Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Monday, June 10, 2019

My Sleeping Karma - Moksha (2015)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

It’s another German guitar band, another trio, and more instrumentals. The popularity of this configuration, particularly with European bands, isn’t difficult to understand. It’s an indelible combination in the public consciousness, cuts down on costs across the board, and provides a live experience entirely different from larger musical outfits. My Sleeping Karma’s new album from Napalm Records, Moksha, isn’t cookie cutter guitar rock with a groove. Power trios have an uphill climb in training listeners, new and old alike, to not associate them with legendary bands who defined the approach. My Sleeping Karma, however, have impressively mixed the relaxed, airy confidence of psychedelia and progressive rock with pyrotechnic riffing.

“Prithvi”, the album opener, embodies many of its best virtues. It has extended musical range without ever over-indulging its running time and the arrangement’s careful canvasing leaves a lot of room for the instruments to breathe. There’s nothing cluttered here and nary a sliver of daylight seen. The band weaves their parts with seamless pacing attributable to their experience working together and the songwriting’s careful orchestration to avoid any musical lulls. It develops slowly, but dramatically. The first of five such “Interludes” is a largely ambient piece, but when the sonic elements cohere into a shape resembling song late in the track, the music takes an uniquely exotic, Eastern flavor. The pensive opening of “Vayu” creates quite an elegiac mood over the track’s first two minutes before the mood dissipates and fire floods the instruments. The song’s second half maintains that same dark hue, but My Sleeping Karma’s thundering rock attack raises things to an almost painful intensity.

“Akasha” spends most of its duration simmering and anchored by a mammoth backbeat threatening to blow open a hole in the song at any moment. However, instead of climaxing with fire and blood, the track implodes and assumes a more expansive, progressive character. “Akasha” shows their impressive stylistic dexterity – they shift easily between light and shade and manipulate those dynamics to their maximum potential. The title track runs close to ten minutes in length and strikes a starker, more dramatic contrast between light and shade than any song on the album.

It’s easy to get a sense of the album’s conceptual leanings when certain details begin emerging. As one example, each of the album’s five interludes have distinct musical characters despite their similarities, but none run longer than two and a half minutes. The band’s progressive muscle flexes best during these brief songs and, as the album nears its conclusion, the guitar takes on an increasingly prominent role supplanting the ambient tendencies in earlier tracks. The guitar work carries “Interlude 4” thanks to its melancholy melodies and how the band gradually coalesces around it.

The finale, “Agni”, has a stronger rock base than many of the other extended pieces and definitely more energy. The tempo never races away, but the rhythm section provides a hard-charging pulse that allows the guitar pyrotechnics to achieve new intensity while expanding, at other moments, into different textures. My Sleeping Karma sets themselves apart from the pack with Moksha and delivers a high quality, tightly constructed instrumental album.

Goatsnake - Black Age Blues (2015)

After fifteen years, Goatsnake reappears with Black Age Blues from Southern Lord Recordings like Jeremiah returning full of fire and brimstone. The four piece make judicious use of guest stars, but none of those shots overshadow the devastating groove-drunk stomp achieved by the core unit. Nick Raskulinecz’s decision to not excessively muddy the bottom end at the expense of the guitars and other instruments results in a balanced mix. If this must be deemed a comeback, as it invariably must, Goatsnake’s presentation couldn’t be better. 

Contributions from the Soul Vocal Trio are an important factor in making the first song, “Another River to Cross”, a memorable opener. The scat singing, akin to Claire Torry’s turn on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky”, has a hallucinatory, anguished edge like some spectral wail in a southern gothic. None of this is poseur nonsense. The spare, but painfully precise, acoustic blues kicking off the song is ripped straight from Mississippi Delta earth. When the full band enters, the riff mushrooms into a steady musical hammer that drags listeners along at a slow crawl. The song title is a little clichéd, but this is a well played, pulverizing opener full of light and shade.

“Coffee and Whiskey” continues the band’s penchant for stripping grooves down to their simplest components. It isn’t for everyone’s taste, but every note is on trial for its life. The band pivots through a series of churning riffs that never overstay their welcome. Anderson’s brief lead guitar flurries betray no suppressed urge for self-serving heroics and, instead, provide effective and necessary color. The title track, “Black Age Blues”, begins as a full-on, over the top musical assault. Pete Stahl’s emotive voice has such woozy urgency that it’s reminiscent of some street corner preacher half mad on corn whiskey and his visions. 

“Graves” ranks high as one of the album’s tastiest grooves and highlights a key, but perhaps underrated, aspect of the band’s musical attack. The balanced mix is an important element in their presentation, but an overall aesthetic governs the band that “Graves” illustrates. Nothing is an afterthought with Goatsnake – each part has equal weight and a common direction. The backing vocals only bolster an otherwise strong vocal and help draw further attention to their above average lyrical content. 

Goatsnake concludes the album with the blood-soaked Götterdämmerung of “A Killing Blues”. This stark and turgid blues has the feel of a final definitive statement for the band, but like the entire album, there isn’t a moment here that betrays pretension. Stahl’s vocal is one of his best and the dynamics are off-scale. A finer curtain-closer, complete with visions of Stagger Lee and violent redemption, is difficult to imagine.

Wizard Eye - s/t (2015)

Wizard Eye have been a fixture on the East Coast metal scene since their 2005 debut and their latest self-titled full length from Black Monk Records carries all of the trademark instrumental excellence and physicality defining the best of previous efforts and their well-respected live performances. This isn't a band afraid to challenge themselves and over the course of the new album's nine songs, Wizard Eye sets a new benchmark for what listeners can expect from this powerhouse unit.

The album opens with "Eye of the Deep", a monolithic and highly cinematic blast of guitar rock. Wizard Eye builds immediate tension with an introduction conjuring enormous nautical dread. This beastly stirring coalesces into aggressive, wah-wah driven riffing. The lead work has a surprisingly melodic edge and concerns itself with meshing well with the surrounding chaos. "Flying/Falling" begins ominously with scattered percussion and a fuzzed out bass pulse. In some ways, it sounds remarkably similar to the opener, but Wizard Eye peppers the song with a number of accents and outright variations that the song assumes its own identity. The vocals are reminiscent of Dave Sherman from Spirit Caravan and Earthride fame, but never imitative. "Phase Return" hits a similarly satisfying note and has massive swing thanks to a particularly effective marriage of riff and drumming. Wizard Eye might deal with relatively conventional subject matter for the genre, but their hard-nosed and uncompromising presentation imbues even the most imaginative flights of fancy with gutter-level realism.

 "Drowning Daydream" has more diffuse, elongated riffing and doesn't bear down on listeners with the same intensity that "Phase Return" conjures, but it's just a different mood from Wizard Eye's palette. It's a remarkably effective bluesy stomper once you strip away the distortion and other genre affectations away from this song. The improbably titled "My Riposte Is like Lightning" dirties up the vocals, but the musical firepower summons up a claustrophobic descent into hell. The guitars seem to be constantly unraveling, falling somehow, and the plethora of tempo shifts gives the track a manic quality. When it settles into a groove near the end for a searing wah-wah fueled guitar solo, the effect is tremendous. It's like the guitars finally imposing their will over a previously untamable beast. "Nullarbor" presents another side of Wizard Eye's talent with its quasi-Arabesque melodies and lightly dissonant qualities. The second half of the instrumental is much more progressive than the first and introducing new sonic elements helps, in a significant way, to make such textural shifts convincing. It soon segues into a much more traditional, rock-oriented final section. The track isn't a clear-cut artistic victory. While on one hand, it's impossible not to find merit with their imagination and adventurous musical spirit, it's equally possible to find the running time of "Nullarbor" a bit self-indulgent in light of the relatively few melodic and instrumental variations it explores. Nonetheless, it's one of the album's most fascinating tracks.

The album concludes with a final slab of elephantine riffing in "Stoneburner". Wizard Eye is expert in creating enormous, multi-sensory soundscapes that suggest more to listeners than they ever reveal. The band finds a slow, swinging groove and rides it out to its logical conclusion. The slide towards extreme vocals continues on the finale, but it's never so unintelligible that it becomes purely theatrical. Wizard Eye's latest self-titled release solidifies their standing as one of the best underground metal bands working today. They move within an identifiable tradition without ever sacrificing their own creativity.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Palmer T. Lee - Winebringer (2018)


Minnesota born Palmer T. Lee, one half of acclaimed The Lowest Pair, steps out with his debut solo album Winebringer. Lee culled his inspiration for the album’s title from a collection of poems entitled The Book of the Winebringer composed by renowned Sufi poet Hafiz. The choice is deeply appropriate as a decidedly poetic feel envelopes the album from the first and reflects the introspective reach of Lee’s growing artistic powers. It likewise explores the personal cost incurred from a particularly difficult time in Lee’s life without ever finding the songwriting mired in obscurity. Instead, any discerning and emotionally alert listener will connect with the material with little effort and find the songs reveal deeper rewards with each new hearing.

The album’s subject matter is rather traditional in a way – Winebringer’s nine songs are a searching appraisal of the love and longing remaining following the end of a relationship. The intimate sound of the release brings it close to you – “Rag” opens things with Lee’s voice and acoustic guitar assuming a nearly spectral presence, but the lo-fi aspects of the recording only serve to draw you further in. Lee’s poetics are unquestionable, but the emotional tenor of his voice accentuates their quality. The patient unraveling of the opener’s arrangement continues with the second song “Aw Jeez”. Lee’s guitar work has no pretense of false virtuosity – instead, it serves the material while demonstrating obvious skill and the strain induced from ruined love comes through in its imagery and plain-spoken pleading.

“Fat Barred Owl” begins with particularly striking imagery never over-exerting itself for effect and the music has a slightly faster tempo than we hear with the album’s first two tracks. The guitar work is distinguished by some tasty embellishments that never distract listeners from the lyrical material. The album’s sixth cut, “Rice and Beets”, kicks off in ghostly fashion as Lee ruminates over a dream scene with hushed wonder. His songwriting completely brings us into the experience without ever overplaying its hand and, despite running over seven minutes, never tests our patience. It ends appropriately with a melancholy fade. Another high point arrives with the song “Moon You” and Lee is joined by an additional voice with moving results. The arrangement, likewise, moves beyond a reliance on his guitar work and bringing fiddle into the mix helps strengthen the longing in the heart of the song.

The album’s title song returns us to the customary marriage of Lee’s guitar and voice. His vocals reach new heights here – he is unafraid to push his voice hard in order to make the reality of his loss real for listeners and the level of lyrical detail reflects this as well. Often times such material can prove to be too much of a downer for us or, ultimately, self indulgent. There’s a telling control, however, in Lee’s artistry illustrating his ability to laden the tracks with significant detail and spare listeners any of the dross we might hear from lesser performers. Winebringer is an impressive achievement in every way from a songwriter, musician, and artist who has found his stride despite immense pain.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Muddy Waters - Hard Again (1977)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

There’s a strong case to be made that the most significant moment of Johnny Winter’s career didn’t come with his epic sophomore album Second Winter or later achievements like Still Alive and Well; some voices, instead, argue Winter’s contributions as bandleader and producer of Muddy Waters’ 1977 Hard Again marked a seminal moment when the Texan born slide guitar master reached his full maturity as a bluesman. Hardcore devotees of the form definitely owe him a debt of gratitude. He steered the iconic Waters back to first principles, prodding him to play guitar again rather than relying on his voice, and invested each of the aforementioned nine cuts with a bracing live attack engaging listeners from the first. Muddy is accompanied by some longtime collaborators and a virtual All-Star lineup – pianist “Pinetop” Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and harmonica master James Cotton play at an inspired level throughout the entirety of Hard Again.  Few albums truly deserve the label “classic”, but this is one of them.

Thank you Tom Roznowski. The former host of Power/Rock 92.3 FM Bloomington’s Blues Sunday played the album opener “Mannish Boy” at the end of a long bygone day of rest and changed my life forever. I groped in a pile of blank cassettes and stuffed one inside my tape deck in a rushed attempt to capture the track and snagged a near complete version I played to death in the following years. Willie Smith lays down a groove so deep in the pocket that it practically sounds subterranean. Winter, second guitarist Bob Margolin, and Waters whip up a near lascivious version of this timeless Chicago blues classic. Winter places Waters’ voice front and center and the Delta born singer responds with a vocal for the ages. Another gritty original, “Bus Driver”, has an understated lascivious turn as well with its chorus and the molasses deep crawl gives Waters an ideal platform for unleashing his voice in full. It’s an invigorating listen.

“Jealous Hearted Man” is another peak on the recording. The churning arrangement draws out a percussive minded Waters, his vocal resonating with heartache and humor alike, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith once again stands out thanks to his work on the kit. It’s simple and straight forward, but swings in a propulsive way few drummers can match. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” drops the electrified trappings for a few in favor of acoustic instrumentation, particularly slide guitar, and draws listener’s attention to the immense gravitas behind Muddy’s voice. This album is, hands down, one of the nation’s premier vocalists recapturing his peak powers for a final time, and providing a Master’s class on how to inhabit the blues without even a hint of self-consciousness. The best songs on Hard Again roll out of Muddy as naturally as breathing.

The popular and rollicking “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll #2”” boasts one of Muddy’s most confident, yet relaxed, vocal performances on the album. It famously hangs on the payoff line in each chorus and Muddy manages to give it a slightly different, ever charismatic spin, on each pass while he pumps the verses up with a consistent bravado that never tires listeners. “Crosseyed Cat” has another churning arrangement, albeit laid out very differently than the earlier “Jealous Hearted Man”, and James Cotton’s harmonica gives it a romping character it might have otherwise lacked. Smith lays some well timed fills into the performance that helps accentuate its steady rolling pulse while orchestrating the dynamic shifts from one passage into the next. The instrumental intensity only continues to build and the guitar breaks near the song’s end are especially tasty.

The slow drag of the album’s finale, “Little Girl”, neatly bookends the opener while copping a more muted feel. There’s none of the boasting we hear in “Mannish Boy”, but there’s definitely an edge of suggestiveness in the lyrics Muddy plays with just the right amount of attitude. He indulges some familiar “calling out” for Winter’s guitar and the Texan great responds with spot on blues guitar that acts as Muddy’s instrumental counterpoint rather than seizing glory for itself alone. It’s one of Winter’s finest hours as a guitarist and we can definitely credit him with leading the great Muddy Waters out of a wilderness of increasingly lackluster all-star affairs and ill advised attempts to appeal to modern listeners. Winter gets Muddy doing what he does best on Hard Again and what we’re left with is an enduring monument to one of America’s true musical giants.