31 December 2009

Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom Live

I had hoped to have my traditional year-end post up by now, but I have been more long-winded than usual, and will have to up it in the next day or so. Apols! In the meantime, here's some Tom Waits for y'all. See you in the one-oh!

ANTI- (2009)

(FACT)

If I didn't know better, I'd sense that something was winding down a tad. Glitter and Doom, as the title implies, is a live album, three years after triple-disc closet-cleaning collection, Orphans. He has released two albums of all-new music in the last decade. Rather than suggesting any kind of mercenary, contractual-obligation fulfilling, behaviour, this seems more to be putting a career's affairs in order. Tom Waits isn't getting any younger. So it stands to reason that he'd want to cross the 'T's and dot the 'I's of a career that justifies such careful housekeeping. A ghoulish thought, admittedly, but a logical one nonetheless.

As Waits grows older – estimates suggest he is now over ten thousand years of age – he sounds more and more like an incredibly charismatic death metal vocalist. Take 'Get Behind the Mule', introduced as a song 'about the very first vehicle': the music sounds rather like the bins in Tin Pan Alley receiving a kicking, and Waits expels demonic noises like he's about to join prime Obituary. It's a fantastic performance, and but one of many dimensions to Waits. What is also clear from this song is Waits' rare ability, as a white man, to invoke the blues and not have it sound infinitely smug.

Indeed, Waits seems intent on discovering whether it is possible to have too much of a good thing: Glitter and Doom Live is long. Not necessarily longer than a great many records in the CD age, but it involves a level of investment; whether emotion, intellect or just sheer attention; that can fatigue. Whether too long or not, this record is most definitely a good thing. Waits is one of those performers both sufficiently compelling and veteran to be able to omit some real classics and not suffer.

We have plenty of gold to mine. In the first batch of songs, the curmudgeonly, bludgeoning, 'Singapore' and the battered, stoical melancholy of 'Dirt in the Ground'. Later on, the delightful 'I'll Shoot the Moon', a song whose magnificence remains unbesmirched as your reviewer has not heard the Scarlett Johansson cover. Not much in the way of singles” Rod Stewart fans will have to do without 'Downtown Train'; likewise, The Wire fans and 'Down in the Hole'. A personal absence is 1983's utterly masterful 'In the Neighbourhood', a song whose lyrical and musical depth would qualify it for American national anthem, in a perfect alternate reality.

In actual reality, we are distracted by the carny likes of Heath Ledger's Joker starring in an aural Tim Burton film, in 'Circus'. Or the ennui-drenched warning of 'Fannin Street'. Having not heard the Alice or Blood Money albums, 'The Part You Throw Away' was a pleasant surprise as it lurched out of the speakers like a misunderstood vagabond. And I suppose that's the beauty of Tom Waits: there is always something of his that you haven't heard, and it takes a collection such as this to shed some light on those unlit corners of his nocturnal world.

As if to press home the point that loose ends are being tied up, Glitter and Doom contains a bonus disc of Waits' on-stage banter, anecdotes and digressions. It's a diverting enough way to spend one's time, though no more essential than the similar Fugazi mp3 that's currently doing the rounds, and certainly not on the level of, say, the infamous Buddy Rich tapes. The whole is the point, though. This is a snapshot of a truly one-of-a-kind performer in full swing. It's hard to imagine anyone really disliking the man; while he's been doing this for decades, his act never gets old.

30 December 2009

Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind

Domino Recording Co. (2009)

(A FACT presentation)

Here's an EP from low-key Maryland beat combo, the Animal Collective. They released a fine little album way back at the start of this year, Merriweather Post Pavilion, that could really have done with a bit more publicity. Perhaps it was just released at the wrong time: AC had written it as a summer album, whose modern-day Beach Boys primary-colour harmonies could have danced and pranced in verdant fields, drenched in the balmy golden sun of the season of love and picnics. As it was, the record lurched into the shops during an especially bleak January: a shame, as songs like 'My Girls' could really have developed a following, under the right circumstances.

Animal Collective are all too aware of seasonal context, so they have been careful to ensure Fall Be Kind (a pun on the daylight savings 'spring ahead, fall behind' mantra) comes out as close to Autumn, or 'fall', as is allowed by the vagaries of 'release windows' and 'schedules'. It is somewhat amusing that such a summery band is releasing all of its recent new music during the time of perpetual gloaming, but here we are. It brings a ray of light into our murky lives, at least.

Prominently featuring what sound suspiciously like pan-pipes is opener 'Graze'. While jarring, they're no more wacky than the tadpole chorus of MPP's equivalent, 'In the Flowers', so it's all good. Besides, the slight irritation of these hectic pipes is more than offset by the incredibly strong vocal melody. Simon Reynolds mentioned this year that Animal Collective are a 'middlebrow' act; accessible enough to blow up, but sufficiently experimental to retain their alternative cache (to admittedly CliffsNotes Reynolds' theory a tad). This writer doesn't entirely agree: MPP was indeed intelligently produced and arranged, but the vocal dominance on that record suggested pure, wonderful, pop.

Fall Be Kind is massively poppy once more, but again treads a theoretical tightrope. 'Graze's aforementioned lead vocal performance is narrative, with short phrasing, before soaring in spots, almost as though it was on Broadway. It is this kind of detail that suggests not just a fondness, but an intellectual approach, toward pop music craft that recalls Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson's 1982 albums, Imperial Bedroom and Night and Day. But then you get a song like the serene, life-affirming, 'What Would I Want? Sky'. It's a song of two halves, as the sweet opium fog of the opening couple of minutes clears, leaving a vocal hook-as-sample, which runs for the duration, while seemingly everything goes on around it. And not for the first time this year, AC remind your reviewer of Taja Sevelle on 'Love is Contagious'. I think it's the exuberant way the vocals pelt out any high notes, allied with that super-American enunciation.

It's probable, though, that mine are ears used to music that deviated from the norm, that 'poppy' does not necessarily equate to 'pop'. From the title to the subdued first half, 'What Would I Want? Sky' would realistically be described as weird by anyone outside the bubble of the internet music fan, a situation compounded by the next song. 'Bleed' is similar in mood and pace to the previous track's opening, but without the ecstatic pay-off. It's the equivalent to MPP's interval track, 'Daily Routine'. It's unclear whether Fall Be Kind is intended to represent a microcosm of the album, perhaps in response to the criticism that MPP was akin to a sugar overdose, but the parallel is there.

The difference comes in the closing brace of songs. 'On a Highway' and 'I Think I Can', rather than provide the shot of adrenaline of tribal-Underworld 'Lion in a Coma' or 'Brother Sport's anthemic car alarm rush, maintain the contemplative mood. But they're perfectly fine songs, and better to reflect the sombre tone of another year's death, than a big, thrilling, finale would achieve. This EP represents a firming-up of Animal Collective's position on their career trajectory. The mess of unfocused ideas that characterised their past is now more distant a memory; strength of song, streamlined in delivery, seems now to be the modus operandi. They still throw curveballs for the existing fans who wonder how tribal introspection sits, theoretically, with nods to Rihanna's 'Umbrella', during the record's semi-epic conclusion. But then, maybe they're not curveballs. Maybe neither the nod to Rihanna nor the curious structure are calculated: it's just Animal Collective doing what they do. If that is the case, it will be interesting to see where they go now something resembling a concrete aesthetic, and a respectable level of media attention, have been attained. How they would handle either an emergence into the pop light or retreat into the comfortable wilderness would be intriguing; one just hopes this notoriously eclectic group haven't reached a plateau.

29 December 2009

Iron Man


Dir: Jon Favreau, 2008

So it turns out there is now a trailer for Iron Man II, due in Summer 2010. Here it is! Exciting innit. The Wrestler's in it and everything. Given how wall-hurlingly thrilling the trailer was, while watching it I temporarily forgot one small detail: I hadn't seen the original!

So I watched the original this avo.

And eeeh. I've heard people say it's variously the best Marvel film ever, the best comic book film ever, better than The Dark Knight (which the second point would kinda imply, but give me a break. I've just got back from holiday) etc. Stakes, as De La Soul would say, was high. Have to admit before I go any further that I was a tad sceptical, largely due to aforementioned hype. I know it goes against intellectual thinking, but I really liked The Dark Knight. Saw it at IMAX and the lot. Anyway, Downey and Favreau are a decent combination, so why not. Swingers was great, for a film that wasn't really about anything.

Iron Man though. Good film, I have to admit. And it actually gave me some food for thought. But for now, let's look at the comic book/action film stuff. I'm not in any way a veteran of the Iron Man comics (I did like the cartoon a lot though. Waiting for Hypnotia to feature in IM III), so I don't know how true-to-print the origin story was. Probably not very, as this one involved an oh-so zeitgeist-capturing Middle Eastern terrrst organisation being all hard to pin down, releasing videos of hostages and hunkering down in complex cave systems. Sadly no Bin Laden beards, but I suppose that would have been too on the nose. Or chin. Sorry. Downey Jr. was charming and charismatic as the titular Man, and put over the peril of the various situations in which he found himself. The bloke who saved his life in the caves was a bit of a sad loss, but he was only a plot device anyway. And besides, he looked vaguely Middle Eastern so was obviously more concerned about the afterlife than the present life. Obviously.

This actually got me to thinking. Once Stark becomes Iron Man (and with no Ghostface Killah on the soundtrack, to my memory, and my disappointment), he's shook at the knowledge of his company's weapons being used on innocents, and heads over to a fictional war-torn city to intervene. A young family is in hysteric tears as their father/husband is about to be executed by the no-goodniks. Just in time, Iron Man makes the save, annihilating the terrorists and saving all innocents. He goes about it in massively cathartic style, and it's actually a lovely scene. Made me wish there was someone to intervene in such a way in numerous countries today. But then, in the context of this film, that wouldn't happen. He'd be fine for knacking your Talibans, Basij and various independent organisations, but the most damage this decade has been meted out by the war machine (hmmm) that was brought into being by the Western world. And Tony Stark, who the film tells us over and over again is a supermassive patriot, would not be all that likely to raise a finger to stop the kind of astonishing violence that razed Kabul and Baghdad. Wonder where he'd stand on the Israeli use of white phosphorus on Palestinian civilians at the start of this year. Maybe the sequel will answer questions like this. Right?

Anyway, once Stark becomes Iron Man, it turns out the enemy was within, all along! Yes, cuddly Jeff Bridges - The Dude, Duder, El Duderino - shaved his head, grew a big grey beard and went nasty. He actually makes for a decent villain, mainly because he's largely unrecognisable. He cons the terrorists a little too easily for my liking, but he presents a decent threat. He's intelligent enough to cause massive issues for our hero, but not so clever that Stark can't outsmart him. Plus, he professionally delivers the two key arch-enemy speeches: the exposition one, wherein he calmly lets everyone know his motivations for everything ever, while the hero is otherwise incapacitated (aural paralysis pen-drive thing, in this case); and the grand finale 'how ironic! You sought to [INSERT NOBLE INTENTION], when really you [UNWITTINGLY HELPED THE VILLAIN]' monologue.

As a whole it was fine, though far from the best anything. Terrence Howard was perfunctory as Rhodes, though his financial demand-based absence in the sequel shouldn't be anything to shed tears over. The fight between Iron Man and Mecha Dude was entertaining... and visually clear. In fact, it was pretty much everything the messy Transformers fights were not. You could follow the action, differentiate the combatants and everything! Tell me about it. I was planning on writing up Transformers 2 ('Revenge of the Fallen' being one of the lamer subtitles in the history of recorded nomenclature), but the less said about that mockery of cinema the better, really. Michael Bay, please die. Actually, that's a tad harsh. He has done one thing of note in the last few years... But back to the matter at hand. The SHIELD reveal was nice, and got me a little excited, but not as excited as the post-credits Samuel L. Jackson cameo. That was schmart, and a satisfying slap in the face to those dimwits who leave cinemas as soon as the credits start to roll. Paltrow was her usual annoying self, but she didn't bring the film down to any great degree. We got 'Iron Man' the song. The flying sensation, and RDJ's reaction to it, were great and very satisfying. It didn't go on too long. All in all a good film, and I look forward to the sequel.

19 December 2009

Fact: decades

So I was asked to write a couple of blurbs for FACT's albums of the decade thing. I was happy to, and intrigued as to what the order of the alums would be. It was nice to both be involved and also just an audience member for the list itself. It wasn't a perfect list, but it was one of the better ones out there. I had meant to write a bunch about it, and maybe I still will. But it'll have to wait til I get back off my hols.

RadioheadKid A
(EMI/Parlophone, 2000)

In a move that some considered well weird, Radiohead began the decade by ditching the indie rock albatross for which they had been backslapped by all and sundry, and coming out with something a bit leftfield. Much had been made of the band holing up in a manor house while Thom Yorke divided his time betwixt an ideas blackboard and the Warp Records back-catalogue.

The result was a thrilling journey into the world of a band both big and imaginative enough to do whatever they wanted. ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, essentially Joe Jackson’s ‘Steppin’ Out’ re-imagined as a blissed-out slab of electronica, nestled next to the super-Plone return to childhood that was the title track. Elsewhere, you’d find the agit-pop breakbeat brickbat ‘Idioteque’, Krautrock party piece ‘The National Anthem’ and the Björk-level serenity-in-discomfort of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’. Throughout, you’d find post-rock interludes, ambient epilogues and no wasted moments. It got some stick for not being really avant-garde, but the point was to open the ears of Radiohead’s myriad mainstream fans.

It was supposed to be the dawn of a new era: no more singles; the band would release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted; no more 2-3 year album hype cycle. Compromise was inevitable, as they returned to singles and the multi-year wait. But, for a short while, Britain's biggest band was also its most intriguing. And that's not something you can say very often.



sunnO))) & BorisAltar
(Southern Lord, 2006)

Rather than a lame 'versus' collaboration, the two coolest names in modern heavy metal actually collaborated to create this thrilling album. Altar could have just been Pink + Black 1, and people would have eaten it up. Being the artists they are, though, from the murk and gloom of this Southern Lord supergroup came the spine-chilling slo-mo ballad 'The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)'; the enormo-fuck, synth-assisted mind annihilation of 'Akuma no Kuma'; the sinister hypnagogic assault of 'Fried Eagle Mind'. The suffocating atmosphere and low frequency overload meant Altar could be as palatable to Hyperdub fans as Relapse ones; perhaps more so.

Not just the five full-time members of the two bands, the record enlisted the likes of Jesse Sykes, Earth's Dylan Carlson and Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, but it sounds like the work of a single entity. So complete is the vision on Altar that there is a 28-minute 'prelude': Her Lips Were Wet With Venom (SatanOscillateMyMetallicSonatas)' boasts a palindromic arrangement to match its subtitle. While post-metal may largely be a damp squib, this record alone justifies the sub-genre's existence.

18 December 2009

The Ghost Of A Thousand: 'Knees, Toes, Teeth'

Hailing from punk rock hotbed, err, Brighton, TGOAT don't let their hometown's lack of gritty intensity hinder them. They're angry young men, presumably about all the party conferences going on in their neck of the woods, but you can’t really make out the words anyway. They realise their simmering angst in a catchy fashion that marries bang-yer-head riffs with swathes of frenetic melody, mixed in with howling screams and Iggy Pop snarls. But mainly the screams.

This is proper rock music, with mouthy guitars and testosterone flying all over the place (women possessing testosterone too, feminist rock fans). And it's pretty desperately required in a British music scene that has in recent times been so softened and greyed-out that any waster with a guitar is automatically described as 'rock'. The clue's in the name: if you do not rock, you probably are not rock.*

'This is our religion', TGOAT roar during the chorus. Based on the enthusiasm and fire on display here, you believe them. Can't vouch for the rest of the lyric, due to the aforementioned RAAR-iness of their delivery. There may be something in there about not liking New Romantics, but it could just as easily have been 'onomatopoeic'. The vocals do get clearer on the rest of the album, New Hopes, New Demonstrations, but this song's sub-three minute detonation is to that album as Deftones' explosive 'Elite' was to White Pony. It's the short, sharp shock of the record, and if Top of the Pops was still going, the kind of thing you'd want incongruously featured on there, like you'd get the Almighty doing back in the day.


* Indeed, recently unearthed parchment suggests this last sentiment was Descartes' planned sequel to cogito ergo sum.

17 December 2009

Dead Confederate – Wrecking Ball


Wrecking Ball is good, old-fashioned rock music. Dead Confed being from the state of Georgia (in America, as opposed to the former Soviet republic), the traditionally exaggerated rawk twang doesn't come across at all exaggerated. The pleasure that comes from listening to opener 'Heavy Petting' or single 'The Rat' (the latter complete with super-pronounced 'bang-bueeerrrnng') is awesomely free from guilt. It's also devoid of the if-it's-not-ironic-it-should-be air that hangs over the likes of Wolfmother, Jet or Black Mountain.

A detail worth mentioning is Hardy Morris' eerie vocal similarity to the late Kurt Cobain: that combination of pure, angelic, voice drowned in anguished grit and growl is far more compelling than the feeble attempts of Bush and early Silverchair, back in the dim and distant mid-1990s. You get the feeling this is not totally coincidental, either, as 'Goner' features that near-doom pace, swinging-axe riffing and wolf-trapped-in-snare howl of 'School's cry of 'no recess!' It's the kind of song you can see yourself happily listening to, years from now.

Some have compared Dead Confed to Radiohead. Such comparison is not entirely without merit, especially when listening to the widescreen, resigned, languor of 'Yer Circus', which aims at a spot near the end of OK Computer, but would fit more comfortably on the cynical, beaten-down Hail to the Thief. Thankfully, though comparisons could be made to Radiohead, Nirvana or even Cave In's delightful, spacious Jupiter, there is enough Dead Confederate on show here to suggest this is a band that is more than a grab-bag of influences. 'Start Me Laughing's melodic rage might remind a tad of Pearl Jam, but when was the last time that band had this level of urgency? It was a lifetime ago, and this is where the album pays dividends. It's essentially a (bizarrely southern) Grunge album at a time when most of that scene's main players are either dead or redundant.

Not only is this album a teensy-weensy bit derivative, but when the band slows proceeds down a notch, as on the lengthy 'The News Underneath', the quality dips. Live by the blues-tinged southern rock sword, die by the southern blues-rock ballad, it seems. 'Flesh Colored Canvas' is marginally better – it's aiming more for 'epic' than 'long ballad', even if it doesn't quite work – but even longer than the other one. Together they combine for 19 minutes, but it may as well be 19 hours. Or 19 months. 'Dry County', by Bon Jovi is a straight-up better long southern ballad (and from a northern band). And that's without getting into the actually really good stuff, like 'Tuesday's Gone', by Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Ted Nugent's 'Stranglehold'.

Luckily, this seemingly contractually obliged balladry is confined to two of the album's ten tracks; the rest of the record ambles on at a decent pace, with a respectable amount of intensity. This isn't, as press shots might indicate, the rawest, hungriest sound in rock. Compare it to golden oldies like Zeke, The Cramps, Harvey Milk or early Mondo Generator, and Wrecking Ball's pop sensibilities are suddenly evident. It'll come as little surprise, then, to learn that Dead Confederate were 'discovered' by Gary Gersh, the man what brung Nirvana to Geffen Records. Take this record for what is is – a nearly-great collection of well-performed southern rock songs with just enough bark and bite – and you'll find a real grower. Wrecking Ball rewards repeated listens, and bodes well for the future, especially if they take any inspiration from one-time tour-mates, and fellow Georgians, the Black Lips.

22 November 2009

Flyleaf – Memento Mori


Polydor (2009)

There is something to be said for second chances. Upon first hearing Memento Mori, second album from Texan major label melodic metal crew Flyleaf, it didn't make much of an impression. Or, to be more precise, it made a very poor impression. Their first album, 2005's self-titled effort, was quite the concise display of the genre. While it was unlikely to challenge the classics of recent mass-appeal metal – such as Incubus' Make Yourself or, perhaps more pertinently, Paramore's Riot! - it was a fun way to pass your time.

Memento Mori, initially at least, was less fun. Its 43 minutes (when we discount the international mix of 'Again') were rather a drag, and it didn't sound like it was a bold step on from the debut, as one might expect from a sophomore album. The guitar, especially, was – as they might say in Texas – mealy-mouthed. Further listens reveal an album more full-blooded than originally suggested. 'Beautiful Bride' is a fantastic tune, chugging groove riffs intertwined with a strong, individual, vocal performance. It's anthemic and dynamic: a vibrant start to the album. The pacing, guitar tone and vocal melodies are reminiscent of the ethereal debut album by A Perfect Circle.*

'Something's missing in me', Lacey Mosley sings in 'Missing'. While the song-strength holds out at least to the point of this song (admittedly only four tracks in), it's nevertheless a portent of things to come. As strong as the first half of the album is – somewhere between the first and second Paramore album, (f)emo fans – the second sees the band stagnate somewhat. There are one or two ballads here ('Set Apart This Dream', 'Tiny Heart'), but the prevailing sense of sluggishness is more due to a lack of real inspiration. 'In the Dark' brings faster riffing in parts, but it seems a bit too contrived. 'Now for the faster song', you can almost hear them yawn. Perhaps this is overly harsh judgement of what is ostensibly smart pacing, but the problem lies in the failure of such pacing to be felt over the course of the album. If you mix speed and ballads in with your mid-paced rockers, the overall effect shouldn't seem so one-dimensional.

At this point we should broach the subject of Christian rock. As an entity, I don't mind it as much as many other observers seem to. Bob Dylan's late-1970s conversion led to his best music of that (post-Desire) period. Chicago doomsters, and noted God botherers, Trouble (they had a record called Psalm 9) were one of the finer metal bands of the 1980s. The greatest album of this decade was about how 'Texas is the centre of Jerusalem', and contains comic discussions between God and his devoted, though self-aware, subject. Flyleaf, at this point in their career, are nowhere near that level. Nor are they Stryper. They're more a kin to POD, whose similarly accessible brand of metal could be listened to without once turning your thoughts to the spiritual.

So is the case with this. Debates over the point(lessness) of religion to one side for the purpose of this review, religion has a centuries-long history of inspiring art. Rather than being defined by, or even inspired by, the religion that precedes Flyleaf (let's face it: rarely does a band find itself described as agnostic rock, so why the focus on Christianity?), this is a chart rock album like most others. Maybe I'm not listening sufficiently closely. The album's title is, of course, a reference to divine judgement; the ever-present spectre of death's possibility. The cover art depicts imminent mortality, and its observation thereof by an implacable, regal, figure. The songs do little to communicate this.

One would imagine, if one were to meditate on a religious rock band, possessed by a fanatical fervour, wondering about the razor's edge on which we reside; that mortal coil off which we could soon shuffle all too easily... that such music would be imbued with an urgency to justify its faith. Judgement is looming; that point in time we face up to cold evaluation in the harshest light of day. What have you done? What are you doing? What change are you effecting, either within yourself or others? If, at such point the Rapture occurs, how inspired are your listeners? For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

Or are you simply retreading the musical footsteps taken by Lacuna Coil, The Gathering, Paramore and Evanescence? Using religious imagery, the sounds of sanitised emo-core, guts and viscera hidden away by over-production, and the blind faith of the Christian rock market, to lead you to the everlasting light of the pay window? To create largely agreeable pop-rock is one thing. It's a fine skill, for which many bands are suitably rewarded. Memento Mori is certainly no worse than the most recent Incubus or Deftones albums. But to dress it up in religious imagery, in mock-heroic robes, and hope titular association with a historical artistic movement is enough to raise it on angels' wings, is a leap of faith too far.

* A Perfect Circle were, of course, rather opposite in their belief to Flyleaf. 'How your saviour has abandoned you / Fuck your god, your lord, your Christ / He did this / Took all you had and left you this way / Still you pray' makes you wonder if there is any intentional influence.

10 November 2009

Converge – Axe to Fall


Epitaph (2009)

Massachusetts-based Converge offer a convincing case for best metal band of the decade. Consistently brutal, intense, intelligent and aesthetically astute, they effectively put a lid on the 90s noisecore subgenre with their epoch-defining Jane Doe, in 2001. Essentially a concept album about a relationship gone horribly wrong, it was followed up three years later by the bleak You Fail Me, itself a drained husk after the 'Bitter and Then Some' Jane Doe. The more straightforward (save for the exceptional centrepiece 'Grim Heart / Black Rose') No Heroes followed in 2006. Though less inspired, it was effective in consolidating the Converge legend.

Now, and not without expectation, comes Axe to Fall. The band's status has been reflected in the guests on here: Steve Von Till from Neurosis; three quarters of Cave In; all of Genghis Tron, among others. Thankfully, the Converge identity is sufficiently strong to assimilate, rather than be defined by, these guests. You wouldn't know Cave In play on 'Effigy' if someone didn't tell you. Ditto former Entombed guitarist Uffe Cederlund on 'Wishing Well'. Thankfully, the songs benefit, whether you notice the personnel or not.

In a reductive sense, it could be argued that Axe to Fall is Converge's thrash album, after their noisecore (2001), hardcore (2004) and metalcore (2006) records. That would obviously sell their sounds short, but the increase in Kurt Ballou's staccato riffing and Ben Koller's new-found fondness for pasting the double bass drum like he's Dave Lombardo or Gene Hoglan is rather noticeable. First song 'Dark Horse' explodes into action, roaring and flexing like Iron Maiden's Lucozade ad song ('Phantom of the Opera', in case you didn't know) re-written for the UFC era. Indeed, a good portion of the songs on here are brief, violent, attacks on the ears and mind: guitars and drums squalling, spinning and flying off in all directions. Jacob Bannon – sounding incrementally more human through the course of this decade – rants and howls throughout, of revenge, anxiety and dread: 'I'll do anything that I can do / To lock the window beasts are climbing through'.

There is counterpoint to the rage and bluster. As with past records, these moments contextualise, as well as break up, the frenzy. 'Damages' chips and gnaws away at you, angle-grinding post-noise; a virtuoso Wolf Eyes, by way of Discharge's 'Protest and Survive'. Steve Von Till's grizzled, veteran, Lanegan-esque tones bring melody and variety to the closing stages of album. Like a Neurosis song, 'Cruel Bloom' offers the extremes of calm and punishment. Though you know it will kick in with some force, the song does so in a way that maintains the sense of melody and space that makes the track so delightfully ominous.

Concluding 'Wretched World' begins with the insistent clicking harmonic of a clock tick-tocking. Mookie Singerman, of New York techno-grindcore band Genghis Tron, sings on this one, and it continues the paradoxically bruising melancholy of that band's last album, Board up the House. Singerman intones, with far more confidence than in the past, of 'a broke life's shattered art'; two bands holding fire for a beautiful finale that at once caps off another brilliant Converge record and whets the appetite for 'Tron album number three. While the news that this album would feature a host of guests suggested a mess of sounds, and perhaps even career desperation after seemingly exhausting the avenues of hardcore/noisecore/metalcore, it has paid off. Certainly, on this last pair of songs, the guests bring their own sound and identity to the mix, while never detracting from the cohesion of the record. It's a tribute to a band that keeps developing their sound while never appearing repetitive. In a world of lo-fi and shoegazers, this is rock music in HD.

***

POSTSCRIPT: Yeah, that was a cheesy last line, but I needed a convenient way to finish the review for Fact. Otherwise, I'd have banged on forever about the album. See, I review a fair few things, but rarely do I get asked to write up a band of whom I have been a fan for years. And I know a couple of their albums really intimately, so the temptation was to go super-in depth on the little differences, and what the album means in the grand Converge narrative. Of course, Fact is a very cool publication, whose readers are more interested in minimal house and dubstep. So I have to be careful not to completely alienate them. I mean, if I was writing for Terrorizer or someone, I might be able to do that dorky stuff, but this game's about trying to read your audience innit. If you can't read them, they won't read you. And other cliches. So I'll probably do the in-depth dork-out stuff when I get with the albums-in-2009 post.

But before I finish, 'Damages' really is a classic Converge song. Up there with 'The High Cost Of Playing God', 'You Fail Me' or 'Grim Heart / Black Rose'. Seriously good, in other words. And you think this post is nerdy? Just wait for the next one...

08 November 2009

Cold Cave: 'Death Comes Close'

Cold Cave follow their acclaimed recent album with an EP for Matador. Main tune, and album cut, 'Love Comes Close' comes close to being really good. But there's something missing. Our man Wes Eisold used to be in screamy hardcore band Give Up The Ghost. Really good, it was. But times change, and Wes is to be applauded for the stylistic leap he has taken for the Cold Cave project. Only problem is it's a bit by-numbers (as much as a Michael Gira-fronting-New Order deal could ever be). It's catchy, and well-made, but a bit karaoke, and lacks that steely inhumanity that characterises the best synth pop. It’s 'Goodbye Horses', by way of Flight Of The Conchords’ David Bowie impression.

The other tracks on the EP are far more successful. Killer electro-pop sounds either like robots making music with heart-warming humanity (Kraftwerk, Perrey-Kingsley, Yello) or humans making music with heartless efficiency (everyone else). R&B songstress Cassie got this right on her ‘Me&U’ single, as Eisold does on ‘Double Lives in Single Beds’. Opening like a pop take on Burial's ghost-bleeps haunting housing estates, its vibrant, broad, synth brush strokes give it a sound of its own.

'Theme From Tomorrowland' sees androids dreaming of electric romance in fibre-optic bedsits. There's even a hint of Springsteen's escapist fantasy, albeit updated for a digitally nihilistic age, our protagonists singing 'I don't know where I'm coming to / And I don't care if I never ever get there.' Final track, 'Now That I'm In The Future', is the musically darkest song, threatening to suffocate the listener in the shifting sands of cyberpunk excess.

The overall experience is emotionally hollow, but with a strange feeling of science fiction satisfaction, like getting pick-pocketed by a replicant in metallic leggings. 'The future comes when the past decays', Eisold observes. Whether this is a reference to his falling out of love with hardcore punk, or to the current trend for faux-naive synth-popsters springing up like so many silicon shrooms, is unknown.

07 November 2009

Lightning Bolt – Hypermagic Mountain



Load Records (2005)

Hey! Remember the 2005 project? Well, I put the kibosh on it because, well, I didn't get my act together quickly enough and, let's face it, nobody wants to know what your top 50 of one year is. I like to think it was endearingly quixotic. Anyway, there were some write-ups that I completed that didn't end up on here at the time. And, seeing as I just wrote about the new Lightning Bolt album, I figured why not publish my thoughts on the record directly preceding it? So here we are. This does not mean I will suddenly stick all those completed reviews on the blog right now. That's because I have an even more 'endearingly quixotic' project in the works, of which this album is most likely not a part. Can you guess what it is?! Ooh, exciting innit.

[As this is old, and part of the 2005 project, there will probably be references to that. And recent events that are now dim and distant. Please excuse these. I'm not editing them out, as I like the historical artifactitude of it all. At which number would this have been, pop-pickers? Funnily enough, it'd likely only have been one or two places above this one, the last post made while 2005 project was still alive. How weird! Anyway, here we go.]

***

I want to stick this album higher than I have done, but there is a flaw preventing me from doing so. Before that, I would like to focus on the many positive attributes Lightning Bolt brought to the table in the oh-five.

For those who don’t know, Lightning Bolt are an incredibly energetic power duo from Providence, Rhode Island, and signed to Load Records, home to many energetic American power- bands. The unifying theme of the label essentially consists of DIY-sounding, angry (but in a fun, rather than angsty, way), noise-rock bands with a definite punk rock sensibility. Check it out for it is, along with Crucial Blast (Genghis Tron [they're now on Relapse - me, in 2009], Skullflower, Geisha etc), where it’s at for modern noise rock at the moment.

Hypermagic Mountain is the fourth album from this fuzzed-out rhythm section, and it is epic. But when I say ‘rhythm section’, this is not a detail easy to infer from listening to the music, for it is intensity in Ten City. The bass is distorted almost beyond recognition, and sounds very high, almost like a normal electric guitar. This, coupled with Brian Gibson’s virtuosity on the bass – able to hit rhythm, riff and solo like he was ringing a bell – legitimately remind me of the late Cliff Burton, Metallica’s second, and pretty definitely most well-loved, bass player.

The drumming is equally fantastic. Like Gibson, skinsman Brian Chippendale plays like everything is a solo, but with such rhythmic precision and visceral impact that the listener is never left resenting such a display of technical skill. It is this combination of immense technical acuity with punk attitude and compositional skill that has led them to be described as both punk rock and prog rock, a laurel few bands can boast.

The ‘punk’ aspect is evident in the rough and ready delivery of the music, as well as their frenetic live shows and overall aggressive sound. The prog aspect, though I would not use the term to describe them, is more justifiable now than ever before. The crazy time signatures and song construction sounds like it has more in common with the improvisation of free jazz than the planned-out prog, but that depends on how the Brians write their songs. So that angle is possible, though debatable, even with the recent more towards ten-minute songs (‘Dead Cowboy’ and ‘Mohawk Windmill’ take a bow). More compelling is the nomenclature they give their music: albums called Ride the Skies and Hypermagic Mountain, as well as songs like ‘Infinity Farm’, Dracula Mountain’ and the excellently-monikered ‘Crown of Storms’ suggest a penchant for fantasy/flights of imagination in keeping with a lot of prog.

Anyway, this album is pretty brilliant. ‘Magic Mountain’ is especially notable for its almost unbearable rising motif: the bass slowly, jaggedly, crunches up the gears as though it was a particularly testy Mitsubishi GTO, while the drums punctuate each grind, as the music rises and rises. Up, and up, new gear; up and up… there is brief catharsis in rock-out, but soon the duo is back to the building, building, tightening that elastic band til you think it’s gonna snap. It goes higher and higher, with a drone now in the background, building and building, and it explodes again with a minute left in the song! But it’s still building. Then the bass-line gets stuck in a circular pattern, as though their car was stuck in mud. Now it’s upper register bass loops as the GTO struggles with all its might to get out of the mud. The bass/engine is whining in the upper register, sounding like a guitar, and the tensile strength of the tune is being taken to its very limits. And then – it stops.

Sadly there comes a point, admittedly on track nine (of twelve) where the flaw hits you: there is just too much. My idea of great punk/hardcore/Noisecore albums is that short sharp shock effect. The best Dillinger Escape Plan release is less than eight minutes long. My favourite album of 1999, the Coalesce swansong [not a swansong any more! - me again], is twenty-three minutes. The problem with a release of this type being so long is that, rather than being shocking and awesome, just becomes slightly fatiguing. Worse, you get desensitised to it. When you’ve had eight tracks of this excellence, a ten-minute song is not what the doctor ordered – unless it is a complete change of pace.

So that is the issue with what is otherwise an absolutely scintillating album. It’s a shame, because the album directly prior, Wonderful Rainbow, was shorter and didn’t get old, so you can infer how awesome this could have been. I really want to tell everyone to rush out and get this, so buy …Rainbow instead; you’ll get the idea.

05 November 2009

Lightning Bolt – Earthly Delights


Load Records (2009)

Lighting Bolt are a tough one to review. They have always been off in a world of their own. It's a world of sky-riding, wonderful rainbows and hyper-magic mountains. A world where cover artwork is rendered lovingly, and innocently, to brilliantly detailed effect. Seriously, their sleeve art is clearly the portfolio of someone who has the hand of a savant and the mind of a brilliant six year old. Their albums are just as vivid and innocent: two-instruments (bass and drum, though you'd never believe it, listening to them) battle and collude to confuse and edify their listeners. It's like nothing else. Only now, in bands like That Fucking Tank, is anyone approaching their laser-like, chaotic minimalism. That's pretty much the definition of 'original'.

But how original can it remain, a decade on? Two musicians, playing complex rock music, can only go so far, right? Wonderful Rainbow (2003) was arguably a pinnacle for the duo; vibrant aural colours splashed all over the place, crashed like waves against psychedelic cliffs. A tag-team beatdown, blows raining down on you as the pair seemed to alchemise constant fills and virtuosity into a noise bordering on pop music. The epic Hypermagic Mountain (2005) bordered on prog: an hour spent in their world of 'Mega Ghosts' and 'Infinity Farms' bordered on too much. Songs up to ten minutes long led to the sonic equivalent of barfing after consuming too much sugar and spinning around.

Four years later, the philosophical change is clear. The simple exuberance of old has been replaced by a more fuzzed, Gang Gang Dance/Black Dice aesthetic. The vocals, in as much as they were ever present, are still here. They sound as much like a giant wasp screaming through a megaphone into a tin bucket filled with tracing paper as they ever did: akin to Zen Guerilla covering Kyuss' 'Mondo Generator'. They fit the new lo-fi sound very well, even if the lazy swagger introducing 'Colossus' makes you think Buzz Osborne is about to sneer his way into the mix, such is its recollection of early 90s Melvins slacker-chic. 'Flooded Chamber' is a theoretical step in the right direction, too, as the LB bring chaos and constantly-changing sounds to the fore. Problem is, it's a bit too random, like the finely tuned, controlled chaos that defined their earlier work has now bubbled over. It'd be exciting if it wasn't so desensitising.

Conservative as this sounds, and as much as we like bands to push themselves as far as possible, the best material on here is actually that which sounds most like their back catalogue. 'Funny Farm' is a perfect case in point: straight-up punk rock pummelling, mixed with that perfect combination of addictive hooks and technical ecstasy. It's such a frazzled blast of high energy sound-spikes that you find yourself going all Super Hans as you proclaim the crack to be rather moreish. Change works superbly on 'Rain on the Lake I'm Swimming In', a blissful vignette that articulates perfectly the cartoon idyll in which the pair seem to reside. 'S.O.S.', too, is a new side of Lightning Bolt that work really well. Where usually their heaviness and intensity are filled with fun and colour, the directness and effected shouting suggest, if not actual aggression, something in that area. It's a thrilling change of mood.

And that's what's perhaps most interesting about Earthly Delights. Where most bands still front-load their records (on account of the fear that you'll hit Shuffle as soon as something displeases, like a bedsit record company exec), the 'Bolt seem to ease you in before really testing you. The first few songs are like a recap of where they've been, combined with an abstract of what they intend to do for us over the next 50 minutes. It's only once we're settled in that the fireworks fly. It's a bit of a shame that only half the album is both novel and exciting (by the ridiculous standards they have set for themselves), but this is objectively one hell of a journey. If you're new to the band, there may be no better place to begin than here.

03 November 2009

Seeland: 'Call the Incredible (Advisory Circle mix)'

Heroes of electro-nostalgic reassurance-core, Seeland, get fiddled with by The Advisory Circle, in an unsettlingly relaxing track. It's rather a subtle remix, TAC stripping the backing vocals and general sonic bric-a-brac from the cyber-Richard Hawley original (the B-side of 'Library'), and replace it with the feeling that our imagined Hawley has slipped some Rohypnol in your drink in the back room of a pub on the outskirts of Sheffield. Which is better than the vague aftertaste of Jethro Tull that the original leaves you with, admittedly.

It all gets a bit woozy, with a Boards Of Canada melody line wandering into the mix to replace the chiming futuristic cityscape synth, and you're left feeling maybe too comfortable. 'It's up to you', actual singer Tim Felton gently intones into your shell-like, as the minimalist plucked strings ebb and echo in the back of your skull. He makes it seem like the choice is yours tonight, but you're too far gone. He's feeling up your thigh, and you know it's not right... but his hand is warm and strong. Damn it, Seeland, no means no!

02 November 2009

Evangelista packaging fetish

Clipped cover art. Is nice.
Lovely tracklisting. Side one, to be precise.
Naked graffito. You can see the grain of the paper, actually.
Record sticker. See, you miss all this with your crummy mp3s
Yep, I got a new camera. And, with it, the glorious return of Packaging Fetish! Yay!

01 November 2009

Evangelista – Prince of Truth

Constellation Records (2009)

Former Geraldine Fibbers vocalist Carla Bozulich released a fantastic album in 2006: Evangelista. It was evidently so good (along with the fact that she now had a band) that she released her next album, Hello, Voyager, under the Evangelista alias. That was one of the finest records of last year. Prince of Truth is the second Evangelista album – can it continue the run of excellence?

Short answer: yes. Bozulich is an otherworldly talent, and the players she has been working with for the last few years complement her perfectly. Hello, Voyager was a record of vast emotional diversity; it touched on the rain-spattered melancholy of Evangelista, but juxtaposed it with exuberant exhortation to the listener, defying categorisation. It translated, with seemingly matchless intensity, to the live setting. She pulls you into her personal underworld, strips herself and the audience emotionally naked, and makes you love it.

Prince of Truth is less extravagant, in the PT Barnum, big top, sense, but absolutely destroys on other levels. 'You Are Jaguar', for example, stirs up a bewildering whirlwind of intricate, lovely, noise. Unlike traditional noise-music, this isn't a brew of distortion, drone and feedback, but an instrumental arrangement that brings to mind the best of Godspeed You! Black Emperor condensed into four minutes. This shouldn't be too surprising: the album was recorded at Hotel 2 Tango in Montreal, with players including various Quebec post-rockers. But where, say, Silver Mt. Zion settles for so-so singing, the likes of Nadia Moss and Thierry Amar – as well as Tzadik collaborator Shahzad Ismaily – get to work with one of the finest vocalists around.

This is most obvious on the desolately exquisite 'I Lay There In Front Of Me Covered In Ice'. There is organ, percussion, guitar and more, but it's all merely aural mise-en-scène for Carla's gentle duet with herself. While she can channel Hades through her body and out of her mouth in quite frightening fashion, she can also sing as gently, touchingly, as anyone. She sets a forbidding scene as vivid as the Bad Seeds' 'Weeping Song': “go tell your momma there's a dead man in the bathwater / Or go tell your father that the town's lost another daughter”.

That's not to say she doesn't bring the fury and vocal brimstone when necessary, as on the aforementioned 'You Are Jaguar'. Prince of Truth sees Bozulich bring everything, as she usually does, at the right time. I could mention the wonderfully sparse string arrangement on 'Iris Didn't Spell', the surreal film noir of 'Tremble Dragonfly' or the epic, pitch black concluding lullaby of 'On the Captain's Side'. But it's all so consistently good that this review would stretch into the thousands, rather than hundreds, of words.

Carla Bozulich should be an icon at this point: Nick Cave without the horrid recent cabaret-and-'tache phase; a more prolific Scott Walker; a sexier Blixa Bargeld; an infinitely better version of pretty much any post-rock this decade. And yet, not post-rock at all. Not alternative country, nor near-industrial, nor no-wave. A personnel list on Bob Mould's self-titled 1996 album simply read “Bob Mould is Bob Mould”. In that case, the only justified point of description would be to declare, admittedly obviously, that Carla Bozulich is Carla Bozulich.

***

You can also read this review over at Fact Magazine. And it's one of their Recommended Albums, as well it should be. I'd also like to mention how tough it is to review Carla. I was going to review her live show from last summer, but Fact declined. She apparently wasn't sufficiently cool, though thankfully, they are now on board with her awesomeness. Sometimes 'cool' isn't directly related to how dubsteppy it is. But I digress. She's tough to review. In a way, I was quite relieved I didn't have to review that gig, because it was such an emotionally intense, personally moving, experience, that it would have been hard to express to the reader. I know that's the coward's way out; reviewing isn't supposed to be easy. And it is supposed to be about articulating the intangible; expressing quite why a particular experience or work of art is worthy of someone's time.

So I'm glad I got to do this. Carla's records are never easy, either to listen to or to explain. This one went okay though - I'm quite happy with it. And the gig? Hopefully I will be sufficiently motivated, in the near future, to put together a list of my favourite gigs this decade. Rest assured it will be high on that list.

31 October 2009

Flood Of Red – Leaving Everything Behind

Scottish sextet Flood Of Red bring their own brand of emo urgency on this debut full-length, though not without mis-steps like the wrong-footed, ill-advised introductory track. But once the soppy 'The Edge of the World (Prelude)' falls by the wayside, the band's natural pace comes to the fore. For the most part, this is reasonably busy melodic punk rock, with distinctly late-nineties lead guitar melodies. Not a bad thing, for those who recall the glory days of Gameface and Sense Field.

Speaking of Sense Field, the vocals are intriguing: they contain enough personality to engage, but there is a high-register softness to them that sits rather uncomfortably with the angst they're aiming for. Such juxtaposition is perhaps the intent, and sometimes works effectively as a council-estate Mars Volta. But over the course of fifty-odd minutes, they can grate. What presumably aims for intense lyrical poignancy misses the mark somewhat, as song after song features lines like 'I'm so scared of everything' and 'I have never been so scared'. The words are clearly shortcuts to emotion, but they ring hollow.

There is the occasional electronic beat or stab of synth, but such events are throwaway details. Blink, and you will miss what are effectively novelty, an obliged concession to modernity, rather than a desire to push things forward. There are times when the dynamic range extends beyond medium to up-tempo rock: 'Electricity' is a brief interlude of sonic introspection, which leads seamlessly into the more substantial 'I Will Not Change'. While it's no 'Parabol'/'Parabola', it's a decent stab at injecting some art into their well-trodden template.

What is here is competent. The lead guitar flutters freely through melody and riff, though the rhythm guitar is a tad slushy. Combined with the singer's soft timbre, the mix runs the risk of collapsing into liquid homogeneity. One suspects the band has missed a trick here: they could potentially make a virtue of this aural coalescence by upping the reverb and stretching out in a My Bloody Valentine/Serena Maneesh-style dreampop reverie. Concluding track 'The Edge of the World' actually hints at this kind of sound. Conversely, if they want to bring the rock, they could aim for a producer like GGGarth for their next record, a man who brought fellow Celts Kerbdog and Biffy Clyro into brutally effective clarity.

In terms of modern emo, Flood Of Red are more comparable to the softer, sensitive (remember when 'emo' was an abbreviation for 'emotional', rather than a pejorative for kids in eyeliner?) Thursday than the epically melodramatic My Chemical Romance or 30 Seconds To Mars. I want to like this more than I do. The band has no small amount of talent and the occasional spark of imagination. It's just that such sparks are too rare, and their songs get lost in among each other, in a near hour-long slog of driving riffs and soft singing. Flood Of Red have potential, but Leaving Everything Behind presents too large a lump of music for the ideas on display. Tightening up the sound for the next album, as well as finding their own identity, should pay dividends for them.

***

POSTSCRIPT: This is my first review for The Music Magazine. Check 'em out!

29 October 2009

Akron/Family: ‘River’

Taken from lovely current album Set ‘em Wild, Set ‘em Free, 'River' is rather more joyous than one would expect from a group of Young God alumni. It’s the kind of thing one might compare to The Flaming Lips, if only Wayne Coyne’s travelling circus had released anything decent this decade. Opening with a more organic take on that wonderfully sinister Massive Attack 'Angel' beat – albeit with some shaker thing going on - ‘River’ builds fantastically.

The singer has that super-American nasality to his voice, not unlike your man from They Might Be Giants, though perhaps a tad warmer. This tune is thankfully less wacky than, well, pretty much anything by TMBG (although 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' is forever a pop classic), with gorgeously busy arrangement. In fact, when 'River' does kick in, the vocal melody does recall the playfully innocent, heartening, verses of 'Birdhouse...'

The words don't seem to make too much sense, but they sound nice when placed in close proximity to each other, which is really all you could ask for from this sort of band. The whole shebang has that great-outdoors party feel that we associate with Animal Collective in the oh-nine. But where the Maryland sometime-quartet bring the neo-Beta Band synth-shine, this is organic as fuck. The good kind of organic, like Alasdair Roberts or Earth. Not the bad kind, like Newton Faulkner or Dent May. Just get the album, as this isn't even the best song on it. And I don't even have much time for Americana.

Download it here.

03 October 2009

Jay Reatard – Watch Me Fall

Matador (2009)

Internet punk rock darling Reatard is back with his second Matador album (let's face it: Singles '08 was an album on staggered – and ridiculously diminishing – release). But does this new record see the rock world ready to live in his shadow, or is he fading all away?

Whether Jay is heading down the dread road of 'maturity' is as yet unclear. He's less overtly aggressive, that's for sure. Gone is the energising comedy-horror intensity of Blood Visions. In its place is a more subdued, though arguably no less disconcerting, mood. 'I'm Watching You' (presumably the same song that was missing from review copies of Singles '08), rather than breathlessly ripping through frantic chords, is positively jolly in its hazy 60s, via Inspiral Carpets' organ-indie, pastiche. This just makes his singing 'I'm watching you, and everything you do' that bit weirder.

Watch Me Fall is approximately half the tempo of Blood Visions. Despite that, there is the occasional 'Hang Them All' which captures the brutalist pop charm of a 'See/Saw' with ease. The mid-way switch in the song is a lovely surprise, too. Overall, though, the guitars are lighter, Reatard opting for indie jangle. This sound admittedly fits the relative aesthetic levity of the songs, and his singing is now oddly reminiscent of Suede's fey frontman Brett Anderson (especially on the aforementioned 'I'm Watching You' and 'Can't Do it Anymore'). If this is a conscious effort to distance himself from the rapidly expanding throng of lo-fi trust fund punx, Jay is to be commended. He's certainly more imaginative than the fuzz-drenched muppets he's leaving in his wake.

'Rotten Mind' is a striking pop gem, and its juxtaposition with the sinister introduction of 'Nothing Now' (the evil twin of Terrorvision's 'Alice, What's the Matter?') displays a sense of dynamic structure that would justify this evolution in the Reatard sound. But there's something missing. While Reatard does not need to bludgeon in order to be good, you do get the sense there's a bit of an identity crisis going on. Like Andrew WK, you're happy for him to leave the mosh pit, but his first steps out of there are slightly shaky.

As a portent of things to come, Watch Me Fall is heartening. It's more varied than any of his past single albums, and hits spots both familiar and new for him. It's just not quite the killer release for which Matador may have been hoping. Early Mondo Generator did this kind of thing better, and Reatard himself has hit greater heights, with Blood Visions and Lost Sounds. Look away from the hype, though, and this is a solid rock album.

01 October 2009

Clutch – Strange Cousins From the West

Weathermaker (2009)

Clutch, those grizzled Maryland rock veterans, have been kicking out various forms of jam since the early 90s. Their sound has taken in post-hardcore, aggro-stoner and retro boogie rock. Which makes us wonder: which Clutch will turn up this time?

It’s pretty impossible to dislike Clutch, unless you dislike rock itself. Firm cult favourites from their debut (‘A Shogun Named Marcus’ is an underground anthem) and even before (Legendary label Earache released the ‘Impetus’ EP), they brought the mid-90s stoner/space rock as magnificently as Kyuss and Monster Magnet. And, as lynchpin of the former, Josh Homme, has carved out a second career in QOTSA, Clutch, like the sea, seem eternal in their restless power.

After nearly losing it at the end of the 1990s, with the unfocused Jam Room, 2001’s self-explanatory Pure Rock Fury saw them fired up once more. Strange Cousins From the West is their fourth since then; the latest in a run of consistent quality. And, while the quintet (since 2004) have consistently evolved – within their blues-hardcore template – this latest one sounds oddly familiar.

Rarely does a post-Nirvana band release nine albums, discounting the weekly releases from various distortion-pedal crews. So it should be unsurprising when the songs on said ninth album are reminiscent of past glories. Especially when those glories are worth revisiting. Yes, those snaking, catchy-yet-complex riffs, recent-historical urban mythologising and vintage sound point to one thing: career-high The Elephant Riders (1998).

Of course, if Strange Cousins… were as good as that, this would be an automatic 9. That it isn’t is no shame, as it would also mean it was superior to any QOTSA album after 2000. Or any Black Mountain album at all.

Clutch spoil us from the outset with, as Westwood might say, hit after heavy hit. ‘Motherless Child’ rolls in on one of the heaviest bouncing riffs since Entombed redefined ‘death’n’roll’ over a decade ago. If ‘Struck Down’s riff isn’t instantly lodged in your head like a psychotic lumberjack’s axe, then your dope-smoking has affected your short-term memory. ’50,000 Unstoppable Watts’ looks on paper like a song Dr. Brown might write, but he’d never have been this good at fusing science with Hendrix riffs.

Album highlight is the frankly bizarre ‘Abraham Lincoln’. As if Akimbo’s shark attack concept album last year wasn’t surreally elegiac enough, Neil Fallon and co. bring a gross-years-tardy tribute on a slow, martial beat and ever-awesome matching guitar and vocal melody. This isn’t wacky stuff, though: these boys mean it when they tell his assassin: ‘no grave for you’. Even odder is the fact that this is ostensibly a call-back to 1995 song ‘I have the body of John Wilkes Booth’. Talk about setting a president. Sorry.

The musicologist in me is ever-uncomfortable about white men bringing the blues-rock. And looking backward for inspiration. It’s also frustrating that the band insists on such a clean guitar sound. While it’s undeniably accessible to the curious, the playing suggests a heavier sound would be infinitely more satisfying. Like, say Andy Sneap’s work with Iron Monkey, or Steve Feldman’s with Unida.

However, this isn’t the dull Black Keys. And Strange Cousins… is sufficiently imaginative to work. The heaviness? It’s still more energising than Wolfmother, Kasabian, the Enemy, or whatever passes for big rock these days. If you like the riffs and weirdness, get this listened.

30 September 2009

Om – God is Good

Drag City (2009)

How minimalist can a band get? On its second album recorded by bare bones engineer Steve Albini, the hip-sludge veteran band find its duo halving, in an apparent attempt to find out. But ex-Sleep man Al Cisneros does have a little help from his friends.

Om made their name after the death of stoner doom legends Sleep by doing what they do best: heavy riffs, and lots of them. Self aware if nothing else, their debut was named Variations on a Theme. But post-metal, like any chrono-centric sub-genre, ages rapidly, and what was once cool can soon find itself sounding hackneyed. Just ask Jesu.

Om is aware of this pitfall. The sludgy, repetitive riffing of the earlier albums has fallen by the wayside, seemingly sloughed off as a butterfly might forget its past as a caterpillar. That's not to say this is as bright or beautiful as such description might evoke. In fact this is more of a moth: refusing to draw attention to itself; at home in the must and dusk of the dimmest recesses.

As with your average moth, there is subtle variety and intrigue in current Om's earth-tone and darkness. The songs are shorter than they were on the first pair of Billy Anderson-produced records. Where once was no small amount of trepidation at slogging through another twenty minutes of riffs, there is now a healthy curiosity as to where Om will take us.

That is not to say Anderson is not a great producer (he's sorted Melvins, Neurosis and 7 Year Bitch at their peaks). It's also not to say there is no twenty-minute song on here. Unlike recent albums from Emeralds and James Blackshaw, the epic on this album is not the best. 'Thebes' has a repetitive charm, but its faux-mystical lyrics and vocal reliance on the root note mean it grates if you don't play its game.

The record really picks up on the other three songs. They are a combined fifteen minutes, and the journey on which they take us is far more satisfying. The middle-eastern themes on here, while preferable to High On Fire's Middle Earth aesthetic, are sonically fine while never threatening authenticity. The music generally is fantastic.

Mostly sounding only like Om, and like no Om in the past, there are some nods elsewhere. There is philosophical similarity to recent Earth, in that both bands have sacrificed bludgeon for trance-through-clarity. The sound on God is Good is clean, with a deep mix full of interesting instrumentation. There are even pipe-based moments that could have featured on Ghost's fabulous Hypnotic Underworld, from 2004.

As this decade ends, hopefully more bands take a leaf out of the books of Om and Earth. SunnO))) are certainly carving their own path, but there are too many me-too bands, making like an albatross round the neck of once inventive metal. Noisecore imploded at its peak, like a dying star, a decade ago. Can the post-metal masses please get their coats and shuffle out the door while a shred of dignity remains?

29 September 2009

Future Islands and Ear Pwr


Royal Park Cellar, 13 September 2009

It was just another low-energy Sunday evening in the half-local, half-student Royal Park pub. Few engaged with the balding pool tables, and the karaoke machine thankfully held a dignified silence. But, in the pub's cellar, a number of creative characters were setting about lighting up the evening's too-early dusk with performances that were engaging and inspiring.

After a respectable local opening band (a guitar and cello pairing whose name must have disappeared into the ether), the stage was set for Ear Pwr, based in Baltimore. At odds with its common perception, from The Wire, of a metropolis populated entirely by pushers, users and bent government officials, are a loose crew of exciting poppy noisemakers. Chief among these would be band of the winter Animal Collective, but just bubbling under are Ponytail and – yep! - Ear Pwr.

While the stage may have been set for this pair, they rarely actually stood on it. Setting up their table of machinery and gubbins, Devin and Sarah opted to set the noises, beats and loops running, before dancing, meandering and staggering about the room. It was a creditable performance: there may only have been ten people in the room, but if their energy was in any way diminished, it certainly didn't show. Main vocalist Sarah bounced around while singing her electro-nursery rhymes from their brilliant album, about beams of light, title track's Super Animal Bros. And, err, 'future eyes' – though sadly not the addictively exuberant 'Sparkly Sweater'.

Devin, when he wasn't setting his musical plates spinning, was wrapping the microphone cord around himself, wrapping it around Sarah, providing on-and-off vocal assistance to Sarah, and writhing about on the cellar's rather unpleasant floor. They departed after a brief, and rather thrilling, set (not only were Ear Pwr the support act, but their summer highlight album is only half an hour long), but promised to return in November. At that point, their new EP – and new drummer – should be in place.

Having never heard Greenville, North Carolina's Future Islands (now also based in Maryland) before this evening, I was in for a scintillating surprise. After the childlike, if drug addled, glee of Ear Pwr, trepidation met the headlining trio of thick-set men with synths. By the end of the opening song, your reviewer was an enthusiastic convert.

Future Islands' album, 2008's Wave Like Home, is an intriguing blend of well-written synth songs and super-camp vocals. While it's a solid album in its own right, it gives little indication as to the ferocious talent of singer Samuel Herring. Looking for all the world like Jack Black's stunt double, he also sounds superficially like the camp-heroic Tenacious D frontman. It soon becomes clear, though, that Herring is a singular talent. He rips his own songs a new arse, a combination of Tom Waits' gruff personality, Mike Patton's ever-present air of pastiche, and Henry Rollins' aggression and brilliant shape-throwing.

While self-effacing about his talking prowess, Herring makes for a charismatic frontman, winning the now-full room over with his chat and singing alike. He worked up a furious sweat early, and it's not hard to see why: he sings hard. He reaches deep down within himself, and pulls out a level of vocal intensity not seen since Carla Bozulich brought her inimitable brand of beautiful, guttural fire and brimstone to a Leeds church last year. When he prefaces 'Little Dreamer' with the words 'this was a happy story... but now it's a sad story', you believe him. Especially as he leaves his still-beating heart throbbing away on the floor, for all to see.

Whether the song was 'Beach Foam' from the album, or 'The Happiness of Being Twice', from this year's 'Feathers & Hallways' single, Future Islands never stopped entertaining. The bassist was occasionally inspired in his playing, but both he and the synth player were essentially there to ably back Herring's cabaret emoting.

Future Islands are currently working on their new album. Though both they and Ear Pwr give off an air of piss-take at times, the new material should be interesting, at least. If Ear Pwr can flesh out the faux-naive charm of Super Animal Brothers III, and Future Islands somehow manage to harness the power of their force-of-nature singer in the studio, the next year should belong to Baltimore.

13 September 2009

Ear Pwr


I'm off to see this lot tomorrow. Technically today, in the calendar sense, but really tomorrow. In the sleeps sense. I had meant to review the Ear Pwr album for Fact, but unfortunately didn't get round to it after returning from Iran. Anyway, their album has the same name as this song, and is brilliant, in that high-energy, funfunfun AWK/Captain Ahab/Be Your Own PET kinda way. And it's quite a short album. 16 tracks (some segues) in just over half an hour means you can listen to it before dinner without spoiling your appetite. Boomkat tends to have it cheap, so get it bought.

I found out on Friday that they're playing my town on Sunday. They're only the support act, but it should be an enjoyable occasion. Watch this video to get an idea of what they're about. My only source of trepidation comes from the fact that they appear to be a couple of ironic, cooly-cool coolsters. The kind of people who'd be more at home playing the Faversham, that home of the faux-cool in Leeds. And it'd be a shame if they were super-ironic 80s bandwagon jumpers, as that's totally not the idea I get from their album.

The music is sweet and energetic, and not at all 1980s. It's dance music that rocks, and the singer (called Sarah?) sings with a naive enthusiasm that's really catchy and joyous. So I'd rather the latter description to be the case than the ironic one, but I'm not sure it's possible to be in a band nowadays and not be taking the piss to some extent. Maybe I'm cynical, I don't know. They're from the same area as Ponytail and Animal Collective, so maybe that means something. They're relatively unironic for the kind of music they do. Anyway, hoping to enjoy the gig; hoping the headliner is good; hoping to write it all up at some point. Suspense!

11 September 2009

Oskar – LP:2


Incarnation (2009)

(Another Fact review!)

There is something about that title that doesn’t sit well with me. While Oskar aren’t the first band to name a record as such – let’s face it, we’ve had similar from the likes of Led Zep, Autechre and Dungen – that colon suggests rather too much self awareness. If, indeed, a band can be too self-aware. The cover tips you off, though, of the trio awkwardly positioned on a bleak allotment, bearing instruments fashioned from gardening implements.

This is a sense that remains throughout LP:2. Oskar, featuring a member of Collapsed Lung (of ‘Eat My Goal’ ‘fame’), seems to be a group of crafty industry veterans, keen to show us how good they are at lots of different stuff. LP:2 boasts a range of moods, from wry amusement, through parody, to melancholy. But even melancholy seems to be performed here with an eyebrow so raised it threatens to catapult off their collective face.

And it’s a shame, because there is some real brilliance on here. ‘Paper Cuts’ and ‘Printer Tzara’ offer intelligent calls back to the turn of the century electronica-infused songwriting of the Beta Band, Laika or Anjali. ‘Eden’ is believable in its piano loneliness. ‘Richenbach Falls’, though, sounds for all its good intentions like a ham-fisted approximation of how Carla Bozulich may have sounded, had she been narcotised, bundled in the boot of a car and taken to David Lynch’s club Silencio.

Oskar tread a tightrope, and your writer faces a dilemma. Oskar’s competence at evoking a variety of moods, of composing in many forms of popular music, of performing in numerous languages, should be applauded. There is, however, a subtle, yet inescapable cloud of smugness hanging over proceedings. While it’s an intangible sense, it’s nagging, hindering enjoyment of the album. It’s hard to commit to loving ‘Hi-Beam Blue’, which occupies that space between OK Computer and Kid A, as it’s just another turn on what sounds like a showcase record. I guess now I know why certain folk feel prevented from loving Squarepusher or Aphex.

With the above in mind, then, it’s surprising that the highlights of the album are the most theatrical, high-minded, Newsnight Review, nudging, winking songs of the lot. ‘Some Song’: the very title sends fear shooting through my marrow. But it’s great. The vocal is a monologue performed by actress Sharon Smith, of Max Factory, and it’s funny, convincing and endearing. Similarly, the most conceptually out-there song is ‘Sanatorio’, inspired by Nick Powell’s experience with aged psychiatric patients in Madrid. And it’s lovely. So while the album is nearly torn apart by its eclecticism, that trait bore its greatest fruits.

08 September 2009

James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game

Young God (2009)

(Another Fact review!)

Blackshaw, though he looks young, must have been at this for decades. There is some flavour of crossroad meeting, or memo to Mephistopheles, at work on The Glass Bead Game, because it’s otherwise difficult to accept the quality of playing on this record. Blackshaw has taken time to get really, really good at his instrument. I’m sure you’ll have seen some news piece or other mentioning the fact he used to be in punk rock bands. But, phew, he grew out of that juvenile noise.

The knock-on effect of ostensibly growing up is running the risk of blandness. First song ‘Cross’ is a case in point. Lavish in its complex arrangement, a magnificently controlled wordless vocal pipes up that is at once beautiful and disconcertingly reminiscent of that Lloyds TSB ad. Fortunately, the musical whole is so well-constructed that such thoughts are kept far from your mind.

Three of the five (lengthy) songs on here are guitar-led, as you might imagine. They are, as you might also imagine, really rather good. You might, like I did, feel sceptical about such movements as the alleged folk renaissance. Especially if you first hear of a musician between stories about fallen MPs and white phosphorus attacks on Radio 4’s Today programme. But you lose yourself easily in the intricate tapestry of guitar, vocal, violin and cello on ‘Cross’ and ‘Bled’.

Less convincing is relatively brief piano piece ‘Fix’. It sounds rather like one of Richard James’ treated piano sketches on Drukqs, stretched out to nearly six minutes. It’s fair, and strings eventually flesh it out, but the mind too easily wanders during its duration. ‘Key’ is similar in length, but it sees Blackshaw return to the guitar. With the songs getting shorter, and the quality beginning to slightly dip, you may wonder whether that’s it for the album.

Thankfully, that’s not it, by a long shot. ‘Arc’ is the grand statement of the album, and is one of the grand musical statements of this year so far. Like ‘Bled’, ‘Arc’ features an introductory motif that eventually gives way to a largely unrelated song-body. Like ‘Bled’, it works wonders, but on an epic scale. ‘Fix’ was no warning for this stunning, piano-centred, piece. As it builds so subtly, you almost fail to realise the depth of the layers and drones locking in place, intertwining and undulating before your ears. It’s a hypnotic, 19-minute, rush. It’s like vomiting gold, rainbows and unicorns out of every orifice in your head. In a good way.

05 September 2009

DOA – Dead Or Alive

Dir: Cory Yuen, 2006

I was warned about this one. When I mentioned to one friend that I had borrowed the Dead Or Alive film, he solemnly told me it is one of the worst films he has ever seen. And he spends a lot of time watching bad films. He has seen many classics, but also more all-out bad films than a sane human should ever subject themselves to. He likes Old School.

But I knew I was in for a bad film. I have a film rental subscription of the type that gives you better value for money the more films you see. So, in among the Korean revenge cinema and edifying documentaries, I add the occasional guilty pleasure. The two main points in this paragraph are dependent ones: just because one watches a film does not mean one has experienced value; just because a film causes feelings of guilt does not mean it will provide pleasure.

So we have DOA. It's a cheap, cheap film based on a video game. Its cast includes a pro-wrestler, a supermodel and an Australian soap star-cum-telephone huckster. When your resident thesp is someone from My Name is Earl, you know you're in for a rough ride. But who cares, as long as it passes the time, right?

I don't even know where to begin, so let's focus on the good points. There are lots of pretty men and women on show: it is a feast for those who like skimpiness and ripped-ness. The aforementioned pro-wrestler is none other than former WWF champ and old, old man Kevin Nash. It doesn't hurt that he's probably the most self-aware fake fighter out there, has a killer sense of humour and is actually rather a decent actor. As far as wrestlers go, anyway.

There is the occasional snippet of actual cinematic competence, too. Yes, the more eagle-eyed DOA viewer may detect a fleeting good angle here and there. A couple of the fights are well choreographed. We're not talking Yuen Wo-Ping here, but the forest fight and the brawl with the henchmen (and hench-ladies) are both rather good. The scenery, too, is occasionally eye-catching and pleasant. I mean, no more so than, say, a modern videogame, or Sandals ad, but nice is nice. The funniest line is 'thanks, Wellington'. I suppose you had to be there.

I think that's it for good points. Generally, it's a ham-fisted grotesquerie whose lingering butt- and leg-shots give gratuitousness a bad name. The premise of the film is an international fighting tournament, to which only the best fighters are invited. Their invitations appear as soon as they've done an impressive bit of knacking, perplexingly. But DOA admittedly provides many a perplexing moment. But more on that in a bit.

Yeah, the plot is nothing you haven't seen before, as long as you've encountered either a film or a game that involved people beating each other up. It's essentially the world's worst Enter the Dragon. Or the world's worst Best of the Best II. At least, it's the worst example of the form I have seen. And I don't even suggest Enter the Dragon was in any way a classic of the cinema. What it was, though, was a good film that made some sense and featured some fantastic choreographed fights.

There are no fights in DOA that are a patch on any fight in ETD. In fact, for sheer fight quality, you'd be wiser to watch Bolo vs. Those Unfortunate Scrotes on a loop for 80 minutes than this delight. And Kevin Nash, cool as he is, isn't much of a charisma challenge for Bruce Lee. Or the dude with the afro. Or the white dude. But Jaime Pressley does have a nice set of abs. More than Bruce Lee, DOA bites relatively recent flicks Hero and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. There is plenty of (mediocre) wire work in settings such as epic palace exteriors, lush forests and... giant Buddha heads. It's obviously an insignificant speck when compared to the Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou classics.

The biggest crime the film commits is not entirely DOA's fault. The idea of a film in which people get together from around the world to kick each other's faces off is an archaic one. It was fine in the 1970s, and the 80s. It was eve fine when the Streetfighter II game came out. Now, though, we live in an era of mixed martial arts. Since 1993 the Ultimate Fighting Championship (and, for about a decade, the Japanese Pride Fighting Championship) has been pitting actual fighters from around the world against each other in hand to hand combat. So the idea of a ninja fighting a cocky American, or an old man with a white beard competing against a Chinese school girl, is a bit crap. Unless, that is, cinema can use its mysterious powers of 'scripting' and 'editing' to create the illusion of something believable and awesome.

So DOA may not have the best dialogue ever. Or good dialogue, for that matter. It may be cheesier than the Bee Gees... being the Bee Gees. It may even commit the heinous act of dragging – it's bloody 80 minutes – as it goes. But these are not cardinal sins for what the film is trying to achieve. In fact, stupidity should be encouraged in a film like this. No, the crime is to not be as entertaining as its real life equivalent. When you can switch on ESPN and see better, more varied fights, involving more engaging (and ridiculous) characters, your film's sole justification for existing (aside from cash, natch, o cynical reader) has vanished as quickly as DOA ninjas Hayabusa and Kasumi might do.

Still, I bet DOA's better than the new Dragonball live-action film. That one has me in a constant state of shudder.

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