If you’ve read or heard me talk about music for more than a sentence or two, you’re probably well aware that I love dungeon synth and that I think the farther it gets away from its black metal roots, the more interesting it becomes. We’re starting again on the borderlands.
DJ Count Olkoth
…Welcome to the Dungeon House
Dungeon synth has been making inroads across the border to hip-hop for a while now, and anyone who knows the subgenre knows of its strong alliance with ambient music. As it grows and evolves, it’s slowly making paths into other forms of electronic music as well. DJ Count Olkoth combines the murky atmospheres (and production style) of dungeon synth with the beats of techno and house music.
…Welcome to the Dungeon House is a lo-fi affair, its beats dense with cobwebs and the dust of ancient catacombs. The somber mood is instantly familiar to anyone whose record collection contains a few album covers featuring Xeroxed pictures of castles, but what may bring some stern looks of disapproval from the cloaked and hooded genre purists is that this record is a heck of a lot of fun. The occasional straightforward dungeon synth piece is still present (see, for example, the distorted dirge of “Lightning O’er the Gates”) but along with the gloom, there’s plenty of bone-rattling, bass-heavy beats. I’m not bold enough to claim that this sound is the “future” of the subgenre, but it’s another drop in an increasingly steady flow of experimentation with what dungeon synth is and what it can be.
Count Olkoth’s label for this release, Grime Stone Records, is located in #California. That tag is all it takes for us to leap from an unspecified crumbling castle to a very specific state. We’re also jumping back nearly 100 years in time, sort of.
Man With A Movie Camera
Dziga Vertov’s 1929 experimental film Man with a Movie Camera is still a valuable piece of cinema nearly a century later, not just as a historical document, but as a truly experimental work—a collection of images with no set narrative. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the film, because we’re here to talk about the music, but it’s freely available and well worth watching.
This recording is a live performance of San Francisco psych rock band Oranger’s modern accompaniment to Vertov’s work, and it breathes new life into the film. Just as our brains have a tendency to create a narrative from disconnected and unrelated images, Oranger’s soundtrack seems to give focus and direction to the onscreen action. Take, for example, “Segment II”: it accompanies onscreen imagery of factories, traffic and trains. The music correspondingly becomes almost clockwork, with clicking percussion and a forceful electric guitar score. Even divorced from Vertov’s imagery, though, this is an exciting work, with moods ranging from the pastoral, mellow “Segment VIII” to the full-force finale of “Segment X,” with its declarative piano melody and thudding bassline.
Although it’s difficult to pick out in their score to Vertov’s film, Oranger’s sound is influenced by the sounds of #surf rock. We’re going to use that tag to jump to a band whose surf influences are worn a little more clearly on their sleeves.
There’s no outward indications of this other than a track called “Transylvania” (no Dracula or Frankenstein on the cover, not a single skull or coffin in the graphic design), but Surface (which is an excellent name for a surf rock band) skulks around the “spooky” side of modern surf. It’s probably their heavy use of an organ, though other elements (like the eerie laugh that closes out “Ojos Color Mar”) tie them to this aesthetic.
Surface aren’t one of those “play as fast as you can all the time” surf bands. They seem more interested in hanging around the upper end of medium pace, building songs with distinct parts (all of the songs here with the exception of the intro run three or four minutes). At the album’s midpoint, they slow things down a little more with the dreamy “Déjame Navegar,” a sunny, shimmering pop gem complete with the sounds of surf and seagulls. Then, it’s back to the slightly ominous, as organ drones and determined percussion kick off “Camino al Sol.” Indoor is the sound of a band working within the boundaries of their chosen sound and still finding ways to make it fresh.
The central Mexican state #Aguascalientes may be one of the smallest of Mexico’s 32 states, but it’s home to its fair share of musicians. We’re staying in the same location but shifting genre now, from surf rock to more experimental sounds.
Luis Fernando Amaya
Part of the fun of play is exploring capabilities, of building things and then seeing how they can be deconstructed. Composer and percussionist Luis Fermando Amaya’s latest album doesn’t evoke “playfulness” in the standard way you might think of that concept as it relates to music, but at its heart, that sense of building and deconstructing looms large. Take the second track here, “Pregunta no.2: Cóndor – for piano and e-bows.” It starts with the drone of what sounds like feedback, over which sparse piano notes sound out. The feedback goes away, and the piano remains; slow, occasional bricks of sound held together with the mortar of silence and anticipation. As the piece progresses, the structure grows. That’s the “construction” phase.
Later, in “Bestiario: cuatro – for violin and speakers attached to the performer’s body,” the deconstruction begins—stabbing, buzzing sounds build in intensity, zipping from left to right in the listener’s headphones. I can’t say for certain if the pieces here were sequenced to evoke this construction/deconstruction metaphor, but intentional or not, it really comes across. These pieces are a difficult listen at times, sure, but the sounds here are inventive and always fascinating; sonic proof that regardless of the planning and intricacy of a structure, there’s sometimes joy to be found in watching it fall.
The definitions of #folk are pretty wide. Beyond music associated with customs of a certain people or music performed on traditional instruments, it’s also valuable as a touchstone to describe an artist’s influences and idea, whether they’re making experimental music or if they’re a one-person black metal project.
Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)
The self-titled debut from the mysterious one-person project Sunset starts with clean, if chaotic, acoustic guitar. This simple intro is quickly replaced by a solid wall of breakneck blast beats and a swirling blur of impenetrable guitar. A full understanding of what’s going on here requires careful and attentive listening. What at first sounds like the standard black metal bombast slowly reveals itself with elements slithering out of the central mass—a wailing guitar solo here, an almost-melodic riff there, with traditional instruments (is that a banjo?) tastefully ornamenting the heaviness.
The album’s centerpiece, the exhilarating 15-minute “Celestial Exsanguination over Midwestern Orchards,” besides having one of metal’s greatest song titles in recent memory, is a staggering achievement, containing hypnotic drumming and slower, atmospheric passages to break up the sonic assault. The production (or “refinement” as the album’s notes seem to describe it) is filled with echoes; not reverb, but the sound of the inside of a cavern, one perhaps used for secret rituals on the night of a predetermined phase of the moon. Sunset has taken the sound and spirit of 2010s “raw” black metal and somehow elevated it without cleaning it up or trying to make it into something palatable or, Satan forbid, commercial.
As is often the case with black metal, there’s not a lot of information available about Sunset. We do know, though, that whoever they are, they give their location as #Michigan, clearing a path from Sunset’s raw black metal to a demo showing a more pop-oriented interpretation of “metal.”
Sometimes the notes of a release will give you full details regarding the concept and execution of a work, and sometimes, as with this demo, the notes will just say “Recorded in the Riff Dungeon” and that’ll tell you all you need to know. Some might call the style of music here a “throwback” to the metal-tinged glam pop of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but the use of that term implies that that sound went away. (It didn’t. The faithful have continued to carry the torch, in varying degrees of fervency.) Kalamazoo’s Cügar turns up the heat with this three-track instrumental demo. It’s unknown at this time (it is a demo after all) whether the plan is to go back and add vocals, but what we have here is strong.
“Don’t Fall In Love” is a roller-coaster ride, kicking off with a driving, steady riff that flows into a screaming solo, slowing down for a brief acoustic interlude and then kicking right back into that riff. The standout here is the anthemic closer “Keep Your Fists Held High,” with its soaring riff and periodic palm-muted breakdowns. I hope Cügar’s back in the Riff Dungeon right now cooking up a proper release.
I do not like the term #hair metal, although I like the genre it describes. It just seems a bit pejorative to me, I guess. But that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that the tag is there and we can use it to travel to our next featured artist.
Rock Into the Night
If you handed me a copy of this album and told me it was a lost relic from the glory days of glam metal, I would absolutely believe you. Maybe the modern (okay, modern-esque…this record’s from 2012) production techniques would give it away, but I try not to pay too much attention to that sort of thing. From the cover’s neon pink zebra print pattern to the riffs and solos on the inside, Rock Into the Night is unadulterated glam sleaze. (I don’t feel uncomfortable calling them that, because they use the tag themselves!)
There’s a little bit of Blow My Fuse-era Kix in these grooves, especially in the way the rhythm section sits back and lets the rhythm guitar and vocals carry the melody on the verses (this is especially noticeable on “Take Me Higher”). There’s a heartfelt power ballad with an absolutely scorching lead-in solo (“Burning My Heart”). There’s even a radio hit, or at least there should be. There’s no way you can listen to “Dreaming of Love” and not be convinced that this Dokken-inspired masterpiece wouldn’t have been all over top 40 radio in the mid-to-late ‘80s.
B.I.T.E. come to us straight from #Brazil but they’re also linked by the vast territory of the #rock tag. Though they may share a couple of (admittedly vast) tags, that’s really all of the connection we have between them and our next artist. That’s fine. It’s enough. We’ll take it.
From the Vienna-based label Underground Files comes this reissue of Brazilian prog/psych band Terço’s 1973 sophomore album. After a brooding, at times almost dirge-like opening, business pickles up with the spirited “Voce Aí” featuring riffs reminiscent of contemporaries from the harder side of prog (think Captain Beyond). That hard hitting sound is far from the only arrow in Terço’s quiver, though. The country-tinged “Estrada Vazia” features light acoustic guitar and floating vocal harmonies. “Rock Do Elvis” does precisely what the title says, featuring a tight duet between a stripped-down electric guitar and honky-tonk–style piano. Also present are a couple of bonus tracks not present on the initial release. Far from being “cutting room floor” extras thrown in to pad the running time, these tracks give a fuller picture of Terço’s capabilities, especially “Tributo Ao Sorriso,” which features beautiful, complex arrangements of horn sections, strings, and piano. It’s an excellent record and one that fully deserves the new opportunities for discovery that this reissue will bring.
The #underground tag appearing on the page of a label with that word as part of its name should come as no surprise. It opens a path to more modern-day underground sounds.
Síbín Vol. 1
A compilation loosely focused around themes of “identity” and each featured artist’s interpretation of that term, this first volume in what I hope will be a regular series presents some innovative, and interesting sounds. The slurred, slow hip-hop of Lord Byron & Ben Hixon’s “NBA” has, through the claustrophobic production and laconic delivery, a hook that’ll stay in your head for days. Oliver Palfreyman & Goya Gumbani’s “TOSH!” uses thunderous bass and sharp, clear horn lines to craft a declarative entry with Caribbean influences that go deeper than just lyrically name-dropping Peter Tosh. MA.MOYO & Marysia Osu’s “MOTHERSHIP” is a light, airy trip through the clouds with hypnotic vocals and shimmering synths. This is an incredibly strong opening statement from the Síbín collective, one that showcases unique collaborations.
The #eclectic tag, by its very nature, can be, well, just about anything. What it means for our final stop on this journey is a New York–based jazz musician.
New York-based composer, arranger, and saxophonist Elijah Shiffer has assembled an incredibly talented group for his latest release, resulting in eight tracks of modern jazz that are infused with joy. My use, by the way, of the descriptor “modern” refers only to the time period, not the sound. These aren’t experimental microtonal compositions. Sure, there’s some experimentation to be found here and there, but they’re mostly melodic, upbeat compositions combining elements of big band, traditional jazz, Dixieland, and klezmer.
Standouts here include “The Longest Nights,” which switches between the lonesome laments of a slightly discordant violin and banjo until jumping into high gear with a full-throated big band swing. The playful “Crustacean Celebration” uses New Orleans–style jazz to highlight the interplay of saxophone and trumpet with a bouncy, energetic performance from drummer Rishav Acharya. Album closer “The Rarest Bird in Central Park” features some tight, interlocking runs where Shiffer’s sax is doubled by Olli Hirvonen’s electric guitar before stepping back to give Hirvonen an opportunity for an incredible solo.
And that’s where we’re ending this time around, having covered everything from jazz to glam metal to experimental electronic works to new scores for late 1920s experimental cinema. We’ll see you again next month for another unique journey.