Chains of Hell Orchestra – “One Bad Trip” EP

I couldn’t find much about this Seattle-area foursome online, other than it appears they were from Olympia and that percussionist Peter Blecha went on to be a well-known local historian specializing in Northwest music history.  In fact, I’ve read one of his books, Sonic Boom! The History of Northwest Rock (2009) and can confirm he’s legit.  And because it’s pre-grunge Seattle related rock (1984), I had to have it when I saw it over at Easy Street Record the other day.  Because I lack self-control.

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One Bad Trip opens with “Big Hands” and delivers an unexpected combination of styles.  There are quieter parts that include just box percussion, a minimal keyboard, and Judy Schneps’ mildly haunting vocals… but then when the rest of the instruments kick in things almost feel kind of folk rock-ish, an odd stylistic disconnect.  “Over the Wall” is a more consistent deep pulser with rapid drumming and a bass that drives the action forward.  Schneps keeps her voice low giving the entire thing the vibe of an idling motorcycle engine waiting for someone to pop the clutch and go.  The flip side gives us the bizarre “One Bad Trip” (which you can check out via the YouTube link below) and a nearly seven minute version of “Born on the Bayou”.  But, you know, sung in French.  Because why wouldn’t it be?

For my money “Over the Wall” and “One Bad Trip” are the winners here, but it’s possible I’m just failing to connect with the more unusual tracks.

Epic Rain – “Dream Sequences”

2017 is shaping up to be one of the best years ever for new releases from Iceland.  We’ve already seen and heard new albums from established veterans of the scene DIMMA, HAM,  Singapore Sling, and Sólstafir; young up-and-comers like Fufanu, Úlfur Úlfur, and Vök; and debuts from the likes of Madonna + Child and Milkywhale.  Plus we’ve been told to expect stuff from Legend and Gusgus before the end of the year.  And that’s just scratching the surface – the DIY scene is bubbling under with so many cassette releases that I stopped even trying to keep up.  But even with this wealth of sonic riches vying for my attention I was caught by surprise to see an announcement last month for another forthcoming record, this one by our friends Epic Rain.

It’s been three years since we’ve heard new music from Epic Rain, back when Lucky Records put out their excellent Somber Air in 2014.  And it’s been a time of transition for the group, which is the brainchild and vision of vocalist Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason.  More emphasis has been placed on the musicians, giving them space to shine, and the departure of male co-vocalist Bragi coupled with the growing role of chanteuse Ingunn Eria moves things in a more haunting direction on Dream Sequences, and that’s saying something given Epic Rain’s penchant for describing the darker aspects of life.

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I first listened to Dream Sequences on my very long, early morning commute into work a few weeks ago and was immediately swallowed whole by the dreamy and eerie opener “Dream Sequence 1”, so much so that it wasn’t until a few songs later that I snapped out of it and thought, “wait a minute, did this album open with an instrumental track?”  I actually had to go back and check, and sure enough it does.  Now this may not seem like a big deal, but considering that the most distinguishing characteristic of Epic Rain’s sound is Jóhannes’ voice and cadence, opening with a full-length instrumental is an important statement – Dream Sequences is not simply a collection of songs, or even a group of songs loosely tied together around a common theme.  This is a cohesive and immersive experience, one meant to be heard all the way through.  There’s a definite plan here.

Musically we’re treated to a combination of electronic and instrumental performances, often blended together so well that it’s hard to hear the line separating the two.  The defining musical element of the album, however, is undoubtedly the fantastic jazz-style drumming of Magnús Trygvason Eliassen (aka Maggi), who is probably best know for his work with the Icelandic jazz quartet ADHD.  When I mentioned this observation to Jóhannes via email he completely agreed, noting that Maggi’s drumming gives the percussion on Dream Sequences a completely different sound than that of previous Epic Rain efforts.  And here’s the thing – this isn’t super-intricate drumming; it’s at times snappy, other times brushed, keeping time and creating structure while also contributing to the mood.  The way the album is mixed gives the drums more prominence than they had on Somber Air, where they were flatter and spent more time in lower registers.  Maggi’s percussion is sometimes even at odds with the rest of the music, existing on a higher plane and providing a counter to the ethereality of the rest of the performers.  “Disguisement” is a prime example of this, the snare popping like low calibre gunshots behind Jóhannes’ staccato vocals.  While the album is best considered as a whole, listeners are sure to still have favorite songs and this is mine, due in no small part to Maggi’s drums.

Dream Sequences creates an emotional environment similar to the effect of those 1960s era horror and vampire movies, films that didn’t rely on the pure shock value of excessive gore and violence but instead on the more subtle approach of slowly and methodically building your disquiet.  When Jóhannes rasps I document your dreams behind the picture on the wall / I sense that you’re running, trying to reach the door / You’re bound by my chain and I’m bound by this psychosis / Now wake up my darling / It’s time to smell the roses on “A Night Like This” the song doesn’t crescendo, it’s almost banal – you’re slowly descending into madness, I’ve been watching you, and now it’s time to smell the roses.  There’s no other way.  Come on, let’s go.  Don’t make a fuss and accept the inevitability of what is to come.  Taking on the voice of a killer in “’62 Mustang” he describes his murder kit and weapons in the same unemotional way a mechanic would describe his tools, each with a specific purpose, no one more important than the others.  Coupled with the sad tones of some far away surf guitar it’s not maudlin but instead matter-of-fact in its dreariness.  This is who I am, this is what I do, and these are the things I do it with.

Across the first five songs Pálmason and Ingunn Eria circle each other, usually existing in distinctly separate spaces but in a way that strongly if indirectly implies a relationship like that of perpetrator and victim, all the while infusing the entire thing with a sense of inevitability – he knows her so well, and she’s both aware of his presence and the inescapability of what is to come.  The first and last songs are instrumental “Dream Sequences” which bookend the story expressed in the middle three tracks.  The same format is used for the second batch of five songs (Eria, however, makes a brief vocal appearance on “Dream Sequence 4” so it’s not technically an instrumental), though this time the story has shifted to a confused tale of drug abuse and memory blackouts that imply a violence that can’t be remembered.  The subtlety of the first story is put aside in favor of a blunt tale of the descent into madness, which is already well on its way by time we’re introduced to the scene, and this time it’s Eria that feels like the voice calling the soon-to-be victim to his grave.  The strength of Dream Sequences is that these two vignettes fit together sonically and thematically like a pair of cautionary tales, completely devoid of morality and instead simply warnings of what is to come.

Dream Sequences is the next step in the continuing evolution of Epic Rain, taking their sound in musically richer and lyrically darker directions.  You can get a sneak preview on YouTube with the opening track, the instrumental “Dream Sequence 1”.  I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of Dream Sequences at Airwaves this fall.

Theatre of Hate – “Westworld”

theatreofhatewestworldWe swung by Seattle’s Daybreak Records for their first anniversary sale the other day.  Daybreak has quickly established itself as one of Seattle’s best go-to used record stores, one that has an eclectic and deep selection of high grade vinyl, all of which is very realistically priced.  Plus it’s next door to Uneeda Burger, one of the city’s best burger joints, so how can you not head over to Fremont and pull the double shot, getting a burger and some brews and then crate digging?

I’d heard of Theatre of Hate (Teatro del Odio on this Spanish pressing) but never listened their stuff before.  Westworld was one of their early releases from way back in 1982, something hanging around in the hinterlands on the border between post-punk and new wave, a combination of both while yet at the same time absolutely neither.  There’s a desperation to songs like “Judgement Hymn” that reminds me more than a bit of Jeffrey Lee Pierce on those early Gun Club albums, but with music that is less rock oriented.  That being said, the saxophone on “63” firmly plants this album in the early 1980s, back when that was considered experimental and cool, but there’s also a bit of a no wave feel here.

Dresden – “Too Many Skeletons”

dresdenskeletonsNeedless to say it was the cover of Dresden’s sole release, 1986s Too Many Skeletons, that initially drew my attention.  It’s got a sort of Motörhead thing going on, but with garish reds, blues, and yellows.  The combination of images and words on the cover (bombers, eagle, “Dresden”, and “Too Many Skeletons”) make it pretty apparent that the band got its name and the concept for this album cover from the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, part of the so-called “strategic bombing” campaign conducted by the Allies in World War II, the morality of which has been questioned by historians and ethicists for decades.

Over the course of three days in February 1945 a total of 1,249 American and British heavy bombers dropped 7.8 million pounds of bombs on the city of Dresden.  Let that number sink in for a minute.  7.8 million pounds of explosives, falling from the sky, onto your city.  So much heat and fire was generated that a literal firestorm occurred which destroyed most of the city and killed 20-25,000 people.  The Dresden bombing may be the best known of these events, at least in Europe, because a young America prisoner of war named Kurt Vonnegut was being held in the city and after the bombing was over he and other POWs were directed to help gather the corpses.  He later, of course, became a world-renowned author, and his novel Slaughterhouse Five drew in part from his experiences in Dresden.  I know that’s a bit of a heavy history lesson, but most of us have seen so much of this kind of imagery that we fail to consider it in its historical, and more importantly human, context.

A number of writers at The Metal Archives have already tackled Too Many Skeletons and have done so far better than I can from a musical perspective, so you can check them out HERE if you’re interested.  I will say that the recording is flat and leans more towards the high end – the bass and drums get lost apart from perhaps the cymbals, which is too bad, because the drumming is pretty good.  And lest you think that Disturbed were the first metal-type band to take on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”, well, you’d be wrong, because it’s the last song on the A side of Too Many Skeletons.  Dresden’s version alternates between slow and fast, a bit less cohesive than Disturbed’s, but also a bit less full of itself; it isn’t trying too hard to be artistic, just authentic.

The various reviews of Too Many Skeletons put it into the “cross-over” camp, in this case meaning the crossover from thrash to hardcore.  This makes sense to my ears, with Dresden reminding me a bit of Gang Green and Cro-Mags.  A little digging into the guys involved in Dresden further backs this us, as three of the five members were also part of the somewhat prolific hardcore outfit Lost Generation, and another was part of C.I.A.  So it appears Dresden was a more metal-leaning side project for these guys.  It’s a pretty good one (other than the production quality) – too bad they didn’t keep moving in the thrash direction.

You can check out the whole thing on YouTube:

Teengenerate – “Audio Recording” 10″

teengenerateaudirecordingI like Japanese punk, and I love 10″ records, so I bought Audio Recording without even giving it a second thought.  It wasn’t until I sat down to play it for the first time that I realized it actually has a Seattle tie as well – the record was recorded here in 1993 at none other than Audio Recording, the same studio that laid down albums by some of the all-time proto-punk greats like The Sonics and The Kingsmen, as well as band called Bone Cellar that included on guitar a guy I used to know named Dave Keppel.  Small world.

The guys manage to cram 11 songs onto this 10″, a half dozen of which are covers from the likes of The Zeros, The Pretty Things, Radio Birdman, and Chuck Berry.  Whether playing a cover or an original, Teengenerate infuse the song with speed and sleaze and fuzz.  You can almost feel the needle pegging out just like it is on the jacket, frying the edges or recording capability and your mind in equal measure.  This isn’t a record you want to overthink; just drop the needle and let ‘er rip.

It appears there are at least two versions of the vinyl for Audio Recording – one black, the other bright blue.  There may also be a label variation since I saw something with a weird A side label on Popsike.