New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: symphonic rock

A Hauntingly Relevant World War I Concept Album From Bare Wire Son

Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz records under the name Bare Wire Son. Whether kinetic or atmospheric, his music has a relentlessly bleak intensity. One obvious comparison is the gloomy, cinematic processionals of Godspeed You Black Emperor. Other dark postrock acts, from Mogwai to Swans come to mind. His latest album Off Black – streaming at Bandcamp – is a World War I song cycle, often utilizing texts from journals by mothers who lost their sons. Janusz is a one-man, lo-fi orchestra here: everything is awash in reverb, vocals often buried deep in these slow but turbulent rivers of sound.

The parallels between the Great War and the lockdown are stunning, making this album all the more relevant. Chemical warfare played a major role: poison gas in 1918, deadly hypodermics 103 years later. Propaganda campaigns of unprecedented proportions are central to both events. The drive to get the British and the US involved in the war was inflamed by stories of hideous atrocities on the part of the “Huns,” as the Germans were rebranded. The ubiquitous, multibillion-dollar ad blitz promoting the needle of death also relies on many fictions, from grotesquely inaccurate computer models, to blood tests rigged to generate false positives.

The album’s opening track, Involuntary is a crescendoing conflagration, possibly a parody of a Catholic hymn, with a cruelly cynical coda. Percussion flails out a sadistic lash beat over the organ textures in Cenotaph, struggling to rise against a merciless march that finally hits a murderous coda.

Janusz assembles Saved Alone around a series of menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs and whispered vocals, shifting from a lulling organ interlude to a roughhewn crescendo. From there he segues into CSD, a brief, portentous, organ-infused tone poem.

Simple, ominous guitar arpeggios linger over an industrial backdrop of cello, percussion and organ in Ends Below: the visceral shock about two thirds of the way in is too good to give away. The Gore is portrayed more minimalistically and enigmatically than you would probably expect, resonant washes of slide guitar and organ behind a crashing guitar loop

Close-harmonied organ textures and cello drift through Antiphon, joined by guitar clangs and slashes in The Bellows and extending through the dissociative flutters and funereal angst of Kampus. Spare, Lynchian guitar figures return in Fingernest, an emphatic, pulsing dirge rising to Comfortably Numb proportions.

Heavy Grey is the closest thing to indie rock here, although it reaches an anthemic vastness at the end. Janusz trudges to the end of the narrative with the hypnotic Red Glass and then a quasi-baroque organ theme cynically titled Voluntary, This is one of the best albums of 2021 and arguably the most haunting one so far.

Looking Back on a Unique, Individualistic New York Art-Rock Project

Pan-Asian-influenced art-rock band Carbonworks were one of the most interestingly eclectic groups to emerge in New York in the late teens. They were essentially a studio project. They put out just one album, early in 2017 and played a single gig to celebrate it – in Chinatown, if memory serves right. But that album is still streaming at Soundcloud. Fans of ornate 70s psychedelic bands like Genesis, and adventurous string ensembles like the Kronos Quartet, are especially encouraged to check it out.

The album opens with Song for an Angel, a slow, brooding Ladino waltz with plaintive violin from Allegra Havens and Phi Khanh’s distinctive vocals over bassist Shea Roebuck and drummer Mike Stetina’s rock rhythm. Khanh switches to Vietnamese over Chau Nguyen’s fluttery dan tranh zither in the introduction to By the Window, which rises to a mashup of the Mission Impossible theme and quasi trip-hop.

They go back to moody waltz territory, awash in lush strings, for the cynical God Save the King “Everything you wanted somehow slipped away,” Khanh laments. They pick up the pace in a tricky 14/8 beat for the punk-tinged Samurai, which could be a Changing Modes song, right down to Khanh’s somber vocals.

Monaco, a pulsing one-chord instrumental jam, comes across as the Alan Parsons Project with more organic production – and a koto mingling with bandleader Neal Barnard’s piano against stark strings. With its soaring vocal harmonies and swirling strings, Louder Than Words wouldn’t be out of place in the My Brightest Diamond catalog.

The album’s centerpiece is the four-part End of the World Suite. A stark string trio (also including violist Anastasia Migliozzi and cellist Jeff Phelps) over a galloping beat signals Part 1: The Beginning of the End, then Chris Thomas King’s bluesy guitars enter and pull the music toward Pink Floyd bluster. With its trickily rhythmic, loopily acidic guitar-and-violin harmonies, Part 2: Love and Illusion brings to mind the Turtle Island Quartet’s 80s experimentations.

The strings intertwine bustlingly with Russell Kirk’s sax over steady, shapeshifting rhythms in Part 3: The End. Only the suite’s coda, Winged Victory, with its brief dan tranh and Renaissance-tinged vocal interludes, has any discernible apocalyptic quality. The album concludes with West Pier, a melancholy, distantly baroque-tinged piece for string quartet and voice.

A Legend of 80s Metal, Still Going Strong

Who knew how prophetic Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime would become, thirty years after it came out? Did the band have a sleeper agent in Davos, keeping an eye on developments in predictive policing and data mining? Or did the group just have a healthy cynicism about transnational elites and their drift toward Orwellian totalitarianism?

And who knew that in 2021, the band’s frontman would still be going strong? Geoff Tate‘s vocals have weathered the storm well. In addition to fronting the Operation Mindcrime touring band, he also has a new album, Relentless, with his Sweet Oblivion project streaming at Spotify. His sound hasn’t changed much over the years: NWOBHM rock with cinematic keyboard ambience.

The opening track, Once Again One Sin immediately hits an ornate, symphonic drive, keyboardist Antonio Agate fueling it with his elegant minor-key piano and wafting string synth, much as he does with the rest of the album. The band reach for a steady, storm-brewing backbeat atmosphere in the second track, Strong Pressure, driven by bassist Luigi Andreone and drummer Michele Sanna’s leaden thump. Guitarist and main songwriter Aldo Lonobile contributes a careening, blues-infused solo.

It takes a lot of balls to name your own song Let It Be – this stomping, midtempo minor-key ballad is infinitely better than the one you’ve been subjected to on the Beatles’ worst album. Another Change, a breakup anthem, has some wild tapping from the guitar – it’s not clear if that’s Lonobile, Walter Cianciusi, or Dario Parente, the latter two also being Operation Mindcrime members.

Wake Up Call has a suspicious similarity to a famous Pink Floyd tune: “How do we get beyond the lies?” Tate wants to know. His wintry vocals hit an unexpectedly operatic peak in Remember Me: imagine the Psychedelic Furs playing metal.

The art-rock alienation anthem Anybody Out There is built around a familiar David Gilmour riff – but it’s not the delicate acoustic one you might be thinking of. As you might expect from a bunch of Italians, there’s a tune here titled Aria…and Tate sings it in dramatic Italian, with a twin guitar solo to match midway through. The album winds up with I’ll Be the One, a pretty generic, mostly acoustic ballad which could have been left on the cutting room floor, and then Fly Angel Fly, the darkest and heaviest track here and a strong coda.

Moody Songs Without Words For Our Time by Eydís Evensen

If there ever was an album tailor-made for a zeitgeist, pianist Eydís Evensen‘s debut, Bylur – Icelandic for “snowstorm” – is it. Of all the youtube memes which have come and gone over the years, one of the first and longest-lasting ones is the thousands of sad piano channels, every wannabe film composer with modest piano talent rushing to put up one rainy-day theme after another. Most of them sound pretty much the same: a little Pink Floyd, a little Schubert, if we’re lucky. Evensen’s terse, often hypnotic, overcast compositions – streaming at Spotify – are a cut above.

The album begins with Deep Under, an achingly lush minor-key theme with cello and eventually a string section soaring over her anthemic broken chords: the whole thing quietly screams out “scary arthouse movie score.”

While Dagdraumur (Daydream) is a real-life elegy, Evensen’s circling phrases are more pensive than overtly grief-stricken. The Northern Sky has an steady, elegantly moody interweave, the strings wafting more distantly this time. Wandering is a diptych: the cello darkens over Evensen’s hypnotic righthand clusters in the first part, then she turns that dynamic upside down in the conclusion, a solitary horn moving front and center.

Vetur Genginn í Garð’ (“Winter Is Here”) is the most obvious, derivatively Romantic piece here, ostensibly Evensen’s first-ever composition, written when she was seven. Fyrir Mikael depicts the resilience and hope of her nephew, battling an autoimmune disorder.

With its tricky, dancing syncopation, Circulation is a welcome change of pace, even while Evensen loops the big hook. Likewise, Innsti Kjarni og Tilbrigði (“My Innermost Core”) has some lively ornamentation: if this is an accurate self-portrait, Evensen isn’t all gloom and doom.

But the nextr track, Ntrdogg proves she’s hardly done with that, and the cumulo-nimbus atmosphere continues in the art-rock ballad Midnight Moon, sung in heavily accented English by vocalist GDRN. The pall lifts, if only for a bit in the distantly starry instrumental Brolin; the album concludes with the tensely orchestrated, angst-fueled title track.

Fun fact: Evensen joins Tex-Mex rocker Patricia Vonne and cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost in the thin ranks of ex-models with genuine musical talent.

Frank London’s Latest Soulful Epic Commemorates Ghettoes Around the World

Frank London may be the foremost trumpeter in all of klezmer music. He’s without a doubt the most ambitious. His epic new album Ghetto Songs – streaming at Spotify – is just out today, the anniversary of the murderous Nazi invasion of the Warsaw ghetto. The album also commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish ghetto, in Venice in 1516. It’s a mix of familiar material, some of it reinvented, along with more obscure tunes.

As London acknowledges, ghettoes are complex institutions. They can be places of refuge, but historically have also mirrored the repression of the societies around them: after all, in an enlightened world, there is no need for ghettoes to exist.

Ghettoes can serve as centers of cultural continuity, but often at the price of losing contact with developments beyond their walls. This vast project underscores the kind of musical alchemy that can result when sounds from ghettoes around the world, from Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to South Central Los Angeles, are open to everyone.

Obviously, cultural cross-pollination like this flies in the face of the lockdowner divide-and-conquer agenda. The purpose of surveillance-based “health passports,” for example, is not only to kill off entire populations with the needle of death: it’s also meant to prevent those smart enough not to take it from escaping to free countries or states. Under the lockdown, the world truly is a ghetto.

That classic War hit is one of the songs on the album, reinvented with a Pink Floyd digital chill beneath London’s soulful one-man brass section and slinky organ work. He opens the record with a brief, carnivalesque, strutting take of the Italian folk tune Amore An, sung with coy glee by Karim Sulayman over the tongue-in-cheek pulse of bassist Gregg August and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Accordionist Ilya Shneyveys and cellist Marika Hughes join as Sulayman and Sveta Kundish exchange Renaissance counterpoint in a stately madrigal by Venetian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Then Kundish takes over the mic in Mordechai Gebirtig’s elegantly pulsing klezmer classic Minutn Fun Bitokn, London cutting loose with one of his signature, chromatically simmering solos.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer turns in a spine-tingling, dynamic take of the antiwar anthem Oseh Shalom over stately piano-based art-rock. Kundish brings an optimistic calm to an Indian carnatic theme, then Sulayman brings back the operatic drama over a somber backdrop in La Barcheta.

Sulayman and Kundish return to duet on the angst-fueled ballad Ve’etah El Shaddai. Shneyveys leads the charge in the lighthearted South African romp Accordion Jive. Then Sulayman and Kundish keep the party going in the flamenco-tinged dance tune Tahi Taha.

London’s pensive, sustained lines anchor Lemmer’s impassioned intensity in Retsey, the album’s biggest, most enveloping epic. Sulayman and Kundish close the album with with a benedictory duet on the Hanukah hymn Ma’Oz Tzur. As eclectically captivating as much of this is, nothing beats Sir Fank London in concert. Maybe there’s somewhere in Brooklyn’s Satmar community – who helped kickstart his lifelong plunge into global Jewish sounds – where we can see him play this summer.

Fun fact: Sir Frank London was knighted by the government of Hungary.

Haunting, Epic Minor-Key Art-Rock From Empyrium

Empyrium play a somber, stark, tersely constructed blend of Mitteleuropean folk noir and 70s-style art-rock with tinges of metal and the High Romantic. How high does their latest album Uber den Sternen (Over the Stars) reach? For the rafters, mightily, here and there. Elsewhere, it’s a beautifully gloomy record, streaming at Bandcamp. Not a single substandard cut here: it’s awfully early to be talking about best-of-the-year lists, but this one’s high among the best albums of 2021 so far.

The first track, The Three Flames begins as a slow, subdued waltz, Markus “Schwadorf” Stock’s spare fingerpicked guitar mingling with cello, then the drums kick in and the race is on – he plays pretty much everything here. Thomas Helm’s operatic baritone is a surreal contrast; buzzy lows from the guitars and mellotron flute at the top complete the sonic picture. There’s a plaintive, artfully fingerpicked interlude to survey the wreckage of some unnamed society, then the staggered waltz beat returns and the layers of guitars rise with a symphonic intensity. It sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Track two, A Lucid Tower Beckons on the Hills, comes across as a variation on the theme: same sad waltz tempo, louder guitars, bitterly heroic twin leads, and is that a cimbalom echoing morosely from the back of the mix? The Oaken Throne is not about a medieval latrine; instead, it’s a terse, elegant dirge which seems to concern some kind of forest spirit.

Moonrise, an instrumental, has a web of nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitars over drifting ambience. The Archer (yeah, these archetypes are kind of World of Warcraft) is a Steppenwolf character roaming the valley in this slowly swaying minor-key anthem.

The Wild Swans has the album’s most metalish vocals but also its most symphonic architecture: gorgeously brief classical guitar solo, hazy mellotron interlude, crushing guitar orchestration and an unexpectedly hypnotic detour. The most unselfconsciously beautiful moment here is the instrumental In the Morning, with its spare classical piano and strings. The album ends with the titanic title track, shifting from jackhammering intensity, to starlit rapture, operatic longing and an unexpected sense of triumph: a hard-won victory maybe, but victory nonetheless.

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.

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.