Epic – ‘Carolina’

IMAG2659_1About the same time that Epic Brewing’s ‘IMP’ with its attractive peacock-blue label appeared on the shelves, so did bottles of another new beer from the company. The ‘Carolina’ amber ale came with a pretty brick red label, and the tag-line “Putting Out The Fire”.

I immediately recognised where those words were from – David Bowie’s ‘Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)’, the title song from Paul Schrader’s 1981 creep-fest staring Nastassja Kinski. While I was far too young at the time to see the film, I was utterly obsessed with the oddly atmospheric-yet-poppy Giorgio Moroder-produced song and the video that accompanied it; it became one of the first singles I owned in my own right.

But what was meant by these words on a beer label? On the side came the clue – the Carolina had originally been brewed as a one-off for a release of the ‘Carolina Reaper’ hot sauce by Auckland-based creator of all things spicy and hot, Culley’s.

A brief search on-line found Luke Nicholas’ blog from the time of the original batch was served to accompany a hot-wing eating competition. But Carolina is not a chilli beer, rather it’s a big bitter and malty amber ale made to compete with big chilli flavours. However, as Luke notes, beer is not always the best drink to have with the hottest of foods or sauces, because rather than fixing and rinsing away the chilli oils (like milk or yoghurt does), beer instead spreads the oils around the mouth, emphasising the burn even more.

Putting out the fire with gasoline, indeed!

While with the IMP Epic has created what may be for me the nicest moderate-alcohol pale ale produced in New Zealand yet, if it was in the running for my favourite beer to be released in 2014 it’s now been pipped by another from the same company, the Carolina. Because this has even more going on, and combines flavours in such a manner that I find utterly delicious.

On the nose there’s a big sticky toffee aroma from the malt, but it carries with it a massive resinous scent indicative of a robust dry-hopping. The initial hit on the tongue is also all about the hops, the Centennial and Chinnook hops swirling around with a sharp grapefruit and pine flavour, but as those hop characters fade this beer’s real charm shines through.

Underneath lies a rich, warm, solid malt; caramel sweetness spreading the warmth of the booze throughout your mouth. Unlike the 4.7% IMP, Carolina clocks in at a far more cautionary 7.2%, but, also unlike the IMP, you’re not going to want to scull this down quickly. The very style and complexity of the ale forces you to slow down.

Because as the first punch of citrus hops fades to allow the warm sweetness of the malt and alcohol, galloping along in the rear arrives a fascinating aftertaste of the hops – sharp, bright, very very full of bitter orange flavours, it brings to mind a desert laced with caramel and a dash of Cointreau. It slowed me down, made me want to savour the beer, savour each sip.

Delicious, from the first waft of aroma through to the last swallow. And, coming with such a robust malt to balance the massive hop flavours, as the Carolina warms it becomes even more fascinating, layers of sweetness and bitterness, dried fruit and almost brandy-like alcohol hints floating in and out.

Another great beer from Epic. Cheers, Luke!

Scott Walker + Sunn O))) – Soused (2014)

SousedWhat might one expect from Soused, a collaboration between Scott Walker and Sunn O)))? That all depends, I guess, on what one knows of either of those artists.

Some, if they know of Scott Walker at all, know of him as the chiselled-cheeked bassist and baritone voiced singer of ‘60s heartthrobs The Walker Brothers, or some of his baroque-pop solo albums. People who only know of Scott Walker’s past musical career probably have never heard of Seattle drone-metal band Sunn 0))).

Others, however, will know that since then Walker’s moved on his own path. Through an idiosyncratic exploration of sonic exploration and avant-garde noise, to return from relative obscurity to being an iconic figure in cult music. If you don’t know of his musical journey, then take some time and watch 30th Century Man on YouTube – it’s fascinating stuff. But, until then, know that Walker’s most recent solo album, Bish Bosch, was critically acclaimed but also at times derided for being a chaotic, shocking soup of noise, psychotic nursery rhymes, found-sound rhythms, and vocals of great pathos and utter ridiculousness.

Sunn O))) are likely to be at least known to, and likely well-enjoyed, by people who also find themselves drawn to Scott Walker’s contemporary musical expressionism. This band, based around the core duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, have pummelled their way with massive walls of sound and droning guitars to be held in the highest esteem amongst those who enjoy droning, ambient, harsh-yet-gorgeous metal.

Together, this means a collaboration between Walker and Sunn O))) is surely going to be something unusual. But how unusual? Will Soused fall towards the baroque, looped-rhythm and sometime pomposity of Walker or towards the wall-of-noise drone and fade of Sunn O)))?

The first clue comes on the album’s cover; and black-and-gray with a splash of expressionist white, with the artists’ names on the upper right corner. It’s not “Sunn O))) with Scott Walker”. It’s “scott walker + sunn O)))”, lower case, striking, but Walker’s name clearly first. Within, that all the tracks are written by Walker further reinforce that this is a Scott Walker album with Sunn O))) along to provide their own musical flavour to his avant-garde epics.

But, turn the CD album (yes, CD, it’s how I still buy a lot of music, on mail order as directly from the artists as I can) and there, under the album’s title and track listing is a small-font but all-caps instruction: “MAXIMUM VOLUME YEILDS MAXIMUM RESULTS”. That’d be the modus operandi of Sunn O))), if ever there would be one.

This credo; mixing the from sublime-to-ridiculous-and-back-again of Walker’s percussive found-sound loops and surreal, disturbing baritone-barked vocals with huge walls of droning guitars from Anderson and O’Malley is clearly communicated within the album’s centrepiece, ‘Bull’. Beginning with an ominous drone, it soon expands with a metallic crashing beat clanging behind roaring, screaming guitars crashing into a low-tone drone, while Walker barks nonsensical words “fire-ant necklace, bump the beaky, bilaut-besotted, bump the beaky, bump the beaky!”

Then, when Walker falls silent, the tracks throbs and moans with Sunn O)))’s guitars droning, looming, menacing beneath, before the metallic backdrop and jerking, ragged guitar returns. It’s intense, somewhat scary and, frankly, a bit silly. But, with the lights low and the stereo loud (or on a good pair of headphones) it’s almost five minutes of the most compelling noise I’ve heard this year that wasn’t on Swans To Be Kind.

But it’s not over, because just over half-way through ‘Bull’s nine-minute length, Walker’s voice disappears and we’re left with a huge, ominous drone of moog and guitar, over which creeps in a robotic, unsettling clanging sound. As subtly the guitar shift and whine around the constantly held moog note, we know we’re in Sunn O))) territory here, little notes of feedback hinting at a crescendo that doesn’t – quite – come.

The listener is almost expecting Walker to return at any moment with his baritone voice yelping some more surreal profundity to bring the track to a close, but with ‘Bull’ he stays clear, allowing the tracks to drone on, enigmatically, threateningly, until eventually it fades. But elsewhere on Soused, Walker’s the driving force, his combination of near-operatic vocals and bizarre repeated phrases the core of his songs, under which Sunn O))) plays a supporting role, providing a bottom end and edge that unsettles as much as it binds together the Walker’s songs.

Comparing Soused with the previous releases of both artists, you can sense that Walker being the songwriter has returned shape to the mostly shapeless noise that Sunn O))) released on Terrestrials (also a collaboration, with Norwegian experimentalists Ulver), while Sunn O))) adds a more constant bottom-end and ominous drone to what Walker did on Bish Bosch, perhaps pulling him back from that albums long-periods of silence punctuated by nearly ludicrous percussive effects.

But it is, without a doubt, a Scott Walker album, and one’s tolerance for Soused will depend not just on one’s tolerance for avant-garde noise but also for Walker’s playfulness and cruelty, his joy of contrasting his pretty voice with ugly, mechanical sounds.

Much as I hate to say it, there’s no denying that Soused is very post-modern, not just post-rock, but post-modern – coming back to noise and avant-garde music with a knowledge and awareness that is both ridiculous yet compelling. And, if you can make it through the album’s drones and yelps, long, looming near-silences and sudden eruptions of cacophony, you’ll finally get to ‘Lullaby’, the last of the album’s five long tracks.

With ‘Lullaby’ Walker is making clear that he’s aware of the knowingness of it all, the deliberate deconstruction of rock music while still trying to create something that will be understandable and sale-able to a public. With a nod to William Byrd, over a soundscape of drones, he declares “the most intimate personal choices and requests, central to your personal dignity will be sung.”

“Why don’t minstrels go from house to house, howling songs the way they used to?” he asks. Providing, of course, his own answer by this album, this collaboration, this noise. Modern music, he seems to be saying, has fragmented. With ‘Lullaby’ he and Sunn O))) send their assistant amongst the crowd, cap in hand, to seek income and approval, in a world where the most intimate and personal music seems to be rejected, while the most impersonal is that which does the most well.

‘Lullaby’ seemingly asks the question, too, of why Walker’s become what he’s become, from heartthrob crooner to enigmatic, nearly-unknown purveyor of noise and discord. It doesn’t propose an answer, beyond its own existence – that when an artist tries to make music for themselves and their muse, sometimes no one wants to hear. “His cap will be empty”, he sings, knowing full well that if his cap is empty, it’s by the musical choices he and Sunn O))) have made and will make to continue producing the music that compels them.

There’s a lot going on here, in Soused. But “easy-listening” it isn’t. Enter with caution, with open ears, and listen.

Beer match: Yeah, you’re not going to want to fuck around with this one. You’re going to want to ponder this album with a dark ale, a complex ale, strong enough to last the entire time so you won’t have to get out of your seat. Something a bit confronting, a beer that many won’t like but those who do, love. So, if you can get it, pour yourself a ‘Red Rocks Reserve’ by Garage Project. This is nominally a strong, dark, hoppy red ale. But it’s flash-boiled over volcanic red rocks, creating a sticky, toffee-like character that you’ll either love or hate. It forces you to slow down and savour, however, which is exactly what you need to do with this album.

Kererū Brewing– Karengose

Karengose

When I first encountered Kererū’s ‘Karengose’, back in February at the 2014 X-Ale beer-geekathon, I remarked that I’d love to try this salty, tangy beer again on a summer’s day. Fortunately, we’re all now able to (distribution and supply pending), as Kererū have now produced more of this unusual beer, which was brewed initially just for X-Ale. And it’s becoming readily more available, in 500ml bottles and, maybe, off tap? I’m not sure, but fingers crossed, because the reappearance of this beer is perfectly timed for the onset of summer.

The Karengose is worthy of a second post on this blog, with a whole bottle giving me a chance to fully explore the flavours, far more than the small tasting at X-Ale allowed me. And so, on a sunny late-November day, I opened a bottle of this ale and went out to the deck.

A Gose, the internet tells me, is a style of wheat beer from central Germany, brewed with salted water and and spiced for flavour, often with a bit of lactic acid bacteria inoculation for sourness. With the Karengose, Chris Mills from Kererū has added in karengo, an edible deep red / purple seaweed from the Kaikoura coast, as well as some other spices (coriander would be one, I suspect).

It’s the scent of the sea that wafts aloft from the glass as the pale and very cloudy wheat beer pours thickly into the glass. The air fills with the tangy aroma of brine, and maybe a little pungent sweat and seashore decay – but not unpleasantly, just the merest hint (as you might smell on the beach on a dry summer’s day). It’s almost sticky, settling slowly to a level in the glass, hinting at a glutinous element to the beer, maybe from the seaweed, the thick salted water, or both.

Taking the first sip, it’s striking how light and fluffy the beer feels in the mouth compared to how thick it looked in the glass. A flavour of sweet lemon is the first sensation coating the tongue. Gently the sweetness fades to a more tart, tangy lemon flavour, the carbonation escaping the beer in the mouth to leave a smooth velvety sensation, leaving the entire inside of the mouth coated with a refreshing sour, slightly-salted finish.

Enjoying a full bottle of the Karengose out on the deck in the sunshine reinforced to me that the notion I had in the crowded, dark, sweaty basement of Hashigo Zake on a rainy February day was spot on. This beer is a superb summer drink. Through the magic of brewing, the combination of salted water, malted wheat and barely, hops, seaweed, spices and yeast, Kererū have managed to bottle the scent and taste of a summer’s afternoon at the beach.

It’s all there – the brine and sunshine, the sour tang of the sea air, a little touch of the funky aroma of decaying seaweed, and a smooth, easy drinking, fulsome beer. And, at just 4% abv, it won’t knock you on your arse and send you to sleep as the sun beats down. And, with the lemony, fruity flavour carried by the hops and spices, it’ll be a perfect match with some battered and fried fish and a salad (or chips, of course), with a splash of tartare sauce.

Don’t forget your sunscreen!