Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ozric Tentacles - Strangeitude (1991)

The name of the game here is "trippy." Ozric Tentacles are an instrumental space rock band that borrow heavily from Gong and Steve Hillage, but with a more modern sound (and frankly, a somewhat tighter group dynamic.)

I don't know any other albums of theirs, but I'm told that there's a bit of a "heard one, heard 'em all" feeling to them, not that that's necessarily a bad thing. The band does one thing and they do it very well, and that's to create spaced-out rock jams that will blast your brain stright into the stratosphere.

The tracks are largely groove oriented, and are comprised of a very pleasing blend of mellow flutes, bubbly synths and searing psych guitar. The bass and drums are also quite prominent and are essential to laying down the driving rhythms that give the songs their structure.

There is a good deal of world music influence, particularly from the Middle East. The track "Bizarre Bazaar" conjures up images of shifting desert sands, mirages and opium dens, while the seven minute title track features a long, slow buildup, leading into a furiously rocking finale. Simultaneously relaxing and energetic, the whole experience is very mind bending and will definitely put your head in a good place, if you're into that sort of thing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - Of Natural History (2001)

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are, in this reviewer's opinion, the single most exciting band of the 21st century. Their sound is difficult to describe, primarily because it is so unique. Part heavy metal, part Henry Cow-style avant garde, part high concept performance art, they are truly a breed apart and always full of surprises.

This is their second, and widely considered their best, album (so far.) It is a vaguely conceptual piece dealing with the combined themes of Italian Futurism and the Unibomber. If that sounds like nonsense, it's because it is. Although all the members are virtuosos and clearly take their art seriously, they are not without a sense of humor, as illustrated by the song "Cockroach," a deadpan, yet hilarious, condemnation of the lowly insect.

The band's instrumental makeup includes violin, male and female vocals (both stellar,) guitars basses, a myriad of exotic percussion devices, and several very unusual homemade instruments including the aptly named "Viking Longboat." I saw them perform last week and it appears they have added trombone and flute to their repertoire as well.

The live show bears mentioning, as it is a highly entertaining affair complete with elaborate costumes, free-associative rants from the band members and sometimes bizarre dancing from an enigmatic performer known as Momo. But back to the album.

Of Natural History contains much of the band's finest work. There are stomping metal anthems, soft but intense dirges, instrumental interludes that change time signatures so often that even us musical snobs struggle to keep up, field recordings of a country farmer teaching the band a song he composed when he was four, and a charming duet featuring a songbird.

Seriously, check them out. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Burzum - Hil∂skjálf (1999)

Once upon a time, Varg Vikernes, better known as Burzum, made horrible shrieking Norwegian black metal like so many other bands.But Burzum, not content to be one among legions of similar musicians, took things too far. He went and got himself arrested for murdering a fellow black metal practitioner, as well as for burning down some churches.

Now, even though Scandinavian prisons are world renowned for their soft treatment of prisoners, it just didn't seem like a good idea to provide Burzum with guitars, drums, microphones and all the other equipment he would need to continue recording. What they would give him, however, was a keyboard and a laptop. Hence, Hil∂skjálf.

Hil∂skjálf, which as we all know is the name of Odin's throne in Asgard, is an album of spooky yet majestic synth music. Despite its origins, it has a peaceful, organic quality that is at times quite beautiful. It calls to mind ancient and neglected Nordic forests, where perhaps there be trolls.

There are no lyrics, but the booklet contains written passages to accompany each track. These are largely descriptions of Gods, warfare and other traditional Viking concepts, used to express in allegorical fashion Burzum's anti-Christian worldview. While I by no means endorse any of his views (nor, for that matter, many of the artists I profile on this blog) I must admit that the music is compelling and well crafted. With the notable exception of some bad timpani samples, one often forgets that all the instruments are synthetic.

Burzum was released from prison in March of 2009, a full decade after this, his last album. As of this writing he has made no steps towards resuming his music career, which perhaps is for the best.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Volcano The Bear - The Idea Of Wood (2003)

A surreal band name for a surreal group. Volcano The Bear is comprised of four British oddballs who delight in creating mostly improvised chamber pieces that will leave all but the most seasoned listener scratching his head.

With most improvisational ensembles, you basically know what you're getting. It's either going to be a standard jazz band or a set of four or five instruments that remain constant over the lifetime of the group. Not so here. Drums, whistles, flutes, violins, guitars, bells, strange falsetto vocals, electronics and countless other, less easily identifiable instruments make up the color tapestry of sound that comprises this album.

While there's nothing jazzy about the group, there is a certain undertone reminiscent of English folk music, and there are times when you can almost picture the rolling green hills and picturesque countryside of the musicians' native land, albeit through a pretty strange lens.

The song titles are also a hoot, and include such imaginative gems as "Charming Cabbage Clock", "Chimney Fear" and "Curly Robot," the latter clocking in at over ten minutes in length and marking the highlight of the album.

I should note in passing that I have seen this band perform live, and they are just as much fun as you might expect. I recommend it if you have the opportunity.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Art Bears - Winter Songs (1979)

Try to imagine a blend of angular, percussive guitar work, European folk melodies, Medieval tinged lyrics and bizarre Teutonic female vocals and you'll begin to get an idea of what this album is all about.

The Art Bears were a side project of Chris Cutler and Fred Frith's earlier avant-garde rock group, Henry Cow. Cutler plays drums and writes the allegorical lyrics expressing his political views, while Frith plays guitar and violin and they are both joined by the admittedly strange, but undeniably unique vocals of Dagmar Kraus. The arrangements are sparse, sometimes skeletal, with only guitar and drums (and occasionally violin) and this gives the music a somewhat brittle quality.

The musicianship is excellent all around. Few guitarists can match Frith for innovation both in technique and composition, and Cutler is a very skilled and dynamic drummer. There is also a good deal of studio experimentation going on here, with backwards vocals and tape loops both used to great effect.

The album's highlight is "Rats and Monkeys," a frantic experiment that is so abrasive and noisy, it's practically guaranteed to clear any room into which it is played. Naturally, I love it.

Winter Songs is a difficult record to be sure, but lovers of the avant-garde and people willing to put in a little effort will ultimately find it a very rewarding listen.