Local Music Roundup

By on 9 July, 2013 in Art, Kate and Stephen with 5 Comments

We tried this once before, over a year ago, and have sort of been waiting for the magic to fall into our laps ever since. We want to know about local bands: what they are doing, where they are playing, whether or not they are terrible. Is there any hip-hop? Electronic music? And we’re not talking about local jazz talent that makes background music at some bar. We’re talking about artists that record their music, hoping to sell tickets at shows, maybe even convince someone to pay for a CD or a download.

Sadly, local bands rarely have PR people issuing press releases when new albums are finished. We’re lucky to even see a flyer (or Facebook post or email) letting us know when and where there might be a show. So looking for local music to support isn’t easy. But if there were a cool local musical act and a venue you liked? It would be nice not to drive to Birmingham or Atlanta, right?

Sadly, we don’t even have a recurring music category here at MML because we just never see anything local that grabs our attention. But with a little searching, we’ve put together a sampling of things made by Montgomery artists:

Shane Gillis – The Guitar Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Gillis came to our attention when he was promoting a horror movie that he was making here in Montgomery. No word on how the film is progressing, but the name of this album alone is tremendous. For those of you that don’t get the reference, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the first/greatest/most important horror movies. There’s a great Portlandia sketch about it.”It’s German. It’s black-and-white. It’s silent.”

The album is none of those things.

Recorded in December of 2012, it opens with a spooky atmospheric setting which is promptly abandoned for the Iron Maiden-inspired guitar of “Surfing the Styx.” So much for the dark setting. Imagine the dark tones of the credits of horror movie giving way to an opening “totally radical” party scene where the hapless teens are water skiing and doing fancy tricks, not knowing that they are about to be chopped up by the slasher. There is no reference to a gothic German horror film, but there is a tremendous amount of instrumental fretboard showing off. Think of gigantic 1980s metal guitar excess played un-ironically. It seems nearly impossible in a post-Tenacious D Era, but there’s an almost-hilarious slow part in “Surfing the Styx” when the song comes in for a soft landing and then comes soaring back for another triumphal climax of wheedling.

The album is full of these sorts of shredding pyrotechnics that sort of feel like virtuosic demonstrations without accessibility or soul. At the least charitable, it feels perhaps inspired by guitar magazine robots like Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. More generously, one could stretch to say that there may be a touch of Duane Allman in Gillis’s playing. The songs feel so long because they don’t have traditional structure, so it’s just a guy noodling, leaving the listener feeling a bit trapped in Dr. Caligari’s titular chifforobe. “Spanish Flower” is a high point, but feels like one of those cheesy epics that calls to mind Kenny from South Park zooming through the universe in a Space Camaro. The best track on the album is “Enter the Black Lodge,” which offers a considerably darker electronic sound with less guitar and more synthesizers. However, most of the people who like this bleak dystopian (futuristic?) landscape probably aren’t going to like the soaring (nostalgic?) guitar pyrotechnics of the other songs.

The intellectual elements of the album are rewarding, with references to Twin Peaks (the black lodge) and Slaughterhouse Five (“Paul Lazzaro Sent Me”). But emotionally, too many of the songs feel like prog metal excess, evoking flying V guitars and dudes in white leather body suits and revolving drum cages and maybe even one of these.

Nostalgia for King Crimson and Yes can be fun, but it takes a full series of articles written over a long period of time to get at the heart of what was great horrible great about prog. Fortunately, that series was just recently written.

As for Dr. Caligari (the album, not the movie) the upbeat soloing makes the few down tempo tracks seem all the more out-of-place. There’s some nice slow acoustic strumming followed by an “electronic death loop” which moves into a Van-Halen-qua-Judas-Priest rocker. If you’re going to break up “Open up and Say … Ahh” with a slow number, you better make sure it’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Ultimately, it seems like a very personal document, but not something I’d listen to regularly. It’s too complicated for background listening, too heavy for bedtime instrumentals. But if you’re looking for something to be proud of when telling an out-of-town friend about the Montgomery local music scene, the album deserves praise for not pandering. It remains independently committed to its vision and doesn’t come burdened with dance hooks or dumbed-down drum beats for the masses. Even when it’s dangerously close to the legendary Spinal Tap guitar solo, it still displays ambition and a desire for sophistication that is all too often missing today, especially in the existing local music scene.

Listen to The Guitar Cabinet of Dr. Caligari here.

No – Scum Commodities

Scum Commodities is a corrosive offering from a local trio called No. Almost every track seethes with contempt for modern everything. It was recorded around Halloween of 2012 and it shows. And I don’t mean the friendly “door-to-door-asking-for-candy” part of Halloween. I’m talking death cult under the bridge.

The title track conjures The Stooges, but that’s the closest to glam this album gets. It starts dark and confrontational and descends into hostility from there. We’re talking 9 songs, each track averaging out to about 2 minutes per song. It’s a catharsis of a mosh pit, stacking up an infrastructure of basslines from which to better probe into the rubble piles with stabbing guitars.

The second track conjures Incesticide-era Nirvana, for both rhythmic prowess and vocal fearlessness.

It’s political in the best ways. As the album title suggests, it’s not about partisanship — it’s about larger social and cultural behaviors. A typical lyrical sampling comes from “Detachment from Things”: “All human heads on fire/Tracing the conscious debt. All human heads require/Melting of mental wires.” This isn’t a punk album in the sense of being anti-war or sticking a finger in the face of local bosses. Rather, it’s asking, literally, “Can you be controlled by fear?”

“Consensual Humiliation” stands out as the best track, mostly because of its melodic vocals, the album’s only real effort in that direction. I listened to it several times, each time concluding with a sense of regret that the song is only two minutes long. “Palace of Decay” probably ranks as my second favorite track.

The guitar work is violently disjointed in a cool way, but the lyrics are too good to be so hidden. It’s cool that the tracks are posted on a website that provides the lyrics, but I can’t be sure that I’d have appreciated this album in the same way if I were hearing it for the first time live (or in someone else’s car or something). I mean, I love a good mondegreen as much as anyone, but it doesn’t make your album a scum commodity just because it’s decipherable.

This is a solid album, certainly worth the $7 it is selling for online. It’s heavy-hitting, it’s profane, and the musicians are talented.

Scum Commodities by No can be heard here.

Worth noting, this band seems like it would be fun to see live. They are playing August 2 in Birmingham at the “Secret Stages” and then are playing locally August 3 at Head on the Door.

Grave RitualRandom tracks on YouTube

This is a local band. I know very little about death metal. I’m already worried that fans of the genre(s) would be already correcting me: “Um, actually this is ‘gore grind’ and not ‘death and roll.” But every realm of music has absurd and delightful (and absurdly delightful) sub-genre purists. My main point is that I’m not super qualified to say whether this is good growling or whatever. I mean, I like Saint Vitus and I’d love to go to a Grave Ritual show, just to see what it’s like there, but picking random tracks on YouTube is probably not the best way to even consume the album. So, until I can actually find a copy of 2010’s Euphoric Hymns From The Altar Of Death, I’ll just remain curious but ignorant about Montgomery’s most metal doom death metal band. Sadly, I don’t think there are any venues around here that cater to this kind of music.

Vyathist – Faceless, Dreamless

Speaking of metal (Montgomery sure does seem to produce a lot of aggro white dudes with guitars … or maybe that’s just who’s putting their music on the Internet), Vyathist is another local project that conjures up Judas Priest, airbrushed logos, and tricked out Trans-Ams.

The album opens with a typical sort of Motorhead-inspired heavy guitar riff and then you’ve got your menacing metal singing about some clones on a space station. By the first “epic” trip to the bottom of the fretboard, the whammy bar acts like a kitchen timer dinging in to ask you why you didn’t just put on a Dio album in the first place. And then, as if from the pen of M. Night Shyamalan, it turns out at the end of the song (SPOILER ALERT) that YOU WERE THE SPACE STATION ALL ALONG.

The musicality is top-notch and the production sounds really good. I appreciate the guitar parts at the start of “Abort” enough to raise an eyebrow at the speed of the whole thing. But by the end of the song, after the first one rails against “masses of useless flesh,” you are being told to kill yourself because of all of humanity’s “doomed people.” Instead of feeling privy to some kind of social critique, you end the final guitar solo amazed at how seriously they are taking themselves.

Or was that even the last guitar solo? There are so many that they all start to run together. When the lyrics are chanting “over and over and over, looped at the end of all time,” you start to wonder if they’re talking about the album. A song about the end of days should not make you check your phone optimistically.

The lyrical content is best when talking about cybernetics and consciousness, but the head-banging power chords are bringing so little new to the table that ultimately you tune out the new ideas as something overly familiar. The album improves slightly on subsequent listens, but Vyathist has to hope that the average listener hasn’t already moved on to a Mastodon album by that point.

Faceless, Dreamless by Vyathist can be heard here.

Hail the Titans – fig. –

This album was not at all what I expected. For whatever reason, I thought Hail to Titans would be the kind of Southern rock you’d see opening for a band playing Skynyrd covers. Actually, this Montgomery band is a lot closer to Radiohead. There are only two songs on fig., both instrumentals. They both clock in at over ten minutes apiece and could be perilously described as shoe-gazing. But that term carries with it too many negative connotations. The album offers really professional production values that highlight the tremendous drumming. Guitar segments suddenly skip sideways like a spooked kitten before baring claws and churning ahead at full speed. Two of the best parts come around the 7:30 mark of “Natalie Andrea” and the soaring piece around the 10 minute point of “Logan Simmons.” Both songs are named after people, but are overall wide-ranging and expansive concepts that seem also like they would hold up well live.

And maybe that’s why my opinion of them was so incorrect. I knew that they played around sometimes at places like the AlleyBAR, which usually has music that I don’t really like. But this band does play spiraling glass structures of beautiful music that I like — and I’m making it a point to see them the next time they’re around. They do seem like the kind of band that would attract hipsters in vests, nodding their heads along the back wall, annoyed that I would dare to ask them about “math rock.” But that’s not the fault of Hail the Titans, who deliver frenetic and propulsive songs that have already earned their way into repeated listening on my rotation.

fig. by Hail the Titans can be heard here.

Final thoughts:

It turns out that a lot of these albums are connected. Jeff McLeod appears on (and produces) Gillis’s Caligari. McLeod, part of No, also shares stage time with Gillis in Vyathist. Small town. But it’s also explained by the fact that McLeod is prolific. A sampling of his output can be seen here and, as noted last time, his experimental solo stuff is really great and thought-provoking. Given his many projects, he seems to be an important part of (at least this part of) the local music scene.

Speaking of local identity, it may be worth noting that none of this music has much context, geographic or otherwise. Almost every album reviewed here could have been made in Milwaukee in the 1980s. Music from Montgomery need not have references to Hank Williams’ grave or someone playing lap steel, but it’s interesting that in looking for “Montgomery music” (again, at least on the Internet), so little of it sounds like my daily experience of this place. Or maybe the Internet really is just flattening the world.

Finally, if you liked any of this music (even the ones that weren’t my favorites), please send your local musician a couple of bucks. Buy an album. The only way music gets better is if good people support it and make it possible for a scene to grow. Nothing reinforces musical development quite like paying for tickets to a show and buying an album of music made in Montgomery.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, four fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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There Are 5 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Stephen says:

    Note: After finishing the above piece, I came across another McLeod project that was too good to refrain from sharing. It’s totally different than any of the above stuff. It’s acoustic guitar-based instrumentals and it’s called MothMeat. It can be found here: http://mothmeat.bandcamp.com/

  2. Hi Stephen and Kate, I just discovered your blogs.They’re wonderful! I’ve been talking about them all day. I run a little page about local music called “The Montgomery Music Reclamation.” We’re undergoing a facelift due to renewed interest in local music, but check back with us in a month or so for a fully updated list of current montgomery bands ( I think we have about 20 we’ll be profiling in all. In the meantime, please check out my often overlooked but never underindulgent indie pop project “Windsor Bellephone” at windsorbellephone.bandcamp.com. Hi Shane, Ryan, Jeff, and Josh!

  3. OC says:

    Make it a point to go see & hear Fire Mountain, from Troy, next time they come to MGM for a show.

    https://www.facebook.com/firemountainisawesome

  4. SF says:

    I grew up in Montgomery, but left in 2000. I lived in Austin, TX for 2 years, then moved to Portland, OR, where I’ve lived for the last 11+. I left to pursue a music career, and while that hasn’t exactly worked out, I can tell you that anyone with any ambition and no reason to stay usually leaves Montgomery. I don’t know one person I grew up with who stayed. Anyway, that’s all to say that you’ll be hard-pressed to find much going on in local music; it sounds like there’s even less going on than when I lived there (according to my dad, the local music scene peaked in the late sixties). It’s largely a legacy of a former mayor you’ve no doubt heard a lot about since moving there — Emory Folmar. He was notorious for running the town in favor of the country-club set, and any effort at putting on shows was immediately shut down; I was present for many of those in the early nineties. So, kudos for giving it a shot; you should be able to find plenty of Montgomery-based hip-hop (YouTube), but just be aware that most of it is incredibly derivative of the Dirty South sound that was all the rage 15 years ago.

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