Phteven Universe is new self-titled cassette release which is also available in digital format. From the delightfully snazzy cover, you might think this is just a simple vaporwave album, but it is actually a little more avant garde and experimental, even tad dark. The vocals unexpectedly utilize an effect that makes them sound literally demonic, in that late 80s, early 90s horror movie kind of way. The song titles are rather unconventional. Some of them are roman numerals (with a few missing in sequence.) There’s a nonexistent 8th track that’s just titled ??? The final track is curiously titled Fuck Off Melissa. There must be a story behind that somewhere, and I’d like to hear it.
The album opens with some wildlife bird chirping sounds, not unlike what you’d hear in the nature area outside The Flamingo casino is Las Vegas. It soon transitions into more standard vaporwave fare, with some 80s piano pop instrumental driving the mix. S u n d a y is an example of a song that you think is going to be straightforward synthwave, until the demonic dream sequence vocals make an appearance and you realize you’re dealing with something slightly darker and more abstract. The abrupt alternation between cute, cheerful and dark and depressing is a recurring theme in the album. Perhaps it’s a subconscious illustration of the dual lives people lead as animephiliacs, which attract people drawn to a kind of cutesy childlike innocence they wish to recover, while also harboring dark thoughts, which lurk below but are ever prone to resurface. The last song, Fuck Off Melissa almost even sounds like industrial music, reminiscent of stuff like Nine Inch Nails. My favorite song on the album is X (yeah that’s right, Roman numeral 10.) It’s just smooth and ambient, with just the right pacing throughout.
Anyway, this is an interesting cassette release to say the least, and one which provides more than enough content and aesthetic to be worth purchasing at the measly $3 price tag.
One largely forgotten entertainment relic of the 80′s (that I was huge fan of) is the show Braingames, on HBO. It was an educational, animated program which featured puzzles and encylopedic trivia, presented in a uniquely creative manner. I don’t remember anything particularly offensive, but the show often used mildly caustic and cheesy humor of the sort you would not really see in more sanitized and watered-down “kids” programs of today’s atmosphere. That’s a subject for another day though.
One of the episodes had a brief vignette called “Memory Rock,” where they show clips of a band performing, and you had to remember things about the group, such as what they were wearing, how many members etc. For this segment they actually used a real band, The Cucumbers, and their college radio hit song, My Boyfriend. This song is archetypically 80s awesome and soooo catchy, I have to wonder how many additional fans they got even from this obscure Braingames placement. It’s catchy enough that I frequently find myself jokingly singing this song to my girlfriend (which annoys her,) even though it’s titled My Boyfriend and features a female lead vocalist. They redid the song a few years later for an album, adding some synth and changing the section where the guy sings solo to one where the female vocals are out front. However, I think the original version (the one heard in Braingames,) which appeared on an EP released on Fake Doom Records in 1983, is superior. It’s an abstract postulation, and I can’t really pinpoint the reason why, but the sound just has so much more vitality. My Boyfriend is one of the best relatively-obscure-yet-memorable jams of the 1980′s, and The Cucumbers are actually still around! Check them out.
This review’s a tad overdue, given that Magic Wands’ album Jupiter was released back in 2016, but we’re operating on another timeline here I guess. I’ve previously written about this band a couple times, most recently here. I wrote:
I first discovered Magic Wands at SXSW in 2010 when they played at The Ghost Room (at least that’s where the old schedule says they played, I can’t remember to be honest.) I never forgot the band though. When I got home I looked them up on Myspace when that was still kind of a thing at least for music.
When I was younger, it was always my dream to be in a two person “boy/girl” band. I was never able to find the right girl to partner up with though. The ones who seemed like good prospects (Dawn Aquarius, etc) all either lived too far, and/or were already partnered up. The long distance dream became real for Magic Wands though. They represent everything about why I loved these types of groups, right down to the name. “Magic Wands,” indeed.
Well, I loved their track, Black Magic. It is always stuck in my head, and I think it’s one of the best songs of the last ten years. So that left Jupiter with a high standard to live up to. So often with indie bands, the new material just doesn’t quite manage to conjure up the same level of magic as the earlier releases (a good example would be The White Stripes.) I’m happy to say though, that in the case of Magic Wands, Jupiter is awesome and doesn’t feel like a sell out or departure from their earlier sound. It is every bit as good, and clocking in at over 50 minutes…is nothing short of an epic masterpiece.
Like other contemporary indie bands, Magic Wands tends to blend different styles, an almost inevitable consequence of growing up at a time where one is exposed to so many conscious and subconscious musical influences. Their sound could be described as an alchemic combination of late 60′s psychedelia and avant garde 80′s synthpop. The reverb drenched title track, Jupiter, really does echo all the through to the underground oceans of icy Europa. It serves as a nice, spacey, cryonic intro for the next track Love Soldier, which absolutely rocks. Yes, the Roman Gods would be pleased with this peppy paced, heroic jam. It’s extremely danceable and could make it on the club circuit, even though the kind of people that typically go to clubs probably don’t deserve something this authentic. I can say this because for decades I was one of them. The amusingly titled “Lazerbitch” sounds like something straight out of The Legend of Billie Jean. I can almost picture Helen Slater mouthing the chorus, “I’m a Lazerbitch.” I should mention also that these are not particularly short songs. Several of them run 5 minutes plus, keeping true to the genre.
Just when you think they’ve probably led with their best foot forward (most bands are told to put their best songs first to hook in the listener,) used up their pixie dust and shot their wad, you soon find that the songs just keep getting better. Chariot is another fast paced song, which retains its dreamy ambiance while taking you on a wild, far out ride, like Charlton Heston in Ben Hur if his chariot had been retrofitted for space travel.
My favorite track on the album is Dream Street. It’s just so much more dynamic than the other songs and really allows Dexy Valentine to showcase the impressive range of her vocal capabilities. She reminds me of a hipster sorceress version of Blondie. It’s as if Blondie took one of Alice’s pills in Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, but instead of growing larger or smaller, she just sang about weirder, more imaginative stuff….which is interesting considering one of Blondie’s greatest hits was literally titled, Dreaming. Magic Wands actually transports you to a dreamlike state, rather than merely touting the act of dreaming.
Blue Wall is one of the more mellow songs on the album. It’s relatively slow paced and gives you a chance to chill after an action packed half hour. It’s followed by another lively track, I’ll Never Go There Again, which I don’t have much to say about, as much of what I mentioned earlier regarding Love Soldier would also be applicable here.
The album closes with an ambient, instrumental outro, Jupiter II. It’s beautiful. You feel like you’re right out there in Jupiter’s orbit. You’ve opened the pod bay door, deactivated HAL 9000, the whole shebang… and you’re quietly staring into the monolith. What do you see? It’s full of stars? Your future self on your deathbed? Or do you observe the image of the God of Jupiter himself, hurling a mini thunderbolt toward you with an intent not to kill or punish, but to electrify and spark your imagination and creativity ever further, as a token of reward for making it to this level.
A Cave in the Inside is the latest album from Present Paradox, an artist located in Dortmund, Germany. This music could best be described as avant garde pop or maybe ambient pop. The songs have a warm analog quality to them, featuring some subtle noise and hiss that enhance the recording and contribute to the overall ambiance. I could tell right away with the psychedelic intro to the first track, Nightwalk, that this album was going to be right up my alley, and the rest of the song did not disappoint. In fact, the song builds into something even better as it goes on, adding drums and vocals into to the mix. Lots of times this kind of music can be ruined by out of place or obnoxious vocals, but in this case the vocals had just the right tone and effects. The singer has the right voice, without any annoying quirks or attitude. The artist took the song exactly where I expected (and wanted it to go,) right smack dab into a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic dreamland.
The album has a very 60′s feel to it, with theatrically titled songs like Magical Twist and Masquerade, which musically could be compared to bands like The Pretty Things. I suppose younger people might relate it to a more contemporary sound like early Radiohead or even Muse, but I’m not a huge fan of those bands, and in my opinion these songs are better and have a more authentic artistic feel. The title track, A Cave In the Inside definitely gives off a contemporary, European flavored indie pop vibe. I very much enjoyed this album, and I highly recommend it.
Skeletons is a new single from Ezla, (an artist originally from Texas but now based in Nashville.) Ezla describes her music as “hypnotic pop,” and Skeletons absolutely lives up to this characterization. I would add that the both the song and video have a certain lounge music quality. In fact, Ezla’s style comes across as that of a 21st century, indie lounge singer. Her music is assertive and delivered with the sass of a strong female personality, yet always with a smile. The atmosphere is dark and brooding, like an out of the way night club you visit when you’re up to no good. Her voice is naturally sensual, and easy on the ears. It would in fact be very easy to be hypnotized by this music.
At first glance, you might think contemporary singer/songwriter Ashley J is just another pretty pop music performer, but she actually earned a BA degree in Business Law. She really can sing, too. Her latest single, “Satisfied” is a kind of elegant pop song, featuring a light and cerebral backing track. It has an avant garde quality, aided by her celestial voice and Aphrodite-like command of the heavens. This song has more in common with Björk than with Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears, and that is a good thing. Ashley J exhibits some real potential here.
Jarel Portman’s new track, Runaway Blues (from the album, Supersonic) is an awesome rock/blues song which has a psychedelic quality to it, particularly the backing instrumentals. The guitars have a late 60s-early 70s kind of tone, reminiscent of bands like The Pretty Things. Seriously, the vibrato on this jam is killer. The song features some solid vocals also, especially considering this kind of music is difficult to sing well. Performed with passion and impeccable timing, Runaway Blues comes off like the work of veteran musical pros. Expect to hear more stuff from this guy.
Fiesta is a new single from Canadian bass/house duo, Diemetic. It’s an upbeat, party jam that mixes elements of hip hop and dance. It kind of reminds me of a lot of those old 90′s dance mix cds like Club Mix 96. The music is just very fun and lively. It actually gives you energy and puts out a very positive and carefree vibe that’s lacking in so much of today’s artistry. The production on this track is impressive, pretty much major label quality. The song also isn’t overly repetitive. It’s fairly dynamic, with a lot frequent changes throughout the track to keep things fresh and keep the action going.
Singer-Songwriter Nina Söderquist has released a new ballad. It’s performed as a duet featuring Nina and fellow singer Björn Skifs. As you may be able to ascertain from the title, it’s a song about a couple breaking up, with the mistakes having made by each partner being too much for the relationship to overcome, and it’s time to call it quits or “see it through” (to its conclusion I imagine.) One great thing about this song, is that these are two very talented, professional singers. This type of music is not easy to perform unless you really know what you’re doing. You just can’t fake your way through these kinds of vocals, the way one can with other styles of music. The pacing of the song is mellow but not depressing (even with the song’s bleak theme.) This track reminds me of the great light rock classic duets of the 70′s and 80′s. Nina and Björn have done an excellent job with this.
Orange County based artist Luke Fox has a new album that drops today, January 9th, 2018. When I say album, I do mean full album, as The Art of Sound contains over 25 tracks. Are all of these on the final release I wonder? If so then score. He doesn’t cut any corners on quality either, with each jam having a comprehensive and mostly professional sound.
One pattern that emerges is the artist seems to focus on a number of recurring emotional themes in his songs. Loneliness, romance and dreams feature prominently in the lyrical content. It is tough to categorize this music as The Art of Sound doesn’t quite fit neatly into any one genre. It has elements of indie, piano driven coffeehouse music. The tone, pacing and overall ambiance seem to gravitate in that direction. The vocals however have a pop, or even lite hip hop quality to them, both in delivery style and effects selection. I couldn’t help but think that with different backing track instrumentation, this could be marketed as a completely different style of music. This is what makes Fox’s album interesting. He really does have a unique, recognizably distinctive sound.
Since there are so many tracks on this album, it seems appropriate that I should talk about some of them individually. My favorite song on this release is Spell, which sports a haunting, minimalistic melody and memorable hooks. It also has one of the best vocal performances. Not a Regular Guy is one of the catchier songs. It’s in the form of a peppy and fun, singsong format, almost like an updated, contemporary incarnation of 70′s pop sing along classics like those of The Partridge Family or The First Class. It may be a stretch, but it does reach. Rhythm Rhyme is a song you can dance to, despite it’s relatively measured pacing (these songs are all fairly mellow.) It has a bouncy feel to it, enough to play at a dance club in between EDM bpm blitzkriegs.
Ultimately, I have to say that The Art of Sound lives up to its ambitious title. Luke Fox provides an epic experience. There is just an incredible amount of musical content for one to sift though here. I can’t help but be astonished at the amount of work that must have gone into this project. It would be impressive enough for this reason alone, but the artistry itself is solid, too.