Gut Bank – “The Dark Ages” (1986)

Recently a bunch of people who went to school for a really, really long time and have fancy initials after their names declared that the year 536 A.D. was officially the worst year to be alive. Ever. There were a few years in the early 1940s that could probably give old 536 A.D. a run for its money, but given that we didn’t have the internet then, or photography, or mail service, we’re probably going to have to take the scientists’ words for it. Turns out some volcanos were to blame. Doesn’t it seem like volcanoes and asteroid impacts get blamed for a lot of the truly awful stuff? This puts it toward the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages, which is apropos since the volcanos messed with the sunlight and such, making it generally gray and crappy for a while. Sounds like a sucky time to have been alive, though in reality most of human existence has been marginal at best, rotten at worst, for the vast majority of people who have ever lived. So to be officially the worst year ever… basically it’s the “We Built This City” (♠) of years.

You know what else the Dark Ages and Starship have in common, besides being all knee deep in the hoopla? Well, the two come together on Gut Bank’s only album. It’s entitled The Dark Ages, and it was recorded in 1985, the same year “We Built This City” topped the charts (♣). Coincidence? Of course not. I choose to believe that Gut Bank looked around at the musical vapidity of the time and thought, “you know, this is sort of the Dark Ages of music”, which given their style of sort of goth-y death rock probably seemed pretty true. And based on that, they named their debut.

So what about The Dark Ages? Well, for one thing, it’s surprisingly good. I’m a sucker for female-fronted bands, and three of Gut Bank’s members were ladies, so I figured I’d be off to a good start. Not quite goth, not quite post punk, not quite death rock, but more an amalgamation of all three stirred up and poured into my ears like a cold and somewhat murky cocktail, the kind that masks the flavors of the individual components to arrive at something uniquely its own. It’s gloomy, but more in a gray, foggy way than a dark nighttime way. “Lost Again” captures this vibe fully, a song that literally makes you feel as lost as the person in the lyrics.

My cutout copy of The Dark Ages has “Store Copy” scrawled across the front of it. I wonder what store had a store copy of this? Was it a record shop? I’m not sure. Feels like it more likely was some kind of outsider clothing store, or maybe a coffee shop, the kind where everyone working there exhibits complete disinterest in the customers but still manages to make outstanding lattes. And while I lack any sense of clothing fashion, I do like a good latte, and I also like The Dark Ages.

(♠) Is this song truly as bad as its reputation? I mean, it made it to #1 in the US charts. It’s easy to listen to it today, particularly if you watch the video and see the hair and clothing styles, and see it as something camp. And awful. But it wasn’t at the time. That was 1986, for real.

(♣) I’m kind of stretching things a bit here since this record, while recorded in 1985, was released in 1986. But don’t let the details get in the way of a good story.

Ho99o9 – “United States of Horror” (2017)

Ho99o9 (pronounced “Horror”) were on my short list of bands to see at Iceland Airwaves 2015, but unfortunately the closest I got to experiencing them was seeing the guys in the crowd at the Reykjavíkurdætur show at NASA, which they appeared to be enjoying quite a bit. I’m still pissed I didn’t catch them, and looking back at the schedule I can only guess that the reason was I just called it a night, as their one on-venue show was at 1:20AM. I’m getting soft in my old age.

What is not soft, however, is Ho99o9’s sound, a blend of hip hip and hardcore (check out “Sub-Zero”) with a splash of industrial (“Bleed War”) thrown in for good measure. The lyrics, whether about being hard on the streets or critiquing the socio-political order, are dark and violent. Personally I’m not a big lyrics guy, instead more focused on the sound and flow. That being said, it’s hard in this day and age to be shocked by anything. The idea of something like “Cop Killer” even being a blip on the radar seems almost impossible, though back in 1992 you’d have thought Ice-T should have been thrown in prison for writing a song given the outrage it caused. Today? That’s just par for the course. Stifle a yawn and click on the next YouTube clip. Rinse, wash, repeat. So while Ho99o9 are at times quite aggressive, it doesn’t feel particularly outrageous.

I like the sound, though. The distinctly different vocal styles of theOGM and Eaddy offer a lot of possibilities, and the duo explore them all, blending styles on the fly (there’s even some rockabilly on “City Rejects”) and holding it all together effortlessly.

Slap – “Downtime” (1985)

Usually when I sit down to write about an artist I’m not familiar with I do a few quick Google searches, which usually results in at least a few articles or interviews or basic background information. My initial search on Slap turned up almost nothing, as did a subsequent search on Stephen Nester, who is its only member. This piqued my interest and took me down an internet rabbit hole filled with false leads and dead ends. I think I finally tracked down the right Stephen Nester, but no way to connect with him via email. And as someone who has a lot of respect for others’ privacy, I’m not big on calling people out of the blue, and it’s 2018 so the idea of mailing someone a letter seems not only quaint but also a bit preposterous. So for now you successfully eluded me, Mr. Nester. But should you ever run across this post, I’d love to hear from you!

I’ve never written a short story before, but I’ve had an idea percolating in my brain for a while now that I think is intriguing… and Downtime sounds like the soundtrack to it, a sort of dystopian neo-noir with an undercurrent of tension and anxiety. This is especially true on “Homes That Aren’t”. At times the tracks lack a standard structure, but they maintain a stable setting of sorts like a film score designed around a specific scene. The bulk of the music is electronic, though some of the percussion feels like it could be analog and there are bass and saxophone credits on “From the Wrist”. Downtime isn’t quite avant garde, nor is it abstract, though it certainly flirts with both descriptions. Instead it’s something other, neither here nor there, each track clearly part of something visualized only by the artist himself that the listener can only speculate about. Which of course means that we, as the listeners, gain a certain freedom to make Slap’s music fit our own personal experience, unrestrained by lyrical meaning or some pre-defined aesthetic.

I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open for other Slap titles, as well as those by Nester’s other project, the duo The Happiness Boys.

Holz – “Demo I” Cassette (2018)

I went over to my little local used joint Vortex the other day to get some store credit out of our recent DVD purge. As Darren was going through the half dozen records I was going to take in trade, I saw this demo tape sitting on a shelf next to the register. “What’s the story with this?”, I asked. “Oh, they’re a local band,” Darren replied, “from Des Moines.” I asked about the style. “Well. They’re sort of…. they’re sort of industrial. Yeah, I guess that’s the best word for it.”

Sold.

Des Moines is about 20 minutes south of Seattle, much of it bordering Puget Sound and offering some amazing views. It’s also right in the flight pattern of nearby Seatac Airport, meaning that a lot of the property values aren’t so hot because of the noise – if your approach takes you south to north, you fly right over a lot of Des Moines neighborhoods at really low altitude, which has to suck if you live down there. Should we expect power industrial to come out of Des Moines? Perhaps.

Demo I sounds like it’s primarily played on instruments as opposed to electronics. While I love me some electro-industrial, sometimes it comes across as overly clean-sounding and sterile despite its best attempts to get down and dirty. That’s not a problem for Holz. It’s thick and grimy with that used motor oil viscosity, the kind that has some metal shavings in it from the motor friction, thickly slick yet still abrasive. The guitars are raw and unforgiving, gear-grinding like part of some giant motor. Percussion alternates between deep bass and snappy snares (especially on “Hollow”), leaving the bass guitar to push the flow and provide the foundation for the tracks. The vocals have an almost black metal growl to them, low and raspy. This is some killer stuff. If it reminds me of anything, it’s like an edgier version of early Tad. And coming from me, that’s high praise.

You should definitely go listen to these guys on their Bandcamp page HERE. These four tracks are a bargain at twice the price. The cassette release is super-limited in a hand-numbered edition of 15 copies, so not sure how you’ll be able to track one of those down – maybe reach out to the band via email. As for me, I’m bookmarking that page, because I need to keep tabs on what these guys are up to next.

Muted – “Empire” (2018)

Empire is exactly what I needed on a gray morning. I took the day before Thanksgiving off in an attempt to recover just a little from a grueling work schedule that will only get more intense over the next few weeks, but I still found myself spending an hour unraveling emails this morning and I have to jump on a conference call later. Such is the “day off” sometimes. I need something to chill out the mental burn, and Muted’s chillwave is certainly helping.

Muted is Icelander Bjarni Rafn Kjartansson, who currently lives and works in Germany like so many other electronic musicians from his homeland. One of these days I need to get over to Berlin and do some record shopping. Anyway… the vibe I get from Empire is something more upbeat than ambient, but more chill than house, a nice sweet spot that pumps enough energy into the room to act as the soundtrack to either hanging out or getting stuff done. “Vogue” has a pulsing low beat that’s near perfect, not to fast, not too slow, and ideal for my mood right now.

Six of Empire‘s ten tracks are instrumental, while the remaining four feature different female vocalists who also hail from Iceland, most notably Jófríður Ákadóttir (a.k.a. JFDR) and one of my favorites, DJ Flugvél Og Geimskip. The vocals stay within the general feel of the album, subtle and swaying, well integrated with the music. “Undraveröld ft. dj. flugvél og geimskip” probably stands out the furthest from the rest of the album, due in part to Flugvél’s unique style and the use of bird sounds, giving the whole thing a bit of out-in-nature whimsey.

Empire is available on the Muted Bandcamp page HERE, and it looks like you can still order the limited edition (of 150) vinyl as well.