Epic Rain – “All Things Turn To Rust” (2019)

With All Things Turn To Rust Epic Rain takes us on a guided tour into insanity. The only question remaining is, is this a one way trip?

Dripping with jazz influences, Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason continues to push to evolve as Epic Rain, over time moving from hip hop to pure storytelling, both with words and sounds. The opening track, “Lumaclad Reflector”, drifts off towards the classical end of the spectrum, the instrumental establishing the sombre mood of the album, casting a damp nighttime blanket over you, the closing repeated note sounding like a distorted fog horn off in the distance… but you can’t tell the direction it’s coming from… I wondered for a moment if we weren’t in store for an instrumental album, but the next track “Distortion of Reality” quickly erased that thought (though there are other instrumental tracks) as I was ushered into a killer’s mind, his thoughts and motivations laid bare, Jóhannes’ voice matter-of-factly painting the scene, both internal and external. “Every Road” takes us on another trip deep into a depraved and, in this case, hopeless mind, this time using a martial style snare drum roll to act as a counter to the depth of the rest of the music. This time it’s a suicide. Or is it a murder suicide… ? I’m not quite sure. On “Apart” we find him on the verge of singing, the lyrics including a chorus and patterns that give them a style closer to rock than hip hop while still maintaining the sense of setting, of place and time. A female vocalist joins Epic Rain on “Mirror Maze”, “Framing the Sky”, and “Evil By Heart”, taking over the duties with her underlying sadness, the sound of someone so exhausted that they don’t have any more tears to give but still haven’t managed to purge those feelings, a contrast from Jóhannes’ more menacing style. He returns to close the album on “Trading Secrets” (I trade secrets with your reflection in the water…), the tempo picking up as the races to the finish. Is it the dawn peaking over the horizon? Did we survive another dangerous night to arrive at the respite of daylight? And will tomorrow night bring more of the same…?

All Things Turn To Rust is available to stream, as well as purchase by download or on limited release vinyl on the Epic Rain Bandcamp page HERE. You can also pick it up directly from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, as it’s on their own Lucky Records label as well.

Sensational – “Loaded With Power” (1997)

Do you have that artist who you ALWAYS look for when digging, even though you pretty much know you won’t find any of their records? I could have dozens of those bands, though practicality and a sense of realism (some might say pessimism) keeps me from looking for Purrkur Pillnikk records in Portland and Fræbbblarnir in Fresno. However, I do have my one white whale of an artist, one who I hunt with the tenacity of Ahab, scanning all horizons in search for even a trace of his vinyl. I speak, of course, of Sensational.

Seattle is not a great place for finding hip hop vinyl. But even in places like LA, Chicago, and New York I have struck out in my quest for Sensational records. In fact, until a few weeks ago I’d only managed to scrounge three of his releases on wax, one of which, 2016s Special Offer, I actually purchased from the man himself. To be clear, it’s not that the records are unavailable anywhere. If I wanted to order from Discogs, I could get most of them today from the comfort of my own home, though the shipping would probably cost as much as the records since most if not all would be shipping from Europe, which is in part what has kept my Sensational searches analog, relying exclusively on in-person digging. Given Sensational’s general lack of notoriety in the US, combined with the fact that four of his first five releases were on German label WordSound, you just don’t find his stuff here that often.

On our recent trip to London, however, I hit pay dirt in the used vinyl basement of Sister Ray. I did my usual search of the Hip Hop S section and lo and behold there it was, not just a Sensational record I didn’t have, but his debut, 1997s Loaded With Power. I couldn’t have been happier. The price was reasonable and the condition solid, and I couldn’t wait to get home to play it.

The thing that makes Sensational special is his flow, both musically and vocally. His beats are far from standard, changing timing and making abrupt unexpected turns. When the groove works, it’s nirvana; when it doesn’t, it can be a bit jarring, and that’s all part of the Sensational experience. But the true magic is the vocal flow. Not the lyrical content per se (there’s a lot of standard 90s hip hop boasting), but the way the words languidly drop from his lips, the lack of formal structure, the at times randomness of the rhyming and near-rhyming words. Can I compare his style to anyone else? Is it even fair to try? I don’t pretend to be enough of a student of the genre to make any definitive connections. To my ears Sensational is unique. And Loaded With Power is him at his most flowing, completely unrestrained by the concepts of structure, not even the remotest attempt at creating something “radio friendly”. You get the sense that these are the sounds that are in the man’s head, the soundtrack in his brain as he goes through life. Listen to the quiet piano on “Create It To Make It”. You have to strain to hear it given the forward power of the beats, but it’s there, a small island of quiet solitude in an ocean of bass. A unique flourish that wouldn’t fit anywhere else.

The album is recorded hot on some tracks. I’m not sure if this is by design or not, but songs like “Hardcore” are distorted around the edges. It feels like Loaded With Power was recorded at multiple sessions, which appears to be the case as there are two recording studios listed and the production quality varies a bit. That, however, should not deter you from experiencing this record. In fact, it contributes that much more to it’s strange power. As for me, I will continue to hunt for Sensational records as I still have a lot of holes to fill.

Óreiða – “Óreiða” (2019)

There’s a surprising amount of black metal coming out of Iceland these days, and perhaps even more surprising is the range of different sonic experiences they provide, from the guttural growlers with their machine gun drumming to the the atmospheric hellscapes, there’s a lot of breadth.

Óreiða has taken it’s own path to darkness on its self-titled debut, a cacophonous and unrelenting irresistible force of sound, like a moving sonic wall pushing everything before it, never slowing, never stopping. In fact, I’m not so sure that black metal is even the right descriptor for this. I’m not even sure the English language has the right word or combination of words to describe it. Is that a flute I hear on “Daudi”? I’m not sure, but whatever it is gives the song a strange folk flavor despite the guitar that burrows into your skull. The most classically metal song on the album is the closer, “Draugar”, with its repetitive underlying riff and lightning-fast-if-understated drums.

The good news is you can listen to Óreiða on Bandcamp HERE. The bad news is that the limited edition vinyl (100 copies in splatter, 150 copies in black) are sold out, so you’ll have to get them on the secondary market.

Whodini – “Open Sesame” (1987)

My best guess is that my first exposure to hip hop was via the video for Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” in 1986. Up until that time I lived in a hip-hop-free universe. I seem to recall liking the video, but it was another year or two until I actually started to explore the genre, only looking from that point forward, failing to ever go back to the genre’s roots. To be fair, that kind of retro research wasn’t so easy to do in the pre-internet era, especially given hip hop’s complete lack of positive media coverage. If I’d been in New York City or Los Angeles I’d probably have had at least some exposure to the earlier artists. But in Seattle? No.

A few weeks back we watched the documentary Conny Plank – The Potential of Noise (recommended). It traced the story of German producer Conny Plank, and it was during a section of that film that we first heard of the hip hop trio Whodini, who Plank produced in the early 1980s. Since then we’ve picked up a CD copy of their Greatest Hits, and a few days ago added this vinyl copy of 1987s Open Sesame.

While Whodini’s earlier material was more dance and, dare I say, disco influenced, Open Sesame opens with the hard-rock-riffing “Rock You Again (Again & Again)”, Whodini clearly having registering Run-DMC’s success in blending rap and rock, choosing as their base samples of Mountain’s “Long Red”. While that song definitely rocked, it lacked recognition of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” – even rock fans couldn’t easily place it. Besides which the rock-rap partnership wasn’t the wave of the future (though Public Enemy and Anthrax certainly worked well together), instead it was the emergence of gangsta rap. Unfortunately for Whodini they found the genre moving away from their dance-friendly sound, the sound that defined the rest of Open Sesame (“Cash Money” does offer some social commentary). But I’ll tell you this – I love this stuff. It’s upbeat. And it’s fun.

Tone-Lōc – “Lōc’ed After Dark” (1989)

What dates Lōc’ed After Dark to the late 1980s isn’t the beats, a hip hop cover of The Troggs, or Tone-Lōc’s signature delivery. No. It’s what was at the time a throw-away line in “Wild Thing”:

Shoppin’ at the mall…

The mall??? Who the hell goes to the mall these days???

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Lōc’ed After Dark is a two-trick pony with it’s pair of Top 5 hits “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina”. But have you ever listened to the entire album? Because I hadn’t until this week. And holy hell!!! The opener, “On Fire (Remix)” is a stone cold jam and the title track… oh that sweet funky title track… so damn good. Those no-wave horns that open “I Got It Goin’ On”, later followed by that Caribbean percussion and scratching? Baller. Using the word ‘supercalifragilisticexpealidocious‘ on “Cutting Rhymes”? Classic. And he throws in a One two, Buckle my shoe???? And that’s just side A.

Lōc’ed After Dark holds up, at least to these old ears.