New York Music Daily

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Tag: new wave rock

Dark Tunesmith Gemma Ray Takes a Detour Into Enigmatic, Minimalist Tableaux

Gemma Ray made a name for herself in the previous decade as a connoisseur of eerily twangy, Lynchian songcraft. On her new album Gemma Ray & the Death Bell Gang – streaming at youtube – she completely flips the script, switching out her signature retro guitar sonics for cold, disquieting keyboard atmospherics. You could call this her Low album. In addition to the guitars, Ray plays keys, joined by Ralf Goldkind on keys and bass, Kristof Hahn on lapsteel and Andy Zammit on drums.

Appropriately enough, the first sound you hear echoes the way AC/DC opened the bestselling album of alltime. From there, the opening track, No Love grows into a hazy, chilly, electronicized take on a stark 19th century gospel sound: Algiers with a woman out front.

Likewise, the second cut, Procession, is a stern minor-key blues awash in nebulous keys, Ray’s eerie, tremoloing guitar tantalizingly hinting at piercing the veil.

She channels early 80s Siouxsie in Be Still, a slowly swaying, distantly lurid, quasi trip-hop tune. Howling also brings to mind Ms. Sioux, but in sleek, keyboard-driven mode from ten years later.

Come Oblivion is a surprisingly successful attempt to blend early 60s soul and pulsing, organ-driven bedroom pop. The instrumental Tempelhof Desert Inn – a reference to the abandoned German airport – begins with wry helicopter sonics, then Ray picks up her big hollowbody Gibson and builds a terse deep-sky tableau.

I Am Not Who I Am is an uneasily hypnotic boogie blues disguised as murky, cinematic trip-hop. The album’s loopiest song is The Point That Tears, a mashup of cheery 60s soul-pop and smoky, synthesized battlefield sonics. The most surreal track is All These Things, a collage of echoey, disjointed phrases around a buzzy synth loop.

“She was born with her dark taste/Let her stray to the cliff face,” Ray muses in the final cut, Blowing Up Rocks, taking her time rising from a skeletal sway to what could be smoky, menacingly orchestrated Portishead. On one hand, another Twin Peaks guitar record from Ray would have been welcome; on the other, her invitation to this strange and opaquely troubled new sound world is well worth your time.


Allusively Sinister Lyrical Brilliance and Slyly Cynical New Wave Tunesmithing on Ward White’s New Album

“Ice cream chords” is a derisive musician’s term for cheesy, predictable changes. In the age of autotune, Microsoft Songsmith and indie rock, ice cream chords have come to reflect a rare level of craft. On his fourteenth album, streaming at Bandcamp, Ward White celebrates those and many more serious changes via various levels of subtly venomous humor, meta, and a classic anthemic sensibility.

At this point in his career, the songwriter who got his start around the turn of the century working the corners of what was then called alt-country has reached rarefied first-ballot hall-of-fame terrain typically reserved for people like David Bowie and Richard Thompson. It is not hype to say that White ranks with both: he can sing like the former if he feels like it, and like the latter can be a force of nature on the fretboard. But ultimately it’s tunesmithing that distinguishes him the most. He’s dabbled with glam, allusively macabre nonlinear art-rock (his Bob album topped the best-of-2013 list here) and new wave. Most recently White has been mining a jangly yet unpredictable three-minute song vein packed with triple entendres, literary references and frequent violence: Elvis Costello meets Warren Zevon out behind the Rat in Boston circa 1983.

This album is a slight change of pace, somewhat more lighthearted and new wave flavored: lyrically, it’s more of a Bond sci-fi weapon than a switchblade. The ravages of time are a recurrent theme. The opening number, Shorter is probably the only chorus-box guitar song ever to reference both 70s one-hit wonders Brewer & Shipley and the Police. Pulsing tightly along with White’s terse guitar and bass textures, Tyler Chester’s keys and Mark Stepro’s drums, it’s a slicker if equally aphoristic take on Tom Warnick’s Gravity Always Wins.

White can’t resist paying a visit to the Mr. Softee truck to kick off the more powerpop-flavored but similarly metaphorical Rumors: the guitar solo joke is too hilarious to spoil. With lingering tremolo guitar, airconditioned organ and a loping beat, DeSoto is not a reference to the proto-conquistador but an old Chrysler brand: violence and madness make their first appearances, quietly if not particularly efficiently.

Mezcal Moth – which has a cruelly funny spy story video on White’s homepage – is a return to skittishly strutting, cynically imagistic new wave with goofy late 60s/early 70s guitar effects. This is what happens when you eat zee bugs!

Spacy keys waft over ominously lingering tremolo guitar and gospel-tinged piano in the album’s title track, a slow, coldly imagistic anthem contemplating the perils of fame and selling out….among other things. The pace and the jokes pick up again with Like a Bridge, although the song also has the cruelest Vietnam War allusion ever committed to vinyl or its digital analogue.

“Ever get the sinking feeling your best years are behind you?” White asks in Born Again, one of his signature, meticulously detailed portraits of a real sicko. “That spattered pattern on the ceiling, that’s how they’re going to find you, you stayed too long.”

Horses is not the Patti Smith song but a subtly bossa-soul flavored original. “This inkblot Camelot is eating on me every day,” White muses and hits his fuzz pedal before continuing with an offhandedly sinister John Perkins-style deep state tale. The band pick up from a goofy Men at Work strut to lush Byrds jangle and back in Prominent Frogman: “You can bend me all the way to ten though my offer stands at nine,” White gnomically advises. There’s screaming subtext here, the question is what.

Signore is a seedy end-of-vacation scenario that wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog, White tossing off some unexpected flamenco phrasing amid the warpy synth, terse piano and wry guitar-sitar lines.

The funniest joke on the album is the guitar riffage that opens 50,000 Watts Ago, but it’s only of many in this subtly caustic middle-finger salute to mockingbird radio. “I didn’t earn this nametag just by doing what I’m told/You’ll never move that Trinitron until the black-and-whites have been sold,” White warns over a distantly ominous midtempo psych-pop backdrop on the album’s final cut. Slouch.

Several of these tracks could easily qualify for best song of 2022, as could this album as a whole. Stick around a couple of weeks for when the year-end lists hit the front page here, a little late, and find out where this lands.

$10 for Percocet in Queens

There’s a strange and interesting rock and rock-adjacent triplebill coming up on Dec 1 at Bar Freda in Ridgewood, where the segues are kind of weird, but the acts on the bill are flying under the radar and are definitely worth checking out for a $10 cover. At 8 PM, there’s First Crush, with their fetching guy/girl harmonies and newschool front-porch folk vibe. At 9 the very eclectic, sometimes noisy, sometimes icily 80s-influenced Percocet follow on the bill, with minimalist shoegazers To the Wedding headlining.

Percocet are the most intriguing act of the evening, and infinitely more lively than their name implies. Their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – is slyly titled Enjoy. An eerie, ugly, pool of sound introduces the first song, A Body, then guitarist Digo Best shifts between cyclotron swirl and lingering jangle.

The drums hit a somber Atrocity Exhibition tumble groove in the second song, I’m Leaving: it’s like the slow version of Joy Division’s Transmission with a woman out front and denser, more distorted guitars. Track three, Coded (as in, dead?) is a beefier take on watery, opaquely drifting Cocteau Twins sonics, right down to frontwoman/bassist Jennica Best’s disembodied vocals.

The final cut is October, a lilting clave tune with hypnotically circling, lingering chorus-box guitar. These guys (and woman) have a good sense of humor and deserve to be better known.

In Memoriam: Keith Levene

Keith Levene, one of the most distinctively brilliant guitarists of the punk era, died a week ago in his native England, as reported in Mark Crispin Miller’s weekly necrology. He was 65. Levene had battled cancer for the past two years; it is unknown if the lethal Covid injection hastened his demise.

A founding member of the Clash and then Public Image Ltd, Levene’s sound encompassed an otherworldly, icy menace. Arguably no other rock guitarist has used overtones to such a powerful effect as Levene did, playing though a chilly wash of reverb. Reviewing Levene’s 2012 album Yin & Yang, which reunited him with ex-PiL bassist Jah Wobble, this blog characterized him as “The rare guitar god who relies more on space than speed, minute timbral shifts more than rapidfire riffage. And yet, his sonic assault remains one of the most brutal in any style of music.”

Levene is widely credited with pioneering the nails-down-the-blackboard skronk popularized by Gang of Four and the innumerable “no wave” bands of the late 70s and early 80s. However, he is better remembered for his lingering, harmonically bristling attack, playing jagged broken chords against a resonanting open string as well as utilizing unorthodox voicings to draw on the guitar’s overtone system.

Levene was an original member of legendary/obscure punk pioneers the Flowers of Romance, with Sid Vicious on drums. As the original rhythm guitarist in the Clash, he recruited Joe Strummer to be the group’s frontman but left before they recorded. Only one of his songs, What’s My Name, appears on the Clash’s first record..

Moving on to PiL, Levene began to define his chilly chorus-box sound on the group’s far slicker, powerpop-inspired debut album, First Issue. Their second album, originally titled Metal Box, was where Levene crystallized the style for which he is best remembered. His approach turned more spare and skeletal on the group’s third studio release, The Flowers of Romance. Levene left the band in 1983 after a reputed rift with frontman John Lydon over song credits and rumors of heavy drug use.

Before his two albums with Jah Wobble, Levene’s creative output had been erratic; he also worked with members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Condolences to all those who knew this individualistic and paradigm-shifting artist.

Elk City Bring a Starry, Swirling, Spacerock-Flavored New Album to a Williamsburg Gig

It’s hard to believe that Elk City have been playing catchy, anthemic, smartly crafted 80s-inflected rock for over 23 years now. After a hiatus, they reemerged in the late teens with a somewhat more psychedelic pop sound than the grittier, shadowy style they first mined in the late 90s. Their latest album Above the Water is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing Union Pool at 8 PM on Nov 18, with jagged-edged, Wire-ish postpunks Savak following on the bill. Cover is $16 if you round it up from the advertised nickel-and-dime cover (like a lot of Brooklyn rock joints, the venue has become infatuated with the online ticketing fad).

The album’s first track, That Someone harks back to the 80s: imagine Gang of Four with a woman out front, a slinkier rhythm section and a little dreampop sheen. The chiming guitars of Chris Robertson and Sean Eden circle each other over Richard Baluyut’s graceful, rising bass and Ray Ketchem’s drums in the second track, Someone’s Party. Imagine Changing Modes covering Vampire Weekend – a stretch, but try it.

Frontwoman Renese LoBue reaches for the top of her register in Apology Song, an increasingly driving minor-key backbeat hit that wouldn’t be out of place on an early 90s album by the Church. The two-guitar attack grows from a deliciously bittersweet Fairports-meets-the-Church jangle to a sun-streaked Eden slide solo in Your Time Doesn’t Exist: it’s the album’s most memorable song.

Likewise, the band build A Family from a pensively strummed acoustic tableau to an eerie psychedelic gleam. Then they put a teens update on shamanic mid-70s Patti Smith with Don’t You Wanna Try. To close the record, they slowly emerge from a Grateful Dead-like cloud to lingering, elegant new wave and finally a snarl in Floating Above the Water.

Three Powerful Women From Heavy Rock Join Forces in a Surprisingly Subtle, Poignant Project

One of the strangest and most distantly haunting albums of the year is the debut album by the Erinyes. Not to be confused with the punkish Berlin trio, this is a new group. Their debut album – streaming at Spotify – is a concept record of songs that look at pain from a distance. You could call this the heavy record the Motels never made.

Three strong, individualistic frontwomen from the world of heavy rock – Justine Daaé, from French death metal-lite band Elyose; Mizuho Lin of Brazilian group Semblant, and Italian band Kalidia‘s Nicoletta Rosellini – blend and contrast their voices in a collection that transcends stadium rock.

The central theme is angst, more or less: a love rivalry is involved, although it’s hardly over-the-top. While all the singers have versatile chops, their voices are distinctive. Daaé brings the fullscale plaintiveness, Lin edges toward grit and Rosellini is the big belter.

The three women join in a brief, icy chorale in the brief opening theme, Life Needs Love, rising to full-blown High Romantic angst. The second track is Drown the Flame. Keyboardist Antonio Agate’s brooding, purposeful suspense film orchestration anchors the music in reality as guitarist Aldo Lonobile goes tapping up into the stratosphere over Andrea Buratto’s methodical bass and Michele Sanna’s drums. Daaé sings what’s basically a catchy early 80s minor-key new wave pop hit in heavy disguise.

Lin, who has a grittier delivery, sings On My Way to Love, a stormy, hauntingly allusive ballad with a momentary operatic break from the women. Rosellini takes over lead vocals in Betrayed, a similarly bittersweet, enigmatic, early 80s-flavored number, Lonobile adding ornate bagpipe-like riffage.

Guitar crunch contrasts with swirly organ and blustery synth as the women blend voices in Death By a Broken Heart, the energy climbing toward fullscale angst but never quite getting there.

Where Do We Go is a gorgeous vintage 70s soul ballad subsumed in the flames of a sunset going down on a churning ocean. The band go back to four-on-the-floor new wave era anthem territory with It’s Time, then the intensity rises again in Someday, the album’s most darkly turbulent number.

They could have left the hip-hop influences out of My Kiss Goodbye and it would have been a lot stronger as a stomping power ballad. The group shift between dissociative, trickily rhythmic verse and big hooky chorus in Paradise and follow with Take Me, an unlikely successful blend of Asbury Park piano rock and moody European stadium bombast.

They close with the album’s most towering, majestic, art-rock oriented cut, You And Me Against the World, which despite all the heroic overtones seems like a pyrrhic victory. May these chthonic deities stick together and put out another record as good as this one.

Whimz Put an Update on Hazy, Catchy, Drifting Late 80s and 90s Sounds

Whimz is the side project of Sunny Faris from Blackwater Holylight and Cam Spies of Night Heron. Spies seems to be a bigger part of the picture than Faris, who typically gravitates toward heavier and darker psychedelic sounds. Both sing and share guitar, bass, keys and drums duties. They file their new short album PM226 – streaming at Bandcamp – under “sludge pop.” It’s actually a surprisingly lighthearted, catchy record.

The first track is AM1, a slow, catchy, hazy dreampop theme set to a 90s trip-hop beat. AM2 is slower, slinkier and more mysterious, a mashup of 80s Clan of Xymox and dark orchestral Portishead.

The album’s centerpiece is the instrumental I Wanna, a warpy take on ethereally catchy Big Thief minimalism fueled by insistent raga guitar riffage. They build a more minimal, gritty take on late 80s Lush and Cocteau Twins in the album’s most epic number, titled PM1. The album has both a full-length and a single version of the closing cut, PM2, a morose but upbeat bedroom pop backbeat number with contrastingly icy textures.

Fans of the Dark Stray Far Enough From the Expected to Disturb You

The reason why caricatures aren’t frightening is that they’re too obvious. Other than extreme cases like Hitler and Klaus Schwab, genuinely evil people tend to be as multi-dimensional as everyone else. What we perceive as most troubling is when something is just a little off.

Fans of the Dark play crunchy pop music with loud guitars and macabre themes. Powerpop as invented by Americans and Brits doesn’t sound anything like this, and the metal edge doesn’t fit the mold. That’s why the Swedish band’s new album Suburbia – streaming at Spotify – is today’s installment in the ongoing, monthlong Halloween celebration here. To their credit, they’ve taken a bunch of well-worn ideas and twisted them into a strange and original sound that shouldn’t work at all, but somehow they make it happen.

The first track, Night of the Living Dead, actually doesn’t reference the movie. Switch out Oscar Bromvall’s distorted guitars and the crazed volleys of tapping for synths, and you’d have Blondie or Donna Summer. And it’s not a stupid song: frontman Alex Falk channels smalltown alienation as metaphor for something more sinister.

The second track, The Pirates of Maine is even weirder despite its catchiness. Drummer Freddie Allen and bassist Rickard Gramfors shift imperceptibly from a muted slink to a harder drive in what seems to be a shot at a doomed seafaring anthem that has absolutely nothing to to with the time-honored Maine maritime song tradition.

From there they move to a surreal mashup of brisk new wave pop, soccer stadium stomp and a little spacerock in Fantasia. Sick! Sick Sick! is a linguistic joke: the number of the beast in this song is just about up, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that until the lively, bagpipe-ish twin guitars back away and then the band hit a relentless viking gallop. Fright Night also does not reference a film (the cheesy 80s flick actually had a memorable Brad Fiedel soundtrack). But it does quote from a certain iconic Iron Maiden tune, if only lyrically.

In yet another strange stroke of fate, the band’s theme song is a breakup anthem, with a punk rock strut beneath the big heavy riffs. The band charge through the wide-angle chords of The Goblin King and wind up the album with Restless Soul, the album’s second big epic, which seems to be a medieval murder mystery. Diehard metal fans may well dismiss this as lightweight; likewise, some pop people won’t be able to handle the volume. Their loss.

A Solid Bargain Basement Rock Twinbill on the Lower East Tomorrow Night

Watching this city struggling to emerge from two years of a fascist lockdown and restrictions that devastated the arts and drove a substantial percentage of the population out of town has been eye-opening, to say the least. But there have been some positive developments lately. For one, we’re seeing a slow emergence of bands who were clearly good enough to be playing any dive in town in 2019, and weren’t – but they are now. Fault of venues who placed social media presence ahead of quality, most likely. Two of those bands – the eclectically catchy, occasionally 80s-tinged Sugar Pond and Stonesy jamband Hometown Unknown will be at the Delancey tomorrow night, Oct 8 at 7 PM; cover is $10.

It’s not an ideal segue, but both groups are worth checking out. Sugar Pond’s latest album, It Came From Sugar Pond, is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. The first track, Missing the Point is an interesting take on a gritty late 90s Versus sound with a little 80s goth and a classic disco bassline from Andrew Megos. Frontman Nick Bernstein and his bandmate Jackson Cadenhead share guitar and drums duty on the record.

Track two, Mountain is a swirlier dreampop take on Tears for Fears. Artichoke is part catchy early 80s powerpop strut and part mid-80s Cure: “White room with a two-inch display, nothing there but nothing done today,” Bernstein reveals.

Die Wheel is a cheeky, very successful take on mid-60s Bacharach bossa pop with twinkling psychedelic touches. The last song is Let Me Squeem (Please Allow), a goofy folk-pop number.

The four guys in Hometown Unknown are first-class musicians. They love to jam; they love to emulate both the Stones and the Grateful Dead. They open their debut album – streaming at their music page – with a Stonesy rocker and then a beefed-up psychedelic funk tune with a sizzling guitar solo. Lester’s Lament, the third track, is a solid, tuneful take on Sticky Fingers-era Stones: it’s a bet the band play it tighter onstage than in this skittish home-studio recording.

Heavy Dreamer wouldn’t be out of place in the Blackberry Smoke tunebook, with a long jam at the end. The final song is a go-go soul shuffle.

The band also have a decent collection of Dead covers available as a free download. Here they’re shooting for what seems to be a peak-era mid-80s Dead vibe, as you can tell from the choice of songs. There’s a low-key, soul-tinged Althea, a Stones-ified Alabama Getaway, a thoughtfully vintage soul-style reinvention of Eyes of the World and a haphazard attempt at doing Going Down the Road Feeling Bad as a honkytonk tune.

The Juliett Class Bring Their Dark Roar to Bushwick Next Week

When’s the last there was a great, loud rock triplebill in New York that wasn’t all metal bands? One of the best lineups of the year is happening this Oct 6 at Our Wicked Lady with three groups that mix up psychedelic punk and new wave-era sounds. The centerpiece of the bill is the Electric Mess, New York’s answer to Radio Birdman. Movie Movie, who include members of that band as well as Twin Guns axeman Andrea Sicco open the night at 8. Darkly catchy, purposeful all-female power trio the Juliett Class headline at 10. The club seems oblivious to #cashalways and for the moment is onboard with the goofy online ticketing fad, which means that the cool kids with cash will most likely have to fork over $14 at the door. It’s hard to imagine a door person fumbling around with nickels and dimes in the dark.

The Juliett Class’ debut album is just out and up at Bandcamp. The first song, Shut Off is like an early version of Joy Division doing Transmission, but with a woman out front – right down to frontwoman Niabi Aquena’s wounded, angst-fueled vocals over Joan Sullivan’s incisive bass. Drummer Heather Wagner adds some theremin textures for extra swirl

They slow down for Highway Girl, a burning, swaying tune where Aquena multitracks her vocals for a haunting counterpoint. Ohio is an original, not the Neil Young protest song, the trio picking up from a slow simmer to a stomp. They wind up the album with Next Week, their Dead Souls: “I am trying to make it through next week,” is Aquena’s mantra. Simple, effective, dark and catchy and one of the best short albums of the year.