11 July 2007

Writing Wrongs

Simon Reynolds recently linked to an Impostume post in which the latter wrote nasty words about what could be deemed the underground celebrities of rock music. Among them were Mike Patton, the Melvins and Steve Albini. I know, très controversial, and it’s not like such bland publications weren’t running similar Sacred Cows columns nearly a decade ago. Anyway, I read this, thought it was unnecessarily churlish and quite inaccurate and, resenting this idea of Curmudgeonism as Art and the accompanying backslapping from the historically excellent, recently disappointing Reynolds, dissed the post on a message board.

Impressively (worryingly?) I was tracked down and an email from Carl the Impostume was soon spotted lurking in my inbox. Cue a brief exchange of thoughts, including conversation on Leeds, and Carl persuaded me to pen (or key) something of a riposte. Well, he used the term ‘refute’ but, with that words implication of proof, and my being something of a relativist when it comes to things arty, I wouldn’t go that far in such a description of this post. That, and I am currently as in the dark as you are as to what the content here is going to feature. While I am going to disagree with Carl’s assertions and, at points quite vehemently, said dissent will not be blanket. Anyway, here goes:

Carl doesn’t like The Melvins: The first thing that strikes me about Carl, true or not (I don’t know) Is that he seems to be a jaded old bloke. I figure he’s in his late 30s/early 40s, and things just aren’t the same as they used to be. Well, he likes their MySpace tracks, so I guess he’s in love with the idea of having grown out of them. He hasn’t listened to the band in a decade and a half, and appears to be hoping beyond hope that he hasn’t missed out on much. Short answer is he has.

I recommend to Carl their Atlantic Records trilogy (that’ll be Houdini, Stoner Witch and Stag; how about the stubborn, malicious ‘Hooch’ as a major label debut single – gotta love that). Following their parting of ways from Atlantic (it would appear Melvins weren’t the next Led Zeppelin), they then released the weirdly, bizarrely great Honky. Sadly, they then signed with Ipecac, which is a no-go as we shall see below.

So Carl proffers the idea that main Melv. Buzz Osborne is a bit of a jerk. Well, that much appears to be true. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I listen to the Melvins, I listen to the tunes, the riffs, I rock out if and when appropriate, and I move on. What I don’t do is fret about Buzzo’s cultural theoretical philosophy on where his music stands. I can understand Carl’s defence mechanism that kicks in with the feeling that the band ‘…always seemed to be slightly above it, attitudinally’. And I feel that; it’s no fun to think you’re being worked by a band that thinks it’s beyond what it is you’re appreciating.

Personally, I try not to fret about it. I don’t worry that there might be a touch of irony in their product delivery. To be honest, I would probably rather a band is aware there is more out there and actively decides to make relatively primitive rock music than chug along blissfully unaware of any musical developments post-1980. Rather than get stressed, I’d be happy that a relatively smart band as the Melvins (and let’s face it, they’re not that smart anyway) is more concerned with rocking than anything else. One final, small, observation on this particular subject:

Hey man, what about the music, it’s all about the music at the end of the day, right? No it’s not, fuck that. It’s never just about the music, how could it be? That's like suggesting literature is all about the font. It’s about the whole deal!

I find this interesting, and largely agreeable. But mainly interesting, for reasons I will come to a bit later. Yeah, the time I have taken in formulating this post has resulted in theoretical ponderings on the nature of today’s metal. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But anyway, comparing music to font in the big picture is a tad too facetious for my liking. The equivalent of font would more likely be the mix… or maybe even the mastering. Assuming the rock band is the equivalent of an author (that’d stand to reason), surely the music’s equivalent would be the content of the book; the story. No?

…Zappa: I quite like Zappa. I’m not a massive fan, nor a hater, so we’ll skip this one.

…Patton: I will very happily state right now that I am categorically a Mike Patton fan. I think he is musically awesome, and a great personality. I am also of the opinion that a good fan is an artists harshest critic and, as such, I don’t think he has made a great album in at least half a decade (2001: Tomahawk was really good; The Director’s Cut was great). That is of course far from saying he’s a horrible man, the soles of whose feet could do with flogging. Frankly, I’m glad he is going of on sometimes unsuccessful, bizarre, tangents rather than working to appease an existing fan-base the whole time.

I have no idea where the wrong-headed Robbie Williams comparison comes from: not only are the two poles apart in terms of musical quality, but then we have the fact that Patton runs a rather good record label (Carl gives him Young Gods and Dälek, but I’d definitely add Kid606, Guapo, Mouse On Mars, The Locust, Venemous Concept…), and is ridiculously under-rated as an arranger. Whatever a listener thinks of Patton’s ‘chop socky’ aesthetic, his arrangement of the 1999, 2001 and 2005 Fantômas albums speaks for itself; I see no Williams comparison whatsoever. I dunno: I suppose they’re both financially independent, sex symbols in the nineties.

So Patton runs a tight label, is a really good arranger of music… oh yeah, he is also clearly the best vocalist in rock music, and has been for at least a decade. Granted, Impostume’s pimping of drizzly, largely instrumental/anonymous bands suggests to me that he is neither in the market for good singers nor anybody with personality. As much as I love Justin ‘He’ll Always Be J.K. To Me’ Broadrick, he has never been one to trouble the realms of public personality (not an inherently bad thing) or vocal talent.

It seems to me that the complaint stems from a need to complain rather than anything else; that the post was already railing against the bad people of cult rock, so why not rant some more. I could go on, like mentioning the ‘cut and paste abomination’ of Mr. Bungle. While their horror-ska debut hardly set my world on fire, their other brace of albums was excellent indeed. In terms of composition and musicianship, there is little that has been released in my lifetime to touch it.

I know, that in itself is a bit of a stigma: bands mustn’t play well, for fear of being called prog! Disco Volante is a classic that informed the sound of the great Noisecore movement of the late nineties, most notable Dillinger Escape Plan. Not only are the songs technically great, but memorable too. The band was so talented that one segment of the last song on that album, ‘Merry Go Bye Bye’, has what is still the best section of death metal I have ever heard. And I know Carcass, Mithras, Obituary, Morbid Angel, Nile et al. I don’t want to waste too much time on this point to be honest, as Carl never offered anything resembling a decent criticism of Bungle, so I shall leave it there, other than to say California was even better than …Volante, so listen to it.

…Albini: Again, not a massive fan, but I fail to see quite why Carl is so aggrieved. I fully get behind the dislike of such Albini nomenclature as Rapeman and Songs About Fucking. In fact, I don’t even like the musical content of the latter. I would probably have been all over it if I hadn’t been in primary school at the time of its release (I might still have liked it, if I’d only been exposed to it. But then the obvious resulting queries from an eight-year-old throughsilver would have proved a touch embarrassing to whomever was unfortunate enough to be the nearest adult at the time), but I wasn’t. As a result, living in the post-Merzbow/Masonna/Wolf Eyes world we do, it all seemed a bit quaint and quiet.

This means that, to the eternal chagrin of the eighties noise-rock aficionados, I am a bit of a disappointment in preferring Shellac (much like I infinitely prefer Fugazi to either Minor Threat or Embrace. Or Rites Of Spring). Anyway, my Big Black apathy doesn’t lead me to hate Albini, even if he, like Buzzo, comes across like a bit of a jerk. (I learned a long time ago not to be disappointed if artists whose work I admire aren’t equally stellar as people.) I can see where Carl is coming from, again. Albini does (did?) seem like a bit of a frustrated dork trying to get music to make him seem big. Not sure I would go quite so Freudian on the ‘music as impervious pork sword’ deal, but what can you do. I have to admit that, during recently reading a message board thread he was allegedly involved in, he does seem a tad sexist, but no more than your average person (which in itself makes me feel sad).

On the ‘two note song’. This ‘point’ has to be a joke. For those unaware, here be quotation: ‘"Terraforms" relentlessly dull and undynamic ten minute long, two-note thudalongs through which you could practically feel Albini smirking at your increasing dismay’. Obviously melody is the single most important attribute in underground rock (huh?). Clearly, there is no room in rock music for repetition/trance states (someone had better tell media darlings on Southern Lord records), and more notes means more quality. Someone tell Black Sabbath: their title track is inferior to ‘We’re Going to Ibiza’ by Vengaboys! My favourite piece of music ever is ‘Through Silver in Blood’ by Neurosis, which contains a section during which the guitar is hitting two notes for about a five minute period. It’s great.

Perhaps Carl is after something more immediate, with more going on? Might I suggest some ‘chop socky’ ‘cut and paste’, for therein lies more than two notes.

All that aside, I have absolutely no problem with a man that great bands actively seek out to record their music, in order to have it sound as they want it to. Shame, then, on Neurosis, Pixies, Nirvana, Mono, Melt-Banana, Dazzling Killmen, Weedeater, High On Fire, Jesus Lizard, Zeni Geva and Electrelane, among hundreds of others.

I see a problem with this so-called new strain of metal, which isn’t really metal. As much as I like Jesu and Nadja, they seem to amount to nothing more than early nineties indie with the loudness turned up.

Digression on ‘shoegaze’: This isn’t related to Carl’s post, but is as good an opportunity as any to address this inexplicably popular bit of nomenclature. Unsure as to the etymology of the term, I first noticed it in early 2002; that Magnet issue with the chimp-faced man from Ride on the cover. I don’t know about the reader but, in my experience, ‘shoegaze[r]’ is a term of derision. It implies indie musicians as socially inept, awkward performers who are unable to meet the gaze of onlookers. Yet this has somehow entered common currency – in non-diss form – to describe any band influenced by early Cocteau Twins/late My Bloody Valentine. Personally I prefer something like ‘dream-pop’ or just ‘indie’ (especially as indie bands nowadays seem to specialise in little else). I wish people would stop using it in a non-pejorative sense.

Anyway, so-called metal bands are now embracing the womb-like retreat that only the tops of their scruffy trainers can offer, and we are all supposed to love it. I quite like it in small doses, and I even have the grey vinyl of that Jesu ‘Sundown’ / ‘Sunrise’ release (how fitting is the colour grey for this overcast, maudlin subgenre?); the idea that metal can be filled with little else, though, is both laughable and contrary to the inherently eclectic/individualist/superficially rebellious nature of the genre.

I also like Oceanic by Isis, though that positive affect diminishes with every month, every wannabe album, that passes with the metal world trapped under its charmless shroud. The band itself had extinguished that avenue with 2004s Panopticon, an alleged concept album whose flimsy presence on my stereo was barely registered. (And how telling it is that Isis kingpin Aaron Turner’s own Old Man Gloom project released a near infinitely superior album the very same season in Christmas – an album blessed with quality, heaviness, actual (as opposed to implied) dynamic range and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of humour.)

The name of the game here is variety. My primary problem with what Carl writes in his post is that he seems to suggest metal should be one thing and not the other. I am of the opinion that metal needs to be this, that and the other; that is the precise reason the genre has been going strong for nearly forty years. I like slo-core, no doubt. Neurosis, Kayo Dot, World’s End Girlfriend and even Isis have produced some of the loveliest/nastiest, most dynamic music I have heard. A steady diet of nothing but that, though, would send me more round the bend than I already am. If I really believed the future lay in the undefined miserycore of Angelic Process, Nadja, Jesu and nothing else (combined with the patchily great dubstep movement), the noose would already be tied. And not just because the subgenre lacks anything resembling charisma in its entire featureless surface.

No, the reason why metal is so great is that, for as long as I have been alive, there has been a Maiden for every Sabbath, a Born too Late for every Reign in Blood - and so it has been in the last decade or so: Bungle and Fantômas existing alongside Neurosis and Eyehategod. Sure, Kayo Dot (seriously, miles better than any other metal band currently writing long songs) and Grails (awesome with no qualification from this end) have been providing goods beyond good of late, but so have the thrashier, OTT likes of Genghis Tron, Pig Destroyer, Trap Them and Converge.

I’m not even sure what I’m getting at here (other than the shouldn’t-be-necessary refutations herein), just that we might be better off saving the hate for subjects that really deserve them. I know for a fact it’s not too smart to diss an easy target like Zappa nearly a decade after dad-mag Uncut took a shot at him. I think we can both safely agree that we’re above Uncut’s level of ‘criticism’. I should also mention that my thoughts on slo-core are ever-evolving, as I don’t like to make concrete judgements very quickly. Updates will occur!


  1. First off, I’m staying well clear of any Melvins debates that could ensue: I’m no huge fan of the group (I own Houdini, Hostile Ambient Takeover and both the albums they did with Jello Biafra, all of which I like, but hardly make me qualified to talk about their twenty year output), and someone criticising them is neither here nor there to me. What I will say (and I pointed this out on dissensus at the time) is that Reynolds was quick to agree with Impostume, referring to them as smugonautical sardonicists when he’d admitted a few months prior that he’d never really listened to them. I wonder if that situation had been remedied in that time…

    The thing I objected to the most about Impostume’s post was the hypocrisy with which he talked about Mr. Bungle. The only possible way I can comprehend someone viewing them as a cut and paste abomination is if they’ve only heard the self-titled album, and if that’s the case you shouldn’t comment on their output – just as I’m not on the Melvins’. Something like ‘Vanity Fear’ exemplifies both them using the ‘cut and paste’ aesthetic to great effect, and their sense of melody, which was better than almost any other band at that point.

    Impostume’s post was written from what comes across as this almost limbo state, stuck between wanting to have both a bratty, young approach to metal (the ADD style demand for Shellac to use more notes, and this desire for everybody to really mean it; the disdain for sardonism and so forth) and a wisened, intellectual one (the contrasting disdain for Mr. Bungle, the idea that it shouldn’t just be about the music and so forth once more). Weirdly, as you referenced them in your response throughsilver, when I saw Isis the other night I got a similar vibe from the room; that the majority of the crowd wanted to rock out and have fun, but none of them wanted to lose face by doing anything that required them to step outside their detached comfort zone. Eugene from Oxbow joined the band onstage during the encore, but he would’ve been better placed trying to shake things up on the dance floor.

    Anyway, enough digression, what ultimately came across from Impostume’s post, I thought, was a desire to complain; to get something out. Which I can understand, as it’s in these keyboard-pounding fits of anger that we end up saying really uninformed, hypocritical things (such as the whole Shellac/two notes scenario). But I don’t think it’s too self-important to talk about trying to keep a sense of quality control in what you do, even if that is just keeping a blog (I wish I could remember that appropriate Henry James quote about Whitman, but I can’t). I mean, everybody gets irrationally pissed off at times and everybody needs to achieve a sense of catharsis, but more often than not when you’re doing that you’re being irrational and talking bollocks. So do it, regret it and move on; don’t put it on your bloody blog and present it with pictures, man!

  2. Anonymous12:45 pm

    great stuff! I linked it but proably won't respond due to time constraints. Tom, i'm sorry to say i've possiby offended you further by being horrible about Wiley.


  3. I love Wiley, but he probably deserves everything he gets. His output could be so much better than it actually is...

    Either way, was thinking today how if you haven't heard the last Mr. Bungle album I'd happily upload some tracks from it. For all my long-winded criticism of your post, I didn't exactly offer much evidence to the contrary.

  4. CF Kane11:09 pm

    I'm sure this is well after the barndoor has shut, but this really was an outstanding post..I don't particularly agree with much of it ( in fact, on Carl's blog I mostly seconded his opinion like the sad sycophant I am..but,I have heard Melvins/Bungle LPs, etc...and was, for a while, a fan of Patton, although I find him to be a bit tiresome now.), but that doesn't mean that your points are not wonderfully put, and in a way much more reasonable than mine ( as to why I don't like them.). I did want to add something to your digression on shoegaze..you were absolutely correct, I recall those lazy, Melody Maker days when the term was, without question, meant to be an INSULT..I was, and remain, a fan of much of the music that came out of that era, but to call bands 'shoegazers' implied that they were wet students who'd scarcely gotten the bottle to play live..I believe the term 'The Scene That Celebrates Itself' was also used for these kids, in regards to the fact that so many of them attended each other's shows. Now, fifteen years later, we have re-issues of Chapterhouse records, and critical raves for the third, rarely heard Slowdive LP. Time, she is a strange mistress.
    Best to you.


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