KAYAH & ROYAL QUARTET – Kayah & Royal Quartet (2010)

Review by: Kyle Wilson
Album assigned by: Nina A

(This reviewer knows very little about classical music, from specific composers, to how it’s written or performed, nor is he well versed in Polish or Romani language, culture or music, as he is mostly an ignorant, white American who loves the Beatles.
While he has a general appreciation for string and horn arrangements, believing they always make songs sound better, he is utterly unable to provide accurate musical descriptions of such songs beyond the use of such vague terms as “heavy”, “dark” and “menacing”, or on the lighter side…”light” or “fast” or “ethereal fluttering.” Terms like “fugue” or “baroque” or “arpeggio” might as well be names of Italian drag queens.
Furthermore, before being assigned this album, he was completely unaware of the existence of Kayah, Polish singer-songwriter, whose songs appear to be a blend of Polish, Romani, jazz, soul, funk and pop influences, among others. He was therefore totally oblivious to any of her albums, including Kayah & Royal Quartet, a 2010 collaboration between her and the Royal String Quartet covering a selection of her songs.
In an attempt to better understand her music, the reviewer attempted to learn as much about her as possible, and listen to a few of her studio albums. Beyond feeling that what little he listened to was “not bad,” he found it difficult to commit himself to listening to albums in a language he did not understand, despite his OBSESSION with mariachi music.
In a last ditch effort to have some kind of knowledge of the music to make analysis even remotely interesting, he looked up the lyrics. In Polish. Which he couldn’t understand. Even with words he couldn’t understand, he hoped they would at least give him some semblance of comprehension about the basic structure of the pieces as pop songs. The help was minimal, and with such wonderfully useful Google translations as “carat big as her anxiety when you raise your hand this buys her dress,” he feared he would have nothing to say.
Finally, the reviewer decided to stop worrying and just listen to the album.
He was honestly surprised at how much he enjoyed it, and then worried if this made him racist. He reluctantly concluded that it didn’t, but that he should keep an eye on his privilege, just in case. 
As he listened to the album, he began to write down some first impressions. I, the disclaimer, must warn you: these are superficial descriptions, and might trigger you to be amused and bewildered.
“Kwartesencja – slow, menacing and sharp, matches the tone of the album cover, Romani influenced, instrumental, nice, optimistic tone in the last 30 seconds building up to the next track.
Za Blisko – discernible vocal melody, but hard to pin point with the Polish lyrics. Bright and sumptuous arrangement, smooth and clear vocals. The part in the middle with the fast whispering is annoying and for a brief moment crosses into Yoko Ono territory but then the music disappears and all we hear are Kayah and her slow, heavy, breathy heaves. Sexy as fuck! Then a split second of acapella singing as the song begins again and then crawls to a descent and then a slow fade. Damn!
Prosba Do Twych Ust – It is admittedly difficult to tell these vocals and melodies apart without understanding the language. The thing is, with Za Blisko, I was able to discern the chorus, but with this track, it’s almost impossible. Not knowing the language, I may need to stop trying to analyze and just take in the sound. And what a sound it is! Soaring, powerful, sometimes angry vocals, to a musical backing that is at times searing, and other times ethereal, with the strings fluttering like a butterfly.
Testosteron – Holy shit this song is amazing! It starts with some nice, tasteful plucking strings, with a clear melody in the verses, before the chorus begins and the strings get heavier and darker, sweeping past as Kayah blasts the male hormone for all its destructive capabilities, and then she declares the title of the song and the strings become HEAVY and low, and you feel the misery and anger she’s singing about as the deep, menacing strings rise back up for the second verse, but they are building, building, building and then 3 minutes in, the climax! The strings rage in a monstrous, frightening surge, as she gives one more powerful delivery of the chorus, and then the song just ends, with her words hanging in the air. Breathtaking! I prefer this version over the original 1000000%!”
Thus ends the first impressions of this reviewing giant, who only really bothered to analyze the first four songs, although he was so honestly blown away by the fourth song that every other one would probably sound the same to him.
Which was his general, uninformed, Philistine opinion when he actually bothered to listen to the whole album, apart from the surprising English language cover of Grace Jones’ Libertango.
The “reviewer” seems to think that, apart from Testosteron and Libertango, which are the “obvious” standouts, the album is mostly all just the same vibe, of being nicely produced, with clear, sexy vocals and some “cool,” dramatic string arrangements.
Which, considering this is a European pop star collaborating with a string quartet to cover some of her own songs, this seems like a fairly redundant viewpoint to have, but again, this reviewer isn’t that great, hence the disclaimer. I mean, he’ll probably end up turning it in late. And so, after being 
thoroughly forewarned…)
Oh. Um. The album was pretty good. Nice. Testosteron was awesome. I mean…
This is the bit right? That the whole actual review was in the disclaimer? It’s kinda dumb…

NEGATIVLAND – Dispepsi (1997)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

Dispepsi is an anti-consumerism, anti-commercial, anti-soft drink record by a group called Negativland. It alternates between sample heavy soundscapes and a couple straightforward songs. The more trad songs parody commercial jingles, which have thankfully gone out of fashion in the 21st century. All I will say about the parodies is that the basic melodies and singsongy vocals get their point across at the expense of enjoyability. Even the mixing on some of lead vocals sounds hollow. I couldn’t tell whether this was meant to reflect the soulless nature of jingles or just the band’s vocal talent; Dispepsi is my first and only Negativland record. “Aluminum or Glass” is the most honest attempt at an unironic tune, and even it sounds way too middle of the road to be memorable.
What Negativland is much more adept at is putting together sample-based music. Brooding sax and jittery dance music soundtrack the whole experience, showing that the band has way more musical talent on hand than they let on during the parody tracks. The group samples everything from TV spots, radio jingles, interviews with industry professionals, ad execs, testimonials from regular jacks like you and me to endorsements from famous jacks like Michael Jacks(on). This might all sound incredibly boring and pretentious, and while the latter is certainly true, the end result is actually dazzling –if a bit dizzying at times. The samples are mixed and matched and juxtaposed and repeated and repeated and repeated, but not TOO much. Five different interview samples will start and stop interchangeably, building and dropping threads, weaving them into a cohesive whole remarkable for sample based music, all the while underpinned by a kaleidoscope of shorter samples bursting left and right. It’s as if the Avalanches took a media studies course. It’s blunt and pretentious as hell, but boy does it ever keep your attention. 

WEEN – The Mollusk (1997)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Believe it or not, I’d never actually listened to Ween before. However, neither do I approach this review free of preconceptions. I know of George’s high praise for the band, I remember how high they were in his category system, and I’ve seen how much esteem Ween gets from the Only Solitaire troupe. So, what do I think of Ween’s The Mollusk?

1. Have I got a cute expression on my face? This sounds like some kind of music-hall-meets-preschool song. (Then it all makes sense. It is based upon a 50’s song, a B-side for “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”. Wonder what the effect would have been like, had they kept the originals lyrics: “I’m getting scared. Wish I could see in a mirror, How I’ve been repaired”). I like how they use different voices. It’s like autotune but fun.

2. Kind sir it’s a mollusk I’ve found. This one strongly reminds me of a Passion Play. The flute and guitar, the general arrangement and mood, the inclusion of a spoken bit, and instead of a hare, a mollusk! Great arrangement. Good Melody. Great song.

3. Have you ever seen a whale with a polka Dot Tail? Nice guitar solo. Great overall mood. It’s like progressively submerging into an ocean where electronic fish are swimming in.

4. I’ll Be Your Johnny… Like a punk song, but played very neatly. Like math rock without complex time signatures.

5. Mutilated lips give a kiss on the wrist of the worm like tips of tentacles expanding in my mind. One of the best songs in the album! A bit difficult to describe. With the acoustic guitar and the percussion the instrumental part could have been the setting for a soothing song. Instead, the voice’s sound sets a really unique mood. It isn’t really sad. It doesn’t sound relaxing or angry. It certainly doesn’t appear very happy either. It’s the sound of tentacles expanding in his mind, and he´s fine… The lyrics are great. Yes, they go with the nautical theme and original but most importantly, they work phonetically, they sound great.

6. AYE AYE AYE! The Pogues-meet-cock rock-meet Mull of Kintyre. Fun song indeed.

7. It’s Gonna Be Alright. This one is a bit boring compared to the others.

8. The words of the golden eel. Excellent song! It begins quite minimalistic, hi-hat and conga playing a simple rhythm. Then comes guitar and voice. A great riff. Then comes electronics. It keeps growing. Hi-hat and conga keep playing simple rhythm. Then full drum set comes in. Sound is BIG. Suddenly everything calms down again. Voice stops. Drum set stops. Assorted electronic background sounds stop. Even hi-hat and conga stop. A bass (or is it a guitar?) is left playing what Hi-hat and conga were playing before. Meanwhile, there’s a really cool and tasty guitar solo. Suddenly whole band comes in again and now it’s HUGE!

9. One kiss, one kiss of your lily white lips one kiss is all I crave! A traditional folk song! Ween-style (which means sooner or later electronics will come in). Beautiful lyrics and melody. 

10. Don’t know why I feel this song belongs in Parklife. Is it that it reminds me of “The Debpt Collector”? Is it the dog barking in the background? Is it just the 90s sound?

11. I’m waving my dick in the wind. Ska-punk!

12. Turning fire to steam ON BUCKINGHAM GREEN. Another excellent song! For almost a minute the song progresses solely with voice and rhythm guitar and still sounds heavy. Then an acoustic lead guitar solo comes in, which sounds really cool on top of the distorted rhythm guitar. Then drums and distorted lead guitar comes in and it all becomes huge and epic. 

13. Ocean man, take me by the hand, lead me to the land… Probably the closest there is in this album to a “normal” pop/rock song with “normal” structure. It’s catchy.

14. You wanted to leave… Good song. (For some reason I can’t stop imagining Jon Anderson’s voice singing it)………. And then it’s Preschool time again.

Overall rating: An EXCELLENT ALBUM. Go and listen to this album if you haven’t already. I will really recommend it, listen again to it and buy it physically if I get the chance. It may be missing something I can’t really describe. But who cares. This is an excellent album and I liked it more and more with each listen. Is it innovative? Well, on a song-by-song basis not all of them stand as truly original (some of them do). But the overall mood and theme of the album are truly unique. It has nothing to envy from any of alternative rock’s ‘classic albums’ from the 90’s. It’s probably better than most of them, more melodical and definitely most diverse than most. Also, it definitely avoids the common flaw of taking itself too seriously (Humour doesn’t make great music any less great! But many of today’s bands can’t seem to understand it). And it has a great album cover!

XHOL CARAVAN – Electrip (1969)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: A.A

You have to listen to it four times.
Some days ago I listened to this album three times and after that I had pretty much figured out what to write about it:
  • That it’s supposed to be krautrock though I wouldn’t know what’s so kraut about it. Except for the fact that it’s German.
  • That to my ears it sounded more like generic early 70’s jazzy and proggy rock with touches of canterbury style psychedelica.
  • That I’m not qualified to make comments on the quality of the album is this is the genre I have the least affinity with.
  • That all in all it sounds competent and original enough for a recommendation to those that love the genre.
  • Just not for me.
But tonight I happened to listen to the damn thing for a fourth time on my bike on the way from work and heard quite a few pleasant and groovy instrumental passages. I don’t have the time nor the patience to go for a fifth helping of Electrip though.
So you have to listen to it yourself. Me, I’m all confused. I’m not gonna listen to any music for at least a week.

FUNKADELIC – America Eats Its Young (1972)

Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Album assigned by: Syd Spence

This is an incredibly sensual record; a relentless, throbbing density of sound that targets the heart, the gut and the genitals – most of all though it targets your arse and makes it very difficult to keep yourself planted on it – an album that steams along, powered by insistent Hammond organ riffs, heavy wah-wah guitar porn groves and euphoric brass; at times it flows thick and hot like chocolate lava, at others it seduces with honeyed vocals over gorgeous weepy strings and pensive piano lines. Funk, soul, rock and gospel come together in one almighty cross-genre sonic gangbang. And it’s a testament to the brilliance of the musicianship, and the arrangement that no matter how much there is going on at any one time, soundwise, the album manages to retains a suppleness and elasticity throughout – that all those different layers of sound never come anywhere close to weighing the album down. 

But don’t let the voluptuousness and the full on physicality of the music mislead you. No these grooves, licentious as they seem at first listen, are also meant to convey a serious message: a message which, as the lyrics, the album title and the artwork testify, is in large part political. But can you really sing about politics and discourse about standing up to the man with a massive great grin on your on your face and grooving and shaking your ass if there was no tomorrow – without making everything into a hectic, self righteous diatribe? The answer seems to be a yes, although perhaps not a resounding one. You see when you get right down to it ‘America..’, for all its slogans and attempts at raising political consciousness, is at its most convincing as a celebration of (and instigation to) hedonism and the pleasures of the flesh. Leave this record playing in a room full of people and it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to lead to any profound socio-economic discussions about racial inequality or class warfare once it’s over (if the mood is right then you might just end up with an orgy on your hands, instead of a riot). Rage there is, but unlike with say Sly Stone that rage just isn’t focused or concentrated enough to have any real potency: instead you feel this insistent tug and enticement back to the realm of the senses and the drive for bodily gratification. That’s not to denigrate ‘America..’ as a superficial or mindless party record – no it’s far too far too thoughtful for that – but there is a certain incongruity there nonetheless. 

All in all though ‘America Eats its Young’ is a real mother of an album and gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me (and I’m not quite sure how I managed to get through 35 years of life without having ever heard Loose Booty before). And if it doesn’t quite have the intergalactic intensity and single minded focus of the best Parliament/Funkadelic stuff, then it’s still well worth a spin, if only to demonstrate the comparative mediocrity and timidity of the vast majority of what passes for rock and roll.


FAD GADGET – Gag (1984)

Review by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho
Album assigned by: Franco Micale

Fad Gadget is the artistic pseudonym taken by Englishman Francis John Tovey, who Wikipedia describes as an avant-garde electronic musician. His 1984’s album, Gag, is notable for featuring industrial music’s most famous stick figure, Einstürzende Neubauten, on one track. So, it was to my surprise (a pleasant one), to find that this album is a catchy post-punk/new wave record.

It starts on the gothy side of the post-punk spectrum, with lyrics like “as I dream, I live / and as I sleep, I walk” or “they have no reflections / drink blood but pierce no veins”, that almost seem parodic, and might as well be. But as that kind of sound starts to overstay its welcome, Mr. Fad surprises me with the badfingerish “Stand Up”. The album then takes a turn towards the poppier and happier aspects of the genre, bringing acts like XTC to mind. Some tracks, like “One Man’s Meat” or “Jump” are clearly inspired by Gang of Four. Overall, the album is very diverse, even if it doesn’t depart from post-punk, because the genre has many possible paths, and Frank Tovey tries to go through all of them in a single record.

All this diversity wouldn’t be enough, if the songs weren’t good, but there isn’t a single weak track on this album. The strongest point to me is Fad’s voice. It has a remarkable range of moods and personalities, from the crooning on “The Ring”, to the more aggressive “Ad Nauseum”, and all of them are great. Instrumentally, the album is solid, with a wide variety of instruments that all contribute to the music, but in my limited listens throughout this week, nothing really jumped out as great. Even the Einstürzende Neubauten participation on “Collapsing New People” was good but not really impressive.

Overall, Gag is a pretty good album, and, I might say, one of the best I’ve listened of this era. It might even serve as an introduction to post-punk, because it travels through the many variants of the genre, always making sure to show their strong points.

TANGLED THOUGHTS OF LEAVING – Yield to Despair (2015)

Review by: Eden Hunter
Album assigned by: Ed Luo

From start to finish, listening to Yield to Despair feels like it’s balancing on a constantly mobile precipice between life and death. The instrumentation bounces between a two different moods: slightly groovy doom metal, and somber gothic jazz. Both seem like pretty awkward stylistic coincidences, but they both work remarkably well. These two fundamentals are also helped by chaotic noise squalls, martial drumming, Drudkh-esque tremolo trances, and a wide variety of other sonic tools.

Luckily, the album’s 5 lengthy compositions are robust enough that all these disparate features get a chance to breathe, and Yield to Despair isn’t just balancing on the precipice between life and death, it’s clinging to it. There’s a very slim window for ‘instrumental doomjazz’ to succeed as comprehensively as Yield to Despair does, but in taking that risk, Tangled Thoughts of Leaving have created an absolutely brilliant album. Every moment the precipice is getting thinner, but every moment clinging on we inch ever closer to transcendence.


RADIO FUTURA – El directo de Radio Futura (1989)

Review by: Michael Strait
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

Track 1: Assured, powerful bassline. Great riff comes in over the top. Pretty good drumming. Vocals give the impression the lyricist has something to say – pity I can’t understand him. Vocalist is, in fact, a very characterful-sounding bloke, with lots of passion and a machismo that doesn’t sound insecure or forced. This is a well-written song that flows smoothly and naturally. Crowd seems into it, too. Little popping rhythm guitar helps the groove. Avoids sounding plaintive or overly epic.

Track 2: Laid-back and refined track. Stabbing guitars as vocalist sings his way into a million women’s panties. Keyboards present here, not doing much but fleshing out the sound a little – and occasionally sounding a tad dated, but not too much. This song sounds like an expensive glassy apartment overlooking a sunset-lit sea in a warm but not too tropical zone.

Track 3: Pretty good lead guitar is in control of its ego enough to let some soft, understated keyboards resolve its riff. This song says it’s gonna last 6 minutes – I’ve no real problem with that. Actual pianos are involved this time. I like the way the guitar and bass in this part keep missing each other – one of them plays, then the other one plays, in succession rather than together, until eventually they find each other and fall into sync. This band know the proper things about songwriting, they do – the little extra touches that make the songs hold up under scrutiny. Descending piano riff occupies most of the outro as the guitarist plays a tasteful solo. I like this album.

Track 4: The biggest riff so far. Turns into speedin’ rocker with playful lead guitars and the lead singer sings something about spaghetti. The piano here is a major part of the rhythm, alongside the slyly aggressive guitar. Piano gets to embark on a pretty pedestrian solo in the second half of the track. The vocalist continues to display excellent character, being an unpredictable soul who will drop all melody and just shout at exactly the right times.

Track 5: This one sounds a bit more reflective, though not regretful. Very quiet guitar solo comes at an unexpected time in the first third of the track – see what I mean? This song is thinking back quietly on pleasant times. Tiny little chiming piano provides the lead riff here – very basic, but cute. Guitar takes over in the pre-chorus for a few little flourishes.

Track 6: Guitar, bass and piano begin a riff – only bass and piano finish it. This guitarist sticks admirably true to the punk philosophy of minimalism. Can clearly play, though. Are those some slide guitars I hear here? Possibly. The vocalist goes into his higher ranges for the chorus here. There’s a lovely swaying bass riff in the prechorus, with guitars that pop in such a way as to make me wonder if Foals listened to this band a lot when they were young – wouldn’t that be an unexpected area of influence? What does “li lo li lo li lo li” etc. mean anyway – when I was young I used to listen to Gypsy Kings and they had a song that went just like that. Oh hey – a harmonica! A lil bit of ol’ school rock n roll to close out the track.

Track 7: Here’s a question: if this new wave band could so consistently come up with good riffs, what gives all those bullshit modern pop-metal bands the idea that they can get away without ‘em? Ah, never mind. I’m sorta running out of things to say here, anyway – the songs are uniformly well-written, well-played and effortlessly cool, sounding like they’d breeze past you on the street and steal yo girl without a glance, like a passing planetary body might steal a few of your smaller natural satellites. Admittedly, though, the bridge in this song has some dated-sounding drums – they’re not even machines, either, which makes me wonder how they treated them back then.

Track 8: Ah, this one is very much a rhythmic groove piece. The keyboard stabs in the verses kinda sound reggaeish, but unlike most cases of a rock band pillaging reggae for cultural cred it doesn’t suck or obnoxiously jut out. Shit, dawg, I don’t even HAVE a girlfriend and I’m pretty sure this guy’s still fucked her. A bit of synthesised horn here – just the briefest flourish, but it does a lot more than you’d expect based on its limited time. This band knew how to get the most out of the least, which is possibly the ability I respect most in a pop songwriter. The drummer’s playing some pretty good fills here, too.

Track 9: Aight, this one ain’t bad, but it kinda sounds like them on autopilot. I do quite like the reverby guitar sweeps here though, and the drummer’s subtly putting on what might be his best performance yet. Still, ain’t much to say about it at all. I’ll take this opportunity to point out something I like about this band – every time there’s an instrumental break, they get quieter. Most bands get louder, thanks to obnoxious soloing and other shit, but not these guys.

Track 10: The second song in a row with “Negra” in the title. Should I be suspicious, boyos? More reggaeish piano rhythm stuff. This one’s a slower tempo than the last one of those, though. The synth voice hasn’t aged well, but everything else has. I wonder if the same can be said of the lead singer – has he kept his voice or lost it with age? I can feel his stage presence coming through my speakers and I can’t even see him. I haven’t devoted enough attention to the fact that this is a live album yet – being at this gig (or these gigs? May have been multiple stitched together) must have felt like a privilege. The guitar is making sounds like a thing falling out of the sky, and it’s cool. This song is nearly 8 minutes, and we’ll see if it justifies its length. Ah, he’s playing with the crowd – the best reason one could have for becoming a rockstar is to do stuff like that. Dude does like to roll those Rs, doesn’t he? And that guitar solo sure does know exactly which spaces in the song need filling. Oh, there are two – yes, I suppose I should have mentioned that there are two guitarists in this band, and it sounds like they’re duelling here in a rare and earned moment of indulgence. It’s how the song closes. I ain’t got no problem with that.

Track 11: Final song! If that track from before was reflective, this one is speculative – in that expensive house from the other track from before I mentioned earlier, but as the sun rises rather than sets. Other than that, though, there isn’t much happening in this track – but I guess there doesn’t really need to be. It’s as nice a closer as any, though a bit of a weird way to end a live show – surely you want to drive the crowd crazy with some banger in such a situation? Ah well, never mind. Crowd cheers as the venue’s outro music comes in and that’s the end of it. Wish I had the time to put this into proper review format, but too much uni work – this’ll have to do.

Rating: I liked it.

R. STEVIE MOORE – Phonography (1976)

Review by: Jeremiah Methven
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

This was a fun one for me, because I had never heard of R. Stevie Moore prior to being assigned this album to review. And so what you are about to read is the truest of reviews, unencumbered by popular prejudice or a numerical rating out of 15 assigned by George Starostin.

First, some background. Mr. Moore is considered an ‘outsider’ artist, having never come anywhere near a major label, and with legend stating he’s recorded over 400 albums at home that were only made available to members of his fan club. Yet in recent years, he’s been rediscovered by the indie and underground scenes and can now reasonably be viewed as an influence on the self-consciously lo-fi bands of today. His debut album/compilation Phonography (reviewed here) has now made its way to Spotify and collects recordings made between 1973 and 1976. 

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect before hearing this album – I read that he was from Nashville and his father played guitar for Elvis at one point so that made me think country. But instead the most prominent influence I hear comes from his fellow Tennesseeans Big Star, which perhaps is more logical given the point in time this was recorded. Moore’s strength as a songwriter is an uncanny knack for Big Star-esque power pop with songs like “California Rhythm” being well worthy of that group (at least with a bit more polish, perhaps).

And yet, there’s clearly more than that going on here, because it takes four tracks before we hear that ringing guitar crunch of “California Rhythm” and in that time, we get an excellent peppy guitar/keyboard instrumental (“Melbourne”), two faux-’interviews’ with Moore playing both parts of the exchange (“Explanation of Artist”/”Explanation of Listener”), and Moore singing in a rather strained falsetto over some old-timey piano (“Goodbye Piano”). It’s all clearly recorded in a home environment – with rough, crackly production and the songs feeling a bit meandering at times, but he has some definite skill as a guitarist and a good knack for pop hooks amidst the weirder trappings of the album.

That opening set of songs sets the tone for the rest of the album, which veers back and forth between non-songs (fake radio ads, talk shows) with Moore trying on a variety of weird voices, power pop, and drunken psychedelia (“I Not Listening,” “Moons”). Overall, it’s undoubtedly a unique experience as an album and although perhaps too messy for me to really love, I can’t deny that there are some really nice songs here and it’s consistently weird and entertaining throughout. I confess that the lo-fi experience is not really a plus for me – instead I find myself wondering what some of these songs would sound like with professional production. But then of course, that would undeniably lessen the novelty on display here, so perhaps I should be grateful for what I have.


SWANS – White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

Review by: Tristan Peterson
Album assigned by: Charly Saenz

A Nihilist Anthem For The Saved, And The All-Too Damned

Big thanks to Charly for accidentally assigning me an album I’ve known for a while, and also an album which I like. This’ll be fun.

So, to get backstory on just what a Swans is, they are an experimental rock band from New York City, although they started as one of the most violent No Wave acts to emerge from the scene. Though they still do have some of the loudest shows ever-behind Sunn O))) and My Bloody Valentine-the way frontman Michael Gira presents the sonic formations of Swans makes this volume essential.

White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity came out in 1991, which was a very interesting time period for this project. No longer were they the No Wave powerhouses of the early 1980s. At this point, the seminal Children Of God was about 4 years under Swans’ belt. From 1987 to 1991, Swans put out two live albums, Feel Good Now (1988) and Anonymous Bodies In An Empty Room (1990), and one studio album, The Burning World (1989). While their live records were received about as well as live records usually are (that being, no one really cares besides the die hard fans) [that being said, check out Anonymous Bodies, it’s a truly great record], The Burning World more than a bit of  failure. See, after the unexpected popularity of their cover of the only Joy Division song most people know (need I even name it?)-and yes I do mean unexpected, it’s pretty shitty-the band was signed to Uni records. The album was produced by both Bill Laswell and Michael Gira, and had a drastic change in sound for Swans: not only were there ACOUSTIC instruments, but it took influences from things like the token, all too terrifying, all too assoicated with Yanni WORLD MUSIC, as well as touches of FOLK MUSIC. Gone was the aggression of their previous albums, save for one song (Let It Come Down), and in was the tacky Blind Faith covers and “sensitive” side of Gira and co-Swans-head Jarboe. The album was panned commercially and fairly critically, and Gira has said on record that he hates this album.

So with all that backstory, what is White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity? Is it any good? Could Swans actually pull out of the godawful nosedive that was The Burning World?

The answer to the last two is “yes” and I’m about to explain the first one.

Obviously, what ever bug that crawled into Gira’s ass at the time of recording The Burning World had since died and fallen out, as is easily told by the opening track, “Better Than You”. Of course, many veteran Swans listeners may cringe at the opening baby sounds, like I do whenever I listen to it, but so long as you can make it past, you are surely in for a treat. “Better Than You” is exactly what made Swans great, with a few added twists. The acoustic guitars are still here, but used more sparingly. Melody has become increasingly apparent, but back is the old aggression, and unrepentant, crippling nihilism we so expect from Gira’s sonic, lyrical and authorial expats. Better than you is a fairly driving piece, with loud, vibrant percussion, swirling synths, intense repetition, and, like many Swans pieces, features Gira’s droning semi-monotone, bassy voice. The second track, “Power And Sacrifice,” expands on similar motifs to “Better Than You,” but in a slower, more brutal context. Even two tracks in, and most listeners’ bodies will begin to feel the weight of this maw of hopeless depression. Thankfully, there is a slight repreive in the third track, “You Know Nothing”. It’s a ballad-y type piece, in something that you could say resembles a major key at times. I say slight, as the lyrics-which I’ll cover later-continue to weigh down on the psyche. Track four, “Song For Dead Time”, does what “Power And Sacrifice” did. It continues to explore the themes and areas established before it, to much better success. “Song For Dead Time” is a disturbing acoustic ballad, whose synth accentuations make Jarboe’s whisper of a vocal all the more unnerving. By this point, if you don’t want to have your day ruined, I recommend you turn the album off now, as it doesn’t get much darker than the first four tracks, but it certainly does not get any happier.

That is, except for “We Will Survive,” track 5 of the record. In my opinion its the weakest song on the album, as the repetition we know Swans so well for does not work here, which is a shame. All in all, its a bland, throwaway track. Thankfully, this is quickly fixed by the end of the first half of the album, the crooning denouncement of romance, “Love Will Save You”. The song is like a cascade of frequencies crashing down on your ears as the world around you falls in on itself, in all its shimmering majesty.

Now we come to the true highlight of the record, and the beginning of the second half, “Failure.” Although it is a very simple acoustic song, even simpler than “Song For Dead Time,” the atmosphere set up by the simple, four chord song is the pinnacle of this album, and even the album that follows White Light, Love Of Life (which is essentially a clone of this record, with some minor changes, but its still very enjoyable). There is something about the strumming pattern, the keyboard, and Gira’s voice blending so perfectly to create an anthem for hopelessness, a suicide swan song, a nihilist calling in fact. Far and away, “Failure” is the best song on the album, and its emotional weight is near indescribable. So, if nothing else, I implore you investigate that song.  

Sadly, this atmosphere is not well upheld, as the following track, “Song For The Sun,” is all too much like “We Will Survive,” and it has the same issues plaguing it, but it is even MORE out of place, as it is almost upbeat at times, which breaks the unrepentant hopelessness this album hopes to provide you with. “Miracle of Love” is a sort of second rate version of “Love Will Save You,” but is enjoyable in its own right. It sort of bridges the atmospheric gap between “Power And Sacrifice” and “Failure,” though, so its more than made up for in that respect. “When She Breathes” is another highlight of the album, and is sort of like the Jarboe variant of “Failure,” which is obviously welcomed by me. It has a bit more of a bite to it than Failure, so it is more angry than it is hopeless, but is still an amazing work. Sadly, the album ends on a dud and a half, as “Why Are We Alive?” sounds like a cheesy late 80s, average rock song in the Swans lens, and “The Most Unfortunate Lie” is a heavily watered down “Failure,” almost to the degree where it might be considered success.

The lyrics on this album are second to none, as is exemplified on “Failure,” and thats what makes so much of this album work, but also not work. When you have songs talking about how Love will save you from all damnation because you’ll be too stupid to realize you’re in hell, and how everything is meaningless and you will die an insignificant shit stain on the universe, you can’t have songs about how you will also make it through this dark time, no matter how well written they are. Another problem, as exemplified on “Why Are We Alive?” is how the lyrics completely conflict with the music being shared. I’m pretty sure the explanation is self explanatory for a song called “Why Are We Alive?,” but similar issues occur in “Song For The Sun.”

Overall, this album would be much much better if it had a more consistent tone and mood throughout, and if were able to keep up that crushing feeling so many of the songs offer, I might call this record a 9, or even a 10. But its inconsistencies in mood and quality drag it down. Now, I’m sure many of you will here readers like this record more than I do, so I encourage you to listen to it, but also don’t be surprised if it disappoints.

Best Tracks: Failure, Love Save You, Song For Dead Time, Power And Sacrifice

Worst Tracks: Why Are We Alive?, Song For The Sun