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Moodily Atmospheric New Wave and Lynchian Sounds From Brass Box

Sometimes Brass Box’s album The Cathedral – streaming at Bandcamp – totally nails a David Lynch soundtrack atmosphere. Other times the group totally nail a dark 80s new wave sound. Either way, their songs are catchy and tightly focused, frontwoman/bassist Ammo Bankoff channeling clear-eyed abandonment and despondency over the chilly echo and swirl.

The album opens with the title track, a mutedly galloping Pink Floyd Run Like Hell riff anchoring Neil Popkin and Matt Bennett’s broodingly echoey mix of guitars that explode in a ringing dreampop vortex on the chorus, Bankoff’s searching, anxious vocals awash in the icy mist.

With its resonant, reverberating deep-space sonics and wistful, starry backdrop, the second track, DDM could be the Lost Patrol. Surrender is not the Cheap Trick teen-rebellion anthem but a dead ringer for Siouxsie & the Banshees circa 1982, right down to the watery chorus-box guitar and prominent bass.

They follow the atmospheric, enveloping goth rock tune Latency with the allusively catchy Waves, which rise to some gorgeously Eastern European-tinged vocal harmonies on the chorus. Then they hit a steady, fast new wave groove with Towne, the album’s hardest-rocking track.

The record’s slowest track, Roses, comes across as a dreampop update on the more skeletal material on Unknown Pleasure-era Joy Division. The band go back to Lynchian/dreampop mashup mode with Ivory Skies and close the album with Parting Ways, a song they should have parted with prior to sequencing the record. On one hand, all the sounds that Brass Box evoke have been around for decades. On the other, nobody has figured out how to blend them quite like this.

Magos Herrera Brings Her Elegant, Genre-Defying, Poignant Songcraft to a Popular Outdoor Queens Spot

Singer Magos Herrera‘s music spans the worlds of jazz, film themes, contemporary classical and many styles from her native Mexico. This blog has witnessed her in a rapturous, intimate duo performance with her longtime collaborator, guitarist Javier Limon, as well as a much more lush and politically-fueled set with string quartet Brooklyn Rider. When live music was criminalized throughout much of the world in 2020, she turned to the web for supporting musicians. The result is Con Alma, the most eclectic album of an amazingly eclectic career, an “operatic tableau on isolation” streaming at Bandcamp. Herrera is back in action in New York, with a 7 PM gig outdoors on Halloween night at Terraza 7, where she’s leading a quintet. The Elmhurst venue is best known for jazz, so that’s probably going to be what Herrera brings to the stage, but knowing her, anything is possible.

The album is a mix of energetic acoustic guitar-driven numbers, imaginative pieces for orchestra and vocals and choral works. As you would expect from an album created during the lockdown, there’s an ever-present apprehension, but also hope. As fascinating as this music is, you will want to skip track seven – a found-sound collage on which Herrera does not appear – which contains PTSD-inducing samples of social engineering run hideously amok, a 2020 artifact best buried forever.

The first track is La Creación de las Aves, Vinicius Gomes’ circling, nimbly fingerpicked  acoustic guitar loop anchored by Jeffrey Zeigler’s sweeping cello and Gonzalo Grau’s lithely understated cajon.

Tree of 40 Fruit begins as an uneasily close-harmonied soundscape, layers of wordless vocals by Constellation Chor‘s Marisa Michelson blended with a little crowd-sourced spoken word on themes of isolation and alienation. She quickly builds it to an anguished series of peaks: the effect of all the multitracks wipes away any sense of loneliness or abandonment.

Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joins with guitarist Romero Lubambo for moody but energetic dynamics in Rojo Sol, a bristling, flamenco-tinged ballad. Alma Muerta, a choral collaboration with Ensemble Sjaella rises from a desolate, Gregorian chant-influenced atmosphere to a web of stricken, shocked operatic riffs.

With her broodingly impassioned vocalese, Herrera and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería reinvent the album’s title cut – a Dizzy Gillespie hit – as a shapeshifting mini-suite, moving from cumulo-nimbus orchestration to a delicately bouncy, balletesque rhythm.

Ensemble Sjaella return for Fratres, by Paola Prestini, Herrera and the choir moving uneasily between early Renaissance-flavored ornamentation, grey-sky ambience and tremoloing atmospherics.

The lush treble counterpoint of Prestini’s Thrush Song, sung by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, offers a glimpse of hope. Herrera and her Mexican orchestral colleagues wind up the album with a strikingly stark, gracefully rhythmic take of Cucurrucucú, a longing-infused ballad made famous by Mexican singer Ana María González in 1954.

Individualistic, Dark Heavy Psychedelia and Guitar Duels From Deathchant

What could be more appropriate for Halloween month than a band called Deathchant? They play a distinctive, careening blend of heavy psychedelia and doom metal. Their twin-guitar attack is more colorful and high-midrangey – a ringing, vintage Gibson-style sound rather than a digital crunch – the usual sludge in the stoner metal tarpit. Their latest album Waste is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first track is Rails, a trebly boogie with a little detour into spacerock. If Molly Hatchet had been raised north of the Mason-Dixon line, and grew up on Sabbath instead of the Allman Brothers, they might have sounded something like this, right down to the guitar duel between frontman T.J. Lemieux and John Belino.

Likewise, the twin leads on Black Dirt, a brisk instrumental propelled by bassist George Camacho and drummer Colin Fahrner. And when the joust begins, look out, there’s blood all over the place. The band slow down for Holy Roller and its mix of snarling chromatic riffage, twin leads and raw noise. Then they pick up the pace again with Gallows and Lemieux’s distinctive, slashingly catchy, Atlantean solo (that’s the city, not the continent).

The album’s title track rises out of a gloomy mist to a bluesy metal charge worthy of the MC5, then the band take it further into Sabbath territory. They go back to riff-rock boogie for Plague, with more of those twin leads, whiplash licks from Lemieux, and an unexpectedly brooding chorus. They close the record with Maker, a catchy ba-bump instrumental theme driven by Lemieux’s whirling riffage. In keeping with the band’s spontaneous approach, he’s been known to vary the lineup, but he’s really pulled together a good one here. Imagine what this crew could do if they brought in a couple of other guitarists for a heavy Plan 9-style psychedelic attack.

Virgil Boutellis-Taft Puts Out One of the Most Darkly Beguiling Classical Albums of Recent Years

It’s been a lot of fun mining the dark side of the classical canon this month…and the fun isn’t over yet! One of the most diversely entertaining, dark-themed classical records of recent years is violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft‘s new album Incantation with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming at Spotify. His approach is disarmingly direct and typically understated: overall, this is about mystery far more than the macabre.

He and the ensemble open with an aptly lush, starkly dynamic, moody take of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. Max Bruch was not Jewish, but he liked to plunder Jewish melodies – in this case, the prayer for the dead – rather than reaching for a faux-Romany sound as so many of his contemporaries did when they needed an extra jolt of minor-key intensity.

Tomaso Antonio Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor is one of the great classical mystery stories. We don’t know when it was written, but it was obviously radical for the baroque era. We know next to nothing about the composer and those who first resurrected it. Some investigators have suggested that the piece was deliberately misattributed in order to deflect possible criticism of its strikingly forward-looking chromatics. Boutellis-Taft holds onto the piece’s wicked ornamentation with a vise-grip legato as the orchestra looms and pulses menacingly behind him.

Saint-Saëns’ iconic Danse Macabre has been featured on this page innumerable times. This version of the witchy tarantella is distinguished by Boutellis-Taft’s gleeful vibrato, the forceful presence of the flutes, and an unusually persistent, skittish tension – which makes obvious sense in context. And the reaper doesn’t tiptoe out here – he leaves with a sinister flourish. He’ll be back!

Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade Mélancolique is exactly that, muted but purposeful. As with the Bruch work here, it’s a showcase for Boutellis-Taft’s resonant low midrange expressiveness, but also vigorously colorful attack in the upper registers. He makes a memorable return to Jewish themes with Ernest Bloch’s Nigun, from the Baal Shem suite, lit up by quicksilver ornamentation over an ominously Asian-tinged pentatonic theme. It’s a welcome addition to the classical heavy metal canon – and that’s meant as a compliment.

Ernest Chausson’s Poème pour Violon et Orchestre, op. 25, the longest piece on the program here, launches from an uneasily dreamy woodwind-driven tableau that eventually falls away on the wings of Boutellis-Taft’s wary solo. This is the most lavishly orchestrated yet most subtle performance here, darkly celestial rather than stygian.

Boutellis-Taft closes the album with Yumeji’s Theme, by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi, a brief, melancholy, marionettishly waltzing recent work from the soundtrack to the film In the Mood for Love.

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.

High Romantic Drama and Heavy Metal Crush From Reasons Behind

A brief lullaby on a music box opens The Alpha Memory, the 2016 album by melodic metal band Reasons Behind streaming at Bandcamp. That bit of a tune hardly hints at the ornate crush that will begin seconds later. The group are more classically-influenced and keyboard-oriented than most, and Elisa, their frontwoman, has a disarmingly warm, intimate delivery: she’s not just out for banshee vengeance.

“There’s something growing inside of me, traveling on a one-way track,” Elisa sings with understated drama in the album’s first big anthem, Under the Surface; then the machinegunning doublebass drums and guitar roar kick in.

Guitarist Gabriel and drummer Riccardo (no last names here) go lickety-split in a tricky beat behind Elisa’s resonant vocals and Dige’s elegant keys in The Chemical Theater. With Your Light is a turbocharged pop anthem assembled around a swaying, atmospheric interlude and a momentary, spiraling synth solo. The moody piano solo at the end segues into Starlight in the Shades, Elisa ascending to an operatic intensity over a surprisingly enigmatic, rising and falling backdrop.

The simple piano theme On Butterfly Wings is a showcase for the unselfconscious poignancy in her vocals. With its twin guitar/keyboard solo along with Enrico Goya’s Steve Harris-ish bassline, the album’s heaviest song is The Ghost Under My Skin

The break for string synth and bass in the similarly pummeling 1000 Fading Lives is over too soon. Elisa’s operatic chops glisten over spare, pensive piano and string synth as the title track gathers force. The album ends up coming full circle.

There’s an element who are going to hear this and say, jeez, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Cartoon gramd guignol. Grow up, New York Music Daily! That’s ok. Sometimes it’s fun to feel like a kid again, lying on the floor with headphones blasting something like this, playing air drums, and looking forward to being able to drink in a bar instead of hiding out at home

A Killer Halloween Multi-Band Extravaganza in Sioux Falls

All it takes is a brief exposure to the free world outside New York to realize the ugly truth that music is way better there. And not just because concerts that everybody can go to actually exist once you leave the five boroughs. Case in point: the five-band Metalween extravaganza in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on the 30th. It’s a stadium-worthy lineup in a comfortable, inexpensive club with cheap beer. The show is ten bucks and starts at 8 at Bigs Bar, at 3110 W. 12th St.

The opening act, slowcore Egyptian expats Grave Solace are cinematic, hypnotic and savagely gloomy: the hammer blows only hit every few seconds. Their dirges have organ and tolling-bell piano along with all of the slow, resonant guitar changes: in Egypt, people smoke a lot of hash.

At 9, the brilliant, politically sharp, antiauthoritarian Silence Is Madness unleash their wildly diverse blend of stoner boogie-influenced sounds, ornate art-rock, heavy psychedelia and conscious hip-hop metal. The next act are a trip to the parking lot. After that, there’s Agony of Defeat, who play a mix of 80s-style goth and industrial metal with hip-hop lyrics: ironically, like Insane Clown Posse with less of a Halloween vibe .

At midnight, Sioux Falls’ own Pray for Villains headline. Their debut ep is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. Just when you think the first track, Ego, is going to be a funereal epic, they pick it up, thrash it and bring it home symphonically. Track two, The Lesson veers between distant 90s metalfunk influences, machinegunning thrash riffage, a bizarrely pastoral psychedelic interlude and a pagan feast of furious fret-tapping.

Sweet Vengeance, the final, apocalyptic freedom fighter anthem on the Bandcamp page, has trickier rhythms and doomier changes. With the download, you also get Saving Face, a more straight-ahead, catchy Priest-like track. Pray these villains make it to the east coast someday…or that this blog escapes New York for the Black Hills.

Ambient Sonic Comfort From Austin Rockman

The last time electronic composer Austin Rockman was featured on this page, it was for a couple of chilly, disquieting down-the-drainpipe tableaux. This time out he’s totally flipped the script with his latest album Our Own Unknown, streaming at Bandcamp.

It’s a warm, bright, enveloping series of soundscapes. Allusive implied melody is one of Rockman’s most persistent and effective devices: he leaves you humming something that he only hinted at. A lot of the pieces here start out spare and echoey and grow more lush or increasingly textured. Sparse guitar-like accents typically develop more resonantly as Rockman brings the lights up.

There are a couple of moments where he falls back on tropes like simulated tape wow effects, or in one place, a spastically arrythmic loop, but he takes the listener back to the womb from there. Contrasts are on the gentle side, and striking when they’re not, as in the interludes where he runs crackles akin to a film projector against shifting sheets of simple, single-note melody. But most of this is a soothing musical hug with enough going on where it won’t send you off to dreamland. And who couldn’t use a hug right about now?

Elegantly Melancholy, Wordless Vampire Anthems From Rik Schaffer

Beyond members of the World Economic Forum’s taste for adrenochrome, vampirism usually falls into the cartoon category as far as Halloween is concerned. This year, composer Rik Schaffer has opened up a rich vein of his themes from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines at Spotify. He couldn’t have picked a more appropriate year to splatter the world with this, considering how many hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by the various lethal injections being promoted by the WEF and the Gates Foundation. How serious, or completely cartoonish, is this music?

This magnum opus is all about epic grandeur, punctuated by infrequent portrayals of ridiculousness. This is the uncommon soundtrack that’s also a good rock record. Schaffer’s themes for the game frequently draw on 80s goth, but not in a cliched way. Where innumerable film and video composers embrace chilly synth soundscapes, Schaffer uses guitars for the most part. Sometimes they’re minimalist, as Daniel Ash would have clanged out circa 1980. Other interludes here evoke bands as diverse as Slowdive, the Church and Roxy Music.

Schaffer likes all kinds of icy chorus-box sounds. Loops figure heavily into this, whether a tentative folk-tinged acoustic phrase, a merciless motorik theme, or vast, windswept vistas awash in a chilly mist. In the rare moments when the bass percolates to the surface, it’s delicious. In general, Schaffer’s songs are more majestically melancholy than grim or grisly: a vampire’s life is a sad and lonely one.

He moves methodically through ornate spacerock and whimsical trip-hop with a hint of disquiet, to a gorgeously textured, bittersweetly vamping anthem without words awash in torrents of organ and stately chorus-box guitar. Dissociative atmospherics encircle a goofy dance club tableau. A long return to moody shoegaze sounds sets up an imaginatively flamenco-tinged coda and an unexpectedly Beatlesque outro. Who would have thought that a video game theme collection would be one of the best albums of 2021.

Another Edgy, Highly Improvised Masterpiece From Gordon Grdina

Gordon Grdina is the rare jazz guitarist who plays a lot of notes, yet manages to find a way not to waste them. His music has always been more about mood and narrative than merely a display of gritty chops on guitar and oud, both of which are scary-good. Since the late teens, he’s been on a wild creative tear, which does not seem to have been adversely affected by the lockdown. He got a solo album out of it, and now also has a richly textured, edgily conversational new quartet record, Klotski, just out and streaming at Bandcamp.

Grdina calls the band Square Peg. Violist Mat Maneri and bassist Shahzad Ismaily play with their typical purpose, choosing their spots. Christian Lillinger is just as much colorist as timekeeper behind the drum kit. The album is a highly improvisational uninterrupted suite of variations on cell-based melodies. The camaraderie is high spirited, matched by a meticulous focus: jazz improvisation is seldom this outright tuneful.

Resolutely unresolved viola wafts around over Lillinger’s rustles on his hardware to introduce the album’s opening number, Impending Discomfort. Then Grdina’s guitar angles in, sparely. Maneri wryly responds in kind to Grdina’s slide licks; a steady, brisk stroll develops, Ismaily playing suspenseful, terse polyrhythms. The fireplace tableau that results pits Maneri’s yellow flames over Grdina’s deep-ember sputter.

Grdina calls the next part Escherian, Maneri in contrast to Lillinger’s black reflecting pool, Grdina running loops beneath Ismaily’s smoky ambience. The Halloweenish drollery the quartet link arms and eventually stroll into is irresistibly funny, especially when you hear where they go with it. A little obvious, maybe, but the fun these guys are having is visceral.

Maneri and Grdina have additional fun exchanging volume knob-style washes over Lillinger’s flutters and Ismaily’s wise, steady, sparse pulse in Bacchic Barge, before the bandleader takes centerstage with a solo that’s more Juno on the prowl than Bacchus falling off the boat. His matter-of-fact contentedness as he switches to oud contrasts with the unexpected wrath Maneri and Ismaily pull from the shadows.

Pitchblende bass, bucolic viola, scrambling oud and rises and falls from the drums permeate Sulfur City, up to a snarling march that Ismaily eventually colors with blippy, harmonium-like synth, finally luring Grdina into the brambles.

The quartet work sagaciously expansive chords out of a simple, well-used blues riff as they move methodically through Kaleidoscope, Maneri’s giddyup phrases and shivery harmonics balanced by a contiguous attack that his bandmates rise and pull away from. A bit of a sepulchral surprise sets up the lively, bubbling segue into Microbian Theory, once again developing out of a familiar minor-key blues lick. The descent into plaintive washes afterward might be the album’s most offhandedly gripping interlude.

Murk and vampy acidity interchange in Sore Spot, a catchy, tolling metal anthem in spiky disguise. Lillinger fuels the suite’s coda, Joy Ride, with a tricky quasi-Balkan circle dance groove, Ismaily’s hypnotic riffage anchoring the bandleader’s increasingly volatile, blues-infused meteor shower. It ends unresolved.