Two contemporary releases I can certainly vouch for, made by bands in the here and now. Perhaps I need to state this, just so I don't appear to be hopelessly stuck in the past (I am). Constant Pagaent is the latest & greatest effort from Scottish quartet, Trembling Bells, and once again on the Honest Jon's imprint (an excellent and eclectic one it be, and one owned by none other than Blur's Damon Albarn). The band was formed in the mid '00s by drummer Alex Neilson, a veteran of the UK's (and the world's!) avant/improv scene, having worked with everyone from Will Oldham to Ashtray Navigations to Current 93 to Alistair Galbraith to Jandek, as well as being linked up to the David Keenan/Volcanic Tongue empire, in some manner. You get the drift. Most of those artists don't exactly fall into the "improv" bracket, though he's also served time in Britain's avant-jazz scene, so there ya go. I'll call him a "journeyman". Trembling Bells are fronted by the soaring vocals of Lavinia Blackwall, a fetching lass w/ a pair of pipes you could only compare to one of England's finest vocalists of yore, Sandy Denny. She's not entirely pitch-perfect, and there lies her charm. The band is mining a sound which is an obvious throwback to the classic Brit folk-rock of the '60s/'70s - think Fairports, Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Shirley/Dolly Collins and more esoteric treats such as Comus and Jan Dukes de Grey - and boy do they nail it. Better than that, it's more than a mere aping of a sound perfected 40 years ago. There's a modern twist thrown in the mix, but never is it tre moderne. The opening cut, "Just As The Rainbow" contains soaring guitars from Mike Hastings and a bombastic, pummeling rhythm, the cacophonous meeting sounding like a blend of bagpipes (I checked: there are none) and a full string section (there is cello and viola in their mix somewhere). My wife thought it sounded like the Dirty Three. She is correct, but then Blackwall's vocals come in and the mixture of the overtly psychedelic with the traditional possesses a transcendent effect. Throughout the 10 tracks, the magic never lets up. The band swoops and soars its way through a league of material which breathes new life to a form that seemed dead in its tracks by the mid '70s. Sure, Current 93 have been doing this schtick for 25 years, and great as its been, Tibet & co. never rocked like this. And Hastings' guitar work... it's the noise of the gods. At times it sounds like the clangs of a harpsichord, then it's bagpipes and then it's an unholy combo of 1st-LP Stooges Ashton combined w/ '66/'67-period Barrett. It's a beautiful thing. Track 5, "Where Do I Go From You?", is the obvious highlight, the last two minutes soaring w/ Blackwall's vocals and Hastings' interlocking guitar noodles. If it was released on Topic or Island in 1970, you'd be losing your shit (and sleep) bidding for copies on ebay in the hope of making your life complete. The sound is organic, loose, lively and a brilliant mix of the old and new. Not being purists, their sound also delves into UFO-period 'Floyd/Soft Machine territory on occasion, making this the best album of 1967-1970 released in the year of 2011 there'll be. So far as I can tell - and I'm hardly the one to ask - they're the best band in the UK at this point in history, and this is certainly going to be one of my favourite albums of 2011. Get on it.
Zomes ain't a band, it's one man: Asa Osborne. He's also in Lungfish, the veteran post-hardcore outfit who have about a dozen albums on Dischord (and a band I'm relatively new to, despite protests from friends for a decade egging me on to check out their wares. Their DC punk/Joy Division/Black Sabbath hybrid, which isn't too dissimilar to Die Kreuzen ca. October File, is mighty tasty and something I might even write about one day, as well as the interesting, rewarding and varied output of their main man, Daniel Higgs. Now please allow me to escape these parantheses), as well as a band called Pupils, whom I know zip about. Earth Grid is Zomes' second official release (on Thrill Jockey), having put out a disc on the Holy Mountain label a few years back. It was recorded entirely onto cassette and mastered by Bob Weston, facts which may thrill you but probably don't give you an idea of what they sound like. The music is primarily played on what sounds like a cheap keyboard from the '80s and it's all instrumental. It's minimal and lo-tech and there's 15 tracks which, put together, make up approx. 40 minutes of music. The songs are basic in their approach - this isn't Rick Wakeman - though each song creeps along w/ a certain lyricism as they're embellished subtely throughout w/ notes layered upon notes, the end result being quite hypnotic. I'd compare Zomes to being something along the lines of very early Cabaret Voltaire (as in pre-Rough Trade era, as heard on their 3CD 1974-1978 recordings on Mute), a 4-track take on Cluster/Harmonia or an instrumental version of the Screamers' more downbeat moments. In fact, slap a Tomata Du Plenty on top of this and you might just think you're listening to some classic Masque-period demos ca. '77/'78. There's some percussion thrown in the mix, and my guess is that it's his cheap Casiotone doing the job. Sure, there's a lot of this stuff around; The Kids are all over this nonsense in 2011 and have the audacity to release it on limited runs of cassette. Zomes is something for the wider marketplace, beyond the practioner's immediate circle of friends and sycophants. Regardless of whether it was recorded in 1974 or last week, it's a sound I still like, and Zomes does it very well indeed. Light a bowl and jump inside Earth Grid some time.