I feel pretty bad for sleeping on the recent record from Helms Alee – a slumber that would have continued indefinitely had it not been for my friend Nick, who misses Helms Alee’s forbears more keenly than me, I guess. The guitarist for this Seattle band was also a guitarist and the singer for those yeoman devotees of 5/4 sludge, Harkonen, who in Grizz released one of the most refined distillations of Hydra Head’s then-burgeoning sensitive yet hairy post-hardcore sound.
Some of Harkonen’s gutbucket punk survives in Helms Alee, but as the Melvillean band name indicates, the newer band isn’t so urgently straightforward. It’s a fairly skeletal 3-piece with the aforementioned guitar-singer and a drummer and bass player, both of whom are women, and both of whom also sing. Like a lot of the newer post-metal bands, their songs seem to grow out of jams and follow no particularly schematic path, but unlike a lot of the other recent Hydra Head bands, Helms Alee understand the value of concision, and the songs don’t ramble.
Night Terror is a near-perfect debut – it has a rough-hewn looseness I recognize from time spent hanging out in a practice space with a couple guitars, a big heap of effects pedals, and a stoned drummer (fans of Harkonen’s time-signature trickery will not be disappointed by Helms Alee), and it wears its influences unashamedly, without particularly drawing attention to them. Bits of Karp, the Pixies, Neurosis, Jawbox, Swans and the like knit themselves together without visible seams, and the band tries on a whole bunch of vocal approaches, ranging from the old urgent yawps of Harkonen to beautiful (if rough) multi-part harmonies. Whoever recorded the record clearly loves drums, and the engineering puts all three members of the band on an equal footing, which gives the performances a strong ensemble feel, which in turn reminds me of Fugazi and their ability to get a jazz feel out of punk songs.
In sum, this is the sort of record that’s practically guaranteed to get a sympathetic hearing from me, and combined with the evocative and poetic lyrics and a couple of sturdy, gorgeous post-rock singles (“A Weirding Away” and “Grandfather Claws”), this has me retroactively declaring this to be one of my favorite records from 2008, even though I didn’t hear it until this week.
It fits in neatly with 2 of my 3 other favorites from 2008, and for posterity’s sake I’ll give my unordered list of my 4 favorite records from 2008 here:
- Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life
- asbestoscape: s/t
- Helms Alee: Night Terors
- Clark: Turning Dragon
And here’s an unsorted list of other 2008 releases I thought were pretty great for one reason or another:
- Breeders: Mountain Battles
- Dusk & Blackdown: Margins Music
- Portishead: Third
- Vivian Girls: s/t
- Gojira: The Way of All Flesh
- Genghis Tron: Board Up the House
- Lil’ Mama: VYP: Voice of the Young People
- Arckanum: Antikosmos
- Avigail: The Other Side
- Boris: Smile
- Cadence Weapon: Afterparty Babies
- Earth: The Bee Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull
- Gas: Nah und Fern
- Hollywood Holt: Holt Goes to Hollywood
- Bannon: The Blood of Thine Enemies
- JME: Famous?
- Krallice: s/t
- M83: Saturdays = Youth
- Matmos: Supreme Balloon
- Meshuggah: obZen
- Omit: Interceptor
- Slagmaur: Svin
- Soilent Green: Inevitable Collapse in the Presence of Conviction
- Sparks: Exotic Creatures of the Deep
- Zomes: s/t
…but to put things that way misses what my 2008 was actually like. I started the year with the goal of listening my way through my music collection, but in February discovered the wilds of Blogspot’s MP3 blogs, and ended up spending a large chunk of the year listening to the esoteric detritus of about 40 years’ worth of underground (or at least underheard) music. I spent the better part of 2008 listening to hundreds of hours of music for the first time and then moving on to the next thing – a uniquely exhausting experience.
The most exhausting aspect of living in a state of perpetual novelty is the deeply frustrating recognition that an awful lot of what I heard (Mnemonists, Organum, Roland Kayne, HNAS, Sparks, the Flying Lizards) was sophisticated, complex music that would reward repeated, close listening and just not having the time to give it the attention it deserves.
It’s been said before and it’s going to get said a lot more: we live in an era of unparalleled cultural production, and unlike pretty much every prior era of human culture, we’ve got the means and inclination to hold onto pretty much everything we produce. Music is a much more populist concern than it’s been, historically speaking, and despite being a largely popular artform is also much less ephemeral. There is absolutely no way to stay on top of it anymore – you have to pick your battles, and I find it very hard to choose.
This year cracked the bindings on what’s left of my tastes (I even spent a lot more time listening to jazz, which has been my traditional blind spot), and I am now completely powerless to concretely describe what kind of music I like except in a very vague, Potter Stewart-ish way of saying I know it when I hear it. At the same time, spending so much time with stuff that was last hip – if it ever was – about 20 years ago helped me see with a crystalline clarity how much of the musical discourse surrounding us all is driven by fashion. I really could not give a fuck less about 90% of the music I see discussed, even by critics I wholeheartedly respect.
The difficulty I find in writing this blog is rooted in that fact. Thanks to the work of MP3 blogs like Mutant Sounds and No Longer Forgotten Music, I’ve been able to weave an impenetrable web of reference around myself, and to talk about it in ways anyone outside my head can understand, I need to develop a concrete vocabulary for talking about some very amorphous sounds. It’s a worthwhile task, but one that’s frustrating and exhausting, and it’s really been enough work just finding and listening to all this stuff (and, you know, living the rest of my life). All I can say is that I’ll keep working on it.
But enough of that. 2008 was a demanding year in a lot of ways (most having nothing to do with music), but I can’t help but feel that it showed the way to a more productive and interesting 2009 and 2010. I’ll do what I can to realize that promise, and I hope you have the energy to do the same.
I was never really a huge Guns N’ Roses fan, except for maybe a two week period around the time I first heard “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, which is still one of my favorite 70s pop songs to not come out in the 70s. Still, I spent enough time waiting for My Bloody Valentine to put out the successor to Loveless to develop an appreciation for musicians disappearing off into the woods to labor, forlornly and obsessively, on some envisioned magnum opus that may never come together.
So I felt obligated to check out Chinese Democracy, and my conclusion is that it’s worth checking out. It’s a magnificent folly, where by “folly” I mean something like the Winchester Mystery House. It’s overstuffed, clearly a product of overweening ambition and a prodigious amount of labor, and in the end it’s inevitably unsatisfying. I guess the real news is that Axl Rose was able to produce something listenable and interesting after working and reworking it so many times over the year: the songwriting is uniformly strong and he still has one of the finest singing voices in hard rock.
My favorite thing about it is probably something that drives a number of other people crazy: he’s had a multitude of guitarists work with him, and random little squiggles of soloing pop up all over the whole album. Since many of these ornaments come out of the fevered imagination of Buckethead – in my opinion, one of the best guitarists of all time – they often overshadow the rest of the music, but speaking as someone who was, for years and years, bored to death of guitar solos, I pretty much love how excessive it all is.
Also, Axl still hasn’t gotten over his crush on 70s Paul McCartney, so gratuitous string sections and piano bridges and syrupy, sentimental verses abound. We’re about 10,000 light years from Appetite for Destruction here, but given how this is pretty much an Axl Rose joint, that seems appropriate to me. It’s not 1989 anymore.
What I most emphatically do not love is the mastering of the record. Whomever mastered this thing was clearly thinking of car stereos and iPods, because the dynamics are veritably crushed into a brick wall. It’s weird hearing all this (over)detailed music so brutally flattened, and it definitely sabotages the good-time 70s AOR vibe Rose seems to be reaching for in many places.
Anyway, like a lot of long-delayed projects there’s no way Chinese Democracy can live up to all its crazy hype, but at least it doesn’t suck. One should be thankful for small favors.
Antaeus are surprising for a French black metal band, because they subsume the weirdness beneath an assaultive barrage that reminds me of Destroyer-era Gorgoroth. It’s seriously mean stuff, made more interesting by the traditional chromatic filigrees and hints towards atonality that are par for the course in other French groups like Blut Aus Nord. The drumming is a particularly interesting blur of triggered blastbeats and high-speed grindcore flailing, glued together with unpredictable stops, starts and industrial ambient interludes.I’ve been looking for something like this, and other fans of Anaal Nathrakh should give Blood Libels a listen.
As I seem to do every so often, I wandered off into the weeds for a few months there. But it’s fall, and the election is almost past (PRAISE BE), and I can start to think about things other than politics, economic misfortune, and the unfortunate impossibility / undesirability of revolution in a post-industrial, media-driven and self-aware society. And Sarah Palin. Fucking Sarah Palin.
I’ve continued to trawl the MP3-blog depths, and am no closer than I was six months ago to figuring out how to describe what I’ve found. I’ve heard a lot of music that’s new to me this year, and I’ve found an intimidating amount of it interesting, entertaining, or weird enough to hold my attention. I’ve been emitting little drips of information on my Twitter feed, but I’m not sure there’s enough context there to make it interesting to anyone other than myself. In the end, I’ll just have to start writing here every day again, and see if that knocks loose anything interesting.
Of course, I’ve been continuing to buy music. I’m enough of a completist that I’ll probably provide a complete dump of everything I listened to over the summer at some point, but for now, here’s what’s most interesting to me, my October shopping trips to Amoeba:
- Antony & The Johnsons: Another World
- Arckanum: Antikosmos
- The Breeders: Cannonball
- The Breeders: Divine Hammer
- The Breeders: Pod
- The Breeders: Title TK
- Darkthrone: Soulside Journey
- Ladytron: Velocifero
- A Minor Forest: Flemish Altruism (Constituent Parts 1993-1996)
- The New Year: s/t
- Sparks: Indiscreet
- Sparks: No. 1 in Heaven
- Sparks: Propaganda
- Sparks: A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing
- V/A: Dubstep Allstars, Volume 6 (mixed by Appleblim)
- V/A: Uproot (mixed by DJ /rupture)
- Vivian Girls: s/t
- Akimbo: Jersey Shores
- Antaeus: Blood Libels
- Bass Communion: Molotov and Haze
- Loren Chasse & Michael Northam: The Otolith
- Coelacanth & Keith Evans: Wrack Light in Copper Ruin
- Darkspace: Dark Space III
- The (Fallen) Black Deer: Requiem
- Daniel Menche: Creatures of Cadence
- Slagmaur: Svin
- Urfaust: Drei Rituale Jenseits des Kosmos
- New Egypt: White Magic
Aside from the limp and lifeless new album by The New Year, these are all interesting records, worth further discussion, and if I can, I’ll say more about them. Right now, I’m listening to the Darkspace record as the band seems to have intended (i.e. listening to Dark Spaces I through III straight through, at which point they becomes something more than a churning blackened crust-metal soundscape and start living up to the grandiose, symphonic concept indicated by the album and track titles). And last night, I listened to the A Minor Forest record, and was delighted to know the songs deeply and immediately, despite never having heard this record before. A Minor Forest were a shambling mess at times (especially for a math rock band), but they put on a great show, and their studio records sound more live than not.
Also, since I last wrote here, I saw Polvo and My Bloody Valentine play live. Polvo were OK and deserve credit for trying to wrap their weirdness around “Mexican Radio” (one of my favorite songs), but My Bloody Valentine did things with sound I didn’t know were possible, and the experience was more satisfying to my inner 19-year-old than I really had any right to hope going in.
I’ve been busy, and I continue to be distracted, but it’s a really good time to be a music fan.
And oh yeah, if you don’t have these records, your musical experience of 2008 is sadly incomplete and you are probably a hollow shell of a person:
- asbestoscape: s/t
- Clark: Turning Dragon
- Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life
There’s something admirably frank yet suicidal about the beginning of Rosetta’s Wake/Lift: an echoing, truncated burst of distortion is immediately followed by a two and a half minute progression of slab-like open minor triads, weighty and roaring despite their massive compression. It’s surging and glorious. From just about any other band in the business of pushing crowd-pleasing heaviness, it would be the climactic release point of the record, but Rosetta are up to something else. The rest of “Red in Tooth and Claw” settles down to some low-key Line 6 Delay Modeler noodling and Rosetta’s usual emo-derived swells and ebbs of distortion and screaming. After that blistering start, this is awkward.
Rosetta are a band that have shown a very deft hand for arena-sized post-metal rock gestures (their debut The Galilean Satellites was one of my favorite records of 2006 & 2007, largely because it is so unrepentantly over the top), so I figure this anticlimax is purposeful, but it still comes across as premature ejaculation. I like jammy, sunlit indie heaviness as much as anyone, but the rest of the record is sort of drab, and it makes me wish they’d saved that outburst for the end, because I think it overshadows the rest of the record to a degree that obscures its strengths. I would love to know what they thought they were doing.
OH NOES! I got TAGGED with a MEME! Cosmo hit me with this, and because I needed to get back into writing, I accede to his demands.
In keeping with the spirit of his post, I will not try to come up with the definitive list of 7 tracks I am all into right now, because like him, my favorites lately are totally ephemeral, largely due to the endless deathmarch slog of trying to listen to every bizarre cassette release ever ripped and posted to Blogspot (currently getting lots of play: Smersh. Dier. S•Core.). Instead, I will offer a list of 7 songs that seem to be getting stuck in my head with unusual frequency (whether or not they’re any good, as we shall see), or that are evocative of the leaden, gray summer I am “enjoying” in San Francisco’s wishfully named Sunset neighborhood.
Alec Empire – “New Man”
Taken from his most recent solo effort, The Golden Foretaste Of Heaven, which seems to be intended, in all seriousness, as an electroclash album, years after electroclash collapsed into a cosmic sucking wound of bad electro-house and nth-derivative Daft Punk clones. Why he chose now to abandon the maximally abrasive digital hardcore sound in favor of a particularly unsubtle version of Gary Numan is beyond me. Empire has always had a twonked sense of humor and a broader range than the somewhat monochromatic sound of DHR would indicate, and “New Man”, which features lines like “as long as I can bleed / I’m pretty much okay” display both. This really reminds me of Luke Slater’s doomed electropop efforts on Alright On Top, particularly “Stars and Heroes”, which displayed a similarly take-no-prisoners combination of devastatingly catchy yet obsolete pop and thuddingly obvious beats. Both are mind-obliteratingly catchy.
Novembre – “Deorbit”
Somehow fuses late 80s stadium rock with some genuinely progressive (gothic) metal sounds, and comes out sounding like Catherine Wheel’s Chrome by way of Opeth. I’d never heard of this Italian band before Amazon’s recommendation engine coughed up The Blue, and this is the song that keeps coming back to me, even though The Blue is overall one of the most solid and coherent progressive metal records I’ve heard in the last couple years. “Deorbit” is full of extremely clever songwriting and, to my ear at least, genuine progression over its length, without ever failing to be accessible. Heavy, full of twists and turns, culminating in some of the most perplexing vocal harmonies I’ve heard in a while, and featuring some nifty soloing. It’s a beautiful, mournful, exuberant song.
Fairport Convention – “The Deserter”
If you think Fairport Convention is a bunch of hippies singing about faeyries dancing round the toadstool, you should probably pull your head out of your ass, because you’re missing some of the finest, most on-point music made in the last 100 years. There was a time when Liege & Lief was an essential element of any halfway literate (white) music fan’s collection, and I’d argue that’s a tradition that should have perpetuated to the present day. Recorded in the wake of catastrophe by some of the most talented musicians of the era (Sandy Denny’s voice! Richard Thompson’s guitar! Dave Mattacks’ drumming!), it’s a stunning display of virtuosity that resolutely refuses to age.
“The Deserter” is a traditional song about fleeing the English Army. The words tell a simple story of flight, betrayal, unjust “justice” and reluctant fealty, and the music is one of those simple folk melodies that hangs in the air long after the song has finished, but what really stands out is the execution. Whether it’s Joe Boyd’s production or the band’s careful teamwork, the result is a song that fills the room, seeping into every corner and crevice, regardless of how loud it’s played.
Smashing Pumpkins – “Today”
I don’t even like Siamese Dream, and I would have sworn I burned this song out of my system at least 10 years ago, but throughout the process of building bookshelves and unpacking boxes and cleaning floors and the various other moving-related tasks I’ve had to do over the last couple months, this song has been an omnipresent and only sometimes unwelcome companion. I sort of think a song about the joys of ending it all in a glorious burst of ecstasy would be less appealing if the weather in our neighborhood had been less crap. Just saying.
Jamie Woon – “Wayfaring Stranger [Burial remix]”
Another simple, haunting English folk song – this time run through the Burializr™, coming out sounding like it was meant to be that way all along. Like most people, I think, I have no idea who Jamie Woon is, but this remix is probably one of the two or three best things Burial’s ever done (along with the original dubplate mix of “U Hurt Me”). A good song for misty early mornings and foggy late nights.
Primordial – “As Rome Burns”
My so-called “friends” owe me big time for never telling me about Primordial. The Gathering Wilderness and To the Nameless Dead are absolutely monstrous records, roaring out of the gate with a ferocious, boundless passion and intelligence that cannot be denied. Notionally this is some kind of pagan or black metal, but it doesn’t really sound like most of the music marching under either banner. Amon Amarth at their best sound a little like Primordial, but without Primordial’s effortless wielding of their own (Celtic) folk traditions, and without Primordial’s ability to use traditional music as a springboard for something fearlessly new. Perhaps Primordial are more akin to Neurosis, although Primordial are more rooted in traditional notions of heavy metal, and there’s little of the self-conscious artiness bands who model themselves on Neurosis these days seem to find obligatory. Maybe they’re a little less earthy and more refined version of Root, which will make sense to fans of that particular group of Czech weirdoes but nobody else. Primordial are mostly just a really, really talented metal band.
To the Nameless Dead is an album about the collapse of empire, and “As Rome Burns”, with its insistently repeated refrain “sing, sing, sing to the slaves that Rome burns” has a timeliness / timelessness and urgency I find compelling, especially when wedded to rolling tribal rhythms and thickly droning guitars. Special attention must be drawn to Alan Nemtheanga’s singing, which is perfectly suited to the urgent, storytelling style of songwriting favored by Primordial.
Truly, I haven’t been so excited by a new metal discovery since I first heard Abigor’s Supreme Immortal Art. Primordial could quit now as winners, but I have a feeling they have more in store for us. I hope so.
Ministry – “Radar Love”
Another song, like “Today”, that is on this list more because of its persistence than any actual quality it may have (thank the NAMELESS DEAD I’ve managed to dislodge Nine Inch Nails’ Broken from my frontal cortex, along with the nasty-ass visuals that go along with it, thanks to watching its stupid, demeaning and evil video). I mean, I love “Radar Love” – what’s not to love? it’s one of the best road trip songs of all time – but Ministry’s version is at best 2/3 assed. The main thing it has going for it is its ridiculously over the top and full-throttle take on the chorus, which makes me think of drag racing and funny cars more than lazy trawls down the highway. Not that that’s a bad thing. It just doesn’t strike me as what Golden Earring had in mind.
Stuck in my head this morning, unfortunately: the fragmentary bits of NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta” I can remember. I think that’s because I spent part of yesterday reading Bellen!, and I’ve always wondered what the hell Dre is rhyming with “yellin” in the bridge in that song. Straight Outta Compton is still a favorite of mine, but some of the songs are not the kinds of things you want chasing themselves around your brain, you know?
Stuck in my head this morning, after a long spell of waking up with a head cluttered with thoughts of moving or cleaning or unpacking or working: “Vampira” from Synchestra by The Devin Townsend Band. I had a little Devin Townsend festival last week while I was finishing up the onerous process of packing up and cleaning my old apartment, from which I was moving after 13 years of continuous occupation. It was a lot of work, but now all 5,500+ CDs and 3,000+ books have been relocated to my new place, where I will spend the next 30 years gradually unpacking them all.
Listening to random Belgian musique concrete will only get you so far when there’s serious scrubbing to be done; sometimes I need to bust out something with little jabs of adrenaline to it, and in those situations, Townsend is my man. His twitchy, neurotic attention to detail and unparalleled command of the vocabulary of extreme metal and 80s cheese balladry are a dynamite combination when there is work to be done. His songs are cascading floods of melody and hooks and sparkly bits of cleverness that catch the ear and engage the brain: cf. ref “Vampira” popping up unbidden, over a week after I last heard it (and with much music in between).
Townsend is one of the most unregulated forces in music, a twitchy, prolific, undaunted, Canadian heavy metal version of Kevin Shields (who, it must be said, has now dragged My Bloody Valentine out of the wilderness; I have tickets to this fall’s show in San Francisco, and am feeling an uneasy mixture of nostalgia, fascination and dread about the whole thing); he seems to constantly be bouncing between furious gouts of precise, perfectionist activity and exhausted burnout. After the first two Strapping Young Lad albums (which are among the best heavy metal albums ever made) and his astounding, magnificent, endlessly creative first few solo albums (in particular Infinity, which I consider a genuine work of sui generis heavy metal genius) he had an actual nervous breakdown, in the wake of which he briefly institutionalized himself. That impulse to ride the ragged edge of ability and endurance clearly manifests itself in his work: I’m listening Physicist right now, and it is an album that lives on the redline, occupying some impossible hyperspace between Ministry, Def Leppard (there’s more than a little Mutt Lange in Townsend’s production style) and the Neverending Story soundtrack. It is cartoonishly, freakishly oversized in its ambition, and I absolutely love it, as I (very obviously) love all of Townsend’s work.
Townsend’s recently calmed down a lot: he and his wife Tracy have a kid, and a lot of the mania that drove him has abated over the years (or has been brought under control through meds and therapy – his intensity was pretty obviously eating him alive). He shut down Strapping Young Lad, feeling that he’d pretty much done everything he could with that style of aggressively obnoxious songwriting, and he’s cut loose the rest of the Devin Townsend band for now. That said, his first proper solo album from a year or two ago, Ziltoid the Omniscient, is a completely deranged pulp sf puppet-show prog rock opera about the importance of good coffee, and it is both totally bonkers and deeply engaged in a discourse with his previous work, with melodies and lyrical snippets liberally quoted from his old work.
I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be possible to scale back Devin’s ambitions without killing him, but I’m also pretty sure that I like his ambitions just fine the way they are. He fits in the line of irrepressible geniuses in rock, like Frank Zappa and his old mentor Steve Vai, who just need to be left alone to do their own thing. I hope he keeps doing his thing for a long time.
After spending the week wrestling with my own bad conscience, trying to decide just how accountable to hold myself for the music I own by murderers, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, and other sorts of people with whom I do not hold, it’s something of a blessing to listen to something I can wholeheartedly support: the most recent Ministry record is loud, it is pissed, and it is pissed for all the right reasons. We are tangled in the thresher of a very stupid war, we are governed by mendacious, authoritarian idiots who have committed very real crimes against whatever morality we collectively share, and our society is beset by corruption – corporate, environmental, moral – on all sides. Al Jourgenson belts out all these sentiments and more with the same cartoony hard-edged clarity that has always been Ministry’s stock in trade.
The Last Sucker is a very fine Ministry album on its own merits, being at least as good as Psalm 69, and having one or two songs that are far better than anything on that album. Somewhere along the line Ministry transformed from an arty industrial techno parody of thrash metal into the real thing, and on this album they can stand toe to toe with Strapping Young Lad – the band who, in my opinion, took the latent promise of Burning Inside and converted it into something powerful and real, in much the same way that the Pinocchio at the end of the tale is more real than the puppet at the beginning. It’s not real subtle, but isn’t that the point?
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Ministry is a product of Clan Bush. Ministry’s finest albums (
StigmataThe Land of Rape and Honey and Burning InsideThe Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, of course) were a product of Bush I, and during the Clinton years, Jourgenson – and Ministry – sunk into a torpor that has only lifted in the last couple years of Bush II’s seemingly endless reign. There have been tons of distractions in Jourgenson’s life (smack, booze, swingin’ dick contests with ex-bandmates and miscellaneous others), but I have this pet theory that he takes the Bushes personally, and that’s what reignited his fire. They’ve fucked up his country, they’ve fucked up the world, and – most importantly – they’ve fucked up the reputation of Texas, and that shit will not stand.
Looked at in that light, it makes sense that Jourgenson claims The Last Sucker will be the final Ministry album. This time next year, the Texans will have left the White House (at least until the Jenna / Barb ticket in 2024), and the United States will in all likelihood have an entirely different set of problems to confront. Jourgenson’s bête noir will have retired to the ranch, obdurate in his refusal to take any responsibility for the wholesale fuckup that was the 43rd Presidency. In my mind I see Jourgenson with a bottle of Jägermeister in one hand, watching the George W Bush Library burn to the ground as the tears stream down his face, having come as close as he dares to facing down his own Colonel Kurtz at last.
The Flying Lizards were a bizarre manifestation of the post punk / No Wave era’s anything-goes spirit. Even for the times, they were an unbridled Dada mindfuck, releasing one of the most resolutely inaccessible “pop” albums ever made in the form of Top Ten – an achievement made doubly notable by the fact that it was, indeed, the Lizards interpreting hit pop and rock songs, rendered as cold, mechanical deconstructions of the originals. In spirit they’re close to some of the mutant disco groups from New York (the more overtly disco songs remind me quite a bit of the awesome Cristina, who is similarly neglected by history), but with a much more forbidding affect.
The cover effectively telegraphs that Top Ten isn’t a typical collection of standards:
As this patchy but informative Sound Collector encomium makes clear, The Flying Lizards were more an art project than a band, and their music was more sketched than composed. (The Art of Noise were trying for something similar, but were fatally undermined by Trevor Horn’s connection to the self-conscious seriousness of the progressive rock scene he came out of. Which is not to say that Art of Noise weren’t great, just that as a prankish art-fuck they weren’t successful.) The remarkable thing about the Lizards is how fresh they sound even today: their music has lost none of its alien allure, and actually reminds me of a lot of the recent experimental laptronica, which is especially impressive given the shoestring budget and relatively primitive recording techniques available to the David Cunningham back in the early 80s.
One of the most delightful contradictions posed by the Lizards is that the most accessible song in their catalog is the one that had the most high-art credentials: “Hands 2 Take” is a woozy slab of post-Eno art rock, with abrasive sine tones over a bed of horns, winds, deliriously slurred vocals, and one-note piano pounding by none other than Michael Nyman.
Nyman is my favorite minimalist (which, believe it or not, is high praise – Philip Glass’s Mishima and Koyaanisqatsi are favorites of mine, and my ringtone is a bad MIDI version of Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase”). I got to know his work, as did most people, through his scores for Peter Greenaway’s films, but there’s much more to him than his soundtrack work. He takes Philip Glass’s repetitive cell structures and combines them with a prankster’s spirit: my favorite work by him is a savage, ripping piece for solo harpsichord called “The Convertibility of Lute Strings” (available on his collection of commissioned pieces on Argo, Time Will Pronounce). It is utterly uncompromising and intimidatingly beautiful and strange, full of dizzying modal shifts and endlessly mutable rhythms. I bet it’s a hell of a lot of fun (and extremely challenging) to play.
His mastery of minimalist technique makes it all the more delicious that his role on “Hands 2 Take” is to relentlessly pound the same 2-tone octave for 4 minutes, a la Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” or the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”. It’s entirely in keeping with the Lizards’ up-yours ethos that they’d make such off-handed use of someone capable of so much more, while still entirely in keeping with Nyman’s own sensibilities. Not only that, the song is an oblique paranoid fantasia worthy of Low-era Bowie. I love it.
The Flying Lizards are now almost totally obscure, although they still have a small but rabid group of fans online. Finding their music is nearly impossible, as all three of their original albums (and, of course, all their singles) are now completely out of print, and the most recent pressing of their albums were Japanese CDs released without the knowledge or authorization of the band. That said, you can find them all via Dualtrack here and here. Fans of ZE Records, the Residents, Art of Noise and the Soft Pink Truth (Top Ten must have been an influence on Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Soft Pink Truth) are advised to give them a careful listen.
Just because he plays black metal for fans of black metal, and is all bleak and black and misanthropic and secretly a dirty San Francisco hippie, Leviathan’s Wrest thinks he can sneak covert science fiction references past us. He cannot. First it was a beefy sample of The Agent from The Matrix on the Leviathan / Crebain split. I’ll admit that wasn’t covert so much as completely blatant, but it was a major WTF moment just the same, given how resolutely inward-looking Leviathan’s airless nightmare closet of a world usually is. Now, on Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, his most recent and supposedly final album, he has a song, “Merging With Sword, Onto Them”, that is ten minutes of black metal carnage culminating in a buried melody that is an unmistakable clone of Vangelis’s indelible Blade Runner theme. I wonder how many other people have noticed.
As promised, here’s the list of what-all I’ve added to my collection since the last time I posted one of these omnibus roundups. As always, the sources are various: Amoeba, Boomkat, the Amazon MP3 store, Mutant Sounds, Dualtrack, The Thing on the Doorstep, No Longer Forgotten Music, The Soundhead, Phoenix Hairpins, and What Fucked You. Some of them are duplicates from the last list big list I posted because I purchased copies of things I had downloaded to check out (like the excellent Au Revoir Simone album).
Some of you may notice that despite my fevered excoriation of Death in June (or, you know, ambivalent musings thereon), there’s a hearty selection of their music here. I decided I needed to hear more of their stuff for myself, and I have to say, extended exposure to their music reinforces my conviction that they’re purposefully playing games with their listeners in a way I find unconscionable, even if some of the (earlier) songs scratch a very specific, Joy Division-esque itch deep in my head. This is something Jessica Hopper deals with obliquely, in the context of indie hipsters becoming fans of black metal bands with questionable beliefs (another thing I’ve had to wrestle with repeatedly over the years).
UPDATE: The conversation continues over Jessica’s way, just as ambivalent and inconclusive as the one that goes on in my head.
Anyway, here’s the list.
- ABC Mutes: Studio Stuff
- Ab Ovo: Empreintes
- Architects Office: 1987: Live
- Architects Office: 9th Year Gala Performance
- Area: Arbeit Macht Frei
- Art & Technique: Diabolus In Mecanica
- Au Revoir Simone: The Bird of Music
- Ballet Mécanique: The Icecold Waters of Egocentric Calculation
- Sir Richard Bishop: While My Guitar Violently Bleeds
- ビジリバ: ビジリバ
- Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath [box set remaster]
- Black Sabbath: Paranoid [box set remaster]
- Black Sabbath: Master of Reality [box set remaster]
- Black Sabbath: Vol 4 [box set remaster]
- Black Sabbath: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath [box set remaster]
- Black Sabbath: Sabotage [box set remaster]
- Black Sabbath: Technical Ecstasy [box set remaster]
- Black Sabbath: Never Say Die! [box set remaster]
- Blue Mathue: Perfect Pictures
- Bogart & S·Core: Pilgrim
- Boys Noize: Oi Oi Oi
- The Breeders: Mountain Battles
- Monte Cazazza: The Worst of Monte Cazazza
- CEDS: Xandosis
- CINdYTALK: Camouflage Heart
- CINdYTALK: In This World
- CINdYTALK: Secrets and Falling
- CINdYTALK: The Wind is Strong
- CINdYTALK: Transgender Warrior
- CINdYTALK: Wappinschaw
- Cardboard Village: Sea Change
- Coil: The New Backwards
- Combo FH: Véci
- Commando M Pigg: s/t
- Confetti: Retrospective
- Crawling Chaos: The Gas Chair
- Crawling With Tarts: Operas
- Crevice: Crevice 1
- Crevice: Think of Pleasant Things
- Curlew: s/t
- De Fabriek & Telepherique: PWZ
- Death in June: The Guilty Have No Past
- Death in June: Burial
- Death in June: Nada!
- Death in June: The World That Summer
- Death in June: Brown Book
- Death in June: 93 Dead Sunwheels
- Death in June: The Wall of Sacrifice
- Death in June: The Cathedral of Tears
- Death in June: Oh How We Laughed
- Death in June: The Corn Years
- Devo: Recombo DNA
- Disrupt: Jah Bit Invasion
- Dom: Fackeln Im Sturm
- Frank Domert: Kiefermusik
- Dorothy: I Confess
- Drahomira Song Orchestra: The Return of 120 Magicians
- Iancu Dumitrescu / David Prescott: split
- Alec Empire: The Golden Foretaste of Heaven
- Enduser: Form Without Function
- Eva-Tone: She’s-A-Wild
- Flipper: Love Canal / Ha Ha Ha
- The Flying Lizards: s/t
- The Flying Lizards: Fourth Wall
- The Flying Lizards: Top Ten
- Folkdove: s/t
- Francisco: Cosmic Beam Experience
- Frequency.m: Fm043
- Genghis Tron: Board Up the House
- Gorilla Aktiv: Umsonst Ohne Risiko
- The Hafler Trio: Ignotum Per Ignotus
- Hajsch: Nagual (für Silvio Manuel)
- Hands To / Eric Lunde: split
- Kevin Harrison: Inscrutably Obvious
- Hula: Black Pop Workout
- Hula: Cut From Inside
- Hula: Fever Car
- Hula: Murmur
- Hula: Freeze Out
- Hula: Get the Habit
- Hula: Black Wall Blue
- Hula: Poison
- Hula: Cut Me Loose
- Hula: VC1
- Indoor Life: s/t
- Linton Kwesi Johnson: A Cappella Live
- Linton Kwesi Johnson: Bass Culture
- Linton Kwesi Johnson: Dread Beat an’ Blood
- Linton Kwesi Johnson: Making History
- Kiss the Blade: The Party’s Begun
- Kiss the Blade: Young Soldier
- Hassisen Kone: Harsoinen Teräs
- Korean Buddhist God: Magnum You
- Korpses Katatonik: Sensitive Liberated Autistiks
- Joachim Kuhn: Cinemascope
- Der Künftige Musikan: Veitstanz
- LAShTAL: Thoum Aesh Neith
- Laddio Bolocko: Strange Warnings of Laddio Bolocko
- Laddio Bolocko: The Life & Times of Laddio Bolocko
- Leviathan: Massive Conspiracy Against All Life
- Liquid Visions: Endless Plasmatic Childhood
- Eric Lunde: V215
- Eric Lunde: Witness to Disaster
- M83: Saturdays = Youth
- Magma: Trilogie Theusz Hamtaahk Live
- The Master Musicians of Joujouka: recorded live in France
- Merzbow & John Hudak: The Time Stream
- Merzbow: Batzoutai With Material Gadgets
- Merzbow: Lowest Music 2
- Mesh: Claustrophobia
- Meshuggah: obZen
- Jeff Mills: Gamma Player, Volume 1: The Universe by Night
- Misson of Burma: Signals, Calls, and Marches [2008 Matador reissue]
- Mnemonists: Gyromancy
- Mnemonists: Roto-Limbs
- Mnemonists: Some Attributes of a Living System
- Monos: Everyday Soundtracks
- Monos: Generators
- Monos: Window
- Monoton: Monotonprodukt 02
- Monoton: Monotonprodukt 07
- Mr. Partridge: Take Away / The Lure of Salvage
- Nailsleeper: Marching Dynamics
- Neung Phak: Neung Phak (Mono Pause)
- Kaiser Nietzsche: Non Plus Ultra
- Hermann Nitsch: Klaviersonate für Arnulf Rainer
- Gary Numan & Tubeway Army: Replicas Redux
- Nurse With Wound: Steel Dream March of the Metal Men
- OAD: Daytona
- The Ocean: Precambrian
- Ora: After Rainfall
- Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Dazzle Ships [2008 Telegraph remaster]
- Jürgen Paape: Nord Nord-West
- PBK: Shadows of Prophecy / In His Throes
- Pearls Before Swine: The Complete ESP-Disk’ Recordings
- Bob Pegg: Ancient Maps
- Bob Pegg & Nick Strutt: The Ship Builder
- Pekka Streng & Tasavalla Presidentti: Magneettimiehen Kuolema
- PFN: Akasa / Für Cleo
- Phallus Dei: Pontifex Maximus
- Poison the Well: Versions
- Portion Control: Simulate Sensual
- Prag Vec: No Cowboys
- Princess Tinymeat: Herstory: 1984-1986
- Qua: Forgetabout
- Qua: Painting Monsters on Clouds
- The Raincoats: s/t
- Jay Reatard: Blood Visions
- Reyvision: The Sound Cage
- Chas Rose: Child of the Universe
- Jack Rose: Dr. Ragtime & Pals / Jack Rose
- Rosetta: Wake / Lift
- S·Core: A Great Lump
- S·Core: A Jest of Nature
- S·Core: Dross
- S·Core: Dysphonia
- S·Core: Finger Mark
- S·Core: Morbid Moppets
- S·Core: Shedder
- S·Core: Tarnish
- S·Core: Undersong
- Rolf Schulz: Tambora
- Adrian Sherwood: Becoming a Cliché / Dub Cliché
- Sigillum S: Abstraction
- Sigillum S: Dispersion: Sliced Carrions & Pixel Handcuffs
- Sigillum S: Es Database Chronology
- Sigillum S: Mutilated Terrorism
- Sigillum S: Terror-Auto Obstetrics
- Soap-Jo Henshi: s/t
- Social Climbers: s/t
- Somatic Responses: Augmented Lines
- Somatic Responses: Circumflex
- Somatic Responses: Pounded Mass
- Somatic Responses: Touching the Void
- La Sonorite Jaun: Heliae
- La Sonorite Jaune & The Haters: The Interstellar Destroyed Music Mail Project
- SPK: Dekompositiones
- SPK: Live 7 June 1987 Theaterfabrik Manege, München
- SPK: Oceania: In Performance 1987
- Stars & Stips: Nevergreens
- Suburban Lawns: Baby
- Suburban Lawns: Gidget Goes to Hell
- Supersister: Present From Nancy
- Supersister: Spiral Staircase
- Teddy & the Frat Girls: Audio Suicide
- Test Dept. / Brith Gof: Gododdin
- Steve Thomsen: Retrospective II
- Steve Thomsen: Retrospective III
- Throbbing Gristle: Discipline
- Throbbing Gristle: Mission of Dead Souls: The Last Live Performance of TG
- Throbbing Gristle: Subhuman
- Throbbing Gristle: The First Annual Report
- Throbbing Gristle: Throbbing Gristle Live: Volume 1 (1976-1978)
- Throbbing Gristle: Throbbing Gristle Live: Volume 2 (1977-1978)
- Throbbing Gristle: Throbbing Gristle Live: Volume 3 (1978-1979)
- Throbbing Gristle: Throbbing Gristle Live: Volume 4 (1979-1980)
- Torche: Torche [2005 original version]
- Torche: Torche [2007 re-recorded version]
- Torche: Meanderthal
- The Vaselines: The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History
- Vazz: Your Lungs and Your Tongue
- Vendino Pact: s/t
- Virgin Prunes: A New Form of Beauty
- Virgin Prunes: Over the Rainbow
- Virgin Prunes: …If I Die, I Die
- Voigt/465: One Faint Deluded Smile
- Vox Populi!: Half Dead Ganja Music
- Warning: s/t
- Trevor Wishart: Journey Into Space
- Trevor Wishart: Red Bird / Anticredos
- Xanopticon: Liminal Space
- Yeast Culture: IYS
- Yeast Culture: Rena Leica: The Exposition of Nothing
- Yelle: Pop Up
- Zanov: Green Ray
- Zanov: In Course of Time
- Zanov: Moebius
- v/a: Alchemy
- v/a: Angelica 91
- v/a: Angelica 92
- v/a: Anthology 1: Come Organisation Archives 1979-1981
- v/a: Bogata, Luca & Richman: The Devil’s Trill
- v/a: Dry Lungs
- v/a: Dry Lungs II
- v/a: Dry Lungs V
- v/a: Freedom in a Vacuum
- v/a: Fridge Freezer
- v/a: Hands 2/3
- v/a: La Mort Heureuse
- v/a: Mutant Sounds Whacked-Out Singles: Volume 7
- v/a: No Big Business
- v/a: No Big Business 2
- v/a: PS1 Volume: Bed of Sound
- v/a: Project One
- v/a: Trumpett Sounds
So I sorta fell silent and haven’t been posting much lately. This is due, in large part, to having accumulated a huge pile of music that is entirely new to me. It doesn’t help that it would be difficult for me to write about much of this music even given the advantage of intimate familiarity; most of it was obscure to begin with, and is abstract verging on the obtuse. Jazzy krautrock improv from Scandinavia, broad-spectrum wiggly noise bursts, ramshackle protean compositions that were coming unraveled even as they were recorded: these are highly individual outbursts of noise and creativity, and even when they’re affiliated with a time and a place or from a reasonably well-known artist (depending on how well-known you think Nurse With Wound is), they’re difficult to describe.
But that’s not really an excuse or a complete explanation. The simple truth is that spending sustained periods of time listening to music I’ve never heard before erases my ability to talk about music at all. There are albums where I can confidently say, after a single listen, “I like this,” or “this doesn’t interest me,” but for the most part the stuff I’ve been listening to lately resists that kind of immediate judgment. I can tell after hearing Mnemonists’ Horde or Rota-Limbs for the first time that they’re both interesting and exciting, but I lack the words for putting that fascination into concrete terms, and given the tiny audience for this kind of music, just saying “this rox u shud listn 2 it” isn’t going to do much for anyone. Especially when I don’t really know how I feel about it myself.
I think that explains why I’ve fallen off the soundwagon a little in the last few weeks and have spent some time listening to stuff that’s a little less demanding. There have been a number of great new records put out over the last month, too: the Breeders erase time with a miraculously good / unpretentious / direct set of songs on Mountain Battles, as accomplished as anything they’ve done since Safari; Torche’s new record, Meanderthal, is almost as good as their monstrous debut, putting the “thunder” in “thunder pop”; M83 have returned from the wilds of Elektronikaslavia with a newer, sleeker sound and a new album, the aptly named Saturdays = Youth; and a Dutch label has released a remastered version of OMD’s brilliant Dazzle Ships, with its incredibly infectious New Wave hit single that never was, “Genetic Engineering”. These are the things I find myself returning to when the stress of moving (oh yeah – I’m preparing to move me and my enormous pile of media across town) overwhelms my ability to deal with hours on end of square waves and rambling percussive scree.
But I’m going to try to suck it up and deal, both by documenting the enormous piles of stuff I’ve continued to add to my collection, as well as trying to come up with some kind of game plan for talking about it. It’ll probably be fragmentary and incomplete, but that’s what blogs are, aren’t they?
Stuck in my head this morning, last night, and most of today: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Genetic Engineering” (off their largely unheralded 1983 Cold War concept album Dazzle Ships). A bouncier bit of toy-piano / Read’n’Spell fluff I cannot imagine. “Genetic Engineering” exhibits that puzzling tendency manifested in early 80s pop where the music is upbeat and full of cheer while the lyrics are fathomlessly cynical (think Heaven 17’s “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing” with its cartoonishly frenetic bass fretwork and sneering disdain for Ronald Reagan). This song has one of those 4-note arpeggiated major-chord melodies that jackhammers itself inextricably into your skull. Back when I used to do a lot of long-distance cycling, I’d get this exact kind of song stuck in my head during long slogs, and would want to never, ever hear them ever again by the time I finished the ride. Under less extreme conditions, though, it’s a super-fun companion to have for a day or two, and a useful counteractive to the bleak and dour stuff I’ve been listening to lately.
For indie rockers with very long memories, one of the only covers of this song was released by Washington, DC’s Eggs on a TeenBeat 7” in 1995. It’s faithful but sort of ramshackle and unravelled, but that was what Eggs were about in the first place, so it’s endearing, if nowhere near as charming as the original.
Courtesy of Joel Johnson, I found out that Paul Robertson has a new animation out. It’s a hearty 320MiB AVI file (I recommend downloading it via BitTorrent) and is a worthy sequel (this time in color) to Robertson’s indescribable masterpiece Pirate Baby Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006. To describe both videos as unholy apocalyptic freakouts is to do them inadequate justice; anyone who ever played Dodonpachi or Metal Slug X and felt that the boss battles just weren’t ridiculous enough needs to give this a look. It really makes former brainbursters like the Emergency Broadcast Network and Tetsuo: The Iron Man look tame. Impossibly dense seas of pixelated pop trash iconography flit by on torrents of blood at 30 hallucinatory, psychedelic frames per second; Paul is quite possibly the most skilled artist of Generation x-chan.
Integral to Robertson’s complex eschatological imagery is the soundtrack, both to Pirate Baby and (especially) to Kings of Power 4 Billion %, and fittingly enough, Robertson gives full credit to the soundtrack’s creator, Cornel Wilczek. Wilczek really goes balls-out on this one, producing disjointed industrial prog-metal electronica that wanders between amped up Clark and something like a more traditionally death metal version of Meshuggah. The guitars are a little rudimentary, but occasionally reach for a sort of Robert Fripp lunacy that, combined with the rest of the swampy, dense electronic mix and the eyeball-searing, brain-violating visuals creates a pure gestalt, a solid block of crushed and compacted pop culture that requires time, attention, and no predisposition towards epilepsy to decode.
Wilczek and Robertson are a natural team, and for a case study that is slanted more towards the Wilczek side of things, check out Devil Eyes. Left to his own devices, Wilczek has a much more pastoral folktronic sound, equally reminiscent of the aforementioned Clark and Dwayne Sodahberk’s second, superior album. Combined with Robertson’s sterile, disturbing vision of supercute zombies filtered through Alien Syndrome, the work as a whole strikes me as deeply melancholic and curiously affecting. There is no subject in these videos, only objects, and it strikes me that Robertson incidentally accomplishes what eluded Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick in AI (a movie that would itself work much better without dialogue): an evocation of a world where only our toys survive to carry out a degenerate pantomime of conscious existence.
(On a tangential note, for another, very different example of someone using gamer and anime culture to produce deeply personal pixel art, check out Jennifer Diane Reitz’s Unicorn Jelly. Almost nobody takes me seriously when I make this recommendation, but if you can get past the somewhat slow and obtuse beginning, you’re in for a novelistic experience of incomparable metaphysical depth. It’s very user-unfriendly, but it genuinely changed me, which is more than I can say for almost any other webcomic.)
“Dead Sound” off The Raveonettes’ recently released Lust Lust Lust is perfect streamlined buzzsaw pop. The whole album, in fact, is a near-perfect fusion of their noise-drenched Jesus and Mary Chain worship with the more spacious and reverb-drenched sound of Pretty in Black. It doesn’t have a thought in its head, but it sure is pretty.
Stuck in my head this morning: Mozart’s “Sonata in C Major” K545, as played by an Apple //c. I even found myself whistling bits of it in the shower. How dorky is that?
It’s a huge improvement over last night, though, when I had Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” looping its way through my noggin. The studio version is basically old Tangerine Dream with Genesis P-Orridge mumbling vaguely over the top; live, it turns into a truly disturbing portrait of trauma and pathology. Latecomers to Throbbing Gristle can be forgiven for thinking they were kind of tame or overrated, because on record they’re basically just a strangely diverse synth-driven noise unit. Live, though, everything take a back seat to Genesis’s insistently chanted / shrieked / growled vocals, and the darkness at the heart of the project becomes manifest. “ASSUME POWER FOCUS” live is a totally different animal. They remain strangely diverse.
I love me some Giorgio Moroder. “The Chase” and “I Feel Love” are two of the finest chunks of dance music ever recorded, and I say this even after the time my dad and I were having dinner in the Castro at Rave Thai (not its real name) and upstairs at The Café they played an “I Feel Love” megamix that lasted throughout our entire meal. Actually, that was pretty much awesome, and gave my dad a good feel for what the Castro was all about (as did the dude who wandered by later with the loincloth and club ensemble). I miss Rave Thai.
I also love me some Sigillum S, who are considerably less famous than Moroder and Donna Summer. They’re a completely bent Italian group who started out as a bog-standard noise-industrial group haunting the fringes of the industrial cassette scene and have gotten weirder and wilder as the years have gone by. Their most recent album, 23|20 is an unclassifiable melange of industrial cabaret, arrhythmic dance music, and random hooting. I love it.
However, the combination of the two is horrible, albeit in a funny way. Back in 1989, the bright sparks at Misty Circles put out La Mort Heureuse, a compilation of mostly obscure industrial artists rapaciously violating the corpses of pop songs. They attain varying degrees of horrifying, transcendent badness, with the in-concept-only cover of “Like A Virgin” achieving some sort of benchmark for the loosest and most vile interpretation of Madonna that doesn’t involve death metal. I could fart out something better without trying at all, which I think was the point.
Sigillum S’s version of “I Feel Love” keeps the arpeggiated bass line, but that’s about it. The vocals wander in and of the rhythm, and don’t even have a conversational relationship with the melody. It’s totally ghastly, and I love it. But mostly it just makes me want to listen to the original again. So I think I will.
Once upon a time there was Option magazine. It covered a broad – yet oddly narrowly defined – cross-section of music that was too weird for the mainstream, but maybe not all the way underground. Each issue would feature quarter-page ads for ReR and Cuneiform Records, and generally there was one or more ads for The Bevis Frond. It had features of varying quality (one article on Swans featured the memorable observation by Jarboe that working in the studio with Michael Gira was much like what working with Paganini was said to be like: “like standing in vats of boiling oil, lancing each other with razor blades”), but the real draw for the magazine were the 30-40 pages of concise reviews, typeset in 4 columns of agate type. It took a couple days to work through them all, but doing so always left me with a feeling like I had a pretty good idea what was going on. They covered cassette-only DiY industrial releases as much as they did more established stalwarts of new and experimental music (Fred Frith, Eugene Chadborne, Zeena Parkins, John Zorn – the Knitting Factory crowd).
Option crapped out 10 years ago. It had lost its purpose, crowded on one side by the alternative-izing of Spin and Rolling Stone in the wake of the grunge explosion-implosion, and on the other by the explosion of subgenres and new bands that characterized the 90s. It’s impossible to imagine a magazine with Option’s broad remit succeeding today. There’s way too much music to cover, and the print magazines that do survive (in Pitchfork’s shadow) tend to be more narrowly focused and relatively conservative. Even The Wire, the most self-consciously hip’n’edgy music magazine out there, is much more predictable than Option was in the early 90s.
Even so, I did inductively identify an Option sound after reading it for a couple years, a kind of post-college rock / intellectual psychedelia that lived somewhere in the interstices between Galaxie 500, Robyn Hitchcock, Half Japanese and the aforementioned twisted guitar genii Chadborne and Frith. It was like art-hippy weirdoes Henry Cow tamed for a larger audience, or REM with more unpredictability.
I provide you with all this prolog because Damien Youth fits the old Option template perfectly. Having never heard him before, listening to his The Man Who Invented God filled me with a rush of nostalgia for high school, when my friends and I would swap REM and Let’s Active and Big Star tapes. Youth was contemporary with those bands, even though he never had their success, and he was clearly mining the same vein of intellectual, introspective folky psychedelia. The Man Who Invented God has the insular quality I associate with late-80s home studio recordings, and Youth practically ought to be paying Michael Stipe royalties, but there’s a free-flowing ease to the songs that makes the rough edges and stylistic debts less important. There’s also some eyeliner and goth poetry going on, which you can interpret as charming or grating as you see fit.
This is yet another of the trove of old recordings I got from Mutant Sounds, and it’s worth the download time and Rapidshare hassle to check out if you like gothic psychedelia. Youth outlasted Option and is still going, almost 25 years after he started, and he’s got a bewildering array of other projects he’s participated in. I might have to check some of them out.
Intellectually I recognize that there are people out there who dislike Joanna Newsom. For more than a few people, her mannered, nasal vocals are the deal-breaker. Others find her tricky, polysyllabic lyrics pretentious, or just have a hard time taking seriously an elfin woman playing indie rock on the harp. She can be interpreted, in a word, as twee.
I don’t see her that way at all. I’m a passionate partisan of Newsom and her music. She can bring me to the brink of tears through the power of her songs alone; the only other musicians or composers with that power are Glen Branca and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom work in a much higher artistic register than most of Newsom’s folky peers. Where other people see her lyrics as insufferably arch, I see one of the last great lyric poets still writing in English (this:
And, Emily - I saw you last night by the river.
I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water,
frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever
in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror.
Anyhow - I sat by your side, by the water.
You taught me the names of the stars overhead that I wrote down in my ledger,
though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades loosed in December,
I promised you I‘d set them to verse so I’d always remember:
That the meteorite is a source of the light,
and the meteor’s just what we see.
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire
that propelled it to thee.
And the meteorite’s just what causes the light,
and the meteor’s how it’s perceived.
And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void
that lies quiet in offering to thee.
is one of the most indelible, durable and delicate bits of poetry I’ve encountered since last wrestling with Ruth Stone – and much more cheerful to boot). And both her singing and harp playing are idiosyncratic are deeply accomplished.
She’s also caught a certain amount of backlash for being part of the loosely-affiliated “freak folk” scene that came out of San Francisco a few years ago. If you’d been around here then, you would have known that folks like Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Joanna Newsom and Brightblack Morning Light were thrown together by circumstance more than anything else; there was nothing schematic about how they all came to prominence at the same time. I can’t harsh on people for getting annoyed at the hypewagon rolling over their toes, but if that’s your most substantive problem with Joanna you should probably give her another listen.
And if, like some critics I’ve read, you think she takes herself way too seriously, what’s the problem? Her commitment to her music is near-total and she’s unapologetic about her intelligence (anyone who makes “…but always up the mountainside you’re clambering, groping blindly, hungry for anything: picking through your pocket linings – well, what is this? Scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?” work has forgotten more about English than most of us will ever know), and the music she makes is the product of a confident, brilliant mind, and o see how it shines.