Category Archives: Album Review

Album Review: Harvey Milk’s “A Small Turn of Human Kindness”

Oddly enough, one might not find a listing of Harvey Milk on most metal websites. Apparently they don’t fit the genre. But if the neophyte listened to them, nasty metal would be the first words out of his or her mouth. But regardless of what genre they fall within, Harvey Milk have accrued a cult following over their almost twenty year career, apparently anyways. The true wonder about this underground group is that they are more popular now than they were back in the 90’s. Leave that to the power of the internet I guess. In a March interview, band members mostly recount their past failures, er albums, showing their humility and broad range. So why’s this album so great when considering their back catalog? They have pulled everything good about their past albums together to create a heart-wrenching LP that is both slow, but not too slow as to bore the listener; and complex, but not to complex to confuse or distract him or her; yes, as Goldilocks would say, it’s just right.

Their self-deprecation makes them all the more likable. The band frequently denigrates what they do (“We have reached the point of complete and total creative bankruptcy, but at least we made it shorter than the last record, so you can get through listening to it and return it to the store for a refund faster.”), and they are either dead serious, knowing that this music does not appeal to the majority of people listening to music these days, or their level sarcasm eclipses the number of time, key, and movement changes in their songs.

But let’s take back a step before I get into the meat of this new record. I first became acquainted with Harvey Milk when I picked up their 2008 release “Life…The Best Game in Town.” I’d never heard of them or listened to them, so I couldn’t quite appreciate (until collecting more of their back catalog) that they had pulled together the many disparate parts of their musical styles, including concrete-embankment-filled droning feedback, fast, punk-like runs, punctuated and prefaced by Creston Spier’s delightful wails and screams. Yet, fittingly “A Small Turn” is named after the first track on their debut album “My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be,” an album filled with slow, slow, (slow) sludge passages. Unlike “My Love is Higher,” “A Small Turn” is shorter, more compact, and stands as a statement meant to be heard in one go, yet it still does not have a definitive linear structure. Right, it’s not pop music by any means, but there’s something about this album that flows unlike any of their previous attempts.The instrumental opener provides an easy ramp towards what the album will deliver as it slowly connects three different guitar motifs repeatedly book-ended by a few notes from the low end and sparse, yet slowly building symbol crashes, into what sounds like a precursor to Buddhist meditation music. The band uses the same, or similar, bass line from the first track in “I Just Want To Go Home,” only now the guitar lead really blossoms with acid-like feedback dancing slowly around the thumping of the bass line and drums.

“I Am Sick of This All Too,” may test the casual listener’s patience as it presents a series of ascents towards what may seem like climaxes (I have always been a sucker for such dynamics: songs that build slowly towards the inevitable crescendo–something that makes for visceral and memorable music listening; however, the band members seem to realize the telegraphing effect that this structure presents.). Instead, however, of allowing the song to explode, the band arranges the song so that it starts over and over. Spiers slowly bellows in Steinian fashion “why,” “sick,” and “love” over and over again so much that the words become no more than noises of discontent.

The song quickly segues into “I Know This Is No Place For You,” the album’s closest example of a complete song. Yet, for me, the song simply marks the album’s halfway point and nothing more. I find it to be the weakest on an album overflowing with brilliant anguish and melancholy. “I Alone Got Up And Left” slowly makes its presence known with a slow and off kilter drum intro followed by a cold molasses sludge riff that makes you want to swallow hard, twice. But the real gem on the album, and my favorite track is “I Know This Is All My Fault.” It starts with the subtle glassy background synth lines and a convulsively repetitive guitar riff that slowly meanders around the parent scale. It’s one of those songs that catches your ear if you’re not really paying attention to the music, and once it catches your ear, you realize that there’s something deeply emotional about the song as Spiers admits that he’s sorry and accepts fault for something that I don’t quite catch. The album ends with “I Did Not Call Out,” which is a wonderful capstone for the LP. It’s composed of spiraling guitar riffs and multiple key changes as it seems to pay tribute to classic rock (of some sort).

I’ve read reviews comparing Harvey Milk to Black Sabbath, or stating that the band has strong lyrical connections with Leonard Cohen (apparently, they themselves site him as a source of inspiration), and noting the Sunn O))) similarities, but I don’t see any of these bands in Harvey Milk. The band creates off-kilter, melancholic songs which keep this listener interested through the entirety of “A Small Turn of Human Kindness.” They pepper in just enough musical “pop” to guide the listener through a triumphantly successful musical journey, but probably the most salient thing that I take away from this album, is that they achieve success while not situating their work with bands they could easily emulate, copy, or consort with. They’re too odd to fit with inteli-sludgers Isis and Neurosis; and they’re too funny to fall within the avant-gard camp of Sunn O))) or Boris. Spiers and company have created an album both modest and monolithic, that, while begging repeated listens, still offers an immediate emotional draw for the listener.

Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness

Also posted in Doom Metal, Metal

Album Review: The National’s "High Violet"

How often do you listen to a band that conjures up genuinely extreme emotions for you? The National has done it for me, and for years now. “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers,” an album filled with infidelity, middle-class male ennui, and (of course) lost love and how to (unsuccessfully) deal with it, was my first experience with The National; I was drawn to the album, ironically as that sounds coming from a lover of the loud crescendos of Mono’s orchestrated wall of noise sounds; the earsplitting, nine-string pounding of High on Fire’s mystically driven subject matter; and the down home, monochromatically hyperbolic simplicity of The Black Keys. I followed The National, later picking up the superb “Alligator,” then a consistent “Boxer,” then reaching backwards into their discography to enjoy their S/T debut LP. Now, with their newest “High Violet,” Matt Beringer and company have again laid down a dark and tangibly melancholic record that reels its listeners in over repeated listens.

“High Violet” stands poised to break The National wide open though (if the media coverage doesn’t), as they have gained more and more success over the years, something I find ironic considering their being rooted in the Indie scene, yet some say that they are poised for stadium rock success (I’d be displeased if this were to occur, but if it did I wouldn’t lose any enjoyment from listening to their records.). What really shines on this record, though, is the fabulous mix of lyrical content with perfectly restrained and balanced musical composition. For The National, the world is inherently tribulation, constant and inevitable pain and heartache only momentarily quelled by brief moments of epiphany and remembered dreams rising evanescently over the roar of middle-class static.

One of my favorite tracks on the album, “Afraid of Everyone,” opens with ethereal strings, then Matt’s vocals come in matching the music’s lightness, as he says over and over “I’m afraid of everyone/with my kid on my shoulders I try/I try not to hurt anybody I like.” Every single time I hear this song I want to shake my fist in the air and say, damn that’s some poetic song writing. What in the heck is Matt singing about, you might ask. Is the poor guy just a father with agoraphobia exhibiting some minor violent tendencies? Nah. This song sets the tone for this album. It provides an understanding for how the alienation of modern life and its accouterments affects the speaker, and everyone in general. Matt associates lack of identity with being in the public eye: being on the radio and television, two things that provide methods that expose the speaker to an uncomfortably unnatural level. The songs becomes even more powerful when the speaker insists that no drugs are available to “sort out” the horrors of laying dead “blue bodies,” to quash the fear “of everyone,” or to abstain from hurting “anybody I like.” As the song “Runaway” notes as well, the speaker must face these horrors without having the ability to turn his head with the aid of drugs. Yet, the song leaves me perplexed. I can’t figure out the last line: “Your voice has stolen my soul, soul, soul.” Where do I place this song within the content that the song has been covering until the end? Does the speaker find solace that the drugs can’t provide in the inspiration of someone? Or, as simplistic and cliché as it may be, does the speaker gain strength in the face of his fears from the love of someone else? Maybe I’ve got the song all wrong, and the speaker simply is afraid of showing his soul to someone who has apparently already stolen it. I may never figure it out, but it’s still interesting to perplex on this closing line.

I guess it’s safe to say that The National’s “High Violet” could be classified as a popular rock album, and I hope in the most un-pejorative sense of the word (and unlike many twenty-first century popular rock albums which respond to the horrors of 9/11 or the influx of the alienating effects of technology, commercialism, and the like) The National still focus their razor sharp songwriting at the peaks and valleys of our day-to-day worlds. “High Violet” speaks to a shared humanity that is overlooked by many neatly packaged albums I’ve listened to so far this year, and because I hear this shared humanity, I feel a greater pull in The National’s art that won’t quickly disappear.

The National - High Violet

Also posted in Indie

Album Review: Vektor’s "Black Future"

I don’t understand why much of the thrash albums released these days sound so much alike, and are so boring. Don’t write my opinion off yet though. I still listen to it, but my tastes are rooted in mid and late 80’s Sodom and Kreator, 80’s Slayer (of course), mid 80’s Megadeth, and a few other bands peppered in there: Exhorder, Testament, and Destruction. I think the only modern thrash band that really sets itself apart from the rest of the bland pack is Demiricous, who are good, but still fairly conventional in their methods. With this in mind, realizing the shear volume of thrash music releasing these days, I am skeptical to take time listening to unknown bands, but I gave Tempe AZ’s Vektor a try anyway and got my hands on “Black Future.” They were certainly worth my time.

First I have to mention membership. The band is a four piece, and every member pulls his weight with equal measure and 100% intensity. Vocalist/guitarist/founder David DiSanto delivers a hi-end, shrill scream that I have never heard the likes of before. At times the sound crawls up my spine, almost making me cringe out of disgust, but the moment I feel this, DiSanto changes tones and continues his echoey wails in a blackened thrash fashion. Bassist Frank Chin perfectly dictates the depth and breadth of each song, providing perfect counterpoint to DiSanto and Erik Nelson’s prog-like virtuosic thrash freak-fests. Drummer Blake Anderson serves the requisite Slayer-like thrash beats, but he also knows the right moment to slow a song down, then build it up again without losing the listener’s attention span that I have found other prog-metal drummers do; they meander too much.

The band self-labels their music as “sci-fi thrash” and when one looks closely at the album cover Voivod may come to mind, but Vektor’s sound does not touch on the latter’s sound much at all. You won’t hear any out-of-place industrial clinks or groans, no overwrought keyboard leads, and no annoyingly synthetic drum lines. Instead Vektor layer multiple musical elements together, making each part fit perfectly with the others, and if one part were taken out, the song would not stand on its own successfully.

My favorite song on the album is “Accelerating Universe,” clocking in at a preposterously long thirteen-and-a-half minutes. It starts with a classic 80’s Metallica or Megadeth foot stomping thrash riff that slowly doubles in speed, then triples (!), then breaks down into a set of disjunct riffs that do nothing but excite the mind. Then the song speeds up again, then again, using the same disjunct riffs from the previous part (only way, way faster) leading to DiSanto’s horrific inhaling screams. They should play this song to wake up coma patients or something. I know, I know. I’ll stop mapping out the song, but it contains the perfect ratio of build-up to climax, over and over. But the song’s really amazing part comes during the segue at about the five minute mark, which marks a long psychedelic break down, only it’s not your normal “break-down,” per se. It’s more like a second, slow build-up to even more insanity beginning at about the 9:30 minute mark.

If you like extreme thrash that has moved past the standard 80’s genre casting, yet you still want something deeply rooted in traditional riffs, Vektor’s “Black Future” is definitely for you.

Vektor - Black Future

Also posted in Metal, Thrash Metal

Album Review: Cobalt’s "Gin"

Cobalt preach from the beginning to the end of their American style black metal disc to make gripping statements on misanthropy. They preach for the demise of humanity through the progressive “de-evolution” of people to animals, so that they join and operate in the non-beholden world of mammals. Vocalist/lyricist Phil McSorely seems to have attached his lyrics to the basic tenets of Samuel Johnson’s famous quote, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man,” a line that Hunter S. Thompson uses effectively to preamble his opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s fitting that Cobalt include some reference or gesture to literary figures in their album, and to interesting effect: to create their own statement on the potential ugliness of the human psyche as they provide a recipe for subversion, which basically includes the discarding of humanity completely.

The opening song “Gin,” prefaced by a mellow, almost acoustic guitar strumming opening, is an ode referencing Hemingway in a somewhat oblique way (the speaker turns to Papa’s preferred drink, Gin, to escape as he screams his name), and circles around the speakers desire to secede from society into the respite of (1) animal skins (those of a mammoth), then (2) his mother’s womb–the latter of which I find provocatively interesting. Phil McSorely laments that “the strong inherit the earth,” preceded by “Your brother betrays you / your friend kills you. / your woman is dead.” I think these lines are right on, and the just-over seven minute song is finished off nicely by an outro that explodes with McSorely’s un-censored rage.

McSorely probably provides his best vocal delivery on Arsonry, a song that begins with his rhythmic scream-chanting, overlayed by Wunder’s simple yet abrasive chugging riffs (he takes care of everything besides the words and vocals). McSorely, though, delivers a strained barrage of words at times, then follows just as quickly with the growls and groans that sound like the subjects within the songs he pens.

However, my favorite cut on the LP is “Stomach,” a song that opens with little musical fanfare, and begins with the screamed words “I prefer sex when it’s an animal act / oh yeah.” Who could refrain from being curious about a song with such a gripping exordium as that? The song subsequently explodes with a drum assault accompanied by staccato guitar riffs. What I really appreciate about the song is what occurs at the three minute mark, a moment when Wunder stages back the guitars and orchestrates a slow building climax that peaks at about the five minute mark into a chaos of guitar saturation that takes up the rest of the song.

This isn’t your normal, Swedish black metal disc. It’s something new entirely.
Cobalt - Gin

Also posted in Black Metal, Doom Metal

Album Review: Asva’s "What You Don’t Know Is Frontier"

Recently I picked up Asva‘s sophomore effort, titled “What You Don’t Know is Frontier,” a title that immediately conjures some of the borderline/post colonialism theory written by Anzaldua, Said, and Spivak. And interestingly, the “sound” of this album’s four, thirteen-minute plus tracks would fit quite well with what each of these theorists would label as “other” or “foreign” as defined by the “subject’s” positionality, or in this case the listener. Without turning this lowly album review into a rehash of contemporary post-colonial theory, let me just say that this LP ain’t pop music. It’s slow, heavy, has sparse female vocals intertwined with window-rattling guitar drones spiralling around “ethnic” flurries. When I first got a hold of it I assumed it would be a lesser rip-off of SUNN O)))’s work–not true.

 

I thought that the album might be a rip-off because the bass player, G. Stuart Dalquist, hails from SUNN O))), Goatsnake, and Burning Witch, both Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley projects. My assumption here wasn’t based on the rest of the lineup, however. The band also has members from Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, and even pioneering drone masters, Earth. What Asva does that separates them from the likes of SUNN O))) and Earth is they combine all the good parts of each. They plod through groove-inducing, and slow riffs that methodically unravel into emotional highs and deep lows, and then they are able to orchestrate movements between the slothful slow parts to create cinematically inspired pieces that are somewhat akin to Earth, yet are more diverse in the progression and execution. As the mix together the deeply down-tuned and the ethereal, Asva create a composition of dolor-inducing scope that easily coexists with contemporary drone masters.

Asva uses many disparate yet innovative tools to effect their work. Of course, they use slow and repetitious power chords to great effect, but they also use drums sparingly and distant vocals in tandem with feedback-heavy sequels and blurps, some organ and keys, and delay-heavy clean guitars. It’s the clean guitars that provide a key element that sets this album apart from other drone discs. Instead of having a disc that equates to putting your head on a slow idling diesel motor, “What You Don’t Know…” provides as much uplift as it does descent, as much dolor as pleasure, and so on; the album provides a constant and tentative balance of elements creating a wonderful exposition of tension and release.

These guys reside within drone’s roots, yet the still are able to keep the listener interested in the track by creating a droning, yet dynamic piece. One of my favorites, “Christopher Columbus,” which slowly undulates for around 10minutes, then something quite scary happens. After what seems like hours of vibrations, the drums begin to act up. At the 10:52 minutes mark we get a slow vibrating guitar riff, slowly, rising towards a fear inducing crescendo. It rings out and releases you from the catatonic state the first part of the song slides you into, then just stops, torturing you more.

“A Game in Hell, Hard Work in Heaven’ starts almost pleasantly, especially after the ending of “Christopher Columbus.” But this track builds slowly, using beautiful vocals, and well timed exploding lyrics for well over twelve minutes to deliver a thoroughly calculated explosive climax at the twelve-and-a-half-minute mark. Likewise, “A trap for judges” is comprised of sets of slow explosions, then uses an organ for a slow resolution or “cool down.” The album easily sits among some of Earth’s and SUN O)))’s better output, but will probably not get close to the listernship that either band enjoys.

Here’s a fine example of Asva playing live. This clip is from a show in Vienna, July 18, 2008.

Asva - What You Don't Know Is Frontier

Also posted in Critical Theory, Doom Metal