There have been a plethora of great new releases by San Diego bands recently -- join the SoundDiego Record Club and have a listen.
Year of the Ox
The Burning of Rome, May 19
As winners of the 2013 San Diego Music Award for Album of the Year for their sprawling gypsy-punk album, With Us, the Burning of Rome don’t have much to prove. When you’re at the top, where do you go? Most would say "down," but then again, most are not members of this eclectic quintet with San Diego ties. In a resounding show of force, the band has only cemented its claim to San Diego’s music throne: The new album runs the genre gamut with impressive ease, alternating between gothic choirs, military marches, metal riffs, hair-raising vocal acrobatics, introspective piano breakdowns and fuzz freakouts -- and that’s just the first song. As we’ve somehow come to expect from the band, a seemingly endless array of styles are represented here, from the Ennio Morricone-bred spaghetti Western opening of the alliteration-loving "Terrible Tales From Tocqueville" to the Oompa Loompa/Muppet stomp of "Space Age Stockholm Syndrome" (seriously, Sesame Street needs to give these guys a call) to the cold, hard German metal of "Better Than He," the Burning of Rome adhere to nearly everything and nothing, all at once. While technically existing under the blanket of "rock & roll," the group has jettisoned nearly every norm that typical bands play into. They’ll just as easily bust into a surreal, alien blues romp ("Melina") as a delicately crooned, lovelorn tale ("Sister Francis") -- usually within the same song. Produced by Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary at his Austin, Texas, studio, Year of the Ox is a firm testament that if the Burning of Rome weren’t weird and great before, they surely are now. Don’t be surprised if they take home the gold again come awards season. (Buy it here)
Ride the Black Wave
The Donkeys, June 3
The Donkeys’ newest album, Ride the Black Wave, kicks off in a mesmerizing haze: A lazily strummed acoustic jam -- with breathy harmonies and dueling electric-guitar solos that sound like they were recorded in empty grain silos -- winds on for more than six minutes. The appropriately named track "Sunny Daze" bobs along, with no real dynamic shift or overarching purpose -- other than to sound chill. And that’s exactly how the Donkeys should be described: They’re "vintage chill." They’ve repurposed nearly every memorable sound that epitomized '70s AM radio for their own sunny brand of indie rock (they’ve even kept four out of the 11 songs under two minutes-- that’s AM radio-friendly, folks). And it’s not a bad thing, either -- in fact, few bands do it better. Besides, who said you can’t wear your influences on your sleeve? The Donkeys play old-school pop music, and it’s unabashedly great. The title track makes use of the Rolling Stones’ loose, dirty swagger; they breeze through effortless harmonies a la Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ("Blues in the Afternoon") and then tap directly into some authentic Van Morrison-esque blue-eyed soul on "Shines." The album’s leadoff single, "Scissor Me Cigs," is a slightly more updated take on their lived-in, easy-listening style: Rollicking drums busily rumble behind mournful slide guitar, glistening electric piano and patented tongue-in-cheek lyrics the Donkeys are prone to write, like, "Acting so tough/I’m calling your bluff/All you really wanted was to/Look good in the buff." Curiously enough, nearly every song on Ride the Black Wave sounds instantly -- if not strangely -- familiar: Either they’re incredibly savvy plagiarists or some of the best songwriters around. For the record, it’s the latter. (Buy it here)
Dreams in the Witch House
Eukaryst, May 14
Eukaryst has consistently played some of the finest metal in San Diego for the last few years. Originally an instrumental trio, the band recruited Dark Ale vocalist Ben Marotta in 2010, and only four short years later, they’ve captured the essence and energy of their raucous live performances with their debut album, Dreams in the Witch House. The six lengthy songs ebb and flow between powerfully crushing riffage and even more thunderous metal pillaging. In other words, the record is a punishing juggernaut, filled to the brim with rapid-fire, double kick-drum pummeling; speed-demon yet tasteful guitar soloing; and monstrous vocal cord shredding. However, the death metal band doesn’t take the beaten path of mindless brutality normally reserved for the genre and their peers -- instead, the album is steeped in minor-key melodicism and each ferocious, technically impressive segment seems to be followed by an equally beautiful passage (see, "Sinister" and "Dagon," in particular), sometimes even abandoning their usual electric-guitar crunch for soft acoustics. With Marotta sounding like his throat’s on fire throughout, no one’s going to accuse Eukaryst of going soft (that’s laughable), but Dreams in the Witch House simply doesn’t toil in the empty, mindless chug-fests that plague the metal landscape -- rather, they’ve proven that a little tunefulness can go a long way. (Buy it here)
The Midnight Pine, June 10
Buried, the Midnight Pine's sophomore album, elaborates on the sound and success of last year's debut and finds the band taking on an even broader musical scope than it previously attempted. It's not surprising -- the indie folk/pop trio of vocalist Shelbi Bennett, percussion handyman Alfred Howard and acoustic guitarist Sean Martin recently became a newly minted quintet. Martin left for life in San Francisco and the group recruited Transfer frontman Matt Molarius to fill the six-string void -- while also adding the Heavy Guilt's keyboardist Josh Rice and violinist Marta Blalock to the mix. The new lineup didn’t record Buried, though; that task was undertaken by the original members and a host of talented San Diego musicians too long to list here. The soft-edged vocals of Bennett -- always positioned upfront in the songs -- with a powerful yet tempered croon, is in focus even more now, and with good reason. The velvet-voiced singer has continued to evolve from last year's outing, now seeming more settled and exponentially more comfortable within her own musical identity -- after all, Awake Now (which won last year’s San Diego Music Award for Best Local Recording) was also her public singing debut – and on Buried, she sounds like more of everything that made last year’s record so memorable. Her style varies between a serene nonchalance and an eruptive, tempestuous wail. Amid the band’s near-constant swirl of reverberated atmospherics, circuit-bent transistor radios and click-clackety percussion, she effortlessly delivers much of the album's dynamics with her voice alone. The band responds in kind, with forays into previously untested waters: "Tears" is a booze-soaked, black-eyed burner (complete with bellowing horns similar to those in Radiohead’s "Life In a Glass House"); "Caution" hand-claps along with a campy, toy organ-led strut; violins careen through the barroom piano folk pop of "Edge of Town"; and on a track like "Out Here Tonight," the band’s mellow engine fires on all cylinders: Rice’s gorgeous piano joins a familiar acoustic strum and woody upright bass, while jangly percussion hits the bridge briefly and the vocals wind like campfire smoke into a quickly fading sunset. It’s a slow, melancholy folk ballad that showcases everything both unique and worn-in about the Midnight Pine. As it ends, Bennett sings, "Out here tonight/It’s summer and I’m sweatin’/And the sky, it just refuses me a drink." Indeed, with the summer upon us, that sounds just fine. (Buy it here)
Earth Energy EP
Soft Lions, June 6
The new four-song EP from Soft Lions picks up right where their debut, December’s No Peace EP, left off. The trio’s self-described sound is "moody psychedelic post-riot grrrl noise," and it’s not far off. But for what it’s worth, the band (which includes Boy King’s Megan Liscomb on guitar/vocals, Marco Polo’s Lex Pratt on Wurlitzer/vocals and the New Kinetics’ Jon Bonser on drums) takes a more straightforward approach to its music than it might lead you to believe. Earth Energy and Soft Lions, by nature, are an exercise in efficiency -- the three musicians coerce the most from their individual performances as possible to create something that sounds much bigger than their roles, while also flourishing within self-imposed minimalism. The new EP kicks off with the excellent title track (listen here), led by a ‘60s fuzz guitar lick and peppy surf beat – it’s an obvious single, with a cascading climax complete with Bonser’s furious drum barrage, bellowing background vocals and Liscomb’s uncanny ability to sound unruly and brooding at the same time. "Soft As Lions" charges out of the gates with a faster version of Toni Basil’s "Hey Mickey" beat, hand claps and Pratt’s always-gritty Wurlitzer leading the way, while the (one and only) guitar solo on the EP gets dissonant and downright dirty midway through. The group takes a breather on the crestfallen "Diary" and finishes strong on the complex, sidestep stutter of "Mountain." Here, Soft Lions tap into a Doors-esque hypnotism, with Liscomb playing Jim Morrison to Pratt’s Ray Manzarek. It’s a compelling track, with a raspy guitar tone that would make Spoon’s Britt Daniels jealous -- and has Liscomb repeatedly imploring, "Don’t I have the right/To a landslide?" The answer, my friends, is a resounding yes. (Buy it here)
Full disclosure: Dustin Lothspeich is Megan Liscomb's bandmate in Boy King --Ed.