17 December 2006

Thirty


Jason ForrestLady Fantasy E.P. (Sonig)

Forrest returns to the top 50, and I have placed the EP over his full-length. This is mainly because I prefer the crazier end of dancey music in short bursts, otherwise I fatigue off it. I don’t think I’m alone either; people often respond to Best Dance Album lists with ‘well, dance is about singles’. I agree, really. I mean, look at The Prodigy. ‘No Good’, ‘Poison’, ‘Firestarter’ and stuff. Great singles. But am I going to listen to their albums? Nope. And …Jilted Generation is one of the better dance albums out there.

I really like Underworld’s Second Toughest in the Infants, but I rarely listen to it. I can listen to singles like ‘Pearl’s Girl’ and ‘Dirty Epic’ anytime though. And so it is with this. Albums by Forrest, Kid606 or what have you are all well and good, but have more impact in single or EP form: every song can be different to the last, it’s more conducive to memory, and there is less danger of filler.

‘Sperry and Foil’ clocks in at the pretty epic length of eight minutes but, unlike the aforementioned Underworld did so often, it never quite feels truly epic. The key hook, a rather splendid little descending synth melody, spends its time battling the prevailing glitchizm, occasionally bubbling to the surface. The reason why this works a tad better than, say, General Patton vs. The X-Ecutioners, is because these melodic ‘hope spots’ last long enough to actually settle in and provide some form of dynamic counterpoint to the general bleeblaabloo stuff. I say it wasn’t particularly epic, but there is a magnificent sequence near the end where some proper noise builds up, and up, and up, until exploding into the melody, revitalised. Love it.

Shorter though the other three tracks are, they don’t let the side down. I think I have the track order wrong, but the eponymous song takes a leaf out of Prefuse73’s book, as the clipped loops recur as though it’s accidental record skipping. Rarely one to lean on a single idea too hard, some cartoon music reminiscent of the Fantômas record briefly punctuates the staccato. Essentially an extended intro, the main sample returns before the track ends.

So the primary form here is that ADD-simulating style with constant, and radical, changes. It’s the ilk that a lot of the Tigerbeat6 crew (as of about 2002, when I was last paying attention), Tobin and many Metallers – Soilent Green, Dillinger Escape Plan etc – espouse and, while it’s been going on for the last decade or so (obviously the Warpy likes of Aphex and Squarepusher predate this, but I feel this hi-def American strain is a particularly valid school of its own. It has a sense of dayglo fun, rather than some kind of smarmy ‘look what I can do’ delivery that some of the Brits have been guilty of at times), it is still a pretty major underground mode of musical currency.

Times do finally seem to be changing, both in the worlds of guitar and ‘electronica’. But until Dubstep really takes off (which it probably will, as it’s already got more mainstream press than Grime ever did. And Dizzee doesn’t count – the excitement over him served to divorce him from the context of Grime, if anything), and sunnO))) stop being The Metal Band For People Wot Don’t Like Metal, the slowness won’t quite render Zorn/Patton/tigerwarpcore all that dated. Maybe it’s because the constant changes within the music itself maintain the shock of the new, providing continuous stimuli, ergo preventing ageing. Or something. I suppose the nods to Krautrock (both by Forrest’s admission and the sampling of Neu!) capture something of a retro-zeitgeist, but I might be making things up at this point.

Speaking of Tigerbeat6, ‘The Lure of You’ sounds like something off a label sampler I got a few years ago, specifically ‘Interspecies Love’ by Kevin Blechdom. It’s a charming pop nugget, interspersed with acoustic guitar. I’ll have to check out Italian singer/songwriter Margareth Kammerer, who sung on and apparently co-wrote the song. It leads nicely (on my copy) into the quite exquisite ‘The Work Ahead of Us’, co-written with David Grubbs. Superficially comparable to Radiohead’s ‘Treefingers’ in its stretched-out languidity, it breathes beautiful tones into your ears. While the Kid A track is about the guitar tone being extended and played with, the motivating sonic on this track seems to be a female vocal (though who knows what it started out as). With keyboard textures adding an ominous air to the song, it is also more dramatic.

Perhaps Slo-core is where it’s at after all.

05 December 2006

Thirty-one


Izzy StradlinLike a Dog (iTunes download)

Rock and roll. While often derided as a one-dimensional and tired genre, there can be few things to match it at its sleazy, life-affirming best. And rock ‘n’ roll is rarely better, or sleazier, than on that legendary debut album of Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction.

Depending on to whom one listens, the primary instrumental architect for that classic was one Izzy Stradlin. Stradlin who, due to the band’s infinite personal conflicts, was replaced by Gilby Clarke in 1991, has since embarked on a lengthy solo career.

The most recent chapter in this career is Like a Dog, recorded in 2003, though it didn’t see the light of day until a 2005 online petition resulted in internet availability. And, as one would expect from a rocker who was mainstream before Grunge was, this is the kind of good time rock ‘n’ roll that makes me wish I still drank whiskey. And not the proper, single malt stuff, either: this music is pure Jack Daniels.

So this is a workout in post-Punk (though obviously not Post Punk), pre-Grunge rock, wherein the songs have that pace and bite of any self-respecting rocker who grew up while The Ramones were doing the rounds. Granted, Stradlin was more on the traditional Stones/Led Zep/Alice Cooper side of things, but the Punk osmosis is clear from the attack of Appetite for Destruction.

Often, I criticise music for not pushing things forward enough, for being too retro-for-the-sake-of-it. Or, in the words of Maynard James Keenan, ‘fuck retro anything’. I dunno, though. I have a soft spot for Izzy.

Quite apart from being a primary cog in my favourite album of the 1980s, his style of rock is really quite ageless. Based in a time after the Punk explosion made most older rock sound positively prehistoric (though clearly not all of it – even bands the punks hated, like Led Zep and Sabbath, had punk-as-fuck ‘Communication Breakdown’s and ‘Paranoid’s), but before capturing the zeitgeist made you look silly a few years later (Ratt? Coal Chamber? Orgy?!), this is essentially distilled rock essence.

It’s not going to change my life anytime soon, nor am I going to declare Izzy the best thing ever. However, this album really entertains me for its duration and, in this age in which poseurs are more prevalent in rock than any time since at least the early 90s, there is something to be said for authenticity. Why is this above the High On Fire album? Doesn’t numb me like that one does by about track seven.

Thirty-two


CYNEEvolution Fight (City Centre Offices)

For some reason, this had been described to me as a mix of electronica and HipHop. I don’t know if this was just due to the label that released it apparently being a ‘dance’ label, but I don’t know. It just sounds like HipHop to me.

It is a really good rap album, though. While not electronica in any way, shape or form (this is a bloody far cry from the genre-bending, and brilliant, likes of Anti Pop Consortium, that’s for sure), the backing is really intelligently put together. The mix is varied, the beats are solid, and some samples are truly emotive.

The lyrics, likewise, are of high quality, even if they fall into genre cliché once too often – are we really destined to hear of ‘niggaz’ on every rap album? It just suggests a dearth of vocabulary, which is odd coming from an otherwise perspicacious rapper.

Indeed, this is a great album all-round, with nothing in the way of filler and no skits. That said, this is not a classic, which is tough in a year filled with great, but not classic, HipHop.

Thirty-three


FantômasSuspended Animation (Ipecac)

Mike Patton’s supergroup returns, with their fourth album since 1999. After the seventy-four minute single track ambient experiment that was Delirium Cordia (2004), the band released the polar opposite – a thirty track ‘calendar’ based on the days in April full of ostensibly kids’ music. What’s more, it was apparently created at the same time as the ambient piece.

From ‘background music’ couldn’t come a more opposite concoction of completely complex composition. Influenced by the scattershot sound of the band’s debut, this offers forth numerous short, dynamic, aggressive pieces based on jazz, Death Metal and cartoons (including sound effects and Bugs Bunny samples).

What seems on the surface to be random noises and riffs has actually been meticulously crafted by Patton himself, then given to the musicians to play as only they know how (Dave Lombardo’s drumming is notable in its quality).

Filled with ideas and brilliance, there are two main issues, one haunting this album and the other, most Patton projects. Due to the intensity and density of this music, it can be a bit much by the end of the album. Fortunately this is somewhat offset by the fact the album is just over half an hour.

Which leads us to the more universal issue I have with the musical output of the great man. While there are myriad great ideas, they very rarely have a chance to flower before they are trampled by more of the same. It would be nice to have a Patton album which let its ideas develop, rather than being discarded like so many kid’s toys.

Wait a minute…

Thirty-four


Lydia LunchSmoke in the Shadows (Atavistic)

A very individual album, from the ever-individual and divine Ms. Lunch, this continues her love for the noir-esque sound. In fact, considering the almost 'Sin City' aesthetic, this would be very much a capturing of the zeitgeist in mid 2005.

Sexy as ever, she purrs threats and narrative over sultry piano and the occasional stab of blazing brass, and it never gets old. Much like peers Jim Thirlwell or Michael Gira, Lydia has her identity down pat and works it perfectly.

Songs like ‘Trick Baby’ push the credibility a tad, but they are at the very least fun digressions from the sleazy main course. Final song ‘Hot Tip’ restores the mood to close, and Smoke in the Shadows is yet another satisfying serving of Lunch.

Thirty-five


CageHell's Winter (Def Jux)

This is something of a signature Def Jux album. There are apparently numerous producers featuring on this HipHop album, but it has a very traditional (if that term can be used for such bruising, claustrophobia-inducing, low-bitrate texturing) El-P sound to it. I have been informed that DJ Shadow produced a track, but smooth, poignant Endtroducing… this is not.

This is, however, a very political album. Cage rails against the machine of the government, as well as dissing ‘deadbeat dads’. Jello Biafra guests on ‘Grand Ol’ Party Crash’ with what should be an amusing impersonation of George W. Bush, but which actually turns out to be slightly embarrassing. There is something of the drunk uncle at a wedding in the usually killer Biafra’s attempt at making like Rory Bremner. As if one wasn’t enough.

This works as a whole, though. Like the CYNE album, this is good but in no way a classic, and as such finds much company from 2005. This is definitely not the second coming of Cannibal Ox, but passes the time well and has a great, brutal HipHop sound to it. Again, though, the ugly question raises its head: does time, and development, just stop after 2001? I blame September the 11th.

Thirty-six


Amon TobinSplinter Cell: Chaos Theory (Ninja Tune)

I love Amon Tobin. He’s cool, his album art is always excellent, and he releases consistently brilliant albums. It’s fair to say he’s one of my favourite musicians around at the moment.

His last album ‘proper’ (though this does technically count) was 2002’s Out From Out Where, an album which took his trademark dark instrumental HipHop into realms of complexity putting him more on a par with a band like Fantômas than DJ Shadow.

Since then he’s released a collection of remixes and this, a soundtrack to the then-most recent in the Splinter Cell gaming franchise. As a result, some of the tracks are more mood-based than actual song, but as a whole it works.

As the emphasis has to be on what the gamer is doing at any one time, Tobin has reeled back the complexity for this album, focusing more on the atmospherics and solid rhythms. So ‘Kokubo Sosho Battle’ actually sounds like a tense boss fight. But I don’t know, as I haven’t played that game to find out.

It would be interesting to see how well the music lives in an interactive environment, where what plays is dependent on your actions, but as a linear listening experience, this is excellent percussive electronica which stands tall on its own merit.

Thirty-seven


Little BrotherThe Minstrel Show (Atlantic/WEA)

While I have a pretty big rap collection, the depth of my actual appreciation extends, sadly, to ‘I know what I likes on my stereo’. I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does mean that I am ignorant of the various subgenres of the scene.

For example, I wouldn’t know whether or not this is an example of the much-ballyhooed Conscious Rap. Again, it matters little, as this album is a good one.

Aesthetically, the lush mix and tendency for R’n’B hooks remind me somewhat of Connected (2004), by Foreign Exchange, though the romance of that album is replaced in large part by a keen sense of satire. I suppose the title was a dead giveaway (‘it’s the biggest coloured show on Earth!’, as they are wont to proclaim).

Humour runs through the course of the album, ostensibly a variety show, hosted by UBN, or ‘the U Black Niggaz network’. With the one real joke to the record, though, the constant references to UBN get a tad old as the album progresses. It’s no big deal, and skits in which a dad is concerned that the Minstrel Show is a bad influence on his son are inoffensive enough.

That’s not to say Little Brother totally eschews the love song. ‘Slow it Down’ is a fine example but, given the humour running through the album’s concept like it was Blackpool rock, it is hard to assume such songs are devoid of a tongue dwelling constantly in their respective cheeks.

Musically, the listener is mostly treated to the soft-edged, soul ballad kind of sound, as exemplified on ‘Lovin’ It’ (it never gets too soft, though, what with lines about ‘waking up, holding my dick’, as Joe Scudda so poignantly puts it).

While the sound and beats are nothing new, they are carried off with flair. There are seventeen tracks, but the album is done and dusted in well under an hour, and does not outstay its welcome. I’m sure there is a Michael Richards joke to be made here, but I’m too much of a Seinfeld fan to do that.

Thirty-eight


Cave InPerfect Pitch Black (Hydra Head)

My main thought when considering this album is a positive one. I choose not to dwell on the opinion I have that this is far from their best (2000s amazing Jupiter), and instead on the fact that this album very nearly didn’t exist.

Word got out at some point in 2005 that, after issues numerous and rather predictable with their major label, Cave In had actually called it a day. Granted their last album, Antenna, wasn’t great, but it apparently had RCA oar-sticking. Besides, it’s never nice to lose a good rock band [obligatory Kerbdog shout-out].

So, some time after demos leaked, the band was back with their original home, Hydra Head, for this independently created album. While the mass-market media machine was no longer behind them (fat lot of good it did them anyway), they were where they could record what they wanted without suits peering over their collective shoulder.

Whatever the factors surrounding Antenna, Cave In’s latest is no return to their peak. There are no bad songs. The album is not too long, though some of the tracks could do with about a minute being trimmed. There is nothing really wrong with this disc at all.

The problem is the knowledge of what has been. Granted, the instrumental song here is better than Jupiter’s ‘The Decay Of The Delay, but aside from that, no song on offer here can touch anything from ‘Requiem’ to ‘Big Riff’. And this is not to castigate the band, as the album is very enjoyable. It’s just a bit sad that such a young band seems used up and spat out already.

Perhaps with time to heal from their deal gone awry, Brodsky et al. can get back to their best. In the meantime, they can settle for just being better than most other rock bands of the moment.

Thirty-nine


High On FireBlessed Black Wings (Relapse)

The second full length from Matt ‘Sleep’ Pike’s current band throws a relative curveball for his long-time stoner fans. ‘Devilution’ opens things up with a battering drum intro that leads into such concentrated guitar attack that its staccato riffery is essentially Thrash Metal. The screaming, Lemmy-meets-early Hetfield, vocals only add to this feeling.

Where the Thrash bands were all rather tinny-sounding in their no-bass heyday, though, the sound on this record is full-on. The thick, bassy guitar sound and massive toms really come into their own on the slower, stomping, ‘The Face of Oblivion’. ‘South Of Heaven’ to the first tracks ‘Angel of Death’, if you will. There’s also a breakdown into clean guitar arpeggio about halfway through that, while generic, really brings a nice – ‘Laguna Sunrise’ – change of pace. Pike even does his best Ozzy-on-‘A National Acrobat’ vocals to complete the Sabb-fest.

Before long, though, it gets rather old. And I feel bad at saying this, because Blessed Black Wings is really well-done. It’s just a bit ‘retro for the sake of it’ for my liking. Yes, it is pretty much the best Motörhead album in a quarter of a decade, but there are times when I ask myself if this really is what’s going on in 2005.

On the whole, I definitely rate it. It’s too good not to, and beefy Thrash revival certainly has its place – especially when it’s as awesomely massive as ‘Cometh Down the Hessian’. All Wino-inspired vocal bite (kinda makes sense, considering Wino was the real Ozzy of the 80s) with alternately chugging and blistering riffs, it’s excellent. And given the current musical climate of No Time, in which retro has been the mode since at least 2000 and There Is Nothing New Under the Sun, this pleasure is not guilty.

Forty


FoetusLove (Birdman)

The man who should rightly be referred to as Reznor’s daddy* (both in terms of chronology and quality) is now more than a mere Industrialist. He has been for a while, to be honest, but historically his more experimental tendencies have taken the form of non-Foetus projects like Manorexia and Steroid Maximus.

As a result of this diversification, and work on Cartoon Network soundtracks, this is Thirlwell’s first new album proper (i.e. non-remix) in half a decade. His last before this was, of course, the excellent Flow. That album was such a grand explosion of rock experi-mentalism that Jimmy can definitely be forgiven for leaving it five years.

Thirlwell’s flair for the grand (Foetus Big Band, and his regular soundtrackular fondness) is something to be applauded, as is the trait of collecting and layering all kinds of sounds that results in him coming across like William Gibson writing Tom Waits. Sometimes, though, Thirlwell’s biggest strength is also his albatross, much like Mike Patton: can it be that he just has too many ideas for his own good?

Many of the songs don’t seem to work as songs per se. They are certainly very valid and well-executed musical ideas, and his arrangement and production are predictably excellent. It’s all just a tad lacking in excitement. Maybe the production is so good that it sucked all the raw energy out of the music. Maybe he’s just getting old. Maybe it’s just me. The climax of ‘Miracle’ should have me hurling myself against the wall in ecstasy, but it’s not. Maybe I just need to play it louder.

Or maybe the Foetus that releases dirty, electro-fied rock albums has run his natural course. Something tells me ‘Not Adam’ or ‘Don’t Want Me Anymore’ would work better re-tooled for soundtrack use.

Sometimes the melange of ideas, neo-Mancini desire and everything else, combines to work perfectly, as on the absolutely brilliant ‘Time Marches On’. At three minutes in length, it avoids the time pitfalls that many of the other tracks fall prey to. And it just rules. Layered and energetic, it is somewhere between Reznor and Devin Townsend (listen to his ‘Bad Devil’; and tell me who has the best tunes), and justifies the existence of the entire album.

It also leads nicely into the conclusive ‘How to Vibrate’, which is also strong. As a whole, though, the album is slightly lacking and if I was a Foetus person, I might be disappointed I waited half a decade for this. Then again, if I was a Foetus person, I would probably be happy there was new Foetus.

And while there is a distinctly reassuring seediness to proceedings, part of me wonders whether that is not just the muscle memory of the sordidness of his 90s work. And that just makes me want to listen to some Wiseblood.

*Weirdly, near the end of ‘Aladdin Reverse’, Jim seems to teef the sound of Reznor’s ‘We’re in this Together’, but I suppose the latter owes him.

28 November 2006

Forty-one


M.I.A.Arular (XL)

The most hyped artists of a particular year are the ones most likely to endure a polarity of opinion. Those seeking to capture the zeitgeist love the artist because it’s cool to do so; those who would be dissident hate the artist because that other group loves them. And when the season (or week) changes, those zeitgeist-chasers will be onto another fresh scent.

And so we have MIA, victim and beneficiary of her own cool status. The gimmicks used in publicising her are both springboard and albatross, with which she will always have to deal. She’s a girl, of Tamil origin, whose dad (missing in action) is a freedom fighter, and she raps.

As much as I would love to, it is neither easy nor necessarily proper to divorce an artist from their context, but in cases such as MIA, such action is almost required if one is to appreciate the music on its own merits – those being great.

The quickest and laziest reference point here would be Missy Elliott. Both deal with a very fun take on rap music and delivery of flow, with little regard for maintaining stereotype. MIA uses her background and resultant obstacles in her life as virtue, as seen in skits such as ‘Ba-na-na’, a light-hearted satire on ethnic minority in the British education system.

Musically, this is a mishmash of beats and rhymes, all infused with her fiery musical personality. The beats aren’t earth-shattering nor the lyrical content particularly profound, but this is a very catchy and smart pop record; certainly better for you than a Beyonce or Justin.

Forty-two


Jason ForrestShamelessly Exciting (Sonig)

Forrest (formerly 'Donna Summer', until some legal dealings intervened)’s reputation as the ‘nice Kid606’ has been somewhat usurped by the Kid going ‘nice’ himself in 2005. Such encroachment is little matter, as Jason always had quality in spades. While the Kid got slightly boring this year, Forrest... well, the title says it all.

What the two electronic musicians have in common is a ton of ideas – and a seemingly short attention span. However, while Kid606 was known for peppering his tunes with blasts of glitchy noise (and rarely peppered his glitchy noise with tunes), Forrest just has really genuinely varied songs.

It’s a fine line he treads with some tracks though. ‘My 36 Favorite Punk Songs’ is really enjoyable, but one wonders where the point is that a song crosses over into gimmick (as with the Avalanches and their 'look at me!' approach to making music. I suppose the main thing is that it is good.

It does seem a bit random and cobbled-together when compared to someone similar like Jackson & His Computer Band, on Warp. I prefer Forrest’s own Lady Fantasy EP to this actually, but it is definitely good stuff, with some nice blasts of drum ‘n’ bass to see us through.

Forty-three


13 And GodMen Of Station E.P. (Alien Transistor)

Kicking off with what would turn out to be the strongest song on their later debut album, this teaser from the team of Themselves and The Notwist is really a rather pleasant diversion.

The title track inhabits that increasingly populated space between Hip Hop, indie and the electronic. And that’s the way I like it. The melodic introduction, with elegiac combination of piano and violin, is propelled along well by the HipHop beat.

There is also an excellent remix of the title track (retitled ‘L'atlas Flexible / Von Gradleute’) by Hrvatski, which alternates between frantic drum ’n’ bass breaks and slower solid beats. These dynamically give way to the former, as they both fall lower in the mix for the piano to come ringing in a triumphant return. The best moment is that point when they synergise and the breaks punctuate the melodies. There’re harps and everything!

Forty-four


Serena ManeeshSerena Maneesh (Playlouder)

A debut album from a very potentially exciting new indie band, this is both defined and hamstrung by a love of My Bloody Valentine. Granted, loving MBV is never really a problem, but this band’s thrall of the Creation wonders is never really developed into an identity for themselves.

There is a more ‘modern’ production, which makes things louder – but this serves to undermine what made Loveless so great. That album was all about the subtlety of the production; the tender flowers struggling through the dense sonic soil. The sounds that you are never sure are actually there or, if they are, whether they were intentional. And the glory of the sounds of the ghosts in the machine washing over your being.

Regardless of how inferior this album is to one of the all-time classics of the genre, this plucky debut gets a relatively high placing because it is good on its own terms. There are some solid melodies, and the beat on a track like ‘Candlelighted’ is a great canvas on which the guitars can ring out and jam (and it is a decent approximation of Radiohead’s ‘A National Anthem’).

Compared to alternatives like Hard-Fi and Kasabian, this is like Sonic Youth covering Dylan songs or something. There is absolutely no contest, and for that they should be congratulated. If a little glad the excellent new Mogwai album is a 2006 release.

Forty-five


Burning Star CoreThe Very Heart Of The World (Thin Wrist)

I’m not really sure what to make of this, which has to be something of a rarity for this writer. Burning Star Core is one man, one C. Spencer Yeh, who is apparently classically trained (aren’t all these noise experimentalists) and has decided to eschew the ‘classics’ in favour of making noise for a living.

Good for him, as this particular brand of noise is very impressive. A quartet of songs, this album has three five-minuters, before closing with the seemingly obligatory 15+ minute drone session.

Yeh peppers his sounds with great layers of sound and instruments, with the occasional vocal sample thrown in. Unlike a lot of his peers (such as Birchville Cat Motel or Double Leopards), there is a very definite attack and aggression to this music, and it never seems like it is ‘just noise’. There is a method to the madness, as the epic ‘Come Back Through Me’ attains a sense of drone even when drums and piano are regularly recurrent in the mix. I have a feeling I will need to do a lot of listening to this apparently exciting genre, because most of it leaves me cold. Even Hototogisu, who I am supposed to love. What can you do.

POSTSCRIPT: As of January 2006, I have listened to Birchville Cat Motel on headhones and I'm warming to this scene. I hope to see them when they tour soon, actually. Maybe a look at their album will turn up on the blog when this list is done.

Forty-six


Kid606Resilience (Tigerbeat6)

It’s funny what returning to an album after a while can do for ones appreciation of it. When I first heard Resilience, I was immensely pleased. It seemed that the inordinately talented joker of electronic music (OK, there are a few, admittedly) had finally ‘matured’, and in doing so, produced the album of his career thus far.

I always wished Richard ‘Aphex’ James could have played it straight at least once in the past decade. He’s another artist of the computer with a ton of talent, but it seemed he just wanted to make silly noises to diminishing returns rather than an actual album. It’s his prerogative, I suppose, but on hearing that the Kid had ‘gone straight’ I was made up.

The album is really well composed, and has energy when it needs to, never having to drop into pure noise. The melodies are cool, the album unfolds well, and it just seemed very satisfying.

So I listened to it again for the purposes of this list, and something changed. The album is still the same well-crafted slice of mature electronica, but could it be that in the cold light of day it’s just a tad… boring?

Some of the songs are still really good, such as ‘Spanish Song’ and ‘Phoenix Riddim’, but as a whole it just drags, and never reaches the levels of beauty of many other, similarly ‘mature’ albums of this year. I never thought I’d find myself wishing Kid606 was still a noisy ADHD simulator, but there you go. Maybe he could have left growing up for later.

Forty-seven


Queens Of The Stone AgeLullabies To Paralyze (Interscope)

Like the Cave In album of this year, Lullabies… is a good album, but one with qualification. While a new band releasing this record would impress me for being so good, the fact that this is QOTSA comes with the weight of the classic Rated R, not to mention the final three Kyuss albums.

In the light of this past, the listener is forced to see this album as a disappointment. Many would attribute this to the loss of Nick Oliveri, who provided a dynamic counterpoint (he's crazy and noisy) to the smoother Josh Homme, as well as being one of the two constants since the formation of the band.

I would disagree, as Oliveri played on their last album, Songs For The Deaf, and that wasn’t great either. The problem, as with this album, is that there is just too much of it.

Rarely is an album of 14+ songs at 60+ minutes an essential one. Soundgarden managed it twice at the height of their powers in the mid-90s (Superunknown and Down on the Upside), but Homme is no Chris Cornell, it would seem. Even on those latter albums were songs that could have been cut.

So this album is a victim of its own ambition. The first half certainly contains good songs, but absolutely nothing happens in the second half until the excellent conclusion that is ‘The Long Slow Goodbye’ – an epic and sweeping modern rock great.

The nail in the coffin of this album would be that the good first half – catchy though it is, is never actually exciting. No ‘Avon’ on this, nor a ‘No-One Knows’, or ‘Auto Pilot’ for that matter. As good as this album can be at times, very little would be good enough to feature on …R.

27 November 2006

Forty-eight


General Patton vs. The X-ecutioners - Joint Special Operations Task Force (Ipecac)

Released earlier in the year than Patton’s Fantômas album, this is aurally very much a practice run for what is to follow. The key difference, though, is the method of composition. Whereas the Fantômas was essentially an incredibly complex take on the heavy metal lexicon, this collaboration was obviously less ‘traditional’ for Patton.

The X-ecutioners, being among the world’s most famous purveyors of turntablism (I don’t know how cool they are within the scene, but that Linkin Park collaboration cannot have helped them), made for a different flavour for the Patton oeuvre, but the novelty seems to have ended at the methodology stage.

The turntable work on display is of an absurdly high standard, cutting up and layering to ridiculous levels. However, there is a fine line between great technical arrangements and sheer virtuoso masturbation, and this album is a tightrope walker of quite perilous magnitude.

It soon becomes clear that Joint Special Operations Task Force falls prey to the trap that Fantômas and Bungle occasionally do: while there are plenty of good ideas on show, the problem is that there may actually be too many. The listener hears something cool, be it a sound or a hook, and it is instantly lost, washed off by the high tide, never to be heard again.

Patton projects do sometimes irritate in their habit of not letting ideas breathe, rushing through them like this was the end of the Generation Game. Joint Special Operations Task Force is a ‘good’ album, but an incredibly frustrating one at the same time.

Devoid of any real framework, or grand narrative, this is just a blast of myriad ideas. Some are good, some are amazing; it’s just hard to discern, when you become forcefully desensitised after a few minutes. Perhaps that’s the relevance of the military gimmick.

Forty-nine


System Of A DownMezmerize (Sony)

System Of A Down makes the right noises a lot of the time; the angst is present and correct, the riffs are usually solid and well constructed, and the occasional melody creates a level of emotional affect. However, and with little in the way of exception, I can’t escape the feeling that it’s all too contrived, too cynical.

As much as I love the idea of only being into cool music that pushes the envelope and stuff, I have to admit that I’m about as big a fan of the big rock ballad as you can find, and even then, I can’t buy into the likes of ‘Lost in Hollywood’.

It’s just so hollow. Why am I listening to a California nu-Metal band deriding sunny Cali culture? To be quite honest, I would rather listen go the very ‘maggots smoking fags on Sunset Boulevard’ than this self-important exercise in Metal box ticking.

Freakout, anything-goes, Metal band Mr. Bungle are no more, and that has been the case for a few years now. There is definitely a void where once they stood, but System Of A Down lack the imagination, the instrumental proficiency and the simple ‘we don’t care’ attitude to fill it. Doesn’t stop them from trying, though.

So we get explosions of wackiness. I hate wackiness. I hate those stupid faces Jim Carrey would pull in his idiotic mid-90s films, I hate those people who sit on the floor, at the front of gigs, simply because it’s kooky’ to do so. I especially hate wackiness in Metal. Really, if you are going to plough your furrow in such a straight-faced, angsty genre, then either embrace the ridiculousness of it (like sunnO)))), or play it straight.

What we have here is a band that, not content with producing some Metal version of Timmy Mallet, has deigned to release two albums of it in one calendar year. This is the better of the two.

Much like when Guns n’ Roses before them tried this trick, neither on its own is a particularly good album. It would be a stretch to even say their being merged would make one good album. These are two half-arsed albums that combine to form… well, a pile of arse. What’s worse is the presence of a couple of legitimately very good songs, to really shine a light on the mediocrity elsewhere.

‘BYOB’ is a good song, but I think part of my positive affect for it might be down to the context in which I first heard it. They popped up on some MTV award show and, as such, were a pleasant surprise. While the riffs were warmed over 1986 Metallica, the riffs were there, on my telly, when they could easily have been The Kooks or some crap.

So, I associate the song with that happy surprise, and its competent structure, crunchy guitar and superficial satire (‘Everybody’s going to the party have a real good time / Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine’ – cute, but only in the context of Stuff You See On MTV) are nothing special on their own.

‘Violent Pornography’ is more like it, with less of a reliance on ‘ooh, aren’t we crazy’ dynamics and more of a celebratorily derisive chorus (‘Choking chicks and sodomy / The kinda shit you get on your TV’). The riff swings with as much swagger as the band can bring and, for four minutes, all is right with major label Metal.

Overall, though, it is a case of too little, spread too thin. And when this is the band looked at as The Next Metallica or whatever, you know something’s up. And the guitarist sings too much. He is nasal and whiny, and they should just multi-track vocalist Serj Tankian, who really is the silver lining to this band.

Fifty


Great Lake SwimmersBodies And Minds (Fargo)

Second album from what has to be the saddest band in the world. And I mean that as a compliment – there can be few bands roaming this earth as in touch with their ennui. Their 2003 self-titled debut came off like the depressive brother of My Morning Jacket (before they decided to play 70s rock), and this does little to buck the trend.

But don’t be thinking that Great Lake Swimmers are just another miserablist shoe-gazer band, for us all to ignore. In their songs is a very particular, cathartic and almost life-affirming melancholy. As the natural duality of life would have it, how would we know happiness if not for sadness?

And Great Lake Swimmers make us aware of this very well. There is a tenderness which just about avoids the bland pit known to the anodyne Keane/Coldplay family. Nor do they come across arguably maliciously depressing, like Mark Lanegan or Joy Division were known to. These songs are touching, and slightly more at peace than those on the debut.

Herein lies the rub: this is the major difference in form. That would not be so bad if it developed the band’s aesthetic, but there is a slight reduction in quality, if anything. Yeah, echoes of the CocoRosie. Without anything quite as sad as the debut’s ‘Moving Pictures Silent Films’, we never plumb the depths – but surely that was the inherent greatness.

We need that knowledge of real musical sadness to aid us in appreciating the natural dynamic of life, whereas this collection of songs offers us neither the highs nor the lows.

22 November 2006

2005: These didn't make it.

The albums in the list, I should add, have been awarded something in the limbo between 'notes' and 'a review'. So, with that in mind, I would like to present these albums. They weren't great. At the time of writing, I was unaware as to what my bottom line for a #50 album would be, so I made notes on pretty much everything I considered for the list.

Some were really good albums, and won't be seen for a while. Others might have been poor, or at least disappointing, and while they are not worthy of a top 50 placement, I fancied venting a bit about them. So I present to you some albums that did not make it:


Sigur RósTakk (Fat Cat)

This once great Icelandic band continues its slide into mediocrity. I should be upset that this album is as bland and featureless as it is. However, after the disappointment that was ( ), I don’t really care any more.

The worrying thing is, I should care. This album was hyped in some quarters of the media as the band’s best album yet, though it lacks even the trio of very good songs that the last one bore. The intro is very pleasant of sound, but the rest of the album seems completely absent.

As popular radio worships the mediocre (by the band’s standards) ‘Hoppipola’ as though it descended directly from heaven, encased in crystalline packaging, those who have heard Sigur Rós at its best know far better and see this album for the empty shell that it is; all pretty sounds, and no content.

What 2005 brought was a far cry from the glacial, dynamic and eclectic majesty of 2000's Ágætis Byrjun. That album managed to be intelligent and unspeakably beautiful, imbuing a level of emotion into a ‘post-rock’ genre previously lacking in that respect.

The musicians of Sigur Rós seem to be constantly gaining in popular stature; good for them. If their music continues in this prog-Coldplay vein, though, I wish not to bear witness to it any longer than I have thus far. The wasted potential is almost heartbreaking.


Acid Mothers Temple & The Cosmic InfernoJust Another Band From The Cosmic Inferno (Important Records)

I really want to like this. The objective signs are all there: this is the first album from Makoto Kawabata, who dropped his last band (AMT & The Melting UFO Paraiso), in favour of switching to the ‘evil’ side of the Temple; hence Inferno, rather than Paradise.

What this album essentially contains is a two-song, one-hour suite of psychedelic jamming and guitar noise, led by the Sensei himself. Sadly, the listening experience is not all the album suggests on paper.

It’s enjoyable enough, but just drags on, and with little variety to it. At first the experience is a heady one, filled with the joys of Japanese psyche-rock. The joys last for about the 20-odd minutes of track one. Then the realisation comes that there’s another song. And it’s twice as long.

I’m sure this would be excellent when experienced under various psychoactive substances (which is the presumable intention), but I rarely am; the best 'drug music' is also usually entertaining in the cold light of day. So it’s just not that great.


CocoRosieNoah’s Ark (Amish)

A very pleasant album, this is the sound of two sisters, various instruments and random found sounds. As a rather off-kilter, unstructured album it works really well. The dual vocals – one operatically trained – are excellent and complement each other fantastically.

There is a rural feel to this album, sounding as though it should be listened to in the middle of a field on a balmy summer day. As a mood piece, it satisfies. However, there is little to separate this album from its quite brilliant 2004 predecessor Ma Maison De Mon Reve.

If anything, this is a dip in quality. There seems not to be enough material to fill the album and as a result the later tracks lose the feeling of cohesion that earlier ones had; perhaps they are as good, and the mood doesn’t last. Doubtful, as the last album avoided this pitfall.

The guest appearances of rotund flavour of the month Antony (of Johnsons fame) and Devandra Banhart serve to annoy, good singers though they are. This just seems like it would have made a great EP, preferable to a mediocre album.


AntigamaZeroland (Selfmadegod)

Unlike a lot of Metal, which has either gone very slow and drone-based, or conversely dressed itself up in pop garb, Antigama are at once quite old-school and refreshing.

Making no bones about experimentation or eclecticism (why does every band now want to be either Neurosis or Mr. Bungle?), Zeroland is a straight-up, no-nonsense grindcore based Metal album. And a really good one at that (it’s admittedly no Sounds Of The Animal Kingdom though).

Beginning with a great swerve from the Radio 4 hourly ‘pips’, the album sets out its stall – heavy, fast riffs, throat-shredding vocals and lots of blast-beats. While this has been seen before, the current climate renders it something of a novelty. And a rush of energy

The one exception comes with the throwaway 10-minute titular closer, which focuses on samples and loops. It’s quite reminiscent of the last track on the final Coalesce album, actually. Aside from that, this is a lean, and most definitely mean, slab of Metal.


Explosions In The SkyThe Rescue (Bella Union)

I have problems giving this a very high recommendation. An instrumental indie (arguably ‘post rock’, though there is little ‘post’ about it) album which makes all the right noises, this is reasonably enjoyable in isolation.

The problem is, this is nothing any fan of the genre hasn’t heard a million times before. The genesis of this sound is pretty much Slint’s 1991 Spiderland masterpiece, though certain songs recall more directly Mogwai songs from as far back as 1999.

The guitars chime happily, the rhythms roll along, and in places it is a beautiful piece of work. It’s just so derivative that I just want to play Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Levez Vos Skinny Fist Comme Antennas To Heaven! instead. And that was released half a decade ago, too.

At least if a band is to attempt an album like this, they could put a new spin on the form. As it is, Denton, Texas’ Explosions In The Sky seem to have been ploughing the same furrow for three albums now. I guess that’s just about enough to make them Denton’s second finest; at least as far as I'm aware.


Chino XLPoison Pen (Activate)

This is rather a mediocre entry into the 2005 HipHop world. There are some very interesting ideas on here, but as a whole it fails to impress.

The finest track on here is probably the perspicacious ‘Wordsmyth’, wherein Chino riffs on his eloquence and rhyming ability. Rather than sounding overly arrogant (that comes later in the album), the song impresses due to both intelligence and smoothness.

Unfortunately, such perspicacity is scarce elsewhere, as the listener has to endure reports of a ‘big-ass dick’, various ‘bitches’ and the feuds, which never get old.

Chino’s eloquence is rather at odds with his seemingly contrived proclamations that ‘I’m a gangsta’ – especially when one of the most interesting experiments on the tape is a near-cover of Chris Cornell’s ballad ‘Can't Change Me’. Sadly, that experiment is far from a resounding success, but it was a valiant attempt – after all, what are mixtapes for? This is a mixtape, right?

Poison Pen is a mixed bag indeed, of some interesting ideas, and a lot of genre cliché. I would recommend listening to this, but there are at least ten albums from 2005 in this genre that are far more impressive.

20 November 2006


Albums of the year: 2005
Preface


That’s right, 2005. I’m posting this list due to a combination of factors. The first is simple indolence; I have had this list pretty much prepared since February but, as it was unfinished, held off due to some reviews getting lost and others having not yet been written.

Summer months passed by without much (or anything, to be precise) being written, and the sands of 2006 forced their way through the hourglass. Having already written a decent amount, I decided I might as well just stick the list up now. While seeking internal justification for such a move, I hit upon a decent topic on which to be righteously indignant.

See, whenever we get close to the end of a given year, thoughts turn to ‘WHAT WAS THE BEST STUFF OF THIS YEAR?!’, with other years seemingly redundant in the frenzied rush to praise Cansei de Ser Sexy or The Hold Steady before other people. Besides, what's the deal with such obsession about the calendar anyway? Time is pretty abstract as far as things that act directly on us, so pardon me if I do something a little different.

Therefore my stand, in possibly Canutesque fashion, is against time itself. Well, not so much the forces of Cronos or anything, but this implicit law that states, once a year has ended, discussion thereof must cease. I’m saying ‘screw that, because most years generally benefit from a bit of perspective, a touch of contemplation after the fact.

And so, I hope, will be the case here (indeed, the positions that are yet to be published might be revised at any time before such publication, so maybe not even I know what will win. And in keeping with the non-time philosophy, some albums that got sorta-reissued in 2005 will be eligible. Case by case basis, see).

So, here is a list of what I consider the best albums of last year (along with some that weren’t that good, and are going to receive a kicking), in good, old fashioned, countdown format. 2006 will be earlier in 2007 than this is, but certainly won’t be before February. This is a stand, damnit.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote by way of introduction, back in the mists of time:

It is worth mentioning (though probably inferred by my dear readers anyway) that as with any list of favourites, this is constantly in a state of flux. Therefore, what I will be presenting is merely a snapshot of my tastes at that moment. It won’t stand forever, nor is it meant to.

There may be what some people deem notable omissions – Franz Ferdinand or Kaiser Chiefs, for example. This is not born of a desire to be iconoclastic; I just don’t think either I, or the list, would benefit from my hearing them.

Similarly, many of my favourites will be ones that are not so obvious, or of massive commercial success. However, readers can rest assured that, far from any desire to be contrarian or obscurist, these are indeed my favourites, in order, at time of writing.

And so the list begins. The idea is that I will unveil ten at a time, every few days. Numbers 10-6 will be listed at one time, and the top five will have their own separate entries. Hopefully this will engender a sense of interest and intrigue, rather than frustration and boredom. Feedback is always welcomed, either on the blog itself or by email.

I’ll probably post reviews of 2005 albums I come across in the future, as well as where they would stand on the list, so as to imbue proceedings with something of an organic feel. Here’s hoping those few readers who happen upon this list enjoy reading it as much as I have compiling it.

18 November 2006

Amazing Race: Pretty good.

For the past few weeks I have been watching a reality show called The Amazing Race. I have actually been meaning to write about it for the past few weeks but, as with Lost and the Sopranos, I do not want to be drawn into weekly update obsession.

The show is essentially a race around the world, by various couples (father/daughter, ‘married entrepreneurs’, ‘dating actors’ etc), in the hope of winning one million dollars. Most weeks, the team that reaches the end-of-episode checkpoint in last place is eliminated.

They presumably just go until there are only two teams left, and presumably in America, but I’m just guessing. Each episode sees activities that must be passed in order for teams to continue.

I was always against reality TV (I still do not, and cannot, watch X Factor/Big Brother/I’m a Celebrity etc), but this year I’ve developed a liking for some examples of the genre.

American Idol was one, partly because Simon Cowell is an excellent TV character (I don’t watch X Factor despite my fondness for him), and partly because every contestant on American Idol is a better singer than every contestant on X Factor.

The key with American Idol, as now with Amazing Race is how compelling the characters are. This is both the reason why ‘traditional’ TV will never die, and why I am constantly bemused by British offerings. In Idol, I was positively rooting for the bald rock dude and short, ugly Jewish soul singer to win. That they did well (fourth and third place, respectively) meant I watched for the duration of the series.

And so it is with The Amazing Race. Viewing began as an exercise in laughing at the obnoxious Americans but, as the season has drawn on, some teams have endeared themselves to me.

First was the team of married pro wrestlers, Lori and Bolo. I knew I was in for some entertainment when, as the contestants were earnestly reading their first mission statements aloud, Bolo looked at his information card and said ‘blah blah blah. Let’s go’. They are great comic relief, and actually quite likeable.

Next were probably the old couple (or the ‘GRANDPARENTS!’, as the opening titles have it), who decided the best way to win the race was to take it easy.

To their credit, they outlasted the pairs of New York teams (two women from Queens and ‘Brooklyn Jews in Iceland’, as Ari sang in the opening episode), but they hold the dubious honour of being last in two consecutive episodes.

Fortunately for them, the first was a non-elimination episode (though they were parted from all of their money as punishment), but they were given the boot the next week.

My favourite team, though, are the father-daughter team of Gus and Hera. The former is rather overweight and, as a result, also subscribes to the ‘let’s not rush’ strategy. To his credit, their smarts compensate; one episode in Sweden saw them get lost in Stockholm, slump to last place, but perform their task so well (curling shot glasses in a bar made entirely of ice) that they ended up second.

The main step in my rooting for them was when they were in Africa. Visiting an old departure point for slaves Gus, himself an African-American, is overcome with emotion at the poignancy of the moment. It was sad and beautiful, and I was deeply touched by it.

Obnoxious Jade Goody and ‘Princess’ Nikki have nothing on this effective emotional manipulation for real compelling televisual reality. The less said about that miniature Robbie Williams on X Factor, and his infinite levels of Brylcreemed seediness, the better.

Currently, viewers are on the edge of the proverbial cliff. With Lori and Bolo trailing in last place (they got forced onto the last plane from Berlin to Budapest, and their Traban sputtering to its untimely death), the episode ended with the legend: TO BE CONTINUED

I’ll be watching next week, for sure. I cannot say the same for Channel 4’s collection of unbearable social misfits masquerading as a game show, Unanimous. I never thought a Jerry Bruckheimer production would attract me so.

15 November 2006

Don't start me talking...


Quality blog Sweeping The Nation is in the middle of 'Songs To Learn And Sing', a very admirable project in which every day of this month sees a single recommended to the readers of the blog.

The remit was along the lines of 'singles you think everyone should hear' and, as my proposal to the project was accepted, my thoughts initially went to those singles I love that did not crack the top 40. You know, songs like 'Sworn and Broken', by Screaming Trees; 'J.J.'s Song', by Kerbdog etc. However, as you shall see, my mind was changed, and I opted for a more famous single, due to its ostensible disappearance from cultural consciousness...

Elvis Costello & the Attractions - 'Oliver's Army' (1979)

I initially considered this single invalid for a topic of 'singles everybody should hear'. Not that it shouldn't be heard by everybody (it should), but more because I was labouring under the belief that it, in fact, had already been heard by everybody.

It was only when talking to friends that it became clear a worrying amount of today's young populace had never heard the greatness that is 'Oliver's Army' so, on the off-chance readers here find themselves members of such a group, that can now be rectified.

What is odd about this song is that, while I was always aware of its existence, it is only really in the last few months that it has been elevated in my mind to the level of true great. Indeed, and this is by no means intended as a slight on today's music scene, a modern equal to 'Oliver's Army', in its combination of aesthetic and commercial success, is sorely lacking; this truly is the perfect single.

Clocking in at (a shade) below three minutes, not a second is wasted. A sympathetic satire on the situation school-leavers would find themselves in during the late 1970s, the title references Cromwell's New Model Army (a precursor to the modern army), and concerns the near-predatory targeting, by the British army, of the youth: 'Called careers information / Have you got yourself an occupation?'.

The song opens in friendly enough fashion, as Costello warns 'don't start me talking – I can talk all night', but develops into rather an aggressive treatise on the policy of the time. This song is also the closest one is likely to get to hearing the 'N-word' on Radio 2; Elvis references the historical subjugation of the Irish with an eye on the contemporary Northern Irish violence:

There was a checkpoint Charlie
He didn't crack a smile
But it's no laughing party
When you've been on the murder mile
Only takes one itchy trigger
One more widow, one less white nigger

What is truly sad is that, while Northern Ireland has thankfully seen less of the overt violence than in the past, young British army recruits are still being packed off to many a 'murder mile' around the world. Though the closing quip of 'if you're out of luck or out of work, we could send you to Johannesburg' is less of a threat than it was during the dark days of Apartheid, little (other than integrity of
rhyme) would be lost by replacing it with a Kabul or Baghdad in 2006.

Sobering indeed is the knowledge that the reference to the Palestine is as relevant now as it was twenty-seven years ago. Familiar, too, is the 'London is full of Arabs' line, to anyone who has seen the sensationalising news of late.

Not for Costello the politico-single that is merely a wordy essay, though. With such intelligent, abrasive, lyrics, the erstwhile Declan MacManus paired a very simple, and incredibly smart, arrangement.

The key vocal melody in the verses is both well-written and exquisitely performed – Costello gets little recognition for his singing ability, but he sings here with a sensitivity of voice, while dancing subtly around the notes. The chorus, meanwhile, is a very simple melody, but crafted well in that it rises to mini-climaxes every time it is sung.

Musically, it is also on the money; to think the half-finished song was very nearly omitted from the Armed Forces record. Thank goodness, then, for keyboardist Steve Nieve who, at the last minute, came up with a catchy piano riff. By Costello's admission, it was more than slightly in thrall to 'Dancing Queen', by ABBA. Still, if
one is to steal, it might as well be from the pop masters.

Such grand piano flourishes meet Reggae-tinged keyboard stabs in the mix without sounding at all incongruous, but the devil really is in the details: the quickly ascending piano notes lead listeners into the middle-eight that, itself, is the verse melody sung gloriously in a higher key. The loose, yet brilliant, harmony in the chorus really adds to the anthemic feel of the song. The way the piano directs the
ears into the climactic chorus, with a solitary rendition of the vocal melody itself, is the icing on the cake.

In a nutshell, then, 'Oliver's Army' is a single that managed to marry the conciseness and pure pop sensibility of the very best ABBA, with a near-Swiftian taste for the satirical. And for that, as well as countless other reasons, I love it.

02 November 2006



sunnO))) & Boris – Altar (2006):
Initial thoughts


I received, and listened to, this new album last night. Inspired by the music I heard, here is what I jotted down, in an obsessed frenzy:

The sound on the last track was immense. Too considered, and sophisticated, to merit the term ‘chaotic’, it was nevertheless a sonic mire of low frequency bass tendrils, high-pitched, yet strangely muted, guitar howl (as though the listener was going on a journey through a ghost-filled graveyard of Metal essence) – and all that lay betwixt.

This track, as with all on the disc, was impeccable, both in arrangement and mix; the sound was perfect in its brew of heaviness, sludge and sonic clarity. But, while impressive, what preceded this track beat it mightily.

The record opened with the sort of gradual build the prepared listener might expect from collaboration between the two bands (among the prime purveyors of musical terror in the USA and Japan), all guitar hints of menace, and ominous drum fills that recalled those of Justin Greaves in another sunnO))) collaboration, Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine.

While the disc was book-ended with traditionally neo-doom fare, these bookends pincered music at once more ‘regular’ in the grand scheme of things, and departure for the participants – especially the Americans.


Though it might be both stereotyping, and perhaps somewhat blinkered, to discuss music in terms of the masculine and feminine, I shall do so regardless, as I consider the two to be basic concepts (albeit a continuum, rather than binary; and even if they are merely signifiers, rather than actually linked with sex) in the aesthetic of music.

This can be evinced, on at least a superficial level, in the music of sunnO))). Their previous collaborations have seen them work with luminaries from Melvins, the Black Metal scene, as well as with Julian Cope.

And, while these musical ventures structurally usurped the traditionally ‘masculine’ rock linearity of gradually constructing a piece of music with the ultimate aim of conclusive release/ejaculation, with their bass-droning soundscape, there was a very definite masculinity in the meeting of hairy men to posture about Behemoths, and construct vulgar displays of power (amps).

So much so, in fact, that on previous sunnO))) albums, the very absence of any kind of traditional release felt like just that – an absence. The very form of the music was such that the listener expected the loudness and slo-mo riffola to lead somewhere. In the case of White 1 (2003), the resulting long-play wind-down that followed a half-hour introduction, in which Cope monologued about ‘sub-bass clinging to the valleys’, among other chest-beating proclamations, was bitter in its disappointment.

With this release, however, Boris brought something new to the table, beyond just the physical oestrogen of guitarist Wata. In their young, yet extensive, back catalogue, there are episodes of what erstwhile Terrorizer editor Nick Terry termed ‘Oceanic Metal’ (and half a decade before the release of that Isis album, in a Neurosis review) that, while building to finales, tends to undulate, and continue after the payoff (Flood, 2000; Feedbacker, 2003).

Augmented by guest vocalist Jesse Sykes, of The Sweet Hereafter, the meeting of Boris with that Metal near-equivalent of the Rorschach test that is O’Malley and Anderson, manifests in the form of the achingly beautiful ‘The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)’

With a gentle vocal performance that recalls Jarboe at her absolute breathiest, the song is an exercise in almost still serenity, hovering delicately in the air, as a photograph of a Butterfly in mid-beat, for nearly eight minutes. Then it fades, as though it could support itself no longer, into the sturdier ‘Akuma no Kuma’.


The latter is a strange track within the rock aesthetic, in as much as it is hard to discern whether its structure is that of evil Metal song that lacks a skeleton or, conversely, merely a skeleton itself, with no flesh on its bones.

The guitar sounds rise up the frequency ladder, out of the densely layered mix, with an almost liquid timbre. Perhaps more interestingly, the track is characterised by brief, though shocking, visits from an elephantine instrument (Oberheim? Korg MS20? I have no idea) that strides into the mix for a couple of brief interjections.

Its sound is essentially a (better produced) reminder of the fantastic movement of deluge in Neurosis’s ‘Æon’, a movement that is the most enormous sound in all the rock music that my CD player has experienced thus far.

Sandwiched between ‘Akuma no Kuma’ and the closing ‘Blood Swamp’ is the psychological springboard-to-elsewhere that is ‘Fried Eagle Mind’. Probably the most successfully textured track on the album, sounds traverse in the mix, while Wata gently intones the instruction to ’dream’.

Much of my favourite art, from concert and cinema to the odd album, acts as a conduit for me to make a psychic journey. This, while the mind technically wanders, is no negative, but rarely do I recall objective facets of that which I have just experienced. What I do remember, though, is that the experience was great. And so it is with Altar.

27 October 2006


Extras: Series 2
So, the series finished with quite the whimper last week, despite a brilliantly minimalist performance from Robert DeNiro. It seems to me that Ricky Gervais tends to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm to see what he can nick, and repackage for his own show. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way, just that he seems rather ‘inspired’ – sorry, inspired – by Curb.

We have the character of Barry (Shaun Williamson) who, to me, seems like an extended meditation on the little story arc where Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander (who played George Costanza) guested on Curb, playing himself, and articulating his annoyance that he was typecast, which was a waste of a man as prodigiously talented as he.

However, as he got into his inevitable arguments with David, especially about how he was nothing like George in ‘real life’ (a complex and confused term when it comes to this style of hyperreal comedy), he was reduced to the petty, chubby, balding archetype that characterises both George and Barry.

Of course, one key difference between the character of ‘Jason Alexander’ (as he appeared in Curb) and Barry is that of success; Barry is viewed as unsuccessful in life, a man who has had so little TV work post-Eastenders, that he has resorted to moonlighting as a roofer, and doing odd jobs. Jason, on the other hand, is a former star of one of the biggest TV shows in US history. He’s pretty set for money.

The other would be their roles in the respective programmes. Jason is there to reiterate how closely George was based on Larry; I’m unclear of the level of causality here, but the similarity seems to extend to Jason as well. So we have scenes in which Larry and Jason get caught up in argument about such trifling matters as who should go to whose office for the next meeting; both acting like real life avatars of George.

Conversely, Barry’s character seems to exist in Extras as a counterpoint to Gervais’s Andy Millman. Both are overweight, quite ugly, and in their forties. However, whereas Millman is on a constant search for dignity and nobility in his extra work or, this series, his sitcom, Barry seems content to wallow in mediocrity and self pity.

In terms of guest stars, this series has had almost too many. Excellent were Keith Chegwin, Stephen Fry (in a wonderful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, bathroom scene) and Richard Briers. Daniel Radcliffe and Orlando Bloom had good lines, but seemed to be trying too hard. Coldplay’s Chris Martin was decent, though too self-aware, and I’m uncomfortable with the parody of 'rock star on a show to pimp his band' when that was precisely what was happening in reality.

Of definite note was the cameo, near the close of the series, of Sir Ian McKellen who, while acting to a traditionally high standard, seemed rather a forced presence.

Of course, he was necessary as the homosexual director (and the downfall of that episode was the fact that it was predicated on homophobia – I thought Millman was supposed to be a decent bloke), but his actual character seemed to be a photocopy of Patrick Stewart at the end of the first series. He echoed the Stewart template of ‘I’m a posh actor who everyone loves, but really I’m a bit stupid’ to a tee; a tad too obvious for my liking.

The upside to the cameo was there, though, and was very smart; if a tad subtle. What I enjoyed about his character was the insistence that acting was all about pretending to be a character you were not, as he cited the fact that he was not actually a wizard called Gandalf. That, in itself, would not have been so funny, but I loved its nod to the abysmal (in the show) performance by Chegwin, which he attempted to excuse by saying ‘but me sister isn’t dead’.

While in that opening episode, Millman could look at such a comment as indelible evidence that his guest star was rubbish, the exact same sentiment coming from such a respected thespian as McKellen must have been troubling for the protagonist. So it was a shame that the rest of the episode descended into ‘I’m not gay’ jokes.

11 October 2006

Live Review: My Morning Jacket, 23rd August 2006


Manchester Academy 2. Support: Richard Swift.

So I finally went to another gig. It had been a while since I was last in Manchester, so I enjoyed the return to the Cornerhouse* café (I love that place, and there is nowhere that good in Leeds. Fact); brought back memories of my university days, when I would go to watch a film at least once a week.

We also went to a curry house, specifically Shere Khan. I had a decent enough, if overly tomato-drenched, lamb madras. That’s one thing I did woefully little of, when living in Manchester; I lived in a city that boasts a ‘Curry Mile’, and I had about three of the things while I was there.

And on we went to the venue. In my day, it was Manchester Debating Hall, where I saw Tomahawk (and missed what should, in hindsight, have been excellent support bands Dalëk and Ex-Girl) and, supporting Mark Lanegan, a Masters Of Reality line-up that featured Josh Homme on guitar and Nick Oliveri on bass. Apparently that name wasn’t cool enough, so the hall now bears the less charismatic nomenclature ‘Academy 2’.

As per usual, getting into the actual venue was an adventure. For whatever reason, the front door was a no-go, so we entered through the side and snaked through corridors until we had to submit our whole tickets (not merely the stub for these ‘security’ workers) and ‘hit the hall’, as it were.

In the closing stages of his support set was a young man who, though he went by the name ‘Richard Swift’, looked from a distance to strangely resemble the Yorkshire Ripper. Thankfully, it was just really his slightly afro-ish hair.

Aside from that claim to infamy, there was little to pen a missive to one’s relatives about. Piano-driven, retro-for-the-sake-of-it, songs that I’m sure would go down well in the middle of the afternoon on Radio 1, or a church jumble sale, but nothing you’d really choose to listen to.

Swift had a decent enough voice, a mix of the low and a touch gritty while also being strangely nasal. It put me in mind of Richard Hawley, which is not good when one considers:

1. Hawley’s voice is lower and grittier.
2. Swift had nothing to compare to Hawley’s excellent ‘The Nights Are Cold’.

Anyway, he soon finished in a blaze of mediocrity; nudging and winking through what sounded like a Billy Joel cast-off that featured one of those keyboard vocoder deals. It was a thousand times less cool than ‘Living on a Prayer’, and the only redeeming feature was the keyboardist dancing like Jimmy Somerville.

After a brief wait, the headliners came on, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Pre-gig, I had been anticipating rather a laidback performance from those the lazy would compare to Neil Young; to be precise, I was expecting the kind of set that would be great for a blissed-out summer day, lying on a field, rather than the stinky Academy 2 on a rainy, cold evening.

I should have probably paid more attention to their last album which, when I heard it, wasn’t quite up to the At Dawn standards, and had me switched over to the superior sounds of the Great Lake Swimmers. But I digress; this set began in a surprisingly rocking style, and I loved it.

Of especial note is their drummer, apparently one Patrick Hallahan, who plays with such sustained enthusiasm and power that the observer cannot help but be caught up in the passion of the moment. I recognised few songs (on record, I have a definite preference for their more melancholic moments), but that mattered little in the live context.

Sadly, this high was not to last. As the old saying goes, the band played on. And on, and on. Whether this is a reflection of their catalogue, or simple fatigue, I am not sure. What I do know, however, is that boredom set in.

Eventually, the band left the stage and, although I enjoyed the show overall, the feeling of relief was strong. Knowing the band would return for an encore, I hoped that brevity would save my soul – and the band’s esteem.

My Morning Jacket being the band they are (a throwback to a simpler time, when rock groups played for hours, and a decent show could be measured in beard growth over the course of the performance), my hopes proved to be an exercise in futility.

By this stage of the night, I had turned off. What had begun as pleasant surprise (and rocking!) was now a war of attrition between band and yours truly; I had been waving the white flag for quite some time. In short, the encore was about half the length of the set proper, and even the drummer, that accurate barometer of MMJ show quality, was flagging massively.

No longer buzzing with the enthusiasm of the first stage of the show, he was now merely drumming, and not in a particularly enthusiastic manner. It’s a shame, as this show had very real potential.

What little banter there was from the stage was enjoyable, as singer Jim James meditated on the church across the road from the University, and the common power of all religions to scare you. If only the music was as concise; my associate in attendance of this concert made mention of a time he saw the band, early one day during the Leeds Festival, and how good they were.

I can only imagine it was a great set; the lazy midday August sun would be a fine partner to the band. And so would the thirty-minute time limit on those opening bands.

* As far as I’m concerned, the greatest cinema I’ve been to. It boasts four screens, independence, with separate bar, café and gallery. And a pretty boss magazine/book shop.

09 October 2006


HERO'S 2006: Middleweight & Light Heavyweight Tournament Final

Given that I had so much fun writing up the Pride show a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well do the same with their Japanese Mixed Martial Arts competitors - Hero*s. The latter company was near the end of two tournaments, at Middleweight (154lbs) and Light Heavyweight (187lbs) - the semi-finals and finals of both tourneys, as well as selected other fights, would all be on the one show. So, without further ado, here we go.


October 9th, 2006
Yokohama Arena
Yokohama, Japan
Doors Open: 14:30
Fights Start: 16:00



Antonio Silva (FIGHT CO.) vs. Georgi Kaisinov (Marupro Gym)

Antonio Silva has a very large face. I proper would not mess with him ever. Feeling each other out. Russian on the offence. Quite messy, but hard hitting stand up. And a biiig left hand from Silva drops the Russian like A-level Chemistry – a left hook staggered him, and it was one of those slow-mo knock outs after just a couple of minutes. Guess we’ll be seeing Silva again.

Sweet, ‘Creeping Death’ on the Tokoro pimping video.


Ken Kaneko (Freelance) vs. Hideo Tokoro (Reversal Gym)

Ken out first. Can’t really go wrong with ‘Axel F.’ Tokoro makes like Ultimo Dragon and trips on his way out. I hope that’s not an indication of the fight to come. Ken in fast, with a guillotine attempt, Tokoro deals with it and goes for side mount. Gets it after a short struggle. Rolling about, quick arm bar attempt by Tokoro. Another juji gatame attempt gets Tokoro the win by tapout with 3:10 remaining in the first.

Even Better. ‘Enter Sandman’ for the Calvancanti (or ‘JZ Calvan’, according to the show) video.


Middleweight Tournament Semi Final:
Gesias Calvancanti (American Top Team) vs. Rani Yahira (Ataida Jr. Jiu-Jitsu)

Yahira jogs out to the ring; obviously does not want to waste any time. Without the frenzied rope-shaking, this is only a .3 on the Woyyah Scale. JZ (rather that nickname than J-Lo) with flags and entourage for the traditional excellent Brazilian intro. Err, wowowow. Quick scuffle, with Calvancanti stuffing a takedown attempt, a few seconds of messing around and Calvancanti gets the guillotine choke very, very quickly. I guess he’s winning the tournament.

I swear, we've had about four minutes of actual fighting at this stage.


Middleweight Tournament Semi Final:
Caol Uno (Wajyutsu Keisyukai Tokyo Headquarters) vs. Ivan Menjivar (Tristar Gym)

This should be a very nice fight. I just hope Uno has upped his skills a bit, because the 2006 model hasn’t impressed me too much. Menjivar with the glasses – guess this makes him the real fight professor, yukyukyuk.

Big pop for the start of this. Nice bit of kickboxing to start, and Uno decides to stretch for a bit. Clinch, and Menjivar gets the better of the punching. Uno fires back, and they clinch a bit more. Every time Uno really tries anything, Ivan just unloads. Uno takedown attempt goes nowhere. Long clinch, and Ivan throws sporadic knees. Solid left kick to body from Uno, and a spinning kick misses. Ivan low kick sends Uno off balance, but he stays up, and this has been a decent K1 first round. 10-9 Ivan, if I must.


Ivan high kick, and Uno responds with a kick that gets caught. Uno gets himself free, after a struggle and a lot of hopping. They are laying in the shots now, as Uno catches Ivan’s leg. Again, kicker gets free. Decent, decent kicks from Uno are the difference in this round thus far. Uno kick caught again and Ivan counters with a spinning back fist that goes nowhere. Lots of clinching, but not much really happens in the clinch – Ivan gets the better of that by virtue of throwing some knees to the chest at least. They finally hit the ground, and Uno has Ivan’s back. Ivan stands up with Uno on ion his back, and they go down again. Quickly back up. Ref chats with Ivan in the corner. They restart, but it’s the end of the round. Second round Uno, and he ends up with the decision.


Light Heavyweight Tournament Semi Final:
Kestutis Smirnovas (Audra Gym) vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama (Freelance)

Let’s see if Smirnovas can make the most of his wildcard position - he lost to star Kazushi Sakuraba in the last round, in a very controverisial fihgt. Sadly, Sakuraba could not continue in the tournament due to a brain condition that is now hopefully under control. I am informed that he’s entering to Nobuhiko Takada’s old theme tune, but the rhythm sounds more like ‘Electric Head part 1: The Agony, by White Zombie. As the music kicks in, it gets less White Zombie, it has to be said. Akiyama wins the theme tune battle with ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli. Yes I am a big softie. Smirnovas looks dangerous, and we get a shot of the inordinately beautiful female commentator. Akiyama sheds his gi, and we’re ready to go!

Smirnovas staggers Akiyama with a punch, and these names aren’t easy to shorthand. Ten minute round, eh? Lots of feeling out. The occasional low kick from Akiyama and the odd one-two from Smirnovas. Smirnovas catches a kick from Akiyama, but then just staggers. Smirnovas, expecting another low kick, ducks into an Akiyama right high roundhouse, then quite literally falls for a one-two punch combo. Small bit of Akiyama ground and pound ends it in a frenzy, after an uneventful first three minutes or so.


Light Heavyweight Tournament Semi Final:
Melvin Manhoef (IT'S SHOWTIME) vs. Shungo Oyama (Freelance)

Manhoef is never getting beaten on the pimping video stakes, as his soundtrack is no less than the classic ‘Holy Wars’ by Megadeth. God I love that song. Based off the theme tunes for the entrances, Manhoef is going to steamroll in this one. Can Oyama avenge the beating he took at Hero*s 4?

Time out just as the bell starts the fight. Weird. Start proper, and Oyama throws a decent low kick. There have been about two strikes in the first minute, but Manhoef sees to that. He avoids an Oyama takedown, and just EXPLODES on Oyama. High kicks, punches – he’s going nuts. Oyama dropped with punches, and it seems the ref stopped it before Melvin could unleash a stomp. It will take a lot to stop Manhoef tonight. Oyama is hurt, possibly from when a missed roundhouse dropped onto the back of his head on its way down.




Middleweight Tournament Reserve Bout:
Kazuyuki Miyata (Freelance) vs. Ian James Schaffa (Five Rings Dojo)

So, if Tokoro is ‘Humble Hero’, Uno ‘Fashionista Hero’, Sudo is ‘Showboat Hero’ and Yamamoto ‘Badass Hero’ – does this make Miyata ‘Hero With Insane Pecs’? It’s either that or Family Man. They hit the floor, and Miyata gets on top quickly. Throws plenty of punches, but nothing looks overly dangerous. I say that, but then they have a cut time out, so there must have been some decent connection. Miyata does have a solid chest, it has to be said. After a minute or so, the time out is permanent.


Light Heavyweight Tournament Reserve Bout:
Carlos Newton (Warrior MMA) vs. Tokimitsu Ishizawa (TEAM JAPAN)

It is so good to see Newton again; my fandom of him is just silly. He’s looking slightly big, it has to be said. After a few seconds of circling, Newton hits a gorgeous uppercut, and Ishizawa heads earthward. He gets another in as Ishizawa is falling, and ‘Ka Shin’ is out after half a minute. He even tries grabbing Newton’s leg, he’s that out of it. Positive return for Newton, but we can’t really tell much from it, other than he has decent hands. Sure, I didn’t get any Newton grappling magic, but certainly not about to complain. Now he’s ready for a proper opponent.




Don Frye (Freelance) vs. Kim Min Soo (RINGS Korea)

I get the feeling the Kim Min Soo prayer before entering the ring was more a hope he doesn’t get Takayama-d more than anything else. Don Frye looks, now more than ever, as though an old carny fighter stepped into a time machine in 1904 and came out today. I love it. Lots of acrimony during the stare down, and I don’t know what that was about.

Very quick, nervous striking to begin. Surprisingly even striking belies Frye’s composure compared to Kim looking terrified. Kim ends up committing to an attack, and gets a takedown, not much happens, and they are stood up. Frye is warned about something. They restart, and end up hugging in the corner. Kim with another takedown and mount. Ground and pound is largely stifled, but Frye is under pressure. Kim channels Macho Man Randy Savage, as he goes for a double axe-handle. Round ends, and Frye is a marked man.

Second round, and it is more of the same, though Frye looks a tad more focused. I suppose that’s because his corner told him off during the break. Kim has him in the corner again. Ref shouts for action a couple of times, ad they are separated. Frye has been slyly throwing leg kicks through the fight, and they finally seem to be taking a toll. Kim drops, Frye gets on top, and the fight is stopped. He’s proper out. Ah, replay shows he got smacked hard in the side of the head. That’ll probably send you down.



Middleweight Tournament Final:
Caol Uno (Wajyutsu Keisyukai Tokyo Headquarters) vs. Gesias Calvancanti (American Top Team)

After the disaparity in how long each man has fought tonight, combined with overall recent form, this has to go to Gesias on paper. Uno heads to the ring with determination all over his visage - but will it be enough?! We get an NWO entrance from the Brazilian crew, as Calvancanti’s entourage gesture to the entrance before he comes out. Gesias is the picture of confidence here, and I don’t blame him one bit. I hope, for his sake, that he does not get too complacent. We get the anthems, and this is really classy. I love the Brazilian national anthem so much.

Excitement! Uno is throwing all manner of kicks, from roundhouse to axe, but JZ is avoiding easily. They clinch, and Uno is bullied into the corner. Back into the centre, and it is not JZ throwing the kicks. Clinch again, a knee from Calvan, and they get broken up for not doing enough. JZ really gets aggressive and, after a decent connection or two, really smells blood. Uno goes down, JZ on top. Uno defending well, as the crowd swells in a passionate chant of his name. JZ has his back,and they get to their feet in that position. Broken up again. Uno spin kick, but he goes down and starts getting pounded again. Defends well, but Calvancanti is all over him, and the round ends. Advantage in this round clearly goes with the Brazilian.


Lots of clinching to begin the second, and Uno is throwing little punches. JZ with a big takedown, and he’s going for side control. Switches to mount, but Uno is slippery. JZ gets guillotine position, but lets it go. Uno throws a low kick, but it’s too little too late. Just avoids a JZ rush, but then gets taken down. JZ on top, but lets Uno up again. Smart move as he then throws good punches, and throws Uno down. Big slam from JZ, and he’s just doing what he wants. Mounts Uno’s back, and throws grounded shots from behind to finish. I’m surprised it went to a decision actually. Calvancanti with a majority decision? Madness – that was a clear win.

Light Heavyweight Tournament Final:
Melvin Manhoef (IT'S SHOWTIME) vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama (Freelance)

In the absence of any injury, therefore ruling Newton out of the tournament, I am very much rooting for Melvin here. Make it so, Manhoef! I am shamed by my lack of recognition of the Dutch national anthem; I’ve seen too many world cups for that to be the case. At the same time, my guilty pleasure for ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ increases.


Manhoef is like a dervish, as he whirls around the ring throwing punches and low kicks. Akiyama does well to survive the frenzy for a minute or so, and they hit the ground. Back up to the feet, and Manhoef sort of has Akiyama’s back. They go back to the ground, Akiyama gets himself in a decent position, and gets with the arm bar. It’s sunk in well, and the Manhoef tap is only a matter of time. The short fight might have been a disappointment, had it not been so exciting. Hero*s gets another native champion. Final was actually reminiscent of the Don Frye vs. Tank Abbott confrontation from a few years back.


After the fights, the winners get some very nice belts (Akiyama even gets a white strap on his, to match his gi... coincidentally enough), and the losing finalists get commiserated. Poor Uno comes out with a pack on his shoulder that is so big, he looks like a high school American Footballer. Oh, you lie, there's a third place match?

Light Heavyweight Tournament Third-Place Bout:
Kestutis Smirnovas (Audra Gym) vs. Shungo Oyama (Freelance)

Bloody third place match! Feeling out from Oyama and Smirnovas, neither of whose hearts really seem in it. And it’s not hard to see why. After a lot of nothing, Oyama suddenly catches Smirnovas with a punch, who goes down, and it’s quickly finished. Damn, they’re really going all out in avenging Sakuraba, eh?
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