New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: dark rock

A Broodingly Direct, Terse, Haunting Art-Rock Suite From Cattivo

Is Israeli art-rock duo Cattivo’s haunting, phantasmagorical album Le Marchand De Rêve a lockdown parable, in terms of the bill of goods the lockdowners tried to sell us, even as one rationale after another was debunked and collapsed under the weight of its own lies?

Probably not, actually: the two musicians recorded it before the lockdown, so it’s more likely a tale of personal betrayal. But it’s definitely an album for our time, and it’s up at Bandcamp. Omer Farkash plays guitar and organ and sings in a girl-down-the-well voice. Udi Berner contributes viola, piano, theremin, organ and glockenspiel.

They open with a drifting, point-of-no-return intro and then pace gloomily through the title track, a stately minor-key theme, Farkash’s guitar playing steady, funereal broken chords over a somber haze of keyboard-and-viola orchestration.

Berner plays mostly solo on piano through a triptych of somber preludes: the miniature Avec Sa Jambe De Statu, the Le Grand Parcours Solitaire – how’s that for a a title for the year 2020 – and finally, a more emphatic yet spacious conclusion, Tu Vois Je N’ai Rien Oublié. The album winds up with a final variation with funeral organ and quavery viola.

Another Bleakly Amusing Album of Protest Songs From the Pocket Gods

“I did more business in July than I did in all of 2019,” a Brooklyn liquor store owner confided to a friend of this blog last summer. In a locked-down city where domestic violence is up 50%, suicide among young people is up 60%, with the murder rate soaring, that’s no wonder. It’s been even worse in the UK. The Pocket Gods offer a cynical, distinctly British and very catchy take on lockdown hell in Alcoholics Enormous, one of the funniest songs on their characteristically eclectic new album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall, streaming at Spotify.

Speaking of overdoing it, the pun in that song title is just as endangered. Alcoholics Anonymous became just plain Alcoholics when the lockdowners shut down all the churches and community centers where the meetings were held, and everything went online.

Pocket Gods mastermind Mark Christopher Lee has put out a staggering amount of music over the past decade. The band’s equally desperate, bleakly funny previous record of protest songs, No Room at the (Holiday) Inn, made the ten best albums of 2020 list here, and the gallows humor of this one is just as spot-on.

Lee assesses the lockdowners’ crazymaking over a disquieting, hypnotic pulse in Conspiracy Collagen: what can you believe when the fake news media gets more and more outlandish every day? He takes that same disbelief to a sarcastic sendup of celebrity obsession in JS X RQ. My Next High is just as angst-fueled, and sounds like the Jesus & Mary Chain doing a decent job covering the Byrds.

Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday, a horror movie theme for the past year’s insanity, is the best song on the album (the Wenzels chain is sort of a British cross between Au Bon Pain and 7-11). Narcissistic Jogger has a similarly macabre pulse: all the same, you can’t help but laugh at these double-muzzled sheep gasping for air. And the catchy powerpop nugget Pound Shop Junkie speaks truth to the cognitive dissonance of desperate consumers lined up around the block for formula retail. Today the dollar store, tomorrow the breadline, after the lockdowners bulldoze all the independent farms because a couple of workers were caught within six feet of each other.

For the record, this blog doesn’t really believe that any of those apocalyptic New Abnormal horror scenarios will ever be more than a pipe dream for a handful of oligarchs and their propaganda squads. More than 30% of the US has been liberated and is back to normal as of today. Then again, weren’t we lucky to be sitting here in our (quasi) safe American homes, able to lustily sing, “Don’t wanna go back there again.”

Lingering Mystery and Lynchian Sonics From the Royal Arctic Institute

If you have to hang a label on the Royal Arctic Institute, you could call them a cinematic surf band. They have a Lynchian side, a jazzy side and also a space-surf side. Their latest album Sodium Light is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, the vampy Prince of Wisconsin has an easygoing sway, Gramercy Arms keyboardist Carl Bagaly’s bubbly Rhodes piano giving way to bandleader John Leon’s reverby twang and then grit. The distant wistfulness in Christmases At Sea is visceral, the jangly mingle of guitar over David Motamed’s tense bass pulse and Lyle Hysen’s muted drums.

We Begin on Familiar Ground is a real chiller: the big bite at the beginning is just a hint of what’s to come over spare, creepy, mutedly lingering ambience. The trick ending, and the searing guitar solo from And the Wiremen‘s Lynn Wright, are just plain awesome. Is this a lockdown parable? Who knows: the album was recorded clandestinely somewhere in the tri-state area last year.

The fourth track, Different in Sodium Light is a return to balmy Summer Place calm, Wright adding just a tinge of ominousness with his elegant solo. The final cut, Tomorrowmorrowland is the closest thing here to And the Wiremen’s ominous, Morricone-esque southwestern gothic, with a slashing organ break. On a very short list of rock albums released in 2021 so far, this is one of the best.. And it’s available on cassette!

A Lavish, Delightfully Phantasmagorical Anne LeBaron Career Retrospective

It was tempting to save composer/harpist Anne LeBaron’s lavish new double album Unearthly Delights – streaming at Spotify – for this coming October’s annual monthlong Halloween celebration here. But waiting that long would only deprive you of its many wicked treats. New classical music has seldom been so darkly and playfully entertaining.

Flickering, increasingly agitated ghosts from Pasha Tseitlin’s violin and apocalyptic waves from Nic Gerpe’s piano pervade the first number, Fissure, inspired by the crack that eventually brought down Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. 

Playing, narrating and rattling around, pianist Mark Robson turns in a colorful rendition of Los Murmullos, a phantasmagorical setting of text from Juan Rulfo’s horror novel Pedro Páramo. A second piano-and-violin piece, Devil in the Belfry blends the otherworldliness of Federico Mompou with scampering phantasmagoria, illustrating the diabolical clock chimes from another Poe short story, an all-too-familiar narrative of conformity and its crushing consequences. LeBaron couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate historical moment to release it.

Bassoonists Julie Feves and Jon Stehney prowl and lurk and flurry through the electroacoustic, Hieronymus Bosch-inspired Julie’s Garden of Unearthly Delights. Quick, somebody tell ICE bassoon maven Rebekah Heller, whose collection of bassoon duo pieces is unsurpassed!

The album contains two versions of the dynamic, reflective, sometimes eerily pentatonic solo harp work Poem for Doreen, a tribute to harpist Doreen Gehry Nelson. Alison Bjorkedal’s is more elegantly legato; the composer’s own is somewhat more percussive and lively.

Mark Menzies plays the stark, steady, imaginatively ornamented Bach-inspired solo violin piece Four, as well as its graphic-scored shadow piece, Fore. His interpretation of the latter has more slash and a lot more space, and fits right in with the darkest material here.

The album’s second disc begins with Is Money Money, soprano Kirsten Ashley Wiest joined by clarinetist Chris Stoutenborough, bass clarinetist Jim Sullivan,violist Erik Rynearson, cellist Charlie Tyler and bassist Eric Shetzen. The title reflects a Gertrude Stein quote with serious relevance in a year where the lockdowners are trying to crash the US economy via hyperinflation. Musically, this allusively boleroesque, picturesque piece is the album’s most cartoonish interlude, but also one of its most sinister.

Stehney returns for the solo work After a Dammit to Hell, a genial salute to a now-shuttered Alabama barbecue joint. Gerpe plays the impressionistically glittering Creación de las Aves for solo piano, inspired by the surrealist art of Remedios Varo. Soprano Stephanie Aston and baritone Andy Dwan deliver the album’s epic triptych, A – Zythum, backed by Linnea Powell on viola, Nick Deyoe on guitar and banjo and Cory Hills on vibraphone and percussion. This dissociatively layered, Robert Ashley-esque piece provides a strange and dramatic coda to this lavish and eclectic mix of material. 

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.