Welcome to the first set of new adds of the Fall 2019 semester! I'm excited to bring you five reviews from KXSC staff members and DJs (yours truly included) of new releases in hard rock and grindcore, ambient and dance. Enjoy our reviews, and look forward to a semester of great new music and music writing!
- Lucy Talbot Allen, Music Writing Director
Sheer Mag - A Distant Call
So begins the first song on Philadelphia rock band Sheer Mag’s latest album, A Distant Call, in a cocksure, energizing shriek. The song is “Steel Sharpens Steel,” a straightforwardly head-banging hard rock track, complete with a shredding guitar solo and a chorus overlaid with chanted baritone harmony. But the swagger and edge of Sheer Mag’s song scaffolds a message deeper than those--if indeed any are to be found--in comparably catchy songs from male-fronted ’80s dad rock bands. The phrase “steel sharpens steel” is a clever re-working of the popular adage dictating that those fighting oppression musn’t “fight fire with fire.” Sheer Mag frontwoman Christina Halladay rejects this notion, insisting that “It’s a chain reaction / When you turn the other cheek.” Let their weaponry strengthen ours, the song argues, that we might fight oppression all the better.
Throughout the album, Sheer Mag take on socio-political issues both contemporary and evergreen, but always with a raw energy and casual rock-and-roll optimism that shield their songs from laborious pollyannaishness. A wry reappropriation of the lyrical aesthetics of heavy metal and stadium rock sets these songs apart from any canonical protest ballad. “Unfound Manifest” sounds like a phrase a stoned Lord of the Rings fan might scrawl on his school notebooks in the ’70s, but the Sheer Mag song of the name is in fact a desperate rumination on the global refugee crisis. “Chopping Block” and “The Killer,” titles worthy of a pseudo-Satanist metal band, belong respectively to songs about labor rights and anti-Communist war criminals. There are songs that make the personal political: “Cold Sword,” a reflection on life with an abusive father, and “The Right Stuff,” a rejection of the shame brought on by fatphobia. The ostentatious stadium show energy of these songs makes palpable the catharsis they offer.
As Sheer Mag’s career has progressed, Halladay’s lyrics have gotten more explicitly political, and the band’s music has dived head-on into the waters of studio-polished mullet-rock—though they’ve maintained the signature tight, tinny drums of their early releases. On A Distant Call, the band take up the tools and the lexicon of ’80s hard rock to craft powerful censures of capitalism, oppression, and cruelty.
- Lucy Talbot Allen, Music Writing Director
RIYL: Heart, Ratt, Ex Hex
Recommended Tracks: 1, 2, 8, 9
Nils Frahm - Encores 3
Classical music and electronic music can both be very unapproachable and intimidating genres, but somehow German composer Nils Frahm can take a little of both and make something I believe everyone can get a kick out of. Frahm recently released his third EP under the name “Encores,” completing a trilogy of EPs he has released since 2018. Each of the three collections feature what makes Nils Frahm unique, the blending together of electronic, classical, and sometimes just plain unconventional elements.
While the main character of Encores 1 and Encores 2 is the solo melodic grand piano, Encores 3 features soundscapes in which electronic synths and a myriad of percussion trade places leading the compositions. For people who lean towards electronic music in a decision between electric and acoustic compositions, Encores 3 would be a good starting point. This is not to say that the album is lifeless, or without the heart and soul of acoustic instruments. The song titles acknowledge this fusion: the opening overture is called “Artificially Intelligent,” referencing something that is synthetic and natural simultaneously. The quick piece introduces the album with the sounds of voices and flutes producing melodies interwoven with each other.
This work leads into the second of the three tracks, “All Armed,” an eleven-and-a-half-minute long piece that builds off of a single synth riff. It goes from a dark, brooding Blade Runner-esque soundscape to a rhythmic drum circle and all places in between. After culminating in its multi-layered climax, it simmers into the final track: “Amirador.” A minimal ambient song in some respects, “Amirador” is supported by a gritty, distorted synth on the bottom, with beautiful airy chords floating over top. While “All Armed” was a work of mastered chaos, the final track is a work of perfect control and peace. Some tones seem to be both natural and artificial and these sounds shift between the two qualities as the chords phase in and out of existence. This song provides a slow decrescendo to the EP.
As with many of Frahm’s full length albums, his two other EPs, and his concert—which I was so lucky as to see—Encores 3 showcases some unique, grand and astounding sounds harnessed in a supernaturally enthralling way. Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be introspective or dance to the beat, two great feelings to hit upon while listening to music.
- Will Forker, PSA Director
RIYL: Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, Philip Glass
Recommended Tracks: 2
Loscil - Equivalents
Vancouver ambient icon Loscil sets your expectations with track 1: this is music to hold your breath to. The album is inspired by a series of black and white photographs of clouds, also called Equivalents, by the photographer Alfred Steiglitz. So if you’re looking for a soundtrack to clouds, look no further. Each track is titled “Equivalents” followed by a number, but besides track numbers one and seven (the second of which features another Vancouver experimental musician, Secret Pyramid), the numbers are totally out of order.
Track two, “Equivalents 3,” is maybe the softest of the album, building to a crescendo and then suddenly becoming so quiet you’ll forget you’re listening to a song until track three, “Equivalents 6,” picks you back up with some choral sounding ambiance. I like to imagine this is the spectral choir of the voices you may have heard as the volume plummeted in track two. Ambient music from its conception has been tied to physical spaces or phenomena—see Musique Concrète or Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. This play with dynamic range gives Loscil the reputation for making quiet music; nevertheless, I recommend listening loud.
You’re getting underneath a freeway underpass, then diving into the water at the aquarium and falling in love with a gentle shark. Suddenly, feeding time, you are awash with sound as your aquatic lover opens its mouth. And then suddenly you wake up. All of it was a dream. You are definitely still underwater though, or maybe that’s just the clouds again. You get the picture.
This is a great album for disassociating to. Imagine walking around in public and everything you see is just another gray cloud. Sure, maybe some of those clouds have little vibraphones in them or a single drum, or they might be distantly humming a tune, but the overwhelming truth of each passing cloud is that it simply is a cloud, a beautiful dreamy cloud that you want to settle down with, but a cloud nonetheless. Please play this album on air, I alone cannot turn the airwaves back into what they were intended to transmit: fuzzy, gray, yet transcendent sounds.
- Sam Pirie, DJ
RIYL: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Biosphere, Tim Hecker, Interstellar soundtrack
Recommended Tracks: 2, 4, 8
SASSY 009 - “Thrasher”
Ever since the Do you mind EP came out in November of 2017, I’ve been especially intrigued with the then-trio, now solo project, SASSY 009. Hailing from Norway, the group first came on the scene with their release of “Pretty Baby” - a bass-heavy, badass banger with sultry undertones and rich textures. The sound on this track, as well as the EP that preceded it, is experimental, forward-thinking electronic music that pushes the boundaries of popular dance music as we knew it beforehand. “Thrasher” is no different.
The newest single of the SASSY 009 catalogue is a colder track with an even fiercer attitude. Released by the project’s label Luft Recordings, “Thrasher” plays around with interesting and unexpected melodic choices (going from smooth and silky to pointed and harsh) on top of distorted bass (of course) and techno/electro-esque rhythms. The song is both beautiful and jarring, much like the first track on the Do you mind EP, “Summin’ you up.”
This is also the first release since Sunniva Lindgaard became the face and sole member of SASSY 009. Though she didn’t stray too far from the roots of the group’s sound, I think she definitely tried to throw an even darker spin on the project, especially in her lyricism (“You got a reputation that's easy to kill/ I'm seeking for the bottom of this natural skill”) and even title choice (I mean, it’s called “Thrasher”- need I say more?). The latest from SASSY 009 seems to be a natural progression in the collection thus far, and I’m highly anticipating what’s next for her.
- Olivia de Witt, General Manager
RIYL: Smerz, Yaeji, Coucou Chloe, Kedr Livanskiy, Kelly Lee Owens
No One Knows What the Dead Think - S/T
One of the most unique and important voices in contemporary metal is back. Jon Chang is a certified grindcore veteran, having paid his debt in irreplaceably throat-ripping screams for longer than I’ve been alive. He has helmed Discordance Axis, Hayano Daisuki and Gridlink and has made masterworks in the genre wherever he has tread. Rob Morton (ex-Discordance Axis) contributes guitar and bass to this trio; his reputation for delivering pure technical fury to riffs precedes him. It’s difficult to imagine replacing a characteristically blistering drummer like Dave Witte (ex-Discordance Axis, currently Municipal Waste), better known as a human drum machine, but Kyosuke Nakano (ex-Cohol) fills his boots entirely and brings an intensity to the band that perfectly weights these songs. No One Knows has been working on this album since at least 2016; in 2017 they shared an instrumental track which would later appear on the album as “Autumn Flower”.
Grindcore on the whole is brutish, immature, curt and brash. Most grind bands have a half-life of 2 years maximum, fizzling out after releasing material that can best be described as “terrible”. When viewing Chang from this perspective, it’s difficult to mince words – his output continually dwarfs all possible standards of his contemporaries. Where grindcore prides itself in short releases, his exceed 20 minutes routinely (an eternity in grind time). Where lyrics are characteristically crude, Chang flexes his literary and particular interests in contemporary Japanese media and entertainment, painting apocalyptic pictures in broad swathes. Where traditional grind is played with little regard for quality, No One Knows prides itself on technical prowess, dynamism, unforgivingly tight drumming/picking and adherence to storyline & form.
No One Knows is meant to be the culmination of a series of records dating back to the formation of Discordance Axis in 1992; Chang’s overt fascination with reactionary and eschatological elements of modern Japanese science fiction and a deep love for bullet-hell arcade shooters has laid heavy into the theming of all of his various projects. No One Knows doesn’t buck the trend; the album lists references to acclaimed game titles like the NiER series, Bloodborne and anime like Madoka Magica, used to effect in detailing the hellish plane that Chang paints lyrically. In an interview with Disposable Underground, Chang states, “My new stuff is thematically similar to Orphan, [the second Gridlink album,] which is about alienation from my ‘peers’, ‘fans’, etc.” While the lyrics are indistinguishable upon a single listen, the lyrics sheet on the record itself plays into this alienation and dissatisfaction using the post-cyberpocalypse as a vehicle.
Unsurprisingly, this record doesn’t pull any punches – all of the above is unceasingly done in less than 20 minutes. After the minute ambient respite “Red Echoes” (used to similar effect in Gridlink’s Longhena), the band rips into a version of “Dominion”, an early Discordance Axis cut, as if to quell all talk of a prime gone past. “All I want to do is to play fast. That’s all Rob wants to do also.” Trust me, if Jon wants to play fast, you want to hear it.
- Sean Morgenthaler, Music Director
RIYL: Discordance Axis, Cohol, Retortion Terror, screaming about Evangelion
Recommended Tracks: 1, 2, 4, 10