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Vow of Volition Make the Final Round of the Battle for Warped Tour

The Vans Warped Tour was the first festival for many of us back in the day. As young'ns, it's likely we didn't necessarily think about all that went into figuring out the bands to book and play the whole shebang. Part of that process, at least locally, seems to be through a series "battle of the bands" style competitions specifically for landing a spot on the fest. Quite a few Portland bands have been furiously playing against one another for said spot, and djent/prog metal act Vow of Volition are one of the acts that made it to the finals.

Warped Tour was always the type of festival that included much in the realm of pop punk, punk punk, emo and metal, so Vow of Volition's advancement to the final round is no surprise. Their incredibly technical, at times jazzy metal stands out in Portland's pretty linear popular music scene, and is much worthy of the attention its getting.

Those that want to support Vow of Volition in driving home the permanent spot can go to the Battle for Warped Tour finals Saturday at the Hawthorne Theatre.

   

Jamythyst asserts control on "Pastel Colors"

“Pastel Colors” is the name of a single released this past weekend by self-described “90s girl” Jamythyst, self-described creator of “DIY electromotional pop jams,” and it’s an interesting choice of title because this ‘90s girl is clearly drawn to day-glo tones and darker hues elsewhere—both visually and musically—just as the Nineties itself is known for its fluorescent pop and abrasively dark rock and goth and hip hop. (Mariah meet Metallica! Hanson say howdy to Hole! N*SYNC nuzzle up to NWA! Etc. Etc.) And while Jamythyst’s music falls squarely under the pop column, tracks like “Witches in the Woods,” “Scary Movies,” and “Masochist” show that she’s also into exploring her darker side. 

So where do pastels fit into this color scheme? When placed next to electro-bangerz like “Flip Me Over’ and “Melt My Face” with their cheeky entreaties to “be your hourglass / if you flip me over” or to “drop the needle, drop the bass / rock my world, melt my face,” “Pastel Colors” is indeed more subdued, something like a mid-80s Howard Jones joint with its mix of airy synths, percolating sequencers, and reflective lyrics.
 
 
Lyrically, the pastel colors in question seem to imply both a childlike sense of wonder (“carousel in the middle of the city / gets me every time the colors go by”) and a spellbinding sense of risk (“I can’t help myself / I jump off the carousel every time / getting dizzy on the pastel colors”) as represented by the faded fiberglass horses of a mesmerizing merry-go-round going around and around in circles (just like the swirling echo effect at the end of each vocal line) or as Jamythyst puts it “it’s an electro-pop bop about being a commitment-phobe who just wants to have fun” which is perhaps another kind of going in circles. 

So we’re talking about losing control and re-asserting control here, being lured by the pastel blur of the carousel but then jumping off when things get too intense. And if this song is in fact at least implicitly about control issues (stick with me here!) then it’s obviously also an homage to Janet’s Jackson’s “Control” because that particular song from 1986 (and the whole Control album!) was a turning point in the history of dance pop, not to mention an assertion of artistic independence by Ms. Jackson (if you’re nasty!) and thus a precursor to artists like Jamythyst.


All of which makes me wonder if our featured artist’s stage name is in fact an homage to the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who helped shape Control and thus strongly impacted much of the dance pop, R&B, and rap that came in its wake (not to mention the whole “New Jack Swing” phenomenon) and certainly Jamythyst reflects all of this “control” both in spirit—as a self-contained singer, songwriter, and producer who makes bedroom dance pop—and in terms of sonics with her proclivity for jacked drum machines beats and phat synth-baselines and angular in-your-face sampling (with the caveat that other influences obviously come into play such as early Madonna, Sylvester, Robyn, Prince, and other single-monikered artistes.




And when we look at the bigger picture, isn’t so much of pop music (and dance pop in particular) fixated on control issues—whether control over one’s own bodily and sexual expression, control over one’s own artistic expression and public image, or control over fate itself in the aspirational pop of the Idol era, not to mention the inverse loss-of-control and sense of transcendence sought on the dance floor—which is probably one big reason why marginalized groups in society are so often at the forefront of pop music’s innovations.

 

Sadly, after an astounding ten-plus year run of hits, control was taken away from Janet Jackson when the reigning queen of self-assertive pop (and a highly LGBTQ+ friendly reigning queen at that) was essentially accused of being a witch and burned at the stake by a raging mob of pigskin fans (and gossip mongers who could care less about the Super Bowl) because they were briefly distracted from Tom Brady’s ass-hugging shiny pants due to the sudden and unwelcome split-second appearance of Janet Jackson’s nipple on national TV courtesy of a former Mouseketeer. Yet, the sound that Janet Jackson and Jam/Lewis continued to refine on albums like Rhythm Nation 1814 and The Velvet Rope has continued on, often in service of “straight” artists ranging from boy bands to gangsta rappers. And so, speaking of control, it’s reassuring to happen upon a local artist, and one who just started producing her own music during the pandemic at that, digging into the roots of dance pop and re-asserting control on behalf of femme- and queer-identifying artists past and present. (Jason Lee)

 

 

   

Nihiloceros forecasts end of world, release custom hot sauce and guitar pedals

You may recall a review posted in this space a few weeks ago about Nihiloceros’ third and final single “Dirty Homes” from their upcoming “concept EP” Self Destroy (Totally Real Records) or hey let’s be generous and call it a full-blown concept album because six songs is pretty much in-between an EP and an album and anyway it’s all revolves around an end-of-the-world scenario and that fact alone makes it monumental enough to deserve full album status, even if, as singer/lyricist/guitaristMike Borchardt describes it, it was never planned to be an actual concept album, but the through-line took shape organically as the album was worked over and re-worked again during lockdown which was very condusive to brainstorming dystopic concept album scenarios I imagine. 

Well, anyway, I hope you didn’t forget about Nihiloceros in the meantime (or Dre! never forget about Dre!) because the record just came out this weekend and obviously you need to clear 20 minutes from your schedule asap to give it a close listen. And hey just be thankful this is no Tales From Topographic Oceans or 2112 (RIP Neil Peart, yes we forgive you for the whole Ayn Rand thing and have the utmost respect for any sticks-man who owns a drum set with 23 roto-toms and then actually uses them all) because who has two spare hours to spare sitting inside on a nice weekend trying to figure out why the heck a cabal of malevolent Priests hanging out in the Temples of Syrinxs would choose to outlaw creativity and individuality or how they would enforce such drastic measures. 

And Nihiloceros realize this too because they’ve distilled the most powerful bits of those albums into a concentrated paste of rocking-your-face-off, and what’s more they don’t go all pretentious about it with a fold-out gatefold design that if you stare into it long enough the whole album suddenly “makes sense." Because instead the whole idea, according to Mr. Borchardt, is to “cut the legs out from under any grandiosity” by placing the listener into the brainpan of an average schlub facing down the apocalypse and over the course of six songs working through the five stages of grief (binge-watching The Wire, stress-eating, suddenly conrtrating hives and dropsy, more stress-eating, and just being generally unpleasant) so put away that bushel of ‘shrooms because you won’t need ‘em sorry to say.

Btw speaking of weekends and monumental things, Nihiloceros will host an album release party tonight (Sat. 9/18) at a mysterious location known as EWEL (probably an acronym for East Williamsburg Exploding Lo-Fi Inevitable but don’t quote me on that) with both Desert Sharks and Kissed By An Animal on the bill as well so hell yeah that’s gonna be an epic time.

AND THAT’S NOT ALL!! Because if you really wanna “self destroy” you’re advised to buy one of the album bundles that’ll soon be available (in the next week or two) because one of the bundles comes with an exclusive limited edition “Halfway Human” hot sauce mixed up especially for you in Mike’s bathtub which (the name says it all) which includes ingredients such as habanero peppers, grapefruit juice, Allspice™, chile de árbol (also known as bird’s beak chili and rat’s tail chile, yum!) and some secret ingredients just so you don’t try to sell the recipe to Taco Bell or somebody. A couple bottles will reportedly be available at the show tonight so...

And if the sauce is too strong for your weak-ass taste buds to handle (lay off the tofu why don't'cha!) you can always use the stuff to strip the paint off your father’s ’67 Ford Fairlane because it could use a new coat anyway and boy won’t he be surprised. Anyway it’s a highly appropriate name for a hot sauce because just listen to how the song it’s named for starts with a single anticipatory note then with a subtle little melodic bit sneaking in before exploding into a skull-stomping riff about 15 second and that’s what it’ll feel like when the heat hits about 15 seconds after you swallow the stuff.

Or, if you’re one of these guitar playing people, you can get the Self Destroy album bundled with a guitar pedal or three custom-designed by the band's bassist/backup singer Alex Hoffman who in his down-time works as a structural engineer in the “power industry” and I’m not sure how you get better credentials for being in a power trio than that. Each pedal is named after a song on the album (and used on that song natch) so if you had a notion to form a Nihiloceros tribute band well it's your lucky day because now you won’t need to mess around with about 100 pedals trying to get that perfect Nihiloceros tone nailing every subtle timbral variation on every song.

I had a little phone convo with Alex the other day and he walked me through the creative process of pedal-making which entails getting your hands on some blank circuit boards and wiring and other components, not to mention the enclosure topped off with primer, spray paint, clear coat enamel, and (wait for it) glitter so you can make the thing look cool enough to take on stage with you. And so yeah, while you were spending days trying to bake your own bread during the lockdown, then inevitably giving up and drinking a quart of gin instead, Alex was busy teaching himself the fine art of pedal-construction and designing three of t hem on his own which frankly makes up all look pretty shabby in comparison so thanks a log Alex (he insists, however, that anyone can pull off making pedals from scratch with the help of online tutorials and some pre-printed circuit boards with the help of small businesses like Small Bear Electronics catering to the budding stompbox enthusiast).  

The first one of these pedal is called “Dirty Homes” named after the first song on the album and it’s sort of a clone of the classic Small Clone pedal but with with an MN3007 chip with "a depth knob instead of a switch and an added vibrato/chorus toggle" because we all like nice things don't we. To hear what this pedal sounds like just check out the intro of “Dirty Homes” and focus on the underwater-sounding tremolo effect (BTW you know you’re dealing with a serious pedal-head band when you can’t tell at many points if you’re hearing a standard electric guitar or a bass guitar at any given time) which is a distinctive timbre heard on chart-topping songs by chart-topping bands of today/yesteryear like The Police, Crowded House, and Nirvana (see the video above for evidence).  

The other two custom pedals are heard on the following couple of songs: “iamananimal” (eponymous pedal) and “Mammal Science Fiction" (the Velvet Elvis) which is along the lines of an “Acapulco Gold [pedal] modded with an added gain control” and a “Nihiloceros version of a big muff with a mids switch and a diode bypass switch” respectively as described by Alex himself. And hey why not pour some “Halfway Human” sauce (next song on the album!) on those diodes because no telling what kinda crazy sonics you’d get from that. 

But really nevermind all the hawt sauces and hot pedalboard action because the real secret ingredient on this record is the two musical collaborators who appear on four of the six tracks (two a piece!) that being Shadow Monster’s Gillian Visco and Desert Shark’s Stephanie Gunther—who also receive one songwriting credit a piece, because as Mike describes it, their contributions (in addition to the sweet harmonizing and hollerin’ they bring to the table) were so crucial that they changed the very fabric of the songs as they were still being completed—and then you also got drummer extraordinaire Carlo Minchillo (The Planes, Murder Tag, Brooklyn Drum Collective) contributing theremin on one track.

And so with the release of Self Destroy we got a true All-Stars record on our hands despite all of these talented individuals being beat out by underdog Fiona Apple for “Best Rock Performance” at this year’s Grammy Awards, but I think you know where the best rock performance will be happening tonight. (Jason Lee)

photo by @brooklynelitist

 

   

The Silk War explores dialectical materialism on debut LP

You gotta give it up for a band that lives up to their name right out of the gate (no knock on Brian Wilson but he was more into backyard sandboxes than actual beaches and sadly the one “real Beach Boy” in the group drowned—choose those band names wisely kids) and so you gotta give it up for The Silk War, a band that even on their debut album (Come Evening) have already got the whole “dialectical opposites” thing down cold.

Because “silk” and “war” are two things you don’t expect to go together (which is basically true of "war" and anything nice like silk or doilies or Swiss watches) but here is a musical collective that dives fully into their moniker with abandon and not in the obvious sense of depicting “bedroom conflicts” aka "silk wars" to which the real Silk War would say hold my martini (quoting directly from their frontperson: “Heartbreaks don’t really do it for me. Not like a lot of people who think that, you know, I need that and now I’m a poet. If someone doesn’t wanna fuck me anymore, it’s not bad.”) because over the course of 11 songs they delve again and again into the Freudian construct of Eros and Thanatos and some of the forms these two core conflicting-yet-codependent drives can take and translate them into toe-tapping orch pop and dark indie rock songs that combine dread and desire in equal measure.

And maybe right about now you’re thinking “here we go with the overreach” but rest assured everything written here is based on direct empirical evidence because not long ago I met up with Silk War’s singer/lyricist/acoustic guitarist and co-songwriter Alexandra Blair (the other co-songwriter in question is guitarist/producer James “Jimmy” Mullen) for a chat and she verified the broad contours of my theory and described how her songwriting is galvanized by a “circadian rhythm” of revelry and despair—with the sense of transcendence of a proper S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night on the town soon followed by S-U-N-D-A-Y Morning Coming Down doldrums so there’s your Eros and Thanatos interplay right there no matter the actual days of the week, not to mention the closely related notion of creative destruction or destructive creativity whichever you prefer.

And here in our conversation Ms. Blair references the Orson Welles “cuckoo clock” speech from the Third Man which is highly apropos—not to mention her mentions of Bukowski, Nabokov and Sartre at other points and her love of literature in general—so be forewarned there’s a reading list involved if you wanna fully get onto the Silk War Wavelength.

[[Before going any further I should mention any quote here from Alexandra that is sans quotation marks is paraphrased on my part because I used a voice memo app to record our talk and of course it picked up all kinds of ambient noise and nearby conversations, and using a transcription app didn’t help much either because it had me replying to the statement above with “Cool madness better. Right. Chickens, crazy” and while I wish I’d said that it seems unlikely because I wasn’t that many beers in yet. Still, I’d like to think Alexandra really did say “The vicious alliterates, but also like the tender Fucking drama” at some point and yes the phone app capitalized “Fucking” for some reason because why not.]]

Come Evening opens with “Little Souls” which sets the stage for the dialectical musical materialism (!) to come, a song that's by turns somber and stirring, Apollonian and Dionysian. Fading in on some dour church organ tones, soon a faraway phoning-it-in voice informs us “our barbaric ritual can begin” (finally!) before a quick reverse-fade suddenly snaps us out of our reverie and we’re thrust into a new musical texture with a driving rhythm section and crisp acoustic guitar work and melodic electric lead, but never losing the downward spiral organ chords with Alexandra declaiming, “There’s a dark wet side of things / crystallized in perfumes / masqueraded with rings” which right away lays out the stakes of shape-shifting "dark wet" primal desires and fears (the perfume here may be crystallized, but soon it’ll be dispersed into the ether again) that make our narrator want to be swept away but at the same time wary of getting a little too swept up in this twilight world where we’re all “forgetting our need to sleep” and “breaking windows for the beauty of it” and there’s your creative destruction right there.

In “Little Souls” we also get our first exposure to another dialectical relationship in a singing style that alternates between half-sung-half-spoken “recitative” at one extreme and more melodic “aria” sections on the other extreme (especially when it comes to the hooks). And yeah I realize recitative/aria are terms from opera, but it’s not a total stretch given that A. is well versed with these terms as a formally trained singer because she majored in Vocal Performance at NYU after moving here from Chicago.

And oh yeah “Little Souls” includes one of my favorite images from the record which doubles as a fashion tip (“I’ll paint my nails black to cover up / all that New York dirt”) which also supports A.’s contention that this is a true New York City record and which also supports my contention of Eros/Thanatos lying at the heart of Come Evening. Because really any truly great city like NYC should be hellbent on killing you (Thanatos) but if it doesn’t kill you it’ll make you fall in love with it (Eros) not despite of it’s murderous intent but (perversely, you pervert!) because of it. Or as A. puts it: “Have you ever biked through Bushwick? You get dirt in your eyes! It’s disgusting. You have to wear sunglasses. You have to be able to withstand it. And at the same time absorb it, and love it. And fucking hate it. By becoming yourself and wearing [inaudible] with whatever you feel on the outside and creating something out of [inaudible]” and well you get the idea despite the omissions. (for those with too much time on their hands: if you wanna read up on the Marxist dialectics of modern urban living and New York City specifically then I'd highly recommend Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air which is still entertaining and enlightening nearly 40 years after its initial publication...)

The next two songs on Come Evening keep riding the dialectical rails with “Barcelona” being about a man who sabotages his present by confusing it with his past (and probably a half dreamt-up past at that) and again the beginning sounds like you’re waking up from a dream before launching into a catchy piano-driven baroque-pop number with a video shot inside a Brooklyn church interspersed with shots of Alexandra walking into the sea all Kate Chopin like (and oh yeah I should have mentioned the music video for “Little Souls” is modeled on Maya Deren's 1944 short film At Land for all you aspiring cineaste avant-garde types). And then the next song “The Blue Hour” (as befits its title) explores the liminal state between night and day, sleep and waking, dreams and reality, where they’re all not so easy to distinguish and you think to yourself, “I’ve been awake for a long time / I’ll sort it out.” 

And then and then (in no particular order) there’s the deceptively upbeat dance-pop of “Slender Slander” which deals with gun violence; and “Lark Mirror” which uses a bird hunter's decoy mechanism as a metaphor for delusion but in string-swelling, spine-tingling form especially when it gets to the line about “not wasting my youth on you”; “New York (You’re My Religion)” has a nice glam-pop swing to it and the title’s pretty self-explanatory, while the stately closing waltz of “Sylvia” is less self-explantory but now you know it’s about Sylvia Plath; “Agoria Phobia” opens with a slinky, stop-start groove that most bands would not hesitate to build an entire song around. But Silk War are good about not repeating themselves, or at least only repeating themselves with variation, and this song completely changes after about a minute never to return to the intro part again.

And then and then “Second Age” opens up with a Joy Division beat and some doomy chords but ends almost six minutes later sounding like the song is soaring to the heaven even though the lyrics stay sick throughout; “Velvet” uses the veil as a metaphor for imperfections both hidden and exposed (those dialectics again!) while the penultimate “My Familiar” represents the demonic doppelgänger of its title with an epic eight-minute arrangement that starts with a witchy mystical sounding opening section and then makes it way through a whole serious of ebbs and flows before arriving at some Pink Floyd-worthy ethereal keyboard arpeggiating and psychedelic guitar wailing before ebbing and cresting one last time with a triumphant declaration of autonomy. 

And did I mention this song comes off impressively live? Because when the Silk War appear in person they really amps up the Dionysian side of things with Alexandra stalking the stage (and the audience!) like a test-tube fusion of Siouxsie Sioux and Stevie Nicks and Wendy O. Williams's DNA but with the band holding down the Apollonian side of things with ornate musical arrangements precisely rendered as seen in the video above I took of them at the recent Come Evening album release party. And no the sound quality’s not perfect because this was recorded on a phone but it turned out a hell of a lot better than the interview and should give you enough incentive to see them live which like a waking dream you can never quite recapture afterward but you know it was damn near perfect when it happened. —Jason Lee

photo by John Burgundy, Berlin Under A, 08.26.21