Sun Ra – “Fate In A Pleasant Mood” (1965)

Sun Ra is primarily known for his more experimental music, but when Fate In A Pleasant Mood was recorded in 1960 (it wasn’t released until 1965) he and his Arkestra were still in the midst of their Chicago Phase, a period when they were transitioning towards the sound that would later define them. This performance is, at least to my untrained ears, fairly straight forward. There are hints of free jazz sprinkled about to be sure, but it would easily stand up against some of the more classic jazz artists of the period. Nothing spacey or weird, just jazz that is perhaps a slight bit unpolished and occasionally rambling.

I have one of the post-1965 Saturn pressings and it sounds pretty good. A few spots early on side A felt a bit hot, but overall it’s clean and enjoyable to ears.

Daði Freyr – “Næsta Skref” 10″ (2018)

I like some of Daði Freyr’s previous projects, the dark-wave RetRoBot and the more synth-pop Mixophrygian, so picking up this five-song solo 10″ was a no-brainer.

The record opens with the retro-synth-infused “Forspil”, a jam that combines 1970s dream synths a la Tangerine Dream with a sort of deliberate early new wave that leans a bit towards post-punk, a strange and compelling blend of light and dark. “Allt Í Einu” gives us our first taste of Freyr’s vocals and I’m transformed right back to seeing RetRoBot on stage almost a decade ago, though musically it’s smoother and brighter than what that band was doing. Both side A songs feel like modern twists to 1970s AM radio, and I mean that in the best way possible.

The flip side opens with the title track “Næsta Skref”, and this might be taking us even a little further back in time to when Crosby, Stills & Nash were topping the charts. The synths maintain that smooth feel while Freyr’s voice takes me into the past. I’m not sure if it’s purely effects driven or if there is some actually harmony happening here, but whatever it is gives his vocals a beautiful quality. “Innan Frá” is more an homage to the old RetRoBot days – it would have felt right at home on that band’s CD, bumping beats, poppy synths, and a slightly dark edge. It’s my pick for the track of the album. Things close out with “Takk”, a tantalizing and all-too-quick dose of electro-disco that will leave you wanting more.

Næsta Skref is a great record from start to finish, and I’m going to need to keep Daði Freyr on my radar to see what other gems he puts out in the future.

Nexion – “Nexion” (2017)

Iceland continues to churn out talented black metal bands in a variety of evil styles. The latest to come to my attention is Nexion, a five-piece who bring it as straight up death metal overlaid with black metal vocals and lyrics. The musical hallmarks are here – double bass drums, machine gun snares, rising and falling riffs, and singing that alternates between growling and screeching. The songs show considerable structure and, quite unusually for an Icelandic black metal band, lyrics in English – which makes sense given that lead singer Josh Rood is an American (and also a grad student at the University of Iceland).

The lyrical narrative falls outside the standard Judeo-Christian narrative, leaning more towards older cultural traditions. Certainly some of the words and imagery are familiar – genesis and the serpent are prominent in the Bible. But this is an older story, more primal. The rape and slaughter of the cosmic mother with a spear made of stars. The black firmament spilling forth from her womb, with her bowels infested with creation’s seed. Here the starting point, the genesis, is the murder of the cosmic mother. This isn’t a story of rebirth and salvation. It’s a story about death and corruption. Cosmic storms and torrents of chaos spilling from the entrails of gods and drowning the world in celestial filth as the universe impales itself. This isn’t the story you know; it’s the other story.

The packaging is fantastic – gatefold sleeve, colored vinyl (♠), and a large-format booklet with drawings and lyrics related to the songs. It’s quality from top to bottom. You can listen to Nexion HERE as well as purchase downloads and/or CDs, though it appears the red splatter vinyl is sold out.

(♠) 125 copies in red/black splatter and 125 copies on clear/black splatter

Vök – “In The Dark” (2019)

I’m not sure how many times we’ve seen Vök live over the years. Four? Five? It’s something like that. The first time was in April 2013 right after they’d won Músíktilraunir, Iceland’s annual Battle Of The Bands. They seemed so young and shy on stage at Faktorý, but even then you could tell their sound was special. It’s been fun watching them evolve into confident performers, particularly vocalist Margrét Rán who is able to walk that magical fine line between self-assurance and vulnerability.

In The Dark is Vök’s second full-length release, coming on the heels of 2017s Figure and a pair of earlier EPs, Circles and Tension. It finds the band very polished, every song near-perfect in composition and production. Rán’s voice tends to stay in a lower register, husky and breathless, injecting a human element onto the primarily electronic musical canvas. If anything In The Dark feels like a more toward a more adult contemporary space. While that genre is oft-maligned and usually reserved to imply something less-than-favorable, those criticisms miss the point, the point that there is plenty of room for enjoyable music in that space. These songs can find a home on the dance floor, but also in your car stereo when you’re out and about making life happen. “No Direction” is my favorite track, one that breaks free a bit from the overall sound of In The Dark, its wave-like synths and Rán extending herself into a higher range making it a refreshing mid-point to the album.

Weird Al Yankovic – “In 3-D” (1984)

Weird Al appealed to me in 1984. Not only was he funny and witty, but he was also clearly someone who embraced his nerdiness. I was definitely someone who would have been described by many if not most of my classmates as a nerd, and this was a time before nerdiness had become cool. Sure, Revenge Of The Nerds came out that year, but that didn’t really help. Throughout my grade school years I was pretty much always the second smallest (but oddly never the smallest) kid in my class, woefully un-athletic, and got good grades. I also liked role playing games and lacked even the remotest comprehension of what was cool when it came to clothes. So I kind of related to the image that Weird Al portrayed, one that doesn’t appear to be entirely separate from the person he actually is.

I can’t recall if I bought In 3-D or his self-titled debut first, but I had them both and played the hell out of them. I haven’t listened to either in decades, but as soon as I saw this great copy of In 3-D last weekend I knew I was going to buy it even before I looked saw price. It’s the perfect trip down memory lane.

Everyone of course remembers this album for “Eat It”, the magnificent cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (Eat it / Eat it / Get yourself an egg / And beat it) that arguably launched Weird Al into the mainstream. But my favorite was always one of Al’s originals (♠), “Nature Trail To Hell”, a song about a fictitious teen slasher flick. We’ve also got songs about game shows, supermarket tabloids, sandwiches, TV shows, infomercials, and, of course, polka. Styles include pop, new wave, reggae, adult contemporary, and, of course, polka. Because you can never have too much polka.

I forgot how good some of these songs are. The way Al combines the actual words to the Brady Bunch theme with the music for “Safety Dance” is tremendous. “I Lost On Jeopardy” has some great references to the game show (I took potpourri / For one hundred…) with the added benefit of Don Pardo, arguably one of the great all-time game show voices, throwing down a litany of insults. And “Polkas on 45”? We get a medley of lyrics from Devo, Deep Purple, The Beatles, The Doors, Iron Butterfly (!), Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, Foreigner, The Police, The Clash, Rolling Stones, and The Who, accompanied by accordion, polka style.

In 3-D feels like a comedy album, but it’s also pretty damn legit musically. And if I see it’s predecessor, I guarantee you I’ll be picking that one up too.

(♠) While we rightfully think of Weird Al as a parody performer, only five of the album’s eleven songs are comedy covers – “Eat It” (Michael Jackson – “Beat It”), “The Brady Bunch” (Men Without Hats – “Safety Dance”), “I Lost on Jeopardy” (Greg Kihn Band – “Jeopardy”), “King Of Suede” (The Police – “King Of Pain”), and “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)” (Survivor – “Eye Of The Tiger”). The others are all originals.