Thursday, August 27, 2020

Aidan Baker/Simon Goff/Thor Harris- "The Bit"

It is perhaps unnecessary to mention, but this year has been marked by loss and tragedy, both in my personal life and when looking out at the rapid decay of the world around me. Black Metal & Brews, a website that aims to push transgressive and boundary-breaking music, has been lighter on the "black metal" lately because the rest of the universe is so crowded and chaotic that adding more harshness to my troubled mind feels pointless and potentially harmful. Still, I seek new sounds and I wish to be challenged. With that sense of exploration outside the realms of aggression, I've found myself enchanted by the second collaborative work from the trio of Aidan Baker, Simon Goff, and Thor Harris, The Bit. Sparser and with a more elusive framework than Noplace, which was already rather spectral, these three artists come together to create an album that haunts without intimidating and radiates beauty with just a few hints of unease creeping around its edges.


 

From the intro as it builds into the album's title track, there's something about The Bit that lends itself to contemplation, yet it also tends to take the listener out of oneself entirely. I've found myself examining the beauty in the new world that's being created just as I've sat with some of the horrors that I wish I could change or avoid. There's a sense of a sort of tunneling in the rhythm laid out by percussionist Thor Harris, but I can't tell if it's an ascent or burrowing deeper, and neither the floating guitar textures of Baker nor the sometimes frantic pace of Goff's violin provide insight. It's just a sort of motion that takes you wherever you're inclined to follow it. The greyscale approach works beautifully, shining light where it must but not providing answers that are not sought. It flows like the soundtrack to a film from another realm, yet the images are muted and obscured, sometimes coming as liquid and other times as clockwork mechanisms. It's the balance of fluidity and that motorik beat that make it neither human nor inhuman, but instead a sort of uncomfortable harmony.

While things inevitably feel like a setting of the stage for the massive closing suite of "Wild at Heart" in its 23-minute span of beauty and occasional terror, "Gait" is one song that truly captures the album's mood without giving away all its most well-hidden corners. There's a gentle, yet firm pulse backing the whole song, as beautiful layers of reverb float above. Accompanying this seemingly soothing build, however, is this back-and-forth sort of squeaking melody that sways between playful and mocking. Will it grow towards discomfort or will it resolve itself? Much of the association comes from within, but the tension the trio masterfully creates is relentless even when at its most sublime. I've written many times (often for other publications) about Aidan Baker's mastery of ambient music and how to bridge conscious and unconscious listening, but this song specifically, even among an album full of it, takes that concept to new heights. When played in the background it simply seems like a beautiful piece, yet a close listen shows a staggering depth that only enriches the experience further.

Of course, to try to sum up an album of varied compositions in a single song is folly, yet a play-by-play would demean the whole experience. Tomorrow Gizeh Records will unleash this entire album for you to enjoy and process. I sincerely hope you will. It has been both a balm for some of my suffering these past few months as well as an album I put on when I need to focus on the intensity of everything. That's a hard balance to manage, but I've gained much from it. I hope it can do the same for you.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Artist & Song Premiere: Common Cruelty's "Close My Eyes"

Picture of the four members of Common Cruelty


Today Black Metal & Brews brings you the debut of a brand new musical endeavor from a group of musicians whose other work you probably already know. Common Cruelty is one of the few things of beauty that has blossomed out of the murk of the prolonged lockdown in the United States during the current pandemic. What began as synthesizer wizard/producer/guitarist/vocalist Mike Mare of Dälek stealthily sending files to friends (without telling them who else was involved) quickly evolved into a larger project, ultimately rounded out by Kenny Appell of Goes Cube on drums and synthesizer, Tyler Wilcox of Forces at Work on bass and vocals, and David Obuchowski of Goes Cube and Publicist UK on guitar and vocals. With many creative minds, three different people singing, and a history in bands whose works are often confrontational, the sound of Common Cruelty is unexpectedly gentle, although not without its patches of darkness. 

While some artists in more extreme music scenes tend to form a passion project on the side as a means of diving directly into another interest with specific genre constraints (just take a look at all the heavy metal cowboy bands or the ex-hardcore dudes who've gone darkwave in the last decade), this project feels simply like close friends exchanging ideas freely and fearlessly. There are touchpoints of shoegaze, trip-hop, dream pop and other identifiable sonic roots of the '80s and '90s alternative and underground communities, yet this isn't music to pigeonhole or place into a "for fans of" category. Some songs here are for drifting and dreaming, while others feel like small ways of making peace with an unkind world, yet each of them has an ethereal electronic core that makes even the most disparate elements feel united.

One of the most exciting things about Common Cruelty as a listener is the sense that this can't be placed on one particular musician. While Mike Mare serves as the creative hub and producer, there isn't a single individual voice that sticks out above the others, allowing for songs to develop in ways that are non-linear and rich with layers to uncover on repeated listens. From percussion that seems to fold into itself to vocals blended from all three singers to form a hazy specter of a harmony, the entire thing swells and pulses with a sense of togetherness.

It is an honor to share the world premiere Common Cruelty, with a song from their debut album. Selecting a single song to share felt like quite the challenge, yet "Close My Eyes" touches upon both the serene and the jagged elements of the band as it spreads itself out. From the punchy drumming that opens to the serpentine guitars and the sublime, soft singing, the band creates tension and diffuses it at the same time. Warped synthesizers feel like a fever dream as they creep in and the whole thing sways between haunting twists and comforting warmth. In addition to the song premiere, please read on for an introductory interview to help get you acquainted with the members of Common Cruelty as we discuss the project's roots in spontaneity and collaboration.

While the members of Common Cruelty were all acquainted through prior projects, what brought you together to create this one? 

KENNY: Mike and I had been dabbling on and off with various sound projects and collaborations over the last 4 years. Mostly it would be one song idea at a time and then we'd go back to working on our main projects. When Coronavirus hit hard back in March and everyone went into lockdown, Mike just started firebombing full song ideas at me (in a good way).. I think everyone was feeling pretty pent up and a bit freaked out over what was going on in the world. Each day I found myself working on a new song and it was a lot of fun, and cathartic. Quietly, behind the scenes, Mike was also doing the same with David but keeping it a secret. Eventually Mike sent me a song idea that had some guitar on it and I knew it was David's work immediately. In a funny way, Mike tricked David and I into working together on a new project, even though the two of us have been consistently making music together since 1993. For the last two years, David and I have worked with Tyler on a project called Memory Bias, and we sort of informally married the two projects, as the sounds were akin and worked well together.

DAVID: This was the kind of thing that makes you believe a little in fate. Mike contacted me in the winter of 2020. I wasn’t in a great place creatively in terms of music, at least. I’d finished writing the guitars for the second Publicist UK album, which is exciting but then you get kinda depressed because you’re like, “ok, now my part’s done.” Mike contacted me and said he had these weird electronic tracks and he didn’t know what to do with them, but that they needed something. He gave me a link to about 11 songs. I asked him what he was thinking and he refused to give me any direction. 

So, I just sort of did what I thought might be cool. No ideas ahead of time what it should sound like or any of that. Mike was immediately encouraging, so I started turning these songs around. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, he was passing the songs on to Kenny. Kenny was the drummer of Goes Cube. He’s quite literally like my brother. We grew up together, had our first band when I was still in middle school. My kids know him as their uncle. So anyways, Mike passed our stuff off to Kenny. I think maybe he didn’t tell me at first because maybe he didn’t want me to feel like he’d done something with our music without my permission or whatever. But one day, I get a text from Mike, and it’s like, hey, hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been passing off some music to Kenny to put drums to.

I was fucking thrilled. I mean, I was so happy I might have called Mike right then and there. Not only is Kenny this great friend, but he’s just an insanely great musician. As you can imagine, after playing so much music over the years, he and I have a pretty great chemistry. The funny thing was that after I expressed my excitement to Mike about the idea that Kenny would be involved, he told me that he hadn’t told Kenny that it was me who was playing guitar. Kenny apparently wrote Mike back after hearing a single song like, “yo, I don’t know who you have on guitar, but these riffs are pure Obuchowski.” 

So that’s how the three of us came to be. But then I’ve got to step back about four years ago. I’d just gotten back from Europe touring with Publicist UK. I had this slew of new songs that I thought would be the next Publicist UK album. But it was pretty obvious that the band wasn’t in a place where we’d be able to do the album right away. Revocation and Municipal Waste had a ton of stuff happening. 

So, I figured, well, I can always write more songs. And I didn’t want to just hang around not doing any new music, so I took some of those songs and I contacted Kenny with them. He dove right in and we loved it. Then I reached out to my good friend, Tyler Wilcox, who had been the bass player of Distant Correspondent, which was this real lush dream new wave project I’d had a few years earlier. Tyler also had this band Forces At Work. Tyler’s got this great, pretty unique singing voice. Real effortless and natural. On top of that he’s got this propensity for hooks. Both his vocals and bass, he’s just able to hone into something catchy. So we we’d worked on that project, which we called Memory Bias, for what turned out to be around two years. We wrote and demoed a ton of songs didn’t rush any plans, but then it got put on ice because I moved to Los Angeles. Well, after about 15 months in LA, I moved back to Colorado. As soon as I got back, Tyler was like, “What’s going on with Memory Bias? When are we going to start it up again?”

So I sort found myself like, OK, I have two projects with Kenny. One of them with Mike. One of them with Tyler. There’s sort of different in that one is more electronic or trip-hop, and one is more rock. But then right around that time, Mike starts sending me some new songs and they’ve got more of a rock vibe. And, of course, he’s also telling me to contribute songs, too. So I pitched the idea to Mike and Kenny: you know, I’ve got a ton of other songs with this other project that Kenny’s also involved in. Meantime, we don’t have a dedicated bass player, and this dude Tyler is a fucking awesome singer, and there’s a lot of harmonies on our project.

Mike checked out the songs, checked out Forces At Work so he could hear more of Tyler, and he was 100% in. Just like, yes, let’s bring it in. 

So it’s funny because in one way, this project came together almost spontaneously. On the other hand, I feel like for as long as I’ve known all these guys and have toured with them, collaborated with them, talked about doing stuff, this project has been gestating without us even realizing it over the course of years. 

MIKE: At the end of February, I mentioned to David that I had some tracks I’d been performing solo in between Dälek tours. These were all experiments, finding new sounds, allowing rhythms to drift in and out of time not locking to a BPM, similar to the way I will create sounds for live Dälek performances only writing full songs instead of creating banks of sounds to manipulate live. I told David that I miss the interaction of live instruments with electronics, and all of these “sketches” needed a fresh perspective to take them to the next phase of their being. Think it was 11 songs in total that I sent him sometime in the first week of March and a couple of weeks later he was just sending guitar and vocal tracks my way at such a fast pace it would have been hard to keep up with, but I guess thankfully we were all told to stay at home or risk dying so I was able to dive in and reimagine the songs.  What he sent me did exactly what I was looking for. He managed to add so many layers without us ever discussing anything and it guided the direction of the songs and the project.

After maybe a month of the two of us collaborating I wanted to add drums that weren’t mine, when I make a beat you can tell I was behind it because they don’t make sense. It’s like trying to chase a chipmunk, the drums are all over the place and I love that, but I wanted something new. I had been helping Kenny with the purchase of a new interface for his computer after he set up a new E-Kit and trying to help him with a new DAW (selfishly to make my life easier). I’ve always looked for ways to work with Kenny. He’s more than just an amazing drummer; he has these incredible ideas sitting inside his skull that haven’t had the chance to be fully realized, but time has always seemed to work against us. So without mentioning anything to David, I sent a song or two to Kenny and a few hours later he had sent drums and layers of percussion back to me, I blended his live work with my beats and shared with David. Once the three of us were involved the songs again moved into a new world and then Kenny started writing some bass lines which really tied everything together because instead of my bass style of big, deep drones in your face, I was able to put Kenny’s bass lines upfront and place the drones in the distance, they balance each other beautifully. 

There were definitely some hurdles with a few songs. Like I mentioned before, the original tracks were written so they would drift. I had a few texts from David that I know if we were in the same room he would have thrown things at me, but once he broke through that initial “Mike” frustration on those tracks, what he created was perfect. It really speaks to the talent he has. There were also a few FaceTime’s with Kenny where we had to find the balance of how things should work and how I work. Again, Kenny also had to work through the initial “Mike” frustration. After we spoke, Kenny would send all his layers and my mind would be blown.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some incredibly creative individuals over the years and I can’t put into words the way it feels when you have that “easy” connection. This is one of those projects, and I’ve been friends, toured, worked in various ways with two of the people involved for at least 15 years and we’re only now seeing what we can do together. I don’t like to talk about the process of making music with other musicians or set out a specific plan of action. Personally, it ruins the experience for me. I know it works for many people but I can’t handle it. I’d rather just create and see what happens, it works great. If not, who cares at least you tried it.

When we got to a place where we were happy. with this first batch of songs that just kept growing as new ones were composed, David mentioned Memory Bias and in typical excited David O fashion he couldn’t wait to share his thoughts about what made this merging of “bands” right, “What if Common Cruelty and Memory Bias become one band?” He felt all four of us working together made sense creatively, would be fun as shit, and that the musical styles were a great match. He sent me a bunch of Memory Bias tracks, Tyler’s Forces At Work album and I was smitten. I wanted to work with Tyler. I told David I wanted to see this happen but only if Kenny and Tyler agreed. Thankfully everyone was on board. Having multiple projects so you can explore different ideas that can be categorized easily is great, everyone looks for a way to define things. Having a project that allows you to just do whatever you want and not stick to a genre or trying to add elements from x, y & z to your “decided genre”, well that’s what I want at this point on my life. I just want to make music with like minded people and have it be stress free, no questioning if one song falls into the same world as another, or trying to manage time for 30 projects. I wish I could get every musician I love to work with involved in one project and we just made music. At the end of the day I write music because I need to. If I don’t I’m a terrible human being. It is my therapy. The freedom to express myself through sound and feed off of others ideas in the moment, even if we aren’t in the same room, is the greatest gift I have ever received in life. 

TYLER: David is a master at putting together these amazing long-distance collaborations. Whenever he’s got something going that he thinks I’ll fit into somehow, I’m always down. Kenny and Mike are incredibly talented and creative musicians, so I’m just psyched to be along for the ride.

To date, your recording and writing process has been entirely from a distance. How
has this impacted your creative nature and do you have plans to make this a live band at
any point down the line?

TYLER: As the pandemic lockdown wears on (and on and on), the idea of playing live feels incredibly
remote. But god knows I’d love to get onstage with these guys. As much as this project is a
“studio-only” kind of thing right now, I know it’d be incredibly fun to play these songs in a live
setting.


KENNY: Not being able to flush out an entire song through rehearsal has definitely been a new and interesting approach. But this method is not short on collaborative creativity, as the songs change shape each time one of us touches it and records something. I love the idea that a song will come my way, I will change it a little bit or a lot, send it back to Mike or David and then they will take my parts and change those around. I never know what to expect with each edit. David and I have always worked well together and I love having Mike in the driver's seat, cutting up all the parts and pulling all of the performances together, adding beats, effects, and vocals. It has also been new for me being in a project that has three different singers, as David, Mike, and Tyler all have been adding vocals. We haven't spent much time discussing the live possibilities yet as we have been focusing on creating the music, but live versions of the songs would be another creative challenge of its own.

MIKE: This has been incredible. Everything is happening so effortlessly it opens a flood gate of creativity. There are no spoken boundaries or expectations; we just share ideas as equals and allow the music to evolve making suggestions along the way but there is no right or wrong. We have not approached any of this with the intention of performing live or having a “band.” Everything in the music industry is so distorted at this point in time that the live aspect does not affect our writing. I have thought about how this could work live, even though I haven’t discussed it with David, Kenny or Tyler. Can we perform this if an opportunity presents itself? 1000% yes. Will we? Who knows, anything is possible though. It really comes down to whether timing works in everyone’s lives. 

DAVID: Recording in our own spaces, according to our own schedules, I think, has been a really important part of the process. I think it’s just liberating. When you’re all in a room, you tend to hash things out, which can be really good. But sitting in my own space by myself, I can write guitar parts out of sequence. I can throw things away. I can experiment. If you do that in a room with others, you know, there’s way more of a chance where someone’ll be like “nah, that doesn’t work,” and then you move on. Whereas, when you’re doing it on your own, you can be like “well, that’s interesting maybe there’s something there.” I do think, from a practical standpoint, doing these distance-based projects will either succeed or fail based on your bandmates’ appetite and ability to work like that. Like that might be fine for me, but if my bandmates are like “well, I’m not into it. I need to jam it all out in a practice space,” then I think the entire thing falls apart. In the case of Common Cruelty, we all enjoy working in this way, and really kind of take advantage of the benefits of it. So we’re not so much doing it out of necessity, but leveraging it.

Regarding live performances, my feeling is that we are not writing with that in mind. If we end up doing shows, we’ll be fucking thrilled, but we’ll also probably strip songs down and re-arrange them to an extent. These recordings are not intended to be “in-the-room” documentations of what we’re doing. The recording of it is part of the creative process, the evolution, the layers. For live stuff, we’ll be like, okay, what are the live versions going to be about? And then we’ll take it from there. 

While you've all been involved in bands people have heard of, this doesn't sound like a "members of" project in any sense. Is there a deliberate attempt to distance yourselves from easy comparisons to past work or is this simply how things came together in this format?

KENNY: This entire project is new and different for me. I would agree that it's not the sort of band where you'd be able to deduce the type of sounds that might be forthcoming by knowing one of our past projects, and we haven't sat down and talked about or had a conversation on what the goals are for the music or had a genre discussion. In the simplest form, I have the guys sending me sounds with the instructions "add whatever you want or what you feel to this.” I don't feel like it is a deliberate attempt to escape past music associations. The sounds we're making have come together quite naturally and easily with the method we've been using. 

DAVID: I think at this point in my career, I have no sense whatsoever whether people know me as a musician, care about me as a musician, or if my bands are even vaguely familiar. As far as I am aware, none of my projects have ever achieved much wide recognition. So, in that way, it would seem silly if I was trying to really stand on the shoulders of my bands. On the other hand, I do think there may be a bit of an expectation for people like Kenny and me to do something just, you know, extremely heavy and aggressive. That’s sort of been our major focus for a while. But starting with Mike’s initial 10 or 11 songs and his insistence that he had zero preconceived ideas for what the sound might be like, I’ve really had a lot of freedom to push myself. With some of our songs, I definitely feel like I’m digging into some of the styles I’ve always loved and have used. And then there are other times where I’m like, “Well, wait, do I really want to play this? This isn’t even remotely the kind of stuff I play, or the style that I sing, or…” And then I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s great!”

I guess what I mean is that if people hear elements of our other projects, I’ll be thrilled because I’m proud of those projects. But on the other hand, in no way is this intended to be like “here is, everyone, your Goes Cube + Dälek + Destructo Swarmbots + Publicist UK + Forces At Work mashup!” I mean, Dälek quite literally did a Publicist UK remix so if that’s what anyone wants to hear, they should go check that song out. 

MIKE: This all happened naturally, nothing was forced. Personally, I wanted to show the other sides of myself. I didn’t do this with the intention of just making something different or unexpected, I wanted to get ideas out of my head that don’t work in other projects I’m a part of. During the writing and editing I was aware of sounds, styles, and directions that I tend to lean on without thinking about it, so I intentionally made an effort not to fall back on those styles. I’m working with different people; it should be a new style/sound. No matter what, who we all are as artists is going to come through in the final product, but in a new light. In keeping with the idea of showing the other sides of myself, I heard vocal ideas right away after I got everyone’s parts back. I needed to figure out a way to record vocals “comfortably” in my apartment without pissing off my girlfriend, neighbors or dog while everyone was home 24/7 during this pandemic and I also was wondering if these guys would hate what I do. I’m sure the last thing they ever expected to hear from me was vocals.

By your own accounts, this album came together very quickly after a similar set of songs was recorded and scrapped. Can you share some insight into this whirlwind process? 

KENNY: The Memory Bias project has been around and stalled for about 2 years. I haven't thought about the more recent developments too deeply, but in a way I can't help but think that Memory Bias was missing a bit of an edge that Common Cruelty so generously added. The merging of projects makes perfect sense to me and I give David a lot of credit for recognizing it. I love the process that Mike has employed for creating Common Cruelty's songs and I can't wait to send some of the older Memory Bias songs through the same "machine.” 

DAVID: I think there might be a bit of a misunderstanding here. I don’t think there were a similar set of songs that were scrapped. I think it’s that Mike had, essentially, written and recorded an entire album of electronic music but wasn’t happy with it and felt like it wasn’t fully realized, so he offered those up to me. I simply recorded over them.  That said, what happened next was not a matter of simply building on top of things. Mike would then go into his original tracks and entirely rework them based on what the rest of us were doing. 

So, I mean, this is funny because Kenny had the same experience as me: I’d get done with days of tracking a song, and send Mike all the stems (basically lossless files of all the tracks) but along with it, I’d send a very rough reference mix so he could hear what I had in mind. Day or two later, he’d send the song back and it would be entirely different. At one point, Kenny and I were listening to a song, and I was like, “Man, this is great how you bring in this fast beat here.” Kenny was like, “I didn’t! Mike did: he ended up taking this beat at I did at the end, and putting it here, and using a different beat at the end, and it’s sick!”

So in that way, the arrangement and Mike’s treatment of our parts has become its own part of the writing process. 

MIKE: I’m not aware of a similar set of songs being scrapped. As far as the process, I think that was answered in the above question. Oh also, we did cut two songs from the initial group. They are not gone forever, just didn’t necessarily fall into this “collection”.There was one song David decided he didn’t want to work on, one that was completely rewritten after everyone’s parts were added, and another that came about when David threw a new idea at us after we said here’s the “album”. 

The “album” is tough to call because it’s multiple albums at this point, that’s how exciting and easy it is to work together.

TYLER: David, Kenny. and I had a project with a bunch of songs in various stages of completion. And I believe Mike had the same situation. Combining the two is basically a peanut butter + chocolate situation. Two good things have somehow become even better.

What are your hopes for the future of Common Cruelty? 

TYLER: To get some of this music out into the world! I’m trying to (single-handedly?) kickstart the compact disc revival, so I’d love to see some Common Cruelty on CD.

KENNY: For now I am delighted to be collaborating with people who challenge me to rethink my musical approaches to song creation, outside of my comfort zone. Figuring out how to bring these songs to more ears will be a fun challenge and I hope more people will be able to hear what we are putting together, whether it be in a live setting or through another medium. 

MIKE: Not sure “hopes” play into my feelings about Common Cruelty. I’m enjoying our process and every time a new song comes about I am more enthusiastic than before. It’s a creative outlet that started with no expectations, we might bring more people into the fold as our writing continues. Whether that means full-time collaborators, or one, two tracks we will see. It really is one of the great creative sides to all of this, you have an idea just go with it and let’s see where we all take it, let’s just write what we are feeling at the moment, and let everything live together even if it seems the genres don’t mix.

DAVID: My personality tends to be that when I get “into” something, I get intensely passionate about it. When I was working on the first couple songs, it was a cool experiment. But when I got about halfway in and really started to hear how the songs were coming together and then Kenny transformed things, I was sort of hopelessly in love with the project. It’s difficult for me to really put into words what that means as far as expectations. I’m 41 years old now. Like I said, I’ve had bands since middle school. Goes Cube formed when I was 24. That was the band where I think I had the most concrete expectations: play these shows, record these demos, do tours, get signed, get booking agent, etc. It seemed like a clear path. For us, it wasn’t that simple and things didn’t work out in a practical sense the way I would have liked them to. It was immensely gratifying artistically. It was invaluable as an experience. From a practical and financial standpoint, it was painful. Absolutely nothing came easy in that band, ever. Except the actual songwriting. 

Then when Publicist UK formed, I didn’t have any expectations whatsoever it would be a thing that existed outside of my email inbox, and before I knew it, we were signing to Relapse Records, which has always been one of my absolute favorite labels in the world. And then we were touring Europe, which was something Goes Cube was desperate to do, but never had the opportunity. We licensed a song to a popular show on Netflix. All this stuff was incredible, but also totally unexpected. Psychologically, it’s a strange thing. The older I got, the more jaded I got, the more I started letting go of any sort of concrete goals. And then Publicist UK changed that. In this way, I sort of can’t imagine what it would be like to be one of those young bands who gets really buzzy after a year and gets written up on Pitchfork or whatever is the equivalent of Pitchfork these days, and they get a booking agent and they have their choice of label. I am not trying whatsoever to suggest that any of that is unearned or that it makes them spoiled. I am saying that our experiences shape our perceptions. 

So to me, you know, even after all I’ve done, I don’t take a single review for granted. If one person to tweet that they liked a song, I’d be like “Oh my god, thank you so much for listening.” And yet despite those tiny little things, I still have these high hopes. So, yeah, this is my long way of saying that deep in my heart, I hope we work with a wonderful label, put out records people like and buy, license our music, and are able to maybe even pay some bills from this work we’ve done. But in another way, there’s still this big part of me that feels afraid to say that aloud because, for some projects, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you do it, no matter how long you try doing it, that’ll never happen---none of it.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Thoughts on Eight Years of Black Metal & Brews

Eight years ago today, the first post was made on the Black Metal & Brews website. It started as a blogspot, the very same URL you're at now. After a couple years, I upgraded to a proper domain, and a couple years later due to my own technological ineptitude I lost that domain. It's since been squatted on by opportunists who'd love to sell my own address back to me for a sum I can't afford. I dislike this, but I've made my peace with it in the ways I'm able. 

Since 2012 I've gone through periods of extreme activity and periods of extreme inactivity, but I've managed to keep things moving one way or another. The blog started with a few different purposes, some of which I was consciously aware of at the time and others that only revealed themselves over the years. The latter reasons were, perhaps, more important to me than the surface-level impulses that brought me to the creation of this website. 

Prior to launching Black Metal & Brews, I had tried writing about music once before. I honestly don't recall the name of the blog I'd started at the time, but my first attempt (circa 2008/9) was written entirely at the local library, as I didn't have the internet in any way at the time. I was the singer in a couple bands and loved music but found that people playing in the same scene as me weren't often interested in the same albums I was. I don't think that I wrote more than a handful of reviews, but I remember writing about Oxbow and Between the Buried and Me, among other bands. I imagine I didn't write terribly well at the time, but it was freeing. It was also, somehow, a way for me to draw lines from the art I made with my bands to bands outside of mine that I still felt a sort of kinship with. Subconsciously, this desire to align myself with artists I respected, even if our art was different, has always been the driving force behind my music writing. Not in the approval-seeking way, but in the "I promise you, there are threads tying all of these things together even if you can't see them" way.

When I started this site, I wasn't making music anymore due to a number of factors in my life, most of them out of my own control. I convinced myself that the purpose was to justify the tapes and beers I was buying even though I was currently unemployed (an ill-advised move I realize now at an older and wiser point), as well as to develop my writing profile so that I could eventually write for a publication like Decibel Magazine, which was the only source of thoughtful metal writing I knew of at the time. I was newer to having regular internet access and had only found the download-heavy side of the blogging world, not the places where kindred spirits were writing about the albums that excited them the most. I felt like I was creating a small world of my own. In a way, I was. My path has never fully aligned with others' paths, which tells me I've retained most of my integrity along the way, despite a few choices that I'm not as thrilled about in retrospect.

In the years since my first published review (I believe it was of a chocolate stout), I've managed to earn bylines on Noisey/VICE, bandcamp, The Chicago Reader, and The Quietus, along with occasional involvement in the well loved Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands. While I've never once been able to make the entirety of my income (or even a substantial portion of it) from my writing, I've achieved things I truly never dreamed could happen through my sheer force of will. I've found at least two career-course day jobs as a byproduct of my writing involvement, and found myself disappointed in both of them because I've also learned that doing what I love for a living will always suck the joy out of life unless I'm doing it on my own terms. While it's a bummer, it's also been illuminating and important to learn this lesson so early in life, at least by my standards as a (very) late bloomer.

I've learned that my passion is within the arts. I already knew this, but to do something for eight years and to have moments of HATING it and moments of feeling like it's my sole purpose has only further confirmed what I always knew: creation is the only way I can define myself in the world. My downfall in many ways has been using this website to enable myself to grow too comfortable in life. Comforts make many people apathetic, and I'm no exception. If I'm well fed, well rested, have a few treats to brighten up my life, and have little need for urgent action, I'm not likely to take initiative to push things forward. This apathy and inaction is akin to living death for someone like me. If I can put it off until tomorrow, I probably will. Lately, the world has forced us all into a state of discomfort and it's been something of a rebirth for me. I hate that I need to be uncomfortable to find my hustle, but there's a degree of truth to it. Why change a life that has no need for change?

A couple years ago I read Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life. While my intention was initially just to learn more about The Butthole Surfers, I found myself especially compelled by the chapter on Sonic Youth, a band I'd previously ignored for the most part. Something that I read and identified with entirely was their habit of finding other bands and feeling the need to elevate them. Sonic Youth created a zine in which they interviewed their peers and profiled albums, demos, and shows that they loved. The band did this as a creative way of identifying themselves as the core of the community, I'm sure, but it also was a pivotal act of creation and connection.

Shortly after I read the book, I started playing music again, this time on an instrument I'd never played before. It excited me in a way I hadn't felt since I first started singing in bands when I was 19. It was a reawakening that made every other act feel mundane in comparison. While my own mental blocks keep me from being the devoted workhorse I dream of being, I have felt such a compulsion to resume life as a creative artist rather than as someone who exists solely as a conduit for the work of others. This created a rift between my writing and my sense of self for a while, but I remembered reading about Sonic Youth, and I realized that writing is still a core component of who I am and what I do, but perhaps the role it plays in my creative life has shifted. It's okay for things to remain in place even if their function changes. Sometimes a change in purpose is the best way to reconnect with an old love, and it's worked for me. As a supplement to my own creative work as a musician, writing and engaging with others' music allows me to maintain a sense of wonder and inspiration that was often absent in my life beforehand.

What's the point here? While I'm likely better at writing than I'll ever be as a musician, my identity is rooted in what I create from my own head rather than the commentary I can add to others' work. I will never be a Thurston Moore/Kim Gordon type genius, but I have every intention of being both an advocate for and an active member of a musical community. Just over two months ago, I released the first demo recording of a song written and recorded entirely on my own, with programmed drums plucked from the library of GarageBand presets. I have never felt more vulnerable, nor have I felt quite as proud of something I created. Since then, I've also written a lengthy article about the current state of rock music in all its forms that I consider some of my best writing. I don't view it as a coincidence that my writing has improved by becoming more thoughtful and playful as I explore my identity as a musician. I view these as entwined pieces of me as a complex human.

People have often asked why this website remains a one-person operation, and this is the core reason. This is a part of who I am and something I need to do in order to feel well-rounded and satisfied in my creative work and personal life. I make art. I consume art. I share my thoughts on the art I consume. I befriend members of these communities (and sometimes I upset them, oops). Black Metal & Brews is not who I am, but it is an essential piece of my identity. It will never be an income-source the way some other underground music blogs are, because the uncompromising nature of this site doesn't allow me to place it in a realm where I'd get the views necessary for ad revenue. I'm okay with this. I wish I could create and live for creation and have my needs met, but I don't know if the experience would be as necessary or as satisfying if that were the case. It's August 15th 2020, and while I don't know where I'm going or the entirety of who I am, I know I will always be an artist and I will always love my art.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Soyuz- "Red Blood, White Frost"


It's unprofessional to write reviews with "I" as the subject, but I'm a blogger and professionalism isn't my strong suit. There's your disclaimer, here's your review. I've been a black metal fan for nearly twenty years. For much of that time, I've had to deal with the disappointment of knowing that right-wing politics of a pointed, hateful nature are often associated with this genre. NSBM and childish edgy behavior aren't a dominant force, sure, but everybody's aware of their existence. To my surprise and relief, the last few years have led to an uptick in political black metal from the leftist end of the spectrum. Red and anarchist black metal have always been a thing, but it's often been kept off to the side and not really highlighted. With this recent surge of left-wing black metal, however, I've been mostly disappointed. I get that unity is important, but I can't pretend to enjoy bands when their politics seem more rooted in gimmicks than action or when their ideas are aligned with mine but the music just doesn't really hit home. Thankfully, there are gems that hit all the marks, like new Dutch black metal act Soyuz.


Soyuz announced its existence on May Day (appropriately enough) with the release of Red Blood, White Frost, an album of mostly mid-paced atmospheric black metal that pays tribute to the Red Army in its fight against Nazi invaders. I'm no political scholar, so I can't dive deeply enough into the subject matter to do it justice, but the mix of leftist might and a sound that actually matches my embarrassingly large collection of demo cassettes is exactly what I needed. While artists don't need to be explicitly left-wing to win my love, it's nice to know that critics who say they listen to right-wing bands because the left doesn't have the riffs are clearly and specifically wrong. As with the last demo reviewed on this blog, the rawness may get in the way for some listeners, but I cherish it. I live for finding the beauty amid the static, and there's just enough clarity in Soyuz's sound for everything to be deciphered without leaning into sterilized production.

While the whole album feels like a valiant war march, the two real highlights are "An Arduous Battle Awaits Us" and closer "Funeral March - Lament for the Fallen Comrades," which have the melodic warmth of the early A Pregnant Light demos fused with a blown out sound that calls to mind some of the hauntingly raw production of some of the more obscure LLN acts or even some of their modern Dutch peers. The latter of the two songs even touches on some of the more beautiful aspects of DSBM without falling into cheeseball melodrama and leads into a haunting use of a recording of the Soviet war march "You Fell Victim." It's this clear love for the genre in all its eras rather than paying tribute to a single style that makes this really hit home for me. Even if we cast the politics to the side entirely, (which all you "separate the art from the artist" types are so good at, right?) this is an absolute ripper of a debut. When I can also throw this in the direction of lefty metalheads who are concerned that black metal might be overrun with nazis, it just fills my heart with joy. Of note: melodies and lyrics from Soviet anthems and war marches are incorporated in a few songs, yet it's done in a fashion where it just blends in rather than feeling like a forced inclusion. Make no mistake: this is gimmick-free and cuts to the core. If you profess a love for raw black metal, it's for you. If you like knowing the musicians can actually play, it's for you. If you're sick of being told that the right-wing acts are the ones with the riffs (and let's be honest, they almost never have them anyway), this is for you.

Long live Soyuz. Let's hope there's more output (and maybe physical releases) to come from these comrades soon.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Axis of Light- "Axis of Light"


You're reading the title right. It's a new, self-titled Axis of Light tape released to give a small bit of joy in the monstrosity that is 2020. While many groups go a few years between releases without it serving as an indication of inactivity, English black metal duo Axis of Light's first handful of tapes seemed to come out on an annual basis for the first few years of their career, each as raw and radiant as the next. So with a few years of silence, you can forgive your author here for assuming the project was dormant. I'm usually wrong anyway, but it seldom feels quite so good.

When a band releases a self-titled album, it's easy to take it as a statement of intent and identity, and it's clearly the case on Axis of Light, which is also the first full-length in nearly a decade of the band's existence. While the compositional muscle of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist T.L. has clearly grown over the years, the thread from By the Hands of the Consuming Fire to Axis of Light is strong and consistent: shrill vocals over shockingly melodic guitars and drums that are so distorted they sound like a blanket of static half the time. They've always been the perfect band for those of us who enjoy our black metal raw but also like to know there's actual musicians behind it rather than clowns using atmosphere as a shield for lack of originality. In a way, it's no stretch to claim that artists like this served as a bridge for many curious metalheads to find the appeal in harsh experimental noise, simply as a factor of production and atmosphere without having a token "noise guy" in the group.


As for the album itself, well there's a lot to take in here despite a typically brief run-time. While the drums are slightly more defined than on past releases, that familiar blanket of fuzz presents itself almost immediately as peaking vocals and blazing leads accompany the consistent rhythm of "On Whom the Red Moon Bleeds." While the mid-paced (almost march-like) segments are always a thrill and allow things to really breathe, it's sometimes the fastest moments that allow the band's greatest strengths to show themselves without being over the top: even the simplest of riffs dazzle and feel much denser than a single guitar track should and the vocals from A.B. are nearly inhuman in their anguish. "Scowl," for example cuts in with some of the finest guitar work to come out of the black metal underground in ages and does so without accompaniment. It's easy to impress with a full band to support an excellent riff, but T.L handles it directly and expertly on his own here on what will easily go down as one of 2020's finest metal moments in any subgenre.

Even if this album didn't contain that one furious track, each song on this album has its highlights that surprise and catch even these seasoned ears off guard (big nod in the direction of the latter half of "Black Combe"). It's so easy for me to tune out black metal after decades of listening to it and nearly a decade of reviewing it, yet Axis of Light manages to grab and maintain my attention throughout its duration every time I revisit it. You should give it a listen and see how it works out for you. If you see fit to download it, the band is giving all bandcamp donations to English environmental and animal causes (although they indicated to me their current focus is more towards causes addressing current social inequity for obvious reasons). If you're more of a cassette person, keep an eye on the Pristine Blight store for the tape, out soon.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Oksennus- "Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa"


Do you have a taste for the bizarre? For the grotesquely heavy? For the kind of twisted death metal only Finnish bands seem to have mastered? For experimentation that includes but isn't limited to harsh noise? If any of the above even remotely suit your fancy, then it's high time you became acquainted with Oksennus (Finnish for "vomit," naturally). While savvy fans of the extreme and unconventional might've caught wind of this act with releases on Caligari Records and Nuclear War Now! Productions, it seems that news of a new Oksennus album isn't yet making the kind of waves it should in the underground. Perhaps people are put off by the (brilliant) art depicting surreal creatures and root vegetables, or by the self-appointed "antifascist occult metal" tag that may cause purists and the apolitical to scoff, or perhaps it's just that there are simply too many bands playing death metal that we sometimes need more than one friendly nudge to get us to check out a band. For every new act releasing obscure yet challenging, worthwhile music like this, there seem to be a dozen others building up hype online either through label associations or flashy album art that looks great when posted on instagram. Let this be a plea to you, dear reader, to let Oksennus cut through the static and enter your ears.



While this review is focused on the newest release, Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa, an EP released on May Day to "celebrate and empower the prisoners of starvation, the wretched of the earth," I need to take a moment to make it clear that what you get on one Oksennus release is not going to remain constant throughout the discography. While many elements are shared, the band's dizzying yet oddly clean take on death/doom on Sokea Idiootti is reimagined as a sparse, freeform album with no distortion (or vocals) at all on Paholaisten yö, and there's that whole carroty album from 2016, Kolme toista, which has three tracks of exactly the same length yet varying feel and style with manic and often improvised structures. It's safe to say that while the new EP sounds like a new Oksennus release, it also sounds different. As it should.

Continuing in something of a tradition for Oksennus, Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa consists of two tracks of even length, each of which are titled with half the album's title. Opener "Työn orjat" lurches in with squealing static and furious, crushing death/doom energy. Cymbals seem to crash out of nowhere, almost as if edited in mid-hit rather than played naturally. It's this sense of something familiar being altered and given a fresh, albeit filthy, new form that makes this more than just another "slow and heavy" type song.  The band's sole member, K. Olavi K.virta, takes the song slower and lower until it feels as if it's just all brown note until about halfway in, when a sudden shift sees things move up in pace, although still at a crawl, and things open up with chanting, sustained notes on the guitar, and a general sense that somehow things have grown even darker despite the shifting upward in tone. It's disgusting, it's gripping, and you might just like it. The accompanying track caught me off guard, despite my love of the artist as a shape-shifter. "Sorron yöstä nouskaa" is 13:12 of pure harsh noise wall. It's a genre that most either love or hate, although your author here is one of the few sitting in the middle. I truly enjoyed it in this context, although part of me is so hooked on the strangely cerebral sounds of Oksennus in a more conventional sense that I spent my first listen waiting for something else to come through. Once I realized it wouldn't, I was able to spend future listens in a contemplative state. I love a good rumbling wall, and for an artist who typically works within a different framework, seeing such a masterful approach to the sound and focused fury of harsh noise wall is a welcome surprise.

There were apparently tapes of Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa on the day of the EP's release, but they vanished before I even noticed. More will be printed at some point, but for now you should visit the artist's bandcamp page and explore the wonders contained within.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Oranssi Pazuzu- "Mestarin Kynsi"


[note: an abridged version of this review appears in Roadburn's 2020 Weirdo Canyon Dispatch zine]

As time goes on, bands tend to refine and hone their sound into something that comes together more closely, with fewer cracks at the seams. Less separation of clashing elements, more fusion of things as the band figures out how to integrate all the elements that really make their sound unique. Oranssi Pazuzu, however, have been on an intentionally opposite journey over the course of their career. Instead of bringing things closer together, Oranssi Pazuzu has taken the essential elements of their music and dove face-first into each of them, pushing them out and spreading things even farther apart as they go. Instead of it creating a sonic rift, the audience is left with increasingly vast expanses of musical terrain to explore that are still entirely cohesive and gripping.



While fans of the psychedelic black metal group's prior albums have surely noticed the influence of classic krautrock and progressive music encroaching at the fringes, it's more present than ever on Mestarin Kynsi, in spirit if not in sound. Rather than a full-on assault at all times, Oranssi Pazuzu takes to each composition like a beast stalking its prey, which makes for a beautiful unease. There's often a sort of lilting feeling when the listener wonders "when will this kick in and where will it go?" and yet somehow it's still often a surprise when the band kicks into high-gear. And even when it seems things are at their most frenzied, as on "Tyhjyyden sakramentti" for example, the music disintegrates into a swarming sea of psychedelic dizziness in the midst of it all, only to drag the listener's brain into the depths of madness. It's rarely predictable, yet somehow almost always better than what you'd have envisioned for it. Elsewhere, on "Oikeamielisten sali" the band veers from metal almost entirely with a melting electronic intro that feels more like the dizziest trip-hop beat you'll come across. The song may dip its toes back into harsher territory with grinding bass and cutting vocals, but it soon returns to the ooze it emerged from in the next song, "Kuulen ääniä maan alta," albeit in even stranger more unsettling forms.

It's this willingness to leave the path set out before them, knowing the audience will follow, that makes Oranssi Pazuzu such an exciting, daring band. Furthermore, it's what makes each new record from this adventurous group more rewarding than what came before, even though they've never created a dull moment in their nearly fifteen-year career. While this already feels like a high water mark, I recall feeling the exact same way about Varahtelija in 2016. I'm in no hurry to move on from Mestarin Kynsi, but I also know that the future of Oranssi Pazuzu is as limitless as the imagination.