Umberto - From The Grave (Permanent Records, 2015)
The past two years have seen an explosion in the soundtrack genre, specifically in what is commonly referred to as minimal synth, dark ambient, giallo or simply horror music which has made a huge comeback and seems all the rage these days. If you grew up in the 80s like I did, than the sounds of John Carpenter’s movies were likely as much of the experience as the moving images were when you first saw them. If you’re a fan of the horror/giallo genre though, than you also likely know that this wasn’t an isolated event and there were other, much more prolific, purveyors of that sound who came before Carpenter; Ennio Morricone, Stelvio Cipriani, and Fabio Frizzi all quickly come to mind. And while there have been a lot of bands popping up lately releasing albums that could easily fall into the same horror/giallo genre, there aren’t many of them that approach the subject matter from such a pure and attentive angle. Umberto, the musical alter ego of Matt Hill, on the other hand has been pumping out unbelievable albums one after the other since 2009 and he’s showing no signs of letting up anytime soon at this point. I’m still playing catch-up on with a lot of the bands releasing this kind of stuff and only recently managed to get my hands on a copy of Umberto’s first proper full-length album From The Grave. It was originally released in 2009 on limited edition CD-R and then quickly on cassette as well by the Sonic Meditations label the same year. Then in 2010 Permanent Records, who never fail to impress, released From The Grave on vinyl for the first time. The initial pressing sold out instantly and there have been four concurrent represses of From The Grave in as many years by them since! That’s enough background on the album though. After all, it’s the music that really matters… I mean, that’s why we’re all here right? Well, From The Grave runs the gambit from slowly slinking sinister electronic drones to brutal pulse pounding onslaughts, guttural bellows of synthesized menace alongside funky giallo disco tracks that will have you tapping your toe just as much as they’ll have you nervously peering over your shoulder. Starting with the ultra-short, minute-and-some-change, “Opening Title Themes” gritty blown-out church organs wail an unholy lament into cold damp air, while a slowly expanding line of synthesizers creep in from first the top-end, then the bottom, slowly surrounding the plodding unsuspecting sounds of the organ completely before beating them to a bloody pulp and forcing them to give way to the start of “Running Blade”. “Running Blade” ups the ante significantly and starts the trend of the slightly extended run times that make up From The Grave, clocking in at almost six minutes long. The vibes of “Running Blade” are instantly more ominous than “Opening Title Themes” as well. There’s thick, heavy, wet synth lines dripping off the frame of a sparse, yet almost funky, drum rhythm that holds the tenuous string of applied sounds together in an immaculate framework of enthralling giallo inspired mystery and suspense. The sweet drone and simply shifting minor progressions that lurk beneath the funky bone covered exterior of “Running Blade” are definitely grounded in a great love of Carpenter. However, as the Carpenter vibe begins to fade out for the most part around three-and-a-half minutes in, Umberto’s own unique voice begins to take shape in the haze of tension and horror for the first time on From The Grave. His reliance on piercing high-end clangs and chimes is something new for me for, at least for the most part. I’ve heard people toy with them in the past, but Umberto is able to strip away the demonic bass-end of the songs that I’m used to, and his compositions stand as unsettling pieces uniquely they’re own. “Forsaken Dawn” drives home the distilled and unapologetic giallo influences that you’re hearing extremely successfully. Yeah, the beat almost sounds like it could be from Escape From New York or something, but the subtly shifting movements of music above it, which drift back and forth from driving bass to spasming explosions of treble, help give “Forsaken Dawn”, and From The Grave for that matter, they’re trademark sound. It’s an almost danceable giallo disco romp into the territory of Bruno Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani or Riz Ortolani to my ear, quickly supplying yet another example as to why Umberto has basically been continuously releasing music under this moniker for six years at this point, and hasn’t had a single dud to date in my opinion. “Forsaken Dawn” builds to such a bestial monstrous frenzy so calmly and collectively, that at first that you almost don’t notice. That is until you’re trapped in full on psychosis mode, feeling suffocated in a haze of maddening frenzied illusions as the final notes begin to stagger and collapse from your speakers. While your mind is still reeling from the orgy of sounds showcased in “Forsaken Dawn”, Umberto once more commands your senses be instantly assaulted, this time by the dark electronic stabs that begin “The Child”, which may in fact be my favorite track on From The Grave. “The Child” is so sparse and the beat seems so sporadic, repetitive but completely un-formulaic – I was hooked from the first time I heard it. Choirs of disembodied voices begin their funeral incantation, whispering inevitably of your impending demise, but in the most magnificent amalgamated spectacle of grotesque beauty and terror that you’ve ever beheld. At once, calming and hypnotically entrancing, “The Child” begins to slowly transform. Like an animal turning rabid, it grows razor sharp synthesized fangs dripping crimson red with the blood of its most recent victim that collect in crunchy puddles of assaulted keys at its’ unholy feet. Umberto’s ability to take the smallest and simplest of progressions or sounds and transmogrify them, building endlessly on them, molding them into new shapes like a master mason or monster maker, until he’s crafted a towering vestal that menacingly looms before you, is absolutely breathtaking at times. A few tracks in, just when you think you’ve got a handle on things and they’re going to get hard and heavy like you would expect, “The Child” comes to a quick close and the aggression resends. Instead, they’re now replaced by the divine sounds of “Dream Sequence” which begin to invade every crevice and crack of your brain almost instantaneously from the moment it starts. The ethereal opening begins to metamorphasize and juxtaposes the droning otherworldly sounds that it’s composed of with a few differing melodies, rhythms, and instruments. A phantasmagoric organ floats in and out of the gallery of “Dream Sequence”, along with Umberto’s piercing signature high end, his almost sonic sounding bell tolls and barking screams of synthesizer. “Dream Sequence” molds and changes shape, fitting in with nearly any possible scenario that it could be confronted with, all while unbelievably still presenting a unified vision of a slowly unraveling reality and forgotten shattered china doll beauty that’s been left shattered on the floor, scattered like the shards of a broken mirror. The songs on From The Grave don’t accompany a movie or anything, but in a sense they almost do. The deeper you move into the album, the closer you get to the territory of the grave itself. The closer to the grave you get, the more images are conjured and thrown at the listener. It’s never haphazardly though, it’s always with an almost insane level of intention and meaning, even if that’s hard to piece together on the first pass, it becomes much more apparent once you’ve finished From The Grave at least once. The sixth track “Intermission” utilizes both the repeated haunting groan of organs and the jangling bells tones that are like Umberto’s calling cards from the very outset, but really “Intermission”, a lot like it’s name would imply, seems to operate as more of a mood setter for the next track “It Came From The Swamp” than anything else. Especially as it’s one of only two extremely short tracks on From The Grave, especially in comparison to the hefty four to six minute vibes of the album. It may be less than a minute long, but “Intermission” perfectly sets up the foreboding ominous tones that bring “It Came From The Swamp” lurching to life from the murky pit of mud and gore where it dwells. Piercing synthesizers flutter underneath of a doomey droning note of pure synthetic terror, building to an explosion of horrifically deep bass and the first real discernable strings on the album; a sweet fuzzy distorted guitar grunting and crooning behind the quickly amassing menagerie of insanity. Instead of shoehorning the instrument into the mix though, Umberto utilizes sustained single chords that ring out and bubble up in the background of the sparse erratic electronic sounds above it. “It Came From The Swamp” feels like the listener is being pursued by some unseen, yet unarguably and undoubtedly horrible creature of unfathomably evil intentions. Now, while there are a lot of tracks that a trained Carpenter freak’s ear could pick out on the album as obvious nods to the genius composer if one were to pay a lot of attention, the amazing use of drone and sustained single notes throughout “It Came From The Swamp” are evidence enough for me of his undeniable aesthetic presence. There’s definitely a Halloween, specifically the more experimental Halloween III, vibe going on with “It Came From The Swamp” and that would be hard to argue against with me. Somehow, though Umberto’s not derivative or predicable in the slightest. It’s always annoying when someone is biting someone else’s style, but Umberto never ‘sinks’ to that level. Instead, he opts to completely dissect what makes a song sound the way that it does, pick it all apart and then turn it on its’ head by reassembling the pieces into a new functional manifestation of his own accord. Unnerving, disarming, scary but not at all in your face about it, “It Came From The Swamp” could easily underscore any number of extremely famous 70’s and 80’s horror movie scenes – in fact, it’s “It Came From The Swamp” more than any other track on the album that makes me wish there actually was a film to go along with the music. I suppose the maniacally deranged images that it conjures in my mind will have to suffice, and honestly in the end, that’s fine with me. There’s really no way anyone could actually produce anything as visually terrifying or horrifically beautiful as to visually accompany Umberto’s music on this album properly anyways. From The Grave checks all the boxes; creepy, catchy, synthesized, eerie, dark, ominous and infectious as all hell. From this point on the album takes on a markedly more intense and frenzied approach to the music, imbuing it with even more tension and paranoia than ever before. In fact “Shower Scene” drives this point home like a steak knife to the heart with the name alone. It’s an obvious nod to the infamous Hitchcock shower scene in Psycho, which is dangerous territory to tread on for me, and a lot of other people I would guess. There’s not much in this world that I would even begin to compare with such an iconic, unforgettable and influential piece of cinematic history as that particular scene from one of Hitchock’s most beloved classics. “Shower Scene” however is far from being out of its class, or it’s element for that matter, and I for one would love to see what Umberto could do actually rescoring a classic film like Psycho or Birds; it would be intriguing without doubt. That aside though, the pulsating drums and relentless shrill squeals of the synthesizers on “Shower Scene” are soon joined by a rotting foul drone note, slithering from side to side, slowly molting and evolving as the song progresses and unfolds. Together they merge to create a composition that could easily have been left off of one of the original Phantasm soundtracks – which is perhaps the highest honor I could bestow on an artist of this genre. This song sounds as though John Carpenter and Fred Myrow got together with Malcolm Seagrave and this is the result of their limited time in the studio, a perfect marriage of the two differing sides of the same coin to create something three times as powerful and intense. “Shower Scene” is perhaps the best of From The Grave distilled and compiled into one song, at one place at one time, a concentrate of the highest magnitude that creates pure ghoulish perfection! It’s an unnerving song to say the least, if not immaculately crafted and performed. Next, “In The Name Of Zuul” brings things full circle again, moving much more into the more danceable, funk, giallo sound that Umberto has become so synonymous with. In retrospect it’s kind of incredible to listen to an album where a musician so easily taps almost every different facet of the synth and avant-garde soundtrack genres where it doesn’t come off like a jumbled mess, or worse yet, utterly painful. The entirely derailed keys that bounce like shrapnel from a landmine throughout “In The Name Of Zuul” begin to slowly convalesce with the accompanying melodies and rhythms astride next to them to create a haunting opera from beyond the veil of life and death, a glimpse at the other side. Even almost tribal hand percussion is eventually introduced, truly making “In The Name Of Zuul” one of the most well rounded giallo pieces ever presented outside of the original format in my opinion. Listening to songs like this it’s all too easy to forget that this is an album and not an actual soundtrack though, which is something that I can’t often say when listening to new albums like this. The final track is aptly named “Final Credits” and it delivers a sludge hammer of a blow to finish things off. I’ve not been taken by many of these horror renaissance projects to be honest and one of the few exceptions is Slasher Dave, and this sounds like it could have been taken from his last album for Bellyache Records Tomb Of Horrors. If you’ve read my review of that album, you know that’s another extremely lofty comparison for me to make, one I don’t do too often or too lightly. With unintelligible words speaking some incantation to no-doubt summon ancient gods that we as mortals have long forgotten, Umberto summons up from the depths of the grave the most horrific and sinister sounds that he can for “Final Credits”. Jangling bells resonate along with what sounds suspiciously like a Theremin, all the while various synthesizers and organs grind any bones that they come into contact with into powder with a devastating bottom-end that seems nearly limitless and infinite. The sheer immense weight and power of “Final Credits” comes crashing down on the listener like a machete wielding maniac’s kill shot, a fitting end for an album that owes much of its existence to films that draw their subject matter from such things. In the end however, From The Grave manages to move beyond being merely a good ‘horror’ or ‘giallo’ album though. It’s not just another great ambient electronic or dark wave offering. Its composition, production and execution place it high among some of the best recordings of nearly any genre that I’ve compulsively listened to for some two and a half decades now, with absolutely no question in my mind. It’s not easy to hang with the greats of this genre alone either, Morricone got his name in the giallo game after all. But Umberto in the end delivers one of the most effective and enjoyable, you can call it what you want but I’m going to just call it a horror, albums that I have ever heard. Not only do the collected recordings work as an album, but as a kind of perceived soundtrack to images that they conjure in your mind as well. You just but have to close your eyes and the pictures will begin to flood in with the music on From The Grave. As fresh now as it was when it was originally released in 2009 some six years ago at this point, you need to make sure you get on top of the recent repressing. This album belongs on any self-respecting giallo, horror, synth, no wave, dark wave, or dark ambient music lover’s record shelf. Hell, I bet there’s a ton of psych guys out there that could associate with the approach to construction and execution of From The Grave like I can. It easily transcends genre barriers and has continued to attract a widely growing audience for more than half a decade now. Permanent has already done a few pressings, but you never know when the last one is going to be and you do not want to have missed out on this slab of synthesized history. Get on the links below to hear some of what I’m talking about and do yourself a favor, buy one of these 300 nuggets of purest awesome. And for the love of all that’s holy – someone make get me more of this man’s catalog so I can review the living crap out of it! I know he has a new collarborative album with Antonia Maovi on the Mondo/Death Waltz Original label that I’m salivating to check out. That’ll be in print for a while. From The Grave on the other hand may not be sticking around as long… Just sayin’.
- Listen to some music here: https://umberto.bandcamp.com/album/from-the-grave
- Buy your records here: http://www.permanentrecordschicago.com/store/p582/LP_-_Umberto_-_From_the_Grave_-_%28Repress%2C_Ltd_300%29.html
Review made by Roman Rathert/2015
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