Rick’s Quick Takes for April

Short, sharp shocks this month: all albums and EPs reviewed below come in under the old school LP limit of 45 minutes! Purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing; album playlists or samples follow each review.

Entransient, Ghosts in the Halls: My hometown’s very own prog-metal band lays out the cards for all to see on their Facebook page: “Melodic neo/post-prog rock from Michigan. Influenced by Anathema, Alcest, and Porcupine Tree.” The good news is that guitarists Matt Schrauben & Doug Murray, bassist Nick Hagen, drummer Jeremy Hyde and vocalist/keyboardist Scott Murray refine those influences into a distinctive blend, marked by rich atmosphere and a towering core sound. The opening epic “Parasite” grabs hold immediately with its games of acoustic/electric musical chairs; “Synergize” and “Last Strawman” drive forward without mercy, as Murray testifies fiercely over bare grooves and fuzzed chords alike. More reflective moments like the title track, “Misplaced” and “Where the Shadows Lie” dial down the tempos and the lyrical angst while keeping the edge intact as the band prowls lush, more aerated soundscapes. (Kudos for Hagen’s mixing and engineering, as well as for the mastering work of The Pineapple Thief’s Steve Kitch; the band’s dynamic and textural range is captured with crystalline clarity throughout.) Entransient has an open, readily appealing touch to their music; as they blaze a fresh trail in a style that easily collapses into cliché, they’re well worth a listen.

Envy of None: No, this sounds nothing like Rush, even with Alex Lifeson’s guitar work in the mix. (If that’s what you want, the new anniversary edition of Moving Pictures is now available — and getting glowing reviews from unlikely sources like Pitchfork, for pete’s sake.) Lifeson does provide satisfying crunch, acoustic contrast, and creative lead work in spades, bedding in seamlessly with fellow core players Andy Curran (bass & guitar) and Alfio Annibalini (guitar and keys). They weave a darkly enticing aural mesh that cradles the understated, seductive singing of Maiah Wynne; her breathily fragile volleys, playing off the sticky minimalist hooks embedded in EoN’s web, are what might really ensnare you. Musically, this is all about basic song forms deployed in ambient/industrial/goth/post-rock styles; the seasoned instrumental interplay and Wynne’s preternaturally mature vocal work are what elevate the album above the obvious genre markers. So it’s old-fashioned chemistry and star quality, from veterans and newcomer alike, that turn out to be key to Envy of None’s appeal. Try it on that basis and see if it grabs you.

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Mastodon, Hushed and Grim

To my astonishment, this appears to be the first Mastodon album reviewed on this website. How can this be? After all, this is a band that not only seasons their exceptionally math-y thrash metal with delectable flavors of sludge, stoner rock, prog and even hints of country. This is a band who came to my attention on David Letterman with the lead track from 2009’s Crack the Skye, an album-long narrative arguing the case for astral projection’s secret influence on the Russian Revolution. (And it wasn’t their first concept album, either — that was 2004’s Leviathan, based on — what else? — Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.)

After this — plus no-holds-barred follow-ups like 2011’s The Hunter and 2014’s Cthulvian Once More Round the Sun — I can’t help but ask again, where’s the love for Mastodon from Progarchy been all this time?

It’s not too late to hop on the bandwagon, though; Mastodon’s smoking new double disc effort, Hushed and Grim, is here to melt our minds and set our heads banging. Every single one of the fifteen tunes offer has at least two (and sometimes three) killer riffs pounded out by Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher on guitar and Troy Sanders on bass, with Brann Dailor adding multiple layers of mayhem on drums. Sounds like a potentially stagnant formula on the surface, but given that the Atlanta-based quartet can spin on a dime through multiple textures, tempos, and time signatures in the course of a single song, the approach never fails.

And you never know what ear candy may show up in the midst of the prevailing heaviness — there’s the finger-pickin’ Americana intro to “The Beast,” the impeccable synthesizer solo on “Skeletons of Splendor,” the dream pop verses of the otherwise grunged-up “Had It All.” Hinds digs deep for his full-tilt solos, with a Southern-fried touch of Duane Allman peaking through every so often; Dailor’s playing calls to mind an alternate-universe Keith Moon playing with Jimmy Page instead of Pete Townsend. And the combined vocals (Sanders, Hinds and Dallor split the leads, with Kelliher as a harmony voice) provide kaleidoscopic colors to match the range of the music, from heavenly harmonies complementing 12-string textures to raucous, full-throated bellows over odd-time gallops. Producer David Bottrill (whose other credits include King Crimson and Tool) pulls all the elements of this sonic maelstrom together; the end product is marvelously stylish, delightful to listen to even as it knocks you flat.

But the music, as cool as it is, isn’t hanging out there on its own; the lyrics have a pungent bite as well. Mastodon are on a mission here, paying tribute to long time friend and manager Nick John, who died in 2018. Is the narrative here, kicking off with the vicious opener “Pain With An Anchor” and concluding with the epic “Gigantum,” a journey through the stages of grief? A depiction of dying from the inside out? Or yet another meditation on existence and mortality (for which I’ve proved a sucker time and again in the age of COVID-19)? Your mileage may vary with your interpretation — but boy, do Sanders, Hinds, Dallor and Kelliher bring the goods. The rage of “Sickle and Peace,” the devastated sorrow of “Teardrinker,” the desperate struggle of “Pushing the Tides” — all of it hits home. If you’re not cathartically drained after a listen to Hushed and Grim, you haven’t been paying attention.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big prog-metal head — but when it’s prog-metal as good as Mastodon, I surrender willingly. Check out Hushed and Grim for yourself below — and definitely catch them live if they come to your town! (I did back in 2015, and my ears might still be ringing.)

— Rick Krueger

soundstreamsunday #95: “Jezebel” by Anna Calvi

calviYou could do worse than follow the 1951 Wayne Shanklin song “Jezebel” as a guiding aesthetic for launching a recording career.  A hit for Frankie Laine (1951), Edith Piaf (1951), and, remarkably, Herman’s Hermits (1966),  “Jezebel” is built around a flamenco figure that adapts itself well to pop drama and, as Anna Calvi demonstrated on her first single, shows a sympathy to the reverb-y guitar dynamics and thundering tom-driven drumming favored by surf guitarists and Italian directors of Spanish-set westerns.

Taking rough cues from Piaf’s French version of the song, Calvi here adds a visually arresting, emotional core lacking in many of “Jezebel’s” versions, setting the table for the feast of her self-titled debut (2011), a record ripe with passion and shadow, with unified sonic and narrative themes that you might call cafe goth.  Siouxsie and the Banshees comparisons certainly apply, but there’s an Americana bent to it, too, inhabiting the same territory Chris Isaak mines to such great effect, or even the darker work of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood in the 1960s.

The video for “Jezebel” is a live performance by Calvi and her band, Daniel Maielen-Wood and Mally Harpez.  It is a power trio upended, confounded, confirmed by Harpez’s harmonium, transporting the song to the bars of Sevilla, approaching midnight, as the walls jump to the shadows of a guitarist and her dancers….

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #87: “Melt!” by Siouxsie and the Banshees

siouxsieA commanding presence in British punk since the later 1970s, and creating out of that — along with Joy Division, The Cure, Bauhaus — an overpowering, dark music that came to be known as goth, Siouxsie and her Banshees moved their music towards romantic intoxication.  Siouxsie brought light to the dark, deftly drawing rich melodies from the shadows draping the songs.  Bassist Steven Severin foregrounded the twilight with a nervy, often high-up-the-neck playing, while Budgie’s tribal pounding gave the band’s work a pulse-quickening danceability at the edge of chaos.  A rotating cast of like-minded souls added instruments as needed, and fans of the band’s various guitarists across its 17-year recording career can be fairly territorial regarding the shifting lineups.

You can hear in Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain (1984) a fascination with the Banshee’s A Kiss in the Dreamhouse (1982), with “Melt” maybe having some direct influence on “Nocturnal Me.”  (Although — it would probably be just as fair to say that both bands were obsessed with “Venus in Furs”-era Velvet Underground, a goth cornerstone.)  “Melt” is a dirge of self-immolation — loss of identity — in being consumed by a lover, its explicit sexuality dealt as poetry from the view of a succubus.  Appropriately, the vampyric backing is suggestive of an older, more eastern, Europe, but with a restraint that sends a chill rather than a horror show laugh (something to which goth rock is all too susceptible).

This live version of “Melt” is from an episode of the Old Grey Whistle Test in December 1982, and captures Siouxsie and the Banshees with the Cure’s Robert Smith, who stepped in to replace John McGeoch on guitar and would stay to help write and record 1984’s Hyaena.  The performance is notable for Smith’s presence, of course, but also for the kind of sound and vibe the band could get live while staying fairly lean.  A lament, a shake and a shiver — “Melt!” is a key to the goth rock kingdom.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #85: “Oil on Panel” by Wovenhand

wovenhandconcertLike Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes — last week’s soundstreamsunday entry — David Eugene Edwards brings to American folk, rock, and country an utterly unique, instantly recognizable voice.  Unlike Pecknold, Edwards toils in relative obscurity, which is a shame, as for the last 20 years he’s brought a wide-eyed intelligence to songs extending darker traditional themes, shimmering with christian imagery, to bracing goth soundscapes.  While you could make favorable comparison of Edwards’ bands, Denver’s 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, to Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, the better starting point, should we need it, might be Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or perhaps the old testament.  Or Carravagio.  With a voice both commanding and vulnerable, Edwards brings to his arrangements sonic chiaroscuro, breathing life, momentum, and dimension across acoustic and electric instrumentation tuned to his songs’ subjects.  Compositionally, he is a painter looking, I think, for balance, perhaps reflecting his relationship with his faith.

“Oil on Panel” is from Wovenhand’s third album, 2004’s Consider the Birds.  Referencing the act of painting, three of the deadly sins, Roma, and Yeshua, the song captures the direction Wovenhand was charting as it set out in the early aughts, into-the-christian mystic, highly refined, mannered, powerful.  With a windy, buzzy ambience overlayed with piano and distant strings, the song blossoms into near-orchestral grandeur halfway through, Edwards telling a story heavy with images invoking less a narrative than a feeling, of being unmoored, freighted with guilt but defined by faith.  If the edges bleed it is not without purpose.  “I paint them roughly, I paint them in my sleep.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

*Image of Wovenhand in concert by Colin Gentile, 2015.

soundstreamsunday: Entreat by The Cure

cure_entreat-812x1024The Cure’s Disintegration is a lush, beautiful masterpiece. When it was released in 1989, the band was cresting a wave of popularity, and rare was the college dorm room in America that didn’t have a copy of their singles comp, Staring at the Sea (1986), sitting next to the deck, while Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (1987) was radio ready.  Robert Smith had become an unlikely hero, a post-punk goth who had paid his dues and, with a colossal songwriting talent, was reaping the rewards of someone who virtually created his own genre.  Nobody else sounded like the Cure.  Neither psychedelic nor prog nor punk, but fearless in their approach, comfortable in their painted skin.  On Disintegration the band slows the tempos, backgrounding Smith’s economical lyrics with huge keyboard/guitar drift pieces that seem to exist in the gloaming.  A perpetually wilting flower, the first-person character in Smith’s work has had a long shelf life, and would rot if it weren’t for Smith’s genius with song and his ability to effortlessly write pop hits at will.  Entreat is from the tour supporting the album, recorded at Wembley in ’89, and consists of the all the songs on Disintegration in the same running order.  It had a very limited release originally, but pieces of it emerged here and there on CD singles taken from Disintegration (I first heard parts of it on the Pictures of You EP), and was eventually, finally bundled with Disintegration on the 2010 re-release.  Entreat was a bold move, a full performance of a newly-released record, and demonstrates just how confident Smith and his band were in the new songs.

soundstreamsunday archive and playlist