In which our Travel Editor—and resident Elvis authority—guides us through some fine, and in places, quirky, dining spots along the Honolulu beachfront. (Additional reading: “Dancing Barefoot: The Great Waikiki Mai Tai Taste Off,” Gaar’s guide to Hawaii’s finest mixology establishments.) (Above: King of Hawaii: Johnny Fortuno as Elvis in Rock-a-Hula.)
BY GILLIAN G. GAAR
In Waikiki, everyone wants to snag a good seat to enjoy the inevitably beautiful sunset, and Blurt’s given you some suggestions as to where to do exactly that. But what about after the sun goes down? If you’re not heading to a luau (we’ll cover those later), here’s a look at what you’ll find in Waikiki, offering more than just hula dancing:
Magic of Polynesia: This production gives a Hawaiian twist to a magic show. But it’s a bit of an uneasy mashup that would’ve worked better if there was something specifically “Hawaiian” about the tricks. Instead, it alternates between tricks, some hula, more tricks, some fire knife dancing, and so on. The tricks are pretty standard stuff (e.g. the assistant gets in a box and disappears, reappearing in the auditorium), but still enjoyable. Whoever the magician is (they alternate) adds some comedy to the proceedings as well. There are four packages: show only, one cocktail, dinner, and deluxe dinner. I’ve seen this a show a couple of times, but haven’t had the dinner. The main advantage of buying a dinner package is better seating. Ditto the cheaper tickets; you could do the show only ticket, and buy two cocktails, and that would still be cheaper than the cocktail package; but you’d get better seating at the latter. Rating: Fun show, but lacks the fire to make it a must-see. (Below: No rabbits, no hats: it’s the Magic of Polynesia.)
Star of Honolulu Dinner Cruise: The appeal of a dinner cruise in Honolulu is obvious, since you’re in one of the most picturesque places on earth. This company prides itself on presentation and customer service, which are both first rate. There’s transportation via bus to the dock at Aloha Tower (at one time the tallest building in the islands), where hula dancers entertain you until it’s time to board. There are four dinner options, and I’ve done two. The Pacific Star Sunset package, the cheapest, offers a buffet and Polynesian-themed show. The Star Sunset package has all-you-can-eat crab and tenderloin of beef, and a “60 Years of Aloha” show. I’ve experienced the Three Star Dinner package, with lobster and tenderloin of beef, plus the “Aloha” show. (Below: The picturesque presentation of the Star of Honolulu’s Five Star Sunset Dining.)I was disappointed that the “champagne” toast wasn’t sparkling wine but non-alcoholic. I was told this was because some of the guests were under 21; fine, give them the sparking cider, and sparkling wine to the rest of us. The mixed drinks were also weak; I asked for an additional shot in mine. The food was tasty and plentiful. The Five Star Sunset Dining & Jazz is the swanky one. The meal has seven courses, starting with appetizers on the top deck where you meet the captain, followed by soup, salad, lobster, sorbet to cleanse your palate, prime tenderloin of beef, and two small desserts (more fun than one big one). The dining room here is less crowded; it’s more cramped on the lower floors. And instead of a Polynesian-themed show, you get a jazz vocalist following your meal. I enjoyed getting a taste of the high life. Whatever deck you’re on, try to get a window table. You’re free to wander about the ship during the voyage, so be sure to go outside and deck to enjoy the view. I also recommend paying the extra fee to go on Friday night, when the ship stays out later to see the weekly fireworks display at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The cruise isn’t cheap (prices start at $97), so reserve it for a special night out. Rating: It’s worth taking to the time to see the island from a different perspective — on the sea. (Below: Jazzin’ it up on the Star of Honolulu dinner cruise.)
Blue Note Hawaii: The Outrigger Waikiki used to be host to the long running variety show Society of Seven. It was then decided that the show was too long in the tooth, so it was closed down, the space was remodeled, and reopened as the Hawaii branch of the Blue Note jazz club chain. One nice thing about Blue Note Hawaii is there’s a good mix of local and national talent; shows with local acts are cheaper as well. The space seats over 300, but the design makes it feel relatively intimate, so you can get a decent view pretty much wherever you sit; the cheapest seats are at the bar at the back. (Below: The Winston Marsalis “Star Table” at Blue Note Hawaii.)There are two shows a night, with food available. On my last visit, I had the Chocolate Macadamia Nut Martini — like drinking a liquid chocolate bar (and it needed more alcohol). One drawback: you’re forced to order something, because there’s a $10 food/beverage minimum — which always makes ordering feel like more an imposition, than something you’re doing for pleasure. Another drawback is the wait in lobby before you’re admitted (especially for the second set, as you’re only admitted a half hour before showtime), something that could easily be solved by having reserved seats. Note also that because of the smaller size, popular acts (like Herb Alpert or Chris Botti) tend to sell out fast, so if you’re interested in such a show, don’t delay in getting a ticket. Rating: A quality venue with a good range of talent, and a nice change of pace from the tropical drink bar scene. (Below: All that jazz at Blue Note Hawaii.)
Rock-a-Hula: My hands down favorite show in Waikiki. They’ve just updated the show and I plan to see it on my next trip and tell you all about it, so I’ll just give an overview here. The show was created by Legends in Concert, who put on tribute shows in Vegas. There’s a rotating cast of tribute artists, but there’s always an Elvis (the wonderful Johnny Fortuno), who of course has a strong connection to Hawaii, having made three films here, not to mention his Aloha From Hawaii by Satellite concert from 1973 — and songs from his films and the ’73 concert are very much a part of this production (it’s even named after an Elvis song from Blue Hawaii). There are five packages here; show only, one cocktail, luau dinner, “Stageside VIP” dinner, and the deluxe “Green Room” package (which gives you a backstage tour). I recommend the Luau package (a great meal and good seats), but if you can spring for it, the “Green Room” package is terrific fun. Drinks are on the weak side; ask for an extra shot. After the show, stick around and meet the cast in the lobby. Rating: The strong performances and high production values of this show make it a guaranteed good night out. (Elvis and Michael Jackson in Rock-a-Hula, Waikiki’s best stage show.)
Lewers Lounge: This venue is tucked away in the ritzy Halekulani hotel. The lighting is low, and it’s the kind of place people casually drop into and out of throughout the evening; the perfect place to escape the hectic activity of Waikiki. There’s jazz every night, starting at 8:30 p.m. (most of the time you’ll see Maggie Herron, who’s on Wednesday through Sunday), and a menu of interesting cocktails and snacks; my favorite is the Lost Passion, a “sophisticated blend of tequila, Cointreau and fresh juices, topped with Champagne.” (Below: Double the fun: The delectable “Lost Passion” at Halekulani’s Lewers Lounge.)
Note that there’s a dress code here: “Casual Elegant Attire — casual t-shirts, tank tops, beachwear, exercise attire or flip-flops are not permitted,” and I have seen people turned away at the door for being deemed underdressed. I myself favor a black ensemble on my visits and have had no difficulties. Rating: A classy, sophisticated venue. A great place to stop in for a nightcap, or indulge yourself and stay all evening. And say hello to Maggie for me! (Below: Catch Maggie Heron Wednesday through Sunday at Halekulani’s Lewers Lounge.)
Our correspondent—who you may know from a little old Athens, Georgia, band called Pylon, and subsequent related outfits—converses with the British legends about their new band, their legacy, the recent XTC documentary film, an epochal (to Georgians, at least) early, concert summit between XTC and R.E.M., and plenty more. Note: A version of this story also appeared earlier this month at Athens’ Flagpole magazine. (Photos of Moulding and Chambers by Geoff Winn.)
BY VANESSA BRISCOE HAY
In which XTC’sColin Moulding & original drummer Terry Chambers discuss: Great Aspirations, a new EP from their project TC & I; XTC’s This Is Pop rockumentary. What have they been up to and where have they been? I love the work of Andy Partridge, but I wanted to know more about the other members of XTC than I saw unfold through This is Pop... Plus, read a few memories of a legendary Athens, GA show 37 years ago that paired the legendary British band XTC with a very young R.E.M. A show that many fans of both bands wish that they could take a time machine back to. Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers were both very generous with their time and answered every single question I asked. A fan couldn’t ask for anything more!
2018 marks the 40-year anniversary of XTC’s first studio album White Musicthat spawned the Andy Partridge penned singles “This is Pop,” a manifesto proclaiming that punk was no different than pop and “Statue of Liberty.” I was delighted recently to chat with the formidable rhythm section of XTC’s bassist Colin Moulding and original drummer Terry Chambers about their current project TC&I. Colin and Terry with some help from their friends have recently released an EP, Great Aspirations, via PledgeMusic. Great Aspirations harkens a bit back to the early glory days of XTC, but how could it not with this pedigree. Most people don’t understand how important the drummer really is to a songs pattern and flow – and with the songwriting skills of Colin Moulding, the EP is a delight to listen to. The four songs on Great Aspirations include adult themes about things like conservation and happily facing mortality.The XTC documentary This Is Popjust aired to rave reviews from fans on Showtime (trailer is belowI).
Last year, TheXTC Bumper Book of Fun, an anthology of articles from XTC’s fanzine published between 1982-1992 with new material for 2017 came out to rave reviews from fans. (Loved the Limelight zine! And hey, whatever happened to The Little Express XTC zine out of Canada? – Archival Ed.)
VANESSA BRISCOE HAY: For someone who is semi-retired, you seem busier than ever. There seems a sense of both looking back and forward.
Colin Moulding: I always like to be able to look forward to something musically, so the new stuff is where it’s at for me …. but of course, I’m very proud of what we’ve done too with the chaps over the years. Something new and experimental musically keeps me going in my ‘dotage.’
VBH: I’m right there with you on that. I briefly met you and Andy Partridge in January 1980 while passing through the Hotel Iroquois lobby. A lot of bands who were booked by Frontier Booking International or FBI stayed there – I also ran into other bands like The Clash, The Pretenders, Iggy Pop and The Police. Randy Bewley (guitarist for Pylon) spied you two sitting in the lobby doing an interview and asked me to give you our first single because he was too shy. I know that you don’t remember us, but we were thrilled!
CM: I hope we were courteous when we met. I remember the cockroaches at the Iroquois… they were certainly friendly. (laughs)
VBH:You both were very nice. I can’t say the same for the cockroaches. On April 24, 1981,XTC performed in Athens, GA and the opening band was none other than R.E.M. My band Pylon were out on the road at the time, so I missed it.
CM: I don’t remember too much about that particular show. But I know the reception we got in general across America was nearly always good. The size of the portions at meal times certainly made an impression on me! It was a great time to be young and into music.
VBH: Please tell me how your new project TC&I with former XTC drummer Terry Chambers came to be.
CM: Well, as you may know, Terry left the band in 1982 and moved to Australia to be with his wife at that time. He had made previous visits to the U.K., but this time it was different. When he came over in 2016 for a family wedding he expressed a wish that he would like to come back to England on a permanent basis. He was. I think having personal problems and saw his future back in the U.K., so the novelty of it all was too much to resist. I asked him there and then whether he fancied playing on some new songs of mine that I was contemplating recording and one thing led to another …and then we formed TC&I. A very enjoyable few months we had too, recording and having fun.
VBH: Had you been in contact with him or worked with him since he left XTC in 1982 (during the sessions for Mummer)?
CM: No not really —he would come back for family events and stuff, and maybe I would see him on occasions when our schedules would allow, but generally we were like ships in the night.
VBH: Are there plans for TC&I to perform live?
CM: We may do (that), but you must remember we pretty much played most of the stuff on the record between ourselves, so as such, we don’t have a band. Fnding players who are sympathetic to our sensibilities won’t be easy, but if we click with some other musicians then yes, it’s a possibility-I think quite soon we’d like to do some more recording too. Fitting it all in is difficult.
VBH: Apart from the existing ‘Scatter Me’ video, will there be another video forthcoming?
CM: We were going to do another for “Greatness” but it’s such a difficult subject to find tangible visuals for, so it may happen- depending on suitable visuals. We have some shots for it, but nothing we are happy with thus far
VBH: I have read that Terry Chambers’ son is a drummer like his father. Can Terry tell us anything about that?
TC: My son Kai plays in an Australian band called October Rage. They have a deal with a record company in Salt Lake City, Utah called Aircastle and they regularly play the U.S.- mainly in the mid-West. They are a fairly heavy rock band.
VBH: Are you writing new material together for this project with plans to record it?
CM: After ‘Great Aspirations,” there is plans to do more. Terry doesn’t write per se, so I have to have time off to formulate ideas for us to record. At the moment we’re doing promo for the EP, so I am not settled into this process yet. Besides, we want to keep them special and fun. The conveyor belt of the old days doesn’t apply anymore.
VBH: The documentary This Is Pop was great! I would have liked to have seen a little more about the other members’ background. I really love Andy Partridge’s work, but I love the other members work too.
CM: I think documentary film making is a certain (type of) art. The director must entertain, inform and keep his backers happy too. Andy’s breakdown and his subsequent refusal to tour was headline news -so there you have it. There were other tributaries that the story could certainly have taken, but in the interest of holding a (story) thread and keeping a strong central core, it was told this way.
VBH: What attracted you to music initially and what was your first instrument?
TC: At first, I wanted to play piano for some unknown reason. That idea never came to fruition. I think maybe because I became obsessed with rock music in late 1968-69 and suddenly thought …drums! I was 14 years old. I had an inspired moment and sought out a drum kit reasonably priced at Kempsters, a music shop in Swindon. I think the kit cost around £35-50* which was bought from money that I had saved from my after-school job stacking shelves at a local grocery store. The kit was a lovely blue coloured Broadway drum kit made by John Gray. When I got the kit home, I didn’t even know how to set it up and had no idea how to play. I learned to play by listening to my sister’s records on an old mono record player hitting parts of the kit that seemed to sound like what was on the records. For example: that sounds like this one – then hitting the snare drum, bass drum etc.
I hope that this helps to explain my perhaps unorthodox playing style rather than the usual text book style.
*Note: This was about $80-115 in US dollars at the1975 exchange rate – which is now worth about $380-540 adjusting for 2018 inflation. A lot of stacking shelves, I’m sure!
CM: I first noticed being moved by hymns at school, but I couldn’t work out why some moved me, and others didn’t. What was that thing that gave me a lump in my throat? “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” still moves me today. * This coincided with hearing pop music on the TV and radio-The Beatles in particular, as well as The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, and Spencer Davis. I loved the melodies of it all. My first instrument was the bass guitar-right from the start. I thought that it would quickly get me into a band and make me popular with girls. In fact, we knew people who just carried a guitar around with them most of the time, without a clue as how to play it, just for that purpose.
*Note: This hymn originates from a poem penned by Sir Spencer Rice which was adapted by Holst to music from his work Jupiter.
VBH: Who was an early influence on your style?
CM: A chap called Andy Frasier. You may recognize the name. He played in the band Free, of which I was a huge fan. I thought the sound of his bass was very unusual-like an elastic band or something.
Free played in a very empty sort of way which appealed to me a lot more so than power chords. I’ve thought that less is more ever since…
VBH: Were your family supportive?
CM: Not to begin with-no. You see I had forsaken my education to do music which rather horrified my parents. Indeed, I had five very dispiriting years after I had ‘dropped out’ where nothing much happened. So, I was beginning to come around to the assumption that they had been right all along, but the calling was too strong for me. You see one thinks that it’s all going to happen overnight when one has made up one’s mind what to do, but it very rarely does. Then along came punk rock and rather saved the day…it got us in.
VBH:Yay, punk rock!Did you have a childhood hobby?
CM: I was rather taken with astronomy and studied it for a number of years. I also had an interest in maps, which stays with me to this day. I still have my original copy of sheet 157 OS of my local area somewhere in the house.
*Note: Referring to an “Ordnance Survey” map with scale of one inch to one mile. 157 is the sheet number and refers to his hometown of Swindon, UK.
VBH: I’ve never been to Swindon, but I originally came from a town which is much smaller than Swindon. Did you know the other members of XTC growing up? How do the townspeople or the town feel about their most famous product?
CM: I Knew Andy at school because we grew up close by. The other members I met later in pubs and stuff, or in music shops. We are known to some in our town, and even revered and respected in some quarters. But, I’m sure to others they wouldn’t know who the hell we are, you see, for some, unless you come from London or New York you can’t possibly be that good!
VBH: I know that at one point in the 2000’s you washed your hands of music. I suspect that it was the business more than music because you became involved in some prog rock projects in LA. I must confess to having had a sweet tooth for this type of music in my teen years when I loved bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Pink Floyd and Renaissance.Tell me a little about your involvement with this genre.
CM: When the band fizzled out I went down like a wounded horse. It had been such a big part of my life that I couldn’t face starting anything new. Very much like when a romance comes to an end, one is still emotionally attached. I had to give it time before I could ‘love again.’ So, I think I just watched TV for two years, and made myself a nuisance at the local tennis club. Then, I began to get offers from a guy in LA named Billy Sherwood who was well in with a clique of musicians that I knew from my prog rock record buying days. He asked, “Did I fancy having a go at contributing to this stuff?” So, I thought, what the hell. Billy actually plays bass in YES now, and tours live with them due to the untimely death of Chris Squire.
VBH: Are there any prog rock recordings that you were involved in that we should look for?
CM: Yes, my favourites are: “The Man Who Died Two Times,” from (LA prog rock band) Days Between Stations concept album In Extremis and “Just Galileo and Me,” from Billy Sherwood’s solo album Citizen.
VBH:What is it like to work with Rick Wakeman?
CM: Rick, I believe, was on a track that I worked on from Billy’ Sherwood’s Citizen record. Files were compiled and sent down the line and assembled at his end, so I never got to be in the same room. It was all very impersonal – but that’s the industry for you. You can work intensely in a room together for three months with a person and then never see them again – or be at the end of a computer in different towns. Well, they say the internet has drawn people closer together …. Well this would seem the opposite wouldn’t you think?
VBH: I have done very little work like that, but I would agree. You are known for earnest, yet indirect at times pop lyrics and song writing. I know that the first three songs to chart for XTC were penned by you. The first single that I bought by XTC was “Life Begins at The Hop”. A highlight of the album Drums and Wires was “Making Plans for Nigel.” Perhaps my favorite XTC song is “Generals and Majors.” Many drummers have cited the sound on the 4th XTC album Black Sea as the best sound recording of a drummer. There is a little discussion of that in the documentary This Is Pop. To me the whole band sounds very full and clear and the rhythm section is killer.
How did XTC and your producer Steve Lillywhite achieve the sound separation during the recording process of Black Sea?
CM: That sound is the sound of the stone room at Virgin’s “Town House Studios” in Goldhawk Road, London. Not long built when we got to work there-In fact we may have been among the first to use it. We had done Drums and Wires there the year before and the big sound was being worked on even then. Later it was developed even more for Back Sea. It’s the sound you hear on Phil Collins’ ‘‘In the air tonight’…and on the Peter Gabriel album from around that time. Hugh Padham was the house engineer, and together with Steve, they developed it. Essentially the drummer is locked away in a room of his own that is made of stone.
VBH:Amazing. That explains a lot.Do you feel that you are coming full circle with your latest project TC &I with Terry Chambers?
CM: No, because a circle would indicate that we had arrived back where we started and that’s not right. I feel the stuff on (the TC &I EP) Great Aspirations is breaking new ground. To write about death in a positive way (“Scatter Me”) is a hard thing to do – plus others like ‘Kenny’ and ‘Comrades of Pop’ is largely storytelling over fanfares and riffs with sound effects. I’m more a narrator than a tunesmith in these instances. I thought it was something we hadn’t done.
VBH: I see that you play bass, guitar, keys and sing lead vocals and that you wrote the songs as well. Who are the other players on this project?
CM: We had some local players that sang and played the saxophone and trumpet, but essentially Terry and I played everything – more out of necessity than design. You see we didn’t have the big budgets that we had on the XTC records. Susannah Bevington is from a local choir and Alan Bateman has played brass for many people locally. Mikey Rowe is the exception; he plays Keyboards for Noel Gallagher’s band High Flying Birds.
VBH: Is it self-produced?
CM: Yes – and we have a saying in England…’cheap as chips’ – that’s what music has become. Considering the amount of time and expense that one has to go through, it’s a wonder anyone produces anything at all.
VBH: Where did you record it?
CM: It was recorded at my house. I have a facility in my garage. We would run long lines into the house to record things that needed separation like brass and the soprano voice that you hear on ‘Scatter Me’. When you record yourself, one doesn’t have the pressure that one has at the big studios where the clock is ticking……the pressure to get it right within a short space of time is immense. One shouldn’t subject oneself to such pressure. Yes, it was all very ‘Joe Meek’, but I figured that at least we were going to have a record that sounded different. Sure, you will make mistakes – but good things happen when you don’t know what you’re doing…. trust me.
VBH: What technology did you use to record it?
CM: I like the Otari Radar because the converters are so good. Then we transferred it all to Logic Pro. We had a very good mixer chap by the name of Stuart Rowe who rapped our knuckles when we got a bit wayward with the sound, so he was our guardian angel really. I only hope that we can afford him next year.
VBH: Are there plans for further XTC projects?
CM: Well, certainly no new ones, that’s for sure.
VBH:How involved are you with the reissues?
CM: None whatsoever – they are totally Andy’s babies. He chooses what goes on them and it is his choice alone. I don’t think he appreciates any outside interference, so I don’t bother anymore. My feeling towards them is this: They most certainly have saved us from the bargain bins, and I’m grateful for that, but I’m not a believer in (the release of) demos of any great number. You see for me, ‘the extension should never be bigger than the house.’ in my view it rather dilutes the magic. He says the fans want them; I say the fans have had them.
VBH:Do you think that you will ever tour with XTC again?
CM: Extremely unlikely I’d say……. the individuals are far too disparate in thought for it ever to happen. But then I’m not sure whether I would want to …. I think I might feel uncomfortable being in their company after so long…
VBH: Okay, I have two questions for you Colin, from two friends who also love your music:
Jason NeSmith:“Do you have a favorite plant (or type of plant) in your garden?”
CM: I’m very fond of my box plants…which I clip to a topiary shape…. very therapeutic…. i can contemplate the world whilst doing it….
Marianna Silva: “As I live in Brazil, I’m still waiting for my TC&I EP to arrive, so I haven’t heard it yet… But, it’s fantastic to hear Colin and Terry playing together once again. I’d like to know if there is a song or songs that he wrote (from the XTC catalog such as “Nigel”) that he wished that he had done differently on listening to it/them today?”
CM: Probably lots….certainly some of the later stuff which didn’t get done all that well….as I think we knew we were breaking up…like the last days of Rome or something….but going back further…I think ‘Cynical Days’ got some rough justice…it’s far too lounge-y and the clatter of the snare drum on the choruses is not quite right…..but if I went through it all I’m sure it would distress me too much….best not to think about it…
Here are a few memories or comments from some of my fellow Athenians about XTC or that XTC / R.E.M. at the B & L Warehouse on April 24, 1981:
When I was touring Europe with Sugar, we had a truly excellent sound engineer from the UK by the name of Mick Brown. It is typical for a touring sound engineer to tune each venue’s PA with a recording with which they are very familiar and hold in high regard. Every single day of that tour, Mick’s choice was XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.” It was constantly stuck in my head, but I never minded. Great song. Great production. Great band. — David Barbe (Chief Engineer & Producer at Chase Park Transduction, Director of UGA Music Business Program, Mercyland, Sugar, The Quick Hooks, Bar-B-Q Killers, Drive-By Truckers)
The show R.E.M. did with XTC at the B&L Warehouse was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had, and XTC were as hot as any band I ever saw. The crowd simply would not let them stop playing, and I think they were as surprised at the multiple encores as they were happy to play them. The musicianship of Colin and Andy, and the power of the band, gave us something to shoot for. —Mike Mills (R.E.M.)
I remember thinking that this was the first time I had seen R.E.M. in color… there was a “tree” of colored lights on the stage and R.E.M. looked like a real, pro band! Also, I remember that XTC had a projector projecting words and dots on a screen behind them – “Cuba” “Generals and Majors” etc. The other random memory from that night was that a big old football player-sized frat boy took my chair from me when I stood up to dance saying “get your coat off of my chair, boy” – Bryan Cook (Time Toy)
In 1981 I was a very young student at UGA, living in Reed Hall. Since the previous year my friends and I had been seeing R.E.M. whenever we could, and we were always on the lookout for their next show. We were excited to learn they’d be opening for XTC, we’d been hearing “Life Begins at the Hop” and “Making Plans for Nigel” on WUOG and thought it was cool that our local heroes were opening for a big-time band. At the time our ideas about what constituted “New Wave” were vague at best; none of us had much access to the music press or records, but we thought of UK punk as having kicked things off and of UK bands as being on the leading edge. The night of the show we walked over to the B&L Warehouse from the dorm, crossing the railroad tracks behind the art building. The venue felt big compared to Tyrone’s, which is what we were used to, but the same crowd seemed to be there. R.E.M. did their usual energetic set, much to our satisfaction, but when XTC came out it was instantly obvious which was the better band. They were tighter, they had better sound, and their songs and arrangements were on an entirely different level. It was the show of the year for us and helped us realize that what was going on in Athens really was part of something bigger. Black Sea is still my favorite XTC album. – Brad Cahoon (Athens resident since 1979, Retired)
There was great energy in the room that night, the audience was enthusiastic, and I think the bands picked up on that. I just recall having fun from start to finish – Jeff Hollis (UGA Alumnus, Attorney)
Now on their second full-length, the Houston postpunk/riot grrrl outfit talk about their home city and living in a redder-then-red state, about the experiences of Muslims as well as trans citizens in America—and about the influence of… drumroll, please… Keanu Reeves on their music and their art. (Above photo: via the band’s Facebook page / by Trish Badger Photography.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Houston’s Giant Kitty blends fun and political awareness seamlessly. They observed Trump’s inauguration alongside other Houston bands with an ACLU benefit: “We Belong: Houstonians of Muslim Descent Dissent.” (Singer Miriam Hakim is a Syrian-American Muslim.) On the thundering “This Stupid Stuff,” the band explores everyday prejudice and stereotyping, and the video amplifies the message via Post-Its. The topic is personal not only for Hakim but for her bandmates. Guitarist Cassandra Chiles and drummer Trinity Quirk are transgender women (they also tied the knot onstage in 2016), while the band’s newest member, bassist Roger Medina, is Mexican.
But then the band changes gears and pays tribute to Keanu Reeves on “Don’t Stop That Bus,” with a video that recreates scenes from his most famous movies. For their second album, Rampage, Giant Kitty mixes charged commentary, searing riffs, and just the right amount of sass to make it a blast to listen to.
BLURT: Could you give me some background on the band?
Cassandra Chiles: The band was founded about five years ago. We started as kind of a riot grrl band, and kind of morphed into more of a punk-ish…
Miriam Hakim: We have a riot grrrl attitude. Whatever the hell music we’re making is what we’re making.
Roger Medina: Punk rock.
MH: Yeah, we’re punk rock. Some people might argue, but it doesn’t matter.
RM: It’s like alternative punk, a lot of different styles.
MH: We draw from a lot of different influences, but I think ultimately, you know, we’re just sort of writing personal songs about things we care about and are relevant to us, and I feel like that’s pretty punk rock.
RM: We’re a band for the people, yo!
CC: I think there’s a good balance between the serious issues and the humor element that a lot of bands don’t have.
I noticed that too, like, for instance, your recent videos, like “This Stupid Stuff” for instance.
MH: I think there’s that quote, “The personal is political,” right? And really for us, I feel like that’s kind of our mantra. We write very personal songs, and because of our identities and our experiences, sometimes those personal songs end up being a wider message, like “This Stupid Stuff.” But ultimately what we’re really doing is we’re writing about our experiences and hoping that somebody else can connect to them too.
I have a question about Houston. It’s definitely thought of as being a pretty liberal city, isn’t it?
MH: Definitely. I think we were the first major American city to have a gay mayor, Annise Parker, a few years ago.
And I think that really goes against the image people have of Texas as being this totally redneck state, because you do have places like Austin and Houston.
Trinity Quirk: We’re still a red state no matter what at this point, so we’ve got our share, definitely.
MH: It’s true, and I think a lot of the northern-southern divide is more of an urban-rural divide. Texas has some of the biggest cities in the United States. Not just Austin, but Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and everywhere in the Valley, they all vote Democrat and have for a long time. So I think it’s really just a matter of how the districts are drawn in Texas. That’s why it goes red. But it’s not necessarily as solid red as maybe people outside of Texas would understand.
CC: Even Dallas, which tends to be more conservative . . . it’s really almost a dead middle ground area, at least I find it to be.
MH: I’m from Dallas, and I would say, yeah. And also, there’s something to be said for being more lefty people, like we are, from a red state. Because there’s some sort of camaraderie that we have and this sort of underdog mentality that in some sense I feel like, you know, the things we’re passionate about, maybe when we visit a blue state, they’ve sort of already won that battle, right? And for us, we’re still fighting, we’re still passionate about it. And we still understand like the day-to-day effect that it has. So me being a lefty person who’s lived in a red state all my life, I feel like it gives a little different perspective on it.
You did a show of bands with other Muslim members, a fundraiser for the ACLU. Could you tell me about that?
MH: I organized that with a couple of other people in Houston from the band Ruiners. The lead singer, Shan [Parsha], he’s half-Pakistani, I’m half-Syrian. And, you know, the day after the election, we were really upset, and we felt really betrayed. Both of us grew up in the United States. I guess both of our parents are Americans now, but we have parents from another country that’s kind of vilified, and both of us are Muslim. And so we just felt really helpless and really, like I said, betrayed.
We were chatting on Facebook, like what can we do to feel better and help others feel better. And we decided is that Houston has so many bands with members from Muslim families that why don’t we, on Inauguration Day, throw a big concert and get all the bands that we can with members from Muslim families together?
We specifically wanted to raise money from the ACLU, because they don’t just fight for rights for Muslim people. We wanted something that would fight for everybody. And so yeah, we threw this big, very affirming concert, and thankfully all these people were on board with it. That was Roger’s first show with us, which I feel is really appropriate and meaningful and that was a dark day for a lot of us. And the fact that we did that and we raise almost $2,000 for the ACLU, I mean, maybe it’s a drop in the bucket, but I feel like for a lot of us that were there that day it helped us feel like at least we did something.
Do you feel like trans rights after the election took one step forward, two steps back?
CC: I think that there is a backlash because . . . basically, when Trump got elected, I think a lot of people were very shocked that he actually won the election. And because that empowered the extreme right backlash on all minority groups whether they’re not Americans, they’re not white, or they’re not cis, or they’re trans or gay, I think there was a pushback.
As far as the actual rights . . . it’s inevitable. I mean, they can cry all they want to, the extreme right, about trans rights, gay rights, or immigrants or anything, but the deed is done. It’s going to keep pushing on, pushing forth. If you look at the whole of history, history always moves toward the left, progressively, and always continues to evolve and we’re here. We’re not going anywhere.
And the whole idea that trans people have just recently popped up is a bunch of garbage also. I was from the Renee Richards generation in the seventies. Before me it was Christine Jorgensen generation of trans people.
And I think that’s the biggest thing I can say to anyone who is trans or even questioning or even in the middle of gender or genderqueer people or anything is that, you know, just be yourself and just keep on pushing.
Getting back to the red state/blue state divide, I remember reading an essay by Samantha Allen, a columnist for The Daily Beast. And she was writing about how in these seemingly conservative areas you find these communities, these LGBT communities. Do you agree with that?
CC: Oh, absolutely. All you have to do is look at someone like Caitlin Jenner, who comes out late in and is assertively right wing. It seems from even an outside point of view it’s counterproductive to her own benefit and well-being. And even now, as she finally comes out and admits that Trump has set back the trans community—in her opinion, not mine—twenty-plus years, she still is an adamant supporter of this right-wing GOP agenda. So I think the thing to keep in mind here with that too is that you can be LGBT and still be across the political spectrum. And I think that’s what frightens red people the most, is that someone who is hardcore Republican and gay.
MH: People can emerge in places you don’t necessarily expect because of how different the development’s been there. So, I mean, there’s lots of statistics about what parts of the country queer women congregate, what parts of the country queer men congregate. And because of the gender pay gap, based on gender and race and all these intersections about pay gaps, because of how those happen, you actually see a disproportionate number of queer women living in Southern areas and rural areas. People congregate in places that maybe intellectually one wouldn’t think would happen.
And you guys still have a sense of fun with your music. I’m reminded of your video for “Don’t Stop the Bus.”
MH (points at TQ and CC): Those two made the whole thing! The whole thing they made by hand! (Chiles laughs) I feel like, what was it, two months? Every free moment you had, you were making that damn video! It’s incredible.
(to TQ and CC) So you guys are the Keanu Reeves fans in the group?
CC: I think all of us are.
MH: We’re all Keanu Reeves fans, but they’re the ones who took it to the next level and made an intricate video about it.
TQ: That was just one day of rehearsal. I can’t remember how that came about, but we started talking about it, and they’re like, “We should write a song.” It came together in about 30 minutes and it was hilarious.
CC: We wanted to make a couple of videos. We had no money, so we scraped together every favor from every friend we could find. It was just, you know, “What do we have?” Well, I have an art background, so I can make these puppets I used to make as a kid. Our manager at the time, he was excited about it, so we just kind of went with it, but we had no idea if it was just going to look ridiculous or we were gonna pull it off. I think we pulled it off pretty well, for what it was.
MH: And you all had a lot of fun making it.
CC: It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun in the end.
Below: The band performs “American Dad,” which hails from 2016 but, in light of the Bill Cosby news this week, is more relevant than ever.
Once again Prof. Rosen makes his pilgrimage to Knoxville. Check out his 2014 report, as well as 2015, not to mention 2016 and 2017. We sense a trend here. Warning: musical hallucinations ahead. (Pictured above: Steve Gunn)
BY STEVEN ROSEN
One of my favorite events at the annual Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. — and I’ve now gone to five of the six — is the Kick Off Event. I’ve come to enjoy the way that festival head Ashley Capps and Mayor Madeline Rogero always work a Captain Beefheart reference into their opening remarks. Capps, whose AC Entertainment founded Tennessee’s famous Bonnaroo festival, once operated a Knoxville venue called Ella Guru’s, named after a track on Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica album. Rogero was a frequent patron.
Rogero didn’t disappoint when welcoming attendees to Big Ears 2018, held March 22-25. After first noting she had been given a note in big capitol letters that said “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” Capps, she said she would do it anyway — a jokey reference to some idiot thing, one of too many to remember clearly for more than a day or two, that President Trump had done that week. And then she congratulated “our Spotlight Kid, Ashley Capps,” working in the title of Beefheart’s sixth album, a 1972 release.
In last year’s Big Ears coverage, I mentioned how I thought Capps, for all his love of the rock radicalism embodied by the late Beefheart’s work, now seemed more attuned to the more carefully expressed intellectual experimentalism of an American New Music composer like Frederic Rzewski, who at age 78 appeared at Big Ears 2017 to perform on piano his 1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” a political composition based on a Chilean folk song. Capps wrote to correct me: He was attuned to both equally — he had wide tastes. “Big ears,” so to speak.
Fair enough. But after attending much of this year’s festival’s four days, I might list some additional musical interests for Capps — the free jazz movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and also Appalachian folk music.
The latter was not a retreat into traditionalism or regionalism, certainly not when it was best embodied by the duo of Anna & Elizabeth, who were celebrating the pending release of their first “major label” record, The Invisible Comes to Us on Smithsonian Folkways Records. If that doesn’t seem like a major contemporary label to you, but rather a historical throwback, you’re not on the same wavelength as Anna Roberts-Gevalt. “That’s the nerdy-est, best-est label to be on if you’re like us, if you like the old weird stuff,” she told a hushed, enraptured audience of several hundred on Friday afternoon at the beautiful St. John’s Cathedral, one of Big Ears’ many venues.
She and Elizabeth LaPrelle search for and revive older, forgotten Appalachian ballads, often ones by women. And at the concert, they sang such songs as Margaret Shipman’s “Here in the Vineyard” and Victoria Morris’ “John of Hazelgreen” with soulful purity. But there’s also an element of the art project, of experimentalism, in their work that is groundbreaking. Besides the stringed instruments they both play, LaPrelle also uses a self-made “crankie” to project mysterious silhouetted images and sometimes woodcuts, as visual accompaniment. She also uses a small, harmonium-like shruti box to inject a drone into their sound.
They ended their show in an unexpected way, walking down a church aisle to be among the audience and start singing a simple but darkly evocative refrain: “I don’t want to die in the storm/Let the wind blow east/Let the wind blow west/Lord, I don’t want to die in the storm.” Asking the crowd to join in, people unselfconsciously responded — transporting themselves, in the process, into the minds and fears of someone in the past, perhaps isolated in an Appalachian winter, struggling to survive another day. It was a theatrical yet completely, unpretentiously natural ending, and marked Anna & Elizabeth as artists to watch.
As for the more traditional Appalachian music events that Big Ears programmed, such as the Square Dance and Fiddler’s Convention presentations at Knoxville’s outdoor Market Square, I didn’t hear much discussion of them. It’s possible the chilly, rainy weather cut down on participation, but it’s more possible that Big Ears attendees go there for something else. With such a full slate of avant-garde artists, especially those with roots in Free Jazz, who has time to square dance?
There were the jazz elders, the giants of progressivism, and all of them gave terrific performances. The 76-year-old drummer/percussionist Milford Graves, sometimes holding his sticks in such an off-handed, almost-sideways manner that one had to wonder if he would be able to strike a direct hit on his instrument. (He could.) He played with energy, precision, propulsion and — rare for drummers — melodicism during his Saturday afternoon show at the filled-to-capacity Bijou Theatre. He got so worked up he sometimes seemed to be talking to his instruments. He was matched by pianist Jason Moran, who was pushed by his older partner to play with the kind of commanding, demanding, exciting sense of purpose that recalled (the now late) Cecil Taylor. The work seemed improvised, with the two responding to each other and enjoying what they were creating.
Graves was followed at the Bijou by Roscoe Mitchell, one of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s founders, currently enjoying the success of one of his best-received albums, Bells for the South Side. With a large ensemble (playing as a set of trios), he worked through music that had a quietly alluringly dissonant artfulness (a spacey, fusion-y fluttering reminiscent of Miles Davis’ 1970s-work, only without the rock overtones). He played soprano, sopranino, alto and bass saxophones, sometimes letting James Fei also join in with his own dynamic sax work. Craig Taborn’s keyboard work was blistering, and the young Tyshawn Sorey contributed blurringly fast drum work and some piano. The concert, like the album, built to a version of Art Ensemble’s cathartic “Odwala” that was turned to 11, as Spinal Tap’s Nigel might say. You could see audience members in total thrall, unable to sit still as if they wanted to testify to a higher power. (Sorey, by the way, is a recent winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and on early Sunday afternoon played a set with his own trio that had a very classical New Music feel.)
Also notable among the jazz performers was the Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, part John Cage and part Spike Jones, who with his Banquet of the Spirits group could get engaging sounds from any object that came near him. You watched him and his group and wondered, “Is he playing that through his nose?” or “Is that a swimming-pool noodle he’s waving around?” His musical interests are omnivorous, and it’s as much a pleasure to hear what he plays as to watch how he makes his sounds and beats.
Evan Parker, the prolific, 74-year-old British saxophonist who has recorded with Anthony Braxton, Peter Brotzmann, Steve Lacey and Roscoe Mitchell, was indefatigable during a Friday solo show at St. John’s Cathedral. (Free Jazz is such a good use for a historic church.) And, in one of Big Ears’ loveliest surprises, the 78-year-old Jon Gibson and a young band performed his 1973 masterpiece Visitations in its entirety at the same church on Friday night. It was originally released on Philip Glass’ label because Gibson, a flutist and saxophonist, was a member of Glass’ ensemble. It reminded me of Paul Horn’s Inside in its pristine, isolated and meditative respect for sonic clarity, but also had such modern touches as synthesizer and accompanying video imagery.
While I wasn’t able to see the full late-Friday night set by The Thing, a squealing, rocketing Scandinavian trio that plays Free Jazz as if it was scronky rock ‘n’ roll (Albert Ayler meets MC5), what I did catch was enough for me to want them for my next dance party. Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson has a friendly, celebratory relationship with the audience that reminds me of Jon Langford — he’s a guy who so obviously gets off on what he’s doing that he spreads joy all around him.
I also saw some uneasily categorized acts. A couple were disappointing: Norwegian singer Jenny Hval’s vocals got lost amid the conceptual theatrics of her Friday presentation at the Bijou; neither the singing nor the playing sounded very good at the highly anticipated Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda: The Ashram Experience concert on Saturday at St. John’s Cathedral.
But others really stood out: Pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn clearly can play anything (she accompanied Anna & Elizabeth at their concert), and her solo show at The Standard on Thursday night was a tour de force. She confidently played compositions by Astor Piazzollo, French composer Olivier Messiaen (the solemn and sacred “And I await the resurrection of the dead”) and her own beautiful work-in-progress that she had yet to name. Alcorn, herself, with her smile and poetically anecdotal introductions to her music, communicated a kind of beatitude. Her pedal steel was her church organ.
Jenny Scheinman (above) plays both violin and fiddle, by which I mean she plays contemporary jazz with Bill Frisell, Nels Cline and others, and she makes Americana albums, writing reasonably conventionally structured songs that she sings while accompanying herself in the folk tradition.
She had a perfect project for her latter persona with Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, which she presented at the Bijou on Saturday afternoon and for which she was accompanied by Robbie Fulks on guitar and banjo and Robbie Gjersoe on guitars. This is a revelatory project: Duke University commissioned her to create accompanying live music for short silent films that H. Lee Waters shot from 1936-1942 in Kannapolis, North Carolina and nearby towns. The footage is a valuable document of everyday life — for the town’s blacks and whites, men and women, adults and children — during some tough years. That’s valuable enough, but Waters also experimented with film technique, giving the end result an avant-garde dimension.
Lyrically, Scheinman’s accompanying songs dwelled on the subject of anti-nostalgia; they sometimes seemed to be commenting on our act of watching rather than on what we saw. I’m not sure the film needed that extra conceptual layer, but her melodies were striking. Fulks’ solo number, “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine,” from his album Gone Away Backwards, was especially strong.
The Saturday night concert at the historic Tennessee Theater (above), celebrating its 90th year and so spectacular in scale that it’s the state’s official theater, is the marquee time-slot for Big Ears. This year, that slot was occupied by Diamanda Galas, a daring choice.
Dressed in black, with long black hair and the deepest, gravest voice imaginable, she is a Goth for the ages, but she’s also something more. Whereas “Goth” was a music trend of the New Wave 1980s, an atmospherically gloomy attitude that was a form of youthful romanticism, Galas treated it as a worldview of life-and-death urgency. Her severe singing became a requiem for those lost to AIDS, a cry to not forget.
Now, at age 62 and playing the piano solo before a reasonably large crowd in the 1,600-seat theater, she chose and then vocally deconstructed her songs to make sure listeners got the full gravitas of their sadness, fear, loss, despair. Yet the show was not a downer — her artful control, her knack for heightening a song’s inherent tension, is too enthralling. She’s a radical interpreter of pop music. She began with the traditional country song, “Pictures from Life’s Other Side,” popularized by Hank Williams (who recorded it as Luke the Drifter). She followed with B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” virtually stripped of the familiar melody in order to emphasize the stark desperation inherent in the title. She later did Johnny Paycheck’s “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” perfect for her oeuvre.
But the highlight was a long, moaning and hypnotic version of Ralph Stanley’s “O Death,” drawn out like Patty Waters’ jazz vocals of the 1960s. To paraphrase one of Joni Mitchell’s most famous lines, Galas stokes the grief-making machinery of the popular song. She’s a national treasure, speaking truth to that popularity.
My Saturday night ended late — at the Bijou, the Rova saxophone quartet, along with a small orchestra of additional players including percussionist Baptiste, guitarist Cline, rockin’ synthesizer/electronics player Yuka Honda and more, began their “electric” version of John Coltrane’s 1966 cosmic Free Jazz classic Ascension at midnight and didn’t end until close to 1:30 a.m. It was a “reimaging” of the work — players were free to riff on the work in-between the beginning and end. The most remarkable thing about this, aside from the pure space-is-the-place otherworldliness of the untethered work, was the way you could hear every player, despite the volume. The mix was perfect.
After it was over, I walked back to my hotel and found a well-dressed older man in the lobby, clutching two fluff dogs — one in each arm — to his chest. I thought I was hallucinating, after that Rova’s set. I still think I might have been.
Photos courtesy of Cora Edwards, Eli Johnson, LK Feliu, Andy Vinson. (Individual credits can be viewed in the photo titles.)
Whether taking underground metal by storm with its madly creative sophomore album The Formulas of Death or reinvigorating death ‘n’ roll with the brutal but catchy The Children of the Night, Tribulation has made a lot of waves for a death metal band. After two major recorded statements in a row, the Swedish quartet already has a hell of a legacy to live up to on Down Below (Century Media), album 4. Demonstrating the band’s commitment to songcraft, “Nightbound” and “The Lament” set the scene with melodic metal as indebted to early 80s NWoBHM acts like Angel Witch as Luciferian death metal pioneers like Entombed. With atmospheric interludes and an emphasis on keyboards, Tribulation’s prog leanings reassert themselves boldly on “Lacrimosa” and “Here Be Dragons,” the latter an epic sure to be a concert staple in years to come. Bassist Johannes Andersson maintains the most articulate necrotic growl this side of Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt, while guitarists Adam Zaars and Jonathan Hultén burst with riffs and textures that demonstrate a wider awareness of rock than merely headbanger’s delights. There’s a serious goth rock jones working its way through the quartet’s system here, especially in the lyrics, which might be a turn-off to anyone outside the realm of black eyeliner and brooding. (It explains the band’s penchant for covering the Cure, though.) Plus the quartet’s relentless forward motion on past LPs makes the record feel a bit like spinning wheels, without the leap forward (or sideward) one might expect. Still, there’s nothing wrong with Tribulation consolidating its strengths, and Down Below is sure to end up on lots of top ten lists at years’ end.
Tribulation’s countryfreaks in Watain also garnered a lot of attention from outside the metal world with its previous album, 2013’s expansive, highly crafted The Wild Hunt. Now that eyes not covered in corpsepaint are upon them, the quintet responds with Trident Wolf Eclipse (Century Media), an album of raw black metal that recalls the savagery of early efforts like Lawless Darkness. As beastly as “Furor Diabolicus” and “Sacred Damnation” sound, however, they’re not crude replicas of old school slash ‘n’ thrash. Leader Erik Danielsson and his latest coven evolved into more sophisticated songwriters over the years, and haven’t abandoned their compositional dexterity in pursuit of Trve Cvlt Metal – they’ve just turbocharged it with the carnivorous mania and demonic horsepower of the original wave of Nordic devil-chasers. Old school Watain fans may see this as a step backward (or a return to roots, depending on perspective), but fans only recently along for the ride may be pleasantly surprised.
Five long years have passed since Austin/Dallas deathgrinders Mammoth Grinder have laid down the hurting on poor innocent ears. Maybe that explains why the band’s fourth LP Cosmic Crypt (Relapse) sounds like a rage-soaked dragon escaping its cave for the first time in millennia. Leader Chris Ulsh (who also drums the hell out of Power Trip) leads bassist Mark Bronzino (who also guitars in Iron Reagan) and drummer Ryan Parrish (also of Darkest Hour) through a maelstrom of hellfire riffs, boulder-shattering rhythms and craggy roars that would grind any unsuspecting miscreant to fine dust. Picking a favorite is like deciding which body blow was the most effective at snapping your spine, but “Locusts Nest,” “Molotov” and the perfectly titled “Blazing Burst” will separate the old farts from the young ‘ns pretty quickly.
A couple of years ago, Hooded Menace unleashed a lumbering hellbeast of a record called Darkness Drips Forth, alerting the wider world to its eldritch presence. Now the fiendish Finnish foursome follows up with the mouthful that is Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed (Season of Mist), its fifth album. As with its breakthrough, the band fills the grooves with crushing doom/death. What might normally be soaring melodies slow down to a crawl, as if being dragged under the earth’s crust by mole people. Drums pound nails into foreheads with deliberate sloth, while some sort of feral beast slowed down to half-speed roars about “Sempiternal Grotesqueries” and a “Cathedral of Labyrinthine Darkness.” Despite the hallucinatory fog, however, actual melodies do emerge, seething in your ear like an evil fairy that flits away when you turn your head. Savage yet graceful, Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed makes no concessions to affability but still evolves into a more attractive monster.
The Atlas Moth has evolved into one of metal’s most interesting bands, and that’s not meant as a backhanded compliment. The Chicago quintet is one of the most wideranging and versatile in extreme metal, defying stereotypes by treating death metal, black metal, prog metal, doom, psychedelic hard rock and hardcore as the facets of the same gem. Coma Noir (Prosthetic), the band’s fourth album and first in four years, leans more towards the extreme side of its personality, with leader Stavros Giannopoulos turning in some lungbusting screams against a thick wall of distortion. But, as usual, atmospheric synths, shifting dynamics, clean vocals and a penchant for anthemic melodies add varying light and shade to the Moth’s madness. “The Streets of Bombay” roars like a hurricane when it doesn’t flow like lava; “Galactic Brain” shoots off into space before crashing into the nearest comet. “Smiling Knife” starts with proggy hammer-ons before loping like a buffalo across the plains, while “Chloroform” begins with a NWoBHM requiem prior to breaking the spell with raging crunge. “Actual Human Blood” brings roiling thrash into the equation without sounding at all like it’s trying to bring back the eighties. “Furious Gold” puts Giannopoulos’ sanity-shredding shriek right up against guitarist David Kush’s melodic rasp, the vocalists battling it out over tuneful pound that’s still heavy as a dead dinosaur. Stem to stern, Coma Noir is both the Moth’s most forbidding and its most accessible LP so far.
A far more straightforward prog/extreme proposition, Howling Sycamore makes an impact on its self-titled debut (Prosthetic). Musical mastermind Davide Tiso (guitarist for weirdo metal icon Ephel Duath) recruited drummer Hannes Grossman (Necrophagist, Obscura), guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia, Gorguts) and saxophonist Bruce Lamont (Yakuza, Corrections House, Led Zeppelin 2) to lay down a storm of complex, knotty noise that takes inspiration for the complicated end of death metal as much as it does from the 70s. The biggest surprise is the addition of singer Jason McMaster (Dangerous Toys, Broken Teeth), wailing into the cosmos like he hasn’t done since he fronted prog/tech metal pioneer WatchTower back in the Reagan years. Brutal yet light on their feet, “Ostinate Pace” and “Midway” crush buildings like Godzilla during a surprisingly graceful dance number, while “Chant of Stillness” enters ballad territory without sacrificing the band’s thrust. Quite impressive.
The strain of classic metal purveyed by Visigoth, all swords, dragons and manly men doing manly things whilst wrapped in loincloths, sounds almost quaint, even goofy today. Yet it works when performed with enough conviction, and the Salt Lake City quintet has that in spades on its second album Conqueror’s Oath (Metal Blade). Guitarists Jamison Palmer and Leeland Campana unleash riffs that focus on catchiness more than complexity, while rhythm section Mikey T. and Matt Brotherton rampage like an army of giants. But the heart of the band is singer Jake Rogers, whose magnificent pipes and complete lack of irony will have you reaching for your battleaxe. From the fist-raising anthems “Warrior Queen” and “Steel and Silver” to the speed-demon rumble of “Blades in the Night” and “Outlive Them All” and the rolling good times of “Salt City,” Visigoth flails the heck out of every note with the skill of experts and the zeal of true believers.
The mighty Corrosion of Conformity rumbles on after three decades-plus, and the Raleigh, NC quartet’s tenth album No Cross No Crown (Nuclear Blast) shows no signs of slowdown. Unsurprising given the return of singer/guitarist Pepper Keenan, NCNC revisits the band’s patented Southern rock/doom metal hybrid, last heard on 2005 In the Arms of God, with a vengeance. Sounding fired up after so much time off (well, sort of – he’d been playing, but not singing, in Down), Keenan turns in a ferocious set of performances, singrowling like it’s his last session on Earth. Guitarist Woody Weatherman, bassist Mike Dean and drummer Reed Mullin respond with backdrops oozing with riffs and rhythms that bespeak as much familiarity with Iron Maiden as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Black Sabbath. There’s something refreshingly meat-and-potatoes about “Cast the First Stone,” “Wolf Named Crow” and “Forgive Me” – they’re unapologetically hard rockin’, no frills required.
Even more full of battery acid and bitter coffee than before, Wrong returns with Feel Great (Relapse), the follow-up to its splendid debut. Bass and drums dance a hardcore-inflected four-step on your tailbone while a pair of guitars grind staccato grunge riffs and hack-and-slash noise rock solos against each other like two exes’ prelude to a hate fuck. Vocalist Eric Hernandez seethes and mutters, as if he’s trying to fit in with the rest of the idiots but might have been released from the institution a bit too soon. From the blasted sludge of “Upgrade” and the crossover whipcrack of “Crawl Instead” to the stunted anthemry of “Come Apart/Medn” and the jackhammer kung fu of “Pustule,” Wrong revels in tension and release, inviting as much lighter-waving commiseration as wild-eyed slamdancing. Wrong will rule the world someday – we’re sure of it.
We’ve covered Windhand and Satan’s Satyrs in these pages before, but given the former’s atmospheric, leisurely paced doom and the latter’s irreverent garage metal, we’d have never guessed that the bands would share a self-titled split (Relapse). Sure enough, though, here we are. The thing both groups have in common is a (n un)healthy interest in the creepy horror flick aesthetic of the 60s and 70s underground. So the contrast between the acid witch heaviosity of Windhand’s “Old Evil” and “Three Sisters” isn’t as far off from the Satyrs’ freak rawkin’ “Succubus” and “Alucard AD 2018” (plus a cheeky take on Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby”) as you might think. Does this mean a joint tour isn’t far behind?
Sometimes metal is at its best after it’s dropped a whole lotta blotters. Octopus, a dynamic quintet out of Detroit, gets that on its debut Supernatural Alliance (Rise Above). Led by powerhouse vocalist Masha Marjieh and guitarist J Frezzatto (ex-Electric Six!) and including ex-Big Chief bassist Matt O’Brien, the band soaks hard riffs and otherworldly atmospheres in wah-wah guitars, out-of-phase tones, grimy organ and a general sense of the children having pillaged the psychedelic pantry a few times before hitting the studio. Heavier than your average 70s-worshipping gang of stoners, but more colorful than unrefined metallic sludge, “Strike,” “The Center” and “Sword and the Stone” will rattle your lobes and juice your ‘nads.
Psychedelic Witchcraft count themselves as fellow travelers on Sound of the Wind (Listenable), the Florence, Italy band’s third record. Vocalist Virginia Monti and her crew of occultists can wax drifty and mysterious (cf. the title track), but kick out the jams quite nicely on “Wild We Go,” “Rising On the Edge” and “Lords of the War.”
Swedish ensemble JIRM (formerly trading under the ridiculous moniker Jeremy Irons and the Ratgang Malibus) also mixes psych into its metal on third LP Surge ex Monumentis (Small Stone). Singer/guitarist Karl Apelmo wails with absolute abandon, and the rest of the quartet supports his zeal with a mountain of speaker-vibrating accompaniment. “The Cultist” boogies like a child of the grave after an acid-spiked alt.rock cocktail, while “Dig” and “Tombs Arise” reach to the heavens with wings the size of Rodan’s. “The Nature of the Damned” expertly balances lush textures with amp-frying volume, pushing Apelmo to even greater dramatic heights. Without losing the lysergic elements, JIRM cranks up the overall heaviness to an epic sweep here, like Tool gone NWoBHM. A magnificent achievement.
Fourteen long years have passed since we last heard from Zeke. But Seattle’s greatest punk metal wackos have lost none of their spit, fire or rage in their time off. Hellbender (Relapse) takes no prisoners, roaring through its fifteen songs in twenty minutes, somehow avoiding blurriness and leaving every riff and tune intact. Axeslinger Kyle Whitewood spurts out solos that would give Kerry King fits, while longtime lead throat Blind Marky Felchtone still sounds like he gargles battery acid before every vocal session. “Working Man,” “Two Lane Blacktop” and “Devil’s Night” would snap the neck of the most dedicated headbanger, but said hesher would be grinning wildly all the way to the hospital. Though nowhere near as savage, fellow travelers Against the Grain smash plenty of bricks on its way to having Cheated Death (Ripple Music). The Detroit quartet’s fourth record continues to mash Motörhead and Thin Lizzy into its hometown hardcore and power rock, with a little Kiss thrown in for good measure. Waxing blazing (“Going Down Fast,” “No Sleep”) and soulful (“Devils and Angels,” “Smoke”) by turns, AtG waves lighters only to throw them in your face.
The never-resting Melvins waste no time in following up last year’s A Walk With Love & Death with Pinkus Abortion Technician (Ipecac), another LP throwing a spotlight on the four-stringers in their midst. This time (as opposed to 2016’s Basses Loaded) the honor roll is cut down to two: regular bottom feeder Steven McDonald and special guest Jeff Pinkus, leader of Honky, erstwhile member of the Butthole Surfers (whose Locust Abortion Technician gets tributed by the title) and frequent Melvs collaborator/fill-in bassist. The disk opens with “Stop Moving to Florida,” a mashup of the James Gang’s “Stop” and the Buttholes’ “Moving to Florida” that’s one of the flat-out boogieist things the long-running band has ever put to tape/wax/bytes. But that’s just the tip of the mudberg, with the Melvs/Surfers amalgam delving into acoustic-to-electric doom folk (“Flamboyant Duck”), blink-and-you’ll miss it thrash punk (“Embrace the Rub”), oatmeal cinnamon psychedelia (“Don’t Forget to Breathe”), a loving Beatles desecration (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) and, of course, the band’s usual grunge ‘n’ roll (“Prenup Butter,” “Break Bread”). The record ends, appropriately, with a grinding bash through the Surfers’ sludge metal tribute/pisstake “Graveyard.” Maybe it’s just us, but the Melvins seem to be on a years-long hot streak, and Pinkus Abortion Technician doesn’t break it.
When Kyle Shutt of the Sword put together his Doom Side of the Moon project (which, for those who missed it, is exactly what it sounds like: an acid metal version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), he managed one show before turning his attention back to his main band. One album from the 70s can’t fill up a whole show, so of course his band played a few non-Dark Side tunes as an encore. The self-explanatory Encore (self-released) grunges through “Have a Cigar,” “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and “Wish You Were Here” with the same mixture of reverence and glee that marked the LP. “Pigs” is an especially inspired choice, given how many classic radio warhorses Shutt could’ve chosen instead, and the rocked-up take on “Wish” blows the dust off and neutralizes the mold.
Though busy with his long-running power trio Blind Idiot God, prepping both new music and a comprehensive reissue program, guitarist Andy Hawkins still found the time to record Prospect of the Deep Volume One (Indivisible), his second album under the name Azonic. Recorded in a day with BIG’s Tim Wyskida on percussion, Hawkins reaches deep (pun intended) into the unconscious for a series of atmospheric improvisations, sculpting tortured riffs and waves of feedback on the fly. Between the sheet metal shreen of Hawkins’ axes and the rumble of Wyskida’s timpani, the pieces explore doom from a different angle than BIG’s usual blood and thunder, showing a different side of Hawkins’ muse and to the concept of heavy rock in general.
Speaking of wordless heaviosity, multi-instrumentalist Dana Schechter returns with her project Insect Ark for second LP Marrow Hymns (Profound Lore), joined by drummer/electronicist Ashley Spungin. Despite the duo’s residences in Portland and Brooklyn, the songs have a decidedly Southwestern feel, as if they were conceived during a long twilight drive through the New Mexico desert. Schechter’s distorted lap steel swoops and howls over rhythms that shift like sand in the wind, imbuing “Sea Harps” and “In the Next” with the ghostly feel of spirits conjured up during a peyote ritual. It’s not a million miles away from fellow soundscapers Earth, though less pastoral and more haunted. Paris’ WuW luxuriate in a similar but more sinister vibe on Rien Ne Nous Sera Épargné (Prosthetic), the duo’s debut album. Multi-instrumentalist brothers Benjamin and Guillame Colin artfully blend acid-tinged doom atmosphere with post rock’s melodic dynamics for a warm blanket of scalding lava that moodily, dreamily rocks.
A Bizarro World spin-off of Finnish improv psych metalheads Circle, the delightfully-named Pharaoh Overlord has a shtick on Zero (Hydra Head). Over motorik-driven, synth-laced heavy psych, a troll (and by troll we mean the big, craggy people-eaters of fantasy literature, not internet assholes) babbles about…something…in a voice so guttural it sounds like a pile of broken rocks grew a larynx. It’s an odd contrast, to say the least, and given song titles like “I Drove All Night by My Solar Stomp” and “Lalibela Cannot Spell Zero,” clearly one intended to bring on eye-rolling smiles. Unfortunately, by the time the album ends, it starts to feel like the troll and the guys furiously acid rocking out behind him are working at cross purposes, sending Pharaoh Overlord to the novelty bin after a couple of spins. Too bad, but there’s always Circle, after all.
The mighty Monster Magnet marches to the beat of its own tom-toms in the heavy rock world, so much so that leader Dave Wyndorf would object to his band’s appearance in a metal column. But that’s what makes this veteran New Jersey act a steady hand on the wheel of roiling rawk riffpound – consistency of vision and will to execute. Which brings us to Mindfucker (Napalm), the twelfth LP in a three-decade odyssey to bring the world back from the brink of non-rock. Easing up on the psychedelicism that’s usually a major part of the music’s DNA, Wyndorf and friends strip down to a Detroit-styled hard rock rampage, getting down and dirty for as much of a goodtime rawk album as is possible in today’s divided social landscape. Being the relatively optimistic dude he is, Wyndorf tries to keep the hedonistic flames burning, but he’s well aware that the water hose could fire off at any moment, which lends some tracks a sense of desperate mania born of fear-fueled adrenalin. Using power chord debauchery to fight back against impending doom is a time-tested way to rock the fuck out, and the Magnet blazes brightly in that vein via “When the Hammer Comes Down,” a wild-eyed cover of Robert Calvert’s “Ejection” and the appropriately-branded “Soul.” Click on the title track first – it sets the tone and lays out the strategy with one of the finest cuts in the band’s long career.