Normal Love – Survival Tricks

I’m not ordinarily the kind of listener to participate in “best record of year X” rhetoric, but Normal Love has left me no choice in 2012. Avant rock fans: this is your album of the year. A co-release between Public Eyesore and Weasel Walter’s ugEXPLODE label, Survival Tricks is available on CD and LP. Normally, PE promos show up on my doorstep in CD format, but I love this record so much that I’m going to order the vinyl, too.

I first heard Normal Love back around 2008, shortly after their self-titled debut dropped on High Two records. At the time, I was obsessed with the “brutal prog” attack of the last few Flying Luttenbachers albums (especially “Systems Emerge from Complete Disorder” and “Cataclysm”) and Zs “Arms” LP of 2007, and I was actively looking for other bands working toward similar integrations of the compositional rigor of contemporary classical music, the swagger of free jazz, and the boundless energy of hardcore and metal. The closest thing I found was the Normal Love debut, which I found incredibly interesting musically, though it lacked a little of the bravado of Zs and the Luttenbachers. 2009 brought the “Peel” EP, whose two songs hinted at new facets in the group’s development with the addition of vocals by Merissa Martigoni and a new emphasis on jagged rhythmic work.

As good as those releases are—and they’re very much worth hearing—nothing can prepare you for the shock of “Survival Tricks.” Listening to this album for the first time was one of those all-too-rare experiences (and the reason I get excited about listening to records) where I found myself shouting out loud in response to the music: “holy shit,” “fuck yes,” omigod, ARRRRRRR. Normal Love is a whole new band, every bit as technically gifted but alive with a magical, feral intensity. The raw power of this album can’t be ignored. This recording couldn’t turn into background music if you played it in a war zone.

Have a taste for yourself: there is a new video for the opening track, “Lend Some Treats.” While I could regale you with tales of the brilliance one can make of insane rhythms that multiply in Fibonacci-esque explosions, the contrary whole-step pulling between voice and violin on the word “try,” the various regroupings on unison notes that pedal off in wild directions, and the impossible hocketing of sounds around the whole ensemble, experiencing it yourself is simply too primal and pre-language to adequately put into words:

Normal Love – Lend Some Treats (Official Music Video) from Haoyan of America on Vimeo.

As you might imagine from that track, describing the stylistic tendencies of “Survival Tricks” is a challenge maybe better left to listening than description. The music focuses intensely on rhythm, both elemental macrorhythms and quickly-articulated nanorhythms: brainwaves soaring over the heart and the lungs. Though the songs mostly gravitate toward tonal centers, and melodic invention has its place (especially in the affecting melodies of “I Heard You Could See Baltimore from There”), rhythm and timbre demand the most attention. The closest RIYL notion that I can come up is somewhat abstract, but maybe it’ll give you a good starting impression: I always felt like the Zs album “Arms” opened up a set of new sonic possibilities that nobody explored any further, including Zs. “Survival Tricks” goes many fathoms deeper into that territory than anyone has before, unearthing musical discoveries that will startle both your head and your heart. Most of these pieces are incredibly complex, fully satisfying for deep cerebral listening, but there is a raw power behind the whole record that demands more fundamental emotional reactions. You’ve got to feel this one.

Now that most of Normal Love’s tracks feature vocals, and they’ve taken such a turn toward the visceral from the cerebral, I found it interesting to note that the lyrical content of these pieces tends to focus on undomesticated fundamentals, too: moss, clay, earth, brine, water, solitude, young sex, “Life: quality or quantity?” I was also moved by the transcendent vibes of this record in terms of gender identity—so many albums that get this “brutal,” for lack of a better word, feel overwhelmingly masculine, but this music is equal parts masculine and feminine. I’m sure the participation of women in the recording (Merissa Martigoni on vocals and keys, and Jessica Pavone on amplified violin on many tracks) has an obvious contribution toward that balance, but some of the best lyrical moments toward female empowerment were penned by men in the group, such as the lyrics to the “Baltimore” track mentioned above that came from bassist Evan Lipson.

Hearing this record has changed the way I feel about music in a way that few records have done. This one is going on a very short personal list of heavy albums I return to frequently, including Kayo Dot’s “Choirs of the Eye,” Time Of Orchids’ “Sarcast While,” Extra Life’s “Secular Works,” and the Flying Luttenbachers and Zs records mentioned above. If you’re into those bands, you simply have to give this a try. And Normal Love is planning a tour for later this year, which will feature new member Rachael Bell on voice/sampler, around late August/September—check for tour dates at their website.

—Scott Scholz



AufgehobenKhora (Holy Mountain, 2008)

I’m a very patient listener, but I have my limits. When this record came out, I bought it on the strength of Aufgehoben’s previous album, Messidor, an album that was mistakenly placed in the “electronic” section of Other Music (NYC), and, since it looked like Autechre, I had some reservations about it. However, that was pretty damn good, in the same vein as MoHa!. None of that, however, prepared me for Khora. When I saw the song lengths, I asked myself if I could listen to a nearly 30 minute track of this. Truth be told, some of you might pass on that, at least for a long time. I did. In fact, I didn’t listen to that last track until this past month. I have no idea why I waited.

Khora is a special beast, especially this last track. Its mystery is how it can pack so much dynamism within a seemingly static song. That is, if you don’t just listen to it, just like some eai, it will sound completely arbitrary and uniform, but just like eai, it can actually be seen as radically different from moment to moment. This last track is so good, in fact, that I consider it the ultimate rock instrument generated noise track I’ve ever heard.

When I first listened to this, I was trawling through Tumblr and came across this picture:

This isn’t a commentary whatsoever about the specific contents of the picture, but rather a personal experience tied to listening to this music. The sounds in this last track are chaotic, aggressive, and when I encountered this picture, it added some sense to the music of despair. In other words, this noise can take on a sorrowful tone. Indeed, portions of this track, especially around the 17 minute mark, sound desperate, out of control… And these feelings stuck. While driving back from my radio show last Sunday, I waited until I had 27 minutes left until I got home, and I put this on. This music fit the landscape so well. Most Midwestern terrain is best suited to epic tracks, long developments, and a tinge of sadness. The track retained the sorrow I felt in first listening to it, and it took on the character of the nighttime, and the emptiness of my drive home.

While I’m confident that some of the tone will translate to your own experience, I understand many people can hear many things in this. But unless you make it 20 minutes in, don’t judge this. It is a powerful piece of art with its own personality, but it also has a way to seem sympathetic to your moods. It presents itself as a unified whole, but underneath the surface clipping is a great, dynamic energy. Don’t pass on this.


Here is a very cool submission from PZ. I absolutely hound him to submit more of this stuff. I can’t really advertise his Facebook page, but needless to say, this guy must have the best favorites on his Vimeo and YouTube profile. That he took the time to submit this (as a former KiC mainstay) warms my heart. Important, given the coldness of this piece. Locrian is a very new act for me, though (if I’m remembering right) I checked out their 2010 album. Noisy, drone-y, dark ambient, basically.


Big Blood – Dark Country Magic (free dl) (Dontrustheruin, 2010)

In writing this review, I attempted to count how many albums Caleb Mulkerin and Colleen Kinsella have released over the past year, but shit’s just not worth tabulating. I can no longer keep up with what iteration of those Portland folk are still together (are Cerberus Shoal and Fire on Fire still active???) and when and who released what. For simplicity, let us assume that the number of releases Caleb and Colleen have secreted throughout the years is the very technical quantity ‘fuck load.’ I can almost surely (my faculties aren’t that certain) count on one hand how many albums Caleb, Colleen, Asian Mae, Rose Philistine, and miscellaneous strange Maine folk have put out under the Big Blood moniker this year—Dead Songs (Time-Lag), Night Terrors on the Isle of Louis Hardin (Cabin Floor Esoterica), Operators and Things (Dontrustheruin), PM50 (a compilation for Peasant Magik on which they appear), and now Dark Country Magic (Dontrustheruin) [that’s five, by the way]. So one could remark that that’s a mighty large number of albums for Big Blood this year, but given their prolific history, 2010 has just been another year’s work.

But one especially unique aspect to Big Blood’s 2010 output is how stylistically diverse it was. By their standards, Dead Songs was a straight-laced rocker, whereas the drone-folk of Night Terrors was their furtherest left of the dial and Operators and Things found Big Blood in their comfortable ‘freakier and folkier than Devendraohyoualreadyknowthejoke’ territory. This new venture, Dark Country Magic, is nestled between the aforementioned three. It combines the the group’s trademark weirdness with the strong, conventional songwriting of Dead Songs. Their magnificent song crafting shines through in more than one instance, but “She-Wander(er)” is without a doubt the highlight, another ‘track of the year’ in a long line of stellar Big Blood cuts (“Song for Baltimore,” “A Hole In One,” Oh Country (Skin & Bones),” etc.).

I never noticed until recently, but Big Blood are a band greatly influenced by their children, with references constantly popping up in Colleen’s lyrics. But not until Dark County Magic was this altogether obvious to me, with the critical mass of adorableness that is “Moo-Hoo” and the lovely collage insert of what I presume to be Caleb and Colleen’s children. While Big Blood may often employ dark themes, there never is a sense of despair in their music; there is always a shrining light. I’m constantly overwhelmed by an incredible joy for existence when listening, almost reborn. I think the influence of their children, the purity of youth, is partly responsible for this singularly positive aesthetic, and, in turn, why I love them so. As Danny said on his facebook, “Band of my life.”