By Peter Lindblad
Be careful with this installment of Modern Rock in Motion, as psychedelic garage-rockers L.A. Witch Play With Fire. Turbulence is expected in a definitive history of Swans, newcomers Girl Friday get a lot of their chest, Grant-Lee Phillips challenges Mother Nature and The Atomic Bitchwax’s Scorpio is a musical action movie that’s all chase scenes and fiery crashes.
Play With Fire
Slipping in and out of consciousness, L.A. Witch’s self-titled debut album was a hazy lost weekend of desert mirages, nocturnal crawls through urban wastelands and gothic western mystery. Playing it cool, it sat around blowing smoke rings of vintage garage-rock menace and bleary-eyed balladry, wearing sunglasses to hide its bloodshot eyes.
A sultry, sinister fever dream, the brooding Play With Fire feeds off the ominous vibes and moods of previous releases from L.A. Witch, even as the trio of guitarist/vocalist Sade Sanchez, bassist Irita Pai and drummer Ellie English form more fully realized and vivid versions of their dark, tripped-out rock ‘n roll urges. The gnarly opener “Fire Starter” swings with a confident swagger, rippling tremolo and an air of danger. Further down the road, the bounding urgency of a tension-filled, energetic “True Believers” raises anxiety levels. Ducking into a dirty alley with The Stooges, the gritty “I Wanna Lose” shakes all over, after the rumbling noir of “Motorcycle Boy” rides with Link Wray up Mulholland Drive, blowing kisses to old Hollywood rebels.
From shadowy recesses, Sanchez emerges as a black angel of death, singing in a ghostly, seductive drone. “I’ve been walking around with the dead too long,” she laments amid the deep, growling urgency of “Sexorexia,” long after the sensual Spanish guitar of “Dark Horse” has not so gently wept. It’s the calm before “Starred” ends it all in a blurred, terrifying psychedelic breakdown of screeching metallic dissonance.
The Atomic Bitchwax
Tee Pee Records (CD, LP)
Stomping their way through the ‘70s proto-metal of “Easy Action,” off their latest white-hot, riff-mongering slab of audacious stoner-rock boogie, The Atomic Bitchwax emphatically asks, “Do you wanna live forever? Well, c’mon!” The invitation is impossible to ignore, even if they can’t possibly deliver on such a promise.
Immortality may be unattainable, but Scorpio hitchhikers are in for a thrilling ride, with the souped-up power trio of bassist/singer/songwriter Chris Kosnik, drummer Bob Pantella and guitarist Garrett Sweeny kicking it into high gear. The swarming, turbo-charged title track is absolutely dizzying, throwing fast, swinging riffage in a blender and turning it on high. Embedded in “Energy” and “You Got It,” where smart handclaps seize the day, are strong, gripping hooks, the kind that refuse to let go. Meanwhile, frenzied instrumentals “Crash,” the buzzing “Ninja” and a hot and heavy “Instant Death” are just as relentless, hurtling into oblivion with reckless abandon and tight, blistering dynamics that climb, suddenly reverse course or spin crazily. Scorpio lives up to its astrological sign, its single-minded determination to wreak sonic havoc in entertaining and mind-blowing ways a real joy to behold.
Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff
Yep Roc Records (CD, LP)
In a show of childlike defiance at an angry sky, Grant-Lee Phillips’ daughter once innocently uttered the words Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff, never intending anything more than to goad nature into more impressive displays of its mighty powers. As the title to the merciful, gently rendered 10 solo album from the highly literate ringleader of ‘90s alternative-rock ragamuffins Grant Lee Buffalo, they take on greater meaning, his eloquent storytelling admiring the resiliency of ordinary people fighting endless inner wars.
Treading lightly, Phillips mixes downy, sun-dappled folk-pop with somewhat rustic, slow-moving Americana on Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff, a lovely, low-key affair full of soft caresses and sleepy shuffles, like “Mourning Dove,” “Drawing the Head,” “Coming To” and the sweeping “Lowest Low.” Buoyant and gauzy, the summery “Ain’t Done Yet” floats on feathery, percussive acoustic guitar strum and the kind of warm, languid horns that also flood the soulful, yearning country-rock of “Leave a Light On.” Clearly in his element, Phillips takes to a lonely piano for a spare, traditional jazz walk through “Sometimes You Wake Up in Charleston,” and tries to reconcile the city’s old world charm with its long rap sheet of racial barbarity. Serenity, now.
Where Does a Body End?
MVD Visual (Blu-ray, DVD)
Swans’ history of aural violence goes back to the early 1980s and the East Village of New York City, when the area was a “war zone,” as Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo describes it in the ambitious and absorbing new documentary “Where Does a Body End?” Inspired by the late ‘70s no wave scene, Swans spit bruising, hypnotic squalls of harsh, slowly churned dissonance and grim, vicious lyrics in everyone’s faces and growled ominously, but hardly ever laughed.
It made for great – if sometimes dangerous – sport, as the experimental rock collective, led by Michael Gira and inspired by the late ‘70s no wave scene, continually shape-shifted, cycling through everything from punishing noise rock to industrial clangor, discordant post-punk and mesmerizing post-rock. Gira transformed into a shamanistic figure. Flowering beauty poked through their brutality, and live performances were transcendent, tempestuous and visceral, as stormy dysfunction – both behind the scenes and out in the open – led to reshuffled lineups and dissolution, before Swans was reassembled in 2010 to continue their quixotic journey.
There’s a lot to unpack here, not including the immersive 156 minutes of bonus material in the deluxe edition, as director Marco Porsia performs a successful cinematic surgery that leaves a scar. Heady concert footage is seamlessly stitched together with remarkably insightful interviews. Transplanted scenes from past tours show how Swans candidly relate to fans and themselves. The film also walks among the ruins of Swans’ bleak origins, examines their difficult history and artistic evolution in compelling, compassionate and explosive storytelling, and is utterly fascinated with the psychological motivations, creative intensity and self-doubt of the enigmatic Gira. Porsia had access to a mountain of archival material. In sorting through it all, Porsia made really smart choices.
Sub Pop Records (CD, LP)
Group therapy with Girl Friday is now in session, their cathartic, angsty debut album Androgynous Mary all fuzzy and anxious, its off-kilter, noisy brand of melodic indie-pop buzzing with nervous energy. Angular and daring, Girl Friday’s guitars flow like electrical currents, rushing through well-mapped routes – some riffs coming through barbed and dirty, others emitting clean transmissions – in the moody, pogoing post-punk of “Eaten Things,” “Amber’s Knees: A Matter of Concern” and “Public Bodies.” Throughout, they carry smart, defiant messages of gender enlightenment and all the hopes and fears of alienated youth to safe places.
There’s reason to worry about Girl Friday when the pretty face of “This is Not the Indie Rock I Signed Up For” goes to hell in a shambolic breakdown and “Earthquake” erupts in a wild melee of shout-along choruses and grungy riffs. A breakthrough occurs, however, when the yearning, bittersweet confessional “Clotting” pours its heart out a gut-wrenching ballad of poignant, introspective clarity, raw vulnerability and soaring beauty. Dark melancholy and distortion bleed from a similarly cast “Favorite Friend,” as Girl Friday is painfully aware that no manual for maturing gracefully exists. DNA markers suggest they inherit their thorny, confrontational aesthetics and unconventional hooks from the likes of Sonic Youth, Helium, Hole, Sleater-Kinney and Throwing Muses, but run your own tests.