Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mike G. Dream Land.

Mike G. Dream Land.
Self-Produced, 2013.

"Anything is possible when you believe in you. Dream Land is mine and I'm about to make it true."

An artist's first official foray into the medium of music can be fraught with challenges from all sides, whether issues arise due to lack of experience or simply maintaining confidence on where they want to go creatively. There's plenty of those out there with aspirations that burn out in the midst of the recording process and get fried before even finishing, not able to turn their hopes and ambitions into the realities they want. And then there are those that succeed. With much tact and due effort Mike G's debut album Dream Land delivers an impressive center stage show and exhibits how well self-produced content can come to form. Without batting an eye this artist has carved out a gem that, while not without flaws, distinguishes itself as a strongly composed album.

To guard against overpraising this album's production I'm going to briefly note here at the outset that it's startling how well done every track is laid down with its beats and rhythms, with any and every song only resembling one another in excellence and little else. This is the kind of variety you want in the circular musical garden that is a compact disc. It's rewarding and crisp material of all kinds, by far the strongest and most robust pillar of Dream Land, with producers Raymond Wellington, Torean George, and of course Mike G doling out some righteousness here.

Early on a number of phenomena jump out in "Bright Lights," with an emerald flow of beats and guest appearance by Duece that together serve as reason enough to go out and get this album. However you try to frame the splendor in the song what certainly garners praise is the very professional finish and shine to it, from the easy-listening lyrics, to the catchy refrain, to the halcyon flight of its pulse the track awes and stuns, something anyone should share with friends and those wanting a taste of fresh sound. Mike G and Duece definitely picked a star from the ether with this one.

There is contrast to the brilliance of "Bright Lights," though, with other content on the album not twinkling as stunningly when it comes to the vocals. On matters of Mr. G's voice there are on occasions a lingering flatness when he's rounding off some lines of his work. It's not like he's mired in a monotone so much as that he doesn't sound at all in the moment of certain scenes, like the verses just weren't hitting him in the right place inspirationally. This is odd to consider since he made the album, but the lack of force behind certain verses is noticeable, slowing to a bit of a plod in terms of energy. It's not reasonable to expect the guy to go full-throttle and warp speed all the time the way someone like, say, the legendary Twista can, but the lulls somewhat tarnish the pace of his otherwise good cascades of rhyme. It's entirely possible that Mike G may just be an extremely chill guy that doesn't feel the need to to surge out his verses the way other hip-hop artists prefer to. Either way, it's his choice for how aggressively he uses his voice and no one else's, but a bit of feeling would have made certain moments in the album far more engaging to hear.

As far as the subject matter goes for Dream Land some of what's here is what you might expect a man in his mid-twenties to sing about: money ("Money Is tha Motive"), partying ("How We Party"), and sex ("Wett Dreamz"). For whatever reason farting, a significant staple of activity in the time period between 20 and 30, is not covered, a void that is stylistically understandable since Mike G may not have wanted to go there just yet. As far as complexity there are certain entries that feel fairly straightforward for what they're all about. For instance, "Wett Dreamz" is pretty much Mike G talking about how great he is at making women horny, complete with repeated invocations about what he wants to do physically with said persons of the female gender. Behold:  "I'm a nice guy. Let you pick the weapon of choice. 'Cause I guarantee the thought of either one that'll leave you quite moist. Tongue game right. Lay deep pipe. You know what? Change my name to Mr. Amazing Mike."

As you can probably see little is left to the imagination when the bulge in Mike G's pants takes over his singing for him. The song does not approach the same level of natiform-centric genius that Sir Mix-A-Lot can bring (in all sincerity that man is a visionary) but, really, the words are only being what they intend to be--raunchy and raw as a steak served at a roadside strip club. Those seeking Victorian elegance and Shakespearean romance as opposed to schlock erotica would do best to look elsewhere. The artists making guest appearances on the single-focus songs are at the top of their game, fortunately, with forces like Double Cup Boyz and the devilishly stoked R-Sin showing their prowess at the mic.

Suggesting that the focus of Mike G's words are all so simple in caliber wouldn't be accurate, for the record. The production level of the album is absolutely to be commended and studied by anyone desiring a precedent of how to get your sound right on a self-produced album, but the imagery as told by the lyrics can have its more developed moments. The first and last songs of the album, "The Awakening" and "Dream Land," are more layered than the rest, along with another track "F.A.M.E." that hones in on the idea of fulfillment, with the acronym F.A.M.E. standing for "Found All My Everything" as opposed to just mere fame with a lower-case "f." So there are developed points of interest among the more basic tunes.

There is one peculiar aspect of Mike G and Dream Land that really comes off as surprising: the relative obscurity of information on the Internet surrounding this man and his only album. Aside from a little niche on Amazon and a tiny custom site playing bites of the music Mike G is nowhere to be found. This East Clevelander's got talent so at the very least he deserves to give himself a free Wordpress or Blogspot site to spread news about it.  (Editor’s Note: Mike G has a Facebook site (see above link), and is currently serving in the military.  He has another album in the works, and is sharing songs on his FB page.)

What remains at the end of an experience with Dream Land is the realization that Mike G is a highly capable and competent musician. There are definitely minuses to go with the merits here but the bottom line is that it is immensely impressive that someone could bring together something of this skill on their first release. There might be heavy criticisms for what could have been done better but the production craftsmanship is very laudable, and with a bit of luck (as well as substantially better self-promotion) Mike G could easily see himself at the helm of a very successful record label- provided he keeps at it. Without a doubt this is a guy that's got not only potential but something he wants to say to the world. Here's to hoping that he follows his dreams.

Personnel: Mike "Michael George" G
Tracks: The Awakening, Bright Lights (feat. Duece), Game Change, Step In Show Out, How We Party (feat. Double Cup Boyz), 3G'z (feat. Sema'j Strugglez, Gez), Money is tha Motive (feat. R-Sin), Sweet Heart, C.A.G. (feat. Duece), Heat Roc, Watch Me, All Eyes on Me, Wett Dreamz (feat. Duece), What Do You See, F.A.M.E. (Found All My Everything), Dream Land.

Robert Gojo
A thoughtful Mike G.  Stay well, and come home safe.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Sean Jones. Never Before Seen

Sean Jones. Never Before Seen.
Mack Avenue Records, 2014.  Jones:

Sean Jones has been remarkably busy, although this is nothing new for him.  He is the Artistic Director of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, has taught at both Duquesne University and Oberlin College, and is now at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.  He has managed to put out seven albums now as leader (aside from the CJO stuff), and worked as a sideman on lots more.  In his spare time he composes,  advocates for jazz, and helps to start jazz orchestras, as well as reading philosophy on the side.  Having graduated from YSU only in 2000, one might be tempted to label him an overachiever, but when you listen to him play, you realize that he’s both driven and remarkably skilled with his trumpet, his leadership, and his vision.  

This latest album, celebrating his tenth anniversary with Mack Avenue, finds him with some of the same excellent musicians who appeared on his last release, No Need for Words, although this album strips out several instruments and gets down to the basics of a quartet.  Jones says in the album notes (and his blog) that he wants to reintroduce himself, relaunch himself, recreate himself.  Thus, he keeps this one simple with no overdubs and everybody-in-the-studio intimacy.  He succeeds in every way.  

Jones’ trumpet style has many influences, including Miles Davis, Woody Shaw, and Freddie Hubbard, and he gets the hard work part both from his own personality and background as well as some time spent with Wynton Marsalis.  He brings in everything to this album, including seven of his own compositions (Evans contributed “Don’t Fall off the L.E.J.”), a couple of standards and a Jackie McLean tune, “Dr. Jekyll.”  The title of the first track, “60th and Broadway,” comes from the location of the Rose Theater of the Lincoln Center in New York City, where Jones has spent much time, and is a good place to start.  It begins with Jones and Obed Calvaire, then builds to include the other musicians, but showcases Jones’ virtuosity while giving ample time to Orrin Evans.  Calvaire is never out of the picture, and the interaction among the musicians is obvious and delightful.  This continues throughout the album.  The ballad “Dark Times” seems to borrow a riff from “It Ain’t Necessarily So” as a starting point, and moves into an exploratory, contemplative mood for all.  This continues with “Interior Motive,” although here the rhythm section is more noticeable (now I hear bits of “I Want to Be Happy”), and “The Morning After.”  Later in the album, “We’ll Meet Under the Stars” takes a similar approach.  All hold the attention and please the ear with gentle yet sophisticated playing by all members.  The presence of Orrin Evans cannot be overlooked, as he plays a key role in every tune.

The quartet changes its mood with “I Don’t Give a Damn Blues,” which shows how well they can play in a traditional style, a good test for a band.  It’s all Jones on the McLean tune, fast and furious.  A second test comes with a standard--what can you do with a song from 1940?  As it turns out, quite a bit.  With a solo by Luques Curtis and some fine work by everyone, they play “How High the Moon” like nobody else I’ve heard.  The beauty of the melody is never far from the improvisations, but they reach into new places and find new things to say. “New Journey” gives us a more uptempo tune, but with the same amazing ensemble work demonstrated in the ballads.  Two shorter tracks fill out the album, but they’re hardly filler.  Evans’ “Don’t Fall off the L.E.J.” (I wish I knew what that meant) is jaunty and spirited, while “Not While I’m Around” is another sweet and gentle ballad.

I listened to this album several times and not a moment was wasted.  The quartet does a masterful job of putting across a variety of moods, demonstrates the benefits of spontaneous interaction, and gives great listening pleasure.  Highly recommended.

Personnel: Sean Jones (trumpet), Orrin Evans (piano), Luques Curtis (bass), Obed Calvaire (drums).
Tracks:  60th & Broadway, Dark Times, Interior Motive, The Morning After, I Don’t Give a Damn Blues, Dr. Jekyll, How High the Moon, We’ll Meet Under the Stars, New Journey, Don’t Fall off the L.E.J., Not While I’m Around.

Jeff Wanser

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Maura Rogers and the Bellows. A Good Heart Will Break

Maura Rogers and the Bellows.  A Good Heart Will Break.
Self-released, 2012.  Maura Rogers and the Bellows:

Somehow this was missed this back in late 2012 when it was released, and so I was asked to review it.  Perhaps it is time to do so before their new release arrives.  This is Rogers’ second release, the first a solo album in 2010 (Get Up Girl), and her band is, or was, relatively new when this was recorded.  A singer-songwriter from Wickliffe, she has tried her hand at acting as well (Great Lakes Theatre Festival), and worked at open-mic nights in the area as she was getting started.  She also performs as half of the Bean Sisters, with Meredith Pangrace, the accordionist for the Bellows.

Rogers wrote all the songs and is the lead singer on the album.  She has a good voice, pleasantly strong and expressive, but delicate when necessary.  Her style falls roughly into the category of Americana, with touches of country, folk, and rock in varying proportions, depending on the song.  Sometimes a Southern tinge appears in her singing (“Mama Taught Me How,” “Cowboy Song”), other times a sound that sounds more like 1960’s rock (“Gone”).  Lyrically, she deals with a broad range of themes, from love to family to life changes to sometimes more cynical topics, as in “Good Harm,” which rocks despite (or perhaps because of) the rather dark subject of the downside of fast times.  “Dirty Blonde” and “Something More” both sketch out a complex relationships. “What the Doctor Said,” the closer, deals with medical issues, an unusual topic for music these days.

The ten songs here show us ten different views of Rogers the writer and perhaps the person, and all of them are fascinating, if at times enigmatic.  Meanwhile, the band makes a successful effort to set the mood, with the focus on Meredith Pangrace, whose accordion helps to create the band’s unique sound.  The band really gets to show off on “Norma Jean” (not about Marilyn Monroe), “Good Harm,” and the other fast tunes.  If I had to pick a favorite, it has to be “Gone,” where Rogers lets loose and shows her blues side.

The band will be playing at the Beachland Tavern on November 11.  Please check them out for an evening of fine music.

Personnel:  Maura Rogers (vocals, acoustic guitar), Dan Jankowski (drums, percussion), Andy Liaskos (guitars, harmonica), Meredith Pangrace (vocals, accordion), Brent Stowe (bass), Kevin Montgomery (Hammond organ on Track 10).
Tracks:  Dirty Blonde, Something More, Cowboy Song, Mama Taught Me How, All that You Give, Norma Jean, Gone, Good Harm, This Woman, What the Doctor Said.

Gottfried Klaas

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bobby Selvaggio. Short Stories

Bobby Selvaggio.  Short Stories.
Origin Records, 2014.  Bobby Selvaggio:

I’ve enjoyed Bobby Selvaggio’s music for several years, and reviewed his Modern Times for another blog back in 2009.  For some reason, his music hits me in the right spot--forward-thinking post-bop but not too avant-garde, with plenty to hold onto.  Currently the Director of Jazz Studies at Kent State University, he is also a local boy, from Twinsburg.  I seem to recall that he also had (or still has) a private music school down the road from Hiram, in Aurora.  This latest release is his sixth, seventh, or eighth, depending on what you read.  His last album, Grass Roots Movements, didn’t get reviewed here for some reason, but we’ll catch up now.  

He opens the set with “Eye of Jupiter,” a fast-paced romp that shows off Selvaggio’s dexterity and enthusiasm, with some fine work by Aaron Goldberg on piano.  Later, “Rubber Monkeys” does a bit of the same thing, with a lots of start-stop action, reminiscent of “Salt Peanuts,” and shows off the other musicians, especially Chris Baker on drums.  Selvaggio is more bop-like here.  Third in the faster-tempo category is “Blues for J,” where everybody gets some time to show off, including Ashley Summers on bass.  The interaction here between Selvaggio and Goldberg is music to get lost in, and Goldberg really takes off here.

The remaining tracks tend to be either mid-tempo or ballads, and they are a lovely assortment of tunes.  “Song for Rebecca” was written for Selvaggio’s grandmother, and offers a tasteful sweetness mixed with lots of strong phrasing.  He and Goldberg share the spotlight, and it’s easy to tell that Goldberg is not just a sideman, but has plenty to offer in the foreground as well.  “Boulevard at Capucines in Paris” doesn’t remind me of the city, but is a fine ballad that allows for thoughtful interchanges among all the musicians, together and in solo.  The following track, “Ceprano Man,” starts off with Summers’ bass, and adds Goldberg, Selvaggio, and Baker in turn in a midtempo piece that heads for the stratosphere in the middle section.  The group finishes with “Summers End,” a fitting ballad with a beautiful noir-like melody, simultaneously pretty and sad.  It’s a  great song for a November day.  “Price of Being” is a curious, two part piece, featuring Selvaggio on solo sax in the Intro, followed by the rest of the group in the main part along a similar theme.  Delicate and exquisite work.  

The album as a whole is highly expressive, gorgeously played, and near the top of my list for finest albums of the year.  Too bad I don’t get to make those lists.

Personnel:  Bobby Selvaggio (alto saxophone), Aaron Goldberg (piano), Ashley Summers (bass), Chris Baker (drums).
Tracks: Eye of Jupiter, Song for Rebecca, Price of Being (Intro), Price of Being, Rubber Monkeys, Boulevard at Capucines in Paris, Ceprano Man, Blues for J, Summers End.

Jeff Wanser

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Black Keys. Turn Blue.

The Black Keys.  Turn Blue.
Nonesuch, 2014.  Black Keys:

Okay, so these guys are on tour in Poland right now, so we can talk about them.  We’re a little late hopping on board this disc (thanks, Mr. Editor!), but we’ll try to catch up with the rest of the world.  Deep background:  Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are Akron boys (Firestone High School) who formed the band in 2001, and released a batch of albums recorded in Carney’s basement.  Good stuff, blues-based rock with chunks of soul and garage band, and they got famous and famouser.  Break up, make up.  Then, in pursuit of further fame and fortune, they relocated to Nashville in 2010 just before recording and getting Grammy Awards for Brothers.  Some folks are still pissed at them for pulling a LeBron, but that’s life in the Rust Belt.   And they come back regularly, so it’s not like they make believe they’re not from here.  

On this album they have Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) back, who was with them on a couple of previous albums, starting with Attack & Release (2008).  Maybe this is the reason they’re off on a psychedelic binge, but it sounds pretty good, regardless.  Not that they don’t sound like themselves, with the usual distorted Auerbach vocals, but the blues takes a back seat on some tunes to some other influences.  “Weight of Time” is straight out of the Book of Pink Floyd, “In Our Prime” gives us late Beatles filtered through blues-soaked brains--lots of cool guitar here.  “Bullet in the Brain” is more psychedelia, slow and kind of sensual in a Moody Blues sort of way.  But they still give us the stuff they’re known for on lots of tracks.  “In Time” and maybe “Year in Review” would have fit on Brothers, and “Gotta Get Away” and “Fever” could be a garage rock leftovers from El Camino (and damned good ones too!).  If you want percussion, “It’s Up to You Now” is your track.  “Turn Blue” is a slow soul tune, and I was told the title is a riff on that old Ghoulardi character from Cleveland TV.  The song is about love, so I suppose it has nothing to do with him.  Not sure why, but "10 Lovers" sounds to me like a Phil Collins song. I guess what you like on this album depends on what you like about the Black Keys.  If you’re into their down-and-dirty blues, this album might be a letdown.  If you love their experimental side, this is golden.  I like most of their stuff, so I’m just gonna let them drive and enjoy the ride.  

I don’t suppose this review will influence anybody to listen and I haven’t said anything that hasn’t already been beaten out of the album by a thousand other reviews [Editor’s Note:  Never assume.], but it’s a cool album and everybody should check it out.

Personnel:  Dan Auerbach (bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals), Patrick Carney (drums, keyboards, percussion), Brian Burton (keyboards, piano), Regina Ann (background vocals), Alfreda McCrary (background vocals).
Tracks:  Weight of Time, In Time, Turn Blue, Fever, Year in Review, Bullet in the Brain, It’s Up to You Now, Waiting on Words, 10 Lovers, In Our Prime, Gotta Get Away.

Ron Yoyek

Saturday, October 11, 2014

David Mayfield. Strangers.

David Mayfield.  Strangers.

Compass Records, 2014.  David Mayfield:

We reviewed Mayfield’s last release a bit over a year ago, and gave it a glowing review.  In many ways there’s not a lot more to add.  He’s got another winner here, this one with slightly different stylings and a major overhaul of personnel.  No Parade this time around officially (although they’re mentioned in the notes), but a revolving set of musicians who play in various combinations on each track.  I’m not sure if this reflects his signing to a new label, or the reported drastic changes in personality and behavior suggested by the “documentary” linked to below.  

The songs on this album tend to be a bit more varied and complex than on Good Man Down, although he continues to maintain the character of second-rate also-ran.  He uses changes in rhythm a lot.  Point in evidence, “Caution,” the first track, a great tune with nice hooks that punctuates with slower rhythms between verses.  Jen Starsinic on fiddle helps with that punctuation in fine fashion.  “In Your Eyes,” further along in the album is similar in style.  He does something different with the ballad “Ohio (It’s Fake),” by tacking on a rockish portion toward the end.  (By the way, David, Ohio’s love for you is probably real).  “My First Big Lie” is a beautiful ballad done in a more straightforward manner.  The more bluegrass-tinged “The Man I’m Trying to Be” is followed by the catchy synth-pop “Show,” a song that seems to demonstrate the man he still is from the previous song.  Self-loathing is the main theme of “The One I Hate,” a classic country/Americana tune with great harmonies provided by Taylor Brashears.  “Ring Out the Old” is sort of a country dance-style tune, and except for the lyrics one might consider dancing to it, at least until the rhythm changes throw you off the dancefloor.  “Hangman” has a similar effect--toe-tapping misery.  Mayfield co-wrote “Rain on My Parade” with Langhorne Slim, a more rhythmically charged tune with more great fiddle from Starsinic and a .. drum solo by Jason Edwards (where do you hear such things outside of jazz or metal?).  “Face the Storm” is also upbeat musically, and while the lyrics are about adversity, for a change the result is inconclusive.  He might survive this one.  The album ends with another lovely ballad with vocal support from Odetta Hartman.  

Okay, so we have some great music here--sophisticated, well-sung and played, with lots of variety.  The only constant is the lyrics about someone who is inadequate, a failure, a loser, a liar.  Cheery stuff in a sense, if you like your Americana with a dash of goth.  My only real complaint is the pink lyric sheet that is hard to read.  Mayfield has been on tour recently as a trio these days rather than with a full band, with Cassie McKenzie Taylor and Angie Haze as his group (although neither appears on this album).  I have no doubt that it’s quite a show.

Personnel:  David Mayfield (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, baritone guitar, electric bass guitar, 12-string guitar, wobble bass, mellotron, vocals), Jen Starsinic (fiddle, banjo, vocals), Jason Edwards (drum kit, percussion), Christian Lee Hutson (organ, electric bass guitar, acoustic guitar, synthesizer, mellotron, piano, mandolin, vocals), Odetta Hartman (vocals), Evan Harrison Parker (upright bass), Sarah Clanton Schaer (cello), Taylor Brashears (vocals), Hannah Louise Stone (vocals), Joe Giotta (hi-hat), Joe Fick (upright bass), Nora Jane Struthers (vocals), RT Valine (bass vocals).
Tracks:  Caution, Ohio (It’s Fake), The Man I’m Trying to Be, Show, The One I Hate, Rain on My Parade, My First Big Lie and How I Got Out of It, In Your Eyes, Ring Out the Old, Hangman, Face the Storm, Lazy Love.

YouTube “Documentary”: 

The Grand Wazoo

Friday, September 26, 2014

Holly Hofmann. Low Life

Holly Hofmann.  Low Life.
Capri Records, 2014.  Holly Hofmann:

Holly Hofmann and I have at least one thing in common.  We both started on the flutophone as kids.  She, however, went on to become a renowned jazz flautist, while I, well never mind.  Hofmann was born in Painesville to a musical family (her father was a jazz guitarist), and went on to study classical music at CIM and later, Northern Colorado.  Among her teachers was Maurice Sharp of the Cleveland Orchestra.  She came to jazz in the mid-1980s, and put out her first album, Take Note, in 1989.  This is her twelfth release (I think), and her first exclusively with the alto flute.  She began playing it in concert as a change up to the usual C flute, and got positive responses.  With the urging of Jeff Hamilton, she put this collection of tracks together.  

The alto flute has some limitations.  It is lower in register, with a limited range.  That makes it hard to do some things, but opens up a whole new world in terms of subtlety of playing and richness of tone. Hofmann has the ability to express herself remarkably well with her instrument and does so with considerable flair here.  Her choice of songs is excellent, her compatriots on the album play impeccably, and the result is a fascinating excursion in straight ahead jazz ensemble work.  

The tunes are a mix of upbeat numbers and ballads drawn from all over, including songs by Pat Metheny, John Williams, and Ray Noble, as well as two by John Clayton, one by Anthony Wilson, and one by Hofmann herself.  While everything is beautifully and tastefully played, I have to say that for me, the most effective piece is “The Very Thought of You,” the old Noble standard.  Taken at a leisurely pace, the alto flute does wonders with the melody, while Mike Wofford accompanies her, taking a solo in the middle that is simply delightful.  “Touch the Fog” is also a lusciously expansive exploration by John Clayton, very soulful and sweet.  Clayton, of course, gets a bass solo in there, nicely done.  

I also enjoyed the more upbeat tracks.  On “Jack of Hearts,” an irresistible swing/bop, Hofmann trades solos with Anthony Wilson, the guitar nicely complementing the sound of the alto.  Wilson also gets in a great solo in “Grow (for Dick Oatts),” a more gently swinging tune.  “Cedar Would” is another Clayton tune, and it does the job similarly to “Jack of Hearts.”  Wilson solos again, but with more fire, and Clayton and Hamilton trade off in the middle.  “Soul-Leo” has a sort-of Brazilian feel, but with a bouncy, soulful quality that makes my head bob.  Wofford gets lots of time here to good effect (I did not realize that Wofford and Hofmann are married--not important, but an interesting tidbit).

The group finishes up with the ravishing “Farmer’s Trust,” a Pat Metheny tune that works as a fitting end to a very fine album.  I recommend this music highly to fans of jazz flute, but also anyone who likes the gentle side of jazz.  This is rich material.

Personnel:  Holly Hofmann (alto flute), Mike Wofford (piano), John Clayton (bass), Jeff Hamilton (drums), Anthony Wilson (guitar).
Tracks:  Jack of Heart, Touch of the Fog, Grow (for Dick Oatts), Lumière de la Vie, Cedar Would, The Very Thought of You, Make Me Rainbows, Soul-Leo, Farmer’s Trust.

Jeff Wanser

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ringworm. Hammer of the Witch.

Ringworm. Hammer of the Witch. (with a review of earlier albums)
Relapse Records, 2014. Ringworm:

For twenty years Ringworm has been going down to the the dark cellar of its own Underworld and bringing back with them creatures ripped from the caves they found there, each trek into the depths of inspiration always returning with the iron­clad screaming, shredding, and perilous percussion that the band is known for producing. With the next installment in the lifeline of this hardcore line­up comes Hammer of the Witch, a rancorous torrent of macabre lyrics and vicious guitar work to crack the whip behind the words. Along with past releases Scars, The Venomous Grand Design, and Justice Replaced by Revenge, the hexes of these albums taken separately or together hit forcefully and don't care if you're ready for them, making for a package that is not for the faint of heart. Ringworm's approach to hardcore has always been a thick swamp of dark energy, filled with constant, rough ­throated rage from lead singer Human Furnace, his tearing voice owned with authority and equipped with coarse, spiked bellows the raging bard wields like a swinging cudgel. The man has certainly earned his moniker with the way he can persevere in maintaining the growling fire stoked in his throat.

Part of the pleasure that encrusts the offerings of Ringworm's lead singer is that there is a distinguished bite to his bellowing, a type of grizzled harshness that is forever serrated. He'll hock up a grunt or a bark after screaming out verses and, so barbed with harsh nails, it's jaggedly beautiful to hear. The dirty vocals are without a doubt one of the major factors of the sound that binds the imagery together and emulsifies the other shadowy elements found in Hammer of the Witch, and the achievements on this album raise the band to new heights.

The subject matter flowing through the lyrics, flyblown and gauntly relinquished to a world where the people in it are lost and doomed, possesses at the same time a poetic underside--albeit with lots of doom, so much that it could power another series of iD Software games.  Counting the respective gloom of songs like "I Recommend Amputation," "Hammer of the Witch," and "Die Like a Pig," it's rather easy to get a vivid understanding of the frothing rot these fellows are fond of courting:

"Paralyzing; shut down; minimize. Amputation. Vivisection; cut off; cauterize. Amputation.  Vivisection; cut off; cauterize. Amputation. Terrifying; blood red; a violent amputation. It's never­ending, no hope. I recommend amputation."  "Into the flame you descend, denying the truth 'til the end. Your body will soon be of ash; feeding the devil your flesh. Into the grave in the ditch; burning alive devil bitch. All of the pain that you feel. The Hammer of the Witch." "You survive believing you're alive: feeding the rest of the hive. Now betrayed, believing you are saved, living your from the grave. You, drone, it's not your own, cutting yourself to the bone. Swine, pig, you're all alone."  And so forth.

In the meat of the lyrics' fury and aggravation the defiance is retched out, backed by thundering drums and howling guitars, the tone pledging never to become complacent to unthinking norms. Some might be overwhelmed by the sinister words and rotting imagery, so ensconced in the notion that we're all going to be destroyed and decay, but if you can see the connection to something similar in tone like T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland there's allure here.

Even when slogging through the scourge and wraith-­filled skies of ether there is a form and persistent dread that is appealing to travel amongst if you have the palate for it, like a Clive Barker picnic with all kinds of covered dishes. And, lest the elegant appreciation be overstated, there's plenty of screaming to be had on Hammer of the Witch mixed in with all the possible interpretation. Growing up it would have been truly remarkable to go to school everyday and have the Human Furnace commanding the mouthpiece of the morning announcements.

The unspoiled hardcore element and bare ­knuckle vocals have evolved from the sound
developed on Ringworm's first demo back in 1991, with the factors from that point on
keeping to relatively the same order, the tendency of the band to adhere to the philosophy that they are about the cacophony of the noise and, indeed, it is great that they are, played so dynamically by newcomers and veterans alike. Matt Sorg on guitar brings the expected expertise and deft fingers to the strings, as does John Comprix, the two of them each putting out absolutely fantastic solos on the track "Hammer of the Witch" that deserve listening to over and over again. The praying, horned and very well-­drawn demoness on the album cover (and included excellent fold­out poster) would certainly approve. Danny Zink does a well ­rounded job on drums and Ed Stephens, the latest bassist, will hopefully be kept around for future releases.

To switch horses midstream and go back in time to the days of yore when the album
Scars came out you get a healthy dose of the expected gruffness Ringworm has to offer, in much the same way you encountered their enjoyably bedeviled tendencies in
preceding albums. And, with some understanding that there have been regular line­up changes in the band over the years, Scars sounds quite similar to Justice Replaced By Revenge and The Venomous Grand Design. And it's for that reason that these albums, while respectable on their own merits, occasionally feel like they could have all been put into one oversized release. They're outstripped by the expertise on Hammer of the Witch, particularly when it comes to the overall guitar work and production.

But there shouldn't be any misunderstanding on the craftsmanship of the three­--they're
quality albums. It's just that they are in some very noticeable ways extremely alike. The
speed demons in Dragonforce spring to mind as incredibly talented musicians that, much like Ringworm, put out a great deal of music that keeps in line with its usual ways, albeit in a decidedly different genre and velocity. Being compared to Dragonforce in any
capacity is, for the record, an honor not to be taken lightly by gods or humans alike.
Ringworm swears by its authenticity of staying true to its hardcore roots, and certainly
none can argue otherwise when flitting from one album to the next if faith to the raging
ways of screaming and shredding are the main factors in focus.

Picking out the distinctive tracks of the flock from the albums gives due credit to the flecks of steel in their outlines. "Hellbound" and "Angelfuck" (try whispering that term of endearment into your loved one's ear) rise to the pedestal from Scars, while "Alchemist"
and "Ninth Circle" bring the goodness on The Venomous Grand Design. The solos on those four tracks harvest the sweet, satisfying spell of wonder that only a gifted guitarist can deliver, and the appreciation only grows with repeated listens. At first Justice Replaced by Revenge didn't have as much of a sucker punch in store as the other grindhouses, but the tracks "House of Hell" and "Day of Truth," possessing some gritty shouting and fiery incantations, deserve serious respect with the way they ignite themselves. Additionally, "Whiskey Drunk" is a calm and mellow instrumental that shows the band can take five and chill out for a bit when it feels so inclined, much like some of the other earthy instrumentals on their other releases. Simply put there's something here for every fan of the hardcore ilk.

Ringworm is very aware of their achieved success in the industry as a musical act and not shy about trumpeting this status, with the albums leading up to and including Hammer of the Witch making it easy to understand why. Previous experiences with ringworm have left me feeling disenchanted and itchy, but capitalize that "r" and you'll end up going to a physician for a different reason. "I don't know what's wrong with me," you'll say to the doctor, "I just can't stop headbanging. And I love it." The prescription no doubt will be hardcore.

Hammer of the Witch:
Personnel: Danny Zink (drums), James "Human Furnace" Bulloch (vocals), Matt Sorg
(guitar), Ed Stephens (bass), John Comprix (guitar)
Tracks: Dawn of Decay, Bleed, Leave Your Skin at the Door, Exit LIfe, Psychic Vampire, King of Blood, I Recommend Amputation, Hammer of the Witch, We'll Always Have the End, One of Us is Going to Have to Die..., Vicious Circle of Life, Die Like a Pig, Height of Revelation.

Personnel: Matt Sorg (guitar), James "Human Furnace" Bulloch (vocals), John Comprix (vocals), Danny Zink (drums), Mike Lare (bass)
Tracks: Voluntary Human Extinction, To the Grave, Used Up Spit Out, Scars, Unravel,
Cleansing of the Fall, Burning Bridges, Angelfuck, Empty, Hellbound

The Venomous Grand Design:
Personnel: James "Human Furnace" Bulloch (vocals), Chris Dora (drums), Mike Lare
(bass), Matt Sorg (guitar)
Tracks: Things Are Not As They Seem, The Cage, The Ninth Circle, Suicidal Visions,
Alchemist, Razor's Line, Dichotomy, Never Was, I Preach to No One, Hangman, Life's
Blood, The Key, Hell on Earth.

Justice Replaced by Revenge:
Personnel: James "Human Furnace" Bulloch (vocals), Frankie "3Gun" Novinec (guitar), Matt Sorg (guitar), Danny Zink (drums), Steve Rauchorst (bass)
Tracks: Justice Replaced by Revenge, No One Dies Alone, Seeing Through These Eyes, House of Hell, Day of Truth, Whiskey Drunk, God Eat God, Ghosts of the Past, Thrive, Devil's Kiss, Death Is Not an Option, No More Heroes, Life After the End of the World.

Robert Gojo