Music Reviews

Soak The Saddle, by Arab On Radar

Soak The SaddleWhen this album’s on, Sisyphus doesn’t care about the boulder; lets it roll down the hill, crash the crystal palaces, break up the Occident.

SOAK THE SADDLE is Keats’ verdant mind flooding out its nightingales with petrol.
SOAK THE SADDLE is Artaud’s thunder and lightning lucidity between your ears.
SOAK THE SADDLE is WAKE THE FUCK UP!

So begins the siren-like sound of the first song of this onslaught. Harsh machinations follow, framed by disturbing lyrics with BOOM BOOM, BOOM BOOM and crashed repeatedly by a breathtaking snare drum with cutthroat cymbal splashes saturated with white hot distortion. There’s food for ears with every menacing claw of sound and you wonder just where in the hell it’s coming from. Who the hell made this? you ask.

SOAK THE SADDLE pounds with the metallic thunder-pulse of the Industrial Revolution; with iron drums and heart attack guitars like nails on a freakin’ chalkboard. Eric Paul’s words come screeching out of his mouth like arrows shot for the safety of top 40 dilettantes in vogue. Listen as Paul’s matchless voice greases up the gears while the band beats rhythms with the repetitive power of an assembly line bent on churning out cuts to break any comfort in sound you’ve ever known. Just listen.

The well-trained ear might hear schlock, and the lovers won’t dance to it. But they and anybody else who hears it, as it happens from time to time with a great record, they’ll be whipped through and through, and like the good thinking beast does, come back for some more. SOAK THE SADDLE is one of those whippings—right now. Never mind the album closing in on its fifteenth year.

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Music Reviews

Angel, by Pure X

Angel CoverMellow
D
o
w
n
Easy.

If ever an album came to be marked by a season, that album was/is Pure X’s Angel (2014); the season? SUMMER. Slow and steady as July sunshine, Angel melts away course and frigid elements of indie rock with its sultry, slippery, sun-filled dive into soft, melodic tunes akin to seventies soft-rock, yet bolstered by the sparkling production indicative of technological modernity. It’s a bit of a clash of times; but mostly, Angel is heavy on mood, on feeling.

There’s an occasional edge lurking in the background of the sound (“Livin’ the Dream”; “Make You Want Me”; “Rain”), though it’s either super-soft or bombs out quickly, waved over by sweet sounding vocal melodies with enough reverb to count one plucked note as two.

Released by Fat Possum Records, Angel is Pure X’s third full-length release. A  beauty with soothing vibes, Angel is a transport to reverie; a feast of aurally inspired visions of harmony in a lush environment of tranquil sound. Soft as Aphrodite and stellar as the moonlight illuminating her bed—whatever visions you have while listening to this, when they fade and break, this intoxicating record remains a physical vehicle to places of sheer loveliness. How’s that for comfort and stability?

Cool down that thinking brain struggling for meaningful expression and chill out in the shady coulee of “Valley of Tears,” where feeling provides all the truth required for the trip. “The whole world is an illusion,” sings Someone; and, “When my heart is alive, girl, it is so alive / And there is nothing, there is nothing, that can keep me down.” The words fly in over a soft beat and an in-and-out, lean-in melodic guitar, quietly slipping under a chord crunch until the bright notes branch out like ivy, wrapping these confessional lines: “There is one thing I can do / Open my heart to you”; and little melodic blooms open up gently, as they do all throughout Angel’s sound.

“Fly Away With Me Woman,” another love-cut escape dream, with its spread eagle guitar chords and multitude of piquant background sound, takes to great heights the “truth-in-feeling” good-time vibe that marks much of the lyrical material on Angel, escalating listeners to the plateau that is “Heaven,” described as “a feeling / One I can believe in.” What beauty in guitar just over the minute mark, as “Heaven” rolls onward, time draining it out of the sky of your ears. [Generation-X, your parents are dancing].

Angel’s highest point of melodic beauty comes with the slow climb to the peak that is “Every Tomorrow.” What hands of impassioned delicacy! The instrumental togetherness on this track is so utterly POWERFUL with its simplistic percussion, soft-cut strings and desirous guitar lines as the singer’s conscientious words, “hangs on a string,” (in reference to days and lifetimes) finds welcome repetition deep within the ears, cored in the feeling brain. A quite Beatle-esque sentiment follows: “Every tomorrow ain’t worth a thing / If you don’t have love to keep you going”; and the power of melody, sparked to life, carries this one off.

Grounding the album somewhat is a lack of variety as Angel rolls on into its second half. Not hard to tell that Pure X is quite comfortable with their sound. Guitar tones, vocal melodies and pace seem to suffer from a lack of freshness in tracks like “Angel” and “Make You Want Me,” when compared with previously heard compositions on the record.

That’s no major flaw, though, as the monotony likens itself to a summer rainstorm. While it’s pretty, it’s also pretty monotonous, yet it’s a lull that’s truly, simply, hard to resist. And, sitting by a window, passing the time, this soft, soothing repetition comes welcome. It’s a sign of contentment, wanting for nothing; it’s also the sound of Angel, which sounds pretty damn good on this quiet July evening.

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Music Reviews

Remain, by Them Are Us Too

Remain CoverReleased by Dais Records, Remain (2015), is the debut album from California’s Them Are Us Too.

Throughout the album exists the push and pull of disharmonious introductory sounds (groans mostly from edgy synthesizers) carried away by the comforting, emotional waves of tested, beloved rhythms that have carried listeners to and from pop music’s Elysium for decades. Known and known—this is Remain.

Sprinkled into the mix are traces of Throbbing Gristle’s menacing electronics. Dumped, are gallons of The Cure’s  melancholic rain-guitar. Praised, are The Cocteau Twins.

That said, Remain sounds like a whelping ode to the past.

Consisting of vocalist Kennedy Ashlyn and guitarist Cash Askew, Them Are Us Too are but forty-two years combined in age. This is youthful record number one, and that can be heard in the inspired polarity that is the moody and tenebrous sound cradled by a reverence for nostalgia and desire for structural security.

Remain’s first song, “Eudaemonia,” in addition to resurrecting the term from ashy classrooms, introduces listeners to the layered bloom of synthesizers and guitar as cool and strange as a mythical narcissus. But the deathly coal-black steeds of a yawning rhythm are charging; Hades opens its maw, and “Eudaemonia” is swallowed by ennui.

To hear this combination of disintegrative sound chewed through and swallowed up by the past suggests that Them Are Us Too’s music is largely funneling through the filter of their influences. Sure, why not? Whose music isn’t? Yet, despite the hearkening back to decades past, there’s no real distinctive voice, here and now, rising from Remain; each track points to something else; drops vapidly from the rainy tower of Ashlyn’s voice, beautiful as it is.

Take “Us Now,” for example. Minus those underlying bars of creepy synth, this song closes any John Hughes movie. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad song; only, what sordid business has youth in the graveyard?

Remain‘s density of layer and sleek production is akin to what’s heard on The National’s Trouble Will Find Me (2013). The album sounds great, deep and full. It’s just hard to determine why; nothing’s really happening, though nevertheless it’s breezily satisfying.

What strikes hardest on Remain, is, Ashlyn’s voice; rich and dense as Katrina Ford’s (Celebration), but able to climb emotional heights to sing notes on a peak with startling ease; it portends better than what these songs offer.

And though it might be strange and perhaps fruitless to write of what something is not, it’s all only to say that, despite what falls softly into the net of safety here, the talented partnership that is Them Are Us Too, is, manifest; the realization of this begs more from the artists than what has been offered, as the sound of Remain suggests that something grand may be growing in that murky, uncomfortable transition into adulthood.

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The World & Everything In It, by The Oranges Band

The World & Everything In It cover

Ten years have come and melted away since the splash and drip of this album. Hearing it today?—not a dry spot the whole way through.

Just to view the cover puts a mind at ease. In tone, The World & Everything In It (2005) elicits a beachy Western SoCal vibe, even if it was made in Baltimore, MD—where The Oranges Band was born (in 2000) and still plays…occasionally.

With a strong, cool edge begins “Believe”—an excellent introduction to the band’s playing style (which is to say jaunty and loose, yet somehow crisp and precise all the same); not to mention Roman Kuebler’s exceptionally smooth voice; a voice that, if it could be seen, would look like the cover at sunset.

The album builds momentum quickly and one hears the group locked in, yet fluid in its playing. It all sounds so natural and nascent, even if it was spawned from a practiced discipline within a studio instead of under the white sun spreading hot honey sunshine on some beautiful beach.

That you’re listening to a recording instead of hosting the group in your room might be in need of conviction, the album sounding so full, so free and alive, rollicking through speakers with energetic tracks like “The Mountain,” “I’ll Never Be Alone,” and the surging “Ride the Nuclear Wave.”

No pink hands pushing audio dross here. On The World & Everything In It, The Oranges Band simply lay it out. And they do it loud! Sounds similar to how Link Wray & his Ray Men once did (note the ode to Wray’s classic, “Rumble,” in the intro to “The Mountain”): Like. It. Or. Not. Here. It. Is. —The World & Everything In It has that kind of nonchalant force about it. The song is craft, but played with a force channeling energy on high; amps up; arms loose; hands precise.

The sunny splash of Dan Black’s fuzzy guitar matched with the precision of drummer Dave Voyales’ knowing hands on “Ride the Wild Wave,” is stunning. Like the gifted Scott Asheton (of Iggy And The Stooges), one can hear in Voyales’ playing the ability to envelop the song rather than simply beat it to death.

“I figured we would ride the wild wave all around the world,” sings Kuebler with a voice reflecting on when being seventeen in the summertime meant tasting the brief and balmy freedom that is “all of the time in the world to be alone, all alone.” Following “Ride the Wild Wave” is “Open Air,” another lyrically reflective piece on peachy youth made all the more memorable for the listener by The Oranges Band’s ability to create and play meaningfully a strong and simple song about experience and growth—and that’s all over this one.

Since The World & Everything In It, The Oranges Band have released one album, the humorously (portentously?) titled, Are Invisible (2009), and have played but a handful of shows.

Perhaps the ten-year anniversary of this work coupled with enough social media nagging will inspire yet another creative venture. If not, and what’s left is truly all that’s left, it’s no bummer. The World & Everything In It is more than enough.

For the entire album on Grooveshark, CLICK HERE, or, have a go at “Believe” below.

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Music Reviews

Meshes of Voice, by Jenny Hval & Susanna

Meshes of Voice Cover

What an eclectic mass of sound here. Much range heard on this surrealistic work uniting Norwegian singers Jenny Hval & Susanna Wallumrød.

Contributing much more than their voices, between Hval and Wallumrød is heard various effects, noise and samples, as well as guitar, electric harmonium, autoharp and piano. In addition, musicians Anita Kaasbøll and Jo Berger Myhre contribute drums, double bass and zither, extending the album’s dimension considerably.

You might know Hval from her slinky 2013 release, Innocence Is Kinky (Hval’s next album, Apocalypse, Girl, is slated for a June 2015 release on Sacred Bones), or Wallumrød perhaps from Susanna and the Magical Orchestra. The Magical Orchestra, a duo consisting of Wallumrød with keyboard-player Morten Qvenild, is known particularly for covers of legends like Leonard Cohen, Kiss, Dolly Parton and Scott Walker.

This album, though, stands out as something quite different from either artist’s previous efforts.

Swirling within the blurry confines of place and emotion, Meshes of Voice brings to ears what is a dark and strong life expressed with sharp and stirring words. The lyrics just brim with vivid images, such as the infamous black lake, a stygian symbol of haunt recurring throughout the album. Stunning too are the more visceral images bizarrely uniting nature with man: running milk down the legs; skin forged out of seaweed; honeydew behind the eyes; children from spit—these deeply submerged in pools of sound lapping and crashing ears, dredged up by Hval and Wallumrød in quite unique performances.

For the most part, both singers hone unique expressions of their instrument using minimal electronic effect, relying largely on what might be best described as a kind of “instinctual prowess,” hunting and encompassing finally the power of each piece of music with all their knowledge of artistry and intuitive power that marks great artistic strength.

To return to the music: what deftness in the solemn tone of the lone piano when it blends with a confessional voice and growing darkness as noise in “Black Lake.” “The black lake took and the black lake gave,” sings Hval and Wallumrød in tandem before a milky washout of vibrant, piercing noise and sound.

All is meshing quite well and, what’s more, the flawless transition between tracks is creating something completely of its own.

A beautiful transition of voice occurs as “O Sun O Medusa” becomes “A Mirror in My Mouth,” and it’s not limited to Hval from Wallumrød. The mesh of an acoustic guitar picking the same opening notes as the piano that introduced “O Sun O Medusa” did in its own strong and clean voice, bridges the songs, musically, in such a way that the only audible degree of separation between the two tracks is evidenced by the technical change of singers, contributing grandly to the album’s feeling of organic wholeness. The two different instruments are speaking the same language, each of course with their own voice.

And though songs and words tie and overlap each other, that’s not to say that Meshes of Voice is just one great big song. More is to be heard, and the listener will rise with the album’s distinctive high marks as each line or sound presented differently from the murky depths of the work surge to the fore.

Hear a surge of sound wild in clash of drone and heavy layers infuse itself with a dominant voice unchained and steadily climbing in Wallumrød’s effectively haunting, powerful and just flat-out tantalizing vocal in “I Have Walked This Body.” Wallumrød belts “A basilica of stone / Waiting waiting for skin / I stood on the rims / And carved the tree rings in,” laying extreme emphasis on the last words of each line, her forked voice now with twittering syllables shining as brightly as the splayed tail of a red-tailed comet.

Behind the dominant drone of layered voices—such as those calling one to “Come on and be swallowed” in “I Have A Darkness” —and the dark and noisy gashes in the album’s body, elsewhere is a less harrowing, though nonetheless moving, listening experience. In this arena, songs become scenes set on the black lake where Hval and Wallumrød embrace darkness with eyes to the sun, sing: “Oh I need the fire / The rushing of the fire / Release me from the night.”

A unique listening experience that demands complete attention, enjoy Meshes of Voice for all its great power.

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Ruins, by Grouper

Ruins CoverGrouper is Liz Harris, artist and musician from Portland, Oregon.

Comes Ruins (2014), Grouper’s latest following 2013’s The Man Who Died in His Boat. With the exception of the last track, “Made of Air,” Ruins was recorded in Aljezur, Portugal, in 2011 and released by Chicago’s Kranky Records on Halloween of 2014.

As voiced by the artist herself, the album was “recorded pretty simply, with a portable 4-track, Sony stereo mic and an upright piano.”

Melancholic. Penetrating. Remarkable.—These and like adjectives root in Ruins.

On the opening track, “Made of Metal,” Harris captures sharp sounds of the highly active life living outside her temporary residence in Aljezur. Sounds like what came before us: copious amounts of insects, frogs and birds all hungrily calling into the heavy night.

Composition-wise, Harris envelops listeners by expertly using a few, yet powerful, elements. But a handful of simple, pyre-like piano notes and one quiet guitar partnered with some tape loops and Harris’ hushed vocals, fill ears with somber tones.

The ache of inner emotional truth in the light of how things truly are, produce in Harris’ voice a wintry tone; painful remnants of passing love pall the power of her barefaced words with an icy fragility, as when in “Clearing,” the voice behind the words, “Every time I see you I have to pretend I don’t,” sounds as if singing the line is nearly too much; as if the singer isn’t just singing but experiencing anew the truth expressed through the words before us on tape, re-living ruins. Such also is the case in the dusky drift of knotted honesty and regret in the line: “Sometimes I wish that none of this had happened.”

It’s a perfect blend, Harris’ fragile voice and those skeletal piano notes. They sound inseparable, and the piano, though sounding as affected as Harris, provides just as strong a voice heard on the album as any other, even taking over instrumentals “Labyrinth” and “Holofernes.”

Though Harris’ words often sink from clarity deeply into the sound, their meaning masked in tone is as clear as the drops of rain falling from the thunderstorm that closes “Holding.”

Each track of the album runs its listener farther from private emotional turrets crumbling inside physical structures to the eleven-minute, disintegrative ending that is “Made of Air.” No words to anchor the feeling, no distinctive voice (guitar, piano) that so characterized the tracks prior, but sound and sound only—a pushing, pendulous, free flight to silence.

By its ethereal drift and telling title, “Made of Air” sounds the course of the elemental transition/decomposition of relationships, love and structures to a formless expanse, the great weight of ruins cast.

Yet, for all its weight in sound and feeling—seemingly filled by the inspiration of place and pain—, the overall languid feeling of Ruins does little to create any tension for listeners, filling ears instead with tranquility like a sleepy white-haired death from the bed.

Little fight from the ear as “Made of Metal” pumps out its final, and hard, heartbeat before the piano-etch of “Clearing” abruptly shifts tonality and Harris’ words, “Open up the window, try and let the light out” cuts a path through the aural brush to songs of grey stillness, bright pain, terrible longing and lonely beauty.

16mm Film by Paul Clipson for “Made of Air”

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Death By Unga Bunga, by The Mummies

The Mummies--Death By Unga BungaSelf-proclaimed and rarely challenged “Kings of Budget Rock™,” (yes, you read correctly, that is most certainly a trademark symbol), The Mummies came out of a garage in California to play/bomb dives in the late 80’s and early 90’s with their surf/punk/garage rocking assault and formidable presence. These mono-stars rolled out of their tombs to gigs in a classic ‘63 Pontiac ambulance. They arrived swathed in full mummy garb, decrepit, cranked and ready to lash ears with hard and dirty grooves.

But don’t freak out. They’re not after your soul. The Mummies don’t give a shit about anything but the tune. Especially you. Looky here: “The Mummies are not your friends. The Mummies don’t tweet, twat, connect, share, like, friend or give a damn.” —That particular response of theirs to the social media maelstrom of the twenty-first century is culled from their official website, as is this, their truncated biography: “The Mummies were a stupid band. This is their stupid Website. You cared about them enough to get this far. Now you are stupid too. That’s the Mummies’ curse.”

They’ve released some albums—The Mummies: Play Their Own Records (1992), Never Been Caught (1992), amongst others. Bootlegs have surfaced. A few splits and numerous singles have been released, all in the early to late 90’s and mostly through the Estrus and Telestar labels, (dis)respectively. All the while the compact disc format The Mummies have left to the other monsters, and somewhat angrily at that—the words “fuck C.D.s” are to be found riding the covers of a few of their records. No tender resolve marks that truculent stamp.

Or does it?

Time pushes all to the edge, even The Mummies. The dawn of the twenty-first century saw something improbably weird stagger out of the shady unknown: a compressed collection of fuzzy jams documenting modern day encounters with some bitchin’ ancient anger. So it is, a CD release bearing the name of: The Mummies! Yes, a spectacularly lo-fi punch to the ear, Death By Unga Bunga (2003).

The songs found on Death By Unga Bunga traverse The Mummies’ turbulent recording career, with many of the well-known choice cuts from their scratchy, lo-fi oeuvre represented. For better or worse (depends how you feel about the sound quality of the records mostly), such gems as “That Girl,” “Stronger Than Dirt,” Food, Sickles & Girls,” and “(You Must Fight To Live) On The Planet Of The Apes,” underwent (suffered?) a technological upgrade.

If there’s anything The Mummies love more than vengeance and trouble, its vinyl, surely. But like their patience with you and the rest of your race, records on the market bearing their name are nearly nonexistent, not to say that they were ever plentiful. The few left and up for sale don’t come cheap. In fact, your budget-rock fix may cost a pretty penny, and like a good joke, that’s awfully funny and a trifle sad.

That being known, for all its all-over-the-place sound quality, the zany motley that is Death By Unga Bunga is no less a pleasing assimilation of tracks from the band’s back catalog. It’s crass (“In & Out”), angry (“Die!”), sordidly amusing (“Dangerman”), at times hilarious (“The House On The Hill”)—a solid introduction to the band’s aggressive, DIY, no bullshit, fuck-the-music-industry ethos.

Take out a loan, get the LP’s, or have this and get a taste for some fine free-and-easy-who-gives-a-shit-lets-just-play freedom.

The Mummies

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Shaking The Habitual, by The Knife

Cover

An exploration into the unknown, a creative renascence rife with humanitarian purpose, an album’s worth of songs begging questions, challenging how we listen. And, all kinds of other things people say/write/harbor/think/feel/solicit when they’re excited, inspired by something.

These and much more orbiting the heads of Swedish brother and sister Olof Dreijer and Karen Dreijer Andersson, otherwise known as, The Knife—those responsible for this mammoth, Shaking The Habitual (2013).

This mountainous, triple LP is The Knife’s most challenging and involved work yet. Convoluted, even; but with The Knife’s own wild panache that whips up sound into something marvelously transfixing, convoluted as it may be. They’re back with some new thoughts and questions, and a much bigger sound swallowing and spitting them out. So don your thinking cap or grab a combat helmet—the light is bright, the floor is falling.

I. A Story, Some Questions, Facts, Fiction

It’s been some seven years since the release of their last LP, Silent Shout (2006). At that time they were often seen wearing Venetian style masks with beaked projections. The Knife desired, publicly, that attention be paid to the identity they chose rather than the one they were naturally given. Though the masks changed, the question covering them remained the same: Why?  A trick of the senses, these two were playing, challenging the mind to reinterpret what the dim-witted eye cannot decipher, but only show. They liked to think about and play with perception and identity. They still do.

Some find this irritating. Storm behind the eyes, comes the hot flash of irritability: Who do these people think they are? I’m tired of being toyed with by privileged/sheltered/protected artists who only have the time to think about the world because they do not truly live in it. Just give us your talent and don’t make such a tit for tat fuss about it!—Such thoughts stemmed, but the music, the music, it was enough to silence whatever games The Knife might play on the outside.

About that irritation: it’s understandable. What’s more: they, The Knife, they understand. They’re irritated, too, and thinking heavily about it. Specifically, they’re thinking about privileges—their own and those of others. They’re thinking about rights. In fact, The Knife recognize their unique privilege as artists to be able to devote themselves entirely to their art without many of the distractions that often inhibit artistic growth in economically hungry environments.

The Knife also profess their desire (much attention paid to that word on Shaking The Habitual) to fearlessly think, theorize, conceptualize and challenge what strikes them; to “fail more,” to “act without authority.” This, interestingly enough, is put forth by The Knife in a video-interview/short film in which many of the ideas surrounding Shaking The Habitual are expressed mostly while The Knife play with each other on a swing set—an interesting juxtaposition of mindfulness with a physical expression of dalliance demanding careful interpretation. The thought-impression from the video interview reads something like: Though we play, we mean it.

As The Knife will tell you in the interview, making a record wasn’t even on their minds at all. Dreijer comments: “We just wanted to do something; but had to find a purpose.” Andersson shines a light on the far-reaching influences that came to play such a pivotal role in making Shaking The Habitual, when she says: “We get our language back through the language of others,” following Dreijer’s statement: “We approached each other through books . . . .”

Considering that this record wasn’t made out of any dire need, like feeding one’s self, paying rent, or fulfilling contractual obligations to some blood-hunting record company (The Knife own and operate their own record label, Rabid Records), the fact that The Knife were able to scratch their heads a bit and muse over the why instead of stressing over the when (yes, an advantage conferred by one of their unique privileges), is a fact the listener might be thankful for. The listener might also share in The Knife’s advantages if only for the fact that they’ve employed them responsibly, not to mention powerfully, with great thought and much feeling.

Yes, well, however it is the listener feels about artistic integrity and those in such positions of power, will undoubtedly affect his or her interpretation of what The Knife has done/are doing. Though, it’s interesting to think about how many artists are actually challenging listeners. Andersson hints at it when she quips, “Music can be so meaningless.”

Seven years. . . . Apart from The Knife, Andersson released an LP under the moniker, Fever Ray, while Dreijer kept busy with his project, Oni Ayhun. Time alone warranted a warm welcome of new material by Knife fans drooling with hungry ears. And ultimately, after much deliberation and collaborative efforts with friends, The Knife made an album simply because they were inspired to. But that’s about as simple as this story gets.

Shaking The Habitual not only satisfies the hunger to listen, it also has the potential to implode the eardrums and surfeit the mind as well. And yes, that’s intentional. You ask: Why? And The Knife, they say: “We have a bellyache, a big stink, a major grouse or two with manufactured knowledge. But how do you build an album about not knowing? Now your voice is in my throat, floating there . . . .”

As the record spins, we hear The Knife’s way of voicing old freedoms. We hear questions, invitations, protestations, as they catch and collect some of those floating voices from the vessels of Fugazi, Salt-N-Pepa, Jeanette Winterson, Michel Foucault, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Nina Björk and Karl Marx (and, of course, many more) in their brainy throat. While those voices find their expression through The Knife’s unique interpretation, those of artists Emily Roysdon and Shannon Funchess (of Light Asylum), sing themselves not within The Knife’s frame, but from the bowels of their own nature, in the powerful, “Stay Out Here.”

We hear The Knife express the desire to reformulate the protest song with the crumbling-castle-walls structure of, “A Cherry On Top,” and their stirring representation of  man’s crass and relentless abuse of Earth’s natural beauty with “Fracking Fluid Injection”; we hear The Knife artfully communicate societal distaste with a vibrant oriental tinge in, “A Tooth For An Eye”; we hear them expose economical inequality and injustice with the lucid brains of sound and language in sharp hues—and that’s simply splattered all over this one.

Buckets of hot pink and teal green are hurled wildly onto canvases as the chasm-face of the creative itch. Wild images, too, of a screaming hand on a doorstep, bucket of tiger pee, and a raging lung choked up on “western standards,” where “poverty’s profitable.”

Swings

The Title: The Knife chose it from the work of French philosopher, Michel Foucault—the inspiration from his work featuring prominently in this one. Not too long ago, Foucault wrote that “to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions, and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play),” is the true work of the intellectual. The Knife employ Foucault’s quote in their work as a lumberjack does the ax in his, and the results are just as striking.

The Artwork: blurry pink and teal green swirls of finger print color pools, offering a visual representation of the vibrant touch shaping and plucking questions from the sound.

The Comic: One of political interest, its creator, Liv Strömquist, calls it, “End Extreme Wealth,” and it is a deliberate effort to shift focus from the overwhelming number of the poor to the veritable “10% of the population controlling 85% of the world’s assets.” Have a look at a few panels below:

END EXTREME WEALTH! END EXTREME WEALTH!

There’s even a manifesto, yes, manifesto, accompanying Shaking The Habitual. And, as mentioned earlier, an official interview/short film in which The Knife shed light on what kindled the sparks that became Shaking The Habitual’s fire.

Within the manifesto you’ll find other word-beams to light your way around this vast work, like: “No habits! There are other ways to do things”; and, “Everyone is always desiring already imagined things.” Or even: “All over the dance floor we’re asking: can this DNA turn into something else? It’s not metaphorical. It’s explicit.”

But why? Why a manifesto, interview-film, politically charged comic, and philosophical implementation in songs featuring such subjects as extreme wealth, gender, identity and feminism?

II. The Music, Stabs at Answers, (More) Questions, Less Punning

Yes, The Knife leave us with much to think about . . . graciously, though, with beats to accompany the challenge. (There’s aspirin on top of Finnegan’s Wake. Help yourself).

With that said, those who just want to dance still need not turn away. It’s okay to just dance. Again, The Knife, they understand; they accommodate the need. You can move freely without theorizing or popping aspirin’s to many of these songs. Be the dancer by getting a hold of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” and getting lost within its Earth-shaking percussion. Have fun blowing your white-hot flute from the iceberg with “Without You My Life Would Be Boring.” Get moving and stay moving.

Hear the budding lure of “A Tooth For An Eye.” Some have penned this track as contrived listener-bait, a sweet, see-you-around kiss for the arduous journey up the mountain, as the tracks to follow stray largely from the rhythmic togetherness and pop-sheen that glosses this one over.

Some might be right. Though, lyrically, the tone is anything but lighthearted.

“A Tooth For An Eye” is infectiously vivacious, bursting with lithe instrumental layers. Andersson’s vocals demand attention as she cries out: “Another kid needs to suck on my / thumb,” giving her voice to those “who haven’t / Bad luck”; and when she stretches her cords to crack, belting out Jeanette Winterson’s words, “I’m telling you stories / Trust me,” the message arrives by the screeching voice of urgency within the solid frame of beats clean, ornate and robust; the emotive power fights for the ear’s conviction that this voice has something humanly important to communicate.

But that’s just the power of music, isn’t it? The pendulum push to ecstasy, to the depth of great feeling—to get there, music routes us. Say anything with the right beat; music enlivens the senses that deceive without discretion, right? Hm.

Take these lines from “Without You My Life Would Be Boring”:

A handful of elf pee
That’s my soul
Spray it all over
Fill the bowl.

Strange language. Even stranger action it commands. The academic reads it, removes a finger from his mouth, mumbles “abstruse”; grabs the collected poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, rifling through pages for proof of The Knife’s plagiarism. It’s not there. —Nobody’s got a clue about somebody else’s subjectivity except that it’s only human.

But does the strangeness of the language attenuate the otherwise optimal marrow of Shaking The Habitual’s whole? Does it leave listener’s scratching their heads over the world-heavy, socially conscious ideas and attitudes conveyed by the artists elsewhere, combined with this seemingly (are words masks here?) puerile wordplay? Are they just simply playing with more than music?

—Who cares, right? The sound’s enough. The dancer moving to it won’t be admired for mind any more than the lyricist will for these words; but, strange as they are, they somehow fit within the sound well enough, though to explain how require’s a language different from this one. Yet still, the message is bright and clear within the sound, the movement, the instrumental action that propels the words.

Though they often play with fire, The Knife, ultimately, simply, play; and that shines through—on “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” especially. Hear it just over the two-minute mark in the flighty congregation of jovial players (sounds like rejuvenated children) blowing their instruments hard. They’re not exactly in tune with each other from a technical standpoint, yet still the song is played with togetherness. The voices combined, surging and converging through the woodwind instruments betrays dalliance, fun, gaiety, energy. This is part of the duality of sound heard on Shaking The Habitual that truly marks its sentience. Mistakes are made, there’s joy in the sound, the players are having fun. This is human, and happening.

Elsewhere on the album, lyrics and music swirl about the core of The Knife’s newfound inspiration much more clearly. Take “A Cherry On Top,” for instance. (Or, “Full Of Fire,” “Fracking Fluid Injection,” “Raging Lung,” “Ready To Lose”).

“A Cherry On Top,” musically, sounds like degradation underpinned by the frivolity of child’s play. It’s like light, but darkness coming. The song’s over eight minutes in length, but contains just four lines. No repetition either. Not a verse, not a chorus—just these lines:

Strawberry, melon, a cherry on top
Butter, popcorn that I can pop
Coffee with girls and a racing team
The Haga castle evening cream.

So what? What does it mean?

Consider again the manifesto, interview, comic exclaiming: “END EXTREME WEALTH!”

The lyrics of “A Cherry On Top,” simple and yet perplexing as they may appear to be, effectively express the extravagant wealth in waste that marks the life of the human mind willfully dulled/degraded/debauched/(murdered?) by immoderate pleasure—the kind bought by wealth beyond measure; the kind propagated by that richly troubled Western attitude of there’s always more. In this song, this particular voice of The Knife conjures up a life of little else than pleasurable pursuits and the desire to communicate them, leaving the contemplation of such an ultimately vapid life up to listeners to consider.

Despite what’s offered here, what isn’t expressed harbors much of the same, if not more, power. What would the voice of such a one as this have to express over “coffee with girls”? Doubtless not a word on what writhes in the grime outside Haga castle walls, like children wandering without mother’s or bread; or the unforgiving reality of not enough outside an exclusive world of exorbitant pleasure reserved for those who can simply pay for it.

Here, in “A Cherry On Top,” explicitly, with literally and figuratively fruitful imagery, is the mind stuffed; thought is blindsided with the capital declamation of Strömquist partnered with The Knife to END EXTREME WEALTH! The Knife snatch a floating voice they find noxious and reinstate it within the dark, harrowing form of their gnarling music like taking a bite out of a blood-dipped strawberry. The sound of “A Cherry On Top” tells us there’s a knife in the toy box. The lyrics prime us to think about why that is. Four lines—more than enough food for thought if you can stomach it.

On another cut, The Knife incite the why with “Full Of Fire,” Shaking The Habitual’s first officially released single. Here’s that sweaty electronica nodded to earlier, rife with blaring beats undergoing mutation as well as a tooth and nail techno assault on the curious and unsuspecting ear.

It begins simply—boom-tap, boom-boom-boom-tap—before layer after layer of acidulous bite. Although “Full Of Fire” follows “A Tooth For An Eye,” it could’ve just as easily kicked off the album, as it presages the swarm of memorable discordance and sound experiments to follow.

Regardless, within this fast-evolving, nine-minute haunt of a track, enters the viper-bite of the more wilder—acrid, even—voices The Knife have chosen to adopt and employ to great effect. The wide wonder of the question mark watermark’s the lyrics, as Andersson sings with a menacingly strange and raspy whisper: “Sometimes I get problems that are hard to solve . . . Questions and the answers can take very long / Here’s a story / What’s your opinion”; and, with mischievous delight: “When you’re full of fire / What’s the object of your desire.”

Sound-wise, the twisted reeling of bold and noisy scratches, blips and scrawls, entwine themselves around unstable vocals, creating quite the impression of discomfort. Hauntingly luring fugues pump through a morass swamped by craggy beats and the haze of hot noise. Through all of this, Andersson’s voice emits manifold messages while undergoing tonal transformation by electronic experimentations in distortion and unorthodox instrumentation.

Hear the emotionally detached, yet erotic, tone in the “Ha ha ha ha ha” that follows the following lines born of The Knife’s feminist / queer theory studies:

Not a vagina
It’s an option
The cock
Had it coming.

Hear the voice of Salt-N-Pepa when Karin’s drops spiraling into the robotic funnel cloud where a genderless, quasi-human voice cries: “Lets talk about gender baby / Lets talk about you and me.”

Yes, oftentimes questions are raised, conversation invited. However, sometimes, even words are too much.

In “Fracking Fluid Injection”—a nine-minute lament giving voice to the environmentally disastrous practice known as “fracking” (look it up)—words are exchanged for the cry and moan of the voice embodying crystal clear pain. This is the voice of the mountain, a life that cannot scream.

Sounds of metallic invasion, of dark, unethical power unyielding; the sound of beauty demolished by rape, mark “Fracking Fluid Injection.” This might be the most powerful protestation heard on the album. It’s no easy listen, but considering the action its title embodies, why / how could it be?

III. The Madness of Hunting Conclusions in the Circle

With the average length of each track at least seven minutes long, Shaking The Habitual challenges listeners to immerse, even lose, themselves. The Knife are involved, and they demand nothing less of their listeners. Cut and copy playlists make the delivery of Shaking The Habitual’s power tenuous, more than likely impossible.

IV. . . . .

With the friends and lovers called upon to help them, The Knife have created an album bursting with challenges, offering listeners a work to be spun over and again, each listen bringing with it something additional to consider (like why that twenty-minute instrumental, “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized,” that seemingly provides no discernible connection between what precedes or follows it?).

What might be most exciting is the thought of where The Knife will go from here; what will invoke the drive for their next aural exploration; what the “rearranging of desires” will do for their creative output; what “bending their souls again” will do; but, simply, what their voice will offer the listening world.

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Music Reviews

Sketches of Spain, by Miles Davis & Gil Evans

Sketches of Spain CoverSo you’re Miles Davis, and Kind of Blue (1959) just came out . . . .

Big deal, right?

Was yesterday.

What now?

Ever the nomad, Davis kept going, asking and answering questions with trumpet in hand, playing always.

Listening to the records bearing his name, it appears the guy had an ear out for all of it, all sound; what’s more, its potential, the wide-open road to catharsis paved by the fusion of players sounding a united call, their instruments harboring some mysterious freedom. Voices like wings.

When it came to style, Davis didn’t discriminate. Bop, be-bop, hard-bop, modal jazz, big band, fusion, European classical, and rock and roll to come—didn’t matter much, long as they, the players, were getting somewhere; long as the road held wide and bare. Just sound, some style, a little magic—a few fine seeds for a budding universe.

Davis blew through decades, each album plowing through the one came before it. New ways, more style, same road.

On the way, Sketches of Spain (1960) . . . . This album in Davis’ career takes place during a paradigm shift to the romantic, enduring sounds of the colorful country bearing its name.

Like Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain was recorded at Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City. Unlike Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain came to fruition via the collaborative efforts of arranger Gil Evans, and Davis, under the influence of a musical form differing from Kind of Blue’s characteristic modality, something called “Third Stream,” loosely defined as a fusion of classical and jazz styles with a dash of improvisation for added spice.

Sketches of Spain is not an original work so much as it is an original stamp on an original work. The famous concerto, on which the album hinges, the interminably beautiful “Concerto de Aranjuez,” was not written by Davis or Evans, but by the brilliant Spanish pianist, guitarist and composer, Joaquín Rodrigo.

Davis and Evans reformulated the piece as suited their own aestheticism. Davis contributed to the pastiche flugelhorn and trumpet (where was previously guitar in Rodrigo’s composition), while Evans gave to the project original fugues to help construct a record from under the concerto’s weighty influence; the confluence of both artist’s power infuses the core of Rodrigo’s classical European style with Davis’ red hot ear for the cool, quiet calm of a melody played with delicate poise, and Evans’ sense of musical space and sound connectivity.

That this album even became an album was somewhat of a surprise to Davis and Evans. Just think, the spark that ignited work on this project came of an infatuation solely with Rodrigo’s concerto. But time, hunger, drive and the inspirational work of Spanish folk musicians, set both Davis and Evans to work on this breezy masterpiece.

Here it is, perennially bright, garden of beauty in the groove, flowers under the needle: Sketches of Spain.

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Music Reviews

Windmills, by Lubomyr Melnyk

Windmills, by Lubomyr MelnykWindmills (2014), the latest release from renowned Ukrainian virtuoso pianist and composer, Lubomyr Melnyk, draws its inspiration from the original Walt Disney animation, The Old Windmill.

Employing the windmill as a solitary symbol of strength and endurance in the face of Nature’s worst, Melnyk aligns said qualities with man’s endurance of life’s hardships in three tributary movements, each building one upon the other, the music all the while creating the wind-swept effect of ascension as the listener is swept off and up into a vortex of sprightly and spiraling notes.

The sound itself voices the story of the windmill’s mettle-testing hardship, as it stands alone on a darkling hill enduring Nature’s violent unrest, the stormy effect actuated by the piano’s buffeting notes.

How does Melnyk achieve this effect? In all probability, the word how is likely just as much associated with Melnyk as piano is.

Here’s why: Melnyk’s technical ability, truly, is currently without match in the realm of music performance. His talent affords him the ability to play nineteen notes per second, simultaneously, in each hand. That alone demands attention. However, for Melnyk, personal ability is not solely what drives him to document his extraordinary talent. Melnyk’s concern appears to be rather in what his ability can confer upon others.

His aesthetic leads him to blend several notes into triumphs of beauteous harmony and caliginous discord not only for the act in itself, but for a simple love of music and the power conferred by it to displace, and potentially transform, the individual through its unbridled energy.

“The sound is another dimension,” says Melnyk, hands on fire, mind on the move, commenting on the moving power of music’s force.

But it’s Melnyk’s power of organization that gives noble form to the burnished compositions heard on Windmills. Make no mistake, the swirling architecture of sound heard in these daedal pieces didn’t come about arbitrarily. This album alone was three years in the making; and this style of piano playing, coined by the artist himself as, “continuous music,” was and continues to be developed by Melnyk after decades of fruitful experimentation.

What is continuous music? Music, by design, that ensconces its listener in a transcendental state through the sheer force of sound orchestrated by a masterful focus: total sound immersion. The relentless, ever-coming notes intricately weaving a macrocosmic tapestry, continuously shape the sound, ever in flux. The effect is sustained by the wealth of incoming notes ascending to transformative release, which, in Windmills, serves to parallel the virtues of strength and resilience by once again aligning the sound with the windmill’s image, both before and after its death.

Under Melynk’s direction, the nomadic thirst to roam is quenched by his piano aflame, a portal of boundless transportation to another dimension licked by the fires of sound.

AVAILABLE HERE.

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