New Music! Friday Roll Out: Bent Arcana, L.A. Witch, Bully, Secret Machines, Guided By Voices, Vex Ruffin, Rey Pila

Yup, we’re rolling through another week here with styles upon styles of…well, it doesn’t matter. I’ve had a couple of things that have been top of mind, beginning with the upcoming elections. Mail-in ballots probably won’t work this year so yeah, bite down on that bullet and get to your polls. The virus is probably going to be used as the excuse, but we need to focus on what’s important. I’m not trying to sway your opinion one way or the other because that’s your choice, we all need to get out there. I know we still have a few months before we get there but let’s!

In other news though, there are a number of releases out today and what’s a better way to start than by listening to the new Mirrored Aztec from none other than Guided By Voices?  Bob Pollard and company return with a new album, 18 tracks of the grandiose rock GBV is known for creating. Yes, I know everyone thinks it’s just the 200th album by the band that consistently releases multiple albums year after year. Ok, maybe this year isn’t any different considering this is the band’s second release for 2020 with Styles We Paid For coming later this year but come on! You can never go wrong with Pollard brand of songwriting and the musicianship his cohorts bring to the table.

There’s a resurging tale of a sound that’s been co-opted and embraced by a culture. The sound of Pinoy Soul is seriously becoming a dominant force around the country, whether it’s coming from New York’s Sulu and Excelsior or the west coast’s Vex Ruffin who’s just released the new LiteAce Frequency (Stones Throw). Ruffin tosses in a wide array of sound into his music but the soul is always prevalent. “Ikaw Lang” lingers around a repetitive melody that just won’t let go but it’s the sultry “I’m Still At It” that the dope in the syringe to make your head nod. He finds that melody and layers around it, and with a cooing vocal delivery that’s perfectly fitting. Vex Ruffin is definitely onto something here.

I’ve been really excited the last couple of weeks, listening to Velox Veritas (Arts & Crafts), the new album by Mexico City’s Rey Pila. Considering I’ve never come face to face with any releases by the band, this new one is refreshing. Musically the band holds similarities to others, but the comparison is fleeting. The electro guitar pop-rock hybrid the band delivers is pretty refreshing and the fact that this was produced by Dave Sitek (TVOTR) is even better. Moving backward to discover the band’s other material makes for an interesting weekend.

I’m not a big fan of a lot of music. Actually, I’m not a fan of the derivative, and to be honest, there’s a lot that’s derivatively bad. When I’ve come face to face with something that’s repetitious, unoriginal, and completely wrong in every which way, we all need to be open and genuine about it.

3 years ago, I described the first Bully release Loser as “a 12-track release of punk-inspired rock with shifting dynamics fronted by one Alicia Bognanno.” That was the only positive takeaway gained from that sentence. And while some musicians co-signed on their love for Bully, I just couldn’t. It was uninspiring and I left it alongside a pile of….but fast-forward to 2020 with a pandemic in tow, Bully releases its sophomore release SUGAREGG (Sub Pop) and shit has turned to gold. It seems the follow-up has allowed Bully the praise it may have deserved in its first outing. The songs delivered here are punchy, in your face, and distinctively holding tight to melodies at every turn.

Listening to the opening “Add It On” – sure you’ll find that Courtney Hole vocal comparable rasp which is where it begins and ends – and you’ll be smacked dead in the face with a wall of sonically abrasive, yet catchy rhythms stitched together by distorted guitar chords. The frantic pace never lets up, scorching through a path that is distinctive and derivative unto itself. While the music may pull from a variety of influences, it seems like Bognanno has finally let loose. Yes, the band “cut” loose on its first album but there was something missing, here it seems she leads with complete abandon, which allows the music to ebb and flow naturally. “Every Tradition” has a sonic bombast etched around subtle harmonies and this right here? This is what we all need. Bognanno weaves her melodies around one another perfectly leaving no chord unturned. While SUGAREGG showcases the ability to rock without inhibitions, there’s a softer side to the music, much like on “Prism,” the band still hits heavy, but the tempo is slowed down significantly. It’s airy, inviting, and loud. It’s perfect in every way.

Within the context of the band’s music, there’s also a degree of challenging songwriting. “Stuck In Your Head” opens with Bognanno offering up a quick vocal melody that doesn’t match what follows but it all works well together while on the subtlety of “Come Down” Bully realizes it doesn’t always have to be a musical attack at every turn. The lazy beat will have heads nodding like a junkie’s dope in the syringe. There are dynamic shifts here too and the song is all the better for it. That same subtlety continues with “Hours and Hours,” led by bass eventually exploding with guitars matched by Bognanno’s vocal delivery.

It may have taken 3 years and a pandemic but SUGAREGG has made a convert of me. The songs Bognanno and company have delivered are ripe and ready for the picking. The duality of her songwriting prowess is evident and I’m not sure if it gets any better than this.

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There are moments in time where I question my own familiarity with something, whether it’s film, visual art, or music. Do I know this? Have I ever watched this before? Where do they come from? Why do they sound familiar? It happens a lot.

And so the group Secret Machines has risen from the dead. After a 12 year silence and what I’m sure many assumed was a breakup, the band has reformed with 2/3 of its original membership. Awake In The Brain Chamber (TSM Recordings) is the band’s new effort but actually went through several demo versions before its finality. While the band may have had a modicum of success early into its major-label career, I’m left uncertain on whether older fans are willing to rehash a sound that’s been put through the wringer the past 20 years or so. That’s not to say this album is bad, it’s anything but that. The band, Brandon Curtis and Josh Garza, with the help of a number of friends, are really good at what they do, within the musical prism they work within. The band does get spacey on “Let’s Stay Alive” with thick bass notes and eerie guitars but are able to also show the ability on “Dreaming Is Alright” and “Everything’s Under” to rally around quick-paced, punk’d up rhythms for anthemic takes.

The Secret Machines seem to walk multiple fine lines though, occasionally edging along those that are obvious influences or oblivious mimicry. “Everything Starts” for example, has the song structure of a song that could have been found on a John Hughes soundtrack, albeit heavier. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but leaves the album a bit disjointed. That’s followed by “Angel Come,” which leaves me feeling the same way; they’re good songs but reminiscent of the Butler brothers. The band’s closing “So Far Down” showcases Beatlesesque-like harmonies and a melodic style and turn that seems out of place. It’s a good song but doesn’t seem to fit musically pieced together with the rest of the tracks.

It seems there’s a lot going on with the reawakening of Secret Machines and while Awake In The Brain Chamber may suffer from the band’s bag of tricks. The band is tremendous in talent and whatever it creates, delivers the goods. But the band needs to make a few edits because you can’t always fit a round peg into a square hole.

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Certain groups tend to leave people scratching their heads, and sometimes you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. No, this isn’t a clever play on Forest Gump, it simply is what it is. It happens often, and this time around it’s the Oh Sees that are at it again, only this time, it’s a collaboration with a musician that’s as willing to take as many risks.

Kyp Malone has recorded and performed with TV On The Radio for the better part of almost 20 years. Seeing him here, I didn’t bat an eye because experimentation is well within his comfort zone. Oh, I’m referring to the collaboration between Oh Sees members and Malone as Bent Arcana (I’m just calling the collective that although it’s the name of the album. The band is going by: Ryan Sawyer, Peter Kerlin, Kyp Malone, Brad Caulkins, Tom Dolas, Marcos Rodriguez, Laena “Geronimo” Myers-Ionita, Joce Soubiran, Andres Renteria and John Dwyer and it’s just too much to mention).

I wasn’t prepared for this release, not by a longshot. The album itself, completely instrumental aside from a few shouts here and there. There are a wide array of instruments utilized (sax, keys, synths, drums, double bass, violin, etc.) and while this could have come across as a bland free-jazz expressionless experiment, it’s quite the opposite and in layman’s terms: it’s really fucking good. The band opens with the 10-minute+ “The Gate,” building off asymmetrical synths and guitars before grasping onto Ryan Sawyer’s steady drumbeat that gets hypnotically wicked. The bassline rides to beat for all its worth and anyone could listen to it for hours. Tenor sax rolls in accentuating the moment as guitars eventually roll in. It’s easy to fall in love with the track and listen to it over and over and over again. And again. I have to wonder if it would be too pompous of me share a cheap comparison of this to Miles Davis… take that however you will.

While the band plays through a 70s-induced fusion, they’re allowed the freedom to insert semblances of krautrock into its fold, much like on “Outré Sorcellerie” where the outfit may seem like it’s meandering through space and time with instruments but the sonic levels are erratically brilliant, while “Misanthrope Gets Lunch” works around a bassline, filtering instruments around it for exploiting the experimentation to fascinate. Later on we find the group of musicians on “Oblivion Sigil” captivating with an unrelenting rhythm for over 11 minutes. The band gets funkified around it and the brilliance is remarkable.

Bent Arcana is an amazing piece of work and as a unit, the band pieces together music as if they’ve always done so for ages. Maybe some have but Ryan Sawyer, Peter Kerlin, Kyp Malone, Brad Caulkins, Tom Dolas, Marcos Rodriguez, Laena “Geronimo” Myers-Ionita, Joce Soubiran, Andres Renteria and John Dwyer are able to gel cohesively at the drop of a hat.

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With a debut album, one rarely knows if it’s worth the listen or even hold up to its own hype. Seems to be the constant battle; dealing with established artists is the easiest way to go. But where would that leave us all? In the end, with uninspired shlock and stale music like that of the Stones, never knowing when to call it quits.

Enter: L.A. Witch, the trio of ladies hailing from, well, Los Angeles, has released the debut album Play With Fire (Suicide Squeeze), which I’ve been playing for a couple of days. Literally, working and allowing the album to repeat on its own. The band’s jangle is fitted with surf rock aspects and a garage rock aesthetic. The band takes me back to turn-of-the-century great garage rock revival, where there were so many noteworthy artists reinvigorated by a style that was all but dead. Seattle’s Gimmicks were a favorite of mine, as were the Demolition Doll Rods. But I digress.

L.A. Witch’s interpretation is much broader as the band offers up slices of Spaghetti Western, along with 60’s stylings for something more unique. From track to track we can all hear songs drenched in reverb which obviously accounts for the sound they provide but yes, it works all too well for the band. “I Wanna Lose” keeps from going over the top with its instruments although the track’s classic vibe and sensuality are allowed to move with a mind of its own. Guitarist Sadie Sanchez’ vocal deliver seems effortless and atmospheric, as she shifts her six-string from jangly to an all-consuming lead that’s pieced together perfectly. But the band isn’t just about cooing vocals and jangly reverb, the band hits heavily at many points.

The band’s opening “Fire Starter” still present is that reverb, and here it’s required with the rhythm second of bassist Irita Pai and thumper Ellie English holding it down as Sanchez lets her guitar unravel all around the track. Ok, yes, after consistently listening to the songs, they’ve embedded themselves around my brain so it’s easy to spot all the nuances and work at play here as they close out drifting along with instruments in hand. “Motorcycle Boy” is more direct with its melody as harmonies abound and the rhythm section continues to tightly work their magic.

Organs are incorporated within the band’s sound as well on a few tracks but are prominent on the sultry “Dark Horse” where the band allows the song to drift in its own direction, bound by nothing but it’s own forceful level.

There are so many aspects to L.A. Witch that it’s difficult to pin the band as just being one thing. For what the band creates, that’s a feather in cap, allowing the group to stray from mediocrity or staleness. The group’s “Maybe The Weather” cries differently for the band although it’s obvious the same tears are shed. It heads in a country-esque direction without losing the spirit of the band, with the reverb helping the band along to keep its identity.

Yes, I do like Play With Fire and all the different things L.A. Witch plays with to create the collection of songs here. The band delivers something old, blended with the new, forging through the flames for something distinctive and all its own.

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