Monday, 20 January 2014

Blow Up Hollywood - Blue Sky Blond

Striving to perfect the art of introspective and soul searching songwriting over the last 13 years, Steve Messina, as part of and co-founder of New York musical collective Blow Up Hollywood, has come up with an emotionally raw suite of songs on Blue Sky Blond, the band's fifth album of new material to date.

Their discography also includes the rather fine compilation Collections, an obvious place to start for the Blow Up Hollywood newbie, and the John Cage-like improvised electronic ambient minimalism of Stars End, which incidentally is no relation to the David Bedford work of the same name.

That Blue Sky Blond should come out now, at a personally difficult time in my life when the big questions seem to have taken up permanent residence in my sometimes fraught mind seems somehow fitting, and the album makes for a quietly uplifting companion in these unsettling times.

The album is bookended by four very dissimilar but ultimately ambient pieces, with Blond at the beginning, and at the end the lone treated guitar of Sky followed by a brief choral reprise of Where Does The Night Go, before signing off with the minor key reflective piano of Blue.

In between is the sumptuous sandwich filling of eight superbly crafted songs that left me, in my currently fragile state, feeling sad but ready to face whatever is coming. Certainly the most personal collection of Steve Messina's writing to date, these eight autobiographical songs come from a period in his life when loss and struggling to make sense of it all were still all too fresh in the writer's mind, and hopefully represent a catharsis for him. They reflect an empathy with the soul and an all-encompassing melancholy tinged with hope that few others can match.

As I've followed this band's output for a few years now, these tales of loves past and present, death and loss, the passing of time, karma, and metaphysical musings come as no surprise, but now they are refined to a point where they head right for the emotional heart of their subject matter. Heartstrings are tugged all over this album.

Some of the songs seem to have have been around for a while, the simple but highly effective Throw Me A Line being one. A tale of emotional desperation, the backing singers Anthea White and Nadia Ackerman answer the call for help from our distraught protagonist, and the scene is set for one emotionally raw album.

Hope for love and new beginnings is neatly juxtaposed with the effects of loss on Headed For The Sun followed by Waiting For My Ship. The latter song also cleverly contrasts what reads as grim subject matter with an uplifting tune that turns it down a more optimistic path.

Blow Up Hollywood is not a one-man show as my meanderings might lead you to think, oh no. Co-founder Nik Chinboukas is still here, but is now behind the mixing desk. Long time member Thad DeBrock with his guitars and pedal steel, and Harvey Jones on the piano and the others, most of whom have been on previous Blow Up Hollywood albums, combine to produce a sympathetic framework for Steve's delicate songcraft. The music to these songs is a kind of post-rock white soul music that sits alongside the more sonically adventurous ambient pieces without clashing, producing a luxurious musical blanket with which to comfort the sometimes bleak lyrics.

Shine is a tale from the other side that could almost be a stadium-sized torch ballad if you give your imagination a bit of leeway. Where Does The Night Go makes good use of (possibly) electronic beats and simple piano chords, as Steve gets about as yearning as it is possible to get. Belying the autumnal Harvest Moon-era Neil Young musical vibe on Desert Rose is a disturbing tale of karma that unwinds slowly over its nine minutes.

The hot off the presses video for Five perfectly captures the song's wistful longing for the more the more innocent times of childhood, now long gone. The songs end with Marjorie, a song which strikes me as the most personal here, and it would not be doing it justice to dissect its plain simple truth.

A band beyond classification, their own description of "warped Americana" is about as close as you'll get, and I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes to shine the inner light now and again. It's not an album you'll play incessantly, but it is definitely a grower, and thanks to the serendipity of this review, and what's going on in my world right now, it will always have a place in my heart. Thanks guys!

"I can reach the stars, if I try"

1. Blond (1:08)
2. Throw Me A Line (6:48)   
3. Headed For The Sun (5:04)
4. Waiting For My Ship (4:03)
5. Shine (4:23)
6. Where Does The Night Go (4:25)
7. Desert Rose (9:06)
8. Five (5:30)
9. Marjorie (4:26)
10. Sky (3:12)
11. Where Does The Night Go (0:34)
12. Blue (1:49)

Total running time - 50:32

Line up:
Steve Messina - vocals, acoustic guitar
Thad DeBrock - electric guitar, pedal steel, keyboards
Teddy Kumpel - electric guitar
Steve Bonacio - bass guitar, doodles (thanks!)
Dave Diamond - drums
Harvey Jones - piano
Nadia Ackerman - vocals
Anthea White - vocals
Background vocals and strings arranges by Harvey Jones

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Robotmonkeyarm - Parts One to Three

"If you're not foaming at the mouth, what's the point of making out, what's the point, what's the point?" cries out the angst-ridden voice through The Psychogenic Stomp!, the opening track to Part 3 of Robotmonkeyarm's barmy and uplifting charge through a comic book land of heightened and twisted reality, and who could argue with a statement like that?

This is another one that slipped under the radar, hardly surprising given the nature of these things, coming as it does from that alternate universe of undiscovered music that is Bandcamp. A lot of the music on that site is forgettable, but not this. Fusing Mike Patton influenced metal mayhem with punky surf music, electronica, chamber music, b-movie soundtracks, in fact just about everything you'll find in the modern musical kitchen, this band are possessed by a huge love of their craft and an ever-present progressive sensibility that takes them to places you would imagine Bongwater visiting had the aforementioned Mr Patton been of their number.

Apologies for that typically over-long and unwieldy sentence, but this is just too good to be flippantly brief about. Hailing from New England, Robotmonkeyarm is the creation of one Ryan Baker, and is ostensibly the story of a robot, his nemesis in the form of a gorilla, and a cyborg girl. Oh, and somewhere along the line, the robot and the gorilla have swapped an arm, and not always the same one, at that. More may be found out HERE. All this is played out to a psychedelic surf punk b-movie soundtrack, and it is a whole load of fun.

The comic book artwork on all these EPs is by Matt Talbot, a name that the comics fans among you may or may not have heard of, I wouldn't know.

Part One - Robot Senza Nome

Part One is titled "robot senza nome" (robot with no name), and as you might guess has a twisted spaghetti western soundtrack, gorilla and robot fighting over the girl. Suitably enough, the track titles are in Italian.

Just a glance at the instrumentation will tell you that Robertmonkey arm are not afraid to be ambitious, and their thirst for adventure pays off handsomely.

Starting off with l'automa, a surf punk charge that sounds like Dick Dale fronting Mr Bungle, completed by a horn section and synchopated handclaps, the song degenerates into stuttering synth bubbles. A great start!

Duane Eddy and Enrico Morricone get in on the act on il brutto, and we are given respite with la bella, a brief foray into becalmed Flaming Lips psychedelia, with sequencers. This part ends with Titoli (Security) where the slow menace is joined by a mournful bassoon and then a surging pipe organ, recorded at the Sacred Hearts Cathedral, Rochester NY, as the band disappear over the horizon in a cloud of desert dust. Epic stuff, and something that should not be hiding in a dark corner of Bandcamp!

1. l'automa (2:07)
2. il brutto (3:40)
3. la bella (1:07)
4. Titoli (6:10)

Line up:
Ryan Baker - baritone & surf guitar, clarinet, alto sax & e.bass on 4 glockenspiel, vocals, musique concrete & electronics
Jon Briggs - baritone & stunt guitar, e.bass, banjo, mandolin, various
C-Nug - cello
George Davis - Harp
Mike D’Errico - vibraphone, glockenspiel, congas & bongos
Itchy - e.bass
Katelyn Kern- bassoon
Thatcher Lyman - Pipe Organ
Joseph K. Murphy & DeLaine Bennett - lil'guitar & percussion on 4
Thomas Sanchez - Classical Guitar, MPC
Tanner Upthegrove - surf guitar, various keyboards and handclaps
Bucky Waters - vocals, toy piano and percussion

Part Two - Cinema Vomitif & the White Mask Of Doom

Charging out of a parking lot, tyres screaming, Cinema Vomitif belies its stated influence of Italian horror movie score writer Claudio Simonetti, not that I'd know anyway, to be honest, and to me is Shaft on crystal meth, and you better not get in his goddamn way!

Dick Dale is back again, this time in a roustabout with an Enrico Morricone soundtrack on the frantic Kill The Cutie.

Deliria (the final girl) is more like it from a kitsch horror perspective, complete with a creepy spoken word vocal that covers everything like a spider's web, rising to the inevitable scream.

We leave the cheap velour seats after Revenge Of The Sweater Girl chases us right outta the auditorium.

1. Cinema Vomitif (4:31)
2. Kill The Cutie (2:54)
3. Deliria (the final girl) (4:08)
4. Vengeance Of The Sweater Girl (3:11)

Line up:
The Amazing Seth Bailin - saxophones (all of them)
Katelyn Kern - bassoon
Luke Miller - violin (all of them)
C-Nug - cello
Drumset duties shared by Jarrett Osborn (2,4), Josh Hamrick (1,3) and Mike D'errico (3)
Mike D'errico - upright bass, vibraphone, tympani, and an ungodly amount of percussion
Jon Briggs - baritone & jaw dropping stunt guitar, e.bass, various
Bucky Waters -voice & farfisa on 4
Tanner UptheGrove - surf & baritone guitar, tons of keyboards, percussion
Ryan Baker- baritone guitar, glockenspiel, vocals, choir, musique concrete, bowed metal, midiNES, autoharp, piano & electronics

Part Three - ​in memoriam to those we've lost and those we don’t remember

Wherein we should be foaming at the mouth and making out, as I mentioned at the beginning. The Psychogenic Stomp! is coming atcha from the same place as the marvellous Bongwater with Ann Magnusson, with the same much missed punky agression and Whatcha Gonna Do About It attitude.

The short head charge of the surf punk amphetamine fuelled rock'n'roll of Dance Party Ending leads into the surprisingly if fittingly reflective l'epilogo (in memoria di Anthony de Mello), the bassoon and cello coming into the spotlight. Almost a rock'n'roll chamber orchestra, at odds with what has gone before, but slotting in seamlessly nonetheless.

Last track APOEε4 is even odder, beginning in an experimental vein with a childlike piano motif leading the way, before fading into a field recording of gentle tide waves breaking on a beach. Robotmonkey arm has left its clothes on that beach and has walked out into the sea, never to be heard from again...or maybe not.

1. The Psychogenic Stomp! (2:35)
2. Dance Party Ending (1:53)
3. l'epilogo (in memoria di Anthony de Mello) (7:00)
4. APOEε4 (7:38) 

Line up:
Katelyn Kern - bassoon
C-Nug - cello
Jarrett Osborn -drumset
Briggs -TONS of guitar, baritone guitar and bass, also voice
Bucky -voice& keys
Tanner -keys&guitar
Mike D'Errico - ungodly amounts of percussion & mallets
Ryan Baker - baritone guitar, electronics and clarinet
Emperor Shibuya (RIP) - snoring on track one

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Miriodor - Cobra Fakir

With a career going back over 30 years, French-Canadian band Miriodor have carved out an instantly recognisable sound that straddles avant rock and jazz, and in the process have become stalwarts of the Rock In Opposition scene. Hey! All you trad-prog fans; don’t let that put you off, for Miriodor’s sound is accessible, playful, and rarely ventures down wilfully dark and obscure alleys for the sake of it, as some bands of this genre have been known to do. This album is anything but pretentious, and is a good place to start with RIO if you’re thinking of dipping a toe or three into what can be choppy and shark-infested waters. 

Released last September, Cobra Fakir, is only their eighth album in all those years, as great care is taken crafting the intricate splendours they occasionally unleash onto a largely ignorant world. The last album, the utterly splendid Avanti!, came out way back in 2009. 

Cobra Fakir, or “Snake Charmer”, is a suitably hypnotic and involving album that sees the band revert to a trio. Original member Pascal Globensky (keyboards, synths, piano) and the soon to follow Rémi Leclerc (drums, percussion, keyboards, turntable) are joined by Bernard Falaise (guitars, bass, keyboards, banjo, turntable), who has been with the band a mere 20 years.

Belying its seemingly highly structured sonics, the album was mostly written on the hoof, starting from vague ideas and recorded improvisations. The end result is a million miles away from the chaos that might have resulted, and is testament to the players’ long experience.

After the subtle but deceptively complicated La roue rolls down the hill we are straight into the longest piece on the album, the title track. Beginning innocuously enough with a keyboard and guitar theme, the song unwinds slowly into a more agitated second segment, Univers Zero with a lighter touch. One can hear Henry Cow’s more accessible melodic structures in here, too. The tune winds on with some fabulous and tricky interplay, the rhythm section keeping things in strict control.

The three keyboards in the line up prevents any “star” turns, as it’s not possible to say who is playing what, especially as I only have a download and therefore no CD booklet to guide me, although it is likely the more up front keyboard parts are Pascal’s. In any case there is no soloing as such, everything becomes part of the whole.

The song winds down with a nice piano/acoustic guitar/accordion section, and the theme from the start is reprised at the end on an acoustic with a lovely, almost Steve Howe-like performance.

Entirely instrumental, the titles have the freedom to say what they want. So we have pulsing songs about bicycle races rubbing shoulders with sonic stabs at the intractable problems of speed dating on Mars, along with the menacing musical beast that is Saturn’s largest moon, and a mysteriously off-kilter soundtrack to a detective mystery set in Siberia.

The Mars speed dating scenario is emphatically underlined by a heavy slab of metallic guitar and keyboard riffing that bears the hallmarks of some of the darker RIO bands, but this part is countered by more fabulously light-fingered interplay that prevents the song becoming a doomfest. Maybe they spotted Gentle Giant traversing Pavonis Mons by balloon?

More delightful acoustic guitar surfaces at the start of the playfully spooky Tandem, later reflected by the electric, and countered by the return of the acoustic, joined by the tinkling piano. Some spiky electric guitar interjections ask more questions in another self-contained tale of intrigue. Ringing guitars and revisited themes build an atmosphere of expectation, and for now this is my favourite track on the record.

Space Cowboy (no, it’s not that one!) is possibly the strangest thing on here, but it retains the sense of fun and adventure that runs through Cobra Fakir. The album draws to a close with the eerie two and half minutes of dark ambience that is Expérience 7, and for the last fifty minutes we have been well and truly entertained.

The songs on Cobra Fakir can be likened to the chapters in a novel, one that demands a sequel. I have no doubt that some highly conservative prog fans will not understand this fine record, much to their loss, but anyone with a sense of wonder at the way some musicians can get the old synapses firing in perhaps unexpected ways should definitely investigate this complex but highly enjoyable album. Miriodor have a wonderful sense of melody to counter their more experimental tendencies, and Cobra Fakir pulls off the hard to achieve feat of being both quite odd and very accessible at the same time. Go on, all you symphonic prog fans, take a chance, you might be pleasantly surprised!

1. Le roue (3:43)
2. Cobra Fakir (8:53)
3. RVB7 (3:57)
4. Paris-Roubaix (2:14)
5. Titan (4:18)
6. Un cas sibérian (2:29)
7. Speed-dating sur Mars (7:07)
8. Tandem (8:24)
9. Maringouin (3:41)
10. Space Cowboy (3:11)
11. Expérience 7 (2:28)

Total running time - 50:26

Line up:

Pascal Globensky - keyboards, synths, piano
Rémi Leclerc - drums, percussion, keyboards, turntable
Bernard Falaise - guitars, bass, keyboards, banjo, turntable

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