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Bogdo Ula, The Return of the Sons of Ra

02 Dec, 2013 Reed Burnam

In a fashion true to their dedication to formlessness and improvisational exploratory maneuvers, Finnish native sons and power post-jazz trio Bogdo Ula are back with their newest full-length, The Return of the Sons of Ra.  And it just may be their deepest excursion into open space yet.  The Return of the Sons of Ra comprises nine tracks of long-form experimental compositions that run the gauntlet from cold interstellar panegyrics, to bustling deep space technical wizardry, stretching out laterally to encompass even those wholly disjointed and anarchic event horizons.

Coming on the heels of a steady stream of recent full-length releases, including most recently 2011’s Prisoners of Freedom and 2012’s excellent Crash Canis Majoris, Bogdo Ula’s newest is yet another gem of a record by a damned talented and versatile band, and another meaty slab of experimental improv and avant post-jazz that is listenable, literate, and often head-turningly well-played.  Add in that the record is nearly 100% one-take, free improvisation centered loosely on themes both visual and theoretical, and you begin to get a picture of what’s in store on this one.  Recorded over five days in the Finnish countryside, The Return of the Sons of Ra showcases once again that the band’s approach of incorporating Zappa’s idea of “instant compositions” into their avant-jazz stew is bearing fruit.  So fasten those seat belts and prepare for lift-off, because this one is a mover and a shaker.

Bogdo Ula’s present line-up consists of guitarist and tone-bender Samuli Kristian, bassist and low-end technician Jean Ruin, and drummer/percussionist Ivan Horder expressive and explosive flourishes.  Since 2010’s Charge, when Ruin’s bass was imported to fill out the duo composed of Kristian and Horder, Bogdo Ula have managed to evolve with each subsequent release.  Culling together disparate lines of influence from Zorn to Zappa (with a dash of Sun Ra, Beefheart, and Hawkwind thrown in for taste), the group’s sounds have oscillated between twin poles of melodic, technical exposition and a nearly all-out postmodern amorphousness, indebted to decades of sonic dismantlement at the hands of everyone from Peter Brotzman to John Cage.  While Bogdo Ula’s compositions tend to accentuate the trio’s penchant for jazz-rock, 2012’s Crash Canis Majoris, and especially their most recent release The Return of the Sons of Ra, have begun to drift even further away from fixed points and firm horizons, drawing the group deeper into the free jazz/ambient soundscape nexus.  A great step for a maturing band that has no problem delivering on the technical prowess, these extended forays into interstellar space are bound to be intercepted positively by their listening public back here on earth, and are a window into an evolving sound being churned out by a group musicians refusing to compromise for the sake of tonal safety.

Taking off with the hushed whispers of album opener “Yours ‘til the End of Dance”, Bogdo Ula are quick to establish mood and shape, though by the turn of subsequent track “Sons of Ra”, it’s clear that the approach has shifted somewhat since 2011’s Prisoners of Freedom.  While that album tended to rely heavily on a type of meandering, post-Hendrix guitar squall over Ruin and Horder’s competent rhythm substructure, The Return of the Sons of Ra has a lot more space to it, literally and figuratively.  “Sons of Ra” is as airtight as a hyperlock over Ruin’s wandering bass grumble, while adjoining track “Killing Horizon” is moody and restrained until opening up at the midpoint and letting Kristian’s guitar theatrics launch.  “Full Hyperspace” slow builds until letting go, with full tilt skin-bashing by Horder underneath Krisitan’s finger-tapped guitar lines, while “Aludra” starts off (and remains) brooding and congested, skulking about under the fluttering instrumentation.  An album standout, “Io Gas and Coal Company Wish You Bon Voyage” highlights all three players in their own syncopated niches, with a soothing celestial wind of a melody line whispering through the bass and percussion, and does well to illustrate some of the restraint and air Bogdo Ula are allowing into their compositions (a necessary element for any improv instrumental outfit).  Not content to rest long, “Arcs Come Down” is another standout, angular and jostling and never situated in anything that could be said to resemble a ‘groove’.  Good stuff.  “Flank Speed” returns the favor, pumping up the volume to a near fever pitch under Kristian’s tone-shifted guitar lines alongside Ruin and Horder’s propulsive rhythm section.  Finally, “I Left Tomorrow (1,5 Parsecs in No Time At All!)” finishes the album out on the atonal track, sounding vaguely metallic and nowhere near melodic, adrift in some extraterrestrial ocean.

Bogdo Ula keep on exploring, and in the process, keep on challenging themselves to push onwards and ever upwards.  As a result, The Return of the Sons of Ra stands amongst their best and most mature work, soundly showcasing all the technique and talent this trio has at their fingertips, while pulling back when necessary so as not to drown any one composition.  Kristian, Ruin, and Horder have put together a project that pulls it all together, and you might want to take a listen.

Reviewer: Reed Burnam
Rating: 4.5 Stars (out of 5)

Agapanthus, Smug

28 Mar, 2013 Reed Burnam

It should be a fitting opening volley that multi-talented composer and physicist Thomas D. Gutierrez (aka Agapanthus) describes his sophomore effort Smug as “a nu rock onslaught of mathy incidental music with haiku overtones”.  Barring the haiku reference (this reviewer has yet to uncover the contours of that little mystery), all else under the sun may well be on the table here, with Smug’s forty-three minutes jammed with all manner of musical befuddlery, from snarky electronic skitter (‘Lull Groovex”) to taffy metal machine chops (“Smuggy E”), to Looney Tunes soundtracks via a Nintendo Entertainment System (“Twitch”), classic Bay Area psych folk (“Pipe Dream”), and cryogenically frozen ambient landscapes (“Torpid”).  Through it all shines Gutierrez’s obvious affinity for all things left of homogenous, as well as an ear for melody, movement, and general cognitive dissonance that makes Smug gel better than your average freak-out! mixtape, even as it manages to traverse about a light year of genre distinctions in its short showing.

Clocking in at a scant ten tracks (compared with 2012 full length Pretty Blue Glow, which boasts twenty seven), Smug is pulling from a lot of sources.  There’s an obvious umbilical straight to avant/ambient electro pioneers such as John Cage and Brian Eno as well as the undying spirit of genre benders such as John Zorn and Frank Zappa, not to mention the spazz jazz antics of later thrash fretters such as Mr. Bungle and the Flying Luttenbachers, just to name a few of the bubbles that coming rising to the surface of this musical gumbo.  Much as with the Bay Area-based boundary hopping freak composer underground collectively known as the Immersion Composition Society secretly carving hermetic symbols into the modern musical consciousness (of which this reviewer has been a card carrying member for over a decade), experimentalism and sound play seem to be the name of the game here.  Though they say there’s nothing new under the sun, and we begrudgingly admit that they are correct about this, the arrangements of the various playing pieces are near limitless, all but ensuring that they will be arranged and rearranged into glorious postmodern pistachio over and over again.  And what else would you expect from an artistic output self-described as “backwards classic songs arranged forwards, punky jams based on transcendental numbers, comical suites inspired by egg wizards, lyrical homophonic heterographs, ambient feminism, and recursive metacognition”?  Natch.

Smug hits the switches straight off the opening mark, with “A Knight in November” featuring an ethereal piano progression and Gutierrez’s watery vocal lines effecting a mood not unlike a b-side from TV on the Radio, only to drop straight out into the disco ball fiesta of “Lull Groovex”, which isn’t content to keep the party too stagnant for too long, with its big brew-hah metal guitars breaching the bridge for a spell.  Spastic “Smuggy E” is halfway to the neo-no-wave of tune destructors such as The Locust and Austin, TX’s unrivaled Brown Whornet, folded up against the soundtrack-ish space flutter of “Gravity” and the thoughtful jazz tiptoes of “Smuggy Pi”.  “Pipe Dream” pulls it back down to earth (and shows a little of Gutierrez’s vocal elasticity), while “Night in November” relays a nice instrumental take on the album opener before stepping into the short fill of “Jesus Physics”.  Arguably a centerpiece of the record, the nearly half hour ambient laser show “Torpid” could well be Robert Rich’s lost alternate soundtrack to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, waltzing the gentle ambient spires and valleys to good measure and managing to do the genre justice (not easy, as so many people think upon hearing ambient music for the first time).  Finally, “Twitch” might as well have been recorded on that same four key contraption Hirokazu Tanaka used for all those 80’s NES games.

While Smug may flit a little too easily from genre to genre for some listeners, what everyone should agree on has to be Gutierrez’s ability to pull disparate source material together with a steady focus that’s more or less on point throughout Smug, making for an enjoyable and quirky listen.

Reviewer: Reed Burnam
Rating: 3.5 Stars (out of 5)



Agapanthus, Pretty Blue Glow

28 Mar, 2013 Reed Burnam

Pretty Blue Glow is the debut LP from Cali-based Agapanthus, the brainchild recording project of one Thomas D. Gutierrez, Cal Poly physics professor by day and out-of-left field guerilla composer by night.  A somewhat more restrained affair than Agapanthus’ newest mathy barn-raiser Smug, the twenty seven tracks on Pretty Blue Glow still contain Gutierrez’s trademark musical folding of genre concepts back onto themselves, a pot of melodic stew that blends variegated strains of jazz, rock, lo-fi, muzak, avant, and otherwise into a nice chunky consistency best consumed hot.

On Pretty Blue Glow, Gutierrez displays his obvious respect for mad scientist eclecto-composers from Eno to Zorn, hitting the requisite watermarks for experimentation and eccentricity while still buttressing his own unique vision in the grander scheme (aka not aping).  Much like the recently released Smug, the tracks on Pretty Blue Glow march in lockstep to their own personal drummer boy, without a seeming thought or care to the whims and whiles of trend or taste of the week, an always evergreen take on the process of making music that one wishes would engulf the rest of the playing field with all the vim and vigor of a smallpox outbreak.  Fat chance though, so we take what we can get.

There’s a seemingly more restrained feel percolating through Pretty Blue Glow’s highways and byways, or perhaps simply a larger conglomeration of the jazz lounge, muzak, and near baroque influences present here than on the more nuanced and fleshed out Smug, with Pretty Blue Glow getting the job done but almost coming off like a long collection of odds and sots rather than a fully cohesive record.  Hence the inclusion of suitcase-sized chucks of Agapanthus’ effort here, or suites rather, with the bizarre “Eggboy and the Oomancer” video-accompaniment quadrant filling up one wing, the “Core” tracks and groove requiems, and the collection of four various “theme” pieces of differing name and feel.  Not content to simply divvy up the multi-hued goods into their own separate containers, by the time album closer “Thinking About Thinking About Thinking” rolls around (a play on previous track “Thinking About Thinking”), one can almost see the gears turning over in Gutierrez’s creative arc, whirring back and forth until the edges of individual pieces start to blur with the same type of smelting that Agapanthus applies to genre distinctions.  Still, with near thirty tracks filling out this beast, Gutierrez has room to play with, and Pretty Blue Glow manages to cover more thematic ground than your average garage composer would see fit to edge in over a string of albums.

And there’s some good stuff here, be sure fair listener.  There’s the dancehall electricity guitars of opener “You Can Never Leave”, the bubbly Renaissance pop of “My Sweet Satan”, the ghost of Henry Mancini welling up in “Dapper”, the acid haze mandolin and frenetic drum rolls of “Spooky Farmers” (a personal favorite), and the easy listening contours of “Thinking About Thinking” (incidentally one of the few vocal tracks on the album).  As usual, Gutierrez takes pains to shift the gears at regular intervals, seemingly not content to run too far afield in search of one or another muse for too long.  Title track “Pretty Blue Glow” listens like a Looney Tunes car chase with heart, “Elevator” tosses off some sly political innuendo over a dirty little ditty, while “Wherever You Walk” reworks a melody slice vaguely reminiscent of a Christmas carol, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” I believe, into a type of jazzy video game juggernaut (and if I’m not mistaken, “Caro Mio Ben” maybe does the same; I don’t know, I’m not up on my audio religious agitprop).  And let’s not forget the brief mention of things to come, with “Lull” and “Lull Reprise” hinting at tracks of the same name that populate the more recent Smug.  Again, what shines through the whole affair is Gutierrez’s love of many things eclectic, and like Smug, the assortment on Pretty Blue Glow is a rather differentiated listen if not somewhat celebratory of its own diffuseness, and in doing so, might just turn your ear as well.  Check it out, y’all.

Reviewer: Reed Burnam
Rating: 2.5 Stars (out of 5)


Rory McMillan, Doing the Best I can (Selected Home Recordings 2005-2012) – LP

19 Feb, 2013 Reed Burnam

If you’re looking for a dose of home recorded goodness, look no further than Rory McMillan’s newly released Doing the Best I Can (Selected Home Recordings 2005 – 2012).  Now you may be asking yourself: who is this Rory McMillan, and why do I want to hear these home recordings of his?  Apt questions, so let me assure you: you don’t know who Rory McMillan is.  You probably haven’t seen his tweets, either, or heard of any of his previous band affiliations.  That’s because Rory is just a dude playing some instrumental music at home, recording it for posterity, and deciding to release it in album format.  Sure, he’s played in some bands around his native Knoxville, and had a hand at some different types of stuff (rock, folk, church music, etc), but on Doing the Best I Can, it’s all Rory.  And what you get is, in this reviewer’s opinion at least, all the better for the heightened level of insularity.

Though a few of the tracks on Doing the Best I Can sport some vocals, McMillan is really at his best when creating eclectic little musical windows into what could be described as more feeling or visual than “song” per se.  Rather than try to box in or over-complexicate his compositions, McMillan is content to let the myriad little ideas speak in a more monotone yet energizing cadence that works well with his downplayed musical sensibilities, and as such Doing the Best I Can is chock full of short, colorful compositions that seem ready made for film soundtracks and other segue ways.  McMillan obviously has an ear for melody, and while some may accuse many of the tracks on Doing the Best I Can of being overly simplistic, the argument can also be made for a type of evergreen beauty in simplicity and dog-eared earnestness, the two biggest assets McMillan has going for him here.

Standout tracks such as “Dancing ‘Round the Campfire”, “Jazz and Nag Champa”, and “Song for the Setting Sun” have a really nice dated quality to them, stemming from what sounds like a McMillan’s heavy use of a Casio keyboard of some sort, with its pre-set tones and canned drumbeats.  But rather than come off as totally cheesy, what arises in some of McMillan’s finest moments on Doing the Best I Can calls up (very) faint comparisons to Another Green World-era Eno, or perhaps the melodic simplicity of early Magnetic Fields.  Indeed, much of the charm of McMillan’s album derives from the dated (yet decidedly non-“retro”) sounds emanating from his choice of instrumentation and drum sequencing, which is simple and quirky, lending those same sentiments to the compositions themselves.  Structurally, verses, choruses, and bridges are used extremely sparingly, and for much of the album, individual tracks set up a melodic arc early on and then plug away, some shorter and some a bit longer, with the average track sitting right around two minutes or so.  There’s folk-laden pop jaunts (“Three Blind Mice See Again”), whimsical interlocks of sparse guitar and bass over bargain basement percussion (“Appalachian Mountain Hop”), introspective pieces that sound straight off of a late 80’s NES-console (“On Through the Maze”), and bedroom hip-hoppers without the lyrics (“Ode to the Next Michael Jordan”).  When McMillan sings, the results are mixed, though his voice isn’t necessarily to blame, it’s just that the instrumentals are more fun.  The rainbow folk of “Glue it Back” sounds like it could be an outtake from Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs-era Elf Power, and “Cultivating Resistance” is brooding and self aware, with McMillan painting an overall theme of personal improvement and spiritual searching in all the lyrical pieces on the album.  In all, Doing the Best I Can may not sound professional, and it may not be the most prolific or best played record you’ve heard today.  But there’s enough raw ideas and heart here to make up for it, and one hopes that McMillan continues to maintain the sense of easy whimsy, melody, and accessibility found here on future recordings.

On a related note: though it’s been said elsewhere and more eloquently, it remains true that much of what constitutes the “form a band/record an album/play some shows/record an album” conundrum is still just varying degrees of fashion, hype, and salesmanship, all slanted and enchanted and run ragged through the teeth of the slowly dissolving “industry” walking hand in hand with the social media ego-strokers.  Even phenomenal bands and musicians that should know better are susceptible to the same games in an effort to sell records or get laid or whatever.  Nobody’s really faulting them for it (well, some of them at least), that’s just the way it is.  But hey hey, there’s always been a better way – and if it all bums you out a little too much sometimes, look no further for a reboot than to that neighbor of yours who stays up late fiddling with his ancient Tascam 4-track, or the girl you work with who’s recorded 20 albums but never got around to distributing them.  They’re out there in force, and if you want a refreshing dip into the pool of the eternal muse in the digital era, just put your swim trunks on.  The internet isn’t just a series of tubes; (here’s hoping) it just may be the Waterloo of all things establishment, so get out there and listen to something different already.

Reviewer: Reed Burnam
Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)


perkXsounlabs “Rapidamente”

02 Oct, 2012 Reed Burnam

Rapidamente is the newest album from Arizona’s native son Paul Roland Perkes, aka perkXsoundlabs.  Coming hot on the heels of Perkes’ earlier offering String Theory (June 2012), Rapidamente is another collection of catchy, kitschy, and classic chiptune and electronica tracks that hearken back to an earlier period of electronically manufactured music, both in sound and feel.  The album is comprised of sixteen instrumental tracks which seem to pulsate with Perkes’ personal scientific gravitas (the guy holds a degree in physics and numerical analysis), and this larger mindset seems to fashion the color and the shape of Rapidamente’s overall thrust.  This is thinking man’s electro, perfect for late night drives as well as the soundtrack for cramming for your calculus mid-terms.

There’s something simple and effective about Perkes’ approach to beat connections, and with String Theory and now Rapidamente, he has proved himself as an aptly equipped vehicle for funneling an archetypal yet suitably forward looking electronic fever pitch (think Kraut, Kraftwerk especially, as well as other similarly ensconced acts such as Neu! and Tangerine Dream).  Tracks on Rapidamente trough and swell on what might be considered a simple, un-nuanced logical arc by those who are less than educated about electronica’s divergent root-stock, as there’s none of the flash in the pan dynamics, overwrought vocals, and chunky club drops and stutters found in many more mainstream outings.  Thus Perkes’ record should be readily embraced by those who have an ear for more subtle, retro, and nuanced electronic textures.  Not to suggest that the album doesn’t kick it into high gear in its own time, though (check out the slow build and eventual upswing of “Empty Spaces”, the afterburner jet fuel of title track “Rapidamente”, or the jittery vacuum contours of “Intrinsic”, for two examples).  In all, there’s a little something for everyone here, and Rapidamente delivers a diverse enough sound spread to appeal to a pretty wide fan base, seems.

Much like the previous String Theory, Rapidamente delivers a cohesive dose of measured melody, and there’s an underlying current to Perkes’ concoctions that is familiar across the entirety of the album, a certain style that is his own that comes out on all the tracks.  Where Rapidamente builds on its predecessor is in terms of the diversity and depth of its contents, and tracks on this record tend to progress well and show more differentiation from one another.  While String Theory was quite a good record, as a collection of tracks Rapidamente builds and progresses off Perkes’ previous foundations and presents the listener with a full spectrum heroic dose of varied electronic goodness that doesn’t show very many seams and remains pretty diverse throughout.  “Dreams of Conquest” is quite video-game like in approach, all victorious and soaring.  “Opportunity” gives up the claustrophobic Darwinian space rock, backing into the piano rolls and running man theatrics of “Above the Clouds”, while “Serengeti Sunrise” is the sound of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking fronting an intergalactic funk outfit astride a dark matter mobius strip.  “Infinite Hope” is an album standout, with aptly moody and moving melodics that channel and refashion the classic feel that Perkes’ is rocking all over Rapidamente, with some cool theramin, circuit bending like effects surfacing mid-track like interstellar whale songs.  “Opus Zero” features a nice, baroque piano line that blends into something like futuro-chamber pop, while “Caught in the Web” starts out unassuming enough, only to drop the big four on the floor drums right on your dome, with some interestingly off-kilter changes peppered through the track, and “Joyful” might be described as the future sound of London filtered through some archaic Kraut tent revival out near Orion’s belt somewhere.  “Evolution” completes the scene, and is all kinds of dated sounding, though not necessarily in a bad way, dig?

Rapidamente is perkXsoundlabs second release of 2012, and according to Perkes’ bio, about 30 years in the making.  What with the planetary shift to second tier consciousness looming large, one can only imagine what 2013 will bring.  Hold on to your hats, folks.

Rapidamente – LP

Rating: 3.5 Stars (out of 5)

Reviewer: Reed Burnam