Tony Iommi, Iommi (Divine / Priority): This blistering recording takes me back to the time when four working-class Brits saved rock 'n' roll from the excesses of 1960s hippiedom. No, not the Sex Pistols — Black Sabbath, from Birmingham, England, the UK equivalent of Detroit Rock City. Unlike the remaining Pistols, however, who made fools of themselves under the excuse of some woeful "punk" aesthetic a few years back, the Sabs have never tarnished their myth, coming back with all guns blazing on 1998's live Reunion album. Here, on his solo bow, Sabbath guitarist Iommi continues to keep the standards high, offering his much-imitated signature sculptured, heavy gothic riffing and slow/fast time changes on a variety of tunes that feature guest vocalists from hard rock's 30 or so years. A mightily rocking "Laughing Man (in the Devil Mask)," with the recently rejuvenated Henry Rollins on vocals, is among the highlights, topped only by the truly awesome "Time Is Mine," on which Pantera's lead mouth Phil Anselmo delivers the most gut-bustingly brutal and passionate performance of the entire CD. Other winners here: "Goodbye Lament," in which Iommi proves the durability of the Sabbath sound by cushioning it in some trip-hop(!) rhythms, over which former Nirvana skinbeater/current Foo Fighter singer Dave Grohl emotes; "Just Say No to Love," a Sabbath-y number wherein Peter Steele of Type O Negative humorously laments a love who "left me for Tony Iommi"; and, surprise, surprise, "Into the Night," on which Iommi, perhaps appropriately given his band's legend, "resurrects" the long-lost Billy Idol for a classic Sabbath-styled dirge. To top it all off, 3/4 of the mighty Sabs (with only bassist Geezer Butler a no-show) reunite on "Who's Fooling Who," which, with Ozzy Osbourne sounding relaxed and more like his old self, is far better than the two clumsy new studio tracks on the Reunion album, and bodes well for the band's upcoming effort with Rick Rubin at the helm. Someone once said that "there's a little heavy metal in all of us" (hell, I think it was me!) — Iommi is further proof of that axiom. — Johnny Walker (Black)

Various, Between Two Points (12K/Line): Over the past four years, Brooklyn's 12K has paralleled the development of the quasi-genre called "microsound," moving from post-techno bleep and pulse to a quieter, more contemplative take on digital sound design. Disc One, featuring lowercase luminaries like Komet, Dan Abrams (Shuttle358) and Kim Cascone, showcases 12K's rhythmic side, coaxing supple grooves out of static and hiss, and finding subtle rhythms in data errors and broken bits. Noto's hermetic tones, born from the confines of the computer, and label head Taylor Deupree's piercing frequencies indicate new levels of austerity, even for this label. But Mikael Stavöstrand's "+" proves just how lush a handful of pixels can be, while Mark Fell, of Mille Plateaux's snd, almost hints at the lithe cadences of UK garage in his brutal atomizations. Disc Two is dedicated to Line, the 12K sound-art imprint curated by Richard Chartier. Here selections from Roel Meekop, Steve Roden and others raise minimalism to a higher level. But as quiet as these works are, they remain busy, with the buzzing of sine waves and the vibrations of cellular sound. Miki Yui fills "Vibra" with a swelling mass of charged particles, while Bernhard Günter's "Kernel Panic" wraps the listening space in layer after layer of uneasy drones. Their subtlety raises the question of whether they're "pieces" at all, or simply the unheard hum of the inner ear, magnified and laid bare. — Philip Sherburne

Guided By Voices, Isolation Drills (TVT Records): Isolation Drills has been on repeat all morning. "Fair Touching" kicks off the new album — for the thirteenth time. This jangly pop-rock touches me more with each play. Where once I discarded it as soft and shallow, I now feel pop's power, thanks to GBV leader and vocalist Robert Pollard's poetic, poignant lyrics. Pollard is the brain of today's pop — his songs have depth and feeling. Produced by Robert Schnapf (who's worked with Beck, Foo Fighters and Elliot Smith), the twelfth full-length release from cult legends Guided By Voices rocks with Brit-pop sensibilities and Elliot Smith-like airiness. (Smith, by the way, adds keyboards to three of the songs.) Broken up by a few melancholy ballads, the album is mostly upbeat and infectiously melodic. Pollard's songs make you wake with a chorus running through your head. Take "Chasing Heather Crazy," which is so uplifting you can't help but sing along. Pollard shifts cleverly from passionate wails to swift speak-singing where the words run together like watercolor: "Staring out from otherworldly windows painted red/ Doesn't have to listen to the voices in your head/ That's a different lie/ Do you remember what was said?" The explosive, high-energy "Glad Girls" is reminiscent of early '90s alt-rock (think of The Replacements, but softer); its catchy, cheery quality makes you smile. "Fine to See You," with a Michael Stipe-style vocal and delicate guitar lines, is one of the album's few low-key tracks. Constant throughout the record are Pollard's lyrics. Whether honest and confessional ("One day I will know/ That it's a waste of time/ And there's a better road ahead of me/ I just don't know how to make it there/ So I'll just hang around and take my chance/ Once again I'll roll the dice/ And try to hang on to my shrinking paradise" from "The Brides Have Hit the Glass") or imaginative and deep ("Wooden heads on the chopping block/ And other hearts pumping ink/ That spills out over dreams of antiquity/ Pale but full of ghostly charm/ Leave your things in the streets/ And run wild" from "Run Wild"), Pollard's songwriting is always ingenious. Such creative prose, set against the melodic but edgy layers of guitar, bass, drums and, infrequently, piano and cello, gives Isolation Drills meaning. Yes, it's fun rockin' pop. But, unlike a lot of today's pop music, Guided By Voices keep their depth. — JT

Susperia, Predominance (Nuclear Blast): One of the almost innumerable good things about the Scandinavian heavy-metal scene is the giant middle finger it waves in the face of the new world economy and its unforeseen consequence, the near-death of regionalism. When we all took up residence in the big happy global village (where, curiously, we all drink the same brands of soda pop and wear the same shoes), an early casualty was one of the neater perks of advanced music geekhood — while 10 or 15 years ago it took some deep knowledge to keep track of regional scenes around the world, that world's size is reduced. Gone is the privilege of being able to expound on the differences between, say, the Laotian garage-rock scene and the Indonesian psych-scuzz groundswell; the joy of finding out that Mudhoney is genuinely huge in Japan is no more. What's big is big now, no matter where you go. No matter, I mean, until you go to Scandinavia, where heavy metal sells like hotcakes after church. Susperia are a new Norwegian black-metal band featuring Tjodalv, the ex-drummer of black-metal powerhouse Dimmu Borgir, and their first album's called Predominance. It is magnificently brutal. Unlike death metal, which is almost all low-end until you get to the guitar solos, black metal favors lots of scratchy AM-radio-broadcast-from-the-underworld high-end sounds, and Susperia dish out generous helpings of shrieks from Satan's mountain cabin. Their minor-key guitar melodies, roaring breakneck atop a constantly exploding drum kit, are actually rather sophisticated; on different instruments, they'd bear more than a passing resemblance to be-bop. The few discernible snatches of lyric are harvested from the same field where Alice Cooper found the power to scare the crap out of us all when we were little kids. Take the raw-throat howl in the album's blurred-vision opener, "I Am Pain," which breaks suddenly into lucidity to threaten "Legendary suffering you shall see!" It's thrilling to hear a band firing on all cylinders as loudly as Susperia does here; it makes you wish they were popular. And then you remember that in their corner of the world, they're actually doing quite well for themselves, and that the Huns-on-horses gallop through hell of the album's high point, "Of Hate We Breed," actually has a chance of seeing chart action on their home turf. And you smile to yourself while the music frightens your cat. It is enough to warm a jaded obscurantist's cold, cold heart. — JD

Red House Painters, Old Ramon (SubPop): Five years on, Mark Kozelek brings his Red House Painters back from corporate rock's death row. The utterly regal Old Ramon rises with such graceful fervor as to bring Krazy Koz instant forgiveness for Songs for A Blue Guitar, now the ultimate anachronism, a middling mid-career crisis, not a flaming act of rockist hubris. Across Old Ramon's sprawling 70-minute set, Kozelek is still a master of his sly charade, disguising sprawling webs of complex guitar chords and considered narratives as humble, simple acoustic ditties. Old Ramon has an innate sense of romance; it's a glorious showcase for Kozelek's greatest talent — evoking the spirit of rock 'n' roll, capturing that nostalgic utopia of how it all used to be but probably never really was, and making it live right in the here-and-now. — AC

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part (WEA/Warner Bros): Nick Cave returns after a four-year silence, during which rumors regarding his already mythological existence were rife: according to who you listened to, he was either hooked on smack again, happily married with kids, or some combination thereof. No More Shall We Part, however, provides no easy answers to any of those propositions. A work superior in almost every way to the previous Bad Seeds release, the only-partially realized, Leonard Cohen-inspired The Boatman's Call, Cave's latest finds the singer in perhaps the finest voice of his career, armed with a set of melodic ballads and mid-tempo rockers which exemplify his dedicated, traditionalist's approach to the songwriter's craft. And yes, Cave may indeed now be married with children, but don't expect to find any fat and lazy, "Tupelo Honey"-type proclamations about the joys of domesticated life here. On the surging, piano-led ballad "Oh My Lord," for instance, Cave's imagery takes on an increasingly hallucinatory tone, as he envisions the "Sword of Damocles" hanging over his wife's head, and panics over criticism that he's gone soft and lost the plot entirely. Images of drug addiction, meanwhile, pervade the mid-tempo rocker "15 Feet of Pure White Snow," in which the singer describes a dead-end domestic scenario and "the worst day I've ever had"; like the somber "Hallelujah" (not the Cohen tune, but an original), violin-laden courtesy of the Dirty Three's Warren Ellis, "15 Feet" also features recurring images of nurses and doctors. While the prevalence of religious-sounding song titles here might suggest that Cave has undergone some kind of conversion, a closer listen reveals a profound ambivalence even in this area: "God Is in the House," for instance, while it pokes fun at modern urban society and its politically correct foibles, also ultimately suggests, Samuel Beckett-like, that the God the country people fervently await in their tiny chapel may not be there at all. And in the gentle "Gates to the Garden," Cave uses a John Donne-like sexual metaphor to suggest that religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy might indeed be one and same thing. Overall, now as ever, No More Shall We Part — as emotionally intense a recording as anything he's ever released — proves that there are still no easy answers in the world of Nick Cave. As he screams at the conclusion of "15 Feet of Pure White Snow": "Save yourself — Help yourself!" — JW (B)

The Embarrassment, Blister Pop (My Pal God): The Embarrassment were not as storied as The Feelies, and they certainly never approached the Talking Heads' popularity. But they almost belong on that same level of greatness. Here's where I'm supposed to say what a shame it is that more people don't know about them. Well, they were from Wichita, poor things. But their fans (and perhaps the band itself) have yet to come up with one cohesive anthology. These muddy live tapes, culled from three dozen shows, only add to the confusion. Except on the 1:17 bundle of nerves "Song for Val," all the peculiar angles in their sound (particularly Bill Goffrier's guitar, which spoke to you like someone whose mind was working faster than their lips) get rounded out by the club din. Eight of the 19 tracks are covers, way too much considering none of them are up to the band's affectionate take on "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." In short, in this collection they sound like a justly unstoried garage band. So start (slowly) with Bar/None's messy two-CD comp Heyday from 1995. If you get that life-affirming twist on the guitar-bass-drums verities from it, proceed here. — KJ

Songs: Ohia, Ghost Tropic (Secretly Canadian): True to its title, Ghost Tropic sees Jason Molina's Songs: Ohia project venturing ever farther from home (you know, where the hurt is). The same burned-out heartland ache still smolders in the hearth, but here he's built his weathered cabin in the densely thicketed wilds of an unnamed other-place, where folky Americana meets the ghosts of the mixing desk. Strangeness comes a-calling, in the wailing aurora of "Incantation" and the latticed birdcalls of "The Ocean's Nerves," but Molina's fragile structures — unadorned guitar, bare-bones brushes and snare, and that rickety wail of his — do their best to hold the elements at bay. Thing is, the nature that will be our undoing comes from the inside. The bending notes and wavering confessional of "Lightning Risked It All" posit "a separate world," but a more familiar strangeness is already there, pooling in the leaden drums and the melted strings. Technology, these faint effects seem to say, isn't extraneous to "folk music" after all. A breathtaking addition to the travel literature of the uncanny, Ghost Tropic maps a barren world that turns out to have been our own degraded stomping ground all along. — PS

Candiria, 300 Percent Density (Century Media): One dependable way to rate an album is to break out the Blasphemy Index: how many times did the record in question cause you to swear? Radiohead's OK Computer, for example, rates high, since people listening to "Exit Music: For A Film" can often be overheard exclaiming "Jesus Christ" out loud long after they've learned the song by heart. Living Color, on the other hand, tended to start high but finish about average; you only said "holy shit" the first few times you heard Vernon's Reid's pyrotechnics, and then the law of diminishing returns kicked in. There's a rap/jazz-fusion/nu-metal band from Brooklyn called Candiria whose B.I. quotient is practically off the chart. Now, sure: there are a lot of bands playing muscle-bound gruff-voiced seven-string metal, and there are plenty of rock-rap hybrids around, though few of them have rap numbers that'd actually pass as hip-hop. (300 Percent Density's several hip-hop moments get their trance-deep head-nodding the old fashioned way: they earn it.) The B.I. gets a huge push from the single smooth motion in which Candiria's phat beat-farming flows into gigantic distorted riffs in non-standard time signatures; the transitions are seamless — really almost unnoticeable — and the aftermath is monolithic. And then, just when you're completely consumed by the crushing metal heaviness of it all — well, that's when Candiria breaks out the honest-to-God jazz fusion, and that's when you'll blaspheme. Because they don't just do it for effect, and they don't just tinker with it. There are extended passages behind which hardcore Return to Forever fans will genuinely groove. Don't kid yourself, man. This is awesome. — JD

Various, Naked in the Afternoon: A Tribute to Jandek (Summersteps): Jandek being a strange figure to induct into the hallowed hall of, uh, tribute-record-worthy status, here a collection of dreamers, travelers and theorists offer 21 takes on what makes the man the man. Opinions on the subject are as wildly varied as the reactional spectrum offered up by Jandek's bizarred-blues outsider-art outings. Here, some see him as an angelic light (the impeccably-piped Danubian frontwoman Amy Denio, whose ghostly-voice/noise/organ/location-sound take on "Your Condition" is the pick of the compilation). Others prefer the harrowingly tormented figure (Low, on "Carnival Queen"), incurably romantic, creepy sexual asshole (Olivia Tremor Control offshoot Pipes You See, Pipes You Don't on "Jessica"), old-style folkie truth-teller (the Couple Scene, on "Babe I Love You"), or performance-art comedy figure (Bright Eyes, who get field-recordingly conceptual by vox-popping the question "Have You Ever Heard of Jandek?"). — AC

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