For me, and I suspect a lot of other people, Viking metal is musical comfort food: not too challenging, not especially good for me, but very satisfying. While there are exceptions (on the progressive end, Enslaved; on the wanky end, Moonsorrow), most Viking metal follows a standard template: growled death metal vocals, loads of subdued keyboards, occasional clean classical guitar breaks, folk melodies and instruments (penny whistle, bagpipes, concertina, Jew’s harp), and lots of the broadly consonant, epic chord progressions and harmonies that are viewed with suspicion in most mainstream metal. Viking metal really owes more to NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest than it does to folk music.
Though it gets very little coverage in the English-speaking metal mainstream (such as it is) this stuff is very popular in Scandinavia and Central Europe. Every time a reviewer says something bad about Ensiferum or Windir on the web, a horde of angry young men materialize out of nowhere to heap scorn and threats of bloody, fiery death on the offender, generally in grammatically correct, stiff English. It’s sort of endearing in the same way that the apocryphal old stories of mobs of Scandinavian teens throwing bottles and bricks at Cradle of Filth’s tour van are: it’s nice to know that the kids care.
Thyrfing are a decidedly middle of the road band, and Urkraft is a thoroughly average album. The production sounds like the band pressed the “TÄGTGREN” button on their mixing console: meaty, chugging guitars, taut drum sounds (maybe triggered, maybe not), and a nice, clean mix that emphasizes the guitars without obscuring the vocals and the keyboards. For all its midrange chug and growled vocals, this music is essentially ambient task music: it’s music for drinking beers with friends, or playing role-playing games, or hacking out code, or reading Raymond E. Feist novels. If Thyrfing were making black metal they’d be Dark Funeral, and if they were making thrash they’d be Machine Head circa The Burning Red – there’s nothing here that’s going to blow your mind, but it’s eminently enjoyable for what it is.
Q: What’s even better than Shackleton’s unique take on dubstep, as heard on Skull Disco: Soundboy Punishments?
Shackleton mixed by Dubsta! If you already have Soundboy Punishments, prepare to hear Shackleton’s Levantine melodies, clattering rhythms and deep-assed bass in a whole new way, and if you don’t have it yet, prepare to be convinced you need it!
UPDATE: Aw damn, Skull Disco decided to take the mix down, and the replacment DubSTa mix they put up is similarly unavailable. Just go out and buy Soundboy Punishments instead.
(h/t to Blackdown Soundboy for his excellent interview with Shackleton from 2006, which is when I discovered Shackleton picked up this mix myself.)
So one of the areas where my preferences intersect with Planet Pitchfork is that I have a serious weakness for the whole freak-folk scene (which is only intensified by my recent discovery of the world of Joe Boyd-produced folk/rock). While I liked Joanna Newsom live back 2004 (when I saw her opening for other freak-folk heavyweights Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and Brightblack Morning Light), I resisted picking up Ys because the reviews made it sound like overindulgent prog wankery (as a side note, I have no idea why I decided that was a bad thing, as I have acres and acres of overindulgent prog wankery in my collection – maybe it was that it was popular, much-hyped prog wankery).
As it turns out, Ys is a meticulously crafted work of genius, and is only overindulgent if you are a frowny-faced fun hater. Its five tracks are overflowing with song, and are almost embarrassingly rich in beautiful melodies and flawless couplets. I’ve listened to it countless times and “Emily” and “Sawdust & Diamonds” still – still – make me tear up every time I hear them. This is not an easy thing to do, people. I was genuinely delighted it when Ys came up on my iPod just now.
Newsom’s masterful poetry (seriously, I think I know good poetry, and for all of Newsom’s four-dollar words, this is as elegant and concrete as poetry gets in 21st century English), distinctively girlish voice (WARNING: her breathy, raw delivery is a deal-breaker for some) and harp playing combines with Van Dyke Parks’ ornate, varied orchestration to create something that has all the subtlety and restraint of a sledgehammer to the forehead. In a good way. Next to this, Joni Mitchell’s experiment in orchestrated folk-pop, Travelogue, is a miserable failure, and the songs on Travelogue are some of the best songs chosen from a 40-plus year career of one of America’s greatest songwriters. I cannot praise this record highly enough.
Colin Newman’s “Round and Round”, the last track from his 1988 solo album It Seems, is a brilliant and maddeningly catchy exercise in looped anti-pop music. It’s especially impressive in the way that it flouts pop song conventions while sounding relentlessly poppy – the song is only Newman singing his elliptic, nonsensical lyrics over layered synths, with no percussion or rhythm section. It builds and builds, paying off in… nothing. It fades out and the album ends. It’s a completely typical move for Newman, who manages to combine both the most pop-oriented and most pranksterish tendencies of Wire (his most famous project) in a single person. And it’s a beautiful little song. I seem to be incapable of just letting it play through, rewinding it back to the beginning each time I hear it.
One of the many pleasures of the digital download revolution is that it means that people who like raw, tracky electronic music can get high-quality techno in a portable form without having to jump through hoops to get it. I haven’t ripped my vinyl yet, and may never get around to it, because doing it right is a lot of work. And a huge chunk of that stuff was originally available solely on 12” and 10” records which never made it to the west coast of the US. But who cares, when I can hit Beatport or Bleep and download acres of high-quality MP3s at more or less reasonable prices?
Especially when it’s stuff like Surgeon’s, or a release like East Light? East Light came out in the middle of Surgeon’s most fertile period of the end of the 90s, when he was running two labels (Dynamic Tension and Counterbalance) and putting out material on two others (Soma and the legendary Tresor). Upon first listen, it is a clinically dry collection of tracky dancefloor techno, unrelenting and very mechanically composed. All four tracks are pure percussion workouts, and this is precisely where their most appealing qualities lie: while they sound unremittingly electronic, almost all these tracks are made from carefully chosen samples of real percussion instruments, orchestrated into a smoothly ticking orrery.
Because these tracks were, after all, intended to be worked into a dancefloor set by a DJ, they don’t have the sophisticated progression and complexity of Surgeon’s dense, sui generis Force+Form, or the easy appeal of records by Model 500 or Underground Resistance, but first listens can be deceptive. I’ve had East Light kicking around my iPod for years, and it continues to grow more interesting and immersive each time I hear it.
Would New Order have become the juggernaut they were if they hadn’t been the wreckage of Joy Division? I have a hard time believing that any band with Bernard Sumner as its lead singer could have gotten so famous without some major help. He seriously has one of the most godawful singing voices I’ve heard in pop music. The dude has never, ever learned to carry a tune. “Blue Monday” is one of my all-time favorite songs, but listen to a song like “Every Little Counts” or “All Day Long” and try to convince me egregious crimes against all that is good and just are not being committed.
Today marks the beginning of this blog for real.
I recently created a new smart playlist in iTunes named “terminator”. It includes every track on my iPod that hasn’t been played since midnight last night. Upon its creation, that playlist contained 21,433 tracks, which I will now listen to shuffled by release. That’s a whole lot of music, no matter how you look at it: 148 gigabytes (which is all my “160GB” iPod classic will hold), 70.7 days’ worth of uninterrupted listening, 1,998 albums containing tracks by 1,044 different artists. After I’ve listened to all that, I’ll pull in more from my archive, which currently includes 6,102 albums collected over the last 20-odd years.
For the last few years, I’ve been using myself as a test subject for new ways of listening. Playing through huge playlists of incredibly diverse music, randomly-selected album after randomly-selected album, has had strange effects on how I hear music. Genre as a differentiating principle has diminished greatly in importance, and I have definitely learned to privilege songwriting and composition over production and musicianship. I try very hard to give everything an equal chance to be heard (the reason I only started this project now is that I wanted to hear everything on my iPod at least twice), but my subconscious brain definitely plays favorites (consider the relative accessibility and songness of the things that get stuck in my head).
This blog is, in large part, intended to be a scratch pad for me to document whatever random thoughts occur to me during the process of listening through my collection. I’m trying to get in the habit of making quick observations several times a day, and otherwise not decide in advance what and how I write. I firmly believe that we, as listeners, need newer, more rigorous and inclusive ways of talking about music in the thoroughly postmodern culture we all live in now (I know, I know, postmodernism is so 20 years ago, but in many ways, it’s more in control than ever). I’m still trying to figure out what that means and how to do it. My hope is that writing a little every day will eventually help me figure it out.
I may or may not make it through my whole collection. As the subtitle of this blog says – at the time of writing this post – I have 248.8 days’ worth of music in my personal archive, if I were to listen to it 24 hours a day. In reality, I listen to about 8 hours’ worth of music a day, mostly while I’m working, running errands or reading at home. Very approximately it would take over two years to listen to it all at that pace, and of course I’m not planning on stopping my music shopping just because I’m doing this project. I’ve committed to giving it at least a year, but after that we shall see. Finishing things is not my strong suit.
So far today, I’ve heard the FAN disc from New Order’s RETRO compilation, Side 1 of Severed Heads’ Op3, Surgeon’s East Light EP, Janek Schaefer’s Above Buildings, a stray track from The Haunted’s rEVOLVEr (not sure what’s up there, probably some kind of metadata bug), and Troum’s session for the Mort aux Vaches show on VPRO radio in the Netherlands. I don’t intend to write about everything I hear, nor document my listening album by album (people who really care about that sort of thing can check out my last.fm page – almost everything I hear gets logged there). I don’t have anything insightful or penetrating to say about a lot of my favorite music; I just enjoy it, and that’s fine with me. My hope is that the stuff I do write will be interesting to some of you, and that as this project develops, some of you will be interested enough to hang around.
Swervedriver were a terrific band. They released four albums that managed to mine just about every great rock and roll tradition of the preceding 30 years without ever sounding like anything other than Swervedriver. They were better on stage than on record, even though classic songs like “Last Train to Satansville” were minor masterpieces of invisible soundtrack work and they were clearly consummate craftsmen. Their songs have a transparent clarity that glows brighter the more attention you give them. They were, in short, a great British rock band, and these days almost entirely unknown.
The biggest reason for their relative obscurity is due to factors beyond their control; their first records were released by Creation at the height of shoegazermania, and while they had some brilliant dreampop moments (“Sunset” off their debut is my favorite along those lines), they were both more muscular and more traditional than most of their peers. I saw them open for Soundgarden in the spring of 1992, and I went from thinking they were also-rans to being a fan in about 10 minutes. They rocked hard, and played far more confidently than you’d expect from an opening act who were almost completely unknown in the US at the time. My favorite album by them, Mezcal Head, is a straight up rock and roll masterpiece – nothing “alternative” about it – and owes much to the Rolling Stones, Lee Hazelwood and The Byrds.
I picked up their third album, Ejector Seat Reservation, shortly after it came out in 1996. It was hard to find (it didn’t get released outside the UK until 2003) and so I was a little disappointed that it seemed so featureless and dry next to the effortless pyrotechnics of Mezcal Head. That feeling persisted until just a couple months ago, when I ripped all my Swervedriver and put it on my iPod. Having the opportunity to hear Ejector Seat Reservation while I was out and about allowed me to get to know it at a more leisurely pace, and I slowly realized that it is at least as classic a set of songs as anything else Swervedriver ever released. I use the word “classic” consciously; Swervedriver’s debts are more obvious than ever, but so is the care and conscientiousness of their songcraft.
This album really deserves to be in the same category as the best records by Blur, Ride or Pulp, and easily outclasses anything made by the odious Oasis (the Gallagher brothers are jerks, their records sound like overcompressed crap, and they had one great song they kept permuting over and over). It’s hard to say what Swervedriver could have done to get more noticed, but it’s a shame they weren’t.
So there was once this pseudo-band called The Dukes of Stratosphear, which is actually XTC wearing floppy shirts and playing British psychedelia that is the definition of “pastiche”. Which is to say that while I love their music for historical reasons, my enthusiasm for it is sapped after spending some serious time with Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, to which it is beyond indebted. The Dukes are one step above being a cover band, and while their ear for that style is uncanny, the resulting songs aren’t very strong. That said, I will yield to no one when it comes to “What in the World”, which is by far the finest song on the album. None of it’s bad, I just thought it was niftier before I knew what a clone job it is.
This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see Heaven.
I, uh, I don’t really know what to say about Abigor’s Fractal Possession. Beyond saying I’m sorry I ever doubted them (in the wake of the tepid Satanized), and ever having said anything snarky about this album. Fractal Possession is stunning and sui generis.
So, here’s a précis: Abigor. Austrian 3-piece with a revolving membership, no bass player, and the style of rattletrap pell-mell drumming that owes more to old grindcore (with its double-footed oatmeal box kick drums) than death metal’s bass-heavy rolling thunder. Possessed of a singular guitarist who can twist the whole chaotic mess around his finger and turn it into something grandiose and beautiful all by himself. Never make the same album twice. Fond of stealing samples from Dom & Roland, who probably stole them all from somebody else.
This album pushes all sorts of buttons for me, with its high-velocity prog/black/technical death metal warped into all kinds of strange shapes by the promiscuous borrowing from industrial, drum’n’bass and metalcore. Samples from Road to Perdition are juxtaposed with Abigor’s inimitable overdubbed twin-lead guitar pyrotechnics and random doomcore synth blats. And just to keep you on your toes, whenever the density peaks and it starts to blur into saminess, things ease up and get more melodic. It’s really quite something. I like it so much I had to listen to the whole thing all the way through twice, which I almost never do.