Billow Observatory : II: Plains/Patterns

Billow Observatory exist on some ethereal plane. The music that Jonas Munk and Jason Kolb create has the feel of a constant, syrup-y flow through time and space. It’s no surprise as to the duo’s penchant for grandiose musical beats given their main gigs(Kolb is a member of Detroit, Michigan’s Auburn Lull and Munk is part of Denmark’s Causa Sui, as well as Manual, solo work, and with synth extraordinaire Ulrich Schnauss.) But within the warm embrace of Billow Observatory these two expand the sound into these vast swaths of  blanketed noise. Vast open space is something these two know a lot about, given the miles(and years) between their collaborations. Fortunately this transatlantic duo use the situation to their advantage, giving each plenty of room to stretch out and take their time getting to know the music.

After five years of collaborating and sending music files back and forth Kolb and Munk have finished their second album as Billow Observatory. II: Plains/Patterns is a cavernous beauty of an album, filled with ambient textures, shoegaze melancholy, and kosmische sensibilities. Floating in space never sounded so good.

Listening to this album it’s quite hard to describe what I’m hearing. It’s like describing the aurora borealis to someone who’s never experienced them. Sure, we’re all familiar with the night sky, colors, patterns, and shapes. But to accurately describe the northern lights to someone who’s never seen them so they can truly feel the emotional impact is a fool’s errand. Listening to a song like “Pulsus” or “Nulstil” is just as much a visceral experience as it is a listening experience. Both build an emotional center with rhythmic patterns and cavernous synth. I can tell you that there’s a real impact in these pieces. I think of Brian Eno, Popol Vuh, and Klaus Schulze as Billow Observatory runs through my ears. “Kercheval” is something quite different. I hear elements of Kevin Shields’ wall of guitar noise from Loveless in this track, even though the guitar in this track is swallowed up by cavernous reverb. There’s also an organic quality in this song. Movement and regeneration; a sense of new life growing from the soil.

Like I said, it’s hard to describe.

If there is a centerpiece, that would be “Plains”. This is a ten-minute epic that has the feel of circuitry buzzing and square waves dancing across small blue screens. It’s future ambient techno. An explosion of ideas and spatial motifs that pays off at every turn.

Elsewhere, “Montcalir” sounds like last breaths before that big reveal at the end of it all. Quiet, resolute, and beautiful. “Vex” bubbles and beeps like morse code from deep space before a ping ponging rhythm takes shape. “Plum” is just gorgeous. You’re overtaken by a bouncing synth and little guitar swells that feel like tiny revelations forming. From start to finish, this record is a journey.

With II: Plains/Patterns, Billow Observatory have honed their sound down from the endless, reverberating decay of their 2012 debut. Where on that album there seemed to be an endless drift into the dark(albeit a beautifully ornamented drift), Plains/Patterns has brought the expanse into something much more attainable. Something you can truly touch and feel. There’s an overwhelming sense of destination on this far out journey.

8.4 out of 10

Causa Sui : Live In Copenhagen

So one day last week I arrived home from work to see a cardboard box waiting for me on the front porch. When I went to pick it up I thought at first that someone had sent me a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas from Denmark as this thing was heavy. Like, really heavy. After further examination it dawned on me that I was holding Causa Sui’s Live In Copenhagen and dropped everything in my hands and made a bee line for the turntable.

It’s been a few weeks since the preorder went up for this mammoth 3-LP set, but we’ve made the most of it(Petty once said the waiting was the hardest part. He must preorder albums, too.) I went back and revisited some Causa Sui LPs I thought you good people should definitely check out if you hadn’t already. It was a swift reminder for me that these musicians from Denmark have done some major expansion in their sound since those early days. From stoner fuzz rock to experimental and expansive, the quartet known as Causa Sui have opened their brains and let some freaky sh*t get in, which is all the better for you and me. And with the studio wizardry getting better so has their live set. Live In Copenhagen shows the band in 2013 and in 2016. LP 1 is live at the Jazzhouse for the Return To Sky release show, while LPs 2 and 3 are live at Dragens Hule for the album release of Empori Tide. Both sets are on fire and show a band hungry to spread their gospel to as many ears as they can. Highlights? You want highlights? Well okay then.

Let’s start with Live at the Jazzhouse from April 29th, 2016. This set opens with “Rip Tide”, a fiery explosion of cry baby wah, drums being beaten into submission, and organ that sounds like it’s on fire with wailing saxophone joining the cacophony of noise. Imagine Jimi Hendrix and the Experience, with special guests Ken Hensley on organ and John Coltrane freaking out on acid. That’s the scene going on here. I can only imagine the faces melting in the audience. This Summer Sessions Vol.2 track never burned and smoldered quite like this before. Return To Sky’s “Mondo Buzzo” sounds like an ancient tribal incantation used to bring the Gods of Rock back from their eternal slumber(which started right after the release of Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.) Munk, Kahr, Rasmussen, and Skott pull this one off beautifully. If there was a 90s album that I feel Causa Sui channel it’s Soundgarden’s Superunknown. That record’s ferocity and visceral slap in the face is alive and well with Causa Sui, and this live version of “Mondo Buzzo” is sonic gut punch for sure. The breezy vibe of Euporie Tide’s “Ju-Ju Blues” is a welcome respite from the massive crunch we experienced up to this point. It has an almost Doors-y vibe with Rasmussen’s organ and Skott’s jazzy drumming. But in this version Krieger was replaced by Jeff Beck. Pretty soon the earth is cracking open and molten lava is spraying everywhere. This is an epic 10-minute banger, people.

Face. Melted.

When we move to LP 2 we step back in time to August 9th, 2013 at the release show of Euporie Tide. This was the album I was introduced to Causa Sui by, but it took the Pewt’r Sessions to pull me in completely. That’s not to say Euporie didn’t impress me. It did. In fact, they play an amazing version of that album’s “Eternal Flow” at the start of LP 2. It’s amazing the volume four guys can get on such a small stage. They could be at Red Rocks by the sound of this. Then they jump into a brain-melting version of “El Paraiso” that would delight fans of anything from Santana to Graveyard. It’s both a balls out rocker and a psychedelic journey. Side D sports “Portixeddu/Tropic Of Capricorn”. It’s over 15 minutes of psyche-melting noise. Put on some headphones, drop the needle, and you’re welcome.

LP 3 opens with a great cover of Agitation Free’s “First Communication”, followed by a powerful “Homage” from Euporie Tide. “Red Valley” ends side E on a high note with one of Causa Sui’s most doomy tracks in their repertoire. You can almost see the stage morph into some post-apocalyptic desert scene as the song blows into a Sleep-like dirge. Side F is taken up by a Causa Sui-approved version of John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme”. The band welcome Johan Riedenlow back to the stage to sit in for the legendary Coltrane and they take the jazz epic on a ride through 50 years of music history. Instead of attempting a “paint-by-numbers” version of the piece, Causa Sui and Riedenlow open the song up into a psychedelic jam session. It’s a massive piece that pays homage to a legend while still maintaining the essence of these four lads from Odense(don’t worry, you can still chant “Love Supreme, Love Supreme” right along with it.)

I was never a big fan of live LPs. I think something is lost in the translation from stage to stereo. You may get an accurate take on a band’s work, but the sweat, aura, and buzzing heat of that magical space is lost. There have been a few live sets that I’m glad to have in my collection as they do have the ability to pull you into that evening, even if you’re just buzzed on the couch at home. Wilco’s Kicking Television, The Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East, Television’s Live At The Old Waldorf, and now Causa Sui’s Live In Copenhagen. There’s a few other great live LPs, but these are the handful I swear by. Causa Sui’s other live album, Live At Freak Valley is well worth your time, but sonically Live In Copenhagen is just amazing. It shows just how much of a force these guys are live.

Put this one in your ears.

9.3 out of 10

Want to hear this but you’re not into antiquated forms of music delivery? No problem, you can download this over at El Paraiso Records in MP3 or FLAC form. There’s extra tracks as well that aren’t included in the vinyl version. So go get it.

 

Real Estate : In Mind

Real Estate have always come across as indifferent to the world around them. They seem to be completely aware of the what’s going on, but despite the good and bad that comes crashing down all around they breezily strum and sing their songs of nostalgic navel gazing and pining for something they may never get. 2011s Days felt like the moment where the New Jersey crew came into their own. Melancholy jams with an east coast jangle that seemed to pay tribute to both Springsteen, the Grateful Dead, and the Feelies all in the course of a single song. 2014s Atlas solidified Real Estate as the kings of bleary-eyed jangle, taking their worldview of early 20-somethings looking for the next kegger and wanting to impress that unattainable childhood crush to almost 30 and wondering where do you go from here? Martin Courtney, Alex Bleeker, and Matt Mondanile all followed their muses to solo projects but always found their way back to those summertime New Jersey barbecues and late night rooftop ponderings that Real Estate turned into stoned meditations on suburban upbringings.

But now with their newest album In Mind, Mondanile packed up and moved away from the neighborhood for good, leaving Courtney and Bleeker to keep that porch light on for us to find our way through the fog of memories. Along with Jackson Pollis, Matt Kallman, and Mondanile replacement Julian Lynch, Real Estate have made their best record yet.

I think there has always been a progressive side to Real Estate. Not in a 2112, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway sort of way, but in the way Courtney and company used the themes of growing up, dropping out, and wondering what it all means as a narrative throughout their albums. And musically, however breezy and pleasant the band comes across, there’s something very meticulous and forward thinking in their guitars and melodies. Lead single “Darling” is instantly recognizable with those pristine guitar lines and clean drumming, but with the addition of synths that hang over the song it feels like a step into new territory for these guys. Courtney has the most pleasant voice in modern rock and roll. He could sing directly from a phone book and there would be something mildly existential about it. This song is no different. They’ve set phaser(pedals) to stunning. “Serve The Song” has some distorted guitar opening the track before we sink into pining for childhood haunts and a pleasant dip into electric piano 70s lull. “Stained Glass” sounds like the Byrds, but without that southern California shine. It’s more like hungover melodies for the regretful morning after.

Timing has always been Real Estate’s biggest strength. Sure, the crystalline and chiming guitars, sweetly melancholy vocals, and overall dreamy aspect of their songs are great. But how they lock into each other as musicians is one of their biggest strong points. There’s a heft to this music that in other band’s hands might come off more twee. Maybe it’s that New Jersey upbringing. Take a track like “After The Moon”. There’s a certain sway in it that without that Real Estate magic might come across too soft rock, or a poor man’s Band Of Horses(as if a rich man’s BOH is any better.) In the hands of these guys quiet moments like this become almost existential. As good as each of their solo projects are, together is where the magic truly is.

Elsewhere “Two Arrows” blossoms over the course of nearly seven minutes, revealing chiming guitars, longing vocals, and an almost tome-like feel. “Holding Pattern” moves along on an early 80s feel, complete with icy synths, jazzy chord structures, and groovy drumming. It’s part Alan Parsons Project and part Motels. “Time” is completely new and engaging, with a space-y bossa nova feel and breathy keys. “Same Sun” shimmies like a midnight stroll home, while “Saturday” is the definitive period at the end of album.

Real Estate continue to move along in interesting musical directions. In Mind captures a group of guys at their best. A snapshot of “good old days” pondering, but never in a pretentious way. Real Estate are the guys at the corner bar happy to drink a beer or two with you and talk about the old times. They’ll even buy the next round. In Mind is an open invitation and a testament to that.

8.1 out of 10

 

Spoon : Hot Thoughts

It’s been over 20 years since their debut album Telephono was released in 1996, and they have done nothing but look forward ever since. I have no problem saying that Spoon have released some of my generations best rock records, and they’ve done it continually on their own terms. Through a major label fumble that would have broke a lesser band, Spoon have built their sound on a steady diet of Wire, The Jam, the Kinks, the Pixies, and Brill Building pop. The result is something completely, well, Spoon.

Girls Can Tell was the album that, for me, officially started what would be their winning streak and Kill The Moonlight was the defining indie rock album of the 2000s. Britt Daniel’s white boy soul vocals and sparse, angular guitar work combined with Jim Eno’s powerful, clean drumming created a magic that producer Mike McCarthy harnessed in the studio.

From there the world was Spoon’s oyster.

Each album that followed redefined and honed their sound. Gimme Fiction, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Transference, and They Want My Soul all had something to offer and built on what came before. One thing each of these records have in common is a gradual lean into groovier territory. “I Turn My Camera On” and “My Mathematical Mind” to “Don’t You Evah” and “Eddie’s Ragga” to “Who Makes Your Money” and “Nobody Gets Me But You”, all of these tracks showed a much more groove-centric Spoon giving their dancier tendencies some play time. With 2014s They Want My Soul there was a push to mix the indie rock heartbreak of earlier records with a much more polished sound. The result was one of their most acclaimed albums yet. Now with the release of Spoon’s ninth album, the excellent Hot Thoughts, there seems to be no reason to believe Spoon can’t conquer the world at large.

“Hot Thoughts” was the first single released and it’s this opening salvo that seems to mix everything we’ve come to love about this Austin band, which includes Britt Daniel and Jim Eno, as well as Rob Pope and Alex Fischel. Dance-y rhythms with a touch of Stones-y flair all covered with an air of urgency. Daniel’s vocals seem to only get better year after year, and this year is no different. “WhisperI’lllistentohearit” is keyboard heavy, but in a 80s drama kind of way. There is guitar on this album, but it’s used sparsely and when engaged to great effect. There are some heavy Divine Fits vibes here, too. With the addition of Alex Fischel, that band’s keyboard player and Daniels’ bandmate, the comparison is not without its merits. This is not a bad thing, either. “Do I Have To Talk You Into It” is the most fun I’ve heard Spoon have on record in a long time, and it doesn’t hurt that the piano melody is pretty similar to Gimme Fiction’s “The Beast And Dragon, Adored”. “First Caress” is another dance-y number that gives you bonus points for indie rock and dance floor cred. “Pink Up” is a beautifully ornamented track that is pushed more by the music than vocals. It’s space-y vibes and jazzy tendencies is a new sound for Spoon and it works well.

The album is produced by Dave Fridmann, who sat in on a few songs with the guys on They Want My Soul. Here, his presence is known but his “in the red” production style doesn’t define the sound of Hot Thoughts. If anything, the guys just use it as a new color to fill in the lines of their already stellar songs. This seems like a great fit for all.

“Can I Sit Next To You” is a full-on come on in song form. Daniel puts his come hither falsetto to good use here, while “I Ain’t The One” feels like a theme for complete heartbreak(it’s use in the season closer for Shameless was damn near perfect). It helps I’m a sucker for that Wurlitzer sound(and I might have a man crush on Britt Daniel.) “Tear It Down” could’ve been a b-side from the Gimme Fiction days. It’s sorta perfect. “Shotgun” sounds like Spoon got onto a “disco Kiss” kick for an afternoon. The result is this tight leather pants-wearing groove fest of a track. The album ends on a space-y jazz instrumental, which is again kind of a genius move.

Is Hot Thoughts Spoon’s best album? Not by a country mile. But guess what? 20 years in and Daniel and Eno are still redefining themselves each time out. They’ve got this tight knit crew after all these years that seem to have found the right amount of slick, weird, heartfelt, and funky that “get it”. Head back in the wayback machine to 1996. Look around the scene and find the music tastemakers at that time, then head back to 2017. Of that musical might, who’s still moving forward? Who’s still pushing and still vital? It’s a small group, and Spoon are at the forefront.

8. 3 out of 10

 

 

Blanck Mass : World Eater

Benjamin John Power’s Blanck Mass is the kind of musical project that is unforgiving in its need to evolve. He pushes the boundaries of what you thought electronic music was supposed to be. Much like Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never, Power takes the canvas of electronic and experimental music and pushes the boundaries; painting on the floor, walls, ceiling, and whatever surface he can find. In 2015 Power curated a project as Blanck Mass called Blanck Mass Presents The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears. On it, he along with several other electronic and experimental artists reimagined the soundtrack to the 2013 giallo film of the same name. It’s an uncompromising piece of work, and one that opened my eyes to what Power could do on such a large scale.

On his third full-length as Blanck Mass, titled World Eater, Power explodes his sound into a technicolor affair that goes from mind-altering noise expanses to more restrained and cultivated sounds. It goes from eye-opening world music vibes to industrial crush in the course of a song. It might just be the best Blanck Mass yet.

Let’s start with “Please”, which arrives three songs in. Oneohtrix Point Never comes to mind at first, but there’s no aping anyone’s sound going on. The use of vocals and big synth tones brings to mind Lopatin’s big turn on 2015s Garden Of Delete, but Blanck Mass have a sound all their own, and it meshes well with the world music vibes on this stellar track. “Rhesus Negative”, the song that preceds “Please”, is a teeth-rattling noise bomb of industrial proportion. It’s like Wax Trax! meets Creation Records in a beautiful explosion of violence and beauty. “The Rat” sounds like Pretty Hate Machine as a marching band competition piece. There’s something triumphant and regal about this song, which makes you want to crank it and march proudly through the neighborhood. “Minnesota/Eas Fors/Naked” is buzzing noise and plotting tension. It sounds like static coming through some chrome-covered receiver as something slowly rises from underneath all of it. It’s reminiscent of the work he did on the Strange Colour soundtrack at the beginning. Slowly things begin to clear up to reveal twinkling synths and an end that sounds like some aged 80s synth pop track. “Hive Mind” sounds like a huge club track, but done up in Power’s liquid production. It’s a stunning finish to a stunning album.

Blanck Mass live by the “go big or go home” motto. Each time out Benjamin John Power pushes the sonic edges of his music to incorporate something new while bending it to his will. While his work with Fuck Buttons was similar in pushing their sound, Power seems to move a little smoother and with more ease when he’s wearing the Blanck Mass hat. World Eater is his best record yet, opening the sound up and letting in a bit of house, techno, industrial, experimental, and pretty much you name it. Benjamin John Power brings you right into Blanck Mass’ world, and it’s a visceral experience.

8.1 out of 10

Slow Dakota : The Ascension of Slow Dakota

When I listen to Slow Dakota’s The Ascension of Slow Dakota I imagine some room hidden off in an endless, storied estate. It’s a rooma2211100948_10 with hints of light seeping through the pulled blinds and within the stained wood walls it feels as if you’ve stumbled across square footage time forgot. The musty smell of aged book pages, withered leather chairs, and maybe pipe tobacco lingers in the air. A spotless grand piano sits in the corner, along with fading composition pages with poems attempted but abandoned long ago. PJ Sauerteig’s Slow Dakota is a passion project that melds the lives of a poet, musician, and historian all into one Midwestern-bred body and spirit. Sauerteig summons the ghosts of Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, and Sherwood Anderson and embodies their wordsmith genius with the likes of modern musical poets like Sufjan Stevens, Conor Oberst, and even hints of Van Dyke Parks. The Ascension of Slow Dakota is a stunning work of Midwestern baroque pop.

PJ Sauerteig is a lover of words and story. He is also a lover of musical art. His songs feel not like stories really, but more snapshots of what some may seem as insignificant moments. But these are the moments that make up ones life. Sherwood Anderson took the mundane and made it something more in his classic Winesburg, Ohio. Small town life was really a microcosm for life and death. On Slow Dakota’s Midwest opus, Sauerteig brings us into these little moments and shows us that they’re more than insignificant, but what makes a life a life. Modern and classic motifs come together musically, as on the whimsical “The Lilac Bush”. Syncopated rhythm carries keys and Sauerteig’s Ed Droste-like vocals. It’s a compelling song that pulls you in and doesn’t let go. “Paul, Pining For His Wife” is beautiful and heartbreaking. Sauerteig sings “Early in the morning I go out with boots and ruffled hair – Something you would always do before – Down to gather water from the creek behind the neighbors’ house, But the bucket’s far too hard to lift.” “Proverbs, After Vangelis” takes inspiration from its namesake with woozy synths that take us from the heartland to a chromed-out future. Sauerteig sounds a bit like Wayne Coyne on this track, but lyrically we’re still hearing stories of people we may or may not know. “My aunt Donna Says she has the language To talk to birds. And Donna’s older sister Mary Regularly talks to dead men: It’s true, it’s true!”, PJ Sauerteig sings over synths and an 80s wash of neon color. The song ends with a Stephen Hawking-like voice speaking of “Heaven” and “language”

Speaking of voices there are also interludes of spoken word peppered throughout the album, giving a nod to Slow Dakota’s literary fancies. “A Competition”, “A Mistranslation”, “John of Patmos”and “Whitman Crossing the Sky to Spain” are all spoken word pieces, the last of which tells of an imagined plane flight with Walt Whitman joining the mile-high club.

Slow Dakota, aka PJ Sauerteig, has created a pastoral album that owes a debt to classical literary ghosts as well as the compact pop symphonies of earlier Sufjan Stevens, Bright Eyes, and even at times Youth Lagoon. The Ascension of Slow Dakota is a beautifully ornamented album that feels like a timeless classic work itself.

Jon Kennedy : Ha! EP

Jon Kennedy is a man about the world. He travels the globe leaving scorched dance floors as a DJ extraordinaire, and just for kicks hea0152258569_10 remixes tunes of all color, shape, and size. He’s a rhythm man at heart, calling home behind a drum set. Basking behind the real thing and as a programmer of hazy electronica, he lays down serious beats wherever he drops his drum stool.

I’m not sure, but I think he might be MI-6, too.

I’ve been following Kennedy for some time now and he never fails to impress. He’s released so much music over the last 15 years or so that catching up would be a daunting task, but you should try. Here’s some starting points: Useless Wooden Toys, Strengthen The Roses, and Corporeal. Jon Kennedy is readying a new album called Ha!. In lieu of jumping into the sure to be tasty batch of beats and samples Kennedy has dropped the Ha! EP. It’s 7 remixes of the title track, plus an EP exclusive track. It’s a nice teaser for what’s sure to be a woozy chunk of electronica.

“Ha!” on its own is a soulful number, with great vocals by Adjua. The album version is mostly just vocals with some tasteful noise going on under the proceedings. After that we’re treated to a plethora of remixes by the likes of AOTOA, Rogan, and 6blocc. Mr. Bird does a nice take on the track that gives it a Boards of Canada vibe. Something off the earlier EPs, like Twoism. Michal Menert gives the song a trip hop vibe, deconstructing the soul edge and giving it a cool, detached feel. Static Structures goes full Fruity Loops, complete with buzzes and beeps and adding in some acid jazz textures.

Not into remix albums? Well sorry for your loss. But hey, grab this thing for the album version of “Ha!” and the EP exclusive “The Lord Tarries” featuring Coreysan. It’s a blissful shot of indie techno.

Even if Jon Kennedy isn’t James Bond, I still think the Ha! EP is a nice place to get acquainted with the British musician/producer. Give it a spin, and keep your eyes open for the new LP soon.

7.3 out of 10