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A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

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A Wild Night in Bushwick Thursday in Anticipation of This Year’s Golden Fest

Of all the accolades Ray Manzarek received, he was most proud of how Rolling Stone described his organ playing as “Balkan funeral music.” Manzarek was also proud of his heritage, and if he was still alive, no doubt he’d be a fan of Choban Elektrik. The Brooklyn band – Jordan Shapiro on organ, Jesse Kotansky on violin, Dave Johnson on bass and Phil Kester on drums – take folk music from across the Balkans and make psychedelic rock epics out of it. Sometimes they sound like the Doors, sometimes they bring to mind the Stranglers when the rhythms are more straight-up and Shapiro goes off on one of his long, spiraling tangents. They aren’t playing this weekend’s Golden Fest – New York’s single funnest musical weekend of the year – but they are in the middle of an amazing four-band pre-Golden Fest lineup this Thursday, Jan 12 at Sunnyvale in Bushwick. Cover is $12, music starts at 7 with the feral, intricate lickety-split, rare Polesian klezmer dances and grooves of Litvakus, then  Choban Elektrik, then epic, original, intense Raya Brass Band, with Greek Judas;, who play psychedelic metal versions of classic underground 1920s and 1930s Greek hash smoking music, headlining

Choban Elektrik earned a rave review here last year for a twinbill they played with Greek Judas at Barbes back in April. The group played an even more adrenalizing show show there three months later that didn’t get a writeup here – overkill, you know – but did earn a spot on the Best Shows of 2016 page. Here’s what happened.

A bubbly, syncopated minor-key vamp slowly coalesced and then Shapiro hit his smoky, eerily tremoloing organ patch, pouncing his way through a brooding chromatic theme. Eventually, Kotansky took it skyward as Shapiro’s organ smoldered and pulsed. They followed that with the night’s first vocal number, a minor-key mashup of tango and surf rock with a long, majestically rising organ solo that Shapiro finally took spiraling down, then punched in some noisy, staccato washes like an unhinged Jimmy Smith.

Shapiro’s arrangement of the next tune was packed with shivery melismas and trills, wildfire clarinet lines transposed to funeral organ, echoed by Kotansky’s lightning volleys of triplets when he took a solo. Then he took the song down to the lowest, most austere place on his fingerboard. They took it out with a whirlwind doublespeed outro.

Kester suppplied a dancing rimshot beat as the bouncy next number got underway, the organ dancing overhead, Kotansky keeping the danse macabre going as Shapiro hit his wah pedal for some mean funk. They hit a staggered groove after that, Shapiro turning the roto way up to max out the menace and intensity of the tune’s Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics, adding an echoey dead-astronaut-adrift-in-space electric piano solo midway through. Kotansky’s solo was almost as macabre and veered toward bluesy metal. Then the band flipped the script with a joyously driving, syncopated anthem, both the folksiest and most ELP-inflected number of the night. They followed with one of their really epic numbers, sort of a mashup of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, the Doors’ Light My Fire and a bouncy Serbian theme. That was just the first set – and probably a close approximation of what you can expect Thursday night in Bushwick.

And the most recent moment that this blog and Greek Judas could be found in the same room was a few weeks ago on a cold Monday night at LIC Bar. Why on earth would someone not from Long Island City make the trip out there in bitter December wind, late on a work night – on an injured limb, no less – to a little Irish pub to see a loud metal band run through what was was basically a live rehearsal?

If you’re hanging out just over the Pulaski Bridge, a couple of stops away on the G, why the hell not? On one hand, the show was as experimental and sloppy as you would expect from a rehearsal, but by the third song in, the Monday Night Football crowd at the bar was drawn in by the group’s animal masks and macabre riffage, had their phones out and were gramming away. All that attention apparently earned Greek Judas a return engagement on another Monday night later this month. But what the bar really ought to give them is an early Saturday night slot during the warmer months when the back courtyard is open and the place is packed.

The Wytches Burn Their Way Through New York

It’s a good week to see dark rock bands from out of town. Umpteen acts may reach for a menacing vibe, but British trio the Wytches actually nail theirs. The punk-inspired, dead-end desperation in frontman/guitarist Kristian Bell’s voice is so raw that it at least sounds like the real thing. And their narratives are all the more believable for being free of any kind of goth/ghoul cliche. They’ve got a savagely brilliant new album, Annabel Dream Reader – streaming at Spotify – and a clusterfuck of CMJ shows coming up. If assaultively doomy punk, horror surf or Lynchian sounds in general are your thing, you’ve got six chances to see this band in the next few days. Tomorrow, Oct 22 they’ll be at Glasslands at 9; on Oct 23 at Rough Trade at 3 in the afternoon and then at Baby’s All Right at 11 at night. They return to Baby’s All Right at one in the afternoon on Oct 24, then they’ll be at that free show at the Knitting Factory at four the same day (beware because the rsvp means you’ll get spammed). But you won’t have to get spammed in order to catch them when they return to Rough Trade at 7 on Oct 25.

The album’s opening track, Digsaw builds out of a squalling intro to an horror surf-tinged verse and then a screaming chorus over bassist Daniel Rumsey’s growling, trebly lines: you can hear some Jesus & Mary Chain, and Stranglers, and maybe Coffin Daggers, but more stripped-down than any of those acts.Wide at Midnight follows a creepy, Lynchian wammy-bar sway dripping with reverb; then the band makes horror surf out of a familiar Ventures theme.

Gravedweller is the best song here, a macabre zombie scenario with a reverb-tank menace that brings to mind Wooden Indian Burial Ground. Fragile Male for Sale blends the wet, poisonous reverb-tank echo with darkly distorted 60s psych riffage, while Burn out the Bruise has a snidely echoing sway until its desperate, screaming chorus kicks in.

“She shines a light from side to side, in my eyes it reflects from the corner,” frontman/guitarist Kristian Bell intones as the growly Transylvanian gothic anthem Wire Frame Mattress gets underway – and then the band makes surf rock out of it. Beehive Queen hits a slashingly sarcastic, slightly skronk-infused spaghetti western gallop, then they bring it down with Weights and Ties, a slow waltz with a little vintage PiL cached in its amped-up wee-hours Lynchian ambience.

The disarmingly catchy Part Time Model paints a disquieting tableau of what might be a S&M brothel – or the set of a snuff film, punctuated by the occasional muted gunshot burst from Bell’s reverb tank. The album’s longest track, Summer Again, another waltz, is all the more crushing for offering a hint of hope.

Robe for Juda builds a catchy garage rock tune out of a wicked chromatic riff and then hits an explosive, metalish crescendo. Crying Clown blends Orbison noir with an unhinged, doomed tableau straight out of the Doctors of Madness catalog. The album ends with a brief folk noir ballad simply titled Track 13. In a year that’s seen amazing albums by Karla Moheno and Marissa Nadler, and with Big Lazy‘s haunting new one still not out yet, this might be the best of them all. Miss these guys at your peril.

Menacing Psychedelic Epics from the Frank Flight Band

If the Frank Flight Band‘s latest album, Remains, had come out in 1975 instead of earlier this year, it would be regarded as a psychedelic cult classic today. Much of it sounds as if could have been recorded then; they absolutely nail the moment right before metal and art-rock diverged. Ten-minute epics, and one that clocks in at more than twenty! Three-minute acid blues guitar solos with no wasted notes! OMFG! The whole thing is streaming at the band’s Soundcloud page.

This is a concept album with a persistent death fixation, sort of the long-lost, doomed sequel to Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog. Bandleader/guitarist Frank Flight’s tunes shift uneasily from major to minor through spaciously stark interludes that rise to epic proportions. It wouldn’t be farfetched to describe them as a British Blue Oyster Cult. Both bands favor straight-up rhythms, anthemic choruses and a surreal lyrical side that offers a leering embrace to the darkness. Frontman/lyricist Andy Wrigley’s gravelly vocals rise over a rich, lush backdrop of Michael Woodward’s multi-keys, the dual guitars of Flight and lead player Alex Kenny anchored by Danny Taylor’s melodic bass, drummer Dave Veres propelling the beast through the waves with unexpectedly subtle dynamics.

Although the first three songs are credited to Wrigley and Flight, pretty much the whole band contributes to the songwriting,  maintaining the uneasy mood so consistently it’s as if there’s a single voice behind all this. Every track here segues into the next one. The Ballad of Alice Grey opens and sets the stage for everyrthing afterward: first it’s a swaying minor blues, then it’s a surreal, chromatically-fueled Lewis Carroll art-rock epic. Woodward’s massive orchestration swirls symphonically – at one point recalling a swooping woodwind section – finally followed by the first of Kenny’s many snarling, searing yet terse guitar solos, this one with a grisly, vintage Robin Trower-style vibrato.

Dark Waters, an ominously propulsive seafaring narrative, offers a nod to Don’t Fear the  Reaper, then twists your ears as the guitar solos switch channels from left to right, followed by a menacing, Doorsy organ-bass-drums interlude leading up to an absolutely incendiary guitar maelstrom over the band’s titanic sway. The roughly nine-minute title track builds gingerly up and around a lingering guitar vamp straight out of the Nektar playbook, stormy synthesized strings pulsing over a hypnotic groove. There’s anger, and maybe murder here; Wrigley narrates a litany of disquieting imagery at the end as the band reaches back to the shoreline in a whirl of cymbals. By contrast, The Island offers a triumphant view of alienation – the guy in Veres’ lyrics seems perfectly content to watch the birds leave the shore for the sky (symbolism, anybody?).

Razor Glass, by Kenny, begins jangly and swooping before it builds to an ominous, rich Pink Floydian atmosphere. Allusions to Orbison noir, resonant Nektar-ish guitar, rippling piano, cascading synth and organ – not to mention Kenny’s mean, purist soloing – fuel this bitterly elegaic, phantasmagorical barroom scenario. Sinaloa, by Kenny and Veres, tells a gothic flamenco rock tale of death and destruction in a Mexican civil war that ultimately proves futile: it’s their Conquistador.

The final track, by Flight, is Cat, weighing in at mammoth Pink Floyd Echoes proportions. There’s so much going on here that chronicling it all would take an album-length review. In brief: jangly guitar and organ echoing Rhode Island psychedelic legends Plan 9’s Dealing with the Dead; a long, waterfalling organ solo straight out of the Dave Greenfield or Ray Manzarek playbook; more allusions to Nektar and the Doors; ominous, minimalist bass/drum grooves, evil churchbell samples, and finally, finally, a series of increasingly incendiary Kenny solos that go on for the better part of ten minutes but ultimately leave you wishing for more. As far as sheer herculean energy, epic sweep and intensity are concerned, no other band has done anything this year that can match this. There will be a “best albums of 2013” page up at the end of the year here and this one will be on it.

The Stranglers Haven’t Lost Their Grip

When the act you want to see (in this case, brooding British art-rock songwriter Mike Marlin) gets cancelled due to visa issues, do you still go to the show? If the Stranglers are headlining, sure, why not? We’ve reached the point where punk nostalgia goes back 40 years, which is scarier than the Stranglers’ name.

There was no reason to expect the Stranglers to be any good at this point – and yet they were. There were only two of the four original members at last night’s Highline Ballroom show: keyboardist Dave Greenfield, who can still fire off warp-speed classical licks on a variety of vintage synths and organs (while slowly draining a Guinness!!) and bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel, whose ferocious chops and growling, gritty tone are as formidable as ever. Their new drummer Jim Macaulay not only gets to be the new Black: he’s the new Jet Black.  How cool is that? And frontman/guitarist Baz Warne won over the crowd with his haphazardly eclectic, skillful playing and snotty persona in a faithful reproduction of what the band’s original leader, Hugh Cornwell (who’s coming to the Highline for a solo show in December) used to do onstage.

Methodically and exuberantly, they ran through the hits. Because the British band was has been around so long, they’ve succeeded with more styles than most other groups. Their proggy early 80s wannabe Doors epics have aged surprisingly well; their darkish wannabe Music Machine garage rock less so. Although you wouldn’t expect a band with their name to be funny, like most artists associated with the punk movement, they could be hilarious and as it turns out still can be after all these years. They sped up the boorish punk reggae of Peaches, which the crowd loved; a bit later, they fired off a high-voltage version of Nice and Sleazy, Burnel making its iconic basssline look effortless and then segued into the punkest song of the night, Bring on the Nubiles, a raised middle finger to the censors and the politically correct. And the last of the encores, Tank, a sarcastic novelty hit from 1979, still packs a punch as a snide antiwar anthem.

The best song of the night was an impressively amped-up version of Always the Sun, one of their two American hits, Burnel’s trebly bass anchoring Greenfield’s haunting synth textures. Greenfield got to spin through endless volleys of neo-baroque on expansively artsy stuff like Toiler on the Sea (the surprise opener), The Raven, Goodbye Toulouse and a long cover of Walk on By where he handed off to Warne, who gamely kept the Light My Fire ambience going. The sold-out crowd sang along on the poppier material: the bouncy Who Wants the World, a blistering take of No More Heroes, the nonchalantly caustic Nuclear Device and the similarly nonchalant, catchy cautionary tale Skin Deep.

Of the more recent, post-Cornwell material, the goth-tinged Norfolk Coast and an even darker anthem that could have been a Ninth House song were the best; a halfheartedly rap-flavored number fell flat. And Golden Brown – Cornwell’s blithe ode to heroin, their biggest American hit – revealed itself as a Dave Brubeck ripoff. But in an era when the center has imploded, the only way for a musician to make a living is to work a niche style and there literally are no more heroes, the Stranglers still have plenty of breath in them. Maybe that’s why there were so many young people in the crowd.

Dark, Brooding Menace from Mike Marlin

Dark British rock songwriter Mike Marlin seems to be building a career out of gigs like  supporting Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler of the Jam on UK tour. But Marlin may well be the main attraction at shows like those: the old rake writes good songs. As he tells it, he cut his teeth in the early 80s, inspired by Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Cure, but it wasn’t until the end of the past decade that he dedicated himself exclusively to music. It’s a good thing he did: his new album, Grand Reveal is streaming at his Bandcamp page as is last year’s release, Man on the Ground. You can also grab a free download of the single The Murderer, a gorgeously orchestrated, bitterly understated lament for a dissolute life, from his Soundcloud page.

Marlin turns out to be less new wave than you might expect. Sometimes he goes in a noir cabaret direction, other times completely goth, occasionally looking back to early 70s glam – it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine these songs being fully realized versions of demos he made back in the 80s. His raspy baritone is strong, his worldview cynical and world-weary, his songs catchy and anthemic.”I’m older than I look, younger than I feel,” he snarls on the title track, a slinky, doomed cabaret anthem.

The new album’s best song is the opener, Skull Behind the Skin, building from creepy music-box electric piano to a searing chorus fueled by Johnny Marr-style guitar. Marlin’s deadpan croon and allusive lyrics here could be friendly encouragement to hang out and jam, but turn out to have somewhat different implications.

The most typically new wave track is War to Begin, a study in maintaining a tense, anxious mood, bass rising over a hypnotic, insistent guitar pulse. The poppiest are Forgive Me Yet, with its lively brass section, and Girl on the Roof, which could be Ian Hunter in blithely seductive mode. A couple other ballads bring to mind Nick Cave: Amazing building to a big crescendo, Giving It All Away broodingly contemplating the end. “I hear the saxophone on Baker Street on endless repeat, and I don’t mind, and I’ll hear it again,” Marlin accepts with unexpected grace.

“The neighbor’s cat comes into the garden to hunt birds; he never catches them or hurts them, which is more than I can say about you,” Marlin intones on the nonchalantly menacing More Than I Can Say. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Jon DeRosa catalog. Doesn’t Care is catchy and surprisingly wry; the album’s most theatrical song is To the Grave, a diptych that ends the album on an unexpectedly sympathetic if distantly angst-riddled note. An album like this raises the question of how many other Mike Marlins there might be out there who could be sitting on a similarly enticing collection of good songs from back in the day.