New Music: Friday Roll Out! with Activity, Gold Cage, Moodie Black, Vlad Holiday, Mr. Scruff, Sufjan Stevens & Lowell Brams, Taiyamo Denku, Sadistik

Life right now is difficult. But I’m not about dwelling on the things that we can’t change so let’s just focus on what we can! No, it’s easier said than done, especially when you have friends on the frontlines attempting to help those in overcrowded hospitals, and you miss you your family who are deep in the bowels of urban cities. But we have to move forward.

Another week goes by with a plethora of releases filling my hard drive, my postal mailbox, and my email. Out this week is a new single by Sadistik, the emcee who litters his songs with darkness, who I can never get enough of it seems. “The Plague” seems apropos as he wraps his words like “…You all think you’re different, you not all that different / all of us fit in a grave…” around melancholic backdrops. Halfway through though, the mood seemingly changes but Sadistik references tombs and death. Yeah, he takes current events and puts them directly in your face! It’s sad, real, and direct. To my own chagrin, it’s dope.

Coming in as a late entry here is the new album by Milwaukee rapper Tayamo Denku’s The Darker Side Of Light. Denku has a back catalog filled with albums, singles, EPs, and make no mistake about it, he’s is big on utilizing the Boom Bap in his tracks are usually the better for it. He trades verses with Big Shug on “Stay Awake,” a cold urban citied vibe rolling through it. While he hits heavy, he’s not averse to pen his own love song with “True Love,” literally putting emotions flagrantly opening himself through his lyrics, while on “Family Matters” he trades shots with the clever lyricism of Che Noir. There are more features throughout worth their weight in gold like “Life Chapter (feat. Planet Asia),” “Learn The Path (feat. Kinetic 9 7 Shogun Assason,” and the banger, “Way I Am (feat. Killah Priest).” But the album doesn’t come without its own problematic issues though. While I completely understand tracks like “Lyrics Matter feat. Cambatta” and “You Should Not Brag,” I don’t understand the vehemence behind them. Rap challenges have been done, and dissing other artists, should be left for the battle rap stages. While Denku and Cambatta aren’t actually calling anyone one out for a lyrical melee, the mood remains the same and leaves it somewhat lopsided within the context of the 19-track release. Then Denku adds “Joell Ortiz Revision,” a hot track where he professes he’s in need of verses, literally lifting up the NY artist here.

I’m led to world-renowned DJ Mr. Scruff, added to the DJ-Kicks (!K7) series. Some may or may not be familiar with Scruff and DJ-Kicks, both of which made strides in the early to mid-2000s. Scruff is known for his mix skills and of course for “Get A Move On!” with Sneaky, which was even featured in commercials, which is always surprising to hear a favorite of mine. Now with his latest offering, Scruff works with over an hour’s worth of material from artists reggae induced Equiknoxx, Blackpocket, to Afrobeat artist Antibalas. Over 31 tracks to get you moving in some way or another and it’s completely bananas!

Three short takes and filler before diving into the deep end.

We’re all troubled in one way or another, and as we’ve started 2020 with such an infectious bang, we all need some sort of consolation. Some of us spiral down further than most, requiring an assist from others when we find a point of contention difficult to climb out of. There’s music that helps, and it usually does when certain artists are concerned.

Aporia (Asthmatic Kitty) is the new album by Sufjan Stevens & Lowell Brams, his stepfather, longtime musical collaborator, and label partner. For the new album headlining both names, Stevens and Brams recorded the album over the course of the last few years whenever Brams would visit Stevens’ home in New York. The result? 21 tracks, an array of soundscapes that conjure beautiful imagery through the duo’s compositions.

There’s no need for lyrics as the music takes on a life of its own to breathe in sweet life. But there are vocals, like on the commanding “The Runaround” and harmonies on the majestic “Climb That Mountain.” My takeaway from this? Aporia gives me wondrous feelings down in the pit of my stomach, allowing a sigh of relief thinking, “Yes, this too shall pass.”

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Thinking of a clever anecdote doesn’t always come quickly; sometimes never so why even bother attempting one and just get to the matter at hand? This would be Activity, the Brooklyn band that’s been spinning here repeatedly. It could be the fact that I’m unable to muster the energy to get up and change it, or possibly that we all want to hear it because it’s so different from just about anything else attempted. Let’s just go with the latter, shall we?

Activity just released its debut album Unmask Whoever (Western Vinyl) and it’s sometimes, tricky. The quartet walks a line between electronic music and indie rock, with an emphasis on the “rock.” The band, made up of vocalist Travis Johnson, drummer Steve Levine, Bassist Zoë Brown, and guitarist Jess Rees, have pieced together an album that screams of art-rock and also remains captivating all the same. It’s all captured on the brief opener “In Motion,” which merges both electronic samples and its direct rock aspects seamlessly. This is quickly followed by “Calls Your Name,” which is reminiscent of APC/BEANS-like sampling and song structuring, manifested in band format. But here, the band works within the confines of repetition, allowing the song’s singular delivery to find its own path as Johnson’s abstract lyricism burrows itself within the music perfectly.

Activity moves 180 degrees away from their contemporaries which allows an upward rise leaving the rest trailing behind. But what is it that that band does? I’m certain producer Jeff Berner (former Psychic TV guitarist) had a helping hand in directing them into an awkward space Activity finds a musical solace within. The group makes pop songs that aren’t easily mimicked or have the ability to be duplicated by others. “Nude Prince” is probably one of the band’s more easily accessible numbers, that gives the illusion of drifting mindlessly but is in complete control. The “drifting” guitars accentuate the already thick melody of the bassline while drums follow its lead.

Further inspection leads to “Earth Angel,” which revolves around a guitar melody of 6 notes that morphs into a beast of a song, driving again through repetition but it’s magnificent in its mannerisms. Glorious. Moving closer to the album’s closing numbers, there’s so much more to be enjoyed, whether it’s through “Violen and Vivisect” and its mechanical drum pattern & melody or “Auto Sad” and its electronic bottom end and vibrato guitars, it’s completely captivating.

For Activity’s debut release, Unmask Whoever, is more than an interesting album, confounding listeners and creating sparse yet completely fulfilling music with interesting dynamics and shifts, all the while bending genres to the band’s bidding. The album is a wondrous affair.

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With debut albums, they can go a number of different ways. They’re either hit or miss, or they’ll take strides in the walk of shame, directly into mediocrity where people can either take it or leave it. I’m sure everyone would rather the former than the latter. One thing I’d prefer is for a recording to leave me with an impression, hitting emotional chords. That’s always important.

I wasn’t sure about Gold Cage with its first go-around on Social Crutch (Felte!), not because it was poorly recorded or pieced together with songs that are scattershot and obtuse. No. A band shouldn’t hit me so quickly to fall in love with it! There must be something wrong with it, there has to be. That’s what I kept telling myself. The band, made up of singer/bassist Monica Gamboa-Katz, singer/guitarist Cole Devine and Sage Ross/drums, blends styles and sounds I haven’t heard done so well together in some time.

The band touts a variety of self-professed styles from post-punk to slow-core but I’m not sure where they’d actually find solace, that is, if they truly care about it. Gold Cage does, in fact, open things with the mid-tempo feel of “Repeater Kember,” which offers up shifting guitar dynamics, creating a wall that would make me believe gazing at their shoes wouldn’t be out of the question but Monica Katz’ simple low-end theory here is reminiscent of bassist Stephen Immerwahr. The less-is-more delivery option is quite fitting and offsets perfectly against other instruments. Having members trade off on lead vocals from song to song usually benefits a band, which is the case here as Cole Davis takes the reins here on this minimalist jaunt filled with vocal harmonies and again with changing dynamics. But the trio doesn’t always stick to one formula, straying from remaining a one-trick pony.

Gold Cage antes up on “Introduce My Mind” where both Katz and Davis share vocal duties on this minimalist affair, leaving the airy track filled with harmonies and infectious melodies. They edge out all the sadness they can muster on “What Is Left,” and it’s done just right. Davis’ guitar cries out with delicate tears alongside Katz’s breathy vocal delivery as everything around them collapses beautifully. While the group may succumb to the soft world of melancholia, they do bounce back from time to time, much like on “Spaghettify,” another bouncy number where a singular melody addictively finds the vein in my arm and this time around it Sage Ross’ steady hands that have my full attention just like on “Harshmellow,” with a simple beat that’s a head-nodder.

So here I wonder, is Gold Cage clever or did they fool me with the simplicity of catchy notes and melodies? I wouldn’t overthink it because when something seems to fall right into place, it does because it was either purposeful or a beautiful accident. In any case, Social Crutch works wonders and that’s all that matters.

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Do you ever find yourself confused, intent on understanding something that you’re just unable to understand? When reading certain things, and completely sober mind you, it may not be as complexed as you think it is, but you’re still drawing a blank. Yes, color me confused but never color me badd.

This is yet another “debut” release, this time from Brooklyn lo-fi artist Vlad Holiday who shares his Fall Apart With Me EP (AWAL) which he recorded in his studio “on tape and instruments from previous eras, he found his creative process by using the old to create something new.”  What the proverbial fuck? I can only make the assumption he recorded everything on analog, along with instruments he found stored away somewhere and…oh never mind.

Vlad delivers 6 songs on this release reminiscent of aged crooning as if singing through a Retro Dynamic Microphone, traveling back to 1972, in a smokey Vegas lounge. I can only imagine Richard Carpenter, pushed to the edge with no hope and no Karen, creating songs of a different nature. Songs are soaked in bourbon with his voice tattered through years of cigarettes. Is the imagery embedded in your psyche? Good. That’s no to say Vlad’s a pale skid rowed version of the masterful songwriter, not by a longshot. He masterfully creates beautiful songs in his own right. As “Phonograph” directs its prowess through horns, guitars, keys and drums, he uses the instruments for his mournful delivery, filling every space with a melancholic beauty that would make Mark Eitzel weep. There’s a mood within the song that sets the tone for the rest of the release. His lyrical content may vary from song to song but it all remains Vlad Holiday throughout.

“Lazy,” is more of the same and while he may not have the weight of the world on his shoulders, it does come across as if he does. The higher-pitched background vocal harmony here is intriguing. It’s like a Chipmunk appears but not in a cartoonish way, but a furry friend to let you know “We’ll get through this together.” The song ends with an insane guitar effect that’s almost existential in its delivery which accentuates his guitar notes themselves. The more upbeat “Addictions” creeps around corners with horns that are more prevalent and a rhythm section that’s as controlled as a quiet storm. Holiday has a vocal cadence that’s hypnotic and friendly and rarely does the man hold back.

Fall Apart With Me is an entertaining find. Strike that, Vlad Holiday makes his instruments weep on this release. He pulls every nuance and emotion that’s inside and releases them through the music he created here. Is this hyperbole? Maybe, but it’s well deserved.

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Noisy elements of sound have been incorporated into music for decades. It was inevitable it would eventually find its way into Hip Hop with artists like dälek, Carl Kavorkian, Saul Williams, Anti Pop Consortium, Chris Conde to name a few. What sets this counterculture apart from the rest is there’s no set blueprint. There isn’t any one artist that’s genetically modified to sound like the other. It’s a beautiful thing.

The past decade has seen the rise of Moodie Black, the project controlled by rapper K-Death and sound manipulator/guitarist Sean Lindhal. Today they’ve unleased FUZZ (Fake Four Inc.), which is unrelenting in dissonance as boundaries in sound are pushed past limits in order to allow the duo to stand in a place they find comfortability in. The 90s-era industrial aspect in sound can’t be ignored as the L.A. act utilizes its mechanical delivery to the Moodie Black need.

Opening with “Selfieness,” Lindhal’s spacey guitar sets the tone, making way for guttural beats and dissonance to provide the backdrop for K-Death conveyance of heady lyricism. To the naked ear, some may interpret Moodie Black’s sound as simple noise inflections with rapping on top but it’s much more than that. “Picket Fence” for example, has layers of sound meshed together, and what may be perceived something drenched in noisy feedback, there are notes that provide melody, shifting from one way to another. This right here is skillfully composed.

The group shares an affinity for things that are thunderously deafening and “Mames” pulls no punches, taking leads from Wax Trax-era Martin Atkins and possibly even Al Jourgensen compositions. The frenetic track is a no-holds-barred excursion, over-the-top with guitars howling as K-Death rhymes about youthful days, being misunderstood, and psyche evaluations.

 There’s a darkness surrounding “My Penis, My Babyfat,” with a thunderous bottom end, and Lindhal’s screeching guitars. K-Death raps lyrics around a lower register before shifting it higher. But it’s “Ceiling Fans” that captivates my attention with repetitive beats that are far from repetitious where Death waxes poetically. It’s a massive number that’s on the brink of tipping over from its own weight…but it never does. They stand feet firmly planted on either side of the track, fully in control.

Moodie Black has always been an acquired taste that many have found difficult to understand musically. With FUZZ, the duo is at the pinnacle, the epicenter of their own musical creativity. We should all cancel the apocalypse and utilize FUZZ as the soundtrack to our lives.

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