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Max Level

Zodiac Killers – “Society’s Offenders ” – [Rip-Off Records]

Max Level   1/2/2006   A Library, CD

San Francisco punk rock quartet. Probably somewhat tongue in cheek, but then again maybe the ZKs are serious. Either way, this here is a CD full of catchy, sleazy fun. Snotty vocals and shout-along choruses, with “oh yeah!”s and “1-2-3-4!”s on practically every song. Leader/bassist Greg Lowery writes the lyrics, tackling subjects such as nuclear war, S&M, the news media, capital punishment, solo sex, genetic mutation, modern fast food convenience, and more. Occasional female vocals courtesy of guitarist Ruby Tuesday, who complains about boyfriends on a couple of songs. The music is sturdy punk riffing: a little Ramones here, some Buzzcocks there. Even the ghost of Johnny Thunders sits in on guitar from time to time. Track 11 is a cover of an Undertones song.

Soft Machine – “Live in Paris ” – [Cuneiform Records]

Max Level   1/2/2006   B Library, CD

1972 recording of this short-lived version of the Softs ever-changing lineup. Drummer Marshall had just arrived, and saxophonist/keyboardist Dean resigned shortly after. When R. Wyatt left the band a year or so previous, the loony jazz/pop experimental approach of earlier Soft lineups went with him, leaving behind more serious jazzrockfusion tendencies, as displayed here. A heavy dose of electric piano underpins the compositions, Ratledge uncorks a few blazing organ solos, Hopper and Marshall are a strong and fluid rhythm section, and Dean’s reed playing is unpredictable and interesting, although I wish he had unplugged his sax a bit more often; his electric sax sound is kind of flat and tinny. Overall a nice document of a band that never stood still, and in particular an incendiary lineup that wasn’t together long. This is a recording of the complete show, and the tracks all run together, linked by either audience applause or abstract instrumental passages. Track 4 on CD2 is a drum solo.

Fourtet/Hella [split] – [Ache Records]

Max Level   12/30/2005   7-inch, A Library

Ache is putting out a series of split 7-inchers, calling it the “Divorce” series (split = divorce, get it?). Here it’s Fourtet, a solo project by Kieran Hebden, on one side, giving us a slow instrumental full of blippy keyboards and random drumming. On the other side, the duo known as Hella bring us their usual spazzy madness; chaotic keyboards and samples atop some pretty incredible drumming. I think Ache’s idea with each of these splits is to bring together two artists who aren’t normally linked, but who work in similar fashion. These two tracks aren’t particularly similar sounding, but both feature keyboards/samples and live drumming. A cool release.

Mono – “Under the Pipal Tree ” – [Tzadik]

Max Level   12/28/2005   A Library, CD

Japanese quartet (3M,1F) plays ferocious crescendo guitar rock, in the style of Mogwai and GYBE. Several long tracks stretch out, build up and crash down. Mono will play at one gorgeous level for a while, kick it up another level, and then another. Echoing guitar/bass patterns intertwine and grow. Drumming is huge and perfect. Melancholy mood reinforced by guest on cello. I’ve read that people are often seen crying during Mono’s live sets. Think of how it feels to remember good times with a lost loved one; here is your soundtrack, all instrumental, blissful and sad at the same time. A beautiful recording!

Antennas Erupt – “Magical Energy ” – [S-S Records]

Max Level   12/28/2005   12-inch, Jazz

Crazy skronkadelic material from this Sacramento quartet with an unusual sax/sax/cello/drums lineup. Even though the music is completely wacky –imagine a circus parade led by a rainbow-colored clown jalopy towing a dumpster full of sax-playing chimpanzees– it’s easy to hear what good players these guys are; they’re as comfortable with the tightly arranged sections as they are with the freaky free jazz parts. While the saxes dominate, the cello pops up now and then to remind us it’s there. I like the drummer a lot, he’s loose but kicks plenty of butt. Tracks are mostly in the 4 to 6 minute range. The final track (B3) is 11 minutes long, including a silly sax line repeated for 3 or 4 minutes at the end, and afterward there’s about a minute of silence before the run-out groove. I read on the label’s website that this group broke up in late 2004. If so, this limited (500 copies) edition LP is a fine way to go out. Glad we got one.

Mummies, the – “Death By Unga Bunga!! ” – [Estrus Records]

Max Level   12/28/2005   A Library, CD

A collection of greatest hits and rarities by local trash-rock legends, destroyers of countless rock clubs and pizza parlors in the late ’80s – mid ’90s. Theirs was a majestic garage sound, blending the sneering ’60s fuzz-rock of The Seeds and The Music Machine with rockabilly guitar stomp and pure punk chaos. They also managed to slip some Sam The Sham-style humor into their 2-minute masterpieces. There’s a menacing Iggy vibe at the beginning of Track 6, and Track 19 (Mummies classic “Planet of the Apes”) is not only hilarious but also rocks like nobody’s business. Consistently awful sound quality adds to the fun. What are you waiting for? Slap this sucker on!

Bey, Faruq Z. W/Northwoods – “Rwanda ” – [Qbico]

Max Level   12/28/2005   12-inch, Jazz

Gorgeous, earthy, unhurried Mother Africa jazz here, deep and dark, mysterious yet reassuring. Sax/flute master Bey leads a superb group of like-minded story-tellers; together they bring forth a kind of ancient knowledge I can’t begin to understand. Long journeys unfold before us? our guides are bass, drums, saxes, flutes, bass clarinet, and vibraphone/marimba. Along the way we meet shenhai, zola phone, and bone guitar. Night comes in and spirits visit and we are at peace.

Fragments – “S/T ” – [Self Release]

Max Level   12/28/2005   CD, Jazz

Reviewing a self-released advance promo CD here. One of those “which library should it go in'” releases. I opted for the jazz section, since all three players bring solid jazz credentials, but the pieces herein might be better described as chamber-jazz-post-improv-modern-composition hybrids. Scott Hill is on clarinets and soprano sax, the up-and-coming Roberta Piket is on piano, and Eric Clark plays violin. It’s interesting how similar the tonal ranges of these particular instruments can be; sometimes for example it sounds like the clarinet is poking its head up when it’s actually the violin, and vice versa, and things like that. There is also a guest contributing flute and piccolo. Track 1 is a strong leadoff, with clarinet and violin lines merging and diverging, and Piket pounding out a dense Cecil Taylor-style racket. The final track is tricky: it’s listed as 8 minutes, but the CD time-counter shows nearly 17 minutes. It’s actually 8 minutes of music, then 40 seconds of silence, then a hidden 8 minute track. Fragments (the group) puts together outstanding music -intelligent, not easily classifiable.

Wolfe, Julia – “String Quartets, the ” – [Cantaloupe Music]

Max Level   12/25/2005   A Library, CD

When she’s not busy running the Bang On A Can music festival/organization, Ms. Wolfe composes for orchestras, chamber ensembles, brass groups, etc. She claims influences ranging from “the old masters” to Steve Reich to Led Zeppelin to the car horns and construction sounds of her home base New York City. Here are three compositions, each played by a different string quartet. Track 1, originally commissioned for Kronos, has a dark, abrasive motif throughout. Track 2 is less percussive; to my ears it has a sort of boat-on-the-water feel to it – leaning first one way and then the other. Track 3 is the most interesting; it has more contrast between darkness and light, and is more highly developed. It comes back down to earth with a full minute of quiet afterglow. Everything here is modern, strange, and good.

Harris, Eddie – “Electrifying Eddie Harris, the ” – [4 Men with Beards]

Max Level   12/25/2005   12-inch, Jazz

Tenor saxman Harris (1934-1996) and his classic 1966 Atlantic instrumental date, reissued in 2001 by 4 Men With Beards/Rhino. “Electrifying” refers to his pioneering use of electronic devices to enhance the sound of his instrument. But the enhancement is fairly subtle by today’s standards; just a thickening of the tone, no wah wahs and crap like that. That came later. Here the band is funky, in that familiar ’60s soul/jazz/groove/cowbell-boppin’ way, on “Sham Time” and the hit “Listen Here”. The two “Theme” tracks are slow and pretty. “Spanish Bull” is a stab at Coltrane’s new modalism. Harris produced a handful of popular things in about a 10-year stretch and didn’t do a whole lot afterward. So what? This record is cool and it’s good to have it back.

Larval – “Obedience ” – [Cuneiform Records]

Max Level   12/25/2005   A Library, CD

Guitarist Bill Brovold writes the material and leads this ensemble, the lineup of the band varying somewhat from time to time. This CD features five large chunks of tense instrumental music. A chamber-type approach, I guess, in that the compositions have a calculated feel to them. Nobody really cuts loose. The malevolence suggested by track titles such as “Something Terrible is About to Happen” and “When Bullet Meets Flesh” becomes real before our ears. Guitars, violins, cellos, and saxes play hypnotic, repetitive lines that don’t develop much over the course of a composition; when they appear, it’s to smolder for a while, sometimes flaring up into something hotter, until other lines eventually move in and take over. Disturbing and quite effective.

Orchid – “S/T ” – [Hand Held Heart]

Max Level   12/25/2005   7-inch, A Library

This little gem with the blank black labels contains five perfect blasts of concentrated hardcore, ranging from :55 to 2:30, and not one second of downtime. Shred, blister, and annihilate are words that come to my mind when trying to describe Orchid’s instrumental approach. Minimal lyrics describe everyday situations and abuses. The words are emotion-packed, and only the most tormented yelling will do to get the point across. This music is in some ways insane, but there is something so beautiful and pure about it.

Earthmonkey – “Audiosapien ” – [Beta-Lactam Ring Records]

Max Level   12/25/2005   12-inch, A Library

Deep, trippy excursions from Nurse With Wound alumnus Peat Bog. As Earthmonkey, he brings forth long, semi-droning, meticulously-assembled sound constructions. Intriguing textures are combined, phased, echoed, and looped; musical patterns repeat hypnotically; an occasional jazzy sax or wah wah guitar drops in. Also in the mix are children’s voices, backwards stuff, Middle Eastern hand percussion, harmonica, drum machine, throat singers, a million mysterious sonic fragments of who knows what… Assisting with this magnificent madness is NWW colleague Steven Stapleton, and possibly a few other folks as well. Among the tracks are 14 and 18 minute pieces.

T.V. Pow – “Being Nice Is Funny ” – [Staalplaat]

Max Level   12/25/2005   A Library, CD

Limited release CD in Staalplaat’s Mort Aux Vaches series- live Amsterdam radio performances, which have brought us Zoviet France, Flying Saucer Attack, Muslimgauze, and others. This installment (instaalment?) features experimental Chicago trio TV Pow recorded in 1999, working with an inventory that includes static noises, computers, turntables, home-made electronics, field recordings, glitches, and blips. Semi-musical drones are used but sparingly, and occasionally we hear far-off voices. On headphones, a subtle adventure and well worth the trip. This CD’s glitchy minimalism may cause your listeners to think you’ve gone off the air, so don’t wait too long to come back. Tracks all run together.

Fields, Scott – “Mamet ” – [Delmark]

Max Level   12/25/2005   CD, Jazz

Five longish pieces of jazz-based improv from three well-known Chicago-area mercenaries. Weapons of choice are electric guitar, contrabass, and all manner of percussion. Not much melody and not much rhythm found here; the techniques are mostly along the lines of tapping, scraping, and rattling, with the leader’s guitar ideas (sometimes baby-gentle, sometimes angry and harsh) leading the charge. Occasionally the three players come together and assemble something solid, mostly they are sketching things out for one another, each player seemingly reluctant to step too far out front. Scenes from five of David Mamet’s plays are hereby set to music- the moods, actions, and emotions of the characters interpreted by the musicians. Somewhat scary adventures here; the 21 minute Track 4 (“The Woods”) is outstanding.

Apse – “S/T ” – [Acuarela Discos]

Max Level   12/25/2005   A Library, CD

These young New Englanders explore slow-ish, dramatic themes that remind me of GYBE, Mono, Mogwai, and Tarantel. Plenty of quiet parts and big buildups. The band doesn’t seem to be following a strict formula, though, and they create some nice contrasts by changing things up from time to time. The sparse vocals serve as sonic decoration since the lyrics are mostly unintelligible. I like the way the tracks sort of drift in and out of dreamy soundscapes.

Waldteufel – “Heimliches Deutschland “

Max Level   12/24/2005   12-inch, A Library

Strangely beautiful and beautifully strange. Markus Wolff (drums, vocals, lyrics) and Annabel Lee (violin and accordion) perform songs and recitations, all in German, based on Northern European myths and sagas from centuries past. Well, I read an article that says that’s what the songs are about anyway. Accompanying Wolff’s vocals are simple percussion, rough-edged violin, far-off horn blurts, and the like. Guests add percussion, flute, various sounds, etc. Quite an exotic listening experience, evoking singers and storytellers gathered around a fire, in a clearing in a deep dark forest, about 500 years ago, telling tales of great battles and the like; however, it was recorded in Portland OR in 1999-2000. So a nice job of transporting the listener.

AMERE3 – “Trees ” – [Whi Music]

Max Level   12/24/2005   CD, Jazz

UK improvisational trio, quieter than most. In this setting, a saxophone can easily overpower the other instruments; here Phil Hargreaves avoids that tendency, not that he can’t rip it up when he wants to. Simon H. Fell is on double bass, often bowing rather than plucking. His sound ranges from a high chirping to the deepest bass rumblings. Rob Dainton’s drumming is busy and creative, but not overly noisy. What you’ve got here is conversational music, not a terror-jazz screamfest. All tracks feature saxophone except #5, which has Hargreaves on flute. #3 gets loud and fiery, #7 stays barely audible throughout.

Clocked Out Duo – “Water Pushes Sand ” – [Clocked Out Records]

Max Level   12/24/2005   A Library, CD

Piano and percussion. “Piano” in this case means forceful plinking, jazzy meandering, low rumbles, scraping, even a toy piano. “Percussion” includes all the sounds you would normally think, plus a few you might not: bicycle bells, typewriter, whistles, rubbing/squeaking of balloons, lots more. Erik Griswold’s piano ideas don’t sit still, and Vanessa Tomlinson’s percussion touches always add just the right color. The duo have worked quite a bit in China recently, and have developed a love foor that country, so included here are Chinese voices and street sounds; that’s where the bicycle bells come in. The music is humorous, dramatic, pastoral, and exciting, and the interplay and togetherness of these two musicians is often quite amazing.

Six Eye Columbia – “A Million Six ” – [Unknown Label]

Max Level   12/24/2005   A Library, CD

American Music Club are hanging out at Nick Cave’s house. Guided By Voices comes over later, feeling down in the dumps but bringing more beer at least. On this CD, well-crafted songs abound, forlorn but with hooks everywhere. Fine singing and playing, no problem there. What really sets this band apart is their willingness to experiment sonically on every track. Their strong pop sensibility is distorted and enhanced with samples, found sounds, odd EQs, and vocal effects. Once in a while the boys play it straight, but not for long. I’m impressed with the arrangements and the band’s production ideas. A tiny bit of language on Track 8, which is too bad because the song is gorgeous and I’d love to hear it played a lot on the radio. Ultimately, I can’t say enough good things about this release.

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