes a loping Big Lazy groove behind Gelb’s evocative, understatedly menacing railroad trestle scenario. The group close the record with the title track, a classic Gelb noir bolero awash in aching strings, keening highs from Valckenaers’ glass bowls and some deliciously uneasy, microtonal work from Coninx.

Bleak Anthems For a Bleak Year From Blackwater Holylight

Blackwater Holylight are one of the most original and intriguing dark rock bands around. They started out as an improbably successful mashup of Black Sabbath and the Cure with a woman out front, then on their second album left much of the 80s behind for a heavier sound. Their third release, Silence/Motion is just out and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the band’s most straightforwardly dark and quietest release yet, no surprise considering this year’s zeitgeist.

The first track is Delusional: a spare, lingering dirge introduces a venomous, growling, swaying anthem. Frontwoman/bassist Sunny Faris joins forces with guest vocalists Bryan Funck and Mike Paparo for Exorcist gasp-and-rasp over Sarah McKenna’s funereal organ, guitarist Mikayla Mayhew adding simple, single-note leads over drummer Eliese Dorsay’s supple beat.

Faris is a more distant, ghostly presence in Who the Hell, a surreal blend of the Cure at their most gothic and Tangerine Dream, but heavier than either of those two bands. She and Mayhew switch instruments on the title track, Dorsay’s muted martial volleys driving a rainy-day acoustic guitar-and-piano theme toward fullscale gothic majesty, then falling away elegantly.

Imagine Sonic Youth with lithe bass, echoey keys and a competent singer, and you get Falling Faster. Faris and Mayhew exchange axes again for MDIII, a swaying, drifting, desolate theme rising toward gritty dreampop-tinged roar.

Likewise, there’s a late 80s Lush feel in Around You: it’s the closest thing to a straight-up pop song the band’s ever done. The album’s final and most psychedelic cut is Every Corner, built around a catchy, hypnotic raga riff (Faris on guitar and Mayhew on bass) until the band hit an unexpected, increasingly sinister stoner boogie interlude.

Blackwater Holylight are on tour this fall: their next free-state show is January 21, 2022 at Trees in Dallas, Texas, opening for first-class heavy blues/psychedelic band All Them Witches.

Revisiting a Lush, Lynchian Treat by the Lovely Intangibles

The Lovely Intangibles are a spinoff of Lynchian cinematic band the Lost Patrol, one of the most consistently disquieting New York groups of the past twenty years or so. This project features the core of the band, lead guitarist/keyboardist Stephen Masucci and twelve-string player Michael Williams, plus singer Mary Ognibene and drummer Tony Mann. Their 2015 debut album Tomorrow Is Never is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, No Amends, has everything that made the Lost Patrol so menacingly memorable. That lingering reverb guitar, those icy washes of string synth and deep-sky production, and Ognibene’s breathy, woundeed vocal harmonies are a good fit.

The Dust Settles Down is basically a catchy 80s new wave ballad lowlit by ominous spaghetti western guitar: imagine Julee Cruise if she could belt. Opening with dusky guitar jangle, Tell Me When takes on a gusty, string synth-driven ba-BUMP noir cabaret tinge.

Beatlesque riffage punches in and out of the sweep and swoosh of Do As You Please. The album’s title track ripples and glistens, Ognibene’s voice channeling a cool but angst-fueled intensity: the kettledrums and snappy bass are an aptly Orbisonian touch.

Masucci’s icepick reverb guitar and looming bass propel the anthemically waltzing It’s Just Like You. Then the band sway through the gorgeously bittersweet early 60s-influenced Will You Surrender: you could call it Theme From a Winter Place.

The most straight up new wave number here is Divine. They close the album with Relapse, a broodingly twinkling tableau. Play this with the lights out – if you can handle it,after all we’ve been through over the past year and a half.

Troubled Music For Troubled Times From Mary Ocher

One of the more darkly intriguing albums to come over the transom here in the past couple of years is German singer Mary Ocher’s The West Against the People, which is still streaming at Bandcamp. It’s hard to think of a better way to describe what the world’s been through since the lockdown began, isn’t it? And the music itself tends to be grim, grey and unrelenting, with a skeletal late 70s/early 80s no wave influence.

The album begins with Firstling II, a shifting, echoey vocal soundscape, drifting further toward desolation. There are two versions of To the Light here: the first with Ocher’s watery, quavery vocals over oscillating organ and a shuffle beat, the second with elegant piano and echoey electronic washes, more evocative of the song’s understated desperation.

Zah Zah, a simple, catchy dub-influenced bass-and-drums loop is also reprised later as a brief electronic interlude. My Executioner is a coldly marching, minimalist no wave march: “We come face to face, my butcher,” Ocher snarls, “How do you deconstruct fear?”

Pounding drums and carnivalesque synth underscore Ocher’s cynical defiance in Authority’s Hold: it could be an early Creatures song. Gritty wordless vocals contrast with blippy synth in The Irrevocable Temple of Knowledge, while Arms is unexpectedly calmer and seems more improvised.

With its pulsing, echoey synth, The Endlessness (Song For Young Xenophobes) could be Carol Lipnik in especially minimalist mode, Ocher’s voice jumping to spectacular heights. Washed Upon Your Shores is even more rustically simple, just vocals over a persistent high bass note and rattly percussion.

Ocher revisits a dub milieu with the spoken-word piece The Becoming, featuring Die Todliche Doris. “It is not uncommon to think of acts of unnecessary violence,” Ocher demurs in this sardonically detailed tale of revenge. Ocher closes the album with the eeriliy loopy Wulkania, a collaboration with Felix Cubin.

Midwestern Rock Legend Sam Llanas Haunted by the Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

If Sam Llanas never put out another album, he would still be a first-ballot hall-of-famer. As co-leader of heartland rockers the BoDeans, he built a body of work to match any other songwriter active since the 80s. But Llanas shows no signs of slowing down, and like his colleague James McMurtry, he just keeps putting out great records. His latest is Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels, which isn’t’ online yet. It’s arguably his best solo release, and has moments that will rip your face off.

As the title implies, this is a haunted record, filled with regrets and disillusion, although there are plenty of upbeat moments as well. Much as it’s mostly acoustic, the atmosphere is lush and sparkling with layers and layers of guitar, mandolin, accordion and what sounds like autoharp. Llanas,, Mike Hoffmann and Sean Williamson handle the stringed instruments; Michael Ramos plays keys and accordion, with Susan Nicholson on violin.

Much as Llanas is hardly known for playing covers, he opens the album with an absolutely gorgeous, lushly jangly, bittersweet reinvention of the old Civil War folk song Shenandoah. The first of the originals, Lonely Girl, begins starkly and grows more nocturnally starry: it could be a prequel to an older song in the Llanas catalog, Two Souls.

Days Go By is classic Llanas, a big two-chord anthem on a more intimate scale and an angst-fueled look back on lakeside bonfires and people gone forever. His voice is still in great shape, as everybody who watched his webcasts during the lockdown noticed, and he really airs out his upper register in Straight to Hell, a brisk, gloomy country shuffle with a spiky twin guitar solo midway through.

One Summer Night is an aptly shimmery but propulsive take on Orbisonesque Nashville gothic pop. Here Comes the Dawn is next, a hopeful, catchy, gently bouncing pre-daybreak theme. A Place in This World could be an Everly Brothers tune, a fond look back at childhood influences: Llanas’ dad was a bass player, and the Mexican community in Waukesha, Wisconsin was fertile ground for musical cross-pollination.

Llanas goes back to early 60s Lynchian pop sounds in Down Here in the Cold: it’s imploring, but it’s also hopeful. Rave On is an upbeat, Willie Nile-ish pop tune – is that a glockenspiel, or just a Casio?

Autumn Is Falling is an anthem for our era, a metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time. With its cheery, doo-woppy hooks, the most retro song here is Got Love. The big hit here is Bring Me to Light, a weary but defiant freedom fighter’s anthem flavored with chiming twelve-string and soaring slide work from Hoffmann. Llanas winds up the album with Wedding Ghost, a morbidly waltzing Louvin Brothers-style narrative: it’s a classic of its kind.

Castle Black Take Their Dark Unpredictability to the Next Level

Castle Black started out as a haphazardly noisy power trio and have grown into more of an art-rock band while never losing their punk edge. Frontwoman Leigh Celent has kept the group going after the 2020 lockdown with a rotating rhythm section, and managed to make a scorchingly eclectic new short album, Get Up Dancer, streaming at Bandcamp. Since this is a pretty dark record – aren’t they all, with this band – it fits the bill for today’s episode in the ongoing, October-long Halloween celebration here.

It’s great to hear these tracks all fleshed out in the studio after seeing the latest version of the trio roar and slink through them at their show in Long Island City a couple of months ago. The first cut – the title track, more or less – is Radio Queen, a sleeker, more trickily rhythmic take on careening early 80s punk, like the Vice Squad classic Last Rockers but way tighter.

Likewise, the metric shifts in Another Grand Delusion, a gorgeously serpentine, angst-fueled anthem awash in Celent’s signature reverb and roar. Her machete guitar riffage, Scott Brown’s tersely ascending bass and the tumbling drums blend to raise the heartbroken angst in Talking About Those Nights to redline.

Knife in My Heart is a revenge fantasy, part ba-bump cabaret, part echoey psychedelia, part searing powerpop, Celent on keys in addition to guitar. An icy high/low guitar/bass contrast gives way to a burning chorus in That Little War: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Thalia Zedek tunebook. Same applies to the last song, Sorry, the album’s most darkly enveloping number. It’s rewarding to see Celent refusing to stay in one place and find dark new avenues to explore. Count this as one of the most intriguing and best rock records of 2021.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has 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?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just 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.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.

Disturbios Recall a Darker, More Dangerous, More Diverse New York Rock Scene

Disturbios play darkly cinematic surf rock, like a more stripped-down Morricone Youth with cynical hip-hop tinges. You might expect that from a couple of veterans of the seedier side of New York rock. Guitarist Matt Verta-Ray has been kicking around the reverb tank since his days with Speedball Baby back in the 90s, joined by Rocio Verta-Ray on what sounds like a vintage Vox Continental organ. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album’s brief opening track, Rough Rider starts out as hip-hop and then goes twinkling around the roller rink with Rocio’s swirly organ and Matt’s spare reverb guitar. The monster hit here is Surf Gnossienne, a slow surf remake of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1, an iconic piece from the creepy-classical canon. They seem to be using a certain Brooklyn band’s cumbia version as a prototype, right down to the flickers of the castanets.

“I never shook babies, I never beat no ladies,” Rocio insists, but everything else was pretty much up for grabs as she tells it in Jesus I Was Evil – right down to that funny Rick James quote. Matt builds a wasp-in-a-jar scenario in the next track, Starr, a broodingly rippling noir soul theme.

They launch into a snarling mashup of Sticky Fingers-era Stones shuffle and, say, the Flamin’ Groovies in Little Bird Got Swallowed. After the hypnotic, macabre cumbia vamp See-Thru Rhonda, the duo go back to vintage soul-surf for Summer Loves.

Rocio’s deadpan vocals in the stomping electric take of Jimmy Reed’s Big Boss Man are pretty priceless. The two hit a slinky latin soul groove in I Love You and close the album with Dear Boy, a skewed take on early 60s girl-group pop. New York used to be full of bands who played all these sounds. Good thing somebody’s keeping this stuff alive.