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Culture Wars - Culture Wars EP (culturewars.bandcamp.com)

I'm trying to think of ways to explain Austin-based trio Culture Wars, aside from describing their competent but blatant mash-up known as "dance rock." A couple phrases pop into my mind as these songs rumble from the speakers: Radio-ready. Arena jams. Crowd pleasers. Car commercial music. I can't conjure up anything that sounds less pre-packaged than that. However, if this type of music is up your alley anyway, the band offers some nice tunage, even if it feels like it was ordered off the combo menu.

One good thing about this self-titled self-release is that while the music is a blend of electro pop and bleacher-stomping rock, neither genre is sacrificed for the other. The synth lines are prominent, the beats are solid and dancable, and the guitars get their licks in too. "Bones" throws it all against the wall, rewarding listeners with a "whoa-oh-oh" chorus that will have the kids involuntarily chanting and putting their hands over their heads. It's a winning move, but they pull the same manuever with "Hideaway" leaving one wondering if they ran out of ideas on a 5-song EP. The last of the cuts, "Money (Gimme Gimme)" puts all their tricks into overdrive. The vocals are snarly, the guitar hook is classic rawk, and the beat is heavy and throbbing. It seems like the band has all their ducks in a row if they want to sell a sporty sedan or open for Twenty One Pilots. I'm walking over to another pond.

Tiny Magnetic Pets - Deluxe Debris (Happy Robots)

Here we have an interesting amalgamation of sounds, eras, and geography. Tiny Magnetic Pets (a reference to a cute little Japanse toy) take cues from 70s Germany krautrock and 80s French electro-pop, and guides them through a filter of turn-of-the-century indie electronica (think Darla Records at their most bleep-boopiest). And where does this band hail from? Ireland, of course!

The mixture of precise, set-my-clock-to-it rhythms mixes surprisingly well with the warm synth underpinnings, and the soft, lovely vocals of Paula Gilmer add another layer as well. The authenticty of sound is undeniable. It's the inexplicable feeling while you're soaking it in - that notion of "Yeah, they got it right."

If the music is the gold star on Deluxe Debris, then the sequencing is the one demerit. The opener "I Lost My Guiding Light" is ho-hum, and while I think the epic motorik-meets-dream pop "Semaphore" is a standout track, at 11 minutes long you're asking for a lot of patience right off the bat. "Radio On", featuring ex-Kraftwerk member Wolgang Flur, is the hit we're all looking for, and it's followed by some choice cuts in the form of the bubbling "All Tomorrow's Yesterdays" and the dreamy, floaty, "Cloud Sequence." Unfortunately, sandwiched inbetween is "Here Comes The Noise", a track the band thought was so nice, they played it twice (in two parts, or two different remixes - regardless, it's too much). "Never Alone" caps off the album, a nice tune that goes down smooth now that the appetite has been thoroughly whetted.

The band mixes together influences like Jean-Michel Jarre, Berlin-era Bowie, and the Pet Shop Boys. They've also gained fans like Michael Rother of Neu! and Andy McClusky of OMD. Freaking Kraftwerk veteran Wolfgang Flur guests on the album! That's a lot of names to drop in my audio book, and this chapter sounds pretty good.

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Faust – Fresh Air (Bureau B)

One barely raises an eyebrow these days when they hear “70’s krautrock staple Faust have a new album out.” So many bands reform and continue to create these days, it’s hardly anything novel. These German “art-errorists” being as they are, however, never make it that simple. Fresh Air was recorded in the US over the course of their 2016 tour. So not only do we get new material, we also get live takes, guest stars, and field recordings.
The opening epic, recorded live at WFMU in Jersey City, is where you’ll get your classic Faust fill. The title track’s slow, haunting, undulating sounds draw you in, while vocals and voices juuust under the mix have your ears peering into that eerie darkness. Violin from Ysanne Spevack adds to the layers, while the drums and guitar sneak in so gradually before you know the track is already pummeling you with noise.

The middle section of the album takes you through Austin and Los Angeles, where a warped array of vignettes and fully-realized songs are ushered along with the help of the illustrious Barbara Manning. The best of the bunch is “La Poulie”, a tumbling, cranky motortik-on-overdrive tune with Jurgen Engler of Die Krupps lending a hand.

Finally, we close out with another 10+ minute opus back at WFMU, filled with Jean-Herve Peron’s tuneful ranting and ethereal jamming reminiscent of Dead Can Dance. There’s some really interesting stuff going on with this release, and I’d suggest that it’s as good as place as any to start if you want to know what Faust is all about. That being said, only those looking for a challenge to begin with need apply.

DER PLAN – Unkapitulierbar (Bureau B)

One of the pioneering acts of the Neue Deutsche Well (New German Wave) is back! Yes, the line-up has fluctuated over the years, and yes what was once their trademark experimental industrial/synth pop barely registers on the strange-o-meter these days, but nevertheless the band turns in a very solid effort. After 35+ years (with some lengthy hiatuses) of music making, Der Plan’s Moritz R has a bag overflowing with tricks, and he uses all of them to great effect. Plinky beats, pulsating bass lines, and synth hooks permeate most tracks, with a healthy dose of sound waves, vocoder effects, and an intriguing production that I can only describe as minimalist flair.

While top-notch execution is respected, and strong songwriting is always welcome, two more facets of Unkapitulierbar push the record toward the recommended pile: diversity and brevity. There are moments that sound fairly modern – the near-glitchy opener “Wie der wind weht,” and some that are yeesh-evoking 80s pap – the whispery “wowowow” of “Grundrecht” in particular. There’s one song sung in English (and it’s great, with a guest female vocalist), and there’s a tune that reminds me of Welsh-pop act Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. “Der Herbst” is an obvious homage to Fun Boy Three’s “The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum.” There’s even a reggae song. Yes, reggae through a German synth pop filter. Not kidding. It’s quite impressive how much they cram into 39 minutes. The longest song here is four minutes long. By comparison, four minutes is the length of the shortest song on Kraftwerk’s Autobhan record. Each song has a job to do, and once the task is complete, the clock is punched. No wasted space, no bloated drone-fests. German efficiency saves the day!

NRVS LVRS – Electric Dread (Hz Castle/Big Bldg)

Coming in at three songs shorter, but 13 minutes longer than Der Plan’s album, this darkwave disc takes a while longer to sink into. Every song unfolds at a slow pace, but that’s not to say each one is without surprises. There’s a 1980s soundtrack vibe throughout, but tracks vary between Bowie-lite male singing and echo-y female vocals, gloomy city-scapes and majestic climaxes, and the oddball inclusion of various instruments. You’ll hear skronky sax in “I Am Almost Perfectly Awake”, impenetrable mic effects in “Voyeurs!”, and Casio-esque handclaps on “Lost To The Max.” The unraveling of the record is so slow-motion, the rumbling bass, back beat, and shouting of “Rich Man” is like a bolt from the (dark) blue.

There’s great production here, their vision is clear, and the band knows their way around a pair of headphones – the sound is quite immersive. As I toured through Electric Dread I enjoyed the experience, but any distinct memories have since faded in the rear view. The bottom line is they have a big, shadowy, urban playground that does absolutely nothing, other than provide you with a place to get lost in.

Ohmslice – Conduit (Imaginator)

Post-weird, no wave, improv-fusion outsider pop? I know, at first pass I too almost turned my head away in confusion and/or disgust. “Oh great, another attempt at being… creative.” On subsequent listens, I’m acknowledging they succeeding in this endeavor, and almost ready to admit that they nearly made it accessible, too.

The blending of electronic and organic sounds is seamless, and when they can’t get the sound they want from an instrument, they invent a new one (see also Bradford Reed’s electric board zither and his work with King Missile). Deep, syncopated rhythms entrance the listener, while the layers of creepy guitar and horns will have you checking under the bed. The fact that these recording sessions were live and spontaneous means the rotating cast of players (featuring session workers who’ve spent time with Blue Man Group, Yo La Tengo, and Swans, among others) were probably kept on their toes too. All the sounds being filtered through a modular synth is what gels this into a cohesive sound, so no matter what path you take, all roads lead to Reed’s palace of bizarre.

The final element in Conduit is Jane LeCroy’s poetry. Her words are occasionally beat, sometimes dreamy, and always adding to the notion that this is music made by and for those outside the typical musical boundaries. Ohmslice is not everyone’s cup of tea, but just coming up with this new and different flavor at all is a remarkable accomplishment.

 


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