Friday, September 4, 2015

White Light interview

White Light was an American progressive rock group originally from New Orleans and later on they had another formation in Austin, Texas. The band was signed by legendary Sonobeat Records. The trio recorded experimental material over the layer of their influences that includes Pink Floyd, Weather Report and others. Shadoks is releasing their music on vinyl LP and at the end of this year there will be a CD version with bonus material. Here's our interview with Rob Haeuser and Mike Hobren of White Light.

When and where were you born?

Rob: I was born in 1951 in New Orleans and grew up in the Lakeview area near Pontchartrain Blvd. My childhood home was only about a half-mile from the 17th Street Canal levee breech during Hurricane Katrina that flooded the Lakeview area. Unfortunately, due to the extended time it was mostly underwater, that house had to be bulldozed.

Mike: To quote John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival, I was “Born on the Bayou” in 1950 in New Orleans. From about age 9 or 10 onward, I lived in the same part of town as Rob, although we didn’t meet until some years later. Like Rob’s, my family’s home was also flooded by Hurricane Katrina, but has since been restored. I’d like to go by there some day and see what sort of people are living in our old home now.

How old were you when you began playing music and what was the first instrument you played?  

Rob: I started poking at a piano as soon as I could reach the keys, but never had piano lessons. As a child I played solely for personal entertainment, and have never thought of myself as a pianist.

It wasn't until I was 16, walking down the aisle in the musical instrument section of the local Sears, that I came across a $30 nylon string acoustic that was luckily in perfect tune. The tone was wonderful, and I bought it on the spot. I played it for a couple of months, and learned a few chords. The neighborhood kids were putting together a band, and they needed a bassist, so I jammed a 4" speaker into the sound hole. Believe it or not, that little speaker actually picked up the lower 3 brass strings, and from that point forward I was a bassist.

I did get a real bass soon afterwards - a very well-made Japanese copy of the Hofner Beatle Bass. When my new bass arrived, I went to the music store to pick it up and the salesman brought out a real Hofner Beatle Bass. I had a brief moment of pure joy, followed by the salesman's "Oops!" and the realization that the Hofner wasn't mine. The bass I ended up with turned out to be a fine instrument, and is what I used in White Light. 

Mike: I was about 13 years old when I picked up the guitar. My first axe was an off-brand Barclay. That guitar was what’s called a ¾ model: it had a shorter neck than a standard guitar. But I learned the basics with it. There were a number of music stores in New Orleans, two of which were hangouts for me: Campos and Werleins. I got the Barclay at Campos, and later strings, picks, etc. Werleins had a vast sheet-music section, and I spent many long and happy hours immersed among their manuscripts, searching for guitar works to study. This was a wonderful learning experience.

What inspired you to start playing music?  Do you recall the first song you ever learned to play?

MIKE: The appearance of "The Beatles" on the old "Ed Sullivan Show" in New York City, which began the "British Invasion" (as we called it back then) of English groups to the States was a big influence. But of course I'd been surrounded by music my whole life. New Orleans is best defined by its music and there's no place you can go where music isn't pouring out the doors and onto the streets. Progressive Rock, Jazz, R&B, Blues, Soul -- they were all secretly programming my brain, stoking my creative juices, long before the Fab Four from Liverpool arrived on our shores.

The first song that inspired me was Ray Charles's "What I Say." A friend of mine showed it to me, I'll never forget! It was only four notes long. But the idea that I was playing a song in a matter of minutes (although a very simple one) really put a hook in me. Things took off from there. I had a good ear and could "sound out" notes and chords from the radio and vinyl records pretty easily. Before long I was "borrowing licks" from all sorts of people, which is the way most people develop their style I suppose. Later, I formalized my musical training by taking private lessons in both Jazz and Classical guitar where I learned discipline, advanced chording, sight-reading, and scoring (that would come in very handy later on) until my fingers fell off. By then music had become a serious endeavor for me.

Rob: My mother was my inspiration. She was an excellent pianist, and could play the classics from sheet music, which fascinated me. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the floor by my Mom's feet, listening to her wonderful rendition of Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy. I never learned to read music, but the beautiful sounds she could make motivated me to play, even if my early efforts did sound suspiciously like Chopsticks. The first real song I worked out by ear was "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg.

White Light has a very interesting history, you formed in New Orleans back in the '60s and then in mid '70s you resurrected in Austin, Texas. Let's first discuss your formation.

Mike: Well, the first White Light was a high-school cover band, co-founded by me and Rob. There were lots of rock-star "wannabes" around New Orleans back then, inspired by the British Invasion and the classic Top-40 rock music that filled the radio airwaves: the Doors, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, etc., and a lot of one-song chart toppers. The other members of White Light were two high-school friends and one neighborhood kid on the drums. None of us had any formal musical training then, but the songs were a lot simpler to learn and play back then, too. So we just dove in the deep end of the pool and began to swim!

What was the »rock'n'roll« scene in New Orleans back in 1967?

Mike: I’ll defer to Rob for this one, Klemen.

Rob: New Orleans has always had its typical French Quarter blues and jazz bands, but we didn't play the quarter. Uptown and in the suburbs, Rock was alive and well, as evidenced by the sellout at City Park Stadium for the Beatles, and later concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Soft Machine, Vanilla Fudge, etc. All of the high-school bands I was aware of were playing R&R. The requests at the gigs we played were always for R&R tunes. The New Orleans version of White Light (WL-I) pre-dated a famous local venue called The Warehouse by a couple of years, but the fact that it opened in 1970 and had great success shows that R&R was alive and well in New Orleans. The city embraces a wide variety of musical styles, and R&R was no exception.

White Light was comprised of Rob Haeuser (Bass guitar), Mike Hobren (Lead guitar, vocals), Tracy Pfisterer (Drums), Dennis Saucier (Rhythm guitar, vocals), and Jayce Tohline (Vocals). How did you meet?

Rob: I was in a garage band prior to White Light, and we were playing at a Battle of the Bands being held on what we call the "Neutral Ground", an open area about a city block wide between Pontchartrain and West End Boulevards. After we finished our brief set, I was approached by Mike Hobren and Dennis Saucier (a rhythm guitarist and vocalist), and we talked about forming a band that might have greater potential for success. 

I had also previously played in a band with my cousin on keyboards. He lived near a kid named Tracy Pfisterer who had a reputation for rattling the neighborhood from his garage while learning to play the drums. I had heard Tracy a few times while visiting my cousin, and also knew him as a member of my cousin's church. Tracy jumped at the chance to play in a real band. As I recall, Jayce Tohline and Dennis Saucier were in a glee club together. Our final member was Jayce as lead vocalist. 

Mike: I knew guitarist Dennis Saucier the longest. We lived in the same neighborhood and both attended the same primary and high schools. Vocalist Jayce Tohline also attended our high school and that's where we picked him up. (I think Jayce is a non-ordained evangelist now!) Drummer Tracy Phisterer lived in the old neighborhood, too. I first met Rob at a battle of the bands in our neighborhood, as Rob said. Rob and I have been friends and have known each other a long time, having had numerous adventures together, both with White Light or just the two of us.

You were quite an outsider in a place like New Orleans, where you have a lot of various mixtures of Blues and Dixieland Jazz, but no band would play progressive oriented Rock. What were your influences?

Mike: This is a total misconception of New Orleans, Klemen! Yes, at the beginning of the last century Dixieland Jazz came along and started a new musical idiom that would be embraced around the world. Today that is played mainly for the tourists in a few holdover venues in the French Quarter. Things have changed a lot over the years.

When White Light was coming up, Progressive Rock was everywhere at such venues as The Warehouse, The Flower Pot, The Bank, and concerts held at City Park Stadium and the Municipal Auditorium. We saw lots of big acts that came to town: Pink Floyd, the Allman Brothers Band, Genesis, Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Wishbone Ash, the Moody Blues, Vanilla Fudge, ZZ Top, the Doors, Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, Weather Report, the list goes on and on.

I recall the night I saw Jimi Hendrix at City Park Stadium, watching in awe as he set his Fender Strat on fire with lighter fluid and then began to straddle the thing, LOL! I’d never seen anyone do that before and I likely never will again! But probably the wildest and noisiest concert I saw was The Beatles, which was also held at City Park Stadium. The girls were so wild, I got repeatedly bopped ‘n’ biffed by knees and elbows by the out-of-control, screeching she-teens! I got to shake the hand of one of the Fab Four through the window of their limo as they were leaving the concert, although through the limo’s smoked glass I couldn’t tell which Beatle it was.

Rob: My early childhood influences were mainly classical music pieces played by my mother. Although both of my parents were born in Louisiana, neither of them were native New Orleanians. Growing up near the lakefront, the Mardi Gras season was the only time I was exposed to the Dixieland, blues, and jazz that permeates the French Quarter. Then I got an AM radio for Christmas, and everything changed - I discovered British bands. One of the first hits I fell in love with was Petula Clark's Downtown. When the Beatles took over the airwaves, I was completely hooked on the British sound.

Do you feel like the scene played an important role in shaping your musical tastes or the way you perform at this point?

Rob:  The New Orleans scene didn't play much of a role in shaping my musical tastes, but it definitely had an effect on my performance style. Improvisation is a key component to Jazz and Blues, and jamming is always a great way to allow the creative juices to flow. That didn't have much impact on White Light at the time though, because we were playing strictly cover material, and didn't take many liberties with the music.

Mike: For me, New Orleans played a prominent role in my musical upbringing. New Orleanians have a way of assimilating most anything into the local culture and then making it uniquely their own. As such, I had this same eclectic approach when it came to music: I was influenced by everything I heard and attempted to incorporate it, in one way or another, into my personal style.

Because New Orleans is such a musical crossroads for so many bands with many different styles, I was exposed to lots of sounds that, in time, would gel into a signature style of my own. I think if you listen to White Light's new album, you’ll hear bits of Progressive Rock groups like YES, Pink Floyd, and even some strains from 12-string acoustic guitar wizard Leo Kottke, a major influence for me, whose playing inspired the track “Song for Leo” on our new album.

You were really young at the time and I think all of you were under-age, but you performed quite a few shows including in Uptown bars like The Rathskeller and Sigma Nu. What were these places like? 

Mike: The Rathskeller was a students' venue located on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans. Sigma Nu was a fraternity house where we played. This was when we were still teenagers, playing cover sets of the Top-40 songs of the day. Yes, we were indeed underage, but we had come to work, not booze. That's not to say, of course, that our audiences didn't indulge in a round or two! Those were some wild and rowdy times to be sure. 

Rob: As Mike says, New Orleanians like to have a good time! The Rathskeller was always packed to the walls, and the Sigma Nu dances weren't as rowdy as the Toga party in Animal House, but they came pretty close. Our most unusual gig was when we played on the Mark Twain, a riverboat docked at the New Orleans riverfront. The Mississippi River is about a mile wide there, and waves can be pretty intense. The deck was moving underfoot the entire gig. I can't recall specifically who it was, but one of us came close enough to being seasick to go through at least 50 shades of green!

Who were some of the artists you shared the stage with?  

Rob: The New Orleans-based version of White Light never shared the stage with other bands. We were basically a party band, and were always booked as the sole act for the gigs we played. The Austin-based White Light did share the stage with some greats, as Mike mentions below. 

Mike: When White Light later reunited in Austin in 1974, we would play with some pretty notable people in the business, but we can talk more about that later.

What happened next? The band split up in early 1969, less than 2 years after its inception. 

Mike: I'd say that things had just run their course, Klemen. Most of us graduated from high school and moved on to other interests. Rob and I joined other groups. Tracy stayed in music for a while. Jayce went off to college and Dennis gave up music altogether. It was just a natural evolution of growing up and going our own ways.

Rob:  I took a few months off from playing, and started college the following fall. It was then that I met the musicians I'd start my next band with.

Rob and Mike went on to form or join other bands, the rest apparently dropped out of the music scene entirely. It seemed that White Light was dead and buried. What bands were you part of after White Light?

Rob:  While at college I shared a dorm room with Joe Sunseri, who was a great drummer and saxophonist. Joe knew a guitarist named Clark Vreelund and a keyboardist named Timmy Youngblood, so we formed a 4-piece jazz group. After rehearsing for a couple of months we played a gig in City Park. We hadn't named the band yet, and were playing on a hot, steamy New Orleans summer afternoon, so Timmy came up with "Dog Day Summer".

After that band parted ways, I teamed up with Chris and Scott Sherman from Dr. Spec's Optical Illusion, a band that had made a name for itself as one of the best local bands in town. We met through a mutual friend who was a wildman guitarist. We focused on popular FM radio hits, such as the Allman Brothers' Whipping Post, but circumstances were such that we didn't stay together long enough to play any gigs. It was soon after that band dissolved that I moved to Austin.

Mike: I joined a nine-piece, horn-driven band called Circus that modeled itself after Blood, Sweat & Tears. We had one fat sound! This was without a doubt the most successful band I was in during those formative years. 

Because we were in demand by some of the bigger clubs in New Orleans, such as The Rivergate, we had to join the local American Federation of Musicians labor union – local AFM 174! (LOL, I still have my union card as a matter of fact! What a memento of a weird time that represents!)

I recall we all first had to interview with several rather imposing-looking union reps who sat at the opposite end of a long conference-room table, just glaring at us. And the whole time I was thinking, ‘What is a teenage kid like me doing here?!’ But it all worked to our advantage really. The better music venues in New Orleans were closed union shops, which meant that if you didn’t have that union card, you couldn’t play there.

Sometimes we’d be in the middle of a set when a couple of union reps would walk in, unannounced, during our breaks to check us for our cards – sort of like the cops pull you over to check your driver’s license! Well, with nine of us in the group, there were a couple of us who hadn’t quite joined the AFM yet, or were late paying their union dues. The union reps would actually fine us whenever this happened! But it was all fun and games to us!

Oh, I almost forgot – what does White Light stand for?

Mike: The “Light” part came from a Los Angeles-based psychedelic group of the day called Clear Light – we thought their name was cool. But we’re still not sure how we arrived at the “White” part.

Rob: I've always thought of White Light as a metaphor. White is the combination of all colors, and White Light was born in a city famous for its multitude of musical styles. The metaphor continued with the Austin-based version, which had a much wider range of musical styles than the original band. Light is electromagnetic radiation vibrating at particular frequencies, and sound, although it's not electromagnetic radiation, also involves vibrations at specific frequencies. That may be a stretch, but it gives some meaning to the name.

Did you release any singles or anything in the '60s?

Rob: Unfortunately, no. We played popular radio hits, but no original music. We were focused on playing gigs, and the thought of going into the studio didn't even cross our minds.

Mike: No. It was the second, resurrected White Light in Austin, Texas that first recorded a full-length album in 1976 at Blue Hole Sounds studio in central Texas, working with its founder and legendary music producer Bill Josey Sr. For us the ‘60s were our formative years for the most part.

A few years passed and in 1974 on different location it all started again. Austin, Texas had a rich musical heritage with bands like 13th Floor Elevators. How did you get together a new band and was there a concept behind it? At the time you were into Progressive Rock, that was happening in Europe.

Mike: Progressive Rock was happening in the U.S., too!

Rob: After moving to Austin, I was immediately impressed with its musical variety. Back then, my natural tendency when thinking of Texas music was to assume it was all Country-Western (CW), but in fact, as I first drove into town and flipped to the local FM radio station, Purple Haze was on, a song we had played back in New Orleans. It was quite a relief to hear that CW wasn't the only musical style in town.

After checking out the local scene, I contacted Mike and Rusty back in New Orleans and suggested that they consider moving to Austin to join me in resurrecting White Light as a 3-piece progressive rock band. The concept was that we'd play all original music, and develop a style that was more diverse than the typical rock band of the time.

Who were the members of '74 White Light?

Rob: I played bass guitar and synthesizers, my brother Rusty was on drums, percussion, and flute.

Mike: I played electric and acoustic guitars and sang vocals, and I wrote lyrics. There may have been an occasion or two where I picked up the harmonica and played into the mic…I’m not too sure about that…but I was no Stevie Wonder on the harp I can tell you! LOL!

When did you begin writing music?  What was the first song you wrote?  What inspired it and did you ever perform the song live or record it?  

Mike: I can’t say what our first song was. Inspiration? I’d say it was simply a desire among the three of us – after years of playing in cover bands – to break out of that mold and do our own thing. We had each developed a personal style as we “grew into” our instruments. We jammed a great deal and those sessions eventually led us to ideas for songs…the ideas just naturally began to flow. We took the themes, patterns, rhythms, time/key signature that emerged from our jam sessions and melded them into complete opuses, layered with a variety of instruments and special effects. This was our “Process!” In time, we developed a signature sound and before long we had complete sets of original music that we played at live gigs.

Rob: Mike and Rusty moved to Austin in late summer 1974, and we immediately began jamming. At the time I had a reel-to-reel tape deck, and recorded our jams. The idea was to just let the music flow, to see where improvisation would take us, and then sit down with the tapes later and pick out the sections that we felt came together best. I can't really say what our first song was, because the ideas came quickly and were immediately adapted into one song or another. It was more like we were writing a number of songs simultaneously, and we'd bounce from one to the other as ideas came up.

Our inspiration was no doubt the bands we idolized. The period starting in the late 1960's and on into the 1970's was a great time for bands that played "Orchestral Rock", especially many of the British bands. The fullness of the sound that these bands could achieve was truly inspirational.

When playing live, we would go through our entire repertoire, so yes, I'm sure we played the first song we wrote live. I don't recall which song was first, so I can't say that it's part of our upcoming album, but I have no doubt that it was recorded at some point because of the method we used to write the material.

Where did you rehearse?

Rob: Mike sums that up below.

Mike: At first we rehearsed in a number of trailers where we also lived. We chose trailers far out in the Texas countryside where we could push our jam sessions to the limit without any neighbors nearby to call in “disturbing the peace” complaints on us! Our final rehearsal location (and residence) was a huge house in north Austin, Texas. We had a sizeable practice area as well as living quarters, and our neighbors were tolerate enough that they never complained to us, or anyone else, about our sometimes “bombastic” sessions. White Light could really rip the paint off the walls when we were going at full throttle! That was our best place.

What audio gear did you use?

Mike: I played a Gibson SG double-cutaway and a gold-top Les Paul electric guitars, and an Epiphone 12-string acoustic guitar. (And maybe that harp!)
Rob: I used a Dan Armstrong Ampeg acrylic bass, Roland SH-1000 synthesizer, RMI 368X electra-piano/harpsichord, Maestro Echoplex, and a Fender volume/tone pedal. My bass rig was a Peavey 200-watt head and two cabinets, each with two 15" speakers. We also had a Peavey PA.
Rusty used Gretsch drums, Congas, various other percussive instruments, such as a Kalimbra and wind chimes, and a flute (probably a Bundy).

What happened next? What was the first gig?

Mike: Rob can tell you about the Joshua Ives Festival of Love!

Rob: Somehow we connected with a guy who was involved in an upcoming festival being billed as the Joshua Ives Festival of Love. They had already booked a wide variety of local, regional, and national/international acts, but apparently needed more bands to fill the three-day event. We managed to get our name on the bill, and so ironically, our very first gig, after just a few months of developing our all-original material, was at a pop festival. It featured some big names in the music world, including Mike Bloomfield, Booker T., Link Wray, Alvin Crow, and David LaFlamme, the violinist from It's a Beautiful Day.  

How was the scene in Austin back then? Any other bands you liked or played with?

Rob: I'll defer to Mike for this one.

Rob Haeuser on stage at Liberty Lunch.

Mike: Austin in those days was overrun by the “Outlaw” Country Music scene, with Willie Nelson as its main front man. Getting gigs was difficult, but we did play some good venues. And of course folks like Bill Josey were actively bringing a whole new alternative sound to the city. Liberty Lunch was one of the top venues we played that, over the years, would host many of the top names in Rock.

Mike Hobren on stage at Liberty Lunch.

I really can’t say there were many groups playing in Austin that I cared for with the exception of the Electromagnets, then headed by guitar wizard Eric Johnson. They played some of the clubs we did, notably the Castle Creek Club, which was one of the few venues back then that welcomed Progressive Rock. (I met my wife at the CCC the first night we played there in fact.) We were aware of the 13th Floor Elevators but we didn’t know them or ever perform with them.

White Light performing at Castle Creek

You were invited to be part of a pretty big festival called the Joshua Ives Festival of Love. What can you tell us about this festival?

Rob: The festival almost caught Austin off-guard. It was briefly advertised on the radio, and even then it was basically last-minute coverage. I'm not sure how many people showed up over the course of 3 days, but I'd guess it was a few thousand, which no doubt disappointed the promoters. These days, it's almost impossible to find any info about it on the Internet. The only references I can find are a brief mention on Mike Bloomberg's website regarding his schedule (note that Bloomberg's site has the year wrong), and on the website I set up some years ago to function as a "White Light Archive" ( To this day, I have no idea who Joshua Ives was, where he came from, or even if his name was fact or fiction.

Mike: The Joshua Ives Festival of Love was our first gig as a reunited White Light! In some ways it was like a comic version of a mini-Woodstock. The players were all there (quite an impressive lineup really), the equipment and stage setup were all there. But the promotional advance work was lacking and attendance was low. Still, it was a special time for us.

Did you meet any musicians? How was your show?

Mike: We did met some big names in the music business, including violinist Dave LaFlamme of It’s a Beautiful Day (You may remember their hit song “White Bird”), and Mike Bloomfield, formerly of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. But I think a high point for us was, after we played, we received compliments from ‘50s guitar sensation Link Wray, who Rolling Stone would later name as one of the Top 100 Guitarists of the Last Century!

Rob: We played a 3-song set, and by all accounts, it went well. The highlight for me was after our set. I was backstage packing up my bass when a guy I didn't recognize introduced himself and said "You guys sound really good!" I was impressed that he had taken the time to seek me out and offer the compliment, but later, when I heard his 3-piece hard-rock band play some great power tunes, it struck me that Link Wray was the real deal, and his earlier comment suddenly carried a lot more weight. 

Then came legendary producer Bill Josey. Would you like to share a few words about him?

Mike: Rob probably had the closest, most candid relationship with Bill Josey of any of us, and I think he should respond to this question, Klemen. I know that, long before guitarist Eric Johnson made a name for himself, Bill had confided to Rob to ‘keep on eye’ out for the guy! Bill knew talent when he saw it, and he had called that one right!

Rob: Bill was one of the finest gentlemen I've ever known, as well as a consummate professional. He sincerely cared about the people he worked with, and bent over backwards to accommodate our needs and musical goals. When we met Bill we were unaware that he had a serious medical condition - he never allowed his failing health to affect his attitude or work ethic. The memory of Bill's long hours working with us in the studio, and afterwards in engineering and mixing our music, is both inspiring and heart-wrenching. He passed away just 6 months after completing our album work tape. To this day, he is one of my greatest heroes.

How did Sonobeat Records come in contact? Did they see you playing that festival or was it even before that?

Mike: Well, that’s a very uncanny story that Rob tells better than me!

Rob: We had moved to the hill country northwest of Austin, and would sometimes drive the backroads just to get away from things for a while. On one of those rides we came across the Blue Hole Sounds studio, housed in an old stone church building. We wrote Bill a letter to introduce ourselves, and to open the door for possibly using Bill's studio to record a demo tape. That came about in late October 1975, when we recorded a 3-song demo tape for the nominal sum of only $50! That too underscores Bill's unwavering generosity; he could have charged us substantially more than he did.

Bill Josey's 10-point Proposal to White Light.

You recorded at Blue Hole Sounds (Sonobeat's home studio). How was it to work with Josey? What are some of the strongest memories from recording and producing your material?

Rob: It was the experience of a lifetime for me! Bill had converted an old stone church building into a recording studio, and it was large enough to have a bit of natural echo. Bill really knew his business, and had set up low sound walls so that the musicians could be isolated enough for good sound separation, but could still make eye contact with one another. We recorded in the dead of winter, and because of the thick stone walls, it was always a bit cold, which had an effect on the guitars, especially Mike's acoustic 12-string.

Rob Haeuser in Blue Hole Sounds.

The strongest and fondest memory for me wasn't actually related to recording the music. We had completed the initial recordings, and were in the dubbing phase. Bill and I stepped outside the studio while Mike was dubbing, and we had a personal conversation that, although I won't disclose the topic, was something that I took as a tremendous compliment, especially given Bill's knowledge of the music industry and the local Austin music scene in particular. 

Mike: Bill strived for excellence…one reason that it took us a couple of months to record the album. He was a perfectionist who had no qualms about “do overs” if a recording we were working on didn’t come out just right. This is not to say that Bill was any sort of “taskmaster.” He was one of the most gentle, easygoing people you’d ever want to meet. He took a genuine interest in finding new, unrecorded talent (like us) and giving them their dream shot! He was a huge contributor to the Austin alternative-music scene and helped a lot of people up the ladder, many of whom would later go on to become major players in the R&R scene, such as progressive-blues guitarist Johnny Winter. Bill recorded Winter’s very first album.

Mike Hobren in Blue Hole Sounds.

What gear was used?

Mike: I couldn’t say…I was more focused on keeping my own gear tuned and my fingers warm and nimble in a very cold central Texas winter that year. But there was always a certain magic and a good vibe in Bill’s studio.

Rob: We used our regular performance gear, although as far as my bass rig was concerned, one speaker was sufficient. Bill had a couple of 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorders, and no doubt a mixing board, but it was set off to one side and out of view.

How long did you record?

Rob: We recorded on and off between late December 1975 and late February 1976, so by the calendar it was about 2 months. We actually only spent a little more than a week in the studio during that 2-month period, although it seems much longer now. We all had fulltime day jobs, so our recording sessions were mainly restricted to Saturdays.

Mike: Yes, about two months in all, a fairly long time because we did so much overdubbing to our primary tracks. Since White Light collectively played numerous instruments, this opened the door to layering our studio work with a lot of multiplexing. We began recording in December 1975 at Bill’s country studio, Blue Hole Sounds, and completed all recording by February 1976. The final mix of all the tracks was completed by Bill and his assistant, Tom Penick, on March 1st.

Josey died in 1976. What happened next?

Mike: Rob can tell you about the status of our album, our master tape, after Bill’s passing. It was the worst of times for White Light -- the fall of 1976. We had grown really close to Bill in the short time that we knew and worked with him. Although our fresh-cut album was stalled at that point, I know I was more devastated at the loss of a good friend. In east Austin, there’s a small cemetery where Bill was laid to rest. A simple headstone, that I once visited to say my good-byes to Bill, marks the spot. I think they should have erected a shrine to Bill in recognition of his cultural contribution to Austin. He was a one-of-a-kind, self-made man!

Rob: Unknown to us at the time, our last gig was just a couple of weeks before Bill passed away. We weren't immediately aware of his death, but White Light was already starting to unravel, mainly because of the record company rejection mantra of "limited market potential".

At that time, the record companies were looking more for disco and pop hit bands, and we simply didn't fit that mold. However, there had apparently been a shake-up in management at United Artists, and they asked Bill to resubmit the tape. To this day, we don't know if Bill resubmitted it, and if so, what the reaction was. The apparent lack of industry interest was starting to take its toll, but we plowed ahead and continued to play around town. Our last gig was August 22, 1976 at the Castle Creek Club, and for the next two weeks everything still seemed to be moving forward with the bands' plans. We had even decided to move to Los Angeles within the year, but then suddenly the band fell apart. Bill's passing probably had a lot to do with that. It was a sad, swift end for White Light.

You were experimenting in the studio. How would you describe your sound?

Rob: At times we were very tight, and at other times we bordered on controlled chaos, sometimes all within the same song (the track Stargazer on our album is an example). Because of our improvisational style, we could record the same song multiple times, and it might be one way in one take and another just a few minutes later. We enjoyed the flexibility of exploring different aspects of the music in different ways, but I'd bet that it was a nightmare for Bill, because among other things, he had to work within the time constraints of vinyl LPs. We weren't particularly concerned about the length of our songs, but ultimately it all had to fit in about 21 minutes per side, which Bill somehow managed to pull off. I'm still amazed that he was able to arrange the song order such that the difference in playtime between Sides I and II was a mere 2 seconds! 

Mike: Bill gave us a lot of free reign in the studio, allowing us to experiment and push our recording efforts to the same sort of spontaneity and unexpected sound bites that often emerged during our jam sessions. It was very real. Certainly we had a set of clean tracks that Bill recorded to tape. But Bill also let us go the extra mile – something that others studios probably wouldn’t have let us do! I think he knew that White Light was a performance-based group, and that we were at our best when we got into a certain groove and the improvisation began to cook!

What can you tell us about the material featuring in Shadoks release?

Rob: The songs on the Shadoks release are digital remasters of the original recordings, in the original order as laid out by Bill Josey. After Bill passed away, I believe it was Michele Murphy who stopped by Blue Hole Sounds and saw that many of Bill's effects, including a number of audio tapes, were still sitting in the old building. Blue Hole was actually an old stone church building, and was still being used for services on Sundays, so Michele put everything of Bill's that she could find into his car, including the White Light tape. Bill's station wagon sat parked outside the church for months afterwards. The tapes inside were exposed to extreme weather conditions, from the freezing cold and humidity of a wet winter to the blazing heat of a Texas summer.

Sometime in 1977 Bill's son Jack brought all of Bill's effects home, and literally put it in a closet, where it sat for almost 30 years. Sometime in 2005, Mike discovered the Sonobeat website, and found a section for unreleased material. As it turns out, the Joseys had mentioned us (please go to for the Sonobeat writeup), and included a very brief excerpt for our song Fields. Mike contacted the Joseys, and was told that the tape had been rediscovered in a closet at Jack Josey's home. Jack was gracious enough to transfer the entire album to a CD, which he sent to Mike. According to Jack, the tape was in such bad shape that it was actually peeling like a Crayola on the tape heads as he transferred it.

Soon afterwards, Mike managed to contact me even though we had been out of touch for 28 years, and sent me the CD that Jack had burned for him. Sure enough, the audio quality was terrible; the right channel was severely degraded, both in volume and fidelity, and both channels suffered from a loud, persistent hiss. It was really bittersweet to finally have the complete album in hand after so many years, but with so much audio degradation that it was almost painful to hear.

I decided to remaster it, and had some success in restoring it to a point where I could listen to it without cringing. This is what was uploaded to the White Light Archive website I mentioned earlier, mainly just for posterity, and as a backup in case of disk failure at home. A few years later I set up the White Light page on a website called TheSixtyOne, which is where Enrique Rivas first heard us (later Enrique would do the artwork for our album cover). He managed to contact me, and expressed interest in Stargazer, a song that hadn't been uploaded. I sent him an mp3, and our conversation turned to a fellow Enrique knew named Thomas Hartlage, owner of Shadoks music. Enrique put me in contact with Thomas, and soon thereafter he, Mike, and I agreed to release the album under the Shadoks label.

Unfortunately, my initial de-hissing years ago was fairly aggressive, and introduced digital artifacts. At the time, I was content just having something to listen to, but none of it was suitable for release to the public. Over the last few weeks I've completely remastered all songs from the CD Jack Josey sent back in 2005. This time around you can hear a bit of hiss here and there, but less aggressive de-hissing allows some of the more subtle parts to come through that were previously almost indistinguishable because of the digital artifacts. I hope that folks will enjoy it, and keep in mind that what they're hearing was remastered from a severely damaged Crayola-peeling audio tape that, against all odds, somehow managed to survive.

Mike: Klemen, I think fans of Progressive-Rock music are really going to love White Light’s album! Listeners will be treated to a real romp of experimental, and yet well-controlled, music that utilizes a host instrumentation and special effects. (I even used a cello bow on my guitar’s open low E string to obtain a drone & flutter effect on the track Stargazer!) Our penchant for jazz-rock-fusion music is powerfully expressed on the track Pacemaker. On the track Oceans, listeners will think they’re lying in the sand at the beach!

Rob’s bass grounds the music perfectly and his synthesizer work is, at times, even haunting. Rusty provided well-rounded percussion to inject a powerful rhythm line into the music. Thanks to Rob’s hard work, all of the tracks went through extensive audio restoration and remastering. Collectors of (and newcomers to) Progressive-Rock music from the mid-‘70s period will be genuinely surprised and delighted! For us, it is the album that “should have been released” 40 years ago, which even Sonobeat Records has called “considerably ahead of its time!” I believe that our music from that period would stand up against anything being done today!

What currently occupies your life?

Rob: After White Light was dissolved, I married and some years later had two fine boys who are now in their mid-twenties. My eldest son works at a television station in central Texas, and my youngest son is in graduate school studying for his Masters, with a focus on working with Museums. 

I'm now retired from a career as a Programmer/Systems Analyst, and am enjoying the freedom to do pretty much whatever I decide to put on today's agenda. As a hobby, I'm the Administrator for an investor-oriented website that focuses on emerging biotechnology companies.  

I have a home studio and play regularly, as Mike says, to keep the fingers limber. The last time I was in a band was 1994, and the bass isn't my first choice for playing non-stop solos, so a few years ago I picked up a 6-string electric, and that's my main focus these days. I also have a few keyboards, including a Korg Karma that pretty much plays itself, which works out well because I've never thought of myself as a keyboardist!

Mike: Well, Klemen, I still keep my fingers limber on my six-string acoustic guitar. I am an audiophile and I’m constantly enhancing my music collection to keep up with the latest trends. I’m a full-time writer as well as a published author. I probably spend more time on the PC than is good for my aging eyes. I’m involved in local, community services. I expend way too much time and money on my spoiled Lhasa Apso dog from Tibet, a very ancient, high-maintenance breed. Living near the Florida coast, I’m also an avid offshore angler. And I keep in close touch with family and friends.

Rob: Many thanks to Klemen for taking the time to put this interview together!

Rob Haeuser & Mike Hobren (White Light)

Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2015
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The White Birch - The Weight Of Spring (2015) review

The White Birch - The Weight Of Spring (Glitterhouse Records, 2015)

Nine years ago this month (August), one of Norway’s finest psychedelic bands dissolved, leaving four remarkable albums for us to replay over and over again. But fans can now rejoice, as leader Ola Fløttum has assembled an illustrious collection of some of Norway’s finest musicians (including members of Susanna’s Magical Orchestra, Kings of Convenience, and St. Thomas) produce this glistening recording of heartbreaking-yet life affirming soundscapes. (The album is dedicated to Fløttum ‘s mother, who passed away during its 9-year gestation.) Almost cinematic in scope, the album opens with ‘New York’, imperceptively tiptoeing into the room on a forlorn piano motif and Fløttum’s creaking vocals, seemingly whispered so as not to disturb the little ones slumbering in an adjacent room. ‘The Fall’ is even softer, a hazy treatise on loss and “a wish for some clarity” to explain why.
The somber mood continues through the ironic coupling of banjo and violin on ‘Solid Dirt’, at once both uplifting and mournful. ‘Lamentation’ briefly alleviates the pain with a (somewhat) upbeat resiliency, although the lyrics could be interpreted as someone sleepwalking through the day in a constant state of catatonic resolution to painful events that cannot be undone.
I must confess a weakness for everything Susanna Wallumrød has recorded, and her duet on ‘The Hours’ lifts it from the funereal, elegiac sway that comes over me as I spend hours waiting for the days to end. ‘Lay Me By The Shore’ is one of the most perfect love songs I’ve experienced in ages, and if a love song doesn’t make you cry, it’s not doing its job. Finally, Fløttum’s eulogy for his ‘Mother’ will leave not a dry eye in the house for anyone whose mum has passed, leaving behind all who knew and loved her “To feel the pain/As the morning dew/Fell as rain.”
Listeners unfamiliar with Fløttum’s previous White Birch albums may find comfortable reference points in the work of Tindersticks, Bill [Smog] Callahan, and Richard Baskin’s Welcome To L.A. soundtrack. Explosions In The Sky, Low, and Sigur Ros also drifted through my mind as I sat transfixed and transported to a distant horizon of grey days, rainy afternoons, and silent replies to my wandering thoughts. Snorecore enthusiasts will also recognize a major influence in seminal snorecore band, Codeine, whose final album, released just as they were disbanding and White Birch were forming, provided the band’s name. This is reflective, thousand yard stare music for navel gazing, silent contemplation, and taking stock of what you have before you lose it.

Review made by Jeff Penczak/2015
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Thursday, September 3, 2015

VCSR – Tape #4 (2015) review

VCSR - Tape #4 (Permanent Records, 2015)

Where to even begin with the enigmatic VCSR that I doubt many of you all have ever actually heard before?  That’s not a dig at your musical knowledge or anything I hadn’t heard of them either.  Apparently they weren’t so much of a band or even a group per say, but instead affectionately referred to themselves as a collective.  They operated in the Chicago area from around 1978 until about 1984 and apparently managed to record some sixty reels of tape during this time.  However, these recordings were only ever mixed down to small self-contained cassette dubs that were give to family and friends of VCSR.  While these guys are a lot like the American answer to Klaus Schulze or Popol Vuh, drawing heavily from the droning, ethereal, space sounds that made Schulze so famous, and the ethereal soundscapes which have elevated Popol Vuh into legendary status, VCSR also rely heavily on their inherent vision or idea of what abstract electronic music should be about and sound like.  There’s a spacious amount of room to move in the music, and while the tracks do seem to try and lay down differing sorts of shifting and alternating patterns that change like ripples in the water, each member of VCSR injects their own individual idea of where the song should be going and where it’s headed.  For this reason among others even before hearing the music it should come as no surprise that Bil Vermette was one of the major players in VCSR, while highly overlooked at the time he has come to be known as one of the pivotal players in the underground Chicago scene of the 70s and 80s.  The time period that the reels these specific tracks were drawn from date back to 1979 and 1980 when they were apparently the first guys to record for the Waxx Traxx label.  Al Jourgenson of Ministry even produced these sessions, but for some reason or another they simply got shelved.  That is until Permanent Records, purveyor or all things strange, amazing and unknown managed to track down reels from all over the place from which to assemble the tracks for Tape #4.  There were tapes in Washington, Chicago and unfortunately, some tapes that have never located.  Hopefully with the reemergence, or I suppose first proper emergence, of VCSR some thirty years after they parted ways, let’s hope that more of these reels find their way into intelligent hands and we see some more of this stuff released.  Tape #4 consists simply of three different untitled tracks labeled only as “#41” and “#26” which make up the entirety of the A-side and “#32” which is the lone track spanning the entirety of the B-side and finishing out the album all on it’s lonesome.  Both “#32” and “#26” are pretty monstrous pieces, clocking in around fifteen and twenty minutes apiece but the opening track, which is really just used as an intro to “#26”, “#41” is essentially part of “#26” and in fact the track is listed as “#41 and #26” so I’m going to be treating it as such for the purposes of this review.  “#41 and #26” opens with what sounds to me to be some pretty heavily Wendy Carlos influenced music, a al Clockwork Orange in the best possible sense.  It’s got a very Rob’s version of the Maniac soundtrack going on as well, which is impressing because this is unreleased material from 1979-1980.  These guys were the real deal.  It was obviously created during the burgeoning explorations of electronic and synthesized instrumental music here in the US as we were introduced giallo and avant-garde offerings from across the globe for the first time right around this period really, and some people set out to put their own unique spin on the newly emerging genre.  This plainly shows through out Tape #4.  With the slowly brooding bottom end tones softly mixing with what sounds like either some really heavily affected keys or sporadic droning looped strings in there, the music peters about five minutes in and gives was to the much more spacious and cosmic sounds of what I can only assume is the transition from “#41” to “#26”.  The ominous Carlos tones of before are instantly lost in an ever expanding cosmos of sounds that opens like the maw of a black hole before the listener.  Ever expanding, sucking all that dares to draw near into it’s inescapable gravitational pull “#26” is as ambitious a soundscape as would be attempted now, and it’s really pulled off incredibly well.  The songs that appear on this album were basically recorded ‘live’ in the studio, and save for an overdub here or there, there really wasn’t any editing or anything as a great deal of the material was recorded and mixed on a single track.  This has become a bit more common these days with the DIY recording and mentality that’s so prevalent, but this wasn’t done out of choice, the band simply didn’t have a mixer.  They were working with what they have and attempting to push the limitations and boundaries of music and art as it was presented to them as a unified format to be accepted or rejected by a mainstream consumer culture.  I for one am extremely glad that they didn’t have a mixer or other expediencies and equipment that would have allowed them to do even more, or even just to make things a bit simpler.  The pure way in which the construction of this material couldn’t have been achieved under any other circumstances in my opinion and while the may not have been heard then by a mass audience, people now will certainly be able to appreciate the simple elegance with which the music is so lovingly un-composed with.  The ebbing and flowing natural feel of this material likely couldn’t have been achieved had it been over-processed, re-worked or heavily edited.  The purity of the artists original intentions for the performances rarely find their way so unfettered onto an album.  Tape #4 is one of those albums that truly tows the line between being simply electronic drone music, with lush immense soundscapes abounding, and a collective of artists with interpretive visions of the same idea of a song all working simultaneously and in perfect harmony with one another.  Tape #4 is like getting to hear different people take completely different roads to get the precisely same destination on a recording right in front of you.  It’s an interesting experience to say the least.  Then, just when the music almost begins to resemble just sounds or noise, pulsing vibrations of synthesizer keys rear up from the depths and deliver simple repetitive progressions to pull everything back into alignment – if but only for a short time.   Then, around sixteen minutes into the twenty-minute long behemoth the entire aesthetic feel of the song again begins to transmogrify and change, metamorphosing into a completely different beast altogether.  While some of the explorative keys and electronic rain stick of synthesizers stick around for a while, the listener is greeted by a playful solemn solo melody that rises up from the cosmic stew.  It sounds like a guitar so heavily reverberated and echoed out that it almost more closely resembles keys, but the creak of the fretboard and sounds of fingers grating across strings that float through the sparse mix makes it clear what you’re actually hearing.  It’s a beautiful, almost sullen melody that overtakes the universal feeling of what preceded it and bringing the track down to a calm, relaxed ending.  “#32” opens Side-B and at once almost feels like just a continuation of “#26”, or at least the main section does.  It’s galactic on every level, with the keys bouncing and shooting around the mix like stars dropping from the heavens in some abandoned desert location with no one to witness them.  It’s the sound of forever and nothingness all at once.  Crazed hazes of synthetic noise dig and crawl to the surface of the mix only to quickly retreat back into the unknown from whence they came, peeking their heads out like inquisitive gremlins toying with and pulling at the rhythms and melodies.  The keys dance across headphones like a procession, an ever changing and evolving menagerie of wondrous creations.  Honestly, a few minutes into the song I felt like I was sitting in one of those old school planetariums watching one of those super trippy Pink floyd light shows I used to go to when I was in junior high.  Problem is, I was just sitting alone on my couch with a set of headphones on!  Things continue to build up and pile on themselves until there’s a clearly discernable line of lead synthesizer piercing the darkened veils of the electronic heavens and it boldly leads the way to a more transcendent, cohesive form for “#32” as a song.  The farther you get into “#32” the more it feels like it really could be the lost soundtrack to some abandoned version of Star Trek where there were no people or ships, and instead you were just omnipotently floating around in space, free from the confines of time and actuality, to explore the infinite possibilities of endless galaxies.  I for one would have watched the hell out of VCSR’s version of Star Trek!  Even though the song feels like it should be plodding if you listen to a snippet, or if it seems like it’s almost having a high speed come apart at times, it snaps back into ever evolving shapes and sizes that are difficult, if not impossible to predict – and that’s precisely what makes this such challenging and interesting music to listen to.  Too think that this was created before avant-garde or electronic ambient music ever really caught on here in the states boggles the mind, not to mention the limited mixing and equipment used.  But then again there has historically always had to have been unrecognized bedrocks on which entire genres stand on as they continuously evolve and become ever more popular while not only alienating but forgetting its roots.  VCSR is inarguably one of the criminally overlooked electronic acts of the late 70s and early 80s.  But that’s hard to blame on people, it was after all never really officially released, and while they developed somewhat of a legendary status even while they were around operating under the radar, obtaining their material was all but impossible.  That thankfully however is no long the case.  Permanent Records has come to the rescue of VCSR, like many bands before, and released a much deserved 12” of material onto a world that had no idea of what was coming.  Unfortunately there’s only 500 copies of this worldwide though, and while Permanent often does do represses I never recommend relying on anyone to do so – with the current plant delays and plates getting destroyed at plants it’s not always even possible.  So just do yourself a favor, click on the SoundCloud link below and snatch yourself one of the limited edition clear copies that you can only get directly from Permanent themselves at the link below that!  Did I mention the clear copies are limited to only a 150 copies?  Yeah, I thought you might click that link…

Review made by Roman Rathert/2015
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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Hawkeyes/Shooting Guns - Brothers Of The Nod (2015) review

Hawkeyes/Shooting Guns - Brothers Of The Nod  (Helmet Lady Records, 2015)

I don’t know how an instrumental psych album could get much better than this for me.  It combines two of my absolute favorite bands onto alternating sides of 12” wax to devastating results.  I’ve long been a proprietor of the brutal psychedelic sludge of Shooting Guns (Interview Here), I was a convert from the moment I bought their first LP Born To Deal Magic years ago.  Since then they’ve been nominated several times for Juno awards, released a sold-out follow-up album, started their own record label (Interview Here) and even did the soundtrack to their first film Wolf Cop in 2014, which was released to some incredible reviews (My Own Here), sold-out almost instantly and has recently been repressed, this time by One Way Static (pick this up now while you have the chance if you missed out the first time around!!!).  Now Shooting Guns has joined forces with fellow Canadian psychedelic doom purveyors Hawkeyes (Interview Here) and Helmet Lady Records, whose first release was actually the long overdue vinyl edition of Hawkeyes’ debut long-player Poison Slows You Down which had only previously been self-released by the band on cassette and had to wait an excruciating two plus years for the much deserved wax treatment.  While Helmet Lady is fairly new, if their releases so far are any indication of what kind of stuff they’re going to be dropping in the future you can sign me right the hell up!  Their most recent twelve-inch slab of pure psychedelic psychosis they’ve unleashed is the Shooting Guns/Hawkeyes split Brothers Of Nod – the thing is just absolutely jaw-dropping.  Side-A is all Shooting Guns tearing it up with their signature slow-moving, face pummeling, chest jarring signature doom attack but it seems like they’ve retained a lot of what they learned on sessions for both their Juno nominated album Brotherhood Of The Ram and the Wolf Cop soundtrack, which had to be a very explorative time for these guys, digging into hidden crevices and cracks of their mind they’d never even considered tapping before; and it shows.  Hawkeyes on the other hand have had several years of near complete blackout to work on their sound for anyone who can’t readily make it to a show.  Save for a single track released on a compilation for the Shooting Guns’ operated label Pre-Rock House Of Burners (which is an absolute must own compendium of amazing Canadian acts going right now) there had been several years of almost complete silence.  They apparently put the time to good use, completely refining their vision of cacophonic noise and blistering explosions of sound, and honing a much more tempered dark and foreboding side, a sound like the slow pulsating rhythmic hum of a dying star imploding in on itself from the sheer power and mass contained therein.  In fact while extremely well titled, Brothers of The Nod could just as easily be called Dwarf Star as it carries the listener to the outer reaches of space and consciousness…  Brothers of The Nod opens with Shooting Gun’s “Mega Volcano” feedback and distortion spill out of your speakers, exploding with what I can’t help but call an almost proto-punk rhythm, very reminiscent of early Stooges before really kicking things into high gear where the skull bashing clamor of distorted instruments erupts into full bloom.  The quick driving melody rockets along side the accompanying lead lines, with solos adding small cracks and openings and changing things up ever so slightly, before the guitar then sneers and howls like a wounded animal.  Three minutes into “Mega Volcano” things start to get hot and heavy, just the way I like ‘em.  The guitar has reached a blistering crescendo, howling solos bubbling over the din of rhythmic sounds, and just when they seem to have reached a bursting point, almost boiling over with feedback, fuzz and a concoction of sheer sound and unbelievably precise lead lines – things get even heavier!  The keys kick in and slam headlong into the rhythm of “Mega Volcano”, the hammered keys blip in and out of existence for a while until they’re finally swallowed whole by the carnivorous slithering tentacles of the guitar and the song shatters to an echoed remnant of looped screeching that slowly fades out to “Halls Of Grief”.  “Halls Of Grief” sounds like it would have been happily at home on Shooting Guns’ last album, the 2013 Juno nominated Brotherhood Of The Ram.  A slowly lurching apocalyptic riff on stilts, “Halls Of Grief” trundles through unsuspecting waysides demolishing and razing to the ground anything that stands in its path.  The dissonant drowning guitars sound like the wails of woe from those trapped underneath the tow of the lumbering monster.  The thunderous guitar riff only occasionally lets up to slip in some squealing lines of supposed retort to the unending shifting movement of the composition like platemale armor.  The breakdown at four minutes almost seems impossible.  The song gets even more concrete and slow moving, building momentum like a fist swung by a god from the heavens, until it’s like a blistering asteroid burning its’ way through the stratosphere and smashing into an unsuspecting earth.  A slow moving tentacle of guitar reaches up from the gaping maw of sound at first, before showing its entire frame, crawling from its hidden lair to lay waste to anything it can sink its teeth into.  Suddenly, just when things reach the fevered pitch of their madness, the peak withdrawals and seeps into the opening chords of “Heavy Dissent” without warning.  The brooding sounds of crunchy fuzzed out guitars are joined by a hive of Carpentercore heavy bass end synthesizer notes that pay heavy homage to the work that they did on the recent Wolf Cop soundtrack.  Wolf Cop has somehow honestly proven to be probably my favorite material of theirs yet, and “Heavy Dissent” sounds like it could just as easily be an outtake from those sessions as something they concocted later on their own time having taken a lot away from the experience and being the clever diverse fellows that they are.  Either way, it showcases not only the unbelievable diversity that their music is capable of, but also how much they’ve learned, changed, and evolved as a band in the past few years, all the while still remaining true to the roots from whence they emerged – no simple task in this writer’s opinion.  The slightly unhinged, dissonant melodies of “Heavy Dissent” sway back and forth, being led in turn by demonic marching calls from the bellowing synthesizers and the guitar, spouting it’s distortion drenched sermon of retort in the form of screams and howls aimed at the blackened and cold void of the ethereal soundscape Shooting Guns’ crafts.  The farther you travel down the rabbit’s hole with “Heavy Dissent” the more things become disorienting and surreal, until finally they’re cracking and breaking down to a single pinpoint of noise that ebbs and breathes its last, slowly fading with an echoed call down the tube of cosmic sound it was summoned.  Side-B is Hawkeyes’ domain, and I was dying to hear what they had in store.  Their contribution to the Pre-Rock Records compilation House Of Burners “March Of The Elephants” had been the only thing I had heard from these guys since Poison Slows You Down in 2013 (which as I mentioned was only released earlier this year on LP by Helmet Lady Records) when I first discovered them.  That being the case I was astonished by what I heard on this album.  They have not rested on their laurels, far from it, instead driving themselves to new musical depths, plumbing the recess of their creative process to summon forth a heavy helping of music that is much in the same vein as their first release, but extremely refined and perfected.  “Hotter Than Ten Hundred Suns” opens their side with a melancholy echoing guitar, reverberated and distant.  They’re then joined slowly by a wider range of sound, the drums introducing slow stabs of sound into the mix.  The hypnotic sway of the galactic sounds build and grow until they’re burst at the seams with a devastatingly heavy riff which proceeds to crash land in the middle of the serene landscape.  The impact crater that it leaves is instantly filled by thundering bass and measured drums that blanket the surrounding landscape with decimating bombardments of deafening combustion.  Then, slipping once again into a simpler, more restrained groove, Hawkeyes push the keys.  They pop their head up from the receding wall of sound and interlock themselves with softly crooned leads from the guitars, all the while aided by a growing veil of spacious distortion and veil of melding melodies and rhythms that fade the song out after about nine minutes.  There’s some in-studio audible dialogue at the beginning of “The Charred Skull Of McLean Stevenson” which almost took me off guard for a second when I first heard it.  But the more I listen to the album the more it’s grown on me.  It’s nice to hear people making this kind of music that don’t have to be do deadly serious about it all the time to the point to where they feel like they need to where a mask or something.  It’s great to take your craft seriously, and Hawkeyes most certainly do that, but they don’t feel the need to project any sense of being bad asses more than they really are or anything, they simply are who they are.  Not only do I respect the hell out of that, but who they are never ceases to amaze me.  The slowly building unction of keys along with what sounds like yowling synthesizers combine with the heady stew of fuzzy wah-ed out guitars and bass to create an unhinged wobbling web of intergalactic proportions.  If you listen closely to “The Charred Skull of McLean Stevenson” you cal almost hear the UFOs swinging in and out of the mix as they land take off, attack and are eventually blown out of the sky.  The faintly Egyptian sounding keyboard progression keeps making insistent demands that what you’re hearing is indeed happening on this planet, it’s just not necessarily of this world.  The dwindling sputter of sounds that fade out of “The Charred Skull Of McLean Stevenson” give way to my favorite Hawkeyes track from Brothers Of Nod “Orange Monkey” (Hotter Reprise).  It’s restrained but extremely heavy from the start, clocking in at only four minutes it’s also kind of short for most of the stuff that Hawkeyes usually offers up.  It lacks none of the punch of their longer more protracted movements however, and gets straight to the base points of Hawkeyes:  sprawling Dali-esque landscapes of sound with a platitude of repeated guitar leads and sporadic soloing that slice through the mix callously and viciously, even when they appear buried or at some points to have disappeared all together.  The groove of “Orange Monkey” feels almost calm and cool, collected and restrained, but at the heart of the beast you can sense a burning inferno of power just waiting to be unleashed, a perfectly suitable way to close out this sweet split!  Literally my only complaint with Brothers Of The Nod is that it is just a split 12”…  I wish this was a split double-LP or hell, gimme a triple!  I want as many more albums from both of these bands as is humanly possible, I could listen to this stuff for days on end.  What’s really cool about Brothers Of The Nod to me is that I think we’re getting a really good glimpse into not only what both of these amazing bands are capable of, that’s obvious, but we’re also seeing where they’re headed for in the future.  Both Shooting Guns and Hawkeyes have so quickly begun to pick up steam in the past two years or so, that there’s no telling exactly where they’re headed from here, but Brothers Of The Nod is a pretty good indicator if I were to take a guess.  I constantly pester Hawkeyes drummer Stacey Schmitt about what they’re up to and when they’re going to have something new out, so much so that he finally gave in and told me, “It’s going to be big!  That I can say…  It’s going to be big.”  And on that rather intriguing if somewhat cryptic, but never the less exciting note, I suppose I’ll leave you with just a few details on how to pick this beast of an album up, because apparently Shooting Guns have already sold out of their ENTIRE stock of something like 200 Grey Smoke Colored LPs within a few days.  If you did manage one there, Helmet Lady Records still has some of the ‘American Version’ which comes on Opaque Tundra Vinyl and is limited to only 100 copies.  There’s also the always highly coveted ‘Die Hard Version’ with Grey And White Swirl Color Vinyl and alternate artwork on a Silk Screened print by artist extraordinaire Roan Bateman (Interview Here) who also provided the regular artwork as well.  I also believe that there’s a CD version of this that you can pick up if you don’t have a turntable, so there’s no excuses!  You can not go wrong with this album, and it’s likely not going to stick around long if the Shooting Guns pre-order selling out is any indication.  So, pick this baby up now while you can at the link below or forever be kicking yourself for it…

Review made by Roman Rathert/2015
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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Umberto - From The Grave (2015) review

Umberto - From The Grave (Permanent Records, 2015)

The past two years have seen an explosion in the soundtrack genre, specifically in what is commonly referred to as minimal synth, dark ambient, giallo or simply horror music which has made a huge comeback and seems all the rage these days.  If you grew up in the 80s like I did, than the sounds of John Carpenter’s movies were likely as much of the experience as the moving images were when you first saw them.  If you’re a fan of the horror/giallo genre though, than you also likely know that this wasn’t an isolated event and there were other, much more prolific, purveyors of that sound who came before Carpenter; Ennio Morricone, Stelvio Cipriani, and Fabio Frizzi all quickly come to mind.  And while there have been a lot of bands popping up lately releasing albums that could easily fall into the same horror/giallo genre, there aren’t many of them that approach the subject matter from such a pure and attentive angle.  Umberto, the musical alter ego of Matt Hill, on the other hand has been pumping out unbelievable albums one after the other since 2009 and he’s showing no signs of letting up anytime soon at this point.  I’m still playing catch-up on with a lot of the bands releasing this kind of stuff and only recently managed to get my hands on a copy of Umberto’s first proper full-length album From The Grave.  It was originally released in 2009 on limited edition CD-R and then quickly on cassette as well by the Sonic Meditations label the same year.  Then in 2010 Permanent Records, who never fail to impress, released From The Grave on vinyl for the first time.  The initial pressing sold out instantly and there have been four concurrent represses of From The Grave in as many years by them since!  That’s enough background on the album though.  After all, it’s the music that really matters… I mean, that’s why we’re all here right?  Well, From The Grave runs the gambit from slowly slinking sinister electronic drones to brutal pulse pounding onslaughts, guttural bellows of synthesized menace alongside funky giallo disco tracks that will have you tapping your toe just as much as they’ll have you nervously peering over your shoulder.  Starting with the ultra-short, minute-and-some-change, “Opening Title Themes” gritty blown-out church organs wail an unholy lament into cold damp air, while a slowly expanding line of synthesizers creep in from first the top-end, then the bottom, slowly surrounding the plodding unsuspecting sounds of the organ completely before beating them to a bloody pulp and forcing them to give way to the start of “Running Blade”.  “Running Blade” ups the ante significantly and starts the trend of the slightly extended run times that make up From The Grave, clocking in at almost six minutes long.  The vibes of “Running Blade” are instantly more ominous than “Opening Title Themes” as well.  There’s thick, heavy, wet synth lines dripping off the frame of a sparse, yet almost funky, drum rhythm that holds the tenuous string of applied sounds together in an immaculate framework of enthralling giallo inspired mystery and suspense.  The sweet drone and simply shifting minor progressions that lurk beneath the funky bone covered exterior of “Running Blade” are definitely grounded in a great love of Carpenter.  However, as the Carpenter vibe begins to fade out for the most part around three-and-a-half minutes in, Umberto’s own unique voice begins to take shape in the haze of tension and horror for the first time on From The Grave.  His reliance on piercing high-end clangs and chimes is something new for me for, at least for the most part.  I’ve heard people toy with them in the past, but Umberto is able to strip away the demonic bass-end of the songs that I’m used to, and his compositions stand as unsettling pieces uniquely they’re own.  “Forsaken Dawn” drives home the distilled and unapologetic giallo influences that you’re hearing extremely successfully.  Yeah, the beat almost sounds like it could be from Escape From New York or something, but the subtly shifting movements of music above it, which drift back and forth from driving bass to spasming explosions of treble, help give “Forsaken Dawn”, and From The Grave for that matter, they’re trademark sound.  It’s an almost danceable giallo disco romp into the territory of Bruno Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani or Riz Ortolani to my ear, quickly supplying yet another example as to why Umberto has basically been continuously releasing music under this moniker for six years at this point, and hasn’t had a single dud to date in my opinion.  “Forsaken Dawn” builds to such a bestial monstrous frenzy so calmly and collectively, that at first that you almost don’t notice.  That is until you’re trapped in full on psychosis mode, feeling suffocated in a haze of maddening frenzied illusions as the final notes begin to stagger and collapse from your speakers.  While your mind is still reeling from the orgy of sounds showcased in “Forsaken Dawn”, Umberto once more commands your senses be instantly assaulted, this time by the dark electronic stabs that begin “The Child”, which may in fact be my favorite track on From The Grave.  “The Child” is so sparse and the beat seems so sporadic, repetitive but completely un-formulaic – I was hooked from the first time I heard it.  Choirs of disembodied voices begin their funeral incantation, whispering inevitably of your impending demise, but in the most magnificent amalgamated spectacle of grotesque beauty and terror that you’ve ever beheld.  At once, calming and hypnotically entrancing, “The Child” begins to slowly transform.  Like an animal turning rabid, it grows razor sharp synthesized fangs dripping crimson red with the blood of its most recent victim that collect in crunchy puddles of assaulted keys at its’ unholy feet.  Umberto’s ability to take the smallest and simplest of progressions or sounds and transmogrify them, building endlessly on them, molding them into new shapes like a master mason or monster maker, until he’s crafted a towering vestal that menacingly looms before you, is absolutely breathtaking at times.  A few tracks in, just when you think you’ve got a handle on things and they’re going to get hard and heavy like you would expect, “The Child” comes to a quick close and the aggression resends.  Instead, they’re now replaced by the divine sounds of “Dream Sequence” which begin to invade every crevice and crack of your brain almost instantaneously from the moment it starts.  The ethereal opening begins to metamorphasize and juxtaposes the droning otherworldly sounds that it’s composed of with a few differing melodies, rhythms, and instruments.  A phantasmagoric organ floats in and out of the gallery of “Dream Sequence”, along with Umberto’s piercing signature high end, his almost sonic sounding bell tolls and barking screams of synthesizer.  “Dream Sequence” molds and changes shape, fitting in with nearly any possible scenario that it could be confronted with, all while unbelievably still presenting a unified vision of a slowly unraveling reality and forgotten shattered china doll beauty that’s been left shattered on the floor, scattered like the shards of a broken mirror.  The songs on From The Grave don’t accompany a movie or anything, but in a sense they almost do.  The deeper you move into the album, the closer you get to the territory of the grave itself.  The closer to the grave you get, the more images are conjured and thrown at the listener.  It’s never haphazardly though, it’s always with an almost insane level of intention and meaning, even if that’s hard to piece together on the first pass, it becomes much more apparent once you’ve finished From The Grave at least once.  The sixth track “Intermission” utilizes both the repeated haunting groan of organs and the jangling bells tones that are like Umberto’s calling cards from the very outset, but really “Intermission”, a lot like it’s name would imply, seems to operate as more of a mood setter for the next track “It Came From The Swamp” than anything else.  Especially as it’s one of only two extremely short tracks on From The Grave, especially in comparison to the hefty four to six minute vibes of the album.  It may be less than a minute long, but “Intermission” perfectly sets up the foreboding ominous tones that bring “It Came From The Swamp” lurching to life from the murky pit of mud and gore where it dwells.  Piercing synthesizers flutter underneath of a doomey droning note of pure synthetic terror, building to an explosion of horrifically deep bass and the first real discernable strings on the album; a sweet fuzzy distorted guitar grunting and crooning behind the quickly amassing menagerie of insanity.  Instead of shoehorning the instrument into the mix though, Umberto utilizes sustained single chords that ring out and bubble up in the background of the sparse erratic electronic sounds above it.  “It Came From The Swamp” feels like the listener is being pursued by some unseen, yet unarguably and undoubtedly horrible creature of unfathomably evil intentions.  Now, while there are a lot of tracks that a trained Carpenter freak’s ear could pick out on the album as obvious nods to the genius composer if one were to pay a lot of attention, the amazing use of drone and sustained single notes throughout “It Came From The Swamp” are evidence enough for me of his undeniable aesthetic presence.  There’s definitely a Halloween, specifically the more experimental Halloween III, vibe going on with “It Came From The Swamp” and that would be hard to argue against with me.  Somehow, though Umberto’s not derivative or predicable in the slightest.  It’s always annoying when someone is biting someone else’s style, but Umberto never ‘sinks’ to that level.  Instead, he opts to completely dissect what makes a song sound the way that it does, pick it all apart and then turn it on its’ head by reassembling the pieces into a new functional manifestation of his own accord.  Unnerving, disarming, scary but not at all in your face about it, “It Came From The Swamp” could easily underscore any number of extremely famous 70’s and 80’s horror movie scenes – in fact, it’s “It Came From The Swamp” more than any other track on the album that makes me wish there actually was a film to go along with the music.  I suppose the maniacally deranged images that it conjures in my mind will have to suffice, and honestly in the end, that’s fine with me.  There’s really no way anyone could actually produce anything as visually terrifying or horrifically beautiful as to visually accompany Umberto’s music on this album properly anyways.  From The Grave checks all the boxes; creepy, catchy, synthesized, eerie, dark, ominous and infectious as all hell.  From this point on the album takes on a markedly more intense and frenzied approach to the music, imbuing it with even more tension and paranoia than ever before.  In fact “Shower Scene” drives this point home like a steak knife to the heart with the name alone.  It’s an obvious nod to the infamous Hitchcock shower scene in Psycho, which is dangerous territory to tread on for me, and a lot of other people I would guess.  There’s not much in this world that I would even begin to compare with such an iconic, unforgettable and influential piece of cinematic history as that particular scene from one of Hitchock’s most beloved classics.  “Shower Scene” however is far from being out of its class, or it’s element for that matter, and I for one would love to see what Umberto could do actually rescoring a classic film like Psycho or Birds; it would be intriguing without doubt.  That aside though, the pulsating drums and relentless shrill squeals of the synthesizers on “Shower Scene” are soon joined by a rotting foul drone note, slithering from side to side, slowly molting and evolving as the song progresses and unfolds.  Together they merge to create a composition that could easily have been left off of one of the original Phantasm soundtracks – which is perhaps the highest honor I could bestow on an artist of this genre.  This song sounds as though John Carpenter and Fred Myrow got together with Malcolm Seagrave and this is the result of their limited time in the studio, a perfect marriage of the two differing sides of the same coin to create something three times as powerful and intense.  “Shower Scene” is perhaps the best of From The Grave distilled and compiled into one song, at one place at one time, a concentrate of the highest magnitude that creates pure ghoulish perfection!  It’s an unnerving song to say the least, if not immaculately crafted and performed.  Next, “In The Name Of Zuul” brings things full circle again, moving much more into the more danceable, funk, giallo sound that Umberto has become so synonymous with.  In retrospect it’s kind of incredible to listen to an album where a musician so easily taps almost every different facet of the synth and avant-garde soundtrack genres where it doesn’t come off like a jumbled mess, or worse yet, utterly painful.  The entirely derailed keys that bounce like shrapnel from a landmine throughout “In The Name Of Zuul” begin to slowly convalesce with the accompanying melodies and rhythms astride next to them to create a haunting opera from beyond the veil of life and death, a glimpse at the other side.  Even almost tribal hand percussion is eventually introduced, truly making “In The Name Of Zuul” one of the most well rounded giallo pieces ever presented outside of the original format in my opinion.  Listening to songs like this it’s all too easy to forget that this is an album and not an actual soundtrack though, which is something that I can’t often say when listening to new albums like this.  The final track is aptly named “Final Credits” and it delivers a sludge hammer of a blow to finish things off.  I’ve not been taken by many of these horror renaissance projects to be honest and one of the few exceptions is Slasher Dave, and this sounds like it could have been taken from his last album for Bellyache Records Tomb Of Horrors.  If you’ve read my review of that album, you know that’s another extremely lofty comparison for me to make, one I don’t do too often or too lightly.  With unintelligible words speaking some incantation to no-doubt summon ancient gods that we as mortals have long forgotten, Umberto summons up from the depths of the grave the most horrific and sinister sounds that he can for “Final Credits”.  Jangling bells resonate along with what sounds suspiciously like a Theremin, all the while various synthesizers and organs grind any bones that they come into contact with into powder with a devastating bottom-end that seems nearly limitless and infinite.  The sheer immense weight and power of “Final Credits” comes crashing down on the listener like a machete wielding maniac’s kill shot, a fitting end for an album that owes much of its existence to films that draw their subject matter from such things.  In the end however, From The Grave manages to move beyond being merely a good ‘horror’ or ‘giallo’ album though.  It’s not just another great ambient electronic or dark wave offering.  Its composition, production and execution place it high among some of the best recordings of nearly any genre that I’ve compulsively listened to for some two and a half decades now, with absolutely no question in my mind.  It’s not easy to hang with the greats of this genre alone either, Morricone got his name in the giallo game after all.  But Umberto in the end delivers one of the most effective and enjoyable, you can call it what you want but I’m going to just call it a horror, albums that I have ever heard.  Not only do the collected recordings work as an album, but as a kind of perceived soundtrack to images that they conjure in your mind as well.  You just but have to close your eyes and the pictures will begin to flood in with the music on From The Grave.  As fresh now as it was when it was originally released in 2009 some six years ago at this point, you need to make sure you get on top of the recent repressing.  This album belongs on any self-respecting giallo, horror, synth, no wave, dark wave, or dark ambient music lover’s record shelf.  Hell, I bet there’s a ton of psych guys out there that could associate with the approach to construction and execution of From The Grave like I can.  It easily transcends genre barriers and has continued to attract a widely growing audience for more than half a decade now.  Permanent has already done a few pressings, but you never know when the last one is going to be and you do not want to have missed out on this slab of synthesized history.  Get on the links below to hear some of what I’m talking about and do yourself a favor, buy one of these 300 nuggets of purest awesome.  And for the love of all that’s holy – someone make get me more of this man’s catalog so I can review the living crap out of it!  I know he has a new collarborative album with Antonia Maovi on the Mondo/Death Waltz Original label that I’m salivating to check out.  That’ll be in print for a while.  From The Grave on the other hand may not be sticking around as long…  Just sayin’.

Review made by Roman Rathert/2015
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