29 Jun 2015

Ecstatic Vision "Sonic Praise"

Reviewed by Joseph Murphy

Like the record collections of Philadelphia, PA’s Ecstatic Vision must, so their debut, “Sonic Praise” – out at the end of June from Relapse Records – draws from an eclectic source. Like – you’d hope – most musicians, the band’s members were listeners before they were ever players, wading into the deeper end of ‘70’s overflowing pools: Space Rock/Krautrock, Prog, Afro-beat, Metal. And it’s apparent they were listening closely. So, whether you hear Ash Ra Tempel, Blue Cheer, Agitation Free, Motörhead, Fela Ransome-Kuti (especially his album “Zombie”), or Captain Beyond, there’s a long line of influences that has been carefully distilled into each track: poly-rhythms, forceful bass lines, guitar freak outs – and a bit of flute and sax – and madcap organ. It’s a potent concoction. While the album allows for plenty of aural freedoms, it – unlike many current heavy psych releases – feels driven, even propulsive, meticulously practiced while still feeling free. There are no stagnant moments across the debut’s five long tracks.

Rhythmically, Ecstatic Vision keeps a strong hold throughout all five, long tracks. They keep a tight, dynamic grasp on each song’s forward motion, even as everything else swirls, unbound. Bassist Michael Field Connor and percussionist Jordan Crouse lock into a hypnotic groove while guitarist/organist/vocalist Doug Sabolik strangles every lysergic drop from his guitar and leads congregants in a kind of primal chant that beseeches enlightenment. For the trio, this is a promising homage to their influences from decades past while a big stride forward for modern heavy psych.

As an opener, “Journey” is a fine introduction to Ecstatic Vision’s power, though it’s a bit friendlier than the four following tracks: spectral voices lead us unknowingly toward a heavy – well, very heavy – feint, a simple progression off set by a persistent bass line and Sabolik at the forefront – and it all sounds a bit more like Pentagram than Can. However, by the two-minute mark, it’s clear you’re in for something else as layers of effects and organ soar toward a far off lunar peak – and by album highlight, “Astral Plane,” and its carefully plotted ascending jam, we’ve even left those peaks behind.

“Sonic Praise” is available digitally, on CD or in various vinyl colors on Ecstatic Vision’s Bandcamp page (below) or as a bundle from Relapse Records. If the sampling on Bandcamp isn’t enough, the full album is streaming on Spin.

Highly Recommended.

28 Jun 2015

Thee Oh Sees "Mutilator Defeated At Last" / Damaged Bug "Cold Hot Plumbs"

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

It seems almost irresponsible that in my position, this is the first time I've properly sat down and listened to an album by Thee Oh Sees. You'd think that with such a prolific output, these critical darlings would have crossed my path sooner, but the truth of the matter is that I've always suspected John Dwyer's brand of visceral garage rock would be too damn noisy for my rapidly ageing, and frankly delicate sensibilities. Imagine my surprise then, when enquiring as to what was playing at a local record emporium, I had their latest album "Mutilator Defeated At Last" thrust into my waiting palm.

"Mutilator Defeated At Last" is a very fine record. It's often every bit as loud as I suspected, but it's much more intelligent than I anticipated, adding layers of complexity without losing its visceral edge. A number of these songs, although memorably penned and in possession of beguiling melodies, seem to have been conjured into existence almost solely as an excuse for Dwyer to shower the listener in molten runs of ferocious, reverb-laden guitar shredding, which he releases with ferocious intensity.

And while Dwyer losing his shit is reason enough to dig into and savour "Mutilator Defeated At Last", there's another side to the story too, with a more exploratory set of mid paced songs that weave a spacey, progressive rock element into their already rich garage tapestry. Opener, "Web", is a gargantuan beast of a thing, the aural equivalent of navigating an asteroid field at full speed, but nowhere is Dwyer's new progressive leaning more pronounced than the eerie, organ-led "Sticky Hulks", which suggests a Pink Floyd that managed to keep Syd in its ranks for a few extra years.

I'm won over then, and the nearly simultaneous release of the second album from Dwyer's synth-based side-project Damaged Bug is bafflingly, every bit as good. I was expecting a similar kind of thing to his day-job, with synths where the guitars otherwise would be, but Dwyer is a much more multi-facetted individual than I originally gave him credit for. "Cold Hot Plumbs" is a much more psychedelic, pop-oriented affair, allowing Dwyer to find an outlet for a less aggressive side of his output. The off-kilter pop of Eno's early solo albums and the first side of Bowie's "Low" seem to be the dominant influences, but there's a shiny psych-pop sheen here which sits favourably with the likes of UMO and Opossom too. It's consistently engaging, with live drumming creating a great, heavy juxtaposition against the layers of keyboards and sequencers, really helping to bring these songs to life. And great songs they are too, with hooks everywhere. It may be a side project, but it's not laboured with typical side project material, providing instead a fascinating glimpse of an alternate route that Dwyer could have taken, had he not heeded the call of the garage.

Most artists would be happy to release one album as good as either of these every couple of years.

You need both of these albums in your life.

"Mutilator Defeated At Last" is available on CD here (UK/EU), and here (US), and on vinyl here (UK/EU), and here (US).
"Cold Hot Plumbs" is available on CD here (UK/EU), and here (US), and on vinyl here (UK/EU), and here (US).

Nick Grey And The Random Orchestra "Breaker of Ships"

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Berlin based chaunter Nick Grey is a name that may well be known to many readers, from his work with 48 Cameras, his superb releases with The Random Orchestra (see last year's incredible ‘You’re Mine again’', reviewed here at The Active Listener) and his solo work, not least ‘Thieves Among Thorns’ which this listener counts amongst his all-time favourite albums. One of the most inventive and truly heartbreaking musicians at work today it is almost impossible to find reasonable comparison but as a reference for intrigued or curious uninitiated think Scott Walker meets Coil meets Robert Wyatt. And yet also so much more; think of a reference point and Grey will already have moved on in his search for the perfect midnight song.

‘Breaker Of Ships' takes a different path from the romantic, glam inflected electronic anthems of 'You’re Mine Again' into sometimes colder, electronic territory but still with the tangible heartbreak and tension that Grey is a master of. This aspect is clearly present as is the melancholic candlelit baroque tapestry that often adorns his work. The title track opens the album, electronic beats and cello merging with ominous string sweeps to create an atmosphere of late night existential dread and poignant reflection. Grey's vocals evoke both Scott Walker and Berlin period Bowie, swathes of treated guitar crashing around his words before calm returns as Grey intones 'there's a blackness hanging low among us'. The mood turns to hope as the singer proclaims his exit, his leaving from whatever painful place he was caught in. The track shifts again (it is an epic 11 minutes long) into analogue soundwaves, organ and chiming guitar notes with Grey’s falsetto reminding this listener of some of the most beautiful and otherworldly moments of Sigur Ros. This is music for the liminal times; the dusk or the dawn. A chorus of guitars approaches and grows, ratcheting the intensity up and taking the song in yet another emotive pathway. So far, so heartrending, uplifting and eerie, all within the very first track.

'Of Ghosts And Women' is an electronic symphony, swathes of strings and arpeggios framing Grey's Brel-like performance of post break up bitterness, melancholy and grace dripping off every chiming guitar note and analogue bleep and whirr. Haunted and yet dignified, the music steps into the hinterlands of classic synth pop and the spectral nightlands of ‘Music To Play In The Dark’ Coil and the output of the Ghost Box label. Next, ‘The Archivist' switches pace into a doomed guitar and violin lament that recalls Grey's earlier nocturnal EP 'The Candlelit Eyes', the protagonist observing human life and lovers dispassionately and coldly as they go about their various tragedies. A tense and ringing vintage synth echoes like a warning siren as Grey adds drama and a twisted narrative; this is a mini electronica opera. 'Vanisher' maintains the acoustic, late night feel, organ sounding a lonely motif as Grey is 'waiting for the end, down in my bunker'. Utterly evocative and with a touch of Floyd in the Gilmour-esque guitars, this is essential for any lovers of the afore mentioned Scott Walker, John Foxx, latter day Ulver, Tiger Lilies and perhaps Nick Cave. There is often a dark cabaret feel to this album, candles flickering on tables amongst an audience of the broken hearted and lonely.

'Juliet Of The Spirits' is a thing of beauty, insistent guitar merging with the echoing drone of a singing bowl and a slow snare beat; there are ghosts in this music, the wraith like choir that sings throughout adding a genuine sense of sadness and longing. Bass propels the follow up 'Juliet Of The Bones' into almost King Crimson prog territory (which is a good thing in my book), ragged and ferocious guitar duelling with clarinet in a truly thrilling piece of experimental noise. Then, the Juliet of the previous song returns, the quiet and stately guitar line and hushed drums introducing Grey's return. Grey's vocals deserve special mention; he is living these songs, his performance nuanced, heartbreaking and emotive. Gradually Juliet disappears in a fog of white noise as the song draws to a close, the distant sound of an echoing male voice shrouded in the mist. Final track proper 'Ghost Rain' takes a spoken word sample from Peter Wollen, recounting the plight of animals suffering at the hands of humans and with a plea to see their pain as no different than our own. This is framed beautifully by symphonic strings and the sound of rain.

One is almost left breathless after hearing this album; it feels like witnessing an epic storyline from beginning to end, there is a sense of having been a part of or an audience to something very special indeed. Or, quite simply, of hearing a true artist at the peak of his song writing and performing powers. And there is more. The bonus track is a mix of Nick Grey and 48 Cameras 'Here He Comes Now' by electronic artist Scanner (last seen performing an electronic tribute to Joy Division live with a full orchestra). It fits perfectly with the mood of the album overall, dark, almost noir-ish and with a hint of dread and danger.

If you haven't yet experienced Nick Grey then any album is a useful starting point as they are all highly recommended and have their own trove of dark, hidden jewels. However, 'Breaker Of Ships' is as near perfect an album as you will hear and I would urge you to seek this out.

Available below on CD with digisleeve, vinyl (with download code) and as a digital download.

26 Jun 2015

The Smoking Trees "TST"

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Lovers of feel-good psychedelic pop can now relax, safe in the knowledge that they're now reading about their favourite album of the year. Ample Play have a new album for us from L.A bubblegum-psych duo the Smoking Trees, and it's a right corker.

The duo of Martin Nunez and L.A Al have been hard at work conquering the UK since their last release, 2012's "Acetates", with appearances in NME and on the BBC, but they've still somehow found the time to record well over a hundred songs as potential candidates for "Acetate"s follow-up. Whittled down to the twelve choicest nuggets from these productive sessions, we have "TST", an absolute treasure which does everything the Smoking Trees have become known for, but in an even more refined fashion than previously.

Much has been made of the duo's background in hip-hop, and opener "Good Morning" certainly pulls a few tricks learned in that trade, with its effortless synthesis of samples and baroque psychedelia setting the bar high for what is to follow.

And what follows is a master-class in classic pop songcraft, run through the duo's unmistakeable psychedelic pop production. It's certainly a case of 'if it's not broken, don't fix it', but they also seem to have made a conscious decision to do it better than they've ever done it before. And they do so with ease, refining the essence of their sound while offering up the best songs they've written so far - "She Takes Flight With Me", "Home in the Morning", "Island of Adventure", "Trips" - gems all.

The heavily treated vocals, and ever-present reverb and echo are incredibly distinctive, and make the whole feel like one long piece over the first few listens. But subsequent listens allow the insidious hooks to sneak up on the listener, and before too long it becomes clear that the full-on production that initially obscured those hooks, heightens the return visitor's enjoyment of them tenfold in the long run.

The Smoking Trees really do know what's best for you. Don't fight it, just lay back, and let "TST" wash over you. You'll be glad you did.

Available on vinyl here (UK/EU), and here (US), and digitally here (UK/EU), and here (US).

25 Jun 2015

Triptides Premiere First Track From New Album "Azur"

Indiana's Triptides have relocated to Los Angeles, and their excellent fourth album "Azur" (which you will hear more about here soon) reflects this move perfectly.

From the press release: "Their shiny, hazy songs are perfect anthems for a nascent summer. This collection explores the spectrum of sensations you can feel on a hot day. From lazyness to happiness it's a trip without moving in California."

"Azur" will be released on Requiem Pour Un Twister Records on July 10, and today we're premiering one of the album's best tracks "Dark Side", which you can stream exclusively below. Enjoy!

Left Lane Cruiser "Dirty Spliff Blues"

Reviewed by Joseph Murphy

After ten years of playing as a duo, Left Lane Cruiser has added a third member for their sixth album, “Dirty Spliff Blues” from Alive Naturalsound Records. The Fort Wayne, IN group’s latest is about what you expect from them after a decade’s worth of records – duo or trio. That is, for those familiar with them: punk blues songs that draw from the Mississippi delta and sweat swagger. For those unfamiliar, while it doesn’t quite reveal the depth of these tracks, a lot can be assumed from the cover art (by William Stout), album’s name – and the band’s name, for that matter. This one’s for those looking for gritty guitar riffs – or “skateboard slide guitar” too.

“Elephant Stomp” is an album highlight. It saunters through a rock riff that channels Southern heat; it’s bluesy and a bit messy in all the right ways. And “Whitebread n’ Beans,” which follows, doesn’t let that humidity drop at all. It all builds to a wild slide guitar solo on “Tangled Up in a Bush,” which closes a very strong passage of the album – which is not to say they slow it down at all through the remainder. It’d be too easy to call this rock n’ roll because there are enough oddities to throw anyone off; either way, it’s a fun ride at full speed.

This is a very strong release from a well-respected band, who have continually gathered fans over the years – as well as a song slot on “Breaking Bad.” No doubt “Dirty Spliff Blues” will garner them a few new ones. For this listener, it took a few listens to really dig into these tracks, for the simplicity of the songs is a bit misleading, but sonically there’s some real depth – and certainly a lot of energy.

It’s out now on Alive Naturalsound Records, available digitally from iTunes and on CD or limited edition starburst vinyl (link below, where you can find most of their back catalogue too). They started their tour earlier this month too; find them live, if even a fraction of their frenetic presence has been captured here.

Available on CD here (UK/EU), or here (US),  or on vinyl (UK/EU), or here (US).

24 Jun 2015

Tashaki Miyaki "Under Cover Vol. II"

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

L.A trio Tashaki Miyaki write some very fine originals, but they're also dab hands (does that even work as a plural?) at reinterpreting the work of others, and making it their own. 2012's "Under Cover" (available here as a free download) had some great moments, with classic tracks by the likes of Sam Cooke, Father John Misty, Bob Dylan, and Inxs passing through the distinctive Tashaki Miyaki filter, and emerging on the other side as lovely slabs of dream-pop bliss. Yum.

"More!" we demanded, and more we got. "Under Cover Vol. II" continues the trend, and is every bit as good as its predecessor. TM have an innate ability to choose material that translates perfectly to their sound, and the choices are inspired, and not the odd bedfellows they would seem to be on paper. Made up predominantly of classic rock/pop, soul gems and eighties epics, anything it would seem, is game.

The term dream-pop tends to be a bit oversubscribed these days, but TM well and truly do it justice. The two best tracks here both dial the tempo back to a snail's pace, allowing Lucy's vocals all the time in the world to cast their sleepy spell. "I Only Have Eyes For You" is the aural equivalent of a steaming hot bubblebath, while their reinvention of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" unabashedly replaces bombast with the sultry, to great effect.

Elsewhere, "I Can't Stand The Rain", and Prince's "The Beautiful Ones" prove that they have the depth to tackle more soulful material without stumbling, and Ray Davies' "This Time Tomorrow" is always a joy.

"Under Cover Vol. II" is a rare thing - a covers collection which noticeably highlights the strengths of the performers, rather than the writers. And it's available through the link below as a free/name your price download. And while you're there, check out some of their own material. Big things are on the way for these three, I'm sure.

King Biscuit Entertainers "Northwest Unreleased Masters, 1967-1970"

Reviewed by Josh Robertson

I was quite excited when I was given the chance to review some of Guerssen's June releases as they have a habit of unleashing some hidden gems that I've missed over the years. This is certainly the case with King Biscuit Entertainers, who serve up a nice set of late 60s garage/psych rock here on the Out-sider label imprint. The Entertainers were a Pacific Northwest band active from 1968 to 1971, who released some 45's in the late 60s. This release definitely sheds some light on a very fertile scene, and King Biscuit had to be up there with the best of them at the time.

Let me start off by saying what great threads the band have. The cover features them in all their late 60s majesty. They were dressed to kill, and as they were primarily known as a live band at the time, I'm sure this only added to their blistering sets. The style of the Biscuit’s music is of its period, more than hinting at an Iron Butterfly/Vanilla Fudge style - soul, soaked in psychedelic syrup. A highlight of the group is its rhythm section, which was very tight with an outstanding bassist who has some experimental, fuzzy, overdriven tones. And I’d hate to forget to mention the romping stomping Corky Laing/Carmine Appice drumming which makes for a seat-of-your-pants R'n'B psych ride.

There's some very tasty Hammond B-3 sounds on here that entwine nicely with the sounds of the rest of the band, making it a must for organ-driven rock fans, as well as fans of Fender tones. The album gets off to a great start with “Take Me to Chicago” with a catchy 60s Box Tops / Mamas and Papas vibe with ringing, Byrdsy Rickenbacker guitar. I’m sure this song could have gotten airplay at the time. “Now Baby I Love You” was released as a 45 in 1968 and is an absolute killer, with fuzz-bass and a bluesy strut where the instruments drop out periodically to highlight the vocals.

The band was more than another average Iron Butterfly knockoff, and there’s some infectious Beatles and Nazz Anglo-pop moves to go with the R'n'B and blues riffs. On songs like "Rollin' Free Man” there’s a Deep Purple style chug and intensity, which sounds like a precursor to the sound Captain Beyond was streamlining a few years later in the early 70s.

The guitarist leans on the heavy-impact octave riffs and the drums sound huge. "Rosemary's Second Child" brings out a slower, bluesy, late-night deviant atmosphere. But of course the Biscuit pumps up the beat and there is an intense middle section with some tricked out crunchy rambling lead. “Judgement (Look Up And Get Ready)” has some great background vocals with a falsetto that, mixed as it is, sounds like female background singers, which is kind of cool. There are also some guitar harmonies that, for this period, show these guys had serious chops. Only one track was recorded in 1970, the rest are from '68 mostly, with two '67 cuts (one from a 45 release).

King Biscuit Entertainers only had three singles out in the 1960s which are very difficult to obtain in a physical format now, aso this is a very important document, which shows a great band in a very storied transition period between the psychedelic boom and the shift to early-70s hard rock from soul and pop. There are noo real philosophical or mind-benders here, more the onslaught of a group of guys who were screaming to break into the next decade as a classic hard rock act. Fans of organ and guitar interplay will want to give this a listen, as well as fans of Trapeze, Armageddon, and Deep Purple.

Available here (US), or directly from the label here in Europe.

23 Jun 2015

Moth Rah "Wild Wedding"

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Londoner Cassandra Solon Parry (that's Moth Rah to you) does something on her new E.P "Wild Wedding" which I've heard many attempt, but few succeed at. On paper, Hauntology and folk music make perfect bedfellows, but try and combine them musically, and more often than not the results are clunky, and just not quite right.

"Wild Wedding" manages to tread this treacherous path deftly however, combining Parry's distinctive, classically folk-infused vocal tones with arrangements which strike a fine balance between the spookily Wicker Manesque, mystical fairy ring incantations and Radiophonic ritual - all things that we're rather fond of here.

It's a moody wee item, with Parry's vocal duet with Ian Williams on "To The Lake" providing some spine-tingling moments, but it's the depth of the musical arrangements that really take it to the next level, particularly on the moody synth embellishments found on "The Elder Tree" and the unstreamable closer "Song of the Dreamer", both of which sound like they'd be riveting Radiophonic workouts even in an instrumental format; add Parry's chilling vocals and you've got something very special indeed.

CD and digital available here:

22 Jun 2015

Serpent Power "Serpent Power"

Reviewed by Tom Sandford

After the release of his mainly DIY, neo-psychedelic tour de force "Cut From a Star" – and first album unanchored from The Coral – Ian Skelly seemed poised for a major solo breakthrough. The 2012 project – lovingly crafted over a 10-year period and featuring Skelly’s vivid, image-driven songs and distinctive cover artwork – was released through the band’s Skeleton Key label to uniformly rave reviews. When Skeleton Key found themselves quickly relieved of vinyl/CD hard copies during the early stages of the album’s initial run, they took the rather bold step of releasing a 2-CD deluxe version of the album in 2013.

Featuring live acoustic versions of six "Cut From a Star" songs and credited to Ian Skelly and the Serpent Power, the second disc seems to have been, in retrospect, designed both as reinforcement of the solo record and introduction of a new backing band. Somewhere along the line, however, Skelly decided to set aside his promising solo career to join forces with Paul Molloy, formerly of the Zutons, to form a formidable Scouse-psych supergroup of sorts, Serpent Power.

Serpent Power is not "Cut From a Star" mk 2.0, although it maintains many of its most endearing hallmarks: Skelly’s penchant for eerie, dark psychedelia and wild imagery is well represented here, both in the music and cover artwork. The cover itself is an intrinsic part of the package. Our heroes are drawn amidst an assortment of grotesque, amusingly macabre comic-book ghouls, such as an eight-eyed bass drum (its mouth agape); a smiling, pointy-eared vampire; and a giant-footed zombie flashing a peace sign. It’s the kind of cover at which you can repeatedly stare and discover something new each time. It’s also a perfect introduction/complement to the music. So prepare yourself: you’re going deep inside the imaginations of Messrs. Skelly and Molloy.

The trio of songs that forms the opening salvo (“Dr. Lovecrafts’s Asylum”/“The Man Who Shrunk the World”/“Lucifer’s Dreambox”) should, from the titles alone, give some indication of what you can expect. Once inside this Serpent Powered world, one is transported into a house of benign aural horrors: there’s an onslaught of creepy organ passages, backwards loops, hypnotic drumming, phased instrumentation and liberal doses of Theremin. The extended coda appended to “Lucifer’s Dreambox” is a particularly sinister-sounding non sequitur.

The fourth song, “Candyman”, hints at a stylistic shift to a jauntier tone. Imagine if John Lennon had demanded to sing “Your Mother Should Know” and you’ll get the picture. The result is both fanciful and unsettling. Similarly, “Life is a Ball” is a pulsing, McCartneyesque music hall stomper whose whimsy is undercut by some chilling Old West-saloon style piano.

The mood of "Cut From a Star" is recalled with “The Siren” in which Baroque-pop elements of "Village Green" era Kinks are mixed with typically Coral-esque chord changes. Speaking of the Coral, brother James Skelly contributes the pleasant “Just a Broken Heart”, which is, for lack of a better term, the most conventional-sounding track of the lot. Other highlights include “Vampire For Your Love”, which sounds like the mawkish love theme from a goofy horror flick, and “Last Ape in Space”, a song propelled by thudding drum rolls and loping harmonies. “The Vision” ends the album on a suitably ominous, unsettling note. It’s gently insistent beat conveys an air of parting amid a somber soundscape – one that goes to fade far too soon.

Whether this is a one-off, stopgap release for Skelly and Molloy, or the beginning of a beautiful new musical partnership over the long haul, the debut album from Serpent Power bodes well for both.

Available on CD here (UK/EU/US), and vinyl here (UK/EU), or here (US).