Conshafter, “Bombs Away, Baby!” (Dork Epiphany Records)
Any band that uses an exclamation point in its album title had better live up to the hype. This one thankfully does. There's nary a dull moment on Conshafter's latest release, bursting with super-charged riffs and feisty rhythms. Twelve pristinely produced tracks radiate sweet summertime goodness likely to prompt more than a few pedal-to-the-metal moments on the road. The alterna-pop foursome remain their ever-spunky selves on “Bombs Away,” wielding the most infectious hook on the disc. On the gritty “Going Down?” they strike rock-god gold, complete with arena-worthy guitar shreds and bass drum kicks. There are even a few cuts that infuse new wave stylings, but they never stray far from their rock 'n' roll roots. HHHII — Hilary Langford
Conshafter performs Sunday, May 17, at the Camel with the Gentlemen.
ILAD, “Here There” (Syjip Records)
Ubiquitous bassist Cameron Ralston (Fight the Big Bull, Ombak, Glows in the Dark, Brian Jones Trio) calls Ilad the most prolifically creative of his many projects. The name of the band is the surrealist Salvador Dali's last name spelled backward, but that might just be coincidence. Apparently nobody knows the meaning of the band's name, not even Ilad drummer Scott Clark, who wrote it on a Virginia Commonwealth University practice room blackboard years ago.
The group has a very distinctive sound: pulse-driven, fragmented melodies with abrupt harmonic modulations. The lyrics are blank verse, collegiate wordplay inevitably buried in the mix. The songs range from offbeat country to post-psychedelia, frequently devolving into hypnotic muscular vamps. It's all spiced with eclectic alternative flavors — the more experimental Radiohead, the Velvet Underground, a dollop of Terry Riley minimalism — but the final brew is unique and well worth sampling. HHHII — Peter McElhinney
Old School Freight Train, “Six Years” (Red Distribution)
The latest album from Old School Freight Train begins with a wrenching minor version of Blondie's “Heart of Glass,” transforming bubble-gum pop into droning dirge. This start signifies something of a left turn in the band's stylistic journeys. It's also the high point of the album.
The band's last studio album featured complex banjo- and mandolin-driven instrumentals and songs that trod the line between acoustic pop and newgrass. That line has now been fully crossed. Bluegrass is long gone, both in style and lineup — add rock drums and subtract a five-string banjo. Elaborate instrumentals are replaced with tightly constructed, orchestrated pop songs, horn sections, keyboardists and mainstream production provided by Richmond's Stewart Myers.
The result is more Ben Harper or John Mayer than Bela Fleck. For all the attention to musical detail, the lyrical content leaves much to be desired, relying on well-worn metaphors and a lack of subject matter beyond “I'm leaving but I still love you.” It's necessary for bands to progress, but this feels more like regression. HHHII — Josh Bearman
Old School Freight Train performs in Roanoke at Martin's Downtown on Thursday, May 14, with Hoots and Hellmouth.
Hex Machine, “Omen Mas” (Minimum Underdrive)
It's an indisputable fact that Richmond likes to rock. We have our share of metal, punk, alternative poppy rock and countless other subgenres of scruffy guys (and scruffy gals, but really, mostly guys) brutalizing the eager ears of rabid fans. And no one's blasting more intensely than Hex Machine.
The music that Hex Machine (featuring members of Tulsa Drone and Municipal Waste) puts forth on its latest release moves between the grindingly slow and heavy “Nurse Me Back to Hell” and “Peristalsis Hilton” and the blasting, time-signature-defying “Vivisection” and “Black Skeleton.”
The guitar sounds are heavy and layered. At times the band brings forth images of the Melvins or the Jesus Lizard, especially in the nervous and frantic vocals of Trevor Thomas, dripping with reverb and not making a great deal of sense (“and she whispered naked into my eye, Black Skeleton,” for example). With Hex Machine, however, the message is the music, and the music is telling us it's OK. … nay, it's imperative to rock. HHHHH — Josh Bearman
Hex Machine performs Metal Mondays at McCormack's Irish Pub on Monday, May 11, and at Plaza Bowl on Sunday, May 17, with Meat Cleaver and Ugly Law.
Butterbean Jazz Quartet, “Self-titled” (Courthouse Records)
It took only 16 years for the Butterbean Jazz Quartet to release its first (self-titled) CD. Time enough for several complete changes of lineup; time enough to compile one of Richmond's longest-running gigs; and time enough to master the not-insubstantial art of combining superficial accessibility and creative depth. It's a matter of necessity: However creative or accomplished the musicians, few people want challenging abstraction with their sun-dried tomato and artichoke pizza. But that doesn't mean the music has to be wallpaper.
The set is weighted toward cheerful, up-tempo standards. The rhythm section — Lee Covington on piano, Keith Willingham (who doubles on trumpet and flugelhorn) on drums and Rusty Farmer on bass — fits the pieces together with synchronous polish. The “special guests” — Penn Farmer and John Conley on guitar, Pete Anderson on trombone, Kevin Simpson on sax and the redoubtable Brian Jones on drums — expand the sonic palette. Good as they are, the key to the band's success is singer Terri Simpson, whose range and light touch keep half-century old songs fresh and conversational.
For all its cheeriness, some of the brightest moments are on the darker material. Simpson's cover of Joni Mitchell's wistful “My Old Man” clears the soprano high notes with room to spare, and the band's spare, horn-driven version of Bacharach's “Walk on By” illuminates the pain beneath the pop surface. HHHII — Peter McElhinney
Butterbean plays every Sunday night at Bottoms Up Pizza in Shockoe Bottom.
Ombak, “Framing the Void” (Self-released)
Ombak's lean, focused music is the boiled-down essence of the Richmond improvisational scene. Three of the quartet — leader Bryan Hooten on trombone, Trey Pollard on guitar and Cameron Ralston on bass — are members of a swarm of other cutting-edge bands. Brian Jones is the area's master percussionist and arguably the most influential local player, a huge influence on his younger colleagues. Together they form a unit that can gin up an angular, funky storm or venture all the way out to the mumbly-grumbly, nubby end of a deconstructed melodic line.
“Framing the Void” means creating meaning through the dynamic interaction of sound and silence in an unbounded creative space. Hooten's compositions are spare and compelling, even in the most attenuated moments there's a sense of structure — the band can snap from multiphonic, seemingly abstract experimentation into full-on unison lockstep within a few beats.
Flirting with infinity is not for the faint of heart (or ear), but the band leavens its often spare explorations with almost danceable vamps, brilliant quasi-psychedelic guitar solos, and bass and drum lines that reward repeated listening. The melodies are too fragmented and unpredictable for easy whistling, but they build recognition. It's interesting, after hearing the CD a couple of times, to see how those songs mutate when performed at Ombak's free biweekly Wednesday Cous Cous sets. HHHHH — Peter McElhinney
Ombak performs every other Wednesday at Cous Cous at 9:30 p.m. The “Framing the Void” CD release party is April 29 at Cous Cous. Bryan Hooten's essays on music's relationship with negative space are on RVANews.com.