Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Rival Schools - Found

In the music business there are certain releases that have their own legendary status due to their rarity or in some cases their complete unavailability. Being an avid collector I'll admit I've fallen into the trap of becoming overly excited when a supposed "lost recording" is found and finally released, the reality though rarely matches up to the myth. In real terms "lost recordings" aren't ever really lost, half of the time they are ideas the artist doesn't have faith in and scraps personally and if thats not the case the album is held back by the record company due to red tape, funding issues or a lack of faith on the record label's part. Hardcore veteran Walter Schreifels is no stranger to the world of "lost recordings" as his long spanning career in the hardcore rock scene will attest to. In his time in the music business he has started many projects but each time he gets started for one reason or another they disband. In a way this has been a blessing and a curse, none of his material or any of his projects can claim to have outstayed their welcome, each of them leaving behind a legacy of succint releases. The downside of course is that just as you get a taste for something it disappears off the map for good.

Rival Schools first appeared on the music scene in the early noughties, a bleak time for commercial alternative music. Their first album "United By Fate" was a critically acclaimed masterpiece mixing the technical elements and harsh guitar work of nineties hardcore and mixing it with more indie rock sensibilities. Soon after "United By Fate" Rival Schools like many of Walter's projects was disbanded. It was over a decade before they finally reconvened and followed up "United By Fate" in 2011 with another glorious album in the form of "Pedals". Before the band disbanded however they had already entered the studio having written a second full length already, "Found" is basically the result of these sessions. Whilst many of these "lost recordings" are merely quick cash ins for record companies "Found" actually bucks this trend delivering on years of whispered hype and anticipation. There are some points in which easy comparisons and links can be made between tracks on "Found" and material from "Pedals" but this proves to add to the albums depth, allowing the listener see the different steps in the bands creative process. The exclusive material is just as rewarding incorporating the usual distorted spacey guitar sounds and Walter's trademark husky vocals. Overall "Found" is much more than a quick cash in on Rival Schools reputation but an album that has a perfect place in the bands impressive back catalogue.

The album is available for download via i-tunes and other download services or alternatively it is available on 12" from the bands website. I highly recommend you take the time to find it. You won't be disappointed.

Buy it on vinyl:

Zozobra - Savage Masters

Zozobra is just one of the multitude of projects that sprung from Cave In's 3 year hiatus. The band is the brainchild of Caleb Scofield, Cave In and Old Man Gloom bassist and background vocalist, and since its inception in 2006 it has provided Scofield with the opportunity to be in complete creative control. The end result is sludge that is by turns hypnotic and visceral. In 2009 Cave In reconvened and it seemed as though Zozobra and the other solo projects the band members started in their break would possibly end up falling by the wayside. This fear became even more close to becoming a reality when Old Man Gloom returned from their 8 year hiatus last year to release 2012's album "NO".  However 5 years on from their stellar sophomore album "Bird Of Prey" Zozobra have decided to return at last with a new LP aptly titled "Savage Masters".

Unlike previous efforts the music on "Savage Masters" is more hectic and raw than ever, the walls of pummeling sludgey distorted riffs matched with frantic drumming and Scofields trademark hoarse roar makes for uneasy listening. Yet the straight forward approach makes this oddly one of the bands most accessible releases to date. Whilst "Bird Of Prey" and "Harmonic Tremors" seemed to have more of a focus on atmosphere "Savage Masters" really strips back on subtlety in favour of fierce grinding hardcore. Some trademarks remain firmly in place like the bands bass heavy sound, but the spacey atmospheric builds and clean vocals have all ended up on the cutting room floor this time around. This makes "Savage Masters" a completely different ballgame to the band's previous works and easily their heaviest to date. The non stop barrage of fuzzy riffs and drum rolls makes for a refreshing change but also unfortunately drains some of the more characterful aspects of Zozobra's work that saw the band experiment with more grandiose and epic slowburners. The only other criticism is that after 5 years "Savage Masters" feels somewhat too short with only six tracks some of which scrape in under the 3 minute mark. Other than that though "Savage Masters" doesn't disappoint, delivering punishing sludge dirge after dirge.

The album is available on vinyl through Brutal Panda records or as a download for digital junkies at the following links. I would highly recommend it.

Buy On Vinyl:

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Coma Wall / Undersmile - Wood & Wire Split 12"

Undersmile are a four piece sludge/doom metal band that I first became aware of in late 2011 when they released a split with fellow oxfordshire noise merchants Caretaker. After falling in love with the two songs they contributed to the split I delved in deeper picking up their first mini LP “A Sea Of Dead Snakes” and it was round about then I was hooked. Last year saw Undersmile release their staggeringly impressive debut LP “Narwhal”, an 80+ minute dirge of slow building rage, despair and darkness.

Never one to rest on their laurels they've just released Wood and Wire a split 12" with the bands acoustic alter ego Coma Wall. Coma Wall is a slightly more fledgling project only officially existing since last year and see's the band strip back their heavily distorted electric guitars in favour of acoustics and banjos. The idea of stripping back and mixing a more lo-fi blues/country aesthetic is not a completely new idea and some of doom and sludge metals pioneers such as Neurosis have been releasing music in this vein under various aliases for years. Whilst it would be easy to make a slap dash comparison to Steve Von Till or Scott Kelly's solo output the music and tone created in my mind is more close to the acoustic material put out by Alice In Chains. The transformation is staggering giving the Coma Wall side of the record a real backwoods and almost grungey feel. The songs are angsty but laid back and resigned and the clarity of sound is really what makes the Coma Wall tracks jarr so violently against the Undersmile side of the record. Think of it as doom metal meet's deliverance and you’re maybe halfway there. Highlights include a reimagining of “Cutters Choice” an Undersmile favourite from “Sea of Dead Snakes”.

The Undersmile half of the record carries on in classic style offering up 3 new, shorter and slightly less sprawling tracks of droney doom perfection. Whilst the tracks are shorter and may not have the time to stretch out into the depths of crushing despair that some of the “Narwhal” material did the tracks are still worthy additions to an already impressive body of work, their short more concise direction making them more accessible, as far as fear inducing doom metal can be accessible.

The main strengths as in all their previous work is the creation of a morbid atmosphere. The stark contrasts between both sides of this record only go to accentuate the pummelling harshness and eerie softness. The vocals as always are a mix of the ominous and angelic but work together to make an incredible refined final product. The end result is enough variety to hold the listeners attention and enough atmosphere to make both sides of the record worthy of praise in their own right.

The record is currently available on translucent purple vinyl (making it not just amazing to listen to but beautiful too boot) on sleeping shaman records and I highly recommend you pick one up. Links below:

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)
Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)
Prog-rock is a genre that really separates people. Whilst many music fans actively revel in the complexity of it all just as many dismiss prog-rock with disdain as nonsense of the highest order. The difficulty is that as a genre it is somewhat hard to get to grips with due to its experimental nature. Experimentation in any form is not always going to yield positive results and often the eclecticism and strange mix of styles can often leave the most open minded music fan scratching his head as to what on earth it is they are listening to. For a long time the word prog-rock was synonymous with over the top, avant garde pseudo-intellectual pretentious music. The word conjured up images of ostentatious displays of vulgar virtuosity in which a band noodles endlessly with a guitar for 28 minutes straight whilst claiming it to be a piece about the social injustice suffered during the Franco Prussian war. Hardly suprising then that prog-rock became a dirty word reserved for only the most pretentious of musicians.
  However in recent years prog-rock has had somewhat of a revival in its popularity and as such has been trying its hardest to shift this notion that it's all overly complex nonsense. One of the key components and biggest players in this recent revival is Steven Wilson. Steven Wilson is probably most famous as lead singer and songwriter for Porcupine Tree, a fact that probably grates a bit, but he has also established a successful solo career whilst constantly working in a slew of other projects such as Storm Corrosion and Bass Communion and producing various other artists in the same vein. Needless to say Steven Wilson is an incredibly busy man. 
   "The Raven That Refused To Sing" is Mr Wilson's follow up to his 2011 masterpiece "Grace For Drowning" an album I reviewed quite favourably some time back on this very blog. The biggest change between the two records is most notably the involvement of several new band members including Guthrie Govan on guitar and Marco Minnemann on drums. The result is the assembly of some sort of prog-rock dream team and was originally a cause for concern. With so many talented musicians jostling for position on the tracks I could foresee the record being dogged by needless guitar solo's and potentially being rendered into something that was just too busy and cluttered. Luckily though this was not the case. The end result is an album of impressive scope that delivers a range of creepy ghost stories in a fun and entertaining way. The guitar work throughout whilst sometimes complex does not extend into the cringe worthy depths and the flute work that made "Grace For Drowning" so captivating is used sparingly. For all the supposed darkness of the record certain tracks on "The Raven..." are a lot more upbeat, the sound of the record is also a lot more comfortable than its predecessor that was morbid and utterly dread soaked in places.
   Overall Steven Wilson has delivered another stellar effort with "The Raven That Refused To Sing" the songs on offer whilst complicated and eclectic in range are strangely accessible. Whilst I personally prefer his last album "Grace For Drowning" I would still highly recommend "The Raven..." as a great place to start not only with his work but with prog-rock in general.


Of all the genres of alternative music I listen to, the one that I am most fastidious about is punk. Punk is an incredibly broad area of rock music and as much as it having been instrumental in the creation of many of my favourite genres Punk itself is incredibly difficult to do well or at least by my standards. The main reasons I struggle so much with relating to punk music as a whole is mostly down to the mind-bogglingly and predictable anti-establishment social commentary. I suppose in its own way it serves a purpose but do we really need a song about the Bush administration or the countless wars that are raging all over the world to realise that these things are unjust? What does a song by the Sex Pistols actually do to challenge a morally bankrupt government? Diddly squat. If it's not the ludicrously egocentric attitude that it can change the world that leaves me feeling callous it is normally the watered down aggression.
    Whilst old school punk bands were known for their harsh and raw sound many of today's biggest and most successful "punk" bands are pop-punk acts, a genre that in itself is a confusing mix of two things that really should be mutually exclusive. These pop-punk acts started to creep onto the music scene simultaneously with the nu-metal bands of the late nineties and early noughties and basically stripped back all the angst and rage of punk and turned it into something clean, clinical with little relation to punk at all, oh and they threw in a few funny jokes about cocks for good measure.
   This being the case it is extremely rare that I come across something punk that I actually enjoy. One such exception is Blasted. I first became aware of Blasted when I saw them live supporting the Bronx in November. Since then I've been to see them several times. Blasted don't bother with either of the two elements of punk that tire me out and simply go about their business playing visceral hardcore punk at a fierce pace. Their music is loud fast and downright filthy with most of their songs just scraping the 2 minute mark. The band are exceptionally tight live and really have to be seen to be believed.
   To date the band have released a limited run cassette tape of demos and their debut 7" ep "Time to die/Exposed" which is still available from dry heave records in two beautiful colours which I'm very proud to own. The bands full recorded discography so far is also available to stream through bandcamp. Whilst the band is still in its infancy they are definitely ones to watch.

Stream Blasted here:


Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Atoms For Peace

Side projects are a funny old thing. Sometimes the results of a band taking some time out to work on their individual projects can lead to some genuinely interesting and new original content. In other cases it can seem pointless as a side project becomes so similar to the original project that it ends up being pointless. One side project that has been garnering some massive critical attention is Thom Yorke's new(ish) side project Atoms For Peace. Many in the music press have described this as a supergroup as it features Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nigel Godrich and Joey Waronker of R.E.M and Beck and some other Brazilian guy who I've never heard of. These artists were originally taken on as a live band to back Mr Yorke when he was touring in support of his seminal 2006 solo album The Eraser. Whilst there is always a sense of hero worship and unassailable praise for anything Thom Yorke touches, this is not always fitting. Similarly looking up any of the other musicians in Atoms For Peace you will notice that the majority of them are immune to any serious criticism in the music press, Flea for example is regularly put on a pedestal for his bass work with the dull and California obsessed Red Hot Chili Peppers. So finding a realistic assessment of this album that isn't somewhat biased by the members previous works will probably be relatively difficult to do.
    Overall the album pretty much picks up where The Eraser left off the only differences that are genuinely notable being a slightly warmer and more produced feel to the record. This in itself is by no means a criticism the Eraser was a really great record so more tracks in this vein is not exactly a bad thing. Unfortunately this similarity with Thom's previous solo record does carry over the same negative connotations his solo debut had. The similarity between the material on show here and on more electronica influenced Radiohead releases raising the ugly question whether or not the two things are really worthy of being separate entities in their own right. The feel of the record is so similar in fact that I have forgone labelling this album as an Atoms For Peace record simply because whatever input these other musicians may have had on the record it simply does not have anything regarding an independent identity. The gesture of changing the project to account to acknowledge his contributors, whilst noble, is pretty much bereft of meaning here.
   What the album does do, however is deliver consistent sketchy electronica and it does this very well. The overall flow is good and there is enough variance to make it a worthwhile listen. Rather worryingly Amok is more consistently enjoyable than Radiohead's frankly underwhelming 2011 effort King Of Limbs, an album that was vexed by its patchy and directionless meanderings and out of time drum sections. Still there will be plenty of places to go check this record out for yourself and form your own opinions and I would recommend you do. Providing you go in expecting Thom Yorke you won't leave disappointed, if however you're thinking Atoms For Peace will be a mash up between OK Computer and Californication you'll come away disappointed and rightly so because that mix would sound horrendous.

Strand Of Oaks

Last year was quite a strange year in terms of music for me. Whilst I bought probably just as many cd's and went to tonnes more gigs than usual I wrote practically nothing about music. A lot of this boiled down to a growing diversification in what I was listening to and stumbling across things late, Strand Of Oaks being one of the many artists I came across by pure chance. I first became aware of Strand Of Oaks in the middle of last year when I was scouring youtube for some fresh sounds to wrap my ears around and a track from his second album Pope Killdragon. The track was "Daniel's Blues", a warped lament written from the perspective of Dan Aykroyd that tells the story of him hunting down and murdering John Belushi's drug dealer who supplied him with the gear he overdosed on. It was surreal stuff, the loss and grief of the song was really heartfelt and I was stunned not only by the strange narrative but by the use of distortion and synths that went along with Timothy Showalters devastating vocals. It was enough to hook me and within a week I'd ordered all three of his albums.

Singer songwriters are somewhat of a difficult bunch to characterise and a rather patchy genre in general when it comes to talent. In my opinion this is amplified by the relative ease the musical format provides, I mean all you need is an acoustic guitar and the more rough around the edges the recording sounds the more likely that someone will see it as minimalist genius. Whilst there are more than a few diamonds in the rough for every Bon Iver there are a thousand James Blunts. That being the case I was pleasantly suprised when all three of Strand Of Oaks albums were stunning and different from each other.

Leave Ruin
   Originally released in 2009 Leave Ruin was the first Strand Of Oaks album released by La Société Expéditionnaire and was subsequently re-released with a new cover at a later date. The album is beautifully rich in character and is a great place to start with Strand Of Oaks' back catalogue. There is a great mix of electric and acoustic guitars and the whole album is sumptuously layered and given a more diverse sound with piano and even the occasional banjo. There is a great mix of short and longer songs with some tracks scraping in just short of breaking the ten minute mark. The main highlight would have to be the heart rendering vocal performances that are delicate and poignant whilst also showcasing an incredible range. The album outstrips much of its competition in ways that are hard to imagine and the strange stories put me in mind of a more coherent Mark Linkous, whose surreal dream like poetry whilst utterly devastating at times retains a succint beauty. As far as individual tracks go it's hard to pick a favourite. "End In Flames" as an opener is really a staggeringly beautiful song, delicate and minimalist yet so affecting it's hard not to fall in love with it instantaneously. Similarly the sweet and short "Two Kids" can't help but raise your spirits and put you in mind of those moments in life when you stumble across a love so unconditional you become blind to all negativity in the world.
   From start to finish the album is a joy to listen to. Uplifting in places and desperately longing in others it treads the fine line between happiness and sadness with the grace and poise of a tight rope walker. This album quikly became very special to me last year not only as one of the best debut albums I'd ever heard but because of the instant relatability of the music. I could not recommend this album enough.

Try it and Buy it here:

Pope Killdragon
   Following hot on the heels of 2009's Leave Ruin was Strand Of Oaks sophomore masterpiece the epically titled Pope Killdragon. Of all the Strand Of Oaks record's I bought this was the one I was most looking forward to. This was the point at which my fascination had started and having listened to most of this album through youtube I couldn't wait to have the album on my i-pod and I wasn't disappointed. Pope Killdragon kept many of the key elements that made Leave Ruin such a powerful album but also added a new dimension to the mix with synthesizers and distortion playing a huge role in creating powerful atmospheres often resulting in a much darker overall sound. This experimental shift paid off helping to create an amazingly twisted record filled to the brim with eerie dream like fables. Pope Killdragon is also the most cohesive album in Strand Of Oaks back catalogue running seamlessly from one track into another with synthesizer and distorted guitar interludes holding the record together and complimenting its overall flow. Lyrically the album is more surreal than it's predecessor but so powerful is the all encompassing atmosphere of the record that you are still swept away in the hazey dream like fog.
    Highlights again are difficult to single out as the album runs so strong in its entirety. That said live favourite "Sterling" a heart choking lament about drinking too much and having strange alcohol induced dreams proves particularly poignant with the lyrics "I saw him coming" turning into a madman's mantra building through the track to a death march stomp of such intensity you'd have to be dead not to be moved. Similarly "Alex Kona" and it's synth counterpart "Giant's Despair" paint a powerful picture that is both moving and unsettling. The use of distortion on the guitar work gives the album a loud and quiet dynamic that is totally new and the stark contrasts make the music all the more powerful.
    Again the connection to this album for me was instantaneous and quickly it became one of my most listened to albums of 2012. Whilst the imagery conjured up in the surreal stories may baffle to begin with when the album is taken as a whole it is undeniably brilliant.

Try it and buy it here:

Dark Shores
   After a slightly longer but still incredibly short period of time Strand Of Oaks released it's third and most recent LP Dark Shores in 2012. An album that once again I only found out about a long while after its release (a fact I'm rather sore about because those who pre-ordered the album got a copy of the now out of print Alma EP a collection of Showalter's earliest work). Unlike its fore-runners Dark Shores saw Strand Of Oaks strip back considerably with a mostly acoustic record made up of comparaitively shorter songs. Of all three Strand Of Oaks records released to date this was the hardest one for me to grow into. Being a lover of long sprawling epics I found it difficult at first to adjust to shorter punchier tracks, still after a few play throughs the album began to seep into my subconscious and since then I've lost count how many times I've found myself humming along to the chorus lines that were playing in my head.
   Highlight's include the brilliantly minimalist "Maureen's" which really gives Showalter's vocals a chance to shine unopposed and the insanely catchy "Satellite Moon" with its warped organ stabs. Whilst I confess that of the three album's this was the hardest to get into because of it's shorter and poppier leanings within a few play throughs it grew on me.

Try it and Buy it here:

Darker Shores
   Darker Shores is Strand Of Oaks most recent release and one that has been incredibly hushed up with little to no details being given on its content and nowhere to buy it yet online making it an elusive little record. Darker Shores in actual fact is an EP containing five original versions of tracks from Strand Of Oaks decisively more minimalist album Dark Shores. At the moment the EP is only available at live shows and I myself was lucky enough to snag myself a copy.
   Thanks to an insightful email sent out by a mysterious stranger a little more light has been shed on this intriguing release. The tracks here are actually the original versions of Mr Showalter's material written for Dark Shores that were produced by the same producer he worked on for Pope Killdragon Ben Vehorn. The end result is a more fleshed out synth sound similar to tracks on his Pope Killdragon record with some tracks being greatly expanded. These tracks are by no means worthless scraps as the different style breathes new life into the songs. The reason these versions didn't make it to the final cut is down to Strand Of Oaks being approached by John Vanderslice a musician in his own right and a producer who has worked with bands such as Spoon and The Mountain Goats. Dark Shores was re-recorded and those new recordings were the ones chosen for the final album.
   The tracklisting is as follows:

1. Dark Shores                                      5:58
2. Satellite Moon                                  2:25
3. Last Grain                                         3:25
4. Little Wishes                                     4:34
5. Hard To Be Young                            4:52

 Strand Of Oaks Live @ St. Pancras Old Church 22/2/2013
Every once in a while life will throw a pivotal moment at you, a moment that is scorched into the very fibres of your memory, a moment that encapsulates your thoughts and feelings about life. In my relatively short life I have had a few of these moments. Me being music mad it is no suprise that several of these moments have been at gigs or have had some relation to music. Often all it takes is the opening chords of a track to transport me back to a particular mindset or memory it's all rather amazing. One such moment came about just last week at St. Pancras Old Church.
   After spending the best part of sixth months engaged in an epic Strand Of Oaks binge, jumping from album to album for weeks on end, I saw an advert for a UK headline gig. In a flood of excitement I bought the tickets before realising that I'd double booked myself having bought Bloc Party tickets several months previously. Needless to say I was devastated. As much as I wanted to see Bloc Party after being impressed by last years album "Four" I had no idea when another chance to see Strand Of Oaks would arrive. My disappointment was amplified further upon the realisation that the show was set to take place at St. Pancras Old Church, an ancient site of christian worship believed to date back to 314 A.D. Still with a lot of apologising and pleading I managed to shift my Bloc Party ticket and managed to make it to one of the most obscure gig venues I've ever seen.
   The church itself was beautifully ornate, the stage lit merely by candles and a few lamps, the acoustics inside the old stone hall were sumptuously rich. Getting there early, as I always do in hope of getting a good spot, I managed to secure myself a seat in the front row of the old wooden chairs that were laid out. The atmosphere was reverential and electric with a real sense that something magical was about to unfurl. The night kicked off with charismatic singer songwriter Antonio Lulic playing a range of original tracks on a range of different acoustic guitars accompanied by his friend playing double bass. Lulic's set was punctuated with some interesting background to the personal subject matter behind each song and the odd self effacing joke which the chilly crowd seemed to enjoy warming to him and his music as the stragglers began to arrive.
   Soon after Lulic's set was over the tension in the room was palpable. With the magic still present in the air Timothy Showalter and Chris Ward took to the stage. As far as the setlist went the show they put on was filled to the brim with variety and suprise with tracks spanning all three records being played. As far as live performance goes this tracks werent merely recited clinically more reinvented with entirely new dynamics relying heavily on distortion rather than a range of guitars. The effects were stunning and unlike anything I've ever witnessed. Fan favourites like "Sterling" and "Daniel's Blues" recieved a riotous reception which seemed to physically stun Showalter and Ward, whilst even older material from the debut album like "Sister Evangeline" and "Two Kids" were even more warmly recieved. Those who had turned up seemed really passionate about the music they were hearing and the amazing setting gave the whole nights proceedings an extra sheen of importance. The set was ended on "Bonfire" a stalwart track from Pope Killdragon that Timothy dedicated to his loving wife and the night came to a close as the belltower eerily struck 10pm. After rapturous applause and cheers from those in attendance Timothy came back onto the stage to thank the crowd with a rare encore solo performance of  "Last To Swim".
    After the gig the pair stood out in the lobby to meet and greet the fans who were in attendance, chat and sell merch. Upon meeting them like most bands who I am lucky enough to meet I was amazed by how humbled and kind they were. It was a fantastic night and not one I will forget in a hurry.