Saturday, June 14, 2014

Music Review: Brian Jonestown Massacre - 'Revelation'

The fourteenth Brian Jonestown Massacre album, Revelation - the first to be recorded in their new Berlin, Germany recording studio - is a jangly psych-rock affair glazed in a frosty shoegazing chill. Although it's a terribly bland title, the new album is spirited with BJM's gloomy, then bright  psychedelic haze.

The band's one constant -  singer, writer, multi-instrumentalist Anton Newcombe - is a survivor of documented drug addiction (the rock documentary Dig!) and rumored alienation. He has produced an album with an almost paranoiac tone yet with a glint of light, of hope, creeping through the window of his safe European home. He has relocated to Berlin and is now a husband, father of a young son, and record producer. Word is, he's on the mend.

BJM have always been conspiracy-minded with a reckless enthusiasm for all things dark and dangerous. What more can you expect from a band name that is a combination of tragic Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, and the mass suicide (or was it murder?) of hundreds of members of The People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. On Revelation an adult maturity has seized and anchored Newcombe, as if it suddenly dawned on him that being alive is better than being dead. "You've got to wake up and be a man, and know the plan", he sings on "What You Isn't", a song bristling with angry confidence and backed by a white-knuckled organ and American Indian tom-tom percussion.

The album boasts Newcombe's musical influences. He raises his glass to Robert Smith and The Cure on the ska-tinged, "Food For Clouds". He channels The Man Who Sold The World -era David Bowie on the whimsically lovelorn "Unknown". "Memorymix" impossibly combines The Beatles repeating Sgt. Pepper (title track) guitar riff with '90s electronica and club land dub, and is the most experimental song here even while constrained to a dance groove.

Newcombe never sounded so at peace with himself as he does on "Nightbird", a soulful "waking up alone" ballad with a modest string arrangement accompanying an acoustic guitar and killer melody. Throughout the album jangly Byrds-era guitar and customary drum beats that break in at perfect intervals add a sunny splash to the moody atmospherics.

Revelation gets darker and deeper on repeated listens. On first take the instrumental "Duck and Cover" seems only filler. On further listens, the whistling keyboards, like a perfectly cued air raid siren, paint a drone-filled sky governing the continents. It's food for thought from an artist not quite ready to abandon his inner rebel.

this article was first published at

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Music Review: Swans - 'To Be Kind'

Is that a melody? The new Swans album is packed with leader Michael Gira's trademark loud art rock - lengthy guitar slams and atmospheric droning passages in a no-wave political music one might meditate to while contemplating global domination. Add to the equation a sparkling melody and a shiny pop sheen.

There are downright catchy background vocals on the funk-minded "A Little God In My Hands". A trombone assault closes "Oxygen" like a Duke Ellington show-stopper, and there's guitar intros so rudimentary you could swear you're listening to Grand Funk Railroad strumming chords in search of a song structure. Swans have been infected with rhythm and melody, not to mention rock 'n roll.

It's a welcome change, a bright human element in Gira's bleak worldview where the godless militant sky squashes men like in an old Raid! commercial. Not that Swans have abandoned their metal shield of all things unnatural. The darkness is still visible in long guitar noise of complete chemical breakdown. Weird twisted tribal tongues still bark in the face of established religion. Moments of pure silence are shattered by a deafening assault on the ears. It's just that they've never sounded happier about total devastation.

On the 34-minutes long "Bring The Sun  / Toussaint L' Outerture", Gira sounds positively joyous singing a gripping infectious mantra above a cacophony of fierce guitar waves as if shouting "Ride 'em cowboy!" while straddling a nuclear missile.

In the David Lynch inspired collage "Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)", he channels a cosmic hillbilly sporting a metal plate in his forehead while bleating "I'm just a little boy! I need love!". It's an eerie crawling music full of metallic tinkering and atmospheric hum interrupted by a mocking television laugh track. I envision a human harvesting operation in the Ozarks. The dedication to the great bluesman Burnett ("Howlin' Wolf") may be indicative of both Swans and Burnett employing pounding repetition in their music.

To Be Kind is a mammoth 2-disc recording (Special Edition has 3 discs) with over two hours of poetic, adventurous music. Swans have never sounded so accessible and yet so dark and mysterious. Largely funded by the Swans fan base, the album answers to no one but the delighted mesmerized listener.

Swans just started an extensive American and European tour.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Theatre Review: 'The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women' by Carolyn Gage at Rust Belt Books (Buffalo, NY)

A tiny space in a back room at Rust Belt Books on Allen Street in Buffalo, NY, is the venue for The Brazen Faced Varlet's production of "The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women" by Carolyn Gage. It is an informal stage to say the least. Just ask the late arrivals who stepped through a door and into the small theatre and found themselves center stage during performance. They promptly sat in chairs that were certainly part of the set design.  A cast member turned to them and rudely said, "you can't sit there - go sit over there", and pointed to the designated seating with all the authority of a traffic cop and without losing a beat of her monologue.

The Varlets, a feminist thespian troupe, were prepared and likely eager for any impromptu minor collision to occur in this reckless comedic tour de force, a play within a play, concerning the trials, both genuine and psychological, of The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikulaevna,  the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

Before you envision Ingrid Bergman offering longing haunted looks to a movie camera, know that this Anastasia is a traumatized veiled waif who screams wildly at the mere mention of her history and behaves as though she needs a miracle worker and not a lawyer. She is played by a member of the bickering cast-within-a-cast who are mounting a theatrical production about a courtroom trial in which Anastasia accuses five women of denying her a rightful identity.

The production is falling apart at the seams as the cast bickers over everything and backstage shenanigans ensue. Two top critics are rumored to be attending the night's performance debunking the theory expressed by several of the ensemble that "The patriarchal media never reviews women's theatre!". More theatrical clichés are decked out like vaudevillian vignettes. A young ingénue hopes to steal the spotlight from a seasoned thespian; the playwright adds a new character moments before the curtain rises and informs the cast that she herself will play the role; a stagehand with a phobia of acting is thrust onstage much against her will. It is a recipe for the broadest and possibly blandest of comedy.

Yet this comedy with all its silliness rests assuredly on the historical plight of equality for women and the very genuine sorrow of the raped and murdered Grand Duchess Anastasia and her pathetic imposter who was briefly the toast of the New York City elite in the 1920s. That this "Noises Off" farce could so seriously strike a humanitarian feminist vein in the midst of its outrageous comedy is a credit to its impassioned and energized cast and director, Lara D. Haberberger.

Diane McNamara playing Anastasia's aunt and closest surviving relative embodies the entire fallen Russian empire in gestures of regal hollowness that turn the stage deadly significant however briefly. She offers a surprisingly touching account of her niece's final days. Kelly M. Beuth playing a cussing bag lady friend of Anastasia is as animated as an adrenalin-charged cartoon character, and as wise as theatrical bag ladies will be. The entire cast performs well teetering between loud absurdist comedy and empowered feminist statement.

The audience plays judge and are asked at times to allow an attorney to proceed or be sustained, through the use of little stick women designating yes or no, handed out as the audience enters the theatre. It's a cute gimmick that adds a childlike touch to a strange night of theatre wherein the audience exits with the dubious and possibly schizophrenic understanding that we are all Anastasia, Grand Duchess to the Tsar of Russia.

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