Electronica Album Reviews

Gazelle Twin & NYX: Deep England review | John Lewis’s contemporary album of the month

(NYX Collective Records)
A dramatic reworking of Gazelle Twin’s techno-folk Pastoral album with the NYX choir adds layers of hair-raising chills

Gazelle Twin is the alter ego of Elizabeth Bernholz, a composer, producer and singer who creates unsettling, terrifying and occasional hilarious electronic music. Her stage costume resembles a Morris-dancing Leigh Bowery in Adidas trainers impersonating one of the droogs from Clockwork Orange. This retro-futurist court jester garb suited her remarkable 2018 album Pastoral, a febrile journey into the heart of middle England that mixed thuggish techno, menacing folk chants and lyrics that satirised old Albion and delved into its dark, paganistic roots.

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Guedra Guedra: Vexillology review | Ammar Kalia’s global album of the month

(On the Corner)
Abdellah M Hassak integrates the rhythms of north African folk music with a bassline-heavy electronic pulse

From the spiritual polyrhythms of gnawa to the looping vocalisations of Sufism and the percussive tessellations of Berber folk, the world of north African cultures meet in the music of Morocco. Producer Abdellah M Hassak, AKA Guedra Guedra, has taken these rhythms as the core of his work. His name comes from the Berber dance music performed on the guedra drum; his debut EP, 2020’s Son of Sun, explored these diffuse roots through a dancefloor filter, with added field recordings and electronic Midi sequencing, a junglist collage that straddles tradition and contemporary dance musics.

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Blanck Mass: In Ferneaux review – the very definition of niche

(Sacred Bones)
Travel the world as Benjamin John Power mines a decade’s worth of field recordings on his gratifyingly singular fifth album

In Ferneaux represents something of a departure for electronica auteur Benjamin John Power. After the euphoric and abrasive maximalism of 2019’s Animated Violence Mild, and his work as half of Fuck Buttons, Power’s fifth album as Blanck Mass is a more oblique affair. A product of lockdown isolation, it comprises two lengthy soundscapes that blend his trademark layers of coruscating noise with sounds found on his travels over the past decade. Set out of context, these field recordings become for the most part wilfully abstract and very much open to interpretation: was this one recorded in downtown Bamako, that one at a Portuguese woodland rave?

Phase I begins with twinkling synths before hitting a bombastic climax, and then everything drops away around the six-minute mark, leaving only a recording of what could be a walking tour of an open-air cutlery-testing facility, which in turn becomes a slowly evolving drone. It ends with industrial pummelling. Feedback and distortion feature more prominently in Phase II, as does a gorgeous piano coda, while a carnival atmosphere prevails in the most prominent found sound. In an age of Spotified homogeneity, it’s the very definition of niche, but makes for admirably – and enjoyably – singular listening.

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Sal Dulu: Xompulse review – boom-bap dreamscapes

(Duluoz)
Jazz, ambient and soul harmonise in the Dublin-based producer’s gently daze-inducing debut

Dublin-based producer and instrumentalist Sal Dulu makes calm, expansive beats that swim with the cinematic possibilities of the night-time. Xompulse is his debut album, and comprises a subtly enticing collection of tracks that marry everything from boom-bap, classical, jazz, ambient, warm licks of soul samples and glossy shades of 90s downtempo. There’s more than an occasional nod to celestial, Porcelain-era Moby and lush Madlib stylings.

Thematically, Dulu has said the record explores the liminal space between reality and dreams, with each of the 10 tracks serving as individual memories within this dreamscape. There is certainly a slow-burning, woozy quality that slips and slides gently from track to track, though slick features from rappers Fly Anakin, Koncept Jack$on and staHHr all cut through, lest things get too soporific (a couple more of these would have been welcome). Still, simple moments are rendered beautiful by Dulu’s arrangements: the quiet ebb and flow of the piano-led title track; the careening strings on Alien Boy 96; the soft sax on Just Like Sonnenalle Blues; the wobbling synth on I Kan. Twinkling and soothing, Xompulse is a pleasant reverie to sink into.

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Pauline Anna Strom: Angel Tears in Sunlight review | John Lewis’s contemporary album of the month

(RVNG)
Strom’s first album in 30 years – and last, following her death in December – is a quiet riot of digitally manipulated drones and noise

The music of the San Francisco-based composer Pauline Anna Strom, who died just before Christmas, aged 74, might be described as new age – a mystical, trance-like synthesised babble that could conceivably accompany meditation sessions or yoga classes. But Strom was a cheerfully cantankerous figure who drew from more arcane Californian sources. Listen to the music that she released in the 1980s as Trans-Millenia Consort and you can hear traces of the blissful minimalism of Terry Riley; the wobbly electronica that Stephen Hill used to play on his Hearts of Space radio show; the electro-acoustic compositions of Joanna Brouk; even the hypnotic trance music that Alice Coltrane was making in her Santa Monica ashram.

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Metal Album Reviews

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Rock Album Reviews

Six Feet Under: “Nightmares Of The Decomposed” Album Review

Six Feet Under make it very clear that more than 25 years into their career, they remain at the forefront of the death metal. Dynamic, heavy-as-hell, catchy, and uncompromising, it is everything that the band’s longtime faithful have come to expect from these giants. The band members are Chris Barnes (vocals), Jack Owen (rhythm and …

Six Feet Under: “Nightmares Of The Decomposed” Album Review Read More »

Behemoth: “And the Forests Dream Eternally” Reissue Review

Behemoth slithered out of Poland and forever changed the black metal scene. After numerous successful albums and multiple monstrous tours, Nergal and company have risen to become quite the powerhouse in a genre that was once very much underground and taboo. Perhaps this album is their gift of sorts to their most loyal fans. And …

Behemoth: “And the Forests Dream Eternally” Reissue Review Read More »

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Jazz & Blues Album Reviews

New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers – Vol. 2 | Album Review

New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers – Vol. 2

Stony Plain Records SPCD 1417

11 songs – 53 minutes

Stony Plain Records owner Holger Petersen popped opened a musical treasure chest last fall when he released New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers Vol. 1 – a stellar, “long-lost” collection of tunes that featured Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart and ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers front man Jimbo Mathus as well as late Hill Country legend Jim Dickinson and his sons, Luther and Cody.

A laid-back tour-de-force, it harkened back to a time long before COVID-19, when good friends could get together and play for a while when the tapes were rolling – not surprising when you consider that the material had been sitting in a vault since 2007, when the tracks were laid down during a jam at the Dickinsons’ Zebra Ranch in Coldwater, Miss., and since Jim passed two years later.

At the time of the sessions, Charlie and the North Mississippi AllStars were taking of a multi-day break in the midst of touring with Mavis Staples. And the tapes had been pretty much a matter of legend until Petersen visited Musselwhite backstage at the 2019 Edmonton Blues Festival, learned they actually existed and acquired the rough mixes from Luther shortly thereafter.

Luther and his engineer/partner Kevin Houston subsequently put the finishing touches on the material, which comes across imbued with the warmth of friendship and steamy summer nights. But there was so much quality material that, when Vol. 1 was released to acclaim last September, Petersen announced that Vol. 2 would soon follow.

Fortunately, this one picks up where that one left off – and blues fans didn’t have to wait that long for its arrival. The action’s augmented by Chris Chew on bass and Paul Taylor on tub bass.

Charlie takes the lead for a loping version of his original, “Blues for Yesterday,” to open the set with the three guitarists – Alvin, Jimbo and Luther – all getting space to shine. The ensemble delivers a little acid flashback as Hart takes the lead to cover Doug Sahm’s familiar “She’s About a Mover,” which is propelled by Jim on keys, before Mathus assumes command for “Searchlight (Soon in the Morning),” a medium-paced shuffle of his own design.

An unhurried take of “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me” follows. A dark, modern-day gospel number penned by jazz great Charles Mingus – gives Jim Dickinson plenty of space to shine, wringing emotion out of every phrase vocally and on the 88s with choral accompaniment before Mathus launches into his song, “Greens and Ham,” a modern tune with a strong Tin Pan Alley feel.

Musselwhite and the senior Dickinson tag-team “Messin’ with the Kid,” the Junior Wells standard written by Mel London. Charlie’s harp lilts throughout with Jim featured atop an unusual counterpoint rhythm before his original, “Black Water,” flows slow and deep like the river it describes. The feel goes pure country as Alvin dips into his own songbook for “Millionaire Blues (If Blues Was Money).”

The sound shifts north to Chicago as Jim puts an interesting spin on Jimmy Reed’s “Can’t Stand to See You Go” and Luther puts a Hill Country spin on the Earl Hooker instrumental, “Blue Guitar” before his dad dips into the catalog of the Mississippi Sheiks for “Blues Is a Mighty Bad Feeling” to close.

Available through most major retailers and strongly recommended for anyone who appreciates good times and good blues.

Zed Mitchell – Route 69 | Album Review

Zed Mitchell – Route 69

Z Records – 2020

12 tracks; 52 minutes

www.zedmitchell.com

This is guitarist Zed Mitchell’s eighth solo album release though over a 50+ year career in music Zed has been involved in over 20 albums, both as group member and session musician. Originally from Belgrade, Zed is now based in Germany and this album is mainly a solo effort as only three musicians are involved throughout: Zed on vocals, guitars, keys and bass, his son Todor Manojilovic on guitars and B/V’s and David Haynes on drums; Sascha Kuhn plays keys and Max Schurakowski sax on one track each. Zed presumably plays everything else we hear, produced, programmed and mixed the album and wrote all the material, with lyrics provided on four tracks by London-based music promoter Pete Feenstra.

The general feel here is relaxed, melodic rock with the obvious touchstones being artists like Mark Knopfler and Chris Rea; indeed, Zed’s vocals sound rather like Knopfler with a trace of foreign accent. There is little actual blues music here, but no shortage of clean, lyrical guitar phrasing on tracks like “Freedom Trail”, one of four songs with Pete Feenstra’s lyrics. Pete’s other contributions include the opening track “By Sundown You’ll Be Gone” with the catchy chorus “But I know, the wolf gets hungry, and I know it won’t be long, when your love runs out of money, by sundown, you’ll be gone” and “The Girl That Broke Your Heart”, a ballad whose moody feel is enhanced by the addition of keyboards. The sax appears on “Midnight Melody” which has something of a late-night jazz feel from a strong bass line, Hammond effects and David’s use of brushes.

Much of the album is of very similar pace and feel, even duration; for instance, eight of the twelve tracks are between 4.00 and 4.30. You end up wishing that there was a real rocker to break up the melodic material but there really isn’t one here. The result is an album that is pleasant throughout but somehow fails to achieve lift-off.

Skylar Rogers – Firebreather | Album Review

Skylar Rogers – Firebreather

Skylar Rogers Music 2020

www.skylarrogers.com

10 songs, 39 minutes

Being raised in a tough Chicago neighborhood, and experiencing difficult times which included abusive relationships, homelessness and the stillbirth of her child provided Skylar Rogers with extensive material for heartfelt songwriting. This is evident in the song inspired by her strained relationship with the father she never knew growing up, who then also blocked her efforts to initiate a relationship as an adult. “Like Father Like Daughter” speaks to how “the student’s become the teacher, now the whole world will see.  Like father like daughter…remember what I taught you. Well, you taught me one thing…how to turn around and walk away. You say that you’re trying to right the wrong, but I can see that nothing’s changed. And now I see that thinking about you don’t bring me nothing but pain.”

“Like Father Like Daughter” led to Rogers placing as a semi-finalist in the International Songwriting Competition. But it is just one of ten skillfully written songs on her latest album Firebreather.  “Drowning” is equally powerfully written, starting with a beautiful piano intro (by Pete Zimmer), and building to an emotional climax, noting “I’m drowning, baby…Your memory is a past that haunts me.  I can’t find my peace of mind nowhere. I never got to say goodbye. I’m trapped in a prison…in a memory of something that was never meant to be.”

There are certainly more upbeat songs on this album, including the sassy “Hard-Headed Woman,” which begins with Rogers sounding proud of her hard-headedness, but then lamenting that “this hard-headed woman is going to be sorry someday.” And “Back to Memphis” which offers hope for a new life in a new location. However, the best tracks seem to be the slower ones, often processing grief and pain. “Thankful” is a beautiful song encouraging some to change their ways and develop an attitude of gratitude. “You take your life for granted—just passing through…it’s all about you. It’s all about your stuff and it’s never enough…be thankful.”

Rogers has powerful vocals with a wide range and beautiful tone, and her singing is clearly influenced by Tina Turner, Etta James and Koko Taylor. She also has a talented band supporting her. Besides Zimmer on piano, Jerry Ewing plays bass, “Disco Fuzz” Bradley Arl (who co-wrote three of the songs) plays drums, and Steven J. Hill and Marty Gibson both play guitar. There is truly not a bad track on this album. Give Firebreather a try, and you will soon see why Annika Chambers has been quoted as admiring Rogers’ “energy and pizzazz and her raw honesty to every performance”, and why Ms. Zeno “The Mojo Queen” has stated about Rogers, “give her a microphone, and in a minute she will win your heart.”

Skage – Procrastination Blues | Album Review

Skage – Procrastination Blues

Slide Productions

ww.skage.com

8 songs – 32 minutes

Procrastination Blues is the debut solo album from Norway’s Arne Skage, who has stepped into the limelight after serving 30 years as the guitarist for Reidar Larsen, himself one of the leading lights in the Norwegian blues scene. Skage has also contributed to nearly 70 albums by a variety of different artists. And, as one might expect from someone with that kind of background, Procrastination Blues is an absolute delight, channelling a deep Louisiana vibe from the album’s opening track, “Dressed Up To Get Messed Up”. It is followed by the title track, which sounds like something JJ Cale would have produced if he had spent much time in New Orleans, with superb fiddle from Jonno Frishberg and lovely slide guitar from Skage.

The basic tracks on the album were recorded in both in New Orleans and Flekkefjord (with overdubs apparently “done all over the place”), with a wide variety of different musicians, but Procrastination Blues maintains a singular thematic uniformity thanks to Skage’s vocals and guitar, the consistently high quality of the songwriting (primarily by Skage and Leslie Blackshear Smith or by Skage alone – the sole cover on the album is Steve Conn’s “Famous”) and by the excellent engineering and mixing (again by Skage).

Skage sings in an engagingly rough and road-worn voice, hinting at a slightly cleaned-up version of Dr John on the wonderful second-line groove of “King Of The Hill”, replete with tuba from Dr. Bekken, and his guitar playing is first class throughout, turning in a series of short but tasty solos and clever licks that serve the song (and these songs are well worth serving). Skage plays standard and slide guitar, lap steel, baritone guitar, mandocaster and resonator as well as adding bass on “King Of The Hill” and percussion on various tracks.

The closing track, the instrumental “River Road” nods towards one of Skage’s primary slide influences, Sonny Landreth, while the funky “Soul Food Mama” is a co-write with the great slide guitarist, Roy Rogers.

The core band providing masterful support to Skage includes Terence Higgins on drums and percussion, John “Papa” Gros on piano, Hammond B3 and Wurlitzer and René Coman on bass. They are joined at various times by Reidar Larsen on piano, Lars Christian Narum on Hammond B3, Atle Rakvåg on bass, Jonno Frishberg on fiddle, triangle and accordion, Steve Conn and Arve Håland on accordion, Erica Fall, Leslie B Smith, Tricia Bouttè, Thale Log Skage, Joe Rusi, Inge Svege, Daniel Eriksen on background vocals, Dr. Bekken on tuba, and Knut Hem on drums. Together they create a glorious mess of sound that instantly transports the listener to the musical swamps of Louisiana.

Procrastination Blues is a relatively short album but there isn’t a wasted note on it. It works both as a standalone album and as a love letter to the region that has provided Skage with limitless inspiration over the decades. It may have taken Skage over 30 years to release his first solo album but let’s hope the next one is released more promptly. Wonderful stuff.

Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal – Natural Born Hustler | Album Review

Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal – Natural Born Hustler

Color Red – 2021

10 tracks; 43 minutes

www.joshhoyer.com

I have been a fan of this Nebraska-based soul band since their debut CD in 2013, a disc that earned them a nomination for New Artist Debut Album at the 2014 Blues Blast Awards. Josh wrote all the material and handles lead vocals and keyboards, Blake DeForest is on trumpet, Benjie Kushner guitar, Mike Keeling bass and Harrison Eldorado drums; additional musicians involved are Larell Ware who is behind the drum kit on four tracks, trombonists Luke Annis and Tommy Van Den Berg who play on eight and two tracks respectively, Carrie Beth Stickrod and Ally Peeler who add B/V’s to two tracks and Marina Kushner who provides strings on one cut.

Opener “Hustler” has elements of funk from Benjie’s wah-wah wash and horns that evoke Tex-Mex borders, Josh vaunting his credentials as a tough survivor in hard times. “Whisper” is a ballad with a lilting refrain beefed up by the horns on the chorus and a vocal that gets stronger and stronger as the track develops. Backing vocals feature behind Josh’s lead on the next two songs: driven by Josh’s insistent piano “Take Your Time” is classic soul, a song that could have been sung by Al Green back in the day; “Changing” builds from a gentle start to a catchy number with the drums well up in the mix, a song in which Josh sets out his philosophy on life: “Changing is the hardest thing that you will ever learn.” We then return to the funky side of things with “Sunday Lies” which has a great bass line underpinning trash-can drums and wah-wah guitar, the horns only making an appearance half way through.

The whole band really gels on “The Night”, trumpet and guitar both featured on the outro and Josh in full vocal flight. “Take My Chances” is a slightly longer cut and has another strong bass line over which the horns riff while Josh describes his attitude to life, not caring “how the dice will fall”. Strings are added to “Automatic” which risks falling into ‘crooner’ territory though the trumpet playing is sublime before a short and funky “Automatic” gets things moving again. The album closes with “Ring The Bells” which successfully combines a Memphis soul groove with gospel overtones in the uplifting lyrics.

Josh Hoyer has the sort of voice that is ideally suited to soul and Rn’B. While Natural Born Hustler possibly lacks the killer song that graced earlier albums, it is a solid piece of work with no real weaknesses, so if blue-eyed soul is your interest, check this one out.

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Pop Album Reviews

Greta Van Fleet: The Battle at Garden’s Gate review – more shades of Led Zeppelin?

(EMI)
At their best at full throttle, the Michigan four-piece continue to channel 70s classic rock without restraint

Intermittently enjoyable as it was, Greta Van Fleet’s 2018 debut, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, was rather eclipsed by all the Led Zeppelin comparisons. The follow-up from the Michigan four-piece – three Kiszka brothers and Ken-from-Bros drummer Danny Wagner – isn’t going to completely put those parallels to bed. Built By Nations, in particular, seems to have been built on a riff that Jimmy Page lost down the back of his sofa around the time of Led Zeppelin II. Josh Kiszka’s vocals, meanwhile, are now as much in thrall to fellow West Midlander Noddy Holder as Robert Plant, most notably on My Way, Soon.

Related: Greta Van Fleet on critics: ‘They’re pissed off that we’re doing something’

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Paul McCartney: McCartney III Imagined review – classy remixes by proxy

(Universal)
Beck, 3D, St Vincent and more are invited to put their own distinct spin on Macca’s homemade 2020 album

Made during what McCartney dubbed “rockdown”, last year’s DIY album McCartney III proved both playful and resilient; a timely antidote to the stifled, existential mood of the Covid era. “Curated” by himself, McCartney III Imagined is a classy set of remixes from assorted studio alchemists that allows Macca to experiment further by proxy. There are predictable hits (Beck’s dance-friendly Find My Way), a surprise miss (Damon Albarn lost in the mists of Long Tailed Winter Bird), and arresting successes (3D of Massive Attack with a 10-minute makeover of Deep Deep Feeling, from squelching house beats to long, shimmering fade).

It seems wrong to lose vocals from a richly sung album, especially when a sharpy such as Pretty Boys – a smiling dig at boy bands – is sacrificed by Khruangbin for routine disco. Better to enhance what’s there, as Anderson .Paak does on the pastoral stroll of When Winter Comes, while Josh Homme adds teeth to Lavatory Lil, a daft title for a savage song. Dominic Fike entwines his own voice with Macca’s wails for a strutting R&B take on The Kiss of Venus, and St Vincent frames the ruminations of Women and Wives with celestial rumbling. III’s bright, younger sibling album.

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London Grammar: Californian Soil review – bold sounds amid the usual spectral fare

(Metal & Dust/Ministry of Sound)
The British trio stick to boilerplate emoting and bland imagery, but there are small sonic steps forward

Given the icy pace and prevailing mournfulness of London Grammar’s last album, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing, the British trio naming their third record Californian Soil might suggest they were warming up a bit. Not quite: a reluctance to relinquish their sonic crutches – heavily reverbed electric guitars, meandering melodies and restraint masquerading as reverence – and a lyrical propensity for gloominess means things haven’t thawed much.

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