29 March 2009

Wolves In The Throne Room – Black Cascade

Southern Lord (2009)

Even more FACT-age...

Wolves In The Throne Room. While overused nomenclature, Wolves, when used correctly, can evoke a certain snarling menace. The tepid likes of Wolfmother and Wolf Parade have certainly besmirched this signifier in recent years, but there has always been a Wolf Eyes or Rye Wolves to restore sufficiently brutal, flesh-ripping primevalism.

Wolves In The Throne Room scored another one for the good guys with their debut, Diadem of 12 Stars, in 2006. Its beautifully epic, dreamy, yet ominous, artwork was at once bewitching and appropriate. The music – four extensive examples of USBM (that’s the American form of black metal, for those not up on their kvlt abbreviations) – was dynamic and engrossing.

This was around the same time sunnO))) released their last ‘proper’ album, the all-conquering collaboration with Boris, Altar. Since then, sunnO))) have seen fit to tempt us with side projects, while Wolves released another album, an EP, and now this. Such proflicacy, combined with their allegiance to BM (as opposed to the vagaries of drone-, doom- or post-metals) has led to feverish support from discerning metal hordes.

Controversy struck when WITTR decided to change their logo to a Christophe Szpajdel design. He did the Emperor logo, see. This caused consternation among true believers, as the band’s identity was now irrevocably besmirched by legibility and mass production. Obviously, this means nothing. The debut LP didn’t even have the band’s name on the front or back covers. But I suppose it’s another emblem you’ll have to scrawl on your Twilight pencil case.

The logo means especially little in the light of the musical developments. After accusations that the last album, Two Hunters, was rather too similar-and-inferior to Diadems, WITTR started using old-school equipment with Randall (Earth, Grails) Dunn. Perhaps because some semblance of pesky individuality remained. Despite initial misgivings, this has paid off.

The dynamic BM-to-melodic swings of old have largely gone, replaced by more single-minded, unified sounds. The Burzum-inspired, buzz-saw, guitars of the past have been clawed back into the murk of the mix, adding to the accumulating musical miasma leaking out of your speakers. And it’s fucking epic. There are still the time changes one would hope for in quarter-hour songs, and shifts from quiet to loud, but it’s all presented in a synth-integrated, Gestalt-friendly whole, rather like Neurosis’ move back to nature with Times of Grace in 1999.

It’s not all forest-dwelling, subsistence-idyllic harmony though. Step outside the comfort zone, into the world of evil and strife, and you’ll find better recent BM. Like the immense last album from the bizarrely out-of-favour Leviathan. It’s confusing why so many are sleeping on Wrest’s Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, but they shouldn’t because it’s a work of art. And, unlike WITTR (and 90% of po-metal bands), it’s dripping with malicious intent.

Despite the gurning misanthropy that can sometimes be metal’s undoing, all the best examples of the genre – from Sabbath through Carcass, Neurosis and Converge – have managed to balance the outsider-friendly smarts and ideology with refined aggression and ill will. WITTR claim they want fans to ‘prostrate themselves on the floor and cry’. There is a certain melancholic intensity in the latter half of Black Cascade for sure, but if they want us to get that involved, they have to do their bit, and bring the pain.

Mono – Hymn to the Immortal Wind

Conspiracy Records (2009)

More FACT-age...

Post rock’s dead, innit. What was an exciting, experimental avenue in the mid 1990s turned into an earnest search for glistening, actual-rock, perfection at the turn of the century. Both eras had their moments of greatness: Tortoise, the first Papa M album, Ui and Gastr del Sol. Kid A, Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas to Heaven and the heartbreakingly perfect Lift To Experience.

But somewhere the bombast was turned up to twelve (modern compression techniques mean “two louder” now constitutes the extra push off the cliff), ‘post-rock’ became ‘indie’ and it all got a bit crap. I blame this decade’s output from Sigur Rós and Explosions In The Sky, as they smothered us in metric tonnes of cotton wool and candy floss; mile upon mile of cod-Romantic dross.

Japan is a bit different though their rockers have a habit of taking arguably stake genres and making something new and great out of them, like Guitar Vader (garage rock), Corrupted (sludge), Ghost (epic folk rock), Xinlisupreme (noise-pop) and Boris (all of the above). And, since 2000, Mono has been refining the art of post-rock.

Their last album, You Are There, was pretty much the peak of this generation of post-rock. Around this time, they blew Jesu off the stage when the two bands toured together. The band also collaborated with the mysterious and wonderful World’s End Girlfriend: has some of his (her? Its?) magic rubbed off?

Yes and no. this is still epic post rock as has become the norm in the last few years. It’s just been refined to the point of no return. Opener ‘Ashes in the Snow’ makes it clear that bigger is better in the eyes of Mono: post-rock is now pre-symphony, as the orchestra swells, the band apparently wooing Hollywood with their massive production.

This is post-rock as soundtrack. Mono’s music always had a visual edge to it, and for most of …Immortal Wind, you can imagine the equivalent of Dark Knight or The Fountain flickering on the silver screen. This is how big the music has become, and if it means I can stop hearing that Clint Mansell tune every time I go to the cinema or watch the football, then all the better.

The album’s peaks are the lengthy ‘Burial at Sea’ (sadly not a dubstep reimagining of Neil Young’s On the Beach) and surprisingly brief ‘Follow the Map’. Both are dynamic works of art; justifying the continued existence of post-rock in this post-everything climate.

That is not to say the music is original. To anyone familiar with the genre, the comparisons come thick and fast. ‘Everlasting Light’, lovely though it is, comes with a scratched-off ‘Godspeed’ label. ‘Pure as Snow (Trails of the Winter Storm)’ is an uninspired – and less subtle – retread of Mogwai’s genre-high ‘Ex-Cowboy’. ‘Silent Flight, Sleeping Dawn’ is promising, but too short to effectively use the Mono dynamic.

Hymn to the Immortal Wind is the definition of a genre piece. While executed with aplomb and much enthusiasm, one has to imagine this is it for this type of music. Whether Mono go on to soundtrack the next Chris Nolan film, or scenes of icebergs plunging into the sea for David Attenborough, the well of inspiration has apparently run dry.

Cut to: The horizon. Looming ominously, black cloud overhead, is a new Explosions In The Sky record.

Fade to black…

The Low Frequency In Stereo – Futuro

Rune Grammofon (2009)

Getting some FACT-age up pon de blog...

Another couple of months, another great Rune Grammafon release. The label should hook up my bank account to their headquarters, intravenous-style, and constantly drip, drip, drip-feed their luscious black wax into my house. Kim Hiorthøy, I think I love you.

I don’t believe any member of Low Freq (as we have taken to calling them in the virtual FACT Towers) has been in Jaga Jazzist, which is probably a first in Norwegian non-black metal bands I have happened upon. I might be wrong. What is becoming commonplace with this current scene of bands is how consistently good they are.

Every song here is a self-contained gem, blessed with hooks and great sounding instruments. The enigmatic producer ‘Sir Duperman’, of Duper Studio, has much to be proud of. As with most things Grammafon, Futuro has a crystal clear mix, through which you can hear the varied sounds.

‘Geordie La Forge’ manages to stand out, not just due to its titular homage to the blind Star Trek character. Male vocalist (there is a man and a woman, though the sleeve notes credit the whole band with ‘voice’) Per Steinar’s delivery softens the edges of what would otherwise be quite a Queens Of The Stone Age song, replacing that band’s inherent ‘cool’ with more of a ‘cute’.

‘Starstruck’ marries latter-day Screaming Trees soft psychedelia with indie pop, hooks assailing your cerebral cortex. The band knows that effective melodic simplicity is key, so you quickly remember the rhymes of ‘Sparkle Drive’ with ‘45’. You’ll pause for thought, wondering exactly what that’s supposed to mean, but you will soon be swept away once more in the unabashed enthusiasm of the album.

On rare occasions the spell slips and you wonder quite what it is you’re listening to. ‘Texas Fox’, a sonically well constructed song, has absolutely horrible lyrics. You give a little leeway to bands whose first language isn’t English, but this is a ham-fisted attempt at surrealism that falls flat, regardless of good intentions. ‘Me and the farmer have to figure out the cow / The cow is the farmer, I really don’t know how’: it’s hard to be kind to that couplet.

Such stumbles are soon forgotten when you consider the relatively epic concluding song, the nine-minute ‘Solar System’. Its intro puts you in mind of the musical leg-stretching Kyuss would engage in when beginning their longer songs. But the mess of gleeful chaos and saxophone that unfolds is more reminiscent, again, of QOTSA, on ‘I Think I Lost My Headache’, or perhaps Radiohead’s ‘National Anthem’.

These aren’t lazy comparisons: this album, just like Kid A and Rated R, is a concise meditation on rock’s past and present seen through a very particular collection of eyes. It revels in generic hallmarks, but the band executes these with such personality and natural-feeling eclecticism that you forgive without a second thought.

Regardless of whether any of these players have worked with Horntveth, Munkeby or Qvenild, Low Freq have clearly established themselves as a band to be reckoned with. Futuro, while it nods blatantly to the past, is the place to be right now.

27 March 2009

Mastodon: Crack the Skye initial thoughts

After forgetting when it was coming out and then waiting for ‘Indigo Starfish’ to send my CD when I ordered from Amazon (what’s the deal with that?), my shiny new copy of the new Mastodon album arrived this very morning. I even splurged on the version with the DVD because I am a sucker for making-of DVDs.

After giving it a couple of listens, and the DVD one viewing, I can safely say hmmm. Not necessarily in a bad way, but I suppose people never say it in a particularly good way. I like it.

I have just never been the biggest Mastodon fan. They emerged when I was in a sulk with metal, and tried pretending that everything that came out wasn’t very good. Thankfully I saw the error of my ways, but the tons of praise being flung at this Atlanta quartet did seem a bit untoward.

They struck me as a very early 2000s heavy metal band, and nothing more. They took influence from the hyper-modern Noisecore subgenre that had ended just as they started, and mixed it with trad heavy metal sounds. It just struck me as a less-good Soilent Green, but with epic stuff added. It didn’t help that I originally knew of half the band as Steve Austin’s 1999 session musicians in Today Is The Day.

Over the years I have warmed to them, partly because Scott Kelly from Neurosis is a regular guest on their albums, and partly because they are pretty damn good. I think my fave album of theirs is Blood Mountain, where intricate metal arrangements mixed with strong hooks to great effect. It was even the official token metal album of 2006. Aww.

So I was quite excited about the new album, Crack the Skye. Just not hurling myself at the wall in anticipation or anything. My first listen was on headphones, and it’s clear they have settled into their major label status.

Apart from supporting Metallica a fair bit, they have switched producers for this one. Out went Matt Bayles, renowned producer of Noisecore bands like Isis and Botch, and in came Brendan O’Brien, who has produced… pretty much everybody. I know him mainly for producing (post)-grunge bands like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden, and less grungey acts like Rage Against The Machine and some dude named Bruce Springsteen.

Fair enough, it’s all part of the leap into the mainstream. The band was also, bless their sweaty cotton socks, able to buy $3000 foot synths and other posh bits of equipment. Which is slightly moot considering O’Brien apparently owns every bit of equipment in the world.

The music itself is certainly fine, but nothing earth-shattering. Yesterday I had been listening to Static Tensions, the new album by fellow Georgians, the much more spikily named Kylesa. It was an entertaining way to spend three quarters of an hour: sorta stoner/sludge with impressively technical aspects and some oddly compelling hooks. ‘Unknown Awareness’, an ominous slab of darkness with sinewy lead guitar lines stretching over its surface, is the brilliant highlight. I imagined the new Mastodon would be a lot better. At least I hoped it would be.

It is certainly deeper, and you can tell which album had more cash lavished on it, had the star producer, and the relative luxury of time to make it. The first thing that struck me about Crack the Skye was just how melodic it is. Not really a surprise, as they were heading in this direction on Blood Mountain, but melody is clearly the watchword.

And if that’s the case, then prog is blatantly the back-up word. Not that this is a surprise, either, as the band has always been pretty proggy, and there was no reason to think they wouldn’t explore this avenue further. There are two epics on here, one of which features the prog hallmark of subtitles. Yes, ‘The Czar: i. Usurper ii. Escape iii. Martyr iv. Spiral’ is a ten-minute kinda epic with some nice keyboards, and it sounds rather like a certain Mars Volta.

More impressive, in that it bolsters the identity of Mastodon, is the album’s finale, ‘The Last Baron’. This features the most impressive vocals – more on this in a bit – and generally seems like it’s going to be the band’s status song. This one aside, the band generally seems more comfortable when they keep to more normal song lengths.

I reckon it will take a few more listens to really get to grips with this one. While the band claims it’s very ‘classic rock’ it is neither as simple nor as instantly memorable as the bigger hits of, say, Thin Lizzy or Mötörhead. The tones of the instruments, whether drum or guitar, have had the metallic edge stripped from them, in favour of a warmer sound. The bass is more full and satisfying. There is nothing as immediately hooking as the riffs of ‘The Wolf is Loose’ or ‘Colony of Birchmen’s chorus, both from the last album.

It’s compelling enough to stick with, though, and I see myself liking it more as time goes on. As for whether it’s that much better than the Kylesa, only time will tell.

As entertaining as the album is, I must admit I have gained more from the bonus making-of DVD. I have always loved seeing how a band goes about its business, and seeing the process of an album’s production, but mainly because we get to find out what the band’s thought process is.

And this was really enlightening. At first I thought the title 'Crack the Skye' was just the result of flicking a random prog name generator on and adding some olde worlde spelling. The truth is far more touching. It turns out Skye was the name of drummer Brann Dailor’s sister, who committed suicide when she was 14. I haven’t had much chance to read the lyric booklet, but a lot of this album’s lyrical content is apparently Dailor’s tribute to her.

Another emotionally affecting segment of the DVD concerns lead vocalist Brent Hinds, and the fight he got into at the MTV Video Music Awards, from which he received a broken nose and a brain haemorrhage. I had wondered why he wasn’t making any comments on the ‘Blood Mountain tour ends’ segment, and that’ll be because he was convalescing. He had months of labyrinthitis, and that experience apparently inspired his writing the music for this album. Talk about a cathartic record.

Aside from that, we get to see what went into the making of the album and – a part that I especially love – guitar and drum parts in isolation. I got more out of one Hinds solo on the DVD than I did on two plays of the album. I’m still not sure I’ve heard it on the album, in fact. And the sound he gets on the Flying V segment is gorgeous. I don’t know if he was always like that, or if it’s a result of the attack, but Brent is a brilliantly weird dude.

The DVD is also very funny. I won’t spoil it all for you, but highlights include Troy discussing what look they would be going for when marketing the album (complete with haircut chart), and Brann divulging the storyline of the record – while his lawnmower drowns him out. The scamp! And, I dunno, it’s just nice to see people who get paid handsomely for rocking out.

All in all, I’m happy with my purchase. They’re still not my favourite band or anything, but the DVD didn’t drag at all in its hour and a half. I’ve listened to the album twice today without getting the slightest bit bored of it, and I am confident the best of it is yet to come. Just one thing: they seriously need a lead singer. They’re like a football team with a great midfield and no striker. They need that finishing touch if they are really gonna be a premier league band.

23 March 2009

Gig mithering

Gigs, eh? I make a point of not really going to any. I'm not sure why: the best musical experiences of my life tend to be live performances. I just can't be bothered with it. What will the crowd be like? Will I be allowed to dance? Will the band play their best songs, or just the latest material I'm not that bothered about (speaking of which, I'm seeing Bob Dylan in a few weeks)? Will there be a cloakroom, or will I have to hold my jacket all night?

I'll admit these are mostly petty concerns, but they all add up, and when you combine them with insanely escalating ticket prices (I saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in May 2001 - when Blixa was still in the band - for £17.50. Try that now), they outweigh my desire to see most bands. I've seen bands not play what are clearly their best songs more often than not, but for different reasons. Mercury Rev not playing 'A Drop In Time' is probably because I am the only person in the world who thinks it their best song. Gameface didn't play 'Hey Radio' because they probably just couldn't be arsed. Pitchshifter refused to play 'Underachiever' because they were prissy idiots who seemed to think its fame was sufficiently comparable to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' to warrant them invoking a similar self-censorship.

There are some bands I will see, even if they are not the bands I should be seeing. I really should, for, example, have seen the mighty Metallica. They are one of my favourite bands ever, I haven't seen them since 1996, and lots of my friends dig them. Despite my best intentions, though, the £50 face value must have put me off. I'm at that age, too, where time passes quickly enough that a gig comes and goes before I realise (hello last time Boris, Converge and Melt-Banana each played).

Anyway, I have a few gigs coming up. Asva, who are yet to overly impress me on vinyl, had a lot of potential, but sadly their travel to Europe fell through. The promoter expressed his hope to me that they will turn up in England soon enough. I am going to see Earth, who have overly impressed me on CD, vinyl, and the in-the-ether substance that Apple Lossless files are made of. As I missed them when they were touring HEX (supporting none other than sunnO))) ), I am desperate to see them. I'm gonna punk (rock) it up when I see NOFX and Propagandhi. Not together, which would be amazing. They don't seem to like each other very much.

Most imminently, though, I will see Animal Collective. I have blogged about them in the past, and meant to do a lor more blogging on them, but it's an inevitability of life that most of my blog posts won't come to fruition. I look forward to seeing them, not just because I'll capture the zeitgeist for once (and who'd have thought said zeitgeist would be located in a working men's club in Woodhouse?). It should be fun, is within walking distance, and their best song has just been released as a single. They have to play it; they just have to.

Years ago, I met a man who would prepare to attend a gig by listening to nothing but that band for the week preceding. I half really respected that, and half thought it was insane. BUt I often think that, hey, maybe I should do something like that. Get immersed in the back catalogue of one band, get in the mood for them to play, refamiliarise myself with the material. The gig itself would be a massively awesome slice of catharsis.

Just after I experienced my initial spurt of Animal Collective obsession, I did something I swore I would stop doing, and I illegally downloaded their back catalogue. The plan was to make friends with a history of music I had previously ignored, and to get ready for the gig. I never used to like them, but now was as good a time as any to change that. I would bung it all on the phone and hit 'artist shuffle'. It'd be great.

It was, in theory. Problem came when I actually tried it. The first song, coincidentally, was the only one of theirs I had been familiar with before this year - 2005 single 'Grass'. I didn't like it then and, try as I might, didn't like it during this walk home. I failed in my self-set challenge, and haven't gone back to it since. The urge to plunge into albums-worth of unfamiliar material is reduced from its already meagre level of enthusiasm by the fact that the current album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is still sufficiently exciting to make me want to listen to it and nothing else by them. I managed to listen to Strawberry Jam the other day, though, so perhaps there's hope for me yet.

Then again, the gig is the day after tomorrow...

Postscript: Apologies for any typographical errors. I'm writing this on a laptop whose keys have so little travel I may as well be vaguely waving my hand a few inches over them, for all the tactile satisfaction I glean from typing.

12 March 2009

More Faith, no?

So Faith No More announced they were getting back together. I should be happy. I am happy, in a way, because it’s inherently good. However, like Chinese Democracy, it should never have happened in the first place. It’s always better as something to fantasise about than as something to have to face up to in real life.

On the Gn’R tip, it was a combination of the album’s massively prolonged gestation – with requisite Axl awesomeness – and the fact that it was always going to be rubbish. Even removing The Spaghetti Incident from the discussion, the Use Your Illusion albums were patchy and bloated, and they were 17 years closer to the band’s recorded peak than Chinese Democracy. There was nothing to look forward to.

In FNM’s case, it’s more about principle. While they were a fantastic band; the best thing any member was involved in; a reunion should never have been necessary. I suppose it still isn’t necessary. Anyway, Patton – the focal point since 1989, let’s face it – had a million other things on the go, and never seemed to look back.

Quite aside from another fantastic band that sadly folded, Mr. Bungle, Patton made great noises with Tomahawk, Fantômas, John Zorn, Kid606 and Melvins. Decent noises with Kaada, Peeping Tom, Dan the Automator, Björk and the X-Ecutioners. He did soundtracks of his own, and released compilations of Morricone’s. He was always looking at the next idea, and never back.

But I suppose it’s the fact that Patton always wanted to surprise people that meant such an unexpected move as this should come as no surprise. Why the hell not reunite one of the greatest bands of the last two decades? Perhaps Mike was gearing up to make the fourth Tomahawk album only to find his guitarist, Duane Denison, was busy rehearsing with his own past: Jesus Lizard.

FNM are apparently playing one date. Download Festival, at Donington Park. £160 for a ticket. £160 to see one band. The second-best band on a bill full of dinosaurs and nu-metal embarrassments is probably Def Leppard. And if I was bothered about seeing them, I’d have bought a ticket for their arena tour. So it’s a bit of a wash-out. Hopefully they’ll play more dates. That would make sense, but Faith No More was not a band for whom making sense was a priority.

There must be an upside to this though, right? Well yeah, of course there is. And it’s in the personnel. If this were purely a nostalgia trip, someone would have thrown enough money at the hirsute and homophobic pumpkin farmer – and original guitarist – Jim Martin. No, he doesn’t grow gay-hating fruit. Or does he?

I digress. The telling thing here is the fact that the line-up is the last one the band had before splitting: the 1997-98 band. Not the ‘classic’ line-up, nor the original one (Chuck Moseley, now there’s your ticket seller). Nor the one with Courtney Love singing, thank fuck.

This suggests to me, along with the band’s assertion that their music still sounds good after all these years – that the motivation for this reunion is actually to make music. What a novel concept. That would explain why Patton would be willing to take a step back in time, a step back in the musical complexity stakes. It would also explain the one announced date.

This is why I’m excited. While this summer will mark 12 years since the last Faith No More record, I am optimistic that this quintet is sufficiently good, un-ravaged by the process of time, and realistic, to deliver a good album. Their hitherto swansong, Album of the Year, is no older than Portishead’s self-titled album after all. It’s not like Third was rubbish, unless you attend Paul Morley’s avant-garde dinner parties.

I should also mention that the band was better without Jim Martin anyway. While they delivered some absolutely classic songs with Martin, in the shape of ‘The Real Thing’, ‘Surprise! You’re Dead’, ‘Midlife Crisis’ and ‘Caffeine’, dropping him was a wise move.

Jim Martin was a very creative heavy metal guitarist who pumped out many cool riffs. But Faith No More was about more than just heavy metal. Once the rest of the band were free of him, they were able to flex their considerable creative muscles and make music they’d arguably have been unable to with him on board.

Faith No More was always about strong personalities, but perhaps they need one straight man (between Martin and Hudson, they used Bungle man Trey Spruance – last seen in post-metal darlings Asva – on King for a Day… Fool for a Lifetime) to act as their glue. With that many personalities pulling in opposite directions, someone has to follow orders and allow the creativity to flow without either being hampered or imploding.

Eventually, of course, the band did implode. And in terms of ‘in it for the money’ accusations, it’s not as though Mike Bordin would make much more money drumming for Faith No More than he did with Korn and Ozzy Osbourne. If anything, this is him ‘selling in’. Hudson, bassist Bill Gould, and Bordin have been all too creatively quiet since FNM ended (Roddy Bottum has had his Imperial Teen outlet for years); maybe this is what they’ve been waiting for all along.

Or maybe the joke is on me.

07 March 2009

Royal Trux reissues

Without wanting to come on all Rock Family Trees, there was a band called Pussy Galore. In it were people who rocked, including men called Jon Spencer and Neil Hagerty. By the time Pussy Galore ended in a shower of recrimination and Spanish best-of parody art, new bands had already risen like pre-emptive phoenixes: Boss Hog, Blues Explosion and Royal Trux. While all are worth investigation, only one has had its first pair of albums re-released in the last few weeks.

Royal Trux burst onto 'the scene' in 1987 fully formed, and pretty much better than every other band out there. While it's dang near impossible to say the same about pretty much any band in the now, Trux changed rock music for the better in three short years. (They didn't go bad after that, they just made their mark in a hurry.)

They were the musical equivalent of Ren and Stimpy, and not just because both entities put you in mind of slacker garage rock. I’m serious.

Both Ren and Stimpy and Royal Trux were era-defining aberrations. Both were seemingly dysfunctional duos whose chemistry worked, well, til it stopped working. Ostensibly married to the past, but approximately a thousand years ahead of their time, both pairs were the epitome of cool: capturing the zeitgeist yet offering slightly surreal thrills whenever you happened upon them. And that's without even invoking the 1993 record Cats and Dogs.

Royal Trux visually surprises by following the Xerox-chic cover art with hazy orange cityscape sunset for the centre sticker. While minimal, it evokes so much: the sun metaphorically setting on the Reagan era, for one. The 1980s summer-rock epoch of convertibles and hot-pink string bikinis, of Dave Lee Roth solo albums and Sunset Strip decadence, was coming to an end. Like a dying star, its content was insufficient to justify its own mass.

So, straddling the attitude of peak Guns N' Roses and the experimentation of the Velvet Underground, Trux meant business. Like VU, this was the sound of a garage rock underground gone horribly right. 'Incineration' is almost a twenty-years-later sequel to 'Electricity'. From the 1967 debut record of another set of garage rock explorers, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, that song was wickedly disjointed. Especially considering how loved-up most major bands seemed to be that year. Both 'Incineration' and 'Electricity' have their titles used as weapons, sneered and smeared, with some sustain, almost at odds with the musical message.

It's almost as if Trux have sucked the youthful vigour out of garage rock at times. Like they have to kill it in order for it to live again. 'Esso Dame' bears the signifiers of the style, heart on its sleeve. Only Hagerty and Herrema have taken it literally and the ventricles and viscera are pumping away, bleeding down the short sleeved White Light, White Heat shirt. The loose drums, simple-but-catchy basslines and alternately sneering and drawled vocals are all there.

There’s something awry, though: our Doctors Frankenstein created a monster. Far be it from me to accuse anyone of heroin use but this is rocking as might happen, to borrow a turn of phrase from Poe, in the excitement of an opium dream.

At times, the record flirts with tradition. Hagerty's vocals on 'Gold Dust' recall the sound of mid-decade Gun Club or Replacements. But just as you think they're getting earnest, a completely loopy guitar line is drawn, like crayon on a newly-papered wall, all over the song.

As fresh as it was, Royal Trux did little to prepare listeners for Twin Infinitives (1990). Again, monochrome artwork hid an explosion of detail. The gatefold, this time, bears a great montage of drawings, photos and randomness, rather like the Carcass albums of that era, but with less dead people.

Like the design, the music at first seems random, carelessly thrown together. This is the real intelligence behind Royal Trux, that pervaded their entire career (and carries on still): they managed to make it look/sound like as though they weren't trying, like the music was effortless and un-thought out.

Really, the opposite is true. There are songs that sound thrown together, and may well have been. 'Solid Gold Tooth' features rambling, incoherent vocals, voices as bassline, while Autobots brawl it out with Decepticons above their heads, their laser fire criss-crossing the music.

The mix manages to sound sparse and bare, but when you focus deeply into the void, there are tons of details: subtle rhythmic samples, ambience, devilish details. 'Jet Pet' begins with a mouthwash-gargle tribute to the 'Voodoo Chile' intro, before Jennifer deconstructs rock and roll language: "YEAH YEAH YEAH, HEY HEY".

'(Edge of the) Ape Oven', sprawling across side three, is where Trux clue you in on the method behind the madness. The electro-percussion sounds for all the world like a avant-garde Terence Trent D'Arby, but the song soon launches itself towards the moon.

The guitar assumes many shapes on this track. There are noises and effects, jangle-chords, blues-influenced riffing and even metallic speed-picking. Always totally in control, the band know when to rein it in, and the last movement of the song's spent in hooksville. For all the criticisms of the album being too random, there are strong hooks; the dynamics are clearly thought-out.

That's what's so thrilling. There were other, similarly great, rock albums around this time, whether Slint's Spiderland, Jane's Addiction's Ritual de lo Habitual, or CarcassNecroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious. Some were easier to get a handle on than others, such as the minimal Slint album. The Carcass album was a wonder of technical brutality, but death metal had been hinting at a record like that for some time. Twin Infinitives is a landmark in intelligence dressed up as glamorous trash, of massive ambition realised on the sly.

The Trux would enjoy more high-points before eventually burning out in acrimony. Accelerator and Pound for Pound were both fantastic, though relatively traditional, records in the latter days of the band. The former, especially, was a catchy fuzz-freak out. Its hooks and riffs were a signpost on the highway to the super-charger Heaven that Jennifer still seeks with current crew RTX.

RTX: the name itself is a throwback to a song on Twin Infinitives, as well as an icon the band used on the Thank You and Sweet Sixteen records. While Jennifer has clearly been on her own musical journey since starting the new band, its name is a constant link back to the legacy of Trux.

Musically, Herrema maintains the faux innocence to this day. The two most recent of RTX’s trilogy have been increasingly traditional in their hard rock/heavy metal sounds, but still there is a concept trying them together, of Jennifer as Pied Piper capturing rats (or 'RaTX').

Their 2004 debut, Transmaniacon, is vital. Working from a blueprint of Appetite for Destruction, RTX weave in myriad effects, from autotune abuse to P-Funk sampling. The result is an incredibly well written, psychedelically fucked up album.

Neil Hagerty, meanwhile, has been releasing records under his own name and the Howling Hex. No idea why this is yet another band whose name ends in 'x', but it clearly works.

Hagerty's output is often applauded for being ostensibly 'truer' to the sound of original Trux but, given the original band's propensity for change, the fact that they were all about ripping up the past and rearranging, rather than retreading it, I question the value of such praise. Still, the 'Hex provides an intriguingly organic redux of Perrey-Kingsley's swirling, intentionally perplexed polyphony.

Garage rock itself has been on a bit of a downward spiral since these records became history. Scandinavia briefly took the reins during an especially fecund period, The Hellacopters and Turbonegro, with related bands Backyard Babies and Super$hit 666, bringing the goods. However, as with any movement, the rot set in: the lasting impression is of adequate, but inferior, Hives and the White Stripes.

Thankfully, the Royal Trux influence carries on elsewhere. This level of experimentation-within-bounds can be heard in the best work from The Liars and The Hospitals. The later work of noise-rock supremos Skullflower even suggests something of a debt in terms of interpreting a genre aesthetic by delving inside and exploding it.

Recent news of Touch and Go scaling back its pressing and distribution operations – Royal Trux' home Drag City being a partner – is sobering. One hopes that the current financial climate, rather than scuppering the chances of another band like this coming along, would inspire musicians to make vital music in the face of institutions crashing down. To challenge falling sales and labels by making art vital again. Or at least DC can re-release Cats and Dogs on vinyl…

It would take a lot for anything to top these two records as rock reissues of 2009. But, with Touch and Go itself readying the Jesus Lizard back catalogue for release, it looks like one form of business is about to pick up.

01 March 2009

Emeralds – What Happened

More Fact-age!


No Fun Productions (2009)

I expected something different from Emeralds. The name suggests a music at once multi-faceted, brightly shimmering and hard to the core. But the image, of three neo-grunge dudes slumped anonymously over samplers and synths suggests something altogether sleazier; low-rent. Maybe a poor man’s Wolf Eyes. Or, dare we utter it, a bit like Sightings circa 2004?

Thankfully, the latter is not the case. Nor the former, though Wolf Eyes themselves are a fine combo. The album is split into five slices, two brief (in other words, under ten minutes) and three temporally solid entries.

‘Alive in the Sea of Information’ – a snip at eight minutes – opens What Happened in quite pleasant style. Jetson-futurist sparkles dance across the stereo image over black synth gurgle, while super-slow pitch-bend recalls the Plaid-in-molasses of ‘Kid A’.

Then a beast of a note invades the serenity, consuming all in its path. An uneasy equilibrium is reached, where neither side truly wins. It is at this point that a stretched-out human note joins the fray. The disembodied voice of god, taking no sides in this eternal struggle between light and shade.

This theme of ugly clashing with beautiful recurs throughout What Happened. ‘Damaged Kids’ spends an eternity bound in a chrysalis composed of oscillation and delay. Once it breaks through, it takes flight into the night on silken wings of effected guitar strings in a beautiful place out in the country. But beyond the Boards it treads, strumming, thrumming guitars bring the dread, turning out the stars like lights as their clattering volume increases.

After the brevity of ‘Up in the Air’, we get an electro take on Boris’ Flood, in the disarmingly named ‘Living Room’. Steady drip-drip guitar-picking slowly pools on the sonic floor as a fat synth-bass note lurks in the shadows. This fuzz tone builds and shapes, steadily, into an electronic scythe.

The scythe then slices clean through the skull of the mix. Pink flowers nervously blossom on the brain stem, their radiance refracting shards of light on the murky underworld of Kevin Drumm’s fantastic Imperial Distortion. The flowers flourish and tangle with the handle of the scythe, both competing and complementing in the kinetic melee. Then it ends, abruptly.

Final track ‘Disappearing Ink’ is a victory in motionless dynamics. Those pink flowers reverse-engineer into trees, while bees attempt to go about their nectar harvesting business even as amber hardens around their feet. This is music of paradox: slow waves of melody and texture swarm upward in spirals. Ghosts of song haunt, but are confined to one space, doomed to eternally repeat their one pattern. This is a restless catatonia, where it all happens while time stands still.

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