Thursday, January 31, 2008

AGAINST NATURE Interview 2008!

They've become 1st Nature around the 'Realm!

It’s always a pleasure to get a great metal disc in the mail. AGAINST NATURE’s “The Anxiety Of Influence” is surely one of those. When you consider the fact that the CD in question is the work of a band who has not only come a considerable way since you first heard them, plus includes super-cool people who are from your local area, that’s special stuff. Then add the topper that this band has cranked out at least 3 other killer works this year (including the massive “Unfolded”!) and well, let’s just say that AGAINST NATURE is starting to reside in a very special place around The ‘Realm. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to AGAINST NATURE guitarist/vocalist John Brenner. Here’s how that conversation went.

RAY: John, you’re one of the old-school metal guys from around these parts. How long have you been actively into music? How long has your hair ever been (ha ha)? What got you into playing guitar?

JOHN: Let's call it "continuing education" instead of "old school"? But I guess old is old and school is school. As far as bands, I've been playing guitar in them since I was 12, about 28 years. And I was a fan of heavy music before that, maybe since 1978 or so, just a kid, when I first listened to Rush, Kiss, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Queen, Black Sabbath, and a bunch of other bands. My friends' older brothers and my older friends introduced us to that music. Those bands themselves got me into playing guitar. I wanted to play like Paul Stanley and Ted Nugent and Brian May, especially them at first. (I still can't! Ok, maybe Paul Stanley.) My first guitar was a cheapy that reminded me of May's. I learned every song I could and practiced relentlessly, and still found time to be a neighborhood hooligan. When I was a teenager, I studied classical guitar at Peabody Conservatory here in Baltimore.

The hair question? It was long, long, long. Now it's...what it is.

RAY: You’ve had a storied history in the Baltimore heavy scene. Take us back through things like HAVE MERCY, REVELATION & AGAINST NATURE & whatever else I may be missing & give us an overview of your musical career.

JOHN: I'm aging with every question, Ray! It doesn't seem like such a long time ago that I was in Have Mercy; it's all still vivid. They were the first band that played original music I ever joined--I had played in cover bands since I was about 12--and it was a blast. I first heard them with my friends riding around in a van. 98 Rock played a song from their demo, and we thought "where did these guys come from? They're from Baltimore?" Less than a year later, I was in the band and we recorded the "Mass Destruction" demo. Rob Michael turned me on to so much good music then. And those were the days we'd go with you and others to New York and Jersey to record stores and shows at L'Amour's. Crazy times that I'll neither re-live nor forget.

Not long after Have Mercy (who made me leave the band, for a few reasons), I rejoined some friends and started Revelation. We knew from the start that we wanted to play "doom metal," a phrase nearly no one was using at the time and that meant something a bit different from what it's become. Even in Have Mercy, in 1985, we sometimes called ourselves doom metal, "white doom metal," because we loved Trouble. Anyway, we had Revelation from early in 1986 and we recorded a bunch of demos and traded them, sold them, and sent them to fanzines around the world, as every band did then, over the next 5 years. We recorded an aborted record in 1988 (which will soon be released on Leaf Hound Records and then our debut record on Rise Above Records in 1991. The second record came out on Hellhound Records in 1992, not long after Josh Hart had replaced Bert hall on bass.

Beginning in early 1993, I stopped playing heavy music for about 10 years. I didn't even listen to heavy music again until about 1991, when Rush worked its way back into my ears, and then all the old music I grew up on. During that hiatus, I listened exclusively to jazz and classical music, practiced my classical guitar, and occasionally played bass with Bert Hall, who was playing guitar at the time--we recorded hours of free-improv for ourselves. In 2004, Bert Hall, Steve Branagan, and I (the "Salvation's Answer" line-up of Revelation) got back together and formed Against Nature. In 2007, we also decided we'd continue recording under the name Revelation. So now we have two bands, same line-up, which doesn't make much sense, I know. We'll sort it out this year sometime; I'm in no hurry. Against Nature has released 9 full-length recordings on my Bland Hand Records label, a 7 in. single on Church Within Records (Germany), and a song on a Manilla Road tribute CD called "The Riddle Masters" (our contribution was "Crystal Logic," with Butch Balich of Argus and ex-Penance singing).

I guess I'm leaving out many, many details here, but that's a summary.

RAY: You know the infamous “influences” question would be coming up! Give ‘em to me! As an aside, what would your Top 10 desert island discs be? Any current bands you really dig?

JOHN: Ha--I knew it! Ok, I'm really going "desert island" here and not restricting myself only to heavy music. These are discs that I couldn't live without and that I could endlessly learn from:

John Coltrane - "A Love Supreme"
Rush - "Permanent Waves"
Rush - "Caress of Steel"
Trouble - "The Skull"
Robin Trower - "Bridge of Sighs"
Frank Zappa - "Lather"
Yes - "Time and a Word"
Miles Davis - "Bitches Brew"
Mississipi Fred McDowell - "Live at the Gaslight"
Black Sabbath - "Paranoid"

As for influences, at least on guitar: Leslie West, Robin Trower, Alex Lifeson, Tony Iommi, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Schon, Ted Nugent, Uli Roth, Michael Schenker, Frank Marino, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Pat Travers, Ritchie Blackmore, Brian May, Rory Gallagher, Peter Green. The list could keep going, but these are the guitar players I listen to for inspiration, whenever I need to break out of a rut--they're the best guitar teachers around, and the price is only a record. (I'm listening to the first Journey record as I type this--Schon is amazing here, and this is one of my favorite records.)

RAY: If you had to use one word to describe AGAINST NATURE, what do you think would be most appropriate?

JOHN: Sincere. The music doesn't try to be something that it's not, or something that someone else is. That goes for us, personally, too. I hate the rock star attitude and everything around it. I'm not an actor and I have no claim to fame; there's nothing special about me as a person or as a musician. I just want to play music and be myself. Maybe that's not so great, but it's all I have that's sincerely me.

RAY: To me, AGAINST NATURE has made some pretty damn impressive strides since the first disc you sent me a few years back. Do you look at each recording as an opportunity to get “better” per se’, or do you see it more as “progressing?” Or is it simply a way to avoid watching lawnmower racing on late night TV?

JOHN: Once I thought that the music should progress and get better each time, and maybe it does or does not, I don't know. That seems more an opinion for listeners to form than for me to worry over. I think that we have many, many things we want to do musically, territory we haven't covered, influences that haven't yet surfaced, and it all needs to come out or something's going to burst. Sometimes I think my vision is going in five directions at once. And that's ok. No one's expectations mean anything to me but my own. If I have to take a step or two backward to find the right path at the right moment, then I'm ok with that. Retracing steps, returning to origins, going off on tangents, progressing--I don't know where I'm going. I'm just going. I just know that I won't follow any musical path half-way. I'd surely like to get better as a guitar player and songwriter, and by "better" I mean "better at making audible the music in my soul," as well as better in technique.

Someone is always going to say "this was your best record" or "I like record A better than record B." That's ok with me. I hope there's something for everyone in our music.

RAY: I noticed several things in particular on “The Anxiety Of Influence:” 1) The depth of songwriting, i.e., being able to make 20+ minute songs interesting. 2) The development of your vocal style. 3) The very cool tonal experimentation in lead guitar sounds. Can you comment on all of these in as much detail as you want? Feel free to become as long-winded as you’d like! J

JOHN: 1.) Lots of changes! I don't mean to sound glib, but variety keeps even the longest song going. "2112" is the perfect example. It's like a symphony in that there are themes and variations, digressions, returns, wide dynamics, introductions, codas. For "The Anxiety of Influence," I wanted the two songs to have this kind of variety. I also wanted them to be a survey, of sorts, of all the music that has influenced us as musicians over the years. Complacency kills creativity. I couldn't be complacent and write 25-minute songs with 3 or 4 riffs, although that would have been easy. I think you need to cast your net wide and deep to write an interesting long song, try to let everything flow into it that wants to, and yet still keep your eyes on the whole. Writing these songs, and then recording them, was a huge challenge for us. I don't know if we achieved want we wanted to, but I'm satisfied with the music as it is. If one day I think the songs fell short of my vision for them, then we'll just challenge ourselves even more and try it again with new songs. There are no rules.

2.) Vocals have always been my weakest point. But I think I'm finally learning my limitations and how to make the best use of them. It's not as if I don't stretch and try to sing in ways I'm really not capable of. I do that all the time. Yet many of the melodies in our newer songs feel right to me, and the range feels more comfortable. On the other hand, with our newest music I've been struggling again to do what I hear, and I fall short too often. Sometimes I get so discouraged that I'm ready to give up. But if I keep working on it, the comfort eventually follows. I'm too stubborn to let someone else in the band sing or to find a fourth member. It just wouldn't be the same.

3.) All the possible guitar sounds, all the wonderful sounds you can make with a variety of guitars and amplifiers--it intrigues and delights me. The tradition has been mostly that one person has one sound, a "signature sound," and learns to be expressive with it. It's a rich and ever-renewed tradition. But I want to approach lead guitar playing, at least on recordings, from another direction: one person can also have many things to say and can say them better with a variety of sounds. I'm thinking of the different guitar sounds as different languages in which to say similar things, different voices appropriate for varied situations. "Experimentation" is a good word too: some of my experiements fail, and I learn from that. I have several different amps and many guitars, and they all have a multitude of voices. I want them all to have their say. For rhythm guitars on our records, however, I mostly use one sound and one or two guitars. For the lead guitar parts, anything goes.

RAY: What do you find appealing about playing guitar and singing, as opposed to simply being a guitarist like in HAVE MERCY. Does singing ever limit what you’re able to do as a player?

JOHN: Absolutely. Some songs we don't play because I'm unable to sing and play guitar for them at the same time. Maybe if we rehearsed 5 times a week, I'd learn, but as it stands, there's no time to get some of them down. Singing also gets in the way of my listening to what I'm doing, the subtler things I'm supposed to play, the touch I want to have, the expressiveness of individual notes and chords--singing takes the focus because that's what's out front. I watch videos of someone like Hendrix and think "how in the world can he play that and sing at the same time"? I guess I don't practice nearly enough. Others are great at it, too, but I'm not at this point. The advantage is that it's done my way, and I stand or fall on my own merits...and without a singer, there's one less person to contend with in the band.

RAY: As far as songwriting in AGAINST NATURE, how does it generally go? Does the music come first or lyrics? Do you ever come up with a really cool-sounding title and then think, how the fuck am I going to write something that fits in with this? J

JOHN: The songs always start as guitar riffs. I have hours of individual riffs, and sometimes I string them together to make a song. Sometimes I write a whole sequence of riffs and then find a beginning or ending. The computer helps out a lot in re-organizing riffs and song structures, and I make liberal use of it. The result is all that matters, and I don't care how I get there. But the songs are guitar songs first and then vocal songs second. The songs are finished, instrumentally, and recorded before I even think about vocal melodies or lyrics. I usually assign titles to the songs before I write any words, and I feel free to re-arrange the titles and words to fit the song however necessary. I chop them up, cut and paste them, delete entire phrases, anything necessary to fit the song and the melody, which also usually comes before the words are written. All this is just in general, and I've used many methods of writing songs, including taking a boring riff, recording it, and then reversing it and learning it. That's actually an interesting way to work.

RAY: The titles of the 2 lengthy tracks on …”Anxiety…” are interesting, “Aporia” & “Mimesis.” What’s behind them (or to the front of them or diagonal from them?!)? How ‘bout the lyrics for that matter? Not having been an English major, I’m confused as well as being subject to faulty sentence structure!

JOHN: The titles of the two songs are associated with the title of the album and with the cover art...and with the allusion itself of the album title. That sounds tangled, I'm sorry. The song titles are ancient Greek words, words especially important in works by Aristotle and Plato. "Aporia" means something like "numbness" or "the inability to move forward or backward." "Mimesis" is "imitation." Harold Bloom wrote a book titled "The Anxiety of Influence," and that title resonated with me concerning music. That is, it's so difficult to write an original (whatever that means) song with so many great musicians looking over your shoulder, so to speak. Write something heavy, and Iommi is watching your hands. Write something blues-based, and Robert Johnson is looking on. So what do you do? The anxiety can immobilize you, if you're worried about doing something new, something unique, something that's not a pastiche or derivative. Then there's mimesis, imitation. A great way to learn from masters is to imitate them. But there's imitation and mere imitation. Mere imitation is just aping, mimicking, trying to be just like the original. Imitation, in the sense I mean, is learning how to sift the original through yourself to create something new. So, in me at least, there's always this tension between immobility and imitation, between doing nothing and doing something. Finding the balance is the art. I don't think I've found it yet.

The title itself and the cover art refer to the Greek sources of western civilization. Whitehead says that all philosophy is a series of footnotes on Plato and Aristotle. I would modify that and say all technology, all concepts of freedom and justice and democracy, all settings in which conversations about these things can occur, come from the ancient Greeks as well. If you live and think and create in the west, then the Greeks are always at your back.

So, that's a part of my thinking with the titles and the cover. It's something I'm not finished thinking about, and I may never be finished.

As for the lyrics, I try never to explain them. If they need explanation, then they fail as art. They should be able to stand on their own. Again, I'm so sorry if that seems smug; I don't mean to sound that way. There is something I can say, though. With Against Nature, instead of writing lyrics that are "about something," or that tell a story, or that serve as embellishment to the music, I prefer to let the words work associatively, instead of connotatively. That is, I want listeners or readers to find their own associations in the words, to find a personal meaning in them that's beyond a writer's limited intent of narration or exposition. One meaning is not enough and is impossible, anyway. Poetry isn't mathematics. (Euclid, however, I think of as a great poet! His geometry isn't mathematics, either.) The lyrics are full of literary allusions, word-play, direct quotes, purposeful misquotes and mistakes, irony, personal meanings, happy accidents, and stream-of-consciousness. I don't think that any artist owns the complete meaning to his creations--the listener, viewer, or reader can take part if the artist opens the work to association. I like to keep things open. I'll stop here, because I sound so pretentious now.
RAY: You know, back in “the day” when I used to fool around with guitar, I remember coming up with a song title called “Mortar & Pestle.” I always wondered why nobody had ripped me off on that and now you have! Ha. I’ll be calling my lawyer in the morning. Seriously, what’s the concept of this one?

JOHN: Did you really? I thought the title sounded really heavy, you know, associated with grinding and rock, pulverizing, and evoking brass and stone. From there, I let the lyrics take on their own life and used the title as a starting point for all sorts of associations to things in my life and experience. That's vague, I know. I don't know if I'm the mortar or the pestle. I'm still trying to figure it out. Maybe it's not even about me, in the end. Did you have lyrics or just the music for your song? I didn't mean to rip you off. I'm just not as original as I pretend.

RAY: You seem to be pretty prolific with AGAINST NATURE. What is next in store as far as recording projects go?

JOHN: A big part of our prolific music making is that we record everything at home, with my gear, and I record, mix, and produce it all. So we record whenever we wish. And we love to record. We've just finished two new releases, "Descend" and "Much in Little," both of which you can download for free at At the moment, I'm finishing work on the next Revelation record, "Release," which Leaf Hound Records of Japan will release in a few months. (They've also re-issued the old Revelation catalog.) Beginning in late March or early April, we're going to begin rehearsing and recording our next release, "Action at a Distance." This is going to be prog-influenced; we're going to let Gentle Giant and Rush and Yes find their way into the songs as much as possible. I'm unsure whether it will be all instrumental or if it will have vocals. I'll decide that once we begin to record. We're also going to approach recording this much as Miles Davis recorded "Bitches Brew"--we're going to jam and improvise and see what happens, and then I'll edit the songs to make something coherent and listenable and whole.

After that, I want to continue with some of the directions of the music on "Much in Little," a combination of 70s rock and prog. The future is wide open for the band, and that makes me happy.

RAY: How ‘bout touring? Where have you guys been to ply your wares live? Different levels of response in different places, I ‘spose?

JOHN: In 2007, we toured in the UK with Warning and The River, and it was the best time of my life as a musician. I met so many good people and bands, and I had a lifetime of experiences in two weeks. Patrick Walker (Warning) and I were able to spend our time walking about, talking of everything we could cram in, visiting art galleries and bookstores, playing chess in the van, discussing Shakespeare's plays. He is a beautiful, intelligent, amazing person, and I learned so much from him. Everyone in The River were like family. I played through Chris's Hiwatt amp and fell in love. Some of the crowds were amazing, some small, but everyone was welcoming and friendly. Dublin and Belfast were a whirlwind, but such beautiful places and people.

We also went on a short tour with Electric Magma across the US, and we were like teen-aged boys, carrying on and goofing off, watching cartoons, laughing all the time. We stopped at the Grand Canyon, which I'd never seen before. No words can adequately describe what it was like to stand on the cliff's edge and look a mile and a half straight down, or to become dizzy just by looking into the distance. It was sublime.

During 2005-2007, we played the Doom Shall Rise festival in Germany, Stoner Hands of Doom, Doomed to Fall, Templars of Doom, and individual shows in Baltimore, Frederick, Rochester, Toronto, Portland, and Boston. This year, we're touring in Europe, probably again with The River, and we're hoping to go to Japan for a week or so in the summer. Oh, and we have two upcoming shows: At Rex's in West Chester, PA on 2/2 and at Krug's in Frederick, MD on 3/1. It's going to be a busy year.

RAY: Besides playing in AGAINST NATURE yourself, you also have a label going, Blandhand Records. First, tell me something about the name of the label and then about what your hopes & aspirations are for it. You have some pretty damn good stuff on there, like CHOWDER, for instance who’s disc completely and utterly rules!

JOHN: Haha...the name of the label. Though it's only a few years ago, I barely remember how the name came about. We have a song called "Bland Hand Society" that's a dig at "Black Label Society," Clapton's nickname "Slow Hand," and generic doom metal all at the same time. It's also a bit self-depricating. I was going to call the label "Aporia Records," but Bert suggested Bland Hand because it sounded kind of funny and had a good ring. I like the irony of it--I certainly don't think Chowder, Dwell Within, Argus, or any of the bands on the label are bland! Like so many things with us, what starts out as a joke often becomes serious with time. The label's name is like that.

I don't have any big plans for the label. I'll never make money on it, mostly because I give all of the music away. But that's my philosophy for the label: all the music is available for free download, and we accept donations. When we have the money, we press some releases on CDs in runs of 100 or 200 and no more. If the demand were higher, we'd press more CDs. It's mostly a vehicle for us and our music, individually and as a band, and for those I've been involved with musically, and my friends. I might branch out into bands that are new to me, but the music will still always remain free. I want people to hear this music, regardless of whether they can afford to buy it. We don't have contracts and everything is open and friendly and honest. I want the label also to be a jumping off point for the bands, a place where they can start and let people hear them before moving on, as Chowder and Argus are doing. (They'll have a full-length release on other labels this year.) Chowder is a monster of a band! Josh Hart has many ideas, and I hope he gets to realize all of them. He's throwing around the word "mellotron" a lot lately, so I'm excited so hear what he has planned. I'd love to get John Gallo to let me make his Blizaro music available through the label. I want the label to be a source of free, heavy, interesting music. I want to remove the monetary value of the music so it can be free, in every sense.

RAY: With all this going on between playing and getting other bands’ stuff out on your Blandhand imprint, plus organizing a show like the Doom Or Be Doomed one here last April, what do you do for a living, John? How do you fit it all in 24 hours a day? I know you’re also married, how does your wife react to all this stuff? Is she into it or does she just accept it? Do you have kids?

JOHN: That's the key, isn't it, no children? It is for me, anyway. So I can dedicate much of my time to music. I'm a humanities teacher, but I teach only part-time now, mostly computer classes at this point. (This I'm hoping to change, soon.) My wife is into it and accepts it, and she's great about everything. She's becoming a big Zappa fan, too. Sometimes we have a house full of people staying with us, and she loves it. She even puts up with my spending so much time working on music, touring, and rehearsing. When I'm not doing something musically, or teaching, I also paint and draw. Some of Against Nature's cover art is my original art, and most of the layouts are, too. I like to keep busy. I don't know how long this will last; sometimes I feel like there's a devil chasing me. I need to keep moving while I'm able.

RAY: As both a band member and a label guy, if you had one piece of advice to give a new band who’s just starting out & wants to do original music, what would it be?

JOHN: It's probably poor advice, especially for success, but I'd say "Do whatever you want to do. Don't act as if there are any rules--there are none. Start your own label, distribute your music yourself, do whatever it takes for people to have access to your music. There's nothing flattering than for people to spend their time listening to your music, when they have so many distractions and other interests.

Write constantly! Write dozens of songs and records, keep refining your approach, your ears, your attitude. Don't make a big damned deal out of every record and song. Write one and move on. Don't play 'genre music.' Just play heavy and loud and sincere. Above all, imitate but don't copy. Imitate the classics: they're classics for a reason. Don't become a 4th generation copy in new, vague, or currently hip genre. This is 2008, not the 70s or 80s or whatever decade will next become trendy. Imitate the best, listen to the best, play like the best."

RAY: Ok, now fun time! (Well, it should have all been fun time, but…) With all your long years involved in this stuff…what is one of the craziest or most ridiculous stories you can tell that will amaze, confound or just plain disgust our readers. If you’re going to go back to the New York trips & Holiday In days, simply refer to me as Friendly Restaurant so my wife doesn’t divorce me or anything. Ha Ha.

JOHN: I knew that would come up. I was a different person then, just a stupid let's not mention that!

When Revelation used to rehearse on Eutaw St., near Rt. 40, in downtown Baltimore, in the late 80s, we saw and did some crazy and stupid stuff. We rehearsed in a squat run by the owner of that old punk club The Loft. He lived upstairs in one building and stole electricity somehow. He gave us a long orange cable into our room downstairs and next door, and we'd run all our gear and lights off that. The room had no heat or bathroom, so we had a kerosene heater inside--illegal in Baltimore City, and deadly anywhere--that made us nearly pass out from the fumes each night. It was generally about 35 degrees in there from November to April.

Our bathroom was the back room in any dark corner, a room that had no doors or windows--or toilet--and which we secured with scrap wood and carpet. We nailed old, moldy, smelly carpet on all the walls and spraypainted "DOOM" behind the drum pallet. It was a death trap, a total fire hazard. The "owner" and his friends would smoke dope the whole time next door; they had a seat from an old El Camino or something for a sofa and they made walls in the room out of plastic sheets. Homeless people would knock on our door and ask to come in our rehearsal space to get warm (not likely), gangs of young punkers and skaters gathered at the door to listen to us. There was a trap door that led to the scariest cellar I've ever seen. I swear there were bloodstains in the dirty, broken bathtub down there. It was all seedy and scary. We didn't care. We called it "The Eutaw Palace."

The previous year, we rehearsed upstairs in the same building, above Have Mercy (who used to make fun of our slow songs by mimicking them in between our playing). It was their space we took over downstairs when they left. Some squatters next door started a fire that almost wiped out all our gear--firemen were there, we heard later, with hoses pointed at our amps and drums but were talked out of it. Our gear smelled like smoke for months, even after we scrubbed it with Ajax. A guy lived upstairs from that room--we didn't even know about it until he staggered down the stairs into our room in his bare feet one day, walking across broken glass and moldy carpet in some drugged haze. We didn't even stop the song, we just looked at each other like "who the hell was that?" It was surreal.

Steve and Andy, our original bassist, used to pick me up from Peabody after class and we drive a mile or so to the rehearsal space. What a huge contrast from the upscale music school with pianists practicing Beethoven and Chopin to our filthy and cold squat where we played as loud as we could. The police never came, not even once. No one ever gave us trouble or harassed us, and then was no danger, even when we walked around outside. I guess thought if we were crazy enough to be in that neighborhood at night, we belonged there. No one ever broke in, although they could have at any time without anyone noticing. We paid about a hundred bucks a month to the "owner," until the buildings were condemned. Condos and fancy stores replaced the entire block of squats.

RAY: John, any last comments anecdotes or words of wisdom for our readers?

JOHN: Thanks, Ray, for this interview. I've been reading your reviews and pieces since the Record Bar days and Chaos 'zine (I remember fondly your issue with a review of Kill 'Em All, and another with Hellhammer on the cover--or maybe they were in the same issue?). So I'm thrilled and flattered to be a part of its long history. Your new blog is great, and I'm still an avid reader. Cheers to everyone!

The music that AGAINST NATURE has released, especially this year, has been absolutely superb. It’s a wonderful thing to then have a conversation with the man behind and find out how focused and down-to-earth this driving force is. My only advice to you, as a reader is to run, don’t walk to and order/download away!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Some New Reviews, Baby!

KEVIN K & THE HOLLYWOOD STARS – “Cool Ways” CD ’08 (Rankoutsider, US)-
KEVIN K – “Hollywood” CD ’07 (Full Breach Kicks, US) –
KEVIN K – “Mr. Bones” CD ’05 (RealKat, US) – At some point, there is a very real, very true and basic natural fact that needs to be addressed about rawk music. It needs to be fun. Oh sure, it can be powerful, it can make a statement, it can be challenging, argumentative, violent, intelligent, snotty, and vile. It can be inspiring, repulsive, exploratory, tenacious, etc. But to be rawk, to be RAWK, it has to be fun. That’s not to say that Spongebob Squarepants has to come out with Patrick and make a Cartoon Network Movie out of it. But, the thing is, brother, at some level, you’ve gotta be able to shove the motherfucker in the tape deck in the Camaro, twist the knob to 11 and go roaring down the road, pounding on the dashboard and enjoying the living shit out of it. If you can do that, then it’s RAWK, got me? Here’s the deal. KEVIN K is RAWK. With a capital R. Now, some people are going to listen to KEVIN’s 2005 release “Mr. Bones” and say, hey man, this is ‘80’s metal. Then you’re going to get your dudes who’ll spin “Hollywood” or “Cool Ways” and say, “that’s some bitchin’ power pop, there, chief!” But make no mistake about it. Whatever this guy touches (everything I’ve heard so far) has the feeling of “rawk” jammed right up to it because of the attitude, the geetar crunch and above all, people, the SONGS! Let us go over this routine all once more, with feeling, because that’s the name of the game. I’ve stressed it on here before, I’ve expounded upon it in emails to various individuals and I’ve spoken about it in person with people until I’ve been blue in the face and they’ve gotten sick of my sermons…but…I feel a fever comin’ on and, yes, the only prescription is more cowbell and…great SONGS. Put in any of these 3 discs…and listen to tracks like “Story Of A Girl,” “You Tonight,” “Another Pretty Face,” “Crackhouse” or “With You.” This is the work of a man who not only knows the nuts and bolts of writing good hooks and then melding them into killer songs. It is also the story of a man who pours his heart & soul into that very same work. Just listen to this stuff, damn it, you can’t help by be affected by it and the reaction is to put your foot to the floor, pump your fist in the air and sing along. What more do you fucking need?! Just buy!!!
NOTE: KEVIN K’s stuff can be bought at so, get there get that plastic out, peeps!
NOTE: Interview with KEVIN K coming on this very site! Stay tuned!

WISHBONE ASH – “Power Of Eternity” CD ’07 (Talking Elephant, Eng) – Funny about WISHBONE ASH. Of course, no one in their right mind who loves hard rock, twin guitar harmonies & amazing blended vocals could fault anything they did in the early ‘70’s. From their self-titled debut right up through 1974’s lovely “There’s The Rub,” they put on a virtual clinic, with main man Andy Powell at the helm. Then, unfortunately, things went awry with a series of mediocre releases that lasted through the ‘90’s until, wonder of all wonders, they released “Bonafide” a few years back, marking a true return to the “…Rub” days. A couple really great tours followed, and now we have another studio effort, “Power Of Eternity.” Once again, Andy & crew come up aces with a superior display of styles ranging from the always ASH-like “Hope Springs Eternal” & “”Northern Lights” to the more accessible yet purely great cuts like “”In Crisis,” yielding a look to genres as widespread as country & blues. Kudos to Powell & especially co-guitarist Muddy Manninen, now a songwriting force himself for continuing the awesome resurrection of this great band.

ALCHEMIST – “Tripsis” CD ’07 (Relapse, Australia) – I have really enjoyed the previous work by these extreme metal men down under and “Tripsis” is no exception. While they surely play what the uninitiated may write off as death metal, there’s a whole lot more going on in the work of ALCHEMIST. Listen to the Voivod-ish chordal moments in things like “Tongues & Knives” and just the purely unusual arrangements of numbers calling themselves “Grasp The Air” or “God Shaped Hole.” Maybe ALCHEMIST aren’t completely re-inventing the wheel, but they are surely putting a pretty nice new set of mags on it. Try this for a real breath of fresh & deathly air!

PRIMODIAL – “To The Nameless Dead” CD ’07 (Metal Blade, Ire) – Ireland is forever to be known as the land of Thin Lizzy. That’s as it should be. After all, Philo & Co. are one of Ray’s 2 all-time favourite bands & therefore, that’s all that matters. Uh…yeah, right. Anyway, PRIMORDIAL are from Ireland & have been plying their trade for awhile. They do not sound like Thin Lizzy, except for having guitars, bass & drums….and that’s ok. What they do play is a sort of highly-dramatic, battle metal, laced with vocals exploring the roots of their national pride and draped with vocals that often teeter on the brink of the deathly vomitorium but never tumble in. This is a good album that, on the occasion, tends to get a trifle “samey” yet still manages to flow nicely from beginning to end. A nice break for fans of the extreme end of the metal spectrum who’d like something a bit different and yet not shockingly so.

ERA VULGARIS – “What Stirs Within” CD ’07 (Open Your Ears, Ire) – Let’s stick with Ireland, shall we?! And, yes we shall, when we get releases as good as these next couple! I like what this ERA VULGARIS bunch are doing. They’re a crew of young guys who are obviously really into metal. You get that just from the heavy sound & the song titles like “I Must Have Your Brain,” “Limb From Limb” & “Harmonic Discontent.” Still, don’t let that make you shrug and move on. These guys are not only intent on creating music that is heavy, but also works that are thoughtful and a damn site creative! Listen to the kinds of rhythm changes going on in a number like the aforementioned “…Brain.” That’s the kind of thinking that used to get me all fired up about bands like Fate, Cirith Ungol & early Savatage. Shit, some of it nearly has the aspects of jazz fusion involved. Now, of course, that kinda thing can get too out-of-pocket and render songs unmemorable, but I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for ERA VULGARIS. They seem to have a handle on what it takes to ensnare the listener. Just check out the double lead guitar parts sprinkled throughout this nice little surprise of a disc. That’s the work of people with melody on their minds. Here’s the skinny. If you liked ‘80’s metal, with a dash of death, a dollop of progression and a whole lot of enthusiasm, give these guys your money!

GLYDER – “Playground For Life” CD ’07 (Townsend Universal, Ire) – So, seems like a couple reviews ago, we were talking about Ireland and that Thin Lizzy crew that did some good stuff back in the day and…well, now here comes GLYDER with their 2nd release. The Lizzy conversation was surely on point when discussing this band’s debut disc from a couple years back. That circular 80 minute media definitely reflected the influence of Phil and the boys, combined with a keen NWOBHM sensibility that made for quite some listening around the ‘Realm. Now, with their 2nd effort, “Playground For Life,” GLYDER have really stepped up their game. Sure, there’s still some definite nods to Robbo & the rest of the gang on numbers like the opener “Gamblers Blues” and “Sweets,” with it’s devastating lead guitar blow-out ending. But move further into the depths of this 10 song affair and you’ll find a startling new maturity and a sense of artistic darkness that is truly gripping. I mean, check out “Walking My Own Ground,” “Dark Meets Light,” “The Merrygoround,” etc. This is music that keeps the base of rawk intact and yet moves into areas of light & shade that make one think as much of artists like Van Morrison or David Bowie as they do bar-room metal. Most importantly, they give GLYDER the identity of a band that is very quickly coming into their own on a level I honestly didn’t expect this early. Super stuff!

BLUE CHEER – “What Doesn’t Kill You…” CD ’07 (Rainman, US) – Man, has it really been 40 years since a thundering, scuzz-laden beast called “Vincebus Eruptum” lurched noisily out of the Bay Area and in a single gulp, devoured all the peace-loving, folk crooners of the day in one snarling twist of a Marshall volume knob? What the fuck-ever, now Dickie Peterson (bass/vox) is back with current guitarist Andrew “Duck” MacDonald & old buddy Paul Whaley (drums…although Joe Hasselvander sticks it up on several cuts). So you’re wondering…is this the heavy-ass BLUE CHEER or is this the West Coast psych version of the self-titled LP from years ago, etc.? Well, I could do either, being that open-minded kinda guy, but my testicles still yearn for a good ol’ testosterone romp & you get that here. Everywhere from the opening slide-scrawler of “Rollin ‘Dem Bones” to the gnarled riff machine of “Gypsy Rider” to the sprawling guitar showcase of the nearly 10 minute “No Relief,” it all works well, except, for me anyway, the grimace-inducing cover of “Born Under A Bad Sign.” Whatever Peterson was trying to do with the overdubbed multi-octave vocals here, well, it ain’t no DBC – “Universe,” that’s for sure. Anyway, is this going to make you throw your copies of “Vincebus…” or “Outsideinside” in the yard sale bin? Core snot, but it’s still a fun listen and a dang bit better than most younger guys are currently doing.

PLANETSTRUCK – “Mild Chronic Inflammation” CD ’07 (Private, US) – Having found this Chicago band’s earlier demo CD interesting, it’s time to see whether their dark musings can carry through to a full-length platter. Luckily, yes they do. While PLANETSTRUCK is a 2-piece unit (something of a common-place occurrence these days, particularly on the more mainstream side of the ball), it doesn’t keep their sound from being full and quite heavy throughout this 10-track disc. Most of the cuts here feature a sludge-laden slow-paced brand of music, but the occasional upping of the speed brings to mind a healthy thrashing aesthetic, verging between punk and a more garage metal feel. Cool band and nice progression. I’ll be watching these guys for future developments & imagine they’d be well-worth checking out live.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Interview with Arclight Records!

One of the driving forces for me, ever since the advent of my printed-zine days has been to discover bands that really “hit it,” that completely do it for me. That’s, of course, probably every music fan’s goal. To actually find a label, however, that’s putting out MANY things that do it for you is really some kinda surprise though, and Austin Texas’ ARCLIGHT RECORDS has managed to do that over the last year or so. The thing I instantly admired about these guys is that they don’t make themselves genre specific. A myriad styles see the light of day on their label, with the common denominator being good music in the ARCLIGHT eyes. Mine too, and hence we have some words with David Elizondo and Mauro Arrambide, the founders, heart & soul (well, spleen, kidneys, pancreas..etc.) of ARCLIGHT.

RAY: As with most things, I guess it's best to start at the beginning (although that would mean logic would apply and I'm not good with logic, but anyway...). Who exactly are the people behind the label known as Arclight? Can you give us a little info on the person/people who formed the label, your backgrounds, what got you into music?

MAURO: Arclight was started by David Elizondo and Mauro Arrambide. David had opened a studio in Austin, and we had mutual friends. I was looking at learning some engineering stuff and we were introduced. I have been involved in music in one way or another since I was young. My Dad played in bands when I was a kid and still does and I’ve sort of always been around it in one form or another. I’ve started playing in bands in high school and moved to Austin and played in bands here as well.

DAVID: Well, Arclight started off as the idea of Mauro Arrambide and myself, David Elizondo. We figured no one can pronounce our names, so why not start a business. Actually, I had recently opened Republic Studios (RIP) in Austin, Texas. Mauro wanted to learn how to engineer and through mutual friends we got together. After a short while we realized we had similar tastes in music and a mutual interest in running a label one day. Several bands that we dug were coming through the studio to record at this time and we approached a few of them about releasing their stuff. We kind of like informal approach that labels like Dischord had, and that is what we did. These days, as priorities have changed, Mauro is definitely the driving force behind the label. As far as my background goes, well, I started playing in bands in high school and college...really awful ones. Honestly, I am not a great musician. However, while still studying at UT at Austin one of my bands was recording in a local studio and I started to become fascinated with the studio aspect of music. So I changed my major to something where I could get access to the studio on campus, as well as an internship at that same studio. After that I worked in several different studios in Houston and DC before opening my own in Austin.

RAY: Have you ever been in bands yourself or have you been more "into it" from the listener's perspective? If there are bands in your history, you can elaborate. If not, you can just say "I suck at playing but I know when I hear something I like." Or some such crap... :-)

MAURO: I’ve been in bands since I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I moved to Austin that I got sort of serious about it. The one that stands out is Speedloader which is part of the reason Arclight was started.

DAVID: (I guess I kind of touched on some of this in the first question, but...) It has been some time since I have been in a band. Almost a decade actually. I sang in a couple, played guitar in a couple. Nothing great, but we tried to be original. I definitely feel I know what good music is, but who doesn't...after all its a very subjective thing. But I feel I can detect if a band is genuine, or at least I hope I can.

RAY: At what point did you decide "Ok, I'm starting a record label" and what kind of a process was that to go through? How long did it take, what was involved, etc.?

MAURO: I had released some Speedloader stuff on my own label called El Scorcho, it was a split 7” with The Bulemics so I had some bit of an idea of the process. Dave and I had talked about it all the time when working on sessions in the studio. We sort of just decided fuck it, lets do it. At the time we were record Southern Gun Culture & SuperHeavyGoatAss, hence the first release. The SGC/SHGA split. Kind of went from there.

RAY: What was your thought process when it came to bands that you wanted to sign? From listening to the stuff you release, the thing that I pick up is that the bands are not at all the same so-called "style" or "genre," but what they have in common is good songs & a lot of depth.

MAURO: Both Dave and I have a pretty diverse record collection. I definitely don’t listen to the same stuff all the time. I grew up listening to my Dads records, Neil Young, Hendrix, SRV, and ZZ Top and at the same time started getting into metal and hardcore, but as I got older started listening to anything that was out there. I don’t get stuck into the genre thing. If I like it, I like it. I’ve used that same philosophy with bands that we release.

RAY: Three records that really hit me as especially strong are the new one from AMPLIFIED HEAT, the self-titled debut by PHONOGRAPH and "Tonight..." by MAGNET SCHOOL...all 2007 releases. With AMPLIFIED HEAT, you've got a raw, rip-roaring set of hard bluesy rawk, calling to mind the first 3 ZZ Top albums. PHONOGRAPH has a rich, mid-America Tom Petty feel with just delicious songs. MAGNET SCHOOL grabbed me with it's insistant melodies & strong guitar jangle, coupled with some left-field chord patterns that make it stand out. Can you comment on these 3 bands & releases in as much detail as you'd like, don't be shy! I'm interested in knowing how you found these bands, you know, the circumstances of that, how you think they've developed, etc. (I understand PHONOGRAPH already has a new EP out, is that on your label? How do you think they've progressed)?

MAURO: This could be a long answer. With Amplified Heat, my band had played with them when they were called Blues Condition. Around the time they changed their name I told Dave he had to check them out. Once he saw them we were pretty sure we would offer them something. They dug it as well and it has gone from there. I dig the progression they have gone. They have grown as a band and as songwriters. I think the new album is the best stuff they have done so far (not that the old stuff isn’t good) and I think they have a lot more to offer. I’m psyched to see what comes next.
Phonograph is a good story. So one of the guys in the band. John worked at Joel (from Book of Knots/Players Club) studio, Studio G, in Brooklyn. I guess Joel had mentioned us to them and they contacted us. The album was already done and they were just looking for someone to release it. I guess they had a label that was interested but fell through. Once I got it and listened, I was hooked. It is a great record and couldn’t be happier with the timing as far as our releases. It was something fresh and new for the label and added more diversity as well. The thing that struck me with them was the songwriting. To be honest I when I first heard it I didn’t think Tom Petty. I was reminded of old Neil Young and Uncle Tupelo. Must be how my brain works. Once the first person mentioned the Tom Petty thing I could see it, which isn’t a bad thing at all. The new EP is on a label called Red Ghost. I think it just came out in Dec. but has been available on iTunes for a while. It is a great release and I can only see better things coming from these guys as well. We hope to work with them in the future if they decided to.
With Magnet School, I’ve been buddies with Brandon and Mark. I work with Brandon at my day job and Mark at my other job. I knew there were working on this record for a while and once I got a final listen there was really no question that it was something we wanted to be associated with. As you mentioned the hooks and melodies are without question one of the best things that record offers, but also (as with Phonograph & Amp Heat) the songwriting is superb. From start to finish that record is top notch. It reminds me a lot of the great early 90’s bands that were breaking out around then. I’m psyched to see the response the release gets so far it has been really good and we can only expect more.

RAY: I've been wondering...what kind of money/time/effort is involved in say, finding a band like PHONOGRAPH, signing them & then getting them in the studio and getting an album done...from beginning to end? Of course, I know some monetary things & the like might be considered private or such, and I'm not trying to get in your "business" business, but how this all works behind the scenes, especially with a label that seems focused on artistic integrity is interesting to me.

MAURO: With Phonograph the album was already recorded so we worked with manufacturing and promoting the record. All our efforts went into marketing it as much as we could. We’re relatively small so it isn’t all that great but we do what we can. Pretty much with any release we work to promote it as much as possible. There’s no use in releasing something if no one knows it’s out there. That’s my philosophy. It’s difficult to compete with some of the bigger fish out there who have the funds to buy ads and hire huge PR firms to get the word out but we do what we can to squeeze our releases in there to get some notice.

RAY: I know you guys are based in Austin TX. I've kind of gotten the idea that Austin's a little bit of a musical mecca over the years, what with the Austin City Limits TV Show & also, isn't that South By Southwest Music Festival (I may have the name wrong) there? Is Austin really happening or are you going to tell me that my ideas are just blown out of proportion & the scene there really sucks? (Just kidding...I think :-) )

MAURO: Austin is a great music city. You can go out on any given night and see an array of different types of music. I wouldn’t live anywhere else in Texas that’s for sure. The scene here is great, unfortunately the bands that the mainstream sees aren’t some of the best ones Austin has to offer. There are ton of bands that have been doing it here for a long time who deserve their spot putting Austin on the map. They may not have that mainstream appeal but you can’t deny their tenacity with sticking with it. Lifers! I think we have a good mix of what Austin has to offer, but there are others such as Pong, New Disaster, Broken Teeth, The Bulemics, Crash Gallery, Gorch Fock, so many others. There is a label in town called Australian Cattle God. Those guys are putting out some killer Austin bands as well as some international acts. Anyone wanting to get a full array of what Austin has to offer should check them out (as well as our stuff, haha!)

RAY: Are most of the bands you sign from the local area?

MAURO: Some are but we also have release stuff from bands in NYC and Richmond, VA. Most are from Austin though.

RAY: Are many of the bands on Arclight touring nationally or even going across the pond? Can you give us an idea of what it takes, planning-wise, financially & all that to get a band scheduled for, let's say, a U.S. club-type tour, get 'em on the road, bring the whole thing off?

MAURO: Most of them have. It’s pretty infrequent unfortunately. With gas prices as high as they are it’s difficult. The last time I toured (2003) it was rough. I can only imagine now. Even with that most of the bands try and do runs around the release date of their albums. They understand that it helps. We help promote the tour as much as we can with PR. As far as the booking goes that is usually handled through an agent of the band itself. We make sure to promote as much as we can up to the tour to make sure the public knows they are coming through. None have made it across the pond yet. Would like to but it’s extremely difficult. Anyone reading this want to bring any of the band over let us know!

RAY: Are you always actively looking for new bands to sign? Do you have a kind of comfort-level with what you want as a roster, as far as number of bands, etc. and then hold off at that point & work with the bands you have?

MAURO: Yes and No as far as actively looking. I see and hear new stuff all the time. We receive tons of mail and email, but we have to somewhat picky. Like I said we’re a small operation, two guys, and our resources are limited. With any band we work with we definitely let them know what we will do for them. We are open an honest about that and that is one thing I think attracts bands to us. There really isn’t a limit as to how many bands we want but I don’t want to take on too many. That will take away from who we have and anyone else we sign on. It doesn’t help anyone involved, ya know? None of the bands are signed to contracts with us so are free to move along if they choose. Most have stuck around so I guess that’s saying something.

RAY: What do you see as the future of Arclight Records? Do you have a so-called "mission statement"? What do you think of the Led Zeppelin reunion? (What?!?!?) Will the Cowboys win the NFC? (Huh?!?!?) Seriously....what's in store?

MAURO: I see a release from SuperHeavyGoatAss in Spring 2008. An Arclight Showcase at SXSW 2008 (in March) featuring Phonograph, Amplified Heat, Magnet School, Freshkills, Tia Carrera, and SuperHeavyGoatAss
I guess our mission is to put out music we dig and to promote these bands as much as possible.
BTW, I’m psyched for eh Led Zep reunion. Clips I saw online looked awesome. Hopefully they will tour.

RAY: Any really funny, goofy or just plain obscene stories connected to the running of Arclight Records that you can share?

MAURO: Man, can’t think of any off the top of my head. When I was on tour with Speedloader our van broke down in New Jersey so we spent a week in NYC, which happened during the black out in 2003(?). Wasn’t funny at the time but in hindsight it definitely is. I think that was one of the best times I’ve ever had in the city.

RAY: Any final comments for our readers?

MAURO: Just want to say thanks for all the support we really do appreciate it. The music biz seems to be changing and it’s the real music lovers out there who are keeping it alive! Here’s to you! CHEERS!

The thing I really like about ARCLIGHT RECORDS is what’s embodied in their dialogue above. Here’s a label doing what they do with the main focus being the music itself and just diggin’ it…regardless of the genre. Sort of what RAYSREALM is all about, now that I think about it. J Check out these cool guys & what they’re doing at:

Nothing Unnatural About This!

AGAINST NATURE – “The Anxiety Of Influence” CD ’07 (Blandhand, US) – One of the things that I love about doing what I do is seeing a band take the “next step.” You get a lot of discs in the mail in this bizz and so many times you think to yourself, “Man, if these guys make that extra push they could really do something special.” Problem is, all too often, they never make that “next push.” Here is a case, and mark it down friends, as it doesn’t happen that often…a band has taken an absolute quantum leap. Maryland’s AGAINST NATURE has gone from being a pretty good doom band to something that could be called timeless. I have to admit when I first put this disc in the player & looked at the insert, I was expecting an EP. Reason is, there are 2 cuts listed, “Aporia” & “Mimesis.” However upon going further, it struck me that they were both in the 20-some-minute range. A quote from, of all people, The Eagles formed in my brain: “This could be heaven or this could be hell.” Dudes & dudesses, it’s the former. I honestly don’t have a completely good or well-prepared way to even describe how good these 2 lengthy-yet-highly-interesting and challenging pieces are. This is like what would have happened if Alex Lifeson, Tony Iommi, Peter Hammill & Burke Shelley got together at Rockfield Studios in 1977 and decided to roll tape. Heavy, yet melodic parts with a distinctly old-school & warm production flow together into acoustic passages, segueing with the deft touch of wily veterans and yet the brimming with the exuberance of young artists. And, with that all, they still rock! Special kudos go out to guitarist John Brenner who laces the entire disc with a complete study in tonal expression that ranges anywhere from warm, creamy Trower-ish sounds to sharp harmonics that would do Mr. Gibbons proud. His vocals also have gone from being a bit of a downer on some previous recordings to an absolute melodic asset here, full of expression & understated command. Wow, what a move these guys have made since last I heard them and I cannot over-emphasize how much you need this release by AGAINST NATURE. Awesome.

DRAWN & QUARTERED – “Merciless Hammer Of Lucifer” CD ’07 (Moribund, US) – Seattle, Washington. Known for grunge, Queensryche, coffee, rain and the bald-headed quarterback. Ok, maybe that’s not exactly fair…so no nasty emails from Seattle readers, ok, ‘cause your fair city has also been home to a very prolific if not pretty damn good death metal band called DRAWN & QUARTERED. Now understand, you’ll not find drastic innovation here. It’s not that 4-piece have been yawning their way through the last umpteen years & releases either, as this newest one shows me a band who are razor sharp and bent on aural destruction. Cuts like “Funeral Pyres Of Annihilation” & “Sodomy & Heresy” make you see why, quite often, less is more. Who needs all the extra instruments & gothic trappings of bands like Opeth when you can get your head removed by a buzz-saw like this?

ROTOR – “3” CD ’07 (Elektrohasch, Ger) – I really like Stefan K’s Elektrohasch label a lot. That’s because he always sends me stuff. No, just kidding. Well, not about him sending me stuff, as he does do that, but you want to know the real reason I dig the ‘Hasch? The releases are almost universally excellent. ROTOR’s new one, the imaginatively (!) titled “3” is surely excellent, something not easy to say about a lot of instrumental albums. Oft-times when I think of vocal-free recordings these days, I’m reminded of super-technical, feeling-less, classically-inspired wankery. Such is just so not the case with ROTOR. Those of you who just got their brand-spanking-new AARP cards (like me) will remember the days when you used to go into the head-shop/record store near the local college & find the long-haired, bearded, ultra-cool guy who ran the place spinning the latest import by Jane or Grobschnitt. That’s what this stuff reminds me of, just sans the vocals. And you know what? Tracks like “Hart Am Wind,” “Nordend” and “Kaltstart” find enough memorability among the jamming that you’ll never miss some yokel shouting over the proceedings. Good stuff again from Mr. Stefan & Co.!