Elephant9’s “Silver Mountain” Breathes Fresh Air into Psych’s Overflowing Canon

Psychedelic rock, at least the modern variety, has been consistently sabotaged by some members of the press and casual listeners alike as a poor man’s genre – a style of music rooted in the ”good old days” of Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the 13th Floor Elevators with nothing to say. They’re not entirely wrong. It seems increasingly difficult to find inventive, innovative acts operating within the confines of psych. From the dazed-out-pop of Unknown Mortal Orchestra to the far-out, volcanic jams of Earthless, these are essentially the same kaleidoscopic conjurations your parents heard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “What’s next” is a question many bands of this ilk wrestle with, whether in the studio or deep in the lion’s den of music journalism. But Norway’s “best live band” Elephant9 brings a simple answer to the table: “just add jazz.” With “Silver Mountain,” Elephant9 rejects the pretense of modern psychedelia and embraces its namesake with arms and minds wide-open.

Minds-wide open seems like a good tagline for the record, as the band’s ingenuity is apparent from the get-go. Whereas the prototypical psych outfit contents itself to ride a colorful passage for all its worth, Elephant9 and Reine Fiske reject stagnation. Much like the genre’s namesake, compositions shift shape with regularity, evoking variegated hues and visual patterns. “Occidentali” snakes and slithers its way through curious, jazzy instrumentals before blanketing the audience with echoing washes of synth and guitar. The calm, however, quickly snaps into a spastic freak-out. Guitars, courtesy of Dungen’s Reine Fiske, rocket through the percussion’s inconstant gravity before dying out. Moments like these come in ready supply and almost always captivate. Though it should be obvious by now, it warrants clarification: this isn’t your parent’s psych. “Silver Mountain” doesn’t ride the strength of its instrumental creativity alone, though.

Both production and mixing play significant roles in the album’s success. Each instrument breathes in relative clarity, but makes allowance for the natural obfuscations warranted by the genre. Fiske’s guitar is given extra attention, piercing through moments of tranquility with a colorful, pin-point trajectory. Here, the music is vivid – vibrant, even – but never polished to a fine sheen. Centerpiece “Abhartach” pounds its way through an off-kilter groove dominated by side-step drum patterns and surreal, thick spikes of distortion. Elsewhere, the militant, pounding rhythms of “Kungsten” hammer down with serious gravity, weaving in-and-out of line while battering the listener. It’s noisy, often chaotic, but it sounds exactly as it should: evocative and engrossing. And really, if you can say a modern psych album is evocative and engrossing, not just a despondent and derivative addition to an overflowing canon, then you’ve got a winner.

9.1/10

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Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Choose Your Weapon” is a Remarkable Genre-Bending Ride

Unusual might be the perfect descriptor for Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote, a future soul four-piece waging a personal war on all things traditional in a traditionalist’s genre. Starting with 2011’s “Tawk Tomahawk,” the band has set fire to the neo soul rulebook, paving its own, unique path forward. Whereas many acts seem content paying repetitive homage to Prince and Marvin Gaye, Nai Palm and her conspirators have taken a basic formula and bent it beyond recognition. Pulsating electro-funk, oddball R&B, smooth jazz and gyroscopic tempo-shifts abound. Unlike many of its peers, Hiatus Kaiyote understands that the best path to pay respect isn’t to play the imitator’s game: it’s to push the envelope. “Choose Your Weapon,” the band’s much-anticipated sophomore album, does exactly that.

It’s immediately apparent that the band’s second album isn’t going to be straightforward. Album opener “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk” snakes through multiple moods and genres with electric fervor, snapping any inattentive listeners to attention. Dream-laden neo-soul worship quickly gives way to a smooth jazz groove smoothed by Palm’s river-of-glass vocals. It’s a beautiful start, but it doesn’t last. The song boils over like a cauldron of volatile elements. Funk, skat and electronic overdubs surge and swell in a feverish rush. The drums crash. The synthesizers swell. It’s exhilarating, and it’s just the beginning. The rest of the album follows suit, though it always reshuffles its deck of tricks. “Borderline With my Atoms,” for instance, never roars into a bull’s head rush of an end. Rather, it lulls the listener in with its slow, dream-like rhythm and Palm’s low-register croons. Essentially, it’s the yin to the opener’s yang. Everything from the first prelude to the final notes of the record falls somewhere in the space between, cementing Hiatus Kaiyote as a band with a remarkably varied arsenal.

Hiatus Kaiyote also deserves praise for the record’s crisp, warm sound, which invigorates the inventive songwriting. “Breathing Underwater” sounds much like its namesake thanks to some clever studio tricks. Computerized synths modulate in bright sonic palettes, evoking the rush of bubbles to a watery surface. Later, the same instrument swells in the background like the rise and fall of waves. It’s a sweet, somber latin-esque ballad brought to stunning clarity. Each band member has room breathe, allowing the small touches like these the spotlight. “Swamp Thing” is similarly impressive thanks to some inventive sound engineering. The song is dominated by thick, meaty bass stomps that capture the menace of the song’s namesake quite well. It’s loud, crunchy and undeniably fun. Track after track, it’s clear that’s the band’s talent doesn’t end at the writing stage.

If any substantial criticism should be leveled at “Choose Your Weapon,” it’s that the band too often opts for undeveloped interludes to pad out the tracklisting. Sure, the album sports a lengthy 18 tracks, but six of these tracks don’t even hit the three minute mark. Some barely pass one. Really, though, that’s more of a perfectionist’s critique than a grievous fault of the album. Despite some unnecessary filler, Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Choose Your Weapon” is fantastic. It’s unique. It’s innovative. It’s pure Hiatus Kaiyote, and in a year full of quality releases, the hardest earned compliment is often standing out. More than that, it stands beside the year’s very best. So kick back and enjoy the lounge jazz vibes. Enjoy the funk-laden grooves. Fall in love with the samba-dance rhythms. You can choose your weapon, but odds are good that you’ll have trouble picking just one.

9/10

Gavin Harrison Releases New Video For “Cheating the Polygraph”

Former Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison has released a brief teaser for his upcoming solo album “Cheating the Polygraph.” The album consists of songs written by Porcupine Tree and reinterpreted as jazz pieces.

The album was released April 13 on Kscope records and can be purchased here. Harrison’s previous releases with 05ric can also be purchased via Kscope.

Ghostface Killah & BBNG Deliver Some of the Goods With “Sour Soul”

Though it may seem like an oddity on paper, the mix of Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface Killah and Canadian experimental jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD makes a certain peculiar sense. Lately, Cole’s music has taken a turn towards the dramatic, thoroughly lacing his latest recordings with intricate plots of revenge and reincarnation, love and loss; it’s almost too good of a fit for the nocturnal, brooding jazzed out hip-hop trademarked by his triage of collaborators. Together, Ghost and BBNG strike a solid foundation for the ever-dreaded collaborative supergroup concept, coming out ahead of the curve with an album that isn’t just an avoidance of total disaster, but a moderate success on its own terms.

This success owes itself in part to Ghost’s abandonment of the over-arching thematic story-telling of “36 Seasons.” With “Sour Soul,” the testosterone-fuelled braggadocio of albums past makes its fierce return immediately apparent as Cole bursts through the gate with “Yo, cleanse, clean me of my sour soul, I’m vicious… I’m a twisted individual, they say critical, I say, nigga, I’m on top of my pinnacle.” Finally freed from the restraints of his own literary ambitions, Ghost’s lyrical game feels notably more flexible than it has over the past few years, if not more powerful. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that the Killah isn’t riding on his own skill, as if the genius of yesterday’s classics doesn’t osmose itself through the microphone on its own accord; this is still the same do-ragged legend we’ve come to know and love — just finely filtered through an endless procession of singles, albums, collaborations and the passage of time. It’s a perfectly solid showing when Ghost slides into the lines “from the righteous mind’s the law, he powers my soul, teaching me positivity in the whole, how to walk amongst evils and smile in the face of death, to speak knowledge and wisdom to my last breath,” but only the most fervent of Wu diehards are likely to claim this as one of Ghost’s standout performances.

Instead, the brightest moments on “Sour Soul” often come from BADBADNOTGOOD, whose shadowy atmospheric backdrops conjure a consistently immersive experience from track to track. “Gunshowers (feat. Elzhi),” the album’s fourth cut, sports a playfully morose guitar lick sliding back and forth over its deliberately paced beats; it’s the type of music any sensible rapper would foam at the mouth for, both because of its inventiveness and smooth, persistent cool. Unfortunately, the instrumentals aren’t quite as sophisticated as the band’s previous showing on the third BBNG album, but that’s a minor qualm to make given that this is altogether a different type of project – an eclectic jazz trio backing up a hip-hop legend, not an eclectic jazz trio reinterpreting and twisting hip-hop to its own unpredictable ends. Still, what’s here is notably impressive. Take the propulsive nighttime swagger of “Mind Playing Tricks,” for instance; it’s the kind of the track that inspires visions of late night escapades, sunglasses senselessly shading the neon jungle of the city as the scent of vodka permeates the sedan. It’s another hit from a group of talented musicians, but it’s not quite a homerun.

This is all just nitpicking the finer points, though. “Sour Soul,” despite lingering in the shadows of better records from both collaborators, stands as a solid success for both parties. No, this album isn’t going to stand alongside “Supreme Clientele,” and no, this isn’t going stand alongside “III.” But “Sour Soul” will stand all the same. And really, though, isn’t that more than enough in an age when most albums can’t even manage to crawl?

7.5/10