Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rock Without The Roll: Sound Barrier and Other African American Metal Pioneers

Sound Barrier in the early 80's.

In my last post I talked about some of the weird, random LA metal bands that filtered their way into my decidedly non-metal mind during the 80’s.  But I completely forgot to write about another amazing metal band that even at the time blew me away.  I’m talking, of course, about LA’s own Sound Barrier.  Sound Barrier was notable for the fact that they were comprised exclusively (in their early incarnation) or predominantly (in their last incarnation) of African-American musicians. 

Now, it goes without saying that music rarely recognizes ethnic boundaries and in particular African Americans have contributed meaningfully to every single era and genre of rock and roll; most would argue that rock wouldn’t exist at all without the blues and R&B of the 30’s, 40’s, and early 50’s (and they’d be right). 

But starting in the late 50’s rock music became more and more the domain of middle class white males, and with obvious exceptions (Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee of Love) most of the African American contribution to popular music in the 60’s came through soul, funk, and Motown/R&B.  By the end of the 60’s even Mississippi and Chicago blues, long the purview of African American artists, had been bowdlerized into the heavy blues/psychedelia of bands like Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the earlier incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, Cream, the Yardbirds, the Allman Brothers, etc. 

One of the things punk did was re-examine some of these long-standing traditions in rock . . . and then try to knock them down.  For example, gender issues were questioned, and many pioneering punk bands in New York (Blondie, the Talking Heads, Tish and Snookie), London (X-Ray Spex, Penetration, Siouxsie and the Banshees), San Francisco (the Lewd, the Avengers, the Nuns) and Los Angeles (X, the Alleycats, the Controllers, the Go-Gos, The Eyes, the Bags) had female singers, bass players, guitarists, etc. 

African Americans were prominent participants in the emerging punk genre as well.  Such early and seminal bands as Philly’s Pure Hell, DC’s Bad Brains, Frisco’s Dead Kennedys, the Plasmatics, the Voidoids, the Controllers and Suicidal Tendencies all had African American members. 

Unfortunately, with few exceptions, heavy metal, a musical genre heavily indebted to the Delta blues sound of African American bluesmen, has always been a somewhat more conservative genre, and has arguably had fewer contributions from non-male, non-white musicians.  Aside from some obvious examples (Living Colour leaps to mind), there seems to be fewer African Americans in heavy metal bands. 

Sound Barrier was one spectacular exception.  Formed in Los Angeles in 1980, they played the club circuit in LA and developed a buzz for their sound, which was heavy metal in orientation but also contained elements of funk, heavy blues and psychedelia. 

I first heard of Sound Barrier when I saw their video for their song “Rock Without the Roll” on a local music video station in the early 80’s.  One thing that was great about shows like MV3 and other such pioneer music video shows was their willingness to play music videos by a wide variety of artists.  This was in part a practical limitation of the times, since in the early 80’s so few bands had videos, but I think it also reflected their lack of understanding of or respect for the otherwise hard cultural boundaries between musical sub-genres.  At that time I certainly wouldn’t have gone out of my way to watch a heavy metal video, but if one was played I would usually watch and listen. 

In the case of Sound Barrier’s video I was blown away by how big, slow and heavy their song “Rock Without the Roll” was.  While admittedly a tad repetitious, it nevertheless has a bulky majesty that makes it really stand out for reasons beyond the ethnicity of the players.  Still, its hard to listen to this and NOT hear some elements of funkiness in this song.  One thing I’m reminded of is the work of Faith No More on their breakthrough album Epic; it’s got that combination of metal and funk (and even the roughness of punk) that characterizes a lot of the songs on that landmark album. 

Speaking of Faith No More, its hard to categorize their sound but it too pulled on funk and metal, though more in that order than Sound Barrier.  They are a band with a very strange history.  Courtney Love was an early member but she was soon replaced by African American singer Chuck Mosely, who was their singer during their early run at success.  Their funk-metal-punk anthem “We Care A Lot” was a major local hit in LA during ’85-86, with its throbbing bass and syncopated rhythm.  In summer ’85 they played a huge downtown LA street festival (which I missed because I didn’t move up to LA until September 1985) which cemented their reputation as massive local heroes.  However, their local popularity never quite translated into national sales and by 1988 Mosely had been fired and replaced with the even stranger Mike Patton, who would remain their singer during their early 90’s heyday. 

Getting back to Sound Barrier, after releasing their first two albums, Total Control in 1983 and Born to Rock in 1984, bassist Stanley E. left and was replaced by Romanian immigrant Emil Lech for 1986’s Speed of Light.  This is the only Sound Barrier album available through iTunes (“Rock Without the Roll” and other cuts off their earlier albums are available on YouTube) and it showcases their shift from their slower, heavier, more Hendrix and Sabbath-influenced early sound to a more European style metal heavily flavored by Judas Priest and in particular Iron Maiden.  The title track highlights this new sonic direction and has that melodic/orchestral feel of classic early Dickinson era Maiden (such as on “Run To the Hills”).  “Gladiator” is a little faster and reminds me of “Powerslave” or “Electric Eye”.  “What Price Glory” starts with a slow, building intro much like Maiden’s “Number of the Beast”.  Alas, Sound Barrier didn’t achieve any greater success with this album and broke up soon after.  Its too bad, because its hard to believe any diehard Iron Maiden fan wouldn’t have loved this music.

Another band that played heavy metal and featured an African American lead singer was Hirax.  Formed in Cypress, CA in 1984, Hirax was among the very first wave of thrash metal bands, along with Metallica, Exodus, Slayer, and Anthrax.  Hirax never received the same commercial or critical success as most of these other bands, which is puzzling considering what pioneers they were in fusing the rage and energy of (hardcore) punk with the technicality and showmanship of heavy metal.  African American lead singer Katon W. De Pena’s heavily operatic vocals were one of the standout aspects of this band’s sound, particularly on songs such as “Bombs of Death” and “Raging Violence”.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Metal Years: A Handful of LA Metal Obscurities from the 80's

Creature, live in the cage circa 1989.

Most people who have ready any of this blog know that I am, to put it mildly, a latecomer to heavy metal.  Growing up in the late 70’s/early 80’s in Southern California, I was weaned on punk, post-punk, and new wave. 

1986 was a major year in the transition of popular music from punk/new wave to metal in Southern California.  One of the biggest events was the conversion of the Long Beach CA radio station KNAC from an alternative/new wave format to a heavy metal format in 1986.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this was an absolute watershed moment in my youth, an all-or-none dividing point between my generation and the younger generation of younger siblings who came of age after us.  KNAC was beloved by all of my friends as the hipper, homier version of Pasadena alternative rock powerhouse radio station KROQ.  Its playlist was more eclectic and original, the DJs cooler and more laid back.  But you have to give them credit—when they went metal they went really all-out metal, focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on true heavy metal rather than hair metal.  Most of their set list consisted of bands like Ozzy Ozbourne, Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Dio who weren’t getting a huge amount of play elsewhere at that time.  

Meanwhile, the hair metal scene in LA was still in its infancy.  Bands like Van Halen, Quiet Riot, and Ratt had gotten the ball rolling in the late 70's (in Van Halen's case) and early 80's.  For awhile new wave and hair metal co-existed uneasily in the LA club scene.  Around 1985 a band appeared that attempted to straddle this line, LA’s own Bang Bang.  I can vividly remember seeing the video for their song“This is Love” on local TV sometime around 1985 or so; amazingly, this video is available for download on iTunes (though none of their musical output is).  Their look and sound can only be described as Duran Duran meets Poison; teased hair, lipstick and eye shadow combined with unstructured “Miami Vice” inspired blazers, duster coats, and panama hats.  The music had heavy saxophone (shades of “Rio”) and synthesizers.  Singer Julian Raymond’s voice was very distinctive, wavering between Simon Le Bon and a slightly more yowly and show-tuney version of Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive.  Its strangely peppy and catchy but still just so hard to categorize; too rock-y to appeal to new wavers into Kajagoogoo, way too new wave-y for most metalers (even metal-lite music like Poison).  “Dark Intentions” has been uploaded to YouTube and is even more confusing; starting with a pulsing keyboard line and soft, crooned vocals by Raymond, this sounds more like an outtake from Japan’s Tin Drum album.  “Shilo”, also on YouTube has lush keyboards and soaring vocals but is low key and burbling; this reminds me of Cetu Javu or some other second-tier Depeche clone.  It also kind of reminds me of Glass Tiger or “Burning Flame” by Vitamin Z.  Not terrible but again I think most people would have trouble figuring out how to categorize this music.

 By 1987 the LA metal scene had started its ascendancy and such experiments were largely forgotten, and more and more bands started following the same hair/glam metal formula.  This to me represented one of the biggest nadirs in popular music; from 1987 till about 1991 the airwaves (and MTV) were saturated with the same formulaic take on lite metal, and most of these bands were so faceless and interchangeable.  The look was the same (a heavy dose of the New York Dolls hairsprayed androgyny along with Diamond Dave's spandex and a dash of Rob Halford of Judas Priest's chains and leather), the sound was the same (glam/pop metal with some powerpop elements combined with AC/DC or Zep riffs and arena rock solos), with very little (to my ears anyway) to differentiate or distinguish one band from another.  There were plenty of bandwagon-jumpers in the punk and new wave scenes as well, but at least in the case of new wave most of these bands came up with a distinctive look and sound.  Haircut 100 was very different from Heaven 17 who were very different from the Thompson Twins or Erasure.  But every hair metal band had two types of songs, one about partying/pussy/incoherent rebellion, and the other was a ballad showing off their tender side (and to make young women buy their album too). It was rock at its most formulaic and boring and I never really got into it.

Virtually overnight the Sunset Strip was overrun by teased out hexers riding hogs and wearing lipstick.  LA was quickly flooded with wannabe rock stars from every corner of the globe, hoping to become the next Ratt or Poison.  It became almost amusing to read local publications like BAM (actually a Bay Area Magazine, that’s what BAM stands for, but BAM had an LA outlet too) and flip past endless pages of ads for cheesy glam metal bands looking to make it big.  During this time, most of the major clubs in LA, including Gazzarri’s, Coconut Teaszer, the Rainbow, the Roxy, the Whiskey, etc., changed to a pay-to-play format where bands were forced to pay an up-front fee, essentially guaranteeing the club owner money up front which the band would then hope to recoup from paying fans.  But since there were so many (anonymous, faceless) bands, few were able to generate any fan base and most attendees of their concerts were friends, family members, well wishers, and hangers-on who were let in for free.  Many bands spent all their resources trying to build a successful career to no avail.  

 One band whose name I remembered from those days was Cherry St.  I recall seeing this band’s ads in BAM and its fliers pasted all over the Strip in those days.  I thought the name was really lame and assumed the band and their sound was too.   But recently I happened across some of their songs uploaded to YouTube and imagine my surprise when I found that I actually like them!!   Lead singer Taz (somehow I doubt that’s his given name) has a screechy yowl that falls just on the right side of AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, and their sound is rooted more in bluesy hard rock than metal lite.  “Whisky” off their 1993 album Squeeze It Dry sounds like a cross between Back In Black era AC/DC and Guns n' Roses.   “No Doubt About It” continues in this sleazy, bluesy vein and is another strong track.  “Luv Junkie” and “Good In a Bad Way” off their album X Rated are also solid.  It just goes to show you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

1987 was the year I first heard of a band garnering widespread interest called Guns n’ Roses.  I never saw GnR live but in late fall 1987 I briefly started dating again an old girlfriend who was really into them.  She was a former punkette who attended UC Irvine and was friends with my best friend John who also went there.  She was one of the first people I knew who was transitioning from the punk to the metal/hard rock scene. By early ’88 she was going to GnR shows at some of the LA clubs, and had induced me to buy their just-released album, Appetite For Destruction.  I still like several songs off this album, mostly the harder-edged stuff like “Out Ta Get Me”, “It’s So Easy”, and “Night Train”. 

And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I liked some of the similarly-oriented music in LA and elsewhere that drew upon sleazy AC/DC influenced hard rock (often with a punky edge), and in particular liked the bands Junkyard, the Hangmen, and the Sea Hags.  “Rotten Sunday” by the Hangmen is still one of my favorite songs of that era, and even now it evokes that smoke-saturated, hungover feeling I always had after going to clubs like Scream and Power Tools.  I actually saw the Hangmen play at Scream around 1988 or thereabouts and they were fantastic; grungy, sleazy, greasy punked up hard rock. 

But by and large I didn’t go to many hard rock or metal concerts.  The music just didn’t speak to me like punk rock did.  However, one night my then-girlfriend (now wife) and her roommate and a guy friend of hers were bopping about the Westside and couldn’t find a good concert to go to.  So we decided to go to the Troubadour and see what was playing.  It ended up being one of the funniest nights of my life.  The opening act was this metal band called Armed N’ Dangerus (gee, how original) who played a fairly straightforward Van Halen influenced heavy metal.  There was all of about 10 people in the audience (including the 4 of us) but I have to confess, these guys performed like they were onstage at the Coliseum.  They strutted and did choreographed moves and gave it their all.  Their guitarist was this hugely muscled and tanned macho man type who would rotate his neck to the music like it was on a ball and socket.  One funny moment was when I was approached by this dyed-in-the-wool Strip bimbo—she looked like a parody of Pamela Anderson.  She was hyper-tan, had huge round breasts and long skinny legs, a haystack of peroxided blonde hair, and frosted lipstick.  She was wearing a tight, tiny, clingy knit dress that barely grazed the bottom of her crotch and towering high heels.  She was the girlfriend of the lead singer and was approaching all single males in the club to get them to sign up for the Armed N’ Dangerus mailing list.  I signed up for it just to see the look of pure malice my girlfriend gave me! 

I have looked everywhere for information on this band but all I’ve found is one very brief Facebook page that MIGHT be them.  I remember them as being from somewhere else—Chatsworth maybe or Orange County.  Alas no MP3s posted anywhere.

The headlining band that night was the almost-legendary band Creature.  Creature was, for want of a better description, a sort of Kiss tribute band that played their own original music.  They performed in full whiteface makeup and codpieced leather jumpsuits exactly like Kiss.  That night they did one of their infamous “live in the cage” performances, where the stage was caged off and they played inside it—think of the Scorpions in the video for “Rock You Like A Hurricane”.  It was both ludicrous and sublime.  None of the four of us could stop laughing.  They also had these stepped risers ascending toward the back of the stage and the guitarists would scuttle up and down them like roaches.  They too were striving for the bigger-than-life Kiss live in some giant stadium feel but it came off as pathetic and humorous in the tight confines of the Troubadour.  We still laugh about that concert and how lame it was.

The thing was, the music wasn’t terrible.  It was pretty much as you’d expect, metalized pseudo-Kiss stuff, with elements of Alice Cooper and early Crue.  It had some of the crunchiness and catchiness of classic Kiss (such as “Detroit Rock City” or “Strutter”) but was more metal, so leaned more toward Lick It Up post-makeup era Kiss.  Not great but not terrible either.  Former Creature guitarist Trixxian Vitolo has a fantastic web site ( where he’s collected images, media stories, and MP3s from Creature’s heyday.  “Too Many Girls” has a repetitive metal riff and vocals that hint at a cross between Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley; its perhaps Creature’s best and catchiest song, although it goes on for a bit too long. This struts nicely between “Cold Gin” and “Too Fast For Love”.  “Wicked Witch” again has crunchy metal riffs but the high pitched squeaky chorus of “wicked witch” sounds goofy to me.    “We Want The World” sounds like early Motley Crue, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but like “Girls” it goes on about 2 minutes too long.   “Take Me, Shake Me”, which is not on Trixxian’s web site but was off their much-discussed demo and has been uploaded to YouTube, is much more metallic, with shrieky lead vocals and a punchy, driving metal rhythm.  Former drummer Johnny Lust has also uploaded “Shock The World” to YouTube; the vocals here are very similar to Axl Rose’s on “Welcome To the Jungle” and even the music sounds very GnR

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Smell Scene

Randy Randall and Dean Spunt of No Age

A good friend of mine who still lives in LA who knows my continuing fascination with all things Black Flag sent me a YouTube link recently for a performance by a band called No Flag that he saw at MacArthur Park a couple weeks ago.  No Flag is basically a combination of Chuck Dukowski and Keith Morris, formerly of Black Flag, and Randy Randall and Dean Allen Spunt of the contemporary noise rock band No Age.  I really liked their run-through of some classic Flag material, particularly early stuff, particularly songs like “Wasted”, “Revenge”, “I’ve Had It”, and “Nervous Breakdown” (“Breakdown” is my favorite pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag song).  Chuck’s bass is huge and pulsing, Keith is in ripper shape and belts the songs out with his trademark yowl, and Randy Randall does a very capable job of imitating the legendary Greg Ginn. 

Because I wasn’t too familiar with No Age, I checked them out online, and found they are associated with a very large and acclaimed punk/noise scene centered around the all-ages club The Smell, which is in downtown LA.  Spunt and Randall do a guitar-and-drums thing a la the White Stripes, but their sound is way more lo-fi and experimental and is rooted in the avant-noise of early Sonic Youth but with a heavy garage punk overlay.  My favorite song by them is one I actually downloaded a year or so ago off of iTunes and forgot about, which is “Sleeper Hold” off their acclaimed album Nouns.  This song has clear influences from Sonic Youth, in particular the minor chord atonality of songs like “Brave Men Run (In My Family)” but it also has a sweetness under the fuzz that reminds me both of the earnest pop punk of Husker Du (on, say, “Pink Turns To Blue”) and even more of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s first album (think “Just Like Honey”, only sped up).  The other touchstone for me is the fuzzed-out pop of Dinosaur Jr., particularly “Little Fury Things”.  This is a really great song.  “Teen Creeps” and “Cappo” remind me even more of Dinosaur Jr.’s work on You’re Living All Over Me, with its sludgy drone, which somehow manages to be both atonal and melodic at the same time.  “Here Should Be My Home” is less overtly noisy and hews closer to the punky pop of Jay Reatard.

Their most recent album, Everything in Between, continues in a similar vein but is a little cleaner and the pop elements shine through a little brighter; songs like “Chem Trails” are downright radio friendly and sound like shoegazer indiepop a la Blur or Pulp.  “Positive Amputation” has the same guitar fuzz/drone of their previous work but links it to a hauntingly beautiful piano line, giving this the feel of contemporary classical song by Steve Reich.  This is a really amazing song, haunting and delicate, verging on the morose but optimistic simplified post-rock of late era Talk Talk.  “Dusted” has a similarly non-conventional rock feel to it, with its trip hop rhythm and the clanging, repetitively droning guitar it evokes in my mind the elegant beauty of “Where Do I Begin” by the Chemical Brothers.

Another great product of the Smell scene is Mika Miko, an all-girl band that manages to maintain a contemporary edge while playing old school punk.  The big and obvious influences on most of this work is a broad swath of early punk and no-wave, everything from X-Ray Spex to Penetration to the Slits to Lydia Lunch.  “Blues Not Speed” and “Turkey Sandwich”, off their most recent album, We Be Xuxa, touch on some of the female-intensive first-wave punk groups of Los Angeles, including the Controllers and the Bags, and have that first-wave simplicity to the lyrics that characterized work by the Dils and Germs.    “I Got a Lot” (New New New)” is boppier and catchier—it made me think of “Too Much Junk” by the Alleycats.  “Sex Jazz” sounds like a cross between Romeo Void and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, with its squalling sax, pulsing bass, and strident guitar line.  “On the Rise” reminds me of post-Raw Power songs by the Stooges, like “Heavy Liquid” filtered through the SF punk sounds of bands like U.X.A. and the Lewd.  They also do a great, lo-fi cover of the Misfits song “Attitude” on their second album, 666.  “With My Ducks” off this same album offers a wild punky ride similar to “We Don’t Need The English” by the Bags. 

Jenna Thornhill, sax player and singer for Mika Miko, also plays in the similarly atonal Silver Daggers.  The sound here is less overtly punky and much more art damage/no wave with a dash of punk funk.  Lydia Lunch, Teenage Jesus, the Contortions are what you’ll probably think of.  But “New High and Ord” off the album of the same name also has scratchy synths and a repetitive, throbbing bass that makes it sound like Sonic Youth and even, to a much lesser extent, the Screamers.    “Untame” has a wild, squalling saxophone and a big, heavy funk bass/rhythm that almost sounds like a very grungy Tom Tom Club; “We Didn’t Pay” is similarly funky but with a heavier garage punk feel that straddles early Red Hot Chili Peppers (like “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes”) and Fugazi as filtered through Ty Segall and Guitar Wolf.

One of the stranger Smell bands is Abe Vigoda, formed by four kids from Chino and named after the famously ancient Barney Miller actor.  Their first album, Kid City, hewed to a fairly traditional avant-noise sound similar to scenemates No Age, with a smattering of Minutmen-esque quirky time signatures (as best evidenced on the title track as well as “Gallop”, “Homonomy”, and “Infinite Face”).  But starting on their second album, Skeleton, these crazy kids took a bizarre and unexpected musical turn towards an Afro-Caribbean/calypso/world music direction that gave them a sound that was utterly unique.  “Bear Face” and “The Garden” have swirling steel drums and staccato drumming that occasionally settle into a slow island rhythmic jam.  Overlying this is still the brooding presence of early Sonic Youth and its contemporary interpretation by fellow band No Age; “Don’t Lie” off their 2009 EP Reviver is a good example, as is the slower and more island-infused “House” which nevertheless still straddles that art/noise boundary between Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. 

But on their 3rd full album, Crush, Abe Vigoda take yet another unexpected musical turn, eliminating for the most part the world music elements and infusing instead a lush, synth and drum machine-driven sound that sounds like early Human League and Depeche Mode (the pinging synth on “Dream of My Love (Chasing After You)” sounds very much like the synth line on Mode’s first hit single “New Life”) as well as contemporary new ro revivalists such as She Wants Revenge and the Editors (particularly on songs such as “Papillon”).  I’m a little concerned, if only because I really felt the Living Things destroyed their fierceness and impact by making a similar musical leap, but on songs like “Crush” they somehow manage to maintain the shaky balance between noise squall and new ro lushness; this song also evokes the Cure’s early balance between these two disparate musical genres on their work after “Boys Don’t Cry” and before Head In the Door.  “November” also hangs on this uneasy balance and in doing so brings to mind the clang and sway of “When We Were Young” and “Midnight Show” by the Killers, not bad company to keep musically.  “Repeating Angel” burbles ominously like a musical brook flowing between the morose introspection of Joy Division and the slightly more uplifting interpretation of Ian Curtis carried out by the Editors on songs like “The Weight of the World”.  Given how radically this band has changed in just its first few albums, I’m curious to see what comes next for them.

HEALTH, another band from the Smell scene, has gained notoriety for the pummeling dissonance of their sound.  Equal parts Sonic Youth and the Jesus and Mary Chain, but with far less structure than either of these bands combined, HEALTH’s sound also draws on such non-rock antecedents as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and the minimalism of Terry Riley and the atonal blasts of John Zorn’s Naked City.  This is a little too out there for me—after all, even the Butthole Surfers made the occasional standard song—but can see how this is gaining attention.  However, their most recent work, on their second album Get Color for example, eschews the unstructured abrasiveness of their first album for a more traditional synth-driven post-punk similar to Abe Vigoda’s latest album.  “Die Slow” marries some of the dissonance of their first album with a heavy drum sample and synths that alternate between the squack of Neubauten and the lushness of Yaz.  “We Are Water” veers toward the Cure but still has that proto-industrial feel of early Godz songs like “Permanent Green Light”, a strange combo indeed.

The Mae Shi have even further deconstructed the standard rock song on their 2004 album Terrorbird.  More conventional songs, which rebound between quirky jazz/funk a la the Minutemen  (“Revelation Two” and “Power To the Power Bite Two” are good examples) and the sleazy rock of bands like Louis XIV on songs like “Takoma the Dolphin is AWOL”.  Interspersed are strange, brief pastiches of noise (like on “Terror Bird”) and song fragments (“Revelation Six”).  “Jubilation”, on the other hand, is a sweet organ and sample filled confection.  In a way this almost reminds me of a very post-post-modern take on the hyper-eclecticism of Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, as interpreted by Matmos or Atari Teenage Riot. 

The Mai Shi broke up in 2009, but their final album, Hlllyh, moved away from this strange but compelling post-rock toward a more conventional structure that nevertheless managed to be fresh and interesting.    “The Lamb and the Lion” has a pinging, trilling synth that launches into pounding drums.  “Pwned” has a spare synth that sounds like  “FemBot” by Robyn but then launches into a wild assault of noise, finally settling down into snarky emo style vocals.  “Boys in the Attic” is a surprisingly straight-ahead punk/hard rock song that reminds me of “Death of Two Lovers” by the Flower Leperds crossed with Aerosmith.  It is clear the Mae Shi were maturing and evolving, but they still managed to keep that Butthole Surfers-like unpredictability, where no two songs sounded the same on any given album. 

Much more conventional are Lavender Diamond, who’s sound is a mix of sweet 70’s singer-songwriter and straightforward alternative.  “Oh No” is an example of this off their 2007 album Imagine Our Love.  “Garden Rose” has a sweet country lilt that sounds equidistant between Emmy Lou Harris and Iris Dement.  “Open Your Heart” has the winsomeness and simplicity of the Magnetic Fields or even the Cranberries.  This isn’t my usual cup of tea but in small doses this isn’t bad at all.

The Lucky Dragons combine the sweet girly vocals of Lavender Diamond with the post-rock experimentalism of the Mai Shi.  Not nearly as abrasive as that band, the Lucky Dragons’ songs are nevertheless a cut and paste of found sounds, electronic burbling and soft synths.  It makes me think of Gus Gus with an element of Beth Orton’s work with the Chemical Brothers (particularly on more recent tracks like “We Made Our Own Government” off their 2009 album Rara Speaks).  Their second album, Widows, continues this sampling/producer-driven vibe but with actual acoustic instruments sampled, cut, and pasted together; songs like “The Sound of Waves”, “Dark Falcon”, and “Dissolve Yourself” almost sound like shadows of songs, not really true songs but the reflection of songs but still have a spritely beauty.  Their work would be terrific to have on in a new age store or the front desk of a yoga ashram, kind of like the Echelon Effect.   

BARR, the name given by Brendan Fowler to his own post-rock work, is artier and consists of Fowler reciting his poetry with musical accompaniment.  This has clear rock antecedents (most notably Patti Smith) and isn’t bad in a weird beatnik kind of way. 

In a completely different vein are the Ancestors, who’s sound couldn’t be farther than the sampled stylings of BARR or the Lucky Dragons OR the art/noise of No Age or the Mai Shi.  Their musical territory is a ponderous dinosaur classic rock amalgam of 70’s Pink Floyd and Deep Purple.  Very strange stuff, like Purple it has lots of organ and like Floyd it swirls, reforms, swirls some more in psychedelic confusion.  One thing they hold in common with the groups above, however, is their ability to mix together longer (in this case 10-15 minutes long) songs with shorter flashes of sonic texture (such as “A Friend” off their 2009 album Of Sound Mind, which sounds like some of the electronic explorations of early 70’s Hawkwind).  There is a heavy electronic element to their work as well, along with occasionally introspective piano, such as on their 2011 song “Invisible White”.  The one song I like the most is “Orcus’ Avarice” off their two-song first album, Neptune With Fire; its got the ponderous roar of early Sabbath. 

Equidistant between psychedelia and ambient is the music of Pocahaunted.  Swirling electronic soundscapes overlie strange, almost chanting vocals.  Again, one musical strain I’m detecting is Godz and their strange 60’s proto-electronica.

Coming on like a cross between the Dillinger Escape Plan and King Crimson are Upsilon Acrux, a San Diego progressive band that has also integrated into the Smell scene.  Songs like “In-A-Gadda-Devito” are polyphonic guitar/synth workouts heavily influenced by the mathematical precision of Bach.  But it also reminds me of the Meat Puppets and even to a lesser extent Greg Ginn’s work with Gone or October Faction or his post-Black Flag work.  This is WAY not my scene—I’ve never been much of a prog rock fan—but these other elements make it at least somewhat interesting.  At the very least they’ve seen the connection between mathcore and prog, which to me was obvious.  

Captain Ahab play what at first listen sounds like straightforward techno but there’s an element of smirking knowingness about it—some people have called this “ravesploitation”, and others have referred to them as the “Tenacious D of techno”.  The song “Girls Gone Wild” sounds like it should be playing during a night at the Roxbury, and indeed it was used in an episode  of “The Office” during a party scene.  The lyrics are a hysterical take on what motivates young women to take their shirts off for sleazy exploitation porn videos that sounds like it was sung by Will Farrell using a vocoder.  They also do a weird vocodered-out techno version of Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8ter Boi” that comes off as a male Robyn.  “Death To False Techno” is very reminiscent of Voodoo U era Lords of Acid.  Their EP I Can’t Believe It’s Not Booty features a passel of raunchy rap/techno songs that touch on 2 Live Crew, Peaches, and Lords of Acid even as it takes the sexual crudity of these artists to new extremes.  And yet the song “Was Love” is a slow, haunting, echoey song written for the Syfy original series “Caprica”.  Strange strange stuff.