DÂM-FUNK – Invite the Light (2015)

Review by: Ed Luo
Album assigned by: Markus Pilskog

Retro 80’s funk/R&B – it’s pretty fun, but kinda cheesy for me and it’s looooooong, at least for my current semi-fatigued state. The only tracks I can recall at the moment is “The Hunt & Murder of Lucifer” for the fuzzy bassline and “Missin’ U” for the flutes in the background. But yeah, good album if you’re endeared to this sort of 80’s funk aesthetic.

Oh yeah, Q-Tip, Ariel Pink, and Snoop Dogg guest star on a few track, that’s pretty fun too.

DUKE ELLINGTON & JOHN COLTRANE – Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (1963)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

Let’s start by saying this album is great. All-too-often highly touted collaborations fail to meet the expectations. This is not the case here. Coltrane and Ellington are both very deserved in the “master” category, obviously. At the time Coltrane was reaching the peak of his career, which was sadly cut short. At this stage, dating roughly to the “Africa Sessions” & “Crescent” album sessions, Coltrane was still very much on this side of tonality, but he was already pushing the boundaries with extended techniques and freer structures, which would culminate with “A Love Supreme” before his jump into free jazz and atonality.
Ellington’s importance to jazz music can hardly be over-stated. His contribution to the repertoire and to the musical language and depth of the music are enormous. To be sure this album finds Ellington in the later years of his career, long after he made his most crucial contributions. Nevertheless, Ellington was an explorer throughout his career, who repeatedly absorbed new developments into his own style, as is also evidenced on the crucial trio session, “Money Jungle” with Max Roach and Charles Mingus, also from 1962. This album also brings home Ellington’s hugely important contributions as a pianist.
All but one of the tracks are written or co-written by Ellington (or his writing partner Billy Strayhorn), with one Coltrane composition. The album opens with a delicate version of “In a Sentimental Mood”, before switching into a higher gear with the original “Take the Coltrane” and on “Stevie”, where Coltrane fully dives into his own aggressive & progressive style, and Ellington is right there with him. “My Little Brown Book”, a Billy Strayhorn masterpiece, is another highlight of the album, but it’s all great.
Ten points, five stars, thumbs up, whatever you like!

HAIL SPIRIT NOIR – Pneuma (2012)

Review by: Jonathan Birch
Album assigned by: A.A

My first impressions of this album were along the lines of “Dear Lord! What is this horrendous cacophony?!” You see, I have an aversion to generally all things black or thrash metal. My impression of those genres is something involving endless, repetitive guitar riffs, tinker tonker / whizz bang drum solos, bass work that shakes the very foundations of buildings, and a sweaty long haired man doing his best to make his voice go hoarse. But off this album, only the latter is really present in any magnitude.
The record starts off as one would expect, with a track titled “Mountain of Horror”. From the cover, it’s apparent that the subject matter involves some degree of satanic witchcraft and masonry, and what little I could make of the growled lyrics certainly pertains to this idea. However, I had an inkling that this Greek outfit didn’t take themselves too seriously, as there is a slight tongue in cheek inflection to some of it, as though they are purposefully going over the top (or at least I hope). I’d be inclined to believe progressive death metal and Devilry have gone hand in hand long enough that any more releases are to be treated flippantly/ironically by the artist.
While the subject matter is about what I expected, it’s the music and production that surprised me the most. There is enough variety added in the form of keyboards (mostly organ or mellotron) that is atypical of most modern rock/metal, but is probably the norm for progressive style. It gives the music a nice layered effect, and each track likes to change things up with some added acoustic guitar codas or tasteful solos. And when the singer isn’t doing his best impression of a werewolf, he turns out to possess a pretty melodic and pleasing voice. The closest comparison I could make would be if you combined King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator and Cannibal Corse. It’s the band’s willingness to incorporate classic Prog aesthetics that makes the album most enjoyable.
One of the longer tracks, “When All is Black”, begins heavily enough, before morphing halfway through into an almost folksy metal ballad that brings to mind early 70s Genesis, with lyrical ideas that also ring of The Stones’s “Paint it Black.” With the singer even having a Peter Gabriel-ish inflection in his voice, one could almost imagine Genesis performing this if their music revolved around rotting sores, matricide and summoning the spirit of Beezlebub, instead of Carpet Crawlers and Watchers of Skies. In fact, the second track “Let Your Devil Come Inside” even has a xylophone solo, which added plenty of needed charm to counter balance the imagery of killing one’s own mother while inside the womb.
The biggest surprise for me though was the opening of “Into the Gates of Time.” The gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar, with the sinisterly lush orchestral backing of a mellotron, is so jarring in its tranquility that it jerks me into a happy place of sunshine and rainbows. This lasts but a few seconds before the rest of the band comes in with heavy psychedelic guitar and relentless drums shattering the harmony into oblivion. Right away I am whisked off through “the pale gates of time” to someplace not far removed from the Court of the Crimson King… only this place is far, far darker and less inviting. The song continues in a languid, hypnotic fashion, before morphing into this brief jazzey interlude, with a funky Weather Report-ish bass, that lasts oh so briefly. It’s the small moments that are like small slices of delight, to alleviate the relentlessness of “stepping into the darkest gates… amid the strings of time in the candelight”. And yet just when you think it’s over, the track continues with these amazing sounding moog-synthesizer effects amid the crashing instruments, and the song hasn’t even really taken off yet. More strange time signatures and polyrhythms occur, jerking you around until everything is engulfed in the nighttime sounds of crickets and cicadas, with the gentle strumming of a six string to send me peacefully off to sleep; my ears still ringing from the demented lullaby that just ensued.
The last song has a funereal feel to it due to what sounds like a pipe organ, although it’s still a headbanger of a number where the band gets to namecheck themselves in the lyrics a few times. It acts as a nice resolution to the near forty minutes of utter mayhem that has transpired. It ends with the singer whispering “Hail spirit, spirit NOiiiiiir” in your ear a few extra times for effect, before it comes to a close, leaving you with the feeling that someone, somewhere, is busy slaughtering a lamb in a pentagram while listening to this same album. I consider myself a pretty level-headed individual, but the music certainly put the fear of the occult within me, which I guess means the band were successful in their objective.
And that’s the story of my experience with Hail Spirit Noir’s Pneuma. I certainly got the impression that this group were seeking to do things with the genre that most other bands are too lame to even attempt. The variety in instruments, the technical skill and stylings of their playing, the sheer ballsiness of combining 70s avant-garde with no-holds-barred Satanism is what kept my interest for the relatively brief running time. It’s a real adrenaline rush of a record that leaves me feeling a little bit unclean and unholy, which means I couldn’t recommend this enough for black metal fans who are also interested in a bit more complexity.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to some Enya for a bit.

LELE LELE – Lele Lele (2009)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Nina A

Who are Lele Lele? Couldn’t find much information about them. In fact, couldn’t find anything apart from the fact that according to Spotify they are mostly listened to in Apeldoorn and Częstochowa. Trying to place their sound in a specific place is no easy task either. Sounding Eastern-Europeanish, Turkish-Balkanish, Middle-Eastern and Indian all at once, they are definitely a fusion group. But definitely not the kind of fusion group in which fusion means taking anything that sounds new or alternative or exotic in anyway, for then mixing it with the familiar sounds of pop and rock. There’s no pop nor rock in here. There’s not a lot of jazz either. And yet, it doesn’t seem to me as unescapably traditional music.
There’s a European wind ensemble somewhere in here; and then one finds some Indian percussion and sitar (or something sounding like it); plus a guitar-like instrument all in the middle. It’s folksy and yet it is not folk music in the sense of being the traditional music of a specific place. It is global folk, nomadic folk: folk music which tells the story, not of a place, but of a journey, an exchange. That way the record manages to sound characteristically Turkish or balkanic sometimes; extremely Indian at others, and still it always feels consistent, connected and balanced.
In a way, this music feels groovy, especially the slow songs. Not sure why but a song like “Cogs and Gears” reminds me of Reggae, even if it’s a completely different genre; it’s probably the syncopation. And that’s one of the most interesting things in this music: the syncopated rhythm. The rhythms are rich and complex and frequently all the instruments play in syncopation to one other.  
The mood of the album is hard to describe. The uptempo songs are festive and danceable, and yet, they don’t really feel that happy. More than anything else, they sound mysterious (though that may be simply the effect of Eastern scales on western ears). At times they may sound more playful, at times kind of melancholic, but the mystery lingers.
Overall impression: I enjoyed the album and I’m glad and grateful for the opportunity of getting to know it and explore it. I admire the consistency of their fusion; it certainly works and it works very well, and has let me curious about the context of the album. Still, on a purely emotional level I couldn’t really get a strong connection with the music. It may sound a little bit too premeditated (like it happens sometimes with superb instrumentalists). Maybe they lack a bit of rashness and spontaneity. Maybe it just felt a little bit distant, or it’s simply not my kind of music. Probably I just have to listen to it a couple of more times and without having to think much about it to write a review.  Anyway, I wouldn’t put anyone off listening to this record. I would recommend it. It’s good fusion music performed by an excellent singer and band. Also, don’t know why but I feel it may be enjoyed a lot more live. I would really like to see them in concert.

ADMIRAL SIR CLOUDESLEY SHOVELL – Check ’em Before You Wreck ’em (2014)

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

If you ever watch “classic” rock videos on youtube – as I myself quite often do — then you’ll find that if you scroll down to read the comments section, that sitting there amongst the most upvoted comments at the top there’ll usually be at least one extremely self-congratulatory one from someone purporting to be a teenager or adolescent and making a big deal out of his or her preference for the sweaty, hairy, “authentic” music of the past in marked contradistinction to Taylor-Swift-Justin-Bieber-One-Direction fixated peers. These youtube comment sections will also tend to feature a number of variations on the same poignant lament: that of having been cheated out by being born a generation or two too late and therefore having missed on rock’s golden age. 

But these outpourings of grief are symptomatic of something much more widespread, a discontentment that arises from the very obvious malaise in which rock now finds itself. And the reasons for that malaise, for rock’s creeping debility and its for ever increasing irrelevance, aren’t too difficult to figure out either.

The fact is that from the 1950s onwards rock music enjoyed an extended, decades-long boom during which it was able to prevail both in terms of the influence it wielded on a wider culture – providing the soundtrack to the hopes, dreams and ecstasies of three or four generations of young people throughout the Western world and beyond – as well as in terms of the sheer, precipitous levels of musical creativity that it inspired: spawning a myriad of artistic triumphs from the likes of the Beatles, Hendrix, Bowie, the Clash, the Smiths, etc, etc. This boom period, it transpired, would only last up until the early 2000s when the whole thing just seemed to run out of steam like that. It was then that it reached a sort of turning point or phase transition where the great bulk of the music produced under the banner of rock essentially just stop sounding “new” – but since the elements of novelty and more especially that of shock go together to make up the foundations of the post-war youth culture that rock music itself helped to create this served to seriously undermine rock’s continued vitality as an artform. How exactly can rock can ever begin to sound ‘fresh’ and new again though when it seems incapable of overcoming its customary sonic ruts — when it keeps on labouring away with the same core set-up of amplified  guitars, drums, and bass that were there since the beginning? Because what can you do with that kind of instrumental set-up up that hasn’t already been done at least twice or three times already? What? Immerse everything in feedback or strike out a drone? use prepared guitar? go atonal?…No, it seems that regardless of the lengths that rock musicians go to that they’ll never be able to escape their inevitable fate, which is that of always sounding like the past. 

Well what can a poor boy do? Just give up on singing in a rock n roll band? “Not bleeding likely,” I can hear the legions of the dearly devoted scream out in unison. Perhaps you too regard yourself as one of the faithful and are unable to stomach all that hype going around about how hip hop’s stolen a definitive march on rock and roll and assuming its former status as the most exciting, urgent music genre around. Well then you might have also begun to notice how going full-“retro” musicwise no longer carries the sort of cultural stigma that it once did way back when: when well-meaning (but admittedly clumsy and humourless) retro bands like Ocean Colour Scene and Paul Weller — and to a lesser extent Oasis — would get continually ripped to shreds in the music press for being sad, uncool, hoary old dadrockers. And that in fact sounding uncannily like the past seems to carry its own sort of cachet these days, as the success of artists like the Brian Jonestown Massacre or Ariel Pink would surely seem to attest.  So then why not make a virtue out of necessity? — Because if you’re bound to sound like the past whatever the fuck it is you do and whatever it is you play, then what’s to stop you from going all out with it and doing it with zeal  and bravado? 

And this my friends is where Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell finally, belatedly, make their entrance into this long and super indulgent review with a tasty little long player entitled “Check ‘Em Before You Wreck ‘Em” —  an album that doesn’t so much give off a certain whiff of the past as drag the whole thick, heavy miasma of 70s proto-metal glam back along behind with it. A joyous, glittering, stomping juggernaut of a record, completely unrepentant in its retro-desire to leech out all the best parts out from your favourite Black Sabbath-Led Zep records and to regurgitate them out again in the form of a seamless little gem of a record. And it’s a sheer pleasure to listen to, trust me – so much so that you can’t help but feel a little uneasy at having been so readily seduced by a record that could, after all, have been released at any point during the last 40 years. Band name notwithstanding though, the music lacks the kind of conceptual sophistication and hijinks that other modern retro groups like have brought to the table; it’s just pure straightahead rock and roll. And it’s the love and the enthusiasm that win you over in the end, that make it sound so fresh: even if you can’t help but feel that this is a musical dead-end. That is unless you want rock to ossify into a kind of living fossil, to turn it into a kind of folk music in which every detail of the past is carefully preserved and curated – which for me personally seems to go against the whole spirit of the music. But hey what do I know, I was born about 5 years too late. 

PIZZICATO FIVE – Happy End of the World (1997)

Review by: Michael Strait
Album assigned by: Alex Alex

Track 1: Keyboards and vaguely distorted, unclear vocals. All sortsa cool synth swirls flowing about! Radio-style distortions crackle. Is this what they call “retrofuturism”? Anyway then it picks up into a properly-recorded song and her voice is revealed to be regal, authoritative and confident without being overbearing as a refined, New Wave-ish (but less sonically prominent) bassline appears. The other instrumentation is provided mostly by piano (fairly buried in the mix) and cool percussion, which – and it’s difficult to notice this at first – is actually still buried under radio-distortion. This track is really fascinating, actually. Oh, did I mention how lovely the melody is? This is the second foreign-language album I’ve reviewed in a row for this game. It’s also the second one that sounds completely cool and in control – gee, are all foreignese people like this?

Track 2: Segues right into it: Wobbly-sounding keyboard stuff and Drill & Bass-ish drums. She sings lyrics that sound like they’re meant to be nonsense in any language (“la la la la la la la la”) while the piano gets even more minimalist. I gotta say, for an album that’s making such sparing use of its instrumentation, and burying most of it so far in the mix, it manages to come across as bafflingly fulsome. Maybe that’s just her voice. The bass in this is interesting – I’m pretty sure it’s an electric bass guitar doing its best to imitate an electronically-generated bass sound, and it’s cool.

Track 3: Sub 2 minutes and opens sounding like a parody of an old Disney movie. Then it develops into, possibly, a parody of advertising! A man talks over oldschool advert-style instrumental music in a way that suggests he is trying to sell me something. Maybe this is a joke track I’d get if I were Japanese. I don’t dislike it at all, though – what’s fun is that, about a minute in, the man disappears and background music is remixed into a dance track. Fun stuff!

Track 4: Chanting of what I think is the band’s name opens this track. She sounds quietly but deeply pleased with something on this track, like she’s just observed her lover do one of those little things she loves about him which she can’t rationally explain. In terms of instrumentation and songwriting, this is the most traditional rock song yet, which means it still has keyboard flourishes, sparingly-applied strings and the sorts of harmonies that haven’t been associated with rock since the 70s. The drumming is also very cymbal-centric, with occasional deeply distorted flourishes on the more box-shaped drums. So much is going on here that I almost lose sight of how subtly effective the hook is.

Track 5: Ah! Hip-hop drums, while a sultry-sounding repetition of the band’s name is chopped about. These hip-hop drums are eventually matched by a reappearance of Drill & Bass-esque drumming (the sort Aphex Twin appropriated for use in IDM, y’know), and there’s the occasional flourish in the middle where either a keyboard or an effects-laden guitar plays a few stabs as the cymbals lightly dance.

Track 6: An extension of the previous track (which was a prelude, dontcha know), this one has the same percussion segment, but develops into something else as a piano comes in and joins the woman as she begins to sing one of her trademark refined melodies, this time singing very softly. Spacey synth flourishes accompany horn segments and wordless male harmonies – damn, this album is fucking awesome, you know? It’s fantastic. I love it. Thank you so much, Alex. To make such a blistering percussion segment, complete with the occasional distorted glitching of a drum or two, sound so light and delicate as an accompaniment to what I presume is an intimate and reflective love song takes some doing, but these guys managed it. You know what this song sounds like? Paris. I can just see the Eiffel tower out of the window this woman is staring out of…

Track 7: Baby, baby, baby, ah! A percussion-effusive intro breaks into a glockenspiel-led track with synth sounds that occasionally make it sound like the theme song to a level on Mario Kart, but in an endearing way. Actually, this sounds a lot like a Mario Kart level song, complete with the near-absence of vocals except for the lady’s repeated refrain of “baby, baby, baby, ah!” She’s charismatic enough to make it sound like an unmissable part of the song, the rest of which sounds like a very lovable sorta surfish pastiche. Someone overdub this on a video of someone playing Shy Guy Beach and tell me it doesn’t fit – it fuckin’ does!

Track 8: Ah, this bassline, mang… instantly noticeable, swagger like Jay-Z, and then more Mario-type synths come in to match it. Ain’t that sound like an insult? Crazy thing is – it isn’t! This has one of the best vocal melodies yet, too, and the subtly-yet-overwhelmingly excited vocal tone is back. I think I might be developing a crush on this girl, actually – I’ve no idea what she looks like, nor what she’s saying, but her vocals just ooze personality. This song has, I think, an electric keyboard, being used in a very minimalist yet very effective manner – it usually plays half-second or so stabs of sound, somehow managing to fluidly cover multiple notes as it does so. Lends the entire thing this weird sense of liquidity and I love it. “Mon Amour Tokyo”, this song is called, and now I wanna go there.

Track 9: Squelchy low treble synths introduce this song as more wordless “ba bababa” harmonies are sung. Damn, they really do love the metallic drum sounds in this band, don’t they? It’s like they never play anything else. It’s not just cymbals – I think every metal percussion instrument is in this guy’s setup. The bassist also deserves mention for being a consistently kool kat the entire album. It’s like he represents its ego – a controlled but nonetheless dominant force in this album’s personality. Confident, but not overconfident. Just certain that life’s gonna go its way. A trumpeter shows up on this track at the end. It’s nice.

Track 10: a 10-minuter called “Porno 3003”. Hah, what a coincidence – I watched about 3,003 pornos this month! She’s delivering a spoken word monologue over a sonically complex groove that has an absolutely glorious sample – this grainy snippet of a horn from some movie soundtrack, I think, so grainy I can’t even identify what kind of horn it used to be, but they turn a couple of brief bars from it into the song’s main motif and it’s exactly the sort of transcendent that a good sample can be. The horn sounds like it’s from some dinosaur movie, too, considering how much import it purports to carry. The rest of the track is mostly percussion, our lady’s monologue, some synth textures and some string samples that are probably from the same soundtrack. A little over halfway through it develops a piano groove, which sticks around. For a track with such an economy of moving parts, it does a good job of keeping one’s interest and sounding genuinely busy. All that said, I ‘spect I’d enjoy this track even more if I understood the lyrics. Eight minutes in, the samples go away and a triumphant electric piano motif rises up out of their ashes, accompanying the monologue for about a minute until the samples come back. I gotta say – I liked that track, but I wish I understood the story she was telling!

Track 11: Typical. The last track was all Japanese and here this one opens with an all-English Language phone conversation in which someone tells Ms. Five that they love her music. Anyway, one phunky-ass synthpop bassline runs through this one – actually it sounds halfway to Eurodance, this thing, but it somehow avoids being too corny. Or is it merely embracing the corn so hard that it’s camouflaging it? Ah well, whatever – the percussion is way too exotic to be properly Eurodance and frankly the sonics are too good. Few lyrics on this one, either – gee, did she use ‘em all up last track? Mostly just wordless vocals singing simple melodies. Rather intentionally dated-sounding synth riff intermission in the middle of this track. Now that I think about this closer, this whole track sounds like an affectionate parody of the late 80s/early 90s European pop scene. It’s a nice lil gesture.

Track 12: Alright, I’ll be honest now – this album is definitely too long. Ain’t no excuse to be over an hour when half of that time is in the last 5 tracks, and while their sound is wonderful and intriguing and intoxicating it’s also not all that varied. That said, this track features our resident sexy confident singer lady singing a proper melody again, and that’s so welcome. Other than that, I guess I’ve not much to say about this song – it sounds like the first half of the album again, but a little less. Meh. Not too big a fan of this one. I mean, obviously it’s nice to be back in Paris in the summertime, walking round the colourful streets and fanning myself happily with a paper fan as I peruse fruits – but I have been here before, and that’s something I can’t quite escape.

Track 13: Oh, now this one’s interesting – I think there might, might, be a 60s guitar sample underlying this whole thing, but there’s so much else going on it’s difficult to properly tell. Either way, some people are harmonising about a “happy ending!” while the electric piano makes some grandiose stabs and suddenly I’ve figured out what this album is: it’s not retrofuturism, it’s futureretroism. It’s a vast hodgepodge of nostalgic different elements of different eras of the musical past –  1950s jazz, 1970s jazz-funk, 1980s synthpop, 1990s Eurodance, 2000s video game soundtracks – all splurged together in an anachronism stew as if it’s been curated by people from the 23rd century to whom the differences between the meagre decades are non-existent and irrelevant. It’s a big “old times!!” party for the rich kids of the future who don’t actually know that much about history but want in on some of that chic because the past was so classy! Anyway, after 5 minutes the track ends and we get some silence while waiting for a hidden track, which makes me sigh and check the date – since we vanquished that shit when the digital age came around – and realise in astonishment that this was released in 1997; I mean, how could they have so perfectly parodied the 2000s Mario Kart soundtracks then? Is Japan literally in the future? How the fuck is this possible? Are this band time travellers? I am so confused over this that I barely notice the hidden track rolling around, but it was about 30 seconds long and not a lot happened so never mind. Well, I suppose time travel is indeed possible and these guys did it with their keyboards – and now I’m signing out. Thanks for the assignment, Alex, much appreciated.

MANASSAS – Manassas (1972)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Jonathan Birch

By the time he left home in 1975, when I was seven, my brother Fred must have had about fifty rock albums. There are three categories: in the first are the albums of which I remember the cover and I remember liking the music (for example Relics, After the Goldrush and Full House). In the second the albums of which I remember the cover and I remember disliking the music (for example Tommy, Fragile and Okie). In the third are those of which I only remember the cover. Stephen Stills Manassas is in the third. And it’s the only one in that category, now that I think of it.

I must have been unimpressed with the music and impressed with the cover. I still think it has a very good cover. That’s one of the assets of the album; if you don’t like the music you can always hang it on your wall. It is that good.

Manassas is very much a product of the early seventies when rock musicians operated under the general assumption that they had created, in Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury mainly but in other places as well, a revolution of peace and love. A chain of events that became known, simplified, as the sixties, or the Sexual Revolution or the Age of Aquarius. You know, man!.. Most, if not all, of the “rock music” in the seventies was inspired by those events. The inspiration could take the form of retreat, (Dylan becoming a family man and joyfully singing about the joy of bundles of joy and spreading the joy of country music) or the inspiration could be a counter reaction (anyone from Lou Reed to Bowie to Black Sabbath embracing Satan and sarcasm). And by the time Manassas came out some of the more intelligent rock stars had second thoughts about it (like John Lennon, Neil Young and Jackson Browne). But many rock musicians weren’t that perceptive and were not too modest to proclaim themselves the Gods of the new revolution and spread it’s euphoria through words and music. A euphoria that now, to my ears, sounds false and stale.

Stephen Stills was one of the latter. No wonder, he was one of the chief perpetrators in Woodstock.(So was Neil Young, by the way, but he may have written the song about Stills but it really is he: The Loner.)

And so it’s Post-Woodstock Euphoria that you are served on Manassas. And I do have the impression it is served at least routinely, almost against the will of the servers. Reluctantly. Because in spite of all the pomp and circumstance, all the professionalism and all the self congratulatory swagger I miss the spirit the sincerity and energy of rock and roll in most of the music on Manassas. And to be honest, I miss it in a lot of music from that era.There’s been a trade in; youthful exuberance for stale, routine euphoria. And self-importance.

That you can hear on Manassas. Mainly in the rock songs. It’s in the wide-eyed, over-emoting “sincere”, “soulfull” singing style of Stills. It’s in the arrangements, stuffed to the brim with embellishments; leaving the songs no room to breathe. It’s in the hooks of said songs; there aren’t any. And it’s in the pretentious but meaningless lyrics like:

“A superb point of reference detected
becomes absurd with a moment’s reflection
leaves one a passage of simple thought
not sagging with excess weight of excess baggage
and we move around
We move around “

Manassas was an attempt of Stephen Stills to break away from the dependance on Crosby and Nash and finally Young. So he recruited a number of usual suspects of which Chris Hillman is the most wellknown. But it never really became a functioning unit because of various members joining all kinds of other timely outfits, not rarely with the already mentioned Young, Crosby and Nash in different constellations. It is fun reading up on the history of Manassas, I think they call it incestuous?

Actually, I have the impression that being a rock star was an ordeal for Stills et al. Much of the album sounds like hard labor and mostly so the rock songs. I feel pity for them; to be a major figurehead of such a sea of hair and remain godlike about it must be hard. (By the way; there are two songs with lyrics dedicated to the life and loves of a rock’n’roll star so Stills must have been reflecting on that subject a lot. Unfortunately the lyrics are very shallow and clichéd.)

So that’s my main impression of the album; that it sounds tired and it’s energy sounds second-handed and artificial. And in that it is symptomatic of a lot of classic rock. It is probably needless to say that I’m not a big fan of classic rock, so there you have it.

But Manassas does have a lot of redeeming qualities. It is a double album of which side 1 (The Raven) and side 4 (Rock & Roll is Here to Stay) consist mainly of rock songs (sometimes more bluesy and sometimes a bit funky). Side 1 is arranged like a suite,with rapid transitions from one song to another so that you don’t get bored and almost fail to notice there are no actual songs. Side 4 offers no such pleasure; the songs sound obstipated and overlong. It closes with a bluesy acoustic solo song “Blues Man” on which Stills ruminates about the deaths of Al Wilson, Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix. Unfortunately the song is unremarkable and it’s lyrics so bad that it’s truly an embarrassment. Both sides mentioned are at some points livened up by Latin percussion. Which is welcome.

Side 3 (“Consider”) is also quite unremarkable; it is filled with folk rock songs and none of them stand out in any way except the hippy-sentimental “Johnny’s Garden”. Funny lyrics that one has, too:

“There’s a place
I can get to
Where I’m safe
From the city blues
And its green
And its quiet
Only trouble was
I had to buy it
And I’ll do anything
I got to do
Cut my hair and
Shine my shoes”

Now at least we know that Stills cut his own hair, quite unlike his fellow golden retriever Crosby who would rather die than do any such thing because he felt like he owed it someone, which explains why Stills looks better in photographs. And the moustache, or rather: absence thereof, of course.

Where was I? Oh yes: redeeming qualities. There are six, apart from those already mentioned. Six splendid, yes fantastic country-rock songs on the second side of the album (“The Wilderness”). Oh, maybe five and a half, because I find “Don’t look at my shadow” a bit corny. But the other ones are really great, heartfelt and not mangled by rock star posturing. Of these the break-up song “So Begins the Task” is the best; easily one of the best songs I heard for months.

Conclusion: Manassas is an album that’s seriously flawed by the stylistics of the era in which it was created and the position the creator had in that era. But it still has a lot going for it. And if you wish to demonstrate how country rock offered an escape from the deathtrap of rock goddism for rock stars in the early 70’s Manassas is extremely useful. & do listen to the Wilderness!

THE POLYPHONIC SPREE – Together We’re Heavy (2004)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Ed Luo

This is grand, epic and BIG. Together we’re heavy indeed, if by ‘heavy’ you mean producing symphonic-sounding universalist anthems. But let’s look at the band behind the album: The Polyphonic Spree is a group of about 20 constantly rotating musicians from Dallas led by a man called Tim DeLaughter (which actually rhymes with ‘daughter’ and not ‘laughter’, for your information), who is pretty much the only constant member. Tim’s idea is basically making catchy indie pop BUT with a major difference – contrary to the 00s musical fashion and giving absolutely zero fucks about being ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’, he drenches his songs in lush orchestral arrangements and gives them bombastic gospel-like choir treatment.

The results (at least on this album, which is their only record I’ve heard so far) are predictably GRAND. The messages of the album doubly so: Love thy neighbor! Peoples of the world unite in one sweeping motion! Be happy, today is the best day of your life! Let’s sing together for love and peace! Stand up, throw your hands in the air, sing your throat out and be free! “You gotta be strong, you gotta be two thousand places at once”, “and love will shine today”! These guys are practically making 1967 happen again, at least within the limits of this particular record. And with some good memorable melodies, nice harmonies and very professional singing, too! Think classic-era Electric Light Orchestra, which apparently was a major influence. Lush arrangements and ecstatic choirs suddenly make sense.

It goes without saying that your perception of this music highly depends on whether you can enjoy this sort of thing non-ironically or the cynicism of our times has gotten you for good. And no, don’t fall under the impression that the whole record is naively over-optimistic either – lyrically this album acknowledges the tough and dire affair that is life, and it does have its share of melancholic moments as well (One Man Show, to name one). The record also features a rock-opera-like mini-suite called When The Fool Becomes a King, which also adds to some slight diversity of mood. However, in the end the purpose of EVERY SINGLE song here is to make you happier and more capable of dealing with the harshness of life. This is a statement of optimism, a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ album, the musical equivalent of a helping hand lent to those in need of cheering up.

Which is the reason I’m actually refusing to rate this album objectively. It might not have the best songs or the best arrangements; maybe it isn’t even good by normal rock and pop standards. Not to mention that a lot of people will probably hate this record for being so at odds with the times, full of almost saccharine sunshine. BUT I happen to have really enjoyed this album, and I want to praise The Polyphonic Spree for their sheer audacity and boldness, for not being afraid of sincerely trying to make people love their lives a bit more. In 2004 this takes balls.  

THE RESIDENTS – Not Available (1978)

Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
Album assigned by: Franco Micale

First, I absolutely won’t comment about the extra-musical aspects, the theory of obscurity, or whatever, as I think it’s probably a put-on.

How to describe it? Hmm, what about this? Imagine Mike Oldfield had gone totally insane right before the first recording session of “Ommadawn” and that might be a nice start. Minimalist synth phrases intermingle with weird voices, tribal-like beats are cut short by Steve Reich-esque signature changes…

The Mike Oldfield comment is not casual, as the ending section of Part One has a repetitive keyboard riff that appears throughout the album serving as a “main theme” of sorts, and it does remind me a bit of “Tubular Bells”. That part had begun with something that I can only describe as “electronic Moros y Cristianos music”, because it reminds me of the kind of music brass bands play in Eastern Spain the festivities that remember the Muslim vs Christian battles in medieval Spain. Which usually resemble Hollywood music like Lawrence of Arabia more than actual Moorish music but you get my drift. Part Two begins with a sax that is treated in the studio to sound like a folk instrument from Hell, segueing into a deranged deconstruction of a piano ballad and then some music that would be great as the soundtrack for a German expressionist film. When you thought that Part Three was going to be almost entirely devoid of interest they manage to set spooky music to an habanera rhythm. The beginning of Part Four sounds to me like a lo-fi version of Air’s “Moon Safari” which again seems to be spliced into a weird Latin-tinged thing. And the album continues with those wild juxtapositions.

In short, here’s an album that I find definitely interesting and might return to, although it does not “resonate” with me, which I don’t think was its purpose anyway. If you find yourself deeply moved by it, I don’t know what that says about you, honestly 🙂

By the way there’s an aspect of the album that brought me memories of my childhood: my grandpa had a Farfisa Matador-R organ from the 70s and some of the tones – and definitely the rhythm box sounds – remind me of it. A lot.

GROUND ZERO – Revolutionary Pekinese Opera, ver. 1.28 (1996)

Review by: Tristan Peterson
Album assigned by: Tom Hadrian Kovalevsky

Okay so, something needs to be cleared up before I begin this review. This isn’t an opera. Do not think it is an opera. No I’m serious, things will not end for you if you think it’s an opera. Don’t fuck up and think it’s an opera.

Anyway, Revolutionary Grand Pekinese Opera is an album (read: their third) by Japanese noisers Ground-Zero*, who were an ensemble led by Otomo Yoshihide, who is in my opinion one of the greatest turntablists ever.  The first incarnation of this band was formed for a John Zorn album (Cobra), so that should very well sum up the sound this project has (read: fucking insane). 

Even though I am really big into the harsh noise, free jazz, marching, sound collage and other such territories which this album not only treads upon, but completely steamrolls over, I did not like this album on first listen.  I thought that it was just thoughtless sound collage, no real effort put in, and if there was any, it was quickly squashed by what seemed to be needless fuckery. Really, it was a noise album that was noisy for all the wrong reasons, and it just made no sense at all.

But on further listening, the record began to click, in a way. All the nonsensicalities began to align themselves in such a way that it creates a rather beautiful sonic hellscape. The first opening tracks all sort of build into one huge cacophonous din which has elements of progressive rock, the inevitable noise and free jazz, spoken word, military march, and even classical music. Of course many of these elements occur at the same time more often than not. But all of this gets released into Paraiso – 1, a very dark and minimal melodic piece which is actually extremely beautiful and calm, compared to the rest of the first “movement” of this record, if you will.

The next half of this album is far more free form in nature, but it also incorporates more ethnically diverse music, incorporating free jazz explosions over salsa motifs, and tortured screams over newscasts and the literal assault of a violin. Of course, this half of the album takes the idea of an increasingly cacophonous roar to the next level, going even more batshit than previously, before again ending on an eerily beautiful Paraiso – 2, which ends on turntable noise and a slow fade of an organ playing Disney music, which kind of sums up the record perfectly.

Although I didn’t know until well after my first listen, this is actually a conceptual record about the clash between Maoist China and Western culture. To be quite frank, know that this was the concept of the record greatly enhanced my listening experience on repeats, because the record does reflect those themes when you can pick them out of the mess of sound it creates.

I would say don’t expect to enjoy this album on first listen. You need to give it a few chances for it to really seduce you into its world.

Overall: 7.4/10