The Musical World of Xander Harris : A Conversation with Justin Sweatt

By J. Hubner

Photo by Victoria Renard Photography

In just a very short amount of time the music of artist Xander Harris, known to friends, family, and his high school Marching Band instructor as Justin Sweatt, has made a pretty huge impression on me. Starting with his most recent album, 2017s Transmission Dust, then working my way through The New Dark Age Of Love, California Chrome, and Urban Gothic, I was floored by Sweatt’s constant evolution with each record. He runs the stylistic gamut on his four full-lengths; from sleazy giallo to dark techno to ambient to dystopian dark synth. There seems to be a constant push to change up what he’s doing each time out. Rather than sit comfortably on top of a single musical trend, Justin Sweatt takes the music of Xander Harris into new territory each time out.

Like I said, it’s been a fairly short amount of time that I’ve been privy to the musical world of Xander Harris, but I’m happy to have finally stumbled into his records. Whenever I come across an artist that is always moving forward, I want to ask them what pushes them to create like they do. What drives their creative mind? Where do they pull inspiration and influence from? Sometimes these artists are up for some questions and sometimes they’re not. Fortunately for you(and me) Justin Sweatt was happy to talk to me about the musical world of Xander Harris.

J. Hubner: So where did you grow up?

Justin Sweatt: I grew up in Midland, TX.  It’s in the middle of nowhere out in West Texas filled with social conservatives, oil fields, and a totally flat desert environment.

J. Hubner: Was music an important factor in your life growing up in West Texas?

Justin Sweatt: Music was definitely important to me out there because there weren’t that many people I could relate to and it seemed like a doing music was a way out of the area.  Truthfully, I have a love/hate relationship with West Texas but I think it has more to do with my general love/hate relationship with life.

J. Hubner: So music was a constant for you in your formative years?

Justin Sweatt:  I was always interested in music as a child. My childhood friend Joel had a piano and I’d plink around on it.  I had a little record player when I was about 5 I would take everywhere  that my grandmother gifted me when I was little.  She gave me a bunch of 45s but the Beach Boys “Surfing USA” 45 was the one I would listen to constantly.  It began a life long obsession with Brian Wilson, weirdly enough.

J. Hubner: Besides Brian Wilson, was there any other artist that hit you hard when you were growing up?

Justin Sweatt: Like all teenagers during my era the most important band for me was Nirvana.  Cliche but it’s true and Nirvana was the gateway to everything else as far as forming my listening habits.  80s music was a constant as a kid as well, my mom always jammed the Eurythmics, Thompson Twins, and stuff like that.

J. Hubner: Do you remember the first album you ever bought?

Justin Sweatt: First album I ever bought with my own money was a Tears for Fears CD.

J. Hubner: Growing up in West Texas did you often haunt the local video store for classic 70s and 80s American and Italian horror films? 

Justin Sweatt:  I did scavenge VHS stores as a kid for horror stuff but it mostly consisted of Carpenter and Hellraiser, mainstream horror titles.  Most video stores in West Texas didn’t have any of the Italian directors when I was a teenager.  It took me moving to Austin before I was ever able to have an opportunity to watch any of those films.

J. Hubner: So how does cinema play into your work, if at all?

Justin Sweatt: Frankly, film isn’t incredibly influential to my writing process.  Certain soundtracks are in there but I am mostly inspired by works of horror/weird/sci-fi fiction.  Reading has always been more of my thing and more rewarding as far as jump starting the imagination.

J. Hubner: I think there’s a lot to be said about inspiration through the written word. How it works its way into your music I find pretty fascinating. So you’re reading all these books growing up. When does your interest in electronic music come in?

Justin Sweatt: Electronic music was explored in my teen years, especially the Clockwork Orange soundtrack, but it was through discovering industrial music at the record store I worked at that made the biggest impression.  My boss gave me a copy of Chris Carter’s “The Space Between” and I’ve been obsessed with that release ever since.  I own multiple copies of that album.  Skinny Puppy is a huge one, my best friend was always having me check out Front 242 and everything else in the industrial genre from the 80s.  We geeked out on it pretty hard.  She had an Oberheim synth and we played music together so I was really impressed with everything she recommended.

J. Hubner: It’s great having that one friend that puts you onto bands and artists you’d otherwise not know about. I’ve got a old friend that put me onto Skinny Puppy and Ministry in high school, then Boards Of Canada when we were older. Not sure I could ever repay him enough for that.

Justin Sweatt: I’ve never found anything on my own, I’ve always looked at my friends’ collections for finding new music.  Now I just have my friends share their Spotify playlists with me so I can keep up with new releases. There’s a part of me that wishes I could be a tastemaker but it’s just never been my forte.

J. Hubner: So has keyboards always been your instrument of choice?

Justin Sweatt: My primary instrument is drums.  High school life was marching band and then I went to college for sound engineering and music.  My desire was to be the next Steve Albini but that didn’t really work out. My family isn’t well off so I never had the capital or investors to open a studio like I’ve always dreamed of.  The construction of sound and the way records are made has always had an appeal to me.  Recording basics was something I learned with a friend’s four track and then started learning how to play other instruments to learn the way each instrument works in terms of composition and sound.

J. Hubner: A lot of the electronic musicians I’ve talked to came up in the hardcore scene. Were you ever in a punk band? 

Justin Sweatt: I wasn’t a hardcore kid, I wasn’t any kid to be honest.  I played drums in metal, punk, jazz, country, all sorts of different bands.  I’ve never been a one genre kind of guy, I’ve always really liked all music. Hardcore is something I love but I was never tough enough for that scene nor was I into being extreme in my appearance.  At that time I had long hair, a Black Flag T-shirt, and a pair of jeans.  Bands that looked like someone who worked at a janitor’s office were more appealing to me.  Even with goth, I love the look but I’ve never been compelled to wear leather, make up, or be outwardly anything other than a black jeans and a t-shirt guy.  The only thing that hardcore made an impression on me was be cool, be a part of your community, and it made me pretty radical in my politics. The DIY aspect of that community has always appealed to me but the fast and angry thing not so much, even as a teenager.

J. Hubner: What was your musical life like before Xander Harris? What other projects have you been involved in?

Justin Sweatt: Life before Xander Harris was interesting as I mostly just played drums or did noise duo material.  I have played in probably 100 bands but mostly bands that never did anything outside of the area where I was living.  All different styles but nothing really in print anymore.  Band names like Kosmodrome, Scab Sand Witch, We Can Cut You, Dry County, Bella, Skiesfalling, Red Ox, just to name a few.  In Austin I was in a couple of projects before trying to live in Los Angeles last year that have releases coming out.  I played drums and synth in a kraut rock band called Future Museums, which is still going strong.  Neil, who heads up Future Museums, just put out an album on Holodeck Records (Adam from Survive’s label) that I did some production work on.  Holodeck is also releasing a record this year from my friend Nicolas who heads up the project Single Lash.  It’s a goth-y shoegaze-y band that I played bass and synths on the record that’s coming out. I’m quite proud of it and I think Nicolas will be one of those house hold names in no time.  For Xander history, Nicolas painted the cover for California Chrome and he’s one of the most talented people I think I’ve ever worked with.  I miss being in Single Lash but we all have our things we have to do.

J. Hubner: Going thru your discography, from 2011’s ‘Urban Gothic’ to last year’s ‘Termination Dust’, you seem to have evolved your sound with each successive album. You’re not sticking to just a horror/score vibe or straight up 80s dance nostalgia. ‘The New Dark Age Of Love’ sounds completely different from ‘California Chrome’. And ‘Termination Dust’ sounds completely different from ‘California Chrome’. What’s your writing process like?

Justin Sweatt:  I try to go out of my way to make each record completely different.  Honestly, I love Urban Gothic but I doubt I’ll ever make another record like that ever in my career unless I was hired to do a score in the vein.   I don’t really care abut horror scores much these days and it’s not much of an influence anymore.  I feel like it’s better to try and grow your sound and push yourself into new territory.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

J. Hubner: Going into an album, do you have a certain theme or concept you want to stick to?

Justin Sweatt: Every time I write I always have about 5 grandiose ridiculous ideas that only make sense to me.  Much of the music I write is composed in my head when I’m at work.  After my shift I’ll come home, fuss with the notes, the chord changes, the key, and the sound a bit and start tracking but most of it is already stewing in the brain.  My brain is always on, sometimes for the better, sometimes not for the best.  The new album is all internal narrative and it’s the first one not inspired by works of horror fiction or books in general.  In fact, it’ll be the least nostalgic and horror-esque thing I’ve ever done.  I was quite happy with California Chrome and Termination Dust so I’m going more in that vein where I follow more my own internal narrative than anything. Termination Dust is a celebration of the author Laird Barron but it’s also a celebration of philosophy of Thomas Ligotti.

photo by Pagan Gold

J. Hubner: Since you brought it up, let’s talk a bit about your latest album Termination Dust. It’s an amazing piece of work, btw. How did that record come together? 

Justin Sweatt: Thank you. The influences for that one are all over the place.  I had originally pitched “Carrion Gods” and “Jaws of Saturn” to GhostBox in the UK as a 45 but it didn’t happen.  I had put up a couple of songs on Bandcamp during those sessions and made an EP couple with the Carrion and Jaws.  Eventually I was approached by Data Airlines to release it on vinyl if I could record more material to make it a full length.  I did the sessions for the rest of the album in about 3 days, which is pretty quick for me.

J. Hubner: As far as the sound of Termination Dust, it definitely sounds distinctly unique to your other albums. Who or what were some influences on the overall sound of the record?

Justin Sweatt: At the time of Termination Dust I was listening to a lot of Broadcast, BBC workshop material, Roedelius, Advisory Circle, John Bender, simpler electronic releases that were more about heavy emotion and less layering. I’ve always had an affinity for krautrock so there was a lot of that on the phone soundtracking the walk to work during those sessions. I wanted simple and effective but wanted to mix in acoustic instruments more like electric piano and real bass.

J. Hubner: I love the combination of organic and electronic sound. 

Justin Sweatt: The mix of acoustic with electronic is something I’m exploring heavily and in more detail on the next album.  People who are really into Urban Gothic are probably going to dislike the next one. It’s a nod of the hat to a lot of different genres, influences, people, all stirred up in my weird stew.  Nothing on the new album I’m working on would be considered horror though. Perhaps Drive-esque in parts (and only on maybe two tracks) but it’s definitely going in a totally different direction.

photo by Nicolas Nadeau

J. Hubner: You recently moved from Austin to New Orleans. How has the change of scenery been?

Justin Sweatt: The change of scenery has been fantastic, I’ve always liked New Orleans and it definitely feels like home. I’ve wanted to live in New Orleans since I was a kid the city has always held a fascination for me.  My only wish is that Trent Reznor would move back and help start a crazy electronic scene.  Having said that there are some great electronic cats here.  Joey from Pressures, who also runs one of the best record stores in America called disco Obskura, has always been here in New Orleans and incredibly supportive.  My friend Justin Vial, who used to be in Kindest Lines, also does a lot of electronic work here in New Orleans that is stellar.  I recently saw a performance of Andy from Thou and his electronic work is amazing.  A friend got me to come out to that and it was a pleasant surprise.

J. Hubner: Austin seems to have a pretty amazing electronic music scene, with Holodeck Records and Mondo located there as sort of flagship spots for all things synth-related. But sometimes a change of scenery is the best thing for re-starting the creative fires. 

Justin Sweatt: Austin is a great place but it hasn’t felt like home for a while for a myriad of personal reasons.  That’s not a bad thing, sometimes you need to move on in order to jump start the next phase of life and I felt like my time in Austin had come to a close.  I’m grateful for the relationships and experiences I have there, the music community in that city is like nothing else.  Austin’s music community is a true community whereas a lot of places I’ve been to just view you as competition.  That’s the great thing about Austin, and even New Orleans, is that people do give a shit on a human level that is quite rare.  There are still ties, I’m part of a cassette label out of Austin called Somatic headed up by my friends Michael and Lee. I do a lot of mastering for the releases and feebly attempt to get PR for the artists.

J. Hubner: So what do you have coming up next? What does 2018 hold for Xander Harris and Justin Sweatt?

Justin Sweatt: I’m working on a new record but I have no idea when it will come out.  I’m toying with it being a double LP as I have a lot of songs at the moment in various states that I would like to finish all at once and then decide if I’ll split it up or keep them all together.  I don’t know if people’s attention spans are up for it.

J. Hubner: Has New Orleans had an impact on the sound of the next album?

Justin Sweatt: New Orleans has definitely made an impact compositionally, I don’t see how you could avoid it if you walk around and listen.  I’ve always been a big fan of old funk and soul music so I listen to a lot of WWOZ, a local radio station here. Watching the drum lines here is fantastic so the city is definitely having an influence on the new material rhythmically and the drummer in me is squealing with joy.  The bass lines during the old New Orleans soul days are ridiculous so I’ve been thinking of ways of incorporating some of those ideas in terms of bass lines on the synth with a sense of melody into the new material.


Go check out out the work of Xander Harris, aka Justin Sweat, over at his Bandcamp page. And to keep up on all things Xander Harris, give him a follow on Facebook here.

Pentagram Home Video : Look Into The Darkness

Not to let the year wither and die on the vine peacefully, Pentagram Home Video felt the need to conjure up some Christmas evil and lay on us some serious dark vibes just in time for Krampus’ visit. Look Into The Darkness is the kind of album you hit play on when you’re home alone staring into the snow-covered blackness. It makes its way to your ears like an ancient mist emanating from a tomb lost to time and memory. With The Satanic Path released early in 2017, followed by both Library Studies and Walpurgisnacht shortly after, Look Into The Darkness is the fourth PHM album of 2017. Each one is a gateway to some other, distorted dimension. Where those first three seemed to reach into the dark reaches of the occult, Look Into The Darkness is a walk through a dusty, historied castle. Candelabras lit, stained glass mildewed and cracked, the music takes us on a spectral guide through stone-lined halls, cobweb-covered cathedral ceilings, and the stench of time rotting within this cobblestoned tomb we find ourselves in.

I think one of the most affecting things about Pentagram Home Video’s music palate is his use of minimalism. He doesn’t overload his songs with big beats, walls of electronic noise, or melodrama to carry you up into an imaginary world. He slowly works into your brain, muscles, and bone marrow with ease by being subtle in his work. Opening track “Look Into The Darkness” sounds like Angelo Badalamenti on an absinthe high. There’s a swing in the track we haven’t heard before from PHM, and it’s quite addictive. There’s a ghostly melody that hangs over the proceedings which begs you to step a little further into the shadows. “An Exporations of Black Magic” continues that ghostly vibe. You really do get the feeling of an eerie, snowy night somewhere in the wilderness. Moon shining through snow-covered trees as a stillness comes over you so potent, you think for a moment you’ve lost your sense of hearing. Every hair stands on end as you feel the unmistakable burn of eyes on you.

This collection of songs is inspired by the BBC’s ‘A Ghost Story For Christmas‘ which ran originally from 1971 to 1978. It was brought back again in 2005. From the sound of Look Into The Darkness, I’d say these BBC ghost stories were quite affecting. Pentagram Home Video’s Gothic musical world seems to be the perfect place to conjure ghosts, ghouls, and enact some kind of psychic trauma, as did this show on an entire generation of young, British boys and girls. Take a listen to “The Guest At The Window” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Or “Lost On The Red Hill”, or “Strange Days”. “A Malevolent Shadow Presence” goes into some kind of spectral, techno spell.

Despite its origins coming from old BBC ghost stories, this album has an air of melancholy to it as well. For the most part ghosts that haunt us, both figuratively and literally, tend to be something or someone we know. Regrets that we carry throughout our life that are never dealt with. Things said or not said that we carry like Marley’s chains around out mortal necks. Pentagram Home Video’s Look Into The Darkness is a soundtrack for dark reflection. A score for spiritual and psychic anxiety. It’s a musical companion to turn to on those cold, winter nights when there’s nothing left to do but look at that ghoul in the mirror and decide if you’re gonna do something about it. More than likely you’ll just put it away with the Christmas stockings and tree ornaments for another year.

Either way, Pentagram Home Video have an album for you.

8. 3 out of 10

Sounds of the Universe : A Conversation With Astral TV

For me, a record has to pull me from my surroundings and put me in another headspace. I want an album to paint something in my brain and make me psychically open up and let some of the universe inside. Music should be more than just mere entertainment; it should make you feel something. As a kid music affected me in a way that cartoons, movies, and books never did. My imagination bloomed when a song hit me the right way.

I think that’s why I’m drawn to synth music. There’s nothing obvious about the musical world an analog synthesizer is creating. You’re not being told what to think or what it means. There’s a visceral aspect to synth music that you don’t get with a rock album or pop single. It’s pure, raw emotional content that’s being pushed through tubes and circuits via the composer. They can lead you down a path to contentment and beauty, enlightenment, or sonic anxiety. They open a portal and you’re allowed to step in and see where it leads.

Astral TV is a synth duo based in Copenhagen, Denmark. They released their debut with El Paraiso Records, titled Chrystal Shores, back in July and it’s a record that opens many portals. Rasmus Rasmussen and Keith Canisius have created a modern ambient album that pulls from both a New Age lean and a Sci Fi vibe. If this album was a movie it’d be a cross between Kubrick’s 2001 : A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Musically these two are taking some of the headier vibes of Tangerine Dream and giving them a bit of light, though at times the light feels a ways away. Astral TV create a warm and inviting sound that you can easily get lost in.

I had a chance to talk with Rasmus and Keith about the record, their influences, and the large amount of wires it takes to make the magic happen.


J. Hubner: So tell me about how Astral TV came together? How long have you two been making music together?

Rasmus Rasmussen: Actually Astral TV have existed less than a year. But the two of us have played together for some years now, accompanying each other in various projects. Then Keith was asked to play a concert last winter, and he suggested we do it as a duo instead, and that was the beginning of Astral TV.

J. Hubner: Who are some influences you guys are pulling from? If you had to name one album that you looked to for inspiration in creating the Astral TV world what would that be?

Rasmus Rasmussen:  I guess it’s really a wide range of stuff, and quite different for each of us. We both love newer electronic music like Boards of Canada, Tim Hecker and that kind of stuff, but for me the classic kosmische kraut stuff is definitely a huge influence as well. The same goes for Eno and also late 90’es / start 00’es electronica and ambient. One album that has influenced the way I approach what we do with Astral TV would be “New Age of Earth” by Ashra.

Keith Canisius: I think we can pull a lot of inspiration from small things. I definitely wanted to bring the film music aspect into the picture. Allowing us to work with shorter sequences and mood presentations. I’m more interested in what people think it sounds like, than the few bands I could mention, when I think hard about it.

J. Hubner: Similar to the previous question, are there any films or film soundtracks that blew your collective minds that went into molding the Astral TV sound?

Rasmus Rasmussen: The Blade Runner soundtrack would definitely be an essential key to the Astral TV sound. That’s a record which has stayed with the both of us from quite early on and still is a big influence. For me the Popol Vuh soundtracks from the 70’es have also been a big influence.

Keith Canisius: Blade Runner yes. For me most sci-fi movies from the 80’s and 70’s. I liked Interstellar too. But mostly the sci-fi movies from my childhood. Some newer movies like It Follows was really nice too. Movies play a bigger inspiration for me than actual music artists in this project.

J. Hubner: What’s the writing process like for Astral TV? Do you two get in a room together with tons of gear and improvise until you like the vibe? Or do you share music files via the internet and just add to each others ideas? Do you each have your own futuristic-looking music stations, surrounded by synths like Edgar Froese or Rick Wakeman?

Rasmus Rasmussen: Some tracks are written by one or the other, and then the other supplies his stuff, but mostly we just get in my basement and jam. We both have our gear set up down there and live right next to each other, so when we are up for it we just meet after work or in the weekends and jam out for a few hours. We’ll record it all, and at some point we go through the recordings and see what works. Most of the tracks on the album were done this way, based on improvisations. It might be edited a bit afterwards, but as little as possible. We like to keep the spontaneity of it.

And yeah, both our synths setups are quite extensive. We are gear nerds, we like knobs and don’t do well with limitations.

J. Hubner: You’ve just released your new LP Chrystal Shores via El Paraiso Records, but this isn’t your first release. You released ‘Stations’, a limited edition tape in April via Funeral Tapes. Are there any significant difference between the two? Is ‘Stations’ available digitally?

Rasmus Rasmussen: Some of the material is the same, but there are differences in the track list. Some tracks are on the tape and not on the vinyl and vice versa. Also the production is a bit different. It was the tape that actually made us realize we had some material worth putting out. One of our friends runs the Funeral Tapes label and asked us to do the tape, and that made us dig through the recordings we’d done when jamming and found that there was stuff we could use. The tape is not out digitally. It’s a very limited release of fifty tapes, which can be bought from the label.

J. Hubner: First off, ‘Chrystal Shores’ is a stunning record of beautiful electronica and heavy synth. How long was the writing and recording process for the LP? It has a really heavy 70s vibe. A basement spin for sure, complete with beanbag chair and incense burning. Was that the aesthetic you guys were going for?

Rasmus Rasmussen: Thanks! Most tracks are essentially first takes and have only been played that one time of recording. So both the writing and recording process was quite short. The mixing as well. We only did what was necessary to make it glue and work as self-enclosed tracks. Some times new stuff was added, but it was all a very spontaneous process, without too much fiddling around. That way of working is completely opposite to how I’ve done my solo albums, meticulously building it up until you have a finished track. Here you just listen to hours of jams, occasionally going: “Wait, stop, there was a track!”. There was never a conscious intent on sounding retro, but I guess there’s something inherent in using these instruments in the way we do, that’ll pull the sound in that direction. With that said there was no attempt what so ever of avoiding that thick new age vibe – on the contrary really. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff, and if we can do anything to mend it’s crummy reputation just a little, I’ll be happy.

Keith Canisius: This project is also opposite from most my solo stuff. Keeping it to the idea of music for film scenes makes it easier for me to free. Then I have some simple borders to work out from. We also want to be able to perform it live without any back tracks going on. Above mentioned ideas gives it a border, that makes it much easier for me to be creative. A track like “Surveillance” is really wild. The thought that we did that suddenly in the middle of a jam without speaking about it is pure magic. A lot of tracks happened like that, but that long track was something special. Special how the whole thing came alive in one take without any communication.

J. Hubner: I wanted to ask you Keith, you live in Copenhagen but you’re originally from Massachusetts, right? How did you end up in Denmark?

Keith Canisius:  My father (Dutch) moved to Cambridge Mass., where he met my mother. They got married and had me. Later on they went to Holland, but the marriage ended. My mother took my brother and I to a friend she had from Harvard university, who had moved back to Denmark. She got settled and remarried in Denmark.

J. Hubner: What drew you two to the synthesizer? Did it start out with piano lessons as a kid then progressed to a Buchla set up in the family room?

Rasmus Rasmussen: I started playing keyboards when I was nine. It was the first instrument I learned to play. It was a fascination with 80’es synth bands that drew me to it. Aha and stuff like that, but more specifically the synth theme in Phil Collins “Another day in Paradise” played an important role. I was very much into that. So my parents sent me to keyboard lessons. I lost interest for a while, focusing on the guitar in my teens, but when I got into electronic music in the late nineties, I invested in samplers and synths and the collection has just expanded from there.

Keith Canisius:  My brother had a Juno 60 and my stepdad had a piano and later on a grand piano in our home throughout my childhood. Although guitar became my main instrument in my early teens, I’ve always be fiddling around with keys in some way. When my music became more serious I got a Prophet 08, which I still use all the time. I also think guitar got a little boring at a point. So diving into the synth world was exciting for me.

J. Hubner: With the album officially out, will you guys be taking Astral TV on the road? I can only imagine that being a daunting task. Lots of wires I imagine.

Rasmus Rasmussen: Yes, we have a couple of shows lined up in the near future. Most of the tracks are essentially recorded live, so in that way it makes good sense, but we are still trying to figure out the perfect way of bringing it to the stage. We want to keep the spontaneity and improv vibe but avoid too much aimless noodling, so it’s about finding the right balance. And yeah, the amount of wires are enormous. We’re trying to limit ourselves, but it’s not working out very well.

J. Hubner: What’s next for Astral TV? Could we see a follow up to Chrystal Shores at some point?

Rasmus Rasmussen: A follow up is very likely. We’ll focus on playing shows for a while, but in that process we’ll probably be working on a new album. We are recording continuously and already have a good deal of material and a bunch of tracks that’s more or less done.

Keith Canisius: We have some nice new stuff already as Rasmus mentioned, and we are looking forward to exploring this world much much more for many years hopefully.


 

Astral TVs Chrystal Shores is still available at El Paraiso Records and at Forced Exposure.

Pentagram Home Video : Library Studies

Library Studies is a companion piece of sorts to the excellent The Satanic Path, which was released just a couple months ago. It leaves most of the beats behind and instead moves through 25 minutes of moody pieces that act as a soundtrack to a hallucination. The faint tones that accompany a fever dream or a long lost recollection. 9 luxuriously baroque pieces that remind one of grainy, late night Gothic film viewings on a monstrous console TV in the family den. You long to run to your bedroom and hide under the covers, but the music beckons you to keep watching.

Pentagram Home Video is a project steeped in mystery and shadows. An occult music box that plays electronic tomes, part demonic trance and part mystical ambient. The music’s creator is as mysterious as the music itself, making these dark and brooding musical pieces to entice listeners of a certain breed to fall in love with the drone-y soundscapes a little more after each listen. With three full-length releases since 2014, and now with Library Studies, Pentagram Home Video has solidified its place as one of the premier purveyors of the “imagined” synth soundtrack.

Library Studies stands out among the other PHV releases in that it’s shorter and the trance beats are mostly left off. In their place are incidental moments of music. It’s a quiter, moodier music dialogue that seems to pull strength from black quiet which surrounds the melodies. Something like “Breakthrough” has a bottomless feel to it. It sounds like we’re hearing sonar from 4 miles deep into the ocean. “A Guide To Opening and Closing Gates” has a Gothic quality to it. A mixture of church organ and wispy synth lines come together to offer the vibe of finding a portal to another universe inside a 14th century Transylvanian church. “Preperation For Field Trips” is an interesting one. You can almost envision someone packing a backpack full of trinkets and weapons as they head deep into some mystical forest. A minor key melody forms over simple percussion. It puts me in mind a bit of some of Steve Moore’s work on the Cub S/T, but on a far more personal level. “Cataloging Your Encounters” continues that percussive feel with a feeling that something is below trying to escape. Below what? The ground? A body of water? Some other dimension? Take your pick.

The track “Library Studies” has a different feeling altogether. I could almost hear it as music opening and closing a talk show on the occult. It’s catchy and has a certain swing to it. It feels like the beginning of something. This track should garner some attention. Maybe a movie deal. I don’t know. This one is good, guys.

Library Studies is a wonderful collection of off-kilter musical sketches. Even if you’re not familiar with Pentagram Home Video’s work prior to this you can still enjoy this collection on its own. If you dug The Satanic Path, then this one is a must to follow that up with. Precise, moody synth music with touches of drone and even some experimental leanings, all recorded to beautiful 4-track cassette. Yet one more grand display from Pentagram Home Video proving less can be more.

7. 9 out of 10

 

Grindhouse : Joel Grind’s ‘Equinox’

An equinox is when the day and night are of equal length, usually around March 20th and September 23rd. An equinox is also usually the start of spring or fall, or metaphorically the beginning of life or the end. I’m weird, so I like to look at it in terms of one’s life. I can remember being in high school and writing terrible poetry and going heavy on the metaphors. There was one in-particular that I wrote about how each season was a representation of one’s life span. Born in spring, living and growing through summer, aging through fall, and death comes in winter. Ridiculous crap to impress some girl or my creative writing teacher(it did neither.) But at 17 it was some profound shit, I tells ya.

I imagine musician/producer Joel Grind was more interested in the fall equinox, where everything starts dying. The days get colder, the nights start to become longer, and the glowing, orange-hued harvest moon makes its appearance. And I bet his favorite Peanuts cartoon is It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

When you see a picture of Joel Grind, with his bleach blonde hair and bandana tied around his head, he looks like an L.A. glam metal dude. It would be a mistake to assume anything about Grind. He’s not that at all. He’s a true metal dude with a love for horror and classic synthesizers. Grind is also a heavyweight producer, putting his handiwork on some of today’s best extreme metal albums. With each thing he does he seems into it 100%, whether it’s extreme metal, hardcore, or in the case of Equinox, gloomy synth music. It’s a great shot of retro horror and dystopian synth sounds.

Joel Grind? Who? What? When? For those not in the know, Joel Grind is a one man musical operation. His main gig is the speed/thrash outfit Toxic Holocaust. He records everything in the studio and then tours with a band. He’s one of these super talented guys that can do everything without anyone’s help. I mean, they say if you want something done right you should do it yourself. Grind takes that very literally. Besides the Toxic Holocaust stuff, he records under his own name. There’s The Yellowgoat Sessions that sounds a bit like the Toxic Holocaust stuff, with maybe more of a hardcore slant. Goat heads, pentagrams, and songs about masters of Hell and bloody vengeance. Then there’s his synth-heavy stuff. There’s the two song EP Fatal Error that has the hallmark of a doomed group of cosmonauts heading into a black hole or some dark star purgatory. Then you have his full-length Equinox. Equinox, Grind’s debut on the Mondo/Death Waltz Originals label celebrates all that is dark, gloomy, and sprinkled with dust, cobwebs, and bad juju. In other words, it’s a hell of a fun listen.

My affinity for retro 70s and 80s synth is no secret(you didn’t know? Stay after the meeting and we’ll talk.) Death Waltz and Mondo have taken a good portion of my money(and my childrens future fortune I imagine), but I’m not complaining. The trip these albums take me on are worth not having any sort of inheritance when I pass onto the great beyond. Joel Grind seems to appreciate all those old horror soundtracks created heavily by the synthesizer. A song like “Secret Oath” wouldn’t exist without A Nightmare On Elm Street and that film’s music composer Charles Bernstein. Then there’s “Psychic Driving”, a cross between John Carpenter and Ms. 45s composer Joe Delia. It’s sickly synth and sleaze disco groove make you feel like you need to take a shower. “Open Wounds” has a dystopian, post-apocalyptic vibe to it. It puts me in mind a bit of Finland’s Nightsatan, with even some touches of Depeche Mode. “Funeral Arcana” is a big nod to Carpenter and Fabio Frizzi. It has a bit of a metal vibe as well with the drums and driving bass.

Grind tips his hat to Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Fabio Frizzi, and Jean Michel Jarre as influences and inspirations for Equinox and you can definitely here their spirits haunting these tracks. But the cool thing is that Grind has been doing this for years and that experience and the style he’s developed permeates the album. There’s a harder edge to these tracks. You can definitely bliss out on something like “Seance”, as well as the ominous vibe of title track “Equinox”, but there’s always an existentially heavy vibe looming just around the corner.

We’ve just passed the spring equinox. Only six more months till the fall equinox. Until then, pass the time with Joel Grind’s Equinox.

 

 

Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk : Passage

The newest collaboration between Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk, titled simply Passage, is a heady mix of intellectual ambient andbiz-passage euphoric electronic. You get Schnauss’ synths layered with Munk’s liquid guitar lines, sometimes with drum programming and sometimes on their own. The result is a complex and engaging record that offers the best both musicians have to offer.

If you’re at all familiar with Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk, then you should know this isn’t just another in a long line of electronic records. Schnauss is an accomplished electronic musician and composer who’s been creating beautifully ornamented electronic albums for over 20 years. His 2001 album Far Away Trains Passing By is a classic in the genre. Since 2014 Schnauss has been an official member of the iconic Tangerine Dream. Jonas Munk is an accomplished musician/producer in his own right, making electronic records under the name Manual, as well as playing guitar for the Danish rockers Causa Sui. He’s also released two records under his own name, first Pan in 2012 and Absorb Fabric Cascade in 2014. Back in 2011 these two got together for the first time and released the ethereal Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk. Six years later they have made a sequel to that collaboration. Passage does not suffer from the “sophomore slump”. In fact, it surpasses its predecessor.

Schnauss and Munk know how to make a heady mix of ambient tones and daydream-y vibes. Tracks like “Amaris”, “Genau Wie Damais”, and “Anywhere But Here” cascade like technicolor falls on some distant world. The noise coming from the speakers is hypnotic but not hallucinogenic. It’s an all-natural high that bubbles and swells from a song like the mysterious “Intervention: Sol”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where Schnauss’ synth ends and Munk’s guitar begins. “MST” brightens up with an early 80s electronic vibe thanks to some boisterous drum programming. “Intervention: Mane” gives us plenty of woozy vibe that takes us from the dance floor to floating in space.

A great thing about this album is that these guys don’t rely on atmospheric swaths of noise alone to carry them. There are moments of blissed-out ambient, but there are also moments of almost dance floor vibes that make the album all the more engaging.

Side two’s “Ao Hinode” feels like some sort of spectral light shining down on us mere mortals, while “Spellbreaker” has an almost mid-80s Cure vibe. This track seems to morph into a million moods before we even get to the halfway point. It’s an elegant shock to the system. “Intervention: Stjerner” is a beautiful and bubbling ride of synths that seems to owe a bit of debt to Schnauss’ other gig Tangerine Dream. It’s hypnotic bliss. “Caffeine Blues” shows Munk in top form with some exquisite guitar, while Schnauss backs him up with some heady sounds. “Coastal Path” ends the album on a sun-soaked drift of cascading clouds and road trip-worthy vibes.

Passage shows two musical masters at the top of their game. Each are front and center, but never feel as if they’re vying for our attention. They come together, synth and guitar, to paint good vibes and heady, existential bliss. Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk serve only one master here, and that is the song. They follow the muse wherever she takes them. The musical mind melding of Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk, so far, is the best thing to hit my ears in 2017.

8.3 out of 10

 

The Puppet’s Dream

A few months back I sat on a gloomy Sunday afternoon, ate some tacos, and watched this little indie horror film called We Are Still Here. A good friend told me I should watch it, so I figured why not? It was Sunday, gloomy, and there were tacos to be eaten. Turns out the film was pretty damn good. A creepy ghost story that was surprisingly moving. A story about parents in the throes of grief and depression over the death of their adult son who move far away from their home to a quaint little town in the middle of nowhere to an old farmhouse they found incredibly cheap. Of course there was a reason it was cheap. I’ll spare you the details as you should really seek this one out and watch for yourself. What struck me about it was that it had nothing to do with teens or 20-somethings partying and doing things their parents wouldn’t be proud of getting slaughtered in the usual grotesque manner. It was written with some maturity in mind. There was build-up and nuance. It was subtle horror that ends up in a massive hallucinatory moment of violence and gore. The end sends a chill down your spine.

I’m telling you, watch the movie.

The score was done by a composer named Wojciech Golczewski. It was subtle and nuanced like the film. Not overbearing, it worked to build those moments of surprise, melancholy and dread. Golczewski has been doing movie scores for sometime now, and a couple months ago he released his debut solo album called Reality Check. Of course when Mondo announced they were releasing it I had to drop the money for it and grab it. It was a wise decision as it’s a stunning piece of sci fi-inspired music.

reality-checkThere’s not much I can say about the album that the album can’t say for itself, really. There’s all the great synthesizer work you come to expect from a futuristic sounding album that sort of plays out like mini themes for film scenes. Tracks like “The Puppets Dream”, “Sid Vortex”, and “Solitude” are dense pieces of synth-inspired electronic music that pull you in to their world. The album cover, complete with disintegrating astronaut floating in space, elicits the casually doomed vibe you get as you make your way through Reality Check. But never do you get the feeling that Golczewski is heavy-handed in his approach to composing. It’s not weird whizzing and buzzing for the sake of making futuristic noises or doomed drone. You can tell he’s worked in film for awhile as each piece has a purpose. “Find Me” is reminiscent of Le Matos’ work on the Turbo Kid S/T; there’s a vastness in the track that also has an undertone of, strangely enough, hope. To me it sounds like a modern take of Le Parc-era Tangerine Dream. A populist take on the heady sci-fi sounds of the 70s. “Being Human” carries the weight of the title. It feels like the robot attempting to understand the meaning of mortality…or something like that. There’s elements of so many great electronic composers here, yet Wojciech Golczewski puts them all through his own unique creativity and point of view that it becomes something wholly original. “Reality Check” is barely two minutes, but within it he creates this almost hallucinogenic feeling, as if you’re listening as a black hole is devouring you.

Here’s the description of Reality Check, courtesy of Golczewski’s Bandcamp page:

Reality Check is a concept album compiled of material composed and inspired by Wojciechs various work for the motion pictures. It can be described as a horror sci fi soundtrack with influences from his previous demoscene and chiptune heritage together with more recent synthwave and electronica.

But don’t just listen to my blubbering, you should head over and check the album out for yourself. It’s another stunning piece of synthesizer/electronic work from someone you’ll be hearing more of. At least from me for sure(working on an interview with Mr. Golczewski himself. Look for it in the next few weeks.) While you’re over at his Bandcamp page, you should check out “Tonight She Comes”. It’s a 7″ he did for another indie horror film. Two great synth pieces. Missed out on that 7″. It sold out pretty fast. But it’s alive and well in digital form. Check it!

So yet another incredible instrumental album I’ve picked up this year. If this sort of thing tickles your fancy pick it up. And if you haven’t yet seen it, watch We Are Still Here. Well worth your time, friends.

reality-check