Best Albums: Atomic Ape, Helms Alee, ††† (Crosses), Whispered

This week’s best albums

– Led by Jason Schimmel of Estradasphere and Secret Chiefs 3, Atomic Ape’s debut will be one of the year’s best in progressive, adventurous style convergence.

– Utilizing ponderously heavy yet extra-melodic riffs, haunting vocal switches, powerhouse drumming, and rumbling low end, Helms Alee proves once again that it capital-R rocks.

– With its debut LP, ††† (Crosses) — featuring Chino Moreno (of Deftones), Chuck Doom, and Shaun Lopez (of Far) — supplies gauzy drapes of sound for Moreno to demonstrate the full extent of his powers as a vocalist when he holds back.

– Finland’s Whispered delivers a sophomore album of Oriental metal that’s even more epic and orchestrated than its predecessor.

Honorable mentions

The Glitch Mob: Love Death Immortality

Illum Sphere: Ghosts of Then and Now (Ninja Tune)

Tinariwen: Emmaar (Anti-)

Thumpers: Galore (Sub Pop)

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50 Unheralded Albums from 2011

In just one more trip around the sun, another swarm of immensely talented but under-recognized musicians has harnessed its collective talents and discharged its creations into the void. This list is but one fraction of those dedicated individuals — admittedly, based mostly in the Western world — who caught our ears with some serious jams.

For us, 2011 was another year of taking in as much as we could and sharing the best with you. Next year, however, will be a homecoming of sorts, a return to rock-‘n’-roll roots. We’ll soon be able to share the projects that we have in store — across multiple mediums — but for now, dig into this rock-focused list of must-own albums.

Presented in chronological order.

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Grails: Cinematic Rock Built on Historical Touchstones

Grails: Deep PoliticsGrails: Deep Politics (Temporary Residence, 3/8/11)

Grails: “I Led Three Lives”

[audio:|titles=Grails: “I Led Three Lives”]

Since its first full-length album in 2003 for Neurot Recordings, Grails has redefined the boundaries of the instrumental-rock record.

Much like its songs, the Portland-based quartet has built a persona around the concept of evolution, releasing album after album that bears few resemblances to its predecessors. A look at Grails’ extensive discography reveals a prismatic display of every genre that the band has contorted with its psychedelic surrealism: post-rock, minimalist kraut rock, Eastern-infused soundscapes, and metal.

Displaying a remarkable knowledge and respect for music and music history, Grails is confident in crossing through genres and sounds that would be estranged in another context. The group’s songs build as swiftly as they deconstruct, always with an eclectic catalog of ideas at play.

Deep Politics, the band’s fourth release on Temporary Residence Limited, delves deeper into its countless influences and can be seen as yet another turn in the Grails music catacomb. Released three years after the heavier Doomsdayer’s Holiday, Deep Politics further nurtures Grails’ rapport with fringe culture and the occult history of library music, channeling musical modes that muddle the bizarre and accessible.

“Music history is one way we’ve learned to appreciate other human beings,” says drummer Emil Amos, who also spends time in Om and Holy Sons. “We feel this perennial camaraderie with these weird people – like David Axelrod making funk symphonies out of William Blake poetry. It’s that perversion and ruthless creative imagination that has always been a part of radical record production. We’re paying tribute to that heritage and responding to that dialectic of the century.”

“It’s a way to cast yourself in the grand scheme of things,” guitarist Alex Hall says. “If you’re walking around during the day and having trouble appreciating anyone on the sidewalk, and you put on these records and see a commonality between you and human history – there’s something positive about that. That’s something Grails is trying to shed light on. It’s taught us the value of music.”

Over the course of eight tracks and 45 minutes, Deep Politics stands as an ambitious mix of compelling melodies and lush sounds bridged by new techniques, most notably an increased utilization of a cut-and-paste production style that’s commonly used by electronic and hip-hop artists.

“We’re not trying to imitate library music,” Amos says, referring to material that is written for film and media purposes and that often touches a range of emotions. “We’re just trying to break it down. It’s just a way to describe a jumping-off point.”

“Music history is one way we’ve learned to appreciate other human beings. We feel this perennial camaraderie with these weird people.”

It’s a point that gave rise to eight songs of concentrated inventiveness, informed not only by Ennio Morricone’s prolific Italian-western film scores but the disorienting 1960s psychedelia and heavy atmospherics for which the band, whose other half is composed of William Slater and Wm. Zak Riles, is essentially known.

For Hall, the Italian-western description is just a small glimpse into the record. “To me, honestly, it sounds like a mess,” he says. “But there are usually one or two tracks that have such a strong personality that they cast an umbrella over everything else.” He recalls Burning Off Impurities, an album from 2007 that the band was afraid would be slammed for being too heavily influenced by German rock, but in the end was ultimately labeled as a desert-psych record.

“When we listen to the record, we hear a reflection of our fucked-up psychology — the processing of these toxins we were dealing with at the time,” Amos says. “We definitely don’t hear the story everyone is hearing — the story of a saloon in the desert. Anyone starting with that much of a referential understanding of what they’re trying to make is just basically writing a college thesis.”

He meditates for a second. “It can be frustrating. I think we want to force people to deal with the sound and think for themselves, but unfortunately, sometimes people end up hearing a concept they thought about before, instead of hearing the raw expression. But people can call it homosexual-cowboy trip hop and it wouldn’t matter; we’re just thankful that people are listening to us.”

Perils of an instrumental band? Yes. Though the description “cinematic” is tired and overused, especially in the post-rock game, there is a certain truth about it when talking about Deep Politics. There are grand stretches of music when listeners will almost feel obligated to fill in the anecdotes. Soft instants swell into big moments seamlessly, a tension augmented by an opposing mishmash of acoustic and electric guitar intonations, soulful piano lines, East-meets-West melodies, and lush string accompaniments from the renowned Timba Harris (Estradasphere, Secret Chiefs 3).

From the first moments of opener “Future Primitive,” one gets a sense of the band’s signature demonic ambience hovering over the instruments. Suspiria-like layers of psychosis subtly crowd the musical space that is entranced by a heavy guitar riff, giving way to a pure-toned acoustic guitar that exudes the western motif. And while Harris’ presence as lone violinist is established here, so are disparate sounds; pounding drum beats meet heavy distortion and gloomy layers of background pressure.

Describing himself and Hall as the “matrix of post-rock,” Amos discloses their approach to the post-production sessions. “You’re hearing us hear our own boredom,” he says. “We want to live with the song’s creative process as long as possible, and that’s why our songs have so many weird layers. We want to hear something new happen, and we’ve learned to use the computer to excite our own ears.”

“Being an instrumental band, we’re very self-conscious about the danger of our music being boring,” Hall says. “It forces us to pack in the atmosphere and ambience. Though all the chill moments are deliberately there to cure our boredom, they still have to be engaging. We’re not a drone band that feels content with putting out 45 minutes of two notes.”

Grails’ strictly instrumental music gives instant payoffs all over the record. “All The Colors of the Dark” takes its overarching melody from Bruno Nicolai’s work in Sergio Martino’s 1972 giallo film of the same name, though it transforms it into a completely different being. The song’s brooding bit, dominated by a lone piano, traverses into a symphonic guitar assault, all the while keeping the same mood and composure.

Harris’ strings lift the whole affair into a standout track that takes on a classical guise. A perfect match in music sensibilities, what begins as a somber piano ballad turns into an endearing string symphony over a hard drum beat. It all begins to amplify a protagonist’s existential crisis in a film plot that ultimately is imaginary. “If you’re trying to create a Hitchcock movie, you have to evoke Bernard Herrmann,” Amos says. “And we were lucky enough to be put in touch with Timba by Randall Dunn.”

Harris, who can also be heard on the grand anti-finale of “Deep Snow,” has a way of creating depth and drama. “He has a lot of interesting ways to evoke full-out symphonies,” Hall says. “He came in at the right time, when we were making something grand and melancholy.”

The band more quietly experiments with the world of samples, employing the aforementioned cut-and-paste approach so cunningly at times that it’s impossible to tell where one source ends and another begins. This technique is readily apparent on “Corridors of Power,” an experimental track that sounds as if “Madlib contributed a song to Deep Politics,” Amos says. “We were trying to reduce our spectrum to drum machine and turntables. It was a way to come from a completely different angle but reach the same mood.”

“Almost Grew My Hair” provides a stark contrast as a powerhouse that begins the record’s grand descent, with three of the last songs averaging eight minutes each. Dense in range and reach, instruments begin to jumble, progressing through movement after movement with little respite. One moment of clarity leads to aggression in the next, heavy bass riffs draw back and forth, and focused guitar melodies spontaneously turn into nightmarish screeches.

“One of our favorite things about people like Morricone,” Amos says, “is that for the first time in the century, a respected master of musicology could employ instruments into his music just to evoke, for example, a schizophrenic killer who talks in a Donald Duck voice. What kind of music comes on the screen when he appears?”

Examining Morricone’s creative freedom ultimately sheds light on Grails’ music philosophy. Hall looks to the session players who actually played the music for inspiration. “You have these forms of music that were totally boxed in and completely framed with a context,” he says, “where most of the time you had these guys in the studio who just wanted to express themselves.”

Amos agrees, saying, “[These composers’ and musicians’] message to us is that there are literally no rules. When you seize that concept — that’s the most powerful moment you have. Most people are using music as though it’s a simple video game; they’re trying to reach an easy objective. But when you hear those masters, you perceive a higher level of freedom. Listening to those composers, you can see where we’re trying to get back to — how they seized those frontiers.”

Grails’ grand narrative, after all, is searching out those new musical frontiers. Deep Politics, yet another compelling synthesis of music past and present, continues the long-running investigation into the unknown.

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Morrow vs. Hajduch: Oh! Pears’ Fill Your Lungs EP

Scott Morrow is ALARM’s music editor. Patrick Hajduch is a very important lawyer. Each week they debate the merits of a different album.

Oh! Pears: Fill Your LungsOh! Pears: Fill Your Lungs EP (3/13/10)

Oh! Pears: “Fill Your Lungs”
[audio:|titles=Oh! Pears: “Fill Your Lungs”]

Morrow: Guitarist Corey Duncan left indie rockers Pattern Is Movement in 2007, opting to focus on a solo chamber-pop project.  That project turned into Oh! Pears, a 13-piece ensemble that plays Duncan’s classically and pop-inspired pieces.

Released independently earlier this year, Fill Your Lungs is Oh! Pears’ promising debut EP.  It begins with rounds of looping acoustic-guitar riffs and pizzicato, staccato, and legato strings, with Duncan’s deep voices joining to guide the music.  The rest of the five-song release is accented with other sounds, but this marriage of guitars, cellos, and violas best defines the EP.

Read More

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100 Unheralded Albums from 2010

Among the thousands of under-appreciated or under-publicized albums that were released in 2010, hundreds became our favorites and were presented in ALARM and on  Of those, we pared down to 100 outstanding releases — from the progressive-industrial madness of Norway’s Shining to the folk-hop rhymes of Sage Francis to the orchestral Italian oldies of Mike Patton‘s Mondo Cane project.

As usual, ALARM leaves no genre unexplored in our list of this year’s overlooked gems.

Presented in chronological order.

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God of Shamisen: Metal Makeovers of Japanese Folk Traditions

God of Shamisen: “Last Shamisen Master Attack” (Smoke Monster Attack, 11/23/2010)
[audio:|titles=God of Shamisen: “Last Shamisen Master Attack”]

God of Shamisen: Smoke Monster Attack

God of Shamisen: Smoke Monster Attack

Despite a predilection for combining the shamisen — a fretless, three-stringed Japanese lute — with any dissimilar musical style, God of Shamisen’s Kevin Kmetz is very much the traditionalist. Kmetz is a student of Tsugaru-shamisen, a striking, percussive style of performance developed during the late 1800s and early 1900s in the northern region of Honshu (the largest island of Japan). Evolved in part by players such as Takahashi Chikuzan, who contributed to the “Tsugaru boom” of the 1950s, Tsugaru-shamisen eventually adopted long improvisations and began to reflect American influences such as the burgeoning free-jazz movement.

The name Tsugaru-shamisen, however, didn’t gain popularity until the ’50s and ’60s, an era when America again declared itself protector to Japan. Military bases had sprouted up in the region, and with them came American music suddenly filtering through the radio. Influences of jazz, blues, and rock ’n’ roll were added to the Tsugaru repertoire, and just as quickly, the shamisen community named the folk-infused improvisations as the true tradition of Tsugaru-shamisen — a tradition that must stay rigid, according to some.

It is particularly apt, then, for an outsider who spent his youth in the 1980s going to school on an American military base in Japan to advocate a tradition of change inherent in the beginnings of Tsugaru-shamisen.

“I feel like if you’re pissing people off, you’re making an impact.”

Kmetz had a desire to play the shamisen during his early teens — something that he says was impossible for a gaijin, an outsider, to do at the time. “There was no way I could have gone into a shamisen school,” he says. “It was just closed off to foreigners. You just wouldn’t see a gaijin going to a shamisen master and learning. I had to wait until I was an adult to go into shamisen.”

Since picking up the instrument, Kmetz has become the first foreigner to win the honorary Daijo Kazuo Award in 2005, as well as finish as a runner-up in 2006 and in second place in 2007 — honors that he hopes to surpass by becoming the first foreigner to win first place in a Tsugaru-shamisen tournament.

Apart from the tournaments, however, Kmetz leads God of Shamisen (, a conduit for the change that he sees as paramount to Tsugaru-shamisen’s continuity. Dragon String Attack, the band’s 2008 debut, deftly weaves metal, funk, ambient electronic, and even a sense of the 8-bit-music renaissance into an effluent, funny, intelligent mess of Eastern and Western influences.

The album, including contributions from Trey Spruance of Secret Chiefs 3, fellow shamisen player Masahiro Nitta, and bansuri maestro Deepak Ram, has at its center the shamisen — with a rhythmic, buzzing, and tonally striking sound that is never out of place yet always surprising in its context.

For Kmetz, the band’s changes in style — from blast beats to reggae jams to Turkish folk — are a natural progression for Tsugaru-shamisen.

“I feel there’s a duty to keep adding to it,” Kmetz says, “because that’s what it was originally about. People forgot that you could add a phrase and still call it Tsugaru-shamisen. You’re going to make people mad, but that’s really what it’s supposed to say. To me, that’s the only way to keep a tradition alive.”

Those whom God of Shamisen are angering, surprisingly, are not the Japanese masters — a group, Kevin admits, that is not the most vocal in its true opinions.

The most outspoken individuals come from the USA. “I’m thrilled to report I’ve actually been making a lot of fellow American shamisen players quite upset,” Kmetz says. “I’m really taking huge authorities with the instrument, which is one of the major complaints I’m getting from a lot of fellow American players. They’re saying, ‘You can’t really call yourself Tsugaru-shamisen, because you’re not sticking to the language.’ It’s been sort of a satisfactory moment for me, because I feel like if you’re pissing people off, you’re making an impact. Finally, I’m considered worthy enough to get upset about.”

It’s been two years since the release of Dragon String Attack, and despite the distance between players, God of Shamisen has released a follow-up digital album titled Smoke Monster Attack. Kmetz, after spending most of his adult life in the States, has moved back to Japan to study under the current masters of the shamisen.

Bassist/producer Mark Thornton and guitarist Karl Schnaitter reside in California, and drummer Lee Smith — a fellow alumnus, along with Kmetz, of genre annihilators Estradasphere — resides in Seattle, where some of the recording for Smoke Monster Attack was completed.

Produced by Thornton and Billy Anderson, a name very familiar to metal heads, Smoke Monster Attack continues to blend the shamisen’s unique sound with Western music. Anderson has produced for the likes of Sleep, Secret Chiefs 3, and Mr. Bungle, and he brings to Kmetz’s instrument a frantic immediacy that hits at every note. The rhythmic, acoustic strikes somehow fit right in with heavy riffs and video-game covers.

The metal influences heard on the first album take center stage with Anderson’s production, and Smoke Monster Attack is less likely to bound from one genre to another. The music loses none of its spontaneity or humor, and if anything, it feels like a stronger, more cohesive release than the first.

Within the time between albums, God of Shamisen has been as active as a band can be with its members spanning the globe, playing Japanese-American festivals, dive bars, and concert halls. The band plans, however, to accomplish one elusive goal: to tour Japan. “We’ve never done that, and that’s always been weird,” Kmetz says. “It’s like, ‘Wow, you’re doing this thing that’s mixing Japanese culture with American culture, and you’ve never gone to Japan and showed that to anyone.’”

This means that Japan has something wholly original coming, derived from the best that American and Japanese culture could birth, flitting between two worlds despite the tendency for stagnation in the name of tradition. As Kmetz so rightly says, tradition is about keeping things alive enough to change.

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Contest: FREE Tickets for Orange Tulip Conspiracy’s May Tour

Covering vast swaths of sonic territory in any given few songs, Orange Tulip Conspiracy channels prog fusion, psychedelic rock, 1950s jazz guitar, avant metal, Romani melodies, and much more. Now, as the band prepares for a nationwide tour in May, five ALARM readers can win a pair of tickets to see its hefty talents in person in cities of their choice. Read More

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Contest: FREE Tickets for Orange Tulip Conspiracy’s May Tour

Covering vast swaths of sonic territory in any given few songs, Orange Tulip Conspiracy channels prog fusion, psychedelic rock, 1950s jazz guitar, avant metal, Romani melodies, and much more.  Now, as the band prepares for a nationwide tour in May, five ALARM readers can win a pair of tickets to see its hefty talents in person in cities of their choice. Read More

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Orange Tulip Conspiracy Necessitates Musical Unpredictability

As one of the principal songwriters in Estradasphere, guitarist/composer Jason Schimmel has always loved combining disparate styles in new and jaw-dropping ways.

But with Estradasphere on hold and a wealth of solo material, Schimmel now leads Orange Tulip Conspiracy, a similarly constructed but substantially different enterprise.

OTC’s music worms through prog fusion, psychedelic rock, 1950s-style jazz, avant metal, Romani melodies, and much more. Its debut album, released last September on Mimicry Records, is nearly as diverse as an Estradasphere disc, but it’s more focused from song to song.

Online editor Scott Morrow speaks with Schimmel to discuss this album’s creation, the next album’s sound, and the logistics of his nationwide May tour.

Orange Tulip Conspiracy: “Ignis Fatuus”
Orange Tulip Conspiracy: \”Ignis Fatuus\”

Did these songs originate out of Estradasphere’s downtime, or were they older and always meant for another project? Was there anything specific that you wanted to accomplish with this mix of styles?

These songs were always meant for another project. I’ve always written way too many songs to be used by just Estradasphere. Though these songs seem new to most people, I actually have been working on some of these since the early Estradasphere days — it has just taken me this long time to finally finish them off and make a complete record.

Since I have always been very interested in many different styles of music, it has always been hard for me to write in just one style. I like to mix things up and give the listener a unique experience — an unpredictability that keeps people on their toes, so to speak.

After your coast-to-coast US tour in May, what are the plans for Orange Tulip Conspiracy? If a future recording is in the works, how might it sound?

Well, for the first time ever, I have actually written an entire new record before setting out on a tour. The goal is to perform these new songs for an audience to get a feel of what is going to work the best.

By doing this, we can take a song and transform it into something greater by feeding off the audience’s natural reaction to the music without a previous point of reference. That way we can add or subtract things based on real musical experiences.

In the past, I have always written the music first, then made the record, and then finally set out to play the tunes from the record live. What happens is that the playing on the record is very stiff and tight in comparison to how we usually play the song after we tour on it. So I want the looseness and freedom that comes from the confidence of having played the songs many times before setting out to record them.

Directly following the tour, I mean literally the day after the tour ends, we are heading into a studio to record this new album. I am very excited to finally see this new process unfold on a recording.

The new record will sound similar to the first one in that there are many different types of compositions. Avant rock, groove, improv, jazz, and ambient are some of the first thoughts that come into my mind. There will also be a a few covers on there as well.

In addition to many other guests, almost all of Estradasphere (past and present) helped record this album. How does the live presentation of Orange Tulip Conspiracy differ from the studio version?

OTC’s live presentation could be considered a much more organic version of the record in that it is just five musicians playing the songs. With the recording, I had the liberty to have all sorts of various orchestrations coming in and out, massive production changes, drastic arrangement alterations, etc., which I don’t have the liberty to completely accomplish in a live context.

In the live setting, I play guitar and bazouki (8-stringed Greek instrument) and do some vocals. [Former Estradasphere member] John Whooley plays tenor and baritone sax, keys, and vocals, Luke Bergman plays upright and electric bass, Zach Cline plays rhythm guitar, and [current Estradasphere / God of Shamisen member] Lee Smith plays drums.

A solid and bombastic rhythm section holds it down while electric guitar and sax cover most of the lead aspects of the music. This is augmented by another guitar that plays most of the harmonic aspects of the music.

Will this solo project continue as a major priority if Estradasphere gets back into full swing?

Yes, I think that OTC will be a major priority for me regardless of whatever bands I am playing in at the time. The reality is that I need another outlet for the plethora of material that I compose. No one band can satisfy all my needs as a musician and creative force.

There are all sorts of compromises and considerations that music goes through being in a democratic band situation. I think that it is very healthy for me to have a project where I can focus all my attention.

– Scott Morrow

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Ten Current/Upcoming Tours to Catch

As the season’s wintry punishment eases (it cracked 50 in Chicago this weekend), more and more artists are getting back in their vans and braving the roads for packed and sparse crowds alike.

Here’s a list of tours on our radar, including dates from The Bad Plus, Fucked Up, Orange Tulip Conspiracy, P.O.S., Secret Chiefs 3, Young Widows, and more. Read More

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Weekly Music News Roundup

More details emerge about the upcoming Supermachiner release; the Shrinebuilder super-group begins recording; Mono announces a new album; Orange Tulip Conspiracy announces a full US tour for May. Get these and 10 other news bit after the jump. Read More

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