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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.





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

 





The Down & Outs new single may just make you jealous

Jealousy is what happens when “good” emotions get turned inside-out and then collided against a bunch of other emotions, and I was a psych major so I should know. (suck it, Dr. Phil!) As opposed to envy (wanting something you don’t have) jealousy is the act of dreading, or lamenting, the loss of something you do have. Which means that jealousy actually derives from a state of happiness, or at least contentment, until some other party appears poised to take one’s happiness-generating special someone or something away (or does take them away) which causes that happiness to get turned inside-out into something more like anger or fury. Add in some disgust, fear, and surprise (“I didn’t see it coming!”) and you got your most pungent form of jealousy. 

And guess what, I’ve just listed each one of the six most basic forms of human emotion as defined by noted actual psychologist and “emotions expert” (yes, this exists) Paul Ekman, meaning that jealousy is basically all the emotions at once and no wonder it’s such an irrational and erratic state of being and probably delusional about half the time too.

Like it’s nominal subject, “Jealous//Unreal” begins in a fairly positive state of mind with a tightly-coiled come-hither vibe that’s basically desire personified--an in-the-pocket head-nodding bassline set against a tight dance-punk beat and washed of ambient guitar chords that’s projects steady confidence no matter how much the fragmentary lyrical content may be casting shadows of doubt. But soon something like obsessive fixation creeps into the picture with a single four-word phrase repeating that includes both the words in the song’s title. And while “Jealous//Unreal” soon breaks away from the repeated phrase and goes back to another verse, it’s like you’ve just heard the moment that a jealous seed is planted, like foreshadowing for the more total slide into irrational fixation. 

It’s not until after the song appears to end for a moment at 1:50 with a quick fadeout that it proceeds to turn itself inside-out. The once unrelenting, syncopated bassline is reduced to short two-note bursts utilizing an even heavier more fuzzed out sound with only the stripped-down drums filling the gaps. And in the vocals the intrusive thought from earlier completely takes over, progressing gradually from a whisper to a scream and repeated to the point of absurdity, turned into a mantra with the vocals and music gradually building in intensity and speed until it sounds like a runaway train about to jump the tracks (peep those two parallel lines in the song’s title hmmm..) before an emergency brake gets pulled at the last minute and you wonder if the whole cycle is about to begin again (this is six-minute long song that feels like it’s maybe four minutes long that’s how immersive it gets to be).

Anyway, it’s one of the best aural representations of jealousy taking hold and then taking over I’ve heard in quite some time with a seductive groove hijacked by OCD repetition and growing sonic chaos (two sides of the same coin?) but without ever losing its animating drive (the sense of desire, the foundational groove). But however ambitious this may sound rest assured The Down & Outs don’t make soggy jam band epics for noodle dancing, or pretentious prog rock epics about how to balance your chakras, because “Jealous//Unreal” stays rooted in a no-fat-on-the-bones post-punk-ish tension and concision with strong funk and dub underpinnings throughout (and if that’s not the most stereotypically music-criticy sentence I’ve ever written then I owe you two dollars but still it’s all quite true) or at least that’s my read.

So maybe there needs to be more songs written about jealousy. Just like the world could use more movies like Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, one of the best movies ever about jealousy and I could watch Joan Crawford and Bette Davis drag each other down the stars all day in full-on psycho-biddy/hagsploitation mode all day. In my opinion a better point of comparison for the two most recent Down & Outs singles (the previous one being “Last Party On Duke Street”) would be Public Image Ltd. given that band’s groundbreaking sound in their early years with often fronted by deep-groove bass and death disco beats locked into robotic repetition with Keith Levene’s guitar parts spiraling overhead—vacillating between atmospheric swells and slashing attacks all immersed in a distinctively dub reggae production style. But who knows maybe I’m making all this up.

Luckily, I got to have a lovely conversation with Down & Outs’ bassist/vocalist/co-songwriter Ray recently (we’re on a first name basis now) when he called up The Deli HQ mistakely one day trying to order a chopped cheese and agreed to submit to a few question instead. And he seemed pretty ok with the PiL comparison while also presenting his own list of musical influences that I could hardly keep up with in my notes but I did catch Death from Above 1979, Channel Tres, Thin Lizzy, Daniel Avery, AC/DC, and I Hate Models among others and already that’s we’re talking such an intriguing grab bag of hard rock, vibey EBM-inflected rap music, techno and garage (the latter in both in the rock and electronic sense) that it’s no wonder they’re so good at depicting the collision of conflicting impulses and emotions of a jealous mind.

As it turns out, the structure of “Jealous//Unreal” grew out of the Great Lockdown during which Ray and band guitarist/co-songwriter) Benji started trading ideas back and forth in Garageband--and no doubt Tom the Drummer too, who replaced previous drummer Varun the Drummer--building these last two singles (and the next one, you heard it here first!) from the scrapheap of assembled ideas, choosing one of these scraps as the through line for an entire song and then adding/subtracting layers and applying other sonic manipulations as they traded the tracks back and forth--a dialectic technique that would make Aristotle proud and that was simpatico with their previously existing flipsides-of-the-same-coin creative dynamic.

Ray compares this working method to 1) a rock band making their version of a techno song, simulating electronic music without the actual electronics; and 2) a rock band in the vein of the Stooges, making rock songs out of minimalist pounding riffs repeated ad infinitum as a wide-open canvas for an Iggy-like shamanistic lead singer to entrance listeners with verbal incantations and acts of self-mutilation (I’m paraphrasing here) and he therefore concludes that 3) the Stooges invented techno, which truly, is just the sort of audacious thinking we encourage here at the Deli because like they say go big or go home.

This led the two of us down a much more wide-ranging but inspiring conversational rabbit hole about wanting to break the mold of the entrenched conservatism that mainstream rock music had settled into during the 21st century (case in point, Gen X “dad rock” bands like Foo Fighters are still having number one albums over 20 years after they formed and hey we love ya Dave but must you appear in every single rock doc that gets made today (!)  but still The Colour and the Shape remains unimpeachable forever) leading some of your more adventurous contemporary bands to twist themselves into “guitar-based music” pretzels just to shun the “rock” label and its current associations. 

But Ray instead advocates expanding the palette of rock’s sources of inspiration and desire for experimentation. And really when you think about it this is consistent with rock tradition already and “iconic” icon-smashing bands like the Clash (“No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977 they promised) riffing on dub, funk, ska, and Americana instead like a kid let loose in a musical candy store, or a band like Blondie being influenced by a plethora of music including uptown artists like Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash back before your average honky on the street ever heard the words “hip” and “hop” placed back to back even among many New Yorkers (clubs like the Roxy, the Mudd Club, and Paradise Garage were crucial to these uptown/downtown encounters with their eclectic punky funky bills back in the day).

So in this sense the latest music by The Down & Outs could be considered both progressive and retro (but in the most expansive and least reactive sense) proving that rock music in New York City isn’t down and out for the count yet; of course if you’re a regular reader of the Deli you know that already! So why not wish these boys luck in their efforts to twist familiar genres inside-out (which again makes me think of dub reggae innovations as critical to this equation, after all it’s also been called “X-Ray Music”) setting them on a collision course to see what’s born out of the wreckage. And if that sounds grandiose then blame me not the down-and-outers because they seem like pretty modest guys. And hey if the band’s ambition makes you a little jealous, well, such is the price of letting emotion take hold. (Jason Lee)


 





Homeboy Sandman shows off his work ethic on latest EP with Aesop Rock

Hover over the graphic below to listen to Homeboy Sandman's Anjelitu EP in its entirety. And if you like what you hear, you can head out to RE:GEN:CY in Red Hook, Brooklyn, tonight to see him perform live.

 
In modern-day America I think it's safe to say that most of us don’t know too much about our homeland’s labor history or workers’ rights movements. For example, it wasn't until I did some Labor Day googling yesterday that I first learned about the 100-year-old Battle of Blair Mountain, where 10,000 workers living in a West Virginia mining camp staged an armed insurrection against the bosses who apparently treated their interracial work force like slaves and carried out intimidation and assassination (!) campaigns against worker-residents who tried to unionize. The battle ended after five days (and about a hundred deaths) when the US Army intervened on the side of the coal mining company (interesting sidenote: the militant miners called themselves the “Red Neck Army” after the red bandanas they wore around their necks, meaning that some of the first “rednecks” were Black Americans, a term that was soon usurped by less enlightened elements).

It's pretty crazy I’d never heard of the uprising before—another piece of our history that’s been suppressed and kept out of school curricula (see the "Red Neck Army" link above) not unlike the Tulsa race massacre, a tragedy that likewise occurred in 1921 which was not exactly a banner year for this country (and ok, my own inherent laziness get some of the blame as well). Anyway, about now you may be thinking “what does this have to do with emerging music in New York City?” Because, let’s face it, labor history isn’t the most popular subject for songwriters with some notable exceptions of course. What’s arguably more surprising is how the broader topic of work is likewise not so popular as a musical subject, despite it occupying about half the waking hours of the full-time gainfully employed and even more time if we define work simply as “concerted effort put into a given task," but then again who wants to think about work when enjoying music or to think about making music as "work"?

Hip hop artists and audiences is who. Or at least it is judging by how often work is acknowledged in lyrics and in hip hop culture as a reality of life--with words like “hustle” and “grind” used frequently and approvingly. And pro-work tendencies are hardly limited to aspirational pop-rap, or serious-minded conscious rap, because even when attention is turned to such leisure activities as sex and drugs in hardcore-oriented rap, it’s notable how often (to the point of cliché by now) these subjects are framed less in terms of pleasure and more in terms of work, with the job security of "pimps, players, and pushers" guaranteed thanks to the insatiable desires of their clientele, an even more durable subject given the exploitational parallels drawn between "underground" and "legitimate" economies. As for mumble rappers, they stand proud and tall (ok, more slouched over really) for the slacker contingent. (notably country music used to excel at work songs too, but not so much anymore, since Nashville hitmakers stay busy these days writing songs about date nights at Applebee’s and sexy tractors).

Work is clearly front and center on the opening track (“Go Hard”) of Homeboy Sandman’s Anjelitu EP (Mello Music Group), the latest in a series of collaborations with fellow underground highly-productive worker bee Aesop Rock (who produced all of Anjelitu and contributes vocals on the last number “Lice Team, Baby”) that began back in 2015 with their first record together under the Lice moniker—a moniker most recently resuscitated for their MF Doom tribute single early this year. And Mr. Sandman is clearly pretty well-versed on the subject of work given his employment history (bartending, marketing, teaching in the NYC Public School System), the three years he spent at Hofstra Law School before dropping out to become a full-time emcee ("I want to make arguments and make points and back them up with details [and] specifics, and that's the type of stuff you work on at law school" he explained back in a 2012 interview), and finally, in his status as an underground "hip hop PhD".

And his partner Aesop Rock knows a thing or two about work too, considering that his breakthrough LP, Labor Days (Def Jux, 2001) was a concept album centered around the perils and the pleasures of labor as well as the larger plight of working-class America (“Now we the American working population / hate the fact that eight hours a day / is wasted on chasing the dream of someone that isn't us”), an album that’s still considered a landmark of independent hip hop, not to mention white rapperdom.

“Go Hard” is a phrase that one online dictionary defines as “to work hard or to do something with intensity” and boy does our ‘Boy Sand (as he refers to himself on the track) go hard on “Go Hard” as he bobs and weaves between the metronomic-yet-lopsided beat like Muhammad Ali playing rope-a-dope with bars that float like a butterfly and sting like a bee (“I’m like Fred Hampton chewing on rattlesnake plantain / in other words, I go hard”) unspooling in short bursts at first then turning into long flowing lines like a bebop solo (Mr. Sandman is a jazz fan and former sax player, and his Dominican father was a champion boxer before becoming a lawyer focused on local progressive causes, so the math adds up). And hey anyone who manages to rhyme string theory, chimichurri, cemetery, and seminary and make it flow seamlessly both musically and logically has clearly put in the work and isn’t afraid to let it show.



Over the subsequent five tracks, Sandman and Aesop offer a virtual correspondence course on underground hip hop beat-making—ranging from minimalist funk grooves to beats built on what sound like Spaghetti Western samples and that’s just in the next couple of tracks—and equally on the technically complex bars favored by many underground emcees including heavy doses of consonance and assonance, alliteration, speed rapping, slant rhyming, internal rhyming, multisyllabic rhyming (a.k.a. “multis”) and other techniques—it’s telling that most of these techniques can be heard in four random lines off Anjelitu like “Another clash, another classic down the massive drain / Gene Kelly dancing in the acid rain / beneath the moon, I penned the music for the village getting raided / play while lickin' shots, I’m still in shock from Ewing getting traded”—not to mention all the clever metaphors and allusions and colorful imagery and the constant switch-ups of flow and the lyrical callbacks to the likes of LL Cool J, Slick Rick, and Cypress Hill. With so much going on it can get pretty intense, just ask the Youtube reviewer above.

So if you wanna help support two hard-working indie hip hop stalwarts you’ll probably want to check out Anjelitu and perhaps drop the artists a few bones for their trouble. The record's title is a mashup of Homeboy Sandman’s childhood nickname (Angelito meaning “Little Angel”) and the well-known Chinese yin-yang symbol (taijitu) which symbolizes the fluctuating dynamic caused by opposing forces coming together to form a whole—which all makes good sense given the highly personal nature of the record (“My team ain’t make it to the playoffs / luckily my demons always make it to the seance”) and its shape-shifting nature (consistent with Sandman and Aesop’s discographies on the whole) holding true to the vow made on the EP to “go to hell and back 'fore I repeat myself.” And if you wanna witness some hip hop labor performed live before your very eyes, as stated above, you can head over to RE:GEN:CY in Red Hook, Brooklyn tonight (9/7) where our 'Boy Sand will do his thing. Or catch him touring across this great nation’s southern and western regions over the next couple months. (Jason Lee)

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