What Once Was (Howlin Hog!)
Thanks to Alakazam, the spirit of Frank Zappa—with a little Pink Floyd, a pinch of Captain Beefheart, and a robost prog sensibility—is alive and well in Baltimore. Over the course of these 13 tunes, you can expect the unexpected. Just when you’re about to define this local trio’s sound based on some ascending, dance-of-the-druids acoustic guitar line, it gives way to fuzzed-out riffing that eventually yields to a flute solo. Then they might lock into a Band of Gypsys power surge, tilt and whirl around a merry-go-round organ, or foxtrot through a grandiose Genesis-esque jam. It’s a carnival of classic-rock references, played smartly and well. Plus, they get extra points for song titles such as “Our Troubles with the Dwarf” and “Parade of Horribles Utopian Dream.”
Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads (Thrill Jockey Records)
When the bad news came last year that Ponytail—one of Baltimore’s most beloved indie bands—was calling it quits, the blow was softened somewhat by the fact that guitarist Dustin Wong had already established himself as a solo artist. Wong’s CD, Infinite Love, was a highlight of 2010, with its dizzying layers of knotted chords and sublime melodies that seemed to intertwine and unravel with psychedelic intensity. Dreams Say is less expansive, for sure, but it retains the giddy sense of discovery through trance-like repetition that made its predecessor so mesmeric. It’s an absolute joy hearing Wong hone in on a melody, loop it, and then pick his way through its modulating shadows and light. The results are more ecstatic than spastic, a quality that tended to define Ponytail, as Wong continues to refine his sound and redefine himself as an artist.
Dream Punx (A389 Recordings)
Over the past decade, local label A389 has made a name for itself in metal/hardcore circles putting out records by the likes of Hatewaves (from Baltimore) and Full of Hell (out of Ocean City). It also had the fortitude to recently push beyond those genres and release this gorgeous, nine-song album that lives up to its title as the band fuses My Bloody Valentine’s epic swirl with The Cure’s stately rhythms. The results can be exhilarating, especially when the group conjures sweeping soundscapes that slowly build momentum and transcend the punk and metal labels. This is great music, period, and maybe A389 can find more like it.