REVIEW: Christian Mistress – To Your Death (2015)

One thing that contemporary Rock never shed from its predecessors was overt-cheesiness. So a Hard Rock / Heavy Metal retro act coming out of Olympia, Washington in 2008? An element of cheesiness is a certainty.

Released on Relapse Records in 2015, To Your Death immediately embraces such cheese on opening track Neon, containing lyrical moments like “can’t escape the knife of the neon lights burnin’ out the stars” and “…just a teenage dream lookin’ for a scene and falling apart.” But the vocals wail, the solos shred, and the rhythm section chugs along as Christian Mistress carve their groove.

The album opens up new territory, daring to break away from its retro reservations. Songs like Eclipse and Open Road are absolute standout tracks. Hefty and vivid songs with which Christian Mistress provides vigorous performances. As praised elsewhere, vocalist Christine Davis is excellent, and delivers a powerful and dynamic performance.

With exception to a slight gothic element on Lone Wild, To Your Death is a Hard Rock / Heavy Metal album and the guitars want you to know it. Little flairs and outbursts decorate otherwise rhythmic-centric sections, where the instrumental track titled ‘III’ displays a profane excess of guitar overdubbing- no one guitar standing out or particularly saying anything. There is nothing left to be implied, and certainly no room for it.

To Your Death understates Christian Mistress’s rhythm section. If you’ve spent any time drumming or playing bass than you can can tell Reuben Storey (drums) and Jonny Wulf (bass) have a wealth of talent that isn’t even close to being explored.

Ultimately, To Your Death is a fun and debaucherous Rock record otherwise held back by an imbalance of its rhythmic core and melodic ornamentation. To Your Death …by a million guitar licks.

For fans of: Heart, Queens of The Stone Age, Acid King

Like Christian Mistress? Give these a listen: Bundle of Hiss, Raging Slab, Lions

REVIEW: Pleasure Venom – Pleasure Venom (2018)

Pleasure Venom is the 2018 self-titled release by Austin, TX based “experimental garage punk outfit” Pleasure Venom.

Right off the bat, Pleasure Venom unabashedly provokes an image of the very ‘in’ gothic aesthetics, though doesn’t utilize them in any particularly meaningful way. From the Birthday Party-esque guitar cacophony on Gunt to a general rundown of Robert Smith’s pedalboard effects (tremolo, flange, reverb, you can guess the rest) across the entire album, none of these aesthetics serve the particular songs all that well.

The 6 track album is a mixture of stomp and romp punk pub rock and goth dance rhythms. Everyone is on beat for the most part, and front person Audrey Campbell’s vocal delivery can be quite thrilling (especially on tracks Deth and Untitled). But if you feel underwhelmed while reading this, well, that’s how I felt listening to it.

Closing track Eddy is capped off with a great orchestrated outro, a much needed splash of rich color and depth delivered as a final gesticulation of the death rock aesthetics purported to define the album. I would have loved to see more of this throughout the album, letting the interludes and outros work the album’s aesthetic angle while pushing the songs the band had written a little harder, with less distractions.

Pleasure Venom is a punk record through and through. Perhaps there is a harder Grunge rock sound underlying it all, but experimental and No Wave (as one Bandcamp user called it) it is not.

What can I say? The record is fun, loud, and fast in all the normal places. There isn’t much to take in. Maybe that’s what their audience wants.

For fans of: Secret Shame, Amyl and The Sniffers, Mudhoney

Like Pleasure Venom? Give these a listen: Dame, Scratch Acid, Circus Lupus

REVIEW: Pulp – This Is Hardcore (1998)

“Pornography is simply the most familiar visual language through which we appreciate the disparity between the intensity of imagined experienced and the disappointment or disgust of its realisation.” – Hugh Aldersey-Williams on This Is Hardcore from the article Living Dolls, which appeared in New Statesman Magazine, on 8 May 1998.

Riding on the intoxicating waves of britpop and cinema-chic, Pulp’s 1998 release This is Hardcore is an intoxicating ride of pleasure and disappointment. An entire essay could be written about the album’s depiction of consumable sex, narcissistic dissatisfaction, the album’s place in the conversation of sexism within media, and arguing points over intent, self-awareness or lack thereof. That said, I’ll spare you any bigger questions on life and morality in favor of getting on with it.

Almost immediately, This Is Hardcore showcases a tendency to crowd itself. There is little space for songs to breath, which shows both in its ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ song structuring (understandable/forgivable/expected) and corner-cutting song endings.

Opening track The Fear, like much of the album, is much too indebted to this way of song writing to allow itself the room to see its moody composition to fruition. There’s choral arrangements, layers of guitar and then some more layers of guitar, leaving the recording feeling crowded, busy, and at the same time a little flat. Regardless, the actual songwriting across the album is incredibly well crafted. As a result, front-man Jarvis Cocker and crew’s songwriting is, to recontextualize a quote from journalist Edgar Nye, ‘…better than it sounds’.

I feel slightly sorry for the teenager buying this album in a second hand shop, expecting something more, well, hardcore, and hearing a song like Dishes: a mellow pop piece on the doldrums of being 33. But This Is Hardcore makes a lot more sense once having worked one’s way in. It’s an album of repercussions wallowing in melancholy and want.

Uh, hello? Teen angst? Ever heard about it?

The album’s energy takes a step up with Party Hard while simultaneously dating it alongside 90s alternative rock groups EMF and Spacehog. The following Help The Aged does a much better job. By balancing wailing power pop choruses with soft psychedelic lounge-pastiche verses, Help The Aged gives itself room to breath while continuing to apply layer and layer of sound.

Music video for title track This Is Hardcore, directed by Doug Nichol.

The album’s titular track may be the best singular work on this album. This Is Hardcore is an incredibly dark song. Taking a steady 2 minutes 30 seconds to reach its first chorus, its repetitive motif does more to help the song breath slowly and fully until reaching a magnificent… er, climax, nearly 2 minutes later before its emotional downward spiral: a clearing of the fog of fame and the burnout which succeeds it.

Jarvis Cocker has been on record about the song’s meaning a few times, albeit different angles: a song literally about porn, about fame, society’s aggressive appetite for ‘new faces’, the thrill of burning bridges and so on and so forth. Regardless, the emotional sleaze and excitement of excess followed by destructive fallout is a transition perfectly exemplified in the synthetic melting tones of the song’s outro, which leads into the introductory cold drone of following track TV Movie.

Even across its Beatles-inspired pop rock, TV Movie’s bleakness further reveals the emotional fall-out of narcissistic-consumptive pleasure: the depressive sense of isolation and dissatisfaction.

A Little Soul, however heartfelt, is too cheesy for me to be caught listening to. And from here This Is Hardcore seems to drift out of focus, until its rallying finale. This could have been an album of exemplary pop writing had it reallocated some of its space to letting its songs breath, and perhaps trimmed the fat. Even with a stream of fairly consistent hitters, This Is Hardcore is bloated, which makes the work susceptible to becoming banal. That is to say, from A Little Soul to The Day After The Revolution should have been lifted and reconfigured to their own release, leaving Like A Friend to close the album after TV Movie. Perhaps in this process, the masters to songs like A Little Soul and Glory days could have been destroyed in a fire, leaving all traces of the songs lost to time…

The age of the CD lead to the exploitation of new possibility, which in turn lead to occasional negligence of the art being created for that medium. This tends to happen whenever there is a new medium or fashion of doing things. But this was only the first step in the slow expedition of digital possibilities. More recently, Kanye West – Life of Pablo (2016) became infamous for this very neglect. Having taken advantage of digital possibility, the album was only finished months after its release. This brought into question the criteria of what finished or completed an album and if we had possibly surpassed the age of the solid album.

This Is Hardcore‘s recording sessions spanned from November 1996 to January 1998, and upon its original release didn’t feature one of my favorite songs on the album, Like A Friend. For clarity, I reviewed the non-deluxe version of This Is Hardcore that was available on the Apple Music store (can’t we just call it iTunes?) in October of this year. But what does this mean for reviewing work? What constitutes an album in the post-artifact age? Going forth, how do we group parts of a larger work? What IS mu-… no, I said I wouldn’t go there. Right then. Getting on with it;

There is absolutely amazing work to be found on This Is Hardcore, but as a collection of work it has a tendency to get in its own way. I’m (figuratively) curious what the outtakes of this album have to offer, but I sense the truth is they’re still very much present.

For fans of: Blur, Portishead, Spacehog

Like Pulp? Give these a listen: EMF, The Good The Bad & The Queen, Sparks

REVIEW: Bronx Irish Catholics – Eponymous (1987)

I will refrain from calling it one of the worst records I’ve ever heard only 30 seconds in.

Perhaps high on the fumes of possibility, Eponymous is a slathering of 80s cheese processed through the band’s take on new wave hard rock. It’s got keytar, out of place sax licks, masturbatory guitar noodling, cowbell, and a bunch of other stuff we gave up on as a culture 30 years ago. With even the slightest air of authority, anyone could convince me that Eponymous was an avant garde novelty record, made this way entirely on purpose. The unbridled audaciousness of Bronx Irish Catholics goes past respect, past disdain to a new level of respect.

There’s almost too much to bite off to even begin a rundown of individual songs. Eponymous is litany of crimes against the arts. Typically championed on this site, artistic exploration should be balanced with doing at least a few things well. Instead, Bronx Irish Catholics fails to claim merit in any of the directions they’re pulled towards.

Both presenting and sounding like Julee Cruise on PCP, Irish Bronx Catholics consisted of core members LaRaine Warfield (vocals, synthesizers) and John Jansen (synthesizers, vocals), along with a slew of session musicians. To give credit or fault to either member would be nearly impossible, as all points of instrumentation blend into one unattainable slurry of sound. While the tonal qualities of the instruments work fine together, the composition is so busy with inconsequential instrumentation that it all means nothing.

LaRaine Warfield’s barked vocals are possibly the only memorable part on the album. But even Warfield’s performance as a powerful front person isn’t utilized well. As the instrumentation flounders on, Warfield is left exposed to criticism. While the lyrics are still a point of contention, LaRaine Warfield’s vocals are at least delivered with bold confidence.

Be it hard rock, new wave, ballad, synthpop or even the broad yet recognizable ‘rock n roll’, no one angle is played well enough to warrant a sense of accomplishment.

Closing track Ulster Defense is a surprisingly good turn of events for anyone having held out long enough. It’s stripped of most bells and whistles, with exception to Warfield’s gated reverb vocals. Distorted guitar overlays a heavy undercurrent of pummeling drum machine gallops. A quasi-psychedelic cacophony of vocals twist and melt from their barked origins. Ulster Defense could have easily worked on a split 7” with Alien Sex Fiend or even Paul Barker-era Ministry.

Perhaps they really were high on the fumes of possibility. At their most raw, Bronx Irish Catholics not only make-do but make something quite enjoyable. It pains me to think of the overwhelming facility granted to beginner musicians in today’s digital era. It’s clear we aren’t pushing the artistic limits of our newly granted facilities but obsessing over and creating a smorgasbord of inevitably dated ‘must have’ sounds.

Cut the crap. Learn to set healthy artistic limitations and remember: don’t get high on your own supply.

For fans of: Nonnie and The Onnies

Like Bronx Irish Catholics? Give these a listen: Cobra Man, Jaguardini, Frustration

REVIEW: Oxbow – Serenade in Red (1996)

The sonic equivalent to Sunset Boulevard’s floating-pool opening, the unhinged bordering on infantile murmurs of outspoken vocalist Eugene S. Robinson creep into frame. Waves form and relax without ever breaking. That is, until they do, and opening track Over slams into slide guitar swells and low horn rumbling. Drummer Greg Davis commands every puncturing beat, subsiding only while guitarist Niko Wenner and bassist Dan Adams quilt the listener in delicate mystique; every touch of the ride cymbal a looming threat (or promise) of what could come back at any moment.

Eugene S. Robinson’s vocals can be hard to explain. He subverts macho-man standards of barked yelling with something deeply human, unique while simultaneously universal. Never seeming to follow a basic verse to chorus lyrical delivery, Robinson could be considered an example of Cathy Berberian’s idea of New Vocality, sometimes sounding like the Russian futurists’ idea of Zaum, or dadaist sound poems. But the lyrics that do clearly present themselves upon first listening add yet another layer of eerie mystique. To take a line from Benjamin Louche’s blog,[Serenade in Red] is worth a purchase should you wish to hear what it sounds like when a man turns himself inside out over the course of an album…”

Just when you’re starting to settle into the shadow of Serenade in Red’s opening half, midway track La Luna comes barging through the door like a violent behemoth. Oxbow makes you wait in the noise they buried you in. Constantly destroying any resemblance to a basic verse-chorus and so on structure.

An untitled track of cinematic ambience leads into Babydoll. Piano layers film noir cinematic atmosphere, broken by hard-boiled grey-scale psychedelia. Wenner’s guitar cries and wails, while Oxbow’s rhythm section creates Stravinsky-esque levels of dramatic rhythmic tension.

Oxbow is, among other things, a band not to fuck with. Working at their own pace, with their own sounds, even an Oxbow song of lesser quality holds more merit than most Melvins ‘hits’. Their willingness to experiment with poetry and uncommon instruments (from a rock stand point), while completely disregarding conventional structuring allows them to craft work with such emotional potency as to make most notable rock groups banal.

You can read a great Bandcamp Daily article about Oxbow here: Oxbow’s Avant-Rock Experiments With Light and Shadow.

If you enjoyed the more David Lynchian elements of Serenade in Red, you may enjoy our Guide to The Fast Paced, Lighthearted World of DOOM JAZZ.

For fans of: Chelsea Wolfe, Unsane, Swans

Like Oxbow? Give these a listen: Racebannon, Loudspeaker, Bohren & der Club of Gore

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