December 2003

Dude Descending A Staircase

Ham-fisted attempts at cleverness are Apollo 440's stock in trade (dance music cover versions of Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper," The Stooges' "Raw Power," to name a few), so naming an album after Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase should surprise no one. In the mid-to-late 1990s they were poised to ride the big beat wave made by the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers all the way to the American stadium circuit. Unfortunately the wave died down in favor of manufactured boy bands and pop stars and the genre's leading figures went adrift. Indeed the Prodigy has yet to follow up their 1997 breakthrough album Fat Of The Land. Apollo 440 has been there the entire time, remixing damn near anything that moves and cranking out solid albums like this one, though they're more like other dance rock bands like Lo Fidelity Allstars than the big beat stars of the day. Mainstrem dance music tends toward the obvious, favoring simple grooves and melodies with great production and Dude is no exception. The title track features the Beatnuts MCing timely rhymes over live drumming and filtered bass lines. "We party - and bullshit - and party - and bullshit." "Hustler Groove" is techno disco for the dancefloor, recalling Fatboy Slim's song with Bootsy Collins a few years ago - with a long guitar solo. "Escape To Beyond The Planet Of The Super Ape" is a suspenseful live jam that brings to mind the Propellerheads' "Spybreak!". "Existe" is a slow pimp jam with dub piano. "Suitcase '88" proves that Apollo 440 had its bags packed in the event that Portishead had led a triphop stampede up the charts. They're ready to go. I don't blame them for being ham-fisted and opportunistic - sometimes dance music can get too clever for its own good.
Ian C Stewart

Quigley's Point

Quiet, almost minimalistic acoustic guitar and vocal songs with occasional brushed drum embellishments. Taking quiet is the new loud as an unwritten maxim, At Swim Two Birds are content to layer acoustic guitars, picking out sad, hushed melodies. The singing is like a slightly less fey Nick Drake, fitting the music perfectly. "Little White Lies" opens the album with fingerpicked guitar and a wandering keyboard line off in the distance and the vocals right up front, recalling Idaho's Levitation. "Darling" adds marimba and the crackle of either a vinyl record or a distant fireplace, eventually joined by a tasteful, uplifting drum beat. "Darling, don't call me darling, I'm not your darling anymore." The singer sounds like he's just barely managing to cope with the lyrics. Like he's one missed Zoloft away from pulling an Ian Curtis. "Women Of A Certain Mental Age" is a relatively furious instrumental with hushed drums pulsing in time. "Swedish Lakes" is a brief audio postcard with one guitar and a recording of an English dude talking to (apparently) Swedish females about swimming. And there are swimming sounds. Cool. "I Need Him" may be a gay love song, I'm not sure. But the closer, "Things We'll Never Do" brings it all home with co-ed vocals, drums and a gentle crescendo. Clearly, I am in love.
Ian C Stewart

Ai Tencargo

Luna Negra
What do you get when a Mexican experimental fusion band commissions six local composers to write pieces for them? Well, it seems you get something pretty much unlike anything else ever. The closest I can come to a brief description Ai Tencargo is that most of it lies somewhere in the uncharted territory between club jazz and modern composition, with maybe a little avant-prog thrown in for good measure. The two extremes are represented on the one hand by Arturo Márquez's "Azul Ocre," which is a sort of left-of-center Latin lounge music (but good!), and on the other by Hilda Paredes' "Tres Piezas," whose sound is a slightly friendlier update of the postwar avant-garde -- think Boulezian winds-and-plunks instrumentation, Ligetian swirly gesturalism, George Crumb nonsense chanting. It's in between these two pieces, though, that the real head-scratchers lie. Take Eduardo Soto Millán's "Suite Antonia," for instance: the first movement is about two minutes of abstractish flute music double-tracked and loaded with psychedelic reverb, and the second is somewhere between alien funk, hot jazz and a loosened-up Univers Zero. Whoa. Anyway, I won't say that the album is a masterpiece, because it just doesn't quite tie together, and the performances are not quite as tight as they could be sometimes, but one thing it is is consistently intriguing: there's not a dull moment anywhere. And yes, some of it really is excellent. And I think that's pretty impressive, considering how precariously Ai Tencargo straddles the gap between (at least) two nearly unrelated musical worlds.
Alex Temple

Behind The Light

Best known for vocalist Dominic Appleton's star turn in 4AD supergroup This Mortal Coil, Breathless is an inventive, long-running band that really does push the boundaries. Their songs favor group improv and individual contributions that merge into lush atmospheres and melancholic textures. Behind the Light is a gorgeous recording that might've recalled Radiohead's quieter moments if Breathless hadn't been doing it for 20+ years already. Which is not to suggest that they sound outdated, or that the songs are fossils. "And So The Dream Goes" is uptempo, simple and repetetive. Appleton singing as masterfully as ever. "Nobody Knows" opens with excellent bass guitar chords probably last heard on another Breathless record. E-bow guitar and vocals. "Rising" is a classic, old-school stomper in swing time. Bass strumming, octaved guitar lines, aggressive, full-kit drumming; bringing the finer moments of the Chameleons to mind; bringing the song and the recording to an emotional crescendo. Hell yes indeedy.
Ian C Stewart

The Decline Of British Sea Power

At first glance, British Sea Power appears to merely tow the partyline by playing the same explosive, blues-affiliated rock as everyone else. The blunt vocals occasionally shriek into distortion while the riffs are simple and rhythmic. "Favours In The Beetroot Fields" is abrasive and to-the-point. But around "Something Wicked," the singing gets all Morrissey and the music gets subtler. More sophisticated. "Remember Me" rocks out with its socks out, sounding like a grunge version of Suede. "Lately" is a 14-minute monolith of changing moods. Several things at once, then. "Heavenly Waters" is an extremely uncharacteristic instrumental that starts very quietly, almost Slowdive-like, building to a noisy wall of shoegazey guitars and synths. So, not the White Stripes after all.
Ian C Stewart

Songs For The Wrong

Metal Blade Records
More stupid songs from Gwar's singer. Following up 2001's Diarrhea of a Madman, DBX hasn't matured or progressed in any way. Brockie plays bass and sings and he populates his songs with a variety of characters - whimpering and whining his way through melodic, metallic tracks like "The Chinese Have No Cheese," ("I couldn't get enough ice in my Coke - My world fell apart") "I Wanna Be A Squirrel," "Should The Ugly Girl Blow Me?" (wondering aloud if the song sounds like Lenny Kravitz) and opener "Damn That Money." "Hard For A 'Tard" reprises the "I believe in Bilbo Baggins" line from Diarrhea and steals all its best musical moves from 1980s pop metal. Lyrically, it retains its uniqueness. Witness "Slips Of Paper": "I'm writing a sequence of numbers from a slip of paper to another slip of paper, ohhhhh - I do it slowly because I know unless the sequence of numbers matches a sequence of numbers, animals will die." What? Only the Dickies can approach this blend of melody, heaviness and toilet humor to create something worthy of repeated listenings. If the Dead Milkmen had been as heavy as they were goofy, they might've come close to Brockie's mannered lunacy.
Ian C Stewart

The Perfect Is The Enemy Of The Good

Relapse Records
Crossing hardcore punk aggression with death metal precision is the way to go lately, just ask Lamb Of God and God Forbid, et cetera. Burnt By The Sun takes things a little further in terms of the hardcore vocals and by incorporating blastbeats they're able to put their own stamp on the sound. The singer sounds like a cross between Phil Anselmo and Mike Patton, which suits the songs perfectly. "Forlani" opens with a weird Southern rock riff that is absolutely engulfed by a blastbeat. The rest of the song is rhythmically all over the place, maintaining maximum aggression. "Rev 101" is like a coked-up Slayer. If everyone in Slayer grew an extra arm, basically, they would be Burnt By The Sun.
Ian C Stewart

Lullaby for Sue

Clogs are an Australian-American quartet with the rather unusual instrumentation of guitar, bassoon, violin and percussion. Their music tends to hedge the line between folk music and modern chamber music, by turns evoking gypsy fiddling, classic finger-style guitar, Debussy, and Eastern European Minimalists like Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt. Occasional punchy sections remind me of composed avant-rock bands like Art Zoyd and Volapük, but for the most part this is very quiet, fluid, gentle music, from the wandering abstract instrumental lines of "Limp Waltz" to the beautiful quasi-Arabic patterning and John Cage percussion of "Gentler We" (the only track with vocals, provided in soft, gorgeous Australian accented falsetto by violinist and bandleader Padma Newsome). My only criticism is that many of the pieces (songs, whatever) end rather abruptly, leaving you wondering where the music went -- but this is intriguing, sensuous, consistently top-class stuff. I can't think of a better album to listen to in the dead of winter, wrapped in blankets and drinking hot album cider. But then, I'm weird.
Alex Temple

Possessed 13

This album is a tribute to the heavier end of the metal spectrum - major-league, melodic, death metal. Downtuned guitars, riffs for miles - not unlike recent works by Entombed. The lyrics and song titles embrace the roots (bloody roots) of the genre - "Kill Em All" and especially "Are You Morbid," the latter including tightly-wound blastbeats and a harmonized guitar solo. "Deliverance" and "Cold is the Grave" favor full-band syncopation and manic thrashing. "Dream Bloody Hell" is a slow instrumental with a tragic vibe. The album closes with "In Memorium," another somber instrumental with layers of guitar harmonies.
Ian C Stewart

Death Cult Armageddon

Nuclear Blast
The dark masters of Norweigian black metal return with a brutal and elegant blend of Satanic death and gothic rock that incorporates orchestral sounds. While not a million miles removed from Cradle Of Filth, there's nothing tongue-in-cheek or ironic about Death Cult Armageddon. Many similarities exist between the two bands but for my money the tie-breaker is drummer Nick Barker. A metal band is only as good as its drummer, and though Barker did time in Cradle, Dimmu is his home now. So Dimmu wins, it's as simple as that. And they sound more symphonic than ever, with guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, vocals, strings and brass sections coming together. The riffing is no less brutal for all of the layers of sonic interaction. The bass player steps up to the mic in several spots to do some of his patented pseudo-operatic warbling. "Vredesbyrd" features some unbelievable - no, really - drumming and a sound that could best be described as Marilyn Manson meets Slayer. "Allehelgens Dod I Helveds Rike" involves uncompromising syncopation and guitar lines that are like punches to the throat. The orchestra is there to soothe and mock the wounds. "Eradication Instincts Defined" opens with what sounds like the music from the chase scene in Francis Ford Coppolla's Dracula, giving way to an aggressive double-bass groove. This song is a terrifying climax to the album, winding down in a flurry of gunshots, marching and helicopters. Break out the corpsepaint and get your brutal ghoul on.
Ian C Stewart

A People's History of the Dismemberment Plan

I don't think anyone expected much from the Dismemberment Plan's final release. It's got all the marks of a failure: record released by a band that's already decided to break up -- check. Remix album -- check. Remixes are mostly by total unknowns who just happen to be fans -- check. Scratch that off the list, NEXT. But hold on -- some of the stuff on here is really damn good! And there's even a variety of types of good: there's the pleasure of a conceptual gag well-executed, viz. Eruk Gundel's transformation of "Superpowers" into a 50s shuffle, complete with a "normal" chord progression in the chorus (without changing a note of the melody!) There's damn-that-takes-guts good, like parae's avant-garde cut-up of "The Face of the Earth," so abstract that you can barely tell what song it's based on -- and it's the first track on the CD. There's stuff that's so absurd you can't help but grin -- Grandmaster Incongruous's Fatboy-Slim-on-caffeine treatment of "Pay for the Piano," for example. And then there's the stuff that's just uncannily, hauntingly beautiful: Drop Dynasty's "What Do You Want Me To Say?", with an astounding bit of backwards Travis substituting for the original chorus, and Cynyc's lush "Following Through," reharmonized in a glowing modal minor. When a remix can achieve the Plan's poignancy using materials from songs that weren't particularly poignant in the first place, that's pure brilliance. OK, I'll admit that the whole album isn't this good: there's a boringly drony "Automatic," a kinda-cheesy tribalized "Life of Possibilities," and Cex's industrio-glitchfest based on "Academy Award" is only enjoyable when it avoids coming too close to the original: I just can't stand to hear "give us a SPEECH!" without the wonderfully angular guitar lick that's supposed to follow. But there's far more good here than there ought to be, and any Plan devotees among the Mouthy readership should promplty get their asses to the record store.
Alex Temple

The Dresden Dolls

The Dresden Dolls strike me as a band with a lot of unrealized potential. There are a lot of things right about this album: the band's style, which they describe as "Brechtian cabaret-punk," is immediately appealing in that decaying-Victoriana way, and Amanda Palmer's voice is powerful, dramatic, versatile and often sexy (read: way the fuck better than Rasputina). But while the band's debut is littered with brilliant moments, it has few truly brilliant songs; almost every track has at least one section that makes me wonder what they were thinking. Sometimes the songwriting starts out great but gets clumsy or awkward around the bridge, and sometimes the lyrics cross the line from darkly clever to teen angst. Occasionally they just repeat themselves too much, or too melodramatically. It's obvious that a band who can write "Bad Habit" (as far as I know, the world's only major-key, upbeat song in 6/8 about cutting yourself) or "Girl Anachronism" (catchy, aggressive, dissonant, bitter, a wild stream of staccato syllables) is one to pay attention to, but overall I feel like they'd be better as a live act than on record. It is a damn satisfying album when you're pissed off, though.
Alex Temple

Equilibrium Music
Classical guitar, violin, female vocals. Dark, ethereal, acoustic goodness. The classical guitar is the co-star of the album, gracefully underpinning the uneffected vocals. It's a bit like Dead Can Dance on a flamenco kick. Or maybe Nick Drake Goes To Transylvania. The singer is a pro, befitting the austerity of the arrangements, but many of the songs sound like background music for a vampire brunch. Dwelling is unique and if they can write some memorable songs, they'll take over the world.
Ian C Stewart

Morbid Records
Named after a Venom song and with a logo that features an inverted treble clef, Harmony Dies already have two points in their favor. Impact is a blistering and blinding (oof, ouch) salad of progressive-grind-thrash metal that includes monumentally fast double-bass drumming. The songs feature numerous time changes and lots of stop-start activity. Some of the riffs have a Kreator vibe, only much heavier and much more detailed. "Narcotic" opens with a hilarious falsetto scream that isn't replicated anywhere else on the album. What a great thing to start with. The guitar solo on "Toxicated" features Slayer-style fretboard tapping. If Harmony Dies were my age or older it would just be retro, but these guys look young. I like the way the singer yells "silence!" at the beginning of "Silence." For anyone expecting a song with that title to be a cover of John Cage's "4'33"," it's a boot in the teeth. That would be me.
Ian C Stewart

Goodbye Swingtime
Accidental Records
When you're trying to update an old genre, there's always the risk of merely citing earlier styles, bringing them into the present through ironic juxtapositions but leaving them essentially undeveloped. There's also the opposite danger, that of lapsing into mere imitation, writing a period piece with little to offer but nostalgia. Goodbye Swingtime manages to avoid both pitfalls, and navigates the course between them with remarkable facility invention. In case you haven't guessed from the title, the main reference-point here is pre-bop jazz -- but the styles of the 30s and 40s have been brought into the present by means of a subtle avant-gardism, one that has almost nothing to do with how avant-garde jazz actually developed in the 60s and beyond. It's like listening to music from a parallel universe in which Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman never existed, and jazz underwent an entirely different evolution. And so you get flowing vocal melodies set to prickly, post-punkish backings, or harmonic detours that take the music into the realm of Henry Cow's more sedate moments, or piano and saxes and acoustic bass joined by buzzing noises and sliced wheezy synthesizers. Sections here and there seem like parts of an ominous Broadway musical, or a No Safety noir film soundtrack, or a collaboration between Stravinsky and Thelonious Monk. But the best part is, it never beats you over the head with any of this, and the traditional jazz elements remain the center of attention no matter how far the music deviates from its expected course. It's a little long, but pretty much every note on here is great. Plus it's got Arto Lindsay singing on one track. Take a listen. You won't regret it.
Alex Temple

The Young Machines
Laptop-indie-rock? Opening with the melodic, multilayered instrumental title track, the Young Machines fuses catchy chord changes and synth lines with wordy, autobiographical singing. These songs live or die by the vocals, which are very loud in the mix. The dude's voice is annoying and offputting - too breathy, too mannered, too focal - and those fucking lyrics are what you'd expect from a wimpy-sounding white guy in his early 20s who wears glasses and sings about writing poetry. "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" opens promisingly, with orchestra loops and a slappy drum track. But that singing - fuck! "The Luxury Of Loneliness" features cool, outer-space pop in the vein of Lida Husik and Stereolab - but, just like the rest of the album, the vocals kill it.
Ian C Stewart

Exactshit - Bootleg

Oh lordy, the mashup frenzy continues with hilarious results. Samplespotting: "Killer Boots" opens with the Run-DMC-Aerosmith "Walk This Way" beat behind the first verse of the Beastie Boys' "Professor Booty" (always a favorite), overlaid with that "Booty Call" song that was popular recently, followed by a bit of Adam Ants' "Puss In Boots" and Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made For Walkin'," (which gives focus to the meditation "Nancy's Boots" later on the album), climaxing with a Dee-Lite "Groove Is In The Heart" run beside Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious." And that's just the first song. "I'm Crazy," let's see, crosses Patsy Cline's "Crazy" with a reggae rhythm loop; "Happy Money" crosses the Happy Mondays' "Step On" with a verse from Public Enemy's "Rebel Without A Pause" - which, it's not exactly the Evolution Control Committee's Whipped Cream Mixes, but it's not bad. "Daft Human" mashes Daft Punk's "Around The World" and the Human League's "Love Action." Nice. "Freak Out" is a megalithic conglomeration of "Freaks Come Out At Night," "Get Ur Freak On," Sugababes "Freak Like Me," (itself borrowing Gary Numan's "Are 'Friends' Electric?"), Chic "Le Freak," Rick James "Super Freak," and finally that "Freakazoid" thing. Damnation, that's a lot of freaks. "Exorcist" is a drill 'n' bass reconfiguration of that film's theme song. The album's triumph is the Lionel Ritchie "classic," "All Night Schlong," - with an exaggerated 808 groove - and literally someone adding "sh" to the beginning of the word long in the chorus. "Wouldn't It Be House" rounds the set out with one final, simultaneous double-shot of nostalgia: the Beach Boys singing over an early house beat. Exactshit is as fun to wig out to as it is to sit and pick apart all of the elements. When's the last time you danced on a table to five songs at the same time? If the answer is "never," now you know where to start.
Ian C Stewart

Divine Propaganda

Meteor City
Divine Propaganda fucking DOOOOOOOOOOMS. It rocks like fuck and sounds like inbred (but very well recorded) offspring of Black Sabbath. The Hidden Hand doesn't settle for traditional doom metal trappings (8 BPM pace, no melodies), it's almost more like really slow acid rock, maaaan. I always wondered what acid rock was, and now I know. The vocals are melodic and the riffs compliment each other very nicely. Not just, like, sludge for the sake of it. So ya got yer overdriven guitar, yer distorted bass (with the optional wah-wah pedal), yer drums and yer two dudes taking turns singing. "Screw The Naysayers" sounds like Black Flag until the wah-wah guitar solo. "For All The Wrong Reason" is more fuckin' acid rock throwback (whatever that means - Iron Butterfly?). For all the right reasons though. "Tranquility Base" has the scuzziest bass guitar sound this side of Godflesh. The title track is a dooming groover that Cathedral would love to shoplift under their purple buckskin jackets. In fact, that goes for the entire album.
Ian C Stewart

Grace Days
Acoustic guitars meet laptop beats on the title track. Sort of like Kings Of Convenience, but without the vocals and retro stylings. Rhythms and melodies interlock and revolve with apparent ease. Ultramarine 2003. All the songs use the same assortment of sounds, giving the album cohesion. The melodic aspects also sound like Orbital circa Snivilisation. Layers glide together in a flurry of portamento. "Winter At Night" sounds like someone slurping soup in time with a gamelan-and-vintage-synth groove. "A List Of Things That Quicken The Heart" loops bell-organ tones, welcoming a gentle but insistent beat. If Bjork is ever looking to regain some of her cuteness she should employ I Am Robot And Proud and start singing about spiders again. And giraffes.
Ian C Stewart

Dance Of Death

Dance of Death opens with the first single "Wildest Dreams," whose lyrics hark back to "Wasted Years." "Rainmaker" continues with a straightforward groove while the triple-lead-guitar attack rocks on, unchallenged. "No More Lies" opens with a quiet bass-and-clean-guitar passage that sets the pace for the first verse. The chorus plows through a heavy full-band-riff. "Montsegur" sounds like a leftover from Piece Of Mind, which is a compliment, with Bruce Dickinson nobly engaging his former vocal range (i.e. very high). The title track seems to grasp at "Hallowed Be Thy Name" - the same mix of riffs and time signatures over a minor key progression. "Face In The Sand" has Nicko McBrain playing double-bass drum lines (with one bass drum still? Somehow?). "Age Of Innocence" opens with a keyboard sound last heard on the Cure's Disintegration. The rest of the song goes big: large chorus, family-sized verse. "Journeyman" winds the album down in unplugged-with-orchestra style, almost getting into some "Dust In The Wind" action. It has been said that the last song on an album usually points the way for the next album, which would be interesting. Iron Maiden reborn as acoustic guitar heroes - hey, it worked for the Scorpions. And I still can't believe how sucky the cover art is.
Ian C Stewart

Momentary Delights
Soul Shard Records
I find it difficult to care about this album. There's certainly nothing bad here, but there's not really anything too spectacular either, just beats (electronica hedging into triphop), warm washing synthy textures, the occasional Euro-cute vocal, and a Pram-like abundance of tremolo guitars. The textures are washed out and unsatisfying where they should be steamy and enveloping, the grooves lifeless where they should rock out. Much of the album feels more like the accompaniment to something than the something itself. The most interesting track is the dissonant "Collecting Canaries," with its big sharp brass samples, grinding background squall, jangly individual piano notes and buzzy microtonal synth tones -- but even that doesn't really go anywhere.
Alex Temple

Straight To Inglan's Head
Vintage reggae with extremely political lyrics. Several dub versions included. Johnson's vocal style is rhythmic and spoken with no concessions to melody. The music is swampy guitar-bass-drums-keyboards doused in slapback echo. "Action Line" sounds like a blueprint for the finer moments of the Specials' catalog with upstroke guitars, brass section. "Inglan Is A Bitch" slows things down and includes randomly-applied echo on the drums and vocals. "England is a bitch for true - workin' for the Underground, you don't get to know your way around." "Sonny's Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)" and its dub version "Iron Bar Dub" include harmonica but eventually the bass and drums take over. "New Craas Massahkah" is largely spoken word, the brief, almost uplifting musical passages betraying the grim vocal delivery and subject matter. "Straight To Madray's Head" takes a highlife-Afropop turn. "Wat About Di Workin' Class" is reggae blues, if such a thing is possible, combining blues guitar and Hammond organ in the usual array. This is a good introduction to an artist I don't know jack shit about. Plus, dub rules.
Ian C Stewart

D-D-Don't Stop The Beat

Musically, a cross between Fatboy Slim jams like "Everybody Needs An 808" and early Rolling Stones. Junior Senior is a dynamic duo of a straight dude in his 20s and a gay dude in his 30s. They both sing and contribute to the music, their self-referential lyrics exploiting the differences in sexual orientation, such as "Chicks And Dicks": "Girls think I'm hot but I think they're not." Of course the shoulda-been-massive single "Move Your Feet" is the best song here. Not to mention the kick-ass video which was the most fun since Mr. Oizo and Flat Eric. "Play It Loud" is also nice, with layers of scuzz rock barely concealing drum machines. Beck, Fatboy Slim, the Stones. The guitar sounds thin and weedy and it's out front for most of the songs. Nice.
Ian C Stewart

The Puppet Master
Metal Blade Records
Fortunately for him, King Diamond's albums don't live or die by their originality or, more crucially, their cheesiness. Not unlike a horror movie franchise, you get more of the same every time. Despite (or perhaps because of) the formulaic nature, The Puppet Master is an oddly satisfying album. The music is dark, melodic heavy metal, setting the background for King Diamond's worship-it-or-loathe-it singing style. His voice hasn't changed at all in over 20 years, he still nails the falsetto every time. He acts out the lyrics (almost like a one-man play) with different voices and singing styles. The guitars sound warmer and less harsh than on previous King Diamond albums, at times recalling his other band Mercyful Fate. "No More Me" is a psuedo-ballad with a prominent church organ sound; "Darkness" follows a similar path. "So Sad" and "Christmas" include a female vocalist. "Living Dead" rocks out evilly and is subsumed by a ghouly outro. It's a fuckin' King Diamond album, what did you expect?
Ian C Stewart

Dance-rock-electronica stuff, from the musical DNA strain that brought us Sneaker Pimps, Republica, Portishead, Curve and Garbage, resulting in large beats, all kinds of guitars, a female vocalist that borders on disco-diva, but with hints of Beth Gibbons. In England I'm sure this is just considered "pop music" and that's the end of it, but in the US, where this kind of thing doesn't bother the top 40 charts, we categorize the fuck out of these things. Unfortunately, Kokopelli lacks the immediacy of Kosheen's breakout hit "Hide U." This collection sounds like they're going on the defensive - they don't want to make another "Hide U," so they cloak everything in the same kind of after-effects as the last U2 album. It could just be me, but nothing here grabbed me by the scrote and demanded to be played again.
Ian C Stewart


Council Of Nine
Gorgeous, melodic ambient techno with soundtrack elements. "Fyrlykter" is as glacial and hypnotic as the dark sea on the cover. Distant chords undulate under reversed percussives. "Rod Dyphavsleire" subtly builds into a looped refraction. "Malstrom" builds on easily-accessible synth tones and note-piles with orchestra-like layers. "Isbryteren" adds hand percussion and gently surging drama. Fucking beautiful album really.
Ian C Stewart

Million Year Old Sand

Times Beach Records
OK, yeah, that whole "sounds like Joni Mitchell" thing is fairly accurate. But man, could this album me any more vanilla? Sure, the occasional keyboard part filling out the texture is nice, and some of the melodies are nice, and at one point she plays in a lilting 6/8 and that's nice, but that's pretty much all there is: nice. Apparently people find this music cathartic, but how moved can you be by lyrics about "this twisted path" and some woman who "wants to fly even when she falls"? Shannon Wright this ain't. I don't want to come down too hard, because there are some interesting little details here and there, though they're certainly not emphasized -- some gray, flat multitracked humming in "Superior Sunsets," the pleasantly incompetent violin playing in "Role" -- stuff like that. And the last track is a sort of psychedelic drone piece, which is different at least. But Million Year Old Sand would be a lot more engaging if moments like these were the rule rather than the exception.
Alex Temple


They name the album after a song by the Dukes Of Stratosphear and they don't even bother to cover it? Come on. Living Colour as an ongoing concern, post-1989, has always been a tenuous proposition, their reason-for-being yoinked and and re-expressed much more successfully by Rage Against The Machine. The years have not been kind to this group who had the misfortune of having a commercially huge first album. Handpicked to open for the Rolling Stones after Saggy-Jagger produced their demo, what else can a group do but lose the plot and struggle against changing tastes and values? There was never any doubt that Vernon Reid was an inventive guitarist, or that Will Calhoun a beast of a drummer. Or that Corey Glover was certainly a great lead vocalist for this band. (Muzz Skillings did nothing on bass and Doug Wimbish continues that tradition.) Collideascope illustrates all this and more. The fundamental problem with political lyrics is that they don't age well. Making political statements may work in the short term but it doesn't lend itself to longevity if your name isn't Bob Dylan. "In Your Name" includes drum 'n' bass loops with Reid power-chording and Glover trying to muster a negative-energy angle. Rage Against The Machine was better at the political thing because their music was stronger, they had stronger hooks and their delivery sounded much more authentic and believable. "In Your Name" sounds forced and yet not forced enough at the same time. Check out the pointless, note-perfect cover of AC/DC's "Back In Black," they sound invigorated and lethal. "Nightmare City" cops a reggae groove for the first successful combination of menace and preachiness on the album. "Great Expectations" (not a KISS cover, damn) sounds more like Bad Brains than Bad Brains. Come on, Corey, sing "I against I against I against I against I against" one time. "Pocket Of Tears" sounds like a Robert Cray song. A cover of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" follows, rather purposelessly carried by a drum 'n' bass break. Vivid it is not. Maybe that was the point, but shit.
Ian C Stewart

Plague Soundscapes

Fucking insane, absurdist grindcore collages for the curious grindcore fan. Plague Soundscapes foregoes the menace prevalent in the genre in favor of avant garde fluorishes and upper-register yelping, placing it stylistically closer to John Zorn's Naked City than Carcass. The 20+ songs are all less than two minutes; concentrated doses of Captain Beefheart-meets-Napalm Death crassness. If there's a pattern, it's something like: blast, grind, groove, scream, blast, blast. Stagger, stagger, crawl, crawl, crawl, stagger.The inclusion of groove parts and analog synths proves The Locust isn't afraid to fuck shit up in a non-grindcore manner. "Teenage Mustache," "Earwax Halo Manufactured For The Champion In All Of Us," "Who Wants A Dose Of The Clap?" "Captain Gaydar It's Time To Wind Your Clock Again" and "The Half-Eaten Sausage Would Like To See You In His Office" are all late contenders for Song Title of the Year.
Ian C Stewart

From The Mothership

Council Of Nine
Hypnotic dark ambience. "The Inception" sounds like a Mortiis instrumental under a waterfall. In slow motion. "Blips" includes a foreground arpeggiation of, yes, blips. "Forest" includes rainforest samples and more arpeggios. "Ambient" is a four minute, two-note synth drone. The title track rounds out the album with sustained, reversed synth lines.
Ian C Stewart

Upside Downside

Sugar Hill Records
White guys playing the blues. Telecasters. Someone's been watching too much TV. Or perhaps not enough. "It Didn't Take Too Long" is an uptempo 12-bar blues ordeal with Scott Miller singing in perfect diction "My baby and me was goin' out on our first date." You can even hear him singing the apostrophe in "goin'." It has long been my conviction that there's something just fundamentally fucked-up with affluent Caucasians playing the blues, so I'll try to limit my reactions to things like the production. The production is good. Everything sounds exactly like it should. Acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, Hammond organ. The vocals are clear and easily understood. "Raised By The Graves" gets some kind of Bonnie Raitt shit going, I don't know. "The Way" is an acoustic ballady kind of abomination. "Second Chance" goes country. Sheesh.
Ian C Stewart

Deeds Of Derangement
Morbid Records
Unsympathetic, ferocious, melodic grind. The singer sounds like he's trapped inside a toilet bowl, unable to form complete words. The riffs are disgusting and unsettlingly fierce. And then a wah-wah guitar solo, like a Kirk Hammett time capsule come to life. The song titles display an affinity for the Cannibal Corpse school of feminism: "Deformed Slut," "Postal Devirginized," (though I suppose that doesn't necessarily have to involve females) "She's Not Coming Home Tonight" and "Cum Covered Stabwounds." The blastbeats are severely punishing and the harmonized guitars aren't exactly a girl's best friend either. Deeds Of Derangement is wonderfully vile death metal.
Ian C Stewart

The Science Group tend to get referred to as an avant-prog supergroup, given the band's core of Chris Cutler (Henry Cow, Art Bears, Cassiber), Bob Drake (Thinking Plague, 5uu's, Hail) and Croatian composer Stevan Tickmayer. Their first album, 1999's ...A Mere Coincidence... had featured both Drake and Amy Denio (Tone Dogs, the Danubians) on vocals, and it was fantastic, so I had high hopes for the sequel. But as much as I hate to admit it, I just can't get into Spoors -- even though it adds Thinking Plague's brilliant guitarist Mike Johnson to the mix. If the new Thinking Plague was a slightly confusing slight letdown, then Spoors is the disappointment of the year. Sure, Tickmayer can still compose like a motherfucker -- picture the typical jagged quasi-tonalisms of your average avant-prog band, only much denser and with a bigger than usual dose of Bartók tossed in -- but the playing here sounds completely mechanical. Maybe it's the lack of vocals providing a warmer counterpoint to the (mostly electric) instruments, I don't know, but there's no fire here, just lots of fast. Saddest of all is those weird straight-up pop moments; on ...A Mere Coincidence... they breathed a manic joy, and here they just seem like a joke. And the worst part is, there is one brief passage that takes my breath away -- in the middle of "Tractate," where the band start layering instruments in bigger and louder stacks, climaxing with a massive organ playing repeated note figures -- and then just a few measures later, it collapses into shaky staticky noises that, like the rest of the album, are interesting and cool, but completely unmoving.
Alex Temple

Chutes Too Narrow

Sub Pop
OK, first off: if you're looking for another Oh, Inverted World, you won't get it. Now that the Shins have stripped the summer haze from their sound, they barely sound like the same band. At least, at first listen -- subsequent hearings have revealed here the same element that made their debut so wonderful, namely a brilliant songcraft that uses sophisticated variation techniques to cram more good tunes into a single song than many bands have in three or four. And every single one of those melodies will be stuck in your head for days, guaranteed. But while the band's newfound clarity of production reveals the songs' melodic profiles all the more clearly, there's a price to pay: whereas the lesser tracks on the first album were merely a bit dull, here there are actual lapses of taste -- most notably the band's rather limp attempt at alt-country, "Gone for Good," but also the queasily unnecessary violins and "la la las" in the middle of "Saint Simon" -- Baroque pop without enough schmutz in its schmalz, so to speak. And the surprisingly up-tempo "Fighting in a Sack" gets disturbingly close to pop-punk ... but never mind all that! There are enough brilliant songs here to make this a worthy purchase regardless, from the rockin' neo-British-Invasion single "So Says I" to the post-DC-post-punk opener "Kissing the Lipless," which makes the best (read: the only good) use of the emo "sensitive scream" I've ever heard. And then there's the surprisingly aggressive "Turn a Square," with its punchy, clunky, chunky guitar sound and the requisite bloopy noises in the background. And the cheerily psych-poppy "Mine's Not A High Horse," complete with synths that rise higher and higher in the background and drag your mood with them. I could go on for pages, but instead I'll just say that the Shins are some of the best songwriters active today, and I'm more than willing to forgive them a few failed experiments (and a somewhat higher proportion of failed lyrics, and perhaps an excessive dependence on vocal licks copped from "Good Vibrations") if it means I can get songs as fucking good as the best material on here. But please guys, more than 34 minutes of music next time, OK? I mean, really.
Alex Temple

Worthless Smiles

Go Big Records
Screamy and melodic-pop-hardcore. Who would've ever thought such a combination would be possible, let alone as one of the most commercial forms of music in the world right now? But here it is. Distorted guitars expelling shards of chords; driving, aggressive drumming; subtle bass underpinning, vocals that are shouted and sung in equal amounts. Overly dramatic (over)use of dynamics. "Reaction Time" opens with a fine, 1980s postpunk-style upper-register guitar line. "Waiting" rocks with huge guitar chording. And yet, by the time the vocals kick in, it just sounds like a bunch of sissies whining (in harmony) about having to clean their rooms. A histrionic cover of Portishead's "Sour Times" closes the disc - with samples of Tuvan throat singing buried in one of the breakdowns. These guys take the fun out of everything.
Ian C Stewart

Peace Is Tough

Peace Is Tough is an untidy slice of electronica that includes a vocal shot from X Ray Spex's Ari Up. "No Peace" is moody triphop with orchestra breaks. "Rhythm Without A Pause" rocks a distorted bass synth line over big beat loops. "Addict" layers a Chemical Brothers-sounding electro bassline with a hacked vocal sample (of perhaps the cheesiest dude in the world, lazily explaining that it "hurts to be cool - it started back in school." Can I get some crackers with that cheese?) "Get It On" redeems Terranova immediately with classic synth sequencing. "99%" starts with a vocoded sample of a guy saying "and now a little something for all those of you who live in the past." Then it's light beats, backward bass lines, guitar samples; more Chemical Brothers style activity. And then, the breakdown and the synth riff. Very nice. But where the Brothers would've built the riff back up into a strobe-light frenzy, Terranova is content to pull a low-key beat in and keep things level. "Rockmongril" adds distorted guitars and female toasting to the salad for a Garbage-like effect. (Or Curve. Same thing.) Nice. "Voodoo Beach Party" is an ambient-electro slow jam that leads into a hidden track at the end. Whatever it is, it's like a Groove Armada leftover - funky beats and processed vocals - and it's probably the best song on the album.
Ian C Stewart


Modern Love
Techy, intelligent dance music that's as groovy as it is glitchy. "Freeform Render" opens and sounds like Thomas Dolby's early synth work filtered through Aphex Twin. EP1 emphasizes rhythm and texture over melody as on the opening of "Rotating Mass." "Spacemission One" sounds like a clever pastiche of every groovebox (and its software counterparts like Acid and Reason) cliche: 808 drum sounds, glowery synth washes, filtered arpeggiator lines. My apologies if this track wasn't meant to be a joke because it's very clever.
Ian C Stewart


Expansive, ambitious death metal with vocals that you can understand. Is it a good idea to have the vocals presented so clearly in death metal? I don't know. Vader's riffs are extremely evil and coated in nuisance, with flurries of notes followed quickly by doom breaks. Guitar solos. Blastbeats. "Son Of Fire" starts off on a Slayer jag (like "War Ensemble") with start-stops and whammy-bar-frenzy weedly guitar solos. "Traveller" is two minutes of Pantera-style double-bass riffing at the beginning followed by blasting on the verse. "Angel Of Death" is shockingly mid-tempo and has lyrics about an earthquake in San Francisco. Maybe they made a video for this song, I don't know. It has a breakdown - suitable for European heavy metal festival attendees to clap over their heads to - and layers of synth effects at the beginning and end.
Ian C Stewart


Rik Wright and his 4tet play a rather noisy and claustrophobic brand of fusion -- and that's fusion in the "jazz with electric guitars" sense, not the "rock band soloing tediously for 40 minutes" sense. Well, actually, the album does take a while to warm up, between the two-and-a-half-minute preparatory track "Awakening" and the disappointing "Scatterbrained," whose somewhat directionless soloing can't live up to its spiky, punchy head. After that, though, it's pretty solid through to the end. The faster tracks consist of messy, aggressive, borderline-atonal jazz with solos that remind me strangely of the better side of 70s blues-rock, while the slower ones come closer to space-rock, especially in the science-fictiony ambient pulses of "Afterglow." The highlight is probably "Minor You," which builds from some seriously gritty cello playing into a subtle, filmic mixture of noir jazz, spacy drone, and ethereal chamber music -- always with that good old lo-fi production to keep it from getting too pretty. The only problem: the album's less than thirty minutes long, so those two weaker tracks take up nearly a third of your listening time.
Alex Temple

We Love Everybody... You're Next!!!

My Utopia Recordings
Melodic, new wave-influenced electronica - "Love Resurrection" starts with a Gary Numan style synth line followed closely by an electro-style beat. Vocoded (or something) vocal samples intone the track's title. "Beautiful Morning" is like a cross between electro and trance. An electro bassline and drum track play nice with trance snare rolls. The vocals make it like a pop song. "Naked Drunk And Horny" is like Lords Of Acid produced by the Neptunes. Wait, maybe that's giving it too much credit. "Drugsandalcoholandalcoholanddrugs" is more electro-trance with vocoded vocals. The uncredited 17 minute track at the end takes an ambient techno spin. Yellow Note, like many electroclash acts, has the sounds and the style but none of the songs, making We Love Everybody... You're Next!!! good for one listen.
Ian C Stewart

Emperor side project moves to the fore. "Psyklon Aeon" opens with blasting riffage that is much more primal than Emperor. Zyklon mostly (but not entirely) foregoes the keyboards, timechanges and melodic vocals in favor of sophisticated brutality, placing more emphasis on melodic guitar lines and harmonies.
Ian C Stewart