Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Val Yuri's EP "Katharsis" is a sensual electronic journey

Press photo by Rob Tannenbaum, courtesy of the artist

Looking for music that will revitalize your creative energy in these precious lingering moments of summer? Val Yuri’s electronic EP Katharsis is lush with shifting textures and cresting with artistic potential. Considering the path she’s walked, starting as a singer in Ukraine as a child, switching to the business end of the industry as a young adult, and now designing audio for games and cinema, it is fitting that this EP reaches for so many different corners of the vast electronic genre while still maintaining a commercially sound core.

The EP opens with “Largesse,” an urgent melodic periscope that shatters into beads of light pelting a windowpane as a spidery fuzz crawls low between the treble splashes. The varied number is spotted with a cast of unexpected percussive sounds that creep in and fade out like strange creatures scuttling across the ocean floor. Out of the electronic abyss, a psychedelic guitar picks out rippling notes that weave around a quixotic bell keyboard, moving the track into jazzier territory to end the song on a literal high note. The following track, “Oceans,” goes deep and dark into a 90s cyberpunk aesthetic. Collegiate goth rock drips with threatening bass notes and breathy vocals that flutter, carrying lyrics that rise slowly to clarity throughout the song, akin to something being lifted from murky waters. The first two thirds of the song swoops low on the scale, sharklike notes cutting just under the eerie green radar of the spectral mantra at the heart of the number.

The titular third track is introduced with industrial found sounds and punctuated with pockets of silence that dissolve into spacey metallurgy made audible. “Katharsis” is an ideal combination of compelling and nonchalant; music that can be in the foreground or background of an environment and enjoyed either way. The song propels itself forward on thrusting rock rhythms and then hangs back to bask in gritty warehouse electronica like it’s 1996. The theatrical piece takes detours through discordant deserts of steely rumbles and the traffic of Floydian alarms. Playful sliding tones float like sticky bubbles around the trap hop beat that steers the number to a halting finish.

The fourth track, “Here Tonight,” crawls out of the darkness with the soft pop vocals of rising featured artist Lydia Lyon, her voice slightly smudged beneath a violet filter as she scales the rigid terrain of digital beats that curtain the occasional recognizable instrument. Closing track “Set You Free” feels like opening the lid of a music box found in the home of the Halliwell sisters; new age and mystic tones paint a sense of nostalgia for something dreadful in your attic. Dreamy and pleasantly haunting, the song dances over a piano bridge and down a clunky spiral as the sole lyric steadily charges it with a supernatural energy.

EP Artwork by Catalina Piedrahita

Val Yuri was kind enough to talk to me a little about her musical background and how she goes about the business of composing and performing. Below is our interview, conducted over email and edited only for grammar.

HJ: Tell me about your musical influences. Which artists first inspired you to write music? Who do you admire or emulate?

VY: I started as a jazz performer studying the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and George Gershwin. Growing up in Ukraine in the 90s, I heard jazz for the first time when I was about 7 years old. I listened in on a big band rehearsal after a class at my music school and immediately felt like that was where I saw myself. Jazz was gaining significant mass appeal in those first years of the Post Soviet [era] and I ended up catching the wave as one of the youngest performers in the genre. Over the years, I have explored almost every [style] out there, and I currently aspire to write music that falls between Amon Tobin, Radiohead, Coldplay and Phoenix.

HJ: Tell me about your musical training. What and when did you start playing or singing?

VY: I started taking piano and vocal lessons when I was 5 years old. From about 7, I was full time at a music school where I was also learning theory, singing in a choir and getting the foundation for the formal education to come. I moved to the U.K. when I was 14 and at 15 I got accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I pursued a degree in Music Business and Management.

HJ: What is your process for composing an instrumental track? Where does your inspiration come from to write instrumental tracks?

VY: I feel like instrumental tracks give more way to interpretation and that is what I like the most about writing music with no vocals and lyrics, and what inspires me the most as a writer. Even when I write melodies for vocals I tend to focus more on the textural elements of the timber of the voice in combination with how the words sound and not only what they mean. What inspires me the most about electronic music is that I can create textures and sounds that have never been heard before. Using that to make the listener more aware of his subjective experience is definitely one of my favorite ways to engage as an artist.  

HJ: Do you do live shows? How does a live show compare to making music in the studio with regards to this genre?

VY: The gamut of technology that can be used for a live show is as sophisticated as studio equipment. You can manipulate almost every property of a sound in real time which quite literally helps you create a one of a kind performance every time. The way I see it, studio is all about control on a microscopic level, but live performance is about expressing yourself in the moment and taking chances, which is very similar to improvisation in a lot of ways and something that is a big part of me.  

HJ: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind Katharsis specifically? What was it like composing this EP? What is your favorite track and why?

VY: Katharsis was an experiment in a lot of ways. My goal was to create an electronic film score that had no visuals dictating the plot. The structure of each song was driven by an imaginary story line that is there to provide a rhythm and overall direction but I wanted to let it be up to the listener to define what it means. My favorite track on the record would have to be “Oceans,” simply because I sketched out the idea for the song when I just moved to the U.S., so essentially it is about feeling out of place and making sense of distance, which are two very personal themes for me. 

Press photo by Rob Tannenbaum, courtesy of the artist

HJ: Is it more difficult to gain listeners with a heavily instrumental EP than with the typical formula that balances music and lyrics? How does the popularity of this work measure against the popularity of your more traditional songwriting approaches?

VY: With the traditional major label structure dissolving, I find that more and more people are drawn to experimental records, which includes a lot of instrumental music. So there are definitely more options for non-traditional artists to reach accessibility than ever before. It comes down to two kinds of consumers and two kinds of success: one where a lot of people buy one single or one where fewer people buy packages that might include the album, merch and other bonus material, and which tend to be more expensive to buy. It is really up to the artist what kind of following they are looking to build. So in terms of exposure, vocal pop writing will always have a leg up on any other style, and I absolutely enjoy writing in that medium, but mass popularity sometimes comes at the expense of longevity.

HJ: What is your next move? Shows, tours, recording, writing, etc?

VY: I am releasing a new single in the next couple of months. It is probably the closest I’ve gotten to finding a happy medium between alternative and commercial, so I am definitely very much excited to see the reaction. I am taking a break from solo performance to work on a new EP, but I do have a few performances lined up with Late Nite Cable, a synth pop band. Go to for more info. 

Fans of film scores and 90s electronic groups like Portishead and Laika should definitely give Katharsis a listen, and artistic types are sure to find the rapid changes and rich sonic landscape inspiring. Play the EP below and keep an eye on Val Yuri’s projects here

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Deer A Horse Shakes up Cake Shop, Interview with the Band

Press photo by Kassy Balli, courtesy of the band

It’s a Wednesday night at Cake Shop and after the mellow acts that began the evening, A Deer A Horse rumbles the house with a tune-up that jolts everyone to full alertness, projecting glimpses of the thunder to come. The three-piece band is the classic power trio formation, with Rebecca Satellite on guitar, Angela Philips on bass and Dylan Teggart on drums. Both Philips and Satellite take on vocals.

The opening number is a dragging andante in pace and swamp thick with bass notes that slide like molasses and pierce like needles. Guitar riffs spiral upward in anger before flattening out to a jaded grunginess. Unpredictable rhythms guided by drums that tear ferociously through walls of apathy blend a police siren guitar and droning bass. The sound is beyond loud; it is so bursting that when the song ends, there is a hole in the air where the sonic boom came crashing through.

The second piece rockets us back to 1985 with its playful FM radio rock feel. Satellite’s vocals are a yo-yo with a steel cord: they yank and plunge and shoot with a juicy tenor boyishness complemented by the frenzy of Philips’ high-pitched harmonies. Diary entry lyrics and tank-heavy beats cement together the desperation of the third number, with Satellite’s voice gliding over the luminescent gray chorus, a seabird over treacherous waters. Catchy riffs stick in my veins, the lyrics plaster the walls of my skull: “What if I was someone you loved?” Lunatic drums and a pleading guitar scratch at the door to the soul, begging to be let in and curl up in the darkest corner.

Their next song carries the raw sensation of punk tempered with the emotive intellect of later classic rock. Metal influence seeps into the guillotine-lusty aesthetic of the closing number. Gothic color inserts itself into the chime of Satellite’s voice and the erupting harmony between all corners of this musical triangle. The song grows so dense and rollicking in its stadium rock glory that it is almost too big for Cake Shop. (Almost.) A threatening guitar solo reaches the sky and cracks it open and as quickly as it rose, it all falls and their set is over.

Press photo, courtesy of the band

I reached out to A Deer A Horse before the show, after hearing their song “Bloodbath” on SoundCloud. I asked if Satellite and Philips would be interested in talking about their music and they were happy to do an email interview. I sent them the questions and they collaborated on the answers. Below is the rather humorous interview.

HJ: Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from? How did you become passionate about music? 

ADAH: Rebecca (guitar/vocals) was born in England and moved to St. Louis when she was 9,  Angela (bass/vocals) is from Dallas, and Dylan (drums/verbal abuse) is secretly Canadian. We each picked up our instruments in our pre-teen years and have been making musical noises ever since. 

HJ: How and when did A Deer A Horse start? What provoked you to form a band?

ADAH: Rebecca and Angela started playing music together in 2011 after we both graduated from Sarah Lawrence. At college, we both thought the other was an asshole, but we re-met after graduation through a mutual friend and discovered that we were in fact kindred assholes! We played around NYC with various drummers for a few years until finally settling on our Dylan, after we all left a different five-piece band we were playing with. 

HJ: Who are your biggest influences?

ADAH: We have a hilarious and surprising track record of hating each other’s biggest influences, but we have a lot of crossover with bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Black Sabbath, Alice in Chains, X, David Bowie, The Beatles, Earth Wind and Fire, Fugazi, and most importantly Michael McDonald.

HJ: What in your life inspires your music?

ADAH: Anger, disappointment, uncertainty, snacks, and lots o' pent up energy. Also Robert Goulet.

HJ: What is your favorite song to play at gigs and why?

ADAH: Usually it’s whatever tune is the newest. Most recently it’s been “Once or Twice".  We like to think we're improving upon ourselves with each new song, so new songs represent a challenge for us to overcome.

HJ:What is your favorite song that you’ve recorded and why?

ADAH: We just had a blast recording four new demos with our buddies over at Spaceman Sound. Tom and Alex from Spaceman really know how to treat a band right.  

HJ: What's next for your band? Any news you’d like to share?

ADAH: We are in the process of writing and demoing songs that will end up on an upcoming full length. We have a host of little weekend jaunts to various northeast cities planned, the next one being June 23 in Philly at Tralfamadore.  In terms of NYC shows, we are playing Aviv on June 26 with Slothrust and Mal Blum, Berlin on June 30 with the Bones of J.R. Jones, and July 16 at Le Poisson Rouge with The Veldt and American Anymen.  We also have a pending trip to Maui to shoot our much anticipated 2017 swimsuit calendar.

Listen to the song that got me into their music here, and keep an ear out for the new stuff to come!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Seasonal Beast at Knitting Factory, Interview with Yuval Semo and Yula Beeri

Yula Beeri and Yuval Semo

As soon as I walk into the performance space at the Knitting Factory on Monday evening, I sense that this show is somehow different. Maybe it’s the familial energy of the crowd, the sheer volume of people, or the fact that folks are actually dancing. Shahar Mintz closes his set and the musicians of Seasonal Beast begin bringing their gear onstage. They tune their guitars and violins, put up their keyboards and test their microphones. The lights go quiet blue and drown the audience in somber luminescence. An astral chord fills the space and plunges the psyche into a wormhole. The swallowing sound builds to a Floydian aesthetic and the pitch climbs like a fever until the first chilling words leave Yula Beeri’s mouth: “I can make you disappear.” Each instrument rings multidimensional, creating a singularity of sound with infinite refractions. Their collective sincerity is a window through which the audience can see the passion at the center and is left with no choice but to engage with their creation. Beeri takes us to the darkness with a high pitched wail that contains multitudes of depth. And once we’re locked in their world, the sound shrinks to a music box. “No One” starts with a carnival waltz beat that supports a rotating Ferris wheel keyboard progression and swooning trapeze vocals. A lullaby guitar slides in at the bridge, sweeping the song to another plateau of intensity as the single lyric repeats, a mantra bringing us further into their vision. “Playing in the Dark” highlights a violin that sounds like a dance with the Reaper until it transforms into sexually charged anger. “Another Day” opens with a military style drum and laser sound effects that build and build until- BOOM! A wall-of-noise guitar tears your skull apart. Hands tangled in her mane, Beeri becomes the wilderness mid-shriek and carries her voice to the sky. The whole affair is a hurricane of psychedelic rock that injects itself into your blood. Bandleader, songwriter, and keyboardist Yuval Semo takes over on vocals for “Heading to a Wall,” his stony, jagged voice heavy with truth. The three part harmony between himself, Beeri, and backup vocalist and keyboardist, Chen Prat, is almost alien in tone, a strange and fascinating effect. Languid, sweetened riffs float from the guitar, drifting atop featherlight drumbeats. The song gets thicker, more winding and layered as it goes on, unraveling at the end like a tapestry. “Ungovernable” is a new number that soars and takes you to its dreamcloud heights. Accented with a digital confetti keyboard movement that tickles the senses, it feels like an ode to freedom. 

Chen Prat and Yula Beeri

Noa Lembersky takes over the microphone for “Acapulco,” a funky dance tune that gets everyone moving like it’s 1999 when people still danced at shows. Her gritty blues tone shakes the air and a sea of lights on the ceiling make the disco balls glitter even brighter. How could anyone stand still? For the set closer, “Dry Bones,” Beeri sits on the edge of the stage, an intimate and deliberate theatrical decision. Drizzling piano gives way to sorrowful strings: a rainy portrait of rejection dipped in the watercolor pastels of Polaroid memory. The sensitively played piano gives the song a rich remorse, and and Beeri’s haunting voice strips my own heart bare. 

These guys are good. Really good.

Yuval Semo and Yula Beeri met with me for interviews the following Thursday so we could talk about how they create such awesome music.

Yuval Semo

Yuval Semo was born and raised in Israel and only had piano lessons from ages six to ten, being self-taught from there. He remembers listening to the Beatles as a child, and he tells me about finding his father’s treasure trove of classic rock records, although he can’t recall his parents ever listening to much music. Semo originally wanted to compose scores for films and he came to the United States to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, eventually landing in New York City after graduating. About two and a half years ago, an issue with his visa left him unable to work for a few months, so he finally had time to throw himself into his own compositions. Already friends with Yula Beeri, he asked if she would want to perform some songs they had already recorded. He drafted some other musicians and they booked a show. The Beast was born.

“The most important thing is the connection with Yula,” he says, when asked about the band’s origins. “The problem is that I don’t sing…it’s a very limiting effect. It slowed me down for many years…To write a song that you care about, and then to have someone else sing it, not everybody can do it…My dream is to have someone’s voice as an instrument, that I can control perfectly. But it’s impossible. With Yula, she is the only person…[who] just understands exactly what I want and how I like it and what I’m hearing, and she hears something similar, and she’s able to adapt herself to me…I’m already thinking about her when I write songs. We have an understanding by this time. When we started to make music together, usually I was doing ten takes, or eighteen. With her, two takes and we got it. It was so immediate…It’s like she’s my alter-ego. She can speak my words and my music.”

Chen Prat

I ask Semo what inspires him to make music. He laughs a little and replies, “Unfortunately, I’m not a very prolific writer. I wish I could wake up and write songs all the time…I think that ever since we started playing live, the musicians that I’m playing with have inspired me because I’m thinking about their abilities and what they can do, and what they like to do and what they tend to do. So I think my writing has changed a little bit since we started. About half the set you saw were songs I wrote after we started playing live. I think my mind is already writing for them…I’m inspired by music a lot, but not necessarily music that I like or love, or know very well…I get ideas from things I hear, sounds…it’s very random…Sometimes I think, what were the circumstances that led me to write this song two years ago? I want to recreate those circumstances, but it’s impossible… Most of the time [inspiration] doesn’t come until I’m nowhere near my piano.”

So how does he go about writing these incredible songs? “I try to craft the song just with the piano, or the guitar sometimes, just to write with an instrument that is not [my] primary instrument, then I will record it… some kind of guide, me playing and singing. Then I experiment with it, and I work on the song for sometimes weeks, months. Whenever I have time, whenever I want to get back to it. So basically I do everything myself, then typically I will get to the point where I cannot listen to my own voice anymore. The lyrics usually come at the end. Usually I just blubber some gibberish or come up with improvised words. Then I start to work with it, and those words start to make sense to me after a while. It’s kind of like my subconscious is talking.”

The spectacle aspect of a live show is also very important to the band. They try to get a lighting designer on board whenever possible. “It’s a show, not a listening party,” he says, “It has to be visually stimulating.” 

Vocalist Yula Beeri is also Israeli, and is completely self-taught. She describes herself as having been “musical all her life.” Born to a theatrical family, her father was a director and her mother was an actress. When asked what she listened to growing up, she smiles. “Klaus Nomi, a lot. Kate Bush, a lot. Sting, The Police, a lot. Rachmaninoff, a lot. So, [I’m] definitely not very well-versed in popular culture. So all the odd, odd, odder things. The weirder stuff is what I tend to attract.” 

Desiring change, she left Israel for New York about ten years ago and has found herself involved in all sorts of musical projects here. “I was a very shy person. I found this hilarious, fantastic group of people called the World Inferno Friendship Society, and I joined that band [as] a bass player, and I toured with them all over the place and wrote music for them until I found some musicians to start working [with] on other interesting, fun things, such as [Yula and] the Extended Family, which is sort of my music with all these people I’ve met over the years, and Kiss Slash Crooked Smile, which is another project, and Hydra, which is a vocal trio, like Bulgarian and a cappella music. And our latest folly is Rags Etc., which is a fashion show incorporating everything together…clothing, music, theatrics, a lot of fun.”

Beeri gives me a tour of The Hive, which is the performance space run by her nonprofit organization, The Hive NYC, where Seasonal Beast and other local bands as well as small theatre troupes and local designers can show their work. The Extended Family desperately wanted a space of their own to safely experiment and host artistic projects of all kinds. A refurbished garage transformed into a black box style venue that can easily shift from theater to concert hall to catwalk with a few moves of the flats and platforms, it is endowed with the good, accepting energy of any theatre classroom. Here, you are free to create.

I ask her what inspires her vocal performance. “Connectivity,” she says instantly. “Just being connected. If I am able to be connected, in that place and be relaxed and comfortable, that’s the biggest inspiration, I think.” And what does she feel when she connects with Yuval Semo onstage? “Drama. It’s theatre. I think there are so many great bands and musicians, and we’re lucky enough to live in a time where everything is bubbling so much. But I often lack that something that makes something very unique, and I think that’s those connections. Those moments that just grab you. And it’s drama. It’s not just music. It’s something that happens now.”

I’m hoping to see this band again when they play Mercury Lounge on June 7th, and I’m excited about the new live video they’ll be dropping in a few days as well as the EP to be released in the fall. Watch the video that got me hooked on their music below and get your ass to Mercury Lounge for the next show!

All photos by Dana Melaver

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

RVBY MY DEAR at Knitting Factory, Interview with Songwriter/Vocalist Gabbi Coenen

Press photo by Luis Ruiz, courtesy of the band

The crowd at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory on Monday night appears to be mostly musicians in the avant-rock/artpop community, and they all seem to know each other on some level. The band I’m here to see tonight is RVBY MY DEAR, an alternative band that I would put on playlists with CocoRosie and Imogen Heap. The project of singer and keyboardist, Gabbi Coenen, RVBY is a group of New School alumni who originally trained to be jazz musicians. Tonight is the release show for their EP, Unravel. They take the stage following Eda Wolf, a perfect transition from one ambient rock act to the next.

RVBY MY DEAR opens with “10:17,” a number that moves from scintillating keys to rock thick with layers of bass at the nucleus of the sound, a sturdy vehicle for Coenen’s delicate, dreamy vocals. Repetitive lyrics break apart and snap together with the cadence of a Gertrude Stein poem, tempered with a Priscilla Ahn attitude. The second number, “Animal,” features enigmatic drumming that changes pattern swiftly and frequently. There is a youthful quality to Coenen’s voice, a tone that is soft with peaceful longing. She slides up and down melodic hills in “Hidden Threads” with a refracted clarity that teases you into melting into the soundscape, complemented by a piano that moves from major to minor with the ease of improvised dialogue in a film. The song blooms and builds like a hallucination, intensifying and shifting with a suitable pace before gliding back to a gently rippling finish. They slide into “Flourisher,” a punchy pop rock piece that allows guitarist Oscar Rodriguez a little more spotlight with several simple yet potent riffs that sound rather in the classical vein. Set closer “Balloons” finds Coenen’s voice in a wild, bluesy territory that falls nearer to her jazz roots than the other material. There is an evident formula to this music, and a well-crafted one: organically create graceful fervency by growing the sound with mathematical exactitude, then shrink it down to atomic size while maintaining the tension only to blow it up like a star before letting the song quickly dissipate, leaving the listener wanting more.

Gabbi Coenen reached out to Hydrogen Jukebox a few days before the show to tell me about it, and I immediately became excited about this deeply emotive ensemble. The day after the show, we meet at a coffee shop in Williamsburg to talk about RVBY MY DEAR. She tells me that following nearly a lifetime of piano lessons thanks to a supportive and encouraging mother, she found herself finishing a music degree and simultaneously discovering a fondness for composition. While many similar artists pursue solo endeavors, she prefers the balance that comes with a group. “I wanted an outlet for my own music and I liked the idea of having a band…I like having a group of people that I can play with and workshop ideas with.”

Their audio-collage style of blending the euphonic and the distorted, the found sound with the carefully played instrument, is what I find so attractive, and I ask about the writing process. “I write everything on piano…I usually start with music, just chords or a whole song that doesn’t have any lyrics or melodies. I write words separately. I keep books of poetry, ideas jotted down. At some point I try and combine the two. Find some words that fit this music that I’ve written. I’m very inspired by film scores, so when I’m writing the music I keep picturing things and sometimes that informs the lyrics and other times it’s more of a challenge to find words that fit…Usually I’ll write keyboard parts as well and have an idea for the beat in my head…Once that’s done I bring it to the band, and Oscar usually will write his own parts…Darren, the keyboard player, will take what I’ve written for him and add to it…So it is collaborative in the arranging process, but the songs themselves are all what I’ve done.” She cites artists such as Massive Attack, Portishead, James Blake, and Daughter as influences, as well as jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. 

As far as where she gets inspiration for her brief and poetic lyrics, she has one literary touchstone. “There’s this book called The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, that I love, I read that in high school, and just the way that she writes is so interesting. She has this childlike way of putting words together, but the thematic content is very mature.”

Press photo by Paul Benjamin, courtesy of the band

One of the more unique aspects of RVBY’s formation is that there are two keyboard players. Darren Denman plays a large keyboard that appears to be 3-in-1 while Coenen plays a Casio. I ask if there is a separation of parts similar to having a lead guitarist and a rhythm guitarist. She tells me it changes depending on the piece, and how the idea of having two keyboardists began. “I was just singing at the very beginning, but the song ‘Dirt,’…I bought a Casio off eBay…And I wrote ‘Dirt’ on that, and I brought it into rehearsal and I was like, “Darren, you can do this,” and the guys were like, no, you should actually play that on the Casio…It varies song to song, the part that I’m playing. With ‘Dirt,’ that’s sort of the integral part of the song…But with another song, like “Animal,” that stuff is more textural, not super integral, it just adds extra color.”

Booking a show at the Knitting Factory is no small deal, and with several EPs and two videos under their belt, RVBY MY DEAR seems to be gaining traction. I ask what she finds the most challenging part of being a New York-based musician. “Everything,” she laughs. “There’s two parts of it. The logistics of having a band is challenging: trying to find space to play, space to rehearse, time to create. It’s tough. Living here is great because there’s so much going on, but it’s also bad because there’s so much going on. So how do you find where you fit in all that noise?…I think a show like last night’s is a good example of bands who maybe wouldn’t fit on many other bills in Brooklyn all coming together and doing our own thing. I think the upside of being here is you can find your niche.”

Finally, what does Coenan hope listeners find in Unravel? “I’ve always wanted the music to be accessible but still interesting, and I think the cool thing about the new EP is we got a little more intensive with the production…I wanted this really visceral, spilling-your-guts-on-the-floor kind of sound…I guess the songs are pretty personal and have a lot of feelings in them, so I just hope that people find something to connect with.”

Press photo by Paul Benjamin, courtesy of the band

Unravel will be available this week on BandCamp, SoundCloud and via their website. Below is the video for “Dirt,” a whimsical marriage of sound and color that will stir chilly nostalgia in any viewer. I can’t wait to see what this band produces next.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Cold Blood Club- Your Summer Dance Anthem Rock Band

Press photo by David Burlacu, courtesy of the band

Black Bear Bar is one of the remaining highlights in a Williamsburg so quickly changing it makes my head spin. Fans of electronic music should definitely check out this venue since it hosts DJs often, although the band I’m seeing tonight doesn’t fall under that genre. Rustic, unassuming, and yet decidedly hipster, the bar’s claim to fame is the halfpipe in front of the space, a memorial to the culture many of its patrons grew up with, when Tony Hawk was a household name and Tech Decks were the number one confiscated item in schools. 

The concert hall is in a separate room with a separate bar, and considering the drizzle and gray skies, the crowd of about fifteen is pretty decent. A hint of bad weather and half the city stays in and orders Seamless.

Cold Blood Club takes the stage at about 7:30. Bandleader Tom Stuart signals the start of the set with a riff on “The Star-Spangled Banner” reminiscent of Hendrix. The six members of this ensemble are illuminated in a rainbow of stagelight that complements their aural palette.

Cold Blood Club seems to feed on audience energy in the most direct way I’ve witnessed- perhaps because they are such a large group. When only a few people were scattered about the room, there was a hesitance to the performance, but as bar patrons trickle in and fill the venue, their warm spirit grows and takes on a life of its own, like a wildfire spreading. By the third song, they are the band you wish had played at your high school graduation party. Their music brims with a realistic optimism that concedes that maybe things won’t work out, but if you never taste and try everything, you’ll never know. Tom Stuart’s gunshot tenor and Kendra Jones’ defiant contralto pair perfectly for declarations of freedom and summer dance anthems, harmonies fortified by tambourine playing pixie Emily Iaquinta’s twinkling mezzo-soprano voice. Tom Cordell pounds bass drumbeats straight from the heart, putting the weight of his soul into the band’s explosive metronome. Even lighter snare and cymbal beats are charged with approaching thunder, sending electricity like blood to all extremities of the music. Hilary Davis’ violin lends sweeping, dramatic phrases to a heavy rock sound: a sophisticated fluidity to frost a very garage rock arrangement. Their performance of “Goodbye to All That,” one of their most successful singles, is a memorable moment, a thrilling rush of IDGAF vibrations. A catchy guitar riff precedes a lyrical tour of New York, followed by a romantic violin interlude, creating a sonic love letter to the city, saturated with bright melancholy that rings too true. The whole band gets so physically invested in the song that it looks like a dance floor on the stage and some of that inclination makes its way to the audience, surprisingly. (Audiences in Williamsburg and Bushwick are usually stiff as sardines and can be a real drag for those of us who like to dance.)

Tom Stuart

I’ve been a fan of Cold Blood Club since seeing one of their shows several months ago, and I have two of their singles on my phone, perfect selections for stepping out the door at the start of the day. The ladies of the group happily obliged me with interviews so I can get a picture of how this band works. Emily Iaquinta met me at a Starbucks in Midtown to talk about CBC, and Kendra Jones and Hilary Davis made time in their busy schedules to answer questions via email.

Cold Blood Club began with Tom Stuart, Kendra Jones, and bassist Jesse Reno. Jones tells me about the start of the project: “The band started with an inside joke. I've been friends with Tom for almost ten years now, and when we first met he used to joke about throwing me on stage with him and his previous band Radio America. When he was no longer in that band, he kept teasing me but one day he said in earnest: ‘Seriously, what would you want to sing about?’ I gave him a random list because I was still kind of joking (and terrified). A few weeks later, he emailed me some demos and things started snowballing from there. The rest is just us calling on our friends to come together and make it happen.” Hilary Davis joined at the same time as the band’s first drummer, and Emily Iaquinta found herself the newest member after being cast in their video for “Michelada.” The lineup has changed a few times, but Tom Stuart’s consistent direction has assured the solidity of the band’s sound, which Iaquinta describes perfectly: “It’s like the Kills threw a house party and LCD Soundsystem was the DJ, Andrew Bird was playing flip cup, Karen O was breaking up with her boyfriend on her cellphone and you just throw a fistful of glitter in there, and that’s Cold Blood Club. It’s very high energy, synth-y rock and roll with repetitive beats, but more challenging lyrics.” Davis recalls another writer’s description: “A write-up from a Detroit journalist once called us ‘a dance party at the end of the world,’ which I love because although the songs are catchy and we love to dance onstage, there's a darkness lurking behind them.”

What fascinates me about Cold Blood Club is how they seem to be so much more than just a large rock ensemble; they have a familial appearance more visible than other groups of their size. What are the dynamics like? “It can be chaos, but in a good way,” says Jones. “One thing Tom ALWAYS does, whenever opinions turn into disagreements, or social fatigue sets in, is to remind us that we're in this because we all love making music. So I guess he's the team leader, he keeps us motivated and inspired and writes all the songs. I'm kind of the mediator, I like to be a mama and try to make sure everyone is doing well physically, emotionally, creatively, etc. Hilary is our task master- she keeps us on our toes, acting like professionals, and working hard to get shit done.” Davis points out the pros and cons of the group’s size: “I always describe my band as a family. Sometimes we get on each other's nerves, but we're stuck with each other so we make it work. The benefit of the large head count (6-7 people) is that you always have someone to help out - loading in gear, promoting the shows, etc. The biggest drawback is just communicating about scheduling - we use Google Hangouts, texts, emails, carrier pigeons & smoke signals to confirm a show quickly.” Davis also says the group’s size and diversity might be its biggest asset. “When you combine 7 people from different parts of the country, with different musical backgrounds, you're bound to get something interesting!”

Press photo by David Burlacu, courtesy of the band

Cold Blood Club would not be possible without the passion and vision of vocalist and guitarist Tom Stuart. Iaquinta comments on his composition skills. “Tom is one of the best songwriters I know. He is constantly bringing in new music to rehearsal. I can just tell how much he loves music and how much it means to him.” 

After a few popular singles and a superb video for “Michelada,” Cold Blood Club is hard at work putting together an album to be called Tear Down the Maps. They are very tight-lipped about the project, but Jones says “it will feature everything you hear live, plus bonus glory.”

With the seemingly infinite number of artists in NYC, it can sometimes be difficult to hear what separates one great act from another. I ask the three musicians what they hope listeners find in their songs. Davis says she hopes audiences get a sense of what it’s like to live in New York. Jones says she hopes they fucking DANCE. Iaquinta shares an early memory of listening to CBC before joining the lineup. “The song ‘Goodbye to All That’ made me excited to be going anywhere. Anytime I would hear that song, if I’m on the subway or walking, it’s got that beat that’s just like, ‘I’m young and free and can do whatever I want to do.’ When something puts that feeling in you, that good electricity, it sticks with you…I hope that our music can be someone else’s electricity.”

Cold Blood Club's music is available on iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud, and their website.  Below is the video for "Michelada" that got me excited about this band. Watch it here, then download the song!

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Rocket Queens: A Tribute to Guns N' Roses, Chat with Lead Guitarist Lily Maase

Magdalena Baldych centerstage with Lily Maase jamming right behind her. Photo by Dana Melaver.

From the first echoing vibrations of that unmistakable intro, the Rocket Queens have the house hooked. Singer Magdalena Baldych slinks around the stage like a cat, growling like a tiger, welcoming us to the jungle and to the best damn Guns N’ Roses reunion party you could ask for. Arlene’s Grocery is packed with devout rockers decked out in their most hardcore finery to celebrate the reconciliation we thought we’d never see. And if you can’t see the real thing, the Rocket Queens are certainly a worthy substitute. Tonight they are playing Guns N’ Roses 1987 debut album, Appetite for Destruction, from start to finish, the longest set I’ve ever seen from a local band. 

Baldych, with the iconic red bandana haloing her hair, mirrored aviators over her eyes, and charisma like kerosene takes on her role as Axl Rose wholeheartedly as she snakes around the platform belting furiously. Lily Maase, founder of the Queens, appears possessed by Slash himself, with ginger curls falling around her shoulders as looks skyward and shreds a solo in “Nightrain,” seeming to barely touch the strings of her guitar while unleashing a hurricane of sound into the blue light. Marron Chaplin is the Izzy of the lineup, fingers flying through demanding rhythm guitar parts played with hypnotic precision. She tumbles down the scale with focused fire in their scorching rendition of “Welcome to the Jungle,” where rhythm guitar is the backbone of the song. Joan Chew works intuitively in the shadows to lay basslines frenetic with sexual tension in every song, one of the most important elements of GnR’s trademark sound. Co-founder Nikki D’Agostino’s keys and supplementary percussion are hidden beneath the layers of sound for most of the show, but stand out during special moments, such as the haunting and elegant intro to “My Michelle.” The only male in the group, drummer Don Berger, is a throbbing heartbeat pulsing renewed animosity into the music throughout the show with incredulous tirelessness. His thunderous intro to “Paradise City,” one of the most outstanding moments from the night, sends a wave of hands into the air, full on church of rock’n’roll style, and the second everyone starts singing together it feels like holy ritual. Maase’s solo in this number is so fluid and rapid and note-for-note true to Slash’s original work that it blows my mind. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is another killer moment in the set, with all strings onstage white hot as Baldych stalks the audience, asking “Where do we go now?” with swooping shoulders and a sultry rasp in her voice. A nuclear chemistry and telepathic synchronicity between all members give the lineup an authentic feel and plenty of opportunity for stage antics, such as Baldych miming fellatio on Maase during Appetite’s grand finale, “Rocket Queen,” following Maase’s epic eight-minute long solo. Their energy is incendiary and I’m not the only one who dances for, literally, the whole show. When I sum up the stellar musicianship, captivating showmanship, fan-pleasing setlist, the intimate charm of Arlene’s Grocery, and the audience’s earnest excitement, this adds up to one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. Zero exaggeration.

Photo by Dana Melaver

Having interviewed Marron Chaplin a few months back for her band, Dead Rocking Horse, I already had a connection to one of the Rocket Queens. Chaplin introduced me to Lily Maase, who invited me to their rehearsal the following Wednesday. Eager to see what makes this band work, I set out for their rehearsal space in Williamsburg armed with questions. But over the course of a conversation with Maase, she answers most of them without being prompted.

I start by telling Maase how watching the Rocket Queens reminded me how complex and carefully composed Guns N’ Roses music really is. There’s a lot going on under that glitzy sheen of fun and debauchery. She laughs and agrees that most people don’t consider the difficulty level of the material, even some of the most hardcore fans. “Everyone that comes into this band- every single person that’s come into this band- has come in with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of confidence and fallen smack on their butt within 30 minutes.” The band’s reputation for being party animals often overshadowed their musical abilities, similar to what Led Zeppelin experienced in the late 60s. Guns N’ Roses faced a lot of flack following the band’s dramatic unravelling in the early 90s, but the masterful conception of their early work cannot be ignored, especially if one is an observant listener. “There’s synthesizer all over Appetite for Destruction. You don’t think about it, but it’s there…There’s congas all over “Mr. Brownstone” …All these little things you don’t think of if you learn the music off of tabs from ‘Guitar Player,’” Maase points out.

Lily Maase, rocking that axe like a star. Photo by Dana Melaver.

Besides putting out hard-hitting records, Guns N’ Roses has always been known for putting on wicked shows. But even the apparent anarchy onstage happens with the goal of creating the best possible sound. Maase dissects Slash’s reasoning behind the theatrics. “If you look at Slash closely, a lot of the stuff that looks like antics from his perspective are actually facilitating him pulling off some of these things. A big one would be in ‘Don’t Cry.’ At the end of the solo, he does this big bend and he lifts the guitar, and lifting the guitar is actually what makes it possible for him to keep the bend in tune for that long…So a lot of his movements, the way he tilts the guitar, when he has his leg up on the monitor, it’s all about making certain things that are hard on the instrument easier…And it’s a show. Gotta move around.”

So Guns N’ Roses is a well-balanced musical breakfast of thoughtful composition and mythological decadence. But so are Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Nirvana. Why start a GnR tribute band? For Maase, it came down to inspiration from childhood. “I wanted to kind of honor the seven-year old girl who picked up the instrument for the first time, who just had this really pure interest in the guitar, which was just, ROCK AND ROLL!”

She was also unimpressed by other tribute bands in the scene. “I saw a couple other Guns N’ Roses tributes and was horrified by the guitar playing…I was really disappointed by the emphasis on the party part, and a couple of female tributes where the emphasis was on how sexy the girls were, and the sexiness of the girls made it okay for them to not play the guitar parts that well, which is this weird double standard where people think that women can’t play, but if they look really hot, they tell them that they’re great, and then they never get better at music.” Maase and the other ladies in the band certainly defy the stereotype that women are lesser musicians as well as the misconception that Guns N’ Roses’ catalog is easy. To be in this ensemble, you need to be a professional in skill and attitude. Solo male bandmate, drummer Don Berger appreciates the dedication to a professional approach. “If it was really about the attitude, the scene and the party, we would just be that bar band that kind of plays the progression to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ and kind of flubs through the lead parts, and it’s just a big goofy party. But it’s way more personal and way more interesting to play this stuff at tempo, add the dynamics, all the fine-tuned details, the stuff with Nikki [D’Agostino], and when that all happens with the lineup onstage, it’s like you’re in the freakin’ band! You’re there! You’re there back in ’85 or whatever. It’s really cool. It’s like, I can’t be in that band, but this is the next best thing.”

Photo by Dana Melaver

So what does Maase look for in potential Rocket Queens members? “I would say the three things that are the most important for me are teachability, work ethic, and availability…I’m a teacher by trade… I have a way that I go about problem solving and running bands and I’ve spent a lot of time with this music, growing the music from when it was not as polished as it is now, and sort of looking at footage of us and going, ‘Okay, why does this not sound like Guns N’ Roses?’  And sort of coming up with a formula, or an understanding of how the music works, the different roles the instruments play. A lot of it has to do with the placement on the beats of where the instruments are, like Izzy’s a little bit ahead, Slash is a little bit behind, Axl’s really rhythmic, so…the most important thing is having someone come into the band that’s able to learn… the nuts and bolts that make the music work, and [is] willing to work with a musical director, which is basically what I am, kind of like it’s a theatre show or something…And the music is hard, and it’s a hard show. And we’re still adding new music all the time, so you have to have the work ethic to want to play this stuff at a high level.”

The current lineup is definitely a well-oiled machine and I wonder how often they get together to practice. “Rehearsals are really thoughtful and focused,” Maase starts. “In a perfect world [we would rehearse] once a week… This lineup really likes to rehearse. Other lineups have said, well, I know all the parts so I don’t see why I should have to be there. But knowing the parts is just a little bit of making the music. It’s that familiarity and fluidity and the subtlety.”

Marron Chaplin on rhythm guitar. Photo by Dana Melaver.

Tonight I get to observe part of the process that made such a brilliant show the week before. Only Maase, Berger, and Chaplin are playing tonight, helping to break in newcomer and fill-in vocalist, Kate Buenaflor, who will be singing with the Rocket Queens for several upcoming gigs. Following a run of “Dust N’ Bones,” Maase gives notes to all players and they pick up again somewhere near the end of the song. With each of Maase’s tweaks, all subsequent attempts on the outro are tighter than the last. No note is too minute to be discarded: tempo, timing and tone are all addressed before the moving on. “For me, the joy in the band is from crushing it, not from cutting corners or playing dress-up. It’s like, let’s get up and enjoy this music that inspired me to start playing the guitar when I was seven, eight years old,” says Maase.

Watching this stripped down rendition of “My Michelle” allows me to hear the bonded relationship between lead guitar and rhythm guitar, where the weight of Izzy’s part sounds like an earthquake and Slash’s part, the sonic waves that follow, soaring above the ground. The absence of bass in this song is particularly apparent; that missing layer of deep cushion between the drums and guitar makes me realize how essential every small element is to an outcome like the kickass show I saw last week.

Photo by Dana Melaver

I ask if Guns N’ Roses’ reunion has been good for the Rocket Queens. Maase says that it’s definitely led to more show bookings, and better ones. “I can’t believe how excited people are to hear us play!… We’re getting more offers for shows, and they’ve been better shows, and it’s partly because people are really stoked about GNR, and partly because this lineup right now is killing it. The band does have a reputation regionally [for] getting the job done. The reunion is definitely a lot of why we’re so busy right now.”

The band has a lot of work to do to prepare for the next few weeks of shows, so I should probably let them focus (after I hear Mama Kin, of course), but I’ve saved my most obvious inquiry for last: What does Guns N’ Roses mean to them?

For Chaplin, it’s about their message of being true to oneself, no matter what. “It’s that teenage dream of doing whatever the fuck you want…Guns N’ Roses, they were real musicians and they brought back Stones/Zeppelin style rock and roll when everyone wanted to be Eddie Van Halen…they starved and they were horrible people and did whatever they had to do to survive, and they just completely forsook everything the world tells you you’re supposed to do in order to live a well-structured life and have security and comfort, and they just played music they loved and believed in. And that’s always gonna be an inspiration.”

For Berger, they were a compass. “I remember getting their CD and thinking, ‘I just wanna do this for the rest of my life.’”

For Maase, they are a reminder that you can always improve upon your craft. “Slash has always been a thinking guitarist…he’s portrayed in so many ways as just being this stoned guy that was too fucked up to play half the time and…if you really dig into his playing, he played shit when he was eighteen, nineteen years old that people are still trying to figure out, and that’s where he started as a player and he kept getting better…He’s still getting better! And if that guy is bothering to get with the instrument on a daily basis and get to another level, then why [are] any of us above working like that?”

Marron Chaplin and Magdalena Baldych. Photo by Dana Melaver.

Talking to Maase and watching this band work has been an inspiration to me, as it would be to anyone who has ever wanted to excel at a skill. Their teamwork, discipline and enduring love for what they do is only starting to pay off and I’m stoked to see what’s in store for the Rocket Queens. You can check out their calendar here, and if you can make a show, you should bust out your bandana and get rockin’!

Don Berger on drums in the back, Magdalena Baldych center, and Joan Chew on bass to the right. Photo by Dana Melaver.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

"Scary Love Monster," a breathtaking EP by Leila Adu

Brooklyn-based New Zealander Leila Adu released her EP Scary Love Monster last week, and while I was sorry to miss her record release show at Cake Shop, I still wanted to take the opportunity to write about her music since I was immediately struck by its originality and beauty. 

A veteran composer in a variety of musical styles, Leila Adu takes timeless songwriting formulas on voyages to the terra incognita of pop. The palette of sound used here is rich and colorful, and the substance is leagues deep. This is pop that you can dive into and find yourself aesthetically and lyrically nourished. Opening with the titular track, Adu’s voice spirals up and down the scale giving melodic life to the feeling of falling down a rabbit hole of romance. She sings declarations of hard-won self-discovery, depicting an acceptance of contradictory desires. The piece travels to different landscapes, tinged with a Middle Eastern flair on the bridge and a dreamy twinkle in the atmospheric accompaniment. The repeated line, “Is there anything scarier than opening up to someone?” plays in my head long after the song ends.

“Oriental Finger Trap” is a carefully choreographed number where in the chorus, she seems bored with her predicament, literally stuck between four notes. The verses take a theatrical turn when a circus like waltz supports her fluttering voice, contrasting the ennui so much as to nearly erase it. Her soft, jazzy lilt in the last verse of the song showcases a warm, plush tone, stylistically reminiscent of 40s singers such as Judy Garland.

“Nefertiti’s Waking Dream” is where the album starts to change hues. Another New York-based band, Half Waif, coined the term ‘mood ring pop’ for their music, and a similar idea applies here. Songs shift mood subtly and guide the listener on a psychic journey. In the third track, haunting and strange patterns step up and down the scale with balletic precision. The chorus has a zombielike rhythm that gives strength to the lyrical imagery, which is particularly vibrant and frank, almost like a Modern poem.

“The Bluest Eye” is an intimate and hypnotic dream pop lullaby. It gives the sensation of being inside a music box, listening to the opera of the artist’s dream. Within the context of the album, this number is the tunnel that takes the listener from the easily accessible first numbers to the far more experimental final numbers. 

“Bluebeards and Monsters,” the surprising choice for a single from this EP, appears to be the culmination of the theme of entrapment so central to the album, describing being caught in the clutches of “two Bluebeards” and soliciting advice on how to survive. Opening with urgent chanting and enthusiastic percussion, the song is soon frosted with futuristic electronic effects that eventually overtake the shaken instruments, contrasting both ends of the chronological musical spectrum. It commences with the first methods humans used to create song and finishes with the ambiance of the digital age.

The finale, “Nothing’s Going Wrong” opens with deep, fibrous orchestrations that override Adu’s pure, oceanic voice. This song is the aural equivalent of the feeling of drowning; the depression and grief in the instruments sets unsettling juxtaposition against the optimistic vocal melody. In spite of the blue nature of the song, it is a declaration of triumph. The artist has been besieged by monsters of all kinds, but she will move forward. Despite what you perceive, nothing’s going wrong. 

Scary Love Monster evolves from heartfelt pop to intellectual anguish in a matter of minutes and it feels 100 percent authentic. Growing steadily more stripped down and open as it progresses, it moves like a conversation with a new lover, beginning with shimmering musings about romance and traveling to dark memories and a reassurance of her own indomitable personal grit. The motif of imprisonment and the theme of fear are present and noticeable to the observant listener and make repeat plays of the album more meaningful. This EP is a brief work of elusive beauty that develops psychologically and musically. I have listened to it countless times now and I continue to discover new insight in each song and in the Ĺ“uvre as a whole. I’m hoping to catch Leila Adu next time she plays in NYC, because if her live performance is as stunning as her recorded work, then I’m a fan for life.

Scary Love Monster is available for purchase on iTunes. Listen to the title track here!