28 November 2006


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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

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.
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