Writing by Neil Kulkarni

Thursday, 28 July 2016

CATS OF TRANSNISTRIA - 'DIVINE' LP & 'AWAY' EP REVIEWS


Derivativeness is a pejorative in most music critique, music where you can clearly hear the sources must clearly not be 'challenging' and must be confronted for it. I think that's utter bullshit. I don't care if what I'm hearing is totally new in those terms - the newness of music comes from the people involved and how they put together what's fed them up to the point of their own decision to express themselves. All music is derivative - it's whether people are able to surpass their sources and implant themselves in the mix. So though I hear all kinds of familiar pleasures in Cats Of Transnistria's music, the haunted vocal plangency of Tarnation, the blitzed-and-blissful feedback of MBV and Windy & Carl, the spectral suggestiveness and radiance of Young Marble Giants, the bleak doom of Nico, it doesn't matter in terms of my enjoyment - this self-nailed 'slow and deep duo from Helsinki' have created two records in the past two years that I absolutely love and that express their own beautifully melodic, abstract sensibilities.



Last year's Away EP was the first transmission I heard from them. Couldn't quite believe I was falling in love with ANOTHER Finnish band on Soliti Records with 'Cats' in their name (you should know by now how much I love Cats On Fire) but the music was utterly spellbinding. You know I have problems with guitar music that's not metal. I kind of want anything that isn't utterly monstrously heavy and doom-laden to have an interesting urge behind it, to have something in its attitude and desires that saves it from indie-rock's typical bumptious pushiness, a feel that justifies it. COT seem to want to disappear, wink out of existence with a beautiful Cheshire half-smile. The songs on Away make such a trick real, imprint themselves on your consciousness and memory thanks to the gorgeous arrangements, writing and melodies, but still seem to leave barely a footprint that you can trace, fill every possible pressure-point with snowflakes and mist. Its music that swims in, engulfs you, then departs and leaves you puckered to recover the spell that's just been enacted on you - music so gaseous, so evanescent your hands can't reach it, can only be flailing and dispersing the magic until your fingers find the rewind button. 'Violet' picks out a beautifully unsettling melody over harmonium and building, dazzling feedback a la Desertshore-era Nico, the lyrics hinting at a dissatisfaction that pulls at the cells, that tumbles you over until your whole life becomes a long dream of not being in your body, not being in the space and place you take up, music clearly massively in need of oblivion or escape, but also massively unable to enact those dreams for its protaganists. It's also raw, a little imperfect, brilliantly so - on 'San Fransisco' the fuzz and surge gets as fast as the duo get which isn't very but seems to have been recorded with no overdubs bar the vocals (with two of them, obviously there are overdubs but miraculously it all sounds simultaneous, like the room they were in and the instruments started humming along) - the vocals coming through like the Shangri Las are in the booth and Shadow Morton's on a long dark night of the soul. 'Good Night' really nails for me that Tarnation memory, the vocals perfectly pitched in a deep blue well, the guitars skyhooking themselves up and over a cliff before 'The Departure' sees things out with the first sign of drums on the whole record, the wurlitzer dead dead reminiscent of YMG/Pram, the fuzziness of the whole thing like the purple patches in your vision on a hungover morning, the vocals again twinned with a proximal impossibility of disentanglement. S'a Nordic thing I reckon, that close-voiced avoidance of traditional harmonising to create something altogether ghostlier and spookier and more ravishing. Less a high-five closer than a hand from the grave, luring you under to the bliss of being buried. Away is a stunning record.



Hyped by my addiction to Away (I kept sipping at it, like a cuppa-morphine) was delighted to find the Cats' bringing out a full-length LP this year. Initially, because by now I was familiar with the duo's sound, Divine was less of a surprise, almost less of a delight, but the longer I've lived with it the more I've realised what a necessary development it is from Away and how it will sustain and engross me until the next transmission. It's a wider, deeper record - with more space in it, a record that involves the listener even more, your mind filling in the gaps left, populating the spaces in the lines with your own imagery, your own falling clouds and rolling reverse waves. 'Let It Happen This Way' is surely a shoreline moment, a stroll into the depths, a farewell to the world, a summoning of the end but one still tinged with fear. An indescribable song. 'Feel The Divine' is almost structurally conventional, a verse, and a chorus, but the verse's hopeful cadence is so comprehensively extinguished by the bleak words and the chorus' agonised spiral into sheer noise you're again minded to see the whole song as a deeply felt love-letter to death. 'Seperation' and 'Trust' are sparse, the vocals again dreamlike and hallucinatory,  music whose reverb and echo is as important as its first touch, a first touch that never feels macho or forceful, only obscured, indeterminate. Like most Cats Of Transnistria songs it leaves you adrift, floating off to regions Antarctic, trying to magic itself off the edge of the world. The ten-minute 'Displacement' recalls Labradford, or Come's most spectral moments without the band-surge ever coming, and here the ocean can actually be heard to the point where even listening feels almost dangerous, like you're too far from the beach and the big drop-off is about to pull you down. The closer 'Thunder Comes' is perhaps Cats Of Transnistria's most gorgeously hung-together moment, the vicious feedback licks flaming through the pulse, finding them and you perhaps truly over on the other side of life, perhaps finally rewound/fast-forwarded into the freedom of total disappearance. Beautiful music for the doomed. That means all of you. Seek and get lost.

HAVOC & ALCHEMIST - 'THE SILENT PARTNER' ALBUM REVIEW

10:08 Posted by neil kulkarni , , , , , 3 comments

Like Curren$y (who of course he worked on with this year's superb 'Carrolton Heist' mixtape) I love the fact that Alchemist is so BUSY these days. By far the best project he's dropped since last year's astonishing 'Israeli Salad' is this set with Mobb Deep legend Havoc. Where 'Israeli Salad' benefitted from its outrageous psychedelic luridness, this is a way more minimal set of beats and loops, conscious that Havoc's voice and rhymes deserve close non-distracted attention and thus hitting on a kind of minimal almost-drone-like hypnosis that's utterly compelling.

Opener 'Impose My Mode' actually nails it lyrically when Hav says 'stealth mode' - this isn't flamboyant music, it's private, isolated, dark, riding shotgun and worrying the driver, simmering with tension, twitching with imminent menace. As ever with Havoc the flow is both stop-start and fluid, having a continuity thanks to persona and atmosphere but slipping jarring phraseology in just as you get comfortable - the way the track ends in a pile up of reverse sampladelic madness is indicative of how when he's liberated from having to dazzle with his productions (as he feels he has to on his solo records) Alchemist has been able to create tracks that exert supreme control over their excesses. Cumulatively the album builds like nothing else he's made. 'Maintain (Fuck How You Feel)' a gorgeous summery splash of soul-funk that again winds up on a gloriously dubbed out welter of Carnegie-sized jazz-freakiness. 'Out The Frame' is as close as we get to something hook-laden, a twinkly high-keyed riff allowed to pirhouette under Hav's diamond-tight, brilliantly nonchalent rhymes, some Bert'n'Ernie cut-ups (big KMD flashbacks!) and that's yr lot. Again the ending is utterly mindblowing - a pulsing drone vortex around which flickers of vocals bend and refract like Amon Duul. This drone then feeds into the stunning 'Seize Power', Hav spitting syncopated as Camp Lo over this deeply crepuscular low-slung doom-stank funk "Speak my mind, never bite my tongue, that shit for cowards/Any time a nigga get the chance, I'm seizing power". Hav's not really moved anywhere as a lyricist, just got older, just got a little less agitated and a little more stoned and paranoid, still has that capacity for sudden violence - Alch meets him swing for swing on the great arrhythmic freakfest of 'Never Trust A Soul' and the simply staggering 'The Gun Holds A Drum' where old partner Prodigy tag-teams over smeared neon electro-funk worthy of 'Infamous' or 'Hell On Earth' (not in terms of sound but in terms of feel - fucking hell this is a dark and grimy masterpiece). The verses are split by a riot of gunfire and bedlam akin to Public Enemy's most noisy, beatfree collages. Halfway in and you know you're in the presence of a startlingly unfriendly, utterly addictive, uncompromising and brilliant album. From at least one source you didn't expect that from in 2016.


'Smooth Ride Music' lets the beat abscond entirely, like an assassin screwing on a silencer, just a lethal bassline, a keyboard leant on like Miles in coked-repose, little details popping off in the peripheries, divine little scratches and loops, an utterly unique stake-out sense of drift and doom. 'Buck 50s & Bullet Wounds' laces a simply heartbreaking piano loop under solid subtle beats and vocals and even if you're not meant to think about 'Survival Of The Fittest' you do, because it's Hav, but you realise how what you dug about him you can still dig about him but you can also dig the increased depth to his flow and feel, the way he's now able to step out of the street and to a birds-eye-view, a more despairing perspective than he's even managed before (and Mobb Deep made some pretty fucking despairing music). The Method Man cameo actually detracts but more of that dubbed-out noise sends us into the wonderfully atonal 'Just Being Me', as cold and hopeless as prime Kool G Rap - I think Alch has seen 'Silent Partner' as his golden chance to pay total homage to the grittiest and greatest 90s NYC rap, and I hear so many echoes of Show & AG, Real Live, Kool G etc it can't be an accident. Crucially though, Alch pushes it beyond just homage, hits upon a vibe and sound that could only really be created now, a mix between dub/avant-garde sonics and hip hop that's totally his own and that Havoc sits in with glorious ease and natural poise. Closers 'Throw In The Towel' and 'Hear Me Now' wind Havoc home in the frosty dawn with Cormega taking the wheel, both veteran voices nigh-on choked with regret and memory but clearly unafraid of apprehending how doomed and damned and justified they both are, Alch letting everything become a bewitching rumble of grey city drift and diffuseness. 37 of the most irresistable minutes hip hop will give you in 2016. Don't let the hip hop media's meh-ness about this album blind you to it. On the quiet, a stone-cold ice-hot masterpiece.

Monday, 25 July 2016

S***TIEST MOST REPELLENT AND DEPRESSING MUSIC VIDEO OF THE WEEK : SOME C*** CALLED YOUNGR PLAYING TO OTHER C***S AT SOME F***ING HELLISH MORNING RAVE TYPE S***FEST

11:01 Posted by neil kulkarni 2 comments

Of course, goes without saying that I would dearly love everyone and everything in this video to be consumed by a ball of fire and that this is not a 'true definition of an artist' (as stated on the horrific FB EDM rave page I stumbled across this on) but a true definition of a wanker. However, it does identify something I've noticed among younger musicians, and some dipshitted older ones - this idea that your 'quality' as a musician resides in 'how much' you can do. How many notes you can play quickly, how many notes you can force into the singing of one syllable, how many instruments you can play like you're Roy fucking Castle. This is why bands are lauded for 'playing the hell out of their instruments'. This is the way music ends up getting 'judged' when there is no critique, only cheerleading. And we end up with music with no space, no suggestiveness, only a endless shrill desire to 'impress'. A far way to come perhaps from a video of thousands of tasteless wankers in a tent but here we are.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

COMMODO - "HOW WHAT TIME" ALBUM REVIEW

11:55 Posted by neil kulkarni , , , , , 2 comments

After its nephews, the cousins d'n'b, grime, dubstep faded in the 00s inevitable that hip hop would reassert itself as BASS-music's most powerful drunkuncle-like force, coincidental with hip-hop's ongoing journey in from the coasts and back to the party, back from the real and imagined frontlines to the trap called home, the home called Trap. The best dubstep is touched by hip hop for me, hits some of the exact same pleasure centres - and in recent lean years it's mainly meant stuff on Deep Medi, Mala and Commodo in particular. Last year's double 12" LP from Commodo, Gantz & Kahn "Volume 1" was one of the year's highlights - a deeply cinematic bass-heavy soundtrack to a late night neon-smeared drive round the ringroad, as concrete and brute as it was diffuse and suggestive. One of the most useful and USED records in my 2015 life of endless transit. Have been gagging for this, his debut full-length LP and it's been worth it. Even beyond the modern link with the kind of textures that the likes of Metro Boomin' and Future toy with, Commodo seems to reach further back - I hear RZA and Timba and even Mantronix in his productions. His productions on 'How What Time' are as follows.


'Hej' - a good boy howdy, lets you know the kind of mayhem to expect and the kind of frequencies your body should get acquainted with. [Sampled voice: 'if you call that music? I'm a-tell you what it reminds me of. It sounds like those PEOPLE who SMOKE THAT PIPE . . . I DON'T THINK THAT'S FUNNY, THEY'RE HOPPED UP WHEN THEY'RE PLAYING . . . YOU'RE NOT']. Ruptures, heavy heavy kick, wickedly ungainly breaks and fills, lysergic iridescent sea-kelp tendrils dragging you under. Look, it's an instrumental LP in the main, these are the things I see.

'Pea Souper' - y'know how a while back d'n'b seemed to be taken over by a load of EDM fuckers who didn't understand the BASS part of d'n'b? Same thing has been a problem with much dubstep for me, made by people too young or too white or too dumb to secure the low-end properly before faffing about with all the other peripherals. Commodo never makes this mistake, always makes his bottom-end OOZE menace so the hooks and licks snag you even deeper.  Pump it, fuck your floorboards and your neighbours UP.

'Itchin' - ` straight-up D.I.T.C/PeteRock/DiamondD style frabjousness to the beat here but the bass is dubbier than even they could manage. Great vox from Trim and hats off to Comm for getting only two guest MCs in on the album and ensuring both of them aren't heard anywhere else. It's the weird drone that sits amid the track, the way it warps around the words and kick, that makes it more than just another 'guest' track. Superb.

'Hadi Hadi Ha' - very much picking up where last year's tracks like 'Bitchcraft' and 'Kibosh' left off, heavy manners on the bass, a real Arabic vibe to the percussion and vocals, straight-up Drill/Trap-style synth stabs. Fearsome.

'My Liege' - another thing you notice, some of this shit sounds fucking MEDIEVAL. Harpsichords will do that of course, but this isn't just lazy little shards of chords, Commodo plays some wonderfully bleak plainsong-style pre-Rennaissance motifs on much of the album. This has such a great ending as well.

'Russian Glass' - sometimes he just leaves earth entirely, or rather returns to something ancient and English and dissident which might as well be another world now. I hear Robert Wyatt, Ultramarine, Brotherhood, the bleakest bits of the Bosworth archive but mainly I hear a heroic, visionary gloom.


"Floods" - all the titles up until now have made sense. Have no idea why this is called 'Floods' but then hear the weird aquatic sonar-sounds and realise, somehow he's managed to take that sound when your ears fill up with water and apply it to a rippling hip hop instrumental in an entirely disorientating and unsettling way. Fab.

"How Dare You" - would love to hear someone utterly fucking stupid spitting bars on this utterly thuggish banger. A rapper called Yung something or Travis something should do it.

'Sleepwave' - by now you realise that no matter what tech Commodo uses to make his music, the results sound almost non-digital, non-Cubasey/Logicy, like they were punched together using an SP-1200. Dead effective use of samples utterly unlike anyone else I can think of at the moment. In a world of CGI special-fx yawnfest electronic musicians he's like Ray Harryhausen.

'HWT' - if you had to ethnically place Commodo just from listening to his music you'd think he was part Tunisian, part Morrocan, part Asian, part Jamaican. In other words all-British, or rather the Britain that 52% of us don't want anymore. THIS is the sound of the neighbourhoods in England I know of. This is me and mine and you and yours writ in sound.

'Set It Straight' - another rap track, this time with verbals from Rocks FOE, snarly, necksnapping, surging, intense.

'Kofte Cloud' - burned the album to a CD in backwards order so this always comes up first which I'm dead pleased about cos fuck me the bass, the creepy insect loops - for me it recalls the brilliant recent work of Telemachus aka Chemo, and the same kind of Paul-Bowles-esque stealth and derangement of Jehst's 'Sheltering Sky'. If you don't understand what this high-praise refers to seek it all out.

Throughout, 'How What Time' is so good your kids will tell you to turn that racket down and neighbours three-doors-down will be feeling strange ructions in their innards and in your car your rear-view mirror will judder like a motherfucker. Like I say, Commodo makes incredibly USEFUL music. Get all you can.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

HOREHOUND "S/T" + MESSA "BELFRY" - WHY FEMALE-FRONTED DOOM IS BOSSING MY 2016

15:49 Posted by neil kulkarni , , , , , , , , 2 comments
If there was one doom-metal/sludge release from last year that was really addictive for me it was Windhand's amazing 'Grief's Infernal Flower' set. If it slipped on by you, acquaint yourself. Riffs big and baleful as hell and beautiful beautiful songs sung by Dorthia Cottrell in a voice part Sandy Denny, part Linda Thompson, part nobody else. It's a wonderful record, but it made me think alot about why I loved it so.




See, I've always tried to write in a gender-neutral way about music but the female-fronted nature of Windhand DID make a difference. Although there was plenty of heavy male-fronted stuff last year that floated my boat, I kept returning to 'Grief's Infernal Flower', getting heady off its pungency and funereal fragrance, couldn't damn-well leave Windhand alone and couldn't help concluding that the presence of Dorthia had a big impact behind that. Her vocals weren't just perhaps the best singing on any doom-rock release of 2015, they lent this kind of music a new suggestiveness and confidence, a new depth and a new way to rock without always coming across like weed-encrusted macho retweaks of past manly self-obliteration. Much as copping a few shit sleeve-tatts and a beard you could lose a badger in is the way that today's young men earn themselves a fake gnarly gravitas, so much of the heavier end of metal in 2015 seemed able to flick the right switches on the right equipment, hit the right thresholds, but come off as curiously bereft of purpose beyond facsimile and simulation. That's down to vocalists. Commitment in metal singing derives from finding your own style - where bands in metal benefit from being able to distill the past to new levels of purity and heaviness, vocalists need to find something from themselves that's unique, that separates their voices from being a mere agglomeration of cliche (cliches are crucial of course, but anything made purely of cliches is coldly uninvolving and there was plenty of that kind of music in doom last year), voices that make you listen to the words properly because they sound like they believe in them. Windhand, with Dorthia's supremely measured, shatteringly evocative vocals resonating within and over the band's gloriously bruising bleakness, seemed to operate at a level beyond doom's usual self-piteous holding patterns. 


Dorthia Cottrell, frontwoman of Richmond VA's  stunning Windhand. 

Great songs helped of course, careful arrangement and playing too - but I'm convinced that for me at least, something about the female voice reinvigorates doom, gives it a fresh impetus, lends it an airborne grace but also pulls it into the magik earth too. Dorthia, whose voice could also be heard in 2015 on her stunning solo debut seemed to be, as any frontperson would be, the fulcrum and focus of what makes the band so special - crucially though, beyond sonics, her presence in the songs, the grave promontory her voice put her on in relation to the music, gave Windhand a sense of purpose and point that eluded so much other doom rock from 2015. This is no fluke for me. I'm finding a similar sense of joy and drive in the music of two other female-fronted doom acts in 2016, Horehound from Pittsburgh and Messa from Italy. In all three cases on one level the gender of the vocalists wouldn't matter for shit- the basics have to be secured, and if they weren't, all three bands would be just another half-decent bandcamp obscurity.  But doom and stoner rock, like hip hop and grime,  have an accumulative life - can build up and bore you after a while if the initial ideas aren't problematised and made new by the people involved. I have never written about any musician differently because of their gender and I ain't about to start now. I'm supremely aware of the danger, that as a male, hearing a female voice singing on doom-rock I positively-discriminate for sheer rarity, or start attaching all kinds of stereotypical gendered 'qualities' to the music that perhaps aren't there. But in all three of these bands I want to point out that the vocalists, for this jaded auld fecker at least, utterly recast and renenergise my need to hear more of this music, all three twist and bend a formula until it breaks into new and thrilling spaces. Horehound & Messa have already made two of my favourite albums of 2016. 



Horehound's stunning self-titled debut does everything a great rock record should do. One, it absolutely fucking rocks. This band have clearly got their shit together in close rehearsal in the short time they've been around (they came together via Craigslist ads in 2015) and have figured out not just how to sound, but how to arrange and sculpt that sound. For a bandcamp release it's stunningly recorded, tactile, heavy, clear. Where much doom has a problem not in establishing a feel but in maintaining a feel, Horehound keep things fascinating throughout their 7 track debut and know when to stop shocking us and start hypnotising us. Opener 'World To Come' ("This has become the world we've won/With no chance and no change"sets out stalls - a gratifyingly filthy guitar sound, a fucking awesome grind and thump to the rhythm section and Shy Kennedy's vocals and lyrics instantly (d/r)efusing predictability. You WANT predictability in heavy music, in all music, you want it to do the things you want it to do when you want it to do em. But if that's all you get, you get tired quick - Horehound are wonderful because their songs absolutely deliver those moments where you pin your head roughly half-a-foot from the floor and groove the fuck out but every song has quirks and tangents that reflect a deeper wider set of musical influences than just doom or sludge, that lifts the album into areas of angular oddity more akin to the best of all kinds of underground music (I'm reminded of Godflesh, Chavez, Nymphs, Babes In Toyland and Kylesa and a ton of others). 





Lyrically as well, every song Horehound have made avoids the cliched fucked-up haziness of stoner/doom lyrics for a more ambiguous, unsettling and utterly compelling sense of ghostly disconnection with reality - a disconnection that actually starts revealing exactly how wired to life, and aware of its complexities Kennedy is as a lyricist. Three minutes into 'World To Come' and the drums abscond a moment, kick back in on a new riff and the whole band lift off and Shy lets her vocal become a muezzin-like high level drone and you realise nigh-on no other doom record of the year has had a moment in in where you haven't known exactly what's going to happen next. The drums drop back in with a rolling brilliance that's pure Bill Ward and the song ends with a Babes In Toyland style grind-out but two-thousand times as heavy as that brilliant band ever got on record. 'Sangreal' ("Soaring as high as the ceilings allow/ Floating free with mischief, loud")  pivots and pummels its way into a high-velocity slam of occult heaviness, 'Crowns & Thorns' tickles your pleasure centres like prime Electric Wizard but feels unshackled from the kind of size-obsession EW have, no need to plug into a planet-sized Hawkwind-style wall of racket when the riffs are so fucking hot and Shy's vocal is such a deeply reverbed thing of wonder. 


Horehound, pic by Paul Werkmeister 
Highlight of the whole album for me is the epic 'The Dead Don't Lie' which really reveals why the vocals are so key - they're vocals unafraid of themselves, vocals that don't try and hide themselves in murkage and grogginess. Shy's sense of end-of-tether desolation seeps out of every line , little psyche notes and codas, an almost-Eastern sense of singularity and resolution slipped into all the right turnarounds. When she steps off and the band clamp down for a stunning bout of accelerating carnage at the end it gains that extra power from the sense you've made of what words you can make out "what are these words crawling in my mouth/ glued to my tongue wanting to come out/an unfelt passion in me/an unke(m)pt dream it will stay/A touch of bliss, an unsensed"), the feel that all you hear is holistically borne at the same moment. 





'Waters Of Lethe' slips some monstro-cubist riffage your way, hints that as we move further through 'Horehound' things will get more and more unique, before 'Myope' applies epistemology to the self and then to politics over an utterly thrilling, beautifully ugly rolling riff that veers into a lunging pit of despair. Closer 'Waking Time' posits waking up from the fug of modernity only to disappear, end the pain, warns that stepping out of the dungeons we make ourselves might end up plunging us into a nightmare in which we run from our pursuers until we're caught. It's creepy as fuck.  So refreshing to hear doom where the lyrics MATTER. I want Horehound to create something full-length that picks up where this debut leaves off, I want to hear an album-length transmission that refines their songwriting while retaining their rawness because fuck me they're onto something special here. Seek it out and pray they'll make their way to Europe some time soon cos live, you sense, they're gonna be fucking awesome.