Thursday, December 26, 2013

Year End Album Reviews # 6:

MBV by My Bloody Valentine, 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.

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

Monday, December 16, 2013

Year End Album Reviews # 2

Monomania by Deerhunter

4AD, 2013

I remember reading an interview with Paul Westerberg back when Pleased to Meet Me first came out, and the tour (a stop on which I thankfully caught) had just begun. In it, he seemed worried, or at least felt responsible, for anyone who dug the hell out of "Can't Hardly Wait." The album-closing tune was a string-drenched piece of shameless pop, and about as atypical to the band's sloppy roots-hardcore as anything they ever made.

Westerberg said something like, well, any fans who wanna come out to our show because they just love "Can't Hardly Wait" might just end up disappointed. In fact, he said, they might just wanna skip our gig entirely.

It was as close as you're gonna come to having an artist actually disown a song. "Can't Hardly Wait" wasn't representative, he seemed to be saying; don't get the wrong idea. This isn't who The Replacements are.

Not that Bradford Cox or Moises Archuleta or any of the rest of them are doing any disowning, but Westerberg's words came to mind while I was listening to "Pensacola," from Deerhunter's latest, and sloppiest, LP. It's funny that in a year which brought us Milk Music's Cruise Your Illusion, an album that channels Neil Young & Crazy Horse pretty freely, Deerhunter's "Pensacola" would end up being the best Tonight's The Night outtake of the year. Ramshackle, alcohol-soaked, and imbued with the kind of loss that empties you out and sends you packing, "Pensacola" is the best and most atypical track on Monomania.

And I do wonder whether anybody listening to the track might get the wrong idea of Deerhunter.

When Deerhunter were newer, and Cryptograms or Microcastle was their latest, the band was fond of calling themselves "ambient punk." Wonderful, almost oxymoronic phrase, and if not literally accurate, very good at conjuring the oppositional nature of the band's work. The band is almost always skinnydipping in the dreampop sea, and jangly guitars that recall this other band from Georgia of whom you may have heard are common with them, but the title track to Cryptograms has an electronica pulse; "Vox Celeste" from Weird Era shocks the dreampop severely enough to be called shoegaze. There's always been plenty of static and experimental found sounds

But "Pensacola"--and since we're talking about it, "Leather Jacket II"--stretch Deerhunter further than they've ever been stretched. Previous noise excursions notwithstanding, they've never played with more abandon than on these two songs, or with a more devil-may-care sloppiness.

Some of this may be me. I like dreampop, and I like Deerhunter, but I probably like sloppy rawk and roll even more. Witness the two bands I took care to mention by name in this post already. So maybe I'm trying to recast the band more than they themselves are. To maybe deconstruct a little, "Sleepwalking," the eighth track on Monomania would have felt at home on Microcastle. Perhaps attempts here and elsewhere to present Deerhunter as newly reshaped into an American Band* overreach. Certainly I haven't spent enough time here talking about the songwriting, which is exemplary even on songs that don't out-and-out rawk so much, like on the irresistable "Dream Captain," like on the gorgeous "THM," and like on the quirky, freaky "Blue Agent."

Because whatever you might be into, whether it's speedmetal, or prog, or indie, or hardcore, it's always about songwriting. Yes, I'm pretty sure "Pensacola" is a landmark track for this band. But Monomania is a good record for the same reason that other Deerhunter efforts have been: the songwriting is for the most part ace.

Four Stars.

File Under: Ambient Punk No More?

*Yes, that was a Grand Funk reference. (Return)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Year-End Album Reviews # 1:

Sunbather by Deafheaven

Deathwish Records, 2013

While I've been absent from this site for sixteen months or so, it would be a mistake for any hypothetical reader to assume this means that I've been disconnected from music over that period. I've actually probably purchased more new music during 2013 than I had during any year in the last ten. And because there's always a little elf crouched on my medulla whispering to me from inside my skull of the guilt I assume in not writing, the thought had occurred to me recently that a sequence of year-end posts here chronicling my 2013 music purchases might be just the thing to get me back into a schedule of writing regularly.

Plus, you know, a lot of things happened this year, and I thought I might want to write about those things, too. So we'll see if I can make something of this.

I hadn't pressured myself to write anything immediately, and I kind of figured I'd begin posting if at all later in the month, but this afternoon, I found myself posting a review of the quite remarkable Sunbather on Rolling Stone. When the motherfuckers (or more precisely, their motherfucking page scripts) told me I needed a Facebook account to post a comment, I tried not to be upset, realizing I should have been posting here in the first place, anyway. Other than a little bit of editing, the post here is what I would have posted at RS, except for this first part where I very uncharacteristically defended Chuck Eddy.

Read about this album in Pitchfork's 'Best New Music' section, and my imagination did some synchronized backflips to the black metal/shoegaze/ post-metal labels dished out therein. What could there be not to like? Three buzzy genres are better than one, are they not?

Then, looking around for more reviews, trying to qualify the outlay of funds, I found it interesting (and probably predictable) that in addition to a slew of gushing reviews, the album has also received something of a Liturgy-style "hipster-metal" backlash.

Hmmm. Point in its favor, maybe?

Now that I own, and now that I've listened, I think the hipster criticism from fullbore metalheads that has touched this record is illuminating. This is a stew with a lot of ingredients, some of them artier than even the more enlightened metal freak can stand. Sure, there's Cradle of Filth and Enslaved in this soup, but there's also a lot of Mono, and maybe even Explosions in the Sky. And I dunno, what does your average Cryptopsy fan think about Alcest? This is music deliberately designed to pull in an artful way from a bunch of genres, not all of them dressed in black, not all of them drenched in the sanguinary. The cover is a sort of coral color, for the Anti-Christ's sake. The package is purposely minimalist, the fonts arty, and the lyrics--though positively indecipherable as you listen--are as far from mainstream metal as you can possibly get, reading like they're a kind of tortured existential diary rather than an excerpt from some medieval grimoire, as would, you know, be the normal expectation with extreme metal.

Deafheaven clearly don't give a fuck about disappointed shredders, however, and they're clearly proud of the out-of-genre ingredients they've cooked in. Metal--especially extreme metal--is foremostly designed to assault. Deafheaven's music by turns does exactly that. But at its best, this music also enfolds you, within an intricate and calculated architecture of its own guitars. It appeals to the visceral as metal does, but it also appeals to the intellectual as the progressive stuff does, and it appeals to the transcendental as the post-rock and post-metal stuff does. It's got a wingspan measured in the tens of yards. It is an ambitious skyscraping monument, and a gravesite defiled. It is truly all over the fucking place.

My criticism would be that while this draws on a lot of stuff I love, the sound is not something unmistakably Deafheaven, if you know what I mean. My favorite bands are always gonna be ones with an instantly identifiable sound. You hear 'em, even if for only 30 seconds, and you know who they are. It doesn't appear that Deafheaven, as well-seasoned as their music is, are one of these bands. At least not yet.

And if their familiarity with the Mono canon works in the band's favor, if the part that reminds me of Rodan's "Bible Silver Corner" is a credit, if the opening from "Dreamhouse" channels Enslaved, if the reborn/apocalyptic spoken word/found sound parts in "Windows" remind me of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sunbather isn't as good as Under The Pipal Tree, isn't as good as Rusty, isn't as good as Ruun and it isn't as good as that F-Sharp thing.

So I can't call Sunbather an instant classic, as others have been wont to do, or give it 100 points, or five stars, or an amp turned up to 11, or whatever else. Still, this is rich, gorgeous, intense music from a band who have every reason to get better, and one whom I'd like to see in 2014, and it looks like I will actually have the chance in March.

Four stars it is.

File Under:Post-Progressive Black Metalgaze