Shearwater – Rook (2008)

RookFrom here, in the cold and gloom of a Wellington winter, Austin, Texas seems both a long long way away, and a warming thought of open blue skies and warm sun beating down. A romantic notion, for sure, but turning that thought to music the sense of romance looms large about ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’.

Still, it is Texas, and though Austin is renowned for a diverse, liberal, alternative music scene, it can’t be denied that it’s most associated with music that brings the twang, the dust and the mythic sunshine of the country – names like Willie Nelson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Austin Lounge Lizards spring to mind.

What doesn’t immediately spring to mind is the cold, spare beauty of an album like Rook, the 2008 album from Shearwater. But, this Jonathon Meiburg-led band does hail from Austin, Texas. Despite having a sound that you might think, on first listen, hails from much colder climes. Canada, perhaps, or even somewhere European. For while there are hints of Americana on here, and a good lashing of Tex-Mex horns, but overall the album doesn’t sound like something you’d expect to come from the Lone Star State.

But from Texas they are, formed in 2001 by Meiburg and his then Okkervil River bandmate Will Sheff, as an outlet for songs that were quieter than those normally played in the environs of their main band. While Sheff and Meiburg eventually left to focus on the growing popularity of their respective music projects, there are still similarities with their sounds. Both bands bring a focus on clear instrumentation, primarily acoustic guitar based and bringing in other acoustic elements to add colour, and in both Okkervil River and Shearwater each bandleader’s respective singing voice and lyrical style is intrinsic. And a strong element that sets them apart.

While Sheff’s songs are grounded in real-world scenarios and stories inspired by literature, on Rook Meiburg’s lyrics take more from the natural world and environment. From the album’s title and title track, through songs such as ‘Leviathan, Bound’, ‘I Was A Cloud’, and ‘South Col’, Meiburg’s high, achingly beautiful voice weaves sound-pictures of humankind not always sitting peacefully with the natural world. Animals appear frequently in his songs, as metaphors or harbingers, as symbols of mystery or psychopomps leading us beyond.

There’s a strong sense of foreboding to Rook, too. From the dark figure swarming with rooks on the album cover, to the pile of the dead black birds being burnt in the title track, their black eyes warning humankind of the destruction of the natural world we’ve brought upon ourselves. Oxen appear more than once across the album too, mentioned as animals bound to doomed servitude of pointless struggle.

Musically, the album’s grounded in often acoustic instrumentation, built from a bass of solid, natural-sounding drums, piano, double bass and acoustic guitar, with layers of horns or electric guitar thrown on as emphasis. The music’s completely there in service of the Meiburg’s song and voice, building as he builds his soaringly high voice to an aching climax, pulling down low to allow his gentle croon to sweep over the soundscape, bursting into a firm and jangling rock when the song requires it.

The production is nearly flawless; and thankfully the album pulls back mostly from what might’ve been an overpowering urge to drench it in reverb to create the sense of open space. The songs and the instrumentation doesn’t need that gimmick – subtle playing, fluid arrangements and the counter-play between Meiburg’s keening voice and the full, fat drums and double bass provide the aural openness required of such pastoral songs.

‘The Snow Leopard’ from this album was my first experience of this band, a YouTube clip of the song being tagged for me on Facebook by someone who knew enough of my musical tastes – and my liking of Okkervil River – to recommend it to me. And it’s still one of my favourite songs by this band, though I’ve added a fair few more of their albums to my collections over the years.

This song, with its heartbreakingly beautiful vocal, sympathetic instrumental backing, and lyrics from which you can grab snippets of meaning, about the moon, about black rocks, about rising from forests and oceans.

Mysterious. Enigmatic. A dangerous beauty. Like the animal of the song’s title.

Beer match: This is an album to seep into with something rich, sweet, warming; to ward off the chill and foreboding carried by this elegiac music.  But with enough hops to piece through the dark malt like Meiburg’s vocals piece above his band’s rooted sound.  And I’ve got just the beer in mind – the Bloody RIPA from Marlborough’s Renaissance Brewing.

This dark rye IPA scooped up the top prize at Malthouse’s West Coast Pale Ale, and was my favourite too.  A thick, rich, sweet dark malt grounded the full-on hops that soared above with the aroma of pine and grapefruit.  Quite delicious, but also like quite hard to get hold of.  If you see it, buy a bottle.  It should last you about the 38 minutes it takes to listen to this album…

Tuatara – Delicious Neck

Delicious neckI had reason to be in Hamilton a fortnight ago. It was quite an educational visit, and many things were learned. I learned that Hamilton zoo has a wonderful bird enclosure (well worth visiting). I also learned it’s nearly impossible to buy a 1.5l of tonic water in the centre of the city on a Saturday night.

I also discovered that people in The ‘Tron dress up for the movies on a Saturday night. Maybe that was due to the cinema we went to – The Lido – was doing its bit to be a bit posh (bloody nice ice cream, there, by the way). Whatever the reason, I did feel a bit under-dressed turning up in jeans and a hoodie (and, as it was warm inside, the hoodie was soon removed to reveal a ParrotDog t-shirt).

We were at the cinema to see What We Do In The Shadows, the horror-comedy-mockumentary from Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. It’s a good film, funny, hilarious at times. I also learned I was probably the only Wellingtonian in the cinema, as I was the sole person pissing themselves with laughter when it was revealed that the only bar the vampires had a standing invite into was The Big Kumera.

Yeah, that was definitely a “had to be there” joke. But anyone who spent any amount of time in the seedy, shoddy Big Kumera, with its stench of Red Bull and vodka and desperation, carpets sticky with something unmentionable, you’d know that a handful of vampires working the room would definitely not be out of place.

In association with the movie, Tuatara put out a very-limited edition beer, the ‘Delicious Neck’ “Immortal Pale Ale”. And a bloody nice beer it is too. Quite soft and lemony, with a delicious, cleansing, fresh bitter aftertaste. While Tuatara often take their inspiration from the west coast of the USA for their hoppy beers, this was a bit more restrained. Almost more in the style of an English pale ale.

Very easy to drink, and thankfully with a moderate alcohol of 5.2% and moderate amounts of hops, it’s one you can drink a few off without getting off your face or losing the ability to taste for the next two days. I’d like to see more of it, I can see it as a good beer to spend an evening with at a pub, but it’s a very limited release and there may not be much of it left around.

But if you do see a bottle of the Delicious Neck in a supermarket, bottle store or a bar near you, grab it. It’s a good beer, and the label art and spiel well worth the price of admission too. Just like the movie it’s linked with. Two good New Zealand endeavours that deserve success.

Superette – Tiger (1996)

FNCD352 - Superette - Tiger JPG

Superette, Tiger. The old Bar Bodega. Tiny sweatbox on Upper Willis Street. Smashing into each other, dancing with the sound. Dave Mulcahy with cropped hair, shy sneer, eyes often downcast, but just as often staring deep into the heaving throng as they moved before the tiny stage.

Ben Howe, skinny and hairy, holding down the bottom end, barely moving. Greta Anderson with her drums sounding so huge. We all had crushes on her, of course. On all of them, really.

Early twenties, too much alcohol, too many drugs. Too much intensity of feeling. There with my namesake, best friend, band mate, who was seeing the woman I had a crush on. Desperately tragic, all unleashed as Superette centred themselves on the tiny stage in the tiny venue, lost in the sound.

The sly humour, the Mulcahy’s pretty way of singing about dark subject matter. Japanese cannibals, suicide, John Wayne Gacy and Mark David Chapman. Throbbing bass, pounding drums, Mulcahy’s guitar slinging simple, nasty, pop-tastic guitar riffs like the instrument owed him money. It probably did.

Soundtrack to the year, to the years. Filling that gap left by Jean Paul Satre Experience with sweaty, poppy guitar rock, sing-along, shout-along, the album of parties where every person was either in a band or fucking someone in a band.  An album with a huge bass, a huge groove; great to move as it bursts from the lounge with while smoking a spot in the kitchen.

Even better in the tight confines of the Bodge. Dance, skinny white indie kids, dance.

Touch me, something is crawling, the sun is raining down, bye bye bye, touch me I’ll put you down, funny weather funny weather stay away stay away, I’ve got it clean, something is calling him to the water, get away get away you’re fucking my Saskatchewan.

Of a time in a place. Still one of my favourite albums, almost twenty years later.

Beer match: Sunshine Brewery’s ‘Gisborne Gold’. Sometimes you have to go for nostalgia, and Fraser McInnes, as Bodega’s proprietor and early advocate of craft beer (well before his involvement with Tuatara), would always have this on tap. And it was cheap; a very important factor when you’re there as a student or a beneficiary. Which I was at the time, depending if university was in term or not.

Baylands Brewery ‘Woodrow’s Veto

Baylands Brewery Woodrow's VetoI’m a bit prone to the SADs during the winter months. As such, I always try to make the most of any fine weather we get down here in Wellington during these cold, dark, wet days; getting out to walk or run as often as the weather allows; enjoying the sun as much as possible between work and the grey overcast skies.

So, it was great two Sundays ago when the sun came out and a burst of unseasonably warm June weather came over the city. After spending some time getting the laundry out on the line and basking in the sun as it came into the house I then headed out for a run around the hilly streets of Kingston.

Well, I was intending to have a run. However, I’d just overcome a bit of a head cold, and when I turned around into the uphill part of the circuit my lungs let me go about fifty metres before giving me a stern “oi, fuckhead, what are you doing? We’re not recovered yet, ease back a bit, pal!” So, instead, I walked home uphill instead, swiftly as I could, getting the blood flowing, enjoying the sun on my neck.

Back at the house, I caught the last rays of the warm sunshine out on my deck with a ‘Woodrow Veto’ IPA from Newland’s Finest, Bayland’s Brewery. And it was a perfect beer for the occasion, a little burst of summer, bright golden with a big fresh hop aroma wafting upwards as it poured from the very attractive can into the glass.

I’ve mentioned before how much I love canned beer.   And, as I said back then, I love cans for not just their convenience and lack of weight, but because I think they protect the flavour of beer better than even the darkest of dark glass bottles could hope to do.

Perfectly sealed, perfectly light proof. We’re all accepting of beer served to us from great big aluminium cans (via taps in bars), but for some reason there’s this stigma that comes with beer being put into serving-sized cans. But a can is just a smaller version of the keg, that you open and drink the contents of, without any thought to storage or resealing – fresh, well preserved, each time.

Mind you, there was no way of testing that with Woodrow’s Veto – this beer tasted fresh because it was very fresh; the cans had only just arrived at Baylands before Nikki Styles (who works in the same building as me) turned up at my desk bright and early in the morning with a couple of “nano-keg” samples for me to try.

Naturally, my boss was standing there talking to me at the time. Open mouthed the boss looked at me and at the departing Nikki.  Turning to me, they asked “um, did she just… give you beer?”

“Yup.”

“Does that… happen often?”

“Well, sometimes. Not usually at work, though.”

Which led to a discussion about beer, about good beer, and what an IPA was and what Baylands were up to. And, eventually, tentative agreement that I’d take my boss out for a drink and show them some of the more interesting things that are going on in Wellington’s beer scene one night soon.

Sharing the beer love!

The Woodrow’s Veto is certainly sharing the IPA love. It’s a hop bomb through and through. A fresh, vibrant aroma of pine and newly cut grass fills the air above the glass, and when it hits your mouth the big hop flavours are balanced nicely on a big, strong sweetness. The flavour in the mouth is full of grapefruit, leaving that sharp, slightly acidic, very more-ish aftertaste I always get from that fruit.

Very fruit, very exciting, very summery. A hop bomb, done very well. And delivered in the can, it should keep its bright hoppiness for many many months, while the mellow sweetness should probably bind it together even more nicely as it ages. Only one way to find out, though. I’ve got a can set aside for just that very reason…

From bringing a bit of summer to a June Sunday, to enjoying in the sun when summer eventually arrives, this is another great beer from a little brewery steadily increasing in both reliability and confidence. And for Baylands take that step into what is for many small brewers “the great unknown”, eschewing bottles for cans, is great to see. I wish them success!

Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory and Injury (2013)

Teethed Glory and InjuryI’m always on the look out for new music. Really, it’s an addiction. But one that’s become very easy to feed in this interconnected, digital age.

There’s a few Facebook pages I follow, a few podcasts I check out, I always listen in to Nick Bollinger’s album reviews on National Radio. A few blogs and the like; I often find myself liking what Simon Sweetman likes on Off The Tracks (while usually seeking a second opinion on stuff he doesn’t like).

I also keep an eye on what “The Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd”, Anthony Fantano, does on The Needle Drop, both the blog and his never ending stream of articulate, amusing, well-considered videos on his YouTube channel.

Though Fantano talks about a broad range of music, it seems clear that he gets most excited and passionate about heavy and aggressive music, things more towards the extreme and experimental in particular. And when he’s at his most excited and passionate is where he’s most likely to persuade me to check an album out, and as a result there’s been a number of bands of various stripes of metal, hardcore and extreme hip-hop that I’ve heard first through Fantano’s recommendations; artists who I may not have otherwise heard of at all.

One of these artists was Irish experimental black metal outfit Altar of Plagues. I’m no great connoisseur of all things black metal; indeed I own very little within the scope of that genre. But, nonetheless, some way in which Fantano described the power, noise, and experimentation of Altar of Plagues’ Teethed Glory and Injury sent me off to YouTube to listen to a few tracks. And, shortly afterwards, the album was downloading from YouTube.

Teethed Glory and Injury is a massive bleeding hulk of a record; drenched in harsh, rhythmic electronics, buffeted and bracketed between the blast beats, harsh treble-y guitars and screamed vocals of its black metal core. Deep, throbbing electronic sounds loom without; bass notes plunging so low, putting your sub-woofers at risk.

There are frequent diversions into looming, spacious electronic drenched interludes; bass and drums simplifying, thrumming, while the guitar moans as electronic noises buzz and hum. Then the guitar returns, and James Kelly’s fearsome, terrifying scream returns. His vocals are usually incoherent, white noise and pain providing an unease to the relentlessly rhythmic music, but when snatches of words can be heard the unease only increases – not least on ‘Burnt Year’, where the narrator seems to be screaming of watching their children die.

That the album kicks off with ‘Mills’, a troubling electronic pulse humming, throbbing towards the explosion of guitar that opens the second guitar, ‘God Alone’ is a good indicator of what is to follow. This is an album where electronic experimentation feeds off unusual, angular guitar, often with guitar clicks and hums forming the basis for a rhythmic loop. Huge, rumbling electronic notes appear throughout this album, holding down the sound while the drummer rolls across the floor toms, rooting the listener to the spot while the higher notes of the guitar and shrieked vocals claw at the listener.

And, then, in moments of almost relief, the drums and electronics fall into a dense, hypnotic rhythm, while layered, chanted vocals and hypnotic picked guitar riffs cause the mind to wander and relax. Such as on ‘Scald, Scar and Water’ where rumbling, grounded drumming and barely heard vocal harmonies fade into glitchy electronic buzzes and loops; dark and almost danceable electronica.

Think GodSpeed You! Black Emperor meeting Sunn 0))) in a dark club where The Haxan Cloak is playing a set.  If either of those names mean anything to you, then there’ll be something you’ll find to like in Teethed Glory and Injury. Probably.

I mentioned Altar of Plagues and James Kelly only last week, when writing about What’s Between, the debut album of WIFE – the stage name of Kelly’s post-Altar solo project. With Teethed Glory and Injury it’s both clear the musical direction that Kelly wanted to explore next, but also clear why he decided shortly after the album’s release that he’d taken the project as far he could, and disbanded Altar of Plagues.

Because Teethed Glory and Injury is full of the looming, dark electronics, the subterranean terror that would be more associated with electronic artists such as The Haxan Cloak and Tim Hecker, more than even the most experimental black metal artist. The sound is more interested in exploring the interplay between throbbing electronics and unusual guitar angles, in getting the listener to sway and enter a trance than forcing them into a fight-or-flight reaction due to the power of shrill guitar and drums.

And vocally, despite Kelly’s vocals being often terrifyingly and effectively harsh and shrill, the moments where he layers his voice with the electronics and rhythms to create ominous-yet-soothing monk-like chants are amongst the album’s most effective.

Taken together, listened to in each other’s context, the final album by Altar of Plagues and the debut of WIFE are indeed a pair, if a disparate pair. They both fit within the same idea, the same sense of experimentation with dark, deep, electronics; sounds that can comfort as much as terrify, send the listener into a trance as much as force their body to move with either sensuality or fear.

One presents itself as a black metal album, full of guitar, screamed vocal and anger. The other as a dark pop album, with smooth electronics and sweet, sensual vocals. But both are underlying their superficial with an exploration of what can be done with loops, with rhythms, with near-sub sonic textures layered with unconventional melodies.

Both albums are also marked by superb production; the clear production on Teethed Glory and Injury allowing each harsh guitar note and thumped tom drum to be heard amongst the buzzes and glitches of the underlying electronics.

Perhaps the best meld of what Altar of Plagues did with their last album and what Kelly went on to do with WIFE is in Teethed Glory and Injury’s centrepiece, ‘A Remedy and a Fever’. Over this track’s eight minutes, throbbing, sensual, hypnotic electronics play off and underneath the harsh guitar and shrill vocals.

Both elements are given enough space to exist almost independently, but in the end it’s the electronic elements that win out, creating a song that pulls the listener from looming hypnotic loops to blast beats and screams and back again, but ending with a gentle, hum, leading us on to where the album wants to take us next.

Beer match: Dark. Dark and complex, with maybe a harsh edge lurking around. Sit down with a Black IPA to wash down this black-metal-electronic hybrid album.  Epic’s ‘Apocalypse‘, for example.  Pummelling, shrill hoppiness, dark, solid bottom.  That’d do nicely.