ALBUM REVIEW: New Model Army “From Here”

New Model Army "From Here" album cover

New Model Army “From Here” album cover

Few bands remain active for 39 years, fewer still remain relevant after four decades and only a handful age gracefully, channeling the years of life’s experiences and trials into mature works that better the “prime” years of their career. New Model Army are one of those select handful of artists who are getting better with age. And with From Here (the band’s 15th studio album by my count) they have maintained the artistic honesty and excellence they set for themselves since their formation in 1980.

The songs for From Here were written quickly over a two-month period and recorded even faster in just nine days so the album has a feeling of spontaneity and freshness that breathes energy into the material. The album was recorded at Ocean Sound Recordings on the tiny island of Giske off the Norwegian coast. This remote location was, according to the band “Bleak, open, cold and rugged” and a perfect place for them to create something collectively, with each member inspired in his own way, by their surroundings. New Model Army guided once again by producers Jamie Lockhart and Lee Smith have graced us with a truly exceptional, and very special, set of new material.

New Model Army; press photo

New Model Army; press photo

Although recorded in just nine days From Here is anything but sparse. It is a complex and nuanced work that holds up to repeat listens, in fact it actually gets better the more you hear it, each layer of sound weaving into and out of the mix at just the right moment with everything held together (as it always is) by Justin Sullivan’s words and passionate vocal performances (honestly I think I’d pay money to hear this guy sing the phone book, he’s that good).

So, let’s talk a little about the songs that make up this fine set. I’ve picked three of my favorites although ANY of the tracks could be your favorites. Every song is strong, and this is a “no-filler” collection with a cohesiveness and unity that make it into a satisfying complete experience.

Where I Am is simply classic New Model Army – This one could have been slotted on one of their mid-eighties releases and it would have sounded right at home, with its acoustic/electric guitars and vocal intro leading the charge. When the drums kick in at about the minute mark the song shifts into high gear and by the time the sing-along chorus burrows its way between your ears you have a new favorite New Model Army classic to be thankful for.

New Model Army; press photo

New Model Army; press photo

Maps/Setting Sun are perhaps the songs most noticeably influenced by the inspiration the band found in their surroundings on the rugged and beautiful Isle of Giske. Maps very much captures the feeling of looking into the vastness of the Atlantic. It is both beautiful, moving and maybe just a little reflective, more a tone poem than pop song, with guitars and cellos (?) accented with drum rolls, cymbal crashes and lyrics about old sea sailing charts that are “filled with pictures of strange sea creatures”. The song segues quietly, and dare I say perfectly, on a wave of subdued feedback and a repeated guitar into Setting Sun which immediately sets off on a more upbeat note with a rocking drum beat and reflective almost whispered vocals. These two songs, although separate works, join together so seamlessly they almost feel as if they were conceived together as a whole.

So, after 39 years New Model Army have released an album that sounds fresh and exciting as if it had been released from a group just few years into their career. How do they do it? Certainly, by following their own muse and not trying to mimic the sound of whatever is currently on the pop charts. But I think maybe they do it mostly by putting in the hard work…writing every day, touring every year (although we do miss them here in America-Please come back) and thank god for being smart enough to remain the “Captains” in charge of their own musical destiny. From Here is another classic from New Model Army guaranteed to rank in the upper echelons of their already impressive body of work.

ALBUM REVIEW: Meat Beat Manifesto “Opaque Couche”

MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO "Opaque Couche" album cover

MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO “Opaque Couche” album cover

32 years into a groundbreaking career Electro pioneers Meat Beat Manifesto (MBM) are back with their 12th studio album Opaque Couche, a tongue in cheek reference for what is supposedly the ugliest hue in the Pantone Color book.

Opaque Couche finds MBM reaching back to their roots while pushing their patented blend of blips, bleeps and heavy dub rhythms forward into exciting new soundscapes. According to MBM main-man Jack Dangers he chose the title Opaque Couche because it is neither black nor white but a shade somewhere in-between. Perhaps a perfect bit of symbolism for the divided times the world is facing at this moment?

Whatever its meaning Opaque Couche is prime time MBM product and a worthy addition to their sparkling catalog of releases. “Unduction” begins things with some spooky samples setting an ominous tone, a voice recites in a monotone in the background and a brief 90 seconds later second track “Pin Drop” kicks in and you suddenly have that patented MBM sound that only they can deliver.

Meat Beat Manifesto press photo

Meat Beat Manifesto press photo

Maybe it’s because Dangers builds his soundscapes on a bed of samples instead of using drum machines, maybe it’s because they can effortlessly marry heavy Jamaican dub bass lines with electronics or maybe it’s because he is such a visionary talent. No one else has ever really been able to duplicate the MBM sound. Nobody delivers this particular blend of electronica like Dangers does.

And so Opaque Couche (clocking in at around 60 minutes) is a double LP’s worth of vintage MBM which although it may be presented in a rather drab outer package is absolutely slamming when pumping out of a pair of speakers. The album delivers on all fronts offering listeners both ambient soundscapes and thundering dancefloor shakers.

Opaque Couche is their second album release following an eight-year hiatus (brought about partly because Dangers moved his studio to a different Bay area location) and it’s great to report MBM are back sounding fresh and reenergized. The band is hitting the road for some live dates and if possible, you’ll want to catch them touring on this album. Here’s hoping we get plenty more from MBM in the coming years.

ALBUM REVIEW: Band Of Skulls “Love Is All You Love”

Band Of Skulls "Love Is All You Love" cover

Band Of Skulls “Love Is All You Love” cover

Band Of Skulls’ (BoS) crackling good LP Love Is All You Love is the sound of a band reinventing itself, the sound of a band who is unafraid to take chances and push their music forward in new directions. BoS, while not forgetting their past, have their sights set firmly on the future. The possibilities seem endless and exciting. In short, after four really very good albums, BoS may have just made the album of their career.

Spurred by the amicable departure of drummer Matt Haywood remaining members Russell Marsden (guitar/vox) and Emma Richardson (bass/vox) approached the songwriting differently. In their own words they wrote them “As a songwriting duo, which is completely different than as songwriting band”.

Whatever the impetus, whether it was writing as a duo, being forced out of their usual work patterns or the addition of producer Richard X (Pet Shop Boys, New Order) the songs are now tighter and more muscular. Song hooks which have always been present (but in the past may have been buried) are now razor sharp, at the forefront and undeniable.

Just seconds into opening track “Carnivorous” you realize this is not entirely the BoS you are familiar with. A throbbing bass line, Arabesque guitar hook and unashamedly electronic sheen…this is your invitation from the Band of Skulls to join them for a new musical enterprise. When the songs’ chorus drops with its ridiculously catchy panning delay on the word “Carnivorous ….ivorous… ivorous” I’m guessing you may well be all in on the new direction BoS is headed.

“Cool Your Battles” the advance track from the album is of all things a protest song cleverly disguised as a hit single. And the times being what they are a little protest never hurt anything. The band calls this an “Anti- war cry for our turbulent times” and the message is loud and clear. But it’s wrapped up in a shimmering bow of a chorus that does what all really good subversive songs do by getting you to chant along while it plants its message between your ears.

“Sound Of You” is a downright sexy torch song for the 21st century. Putting Richardson’s soulful pleading vocal front and center over a pumping bass line and Marsden’s R&B guitar licks on acid. This is an album highlight to be sure.

As is “We’re Alive” a thundering Glam rocking piece of cotton candy that might well have put a smile on Marc Bolan’s face, its chorus virtually commanding you (“Come On… Come On”) to sing along. This is pop music as it should be, as it could be if more artists were willing to test their limits. Music that is catchy enough to sing along to yet complex enough to make you want to listen to it again and again.

And don’t you just love it when a band you admire surprises you? That is exactly what BoS have done with their newest album. Challenge accepted.

Available Apr. 12 via So Recordings.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Orb “No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds”

The Orb “No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds”; cover art

The Orb “No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds”; cover art

The Orb are back with their excellent new album No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds (NSAOOB) released June 22, on Cooking Vinyl Records.

NSAOOB finds The Orb expanding on the minimalist sound of their previous two releases and instead bringing in a host of singers and players to create an album that harkens back to the bands’ earliest days while also managing to sound current and fresh.

Album opener “The End Of The Road” kicks things off with keyboards bubbling away and a thundering bassline all elevated with a fantastic lead vocal by Emma Gillespie…and straight off you know this is a return to the song-oriented structure that have made The Orb dancefloor superstars throughout their long and storied career.

Speaking of bass there is lots of it on NSAOOB and the very next track “I wish I had A pretty Dog” grooves along with a bass line so deep and thundering it would put a smile on King Tubby’s face, as would the trippy dub effects and samples that float along like glitter dropped from the heavens floating in and out of the mix at just the perfect moments.

Legendary former Public Image LTD. bassist Jah Wobble is joined by Roger Eno on the track “Pillow Fight At Shag Mountain”, a groovy instrumental number that might sound just as at home on the second Orb album U.F.ORB (released 1992) as it does here. And why not as Mr. Wobble also made an appearance on that album too. Here he gets the same type of spacey groove going that he is justly famous for while Roger Eno’s keyboards add a shimmer to the rootsy bottom end.

NSAOOB is a decidedly English sounding album, even more noticeable after the excellent but minimalist sound on their last two releases. It is also the most commercially accessible album (and I mean that in the very best way possible) that The Orb have released in years. So, to all the old school Orb fans out there – this is the one you’ve been waiting for, and the one you’ll be hearing on the radio and in the clubs for years. In other words, it’s a classic.

Appearing on No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds:
Youth, Thomas Felhmann. Michael Rendall, Andy Caine, Holly Cook, Emma Gillespie, Gaudi, Rev Eno, Jah Wobble, Guy Pratt, Mary Pearse, Brother Culture, Rihanna

The Orb is Alex Paterson

ALBUM REVIEW: Graveyard “Peace”

GRAVEYARD "Peace" cover art

GRAVEYARD “Peace” cover art

They’re Baaaaaack.

Two years after announcing their breakup Graveyard makes a very welcome return with their new album Peace, which finds the band joined by a new drummer, Oskar Bergenheim, and with a fresh and inspired new take on their heavy “riffs n’ hooks’ sound that finds them adding more soul and songcraft to their music and making Peace a worthy companion to Graveyard’s highwater mark 2012 album Lights Out.

Opening track “It Ain’t Over Yet” makes a statement in both sound and song title, that Graveyard are back with a vengeance. Guitars grind, drums crash, the bass thumps and the vocals wail as they come roaring out of the gate at full speed, letting the world know in just under four minutes, that this band is taking no prisoners and ready to shut up any naysayer that dares to think differently.

One of the best things about Graveyard and what differentiates them from so many of their contemporaries is their ability to blend different musical styles and sounds; Graveyard’s music rewards you with every repeat listen. In other words their albums have legs – and Peace is no exception, finding the band seamlessly blending rock, soul, 60’s acid fuzz and of course a big dash of heavy metal into an infectious musical stew that finds one pressing the repeat button instead of moving on to some other band.

“The Fox” is a perfect example of this diversity as guitarist Jonatan Ramm blasts out a fuzz pedal riff that would feel right at home on some lost 60’s garage rocker. Joakim Nilsson’s soul drenched wailing vocals and a hooky chorus transports the song into the stratosphere before the guitar again takes center stage on the outro. This is one track I can’t wait to hear them perform live.

This is a killer of an album, and a real return to form for Graveyard. If you’re new to the band check out the Peace album. If you’re a longtime fan, you’ll probably bought this on release day.

ALBUM REVIEW: Wooden Shjips “V.”

WOODEN SHJIPS "V." cover art

WOODEN SHJIPS “V.” cover art

V. is Wooden Shjips first new album in five years and it finds the bands’ trademark space rock newly spiked with a heavy dose of warm summer sunshine. Equal parts laid back groove and anxious tension, it delivers the perfect soundtrack for either a summer drive with the top down and your face bathed in sunlight or conversely coming down from a pretty good drug high, alone in your room at 3am and staring at the walls. Somehow this perfect gem of an album works for both scenarios.

Opening track “Eclipse” kicks the album off in fine style that finds the bands’ Hawkwind meets The Velvet Underground sound captured to full effect. Spacey guitars and synths, both heavy with delay and effects, weave in and out of the mix, while thunderous bottom end, cranked out by the bass and drums holds everything together like Super Glue.

“Staring At the Sun” the lead single from the record clocks in at over seven minutes. Now you just have to love a band that releases a seven-minute slab of space-rock calling on influences as diverse as the California psych soul of the Buffalo Springfield and the Teutonic robot rock of krautrockers Neu; and then wraps them all up into a gauzy piece of ear candy suitable to melt brains and open minds everywhere.

Speaking of brain melting…for those of you inclined this is most definitely a record that is going to WOW when listened to with headphones. The mix by Cooper Crain literally bubbles and floats between speakers while never losing its focus. The fat bottom end laid down by rhythm section of Omar Ahsanuddin and Dusty Jermier is rock solid and leaves plenty of room for the synths, guitars and vocals of Nash Whalen and Ripley Johnson to wander on and off center stage for their turn in the spotlight.

With V. (the “V” can also be interpreted as a graphic symbol of a peace sign – surely a comment on the current political and global tensions effecting the world) Wooden Shjips have delivered up all you can ask for from a band back in action after a five-year hiatus. It’s full of everything that fans loved about the band – but now informed with a new artistic growth earned by a half decade of new experiences and sounds infusing the music.

V. is a sure pick as your soundtrack to the hazy crazy summer of 2018, enjoy it.

ALBUM REVIEW: A Place To Bury Strangers “Pinned”

A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS "Pinned" album cover

A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS “Pinned” album cover

Pinned Available now on Dead Oceans Records is the 5th album from NYC noise merchants A Place To Bury Strangers (APTBS) and their first to feature new member drummer and vocalist Lia Simone Braswell.

Pinned may be the most focused APTBS album thus far. Pinned finds APTBS coaxing melodies and dare I say it hooks out of the witches’ brew of noise they are justifiably famous for and putting those melodies and hooks front and center in the mix.

This may be partly due to founding member and chief song writer Oliver Ackerman being forced to move from the artist’s workshop Death By Audio where he lived and wrote all previous APTBS albums and finding himself in an apartment surrounded by neighbors and the attendant noise restrictions that entails. Or as he sums it up, “It had to be about writing a good song and not about being super sonically Loud.” Whatever the impetus the songs are here and they are strong.

“Never Coming Back” opens Pinned in strong fashion with Dion Lundon’s (formerly of Aussie rockers D4) heavy surging bass and spooky chanted group vocals (welcome aboard Ms.Braswell and nice job) immediately set the tone for the album; one of laser urgency and razor sharp purpose. There are no extra notes floating around here. They are few and sharp and to the point. Like a good hardboiled detective story there is no fat to them.

“There’s Only One Of Us” features a catchy hook of a guitar riff, almost oriental in feel, and again great backing vocals by Braswell who is a very welcome addition to the overall sound of the band. All this ear candy floats over a bed of feedback that might melt plastic and would certainly melt your eardrum. This is still a band that knows how to strangle a guitar after all, hooks or no hooks.

Pinned sounds like a statement album from a band that is naturally evolving to the next level of their career. They sound poised and ready for bigger stages, bigger audiences and bigger songs. But long time fans need not fret. They brought along plenty of their trademark noise, tension and feedback for the ride. Only now it’s the song that comes first before everything else.

ALBUM REVIEW: THE LIVING “The Living”

THE LIVING

THE LIVING album cover

Hailing from San Francisco, The Living mesh styles as diverse as Metal, Shoe Gaze and Pop into an emotional witches brew that they make all their own. Made up of long time friends Derek Barnes (vocals/guitar), Julian Balestrieri (guitar), Jeremy Shepherd (bass) and Jason Zaru (drums) their sound is raw, emotional and heartfelt. Their self-released self-titled debut is available now.

The Living is the kind of band where guitar solos count for a lot, maybe even everything. They spin them and stretch them and shift them into the fabric of their music, propelling the songs to dizzying heights.

And we’re talking your better class of guitar solo here, the kind where the number of notes played is less but every note counts for more, and that are so melodic that they stick in your ears like caramel on a taffy apple.

THE LIVING

THE LIVING; press photo

The track “Deceiver” is a great example of how The Living like to work at song structure. Things start at a slow burn with a simple guitar riff and build slowly by adding shades, textures and dynamics until they reach a full boil, which is (you guessed it) a pretty spectacular guitar workout.

Album closer “Headless Pillow” is a real highlight and again works the quiet/loud/quiet songwriting dynamic perfectly with vocalist Barnes singing the opening verses in a whisper before the band kicks in and the guitars start wailing. The last five minutes of this seven minute epic is a breathtaking rush of guitar virtuosity, as melody after melody effortlessly spin off the fret board and the song rushes headlong towards the finish line. But not before the band masterfully drop the bottom out of the song like a perfectly thrown curveball in game seven of the World Series – and it ends in a whisper. Beautifully done.

The Living may just be a perfect fit for fans of groups like My Sleeping Karma or Mogwai, two mostly instrumental bands whose sound The Living build on by adding vocals into the mix. And judging from the sound of their album, which is well produced but also very live sounding, I’m betting these guys put on one hell of a gig. Smart money is on catching them live when they come to your town to play.

ALBUM REVIEW: L.A. WITCH “L.A. Witch”

L.A. WITCH

L.A. WITCH “L.A. Witch” CD cover

In order to really make a band like L.A. Witch work on record, the sound captured on tape has to also capture the essence of the dirty city rock-n-roll vibe. You know what I’m talking about, a sleazy club with graffiti on the walls, spilled booze on the sticky floor and the sound of echoing guitars bouncing around the room. Well L.A. Witch goes one better because they give you all that and more on their fantastic new self-titled album.

Not only do you get the kick of rock-n-roll dreams captured in the grooves, but they even capture the aftermath, coming down hard, and driving home from the show at 4am. The white lines of an L.A. freeway blurring in a pair of bloodshot eyes.

The three women of L.A. Witch, Sade Sanchez (vocals / guitar) Irita Pai (bass) and Ellie English (drums) conjure up an enchanting mixture that brings to mind a brooding mix of early Gun Club and the dark side of psychedelia ala Arthur Lee’s Love. Run all this through a wash of Phil Spector wall of sound reverb, and you get a sound equal parts sunshine pop, dreamy and drugged out scary.

And to prove straight off the bat that this ain’t the summer of love we’re listening to here, the gals start things off with a (ta-dah) MURDER BALLAD!

“Kill My Baby Tonight” opens with a pulsating bass line, pounding drums and a slinky, slithering guitar line over which floats Sanchez’s aloof, almost detached lyrics and vocal style: “I’m gonna hurt my baby tonight / If he don’t come home on time / I’m gonna kill my baby tonight / This way he’ll forever be mine”

Fair warning issued – This is a woman you do not want to get on the wrong side of.

“You Love Nothing” opens with a guitar tremolo effect spinning off into space and set to stun, a truly massive, thundering bassline and a snare drum hit so hard it rattles your teeth. Sanchez snarls out the lyrics with enough venom to take out an entire congregation at a tent revival: “You Love Nothing / You Want Nothing / Why Do I want You? / Why do I need you?”

Now you might be getting the (wrong) impression that this record is a bit of a downer, and I really want to emphasize that it is anything but that. Actually, it’s a lot of fun to listen to. The songs are performed well and with great feel. And when these women play together they generate enough cool out of their instruments to keep a six pack of beer ice cold for a week.

The songs have been recorded exactly as you want a band like L.A. Witch captured in the studio, with sufficient polish to get them on the radio but enough of the raw edges left on to still make them sound dangerous and exciting.

L.A. Witch is the perfect anecdote for the cotton candy clogging your veins after a summer of bad blockbuster movies and too many days at the beach. Put this one on and it’s instantly the witching hour even if you play it at noon on yet another sunny day in Los Angeles. I promise that it will take you straight to the underbelly of whatever city you live in. And that’s really where you want to be, isn’t it?

ALBUM REVIEW: New Mystics “The Modern Age Is Over”

NEW MYSTICS

NEW MYSTICS (Josh Onstott); press photo

New Mystics is a new project from Josh Onstott of the art rock trio Other Lives, and like his other band, the music on this first solo outing The Modern Age Is Over features beautifully crafted and layered songwriting.

Onstott crafted the record with his friend producer/engineer Hugo Nicolson (Radiohead, Primal Scream, Father John Misty) and the care and love the two friends brought to these songs and this project is easily heard coming out of your stereo speakers. In a word the song arrangements and production are stunning. Listen to this one on headphones friends.

Album opener “Smile With Your Teeth” fades in on a wave of grinding white noise and a propulsive drum groove before a killer guitar riff kicks the whole thing into overdrive. Washes of feedback and a snaking guitar hook, all placed perfectly in the mix carry the verses aloft on a psychedelic sound wave until the the chorus drives it all home with a honking guitar hook that Marc Bolan & T-Rex would be proud of. This one has “modern rock hit” written all over it. And well it should, it’s a great song impeccably played and arranged to its full potential.

Title track “Modern” slows things down and opens up the space between the notes letting Onstott’s Oklahoma high, lonesome voice soar above the mix. When the chorus comes around it does it with a powerful subtly that loses nothing for its show of restraint. And damn if you don’t find yourself singing along like this song is your new best friend!

What Onstott and Nicolson have managed to achieve with New Mystics is the very difficult trick of recording 10 art rock gems and disguising them as pop songs. Repeated listening only magnifies the originality of the songs and their production. And unlike most pop that can grow tiresome, repeated listening profits the listener with appreciation and delight. This record has legs, spend some quality time with these songs and they will reward you.

The Modern Age Is Over by New Mystics is available via TH3RD BRAIN Records Aug. 18, 2017.