29 March 2011

The Black Dog - Music for Real Airports

Real airports!
Soma (2010)

The Black Dog’s Martin Dust mentioned, in his recent interview with FACT, that he was disappointed with Brian Eno’s 1979 precursor to this album, Music for Airports, as it lacked reality. “It just seemed so out of place”, Martin observed, “like something from a sci-fi film”. I’m not sure whether it’s involvement in the art removing objectivity, or simply aesthetics evolving over time, but the main cultural reference point throughout numerous listens to this record for this writer has been Moon, the 2009 film by Duncan Jones. Moon, were you unaware, is a science fiction film.*

This isn’t your reviewer being a dick, rather it’s a hopefully understandable reaction to this record, before having read said interview. Both Moon and MfRA are super-modern, minimally beautiful and surprisingly poignant works that serve to remind us, in this world of overkill and hyperbole, of how effective a decent level of imagination combined with killer execution can be. There was some trepidation prior to hearing Music for Real Airports: after the ridiculously good recent one-two of Radio Scarecrow and Further Vexations, a concept album? A retort to Eno that pimps the importance of reality and legitimacy? Is this an album or an art installation?

While it begins with traffic noises and samples of disembodied welcomers (and how nice it would be to drift in and out of an airport within the hour it takes to play this record...), you do not have to be waiting in a departure lounge to feel the music on here. While it’s certainly true that the juxtaposition of haunting, trembling, arpeggio and ominous low frequency of ‘Sleep Deprivation 2’ benefits from contextualisation within the mass-dehumanity of the holding bays we pay for the privilege to perch in, the music is not dependent on location. A graduated ambient album, MfRA uses real world samples and cues as signifiers and enablers of a concept, rather than allowing them to become what the album is. Instead, the arrangement ebbs and flows while generally building, reminiscent of Ricardo VillalobosFabric 36 set, albeit replacing South American sexual tension and catharsis with the satisfaction of (just about) getting home.

I very nearly went to Leeds Bradford Airport for this one. I didn’t, largely because I had nowhere to go, the World Cup was on, and I have a job. I did manage to listen to it while taking the train to Wakefield. Railway stations are like shitty little airports; you wait around, feeling your soul ebb gradually, yet inexorably, away. And then you get in a large vehicle and turn your brain off, lest the tedium of your situation divorce you from sanity. And, in this context, MfRA definitely worked. What’s refreshing, in this day and age of Sigur Ros and soft ambience, is that this record does not emulate the feeling of rising through the cloud canopy, nor does it enhance the sensation of being above the mortal Earth, peering down at seas and mountain ranges like so many patchwork quilts.

No, given their punk backgrounds amid the steel and perspiration of Sheffield and agit-electro, TBD focus on the more earthly ‘delights’ of your journey. ‘Future Delay Thinking’ and ‘Delay 9’ sum up the (non-)passage of time, while the heavy breathing of ‘Passport Control’ and snippets of barely audible voices mixed in with numbing aural thuds and blotches of ‘DISinformation Desk’ (love the sentiment, but the nomenclature is a tad heavy-handed) bring the paranoia you sometimes feel. Granted, when I was travelling from Iran to Turkey during the former’s post-election troubles in 2009, even I wasn’t quite as shook as your man on ‘Passport Control’ seems to be. But it takes all sorts, I guess.

What we’ve got here, then, is an album that is many things at once. It does convey, to a very real extent, the weariness and boredom of waiting around at various points of an airport-based journey, but it makes a virtue of it, somehow maintaining the ennui while transmogrifying it into something beautiful. It’s a fitting third part in the recent trilogy (so far) of albums. And, if we’re being honest, it hints at a desire to move into soundtrack work. But why not, when here is a collection of sonic vignettes that evoke on their own, yet combine to form a seamless whole? We’ll know in advance who Duncan Jones can call when the time comes to make Moon 2: Electric Boogaloo.

* If you really don’t want to think of this as a sci-fi record, despite its Death-Stargate front cover, you’ll do well not to listen to ‘BCN4’, from the limited edition Thee Lounge EP. While very good, its voice samples, banging on as they do about galaxies an ting, do little to back up Martin’s argument. Or perhaps it’s a sly dig at the whole ‘Music for Airports as sci-fi’ thing. Who knows?

23 March 2011

Burzum - Belus

This is so old! From about a year ago. I'm playing catch-up on sticking things here. He has a (presumably rubbish) new album out now. Anyway.

Byelobog Productions, 2010
Belus, the latest album from one man black metal machine Burzum, carries with it a great deal of baggage before even the first note is heard. The most infamous detail surrounding Burzum (aka Varg Vikernes; formerly Count Grishnakh) is the fact that he recently spent a decade and a half behind bars after murdering one-time collaborator and Mayhem member Øystein Aarseth, also known as Euronymous. Combine that with multiple counts of church-burning and a behind-bars transformation into a neo-nazi, and we have on our hands quite the jolly fellow.

Before he went to jail in the mid-90s, though, he released some incredibly impressive albums, most notably Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Filosofem (1994, 1996; both Misanthropy Records). These were epic, bleak, wildly individual pieces that set Burzum aside in the black metal world from what was otherwise tinny symphonic thrash metal. This combination of quality artistic output and disgusting personal behaviour has led, in his absence from society, to Vikernes enjoying a rather misguided cult of personality. His music has been proudly revered in direct proportion to the lowlife scumminess of the man: thanks to the infinite word of mouth that is the Internet, and the perverse interest in the dark side of humanity, Burzum has become a legend. 'But, you know, I don't agree with what he did...'

His alleged brilliance has been blown out of all proportion, as evinced by a couple of dire spooky-synth albums he recorded while doing porridge, and now by Belus. Fans of dark music may well display demand characteristics upon hearing this album: ostensibly making all the right noises, it'd be easy to look at the nature-fetishising cover, listen to the long BM songs, and declare the KVLT leader well and truly back.

The shame is that Belus presents to the listener a washed out, cliché, concept of black metal. That thin production from the early 90s is present and correct: what was presumably a side-effect of the scene's recording equipment eventually became an emulated aesthetic; tinnier than thou. Amusingly enough, posh boy BM act Cradle Of Filth started out with a great sound ('Nocturnal Supremacy' was actually a right tune), but as they got bigger, they got tinnier. Rarely does a band buy in, rather than sell out, as success beckons, but such is the world of black metal. So, having traipsed around the Bergen woods in his sweatpants and stroked his beard, Varg decided his new album - that grand statement of freedom regained - would be as tinny as in the good old days. So everything here is low in the mix, and not in a cool, Burial, 'ghosts in the radio' way. It's just quiet for an ostensibly heavy album.

The music itself is also lacking. I wouldn't expect Vikernes to have stayed in touch with the movers and shakers in the scene (he likely hates what black metal has become), but one could be forgiven for thinking such a misunderstood genius would have at least developed his art individually, removed from the possibly restricting context of genre. Scott Walker disappears for years at a time (without killing, say, Tom Jones or Lulu) and re-emerges a transformed, inimitable, artist. Burzum has simply shambled into view with all the aplomb of a Resident Evil zombie, flailing about and making spooky noises. After the album's yawntroduction (surely that 30 seconds isn't deserving of its very own track), the black metal stereotype machine clunks into action with some washed out, speed-picked, slo-mo melodies and disembodied shrieking. It's as though the last decade and a half never happened.

'Belus' Doed' and 'Glemselens Elv' could be anyone, which is what is really gutting. Had Burzum returned with an album even close to the quality of Filosofem, we'd all be happy. But this could be anyone. That is not to say this is a bad record: the last couple of tracks do trad-BM rather well. It's just disappointing and generic. Frustratingly, when Vikernes does move away from the cold drizzle that makes up the majority of the album, as on the two centre tracks, things pick up massively.

A real grower is 'Kaimadalthas' Nedstigning' ('Kaimadalthas' Descent' - answers on a postcard as to who he is, Norse mythology fans). Initially a bizarre mishmash of speed metal riffs, spoken work chorus and slightly embarrassed singing, the myriad loose ends of this song eventually intertwine into a triumph of dynamics, vocal arrangement and proper fantastic seediness. The melodic segments sound almost like 80s northern indie, eerie in their calm delivery and juxtaposition with the mania of the rest of the song. That goes straight into 'Sverddans' ('Sword Dance') which is refreshing in that it actually brings the riffage for once. It's a spiralling descent of a melody; just don't let on that you think it sounds like Apollo 440's 'Lost in Space' theme. The corpsepaint brigade round your end probably won't take kindly to that one. Part of its charm is the contrast with the wetness of all the other metal on the album: it shreds in its context, but not compared to, say, any Black Breath song ever.

Belus, then, is just a bit sad. And that's worse than being a morally repugnant work of horror. When you strip away the new clothes of murder and arson, you're left with an emperor who's just a bit mediocre. Not a conquering return, nor a reclamation of past glory. This might sate the Burzum faithful, but if they've sat through Dauði Baldrs, they can probably handle tedium well. If you want a decent idea of modern black metal, then go for some Watain, Leviathan or Drudkh. If you fancy listening to a song that's a nice break from the norm, check out 'Kaimadalthas' Nedstigning'. Overall, though, Burzum is about as relevant in 2010 as Iron Maiden were in the 1990s.

02 January 2011

Albums in the year 2010

Hello! A day late (edit: okay, it took til 1am on the 2nd) on this, but that's certainly better than over a month tardy, eh? You know the deal by now: 2010 was a year; I listened to some music, but not all of it; I liked some of it more than others; the ten favourites are below, accompanied by some explanation. Ready? Go!

01. Shining - Blackjazz

Pretty solidly the album of the year, this one. Funny thing is, I knew as much four days into the year! And then for sure by the end of January. How boring, right, readers? Wrong! Wrong because Blackjazz was the gift that kept giving: its gleaming spires and whirring cogs held within them enough depth for you to gaze into for months without getting tired.

It was almost like a black hole, but instead of destruction and anti-matter, it gave and created. Everything about it is fantastic. It opens up with some pretty easy to digest tunes and soon gets bigger and more complex, til it ends up consuming itself. There are references here to all types of metal, numerous types of non-metal, and there are even nods to Shining's own past; old ideas and motifs get dusted off and given a new coat of paint. Of course it was going to be album of the year. If there was anything better, the concept of music itself would likely have been cheapened due to the onslaught it was receiving.

=02. Black Breath - Heavy Breathing
=02. Ke$ha - Animal

I am really having trouble deciding between these two. You'll know, and dislike, one of these, and you probably won't know the other at all. I'll start with Black Breath. Some members of the band were in a hardcore outfit called Shook Ones, who I heard of but never actually heard. Rumour has it Black Breath was started as a bit of an ironic thing. Hur hur, let's do an old school thrash thing, they probably didn't say to each other. Anyway, they gave it a go, and it turned out they are really good at it. They put out an EP called Razor to Oblivion a couple of years ago, which was on that Saviours/Accused/Black Cobra tip. As good as it was, it was nothing on this album.

I don't know if I'll actually do a 'proper' review of it, so here are the key points. It kicks in pretty much from the start. No spooky acoustic arpeggio interludes for Black Breath! Only on two songs does this band let up at all: the title track is an eerie instrumental tune that puts me in mind of Splatterhouse or Halloween or something; proper menacing. The other is 'Unholy Virgin', which at first sounds like it's going to be Alannah Myles' 'Black Velvet', but instead bludgeons, just pretty slowly. The rest of the record is a wicked mix of Discharge-style speedcore and early Entombed death 'n' roll. Both of which are legitimate things. Best thrash album in absolutely years. Since either the first Haunted album (1998) or second Strapping Young Lad one (1997). And better than any Entombed album. Yeah, I said it!

Ke$ha is the one you will now. She's bratty and trashy and loud, so it'll have been hard for you to avoid something like 'Tik Tok'. This album was just a pure sugar rush to me. I listened to it a million times. Those million were mainly in the first few months of the year, but I still love the album, even if I over-played it a bit. As the 'big dog' Westwood would say, Animal is heavy hit after heavy hit. It's officially a problem! I love the hooks, the production and the attitude Ke$ha displays. Some people say she's a Gaga knock-off, but where Gaga is the high-class would-be Madonna, Ke$ha has a lot more in common with the pure energy blasts of Andrew WK or Be Your Own Pet. And coming from me, that is high praise indeed.

04. Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness

I know, I know. Harvey Milk were officially cool in 2008, when they released the fine, quite catchy, Life... The Best Game in Town. I'll let you in on a little secret: this is a lot better. Another album I wish I'd got off my arse and reviewed for Fact, it's a beautifully sad album that people mistake for ugly or difficult. It's not difficult at all; its 37.5 minutes actually pass by pretty quickly, a victory of musical integrity.

I don't mean integrity in terms of the chest-beating hardcore punk 'don't sell out!' thing. Integrity in this case is an album wherein each song flows straight into the next. It's a single, 37.5 minute, entity. But not in the boring drone-doom sense. Each song is its own man, but there is still a thematic coherence lacking in pretty much all other albums nowadays. Look at some of the song titles: 'I Just Want To Go Home'; 'I Know This Is No Place For You'; 'I Know This Is All My Fault': it'd be almost emo, were the emotions here not so raw and real. This is beyond the sludge of their early material. It's emo for men, and yes it is harrowing, but sometimes you can't just look away from the painful things in life. Milk have a history of taking the piss a little, and this may just be a laugh, but I'm taking it super-seriously, because it's a work of art. The last two songs are actually utterly life-affirmingly beautiful. Melvins wish they were this good.

05. Mike Patton - Mondo Cane

Yes! When he wasn't travelling the world, making millions of dollars with the dusted-off Faith No More, Patton was actually releasing new music! And not just any old new (?) Mike Patton music, but easily the best Patton album since those two ridiculously awesome ones in 2001. You know the ones: the Tomahawk debut and the Fantômas 'sophomore effort', as Americans might say. Funnily enough, while FNM were peddling creaky 1990s nostalgia to 30-somethings, Mondo Cane was a different kind of nostalgia.

It was all 60s and 70s Italian pop songs, apparently. Well, it was all in Italian, anyway. And that was nice, because we heard Patton sing in Portuguese on 'Caralho Voador', and his label put out a magnificent Ennio Morricone compilation in 2005, so it made perfect sense - especially when you consider Mike's love of film themes, a lot of this sounding like that. So it's very poppy - really strong melodies, cool orchestration, and the insanely high standard of vocal performance to which we have become accustomed from the great man. While largely faithful (I imagine) to source, there was still some blatant Pattonism. 'Urlo Negro', for example was weirdly hardcore in its delivery of the verses, juxtposing to my endless amusement with the instant jump to one of the jauntiest choruses I have heard in my life. It was as though someone had stitched Sick Of It All together with Gael's cover of 'I Want You to Want Me'. Magnifico!

06. Warpaint - The Fool

I have actually reviewed this one, so I'll leave my banging on for that. I will just say that this is the second fantastic record this all-female band from LA have put out, and it's (just) their best. But it's not 'shoegaze' or anything like that. Closest genre would probably be post-punk, somewhat anachronistically; maybe a soft take on Riot Grrl, I dunno. Anyway, it's lovely and not very obvious, and I'm happy such a good album has got some hype. But everyone should check out Exquisite Corpse too.

07. Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

I have also reviewed this, so yadda yadda. All you need to know, til I post the aforementioned, is this is brilliant. While all your other bands, like FNM, Soundgarden, Pixies, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and everyone else ever just reform to play gigs and make money off the weight-gaining and balding, Swans did it right in 2010. When Michael Gira brought back his legendary band, he made sure it was because there was an album good enough to justify the return.

And My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky was it. It's not like he'd been sitting about, counting his money in the 14 years since Swans got dead, or - worse - trying to make music but realising he sucked without his 'classic line-up' (eh, Frank Black and Chris Cornell?). Gira had spent the whole time with Angels Of Light, who sounded like a more introspective, quieter version of what Swans turned into anyway. So it only made sense that, when he did want to make some noise again, he'd bring it out as Swans. But beyond that, it sounds different from any previous Swans album. It's a new one, and sounds new. It's called 'artisic development', a concept sadly all too alien to most veteran musicians today.

08. Hayaino Daisuki - The Invincible Gate Mind Of The Infernal Fire Hell, Or Did You Mean Hawaii Daisuki?

Not really an album, at four songs and 12 minutes. It's good enough that I don't care. While Dave Chang, now the human avatar of grindcore music it seems, didn't quite get the new Gridlink album out (February 2011, apparently), he did get out the now-traditional warning shot, from the alter-ego Japanese speedfreak thrash mentalist Hayaino Daisuki. The Invincible Gate Mind Of The Infernal Fire Hell, Or Did You Mean Hawaii Daisuki? followed debut EP Headbanger's Karaoke Club Dangerous Fire in similar style: insanely fast, heavy, shouty and... well, just insane, really. And moreso than the debut.

It's the kind of thing non-metallers hate. You know that really annoying phase, around the start of last decade, when metal fans became all self-loathing, and got into 'music that non-metallers can listen to'? Isis, Pelican, and all them? "Ooh, listen to how lovely it all is. There are none of those nasty vocals or riffs or bits of iconography to turn people off. It's all very Mogwai and Sigur Ros, isn't it. Would you like a cappuccino?" No! I wouldn't. And I don't want to listen to your poxy metal that pretends it isn't metal. It was fun for a while (Isis, Neurosis, Kayo Dot and The Angelic Process did put out some fantastic examples of the form, admittedly), but then it dragged on for far too long and bored anyone with half a brain completely senseless. That's why thrash came back: a response to the utterly inert, self-important, po-faced crit-metal nonsense.

Anyway, this is the ultimate in that. Your friend who owns Takk will absolutely hate it. Good.

09. Best Coast - Crazy For You

Read what my man Adrien Begrand had to say about it. He's not as hate-filled as me. Go on, I'll still be here.
OK. Lovely, wasn't it. Now, obviously I don't like it as much as he does, but it was sufficiently summery and delightful to melt my heart. Best Coast are a bit like Vivian Girls but, though it pains me to admit it, rather better. Crazy For You is girl-pop played by a band, and it's got enough songs to rule but doesn't outstay its welcome at all. Its hooks stay in your head even though you don't intend them to, but you don't mind at all when they do. It's a very traditionally feminine sense of musical yearning performed in a more straight-forward fashion that that of, say, Warpaint. It's quality.

10. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh

I really didn't listen to this as much as I should have done. Erykah, like her sometime musical partners in crime Sa-Ra Creative Partners, is so good that I'll listen once to her record, know it is absolutely excellent, and then not disturb it any more. And it's an absurd thing to do, because whenever a song from this record hit my ears, I was bowled over as though it was completely new to me. I really should just immerse myself in the work she and Sa-Ra have put out since 2007, because it's aesthetically cohesive, very expansive, and just brilliant. You should too!

There was other good stuff, too. It included, but was not limited to, The Secret, Dillinger Escape Plan, Nails, Autechre, Squarepusher, Jaga Jazzist, Jaguar Love, Ceremony, Pale Sketcher, Eskmo, Melvins, Flying Lotus and Joanna Newsom. And Lovers, who should totally have been somewhere in the top 10. Damn it! Not to mention the inspired and ongoing thrash metal revival of Exodus, Overkill and Death Angel. Quality albums all. I love thrash!

Then there was the stuff I didn't listen to, and wish I had (some of which I do actually own): Actress, Mt. Kimbie, Phantom Band, Venetian Snares, Cee-Lo, Janelle Monae, Ghost, Agalloch, Oneohtrix Point Never, the Shackleton Fabric thing and probably a fair bit of Fact's list.

Let's give a mention to the bands whose albums I was hoping for in 2010, but which never materialised: Gridlink, Genghis Tron, Aphex Twin, Rye Wolves and Akimbo! Get off your fat arses and give me more music!

Whose albums am I looking forward to? Well, it'd have to be Propagandhi (pleasepleaseplease), Pig Destroyer, Lady Gaga, Gridlink, Cave In, Melt-Banana, Ear Pwr, Duke Spirit... look, everyone, just surprise me, okay? And, go on, I'll issue my annual appeal to Lift To Experience. Come on, a second album ten years on from your debut would be just poetic!

Last, and very definitely least, is the most disappointing album of 2010: the Captain Ahab one. It was so disappointing that I do feel the urge to make a separate post on it, so watch out for that one. It's seriously one of the biggest drop-off albums I have ever heard in my life. For shame!
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