Music » Record Roundup

Black Flag's not totally terrible What The . . . and 15 more record reviews

Eight Reader writers want you to hear Dam-Funk & Snoopzilla's house-party jams, Last False Hope's steel-toed bluegrass, and Spray Paint's paranoid noise-punk, just for starters.

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Argentinum Astrum, Malleus Maleficarum (Anti-Corp/Forcefield/Inherent)

Knoxville, Tennessee, may not have the flashy musical legacy of its boot-scootin' cousin, but it does have Argentinum Astrum. Four years after its most recent demo, this Marble City metal band has finally surfaced with a new album, a three-song opus whose charred black melodies, pulverizing doom, and hellish throat-scraping invocations oscillate between nightmarish and engrossing. The first track is a pained, droning slog through enemy territory, but a newfound reliance on black-metal tropes (and a surprisingly European sensibility) serves the band well throughout the second and third legs of the journey. Malleus Maleficarum sounds as though it were recorded in a burial vault; shrapnel blasts of orthodox black-metal tremolo picking ricochet through its echo chamber and smother icy, ingenious harmonies beneath harsh distortion. It's a harrowing listen but an essential reintroduction to one of the dirty south's best-kept secrets. Kim Kelly


Black Flag, What The . . .  (SST)

Black Flag's new What The . . . might be the most argued-about album of 2013, but it's not a totally terrible record when considered in a vacuum. Forgettable and kind of awkward, sure, but by no means bad. However, if you bear in mind that it's the first album in nearly 30 years from the most important punk band of all time (or at least what's left of it), then you'll be forced to conclude that it's pretty fucking abysmal. The bad outweighs the tolerable in spades: the voice of Jealous Again-era front man Ron Reyes has matured into an irritating squawk, the lyrics are bland if not outright stupid (especially compared to the rise-above anthems of the band's youth), the 22 songs can outlast any human attention span, and for some reason there's theremin everywhere. There's not even any point in dissecting the cover art. But glimmers of greatness pop out here and there: Guitarist Greg Ginn, Black Flag's sole constant member, has always been what made the band stand apart, even in its weakest moments, and that's still true. He packs as much twisted creativity into his atonal, knotty, bizarre solos as he did in 1984. Luca Cimarusti


Dam-Funk & Snoopzilla, 7 Days of Funk (Stones Throw)

Earlier this year Snoop Dogg made a well-publicized foray into reggae as Snoop Lion, releasing the toothless, bloated Reincarnated, which works better as an advertisement for Vice than it does as an album—Vice coreleased it, produced a puffy "making of" documentary, and hosted a SXSW showcase to celebrate the film's release. Thankfully, the new 7 Days of Funk, Snoop's collaboration with California boogie-bass specialist Dam-Funk, has all the casual, feel-good vibes that Reincarnated lacks—it feels like a late-night party in a house glowing with multicolored Christmas lights, reeking of pot smoke, and packed with friends. Here Snoop becomes Snoopzilla, in homage to Bootsy Collins's Bootzilla alter ego, and 7 Days of Funk not only literally invokes funk's all-stars (Snoop names a few on "I'll Be There 4U") but also summons their spirits in its dragging beats and fat, bottom-heavy synths. Leor Galil


Tim Kinsella, Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by LeRoy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen (Joyful Noise)

Joan of Arc front man Tim Kinsella gets top billing on Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by LeRoy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen, but this collaborative album is the brainchild of Chicago poet Marvin Tate and multi-­instrumentalist LeRoy Bach, who's played in Tate's wild, weird funk band, D-Settlement. Tate wrote the words, Bach composed the music, Kinsella sings, and Olsen occasionally contributes backing vocals (on "Sidetracked in Miami" she takes the lead herself). The charmingly simple album that results is mostly sweet but sometimes fierce—on the bent bar-rock number "Idolize," Kinsella blurts out the hook over clanging piano. Kinsella and Olsen deliver Tate's lyrics affectionately, and Bach's often minimalist instrumentation gives the music a childlike quality reminiscent of old K Records twee pop. Kinsella plays with Joan of Arc at the Hideout on Fri 12/20. Leor Galil


Kirk Knuffke, Chorale (Steeplechase)

Erudite and unflashy New York trumpeter Kirk Knuffke has interpreted compositions by a diversity of jazz greats: he plays in Steve Lacy repertory quartet Ideal Bread, and he's made a series of recordings with pianist Jesse Stacken that tackle pieces by the likes of Ellington, Monk, and Mingus. But the recent Chorale—a freebop quartet session with pianist Russ Lossing, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Billy Hart—consists entirely of originals. Knuffke's compositional approaches are as varied as the material he's previously covered: three tunes come from his Book of M repertoire, a collection of musical schematics whose harmonic movements and melodies are improvised on the spot; "Wingy," the opening cut, builds on a terse quote from a recording by trumpeter Wingy Manone; and some songs draw inspiration from broader aesthetic notions, such as the angularity in Monk's writing. No matter how a piece arose, though, this alert and sensitive band delivers an elegantly proportioned performance full of unpredictable interactions. Peter Margasak


Last False Hope, Dig Nails Deep (Black Country Rock/Solitary)

Largely on the strength of their live shows, Last False Hope were voted Chicago's Best Country Band by Reader readers in 2011 and 2012. Their lineup has included several alumni of hardcore and death-metal bands, and to traditionalists the title of their 2011 debut EP, The Shape of Bluegrass to Come, might have sounded like a threat; the EP does for (or to) bluegrass and country what Celtic punk does to the music of their old-country cousin. Last False Hope's full-length debut, Dig Nails Deep, recorded with largely new personnel and produced by Shooter Jennings, sounds mature if not outright grizzled, and demonstrates a well-­developed sense of when to let rip with the brutality that lurks just beneath the surface (the dark underbelly of country's sentimentality). The roar of "Day of Wreckoning" and "Methlehem" shares space with the bitter sorrow of "My Marybeth" and the calculated outlaw malice of "Guilty Until Proven Innocent." I'd never disparage any veterans of Chicago's more conventional alt-country scene, but a steel-toed cowboy boot up the ass does everybody good once in a while. Here it is. Monica Kendrick


Magik Markers, Surrender to the Fantasy (Drag City)

Early in their history Magik Markers played raggedly sewn-together experimental rock, prone to deteriorating into patchwork rhythms and heated proselytizing from front woman Elisa Ambrogio, who sang and beat gnarled notes from her guitar. And they made a lot of it: during that period they released more CD-Rs than most bands release songs. But since 2009's incredible Balf Quarry, the band (anchored by the core duo of Ambrogio and drummer Pete Nolan) has slowed its rate of output, shifting to somewhat more structured songs and foregrounding the bewitching, glimmering vocals. Magik Markers' newest album (with bassist John Shaw) extends its archetypes in both directions: "American Sphinx Face" is a mess of dwindling sanity that sounds like a poetry slam pasted onto schizophrenic guitar, and "Young" is a delicate acoustic yarn whose accompanying strings melt behind Ambrogio's subdued, airy voice. Kevin Warwick


Milosh, Jet Lag (eOne/Deadly)

LA-based electronic musician Mike Milosh made three gorgeous, intimate electro-pop albums before partnering with Robin Hannibal to form the duo Rhye, whose cozy, lustrous R&B shares a lot of features with the best of Milosh's discography. But on his new solo album, Jet Lag, he indulges his experimental side, making for an occasionally standoffish follow-up to Rhye's accessible 2013 debut, Woman. Milosh might blur droplets of clear synth with distortion, process his gossamer voice till it sounds granulated, or create a cavelike atmosphere that threatens to close in on a warm, nurturing melody (as he does on "Stakes Ain't High"). Jet Lag is difficult to approach at first but easy to get wrapped up in—the rustling slow burner "Hold Me" is as tender as a loving embrace. Leor Galil


Mivos Quartet, Reappearances (Carrier)

This New York string quartet—violinists Olivia De Prato and Joshua Modney, violist Victor Lowrie, and cellist Mariel Roberts—has lately earned a reputation as one of America's most daring and ferocious new-music ensembles, and its overdue debut under its own name backs that up. Reappearances opens with the visceral, dissonant String Quartet No. 3 by Wet Ink Ensemble cofounder Alex Mincek, full of slashing lines, strident scrapes, and drastic dynamic shifts. (On a recent album by Patrick Higgins of Zs, another Wet Ink alumnus, Mivos performs his String Quartet No. 2.) Next the quartet shifts gears to bring lush, contemplative beauty to a rendition of Wolfgang Rihm's Quartettstudie; elsewhere on the album it tackles new work by David Brynjar Franzson and Felipe Lara. Mivos balances its knack for technical extremes with emotional depth that can warm up the harshest sounds. Peter Margasak


Ms. Jody, It's All About Me! (Ecko)

Ms. Jody is probably the most popular female artist in contemporary southern soul-blues, and It's All About Me! captures her at the height of her powers, having toned down her trademark raunch in favor of worldly meditations on love, lust, fidelity, and betrayal. The title song casts her as a sort of juke-joint Oprah, counseling women on how to maintain their self-esteem in relationships; by contrast, "One Hour Baby" is a noirish tale of illicit love, and the propulsive blues-rock number "Every Woman for Herself" is the shameless boast of a man stealer. "I Apologize," a parable about a guilt-racked man admitting the error of his ways, is all the more moving for its ambiguous conclusion: the woman telling the tale forgives the reprobate and even cradles his head in her arms, but she gives no indication that she'll take him back. Jody's voice is sure-timbered and powerful, and the production is robust, albeit somewhat pedestrian by mainstream R&B standards; even generic dance-floor workouts such as "Ms. Jody's Boogie Slide" and "The Rock" sound club-friendly and inviting. David Whiteis


Mutoid Man, Helium Head (Magic Bullet)

It's tough to listen to this record and not focus entirely on Ben Koller. The Converge drummer, who also plays in All Pigs Must Die, powers the new band Mutoid Man—a collaboration with Cave In's Stephen Brodsky—and he's a freak behind the kit, working it over with a controlled fury that makes him sound like he's got three hands holding five sticks. And on Helium Head he's just fucking showing off, in the best way. Mutoid Man's debut, which features a cover imported from whatever galaxy Funkadelic got theirs from in the 70s, is a discombobulating alien riff fest, juggling dense, hairpin-turn rhythms so constantly that you can't see the ends of the songs coming—the silence at the end of each one can hit like a freight train. Brodsky is a dead shredder in his own right, pumping up this barely comprehensible metallic hardcore with his guitar prowess, and his vocals shift from old-school gut-punching growls to theatrical clean singing a la Jupiter-era Cave In (if space-rock Brodsky isn't your bag, beware). The album wraps up lamely, with an unnecessary cover of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," but I think I'll just ignore that. Kevin Warwick


Pelt Part Wild Gate, Hung on Sunday (MIE)

This LP documents a one-off collaboration between New Zealand experimental musician Michael Morley, British duo Part Wild Horses Mane on Both Sides, and American drone combo Pelt. If you're expecting the sort of crumbling rock that Pelt made in the 90s and that Morley still plays with Gate and the Dead C, you should look elsewhere. Facing each other for the first time, these three artists let themselves be guided by a fourth party—the Javanese gamelan they share on this 47-­minute improvisation. The word "gamelan" refers variously to a musical tradition, a collection of instruments, and the ensemble playing those instruments; in keeping with Pelt and Part Wild Horses' idiosyncratic use of other non-Western instrumentation, Pelt Part Wild Gate make no effort to be authentic to that tradition. Instead they embark upon a relaxed exploration of radiant sonorities and simple interlocking patterns that invites the listener to steep in its serenity. Bill Meyer


Alasdair Roberts & Robin Robertson, Hirta Songs (Stone Tape)

Scottish folksinger Alasdair Roberts released one of my favorite albums of the year in January, Wonder Working Stone, and he's back with another knockout. Hirta Songs is a collaboration with acclaimed Scottish poet Robin Robertson, who wrote lyrics about St Kilda, a remote, unforgiving archipelago in the British Isles thought to have been inhabited by humans for at least 2,000 years before its last permanent settlers abandoned it in 1930 (only military personnel go there now). Its residents lived on a diet that consisted largely of small sea birds—fishing from its sheer cliffs was too dangerous—and Robertson's writing underscores the harshness of that existence. Roberts's detailed, soulful folk-rock is played by a strong support cast, including Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band on hardanger fiddle. For two pieces Robertson recites his poetry over meditative harp figures by Corrina Hewat: "Leaving St Kilda" in particular is a feast for the ears, thanks to the musical consonance of the names of cliffs and sea stacks. Peter Margasak


Spray Paint, Rodeo Songs (S.S.)

Austin noise-punks Spray Paint embody every sense of the word "weirdos." Earlier this year they released their debut album, a self-titled LP whose mangled mess of gross, flat, dissonant guitar and heavy rhythms is kept afloat by vocals chanted in a deadpan drawl. Its no-wave-ish sound is equal parts lost in outer space, face down in the dirt, and rolling around in the gutter—an aesthetic so damaged it seemed impossible to refine. But on Rodeo Songs, their second record of the year, Spray Paint do just that: the guitar playing is sharper, the lyrics are smarter, and the songs cut deeper. By no means have these guys taken a turn for the accessible, though; with better musicianship comes a better grasp of how to induce paranoia and discomfort. Pitch-dark songs about needing drugs or finding dead bodies have never been so much fun. Luca Cimarusti


Burkhard Stangl, Unfinished. For William Turner, Painter. (Touch)

Austrian experimental guitarist Burkhard Stangl (Polwechsel) stumbled upon the work of 18th-century painter William Turner on his first visit to London's Tate Gallery in 2003, and he says he was inspired by the artist's work, especially some of his later, unfinished paintings. The three solo guitar pieces on Unfinished—elliptical, minimalist, and augmented with atmospheric field recordings—don't directly address Turner's art. Instead, these resonant meditations seem to correlate to what Stangl has described as the painter's play with light, air, water, and stillness. Not much happens, but Stangle summons a gorgeous ambience, scuffed by seemingly inadvertent string scrapes—and the sounds shimmer and undulate as if adrift on the waves or buoyed by the breeze. Peter Margasak


Various artists, Angola Soundtrack 2: Hypnosis, Distortions & Other Sonic Innovations: 1969-1978 (Analog Africa)

In the 1960s and early '70s, during the waning years of its colonial rule of Angola, Portugal tried to win hearts and minds by sponsoring popular music venues, and the 21 splendid tunes on Angola Soundtrack 2 are fired by a mix of hothouse-tended skill, tamped-down revolutionary fervor, and scrappy inventiveness necessitated by a lack of resources. Because bands such as Os Anjos and Africa Ritmo could play before audiences all the time, they had a steel-spring tightness that amps up the intensity of the interplay between drums, hand percussion, and cheap Teisco and Hofner electric guitars. The latter impart a tart, reverberant tone reminiscent of surf rock; along with the predominance of Portuguese-­language singing and the addition of Congolese, Brazilian, and Cuban influences to indigenous rhythms, this gives the music a certain familiarity. Analog Africa is known for its killer production and song selection, and this set is no exception; the 44-page booklet is full of photos and interviews that shed bright light on a music scene that was nearly killed off by the civil war that erupted during the struggle for Angolan independence. Bill Meyer

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