A Band Called BUFFET

“I like runic, Druidic, cave painting, ancient, preliterate, from a time back when you were speaking to the lightning god, the ice god, and the cold-rainwater god.” —Michael Heizer

It’s like burning a field in preparation for spring planting: punk. Anacortes-based BUFFET has released their first EP, and with it launched their new band into the world with a live show at the newly opened Kennelly Keys music shop in town. The turnout was impressive. The set was fast and tight, hitting all the tracks on the new EP.

Learning to Fall

The ShiversWhy does an artist set out on a journey to find his own unique language to say the things he needs to say, create two “sister” records early in his career (“More” and “In the Morning,” just a couple of years apart) that together contain 11 perfect songs among others, defining a vocabulary and voice, an astonishing accomplishment in these days of apathy and industry ruin, only to walk alone, deep into a personal wilderness, to search for something even more complex and revealing and experimental after inhabiting the very thing he was searching for since the early 2000s, and found? It’s something outsiders cannot easily decode. More records appeared, of course, each just a little more varied, each circling around similar subject matter and textures, some even changing personas completely.

The ShiversBut the patterns began to shift. Because, in the end, it’s about the burning questions. The questions that keep artists awake all night. The questions that wreck relationships, unquiet the mind, and haunt the escape of sleep. The questions that force the hard things to the surface, the dark things into the light, the dangerous things that can break a man. Artists can’t hide from the burning questions.

And so, the wilderness called, for renewal as much as for new directions or confirmations. What can I say about this artist now, at his latest moment of transformation? About this man, Keith Zarriello, his ever-changing identity as The Shivers, his music that opened The Business Presents music festival in July in Anacortes, WA, the artist who has come to define my longing for a direction for my small record record label, Untide Records, and which haunts my imagination about what might be possible for all his records as yet to be demoed, as yet to be recorded? The ShiversI want to say something to you that no one has ever said about him, something that will crash your world, like his music did mine, and make you see and hear what I see and hear in this artist’s teeming and tormented art. I want to do that, but then… I hesitate, and I don’t. Not here. Not now. I don’t because he’s my friend, but more important than that, vastly more important than that, I don’t because he’s still out there working, and something is changing, something new is coming into being. The wild places haven’t finished with him yet, so all remains speculation.

The ShiversMusic has always been the first art form because it requires no advance study to connect to those it connects to. You just fall into the music you love. If you love the music, if you love the language the artist has discovered for himself, you love it. There’s no need to write long arguments, proofs, about why you love it. You just do. It’s one to one, and remains so. Every song was written for you and it speaks to you as if you’re the only person who gets it, really gets it, because it becomes yours. We want to possess the people who can do this for us. But that isn’t possible, either. They belong to the wild places where their greatest songs are written. They belong to their searching, far away from all of us.

The ShiversOpening night, Keith walked into the venue, picked up his vintage Silvertone, plugged it in, and within minutes tore through his taut set list of songs from his decade-long conversion from novice songwriter to journeyman recording artist. It was a rare moment that felt all the more valuable for its spontaneity, vulnerability, and risk, coming from a man who only briefly stepped out of his wilderness mid pilgrimage. His search continues. The burning questions still have a firm hold on him. Every great songwriter travels this road, again and again. Pays the toll in a kind of existential loneliness and aloneness none of us can even imagine.

There remain many more songs inside this artist that will reveal themselves, in time. One day soon Keith will walk back out of his wild places, reformed as yet another new vision of The Shivers, and his records will literally speak for themselves. And those who know, will know. The music will fall into place, and those who get it, will, once again, feel his new writing is just for them. When the needle drops onto the first track, some of the burning questions will be finally be answered. But fortunately, not all of them.

The Shivers

[Where to find stuff: The Shivers on Soundcloud. The Shivers distro and retail from The Business. The Shivers on Bandcamp.]

Keep This Baby Flying

Phil Elverum and Geneviève Castrée have given the world some of the most exciting and memorable Indie music over the past 20 years. Now they need our help. The smallest donation will make a gigantic difference. Please visit their GoFundMe page for the full story.

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Shadowhouse: Hand In Hand

shadowhouse-coverMusic is like millions of small revolutions happening every hour of every day of every month of every year, in your head and in the heads of all the musicians in the world creating new music, each scrambling to find ways to say things that barely seem expressible before it appears, leaping from the imagination into the teeming, messy, viral world. Accepted or rejected or neglected, each revolution is claimed and compared by the faithful to every other revolution that’s ever been tested. Each revolution reveals universal yearnings, whether conscious or unconscious.

Music is evolution extending itself. Music is at once familiar and dangerous, built on top of countless layers of destruction. Genres like punk, hardcore, goth, and post-punk popularly return, on average, about every 8 to 10 years, to renew the franchise and upset the taste makers. Punk isn’t about being clever, nor is it just about aggression or spectacle. It’s necessary speech clawing its way toward whatever needs to be said.

Originally released by Mass Media Records on a very limited-edition vinyl pressing in 2014 and now reissued as a cassette by Resurrection Records, “Hand In Hand” by the Portland-based band Shadowhouse seems to spring forth fully formed as a polished post-punk throwback to the dark moods of Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, and The Sisters of Mercy. It’s so close in kinship with these bands that you’d swear you’re back in the 1980s. But not so.

Poland2015Even in today’s age, fractured by genres and sub genres, we get the music we need for the times we’re living in. Driven by the post-apocalyptic guitar lines and extraordinary voice of Shane McCauley, Shadowhouse renews the post-punk franchise by providing a time machine back to a sound and a feeling that at first listen feels more nostalgic than pioneering. But as the lyrics sink in, as the music swirls around you (you must play this record loud), songs like “Lonely Psalm,” “Toys,” and “Warning” demonstrate a stretching, searching quality that mark this record as something more than an imitation or homage to past times. “Hand In Hand” makes this a band to bookmark.

As a debut, the quality of this production, recorded in Portland and mixed in London by the punk tech masters at North London Bomb Factory, the energy of “Hand In Hand” invokes a raw, live performance in studio or in a small club. I have no idea how “Hand In Hand” was recorded, but engineers like to tame post-punk rockers into softer, more commercially mixed packages. If you’re unfamiliar with this impulse, compare the studio “Unknown Pleasures” by Joy Division with “Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979.” (Shane, call me! I want to write about how “Hand In Hand” was really made.)Denmark2015

The real test will be the next record from McCauley, Ashley Geiger (synthesizers), and Josh Hathaway (drums), to see how they will claim this space as their own.

The close ties of this band’s sound to Joy Division remind me of something the master revolutionary and immortal troublemaker Gandhi wrote, about being forced to work outside the oppressive boring mainstream of ideas and prejudices. He said first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

So it is for all those who venture into banal loyalties and sacred spaces. That’s the place that gave the world punk to begin with. The message from Shadowhouse seems to be it’s time to start again.Start Again Color Nov 2014

(All artist photos supplied by the band and used by permission. All rights reserved.)

Regeneration

They’re back. Overcoming the loss of their lease at their previous location in Anacortes, Washington, and then recovering from a fire in their new location (before they officially took possession), The Business record shop has started its new life in Anacortes, in their stunning new digs at 216 Commercial Avenue (just a couple of blocks from where they were). It’s been emotional for Nick Rennis and Evie Opp, but they’re back with an expanded shopfront, an expanding distro business, and now a new subscription program. Browsers and subscribers needed. Their new subscription program is available for both in-store pickup and can be shipped globally.

According to Nick and Evie, you can choose from:
Distro- Cassette Subscription – One tape from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($60)
Distro- CD Subscription – One CD from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($120)
Distro- Vinyl Subscription – One record from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($200)
Custom Vinyl Subscription – One record selected by their experts for you each month for 12 months (includes a fun questionnaire). ($240)
Premium Distro-/Custom Vinyl Subscription – One record from their family of labels plus one record selected by their experts for you and one 7″ each month for 12 months. ($500)
(Domestic shipping adds $50 to any subscription.)

Music is life. And The Business has been part of that life in Anacortes since 1978. It’s a project. It’s an experiment. It’s a testament.

The Business
216 Commercial Ave.
Anacortes, WA 98221 USA

Troubled Waters

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There’s an irresistible temptation to mention important literature and literary figures when it comes to reviewing the songwriting of Owen Ashworth. This makes him one of the most fascinating (and perplexing) modern recording artists to talk and read about. Whichever of his bands and records you choose to consider, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone or Advance Base, his latest creative venture, Ashworth garners impressive literary comparisons and faint praise in equal measure.

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

Ashworth’s work is respected. But his records seem to receive mediocre ratings by industry buzz masters. Or worse, he’s given patronizing or grudging recommendations that hardly inspire you to dash out and get his latest LP. It’s almost as if his writing style, very much in the dark (and similarly humorous or satirizing) tradition of author David Foster Wallace (to make yet another lofty literary comparison), attracts derision. Each new record raises hopes, but they mysteriously fail to fulfill the standards of most of his critics. How he misses is always ambiguous. It’s like the work connects, but the artist himself pisses people off somehow.

Thing is, we secretly all hate mirrors, even as we need them, in music and literature, to see ourselves. Mirrors make us feel rightly or wrongly judged. And Ashworth can be the saddest mirror of all. In the 1930s, author and peace leader Vera Brittain wrote about how lives lived in close and stifling proximity long for comfort, but thinking too much about reality can get in the way of living comfortably. The alternative: Stay put, don’t think. It’s still true: For some people, too much thinking only means trouble in paradise.

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

And that’s Ashworth’s challenge, song after song, record after record as he writes of troubled waters rising in quietly desperate lives. The people in his latest songs on the elegant new “Nephew in the Wild” (Orindal Records, 2015) are trying (in vain) to get clean, or signing leases and fighting with their landlords, or fixing up rusted out cars that just wind up on blocks in the backyard, or getting married too young and to the wrong people, or worrying about abusive pasts and dead-end jobs, or raising kids alone, all while praying for a world that still believes in prayer. Ashworth’s songs are about people thinking too much and paying too much. The songs obsess over the small things, but nothing quite works out. But along the way there are brilliant moments of wisdom and even humor, all of which makes for touching social commentary. Like this, from the song “Pamela”: “Your dad was seventeen/& dumb as a drum machine… Your mom was sixteen/& sweeter than saccharine….”

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

Every song on “Nephew in the Wild” fits together like an extended script, scenes about searching for missing lives, missing loves, and missing hope. They carry the load together. Even Ashworth’s signature lo-fi approach confounds some critics. His sound is a smart framework to keep things simple. The music is about the story and the feeling, narrowing the focus to close-ups and memorable fragments. His simplicity takes some things out of the equation and makes space for others.

In Ashworth’s universe the random events of the present predict the future, which makes the smallest things harbingers for troubles ahead. Just imagine if a song like his “Summon Satan,” played scratchy, like on an old vinyl record in another room, were to be used at the ending of a particularly dark episode of “The Walking Dead”: “You can worry about the future/You can worry about the past/You can worry about how long/this curse is going to last.” His is a warning of unstoppable terrible things to come. Everyone would need to have his music because it sometimes feels so good to feel so bad. Ashworth’s darkness would at last be in focus. And everyone else would finally get it.

[Artist photos by Tom Cops. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]

2016 Big Ears Festival: Sunn O)))

Sunn O))) Kannon
Sunn O)))’s version of metal just got a whole lot more experimental, which makes them appropriately one of the headliners for this year’s Big Ears Festival (3/31 through 4/2/2016) in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sunn O))) also just got a whole lot more theological by adding a Buddhist theme to their newest release, “Kannon” (Southern Lord, 2015), an album that inadvertently explores a favorite Buddhist warning about desire and its inevitable destination: suffering. In this case, the suffering comes from too much emphasis on explaining themselves rather than simply doing what they do best, creating amazing drone metal soundscapes, and leaving us all to get on with our appreciation and individual interpretation of their mastery. Theirs has always been a kind of monastic worship of doom metal, complete with hooded robes, their guitars at times like the voices of monks chanting, solitary, inside their private world of solid walls of sound.

SUNN 1

On one hand, the band appears to be doing what it always does by performing a cycle of interlocking guitar-driven compositions, this time collectively called “Kannon,” Parts 1-3, performed loud, raw, open, and richly textured. The entire album clocks in faster than some of their earlier studio offerings, around 33 minutes. They’ve also incorporated thematic lyrics, sung in a dense drone fashion by Attila Csihar, with words that connect their signature wall of sound with ancient historical and theological ideas of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, of the nature of suffering, and of sound perception as a vehicle to access the world’s lamentations.

To aid us in getting up and over all these etymological and cultural hurdles, the band commissioned several sculptures by Swiss designer/artist Angela Bollinger, lavishly photographed and reproduced on the cover and inside the gatefold jacket. These jet black crystalline forms seem to bow before and absorb all light. They also commissioned a lengthy, super dense technical essay, “Kannon/Canon,” by the controversial theorist Aliza Shvarts.

SUNN 2

Had Sunn O))) made their starting point as a band one of Buddhist teaching through the use of loud electric guitars, I suspect the layers of high-level textual explanation wouldn’t be as necessary at this point in their career. We’d already be expecting another loud Buddhist koan. But it feels like Shvarts’ essay is out of place here, working too hard to connect a band with the Buddhist concepts behind the great perceiver of sound with emptiness, phonic excess with drone guitars, and feminism.

In the end, it’s about the music, and the evolution of the artistic partnership between Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. Over the years their interests, artistic and collaborative goals, and commercial expansion into more than one successful record label have grown far beyond the scope of Sunn O))). The arrival of “Kannon” feels affirming that this legendary band will continue to come together from time to time, take risks and explore new ground as these artists mature.

SUNN 3

However, it’s tempting to consider how this record would feel had the band not taken so many steps to explain and illustrate their intent in the gatefold. Their music, like meditation itself, seems designed to lead the listener to open up to new states of awareness and emotional response. Their guitars have always been a kind of chant, freed of cultural baggage and burdens. If you insist, their ongoing koan remains something more elemental: the search for something more intuitive, an authentic dialogue through guitars that needs no language or definition or defense to make its case.

“Kannon” succeeds in illustrating the progression of two pioneers of the art form. As an experiment in Buddhist teaching, the rewards remain too complex and just out of reach.

The Shivers: In the Morning

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[Editorial disclosure/confession: The Shiver’s vinyl release now available (“In the Morning,” 2015), is on our record label, Untide Records. Once again, I’m a music reviewer promoting one of our own. Just pretend this isn’t me writing, if that makes it easier or seem more fair.]

The Shivers, founded in 2001 and led by Keith Zarriello, created this raw and confessional “In the Morning” in an industrial Long Island City practice space in the borough of Queens, New York, in 2009. It arrived like a storm, a revelation after the band’s equally personal “Beaks to the Moon” (2008). In some ways, these two records complete each other, reflecting an interplay of unfolding relationships between the musicians, with their emerging confidence and confessional, exposed lyrics that, after this record, become the distinguishing characteristic of Zarriello’s musical vocabulary.

Captured in just a few intense days, this remarkable moment of songwriting, performance, and recording was initially drawn from a mixtape of more than 30 compositions and fragments, both demos and complete songs, in various states of development by Zarriello and Jo Schornikow. These sessions were captured low-budget on a four-track tape deck by Dan Hewitt, sound engineer, long-time collector and student of the New York music scene, and founder of State Capital Records, the record’s original label. Hewitt even recalls that one song, “Firenze,” was recorded to a flip phone in Montreal by Zarriello, and then eventually made it into the final release. A few songs, including “Insane,” were written in a matter of hours during the sessions themselves. Hewitt then mixed the record in his home studio in Jackson Heights, and it became the fourth record to emerge from State Capital, and the fourth from the band.

Two things characterize the moodiness of this record: each song’s emotional urgency, which borders on an almost pleading sensibility, like the opening “Just Didn’t Need to Know,” and the feeling that these songs somehow capture what it means to live and love in New York City. Many of these songs explore relationships, heartbreak, suspicion, even raw anger, painting a picture of New York as a place where it’s impossible to be happy.

Throughout, there’s a collaborative DIY feeling. Schornikow’s classically trained piano anchors it all, and Zarriello’s post-punk romantic guitar and vocals (influenced by bands like Spacemen 3 and Television) adds the raw heat, then all shaped by Hewitt’s guiding influence. A DNA test on this music would show strong evidence of a rootsy post-punk influence, the clue being Zarriello’s compelling cover of “Cheree,” from the groundbreaking synth-punk band Suicide. Everyone was working fast on “In the Morning,” as if the band sensed their perfect moment would pass too soon and the clarity would fade. Hewitt the audiophile set aside his perfectionism to insightfully record and mix this record as a pure lo-fi DIY statement.

Now completely remastered for vinyl by Alex Saltz at APS Mastering, NYC, this new vinyl release includes six bonus tracks, all envisioned at the time of the original recording but eventually shelved. Two of the bonus highlights include “Magazine Lover,” which until now has only been available as a digital download single, and an alternate version of “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars,” which was released on the band’s luminous “More” (Silence Breaks, 2011) a few years later.

Architecture in Helsinki: NOW + 4EVA

NOW + 4EVA

Critics have often been confused, even mildly annoyed, by synthpop, or what might be better described as “indietronica,” especially in this brave new music century filled with genre-bending and technological mashings. If there’s “indie” in the genre label there has to be a message, even if we’re talking about music for raves made by those who simply love wires and drum machines. Popper fans, however, who still just want to dance, put a greater value on… dancing, “plur” (peace, love, unity, respect) dancing! I suppose one can dance to heavy social issues, lyrically speaking, in a club or a rave, if the beat is right, but just how important is message to dance fans?

Architecture in Helsinki (AiH), often called a “collective” of Australian musicians, employs retro and modern techniques in what they create (analog synths, cellos and violas, even a glockenspiel back in the day, if you believe the liner notes), as well as traditional guitars and drums and vocals. The number of stories about how this band came together, how they stay together (or not), how they named themselves, and how they work and make their songs in their studios in each hemisphere have inspired some to anoint them with titles and career potential that the band probably couldn’t live up to when they formed in the early 2000s. The band, then as now, seems to just want to make dance music.

AiH blew into the world in 2003 with a record (“Fingers Crossed,” Trifekta Records) that for many hinted at a vast new landscape of possible indie destinations. Any confusion was made more discussable among critics because of the record’s energy and eccentric dance appeal, coupled with the longing of some critics. The world thought it was looking at, perhaps, an Australian Animal Collective. But the signs were all there from the beginning.At the heart of this band is a genuine love and affinity for an organic dance habitat. And this is where the conflicts remain for some. “Fingers Crossed” should have been a harbinger for the most recent two AiH records, “Moment Bends” (Modular Recordings, 2011) and “NOW + 4EVA” (Casual Workout, 2014). AiH’s records seem to pair up (excluding their numerous extended plays and remixes, further clues that we’re looking at a club dance band through and through), with “In Case We Die” (Tailem Bend, 2005) and “Places Like This” (Tailem Bend, 2007), both records skewing more experimental than the most recent offerings. But in the end, this band still wants to dance.

There’s no question that the production on “NOW + 4EVA” is super slick. Recorded in Melbourne, Australia, and produced by Francois Tetaz (a brilliant hand at everything from soundtracks to electropop) and AiH, all 11 tracks bounce from one to another with nostalgic, carefree, and relentless dance beats. Breathless vocals shimmer across every surface. No individual song stands out as a leader on this record because, together, they’re all such a period piece. (Well, maybe the song “April,” a sweet, ambiguous love song that does mention an apocalypse, which proves that a love song by a dance band can gently skim its way through a little darkness and still stay sweet.) The overall feeling is one of days gone by, from a less stressed out time, before the world shrank and issues filled every corner of a life and record collection. Maybe such a time never existed, but AiH gives you the feeling that there must have been one, and we kinda need it to come back. Maybe there’s still such a vibe somewhere in Australia.

So, it’s time we face it: Architecture in Helsinki is a thrashy little dance band, and they will stay that way until they break up. Critics tried to write what they wanted them to become, but they’ve just become more of what they they always were at their core. If you can’t or won’t dance, give this band a miss. Otherwise, set your expectations to spontaneous hooky, and let their overflowing, happy vibe dance you back from the edge of our exhausting, troubled, and sleep-deprived modern abyss.