31 December 2008

Albums in the year 2008

As with last year, this is not intended to be in any way final. It’s just a list of what I consider my favourites from the year at this point near the end of 2008. No different from any other list, then, but at least I admit its state of flux. So, whether they would make it or not, the following albums are disqualified: Portishead’s 3, Asva’s What You Don't Know is Frontier, the Koushik, Burning Star Core, Skullflower, Ascend, Fennesz, Krallice and other stuff I’ve not listened to enough times. Also Earth and The Bug, whose stupid labels didn’t press enough copies of their albums for me to get one in.* Also the Caretaker, Gang Gang Dance, Black Dog, Landstrumm, Motorpsycho, Q-Tip, and the myriad others whose albums I just haven’t got round to buying. This is why end of year lists need leeway. This shit can’t be properly done in time. And GAS, Carl Craig and whoever else, whose albums were compilations. Oh, apart from…

00. ShiningShining

Number zero because it’s technically not a 2008 album. In the strictest sense of the term. It came out in 2008, but combines the albums Shining released in 2005 and 2007. But then you knew that already. Anyway, both albums are fantastic. And the mighty Rune Grammafon saw fit to release them together on vinyl for the price of one (quite expensive) album.

Ergo it’s the best thing that came out this year. I am very disappointed that Wire magazine saw fit to omit this from their reissues list. But then I have numerous issues with some of their end of year conclusions. More on this at a later date!

01. AkimboJersey Shores

So this’ll be my favourite album of material that was released for the first time in 2008, then. Cliff’s Notes for the token-metal cru: this year Harvey Milk is better than the Melvins, but Akimbo is better than both. I had wondered why this was recorded in early 2007 but not released til about a month ago – a long gestation for an independent label. Turns out it was recorded at the same time as their last album, Navigating the Bronze, but they wanted to save it as a separate entity.

There will be a throughsilver investigation on Akimbo if Dopamine Records stops being shit. And maybe if not. Anyway, this is epic, dynamic riff-based metal, with hints of sludge, which currently leaves the scary noises of Asva and Lustmord in the dust.

02. Squarepusher - Just a Souvenir

This is another one that baffles me. Why do people not get it? JAS is catchy, silly, clever and awesome. I used to say it just took a while to get into, but that’s really not the case. Maybe it’s the silliness. Dance heads want cool rather than silly and, while this is a brilliant album (the best one Jenkinson has done), it is far from cool. And intentionally so.

Tom has made a career out of thumbing his nose at the dance establishment, so it’s really not a surprise he’d do the same to the people expecting an album of drill and bass or post-rave off him in 2008. I’m somewhat disappointed, then, that he’s releasing an EP of just that in January. If he was going to be that cynical, I’d rather he did a dubstep album. Now that’d really be taking the piss.

03. Duke SpiritNeptune

Heard them for the first time on the Hills. And how long I have waited to write about the Hills here. I love it! But that’s for another day. I was so taken by a certain chorus, a certain sound, that I Googled the lyrics and found this band. Specifically, the single ‘The Step and the Walk’. A short while later, and I have this record and the 10-inch. But enough about my excitement.

This is dark poppy rock, produced by Chris Goss: the mastermind behind the sounds of Masters Of Reality, Kyuss, Queens Of The Stone Age and Slo Burn. The songs are really well formed and smoky-cool. Liela’s singing is fantastic: think the timbre of Adele, but actually being able to do more than hold notes. Not to mention the songs are infinitely better. Not reading mainstream press, I don’t know if Duke Spirit is at all credible. They are grand though. It’s just a shame it turns out they played my city a mere three weeks before I got the album in. Nooo!

04. EvangelistaHello, Voyager

I should be disappointed this is so high. It’s not as good as the last album (confusingly named Evangelista, but released under Carla Bozulich’s name). it’s not as good as her 2008 live show. So why am I not disappointed? Well, both of those other things are startlingly great, meaning that this can be really goddamn good in its own right without surpassing them. And it is that good. Continuing the uber-organic feel of the last one, this fittingly has members of Silver Mount Zion and has that DIY/real real real aesthetic. The difference between Carla and most of the Montreal set is that she is an incredibly visceral singer and strong performer.

So this is intense. Not (very) noisy, but emotionally, personally intense. And you feel it. It’s the kind of fractured beauty I thought had been lost under the suffocating bombastic romanticism that people call post-rock and post-metal. The arrangements are well thought out and recorded in a clear fashion, without being clinical. There’s enough dirt in the material itself without having to obscure it with post-post smudge and mirrors. The title track is epic, elemental. This is catharsis in a way I haven’t heard in years. Maybe since Converge’s 2004 album.

05. Rye WolvesOceans of Delicate Rain

With Akimbo, Rye Wolves brought the metal assault from Washington state, obliterating the bore-metal crews in their way. Intelligently composed (I will never use the dread term ‘math rock’ with a straight face), well-played without being annoying, and just downright devastating, this is an impressive debut.

The album was mastered by James Plotkin, who I am currently falling in love with (Atomsmasher/Phantomsmasher: why did it take me so long to get you in my grubby mitts?), and he really renders this work with some terrifying clarity. Vocals are BM style, but really to sparse to annoy people who might be annoyed with that type of singing.

Rye Wolves do dynamics without having to resort to the nothing-then-all model that has been so tediously popular this decade. They scythe from bludgeoning, doom-on-steroids riffs to smooth arpeggio and way more without the telegraphing lesser bands have to use. As with Akimbo, the album came out too late in the year for the prematurely ejaculating magazines to consider. That is everybody’s loss.

06. Be Your Own PetGet Awkward!

Why? Why did BYOP have to split like that? After their spectacularly messy brilliance of their self-titled debut, BYOP broadened their aural palette just enough to avoid sophomore over-compensation. They had the pop brilliance of NOFX or prime Blink 182 (that’s right), the raw punk energy of Mondo Generator and Zeke, combined the two as well as peak Misfits and looked cute as four colourful buttons in doing so.

I was upset they split, but I suppose they should be applauded for not outstaying their welcome. They were never really welcomed by the po-faced cognoscenti anyway. Fuck them. And fuck BYOP for ending before I could see them. I have to get all their singles now. Goddamn it, now I’m annoyed.

07. SND4, 5, 6

It’s minimal, but not. It’s better than Villalobos or Pronsato. It’s uber-limited and I own it. It’s not for the faint at heart, or for those seeking either house complacency or an instant fix. It’s mysterious and clever. Maybe too mysterious and clever. But not really. And you can actually dance to it, if you can find somewhere to dance that might play it. It’s cool and awesome and ridiculous at the same time. There’s no artwork. Sometimes the mnml/Boomkat/serious-faced people are right. Sometimes you have to get in on a crazy-limited, annoyingly elitist piece of work. Sometimes none of the above actually matters, those times include when you’re listening to 4, 5, 6. But don’t download it. It’s easy for me to say, I know. That’s why I am saying it.

08. Genghis TronBoard Up the House

I’ve written about this approximately a billion times already, so I’ll keep it brief. And – hey! – maybe come up with some new thoughts on it. So yes, it is more mature and more varied – more subtly dynamic than 2006’s Dead Mountain Mouth. But the binary, all-or-nothing dynamic suited the Tron’s digital metal futurism to a tee. In a way, the more varied sonic spectrum is a step down in artistic success from the black and white the last album presented.

It’s a bit like when Fear Factory released Obsolete, saying it was warmer and had more bass than Demanufacture. But it didn’t work, because the strength of FF was that T-1000 cold, harsh metallicism. They diluted what made them a success without making enough growth in the opposite direction to justify it.

I think Tron did the same thing. It’s a bit more melodic. There are more shades of grey. But it’s a compromise when compared to the confident digital bludgeon of DMM. That said, it’s still fantastic, and the electronic parts of the record have come on in leaps and bounds. And then there’s the monumental ‘Relief’. The next album should be the break-out. You read it here first. They just need to get those fucking remix EPs out of the way.

09. Erykah BaduNew Amerykah Part One (4th World War)

Starting to get a little tired now. It’s bloody new year’s eve! And I’m hungry. Anyway, Erykah rules. I’m sure we can all agree on that much. She rules and she’s just had a reinvention, from earth-mother-hippy to funkatropic, err, hippy, with awesome producers. That’s right, Sa-Ra have got involved in this one. While it might look like a token non-rock choice (although Squarepusher is doing easy listening jazz or dinner party prog, depending on which idiotic hack you read. Then again SND isn't rock either), it’s not that.

It’s just a great album which flows really well. Sa-Ra can do pretty much no wrong as far as I’m concerned, and this bolsters their rep. the non-Sa-Ra stuff is great too. I can’t wait for part two. I should really listen to those Sa-Ra EPs I got a while back, actually. That’ll be a nice new year treat for me. And she’s as coolly, great-singingly hot as ever.

10. Kevin DrummImperial Distortion

Cheating a bit here, as I haven’t listened to the whole thing. But it is about ten days long. Shock horror! Intense noise artist goes ambient! Well it’s not much of a shock as noise and ambient have so much in common. Play an ambient record too loud and it could be Merzbow. Play some Masonna at low levels and it’s pretty much ambient. And noise is ambient in a way by its very nature. And ambient would be noise to people who don’t like it.

Whatevz. There is a musicality to this that can often be missing in ambient. People like to think they can establish a nice sound and hold it for an hour and they have a great album. It doesn’t work like that. This has nice sounds, but only ostensibly. There is a menace to the whole thing. It’s ambient, but in the way that the long-sunken Titanic has atmosphere. It’s the ambience of decay, or a Damoclean sword hanging perilously above your head. It could all come crashing in at any second, you either drowned or crushed. How many metaphors can I mix?!

It’s reminiscent at times of the ambient bits of Through Silver in Blood (especially the start of ‘Locust Star’) which is clearly a winner in my book. A lot of care has been put into this, and it pays off. I like listening to it on the bus. Where a lot of music overpowers your thought processes when you’re out and about, a nice bit of ambient/noise simply augments your reality as it is. And when it’s as gently surreal as this, tha is some augmentation. And there’s apparently a twist at the end…

So that’s it. More to come at some point. More round-up, reviews, opinion and projects that never come to fruition. Have a boss 2009!

* [edit: 1 March 2009] Sorted!

27 November 2008

Akimbo – Jersey Shores

(2008, Neurot)

There was a time when quiet-loud dynamics were enough. You had a quiet bit, a loud bit, and everyone was happy. It’s getting a bit stale now, though. I blame Isis, and why not? Other than the fact they don’t seem to have any particularly loud bits these days. It would be nice if a band offered some context – perhaps lyrical – to quite why their music is so violently swinging from one extreme to another.

As if by chance, along comes Akimbo, with an album doing just that. Not only is the music very well constructed, with eclectic song lengths, impressive performance and killer riffs, but it all means something.

There are two terms most rock writers try to avoid: ‘prog’ and ‘concept’. If they do use them, it’s always in the context of ‘this is a concept album. But not like that. Hey, come back!’ Well this is not a prog album, though there are similarities with one, notably the journey the longer songs take the listener on.

Jersey Shores is, however, a concept album. The songs are lyrically connected by one theme, which carries through into the artwork and even the music itself. This is where it gets really interesting. The album is about a spate of shark attacks in New Jersey in the first world war era. While the music is strong on its own, it is when reading the lyrics (and very helpful prose elaboration) that the overall quality hits you.

Last year, Phantom Limb, by Pig Destroyer, was the album it paid to read the lyric sheet to. Its stream-of-consciousness narrative about psychotic thoughts was so well-constructed that it made the explosive audio almost secondary.

Jersey Shores’ lyrics don’t have quite the same effect. Rather, they go beyond augmenting the sound, into ostensibly shaping what the music does. During the quieter moments, the listener can visualise the ominously still waters. Every time the aural tumult kicks in, you know those enormous, tooth-filled jaws are ripping into an unwitting swimmer, be it Charles Bruder or young Lester Stillwell.

The latter gives his name to the biggest musical triumph on the album, an eleven-minute epic with numerous kick-ins and break-downs. It would ordinarily be a work of dynamic ferocity that most post-metal bands could only dream of. With the concept attached, you know the first explosion coincides with the shark attacking the boy, who was out swimming with friends. It all comes crashing in again when Stanley Fisher dives into the water in an attempt to save him. Riffs savage the ears as gnashing teeth mutilate his thigh. His wounds would prove fatal.

While this marriage of concept and music elevates Jersey Shores clear above the majority of Akimbo’s contemporaries, the music stands strong in isolation. ‘Great White Bull’s maniacal, lumbering thrash is heightened by its relative brevity. The title track, which closes the album, explodes with the impotent rage of the human when confronted with such attacks of nature. After the attack subsides, we are left with the sound of the shallows, still once more, as a lone guitar picks out a melody of contemplation.

Every sequence on this album means something. The introduction creates that Jaws false sense of security. The vocals are primal, but massively effective, as vocalist/bassist Jon Weisnewski reaches high notes with a ferocity usually reserved for panic attacks. The reference points are all present and correct: the raw riffery of peak Neurosis. The near-Krautrock bass pulse extravaganza that inexplicably breaks out at one point. The period of calm in ‘Lester Stillwell’ that make you almost expect Henry Rollins to begin delivering. The sheer drops off the peaks of bludgeon into thin air, on a scale comparable to Botch’s majestic ‘Man the Ramparts’.

More than any of that, though, is the clear sense that here is a band turning its influences into mere ingredients. Jersey Shores is not about sounding like this band or that scene. It is merely three men – Akimbo – at the top of their game. And whether you call it post-metal, sludge or noise-rock, Akimbo is at the top of the game.

18 November 2008

Wolves Akimbo!


Less than a week ago, I received two fantastic albums from the mighty Southern Records. Both initially impressed, and both have grown on me ever since. Proper initial thoughts are in the works, but here are some pre-initial thoughts. Hey, if that’s possible anywhere, it’ll be here.

First up is Jersey Shores, the Neurot debut of one Akimbo. Pimped to me (desperately, I might add) on a message board as some metal Chimera combining Converge, Clutch and Mastodon – or something – the album flew under my radar. People started banging on, so I eventually decided to give it a go.

Jersey Shores is an epic, in the proper sense. No 20-minute drone cop-outs here, just well written, dynamic pieces of rock. The premise (there is a premise!) concerns itself with a spate of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916. The booklet features the lyrics as well as more fleshed out versions of the vignettes.

The music fits the lyrics, one moment ominously calm, when suddenly the frenzy hits and nobody gets out alive. The singing is noteworthy, as it’s not classically good, but brings the feeling, and even gets with the high note roars.

I since learned this is their sixth album, following two on Alternative Tentacles (very Neurosis) and a few more elsewhere. So taken have I been with this record, that I have ordered the previous four on vinyl. Expect obsessing!

The second album, while slightly less impressive at this point, is the still-standout Oceans of Delicate Rain, by Rye Wolves. Like Akimbo, Rye Wolves are a power trio from the Pacific north-west of the United States. Unlike Akimbo, they have just released their debut. Like Akimbo, they sound slightly like Neurosis. Like Akimbo, they are more exciting than Isis, Pelican et al. Again, this will be blogged in due course.

One thing before I go: what is it with these bands and expanses of water? Of course you had Isis with their magnum opus, Oceanic, in 2002. But we’ve also had:

• Ahab – who seem far less fun than Captain Ahab – who released The Call of the Wretched Sea in 2006;
• Mastodon releasing Leviathan in 2004;
Teeth Of The Sea, and their Orphaned by the Ocean this year;
• German band The Ocean, who started out with Islands/Tides, in 2001 (predating Oceanic!)

And now we have this pair. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out there are more examples of this trend, though I don’t expect a Reynoldsian level of reaction to this. Of course, we can logically trace this line back to Neurosis. They had the track ‘Become the Ocean’ on Through Silver in Blood, and Nick Terry specifically described them, in a review in October 1997, as ‘oceanic metal’. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. I dunno, it's because the music is supposed to be powerful, but not overtly aggressive. Ebbing and flowing at a monumental scale, right? Apparently.

Jackie-O Motherfucker – The Blood of Life


(2008, Fire Records)

In a move not dissimilar to RTX, JOMF have released a quasi-live album. The Blood of Life was recorded in one go, one night (November 29 2007) in Holland. Their last record, Valley of Fire, was a delightfully mellow slice of music that fit the cosy winter indoors to a greater degree than expected. It also made for an effective companion purchase to Radiohead’s In Rainbows.

The Blood of Life contains the last album’s title track, as well as renditions of JOMF family favourites ‘Hey! Mr Sky’ and ‘The Grave’, as well as the traditional ‘Lost Jimmy Walen’. The record closes with the sprawling ‘The Blood of Life’, more on which later.

Authenticity seems rather a big priority with this scene. As noble as their motives surely are, I always infer dishonesty when people nowadays attempt ‘legitimate’ blues/folk. It just seems a bit wrong, whether it’s this lot, No Neck Blues Band or the Black Keys. It is inherently inauthentic, a fact that cannot be changed by the hiss of tape-legitimacy, despite the evident goodwill.

The Blood of Life isn’t a bad record. It’s really rather good, once you get past the signifiers of scene. When I say this is more an alternative rock album than anything else, I mean that in a positive way.

The sedate(d) vocals are vaguely reminiscent of Thurston Moore, and the regular guitar arpeggios and sing-song melodies recall a simpler time. A time of Hoon and Farrell, of ‘Say Hello 2 Heaven’ and ‘Rotten Apple’; just shorn of the gloss and accessibility. This is presumably not what JOMF were shooting for, but it is what it is.

Listening with a critic’s ear, I cannot avoid the (seemingly intentional) flat notes, the repetition and the lack of something of which to grab hold. Like the last Lustmord, this is mood-dependent music: if you are ‘chilling’, on a ‘bean bag’, smoking a ‘jazz’ cigarette, it should more than likely prove enjoyable.

Also like the Lustmord, the most impressive song is the epic. I’m not sure why the longest of a set of similarly-paced songs should be the best (logic would suggest it’d be boring). But, whether its expanse provides more space in which to dwell, to appreciate – or whether it is due to the force of sheer inertia, ‘The Blood of Life’ is where it’s at.

An intriguing document of where a band was on one particular night, The Blood of Life makes for a fine appetiser for the next album proper, due early next year. On its own merits, this stripped-down, subtle grower may try your patience before it has time to take root.

16 November 2008

Cash mountain

While I'm here - and complaining - I have to mention something that would be amusing if it wasn't so fucking sad. I like vinyl. I like when bands get their old albums re-pressed on vinyl. Keeps the eBay hucksters and flippers disgruntled and prices low. Hooray to that, I say. But it chagrins me to a great degree to see idiocy like this carny trick.

Mastodon are a really good band. After an inauspicious start (their debut wasn't a patch on In the Eyes of God, the Today Is The Day album half the band played on before their 'Stodon days), they released two damn fine albums in Leviathan and Blood Mountain. So they have released three albums, the last even attaining the status of 'token metal album' on the magazines' year-end lists for 2006. How much would you pay for their collection to be pressed once more on vinyl?

I'll clarify matters. On top of the three albums, there is an odds-and-sods collection, Call of the Mastodon. Throw in a live set and how much would you pay? Relapse tends to release their LPs for about $16. So 16 x five is $80. Sounds fair, even if I don't really want odds, sods, or live sets.

How about $268 if you're in Europe. (Or $275 if you read the small print.)

Looks to me like someone saw the money Isis made from selling extortionate career box sets, and thought 'hey, they hadn't even been good for the second half of that decade!* Imagine how hard we're gonna coin it'. The really sad thing is it will sell out. Even sadder, 90% of purchasers will make a profit when they re-sell on eBay in six months or so. Cynical, moi?

There will be some really good music in that box set, but that price is ridiculous. You can't even pretend to be in it for the music when you charge amounts like that for a retrospective on a three-album band. And I do wish Relapse would stop with the goddamn splatter vinyl. That joke isn't funny any more. Solid colours please. Or just black vinyl. Some of us like to listen to our records.

At least this version of Blood Mountain seems to be on two discs. Shame they couldn't have done that from the start.


* Prove me wrong with yer next record, Isis. Prove me wrong. Or just do another Old Man Gloom album instead.

Just a minute...


I recently received a vinyl copy of Just a Souvenir, by Squarepusher. That is to say I bought it. It should come as no surprise when I say it is a contender for my album of the year. Fools write it off as 'muzak'. Please let me know exactly which muzak rocks as much as 'Delta-V' or 'Planet Tensor'. Far too many people these days think they are record copany executives, consigning music to the (recycle) bin if they are not immediately enamoured with it. Screw them.

Anyway, that is not the point of this post. The point of this post is to mention how thin and flimsy the record itself is. I'm sure Warp records never used to be like that. Not my Big Loada. Nor even recent albums like Mira Calix's Eyes Set Against the Sun or Boards Of Canada's Trans Canada Highway. They were satisfyingly sturdy pieces of work, much like the vinyl pressed for Planet Mu or Hyperdub. I love their records.

Perhaps I am over-reacting. Indeed, I am yet to even give the album a listen in its wax state. Perhaps it sounds fine. I just hope it's not a portent. Credit crunch and all that. Lea was telling me his copy of the new Gang Gang Dance album is similarly unimpressive, so I might order the U.S. pressing in. If there's a difference.

13 November 2008

Teeth Of The Sea – Orphaned by the Ocean

(2009, Rocket)

At some point this decade, some clever soul coined the term ‘post metal. Goodness knows why; perhaps they were bitter at post rock almost completely petering out by 2002. (Can you name a band not from Japan who is any good at post rock?) Regardless, the term ‘post metal’ is now roaming the land, and it apparently refers to bands influenced by Neurosis.

Some would extend the meaning to ‘bands influenced by Neurosis and Isis’ (or, more insultingly, ‘NeurIsis’), but that is tautology considering Isis started out as little more than a Neurosis tribute band. They are now little more than a sleep aid, but that’s for another post.

What amuses me about post metal is the fact that none of it is actually what one would call metal. I don’t mean that in the snotty sense that an old rocker would say Korn or Tool wasn’t metal, but more in the sense that most of it lacks any discernable hall mark of metal.

Justin Broadrick was once in a metal band. Pelican is on a metal label. Isis was once a metal band. But none of those facts mean what those artist are now playing should be deemed metal. The Angelic Process was a great band. Nadja are pretty good. I would describe both as really heavy indie. Old school indie, like My Bloody Valentine or early Cocteau Twins/JAMC.

This is not a diss post. A lot of it is really good. The mentioned Angelic Process: released a fantastic album last year, and the story of the band (man) is genuinely upsetting. Neurosis have been known to enjoy their moments in the musical sun. Earth, Hyatari and Kayo Dot have released some of the most compelling albums of any stripe this decade. Grails and Across Tundras are both galloping across the prairie with their epic tales of not-doom.

Because it’s not doom, is it? The riffs lack that earthy solidity that has characterised slow metal since February 13 1970. Sabbath to Rainbow, to Venom, to St. Vitus, Trouble, Candlemass, Cathedral, Electric Wizard and Iron Monkey. The darkness is not there, and if there is a crushing power present, it is benign, almost accidental. Kyuss were heavy, but blissfully so. They weren’t metal or doom. Cheap journos called them ‘stoner’, but I always preferred ‘desert rock’, as the riffs rustled up by them and their kind (Masters of Reality, Karma To Burn, Fu Manchu) were far more effectively thought of as aural sandstorms. Riffs the size of dunes – and almost as free form, with periods of expanse, wherein the mind could wander for days at a time.

I mentioned Grails and Across Tundras, perfect examples of what would in another age have been desert rock. However, in this Southern Lord era where doom is cool and all must have the aegis of metal bestowed on it, we get… well it’s not quite metal… post-metal? Yeah, sure.

Following in the footsteps of these bands, and the revitalised Earth, comes Teeth Of The Sea. If they are not new, they certainly are to me. I have no research to back this up, but I assume they are nothing to do with Mouth Of The Architect. They plough a similar furrow, though, of the epic, post-Neurosis rock vistas.

‘Only Fools on Horse’ is almost an all-of-the-above option. Throbbing bass, the threat of looming thundercloud, but with a USP of brass instrumentation. It rather hints of Morricone, but without that touch of genius. It’s not bad, though, and certainly quite heartening a start.

‘Latin Inches’ builds momentum gradually. The percussion is engaging as guitars gently shimmer over it. Then comes the Bargeldian guitar clatter; that axe-as-rhythm that is so sorely missing from the Bad Seeds these days. It adds texture, and still promises bludgeoning to come. ‘Coraniaid’ is a brief dabble that continues the promise. It is still rather ominous, but you find yourself checking your watch.

Thankfully, ‘Swear Blind the Alsatian's Melting’ (they have to be English with a title like that) changes the mood. Its slow, clear arpeggio is reminiscent of the quieter moments of the incorrectly maligned last Tool album. The trumpet returns to add colour, and an actual rhythm enters the mix. Something danceable! It doesn’t last long, but provides optimism as the structure gleefully degenerated into slow guitar squeal, brass drone and bass threat.

The majority of the second half of the album is taken up by two songs – ‘Dreadnought’ and ‘Sentimental Journey’. These mini-epics (aren’t they all?) bring the mood, and the tempo, back down to a crawl. There’s more trumpet on this one. I’m sure they want the instrument to become for them what the sax has for Wolf Eyes – their chosen deadly weapon – but it instead makes Teeth Of The Sea sound rather too much like the Chumbawamba of the post-Oceanic scene.

The brief ‘Knees Like Knives’ initially brings to mind the Mars Volta’s ambient preamble of synthesised nature, but gets lost in the foliage, from which ‘Sentimental Journey’ emerges.

This final song on the album builds, and builds, and actually goes somewhere. Admittedly, the song implodes, instead of exploding, when it is due to kick in, but at least some noise turns up. It seems that – for the most part – one can define post metal as ‘metal without the catharsis’. If that is the case, Orphaned by the Ocean is a fine example. As an album of rock music, an artistic statement on which the band can hang its collective hat, it embodies the sub-genre at its most anodyne.

04 November 2008

An Albatross – The An Albatross Family Album

(2008, Eyeball)

These Pennsylvanians follow up the fantastic Blessphemy (Of the Peace-Beast Feastgiver and the Bear-Warp Kumite) (2006) with another detonation of manic Deep Purple-inspired grind. While outwardly very similar to the last album, An Albatross’ style is sufficiently individual to fuel another half an hour of cosmic bomb-blast.

…Family Album is a stylistic frenzy of splattercore guitars and screams. The skeleton of the piece suggests the late Blood Brothers’ ashes being ground up and snorted by zombie Nation Of Ulysses. Married to this, though, is a very 1970s sense of pomp. While Blessphemy… was like a monster of rock LP played at 45rpm, An Albatross mainly use the keys here as Slayer-esque stabs of rhythmic punctuation. A fine example of this is ‘...And Now Emerges the Silver Pilgrim’, an upwardly firing helter-skelter of pure strife.

The pace drops during ‘The Hymn of the Angel People’. Ostensibly the epic of the album, it beings in promisingly Bungle fashion before unravelling in over-long monologue. While no bad thing in itself, the quasi-mythical content fails to prevent the piece dragging. So much so that it negatively affects the flow of the album; Captain Ahab’s ‘Ride’ this is not.

The mix can sound cluttered at times, but ‘The Psychonaut & the Rustbelt’ is one of those occasions it all comes together. Zorny as fuck with saxophone squirking out the main phrases, it manages to be both extremely catchy and inordinately horrible. In a good way.

‘3,000 Light Years By Way of the Spacehawk’ is the real epic here. Beginning in a bluster of violin and latter-day Swans drone that combines to recall the Quebec of a decade ago, we’re soon plunged into a hyper-gravity world of sly black metal speed-riffing. And then all of the above at the same time, as it builds, builds, builds. Just when you think it can’t maintain integrity any longer, it doesn’t.

When winter’s setting in again, thoughts turn to the albums of the year. …Family Album is not concerned with such trifles. This is an album more like The Ramones, I Get Wet, Punk in Drublic or Reign in Blood: if you want a 30-minute blast of pure energy and enthusiasm, this is for you. And sometimes that’s all you need.

30 October 2008

Interview with Jennifer Herrema, Part 1


I recently conductd my first ever interview last week. I had the privilege of chatting to Jennifer Herrema of RTX, and formerly of Royal Trux. A chopped up version of this will go in FACT Magazine, while a larger version will be on the website. Here, though, is pretty much the whole thing. It gets very strange in places, and I am a total mark for RTX, but it's all good. Here it is!

***

So, you mentioned a tour. Is this the one I heard about with Primal Scream, perhaps?

Yeah, we’re going over right now. I just approved the tour, and then the booking agent wrote me. She’s like ‘on big tours over here, oftentimes you have to rent your own monitors and your own P.A.’ and stuff and I was like ‘fuck no, dude!’ that’s a deal breaker, you gotta be kidding me! We just approved the tour, we got al the funds together and then she laid that on me and I was like ‘well if they can’t provide the monitors and stuff then they just don’t want us bad enough. I’ve never heard of that, but I guess it goes on over there. It doesn’t go on over here.

Well it’s certainly a weird surprise to spring on someone.

Yeah, right after I approved it too! I was like: wait a minute. If we have to, like, rent our own monitors and our own P.A. to take into these huge theatres, you gotta be kidding me. That’s just not gonna happen (laughs). So she said no, she’ll make it happen, and I was like OK, make it happen and then the tour’s on! (laughs)

Cool. Well I reckon Primal Scream could afford your kit anyway.

I figure they probably could.

Well the tour is definitely good news, because I’ve been waiting for RTX to come over. Have you played here in the past actually?

RTX did once. Early 2005? But we just played two London dates and then Europe and that’s it. We played a party for iD, and then we played some old, big-ass rave warehouse… but they were both only London shows.

I’m looking forward to this because obviously there are now three albums of material to get into.

Yeah, yeah, definitely. We just did a U.S. tour, like two months ago. On the new album there are so many songs that are, like, so much fun to play, so we’re definitely doing the majority of the new stuff. We’ve toured a lot over here (America) actually… we’ll see what the set list will be.

When I first heard about the new album (J.J. Got Live RaTX), and I saw the title, I did assume ‘oh right, live album’, but it’s not. And it was just recorded live.

Yes, it is confusing, it’s just not confusing to me, because I know what it means! (laughs) So forgot about that. And also the pronunciation of 'RaTX'. It’s just like when you say ‘xylophone’, it’s [pronounced as] a ‘z’, and it starts with an ‘x’. So I just assumed that everybody would figure out that it’s supposed to say ‘Ratz’. But, you know, using the ‘x’ in there because it provided an ‘r’, a ‘t’ and an ‘x’. yeah, it’ kinda goofy, but it all made sense to me, so I was quite certain it would make sense to everybody else, but I just forgot that I would probably need to explain it.

Well maybe I’m a bit slow on the uptake.

No, no, no! you’re not the only one.

Well I’ll explain it when I write [this interview] up, so then it’s clear for everybody.

Yeah. It’s just, it was recorded live in the studio. It wasn’t done, you know, track by track. It wasn’t done separated, like the past two records.

I do like the energy as well.

Yeah, and that’s a product of, you know, us playing simultaneously, you know, as opposed to just tracking in headphones. It provides a lot more energy when you’re all in the same room…

…you feed off each other…

Yeah.

So going back to the RaTX name for a moment. Was that a direct response to the whole Western Xterminator thing?

It’s not any one thing in particular. With RaTX, we had the imagery of the Pied Piper and we had the different rats and stuff on the Western Xterminator album. And then, having to re-title that album, I titled it RaTX, because of the imagery and because it also had to do with extermination. And then, on this one… we got the live… it’s basically, all the rats that were depicted in the illustration on Western Xterminator, and they were going, you know, towards the ocean? We didn’t lead them out into the ocean to drown. We have them, they’re live. (laughs) No, it’s totally twisted in my head, I just have this picture, like, they didn’t get drowned in the ocean, all the rats. And then we’re also the rats, so we’re all like in a cage together, and we have to, like, I don’t know. It’s just a big painting in my head, it all makes sense… to me.

I like it. In fact, I like all the artwork for the RTX albums. I noticed the little Ultimate Warrior plush doll on the new one.

Oh yeah, that’s my baby, yeah! (laughs) I actually got another one. I got a Sting wrestling buddy on the last tour. I’m getting quite a collection over here.

Excellent, excellent. I was chatting with someone just before phoning you up, who’s also heavily into the Royal Trux and the RTX and stuff. And he mentioned that he’s kinda reminded of the band RATT, by your music. now, is that an intentional thing?

The band RATT? No. I mean, we all love RATT. You gotta love RATT. I don’t know if… but there’s nothing intentional with the RaTX. The actual RaTX thing is twofold. I get to have the word ‘rats’ spelled totally weirdly, like r-a-t-x, but if you pronounce the ‘x’ as a ‘z’ it’s ‘ratz’. But we still get to have the r-t-x in it? Because I was gonna change the fucking name of the band to RaTX and everybody at Drag City (RTX’s label), they were all, like ‘no, no, you can’t do that! You can’t do that!’ But I get so sick of saying ‘RTX’, I just want it to be called RaTX. Not RATT, but RaTX. And then all the imagery, the Pied Piper imagery and stuff, I just kinda go on a tangent and a path and I don’t know if anybody else in the band even knows what the fuck I’m doing. But RATT the band, we love RATT. RATT is in our subconscious, you know, from early teenage years, somewhere in there. So there’s gonna be an influence, but it’s definitely by no means the only thing up in the noggin, you know.

I do actually think of a lot of stuff when I listen to your music, especially the new album. At times, and I’m always kind of a bit nervous when I mention certain eighties bands, because I don’t know how people are gonna react, but sometimes in some of the chords, I’m slightly reminded of WASP.

WASP! Oh, Blackie Lawless. Well when you look at the picture of the Ultimate Warrior you think of, like, Blackie Lawless, totally. I don’t know. I love WASP, but it’s not a band I listened to a whole lot. I know the bas player listened to WASP a lot. Yeah, that’s what I know. The bass player for sure. And I’ve listened to them, and I like ‘em, so they’re probably in there somewhere! (laughs)

It’s only a small detall, because it was just one of the riffs in ‘Hash’ that kinda reminded me of WASP.

Oh, yeah, well I'm not up on all my WASP. Maybe Brian fuckin’ nicked that from WASP, I don’t know.

I do go off on these strange flights of fancy…

I like that! I like that.

Cool, because I was listening to ‘Cheap Wine Time’ on the bus on the way into work this morning. And I don’t know, again, I don’t know if this is crossing a line or something, but I was thinking of ‘Home Sweet Home’ by Mötley Crüe. You know when it kicks in?

Yeah, yeah. Definitely songs like ‘Home Sweet Home’, all the ballads, like the fuckin’ power ballads? My first try at a power ballad in my own way was on Western Xterminator, and it was that song ‘Knightmare and Mane’. And then, on ‘Cheap Wine Time’, it was that but then the guitar has more of a Mick Taylor style to me. So it was kind of like a combination of the Crüe and the Stones. This is all in retrospect. When we were doing it, we were just doing stuff, and it would sound good, and we were like ‘yeah, that’s it’. But in retrospect you can listen and say yeah, this does have certain sensibilities that completely mesh with things that I love. So yeah, totally into the Crüe.

I grew up listening to the eighties rock as well, and I’ve got it all on vinyl

Rad, dude…

And I just think of all of these really random details! Because you mentioned the bluesy guitar at the start of ‘Cheap Wine Time’ and I was thinking – and maybe it’s because of my age – but I was thinking about… you know Richie Kotzen, who replaced C.C. Deville in Poison at the start of the nineties?

Yeah. I love fuckin’ C.C. Deville. C.C.’s the man. I couldn’t get behind the other dude too much…

It was tough. Especially as he sang too much!

And he wasn’t C.C.!

And you just think ‘let Bret Michaels sing!’

Bret Michaels is a freak, dude. I love Poison, and they got so many great songs, but I’m, like, so not into Bret Michaels right now. Like, his Rock of Love and shit. That’s all good for him and whatever, but I saw too much of him. I would have preferred just to think of him only as Poison and it would have been okay, but he’s a total dork, dude. He’s so not rock. So not rock! (laughs)

That’s the thing, because Flesh & Blood was literally the first rock album I ever got.

(laughs)

I was ten years old, and I got it on tape. And I’ve still got the tape! Except I took it to Iran, and they wanted to have a look at it, and they magnetised it, so it’s all backwards now.

It’s backwards?

Yeah, the tape itself is fine, but it plays like it's underwater. It’s very strange.

That’s pretty cool. I want a copy of that. I would love to hear what that sounds like.

I’ll see what I can do, because I’ve got it somewhere.

I would love that!

But I know what you mean about the Bret Michaels thing, because I didn’t watch that programme at all. I avoided it, because I just thought ‘it’ll ruin it’. Because I’ve got this image in my head of Bret Michaels being awesome…

Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally wrecked it! It wrecked it, dude.

I saw the Flavor Flav stuff and I thought I don’t want to see Bret doing that stuff.

See the Flavor Flav stuff didn’t freak me out. The Flavor Flav stuff actually… I found him more endearing, having watched the Flavor Flav shit. But Bret Michaels, nah dude. He’s so not a rocker. I couldn’t stop watching it, though, because it was just so over the top.

Yeah, it’s like a car crash.

Oh, a total car crash. And now they have one with all the girls in charm school with Sharon Osborne as their headmistress. It’s another car crash. It’s gonna be good. It just started, this one.

She’s another one who my perception totally changed of. I remember in the late nineties, she set up Ozzfest, and her favourite band was Neurosis. And they’re awesome and intense, and really nasty.

Wait, Neurosis was her favourite band? Oh wow, rad.

Apparently, and that’s how they got onto Ozzfest in the first place, because they were on the first two Ozzfests.

Rad, I didn’t know she was behind that.

Well it’s crazy now, because you see her, and she’s totally not about that at all.

She’s still a wild card in my mind. She’s somebody that is pretty close to having it both ways, if you know what I mean. You know what I mean? I love Ozzy. And watching The Osbornes, Ozzy's such a badass. Like, I love him even more.

Yeah, he’s the best…

He’s the best! And she obviously loves him, so there’s obviously something super-rad about her. And you just don’t know about it necessarily. Because, like, Ozzy’s the man.

I know what you mean. Like, she’s really good at putting on this public persona, but she’s still an Osborne deep down. She’s an Osborne anyway.

Yeah, cool.

29 October 2008

Part 2!

So, getting back to the music for a second. ‘Resurrect’, off the first album (Transmaniacon, 2004). I do love that song, and it hit me as the RTX version of ‘Rocket Queen’, because it finishes this great album, and it’s an epic!

I don’t know what to say. That’s a good thing to take away from it.

In fact, I think the reason why I thought of talking about it is because the solo in that song reminds me of C.C. Deville. A lot. Which is great, because he’s one of my favourite solo dudes.

Yeah, actually Brian met C.C. Deville not too long ago, at the Rainbow Room. He was there with his girlfriend. I don’t know, for some reason, and he met C.C. Deville. He was stoked.

That is brilliant. Because I do have this romantic image of L.A. in the eighties. Because I was only born in 1980, so I can distance myself from what must have had good and bad points at the time. But the whole Rainbow Room thing, that whole era, I just think is brilliant.

I wasn’t there either. It’s before my time, out here, but I felt as a teenager growing up… there’s just so much imagery, and the songs are so huge, and they were just all over the radio. It was it; that was rock. Big radio, and all the pictures… magazines. I used to tear out pictures, you know, put them all over the wall. It felt – what you’re saying – it felt cool as shit.

And it was so emotional as well. A lot of the current emo stuff is totally biting that sound, it’s just a bit less sexy.

Yeah, it’s not sexy at all. It’s kinda timid in a way, it’s a little too tame. Those dudes, no matter what kind of voice they have… whether it be like Axl Rose, or Bret Michaels, Ronnie James Dio… all those dudes just had voices that could just push, push, like push you up above the fuckin’ stars, sky high. It was just so insane. But emo, it’s like nobody even tries. It’s not about how well you execute, it’s the emotion behind it, and just try. If that’s what you’re feeling, you need to push. And I don’t care if you sound as good as Ronnie James Dio or Axl Rose, just let me hear you give something.

So what do you reckon to people like Andrew W.K.? Because I like the dude, and he doesn’t have a great voice, but he’s going for it.

I love Andrew. Andrew’s an old friend of mine.

Oh wow.

Yeah, before I moved out here, I was out here with him when he was recording his very first record. Andrew’s a special dude, he’s a freak. Freak, freak, freak. Stone cold freak. In a good way. That’s what he is, he’s great. He does what he does, and he doesn’t care. He doesn’t give a shit.

And that’s why he’s so cool. Because I remember when I first got I Get Wet (his full-length debut, 2001). I first read about it in The Face. And I was, like, ‘why am I first hearing about this metal dude in The Face, there must be something wrong’.

Something’s gone wrong, yeah!

And it rocked so much! And I just thought ‘this is fantastic!’

Yep, it rocks. Totally. And he’s such a great… just a great composer.

And he’s insanely enthusiastic as well…

Yeah, well that occasionally… I swear to God, it’s like ‘down, boy’. Occasionally I’m like ‘God damn it’. But it’s great. It’s him. It’s who he is.

Cool. Because I heard this song, it was him doing a song about Wolf Eyes. I think it was called ‘What Kind of Band’, and I started of with him shouting ‘WOLF EYES RULE’, and then it started. And I thought ‘that sums him up’, really. Because it’s innocent, and it’s brilliant at the same time.

Yeah, yeah. He’s… he’s… yeah. Yes. I agree with all of that. I don’t know what to say, I totally agree with you. I’m a huge fan. He’s a good guy.

I kind of got the same feeling when I heard Transmaniacon as well. And it took me a while to realise the Blue Öyster Cult reference.

Well it was definitely a reference, but it was also just… when the record first came out, I did interviews and people were all ‘Trans.. maniac. Trans… maniac-on’, and they were like ‘is that the devil’s skulls? Are you a maniac?’ and these types of things, and I was all like ‘it’s not what the word means, it’s how you say it’. And it really got jammed up at first. And just saying the word ‘transmaniacon’ (pronounced trans-man-I-acon), and it’s just such a badass word, transmaniacon. But ‘trans-mania-con’ is such a gay word. So I was, like, oh god, now I’ve fucked that one up too! So I got ‘Rat-X’ instead of ‘Ratz’, I got ‘trans-mania-con’… I don’t know. But it all comes out in the wash. There’s just so much going on in the world anyway, you don’t have enough time to figure out how to say a word. It’s okay.

That is one thing I did pronounce straight away, so I’m quite pleased with myself about that. Anyway, I’ve been on this big run of getting seventies and eighties records in, and I only got a record player about a year ago, so I thought I’d get some Blue Öyster Cult, and that’s when it clicked. Because I just thought you came up with the word.

No, it was also a book. It was a science fiction book. I forget who wrote it.* I have it somewhere. It’s not a great book, but…

…But it’s got a good name.

Yeah. Its got a great name.

Is there anything you particularly want to say to the people in England?

Just don’t be afraid of guitars, you know? I don’t know, it’s been a while since I’ve been over there, but rock ’n’ roll has gotta have guitars, dude.

English people are very apologetic. When they talk about British rock bands, and they say Oasis was the best, I think ‘Oasis?!’ Every American band rocks more than them!

You know what? I gotta tell you a funny thing. Oasis opened up for Royal Trux on their first American tour. They opened up for us in Virginia Beach (laughs). I remember I was like ‘this band is gonna be fucking huge’, I just remember thinking that. And it just kind of encapsulated a real pop sensibility. You know, what people love about British rock ‘n’ roll. It’s pop. It’s different. I don’t know, I love pop music, but I love rock music. And we play rock music. but I would like the rock music to become popular!

Definitely. Because there are loads of cool American band out there. I don’t know if you’ve heard Captain Ahab. They’re a duo, and they did an album a couple of years ago, that I think they call ‘ravesploitation’, so it’s like their take on rave. But you can tell it; a couple of metal dudes, because the energy’s there from metal, and the dynamics. I think they got famous in America because they had a song on Snakes on a Plane. They did the song for that.

I like that movie. I’m gonna check that out, definitely.

And they were on The Office. I don’t know if you watch that…

Yeah, I love The Office.

Well Michael Scott was having a party on his own, and he played this song called ‘Girls Gone Wild’. It’s a bit of a small reference, but that was Captain Ahab.

Okay, I wanna find that. I wanna check it out. Captain Ahab, I’m gonna look that up, it sounds good.

There are bands that really excite me at this moment in time, for different reasons, but totally. Because you’ve got you, Andrew W.K., Wolf Eyes, Captain Ahab, and it’s all different stuff, but it’s all brilliant. And it doesn’t sound like anything else that’s out there right now.

That’s great, I love that. I’m glad we could do that, like, give you something like that. It’s never a conscious decision, like, ‘we can’t sound like anything else’. We love so much different music, and we use all of it when we’re playing. I guess it’s just the chemistry that makes it so it doesn’t sound like anything else. And it means we’re doing a good job of being a band. Not just as songwriters, we have the chemistry of a band on record, which is really important. It; not just good songs, it’s special chemistry.

And it’s your own sound, which is great. Because I have this problem with bands that are just retro, whereas you get this sound from the past, but you make it so modern at the same time. And that’s why it works, for me anyway.

I would hope it does. A lot of people maybe just dismiss it because they hear one sound, or something that reminds them of something from the past and all of a sudden it becomes retro to them. But there’s nothing retro about RTX. The only thing that’s retro about RTX is just the fact that our influences are far and wide and many and diverse and these types of things. And the influences are most definitely things that have come before us. They certainly couldn’t have come from the future.

I don’t know what goes on. I have been really, really indulging this stuff that I grew up with and jut loving, and just like ‘fuck yeah!’ I remember being on the bus, on the way to school with my Walkman on, and just fucking listening to Mötley Crüe and being like ‘FUCK!’ And then on the weekday you’d go see a Bad Brains show, ‘cause they’re fucking great too. Just going back and listening to a lot of the stuff that gave me a lot of fucking energy, growing up. There’s tons of other stuff, but that was just the real mainstream stuff that was going on at the time, that you couldn’t avoid. It was just everywhere, and it just was great.

I think there’s a bit of a gap nowadays, because you’ve got bands who are really heavy, like Converge, and then you’ve got bands who want to be popular, who sound very MTV. So you don’t really get anybody between those poles, who rock, but don’t sound like grindcore or death metal.

Yeah, yeah.

There are some. Because there are you lot, and there’s High On Fire, and there’s Mammatus, and they’re all cool and stuff, but you lot are definitely my favourite.

It’s something that goes on with RTX that’s kinda gone on my whole musical life, where we definitely have some things in common with that, but we’re not like them, and we always have a hard time pairing up with bands on tours. Because of the fact that we stand alone, but we’re also part of all the best gangs too. We’re part of all the best gangs, but we haven’t drawn blood for any one particular gang, you know what I mean?

I think that sums it up really, because I remember when I first read about Royal Trux, and this will have been quite late on. It’ll have been about ’96, ’97, when I started buying Kerrang! and things like that. And I just thought ‘that is the coolest-looking band’. And now,I get your albums and I think ‘this is still the coolest-looking band’. And even though there’s only one person from Royal Trux in RTX, and it’s just a lot of new people, I still think ‘goddamn! Very cool’.

Yeah. We are. We’re pretty fucking cool. (laughs) I love it, that’s all I can say.

Thank you very much for your time.

No, thanks for all the great questions and the great references, it was great.

* It was apparently John Shirley.

28 October 2008


Not my day, is it?
I hate Blogger sometimes. Give us actual titles on Older Post!

Bring it on: in it to win it


Back in the early days of this century, before the George W. Bush reign of terror, we lived in a more innocent age. Where now we cower in fear of 'terrrsts' and credit crunches, the biggest controversy of the prior presidency had been Clinton getting his game on. During this halcyon age, there was a fantastic film called Bring it on.

Bring it on concerned the trials and tribulations of the Rancho Carne Toros. The Toros were ostensibly the goodies of the piece, but the film went morally deeper than that. It was sarcastic, well characterised, nimbly paced and intelligent. And had lots of buff gyal in cheerleader outfits. It was fantastic, but we’ll save my real gushing for the planned high school films countdown. You think I’m making these lists up, don’t you.

It was such a good film that, much like the Blair Witch Project of the previous year, I determined never to watch the sequel. And then another sequel appeared. I figured such avoision (it’s a word. Look it up) would be easy as the films lacked star power or other selling points.*

But this weekend, while idly surfing the channels just after waking, I saw a Bring it on film was on telly. I had no idea which number it was til I checked on Wikipedia. Figuring there was no harm in watching for a few minutes, I broke my own rule. And I really enjoyed it. With no recurring characters or themes (other than cheerleaders and cheerleading), this was just a cheerleading film on its own in the wild.

Bring it on: in it to win it (BIO:IITWI – what does it all mean?!) lacks the sharp dialogue of the original, as well as the tight plotting. Instead, there is a lot of street slang, cliché one-liners and sneaking into warehouses to retrieve stolen things. And they have taken the spirit stick curse just a step too far. I suppose they have to do something to develop the sort-of-series.

It’s surprisingly good though. Despite the heel team actually being babyfaces in disguise – thankfully with bigger sources of evil lurking nearby – the narrative worked. Writers Alyson Fouse and Elena Song pitched the peril at the right level. The hurdles are of sufficient concern to provide drama, without making the audience think success was impossible. After the original film, the seeds of doubt are ever-present as to whether our team will actually win, which is a pleasant Damoclean sword.

The characters are as bitchy as a film like this requires, with surprising depth lurking beneath the veneer of peroxide and lip gloss. Sadly there are no adult characters as brilliant as Sparky Polastri from the original, but he was a one-off anyway. The actual cheer choreography is impressive, and the pop-punk soundtrack fits the film without ever threatening to overpower it.**

Interestingly enough, there is a Bring It On Cinco on its way. It will be more of the same for sure, but I will be in all likelihood checking it out. That nomenclature does remind me that this fourth instalment is definitely more Hispanic than the original – which was White City – with African Americans maintaining token status in the series.

Perhaps this is a reaction to the demographic buying the DVDs. Maybe the producers are trying to expand viewership from the white suburbs. You know, to Latina (you’d imagine most viewers to be female) suburbs. With the Tisdale sisters featuring prominently in the film, the white core audience is certainly being catered for.

In the grand scheme of high school/teen flicks (and without risking list spoilage), BIO:IITWI is no Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Get Over it or even Mean Girls. It is, however, a disturbingly good fourth instalment*** that I think I will eventually buy. Which will probably only be when the series has ended and is available in its entirety for about a tenner. But that will be a lot of fun.


* I suppose I should mention the third film featured one Hayden Panettiere, who would later star in Heroes as… a cheerleader. It's no Eliza Dushku/Kirsten Dunst though.
** Not that I have seen it, but Nutty Professor 2 apparently has a remix of the mighty 'Thong Song' on its soundtrack. I don’t see the film living up to that.
*** Well it's better than Scary movie 4. And Star Trek 4. Not the greatest company, admittedly.
P.S.Image teefed from Collider.
P.P.S. It's been more than a year since my last film post? Damn.

27 October 2008

Hey, why did nobody tell me Travis was blogging again? This, folks, is good news.

20 October 2008

Dungen – 4

(2008, Subliminal Sounds) - Director's Cut!

The interesting thing about retro bands is that they often remain fixed, like a bee in amber, in one temporal point. This may come as little surprise you, dear readers, but it defies logic somewhat. While often the retro band will mimic a combo from the past, theory would dictate that they evolve as the former did. But take a band like Black Sabbath. They – often in one album – produced more varied music than their copyists ever would.

This is actually logical in a sense. After all, the act of reviving a certain sound is an exercise in wish fulfilment, an experiment in what if that band from the past stayed like that forever. Or what if they perfected that sound instead of changing. Or what if Ozzy was never sacked. The fact remains, though, that retro bands fail to evolve, in something of a reverse Dorian Gray.

This is a long-winded method of introducing the new album by Dungen, simply called 4. (I think it’s actually their fifth album.)

It is not evident which band – if indeed there is one – to whom Dungen are paying tribute. Rather it is an entire era, one of psychedelic rock performed with a feeling that teeters on abandon. What differentiates the band from your Wolfmothers, Black Mountains and Spiritual Beggars (there’s an old reference) is that Dungen escapes the pure retro trap and manages far more.

It’s almost as though they create a parallel history. This is one in which psyche-rock and the Canterbury scene simply assimilated punk’s bite rather than being killed off by it. Ta Det Lugnt was one of those albums so good, you got the feeling the band will never top it.

It took late 1960s psychedelia and energised it with the now, as a rock band existing after punk might well do. Songs like ‘Panda’ were definitely influenced by the music of decades ago, but they were doing something new with it, bringing them more in line with such bands as Cave In, Radiohead and Sigur Rós (when they were good). There was energy beyond mere imitation, married to a lush modern mix and always-fun key changes.

The off kilter piano jazz chords opening single ‘Satt Att Se’ recall more a slow-mo ‘Steppin’ Out’ than the Swedish ‘Pyramid Song’ Dungen may have been aiming for. The Jackson song is better than Yorke’s anyway, so no big loss. The anthemic energy of a ‘Panda’ (from Ta Det Lugnt, 2004) is extinct, replaced by a slower, more solemn mood. This is the sound of a worldly-wise Dungen.

While the piano is to feature heavily in the grooves of 4, this first song is defined by the measured, plaintive lead guitar work. More indicative of what is to come is ‘Mälerås Finest’. The temptation is to compare it to the many lush key-led pieces on the Secret of Mana soundtrack, but A Reminiscent Drive is so much more of a FACT reference point. The main difference here is the emphasis on the organic – the ostensibly ‘genuine’ – rather than the synthesiser pride of Jay Alansky’s 1990s work.

Your writer is struggling to make a connection of the two instalments of ‘Samtidigt’ here so, drawing a blank, will retreat toward the fact that both are instrumental pieces. The first boasts guitar lines that recall Fugazi’s End Hits, while the second is more traditionally retro. ‘Samtidigt 2’ has spacious arrangement in which Iommi-esque lead lines flicker like snakes’ tongues. Sadly they lack the venom of a Comets On Fire or Mammatus.

Here lies the issue with 4. While it is an incredibly sophisticated rock record, with pianos and flutes filling out the texture, that is precisely its undoing. Part of what made Ta Det Lugnt one of the decade’s best was that ramshackle inspiration permeating its every pore.

Without that energy, this record meanders. The songs are very strong, and it really is one of the shining lights of the year, but that vital spark is absent. And while shorter albums are preferable, the 37 minutes here feel abridged. It’s like the Cliffs notes without the core text: only rousing the appetite without bedding her back down.

‘Det Tar Tid’ brings the familiar melodies and nasally endearing vocals of Gustav Ejstes to the fore. ‘Fredag’, too, returns a level of urgency to the album, but it merely highlights the relative torpidity of its context.

Album closer ‘Bandhagen’ is another instrumental piece – a shame given the strength of Ejstes’ pipes – and focuses on the piano and flute partnership in true retro fashion.4 would have made a splendid companion to the summer we didn’t have, but Dungen have set the bar high for themselves. This is a slightly missed opportunity, then; perhaps listening to last years overlooked Tio Bitar might fill in a gap or two.

Hooch

There was a competition to win a Melvins album on vinyl recently. I entered. You had to tell the people which was your fave Melvins song and why. It was so Smash Hits, I couldn't resist! So here it is. It's pretty crap, but it's earnest enough:

My favourite Melvins song is one called 'Hooch', which might be a popular choice on account of it was their big single. If that's not an oxymoron. I first heard it on an episode of Beavis and Butthead, back when I was younger and slimmer than I am now. It was horrible, and that was precisely why I loved it. I seem to recall the video was a man's head with crazy hair bellowing out words I couldn't make out at all. But he was aggressive, and the music was jerky, with almost nothing in the way of a discernable flow; perfect for a self-awarely angsty teen.

It would be a couple of years before I actually got round to buying the album it's on, Houdini. I got that one partly because its non-Cobain co-producer, Billy Anderson, produced my favourite album ever: Through Silver in Blood, by Neurosis. And partly because I needed to hear 'Hooch' again. That was the one song whose lyrics were printed on the booklet, and I finally learned why I had not been able to understand them: there were none! At least none that one would find in the Oxford English Dictionary. The mighty Buzz Osborne must have thought 'hey, you know when it sometimes doesn't sound like a singer is actually singing words, and you just have to make up noises that sound like words? Let's do that!'. And so he did.

Years before Sigur Ros and their Hopelandic language, here was a man who - on the opening track and single from his major label debut - opted to make up noises that merely sounded like words, so no radio listeners would confidently be able to sing along with it. It turns out there is a fantastic flow to the rhythm, specifically because it is so jerky: the whole song is a slow-mo drum fill! The riffs are incredibly solid, and I love it more every time I hear it. Especially when I heard the Fantômas-Melvins Big Band play it at double speed recently. It's so awkward that it's essentially an anti-anthem. And *that* was their big single on Atlantic Records. Pure genius.


Needless to say, I didn't win.

Bonus 'thing', if you can call it a bonus: Sum 41 playing 'Hooch'. Sadly not the real 'Hooch'.

13 October 2008

The Howling Hex – Earth Junk


(2008, Drag City)

There is no foundation, and that is what is so discomfiting about Earth Junk. Opener 'Big Chief Big Wheel' lacks that solid bass line, the catchy riff, the vocal hook. The melodies whose constituent notes seem to bear little relation to each other seem to spiral in and out like bees emerging from a half-full Carlsberg can on a balmy summer day.

After brief spoken introduction, 'Sundays are Ruined Again' resides in the instrumental domain, a ragged tomcat duet between two wily guitar lines over moon-walking synthesiser backing.

'Annie Get Redzy', far from being just a fantastic title, continues this theme of restless guitars that interplay like piss lines etched in snow by drunken Wisconsin frat boys. This isn't Fugazi, but works just as well, much like Tom Waits's hobo-orchestral pieces match Leonard Cohen’s stately grandeur.

Guitar lines wind round yer synapses like the freakiest worms in town; the golden femme backing vocal should be surplus to requirements but downs that tequila in one. Those honey tones take the lead in 'Faithful Sister'. Technically sounder, though less charismatic, than Jennifer: perhaps that anodyne smoothness is the point. It fits the late 60s way-out aesthetic for sure.

But this is no hackneyed yearning for flowers in hair and Love albums. It's the attitude of Perrey and Kingsley married to that confident flow of early Beefheart. These ostensibly disparate sounds work to a degree that would make Gestalt blanch.

Thick key tones provide the base, electric piano adding detail (hey, it's like Bohren on crystal meth!), with antsy, irked, guitar lines weaving like those worms we mentioned earlier. It's a cycle. And that golden-voiced girl ties it all together, like the rug in a Michael Gira acid flashback.

The sound really changes on penultimate song 'Coffin Up Cash', a 'Hex take on pastoralectronica, bass pulse reminiscent of overlooked 2003 Manta Ray single 'Take a Look'. Neither quite Nick Drake nor Four Tet, it rolls along with an irresistible charm all its own.

Lacking the muscle and aggro of RTX, the Howling Hex is an altogether more sinewy customer, the spindly limbs of a crafty veteran of disorder flying off at all angles, with wisdom belying drunken mastery. One thing is for sure – 2008 is a great year to be a Royal Trux fan.

02 October 2008

Bohren und der Club of Gore – Dolores


(2008, P.I.A.S.)

Today was the first time I noticed the browned, fallen leaves on the floor. They have probably been around for a while, but it was only today, as the increasingly encroaching dusk kissed a sweet goodbye to a day defined almost solely by its maudlin glaze of drizzle, that I became aware of them. At around the same time, Dolores – new album from German veterans Bohren und der Club of Gore – osculated my ears equally softly.

Once a heavy metal group, Bohren are such no longer. That recent FACT description confused this writer initially, wondering if the inordinately mellow early tracks already heard were mere preparation/false security for some form of metal meltdown a la Hyatari or John Zorn’s I.A.O. They weren’t. In fact, like a far sweeter version of Lustmord’s recently brooding [OTHER] set, the relative stillness of the music herein is likely to unsettle listeners waiting for dramatic events to unfold.

Making a fantastic soundtrack for moody walks, during which the listener may fancy himself in a TV film from the 1970s in which they sell his laugh to a humourless millionaire, plangent electric piano notes chime sonorously, solemnly, while sustained organ tones lull the unwary meanderer into near somnambulism. In fact, those listening to the album lying on a field (unlikely in this dank autumn) are likely to drowse, due to the way the albums reverie evokes such delights as Manual’s ethereally still ‘Wake’.

At an hour in length, the uniform tone of the album could frustrate, as one song ends and the next begins in similar style and tempo. Dolores is mellow music with a minimalist percussive bite that adds spice. While some grand narrative-style progression would have elevated it to the next level, this is nevertheless a lovely mood piece for those who might find themselves longing for L’Altra or Low circa 2000.

***

I know it's a bit soppy and sentimental, but I like to vary my style from time to time - even if it doesn't work. I like to think this one did in places, and the album is very nice. Rather reminiscent of 'Treefingers', or () without the bombast. And not at all heavy metal. I like to reflect what the music makes me feel in the writing, rather than merely describing how it sounds. Hopefully this piece put that over to an extent, but it's clearly just the first step in what's ideally gonna be a decent bit of development.

P.S. Hi to those people who turned up here from that Chris Morris Facebook group and decided to click around. I'm clearly no Charlie Brooker, but who is?

P.P.S. Hey Warp - sort me out with some promos please. FACT sent me a copy of their Squarepusher one, which was great stuff.

***

Post #200! Not that I'm counting...

26 September 2008

More-iss from Popbitch

>> Help Morris! <<
Turn terrorism comedy into movie

We told you that Chris Morris' terror cell
comedy had been rejected by a fearful Channel 4
and BBC. It seems they have a history of
this. Muslim comedian Omar Mazouk was to
present a mockumentary about misguided
suicide bombers for BBC but this was also
nixed. He took the idea to a TV network in
Denmark instead, where it's getting rave reviews.

And putting two fingers up to TV commissioners,
Morris is turning his Jihadi sitcom into a
film. He's got producers at Warpfilm and a
distributor. All he needs now is enough money
to make the film. Which is where we come in.
Popbitch readers donating between 25 and 100
quid to help get the film made will get the
chance to be in it. So get out your cheque book
and burkha and email:
fundingmentalism@warpfilms.com

Chris would not deny or confirm that recruits
who sign up will also get a free al-Qaeda
explosives handbook.

***

So there you go. I was actually wondering why this wasn't suggested earlier, given how controversial the project would be deemed by mainstream media and the rich history between Morris and Warp. Everybody watch his short film My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117. I would very cheekily link to the film itself on You Tube, but (i) it may be down since last I saw it there, and (ii) I'm at work! I have the DVD anyway, and have done since day dot.

23 September 2008

Squarepusher – Just a Souvenir

(2008, Warp Records)

I got this and was shocked. FACT said it was SP gone rock, but I snorted at the thought. Turns out it's really, really good. I am so gonna get this on vinyl. And not just because of the gorgeous artwork...

***


A trend has been emerging in recent years over at that Sheffield stronghold, Warp. It has manifested as an increasing penchant for rock instrumentation. Successful in some instances, such as the mystifyingly under-appreciated Standards set by Tortoise, it has quite literally thrown up such chunks as Maximo Park. And middling bands like Battles. Meanwhile, Tom ‘Squarepusher’ Jenkinson has lurked in the shadows.

After spending the 1990s as a leading light of drill ‘n’ bass (producing scintillating records like Big Loada), lately he has meandered. Some tracks have heartened in their quality (‘My Red Hot Car’; ‘Planetarium’), but the albums seemed not quite to gel.

If reinvention were required to regain a seat at the table of electronica glitterati, Squarepusher has achieved that and more, appearing to have sent his IDM past(iche) packing. In a move sure to alienate old school Warp heads, Jenkinson has… gone prog?

Not actually ‘prog’ in the traditional sense, there is a definite theme of technically adventurous, 1970s-influenced writing on Just a Souvenir. Beginning as a Utopian dreamstate about an unreality rock band, the album eases fans, ‘Red Hot Car’ parking up to the piano ‘Where Love Lives’. The mysterious ‘Coathanger’ appears on the second track, where it all goes ‘Flawless’-ly strange.

This is rock way beyond the slightly annoying Battles, like liquid in flow and unpredictability. ‘A Real Woman’ sees ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ spliced with Hazlehurst’s ‘Sorry’ theme, working bizarrely well. ‘Delta-V’ is pure tech-rock, highlighting Jenkinson’s familiarity with the bass guitar. To compare this with Warp’s rockers does the record a disservice; its marriage of wizardry with inspiration finds closer kin with Lightning Bolt.

The elite rock peaks on the inferno surface of ‘Planet Gear’, balancing distorted, fractured bass lines with the soothing balm brought by calm Acid melodies. Squarepusher walks a tightrope throughout, teetering between utter insight and pure vocoder, 70s dinnertime game show cheese; it is at times like this when an artist works free of self consciousness, able to scale the heights.

While musically quite daring, the album is a lean 44 minutes: this is a relief as the pudding could have been over-egged had it neared the hour mark of its predecessor. There is even an apparent nod to prog-celebs in the linguistically contrary ‘Yes-Sequiteur’, and it’s a relief that as he has a laugh, Squarepusher is kicking out the jams with the very best of the rockers. Yet more pastiche? Perhaps, but more than welcome when it sounds this good.

Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ‘08

(2008, Matador)

It has apparently become necessary to mention in each review of Mr. Reatard’s work that he recently punched someone at a gig. I have punched people at gigs, though it is rather less newsworthy due to the fact that I have never composed a song as good as ‘See/Saw’. Or ‘Screaming Hand’. Or ‘Fluorescent Grey’. Or, or…

This is the small detail many appear to overlook. While Jay’s ostensibly ‘controversial’ behaviour is not actually that controversial in the grand scheme of things – witness Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp lamping a punter who stole the cowboy hat Mr. Sharp apparently considered his one possession, or Nick Oliveri taking out the whole of Terrorvision at Ozzfest ’99 – what should be of note is his ability to pen a tune.

Much has been made of his past musical life, of which Lost Sounds – synthy awesomeness – is this writer’s favourite. Even so, it is the present that most stirs excitement and that sets the pulse racing. As a solo performer Reatard has already released numerous fine singles (also recently compiled) as well as an album – Blood Visions – that served as the springboard into internet infamy and gold house bought by his Matador advance, rumoured to be in the Louis Bacon-troubling realm of $350m.

While such an investment may not yield the kind of revenue generated by relatively recent big contract stars such as R.E.M. and Mariah Carey, it is artistic success, that commodity seemingly least valued in this cut-throat world we naïve music fans find ourselves in, that is infinitely more assured.

Eschewing the speed metal influence prevalent in the last eighteen or so years of punk rock evolution, Reatard opts for a more Richard Hell/Wipers, sound, freer-flowing in its guitar techniques than the Epitaph massive (not to say I am not fond of that style; many an hour has been spent appreciating mid-period NOFX and early Millencolin). So, along with the three-chord bombast there are acoustic guitars and a wonderful trend of screaming guitar melody augmenting the rhythm. The lyrics and melodies are simple but effective, doing nothing to distract from the matter at hand. The matter in this case is rocking.

22 September 2008

I recently had to write something about Bob Dylan for a poll being held on a message board. It's rather a bum deal having to sum Bob up in a few words, so I went a bit weird. But not that weird. Anyway:

***


Bob Dylan, eh? What can be said about his Bobness that hasn't already been said?

Hmm.

He couldn't write lyrics and hasn't done many albums.

But seriously, Bob is awesome. I know many people don't like him. Hell, I was one of those people. I had a grudging respect for the fact that he had done so much in the scope of what we call rock and roll. He had influenced lots of folk (and sadly lots of folkies), and cool people like Jimi Hendrix and Axl Rose covered his songs. But I just wasn't feeling it. His voice was weird, the songs a bit sparse, and it all just felt a tad old.

Needless to say, when I began my studies in Manchester, I bought a Dylan album. Blonde on Blonde, obviously. Bit long. Sounded a touch thin, too, as do pretty much all CDs that were released before people knew how to properly master CDs. This was before the Great Dylan Remaster Odyssey of a few years ago.

With Dylan, it turned out, you need a hook. For me that hook came when I created a particular compilation during that first year of university: it was titled, somewhat vulgarly, Sunday Morning Chill.

Among hot new(ish) acts of the time like Goldfrapp and Groove Armada, and old faves Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley, I placed the promising 'Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again'. Not that I thought at this point that it was a particularly fantastic song, but its decent length and rolling – non-climactic – structure created a musical place in which I could comfortably reside for the minutes on those autumnal mornings in which I lacked the energy to rise.

While in that somnolent haze, certain phrases began to pester my consciousness. 'Did he just say "he smoked my eyeballs and punched my cigarette"?'

The song had clicked. I soon fell in lust with its lines; it is so hard to write surreal rock lyrics without looking like an idiot. But this song, balancing talk of 'Shakespeare in the alley', with the visible signs of Grandpa's descent ('I knew he'd lost control / When he built a fire on Main Street / And shot it full of holes') was that rarity that you could equally happily read or listen to. Next stop was 'Visions of Johanna', whose key lines are so mind-bendingly good that they have passed into rock quotation cliché.

What is astonishing is that, in the context of the song, 'the ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face' and 'Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it' are almost just lines in a song. Many have pointed out that Dylan is merely a poet in the world of rock and, beyond his lines, he offers little. Just listening to how he increasingly emphasises every other word in the former line dashes that perception immediately.

And it spread. But it spread beyond just his music into everything. Seeing him perform live, even now he is a desiccated relic, is a potentially amazing experience. Not only does he roar through classics like the aforementioned 'Stuck Inside of Mobile…' with the building momentum of a prime Jerome Bettis, but recent songs like 'Nettie Moore' are touching even when the listener is unfamiliar with the studio version.

Dylan was always a carny. What some observers mistake for illegitimacy, a lack of authenticity they believe is the petard on which Bob may be hoisted, is actually Bob's apparently endless yen for verbal smoke and mirrors. He delights in spinning a yarn and if it confuses those listening, all the better. This can be seen in those odd televised interviews he involved himself in when his career was still young. This is also the reason why his autobiography reads like a novel too well written for its time. Or like his songs writ large.

This fondness for a linguistic meander overflows into possibly the greatest of Dylan's works in the last couple of decades: Theme Time Radio Hour. During these wonderful broadcasts, Bob plays songs based on a certain topic, be it the telephone or birds. Not only is his record collection, and knowledge thereof, remarkable, but he imbues songs with extra depth. Whether they deserve it or no, he often intones lines from a song with reverence, forcing you to look at that song in a new light.

He also makes with the anecdotes. While it is true to say I could listen to his rasping yet oddly comforting tones for days, his tales, many of which could fairly be described as short rather than tall ones, are bait for the concentration equal to the songs. My favourite is the one in which he recounts meeting someone in Home Depot, while 'looking for wood'. With no more of a preface than that, he challenges the listener to guess who he met there.

With barely pause for breath, ever reinforcing Bob applauds 'that's right! Gina Gershon'. As if anyone on this Earth (or any other, for that matter) would have correctly guessed. This segues nicely into Gina introducing the particular song she had chosen for that broadcast ('La Bochinchera', by Graciela with Machito & His Orchestra).

I should imagine Bob found his wood that day.

17 September 2008

Metallica – Death Magnetic

(2008, Universal)


A new Metallica album is always a massive occasion, that one time when all metal fans, from the underground heads to the weekend warriors, unite in listening to one record. And despite the ironic/faux-earnest t-shirt protestations of the world fashionista party, this shit wouldn’t happen for AC/DC, Motörhead or Maiden.

The last few releases have seen the bands fans complain to varying degrees, but then the band has always been selling out in the eyes of certain sectors of the fanbase. Ride the Lightning had a ballad. …And Justice for All had a music video. The black album was produced by Bob Rock and they slowed everything down. The loudest complaints were saved for the Load/ReLoad section of their career, during which Metallica continued doing exactly what they wanted to do. Boo on them!

Then, in 2003, they really stumbled with St. Anger. Funnily enough that album was supposed to be a concession to the fans, in which they got angsty again, played fast again and wrote their most complicated songs since …Justice…. It sold a relative pittance, and the fans disowned it. Then the band did. Time to go back to the drawing board and find a new producer for the first time in well over a decade.

Enter Rick Rubin, the foremost talent in making has-beens, if not good per se, at least marketable. The band was determined to make it up to the fans, this time. They were gonna be angsty again, play fast again and write their most complicated songs since …Justice…. Wait a minute.

This is a more successful attempt at reclaiming old glories than the last effort, though not to the self-fulfilling extent that some circles are claiming. The production has largely been sorted out, with the drums more solid than on the last album, and guitars way more mouthy than in the past. In fact, given how lame the CD master of …And Justice for All was, they are mouthier than they have been in a long, long time.

Opener ‘That Was Just Your Life’ starts as the album means to go on, all snarly and quick changes. ‘The End of the Line’ is similar, but something seems to be missing. Could all this sound and fury be signifying less than Hetfield and co. are letting on? This unease is highlighted by the first truly fantastic song of the album, ‘Broken, Beat & Scarred’. The title would suggest a touch of the Roni Size post-Jungle sound, but instead we get a mean descending riff and it would appear the masters truly are back.

‘The Day That Never Comes’ is the brave new entry in the Metallica song #4 pantheon though, after the magnificent likes of ‘Fade to Black’, ‘Sanitarium’, ‘One’ and ‘The Unforgiven’, it rather disappoints. It’s more on a level with the unfairly maligned, but far from great, ‘Until it Sleeps’ then. What begins as homage to Iron Maiden’s ‘The Evil that Men Do’ ends up sounding even more like an Americanised Maiden than Mastodon do before finishing in a mess of sub-’One’ staccato and solo.

The song seems to be lacking the melancholy running through the veins of those great Metallica ballads. And this is where it all starts to make sense: while they (specifically Hetfield) are making the right noises, the emotional impact seems absent without leave. In fact, the Guardian recently ran a surprisingly good article mentioning that same thing.

And this is where, if I may be so bold, we step through the looking glass. The band has listened to the fans. The fans complained that Load lacked fast riffs, a harsh leading edge and wanky, wah-drenched blues-scale solos. Well they’re here in droves, to the point where lead axe-man Kirk Hammett passes through self parody into Kerry King, complete-lack-of-self-awareness, territory. Hetfield got too soft and ‘country’ in the past with his introspection and self help.

Not any more! No, these lyrics are by far the dumbest ever to feature on a Metallica record.* Even Kill ‘em All had its moments. Examples:

...You rise, you fall, you’re down then you rise again
What don’t kill you make you more strong

...'Cause we hunt you down without mercy
Hunt you down all nightmare long
Feel us breathe upon your face

...Suffer unto my apocalypse!
My apocalypse… Go!
Crushing metal, Ripping Skin
Tossing body mannequin

While the lyrics are nearly uniformly poor, the vocal performance is top-notch. While some have referred to this album as the return of Hetfield from some kind of vocal wilderness, he has been consistently very, very good for ages. His best work was during the mid-late 1990s, though this record shows no sign of slowing down.

Yes, while the band may dismiss with an embarrassed laugh what they term the ‘CNN days’ of their late 1980s political writing, I would love for them to imbue their current songs with the kind of lyrical intelligence that both set them apart from their rivals in the thrash scene and that forged the link between band and fan. Even the mildly embarrassing concepts, such as the doomed convict in ‘Ride the Lightning’ or fearful witness of Cthulhu in ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’, were written with a sense of character and place that made them work.

It is rather telling, then, that the finest piece of work on this current album is Metallica’s welcome return to the perilous world of the heavy metal instrumental. This is a world the band owned in the days of ‘Call of Ktulu’, ‘Orion’ and (the sorta-instrumental) ‘To Live is to Die’ and, while they lag in the tech stakes behind the deranged likes of Behold… the Arctopus, they really shred. Yes, the main riff may be a tad similar to that of the one they play during the verses of ‘Broken, Beat & Scarred’, but you can never have too many descending guitar motifs, and they do enough with the rest of the song to justify the similarity.

For the third time, a Metallica album comes with a version of ‘The Unforgiven’. The problem here is that the original was such an amazing piece of work, the idea of writing sequels is a tad loopy. They just about pulled it off with ‘The Unforgiven II’, a power ballad par excellence, which switched the dynamic of the original by beginning heavy and switching to mellow verses. It also had enough call-backs to the first song to qualify as pretty nifty intertextuality as opposed to running out of ideas. Just.

The third in (what one hopes is) the trilogy lacks the fade-in intro of the past two, and the dubbing ‘thee unforgiven’, as Hetfield offers the strongest lyric of the album, from the perspective of one requiring forgiveness, drifting aimlessly as absence of expectation results by default in avoiding disappointment. To tie in with the series, the song refers back to the first in backing the verses with a fantastic, heavy, groove riff, while the solo – admittedly not a patch on the first** – is one of the better ones on the record.

Sadly, this is followed by a weak entry into the canon. ‘The Judas Kiss’ is Death Magnetic by numbers: awkward riffs, bellowed threats and a lot of disorganised noise. Something tells me this is not an après ballad grower in the mould of the excellent – and awesomely disjointed – ‘Shortest Straw’.

Fortunately for all of us, the album goes out on a high note. After the aforementioned fantastic instrumental, Metallica channels their 1986, 1988 and (to a lesser extent) 1991 selves as they go out on a fast one. ‘My Apocalypse’ is a thrashfest of the kind they could write in their sleep, though it is imbued with such exciting freneticism that I don’t see anyone sleeping while it’s playing.

In all, then, this is a success. Clearly better than the last album, it also easily surpasses the stodge and b-sides that was ReLoad. While more consistent, aggressive and focused than Load, Death Magnetic shows signs of compromise, is still overlong and lacks a standout like ‘The Outlaw Torn’. It’s not a patch on albums 2-5, but then it doesn’t have to be. In 2008, a Metallica album has to sound good in a beered-up arena and effectively soundtrack an American military invasion. It fulfils those criteria with flying colours.



* Perhaps this is why the lyrics booklet provided with the CD has coffin-shaped holes cut out of every page. The strange death of James Hetfield’s lyric writing ability.
** Evil though I’m sure he is, Bob Rock infamously told Kirk not to just rip through scales for once, and to write an actually great solo. So he did.

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