Extra Life - Dream Seeds

Lately I've been really impressed with young Brooklyn label Northern Spy's releases. Home to Neptune, whose newest album I recently reviewed here, they first came to my attention for their involvement with the recent Zs album "33," and they're starting to release a number of "Zs family" projects such as last fall's Hubble Drums and an upcoming full-length from Diamond Terrifier. So I was pleased to see them handling "Dream Seeds," the latest LP from Extra Life, currently a main project of Zs co-founder Charlie Looker.

It's my hope that some of these longish reviews can transcend the smarmier consumer-culture exigencies of "record reviews," and I suspect the subject matter involved here raises those odds. You see, I find it difficult to think of Extra Life as a "band." I find myself drawn to describing their music in sacerdotal, rather than musical, terms. There are extraordinary riches to explore in this music from intellectual and aesthetic perspectives, but at its best moments, the music consumes you from within, transcending language: a powerful experience, but a perplexing state from which to write a review!

Before we explore Dream Seeds, I want to draw your attention to two earlier Charlie Looker compositions that have been paradigm-shifting for me. The first is "Nobody Wants to Be Had," from the 2007 Zs release, "Arms," and the second is "I Don't See It That Way" from the debut Extra Life full-length, "Secular Works." In hindsight, I hear "Nobody Wants" as the conceptual beginning of Extra Life, and "I Don't" seems to be its companion. At first, they seem to be musical antipodes: "Nobody Wants" is sharp and pointillistic, expanding on the idea of recitativo secco, while "I Don't" is rich with melismatic passages and the lyricism of early music. But as they both rail against the conditions of modern life in their lyrics (conspicuous consumption, homogenized culture, shallow relationships and the like), they perfectly avoid the obvious cliches of turning into abrasive metal screaming sessions, leaving much more unique--and powerful--impressions instead. I still find it difficult to articulate my feelings and thoughts about this music, but as luck would have it, I think Looker did a good job describing the breadth and depth of his own work in a review he wrote of Little Women:

"Like all of the music which I find profoundly revealing, the music of Little Women embraces and consolidates vibes which are normally considered in opposition. The band renders these vibes non-dual, non-opposing, returning to the original place where they are one to begin with. This is the basis of magick in both the East and West, from the Tao to the Hermetic and alchemical traditions."

So it is with Extra Life as well. This music has plenty of value in terms of entertainment and aesthetics, but for me it especially shines as a catalyst for heavy contemplation, a series of musical sigils that open difficult doors and embody their hidden contents.

Onto Dream Seeds proper. The third full-length effort from Extra Life, Dream Seeds finds the band working in a trio configuration continued from last year's Ripped Heart EP: Tony Gedrich (bass) and Travis Laplante (synth, sax) are gone, Caley Monahon-Ward has moved over to guitar from violin, and Charlie Looker is playing synth instead of guitar, with a focus on covering bass duties. The other major difference is the compositional approach, which is collaborative this time instead of Looker writing everything. The singular Extra Life sound remains--I think that spinning a minute of any of these songs would be enough to know what band you're hearing--but the project continues to be refined toward generally more traditional song forms.

I must admit that I miss Looker's baritone guitar playing. His angular, tense riffage on earlier Extra Life records, blended with delicate arpeggios, was totally unique. But his left hand covers similar riffs on Dream Seeds with a frequently metallic-tinged bass sound. Guitar parts have generally taken a more supportive role, with Monahon-Ward filling in spaces with chord work and Lynchian atmospheric flourishes, though there are times when the synth and guitar parts interact rhythmically to create riffs, such as the verse playing on "First Song."

There is some truly beautiful songwriting on display in Dream Seeds. No stranger to evocative melodies on previous albums with songs like "I'll Burn" and "Black Hoodie," "First Song" is the newest gorgeous and mostly gentle offering, and the violin/piano arrangements in the last half of "Little One" are breathtaking. But my favorite moments continue to include a lot of muscular, more rhythmically active writing: "Discipline for Edwin" repeatedly builds to an explosive chorus, "Righteous Seed" is a propulsive, high energy workout, and there are some crazy, disturbing moments in the center of the album closer, "Ten Year Teardrop," which build to almost impossibly beautiful melodic passages at the record's end.

The last two tracks are exceptions to the move toward pop songforms--and maybe "exception" isn't the best word, since they occupy half of the album's playing time. "Blinded Beast" is a plodding dirge that builds slowly, eventually adding some very interesting countermelodies and twisting riffs, like a kind of avant-prog Swans. It would be a great album closer by itself, but "Ten Year Teardrop" takes the band into an even more expansive drama. Like the Beast, the first half of the piece is a slow dirge, but without percussion. The center of the piece is a nightmarish collage of reversed sounds, metallic textures and dissonant synth tones, gated reverbs, and intense singing, followed by a brief spoken soliloquy. Once the drums enter the piece, it rises to a wonderful, redemptive end as mentioned above.

Nick Podgurski's drum work with Extra Life deserves a special mention. It's difficult to stand out in a band with a songwriter/leader so distinct as Charlie Looker, but Podgurski's creative approach to drums is a major component of the unique sound of Extra Life. He rarely plays anything approaching a generic pop or rock drum beat, and he lays out a lot of time. But his parts are critical to building tension in all of the right moments in this music, and when he settles into part playing, he emphasizes all of the interesting interactions between melodic and harmonic parts instead of pushing a particular beat. We're supposed to be big boys and girls--we can find the "one" all by ourselves.

In addition to guitar and other instrumental duties, Monahon-Ward did an exquisite job recording Dream Seeds. This music covers such a vast range of feels, from intimate to anthemic, that it can be difficult to capture on record, but everything is very clear. In particular, the vocals seem to be mixed a little higher and recorded with a little more detail than previous Extra Life albums to my ears, and it's a lot easier to make out the lyrics.

Speaking of lyrics, I don't want to attempt a full exposition of the lyrical concepts behind this album, but there is more of an album-length concept behind these songs than previous Extra Life LPs. There are moments of black humor and sometimes quite disturbing imagery, this time focused largely on issues of childhood and dreams. Mostly presented from the perspective of adulthood, simultaneously coveting and fearing the innocence and depth of emotional experience possible in the young (before social conditioning dulls our senses), we re-experience these acute highs and lows as they're born and buried in our dreams. This doesn't form a linear narrative, as it flows through the wild terrain of dream logic, but I get vibes of various confrontations with the Jungian "shadow," terrifying as they occur but offering the potential of powerful transcendence. Many choose to ignore or retreat from stuff this heavy, but Looker doesn't back down. He's already done so much of the Work for us that you can simply buy the album and watch the battle from a safe distance. Or you can consider these lyrics and this music to be a fragment of the map into your own unexplored territory--what will you find if you go further into yourself? More light, more darkness, more light.

--also published at Killed in Cars


The power of Blunoise!

Nicoffeine - Lighthealer Stalking Flashplayer
Jealousy Mountain Duo - No. _01

A pair of recent submissions from Germany proved to be a nice surprise. These projects are very different from one another, but both groups share drummer and producer Jörg Schneider, who tracked both albums at the Loundry Room in Hückelhoven. And both are released by Blunoise Records, a label founded by Nicoffeine bassist Guido Lucas in the 90s to document the experimental rock scene in Germany. Lucas also handled mastering duties for these releases.

Let's explore Nicoffeine first, a band that produces a tremendous amount of sound for a power trio. The stark black & white album art had me guessing that this was going to be some flavor of a metal album, and the first minute of the lead track, "Holy Hell of a Himmel," has a Goslings-meets-Load Records noiserock vibe that seemed to confirm that suspicion. There's even a touch of black metal in the first vocal passages, accompanying primal stop-starts that remind me of that brief moment where jazz-infused industrial bands like God were still making records. But the last minute of the track points in a different direction: the vocals are gone, and the guitar parts are flirting with playing a melody...

Fans of a wide range of music, including math-rock, noise rock, postrock, and even modern iterations of psych/noise ala Acid Mothers Temple, should give Nicoffeine a try. It's a very heavy record, but there are unexpectedly subtle transitions that take it between noise/textural and melodic camps in ways I've not heard before. The intensity level of these pieces tends to stay high, with riffs written in a clever, organic way that allows stylistic shifts to sneak up on you, wave after wave. I would find myself really liking some noisy, feedback-drenched sections, for example, and slowly realize that Soheyl Nassary's guitar had drifted toward tremolo picked textures, then to long melodies, then joined the bass and drums in more technical unison riffing. Nicoffiene sounds like what I expect that Explosions in the Sky would sound like if they actually exploded in the sky.

Except to add emphasis to those most intense tech-riffs, the guitar parts are written in a very exploratory and independent fashion. Many riffs are held down by Guido on bass alone, while guitars alternately slash and soothe on their own. Effects also play a substantial role in delineating the different roles assumed with the guitar: the more technical and noise sections are usually dry, while melodic and psych-solo passages generally include reverbs, delays, and occasionally other treats for punctuation. This independent guitar approach is the key to getting a power trio like this to sound so huge, and these parts are well written to lead the music through interesting stylistic combinations.

Schneider's drumming adds a lot to this music, too. In support of riffs, he alternates between tribal-sounding patterns and some parts that remind me a lot of early industrial beats. In the more free sections, he proves to be comfortable in open territory as well, playing busy fills that add momentum to passages that sometimes head into doom/drone territory. He's a hard hitter, but he also sounds like he's really enjoying himself. He and Lucas sound like they've played together for a long time, too, as their transitions in and out of technically structured parts sound effortless and natural.

There are vocals on a few of the shorter songs, which tend to stay closer to conventional forms, but most of the record is instrumental. Three long compositions form the heart of the record, and their epic wanderings include my favorite moments on the record. My favorite piece is the final track, "I Always Shine When You Say Nein," which adds a few new elements to their sound toward the album's close. We take laps through noise, math, psych, and postrock, and back to some noise, but at the halfway mark, synthesized sounds step into the mix at a moment of relative calm. As the texture thickens again, it includes some sitar-ish sounds and heartbeats via thumping bass strings, as well as melodic vocals that peek in and out of the mix.

Jealousy Mountain Duo's debut LP shows a totally different side of Schneider's drum work. This album has moments of intensity, but it's a very intimate album. Relative to Nicoffeine, it's practically pastoral, which is even reflected in the soft, hazy agricultural scene on its cover (which also reminds me how similar pastureland in Germany and Nebraska appear--no wonder so many Germans settled here!). Guitarist Berger (no first name given) plays with mostly clean tones, and these songs are built around his employment of a looping pedal, over which the duo builds slowly evolving compositions.

Using a looping pedal introduces a bit of a formula into most of these songs: typically a "bass part" or relatively simple riff is looped, and more complex parts are added over the top. But Berger mixes up his approach, sometimes looping higher parts first and performing lower riffs "underneath," sometimes looping rhythmically busy passages and playing long tones over them, and he continues to feed different parts into loops as the music evolves, sometimes recording extra parts toward the beginning on songs that don't get introduced into the songs again until much later, like the moments of intentionally microtonal guitar used in "Sidewalk Soul." Loops are sometimes used in reverse, too, adding a nice contrast in articulation.

Schneider's approach is on the busy side of the drumming spectrum for this project, though he's playing very gently compared to Nicoffeine. Jazz influences seep into this record's drum work, sounding like a blend of Zach Hill and a Buddy Rich solo at the most hyper moments. Like his efforts on the Nicoffeine record, there is a certain intangible sense of playfulness that comes through--his enjoyment of the moment while playing for these recordings keeps them fresh and invigorating.

Schneider must be applauded for the quality of this recording, too, which is a sensitively captured live-to-1'' tape affair. The drums are rich and warm, and the complex overtones of Berger's amp going into a touch of overdrive when it's overwhelmed with multiple loops is faithfully reproduced. This is one of those rare records that I'm guessing represents the sound of this band almost exactly as they are live.

Speaking of which, I was very bummed to realize that Jealousy Mountain Duo toured the US last fall--just missed 'em by a few months! Fortunately, they're planning another fall tour of the US for this year, and also hoping to make another record. If you're in the US, keep an eye out for Jealousy Mountain Duo dates around October. And if you want to investigate either of these albums in more detail, you can go to the Blunoise Records website, or you can find Jealousy Mountain Duo on Bandcamp.

--first published at Killed in Cars


Other Music show, 4-8-12

We got a real Easter egg in Lincoln yesterday in the form of Tatsuya Nakatani being added to an early show at the Bourbon Theatre:

Because of the timing, we hoped that it might be possible to have him stop by KZUM for a little time on the Other Music show, but it didn't quite time out. I did get a chance to pick up a few of his newest releases, though, and we got a nice long track on the air. Here's a partial playlist for the Other Music show, 4-8-12

Ppartyzan Vs Prominenttongue - Nicoffeine - Lighthealer Stalking Flashplayer
Mercy - Time of Orchids - tour remix album
Posers - Frankenixon - Depth Perception
Ozy - Amygdala - Complex Combat
Spectres of Bird - Prelapse - Prelapse
Papyrus de Tecmessa 29825 - Atrium Musicae de Madrid Greece: Musique de la Grece Antique
Hollow Grounds - Fanu & Bill Laswell - Lodge
Ritual - Nakatani/Tiner/Drake - Ritual Inscription

Pig Soul - Chorume Da Alma

One of my favorite musical traditions is the Rock In Opposition (RIO) movement, now in its fourth decade of gifting the world with music that artfully integrates multiple musical traditions with an awareness of the complex social fabric of our increasingly interconnected world. While the first wave of RIO bands is sometimes considered the only wave of "true cvlt RIO," having explicitly signed onto collective tenants of virtuosity in composition and performance integrated with extramusical activities and "a social commitment to Rock," many bands have continued to embrace the approach into contemporary music and times. Among the newest and most exciting of these is Brazil's Pig Soul, whose first album, "Chorume Da Alma," recently arrived at my doorstep.

Pig Soul is a 4-piece instrumental combo whose members are all music grads of Brazil's UNICAMP. They're all fantastic technicians on their respective rock instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keys), and they're apparently collaborating compositionally, as songwriting credits are shared among the whole band on their debut disc. Guitarist Brita also contributes a few well-placed passages on trombone.

While it's clear that these guys can really play, the emphasis here is truly on composition. This project could turn into a mindless shredfest in lesser hands, but Pig Soul keep their focus on creative writing and energetic ensemble-based performance. There are virtuosic "take a solo" moments on occasion, but they only happen when the music demands them, and even then they incorporate frequent compositional turns that draw listeners' attention to whole-ensemble interplay.

Like many bands that take an RIO-influenced approach, it's difficult to describe this music in genre-specific terms, because it incorporates many styles and approaches in fluid, constantly evolving ways. I probably listen to RIO-influenced music more than any other style, yet succinct characterizations of records like this remain elusive. In the case of Pig Soul, one can point to a few compositional tendencies that characterize their approach: playful, shifting rhythms, blends of 70s jazz/rock fusion, melodic jazz, and Meshuggah-like metal chugging, and frequent juxtapositions of repeated ostinato figures, which often get recontextualized in a number of rhythmic, harmonic, and timbral settings, teased into musical corners and re-released as unison figures into the whole ensemble. While that still doesn't capture their essence, I think it's fair to say that if you like some of the harder-hitting Cuneiform bands like Doctor Nerve or Cheer-Accident, you will be delighted with Pig Soul.

"Chorume Da Alma" is broken into 10 tracks, but it's really a 33 minute through-composed suite with track breaks for the sake of convenience. The album begins with an aptly-titled "Intro (11)6142212X," in which sounds slowly drift within earshot, starting with bass rumbles covered in gentle delays. Piano and percussion add pointillistic flourishes and cymbal scrapes to the atmosphere. When guitar enters the mix, the band builds to a huge crescendo that shifts from a noisy mass toward a tonal center. Then we get some unison stop-time chugging, followed by another crescendo and more stop-time. But this stop-time section is a melodic and rhythmic exploration: the band plays with segments of a motif which becomes the main melody for the title track. At the other end of the album, the closing track, "Taking Waves," is a long repeated loop, edited just a comma out of common time, that repeats a little ii-V turnaround on a gentle jazz/bossa texture. It goes on for about five minutes looping the same couple of seconds, like a locked groove in a record.

Between the bookends formed by this intro and outro, there is relatively more stylistic consistency in the middle sections of the album formed by the constant presence of structured percussion. Drummer Gigante makes many stylistic leaps and shifts throughout the record, but his playing also serves as an anchor, making sure that these occasionally wild forms always have a clear rhythmic delineation. Even when he gets playful, sometimes moving the beat around while others play a repeating figure, he does so after firmly establishing where the beat is "supposed" to be. Like the rest of the music, his parts sound mostly composed, though played with plenty of style and vigor. And I don't mean to imply that he's playing non-stop riffs through most of the music--Pig Soul is a band that uses a wide dynamic range, and he's also good at finding the perfect cymbals to tease through the frequent soft passages that punctuate this music.

The bass and keyboard work of Boni and Chicao, respectively, are in many ways the most flexible parts of the Pig Soul sound. Both players have complex roles in these compositions that can take them from ambiance/pad duties, to complex rhythmic stabs, to more traditional rhythmic/harmonic parts, to lead melodic roles, very quickly. I'm especially impressed by how much of a role the bass gets in the more ambient, sound-sculpture sections, which are dominated by guitars in many bands. When unison parts are tossed around the band, it's nice to hear how the bass and piano work together, too: in "Wa A Api Vini," for example, a melodic sequence is dissected in various ways by the band, but it's introduced with prominent bass and rhodes piano sounds before the guitars and higher piano octaves are introduced.

A guitar player myself, I'm especially impressed with the guitar work of Brita. He's a very tasteful player when the music requires it, and plays creative parts with great precision and sound choices, but he has a secret weapon I wish more guitar players would consider when it's time to get crazy: a whammy pedal! Rather than an occasional effect to yank random notes up and down, Brita uses his primarily as an octave displacement device for whole passages, to put melodic ideas into a distorted, abrasive stratospherically high range. I love it, maybe partially because I use a similar sound approach, and I wish more people did. But it sounds great, bringing a whole new contemporary vibe to the solo at the end of the Mahavishnu and Os Mutantes-influenced psych-fusion of the title track. I suspect I can even identify the digital effects Brita uses, hearing some other multi-effected sounds toward the end of "Romanza," or the long, bouncing delays in the melody of "L'Amour:" is it a Digitech RP series, maybe an RP10 or RP12? I've spent many hours tweaking similar sounds in one of those boxes. Anyway, Brita is a great player with an ear for good sounds, from clean to crunch.

In all, this is a great debut, and I'm excited for what comes next. As far as embracing social aspects of the RIO movement, the distribution of this recording on CD uses a proprietary Brazilian technology called Semi Metallic Disc (SMD), which is intended both to lower duplication costs for bands as well as lower sale prices of music to fans. This disc, for example, lists for R$5,00, which is around $2.75 USD. They look cool, too, with a clear plastic edge around the disc, housed in a kind of paper box I've never seen before. The idea of SMD discs has some positive implications for bands trying to control some distribution and promotion of their own music--shlepping mp3s around is fine, but a disc like this provides opportunity for including some visual design and art elements, as well as more information in liner notes than one can really put into mp3 metadata. And the recording can circulate as a normal CD with full audio fidelity. For an album so detailed and complex as this, being able to hear the full-fi mix brings out every beautiful nuance in the music. But if you're prohibitively far away and you want to track down a copy of this album, you can contact the band for information on ordering at their Facebook page, see some videos of them on their YouTube channel, or hear the music at their soundcloud page.

--first published at Killed in Cars


Playlists, upcoming albums, radio changes, and housekeeping

Playlists: I want to cover a few things with this post, but let's start with Other Music show playlists for the last 2 weeks. Instead of posting the song title info this time, here are some links to experience parts of these shows yourself. Let's start with the Paul/Killed In Cars guest spot: Paul put a mix on 8-tracks that covers most of the material he played on the show two weeks ago, which you can listen to here. For last week's show, I made a special mix of music related to chickens/eggs/birds (which I'll explain below). Unfortunately, streaming audio was unavailable at the station this weekend. Sorry if you tried to tune in over the internet. Download the Chicken Mix here and enjoy it yourself.

More upcoming records: I wanted to mention three more 2012 release announcements that I'm excited about. Dirty Projectors will release a new LP in July, Maps and Atlases release a new LP on April 17, and Igorrr expects to release a new album in December. Those are three of my favorite bands, and added to the other amazing releases slated for this year, it's clear that 2012 is going to be an exceptional year for recordings.

Other Music news: KZUM will be moving to new studios very soon. We don't have an exact date, but it's possible that we already broadcast our last show from the terminal building. I'll miss the old studios, and being downtown in general, but there will be great opportunities at the new location, including enough space to occasionally host live-in-the-studio performances on the show. Also, we've added a new DJ to the show! Please welcome Joseph, who also hosts a jazz/improvised music program called Out To Lunch every Thursday night from 10-midnight on KZUM. Joseph has incredible taste and he's going to be a great addition to the show. In related news, Malcom is entering a phase of semi-retirement from the program (but he'll still be on occasionally). We'll miss his presence and decade of experience on the program even more than the funky old studios we'll soon be leaving behind.

Reviews: I've received even more submissions, including another batch of material from Killed in Cars. I'm amazed and humbled at how great the majority of these albums are. It's going to take a long time to get caught up, but at least I'll have a good time getting there. It's been a couple of weeks since I got a chance to finish any reviews, but I have been listening and taking notes. Expect reviews soon...

Here's where I explain the "chicken mix," and how that relates to reviews: for the last few weeks, I've been busy preparing, prepping, modifying, and building materials for a little "urban flock" of 3 chickens. I'm not a very mechanically inclined fellow, and it took quite a while to everything together, but "the ladies" have arrived, and all seems to be well. Now that these girls are doing well, I'll be able to focus my attention elsewhere.

One final note before I dive into review-writing for the night: we knew this was going to happen soon, but today the increasingly sick elm tree in front of my house was removed by the city. It was time, but I'm still very sad about it. The tree was probably almost as old as my house, and one of maybe two of the original elm trees planted along my street in the early 20th century (the rest were killed by Dutch Elm disease in the 1980s). Cheers for all of the good years, noble tree.