Thursday, October 31, 2013

Album Review: Ghost: Infestissumam

Ghost:  Infestissumam
Label:  Loma Vista Recordings
Released:  April 16, 2013


It's Halloween - my favorite holiday!  It's the most elemental and basically human, and therefore the most fun - the single day of the year when children of all ages can collectively indulge, without shame, in their goofy superstitions, wish fulfillment, and identity reinvention.  This is the currency and language of the blues and rock & roll, and of course. . . .the devil himself.  From Robert Johnson to the Rolling Stones, Beelzebub and rock & roll have been thick as thieves.

Black Sabbath made the demonic connection even more explicit in 1970 when they modeled their entire aesthetic on their favorite horror films and opened their debut album with an ominous guitar riff whose harmonic progression is based on the infamous "tritone," regarded since antiquity as diabolus in musica ("the devil in music").  From then on, Lucifer and camp horror have been staples of heavy rock music - taken to their absolute limits by extreme genres like death metal and black metal.

In recent years, as the darker genres of metal became overly austere and insular, a void was created for a band to slow things down and bring back some of the mystery, spectacle, and fun espoused by many of the originals:  Black Sabbath, Kiss, Alice Cooper, and King Diamond.  Scandinavia, with its cold temperatures and long nights, has been a breeding ground for "satanic" metal for decades, so it's only natural that Sweden would birth the six-piece "satanic" metal band Ghost.

Ghost take on the elaborate visual style of the Catholic church and their members are entirely anonymous (some astute Google sleuthing reveals more, but I won't spoil the fun).  Frontman, Papa Emeritus II, wears the attire of a villainous pope with a prosthetic skull for a face, while the rest of the band, known as Nameless Ghouls, wear carnival masks and hooded monk outfits.  Though one might expect the band to have a harsh sound, with ghastly vocals, the opposite is in fact the case.  They get about as heavy as vintage Sabbath or Blue Oyster Cult, with clean melodic vocals and ear-worm hooks that'll have you singing long after the LP is over.

Metal fans who worship at the bloody altars of more extreme genres might puke over this relatively lightweight stuff (and there has been some backlash in the metal blogosphere) but, honestly, who's more likely to be Satan incarnate at this point, Robin Thicke with his ubiquitous top-40 pop jingles and soccer-mom fan base, or some has-been boogyman like Marilyn Manson only your thirteen year-old kid fully appreciates?  Maybe Ghost just split the difference, but their true spirit guide is certainly Gene Simmons what with all the crazy merch these guys peddle.  Care for a Ghost bikini, or a Ghost dildo?  They've got you covered.

Ghost hit the scene with a splash in late 2010 with their debut album Opus Eponymous, featuring sweet artwork inspired by the poster art for 1979 TV horror series Salem's Lot.  Whereas that album stuck to the minimal, spooky vibes of mid '70's Sabbath, their sophomore album, Infestissumam, expands the band's theatrical sound considerably (naturally, the artwork references 1984 film Amadeus).  Kicking off with a full Gregorian choir singing the dark lord's praises in Latin, Infestissumam slips easily in and out of epic sing-along anthems, buttressed with triumphant go-for-broke Meat Loaf-esque arrangements and super-glossy production.  This stuff is ready-made for Broadway.

Early single "Secular Haze" is basically a church-organ led waltz punctuated by the occasional palm-muted guitar (this is supposed to be "metal" after all), while batshit "Ghuleh/Zombie Queen" blows up the whole Ghost template.  The track begins as a tearful piano ballad with new-age Vangelis synth layered on top.  As brash hair-metal guitar noodling threatens to derail the whole cheese-ball affair, the track tacks hard left, immediately shifting into a shimmering surf-rock jam fit for Gidget's upbeat Halloween beach party - hosted by an undead Dick Dale on guitar.  Yeah, it's that good.  But just before you get carried away with sunny vibes and thoughts of hot reanimated babes, Ghost remind you exactly who this album is really about.

The album's centerpiece, "Year Zero," begins ominously with a choral chant listing some of el diablo's many aliases:  "Belial/ Behemoth/ Beelzebub/ Asmodeus/ Satanas/ Lucifer!"  This devilish disco cut is vaguely reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails' "Heresy" from The Downward Spiral, a track similarly critical of the Christian church (coincidentally, Year Zero is also the title of NIN's fifth studio album).  This memorable ditty is plenty blasphemous, but album closer "Monstrous Clock" is the icing on the devil's food cake (I couldn't resist) - ending the LP with the massive coed choral recitation "Come together/ Together as one/ Come together/ for Lucifer's son!"  It's really quite lovely, but I doubt it'll end up on many church choir set lists this holiday season.

Though there are some naughty themes and sacrilegious lyrics on Infestissumam it's all about as frightening and offensive as watching The Omen in broad daylight.  The occult and the macabre have permeated every inch of popular western entertainment in recent years.  Wizards, vampires, witches, demons, and zombies - people can't get enough!  With all the real-life doom and gloom people endure everyday, is it any wonder they're drawn to this kind of escapism in books, television, and film - to fantastic worlds of horror, danger, mystery, and sex?  That's all familiar territory for fans of rock & roll music.

For Ghost, it's Halloween every day and, though the gimmick won't last, the band does have a fail-safe.  Ghost plan to inaugurate a new "Papa" for every new album (really, the same guy with a different mask), thereby giving the band the opportunity to reinvent itself a limitless number of times.  Once you've spent your Halloween costume this year, there's still plenty of fun in dreaming up another for next year.  I wonder what new flavors the next "Papa" will bring to Ghost's metal mixture.  Rockabilly?  Glam?  Punk?  One thing's for sure, the devil will be in the details.   Happy Halloween!    

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Live Show Review: Disclosure, T. Williams - 10/28/13

Disclosure, T. Williams
Date:  October 28, 2013
Venue:  930 Club, Washington, DC

As a former rave/club kid and DJ, now in his mid-thirties with a respectable office gig, I can say it's a glorious thing when a dance/electronic act starts and finishes before midnight.  For that alone, I salute Disclosure and opening DJ, T. Williams, who played a sold-out show at the 930 Club last night.  For those unaware, Disclosure are a UK house music production duo (specializing in the "garage," "funky," and "deep" varieties), while T. Williams, also from the UK, has DJ'd these styles for a decade plus (notably, for influential UK radio station Rinse FM). 

Disclosure "face" the music.

T. Williams was already well into his set when we arrived at the venue, enveloping the sweaty crowd in concussive 4/4 house rhythms.  I was immediately taken back to my early days at Buzz (the infamous 1990's rave night held at the, now demolished, Capital Ballroom), where modestly attired DJ's mixed vinyl in dark unadorned rooms with just a few strobes for effect.  Only the beats mattered.

As a longtime devotee of UK club culture and musical styles (the "hardcore continuum"), experiencing Williams' uniquely British twist on house firsthand was a treat - jungle's chunky bass lines, garage's soaring vocal hooks, 2-step's nimble syncopation, and dubstep's fuck-off attitude.  This was not your ironic post-punk hipster house, but an unapologetic filthy variant drawing directly from house music's roots in gay, black, and Latino club culture.           

T. Williams crushing it on the decks.

It was on last year's Rinse Vol. 21, mixed beautifully by T. Williams', that I first heard Disclosure - with their 2-step gem "My Intention is War (Fig II)."  However, I'd only paid real attention when I heard that Disclosure's debut album Settle went straight to number one in the UK charts this past June, beating out my favorite rock band Queens of the Stone Age for that glory.  I had to look into this.

Disclosure are an impossibly young pair of brothers (Guy, 19, and Howard Lawrence, 22) who draw heavily from late 90's UK garage and 2-step - genres that peaked in Britain when these kids were 6 and 9, respectively.  Despite some backlash in the underground, it's easy to forget that every new generation naturally draws from the past, and Disclosure are no different.  It's just uncanny how they pick up right were Artful Dodger, Wookie, and MJ Cole left off thirteen years ago.   

Disclosure - "When a Fire Starts to Burn"

The last time a UK house music production duo got this much global attention, this quickly, was in 1999 when Basement Jaxx released their debut Remedy, an act I was fortunate enough to see live at the 930 Club when they toured their excellent 2001 album Rooty.  Whereas the Jaxx played down their light show to showcase the myriad singers who lent vocals to Rooty, I was disappointed that Disclosure did the opposite.  I had assumed Disclosure would bring along their vocal collaborators for their American tour, but maybe in this day and age of DJing from inside a pyramid, they needed every inch of space on the plane/tour bus for all that gear.


Ultimately, watching the baby-faced pair enthusiastically bang out their anthemic hits was entertainment enough.  One brother capably handled percussion, while the other occasionally plucked a bass guitar.  Both sang and utilized a battery of synthesizers and laptops and, though a cynic might assume the sound was entirely piped-in off a hard drive, I could definitely hear slight errors in the timing of triggered loops and sound effects indicating some level of spontaneous live performance. 

In any case, the brothers Lawrence played a simultaneously unpretentious and transcendental set including gems from Settle, like the ear-worm track of the summer "When a Fire Starts to Burn" (fuck "Get Lucky"), and the infectious "White Noise," "Latch," and "F For You," with lesser-known sonic tangents between.  With the place literally packed to the rafters, air thick and steamy, with bass so heavy I could see my beer slide across the bar-top, I'm happy to say Disclosure truly impressed.  Can't wait for the next round.   

Monday, October 28, 2013

Live Show Review: Kylesa, Pinkish Black - 10/26/13

Kylesa, Pinkish Black
Date:  October 26, 2013
Venue:  Empire, Springfield, VA

Savannah, Georgia, sludge-metal veterans Kylesa rocked Springfield, Virginia, this past weekend - with doom-synth duo Pinkish Black in tow.  I made my first ever trek out to Empire, formerly Jaxx, located in a nondescript strip-mall forty minutes out in the 'burbs next to a kabob house, carpet store, and a nail salon.  A bit surreal for a city slicker used to cabbing hastily through congested urban avenues for shows, but even on a Saturday night there was plenty of free parking, cheap beer, and friendly bar staff.

Kylesa:  Laura Pleasants, Chase Rudeseal, and Phillip Cope
I missed openers Caustic Casanova and Sierra, but arrived just in time to catch Texas natives Pinkish Black.  Comprised of a very capable Jon Teague on drums and Daron Beck on keyboards and vocals, these guys have received a lot of attention in the indie-rock and metal blogospheres recently - in part because they ditch the guitars for groaning synthesizers, and for the gruesome nature of their origin.

Pinkish Black:  Jon Teague and Daron Beck
Pinkish Black formed as a duo in 2011 from the ashes of their former trio The Great Tyrant, after bass player Tommy Atkins committed suicide (apparently quite violently).  The band put out their self-titled debut last year and just released their sophomore LP Razed to the Ground.  Combining the goth aesthetic of Bauhaus and Joy Division with the epic doom of Black Sabbath, the duo pounded out a short set of spooky operatic cuts.  Not bad, but not terribly exciting either.

Heavy metal calisthenics - "up!"
Kylesa soon took the stage, opening with the ferocious "Scapegoat" from their masterpiece 2009 album Static Tensions, sending the crowd into fits of unruly head-banging.  Comprised of co-founders Laura Pleasants and Phillip Cope sharing guitar and vocal duties, Chase Rudeseal on bass, and Carl McGinley and Eric Hernandez on two drum kits (like The Melvins), Kylesa are still in the midst of touring their newest album Ultraviolet.  

"and down!"
Ultraviolet, released earlier this year, continues Kylesa's sonic trajectory from high speed hardcore punk infused sludge-metal to groovier prog and psychedelic territory (similar to Georgian compatriots Mastodon and Baroness).  As such, the band reached deep into its back-catalogue only a few times, provoking a mosh-pit for vicious numbers like "Hollow Severer" from 2006's Time Will Fuse its Worth.

Phillip Cope keeping things creepy on the theremin, plus skateboard guitar!
Otherwise, Kylesa leaned on headier, but no less heavy, tracks from more recent albums like 2010's awesome Spiral Shadow.  Cope made good use of his homemade mad-scientist sound rig, built with a battery of effects pedals, theremin, and his trademark "skateboard guitar."  Cuts like "Don't Look Back" and "To Forget" kept the audience in rabid motion.  Even the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters showed up to thrash around in the pit.  Evil demigods and humans alike, good times were had by all.  Kylesa can't come back soon enough - just remember, don't cross the streams!

Evil deity Gozer appears in the pit, as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Heads up! Skeletonwitch & Russian Circles full-album streams.

Heads up!  Skeletonwitch & Russian Circles full-album streams.

Skeletonwitch & Russian Circles, two awesome metal bands from opposite ends of the sonic spectrum, with new albums dropping next week - streaming in-full now on Pitchfork Advance. 

Skeletonwitch:  Serpents Unleashed - blackened thrash from Athens, Ohio, with scene titans Kurt Ballou and John Baizley together again on production and album artwork, respectively.  Not for the faint of heart.  Just in time for Halloween - this one's a killer. 

Listen now  

Russian Circles:  Memorial - epic post-metal (soundtrack-y instrumentals) from Chicago with crisp, spacious production by Brandon Curtis (frontman of the underrated prog/space-rock band Secret Machines).  Loving that classy album art too.

Listen now

Monday, October 21, 2013

Live Show Review: The Dismemberment Plan - 10/19/13 & 10/20/13

The Dismemberment Plan
Date:  October 19 & October 20, 2013
Venue:  930 Club, Washington, DC

Local indie rock heroes The Dismemberment Plan just came out of decade-long retirement, released new album Uncanney Valley, and played a couple shows at the 930 Club this past weekend.  Between 2000 and 2003, during the band's popular and critical peak after releasing their seminal Emergency and I and around the time they put out Change, I must've seen 'em live at the Black Cat or Fort Reno over a dozen times - even a rad secret show they put on as "Last Train to Marseilles" (from the lyrics to their early tune "If I Don't Write").  This wasn't exactly Phish-levels-of-frequency, but at that time (and really, to this day) The Plan were the single band I saw and relished live the most.  

Left to right:  Eric Axelson, Travis Morrison, Joe Easley, Jason Caddell
Despite holding the crown as DC's best-loved hometown band at the time (Fugazi were on the way out, playing few local shows - and frankly weren't nearly as fun), The Plan never was booked (to my knowledge) as a headliner at the 1,200 person capacity 930 Club until their sold-out "farewell" gig on September 1, 2003 (also, later, a couple sold-out reunion shows in 2011).

Maybe The Plan really are better suited for a smaller club like the Black Cat - where their screwball living-room dance party act works best.  The Saturday gig sold out of course, but the Sunday gig was attended sparsely - about half the crowd from the night prior.  Very weird - maybe it was the "Pitchfork curse" again, or the fact that most of their original heyday fans likely regard watching The Good Wife on CBS after putting their toddlers to bed a more sensible option for Sunday evening entertainment.

The traditional dance-party-on-stage bit for "The Ice of Boston" 
As expected, Saturday night found the band in high spirits as their full throttle set went over like gangbusters.  Motormouth frontman Travis Morrison blasted through a plethora of classic fan-favorites and new cuts off Uncanny Valley with firecracker backup from Jason Caddell dutifully on guitar and ever-beastly rhythm section Eric Axelson swinging his bass like a pendulum and Joe Easley like a mad octopus on drums.  Always the brainy goofball, Morrison frequently bantered with the audience and intro'd new track "White Collar White Trash" by ad-libbing a pretty hilarious new "Northern Virginian white suburbanite" version of DJ Kool's shout-out from "Let Me Clear My Throat" ("now, all the ladies in the place. . .").      

Sunday night was equally gonzo with a slightly tweaked set list, notwithstanding the much smaller crowd (again, what the hell DC?).  Maybe that's why Morrison broke after the opening tune to peddle some new merch - bringing up two audience-members to model t-shirts and brandish logo'd mugs after making a "whoa, this show's a sausage party" crack.  Couldn't quite tell if the typically affable Morrison was genuinely peeved from then on, calling that same audience member a "dumbfuck" for breaking his free mug and repeatedly ribbing Axelson for a finger injury that had him bleeding on his bass and keyboard (for the art, for the art!).

Of course, it wouldn't be a Dismemberment Plan show without a lengthy improvised version of "OK Jokes Over" with Morrison (ever the pop music aficionado) doing a wild tongue-in-cheek mid-song rendition of whatever the big top-40 tune of the day is.  Naturally, we got Lorde's "Royals" - which did bring a smile to my face.  I immediately remembered when he did Tweet's "Oops Oh My" in 2002.  Ah, time sure flies.  Welcome back Dismemberment Plan - stay for a while.   

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Live Show Review: Nine Inch Nails - 10/18/13

Nine Inch Nails
Date:  October 18, 2013
Venue:  Verizon Center, Washington, DC

Nine Inch Nails returned to the Verizon Center last night and, as expected, proceeded to blow the roof off the place.  This was the 14th stop on their North American "Tension 2013" arena tour, showcasing an overhauled and expanded stage show - building on their recent and comparatively minimal, Talking Heads inspired, festival tour show.

Trent Reznor (center).  Get your damn jazz-hands up!
Trent Reznor and crew ran through a satisfyingly lengthy set featuring many new tracks from their recent album Hesitation Marks, peppered with older fan-favorites.  Always putting on a live extravaganza unmatched by most touring bands today, cooked up by longtime NIN art-director Rob Sheridan, a complex stage setup of hanging lamps, retractable LED screens, and visual projections was in constant motion - transforming every song into a new visual spectacle. 

Just in case you forgot who just rocked your world.
Though Hesitation Marks is largely thin on live-instrumentation, constructed mostly on a skeletal framework of drum machines and synthesizers, in a live context these newer tracks took on new life.  Now supported by two gospel-choir backup singers, a la Rolling Stones, Reznor led the band through awesome renditions of new booty-shaker "Satellite" and the Prince-level-of-funky "All Time Low" - an album cut I had struggled to appreciate fully before, but am now convinced will be a future tour classic. 

Ooh, pretty red screens.
Apart from obvious old-school sing-along classics "March of the Pigs," "Wish," and "Head Like A Hole" I was pleasantly surprised to see that more recent "sober-Trent" tracks like "The Hand That Feeds" and "Survivalism" got the black-leather clad crowd frothed up in equally aggressive fashion.  Strangely, the band never did play their biggest and naughtiest hit, "Closer," but did play the rare "The Big Come Down" from The Fragile - a personal favorite.    

Closer "Hurt" featuring that same creepy snake from every show since '94.
I was hoping to bust out my best Carlton dance to a live version of their wacky and absurdly upbeat "Everything" (reminiscent of a jangly mid-80's Cure) from Hesitation Marks, but alas it did not make the Verizon Center setlist and has yet to be showcased live anywhere (as far as I know).  Jokes aside, I'm convinced that tune would be a real monster played live.  Maybe next time.  Reznor drew big cheers from the audience after pausing to speak momentarily, recounting the first time he played DC with Nine Inch Nails - opening for Skinny Puppy at the old 930 Club in 1988.  From DC's tiniest clubs to its biggest arenas, Nine Inch Nails has been going strong for 25 years.  Here's to 25 more.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Album Review: Kvelertak: Meir

Kvelertak:  Meir
Label:  Roadrunner
Released:  March 26, 2013


Is it strange that as I hurtle through my mid-thirties, more than two decades after picking up my first "rock" album (Nirvana's Nevermind), my taste in guitar music leans shamelessly toward "metal"?  Shouldn't I be well onto mature fare by now - Bon Iver or Grizzly Bear perhaps?  No thanks - not quite yet.  Even Kurt Cobain, often paralyzed by the same self-conscious modesty that plagues today's wet-noodle rockers, had to admit Nirvana's primary musical influences were the Beatles and Black Sabbath.  The catchy, and the crushing. 

The essence and power of rock & roll is in the primal, the untamed, and the provocative - the very name itself is a euphemism for "sex."  The sonic frenzy and unhinged antics of the genre's founders - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others - bares little resemblance to much of what passes for rock today.  That is, except metal - a diehard rock sub-genre, born at the implosion of flower-power in the late 60's, that boils rock & roll down to its dark fundamentals and amplifies the audiovisual assault.

Metal itself is a complex musical ecosystem with countless sub-genres and subcultures of its own.  When navigating its vast landscape it helps to have a few touchstones.  In recent years two of mine have been visual artist (and Baroness frontman) John Baizley, and prolific metal producer Kurt Ballou.  The former is responsible for some of my favorite album artwork in metal, while the latter produced three of my favorite metal albums from last year (Black Breath's Sentenced To Life, High on Fire's De Vermis Mysteriis, and Torche's Harmonicraft).  When I heard Ballou produced Kvelertak's new album Meir, featuring cover art by Baizley, I took the bait. 

Kvelertak ("stranglehold" in Norwegian) is a six-piece metal band from Stevanger, Norway.  Their style is loosely termed "black & roll" - a combination of "black metal" (an extreme sub-genre with a soft spot for Satan, popular in Scandinavia) and blue-collar party rock in the style of Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, and Motorhead.  So what the hell does that sound like?  Pretty damn good.  Lead vocalist Erlend Hjelvik howls, screeches, and grunts his vocals with call-and-response backup from the rest of the band - entirely in Norwegian.  I can't understand a single word these knuckleheads are screaming, but I can certainly pump my fist to it.

Kvelertak's self-titled debut (also produced by Ballou, with cover art by Baizley) was released in 2010 and went gold in Norway.  Meir (simply, "more" in Norwegian) is the band's sophomore album and, as the title implies, it's really just a second helping of the same.  Where a fan-from-day-one might be disappointed with Kvelertak's lack of evolution in three years, I suspect many new fans like myself wholeheartedly welcome another heaping plate of balls-to-the-wall rock fury.

Meir's opener, "Apenbaring," builds casually then erupts midway through with Hjelvik unleashing a bloodcurdling "Yaaaaaaow!"  And we're off - triple guitar squall, bass rumbling, and drums pounding.  Kvelertak rarely let up on the gas for the rest of the record's wild ride.  "Trepan" starts out as traditional black metal - eerie tremolo guitar, unsettling demon shriek, urgent blast beats - but gradually morphs into a groovy jam by its conclusion.  Though "Trepan" evolves subtly, other cuts shift gears at breakneck speed - throwing a dozen ideas into the blender at once.

"Evig Vandrar" begins with sprightly acoustic guitar and Hjelvik grunting like a grumpy troll roused from a slumber, another barbaric wail, more crunchy guitar, a bridge recalling Queen's "We Will Rock You," then the whole thing launches into the stratosphere before gingerly returning to earth - all in under three minutes.  "Snilepisk" sprinkles Arabic motifs throughout its short run time, boasting a sweet bridge recalling the "Lawrence of Arabia" title theme, finger cymbals included.

Though chock-full of memorable tunes, Meir's two massive highlights are "Bruane Brenn" and closer "Kvelertak."  The former, a high-octane rocker that has the whole band shouting on the mic, incorporates insistent boogie piano reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age's "Go With The Flow" and (not coincidentally) the aforementioned Jerry Lee Lewis, while the latter is the band's mid-tempo victory anthem, evoking vintage AC/DC, that will definitely get play during sweaty encores when sated fans break from moshing to hoist cans of Pabst skyward in collective salute.     

Meir doesn't quite measure up to Kvelertak's unimpeachable debut and a few lengthy tracks in the latter third overstay their welcome, but it's a killer long-player nonetheless with top-notch production and energy to spare - definitely one of my favorites this year.  Kevelertak merge their extreme metal and feral rock & roll influences deftly and joyfully.  The band is certainly ripe for crossover success like the unapologetically fun and self-confident prog/sludge-metal heroes Mastodon.  Meir is a pure shot of adrenaline that makes me flail around like an idiot, when nobody is watching of course - otherwise, that just wouldn't be sensible for a guy my age.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Live Show Review: James Murphy - 10/4/13

James Murphy
Date:  October 4, 2013
Venue:  930 Club, Washington, DC

LCD Soundsystem founder and retiree James Murphy played a late DJ set at the 930 Club last night.  Despite a posted midnight start time, Murphy didn't man the decks 'til close to 1am (DJs, always late amiright?).  Maybe he was waiting for the room to fill up a little, as attendees seemed to trickle in pretty slowly.  Though the crowd seemed a little thin, the uncharacteristically warm and humid October weather did lend an appropriate atmosphere of "summertime dance party" to the event.

James Murphy (top left)
Perched high above, off-stage on a balcony typically reserved for VIPs and band entourage, Murphy played a set of quirky disco b-sides you swear you know (no, you don't - that track you thought would morph into Madonna's "Holiday" never does) with the occasional Afro-pop or vintage Caribbean jam mixed in - but nothing too syncopated, lest anybody get overexcited on the dance floor and split a seam in their skinny jeans.

At one point Murphy got on the mic and sheepishly explained that he didn't want to perform on the usual stage because people should dance and not stare at the DJ - to a crowd of fans below who continued to stare at him.  Regardless, Murphy dropped a few big tunes including an extended club version of Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and an absolute banger from 1970 called "Exuma, The Obeah Man" (yeah, I had to Shazam that) by Bahamian artist Exuma.  Just goes to show, you don't have to "shut up and play the hits" to rock a DJ set.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Live Show Review: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - 10/2/13

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Date:  October 2, 2013
Venue:  Rams Head Live, Baltimore, MD

Since I'd been working on my review of BRMC's latest album Specter At The Feast earlier this weekI thought it'd be appropriate to hit up their live show at Rams Head Live in Baltimore last night.  I had already attended their sold out 930 Club show in DC this past May, so I was pleasantly surprised by the smaller crowd this time.  In fact, it was an intimate affair by comparison, with plenty of room to move about, rock out, do a little air guitar, or sway and grind with a partner.    

Peter Hayes (left), Leah Shapiro (center), and Robert Levon Been (right)

Yeah, that's right, I had almost forgotten how damn sexy a BRMC show could be.  The focus of my Specter At The Feast album review was on the snotty rawk these guys do so well, but their repertoire is full of great slow jams like "Screaming Gun," "Shade of Blue," and new track "Fire Walker" that served to break up the screeching noise quiet nicely.  
Robert Levon Been (left) and Peter Hayes (right)
The band did play their requisite full throttle hits ("Conscience Killer," "Whatever Happened To My Rock 'n' Roll," and "Six Barrel Shotgun") but a mid-set reprieve with a lone Robert Levon Been on piano teasing out the elegant ballad "Promise" followed by Peter Hayes solo on guitar doing a fantastic acoustic version of "Some Kind of Ghost" was the highlight of the show.     

Robert Levon Been (left), Leah Shapiro (center), and Peter Hayes (right)

I had actually dissed "Some Kind of Ghost" in my Specter At The Feast review, saying it could've been reserved for a b-sides collection, but Hayes' minimal, bluesy dust-bowl acoustic rendition was totally arresting.  It garnered so much hollering and raucous applause from the audience that Hayes couldn't help but flash a rare smile at the song's conclusion.  Just a great moment - and certainly the best of the evening.  All in all a great show.  Can't wait to see 'em again.

Album Review: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Specter at The Feast

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:  Specter At The Feast
Label:  Vagrant
Released:  March 19, 2013


In the summer of '07, as a weird personal exercise, I decided it'd be fun to check out more bands with the word "black" in their name.  There seemed to be a ton of 'em, and having "black" somewhere in there appeared to be code for "rawk!"  I was still on a big Black Sabbath kick from the year prior, and The Black Keys' Magic Potion had been in rotation on the hi-fi too*.  Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had just released their fourth album Baby 81 and I liked the album cover with the sexy Gibson ES-335 on it, splintered and fractured as if to say there was just too much rawk happening here!  I decided to finally check this band out.

BRMC, as they're known to fans who have no time to say the whole damn name, are a greasy three-piece rock band from San Francisco who launched during the garage rock revival of the early 00's.  Comprised of Robert Levon Been and Peter Hayes (a Brian Jonestown Massacre vet) sharing guitar, bass, and vocal duties, and Nick Jago on drums (replaced by Leah Shapiro in '08), these guys really played the part - all black attire, leather jackets, cool disposition, Marlboros hanging off sneered lips, with a minimalist piss n' vinegar sound unheard in rock music for some time (the specter of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park still loomed large).

It's easy to assume that BRMC were second-stringers riding the trendy wave credited to retro-rockers The Strokes and The White Stripes, but their debut, B.R.M.C., dropped in '01 three months prior to the hugely successful Is This It and White Blood Cells.  With a firecracker lead single appropriately called "Whatever Happened To My Rock 'n' Roll," BRMC merit some honest praise for their part in kickstarting the trad-rock renaissance that helped wash away rap-metal.  Turns out they weren't aping The White Stripes or The Strokes, but rather The Velvet Underground, T. Rex, The Jesus & Mary Chain, and The Verve.

BRMC would go on to put out a half-dozen more albums over the years, earnestly incorporating elements of the blues, rockabilly, folk, country, gospel, psych-rock, shoe gaze, and brit pop into their smoldering outlaw jams.  BRMC were a kaleidoscope of great sounds I already loved, and despite the pastiche and affectation, they became one of my favorite bands.

So here we are at BRMC's sixth proper album, Specter At The Feast, released this past spring. The White Stripes are no more, and The Strokes couldn't even muster a tour to support their recent Comedown Machine album release.  BRMC at least deserve a whisky toast for soldiering on.  Informed by the recent passing of Robert Levon Been's father, Michael Been (also frontman of 80's rockers The Call, and later BRMC's live sound engineer and mentor), much of Specter vacillates between mournful sluggishness and the kind of epic hokeyness Bono would endorse.  Goofy sequencing pushes their trademark rawk to the latter half of the album. 

Even at low throttle, Specter At The Feast does improve on the band's last effort, a haggard Beat The Devil's Tattoo from 2010, boasting warm and spacious production immediately apparent on the slow burning opener "Fire Walker" and sentimental one-two combo "Returning" and "Lullaby" fronted by Been on vocals.  Later, Hayes takes lead vocals on the haunting gospel tune "Sometimes The Light" which sounds like it was recorded in an empty cathedral.  Really quite lovely.
Hayes also fronts some of Specter's more vicious rockers.  "Teenage Disease" explodes after the album's midway mark with the buzz-saw guitars and dumb lyrical rancor BRMC are perhaps best loved for:  "I'm a total waste/ I got no social grace/ You better grow yourself a spine/ Or get out of the way!"  Yeah, there's the rawk I was waiting for!  Later the seething "Sell It," my favorite on the album, makes the sentiment more explicit, and sarcastic, with the opening line "I'm mad/ Gonna sell it on a T-shirt" overtop another sinister bassline that Been does so well.  Little wonder "Sell It" soundtracks all manner of badassery in the trailer for Ridley Scott's forthcoming film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Counselor.  I'm sold.     

The biggest surprise on Specter At The Feast, and therefore its brightest highlight, is the band's faithful take on the late Michael Been's "Let The Day Begin."  The original was a minor hit for the elder Been's band The Call in 1989, and was drenched in so much cloying populist optimism Al Gore used it as his presidential campaign song in 2000.  Although the arrangement is unchanged, BRMC, with Robert Levon Been on vocals, add enough dirt and crust to make this version their own.  "Let The Day Begin" is a welcome tribute to Robert's father, and the massive drums and skyward trajectory of the guitar and vocals show that BRMC would be more than capable of commanding arenas if they could just crawl out of the dingy nightclubs.   

Ultimately, Specter At The Feast is a solid effort with some gems included, but large portions of an already bloated album are sequenced poorly and contribute to an overly lethargic pace that doesn't do the band justice.  Some tracks just seem half-baked and self-indulgent - for example, the nearly four minute chain gang shuffle of "Some Kind of Ghost" could have been saved for a post-album addendum like the band did previously with the surprisingly good Howl Sessions and American X:  Baby 81 Sessions. 

Despite Specter At The Feast's flaws and the contrived nature of the band itself (reinforced by that ridiculous name), it's hard for me not to root for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.  In this brave new musical world where the barriers between "pop" and "underground" blur and newer styles like EDM (ie. electronic dance music) supplant rock & roll in the hearts, minds and ears of young people, it's comforting to know that ardent rock bands like BRMC endure - carrying the torch for a rebellious music tradition that first spat in the face of conservative popular culture nearly 60 years ago.  Whatever happened to my rock 'n' roll?  It's alive and well, and here to stay. 

 *  I'd been into The Black Crowes, Black Flag, and Black Moon (hip-hop) as a teen and, shortly after Black Sabbath, The Black Keys and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, got into The Black Angels, Black Mountain, Black Lips, Black Moth Super Rainbow (bizzaro electro-pop), and most recently Black Breath (crushing "death n' roll" style metal).  Like my man Wesley Snipes says, always bet on black!