Sound Off!: The Harlan Twins come down from the mountains

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MP3: The Harlan Twins – White Light from The Harlan Twins (2009)

Over the past two years, The Harlan Twins have gained a reputation among everyone from the hipster set to the aging folk-rock cognoscenti as the best band in Pittsburgh, resulting in scenes like the overflow, sell-out crowd at the unveiling of their self-released debut discharlans this past summer.

Covering ground from Allmans-esque jams to subdued high-lonesome folk and beyond, the band casts an eye to a century’s worth of Americana influences without letting it contain their creativity or enthusiasm. Be no more surprised to see a banjo or mandolin appear than to be immersed in swirling loops or pummeled by a bone-crushing deconstruction of an ’80s goth classic. James Hart lays down some of the finest guitar leads you’ll see anywhere while he and Carrie Battle trade off tailor-made Appalachian-tinged vocals. Their allegiances here won, it’s time for the Twins to get on the radar of roots-rock enthusiasts everywhere.

The Harlan Twins perform at Golden West Cafe in Baltimore on Fri December 4 and at Cafe Nola in Frederick on Sat December 5.

An Hour of Kindness: Episode 4 – Polygons

Interview: The Swimmers (w/ Steve Yutzy-Burkey)

Swimmers group shot

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  1. MP3: The Swimmers – Shelter
  2. MP3: The Swimmers – A Hundred Hearts

How does a band follow up a debut that received much love with NPR, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Magnet, and many others hailing the smart guitar-driven indie-rock sound they had created, when that same band found themselves disillusioned with the writing and recording process they had to endure to make that debut?

If you are Philadelphia’s The Swimmers, and you are following 2008′s Fighting Trees, you build a home studio, take control of the entire recording process, and rediscover who you are as musicians.  You release an explosive blast of modern new-wave-pop, that hearkens back to the best parts of New Order’s deep synth driven groove, yet at the same time borrows the deep noise explorations of Radiohead’s catalog, combining them with a sharp songwriting sense.

People Are Soft is a career defining point for the band.  Despite the success of Fighting Trees, the band has almost completely remade themselves by creating an album that, while a radical change from what came before, also exceeds the expectations that surrounded their stellar debut.

Singer/ guitarist and principle songwriter Steve Yutzy-Burkey recently took some time to talk with Aural States:

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Live Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band @ 1st Mariner Arena (2009.11.20)

4123131752_cf4d2400c3Three songs into Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s blazing set at 1st Mariner Arena, Baltimore, a city that had not had a tour stop from the band in over three decades, got its catharsis. It’s customary for the crowd to sing the first verse of “Hungry Heart” at a Bruce show, but it felt especially poignant to hear this crowd, which had been passed over for so many years, sing “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack [emphasis added].”

The next line, of course: “I went out for a ride, and I never went back.” Well, the long lost father finally returned on Friday night and offered up an incredible nearly-three-and-a-half-hour show as his penance. It was during “Hungry Heart” that Springsteen wandered out amongst his abandoned children and shook hands, took a big swig of a Miller Lite offered by a fan and belted out part of the song while walking on a partition about a third of the way into the packed crowd on the floor. He then triumphantly crowd surfed– yes, crowd surfed –back to the stage.

All was quickly forgiven.

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Preview: Marduk and Nachtmystium @ Sonar Club Stage (2009.11.23)


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MP3: Nachtmystium – Cold Tormentor (I’ve Become) from Nachtmystium (2003)

To me, “black metal” means a style of music pioneered by Norwegian bands like Darkthrone and Mayhem in the early 1990s. The (again, for me) defining elements of the genre are densely layered trebly guitars, often low-fidelity production, high screechy vocals, lyrics about darkness, despair, and evil (as opposed to dismemberment, gore and violence), and riffs that are more melodic than one finds in other extreme forms of metal like death metal. In recent years, American bands have produced some of the best music in this subgenre. Chicago’s Nachtmystium (opening for Marduk on Monday on the Club Stage at Sonar), are among my favorites of this new crop.

Marduk represents the more fast and brutal end of the black metal spectrum: no synthesizers, intense drumming, and overall a sound that is more aggressive and less ambient. They wear scary makeup and sing about evil. I have never seen them live, but they have a sound similar to 1349 who I saw play with Carcass last year; they stole the show from the other opening acts. Marduk is real black metal, a must-see especially if you missed Satyricon in September.


However, the main draw for me is Nachtmystium. Using the basic elements of black metal as a point of departure, bands like Krallice, Wolves in the Throne Room, Leviathan, and Nachtmystium, have each contributed something unique.  The result is not so much one new trend or direction but a set of cool possibilities, ranging from classic-rock-tinged black metal (Nachtmystium) to experimental noise black metal (Canada’s Wold), to ambient, new age-y black metal (Wolves in the Throne Room). All of these bands maintain the darkness and depth of the Norwegian sound, drawing on the bleakest musical style in the world and producing something new and vital.

Nachtmystium’s Assassins: Black Meddle, Pt. 1 uses more sounds from seventies rock and roll than their previous albums, but the basic skeleton is still black metal. My favorite (and one of my favorite black metal records ever) is still 2006’s Instinct: Decay. Listen to “Eternal Ground” from this album to get psyched up for Nachtmystium. Instinct and parts of Assassins both have an urgency and an energy that I think is very rare in the black metal that I have heard, and downright remarkable in any music that is this dark. I am not personally energized and sustained by darkness and despair (confronted and challenged maybe) in music, and those moods are somewhat intrinsic to this style. Nachtmystium’s mixture of the energizing elements with their dark and brutal side is a rare accomplishment.

Live Review: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones @ Strathmore (2009.11.18)

Béla Fleck of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones @ Strathmore

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MP3: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones – Sunset Road, Live at Vicar Street (Dublin) on Nov 4 2009 (Live Music Archive)

Let me be plain: you have never seen anything like Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

This latest string of US dates is sometimes billed as a reunion of the founding lineup (the first in 18 years), but that’s only technically true.  The Flecktones have toured extensively over the past two decades, but only now are rejoined by “the Tall, Thin Flecktone,” piano and harmonica player Howard Levy.

Individually, each member of the quartet (Béla Fleck, Victor Wooten, Roy “Future Man” Wooten, Harold Levy) is a world-class musician.  There are a very select few people in the world that can handle their respective instruments like these folks can. I’ve honestly never seen someone manhandle a bass like Vic Wooten, nor have I heard the wide range of tones from a harmonica that Harold Levy wrings out.   I’ve not born witness to someone as fleet and nimble on a stringed instrument as Béla Fleck, and I’ve certainly never seen someone other than Future Man play the one-of-a-kind synthaxe drumitar, let alone mix and match that with a drum kit for some otherworldly rhythms.

Watching Béla Fleck play is like an exercise in zen meditation, the perfectly calm Fleck shows no signs of hesitation as he effortlessly navigates a frenzy of picked notes, chopping seconds into ever more minute fractions.  It’s clear to any viewer that for Fleck, the technicality of his music is just a natural tongue.

Howard Levy is somewhat the unsung talent; prior to this show, I had vastly underappreciated his contributions.  But Levy’s precision and speed on the harmonica is inhuman (his piano playing is only above par), and his impassioned solos were lush and bracing.  The deep grooves, ferocious two-hand tapping, and sheer diversity of sounds emanating from Victor Wooten are nothing short of astounding.  Wooten is the most physical and showmanlike of the quartet, his final solo passage in “Sinister Minister” ending in an explosive show of acrobatics where his bass definitely caught some air.

Future Man of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones @ Strathmore

Future Man’s mad alchemy with percussion was at once catchy and dizzying.  Like some sort of beat-making octopus, he has an infinite range of sounds and textures available to him thanks to the combination of his drumitar (1 finger=1 drum) and traditional drum kit.  The words prodigy and virtuoso are used more than they should be; but these words were tailor-made to describe the incomparable talents of the Flecktones.

Some can be fairly dismissive whenever they hear these terms, tuning out and assuming they describe feats of technical wizardry, flashy musical pyrotechnics with little substance.  But in this instance, there is so much more than mechanical prowess at work.  The lyricism, the phrasing, the groove.  The sheer musicality of the Flecktones. All of the highest caliber, shaping their monstrous chops into jaw-droppingly finessed, and catchy songs.  At the root of their music is not mere instrumental fetishism.  Inside, there are true musical journeys and adventures.  The flurry of Wooten’s rapid-fire 128th note runs and mutes build palpable energy and tension.  Admittedly, these can be lost in their recordings, at times the extensive jazz-fusion feeling more coldly academic than musical.  But the Flecktones are truly compelling in the live setting, where they feel more electric, free to stretch their creative muscle.

Victor Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones @ Strathmore

They brazenly splice insanely complex musical motifs together, but always with their eye on forming lyrical units.  Like the greatest minds of jazz, they pass around a musical theme or story, evolving and contorting it with intense solos that leave their own stamp, all without disrupting the flow of the composition.  Set closing encore “Sunset Road” is a shining example of just how musical the Flecktones’ approach can be: the smoldering and soulful fan favorite, complete with Future Man’s vocals, was deeply affecting.  Their almost complete lack of pretension (amidst a flurry of solo passages) is another remarkable attribute, from the audience’s oohs, ahhs and snaps forming the foundation of “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” to their genuinely humble demeanor and lack of elaborate stage antics.  This is ultimately about four of the world’s most talented people sharing their musical vision.

After leaving a Flecktones show, it really hits home just how singular their music is.  Aside from a stable of heady and abrasive, leftfield noise artists, I am hard-pressed to think of a group that so readily throws any sort of genre distinction or “traditional” notions about music out the door.  It’s all one glorious mish-mash playground for them.  Nothing is safe, from sendups of pop culture riffs (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) to jazz standards (“A Night In Tunisia”).  Anything that falls into the Flecktones orbit instantly becomes part of their distinct aesthetic, a forward-looking yet familiar melange that rearranges the various motifs of jazz, bluegrass, rock, blues, fusion, jam, funk and anything else they want into something unquestionably Flecktones.

Sign On! – Human Conduct Records, Part 1 – Detox, Form A Log, and Occasional Detroit/Gay Bomb

It’s pretty difficult to bottle together Human Conduct Records as a uniform whole. Portions of their output could pass as material from your average Joe’s favorite freak folk label, whereas the opposite is true for their less accessible releases. An understandable slight of ambivalence may sour your first impression of HCR–and that’s certainly not abnormal in this case. Uncertainty to the nature of the noise going through your headphones can, after all, be a bit daunting. The fact is: that’s precisely the sort of thing you have to expect when you’re talking about a group of people who aren’t afraid to embrace the atonal and arrhythmic in pursuit of artistic expression. I mean, they do call some music “abrasive” for a reason.

detox front

Human Conduct was founded in Baltimore during the late 90s by Ari (Ari and the Shanks) & Abe Schenck along with Rick Weaver (The New Flesh), who appears on a number of their releases. Since then, HCR has garnered quite the reputation in many anti-traditionalist circles. Coming straight out of their website, they apparently specialize in “lo-fi, hi-fi, and mid-brow” jams, mostly local but not always. That being said, I now welcome you to the world of Human Conduct Records. I’ll be going through their most recent releases by the way of our own Zack Turowski, sans alcohol. I hope to present a meaty survey of Human Conduct’s most current catalog–whilst attempting to circumvent my beloved rants about the theory (or potential lack thereof) behind experimental music.  Later segments will be focused on individual artists.

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Album Reviews: Jody Redhage & Fire in July – Ancient Star | Nadia Sirota – First Things First (New Amsterdam)


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  1. MP3: Jody Redhage & Fire in July – This November
  2. MP3: Jody Redhage & Fire in July – The Botticellian Trees

Ancient Star is the debut album for cellist, composer and vocalist Jody Redhage and her chock full of brass and percussion ensemble: Fire in July. If you’d like to try before you buy, Fire in July plays An Die Musik on Thursday, November 19 at 8pm (more info and tickets). In the meantime, here’s my take on this jazz-fueled riot of mod poet motets:

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Live Audio / Photos: Imperial China @ the Hexagon (2009.11.13)

Flickrshow will appear here!

Imperial China
Baltimore, MD
Nov 13 2009

Brian Porter
Matt Johnson
Patrick Gough

Lineage: Stereo AKG 414s + mono soundboard output -> Zoom H4n -> Cubase (mix + limiting) -> MP3/FLAC
Taper: David Carter (carteriffic@gmail.com)

Download the full set formatted as: MP3 or FLAC

Stream and download individual tracks below.  Another fantastic Imperial China set, sporting a load of tracks off their upcoming 2010 full-length debut (Phosphenes) on Sockets / Ruffian Records.  I can already tell you, it is a winner. Many kudos to relatively new-on-the-scene taper David Carter for catching such an awesome one.

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  1. MP3: Untitled
  2. MP3: Radhus
  3. MP3: Rookie Cop / Mortal Wombat
  4. MP3: Bananamite
  5. MP3: A Modern Life
  6. MP3: All That Is Solid
  7. MP3: Letter of a General

Photos / Live Review: The Cranberries @ Rams Head Live (2009.11.12)

What a pleasure it was to be able to see Dolores O’Riordan and The Cranberries perform for the first time in six years at Rams Head Live!  I was shocked to see that they were reuniting for a tour, and even more shocked to see that they were starting their tour in Baltimore!  The band played a 17 song set, ending with a 4 song encore that closed the show with classic single, “Dreams.”  Their performance and sound were both amazing; Dolores herself even commented that they had only rehearsed for a week prior to starting the tour.  Throughout the set, Delores interacted with several grateful fans, even accepting a few bouquets of flowers.  The evening was perfect!  Enjoy the photos!

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