Wednesday, February 28, 2007

top50 - #2

2. william elliott whitmore - 'song of the blackbird'

or from:

My excitement about this record was probably very noticeable back then when I talked about its predecessor 'Ashes To Dust' and urged everyone to keep an eye out for this one. See, I had reasons. What I think and feel about Will and his music is already quite apparent in that review, so I can spare you all the redundant praise and step straight into 'Song Of The Blackbird'.

If you have heard Will before (and if you haven't, by god, fix that pronto) you won't be too shocked by the beginning of the record, with his by-now familiar banjo strum introducing 'Dry'. However, as the song progresses, and later the album itself, some slight changes are apparent, namely the melodic richness of the vocals. Will has never been monochordic, but some of the songs here showing a range that's much wider than before.

(photo by Curtis Lehmkuhl)

One of the things I like to do with Will's songs is show them to people who have never heard of him, and then ask them to describe how they think will looks like. His deep, gravely, weary voice is hugely misleading - I have had many answers but none of them are remotely close to what he does look like. On an interview at the Southern Records website, William talks about his appreciation for Minor Threat or Public Enemy, and this is one of the things that sets him apart from the rest. Even though the songs on 'Song Of The Blackbird', like the ones on the two records before, are deeply imbued with the traditional spirit of the South, and still as stripped-down as before (voice, banjo, occasional percussion, and that's it), some almost-pop hooks (pop in the context of Will's songs, do not get me wrong here) are apparent now and then, which makes the record a curious meeting of traditional past and exciting present.

Will's storytelling abilities have also been improving impressively. His music has often compared to Johnny Cash for little reason other than journalistic laziness, but storytelling is the only real area where the two are really very comparable. Like Cash, Whitmore can write seemingly individual, character-based stories that can resonate deeply within anyone, regardless of the reader/listener ever having anything to do with railroad workers, inmates (Cash only, this one) or farmers, to name but a few members of both men's favoured cast. Stories become universal because their basic themes are universal.

At first glance, Will's songs seem to be centred around death, but they're not. Death is a backdrop, it is indeed very present but merely as a factor of life, and that is what is really celebrated here. It's not the weakness of the demise that is valued, it's the strength of the resistance to it, usually through love. The best example of will's outlook on life that he expresses through his songs is 'Take It On The Chin', where he proudly sings: he said life is a gamble and before you throw them dice, if it's more than you can handle please take this advice. He said stand your ground and don't back down, that's the only way to win. and when life throws a punch, son, you've got to take it on the chin.

With the possible exception of the forthcoming number one on my 2006 top list, William Elliott Whitmore is hands-down the best singer/songwriter in activity today.

song of the day:
'Take It On The Chin'

Monday, February 19, 2007

top50 - #3

3. negură bunget - 'om'

(review published on issue 33 of Unrestrained! magazine and slightly adjusted for too.many.records.)

Maybe in a few years we will have a better term for it than the rather hideous post-black metal, but there’s a wealth of activity brewing in the wake of the black metal’s heyday that is truly fascinating, with a few bands expanding on the orthodox black metal framework by incorporating other influences and concepts. Just as quick examples, there’s Blut Aus Nord, Anaal Nathrakh, Deathspell Omega and these rather mysterious romanians, Negură Bunget.

Having evolved wildly in the 10 years of their existence so far, never making the same record twice, they now seem to have reached a point of maturity of which 'Om' is the direct result: an ambitious piece which will surely lift them out of the hushed possible-big-thing-in-the-future semi-obscurity in which they have dwelled in the past few years. It’s not like the previous album, '‘N Crugu Bradului', a masterpiece of eerie darkness, was an accessible work, but 'Om' goes deeper into uncharted territory, adding melancholy and even psychedelia to the mix. Don’t be fooled by the term, or by these changes, though. 'Om' manages to create an even more suffocating environment than its predecessor. Forgive the cliché, but it does feel like you’re standing in the middle of a forest in the region of Transylvania from which Negură Bunget hail from. Except it’s not at night – it’s in daytime, with the pale rays of light coming through the few openings in the thick leaves, as if choked by them.

This light-and-dark contrast is a theme explored throughout the album, with piercing screams and harsh black metal distortion being juxtaposed with enveloping keyboards and some truly spooky clean vocals. The song 'Cunoaşterea Tăcută' is a good example of this, a slowly evolving epic that reaches almost unbearable intensity levels. You don’t just put on this record – you need to give it time and attention to absorb you, but when it does, it does it like precious few other records do.

'Om' is a part of a bigger spiritual concept created by the band and it would take several posts of this blog to go into it in depth, but suffice to say that after a few listens, a lot of bands in your discography will seem a bit cartoonish in comparison.

Much of the future of black metal in particular and extreme music as a whole resides here.

song of the day:
'Cunoasterea Tăcută'

top50 - #4

4. melvins - '(a) senile animal'

Ahh, the Melvins. The oddest, most left-field and utterly essential side-effect of the early 90s Seattle craze, who after all these years are still young (at heart), fresh and invigorating. King Buzzo and his cohorts always manage to do something exciting and new with every one of their albums, and they're not new to collaborations (take the unforgettable Fantômas + Melvins Big Band album), but this time the result is even better than their insanely good norm. Basically they incorporated a whole band into the Melvins fold, with the two members of the band Big Business, Jared Warren and Coady Willis. Now, these two guys are a bass player and a drummer. Since Dale is obviously still a Melvin, do the math - two drummers.

The two drummer idea isn't a new invention, although it's a rare attempt, and it could easily have been a meaningless gimmick. But come on, this is the Melvins. so one listen to '(A) Senile Animal' is enough to not only convince you, but to floor you completely. The weight and the rumble of this album is simply unbelievable. Play this through good speakers with a hefty subwoofer (seriously, do) and the low-end will probably register on the richter scale. King Buzzo was already the king of sludgy, dragged-out riffage, but with this kind of support behind him the result is stellar. The chugga-chugga of 'Blood Witch' or the jumpy rock-on of 'A History Of Drunks' are like Black Sabbath given a spit-polish, a shot of Alice In Chains and all revved up for 2007.

Yeah, Alice In Chains. For all is not bashing away in this album - the vocal harmonies and even the riffs themselves are insanely catchy and hummable, and soon you'll have the supreme pleasure of singing along with Buzzo as the songs whirlwind around you. With two drummers, it's possible to do all kinds of crazy time signatures and that helps the tempo tremendously - in '(A) Senile Animal', nothing is boring and everything flows, the album gets angry, calms down, then jokes a bit, then thrashes the place again. Everything sounds in place, songs belong next to each other. In these days of loose mp3 (like that one down there, ha), this is a proper album, created like one and meant to be heard like one.

It's a crime to say this, considering the absolute wealth of riches that the Melvins back-catalogue provides, but this is probably their most consistent and exhilarating album ever. Fuck The Darkness or Trivium or whatever else mainstream media has tried to push as rock these past few years - this is what proper rock sounds like.

An instant classic.

song of the day:
'A History Of Drunks'

Thursday, February 08, 2007

top50 - #5

5. solitude aeturnus - 'alone'

Solitude Aeturnus never really went away, but the amount of time since the release of the wonderfully bleak 'Adagio' left the most dedicated fans worrying. The band indeed took a break, but apparently splitting up was never in the cards, which should make any doom fan rejoice. Yet further rejoicing is in order as well, as 'Alone' shows that the time did them well.

Now that vocalist Rob Lowe has been selected as the new voice of Candlemass, and since he will keep his post in Solitude Aeturnus, proper and long overdue attention might start to be directed to this band. Few bands deserve it more - they have long been a steady, strong and reliable pillar of doom metal in particular and metal as a whole. 'Alone' is mesmerizing, right from the start, right before the music, even. Record cover of the year by a wide mile, the Travis Smith artwork describes the music with more accuracy than any reviewer ever will. Just like that tragically beautiful image, 'Alone' is true doom, through and through. It's heavy, it's dense and it's hypnotic.

Rob Lowe is the first and most obvious element of fascination here - he proves (as if any proof was needed if you have heard any of the albums in their discography...) that he's one of the most talented vocalists within any genre with this astounding performance. Both hopeful and hopeless, utterly bleak wails that suddenly break into luscious choruses that let some light in (like on the amazing 'Essence Of Black'), he is a frontman in every sense of the word. John Perez and Steve Moseley are responsible not only for the typically crushing, slow riffs, but also for some extra injections of power in the band's sound - check out the immense 'Sightless' or the frightening 'Burning'. Those songs are also the best example of how to use a rhythm section properly, James Martin's bass and Steve Nichol's drums resonating deeply in your chest. The production is very strong as well, carrying the weight these compositions need faultlessly.

Solitude Aeturnus is a band with very high standards, having maintained consistently high quality ever since their historical debut, so the fact that 'Alone' is their best work ever is even more of a feat. If you have any interest in dark, heavy music, you cannot pass this one up.

song of the day:

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

top50 - #6

6. ed harcourt - 'the beautiful lie'

Ed's 2006 album was actually my very first review on too.many.records., and the choice was easy at the time, because it was the record permanently glued to my stereo. It was also, I thought, a good universal choice for a blog that I like to try to maintain eclectic, despite my general metallic leanings - there is something here for everyone, if you know where to look.

The person who introduced me to Ed in the first place has had a hard time getting to grips with what is, essentially, Ed's step into maturity. I fell in love with Ed for his sunny pop hooks and easy-going goodtimes, so I'm not sure if our relationship will take this latest change, she says, and that might be the biggest stumbling block to overcome when dealing with 'The Beautiful Lie'.

The hooks are there, as is still the boyish irreverence that I mentioned on my first review of this, but everything is a bit denser and slightly more sombre in places, so the sunny bits take their time to reveal themselves. When they do, however, they settle in for good. On one hand, you will melt at the endearing sweetness of 'Good Friends Are Hard To Find', and also find that it's impossible not to join in the thrilling chorus of 'Revolution In My Heart' or the demented carny that is the murder ballad 'Scatterbraine'.

Ed is trying to branch out. As you can guess from the last sentence of the previous paragraph, Nick Cave and Tom Waits are two big reference points. Not that 'The Beautiful Lie' sounds like them all that much. In fact, it sounds like Ed, which is the best thing that can be said about him at this point in his career (and let's not forget that the man isn't even 30 yet). His uncompromising posture, the approach to songs, to writing, and even to lyrics, show a very promising left-field-ness that could easily blossom into something very special indeed.

will you love me when i'm old / well, i'm still hoping i can get that far, Ed sings on opener 'Whirlwind In D Minor'.

Well, here's to hoping.

song of the day:
'Whirlwind In D Minor'

Thursday, February 01, 2007

top50 - #7

7. celtic frost - 'monotheist'

Tom Warrior (or his real name, which he uses nowadays, Thomas Gabriel Fischer) had a lot to lose here. Celtic Frost are a sacred name in metal history, one of the most essential bands of the 80s and pioneers in every way, responsible for the existence of much of the quality extreme music we hear today. They're so important that most fans have forgiven them for the unforgettably horrible sell-out that was 'Cold Lake'. Therefore, to reactivate a band like this after over a decade is a very risky move. The panorama is different, tastes are different, Tom and his other Celtic Frost half, Martin Eric Ain, are older and there's the ever-present 'you're doing it for the money!' accusation. So despite the name, there's no guarantee of quality, in fact, the name could weigh them down negatively.

Well, forget all that. 'Monotheist' is a staggering achievement. From the very first listen it is very clear that Fischer's soul is all over this album, as much of its darkness seems intensely personal. And there's plenty of darkness to go around here. Even though the opening one-two of 'Progeny' and 'Ground' pretty much picks up from 1985's 'To Mega Therion', with its doom-laden stomp, 'Monotheist' soon starts twisting itself into stranger, more obscure shapes. More than anything, Celtic Frost have gone down in history for their courage to take risks and innovate, and that tendency still remains. Third song 'A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh' is the first typical frost wtf? moment, with its gentle, vaguely foreboding start slowly building into a bleak, hopeless piece of nastiness, with such wild outside reference points such as Neurosis or even Xasthur. 'Drown In Ashes' follows this monolith, and introduces haunting female vocals to the mix. The rest of 'Monotheist' alternatively pounds you down with more bouts of heavy doom or freaks you out by metamorphosing into piercing blackness. The one prevalent theme throughout the album is its sinister feel. Never is 'Monotheist' comfortable, in a bad way, never is it conformist, never is it conventional.

As final confirmation of this triumphant return, if you had the luck of catching Celtic Frost live during the shows promoting this album, you will know that this is no strike of chance. The band is revitalized, hungry, alive and that much is obvious by the vortex that is a Celtic Frost concert, these new songs mingling perfectly with the timeless classics.

Celtic Frost's past is glorious, but the best compliment that can be paid to this new incarnation is that the present and the future seem to carry on that glory faultlessly.

song of the day:
'A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh'