Prayers – “Baptism of Thieves” (2017)

Hip hop has long provided us with powerful social commentary, a view of the world from the standpoint of the marginalized, whether their marginalization be due to race, gender, or socio-economic status. Stories of hard lives and daily tragedies, of gangs and drugs and violence, both systemic and within communities. At its most poignant it’s every bit as relevant as the verbose tracts that come out of academia, with the added benefit that it generates an emotional connection to the reality of the situation.

San Diego’s Prayers continues in this tradition, though with some twists. Certainly the Latino perspective has been represented in hip hop by groups like Cypress Hill and Kid Frost, and Rafael Reyes references to gang life and the dangers of the hood are nothing new per se. However, Reyes and electro-maestro Dave Parley put their own twist on things, resulting in a style they refer to as “Cholo Goth”. From the outside looking in Reyes may seem an unconventional member of his community, with his black-painted fingernails, eyeliner, and leather, an aesthetic is that is more The Cure and Depeche Mode than it is anything you might stereotypically expect (and one that he addresses on “One 9 One 3”). The darkwave component courses through the musical veins of Prayers’ songs thanks to Parley’s snappy and at times retro beats, while lyrically we’re taken in a more goth direction with Reyes discoursing on religious themes as well as passion and betrayal. Prayers is not what you’d expect at first glance, and that’s part of what makes them special.

Baptism of Thieves was released in November 2017. Depending on how you define things, it’s probably best thought of as Prayers’ third full-length album – their prior releases, SD Killwave (2013) and Young Gods (2015) were only eight and seven songs long respectively, which probably qualifies, while Gothic Summer (2014) is more clearly an EP with only five tracks. With a dozen songs Baptism of Thieves is clearly a full-length and I for one am glad. While some may have wondered if the short lengths of the prior releases were due to a lack of quality material, I always sensed that Prayers had a lot more to give us, and the new album proves that to be true.

Life is a journey
Leading to death,
And death is the place
Where freedom is kept.
— “Baptism of Thieves”

“Death Is In Bloom” captures the inner turmoil of a man who has to choose, who feels his heart turning to stone because of his situation but who fears what it will mean to him if that happens, who has to decide between his set and his mother – his two families. And there’s no resolution here – all we have is pure tension. On the other side there are songs like “Tears In The Rain” with its more uptempo beats and more uplifting message, one that sees some hope for the future while recognizing that there will be more struggle necessary to get there (I’m a nightmare walking / Who’s living the dream). There are also a pair of interesting collaborations, with Pictureplane (who’s 2011 album Thee Physical I have, but for some reason have never blogged about) contributing to “Trust Issues” and tattoo artist Kat Von D appearing on “Black Leather”.

Overall there’s a clear evolution to Prayers’ sound over the last few years, with broader sonic and lyrical palettes. But Baptism of Thieves still gives us some old school numbers like “Edge of the Blade” (blades being a common lyrical theme in Reyes’ vocals), a clear reflection on gang life and the dangers it entails, and these are the numbers that first turned me on to the band. So long-time fans, have no fear – there’s still some classic Prayers on this album. Regardless if you’re new to the band or have been with them for a while, though, there’s something on Baptism of Thieves for you.

The Best of 2016

It was another fine year for music and we tried to embrace as much of it as possible. Besides lots of shopping at the stores in the greater Seattle area, I also bought vinyl in Los Angeles, Denver, and Oklahoma City, as well as on trips abroad in Hong Kong, Sweden, and Iceland. We saw some great live shows, made some new friends, and discovered new bands. It was a lot of fun, and we can’t wait to do more of it again next year.

So, without further ado, here’s the Life in the Vinyl Lane “Best of 2016” edition!

Top 5 New Releases in 2016

  1. Ash & Ice – The Kills
  2. EP01 – Dream Wife
  3. Hope – Iiris
  4. Kælan Mikla – Kælan Mikla
  5. Redemption & Ruin – The Devil Makes Three

Sometimes I find myself thinking about how I’m going to write on certain topics, and that happened to me recently with respect to my Top 5 New Releases list. I was super excited about Dream Wife and their EP01, enough so that I felt like it was deserving of the top spot on the list, which would also conveniently supply me with a narrative arc since lead singer Rakel was also the vocalist on my pick of the best album of 2015 as part of Halleluwah. Man, this was going to be so easy to write!

But then I remembered Ash & Ice. I’ve played the hell out of this album over the course of the year, and I love it more with each and every spin. So while I certainly root for the little guy (and girl) and Dream Wife in the top position would have made for a great story, it simply wasn’t authentic. The Kills killed it, and that’s that, putting out an album that is, to my years, light years ahead of everything else I heard in 2016.

There is another thread in this list, however, as all of the top four performers have female vocalists, and the fifth, The Devil Makes Three, has a female bassist who does backing vocals. So every band/performer on the list has at least one woman involved. I think we’re seeing more and more opportunity for women in rock and outside of the traditional singer/performer format, especially in rock and metal, which is outstanding. We saw lots of women performing great music this year at Airwaves as part of outfits like Hórmónar, Singapore Sling, Samaris, aYia, Thunderpussy, and Let’s Eat Grandma, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Prayers (US)
  2. Dream Wife (UK/Iceland)
  3. Andi (Iceland)
  4. Scorpion Violente (France)
  5. The Lyman Woodard Organization (US)

All of these “New to Me” bands came to me in different ways. I saw Prayers on an episode of Huang’s World and literally ordered some of their music as soon as the commercial break came on after their appearance; I’d never heard of Dream Wife until I saw them perform live at Airwaves this year; I picked up Andi’s self-titled release because it was on Lady Boy Records and I pretty much buy everything they put out; Scorpion Violente was a random purchase from the New Arrivals bin at Amoeba; and I read about They Lyman Woodard Organization in an online article.

Stylistically the five band have nothing in common, ranging from cholo goth to pop-punk to electronic to industrial to jazz-funk. They varied in genres just as they did in the ways they came to my attention. This makes me feel good – the wider the net I can cast in the search for the new and interesting, the more likely I am to have my horizons expanded and mind blown.

I can’t recommend Prayers enough. If you’re into hip hop or even somewhat darker electronic music you need to give these guys a listen. But really I could say the same about all five of these selections. Even if you’re not into their style, you may very well find something you like and have your musical base broadened just a little. But be careful – if you open that door, even just a crack, there’s a whole flood of awesome music on the other side that will blow it down and rush over you like a tidal wave. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. U-Men – U-Men
  2. No New York Compilation
  3. Revolver – The Beatles
  4. The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I & II Soundtracks
  5. The Icelandic Punk Museum Cassettes

I think I felt a little less passionate about acquiring specific things in 2016 than I have in past years. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed playing tons and tons of new vinyl (and tapes, and CDs), but there hasn’t been a lot of the thrill of picking up a rarity or even new releases that I looked forward to with great anticipation (though there are a few items due in 2017 that I am excited about).

That being said, I did get my grubby paws on a few rarities and cool titles this year. U-Men is a legitimately scarce pre-grunge Seattle punk record, and the original pressing of No New York was an exciting find in Oklahoma City. Getting red vinyl Japanese first pressing of The Beatles’ Revolver in Hong Kong was my first foray into that collecting rabbit hole, and the record will always carry with it the great memory of listening to James Tang play us different versions of Beatles songs and break them down for us by their differences. The two Decline records are soundtracks to a pair of great documentaries which also finally got released on DVD. While the last item(s) on my list are actually tapes not vinyl, I was probably most excited to get my hands on those from a purely musical standpoint – there’s some great stuff on those comps, and they hold a proud spot on my tape rack.

I’ll be excited to see what 2017 brings!

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Macklemore – Neumos, Seattle
  2. The Devil Makes Three – Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Colorado
  3. Dr. Spock – Húrra, Reykjavik
  4. Dream Wife – Harpa, Reykjavik
  5. The Ills – Húrra, Reykjavik

When a good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, called and said, “psst, I’ve got two spots on the guest list for the Macklemore album release party at Neumos, do you want to go?”, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. The chance to see Seattle’s best known hip hop artist (sorry Mix-A-Lot, but he has the belt now) playing in an intimate venue like Neumos in front of the home town crowd was way to good to miss. And it was great. Including the part shown here when he climbed up onto the ledge of the balcony level (right) and then dove backwards into the awaiting crowd below. I doubt I would have tried that, especially given that there seemed like a lot of 14-year-old girls down below waiting to catch him. But catch him they did, and it was a hell of a show.

The Devil Makes Three are always great live, and getting to see them at Red Rocks was just icing on the cake. An amazing venue, and once the show started I hardly noticed the wind and the cold. The other three shows rounding out my Top 5 were all at Airwaves. I’m going to skip past Dr. Spock and Dream Wife as I’ve written pretty extensively about both bands recently, and go straight to The Ills. When these crazy Slovakians hit the stage at Húrra, all five of us in our Airwaves posse basically groaned – “ugh, instrumental rock…”. But by time the second song was done The Ills had won the entire crowd over, including us, with their sheer enthusiasm and joy of playing, plus of course they had some pretty sweet licks. By the end of their set we were all bummed they couldn’t play just one more song. We ran into a couple of the guys the next night and they seemed genuinely appreciative of the praise we heaped on them. Bands like The Ills are why you go to Airwaves. Look for a review of one of their albums in the upcoming weeks.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America
1. Easy Street Records, Seattle
2. Daybreak Records, Seattle
3. Guestroom Records, Oklahoma City
4. Amoeba Music, Los Angeles
5. Hi-Voltage Records, Tacoma

The Rest of the World
1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2. Trash Palace, Stockholm (Sweden)
3. Shun Choeng Record Company, Hong Kong
4. Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
5. The Record Museum / Sam the Record Man, Hong Kong

I feel like I should just retire Easy Street and Lucky, since they are my two go-to shops and will likely remain so for years to come. Hell, I could easily populate a Top 5 in North America with just Seattle area shops that I visit semi-regularly. But such is life in the vinyl lane. Seattle’s Daybreak Records is new on the scene this year and has an impressive amount of quality wax in a relatively small space. Guestroom was a very pleasant surprise that I came across during a business trip to Oklahoma, and I came away with an armload of great titles there. And if there’s one upside to all the business trips I had to take to Los Angeles in 2016 it was the opportunity to pay some visits to Amoeba, which has so much vinyl that I literally run out of energy looking well before I’ve had a chance to look at everything. Hi-Voltage rounds out the North America Top 5 – they moved into a new location down in Tacoma and I love the new layout.

We got to visit record stores in three other countries on two continents in 2016. Reykjavik of course gave us the always amazing Lucky Records and Reykjavik Record Shop, places where the folks working there are more like friends and family than employees. A pre-Airwaves trip to Stockholm gave me a chance to visit Trash Palace for a second time, one of the best punk/metal speciality shops around. And Hong Kong… ah, Hong Kong. Shun Choeng Record Company was hard to find – it’s actually in a regular looking office building on one of the middle floors, and there’s no sign for it on the street. It was impeccably laid out and organized, and I swear every single used record in there was immaculate. While we didn’t buy much there, it was a fun shop to explore. And we can’t forget our visits to James Tang, aka Sam the Record Man (above), as he literally gave us a masters-level course in the different sound qualities of various versions of the exact same songs. It was fun and educational, a visit I’d highly recommend even if you don’t end up buying anything (though I recommend treating yourself to a Japanese red vinyl first pressing of something you enjoy… you won’t regret it). It’s probably the only record store that also has a chandelier and will serve you coffee or tea in fine china.

The best record shopping experiences are those that come when you can build rapport with the folks at the stores. Record shopping is fun in and of itself, but that takes it to a new level and makes the whole thing special.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis
  2. Hardcore: Life of My Own, by Harley Flanagan
  3. Porcelain, by Moby
  4. I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, by Grace Jones and Paul Morley
  5. X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone, ed. Stephen Coates

I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader. I’m probably good for 30+ books in a typical year, and once when I decided to keep track I finished a year at 51… almost a book a week. Traditionally I’ve spent almost all of my reading hours on non-fiction, but over the last few years I re-discovered my love for sci-fi and I’ve been consuming novels at a rapid rate, aided no doubt by the amount of time I’ve spent on airplanes in 2016 (best guess is I’ve been on somewhere around 60-70 flights this year). However, I did find some time to squeeze in some music related reading, and these are the best of those books I read in 2016.

Most of these are autobiographies, which can at times be a mixed bag, perhaps nowhere as much so as with my top pick, Miles: The Autobiography. I applaud Miles for penning his own book, using his own voice and not relying on the co-author to turn his words into something different. You feel like you’re listening to the man himself speak, though that can be good and bad. What was refreshing in the first hundred pages could at times get grating as the book progressed. Miles gives movies like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction a run for their money with the sheer volume of “fucks” he writes, and there are entire sections that seem to devolve into “then I played here with these guys, then I played over here with these other guys…” But man, there are some moments of brilliance here where you get a glimpse into how deeply Miles understood music, and I have to give the man credit for exposing himself completely, warts and all, including drug addiction and domestic violence. An important work in understanding the nature of genius.

The other three autobiographies each had lot to offer as well, and I found them generally honest and forthcoming, not simply providing an idealized version of the individual. Grace Jones probably has more of her pure ego come through than the others, but she’s a powerful and confident woman, and that shows on the page. X-Ray Audio is a killer book about a very unique topic, old bootleg records from the Soviet Union that were cut on used x-ray file. A definite passion project, and one beautifully packaged. All of these were enjoyable and brisk reads.

 

So there you have it, my 2016 recap. It’s had to believe this is the fifth one of these I’ve written… the years are going by so fast any more. Keep on playin’ those tunes and hunting for new music, my friends!

Prayers – “Gothic Summer” (2014)

IMG_1338A few months back I wrote about the cholo goth stylings of San Diego’s Prayers, a group we came across via an appearance they made on Eddie Huang’s TV show “Huang’s World”. I picked up a couple of their albums from my buddy Mark at FeeLit Records, including the previously reviewed vinyl of 2013’s SD Killwave and their subsequent five-song CD Gothic Summer.

After three months of listening to Prayers, one thing is clear: I’m addicted to Gothic Summer. In fact, “Blood on the Blade” is the very best new-to-me song I’ve heard in 2016 so far.

Dave Parley does more with simple and basic beats than just about anyone out there today, layering them with dark keyboards to build the perfect framework for Rafael Reyes to build his lyrics around. And man, what great lyrics.

Do you know who I am?
Do you know who I am?
Do you know who I am?
I am your brother.
I am your lover.
I am,
The dragon.
I am,
The truth.
I am,
The serpent.
I am,
Perfection.
I was,
Created,
In His image,
In His image,
I was,
Created.
— “Blood on the Blade”

With songs about loss and betrayal, served with an undercurrent of the potential for violence, Prayers have taken darkwave in a different direction, one that is more street than dance club. Their style shares some of the loneliness, alienation, and self-loathing of the goth scene (I don’t need your guilt trips / I’m my own worst enemy – “Only Death Can Set Me Free”), but infuses it with a desperate confidence at times bordering on arrogance – things you need to survive in an environment with strong ties to gang culture. There’s some resemblance to hip hop, though this is mostly topical as the vocal delivery is primary sung, not rapped.

God and the devil are both on Gothic Summer, with Reyes and Parley balancing between the forces of good and evil and making you question how much of a gap there truly is between the two. Maybe they’re not as different as we all think they are. As Reyes sings, Only death can set me free from my sorrows.

Prayers and Gothic Summer will definitely be making be making appearances on my year-end lists.

Prayers – “SD Killwave” (2013)

Holly and I are all about the VICELAND channel right now. Whether it’s “Noisey” or “States of Undress” or “F*ck, That’s Delicious” or “King of the Road” we can’t get enough. It’s the only channel that has shows that we’ll actually adjust our schedules for to ensure we can catch new episodes. One of the best shows they have going right now is “Huang’s World,” a food/travel show featuring Eddie Huang. Yeah yeah, another food/travel show, whooptie-do. Eddie brings something new and youthful to the tired genre, though (as does Action Bronson on “F*ck, That’s Delicious”), getting down to the true roots and cultural levels in a way that is refreshing.

The other day we caught the “Borderlands” episode, which takes place on both sides of the border between the US and Mexico, and Eddie got invited to an outdoor family cookout in a Hispanic part of San Diego. Playing a set in that backyard was a two-man band called Prayers, and they blew our minds apart with their self-described “cholo goth” style. So much so that at the next commercial I walked down the hall, got online, and shot an email over to my man Mark who owns/operates FeeLit Records in San Diego and asked him to send me whatever he had on these guys, which turned out to be the vinyl re-issue (on purple wax) of their debut LP, 2013s SD Killwave, along with their 2014 five-song CD Gothic Summer. (♠) The package arrived while I was on a business trip, so Holly opened up the CD and texted me the next morning that I was going to absolutely love Prayers. And she was right. I’ve been playing Gothic Summer, along with the download we purchased of 2015s Young Gods, in a nearly continuous loop for about a week now. And today I finally had the time to sit down and give the vinyl of SD Killwave a spin.

Mind. Blown.

I could give you some background on these guys, but others have already done a much better job than I possibly could so I recommend you just go check out the eight minute video about them put out by VICE/Noisey located HERE. It’s OK, go watch it then come back. I’ll wait.

While frontman Rafael Reyes gets most of the attention for his haunting, beseeching, plaintive vocal style, don’t overlook the beats and synths of Dave Parley. Parley keeps it relatively simple, but with a heavy dark undercurrent and a some occasional flourishes that keep the music from sounding too “canned”. Reyes’ voice and words are what truly separate Prayers from the pack, though, giving the music it’s cholo element with treatises about about loneliness and violence and gang life. Will something like cholo goth capture and take mainstream the inner city Hispanic experience the way hip hop did for African American communities? I don’t know, but it would be amazing if it did.

Oddly the second thing that crossed my mind after experiencing Prayers for the first time on “Huang’s World” (after “I need to go buy some of this immediately”) was that it made me think of a story Chuck Klosterman originally wrote for SPIN that I read in his book Chuck Klosterman IV about the large and incredibly passionate fan-base the Smiths and Morrissey have in the Hispanic community, something that surprised him when he attended a Smiths convention in Los Angeles. Klosterman wrote about these super hard looking guys who just poured out love for Morrissey and freely admitted how deeply his music touched them, a seemingly incongruous collision of culture and style. In some ways that reminded me of Prayers, even more so after watching the Noisey profile video and hearing Reyes talk about the challenges he faced trying to be the person he wants to be.

I could break down SD Killwave song-by-song, but honestly I don’t want to. I want to experience it as a whole, like one continuous trip into the mind of another person. The one song that is more of an outlier, though an excellent one, is Prayers’ cover of “West End Girls” that appears on Young Gods, but while that’s probably a familiar song to most of you and it would feel like an obvious place to start, resist the urge. Listen to some of their original material, because that’s where the power is. If I have to point you to something specific from SD Killwave, I’d say do the bookend technique and listen to both the first (“Ready to Bleed”) and last (“Lazers on My Neck”) tracks and give those a try.

 

(♠) Record store owners, when you’re cool to your customers, you may find that out-of-towners like me who meet you will later order stuff from you! And customers, if you’re cool to the people who own indie record stores, sometimes they’ll become great sources for awesome local music that you can’t find elsewhere!