Sunday, January 14, 2018

2017 Year in Music: Headroom – Head In The Clouds

Head In The Clouds

You can play the guitar or you can wield it – Headroom lead conjurer Kryssi Battalene is certainly the latter. Head In The Clouds is defined by the lead guitar; may even be a vehicle for it; and Battalene alternately weaponizes the instrument, or transmutes it into a paintbrush, a guitar dervish shapeshifting for close to 40-minutes until ripping a paean to Neil & Crazy Horse is almost the least expected way to end the ceremony.

Opener "How To Grow Evil Flowers" establishes the modus operandi – lurching the listener into the tryyp. While a two-chord riff plods in the background, it takes a moment to recognize the blistering staccato frequency as...yes, yes I believe that's an electric guitar. The first half of the 10-minute run-time is dedicated to Battalene squeezing the life out of the strobing, phased feedback washing over the backing band. Two-minutes in, there's a distinguishable note, caustically-twisted and all, as a spiraling solo flies over the track, like a shorting-out radio frequency. It's nothing short of sprawling and atmospheric, the band plugging along, gradually growing and shaping their own brand of fuzz. When she switches to a continuous wall-of-sound, it's a temporary salve before returning to feedback histrionics, and closing out in a near-normal vibrato.

Most bands do much less with much more – it's to Headroom's credit that they can operate in near-instrumental psych forms, territory that's been near mined-to-death, but keep it fresh. "Miller's Pond" introduces gauzy vocals over a brittle, finger-picked melody. It's not-quite pastoral, Battalene's guitar glazing the sky above the song with irregular clouds of distortion and delay, a storm of feedback on the horizon that never quite breaks. It's beautiful and fragile – hypnotic, even.

A-side end "The Second Blazing Star" is more indebted to krautrock – there's a wobbly bass-line circa Holger Czukay and a more active, shuffling beat. Though where Can would edit out much of the simmer-and-boil, Headroom stay inside the locked-groove, bouncing off its walls. Battalene's guitar alternates between trebly, slapback-riffs and strangled chord clusters that act as a palate-cleanser before she steers back to higher octaves. If this is a rehearsal cut, whoa; it's molten, never accelerating nor messing with dynamics before fading tidily to a close.

On the B-side, the formula gets tweaked just as you're getting used to SYR-esque guitar heroics. "Head In The Clouds" is a scorched-earth, synthesizer-driven and drum-less instrumental. A heavy, organ-like drone weighs the bottom down, allowing frequencies to oscillate and buzz above, while a guitar (maybe?) ripples through it all, occasionally piercing the thick canopy of synths with a stab of light, but often glazing the background with gorgeous overtones. At first listen it's difficult – but after ten trips through this record, this became my favorite, dense with patterns and instrument interplay, near-unrecognizable guitar doled out in slo-mo, a collective, unrelenting sense of nirvana being the only order of business here.

Oh yeah, the Neil Young paean. "Flower Of Light" closes the record, it's near-10 minutes divided neatly in half, with the first half only rhythm guitar, walking bass-line, and Neil-summoning solo; the vocals and drums hit at once halfway in – it feels like a benediction, or maybe like shoegaze on cough syrup. It's beautiful and the solo here, the most melodic on the record, is perfect. Sure, it might dial down the fried form a bit, but it's still skronky and distorted and cloud-gazing and not for the faint of heart, even if they approach gentler vibes during the relaxed, couple-minute outro.

I'm not sure where the band goes from here – Head In The Clouds starts in the sky, and stays there for 40 focused, mind-expanding minutes. And that's enough for now – wanting more after encountering a force of nature is unnatural. Like the forest or the stars, sometimes you gotta stare at what you got, appreciating the details and endlessly fascinating molecules and moments all around.

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Year in Music: Bardo Pond - Under The Pines

Bardo Pond
Under The Pines

Longtime Philly psych vets Bardo Pond generally operate in primordial ingredients – brothers Gibbons' guitars scrape earth and sky, with occasional vocals and flute blowing in on the wind from frontwoman Isobel Sollenberger, all anchored by the wandering, trenchant rhythm section, shifting-yet-solid, a slow-motion tremor. Stoner rock doesn't sum up the parts; and "heavy" is too nice 'n pretty – Bardo Pond songs aren't born – rather, they seem to crawl up from ooze and just as often melt into the ether.

Under The Pines continues to distill their wall-of-sound in more concise fashion following 2013's similarly taut-yet-expansive Peace On Venus. The recording, done again homestyle, clarifies some of the murk, and places Sollenberger's vocals on near-equal footing with the guitars. A few heads rolled or roiled, I'm sure, but her mix of summoning squall and brooding chant operate here as an equal – so it's refreshing to hear that represented in the mix, not to mention the songs.

"Crossover" opens the record in classic Bardo Pond form – you fall right into a lead riff before going for a bit of a near-Zep turnaround. Sollenberger enters and all is well – this is classic rock for the psych set, guitars hard-panned and dueling in sprawling, painterly fashion. It's almost hard to believe you haven't heard this song before; though at a tidy five minutes, thirty seconds, it doesn't go on forever.

We get other Pond tropes, here, too – "Out Of Reach" is a slow, heavy dirge with a sparkling intro solo. The skies clear when Sollenberger enters, as guitars set to sparkle around the edges. The wordless chorus hints at the storm to come. Minutes pass, and guitars expand, rhythm section takes up more space unnoticed, like a glacier climbing down the mountain lip-first. Just when you expect them to wash away with the storm, they kick into double-time – a Hawkwind-ian or kraut-touch; or just masterly improv? Whatever. The Gibbons are set free here, and it all enters fog machine mode, an aural moss covering all ground, Sollenberger's chants occasionally piercing through the haze like mottled beams of light.

There are a couple miniatures – maybe excerpts from lengthy recordings? – "My Eyes Out" ends side A with a keening lead guitar that loops gaudily over a steady, forged-metal rhythm. The solo enters halfway through and they ride it into the clouds. "Under The Pines" is as close to scorched-earth blues as we get – a dark take on time or mortality, or maybe the upside-down version of folk standard "In The Pines". It's syrupy and stomping and slow, barometer rising, air thick.

"Moment To Moment" embraces a riff that's nearly from the front-porch, of a kin to Earth's take on country-doom (2008's The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull). Yet, with acoustic slide, it's bizarrely anthemic, it's crawling, muscular pace and near 10-minute length could qualify. We finally get Sollenberger's flute here, which floats in gauzily, but ends up carrying things across rippling sheets of guitar and torch-bearing, keening vocals.

"Effigy" provides an instrumental benediction to the record – and a welcome second flute appearance – a melancholy, tripped-out shuffle that's a counterpunch to the swagger of "Crossover". It's comfortable, richly textured, and conjures a wide vista of sound, that (I loathe to say) could even lure in a 'post-rock' fan or three. Somebody please pay these fine folks to score their film (did they do that before and I missed it? The price of an extensive discography). 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017 Year in Music: Colleen – A Flame My Love, A Frequency

A Flame My Love, A Frequency
(buy from Thrill Jockey; download or stream on Bandcamp; ok Spotify fine)

The struggle through limitation – or the forced stricture of self-imposing limitations – can produce great music and art. Look no further than budding songwriters making their most raw and intimate portraits via 4-track in a cabin somewheres; or Rick Rubin's career of forcing rich-celebrities-née-musicians out of their comfort zones to reinject honesty and authenticity as though it were a rare substance meted out by the universe in small doses early in one's life.

And yet – Colleen's particularly ascetic take on limitation stands apart in how it simultaneously defines her work, while also expanding its horizons – like how a pinprick of light can contain all of space and time. Nowhere is her exploration of the infinite more refined and pronounced than on A Flame My Love, A Frequency.

Her previous outing, 2015's Captain Of None pushed to the brink her use of medieval instrument viola da gamba (bonus points if you'd heard of it before that record) – by plucking, plonking, tapping, thrumming, and playing through an assemblage of effects, the largely-instrumental record had a narcotic, dub feel and a collagist ethos. 

Yet, after such an adventurous outing, she wiped the table clean – forgoing that instrument in favor of an analog synthesizer (Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano and Septavox) and delay pedal set-up that preserves some of the dub aesthetic while sounding completely of another universe. Opener "November" drops the listener straight into a music-box melody, a bit melancholy and halting, singular-sounding while preserving her unique sense of space and sound. It's entrance music to a world of Colleen's devising, elemental and pure, almost child-like.

"Separating" delivers you to that world – in this case, subaquatic, dripping tones provide a rippling ambiance that showcases delicate vocals before giving away to dappled, sunny synths that skip along the surface with a hushed, wordless chorus. It's a universe in miniature – almost classically revenant, but experimentally electronic in the way it plays with filtering, broken melodies, and effects to pull the listener further underwater. Warning: this track is all-consuming. Remember to breathe.

After the rhythmic workout of "Another World", which breathes needed air via a circular melody that eventually washes out, we enter "Winter Dawn", whose brittle march pierces the veil cast across the initial three tracks. Colleen's voice is near-crystalline here, intoning, "The world had nearly ended and the sky was blue. And I came home with a fistful of fear." There is a void, here, maybe an icy chasm – but there's also light being cast forward – I can't help but think things are always darkest just before the dawn, a stasis expressed brilliantly when the jigsaw melody pauses mid-flight near the track's end.

Things are a bit darker on the B-side. "Summer Night (Bat Song)" utilizes near-organ, droning sheets of sound to trap a childhood moment in a photograph of sound. There's yearning here, too – the sleepy, minimalist coda over which she sings, repeatedly, "Descending milky night..." while stretching and playing with the phrase – is as glorious as those soft moments when sleep approaches in darkness. 

"The Stars vs Creatures" carries forth the lunar feel – a descending, staircase of a melody again casts Colleen's vocals in starlight, this time relating a parable set in the natural world, all accelerating forward to an ascendant, double-time coda halfway through the song. "One Warm Spark" is another circuitous, effects-laden track to transport the listener to the abstract, earth-bound title track. Again, droning organ tones slowly bud into melody. Set atop the mix, the delineated vocals are healing, a balm & a promise, leaving the synths to slowly exit the atmosphere and tumble into space at sunset, a fairly jaw-dropping finalé if you've gotten your mind right.

I read a note from Colleen that referenced the making of this record, subsequent tour & attention, and stresses of travel combined to take a personal toll that would require self-care and attention in 2018 to recover and recharge. Sometimes it's tough to hear that from an artist – especially considering how we glamorize songwriters and creatives and expect them only to give, give, give until culture or society casts them away like husks. And yet, you can hear the life energy in  A Flame My Love, A Frequency – it's emotional undertow belies the simple surface of such a focused instrumental palette. Amazing, really, how such limitations can be seized to produce something so otherworldly and singular.