Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 

ALPHA HEX - Alpha Hex Index (hexrecords.bigcartel.com)

This Buffalo outfit has been kicking around since 2014, and Alpha Hex Index is a collection of assorted blasts of quaking, angst-filled guitar with more than a few no-wave noise touches to keep this wonderfully unnerving. “Not the Universe” is replete with angered vocals and equally piercing guitar squall that combine to create a boisterous ball of off-kilter post-punk. The rattling “Enskin” is the embodiment of this band; two minutes of intensity wrapped around sprawling, self-destructing riffs that somehow never fully unravel, and incredibly emotive vocals that introduce elements of math rock with more serrated edges. There is an undeniable art-school experimentalism to this, but each song has a foundation steeped in the best elements of guitar punk, as heard on the soaring “The Goods”. “#572920” is a fleeting interlude that acts as a bit of an intermission, and within the “second act” of the record is my favorite of the bunch, the antagonistic “Wrestles Snakes” and its rugged structure and noise-rock qualities. “#1D2951” is another few seconds of subdued improvisation which recedes silently before unveiling the fearlessly bellicose effort “Spiral”. The helical nature of “Third Man” makes it one of the record’s most musically impressive works, and a demonstration of the limitless creative that exists within this band. With members currently occupying spots in a variety of other Buffalo-area acts, it is uncertain if Alpha Hex is a full commitment or another imaginative side project; regardless of intent, this is an exhilarating ride.

COFFIN APARTMENT - Full Torso Apparition (Silver Stature Sounds; silverstaturesounds.com)

I am the first to admit that some bands just have me at their name, and Coffin Apartment is one such act. To make this experience even more fulfilling, the seven songs waiting for me on Full Torso Apparition were mix and matched masterpieces of chaotic grindcore, sludgy, droning metal, and bursts of crusty death metal with majestically placed flair. Coffin Apartment is proof that the universe can bring geniuses together right when the world needs them the most. Johnny Brooke had witnessed the end of his band A Volcano, and he soon got together with former Same-Sex Dictator drummer Justin Straw. Bassist Brody Mennitto (former Toim) came on board and the twisted brilliance of Coffin Apartment was born. The suffocating riff that anchors “Scavenger of Regurgitation” is augmented by a devastating bass line and pained, wildly emotive vocals. The entire record is a celebration of metal’s most ferocious and unhinged moments, resulting in a melting pot of brutality and aggression. The atmospheric noise that concludes “The Process of Dehumanization” is the perfect combination of ethereal and anxiety-inducing, with the latter including a series of well-placed soundbites from religious hypocrites before launching into a ferocious mass of blackened death that concludes with a wild cacophony of noise. The ability for this band to balance varying elements of extreme metal with jazzlike time signatures makes the listener’s head spin as furiously as bang. “Derelict Paradise” incorporates a Mayhem-inspired groove with power-violence style singing and garnishes it with slashing cuts of noise until the song ever so deftly fades into a mollifying interlude. Slowly rebuilding in both intensity and scope, Coffin Apartment closes the final forty-five seconds with a flurry of vehemence. A similar construct is heard on the opening “Treacherous Tongues”, a track that hits with the subtlety of a brick to the face while meshing hardcore punk, death metal, and the energy of Converge before taking a breath in the heart of the tune and gearing up for a pummeling conclusion. The raw speed and jaw-dropping brutality that opens the majesty “Transient Exuberance” is remarkable, and the guys again indulge in a free-flowing, bass and drums led interlude before returning to finish off what is left standing. Only the two minute “A Quagmire of Filth and Shame” assaults unsuspecting ears without a significant shift in tempo, and the song is a fierce barrage of crushing ferocity. Full Torso Apparition is not an easy listen, but it is utterly remarkable and is another significant step forward in metal’s’ evolution as a genre. I may have found my highlight of the year and my survival guide to the next lockdown.

JULES SHEAR - Slower (Funzalo; funzalorecords.com)

At sixty-eight, maybe Jules Shear is starting to slow down, but it is difficult to tell from the beauty on display with Slower. The man perhaps best known for penning hits for Cyndi Lauper and the bangles, along with masterminding the idea for MTVs Unplugged series, some can certainly argue that hear has not enjoyed the success he deserved. Slower is a gentle, heartwarming collection of piano-driven ballads that illuminate the warmth of his still strong vocals. Joined by John Sebastian on harp for the opening “Sugar All Day”, Shear articulates each word with a penetrating intimacy. Much of Slower allows listeners to imagine that Shear is sitting at a piano in a tiny, out of the way club performing only for them, especially the poignant “Today Like Tomorrow”. Songs such as “It Came Down from Heaven” and “It’s Love” are reminiscent of Warren Zevon’s most expressive moments, as delicate musicianship and beautiful poetry hold hands over the course of four elegant minutes. Shear’s sense of humor is readily apparent on the sardonic “Smart” and “Feels Like Fall”, a Leonard Cohen style tale in which Shear states how “it feels like fall/but it’s spring”. The refined playing of “One Pretty Please” and “Until Now” (with the later acknowledging that the singer is indeed “slower”) are tender works of a masterful storyteller. Spinning tales about relationships and forthright introspection, Slower is a stirring work from a master still finding new methods of expression.


 

EXTRA SPECIAL - "Lazy About It" EP (extraspecial.bandcamp.com/album/lazy-about-it-ep)

Amelia Bushell is Extra Special, both in name and talent level, as "Lazy About It" proves. The five song EP takes listeners on a deeply personal tour of Bushell’s struggles and moments of clarity as a twenty-something with still so much to figure out. The songs are individually beautiful, poignant, and daringly forthright. The opening “I Hate Love” is the finest example of raw, unflinching honesty when Bushell admits that life is painful “when it becomes a fact that the one you love doesn’t love you back”. Wrapped around a bucolic, lush structure and Bushnell’s enchanting voice, the song is a gift to the lonely. “True Fear” follows a similar path, possessing a staggering fragility. Each effort has a heartfelt courage gently embraced by ethereal affection. The warm pop of “Thanks to You” is augmented by elegant keys from Bushell and guitar work from Gary Atturio, and the soothing heartbreak of “Too Hard to Mend” is majestic slice of anguish. However, Bushell does not allow listeners to sulk off into the corner entirely, as the closing “My Car is Parked in Canada” is a more upbeat, semi-traditional pop nugget with drummer Louis Cozza given a chance to shine. "Lazy About It" is the type of angst-filled diary that many will find relatable, delivered by a highly adept songwriter.

THE NEXT GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST - Careless Moon (thenextgreatamericannovelist. bandcamp.com)

What a difference an album makes! I distinctly remember my enjoyment of the debut from NGAN, but Careless Moon marks an almost unimaginable amount of growth in songwriting acumen. The ten pieces on NGAN’s sophomore effort are a whimsical mix of indie pop, gentle psychedelia, and crafty traces of grittier rock. The vast majority of what Sean Cahill and Jason Cummings play is glimmering works of layered, richly textured hospitable shoegaze that is accented by accessible experimentation, as one hears on the flawless “Gravity’s Rainbow”. The soaring guitar of “Wicked” is a marvelous balance to the gentle piano that anchors the lush “It’s Been You”, as the pair pays respectful homage to various genres and talents. There are moments when Cahill and Cummings openly declare their love for other acts, such as the line, “I love to hear you humming to the Fleet Foxes” on the aforementioned “It’s Been You”, but their appreciation for genres of all varieties is encapsulated on the closing “Ice Moon”. Largely a waif-like atmospheric gem, the tracks builds methodically over the course of five minutes into a noisy conclusion awash in distortion and the ironic repetition of “Just a quiet, peaceful death”(a subtle nod to Rage Against the Machine’s “Down Rodeo”) as a riotous din swirls around Cahill. The rockier bursts of “Bad Animation” and “Drag” are a pair of songs previously inconceivable to the early incarnation of NGAN, and the piercing riff and closing scream of “Drag” is as authentic as the meandering country twang of “Kubler”. The playful “Blackberry” is driven by delightful guitar and bass interplay with Cahill’s beguiling vocals declaring that indeed, he does “want everything all of the time”. It is a rare to hear a band evolve so quickly, and this only means continued excellence as NGAN will undoubtedly continue to challenge themselves.


THE BOUNCING SOLS - Volume 2 (Pure Noise Records www.purenoise.net)

It is incredible to think that nearly thirty years have passed since The Bouncing Souls emerged from teenage boredom and became punk legends. The core of the Souls has always been songwriting; even as a start-up act, the band always wrote with heart and depth. Volume Two takes ten classic efforts and completely revamps them through a wide scope of musical lenses. “Late Bloomer” becomes a rambling, country-kissed effort and “Gone” is changed to a gentle pop gem and neither song loses an ounce of impact. Two of my favorites are the centerpieces of the record, as “Simple Man” and “Helpless Romantic” morph into acoustically driven and bouncy pop confessions, respectively. This is a bold step to take for any band, but The Bouncing Souls have been evolving since their days as a ska-punk outfit that set clubs on fire with live shows, and these guys know that fans will stick with them. Volume Two also proves that skilled songwriting transcends genre and superior talent stands alone, and no one can question the skill of Pete Steinkopf, both in and out of The Bouncing Souls along with his vast array of producing credits. Greg Attonito’s voice sounds incredibly strong on “Favorite Everything”, but truly hits fiercest on “World One Fire”, the one original contribution to the record. As he sings, “These are days that could kill us all/We decide to do or die/Find a reason to save our souls/What a time to be alive/It's alright in a world on fire”, he sums up the terrifying uncertainty that plagues so many, proving once again how adroitly The Bouncing Sols can find the most appropriate words and tone. Closing with two acoustic efforts, “Say Anything” and the serene “Ghost on the Boardwalk”, the record fades gently into silence; let’s hope it is at least another thirty years before we say that about The Bouncing Souls.

LUNCHBOX - After School Special (Slumberland Records www.slumberlandrecords.com)

This could not have been titled more perfectly-the “After School Special” was a staple for many in the 70s and 80s and a delightfully awkward manner to gain “real world” knowledge from TV. The acting was terrible, the writing unbearably corny, and the stories always wrapped up neatly, but could never question the sincerity of all involved. The last point holds true with the music of Lunchbox-sounding like AM radio during the days of the Vietnam era through American malaise, the songs jangle with warm vocals and bubblegum psychedelia. “I Really Wanna Know” is the best song The Partridge Family never performed, as Tim Brown and Donna McKean espouse lighthearted funk with ethereal 60s rock vibes. The result is a vast collection of songs that help listeners forget how awful the world is right now and might actually fill people with a sense of dare I say…happiness? It is actually impossible to listen to After School Special and not smile, for the songs convey a lush innocence, as “Three Cheers for Autumntime” blend Mammas and the Poppas harmonies with warm horn playing shoegaze aesthetics, and “Gary of the Academy” is the dream of any ad agency, for the song enters your brain like a kind-hearted, bubbly earwig and refuses to leave. The entire record is a sterling collection of songs that rattle and shake with blissful energy, as “Melt Into Air” conveys perfectly. McKean’s “woah, woah, woah” on “Over Way Too Soon” sounds inspired and genuine, reflecting a true appreciation for a sound that was built around unforgettable melodies and hooks. The indie rock clatter of “It’s Over Now” takes the early 60s and early 90s and melds them into an invigorating combination of deft musicianship and inspirational guilelessness. Perhaps because I am listening to this just hours before the presidential election and I have found myself sitting up at night pondering the death of American democracy that Lunchbox’s music sounds particularly satisfying-the world is going to hell, but no one could tell if After School Special is playing. I may hold on to this one as my freedom takes its final gasps.

STEVE AND THE NOT STEVES (Featuring Fletcher Dragge of Pennywise) - “Cell Divide” (steveandthenotsteves.bandcamp.com)

Anyone reading his is well aware of who Fletcher Dragge and his outfit Pennywise is (if not, boy, do you have a lot of work to do), and Lindenhurst, NY’s Steve and The Not Steves are among a legion of acts who are inspired by Pennywise’s sound, making this collaboration a perfect musical marriage. “Cell Divide” came about through a fund-raising project devoted to aiding touring acts devastated by the ongoing COVD-19 crisis called For the Nomads (visit https://www.forthenomads.org/ if interested in helping out). The song is a perfect blending of seething punk with pop sensibilities that rage against the current deterioration of America as vocalist Steve Schopp barks, “Woke up late in the land of the free/And I won't back down or get in line/The time is now, now is the time/Rise up, resist/Take down, fascist hypocrites”. Dragge’s instantly recognizable guitar tone plays a starring role here, adding significant girth to the song’s driving groove, as well providing a scathing solo. Backing Schopp are the Not Steves - guitarist Michael Ravid, bassist Geoff Sondergard, and drummer Ricky Bustamante - all highly skilled players who work in perfect synch with Dragge as if the Pennywise icon has been a Not Steve for years. With a timely and poignant message and a thunderous hook, “Cell Divide” is a modern American punk anthem that is not without hope-the song calls for unity and sanity to ultimately rule the day; hopefully, enough people can heed the message. The track is four minutes of unrelenting energy that includes a brief build up before erupting into pogo-punk fury balanced by Schoop’s passionate yet controlled vocals. I have had the pleasure of seeing Steve and the Not Steves live many times in the pre-pandemic age so long ago, and this is their finest work to date. Get over to their bandcamp, support an amazing cause, and also check out their video featuring cameo appearances from Sharp Violet, another of Long Island’s best bands and sister act to Steve and the Not Steves.

THELONIOUS MONSTER - Oh That Monster (Immediate Family Records www.immediatefamilyrecords.com)

Breaking up in the mid-90s, Thelonious Monster have picked a heck of a time to return with Oh, That Monster. These well-worn, battle-tested veterans offer a record of varying tempos and intensity levels, but each song reflects the concerns of 2020 America. “Buy Another Gun” addresses the parental nightmare that has become school violence through a buoyant pop-punk structure, similar to the Buzzcocks, while the opening “Disappear” is a riotous explosion of classic Pistols-sounding punk led by guitar players Dix Denney and Chris Handsome. Late 70s punk aesthetics dominate “Trouble” and “Teenage Wasteland”, with the latter being lightly embraced every so perfectly in rock’s earliest surf inspiration. Led by Bob Forrest, Thelonious Monster is a chameleon of band, effortlessly shifting from hard hitting barrages of garage rock energy to the smooth, jazz touches of “Sixteen Angels”. The cheeky title of “LA Divorce” has a funky bassline from Martyn LeNoble and is held together by the steady drumming of Pete Weiss. The genteel “The Faraway” is a wistful piece of nostalgia that can only sound this heartfelt and truthful when written and performed who have lived the experience of watching children grow up and the changes life brings. It is a beautiful conclusion to a powerful record that was an introduction for me to Thelonious Monster. I will now begin hunting down their earlier catalog.


SCIENCE MAN - SM II (Big Neck Records www.bigneckrecords.com)

It took me until my third listen until I realized that Science Man is just that-one man. This enigmatic Buffalo product has a guitar, a drum machine, and more energy than middle school kids after a pallet of energy drinks, best embodied on “The Pit”. The ten songs on SM II have a blazing, surf-friend punk frenzy led by massive guitar as if The Cramps mated with Drive Like Jehu and then gave the baby to Jon Spencer. Drenched in distortion and feedback, then summarily delivered as if in the center of a tempest, Science Man is a one-man wrecking ball, swinging fists and kicking feet in all directions with staggering intensity. “Top of the Crown” is an opening sucker punch to the jaw that would make Rick Moranis flinch, and “Hit the Switch” is my favorite, but if you ask me again in a week, I may very well have two or three new choices for most cherished track. The noisy intro of “Crawling Out” eventually gives way to a heavy yet melodic groove, with “Give the Ghost to Me” is a blazing slab of guitar power. I am intrigued by the experimental noise of “Keeper of the Wyrm”, and immediately impressed with how the song bleeds into the closing “The Gift”. The finale is a more fleshed out effort, lasting well over three minutes, something no other song achieves, but it is also the subtle psychedelic nature of the song that truly draws the listener inside. I am left wondering if this is a possible glimpse into the future of what Science Man may do next. Whatever form his music takes, I am already excited about what will come next.

THE USAISAMONSTER - Amikwag (Yeggs Records www.yeggsrecords.com)

Colin Langenus and Tom Hohmann have not released new music together as Usaisamonster for ten years (their last work was the fittingly titled RIP), and while I am sure that is upsetting for some to hear, I had not heard this band prior to this comeback release, and I really had no frame of reference. On Amikwag, the duo presents a vast array of playful, dreamy, at times, blissfully disjointed pop music. “Permaculture’s Promise” is nearly hypnotic in its serene grace, while the first single “Rapido Amigo” plays with musical structure with a wistfulness that is reminiscent of Zappa’s more whimsical moments. The songs meander and become slightly labyrinthian at times, and even while intriguing, “Verbs” and “Side of the Road” require the listener to work to fully grasp the entirety of the song. The band’s moniker is even more fitting than what it was a decade ago, and certainly a song titled “We Are Not Alone” is also quite apropos, and to that end, this complex effort is also the band’s best. Delivered in both English and Farsi, the song has a somnambulistic sensibility about it that makes the effort perpetually fascinating. I would never run towards a band like this by choice, but I am fortunate to have been introduced to these two multi-talented players. Everything on Amikwag is layered, richly textured and entirely without any traditional rules about adhering to predictable structure.

DEAD END AMERICA - Crush The Machine (Southern Lord Records www.southernlord.com)

Those of us of a certain age remember when the Reagan administration inspired some of the fiercest, most inspiring punk in American history, with the two Bush presidencies coming close to matching the anger expressed in the mid-80s. Now, on the cusp of Donald Trump either losing in disgrace or winning the presidency and thus decimating what’s left of democracy, Dead End America arrive with four scathing pieces of politically charged hardcore from some of the best to ever do this. “Dead White Hands” is an opening gut-punch that instantly recalls the finest days of unadulterated hardcore fury. The four songs on Crush the Machine once again proves that the kids are better off keeping their millennial mouths shut and learning from the masters, particularly Steve “Thee Hippy Slayer” Hanford, who passed tragically just before the EP was finished. Committed to seeing the project through to completion, Tony Avila of World Of Lies, Why Won't You Die, and about one hundred other acts, joined Ian Watts from Ape Machine and bassist/vocalist Nick Oliveri of Mondo Generator, The Dwarves, Kyuss, and Queens Of The Stone Age to compile rage, disgust, and unfettered hatred into an incendiary decimation of American culture. “Bullet for 45” featuring Eyehategod’s Mike IX Williams on vocals, leaves nothing to the imagination, as the track rages against American stupidity and the demise of the American dream. Continuing the theme of a failing America, the guys lambast the gutless wonders of social media on “Twitter Troll”, and Blaine Cook from The Accüsed A.D. offers his indominable vocal style to the blistering “Searching for a Reason”, proving that a band such as Dead End America can say more in one ninety-second song that what most bands can in an entire career. If this election does mean the end of the American experiment, I will ride out the last moments with Crush the Machine playing defiantly.

DFMK - S/T (La Escalera Records https://laescalerarecords.bandcamp.com)

DFMK are a Tijuana, Mexico based outfit that delivers fifteen tracks of garage style punk that captures the best aspects of the Candy Snatchers and New Bomb Turks slamming heads with proto punks like The Stooges. Underpinning each song is a commitment to crafting smart, biting riffs that have unavoidable melody to match the intensity. Any potential language barrier does not matter here, as “Fuera de Lugar” “Obsessión” and the caustic forty-two seconds of Espacious Vacíos” speak a dialect that transcends translation; namely a language of bare bones punk fury. Every second of DFMK is played with equal savagery and includes the Ramones-inspired “Diferencías” and the subtle surf vibes of “Rita”, reminiscent of Night Birds’ best moments. The pummeling blues of “Year of the Snake” concludes this gem, and I consider myself fortunate to have been introduced to this one. The band has a rich discography, and their progression as a band is noticeable, and their future releases will surely only build upon the greatness one hears here.

ALL SOULS - Songs for the End of the World (allsoulsband.bandcamp.com)

It had to happen eventually-there had to be someone naming a record in 2020 about the end of mankind, and All Souls are a fitting band to do so. Lyrically introspective and dark but often musically buoyant, All Souls will keep your spirits up as the world finally explodes. Songs for the End of the World is a tightly wound group of tracks with crunchy and guitar and somber vocals from Antonio Aguilar that often morph into sprawling waves of post-grunge strength. Surrounding him is Erik Trammell, and the duo soar throughout the record, but when their classic New York punk buzz meets the abrasive force of drummer Tony Tornay and bassist Meg Castellanos, songs like “Bleeding Out” and “Lights Out” become gritty stories of those on the outside and suffering. The latter includes the lyrics, “And hats off now to Pedro, He’s working every day and night, He runs for cover when ICE is outside with a light/ And hats off now to Mijo ‘Cause He’s 7 and he’s in the can”. There is obviously a tremendous amount of fodder right now for songs about those who have been forgotten, but All Souls do not merely lament the brutality of existence, but instead, bring these forlorn characters to life. The opening “Sentimental Rehash” is a jittery, over-caffeinated burst of uncompromising punk, while “You Just Can’t Win” is less aggressive, but no less evocative as the lyrics lambast those who turn misguided frustrations into imaginary tales of victimhood (“And on the tube at night your pundits remark bomb them straight to hell and let God sort them out”). The centerpiece of the record is the seven-minute opus, “Winds”. Nearly symphonic in nature, the song is an exploding star of a work that cannot help but leave listeners stunned as waves of guitar intersect with pained vocal intensity and low-end bellowing that harkens to Houses of the Holy as much as it does Windhand. The sonic shifts on “Bridge the Sun” capture the dexterity of All Souls, as this is a band that creates passionate and chilling music. Songs for the End of the World may be a perfect time capsule for where were in 2020; let’s hope we’re still here long enough to look back and appreciate this.

B R I Q U E V I L L E - Quelle (Pelagic Records, pelagic-records.com)

Belgium has not been this brutal and punishing since their treatment of the Congo. B R I Q U E V I L L E (yes, they intentionally place spaces between each letter) plays hypnotic, instrumental metal that moves faultlessly from crushing riffs to deeply soothing soundscapes. The band earned a permanent place in my heart before I ever heard a note after I read about a 2014 caper of theirs: The guys buried twenty copies of their debut album in the ground and gave Facebook followers clues as to where to dig up the vinyl. Even if this band did truly nothing following that stunt, their staus as “cooler than anything your band ever thought of doing” would be permanently cemented. On top of all of this, the guys have been wearing masks on stage long before it was trendy or mandated by government. Luckily for all of us, B R I Q U E V I L L E pressed on and released a follow-up in 2017. Now, three years later, the global COVID-19 pandemic inspires this work of tortured majesty. The songs on Quelle are quite lengthy, with “Akte X” clocking in at over fourteen minutes. Blending doom and black metal with ethereal waves, the band constructs pieces with a jazz-like ability to alter tone and direction quickly, leading to wildly unique and unpredictable journeys. The opening “Akte VIII” and “Akte IX” bleed into each other as if one continues effort, differentiated slightly by “IX” dominated by mesmerizingly crushing riffs. Do not be unnerved by the expansive quality of “X”, as B R I Q U E V I L L E appreciates the idea that songs do not require every second to be filled with sound. The quiet accentuates the loud and the interludes of tranquility only make the inevitable blasts of force more intimidating. The songs are truly resplendent, as the mysterious line-up lead the listener through a harrowing labyrinth, emphasizing serenity that precedes darkness and demonstrates the inarguable agility of the players. The gloom of the record permeates the listener, as each song acts less like a self-contained world but rather a portion of a massive story. One can listen to Quelle and hear extreme music evolving in real time, as “Akte XIII and XIV” are equally haunting and inspiring, capturing a refined dystopian beauty. Recorded in isolation with each member truly distant from each other, the songs are amalgamations of each contributor’s ideas, giving the finished work a profound depth and complexity. It is challenging to find much information about his band, but simply allow Quelle to speak for itself, even without the presence of lyrics.

BANGLADEAFY - Housefly (www.nefariousindustries.com)

I went back to listen to Bangladeafy’s 2018 masterpiece Ribboncutter to attempt to put myself in the proper mindset before attempting Housefly, but that was a fool’s quest-there is nothing that can prepare a person for anything Bangladeafy does, which is why I love this duo. John Ehlers and Atif Haq are master noise manipulators, but rather than the metallic barrage of flesh-ripping sound that defined their earlier work, Housefly has an industrial intonation, blended with highly agitated synth. “Bloom” has traces of Devo, but the more chaotic “Miracles” is a nightmare brought to life as terrifying beats capture the terror of fleeing for your life from a faceless entity that may or may not be one step beyond you, or perhaps the entire episode is all in your mind. The sense of confusion and unease created by Ehlers and Haq is grotesquely beautiful, such as the wild noise collage, “Shortcuts”. Blending Skinny Puppy with Wes Craven 80s horror soundtracks, Housefly is a labyrinthian maze of paroxysmal percussion and turbulent synth best embodied on “Lifeforms”, a chilling salvo of Devo spliced with Foetus that gives Ehlers an opportunity to ravage his vocal cords. Even the twenty-five seconds of piano wrapped in genteel noise one hears on “Pupa” does nothing to settle or reassure the listener, for “Tar” is a frenzied ball of rage. The songs come and go quite literally within seconds, with only two of thirteen songs hitting two minutes in length. Blending qualities of punk, jazz, noise, metal, and ambient all into a churning throng, Housefly is easily the most inimitable and necessary record of 2020. “Youthanor” is every helpless feeling people have had over the past six months rolled into one festering pile of disgust, while the three sparse “Instar” pieces are paranoia-inducing soundscapes; the dichotomy of these works embody both the tortured brilliance of Bangladeafy, and also their fearless commitment to reinvention. I understand that music such as this is an acquired taste for some, but honestly, I cannot understand how people do not simply fall to their knees and worship a band like Bangladeafy. Wake up, people!!

PIMMIT HILLS - Heathens and Prophets (https://gyard.bigcartel.com/)

So how exactly does one move from being members within an adored doom metal band with an impressive twelve-year history to a blustering, blues-metal machine? Apparently, it is a fairly easy adaptation if you listen to Heathens and Prophets, the rumbling mass of power from Pimmit Hills. This neck-snapping four-song EP features the opening “Baby Blues Eyes”, a track that retains all the force of classic metal accented by a distinctive Southern rock boogie ultimately resulting in hook-laden doom. While this may sound like a musical oxymoron, Heathens and Prophets is a torrent of blues-soaked guitar crunch from Todd Ingram, whose meaty riffs dominate each track, and with each song over seven minutes in length, no one here is cheated. When vocalist David Hammerly announces, “She’s a whiskey drinkin’ temptress” on the aforementioned “Baby Blue Eyes”, the line could work with artists ranging from Chris Robinson to Toby Keith, but Hammerly makes it all his own, and the guys around him generate seismic energy on “Ginger”, led by drummer Brooks and bassist Lee Walters III. Produced by J Robbins, Pimmit Hills sound pristine and punishing throughout the mountainous efforts. The meandering intro of “Lost River” glides along in an effortlessly serpentine manner towards to soaring solo that blends aspects of prog’s experimentalism and proto-metal’s rugged humility. The closing “Beautiful Sadness” sounds like a lost gem from the California Jams of the early 70s with its distortion-washed guitar and rolling low-end swagger. There is a familiarity to what Pimmit Hills does that makes them instantly embraceable, but yet their approach to modern blues is also highly distinctive. Metal was the devil’s spawn of the blues, but few bands truly embrace the result of this unholy copulation with the style and finesse of Pimmit Hills. I did not know much about King Giant, the former outlet for these guys, but Pimmit Hills has me excited for their future.

BLACK MAGNET - Hallucination Scene (www.20buckspin.com)

Black Magnet is a one-man industrial tour de force named James Hammontree, and Hallucination Scene is a punishing eight-song voyage of industrialized pain. The influences abound here, and every act to whom Hammontree pays homage is among true giants. The thunderous opener “Divination Equipment” has a stomp reminiscent of Streetcleaner-era Godflesh, while “Anubis” includes a dark ambient sensibility, more akin to Front 242 or Ministry. Where Black Magnet truly excels as a project is the ability for Hammontree to avoid repetition in his work, as each song possesses a strong sense of individuality. “Punishment Map” features a dizzying bed of drum and bass under heavily distorted vocals and significantly fuzzy guitar. Blending noise and brain-shaking drumbeats, Hallucination Scene hits its apex on “Crush Me”, a bleak slab of intensity with a chorus that is the musical equivalent of a power drill to the skull. Refined touches of DSBM are heard on “Hegemon”, while the closing “Walking in the Dark” has subtleties usually found in the work of Chemlab or Pigface. Furious but not directionless, Black Magnet takes the rage of hardcore, the despondency of metal, and the mechanized malfeasance of industrial to produce a record that resonates with disgust felt by and for humanity.

EN MINOR - When the Cold Truth Has Worn Its Miserable Welcome Out (Housecore Records www.thehousecorerecords.com)

This one could be a little difficult to explain to someone just emerging from quarantine - Phil Anselmo sings on a largely acoustic project. Anselmo, whose menacing stage presence was the centerpiece of Pantera’s metal dominance at the end of the twentieth century, has provided vocals to myriad of bands from Superjoint Ritual and Down to the Illegals, but aside from his Southern Isolation project, very little in his repertoire sounds like En Minor. One similarity between En Minor and Anselmo’s other bands is his ever-present intensity; the songs many not rival “Mouth for war” in terms of volume, but when Anselmo declares, “Love is but a word and I’m finding it hard to believe” on the opening “Mausoleums”, it is obvious that En Minor is not here to play weddings. Surrounded by guitarists Stephen Taylor, Kevin Bond, and Paul Webb, the sound on When the Cold Truth Has Worn Its Miserable Welcome Out is surprisingly dense and deeply emotive. Cellist Steve Bernal exists in lush harmony with the four guitarists (Anselmo offers guitar as well), while bassist Joiner Dover, whose brother Calvin contributes keyboards, and drummer Jimmy Bower work in unison to bring the band slowly into depths of crippling darkness on the haunting “This Not Your Day” and “Love Needs Love”, with the former including the line, ”Had she voiced her pleas, he might have killed his wife” “and the latter announces, “There isn’t a blade of grass that hasn’t been corrupted”. This type of funeral dirge is En Minor’s strength, although the band does not hesitate to experiment with structure, as “On the Floor” dabbles with a slight country twang as Anselmo declares, “Many will mourn as the headless scream, found dead on the floor”. The meandering “Black Mass” and the atmospheric “Warm Sharp Bath Sleep” are two of the finest works that mesh ethereal with gritty to produce a highly unique sound that sound like the soundtracks to vintage horror films, a topic Anselmo knows quite well. On “Melancholia”, the line “Self-loathing feels like the right way of expression” hangs in the air as ghostly guitar work glides above the sadness and confusion. It is an impressive feat to bring the darkest aspects of Americana to light in such a meaningful manner; add this to Anselmo’s ever growing list of distinctive moments.

EXHALANTS - Atonement (exhalants.bandcamp.com)

I admit, I am not a difficult man to please, and the Exhalants had me with the reference to Unsane in their bio. The music on Atonement could cure COVID by scaring the droplets right back into your filthy orifices, as the hard-hitting Texas trio marinates each track in a sonic bath of distortion and feedback that attempts to swallow lead singer Steve whole, but somehow, he fights furiously enough to strain his voice above the controlled chaos. “Bang” is a rolling machine of suffering that pummels all in its path as scorched earth vocals are mimicked by equally devastating playing. It is easy to become infatuated with the sheer force with which these guys play, but efforts such as “Richard” and “End Scenes” demonstrate the dazzling dexterity of bassist Bill and drummer Tom. If you fondly remember 90s noise, Exhalents will remain many of Stalwarts like Unwound and Drive Like Jehu as “Passing Perceptions” unleashes a seething mass of guitar hate and “Crucifix” is bult around Bill’s think bass line and Tom’s volcanic drumming. In addition to his guitar assault, Steve is a highly gifted screamer, consistently pushing his vocal cords to the precipice of destruction all the while remaining incredibly affective. “Blackened” swings a massive hook that becomes the song’s defining riff and a groove to which the band returns in between moments of shrill, piercing, beautiful clatter to produce a stunningly engaging din. It is a band like Exhalants that makes me willing to be the first in line for an experimental vaccine; I need these guys out on the road destroying clubs along the way. Until then, go find this.


ANTHROPHOBIA - Altered States / Grind EP's (www.anthrophobia.com)

After all these years, Frank Phobia may be
sh owing his age; not musically, mind you - Anthrophobia sound as raw and spry as ever on "Altered States" - but the first track on the band’s new record is called “Cliff Notes.” For those under 35, Cliff Notes were used before any online sources to help all of us avoid reading the books assigned in school; the kids today have Sparknotes and about a thousand other ways to get them out of reading, but Frank stays true to the old school mentality-quite literally. The song itself is another familiar blast of hook-laden guitar riffs wrapped around a dense low-end groove compliments of Rob DiJoseph and Dickie Delp, all topped off with Frank’s iconic vocals.

He and the rest of Anthrophobia have always perfectly blended metal, punk, and spatial stoner-rock into a deeply refreshing musical smoothie, and the same formula exists here, but Anthrophobia does not simply rewrite past material. Fans have a choice of purchasing either the standalone, 6-track "Alterted States" EP, or springing for the deluxe 15-song vinyl package, which includes 2017's "Grind" EP.

There are several unique features to this work - we reviewed the combined, deluxe package - with perhaps the biggest surprise here being the lengthy, meandering “Before the Crash.” Beginning quietly, the song is a slow boil of a track with the intensity gradually increasing over the course of seven sprawling minutes, with Brent Black’s dexterity shining most prominently. and the release of Altered States is one of the few events that is a positive during this otherwise nightmarish year.

“Running Out of Time” is a frantic speedball of a song that still retains an easily instantly recognizable melody, while the impenetrable structure of “Take One for the Team” has Phobia growling and snarling through an opaque mass of guitar creativity once again from Black. There is an abrasive, serrated edge to songs like “Grind” and “Ghosts” that exude the band’s adoration for bare-knuckled rock n roll. “Over Reactor”, “Fundamentally Cynical”, and “Cracks in the Ceiling” all roar with blistering ferocity, revealing the band’s punk roots by infusing the songs with constant energy and each of the trio barely hitting two minutes in length. Like so many other people, I want to go to sleep and wake up in January; however, if that remains a physical impossibility, at least Anthrophobia can provide a soundtrack for this current hell.

THE ATOMIC BITCHWAX - Scorpio (Tee Pee Records www.teepeerecords.com)

With all of the frustration and resentment 2020 has brought, The Atomic Bitchwax’s opening song “I Hope You Die” from their latest record Scorpio, is a perfect form of catharsis. It also reflects the mood and tenor of all of Scorpio; it is a massive, pugnacious blast of bluesy, distortion-drenched force. New Jersey’s The Atomic Bitchwax, who emerged out of Monster Magnet, features bassist, singer, and lyricist, Chris Kosnik, along with drummer Bob Pantella and guitarist Garrett Sweeny, continues their tradition of Black Sabbath stomp and latter-day Corrosion of Conformity Southern swagger. Scorpio is a boisterous blast of authentic, guitar-heavy rock n’ roll, as the appropriately titled “Energy” has a hook that sneaks up on the listener with a rich tone and blunt force melody, two traits one also hears on the thunderous instrumentals, “Ninja” and “Crash”. Both tracks roar like alcohol-fueled drag racers, leaving behind only the scent of burned rubber and gasoline in their wake. “Scorpio” channels the finest aspects of Blue Cheer as interpreted by 90s grunge bands, and the bass-heavy “Easy Action” is a sleazy brew of sweat-stained bombast. There is relentless energy throughout the record and The Atomic Bitchwax does not rest for even a note, as if the band feels compelled to get everything they have out to the listeners as quickly as possible as a musical last will and testament to the world of guitar-fueled rock before COVID takes all of us. Honestly, if this is the last music I hear before it all goes black, I can live with that. It is physically impossible to not entirely immerse one’s self in the Stones-meets-Motorhead groove of “You Got It” and “Betting Man”, as Sweeney excels on both pieces. There is a refreshing purity to Scorpio that makes it a mandatory listen as every single track will melt the walls of clubs once we are allowed back in them, but this should get crowds moving even if it is livestreamed.

NOFX and Frank Turner - WEST COAST vs. WESSEX (Fat Wreck Chords)

This is a great idea for a split LP. NOFX takes five of Frank Turner’s tracks and applies their melodic punk energy to them, while Turner selects five of NOFX’s songs and transforms them into works of poignant, emotional toil. One should not be surprised to hear that the result of this mash-up is as intriguing as it is brilliant. The bitter” Worse Things Happen A Sea” has a snarky sense of humor illuminated by Fat Mike as NOFX blaze a scorched path through the song, emphasizing the lyrics’ tale of frustration found within relationships. “Thatcher Fucked the Kids” is less a political statement as it a realistic depiction of aging (“Anyone who looks younger than me makes me check my wallet, my phone, my keys”). Bouncing with ska grooves, the song’s hypnotic energy is infectious as Mike’s gruff v oice does a majestic job capturing Turner’s shrewd social commentary. The piano-laden “Glory Hallelujah” is the most beautiful song of nihilism one may ever hear (“There was never was a god”). For Turner, he travels less-worn paths of NOFX’s career, turning “Falling in Love” into a fragile, wonderfully moving track. While “Bob” is reworked as a gritty country song, “Perfect Government” is a swaggering, rollicking rock anthem with ethereal pop warmth. Turner’s voice is smooth and emotive, and his backing band, The Sleeping Souls, take NOFX’s affable punk anthems and place a special emphasis upon the harmonies found within each. “Eat the Meek” reverberates with a tension heard on the first generation of emo bands, illustrating the chameleon-like quality of Frank Turner’s musicianship. There is always a risk on records such as this that the result may seem either too forced or clichéd fanboy adoration; neither is true here. West Coast vs. Wessex allows a collection of imaginative musicians to place their own unique imprints upon each other’s work that reflects a sense of respect and the pure enjoyment of creativity.

GARRISON - TV or the Atomic Bomb (Artic Rodeo Records arcticrodeorecordings.com)

Joe Grillo and Ed McNamara, two veterans from a pair of brilliant late 90s, early 2000s bands, Stricken for Catherine and Iris, respectively, went on to lead Garrison, a seminal Boston area outfit that were a stalwart, but fleeting, Revelation Records act. Having worked with the likes of Kurt Ballou, Andrew Schneider and J. Robbins, Garrison was an incredible, but tragically underappreciated band. It is a little frightening that a band from 2004 seems to be from another time and universe, but Garrison’s hard-driving, guitar charged, proto post-hardcore intensity shines through all twelve songs, but truly glows for me on “New Habits for Old Friends” and “I’m a Lover”. However, do not assume that all Garrison knew how to do was throw musical haymakers; “We Watch the World Come Down” has a huge hook that soars across a majestic chorus, and their raucous take of the Smiths’ classic, “Panic” is a slice of furious perfection. I had “hang the DJ” ringing in my head for hours afterwards, and I could not be happier for it. Blending the power of Unwound with the dexterity of Fugazi and just enough harmony to spice it all up gloriously, Garrison roars on “King of the Century” and “Let’s Fight”. “Stand Up and State Your Name” is a ferocious assault, but has rounded edges that provide a surprising injection of melody within the cacophony of force. “Ego” begins with nearly a minute of deliberately emerging noise before hammering away with a thunderous low-end barrage and powerful vocals. “Twenty-four” is from the band’s first demo and is a raw blast of sinewy guitar work that was a stirring example of what the band would do over the course of eight years. I am so embarrassed to say that I missed out on Garrison the first time around, but thrilled that I caught up now.

HAUX - Violence in a Quiet Mind (Color Study Records www.wearecolorstudy.com)

The music of Haux is able to make emotional pain tangible. Throughout the poetically titled Violence in a Quiet Mind, the London via Massachusetts native sings with an angelic fragility (“You can’t get hurt if you don’t make a sound” is one of the more poignant lines) that has often invoked comparisons to Bon Iver. That is an accurate and wonderfully complimentary statement for both artists, but Woodson Black constructs songs in which lyrics and vocal delivery mesh in a manner that connotes unbearable emotional anguish with a warmth and beauty. With his voice quivering over acoustic guitar, “Salt” is terminally gorgeous, and this structure marks the tone for all of Violence in a Quiet Mind. Accented by stripped-down musicianship, Black courageously presents his soul through often-whispered lyrics of loss and heartache. The most innocuous of phrases take on a profound depth in the hands of such a gifted wordsmith. (One such example is “Hold on to love” from “Of the Age”) The serene “Killers” is highlighted by the repetition of Black’s composed admission, “I forgive you”, and this embodies the staggering power of how language can be delivered with chilling intensity without screaming. “Heavy” is both a dazzling pop song and also an engaging journal entry set to ethereal piano and minimalist percussion. A shattering sensibility is also heard on both the opening “Hold On” and the gut-wrenching “Craving “ (“Craving for your love, craving for your touch”). This is a record to play alone in the dark and simply bathe in the sorrow. 2020 may have provided enough pain for all of us, but the cathartic quality of “Gone” (“Don’t feel like myself when you’re gone”) and “Accidents” is good for the soul. Just be sure to listen to Violence in a Quiet Mind while sober, because this could easily inspire endless drunk texts to your ex whose name you just cannot seem to bring yourself to delete.

ADVERTISEMENT - American Advertisement (Patchwork Fantasy patchworkfantasy.bigcartel.com)

Advertisement’s American Advertisement introduces itself with “Freedom”, a song of buoyant pop rock reminiscent of The Fall, while fuzzier guitar tones hum throughout “Pretty Money”, a sinewy track highlighting the band’s triple guitar line-up of Charlie Hoffman, Carl Marck, and Ryan Mangione. The band fluctuates between uproarious rock energy and more subdued pieces, such as the subtle blues influence on “Days of Heaven”. The raucous “Upstream Boogie” has a Replacements-esque
bar band sensibility that resonates with the finest aspects of bare bones rock, heard later on the piano- accented ‘Shipwrecked Hearts”. “Velvet Queen” and the dark, angular “Tall Cats” take listeners back to the sound of late 80s/early 90s alternative, akin to Stone Roses or Inspiral Carpets with touches of easily accessible psychedelia and atmospheric guitar playing. The band concludes with “Always”, a sweeping, richly harmonious effort with expansive riffs and increasingly aggressive vocals that emerge over the course of seven freewheeling minutes. Advertisement has punk in its collective DNA and when they choose to select to inject elements of their history into American Advertisement, the result is powerful and authentic rock 'n' roll.

HEALING POTPOURRI - Blanket of Calm (Run for Cover Records www.runforcoverrecords.com)

The gentle opening “Dream Vacay” has touches of Pery Ribeiro’s “Girl From Ipanema” and that is more than appropriate, as Healing Potpourri sounds like a band one discovers in a time capsule unearthed after decades of quiet isolation. Breezy, psych-pop defines the beauty of “Blanket of Calm”(including the lyric, “it’s been a perfect day and it’s only one in the afternoon”) and the sweeping innocence of “Think About Us” captures early 70s rythyms with shocking authenticity. The band hopes to create music that “has a feeling of comfort and healing”, and one hears this proven true throughout Blanket of Calm. The degree to which one enjoys this style depends on how much value one places on serenity and wholesomeness. While “Think” connotes images of the Brady Kids or The Partridge family, such references may be lost on many listeners. Ingesting the wistful love song “Laney” (“I love reading her letters ‘cuz the curls calm me down”), makes it amazing to consider that leader Simi Sohota has dabbled in bands ranging from punk to black metal. Any sense of aggression or fury is stripped away here, leaving a collection of highly emotionally charged songs expressed through poignant lyrics that paint vast pictures with minimum verbiage. “Dustin’s Rain Tape” includes references to a friend’s mom’s boyfriend wearing camouflage, changing schools after third grade, and the serenity of listening to the rain while drifting off to sleep. “Pieces” features some of the of the darkest lyrics on the record, (“pieces of my skin rip open, it’s happened again, left feeling sore, don’t wanna think no more”), yet it is set against a bossa nova musical bed that makes even the deepest sorrow seem palatable. A similar vibe is captured through the effulgent tones of the instrumental “La Vida Tranquila”. A Blanket of Calm may be what many of us need right now-it is a luxurious collection of eleven fanciful songs that will not elevate a heart rate, but should reduce stress.

BETWEEN THE RAIN – S/T (www.betweentherainband.com/)

Between The Rain is led by Detroit ex-pat Tim Donlon, and his intense vocal delivery and burly guitar playing hit instantly on “Mudroom”, the opening effort of the band’s two-song EP. Donlon moved to Brooklyn after departing the Motor City and he was fortu nate to meet bassist Victoria Rothman who, along with drummer Roddy Merchant, delivers low-end bombast on both efforts. While “Mudroom” maintains a steady, driving structure, “Fox” features varied tempos. Beginning quietly, the track flirts with hard rock swagger but demonstrates an impressive restraint that makes “Fox” more impactful. Scavenging grunge’s darker corners, Between the Rain produce thinking man’s rock without sacrificing energy for technical proficiency. Both songs are expansive tableaus constructed by a trio that sounds twice as large. This self-titled release acts as wonderful appetizer, but I am hoping for a full course of this band’s talents soon.

MELODY - Teacher’s Pet (Lauren Records www.lauren-records.com)

Melody Caudill is sixteen years old. That is essential to remember as one listens to Teacher’s Pet. Caudill’s five-song EP details the challenges of navigating the waters of high school through the eyes of someone actually still in high school and not angry adults looking back with disgust. Razor sharp sarcasm abounds here as Caudill’s summation of people is quite astute and well beyond her years, while her introspective investigations of self-doubt and insecurities will resonate with those for whom high school is a distant memory. Caudill openly admits on the title track that despite her efforts to be the contrary, “who am I kidding? I am a teacher’s pet”, albeit clearly, a snarky one. The warm jangle of “Hibernate” and “Room 111” capture the authenticity of Exile in Guyville delivered with the delicate beauty of a young Jenny Toomey. “You’re not yourself, you haven’t been for a while/ So I try to help any way I can, I try to make you smile/ Because I like your smile” highlights the sincere sentimentality and innocence on “Hibernate”. Each of the five songs wrestle with the realities of teenage anxieties, as she laments, “I’m tired of making myself lonely” on “Mosquito Bites”, while unrequited love takes center stage on “Superlame”. (“I think it’s super lame that the only one I like won’t look my way”). Teacher’s Pet should be the soundtrack to the summer and Melody should be adored. However, as much I love what she is doing, I hate to break it to her that the emotions and struggles she is describing at sixteen will not go away anytime soon; although, on a positive note, this means that she will be writing amazing songs for the rest of her life.

OWEN - The Avalanche (Polyvinyl Records

Mike Kinsella has a hard-earned, sterling reputation as a singer/songwriter, as anyone knows who is familiar with his work, including Cap N’ Jazz, Joan of Arc, and American Football. The Avalanche, his latest solo release, is a majestic and stirring collection of heart-wrenching songs laced with Kinsella’s cutting self-deprecating wit. “I have a reputation of fucking up to uphold”, he announces on “One with the Show”, and when one listens to stunningly beautiful expanse of The Avalanche, it is obvious that nothing is farther from the truth. The songs are perfect in their haunting nature with precise plays on words. On “The Contours”, Kinsella’s luxurious delivery tells the story of heartbreak and the frustration of never quite getting over it. He acknowledges that he is in therapy but notes, “Turns out all the answers are just questions”. “Wanting/Willing” features my favorite line of the record, when Kinsella contemplates, “I’m not sure if I’m funny or a joke” as gentile acoustic guitar glides sinuously behind him. Again working with Sean Carey and Zach Hanson, Kinsella creates music that is intimate and fragile, yet still overwhelming with its emotional depth. The biting “Mom and Dead” includes lush accompanying vocals from KC Dalager, and “I Should Have Known” is a breathtaking work of self-reflection and profound sorrow. (“Objects in the rear view mirror/ closer than they appear/ except for you, my dear”) At times, emotionally taxing, The Avalanche is a record of insightful, candid work that allows Mike Kinsella’s gifts as a songwriter to shine brightly.

SAME GODS - Worried Eyes (samegods.bandcamp.com)

There are legions of bands that are quite obvious in their homages to their respective influences, but rare is the band that openly acknowledges and celebrates that fact. Same Gods do not even attempt to hide their affinity for darker 90s alternative, as the Helmet, Jawbox, and even Hoobastank (on the bouncy “This Time”) song structures abound. The Helmet parallels I found particularly interesting, as Same Gods makes me think of a mid-90s Helmet spin-off band called Handsome that featured former Helmet guitarist Peter Mengede. Handsome had incredible potential but did not quite fit anywhere within the worlds of alternative, proto-metal and the nightmarish arrival of nu metal and so, a band with limitless talent faded all too quietly into that good night. Fast forward more than twenty years, and Same Gods may be coming together at the right time. There is a hunger for their brand of straight-ahead, harmonic guitar-dense rock, and the band sets the tone early with the methodical build up of the opening “Remission”. The song’s deliberate pace emphasizes Same Gods’ desire to wrap their heavier qualities within a blanket of ethereal force. “The Dark” and “Arrogance” both possess big hooks and melodies that can exist on an island unto themselves without needless comparisons to contemporaries because, quite frankly, there are few contemporaries to which they can be accurately compared. The band features Jon Davis of Another Breath on vocals, Brendan Flynn of Freya on guitar, and a rythym section that includes Of Fortune and Fame’s bassist Shane Conzone and producer extraordinaire Steve Sopchak on drums. Together, these four understand how to craft songs that are both radio friendly (if that still means anything) while also hitting hard enough to be the soundtrack to shoulders and back day at the gym. Conzone and Sopchak truly shine on the concluding title track, a hulking mass of an effort that closes the record with both a strong dose of intensity that is still measured by unapologetic harmony. It is obvious that the world can use the music of Same Gods; the real question is will the world get to hear it?

SEER BELIEVER - Bent (Memory Music www.memory-music.net)

Nick Manske is the driving force behind Seer Believer, and Bent places a new spin on indie pop by merging some of the genre’s finest qualities into a deeply emotional ride over the course of nine personal tracks. The opening “Hard” is one of a few efforts dealing with love and loss, as Manske laments, “It’s been five years now, you should know I’m not look at anyone else” as hazy guitar hovers overhead. “On God” is an excruciatingly beautiful ode to Manske’s brother, detailing his sibling’s final moments and the singer/guitarist’s feelings of loss and guilt. (“I know I should have been there for you but I thought it wasn’t your time to move on”) Reminiscent of Radiohead’s sneaky sense of melody woven with more complex structures, “On God” enfolds the listener, and it is impossible to not share in Manske’s pain. The honesty and raw candor of the lyrics make these songs remarkably powerful; as obtuse riffs barrel through “So Much Like Perfect”, Manske works through his own suffering when he asks, “Why did I ever let go of you?”, only to realize the answer in the very next line, “I guess the drugs they told me to”. By opening “Breaking In” with delicate piano, the song seems all the more massive in scope when Charlie O’Brien’s drums kick in and the song’s tale of chemical abuse takes on a greater poignancy. “Day 1” is another effort that manipulates a loud/quiet dynamic with masterful precision with Manske’s emotive vocals perfectly matching the ebb and flow of the musical intensity. “Love Much” adds a bit more noise to the angular guitar riffs that tears through the heart of the song, while a pronounced bass line is given more room to rattle the listener. Many of these tales include sentiments of regret and even embarrassment for Manske, as he lives with a perception (either real or imagined) that he has significantly let down so many about whom he cares, and “Love Much” details a person who may be beyond saving, but still Manske wrestles with his feelings of distress. (“I looked away so ashamed, I knew he needed my protection”) The dreamy beauty of “Stuck Inside” masks the dark truth about failed relationships explored by the song, and this juxtaposition of ugly truths told through beautiful music makes Bent a stirring listen.

THE FOXIES - "Growing Up Is Dead" EP (wearethefoxies.com)

Any band that rails against the obsession with social media, the surefire cause of the world’s inevitable destruction, as The Foxies do with “Anti Socialite”, is sure to win my respect and I am instantly intrigued here. Huge electronic beats propel Julia Lauren Bullock’s snarky vocals, sounding like the offspring of a one-night stand between Stiv Bators and Britney Spears, as she taunts and teases on “Hyper Hypo”, asking, “I wonder what you think about me”, but the answer is obvious: she does not care what you think about her. The brilliantly titled “Call Me When Your Phone Dies” embodies “Goth Disco”, the genre created by this daring trio (rounded out by guitarist Jake Ohlbaum and drummer Rob Bodley) as a pulsating groove grinds against the listener; this is the soundtrack for that moment when you suddenly find yourself making out in a dark corner of the club with this track distorting your reality, and you never even get her name. “French Boy” is a pummeling effort, fueled by angular electro-punk , while “Neon Thoughts” teases with a huge hook and Bullock’s sex kitten vocals. The EP wraps up with a straight ahead pop gem in “Deep Sea Diver”; if this one does not appear on a soundtrack to a teen drama somewhere then the world truly is beyond help. I gravitate towards the harder hitting works on Growing Up is Dead, so “Deep Sea Diver” is a bit too conventional l for me, but The Foxies have a unique twist on modern electronically-infused rock that is undeniably impressive.

THE LOWS - This is The Lows (www.thelowsmusic.com

The Lows love rock n roll, as in classic, huge guitars with even larger hooks type of rock n roll. It should not come as a surprise, as the five piece calls Detroit is home, and the heavy low end and thick riffs have a metallic edge made famous by that city. “Road Trippin’” is a hard-hitting, blues-drenched ode to living hard and without fear. Saturated in distortion, the song harkens back to grunge-inspired metal without actually crossing over into that genre. Do not be scared away when reading about this band’s opening slots for acts like Candlebox or Puddle of Mudd; the Lows are not the newest imitation of 1993’s model; instead, Angelo Coppala look to bring back a grittiness to guitar rock that is sorely missing. Nothing about this band is airy or ethereal, even when they try their collective hand at a more conventional mid-tempo single with “Love Will Find a Way”. The distortion pedal gets another exhaustive workout on “Purple”, a soaring explosion of guitar finesse compliments of Brandon McNall and Nick Behnan, but the guys truly lock in as one growling machine on “Wake Up”. An appropriate call to arms for modern rock, the song is an explosive barrage of blunt force as Coppala” screams, “You gotta wake up” as if he is singlehandedly attempt to rouse the world from a state of somnambulism as drummer Duane Hewins and bassist Johnny “Wolf” Abel flair with the same controlled chaos as their guitarists brothers in arms. What I admire about The Lows is they simply want to make aggressive noise that stays with the listener after the songs end, and “”Morning Light” and “Let It Go” are additional examples of a band that has found its path and is refining it to perfection. This is arena rock energy without superfluous bravado; simply stated, it is rock for rock fans. Blending sleaze with enough grime and groove to kill COVID-19, The Lows are ready to launch Detroit through yet another musical resurrection.

VARSITY - Fine Forever (Run For Cover Records www.runforcoverrecords.com)

Varsity’s Fine Forever, this Chicago-based outfit’s third full length, conveys all the finest features of contemporary indie pop by traveling back in time, but a little farther than one may expect. Fine Forever is not just a return to the jangly pop of the mid-90s, as “Runaway” and the title track are a pair of efforts that have a clear 70s vibe, particularly the soaring vocal on the latter compliments of the enchanting Stef Smith. Guitarists Dylan Weschler and Patrick Stanton are an ideally matched tandem, playing warm, airy riffs that elevate the majesty of Smith’s singing on “The Memphis Group” while the singer also weaves atmospheric synth swirls into the fabric of the expansive piece. Smith has a keen eye for detailing life’s more fleeting moments with brilliant clarity, noting, “Pillars scared of the community, grown up sleaze, they log on to find their freaks” on the soaring “Shaking Hands”. The Brothers Stolz (bassist Paul and drummer Jake) control “Reason to Run”, a driving, Beach House playing with The Feelies sounding song again equipped with Smith’s introspective lyrics (“Now you know how to push all my buttons, lying down in low gravity”). “Heaven Sent” includes my favorite couplet of the record (“I run the movie in your head, can you just act like you’re interested”) while deftly played pop warmth surrounds and the listener and gives a gentle hug. “Sicko World” concludes the record, and the song apparently has been kicking around in various stages of growth for three years before finally maturing to a point worthy of inclusion on a record, and the wait certainly worth it. Smith declares, “If anyone could read my thoughts, they’d lock me away, I’m just another headcase” as bouncy riffs and equally supple beats tumble around Smith’s beautiful voice until the record softly fades away. This is my introduction to Varsity, and for others like me, do not miss out any farther. Varsity has produced an impressive amount of music in a scant period of time, with Fine Forever boldly displaying a young band brimming with confidence and talent.

THE FREUDERS – Warrior (thefreuders.bandcamp.com)

The Freuders are a highly technically proficient four-piece from Warsaw, Poland that bring psychedelic charms to their brand of post-grunge rock. The opening “Hannibal”, with its chorus of “hanni-bal” is instantly a sing-along track as vocalist Tymoteusz Adamczyk’s voice is enveloped by dense, fuzzy guitar. ”Pulse” is fittingly driven by the bass work of Maciek Witkowski as dreamy, ethereal vocals featuring deft interplay between Adamczyk and his mates wistfully drift in the air. With subtle touches in the style of Mogwai and Red Sparowes, The Freuders have a haunting refinement to their playing, as the title track illustrates through its ability to seamlessly alternate between fragility and strength. Olek Adamski’s accompanying guitar playing helps add to the tenuous nature of the band’s sound-one is never certain if the songs with explode like a star or remain majestically composed. “Dijuth” embodies this aesthetic, and while it does continue a well-worn tradition of a loud/quiet structure, The Freuders have adeptness for constructing songs with unique hooks. The buoyant “Maria Stuart” is another exploration of nebulous guitar rock with hushed vocals and fascinating lyrics. (“Another heart broken, another life taken, another church burning, another light fades out”) Drummer Piotr Wísnioch clears a path on the darker and heavier “Barbed Wire” as Adamczyk and Adamski once again engage in a battle of shared vocal responsibilities, while “Tension” dabbles with a more pop-friendly sound with one foot still planted in early 90s indie. The concluding “Anamnesis III” is the only song no delivered in English by the Polish act and this aspect makes the song all the more captivating. The richness of the distortion-drenched guitar playing works in ideal tandem with a broader vocal accompaniment due to the performance of special guest Lukasz Zurkowski, as well as a concluding two minutes that is steeped in Mother Love Bone-era grunge. This is a familiarity to what The Freuders do, but not repetitiveness. The guys undoubtedly pay homage to influences, but do not replicate them chord for chord. This is absolutely worthy of seeking, for The Freuders merge together various styles into a compact and inspired musical package.


 

LET IT COME DOWN - Songs We sang in Our Dreams (Joyful Noise www.joyfulnoiserecordings.com)

Kramer is a name known throughout the punk and post-punk world dating back to the late 1970s, but many became familiar with him trough his seminal work managing and developing the Shimmy Disc label. Now, entering his sixth decade of musical influence, he has joined Joyful Noise as their Artist in Residence, a position that will see Kramer release a staggering five records this year (!), he has announced plans to resurrect Shimmy Disc, and released Songs We Sang in Our Dreams, a majestic collection of serene beauty under the moniker of Let It Come Down. Joining forces with Xan Tyler, a woman, who fittingly Kramer has noted “hearing her voice in my dreams”, the songs on Dreams are just that-subconscious visions brought to life through warm, poignant vocals and stirring playing. The songs, like dreams, range from lucid to hazy, easily graspable to complex, and the interweaving of Kramer’s musicianship and Tyler’s voice makes the entire collection an impactful listen. The aboriginal tone to the opening “Moonlight” establishes a mood that Kramer and Tyler carry through the rest of the record. While each song is distinct in style and substance, there is a commonality that weaves through this immaculate musical mosaic. Precise and delicate acoustic playing surrounds Tyler’s angelic vocals. “Forget” opens with a Beatles-esque vibe, blending rich pop hooks and subtle psychedelia to create a theatrical experience in barely four minutes. The one-two combination of the stirring “Vicky” and the sensual “Fingers” (“I love to rub my fingers through your hair as you come and go”) are the literal and metaphorical centerpieces of a dazzling collection of songs which also include unique, fleeting interludes of jazzy, spoken word, piano-kissed, weirdness (“One Moon”, “Two Dreams”, “Three Wishes”, and the closing “Four Hands”). The ethereal romance of “Uh-Oh” embodies the overwhelming ecstasy of a relationship so many wish they could have. (“Is this too much love? Is this too much for you? Is it clouding the sun? Or does it warm?” and “It was freezing outside/to keep myself warm inside, I think of you”). Talents such as Kramer are rare, and this release is ideal for both the well versed and those new to his genius.

CLOSE THE HATCH - Modern Witchcraft (Red Moth Records https://redmothrecords.bandcamp.com/)

Glacial in scope and speed, the thunderous sludge metal grooves of Close the Hatch take a genre that can, at least to my ears, become redundant and pepper it with unique subtleties that remain true to what past giants have achieved but also update the sound with adroit skill. The opening “Death of Wolves” easily slides between pummeling and surprisingly serene moments as Steve B’s vocals penetrate into the wall of force provided by he and fellow guitarist, Shaun O. A similar sensibility is heard on the title track, as the song begins as an airy, ethereal piece with ample room to breathe. However, as Shaun H.’s drums begin to hit more fiercely and the vocals intensify, the song becomes increasingly claustrophobic and disquieting. This ability to control mood through tempo is the goal of most sludge/doom metal acts, but it is an intricate skill not easily accomplished. I also appreciate how Close the Hatch do not feel compelled to prolong any of their works-these are not twenty-minute long opuses; instead, the foursome (rounded out by bassist Josh G.) make an immediate impact and move on to next idea. “Thorazine Empire” is three and half minutes of powerful, masterfully manipulated blunt force that revolves around a discernable riff and memorable hook; two traits not particularly prevalent in many bands of this ilk. “Cordial Medusa” and “Attunement” are similar in nature, as they two, are the length of most standard pop songs, but carry an extraordinary amount of weight within their scant time upon the Earth. Creating broad, atmospheric soundscapes that are equally haunting and heavy, Close the Hatch push this particular brand of metal forward, with “Persona Non Grata” acting a template from which legions of other acts should study. There is a celestial beauty heard within these songs reminiscent of the best moments of Candlemass, Neurosis, or Solitude Aeturnus. These guys have created six albums in under a decade, proving that they are not only skilled but also highly productive, and I for one hope that Modern Witchcraft expands the notoriety of this band well beyond their native Ohio.

ELIZA NEALS - Black Crow Moans (E-H Records www.e-hrecords.com)

Having loved her previous work, I am thrilled to hear the latest from blues-rock goddess Eliza Neals, and Black Crow Moan continues her tradition of forceful, classically styled blues-rock. “Don’t Judge the Blues” warns people to not prejudge the performer of this most American of all genres, noting that we are “sisters and brothers” as an all-star collection of players deliver a high-energy groove behind Neals’ commanding voice. Neals is a star with enough talent to illuminate an abandoned street corner at 3am with her performance on the sultry “Never Stray”, but her talents are illuminated through the accompaniment of well-versed musicians such as Bruce Bears, Lenny Bradford, Howard Glazer, Derek St. Holmes, and even her sister, Valerie Taylor. The slow, sexy slide guitar that drives “Why You Ooglin’ Me” connotes the sonic origins of the blues and is the type of song that should not be allowed to be played before midnight. Joe Louis Walker shines on a pair of tracks, adding to the bounce of “The Devil Don’t Love You” and helping to solidify the rousing title track as the finest gem of the bunch. Moving with a poignantly deliberate pace, “Black Crow Moan” borrows from the depths of the blues soulful pain, and the chorus is delivered with the mournful expressiveness of a spiritual. “Ball and Chain” is a dazzling exhibit of Neals’ impressive range, as she moves from guttural groans of frustration through spiraling blasts of vocal gymnastics, holding notes to emphasize the agony of those “mean, mean things” she says were done to her. The concluding volley of the words “wrapped-up” that Neals delivers to conclude the song embodies the finest aspects of what the blues has to offer and harkens back to the best who have ever done it. “Hey, Take Your Pants Off” concludes the record with a blast of old-fashioned fun that is a departure from the emotional anguish one hears on so much of Black Crow Moan. For those who appreciate the foundations of rock n roll, Eliza Neals is a must; do not allow this one to go unnoticed.

MARK LANEGAN - Straight Songs of Sorrow (Heavenly Records www.heavenlyrecordings.com)

Mark Lanegan is most known for his work in Screaming Trees, but that band broke up twenty years ago, and over the course of the past two decades, Lanegan has created a remarkable and varied collection of unique solo work. “I Wouldn’t Want to Say” vibrates through a rich, experimental sound with mechanized vocals and a drum n’ bass style musical bed that quickly introduces a record of varied and profoundly personal songs. My favorite track here is “Internal Hourglass Discussion” which has similarities to the opener, but with a darker, trance style that is richly enjoyable. “Apples From a Tree” and “This Game of Love” are both delicate and immaculate in tone, with Mark Morton of Lamb of God contributing his skills on the former and Morton is heard again on the equally beautiful “Hanging On for DRC”. The latter is a heartfelt ode to Dylan Carlson of Erath, another potential casualty of the drug-addled 90s and early 00’s, but like Lanegan, survived (“We should be gone/you and me still hanging on”). “Ketamine” possesses a similar nature, with poignant and emotionally penetrating lyrics (“Give me some Ketamine so I can feel alright/to hide my true dark nature/to keep it out of sight”). “Bleed All Over” contains a dance groove that is not as robotic as “I Wouldn’t Want to Say”, but with its astral vibes, the song resonates with a distinctive synth-pop sentiment. When Lanegan is not generating wildly creative and hypnotic anthems, the other side of Straight Songs of Sorrow is quite refined. Wistful guitar wafts throughout “Stockholm City Blues” (“I paid for this pain I put into my blood”) accompanied by haunting strings, and “Daylight” has an ethereal drone that is interrupted by sudden guitar rumbles that will violently shake anyone from rest. “Dying Rover” features a guest spot from Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and includes the confession, “I’m just a sick, sick, man”. Regardless of the critical and self-flagellating view Lanegan takes of himself, it is impossible to not be swept up in his ability to bare the frequent ugliness of his own past, for he does so with both an unflinching honesty and a keen appreciation of just how fortunate he is. When he admits, “You could never tell me that enough’s enough” on “Stockholm City Blues”, Lanegan reflects back with a despondent clarity that comes through maturity but also when one looks around to see many of his friends are no longer alive. This is evocative music, particularly when Lanegan strips away the electronics and allows the listener to crawl inside his voice and truly feel the pain being (hopefully) exorcised. Always a talented writer, Lanegan takes listeners deep into emotions and situations few will ever find themselves and does so with limited words; his phrasing is often truncated and therefore more cutting. This may not cheer people up while they are stuck inside with their families, but if one can find time to slip away, Straight Songs of Sorrow marks the passage of time, the agony of self-inflicted wounds, but also the power of redemption and the resiliency to persevere.

THE DIRTY CLERGY - In Waves (Cornelius Chapel Records www.corneliuschapelrecords.com)

The opening chords of “Trials” instantly displays the deck of cards with which The Dirty Clergy plays; namely, big, arena-rock with a touch of blues in the style of Tom petty or even ELO. The deliberate pace of “Born to Lose” invokes images of honky-tonk bars with spit-stained floors and ragged bartenders, and the song’s crescendo builds steadily over the course of four and half minutes. All of this reminds me of Columbia House’s legendary offer of thirteen 8-track tapes for a penny; there is an aura of nostalgia throughout all of In Waves, and this resonates even when the guys borrow from slightly more recent times. “Young Lovers” assembles an Oasis-themed chorus, but regarded of the era from which they draw influences, the music of The Dirty Clergy is material you have heard before, just under different names. The airy, ethereal headspace of “Homesick” and “West Coast” is lovely, but the songs struggle to hold my attention, although the theme of contemporary violence, particularly among America’s youth does give “Homesick” a level of depth worth celebrating. I love all aspects of old-fashioned, no frills, rock n’ roll, but too often, the songs sounded like starting your car in the dead of winter; you can hear them revving up a bit, but the tracks never quite run smoothly. For an Alabama band, there are no country-rock sounding pieces here, and instead, the guys tend to look to crowd-pleasing anthems from the era of Watergate pardons and gas crises. “Parades” has a subtle downhome, folksy sensibility, but the vast array of the material on In Waves is safe sounding rock with just enough outside influences to stay above the trap of falling into the pit of allowing mainstream structures to become mundane. The Dirty Clergy are not here to reinvent anything; in fact, their primary mission seems to provide comfort through the familiar. To that end, they succeed.

PROTAGONIST - Fallout From the Chronicle (protagonist.bandcamp.com)

I was introduced to the voracious punk spirit of Protagonist five years ago, and I am very happy to hear of their return in 2019 with a trio of pugnacious singles. In 2020, the band brings Fallout From the Chronicle, a retrospective of sorts that has the band looking back upon the era of their blazing 2009 release, The Chronicle. The opening three efforts are the aforementioned 2019 singles, but the origin stories of these songs date back to 2007. The explosive power of “The Killing Fields” is a punishing blast of hardcore intensity and impassioned vocals, accented by slightly ska-like breakdowns. The song is, fittingly, homage to looking back upon simpler times, embodied by the closing words, “I wish I was five again/sitting back on the grass/staring at the sun, a smile on my face/without a care in the world”. While “Generation Lost” begins with benign piano, it abruptly shifts gears into a shredding declaration of lost faith (“we do not have your answers”). “Reasoning With Time”, the briefest of the bunch, is a driving yet richly harmonious work that keeps the angst in the forefront but also possesses a melody that one cannot ignore. In addition to scalding originals, Protagonist places their own spin on a classic from two Philly heavyweights Violent Society (“Totally Fucked”) and three tracks from The Boils (“Dependent”, “Paper Dolls”, and “Gone Dead, and Buried”). Acoustic versions of “Iamtheghost” and “Charge” revel the depth of the band and their expert marksmanship as musicians, as each song is equally poignant with thematic similarities. Fallout From the Chronicle is both a retrospective on what once was and a celebration of the present and what is; however, regardless of the ages of the material, it is great to have Protagonist back.

THE NEW REGIME - Heart Mind Body and Soul (Another Century/Sony Records www.sonymusic.com)

Ilan Rubin performed at Woodstock ’99 at age eleven and has never looked back, continuing to provide his drumming precision to Nine Inch Nails, Paramore, and Beck among many others. As The New Regime, Rubin plays every instrument and does so with nearly terrifying ease, moving from NIN-style dark ambience on “Destructive Patterns” to arena-rock vocal harmonies on “Surreal Disasters”. Along the path of these two extremes, one is treated to richly harmonized songs that could even make me dance, namely “Feel No Pain” and the title track. Rubin explores a multitude of styles on Heart Mind Body and Soul, from the haunting and poignant acoustic driven, “She Had Me Wrong” to the anthemic alterna-rock of “I’ll Never Let You Let Me Down” and “It’s Gonna Be Ok”. It is on these aforementioned latter efforts where Rubin truly astounds, as he blends the warmth of Muse and the hook-laded components of Thirty Seconds to Mars into a swirling mass of sound that has mass appeal. The chorus of “Surreal Disasters” is a musical earwig as Rubin’s voice soars and balances aggressive guitar playing and sensitive lyrics with deft ability. The overwhelming majority of the songs have a likability factor reflective of bands that could play a Super Bowl halftime without selling their souls, and for that alone, one must pay immense tribute to Rubin’s extraordinary faculties. Released in three separate segments, Heart Mind Body and Soul has distinctive personality shifts throughout, but there remains cohesion of raw emotion and vulnerability that unifies the sixteen songs. The soft, wistful “Tell Me What You Want” exists perfectly along side the Trent Reznor influenced, synth rage of “Turning a Blind Eye” as both songs are wholly reflective of Rubin’s passionate songwriting. Twenty-one years after opening Woodstock ’99, Ilan Rubin is still dazzling people.

SCREECHING WEASEL - Some Freak of Atavism (Monona Records)

Atavism, by definition, is to revert to an ancestral action or quality, and one can say that Ben Weasel does just that here. This is not a concept record or anything esoteric; instead, SW returns to what the band is always best at doing, which is of course, snarky, pop-slurped punk songs about love, frustration, and the general stupidity one finds in life. The opening “She’s Not Your Baby” is a MXPX-esque warning to would-be controlling tough guys out there as Ben instructs, “She’s not your baby, little man” if “this is the one you want to marry”. Naturally, to some, this will be Ben Weasel lecturing about how to treat women which may arouse some angst, but all I know is this record is a declaration that Screeching Wesel wants to once again hold a master class in pop-punk brilliance. While there are some speedy, quick hits like the rambunctious “Brain in a Jar” and the rockabilly feel of “Problematic”, Some Freaks of Atavism also contains “Bleed Through Me”, a four minute, hard driving effort with a big chorus and rollicking guitar. Failing at love remains a central theme of Ben’s life as “Crying Shame” captures Joe Queer’s aura (“That ain’t nothing but a wedding ring/ a piece of metal on your finger/no one cares”) and “Never Been in Love” which may either be a song of regret or boasting (“I’ve never been in love/I haven’t got the time or inclination”). At their core, Screeching Weasel has always been able to offset punk’s energy with an injection of harmonies to soften the edges without falling into a sugary abyss, and “To Hell With You” and “Dead By Dawn” are the finest examples of this skill. I was truly hoping that the latter was a Deicide cover, but when Ben declares, “tonight I’ll swallow your soul”, one hears a subtle nod to the legendary Evil Dead II. The lanky kid who made BoogadaBoogadaBoogada over thirty years ago may have grown up, declaring himself a “twenty-first century man” in “God Help Us”, but the fundamental instincts of Screeching Weasel return triumphantly on Some Freaks of Atavism, and we are the beneficiaries.

WITCHSKULL - A Driftwood Cross (Rise Above Records www.riseabovereords.com)

I will happily admit that when a band called Witchskull lands in my inbox and the opening track is a CTE-causing blast of rumbling sludge and psychedelic metallic riffs called “Black Cathedrals”, I am instantly transported back to middle school when pentagrams, backwards messages, and the symbolism supposedly found on the covers of Ozzy records had me heart and soul. This entire record brings me pure happiness, and if this quarantine never lifts, at least I can go insane listening to one of most glorious metal records I have heard in a long while. The thunderous nature of the opener is merely an appetizer for the darkness one hears from this bombastic Australian trio. Yes, the Sabbath influences are obvious and plentiful, such the menacing gallop of “Nero Order”, but the groove of “Baphomet’s Child” cannot be merely imitated by listening to Vol.4 on repeat; there is a purity to what these guys do that makes them more than a collection of heavily bearded (two-thirds of the band, anyway) veterans yearning for the 70s. Guitarist/vocalist Marcus De Pasquale has a vocal delivery as distinct and dominant as his guitar playing, most prominently heard on the lumbering juggernaut, “The Silent Place”, while bassist Tony McMahon simply devastates people on both “Black Cathedrals” and the tsunami of blunt musical force that is “The Red Altar”. Collectively, Witchskull prove that speed and ferocity does not always translate into truly heavy music, for the scream that announces the chillingly fierce hook of “Nero Order” will keep listeners up at night. “The Red Altar” is a monolith of a song moving at a glacial pace that allows the listener to hear each bone shatter and ultimately smell their own rotting body before finally succumbing to the pain. The fury of each song is held together by the perfect time keeping of drummer Joel Green, who spent time in Australia’s legendary speed metal beasts, Armoured Angel from the late eighties into the mid-nineties, and his pounding strength impels the speedier, deflagrated nature of “Dresden”. Sleep-meets-Cathedral style stoner rock dominates the ironically warm tone of “March of Winter”. The closing title track is a towering wall of fuzz-out force that envelopes all in its way through a sinewy song structure and obstreperous concluding two minutes. Bang the head that does not bang while listening to this, but if that does not seem like fun, have a couple of edibles and watch to see where Witchskull’s journey takes you.

(D)JURET - De Få Som Kan Se (sv-se.facebook.com/djuretpunk)

Literally translating to “animal” in Swedish, Djuret is a very different type of punk animal. The music is everything one would want in a punk act-the songs are aggressive, fueled by huge guitars, and have a plethora of gang vocals. However, there are instantly noticeable differences about this band that extends far beyond the Swedish language delivery. The work of Djuret are anthemic and fleshed out in a manner that separates De Få Som Kan Se from other punk works. “Trîtt” contains pummeling drums compliments of Könas and an abundance of sing along segments that have the resounding energy of a crazed soccer stadium due to the combined vocals of Förman Fred, Trädgårdslyktan, and Martin Sven Martinsson, the last of whom also delivers spoken word to the opening “Tellus Ab” without sounding the least pretentious. “Piller” has a ska-style breakdown peppered by precise injections of guitar noise while still surrounded by chorale vocals and stirring guitar from Fed. Additional percussion and synth touches are added by Ämil Hednamannen and Dolph, respectively, and nothing done here seems out of place. The alternative version of “Piller” blends aspects of folk, punk, and even the symphonic dissidence of Scandinavian black metal into a nine minute, richly tumultuous, aural stew. This is guaranteed one of the most unique releases of the year as multiple art forms collide in a fascinating experiment that shatters expectations and ignores traditional boundaries.

THE DREAM SYNDICATE - The Universe Inside (Anti Records, www.anti.com)

I am always intrigued by bands that play their music in a fearless manner; often, this means that these artists create music that dare the listener to stay with them, challenging the traditional constructs of what songs should be. The Dream Syndicate certainly throw down the proverbial gauntlet on the twenty-minute opener, “The Regulator”, setting the stage for a swirling, exhilarating journey through five expansive works of musical brilliance. While the band first raised eyebrows and generated confused gazes from those ill prepared for their musical visions in the early 80s, Steve Wynn and longtime counterparts, Dennis Duck and Mark Walton will certainly have The Universe Inside met with furrowed brows and gaping mouths. Despite only containing five songs, The Dream Syndicate treats listeners to roughly an hour of music that is highly non-conventional and yet traditional, psychedelic and still grounded. The luxuriant soundscapes that define “The Regulator” are created through sinuous musicianship, led by the indomitable Steve Wynn, but it is the accompaniment of saxophonist Marcus Tenney and sitar from Stephen McCarthy that make the song such a treasure. Blending Eastern flavoring with soaring electronic jazz and controlled experimentalism, the song is a complete listening experience more than a singular song. The title track is a fittingly morose effort, moving with greater deliberation driven by restrained noise compliments of Wynn’s guitar and his soulful vocals. The subtle alto sax woven so beautifully within the effort gives the song a sensuality and profound emotional power. “Apropos of Nothing” features a more conventional arrangement, but even here, The Dream Syndicate plays with the parameters of pop by infusing subdued dissonance and ambient touches into the song’s vast expanse. With dashing sax work, a jazz-funk bass line, Latin American-inspired percussion, and a serpentine nature that hurdles towards a noisy crescendo before calming its nerves once again, “Dusting Off the Rust” is reminiscent of Miles Davis’ most brazen and inspired moments on Bitches Brew. The Dream Syndicate is a band of visionaries and virtuosos, two adjectives one hears too infrequently today. The Universe Inside is just that; a cosmic, sprawling demonstration of lush poetic beauty. After nearly fifty minutes of extraordinary playing, I am saddened to come to final effort, “The Slowest Rendition”. Gentle and celestial, kissed by elegant sax work and Wynn’s Lou Reed-esque spoken lyrics, the closer is a tender farewell to a record of exquisite grandeur. It will difficult to be moved more profoundly by another work this year.

STRFKR - Future Past Life (Polyvinyl Records www.polyvinyl.com)

Strfkr, the labor of love from Josh Hodges with the delightfully cheeky moniker, returns with more airy pop sweetness. The record has a winding narrative in regards to its creation, as Hodges collaborated with Mathias Janmat and David Hoogerheide, two strangers who became friends while Hodges was in Amsterdam. The pair was introduced to Hodges through a mutual acquaintance who happened to be staying Hodges pace while the singer was in Amsterdam. Once back home in the States, Hodges took the ideas and skeletal songs structures to bandmates Shawn Glassford and Keil Corcoran, and the result in Future Past Life, a collection of danceable, disco-esque dance pop with a tangible Euro flair. However, while keys float across songs like “Never the Same” and “Second Hand” like apparitions in the one room in the house the previous owners never told you about, the band also demonstrates how acoustic guitars were the building blocks for these songs. The duo of “Better Together” and “Budapest” (the latter featuring fellow Polyvinyl pals Shy Boys) has far more pronounced guitar playing and the keys act as accompaniment. What makes this record work is that each song, regardless of form or tone, works and ultimately succeeds in its goal of creating infectious, albeit sugary, dance music with just enough atmospheric touches to provide Strfkr with an instantly distinctive sound, as if the Pet Shop Boys hung out MGMT. The fragile “Palm Reader” comes and flees quickly as Hodges chokes out the fading message of “just be honest with yourself” around minimalist playing that acts a powerful departure from the upbeat tempos that dominate the record. The band provides an intriguing paradox of sentimental, and at times profoundly meaningful, lyrics wrapped around silky compositions with a production quality that results in a dazzling sheen, best heard on tracks like “Dear Stranger” and “Sea Foam”. “Pink Noise” flirts with shoegaze and softened noise, but still retains a cheerful keyboard riff as the centerpiece, proving that the band takes chances but does not sacrifice their true mission. “Cold Comfort” concludes the record on a false cloud of serenity, for th ere is a highly uneasy nature to the song as the keys sound more ominous than relaxing and the understating loop of noise offers a inescapable feeling of claustrophobia. This final effort was my favorite of the bunch as Strfkr moved away from blissful keys and tuned them down to create musical anxiety. The uncomfortable atmosphere remains after the song fades, and illustrates to me how Strfkr can offer a wide array of musical options to an equally diverse audience.


THE BLACK WATCH - Brilliant Failures (A Turntable Friend Records www.aturntablefriendrecords.com)

This is the eighteenth (!) record from The Black Watch and I have no idea how I missed the first seventeen, but Brilliant Failures is a fine introduction to this band if you are like me and have apparently lived under a large rock for the past two decades. The Black Watch’s sound is a largely dreamy approach to lush pop songs hugged tightly in the arms of jangly guitars and soulful vocals compliments of John Andrew Frederick, who also happens to be a professor of film and literature. The title track includes the line, “all you’ve ever known is brilliant failures”, and despite the use of the term “failures”, there is still a positive quality to the phrasing, solidifying the belief that one learns best from the missteps in life. The ability to find hope in the midst of despair reflects the musical beauty of Brilliant Failures in general, as The Black Watch examines a wide array of pop sensibilities here. “Twisted Thinking” sounds as if the Replacements decided to quarantine themselves for a year with only the Smiths catalog for companionship, while “Crying all the Time!” has a rougher approach that is more aggressive than its counterparts, but still fits majestically within the expansive ocean of sound one hears within. The songs are breezy, often ethereal slices of precisely detailed anthems of profound emotion, best heard on the trippy pop aesthetics of “Red Dwarf Star” and the late 80s/ MTV’s “120 Minutes”-era characteristics of “Mind You Know”, a song that also includes my favorite lyrics of 2020 (“Being happy isn’t easy/It isn’t easy being happy”). “Hodophobia” has a soaring energy that accompanies its hazy vocals and folk-pop structure, accented by gentle waves of guitar, while “One Hundred Million Times Around the Sun” somehow possesses both a dusty stomp and a pristine serenity. A similar tone is heard on “What I Think”, a song that throbs along at a bristling pace matched by immaculate production and a strong delivery. “The Personal Statement” has a despondent beauty as Frederick captures Robert Smith’s poetic melancholy with hints of psychedelic qualities. There is a nearly limitless amount of aspects to love about this record; it looks like I have a lot of music to catch up on concerning The Black Watch.

FIRE IN THE RADIO - Monuments (fireintheradio.bandcamp.com/)

The third release from the Philly-based four-piece radiates energy from the opening blast of “Let’s Get to the Start”. Each song is a controlled explosion of guitar-driven indie rock goodness with just a pinch of pop sweetness and cleaver lyrics (“gravity has always pulled me down” from “Gravity”). Japandroids’ Jesse Gander handles the production of Monuments that offers a bit of insight into the flawless constructs of Fire in the Radio. Each instruments shines and shimmies with infectious hooks, and the band meshes rythym driven alterna-punk with rich harmonies, particularly the glimmering “Rewind”. Monuments brought me back to the 90s as memories of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, the Doughboys, and Manic Street Preachers came flooding back; however, Fire in the Radio take that foundation and injects a modern kick in the vein of bands like Beach Slang and Surfer Blood. With each track hovering around three and a half minutes, Fire in the Radio never wear out their welcome or overuse an idea; in fact, efforts such as “I Said” and “Breaking” leaves the listener desperately wanting more. The stampeding “Ex-SF” proves that the band has the capacity to rattle some walls as they tap into a Jawbreaker-style vibe, and the song’s intensity is magnified by its juxtaposition with the more sullen “This is My Document”. “Sing, Sang, Sung” is a classic break-up song with the cutting line, “Will you miss me when I’m gone/You say we will move on”. I adore this, and Fire in the Radio perfectly embodies the potency of the golden era of indie rock and play with outstanding talent. This will cheer people up as we all attempt to figure out how to exist within the confines of our homes.

LOST ROMANCE - Strum It Again (lostromance.bandcamp.com)

The ability to play truly effective power indie-pop is a fine art and one hears a great representation of this style on Strum It Again from New Brunswick’s Lost Romance. Each of the eight songs are rollicking, guitar-fueled anthems about broken hearts, frustrations, and yes, lost romance, but nothing about them is formulaic. Instead, guitarist and vocalist Gerry Perlinski has complete control over his voice and never pushes himself beyond his boundaries, thus keeping the songs neat packages of well-constructed, grounded rock n’ roll. There is an authenticity to this that cannot be forged, and efforts such as “Heart On a Wire” and “Turn Away” bash away with forthright energy. When Perlinksi says, “It tears you apart from the inside” on the aforementioned “Heart”, one also hears an indomitable rythym section of bassist Dan Haag and drummer Mohamed Amine Smires. This roaring pair provides ample muscle throughout the record. While the songs may address affairs of the heart that lean towards one’s sensitive side, the stories of emotional pain are contrasted with a smash and grab musical philosophy that highlight the poignant “Come Down” and the gritty rumble of “I Want You”. The fuzzed-out tone of “State I’m In” takes me back to mid-90s college rock with a distinctive Archers of Loaf vibe, while “Face to Face” is a slickly delivered slab of jaunty guitar pop, and when the refrain of “let’s go!” hits, it is impossible to not get fired up and sing along, even if you are currently locked away in an effort to escape a global pandemic. A positive energy permeates Strum It Again that is uplifting and fun without minimizing the band’s ability to also grab listeners by the shoulders and shake them. Lost Romance borrows from successful formulas of the past but delivers those ideas through their own distinct lens.


THE GUNGANS - Meesa Meesa Meesa (thegungans.bandcamp.com)

For those of you who are too young, too cool, or too scarred to remember, the title of the Gungans release is a reference to infamous Star Wars character Jar Jar Binks, who was a member of the Gungan species. His role in the Star Wars prequels and the irreconcilable damage wrought by this CGI nightmare should be saved for another time (or revisited by traveling back in time about twenty years), but what cannot be denied is the delightful madness of Grim Deeds, the mastermind behind this side project. As a man who has written songs on topics ranging from divorce to public suicide to a eulogy of Oderus Urungus from GWAR, and even co-wrote and recorded “So Listen, Ben” with a certain Jersey-based fanzine editor, it is not a surprise that he would attach his skills to a culturally maligned, albeit highly acrobatic, side-kick from possibly Lucasfilms’ lowest moment; I only add the caveat “possibly” because the interaction between Natalie Portman and Hayden Christiansen may still be worse. Still, “I Love Jar Jar Binks” is only one song. For the rest of the album, we’re treated to ten rapid-fire, easily memorized blast of sugary, punk-pop heaven. Every song is equally great, but there are some that are more equally great then others. Screeching Weasel/Mr. T Experience riffs run rampant throughout Meesa Meesa Meesa, but particularly buoyant rhythms and appropriately light-hearted backing vocals highlight “Action Figure Collection” and “He’s a Brony”, a loving homage to that distinctive slice of male humanity “obsessed with My Little Pony.” “I Love Jar Jar Binks” wraps itself around a tightly wound riff and a lyrics of true independent thought by declaring “I don’t really care what anyone else thinks/I Love Jar Jar Binks”, and is followed by the delightfully goofy “I Want to be Japanese” (“I want to read more manga everyday”), a track similar in tone and tempo. The Gungans pick up speed for the closing trio of tracks, particularly the Ramones/Queers surf-punk vibe of “I’m a Cretin” and “Laptop Punk”, a song that acknowledges that as “a middle-aged dad” with a “real day job”, it can be tough to be in band, so just Grim has to accept the fact that it is cool to “have fun just writing songs at home”, even if he does so with a “hand me down iPad”. Grim Deeds possesses an ability to both celebrate and properly mock the importance of pop culture and his talents shine brightly once again with The Gungans.

MAYFLOWER MADAME - Prepare for a Nightmare (Only Lovers records www.onlyloversrecords.com)

Oslo’s Mayflower Madame introduce themselves perfectly with the opening chords of “Prepare for a Nightmare,” as coarse, haunting tones instantly transport listeners back to the nuanced dark wave of Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy, and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. Trond Fagernes has a voice reminiscent of Peter Murphy as he emotes his lyrics with a sense of controlled torment on “Vultures” when he states, “I’m cynical, I’m sick of it all, how did it come to this?” as atmospheric keys from Kenneth Eknes float around his words. A steady, low throb is the fuel for the vast majority of the work here, including the stunning, mid-tempo trauma, “Swallow” (“When you see me tremble at the end of the rope/When you see me stumble at the sight of hope”). The band’s crescendo may be the highly apropos “Ludwig Meidner”, as the song’s stifling nature is reflective of the menacingly tense work created by the legendary Expressionist, with Fagernes’ repeating the ominous line, “I’ll be dancing on your grave”. The band began rehearing in a nearly abandoned industrial building, and one can hear the emptiness and despondency of such conditions throughout the record. The circuitous nature of “Never Turning (In Time)” surrounds the listen with a blanket of suffering and impenitency (“You’re my favorite time to kill/the last flight before my body dies”), an aura also felt on “Sacred Core”. The latter includes a shoegaze pace and ambient vacuity with a terrifying promise from Fagernes, “I’ll get you back at whatever cost”. Mayflower Madame proves that there is beauty in terror and majesty in discomfort; the band never allows the listener to relax, for this is music to be experienced more than simply enjoyed. The songs penetrate those who hear it as brief streaks of guitar delivered by both Fagernes and Håvard Haga intermittently scorch the air, ethereal keys and evocative poetry permeate the atmosphere, and exist to be repeatedly played, analyzed, debated, and the meanings about which will likely never be fully agreed. “Goldmine” is a tale of embittered romanticism (“I gave my heart away to an endless charade…I caught you stealing from my goldmine”) played with just a hint of greater pop efficacy, while “A Future Promise” includes a nuanced hook and places Fagernes on the outside of the action. He is the omniscient narrator here, noting how “she’s sick of giving in/she’s got no patience, she just wants to win”, taking listeners through the tale of one woman’s desire to break free of a failed “romantic notion”. Depending on one’s outlook on life, this could be either the best or very worst band in the world with whom to self-quarantine right now, but personally, this will help me fight through the current pandemic. A band like Mayflower Madame only intensifies my hatred of this virus, for I want this band able to travel to the States and bring their poetic destruction to fans here in a live setting. Indefinably lush, gorgeous, and profoundly moving, Mayflower Madame reinforces all of my cynicism about romance and relationships in one glorious ten-song collection.

TRUPA TRUPA -I’ll Find (trupatrupa.bandcamp.com/album/ill-find)

Building upon the success and magnificence of their previous release, Of the Sun, Poland’s Trupa Trupa return with I’ll Wait, a shimmering work of psychedelically charged indie rock. The opening “Fitzcarraldo” is a living musical dichotomy, somehow simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. The song is based on a film directed by Werner Herzog about the real life escapades of Peruvian rubber kingpin Carlos Fitzcarrald. This constant convergence of the lush and the haunting, not to mention the wildly interesting historical references made by the band through these tracks, makes I’ll Wait a scintillating and intellectually challenging listen. Grzegorz Kwiatkowski emotes the refrain, “all the way to the end of the line” (from “End of the Line”) in a manner that conveys both a childlike sense of playfulness as well as a subtle mania that demands repeat listens. Initially thrust forward by the nimble bass playing of Wojchiech Juchniewicz, the song seamlessly slides into a subdued, atmospheric realm with a tone that conveys a nursery rhyme gone terrible awry. There is a sense that something terrible is about to happen, but it is impossible to predict what exactly or when. “Invisible Door” initially strikes the listener as a 1970s psyche-pop effort as heavily compressed, almost whispered vocals meander above a bed of solemn musicianship. The song’s perceived simplicity masks a depth that reflects Trupa Trupa’s musical mission; namely, to create music that is at times claustrophobic and unnerving but always engaging. The closing title track is musically suffocating, and waves of ethereal controlled noise force Kwiatkowski’s vocals to swim against the tide while he commences with an internal battle, first declaring “I’ll find” before being told by a second, but still his own, voice, “no, you won’t”. The song is replete with nightmarish elements seemingly lucid and incomprehensible. Trupa Trupa’s willingness to address the realities of global hate, particularly the rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, gives their music an additional gravitas, but the strength of any band must be songwriting, and these four are supremely gifted.

Read Rich Quinlan's interview with Trupa Trupa here...

THE CARVELS NYC - "Late Night Heart" EP (Die Laughing Records www.dielaughingrecords.com)

The Carvels NYC, one of America’s great treasures, return with three more blues-drenched explosions of swinging, punk-inspired rock n’ roll. With their focus on rollicking guitar, wailing saxophone, and Lynne Von Pang’s distinctly powerful voice, Carvels NYC sound like a band from a different era but are urgently needed now. The title track of the Late Night Heart EP invokes images of clean-cut kids dancing on American Bandstand with its 50s doo-wop structure and clever metaphorical lyrics, but it still hits with an undeniable ferocity due to the always steady playing of drummer Steve Pang. The same holds true for “Bitter Pill”, a dirtier sounding effort in which von Pang brazenly addresses the failure of a relationship and refuses to apologize for anything by noting, “I am a bitter pill/ that got caught in your throat”. Danny Ray provides flawless sax work throughout each effort, and he plays with an intensity that provides both swirling blasts of force but also a soulful depth as well, reminiscent of Fear’s angst-riddled “New York’s Alright if you Like Saxophones”. “Out in the Streets” is the most conventional track of the three, as the song steamrolls along with von Pang perhaps never sounding more dulcet in her vocal delivery and guitarist Brian Morgan given a greater chance to shine. A wondrous addition to the band is former King Missile bassist RB Korbet, as his backing vocals are noticeable across the trip of tracks, but perhaps more prominently on the closing “Streets”. The Carvels NYC craft another flawless collection of musical enchantments; from song configuration to attitude to production, the Late Night Heart EP is a delight.

SUNTITLE - "Pure Forever" EP (Know Hope Records)

This South Jersey outfit have refined their skills over the past year or so with a seemingly endless string of opening slots for big name acts (Knuckle Puck, Set It Off, X Ambassadors), and that work led to the creation of a stirring four song EP in the form of "Pure Forever." The opening “Big Jawn” is a kick to the teeth of guitar force that breathlessly meshes into a dreamy, shoe-gaze track accented by powerful drumming and impassioned vocals. “Squirrel Hill” adopts a similar sensibility with Joe McGarvey and Kyle Fisher’s heavily distorted, droning guitar majestically interwoven with powerful vocals (“Sorry that I’m not sober/Just for a minute/II guess I missed it”) and understated low-end prowess from Peter Bariexca and drummer Dan Mattera. The fleeting title track is the most unique piece of the four, as minimalist playing wafts elegantly past the listener as McGarvey asks the poignant question of “Why can’t I be pure forever?”. The band returns to a classic 90s alterna-vibe on the closing “Milligram” as Suntitle blends start/stop symmetry with intensified singing, a massive hook, and a richer grove. The song is deceptively heavy and truly stands out following the subdued quiet of “Pure Forever”. There are many interesting aspects to this band, and if the quality of this EP is any indication of what the future holds, their time as an opening band will be short-lived.

LORD BUFFALO - Tohu Wa Bohu (lord-buffalo.bandcamp.com)

This is truly unlike anything I have heard before and will be impossible to forget. Blending elements of dark atmospheric, nearly metallic qualities with contemporary folk, Lord Buffalo makes music that is majestic, moving, and at times, frightening. The opening “Raziel” includes an introduction that one should not listen to alone; the first three minutes are an approaching storm from which one cannot escape, and then the voice of Daniel Jesse Pruitt appears and completes the unsettling soundscape. The vast majority of the tracks are expansive, meditative tableaus of musicianship that can be equally dense and ethereal, effortlessly shape-shifting within seconds. The enchanting title track brings the listener into a realm of melodic chanting as piercing guitar slashes through the sky. Harkening the experimentalism of acts ranging from Slint to Xiu Xiu, Lord Buffalo is a demanding listen that requires one’s highest level of attention and focus. “Heart of the Snake” creates psychedelic headspace while connoting images of vast plains and dusty, barren lands. There is tangible beauty in all that Lord Buffalo produce, from the bouncy, fuzzy, folk-kissed pop of “Halle Berry”, a song accented by angular, muscular guitar riffs and a grandiose refrain of “say hallelujah”, to the spacious, hovering “Kenosis”, an apparition of a song that conveys a penetrating sorrow. The vastness of the songs allows Lord Buffalo to create several anthems within one; even the aforementioned “Kenosis”, while largely a work of gentle exquisiteness, includes searing violin that viciously lacerates the latter portion of the track. Every attempt to introduce noisy characteristics into otherwise tender anthems works perfectly-nothing sounds out of place or forced. There is a highly intricate method to Lord Buffalo’s madness, and these songs are built in the manner of how would care a sculpture; there is a solid base and the ornamentation is added in layers to create an elaborate masterpiece. The closing “Llano Estacado” rattles with a scintillating, looping cadence that grips the listener in an embrace that is disquieting. Lord Buffalo does more than play music-they construct listening experiences.

RABID FLESH EATERS - R.F.E. (rabidflesheaters.bandcamp.com)

When I first found speed metal, many, many years ago, it was Rigor Mortis’ blazing “Foaming at the Mouth” found on The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years soundtrack that instantly caught my attention and now, over thirty years later, it is still among my favorites. I mention this as Rabid Flesh Eaters openly pay a lovingly heavy homage to the fellow Texas legends on R.F.E., including the final recordings of legendary vocalist Bruce Corbitt. Throughout R.F.E., the band honors the proud past of Rigor Mortis with updated versions of three scalding RM classics, “Die in Pain”, the enchanting instrumental “Welcome to Your Funeral”, and the all too timely “Contagious Contamination”. While this trio of tracks are my personal favorites for both musical and nostalgic reasons, one should not undersell the intricacy and heaviness of the other five songs found on R.F.E. The expansive “The Fall” is over eight minutes of elaborate, classically delivered metal on which vocalist Ricky Wilson displays his remarkable range and guitarist Mike Taylor formulates challenging riffs without overwhelming listeners. The band’s ability to experiment with tempo and volume make the song an intriguing musical journey that could only be achieved by truly battle-tested and accomplished players. The title track is perhaps the most poignant moment on the record as Wilson exchanges vocal responsibilities with Corbitt, and the late RM/Warbeast singer delivers his lines with a fury and passion that makes his passing all the more morose. Rounded out by John Hill on bass and drummer AJ Tate, Rapid Flesh Eaters boldly and proudly wave the flag of pure speed metal that punches quickly and with blunt force, but balances this assault with dizzying song structures. Rabid Flesh Eaters is not simply mimicking the blueprint of Rigor Mortis; the music on R.F. E. is committed to commemorating both Corbitt and Mika Scaccia, the former RM/Ministry/Revolting Cocks guitarist who passed away in 2012. Scaccia once worked with Rabid Flesh Eaters, and the desire to honor two tragically fallen metal forces flows though the eight songs on R.F.E. This is ideal for those looking for traditional metal free from breakdowns or feet-flying pits.


 

ERIK CORE - Last Call (erikcoregunpowder.bandcamp.com)

I had no idea folk music could be this much fun. Imagine Tom Paxton singing for the Circle Jerks and one can begin to place a big toe in the wild musical pool that is Last Call. Released in early 2019, this is a mandatory listen for people (or fools) like me who missed it upon its initial emergence and is a wonderful primer before Erik Core releases a new collection in 2020. Blending country forthrightness, hardcore energy, and metal ferocity, Core, supported by buddies Al Stingle and Josh Mendoza, blasts his way through eleven songs about living hard, nearly going too far, and somehow being smart enough to see the lessons in past mistakes. The relentless vivacity of “Wild Fire” is matched by the scathing “Rock Stars”, whose refrain of “Don’t believe your rock stars/making all their profits/selling you their dreams” just drips with years of frustration. When the trio slows the pace down, as they do on the dusty “Last Call”, there is a melancholy realism that can only be truly expressed by those who have lived what they write (“Hoping for a better tomorrow/Wishing for a better today/Knowing that even as these words are spoke/Another set of eyes closes for good”). “Freedom of Spirit” retains a hardened Southwestern vibe, while the uproarious “WTF” is simmering mix of combustible angst and sardonic wit about the rampant spread of “heroin in the Midwest”. The band’s greatest skill is that while they have all clearly cut their teeth playing aggressive music (Core founded Gunpowder), the songs on last call are varied in length and intensity level, with “After the Fog” moving deliberately as Core speaks of “tassel dancing peepshows”, “Sandinista, rum drinking partner”, and a “full time demon fighter”. This is an intriguing listen, but the overwhelming high point for me was the expansive, beat poetry nature of “High Noon”. An explosion of authenticity about the suffering faced by so many of the ignored in America, the song takes the listener into jail, the agony of waking up strung out, “covered in piss, puke, and shit”, dying to be saved but not seeking salvation. The track is a masterpiece of fearless writing performed with painstaking strength. I cannot wait for the next record from these guys.

JONNY POLONSKY - Kingdom of Sleep (https://jonnypolonsky.bandcamp.com)

Jonny Polonsky has had an amazing life; as a teen, Black Francis plucked him from an ocean of musicians fighting to be noticed, and he went on to perform with Maynard James Keegan in Puscifer. Throughout the years in between and around these events, Polonsky has played with everyone from Neil Diamond to Tom Morello. On Kingdom of Sleep, the Brooklyn native makes richly atmospheric, and at times, even futuristic sounding music on a record that plays out like one metaphysical experience. “Ghost Like Souls” is a majestic work of with truly other worldly sounding vocals delivered with fragility over a lush, keyboard-driven soundscape. “The Weeping Souls” rattles with a poignancy matched by a visceral sensuality woven within its indie pop/folk structure. (“Oh what can you say after you cry yourself to sleep/And there are no tears left to weep”) It is difficult to avoid using the term “dreamy” to describe the work of Polonsky, but the term is fitting on “No Tears” and the delicate eroticism of “You Turn Me On” (“Let me taste you again/I won’t waste a drop of you”) as breathy vocals hover like a low cloud ceiling above emotionally charged and haunting musicianship. “Aenerone” returns to the meditative dance grove first introduced on “Ghost Like Souls” and is equally beautiful as the opening track. Ethereal keys waft effortlessly into the closing “Willing Eye”, a jangling nugget of heartfelt emotion. The entire record is achingly beautiful and a testament to this man’s boundless experimentalism.

THE GLOOMIES - Are We Getting Better? (thegloomies.bandcamp.com/)

The Gloomies often live up to their name aesthetically, although they may take their moniker from an obscure collection of blue aliens from the Care Bears carton. Regardless, Andy Craig leads The Gloomies through a collection of songs that are warm and lush haunted by fragile vulnerability. On “DNTGTBTTR”, the vocalists admits, “I miss the way we felt when we were young, magic everywhere, screaming in your ear”, acknowledging a sense of loss and a woeful plea for redemption. Even the fleeting DIY “Voice Memo”, of which there are three, take the listener into the band’s creative process and the burgeoning beauty of the ideas that dominate this stunning record. “Sick Like You” hoovers elegantly with intricate guitar playing, and the gorgeous “Mess We Made” is a serene ballad with ghost-like backing vocals of delicate beauty. The fittingly titled “Calm Now” is an ideal closer, as the song is played with refined musicianship that is mesmerizing in its lavish splendor with Craig’s voice sounding as if he lost at sea. The Gloomies are an intriguing band and the work on Are We Getting Better is an impressive illustration of this band’s vision.

ACID TONGUE - Bullies (Freakout Records www.freakoutrec.com)

Seattle’s Acid Tongue is a fascinating combination of classic indie rock stylings and an unrelenting DIY spirit. This conjures images of the heyday of the 90s indie rock explosion, particularly the title track as Guy Keltner announces how “rich kids are bullies” in a falsetto whose innocent sound belies the pain the song exposes. This dichotomy of complex, emotional sorrow and ethereal, musical deftness is expressed on “Jenny Lewis” with the scathing line, “our love is just another inside joke”, and the mid-tempo crawl of “Liars” as Keltner admits, “they don’t tell you it ends like this”. Acid Tongue delivers music that is both somehow highly sophisticated and instantly relatable, like reconnecting with old friends who have changed but still retain much of their old charm. The crawling pace and self-deprecating honesty of “Sometimes” is a heartfelt confession that will be undoubtedly relatable (“Love is a strange world/Love isn’t kind/making me crazier, time after time”). When Keltner declares “bad medication is not the only thing you hide” as he opens the bouncy, nervous “Walk Don’t Run”, he introduces a twitching, infectious effort that perfectly captures the unease of the world in which we live. The driving bass line reverberates with a slickness of 1970s studio chic but somehow still captures the ethos of a garage band playing together for the first time. Keltner, who is accompanied by a wondrous band of skilled players, including primary partner Ian Cunningham, have compiled a collection of heartfelt, occasionally desperate tales, but rather than feel sad about how dark times may be, Acid Tongue tells us on “Forty Years” that, despite it all, “we might as well enjoy the ride”. Not bad advice.

JAH WOBBLE - A Very British Coup (80 Proof Records https://www.averybritishcoup.com)

One may see this as a Public Image Limited reunion of sorts, and the timing is perfect. Jah Wobble, John Wardle on his birth certificate, was PIL’s bass player who famously exited the band in 1980 under scurrilous conditions before releasing his own solo record Betrayal. Forty years later, the need for unique takes on failing British culture and stale pop music coincide on “A Very British Coup”, as Wardle is joined by former mates Richard Dudanski on drums and guitarist Keith Levene. The song is a delightful mixture of atmospheric pop, throbbing bass, understated but impactful drumming, and Levene’s soaring guitar playing. The riff carries the track, seamlessly blending metallic touches with soaring beauty as Mark Stewart (Pop Group) takes the helm vocally and provides a string of sarcastic observations about a nation on the verge of departing the European Union and embarking upon an unknown future with far more economic and social questions than answers. Phrases such as “sordid sentimental, sick souvenirs” and “hypnotism by the radio” are woven within elements of dub step, post-punk, and jazzy disco. Accompanied by tape loops and even Chinese harps, the song is a universe of varied sounds and styles meshing together into a gloriously beautiful condemnation of contemporary England. Only the Brits could be so sardonic and lovely at the same time. Regardless of your interest, or lack thereof, in English politics, this should be required listening, as it brings together legends with decades in their pasts who create something that sounds entirely new.

SHARP VIOLET - “She’s So Strange” (sharpviolet.bandcamp.com/track/shes-so-strange)

Long Island’s most exciting band returns with a new single that demonstrates increasing refinement of their sound and growth within their collective songwriting talents. “She’s So Strange” begins with a controlled, fuzzy mid-tempo riff while vocalist Liz Meehan celebrates strength through individuality (“Her temper runs hot but her shoulder is cold/A child at heart with a soul so old”), but the song changes dramatically once it reaches its furious curious. Driven by the low-end force of Jasmine Fuentes’ furious pounding and a rumbling bassline from Marie Tornetto, along with the dual guitar crunch of Jessica Benenati and Allison Sondergard, “She’s So Strange” becomes an explosive blast of angular punk accentuating some of Meehan’s most poetic writing (“She's So Strange/In proportion to obscurity/Draining my money and my sanity/ She likes the color but hates the taste/ She can't make up her mind so she makes up her face”). One of punk’s founding principles was to celebrate those who are traditionally on the outside of what is considered “acceptable” or “normal”, but in a world of mass conformity in which one’s self-worth is driven by likes on social media posts, it is refreshing to hear a song once again celebrating the idea that people should be who they are and have pride in doing so. When Meehan states, “She’s the queen of the scene/even if it’s in her own head”, she captures a sentiment many feel and does so with her band mates sounding at their best thus far. Overflowing with energy and clearly exhibiting continued musical prowess, Sharp Violet hits fiercely here, providing more proof as to how they are one of the best and most intelligent punk bands playing right now.

THICK - 5 Years Behind (Epitaph Records www.epitaph.com)

Thick is a Brooklyn trio of socially astute punks and 5 Years Behind is a collection of acerbic examinations of how frustrating modern life has become. Thick has released a series of highly impressive singles and EPs, so it with great anticipation that one finally gets their full-length debut, and there is not a wasted second here. On “Bumming Me Out”, vocalist Nikki Sisti says, “anxiety gets the best of me but it won’t bring me/everything that I read is bumming me out” as a warm yet intense guitar riff envelopes the listener. The band has the ability to inject some pop harmonies into their work, such as the sing along “Sleeping Through the Weekend” with its’ blistering funny take on relationships (“I don’t care about your new job/I don’t wanna hear about your paintings”), but the forty-eight second slash and burn blast of “Fake News” leaves nothing to the imagination, and the biting, Ramones-meets-X-Ray Spex “Your Mom” is an instant classic. “Mansplain” begins with forty-seconds of inane comments the members of Thick, including bassist Kate Black and drummer Shari Page, have actually had said to them over the course of their career (“they sound really good for women”) before leaping into a roaring blast of punk aggression. Thick’s ability to balance melodic playing with lyrics often steeped in cynicism and angst, such as the poignant juxtaposition of nostalgia and regret on “Home”, grants 5 Years Behind its profound impact. “I Won’t Back Down” reads like both a personal mantra for Sisti but will ultimately become a battle cry for limitless listeners as well as the band delivers a forceful declaration of independence while condemning the overwhelming ocean of hypocrisy that people battle each day. While it would be easy to simply see the world as a place of unrestrained suffering and ignorance with no hope of improvement, Thick is encouraging people to not quit and to keep having fun even in the midst of the mind-numbing stupidity. This sense of realistic optimism is the record’s most endearing quality; it is angry but not hopeless. Sisti, Black, and Page do not simply scream about the state of the world, but instead want everyone who is fortunate enough to hear 5 Years Behind to know that as alone as people may feel, there are others just like them out there. I am forever a fan.

DEADRISEN - S/T (AFM Records www.afm-records.de)

Remember when metal was defined by gargantuan guitar riffs, pummeling drumming, and banshee wails from vocalists with nearly inhuman pipes? Well, DeadRisen clearly does because this band has each of these features plus much more on their self-titled release. The members of DeadRisen have highly impressive resumes, but bassist Mike Lepond truly stands out with his work in Symphony X. Superbly produced and played with breath-taking proficiency, DeadRisen bring back the days when bands were compiled of members who were virtuosos more interested in exploring the bounds of their instruments than gaining likes on social media. I know I sound like the old guy in the neighborhood, but DeadRisen resurrects a quality lacking in many bands-irrefutable talent. There are endless traditional metal components on this self-titled release, such as the power balled “Reach for the Sun”, but also quite a few very pleasant surprises, such as the flamenco guitar work from Rod Rivera that spices up “The Maker” and “Visions”, as Rivera is the son of a flamenco guitarist and he brings his familial talents effortlessly to DeadRisen. However, at their core, DeadRisen are an old-fashioned metal band determined to breathe new life into the genre’s conventional structure. The galloping riffs that drive “Prophecy” and “Chains of Time” never grow tiresome for old metal fans like myself, and DeadRisen nicely accent this playing with adroitly placed keyboards and messages of rebellion and strength (Vocalist Will Shaw commands listens to “never give up, never give in” and to “conquer our fears” on the aforementioned “Chains”). To help demonstrate their metal chops and pedigree to any potential doubters, DeadRisen take on the always risky task of covering Metallica, the equivalent of covering Zeppelin by an up and coming rock band, with “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, and to their credit, DeadRisen pay homage to the masters (of puppets) with flawless execution. Will Shaw may not have the James Hetfield’s menacing growl, but the end result is a thunderous, nearly symphonic take on a masterpiece. This is not merely a rise backwards in time, but rather a celebration of metal’s heritage as well as its future.

PET CROW - Take the Edge Off (https://petcrow.bandcamp.com)

It is ironic that Pet Crow named their sophomore release “Take the Edge Off”, as the record sound as if it is perpetually on edge; a rattling, noisy, ball of 21st century Feelies pop. “Insomnia” wraps a jangly guitar riff from Sean around the listener and squeezes as tightly as humanly possible while Baz pounds away on drums to create a blast of controlled chaos. The subtle surf grooves of “NOCD” and “One Whole Summer” are propelled by Danielle’s soaring vocals and the song captures the central theme of the band, which is to mesh fun, light-hearted playing with tales of frustration and disillusionment. Pet Crow put together a total package on “What We Doin’?”, a fast-paced gem of garage pop that reveals the skill of bassist Connor whose low-end thump gives the song a more noticeable punk aesthetic. The most interesting of the songs on Take the Edge Off is easily “Controlling”; with its extended length of nearly five minutes, Pet Crow experiment with their sound by allowing the song to breathe and interspersing classic surf-punk riffs with blasts of blunt force and Danielle’s elusively sultry vocal delivery. The title track overflows with 90s indie energy and makes for an excellent contrast with the darker “Hostage”, as the latter is a festival of loud/soft timing and possesses a menacing atmospheric quality not heard in Pet Crow’s other work. There is quite a bit occurring just below the surface with this band and what may strike some as upbeat pop songs upon a cursory listen will ultimately reveal far more when one listens again. The concluding “Prick” has a disarming sensibility until one hears the lyrics “you make me sick/such a waste of life” delivered with chilling impassiveness from Danielle. This intellectual and emotional depth helps to make Pet Crow a tremendous listen and a truly promising band.

STRANGE LIPS - Too Bitter (https://strangelips.bandcamp.com)

Brooklyn’s Strange Lips makes riot grrl punk that is biting, sarcastic, and incredibly relevant on their blistering six-song Too Bitter EP. Each song is a furious musical and lyrical assault led by powerhouse vocalist/guitarist Stephanie MacIntyre, including the sardonic and subtly painful “I Wish Cher Were My Mom” (“She’d be proud of me, just like she is of Chaz, She’d support me, no matter who I am”). Strange Lips, rounded out by Vivian Keating on bass and drummer Jouie StaRomana, take aim at the trivialization of creative people on “Something Simple” (“And they told me make something fresh/You’re got to make something snappy/You lose me-it’s too complex”), and simply annihilate contemporary society on the perfect “Am I Woke Yet?” Obliterating male feminists (“let me talk over you”) and the naïve (“I’m a white girl, I’m so energized/ The Women’s March was my first protest ever”), the song is a brutally honest deconstruction of hypocrisy in less then two minutes. “Change” is a frantic opener that is destined to be a favorite amongst anyone who ever been in a doomed relationship-therefore the entire world-as MacIntyre says, “I’m giving you permission to dig my own grave” with a delivery full of equal parts rage and regret. The closing “Pretty Soon (You’re All Gonna Die)” is dedicated to the NRA and the politicians who suckle at its economic teat, with MacIntyre brazenly declaring, “Well you take your blood money/ Love your semi-automatic/Hush, hush,‘til the red dries to brown/Well I hope you still love it/ With your mouth ‘round the barrel/Suck it down, old man, suck it down”). I absolutely adore this band and the awareness they are attempting to generate; it would do this country indefinable amounts of good for people to listen.


ROSS THE BOSS - Born of Fire (AFM Records www.afm-records.de)

As one of the founding members and preeminent guitar player for metal heroes Manowar, Ross “the Boss” Friedman demonstrated his penchant for scathing riffs and an acute appreciation for melody. Friedman also played a critical role in punk’s early life with The Dictators, and his legacy now slides into its sixth decade with Born of Fire. Everything on Friedman’s latest effort screams of classic metal aggression, invoking acts like Metal Church and Armored Saint, while obviously channeling Manowar’s earliest, fiercest moments. Soaring, wailing vocals cascade across a tableau of driving rythyms and overwhelming speed. The sludgy stomp of “Fight the Fight” is matched by the thrash-inspired “Denied by the Cross”, but each track is punctuated by the octave shattering vocals of Marc Cotoia, particularly the symphonic title track and the pummeling “Godkiller”. “Demonic Holiday” will satisfy your fetish for ostentatious 80s metal excess and “Waking the Moon” is soaked by blues groove reminiscent of metal’s earliest days. Perhaps the finest message one hears on Born of Fire is “Undying”, a rallying cry that can be applied to Friedman as easily as the genre to which he ahs given the majority of his life. AFM once again finds the ability to release music by important artists that may otherwise be tragically overlooked. Find this, revel in the skill displayed, and keep seeking out this label’s roster.

HUMAN IMPULSE - Human Impulse (humanimpulse.bandcamp.com)

There is always a need for angry metal-inspired punk, but our current global climate makes this music more important than any other time in recent history. The Minneapolis trio Human Impulse, featuring veterans of other bruising acts including Ambassador Gun and Path of Destruction, unleash a torrent of fury across six songs that are the musical equivalent to a curb stomp. “Behind Your Back” begins with a deafening wave of guitar force from Andy Hefner who works in perfect tandem with bassist Luke Olsen and drummer Bob Cahill. “Reassessed” is a master class in how to produce scathing metalcore without ever relying upon tired breakdowns, while “The Darkest Hand” is the band’s magnum opus, clocking in at over three minutes. The song’s galloping rhythm is counterbalanced by raw, flesh-searing riff played with savage intensity before burning itself out and fading away in a cloud of distortion. “Pharmacaust” has a classic punk feel, as if Knocked Loose was suddenly possessed by the Damned, with a buzzsaw guitar hook and aggressive backing vocals. The closing “New Wave” is a tank of a song that leaves nothing but a razed landscape upon its completion, as Hefner once again channels Johnny Ramone through Lemmy’s amp to produce a flawless effort that honors the true legends of the genres these guys clearly adore. Go buy this immediately.

MONDO GENERATOR - Fuck It (Heavy Psych Sounds www.heavypsychsounds.com)

Nick Oliveri returns with Mondo Generator after an eight-year hiatus, and he announces his return with blistering intensity. The ferocity of “Up Against the Void” is all one has to hear to grasp the power of Oliveri and his mates Mike Pygmie and Mike Amster. Blending hardcore fury with dense metallic riffs, “Void” is a skull crushing blast of force that is merely an appetizer for a massive, squalling entrée. The blues-dipped, psychedelic grunge power of “Kyuss Dies” is matched later by “There’s Nothing Wrong” as Mondo Generator demonstrate an endless supply of energy across the landscape of this scorching record. The speedy “Turboner” pays homage to pills, fast women, and all other forms of debauchery that makes life tolerable, taking classic rock imagery and creating a thunderous slab of antagonism, while “Death Van Trip” is the leading song on a soundtrack to a horror film not yet made. Mondo Generator never allows the listener to come up for air over the course of fourteen rumbling songs of impending musical destruction. “ “When Death Comes” is a high-speed burnout that blends buzzsaw guitar and blastbeats into a seamless slab of sleek vehemence, a sensibility matched by “It’s You I Don’t Believe”. “Silver Tequilla-666 Miles Away” is the noisiest drinking song ever recorded, and “S_V_E_T_L_A_N_A_S” is a highway pile-up set to music with burly guitar riffs and a bone-shattering low-end thump. Oliveri, Pygmie, and Amster sound like a small army rather then a trio, battering away on “Listening to the Daze” and the menacing “Option 4”; both tracks reveal the band’s penchant for writing devastatingly heavy grooves that are also sneakily catchy, revealing the vets appreciation for both technicality and the almighty hook. Mondo Generator has everything that metal would want, but this band cannot be contained within just one label-with aspects of classic rock, punk, metal, and even slight shoegaze, stoner tempos thrown in for spice, Fuck It is a cauldron of guitar fed rock at a time when we all need it.

TALK ME OFF - Cursed (Smartpunk Records www.smartpunk.com)

Cursed is a record for all the frustrated, self-doubting, and exhausted members of society; therefore, the vast majority of us. Vocalist and guitarist Holly Herzog leads Talk Me Off through a dozen blazingly fast spurts of sing-along punk that revolves around the central theme of general disgust with the quality of one’s life. The opening trio of the title track, “Worry Wart”, and “All is Lost” express sentiments that are readily relatable, namely how fleeting happiness is, and even when one gets a taste of satisfaction, most people cannot even allow themselves to enjoy it, as they are racked by the sense of impending dread that inevitably supersedes success. This may sound dreary and more akin to a one-man black metal outfit, but Talk Me Off balances the sorrow, self-loathing, and angst with rapid playing and an unquenchable thirst for elastic hooks. This is not punk-pop, but the buoyancy heard within Ryan Cacophony’s bass playing, even on “Cut It Out”, a diatribe against the ignorance spouted by people in the name of religion, and “Insidious”, an unflinching self-examination about just how easy self-sabotage can be and how so many simply continue to repeat the same mistakes will encourage people to bob their heads more than throw punches and spin kicks. Rounded out by drummer Christian Moquin, Talk Me Off will bring in a wide circle of punk fans, from those who worship at Joe Queer’s altar to those who celebrate bands like The Casualties and The Distillers. Some of the band’s hardest hitting tracks close out Cursed, as “Enough” and “Get Out” and raw and thunderous headshots that prove that like the best punk records, there is not a second of wasted time or any filler to be heard. Richmond, Va has graced the world with some great bands and talk me Off is certainly continuing a proud tradition.

TRAVELS WITH BRINDLE - Greetings From Rocky Point (travelswithbrindle.bandcamp. com/)

When one reads that a band prominently features the ukulele as a primary instrument, it is far too easy to imagine Don Ho singing “Tiny Bubbles”, and with all due respect to Mr. Hu, Chelsea Spear makes her ukulele rock throughout a collection of six poignant tracks. Greetings From Rocky Point includes first person perspective stories that are elegantly played and lovingly delivered. The opening “Summer Stock” is a blissfully naïve tale of dreams for stardom on Broadway despite “having only one line” during a summer theater stint. Overflowing with youthful glee and tempered by the inevitable disappointments of adulthood, the song is a snapshot of a beautiful memory when responsibilities were almost nonexistent and life revolved around trips to the beach and fantasies of future greatness. Spear’s voice has a warm, richly engaging tone that makes “Happy Birthday, Chicken Boy” endearing, and her attention to finite details makes her songs captivating and extraordinarily vivid. On the fleeting “Where’s Francesca?”, Spears notes how the “wallpaper felt like birch-bark” as she is delicately backed up by cellist Marshunda Smith and Hilary Lahan on percussion. My personal favorite is “Feather”, a heavenly slice of sarcastic suffering highlighted by the use of a singing saw by Leigh Calabrese and Spear noting, “Winter in New England got me feeling like an elephant/Saddled with a day job and seasonal depression”. Spear conveys Liz Phair’s blunt honesty delivered through lo-fi perfection, allowing each word to have resonance and depth as she spins tales of insecurity, fleeting optimism, and enthusiastic hope with a combination of confidence and vulnerability, best heard on the closing “Small Change”. (“I hear that small change in your pockets/ why don’t you throw that small change my way? With that small change I’ll make your morning good”) A Bostonian by birth and now self-described “New Englander in exile” (she currently lives in Berlin), Chelsea Spear is a wondrously talented singer and storyteller. One needs not have traveled to Texas (“Texas Tourney”), acted in small summer theater, or have any idea who Chicken Boy or Francesca are to enjoy a majestic collection of heartfelt songs. Hustle over to her bandcamp page and brighten your day.


ANTI-FLAG - 20/20 Vision (A-F Records/Spinefarm Records http://a-frecords.limitedrun.com)

Anti-Flag has never backed away from a political fight and there is no fight more daunting or nation defining than the upcoming US presidential election. Perhaps taking this title before Mike Bloomberg inundated any type of media known to man with his “hindsight is 20/20” ad onslaught, Justin Sane and his mates in Anti-Flag fiercely expose the monstrosity that has been the Trump presidency and offer a heartfelt call to arms for any individual who cares to listen. What has always impressed me over the twenty-five years of listening to Anti-Flag, first falling for them with the opening chants of “Die for the Government”, was their fearlessness in terms of how they delivered their music. The band never simply delivered two-minute blasts of punk fury, and that trend continues here with the pop-laden title track and the closing “Resistance Frequencies”, an anthem accented by subtle horns. In between these extremes, one hears a collection of flesh-searing blasts, including “Christian Nationalist”, which places the David Duke worshipping racists who feel covered by this current administration on blast, and “Hate Conquers All”. The latter is the opening salvo of the record and features a Trump quote about how, back in his version of the “good old days”, police would treat protestors “very, very rough” in an effort to dissuade them from marching again. The irony of course, is that the so-called Commander-in-Chief is referring back to the days of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a military conflict for which he conveniently found artificial bone spurs just in time to avoid. “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down” and “Unbreakable” are two inspirational rallying cries to those who may feel disheartened by the unflinching support the Trump regime continues to receive or the occasional sense of dread that this criminal may once again be selected to sit in the White House. Anti-Flag reminds all who hear that, like the country in general, all people go through difficult periods but the strong continue to fight through them and become stronger. These anthems of hope and positivity are offset by the expected and completely appropriate bursts of rage, namely “A Nation Sleeps” and “You Make Me Sick”, a pair of blistering modern protests songs that strip away all pleasantries in favor of the stark ugly reality in which America finds herself. The track I find most intriguing is the acoustic “Un-American”; a Springsteen-esque snapshot of young Americans who realize that all they were promised was a lie. The factories are closing, the churches are crumbling, the tales of hope and anticipated success faded into the bleak emptiness of the lives crushed by policies of a self-obsessed, entitled, narcissist. Anti-Flag has never hidden themselves away from the truth, and they do not want you to think that everything is going to be alright, because there is a good chance that it may not be. However, the band also reminds each listener that change lies within them and if they are not galvanized to save the soul of their nation, we will all look back with no one left to blame but ourselves.

ANVIL - Legal at Last (AFM Records; www.afm-records.de)

Before anyone jumps to the 2009 documentary that has come to, rightly or wrongly, define all that Anvil is, one must remember that this is the band that gave the metal world “666” and “Metal on Meal”, two all-time classics that stand up even with today’s heavyweights. I say this because Anvil has become a living punch line for many over the past decade, a sort of cartoon brought to life or Spinal Tap without the Stonehenge debacle. Maybe it’s the old guy in me, but I am so happy to hear Anvil’s newest work, Legal At Last, their third consecutive record with producer Martin ‘Mattes’ Pfeiffer, as it resonates with tangible commitment to a lifestyle of classic metal for all that terms entails. The guys certainly have the legalization of marijuana on their minds on the opening title track, and the comical condemnation of the inconsistencies of U.S. law, “Nabbed in Nebraska” (“Prohibited substance/In different states/While crossing boundaries/Police lay in wait”.). This proud Canadian export have been celebrating the need for marijuana reform for a long time, and Legal At Last is both a nod to their home nation’s decision to uniformly legalize weed, but also a subtle nod that maybe, after all the toil, heartbreak, rejection, and long, sweaty tours with little if any profit to show for their efforts, Anvil be finally be an acceptable vice to publicly discuss. “Talking to a Wall”, “Chemtrails”, and “Gasoline” do indeed take complex global issues and make them relatable to people on a seventh grade level, but so what?! I am not listening to Anvil in search of a doctoral dissertation on the instability of global financial markets; I want raw guitar, rugged vocals, and a pummeling low end, and that is what the band delivers. Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow sounds reinvigorated on “I’m Alive” and the rythym section of legendary drummer Robb Reiner and bassist Chris Robertson are airtight throughout all of Legal At Last, from the mid-tempo grind of “Nebraska” to the Accept-style groove of “Glass House”, and the wall-shaking, blues-kissed quality of “Said and Done”, a late-night sucker-punch of a song that oozes a Motorhead influence. “Plastic in Paradise” is a cynical summation of contemporary society’s obsession with convenience and speed over long-term concerns, and the song’s message is delivered over a thunderous rumble that will undoubtedly motivate a frustrated thirteen year old somewhere to care about the environment. I remember learning about environmental threats through bands like Nuclear Assault and Testament, and my early interest in history was sparked through Anthrax and Iron Maiden, so no one should snicker at what Anvil is doing here. This is also flawlessly executed, meat and potatoes metal with limitlessly massive riffs and absolutely no subtlety. The solo on “Bottom Line” and the opening of “Food for the Vulture” will melt any metalhead’s face, regardless of age or sense of “cvltness”, and there is something to be said for the lost art of crafting songs that are anchored around memorable hooks. This is not a voyage of nostalgia; Anvil are still putting all of themselves into creating metal that harkens back to the past but is still desperately needed today.

OF MONTREAL - UR Fun (Polyvinyl Records www.polyvinylrecords.com)

Of Montreal has been challenging musical boundaries for a quite a while now, and while Kevin Barnes has always been the mastermind behind the band, for UR Fun he actually is the band. Spending his days, sometimes up to twelve hours, in complete isolation constructing hypnotic dance beats and programming drums and synths, UR Fun has a breezy, light-hearted sensibility about it. Barnes admitted that Cyndi Lauper and Janet Jackson were on his mind as he recorded, and certainly the classic MTV aesthetic of the cover coincides with the dance party frivolity of “Polyaneurism” and the handclaps that propel “Get God’s Attention by Being an Atheist”, song that one could easily envision a teenage Anthony Michael hall dancing awkwardly to at the school prom. “You’ve Had Me Everywhere” is every terrible 80s cliché rolled into one song and I honestly do not know if Barnes is just trying to challenge himself and thusly his listeners, or if he is simply messing with people. The track is a tender declaration of love but done as if Barnes was singing with Mr. Mister or Mike and the Mechanics. Coming as the follow-up to the autobiographical White is Relic/Irrealis Mood, UR Fun is less about being swept away by new love but rather allowing one’s self to be truly enveloped by the happiness of being in love and celebrating the innocence of feelings that provide as much comfort as they do nervous energy, best embodied on the mid-tempo synth “Carmillas of Love”. Not all of UR Fun is kind-hearted, overly romanticized naiveté, as “Don’t Let Me Die in America” is a sharp, beautifully sarcastic take on the state of the U.S., with Barnes noting “I don’t even want to haunt this place” as new wave guitar riffs swirl about his head. The darker, “Deliberate Self-Harm” is another effort that takes people by the shoulders, shakes them a bit and reminds them that “having boundaries is abuse”. The trippy closer “20th Century Schizofriendic Revengeoid” asks the pertinent questions: “Why does everyone seem fake? Why does it all seem so unreal?” in the midst of a mildly intensive ayawaska experience. It has always been challenging to capture what Of Montreal is truly about as a band, and even when “they” are only Kevin Barnes, the difficulty remains, and for that, we are fortunate.

WARHAWKS - Stardust Disco (New Rivals Entertainment http://newrivalsent.com)

New Jersey’s Warhawks are furiously hard working guys who have produced a small fortune of music in the past two years, and Stardust Disco picks up where their last releases stopped; namely six blasts of driving rock with a healthy smattering of punk and indie touches. The opening “deliver” is a high-energy mass of roaring rock played in a gloriously stripped down style. With its mixture of thick guitar and massive drums, it would be easy to assume the Warhawks to be a band that only knows one speed until “Dire” comes across your ears. Blending an infectious and soulful chorus with New Wave tines, the song is a mainstream radio gem that will hopefully be picked up by any mainstream radio stations left standing, or at last let it be the backing music to a popular truck ad. As slick as “Dire” is, that song sounds like Viking power metal when compared to “Don’t Give Up Your Heart”, a sugary dance track that affectionately embraces the last gasps of disco that dominated the early 80s. “I can’t wait” jumps back even early and utilizes a 60s vibe to generate a sense of contagious energy and pure fun. I entered into this Ep expecting something very different than what I ultimately heard, but it is highly engaging. The synths that anchor “Other Side of Life” sound like something from Blotto’s immortal “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard” and that never makes for a bad day. I am curious to hear where Warhaks go from here, as they are either a band in musical transition or they are having limitless creativity and want to capture it all.

THE INNOCENCE MISSION - See You Tomorrow (theinnocencemission.com/music)

The Innocence Mission play music so delicate that it seems as if one even moves while listening, the songs will shatter, but there is incredible depth to every piece they create. Like gazing into the grey waters of a winter’s ocean, See You Tomorrow is a record of tranquility and gravity. The genteel sway of “I’m Always on Your Side” is a sentiment of both confidence and unwavering love. The warm piano on “The Brothers Williams Said” accents the heartbreaking qualities of vocalist Karen Peris’ voice, as she makes the phrase “see you tomorrow” sound like a poignant promise rather then a simple pleasantry. The bucolic nature of “I Would Be There” and the fleeting “Movie” highlight the guitar talents of husband Don Peris. While his playing never rises above a level of elegant tenderness, it is the structures he formulates on “We Don’t Know How to Say Why” and the opening “At Lake Maureen” that give the songs such haunting serenity. This is music for the darkest of days when one needs a ray of beauty.

MOTIHARI BRIGADE - Power From Below (mbrigade.com/)

“The more you watch/less that you know...More that you consume/more you’ll disappear”. These calls to resistance and change highlight the opening title track from Motihari Brigade’s contemporary take on protest music. Perhaps at no time since the turbulent era of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon has the country needed a genuine cry to raise collective voices and demand greater accountability for those in power, and Motihari Brigade brings this call to fruition through 1960s and 70s blues, funk, ska, and rock riffs with some horns thrown in for good measure, as heard on “We Don’t Have Real Choices”. The record is a celebration of classic rock styling and modern frustrations, including the dark comedy of “Talking to Crazy”. The song is a clear homage to dealing with people on both sides of an argument who do not want to listen to fact, but merely “know” what they know based on what they feel. The band takes a cue from early rock n’ roll and meshes rollicking rythyms with current political concerns, creating a form of “Bernie Sanders meets Helter Skelter” as their bio states. “Revolutionary Sweetheart” and “Invisible Hand” are both garage rock anthems of Strat-friendly guitar and buoyant hooks then clearly illustrate the well-honed talent within this outfit. Then there is the band’s bold cover of Lennon’s immortal “Power to the People”. It is always a potential stumble to cover a genius, but Motihari Brigade takes the song and reverently constructs a boisterous ska effort that should hopefully excite people to move and to think. “The Leader” sounds like The Byrds at their height, and “What Side Are You On?” wraps this telling question around cooler-than-you’ll-ever-be blues configuration. This is revolutionary rock for a new era of revolutionaries.

DEAD KOSMONAUT - Gravitas (High Roller Records www.hrrecords.de)

I must admit that I am a sucker for a great moniker, and it is difficult to beat “dead kosmonaut” in my book, but this Swedish band has much more to offer than just an eye-catching name. It requires a certain level of confidence to title one’s second full-length album “Gravitas”, but the band’s playing is deserving of such a superlative, for the five-piece borrow influences from metal’s earliest days and create something both familiar and fresh throughout eight panoramic efforts. The opening “Black Tongue Bar” engages in late 60s/early 70s headspace aesthetics before diving deeply into classic rock’s penchant for big hooks and guitar riffs thanks to Fredrik Folkar and Pär Fransson. The slower, bluesy “Iscariot’s Dream” has a familiar stomp, revisited on the groove-heavy “The Spirit Divide”, but Dead Kosmonaut avoids becoming too embroiled in the past. Whether embracing Iron Maiden’s erudite storytelling or UFO’s adoration of soaring choruses, the common denominator is the stirring talent of vocalist Pelle Gustafsson. Rather then only presenting his words in a banshee falsetto, Gustafsson varies his delivery while always displaying a staggering range of harmonics. This is the type of metal that fans of Dragonforce, Helloween, and Dream Theater will truly enjoy, for experimentalism is a central component of the band, and they do not follow a traditional “metal” playbook. From the melancholy piano that acts as a centerpiece of “Hell-Heaven” to the Gregorian-esque chants that open the majestic “Dead Kosmonaut Part I”, Gravitas is a record without boundaries or any adherence to predetermined constructs. The closing, ten minute oeuvre, “Dead Kosmonaut Part II” begins with a methodical, low-end rumble from bassist Mattias Reinholdsson and drummer Henrik Johansson as Gustafsson’s vocals soar overhead with Dickinsonian dynamism. The song wriggles steadily for over six minutes before a burst of cathedral keys accent the already spectral nature of the work. Dead Kosmonaut never reaches the speeds of a “thrash” band or even punches with the continued ferocity of an early Sabbath, but they push the boundaries of contemporary metal by looking to the past through fresh eyes and ears. This will not inspire pits, but with the proper lighting and mood, Gravitas is an immersive listening experience.

MR. ELEVATOR - Goodbye, Blue Skies (CastleFace Records www.castlefacerecords.com)

Tomas Dolas is currently the keyboardist for The Oh Sees, but in his other life, he is Mr. Elevator, a trippy, keyboard-driven act that takes the uplifting strains of 60s psychedelia and meshes them with 80s synth into a one mass of fascinating music. In the midst of “Alone Together”, I was convinced for a fleeting second that he was about to break into the theme song to Sanford and Son before returning to Blues Magoos meets 13th Floor Elevators pop goodness. The ethereal instrumental “Waiting” opens the record in the most delicate of manners and Goodbye, Blue Skies evolves over the course of the ten songs, only a smattering of which hang around for any particularly length of time. “Bamboo Forest” is exceeding airy and lush, with soft keys hovering like a low-lying cloud ceiling, again eschewing vocals. A similar vibe is created on “Anywhere” and “Brobdingag”, with both tracks sounding like the perfect accompaniment to soothing deep-tissue massage with exquisite serenity. A nearly tangible Pink Floyd motif is constructed on “Down” through heavily reverb-socked vocals and panoramic organ notes that shimmer and resonate with warmth. Dolas does not merely focus on music for self-contemplation and meditation, however as both “Live Again” and especially “Kompressor” takes 80s synth and up-tempo beats to sound like the soundtrack to action scenes from Stranger Things. Goodbye, Blues Skies is 1960s music made for those born long after that decade ended but done so with a loving appreciation for the nature of the original sound. This is the kind of record that one puts on and simply allows it to play straight through until completion, as Dolas’ work cascades with a resplendent cohesion that should not be interrupted.

PV KNUDE - The Anti-Terror Album (Released through the Museum for Contemporary Art, Denmark; samtidskunst.dk/en)

Injecting politics into one’s music is always a hazardous proposition, as like with any performer, there is a risk of alienating or even losing, potential fans due to one’s views. When Peter Voss-Knude announces, “This white mainstream folklore not worth fighting for” on “The More”, he is making his ideology quite clear, and whether one agrees with him or not, the beats that are constructed throughout The Anti-Terror Album are inarguably refined and impressive. Spoken word protests are woven within trip-hop grooves, jazzy interludes, and the Danish’s performer’s smooth pop vocals. Opening with “A Racist Nation”, PV Knude throws down an artistic and political gauntlet and he remains committed to this vision throughout the collection, as one hears his defense of immigrants and the condemnation of the ignorance of looking to blame those different from themselves for crime on “Who is Your Criminal?” (“I am not afraid of minorities…I am not afraid of Muslims”.) This is contemporary protest music with significance and depth; nothing on The Anti-Terror Album is just a slogan, but is rather a deeply analyzed and passionate opinion set to a modern soundtrack. “I’m Begging You” contains a glittering hook while august horns accent the beauty of the track. “The Wound of Cinema” condemns the irresponsible nature of filmmakers who celebrate and romanticize wars, both past and present, and the poignant “Jacinda” honors the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who took dramatic steps within her nation following a tragic mass shooting that targeted mosques in March, 2019. This was an education for me, as I never would seek out music such as this, but I am better for hearing it and will definitely search out more from one of the most enchanting and erudite performers I have heard in a long time.

TRUPA TRUPA - Of The Sun (trupatrupa.bandcamp.com)

Some bands are larger than the music they perform, and Poland’s Trupa Trupa embodies that statement, although what they deliver musically is incredibly stirring. I became aware of this band through an article about lead vocalist, guitarist, and lyricist Grzegorz Kwiatkowski’s efforts to combat Holocaust denial and misrepresentation in his country and the band’s hometown of Gdansk; as a topic about which I care deeply and to which I have devoted years of study, I was instantly intrigued by Trupa Trupa’s messages of remembrance and the power of history. The band’s calls for commemoration are made all the more impactful through the unique song structures and distinct harmonies one finds throughout Of The Sun. The opening effort “Dream About” is ideally named, as Kwiatkowski’s vocals float effortlessly within a tense, atmospheric soundscape, creating a song that is equally lush and unnerving. There is a perpetual sense of uneasiness to the work on Of the Sun, as “Angle” comes across on first listen as a gentle, acoustic effort, but there is a subtle maniacal quality about it that never allows the listener to feel completely relaxed. Equally unsettling is the title track whose sparse piano is terrorized by strands of noise wafting menacingly behind the tenderly kissed keys and Kwiatkowski’s ghostly vocal delivery. The collection of songs are consistently edgy and challenging and yet hauntingly beautiful as well. “Longing” has moments of stomping power offset by serene vocals and deftly executed, understated guitar playing. The events of the Second World War are most apparent on “Remainder” as Kwiatkowski and his mates repeatedly cry, “well, it did not take place”, boldly challenging Holocaust denial while invoking early Sonic Youth. For Kwiatkowski, the song’s message is more than artistic creativity-his grandfather was a prisoner in the Sutthof concentration camp, a labor and death camp located near Danzig that took the lives of more than sixty-five thousand people prior to Soviet liberation in 1945. Gdansk was also the location of the macabre discovery by Kwiatkowski and some friends of a collection of shoes from the prisoners of the camp that ultimately came to number more than half a million. Hopefully Trupa Trupa will continue to educate and inform people while also entertaining them, as Of the Sun is a complex collection of work that sways from delicate and refined in nature to sweltering and thunderous, occasionally within the same song. The indie pop warmth of “Anyhow” fades wistfully into “Long Time Ago” and the two tracks act as a perfect illustration of the dichotomy of this band; the former maintains a glistening beauty while the latter builds steadily to a crescendo of squalling guitar force. There is remarkable musical acumen within both songs, revealing a collection of impeccably skilled players. There are voluminous post-punk influences here, perhaps embodied most effectively on “Turn”, a short blast of controlled madness channeling Gang of Four and Wire while hanging out at a Suicide show that is simply exhilarating. The closing “Satellite” is a sprawling, ethereal effort that harkens back to Pink Floyd’s Piper At the Gates of Dawn era and concludes an enthralling and critically important release.

I also strongly suggest checking out this interview to learn more about this band’s inspiring efforts.


ALL TAKEN - “Monsters Anonymous” (https://ampl.ink/Wjqor)

I was fortunate enough to come across this talented LA based band on Twitter, thus proving that not everything about social media is pure evil, and I instantly loved what I heard. Forming and releasing material since 2015, “Monsters Anonymous” is the latest single and my introduction to All Taken, and there is much to celebrate. The band, a trio led by Daniel Daghlarian on guitar/vocals and drummer Avo Karapetyan, later joined by bassist David Eye, plays a style of throbbing rock with pop elements that sneak up on you much like the zombies they describe lyrically. The song is both an airtight piece of guitar-friendly rock and a snarky take on one’s perpetual search for self-expression and individuality (“What scares me is I don’t you scare you anymore”). Built around a perfectly synchronized bass line and backbeat, Daghlarian is given ample room to show off his warm vocal delivery and busy but still catchy guitar playing as he admits, “I’m a spirit bound to this earth/Been struggling with my self worth”. Recording steadily since their inception, I hope 2020 brings more from All Taken, as this could be one of those rare bands that proves that there are still fresh ideas in the punk-pop-rock world.

THE KRUEGGERS - Hysterical Cold Side and Dark Memories (Eclipse Records)

The title of The Krueggers’ new record instantly connotes images of Korn and other 90s nu-metal acts, and the music one hears within is a trip to the not so distant past when grunge was dead, metal was adding DJs, and no one was really sure of what defined heavy. As the dust settled and the new century began, metal ditched the industrial components and scratches for more “core”, but these four young dudes from Sao Paulo drag the 90s back whether anyone wants it or not. “Lying Machine” opens with a Trent Reznor inspired noise wave before launching into a Coal Chamber meets Korn loop, while “Freak Out” is a hard driving, Static X-style stomp. The Krueggers, led by brothers Randy and Rafael Fiora, hit an impressive stride on “Overreaction” as a bluesy riff slithers around a groove-fueled beat constructed by bassist Rikke Galla and drummer Luca Rorato, and the band embraces a more traditional metal style on “Dark Parade” as they integrate the most morbid aspects of Seattle’s grunge underbelly into a thunderous dirge. When The Krueggers eschew the noisier, messier aspects of their songs and focus on the riff as the heart of the song, as they do on “I Set Myself”, the results are impressive, for they channel Black Sabbath muscle and latter-day Metallica hooks. The band truly embraces its penchant for melody on “Bring Me Shine”, a song that borrows from grunge’s well traveled soft/loud path, but The Krueggers imbue the track with an a refined anger edge that will make it both commercially viable and a fan favorite. The title track travels deep into the underbelly of Seattle’s grimiest grunge moments for a Gruntruck-style metallic punch offset by subtle harmonies that occasionally stray too far into Dope Show-era Manson. There is tremendous hope or The Krueggers; once they begin to rely more exclusively on their own originality and eschew blatant homage to their influences, there is a band with great promise.

PINEGROVE - Marigold (Rough Trade Records www.roughtraderecords.com)

One may expect this eight-piece outfit to hail from somewhere within the heart of America’s “fly-over” states rather than Montclair, New Jersey, but Pinegrove masterfully capture an indie rock Americana vibe through Marigold. Evan Stephens Hall has a robust voice that is particularly impactful on the refined fragility of “No Drugs” and “Hairpin”. Marigold is a lush collection of modern folk as “The Alarmist” flows like a gentle steam with Nandi Rose and Dug hall booth providing warm, richly engaging accompanying piano. “Phase” is the sturdiest track of the group, as the song progresses around a tightly wound guitar riff from Hall and fellow guitarists Nick Levine and Sam Skinner while drummer Zack Levine sets a rollicking tempo, a trait one hears sparingly from the band. “Dotted Line” crawls along with lumbering pace but Hall’s enticing vocal delivery takes the listener on a story woven intricately through highly descriptive writing and daring honesty. The delicate nature of the playing one hears on “Alcove” and “Endless” makes both songs stirring pieces of deeply poetic, alt-country beauty, while “Neighbor” is devastatingly poignant as each note strikes the listener with a profound emotional force. (“I’m trying to do right, but I guess I desecrate everything, I loved my neighbor, I loved her courageous behavior”) The title track is an intimate, elegant work that gently concludes the record with the most nurturing of sounds that are soft, soothing, and deeply comforting. Marigold is a truly beautiful record from start to finish.


FACILITY MEN - It’s Fun to Disappear (Big Neck Records www.bigneckrecords.com)

When Teodor Lazar yelps, “I’m anti-social” on the opening “I Forgot You Were My Enemy”, one is launched headfirst into a concrete wall of musical density in the form of Facility Men. Angular riffs collide with bellicose force across the expanse of a dozen tracks of authentic postpunk disdain for all that s conventional. “The Day the Symbols Died” channels Margin Walker-era Fugazi without becoming a karaoke-style imitation. The song structures are intriguing in their claustrophobic sense of panic, highlighted on “Reunion Show”, which is the musical equivalent of a bundle of frayed nerves accented with off-kilter guitar playing and desperate vocals. The band’s bio reads that Facility Men deliver “some of the most singular aggressive sounds to come out of Buffalo’; while early Cannibal Corpse may stand as a challenge to that claim, It’s Fun to Disappear would certainly work as a soundtrack for the parking lot table diving and drunken lunacy of the legendary Buffalo Bills “mafia”. The rumbling power of “The Factory” rolls over the listener with lyrics of working struggles, cages, and minimum wage; the song also kicks off the centerpiece of It’s Fun to Disappear. The triumvirate of “Factory”, “Silver”, and “The Ladder” are fiery and relentless, a trio of bustling, frantic masterpieces fueled by the guitar work of Matthew Smith and bassist Traci Volker. The intensity of the playing never wanes, as “Morning Business” generates an overwhelming visceral response, while the musical detonation of “My Son” is built around hyperactive riff and exhausting drumming from Paul Gizzarelli. The longest track among the group is the eponymous closer. At a respectable 3:30, “Facility Men” is a rattling, unsettling song that does not allow the record to go quietly into that good night, but rather, it leaves one wearied and waiting more.

FIREHEADS/SEX SCENES - Split EP (Big Neck Records www.bigneckrecords.com)

Fireheads live up to their name with six tracks of blazing punk on this Wisconsin-centric release. Take the sloppy but glorious sounds of The Candy Snatchers and Night Birds playing as if wild dogs were chasing them and one gets a sense of this band’s sound. “Way We React” and “Dumb” are relentlessly energized and drummer Alex Ross must collapse at the conclusion of a show, for his Keith Moon meets Dave Grohl vigor carries every second of the Fireheads’ blunt, basement show intimacy. Fuzzy guitars from Bobby and vocalist Tyler blaze away on “Contempt” with a riff that is subtlety down-tuned for extra crunch, while bassist Rick adds an additional thumping line. The bombast is inspired, as Fireheads prove that classic punk with nothing more than a loud and fast aesthetic is alive and well.
Fireheads’ counterpart on this split release is Milwaukee’s Sex Scenes, and every song here is over quite quickly, much like my own sex scenes sadly, but each work also delivers a glorious money shot. The twenty-eight destructive seconds of “Siiick” driven by drummer Gregg Twigg and guitarist Harrison Colby, is exhilarating, while “One Foot” is a curb stomp of a effort, pummeling listeners with Connor Lamur’s low end roar. Sex Scenes base their playing around garage-band energy and a musical recklessness, akin to taking a handful of unknown pills given out by a stranger at a party. Vocalist Zach Otto leads the band through a classic Damned sound on “Warlord” as he cries, “kill the priest, I am the beast you heard about”. In the midst of this glory lies my favorite of the bunch, “Devil Dog”; imagine Danko Jones locked in a room with the Stooges during the recording of Raw Power and the MC5 kicking out the jams and one just begins to grasp the extraordinary potency of this band. The Cheesehead state is well represented here.

SWEET KNIVES - I Don’t Wanna Die (Big Neck Records www.bigneckrecords.com)

Before espousing upon how talented Sweet Knives are, I have to celebrate the amazing layout and packaging of this release. Four songs are divided into two seven-inch singles in a stunningly beautiful gatefold style, with Timmy Vulgar constructing dazzling album art. This release would be worthy of your purchase for the appearance alone, but then one listens to Sweet Knives, and this gets even better. The term “synth rock” make may some people uneasy (i.e.me), but Sweet Knives is a musical delight. The four songs on “I Don’t Wanna Die” are bubbly, shimmering songs highlighted more frequently by guitar than synth. The opening title track rattles with stirring energy carried by Alicja’s warm vocals. “U Don’t Mind” is dangerously infectious due to its insatiably danceable hook and soaring vocals. This is a burst of sugar-fueled sunshine that merges acts like the Dollyrots and the Regrettes with Blondie’s best elements, especially on “Ugly Mugly”. “Some People” takes a 60s garage rock vibe and combines it with a grimy, gritty riff to produce a thunderous conclusion to a brilliant release. Come for the art and definitely stay for the music.

SASHA BELL - Love Is Alright (https://sashabell.bandcamp.com/)

Sasha Bell sounds as if she was dropped into this world from a different era; a more simple and hopeful time to be sure. It is too easy to focus on the1960s style musical idealism one hears on Love is Alright, but it is also impossible to ignore. From the title track to the happy-go-luck bounce of “Sparrow” and the fantastical nature of “Heavy Doors”, the Missoula, Montana resident sounds like she just made her way back from Haight-Ashbury but politely declined all the drugs. Equally impossible to overlook is Bell’s glorious voice as she manipulates her tone to be seductive (“Molly’s Got a Talent”) or playful (“Candy Mountain”) with equal ease. This is unabashedly sugarcoated pop goodness, but that does not invalidate Bell’s obvious musical chops. “Lemonade” resonates with a infectious warmth that harkens back to the indie pop heyday of the 90s and may be the closest Bell gets to a contemporary sound, but even here, she references “your dirty magazines”, which I am fairly sure are not really needed anymore in the glorious age of the internet. (Although, to be fair, I am not sure of the Wi-Fi capabilities in Montana) With supple playing, Love is Alright is the musical equivalent of a permanent grin; an irresistible mix of innocence and sophistication from a woman whose skills know no bounds.

CRYSTAL VIPER - Tales of Fire and Ice (AFM Records www.afm-records.de)

There are only a few items in the world that will always make me smile-cat videos featuring a mother cat talking to her kittens, Tom Brady highlights, and old school power metal. Oh, and it’s even better if the vocalist sounds like Marta Gabriel. This Poland-based band takes everything I loved about metal when I was first introduced to it eons ago and only enhances the production without altering the traditional formula. Crystal Viper does not to dazzle listeners with dozens of riffs crowbarred haphazardly into a song; instead, they skillfully craft a massive hook, surround it with banshee vocals, thunderous drumming, and lyrics about conspiracy theories, the Bermuda Triangle, and magic, to create a dazzling slab of modern metal perfection. Soaring solos, head banging grooves, and Marta’s striking vocal style make “Still Alive” and “Under Ice” two of the finest pieces here, but the entire record is a pristine gem of traditional European style metal force. The instant comparisons may be Nightwish or Warlock, and one is safe with either, but Marta has a range that equals that of Doro or Floor Jansen (or even Tarja Turunen) with Andy Wave and Eric Juris simply crushing their riffs on “One Question” and “Bright Lights”. However, while I had already committed myself to this band by the end of the third track, the closing cover of Dokken’s “Dream Warriors” solidified me as a lifelong devotee of Crystal Viper. Any band with the confidence and appreciation of pure fun to cover a Dokken effort, especially from their highest hair and tightest spandex era, is worthy of unending respect. Bang the head the does not bang and pick this one up immediately.

HUSTLE AND DRONE - What An Uproar (hustleanddrone.bandcamp.com/)

Ryan Neighbors is one of those bold artists worthy of vociferous respect for not just his talents, but rather for his courage. After years of touring and gaining notoriety with Portugal. The Man, he boldly split and morphed his abilities into Hustle and Drone with writing partner Andy Black. What An Uproar is the duo’s second release and it is a vast collection of emotionally cleansing anthems that weave beats within a hazy fog of droning guitar, occasionally unexpected blasts of force, and utterly gorgeous serenity. The serene interludes of “God Daughter” and “Chambers” are necessary to give the listener an opportunity together him or herself before carrying on through a candid, albeit often dark, journey of self-discovery. When Neighbors announces that he “is fading away” on the opening “Dark Star”, one quickly learns that there is much happening underneath these beats. The bouncy nature of “Fame” is shrouded in a smog of insecurity and is accented by an underlying aggressive musical subtext. There is danceable heartbreak on “Shadow Fly” (“when you find another lover, I hope he’s better than me”), but the finest moments are heard on “Stuck Inside the Rain”, a dazzling work of warm piano and chilling lyrics. (“I lost my heart but I have my soul”) The slower, deliberate songs, particularly “Borrowed Time” (“I’m killing time but it just won’t pass”) and the closing “Never Sleep Alone” are carried by sweeping, hushed vocals that draw the listeners in on a conversation to which one is not certain they should be privy. The poignancy and the depth of the sorrow make What An Uproar a glorious ride through a desperate attempt for catharsis. “Raw As the Sun” and the title track may be more geared for those looking for noisier blasts of beats, but even these two efforts retain a strong adhesion to pop sensibilities. With depth and beauty, Hustle and Drone create a stirring sophomore effort.

GRADUATION SPEECH - Maintenance Needed (Black Numbers Records www.theblacknumbers.com)

Kevin Day is normally out in front of Aspiga, but he steps out alone (well, nearly) for a second time as Graduation Speech on Maintenance Needed, a jangly collection of emo-lashed pop with deeply heartfelt lyrics. The dark riff buried within “Your Heart, My Lungs” balances the otherwise upbeat tempo of the track. The five song EP is fairly fleeting, but there is a multitude of ideas flowing through each track. Day is a skilled wordsmith and he surrounds himself with highly talented players, specifically Devin Carr on drums), but this is a bold solo project. “Ourselves” is a shrewdly delivered effort led by acoustic guitar and soulful honesty. The moody “Small Apartment” is musically claustrophobic with its subdued but steady drumming and eerily atmospheric guitar. “Shedding Myself” is equally minimalist with highly descriptive storytelling as Day admits, “I don’t measure up that way that I thought I would” with delicate keys from Pat Pie adding just the appropriate amount of nuance. “Love and Patience” concludes the EP with another emotive delivery, proving that Kevin Day is perhaps more daring as a solo artist, as he takes chances that will strike a chord with those who are new to his work, without risking alienating fans of Aspiga.

VON HAYES - Moderate Rock (https://vonhayes.bandcamp.com)

The demented pair of geniuses that make up Von Hayes are back with Moderate Rock, an expansive collection of everything these two do best-make noise, make melodic noise, and make really noisy noise. Moderate Rock, a lovingly obscure homage to Nirvana’s “Tourette’s”, is eleven songs fun-loving, reckless experimentalism. The opening “Urinal Cookies” is exactly how this record should begin; the song is a short blast of chaos that knocks the listener off-balance before being struck by the surprising melody baked into “December Sun”. “Hot Roger” reverberates with a thick, repetitive riff and heavily distorted, fuzzy vocals meshing garage and grunge exquisitely. A similar beautiful mess is heard on “Babysitting”, albeit this tune emphasizes the lo-fi fun and the grunge touches are slightly less overt. My favorite track here is the Ramones meets The Troggs blast of force “Oscar’s Grind (Beth Goes for Broke)”, a relentless burst of buzzsaw guitar and high intensity energy. The aforementioned Nirvana is most clearly honored on “Man of Few Verbs”, a song whose title is matched only by the intricate nature of the guitar squalls that repeatedly pierce it. There are not enough bands like Von Hayes out there, but these two cassette only demons have perfected their style.

…AND THE BLACK FEATHERS - Sociallusions (andtheblackfeathers.bandcamp.com)

…And The Black Feathers most likely find themselves often confused with a folk duo known as Black Feathers, but this Denver outfit has nothing in common with quiet folk music. Instead, these guys tear up old fashioned, pop infused, rattling, rock n’ roll, playing the four songs on Sociallusions with a joy that is nearly tangible. When Danny and the boys shout out “gimme some danger” on the opening “Danger”, it is not youthful, misguided boasting-this is unadulterated rock and roll attitude delivered at a time when it is desperately needed. The filthy, hazy blues riff on “Scandalous” makes it my personal favorite of the four, as the song shakes but never loses composure. The same can be said of “Feature”, a mid-tempo nugget of dense guitar playing and surprisingly airy vocals. The closing “Leash” has a noise-pop aesthetic that is conveyed through the song’s delightfully off-kilter groove. Still richly harmonic, the song captures what this band does so, well; namely, create tireless rock with very modern characteristics.

GABRIEL BIRNBAUM - Not Alone (Arrowhawk Records https://arrowhawkrecords.com/)

Gabriel Birnbaum’s heart-breaking collection of self-exploration begins with the striking sentiment, “I like to see your name appear on my phone” on the haunting title track, and this line acts as a first step into the aching emotion Birnbaum conveys over the span of nine lovely tracks. His work is stark, harrowing, and at times desperately lonely, but never without hope. Even the mournful “Oh, Jesus” has a Leonard Cohen-esque honesty and warmth. Birnbaum is a musical lifer, a man who, while barely creeping into his thirties, has lived far more than most his age. A touring musician since his teens, he has traveled the nation, visiting the areas of America few think about or hope to see; the rugged life experiences of flailing for a taste of success shine through on Not Alone. “Mistakes” is a bluesy anecdote, a yard woven with the skills of Lou Reed, while “Comeback Song” is the tale of redemption one needs to hear every so (or perhaps very) often in life. The hushed power of “I Got Friends” celebrates the fact that, despite even what the title of record may say, Birnbaum is not as isolated as he may believe, and that truth extends out to the rest of us. Birnbaum’s music, particularly the subtle jazz sensibility of “Blue Kentucky Miles”, is the type of playing that was born and thrives in dimly lit bars where people know the bartender, the beer selection never changes, and no one there is looking for anything more than a few moments away from life’s disappointments. This is beautiful suffering and elevates emotional pain to a majestic level. Revel in the brilliance and raw fragility of Gabriel Birnbaum.

GROW RICH - Frantic Semantic EP (growrich.bandcamp.com/)

There are moments when one comes to truly appreciate technology; without the wonders of the interwebs, I never would have encountered the driving, fuzzy pop brilliance of Grow Rich. Hailing from Jakarta, Indonesia, Abdur Rahim Latada is a one-man show, although he does have a few friends join him for the four songs on Frantic Semantic. Grow Rich is a project whose music reverberates with a mixture of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Sugar while the members of those bands scour the Sub Pop catalog seeking out new 7 inch singles. “Bounce Back” repeatedly asks if the listener is ready to “bounce back”, and I know that it is this simplicity that makes the song so endearing. The rattling bass throb of “Kawan Lama” envelopes Latada’s voice while squalls of guitar noise dissects the air. “Tenderfoot” may only last sixty seconds, but when one hears the cries of “Fear, anxiety, don’t let them stop you”, anyone would be hard pressed to not jump off the couch and try to rule the world. “Cat Flag” is a charismatic track highlighted by a spoken word intro from Cika Fransisca about how people let her down, powerful guitar playing, and lyrics including, “I heart you so much I can’t breathe”. Grow Rich is innocent, pure, and positively impossible to dislike.

EVEN EDEN - A Ghost (eveneden.bandcamp.com)

Even Eden creates a swirling, atmospheric sound that pulls the listener into a densely harmonious realm on “Taking Flight”, the rumbling, pummeling track that opens the four-song Ep. Madeleine St. Jacques has a lush vocal delivery overflowing with warmth and while her delivery is composed to the point of being nearly understated, each word she utters has profound impact. She reveals a broader range on “Minefield”, a track that is dense and heavy, but intriguingly melodic as she speaks of “rising waters”, “shifting sands”, and “revelations” in a spiritually engaging effort. Mike Random, who many should recognize from his lengthy career as a Jersey area stalwart, plays drums here and whether he is pounding away on “Taking Flight” or playing with refined bombast on “Welcome to the White Room”, his powerful playing is the centerpiece of the band. The tracks are built around this thunderous foundation, with Zachary Smith’s bass playing and St. Jacques opaque guitar playing completing Even Eden’s wall of sound. The juxtaposition between intensity and delicacy makes the band’s style difficult to accurately summarize but limitlessly interesting to hear. “White Room” has traces of haunting 90s shoegaze pop across the breadth of a sprawling, feedback drenched tableau, while “Armoured” has an off-kilter, grinding post-punk structure and richly poetic lyrics. It is rare to hear playing that is truly distinctive, and Even Eden is a band that requires multiple listens.

RIVER DRIVERS - Big Oak Road (riverdrivers.bandcamp.com)

When one hears the phrase “Celtic-rock”, one may be inclined to think that the River Divers are another Pogues-inspired band, but there is so much more here. The songs on Big Oak Road are delivered with a rage for the mistreatment of those incapable of defending themselves. The opening “Children’s March (Mother Jones)” speaks of America’s great reformer of child labor laws who once led a march right up the front steps of President Teddy Roosevelt’s beautiful Sagamore Hill residence in Oyster Bay, NY only to have the twenty-sixth president “slam his door”. The band features shared vocals between Kevin McCloskey (who also plays guitar, mandolin, and banjo) and Mindy Murray (who additional talents include guitar, banjo, bass, frame drum), with Murray carrying “Going Once”, a song telling the tale of a farm sold out from under its owners in the style of John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen. The tales of woe may features subjects long dead or topics not relatable to many of those who listen to Big Oak Road, but the lyrics bring these individuals and experiences to life. The suffering of “Crooked Jack” illustrates the hardships of Irish immigrants who often spent all they had to voyage to America in hopes of a life for their children that was better than what existed in the motherland, and “Si, Se Puede” captures the demands of migrant workers in the West, led by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, striving for a union to protect them and allow for their labor to be viewed with the honor it deserved. Along with Marian Moran on tin whistle, low whistle, concertina, and melodica, and Meagan Ratini providing fiddle, tin whistle, and frame drum, the music has a poignant authenticity on the heartbreaking “Isn’t It Grand Boys (Look at the Coffin)” featuring the truly Irish philosophy of “the longer you live, the sooner you bloody well die”. The folksy title track rattles with the passion of Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton with Murray telling the story of a teenage laborer up working in the fields before “the school bell even rings”, while “Moonshiner” takes listeners into the deep American South for a beautiful, yet heartbreaking tale of hard drinking and equally hard living. “Union Man” is a quintessential work of Americana, due both to its musical structure and its lyrics of struggles the working poor. (“Which side are you on, boy?/Which side are you on? You’re either for the rich man or the union standing strong”) Closing with the delicate heartrending “Farewell Johnny Miner”, the River Drivers have created a masterful collection of gripping, romantic, and deeply impactful songs.


THE DREADNOUGHTS - Into the North (Stomp Records)

The meshing of folk and punk has been done with great success by acts from The Pogues to The Tossers, but The Dreadnoughts add their own unique flair to this fine art by immersing themselves into the sea, namely the sea shanty, on Into the North. The sprawling collection of fifteen pirate sing-alongs will have you reaching for your bottle of rum and an eye patch, but this is not some type of cheeky tribute; the boys from Vancouver live the hard-drinking, brawling lifestyle emblazoned within these songs. Even if you are a person who loves the sea from the comfort and safety of a beach chair, the songs will strike a chord due to their intensity and beauty. The shared vocals are stirringly harmonic across the entire record, but “Pique le Baleine”, “Paddy Lay Back”, and “Sacramento” are especially engaging, with the latter providing the foundation for “Camptown Ladies”. This felt like a live action history lesson interspersed with modern oceanic tributes to a life of risk and independence. The Dreadnoughts are best known for rowdy, chaotic punk ferocity, and while Into the North is much more controlled, it is no less satisfying. Played with a keen sense of synchronization, the collective voices work as additional instruments, bringing depth and refinement to each song. The fiddle of “Northwest Passage” and the squeeze box of “Whup! Jamboree” may not be readily associated with punk rock, but it is impossible to not be energized by what one hears here. The Dreadnoughts have created the soundtrack for a night out to grab a grog, pillar a village, and set sail for another adventure. I am still stunned at just how much I love this.

IT’S KARMA IT’S COOL - "Hipsters And Aeroplanes" EP (www.koolkatmusik.com)

There are bands that attempt to recapture sounds of the past and then there are those who perfect it, and It’s Karma It’s Cool are definitely the latter on "Hipsters and Aeroplanes." Unapologetically poppy and jangly, the six songs on this EP resonate with the bubbly goodness of suit-wearing Beatles and the fuzzy warmth of 80s Brit-pop sweetness such as The Mighty Lemon Drops on efforts like “Raised by Engineers” and the gentle “Daydream Days”. James Styring has a voice that floats effortlessly over the top of equally ethereal playing from Mikey Barraclough, Martyn Bewick, and Danny Krash, and while “United States of No Regret” or “Shannon’s Waltz” will not rekindle lost teen angst, but it will certainly remind listeners about the beauty of serenely delivered pop-rock. It’s Karma It’s Cool do not possess the fire of Cheap Trick or the political leanings of REM; instead, they deliver traditional rock n’ roll kissed judiciously by sugar-coated lips and they are proud of it. The jangly guitar tones and subdued vocals are not my personal first choice, but when performed by seasoned veterans, it can be difficult to dislike.

TSUNAMI BOMB - The Spine That Binds (www.alternativetentacles.com)

Tsunami Bomb is a band that one does not fully realize how badly they are needed until it is suddenly fifteen years since their last release. The Spine That Binds is a declaration of energy and power from a band that boldly announces its resurrection on “Tidal” and does not let up over the course of eleven blistering songs. Kate Jacobi is a fierce vocalist, spitting lines of frustration and rage on “Naysayers” (highlighted by blithely commenting that these “are the good old days”) and the biting “Dead Men Can’t Catcall”, a scathing rebuke of those who abused positions of power for far too long. Andrew Pohl’s guitar blisters throughout The Spine That Binds while founding members Dominic Devi (whose bass punches up efforts like “Sinkhole” and “Lullaby for the End of the World”), Oobliette Sparks and drummer Gabriel Linderman act as the foundation of one of the most tragically underappreciated gems in modern punk rock. Sparks’ keyboards open several tracks with her impressive impact heard on “Persephone”, a boisterous assault that is built around infectious backing vocals and a huge riff, and “Wake the Dead”, the song that should be the theme for Tsunami Bomb’s return with its combination of rousing energy and richly harmonic structure. As the world around us becomes increasingly more dark, cynical, and inexplicable, at least one can take solace in Tsunami Bomb and their commitment to rebellion, summed up best on the closing title track as Jacobi reminds all within earshot that “this is our story, our fight,our song," and we all are lucky to hear it again.

PHONY - Songs You’ll Never Sing (Smartpunk Records www.smartpunk.com)

Phony is the brainchild of Neil Berthier, and Songs You’ll Never Sing is a logical progression for a remarkably inventive player who initially dazzled me with his work in Donovan Wolfington. For a young man, Berthier has already lived quite a life, bouncing round the country in recent years, from New Orleans, to Nashville, to Chicago, before now settling in Boston. Along the way, he has honed and refined his musical visions, and the opening “Claustrophobia” is a fitting introduction to the record. Noisy and musically busy, the song has multiple ideas happening concurrently, creating an atmosphere that matches the titles. Songs is a multi-layered testament to the glory of pop-oriented rock, for Berthier moves brazenly from the experimental nature of the opener into the lush “”Nvr Play Urself”, a song bathed in guitar warmth with a very traditional song structure. However, before one begins to feel comfortable, Berthier unleashes “Dr. Ayahuasca”, a Weezer-esque, wild tale of taking hallucinogenics in a bathtub, playing with a ribbon, and listening to classic rock. “Most Comfortable Bed” and “Restaurant” are both propelled by massive, buoyant guitar hooks that invoke the finest moments of Matthew Sweet’s 90 heyday, while “Teeth” flirts with In Utero era Nirvana by swirling an infectious hooks with a disquieting lyrical delivery and odd time sequences. Berthier has the ability to appeal to those looking for classically formulated rock hooks as readily as those desperately seeking a more loose interpretation of what pop can be; “Hesitate” drifts by all too quickly with Berthier’s gritty vocals buried within a luxuriant mix; this is matched perfectly on “Awake”, as understated singing is awash in a sea of plush as guitar fuzz. Through the hazy, dreamy nature of “Awake” as well as “No Other Way”, allows listeners to hear Berthier play with a loud/soft dynamic in manner that makes its sound fresh. Songs You’ll Never Sing is the perfect record for your most jaded friend who is convinced that there is nothing new or exciting in the world musically or that everything is merely a reboot-let Phony prove that person wrong.

DISJAWN - Loud Kush Assault (Ranch Jams Records ranchjams.bigcartel.com)

This is exactly what I need on a rainy, miserable Sunday, or any day of the week really, regardless of weather. Disjawn is a furious Philly punk outfit with a great name and an even better musical delivery. “Planning Out the War” and “Pain is Reality” sound like the best two songs Magrudergrind never recorded, as Disjawn unfurl a devastating wave of destructive powerviolence. That trend continues on the title track, only the song opens with a Black Flag-style riff that is then overwhelmed by exhaustive force. Three of the five songs clock in at under a minute, so Disjawn does not hang around very long, but what an impact they make. A dark, Orwellian dystopia is captured on “What Have We Done” as the lyrics include the terms “cyanide”, “genocide”, and “radiation”, while “Tortured Life” includes this moment of societal observation: “Everyone’s mind has collapsed, most are dead or have relapsed”. I cannot wait for more from these guys.

ESPECTROPLASMA - “Pyramid” b/w “Monster” (Devil in the Woods Records www.devilinthewoods.mx)

I was vaguely familiar with the work of Espectroplasma, and loved their take on surf-driven rock, and their nickname of the Mexican Man or Astroman?, but this new single is unlike any of their past catalog. “Pyramid” is a mechanized blast of classic krautrock, as if Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra shared a rehearsal space. The synth-fueled psych-pop is trippy but yet still built around a rhythmic groove, partially mirroring Devo’s pre-MTV days. The flipside “Monster” follows in the same vain, as it is a swirling mass of sci-fi inspired synth noise, landing somewhere between the score of Logan’s Run and the theme for “Stranger Things”. Within the alien technology is another oddly danceable hook inspired by German musical engineering and efficiency. To the credit of the four mysterious members of Espectroplasma, “Monster” still resonates with humanity despite the heavily tech influenced sound.

NIK FREITAS - “Aviso Amor” (Devil in the Woods Records www.devilinthewoods.mx)

Nik Freitas is remarkable in his soulful delivery on both tracks of this beautiful single. “Aviso Amor” is a truly unique take on the standard piano ballad with an up-tempo vibe, soaring vocals and rich production. Meshing Roxy Music with indie college rock tones, the song is an invigorating love song without ever sounding trite. When Freitas says, “I want to tell you how it feels to be connected to a heart that wasn’t yours”, it is difficult to not be swept away by the earnest nature of his playing. “Normal #3” is a lush, piano based pop song that floats effortlessly whose lyrics are utterly heartbreaking. (“The buildings grew too tall, I get kinda used to feeling small”) The song’s pacing allows for the tale of sorrow and loneliness to fully impact the listener as Freitas’ voice radiates an emotional honesty reminiscent of Double Fantasy-era Lennon. A limitlessly gorgeous release.

THE FULL COUNTS - Next Up (Phratry Records www.phratryrecords.com)

The Full Counts could initially be categorized as “dad rock”, a blending of jangly guitar and upbeat, hopeful tempos that are quite easy on the ears. The opening “She Said” captures this aesthetic perfectly, but as Next Up continues, the four vets, led by Eric Vermillion (formerly of Stump Wizards and Gumball) produce harder hitting, but still traditional, no-frills rock in the style of The Smithereens or The Plimsouls, particularly on the moody, quasi-blues-kissed “I Know” and “Song #5 (Have to Want It)”. The rollicking thump of “Let’s Go” and “Don’t Waste My Time” are two of the punchier tracks here, and credit must be given to any band willing to truly channel the legends of rock through a song with the chorus “I wanna hold your hand” from the appropriately titled “Hold Your Hand”. The oose, free-flowing fun of “Another Way (Egagda)” is overflowing with infectious energy, and the closing “Oh Whoa Oh” strips rock n’ roll to its bare bones essentials. The song is a perfect closer as the Full Counts leave the listener singing along as a fleeting wave of reverb finishes the ride, wrapping up a record of nothing but catchy hooks and uncompromising melody.

MICHUL KUUN - Great (Then After Awhile, It Didn’t Mean Anything to Them) (Ranch Jams Records www.ranchjams.bigcartel.com)

Michul Kuun is determined to make people think through his music. Great is a collection of wild, ambient, free jazz noise-core with at times, a crushing punk aesthetic. The dance floor intro “Great Intro” is a fun beginning before Kuun brings in Wiki to join him on “Who This”, a distinctive hip-hop soundscape. “Pay Me” featuring Isaiah Barr, is a quick blast of experimental noise in the form free jazz, but the din is stirring in its originality. Only the closing “Great Ending” extends itself over three minutes, yet every idea feels completely fleshed out and fully developed. The ethereal trip-hop beauty of “Magic If Work” matches the richly engaging “Entrance to the Dawning of My Night Shop”, a song with delicate percussion and gorgeous production. Massive beats overwhelm “Be/Have/Oh”, a song driven by a playful yet pointed construction, and one hears jazz-infused hip hop on “Snarls Big with the End Part”, but Kuun proves moment to moment that he can generate limitless surprises. “Wonderful and Nice” has a metallic fury that becomes grating in the most glorious of manners and “Slip Talking” featuring Klein is driven by room shaking bombast. There is nothing else quite like this, and one must take time in the listening and digesting Great.

THE CUTTHROAT BROTHERS - Taste for Evil (Hound Gawd! Records www.houndgawd.com)

Halloween music does not always have to be spooky and ethereal in order to bring about a fright. The Cutthroat Brothers bring rollicking, no frills rock n roll back from the grave with Taste For Evil, a raw, energized blast of garage rock replete with ghouls, zombies, and old fashioned swagger. For those who long for the days when a band would simply make the room shake for three minutes per song then move on to their next treat, the Cutthroat Brothers deliver exactly that over the course of ten blistering songs played with both conviction and a wry sense of fun. Anyone who has listened to the stable of bands on Hound Gawd! should have a sense of what to expect, but Jason Cutthroat and Donny Paycheck bash their way through bluesy, swamp sludge on “Shake Move Howl Kill”, and the sludgy “The King is Dead”, as legendary producer Jack Endino emphasizes the thunderous guitar chops that dominate each track. The title track, “Get Haunted”, and “Candy Cane” are full bodied, high-speed gems of Cramps-style punk glory that are a trio of highlights, even though “Candy Cane” is perhaps more fitting for the band’s Christmas record. Blending speed and a tightly wound backbeat, everything on Taste for Evil is celebration of rock’s defiant nature that ahs been tragically watered down over the years, but “Out of Control” and “Killing Time” (“you wanna dance?/You wanna fight?/Get high and stay up all night?”) both shimmy with FM radio sleekness and inspire images of pen highways leading to long nights of drunken debauchery. Donny paycheck has a mind-numbing resume, with lengthy stints in the peerless Zeke accented by stints with bands Toxic Holocaust and Camarosmith. To be released on October 31st, this is the coolest Halloween treat since the night your friends found the house that actually gave away full candy bars.

MAGNAPOP - The Circle is Round (HHBTM Records www.hhbtm.com)

This is just awesome-simply a glorious release from a band that ahs been quiet but not dormant over the past decade. Magnapop was rightfully a darling of the mid-90s indie rock explosion, and The Circle is Round transports listeners to that era through the raw energy of “Super Size Me”, as well as quite literally going back in time in the form two demos from 1992, “Leo”, and “Pretty Awful”. Vocalist Linda Hopper’s infectious voice has never sounded more fluid and strong than on “Change Your Hair” (s song written “before there was a band” according to guitarist Ruthie Morris) or “Dog on the Door”. The Circle is Round is a stirring collection of fun pop that bubbles with an undercurrent of raucous indie spirit played by people who were there when it was all getting started. While there are efforts like “What can I Do” and “Rain Rain” that posses a jangly innocence, the bombast is always there, sounding like cuddlecore crowd-surfing with garage punk in a perfect intermingling of styles. While the second side begins a bit more quietly than the A-side, “Rip the Wreck” is a ferocious blast of speed and strength that hits hard but does so with soaring harmonies. Magnapop has never shied away from writing songs with infectious hooks that balance anxiety and splendor, but that can be a challenging formula to maintain for more than a quarter of a century. If one is to learn anything from The Circle is Round, it is that Magnapop is fully back and sound as vital as ever.

MARK LANEGAN BAND - Somebody’s Knocking (Heavenly Records www.heavenlyrecordings.com)

Mark Lanegan is best remembered for his genre defining work with Screaming Trees, but his solo work has allowed him to travel down a multitude of paths, and this sense of experimentation continues on Somebody’s Knocking. The bluster of guitars are nowhere to be found, repacked by subtle dance beats, atmospheric instrumentation, and subdued vocals. What has not changed is Lanegan’s ability to deliver heartfelt, poetic lyrics. It is not surprising that someone with the emotional breadth of Lanegan can capture the sense of disbelief and nearly palpable fear that defines the current global state of politics. “Disbelief Suspension” opens the record with edgy, slashing guitar interspersed with biting kick drum and sharp electronic qualities, and this nervous ball of energy is an ideal metaphor for what so many are feeling right now. “Night Flight to Kabul” not only name drops one of the world’s most unsettled cities in one of the globe’s most perpetually unsteady regions, but the song rolls along with seamless energy permeated with an unnamed but instantly identifiable darkness. Interspersing electronic angst into a mass of pop harmonies, “Stitch it Up” and “Radio Silence” quaver with massive hooks, and one feels transplanted into a different time, as 80s synth touches provide majestic backing grooves. Conversely, “Paper Hat” and “War Horse” move with far greater deliberation, minimizing the musicianship in exchange for a greater emphasis upon Lanegan’s gruff, exhausted but not expired, vocals. The expansive “Two Bells Ringing at Once” closes the record with a tale of suffering and physical pain, and as the song fades delicately into the air, one is gently released from an immensely powerful record. This may not be what some would expect from Lanegan, but Somebody’s Knocking is exactly the music he wants to make, and he does so beautifully.

A.M. NICE - “Scooter” b/w “Man On a Wire” (Phratry Records www.phratryrecords.com)

I have followed A.M. Nice’s career for several releases now, and the trio continues to get better. This Cincinnati band provides a menagerie of influences through two glorious songs, three if one acquires the digital download. “Scooter” includes some of the best qualities of 90s indie rock, ranging from Archers of Loaf to Polvo to Sebadoh, with a little Teenage Fanclub thrown in for good measure. The tightly wound, energized rythym section of bassist Nick Hill and drummer Jerry Dirr supports Adam Nice’s soaring guitar work and equally stirring vocals. “Man on a Wire” is a track featuring jangly guitar and an anxious structure that rattles with clear XTC overtones. It is a pop song that makes the listener feel uneasy, and has a richly textured sensibility during its scant three-plus minute existence. I strongly urge a digital purchase for this EP as “Elliot the Man” is a fast, noisy explosion of energy that smashes its way through walls with a constant barrage of raw punk energy. In only three songs, one hears what sounds like three distinct bands, but this only solidifies the talents of A.M. Nice.

INHUMANWICH - Original Soundtrack (Phratry Records www.phratryrecords.com)

As a kid, I remember Channel 56 out of Boston would present the “Creature Double Feature” on Saturdays: back to back 50s horror films, ranging from Godzilla movies to films about giant ants, zombies, and other classic fare. If you share similar nostalgia, love horror films that do not take themselves too seriously, or simply have a sense of humor, one must check out Inhumanwich. The film is the produce of Argo One productions, led by Dave Cornelius, a veteran of Cincinnati television. The film can be found through Leomark Studios (www.leomarkstudios.com), who also bring you such classics as “Wedding Swingers” and “Sex Galaxy”, and is absolutely worth your time. The good people at Phratry Records have released the soundtrack and the songs “Meat is Murder” and “Mitch’s Song” include members of two long-standing Phratry bands, Swear Jar and Knife the Symphony. The two tracks are punked-up rockabilly, particularly “Mitch’s Song” (including the lyrics, “I took her to the dance, but I couldn’t get in…her father’s good graces”), and are much fun as the film. The majority of the release, especially the digital version, includes songs from the film in which the phrase “Death to” is found, including death to the following: cinema, science montages, sidekicks, monologues, wives, inspirational speeches, date night, Cincinnati, and even this movie, to name just a handful. Inhumanwich garnered a series of awards upon its release in 2017, including Best Comedy Feature (Experimental Edge Film Festival), Best Comedy Feature (Highway 61 Film Festival), and both the Audience and Best Sci-Fi Awards at the Origins Film Festival. This is not for the serious, the dour, the uptight, or the dull, so avoid all of those people and make your life better with a classic that would have Joe Bob Briggs and the original cast of Mystery Science 3000 roaring with laughter and appreciation.

SLEEPCRAWLER - “HTN” b/w “Albatross” (Phratry Records www.phratryrecords.com)

Sleepcrawler features Scot Torres and Matt Hemingway from State Song, but if one believes that Sleepcrawler will be simply an extension of that band, one could not be more wrong. “HTN” sounds like what would happen if Ride was stuck in a room listening to Sleep for hours without rest. Meshing doom metal with Torres’ emotionally tinged vocals and shoegaze pacing, the song is a thunderous wall of guitar bombast and low-end power compliments of bassist Ryan Hickman and the aforementioned Hemingway. As much as I adore “HTN”, “Albatross” leaves me with stunned with its beauty and heaviness. The song is richly textured and highly engaging through its raw dynamics. Equally engrossing and challenging, the song opens with off-kilter guitar playing one normally hears from Radiohead or Flaming Lips, before shifting into a crushing track. Both songs are over five minutes in length, providing ample room for ideas to nestle and grow without ever becoming exhausted. Like the rest of the Phratry label, Sleepcrawler defies genres and easy classification, and simply produces intriguing and meaningful music.

WESDARULER - Ocean Drive (HHBTM Records www.hhbtm.com)

Wesley Johnson is a highly skilled wordsmith who spins stories of life’s monotonies as well as its triumphs and struggles throughout Ocean Drive. The grooves are gentle, R&B flavored beats over which Johnson delivers a Barry White style baritone and Ocean Drive is not about boasting or battles, but rather, Johnson come across as instantly relatable. He admits he does not want to go out or do anything on “Stay At Home”, essentially a perfect soundtrack for anyone who reaches Saturday night and decides that Netflix and Grub Hub sounds a lot better than crowds, noise, and overpriced drinks. The instrumentals are lush and beautiful, including the psychedelic rythym of “Dreaming” and the warm “Interlude”, but none more so than the concluding title track, but Johnson’s poetry is the highlight of “Let da Music Play”, a song who’s message of “letting it go right now” is uttered with a subdued style that juxtaposes lyrics of getting out and going wild, although even Johnson admits that he is “not sure” of what he “is trying to say”. This same style is heard on “GetUrAssintheCar”, which asserts that he will not “let you down” and pledges that he loves his wife, and that sense of positive feelings drives the life of WesDaRuler. The jazzy piano that opens “Loseit4tonite” is quickly balanced by a bass heavy beat as Johnson spins a story about his mother’s abilities on the dance floor. The record is both fun and introspective, uplifting and solemn; in short, it is a reflection of most people’s realities.

BLACK BEACH - Tapeworm (blackbeachma.bandcamp.com)

Black Beach opens “Luxury Car” with a wall of distorted feedback, and it sets the tone for the rest of the record. Tapeworm is a noisy, highly agitated collection that reflects the angst and discordant nature of the world at this moment. Blending lo-fi angst and garage rock fury, Tapeworm is a mass of swirling, anxiety-driven anthems led by the impassioned vocals of guitarist Stephen Instasi as he spits out modern concerns on “Sage “ (“I spend all my time worrying if everyone’s gone”) and “Modern World” (“There’s a war inside my head/ I’ve been feeling guilty for things I haven’t done”) backed up by the pummeling duo of bassist Ben Semeta and drummer Ryan Nicholson. The Middleboro, Massachusetts outfit deliver songs that rattle with kinetic energy on “Broken Computer” and “Shampoo” (“I wash my hair twice a week, I try to be nice to all the people I meet”), conflating Mission of Burma’s perpetual shaking with thick, post-punk density. “Dumpster Fire” is a more deliberate effort, exploring the weight associated with the taxing nature of simply trying to get along, while “It Feels Nice Just to Care About Anything” both perfectly summarizes so many people’s feelings right now, but also reveals how heavy music has limitless avenues of exploration. The band’s hardcore background is readily apparent on “Positive Feedback Loop” as Black Beach incorporates punk’s fiercest qualities and “Nervous Laughter” builds slowly from its initial clamor and remains on the edge of self-destruction for well over three unnerving and exhilarating minutes. The panic-stricken power of “Sometimes This Body Lets Me Down” and the Nirvana-esque confrontation of “Burning World” are two sterling moments on an effusively powerful release.

VINNY CARUANA - Aging Frontman (Know Hope Records www.knowhoperecords.com)

Vinny Caruana has established himself as a highly emotive vocalist with a sharp eye for the nature of daily struggles through his time with Movielife and I Am the Avalanche, and while the title Aging Frontman is clearly a self-deprecating swipe at what it means to be forty and still baring one’s soul, the record is six beautiful songs of gut-wrenching honesty. The brief instrumental interlude “I Love You, Please Watch Over Us” is needed after the emotionally exhaustive honesty of the opening trio of “Better”, “Alone”, and “Dying in the Living Room”. When Caruana asks, “Do I make you better?”, one hears a man longing for a hopeful answer but also tormented but what the reply may be, revealing a fragility and self-reflection that defines Aging Frontman. “Alone” includes the confession, “I could never take how much you hated me, I vow to die alone. I did some talking to God/ We spoke of the flowers of forgiveness, until the sidewalk swallowed me whole”, as glistening production from Brett Romnes (who also plays drums) allows the song to shimmer brilliantly. “Tex ‘The Rock’ Johnson” injects little country twang into the record, with lyrics about having “splinters from a bar stool” and “slithering out of bed”, offering a lighthearted narrative about growing old but remaining true to one’s self. The six songs scoot by too quickly, and it is a requirement to have this on repeat to fully capture the nuances and intuitive qualities of Caruana’s writing. Fans of his work already know how insightful Caruana is a songwriter, and one does not need any prerequisite knowledge of his earlier bands to find Aging Frontman engaging, occasionally uplifting, sometimes painful, but fully engrossing.



CROSSED KEYS - Saviors (Hellminded Records www.hellmindedrecords.com)

Saviors is seven fleeting tracks played with a sense of anxious energy by a band of veterans with impressive resumes. Vocalist Joshua Alvarez bares his soul on “True to You” when he declares “my heart is broken over you/ my heart is broken and I’m over you” as drummer Dave Wagenschutz, who has played with Good Riddance and Kid Dynamite opens with a thunderous roll and never lets up over the course of the song’s blistering two minutes. Guitarists Beau Brendley and Dave Adoff create an impressive barrage of riffs on “The Rays Effect”, a rumbling blast punk angst anchored by the low-end thump of Wagenschutz and bassist Andrew Wellbrock that also features a perfectly delivered homage to the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular”. In many respects. Crossed Keys has similarities to the aforementioned drunken geniuses from Minneapolis, as the playing on Saviors is furious, noisy, and intentionally raw with lyrics about heartbreak and personal frustrations that match the desperation of the music, particularly on “Everything Breaks”. “RJA” embodies the ideals of melodic hardcore as the song’s tightly wound chorus explodes into a burst of infectious energy, while “1212” includes backing “woah-oh” vocals that pushes the song away from the traditional hardcore structure and into the realm of mid-90s indie punk. The closing title track is a return to scorching speed and roaring intensity while also retaining unmistakable harmony. The punk of Crossed Keys may not inspire pits that will send people to the hospital, but the band may help those alone and suffering get over the person that shattered their hearts and there’s something celebratory in that.

DAYSTAR - The Complete Recordings (daystarpdx.bandcamp.com/)

Portland’s Daystar sound like a soothing ride through the past to the days of lush AM rock throughout The Complete Recordings. The opulent melodies of “Right at Home” and “People Get Lonely” will make Jeff Lynne beam with pride with the band’s flawless meshing of airy harmonies, layered guitars, and understated drumming. It is obvious to all who even offer a fleeting listen to this that Derek Phillips truly adores the Beatles, and while that fact itself is not terribly unusual, I am repeatedly struck by how often Daystar drifts into the realms of George’s finest moments and Ringo’s immediate post-Beatles catalog, sparsely emulating the more traditional Lennon-McCartney path. Rounded out by fellow guitarist Joel Roth, Kelly Simmons on bass, and Nick Foltz on drums, Daystar’s music seems to levitate and waft with extraordinary tenderness on the cello-kissed “Warped Reality”, a song that could have easily earned the band a contract with Apple Records. “Buttons and Brass” includes crunchier guitars but retains the satiny vocals that come to define the band’s sound, particularly around the lovely chorus. Daystar channels Rare Earth, Badfinger, and other late 60s/dawn of the “me decade” rock, but does so with a staggering authenticity. The circuitous “Angelina” allows for Phillips’ vice to sound movingly poignant, and it is difficult to hear “The Ballad of Sister Sadie May” and not mentally reference “Sexy Sadie” from The White Album. The closing “Fade Away, Love” is a cosmic gem, caressing the listener with spacious guitar playing and a warm vocal embrace. This is not nostalgia but rather a brilliant modern interpretation of richly melodious rock.

JAIL WEDDINGS - Wilted Eden (Tru Vow Records ;jailweddings.bandcamp.com/album/wilted-eden)

It is a steep challenge for one to begin to describe a band that has coined the term “death doo wop”, but Jail Weddings is well worth the effort. Blending blues, psych-pop, and sporadic synth, the band’s chameleon-like nature makes Wilted Eden a fascinating musical journey. “A Haunted Song” has Gabriel Hart’s rich vocals out in front of a swirling, passionate track that fades politely into the rousing, emotionally charged “Woman Happy” that allows Mary Animaux to also step forward, offering stirring backing vocals accompanied by flaying saxophone from Hart. The passion and power of this song was matched, and even surpassed, by “Skin Invocation”, a sultry, sexually-furious song that pits two highly adept singers in an emotional cage match over the course of six powerful minutes. There are moments on Wilted Eden on which Jail Weddings play more driving, sophisticated rock n’ roll, particularly “Face of Kindness” which invokes the finest elements of erudite postpunk, and the country twang fury of (“Can’t Wait to Get to) Nowhere”. “Do Anything You Want to Me” bounds with youthful vibrancy with a spiraling chorus and infectious hook, and is a classic single. The mesmerizing “Blood Moon Blue” opens with a controlled wave of feedback and Hart’s deep-throated vocals and Cramps-style guitar reverb that continues to escalate in hot blooded intensity until the track sprawls itself out and brazenly exposes its vulnerability. After twelve years, Jail Weddings has developed both the skills and confidence necessary to produce a song like the closing “Love Me Like I’m Dead”, a massive, nearly nine-minute long effort of staggering beauty. From the late-night street corner sax to the haunting keys, the song builds upon itself in a cathartic explosion of emotion, highlighted by the line “I guess I really love sex as inspiration”, as the keys only become more symphonic and the song expands into a majestic panorama of finite skills. This may only be Jail Weddings’ third release, but they provide a career’s worth of musicianship on Wilted Eden.

SUGGESTED FRIENDS - Turtle Taxi (HHBTM Records hhbtm.com)

This London quartet (“a small choir of mostly lesbians” according to their bio) plays a wonderfully jangly and spirited form of modern indie pop. The tracks snap with enthusiasm, and Faith’s vocals are a beautiful combination of exuberance and refined tone. The title track has folksy underpinnings buttressing the more pop-kissed indie flavoring of Jack’s guitar playing, while “Pretty Soon Your Grave will be a Landfill” is not only my current favorite song title of 2019, but it also alternates tempos between fuzzy 90s bedroom punk-pop and more sophisticated songwriting as the band attacks the nature of contemporary politics. Clearly the instability of American political institutions is closely mirrored in England, and Suggested Friends wrote this song long before Boris Johnson’s ascension to PM, but it sounds as if they saw his failures coming. The sweetness of “The Apocalypse (Is Just a Day Away)” is a wonderful juxtaposition with the song’s title, as buoyant, refined playing cascades for three minutes. Blending aspects of good-natured, new wave pop, “For Jokes” is among the band’s finest moments on the record as its chorus is a louder, more pronounced declaration of musical muscle but still retains a delicate quality as well. Faith’s voice is angelic throughout Turtle Taxi, revealing both an impressive range and sense of control, for she never feels compelled to express herself through outburst of anger, even when detailing frustrating aspects of life. Rather, efforts like “Magnolia” and “At Ease” are carried but her melodious and warm delivery. A cursory listen may trick some into hearing Suggested Friends as airy, somewhat simplistic pop fare, but a more deliberate listen reveals a band of skilled players taking chances with their sound. As I listen to Suggested Friends, I could only wonder if this what a band like Tiger Trap would have evolved into had they stuck around a while longer; namely, a band capable of crafting lush pop aesthetics but driven by so much more. This is worth finding, and the band is another example of all the great material HHBTM releases.


SHARP VIOLET - “Domino Effect” (https://sharpviolet.bandcamp.com/track/ domino-effect)

Sharp Violet, Long Island's most astute and biting riot grrl act, is back with a new single, and the timing could not be better. While Jeffrey Epstein may have exited this world before rightfully facing his victims, “Domino Effect" is dedicated to the impact of the #MeToo movement, confronting monsters like Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men who use money and influence to lead lives as serial rapists and sexual predators. Sharp Violet continues to refine its sound, adding a second guitarist (Marie Tornetto joining Jessica Benenati) to bolster an already impressive groove-oriented brand of grungy punk angst. Liz Meehan does not need to scream to make her point on "Domino Effect," as she delivers each line with a controlled anger, noting that "all the headlines will say/you're going down in flames/the press will have a field day/justice will be...served", and one can nearly hear Meehan's satisfied grin as she imagines Weinstein and his abominable ilk led away in cuffs, with their overpriced designer clothes replaced with an orange jumpsuit. Meehan captures Liz Phair’s self-assured vocal style, offering cutting observations about the false remorse of the accused, saying “you’re only sorry cause you got caught/ for a crime that couldn’t be bought”. Channeling 90's acts like Veruca Salt and L7, Sharp Violet generates powerful, thought provoking, guitar-driven punk for those who still believe that music should have depth. The low-end strength of bassist Alli Sondergrass and drummer Jasmine Fuentes establish a wall of blunt intensity for the fleeting three minutes of erudite proto-punk that is “Domino Effect”. Recent shifts in musical responsibilities within the band now has Sondergrass on guitar, having re-entered the fold after becoming a mother, and Tornetto exchanging her guitar for a bass. Regardless of which instrument is held and by whom, the resulting song is Sharp Violet's strongest thus far, as they continue to elevate themselves into a realm of more polished production and mature song structures. I can attest that the band is a fierce live act, and “Domino Effect” captures the energy of the band’s lshows. There needs to be more acts willing to mesh political statements and impactful playing, and Sharp Violet should gain a expansive following.

BIG CHEESE - Wild to Be Born (bigcheeseband.bandcamp.com)

When a band uses a Nirvana song as their moniker, it is safe to assume that classic grunge qualities will abound, and that is certainly true of Big Cheese. However, rather then coming across as a collection of fanboys attempting to recapture Bleach-ear Nirvana, the Brooklyn outfit places a new spin on the early 90s movement. “In This World” is a song dedicated to celebrating confusion and isolation, whole “Golden” is a snarky relationship song that is a glorious mockery of happy couples, as the song addresses how it feels when one is the victim of mistreatment by someone entrusted with your heart. This honesty is a significant component of the band’s lyrics, making them awkwardly relatable through the acknowledgment of their own failings. “Nowhere Scene (Get Free)” is a violent cacophony of raw guitar-driven punk that will remind most of In Utero Nirvana when that band abandoned pop sensibilities and challenged the millions of kids who bought Nevermind to see if they could stomach a more abrasive record. The song flies by like scenery on the highway when driving eighty miles an hour and leaves the listener exhausted. “I don’t care if you find me appealing” announces Adam Patten on “In the Living Room” as drummer Justin Iwinski hammers away at his kit with no regard for his safety, creating a foundation of relentless energy that is the hallmark of the band. Sure, the influences are obvious on “I’m A Sloth”, a Mudhoney-like barrage of rumbling dynamism, but it does not matter for this band honors the past with reverence. Before anyone think of this band as a repetitive group of trickster, the buoyant “Blank” abandons reckless chaos for a more streamlined delivery anchored by a blunt low-end groove as “Pattern” screams “I’ll just fade away” again with a scream born of earnest frustration. Wild to be Born concludes with the more reserved “Long Way Off” that does reduce the tempo but not the band’s adherence to cutting guitar work and angular song structure. This may be a trip down memory lane for some, but Big Cheese brings some haughtiness to rock at a time when it is desperately needed.

THE MONOCHROME SET - Fabula Mendax (Tapete Records www.tapeterecords.com)

As the punk began to become a cannibalistic caricature of itself at the end of the 1970s, the world became a wide-open canvas for those willing to produce daring, unconventional new music. One such band was The Monochrome Set, an artistically minded, delightfully quirky band from London. Like many acts who are ahead of their times, The Monochrome Set never enjoyed extraordinary commercial success, but their influence upon the burgeoning post-punk movement was undeniable and they continue to positively impact artists looking to place new interpretations upon pop song structures. After spending periods both highly active and terminally dormant, the band has worked steadily over the past decade releasing a string of consistently unique collections. Fabula Mendax takes lyrically inspiration from a portion of the fifteenth-century writings of Armande de Pange, a contemporary of Joan of Arc, with the majority of songs driven by warm guitar hooks orchestrated by Bid, often quite beautiful, even as Bid declares “I want all of them to die/hang them high” on “Eux Tous” (“They All”). “Come to Me, Oh My Beautiful” is a pristine example of flawless pop and expert storytelling, a quality found throughout the record. “Rest, Unquiet Spirit” opens with a burst of Iberian Peninsula-inspired guitar playing, a similar component one hears on the fragile closer “La Chanson de la Pucelle” (“The Song of the Maid”) as well, while horns blare as the poetic title is delivered with breathy intensity. The richly harmonic “Summer of the Demon” is a clear example of the impact The Monochrome Set had upon bands such as The Smiths, Orange Juice, XTC, and Aztec Camera, to name but a few. “I Can’t Sleep” impishly tells the story of being kept awake by a bird and heat, but there is a tangible frustration for the song’s protagonist which shines through Bid’s nearly panic-stricken delivery singed with a sharp sense of humor (“Don’t tell me I need yoga/Because I’ll dislocate my shoulder”). The Monochrome Set slithers effortlessly into boisterous blues on “Sliding Icicle”, a track carried by soaring slide guitar. The Monochrome Set clearly play intricate music, but the complexity does not overwhelm the listener; instead, one is allowed to simple gorge upon the talent and realize that there are visionaries at work here.

SANTACRUZ - Katharsis (M-Theory Audio)

After releasing a trio of strong releases, Finland’s Santa Cruz fell apart as a band roughly a year ago, and Archie Cruz has spent the past twelve months creating a record about self-discovery as he put his band and his career back together. Katharsis is a driving, classic hard rock record that teems with energy and incorporates more than a few metal touches, especially the heavier vocal components on “Bang Bang”. Much of what one hears on Katharsis is a tribute to Sunset Strip rock n’ roll that celebrated non conformity during a time when all people wanted to do was to have as much fun as possible without worrying about likes, public shaming, or losing followers. The pop dynamics of “Salvation” and the rounded edges of “Into the War” allow for Archie Cruz’s voice to shine over the top of a driving riff that comes straight from the late 80s. Speaking of that era of excess, the power ballads that made that decade musically (in)famous are here as well, particularly the moody “I Want You to Mean It”, and the guys even put their own, testosterone-fueled spin on Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”. However, while cheeky covers are always fun, Santa Cruz are at their finest when they simply want to be a rock band. To that end, “True Believer” is a pounding guitar stomp of a track that hits hard and often, highlighted by a hook-laden, catchy chorus and “Tell Me Why” is deliciously sleazy attempt at a love song. The “woah-oh-ohs” that kick off “Smoke Signals” will make Bon Jovi fans squeal, while “It Was You” is a dark tale of a failed relationship that alternates between pulsating fury and more reflective qualities. Santa Cruz proves that there is new modern rock being produced; I just hope there are still outlets for this.

CHERUBS - Immaculada High (Relapse Records www.relapserecords.com)

Relapse Records has created a wild niche for itself since the early 90s with raging hardcore and especially death metal from around the country and the world. As the label matured, it adopted a more experimental nature, even launching the limitlessly visionary Release subsidiary, and Austin’s Cherubs are a perfect reflection of what Relapse now readily unleashes upon an unsuspecting world. Creating swirling masses of noisy, frenzied riffs and abrasive vocals, one has to work to hear the traditional song structures that lie beneath the din. Opening with the visceral explosion of “Turista”, Immaculada High announces itself with a devastating kick to the head. The record is the band’s third record since their comeback in 2014 after two decades in limbo. While there are several brief blasts of heavily distorted force (“18 The Number”, “Old Lady Shoe” and “Pacemaker”), much of Immaculada High includes more expansive songs that incorporate psychedelic elements to add a level of ethereal complexity to the band’s already layered sound. “Sooey Pig” slows the tempo down to a simmer, allowing vocalist Kevin Whitley to push his voice to new heights as a dense wall of sound surrounds him. It is all too fitting that the band recorded this record at a place in Austin called Cacophony Studios for blaring eruptions “Tigers in the Sky” and “Breath U Can C” feature equal parts searing guitar and low end ferocity, an overwhelming amount of force one also hears on “IMCG”. “Cry Real Wolves” is a modern interpretation of grunge’s heaviest qualities and the finest aspects of noisecore. The panoramic closer “Nobodies” acts as a perfect example of how discord, when perfectly harnessed, can be thrilling, and the screeching final seconds are an ideal ending. As other labels have long faded or regressed, Relapse continues to redefine extreme music.

JACK AND THE ME OFFS - Greatest Hits Vol. II (Universal Warning Records ; store.universalwarningrecords.com/ pages/news)

Wow! This is great-the Queers have a new record out and Joe sounds younger than ever! On a second listen, I realize that this is not the Queers, but rather a band under the tutorage of the mighty Joe King, something instantly apparent from the opening chords of “Rise and Shine”. Jack and The Me Offs are a classic, fun-loving punk pop band, blatantly unapologetic in their adoration of Screeching Weasel, Mr. T Experience, Teenage Bottlerocket, and legions of others and that is just fine with me. Every track on Greatest Hits Volume II is explodes with energy and sugary sweet harmonies anchored by infectious choruses. The lyrics are lighthearted tales about girls who dress like it’s still 1992 (“Green Day”), refusing to bow down before obnoxious club owners (“Pay to Play”), and proper hygiene (“Please Be Neat (Clean the Seat))” with blazing riffs from vocalist Jack Bravstein and the hyperactive rythym section of bassist Sam Crisci and drummer Gio Occhipinti. The trio blares through the goofy, Descendants-flavored “Too Spicy” (“We don’t need ketchup-too spicy”) with teenage irreverence and a sincere exuberance, and the acerbic “Squashin’ Doves” is an ideal closer. This Jersey trio will help listeners escape the repetitive nature of a continuously dire news cycle as the band stays clear of politics, except for the quite astute “Designer Fascist” that makes a serious social point without naming anyone specifically, but it is clear that the guys have specific targets in mind. While I love this entire record, “Offended” is my favorite (“I’m sick and tired of censoring myself”) as Jack and the Me Offs celebrate of free speech and give me hope that there are young kids out there who are not running for cover or furiously tweeting because someone used a trigger word. This is a wonderful return to punk-pop authenticity, proudly carrying the banner made legendary by The Queers all those years ago.

MESSTHETICS - Anthropcosmic Nest (Dischord Records www.dischord.com)

When two thirds of a band includes members of Fugazi (Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty), I am instantly drawn to it, and this instrumental act is a dizzying display of musical virtuosity meshed with limitless creativity. Rounded out with guitarist Anthony Pirog, Messthetics’ music is as idiosyncratic as the tile of their sophomore release. At times delicate followed by stop-on-a-dime intensity, Anthropcosmic Nest is a rousing ride through eleven songs. “Drop Foot” blends dense riffs with playful components and “Better Wings” highlights Pirog’s nimble adroitness. The are fleeting moments of noisy, challenging qualities that invoke Fugazi’s finest days without recycling ideas. The forty-one second dissonance of “The Assignment” is matched by the equally gaunt “Insect Conference” as Messthetics provide a master class in how to utilize avant-garde ideas without coming across as contrived . The guys embrace freeform jazz touches throughout the record, but truly highlight this skill on “Pay Dust”, a track that while brief is among the highlights of the record. The richly atmospheric “Because the Mountain Says So” captures a sense of walking alone through nature, as the trio integrates progressive jazz with controlled bombast, building slowly throughout he song until hitting a soaring guitar frenzy by Pirog who truly emerges as a star throughout Anthropcosmic Nest. Not to be labeled solely as a jazz-fusion meets indie punk act, the guys play a loose, rollicking style of driving rock on “La Lonta”, another song that does not hang round for very long but leaves a lasting impression. Wrapping up with the six minute “Touch Earth Touch Sky”, each member is given an opportunity to highlight his skills across a capacious anthem. There is a vast audience who will appreciate what is produced here as Dischord contuse a decades-long tradition of pushing boundaries and celebrating individuality that confronts listeners and demands one’s complete attention.

MONOGRAMS - Living Wire (Paper Cup Music www.papercupmusic.com)

Monograms, yet another incredible act emerging from the seemingly endless talent pool that is Brooklyn, labels their work “nuke wave”, and it fits perfectly, as the band channels the 80s when fear of nuclear annihilation was a daily occupation. The nervous bassline that propels “Sounds Like Mean Spirit” is Joy Division and DIY indie pop wrapping around each other in a loving embrace of musical soul mates. On “Don’t Fight For It”, vocalist and one-time sole creator of Monograms, Ian Jacobs, admits, “It takes guts to tell yourself a lie” as an ocean of 80s dark wave that has hints of The Cure at their most haunting. While the band may have started in a bedroom and he des provide myriad of instrumentation for Monograms, Jacobs now surrounds himself with a bevy of impressive talent, highlighted by the synth work of Michelle Feliciano who takes center stage on nearly every one of the eight songs on Living Wire. Bassist Sam Bartos and drummer Rich Carrillo augment Jacobs’ contribution with tight rythyms of their own, shining on the punchy “Century”, another song of modern frustration (“The centuries keep coming alive/You don’t know why we should survive”). “Buzz Choir”, my personal favorite of the lot, is a combination of pop hooks woven into a patchwork tapestry of angular, dense playing, opening discreetly before methodically elevating its intensity. “Nose Dive” is steeped in 80s nostalgia, and the line “No one cares if we don’t care” sounds like a youthful call to arms from a band who are quite daring in their willful injection of modern rock styling into the boastful flaunting of Jacobs’ new wave and 90s indie fetishes. Living Wire closes with “Prate Government”, a track that begins with ethereal keys and introduces a mechanized, machine-gun drum rattle before settling into an uneasy calm in which Jacobs uses his voice as an accompanying instrument to add another layer to the density of the song. There is a theme about giving up or at least attempting to escape the trappings of contemporary life, perhaps retreating to the days of MTV and ubiquitous synth, but Monograms are not suggesting that life is empty. Instead, the record buzzes with an infectious energy that illustrates that those of us who are frustrated by what we see each day are not alone, and there are plenty of others who share in the confusion and angst. Monograms critique the world without fully condemning it and do so through imaginative playing.

PINEWALKER - Migration (pinewalker.bandcamp.com)

In what has to be Salt Lake City’s heaviest band, Pinewalker delivers sludge metal played with one foot in the darkness of 70s Sabbath and the other in the refined brutality of High on Fire. “Sentinel” builds slowly , incorporating jarring blasts of thunderous riffs along with ample feedback to brew a storm of punishing power. Their groove-laden metal becomes unmistakable and the closing ninety seconds of the track slams a taste of the New Wave of British heavy metal with Crowbar into a vulgar display of power. The chunky rythym of “Bone Collector” is a blues-soaked stomp led by guitarist Tarren Mead, Jason Kennington, and Sam Roe. A trio of guitar players can be a difficult balance, but Pinewalker creates a wall of pummeling sound that elevates this band out of the tar pits of simply being doom metal, and makes it much more complex and distinctive. “Burning Earth” injects noticeable speed and pronounced death metal vocals during an exhilarating three and a half minutes. Over the course of the opening trio of tracks of Migration, one hears three different versions of Pinewalker, reinforcing just how atypical this band is. The centerpiece of the record is the massive magnum opus “Maelstrom”. Sprawled over nine minutes, the track’s gentle intro belies a substantial wave of seismic force that rumbles across the land with a musical scorched earth campaign. This is followed by the eight minutes of “Space Witch”, highlighted by a dreamy lead that quickly becomes an effort awash in raw power. The crunchy “Self Vs. Self” comes across as a grunge band’s interpretation of death metal or vice versa, but it is a glorious celebration of polished heaviness either way. The song embodies Pinewalker’s willingness to dabble in experimental territory as the bottom drops out of the middle of the song before returning with a flurry of speed. The closing “The Thaw” is another eight-minute monstrosity marked by a fearless level of daring. Pinewalker is an example of contemporary metal’s best elements and also its potential future.

UNIVERSAL THEORY - The Most Attractive Force (universaltheory.bandcamp.com)

Universal Theory plays music with a strong gothic influence, augmented with Sisters of Mercy inspired darkness; that is, aspects of pain that somehow sound lush and lovely. This is due largely to the stirring vocals of María José Martos who compliments the gloomy delivery of Jesús Pinilla perfectly. This Madrid-based duo is the brainchild of Pinilla, and his adoration of 80s Goth and dark, atmospheric metal shines throughout the record, but there are twists along that way to offer aspects of distinct originality. The nearly flamenco-esque guitar break on the emotive “Romance I” was a delightful touch before the song returns to a buzzing riff and the pair’s shared vocals meshing into one powerful delivery. Lyrically, the songs play out as a poetic ode to heartbreak and longing, heard with overwhelming emotion on “Unfinished Fire” and “Deeper Than You Know”. The latter is a more reserved work highlighted by strings that generate the song’s eerie, mesmerizing ambiance as Pinilla explores profound sorrow and crushing depression (
Now It´s Time To Suffer This Life/Now It´s Time To Walk And Cry/Stay In My Mind
Stay In The Night”). This not celebratory or even hopeful music, but the musicianship is worthy of great praise, as Universal Theory create individualized world within each track, from the rhythmic force of “Romance II” to the hard driving, metal-tinged “Before Sunrise” that highlights Pinilla’s ability to channel Peter Murphy’s most distressing vocal tone and Martos’ dynamic range. Integrating synth into aggressive music can be a delicate line to walk, as too much can overpower the intensity of the band, but Universal Theory strikes a nimble balance throughout The Most Attractive Force. At times menacing, other moments reminiscent of church pip organs, the placement of the synthesizer only helps to emphasize the breadth of passion one hears. The concluding pair of tracks, “The Wall of Darkness” and the lush instrumental “Light Vein” are gentle works driven by wraithlike and hypnotic piano with the former interspersed with spiraling vocal beauty from Martos. “Light Vein”, written by Beth Hart, brings ideal closure to this expressively exhausting work. One can breathe and be lulled into a state of relaxation following what feels like a gripping therapy session. Introspective and daring in its exposure of raw emotion, I am intrigued by what Universal Theory offers.

YAWN MOWER - Why Work Harder Than You Have To? (Mint 400 Records; yawnmower.bandcamp.com)

This wonderfully laid-back, blissfully lawless act has a long history of brilliant covers, from “Margaritaville” to an entire Christmas Ep on which they “ruin” holiday classics. This time, Yawn Mower play five more covers, most of which seem in line with the type of band they are, beginning with “Doctor Worm” from They Might Be Giants’ 1998 Severe Tire Damage record. A song about an actual worm who is indeed a doctor, Yawn Mower offer a heartfelt and loving tribute to this obscure gem. On “Fume”, the B-side to the slightly more well known “Loser” from Beck, the guys smash their way through the track, offering far more energy and guitar crunch than the original. The next nugget is “Jersey Shore” from the The Promise Ring, a band forever associated with emo’s salad days and not an easy act to cover. Yawn Mower again adds a shot of adrenaline and crisper guiar to bring a sparkling energy to their interpretation. I was never of fan of The Presidents of the United States as I just never understood how and why they briefly caught fire, and “Lump” stood out as particularly annoying. Even with the punk enthusiasm delivered here, the song still remains beyond my grasp. I’ll go with “Weird Al” and “Gump”, but Yawn Mower’s take is far more entertaining than the original. Closing with a fuzzy, distortion soaked version of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels”, Why Work Harder Than You Have To? is a fun ride through some memories and memorable tracks. Now I want some new originals for this band.


ALL EYES WEST - Like Lightning (Jump Start Records www.jumpstartrecords.com)

If one is of a certain age (i.e. getting older), there s something instantly recognizable about the sound of All Eyes West that is both comforting and exciting. Like Lightning has Jawbox, Drive Like Jehu, Seaweed, and even some Hüsker Dü influences crawling all over it, and there is nothing bad about that. All Eyes West previously worked with J Robbins, so that helps to explain some of the similarities, but while Robbins is not turning knobs on Like Lightning, his impact lingers across the breadth of the experimentalism heard on these works. It is fitting that the record has “As I Bleed” and “Bruised” as musical bookends, as the two tracks are both rugged and abrasive efforts driven by masses of focused rage that bring levels of intellectualism and meticulousness into the turbulence. “Too Alive” has an uneasy warmth about it, as the riffs from Jeff Dean are huge, the vocals of bassist Justin Miller are soaring, and the thunderous rolls provided by Ronnie DiCola are rattling; these components collide in a perfect stew of early indie force and sneaky harmonies. The bass throb that drives “Interference” and the ferocious “Death Wave” is matched by the slash and burn guitar playing on “Dream of a Nightmare”, as that song that moves with sinewy precision between inert power and brief ethereal pauses. It is obvious that All Eyes West could choose to simply hammer away at listeners if that was their wont, but instead, the guys clearly take great pride in their prowess to juggle varied, jarring time sequences and delightfully off-kilter song structures. All Eyes West play with a style that sounds like it is collapsing upon itself and the listener is trapped in the middle of this imploding racket, for “Chasing Light” is a bellicose anthem that elbows people out of the way at the bar, while “Holding on a Holdout” triumphantly manipulates an alternating loud and soft dynamic range into something that sounds wholly original. I am so angry that I am only hearing of this band now, but I love every aspect of All Eyes West.

THE DRIPPERS - Action Rock (The Sign Records www.thesignrecords.com)

Sweden currently ranks seventh according to the World Happiness Report, but that should jump up even higher after a listen to The Drippers. This is everything rock n’ roll is supposed to be, namely, loud, greasy, and injected with limitless energy. Imagine if one can, the New Bomb Turks sharing a garage with Electric Frankenstein while the Night Birds drink beer and nod approvingly; that is only beginning of an understanding of the brilliance that is The Drippers. Opening with the eight-five seconds of “(Ain’t No) Shangri-La”, the dual vocals of bassist Viktor Skatt and guitarist William Dickborn work in flawless tandem, as drummer Niclas Kristoferson is a machine of a human being. Every song is a screaming, fuzzed-out explosion of punky, catchy rock drenched in Scandinavian sleaze, but “Gimme the Shakes” and “White Light” are nearly flawless. The lo-fi aesthetics of “Backbeat” makes the song sound sweaty through my speakers and shimmies with Stones-style confidence and Iggy Pop’s reckless fury. “Bottle Blues” and “Finskt Blood” are two high adrenaline tracks that borrow from Motorhead as much as they do the Candy Snatchers or Zeke. Every few years a band or two comes along and are labeled as the “next great saviors” of rock; I hesitate to put that moniker on The Drippers only because I do not want to curse them, as these three guys are special. People can debate about the health of rock music at this point in the twenty-first century and whether it still connects with people as it once did, but a person would have be long dead to hear this and not be moved. The Drippers better get a significant slot on a major tour of the U.S. because the nineteenth happiest country in the world could use this maybe more than ever, and I want to hear “Day Turns to Night” and “Sweet Action” in a club filled to the ceiling.

PAT TODD & THE RANKOUTSIDERS - The Past Came Callin’ (Hound Gawd Records www.houndgawd.com)

Pat Todd and his Rankoutsiders do not cheat the fans. The Past came Callin’ is fourteen songs of old fashion rock n’ roll that emphasize loud guitars and good storytelling. Part garage rock, part cowboy swagger, this is a rollicking trip through classic riffs and bold energy. The band offers new work along with a few pieces that had been in the vault, had the dust blown off of them, and finally given a chance to see the light of day. The hard driving opener, “If Only I Could Fly Backwards in Time” is nearly old enough to drive, while “Yeah, I Had a Bad Night” is on the cusp of celebrating its first legal drink. Traditional themes of feeling unsettled and unsatisfied with life are heard throughout the record but never sound recycled, especially “Call You on Sunday Night” and “Run”, the latter featuring the liner notes joke of “no song writing clichés were harmed in the making of this song”. With a bar band aesthetic and downhome honesty, Pat Todd and his mates keep the playing direct and the emotions raw on “A New Pair of Eyes” and “Just Between You and Me”, a subdued tale of pain that closes the record without providing a happy ending to send everyone home hopeful for a better future. At times folksy and bluesy (“Down in the Bourne” sounds like a Southern-friend hootenanny), but more often octane-fueled (“The Future Callin’”), The Past Came Callin’ reveals a band caught between looking back and yet still enthused about the present.

DE LA NOCHE - Blue Days, Black Nights (Get Loud Records; getloudrecordings.bandcamp.com)

Everything about De la Noche is smooth, from the supple nature of the velvety jazz and haunting sax that one hears across the eleven, single-word titled songs, to the warm vocals of Howard Ivans. This is mature, lovely music for adults but it is not going to be heard in the background of your local supermarket anytime soon. The songs are intentionally melancholy and deeply emotionally penetrating, for when Howard asks “Don’t you miss me?’ on “Blue”, the question s soul-shaking in its pain, transcending simple crushes and truly connecting with people who are lost and wandering without a guide. “Gold” is a lush, suave jazz track with profoundly emotive vocals and perfectly placed sax that captures one of Ivans’ influences, the 80s hit maker Sade (perhaps the first mention of her in Jersey Beat?). Robert Rogan and Seth Weeks are the remarkable players behind the words, and their ethereal soundscapes paint heartrending pictures through haunting arrangements on the up-tempo “Run” on which Ivans invokes Brian Ferry, mixing robust sensuality with poignant fragility and vulnerability, (“I should run away/but I stay”), and the penetrating humanism of “Spooky”. “Lover” is gentle and deeply moving and when the simple lyric of “true love” is repeated, it is difficult to avoid being swept away. The kindness of “Lover, it’s killing me to see you in so much pain” is a punch to the stomach and a daring revelation about one’s mistakes and regrets. If loud and fast rules solely in one’s playlist, De La Noche may not be a band of choice, but those looking for fully developed, intricately performed works of sheer beauty, go find Blue Days, Black Nights immediately.

FLORAL PRINT - S/T (floralprint.bandcamp.com)

The opening line of Floral Print’s self –titled EP is “you’ve been fucking with my head/in a good way” (“Six Pillows”). This juxtaposition of ideas reflects the band’s music as well; part classic indie jangle, part jazz-inspired improvisational freedom, the band’s six songs are a wild ride through lovesick loss and the hopes for a better future. “I Go Down on the Breeze” has an ambling nature interrupted by bursts of fuzzy guitar blasts that reminded me of the oft-kilter noise of Archers of Loaf and lyrics of desperation and sadness tinged with a subtle helplessness (“I can’t stand when you fall/keep it all on track, let the reel of film recall”). The song is given a minute-long reprise with only stripped down acoustic guitar, providing a very different approach to a beautiful piece. The fleeting instrumental “Vermillion” offers a tender reprise before the band once again takes the listener down a rabbit hole of profound emotion on “Alice Arm”. Subdued guitars and vocals mesh together to craft a song that frequently manipulates complex time sequences and should hold all who hear it with rapt attention. The closing “Viridian” is my favorite of the bunch, with the earnest opening lyric “”I want to show you the better parts of me/Or drown in a deep, dark sea” and the crushing concluding admittance “I wanted to show you all the things that we could be/If you were patient with the cutting parts of me”. The track finishes with a flurry and leaves one desperately hoping that a full length is on the way soon. This is not uplifting, but well crafted, daring, and refreshingly unique.

OUTSIDER - When Love Dies (Flatspot Records www.flatspotrecords.com)

By this point in my life, I have heard a voluminous amount of stomping, metallic hardcore, but when the cry of “Apocalypse now when the countdown starts…” launches Outsider into a thunderous breakdown that acts as the focal point of the bone-liquefying ninety second firestorm of “Path You’ve Earned”, I am hooked on this young and ferociously talented Richmond outfit. Playing with the blinding speed of acts like Dropdead or Magrudergrind matched with Madball’s penchant for mind-altering heaviness, Outsider makes one wonder where the hardcore ends and the metal begins, as the two styles mesh flawlessly and effortlessly. “Mind of Misery” is a chunky, thunderous effort reminiscent of the finest moments of Sick of It All with guitar riffs that owe as much to Dave Mustaine as they do Vinnie Stigma. “Let Myself Go” experiments with tempo a bit more loosely than the other tracks on the EP, alternating between more pensive qualities and chugging metalcore intensity, all accompanied by rugged, angered vocals. The concluding title track may have a sullen intro, but it quickly converts itself into an abrasive effort that would fit as easily on a 90s Earache Records roster as on the continuously impressive Flatspot stable. It can be easy to imagine that this is just another genre-blending hardcore outfit that is recycling old ideas in a anew package, but Outsider is genuinely different due to both their musical proficiency and the sheer power of their playing. I would suggest having a few EMTs on stand-by for their shows.


PETER LAUGHNER - Peter Laughner (Smog Veil Records www.smogveil.com)

For those too young to remember the career of Peter Laughner as it happened, this massive five volume retrospective will provide people with a thorough overview of his visionary brilliance. While Laughner’s career began in the mid-60s, he truly emerged as a burgeoning rock n’ roll legend in the early to late 1970s, and the focus of this box set is the heart of his expansive repertoire between 1972 until his tragic passing in 1977. From his time as part of the brain trust that comprised Pere Ubu to his immortal status within Cleveland’s long-standing place as a musical haven through bands like Rocket From the Tombs and the Fins, few encompassed so much of rock’s potential as singer, songwriter, and performer, and all of his genius is captured in this wide-ranging box set. Along the way, listeners are treated to a range of musical visions that are poignant, heartfelt, and remarkably intimate. Volumes One, Three, and Five are acoustic, authentic and intense pieces of Americana that sound as if those listening are sitting with Laughner in his living room as he introduces the songs and plays gritty bur delicate anthems about loneliness (“Love Minus Zero”), drinking, (“’Drunkards Lament”,) and New York City (“Sidewalks of New York”, “Eyes of a New York Woman”). The blues played a significant role in Laughner’s music, and one hears the influence most obviously on “Hesitation Blues” and his majestic versions of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues” and “Me and the Devil Blues”, but also on efforts such as “Dear Richard”, a song introduced as “an answer to an unwritten suicide note”. Each of the tracks, lovingly restored by Maria Rice and Jeff Lipton, sounds fresh and overflowing with lively passion, which defined Laughner as an artist. His music was both a tribute to rock’s glorious and occasionally unsteady inception as well as a predictor of what punk and indie rock would become. His grimy, angst-ridden classic “Ain’t It Fun” drips with the same rage and frustration later spewed forth by Stiv Bators and the Dead Boys featuring former Rocket From the Tombs member Cheetah Chrome.
I cannot decide which style of Laughner’s work I appreciate and enjoy more deeply; the rollicking, noisy garage rock or the more genteel acoustic work. “Junkman” is heartbreaking as Laughner laments about “the blues you get from reading other people’s notebooks” and how “my sister sold her heart to the junkman”, while “Sylvia Plath” includes lyrics that cannot help but make one smile “Sylvia Plath was never too good at math/but they tell me that she finished at the head of her class/ And if she lost any virginity, she didn’t lose it too fast”) despite being a song about a melancholy figure. The various covers are scintillating and reveal the breadth of Laughner’s musical knowledge and his daring. He and band slow “All Along the Watchtower” to a soulful crawl, embrace the electric Bob Dylan that caused a near riot at the Newport Blues Festival with “It Takes a Lot to Laugh”, and deliver a loving and whiskey-soaked version of “Wild Horses” found on Volumes Two, Four, and Five respectively. At sixty-one songs, this is both comprehensive and perhaps exhaustive for one sitting, but it is difficult to turn away from the box set once it gets rolling. The concluding Fifth section contains haunting works that hang wistfully in the air, such as “Come On In”, a fragile love song that is immensely powerful in its barebones, Mississippi Delta blues delivery in which the lines of “I got a lot of plans/I’ve got a lot future” are uttered which become all the more heart-rending when one considers Laughner’s early death. The collection finishes with a high-energy acoustic take on Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”. At only one minute, this truncated interpretation acts a metaphoric representation of Laughner’s life-inspired, energized, and over far too soon.

GOOD SERVICE - Please (https://goodservice.bandcamp.com/)

Noah Fardon is a one-man force known as Good Service and his new record is a musical journey as varied and distinctive as this young man’s life. Although only twenty-five, Fardon has lived a sojourner’s existence, beginning in Nashville where he spent time hanging around deep thinkers on the porch of a coffee shop before traveling northward to Maine. Vacationland turned out to be anything but for Fardon as he formed a band and ultimately began living and recording as Good Service. While a fleeting collection, only nine songs around half hour in total, Please transports one back in time to a mixture of 1960s and 70s vibes that may reflect a mixed sense of hope and concern. “Summer Muses” and “MaPaw” are two ideal examples of this structure, for the tracks meander with a lassitude that belies the emotional depth found within. “Summer Muses” is particularly griping, telling a tale of drug use that is becoming somewhat confounding from the protagonist’s perspective, as it is unclear if the drugs are having a positive or negative effect. (“Not to say these hours have been useless; wish I could do this more”) This is an artist born at the wrong time, but Fardon is doing all he can to bring classic jangly, groovy aesthetics into digital age. “Washington Avenue” is a warm, frills-free acoustic piece that projects subtle warmth through its chilly, airy atmosphere. The record revolves around the questioning and the stark realization of one’s mortality, as Fardon became tragically inspired to pursue this line of thinking following his grandmother’s diagnosis with a terminal illness, a disease that took her life nearly eighteen months later. The cleverly titled “Sys’ro” includes genteel waves of swirling noise as a buttress to the haunting vocal delivery turned in by Fardon. Please is a work of minimalist mastery and deep-rooted emotion that leaves a significant impact upon the listener.

HIGH ON FIRE - Bat Salad (eOneMusic)

This three-song EP is both a celebration of High On Fire’s musical influences as well as a triumphant farewell to drummer Des Kensel who has left the band after more than twenty-one years of service and one of the band’s founders. “Bat Salad” is a clever homage to Black Sabbath both in terms of title (see Sabbath’s thunderous “Rat Salad”) and musical force. Dense and muscular musicianship carry the five and half minute instrumental with Matt Pike’s guitar prowess on prominent display. The aforementioned Kensel and rhythm section mate, bassist Jeff Matz, are a punishing combination one last time as the song is a relentless parade of intelligent metal. The two covers are crushing tributes to legendary acts, the invaluable Celtic Frost and true D.C. icons Bad Brains. “Into the Crypts of Rays” is my favorite CF anthem, and while others have done sterling jobs recapturing the power of the original (check out Goatwhore’s scathing version, for example), High On Fire embraces the frantic nature of the song and celebrates the raw, punk nature of Celtic Frost’s early work. Along with Kurt Ballou’s brilliance behind the scenes, HOF crafts a version that, as blasphemous as this may be to some, surpasses the original. The EP concludes with Bad Brains’ “Don’t Bother Me”, and HOF are again able to perfectly express the unfettered rage that drove the caustic original. This is a testament to High On Fire’s strength as an act, for these three songs would be the pinnacle of many careers, but for them, it was a fun release for Record Store Day. Go immediately and treat yourself to this.

PEARER - A Healthy Earth (Tiny Engines Records www.tinyengines.net)

This Brooklyn outfit is another step in the evolution of indie pop rock. The opening “Circle” is a taut whirlwind of hypnotic riffs and Peter Katz’s sublimely emotive voice that introduces the band with a mixture of quiet beauty and precise delivery. The same holds true with “Ollie”, a playful two minutes of dreamy pop about Katz’s puppy, accented by a sense of innocence through a bass clarinet solo. The more capacious “Like You” features fragile guitar playing as Katz says, “I’m like you because I want to be” celebrating an admitted sense of imitation and conformity that one usually does not hear within rock, but this is a tale of two songs. Roughly halfway through the track, “Like You” adopts a more rambunctious spirit with Katz’s guitar force taking a more prominent position as a larger and louder wave of guitar crunch builds around a steady backing groove created by bassist Thom Lombardi and drummer Jeremy Kinney. “Don’t” has an understated anger beneath its sophisticated, math rock exterior and is among the record’s most intriguing songs. The start/stop, unsteady time sequences of the song make it simultaneously unnerving and enticing, and when Katz’s feedback drenched solo hits its crescendo, the song collapses upon itself from its own musical inertia and sheer exhaustion. This is complicated playing overflowing with resentment for the equally complicated nature of the times. In “Multiverse”, Katz theorizes of another time and place when he was not himself and had “never touched a guitar”. It is unclear if he is seeking escapism or simply giving in to a form of good-natured conjuncture. Remaining largely quite subdued, “Multiverse” is a tour through Katz’s mind done with a sense of bold bravery. On “Joke”, the band plays a tightly wound mix of blithe pop and monotone, deadpan vocals (“I told a joke/ at least it started as a joke/ It was supposed to stay a joke/ now I’m sorry that I spoke”). The opening ethereal seconds of “In My Belly” briskly steps aside and allows for 90s style indie noise to rush through the heart of the track, only to have the song dissipate again into a hushed conclusion, thus encompassing the larger nature of this band; the songs are not quite schizophrenic, but there are certainly personality conflicts that exist within them. On “Wilbur”, Katz gruffly declares that he “left his body behind in pursuit of the mind” over the top of a breezy, acoustic riff. This stripped down approach is also heard on the closing “Have Fun” but the song appears to struggle to wiggle free from its old skin and emerge as something boisterous, but ultimately, the tracks recedes into a musical gloaming. This is not an easy listen, but certainly a riveting one.


THE DARLING FIRE - Dark Ceremony (Spartan records www.spartanrecords.com)

It is safe to assume that the members of The darling Fire bristle at the term “super group”, but when one looks at the resumes here, it is hard to ignore the vast amount of talent within the band’s ranks. Featuring members Dashboard Confessional (Jolie Lindholm), Further Seems Forever (Steven Kleisath), and Poison the Well (Jeronimo Gomez) to name but a few, the band has all the prerequisites needed for a special release. However, if sports has taught us anything, it is sometimes difficult to transfer greatness on paper to greatness in action; luckily, that is not the case on The Darling Fire. This Florida based outfit creates a record with a perfect name. Dark Celebration is just that-a rumbling, pounding, dense mass of emotionally driven force. The opening “For the Loveless” is appropriately heart wrenching and atmospherically lush, with Lindholm’s vocals existing beautifully between the realms of sullen and passionate, exuding a breathy, strong delivery that is a staple of Dark celebration. It is not a surprise that the band can create tightly constructed grooves, as their previous acts were famous for this trait as well, but “Omaha” and “Catatonia “are a pair of ethereal body punches masking monolithic strength behind shrewdly layered harmonies. The Darling Fire is a band that repeatedly and effortlessly delivers intoxicatingly intricate tracks without ever overwhelming he listener. Borrowing subtle touches of 90s shoegaze on “Silver Spade”, Lindholm, Gomez, and Matthew Short produce a warm, dreamlike world of guitar hum. Each of the songs stays with the listener, lasting on average around five minutes, so people can enjoy the stirring dynamics of J Robbins’ production. Each anthem is a fully matured gem with a separate identity. Drummer Kleisath fuels the meandering “The Constant”, while the closing “In Twilight” is bathed in translucent beauty interspersed with a massive riff. The songs are emotionally emotive, poignant, and dazzling. This is a great band that invokes elements of the 90s indie uprising, but makes those tones also inherently contemporary.

SPIDER - Energy Gone Wrong (CPYRT CNTRL RCRDS)

This three-song EP is more than enough to alert people that Spider is a seriously punk rock juggernaut. If you do not believe my words, check out their scathing version of Black Flag’s immortal “Depression”. It takes guts to cover one of the true legends of the genre, and even more courage to put a unique stamp on a classic, but Spider makes the song their own with ease. Hector Martinez does not simply attempt a Rollins impression, but delivers the lyrics with a chilling intensity. The other surrounding pieces are equally rattling, as the closing effort, the brutal “The Reeperbahn”, is a heavy, crunchy track that takes rock by the throat and shakes some punk angst into its aging body. Guitarist Karl Izumi works in seemly tandem with bassist Jeff Abarta and drummer Alf Silva on the opening title effort. Abarta and Izumi also contribute surprisingly harmonious backing vocals that keep the bad one foot in the garage and the other in a vomit-strewn gutter. I loved this little teaser and the full length is hopefully coming soon.

DIVINE DIRT - From the Underworld (www.facebook.com/Divine-Dirt)

Bloody F. Mess will always have a special place in my heart. I first learned of him as the leader of Bloody Mess and the Skabs, a band that infamously opened for one of GG Allin’s parole-dodging tours, and later, Mr. Mess declared O.J. Simpson an “innocent man” more than a year before the end of that trial with song rightfully called “O.J. Simpson” which I played into the ground during my salad days of college radio. All these years later, he returns with his new act, Divine Dirt, and delivers From the Underground, a rocking, transcendental collection of trashy punk gems. Divine Dirt is largely more rock than punk, particularly on the ultra-catchy ode to the band itself (“Divine Dirt”) and the Sabbath-like stomp of “Lifting the Veil”. While the songs may play with tempo, there are more than a few true punk nuggets to be found, especially “Everyone’s On Drugs” which chronicles the legal drug trade that keeps more Americans than ever artificially able to get through their days, and “My Mind’s Diseased” ( including a new mantra of modern life-“My mind’s diseased with daily life”). The plodding “Skeletons” grinds slowly while Mess does his best Alice Cooper impression, a style matched in both tone and tenor by “Howling at the Moon”. The low-end thump of “Thieves Dressed as Kings” meshes sludge and a classic Judas Priest metallic assault to produce a slab of fun that could have illuminated parking lot parties in the early 80s. It is always great to have Bloody Mess back, and Divine Dirt displays, dare I say, some maturity from Peoria’s finest product.

UV-TV - Happy (Deranged Records www.derangedrecords.com)

UV-TV is able to create music that both bubbles over with energy and exuberance but the joy is also skillfully muted throughout Happy. The noisy, occasionally ambient, but always-impressive guitar work of Ian Bernacett and the remarkable vocal prowess of Rose Vastola lead the outfit originally from Gainesville, Florida. On the title track, Vastola’s sweetly sarcastic tone highlights the song’s declaration that “I’m so happy for you/Well it’s true/I’ll tell you/ it’s just a lot of shit”, while crunchy punk guitar dominates. There are aspects of the band’s earlier, more cuddle-core style, but UV-TV is embracing their angst on “inside Out” as raw, slashing guitar accents Vastola’s passionate delivery. (“You’re always upside down/I’m always inside out”) Subtle sweetness is heard on “Hide” and “Untitled” as both songs radiate enthusiasm along with rich harmonies. “World” is a more refined work as both it and the closing “Falling Down” are lengthier efforts that reveal the evolving nature of the band, as the members have the confidence to grant more air between notes. The work on Happy proves that UV-TV can strike at a listener’s head and heart with equal poise.

CHEMTRAIL - Collider (Good Fight Records https://goodfightmusic.bandcamp.com)

Instrumental bands deserve limitless respect; it is extremely difficult to produce music that is both stirring and relatable without a vocalist and lyrics to connect the listener to the band. An act like Animals as Leaders comes to mind in terms of bands that are capable of creating such an impact, and Chemtrail deserve to be within this conversation as well. Collider is a richly textured, complex mass of musical expertise from Ashbury Park. The band has three members who play guitar (Mike Burke and Chris Camano also offer their skills as keyboardists as well) and Chemtrail’s prowess is placed on full display with the opening “Void Crawler”. Ambient and innovative with sharp time structures, the song is a beautiful wall of sound that is stunningly lush and intricate but still graspable even for those of us who could never play like this. The spiritual nature of “Young Warrior” emerges again during the second half of “Collider”. This treasure of a song opens with aggressive guitar work before injecting a wave of distortion that cleanses the palate before the track drifts into a mist of unnerving calm that becomes hypnotic in its soothing nature. While “Parameters” and “Frozen Dream” are fleeting and beautiful, the fleshed out majesty of “Safe Passage” takes the listener on yet another astral expedition. There is something wholly unique about what Chemtrail does and they are a band for those who can appreciate truly refined musicianship as well as those who simply want to be swept away by dazzling compositions.

SUB DIO (undercomm.org/records.sidewithus.com/)

I love a band with a great backstory and Sub Dio certainly has that. Brian Moss has kicked around in a number of impressive bands throughout his life and has also spent time as a middle school teacher in San Francisco, and Danaca Von Hartwig is a social justice lawyer. Alongside Shane Hendry on drums, Danthrax on guitar (although Rob carter appears here) and Ran Marshall on bass, the band rampages through five blistering efforts of intelligent, hardcore flavored tracks. Von Hartwig and Moss share vocals and the give and take between them gives each song an aura of chaos while thunderous playing swirls around their impassioned voices. Each effort retains a similar sound that blends speed with raw emotion starting with “Takies”. With lyrics inspired by Von Hartwig’s critical but often times frustrating work, the band demands that listeners sit up and pay attention. “Skeeters” builds slowly and methodically before detonating into a mushroom cloud of fervent emotion. There is a clear nod to vintage DC post-punk on “Credible Fear”, particular the dissonant and discordant guitar playing that acts as the foundation of the song, and “Peachy Keen” is a flesh-ripping assault of a song. With Hendry’s breakneck drumming opening the song, Moss and Von Hartwig once again throw themselves into the musical fray, roaring and screaming about “hating the feeling” and “staring at the ceiling” with the repeating cry of “so peachy keen” taking on a sense of biting sarcasm. The concluding “Pardon Me” acts a perfect bookend to a five-song thrill ride of uncompromisingly abrasive and potent playing. I hope these guys can push their day jobs to the side and tour for a while.

CRO-MAGS - "Don’t Give In" EP (Victory Records, www.victoryrecords.com)

It is nightmarishly redundant to say that the Cro-Mags are one of the defining forces of American hardcore, but their history is important to understand as one listens to the new three-song EP. Granted, only one original member remains, but there is still something greatly endearing to hear Harley Flanagan bark, “Can’t let the circumstances define who you are” on “No One’s Victim”, the blistering final song of the three. The past two decades have been wrought with legal battles about the band’s name that were as bitter as the nastiest child custody case, with Flanagan finally gaining the right to record and tour under the moniker “Cro-Mags," the band he started when the vocalist was barely out of middle school. The trio of tracks are heavy, crossover hardcore that is done extremely well; it may not be revolutionary, but just having new Cro-Mags music after nearly twenty years is exciting. The band features the well-traveled Rocky George on guitar, and the opening “Don’t Give In” has aspects of Suicidal Tendencies running through it as Flanagan scowls his affirmations of toughness and self-reliance over three minutes of thunderous playing. It is a phrase Flanagan must know well, for not giving in defines his musical career. Guitarist Gabby Abularach and drummer Garry “G-Man” Sullivan bring their own brands of raw energy to the EP, and the Cro-Mags sound like they could throw down with kids more than half their ages, as the scathing “Drag You Under” proves. For those who were around to see the Cro-Mags in their early days of 80s New York City hardcore, it may be difficult to imagine that the band is still alive and vital in 2019, but of course, no one in the NYC of the 80s could imagine Times Square with a Disney store and family-style restaurants, so much has changed. However, one constant is Flanagan’s commitment to the spirit of the bare-knuckled brutality that defines the Cro-Mags. These three songs are not announcing a comeback as the legend and influence of the Cro-Mags never left. Instead, this is a declaration that the sleeping beast has once again risen.

THE GIRAFFES - Flower of the Cosmos (Silver Sleeves Records https://www.facebook.com/ silversleeverecords)

The Giraffes have been a long time staple of Brooklyn, particularly the Brooklyn prior to gentrification and rents that rival Manhattan. Their shows are infamous, and while Flower of the Cosmos may not necessarily capture the insanity of their gigs, the record is a collection of simmering blasts of metal-tinged rock. The opening “Can’t Do This in Your Head” is a noisy, guitar-heavy festival that is equal parts garage noise and hard-driving rock n’ roll. The Giraffes exist somewhere within those murky punk rock waters that infuse punchy force with just enough musical sophistication to know that the members are pros and not just a gang of guys slapping instruments around a rehearsal space. “FAKS” rattles like “No One Knows” from Queens of the Stone Age and a similar vibe is captured on “Golden Door”, with the latter delicately flavored with just enough atmospheric haze. The superbly titled “Raising Kids in the End Times” leaps skyward with a energized bass line that correlates with equally bombastic guitar riffs blending in with smoothly delivered lyrics from Aaron Lazar as he notes that “nothing’s gonna change”, and we are all “just living day to day”; this sad acknowledgment of man’s futility feels all too poignant right now. Lazar and fellow guitarist Damien Paris dominate “Bubble Scum”, an effort that oozes bluesy sensuality, while “Dorito Dreams” shakes with uncontrollable energy. Lazar declares on “Fill Up Glass”, “we’ll change your minds tonight”, and while the masses who attend the sweaty, furiously intense live performances from The Giraffes may not to have their opinions of the band changed, for those who are new to this outfit, Flower of the Cosmos is a perfect introduction. This is a record of progressive thinking rock as the band delivers hard-hitting tracks with a musical dexterity that is highly impressive. Now I just have to get to one of their gigs.

LOLA MONTEZ - Dissonant Dreams (lolamontezband.com)

Most people know Lola Montez as the famous mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria who fled the Germanic states during the ill-fated revolutions of 1848. However, if history does not interest you, the new reference point for Lola Montez will be this outstanding trio from Nashville. The band plays an infectious brand of well-crafted modern rock with a few playful nods to other genres. The majority of the work revolves around the guitar work of Blake Scopino and the beautiful vocals of Inga Rudin. Rudin’s voice soars majestically throughout the record, cutting through the songs like blazing comet in the night sky, and she even matches the power of Grace Slick on the band’s bold cover Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”. Scopino provides a wide array of guitar tricks and displays impressive nimbleness without ever becoming redundant. “Sacred” is one such example of this dynamic, but the song also possesses a subtle ambient nature also heard on “End of the Rainbow” that provides a sense of mystery and experimentation not always found in modern hard rock. Lola Montez also allows each of their songs to have air to breathe and room to roam as most of the tracks clock in at over four minutes in length. Maintaining the attention span of fans today can be challenging, but each of the ten songs resonate with warm harmonies and large, sweeping hooks, best heard on “Cyanide”. “Can You Feel Me” includes a funky, impish structure that allows Scopino to shine, while “Monster” has a heavy low-end groove. The song also features one of Rudin’s finest vocal performances, for her warning of “don’t touch me there” is delivered with a mixture of sensuality and caution. The shared vocals on “Break Up” gives the effort extra musical depth and is reminiscent of classic FM rock radio from a bygone era. Lola Montez does not solely clubber listeners for ten songs, but rather, the band alternates their fits of intensity with elements of serenity and sophistication. This is a band to which people need to pay attention.


 

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - Western Stars (Columbia Records www.columbiarecords.com)

I have seen the future of rock n' roll and he is now nearly seventy, but Bruce Springsteen continues to write songs of brilliant Americana that convey images of blue-collar struggles in a manner that makes him rock's Steinbeck. Springsteen famously invoked that legendary author on his Ghost of Tom Joad record, and Western Stars will undoubtedly remind many of that work, along with those who traveled with The Boss to Nebraska. Springsteen is once again alone on the road, traveling through the forgotten and ignored places such as the "lonely town" detailed on "Sundown" as the narrator simply travels "from bar to bar" lamenting a lost love. Rather than taking listeners to the heartland, Western Stars is a tribute to the rugged, still somewhat untamed aspects of the American West represented by figures racked by loneliness, depression, and painfully self-destructive regret. Self-reflection and the crushing sorrow of failure dominate the lives of the characters captured by Springsteen, whether this takes the form of the dissipation of a relationship ("There Goes My Miracle") or a desire to shed one's skin and start anew only to meet more disappointments ("Tucson Train"). The opening "Chasing Wild Horses" invokes sentiments of youthful anger that carried far too deeply into adulthood, while "Somewhere North of Nashville" includes the line, "I traded this song for you" offering a poignant emptiness that Springsteen referenced in both his autobiography and his sold-out Broadway show.

Springsteen's strength has always been his ability to capture a fleeting snapshot of American life and make it broadly relatable; on "Drive Fast (Stunt Man)", the protagonist lists his ills and the lasting suffering caused by his profession. In the hands of a weaker writer, the story could come across as clichéd, but Springsteen makes the tattered stunt man an analogy for anyone who has been battered and bruised by life's struggles. The work here is gentle, largely acoustic, and richly country-flavored, with Springsteen's gravely, well-worn voice and stunning musicianship granting each syllable uttered increased significance, accented by stirring strings, such as the lushly constructed "Stones" ("I woke up this morning/stones in my mouth") and the desperate self-deprecation of "Hello Sunshine" ("I always had a soft spot for the rain"). While "Sleep Joe's Café" is a divergence from this style with its buoyant tempo, "Moonlight Motel" has a lullaby sensibility and a haunting fragility in which memories flood back as the speaker gazes at a location of transitory contentment and offers "one last shot" of Jack Daniels to honor a place of past happiness, acting as a template reflective of the collective work of Western Stars. The career of Bruce Springsteen has included numerous aspects of rock's best qualities, but there is nothing in his catalogue that sounds quite like what one hears on Western Stars. The familiarity of the lyrical style remains in tact, but the musical structure takes the legend down yet another path, this one dusty and isolated replete with cowboys and the big sky of the West. Sit by the campfire and allow New Jersey's best to transplant all who listen to a majestically heartbreaking corner of the world.

AAN -- Losing My Shadow (Fresh Selects Records www.freshselects.bandcamp.com)

Aan is another wildly creative act from Portland, Oregon that shape-shifts genres by blending atmospheric keys with dreamy soundscapes and injections of sharp pop harmonies. Woven throughout the fabric of Losing My Shadow are tales of complex personal revelations and self-awareness, as Bud Wilson admits on the title track, “In my head I knew something my heart wasn’t ready to face/You wanted my love and I wanted your trust/But I was telling you lies/I was down in the dust” as psychedelic guitar riffs and a minimalist beat float around him. “Truly Massive” feels as if could exist in the late 60s as swirling, ethereal beauty envelopes equally beautiful lyrics (“Your touch is such a deception/Each kiss is a lesson I can’t seem to learn/It’s truly massive the way the world spins round you/I’m a blip in your atmosphere”), while “Born a Sucker” is propelled by warm programming compliments of Cameron Spies. The resplendent “Mistakes” is a serene, poignant effort that possesses a subdued R&B groove deftly accented by warm keys. This ability to balance humanity with the use of digital assistance is a fine line to walk, and Aan does so with remarkable grace. Much the way that Sgt.Peppers or Pet Sounds utilized every inch of the studio, Losing My Shadow conveys a similar sentiment for each song is overflowing with ideas and waves of sound. The songs never become cluttered or overly busy but are certainly complex in their majestic approach. The heartwrenching “Hurts to be Alone” is not a standard lament about feeling ignored, but is rather a declaration of pain and confusion by Wilson as he proclaims to the world, “I’ve got love for everyone” while gentle keys caress each syllable. Aan does not shy away from challenging the listener, as Losing My Shadow is not a record that one simply puts on as background noise; the nine songs demand rapt attention and are layered, adroitly textured works that are both similar in nature and yet still distinctly unique from each other. The closing “Life of the Party” has an aura that is the antithesis of the title as the song has a wraithlike quality hat perfectly captures the line, “I’m just a ghost in the room”. The loneliness and self-doubt Aan explores is quite painful and one can almost hear the anguish Wilson is suffering, but his ability to express these motions with such daring clarity makes Losing My Shadow a powerful listening experience.

CORPORATE CITIZEN - A Brief Moment of Sanity (El Topo Records www.eltoporecors.com)

Corporate Citizen labels itself a hardcore band but unlike acts that play fleeting blasts of speed that come and leave within a blink, Corporate Citizen flesh out their songs and develop a highly distinctive sound. This is not to say that the band does not hit with authority, as the opening “Batten Down the Hatches” is a sonic blast of power, but the track also demonstrates several tempo shifts and plays with chord progressions that displays more sophistication than sometimes heard within the genre, as Corporate Citizen even write identifiable choruses. Some of the themes addressed on A Brief Moment of Sanity are standard hardcore fare, particularly on “Next Big Thing” on which vocalist Bob Meder admits that he is “just fine with where I’m at” and eschews capitalist pursuits through musical conformity, butt he topics are addressed with a more mature level of experience. The work of Corporate Citizen retains hardcore’s driving intensity and gang vocals that will undoubtedly inspire massive spin-kick karaoke, as heard on “Got No Time” and “Just Walk Away”, but there is a depth to the nine songs that will provoke as many thoughts as stage-dives. The closing “The Good One” is a rugged beast of guitar crunch offset by an unapologetically harmonious chorus. The song is rife with emotion as Meder says farewell to an unwanted acquaintance with this biting dismissal: “To me you are inconsequential/A bump in the road that I will always avoid”. Bitter and still melodic, Corporate Citizen are not afraid to expand the boundaries of what hardcore can be.

PRETTIEST EYES - Vol. 3 (Castle Face Records)

This L.A. based post-industrial outfit returns with a distinctive mixture of angular rhythms and Devo-esque quirkiness. Prettiest Eyes experiment with tempos and intensity levels throughout Vol. 3 granting the band the rare quality of originality, for while they honor their influences they do not simply imitate past heroes. The wildly infectious “It Costs to be Austere” bobs with the energy of “Uncontrollable Urge” and has a chorus that resonates long after the song fades. “I Don’t Know” and “Mr. President” have a more deliberate pace that allows for the subtle noise and carefully placed effects to gain greater attention. Drummer and lead vocalist Pachy Garcia has a voice that streaks like a comet at times, capturing extraordinary emotion while still retaining a great sense of humanity even while being profoundly impacted by mechanized alterations. This balance between man and machine is the band’s greatest strength, as the quality of the songwriting is not lost within a mass of studio tricks. It can be easy for bands like Prettiest Eyes to be lured into a trap of overwhelming the listener with layers of density that, while technically impressive, ultimately suffocate the songs; rather than becoming laborious masses, the textured force heard on Vol. 3 straddles the line before aggression and refinement. The work and contributions of keyboardist/noise fiend Paco Casanova and bassist Marcos Rodriquez are audibly identifiable even at the band’s most chaotic moments, such as the blaring “The Shame”, a song that blends the fury of the Screamers and the mind-altering passion of Suicide to be my personal favorite of the bunch. The sullen, quiet soundscape “Another Earth” is disturbing in its subtle darkness, matched in apparitional beauty and by “Strange Distance”, with Garcia’s disturbingly ethereal voice hovering just above streaking blasts of guitar and intermittent keys. “Marihuana” is thunderous blast of danceable punk that fits snuggly in the midst of the swirling forces that surround it. “Summer in L.A.” captures a similar vibe and sounds like Brainiac jamming with early-90s Ministry while listening to Dead Kennedys to create a grinding, swirling ball of power. The closing “La Maldad” concludes with song collapsing upon itself in a heap of exhaustion, capturing the emotions of the listeners after completing their vital work.

TOMMY AND JUNE s/t (Fat Wreck Chords www.fatwreck.com)

This is quite the departure for Fat Wreck; Tommy and June are true folk duo playing jangly, predominantly acoustic nuggets that are fleeting in nature and often darkly comical. “Jetlag Blues” describes hassles at LAX, as the song details spending “six hours at the gate because I look like someone who may be smuggling drugs” and “Monogamist” offers this realization: “I fell into this/I would never choose this way of life/It may fit for someone ready to give up his teenage dreams”. While self-deprecating ,the lyrics never come across as pining for lost youth, in fact Tommy and June recognize on “Adulthood” that we are all in this aging process together, and while it may not enjoyable, there really is no gain in simply complaining about it. The raucous “Ghost of Paris” slams itself with a far greater ferocity than the rest of the material but it still recalls 60s garage rock more than the punk one usually associates with Fat Wreck. At first listen, the song may sound out of place, but the frustration expressed by the song is matched by the sarcasm of “Better Life Story”. In the latter, Tommy and June laugh at their friends who decided to have kids, now go to bed at 10pm, and surrendered their lives of independence. The record is a primer for those learning to come to grips with enhanced responsibility and the recognition that life may become more serious, but it does not mean that all the fun disappears. The music one hears here proves that claim to be true.


ELECTRIC FRANKENSTEIN - How to Make a Monster (Re-issue) (Victory Records www.victoryrecords.com)

Well, I guess I am officially old; I remember sitting in my small, basement apartment twenty years ago writing a review of the new Electric Frankenstein record, How to Make a Monster. I distinctly recall thinking how this band was kicking rock n’ roll in its bored and tired face, and twenty years later, the impact is exactly the same. A scathing set of blistering garage rock with an uncanny ability to blend big choruses with unfettered speed and angst, How to Make a Monster can rightfully take its place as a true rock classic. From Steve Miller’s full-throated vocal delivery to the dual guitar power of Jim Foster and Sal Canzonieri, the songs only know one gear and the band is supremely tight. Capturing EF at perhaps their creative peak, Monster is a bluesy, greasy record that leaves you exhausted and bloodied, but it is impossible to not love every second of it, from the campy intro “I Was a Modern Prometheus” through the concluding 50s-tinged rocker, “Phatty Boom Batty”. While “Use Me” was an early favorite of mine, I find that many of the deeper tracks hold up with equal ease. “My World”, “Don’t Know How to Stop You” and the scorching “Something for the Pain” are flawless bursts of sarcastic, biting punk rock that does not shy away from the desire to balance speed with precision, as heard by the driving low end force of bassist Dan Canzonieri and drummer Ron Sefcik. “I’m Not Your Nothing” is an affirmation of revulsion accented by a defiant sense of pride and sums up this essential listen. Gather around children, EF is about to reintroduce to what rock should be.

HAYBABY - They Get There (Tiny Engines Records www.tinyengines.net)

Haybaby lists their music on their Bandcamp page as “post-nap sludge pop”, and while I love the cheeky nature of this depiction, there is an apt accuracy to it as well. “Total Bore” saunters with a Kelly Deal-like bassline and subdued vocals. One waits patiently for an explosion of force that never comes, and this sets a tone for the record. Haybaby experiments with song structure and gives the aforementioned opener, “Monster” and “My Mother Tells Me” ample room to breathe, stretching ideas over tableaus lasting up to six minutes. “Monster” is particularly captivating as it a progressive increase in intensity before falling back into a tightly wound groove of fuzzy grunge. “Animosity” manipulates the definition of dark pop as Leslie Hong asks, “hey baby, why can’t you keep it together for a minute?” and her oneiric vocals are the centerpiece of the song, and this deft ability is heard again on the start/stop structure of “I’ll Wait”, giving the song a tangible urgency. Heartache, loss, and disgust fuels the music of They Get There as “Witch Like Me” addresses the long and trouble history of abuse towards women with Hong’s vitriolic delivery on full display. Noisy and furious, the song is a two-minute juggernaut. The equally menacing “Empathy” has a latter day Nirvana sensibility, as it balances rage with an infectious hook compliments of Sam Yield and Jeremy Duvall. Yet another great release from Tiny Engines.

NECKING - Cut Your Teeth (Mint Records www.mintrecs.com)

I am thrilled to see this, as Mint Records has been a favorite source of music since my earliest college radio days in 1991. A particularly fond memory was actually bringing cuddlecore giants Cub to my school where they delighted an audience comprised almost entirely of my college radio geek friends; to that end, Mint has delighted me for over twenty-five years and Necking only continues that proud legacy. The roaring opener ”Big Mouth announces the arrival of Necking’s second release and first full length. With thunderous drumming and Nada Hayek’s declaration of “Big mouth/you got a really big mouth”, one hears traditional riot grrl fury funneled through a contemporary filter. “Drag Me Out” taps into Sleater-Kinney’s finest sonic force and hook-crafting skills, traits equaled on the biting “Boss” which attacks sexism within the workplace with laser focused lyrics that will undoubtedly ring true for far too many. The nine songs of Cur Your Teeth are fleeting blasts of erudite song writing, meshing blunt force with uncompromising lyrics but doing so in a way that is more than standing on the shoulders of the giants that proceeded Necking. The four-piece from Vancouver turns up the punk-pop speed on “Go Getter” while also creating a darkly tinged sing along on “Rover”. (“I’m a dog calling home/crawling back can be alone”). “Spare Me” is driven by a highly kinetic bass line and leaves a lasting influence long after its scant one hundred seconds fade. The finale, “Habbo Hotel”, begins with a slower, deliberate pacing reminiscent of Bikini Kill’s more controlled moments before closing with a searing blast of aggression.


ACQUAINTANCES - 8 ½ Lives (File 13 Records www.file-13.com)

There are bands that one knows will be good before pressing play due simply to the line-up, and Acquaintances definitely meets this description. Featuring Jared Gummere of the Ponys and Patrick Morris of Don Caballero, Thumbnail’s Stephen Schmidt and Justin Sinkovich, along with drummer Chris Wilson who has done time with Titus Andronicus and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, this is an all-star cast. It can sometimes be difficult to have all of this talent collaborate effectively, but everything on 8 1/2 Lives flows with streamlined expertise, from the refrain about a “beautiful collapse” on “Mutual Denial” to the opening blast of driving guitar on “And it All Went Black”. The hyperactive energy of “Bermuda Triangle” shakes with passion while the title track rumbles along driven by a thick bass hook and a classic 90s indie-style riff. “Mistakes I Made” balances a droning groove with bursts of noise to emerge as one of the strongest pieces of the bunch, and the expansive “The Last Page” moves with the ease of a light-hearted jam session, which is close to what Acquaintances is as a band. With members in Philly, Chicago, and Portland, this is a long-distance relationship that actually works, and all of us are the beneficiaries.

B-BOYS - Dudu (Captured Tracks www.capturedtracks.com)

Despite the moniker, B-Boys has nothing to do with old-school hip-hop; if any comparison is to be made, these guys sound like something that should have ripped apart the stage at Max’s Kansas City in the late 70s. Discordant, blaring, and usually fleeting in length, the songs of Dudu are intriguing puzzles of fuzzy force. When vocalist Andrew Kerr shouts, “It’s been revoked” on the opening “Cognitive Dissonance”, the song begins to spin out of control and crashes in a glorious blaze. “Pressure Inside” captures the confusion of the modern age with the declaration, “I’m always busy in my mind/can’t think things through” as an intensive swirl of guitar noise dominates the air. The tightly wound playing consistently sounds as if it is on the verge of exploding into a pile of unrecognizable rubble and this creates a sense of tension and anxiety for those listening, keeping an audience permanently uncertain about what will happen next. This quality makes the music of B-Boys, the band also including Britton Walker and Brandon Avalos, particularly exciting, best heard on the tense “Closer”. “Automation” has curt guitar riffs that slice through biting lyrics before erupting is a speedball of punk angst. Even what the band offers highly truncated efforts, such as “No”, and the punishing “Smoke You” the B Boys make statements, but they excel when the songs have more room to move, such as the sardonic “I Want” which includes Veronica Torres of Pill (“ I want pretty things/I want poetry”, “I want intelligence”, “I want quite a lot”) which rattles with a Feelies style nervousness. Snarky and overflowing with boredom, “Can’t Stand It” is the encapsulation of contemporary dissatisfaction. At fifteen songs, one may worry that the record may become redundant, but everything on Dudu slams and clangs with consistent potency, including the engaging off-kilter nature of the fifty-second instrumental closing title track and the speedy “Taste for Trash” (“I’ve got no taste for trash”). It always does my heart good to hear something new and exciting, and B Boys deliver on both accounts.

LITE - Multiple (Topshelf Records www.topshelfrecords.com)

The sixth album from this limitlessly unique Japanese band is not just genre bending, but genre smashing in its approach. Jazz, funk, guitar rock, and soul are seamlessly meshed together, occasionally all on one song. The opening ‘Double” is track played with dizzying speed but coherent enough to grant the listener an appreciation for the talent on display. A thick, danceable bass line thumps alongside rapid riffs and tempo shifts that are the musical equivalent of doctoral level trigonometry. To Lite’s credit, this is not just a collection of virtuosos simply cramming any many brilliant ideas into an incoherent mass; each song has a clearly defined start, middle, and end, even if may take a while or multiple listens, to identify them. The effervescent “Blizzard” is one such example. Featuring minimalist vocals, slap bass, and a more controlled, jazz-fusion style guitar work, the song is both a musical departure and yet still representative of their larger aural approach, which “Maze” is a two-minute long anthem for the coolest after-hours club imaginable. The jagged, start-stop nature of “Last Mile” gives the song a sense of schizophrenic energy that is equally thrilling as it is unnerving. “Ring” offers a new bend to the path of contemporary hip-hop as rapper Tokyo-based Maco Merets commands the mic over the top of a blissfully smooth, island-influenced beat. “Temple” meanders along gracefully, at times interrupted by bursts of metallic force before pausing for just a fleeting few seconds before reinventing itself as a nearly entirely different song. “4mg Warmth” has a lush, atmospheric nature that wraps itself around hypnotic rythyms., and the song leads majestically into the scintillating closer, “Clockwork”. With potential eruptions of sound hovering just beneath the surface, the song acts as a perfect conclusion to an immensely entertaining release.

PRETTIEST EYES Vol. 3 (Castle Face wwwcastlefacerecords.com)

This L.A. based post-industrial outfit returns with a distinctive mixture of angular rhythms and Devo-esque quirkiness. There is truly nothing quite like this, as Prettiest Eyes experiment with tempos and intensity levels throughout Vol. 3. The wildly infectious “It Costs to be Austere” bobs with the energy of “Uncontrollable Urge” and has a chorus that resonates long after the song fades. “I Don’t Know” and “Mr. President” have a more deliberate pace that allows for the subtle noise and carefully placed effects to gain greater attention. Drummer and lead vocalist Pachy Garcia has a voice that streaks like a comet at times and retains a great sense of humanity even while being profoundly impacted by mechanized alterations. This balance between man and machine is the band’s greatest strength, as the quality of the songwriting is lost within a mass of studio tricks. The work and contributions of keyboardist/noise fiend Paco Casanova and bassist Marcos Rodriquez are audibly identifiable even at the band’s most chaotic moments, such as the blaring “The Shame”, a song that blends the fury of the Screamers and the mind-altering passion of Suicide to be my personal favorite of the bunch. The sullen, quiet soundscape “Another Earth” is disturbing in its subtle darkness, matched in apparitional beauty and by “Strange Distance”, with Garcia’s disturbingly ethereal voice hovering just above streaking blasts of guitar and intermittent keys. “Marihuana” is thunderous blast of danceable punk that fits snuggly in the midst of the swirling forces that surround it. “Summer in L.A.” captures a similar vibe and sounds like Brainiac jamming with early-90s Ministry while listening to Dead Kennedys to create a grinding, swirling ball of power. The closing “La Maldad” concludes with song collapsing upon itself in a heap of exhaustion, capturing the emotions of the listeners after completing their vital work.

SUMMER CANNIBALS - Can’t Tell Me No (Tiny Engines www.tinyengines.net)

I always love a release with a fascinating backstory, and Summer Cannibals’ Can’t Tell Me No is one of most inspirational I have heard in a very long. The band, led by Jessica Boudreaux, discarded an entirely finished record in order to craft something in defiance of a person Boudreaux described as “abusive and manipulative” that worked on the now abandoned work. In its stead came the songs for Can’t Tell Me No, a bold, confident collection of anthems that reflect personal strength and a commitment to one’s principles. Boudreaux’s voice roars with focused rage on “False Anthem”, a song that directly confronts abusers and those who do not listens to victims’ stories, and “Behave” on which Boudreaux confesses, “I try to behave/it’s gets harder everyday” and asks, “What if I can’t change?” Blending indie rock with a solid dose of riot grrl strength, Summer Cannibals confront gender roles with biting social commentary on “Innocent Man” (“An innocent man doesn’t scream, doesn’t cry when he’s right”), a song that proves that one need not play with reckless fury in order to be effective. The trifecta of “One of Many”, “Staring at the Sun” and “Start Breaking” are flawlessly delivered piece of pop-kissed indie rock that also deliver a devastating punch to the jaw when one loses focus and each accents the talents of Casi Blum who devoted numerous fourteen hour days with Boudreaux to create Can’t Tell Me No, Devon Shirley, and Ethan Butman. The serene “Innocent Gold” finishes the record on a tender note musically, but the lyrics reflect extraordinary strength (“Out of the dark and back into gold”) and that quality encapsulates Summer Cannibals.

CHERRY POP - Sue Me (https://cherrypopli.bandcamp.com/releases)

I had the distinct pleasure of watching this band open up for the Murder Junkies a few weeks back, and they absolutely owned the club that night. Cherry Pop is a Long Island four-piece that injects a healthy dose of sleaze back into punk rock. Vocalist Cherry B, who also handles all lyrical responsibilities, commands scathing and sexually anthems "Complicated" and "Whore" as guitarist Austin Vomit proves that he is anything but simply a three-chord wonder. On "Fool", the band throws itself into high gear, delivering a track of blazing speed dripping with unabashed anger. Bassist TJ Dirt and drummer Nick Hero are a punishing low-end duo that provide a devastating backbeat for the biting "Past Your Prime" and the grinding "Garbage". This may only be a six song EP, but Sue Me is a bold introduction to a band with outstanding promise.

STRANGEWEATHER - Of the Reeds(strangeweatherpdx.bandcamp.com)

For people wondering where one can hear quality musicianship with a healthy dose of glockenspiel, one need only look to Strangeweather. This intriguing Portland, Oregon outfit plays a hypnotic blend of haunting darkwave and soaring chamber music. Rhone Lachner makes an immediate impression on the majestic opener "Syrinx", an expansive, profoundly lush anthem of delicate beauty. While the song concludes with a subtle bit of clamor, her flute playing seats a particularly soothing aura. "The Wind and the Wheel" is replete with perspicacious lyrics ("Everything you love/everything you hate/time will turn into dust blowing past your grave"). Invoking Etruscan mythology, "Born in Armor" references the lives and adventures of Minerva and Diana in a sprawling anthem with prominence given to bassist Joshum Hardy who also handles vocals on "The Wind and the Wheel". "Wooden Cage" is the darkest of the six pieces here ("Fell to pieces in the blink of an eye/ and then reveled in the pain") and its atmospheric intensity is almost unnerving. The poetic nature of "Five of Cups" is particularly serene as sparse lyrics are uttered throughout a richly textured song. The band fittingly references winter for there is a penetrating chill created on "Ace of Swords", another stirringly delicate that seems as if it could shatter into pieces at any second, highlighted by the cello playing of Brenna Sahatjian and intricate percussion from Dirt Deodara. Sounding like the soundtrack to a seance, the song, and the larger record, is simply mesmerizing.


 

ABOLITIONIST - Ugly Feeling (Between the Days Records; http://betweenthedays.storenvy.com/)

Apparently, this is Abolitionist’s swan song as the band is moving on, and if this is the case, what a way to exit. Ugly feeling is twelve blasts of melodic punk, textured with a dual guitar sound compliments of vocalist Dustin Herron and Jeremy Dunlap. The songs balance rage and control as Herron emotes, “He’s just not getting it/ yell a little bit louder/he’s just not getting it” on “Yelling” and he asks “Is the byproduct of patriarchy to consider only yourself?” Or is it a human thing?” on “The Selfish Gene”, a track driven by the drumming prowess of Sean Rule. The songs all focus introspective, contemplative lyrics that address the complexities of being human “in such a weird time” (“Ambivalent Nerd”). Throughout the record, the band, including bassist Joey Mohler, examines the human condition on tracks like “World Inside”, “Shelter”(“It wasn’t too bad living “in the sticks” surrounded by the trees and the loneliness”), and “Walls”. The songs shake with frustration and the insecurity that comes with feeling like an outsider; Abolitionist capture teen angst but make it clear that those feelings do not dissipate with the onset of adulthood. Instead of looking for blame, Herron bravely reveals a reality known by many on the title track when he admits, “It wasn’t all that bad growing up in the rural life, being shredded by the eggshells of an unhappy marriage of two unhappy souls” while driving riffs propel the song along at a furious pace. I am always drawn to intelligent songwriting, and that trait abounds on Ugly Feeling as Herron bares his soul throughout the fleeting tracks and asks profound and painful questions on “Family Affair” and Crossroads”; the types of questions that are not solved by simplistic answers, but rather may remain permanently unresolved. I do hope this is not the last of Abolitionist because punk needs more thoughtful acts such as this. Listeners may see themselves within these songs and may feel uneasy; however, the music of Abolitionist proves that feelings of disillusionment and uncertainty are not isolated emotions.

MYKEL BOARD AND THE CLEAN BOYS - “It’s Punk Rock” EP (The Only Label in the World; facebook.com/mykel.board)

Legendary punk gadfly Mykel Board returns with a roaring three-song release. Featuring the Clean Boys (Danish punks with an impressive discography of their own,) "It's Punk Rock” is a blazingly fast and noisy anthem that reminded me of an ode in the vain of Sebadoh’s “Gimme Indie Rock.” Defiant and proud of it, the song rumbles along with all the anger one would expect compressed neatly into about two minutes. “Fight Fight Buy” has a tone reminiscent of something the Jabbers would have recorded, overflowing with traditional punk disgust with society but delivered with a keen sense of melody.

The B-side is when things take a turn for the very weird: Singing along with the lovely voice of Persille Ingersler, Board delivers a lounge version of the Paul Anka hit “Having My Baby”. Played gently along with Peter Peter with a hint of sarcasm, the song seems particularly snotty in an era of the #MeToo movement and abortion laws driving women back to draconian measures concerning personal freedoms. While Board’s vocals do not approach the velvet tones of Anka, the song does not mimic Sid Vicious’ vomit-covered take on Sinatra, either. No one actually needs this, but the world should appreciate its existence.


THE CANDY SNATCHERS - Moronic Pleasures (www.houndgawd.com)

There are legions of stories of bands that should have been huge but through a combination of bad luck, bad timing, or bad habits, it just simply did not come to fruition. One of the most heartbreaking of these tales to me is The Candy Snatchers, a riotous act of sweat, beer, and violence that never disappointed. For those who never caught the band live, they missed unpredictable evenings of on-stage fights, an often-bloody vocalist in the form of Larry May, and the most ripping punk rock one would ever want to experience. All of this reckless energy burned itself out too quickly, culminating with the tragic loss of guitarist Matthew Odietus, although, to be fair, no one ever expected The Candy Snatchers to retire gracefully and quietly. Moronic Pleasures is an expansive collection of songs that is often labeled a “lost album”. Whatever label one wants to affix here, it is nineteen blasts of fearless aggression, with nothing even coming close to hitting three minutes in length. Everything on this record just crushes the listener, but good luck not throwing things around the room when “Pissed Off, Ripped Off, Screwed”, “Gone for Good”, or “Killing my Buzz” come through the speakers. The band was a searing mass of garage rock aesthetics and blunt punk rock force. Nothing about the band was subtle or refined, but the tongue in cheek humor of “She Sure Can Blow” and ”Ass Casserole” makes it clear that the guys, rounded out by bassist and frequent sparring partner of May, Willy Johns, and the thunderous Sergio Ponce on drums, took their fun seriously. While May has moved on to sing for the great Born Loose, his legacy will always be the front man of The Candy Snatchers. There is nothing to not absolutely worship here, and I have already worn out the vinyl. The Candy Snatchers may be gone, but their legacy should be a blueprint for any group of kids picking up instruments in a garage right now.

ROD HAMDALLAH - "Think About It " EP (www.houndgawd.com)

Rod Hamdallah has been creating his brand of rock n’ roll chaos since he was only sixteen, and while "Think About It" is only five songs, every second is a pleasure. The record meshes bluesy garage force with heartfelt lyrics about being lovesick, lost, and lonely. Hamdallah declares, “my heart is beating/beating on the ground”, and the refrain comes to carry the song “Heartbeat”, a sultry march accented by accordion that slowly grinds under Hamdallah’s vocal prowess. Each song celebrates Hamdallah’s highly emotive voice, but the most significant calling card is the explosive nature of the songs that rises and falls with seamless ease. When one hears the scream “take me back” during the song of the same name, the combination of anger, lust, and hope converges into a richly textured chorus that goes well beyond a standard love tale. “Carry You Home” bounds with soaring rythyms as Hamdallah announcs, “ain’t nobody loves you the way I do”, a statement of personal bombast as Adam Holliday delivering outstanding Hammond organ. The record radiates with a lo-fi aesthetic and it’s clear that this young man was influenced by the legends of the delta blues genre as “I Don’t Mind”, featuring the lyrics “I don’t care who you’re loving as long as you love me so”, would make Muddy Waters proud, while the scathing solo will delight any true rock aficionado. This one is a gem.

NEBULA - Holy Shit (Heavy Psych Sounds; www.heavypsychsounds.com)

Certain bands know how to characterize their music in only a few words, and Nebula has that done perfectly with Holy Shit, the name of their first release in ten years. A decade away would usually place most bands in the either the “recycled” or “nostalgia” categories, but not here. The Sabbath style riffs abound, particularly on the pummeling “Witching Hour” in which guitarist /vocalist Eddie Glass leads the band through a rollicking feedback drenched dirge that retains a highly melodic groove. Bassist Tom Davies and drummer Michael Amster are airtight anchors of the band’s heavy low-end rumble, from the hazy opening “Man’s Best Friend” to the Stooges-esque instrumental “Handful of Pills”. The songs elevate themselves above the typical stoner-doom genre but adding an atmospheric tone that both harkens back to 70s guitar rock and is still surprisingly contemporary. The meandering crawl of “Tomorrow Never Comes” is seven minutes of fuzzy, hypnotic power that will have every head in the crowd bobbing in rhythmic unison, and includes a dramatic tempo shift into a rambunctious mix of intricacy and truly heavy force before finding its original anthemic nature again. Despite Holy Shit being Nebula’s sixth release, this is my introduction to them, and I guess the old adage of better late than never applies here, for I am better for hearing this. “Gates of Eden” has a subtle Southern rock boogie to its otherwise meandering psychedelic sound, and would be an ideal blast for rock radio if that still existed. With touches of everything from Deep Purple to Iron Butterfly to Spirit, Nebula brings expansive headspace rock into the twenty-first century, perhaps truly highlighted by the blazing (pun intended) “Let’s Get Lost”, a punishing assault of scathing wah-wah effects pedal guitar work and impassioned vocals demanding “Let’s get lost/ let’s feel something”. It could be a “Sweetleaf” or “Dazed and Confused” for the vape generation or simply a new anthem for those of us looking for a return to rock’s more experimental nature. Concluding with “Cry of a Tortured World”, Nebula boldly announces their return and people should sit up and take note.

THE NEXT GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST - I’ll See You in the Art You Love (store.cdbaby.com/ cd/thenextgreatamericannove2)

This New York City band eschews the dirt and grime of the City in exchange for beautiful, richly harmonious folk with a healthy dose of pop. What is easily appreciated here is the juxtaposition of buoyant playing with shockingly dark lyrics, as one hears on “American Queen” (“Here I am with the razor blade/ too good for my body”) and “Clover Color Blooms” (“Love will bring you laughter/then hang you from the rafter”). The songs are delivered with a sense of hopelessness that conveys early adulthood depression with the reality of life through the passionate vocals of Sean Cahill, who channels the best of Elliot Smith on “Mental Highway” and “Blue”, a song in which Cahill laments, “Nobody’s on my side”. The band has subsequently evolved from the release of Art You Love to become a louder act, as Cahill joined forces with Jason Cummings and Danny Sher, but the delicate beauty of the songs here are deeply moving. The sadness is unavoidable throughout Art You Love, and the record plays like one long break-up, but for anyone who has ever had their heart broken, the songs are a testament to a pain that is all too real and often indefinably penetrating. What I admire most here is that Cahill remains devoted to his suffering; there are no happy endings to these songs nor is there any silver lining-everything he feels hurts and he is boldly exorcising these obsessive thoughts for all to hear. Despite the similarities in tone and topic, the songs never become redundant, and even the six minute “Prosthetic Memories” moves along briskly and poignantly. Closing with the ethereal title track, the record closes with a breathy, solemn statement that reinforces the anguish Cahill feels. His suffering is the world’s gain and I can clearly understand why the Boss of Jersey Beat wanted this one to get some attention.

NOT A PART OF IT - Defiant Indifference (Next 7 Exits Records https://www.facebook.com/next7exits)

Not a Part of It returns with more ultra fast, biting political punk. The Trump era has inspired the most incensed politically motivated punk since Reagan and this highly skilled trio makes it clear that America is in trouble. On “And?”, the band warns that “they are coming for you”, and the ominous nature of the line is intensified when one considers that the band does not designate who the targeted group actually is. The denser but equally speedy “So?” reminds us all that it is “not enough”, while guitarist/vocalist Jason Burton expels biting frustrations. The B-side “Yeah?” demonstrates the complete talents of the band, particularly bassist Daylon Liles and drummer Rush Lamb-ah! Harkening back to the sound of the Damned and Stiff Little Fingers, the track speaks of a nation that has voluntarily made itself “emotionally blind”. This is menacing music for unsettled times.


HEATHER WOODS BRODERICK - Invitation (heatherwoodsbroderick.bandcamp.com)

While Heather Woods Broderick may be known for being a band mate and collaborator of Sharon Van Etten, she excels on her own throughout the deeply stirring Invitation. Written largely in solitude in Oregon, the songs permeate the listener as Broderick blends intimate fragility with incredible soul. A gentle piano riff and a massive chorus drive “Nightcrawler”; the song acts as a perfect companion for a day with a low, grey cloud ceiling and constant rain. The minimalist beauty of “Slow Dazzle” is my favorite moment of the record until I hear Broderick describe herself “moving through the white tail of the jet stream” (“White Tail”), and there in lies my only challenge with the record: just as one stirring anthem finishes, another begins and it is easy to get lost in Broderick’s vocals as she explores raw emotion with a daring vulnerability. “Quicksand” is a gem from this virtuoso, as Broderick takes the listener on a journey that ebbs and flows through heartfelt waves of emotion. The tile track is where I truly fell in love with all Broderick does, as she declares, “I dreamt it took me last night into the darker side of life. I accept the invitation”. The song is a wistful, richly personal song that encapsulates the brilliance of the entire record. From this point forward, people should boast of ever working with Heather Woods Broderick.

KITTENHEAD - NYB (www.kittenheadla.com)

Kittenhead play riot grrl anthems for a new generation with their own unique spin on the angst that fuels the music. The LA based five-piece understand the power of a towering hook and memorable chorus, and the opening duo of “Numb” and “Bloom” certainly illustrate that point. Vocalist Kivi Kittenhead is not a screamer, but a truly refined singer whose voice conveys elements of sensuality, fear, rage, and disgust all with equal aplomb and with excellent range. “Bloom” hums along at a mid-tempo pace with hazy guitar from VJJ and Daddy Kittenhead as Kivi’s vocals soar majestically above the refined chaos. The feedback that ends the song illustrates the band has its foot (paw?) squarely in punk aesthetics, but as “Confusion” opens, the hook is undeniable and one quickly learns that this is a well-honed rock n’ roll animal of a band that can balance harmony and fury with expert ease. Yet, for those looking for a bit more frenzy in their music, the title track will leave listeners exhausted and richly satisfied. An acronym for “not your bitch”, “NYB” is a ripping assault upon the Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps of the world as Kivi spits out “I’m not your toy/ I’m not your test/ I’m not your pick up game” over the top of a thumping bass line from dd Kittenhead and the punishing low end of O-Face Kittenhead. The song breaks down into a sarcastic lecture that needs to heard on repeat at least ten to twelve times to be fully appreciated, and this one is easily my favorite track of the bunch. The closing “143” is a speedy, punk-pop nugget overflowing with bratty arrogance and a great sing along line of “we don’t care”. I can only hope that Kittenhead make their way to the east cast soon because they are a rare mix of smarts, humor, and a killer set of songwriting talents.

THE YAWPERS - Human Question (Bloodshot Records www.bloodshotrecords.com)

Taking their name from Walt Whitman is always a great start in my book, and the Yawpers only improve their standing with me from that point forward. The band plays a unique blend of bluesy, breathy, rock n’ roll, particularly the ultra cool “Dancing on my Knees”, a track accented by unexpected blasts of noisy guitar. The title track is a harmonious, bubbling work with understated yet impressive guitar work and thought provoking lyrics, matched by the erudite folk of “Man as a Ghost”. The fuzzy, reverb-fueled guitar on “Earn Your Heaven” is rugged, but still has rounded edges for greater accessibility and incudes beautiful Wurlitzer piano from Alex Hall who also masterfully produces the record. “Carry Me” soars like a religious revival while the bluesy stomp of “Forgiveness Through Pain” swaggers with confidence. The trio tap into their love of 60s pop on the jangly “can’t wait” as the guys channel The Byrds and then later borrow from the masters on the Beatles-esque “Where the Winters End”. The Yawpers give listeners a little taste of all forms of American music and excel at every turn.

THE GET UP KIDS - Problems (polyvinylrecords.com)

The Get Up Kids may no longer be kids, as they now have children of their own, but their commitment to warm, lyrically introspective playing remains intact. The work of this band has traditionally been accented by a shrewd pop sensibility, and that is certainly heard throughout Problems. From the self-deprecation of "Lou Barlow" (“I saw Lou Barlow on the street/I don’t think he noticed me”) to the equally critical “The Problem is Me”, the songs here resonate with lyrics of self-contemplation and memorable choruses. The guys do deviate a bit and take more chances throughout Problems, particularly on the keyboard-laden “Waking Up Alone”, as the song recoils, lunges, and bounds with sugar-fueled energy without the sole focus remaining on the guitar. The same holds true on the piano-kissed “The Advocate” which becomes a bit darker after the subtle beauty of the intro. Matt Pryor continues to craft songs of hope, sorrow, and loneliness, but now he does it for those of us who have deeper concerns than fleeting crushes. His heartfelt, genuine emotional breadth is heard around the heavier riff of “Symphony of Silence” as he admits “I used to be good once/I used to be gorgeous”. The closing “Your Ghost is Gone” is a churning piano ballad that does not end the record on a whimper, but rather with a devastating emotional punch. Problems illustrates how after more than twenty years, the Get UP Kids still appreciate the combination of heartbreak and pop hooks.

MEKONS - Deserted (bloodshotrecords.com)

From the second of their inception in 1977, Mekons have been one of the most confounding, fascinating, and erudite bands in punk. Perhaps too punk for some art folks and too art for the punks, the band has long existed in a sphere of their own genius. Finally returning after eight long years away, Deserted continues this brilliant combination of off-kilter musicianship and stirring storytelling. “Weimar Vending Machine” is just one of the numerous gems found within this collection, and the song is a varied, winding tale of references to the German government post-Kaiser Wilhelm, Iggy Pop at a Berlin vending machine, and the fact that the world has been teetering on the edge of complete self-induced destruction for far longer than just the past few years. Always imbued with elements of folk, Mekons embrace go full on Southern boys (considering they are original from Leeds, England) on “Andromeda” as singer John Langford carries the song with his lush vocal range, and again on the closing “After the Rain”, propelled by the shared vocals of Sally Timms and Langford over the top of haunting fiddle. “Lawrence of California” is a brilliant introduction to the record, as the song opens with a slowly developing wave of feedback before launching into a rousing chorus as the band pays homage to Joshua Tree State Park which surrounded the studio in which they recorded the virtuosity that is Deserted. “How Many Stars?” is a gentle slice of subtle beauty that envelopes the listener, while the atmospheric nature of “In the Deserted” is established by the remarkable voice of Timms who once again is rightfully among the Mekons ranks. Bouncy, fuzzy guitar abounds on yet another historical reference, “Harar 1883”. The song is a nod to French poet Arthur Rimbaud who, while searching for more dramatic life experiences, traveled to the city in what was Abyssinia (today Ethiopia) in his early twenties. Some bands defy comparisons and peer groups, and Mekons are such a band. It is good for all of us that they have again graced the world.

RICHARD VAIN - Night Jammer (bigneckrecords1.bandcamp.com)

The thunderous rumble of guitar reverb that opens the appropriately titled “Tremors” by Richard Vain act as a forbearer of what is to come over the scope of nine largely expansive tracks. At times, the work is offset by moments of more delicate, jangly riffs, such as what one hears on “Castles”, but even this effort has bursts of skull rattling guitar force. Merging 80s alternative with the darkest aspects of grunge, Night Jammer is a powerful record from a deftly adroit songwriter named Jared accompanied by a keyboardist/drinking buddy called Carbomb and a drummer named Lugs. There is a experimental vibe that runs through tracks like “Encounter” as ethereal keys hover sparingly above an angular guitar hook that introduces itself and recedes quickly throughout the song while Jared’s slightly hushed vocals fight to be heard above the controlled din. Briefer flashes of manic force, namely “Rats” and “Tar Pits” tap into the band’s affinity for punk energy, but still retain a musical dexterity that elevates Richard Vain above standard punk fare. The blasting force of “Punks Inbred” takes me back to Dinosaur Jr.’s finest moments in which melody is not lost in the midst of blunt force. There is a delicate line to walk between merging styles and sounding recycled, and Richard Vain masterfully celebrate the past while contributing something distinctive to modern punk.

SWEET JAP - Be My Venus (bigneckrecords1.bandcamp.com)

I love this type of story, albeit a bit heartbreaking. Sweet Jap was a band that existed between 2000 and 2004 and they vanished with only one official release to their name, but left behind a legion of devoted fans, a few magazine covers, and sweat-soaked tours. Big Neck Records brazenly declared that fifteen years after the break-up the world needs Sweet Jap and released this collection of lost and never released efforts. Opening with the scathing “I’m Only Moonlight”, one is transported back to the time when The Mooney Suzuki, the Vines, and others were in the business of “saving” rock n’ roll. With driving grooves, raw, abrasive guitar, and rugged vocals, “La Rock” embodies everything a rock song should be-two and half minutes of attitude and grit. The blistering one hundred and twenty seconds of “Found There No Go” is exhausting and pure fun as the song hovers dangerously on the edge of simultaneous combustion. The one-two punch of “SJAP” and “You Know Reno” are inspired, scream-along anthems that take hardcore speed and combine it with a Dead Boys-inspired snarl that works perfectly. Closing with “Oh, My Pretty Face”, one is left lamenting about what could have been and wondering if these guys just ran too furiously to have an extended lifespan. At any rate, one should be grateful for what they did produce and to Big Neck for their genius to release it.


GANG OF FOUR - Happy Now? (Gilmusic)

“We’ve got so much catching up to do”, says vocalist John Sterry on “Toreador”, the first track on gang of Four’s new record, Happy Now?. Blending mechanized and industrial with pop aesthetics is never easy, but all of Happy Now? is biting and drenched in sarcasm. Certainly the presidency of Donald Trump has brought a sense of concern to the world, but Gang of Four shoot for Trump’s most sensitive area with “Ivanka: My Name’s On It”. With references to Moscow hotel rooms embedded within a steady, throbbing beat, the song is much more than a wave of insults hurled at the current occupant of the White House; it is an exploration of the hyper-sensationalized age in which we all find ourselves. Gang of Four, led by sole original member Andy Gill is not here to answer questions or provide solace-the guys know the word is a mess, but hopefully we can get through this together. The danceable darkness of “I’m a Liar” moves effortlessly into the foreboding “White Lies” that warns, “time destroys empires”. The more up-tempo but equally serious “Alpha male” is another example of the band’s ability to spotlight bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Tobias Humble. Gang of Four first illuminated the world forty years ago with Entertainment!, a brilliant, biting post-punk gem. Four decades later, Gang of Four has changed personnel, altered their sound, but the remarkable insight and creativity remains.

CLUB NIGHT - What Life (Tiny Engines www.tinyengines.net)

I love this band-Club Night is comprised of five veterans from Oakland California’s music scene, and the result is a genre-smashing assault upon indie rock. “Path” explodes with a blast of childlike energy and enthusiasm with undeniable passion. Emotive and highly intelligent, the song is led by the guitar playing of Ian Tatum and vocalist Josh Bertram, whose soaring vocals reach beyond the occasional din that accompanies the majority of the work on What Life, whose songs are at times accented beautifully through the synth work of Rebecca Lukens and even cello from Robin Miliken. The lyrics, compliments of Bertram, capture fleeting snapshots of life with remarkable detail and poignancy and often examine one’s struggles and reflections upon life with a mixture of sorrow and a realistic optimism for the future, all the while stunned by the rapid passage of the years. (“I took the ashes off our mantle/the white linen cloth on the dining table”) The songs are each stirring manifestos about not achieving dreams quite yet and the realization and acceptance that life may not be what one wants. This record helps people realize that they are not alone in these frustrations, particularly on the fleeting pop of “Village”. By Club Night’s parameters, the song is a sugary little gem, and when Bertram says, “Love does us in over and over again”, one cannot help but heave a heavy sigh and bask in the pain. The ambling, delightfully quirky “Mute” plays with the definition of what indie rock can be, as the song is a light-hearted effort with a more serious underside. (“It is strange the sound of your own voice bleating out against the wind/I hope the sad buzzards don’t notice our death /The years they have made a mess”) The song is the embodiment of the feeling of being just on the verge of tears but being able to just hold one’s self together. “Cherry” is an equally brilliant ride (“Feeling like a tourist in my own mind”), blending subdued indie pop with wildly beautiful, double-jointed riffs to create challenging harmonies. The closing, seven-minute “Thousands” notes, “not everyone I know is poisoned by the fear of the unknown” as a stirring mass of cacophonous angst erupts around the listener, driven by drummer Josiah Majetich and bassist Devin Trainer. All I hear on What Life wonderfully stuns me, and I cannot wait to tell my friends about this band.

LO-PAN - Subtle (Aqualamb Records www.aqualamb.org)

Lo-Pan plays modern hard rock and they do not care what anyone thinks about that. That later statement is made abundantly clear throughout Subtle because nothing here is subtle-there are no studio tricks, cute instrumental accents, or experimentation. The guitars from Chris Thompson are loud, the low-end of drummer Jesse Bartz and bassist Skot Thompson is heavy, and vocalist Jeff Martin can hit notes that the vast majority of humans cannot reach. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, I give you what you thought was no more-rock n’ roll. The question for Lo-Pan is how can they get themselves known in a world that seems to have a dearth of these acts. I cannot answer that for right now, but the music on Subtle speaks for itself as “Old News” grinds with a nice blues-based touch, while “10 Days” and “Bring Me a War” craft something that many bands fail to incorporate into their songs, and that is a hook. The traditional bombast of big time arena rock is present on every track, whether it is the bitter love song of “Savage Heart” or the varied tempo and multi-textured “Butcher’s Bill”. These guys can play, have strong structures throughout all eleven tracks and the record never grows repetitive. Lo pan helps to demonstrate that there is more than just Greta van Fleet playing rock right now.

CLOWNS - Nature/Nurture (Fat Wreck Chords www.fatwreck.com)

It takes bravery for bands to alter their sound, especially when an act begins as a hardcore band. Typically, audiences can be quick to scream “sell out” or reject a band outright if they deviate from the initiate intensity that first won people’s hearts. For Melbourne Australia’s Clowns, they began as a hardcore band and remain a hardcore band, only a sharper, more mature, and musically focused outfit. The opening of Nature/Nurture is “Bland is the new Black”, a searing, decimating slab of classic punk barbarism which is quickly supported by the equally crushing “Soul for Sale”. By the time one reaches “I Wanna Feel Alive Again”, however, something changes, and the variations of song structure is exciting. Rather than solely kicking one’s head inside out for two and half minutes, Clowns, led by vocalist Stevie Williams, begins to delightfully play with eccentricities in tempo and mood. Guitarists Rod Goon and Will Robinson drive the song’s meandering shift from melancholy to self-actualized through riffs that alternate between ethereal and slashing. “I Shaved my Legs for You” and “May I Be Exhumed” are snarky both musically and with their titles as the song are tightly wound blasts of energized punk in the more classic definition of the form, with the latter as ninety seconds of brain rattling, angular noise. Bassist Hanny J and drummer Jake Laderman shine most brilliantly on “Prey for Us”, a track that rattles with the pomp and circumstance of arena rock without sacrificing street punk credibility. However, the concluding title track is the biggest deviation; a five-minute journey that climbs slowly and steadily towards a massive hook, the song is the culmination of a band’s evolution thus far. One gets the feeling that Clowns will continue to experiment and challenge themselves and their fans as the years and records progress. To me, that is a sign of both confidence and impressive ability, which Clowns clearly possess. This is a great find.

GIRLS ON GRASS - Dirty Power (https://www.girlsongrassband.com/)

One finds interesting results when doing a quick Google search for “girls on grass”, but this band, led by Barbara Endes on vocals, plays a mixture of bluesy, country-fried rock with limitless self-confidence and tough-chick attitude. “Down at the Bottom” is a rollicking opener that allows Endes to shine, along with David Weiss on guitar. Drummer Nancy Polstein hits fervently throughout the record, but truly makes quite the first impression. “Got to Laugh to Keep From Cryin’” has both a classic country title as well as a battle-tested country delivery through which one can almost hear the truck driving down a dusty road. Girls on Grass, rounded out by Dave Mendl on bass, are skilled storytellers that do their best to stay out of the political maelstrom that currently envelopes this country, but try as one might, it is difficult to not comment on the state of our land, and “Commander-in-Their” is a less than subtle summary about Washington D.C.’s most famous spray-tanned inhabitant. Additionally, “Because Capitalism” is a scathing critique of how politicians take on their jobs “for the cash and the underage ass” and revel in the elimination of food stamps despite starving families and ignore the homeless living in train stations, while twangy guitar rattles overhead. This is blistering Americana that injects indie rock rebellion into traditional bluegrass licks. The title is perfect, as there is a grizzled veteran quality to the playing here; Girls on Grass deliver forceful songs with a sense of knowing defiance that only comes with age; namely the age when one stops caring about what others think. Go get this.

HEAVENSAKE - Post-Chroma (https://heavensake.bandcamp.com)

I always appreciate when a band is willing to embrace who they are without attempting to create some type of pseudo-intellectual, sub-genre label. Heavensake formed in 2016 and readily declared themselves part of an “emo revival” and everything on their five song EP Post-Chroma sounds like a return to the best moments of the Deep Elm Records roster, replete with biting lyrics from vocalist Mikey Lince, intricate guitar playing from Pat Wood and Sean Burke, and derisive titles. All of the above meshes perfectly on “If You’re a God, Then I’m an Atheist” featuring the lines, “The hate I have for everything inside me” and “I can never seem to get you out of my head”. The Philly via New Jersey five piece (including bassist Skeeter Seifert and drummer Anthony Massimini) sound like a band with four times their experience throughout the release. “Aftercoulour” starts everything off with a new interpretation of loud/soft song dynamics by injecting a combination of youthful exuberance and streamlined precision. A thunderous low end carries “Bleach” as Lince asks sarcastically, “so this is what you call your best life?”. “L’appel Du Vide” is the most traditionally melodic of the bunch, allowing Lince to show off his impressive vocal range, but my favorite effort is the poignant “Did I Leave Everyone, or Did Everyone Leave Me?”. Opening with a hazy, near shoegazing groove, the song is a multi-faceted demonstration of this band’s great reservoir of talent.

FAT CHANCE - Do Not Resuscitate (https://fat-chance.bandcamp.com)

Eight years in the making, this DIY Jersey band plays an aggressive form of true ska punk. I find the horn playing in most ska often creates an artificially happy construct, but that does not happen here; Fat Chance are singing songs of real pain, loss, and a seemingly endless quest for redemption, and the sadness is only enhanced through the sax work of Lacey Liptak. I am instantly impressed on “Quit Bitchin’!” and the reference to ‘Where Eagles Dare” by the Misfits, but that is merely the start of a remarkable musical journey. The stark lyrics of “Blue” (“I woke up this morning and I started thinking suicidal thoughts”), “Running”, and “Pathetic” each feature a speaker in distress, and there is no silver lining or neatly arranged ending. “Rise or Die” and “Capitalism” both express a disgust and hatred for the current conditions in America, with the latter delivering these concerns over a mid-tempo groove that is unapologetically rhythmic. Vocalist Ferris Denequolo adroitly adjusts his voice from a rugged shout to a melancholy melody, best heard on the majestic closing title track that also allows the duo of bassist Weston Mohr and drummer Shawn Werman to truly shine. Boldly baring his soul, Denequolo offers lines of raw despondency, noting, “These visions I have in my head keep on changing/ and they’re changing until I’m dead/ So I stay withdrawn/I create my own meds/Cigarette burns on my hands/and your texts before bed” before bellowing out a heartsick demand of “do not resuscitate”. The nearly twelve minutes associated with this song may appear daunting, but be sure to hang around for the special bonus track which will leave the listener smiling a bit after the preceding bakers’ dozen of anguish. Fat Chance allows people to truly enjoy being miserable.

JONNY KOSMO s/t (https://jonnykosmo.bandcamp.com)

This L.A.-based act opens this release with an ethereal “Prelude”, a concoction of church-like organs that hovers with a sense of gravitas and leaves the listener completely befuddled as to where the self-titled work is going. “Come Down to Get Down” bounces with a 1970s disco groove that makes Jonny Kosmo sound as if he could have been a guest on the old Dinah Shore Show. The blithe retro-themed fare continues throughout the record, as “Jessica’s Triangle” sways gently beneath Kosmo’s warm, falsetto vocals. It is interesting that he labels his music as “pop-strange”, when in actuality, Kosmo is blending 70s soft-rock melodies and varying degrees of non-threatening vocals that range from sweetly delivered to breathy. Perhaps this sounds “strange” to those who are too young to remember the “Music” part of MTV, but for those of us of a certain age, Jonny Kosmo is mainstream pop goodness. KC Rabbit’s relaxed rap delivery on “Strawberry Vision exists over the top of a hook reminiscent of Van McCoy’s “The Hustle”. “Lazy Susan” and “Overgrown” are far more ethereal in their deliveries, as Kosmo’s vocals drift and glisten through the musical equivalent of dazzling light. This feels like an artist looking to recapture the past but not in a contrived manner; one gets the sense that Jonny Kosmo loves the bedazzled relics of the past and is looking to inject new life into them. I’m fine with allowing the past to be the past, but Jonny Kosmo makes yesterday today.

ELIZA NEALS AND THE NARCOTICS s/t (www.elizaneals.com)

The sexiest record of 2019 has already been determined and it the steamy blues of Eliza Neals and the Narcotics. The highly emotive singer-songwriter is a treasure, and every moment of the self-titled release overflows with sultry eroticism. The opening “Jekyll and a Hound” is a gorgeous, textbook version of how classic, American, blues should sound and I am hooked before the track concludes. Without giving listeners time to collect themselves, the band hits with “You Ain’t My Dog No More”, and when Neals coos “no more licking my face”, I understand that I am in the presence of true greatness. The slide guitar of Howard Glazer is the centerpiece of the track, but Neals is irresistible with an extraordinarily inviting vocal performance. Clearly raised on a steady diet of Mississippi Delta blues legends, along with B.B. King, Bo Diddley, a little Motown swing, and maybe some Georg Thorogood thrown in for fun, the Detroit native has a scotch-soaked voice that perfectly conveys tales of frustration and heartbreak, accented by a limitless sexuality. “Breaking and Entering” is perhaps the most enticing anthem of the bunch, but it is still laced with a tongue in cheek sense of humor, as Neals admits that seducing a man is “like robbing an armored car” and concludes the track by announcing how she will “feel your gun pop”. A splash of funk drives the infectious grove of “Love Dr. Love”, while she slows the tempo majestically on “Cold, Cold Night” and the equally sensual and dazzling “At the Crossroads”. Get ready to find your next and last true crush.

JEFF WHALEN - 10 More Super Rock Hits (Supermegabot Music www.supermegabot.com)

This is pure fun. Jeff Whalen plays lighthearted, sing-along power pop that does not reflect the angst that so dominates the first two decades of the twenty-first century. It may be criminally impossible to get the hooks of “Goofing Around” or “Jendi” out of one’s head after only a single listen. Much of 10 More Super Rock Hits sounds like the Knack hopped up on Pop Rocks and soda as the songs shake and shimmy with an uncontrollable energy. Sugary efforts such as “Ground Game for Worm” and “Man of Devotion” bubble with a warmth and happiness that make some of this seem out of place within contemporary political and social climates, but that may be the entire point: Whalen is rebelling through his sense of innocence, hope, and overall positivism. Rather than following the depressed, angry heard of malcontents, Whalen wants people to smile and celebrate. Even when he slows down a bit, Whalen’s love of lush pop is obvious on the piano-laced “Soylent Blues”, and he goes back in time to the silent-film era with the ragtime jam “Shanghai Surprise”. (And no, there’s no reference to the historically bad Madonna-Sean Penn film project) It takes an astounding amount of confidence to deliver this type of music, for one risks being laughed out of the room by those who do not appreciate Whalen’s commitment to the integrity of true Americana. The backing “woah-woah” vocals on “Don’t Give it Up” are wonderfully appropriate as the song harkens back to the glory days of AM radio with an affinity for harmonies that would make the Bee Gees, Seals and Crofts, or even Captain and Tennille jealous. I am old enough to remember Columbia Record Club and their ads for “super hits” on cassettes and my misspent youth came flying back on the closing title track. I want to buy this on 8-track.


CHOKEHOLD - With This Thread I Hold On (Good Fight Music https://goodfightmusic.merchnow.com)

Certain bands are needed for specific times, and the world needs Chokehold right now. Fortunately, the band heard the cosmic cry for their classic brutality and answered the call with With This Thread I Hold On, a devestaing work of sheer aural barbarism. The chugging riff, screamed vocals, and riotous low-end force of the opening “2.0” announces the bold return of this much beloved but woefully underappreciated act. Complete with spin kick inducing breakdowns, the work of Chokehold is pummeling but not without an adherence to the power and the lure of a huge hook. These vets craft songs; they are not merely stringing together angry rants under the guise of twenty-first century hardcore. “Profit Over People” thunders along a path of mosh-ready hardcore power, blending politics with intelligent lyrics and bone-shattering intensity. The guys attempt to burn down the world on “Silenced”, as Chokehold’s raw, violent playing illicit comparisons to other weathered gods such as Terror , Vision of Disorder, or Earth Crisis, along with the fury of a young act like Knocked Loose. The results are virulent blasts of blood-spitting rage such as “G.O.D.” and “Instilled” that seamlessly blend hardcore and thick metal grooves into slabs of relentless intensity. I cannot hear this enough.

MASKED INTRUDER III (Pure Noise Records http://www.purenoise.net)

Masked Intruder return with their brand of free-flowing, good time punk. Borrowing from 50s rock n’ roll (“Mine All Mine”) or playing with more reckless bombast (“B&E”), the guys hold every song together with an affinity for soaring guitar, richly harmonic vocals, and clean production. The classic Queers influence abounds on III and there is nothing wrong with that. The driving “All of My Love” is a textbook example of guitar-fueled power punk-pop. Despite the sheen that one hears across this record, there is also just enough grit to prevent Masked Intruder from crossing over from melodic to unnecessarily saccharine. The sun-kissed fare of “I’m Free (At Last)” and “Please Come Back to me” are still rooted in punk’s most raw nature, and even the loving “Maybe Even” still rattles. Masked Intruder are not afraid to sing songs of lost love and frustration, but their work is also accented by a resounding faith hat life can get better, as heard wonderfully on “Stay with Me Tonight” and through the fuzzed-out guitars of “Dream a Little Dream”. This is a perfect band when your anger has subsided, but not your need for assertive guitar punk.

DEAD SWORDS - Enders (Human Blood Records https://deadswords.bandcamp.com)

Dead Swords features Alex Rosamilia from Gaslight Anthem and former I Am the Avalanche member Corey Perez, and together, the two produce chilling, deeply haunting musical beauty through vastly panoramic songs that are each a complete and complex musical journey. While this could be played in coffee houses, the impact of more forceful guitars makes this a stirring collection of staggering magnificence. “Tonight” is largely acoustic, and its lush nature is obvious, but the more bombastic aspects of the song, highlighted by stirring keys, provide majestic, celebratory moments. “Black” and “Fumetsu” hum with a controlled but readily identifiable rage, as the duo deliver shoegaze with the addition of crushing, antagonistic qualities. Bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine are instant comparisons, but the guitar playing on “Letters” slices through the calm with the intensity of a black metal outfit. The ghostly figure in black that adorns the cover is a perfect representation of this band’s collective vision. The music is intriguing more than terrifying, but that does not take away from the eerie elements still heard within. Dead Swords balance aesthetic pleasantry with doom-laden intimidation, most expertly heard through the chugging riff of “Perception”. The song propels itself into a realm of conventional metal before launching skyward into a lush crescendo. Two mysterious “interludes” (numbered 4 and 5) are spooky reminders of the band’s breadth of creativity, as odd spoken word pieces are delivered in whispered vocals over a wall of subtle hiss and noise. The title track is a ten-minute excursion into the sonic depths of splendor, meshing walls of sound with intimate songwriting. Masterfully mixed by Kevin Dye, the record is a journey trough sound that is both intriguing and unnerving. The musical complexity and sense of dynamic power make Dead Swords a staggering achievement.

THE DEAFENING COLORS - Run Pass Option (www.thedeafeningcolors.com)

The Deafening Colors are a band with a deft touch for serene, atmospheric beauty that sounds distinctly unique yet somehow familiar. The six tracks on Run Pass Option hang in the air like melodic apparitions as minimalist lyrics, genteel song structures, and understated guitar playing, specifically from John Arthur, work together to create a swirling mass of beauty. The hushed singing on “Saracen Revisited” provides the track with a subtle uneasiness that juxtaposes the more kinetic, musically disjointed “Count on a Crime”. The latter includes fuzzy guitar but still retains an adroitly soft pop touch. “Crash Course” mirrors this approach as well, while soft riffs and beautiful melodies, particularly a strikingly warm two-part harmony, enliven “Love on Television”. The lonesome “She Moved to Oklahoma” includes woeful keys accompanying soulful, ethereal vocals that revel in 1980s studio antics. The band sounds like they are from another time and planet, not a bunch a guys who recorded this little gem in Weehawken.

SUNBATHERS - A Heat Wave (https://sunbathersmusic.bandcamp.com)

Sunbathers cannot wait for summer, and this four song EP is the perfect way to shed late-winter/early spring ennui. “Honeysuk” opens with 80s synth-pop sensibilities and a devotion to funked-up, dance club energy. The song radiates fun with the refrain “I want you all the time” driven by a steady bassline. The same approach is heard on “Bare”, an equally light-hearted blast of sunshine that blends modern R&B with splashes of indie pop. This is screaming for mainstream success, and I can easily hear much of this featured in a commercial for mass consumption. The appropriately titled “Intimacy” bumps and grinds with varying degrees of enthusiasm, eventually finding a groove that climaxes with the lines “I feel like an animal/make me beautiful”. The closing “Sugar” is the most gentle of the bunch, delicately kissed by affectionate sax. I would not normally gravitate towards this style, but sitting in my basement with dirty snow on the ground and a chilled rain falling, A Heat Wave is just what I want.


FEMME DE CHAMPAGNE - Impulsive Sky (reverbnation.com/femmedechampagne)

Everything about this is stunningly beautiful, maybe too pretty in fact, at least for my more hardscrabble tastes. The delicate piano riffs that runs “Sois Gentil” is lush and majestic, matching the equally stirring vocals of Babette Novak. Sophisticated, refined, and mature, Femme De Champagne play music for adult cocktail parties in which only the finest liquor is served and everyone knows their limits. Sung largely, but not entirely in French, Novak has an angelic voice, and “Shimmering Lights” and my favorite, the soaring “Famished Heart” are masterworks in song structure and deft performance. Only a trio, Novak is supported by Fran Kondorf and Mike Collins on bass and drums respectively, Femme De Champagne have a massive sound, enveloping a room with their ethereal prowess. My mouth left agape and me utterly speechless, I am drawn to talent such as that displayed by this Chicago outfit. Impulsive Sky exists for lovers of jazz, blues, and old-fashioned Broadway-level skill. It is refreshing to know that artists like this still exist.

NAT FREEDBERG - Better Late Than Never (Rum Bar Records rumbarrecords.bandcamp.com)

Nat Freedberg, known for his work in the legendary Upper Crust and the Satanics, brings bluesy, sultry rock n’ roll for clubs that overuse the smoke machine and the audience left their phones in their cars. Freedberg displays impressive chops through Better Late Than Never, with “All My Love” and “I Think I Die and Went to Heaven” as examples of dusty slabs of gritty rock n’ roll steeped in rockabilly blues. “If I Could be the One” struts with exuberant confidence with Freedberg adopting a subtle twang for the chorus. I could not help but love a song called “Heavy Metal Cow”, and rightly so as it includes the lyric, “heavy metal cow/I wish that you loved me”. Everything on Better Late Than Never combines early rock brazen attitude with punk’s snarky quality and wraps it around huge hooks and soaring choruses. The lead single “Madame Butterfly” is a roundhouse punch of a tune that is the embodiment of everything one is treated to throughout the record. It is a delight to hear Freedberg express himself and place his various skills on display.

THE SUCK - In-Cog-Neat-O (Mom’s Basement Records www.facebook.com/MomsBasementRecords)

Here is a band that does not live up to its name. The Suck play fast, agitated, blasts of pop punk in the purest of fashions, blending speedy riffs and smart-aleck lyrics. “#youredead” may sound like a collection of kids trying too hard to make a contemporary cultural reference with a song title, but the track’s buoyant energy grabs the listener from the opening second, and this theme carries through the next seven pieces. With The Cola on vocals and the Dunk and the Alien on guitar, The Suck already have a great nucleus, but it is the drumming of the Basement and the bass playing from the Problem that set the band apart on tunes like “Death Machine”, “Catfish”, and the very funny “Vape Store”. The stodgy among us with grunt and say they have heard this all before and that Ben or Joe did it better, but The Suck have the same energy and love for the genre as the giants who preceded them. It is next to impossible to listen to “Basement Buzz” and not have the urge to throw things round, and that to me, is all I need to hear. Go find this now.

THE CARVELS NYC - “Life Is Not a Waiting Room” EP (Tarbeach Records www.tarbeachmusic.com)

Some bands make life very to understand; simply put, if you do not love the Carvels, you do not love rock n’ roll. If rock should be swagger and attitude wrapped around angst-fueled talent, then Lynne Von Pang and her crew are all you need. Printed on gorgeous, deep-blue vinyl, the record opens with “Life is not a Waiting Room”, a track that jumps out of the speakers with a blaring sax from “Sweet” David Spinley, rousing guitar, and Von Pang’s snarky and richly melodic vocals. Incorporating classic NYC punk vibes with rock’s original sense of bombast, the Carvels make the past the present with an explosive mixture of fun and frustration. While they do not take themselves overly seriously, the Carvels craft sharp lyrics, particularly on “Scarcity”, with its opening line of “I just write a love letter to the person I might have been”. The song’s mid-tempo pacing and garage meets doo-wop approach mirrors what one hears on the soaring cover of “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy”. Both tracks allow Von Pang to fully explore her dynamic vocal range and masterful delivery as guitarist Brian Morgan, bassist Mike Dee, and drummer Steve Pang play with a simmering boil that balances raucous energy and refined prowess. The three songs are over far too quickly, and I can now sit anxiously and wait for a full length.

DOC ROTTEN - Illusion to Choose (docrotten.bandcamp.com)

Produced by Bouncing Soul Pete Steinkopf, Trenton’s Doc Rotten play old time hardcore that puts the listener in a headlock and never loosens his grip. “Mind Control” is merely a fleeting sample of the twelve blistering tracks on Illusion to Choose, as the band injects heartfelt harmony into the work one hears here, highlighted by “Questions”, striking a balance between teeth-rattling power and refined song-crafting talent. “Hold Fast”, “So Long”, and “Listen Up” are all sing-along anthems with high energy and a hint of Rancid-style groove. With a pair of guitar players (Andy K and Wes) who also share vocals, Doc Rotten produce a rich sound that resonates both warmth and fury, rounded out by bassist Doug and drummer AJ. With an ability to play with a tempo on “Federation” and the bluesy “Sick and Suffering”, the band proves that they have the chops to write much more than just two minute blasts of rage. Smart, insightful, and at times even downright fun, Illusion to Choose is contemporary punk with a true, but not worn, sensibility.

LOST WAX PROCESS - “Mix Tape” b/w “Pushing Out” (Sonopherique Records https://lostwaxprocess.bandcamp.com)

As a person who was recently hired as a Political Science professor, I adore three of the members of Lost Wax Process who share the same job. Mark Copelovitch, Andrew Kydd, Michael O’Russa, and Jon Pevehouse play intelligent and interesting pop. “Mix Tape” is an ode to late 80s and early 90s indie pop with an ethereal guitar riff and easy on the ears vocals from O’Russa. I prefer the slightly darker groove of “Pushing Out”. While still resonating with a pop-kissed jangle, the song reverberates with more energy and tells a rich story. Fitting to the job of three quarters of the band, this is the embodiment of college rock, harkening back to the days of indie rock’s earliest rejections of over-production and celebrates songwriting. Familiar yet still invigoratingly fresh, Lost Wax Process is gem I am thrilled to discover.

TULLYCRAFT - The Railway Prince Hotel (HHBTM Records www.hhbtm.com)

Having been immersed in college radio in the mid-90s, I did become aware of the twee and cuddlecore movements and lovingly remember my first encounter with Tullycraft. Incredibly, more than twenty years later, this Seattle outfit continues to hang on to their collective innocence, blending the most pop-friendly tempos and sprinkling in lighthearted, sentimental lyrics that point out the most minute of details with good natured sarcasm. Titles like “Has Your Boyfriend Lost His Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” and “Lost Our Friends to Heavy Metal” reveal the band’s penchant for writing buoyant tales of self-awareness and growth that sound like 1995 never ended. “It’s Not Explained, it’s Delaware” is a quirky, slightly faster effort that rattles more than the majority of the other songs on The Railway Prince Hotel and features a subtle country giddy-up along with more pronounced guitar, while the jazzy “The Cat’s Miaow in a Spacesuit” is a demonstration of shrewd instrumental control. The genteel nature of the title track and the closing “Vacaville” can sometimes overshadow the intricacy of the songs, but there is a great deal happening here. Tullycraft is incredibly impressive all these years later.

PAVO PAVO - Mystery Hour (Bella Union Records www.ballaunion.com)

This is the type of story that always gets to me-Pavo Pavo is the work of prolific musical duo Oliver Hill and Eliza Bagg, or at least it was; the pair are no longer together as a couple but continue to produce majestic music together. Beginning as a friendship while studying at Yale, the two came to collaborate on various musical entities, and Pavo Pavo’s work is a soaring testament to two highly distinctive talents. The record began as a form of therapy as the two addressed the realization of a crumbling relationship, and the hunting nature of Mystery Hour reflects the anguish felt during the recording. The songs ache as they swim through the air with Hill’s voice resonating with anguish on “Mon Cheri”, lamenting as he gazes at a picture and notes how he “will never adjust to the dark”, while Bagg’s exquisite soprano vocals often carry the majority of the material. Deeply emotive keys along with poignant guitar work create an individual universe for each song, at times both intimate and expansive. “Check the Weather” is extraordinarily beautiful, as a mid-tempo dance beat propels an 80s synth groove with shared vocals longingly stating to “stay here at night”. “Close to Your Ego” is a gripping tribute to the challenges of any emotionally strained relationship, as two people balance what they want for each other along with what they need for themselves. Lush and gorgeous, “Around Part I” and the instrumental “Around Part II” are stirring works, while the sullen closer “Goldenrod” features the vocals of Hill and Bagg working in such close proximity that they seem to blend together as one. It is a fitting metaphor for the pair and they work effortlessly well together but still look for aspects of individuality. This is a lovely record about a painful process.

THE SAXOPHONES - "Singing Desperately Suite" EP (Full Time Hobby Records www.fulltimehobby.co.uk)

The saxophones do not play music for the upbeat and celebratory. Singing Desperately Suite is an EP of heartbreaking work that resonates with sadness and negative self-reflection through the lyrics of vocalist Alexi Erenkov. Written sporadically throughout 2018, including the appropriately crafted “Crude Advance” during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, the band, accented by the dynamic Alison Alderdice and Richard Laws, offer ambient folk that is far more griping than one may expect from such a genre. The jazzy, thirty-second introduction of “Prelude” gives way to the morose “Singing Desperately”, a song of dark introspection and regret. Minimalist musical accompaniment allows for Erenkov’s vocals to garner full attention as he bemoans the failures of relationships with the recognition that the blame should be placed aggressively on his shoulders. While “Crude Advance” moves at sloth’s pace, the lyrics of loneliness and longing become all the more affecting due to the haunting instrumentation. The closing “You Seem Upset” is a brief piece with hushed vocals and delicate playing. The dreamlike atmosphere may induce some to become somnambulistic, but I was enticed by the openness expressed by Erenkov. He is wrestling with his own lack of empathy and why it exists throughout the world. The song ends too quickly, much like the release itself, and one feels as if The Saxophones have only begun to explore an issue of great significance.


AGEIST - Babyface (Arctic Rodeo Records http://arcticrodeorecordings.com)

Whenever a band is described as “old men playing in a band no one has heard of”, I know I am gong to be a fan. Ageist is much more than old guys still bashing out noise like if they stop they will die, for there are truly gifted musicians here. Go do a little research on your Google machines, kids, and look up the resumes of members Eric Odness, Frank Bevan, Arty Shepherd, and Tucker Rule, then be prepared to be highly impressed. The opening “Lead Legs” is an eruption of distortion-laden, 90s grunge guitar on top of relentless drumming and warped vocals. The title track teeters on chaos and displays a masterful control as the riff ebbs and flows to allow the vocals to alternate between violent diatribe and controlled purposefulness in manner than embodies the record as a whole. For a collection of grizzled, seen-it-all men of experience, there is not a second of rest to be heard on Babyface, as “Breathe In” and “Kicked in the Head” include angular, thick bass lines that wrap themselves around the sharp guitar segments to create dense and heavily melodic songs that revive the sounds of twenty-five years ago with ease, largely because guys like Ageist invented the sounds from twenty-five years ago. “USA vs. USSR” is built around a thriving guitar riff and a pulsating bassline that deftly alternates in a loud/soft power-play that creates a tension that is nearly tangible. For those interested in bands that attempt to recreate the intricate ferocity of 90s indie punk, go listen to Ageist and gain yourself an education in how this style should truly sound.

JD HANGOVER s/t (Hound Gawd Records www.houndgawd.com)

This six song EP delivers distorted, stomping, punishing blues and does so effortlessly. Stiv and Roberto Villa make the blues sound dirtier and muddier than ever on “Broken Bones Blues”, a distortion pedal snapping romp that quivers with energy, while the steady thump that opens “Barrelhouse Queen” is instantly riveting. The two sound as if they are sitting right next to the listener, as each song has an intimacy that conveys a rough and tumble fury accented by flashes of cutting guitar noise and drone. “Headspinner Blues” is aptly named with its thunderous low end and heavily distorted slide riff, but I fell for the meandering grind of “Down at the Public House”. Sounding as if it is crawling along a liquor slicked barroom floor in desperate search for an exit, the track is a unsettling display of blunt guitar angst and waves of noisy power. I could listen to this for hours as long as the drinks keep coming and there was no need to go home. Entertain your inner deviant and celebrate debauchery with a wild ride of a release. Hound Gawd knows how to find the real jewels hiding in the world.

BOB MOULD - Sunshine Rock (Merge Records www.mergerecords.com)

Bob Mould may have moved to Berlin and grown a beard that provides him with a grandfatherly appearance, but his fury has not come close to dissipating. Do not be fooled by the cheery disposition of “Sunshine Rock”-the buoyant title track to Mould’s latest collection of sardonic guitar angst-for this not a light-hearted romp, but by Mould’s standards, it, along with “Sunny Love Song”, and “Camp Sunshine” are downright dreamy odes. The consistency of the term “sunshine” is intentional but not overbearing as the sun motif does not become redundant. Instead, it is juxtaposed with the biting guitar force of “What Do You Want Me to Do?”, a track in which Mould seems to be oscillating between overwhelming frustration and begging for forgiveness (“Now you’re home and I’m a total mess”). Truly flexing experienced guitar muscle, “Send Me a Postcard”, a cover of the Shocking Blue anthem, and the biting “I Fought” are two of the more iconic moments on a superbly delivered collection of powerful tracks. Harkening back to his 90s solo work, “Sin King” is a clever play on words (“You’re sin king our democracy”) while a blanket of distorted guitar spreads across a vast musical panorama. With a subtle, danceable quality, “Lost Faith” is a somber lament (“I’ve lost faith in everything”) before Mould gives himself a rousing pep talk and declares, “Life is so complicated, don’t let your hopes and dreams disappear”. “30 Dozen Roses” is a painful tale of a broken heart on the jagged rocks of a searing riff with Mould proclaiming, “olive branches piled up at your door, you don’t let me come inside your place no more”, and one is treated to a reflective, more wistful veteran on “The Final Years”, as Mould ponders about his “sense of misplaced rage”. Sunshine Rock is a snarky title for unsteady times crafted by a master who still produces voluminous gems at a crushing level of intensity.

WILLIAM TYLER - Goes West (Merge Records www.mergerecords.com)

William Tyler leads an adroitly skilled collection of players through ten serene and expansive tracks, each progressively more sprawling in scope. While delicate, Goes West is still able to capture the rugged terrain of the untamed West with an intimacy that is both haunting and soothing. The tracks seem to mesh effortlessly into each other, specifically “Call Me When I’m Breathing Again” and “Eventual Surrender”, two pristine works of genteel guitar playing from Tyler and Meg Duffy and expertly placed percussion from Griffin Goldsmith. “Rebecca” exudes a joy that is clearly a celebration of the person for whom the song is named, while “Not in Our Stars” has an ethereal and atmospheric quality befitting its name. “Venus in Aquarius” and “Virginia is for Loners” both exude a more country feel that could easily be the soundtrack for your next covered wagon journey through the Oregon Trail. As I listened, I was perpetually curious about what lyrics would have done for these tracks, but ultimately, the record was exquisite without any vocals, allowing the songs to breath and roam unencumbered. Like the land it references.

DAN FRANCIA Come Back to Life (Exploding in Sound Records http://www.explodinginsoundrecords. com)

Much of Dan Francia’s new solo record was written as he was working at New York’s Noguchi Museum, and that is important to note; for like the legendary sculptor, Francia does not adhere to any one school of thought in regards to his art. His songs are consistently beautiful in nature, but vary in degree of experimentalism, from the refined beauty of the title track (including the poignant lyric, “tell me you love me before you go to bed”), to the subtle cacophony of “Pass it On” to the more direct, sixteen-second noise-fest “I’m Not Insane”. With polyrhythmic structures merging with free form horns, “Ghost Stories” is a perfect embodiment of all Francia is as an artist. The song begins as if it is simply a collection of gifted players each performing a solo piece collectively en mass before settling into a more cohesive groove until that structure completely unravels into a John Zorn-like eruption of sound before once again finding a more well worn path, and then launching into a full meltdown as the song moves towards its conclusion. Challenging, intriguing, and even a little exhausting, it is a fascinating four minutes of creative genius. The fist single is the antithesis of much of the record, as it is an iPhone recorded pop gem called “Stereotype” that features Nora Dabdoub of Shea Stadium as the centerpiece of the song, and Francia harkens back to Lou Reed’s work from the 1980s as a source of inspiration for the song’s tone. Meanwhile, the keys that carry the nineteen seconds of “I’m Ready for Death” possess a haunting quality to them and they mysteriously dissipate in favor of the lush “No Matter What”, clearly the most conventional of the works here. With gorgeous backing vocals, the song is a delicate ode to trust, optimism, and love. “Can’t Forget” opens rather serenely before devolving into a furious mountain of rage with noisy, angular guitar ripping and shredding through the air as brazen and relentlessly intense vocals define the song’s vitriolic nature. This is a brilliant start to the new year.

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GRIM DEEDS - Gree! (https://grimdeeds.bandcamp.com /album/gree)

Well, the calendar has turned to a new year but existence is still dismal for Grim Deeds, and we all benefit from his misery. Gree! is another collection of biting, cynical tracks that discuss problems but offer a dearth of solutions. For those who love self-loathing and punk rock guitars, Grim Deeds is all one needs in life. The jangly guitar on “I’m Not Allowed” (a brilliant song about how life takes away all of one’s fun), “Four Letter Words” (which include the terms “life” and “love”) and “Mostly Miserable”) are closer to pop nuggets, but the more aggressive “Shithole Town” and “Life is a Nightmare” are two of the bright spots (relatively speaking) on Gree!. Grim Deeds comes through boldly through a very commendable cover of the Motorhead classic “Ramones” and highlights the stupidity of social media on “Facebook Wisdom”. The rapid fire playing of “Stress Addict” and the dark humor of “Sad Cannibal” embody all the Grim deeds is-a wildly self-flagellating, twisted musical visionary whose suffering helps me, and I am sure many others, fight through life’s daily tribulations.

KLEENEX GIRL WONDER - White Lacuna (Reasonable Records https://kgw.me/album/white-lacuna)

Kleenex Girl Wonder, aka Graham Smith, has been kicking around for more than two decades producing gorgeous and whip smart pop. White Lacuna is another step forward in the evolution of this vision, as the ten songs presented here are soaring blasts of pristine pop goodness that are both remarkably light in texture but are not without depth, both lyrically and musically. Although drummer Matt LeMay, keyboardist Ryan Smith, and guitarist Thayer McClanahan assist Smith at times, Kleenex Girl Wonder is a vehicle for Graham Smith’s unique outlook on life. “A Sweet Person” overflows with grace as free flowing, jangly guitar works in perfect congress with Smith’s vocals. “Hope All is Lost” admits that “giving up has a certain seductiveness” and the expansive “Angelina” is a shimmering jewel of a song. The danceable “White Witch” seems to fit perfectly alongside the more raw, acoustic energy one hears on “Emerita”, and Smith commands both songs with glorious ease. “History of Ice” is a sterling opener with a density to the ethereal pop sweetness, while “Worry the Well” has a bouncing bassline and biting lyrics (“you’re still broken hearted and impotent”) that makes the song my favorite of White Lacuna. The longevity and the continuous creativity of Kleenex Girl Wonder remains incredibly impressive.

OBNOX - Bang Messiah (Smog Veil Records www.smogveil.com)

Bim Thomas is noisy, one-man wrecking crew whose legendary status is well earned and expands far outside his home of Cleveland. Bang Messiah will only continue to enhance that reputation, as the record is a sprawling mountain of occasionally chaotic, at times refined, and constantly engaging fury. The opening “Steve Albini Thinks We Suck” is a visceral punch to the face through a mass of noise, but when one reaches “I Hate Everything”, the song plays out like a 1960s psychedelic garage gem replete with harmonious vocals accented by soaring cymbal crashes and a ethereal guitar riff. This dichotomy of the unbridled and the precise makes Bang Messiah such an enchanting listen. While “Cream” is an atmospheric beauty, “Enter the Hater” is a rugged, muscular wall of guitar force. Thomas mixes and matches hip-hop (“Rally on the Block”) with distorted noise-core (“Off Ya Ass”) and he excels at all he attempts. This is not an easy listen but nothing experimental should be; rather, this is a wild ride across numerous genres and styles with Thomas continuing to refuse to cower to the expected. Bang Messiah is too dark in nature to correctly label as “fun” and doing so would minimize the impact of a visionary artist, but there is something inherently enjoyable about being bashed from limitless directions throughout the dozen songs one finds within this record.

THE BLANKZ - “It’s a Breakdown” b/w “You’re Not my Friend Anymore” (Slope Records www.sloperecords.com)

The Blankz provide another glorious explosion of punk-pop goodness that explores just how bad things really are but do so without entirely ruining the listener’s day. The Blankz have an uncanny ability to inject Blondie-esque, New Wave keys into rugged punk riffs to produce apologetically catchy tales of sarcastic woe. “It’s Breakdown” sums up the current state of affairs in this nation with the line “hang myself or hang around/It’s a breakdown” as an infectious hook propels the track. “You’re Not my Friend Anymore” addresses the pitfalls of living through social media with references to disliking posts and the sorrow associated with disconnecting virtually. This Phoenix band plays angry, passionate punk for confusing and frustrating times.

BURLY - Self Titled Demon (Five Kill Records https://www.fivekillrecords.com)

This upstate New York outfit plays gentile, nearly fragile music that is majestic in its beauty. The songs on Self Titled Demon revolve around fragments of memories and faded glimpses of events in one’s life and are lush in their beauty. Each of the songs meanders along at a steady, albeit deliberate pace that incorporate muted jazz-inspired sax and the exuberate warmth of the vocals. Everything the band tries works here, from the inconspicuous genius of the drumming to the whistling that accents “Snowden”. With references to smoking pot through a corn cob pipe (“Happy Bday”) and meeting with friends in Providence, Rhode Island (“Kent Lame”; a song whose dissident guitar is rapturous), the music of Burly brings the listeners into intimate moments as if all parties involved are old friends. “Branches of Blood” has an understated darkness, while the line “You’re not a person that I think about a lot/ And I don’t mean for that to come off as a slight” in “Happy Birthday” is somehow both illuminating and heartbreaking. This is a gorgeous collection of five lovely and painstakingly constructed songs.

GRANDCHILDREN (https://grandchildren.bandcamp.com)

I am a sucker for great romances, and Grandchildren is just that, plus a dazzling band musically. The seven songs are the tales of Alecks Martray and Shari Bolar, two highly skilled songwriters who met while Martray was on his first tour with Grandchildren, and nearly a decade later, the two present seven musically dense and powerful tracks. The opening “Ok, I’m Waiting” is more traditional pop fare with soaring harmonies and a staggering gorgeous arrangement. It is an intriguing start to the record, as Grandchildren pride themselves on their highly eclectic mixture of folk, rock, pop, lo-fi, and electronic touches. The rollicking “Zuni” possesses a hootenanny, front-porch sing-along sensibility accented by lush atmospheric beauty and the shared brilliance of Bolar and Martray. The bluesy “Phantom Pains” has a thicker guitar riff that exists is sharp contrast to the spectral nature of “Want it Bad”, a song of engaging warmth. The shared vocals and lyrical refrain of “I don’t believe the wicked/I don’t believe the poor” make “Gravity” another highlight from a collection of distinctive tracks. “Motherboard” feels as if it fell from the late 1960s as it blends pop and psychedelia into a flawless mass. The genteel closer, “Only One” exudes a sensuality while a quietly infectious drum loop propels the effort. This is striking and impossible to hear without being moved.

MARSHMALLOW COAST - Memory Girls (HHBTM Records www.hhbtm.com)

The opening “Warm Bodies” sets the tone for delightfully canorous release from a truly distinctive band. Marshmallow Coast play electronica for those who normally hate electronica, as this is largely pop-kissed gems that have hints of electronic flavoring. The beats are understated and heavily groove-oriented, occasionally co-existing with both serene keys and more bombastic guitar playing, best heard on the masterful “Take You On”. “K. Freeman Enslaved” is a perfect encapsulation of all the band is-jangly guitar holds hands with a retro dance beat and a layered vocal delivery hovers between a whisper and a panicked conversation. “Sinz of my Father” radiates with a tangible 1980s vibe from the robotic vocals to the instantly catchy groove, the song is akin to opening a vault from the past and one can nearly envision the dancers from a JJ Fad video grinding to this. The playful “Foxy Boy” is anchored by a steady throb and spacious, jazzy saxophone that pushes the song into R&B territory. As we approach a new year and hope for the best, it may be difficult to find anything more unique than the work of Marshmallow Coast.

NIGHT BEATS - Myth of a Man (Heavenly Records http://heavenlyrecordings.com)

Danny Lee Blackwell leads Night Beats through twelve tracks that sound like they have arrived from another era. From the flamenco sounding, sultry “I Wonder” to the 1960s pop bounce of “There She Goes”, Myth of a Man is the type of record that takes the listener far away from current troubles and places them firmly in the grasp of a highly gifted songsmith. The closing “Too Young to Pray” is a gentle love ballad ensconced in a web of haunting lyrics. The innuendo-laden “On Thing” has a guitar riff that ricochets off the walls and reverberates with psychedelic energy and encapsulates the varied talents on display throughout the work. It is among the finest pieces on Myth of a Man, which is a record that strolls and saunters with Texas-sized confidence on “Wasting Time” and “Let Me Guess”. The theme of the work addresses how many people seem to exist solely to hurt and manipulate others, and just how painful it can be when it happens to you. Blackwell examines fleeting moments of happiness, such as the refined beauty of “Footsteps”, a sterling gem that is matched by the jazzy groove of “Stand With Me”, a rack with a guitar riff that would make Carlos Santana beam. This is wonderful musical escapism delivered by a collection of highly skilled players.

TRANSGRESSORS - They Made Her a Criminal (Super Secret Records https://supersecretrecords.bigcartel.com)

This Texas act plays old time rock n’ roll with a heavy drawl and a gun-slinger’s sense of confidence. Exuding cowboy swagger, the Transgressors rumble through “You’re Running Wild” and “Ask Me No Questions”, while the Americana vibe of “Maddux Creek” channels Johnny Cash as the song gallops along while telling a wild yarn of potential violence. (“Put that knife away, son”) This same tone returns on “Driving Nails in the Floor for You”, as The Transgressors again infuse their work with Southern fried colloquialisms and slide guitar. “I’d Die to Kill for You” saunters forward with a strong bassline and more lyrics of murder and mayhem. For those who believe that the Stratocaster is the be all, end all of rock instruments, The Transgressors are your band-a gritty, hard-driving collection of players who clearly believe that the trends be damned and they stay true to rock’s honest and earnest outlaw origins.

For more Rich Quinlan reviews, click here...

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