Witches Tears – “Cry Of The Banshee EP” CD (2019)

Father Pujardov:  The Beast is not dead.  

Inspector Mirov:  I put four bullets in him.

Father Pujardov:  You think evil can be killed with bullets?  Satan lives.  The Unholy One is… alive!

So much for Pere Ubu’s advice on “Laughing” – when the Devil comes, shooting him with a gun won’t do you any good at all.

Metal albums generally don’t open with samples of movie dialogue.  Not even doom metal albums.  And not even if the segment comes from something cool as hell like Horror Express (1972).  But Witches Tears aren’t your typical doom metal band.

I came to know of this brooding trio through my connection with their bassist Bowen Staines.  I first encountered Bowen about 10 years ago when I was trying to track down a DVD copy of his brilliant Iceland Airwaves documentary, Where’s The Snow? and since then we’ve had a strange relationship that is almost entirely online, the only exceptions being when we randomly bump into one another on a rock in the middle of the North Atlantic during Airwaves.  I also have some of his original art on my walls – a pair of hand-painted records, one featuring a map of Iceland and the other the portrait of one of his musical heroes, G.G. Allin. (♠)  So maybe this is a disclaimer of sorts – I know one of the guys in the band.  But I can promise you that if Bowen put out an album of Rosemary Clooney covers or went country, I wouldn’t be writing about it.  But I like metal, and I like to support indie artists by buying and listening to their stuff.  So there it is.

And since I do happen to know the bassist, I figured hey, let’s interview the band!

How did Witches Tears come to be? What was the vision for the band?

-Dominic Spinzola (drums): Witches Tears is from Scituate, Massachusetts, and was formed sometime around the beginning of 2018.  I was on a walk to the lighthouse, when ran into Garreth (guitar, vocals); I’d seen him over the years walking around town listening to his headphones like I used to do, and we decided to start jamming with me on guitar, and him on drums, and then we switched around.  I’d already known Bowen (fretless bass) for a couple years, back when I was delivering pizzas.  He’d just moved here that same day, and he answered the door wearing a Cradle of Filth shirt, and it’s very rare to see another metalhead in these parts.  I don’t think I’ve thought too much into what we “should” or “could” be.  We wanted to be Doomy as hell, but we were missing something, so I recommended Bowen as our bassist, and he ended up being the missing link.  I guess Uncle Charlie sums it up best… “If you’re going to do something, do it well. And leave something witchy.”

The songs on “Cry of The Banshee” are quite long, and that gives the band a lot of room to explore. While the undercurrent is Doom, I hear a ton of crazy 1960’s-style Psych in here, too. When coming up with the songs, how much of it is planned out, and how much sort of evolves organically?

-Bowen Staines (fretless): Normally, Garreth writes most of the riffs, and we jam them out, and then Dom and I make suggestions, yes? 

-Dom: Yeah, I’d say 95% is just jamming the songs until it feels right.  I think it’s our strong suit, the ability to just go off and create our own vortex, and it’s something we try to hone in on when we play live.  Pretty much all of our recordings are improvised, totally written in the moment.  I’m glad you picked up on the 60’s element! I’ve always dug Roky and The Elevators and Witchfinder General, and I think Garreth’s playing is reminiscent of the garage-era sound.

-Garreth Colm Byrne (guitar, vocals): Yeah, I’ve always loved the 1960’s counter culture, and I try to soak it all up like a sponge, and the grey water that gets wrung out afterwards becomes my vocals and riffs.

-Bowen: There’s definitely a 60’s element in there, just slowed way down, and much heavier.  And by leaving the songs so open-ended, it allows them to evolve more organically. At the beginning, I felt kind of like the odd one out, but not in a bad way, because I grew up listening to a lot of Scandinavian metal, and when I started playing with the guys, they were spending all day in the rehearsal space just watching old Vincent Price horror movies, and talking about loads of bands I’d never heard of before.  They had to baptize me, in a way.  Scituate, as a town, is what you make of it.  There’s practically nothing to do, but it’s so close to Boston that the opportunity’s still there to connect with people and make something happen.  We ended up getting signed to a label after our first live show. 

What’s up next for Witches Tears? 

-Garreth: We have our first headlining show coming up on May 26th at The Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain, MA, for the release of our first EP Cry of The Banshee.  It’s being organized by our label, Wreckless Wreck Chords, and I think there are at least five or six bands opening before us.  It’s basically an all-day event.  We’ll have copies of the album available at the show, as well as cassette tapes, t-shirts, and a bunch of other good stuff.

-Bowen: Yep, I think everyone is really looking forward to that, because everything has happened so fast.  We’ve been a band for barely over a year, we’re on a label, and we’ve got our first headlining show.  And we’re really thankful and humbled by the opportunity to share the stage with so many talented people.  I’m also in the process of trying to organize some shows for us in Reykjavík, Iceland for later this year, maybe in the Fall.

-Dom: After the release concert, we have another show on June 16th at the C-Note in Hull, MA. Come out, ye sinners. 

-Garreth: We’re also hoping to get back into the studio again soon to finish up our first full-length album.  We have so many songs and ideas that we just need to properly record, and get them out there.  We have more than enough material for a whole album ready to go.

What are you listening to and digging right now?

-Dom: Great question.  Hmm, for me, right now I’ve been listening to a lot of Steeleye Span, Drunk Horse, Satanic Warmaster, Planxty, and my friend’s project, The Notorious P.A.G.A.N.

-Garreth: I’ve been listening to a lot of Moss, Devil’s Witches, and revisiting some of David Gilmore’s solo work.  I also just got Bowen into Leatherlung.

-Bowen: Get ready for an influx of a bunch of foreign shit, haha!  I’ve been holed up in my film studio the last six months doing a new music video for the Icelandic band, Sólstafir, so I think it’s safe to say that I’ve been listening to them a lot this last year, haha.  The Vintage Caravan just put out an amazing new record, as well.  Apart from that, I always have H.I.M. on steady rotation, as well as Motörhead, Turbonegro, Clutch, Mammút, Kontinuum, HAM, Dead Skeletons, and New Hampshire’s famous wildcard poo-baby, GG Allin.  That dude grew up like one town away from me, haha.  Oh, one last thing, real quick: we would really like to thank Mikke Worm and Tyler Spillane at Wreckless Wreck Chords for all they’ve done to help us, the blogs, radio stations, and media that has covered us, and the great bands and people we’ve shared the stage with – thank you sincerely, and we hope to see you all soon!  

 

witchestearsbansheeImmediately after Father Pujdardov tells us that yes, indeed, Satan still lives, the weight of the opening track “Cry Of The Banshees” falls on you like one of those two ton weights the Roadrunner used to drop on poor Wile E Coyote, an unstoppable gravity-accelerated mass that squashes you right into and through the ground leaving you nothing but paste.  But it’s not pure obliterating density.  Byrne’s vocals hit you like Satan’s fingernails on a black metal chalkboard, raspy, pained, deranged.  The sonic density harkens back to early Black Sabbath, wisps of psychedelia infusing the low end like some kind of gaseous form of LSD, the entire effect hypnotic and reminding me of the early snake temple scene in Conan the Barbarian when the woman is swaying right before she jumps into the snake pit.  It’s like being ground to dust by a musical pestle and mortar.

The instrumental “Strung Through The Floor” is a manic jam session, throbbing and trippy, crashing cymbals replacing the vocals and riding over the top of the music like ball lightning.  “Moving Walls” pushes the vocals into the background, giving the whole thing a nightmare-like quality, though the guitar-centric interlude embodies the best aspects of the early 1970s hard rock aesthetic, indulgent without being self-indulgent, intricate without being pompous. The marathon 13-minute “Long Strange Days” is exactly what its name implies, long and strange (the title’s initials are L-S-D; coincidence?).  Here the psych element comes to the forefront, the pace slower and more deliberate, each bass note hanging in space waiting for the next to be played.  There’s a prog-like quality to the flow.  The pace and weight increase almost imperceptibly and eventually you think to yourself, damn, this got heavy again.  The album closes with a demo version of the title track, rawer than the later studio version and capturing more of that live feel.

Cry Of The Banshee is described as an EP, probably because it has five songs.  But don’t be fooled – these suckers are loooong, only one of them clocking in under 10 minutes and the whole thing lasting 53+.  This isn’t punk rock.  This is metal.  Some of the band’s catalog is available on Bandcamp HERE, and I believe more CDs will be available soon.  So give ’em a listen and maybe send ’em a few bucks if you like what you hear.

(♠)  Despite Bown’s affinity for Allin you should not be afraid to go see Witches Tears perform live.  So far as I know Bowen has never thrown his own poop into the audience.  So far as I know.

Sleep – “Dopesmoker” (1996 / 2003)

sleepdopesmokerI was blissfully ignorant of the album Dopesmoker until I joined the “Now Playing” group on Facebook and started seeing it posted from time to time, inevitably generating copious amounts of comments like “this is so rad” and “killer”.  It’s one of those weird albums that seems to have a tremendous amount of underground cred, and people who are into it revere it like it’s a holy book.  Plus it has a bizarre backstory that others have covered extensively, but long story short the trio Sleep wanted to put out an album that would be one hour-long song, they got signed to do so and presented Dopesmoker to their label London in 1996, and London basically shelved it.  It’s been released officially and unofficially by a number of labels over the years, both under the names Dopesmoker and Jerusalem.  Most recently it has been put out by Southern Lord starting in 2012 in, as near as I can tell, approximately 216,523 different color variations and versions (♠).  It’s one of these versions that I picked up the other day.

I enjoy doom metal, but the genre itself is at times given over to becoming monotonously repetitive if the band isn’t careful.  And somehow Sleep managed to write an hour-long jam that manages to dance around that trap time and time again.  It’s not that there aren’t segments containing repetitive elements, because there are.  But Sleep never stay so long in those places that you want to get up and put something else on instead, and somehow pull that off without any significant quieter intervals, a trick sometimes used in black metal to give the listener a short reprieve.

You can give the whole thing a listen on Bandcamp HERE.

(♠)  A slight exaggeration.  Slight.

Runemagick – “Dark Live Magick” (2011)

This morning felt like the end of summer.  We woke up and it was cold and gray and rainy outside, the start of a rainy weekend.  My sinuses were pounding, mostly from my allergies but also possible from Jack Daniels.  The first cup of coffee started to help and hopefully the second will work it’s magic. (♠)  So what to listen to on a morning like this?  Live doom/death metal, of course.

Sweden’s Runemagick started up in 1990 and were active until the late 2000s.  Their early material generally falls into the death metal genre, though over time the band added more doom aspects to their music, and that can clearly be felt on their 2001 live album, Dark Live Magick.  The quality of the recording is surprisingly good – in my limited experience with extreme metal live albums tend to sound pretty crappy, but you could easily mistake this for a studio album if it wasn’t for hearing the crowd at times.  The band plays a tight set, heavy and driving, with Nicklas Rudolfsson’s guttural growl providing vocals straight from the pits of hell.

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I dig this album way more than I thought I would.  The sound quality is excellent, the pacing good, and the songs have a great flow to them.  Runemagick don’t wallow around in their own excesses in ways I’m used to hearing from a lot of extreme metal these days, keeping their songs tight, structured, and internally consistent in a way that gives them a lot of power.  Dark Live Magick includes 10 live tracks plus a pair of bonus studio demos to close out side B, including the particularly kick-ass “Lord of the Grave”.  This one may be tricky to track down – I couldn’t find any of the songs from this album online (including on Runemagick’s Bandcamp page), and it was only released on vinyl and limited to 300 numbered copies.  It apparently included a poster insert, though my copy didn’t come with one.  Despite the obvious scarcity you can still find a copy here or there in the $15-30 price range, and frankly I think it’s worth every penny.

(♠)  It didn’t.

HAM – The Musical Catalog

P1030579I’d held a certain fascination with the Icelandic band HAM, even before I’d heard their music.  In part this was due to the “Legend of HAM.”  How much of it is accurate, I don’t really know, because often when Icelanders speak of HAM they do so in a very faux-serious kind of way, and you can never quite be sure if they’re messing with you or not.  Basically the story goes that HAM weren’t popular when they first hit the scene, put out a (at the time) shocking video that pissed some people off, were adored by Björk enough that they sometimes opened for The Sugarcubes (I can only imagine what Sugarcubes fans thought of HAM; Sigurjón Kjartansson described the 1989 tour to me as “A real Spinal Tap experience for a whole month.”).  Then they moved to New York, couldn’t get traction there, and came home and called it a career.  For a while.  Then The Legend grew, they opened for Rammstein’s Reykjavik shows in 2001, and re-formed in a fairly casual way.  But I’ll tell you this.  Today they have a whole lot of fans at home.  And they are likely one of the very few metal bands who can boast a national parliamentarian as an active member (Óttarr Proppé, above, probably saying something about friendship… and hate).

I’ve seen HAM live four times now, and every one of those shows was excellent.  From the killer music to Óttarr Proppé’s regular exhortations of “We are HAM!,” they put on a great show.  Once I lucked onto a copy of their first album Hold (more on that below), I knew I had to try to get my hands on all the band’s albums.  And with a little help from eBay, Dr. Gunni, and my friends at Lucky Records, I succeeded.

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 We are HAM!

I’m not going to give you a ton of background on HAM, because that’s already been done better elsewhere – so I encourage you to check out Dr. Gunni’s excellent 2011 English language article about the band in the Reykjavik Grapevine HERE.  As someone who was a part of the scene and who even played with the band for the briefest of moments, he knows more about them than I ever will.  The magazine Metal Hammer also did a solid article about HAM last year, though I believe you’ll need to sign up for their website to access it.

I did, however, take the time to reach out to the band’s founding member, singer and guitarist Sigurjón Kjartansson, and bugged him with a few questions about the band and the Icelandic music scene in general.  One thing that particularly intrigued me, as a fan of early Icelandic punk and new wave myself, is what bands influenced him growing up.  He replied, “It started with Utangarðsmenn when I was 12. It was a shock. Then came Þeyr, saw them in 1981 when they came Ísafjörður, the town I grew up in. They were magical. New wave – mystic and crazy. No real songs, just riffs. But probably my favorite from this time is Purrkur Pillnikk.”  Now, any regular reader of the blog knows I love Þeyr and Purrkur Pillnikk, but over time I’ve come to realize just how important Utangarðsmenn were to the developing scene in the early 1980s.  I may need to go back and re-visit some of their albums.

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Dr. Gunni weighing in on HAM’s influences on the documentary “HAM – Living Dead,” which truly captures the mock-seriousness that swirls around the band

I also got Sigurjón’s thoughts on the current music scene.  When asked what one band he would recommend people check out, he had a very definitive answer.  “I love Börn,” he responded.  “Maybe because they remind me of old times. But still they are very modern and real. I like real.”  I definitely agree – having seen Börn live a number of times, most recently last November, I can tell you they always leave it all out there on the stage for you to see and hear.  There’s no sugar coating it and nothing fancy, just raw punk rock.  You can, and should, go check out some of their stuff on their Bandcamp page HERE.

So, I’ve got all these HAM albums.  Now what?  Well, the “what” is below, a retrospective of the complete HAM catalog of studio, live, and band-specific compilation albums.  Because I had to draw the line somewhere and I’m not completely crazy, despite all appearances of being so, I only gave a cursory listing of the various soundtracks and  label/Icelandic music compilations that did not consist exclusively of HAM material.

So, without further ado, I give you…

Hold
(1988 -Smekkleysa – Vinyl only)

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I try not to get too caught up in the “collectibility” factor of records, but if you told me I had to get rid of most of my vinyl and I could only keep, say, five records, Hold would be one of them.  It’s ground zero for a seminal band, plus as an added bonus I bought it directly from none other than Dr. Gunni, arguably the most knowledgeable person in the area of Icelandic popular music.  The front cover is disturbing as hell, featuring a shirtless, blindfolded man with something written on his chest in blood.  Standing behind him is a guy dressed as a priest, wearing sunglasses, and wielding a samurai sword.  But what’s even more insane is what’s inside in a fold-out mini poster (kids, if buying a copy of this, make sure to check to see if it includes the poster!), because now we find out that our blindfolded friend is on his knees and completely naked, this time with the priest pulling his head back by the hair and raising the sword with the other hand.  I’m not sure what the story is with the motorcycle parked behind them, but that’s secondary to the nightmare-indicing imagery.

Musically Hold is HAM at their most evil-sounding.  Svik, Harmur og Dauð might be heavier, but this is the record that hits you like a plunge into an ice cold lake.  Right from the start on “Trúboðasleikjari” you’re hit with opposing vocals, the possessed witch-like screech of Óttarr riding over the top and Sigurjón’s baritone doom creating a cold stone floor underneath.  The guitars crackle like an electric fence, threatening to fry your nerves and set your hair on fire.  And from there HAM don’t let up, with Óttarr trading his signing for an animalistic rasp on “Svín,” and the assault just continuing with “Auður Sif.”  You get a bit of a break with “Transylvania,” which has some mildly creepy Gregorian chant-like vocals, but sonically isn’t as heavy or incendiary as the first three tracks.  “Hold” closes the EP out, punching you straight in the nose right from the first pounding note, the weightiest song on the album with it’s trance inducing guitars and repetitive refrain of “hold” being said over and over and over.  The whole thing is only about 18 minutes long, but after listening to Hold straight through I feel like I need to go sit out on the front steps with a cigarette and a beer, wrap my arms around myself, and rock back and forth to get the voices out of my head.

All five songs on Hold also appear on the 1993 CD Saga Rokksins 1988-1993, so at least you have another way to get this music besides the expensive, vinyl-only Hold.  That being said, Saga Rokksins isn’t the easiest thing to find either… and if you can get your hands on this record for a decent price, I’d suggest you buy it.  I’d definitely pick up a second copy if the price was right.

Buffalo Virgin
(1989 – One Little Indian – Vinyl and CD)

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The Sugarcubes showed their support for HAM by releasing Hold on their own Icelandic label, Smekkleysa, and the following year they stepped in to help again, getting HAM signed with the UK label that they worked with, One Little Indian.  It was a shot at the big time, promising wider distribution, but it also was a big departure from the band’s sound on Hold.  In last year’s Metal Hammer interview Sigurjón referred to 1989s Buffalo Virgin as “a detour” and noted that it “doesn’t represent us at all.”

I’d have to agree… somewhat, though more so with respect to side A.  Buffalo Virgin opens with “Slave,” a straight-forward hard rocker that lacks the disturbing aspects of Hold.  Óttarr and Sigurjón’s massively contrasting vocal styles keep it from falling into blandness, however, and regardless of what direction the band’s music takes that duo ensure that it always sounds like HAM at some level.  “Youth” marks a move back in the direction of Hold with a heavier sound and more tormented vocals, though it lacks the creepy factor of the earlier songs.  The high point of the album, and the one that got them some airplay in the UK at the time, is “Voulez Vous,” a HAM version of the Abba hit, and it’s brilliant.  The guys took a disco hit and turned it inside out, taking the light and polished tune and turning it into a doom metal number, staying surprisingly true to the originally while still playing it in a completely different style.  In many ways it makes sense that this was arguably their biggest song outside of Iceland, as it shows the band at their most wink-wink-nod-nod, being deadly serious about being tongue-in-cheek.  “Linda Blair” (the actress who played the possessed child character named Regan in The Exorcist) is the closest HAM comes to their earlier work, with the obvious exception of the final track on side A, “Svín,” a song that actually appeared originally on Hold and was also included on Buffalo Virgin.

The B side is more consistently doom-ish, with more weight on the musical low end and Sigurjón showing us some new vocal range with a soaring style of baritone on “Misery” (something he exhibits on “Voulez Vous” as well).  “Forbidden Lovers” is HAM at their heaviest, giving us a sense of that foreboding style that would come to define their sound in later years, a sort of denser and heavier version of the Hold songs.

Buffalo Virgin may be a bit of an outlier in the HAM body of work, a small tentative step in a more mainstream direction.  But don’t be fooled.  They still knew how to rock and play to their strengths, especially on side B.

Saga Rokksins 1988-1993
(1993 – Nordisk Musik – CD only)

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It’s kind of hard to place Saga Rokksins in the HAM catalog, as it consists of both new and previously released material.  Six of the 13 tracks appear on other HAM albums, including “Death” from Buffalo Virgin and all five songs from Hold, marking it as the only place where studio versions of four of Hold‘s five songs appear on a non-vinyl format (the fifth, “Svín,” was included on Buffalo Virgin).  Another, “Lonesome Duke,” was previously released as part of a 1990 Bad Taste (aka Smekkleysa) Icelandic comp called World Domination or Death Vol. 1 That leaves us with six songs that were entirely new when they appeared on Saga Rokksins.  These were a mix of tracks that were part of the aborted album that would have been called Pimpmobile and the sessions for the Sódóma Reykjavík film soundtrack.

Miraculously I found a copy of this CD on eBay a few years back.  Iit doesn’t seem to pop up for sale very often – though at the time I was writing this, there was a US seller on Discogs who had one for $30, so if it’s still there, you might want to go buy it.

Saga Rokksins opens with “Musculus,” a doom metal Gregorian chant, pure and simple, and it’s followed by one of my all time HAM favorites, “Sanity,” the perfect interplay between Sigurjón deep voice and the possessed frog-like croaking of Óttarr.  This pair of tracks represents the most current material on the CD with both songs having been recorded in September 1992, foreshadowing HAM’s future direction with their musical relentlessness.  Of the newly released material, “Gefðu Mér Ást” stands apart from the rest stylistically.  It’s a difficult song to get a handle on, a bit reminiscent of some of the side A material from Buffalo Virgin, musically more of a rock song but with a bit of that unique HAM vocal flair.

The CD liner notes indicate that track #8 appeared on World Domination or Death Vol. 1, but that song is called “Æskublóm,” and it doesn’t appear on that compilation.  The two HAM songs that are on there are “Voulez Vous” (off of Buffalo Virgin) and “Lonesome Duke,” which is actually track #6 on Saga Rokksins.  This probably doesn’t matter to most people who aren’t completely obsessed with HAM, but it is a point that seems like it should be clarified.  As for the song, “Lonesome Duke” is characterized by that HAM-esque musical repetition, begging for the band to break loose of their self-imposed structure but never doing so, the only relief coming from Proppé’s rap-like delivery in his vocal segments.  “Transylvania II,” a sort of revamped version of the original “Transylvania” from Hold, and “Æskublóm” close out the remaining new material. “Æskublóm” is another curve ball of sorts, one of the band’s more experimental tracks.  It’s that very rarest of creatures, a slow HAM song, something reminiscent of a haunted forest at dusk, when the spirits of the day are giving way to the much darker spirits of the night.  The song itself might be haunted, but I can’t be sure.

Saga Rokksins represents many of the characteristics of the typical HAM album – some new material, some recycled stuff, and a whole lot of weird.

Lengi Lifi
(1994 – Smekkleysa – CD only – Live Performance from June 4, 1994)

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Lengi Lifi proved to be the most elusive album on my quest to complete the HAM catalog and it was the last one I acquired.  I had three different friends in Reykjavik on the lookout for a copy, and it was none other than Dr. Gunni himself who emailed me one day to let me know he’d found it for me.  Success!  For whatever reason I have a hard time with the concept of a CD being “limited” or “hard to find,” so this was one of the rare times in my life that I’ve paid a bit of a premium price for one – but I have to think that the print run was small since there pretty much wasn’t any demand outside of Iceland (sources indicate there were only 1,000 copies made), and certainly my struggles in finding a copy seem to bear this out.  There are two copies currently for sale on Discogs, both from sellers in Iceland and each priced at around $90.

This live show on June 4, 1994 was supposed to be HAM’s farewell, and it actually was for quite some time – as near as I can tell they didn’t perform again for the remainder of the decade.  It’s an iconic show, and you can even see a video of the whole thing on YouTube (see below).  How good is it?  Well, the book 100 Bestu Plötur Íslandssögunnar ranked it the 39th best Icelandic album, which I think is the second highest position held by a live album on that list, eclipsed only by the soundtrack to Rokk í Reykjavík.

There are 17 HAM songs on Lengi Lifi (excluding the symphonic intro), and what’s particularly interesting to me is that as near as I can tell only 11 of these had previously appeared on other HAM albums or the Sódóma Reykjavík soundtrack.  Two others, “Austur” and “Demetra,” were included in the HAM live CD CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 (a show that took place before this one, but that wasn’t released on CD until 2001), while “Airport” later appeared on the Drepnir (1996) Icelandic music compilation, also as a live version but one that sounds to be from a different show.  That leaves “2000” and “Örlög” (the latter of which gives a writing credit to Björk) as potentially making their only appearances on this album.  Maybe you care.  Maybe you don’t.  But figuring this kind of thing out is what keeps me up at night.  We are HAM!

A song-by-song breakdown of this album just doesn’t feel necessary.  Know that the recording quality is excellent, much better than what you’d expect if you’d only seen the low quality YouTube video I linked to above.  It definitely sounds like sound board quality, and they packed every byte with music, with the album coming it at around 68 minutes.  It includes a great live version of their ABBA cover “Voulez-Vous” on which Óttarr at times sounds like a barking rabid dog, and hearing the yell from the crowd when the opening chord of “Partíbær” reminds me of the excitement of hearing the band launch into this classic at the live shows I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.  HAM brings tremendous energy to their concerts, and that’s captured on Lengi Lifi.  It’s a must-have for your HAM collection.

Dauður Hestur
(1995 – Skífan – CD only)

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This was another tough-to-find album for me.  I put out some feelers and after maybe six months or so my friends over at Lucky Records said they’d found a copy for me, and while as I previously mentioned I have a hard time with more-than-retail prices for used CDs, when something is rare, it’s rare, and that means you have to pay a bit more.  The guys at Lucky were more than fair, and I was glad to have it, so it was still a win.

Dead Horse was a sort of HAM post mortem, a confusing hodgepodge of both previously released and unreleased material.  “Sanity” and “Dimitri” from Saga Rokksins are here, as are four tracks from the Sódóma Reykjavík soundtrack.  So as near as I can tell only five of the 11 tracks on Dauður Hestur were previously unreleased.  Of these, only “Bulldozer” would make a future appearance, showing up on the 2001 live CD Skert Flog.  This leaves us with four songs that are only available on this collection – “Deathbillies on the Run,” “On the Run Again,” “Birth of a Marination,” and “Retrofire.”  Björk is back as well, playing keyboards on four songs for one of her favorite all-time bands.

The album opens with two previously unreleased songs, “Deathbillies on the Run” and “Bulldozer,” songs that are less heavy than HAM’s standard fare and that find Sigurjón seemingly try to sing at a somewhat higher pitch, bringing his normal baritone up to a tenor.  He has the range, but it takes away some of the dissonance between him and Óttarr that makes HAM’s sound so distinct.  Basically these are a couple of good hard rock songs.  But then “Party Town” (aka “Partíbær”) kicks in and we’re back to classic HAM, the unstoppable music force, coming straight at you.  “Sodoma Theme” gives us that rare, mythical beast, the HAM instrumental, though since this is HAM there is still a little anguished screaming at one point.  The studio version of “Manifesto” (previously only heard on Lengi Lifi) is a step back in time to Hold-era HAM, a disturbingly delicious piece with Óttarr sounding like he’s vomiting forth the vocals.

The last third of Dauður Hestur features three of the new songs, starting with, surprisingly, another instrumental, “On the Run Again.”  “Birth of a Marination” brings back the driving, relentless musical attack, with a few HAM-esque guitar flourishes to round it out while Óttarr provides the details with a raspy, spoken style of delivery.  That’s followed by one of my all-time favorites “Sanity,” which first appeared on Saga Rokksins two years earlier.  To close the album out we’re given “Retrofire,” which opens with a space-launch style countdown before kicking into… wait… what is that?  It’s the guitar riff from “Musculus,” no doubt about it.  It’s actually like a remix of “Musculus,” replacing the Gregorian chant style of vocal delivery of the original with audio clips of an unfolding space flight disaster, chatter between the astronauts and earth, sort of a HAM version of “Space Oddity” but, you know, with a killer, pounding guitar riff.

Dauður Hestur is perhaps a bit inconsistent, but that’s to be expected given that this material was taken from a number of recording sessions over a four year period and intended for different purposes.  There’s still some excellent material here, though, including a nice group of new songs.  It would be 17 more years before we got another HAM studio album, but man when they came back, they came back with a vengeance.

CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993
(2001 – No Label – CD and Cassette – Live Performance from August 7, 1993)

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I’m not entirely sure what the story is with this CD.  HAM relocated to New York in an attempt to achieve a breakout of sorts and played a number of live shows, including some at the iconic club CBGB’s.  This eight-song CD captures one of these concerts, played on August 7, 1993.  As near as I can tell the album came out in 2001, and that’s just a guess based on the copyright date shown on the disc itself.  This has all the hallmarks of an unofficial release – instead of a  booklet like you’d normally find with a CD, with CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 you simply get a slightly thicker than normal piece of paper as an insert, only printed on one side, and even that isn’t particularly well done.  I suspect it was put out due to the resurgence in HAM mania in 2001 following the band coming out of retirement for some shows that summer (see Skert Flog below).  A handful of people have it listed in their collections on Discogs, and I bought my copy probably 5-6 years ago at Lucky Records – long enough ago that it was back when they were in their old, cramped location on Hverfisgata.  There’s no sales history on Discogs, so it’s a bit of a tough one to track down.

CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 is quite a bit shorter than Lengi Lifi at only eight songs and about 32 minutes, but don’t let that fool you – it’s a solid album.  All the songs appear on that earlier live album (♠), though two are here under different names – “Marination” is the same song as “Marinering,” while for some bizarre reason the last song on CBGB’s is listed as “R Poh” when in fact it’s “Airport.”   The recording quality is admittedly not as good as its predecessor, with the low end sounding a bit flat and tinny and the entire thing a little hollow.  Musically, however, the band is tight.  They open with a fast-paced version of “Sanity,” and the recording quality actually serves to bring Óttarr’s vocals out front and center.  In fact, I think all the vocals are a bit clearer on this CD – but that may be because all these songs are sung in English as opposed to their original Icelandic, which makes it much easier for me to “hear” the vocals.  That’s followed by “Austur,” and you know I think I might like this version even better than the one from Lengi Lifi.  “Marination” is probably the high point, with a good pace and feeling like it’s the least impacted by the sound quality limitations.

The big positive of CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 for the non-Icelandic speaker is that the songs are in English, making them a bit more approachable.  For my money, however, I still prefer the longer and better quality Lengi Lifi.  Regardless, both are super hard to find, so if you come across a copy and the price is reasonable, you should absolutely pick one up.

As an aside, Sigurjón told me that the band actually got paid for at least one of their CBGB’s gigs by none other than Hilly Kristal himself.  He ran into Hilly again a decade or so later when the club was facing closure, but while they said “hi” to one another there wasn’t any reminiscing.  Of all the famous clubs in venues in America, perhaps the coolest on to be able to say you played at was CBGB’s.

(UPDATE Feb. 27, 2016 –> My friend Gestur from Lucky Records dropped me a note after reading this to let me know that CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 was actually first released as a limited edition (numbered of 50 copies) cassette sometime in 1993.  Takk, Gestur!)

Skert Flog
(2001 – HITT – CD only – Live Performance from June 14, 2001)

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I bought this CD at the same time that I picked up CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993.  The more I think about it, the more I feel like it was in 2011, because HAM had just released a new album and was playing Airwaves, and I was super excited to see them live having heard so much about the legendary band.  The only place I’ve ever seen it for sale is in Iceland, and as I’m writing this the only copies for sale on Discogs are from there as well, which isn’t a surprise.

This album came about when in 2001 HAM came out of retirement to open a couple of shows in Reykjavik for Rammstein.  The local response was great, which led HAM to headline a show of their own at the club Gaukur á Stöng on June 14 that was recorded and released on CD as the 10 song, 43 minute Skert Flog.  It also resulted in a new HAM documentary called Living Dead that came out later that year.  I actually got a copy of this film on DVD last year at Airwaves, and it’s a fantastic, Spinal Tap-ish documentary in which almost everyone has their tongue firmly planted in their cheek.  My favorite line is from Dr. Gunni himself who observed about the band, “In the end they’re into industrial rock like Toto.”  We are HAM!

Right from the start it’s apparent that Skert Flog is going to kick all kinds of ass.  The CD opens with “Trúboðasleikjari,” the first song off their first EP, Hold, and it couldn’t be any better.  The sound quality is excellent and the band as at their evil best with a doom vibe and Óttarr’s voice trying to infect your soul.  By time we get to “Sanity” the whole thing is at a fever pitch, the vocals reaching a point of pure incessantness and both singers straining their voices as far as they possibly can without blowing them out completely, pure raw energy and adrenalin.  And then they slow it down with a sludgy, heavy, weighty version of “Voulez Vous” that lays on your chest like a massive stone that you can’t push off.  The second half of the CD includes a pounding, anxiety-inducing version of “Bulldozer,” some amazing choral singing on “Musculus,” and the whole thing closes out with a rousing rendition of “Partíbær,” the song that should close out every HAM concert from here until the end of time.

I hadn’t listened to this album in a long time, and honestly I’d forgotten how great it is.  I went into this project thinking that Lengi Lifi was the obvious choice for the best HAM live album, but after hearing Skert Flog again… well, I think we have a new champ.  The CD has a career-spanning selection of material, most of it sung in English, and the recording quality is excellent.  Lengi Lifi may be as good as this, but it’s not better.

Svik, Harmur og Dauði
(2011 – Smekkleysa – Vinyl and CD)

HAMsvik

Svik, Harmur og Dauði.  Betrayal, Sorrow and Death.  An album title that perfectly conveys the mood of the music.

I was excited as hell to hear that HAM was releasing a new album in 2011, and even more so that they were playing Iceland Airwaves.  They were on my “absolutely, positively must-see” list for the festival that year, and their show at the Reykjavik Art Museum lived up to the hype, a packed house with bodies crammed together and swaying at the front of the stage.  When the show was over the concrete floor of the venue looked like the aftermath of a huge fraternity party, with crushed cans and cups everywhere, and slick patches of beer and other unidentifiable fluids that made walking dangerous even if you were sober.  I bought a copy of the CD early in the trip, and then got pissed when I saw a copy of it on vinyl at the label/record store Smekkleysa.  After uttering some profanities I announced that it just didn’t make sense for me to drop another $40-50 on a vinyl copy of something I’d already bought on CD just the day before.  But my man Norberto was with me, and saved the day when he told me he’d buy the CD from me so I could just shut the hell up and buy the record.  Because that’s what friends do for each other – make sacrifices so you’ll shut the hell up.  It turned out to be a double win when I got the record back the apartment and realized that not only was the jacket actually a fold-out poster, but the package also included a CD copy of the album.  Score!

Right from the opening chords of “Einskins Son” it was evident that not only was HAM back, but they were back to their old school form.  Heavy, pounding, heavy, deep, heavy, relentless… this song attacks you like an army of demons from the pits of hell, with Óttarr whipping them into a fever pitch.  And then it gets even more darkly powerful with what is, in my humble opinion, the greatest song in the HAM discography, “Dauð Hóra,” literally “Dead Whore.”  It’s a song that feels like will burst forward into speed or thrash metal at any moment, but maintains it’s pace.  Coming at you.  Not stopping.  One heavy metal step at a time, until the last minute or so when the pace intensifies and so does the head-banging when it’s played live.  It’s a driving powerhouse of a song, and a consistent part of HAM’s live sets.

What separates Svik, Harmur og Dauði from the other HAM studio albums is a level of internal consistency – for the first time since the five-song Hold I feel like HAM has a very specific direction in mind, and they’re giving it to the listener with both barrels.  It’s HAM at their doomiest and heaviest.  That’s not to disparage their earlier material, because some of the plain old hard rockers like “Partíbær” absolutely kill it.  But this to me is HAM distilled to their purest form, and my all-time favorite of their albums

“Sviksemi” / “Tveir Dalir”
(2011 – Smekkleysa – 7″ Vinyl only)

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Despite having been fairly prolific over the years, to the best of my knowledge “Sviksemi” / “Tveir Dalir” is the only time that HAM released a 7″ single.  It was already in the stores when we were in Reykjavik for Airwaves in 2011, so I’m not sure if it pre- or post-dates the release of Svik, Harmur og Dauði.  “Sviksemi” is on that album, but the B side “Tveir Dalir” is not, and as near as I can tell is currently only available here as a B side – it’s not on any of the HAM live albums, nor on any compilations.  Sonically it fits in well with the Svik, Harmur og Dauði, and while I don’t know exactly what it’s about, Óttarr introduced it at the band’s KEX Hostel show in November 2014 thusly:  “The last song was a song about our lying friend.  But the next song is about two hermits who live in separate valleys, but love can travel over the mountains.  It’s a hard thing if you’re a hermit.”  Love can travel over the mountains….

Other Appearances

HAM songs have appeared on a number of non-HAM albums.  Below is just a brief listing of the stuff I know about.  None of these songs are unique, in that all appear on at least one actual HAM release.

  • New Icelandic Music cassette (1987):  “Trúboðasleikjari”
  • One Little Indian Flexi 7″ (1989):  “Voulez Vous”
  • One Little Indian Greatest Hits Volume 2 (1990):  “Voulez Vous”
  • World Domination or Death Volume 1 (1990):  “Voulez Vous” and “Lonesome Duke”
  • Sódóma Reykjavík Soundtrack (1992):  “Partýbær,” “Animalia,” and “Manifesto”
  • Drepnir (1996):  “Airport” (live)
  • Alltaf Sama Svínið (2002):  “Transylvanía”
  • Rokkskífan – Rokklag Frá Hverju Ári Skífunnar (2006):  “Party Town”

HAM performances can also be found on some various DVDs, but that’s sort of outside the scope of this overview, so for now I’m going to skip those.  Probably the best thing out there on the interwebs is the full performance of the band’s show at KEX Hostel at Iceland Airwaves 2014.  I was there that night, way in the back by the door because the place was so packed.  It’s probably the only time at Airwaves that we’ve actually seen a band come out and do an encore (seriously).  HAM perform a couple of songs that aren’t on any of their other albums (yet…), most notably the killer opener “Brekka,” along with “Þú lýgur” and “Morðingjar.”  Hopefully we’ll see some of these on the next record.  They also played their only B side, “Tveir Dalir.”  Check it out.  It’s well worth a listen.

If I were going to give you a “must have” list of HAM albums, there are three that stick out to me as combining to provide the best possible overview of the band’s material and sound.

  • Svik, Harmur og Dauði is, to me, the best HAM studio album
  • Saga Rokksins 1988-1993 provides a great overview of the band’s early material, including all five songs off their debut EP Hold
  • Skert Flog, which is my favorite of the three live HAM albums and one that gives you a good sense of the band’s live sound

So that, my friends, is the HAM discography, start to finish.  Sigurjón tells me that they have an album’s worth of material ready, so if all goes well we’ll have a new one later this year, which would be fantastic (if the guys at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records are reading this, put a vinyl copy on hold for me whenever it comes out!).

We are HAM!

 

(♠)  Lengi Lifi was released many years prior to CBGB’s, but the actual CBGB’s show took place a year before the one that was recorded for Lengi Lifi.

Sunn O))) – “Kannon” (2015)

How had I never heard of Sunn O))) until just recently?  These guys have been putting out records for 15 years, and their newest release Kannon has been one of the most hotly discussed RSD Black Friday titles on some of the online forums I frequent – though not entirely because of the music (more on that in a minute).  I’ve seen Kannon show up on the Facebook “Now Playing” group a bunch of times as well, and the general consensus is that people are digging it.

I wasn’t planning on going out for Record Store Day Black Friday, but then Holly and I figured what the hell – we’ll pop over to Easy Street in West Seattle later in the morning after the rush is over, then go get some lunch.  I picked up the main title I was interested in, Revolutionaries Sounds Vol. 2, and from there I spent some time flipping through everything that was available (or at least everything that was left…).  That’s where I ran across Kannon.  And I won’t lie – it was the cover that made me stop and go back to it, both the interesting image on the front and the kanji, as I thought perhaps this was a Japanese band.  The back cover clarified things a bit, with the three band members in black monk robes posing in front of some creepy looking tapestries, with one of them throwing the horns.  This was getting interesting.  A quick online search on my phone sealed the deal, and I walked out with the only copy still in the bins.

TANGENT ALERT!  How the hell did we ever buy music back in the day, before we all had smart phones?  Of course I know the answer to this, because that’s how I shopped for records for most of my life.  But damn, it’s easy to forget what a shot-in-the-dark so much of it was.  Stores that sold new stuff didn’t even have listening stations, so when it came to finding a random, interesting looking title like this you were kind of lost if no one working at the store knew about it.  Even if you wanted to research it, how the hell would you?  We didn’t have the internet.  It’s not like there was a repository of information you could refer to in order to find out what a band was all about.  I know I rolled the rock ‘n’ roll dice on more than one occasion, sometimes winning, sometimes rolling craps.

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It turns out that Kannon got all kinds of limited edition treatments on vinyl for its release – three different colored versions that included a 7″ flexi, which I believe were for pre-orders; a clear version; a glow-in-the-dark(!) version; a white RSD version; and a black “regular” version.  That’s a lot of different versions, man.  The drama appears to be tied to the RSD white pressing, a limited release of 2,000 copies specifically for RSD Black Friday, which I believe was technically hitting the shelves just prior to the regular release of the album.  Turns out a bunch of folks who bought their copy on Black Friday expecting a limited edition white copy got a regular edition black copy instead, which would of course be a big bummer and potentially something that will “hurt” the value of a person’s copy over time, since the white will remain limited while the black will continue to be pressed on demand.  Fortunately for yours truly, I got one of the white copies.  While I would have bought it regardless, I’m glad I was one of the lucky ones.

Stylistically Kannon is some seriously drone-y doom metal.  It’s slow and heavy and sludgy, with religious overtones emphasized by vocals that sound like Gregorian chanting.  The whole thing seems like it would be right at home in a massive, old, European cathedral.  At 34 minutes it’s about a normal album length (maybe a tad short), but that music is spread over only three songs, the shortest of which (“Kannon 2”) runs over nine minutes.  The length of these songs give them time to meander and develop, while also giving the listener the ability to get lost and wallow in them.

The liner notes are extensive, filling up an entire panel inside the gatefold jacket.  They are written by controversial performance artist Aliza Shvarts, who not only provides us with background on the subject matter of Kannon, that of the goddess of mercy, but also provides her own in depth analysis of the album’s three songs (complete with footnotes).  It’s an unusual album on many fronts, but perhaps most notably by this in depth sonic review, which is the kind of thing usually reserved for re-issues or albums of older, previously unreleased material.  For a band to devote so much space to providing a non band member’s perceptions of their brand new music is highly unusual and certainly shows that they were very thematically focused when creating this album, something that could easily get lost if they didn’t provide the listener with some background.  It adds layers to what is already a highly layered composition and will be food for thought the next time I listen to Kannon.

Kannon is undoubtedly one of those albums that will require repeated listenings in order to fully access and appreciate it.  If you’re interested in checking some of it out for yourself, it’s posted on the Sunn O))) Bandcamp page HERE.  I’m going to need to keep this one out and in the rotation for a bit, because I think it’s going to reward however much effort I put into it.