2nd Album
(This Way Up/London)

This has to be the apotheosis of sadcore: In the Tindersticks' "My Sister," a girl goes blind at 5, burns down the family home at 10 (killing Mum and the cat), is paralyzed by her gym teacher/lover at 15, and drops dead at 32, pleading with her last gasps that her coffin be cheap so that the worms can get to her quicker. Frontman Stuart Staples' soft-spoken narration is made all the more ominous by Drugstore's Isobel Monteiro, who whispers the words in tandem as if the dead woman's ghost were looming above him. For this London sextet, pathos clearly rules the day: 2nd Album is a haunting 70-minute soundtrack for the black comedy in which we have all been cast, as decadent and inspiringly gloomy as Nick Cave's The Good Son.

Though the 'sticks forge the kind of dense, cinematic soundscape that critics have identified with trip-hoppers Portishead, the band eludes genre classifications altogether. Staples and company are masters at drawing out the tension inherent in the marriage of opposites; these macabre tales are set to waltzing lifts of orchestration or lounge-worthy xylophone chimes. Violins bear the weight of Staples' warbling baritone, which sounds frighteningly close to that of Elvis in his overripe Las Vegas days.

Thankfully, the Tindersticks are never too bogged down to brandish that droll Brit-wit -- picture them snickering as they title a funereal instrumental track "Singing." In "No More Affairs," the band's love-in-the-time-of-AIDS song, Staples quips: "It was an impulsive thing/ What we called the other/ Climbed into bed with our previous lovers/ Gets crowded in there/ No more affairs." But then there is the spare, tapping rhythm of "A Night In," and the gorgeous "Tiny Tears," with slow, rearing crescendos that ride the fine line between genuine tragedy and over-the-top camp. Indeed, the Tindersticks live up to their name: dry, highly flammable, and sharp at the end.

-- Shoshana Berger

Fear Factory

Crediting its members with highfalutin monikers like "maximum effective pulse generator" and "dry lung vocal martyr" -- that's "drummer" and "vocalist" to you and me, dude -- L.A.'s Fear Factory is pretty goddamned full of itself, delivering the 11 tracks of Demanufacture with all the humor of a Replicant, and defining its music as a "soundtrack to spearhead resistance and forge a new society." Yeah, yeah: "The answer my friends/ Is blowin' in the wind ..."

Trouble is, once you actually lend Fear Factory your ear, the quartet doesn't like to give it back. Combining Napalm Death's vocal aplomb with Metallica's machine-gun guitar belches and the digital hardcore favored by OLD, Demanufacture draws you in with a relentless hammering that eventually succeeds in penetrating your skull, if not your gray matter. It's interesting that a CD so titled should rely so much on computer technology: The sound FF favors is incredibly abrasive and brittle (and the band likes it that way), yet the result -- a 32nd-note bass drum beat sample on "Zero Signal," for example -- must be heard to be believed. Elsewhere, "Body Hammer" crawls like a Rampage Radio theme song, and "Dog Day Sunrise," a fine Head of David cover, suggests FF has listened to its roots. I'm no metalhead, but a track like "Self Bias Resistor," with its multiple layers, brutal rhythms, and anthemic chorus (which stands in 180-degree opposition to Burton Bell's growled verse), grinds, in the best possible way, at my core.

Advocating resistance and individuality in the face of "government's constant conspiracy," it's hard to say whether Fear Factory's social agenda can achieve the effectiveness of its music. Teetering between inspirational and self-righteous, Demanufacture could play just as comfortably at a left-wing conflagration as at a militia gathering. But hell, at least it's a voice for change. Call it the folk music of the '90s.

-- Colin Berry
Fear Factory opens for Megadeth Wed, Aug. 9, at the Warfield in S.F.; call 775-7722.

Swans Related Project: Jarboe
Sacrificial Cake
(Alternative Tentacles)

Swans Related Project: M. Gira
(Alternative Tentacles)

After nearly a decade and a half of turning inner turmoil into cathartic wastelands of tortured sound, Swans gurus Michael Gira and Jarboe have embarked on two new solo ventures: Sacrificial Cake marks Jarboe's third outing as a lone leader; Drainland is M. Gira's debut. Both discs fuse sex, violence, and considerable nihilism with the kind of disturbing intensity expected from a "Swans Related Project."

Amid trenchant layers of shimmering guitar and swampy synthetics, Gira explores the self-delusion of alcoholic detachment. Drainland kicks off with "You See Through Me," a verite-sounding taped encounter in which Jarboe confronts Gira with her anxiety about his "drinking too much." Gira argues that it's "your problem, not mine," and that she must now "support" his alcoholism: "Shut your mouth and get some money." The release closes with "Blind," Gira's acknowledgment of his "self-deception" and a plea for pity "Because when we're drinking/ We can never be filled." He intones, "When I look in the mirror/ I feel dead/ I feel cold/ I am blind." Bloody images of "pleasure-pain and fear and hatred" weave through these soundtracks to chilling effect.

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