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A Rare Glimpse of New Artists Coming Out of Iran

One of the more intriguing playlists that ended up on the hard drive here last year was the Homanity compilation of recent music by Iranian artists, streaming at Spotify. The segues are weird, but that’s to be expected considering the diversity of styles on it.

It’s on the quiet side, more influenced by traditional Iranian folk, European pop and art-rock sounds than the inimitably funky psychedelia that was all the rage there before the 1979 counterrevolution. The fourteen artists on the record sing in Farsi. A promised cheat sheet for Farsi-deprived English speakers never materialized, but, many stranger things have happened over the past twenty-one hellish months. At this point, it’s a miracle that artists outside the free world continue to release any music at all.

The first track is crooner Sattar’s Farghi Nemikoneh, a lilting midtempo minor-key folk-rock tune with a delicately melismatic string section and a nimbly picked interweave of acoustic and electric guitars. Chanteuse Nikita goes for understated Eurovision drama in the second track, Yadam Nemire, which could be the Gipsy Kings with a woman out front.

TarantisT contribute Soldiering, a steadily marching, surreal mashup of death metal, hip-hop and 80s goth. Singer Shery M channels muted angst and full-on longing over neoromantic piano and spare rock guitar in Havaye Khooneh.

The best-known band here, Kiosk are represented by Parviz, an uncharacteristically low-key, twinkling Iranian approximation of late 60s Velvet Underground. There’s more moody, chanteusey trip-hop with Shab, by Shaya and Soltan, by Justina.

Bardia Taghipour builds his warily rising and falling ballad, Baba, around a familiar art-rock descending riff. Hero & Frya‘s In Manam harks back to 70s American acid rock. The lone hip-hop track here is Raay Bee Raay, by Behrouz Ghaemi.

Arash Rahbary features in two stark, spare poetic epics: Khoon Bood, with activist and dissenter Fatemeh Ekhtesari, and Gorbeh, with Mehdi Moousavi.

Pensive, Drifting, Broodingly Hypnotic Acoustic Tunesmithing From Natalie Jane Hill

A cynic would say we’ve heard this a million times: girl with acoustic guitar singing sad songs of loneliness and abandonment. Add to that a pervasive Joni Mitchell influence, and you get hundreds of thousands of acts who go back forty years and more. That being said, songwriter Natalie Jane Hill manages to use that tradition as a stepping-off point without sounding obvious, which is more of an achievement than it might seem. She has a keen eye for detail, leaves some of her best punchlines unsaid, likes open tunings and has nimble fingers on the acoustic guitar. Her latest vinyl album Solely is streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the record, Hill’s vocals are more contained and less jazz-influenced than Mitchell’s. In the sarcastically titled opening track, Euphoria, Hill’s narrator is driving just to get away from it all, “Avoiding the street home till the low fuel light glows.” Consider: she’s got such a troubled mind that she’s not even paying attention to the gas gauge. Musically, the songh sets the stage for the rest of the record, just Hill’s brisk, clustering fingerpicking lowlit by stark violin, pedal steel and glockenspiel in places.

The central image in Little Teeth is how Hill envisions flower buds floating on the breeze, with glockenspiel tinkling delicately in the background. She works a familiar, circling open-tuned riff in the bucolic guitar-and-violin tune If I Were a Willow. Hill follows a stark, Britfolk-tinged minor-key theme in Plants and Flowers That Do Not Grow Here, subtly colored with steel, violin and what could either be a wood flute or a mellotron patch.

As a portrait of predawn solitude, To Feel Alone is even more spaciously drifting. Despite the calm, hypnotic backdrop, there’s unexpected venom in the album’s title track: as she tells it, breakup boyfriend is a fool’s errand.

Hill creates a similar dichotomy in the even more cynical Pretty View. The steel guitar sighs and swoops throughout Orb Weaver: spiders have seldom been portrayed so sympathetically. There’s more nocturnal gleam and glisten in the warmly enveloping empowerment anthem Listen to Me Tomorrow: “The older you get, these words are left unsaid,” Hill cautions. She winds up the album with Better Now, a mea culpa of sorts from a chronic depressive who’s self-aware enough to recognize how secondary trauma works. It’s an apt way to wind up an album that grimly evokes the emotional toll of these past twenty months.

Van Morrison Puts Out a Witheringly Funny, Politically Spot-On Magnum Opus

At 75, Van Morrison has made the longest and best album of a hall-of-fame career. He’s never written more acerbically, he’s never had a better band behind him and his voice is undiminished. Over the course of the 28 tracks on his Latest Record Project No. 1 – streaming at Spotify – the godfather of Celtic soul never loses his sense of humor despite tackling some serious-as-death topics. Case in point: Breaking the Spell, one of the album’s most upbeat tracks. “I’ll be staying in the country til the military dream’s in flames…they’re ringing the bell, but I’m not so obedient,” Morrison relates, full of cheer and determination. And he wants the girl to go up and pay him a visit. It’s a thinly veiled protest song that you can dance to.

Several of the other songs here are much less thinly veiled, or not at all, but you can dance to many of those too. Morrison has timed this perfectly to capitalize on the never-ending 60s soul revival, and nobody does it better. The songs are relentlessly catchy, slyly aphoristic, and disarmingly straightforward without being preachy. The oldschool 70s-style production is period-perfect, with low-key, tasteful organ and piano, occasional horns or sha-la-las from the backup singers, plus congas along with the usual rock rhythm section. Morrison also distinguishes himself with his bright, purposeful alto sax work. If Joe Strummer had been a soul singer, he would have made this record. You could call this magnum opus Morrison’s Sandinista.

In the first song on the second disc, the briskly pulsing Double Agent, Morrison calls out his fellow celebs for their cowardice in failing to stand up to plandemic totalitarianism. “Some drink the koolaid, some did the right thing, but some moved on over to the dark side,” Morrison accuses. Over the jangly one-chord roadhouse vamp of Where Have All the Rebels Gone, Morrison ponders, “Why don’t they come out of the woodwork now? One for the money, two for the show, it’s not very rock n roll.”

The album’s funniest track is Why Are You on Facebook? Over the band’s Highway 61 jangle, Morrison taunts the social media-obsessed:

Why do you need secondhand friends?
Why do you care what is trending
Or is it something that you’re defending?
You kiss the girls and run away
Then you won’t come out to play

Morrison goes after cancel culture in The Long Con, a shuffle blues. He pokes cynical fun at the record industry in the album’s blithely swinging title track, and has a good laugh at the expense of the 90s therapy meme and those that followed in the otherwise amiably swaying anthem Psychoanalysts’ Ball: “Can we say that you’re clinically insane?”

Mass formation and brainwashing by the corporate media are persistent themes here. “Stop listening to the mainstream media.” Morrison warns in the lush, gorgeous Blue Funk: it’s Morrison’s The Thrill Is Gone.

The best song on the album is Double Bind, a slow, slinky minor-key tune fueled by organ and Rhodes electric piano:

It’s always the opposite of what they say
…Trying to police everyone’s mind
You have to be careful of everything you say
But it’s all by design
That’s why we have to break the double bind

Duper’s Delight, a pulsing midtempo ballad, could be about a femme fatale, or lying lockdowners: “You don’t notice when they’re trying to confine you, you don’t notice when they doublecross.” The backstory gets even more sinister in He’s Not the Kingpin: “He’s just the fall guy – follow the money, follow the story, ” Morrison explains

He’s assembled a first-class, semi-rotating cast of musicians behind him. Richard Dunn excels on gospel-infused organ and blues piano. Dave Keary adds banjo along with layers of guitar in the upbeat but ominously aphoristic Up County Down, and later in the scrambling mid-60s Dylanesque Western Man, an eloquent look at the price of liberty being eternal vigilance (and the consequences of failing to do so.) And his chord-chopping guitar intro to the triumphant My Time After Awhile – where Morrison observes that “99 out of a hundred people just can’t be wrong” – is one of the album’s high points.

Throughout the record, Morrison is at the peak of his game as a lyricist. The minor key blues A Few Bars Early is a prime example:

I was in jukebox alley when I went to make my move
Couldn’t see very clearly but then I snapped back in the groove
I was a few bars early when I had my very last drink
And you said play that song Later Than You Think

The ending, where everything comes crashing down, is spot-on.

Morrison has fun with amateurs out on a Deadbeat Saturday Night, where “It’s more pricks than kicks, the hicks from the sticks don’t know what makes them tick.” And he wraps up the album with a wise, knowing, vintage Allen Toussaint-style New Orleans soul hit, Jealousy, beefed up with a balmy Muscle Shoals arrangement. It could be a simple dis at wannabes, or it could have more global ramifications. Either way, Morrison wants everybody to know that “I’m not a slave to the system like you.” Although there’s nothing here as corrosive as his late-2020 singles, like No More Lockdown, this is the best rock, or soul, or blues album of 2021.

Daniel Romano Channels a Vintage Stones Vibe

Daniel Romano’s Outfit’s latest album Cobra Poems – streaming at Bandcamp – has a lot of psychedelic flavors. In Romano’s more imaginative moments, this is one of the catchiest, most entertaining psychedelic rock records of the year. Other times it’s derivative practically to the point of parody. To his credit, Romano really, really knows his Rolling Stones, down to the horn breaks and most minute percussion effects.

The opening tune, Tragic Head comes across as the Grateful Dead doing a catchy soul song with more Stonesy guitars: the tumbling drums are a tasty touch. Even in the Loom of a Caress shifts between Allah-Las clang, Stones growl and mellotron-waft 60s sunshine psych-pop.

Nocturne Child is a Honkytonk Women-style Glimmer Twins ripoff, right down to the sax solo on the outro. Romano tunes his guitar to open G again for Lonely Trumpeteer: he can copy Keith Richards like few others. Likewise, The Motions is awfully close to Wild Horses with a woman out front.

With its noir soul tinges and biting minor-key guitar riffage, Animals Above Our Town is the album’s strongest track. Tears Through a Sunrise is also ridiculously catchy…and with its jangly, bittersweet changes, is far less melancholy than you would expect.

Baby If We Stick It Out is Romano’s Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, more or less. Still Dreaming is the missing link between Loving Cup and Torn and Frayed (Stones fans will get that reference). It segues into the bizarrely loopy closing number, Camera Varda.

On one hand, much of this is as original as a Chinatown Rolex. On the other hand, if Romano gets some of the post-millennials listening to the source material – or even better, taking as much creative inspiration from it as he does – that’s validation.

Catchy Dystopic Psychedelia and Powerpop From the Speed of Sound

“We were offered Star Trek, but they fed us Soylent Green,” guitarist Ann-Marie Crowley sings to open Tomorrow’s World, the first track on the Speed of Sound‘s new vinyl album The Museum Of Tomorrow, streaming at Big Stir Records:

There is no escape from the all-seeing eye
It records every word we mistype
This is not our future dream anymore
This is a futurescape to endure

As a whole, this is a characteristically cynical, dystopic, colorfully lyrical mix of jangly psychedelic pop tunes. Contemporaries of catchy neo-psychedelic bands like the Jigsaw Seen and Speed the Plough, the Manchester group been around since the late 80s. Frontman John Armstrong’s deadpan sense of humor and shiny melodies often conceal a much more troubled and insightful worldview. Lots of levels at work here: this is definitely a record for our time.

The second track is Opium Eyes, a late 60s style flange-rock anthem and antidepressant cautionary tale that bursts in and is gone in a minute forty five. Likewise, the cheery la-la’s in Smokescreen serve as exactly that, bassist Kevin Roache and drummer John Broadhurst supplying the deceptively lithe pulse.

The music darkens to match the narrative in Zombie Century, an appropriately marching portrait of a rudderless world on the express track to destruction, where the heretics who could save us are pushed out of the picture.

Henry Armstrong’s keyboards blend with the lush vocal harmonies and resonant guitars to lowlight the clueless neverland of Virtual Reality (Pt. 2). The band break out the twelve-string guitars and then the blippy spacerock keys for the gorgeously chiming, dissociatively wary Shadow Factory, John Armstrong twisting through a slithery solo.

Impossible Past wouldn’t be out of place in the Dada Paradox catalog, a knowing chronicle of revisionist history:

The golden time was never so sunny
Bleakly like a taste of honey
Duck-and-cover A-bomb drills
Among dark satanic mills

Set to a vampy retro 60s go-go tune, Leaf Blower is a metaphor for any kind of machine that blows hot air. Blood Sweat and Tears is not a shout-out to horrible 60s hitmakers but a scrambling workingman’s lament, stuck on a treadmill in a race to the bottom. Charlotte – a Jane Eyre-inspired anthem – has coy echoes of another veteran, jangly British band’s song by almost the same name.

The band reach their most epic sweep in the global warming apocalypse anthem The Day the Earth Caught Fire.  With the album’s final cut, Last Orders – a pouncing, late 60s Kinks-ish last-call scenario – this story doesn’t end optimistically. If smart lyricism and bright tunesmithing in a New Pornographers vein is your thing, this is your jam.

Fist-Pumping Retro 80s Stadium Sounds From Secret Sphere

Secret Sphere occupy a space more familiar to Europeans than Americans: the intersection where Blue Oyster Cult crashes head-on into Metallica and then sideswipes Abba. Their new album Lifeblood is streaming at Spotify.

They open with Shaping Reality, a creepy, neoromantic orchestral theme that reaches action movie levels and morphs into the album’s scrambling, blustery title track. Keep in mind that this an Italian band writing songs in English. “What is life without emotion, how can we deny what a mask can hide?” frontman Roberto Messina wants to know. Good question for 2021! Guitarist Aldo Lonobile and and keyboardist Gabriele Ciaccia run the rapids, drummer Marco Lazzarini fueling the stampede out.

There’s nothing particularly deadly, nor any real sense of finality, in The End of an Ego. Ciaccia’s spare, glittering piano and blustery string synth follow Lonobile’s flangey guitars to build a late 70s BOC feel in Life Survivors…ok, they’re not Death Survivors.

Logically speaking, the next song on the album is Alive, Lazzarini and bassist Andrea Buratto leading the rampaging, lickety-split attack, up to furious cascades of synth and guitar: at that velocity, it’s hard to tell who’s playing what.

The band move steadily through dissociative, tricky rhythms to a catchy four-on-the-floor stadium stomp in Against All the Odds: with the chorusbox guitar backdrop, it’s very 80s. As is Thank You, but in a neanderthal Eye of the Tiger vein. It’s not clear who’s on the receiving end of Messina’s gratitude.

There’s a jagged early 80s new wave hit peeking out from underneath the bombast in The Violent Ones: stormy as this music is, it’s clear that violence is not this band’s thing. 80s Ozzy meets ELO at escape velocity in Solitary Fight. After that, there’s no place to go but Skywards, a hazy, summery psych-folk ballad: Avi Fox-Rosen would have a field day with it.

Ciaccia saves his most plaintively rippling piano work for album’s shapeshifting final cut, The Lie We Love, Barclay James Harvest with loud guitars.

I, Robot? Not Alan Parsons!

It’s the last night of the tour, in a midsize sit-down theatre somewhere in Holland. The bandleader is the lone holdover from the original group, and he’s neither the lead instrumentalist nor their regular frontman.

Throughout a demanding set long enough to fill two cds, the band careen through an impressively diverse mix of Pink Floyd-influenced art-rock, expansively elegant ballads and singalong anthems which the audience seem to know well. That’s no surprise, considering that many of these songs received incessant radio airplay back in the day when that was the key driver of album sales.

While many of the arrangements are new, and fresh, to match the cast onstage, the band are roadweary. Some numbers, particularly the most dystopic ones, feature a sequencer, which ends up backfiring. The longer the song goes on, the further the players drift apart, to the point where everybody’s in his own individual time zone. How ironic, and amusing, that an Alan Parsons band – harshly critiqued for a cold, digital, studio-clean esthetic – could sound so haphazard onstage

The crowning irony is that this is nothing new. The original Alan Parsons Project that finally began touring in the 90s was a beast of a live band, and took all kinds of chances, and this particular group share that fearlessness if not the same sizzle and majesty. A third irony is that while the group’s 1995 Live album also fails to capture the band’s intrepid improvisational side, this one – The Never Ending Show: Live in the Netherlands, streaming at Spotify – does, even if it’s pretty untight in places. Seriously: if you’re a fan of the band, wouldn’t you want to hear them fly completely without a net? Isn’t that what live music is all about?

Tellingly, it takes two guitarists – Jeff Kollman and Dan Tracey – to compensate for the absence of Ian Bairnson, one of the most underrated and versatile shredders of the art-rock era. The clockwork rhythm section of bassist David Paton and drummer Stuart Elliott is long gone, but new drummer Danny Thompson can really swing, and has a flair for the unexpected, which is great. He also speeds up and slows down, not always matched by bassist Guy Erez, who may not be able to hear him in the monitors.

The original band relied on a rotating cast of singers until keyboardist Eric Woolfson – whose Edgar Allan Poe song cycle improbably springboarded a long run of concept albums – more or less took over as lead singer. Here, P.J. Olsson and Parsons himself are flinty and weathered; Jordan Asher Huffman is an upgrade on the songs originally assigned to raspier vocalists.

This is not the place to discover the Parsons catalog. Newcomers should start with their arguably most symphonic and ambitious record, 1981’s Turn of a Friendly Card and work forward through Eye in the Sky and the erratic Ammonia Avenue, the two successive chapters in Woolfson’s gloomy existentialist triptych. But for longtime fans, there’s a lot to like here, and the unevenness is more endearing than exasperating. I, Robot? Not Alan Parsons!

Don’t Answer Me – the crushingly cynical, Lynchian pop ballad where Parsons managed to one-up Phil Spector – is more stripped-down here, and not as emotionally searing as earlier versions of the band would play it. Likewise, Tom Brooks’ Procol Harum organ on Old and Wise and Don’t Let It Show is tantalizingly lurid…and fleeting.

But his playful jazz piano break on Primetime is plenty outside-the-box. And the vocals on the powerpop hit Breakdown – which segues into a moodily restrained version of The Raven – are a vast improvement. Us and Them Time drifts calmly toward a distant doom, without Bairnson’s loud slide guitar. The instrumental Luciferama is a mashup of Lucifer and Mammagamma, more psychedelic funk than motorik theme, guitars front and center.

Surprisingly, the art-funk hits are where the gremlins rear their heads. There are also four more recent songs. Three are quite good on face value: one sounds a lot like Matt Keating, another is a bluegrass-inflected folk-pop ballad, both of them somberly contemplating posterity. The vaudevillian-tinged title track is part late 60s Kinks, part Moody Blues. The song that kicks off the album sounds suspiciously satirical: check the title. Parsons seems to be the last person who wants to see the world under silicon-fisted technocratic rule.

Two Finnish Femmes Fatales Join Voices in Big Anthems with Loud Guitars

Finland is free again! So the time has come to celebrate a Finnish metal siren summit. On their new album The Reckoning- streaming at SpotifySmackbound lead singer Netta Laurenne joins forces with Battle Beast frontwoman Noora Louhimo. The two complement each other: if anything, Louhimo gets Laurenne to air out her gritty lower register, while Laurenne pushes her bandmate further toward operatics. It’s not a stretch for either singer, but it’s fun to hear the role reversal.

The band – Samy Elbanna on lead guitar, Nino Laurenne on rhythm guitar, Pasi Heikkilä on bass, Vili Itäpelto on keys and Sampo Haapaniemi on drums – make their way through a symphonic series of tempo changes in Time to Kill the Night, a warmly determined ballad. Elbanna kicks off his solo with some machete tremolo-picking; “I have been holding onto promises too long,” the two women harmonize.

The Reckoning, a catchy, stomping powerpop dig-in-and-fight anthem, is followed by Tongue of Dirt, more of a pop song at heart. The drama rises toward stormy classical territory in Striking Like a Thunder (hey, these women are Finns, cut them some slack).

Bitch Fire – yeah, that language thing again, perkele!– is a rapidfire, gleefully venomous riff-rocker, followed by the slow, swaying piano ballad Hurricane Love, Louhimo rising out of a subdued, solemn intro.

The two women go back to defiant backbeat anthem territory in the next track, To the Wall. Remember when just a couple of years ago, choruses like “We’re gonna fight til we all are free, it’s time to be who we’re born to be” were considered cheesy?

Laurenne raises the angst factor in Viper’s Kiss, awash in clouds of distorted guitars and 80s keyboards. Louhimo brings a throaty intensity over alternately thrashy and lingering guitars in Walk Through Fire. The duo save the album’s real stunner, Dancers of Truth, for last, taking a mysterious late 60s style latin soul tune into the here and now, with extra crunch and sizzle.

Battle Beast’s next gig on their home turf is Dec 1 at around 10 PM at Keruti in Joensuu, Finland; cover is €32,50.

An Unintentionally Prophetic Protest Song

Christine LaRocca‘s icily synthy trip-hop single The New Normal – streaming at Soundcloud – turned out to be infinitely more prophetic than the Los Angeles singer ever could have wanted. She wrote it before the lockdown, not realizing that the sinister phrase “new normal” was introduced to the world at a conference sponsored by big pharma corporation Merck in 2004. In LaRocca’s own words:

“Corporations have been invading our privacy by digging into thoughts. They are learning our habits without our consent and selling our data to the highest bidder without asking you if it is okay. Social media has effected the mental health of our society and has also become a way to quickly spread lies and rumors. Artificial intelligence and robots are replacing human beings. My phone rang over 70 times in a 24 hour window when I decided to research health care. People are denying climate change. The common denominator? Money. Technology has made so many incredible things possible, yet not without a cost. At what point do we draw the line?”

Smartly Crafted, Anthemic, Beatlesque Art-Rock From Laura Mihalka

Laura Mihalka‘s moody keyboard ballads draw a straight line back to the Beatles as well as Pink Floyd and ELO. She also plays cello on her new album Feels Electric, streaming at Spotify. Producer Jesse Siebenberg plays the David Gilmour, Roger Waters and Nick Mason instrumental roles, filling in the sound with a symphonic understatement.

The album opens with Falling Apart, a gospel-tinted piano ballad with some unexpectedly creepy chromatics and a big, bombastic, Floydian guitar interlude that Mihalka follows with a gorgeously neoromantic solo of her own. The title track begins more enigmatic and hypnotic before she shifts it into elegant late Beatles territory.

Mihalka sticks with the Fab Four influence in Stumble Upon, a steady, swaying, Lennonesque number. She switches to electric piano for Pineapple Man, an Elliott Smith-ish trip-hop song with more than a hint of Indian music at the end. Then she goes back to the grand piano and adds spare cello accents to Forgiven: it’s her Great Gig in the Sky.

David Levita contributes flangey 70s guitar to Out for the Night, an aptly wafting nocturne. Mihalka goes straight back to the Beatles for Paradise, goo goo ga joob. Lennon meets Lucinda Williams – more or less – in Battleground. Then Mihalka strips things down to a simple early 90s pop sound with Sacred Sky, Siebenberg raising the energy with a crackling solo.

“We could all use you right now,” she intones in the elegaic ballad She’s Everything. She closes the album with Looking Back, adrift in wafting orchestration and twinkling, Hawaiian-flavored steel guitar. Beyond Mihalka’s stoic, impassive vocals, this could be a first-class Jeff Lynne orchestral pop production from the late 70s. That good.