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No New Abnormal

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Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

Revisiting a Relentlessly Bleak, Minimalist Film Score

The annual monthlong Halloween celebration here may be past the midpoint, but there’s still plenty of dark music left in the pipeline through the end of the month here. Today we celebrate with the immersive score to the 2019 Rashid Johnson film Native Son, by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (of S U R V I V E), streaming at Spotify.

This is a very atmospheric, minimalist series of electronic soundscapes. A brief series of doppler-like phrases sets the stage. There’s more ominous texture and contrasts – rumbling lows, hypnotically shifting sheets of grey noise – than there is discernible melody. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t drama: those moments of agitation spring up in a split second, only to fade down into the murk.

Much of this evokes echoey industrial drainpipes, waves of heat over asphalt, and cold mechanical drones which build to turmoil. In contrast, there are interludes with simple, slowly rising and falling synthesized strings, and vintage 80s synth patches. Somewhere a Terminator is running low on batteries.

The film itself is based on the iconic Richard Wright novel: if the score is any indication, the cinematic version of the story of Bigger Thomas is even more relentlessly bleak than the book.

Smart, Politically Woke Party Music From Los Mocosos

Old ska bands never die: the party never stops. Look at the Skatalites. They invented ska, and even as they lost some members along the way – starting early, with Don Drummond – they had a fifty-year career. Los Mocosos have a long, long way to go before they get that far, but don’t rule them out. And they play a lot more than just ska. Their latest album, wryly titled All Grown Up, is streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the record, the band switch between English and Spanish, typically in the same song. They start out with the party songs and get more political as the album goes along. They open with the title cut, a catchy minor-key mashup of rocksteady, salsa and ska. “‘I’m just here to play my tunes, get your body to move and get all the ladies,” frontman Manny Martinez sings in a resonant croon with a strong resemblance to Steel Pulse’s David Hinds.

Speaking of classic reggae, the second track, United We Stand, immediately brings to mind Bob Marley’s Exodus, right down to Steve Carter’s slinky organ, Happy Sanchez’s tightly clustering bassline and the punchy brass section. It’s a reminder that we’re one big nation of immigrants who need to stick together and fight, or else we’re all in trouble.

Mirala is a psychedelic cumbia party tune with balmy horns and a little reggaeton. Ready for the Weekend shifts back and forth between a turbocharged oldschool disco groove and a ska bounce. Then the band hit a simmering roots reggae pulse and make their way into a Sympathy For the Devil-style sway in Caminos, an anthem for hardworking strugglers everywhere.

They slow things down even further with the twinkling retro rock ballad Memories of Love and then give themselves a shout-out with the salsa-ska theme Viva Los Mocosos. Martinez contemplates how an immigrant fits into a neighborhood and its history with It’s All Good, a brooding mashup of lowrider funk, oldschool soul and hip-hop.

The album’s most defiant track is Libre, a big, soaring rocksteady anthem. They close with Brothers & Sisters, a call for unity. It’s been a brutal year, and it’s been a long time since there’s been any party music on this page. Feels good to know bands like this still exist.

A Rising Star Film Composer Salutes a Horror Icon

What could possibly be more Halloweenish than H.P. Lovecraft? Cthulhu’s tentacles slithering above the moonlit surface of the Miskatonic! The Old Ones in the caverns deep beneath the Mountains of Madness at the bottom of the world! Often imitated, never duplicated, the master of all things eldritch has been referenced by a gazillion metal bands and sourced for a movie, The Color Out of Space. The promo looks pretty cheesy, more Arkham House than genuine Arkham, but Colin Stetson‘s soundtrack – streaming at Spotify – is not.

All the requisite elements are in place. Moody, spare minor-key piano, check. Portentously hovering, still strings, check. Distant gurgles, ghostly washes, sudden white-knuckle swells, deep-space echoes, crashing electronic carnage, it’s all there, not necessarily in that order.

The question is where Stetson’s signature bass sax is and the answer is that it’s probably not, other than maybe that digeridoo-like drone after the “alpacalypse.” After getting a start at the crazed fringes of jazz, taking a detour into live techno and then finding a home in new classical and film music, he seems to be comfortable being more of a composer with a darkly ambient streak these days. And that’s fine. His big band arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s iconic Third Symphony was as hypnotically poignant as anyone could want. Now if we could only go to a real theatre to enjoy all these movies he’s scoring!

Slashing, Anthemic, Melodic Metal From Rising Steel

French band Rising Steel play ferociously melodic, shapeshifting mid-80s style European metal. The obvious influence is Iron Maiden. Like that foundational NWOBHM band, these guys typically take a symphonic approach beyond any kind of simple verse/chorus patterns or blues progressions. They like big crushing hooks, their guitar solos have fangs, and nobody in the band wastes notes. Their album Fight Them All is streaming at Spotify.

They open at a machinegunning pace with Mystic Voices, veering back and forth between Motorhead and Maiden, with what sounds like a recurrent Bloodrock reference: these guys obviously know their source material. Frontman Emmanuelson delivers the requisite Viking operatics over the two-guitar attack of Mat Heavy Jones and Tony Steel and the surprisingly lithe rhythm section of bassist Flo Dust and drummer Steel Zard.

The album’s title track has bleak, crunchy chromatic guitars over a catchy, relentlessly galloping pulse. Steel Hammer could be British oi punk legends the UK Subs with more menacing chords, at least until they take the song halfspeed, and then out with a classic Maiden-ish charge.

They slow things down for a little while with Blackheart, but don’t hold back on the doomy chromatics. The stampede continues with Savage and segues with a swirl into the icily macabre Gloomy World, a surreal mashup of Maiden, Sabbath and piledriver postrock.

Malefice has a straightforward vintage Metallica drive, while Metal Nation is the album’s thrashiest number, and also one of its angriest ones, a furious call for unity against repression.

It’s surprising how few bands have ever done a song called Pussy: count Rising Steel among the few and the proud. Turns out that they don’t even use the word in this unexpectedly lighthearted party anthem.

They go back to thrashy punkmetal with Led By Judas and wind up the album on more of a Metallica style note with the steady, rampaging Master Control. Darkly anthemic heavy music doesn’t get much more memorable than this in 2020.

Irresistibly Colorful Improvisations from Korean Trio Saaamkiiim

More today from fascinating new Korean label Mung Music, dedicated to taking some of that country’s strangest and most beguiling improvisational sounds to a global audience. One of their initial slate of releases is Ma-Chal (Korean for “friction”), the debut album by electroacoustic trio Saaamkiiim, streaming at Bandcamp.

There are four tracks: Pointy, Moist, Creepy, and the title cut. Pointy begins as an eerily keening series of electronic loops joined by jagged incisions from Yeji Kim’s haegum fiddle. Sun Ki Kim’s drums and small gongs range from suspenseful, to shamanic, to irrepressibly amusing. The improvisation builds to a series of very funny triangulated interludes – maybe that’s why it’s pointy.

Moist has Dey Kim’s stalactite drips and minimalist piano licks paired with an icy mist of cymbals and shifting sheets of sound from the haegum. The rhythm grows boomier and more insistent along with the fiddle: is this iceberg going to rip apart into a million pieces? Just the opposite, as it turns out.

How creepy is Creepy? Increasingly so, as monster-breath sonics push coy evocations of birdsong from the haegum out of the picture and the funereal gong grows more frantic. Gritty, straining tension and looming atmospherics pervade early part of the title soundscape, then it gets amusing. No spoilers.

What Would Halloween Month Be Without Blue Oyster Cult?

How ironic that a band as obsessed with death as Blue Oyster Cult would be around forty-five years after they started. After doing insane amounts of drugs.

OK, the group that took the stage at at the Stone Free Festival in London on June 17, 2017 only included two original members, frontman/guitarist Eric Bloom and lead player Buck Dharma. But the ringers – guitarist/keyboardist Richie Castellano, bassist Danny Miranda and drummer Jules Radino – held up their end, playing iconic material, blurring the line between psychedelia, metal and art-rock. They began by playing the group’s immortally cynical first album in its entirety and ended with a handful of hits and concert favorites. Serendipitously, that show was recorded and has been released as 45th Anniversary – Live In London, streaming at Spotify.

There’s more grit on the bass, less headbanging from the drums on the opening number, Transmaniacon MC, but in parts of six decades onstage, Dharma has not lost a step. This version reminds of the slinky Radio Birdman cover from the mid-70s.

I’m on the Lamb, But I Ain’t No Sheep – an anthem for the unmasked these days, huh? – has fun phased guitars and catchy double-axe riffage. They follow with a fast, trippy, eleven-minute take of Then Came the Last Days of May, a cruel, gorgeously bluesy tale of a weed deal gone horribly wrong which gets a long doublespeed outro with Dharma going full tilt. Amazing what you can do with a four-chord descending progression from C minor.

The band hit the stoner boogie Stairway to the Stars harder: it’s less subtly macabre than the album version. Hell, any resemblance to a classic album version is welcome at this point, and Dharma’s icy chorus-pedal work is a treasure. Before the Kiss, a Redcap – the alltime great rock tribute to butyl nitrate – also comes across as more of a loud Steely Dan boogie.

Bloom is in unexpectedly strong voice through the propulsive noir art-rock anthem Screams. She’s As Beautiful As a Foot, notwithstanding the gruesome lyrics, comes across as more of an Indian-influenced psych-pop song. Cities on Flame with Rock And Roll draws muted audience response as a leaden riff-rock prototype for Godzilla, which the band slog through later.

The first album’s best song, Workshop of the Telescopes, has a raggedly phantasmagorical glory, even if the band don’t take it as far outside as the original lineup would. From there they reinvent southern rock as goth horror in Redeemed, give Dharma a long launching pad for his signature boogie, and turn in a serviceable version of the big teen-suicide anthem best covered by Bobtown.

They end the show with inspired versions of Tattoo Vampire, an icy 80s-fueled step above generic riff-rock and then a sleek take of the chugging classic Hot Rails to Hell. Wouldn’t it be cool if a hundred years from now, some Blue Oyster Cult cover band decided to play this same set. The people you love can burn your eyes out.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog Use Lockdown Time to Make One of the Year’s Best Albums

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog’s new album What I Did on My Long Vacation – streaming at Bandcamp – is the rare album recorded in isolation during the lockdown that actually sounds like the band are all playing together. But that wasn’t how it was made. Guitarist Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith each took turns laying down their tracks in Ismaily’s studio since for one reason or another they couldn’t pull the trio together at the same time. Testament to their long camaraderie, they got not only this funny, cynical, deliciously textured album out of it; they’ll be releasing a full vinyl record (yessssssss!) with material from these sessions in 2021. They’re playing the album release show at 8 PM on Oct 23 on the roof of St. Ann’s Warehouse, Beatles style, the band playing down to the crowd on the street below.

The first track is We Crashed In Norway, a sketchy, vamping, sardonic quasi-disco theme that harks back to Ribot’s similarly wry Young Philadelphians cover band project. Beer is just plain awesome – the suspiciously snide skronk/punk/funk second number, that is, forget about the (presumably) fizzy stuff that too many of us have been abusing since March 16.

With Ismaily’s loopy bassline and Ribot’s jaggedly spare multitracks, Who Was That Masked Man reminds of  classic Metal Box-era Public Image Ltd. Dog Death Opus 27 is a lot shorter and just as loopy, with a sarcastic turnaround.

The most sarcastically savage track here is Hippies Are Not Nice Anymore, a pretty straight-up punk rock tune tracing the sordid trail of the boomers to the point where “corporate was the theme of the week” – imagine the Dead Kennedys with a careening Velvets jam at the end. To close the album, the trio channel the Dream Syndicate – Ribot playing both the Steve Wynn and Jason Victor roles – in the buzzy, psychedelic, atmospherically careening The Dead Have Come to Stay with Me.

Considering the horrific toll the lockdown has taken on bands all around the world, it’s heartwarming to these these downtown punk-jazz legends still at the top of their game, undeterred.

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.

Creepy, Anthemic, Relevant Metal From Semblant

Murder of Crows, the first track on Brazilian band Semblant’s new album Obscura explodes out of a creepy minor-key intro from keyboardist J. Augusto. Drummer Thor Sikora gets his twin kick pedals going behind the big crescendoing chorus, with layers and layers of digital reverb on the guitars – that’s Sol Perez and Juliano Ribeiro getting into a tantalizingly brief, machinegunning duel. These guys want you to listen to the rest of the record, whether at their youtube channel or elsewhere.

The persistent dichotomy here is between soaring frontwoman Mizuho Lin and Sergio Mazul’s guttural death-metal roar. The songcraft is catchy and anthemic, usually based on upward waves from verse to chorus, as in the rapidfire intensity of Left Behind, a relentless minor-key punk-metal number.

Dethrone the Gods, Control the Masters, Legacy of Blood is much the same: somebody sends a scream into the stratosphere and signals a guitar solo over the classical synth and ominously ascending firestorm. “The number of unconfirmed deaths is unknown…the government declares a state of emergency.” Sound familiar?

Techy, blippy synth introduces the venomous guitars and gritty bass of Mere Shadow, set in an in an increasingly familiar dystopia where “The walls are closed down, separating me from the emptiness unfolding,” as Lin wails.

Likewise, the band explode into the chorus of Porcelain, an ominously lingering anthem in 6/8 time. They shift up the rhythm for The Hunter, the Hunger, angel versus devil, then pick up the pace with Wasteland its menacing, allusively Middle Eastern guitar break. They hit Barely Breathing just as hard, although it could have been a new wave-era hit if you switched out the guitar roar for a synth and left the vocals to Lin.  Remember Ninth House’s crushing cover of Real Life’s Send Me an Angel?

The demon/angel tension reaches a peak in the murderously crescendoing, rapidfire Wallachia. A tortured blues intro foreshadows the album’s best and most dynamic, classically-influenced anthem, Daydream Tragedy, Lin’s avenger vocals finally taking over for good. The album peaks out at the end with Insomnia, a grimly strutting chromatic assault: it looks like the bad guys win this time.