Believe it or not, I really wasn't intending to get as deep into a written review of this compilation from Frequency Thirteen as I did, but once I started exploring all of the sounds documented on this new double-disc set, i just couldn't help myself from trying to lay out for you all of the strange and deranged sounds that have been collected here. I dove into the Frequency Thirteen label earlier this year after we received a bunch of their releases from bands like Dukkha, Skultroll, Ice Bound Majesty, Black Vomit and Torture Gnosis, all of who sounded nothing alike, but who shared a similiar propensity for blending together elements of krautrock, black metal, doom, prog, kosmiche ambience, and electronic noise into strange and intoxicating new sounds. Almost everything on the label comes from the UK burg of Sheffield, and the label has rallied it's roster and fans around the emblem of "True Sheffield Black Psychedelia", which is far less about a specific sound as it is the general headspace that these cats inhabit which allows them to produce such mutant heaviness. I loved all of the stuff that we picked up from Freq Thirteen, as did many of you guys, as we've continued to mail out loads of discs from the label ever since we started listing 'em.
Now, the label has come out with a compilation called Audio Apogee that captures a staggering amount of new music from both known bands on the label and new names that I havent't heard of before, but all of them are connected by the Sheffield scene and the warped and blackened psychedelic aesthetic that seeps into the music of every single one of these bands. If you though that the Freq Thirteen/"True Sheffield Black Psychedelia" sound was varied before, wait till you get a load of this...there's fractured industrial Grime filered through sputtering electronic noise, dark nocturnal dub, ferocious low-fi black metal awash in skull-peeling white noise, SST-infected motorik groove, dreamy dark krautrock, pitch-black kosmiche ambience, dark folk covers of blacknoise tracks, epic jangly hypno-sludge, instrumental gutter doom, grinding psychedelic blackblast, jagged doom/grind, proggy mongoloid thrash metal, oceanic dronesludge, even some strange off-kilter Britpop that sounds like a heavily drugged and deformed Stone Roses viewed through the wavering portal to another dimension. Every song takes you in a different direction, but at all times, you're situated right in the middle of the wonky Sheffield scene, making this one of the few real scene-documenting comps that I've picked up lately. To top it all off, the package is AMAZING, an extravagant foldout/diecut sleeve that was obviously labor-intensive to create, and one of the finest cd-r packages that I've ever seen.
The Frequency Thirteen disc opens with the ten minute "Bookdust" from Syn, a project from one one of the members of TheKevorkianSolution and Unholy Warlock. Beginning with a few minutes of whooshing, windswept cosmic drift and faded voice samples, this then kicks into a shuffling trip-hop rhythm and slithery bassline that lurches beneath a canopy of eerie samples, looped jazz piano, and loads of trippy electronic effects. Dark, ominous industrial-flecked trip hop grooviness. Then it's on to Dukkha, one of my favorite Frequency Thirteen bands, whose "Deu!" takes off immediately with a pulsating, fastpaced krautrock groove, a simple repeating guitar line over a pounding motorik beat, dark and hypnotic, obviously taking cues from Neu! and other classic krautrock bands like the song title suggests, but injecting it with that heavy weirdness that's a part of anything Dukkha does, especially at the end when the guitars get skronkier and more spikey, the drums erupt out of the motorik beat into a flurry of pounding rolls and it suddenly turns into instrumental hardcore, very SST-esque. Next is Jani Hellen, Who is actually from Finland but has been embraced by the Frequency Thirteen camp, not surprising when you hear the very strange, very gorgeous alien dronescape of "Piirit/Spheres"...this piece is constructed entirely from samples of Mellotron choir sounds that have been manipulated and layered on top of each other to create a nightmarish world of melting voices and lush angelic wails dripping down a vast black nightscape. Back to Sheffield, Pulsar's "Praeternatural Light" is a high quality live track (sounds like it came out of a studio to me) from this electronica group, who blend together vintage analogue synthesizers with a sputtering, lurching breakbeat assault, like an acid-dosed electro Hawkwind. Kptmichigan are from Germany, and deliver a relatively short piece of droning chorale synths, backwards melodies, wisps of white noise, and trance-inducing percussive loops into something that resembles a much more krautrock-infected Black To Comm, would definitely like to hear more from this mysterious project. Republic Of The Elms is one of the first real blasts of heaviness to appear on this disc...the duo erect might black walls of grinding glacial doom riffs and murky, dub-flecked machine rhythms beneath an endless sky of black electronics and epic melodic synths that almost sound like delayed horns blasting through the void. Blurts of crushing, almost dubstep-esque bassline and gusts of blackened noise appear throughout, and reminds me a bit of that new album from Legion Of Two. I really want to hear a full length from this project. The track then segues perfectly into the next, "Skunkstreet, Swaying" from Scum Also Rises, and holy shit, is this killer. Think UK grime, but slowed down, way down, to a stomping Godflesh-like pound with sinister synth pads and distorted basslines and laconic, reverb-soaked rhymes over top, bursts of mechanical double-bass flutter in the background kicking in and the creepy industrial groove morphs into frenetic drum n' bass halfway in, the rhythms becoming more energetic and furious and chaotic, the vocals disappearing completely and replaced by swarms of ominous sounding old-school 8-bit melodies, until everything gets chaotic and blasting at the very end, drum machine blastbeating, electronics going haywire, and finally sputtering to a close. Even if you've been following the Freq Thirteen label for a while, this track is still surprising to hear, but is so heavy and creepy and fucked-up that it fits in perfectly.
Microkoto contributes a nice track of dark, dreamy electronica called "Neptu", a swirling cloud of glitches and orchestral strings welling over skittery beats and eerie piano. Then Trolskull, which Freq Thirteen fans will probably deduce is an offshoot of the band Skultroll, whose disc on the label was reviewed here a few weeks ago. "Chant Of The Cryptical Priests" doesn't sound a whole lot like the super-distorted blackened hypno-rock that the Skultroll disc battered us with; instead, this four and half minute piece starts off with dark cumulus formations of metallic prayer-bowl whirr, digital distortion and haunted moans that loop around and around, a very Aural Hypnox sort of ritual black ambience, but as it gets deeper in, roaring squalls of distorted guitar and resonant waves of bell-like tones seep in, becoming pretty damn heavy by the halfway point, and then slides back out into the ether in a cosmic trail of feedback tones and creaking strings. Again, this track blends right into the following, OBM's "I Am The Middle Of The East", another foray into dreamy twilight electronica, this time composed of flurries of hand chimes and soft guitar melody interlaced over a murky rhythmic backdrop of tribal drums wound into vaguely krautrock like patterns. Fans of Muslimgauze, Vidna Obmana and Pellarin would dig this.
The next track is one the strangest on the compilation. The Disobedients are a band that according to the liner notes employs hip hop methodology, turntables and electronics into their normal activities, but what we get here is a cover of the song "Demons In The Black Smoke" from Black Vomit, one of our favorite Freq Thirteen bands (whose latest album on Rusty Axe was a featured release a few months back); you'd never recognize it though, as the band has taken this song and turned it into a dark and gloomy folk lament with the simple acoustic riff and plodding bassline accompanied by soft, hushed singing and the faint presence of electronic ambience in the background. It's really quite pretty, actually. Next comes "Singular Labyrinths" from Sluglord, who unleash lush dungeon atmospherics through time-stretched cymbal crashes, clanking percussion, sheets of blackened ambience, chest-rattling bass, and lonseome, extremely pretty guitar melody that's been warped and dunked in tar and stretched out across this vast expanse of stygian reverb-cloaked blackness. Kinda sounds like a more minimal kosmiche Goslings, which ain't no bad thing. And the last entry on this disc takes us back to Syn, who closes this out with the skittering, jazzy digital dubstep and nocturnal ambience of "Bloodlust".
Where the previous disc leaned more towards the druggy and dreamy krautrock and dub-flecked driftscape end of the Sheffield Blackpsych sound, the Night Angels Serve disc showcases the heavier end of the scene, starting with the pounding doom dirge of Beadle's "Withered Hand", a rumbling black-tar mass of instrumental Electric Wizard-esque riffage robed in droning feedback and interesting counterpoint riffing, stretched into a repetitious near-ten-minute hypnosludge jam. Then Dukkha breaks out "Nut Ward", the most rocking song I've ever heard from the project, mixing together skronky Greg Ginn-esque guitar around a skullpounding motorik beat - this fucking RULES, even though it's over in a minute and a half, FAR too short, and apparently this is also the last ever track from Dukkha, making this doubly bittersweet. Brobdingnagian follows with "You, you smell like death", which follows in the vein of their scathing disc on Rusty Axe with a hellstorm blast of low-fi black metal and ridiculously distorted noise that morphs into a round of pummeling tribal percussion before disintegrating into creeping black sludge. The track goes all over the place from there, exploding into nauseating chaotic black metal shot full of grating industrial noise and fucked-up vocals, then dropping into dark doomy jazziness that reminds me of Bohren & Der Club Of Gore, and finally evacuates in a blur of digital noise. "Reptilian Lairs" kicks in immediately from Drawn From Ichor, whose amazingly fucked n' chaotic blackened grind sounds like ten different Beherit songs all playing at the exact same time, becoming a massive roaring wall of blastbeat-ridden sonic scum. Insane guitar solos, weird damaged percussion, gurgling black vomit vocals, and even some strains of epic melody can be heard squirming around in their ultra-dense psychedelic blacknoise. Another favorite from this comp, for sure. We get another Trolskull track, the eleven minute "Unutterable Hideousness", which starts off as an expanse of black kosmiche drift, pulsating low-end streaked with digital glitchery and gorgeous deep-space synths and distant chiming guitar and strange processed vocals, but then explodes a few minutes later into a massive grinding dirge, crushing bass and orchestral darkness flowing over skittery rhythms and dubbed out percussion buried inside the mass of noisy electronic sound, turning this into a blackened electronica version of Nadja for a few minutes, before drifting back out into the void on thick clouds of interstellar fuzz, swelling synth drones, distant mechanical throb, and abstract digital noise.
Ydintalvi shows up and blew my doors off with "XV", a swirling blast of black metal chaos cloaked in white noise, Abruptum-like howls of torment, and ramshackle blastbeats, with a KILLER melodic riff at the center of it all, and hints of old school Finnish hardcore thrash lurking around the edges. It flows directly into "Myth Cycle" from Ice Bound Majesty, which is one of the tracks/bands that I was really looking forward to hearing on here. The Ice Bound Majesty disc on Frequency Thirteen was one of the label's best, a bizarre and totally unique fusion of damaged black metal, industrialized doom, grim Lustmordian ambience, and warped psychedelia, and I've been dying to hear something new ever since. "Myth Cycle" doesn't disappoint, though it's hardly what I was expecting. Things start off with a looped female vocal that sounds more like something you'd hear from some old UK dance remix single, while blackened guitars and sheet metal ambience clusters in the background, and then wham, everything explodes suddenly into a furious black metal assault, slamming programmed blastbeats alternating with thunderous double bass, scathing shrieks cloaked in distortion, a simple dreary melody repeating over it all. The song twists and turns, going from this raging computerized black metal weirdness, to weird techno-esque breakdowns, or stretches of psychedelic ambience and that ever-present female vocal loop floating over extended blastbeats. Ferocious!
And that's followed by what I think is the most unexpected piece of music on the comp, a catchy, kinda demented bit of shuffling groovy dance-rock from a band called Economy 9. Their "Yer Good Self Has Died" comes across like a dark, trippy version of early 90's Manchester sound, like Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, but infected with that weird effects-drenched Sheffield psychedelia. Crooning vocals and funky off-time rhythms and a shadowy vibe permeate this track, and while it seems to come out of nowhere after the blazing noise-damaged black metal that has preceded it, after a moment it starts to feel right at home within the offbeat Sheffield soundworld.
The rest of the disc features a raw, earhole-blowing jam of stop-start grindcore mayhem and angular doom from TheKevorkianSolution, and another gorgeous bit of weirdo psychedelic from KPTMichigan, which this time sounds like a weird country-pop hook blown through a digital processor and looped over jangling krautrock rhythms and backwards distortion. There's an actual Skultroll track, "The Dreaming Spires", featuring bleak ambient wash over distorted hypno-dirge and blossoms of queasy Hawkwind-style effects - heavy, druggy shit, like a slowed down Gore matched up with broken Teutonic synths and played back on a tape deck with dying batteries. The ingeniously named War Ethic start their track with a splattering of electronic beat fuckery that warps straight into some brutal low-fi thrash metal, seemingly all instrumental (at least, I can't hear any vocals going on here), with weirdo riffing going all over the place while the drummer freaks out in a big way. Weird and kind of proggy and brain-damaged at the same time.
And finally, the disc is closed out with "Threnody For Ron Asheton" from Charles Dexter Ward. This one-man band pays tribute to the deceased Stooges guitarist with a sprawling instrumental doom lament that for all of it's low-fi grit actually sounds pretty damn epic. Chugging, majestic fuzz-caked riffing wanders over simple, dirgey percussion, veering into psychedelic guitar noise and jangly strum - a strange mix of plodding doom, Swans, Goslings, and psychedelic jangle. Very cool!
The packaging for Audio Apogee is one of the coolest that I've ever seen for a CD-R release. I wish that a quarter of the people out there releasing CD-Rs would put this much effort and creativity into their presentation. The two discs come in a full color sleeve that folds into a multi-panel package, which is filled with a bunch of different full-color insert cards with strange abstract artwork and information on the label, the sleeve itself features liner notes on every single song printed on the inside of the sleeve, the discs are held together by a foldover obi-strip, and the front of the sleeve has a small square die-cut that reveals the Frequency Thirteen emblem underneath of it. What is most amazing about this package is that it's obvious that this was all done by hand, with an intense attention to detail and quality. Easily puts almost everyone else releasing cd-rs to shame. I highly recommend clicking on the cover image to see an actual photo of this compilation all spread out.
Audio Apogee is hands down my pick for best compilation of 2009. It showcases a wide breadth of sounds from within the warped nocturnal soundworld of the label and True Sheffield Black Psychedelia, with both current favorites on the label and new names that provided some of the most interesting sounds on the compilation. If you've been as infatuated with the weird psychedelic heaviness and shadow electronica of the Sheffield scene (and it's satellite partners) that same that I have been, then this comp is essential! Highly recommended.