Light Veins – Wasteland

“Wasteland.”  The word itself evokes a specific set of images, and beyond that – a feeling.  When I think of that word, I think of vast emptiness.  I imagine a world, dry and lifeless, slowly crumbling in a fine chalk under the relentless sun.  The sound of such a world ought to echo across barren horizons; it ought to illustrate the forlorn and hopeless dimensions of a place devoid of human life, or devoid of humanity.

Light Veins, from Australia, achieves this feeling and portrays it with patient conviction.  Slow, rumbling ambient passages fill the sky as guitar and drums plot out a course through Wasteland.  In parts, the EP is menacingly quiet as though plotting to erupt.  And while the “emptiness” and “darkness” of it all sounds discouraging or pointless, Light Veins’ portrayal of these feelings is compelling and, oddly, satisfying.

The EP opens with “Prologue” mid guitar tone, as though interrupting a pre-existing train of thought.  It is as though this place had been here long before the listener arrived, waiting for eons.  Even within the short span of the song, there’s a progression from the lowly, reflective bass and guitar into a strange, gnarled metallic swell.

It immediately sends us out into the low, rumbling wind of a charred plateau – the title track, “Wasteland.”  The sky is red, fragmented by a black lacework of clouds.  The ground is hard, hot underneath our feet.  The sun is a distant white circle, muted and obscured, subjugating all below with its repressive heat.  A sudden flash of rock metal drums, chugging with verve alongside the guitar, comes and goes.  The rest of the song finds a more tenable pace, feet slowly climbing over jagged ridges and down into crumbling ravines.

When you pass through the droning ambience of the EP to the heart of each song, there is a passing-resemblance to other post-rock.  But Light Veins is far darker than Mogwai, more selective and restrained in its sonic palette.  This is a welcome restraint.  With recorded music, the possibilities are endless, and Light Veins’ ability to commit to a sound, or a feeling, or the elaborate construction of an environment is not compromised by a misled desire to incorporate lots of variety.  Some records are, in my estimation, supposed to be complete listening experiences, and Wasteland is one of them.

That being said: it’s not all gloomy, sluggish soundscapes and morose tinkering.  Some of the sounds are thought-provoking, like the dial-up connection sample at the end of “Absence.”  On the heels of “Wasteland,” “Absence” might be a little too slow for it’s placement on the EP, but it is still quite beautiful in its own understated way and a worthy stretch of the overall journey.

“Absence” feels like wandering through a deserted city at dusk.  Shadows fall across unpopulated plazas.  Wind pushes great clouds of dust down the funnel of an alleyway.  We come across a building and step inside.  In the corner of the room there sits a computer terminal, covered in the dust of an age.  But the damn thing is still on, the screen asleep.  We disturb it, and it tries to make a network connection.  It’s all for naught; there’s nothing out there left to connect to.

However, our stop-off in the dead city wasn’t fruitless.  Armed with foresight, like a long-range “Looking Glass,” we can see ahead, out past the city, where our journey continues.  The song rocks: it drives you, forging ahead with powerful, rolling drums.  Guitars erupt with fire, blistering and hard-edged.  The pinched guitar tone at two minutes-twenty three second is an excellent and subtle way to change things up before diving right back into the wild, thrashing of the song’s battle-scene climax.  These kinds of details in the production, the care and inventiveness with which they were authored, is the underlying magic of the EP.

“Epilogue,” though predominantly a drone besieged by the sound of pouring rain, is lovely and refreshing.  We’ve exited the Wasteland; we’ve left the mid-day darkness of an unforgiving hellscape – in all of it’s panoramic glory – for the benevolent calm and spiritual salve of cool, insistent rain.  And for the first time, a piano is introduced to the palette of sounds.  It plays a simple, delicate sequence of notes underneath a spoken-word sample of a man pontificating on the essence of virtue, taking a direct cue from the Tao Te Ching on “higher” and “lower” forms of virtue.  Real virtue is staying alive.

The Tao Te Ching also says something I found appropriate in the consideration of this record and my personal experience of it: “Tao is an empty vessel; yet its use is inexhaustible.”  This conundrum is precisely why I like Light Veins’ Wasteland: it was just a series of recordings that were smartly written enough to accommodate the listener’s own imagination.  The openness of the record, fenced in only once or twice by defiant samples with no specific context, is exciting – not boring.  I could have written out a hundred or more different experiences from this record, for its use is truly inexhaustible.

Despite the flat, overly compressed drum mixing and compression, this record sounds very good.  The guitars take on a number of tones and characterizations.  Noise samples and loops are used sparingly, tastefully.  Each composition has its own soul – its own ingrained human weight and truth.  Wasteland is dark and wondrous – both crushing and uplifting – and no matter what sort of journey you seek inside of it, you’ll want to revisit it again and again.

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ZAIBATSU – Zero

A record of such dark imagination and primal intensity that I cannot be sure it wasn’t conjured by evil wizards in some shadowy, forlorn corner of the world (turns out they’re in Rome, so I was close.)  Rich, complex ideas swirl in a pit of blackness; guitars, bass and drums twist and contort – betraying the conventional; the obliteration of the familiar.  While your mind may be trying to shove the sound you are hearing into a dirty hole marked “Tool meets Battles meets QOTSA,” it is all a lie.  Wherever this sound came from – you have not been there and probably wouldn’t survive the journey, anyway.

It’s a delicious brutality that permeates from ZAIBATSU’s Zero – 10 tracks of blistering guitar, rumbling bass, and precision-kill drums.  Vocals take a backseat, chiming in now and again to remind you with its labored, gloomy tone that you and your world are doomed.

From one second to the next, Zero pounds away at the soft, open wound of modern metal rock/alternative, distending and tearing at its extremes.  Why?  Because fuck modern metal rock/alternative; that’s why.  This is the sound of a post-civilization – an after-shock, eating the remains of what once was.  This is what it sounds like when the machine stops running, and we all go back – back into the cold, desperate nights and vast, empty days.  Welcome to an empire of nihilism and honest human decay.  “Regressive” rock, for us post-modern primitives.

Expert musicianship cross-pollinated with a fiercely imaginative production, Zero runs the gamut of dynamics and energy.  Some songs are more powerful than others, to be sure, but all of them contain a substantial amount of balls.  The guitars are easy to read, armed with adequate bite and presence even when the riff at hand realizes it’s full and monstrous potential.  They forge a concrete partnership with the bass guitar, which bellows and growls in unison.  But how hard and how dark can one band rock before the life – the vitality and excitement – of their record is leached away into the abyss of aesthetics?

Nope.  ZAIBATSU doesn’t stop.  Each song is unique, full of individual drive and temperament to the extent that it catapults you all the way through Zero.  I didn’t want to stop listening, not even to rewind and hear a particular passage that appealed to me.  I just wanted to sit in the dark and let it wash over me, allowing my preconceptions to float through the ether and into the flame.  Zero will surprise you, freak you out, energize you, move your body, and scorch your brain.

“Plastic Machine Head” sets the tone.  Sort of.  The album announces itself with a rumble, shaking loose the bits and pieces of defunct technology struggling to boot-up.  An ecosystem of sound fragments and ghosts begin to blossom and it all quickly grows out of control, bass and drums emerging to pound out the footsteps of men on old soil made new.  The wild screech of tomorrow empties out into the song proper, thrashing violently.  The band has an extreme talent for communicating chaos with a firm and calculated sensibility.  They take “math rock” and shove it up your ass, running headlong into a tempo change that feels like the stairway to Hell – only to magically defuse itself with a crud-sample ascending harp.  Brilliant and complete.

“Chemtrails” is one of my favorite tracks, dirty and mournful – a personality split by the low-groaning doom of the vocals and the filthy, hard texture of the bass.  At two-minutes forty-eight, the band displays their genius for switching things up in just the right way at just the right time.  No single opportunity for powerful transitioning is ignored or under-utilized.  If you think you know what they’ll do next, you’re wrong.  Both strange and exhilarating, Zero fights off blandness and convention with bursts of righteous flame.

We’re shoved directly into “Mantra 3P,” which registers a greater amount of ‘chaos’ and darkness – in part, because the song intelligently incorporates lulls and space to maximum effect.  To be covered in blackness and loudness isn’t enough to unsettle the mind and set the ears on edge.  Sometimes you have to draw them in with a whisper before you scream.  Much of the song is spent in a militant march, stomping over a guitar-scorched earth.   Finally the stride is broken, and a massive low rumble reduces the world to flittering ashes and distant echoes.  And then, like a tidal waves, it all comes crashing down – walls of great cities reduced to rubble.

“Metal” bands strive desperately to produce this effect with even a modicum of cinematic grandiosity, but their efforts are often overwrought.  By focusing efforts on ‘simplistic’ patterns that the listener can follow as they mutate and expand, the band has well avoided ridiculousness and still pursued epic scenes of sonic destruction.  The difference is comprehensibility.  The clean, precise playing effectively communicates each and every idea audibly.

In terms of production and track sequencing, the record is absolutely flawless.  Every sound is present to win; nothing weak shall remain.  Even the transitions between songs feel thoughtfully crafted.  The arch of the album is steep and compelling, the energy lifting and lowering impeccably.  The transition from “Technocracy” into “Abac” is brutal and abrupt – as it should be – whereas “Chemtrails” into “Mantra 3P” and “Starless” into “Collateral Language” are seamless.  As an album-fiend and a shunner of singles, the juxtaposition between songs and the resulting narrative speak to my core.

“Technocracy” plays with lithium-calm text-to-speech and incomprehensible shouting samples over a machine-insistent beat.  “We want your head to be plastic”?  Yes.  The employee of the month has set a record number of working hours.  Of course, he’s dead as a result.  “He is the real working class hero.”  The decline of the tempo mid-song is strong and well executed.  Usually, odd devices like these feel cheap and gimmicky.  ZAIBATSU, using a mix of audible conviction and competence, takes them to a whole other place altogether.  But that’s hardly the sum of their magic.

The end of “Abac” is quite beautiful and encouraging – without betraying the established mood of the record.  In fact, it prepares the listener adequately for the teetering waltz “Starless” and its lovely guitar passage at the thirty-second mark.  Wait.  Was that a goddamn dolphin?  What the hell?  How is it that something so absurd could be the perfect sonic addition at that exact moment, before the shit hits the fan?  How did they figure that one out?  I’m in absolute awe listening to it the first time.  Just as the screams (panned left and right) during the chorus were the correct textures to fuel the evil emitting from the singer’s strained throat.  And the fact that we end up at a colorful – and disturbing – three ring circus?  Well… that’s just icing on the mind-fuck cake.

And in case there was any confusion, Zero ends with the heavy “Collateral Language” in order to make it clear that ZAIBATSU knows their math and they know how to lay down the motherfucking rock.  Their record is, from top-to-bottom, a sonic conquest unlike any other.  Zero is easily one of my favorite albums of 2013.

1.1 Immermann – Extra Knusprig

There are, in essence, two kinds of record I like.  The first, and most pervasive in my library, is the category of music that reflects my personal taste most closely.  I’m talking about music that, right away, speaks to me and my own tastes or values.  These are bands and albums that go right to the heart of me, resonating off of an internal architecture that seems to anticipate the sound.  Those records are also, often times, boring to discuss at length.

The second category of music I like is one I do enjoy discussing.  It’s music that challenges my mind and pokes holes in the comfortable world I would have otherwise built for myself purely out of music that placated my personality or patronized my self-image (it’s not the 90’s anymore, and for good reason.)  Extra Knusprig – the second album from Adelaide, Australia’s 1.1 Immermann – is a record that, for me, pushes beyond the familiar (or perhaps shows you what lies just on the other side).  It’s inventive, surprising, confident, and coherent.  I felt my mind expanding and changing a little as I listened.

At every stop along the way, 1.1 Immermann’s guitars are tidy, diligent, and meticulous.  The bass guitar is fluid, roving and fearless.  The use of effects and synthesizers and samples are incredibly measured and tasteful; they are almost always in support of the arrangement and mood.  The drums are, in my view, the soul of the band.  They audibly guide the trajectory of each song.  The other players are so adept, however, that the drums don’t needless distract in their mission to drive progressions forward; everyone seems to keep pace just fine.

This is also an incredibly progressive band, one that would make both jazz and classic rock titans (like King Crimson) proud – but not for any sort of emulation or particular homage.  Make no mistake, 1.1 Immermann is on its own planet.  The record is chalk-full of unique, windy passages that sometimes lead you someplace unimaginably new and other times right back to where you started.  Between the album’s ‘segues’ – short, spirited grooves far more interesting than your standard album transition – Extra Knusprig’s real “songs” are elaborate journeys full of bright, exuberant imagination and relentless energy.

There’s natural, organic positivity that emits from the sound of the record overall.  While “Zebralion” starts out reflective and distant – gentle but insistent guitar strums over a test tone – the song suddenly “snaps out of it” with a lightning flash of synth percussion into a pleasant, if adamant, groove.  This is a record that likes to use its legs; it likes to wander down the street and see what’s up.  Of course, down around two minute-ten, the scene changes and night begins it’s slightly menacing descent.  Not thirty seconds later, the song shifts again.  This is not unlike lucid dreaming: the strange, magical environment and the conscious exploration of a fantasy – and when things get weird, you fly off to the next chapter.  By five minutes, the song has blossomed into a beautiful swirling, cascading feeling.  It’s riveting and intoxicating in its effect.

“The Conch” is my favorite song off the record.  Deceptive and sly, it kicks off with a straight beat – but within a matter of bars, there are stutters and stabs impelling the “simplistic” groove to mutate gradually.  The switch-ups are flawless: the execution of their ideas is just as impressive as the ideas themselves are.   There’s impeccable musical timing to the record throughout; it knows just what to say and when to say it.  The song continues to expand with logical expansions, purposeful flourishes, and eventually some pretty wild tangents.  The guitar solo at two minutes-fifty is expertly restrained, beginning choked and intermittent before filling in more and more, and then diving into some serious math with the band.  And when three minutes-fifty rolls around, I have a sense of how I arrived at this place, but the destination is still somehow totally unexpected.

“The Big Squeeze” is also a standout track on the record.  It is perhaps the most cinematic of all the songs, evincing the band’s ability to establish and maintain a thick, unbreakable mood.  There’s a sense of intrigue and shadow, but not “darkness” or grimness.  The band appears incapable of moping around or exhausting their inherent drive.

The production of this record – the mixing and editing – does a superb job of drawing the listener’s attention to all elements in an organized way, maintaining an emotion and keeping the humanity of the record intact.  The mix manages to show off the texture of each instrument or synth patch or sample, and not just the melodic content.  It is suitable that a record with such innovative arrangements should have an innovative mix, as well.  “The Hate Camel” is a great of example of this, and of all the songs this one takes the most playful approach to the use of samples with an audience applause recording cut into the hypnotic acceleration of the song at the three minute-forty-five mark.  It has a strange effect on the ear, to be sure, but this band thrives on strangeness and newness.

The fourth and last segue is also an example of the mix showing you different sides of a track, taking a pleasant, if standard, groove and then abruptly shifting the instruments off to the side and into the corner for a vocal harmony to appear.  Simple, bizarre, smart.

“En” is built on a series of complicated grooves, as opposed to the wider and more gradual progression of “The Conch” or “The Big Squeeze.”  It’s harder to follow, frankly, but extremely rewarding.  There are a dozen singular and compelling moments throughout the song, each with its own distinct tone and feel.  The tape cassette sample at three minutes isn’t just a sample: they drop a single phrase of the song into this diegetic moment and then leap right back out of it.  It’s a fun experiment, but if it hadn’t been executed as smoothly it would have been a bit irritating.

“Samizdat” does a fair job of representing my overall impression of this record.  This song, like the record, is a detailed exploration of rhythm and dynamics; of melody and strategic dissonance; of imagination and technical proficiency.  It’s scary that this much imagination has found such a reliable set of hands to communicate such complex and stirring ideas.  More importantly, they have taken chances and have endeavored to show the listener something new.  They have succeeded.

For myself, I have struggled and ultimately failed to find anything about this record I don’t like.  But considering 1.1 Immermann have a stronger sonic palette than Radiohead, the same boldness of The Bad Plus, an imagination that matches (and in some ways exceeds) McDonald and Giles, and a technical proficiency beyond any band remotely in the same class or particular strata of genres (Battles sounds boring and childish in comparison) – I can’t say I’m surprised.  Extra Knusprig is a wonderful and exotic experience.

ACKER – EP 1

There are four people in a room.  There is a light and there are shadows, too.  Everything that happens next is almost supernatural in its steely intensity, its grave conviction.  ACKER is a group of four people playing instruments together.  That’s all that EP 1 is, on the face of it.  What they have done with those instruments, however, is quite fantastic, unsettling, stirring, and dark as hell.

Music, popular and otherwise, has a broad range of darkness.  There is the kitschy darkness of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, or the earnest and substantial darkness of folk artist Damien Youth.  There’s also the explorative darkness of Einsturzende Neubauten and the spirit-decimating darkness of Red Death-era Diamanda Galas.

ACKER, on the other hand, has conjured their own unique darkness, taking the indie-rock intensity of bands like Trans Am with the focus and deliberateness of King Crimson — and an element that I think is, in part, critical to the identity of ACKER: its cello.  Or is that viola?  (Shit.)  I know almost nothing about stringed instruments, except to say I know what I like to hear.

How the cello interfaces with the plain, natural, and small sonic space these instruments inhabit evokes its own aesthetic which is both elegant and raw.  The cello sounds like it’s being played by a human being, tracked simply and with whatever feeling was available at the time to the player.  The sound of the band, as a whole, is honest and credible.  Any liberties taken with the mix, editing, use of effects or otherwise are tasteful and driven at a feeling, not for novelty.  For all the careening guitar and washy drums, there’s a solid strategy between each instrument, from one passage to the next.

Throughout this 5-track, 20 minute record, the guitars are tasteful and supportive: there’s no ego.  The guitars are accountable to the arrangement, not master of it.  They provide support to melody, they swell in unison with the band, and they are played both with deep consideration and ferocity.  I don’t usually give a damn about guitars.  That being said, I find ACKER’s guitars impressive in that they have made themselves indispensible to each arrangement by serving them with the utmost loyalty.  With a sound as nuanced and purposeful as ACKER’s, it would have been all too easy to bulldoze the shit out of certain passages.

However, if you were to judge this band by the first 42 seconds of “Trinidad,” it would be hard to know what to think.  The guitar is a little sloppy, the cello a bit pitchy, the drums fighting to establish tempo.  This looseness is, as you begin to wade further into the record, part of the feeling and are not a detractor.  This is the combined personality of the band; four people who are not going to pretend to be the same person with the same ideas and the same exact sense of timing.  And it’s not sloppiness, either.  It is what it sounds like: working this feeling out in a room, just us.  As the progression continues, and the sound opens up, you will begin to get it.  This stuff is beautiful, and articulate – and huge, in it’s own microcosmic way.

By the time you arrive at “Trinidad’s” lull around the minute-thirty mark, the cello plucks out a careful and intriguing sequence.  Building the song from that point is a lesson in flying, because at three minutes thirty the track begins to soar.  I’m 12 years old, riding my bike through fall leaves, pissed off at someone – wanting some sense of freedom.  My feelings are real; the memory is powerful, if fragmented.  Whether ACKER meant to or not, they led me there.

“Norilsk” is far more aggressive, and better shows off the progressive abilities of the band.  Polyrhythms and mathy-phrases line a path extending into the horizon.  Everything is in flux, drums gently ushering the band along one side-street and down another.  At three minutes-twenty, a ghostly reverberation of the guitar gathers in the distance, a brief glimpse at something awesome in its scope and effect.

“~” follows, a bit of soundscape on the heels of “Norilsk” and its insistent march forward.  It’s a lovely, if cold place to float before diving into the fiery narrative of “The Mid-Atlantic Waste.”  Thus far, the band has demonstrated an ability for evoking feelings of fear, sadness, rage, reflection.  “Waste” is panic.  I see someone lost and confused, thrown this way and that while the circumstances of life supersede individual choice and free will.  The guitar “solo” at a minute-thirty is not standard or forced; it feels like a necessary expression of pain – necessary to tell this story, whatever that may be.  This band can rock, too.  They make a great noise, building a mountain of thrash to two minutes-forty and then expertly reverting to the song’s initial size.

In the end, “Vrangelya” begins appropriately with a solemn and contemplative vibe, bells ringing through a vast darkness; memories trying to break through.  There is somewhat of a sonic similarity with King Crimson’s Islands record.  I can feel the ocean behind this track and others.  Great, sweeping waves and dull, grey skies.  This dark and lonely world.  Too much time spent in my own head.  Regrets brush past, sting like nettles.  She and I, waltzing beneath the tress.  Suddenly, it’s the three minute-forty-five mark, and I’m pouring over old pages; yellowed leaves falling out of one journal after another onto the dust-coated floor of an abandoned library.  Scouring, desperately.  Her picture.  I can see her face, in my head, but it’s fading.  What is that memory?  Is it mine or someone else’s?  A light.  Slowly, my iris expands; I begin to see.  The way the song lifts itself and rises up into the sky at the five minute-ten second mark is the most satisfying moment on this record.  And it just keeps going, right into the sun, to burn.  To extinguish itself.

Instrumental music is dangerous.  Without a voice and lyrics, bands run the risk of having their music heard and interpreted in a way that was not intended.  This can get out of control: the record can take on a life of it’s own, each note and beat communicating false messages feeding one big lie.  People are going to hear this record in their own way, and believe their own lies about.  But I love that, really.  I love my own experience of this record – what it does to my mind – as much as I enjoy the record itself.  ACKER, and it’s four members, will never know of the immense and eternal mental empires they have helped to build.

It makes me mad that this band and this record are not better, or more widely, known.