Trieste- The Black Squall (2021 self-released)

I am in my room at my table. My glass of Laphroaig is steadily growing emptier on my left hand, while I use my right hand to press play. The Black Squall by Dallas, Texas instrumental duo Trieste comes on, and immediately my thoughts drift away…

Dying Star Blues immediately brings forward a Cormac McCarthy style wasteland, where dark clouds shift overhead, and bloodthirsty Indians vengefully look for your scalp. It has a Western twang, but it’s twisted and noisy as well. Somewhere in the distance Apache by the Shadows plays, but it’s quickly drowned in feedback, smoke, and misery.

Haunted Heart finds us under somewhat clearer skies, the music faring more traditional bluesy territories. On this mini album it feels a bit as a calm before the storm. The wind definitely draws energy on Old Shock, and all the old buildings in the village are being barricaded in anticipation while the bell in old water tower softly clangs in the draught.

Shake the Devil gets the party started though, with organs channeling Gallon Drunk freakiness, and surfy drum rhythms gallop through your brain. The threat of the storm seems already forgotten, but in the back of my mind, something knows that it’s all far from over. Dead in the Water makes me jump on my horse and follow the river down stream. It’s typical Western lore now, with meandering reverb-y guitars and slowly building drums.

Adrift brings back the dark clouds. My glass of Whisky is empty now, and the music seems a bit drunk too. It echoes in the distance. We missed the storm by a mile, and now look at the lightning flashes from a safe place. The Black Squall has been quite an interesting ride. Definitely Whisky drinking music, and to invent your own dark Western movies to with your eyes closed.

Mainliner- Dual Myths (2021 Riot Season Records)

Ladies and gentlemen, I present you: Mainliner: three Japanese psych wizards with an urgency to freaking destroy eardrums around the globe. Seriously though, this band should come with a huge disclaimer because wherever they turn up tinnitus will spread and crystal goblets will shatter. They are loud, but not just for loudness sake. They are loud because their dark psychedelic wizardry compels them to be loud. Try to envision them, standing on a mountain top, conjuring up a hurricane, their long hair pulling in the wind like black banners. I can’t even imagine the size of balls their producer had for thinking he could capture this force of nature on tape, but he did it, and the result is awesome. And a little frightening as well.

One hour and 19 minutes of feedback hurling psychedelic madness is what you get when you decide to put your fate in the hands of Mainliner. Sometimes they mischievously lure you in with some beautiful noodlings (opener Blasphemy Hunter), at other times they are more upfront in their true intentions. Hibernator’s Dream for instance doesn’t even start out properly until you have submitted yourself to over five minutes of raucous noise and demented wailing. Rest assured though, the song is eighteen minutes long, slowly building up to a repetitive wall of hypnotic riffage. And that’s only the first half of the record!

Listening more frequently, I find myself not really up to climbing the whole mountain all of the time. I guess I can only take so much psychedelic freakout all at once. So I resorted to micro-dosing. Now when I want to get my freak on I spin one track at the time, and then put on some Phill Collins or Enya. Just to make sure I don’t end up in the same psychotropic maelstrom these three Japanese wizards ended up in. I mean, I’d love to, but I have other things to do as well…

In the end a feeling of awe remains. To stay in the mountain analogy; Mainliner’s Dual Myths feels like an Everest journey to me. I wouldn’t go all the way, but I love to stare at it in fascination. Mainliner, I tip my hat to thee.

James Johnston/Steve Gullick- We Travel Time (2021 God Unkown Records)

As I write this the thaw is just washing away a brief spell of icy winter, which if you live in The Netherlands means good times, and lots of iceskating. It’s raining now though, and the water washes away the good memories quickly, making place for that uncertain no man’s land between winter cold and the promises of spring. It’s at this state of being that I am listening to the new album by James Johnston and Steve Gullick, and it turns out to fit the weather perfectly.

Music video of Big Star Falls, video by Steve Gullick

We Travel Time is a cinematic affair, carefully treading that path between densely layered soundscapes and singer songwriter craftsmanship. If like me, you are a fan of James Johnston because he played in Gallon Drunk, and on a couple of Nick Cave And The Bad Seed’s best records, you might not recognize him immediately. We Travel Time does not have that raw darkness on display. In stead it is much more contemplative, meditative even at times. Once your mind is adjusted to this new reality -and opened up wide- it is also a very beautiful and enriching experience. You can almost hear these two friends and music business veterans enjoying themselves as they are throwing ideas back and forth each in their own lockdown environment. There wasn’t much studiotime involved in this album, and by consequence it feels very up close and personal, as if the listener is confined in lockdown with the artists, and going through the same motions.

Steve Gullick is most famous for his music photographs -check out his amazing shoot with early Pearl Jam on his Instagram- and James Johnston became a fanatic painter after burying Gallon Drunk, and some of this mindset, this “artist gaze” has definitely rubbed off on the music. There is a certain stillness in these songs, as they capture moments with photographic precision while adding subtle layers of sound like a painter might. It sparks the joy of creation, even in all its beautiful melancholy. It is a very fitting sonic polaroid of the times we live in, and I am glad I did not overlook it.

I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to James Johnston about the album after a brief encounter on Instagram, here’s the conversation:

Hi there, it’s such a pleasure to be able to ask you a couple of questions. I have been a fan of Gallon Drunk ever since someone tipped me that my own band No Man’s Valley reminded me of yours ten years ago. How have you been? Can you sketch me a picture of what you have been up to since GD’s amazing last album The Soul Of The Hour till now?

The last Gallon Drunk album came out in 2014, on Clouds Hill. We toured the album a lot that year, and it sounded great live. In January 2015 both Terry and I were asked to join the recording of PJ Harvey’s new album, which became The Hope Six Demolition Project. Before the album was released, I recorded a solo album called The Starless Room, and that came out on Clouds Hill during the PJ Harvey tour, so I never really did any gigs for that. Ian White from Gallon Drunk is on the solo album too. Polly’s tour went on for a couple of years, and during that time I started drawing and painting in the mornings in hotel rooms. Just really small stuff, but very regularly, so that by the time the tour ended I had a feel for what I wanted to do with painting, and had started to find a voice in the painting. I rented a studio space, and now go in there 5 or 6 days a week, and have done for the last couple of years. Until doing the new record with Steve, the only music I’d worked on was theatre music with Polly. We did The Nest, All About Eve, and we were working on something until lockdown brought rehearsals to a stop. We’d recorded them in her flat, and it really got me back into that way of working. I was playing the violin a lot on it, and improvising my parts as rough ideas recorded at home, and that all fed into ‘We Travel Time’. A different way of doing things, with very different results, and I found I loved it.

One last question about Gallon Drunk and then it’s all about your latest effort: what is its status? Will we ever hear a new album?

I did change the tense of the Wikipedia entry from “are” to “were” the other day, if that’s any kind of marker. It does seem pretty unlikely. Someone else will probably just change it back to “are”.

You have had an incredible career so far, and you have released many great albums. Looking back, what was the best album you ever played on?

They’re all so different, you can’t really compare them. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is a great album, Hope Six is great, From The Heart of Town, the last two GD albums, there’s a lot of music there I really love. Some of my favourite music I’ve been involved with is on the new album, and Steve’s video for Big Star Falls is the culmination of so many                    things I really love.

On to We Travel Time. It is a collaborative album with photographer Steve Gulick, which is of course an interesting factoid; he does not have a musical background like yours. What brought you together musically?

We’ve known one another since 1991, and first recorded together as ‘…bender’ about 15 years ago. We did a couple of albums with the three piece band, and ever since have thought about doing more music together. We were in an art show together  and started talking about it a bit. I’d been doing the theatre music with Polly, and really fancied doing something else recorded in a low-key way. It immediately felt exciting to work with Steve again. 

We’re both quite focussed and driven, but there’s never anything competitive about the process, it’s just easier to get something really natural that way. The same with Polly. Steve’s a music obsessive with a million ideas, and whatever technical hinderance there might be, he’ll find a really interesting and unexpected way of getting something across. 

I think we both really surprised each other with the ideas that we were both coming up with. I’d spent two years in the painting studio listening only to low volume classical music, so my outlook and source of inspiration was a bit different to normal too. We were both aiming for something moving, simple, and had to try things out to find out what it was. Nothing in the record was planned, at all.

What were the circumstances of writing and recording the album? How was it affected by the Corona pandemic?

We were both working from home, sending each other ideas, adding stuff, sending it back. Usually almost immediately. My set-up was one mic, so I tended to use acoustic instruments as it was quicker to get an idea down while it was fresh. Half the time I’d be playing something and an ambulance would go tearing past, crows making a racket, clocks chiming, all sorts of extraneous sound that bled into the music. We managed to have one day recording together at Steve’s place, right at the end.

Time travel is such an interesting verb and topic, it can be explained in so many ways. What made you choose We Travel Time as a title for the album?

It worked for a lot of reasons. We’ve known each other 30 years for a start, and there’s one song on there which was originally recorded 15 years ago, then we added new parts to finish it. Certain sounds can transport you too. There’s a specific clock mechanism on there that’s something I’ve heard since I was a child at my parents’ house. It’s also quite ambiguous, which fits perfectly with the mood of the album.

Comparing the album with your other work there is one big difference in my opinion; there is beauty and melancholy, but there isn’t much of your characteristic darker/uglier side. Do you recognize that? And would you have an explanation?

It’s what I wanted to hear, what I wanted to listen to. The same for Steve.

You are a prolific painter as well, and We Travel Time at times sounds like a painting to me as well, very atmospheric and with plenty of layers. Can you compare your approach in these two disciplines?

To avoid the blank canvas I just start on a painting, and with the music all the best ideas I had for the album came from a similar unconsidered and open approach. Get something down, then respond to it, try and disappear off into it. Often the initial idea gets painted over, or wiped from the music, and you’re left with something surprising, and not anchored to an immovable idea. You can’t see or hear yourself in it so much anymore.

What is success to you? Do you consider yourself successful, and what do you still wish to achieve?

I think the fact that I’m involved with a record like this, and that I’m able to work as a painter is definitely my idea of success. As for what I want to achieve, there’s always another piece of music to do, another painting to start.

Thanks a lot for your time, once again it means a lot to me. If you have anything to add, please do.

Thanks again Jasper

Holy Monitor- Southern Lights (2021 Blackspin/Primitive Music)

When I first encountered Holy Monitor through their self-titled first album in 2018 I was absolutely blown away. This is music made by shaman aliens: super spacey, intoxicating, and somehow…danceable? There are innumerable injustices in this world, but the fact that this Greek band did not tour the world or at least gain a small cult following after that masterpiece is a crime of head-scratching proportions. A second album ‘II’ was released in within a year with a richer production, somewhat heavier guitars, and even lusher layers of heavy psychedelics. Still hardly anyone mentioned it, and the band did not play any festivals or clubs in Europe or the world. What was going on here? Was it the slight lack of memorable songs? Did their record label lack a decent promotional network? Was the world just not ready? It’s a mystery, and what can we do? Well we can notice there is a new album by these psychedelic craftsmen called Southern Lights now, and we can urge each other not to sleep on it, because once again it’s a stunner.

picture by Takis Madray

If you look at the cover of the album you see a Fata Morgana with a portal to another dimension in the middle. That’s how Holy Monitor makes you feel right from the first tones here. The atmosphere is warm, mysterious, and promising. Every song has its own identity now, Naked In The Rain in fact is a super catchy splash of sunshine that The Black Angels would have wished they wrote if they ever played sunny music. But all the songs on Southern Lights have little hooks added to enter your brain and travel with you on your daily routines. I find myself humming the theme of Southern Lights, and the guitar licks in seven minute-plus scorcher The Sky Is Falling Down, even though its the heaviest track on the album and a real steamroller.

George Nikas’ reverb drenched vocals are high and soothing. They are like the piper’s tunes luring the children out of the city of Hamelin; we have no option but to follow where they lead. Together with the characteristic keys, the heavy bass presence, the catchy guitars, and the galloping drums they complete the puzzle of a well-balanced band that knows exactly what they are doing. The only thing they need now is an open world in which they can spread their shamanistic krautrock lore. When will we be able to dance in green smoke together?

Los Mundos- La Fortaleza Del Sonido (2021 L.S.D.R)

Music can have many purposes. There are musicians that offer consolation, raw energy, or pure unadulterated escapism. Los Mundos definitely fit that last category, as their latest output La Fortaleza Del Sonido is a portal into a freaky other dimension…

It’s a dimension in which the people speak Spanish and the music is dense, psychedelic, and a bit spooky. La Fortaleza Del Sonido is a brilliantly charming record in a crude, vintage kind of way. It is the work of some heavy duty psych veterans, as Los Mundos have been at it for some ten years now, and this is their seventh(!) release so far. They have mastered the art of creating a completely enveloping atmosphere in which they capture their listeners, who are then their slaves and are obliged to press the repeat button again and again and again until oblivion.

Seriously though, this is some addictive and mesmerizing stuff. The dreamy doubled vocals are recorded in such a way that they feel like they sprout directly from your spinal chord into your earholes. I don’t want to be stereotyping here, but it just cannot be a coincidence that this band is from Mexico, home of Peyote and ancient psychedelic mushrooms already used by their ancestors the Aztecs, Zapotecs, and Mayas.

I don’t understand a single word they are singing, and yet Los Mundos speak directly to me with this super psychedelic creation of theirs. In a time like this where travel is not an option it provides a perfect alternative. Travel through your mind with these Mexican shamans, this trip is highly recommended. My compliments to their label L.S.D.R. as well, because after the incredible Rostro Del Sol, this is another fine psych rock release. Let’s hope there is more where those came from!

Møster!- Dust Breathing (2020 Hubro Music)

Sometimes an album is just so good, it makes you feel intimidated to write about. Like your insignificant, random choice of words will ever do it justice or even mean anything to it or its potential audience. Especially when the music is instrumental: words are already less meaningful to begin with! Møster!’s Dust Breathing is that album, but I felt compelled to throw my adjectives and adverbs at it anyway, mostly because so few other writers seem to have done so far. And that, my friends, is a bit of a crime.

So I guess bandleader Kjetil Møster (a much treasured hero of mine for his time in the unsurpassed disco rock band Datarock), guitarist Hans Magnus “Snah” Ryan (Motorpsycho), Bassist Nikolai Haengsle (Elephant9), and drummer Kenneth Kapstad (ex-Motorpsycho, now also in Spidergawd) will have to do with my humble vocabulary in a botched attempt to describe their musical bad-assery here. Let’s forget these guys are all freaking musical geniuses in their own right, right?! Forget it, it’s impossible. Let’s focus on the music in stead.

Dust Breathing starts off calmly, like the spring of a river in a mountain meadow. The Bonfire, The Sun is one humongous 13+ minute built-up though, and what once was a lovely little stream ends up growing into a ferociously snarling swoooosh of a river when it roars down the mountain straight through a town, causing chaos and confusion with its fuzzy freejazz and rocky fusion. The album continues like this, being both subtle and outrageous, both mindbogglingly technical and hypnotically simple, oftentimes all within the same song.

The atmosphere of the album is mostly warm, reminiscent of the bandmembers’ other works in Motorpsycho and Spidergawd, but very different in style. Kjetil Møster leads everywhere, his baritone sax and clarinet are like vocals without words. Electronics also play bit parts here and there, creating more savory weirdness and extra layers of sound tapestry to explore on your headphones. And the ride goes on. Sometimes the band just likes to make you dance or do the funky chicken (Waistful Tendencies), and the next moment they are creating soundtracks for murder mysteries (Ausculptation).

Eighteen minute grand finale Organ of Bodies is cut up into three parts. It starts of looming, cinematic, and dark. It then turns into a hip-shaking fusion smorgåsbord, and finally becomes an all-devouring groovemonster leaving you breathless and yearning for more. And so you take the ride again, and again, and each time it will be slightly different.

If there’s anything that will get humanity through a moment of deep crisis, it is its capacity to dream and wonder, and create art in music like this. As long as we have this we are still a species of civilization and sophistication. Let’s not take it for granted. I would like to thank Møster! for reminding me.

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