Ben Kuzay – In the Halls of the Punisher

15/08/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Ben Kuzay
Title: In the Halls of the Punisher
Label: Evil Ink Records
Genre: Progressive Metal

01 Sonic Aristocracy
02 In The Halls Of The Punisher
03 The Royal Palace Pt. 1: The Reading Room
04 The Royal Palace Pt. 2: The Crown
05 March To The Guillotine
06 Metropolis
07 Passage Through A Strange Place
08 The Road To Union
09 Defending The Fortress
10 The Suffering At Hope’s End
11 The Little Toy Train
12 Retribution

Ever heard of a band called Nightqueen? I thought not, but somewhere in the cruel maelstrom of time the worlds of this unknown Belgian Gothic metal group and an instrumental bassist from Wisconsin have collided. Nightqueen are one of the most delayed, reformed and malformed bands in the underground metal scene. They’ve been together since 2005, and in that time you can count on one hand the amount of live performances they’ve done – and on several hands the amount of line-up changes they’ve been through. For years I regularly visited their amateurish website and was amazed by their paucity of output, their laughably pantomime-esque stage wear and their banal and atrocious lyrics page – lyrics for songs which may as well have not existed since there were no samples. Their ‘news’ section featured gems like:

“10/12/2005 – a new band member has arrived. Da-Namite has just joined the band for the 2nd lead guitar. So Nightqueen is finally complete and will go on stage soon.”

“20/12/2005 – the band said goodbye to rhythm guitar player Da-Namite.”

Of course you can’t see where this is going. Ben Kuzay can if he’s reading this review, and he’s probably feeling quite uneasy because of it. The thing is, Ben has had a lot of experience in the music industry, being a session musician. But he’s also had a lot of experience of being in different bands: bands which he doesn’t seem to spend an awful lot of time in. For instance, Ben’s first band, Lacerte, lasted less than a year. And his second one, Second Impression [geddit?], lasted six months. You may think that’s normal when musicians are starting out – but wait – there’s a pattern here. Ben joined Wykked Wytch in August 2001 only to leave four months later. He joined A Tortured Soul in November 2007 only to leave three months later. I’d love to know the reasons for such impressively short track records, and things like this from his biography are even more intriguing: “Apr.-Sep. 2001 – Ben Kuzay joins forces with Duane Timlin (Divine Empire, Judas Iscariot), and in a band, the name of which will not be disclosed, Ben and Duane play many shows throughout the Milwaukee and Green Bay areas.” What was that again – ‘the name of which will not be disclosed’. Why ever not, was it a secret project? It couldn’t have been because of all those shows in Milwaukee and the Green Bay areas [wherever those might be]. However much doubt there might be surrounding this small cereal of events, one thing’s for certain – Mr Kuzay seems better off on his own.

So what happened after all this? Ben decided that the world didn’t understand and he should form his own project, so In The Halls of the Punisher was his first contribution to the starved and pining Milwaukee metal scene. This album is a couple of years old now, and has since been superseded by the as-yet unreviewed [by HH at least] Perpetual Desire. In The Halls of the Punisher features plain but striking dark artwork and a couple of pictures of its creator looking uncomfortable in front of a camera. In the linear notes is the message, “each song on this album is the sonic emanation of an emotion, or idea, or an experience I have had at some in my life”. I’m sure every other musician out there feels exactly the same, apart from maybe the Melvins when they were putting out Colossus of Destiny.

Ben can certainly play the bass well, and that’s what’s supposed to be concentrated on here after all. The whole album is his own work including keys, electric guitar and the songwriting. The drum programming was a joint effort between Joel Wanasek and you know who, the music straddling a line between progressive and neoclassical metal. Each song is bass-heavy but not with regard to slow, lumbering, doomish basslines, rolling grooves or even catchy riffs – a lot of it seems to be to do with just how fast the bass can be played. And yes, Ben can play it very fast, impressively fast, but after several tracks of hearing another arpeggio at 160bpm the interest factor starts to decline.

In The Halls of the Punisher is not terribly atmospheric even though it does have its moments: March To The Guillotine has an ingenious closing section and Metropolis has its own inimitable dusky urban charm. Unfortunately, lot of the other numbers descend into the same fast spidery riffing and though it’s clear that Ben can certainly play his instrument well, there’s a difference between fast fretwork and building structured, deep songs concentrating around basslines. In spite of each track here holding pertinent meaning to its creator, to the objective listener it comes across as little more than a mish-mash or musical speed trials, interspersed with only occasional moments of mood just for variety. Nevertheless, I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from Mr Kuzay in the future. There’s a Gothic band in Belgium that’ll undoubtedly need a new bassist soon.

Koldvoid – Ghost Staring At The World

15/08/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Koldvoid
Title: Ghost Staring At The World
Label: Valse Sinistre productions
Genre: Ambient

01 Nostalgia
02 Phantasma
03 Radiance

I am the proud owner of an original, hand-numbered copy of a Koldvoid album. Apparently the stock isn’t limited, but some kind and dedicated individual has taken the time to write numbers inside every front cover – not on the back where they’re supposed to be. It’s the equivalent of a supermarket or fast-food assistant leaving the space on their badge blank and writing their name on their face. In fact, a lot of them at the supermarket down my road seem to be carted back and forth from the local mental health institute, they even let them out at weekends and you have to spend lunchtimes avoiding them like motorcycles swerving cones on a practice track.

In fact, it’s hard to know much about Koldvoid at all since they’re another mouthless, faceless dark ambient entity from a remote part of Eastern Europe. We do know that the project is the work of Robert Sun – which is not a very Romanian name, so either it’s an unimaginative pseudonym or Robert has been parachuted into Romania from the UK to up the country’s quota of Westerners through artificial selection and eugenics, and good luck to him. In the meantime he’s managed to put together Ghost Staring At The World, a three-track EP of melancholic ambient clocking in at just over 22 minutes, with some nicely dark and dreamy artwork reminiscent of something you’d find on a CMI inlay. The rest of the packaging is minimal and slapdash, resembling a cardboard sleeve which Woolworths would have been proud to sell in the twilight of their retailing days, but I can’t imagine Valse Sinistre have the kind of cash injection they’d really like.

Koldvoid’s music has an unassuming, solitary feel to it. Not quite sinister or foreboding enough to fall into the realm of dark ambient, “Ghost Staring at the World” is a straight-up piece of ambient with occasional vocal samples, only nodding towards dark ambient artists such as Asmorod or Kammarheit. Its three songs are moody, contemplative pieces using slow chord progressions, occasionally tinged with cosmic chimes and melodies. However, don’t fear that the EP veers into new age territory – it’s quite mindful of itself and never strays from its own ethereal and dreamlike patterns.

Taken on its own level, Koldvoid is a relaxing, introspective piece of work. However, when compared against other ambient and dark ambient projects it doesn’t quite have the nous or gumption to hold your attention as a listener. I understand that it’s supposed to be weary, thoughtful ambient music, but this isn’t a guarantee to make it immediately interesting. It’s very easy to listen to it and drift away, but the drifting is more likely to be done by your attention span rather than being carried off on the thoughtful, fantastical world of the music itself. There’s still enough here to keep me intrigued and I’ll be keeping an eye on Robert’s projects to see what he comes up with next, though this debut EP doesn’t offer quite enough in itself to warrant repeated attention.

Bai Shui – Winter 冬

15/08/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Bai Shui
Title: Winter 冬
Label: Midnight Productions
Genre: Folk/ Ambient

01 遥远的告别    
02 草地上的脚印    
03 冬至    
04 路的那边    
05 纸鸢    
06 文竹    
07 戎之夜    
08 上桥,下桥    
09 李老头    
10 日落    
11 束河    
12 螃蟹歌    
13 那年的渡口

When this album arrived with the rest of the Heathen Harvest promo package it was difficult to work out what it was: almost the entire CD packaging is in Chinese. Fortunately there are one or two clues inside to let you know whatever it is you’re listening to, so I can informatively announce that this is the second album of Chinese folk ambient project Baishui. The track titles aren’t translated either and after a search around the internet I still can’t find any hints as to what they mean – that part will have to remain shrouded in mystery, and it’s one I find rather appealing. Chinese culture has great enigma, history and darkness to it, which is shown wonderfully in the traditional sound that the Winter package conveys musically and visually.

Baishui spends most of his creative time in the well-respected neofolk ensemble Bloody Woods, but his self-named albums have a far more atmospheric and traditional tinge to them. Winter’s artwork contains washed out pictures of geisha in light pastel dresses, alongside other traditional oriental themes: its overused but at least it looks authentic. I’d love to be able to get my hands on more of this kind of stuff since China holds such intrigue for me, however, since the chances of my getting on a plane in the near future are about the same as Forever Slave winning a Grammy, I probably won’t have the good fortune to visit the country in the near future – obviously things like this album, the Chinese Torture Chamber trilogy and multiple cheap restaurants with fan-folded napkins in Soho will have to suffice in the meantime.

There’s something very calming about the music that Baishui makes, each of the 13 tracks being a perfectly serene homage to traditional Chinese folk music. Baishui takes care of all the instruments on the album ranging from the guitar to Chinese flute, Xun and Xiao. If you haven’t the clue what some of these are, their sound will become instantly recognisable on hearing them. The artist uses all the instrumentation at hand to create an aura of mysticism, sometimes fashioning ethereal, ambient passages enshrouded with an inimitable Eastern edge, and other times simple folk imbued with Eastern melodies, all deftly played with skill. Baishui occasionally uses vocals – one track of which includes the uncredited use of female vocals – and though they’re not always as on-key as they could be, their gruffness adds a certain honestly and rawness which befits the music.

Unlike its namesake, Winter doesn’t always have a cold sound to it. At times it may be chilling, cold and bracing, though at others its sounds have a light, verdant freshness to them. There may not always be enough differentiation between the songs to grab every listener immediately since the album can take many goings over to appreciate its subtleties. However, in the sometimes dreary and uninventive world of neofolk it’s refreshing to come across something that actually feels born out of genuineness and love for its referenced culture and tradition, rather than experimentation with the folk sound out of some kind of romantic dream. It’s impossible to doubt the authenticity of Baishui’s sound, or the passion and devotion that created it.

Atomtrakt – Nuklearchetyp

01/08/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Atomtrakt
Title: Nuklearchetyp
Label: Mercenary Musik
Genre: Martial Industrial/ Dark Ambient

Track listing:

01 Stahlkern
02 Einöde
03 Brachland
04 Narben des Schreckens
05 Eisenkerker
06 Zeitzeugen
07 Eisenkerker (mpeg videoclip)

Everyone seems to be going post-apocalyptic at the moment. As if Bioshock and Fallout 3 weren’t enough to depress us into following the prescience of our final years on this withering planet, people like Christopher Ziegler are there to show us the fruits of their musical bleakness in the interim. Atomtrakt, Christopher’s industrial/ambient incarnation is on its second embodiment now – sometimes a whining, hissing insect in the ear of martial industrial music, and others a cold and empty wilderness in the wasteland of dark ambient. Mr Ziegler seems to love delving into these sides of himself and along with his other projects, the well-known Vinterriket and the lesser known Nebelkorona, is sure to saturate the underground with many more in the years to come, or at least until the world is engulfed by a giant intergalactic fireball in 2012. What good are your life insurance policies going to be then, eh?

The post-apocalyptic feel of Atomtrakt’s work is very clear from the stark, grainy black and white photos emblazoned on the front of the CD packaging. The three-panel monochrome digipack is replete with images of bombs exploding, twisted undefinable metal structures, crumbling urban ruins and grand, formal buildings standing proud against the rubble. In a way, the artwork harks back to the 30s and 40s with its feeling of wartime elegance and admiration, the Atomtrakt logo looking very art deco and military against the grand architecture. It sets a suitable scene for the sounds on offer and though it’s more than a little clichéd for the martial crowd, when you come to ambient music there’s little a cliché that can be overcooked.

The instrumentation makes full and confident use of keys, percussion and distorted vocals: a slight departure from Atomtrakt’s previous sound on Schutt & Asche. The vocals, which are made frequent use of in the album, are strong, harsh and discordant, though have enough of a reflective feel so as not to detriment the music. Along with the minimalist key riffs and military style of percussion, Atomtrakt are able to provide a commanding atmosphere of the power of gloom and melancholy. The project also makes ample use of samples which fit nicely with the discordant feel of the music to give it a reflective, introspective tone, becoming more authoritative as the album increases the march of its message towards the end.

Where Nuklearchetyp seems to drag is at the repetitious nature of a lot of the songs, and in this way the album works better when listened to as a whole – though anyone with a small grasp of Christopher Ziegler’s music should know that variety between songs is rarely the order of the day. Nuklearchetyp sprawls its doom-laden message over six tracks creating a veil of ambience, intensity and disharmony. It can get a little tiresome in places and after several numbers you may end up being bemused about exactly where on the album you’ve ended up, but it’s still an emotional, competent offering. It would – at some point – be nice to see some more depth and variety within Ziegler’s works, but as far as laying atmospheric foundations goes, the homogeneity of Nuklearchetyp’s threads are also part of its appeal.

The Mystery School – Flambeaux Noirs

01/08/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: The Mystery School
Title: Flambeaux Noirs
Label: Ars Benevola Mater
Genre: Ambient/ Experimental

Track listing:

01 The Drawing Of Night
02 Of The Mist
03 Enchantment Of The Deer People
04 Burning Ghostly
05 Waiting For The Sky To Open
06 For Ages
07 Healed By Water
08 She Dreamed Of Going To The Stars
09 Flambeaux Noirs
10 The Rock Of Seclusion
11 Forest Of You
12 Cocoon Of The White Dwarf
13 Winterkill
14 Evenfall

“Flambeaux Noirs” is a confusingly bisectable piece of work. On the one hand, The Mystery School can provide enchanting, serene melodies perfectly befitting of their niche within the ambient genre, and on the other they produce some of the most irritating and unlistenable music I’ve come across for a long time. I wish that such a fallacious dichotomy was intentional in its irony, though I’ll have to live with the more likely premise that it isn’t. No band would consciously create such a work of opposites in order to prove some obscure artistic point would they? It’s like trying to comprehend the twisted oeuvre of Aliza Shvarts or Guillermo Vargas, finger-pointing at their critics and artistic demographic by challenging ‘preconceptions’ of art through petulant by-number point-proving. I’d love to think that The Mystery School were doing something similar, but I’m sorry to say that’s just not the case. Though “Flambeaux Noirs” has a good dollop of atmosphere on order, it’s more of a side dish or a condiment – which leaves the mains with a whole lot more to answer for.

“Flambeaux Noirs” is presented in a rather standard, bleak jewel case with coarse blue and black artwork. Its comfortably obscure imagery is generic enough to be both inoffensive and apt for the ambient scene [if indeed the ambient genre has a scene at all] while the majority of the text appears in swirly, corsiva fonts. It’s like looking at something Black Tape For A Blue Girl would come out with but on an even smaller budget: the kind that means you can produce the artwork on a standard Windows application like Paint. I sometimes end up wondering whether bands sit round and huff at the fact that they have to draw up artwork at all, getting their nephew to run something off on the Pentium III for a stack of Beanos and some chocolate coins. It won’t be long until they give up altogether and we’re receiving CDs in brown paper bags together with traces of spring onion and lettuce.

The Mystery School use dreamy, basic synth melodies, male and female vocals and occasionally subtle trip-hop-esque beats and violins. At times they can affect an atmosphere well and there are moments such as in “Burning Ghostly”, “The Rock of Seclusion” and “Forest of You” where the album boasts some quite impressive numbers. The Mystery School are at their best when the vocals are kept to a minimum, letting the instrumentation carry the feelings, as is also shown in the wonderful “She Dreamed of Going to the Stars” with its ethereal, introspective feel, reminiscent of something you’d find on a Stoa album.

Where “Flambeaux Noirs” falls down is when there are too many elements clashing together in one track, and sadly some of the elements which work the least well are the vocals. Though the male voices are fairly competent and well done for most of the time, the female vocals are bordering on dreadful and almost permanently out of tune. It’s so grindingly painful to listen to that I have no idea why their inclusion was considered, least of all allowed, unless the band wanted to exploit some kind of acquired taste for its audience or force us to think outside the box with regard to what we can tolerate from music. The song “For Ages” is probably the most of this guilty of this: its tired, childlike synth melody going down as one of the most vehemently irritating songs I’ve ever had to listen to. I could actually feel genuine rage building up inside me each time it came on, pining desperately for track 7 for fear of ripping out all my optical drives and stuffing them down next door’s soakaway which, seeing as I live round the corner from Denis Nilson, wouldn’t be out of keeping with the area.

There’s no doubt that there are some satisfyingly elevating elements to “Flambeaux Noir”, so it’s frustrating that the album is imbued with so many inconsistencies. The fantastic dreamlike instrumental cadences of some of the songs seem incongruously tied alongside numbers with poor vocals and unimaginative lyrics. Such a dynamic is so heavily and naturally marred that it’s difficult to look on “Flambeaux Noirs” as a consistent album and easier to see it as an experiment in ambient music that would succeed if half of it were removed from itself, almost like giving the album its own lobotomy. It would be great to see a work of more instrumental ambient from the band because the way things are currently going, the quality is quite disappointingly sub-par.

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