Browsing Category New Albums

Pete Astor

Without a doubt, I was enamored with Pete Ator’s last solo record. Naturally there were high hopes for an artist whose roots lie deep in the Creation Records back catalog, marking time with both The Loft and The Weather Prophets, but his solo work finds grace in letting jangle pop age without feeling like it slips into stuffy adulthood. Astor’s an ace songwriter, but some of the secret to the youthful glint in the eye of his productions on Spilt Milk lie with the involvement of perennial RSTB favorite James Hoare (Ultimate Painting, Veronica Falls). Hoare’s production and arrangement fingerprints are all over both the previous album and One For The Ghost. Again Astor finds a winsome ease with an album that leans into ennui (though a bit less so than his last) and blends bittersweet odes with driving jangles and memorable hooks.

If the last record had Hoare as secret weapon, this one pulls a few more into Astor’s corner, adding Franic Rozycki and Jonny Helm from UK gems The Wave Pictures and Pam Berry of indie legends Black Tambourine. The resulting album works its way through wry wit and genuine moments of transcendence. Astor’s quietly building a latter day catalog of pop treasures that start with the germ of jangle-pop but explode the genre into threads of psych, blues and folk that all seem like natural extensions of Astor’s soft-padded approach.

Despite a pretty solid critical reception to the last record, I always feel like there should have been more fanfare about such a venerable artist returning to bridge the divide with some great upstarts. Two records in such short succession proves it’s no fluke or creative flash. Anyone who had Spilt Milk in their headphones throughout 2016 would do well to return for another dose.

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The first time I’d heard Ben Montero was on the epic 2012 compilation of Australian psych bands covering Nuggets-era classics. That comp held plenty of now solidified-status rockers (King Gizz, The Living Eyes, Pond) doing their best to tear up some of the most ragged bits of the famous ’60s compilation. Montero erred in the other direction however, taking on Sagittarius’ lush psych-pop number “My World Fell Down,” embracing that track’s baroque beauty but giving it some edge as well. That dedication to the softer side of psych persists on his debut for Chapter Music, a study in swoons and swells that’s dripping with glycerine dreams of psych-pop in the grand tradition of latter day Lips, Tame Impala and Mercury Rev.

The album is produced by Jay Watson (Tame Impala, Pond) and as such it reaches for the heights of those larger acts while retaining a bit of the austerity that befits his indie label status. For the most part Montero’s indulgence in the pillowed psych of ELO and Todd Rundgren works in his favor, but sometimes he aims too heavy for the pop crossover that’s favored acts like Tame Impala. While Impala’s been able to swing wide from indulging too heavily in the repetitive or cloying aspects of radio-ready pop while still courting a wide audience, there are moments on Performer that cross the line. There’s a relaxed plush quality to singles like “Caught Up In My Own World” and “Running Race,” but the refrain on the album’s title track gets to be a bit grating the more I hear it and sticks out like a sore thumb on an album that’s going for grace over hits.

That misstep aside, this positions Montero for a bigger future given his trajectory. Aussie’s have a pretty decent lock on a brand of big britches psych pop these days, with the exception of perhaps Temples and Hookworms, and Montero makes a good bid to put his name aside some of those larger acts as a contemporary.

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Hockey Dad

The second volley from Windang, Aus’ Hockey Dad sends a vat of growth hormone raining down on the band’s sound. Not that Boronia could be accused of sounding scrappy, but everything that made that record tick is blown up to towering, shiny proportions on Blend Inn. The band is often lumped into a “Surf Rock” sound, which might have to do with their coastal town fostering a surf scene and some early videos featured the band members indulging in the waves. However, they are much more accurately embracing the axis of punk and grunge that pushed through the ‘90s, putting some meat on the bones of punk’s pogo riffs and embracing the allure of a bigger pulpit from which to hawk the resulting crunch pop. In the end, they’re about as surf as Weezer, I suppose, in that they’ve embraced some of the iconography, but not so much the ska-skiffle bounce when it comes to the fretwork.

At heart, the band is echoing traces of the mid ‘90s Fort Apache sound filtered through two or three generations of slacker pop buffer. They take some time to wind down the pace for some heartfelt swoons under the Aussie moon, finding themselves balancing the album’s sunburn grind with the requisite beer cooldown every so often, but they tend to shine brightest when the volume swells. The bigger sound feels good on them, bolstered by production from John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Death Cab), and it fits with their rise from garage-punk upstarts into a more in-demand act over the last eighteen months. Ever impressive is the band’s ability to squeeze a quartet’s worth of punch out of just two players. Their sound is never wanting, but lean, with a touch of bite.

I’d had hope with the band’s first album and they’ve lived up to any expectations placed on them for their sophomore album. Still scrappy at heart, but with a thicker sonic stew brewing here, they’re definitely working out to be contenders.

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Gary War

The past few years have been illuminating in terms of seeing how some of the lo-fi set have grown up and out of the nest that sprung them. With Ariel Pink embracing the warmth of ‘60s sunshine and The Soft Moon going full Nine Inch Nails lately, there’s a lot to be said for taking the seed of sound and blowing it up bigger than before. So, with that in mind its interesting to see former Pink collaborator Gary War back after five years with his first new LP in the post-hypnogogic comedown. War (nee Greg Dalton) doesn’t entirely emerge from the shadows he’s lurked in, but he does give the sound a good fleshing out with a crack backing band that features members of Sunburned, Pigeons and Bobb Trimble’s melted psych circus.

War has also played with Trimble over the years and he seems to have taken a page from Bobb’s tendency to dig his heels into psychedelia’s weird end while still giving it a bit of instrumental sparkle. Same goes for underground legend R. Stevie Moore, and there’s quite a bit of this record that brings to mind his classic Glad Music. Like that bit of warped wax, Gaz Forth is full of shaded psych-pop that’s whizzing by in dazzling double doppler-effect, dropping snippets of the ‘60s that seem just out of reach – was that some Tull-era flute or maybe it’s Moody Blues, some ELP organ ramp-up – we’re never quite sure.

What is for certain is that this is Dalton at his best and it’s probably the most realized version of what Gary War sounded like in his head all those years. Coming out just a bit from the cloud of hiss that’s permeated the project brings out a glittering array of colors in his work – right before the band takes a hot iron and smudges them at the edges, that is. On Gaz Forth Gary War is spreading the smudge to the widescreen though and it’s never sounded more alive.

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Bat Fangs

Pulling roots in Ex Hex and Flesh World, the members of Bat Fangs already boast a pretty enviable resume, but they make their new collab just as swoon-worthy and cement their status as indie pummelers on par with their other groups over the course of their eponymous LP’s tight twenty-five minutes. The duo of Betsy Wright and Laura King pull from an era of rock that’s built on towering riffs and just as often, towering hair. They inject every second of their debut LP with the metal-toughened power pop that went on to rule ‘80s radio, but they give it the kind of ephemeral cool that distinguished Joan Jett from the pack of spandex-clad meatheads. The record’s a stripped back punk swipe at the headbanger’s hallowed ground and they make the most out of balancing proto-metal’s glam hangover with streaks of pop that go beyond the shred-heavy mentality of their influences.

What really sets the record apart is a vampy dark streak that pulls from the Ozzy/Meatloaf school but just as often drenches it in the molten intensity of Pat Benatar or slips on The Go-Go’s pop-perfect harmonies. Wright isn’t stretching for lyrical permanence here, but that’s never what this kind of record was about. The troubadours have their place, but sometimes it’s all about love in a leather jacket with the stereo on loud. That’s the nugget of Bat Fangs – pulling off an effortless cool while setting the soundtrack to skipping school with your new crush in style. Wright and King have succeeded in giving you the perfect soundtrack to summer six months early.

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For his second album as HOLY, Sweden’s Hannes Ferm uprooted his life and slowly began to dismantle the sound he’d built on his previous album. The band’s debut was rooted in a brand of garage-pop that’s not out of line with many of his labelmates on local hub PNKSLM. As he shifted to his new home of Stockholm and his new digs at Studio Cobra, however, he looked to lush works for inspiration and began a journey to a double LP concept record about deep personal change, alienation, and the nighttime. It’s a subject that would seem to inspire quiet introspection and the soft pluck of strings, but not so in Ferm’s world. He envisions the night as glimpsed through the kaleidoscopic swirl of traffic signals, brake lights, and neon signs under the sway of melancholy and psychedelics.

Ferm calls out Todd Rundgren’s classic A Wizard, A True Star as inspiration and that’s a telling germ to cite. All These Worlds Are Yours takes a similar tact of diving into songs that explode with pop colors and softly strung hooks, then clipping them short right when they’ve got you in their sway. He pulls a pop one-eighty on the listener quite a few times over the course of the record’s tenure but rather than knock the listener off track, the technique just adds to the dizzying funhouse that Ferm has constructed. The album is rooted in glam’s opulence, but not it’s rock candy crunch – there are no fuzz-tones or Bolan-sized amp rumblers here. Instead, Ferm has built a velvet-draped dreamland that’s powered by reverb and light.

It’s a huge step forward for the artist, leaving behind his humble rock beginnings to embrace the kind of mini-epics once favored by the members of The Elephant 6 Orchestra. With the help of producer Martin Ehrencrona (Les Big Byrd) he’s captured the heartswell of emotions that accompany youth’s moments of alienation, revelation, and reinvention, then used them as a neon engine for creativity. All These Worlds Are Yours sounds every bit like it could have come down in Dave Fridmann’s heyday of panoramic psych-pop and that it was largely self-done speaks volumes to Ferm’s talent and to his promise for the future.

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The Limiñanas

Shadow People is a great reminder that no matter how long a band has been knocking around the catacombs of your reviews, is best not to discount them. The Limiñanas have long found their way to feature around here but, admittedly, it was in scrappier garage rock times when labels like HoZac and Trouble in Mind were just putting down stakes and building up stockpiles of singles that came fast and curious. The band progressed to some decent EPs and their first album or two were rock solid. But I lost pace with them after a couple of years and they seemed to bubble along in a garage-psych haze that was serviceable, but left other acts pulling my time and attention.

Well, here we are in the opening throws of 2018 and the band has taken their various influences of note (Gainsbourg, Morricone, Bardot) and mashed them into a stew with prime cuts of late ‘90s and early aughts psych pop for what stands as their best record yet. With the aid of veritable legends ¬– Anton Newcombe, Peter Hook – they craft an album that bubbles along with the motorik pulse of Stereolab, breaks into the dense kaleidoscopic psych of Super Furry Animals and, naturally evokes The Brian Jonestown Massacre and New Order themselves. The record is more than a jumble of guest spots, though. It weaves together their pop elements into a heady, smoke-choked vision of psych that’s got that thick sound perpetuated by the aughts’ standouts, without grinding into the kind of nihilistic whirr that often ground out the less fortunate of the time period. In other words, they know how to drone, but make it sparkle at the same time.

I’ll admit, I do have a particular fondness for the era of psych bands the band draws on and their seeming prominence at college radio during my tenure may give this one a nostalgic feel for me. But, The Limiñanas pull it off without sounding so much like they’re stuck in the past, pantomiming Soundrack of Our Lives covers on the company dime. Instead Shadow People feels like its dipping in all the same wells as some of the era’s most solid senders for a record that echoes the past, but feels boundlessly timeless.

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On their third album proper, Hookworms have found their way to pop. Not that it’s been entirely absent from their work, but up until now the band has let a prevailing wind of noise and a frantic energy steer the rudder of their sound, burying the Easter Eggs of pop below the horizon line of their mix. Considering that the band’s driving force, MJ, has practically carved out an arm of UK indie around his production, it’s always been intriguing that he’s saved some of the more palatable touches for those under his studio wing (Martha, Menace Beach, Joanna Gruesome, TRAAMS, Pinact). However, on Microshift he’s taken the band to much catchier climes, leaving behind almost entirely the crusted foam of The Hum and Pearl Mystic.

In place of that foam he’s embraced the insistent chug of Krautrock and a swooning clarity that brings melody to the forefront on a permanent scale. At first, I blanched on this 90-degree shift. Admittedly I’d often found Hookworms endearing for their love of noise and their seemingly defiant shun of clean lines. It often felt like the band was signed on MJ’s promise as a producer and that any label looking to pony up was always hoping this was a turn the band would make. Now that they’d conceded to pop, it seemed time to shout down the cave in.

But the more time I’ve spent with the record that seems premature. Times change and the noise-pop wave that Hookworms crested in on and help foster might be on the wane, though I’ll always hope that noise-pop has a permanent place in the indie pantheon. So, it seems that the band should evolve. Stagnation is bad for the blood, bad for any artist. They’d done what needed to be done with the sheet of static and now they’re playing with the studio as sixth man. There still remains a hangover of experimental impulses and MJ and the band fold them into what works out to be a pretty solid indie record, though it’s one that’s not shredding the dominant paradigm so much as its trying to stretch it from the inside out. Here’s hoping they keep pushing.

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New York’s Sunwatchers straddle the line between psych and jazz with expert precision, but that’s not to say that they’re keeping the line neat between the two. The band’s latest record, II, flows with the air of free jazz, picking up on the skronk of Ayler and the eclectic mayhem of later, electric Miles. The first couple of tracks on the album pin themselves to the genre rather well, but as they progress into the groove and distortion laden “Silent Boogie” it becomes clear that this record is also a top tier face-melter that’s itching to topple into the psychedelic pit. They wander between their two poles quickly and seamlessly so that the listener never quite knows where a song will take them. It makes for an album that’s as dizzying as it is freeing.

Despite being a purely instrumental endeavor, its impossible to mention Sunwatchers without bringing up politics. The band has long been advocates for social change, equality and tolerance – going so far as to donate their album sales to charity. This time around they’ve taken their band crest/mission statement, long included in some form in their artwork, and put it on the cover, front and center. It cements their standing as a musical force for change and, while some might see it as trending towards a year of public statements said for applause with little backup, the donation of the proceeds to prison abolitionist charities seems like the public is just catching up to them.

Besides, if this year needs a sound it might be the furious skronk and bent metal n’ feedback wail of Sunwatchers. Sometimes a good scream into the void and a knotted riff comedown is the only recourse to feeling powerless on a daily basis. If that kind of catharsis sounds appealing then I’d wholeheartedly recommend a few spins ‘round with Sunwatches on the speakers. II only crystallizes the band’s hurricane in a bottle sound and repurposes it for the common good.

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Prana Crafter

I believe I’ve expressed the notion that the stream of psych-folk seems to have been damned a bit since its early aughts resurgence. That’s not to say that there haven’t been prolific pockets, as speaks to the work of labels Eiderdown and Deep Water Acres, both of whom have nurtured the career of Washington’s Prana Crafter. It’s just that now when an exceptional example comes hurtling through the tubes, I stand up and take notice. Will Sol stands ready with a new cassette release under the Prana Crafter banner for psychedelic wellspring Beyond Beyond is Beyond, and it is certainly an example of psych-folk at its finest. Though, while the excitement of a new poster child for the sound is tempting, I hate to back him into that corner alone, as it seems a disservice to his brand of psychedelia on the whole.

Bhodi Cheetah’s Choice is dank with the moss of the best burrowed forest psych – bubbling acoustic strums in a vat of ozone-scummed guitar. But Sol folds in haunting ambience, via organ moans, electronic thrums and the rhythmic hum of field recordings. He’s imbued the record with an haunting sadness that gives it an otherworldly quality. It’s psych-folk for all intents and purposes, but bigger and more affecting than any one genre can conjure. The label’s not entirely offbase to associate this with the more experimental work of Fahey (see perhaps his work for Table of the Elements), but even as a one-man band he’s pushed this into territories once occupied by heavy improv psych masters ¬– Popul Vuh, Träd, Gräs & Stenar, Amon Düül II.

With this record Sol has marked himself one to watch from here on out. Prana Crafter may well climb the ranks to sit alongside the likes of Six Organs of Admittance and Vanishing Voice-era Wooden Wand in terms of the modern day psychedelic luminaries. Here’s hoping that with enough groundswell BBiB will bump this one up to a full vinyl release rather than the cassette ghetto that Prana Crafter’s found himself in previously. This one deserves the fuller spectrum to spread its discomfiting burn.

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