Contrary to some beliefs, modern noise isn’t exclusively inhabited by rehashed S&M imagery and failed machismo – there are a few people out there making inventive, brazen sounds that resist easy categorization. Luke Younger is one of them, and he uses the guise of Helm to do it, crafting long-form narratives of desolation, intrigue, static hiss and unrelenting crunch with sound sources both obvious and highly classified. His records keep getting better and better, and while I have yet to hear his newest work, Olympic Mess (just released this month), I can’t wait to settle into it and stumble blindly through his exotic soundscapes all over again. Mr. Younger answered a few questions for me below, although to be honest I really should’ve pressed him about the obsessive Iceage fan-base a bit more…
You just finished a pretty long tour with Iceage. How did that go? I assume you were mostly playing to audiences who wanted to hear traditional rock songs, more or less…
It was amazing on many levels and I feel lucky that I got to experience that sort of tour playing the music that I do, as these kind of opportunities don’t really arise that often. It was a great to play to a completely different audience and blew apart any preconceptions I had of what it was going to be like. We did a whole month in the USA together, then two weeks in Europe and also four gigs in the UK last month. Out of all the different countries we went to, I have to say that the USA was more receptive and sympathetic to what I was doing. I would say on average you had about 40% of the crowd watching my set and taking it in, 30% watching it and fucking hating it and 30% non-plussed and talking to their mates. I would say that’s a pretty decent result for a support act, especially one like myself in a situation where you are opening for a band like Iceage who have quite an obsessive fan base and are there pretty much only to see them. At this point I think I have enough material about crazy Iceage fans that I could write a book, or at the very least a very substantial Tumblr.
I would say the best gigs for me were playing at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC, a packed out Echo in Los Angeles and the gig in Denver where it sold out, the straight-edge hardcore band Civilised opened and had a massive PA. There were some midwestern towns where people came up to me and asked what the music I was playing is called because they had never heard anything like it before and wanted to hear more, which felt rewarding and made the daily nine-hour drives feel worth it somehow. A guy in Omaha also told me I was probably the first person to bring a modular synth into the city – whether that’s true I don’t know, but I’m happy to believe him nonetheless. In fact, the only gig which I thought had a bad reaction was the one which you were at in Philadelphia on the first night of the tour and an obnoxious prick in the front row heckled me about my shoes for five minutes until he got bored. The most difficult gig was on the recent UK tour in Manchester which is by far the most hostile reaction I have ever had to playing live music. Five minutes into the set people were shouting at me to “fuck off”, threatening physical violence and someone even punched the stage out of frustration. I was part shitting myself and part loving it, although I couldn’t leave the dressing room afterwards.
What would you say is more satisfying – when you get to blow someone’s mind who’s never heard ‘noise’ music before, or when someone with an established reputation in the field gushes over your work?
Both are nice for different reasons and I’m not sure I could put one above the other easily. It always feels good to be acknowledged by someone you respect but ultimately it’s good to receive positive feedback regardless of whoever the person is.
Your first releases nearly a decade ago were on CD-r. Do you miss that format as a viable thing that people would willingly buy when it came to underground experimental music? Or are you glad it’s mostly obsolete?
I have mixed feelings about CD-rs. I used to really enjoy seeing the effort that some people put into the packaging to make them feel quite personalized – you could tell there was an element of craft involved which elevated them above music into individual pieces of art. That seems to have been lost with the rise of digital and even the re-emergence of cassette and vinyl as common, almost mainstream, formats to an extent. That said, I definitely do not miss acquiring countless of these things and coming home from my travels with a bag full of shit harsh-noise and drone CD-rs by people with names like Rectal Massacre, Dog Waster, Levitating Rainbow, Goat Smoker, etc… I still have a box full of this crap at my parents’ house which I need to deal with at some point.
How faithful are your live performances to your recordings? Do they exist in two separate worlds, or is there a lot of overlap?
They are separate in the sense that the way I make music at home or in the studio is completely different to how I perform it live, ie: I use equipment to play live which I don’t use in the studio for creative purposes and vice versa. This made playing live quite difficult at first because my live sets didn’t really represent the records much, but the more I started to play gigs things gelled together and the two processes started to inform each other and became part of a bigger picture. Now I’m very keen for the live set to represent the records and see playing live as a way to present them in a different light. I think it’s nice that if people come and see me play then they can hear things that are recognisable from the records, but performed with subtle differences – maybe mixed differently and have different pieces interwoven with each other so they end up being a out of their regular sequence. I guess in a nutshell, I’m trying to abstract the recordings somewhat whilst still trying to present something that feels cohesive as a whole. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but it’s all part of the ‘experiment’ for want of a better word.
Your new album, Olympic Mess – was that influenced by your live performances?
A good chunk of it was, and a few of the tracks I had been playing in my live sets for a while before I recorded them, but overall I would say that the record was more informed by the experience of being on tour as a whole and traveling – the fleeting conversations you have with random people you’ll probably never see again, visiting cities but never actually feeling like you were ever there once you leave, the monotony of traveling, etc… It’s funny how much of an unnatural way to live it is, yet a lot of musicians and artists do it without question and some even crave it. It’s funny how people on the outside seem to always think that touring is some glamorous and decadent thing. Of course there are some moments of needless excess, but generally if most people knew how mundane it was they’d probably be quite disappointed, ha.
How does the effect of long periods of touring play into your recordings? Are you actively recording bits and pieces while on the road, or just getting ideas? Or is it merely a mundane album with moments of needless excess???
When I’m touring and playing live on a regular basis I’m usually quite out of the mindset I need to be in to record so I don’t really think about it too much. If I’m playing pieces that haven’t been recorded yet, then I’ll sometimes think of ways I can develop them further and then how I ultimately want them to sound when they’re finally put down. Usually if I’m traveling to play a one off gig then there’s more chance of me bringing a digital recorder and recording some bits and pieces before the gig, but usually it’s nothing more than some tinkering around in my hotel room or whatever I can find in or around the venue that sparks my attention.
With this new album, It was recorded in pretty intensive bursts during and in-between tours which was good for giving long periods of reflection on the material afterwards. A few days were spent at Heaven Street in NYC with Sean Ragon before a US tour in May last year, then I did a couple of sessions with John Hannon from Liberez at his place in Essex before and after the Iceage tours. It was nice working with both of them as they have different approaches and techniques but equally get and understand what I’m doing to a degree so they chipped in with some good ideas. Both of them were also working on their own records at the time too so it was interesting to see some of that reflected back at me.
Do you think you’ve found a permanent home with PAN, for your records? Or is that just the label you’re working with for the time being?
Yeah, Bill is a good friend who I’ve known for years, easy to work with and I like his label so it makes sense. He’s very supportive and puts a lot of work into the releases so I’m happy to keep working with him!
Am I wrong, or does Bill / PAN handle all the artwork in-house? Is that something you don’t mind, having someone else handle the art for your records?
Yes, Bill handles most of the artwork. For Olympic Mess we worked with a Danish photographer named Kim Thue who we have known for quite a while. Kim published a book of his own photography from time spent in Sierra Leone a few years ago and also shot and directed the last Iceage video for “Against The Moon”, so it ended up being a nice three-way collaboration. I always have input into what I want the records to look like and I trust Bill’s taste so am perfectly happy for him to direct things.
I see you’ve just done a remix for Blood Music. Have you done a lot of remixing? Do you have any sort of standard approach to that, or is it more that you just take bits and pieces of the original track and play around with them?
I’ve done three so far. The first was for Lust For Youth and the most recent a techno act from Belgium called Orphan Swords. I really enjoy doing it as it’s a great retreat from working on your own stuff. I don’t really have an approach for working on other peoples material, which I think helps as you can be a bit more “reckless” with the process. All three acts I’ve remixed so far have been quite different as well so I’ve had to approach them in slightly different ways. For the Blood Music remix I hadn’t even heard the original tracks as I don’t think they’d even finished editing it properly at that point. So Simon from the band just sent me a bunch of stems which I chopped up, looped, processed etc… Built a basic structure and then mixed it with Sean in Heaven Street after fucking around with some bits and pieces on his MS20. Definitely doesn’t sound like either a Helm track or a Blood Music track, but has elements of both which I really like!
How long do you see Helm lasting? It’s just yourself, so it could conceivably go on as long as you are alive. Is Helm ‘it’ for you, or something you can see yourself terminating eventually?
I don’t think I could ever put a time frame on it really. In some ways this has now become my life’s work and as long as I feel compelled to create music and work which I feel suits and makes sense in the bigger picture of the project, I will keep going. I mean I will probably do things outside of Helm too as I always have done, but at this point I can see myself making Helm records for as long as my body and mind are able to.
We’re halfway through 2015, and while it’s weird to even think about looking back, is there any record that came out this year thus far that you insist my readers seek out immediately?
I can’t necessarily think of one specifically and I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. For electronic stuff, I liked Anthony Naples’ debut LP a lot, Proto by Mumdance & Logos has been on quite heavy rotation, as has Mind Minatures by Aquarian Foundation. For noise / industrial, the Prurient and Ke/Hil LPs are killer and the Olymphia LP on Posh Isolation is ambitious but they pull it off. Chris Goudreau’s new stuff is unreleased but awesome. Dawn of Humans, NO LPs on La Vida Es Un Mus. Jenny Hval LP and Amen Dunes EP on Sacred Bones. Hour House LP coming out soon on Penultimate Press deserves a shout out too. Probably more…
Ballroom Ballroom LP (Ever/Never)
For as much as New York and its underground rock scene highlight the under-30 crowd, there are a ton of old people living there too, and sometimes they form new bands together, like Ballroom for instance. I’m just being silly because none of Ballroom are at retirement age – even if by Williamsburg standards, they might as well be – they simply play their heavy garage-punk as though the grim reaper is a personal advocate. The songs usually involve the bass-line holding down some simple pattern for its entire duration, drums locked firmly in position, while the guitar careens about, following the rhythmic pattern on occasion and ignoring it entirely on others. The vocalist is crazed but always just slightly shy of the Mr. Ed-styled vocals of say, Life Stinks, which works to Ballroom’s advantage, and there is a Mayyors-level of energy in the way they choke out these riffs, not content with simply playing them. This is a band who could make you think a White Zombie-pilfered riff is a Jesus Lizard cover tune, and I tip my hat to that.
Beppu Persuasion LP (Other Ideas)
Kind of ironic that this Beppu album was released on a label called Other Ideas, because the whole time I was listening to it, I couldn’t help but wonder… aren’t these other people’s ideas? Beppu is another newcomer to the industrial-noise-techno housing complex, and while his sound is as ferocious, unyielding and violent as anyone else’s, I can’t help but feel like I’ve heard it all before. Running through these tracks feels like a Fact Mag mix by Vatican Shadow, featuring previously-released tracks by Emptyset, Kerridge and Sandwell District – I can pinpoint the specific aspects of each artist as I roll through Persuasion. I love the sounds they all make, but there’s just something about Beppu’s lack of individual identity that rubs me the wrong way, unlike say Talker or even Grebenstein, who plough similar fields without sharing the exact same DNA. Maybe the art, with the colored-vinyl-showcasing sleeve, just adds to the “collector’s item” feel of cheapness? Regardless, if you haven’t inundated yourself with noisy industrial techno like I have, but want to check it out, there’s a good chance you’ll dig this… maybe I’ve finally overdone it.
Bok Bok & Sweyn Jupiter Papaya Lipgloss 12″ (Night Slugs)
You can nearly taste it, right? Bok Bok and his new friend Sweyn Jupiter offer two club constructions under the name of “Papaya Lipgloss” on the continually forward-minded Night Slugs label. The a-side has the “Club Mix”, which demonstrates Bok Bok’s keen use of spacial relations as it relates to main-room dance music – the silence between the beats is as crucial to the rhythm as the rhythm itself. I’m actually picking up kind of a Joe vibe here, the way the beat tries to fool you into thinking you can follow it through the various loud and sparkly synth stabs that appear like a Porche’s chrome from a darkened parking garage. Flip it for the “Sour Mix”, which moves at a slower pace and seems to have a wider selection of sound effects on hand, from 808 blips to barn doors slamming shut. I’d love to see a crowd of people going nuts to the “Club Mix”, if only because I can’t imagine large numbers of people in the same geographical area are willing to lose their minds to music as futuristic and guarded as this. It seems like this music comes from a slightly distant future and the masses aren’t quite ready for it, but maybe I’m just living in the slightly distant past.
Brando’s Island Brando’s Island 7″ (Million Dollar)
I had to look it up to make sure, but Million Dollar Records released that stupidly great Zingers LP a couple years ago, and now they’re offering the debut 7″ by Brando’s Island, who may or may not share members. It doesn’t have quite the same straightforward ’77 punk-rock sound, but is just as satisfying, stuffing these two tracks with a muffled claustrophobia, not unlike listening to the Savage / Shake discography from the trunk of your kidnapper’s car. “Autism Vision” starts bleating immediately, before slowly receding into some sort of cranky skulk, all with a vibraphone (yep, a damn vibraphone) leading the charge. And not in a “I bet this instrument would be annoying to randomly solo on” way, but actually taking charge with the melody and guiding it, as if Brando’s Island were some sort of snot-punk sibling of Aloha. “Auto Warfare” is guided by a fat synth instead, this time the vibraphone dancing around like a Tom & Jerry chase scene, while the singer sounds like a mix of the guys from Taco Leg and Sleaford Mods, ranting from his little corner of the world. Very cool stuff, the sort of thing I expect to hear on WFMU and find myself as equally confused as captivated. Melbourne’s alright if you like vibraphones!
Broken Water Wrought LP (Night People)
Broken Water certainly seem like one of the coolest bands on the planet – they look rad, put out cool-looking records on respectable labels of various underground enclaves, and that recent interview they did with The Media was filled with all sorts of awesome philosophical babble and intelligent worldliness. I guess this is why I’m so surprised that when I actually sit down and listen to the well-praised Wrought, it kinda just sounds like a basic throwback indie-grunge record. Don’t get me wrong, it sounds good – they go from Shop Assistants jangle to an homage to Nirvana’s “School” in a snap; they get as ethereal as My Bloody Valentine and as heavy as Dinosaur Jr.; it’s just that I dunno, it’s all very plain, innocuous and safely pop-based. I hear lots of records like these, records that sound alright but ultimately leave me hankering for the artists they are ostensibly inspired by, and I just expected something more from Broken Water, who seem to have spiritually, ethically and mentally reached a higher plane of existence than the rest of us. Maybe the shock will continue to wear off though, as each time I come back to Wrought I find my hopes that it sounds like some insane new modern version of Throbbing Gristle covering Wire diminishing and my ability to enjoy its simplistic, noisy guitar-pop tunes increasing.
Bugs And Rats S/T LP (Surveillance Investments / Feeding Tube)
When you actually put “S/T” on the spine of your album, that becomes its title, as opposed to a truly self-titled album, right? These are the things that keep me up at night. Anyway, Bugs And Rats are a pretty great punk group, somehow releasing records as far back as 2005 and still sounding completely annoyed, frantic and amateurish a decade later. Through songs like “Boys Are Dumb”, “I’d Really Like To See You In The Cold” and “You’re In Charge Of My Guitar”, Bugs And Rats offer a clear statement of irritation bordering on hatred, and their music matches their spite perfectly. They’re like a mix of Bad Daddies, Fang and LA Drugs, but if they only had one of those early Sub Pop compilations to work with for songwriting inspiration. Their songs are mostly hardcore-fast, but played like a teenage Dwarves cover-band with nothing to lose. I’ll take it!
Burns & Hawk Becoming Nice 12″ (Valcrond Video)
I always fancy a new Valcrond Video release, this one pairing the inimitable Torn Hawk with fellow L.I.E.S. recording artist Willie Burns. I like the way their names are listed on this record, as if they were a law firm or something, as I can’t help but picture these two guys in ill-fitting suits, making dramatic gestures to the jury, sweating profusely and ultimately obtaining a successful verdict. Courtroom fantasies aside, the music here is pretty chill as well – the a-side “Becoming Nice” is a softly propulsive techno affair, presumably frameworked by Burns as it showcases Hawk’s contemplative, easy-listening guitar work. It’s followed by “Janice Will Deal With It” (their secretary?), which I believe is nothing more than a pitched-down sample of “Becoming Nice”. Works for me! The b-side is reserved for “Cement Truck With Pretty Eyelashes”, and while that is the most vivid song title I’ve read in some time, it smacks strongly of Torn Hawk’s methodology, fixing up some old dollar-bin new age music into post-modern techno meant for DIY meditation, not physical friction. It moves through various passages with ease, and by the end of the record I find myself calling their hotline, looking to put Burns & Hawk on retainer.
Chainsaw See-Saw 7″ (No Good)
The promo sticker on the plastic bag for this Chainsaw 7″ claims it is the “first punk 7″ from Belgium”, and assuming this is true, how could we all not love it, or at least deeply appreciate it on some level? It’s like “Florida manatee gives birth to twin babies” or “child’s lemonade stand receives anonymous $10,000 tip”, the sort of feel-good news item you can’t help but be brightened by. There are four songs here, all of which seem fairly indebted to the power-chug stylings of The Stooges and The Saints, as opposed to the snot n’ spikes end of the spectrum care of The Sex Pistols, and it suits Chainsaw well (although guitarist Jerry Wanker doesn’t live up to his name, depriving us of obnoxious solos). Can’t say there is anything particularly special about this one music-wise… certainly no endlessly memorable punk anthems to be discovered, but I added the original Romantik Records pressing of this single to my want-list all the same. Record collecting should finally be acknowledged by the FDA as a disease.
Chaperone Pond 12″ (Great Circles)
I can’t hide my enthusiasm for the Great Circles label, and was psyched for Chaperone’s vinyl debut, another Philadelphia-based young man with a room full of gear and a skewed take on what techno should taste like. He’s got three originals on the a-side, moving from the sweltering crawl of “Get Ghost” into the humid strut of “Cough Into Auditorium Can’t Tell Me To Nod Now”, recalling Terence Dixon’s From The Far Future Pt. 2 or one of Miles Whittaker’s recent solo ventures reduced to a lower pitch. “All Your Emergencies” might be my favorite though, as it sounds like a Robo-tripped take on Omar S’s “Jit”, the same electronic twitch and padded thumps forced into deep unconsciousness. Westov Temple, Hero/Victim and Thug Entrancer provide remixes of the a-side tracks in the same order on the flip. Westov Temple gives “Get Ghost” an almost The Field-like stutter-loop treatment, Hero/Victim goes amphibious-slow-motion on “Cough Into Auditorium” and Thug Entrancer turns “All Your Emergencies” into a late-night house cut befitting a Donato Dozzy or Robert Hood DJ set. You can leave the air conditioning on, Pond will sweat the water-weight right out of you regardless of room temperature.
Clean Girls Despite You LP (Accidental Guest)
I came into Clean Girls knowing nothing of their world, and the record certainly wasn’t providing any help – a children’s storybook drawing of some forest druids wrapping the front and back cover was all they offered. No song titles, no band photos, nothing beyond the songs themselves, and while I can get into hermetic and mysterious design in certain cases, I kinda would like to know who was responsible for this frenzied chunk of noisy, punk-inspired post-hardcore without having to fire up the information superhighway. Besides constantly reminding me of the band Despise You, Despite You has me lost in its mess of riffs and feedback, not unlike the tangled pile of cords that surely covers their practice space floor, attaching various effects pedals and amplifiers. This is noisy rock that seems to take advice from every underground rock movement of the past ten to twenty years, including unhinged screamo meltdowns (I’m reminded of the bizarre Syntax Transfer Theory album if anyone remembers that one), grunge-rock grooves, complex post-hardcore timing and an all-you-can-eat buffet of feedback. For as varied as it is, the songs all kind of blend together (the thrifty recording quality lends itself to an indistinct blur), but it’s a fun blur to be in, like when an unexpected storm breaks out at the beach and you’re racing back to your car as wet sand sprays your eyes. Kind of annoying, but it’s still worth being there, you know?
Dark Ages Vapor LP (Sorry State)
For a label that I generally associate with quality standard-issue hardcore-punk, their recent releases have been deviating from the traditional formula in various ways, like this Dark Ages LP for instance. Vapor is pretty cool, as it evokes a distinct era of hardcore that most modern groups shy away from – the musical wasteland that is 1983 through 1986. Much of Vapor feels like a classic hardcore band’s fourth album, the one where they still considered themselves a hardcore band but had already become infatuated with Sisters Of Mercy or REM or Metallica instead of the other hardcore bands in their local scene. There are still plenty of fast tracks here, but those are the ones that have the least identity – I prefer when Dark Ages are plodding through a ballad they probably shouldn’t have written, recalling Middle Class’s Homeland or Shattered Faith’s Vol. 2. No one is really playing this stuff, perhaps for good reason, but it’s nice to hear a modern band attempt to branch out the way hardcore kids did thirty years ago. And curiously enough, beyond the normal bass/drums/guitar/vocals lineup, a guy is credited with “manual tape manipulations”, of which I don’t audibly notice, but it’s interesting to know he’s lurking somewhere. If this is setting the stage for Dark Ages’ upcoming trip-metal album in 2016, I’m all for it.
Dawn Of Humans Slurping At The Cosmos Spine LP (Toxic State)
Sweet Jesus, the debut Dawn Of Humans album couldn’t have entered my life any sooner! They’re one of the most intriguing, unique and disturbed punk bands playing today, like the scarier older brother of Lumpy & The Dumpers, and Slurping At The Cosmos Spine is a winner, just as expected. Musically, it’s more interesting and idiosyncratic than ever – each melody or riff is played via a standard 16th note regimen, usually involving some sort of subtle progression up or down the neck of the guitars (and the Cosmos’ spine of course), the drums gleefully oom-pah along and the vocalist squeals like a frightened pig, an imprisoned alien or a Jackass cast member mid-taze depending on the tune. The guitars are surprisingly restrained, with the bass significantly louder in the mix, and most of the feedback or noisy weirdness happens between tracks, not during. I’d almost rank these guys in the astute avant lineage of Keiji Haino or Michael Rother or something, the way their songs and riffs are so simple yet remarkable, but these guys are probably putting more thought into the body paint (or giant metal pyramid helmet) the singer will be brandishing on stage than whatever chords they happen to be playing. Dawn Of Humans are as fascinating a band to think about as they are pleasurable to sit and listen to on record, surpassing their humble crusty-hardcore beginnings to inhabit a universe all their own. A universe in which I hope to one day rummage through its subterranean debris in search of sustenance.
Dead Farmers Wasteland LP (R.I.P Society)
Dead Farmers have been kicking around for a while now, erupting right as Eddy Current was making a name for Aussie garage-rock in the US and beyond. I remember their debut Aarght! single as particularly scorching in comparison to their contemporaries, as if they were privy to a secret supply of jet fuel while their friends were still using basic unleaded. Wasteland is their second LP, taking a five year break since their first, and by my ears’ assessment, they’ve cleaned up all the sonic spew that signified their initial tunes and trimmed it down to a nice and presentable garage-rock strut you could take to prom. The riffs are as simple as Fat White Family’s and as raucous as The Black Lips, and it seems like at least two of the three guys are always yelling the lyrics in unison, making for a very unified gang attack, as though these simple and pleasant garage-rock tunes came from one slightly inebriated hive mind. The three of them all look like they could be brothers anyway, and if that actually is the case, Lord help their poor mother.
51717 / Silent Servant Jealous God 6 12″ & CD (Jealous God)
The aesthetic purity of the Jealous God label continues with its sixth installment, pairing two like-minded post-industrial deviants on a 12″ record and an accompanying mixed CD to either upload onto your computer or discard. They’re always a nice package (some come with badges or extra art, I believe), and this one is a particularly chilly slice of drifting discomfort. 51717 is the solo project Lili Schulder has been working under for a few years now (you may also know her as half of Shadowlust), and she offers three tracks of ominous, beatless techno on her side. Her vocals are layered and subliminal, the electronic pulse barely registers any melody and each track finds its own way of scaring you, like a horror movie trilogy. “Porsche” is particularly disturbing! Silent Servant matches the mood with two brief nighttime sketches, far removed from the dance-floor. Rather, this is music for the 4:00 am subway ride home, when it’s just you, the janitor and a couple of well-dressed vampires who keep trying to make eye contact. I can’t tell if Silent Servant is imitating 51717 on purpose here, as his style seems to mimic 51717 within these tracks, but I almost feel like I’m walking in on some sort of form of subtle musical flirtation when spinning Jealous God 6, which I enjoy more than I’d ever publicly admit.
Koes Barat Koes Barat LP (Sub Pop)
I love Alan Bishop, even if my personal finances dictate that I can only keep up with roughly ten percent of the records he releases in any given year. Koes Barat is his vehicle for covering songs by his favorite ’60s / ’70s Indonesian rock group Koes Plus, backed by members of Master Musicians Of Bukkake (who else, of course). I will plead ignorance to Koes Plus prior to listening to Koes Barat, but part of the fun of Alan Bishop is discovering new musical vocabularies while also being taunted or insulted or pleasured by the music that brings them forward, and if this album is any indication, Koes Plus were a delight. These songs are ebullient, poppy and pretty, leaning on flange and Wah the way those effects were initially meant to be utilized, with vocals as campy and fun as one could hope. These guys seem to be enjoying the hell out of these covers (and as is often the case, playing hippie dress-up)… who could possibly blame them?
Lilacs & Champagne Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh LP (Temporary Residence)
Set your VCR for another edition of Lilacs & Champagne’s late night soundtracks of lust and deceit. They’re (presumably) a studio project set to invoke the long-forgotten, recently-remembered soundtracks of every gratuitous R-rated film that found premium-cable airtime in the ’80s. Naturally, they update that sound with woozy vocal samples, MPC-based beat juggling and a keen ear for sampling, calling to mind anything from The Avalanches to Madlib or Daughn Gibson’s instrumentals to the 100% Silk label. I’m actually a little surprised at the sophisticated beat-digger vibe of Vol. 2: Made Flesh, almost expecting the gravelly voice of MF Doom to materialize over a particularly seedy beat. Lilacs & Champagne must be having fun piecing these tracks together, picking the right dollar-bin CTI album to chop apart, and through listening to their music privately in my own home, their pleasure has quickly become mine, too.
Metz II LP (Sub Pop)
Metz have quickly become one of the most popular heavy/noisy rock groups of the moment. (Jealous? Me? No, not jealous at all, why would I be jealous?) I dabbled with their first LP, but have watched them whip enough festival audiences into a crowd-surfing frenzy that their power, though I may not fully grasp it, is very real. I’ve been curious to hear what they’d have to offer on their follow-up, and if the plain, default title of II didn’t already clue me in, this is another thick n’ dirty album of no-nonsense scuzz-rock. To me, Metz has always kind of toed the line between early Nirvana and the thrashing post-hardcore of Gravity Records – Metz can take a Nirvana riff (let’s say “The Swimmer”) and approach it like the VSS, with feedback barely contained and vocals going off like strobe lights. It’s got that proto-screamo feel with the Sub Pop grunge riffs of yore, and Metz have calculated the formula with the breezy confidence of a tenured professor. They don’t seem to have any particular aesthetic agenda going (pictures of random crowds, a hilly street, people on a bench and their name in big block letters is all they care to show for themselves), but it works in their favor, operating on a nearly anonymous level, allowing their two-note riffs and pummeling Grohl-like drums to be the only point of focus. It’s like unintentional mysterious-guy hardcore, and while these guys might be anything but mysterious care of their perpetual touring schedule, they’ve done some serious good here.
Natural Causes Natural Causes LP (Snot Releases)
I’ll never not think of the band Chicken Chain when I see a new Snot Releases record – it’s just one of those band names that lodges itself in your permanent memory bank, never to be removed. Anyway, this new Snot release comes from the North Carolina-based Natural Causes, an agitated sort of punk band, and they’re pretty cool – I’d probably place them in the “excellent local band” category for now. Here’s why: their songs are mostly pretty standard snotty garage-punk, the recording is pretty hollow (the general “group vocals recorded in a reverb cavern” thing adds to that feeling), and the synth seems to stick with its presets and two-fingered melodies. None of that is meant to diss Natural Causes though, because they sound good, varying the tempo from languid to spastic and never letting their irritation subside, with song titles like “Cry Baby”, “Bedwetter” and “Boo Hoo” lined up next to each other. My only concern is that there is nothing to really differentiate them from the ever-growing pack of synth-leaning lo-fi punk bands playing today, but if I roll through North Carolina anytime soon I’ll be looking for their graffiti, that much I guarantee.
Obnox Know America LP (Ever/Never)
Well what do you know, two frequent guests of Yellow Green Red’s review section working together, the sort of match that I wouldn’t have expected but makes perfect sense. I’m talking about Obnox and Ever/Never, of course, and this new one (Obnox’s fourth album in three years) is another winner. From the various samples bookending the music within (and explanatory promo sheet), Know America is Obnox’s attempt at holding mainstream radio hostage and pumping himself through the airwaves, from stompy, fuzz-drenched mud-puddles to soaring psychedelia, wild punk rock and even a little rap. It’s still the same Lamont Thomas though, him and his guitar rig and various players adding guitars, organ or beats as they are warranted, and while it sounds so similar to the recent Boogalou Reed that I couldn’t tell you what track appeared on which album if quizzed, I was able to recognize plenty of tunes when I had the pleasure of watching Obnox perform last month. I firmly believe in too much of a good thing but Obnox has yet to reach that point, bless his soul.
Michael O. Really? LP (Fruits & Flowers)
So what do you think, is this guy married to Karen O? Maybe he’s her brother? I could wonder about the mysterious O lineage all day, and the music of Really? seems to foster such daydreaming, as it’s packed with sleepy, orchestral, acoustic-driven pop music. This is music that lies in the shade while the rest of recess is out in the field playing soccer, content to pick flowers and draw cartoons in the dirt. That said, there isn’t a whole lot that sticks out for me; Mr. O’s voice is inoffensively indistinct, his melodies offer little in the way of surprise or earth-shattering hooks, and it generally floats by like another beautiful cloud, as memorable as the next. I’ve enjoyed Really? a few times now, particularly as the windows are frequently open and the sounds of nature (and angry honking drivers) waft into my room alongside its humble joy, so if you see me on the street in July, remind me about it, as I will most likely have completely forgotten about this album by then.
Paranoid London Paranoid London 2xLP (Paranoid London)
Sometimes all it takes is the perfect combination of simple ingredients to drive me wild, as is the case with the debut album by Paranoid London, released on their eponymous label. Here’s their formula: basic 8-bit acid-house beats with little variation and hungover spoken-word vocals. It seems so easy, but I know it’s not, as so many fail at attaining the level of casual coolness that Paranoid London seem to have woken up wearing. The music is great too, a bunch of slick and gritty club tracks (actually the spelling “trax” seems more appropriate here) that seem to have landed in their groove directly upon birth, but it’s the vocals of names such as Mutado Pintado and Paris Brightledge that recall LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge”, Tin Man’s Wasteland, Galcher Lustwerk’s “100% Galcher” and Ricardo Villalobos’ “Andruic” that really makes Paranoid London come to life. It’s as though you’re sharing a couch with this fascinating weirdo, high on whatever and constantly talking, all while the house system bumps an old Jeff Mills mix. Big five-star recommendation right here!
Power Masters Home Of The Grave LP (Surveillance Investments)
Trying to get a read on the nascent Surveillance Investments label, who seem to promote rock music that wants to headline stadium tours but has some sort of fatal flaw relegating it all to shoddy basements. It’s a vibe I enjoy, and it continues with this Power Masters LP. They’re kind of like a less-funny Life Partners – more guys closer to their 40s than their 20s making rock music that recalls Rye Coalition, The Cramps and Alice Cooper in equal measure, all with the energy of someone who naps on the couch while the roommates are out at Crossfit. They never get too crazy, but rather settle into their well-worn blues riffs and fuzz-soaked guitars, strutting in their living room as though it was Quiet Riot’s tour bus. If the idea of Van Halen for the Feeding Tube / Load Records set appeals to you, I recommend you seek the company of Power Masters immediately.
Regional Curse Regional Curse LP (Format)
After meditating through a couple spins of this Regional Curse LP, and allowing its dour, faux-tribal currents to waft over me like steam from a fresh batch of penne, I couldn’t help but think that this sort of thing was Not Not Fun’s calling card of 2012-2014 or so. And behold, it turns out a cassette version was released on Not Not Fun! Aren’t I just the smartest and coolest guy in town. Anyway, Regional Curse has the appropriate visual aesthetic (weird night-time photo of a flower garden, cryptic phrase repeated on center sticker and insert), and ultimately succeeds at its modest aim of being a Tantric sex record for hipsters. Percussion borrowed from the first couple Raime EPs slowly unfurls over pulsing drones and synthetic melodies, often accompanied by sparse and haunting vocals. The perfect gift for the loved one in your life who already owns a bunch of Ensemble Economique and Peaking Lights records but doesn’t know where else to turn. Throw in a couple scented candles with Regional Curse and you’ve got one hell of a gift basket.
Restraint A Time With No Hands 12″ (Endangered Species)
Restraint is another moniker of Oliver Vereker (aka Vereker), whose noisy analog techno one might consider a valuable contribution to the trend. From what I can tell here, he switched the name because Restraint avoids techno and the art of dancing almost entirely, instead focusing on the harsh hardware-based noise end of the spectrum. I like it! The opening track soars around on some filthy sine-wave like it was searching for its parents (the Broken Flag label), slowly gaining in intensity until fading back from whence it came. It’s followed by a short three-minute blast of crumbling distortion and molten spoken-word, not unlike Sewer Election or Contagious Orgasm. The last track (they’re numerically “I”, “II” and “III”) actually works a beat into the mix, writhing like a cockroach you keep stepping on but never actually kill, until the whole infested apartment building is set on fire for the insurance money. Pretty cool 12″, and while the Endangered Species label’s “mysteriously obscured bondage mask” cover art theme has me apprehensive (how many Hospital Productionses do we need?), I am curious to see what they might do next.
Rrose Plays John Tenney – Having Never Written A Note For Percussion LP (Further)
Further might very well be the most interesting and thoughtful electronic-music record label based in the US today, pushing its artists to new weird territory (like Scuba Death, Nuel and Ekoplekz, for instance) and doing it with top-quality vinyl and art. I love Rrose dearly, but the label’s fine history is the main reason I picked this one up, as I seek out Rrose for their intensely claustrophobic techno constructions, not live and studio versions of the same long drone piece. That’s what I get here though, Rrose performing John Tenney’s Having Never Written A Note For Percussion, a 1971 piece that involves slowly playing a percussion instrument from its quietest point to its loudest point, holding it “for a very long time”, then gradually quieting down. A heady modern-avant-composer version of the breakdown in The Isley Brothers’ “Shout”, basically. Anyway, Rrose uses a gong and some expensive microphones to make it happen, raising a slow and hovering drone from silence to loudness and back again. I think I prefer the studio version, as I enjoy indulging in the crystal-clear sonics of a studio recording more than the sometimes muffled overtones of a large room (in this case, some underground space beneath the subway in DC, which is honestly really cool). The record is beautiful, the piece delivers on its promise, and while I will probably forget I own this in about five minutes, I don’t regret purchasing it in the slightest.
Sheer Mag II 7″ (Katorga Works / Wilsuns Recording Company)
What’s that, you’ve been living on a small island off the coast of Peru without internet, phone or postal service for the past year? In that case, you’re one of the few people I can introduce to Sheer Mag, 2015’s underground punk darlings, coveted by frumpy indie-pop bloodsuckers and Chaos In Tejas trainhopper crusties alike. Their debut 7″ was a 2014 favorite of mine, and this new four-song EP will surely prove to do the same this year, following their general template of “classic power-pop meets gratuitous rock posturing in a DIY punk warehouse”. Just like their debut, each song is totally great here, branching out ever so slightly with unexpected nods to The Strokes and The Jackson Five and other crucial elements of rock history. The recording on this one is a little thinner and even more burnt, not too far from your average “Macbook built-in mic turned on at band practice” sound, which very well may be how they recorded it at “The Nuthouse”. I’d love to hear Sheer Mag without the tin-can sheen of GarageBand distortion, and judging by how beloved and popular they are quickly becoming, I can’t imagine it’ll be long until a healthy studio budget is thrown their way. Let’s just all hope they accept and get a little help with the production.
Slow Walker Slow Walker LP (Stale Heat)
I can’t stand when I’m cruising on the sidewalk and find myself trapped behind a slow walker, but this self-titled LP is frustration-free. From the cover photo of the band standing in a psychedelic forest not unlike the “So What Cha Want” video, it’s clear these guys are offering a well-worn ’90s nostalgia trip, but in their case, it’s endearing and smooth. The biggest musical reference I’m hearing is Mudhoney, from the fuzz pedals to the classic garage riffs reappropriated for grungy stage-dives, with maybe a hint of Milk Music’s youthful cigarette haze and Brother JT’s psychedelic cool. The vocals don’t stand out but pretty much nail it as far as balancing the rough and the soft, and the songs are catchy yet non-commercial. Nothing flashy from Slow Walker, and I can only hope that this record finds its way to the audience it deserves, because while every media outlet big and small might tell you otherwise, there are still thousands of people out there who want nothing more than loud and honest rock n’ roll.
Slugga Parasite 7″ (Total Punk)
Slugga is a new Atlanta band featuring members of other older Atlanta bands (don’t any new punks ever move to this town?), and this two-song debut comes to us care of the reputable Total Punk label, always a good sign. These two songs whiz by fast – had Slugga written six more songs in the style of these two, they could’ve easily fit on this record (and probably kept the 45 RPM playing-speed intact) – and they are excellent examples of modern slime-based hardcore-punk. If you told me this was a band featuring Crazy Spirit and Hank Wood personnel I wouldn’t bat an eye, as “Parasite” has the feel of Screamin’ Mad George fronting Gag or something, complete with a very Lumpy-esque song title / lyrical theme. “Shaved Heads” isn’t the skinhead anthem such a title would usually suggest, so much as another Toxic State-inspired basement stomper, with Krang-like vocals ordering the Foot Clan to go make some turtle soup. Good stuff for sure! I hope the trend of hiring gremlin-based vocalists continues, as we’ve already given the ogres plenty of time on the mic.
Swanox Duskrunner LP (Not Not Fun)
Scratching my head pretty hard over this Swanox album, but in a good way – I’m not disgusted so much as happily perplexed. It’s the work of one “Anthony BC”, and not what I expected, although I can’t say I had any clear expectations to begin with. Duskrunner offers a variety of repetitive guitar tracks, teeny-tiny percussion and Mr. BC’s stoic vocal. It has all the properties of a diet drink – synthetic, light, and ostensibly cancerous – and the attitude of weird late ’70s / early ’80s kraut-rock that came from the sidelines, like if Neu!’s third guitarist did a side project with Christopher Cross on Sky Records and told no one about it until now. It’s not entirely Rastakraut Pasta, but it could be served as the accompanying side-salad, that’s for sure. At first, the music was too light that it passed right over me like a silent puff of carbon monoxide, but I’ve let Duskrunner rip a few times and its indifference to time and physics is infectious. If this review makes zero sense, don’t blame me, it’s Swanox’s fault.
Them Are Us Too Remain LP (Dais)
Them Are Us Too are a sprightly new California-based synth-duo, allegedly still in their teenage years but somehow brushed with the confidence and fully-formed aesthetic of a group twice their age. Dais must’ve been hanging out at the right movie theater parking lot to find these two, but it’s certainly a good fit for both involved, as Them Are Us Too offer some distinctly beautiful synth-pop, revealing that there is a place in goth for hopeless romantics who have found love, not just dateless shut-ins. Musically, I’m reminded of if S U R V I V E tried to write a pop record with a young American Kate Bush on the mic. Vocalist Kennedy Ashlyn Wenning (a name that could only belong to a millenial) is the show-stealer here, and my Kate Bush comparison is only a rough starting point, as her voice has the natural weightless purity of Hooverphonic’s Geike Arnaert or Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Frasier. There are so many other sweetly-crooning synth-pop vocalists out there these days, but they’re all Dasani compared to the straight Fiji Wenning is serving, and it makes for one of the most sensual and oddly uplifting records I’ve heard this year. Let’s just hope they are this serene and wistful after going to bars for a few years.
Thigh Master Songs To Wipe Your Mouth To 7″ (Tenth Court)
While I’d like to imagine Australia as one giant Fury Road filled with constant car-splosions and frantic violence, bands like Brisbane’s Thigh Master remind me that it’s probably just another boring and comfortable place to go get Starbucks when you want it. They’re a jangly indie-rock group who bounce through their songs, not unlike The Thermals or Swearin’. They’ve got two guitarists, so that means double the jangle, which works for these three songs, offering a level of exuberance that borders on the infectious. Two jumpers on the a-side, and “Red Woons” on the b-side, which slows to a Zoltars-esque pace and reveals a softer side to these gents. I won’t travel around the world to go see them, but if they’re willing to meet me halfway in, say, Hawaii, I might start checking ticket prices.
2×4 Eight Song EP 7″ (Twerp)
Hardly a month goes by without some new Boston-area hardcore rager passing over my turntable, and I’m not complaining! This one comes care of 2×4, a new group with names I don’t particularly recognize, but they’ve got it all down pat right out of the gate. Can’t be long until a Painkiller or Beach Impediment contract is sealed when you’re playing hardcore like this: perfect punk-ish guitar tone, air-tight rolls and vigorous delivery, and heavier on fast parts than breakdowns (clearly someone in this band has spent some time with the Abused 7″). This EP leans closer to Dischord and Touch & Go’s respective first years in business than 2×4’s native X-Claim! sound, as the vocals split the difference between S.O.A.-era Rollins and Youth Brigade’s Nathan Strejcek. Rock-solid EP, and the photo-collage insert is a nice touch that many bands neglect – I appreciate that I can enjoy visual evidence of these guys in leather jackets and crowded basements while these eight songs slam through my ears.
Uniform Perfect World 12″ (12XU)
Uniform is a new project from two old friends, Ben Greenberg (of Zs and The Men fame) and Michael Berdan (frontman of Veins, Believer/Law and Drunkdriver to name but a few). Greenberg seemingly wants to play loud guitars all day long, and Berdan has never met an amplified guitar he couldn’t scream over, so Uniform has quickly taken shape, starting off on the respectable 12XU label. The first track is the title track, and it’s probably the best thing they’ve got going – a simple pounding beat that’s little more than an electronic kick (the snare eventually shows up) and a riff forged from the steel of Judas Priest. It’s a great combo that I’m surprised no one else thought of: NWOBHM riffs with electro-industrial percussion, and “Perfect World” commands it. The rest of the record works around similar ideas, but none of the riffs match “Perfect World” – they’re best when they are unselfconsciously epic, but pretty decent otherwise. Berdan approaches the mic the same way he seemingly always has, a throaty, strained yell that fits hardcore-punk and screamo just fine, but seems slightly out of place here, as the music might warrant a Peter Stahl-like metal crooner more than a snotty scream. Good record though, and if they truly embrace the “Saint Vitus meets Front 242” vibes I occasionally detect here, I might consider wearing their cool logo on a t-shirt.
Unspecified Enemies Everything You Did Has Already Been Done 12″ (Numbers)
Gonna go ahead and take umbrage with the title of this EP – I’m tempted to go ride a unicycle while singing King Diamond lyrics and eating a coconut cream pie just to prove these guys wrong. That’s the full extent of the issues I have with this 12″, however, as it comes equipped with four high-powered bangers that lay to waste any weekly techno trends or sub-sub-genres with their forcefulness. “Ms. 45” and “Chip Mode” feel like essentially the same track, banging at at least 130 BPM with rugged drums, a durable bass foundation and rapid-fire edits of vocals and samples, all interspersed with the red-faced finesse of Kid 606 at his prime. “Chip Mode” is particularly brutal with its treatment of a classic Lauryn Hill hook. “Liquid Floor” is just as strong, with a classic Jeff Mills / Underground Resistance methodology of maintaining full dignity and composure while still smashing a vocal sample that implores “work that body” over and over again. And before I could catch my breath, the razor-sharp editing of “Lifestyles Of The MiniDisc Era” feels like a Planetary Assault Systems track remixed by Autechre for maximum destruction. I will keep my friends close and Unspecified Enemies closer.
Vanity Yer Fucking Boring / There’s The Door 7″ (Katorga Works)
Following their mind-bogglingly great debut LP, Vanity are back with a quick one-two punch in the form of this 7″ single, wherein they tell you that you have a dull personality and invite you to leave – truly a record that disses and dismisses. I was wondering if they might’ve taken a hard look at themselves after the LP, asking the hard question of “have we created something so Skrewdriver-ish that we need to change it up at least slightly?”, but even if they did ask themselves that question, the answer was clearly no – this is more rock-hard Skrewdriver worship performed with eerie perfection. “Yer Fucking Boring” is definitely the a-side hit, belting it out over the chorus and kicking up some dirt with a poppy skinhead guitar lead. Same goes for “There’s The Door”, chugging on a tom-heavy drumbeat and possibly recalling Rose Tattoo if I weren’t so blinded by the Skrewdriver sonic similarity. Heard that these guys are a functioning live unit now, and I’d be excited to go see them if I wasn’t irrationally afraid of being eaten alive by skinheads. Or maybe it’s not such an irrational fear after all.
Vexx Give And Take 7″ (Katorga Works)
Gonna say this first and foremost: Vexx are the greatest live rock group in America, and presumably the planet. Each of these four people just attack their instruments with a superior level of technical expertise and undiluted passion, all at the same time, and it’s a revelatory experience for any show-goer, new or seasoned. I’ve been lucky enough to see them a bunch of times now, and it’s about time they had some new recorded music out, because their songs are fantastic too, the sort of tunes you want to go home and listen to after witnessing on stage. This 7″ contains four tracks: the instantly catchy “Black / White”, the classic LA-punk vibe of “Sleeping In The Attic”, the unexpected classic rock / classic emo matchup of “Walking In The Rain” and the scorched-earth blast of “Flattened Scenes”. I love all these songs, but admittedly it’s partly because I can clearly recognize their live interpretations, in which they play faster, harder and more unhinged than this studio recording. It’s hard to hear the last note of “Flattened Scenes” without watching vocalist Maryjane collapsing in a heap right as the music cuts out, but I appreciate this EP just the same. In any event, you certainly need to check out this record, but I can’t help but anticipate this band getting into a big studio with a big producer and just completely annihilating all other rock records just as they have already done with live performance. It’s merely a matter of time and I advise you to start preparing.
X-Pulsion / Streets split 7″ (No Good)
I feel like it’s safe to say that in 2015, the punk rock split 7″ is essentially a retired format (sad as that may be), and here we have what very well may have been the very first punk rock split 7″, a reissue of the X-Pulsion / Streets single originally released by Romantik in 1978. X-Pulsion have two tracks of upbeat, snappy punk, like a sloppy Toy Dolls, or The Undertones if they couldn’t properly hold a harmony. The drummer absolutely clobbers his kit for the fills, so I’d dub the X-Pulsion side a success. Streets offer one track on their side, a song called “Police Control” which doesn’t conjure the sound of a youthful Discharge as you may have hoped – rather, it’s an amateurish skank that fumbles past reggae before falling down the cellar stairs. By no means a necessity, but a cool time capsule for sure, alongside the other early Romantik singles reissued by No Good, who is slowly becoming the Belgian answer to America’s Almost Ready / Last Laugh empire.