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Twisted Psychedelic Balkan Noir From Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores

The first track on Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores’ relentlessly creepy 2012 masterpiece Sister Death was a menacing, chromatically psychedelic Balkan art-rock epic aptly titled Fire Shuffle. The Rhode Island-based accordionist/bandleader opens his similarly brilliant, macabre new one, The Opposite – streaming at Cuneiform Records – in a similar vein, with Soft Motors. The difference is that this time he’s playing all the keyboards. In many cases, he overdubs his accordion, running it through several wildly diverse effects patches. This particular number is awash in an ever-closer circling web of catchy minor-key riffs, Redfearn a one-man Balkan orchestra. “Fear won’t stop til the mornings are soft,” horn player Ann Schattle sings, deadpan but troubled.

Tramadoliday is a deviously bouncy, chromatically juicy, increasingly orchestral danse macabre, Schattle’s horn wry and steady while Redfearn conjures up lysergic Stoogoid wah-wah, bass synth fuzz and Carnival of Souls organ around a wicked Balkan accordion riff.

Drummer Matt McLaren flits around on his rims for a good approximation of a vintage drum machine to propel the hypnotic, cell-like phrases of the album’s title track, its quasar pulse looming closer and closer. Carnivore has a carnivalesque, hurdy gurdy-like theme and dark, allusively chromatic variations: “Come, turn out the lights,” is the mantra. Finally, bassist Christopher Sadlers gets a juicy fuzztone riff of his own to run underneath Redfearn’s strobe attack.

The slightly more playful, hip hop-influenced There’s a Bat Living in My Room takes its inspiration from Redfearn’s former coke dealer, whose inability to resist getting high on his own supply resulted in hallucinations reputedly more prosaically troubling than the song title. Rend the Veil blends uneasy 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelic rock into a ba-BUMP theme for the Macedonian wedding from hell, with a sick, echoingly dissociative outro that segues into Possum, a shout-out to an old Redfearn pal who killed himself. It’s the album’s hardest-hitting and most Middle Eastern-flavored track, with a spot-on Redfearn approximation of a mighty metal guitar battle theme at the center.

The final cut, Pterodactyl, is the album’s longest epic: picture a 60s Bollywood band putting a dub reggae spin on the Buzzcocks’ Why Can’t I Touch It, if you can imagine that kind of time warp. As with the band’s previous album, look for this one high on the list of best albums of 2018 next month here.

Much as Redfearn is a spellbinding player in the purest sense of the word, it would have been even better to be able to hear Rose Thomas Bannister’s elegant organ work alongside his accordion. The similarly haunting noir psychedelic Brooklyn songwriter toured with Redfearn as a sidewoman back in 2015. Onstage, the contrasting textures and interplay between the two was unadulterated sonic absinthe.

A Killer Dark Psychedelic Triplebill in Queens

Having seen just one of the year’s best segues between two bands – in a year that’s been loaded with amazing twinbills – was there any sense in sticking around for the last band? Absolutely. Having already made the shlep out to Trans-Pecos in Ridgewood this past evening for Ember Schrag‘s potently lyrical psychedelia and Alec K. Redfearn‘s macabre, accordion-fueled psychedelic art-rock, hanging around for a rare appearance by Escape by Ostrich was worth it. The four-piece band – Willie Klein on guitar and violin, Bob Bannister on lead guitar, Chris Nelson on bass and Robert Dennis on drums – were like a no wave-tinged mashup of early Love Camp 7 (before they rediscovered the Beatles) and the Grateful Dead. They wound up a long but rewarding night with a particularly relevant, smoldeingly low-key cover of Woody Guthrie’s Deportees. Getting to that point was every bit as much fun.

Redfearn. who’s on tour at the moment, sounds like no other artist anywhere, the rare bandleader who’s iconic in psychedelic, art-rock and gothic rock circles. He also had the presence of mind – pure genius, actually – to enlist Schrag not as a guitarist but as a keyboardist. Redfearn gets his signature sound by running his accordion through a pedalboard: one minute he’s roaring like a guitar, the next he’s oscillating or adding devious wah-wah textures like Josh Camp did with his Electrovox in Chicha Libre for so long. Playing organ, Schrag harmonized seamlessly with Redfearn when she wasn’t adding hypnotic low drones or elegant baroque-flavored lines: you’d think that the band’s brilliant previous keyboardist, Orion Rigel Domisse, would have been irreplaceable, but Schrag adds her own similarly psychedelic edge. Redfearn sang in his signature powerful, brooding baritone while bassist Christopher Sadlers anchored the songs with his steady, pitchblende bowing, alternating with the occasional slinky rattlesnake groove. Drummer Matt McLaren enhanced the songs’ Balkan flavor with his sharpshooter rimshots on a kit with no cymbals. Horn player Ann Schattle supplied terse, incisive riffage when she wasn’t adding atmospherics, much like Schrag.

Auspiciously, much of the set was new material, most of the songs segueing into each other to make up a macabre suite. They opened with a thumping new number, murderous Serbian folk as done by Syd Barrett, maybe, then without stopping made their way into a swinging Balkan stripper vamp that sounded like it might be Redfearn’s classic Fire Shuffle, from his most recent album, Sister Death. As it disintegrated, radiating evil sonic radionuclides, it turned out not to be. A menacingly marionettish tune put Schattle’s horn front and center as Redfearn ran his accordion through the sonic strobe of a 1960s repeater box. The trickiest number was a Macedonian-inflected tune from Redfearn’s Exterminating Angel album from a few years ago; the darkest and catchiest material later in the set reflected a heavy Greek rembetiko influence. The folks at the Rock in Opposition Festival in France – where the band will be appearing next month – are in for a real treat.

Schrag and her amazing band – Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz on bass and harmony vocals and Gary Foster on drums – opened the night. Hearing her refer to herself as a “folkie” was pretty funny: although her first couple of albums are what she calls “great plains gothic,” her sound has evolved into shapeshifting, sometimes slithery psychedelic rock. Foster and Banister fueled the understatedly ominous flamenco flourishes on a bitter waltz early in the set, Schwartz and Schrag engaging in a brief, intense bit of trippy, contrapuntal neo-plainchant at one point. Seamlessly, they made their way through the straight-up, latin-tinged psychedelic pop of What Birds Do, the numbed Abbey Road Beatles angst of The Real Penelope and the shapeshifting Banquo’s Book, Bannister’s triplets mingling with Schrag’s hypnotically pulsing riffs. Likewise, it was impossible to figure out who was playing what throughout the deliciously clanging textures of one of Schrag’s several Shakespearean-influenced numbers, the agitatedly intense art-rock anthem Lady M.

Foster raised the suspense to murderous levels on the intro to Sutherland, an allusively creepy badlands tableau from Schrag’s most recent solo album, The Sewing Room. And although there’s all sorts of (usually implied) mayhem in Schrag’s double entendres, biblical and historical allusions, she can be riotously funny when she’s in the mood. My Brother’s Men, as she told the crowd, wasn’t actually about a goon squad: she got the inspiration from the title from the legions of barbecue joints run by brothers in her native Nebraska.

Towering, Haunting Lynchian Intensity from Alec K. Redfearn

On Sister Death, their first album since 2007’s The Blind Spot, accordionist Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores deliver a lushly orchestrated, epically sweeping, Lynchian mix of creepy cinematic themes and towering gypsy-infused art-rock. Redfearn’s rich, often funereal tones blend with the even more macabre swirls and torrents from Orion Rigel Dommisse ‘s Acetone Top-5 organ: she plays the Lynch Girl on this album, and often steals the show. The core of this shapeshifting Providence, Rhode Island band includes Matt McLaren on drums, Chris Sadlers on bass, Clint Heidorn on guitar and the father-daughter team of Jimmy and Hannah Divine on violins along with a mammoth supporting cast. Redfearn has an enormous talent base to draw from, and in concert has been known to bring anything from a stripped-down quartet to a mighty fifteen-piece chamber orchestra.

The album opens with Fire Shuffle, a brisk, murderously chromatic epic, the casualness of the guy/girl vocals downplaying the darkness of the music: “Burn with me awhile, leave the wreckage far behind,” Redfearn and Dommisse intone. Chris Turner contributes a ferociously intense, feedback-charged chromatic harp solo to fan the flames.. The second track, Unawake, reaches for the same kind of orchestral sweep even though it’s over in just over two minutes. The Seven and Six, a slowly menacing 6/8 ballad, has the accordion rising through the mix with an increasingly distorted, gritty texture beneath Redfearn’s mythologically-inspired wordplay.

Terse tremolo guitar and creepy bells gently propel Longreach, a totally Lynchian instrumental, followed by the trickily rhythmic Amplifier Hum, its faux Bulgarian folk vocals (in English!)  a throwback to the band’s earlier days working a more avant-garde vein. Black Ice begins with a solo accordion taqsim and builds to a massive Balkan dance, funeral organ mingling with the accordion and intricately multitracked guitar from Domenick Panzarella. A creepy waltz, Exhumed is sort of a gypsy take on Julee Cruise Twin Peaks noir pop, Redfearn’s baritone uke mimicking a Spanish guitar, Dommisse playing femme fatale once again over an echoey dead-girl choir.

With a more straight-ahead beat, Scratch would be horror surf instead of Balkan rock – Redfearn’s long, searing, minimalist accordion solo out is adrenalizing to say the least. They follow that with Hashishin, a matter-of-factly swaying, trippily macabre Middle Eastern instrumental jam, the baritone uke running through a Big Muff pedal for extra menace. By contrast, Redfearn’s cover of St. James Infirmary gets a skeletal steampunk treatment, ending with a murderous, digeridoo-like drone from the bass pedals on a Hammond organ. The most inscrutable – and least menacing – number here is Wings of the Magpie, with its surreal 70s space-rock vibe. The album closes with a dire, In the Morning, Roger Waters meets the Walkabouts.

Redfearn is a cool guy: much of his fascinatingly eclectic back catalog is available as free downloads at the  Free Music Archive. A punk/metal kid back in the 80s, he taught himself accordion in retaliation against the onslaught of grunge. This might be his best album: nice to see, for someone who’s been making music since the 90s and remains one of the most underrated songwriters in rock, or whatever you call what he does. The album is due out in a couple of days from Cuneiform;  he and the band play a hometown album release show on Oct 4  at the Empire Black Box Theatre in Providence.