Thursday, February 6, 2014

Queens of the Stone Age with Chelsea Wolfe at the the Fillmore Miami Beach February 5, 2014

First time I'd been to the Fillmore and first time I'd seen QOTSA. Sometime during the show, Josh Homme said that it'd been 11 years since the band had played South Florida, which means that the last time they played in the land of bikini waxings and easy Oxycontin, I knew nothing of them . . . or of Kyuss, if you can believe that.

It was a long time ago. Never mind that I'm pushing 50, Josh Homme just turned 40.

Well, it's good that some things don't change. Except for a lame ballad or two (which, unfortunately, the band wasted precious set time with last night), QOTSA's still fairly new . . . Like Clockwork is chock full of the same robot rock that the band has always played. And the show amply demonstrated that Queens, whatever its current personnel, is still very able to pound that groove into your head over and over and over.

It's a wonderful thing, even if the coming back to South Florida thing was an afterthought. When the tour to support . . . Like Clockwork was first announced back in June, South Florida was not included.

Support for the first leg of the tour was provided by British post-punk revivialists Savages, but when the tour expanded into 2014 and to include Miami (hooray!), the backing band named for the second leg was Chelsea Wolfe.

It wasn't quite as bad as when the second leg of Nine Inch Nails' recent US tour switched support from Godspeed You Black Emperor! to Gary Numan, but I would have liked to have seen Savages play, and I certainly had never heard of Chelsea Wolfe.

While there's certainly nothing new or exciting about the goth-chick schtick she's got going, I thought her set was nevertheless interesting. Wolfe sang and played guitar on songs that had an electronic pulse, but seemed to have their backbone in noise and old-style reverb. Not all of the tunes overcame a certain melodrama, but enough did for me to buy her most recent album--Pain is Beauty, natch--during the intermission. My initial listen is making me think that Wolfe's set was heavier, and better, than her record.

Something about "Keep Your Eyes Peeled"--maybe it's the pots and pans intro, maybe it's the midtemponess, or maybe it's just that it's the first song on the new album--made me think in the days running up to the concert that it would be the show-opener for Queens.

It wasn't. "You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire" did the honors. And good enough; it's as representative of the bands pound-the-groove approach as anything else. But, turns out, my imagined highlight wasn't even played. And a few other songs I would have liked to have heard--the songs that I feel pound you the hardest--were missing as well. No "Battery Acid." No "I'm Designer". No "Everyone Knows That You're Insane."

That they missed great stuff is indicative of the deep catalog they have built. You maybe--I maybe--may not have realized just how many good songs QOTSA has.

  • "Little Sister
  • "Sick Sick Sick"
  • "Burn the Witch"
  • "Go With The Flow"
  • "Better Living With Chemistry"
  • and let's include the new "If I Had A Tail" coz it's fucking great, you know it is
They played all these. But I do wish--especially considering they were pretty much obligated to play "Make It Wit Chu"--they'd skipped a couple of Clockwork's power ballads. They did "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" (the best one of the bunch) and "Kalopsia" and the title track to the new record, and it was too much schmaltz for a band that's about driving straight ahead hard rock, too much, frankly, for a band that decided to skip "Battery Acid."

One thing I did learn with all the the power-ballads being played, and I'm glad in this weird cynical way that I did, is that these kids these days, they still do the stupid lighter thing during the power ballads.

They still do the lighter thing, and they also as you know spend the entire show taking video with their phones, but they also don't move that much. Or at least they don't at Queens of the Stone Age. Josh Homme--again, 40 years old--spent the night dancing with his guitar. Yours truly, nearly half a century on this tiring tired globe, spent the entire show dancing spastically, banging his head, and strumming his air guitar. I worked up quite a sweat there in row five as I looked out over the groundlings who never once formed a pit.

Metal up your ass, kiddies, and get off my lawn!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Year End Album Reviews # 6:

MBV by My Bloody Valentine

http://www.mybloodyvalentine.org, 2013

If you thought I was all agog with Bailterspace for making a great record with their second album into a comeback, then wait til you get a load of how I'm feeling about MBV.

Given the time that has passed since My Bloody Valentine's last record, and the stature of that record, it's probably silly to review the new one without heavy reference to the old, so if you can indulge, that's how I'm gonna approach things here.

I think the new one is better than Loveless, and that is of course very high but also perhaps surprising praise indeed.

Hard to figure out how Kevin Shields managed this. Between the LSD usage, the experiments with sleep deprivation, for all I know his attempts to talk to the dolphins, and of course the passage of 22 years, My Bloody Valentine's third album probably doesn't have much business being good at all, let alone surpassing a classic.

Yet it does. MBV has--except in one case--better songs than Loveless; it's got a more forward guitar sound, and its experiments, though fewer, are more successful.

My purpose here is not to disparage the band's second album. Yet I do feel that the praise Loveless receives is mostly based on the songs that bookend it. "Only Shallow" and "Soon" are I think quite clearly the best two songs on the disc. My favorite theoretician, Brian Eno, famously described "Soon" as "the vaguest music ever to have become a hit," and consider this: the song as it shifts moods back and forth between the overdriven, minor key bridges and the brighter choruses creates a confusion of emotion. Eno described the song as vague because the emotions the song conveys as it moves forward conflict, and the listener is left unsettled. It's a trick that Loveless and MBV both use to good effect, but nowhere is it more effective than on "Soon.". The song is an enigmatic masterpiece.

I don't think anything on MBV matches up to "Soon", but that's hardly to be considered a fault. Not when I think that the songs overall on MBV are stronger. My favorite tune on the new one, and therefore one of my favorite songs of the year, is the opener, "She Found Now." Blinda Butcher's heavily reverbed vocals as they do lull you, and make things seem sweeter than they really are, but the song erects an almost impenetrable wall of guitar, worthy of mention in its excess even for a band that makes a practice of erecting those amplified palisades. If you removed the vocals, and downtuned things a couple octaves, it'd probably make sense as a Sunn O))) track. It underscores the idea that I have that this is a more guitar-forward album than Loveless, as does (since I'm on the topic) the third track, "Who Sees You." Yes, the fourth song, "Is This and Yes," eschews stringed electrical instruments entirely, and devotes itself to Butcher cooing seductively over what sounds like an old Casio; but this song is an outlier. Elsewhere on MBV, it's the guitar that is the centerpiece--and are the endpanels.

Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig were credited with sampler on Loveless and most often the sounds they sampled there sounded like mellotrons. Things never got syrupy--I think Shields liked the tool because it was another way to bend pitch, and evoke strange waveforms--but the sampled sounds did tend to make things feel less heavy than otherwise. There are no instrument credits on MBV, just for personnel, but the samplers are clearly less in evidence, giving the guitars that much more space.

"Touched," from Loveless, used the sampler extensively and is the album's most experimental track. But, you know, some experiments fail. Loveless is here and there called a perfect album, but, while I'll always give a tip of my hat to experimentation, "Touched" just does not succeed. It is true that MBV does not feel as experimental or as revolutionary as Loveless. Time probably explains the latter, while the former was probably Shields' choice. Yet the new album's most experimental track--"Is Nothing," 3-1/2 minutes of essentially the same riff, pounded unto its death, until your weakened brain begins hearing stuff that is most likely not there, totally works, whereas Loveless' most experimental track does not.

As you would imagine from my Bailterspace review, I'll be shocked if My Bloody Valentine follow up MBV with something even better. For one, I'm not sure that's possible, and besides, Shields had 22 years of consciousness raising (and depressing) to draw on in this album's composition; he's got less time now.

We've all got less time. But Kevin Shields can tell us, and wag his finger at us too if he'd like: never say never.

Five Stars, the best I heard in 2013

File under: Music That Celebrates Itself

Monday, December 23, 2013

Year End Album Reviews # 5:

Under the Influence EP by Amon Amarth

Metal Blade Records, 2013

The Parquet Courts* did a good job in 2013 with Tally All the Things That You Broke, but Under The Influence has to be the most interesting EP I heard in 2013.

Beyond the quite-wonderful "Viking Metal" phrase, I hadn't been all that familiar with Amon Amarth. Then I heard that they were headlining a show in January with Enslaved and Skeletonwitch as support. And since there was no question, because of my fandom for Enslaved, and my interest in Skeletonwitch, that I was going to get my geriatric ass to that show, I figured it'd be a good idea to buy Amon Amarth's latest, just so I could be sort of familiar with the headliners when I did.

Turned out I bought some kind of deluxe version of Deceiver of the Gods, which included this EP, and good thing I did.

While there are some good examples out there (I'll recommend Coverkill in addition to the Metallica and Slayer and Rush stuff you'd already think of), the cover album over the last ten years has become something of a cliche. But though it pays tribute to Mötörhead, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest, Under the Influence is not a cover album (or EP). Instead, Amon Amarth wrote and recorded four new songs of their own, one each in the style of the bands mentioned.

It was a risky thing to do, if you think about it. If you miss the mark, the whole thing falls flat on its face. You look like a bunch of highfalutin' idiots, and besides, with all due respect to Amon Amarth--I liked the melodic death approach of Deceiver of the Gods quite a bit--they're probably not as good as any of the bands they pay tribute to here, excepting perhaps AC/DC.

But they pulled it off. On each of the four songs, you know for certain within 30 seconds which band is being, umm, tributed. Amon Amarth nail it both musically and lyrically. The AC/DC tune is characteristic of the Aussies in that it is both singlemindedly concerned with sex, and hilarious, both things as they should be. "Stand Up to Go Down" is full of double- and single- entendres, sort of the only place you could still go after "Whole Lotta Rosie." And you'll swear it's Angus playing the solo.

Johan Hegg sings the Sabbath tune ("Satan Rising," natch) with uncharacteristic clean vocals that actually end up sounding a bit like Ozzy when he dropped down, and it ends with a characteristic production trick. And Amon Amarth have quite the feel for proto-doom, how about that?

Hegg sounds a little bit like Lemmy (probably because the esteemed Mr. Kilmeister is about as guttural as you can get outside the death metal scene), but "Snake Eyes," like the AC/DC riff, is also particularly on target with the lyrics, which covers the Kilmeister fascination with gambling, and even manages to name-drop "Born to Lose."

The Priest tune probably faces the biggest challenge, because Hegg sounds nothing like Rob Halford. But Amon Amarth get the twin-lead attack down, as well as the Priestian shout chorus.

Under the Influence gets a whole bunch of the details right, and is exceedingly clever, to boot. Again, something like this would have been very easy to botch. Amon Amarth's home field so to speak is melodic death metal, yet they show a wonderful facility with styles not their own on Under the Influence. Not to make it more than what it is, but it's undeniably a fascinating and deft achievement.

Four Stars.

*Or is it Parkay Quarts? Or Parque Corts? (Return)

File Under: Viking Metal Bands Who Know How To Play Proto-Doom

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Year End Album Reviews # 4:

Trinine by Bailterspace

Fire Records, 2013

2012's Strobosphere was the first new album in 14 years for these self-described atmospheric noisesters from New Zealand. The remarkable (and germane) thing as I write today is not that Strobosphere was a good, solid record, but rather is that the band has managed to quickly record a followup that is superior to it.

I am a skeptic as far as it goes with records more than a decade in the making. Not even considering the tolls of vitality and creativity that Father Time collects, if you figured ten years ago that you had nothing more to say, what about the passage of time is going to change the truth of that declaration?

And if it's difficult to make something decent in your first effort after ten years, you'd have to figure that a second album after that would be even more so. It's like the old canard about debut albums: Bailterspace had 14 years to think about Strobosphere, but less than a year to work up the new one.

Yet, the preconceptions I bring aside, Trinine is the real deal. Song after song features a nasty guitar tone, or a sinister bass sound, or both.

It is perhaps true that the jawdropping songwriting as they once displayed on "Retro" is gone, not to return, but songwriting was never critical with this band: "The Sonic Youth of the Southern Hemisphere" has been about sound, about texture, about the fucked-up noises you can make with a guitar, and in that regard, Trinine hangs with anything the band has ever done.

"Tri5" in its layered heaviness recalls Bailterspace prime work like "At Five" or "Projects." "Tapenzloop" if not in sound but just because of the experimentation recalls the amazing "Voltage."

There are a couple of surprises, too: "Together," in some strange way recalls the twisted alt-folk of Skip Spence.

It all sounds great, especially loud, and Trinine is as good (almost) as anything else new I heard in 2013.

Four-and-a-half enthusiastic stars.

File under: Atmospheric Noise

Friday, December 20, 2013

Year End Album Reviews # 3:

Meir by Kvelertak

Roadrunner, 2013

I was hoping to like this more than I did.

Give credit to this Norwegian sextet for a diverse sound. The core sound here is melodic punk/metal, but running through the songs, you hear much else in the heavy music tradition. A little AC/DC bombast here, some Entombed-flavored death 'n' roll over there, a dash of post-metal roar in a third place entirely: you can't say that Kvelertak are slaves to narrow sub-genre.

The problem, at least for me, is that all sub-genres are not equal in my eye. I became an adult during the hair-metal craze of the '80's. The stuff was omnipresent on the radio and on jukeboxes, and let's be blunt: I thought it sucked. Never mind how the bands looked: I thought the music 95% of the time was insipid and lame. Trying to escape the repetitive cliches of the sound that ruled the '80's drove me into the speedmetal albums of the Big Four, sent me into the indie LP bins at Y & T's in search of noise, in search of hardcore, in search of anything truly--not ersatz--heavy.

See, the thing is, that as Kvelertak recall the past in DRI and Kiss and Thin Lizzy and Entombed--and Boston!--they're also dredging up the tropes of '80's hair metal. Maybe you can spin it as some kind of feature, not a flaw, that Kvelertak is using the hair metal shout chorus, or trotting out that silly breakdown where the music opens up and there's just the drummer banging on his tom in moderate 4/4 as the singer claps his hands above his head. Maybe if you never had to endure hair metal when it first happened, the parts of Meir where everything becomes Motley-Crüe-flavored might seem ironic, or even fun.

But to me, this album goes by in fits and starts of inspired riffs and rhythm, broken up by interludes of horrible cliche.

It's a shame, because, while it's all derivative, there is a lot here that's interesting, even beyond John Baizley's odd exterior and interior artwork. Though everything is gutturally barked in Norwegian, so you can't understand shit, the album booklet gives a short precis of each song. "Nekrokosmos," one of the more expansive songs, is fleshed out for example by the following description: "A green meteor of iron strikes the graveyard. An intergalactic traveller won't leave until everything around him is dead."

The best song here, "Snilepisk"* moves along at a frenetic hardcore pace, before it shifts into schlocky territory, only to restart again. Ditto for "Bruane Brenn"**. The aforementioned "Nekrokosmos" sounds like Johnny Thunders until it sounds like Entombed. "Undertro"*** begins as QOTSAish robot rock, then does the horrible drums breakdown.

This is an album that could have been better had it been provided with a sonic eraser. That way you could leave the good parts in, while not having to deal with the bad.

Two-and-a-half stars

*"This dark tyrant's whip is made of hair and flesh. He will leave scars across the land." (Return)

**"Burn the bridges, kill the jailer; live life on the run" (Return)

***"Nothing matters. We're not even a grain of sand in the Cosmos" (Return)

File under: Norway or the Highway

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Miles Davis with Bob Dorough - "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)" from the LP Jingle Bell Jazz

A guest post as we approach Christmas Day from my lovely girlfriend Melanie, you can check out her Tumblr at Including the Scandinavian

Many many years ago, my friend Richard made me a cassette tape of Christmas songs. I believe the title on the homemade tape was "Let It Snow." The cover of the tape was a Christmas scene cut from a magazine and glued to the paper cover that comes with the cassettes. Inside, Richard had written the A & B side titles with one of those great silver metallic pens, directly on the tape. The tape is filled with old familiar holiday favorites, from Ellington, Sinatra, Ives, Crosby, Torme, and of course, the most beloved Christmas music from Vince Guaraldi.

I had heard everything on there, except the Dorough song. I don't think I had ever heard of him. I had heard of Miles Davis, who plays trumpet on the song. The song is a bit of a depressing take on the merriest holiday of the year. Dorough's drawling style, part spoken word, part singing,tells us of the greed, bad taste and all the "Santy clauses with fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins." Sadly, much of what Dorough sings of is true, and a lot of the true Christmas spirit has been buried by "the commercial", like Thelma Ritter's character refers to in Miracle on 34th Street.

As I listen to "Blue Xmas," in my mind, I always see New York City. The streets filled with dirty, slushy wet snow. The sidewalks crowded with folks bustling to meet for cocktails, buy gifts, go to dinner or just get home. There is steam rising from the carts filled with roasting chestnuts and it's snowing. If you tilt your head back, the snowflakes look grey against the sky. I imagine Dorough and the band inside one of those hip coffee/poetry places, the kind tucked away below the street, like in Bell, Book and Candle. It's completely dark in there, except for the glow of candles on each round table. On stage,we see the band, and Dorough, all dressed in black, singing very jazzily, very cynically, about a holiday that most cool hipsters would rather avoid.

Blue Christmas, that's the way you see it when you're feeling blue
Blue Xmas, when you're blue at Christmastime
you see right through,
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
and plain old bad taste
I saw Christmas decorations in the stores the week of Halloween! Christmas beers were already in our store in October! C'mon!

It's as if the holiday season has become this huge kitchen sink stew in which we've combined every great Christmas image, food, piece of music, character, song, and movie, all in one, and easy to swallow. Only, it doesn't taste that great, because it's gotten muddied. There's no balance, no highs and lows, like a beautifully seasoned sauce with that punch of umami, or an elegant wine that has the fruit, acidity and tannin in perfect harmony.

They've got us on a hamster wheel trying to keep up,with the seasons rolling as quickly as they can change the floorset at Walgreen's. What's the hurry? is my question. I say, take it easy. Enjoy the seasons slowly, and savor each one separately. Give each holiday it's due. Especially Christmas!

"Blue Xmas" is a marvelous song, because of the music and the very unique voice of Bob Dorough. It has become my favorite Christmas song, because I love its humor, I love its jazzy down beat view of a very well-worn holiday, and I always love imagining myself listening to it, live, in that dark little poetry joint tucked away in a New York City basement. I am forever grateful to Richard for introducing me to "Blue Xmas." It just wouldn't be the holidays without it.

"Merry Christmas, I hope you have a white one, but for me, it's blue."

rastronomicals addenda: Jingle Bell Jazz has something of an interesting provenance, one that even those who are not record geeks may find interesting. It was originally released in October of 1962 on Columbia, and featured a mix of music that had been released on Columbia over the previous three years along with new material that had been commissioned especially for the compilation. ("Blue Xmas" was one of the new songs).

In 1973, the album was reissued on the Harmony label, replacing a by-then somewhat archaic Dixieland tune from the '62 release with a newer version of "Deck the Halls" by Herbie Hancock. It was also given a new cover that featured a bebop-looking Santa in dark shades blowing into a sax. Wish I had a good image of that to share, but ah well. In 1980 Columbia released its own reissue, and that LP--which Melanie owns--is the one that has the wonderful taxicab cover you see at the top. This one retained the Hancock tune from Harmony's 1973 edition.

Strictly speaking, the LP has never been issued on CD. In 1985, Columbia reissued a CD that featured excerpts of the original album along with music taken from something called God Rest You Merry Jazzmen, and called it Jingle Bell Jazz, as well. Aficionados I am told don't prefer the CD, but the CD does include the Miles/Dorough joint.

Which, by the way, Miles himself didn't much care for. The album's Wikipedia page quotes Miles, from his autobiography:

Columbia got the bright idea of making an album for Christmas, and they thought it would be hip if I had this silly singer named Bob Dorough on the album, with Gil (Fuller) arranging.

We got Wayne Shorter on tenor, Frank Rehak on trombone, and Willie Bobo on bongos, and in August we did this album. The less said about it the better, but it did let me play with Wayne Shorter for the first time, and I really liked what he was into.

Melanie and I will both have to call Miles out on that one.

File under: Xmas Blew