New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: orchestrated rock

Saluting Lavishly Orchestral European Metal Cult Favorites Royal Hunt

Not to flog a dead horse, but more bands should make live albums. Swedish band Royal Hunt made a massive double live one, sarcastically titled Wasted Time, for their 25th anniversary back in 2016 and validated their reputation as road warriors. If epic drama, gothic imagery, and melodic metal with classical flourishes are your thing, crank this beast. It’s one long album – every song seems to be about eight minutes – and it’s streaming at Spotify.

What’s most impressive is how ornate and orchestral this music is: they don’t really strip much of anything down from their lavish studio productions. A rattle from Andreas Passmark’s bass, a few bursts from Andre Andersen’s string synth, a couple of Jonas Larsen minor-key guitar chords, a few baroque spirals…and the band launch into their classical-metal instrumental Martial Arts. Before you know it, they segue into the galloping River of Pain with its flangey twin guitars, surreallistically icy keyboard flourishes and tantalizingly sunbaked blues.

This take of One Minute Left to Live is part grand guignol Mozart, a little Viking chant and a lot of Iron Maiden. Take the distortion off the guitar but leave the wah-wah, get Habo Johansson’s drums to chill and suddenly Army of Slaves becomes a Donna Summer disco-pop hit with a dude (that’s DC Cooper) on the mic.

So far the band haven’t taken a break as they segue into Lies, a surreal mashup of AC/DC, speedmetal and the baroque. They finally do before the album’s title track, a new wave pop song on steroids.

Likewise, there’s an oldschool soul ballad bleeding through the crunch and roar of Heart on a Platter.

The doublebass drum really gets a workout in Flight; but first they kick this Trans-Siberian Orchestra-ish sprint off with a rockabilly shuffle. And just when May You Never Walk Alone seems like it’s going to be a power ballad, the guitars and string synth kick in and take it doublespeed.

The album’s best song, Until the Day, appears toward the end of the show: with its funereal piano, it’s the closest thing to Pink Floyd here. By now, the concert has hit a peak and the band keep it going with the phantasmagorical Half Past Loneliness. The accusatory anthem Message to God makes a good segue from there.

They encore with a comfortable take of the catchy early 80s-style Stranded and close the show in a similar vein with A Life to Die For. Some people will hear this and roll their eyes at this relic from the days when there were big record labels who spared no detail in recording stuff like this…but that’s their loss.

Haunting, Epic Grandeur From the Grimly Mighty Katla

The cover image of Icelandic art-rock band Katla’s new album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness), streaming at Bandcamp, shows a hooded man standing between a huge snowdrift and what could either be a snowed-in bridge, or the skeleton frame of some kind of industrial building. Either way, this haunting song cycle is one of the most darkly gorgeous releases of the year.

To the less familiar, Icelandic folk music has an especially enigmatic, otherworldly quality since some of it veers in and out of traditional western scales. Einar Thorberg Gu∂mundsson’s ominously drifting synthesized orchestration and layers of burning guitars rise and fall over drummer Gu∂mundur Óli Pálmason’s slow, funereal sway. The music here typically follows an arc that has more to do with classical music than any kind of traditional pop verse/chorus pattern. Most of the songs segue into each other. The lyrics are in Icelandic: smartly, the record comes with a lyric sheet.

Gu∂mundsson eventually enters with an angst-fueled intensity over gritty guitar distortion in the opening track, Ást orðum ofar (seemingly a love song), eventually segueing into the slow, enveloping, grim Villuljós (Error Light), a gracefully elegaic, fingerpicked folk riff looping in the distance. The sway grows toward a conflagration as Gu∂mundsson’s guitars pick up and spiral around. There’s a lull for a ticking loop and brooding orchestration, then the music slowly makes its way toward sheer horror in theinstrumental Likfundur a Solheimasandi, a simple funereal drumbeat adrift in the vastness.

Sálarsvefn (Sleep of the Soul) is also a dirge, forlorn belltone guitar over smoldering, anthemic minor-key changes; finally, it hits a gusty peak with the doublebass drum going full tilt in the background. 

A creepy music box-like synth riff kicks off Vergangur, a glacial, disquieting blend of ancient-sounding Icelandic folk themes, peak-era early 80s Iron Maiden, noisy Finnish punk in a Sielun Veljet vein and macabre, droning psychedelia.

Hvítamyrkur (Dark Light) has a somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo. The duo finally pick up the pace with an elegant gallop in Húsavíkur-Jón, gathering force from a serpentine drive toward crushing majesty.

The album’s ttle track is an art-rock masterpiece, a twelve-minute snowstorm epic that rises from a surprisingly delicate, Chopinesque intro through dissociative nubulosity and grimly triumphant turbulence. This trek through the wasteland doesn’t seem to end well.

The moment when the nocturnal pastorale that introduces the fifteen-minute Svartnætti (Dead of Night) comes as a shock. From there they sway through a smoldering pagan folk anthem and variations. Ironically, even with the symphonic coda, it’s the simplest and most straightforward song here. A lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Starkly Haunting, Richly Orchestral Metal From Volur

Volur’s music is stark yet orchestral, relentlessly gloomy yet adrenalizing. They sound like no other band in the world, blending black metal, Nordic folk and psychedelic 70s art-rock. The trio have the starkness of early ELO, the theatrics of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, guy/girl harmonies and grimly mythological lyrics that unwind slowly over terse, purposeful drums and layers of stygian bass. The lead instruments are Lucas Gadke’s bass and Laura C. Bates’ violin, creating a persistently raw, haunting presence no matter how ornate the overdubs grow. They like long songs. Pretty much everything on their killer new album Death Cult – streaming at Bandcamp – is in the eight to twelve minute range.

This is one of those records that’s best experienced as a whole, lying on the floor with a good pair of headphones. The group open hypnotically with Inviolate Grove, rising slowly to a plaintively orchestral sway, hitting a wounded, anthemic riff and then cutting loose with drummer Justin Ruppel’s tricky, math-y rhythm and a thicket of machete picking.

The violin hits a searing peak as the second track, Dead Moon gathers force with a slow, steady, heroic theme, Bates’ avenger-spirit vocals roaring eerily in the depths of the mix. The album’s mightiest epic is the title cut, starting with a menacing tritone and a morose string interlude that could be Bartok. Migthty peaks and muted moments with what sounds like throat-singing by dead monks paired against nimbly melodic bass eventually descend into shrieking disintegration, only to return with a vengeance. The violin solo afterward will rip a hole in your skull.

An artfully arranged baroque chorale, a harrowingly circling action film theme of sorts and scorching wah-wah bass all figure into the closing number, Reverend Queen. We need more bands as fearlessly individualistic and unpredictably interesting as Volur.

Lush, Thoughtful, String-Driven, Vastly Eclectic Tunesmithing From Alice Zawadzki

Singer/multi-instrumentalist Alice Zawadzki writes distinctive, individualistic songs that blend jazz, chamber pop, western classical sounds and occasional Korean influences. Her songs are on the slow side and typically take awhile to unwind. She likes atmospherics, has a mystical side and writes pensive, generally optimistic lyrics. Her lush, dynamically shifting album Within You is a World of Spring hit the web about a year and a half ago and is streaming at Spotify.

It opens with the title track, a blustery Asian flourish from the string section – Simmy Singh snd Laura Senior on violins, Lucy Nolan on viola  and Peggy Nolan on cello – quickly giving way to Zawadzki’s terse, modally vamping piano. It’s the missing link betwen Ghost in the Machine-era Police and Hissing of Summer Lawns-era Joni Mitchell. Rob Luft’s guitar adds enigmatic sear to the mix; bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer Fred Thomas take over the dancing drive from there. In her leaping, energetic soprano, Zawadzki sings this soaring encouragement to leave the dark side behind.

She goes even further up the scale, spare piano over lingering atmospherics in the second track, Gods Children, finally picking up with a spacious guitar solo over a slow, anthemic drive.

“Superior Virtue was my protection, and I could gaze over the abyss all day without falling,” she intones over the drone of the strings and the occasional piano flourish in the third track, Nolan’s viola soaring plaintively over a twinkling, balletesque pulse as the song gathers steam.

Zawadzki sings the bouncy love song Es Verdad expressively in Spanish, Thomas on tenor banjo throughout a surreal mashup of bluegrass and 1970s nueva cancion. The otherworldly melismas of Hyelim Kim’s Korean taegum flute to introduce The Woods, a mystical nighttime spoken-word forest tableau that builds to a twinkling waltz.

Keeper is the most straight-up rock anthem here, with triumphant, gospel-infused harmonies, a resonant guitar solo, dancing bass where least expected over steady Pink Floydian piano chords. Witchy strings come together over a trip-hop beat after an introduction that’s painful at high volume in Twisty Moon, a surreal mashup of soukous and circus rock. Zawadzki closes this fascinating and stunningly original album with O Mi Amore, a balmy ballad infused with spiky banjo accents.

Warmly Drifting, Epically Atmospheric Instrumentals From Numun

Atmospheric instrumentalists Numun comprises members of cinematic, pastoral noir band Suss as well as New York’s most popular Balinese bell orchestra, Gamelan Dharma Swara.  Multi-instrumentalists Joel Mellin and Bob Holmes’ new album Voyage au Soleil – streaming at Bandcamp – is pretty much what you would expect from those influences: vast, slowly hovering tableaux with the occasional Asian tinge.

The opening track, Tranceport rises from slowly shifting atmospherics and the occsional boom of what could be a gong, to a swaying, gorgeously lush acoustic guitar groove spiced with cumbus lute and airy, tremoloing keys. First Steps starts with wry, robotic keys over a trip-hop beat, percolating organ and menacing reverb guitar, then rises to a darker but equally sweeping crescendo.

With its keening, tinkling synth lines and surreal spoken-word vocals half-buried in the mix, Tranquility Base is a hyperactive stab at a nocturne: the slow acoustic guitar-based sway returns, more loopy this time. The alarm motif that kicks off Mission Loss could have been faded down more mercifully for the listener, as a thicket of short pulses and then the warmly predictable acoustic guitar vmp takes over.

Expanse is the one track that begins with guitars and then drifts into an echoey vortex with dubwise bass anchoring starry keys: it’s the album’s most interesting and psychedelic number. The final cut is the title track, which with the cumbus could be an Asian-tinged outtake of an interlude from Pink Floyd’s Animals. Cue this up and set the controls for the heart of the…

Wild, Outside-the-Box Orchestral Reinventions of Steely Dan Favorites

Guitarist Andrew Green can shred with anyone, but he’s also a first-rate, imaginative composer and arranger. About ten years ago, he put out a deliciously shadowy album of original film noir-inspired pieces titled Narrow Margin. His latest record, Dime Dancing – streaming at Bandcamp – is an orchestral take on the Steely Dan catalog, both the hits and some deeper cuts. The charts are as playful and clever as the originals, and frontwoman Miriam Waks brings Donald Fagen’s allusively sinister, druggy lyrics into crystalline focus. Suddenly these songs make a lot of sense! What a treat for fans of the Dan.

They open with the radio staple Black Cow. This balmy neoclassical version picks up with the counterpoint between the oboe’s single-note lines – that’s either Dan Wieloszynski or Kenny Berger –  and the strings of violinist Meg Okura and cellist Jody Redhage. Frontwoman Miriam Waks sings it with a coy cynicism, then Green makes bluegrass out of it with some unexpectedly purist flatpicking.

Curto and Waks give Aja a hazy, languid atmosphere with rhythmic echoes of Steve Reich; is that percussionist Vince Cherico on tabla? And who knew that Any World That I’m Welcome To was such a wish song? Waks brings new depth to Fagen’s alienated hippie protagonist over jaunty, string-whipped salsa-rock, with a wry Spanish-language descarga at the end.

Green and Waks reinvent Reelin’ in the Years at what feels like quarterspeed, with enigmatic harmonies and a strikingly wounded vocal. Drummer Richie Barshay’s opening groove in Dirty Work is LMAO funny and too good to spoil – then the ensemble do the song as surprisingly straight-up, bubbly chamber pop with a spiraling, forro-inspired solo by accordionist Rob Curto..

They ease into Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More, reinventing it as a stark, disquieting, baroque-tinged acoustic waltz: Waks leaves no doubt about what happened to Daddy. The most obscure and least memorable track here, Everything You Did gets a strutting vaudevillian arrangement with muted trumpet. Green and crew wind up the record with a balmy, bittersweet, slowly enveloping take of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Unquestionably one of the most entertaining albums of the year.

A Prophetic, Elegaic Single From Simone White

Why did we wait
All the signs were there
We simply did not care

Simone White recorded her single Letter to the Last Generation, a lush piano-and-omnichord-driven waltz, before the lockdown. It seems to be a global warming cautionary tale, but it fits the darkest side of this era’s zeitgeist, the propagandized and terrorized marching in their muzzles into the jaws of a holocaust.

A Cure For Wellness – More Apropos Than Ever

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate title for any work of art in the year 2020 than A Cure For Wellness. Gore Verbinski’s dark psychological thriller film was actually released in 2016. Benjamin Wallfisch’s orchestral score was also released as a stand-alone album and is streaming at Spotify. It’s a masterpiece of immersive, creepily and artfully arranged neoromanticism, comparable to Saint-Saens or Schubert. This somber theme and variations works just as well as a soundtrack for the year of the lockdown, where a system which was imperfect to begin with was engineered to divide, conquer and murder through a campaign of relentless terror.

The opening theme begins with disturbingly childlike vocalese joined by slow, somberly waltzing, piano and strings, which grow more oppressively creepy in the brief first variation. A circling, macabre, Philip Glass-like interlude and a brief, quasi-Renaissance chorale keening with overtones enhance the mystery.

Feuerwalzer, a twistedly Shostakovian parody of a genial Viennese waltz, is next. As the score moves along, Wallfisch employs bells for extra menacing ambience, brings back the orchestral bluster and then a still, moody suspense. Cynical, pseudo-motorik strings recede for gamelanesque phantasmagoria and then return after a gloomy lull.

Stygian atmospherics, cruelly warped chase scenes and sheer desolation follow in turn, with the waltz theme making a predictably melancholy return. Mirel Wagner and the composer himself end the album with a sarcastically opiated guitar-and-vocal version of I Wanna Be Sedated.

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.

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl.