Thursday, August 4, 2011

CD Review: Idol and the Whip, Heavy Sleeper

This review originally appears at The 1st Five

Idol and the Whip
Heavy Sleeper

It used to be tough finding a heavy band with diversity in song structure and approach without just as easily settling for death metal, Tool or Fugazi. But these days the underground is more accepting of hard rock, or bands with hard rock influences. Suddenly it’s hip (or at least semi-hip) to listen to heavy rock, metal, hardcore, grindcore, and other headbanger material; from Bison BC to Barnburner to Mastodon.

There’s a lot of this crowd in Idol and the Whip, a four piece from Ann Arbor, Michigan who definitely have the heavy rock-near-metal sound down pat: a strength-boasting rock and roll style, flaring naturally with heavy metal harmonies and riffs. Their latest record Heavy Sleeper, available free as mp3 or for a buck in better quality at, seemingly takes its title matter as a taunt. Even Hypnos couldn’t sleep through this.

Technical metal fans will be impressed by Heavy Sleeper's ability to pull out all the stops: epic arena-sized endeavours like closer “Calling Down The Dark”, original technical rock leads like that of “Grasscutter”, and utilizing the bass to its full potential with leading riffs in “Nocturne”. This is where the Tool-like aspect plays out.

What pulls Sleeper away from redundancy is that modern metal edge. No hair band shit, the cool stuff (mentioned above) that won’t get you kicked out of hipster circles. “Wasteland Battle Hymn”, “Leveled” and “Broken Crown” propagate a hooky metal sound that’s hard not to dig. Gladly, even harder to align with Guns ‘n’ Roses. Idol's got a heavy sound that isn’t overdone, grounds in riff diversity instead of candy-coated metal proven to sell but consequently unchanged.

Here and there a little Motorhead pops out in songs with fast, get-your-motor-running chugs and riffs, felt hard on album opener “Future Eyes”. There’s even a couple crusty punk jams, like record splitter “Watery Grave”, enough to wake you up amidst slower songs which occasionally dominate the record, like “Artery” and “Augur”. These faster, punkier tunes will let you sigh in relief that Sleeper isn’t all expansive stoner sludge.

With a touch of Dave Grohl tone in his throat, Chris Plumb has the ability to belt out chilling battle-cries throughout Sleeper. A black and white video of a pissed off muddy rugby team, dark rain slow-motion pouring over their angry faces, would fit naturally alongside his and these songs’ intimidation.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

CD Review: Marbin's Breaking The Cycle

This review originally appears in THIS Literary Magazine

Breaking The Cycle
Moonjune Records, March 2011

The two Danny's behind Marbin - saxophonist Danny Markovitch and guitarist Dani Rabin - must be basking in the sun following the release of their second full-length album, Breaking The Cycle. The record, out on Chicago's Moonjune Records, follows up their 2009 self-titled debut, which helped establish the duo in the contemporary jazz scene.

Compared to how they stood in 2009, the shape of Marbin changes on Cycle. Getting a decent share of the limelight is Paul Wertico, Marbin's new, seven-time Grammy winning drummer. They've also picked up Steve Rodby on bass, and a slew of special guests including vocalists Matt Davidson, Leslie Beukelman, and Daniel White and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Makaya McCraven.

With the bountiful additions, Marbin's range expands. Much of their debut's sound, a unique and distinct guitar-saxophone serenade, resonates on Cycle. But along with it is Wertico's constant, integral back beat, more outgoingness from the two frontmen, and newly ventured vocal dimensions.

The near six-minute "Loopy" opens the album with a massive big band feel. Wertico's upper toms whap around behind the roaring melody of fat stomps and contrasting musical breaks. Markovitch is quickly front and centre for a wailin' solo, followed by a psychedelic offering from Rabin.

"A Serious Man" would go well backing a sixties undercover detective chase scene with Markovitch's elusive saxophone and Wertico's space filling high-hat technique. Markovitch's sound runs up and down the scale so non-chalant, James Bond's perked eyebrows and erect pistol seem a natural fit.

"Mom's Song," the shortest song at just over two minutes, features Leslie Beukelman on vocals. The acoustic interlude is easy to digest, and the female vocal presence is refreshing.

"Bar Stomp" keeps the shades changing with a ratty distorted guitar tone dancing around blues riffs and slide innuendos. When Rabin is compared to Hendrix, this is what people are talking about.

Other songs on Cycle revolve around the same structures, an acoustic ballad here, a rock and roll tune there. "Winds Of Grace," an eight minute song featuring Daniel White on vocals, is indeed the best capturing of Rabin's ability to raise traditional spirits on his acoustic. The song is enchanting, and White's vocals sail high and wide with integrity.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: Barney's Version

This article originally apears in THIS Literary Magazine

directed by Richard J. Lewis
Screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on the Mordecai Richler novel
December 2010, 134 minutes

It's too bad Barney's Version, the motion picture adaptation of Mordecai Richler's 1997 Giller Prize-winning novel, didn't hit the big screen nine months ago with the Montreal Canadiens waist deep in a run for the Stanley Cup. Richler, a Montreal native and cultural satirist, used the legendary hockey team as a symbol in all his novels. In Richler-lit, the Habs hover around as the epitomic hometown heroes, a cultural constant to believe in and stick by.

The film's Barney Panofsky (played by Paul Giamatti) is then, what you would say, Richler's Rocket Richard. Epic, nostalgic, filled with valour, Barney's is the story of an underdog with brute strength against all odds, fighting for dignity to win back those he loves.

A memoir told to set the record straight about the suspicious death of his lifelong friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), the story opens with twenty-something Barney living the artist life in Rome in the seventies. Here we meet the Barney that loves life, fine Canadian rye, a Romeo y Julieta cigar, Israeli hash. But things quickly sour when his first wife Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), a brazenly modern poet, commits suicide.

After this, Barney craves his hometown Montreal. He returns there to a job at a relative's TV studio, Totally Unnecessary Productions (zing!), through which Barney is introduced to the Second Mrs. Panofsky (Minnie Driver), a business-daddy's-girl looking to settle down. Barney jumps at the prospect of family and financial stability, thinking a quick marriage will mend his tumultuous life.

That's when Barney's issues really multiply. In literal love at first sight during his own wedding reception (night of the 1986 Stanley Cup final in which Montreal defeats Calgary for their twenty-third championship), Barney finds Miriam (Rosamund Pike). He ends up marrying her after he catches Boogie in the sack with his current wife, perfect grounds for divorce.

But getting to Miriam means losing Boogie, who eerily ends up dead amidst a raging booze-fest, and the only thing keeping Barney from a murder conviction is the absence of Boogie's body. It's an odd subplot that haunts Barney's life with Miriam, hinting that murder may be within his capabilities. He ultimately maintains his innocence, but the whole debacle brings light to how we should view Barney: he is a limit pusher, an excess junkie. So, in philosophical terms, what does this represent?

This question is key to Barney's Version. Barney, himself, offers us his last word when everyone around him no longer cares. Surrounded by feminism, modernism, generation X-ers, and other things that threaten him, Barney's habits are politically incorrect. He's slipperier than a bottom feeding carp; it's no wonder he ends up alone. If it weren't for his downfalls, his loved ones would drift from his pessimistic, grain-pushing ways. But for some reason, like Miriam, we still love him.

We, the viewer, do want to know Barney's version, because Barney gives all the underdogs, forgotten and obsolete, a model for redemption. This is sly Richler style. He, too, was an underdog, a Jewish Montrealer trying to make it in a literary business neglectful of his opinions. In his novel, Richler successfully brought the Jewish immigrant story out of the closet with all its shameful skeletons. He denounced Quebec separatism when an English shop sign in the Francophone province meant jail-time. He liked being the pickle up popularity's ass. Richler-lit is underdog-lit in its purest form.

And that's where the Habs come in. No matter how many contenders threaten their integrity, they always pull through. Like a rock, they prevail through ups and downs, grow tougher with every bruise. That's Richler, patriarch of custom, believer in what's right through what works, in a world too polite to appreciate him. Hollywood would love a movie about the Los Angeles Kings, but it just wouldn't have the same squeeze.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: Agnostic Front, My Life My Way

Agnostic Front
My Life My Way

Listen To: Self Pride

In their thirty-plus year career Agnostic Front has been a band of eras: way-back, gritty blasting street punk of United Blood and Victim In Pain; in the late eighties crossover thrash with Cause For Alarm and Liberty and Justice For...; even Oi! revival in the nineties.

AF's latest release, My Life My Way, is the third in their macho-hardcore Madball-esque period, starting with 2004's Nuclear Blast debut Another Voice. My Life My Way is arguably a mix between that record and 2007's Warriors.

In many areas of My Life, Miret's vocals fill out an edginess dropped on Warriors. On "Self Pride" he proclaims My pride burns deep with such weight, you can't help envisioning a brass-knuckle to your worthless gob. "That's Life" also packs a punch with classic AF blast-beats, think "United & Strong" or "Last Warning" ruthlessness.

Yet Warriors' deep dive into expansive breakdowns and slightly easier hardcore is also on this record, heard best on "Us Against The World" and "Until The Day I Die". These tunes don't rely on straight ahead thug-core like Another Voice, which some might dig. Their and other songs' uplifting Believe in yourself motif is also nice to hear.

There's even a little Riot, Riot Upstart found in album opener "City Street", a classic Miret homage to the only place him and Vinnie will ever be accepted. My Life's title track and "Now And Forever" have soulful street rock echoes. Mind you, all the influences on My Life surface from a solid bed of metal-hardcore.

Anyway, the haters won't like this record because there aren't any Cocksparrer covers. But they can fuck off. This is a band who invented their own genre, they do as they please.


Track Listing:
1. City Street
2. More Than A Memory
3. Us Against The World
4. My Life My Way
5. That's Life
6. Self Pride
7. Until The Day I Die
8. Now And Forever
9. The Sacrifice
10. A Mi Manera
11. Your Worst Enemy
12. Empty Dreams
13. Time Has Come

Written for Tangible Sounds

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

CD Review: Warpaint's The Fool

This review appears on This Literary Webzine's Blog.

The Fool
Rough Trade Records

It's earth rattling how LA hipster-garage outfit Warpaint pull off such a provocative offering with their first full-length, The Fool, released October 2010 on Rough Trade. Fool does nothing less than hypnotise with a mountainous trip-factor of layered, reverb-drenched guitar; rhythms intricate and entrancing - there are points when the most straight-edge scenester will worry about being slipped a hit of acid.

Albeit Fool and Warpaint's lone other release, 2009's mass-hailed Exquisite Corpse EP, were produced by ex-Chili Pepper John Frusciante, explaining the clean, surfy approach. But there's more to dropping distortion that makes this band admirable.

Warpaint's sound is an eclectic mash-up of pop-past, misconstrued and re-sorted into a post-modernist's dream. "Undertow", Fool's poppiest tune, has distinct shades of sixties, Luv'd Ones style girl-garage with its traditional chords and psychedelic vocals. (The song even makes a two-word Nirvana reference, right?)

Elsewhere more influences bleed through the facade, favourably on "Baby" and "Shadows" which obliquely play on a Johnny Thunders, near-folk yet drearily alt-acoustic style. You can see Emily Kokal strumming away in a manly fedora as a seventies tranny-punk inverse. Nerds rejoice, these and countless other oldschool markings, embedded deep in Fool and bared only by slight mocking flair, impress beyond belief.

Rock 'n' roll highschool grads they are, Warpaint also has a stark sense of originality. Most awakening is the sharp-toothed clean guitar tone, the most unique approach in the LA alt-cum-indie scene yet. On a wider scale, they embody the essence of post-modern rock - or post-punk, whatever you call it - much more than all their LA and London buddies who tend to recycle each other's shit.

Almost downplaying its freshness, numerous areas of Fool, notably with tracks like "Undertow" and "Set Your Arms Down", are radio friendly. But, like every track, the near indefinable Warpaintness eventually illumines. "Composure" wittily hints at this constant clash with familiarity: How can I keep my composure? proclaims Kokal amidst guitar leads so over-reverberated, the panicky thought mirrors the sound, emphasizing a disconnect from structure.

It's tough not to envision Warpaint - Theresa Wayman, Jenny Lee Lindberg, Stella Mozgawa and Kokal - as a cliquey gang, locked up in a members-only clubhouse, working away at their big shot amidst scattered records, ashtrays and herbal tea. I can butter it up to no end; in short: Fool is what modern music needs to be - catchy, knowledgeable... above all, new.

Friday, January 14, 2011

CD Review: Electric Wizard - Black Masses

Electric Wizard
Black Masses

Listen To:
Venus In Furs
Skip It: Nothing.

Stoner-doom purveyors Electric Wizard waste no time getting your head grooving on their latest full-length Black Masses, their seventh studio album. With record opener and (almost) title track "Black Mass" the band's darkened sense of sludge monstrosity lands front and centre and perches there for all eight tracks.

Tempo shifts are barely noticed between songs on the record, but tunes like "Venus In Furs (no, not a Velvet Underground cover),” "Black Mass" and "Patterns Of Evil" chug along at a slightly faster rate than others. In these up-tempo songs you get a fresh vibe of Wizard-renewal: more hooky, classic-rock sounding solos, less sole reliance on avant noise.

But the pack of Dorset occultists also offer an array of down-tempo exposes such, as "Satyr IX" and "Night Child,” that will keep your cloak and scepter in good use. Riffs roam around deep tones and make cunning use of reverberated delay and feedback. Drummer and percussionist Shaun Rutter clanks out clear-cut pace setters full of meaty crash and bassy thud-work.

Most enticing is long-time vocalist Jus Oborn's cryptic wail distraction that floats shamelessly atop the sweeping melodies. Notably in choruses of "Black Mass" and "Turn Off Your Mind,” hidden in others like "Scorpio Curse,” he manipulates an old school Ozzy pitch, bordering Richard Hell-type condescending tone. If it isn't for Liz Buckingham's easily adored doom-sludge guitar work, Oborn's offering will definitely make you a believer.

Track Listing:

1. Black Mass
2. Venus In Furs
3. Night Child
4. Patterns Of Evil
5. Satyr IX
6. Turn Off Your Mind
7. Scorpio Curse
8. Crypt of Drugula

This review appears in Tangible Sounds

Book Review: The Matter With Morris by David Bergen

This review originally appears in This Literary Webzine

by David Bergen
Harper Collins
(September 2010, CAN $29.99, 254 pages)

A link is drawn between Morris Schutt, fifty-one year old writer and main character of David Bergen’s Giller Prize-nominated novel The Matter With Morris, and Haggai, whom Bergen’s third person narrator tells us is “a less than minor prophet [. . .] who in the Bible gets two chapters.” The image of Haggai – a silenced prophet – is a lot like Morris. Once a syndicated columnist read by people worldwide, he loses his writing contract when his thoughts turn sour. Wouldn’t yours after your son dies at war?

Indeed, the matter with Morris and the Schutt family is the death of their son and brother Martin while serving in the Canadian army in Afghanistan. The fallen infantryman haunts this text; his absence tears apart a modern family along with their aging home. Solemnly, Morris and his wife, Lucille, part by way of a death they never expected. And Morris holds squalid relations with his daughters: Meredith, a working class mother with a grudge toward her selfish father, and Libby, a distant teen too smart to be trapped by adulthood’s hypocrisy. In a touchingly realist depiction of the new millennium as war era, the Schutts are today’s army family strewn by tragedy.

Living alone in a condo, Morris is patted down by moral anguish. Museless and desperate, he focuses on his life’s worst moment: a father-son huff, daring Martin to join the army. To boot, Martin was killed accidentally by one of his own men. For Morris, it’s just as well as pulling the trigger himself.

Mentally and spiritually unhealthy, Morris copes through self-destruction. Most pertinent of all, he is hooked on a woman’s touch and hires prostitutes to relieve his inner tension. There is also Ursula, an American reader of Morris’s column who, too, lost her son to war (in Iraq). Ursula and Morris become intimate pen pals, and eventually meet. Contemplating his choices in a hotel room as Ursula sleeps, Morris yearns for the solace he is searching for. Eventually, he does declare a breaking point. Things will change, he will get his family back, even if it takes some extreme measures.

Bergen admits in Morris’s afterword to borrowing ample inspiration from Cicero, Plato, Socrates and Bellows when creating Morris’s deep philosophical rhetoric. For some readers, his pondering of freedom, humanism and rabid individualism may seem pretentious, constantly lathered on without letting the last big question settle. However, I empathise with the abstractness needed to make sense of this character’s gall-filled world.

This empathy solidifies in many scenes that war parents and families can relish in. “[Morris] had heard of the Highway of Heroes near Toronto,” Bergen writes in sardonic prose, “he wondered how it was that he had come to live in a place where a fallen soldier was driven ignominiously past warehouses and big box stores.” Revenge is also offered through Morris’s habitual letter writing, one to the Prime Minister and another to the company who manufactured the gun that killed Martin. Morris notes the absurdity of sending a letter that will never be read, nodding at Bergen’s apostrophe technique and the simple closure the act offers.

Aside from lashing outward, Morris’s hurt drives hard toward nihilistic tendencies too. His son’s death causes him so much despair, loneliness, inadequacy, guilt, and scepticism, it’s no wonder he contemplates suicide more than once. His existential traits, borrowed from Kafka and Kierkegaard, lead him to declare solitude and to have feelings of despair and worthlessness. Don’t worry Morris, we hear your story, along with the 152 lonely Canadian fathers that live it every day. It’s the bleak story of modern global politics and its disastrous impact on the family. And, it’s something Bergen obviously wants us to consider.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

CD Review: Neil Young -Le Noise

Neil Young
Le Noise

Listen To: The Hitchhiker
Skip It: Nothing.

On Le Noise, Neil Young takes us into possibly his most experimental project yet. Melding his trademark rabid, loosely controlled guitar technique with producer Daniel Lanois' extensive lineup of ambiance generating delay effects, this disc, on which Young is the sole composer, is completely fresh.

There are only eight songs on Le Noise, making Young's sound diversion easily digestible. A little snack of something foreign in between helpings of what the old loner does best. Contrasting his classic folk-rock or more recent organic big band approach, Le Noise is uncharacteristically heavy; surprisingly tentative and modern; enough to believe Young, as an artist, will walk every path.

Reminiscent of the "Cinnamon Girl" sound, but entirely less conventional, the songs are a massive build-up of numerous layered guitar tracks. To Lanois' credit, the songs' slow moving, grungy drop-D riffs never muddle into a mess, but tack on inch after inch of intimidating sludge. These get accentuated with punky garage jangles and even scratch fills that a technical whore would polish and perfect, but Young's talent simply creates butter from beans. "Walk With Me," "Sign Of Love" and "Angry World" all employ these techniques in similar patterns, but take varying turns here and there to widen the soundscope.

Young's rawness with the guitar only slightly exceeds his lyrical presence on Le Noise. The poetic prowess tops on "The Hitchhiker" which delves into the dark side of cocaine and amphetamine addiction that plagued past Young eras. The epic track sums up the record - Young is comfortable telling, and playing, whatever he wants.

Track Listing:

1. Walk With Me
2. Sign Of Love
3. Someone's Going To Rescue You
4. Love And War
5. It's An Angry World
6. The Hitchhiker
7. Peaceful Valley Boulevard
8. Rumblin'
Published by Tangible Sounds