New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: orchestral rock

An Aptly Restless Album and a Red Hook Gig From Genre-Defying Pianist Gabriel Zucker

Pianist Gabriel Zucker has carved out a distinctive niche as a leader in the New York improvisational music scene. He is an anomaly in that he has a strong neoromantic classical sensibility, and likes to both muddy the water (or clear the skies) with electronics. His songs can be incredibly tuneful one moment and messy the next. His latest album Leftover Beats, was recorded live in the studio on the Fourth of July, 2019 is streaming at Bandcamp and is more of an art-rock record. David Bowie and Radiohead are the most obvious influences.

Zucker’s spare, lingering, wistful phrases quickly dissolve in a chaotic whirlpool as the album’s title track gets underway, guitarist Tal Yahalom’s dissociative phrasing sliding closer to the center as drummer Alex Goldberg drives this babelogue upward to A Day in the Life, more or less.

The group follow a bit of a Radiohead-flavored interlude into the second number, Shallow Times and its snidely loopy late 70s Bowie-esque art-rock drama. Yahalom slips into the skronky Adrian Belew role.

“I used to write so much more than I do, I used to fall in love so much more than I do,” Zucker intones with more than a hint of angst in Songbird, a bittersweet ballad livened with Goldberg’s tumbling drums. It’s the missing link between the Grateful Dead and peak-era mid-zeros Botanica.

The trio veer from a lingering ballad to a cascading art-rock crush in Someone to Watch You, Part 2. Drunken Calypso definitely sounds drunken but not particular Caribbean, each band member squirreling their way toward an emphatic unity, Predictably, Zucker completely flips the script with an attractive take of the Dirty Projectors’ Impregnable Question, a ballad without words. He returns to a mashup of Radiohead, Botanica and jazz poetry to wind up the record with Someone to Watch You, Part 3.

Zucker’s next gig is May 15 at 7 PM at the Red Hook Record Store on Van Brunt just before you hit Pioneer; it’s about a fifteen-minute walk from the front of the downtown F train at Carroll St. Take First Place all the way to Summit, go over the pedestrian bridge, make a u-turn and then follow Summit past the playground triangle and hang a left on Van Brunt.

Lush, Majestic, Angst-Fueled Orchestral Rock Tunesmithing From Dot Allison

Songwriter Dot Allison opens her new album Heart Shaped Scars – streaming at Bandcamp – with the title track, a Britfolk-tinged tale of abandonment, starry fingerpicked guitar and spare piano over increasingly lush strings, her airy voice reaching for the rafters. It sets the stage for the rest of the record. Allison has a thing for ghosts and metaphorically loaded nature imagery. She likes to record a central vocal track and then layer another one way up in the stratosphere: Lisa Hannigan and Susanne Sundfor‘s more lavish, folk-inspired material comes to mind.

“Listen to what this corridor said,” Allison encourages in The Haunted, a metaphorically loaded tale of ghostly presences set to a similar, slightly less symphonically lavish backdrop. Icy raindrop piano flickers above the strummy acoustic guitar of Constellations, a surreal mashup of sweeping chamber pop with tinges of hip-hop, a vibe she reprises with even more imaginative textures later in Cue the Tears.

She reaches for a breathier, more mystical delivery in the circling, mantra-like Can You Hear Nature Sing: “Can you hear through her tears, a myriad of melodies?” Allison asks. The angst hits fever pitch in Ghost Orchid. a stately, anthemic art-rock ballad spiced with some uneasy close harmonies: “We melt into the sun,” is the last line. Allison deserves a lot of credit for resisting the urge to turn this into full-blown High Romantic cliche.

The stark, Appalachian-tinged waltz Forever’s Not Much Time is a subtly venomous broadside that works on many levels: the creepy outro is priceless, and too good to give away. The message of One Love – an original – is not “let’s get together and feel all right,” but the devastating consequences of a garden left to die.

“We’ve got blood on our hands,” is Allison’s opening refrain in Love Died in Our Arms, another stab at orchestral hip-hop. She winds up the album a stark but ultimately optimistic, verdantly string-driven start-over theme, the closest thing to a medieval English ballad here.

Lushly Allusive, Symphonic Eco-Disaster Anthems From These New Puritans

These New Puritans occupy a uniquely uneasy space between ornately symphonic rock and minimalist postrock. Their latest album Inside the Rose – streaming at Soundcloud – is somewhat icier and techier than their previous work. The obvious comparison is Radiohead, but this British band are more darkly lyrical and rely on what can be relentless grey-sky sonics instead of cynical glitchiness.

Infinity Vibraphones is an apt title for the album’s opening track, those rippling textures contrasting with ominous cloudbanks of bassy string synth. Frontman Jack Barnett’s hushed, conspiratorial vocals parse a surreal litany of elements, some radioactive and some not. A“sea of plastic horses” figures into what seems to be a dystopic scenario. His brother George’s dancing drumbeat gets trickier and then smooths out again: a more organic Radiohead with a better singer.

The formula is the same in Anti-Gravity, with spare synth and piano figures in place of the vibes: “Never get up, never give up” is the mantra. “This is a fire we can’t put out…all those wise men say nothing,” the group’s frontman intones in the brooding, tectonically shifting, new wave-tinged Beyond Black Suns. The response, through a robotic effect, is “This isn’t yesterday.”

The album’s title track has an airy intro and a staggered beat; it could be an eco-disaster parable, or simply an allusive portrait of love gone wrong. Brassy ambience rises and subsides in Where the Trees Are on Fire, with a crushingly sarcastic ersatz nursery rhyme of a lyric. Into the Fire has tumbling syncopation and unexpected hip-hop touches: it’s nowhere near as incendiary as the title would imply.

The brief string-and-piano theme Lost Angel contrasts with the loopy synths and icy Terminator soundtrack techiness of A R P: “This is not a dream, this is really happening,” the bandleader cautions .

They wrap up the album with a slow, hypnotic, circling processional theme simply titled Six. This is a good record for a rainy day when you can spend some time with it and explore its deceptive depths.

Titanic Art-Rock and Metal From the Phantom Elite

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Phantom Elite’s new album Titanium – streaming at Spotify– is a pop record with heavy guitars. It’s a mix of metal and loud symphonic rock, awash in contrasting textures and guitar multitracks, horror-film synthesizers and all kinds of elegant classical and artsy 70s rock touches. Frontwoman Marina La Torraca’s powerful vocals look back to blues a lot more than opera or classical music, a welcome change from the sound that female-fronted European heavy rock acts tend to reach for. And where so many heavy bands fixate on apocalyptic horror, this group channel defiance and resistance against the evil around us.

Max van Esch’s creepy, doomy guitar chromatics don’t kick in until the vast sonic cloud clears and the chorus of the first track, Conjure Rains kicks in.

A tricky, math-y guitar synth intro opens The Race, a desperate all-hands-on-deck anthem awash in symphonic layers of guitars and unexpected sharp turns. The noir classical piano intro of Diamonds and Dark hints the band’s going to in a menacing Hannah vs. the Many direction, but instead drummer Joeri Warmerdam hits a machinegunning drive and La Torraca bends upward, optimistic amid the orchestral gloom. It’s a good anthem for the worst time in human history.

The synth solo that opens Worst Part of Me is just plain funny, but the song is not: “Victory is so unreachable,” La Torraca laments as she reaches for a “glass of something” to keep her sane from the troll chorus in this doomed anthem. The band take Glass Crown from an action film theme to a darkly catchy fist-pumping stadium singalong. The epic title track is slower and surprisingly optimistic, with a surreal, spacy, icepicking bridge and an unexpectedly successful, blues-infused detour into late-period Jeff Beck.

With its squiggly synths and four-on-the-floor chorus, Bravado is the closest thing to a big pop ballad here. The symphonic angst reaches a peak in the ominous changes of Silver Lining, van Esch slowing down and turning in his most intense solo here.

They follow the brief, blues-tinted instrumental Haven with Deliverance: “Bury all the demons from the past away from me,”  La Torraca orders, the band slowing down into doomy sludge until the pace picks up again. They close with Eyes Wide Open, which seems like La Torraca taking a stab at autosuggestion, to “scream like no one’s listening.” Except that everyone is listening – and it’s about time.

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis, which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

Looking Back and Forward to Some of the Most Electrifying Large Ensemble Shows in NYC

There are very few eighteen-piece groups in the world, let alone New York,  led by women. Even fewer of those bandleaders are singers. Here in Manhattan we have Brianna Thomas and Marianne Solivan, who have assembled their own big bands to back them from time to time. But they play mostly standards. Sara McDonald, who fronts the NYChillharmonic, writes some of the world’s catchiest yet most unpredictable music for large ensemble. Watching their show at Joe’s Pub back in May was akin to seeing a young Maria Schneider emerge from Gil Evans’ towering influence twenty years ago – not because McDonald’s music sounds anything like Schneider’s, but because it’s so distinctive and irresistibly fun. And the scariest thing of all is that McDonald still growing as a composer.

Over the last couple of years, she’s invented her own genre, and concretized it with equal amounts depth and surprise. The occasional lapse toward the corporate urban pop she may have been immersed in as a child is gone, replaced by a lavish sound with equal parts puckishness and gravitas. Radiohead is the obvious influence, but McDonald switches out icy techiness and relentless cynicism for a far more dynamic range of textures. Keeping a big band together that plays steadily for a month or two and then goes on hiatus as the band members do their own thing is a herculean task, especially as far as tightness is concerned, but this time out she’d whipped them into shape to nail the split-second changes – and there were a lot of them.

A NYChillharmonic show is best experienced as a whole. Ideas leap out, only to be subsumed in a distant supernova of brass, or a starry trail from the strings, or a calming, beachy wash from the reeds. Then that riff, in any number of clever disguises, will pop out later. McDonald works from the same playbook the best classical and film composers use, beginning with a simple singalong hook, embellishing it and then taking it to all sorts of interesting places. McDonald’s are more interesting than most. The lucky crew who got to go there this time out comprised Albert Baliwas, Brian Plautz, David Engelhard, Dean Buck and Eitan Gofman on saxes; trombonists Karl Lyden, Seth Weaver, Nathan Wood and Dillon Garret; trumpeters Rachel Therrien, Michael Sarian, Caleb McMahon and Chris Lucca; pianist Eitan Kenner, bassist Mike DeiCont, guitarist Steven Rogers and drummer Pat Agresta, plus a string quartet of Kiho Yutaka, Audrey Hayes, Jenna Sobolewski and Susan Mandel

Throughout the set, she and the group employed just as many subtle shifts as striking ones. Odd meters would filter to the bottom and then straighten out as the whole ensemble would enter over a pulsing quasi-canon from the brass or moodily loopy electric piano. More dramatically, the orchestra would drop down to just McDonald and the rhythm section, then leap back in at the end of a bar or when a chorus kicked in, such as there are choruses in her music – recurrent themes are everywhere, but never where you expect them.

On the mic, McDonald – who’s also grown immensely as a singer over the last several months – would vary her delivery depending on the song’s content, whether slyly coy, or uneasily insistent, or with one fullscale wail late in the set to illustrate some kind of apocalypse or at least a dramatic end to something good. Lately she’s been lending her voice to the even more enigmatically improvisational rock band Loosie. And she’s also been known to sing with the much crazier, high-voltage Jazzrausch Bigand, who are making their Lincoln Center debut this August 31 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. If you’re going, get there on time because it could get pretty wild.