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Friday 27 September 2019

Reviews: Chelsea Wolfe, Villagers Of Ioannina City, Blacktop Mojo, Starset (Paul H, Matt & Alex)

Chelsea Wolfe: Birth Of Violence (Sargent House) [Alex Swift]

Chelsea Joy Wolfe makes mercurial textures of moroseness. From the twisted pop deviations of Pain Is Beauty, to the noisy, harsh qualities of Abyss, to the crushing, primitive nature of Hiss Spun, she reinvents her style with every album yet always keeps intact the hypnotizing, allusive and strangely beautiful makings which underpin her gothic charm. On Birth Of Violence, she has embraced acoustics, and traditional instrumentals, offering a minimalist yet emphatically disturbed nature.

Thudding tribal drums and echoing acoustics begin The Mother Road. A subtle wail in the background already sets the shivers reverberating throughout my body. ‘Afraid to live, afraid to die, building a broken yet precious web, like a spider in Chernobyl’ our frontwoman laments here, as the opener progresses on a gorgeously sombre path, the strings and horns swelling to the forefront. American Darkness follows, the dissonant effects and stark, ever-present vocal arrangements painting a sobering image of a widower imagining one last dance with a partner lost to the plunders of war – ‘last night your mouth was on my skin, and the poppies were like fire on the mountain’.

A subtle tapping introduces the title track, while a perfect combination of chords keeps the mood swaying gently from enraptured to romantic. Considering that the bass and synthesizers aren’t actually performing anything complex, they wonderfully capture the idea that there is a darker trace, embedded in the acute mystery of the already chilling words and melodies. Deranged for Rock n’ Roll, for instance, proves fairly innocent lyrically, yet takes on a sinister quality as sizzling electric guitars, and pounding rhythms swirl into inhuman cacophonies of noise, as Chelsea uses her voice as a serene yet woeful instrument.

Soon, Be All Things beguiles with a spidery riff which dances its way across the fretboard, while those unearthly strings rise to meet our narrators’ pristine cadences. Erde – or, Earth in English – appears to be about childbirth, and the connection a mother has with their son, with lyrics such as ‘I have a baby on death row’, complementing the dreamy yet wraithlike musical motifs. These moments make the album difficult to critique from a purely descriptive point of view, yet further the experimentally ethereal nature of the experience. ‘They'll hunt you, then they'll haunt you, their anger has them under a spell. Their hatred is like a poison that makes them feel again’ runs one line on the cunningly subtle though weirdly heartening When Anger Turns To Honey

Later, Dirt Universe makes perplexing use of sparse instrumentation and beat, being carried almost entirely by Wolfe’s almost chanted vocal arrangements – the perfectly strange production elements aiding in cultivating an unnerving mystery. And oh, how Little Grave captures the eloquence with which she melds beauty and fear, with the ever so slightly off time harmonies, and erratic, impulsive background noises, lulling the listener into a blissful state of disturbance. Closing out the larger part of the record, Preface To A Dream Play echoes gothic classical in the way the piano carries the piece, distorted choir sounds ring in the ether, and the lead melody gently rises and falls, inducing our emotions in doing so. In apt style, the album ends with the repeated cry of ‘Hell is on earth’.

I can't say much beyond once more remarking on the delicate way Chelsea Wolfe knits pain into a mesmeric sort of beauty. You often hear the adage that depressing music can often be the most uplifting or moving. Birth of Violence performs that balancing act with absolute precision, despite being another great reinvention, in a career imbued with exquisite sadness 9/10

Villagers Of Ioannina City: Age Of Aquarius (Mantra Records) [Matt Bladen]

Hailing from their namesake Ioannina City in Greece Villagers Of Ioannina City or V.I.C for short are a psychedelic rock band who fuse the Desert rock sounds of Kyuss with traditional Greek/Balkan instrumentation such as clarinets, kaval, bagpipes and various wind instruments. Their previous album and EP are a lot more freewheeling than this record which is a bit more reserved and mature, the songs are slower creeping with ambience, some Floydian single guitar sounds on Welcome, but it's songs like Dance Of Night show the bands unique power as it's got the the whirling wind instruments and a fuzzy repeating riff that conjures magic in the mind taking you away to the mountains of North West Greece as Arrival is just a Balkan folk song that can be seen as a way of transitioning into the dreamscape of Father Sun. Now Age Of Aquarius is a deliberate push towards a broader appeal than the one they just have in Greece, as the album uses the Balkan instruments more sparingly without reducing their effectiveness, but more importantly this record is sung entirely in English unlike their previous albums which were mostly in their native tongue. With the spacier tones of Cosmic Soul and the raging rocker For The Innocent, this is a mind-melding psych rock album of immense quality, turn it up and space out. 8/10

Blacktop Mojo: Under The Sun (Sand Hill Records) [Paul Hutchings]

2017’s Burn The Ships was a solid if uninspiring sophomore release from the five-piece from Palestine, Texas. Two years later and the band are back with album number 3 which provides similar fare. This is part of the Southern swagger of the New Wave Of Classic Rock, and Mojo are another band who provide that generic, yet comforting sound which will appeal to large swathes of the hard rock fan base. The band have certainly added a bit of steel to their sound, with some stylish guitar work from Ryan Kiefer. Vocalist Matt James possesses the exact style of voice necessary for this type of music, rich, warm and with sufficient rasp to add some edge to it. Tracks such as The Lashing (Ghost) show some variation, taking the mood down softly and less frantically paced than many of the songs here. They retain their hard rock edge and overall give another solid performance. My only real issue is that ten minutes after the album finished, I could remember nothing of note. 6/10

Starset: Divisions (Fearless Records) [Alex Swift]

The term ‘space rock’ fosters preconceived notions of precisely how the style should sound. Most tend to associate the genre with a futuristic, ultramodern sound, characterized namely by acts in the electronic alternative vein, while some would tell you that the genre owes to the shoegaze and noise rock. Neither definition is necessarily incorrect. Considering the ambiguity of the term you could just as easily point to Ziggy Stardust and you still wouldn’t be necessarily incorrect. (Personally 'space rock' means Hawkwind but maybe it;s an age thing - Ed)

Though, if one 21st Century act encapsulates the stereotypical sound of space, Starset is striving to create a sound for the genre. Their first album Transmissions was brilliantly formed, bringing together electric violins, searing synth work, and megalithic production into one impressive album. And yet, while I remember appreciating the follow-up, Vessels, the album failed to break into new territory and instead offered a largely disappointing imitation of their own sound. Still, even then I saw potential and was looking forward to their next album. Maybe that would see them re-engaging the sheer excitement of their debut. Alas, there’s little of real substance here as experimentation proves absent from the deluge of overly-loud production and generic composition, cloaked in a thin veneer of science fiction. 

After an intro which misleadingly promises that there might be a glow of innovation on the horizon, the album fully dawns with Manifest, a piece which manages to combine the tedium of the nagging moody R&B style which apparently wasn’t fully left in 2018, and that of one-dimensional Djent. In doing so, the opener attempts to capture a tense cycle of creating anticipation before bringing a moment of anger, yet ultimately creates a rigid and immovable feeling, which starts divisions on an unwieldy and graceless note. While Echo begins much as the last piece ended, I will offer some commendation for the intriguing interplay between synths, and the dramatic through-line which tries to take the listener on a journey. Even Where The Skies End has an almost ambient synth line, and manages to actually perform the contrast attempted on the opener, despite not justifying the 7-minute running length. And here’s where we need to discuss the production. 

While albums have fallen prey to the loudness war before, when the mixing becomes so terrible that the bass and auto-tune are amplified to create an ‘epic’ effect, while obscuring the orchestration, effects, and keyboard melodies, your music loses any brashness, becoming counter-productive to the cause of creating a dramatic and vivid piece of work. Divisions is absolutely brimming with these mistakes, from the irritating vocal lines which drown out the violins on Telekinetic to the pounding bass frequencies and awful vocal modulations which ruin Other Worlds Than These. The greatest moment on the entire album comes with the final two minutes of the appropriately titled Solace, where the guitars, drums, and bass completely drop out to finally give some much needed time to the string work, which has always made up a part of Starset’s sound and which has been gradually hidden in the background, more and more upon every release. Indeed, that serves as a fitting metaphor for their ambition. 

Ultimately, Starset irritates me, not because they’re terrible, but because they’re not. When they emerged, they were firmly on the list of acts I sincerely wanted to follow and stay a fan of. Given their musicianship and their knack for hiding great ideas in their music, I wouldn’t say that we should fully be discounting them as an act. Still, three albums in, I can’t deny that the holes in their spacesuit are beginning to grow visible. Seems as if we might be debating the meaning of space rock for years to come. Still, with multiple wondrous theories about the makeup of our universe, and debates over music continuing to weave on, many of us may need to be content with looking up at the stars, rather than getting close enough to touch them. 3/10

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