The A Frames aren't glamorous and they aren't trendy. What they are is a Seattle trio of underground noise-rock vets (ex-members of the Cows, Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid) who collectively create some of the most challenging music currently oozing from the Pacific Northwest. Arrangements on Black Forest (the group's third album) are generally stripped down to the bone, consisting of drummer Lars Finberg's inventive, repetitive beats and Min Yee's supple bass anchoring Erin Sullivan's angular guitar and grim, deadpan vocal delivery. "I Am Your Experiment" chugs along like a berserk locomotive to a clanking minimalist beat while electrics drone and shriek in the depths. Guest female vocals add a melodic airiness to "Flies." The loping, down-tuned "Eva Braun" is evocative, even pretty -- right down to its sparkling, atonal guitar lead.
Rock comments on life in the modern world so black and shivery rarely escape their own weightiness. Though things devolve a bit on the album's second half into something approaching pure cacophony (check the album's closer, "Black Forest III"), for the most part, Black Forest is a smart and brooding record you can actually dance to. --Mike Corrigan
The Origin of Fire FIVE STARS
This is the music of the angels. But now the angels are flying home. After 18 years, Anonymous 4 has issued its final recording for Harmonia Mundi, in what one reviewer has called "the Early Music equivalent of the breakup of the Beatles." How can a collection of hymns, antiphons and visions by a 12th-century mystic, sung in Latin by four unaccompanied female voices, possibly be such a big deal? Because The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen represents the unearthly, radical, inexpressibly beautiful harmonizing of sopranos yearning to express the fervency of a medieval superstar.
In Hildegard's haunting visions, our spiritual wounds are transformed into jewels ("O ignee spiritus"); the conclusions of "Amor," "O eterne deus" and "Beata nobis gaudia" comfort with the conviction that God the Creator foresaw "every need / like a father preparing an inheritance for his son."
This is music -- in the 12th century, in the 21st, whenever -- that makes God smile. It's a miracle that humans could create it. -- Michael Bowen