21 November 2010

Afterschool

'He's a peeping Tom!'
Antonio Campos (2008)

This was sent to me by LoveFilm, but I have little to no idea how it got on my list. I don't recall anybody recommending it to me, and it can't have been added to my list following a director/actor trawl (they're all largely unknown). The only thing I can think of was that I added it after the recent Sight and Sound 'Latin American Cinema' thing. I dunno. However it got on my list, I wish it hadn't have. It's not that Afterschool is terrible. It's just mediocre and boring. But read on, nevertheless, dear reader!

Really, it's just a school-set Todd Solondz film. Like Storytelling, then, but without The Todd's ability to utterly repulse his viewer. Campos tries, though. The film concerns a kid in a boarding school who's, like, rilly weird or something? He doesn't play sport, and looks at rude things (with a violent theme) on the internet. He's a member of the audiovisual club and is really shy. Anyway, he's friends with a girl, and they fool around, and he tries the slightly violent thing he saw to make the fooling around a bit more kinky, and she doesn't like it. How dare she not want to be strangled. He also gets slightly bullied, but not in a major, this-is-a-film, kind of way.

It's all a bit low key. The pivotal plot moment comes when two pretty twins, the girls who rule the school, stagger into a corridor, and fall over. There's blood and screaming, and laboured breathing. Our weirdo protagonist just happens to be there. We only see the action from a CCTV camera, so don't know what exactly is happening. It's so mysterious! As he discovered the girls just before their untimely demises, Weirdo is counselled. But then everyone is. A detective asks him questions, but nothing develops there. Our boy gets asked, as a member of the AV club, to put together a tribute video to them.

Only it turns out to suck! Man, what with that, the light and occasional bullying, and his not-girlfriend not liking strangulation, he seems to be a powder keg, just waiting to combust! Think about it. He keeps himself to himself! He has impure thoughts! And he's in a boarding school! It's got Posh Boy Columbine written all over it. Only there's no KMFDM on the soundtrack. But hey, there's no anything on the soundtrack. He gets into a fight with his room-mate, and gets suspended for a bit. When he comes back, he's still really quiet! And it turns out he actually hastened the death of one of the girls: instead of running for help, he put his hand over her breathing bits! The monster. And it turns out someone is filming him. And it finishes.

Did I miss something, or was that just a completely underwhelming film? Maybe Campos decided a swathe of murderlisation would have been cliche, and he's too cool and arthouse for that. He's low-key, and would rather very little happens. Smaller episodes can mean more, of course, but only if you create a strong relationship between protagonist and audience. Campos doesn't. His protagonist is just a little shit who we see jerk off and punch himself in the face (not at the same time; that would have been more interesting). We don't care. We're not given any reason to. Apparently being a slightly put-upon, spoiled kid in an indie film is enough to make us care. Sadly not. The film's hour and 42 minutes feel like a little eternity, and nothing is gained from surviving its duration. Catharsis in the form of homicide or suicide would have been something. Or just a cool little idea. His turning around to find a camera on him is just pitiful. Wow, the fourth wall just, like, totally collapsed or something.

Whatever.

08 October 2010

Emeralds - Does It Look Like I’m Here

shiny!
Editions Mego (2010)

While very enjoyable, last year's What Happened was a somewhat ephemeral delight, awareness of its quality fading into the dark recesses of memory. Perhaps a very clever reference to the inherent temporary nature of beauty. Or not. Whatever the case, that fact occurred to this reviewer when listening to Does It Look Like I’m Here, the Ohio trio's latest, and Mego debut. It's another delight while it lasts, but is it missing that special ingredient; the confounded x-factor?

When an artist works in the candy shop(pe) of synthesisers and samples, the temptation can be great to simply construct a melange of loops and arpeggi, before sitting back, content in the knowledge he has once more involved himself in the art of composition. The effect can be super-luscious when layered just right, but this method is rather more miss than hit in the grand scheme of things. Once or twice, Emeralds fall foul of this trap on Does It Look Like I’m Here. Perhaps the thrill of buying new equipment over-rides what may seem a Promethean desire to interfere too much with the novelty of sounds. I don't know.

Emeralds seem to realise this potential pitfall. 'Double Helix' loops along in a relaxed manner (admittedly fittingly, given its spiralling namesake... but the song was presumably named after its own structure, rather than the moniker forcing the song into its shape), but the group has compensated for this in advance. Ever-important track #1 is 'Candy Shoppe', a song that begins by laying out a Sim City spaghetti junction of pixel layers, but which transcends that by injecting actual melodic progression.

Just as you're starting to get all cynical about the form the song - and album - might take, the dirt-bass synth line enters to chart a line that's oddly similar to 'Never Meant', the beautiful signature anthem by emo/indie mayflies American Football. This happy submission to the traditional song empowers, rather than compromises, Emeralds' message: electro-fuzz translations of decade-old emo classics = A Really Fucking Good Thing (and a breath of fresh air, however unintentional). It's a human touch, a sense of sentience in what could otherwise have been a faceless jumble of rather nice aural strands. While it's accessible and fun, the song's charms are too delicate for clubland: this is a cosy, personal buzz.

When the twin paths of textural and melodic progression unite, as on the epic 'Genetic', we end up with a clear album highlight. Opening with the kind of Philip Glass-ular rippling repetition you might expect to soundtrack a montage of rushing rivers, newspapers and money being printed, and the trails of speeding cars' lights on night motorways. Equally, it summons images of myriad digital seraphim batting their wings against the neon stained glass of the Church of Kraftwerk. For twelve minutes it ebbs and flows, but with ever-building inertia. Electric guitar once more shows Emeralds' fearlessness in the face of retro or corniness, as it adds to the tonal palette of the piece, as well as the welcome audacity of the band. From here we get early 90s Orbtechre synth-waves and random Sounds of the Future. Perfect for balmy summer evenings, especially in the last few minutes when the mix turns itself inside out, a la Kyuss' '50 Million Year Trip (Downside Up)'.

After the euphoric of 'Genetic' comes a welcome change of pace, in the serene 'Goes By'. This juxtaposition raises a question about Emeralds. When you hear these two songs together, as well as that blinder of a first song, the less memorable songs get put into perspective. While nothing on here is less than good, it makes you wonder how much of it you'll remember a year from now, when Does It Look Like I’m Here is as old as What Happened. There is definite growth here; whether Mego courted Emeralds due to their increasing sophistication, or the band decided to poshen up after being invited to Rehberg's party (or a combination of the two), the move towards more coherent structures is evident. This is not Emeralds' "pop album": the coincidence of this lot, Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance and Black Dice (and whoever else's sound is - gasp! - evolving) all making the same move in the space of 18 months is ludicrous.

But this is more accessible than past albums, and at its best, more complex and rewarding. You get the feeling that there is better to come; that there is a record on their horizon that can consistently achieve the high points of What Happened, Emeralds and this one. It's a fine line between dynamism and patchiness, and it's not as though an album full of 'Genetic's would particularly work. You do get the feeling that while they may not quite be there yet, Emeralds have it in them to walk that line with aplomb.

27 August 2010

Dillinger Escape Plan - Option Paralysis

Option Paralysis
Season of Mist (2010)

How disappointing can a very good album be? Along with Converge, the Dillinger Escape Plan are the big survivor of the late 1990s short sharp shock that was Noisecore. Like Thrash metal laying waste to all that preceded in the 1980s, Noisecore was another razing of the rock establishment. DEP pretty much killed off first-generation Metalcore with their 7.5 minute(!) EP Under the Running Board, in 1998, before minting their bewildering signature sound the following year with début proper Calculating Infinity. This was a super-technical, ultra-heavy, imaginative record that sat comfortably with other gems from that year such as Botch's We Are the Romans, and 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening, by Coalesce.

After half a decade, a Mike Patton collaboration and a change of singer, Miss Machine (2004) was both their breakthrough and disappointment. While vocalist Greg Puciato brought a new-found sense of melody to a couple of songs, the record, for the most part, was retreading a now-familiar path. The quality was upped by the slightly more dynamic Ire Works (2007), but the norm was still the Noisecore bluster the band mastered in 1999.

Option Paralysis is the latest Dillinger Escape Plan record; and the song, largely, remains the same. Familiar is the breakneck, technical metal of opener 'Farewell, Mona Lisa', as is the choppy arthythm of the guitars. To be fair to the band, they have integrated the shouty tech-hardcore with the melodic choruses to a greater degree, to the extent that they have progressed past the heavy song/melodic song duality. But while the recipe may have been revised on Option Paralysis, the ingredients are the same as they have been since 2004. There is no reason why, for example, 'Good Neighbor' could not have been on Miss Machine. 'Endless Endings' could probably have been on Calculating Infinity, moving, as it does from syringe-incisive guitar stabs through jazzy interludes, to disoriented arpeggio. It is very good, but nothing new.

In 1986, Megadeth were pretty much the hottest property in metal, instantly antiquating the NWOBHM that had directly preceded. By 1997 they were completely insipid, replaced by the younger, hungrier, more brutal likes of Machine Head, Pantera and Fear Factory. Time has been kind to Dillinger Escape Plan, in comparison. Unlike decades past, musicians in many genres can release music in 2010 that sounds not unlike music from 2000, and few will bat an eyelid. (Have the likes of Kid A, Dopethrone, Stankonia, Tragic Epilogue and Rated R really aged?) But, compared to their own oeuvre, DEP are growing stale.

The guitars are still phenomenally-played, and do run the gamut from off-kilter staccato to melodic rock riffing and pretty much everything in between. Drummer Gil Sharone, on his second DEP album, further justifies his replacement of human octopus Chris Pennie, whose move to Coheed And Cambria remains a mystery. And Greg Puciato is still emulating Mike Patton as best he can. He's more macho than Patton, but lacking in the Faith No More frontman's endless charisma and vocal variety. Puciato can shout, he can hold a tune, and he can talk all crazy, like. But he just doesn't bring the variety the music is so desperate for.

There are times when it all comes together perfectly, as on the quite stunning 'Widower'. As with 'Mouth of Ghosts' from Ire Works, a piano-based track that leaves all but a handful of Nick Cave songs from the last decade and a half in the dust, 'Widower' lets the keys do the talking. It builds very gradually, from almost A Reminiscent Drive-level gentleness, and even when the guitars are in full effect, they don't overpower the mix, instead weaving buoyant chord progression into it. The dynamics, hooks and performance are all top-notch on this track: its very excellence is maddening, as it gives you a glimpse as to how good Dillinger can be. As they did with 'Mouth of Ghosts' and 'Dead As History' from the last album. As they did with 'Setting Fire to Sleeping Giants' and 'Unretrofied', from the one before.

There are other tastes of heavy mental brilliance, as on the softly lovelorn, Commodores-meet-Mr. Bungle tones of 'Parasitic Twins', itself following lyrically and musically from the spiteful, excellent, dizzyingly ambitious second half of 'I Wouldn't If You Didn't'. At times like this, Dillinger sound like themselves, and nobody else. Which is why it's so galling that they seem content to sound, for the most part, like a band that's trying to sound like The Dillinger Escape Plan circa 1999. Wanky pastiche is fine for the likes of Estradasphere; let Meshuggah lose themselves in the endlessly repeating, labyrinthine circuit board twists and turns of their own musical creation.

'Heat Deaf Melted Grill' is a bit of a damp squib on which to end things, though it's apparently a bonus track. The second half of the album is certainly the superior half, oddly. It's as though the band, despite chestbeating proclamations of being daring or experimental, fears turning off its core fanbase of fratboys and toughguys, seeking to reassure them with familiar moshpit beatdown soundtrack. But it's this - baffling - apparent self-handicapping strategy that is holding them back from actually creating a brilliant record. For years, they have been hinting at greatness, delivering two or three phenomenal songs amid a sea of 'very good' complacency. Option Paralysis is another very good record, but how great could it have been? And for how long will they continue to intentionally nobble themselves in favour of scoring video game soundtrack paydays?

22 August 2010

Skullflower - Strange Keys To Untune Gods' Firmament

Strange Keys To Untune Gods' Firmament
Neurot (2010)

I tried. I listened to it on low volume, to see if that noise-as-ambient (and vice versa, for that matter) rule worked. I played it hella loud, hoping an unholy black maelstrom would sweep me up in its infernal clutches. I tried because Matthew Bower has released some impeccably powerful music in his time, including Orange Canyon Mind and Desire for a Holy War, in recent years. I tried because this is his debut on Neurot Records, a label run by the legendary Neurosis, which has released absolute stunners in the last couple of years from the likes of Akimbo and A Storm Of Light.

Sometimes there's nothing you can do, beyond enduring two hours of boredom. Tracks begin as confused churns of noise, and go nowhere from there, sometimes for up to 15 minutes at a time. The only changes occur when one track ends and another begins; the listener is plunged once more into incessant drudge, like being buried alive in worm-ridden soil. Gone is the fizzling, exciting potential energy of Orange Canyon Mind, replaced with nothing but lethargy.

I once read that, rather than the comic-Satanick likes of Morbid Angel, Skullflower were the real, pitch-dark, death metal deal. Even if that were once the case, this lumpen example would be dead metal. Any energy, light or imagination has been eradicated, as though Strange Keys To Untune Gods' Firmament represented the last signal broadcastable from the singularity of a black hole. And, at least for nihilism on such a scale, Bower should be applauded.

Your reviewer tested this album in a number of contexts. Most successful was a walk home, after a particularly ferocious rain storm. The streets were empty, the uneven surfaces of the footpath filled with stagnant, acidic water. The sky was baleful in its bruised complexion, threatening another downpour. And then it came, soaking everything in seconds; raindrops pounding all beneath them as though with bad intentions; water-covered spectacles reducing vision to a haze of dusk and blotch-streetlights. In this situation, the album made more sense, as a soundtrack to a low-key Omega Man, walking the streets in grim un-light.

Were you able to guarantee blustery weather bordering on the malicious for each listen, Strange Keys To Untune Gods' Firmament might come quite heartily recommended. Similarly so if your aesthetic taste overlaps with the soundtrack of a construction site: pneumatic drills, cement mixers and idling engines coalescing into a steady drone. Otherwise, it's hard to find a silver lining on this darkest of nimbostratus clouds; two hours you'll likely wish you had back. If this is a grower, you probably won't live long enough to enjoy the fruition.

18 April 2010

Great news from Propagandhi

I learned some info today from fantastic Canadian punk rock band Propagandhi. Read it yourself here. The long and short of it is they are writing a new album already, which will be ready for recording at the end of this year. That's special for a couple of reasons:

1. They usually tend to do albums every four years, and the last one was last year.
2. Their last two albums have been clear albums of the year for me. 2005 and 2009. No contest. And, apparently:
judging from the 7 tunes we have going so far, it’s going to leave everything we’ve done in the past in the stinking dust. yes, virginia, even ska sucks.
This is very exciting for a Stan like me, and for anyone who likes things that are good. The one cloud under this silver lining is the fact that they need a new record label, after current home Smallman Records 'is calling it a day and moving on to real lives that don’t involve unstoppable bangers at the top of their game (that’s us, hosehead)'. But, given that the'Gandhi is the finest band on science's green Earth, that should not be a problem. Hopefully.

12 April 2010

First quarter listening: artists

Lots more Ke$ha!

Okay, so I did the songs. Next in my cavalcade of music-related geekdom is the artist analysis. Most of it is pretty simple stuff ('I listened to an album a couple of times'), but humour me, eh? This is the first of what will hopefully be... a number... of quarterly reviews that I can use to spot patterns of listening, trends and longevity, areas of nostalgia etc. Or just a way to pad my post count. Either way, here we are.

***

Ke$ha (318 plays)

Wow, after the last post, you'll be super-surprised to learn that the most-listened artist of 2010 q1 is Ke$ha. Bloody hell, what an upset: she only had 15 of my 16 most-played songs of the young year. Well I'll be. You get the idea. Facetiousness aside, her album is great, and I listened to it a lot. I've slowed down now, thankfully. (Later in the post we'll address what happens when obsessions don't die down so readily. It gets messy.)

Propagandhi(135 plays)

They are pretty distant second in 2010, but absolutely owned my 2009 in terms of plays. I might one day actually get round to my planned 2009-in-numbers dorkfest, but you know what I'm like when it comes to planning anything. Let's just say they had 1339 plays and leave it at that for now. They're the best band in the world, and I think it'd admirable that they were still the second most-listened artist in the fourth quarter after their most recent album (Supporting Caste, in March) had been released. To be quite honest, I can add 30-40 plays to their count at any time without really thinking, such is their quality and staying power. I even like the relatively lame first two albums now.

Paramore (128 plays)

I don't know why, but I used to think Paramore were Canadian, like Propagandhi. Instead it turns out they're from Tennessee. Like Ke$ha. Err, and Miley Cyrus, Jay Reatard, His Hero Is Gone and Be Your Own Pet! Now that's what I call a musically awesome state. At one point, most of their listens came from criminally under-rated sophomore album Riot! (2007). Now, I'm really starting to feel the more traditionally (i.e. second generation, rather than the current third) emo debt album. You know: plaintiveness and sensitivity, rather than melodrama and rocking out. But you already know I think 3rd gen emo has more in common with glam metal than it does any other type of emo. Finally, after initial disappointment, latest album Brand New Eyes is growing on me. I expect this band to surge as the year goes on.

Lady Gaga (98 plays)

I can pretty much guarantee la Gaga will win q2, as I think she's already added 100 plays to this total since the screengrab was made. The Fame was good, if rather lacking in consistency. The Fame Monster displays outrageous growth, both in terms of overall quality and in variety of sounds. But I'm working on a review of that one. Yeah, that's how weird I've got now. Reviewing Lady Gaga albums apropos of nothing. So I'll leave most of my fawning for then.

Shining (87 plays)

As I said in the songs round-up, this lot would be a lot higher up if iPhone scrobbling wasn't outlawed by Apple's hardware. I seriously listened to this every day in January/February, because the album was imminent, because the then-constant snow put me in mind of the band's native Norway, and because Blackjazz is the best album of 2010. I also listened to the two great albums preceding it - In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster and Grindstone - once or twice in anticipation. They really need to tour England. Especially now the snow's gone!

Miley Cyrus and Black Breath (64 plays)

Slightly contrasting artists here, but I'm no snob. If something is worth listening to, I will listen to it. At least half the Cyrus plays (maths was never my strong point) come from the two songs I banged on about in the last post. The one album I do have, Breakout, is rather hit and miss. Some of it is perfectly serviceable pop-punk-pop (the title track especially); some of it is crap (the 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' cover springing immediately to mind); overall it's surprisingly listenable. The Black Breath is destined to be reviewed by me in the very near future. Suffice to say it's the best pure thrash album I've heard in years, and makes Municipal Waste sound like a set of chancers. Dark, brutal, fast and brilliant. Just wait for the review!

Also, I'd pay to hear a Miley Cyrus & Black Breath album.

Blink-182 (59 plays)
NOFX (46 plays)

The finest exponents of pop-punk. After a youth spent denying the '182, and claiming they were just a crap band for kids, I caved and bought Enema of the State (1999) in 2008. Turns out it's brilliant, and one of the best albums from that year. Were any evidence needed, I'm still listening to it. I think this quarter's listening was bolstered by my finally buying the following album, Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. It's reasonable, but not a patch on the faster, fresher Enema... hmm, that sentence looks so wrong. NOFX are just the masters. Been into them since 1997, the year their magnum opus (the unfortunately- and misdirectingly-named So Long and Thanks For All the Shoes) was released. Still listening to it. I mentioned patterns and nostalgia earlier. Pop punk seems to be that particular trip, even though I wasn't really a fan at its 1990s peak, preferring instead the far more manly post-thrash (Sepultura, Machine Head, Pantera, Skinlab et al) at the time.

Soundgarden (39 plays)

No real pattern for this one. I just happened to listen this number of Soundgarden songs in this three-month period. It may have been a subconscious return to the musical womb in reaction to how crap the once-brilliant Chris Cornell had been. Soundgarden, Temple Of The Dog, that brilliant first solo album: he was on fire in the 1990s. And everything he has done in the intervening decade has seen a downward spiral into mediocrity. And then further, into Timbaland collaboration. Let's just pretend that never happened, and listen instead to this. How hot was he.

Trapped Under Ice (38 plays)
Snapcase, Integrity and the Dillinger Escape Plan (25 plays)

Went through a big metalcore phase around a month ago. Discovered some new stuff, such as the Trapped Under Ice (a big and pleasant surprise for 2009), and revelled in the nostalgia of yer Snapcase, Dillinger Escape Plan and Strife. I'd never actually given Integrity the time of day when they were knocking about. This was due to the combination of their singer seeming like an idiot, their being called Integrity, and the singer firing everyone and forming Integrity 2000. Turns out their early stuff was really good. Though I planned on doing so, I never really did listen to any more recent metalcore, TUI excepted. Still, DEP (not technically metalcore, but I've written over 1000 words at this point) have a new one out. I wonder if I'm going to review it...

And then other stuff. I listened to the Reatard because Jay very unfortunately died during this quarter. He was born in the same year as me, so it's very sad stuff. Jaga Jazzist had an album out this quarter, but like the Shining, I did most of my listening on the move. I listened to the Posehn album once. It's good, but beeped promos are rubbish. MadLove, one of the highlights of 2009, are still getting some... love off me. Naked City, Genghis Tron and Kid Dynamite are all fantastic jazzcore experimentation/techno-noisecore/good old-fashioned punk rock, and I will hopefully listen to them as long as I live. Just not in massive amounts.

And that was my first quarter!

04 April 2010

First quarter listening: songs

Right, so FACT have done their state of first quarter 2010 thing, and informative it is too. Check it out!

I'm not going to suggest 20 best albums of the quarter. I'm not sure I've even listened to 20 new albums in the last quarter. (This will largely be explained below.) What I will do is look at my personal listening habits in the last three months (so yeah, technically 4 Jan-4 Apr, as I took the screengrabs today. What can you do). This won't be completey accurate, as my iPhone scrobbling is not working particularly well, and I do a fair bit of listening to records. However, most of my listening gets scrobbled, as I do it through my MacBook, which goes into the Death Deck, for full high fidelity. But without further ado, my Q1!

Lots of Ke$ha!

As you can see, Ke$ha took the quarter by storm. What, you wanna make something of it? Yeah, thought not. While I don't consider hers the album of the year thus far (it's second behind the still stunning Shining record), Animal is a heck of a lot more accessible than Blackjazz. That's pretty much the size of it, really. 'Tik Tok' is one of the most-listened songs, as it was her single, and I illegally downloaded it before the album was released. Sorry about that, Sony Music. The other two songs with 22 plays are the high points of the album: 'Stephen' and 'Boots & Boys'. They're awesome.

It'd be remiss of my not to mention the actual winner of Q1: 'Full Circle', by Miley Cyrus. To be honest, I'm not really sure how that happened. I'll not lie to you: it is really bloody good, and I feel no guilt whatsoever. I just can't really recall how I began listening. Clearly, I'm getting more and more into sugary pop music, and Miley represents that. And I was watching a fair bit of Disney Channel with my sister over xmas. So I banged the album on the phone and set to shuffling. This stood out as a highlight of her album, which is pretty average overall. What makes this one is the chorus. Cyrus staggers it, so it becomes pretty epic; one of those great choruses that just keeps going, and just gets better the longer it goes on. Plus its last line is harmonised, so you can't go wrong.

Funny story about the other Miley song on there. Apparently on her first album as herself, 'See You Again' gets remixed on the one I have. It sholdn't be good, but it is. Maybe it isn't actually good, but I like it, so there you go. It's a Euro-dance remix of the song. I used to loathe Euro-dance (you know, Vengaboys, Whigfield, Cascada et al). It was, and still is, the cheapest form of popular music out there. But while it used to make me feel dirty, I have since softened on it, presumably due at least in part to hearing it a lot while in Iran and southern Europe over the years.

On a conscious level, this softening has come from the pastiche of the fantastic Captain Ahab. (That they have promised 'the end of irony' for their imminent album is exciting indeed.) Their 2006 album, After the Rain My Heart Still Dreams, was full of brilliant parody, with no small amount of Euro-house. And I think it grew from there. Please don't hate me, but I actually legitimately like that Cascada song now. As I have always maintained, there is no ironic liking: if you like something in any way, you will like it genuinely, even on a subconscious level. Seriously. So this remix is another Cyrus song with a great chorus (I love the conversational style of lines like 'my best friend Lesley said/"Oh, she's just being Miley"', in this ballad of awkward teen crushes), underpinned by a cheap house beat. And I can't get enough of it.

Hopefully the presence of Lady Gaga speaks for itself. She's brilliant. And if you doubt the quality of a 'Paparazzi' or 'Bad Romance', then you can sod off and listen to anonymous indie and dubstep for the rest of your life.

The Shining songs are there because there are two pairs of songs that have the same name. And, because last.fm cannot differentiate between them (they are 'Exit Sun' and 'Exit Sun', as opposed to parts 1 and 2), they get double the plays. Crafty! Blackjazz, by the way, is an album that would really have benefited from iPhone scrobbling not being borked: I played that every day for weeks, on my snowy trudges home.

And that's it for the songs. Next up: which artists have I listened to the most? I mean, other than Ke$ha...

03 April 2010

UFC 111

Every time I write on the UFC, I preface it by saying it's been ages since the last time I did so, and let's see if I can get back into the habit of it. So let's pretend I've said it just now, rather than saying I usually say it. What a catchy lead-in! Okay, let's try again...

Despite valiant Dan Hardy's best efforts, he was unable to prevent Georges St-Pierre from leaving the Octagon, once more, as reigning welterweight champion. I knew going in that Hardy wasn't going to stand much of a chance. When asked my prediction for this one, I said GSP would 'eat Hardy alive'. I actually thought this fight would represent GSP's first stoppage win over a full-time welterweight in two years (that would be his revenge fight against Matt Serra, at UFC 83; BJ Penn, at UFC 94, was game, but clearly made for 155lbs). Credit, then, to Hardy for weathering the storm for five gruelling rounds.

What's stunning about GSP's clear dominance of the 170lb division is the fact that 'weathering the storm' is all his opponents can realistically hope to achieve. Whenever a challlenger emerges who everyone else allegedly fears, or who represents GSP's sternest challenge yet, they are lucky not to be pummelled into stoppage.

Witness Jon Fitch (UFC 87): he was a welterweight bogeyman, along with his team mate Josh Koscheck (dismantled by GSP at UFC 74). But he died numerous deaths when he faced GSP. I was blown away by Fitch's resistance in the face of unceasing adversity; he should have folded on at least two clear occasions, but he battled on. Ditto Thiago Alves (UFC 100): he'd been on a run through such leading 170lb lights as Karo Parisyan, Matt Hughes and Koscheck.

In both cases, predator became prey. Victory was not an option; surviving five rounds became a moral victory. And so it was here. Despite some (notably Koscheck, less notably me) thinking Hardy wasn't ready for such a fight quite yet, I was impressed at his refusal to submit to a variety of excruciating-looking arm submission attempts. At no point was Hardy on the offensive, nor did he so much as postpone any of St-Pierre's takedowns, but he survived. And that, in the face of a machine such as GSP, is commendable.

As aforementioned, St-Pierre hasn't stopped a 'proper' welterweight since April 2008 (and if you're one of these viewers stuck in the past, who views Serra as a fat lightweight, that'll take it back to the December 2007 dismantling of former 170lb king Matt Hughes). Some might think, albeit foolishly, that this represents an inability on GSP's part to stop his opponents. I wouldn't suggest that and, to be fair, I've not seen anyone suggest as much, but hey: he's winning a lot of decisions of late.

This one wasn't a stoppage simply because GSP wanted to submit Hardy, who was commendably resistant. Had the French-Canadian decided he wanted to stay in Hardy's guard (as his corner increasingly recommended), he should have been able to gain the early victory via ground and pound. Had he wanted to stand and strike with the Thai-trained Nottingham fighter, proceedings would have been more competitive, but one could easily have seen GSP wearing Hardy down by the fourth round; especially after a few rounds of takedowns and top-dominance.

Elsewhere, Shane Carwin made his name in a big way by demolishing former champion (and seeming automatic 'interim champion' whenever injury or contract dispute waylay the genuine article) Frank Mir. When predicting this one, I went for Carwin by KO, so go me. Mir's stand-up striking has come on in leaps and bounds since embarrassing performances against Wes Sims (UFC 46), evinced in fights with Cheick Kongo (UFC 107) and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (UFC 92).

This will have given him the confidence to strike with heavy-hitting Carwin, or perhaps he felt needs must on that front. While Mir's guard is something to be feared, he'd have a job getting the fight to the ground if Carwin didn't want it there. And, once there, would he want Carwin on top of him? This was a question that didn't need answering, as Carwin stuffed Mir up against the Octagon wall until he was able to knock the consciousness out of the former champ's cranium. Very impressive first round knockout win for Carwin, even if referee Dan Miragliotta stopped the fight only after Mir had taken way too many strikes.

If GSP isn't coming in for any flak for not finishing opponents, welterweight peer Jon Fitch certainly is. Making like a lighter Matt Lindland in terms of elite, grinding, competitors who get mysteriously under-rated, Fitch absolutely dominated lanky Ben Saunders en route to a clear decision win. Apparently boring according to what commentator Joe Rogan accurately terms 'the meathead factor', due to not engaging in dumb brawls, Fitch's complete shutdown of the much taller opponent was actually pretty scintillating. Only once or twice in the fifteen minutes did Saunders mount any sort of offence, as Fitch controlled and battered him constantly.

Brilliant performance from Fitch, whose win brings us to an interesting point in the welterweight division. It has been an unwritten MMA rule that team-mates do not fight each other. However, when you have both Fitch and Josh Koscheck on the same team and in the top five, overwhelming most foes, but dominated by GSP, it seems the two should fight. UFC president Dana White apparently put Fitch on the spot about this one, at the UFC 111 press conference. Fitch and Kos have been known as gamers so tough that it's hard to find opposition for them: dare they fight each other? If they do, it should be an exhibition of awesome wrestling and cardio, at the very least.

And in a round-up of other stuff I saw: Nate Diaz continues to impress, this time with an easy win over Rory Markham, halfway through the first round. Jim Miller snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in an absolutely thrilling tilt with Mark Bocek that you should really try to see. Picked both of them to win. Two fights I didn't make picks for, but would have got right, were both Rousimar Palhares and Ricardo Almeida submitting their opponents Tomasz Drwal and Matt Brown, respectively. Zhoo zhit soo!

02 April 2010

Ke$ha - Animal


Sony Records (2010)

When a pretty, young, popstress is introduced to the world via a guest spot on a FloRida song, and is sufficiently well-connected to secure a P. Diddy cameo on her first solo single, you might be forgiven a touch of cynicism. However, Animal is an album of a high quality that is both massively surprising and effortlessly thrilling.

The aforementioned single, 'Tik Tok', is the second track on the album: you'll know pretty quickly whether or not you like her. Her natural obnoxious brattiness is likely to turn off as many listeners as it attracts, but it works incredibly well throughout this album. The last decade saw many female pop stars who were sufficiently lacking in overt personality that they allowed production to overtake them; this made it easier for fans of Proper Music to get into them.

Ten years ago, we had Aaliyah. Her 'Try Again' single set the stage for how the decade would develop: a pretty, competent, singer with a fantastic production (pretty much the last time Timbaland was great). Following her tragically premature demise, the likes of Rihanna and Rachel Stevens emerged, making pop music it was okay for dadrock magazines to get behind. While they certainly had their moments, the pattern of anonymity was in place, seemingly culminating in La Roux, a 1985 Boris Becker singing over rejected Sega Megadrive soundtracks.

In this context, it would be churlish to criticise a new singer who actually has personality. She's nasty, and shrill, and immature. And it's fantastic. Aside from 'Tik Tok's proclamations that 'I'ma fight til we see the sunlight', she's calling out 'backstabbing' women, and boys who 'act like sluts' when she's out of town. It's a level of confrontation that recalls Kelis on 'Caught Out There', or Britney's 'Do Somethin''.

Captain Ahab copyists 3OH!3, famed for their recent Katy Perry collaboration, also pop up on Animal. Their song, 'Blah Blah Blah' is musically competent, but is made by Ke$ha's aggressive reversal of gender stereotype: 'turn around boy, let me hit that'. While males get a rough time of it on the record (dissed for being too old on 'Dinosaur', objectified on the electroclash masterclass 'Boots and Boys'), it's certainly more logical than the whine of a 'Bills, Bills, Bills', and still refreshing after decades of pop patriarchal hegemony.

There is superficial softness in the Imogen Heap-baiting 'Stephen', until it turns out this ostensible love song is actually delivered from the POV of a crazed stalker (fading, ominously, into the backing vocal of 'Stephen... call me... waiting'). Ke$ha, like Andrew WK, her spiritual predecessor, parties so hard that even feelings of romantic regret are described in terms of feeling 'hungover'. All the while, her strangely charming voice (its shrillness belies a girlish vulnerability) is soaked in the Auto-Tune dunk tank and backed by a satisfyingly busy arrangement.

The character's facade slips a tad near the end, sadly. More traditional ballads, of love pangs and heartbreak ('Blind', 'Dancing With Tears in My Eyes'), rear their ugly head, somewhat undoing the great work done earlier. The weakest song, bafflingly, is the title track: essentially Snow Patrol sprayed pink. But for the most part, Animal is a trashy, catchy delight, with more hooks than a pirate convention. I've already listened to it more than I did Merriweather Post Pavilion in the whole of 2009, and the addiction shows no sign of slowing. While some corners of the pop world are conspiring to bland us all to death, Ke$ha joins Lady Gaga at the forefront of the fightback.

***

Witness the hilarious fallout from butt-hurt Worthy Music wastemen here!

I absolutely adore this album, and it is so much better than most albums I've heard in the last few years. She's been burning up my last.fm chart, and that's without counting most of my listens out and about. Along with the recent Shining and Propagandhi stuff, it's so nice to find albums that force me to listen enough to know them inside out. I wonder how many of those kneejerk anonymities have even heard the album.

23 March 2010

The Hills Have Eyes

eerie! But not Indiana
Dir: Alexandre Aja (2006)

For too long, whenever I would wax lyrical about fantastically addictive eye-crack The Hills (which is a regular occurence with me, sister), the response from bemused 20-somethings would be 'The Hills Have Eyes?' I would then have to clarify that, no, the everyday Hollywood travails and tribulations of Lauren, Audrina, Whitney et al, have nothing to do with innocent city folk being brutalised and cannibalised by nuclear-radiated mutants. To the chagrin of many, admittedly, but here we are.

Anyway, I've been going through something of a horror phase recently (and I've been watching scary films. Hahaha, right?), including the work of one Robert Q. Zombie. I even made references to The Hills Have Eyes in my writing on House of 1,000 Corpses. So I figured I'd better see it. I really want to see the original, but I'm currently trying to get films from last decade watched, so I plumped for the remake. There is something quite charming about how visceral some of these modern horror films are. And it's nice to see how the genre varies nowadays, from the gorefests of later Saws and Hostels, to the more subtle charms of The Strangers and (hopefully, not seen it yet) [rec]. How's that for a jinx?

So yeah, The Hills Have Eyes got watched by me. Today, in fact. Not the best thing to watch on an afternoon, perhaps, and certainly not one for eating a pizza in front of (joining Saw III on that particular pantheon). But it's good. Weirdly for a modern-day massacre flick, it starts really slowly. There is exposition for days (not literally), and the meandering in the desert made me think I was watching a cut-price No Country For Old Men. Lots of desert, as you may reasonably expect, I guess.

What I liked about this one is the justification for everything: the characterisation is solid to a surprising degree. The family of victims doesn't just end up in the desert; they're no a bunch of annoying punks like in House of 1,000 Corpses. See, the crazy petrol station man has a stash of something illicit, and he thinks the ex-detective and the familia are on to him. So he directs them to a 'shortcut' to California: the eponymous hills, with their eyes. He's a bit like Ho1kC (is that the correct abbreviation?)'s Captain Spaulding, but with infinitely less charisma. But yeah, every time someone goes somewhere, or does something, it's for a reason. The film may not be original (an obvious negatory there), or especially well executed (it's not), but it's logical.

Well, it's as logical as a film about a society of nuclear-testing offspring living in already inhospitable desert can be. For some reason, when you have kids after nuclear testing has gone on in your village, your kids all look like Sloth from the Goonies. It is the slightly lax make-up that hurts the sense of threat the film attempts to pervade. What is supposed to be a Blair Witch/The Strangers/1000 Corpses vehicle for utter helplessness becomes a Troma-tastic comedy horror romp because, while the race of neo-Sloths do unspeakable things to people, they look funny. And that's not too scary. Actually, it could be more scary. But not in this case.

As I was saying, the characterisation is solid. Despite initially being a gallery of archetypes, the victims of the piece are pretty well fleshed out, especially the smarmiest of all: the cellphone salesman. Bah gawd, he's a demmycrat! He don't believe in gunnin people down! They took our jobs! But, despite the now-traditional middle class scepticism of the danger at hand, the series of events he has to endure sees him turn into a white collar being of vengeance and catharsis of a degree not seen since the heyday of Ash, star of the Evil Dead trilogy. I'm not saying he's anywhere near as cool as Ash, nor that Aaron Stanford is as iconic as Bruce Campbell. I'm therefore not saying his chin can kill, nor that his one-liners are a patch on Ash's. No. I'm not saying that. But bloody hell, you end up on his side in a massive way; if you don't, I fear for you. He's vaguely reminiscent of Paddy Considine, actually.

To sum up, then: it's good, but not great. Worth a watch if you like your horror. It's gratuitously gory, but strangely touching in places. Thankfully not touching in strange places. That'd just be weird. Emilie de Ravin, what was in Lost, is good, but has a weird American accent. A baby gets snatched, but it's not hers. That'd be a right coincidence. As per usual in the horror films (and pretty much any film, for that matter), everyone can take way more damage than they should. But hey, it's par for the course. It doesn't really drag at any point. And whoa: it leaves the door open for a sequel.

Well I never.

25 February 2010

Harvey Milk - Harvey Milk (a.k.a. The Bob Weston Sessions)


Hydra Head (1993/2010)

Following critical acclaim of Harvey Milk's latest album Life... the Best Game in Town (2008), current home, Hydra Head, has gone into the archives for this new/old album. Originally recorded in 1993 by one Bob Weston, these recordings never officially saw the long-playing light of day. Until now. The band is known for being somewhat curmudgeonly, and this proto-debut is fittingly nasty and strangely disconnected. Not for the 'Milk the youthful exuberance of early spotty Metallica or grinning Slayer.

It's classic sludge - true sludge, of a bygone era - which means that deep within its shroud of brutality is a real sense of melancholy. People think of the term 'sludge', with regard to rock music, and they think of bass-heavy, booming rock, that's not as sharply-mixed as more typical heavy metal and hardcore. But real sludge goes beyond the superficial, past the guitar sound of the Mastodon or Kylesa of today. It's music of the most direct lineage from the progenitors, Black Sabbath. Sludge is not about heaviness as personal empowerment: the Darwinian strength through aural brutality espoused by Pantera, Hatebreed or early Rollins Band. Sludge's heaviness is the unbearable weight of the world wearing on you.

'Merlin is Magic' has the snaking, heavy, guitar melodies of late Black Flag, at that point where their early, frenetic, assault had given way to the more philosophical frustration of the Henry Rollins era; guitarist Greg Ginn only too happy to take his guitar to similar places. But after the relative brevity of 'Merlin is Magic' and the more up-tempo 'Dating Pressures', we arrive at the ten-minute 'My Father's Life': proper badboy sludge that really lets you know what the genre's about. It begins slowly, quietly, as though it's a ballad. And then that massive, fat, guitar smears itself all over the mix, a walking melody line like a tramp trudging shit into your house.

As is the way with pacing on this kind of rock album, that epic is followed by a couple of short, faster tracks ('fast' sludge not being far off vintage punk rock in pacing and delivery), before more meaty fare is served up, in the shape of 'Jim's Polish' and 'F.S.T.P.'; together, they are as long as 5-6 of the shorter songs on the album combined. Maybe I'm biased, but its on these longer compositions that a band like this can really show you what they're made of.

'Jim's Polish' (whether it's about a can of Glade or the fact he's a compatriot of Stanley Kowalski is not made crystal clear) is an exercise in insistence. It settles initially into a single note, repeated over and over, drilling into your brain like Chinese water torture. It eventually develops into a fine display of sauropod-scale riffery, switching tempos from slow to slower, but the sheer agitation of that opening segment is glorious. Throughout, Creston Spiers bellows like a wounded bear. Sometimes he's aggressive and blustery, but at other times his roars are strangely affecting, like a much filthier version of Crowbar's Kirk Windstein.

This album is not a shining example of elite modern recording or production techniques. It was left unreleased at a time, within a scene that wasn't magnificently recorded (certainly not for CD) at the best of times. So, where even your Griefs and Buzzov*ens didn't quite equal The Orb or Underworld for 1993 production values, this Harvey Milk set is poorly produced. In all honesty, such murk is really a virtue. You can hear the muddy guitar, tree-trunk rhythm section and pained vocals, and that's all you need from this. It pays to be lo-fi in this game.

While the Bob Weston sessions aren't as advanced as either the 'proper' debut My Love is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be (1994, where some of the better songs here eventually ended up), or the belated breakthrough Life... The Best Game in Town, it's a fitting snapshot of a great band in chrysalis. It's also a fine example of 1993 second-tier sludge, below the real monsters offered up by Neurosis, Eyehategod or Dazzling Killmen. One for 'Milk completists, then, while we wait for the proper new album. That should be an ugly beauty.

20 February 2010

Jaga Jazzist - One-Armed Bandit


Ninja Tune (2010)

Half a decade after the gorgeous What We Must, Jaga Jazzist finally return with a band album. Lars Horntveth did recently release an album of his own, the forty-minute song Kaleidoscopic. And he was involved in the second National Bank album, in 2008. But it's not the same: you hear something as life-affirmingly perfect as All I Know is Tonight (a cruel edit, I must add), and you naturally want more Jaga. It'd be nice to think Shining's leader, Jørgen Munkeby, threw the gauntlet to erstwhile bandmate Horntveth, as both bands' albums have been released at the same time. That theory is yet to be confirmed, sadly. After such a long time away from the game, and with such a lush album to follow, it's interesting to see what this Norwegian nonet have to say for themselves.

After 'The Thing Introduces...', a preface so slight as to nearly not exist, the title track spoils us with almost too many sonic riches. It goes through so many changes of mood, tone and instrumentation that you imagine it might soundtrack one of those TV shows whose title sequences show the cast members' different personalities. Maybe if you ran the Desperate Housewives theme (a real highlight of Danny Elfman's career, its arrangement is pretty mind-boggling for such a brief piece of music) over the Thundercats visuals you'd get a real-world example of what this song is about. It's like Henry Mancini stepped out of cryogenic suspension in search of a modern equivalent of Charade or Arabesque to soundtrack.

'Banafleur Overalt' is classic Jaga, in as much as it recalls the last album's sense of lake surface-serene beauty without overly troubling one's aesthetic sensibilities. It's the kind of chilled-without-being-bland thing that fans of early DJ Shadow or Cinematic Orchestra tend to love, while also turning off the people who'd rather a bit more grit in their life: it could be accused of being background music by those more churlish than your reviewer. Besides, the rhythm section really fires it up about halfway through, taking the song on a joyride before returning it to its more careful owners, Horntveth and the keyboardists.

Rather more earthy is '220 V / Spektral'. Despite the similarity of nomenclature, it doesn't really sound like anything off Squarepusher's Just a Souvenir. Clarinet drifts up like smoke signals in the right speaker while electronics stew away in the left, before electric guitar texture adds grain to the mix. As the sonic picture fills, everything suddenly drops out again. That punchy rhythm remains as buzzing bass and crystal-sharp clarinet take centre-stage. Maybe this binary is what the title is referring to: a song of two halves in which noise and clarity, electricity and ethereality coexist. Similar is the shimmer of 'Toccata'; waves of piano sparking over and over, like Philip Glass and Trent Reznor dropping Es and re-fixing the latter's 'La Mer', as booming brass and breakbeats gradually take over.

The trick Horntveth and co. hide up their collective sleeve, and the main detail that differentiates it from What We Must, is this sting in the record's tail. 'Prognissekongen' echoes the title track in as much as it assaults you with change after change, but each time returning to a familiar phrase to keep the composition grounded. Everyone has their own riff, and plays it at the same time, but it all seems to fit. 'Music! Dance! Drama!' is the popcorn percussion of Prince's 'Sign 'O' the Times', paused and stretched out into a frozen moment, before the band realises the tape's stuck and get to work cranking up the machinery for another dose of magic.

Concluding piece 'Touch of Evil', despite the name and occasional guitar riffola, doesn't sound all that malevolent. I'm not sure Jaga can do. It is suggested by the respective bands' current cover art, but it is becoming ever clearer that Jaga Jazzist and Shining seem to have a yin/yang relationship, however unintentional. The darker and more brutal one gets, the other is equally more pleasant, but no less technically astounding. It's almost like a martial arts film. It may be another half-decade until the next album, but there is enough here on which to feast for a while. I just hope that, if Jaga are the yin to Shining's yang, the bands never reach a state of quiescence.

18 February 2010

Random play

Today was another of those days when the portable music player just seemed to be fantastic at DJing for me. Granted, it was yours truly who actually populated the thing with music (from scratch, since the great iPhone 3.13 upgrade debacle), but the boy done good. Oh, according to Google Docs, 'debacle' is not a word. Suggest the accent then, you nincompoop of a virtual office suite. as time has gone on, I have developed a taste for the faster side of music. Energy music, I call it, where upbeat pop, grindcore and punk rock can all meet quite happily as long as they all energise me. Be Your Own PET, Andrew WK, NOFX, Melt-Banana, KoxBox, Kelly Clarkson: me not bothered.

So I banged on a bunch of energy music for this most recent playlist refresh. Ke$ha went on, as she's clearly my thing of the moment. Her album has only been out for a few weeks, and she has already entered my top ten most-listened for the last 12 months on my last.fm thing. Yes, I am hooked on her album. So she made it on. I have also been rocking the thrash for a while now. Technically a few years, but only in the last annum have I been rejoicing in the newer offerings from the sub-genre. Stalwarts such as Megadeth, Testament, Overkill and Sacrifice have all been bringing it in a big way. So I banged on some Sacrifice, Testament and Overkill.

And, because they're related in the big tree of heavy metal, I also included some grindcore (Agoraphobic Nosebleed: Altered States of America; Discordance Axis: The Inalienable Dreamless; Gridlink: Amber Gray) and metalcore (Strife: In This Defiance). Funny thing about metalcore. It was one of the coolest things going in the mid-late 90s. Strife split up (or at least went on a long hiatus), Earth Crisis went a bit pump, Integrity made their name even worse by adding a '2000' on the end, and I stopped paying attention. Next thing I know, the scene has been listening to a lot of Swedish death metal and 'metalcore' is a dirty word. Strife, though; there was some lean, brutal, metallic hardcore. I've been meaning to revisit Gothenburg-core of late, though, so who knows.

I've also put some music that mixes the thrashing and the punking, like Slayer's Undisputed Attitude (their best, fastest, heaviest and most aggressive album), and the ever-present Propagandhi. And Captain Ahab and Genghis Tron, who mix the electronics with the rocking to fantastic effect. Oh, and I have a Blink-182 album on there because it's energetic and great (Enema of the State). So, with that fine-tuned lot, I walked home from work in random land. That was the method of playback, not the area in which I work. Hoping for some Slayer, the first song was... Slayer! 'Spiritual Law' epitomises that album's efficient approach to delving into hardcore punk's history and pulling out exhilaratingly modern-sounding rock. But not really 'rock': this stuff is way angrier than Reign in Blood, and it's a decade later!

Given grindcore's fondness for songs brief and numerous, I got a lot of DA and AN. But strangely no GL. Surprise surprise, The Inalienable Dreamless tracks (including the bostin title track) were better than the ASA ones. But hey, I'm a grindcore heathen who prefers Agorapocalypse to AN's older stuff. Soz. I also got a choice selection of Propagandhi - 'Rock for Sustainable Capitalism' and 'Name and Address Withheld' (two of the finer songs from their magnum Potemkin City Limits opus), which was nice. The thrash veterans reared their heads for some weirdly modern-sounding material: 'The Devil's Martyr' and 'For the Glory Of' really stood out. The one Strife song I got, 'Force of Change', really energised, but the real treat was saved for the home stretch.

If you have the time or inclination, play these songs in this order:

Slayer - 'Mr. Freeze'
Discordance Axis - 'A Leaden Stride to Nowhere'
Genghis Tron - 'Greek Beds'
Discordance Axis - 'Sound Out the Braille'
Blink-182 - 'The Party Song'

It works so well, and I'd never have thought of putting them in sequence. We begin this run with another of those concise blasts of precision hardcore brilliance from the California thrashers. Then, the DA track lets us know how far extremity came in four years. It's an epic for the album, clocking in at over four minutes, and it complements the fury of the Slayer track perfectly. Six years on, Tron hits us with a slice of cybergrind that is rare for them in that it kicks in instantly. While it sacrifices DA's finesse for sheer volume it's nevertheless a fine example of the band. (An even better example would be 'White Walls', so get that listened.) As though this were a considered compilation, DA return with the far briefer 'Sound Out the Braille', to provide both an accidental bumper and happily coincidental thematic coherence. After less than a minute, that rage is replaced by... a man swearing under his breath. It's Blink-182, to provide comic relief and a dynamic swing. I must add, though, that this is probably the fastest Blink song I've heard. While it's very silly, it's also really good, and rounds out this set of songs quite nicely.

08 February 2010

Albums in the year 2009

Bit later than planned, isn't it. The reason for that is I wanted to write a bit more than usual, and am doing. But it's all taking rather longer than planned. Best laid plans and all that. But I'll stop saying 'plans' and move on. I'm going to do what Cephalochromoscope have done (although I did decide on this quite independently), and write a short thing now, and link to the fullness. But I'm doing this in reverse, with the brevity now (brevity, moi?), and the justification to follow.

Anyway, 2009 was a good year, with old favourites bringing the impressive, and a bunch of new favourites being installed. The new Captain Ahab album spent another year not coming out, but I hear on good authority that The End of Irony will finally see the light of day next month. The intervening time between their last and next albums has seen Ahab-lite see a lot of success, most notably in the form of Ke$ha and 3OH!3, who display a level of satire, but not really. And not as good. But that's for 2010. And this, my friends, is 2009. [Cue wavey lines as we journey into the recent past.]

01. PropagandhiSupporting Caste

Be warned: while I haven't banged on about this pon blog, I will, and it will be in a big way. Album of the year, by a long way. 2009 was all about the 'Gandhi for me. Not only was this one fantastic, but I got into their older stuff like never before, even Potemkin City Limits, which I had previously thought I'd got the fullness from. Massive stuff. March to December, seriously. Every other album by every other artist suffered. I even have some stat JPEGs that I'm gonna bust out at a future date to visually evince this fact. And, after years of limbo, I could finally settle on a new current best band in the world. And it's not even a contest.

But why are Propagandhi so good? Well, I'm gonna save the detail for later, but they have the best lyrics of anyone. They manage to take the political and make it personal. They make it interesting, and something you want to sing along with. And they take those fantastic, incisive lyrics, and they stick them over brilliant rock music. Propagandhi used to be a pop-punk band, like your NOFXs and Millencolins. And they were fine. And then they got a bit heavier, and seem to have finally completed their transformation into a thrash-punk phenomenon. They slow it down when necessary, are pretty much always melodic, and write better songs than anyone else. That those songs mean something is a bonus. Best album since... the last Propagandhi album.

02. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

Back in January 2009, I thought this was it, in terms of album of the year. After spending half a decade unconvinced by the Baltimore crew, I was really impressed with this one. The messy nonsense of Sung Tongs was relegated to mere memory, as hot pop bangers like 'My Girls', 'Bluish' and 'Also Frightened' blew me away. People dissed 'Lion in a Coma', for some reason, but it was one of the best songs on the album. Pop-Flaming Lips (just not rubbish)-Underworld festival madness.

Which is what the album was all about: despite being released in January, they wanted this to be an outdoor, fun, communal experience. I didn't see them at a fest, but their Leeds gig in 2009 had a nice atmosphere, and the album is just a massively consistent collection of well-arranged electronic pop songs. That doesn't really do justice, though. It's as if that first Gnarls Barkley album was all as good as 'Crazy' and 'Smiley Faces'. Didn't end up the album of the year, but who knew Propagandhi were going to dump everyone else on their collective head?

03. MadLoveWhite With Foam

This was a pleasant surprise. Didn't even know it was coming out til it was on the verge of doing so. Trevor Roy Dunn, what was in Mr. Bungle and Fantômas, decided to do a poppy album, rather like Mike Patton did in 2006 with Peeping Tom, and released it on Patton's Ipecac label. Err, rather like Patton. But, unlike Patton, Dunn brought the pure musical fire with MadLove, instead of being disappointing. Press release cited bands like The Pretenders, Cheap Trick, X and Blondie. Not far off, then, as Dunn brought in jazzy singer Sunny Kim, to provide technically superb female vocals. And some dudes from Kitchen Motors, Xiu Xiu and other bands on other instruments. Comprehensive!

So it's melodic pop-rock, which means that the tunes have to be excellent for it to work. And they are. I'll never forget the first time I listened to it, each new melody a brilliant surprise. And the details are all there, from synth lines that spring out of nowhere to obscenely luxurious backing vocals. This being Dunn, the album is inordinately technically proficient, with some odd time signatures. But it is never to the detriment of White With Foam's accessibility; it just subtly adds to the majesty. Only lower than the Animal Collective because the quality drops ever so slightly in the final third. Gorgeous stuff though, and the best Ipecac album for some years.

04. Ear.PwrSuper Animal Brothers III

2009 was clearly the year the pop took over for me. Not so much the bigger cool-pop names like Dizzee and Annie (though they're fine), it was all about the surprise. Which is what we have here. Now, I've blogged about this duo (now trio) in the past, as they are a colourful ball of childlike enthusiasm, and actually made me get off my arse and write something. They're just that damn motivational. The album was released on Car Park records, and I got sent it. Have to admit the artwork is not really to my taste, which meant I wasn't expecting much from it. But the title of the record made me play it, and I was glad I did.

Super Animal Brothers III is an exercise in energy. And one in awesomeness. It's ostensibly very simple stuff, with Devin making synth splodges which Sarah sings over, but it's an alchemical mixture that works massively well. The lyrical themes are so innocent (best song being about a 'Sparkly Sweater'), and performed in singalong nursery rhyme fashion, that you just can't resist. It all finishes before you can even think about tiring of it. A masterclass in how an unassuming record can knock you for six.

05. ConvergeAxe to Fall

Reviewed this one already, so won't say too much about it. It's Converge: it's angry, it's heavy and it's great. It's a lot better than the disappointing No Heroes (2006), and not as good as Jane Doe (2001). There are a lot of guests but, last two songs aside, you wouldn't really know it to listen to them; it's Converge through and through. The guests who are obviously identifiable are Steve Von Till and Mookie Singerman, and they're from Neurosis and Genghis Tron respectively, so it's all good. Funny thing I realised is that, however heavy and macho they get, Converge will always be a set of emo kids at heart. As the gatefold reads: 'we may get better... we won't get well'. They're one step away from 'I'm not OK (I Promise).

06. EvangelistaPrince of Truth

Reviewed this one already too. And, like the Converge album, I've not really listened to it since finishing the review. Also like the Converge, it's the latest fantastic album from a ridiculously consistent talent (top ten albums in 2006, 2008 and 2009 is not bad going). Also also like the Converge, I liked this one so much that I got it on vinyl. And the vinyl version is lovely. What more can I say than I said in the review? Prince of Truth is dark, involving, sounds wonderful, and is just a deep, deep album. I'm really looking forward to the new Joanna Newsom album, but I doubt it'll be as good as this. That's right homes.

07. Sa-Ra Creative PartnersNuclear Evolution: The Age of Love

This should be higher. I've just not listened to it enough. For some reason, I don't really like the first song, which kinda put me off listening to it as early as I should have. That, and I held off downloading it for as long as I could. (Somebody buy me it on vinyl please.) Finally got to listening, and it's a hip hop/soul epic to rival Stankonia in terms of last-decade (last decade?!) thrills. There is nobody quite like Sa-Ra: the closest would be Timbaland or the Neptunes, but way more psychedelic, and without turning to crap like the more famous producers did. Seriously, Neps could do no wrong til about 2003. From 2004 onwards, their output was pretty unmitigated.

Sadly, Sa-Ra are yet to enjoy that level of commercial success, but they seem to be working more like a boutique than the chainstore the Neptunes became. So they produced the highlights of Erykah Badu's wonderful latest album, but saved the best for their own record. This was technically their full-length debut, but everybody should listen to The Hollywood Recordings, which was a collection of their singles/EPs, and was just divine. This is still grand, though, as a super-modern soulsploitation work of art.

08. Agoraphobic NosebleedAgorapocalypse

Ah yes, the record with which Agoraphobic Nosebleed sold out, am I right? Gone is the millions of songs per album model for ANB, replaced by a quite sordid collection of quasi-grind episodes. The best, and most logical, point of comparison is the last proper Pig Destroyer album, Phantom Limb. This is partly because both bands feature the not inconsiderable talents of one Scott Hull on million-string guitar and production, but because Pig Destroyer also saw accusations that they were no longer grindcore, and merely death metal. Eww! Well this isn't quite on the level of Phantom Limb (the main difference being J.R. Hayes, PD's thrillingly twisted lyricist), but it's brutal, brilliant and nasty. And the artwork is just inspired.

09. Black DogFurther Vexations

So. If you want to be cynical about my list, the Sa-Ra was this year's Erykah. ANB was this year's Pig Destroyer. Evangelista was, let's face it, most definitely this year's Evangelista. Making Further Vexations this year's Burial/Neil Landstrumm. Well that's fine, but these things aren't intentional; I'm not quota-filling, honest. Though completely different, a whole lot classier, and 100% less metal than the ANB record, Further Vexations is nevertheless a dark piece of work. The production is amazing. On triple vinyl, this thing sings like few others in the last few decades. Ken Downie and the Dust Science boys are on a roll at the moment, as there has been little in music (electronic or 'organic', I guess it'd be) as seductive as a new Black Dog album.

Radio Scarecrow (2007) was mean stuff, I unfortunately didn't hear Silenced (2005), and this is just stark and brilliant. I actually prefer this lot to Boxcutter, and possibly Burial. They're definitely better than Martyn, but for some reason are being slept on. There's as much bass on this as on most other records, and it's easily as well produced. maybe Downie is too associated with his legendary early 90s work with the dudes who ended up splitting off into Plaid, I dunno. What I do know is this is one of those records that I need to devote a lot more time to (told you, it's that bladdy Propagandhi thing again), and it's as good as any other British music in absolutely ages.

10. CoalesceOX

Coalesce are back! In fact, they had this and OXEP, which were both great. Not quite as good as the Converge, but you'll have inferred that from the numbers sitting next to the respective albums. One of many victims of Propagandhi striding, Godzilla-like, through everybody else in 2009, I listened enough to know that OX was definitely worth Coalesce coming back for. And, for a band dormant for a decade, this is vital stuff. It's pretty damn vital for a band that hadn't been dormant for a decade. I know, they had that 'Salt and Passage' single, but that was a single. This is an album. It sounds enough like Coalesce to justify the name, but not so much like Coalesce that there was no point making new music. It's a broadening of horizons, but within reason.

OXEP pushed things a bit further, which was heartening. It means the next album (yes please) should be a branching even further out and, if they can get anywhere near the prolific run that led to their three original albums blasting out at your ears in three years (1997, 98 and 99 - and they can all fit on one CD, brevity fans), then I'll be really excited. And hopefully they can return to England, as I had to go to Iran on the day they played Sheffield. Serendipity, I know. Tech-brutality, and I love it. I need to hear the Psyopus album a few more times, but I love Coalesce, so this is my pick to round out the 10. I'd like to have fit L'Acephale, sunnO))) and Tobacco (as well as a bunch of others), but that's maths for you. 10 = 10.

***

So what's to look forward to in 2010? Hard to say, especially when we've already had great albums from Shining, Jaga Jazzist and Ke$ha. Let's just say, though, that I'll be surprised if at least one of Dillinger Escape Plan, Captain Ahab and Pig Destroyer fail to make it into the hallowed dectet on 31 December this year (I promise!). Then we have the people that I think are doing new albums but I'm not sure: Gridlink, Genghis Tron, Swans (SWANS!), Aphex Twin... Rye Wolves? Akimbo?! LIFT TO EXPERIENCE?!?!?

Okay. Obviously not Lift To Experience. A girl can dream, though, right?

01 February 2010

House of 1000 Corpses

Cedric rolled over and fell asleep. For the last time.Dir: Rob Zombie, 2003

I don't know why it took me so long to watch this one. I had wanted to do so ever since it first came out. And, it turns out, it's very easy to watch. Not in the sense that the events therein are of a pleasant or relaxing nature. Quite the opposite, in fact: the events therein are of a most grizzly and sadistic nature. But the pacing, which wastes barely a second; and the direction, which is rather inventive; move it along at such a decent clip that its hour and 25 minutes pass by in a flash of kaleidoscope horror.

Part of the reason why the film flies along with buttery ease is because we've already seen it. Well, most of it, in other films. The four smarmy middle class kids are a staple of these films. The ones in this film (featuring some great casting: Rainn Wilson, from American Office; Chris Hardwick, of mid-90s Singled Out err... 'fame'. Still, he worked with Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Electra) are a satisfying combination of sarcastic enough that you want them to die, but still sufficiently innocent that there are pangs of guilt when they do get dealt with. Especially when you see quite how they get forced off the mortal coil.

Other genre hallmarks include the southern-states hick family (The Hills Have Eyes), who are both physically and psychologically monstrous; masked giants abound (The Texas chainsaw Massacre); there is a cute blonde in the family (...The Munsters?); the know-it-all victims are attracted to their ultimate doom by a local legend (The Blair Witch Project).

So it's derivative. But it is all put together with aplomb. I checked the wiki, and apparently the critics didn't like it. This is to be expected: it's not a film for the critics. It's not low-fi enough to be truly gritty, nor is it smart enough to be satire, according to a person at filmcritic.com. But that's not really a weakness, as far as I'm concerned. Genuinely low budget attempts in this post-Blair Witch world tend to be overburdened with high concepts in an attempt to distract from the lack of means.

Take Session 9, a film whose good idea was extinguished by a concept that didn't know whether it was a psycho-thriller or a supernatural spookfest. It just didn't make any sense, and that line is too fine for many films to tread. Similarly, I think/hope we're past the ironic/satirical stuff at this point. What the market really needed was a well-done traditional horror film. The first Saw film was great, but didn't see release until the year after this one finally emerged, blinking, into the light of day (lest we forget, House of 1000 Corpses was completed in 2000).

You can tell that Rob Zombie loves horror, and that he doesn't just have a funny name. By the time his rock band, White Zombie*, gave up the ghost, he had created an effective aesthetic for them. His art was really good, their brand of shlock-metal with a hint of industrial has aged surprisingly well, and they were just cool. They had the darkness of a Marilyn Manson, but without the self-importance, and the slacker post-grunge look, but without the self-loathing. Anyway, they were a 90s Misfits when it came to the fun horror rock (and then the Misfits themselves returned just as WZ were ebbing away. Synergy!).

What this means for the film is that everything is done well. Yes, it's the horror equivalent of a Tarantino film in the way it borrows aspects of classics to create its own (Frankenstein's) monster. I find it strange that when a director takes great ideas and makes something of them that is quality in its own right, they are considered plagiarists, while musical artists like DJ Shadow and The Avalanches have received plaudits from all corners for essentially doing the same thing. Well, House of 1000 Corpses is Since I Left You with the zany nonsense replaced by viscera and tons of style. Yet another reason why the pacing just feels so right is because the film proper is regularly juxtaposed with grainy, illustrative asides, that tend to last only a few seconds at a time. Some may consider them too on-the-nose, or an affront to naturalism, but really the film is a cinematic equivalent of Captain Spaulding's ghost train, and they drive it along perfectly.

The weak point of the film (as long as you're fine with gore for gore's sake and a quite intentional lack of originality, as I am), is the plot itself. It's fine to begin with, and the victims' descent into the Firefly family's demented depravity is handled perfectly well. But, in the third act, they get taken to see Doctor Satan (he of aforementioned local legend), and it all goes a bit screwy. We get introduced to a subterranean (un)civilisation, a collection of catacombs that might make sense in a video game (ludology over narratology, innit) and, for some reason, a workshop in which Doctor Satan - coincidentally estranged patriarch of the Firefly family - experiments on people. And there are monsters and stuff. All in the space of a few minutes. But it ends well, at least.

You get thrown by one or two effective twists: you start the film thinking the clown-faced Spaulding from the (UK) posters is the source of evil, and that his domain is the eponymous House. But it turns out that he runs a relatively innocent establishment (when he's not getting stuck up by some goons), and the really horrible homestead is a little way down the road. And then it turns out, in an ending more than a little reminiscent of Friday the 13th, when he picks up the hitching survivor in his nice car, Brother Otis pops up from the back seat! He's in cahoots with the baddies all along. D'oh! But the lesson is: everyone in the country is weird, and make sure you don't offend them while they're doing burlesque karaoke.

The bonus about having watched this film is that, now, I am ready to watch sequel The Devil's Rejects. I hear that's really dark. I shall save that one for Valentine's day; build up to it with [rec], Dead Man's Shoes, Inland Empire, and whatever else I can lay my hands on. Probably not Storytelling, though. Did you know that Solondz is this year releasing a sequel to Happiness? A proper one, with the same characters? It will most likely be harrowing.

* 'Coincidentally', Rob's wife Sheri Moon looks not unlike former WZ (then Famous Monsters) bass player Sean Yseult. Is it just me?

31 January 2010

Shining - Blackjazz


Indie Recordings (2010)

Recent Shining single 'Fisheye' was initially showcased on Norwegian TV, and seemed uncharacteristically violent for the Oslo band. Granted, they changed completely from the reasonably polite sax-led jazz of Sweet Shanghai Devil (2003) to the epic, soundtrack-inspired In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be A Monster in just two years. But there was still jazz, if viewed through a Tortoise-shaped kaleidoscope, at the heart of both that and Grindstone (2007). Even shouted vocals were performed in a playful group manner, and no ill was meant by heavy rock passages. 'Fisheye', though, was different. Here was hewn-from-granite groove riffing, FX-drenched snarls, and blast sections. It was exhilarating and brutal. And a mere hint of what the new record, Blackjazz, has in store.

Grindstone hinted at heavy metal thunder in places, but that metamorphosis seems to have completed in convincing fashion on Blackjazz. As the title implies, the musical freedom, technical acumen (and sax) of the band's jazz past remain, but the sound has been fortified infinitely with the sheen of an effortlessly futuristic form of metal. This isn't the knowing wink of a Fucking Champs or The Sword: it's an honest, revitalising take on the genre from a band who understands both its past and its possibilities. Beginning as it means to go on, Blackjazz opens with 'The Madness and the Damage Done', bearing little overt reseblance to Neil Young, as it races out of the traps with the confident power that characterised Slayer's 'Angel of Death' (1986), or Soundgarden's 'Rusty Cage' (1991).

Following 'Fisheye' is a brace of songs called 'Exit Sun'; one a semi-epic death race along a track designed by M.C. Escher, the other a brief coda. The former, once it hits full throttle, rewrites 'Army of Me' as if Björk were a group of leather-clad Norwegians, before slipping with ease into the kind of shifting, false-footing riff-as-riddle on which Meshuggah have built a career. 'HEALTER SKELTER' takes the bare-bones sax sketch of Kingdom of Kitch...'s 'REDRUM' into this dark new world, symbolising the journey the band has taken in the last few years. The melody grows, as the band has, quite comfortably into its current aesthetic. During songs like this, the riffs are so catchy that they recall prime White Zombie; they're just nestled within far more complex arrangement.

'The Madness and the Damage Done' returns, midway through the album, with a violin sample so disquieting it could have been on Venetian Snares' Rossz Csillag Alatt Született opus. The theme of growth, of evolution, continues with this track, as the violin is replaced by the full band, still faithful to that initial melody. Revelling in the sound, the noise grows: as its crescendo tops out, you get the feeling the structure of the song couldn't handle its own intensity. As the sound of electromechanical malfunction sputters into the mix, visions of cabling lashing out like PCP-addled cobras, spitting sparks like venom, we are aware the song was consumed from within by what is to follow, overwhelmed by the focal point of the record.

'Blackjazz Deathtrance' is an eleven-minute mindfuck of the highest degree. A song of massive dimensions, it takes nearly three minutes to even get going, barrel-rolling drum fills doing their best to jump-start guitars, idling menacingly. With a scream, it begins. Future-world vikings tear strips off each other as a sampled audiences loses its collective mind in a reality show bloodlust frenzy. It's The Running Man 2K10, with fittingly frantic music backing the violence. But the shred isn't coming from guitars. It's coming from... distorted bass? Satan's synth? While countless bands have married rock with electronics, few have done so sufficiently seamlessly that it doesn't matter to the listener from where the sounds emanate. The mix is so dense, so armed with weapons of sonic warfare, that it - like the preceding song - eventually can't take the strain. The malfunction takes hold once more; the song bides its time as it readies its return unto the breach. It begins again, with more velocity than before, taking in rave melody lines, blast beats and noise, building cyclically into an orgy of noise before consuming itself

A brief passage of silence represents the cut-off point of the excess. Considering not much could follow 'Deathtrance', Shining opt to use 'Omen', if it is a portent, retroactively; a reflection on what has passed. The tempo drops sharply, with the metallic sonatas still fresh in the memory. This is where the Sin City soundtrack-sax of old returns, roaming safe in the knowledge that the brutality has exited, leaving only charred remains. 'Omen's a fittingly elegiac counterpoint to the frenzy that preceded, rather like Jane Doe's title track, or Strife's untitled conclusion to In This Defiance. This is the real denouement, though we do get an epilogue King Crimson cover, '21st Century Schizoid Man'. It's a fantastic rendition, re-writing the classic in Shining's dehumanised image, while paying due respect. But, after the overdose of original, impeccably modern music, its inclusion may be considered a step too far. Especially considering how well 'Omen' ostensibly finished things.

That display of musical opulence aside, Blackjazz is a pretty vital piece of work. Though some quarters of the metal audience may balk at the absence of 20-minute drone-backed monologues, and the presence of no small amount of testosterone, it's been a long time since a metal album sounded so of its time. At points its gleaming, reflective surfaces may reflect other artists, though taken as a whole it sounds like nothing else. The shape of metal to come? Don't count on it. We should just be thankful Blackjazz exists in the here and now. If Tool or Trent Reznor were capable of this kind of thing in 2010, it would sell hand over fist. As it is, Blackjazz may just have to settle for cult classic status.

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