Blackbeard – “I Wah Dub”

I originally wasn’t going to write about Blackbeard’s I Wah Dub.  Not because I don’t like it, mind you; it’s a killer dub record.  But because writing about dub is so damn hard!  I mean, yeah, it’s got a reggae base with tons of reverb and echo, but trying to describe individual songs is like trying to catch the contents of a spilled glass of water with your hand.  You just can’t do it.  Or at least I can’t.

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Blackbeard is the nom de dub of Dennis Bovell, a man who did production work for some of the top reggae acts like Black Uhuru as well as punk rockers like the Slits.  Released in 1980, I Wah Dub was his second dub record put out under the name Blackbeard, an entirely instrumental effort that is perhaps most distinctive, at least to my ears, for its use of some non musical samples at the start of some of the tracks – this is an awfully early example of that kind of thing.

I’d had my eye on this copy for months at my local record shop, but had been hesitant to pull the trigger until one day I looked it up on Discogs and discovered that the asking price wasn’t that unreasonable, so I bought it.  And I’m glad I did – I’ve probably played it 5-6 times in the last few weeks.  Great relaxing grooves that are good any time of day or night, mon.  Check it out if you get the chance.

To Damascus – “Succumb”

I was itching for some new vinyl yesterday but the World Cup games sort of ate up a bunch of my time, even more so since Brazil and Chile went into overtime and then a shootout.  I’d had plans to head to Seattle to do some record shopping, but that game, followed by an amazing bacon cheeseburger and a beer, sort of sapped my ambition.  But I still had the record jones, so following the afternoon match I swung on by Vortex, which is really close to my house, and walked out with a handful of used CDs and a copy of Succumb by To Damascus.

I freely admit I’d never heard of the band before, nor their leader, a bad-ass female guitarist named Sylvia Juncosa.  Sylvia has been rocking since the early 1980s, even playing with ex-Black Flagger Chuck Dukowski in SWA, a band signed to SST (though widely regarded as the worst band on the label).  To Damascus was active from 1984 to 1988, releasing a 7″ before putting out their full-length debut Succumb in 1986.  After a long musical hiatus, Juncosa recently did a Kickstarter campaign in an attempt to pay for a new solo album, so we’ll see if she has something new on the way.

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Succumb is a lo-fi indie record… not quite a “rocker” per se in that it isn’t fast or hard, but it’s still rock, and there’s a bit of surf influence here, both in the guitar and rhythm. Juncosa’s voice absolutely reminds me of someone, but the for the life of me I can’t think of who.  Maybe a little of Alison Mosshart circa her work with Discount.  Maybe even a touch of Pat Benatar.  I’m sure it will come to me later.  There are 10 tracks here, including a pair instrumentals,  “Night Surfing” (which yes, has a surf vibe) and “Rare Water” (surf meets country), and the songs are well structured with Juncosa’s voice sort of wandering around over the music.  The closing track, “Hearts To Cry,” is definitely the winner here, taking the band’s sound into a more psych rock direction with some nice guitar work.

Succumb has a cool sound, though none of the individual tracks really stood out to me with the exception of “Hearts To Cry”.  If you like a bit of that surf rocker sound you’ll enjoy it, especially side B with its instrumentals.

Norn – “Norn” (cassette)

As I mentioned in a couple of earlier posts, a couple of months ago I got a box of Icelandic goodness from my friends over at Reykjavik’s Paradísarborgarplötur label.  They were the ones who sent me the Fighting Shit CDs, Ofvitarnir’s Steven Hawking / Stephen Tyler, and boatload of other stuff.  Including a couple of cassettes.  Which I ordered even though I had no way to play them.  Which forced me to go out and buy an old Technics bookshelf stereo with a tape deck in it.  You know.  So I could play my tapes and stuff.

In the event you don’t have a tape deck, don’t despair.  While you really should support this small indie label and buy a copy of Norn for all of 500 kr (that’s about $4.25 US, kids) plus shipping, the label also generously offers the whole six song album for free download at their website HERE.  But really, just go there and buy some stuff from them.  Help a brother out and support some guys that are doing some cool stuff.

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As you can see Norn is more than just a six-song EP.  It’s more than just a cassette.  It’s a bit of an art project in and of itself.  And yes, I took the picture right side up so that the case opens on the right side… the cross is supposed to be upside down.  I’m not sure what the black stuff is on the cover, but it’s seems like some kind of paint.  Which makes sense, since cassette itself is also painted (red, as you can see).  Inside a paper insert is unceremoniously skewered into the bottom, featuring a drawing of some dude on fire and a track listing on the reverse.  Like I said, the packaging itself is a bit of an artistic statement.  Admit it.  Just looking at this kind of makes you want to listen to find out what this band is all about.

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Norn is another Þórir Georg project, one that resembles his work with Ofvitarnir a bit.  The sound is echoey – it sounds like it was recorded in some abandoned warehouse somewhere, with everyone standing kind of far away from the machine that was recording them.  It’s strained.  It’s noisy.  It feels just a little disorganized, but the chords are very basic and relentless, so it stays together.  Georg’s The voice strains to get through the ten feet of gauze the microphone must be wrapped in.  Or maybe it’s inside a big metal can, which would explain the metallic edge that everything has.  And I don’t mean metallic like heavy metal; I mean like it’s wrapped up in foil or something.

“Myrkur” is my favorite track here, with it’s repetitive, out front bass line that holds the song together until Georg takes the vocals and electricity in his guitar and turns them both up, giving a cracking intensity before the song drops back down to just the rhythm section and that bass line again.  The most unique song is “Tenerife,” if for no other reason that its 10 minute run time is more than twice as long as anything else on Norn.  It starts off like a post-punk Gun Club song before going off into a weird Black Sabbath-esque psych instrumental freak show for a while, coming back to some quick vocals right at the very end.

Norn has actually been rechristened BÖRN, since apparently there’s some black metal band out there also going by Norn, but more importantly it sounds like we’ll be getting a new BÖRN album some time in 2014.  I’m not sure what format it will be on, or if it will be a full album or something shorter, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it and will try to pick up a copy when I’m at Airwaves.

Norn.  Check ’em out.  It’s free!

JULY 17, 2014 CORRECTION –>  So apparently I am an idiot, as Þórir Georg is NOT the vocalist on this.  And in fact, the singer is a woman!  Ha!  So I messed up, but instead of just correcting this and pretending it didn’t happen, I’m leaving it up with some strikethroughs as a monument to my idiocy.

GusGus – “Mexico”

There’s a certain excitement that comes with the news that one of your favorite bands is releasing a new album.  Maybe you go back through some of their old catalog to relive how great some of the previous stuff is, and there’s definitely a palpable anticipation that builds and builds as it gets closer and closer to the release date.  Of course, if you’re like me there’s also another feeling.  It starts way off in the background, so faint you don’t notice it at first.  Then it’s like a subtle itch, and you just can’t quite figure out where to scratch to deal with it.  And then it dawns on you.  “What if I think this album sucks?”  Which would really disappointing.  No, it would be worse than that.  But it’s something we’ve all experienced at one time or another – that bummer trip of a new album either not meeting our hopes for it, or quite simply being a steaming pile of failure.

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This is my second “new” GusGus album since we “discovered” the band at Iceland Airwaves in 2009, the same year they put out 24/7.  We quickly made our way through their old stuff and loved it, so I went through all these same feelings leading up to the release of Arabian Horse in 2011.  Thankfully that album more than met my expectations… it blew them away and became one of my all-time favorites, earning a spot on my personal “Desert Island Top 5.” But Mexico meant going through this all over again, but with even more doubt.  I mean, how could it “raise the bar” over what I think is one of the best albums ever?  Not that I expect it to, because that would be unfair and unreasonable.  But what if I hate it?  OK, that’s extreme.  GusGus aren’t going to suddenly suck, or put out a collection of Jethro Tull covers.  So I needn’t worry about that level of apocalypse.  But what if I don’t really like it?  So with all these things weighing on my obsessive mind, last night I went to iTunes and bought my download, then Holly and I set ourselves up on the sofa with some cocktails to listen to Mexico for the first time, just like we did three years ago when Arabian Horse came out.  And I hoped.

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Right from the opening of the first track, “Obnoxiously Sexual,” it was obvious that Mexico was going to sound different than its two predecessors.  The lows were not as low and rich as I’d grown accustomed to after uncounted listens to Arabian Horse; it sounded more trebly, with beats that were more subdued in the mix to give more space to the mid and higher range sounds.  Högni Egilsson, previously best known for his work fronting Hjaltalín, is back for his second GusGus album, and his vocals, while not as haunting as they were on Arabian Horse, still retain their sheer beautiful clarity.  And his presence on that opening song gives Mexico a bit of carry-over familiarity, despite the change to the depth of the music.

By the second half of the album I remarked that I was starting to like it more and more, though Holly astutely pointed out, “probably because it sounds more like GusGus.”  And she was right.  Maybe there’s a hint of Polydistortion here, or something that reminds me a little of “David” off Attention.  Or maybe I’m just grasping at straws and trying to make Mexico into something that it isn’t, which I shouldn’t try to do because it’s its own album.  Maybe I need to be more like the subtitle to Dr. Strangelove.  I need to stop worrying and learn to love Mexico.

And there’s a lot here to love, as I discovered by playing it three four more times over the course of the day today.  It doesn’t have that bottom-of-the-ocean deep end of Arabian Horse, but the deep parts are plenty deep enough that you can dive into them without worrying about hitting your head.  Mixed in with the electronic beats and grooves are horns and strings that fit well into the mid range sound that seems to be emphasized on Mexico.  There’s also a sorta-kinda new vocal “trick” at work on a few songs, starting with very echoey vocals before suddenly breaking into a very clear, clean verse, creating a sometimes startling contrast that captures your attention and almost forces you to listen while your ears adapt.

The second song, “Another Life,” gives an odd juxtaposition of the male and female vocals, which open with a male voice that is slowed waaaaayyyyy down… so slow I almost thought there was something wrong with the track for a minute.  The effect gives the voice an other-wordly sound, like a bad trip when you’re sure you hear someone’s voice actually melt (<– DISCLAIMER – not that this ever happened to me… I mean, not as far as you know… OK, not as far as most of you know…).  But then the female vocals come in, and the two play off of each other as the song progresses, and it’s almost surreal.

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“Sustain” sounds a bit more like a traditional GusGus song, especially after the roughly minute long introduction is replaced by the beat that drives the rest of the song.  It’s the first time we get a full song of Daníel Ágúst‘s rich, silky voice, and the beats feel a bit deeper, like someone turned up the bass a bit.  It’s a killer track with its slow groove, and sets the table for the remainder of the album, leading into the brilliant “Crossfade,” which is probably my favorite song on Mexico.  Ágúst and Egilsson work off of each other beautifully, with Daníel’s highly echoed and modulated voice taking the lead and Egilsson providing the powerful, ethereal backing and harmony, moving into the lead only for the chorus.  These two working together are so impressive that it’s difficult to describe.  Birgir Thorarinsson definitely channelled his experience from working on John Grant’s 2013 Pale Green Ghosts.  By the time the opening beats of “Airwaves” kick in next we’re in full-blown GusGus mode, a song that we’ve heard live as far back as 2012 at, not coincidentally, Iceland Airwaves.

It took me a couple of listens to get there, but GusGus definitely nailed it with Mexico.  This is one of those records that will probably make me break my own rule of not buying the same album in multiple formats, because I feel like I NEED to have this on vinyl.  GusGus.  Get some.

Kansan Uutiset – “Suomi Orgasmin Partaalla”

Kansan Uutiset marks the end of the pile of vinyl I brought back from last month’s trip to Japan.  I found this Finnish punk record at a Disk Union store in Tokyo in the same box that yielded a number of other punk and post-punk nuggets – my guess is these all came to the store from the same collection and just hadn’t been sorted yet, hence sitting in cardboard boxes on top of folding tables in the middle of one of the aisles.  Either that or they were some kind of overstock or close outs… but either way I snatched up a number of titles and whisked them away, back to the U S of A.

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Kansan Uutiset were founded in the late 1970s.  They apparently recorded an EP called Suomi Orgasmin Partaalla that was shelved, eventually putting out their one and only LP, Beautiful Dreams, in 1983.  This version of Suomi Orgasmin Partaalla was released in 2007 as a two record set – the first record is Beautiful Dreams in it’s entirety, while the second has 11 more songs that supposedly include much if not all of that original never released EP.  The second record is also only one-sided, with a completely blank reverse (side D), which is odd, though I have two other records like that on my shelves – Devo’s live Now It Can Be Told and Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Smoking Acid.  I think I have another one out there as well, but for the life of me can’t recall what it is.  Not that it matters.  But it is a bit odd.  

According to the liner notes in the booklet that comes with the record, Kansan Uutiset were pretty much nihilistic hardcore punks, “…known in Finland for its crazy live shows and Saasta’s big mohawk.”  Their musical style is definitely early hardcore, with that European vibe that’s hard to explain but you sort of know it when you hear it.  I found it to be just OK through most of the first record until my ears perked up when I heard the opening of The Stooge’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” a song that Kansan Uutiset added their own twist to and renamed “Now I Wanna Fuck Your Dog,” which is classy to be sure.  It was a pretty cool cover though, and was followed by perhaps the best original on the album, “Cannabis Kukkakauppoihin,” sort of a weird song bordering on metal.  This is followed by another cover, a surf style instrumental called “Se Jokin Sinulla On,” which is based on the original “You’ve Got What I Like” by Gerry & The Pacemakers (this sounded familiar when I heard it for the first time, though I would never have been able to guess the artist/song).  The one sided second record is pretty much more of the same.

All in all a decent early European hardcore record, though I didn’t find too much exciting on it.  I might just be a bit burned out on the punk front these days (immediately following this I started spinning dub for the rest of the morning), though, so I’ll likely need to come back to revisit it at some point.