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Take Your Pick: Parlor Folk or Death Metal
Pure and simple Lena Hughes, Gatling-gun Gorguts
Queen of the Flat Top Guitar
Shining a light on a charming folk obscurity, collector Chris King gave new life to a record that could have easily been forever relegated to footnotes or rare eBay appearances, exchanging hands for handsome sums. The instrumental record is by the late guitarist Lena Hughes, who was born in 1904, originally entitled Queen of the Guitar Pickers and Her Flat Top Guitar; it was released on Power Records as a small press LP sometime in the ’60s and sold at her appearances at folk festivals and fiddler conventions.
One of her most well-known proponents is John Renbourn, of the British folk group Pentangle, who contributed the liner notes for this reissue and had approached King, tenaciously seeking the extremely hard-to-find recording, after first hearing one of her tracks on a compilation album 40 years ago.
So what is it about this music that makes it so special and sought after? Perhaps the most striking thing about the 11-track album is just how breezy, casual and humble it sounds, which is refreshing in this new age of narcissism and showmanship.
Listeners today may associate folk music with the ’50s/’60s revival, spurred by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, or acoustic guitar instrumentals with the American Primitive style of John Fahey or Leo Kottke; instead, Hughes preferred to play parlor music, from the days before recorded music in the late 19th century when playing songs off sheet music was popular.
“Pearly Dew” sets the bright tone for the album, with note-patterns picked with aplomb and spirit, and Hughes uses an open tuning, allowing pedal notes to ring out; slight imperfections are left in, which make it seem more honest, warm and human. On “Galloway Bay,” Hughes lets the bass notes pick out the melody while the upper register rhythm guitar chords push the song along. It’s an unassuming, deceptively simple album yet pure, invigorating and entrancing.
(Season of Mist)
All listeners tend to gravitate toward certain genres as bread and butter, while other genres may have a barrier to entry. I confess to having a soft spot for post-punk and indie pop, but when it comes to, say, reggae or metal, it has to be something really unusual or remarkable to grab my attention—unfortunately, in most cases, nonconformity is not always rewarded or valued by the public at large.
The Canadian technical death metal band Gorguts first got on my radar when the group’s 1998 album Obscura came out, distinguishing itself with extremely complicated music with a mind-bending complexity and extraordinarily bizarre and sick guitar licks that sometimes sounded like tortured horses.
Now, Colored Sands is the outfit’s first studio album in twelve years, with founder and front man Luc Lemay joined by drummer John Longstreth and two members of Dysrhythmia—guitarist Kevin Hufnagel and bassist Colin Marston.
The technical death metal touchstones are all here, projecting power: Gatling gun bass drum blasts, surgically precise runs and transitions, and yes, the Cookie Monster-type vocal throaty growl. With an average song-length of about seven minutes, the tracks each have ample time to unfurl, revealing themselves as huge, twisty labyrinths; the aural onslaught is perhaps like some giant, intricate killing machine forged of metal inscribed with some ornate pattern like a prop in a Hellraiser movie.
The moment that may catch people off guard is “The Battle of Chamdo,” which is solely performed by a string quintet, evoking dread with a quasi-Jaws theme, complex melodic lines and dissonant sustained notes; oddly enough, it works and perhaps serves as a statement to draw parallels between technical death metal and classical music. The Cookie Monster vocals are, as always, ridiculous, and while the musicianship and complexity are impressive and exhilarating, the album’s homogeneity leaves this writer wishing it had a bit more sound experimentation like certain past efforts.