The Ills – “Zoya” (2014)

One of the best things about Iceland Airwaves is discovering new bands, bands you would probably never come across otherwise.  Sure, sometimes there’s a reason why a band is relatively unknown, and it’s because they aren’t very good.  But more often it’s a matter of geography and the sheer volume of music fighting for our attention in the constant churn that is the internet.  We’re given access to so much new and different stuff that at times it becomes so overwhelming you want to throw up your hands, put on a greatest hits album by Tom Petty or the Eagles, and just give up.

The other great thing about Airwaves is it sometimes “forces” me to listen to an entire set by a band I might otherwise walk out on.  Like it did on the festival’s second night last year when we got to Húrra early so we could stake out good spots to see Dr. Spock, who were the third band on the bill.  The openers, Hórmónar, were right in our wheelhouse and we loved them.  Then came The Ills, a quartet from Slovakia, and it quickly became apparent that they played instrumental rock, something I normally avoid in the same way that Marie Antoinette avoided the hoi polloi (though she got up close and personal with them in the end).  But by the second song it was clear there was something happening.  The Ills were starting to take control of the room through their sheer talent and obvious joy in playing together.  By the third song we were all rocking out, so much so that when their set finished after the allotted 35-40 minutes, we were all left wanting just one more song.  If I hadn’t specifically been at the venue to see the very next band, I might not have stayed long enough to appreciate The Ills, and that would have been my loss.  We ended up running into a couple of the guys a night later at Harpa and were gushing in our praise of their set, much to their appreciation and perhaps slightly to their embarrassment, as they were obviously a humble bunch who were simply glad that people enjoyed hearing them play.

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Above is a shot I took of the band at Airwaves, and as you can see they’re tearing it up.  The crowd was way into it, though that dude off to the left of the stage looked like he might have been channeling some kind of demonic presence, or maybe he’s just Felix La PuBelle from Grosse Pointe Blank and he’s getting ready to whack someone.  Either way, it seems like he’s staring straight into my soul.

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A month or two after we got home I ordered The Ills’ 2014 album Zoya, and it just arrived the other day all the way from Slovakia.  I picked it for the simple reason that it’s available on vinyl, and I’m glad I did because the 200 copy run just sold out (though their 2012 release Spendor is still available on their Bandcamp page for €10 plus shipping).  I was excited to write about Zoya and exposure you all to it, and then I found out that just a day or two ago Kevin Cole played The Ills on his KEXP radio show.  Damn, I got scooped!  Well, Kevin’s a cool dude and obviously has great taste in music, and ultimately it’s my fault for waiting.

I’ve read The Ills described as post-rock and shoegaze, and I suppose those tags are accurate enough as they go.  They also exhibit characteristics of prog and metal, which when you put it all together gives you something that seems like you might kinda understand their sound but still feeling a bit unsure.  That’s the right way to feel, because The Ills aren’t easy to box in.

Right out of the gate The Ills hit you with a barrage of different influences.  “Born Under the Mournstar” brings some classic prog elements but also some doom, not as fast or heavy as a doom metal band would play but recognizable with it’s weight and density.  Their playing is deliberate and structured – give a listen to “Raised Among Cuckoos” and you’ll immediately understand what I mean; these are craftsmen taking the time to make sure that the song is done right, that it’s clear in its structure and composition.  It’s the difference between reading a classic novel versus a piece of pulp fiction; both can be enjoyable depending on what you want to get out of them, but the classic is layered and nuanced in a way that rewards you from taking the time and paying attention to each and every word. That’s what Zoya does; it catches your attention and tells you, “dude, sit down, close your eyes, and experience this”.  Which is exactly what I did after I flipped the record, letting the B side wash over me.

Do yourself a favor and check out The Ills on their Bandcamp page.  These guys are playing some special music, and your ears deserve the opportunity to hear it.

The Best of 2016

It was another fine year for music and we tried to embrace as much of it as possible.  Besides lots of shopping at the stores in the greater Seattle area, I also bought vinyl in Los Angeles, Denver, and Oklahoma City, as well as on trips abroad in Hong Kong, Sweden, and Iceland.  We saw some great live shows, made some new friends, and discovered new bands.  It was a lot of fun, and we can’t wait to do more of it again next year.

So, without further ado, here’s the Life in the Vinyl Lane “Best of 2016” edition!

Top 5 New Releases in 2016

  1. Ash & Ice – The Kills
  2. EP01 – Dream Wife
  3. Hope – Iiris
  4. Kælan Mikla – Kælan Mikla
  5. Redemption & Ruin – The Devil Makes Three

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Sometimes I find myself thinking about how I’m going to write on certain topics, and that happened to me recently with respect to my Top 5 New Releases list.  I was super excited about Dream Wife and their EP01, enough so that I felt like it was deserving of the top spot on the list, which would also conveniently supply me with a narrative arc since lead singer Rakel was also the vocalist on my pick of the best album of 2015 as part of Halleluwah.  Man, this was going to be so easy to write!

But then I remembered Ash & Ice.  I’ve played the hell out of this album over the course of the year, and I love it more with each and every spin.  So while I certainly root for the little guy (and girl) and Dream Wife in the top position would have made for a great story, it simply wasn’t authentic.  The Kills killed it, and that’s that, putting out an album that is, to my years, light years ahead of everything else I heard in 2016.

There is another thread in this list, however, as all of the top four performers have female vocalists, and the fifth, The Devil Makes Three, has a female bassist who does backing vocals.  So every band/performer on the list has at least one woman involved.  I think we’re seeing more and more opportunity for women in rock and outside of the traditional singer/performer format, especially in rock and metal, which is outstanding.  We saw lots of women performing great music this year at Airwaves as part of outfits like Hórmónar, Singapore Sling, Samaris, aYia, Thunderpussy, and Let’s Eat Grandma, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Prayers (US)
  2. Dream Wife (UK/Iceland)
  3. Andi (Iceland)
  4. Scorpion Violente (France)
  5. The Lyman Woodard Organization (US)

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All of these “New to Me” bands came to me in different ways.  I saw Prayers on an episode of Huang’s World and literally ordered some of their music as soon as the commercial break came on after their appearance; I’d never heard of Dream Wife until I saw them perform live at Airwaves this year; I picked up Andi’s self-titled release because it was on Lady Boy Records and I pretty much buy everything they put out; Scorpion Violente was a random purchase from the New Arrivals bin at Amoeba; and I read about They Lyman Woodard Organization in an online article.

Stylistically the five band have nothing in common, ranging from cholo goth to pop-punk to electronic to industrial to jazz-funk.  They varied in genres just as they did in the ways they came to my attention.  This makes me feel good – the wider the net I can cast in the search for the new and interesting, the more likely I am to have my horizons expanded and mind blown.

I can’t recommend Prayers enough.  If you’re into hip hop or even somewhat darker electronic music you need to give these guys a listen.  But really I could say the same about all five of these selections.  Even if you’re not into their style, you may very well find something you like and have your musical base broadened just a little.  But be careful – if you open that door, even just a crack, there’s a whole flood of awesome music on the other side that will blow it down and rush over you like a tidal wave.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. U-Men – U-Men
  2. No New York Compilation
  3. Revolver – The Beatles
  4. The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I & II Soundtracks
  5. The Icelandic Punk Museum Cassettes

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I think I felt a little less passionate about acquiring specific things in 2016 than I have in past years.  That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed playing tons and tons of new vinyl (and tapes, and CDs), but there hasn’t been a lot of the thrill of picking up a rarity or even new releases that I looked forward to with great anticipation (though there are a few items due in 2017 that I am excited about).

That being said, I did get my grubby paws on a few rarities and cool titles this year.  U-Men is a legitimately scarce pre-grunge Seattle punk record, and the original pressing of No New York was an exciting find in Oklahoma City.  Getting red vinyl Japanese first pressing of The Beatles’ Revolver in Hong Kong was my first foray into that collecting rabbit hole, and the record will always carry with it the great memory of listening to James Tang play us different versions of Beatles songs and break them down for us by their differences.  The two Decline records are soundtracks to a pair of great documentaries which also finally got released on DVD.  While the last item(s) on my list are actually tapes not vinyl, I was probably most excited to get my hands on those from a purely musical standpoint – there’s some great stuff on those comps, and they hold a proud spot on my tape rack.

I’ll be excited to see what 2017 brings!

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Macklemore – Neumos, Seattle
  2. The Devil Makes Three – Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Colorado
  3. Dr. Spock – Húrra, Reykjavik
  4. Dream Wife – Harpa, Reykjavik
  5. The Ills – Húrra, Reykjavik

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When a good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, called and said, “psst, I’ve got two spots on the guest list for the Macklemore album release party at Neumos, do you want to go?”, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.  The chance to see Seattle’s best known hip hop artist (sorry Mix-A-Lot, but he has the belt now) playing in an intimate venue like Neumos in front of the home town crowd was way to good to miss.  And it was great.  Including the part shown here when he climbed up onto the ledge of the balcony level (right) and then dove backwards into the awaiting crowd below.  I doubt I would have tried that, especially given that there seemed like a lot of 14-year-old girls down below waiting to catch him.  But catch him they did, and it was a hell of a show.

The Devil Makes Three are always great live, and getting to see them at Red Rocks was just icing on the cake.  An amazing venue, and once the show started I hardly noticed the wind and the cold.  The other three shows rounding out my Top 5 were all at Airwaves.  I’m going to skip past Dr. Spock and Dream Wife as I’ve written pretty extensively about both bands recently, and go straight to The Ills.  When these crazy Slovakians hit the stage at Húrra, all five of us in our Airwaves posse basically groaned – “ugh, instrumental rock…”.  But by time the second song was done The Ills had won the entire crowd over, including us, with their sheer enthusiasm and joy of playing, plus of course they had some pretty sweet licks.  By the end of their set we were all bummed they couldn’t play just one more song.  We ran into a couple of the guys the next night and they seemed genuinely appreciative of the praise we heaped on them.  Bands like The Ills are why you go to Airwaves.  Look for a review of one of their albums in the upcoming weeks.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America
1. Easy Street Records, Seattle
2. Daybreak Records, Seattle
3. Guestroom Records, Oklahoma City
4. Amoeba Music, Los Angeles
5. Hi-Voltage Records, Tacoma

The Rest of the World
1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2. Trash Palace, Stockholm (Sweden)
3. Shun Choeng Record Company, Hong Kong
4. Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
5. The Record Museum / Sam the Record Man, Hong Kong

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I feel like I should just retire Easy Street and Lucky, since they are my two go-to shops and will likely remain so for years to come.  Hell, I could easily populate a Top 5 in North America with just Seattle area shops that I visit semi-regularly.  But such is life in the vinyl lane.  Seattle’s Daybreak Records is new on the scene this year and has an impressive amount of quality wax in a relatively small space.  Guestroom was a very pleasant surprise that I came across during a business trip to Oklahoma, and I came away with an armload of great titles there.  And if there’s one upside to all the business trips I had to take to Los Angeles in 2016 it was the opportunity to pay some visits to Amoeba, which has so much vinyl that I literally run out of energy looking well before I’ve had a chance to look at everything.  Hi-Voltage rounds out the North America Top 5 – they moved into a new location down in Tacoma and I love the new layout.

We got to visit record stores in three other countries on two continents in 2016.  Reykjavik of course gave us the always amazing Lucky Records and Reykjavik Record Shop, places where the folks working there are more like friends and family than employees.  A pre-Airwaves trip to Stockholm gave me a chance to visit Trash Palace for a second time, one of the best punk/metal speciality shops around.  And Hong Kong… ah, Hong Kong.  Shun Choeng Record Company was hard to find – it’s actually in a regular looking office building on one of the middle floors, and there’s no sign for it on the street.  It was impeccably laid out and organized, and I swear every single used record in there was immaculate.  While we didn’t buy much there, it was a fun shop to explore.  And we can’t forget our visits to James Tang, aka Sam the Record Man (above), as he literally gave us a masters-level course in the different sound qualities of various versions of the exact same songs.  It was fun and educational, a visit I’d highly recommend even if you don’t end up buying anything (though I recommend treating yourself to a Japanese red vinyl first pressing of something you enjoy… you won’t regret it).  It’s probably the only record store that also has a chandelier and will serve you coffee or tea in fine china.

The best record shopping experiences are those that come when you can build rapport with the folks at the stores.  Record shopping is fun in and of itself, but that takes it to a new level and makes the whole thing special.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Miles:  The Autobiography, by Miles Davis
  2. Hardcore:  Life of My Own, by Harley Flanagan
  3. Porcelain, by Moby
  4. I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, by Grace Jones and Paul Morley
  5. X-Ray Audio:  The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone, ed. Stephen Coates

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I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader.  I’m probably good for 30+ books in a typical year, and once when I decided to keep track I finished a year at 51… almost a book a week.  Traditionally I’ve spent almost all of my reading hours on non-fiction, but over the last few years I re-discovered my love for sci-fi and I’ve been consuming novels at a rapid rate, aided no doubt by the amount of time I’ve spent on airplanes in 2016 (best guess is I’ve been on somewhere around 60-70 flights this year).  However, I did find some time to squeeze in some music related reading, and these are the best of those books I read in 2016.

Most of these are autobiographies, which can at times be a mixed bag, perhaps nowhere as much so as with my top pick, Miles:  The Autobiography.  I applaud Miles for penning his own book, using his own voice and not relying on the co-author to turn his words into something different.  You feel like you’re listening to the man himself speak, though that can be good and bad.  What was refreshing in the first hundred pages could at times get grating as the book progressed.  Miles gives movies like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction a run for their money with the sheer volume of “fucks” he writes, and there are entire sections that seem to devolve into “then I played here with these guys, then I played over here with these other guys…”  But man, there are some moments of brilliance here where you get a glimpse into how deeply Miles understood music, and I have to give the man credit for exposing himself completely, warts and all, including drug addiction and domestic violence.  An important work in understanding the nature of genius.

The other three autobiographies each had lot to offer as well, and I found them generally honest and forthcoming, not simply providing an idealized version of the individual.  Grace Jones probably has more of her pure ego come through than the others, but she’s a powerful and confident woman, and that shows on the page.  X-Ray Audio is a killer book about a very unique topic, old bootleg records from the Soviet Union that were cut on used x-ray file.  A definite passion project, and one beautifully packaged.  All of these were enjoyable and brisk reads.

 

So there you have it, my 2016 recap.  It’s had to believe this is the fifth one of these I’ve written… the years are going by so fast any more.  Keep on playin’ those tunes and hunting for new music, my friends!

Iceland Airwaves 2016 – Day 2

If you read yesterday’s Day 1 post, you’ll know how Day 2 started for me – with about four hours of sleep and being unable to get more.  It didn’t hit me as hard as I expected until about midnight though, so Day 2 was pretty strong.  And I managed my first full night of sleep of the entire trip last night, other than that ten minute period when some massively drunk dude was being held down on the sidewalk by a bunch of tourists until the police arrived at 4:30AM which was, of course, right across the street from our place.  The mean streets of RVK 101.

Thursday opened with me back at Lucky Records, wrapping up my purchases for the trip.  I walked away with a motley collection of CDs, records, and tapes and a lot less kronur in my pocket, and I’m super excited to get this stuff home to start blogging about it all.  I won’t give you all the gory details as you’ll see them for yourself over the next few months.  As always, the guys at Lucky were great, and I want to give a big Icelandic TAKK! to Ingvar, Gestur, and Johannes for always making us feel more like family than customers.

After fortifying ourselves with some lunch from Noodle Station, it was off to KEX Hostel to see Samaris (below).  They’ve been regulars at the festival for a number of years but somehow we keep missing them.  And after that set, I’m now pissed at my past self for passing them up all these years, because their set of electronic-vocal sultriness was the perfect antidote for a rainy Thursday afternoon.  I hope everyone listening on KEXP, who were hearing the show just as they were waking up in the States, enjoyed it as much as we did.  I swear one of these years I’m just going to not buy a festival pass and do nothing but hang out at all the KEX off-venue shows.

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From there we headed back to Bíó Paradís to see the dream-pop duo Wesen, a pair featuring one of the dudes from Sudden Weather Change and the dudette from Oyama.  Their banter and the way they interact with the crowd was every bit as fun as their music, and their quirky songs fit perfectly in the more intimate environment of the theater lobby.

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Next up was the Icelandic PUNK Museum, which we finally found open on our third attempt.  And damn, I have to hand it to Dr. Gunni and Finni (of Dr. Spock fame… you’ll hear more about them later in this post) – they put together an outstanding homage to punk in Iceland.  Located inside a disused subterranean public bathroom right in the city center, the walls are plastered with old handbills, album covers, and factoids about Icelandic punk.  Perhaps the coolest feature is the listening room that has album covers on the ceilings each with a  pair of headphones dangling from them that play those actual albums.  Super cool.  Also cool is the pair of cassettes that are available for purchase, the first of which is a nice Icelandic punk comp while the other is filled with demos and live tracks, and they include download cards.  In classic punk fashion, they’re recorded on regular old cassettes, and each has an individually hand-written label on it.  A killer introduction to the punk scene here.

(Intermission – Holly just arrived with pastries from the new bakery Braud & Co.  Wow!  I’ll need to add them to my “recommended” list for next year!)

We then met some friends over at Slippbarinn to see Vök.  You know, what more can I say about Vök that hasn’t already been said?  They just get better and better every time we see them live, more confident on stage and tighter musically.  They’re working on some new material, some of which they played, and I’m very much looking forward to their next release.

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After an always-excellent Pakistani dinner at Shalimar it was a quick jog through the rain to Húrra to rock out with a trio of hard-hitting bands.  First up was a relatively new genre-defying group Hórmónar (right), who combined punk attitude and hard rock/metal music (and the occasional saxophone) and in-your-face Icelandic vocals.  I’m definitely going to keep tabs on these rockers, because I have a feeling we’re going to bearing a lot more from them in the coming years.

During our post-evening analysis, all five of us who went to Húrra agreed that when the next band set up on stage we were all fully prepared to dislike them – a four-man rock outfit with no vocals.  Booo!  Completely not in my wheelhouse.  But it didn’t take long for the crowd (and us) to fall in love with Slovakia’s The Ills, who flat-out crushed it with their blend of jams, intricate and slow to fast and thrash and all points in between.  They were obviously having so much fun up there on stage that it was infectious and by the end of the set they had us eating out of their hands.  I should have tried to track them down after the show to buy a CD, but at that point we were intent on securing a good spot on the floor for the next band, the one we were in Húrra to see that night. I speak, of course, of the good doctor.  Dr. Spock.

Sweet Jesus.

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There was a lot of tension in the crowd prior to the set as more and more people moved to the front and started to pack it in.  And a lot of those folks looked like they were going to be very serious about their Dr. Spock (left and below) experience.  Then the band walked on stage and we were greeted with what you see here, the massive Finni sporting a ski mask and Óttarr looking like, well, Óttarr, snapping on that yellow glove like a demented back-alley plastic (or some other type) of surgeon about to cut you open with a jagged and very unsterile blade.  And it didn’t take but a few second for things to get very real, very fast.

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Holly was hesitant about being that close to the stage, and her concerns proved well-founded when the moshing started.  As the show progressed we found ourselves edging backwards as the pit began reaching critical mass and started roiling like the water around the Kraken as it emerges from the water ready to destroy your city.  The crowd was into it; the band was into; we were into it.  By the time the reached the end of their set and “Sons of Ecuador” it was all just a mess of sweat and vape smoke and future hangovers as Dr. Spock took us to the finish line.  Fantastic.

We were drained after the Dr. Spock assault, but still headed over to Harpa where we caught the tail end of Singapore Sling‘s big-stage set and then hung around to see the post-punk of Fufanu, another band that is slowly turning into a powerhouse and one I think is better suited for a larger stage and room like they had last night as opposed to a smaller venue that doesn’t give them as much space and sonic depth.  They’ve got some great new material and we’re expecting an album soon.

Another killer night in the books!  Two down, three to go!