Album Review:  The Fierce And The Dead - 'The Euphoric’

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Following up on their excellent 2017 live album, Field Recordings, the instrumental post-rock/prog rock quartet The Fierce And The Dead (TFATD) return with a new studio album entitled The Euphoric.  The album is available via Bandcamp and all the usual places.

The Euphoric covers a lot of ground musically and is an artful blend of all things rock, but with TFATD’s uniquely exuberant, go-for-broke progressive garage band aesthetic. All the familiar elements of their sound are intact; the shifting guitar textures, ruckus distortion, and left of center harmonic choices of dueling guitarists Matt Stevens and Steve Cleaton; the distinctive fuzzed-out and syncopated bass lines of Kevin Feazey; and the tight, in-the-pocket drumming of Stuart Marshall. This time around, the band introduces a new element — synthesizers.

The album was recorded, mixed and mastered by bassist Feazey. It’s clear he’s a skilled engineer and the album sounds very good. He manages to keep TFATD’s noisy and buzzy tendencies prominent and upfront without the sound becoming harsh or overbearing.

The album opens strong with the ear-grabbing “Truck."  The band effortlessly constructs and deconstructs melodic themes, with guitars and bass alternating between evolving unison and counterpoint lines.  The middle section, with its punchy guitar accents, loses a bit of impact due to heavy-handed compression but is still dramatic.  The song truly blossoms around the three-minute mark as the arrangement becomes sonically dense and the aura triumphant.  If ever a song was begging to be licensed for the closing title sequence of a feel-good, action-packed blockbuster movie, this is it — hands down my favorite moment on the album.

On “1991,” Feazey’s syncopated bass and Marshall’s steady drumming carry the song with an up-tempo groove before launching into a frenzied chorus. Throughout, Stevens and Cleaton introduce an array of pitch-shifted and otherwise effected guitar tones which support and color the composition.

The song “The Euphoric” has immediate appeal thanks to a distinctive drum groove and analog styled synthesizers that recall the Stranger Things TV series. Buzzy guitars and bass eventually join the meandering synths, but the overall presentation lacks typical TFATD focus and feels like an odd choice for the title track.

“Dancing Robots” opens with clean interlocking arpeggiated guitars which are quickly overcome by a dense wall of distorted guitars.  The onslaught eventually settles into the tasty interplay of effect-laden and staccato guitars that serves as the song's hook.  Despite seemingly disparate treatments, the arrangement moves smoothly from sparse, atmospheric verses to full bore, punk-infused choruses with a Thrak-era King Crimson influenced ascending guitar line to punctuate the final ride-out.

Marshall’s drumming on “Dug Town” has a mellow drum machine-like groove and tone, but it is the infectious harmonized guitar lead (a la Weezer) that becomes the signature of the song. The delicate bridge adds contrast with clean picked guitars, akin to the Crafty League of Guitarists or California Guitar Trio, before building to a big ending and subsequent etherial fade out.

“Cadet Opal” is a bit of an oddity, consisting mostly of a drum machine, arpeggiated guitar, and synth, but functions well to close out one thematic half of the album.

“Verbose” opens the second half of The Euphoric and leans prominently towards the heavier side of things.  Here, Feazey’s overdriven and chunky bass leads the way while a guitar scampers along playfully.  The song eventually morphs into a delightful heavy mosh with a unique, somewhat "out there," sustaining guitar melody.

“48k” is deceptively simple with only two thematic elements - a heavy riff reminiscent of Black Sabbath and a simple effect-drenched guitar melody.  However, as the song develops, the band cleverly combines both themes into one monster riff for a dramatic ending.

The arrangement of “Parts 7 & 8” features multiple movements alternating between pounding progressive metal, bouncy bass-lines, and gentle guitar landscapes which are developed and refined over time.  There are plenty of subtle moments worth listening for, such as the funky bass and kick drum interplay, the quiet piano tinkering, and the creative use of self-oscillating delays.  Far from sounding disjointed, the song functions as a cohesive whole and builds to a big Porcupine Tree-like finale.

At nearly 38 minutes in length, The Euphoric is an enjoyable listen and another solid effort by TFATD.  Well done, gentlemen!

 

Gear Review: Kiesel Zeus Z6X guitar

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Kiesel Guitars (formerly Carvin Guitars) has been producing the headless Allan Holdsworth Signature guitar for many years, but only recently started expanding their headless offerings — first with the Vader in 2015 and now with three additional models in 2018. The Zeus, as reviewed here, was introduced in January of this year.

The Zeus is custom built to order with multiple options to choose from, including; 6, 7 and 8 string standard scale and multi-scale models, 14 or 20-inch neck radius, various neck and body woods, numerous finishes, frets and pickups.  All Zeus models feature a beveled body and, unlike most headless designs, has the bridge mounted tuners recessed in the body giving the guitar a modern, yet familiar shape.  The bolt-on neck has a minimal, sculpted neck heel which allows easy access to the higher frets.  The headpiece accepts standard single ball guitar strings only — double ball (Steinberger style) strings will not work.

My Zeus arrived in flawless condition and I was immediately impressed with the top-notch build quality.  Try as I may, I could not find a single blemish on the ultra shiny British Racing Green finish.  The tung oil neck was satin smooth, the royal ebony fretboard was stunning, and the stainless steel frets were dressed expertly.  Intonation was spot on, but I found the action to be too low for my playing style.  As such, raising the action was necessary before the guitar was enjoyable to play.  The standard neck profile felt good in my hand for both chording and leads and seemed similar to a Warmoth “Standard Thin” or modern Fender American Standard Strat neck.  Some may find the top bevel on the guitar too extreme, but in person, it is visually appealing and yields an extremely comfortable playing guitar.  Thanks to traditionally placed strap buttons, the Zeus hangs perfectly balanced on a strap.

The Hipshot/Kiesel tremolo operates smoothly, returns to pitch well, and has excellent sustain.  Keep in mind this is a floating tremolo, so if you are accustomed to resting your palm on the bridge, you may have to adjust your technique to keep the tremolo in its neutral position.  Tuning is definitely fidgety, with a fair amount of back and forth balancing, but not insurmountable.  It is unfortunate Kiesel no longer offers the JCustom tremolo (a Steinberger clone) as this design was impervious to palm pressure and could be locked in place for easy tuning.  Thankfully, the Hipshot/Kiesel tremolo does not exhibit the pitch wavering/oscillation that plagues other floating tremolos.  Even with the added mass of the tuners at the rear of the tremolo assembly, the tremolo flutters nicely for those seeking to emulate David Torn or Steve Vai.

The installed Kiesel Holdsworth Passive humbucker pickups have proven to be a versatile choice and offer a variety of tones thanks to the 5-way Strat-style selector switch.  From the factory, the pickups produced a honky tone, but by adjusting the pole pieces to match the neck radius, the bridge pickup opened up to provide a rich full-bodied tone with a slight raspy edge and the neck pickup provided a balanced jazz-like tone with a touch of chime.  By further refining the height of the pole pieces on each coil, I was able to dial-in usable split coil sounds with negligible loss of gain.

Only time will tell if the Zeus is a keeper, but so far it’s been a joy to play.  

For players searching for a custom headless guitar in the $1100 and up range, the Kiesel Zeus is an excellent option worth considering.  Well done Kiesel!

Album Review: Sonar with David Torn - ‘Vortex’

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Sonar recently released their fourth album, Vortex, on RareNoiseRecords.  The album is available from Amazon and others.

Sonar is comprised of members Stephan Thelen (guitar), Bernhard Wagner (guitar), Christian Kuntner (bass) and Manuel Pasquinelli (drums).  David Torn joins the quartet on electric guitar, live-looping and manipulation.

The band’s previous release, Black Light, was a restrained examination of tritones, polyrhythms and minimalism with few melodic diversions.  Vortex is not so dissimilar as to be unrecognizable, but it is a different beast.  True, interlocking guitars and odd time signatures abound, but this time around the band rocks with a previously unheard emotional intensity.  Torn’s melodic and subversive guitar incursions add a layer of unpredictability that moves the arrangements into new territory.  The result is an album full of rhythmic complexity and sonic adventurism.

Torn produced and mixed the album, and it sounds excellent.  He’s managed to sculpt a compelling drum sound that enhances and defines the tone of the album.  Thanks to judicious abuse of parallel drum buss compression, cymbals explode with shimmering sustain, while the kick, snare and toms remain tight and punchy.  This type of aggressive drum processing would not work in a dense rock arrangement, but here it is the perfect counterpoint to the dry hard-panned staccato guitars and reductionist bass lines.

The album opens strong with “Part 44.”  The dueling arpeggiated guitars recall the 80s incarnation of King Crimson in all the best ways.  Kuntner's bass pulses authoritatively as Pasquinelli’s drum machine-like hi-hat pattern leans heavily into the beat.  Torn’s guitar and live looping adds depth, color and melodic content.  Around the 5 minute mark, with rhythmic squelchy bleeps of guitar feedback, Torn does what he does best and turns something unexpected into a signature theme.  You can feel the excitement building in the studio as Kuntner, Pasquinelli and Torn absolutely let loose while Thelen and Wagner hold steady with metronomic precision.

“Red Shift” is a down tempo song with distinctive chordal ping-ponging guitar stabs, not unlike “Firepower” by David Sylvian and Robert Fripp.  Kuntner’s bass is deep and powerful and Pasquinelli’s drums are open and relaxed.  By the middle section, the arrangement is deconstructed to a sparse landscape of improvisation by Pasquinelli and Torn, while Kuntner and Wagner provide minimal structure.  Thelen’s guitar eventually enters with sweeping and extended arpeggios.

“Wave And Particles” opens with tasteful rhythmic interplay between guitar and hi-hat, but it is Torn’s guitar-work that really stands out.  His tone is fluid and slinky and his melodic use of a Digitech Whammy pedal, or perhaps delay time manipulation of his trusty Lexicon PCM-42, is inventive and fresh.  Thelen and Wagner’s guitars are hypnotic with plenty of movement and harmonic development.

“Monolith” slowly develops from its origin of a burbling guitar loop and simple accented guitars.  Bass and drums eventually join the orbiting rhythmic accents, reminiscent of a meter-bending live version of “Discipline” by King Crimson.  Torn masterfully manipulates the harmonic structure of the song with full transposing chords and wild improvisation.

“Vortex” is propelled forward by a chunky guitar/bass groove which eventually gives way to Pasquinelli’s frenetic breakbeat drumming and Torn’s guitar antics.  Unearthly guitar harmonics and a reverberated guitar melody by Thelen, Torn’s eerie guitar textures, and Pasquinelli’s cymbal rolls and screeches further define this signature piece.

The closing track,“Lookface!,” has a lilting, mysterious feel - as if a Martian reggae band was asked to write music for the title sequence of a James Bond film.  The track eventually gives way to a sparse atmosphere of slapped guitar chords, cymbal flurries, and ambient guitar loops.

While many albums over 50 minutes in length tend to feel long in the tooth, Vortex, at 56:12 minutes, is an engaging listen and passes quickly.  It is difficult to imagine how this album could be any better.  Highly recommended.

Album Review: The Messthetics - 'The Messthetics'

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The Messthetics are billed as an instrumental trio consisting of Fugazi’s rhythm section and experimental jazz guitarist Anthony Pirog.  Their self entitled album was recently released by Discord and is available from the band’s Bandcamp site.

The album was recorded live over multiple sessions in drummer Brendan Canty’s rehearsal space with minimal overdubs.  Accordingly, the album has a familiar jam session vibe, with a general excited looseness, but manages to avoid the pitfalls of structureless jamming.  For the most part, bassist Joe Lally and Canty keep things simple and steady - providing a solid foundation for Pirog’s sonic explorations.  The recording quality is very good with the mixes leaning a bit towards guitar heavy at times.

Let there be no mistake.  Pirog’s playing makes the album.  He easily shifts between varied fuzz tones, guitar loops, textures, and effects.  He’s prone to veer off into left field with a burst of noise or blistering atonal guitar run, but he never ignores his keen sense of melody for long. 

From the punkish rock of “Serpent Tongue;” to the mellow deep bass of “Once Upon A Time,” with guitar amp hiss tastefully blending into the sonic tapestry; the frenetic riffing of “Quantum Path,” with its’ Stone Temple Pilots like B-section; or the acoustic guitar seasoned “The Weaver,” the Messthetics cover a lot of ground musically and sonically. 

The modal opening track, “Mythomania,” had me hooked within the first couple of bars.  Here, Lally’s understated bass groove carries the song while Pirog’s creative and playful use of effects paint a constantly evolving landscape, recalling Adrian Belew and Nils Cline.

“The Inner Ocean” was another favorite, with subtle brush work by Canty and lush arpeggiated chordal melodies by Pirog.  Least you forget the album was largely recorded live, Pirog tips his hand with an audible click of a stomp box, before launching into full bodied fuzz tones.

Crowds and Power” is the heaviest song of the bunch with punishing guitar and pounding bass and drums.  Yet still, the band breaks down the onslaught to provide a middle section full of space and texture.  This might well be the trio’s trademark…and it certainly provides interest and diversity within the arrangements.

At just over 33 minutes, the album’s length is perfect for the material at hand, and left me looking forward to their next release.  Well done!

Album Review: Anthony Pirog - 'Palo Colorado Dream'

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I recently became aware of experimental guitarist, Anthony Pirog, thanks to the excellent blog, Guitar Moderne

Pirog released his solo album, Palo Colorado Dream, in October 2014.  It is available for purchase via Bandcamp.  The album features Pirog on electric guitar with Michael Formanek on acoustic bass and Ches Smith on drums.

While much of the album ventures a little too far into the realm of jazz noodling for my tastes, there are some beautiful moments interspersed among the songs.

That being said, I bought the album for just one song.  Simply put, "The New Electric" is a modern guitar masterpiece firmly rooted in the rock aesthetic.  When Pirog lets loose during the guitar solo, playing masterfully with tension and release, it becomes clear he has some serious chops.  Such a wonderful track!

I’ll be on the lookout for future projects from Pirog, especially if he continues to dabble in the rock genre.