Death Cult – “Brothers Grimm” EP

Southern Death Cult -> Death Cult -> The Cult

So given the incredibly detailed timeline I created above, you can see that Death Cult was a brief, transitional step in the development of the band that eventually became The Cult. They were pretty much Death Cult for about one year (1983), releasing the four-song EP Brothers Grimm and the two-song Gods Zoo. “Horse Nation,” the opening track on Brothers Grimm, later became the opening track on the band’s first album as The Cult, 1984s Dreamtime. See how it all fits together? In high school my friend John was a huge fan of The Cult. We took a road trip to Vancouver B.C. to buy bootleg records, and I seem to recall him being stoked about finding some Southern Death Cult and Death Cult stuff there that he brought home. He played the hell out of those.

Death Cult is very identifiable as The Cult. There’s no mistaking Ian Astbury’s voice and Billy Duffy’s signature guitar riffs. No one does plaintive, beseeching, begging desperation like Astbury, who alway seems to be in a state where he might just lose control at any given moment. Musically The Cult always sounds like they recorded their songs in some old European cathedral with the sort of echoey sound in both the music and the vocals, and that’s certainly true on Brothers Grimm as well. I love their sound, though I have to confess it does make the songs kind of start to sound the same after a bit.

The jacket of my copy is totally thrashed as you can probably tell, and I had to do a serious cleaning job on the vinyl itself, but it seems to have held up pretty well. At four songs it’s the perfect length for me, and I know this one will be getting more play.

Frakkarnir – “1984”

Mike Pollock’s name seems to pop up all over the place in the Icelandic music scene during the 1980s. He was a member of Utangarðsmenn, Bodies, and Das Kaptial, plus released a solo album called Take Me Back in 1981. The singer/guitarist covered a lot of musical ground from punk to hard rock to folk. Not bad for a kid born in California and who didn’t move to Iceland until the 1970s when he was already a young adult. By 1984 he was ready to take on something new: new wave.

As he does on Take Me Back, Pollock sings in English on 1984, making the album much more approachable for non-Icelandic speakers. It’s a new wave record, but certainly one with other musical influences such as disco (“Boogie Man”) and some heavy doses of funk (“1984”). The sound is a bit on the darker side of new wave, with a dive bar vibe, a feeling like you’re in a big, impersonal city on a cold rainy night and need to hunker down for a bit and have a shot and a smoke before going back outside. It’s right there in the song titles – “New York,” “Berlin,” “Babylon,” “Armagedon,” [sic] and “1984” (about an Orwellian not-so-distant future). Side B in particular captures a feeling of alienation that is difficult to escape.

Just because you’re paranoid,
That doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.
— “1984”

1984 is a solid new wave effort, every bit as good as the more well-known albums coming out at the time. Definitely worth a listen.

The Devil Makes Three – “I’m A Stranger Here”

I knew I was going to by a copy of I’m A Stranger Here at the exact same moment I knew that The Devil Makes Three were releasing a new album, and it was going to be called I’m A Stranger Here.

There are any number of reasons why I’ll buy an album. In my younger days I’d often buy a record or CD on the strength of one song. Sometimes I won, like when I got Van Halen’s 1984 when “Jump” came out (which, for the record, is maybe the third best song on that album). Sometimes this strategy failed me, as was evidenced by my copy of Winger’s 1988 eponymous debut purchased strictly on the disturbing “Seventeen,” a song that didn’t sound nearly as bad when I was still in high school. Today many of my more shot-in-the-dark purchases are based on liking bands similar to the one I’m considering. But then there are bands like The Devil Makes Three. Bands who have earned my loyalty and who will automatically get my hard earned cash when they release something new, and who will probably have to put out two consecutive crappy albums before I’d stop buying their stuff.

Holly and I have see The Devil Makes Three live in at least four different venues in Seattle (The Crocodile, Neumos, Shobox Market, and El Corozon)… and they’re not even from here. In fact they’re playing Shobox Sodo in February, and I think we’ll be going to that show too. Plus we’ve seen singer Pete Bernhard play a solo set at The Tractor. Needless to say, we love us some Devil Makes Three, so don’t expect an unbiased review. You’ve been warned.

The Devil Makes Three describe themselves as “Bluegrass, Folk, Country” on their Facebook page, and I’ve also seen them labelled as alt-country. Hell, maybe they’re cow punk. Who cares? What they are for sure are three musicians with a stand-up bass and some combination of zero, one, or two guitars and/or banjos, depending on the song. Sometimes they have a guest fiddle player, and I think on I’m A Stranger Here they enlist the services of a drummer at times (something they don’t do live). Regardless, what you get is some high energy, down-home-country Americana. When you see them live the crowd includes men wearing kilts unironically, people drinking tallboys, and lots of tattoos. It will be fun.

It wouldn’t be fair to call I’m A Stranger Here a departure from the band’s sound on their previous albums, but there is something different going on here. It feels like the trio got deeper into roots music, making a record that is more closely tied to the original source material than a sort of punked up version of it.

Hallelu Hallelu, praise the lord and pass the ammunition too,
They say Jesus is comin’, he must be walkin’ he sure ain’t runnin’,
Who can blame him, look how we done him, Hallelu!
— “Hallelu”

This music is irreverent. It’s about hard people and hard times. Religion and loss and violence bubble up under the surface as the band introduces you to determined and flawed people who live life according to their own code.

I need you and I want you ’cause I know you from before,
I hate you and I fear you but I hold open the door,

I see you and you see me and we know what must be done,
So we draw knives and lock eyes ’cause it does no good to run.
— “Goodbye Old Friend”

I’ve listened to this record five times already and I’m still having a hard time pinning it down. I know that the best “single” is probably the second song, “Worse or Better,” but also that I like side B way better than side A, with “Hallelu” and “Hand Back Down” getting my attention and feet moving. It may or may not be the band’s best album (only time will tell…), but it does sound like the most authentic as The Devil Makes Three truly captures the southern, working class sound that is the essence of their material. It might not have been intended as a tribute to those roots, and it may only represent a simulacrum of what we envision music from that era was actually like, but it still beautifully captures a moment and place in time, and the people who populate it.

Book Review – “Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland” by Dr. Gunni

Dr. Gunni, aka Gunnar Larus Hjalmarsson, is pretty much the de facto guru of Icelandic popular music history. He’s been an “insider” in the scene for decades both as a fan and a musician, having played in his first ever concert in 1980 with the band Dordinglar at the ripe old age of 14, opening for established punk rockers Utangarðsmenn and Fræbbblarnir. He’s been in a number of bands including Bless, Unun, and one of my favorites S. H. Draumur, almost became a member of HAM, and has been involved in projects with Björk. Most recently he put out a children’s album called Alheiminn. To say he knows the Icelandic music scene would be an understatement.

In 2012 Gunni released Stuð vors lands, a beautiful, massive coffee table book about the history of popular music in Iceland. It’s a big hardback in a sturdy slipcover, 442 pages full of high quality photos that trace the development of the scene from about 1900 forward. Stuð vors lands was released during Iceland Airwaves last year and Holly and I attended the book launch party at a Reykjavik book store, which included a who’s who of 1980s Icelandic music and featured live performances from a number of former greats. Despite the price (this is a high quality, low print run product…) and the fact that it’s written entirely in Icelandic (which I don’t speak), I picked up a copy because if for no other reason the photos made it worth it. Plus if I get really ambitious I can always type some text into Google Translate and see if I can make sense of what it gives me (not always easy). I looked at it as a sort of “must have” for someone interested in Icelandic music.

When we were back in Reykjavik this April I heard Gunni was working on an English language version of Stuð vors lands so I sent him an email and offered to help if there was anything he needed. He got back to me right away and while he didn’t need help with the project I ended up over at his place and bought a few items from his record collection that he was just about to start selling off. Timing is everything! It was also at that meeting that I found out the new project would be called Blue Eyed Pop and would hopefully be available for Airwaves 2013. I was excited, to say the least.

Sure enough, the somewhat smaller (but still oversized) softback Blue Eyed Pop was all over Reykjavik at Airwaves this year and I made sure to pick up a copy. As near as I can tell it’s more or less a condensed version of Stuð vors lands, about half the length at 220 pages but still covering the entirety of the country’s popular music history. It’s heavily illustrated (most if not all the photos also appeared in Stuð vors lands) and provides a history that is both wide-ranging and concise. The period of most interest to me, from the start of the punk movement circa 1980 to the present day, is roughly 60% of the book, so there are ample photos, anecdotes, and band histories to keep me both informed and entertained. There are some cool added features as well, such as a music history map of Reykjavik and a number of various lists of the top rated and top selling Icelandic albums of all time, useful for someone looking to dip their toes into earlier material.

In reading Blue Eyed Pop a few common threads in Icelandic music seem to weave in and out. Up until around the late 1970s bands tended to rely fairly heavily on covers, something I’ve noticed on the handful of older records I’ve tracked down over the years. This makes some sense when you think about living in a very isolated place in the pre-internet days, when much if not most of the new music coming to the island came from American armed forces radio and Icelanders who traveled overseas and brought music home with them. Their exposure was to the hits, which makes it harder to develop a broader scene. The second part is the drive to leave Iceland and find wider international success, which often resulted in bands touring the smallest clubs in the UK or the US, playing in front of sparse crowds and surviving on near starvation diets. Fortunately today it is simple both for Icelanders to access music from the rest of the world, and to share their amazing bands as well.

As to why there is so much incredible music coming out of Iceland these days, Gunni has some ideas about that:

It’s an isolated island on the top of the world. We get everything, we hear
all the music we want (thanks to the internet), and maybe there isn’t so
much else to do than meet your friends and make some music (or at least
when you’ve gotten bored with the internet).

Musician Mugison thinks the island’s isolation also contributes to the uniqueness that each band seems to bring to the table.

Say somebody is copying me and they release a song. I think the chances
are that, within one week of them releasing the song, they’ll run into me in
Reykjavik, or at some place, some venue, some street, and they’ll feel
awkward, because they know everybody, who’s saying, “Hey, you’ve got
the same sound as him; you’re just copying him.” And that’s kind of nice,
because then you’re forced to at least try to make your own voice.

Blue Eyed Pop is the perfect resource for the English speaker who wants to learn more about the history of music in Iceland. Gunni maintains a brisk pace, so even if you’re not interested in the band you’re reading about at the moment, give it a couple of pages and you’ll be learning about something new. The only other English language book length treatment of the subject I know if is Paul Sullivan’s Waking Up In Iceland: Sights and Sounds from Europe’s Coolest Hotspot (2003), though that takes a somewhat different approach (though I do recommend it as well) and is really a compliment to Blue Eyed Pop. The one criticism I have of the book is the lack of an index (Stuð vors lands has one, as does Sullivan’s book), which would make it easier to find info on specific bands and albums as a given band might well appear in multiple chapters. That being said, I highly recommend it for both the casual and serious fan. Takk, Dr. Gunni!

The Weir – “Yesterday’s Graves”

When you’re in a relationship with someone for a period of time you start to develop habits and inside jokes that only you two know. My wife and I have something along these lines related to Calgary. We went through a phase where we watched pro wrestling on TV together, getting kicks out of the crazy story lines and sometimes being blown away by tremendous (and often incredibly risky) physical feats. One of our favorite “heels” was Lance Storm, a too-stiff-to-believe guy with a buzz cut who’s Canadian citizenship was always part of his schtick. Seemingly whenever he got the mic he’d remind you he was from “Calgary [long pause… wait for it… wait for it…] Alberta, Canada!” So pretty much any time we hear someone say Calgary, you can bet the two of us will try to “out-Lance-Storm” each other and drop an “Alberta, Canada” at just the perfect time, usually 3-4 seconds after hearing “Calgary”. Other people, of course, find this odd at best, annoying at worst.

So what the hell does Lance Storm have to do with self-described sludge / post-hardcore / ambient band The Weir? Well, they’re from Calgary [wait for it!]… Alberta, Canada too. But unlike their wrestling city-mate, The Weir aren’t funny. They’re slow and heavy, like oil draining from a cold engine. Like Godzilla stomping his way through Tokyo. Like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders and trying to take a step.

The band description raised my eyebrows. I wasn’t quite sure how those genres fit together, but I have to admit I was intrigued. When I went to their homepage to listen to their new album Yesterday’s Graves (see below), I wasn’t surprised to see they only had six songs… that seems pretty punk rock. But I was surprised that those six songs provided over 42 minutes of music. Very un-punk. The Weir aren’t here to short-change you with quick hardcore numbers. Oh no. Like all good things, their songs take time to develop. This isn’t quick-in-quick-out. They’re taking you somewhere, and it’s a slow, methodical journey, sometimes heavy, sometimes quiet. And you’re just along for the ride.

The Weir give us two distinctive sounds on Yesterday’s Graves – one that is quiet, and one that is insistent. Somehow they weave these two disparate themes together into something that fits. In the middle of the album “La Belle Curve” is an eight minute instrumental that starts slow, picks up somewhat, but not a ton, in the middle, and then slowly trails off over the last couple of minutes before it finally seems to simply lose momentum to the point where it comes to a complete stop on its own, like the expanding universe may eventually do, slowly and ever more quietly approaching its end. This is the ambient. But then follows “In Silence,” which starts almost like a continuation of “La Belle Curve,” like the universe found just a bit more energy and is starting to come back to life… and it starts to build… insistently… and just over a minute in the growling vocals start to appear… energy… power… slowly starting to crush you. How did we get here? Things were so quiet and still just a minute or so ago! You don’t know. You didn’t see it coming. And that, my friends, is the power of The Weir, a microcosm of their sound in two songs.

To me, Yesterday’s Graves isn’t six songs. It’s one song. It’s one message from The Weir to the universe. I couldn’t tell you which song is my “favorite” because that doesn’t seem to make any sense in the context of this album, which I think is best played straight through, start to finish. I’m kind of glad I’m not listening on headphones, because I think I’d have been put into a trance and transported into some kind of mind-trip. Which sounds cool as hell, but it’s a bit too sunny outside for that journey right now. Maybe tonight when it gets dark and quiet…

Simply put, Yesterday’s Graves is one of the best new albums I’ve heard this year. Period.

Yesterday’s Graves is currently available online for a free listen, and you can also purchase the download. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Dude, this isn’t vinyl. True. But… [wait for it!] it’ll be on vinyl soon! In fact, according to the band’s Facebook page they already got the test pressings. So it’s coming. And it will be worth the wait. And you need to be ready so you can buy your copy before what I’m guessing will be a relatively small release is sold out. You seriously don’t want to miss out on this, because Yesterday’s Grave is some killer stuff.