Crebain’s Night of the Stormcrow is, for the most part, one man band black metal with the usual death and thrash metal influences: ridiculously morbid and aggressive lyrics, galloping drum machine rhythms, and the distortion turned up to 14 on everything. But for ten glorious seconds at the beginning of “Time to Die” the po-faced façade cracks, as Crebain stages an aural drama about some jolly Swiss lass singing a jolly little tune, only to fall shrieking beneath some sort of hideous assault by a jolly, madly cackling Crebain. It’s ridiculous and sublime. He should do more of that.
The ending of “The Cries of My Motherland” samples some beautiful a capella Eastern European / Middle Eastern folk singing in multi-part harmony, too, this time without interruption by the malign forces of darkness. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s still very pretty, especially in the midst of all the churning thrash.
head on 3
Once upon a time, I spent what seemed like an endless night with some friends watching a compilation of all of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s videos. Every one was identical: William and Jim Reid, standing in front of a monochrome backdrop (sometimes black, sometimes white, sometimes with cheesy video effects overlaid), staring straight into the camera with deadpan expressions (if they weren’t wearing sunglasses), listlessly strumming at their instruments without too much concern for staying in sync with the songs they were miming. Sometimes one would halfheartedly dance around, staring fixedly at the camera the whole time. After what seemed like eight hours (but was probably only four), it was a relief to switch to Nekromantik 2, and as anyone who has experienced that bizarre mindfuck (I hesitate to call it porn) knows, that’s saying something. After that night, it’s been easy for me to believe that the band are exactly as humorless as they seem.
But there’s always Barbed Wire Kisses. It was the first Jesus and Mary Chain album I bought, after hearing “Sidewalking” on the lone “alternative” radio show that Portland radio carried in syndication. “Sidewalking” is a catchy, propulsive electro-rockabilly ode to personal transportation, and I was mostly excited to hear it again, but the album ripped the top of my head clean off. The next day I was ranting to my friends at school, “DUDE, you’ve GOT to HEAR this! These guys use FEEDBACK as an INSTRUMENT!” I think it’s that combination of noise and pop that made JAMC so influential on My Bloody Valentine (who, after all, started out sounding pretty much exactly like The Cramps, another band of rockabilly outlaws) and the other Creation bands of the late 80s.
Barbed Wire Kisses is a collection of singles and B-side tracks, but it has a coherency and sleek, menacing sound that I miss on the rest of JAMC’s records. It also has a few choice covers, and that’s where it seems like maybe they do have a deeply buried sense of whimsy (if not humor), because their choices for artists to cover are Bo Diddley, the Beach Boys, and… Can? They somehow take “Mushroom”, one of Damo Suzuki’s stream of consciousness rants, and make it sound positively malign. It’s not quite as doom-hollowed as “Cracked”, which has a queasy sexual vibe that both thrilled and spooked me back in 1988, but the JAMC version brings out the nuclear-war subtext in a way that’s left completely implied in the original.
(As a side note, it’s always mystified me why the Pixies chose to cover “Head On”, probably one of the least interesting songs in the entire JAMC catalog, by turning it into probably one of the least interesting songs in the entire Pixies catalog.)
It’s a good thing I didn’t know or forgot that Dead Meadow’s Howls from the Hills was a reissue, or I might have skipped picking it up. Somebody told me once that their old records suck, and like a chump I believed Andee. Somebody. Whoever it was who told me that who definitely wasn’t Andee. The lead singer has kind of a whiny voice, but not in a Doug Martsch way, and I’ve come to love Martsch’s voice anyway. These are some epic stoner jams here, sort of as if Black Sabbath and got together and recorded some jams with Bardo Pond at their most baked. The whole thing is very 1975. It’s not quite as space-rocking or as catchy as the more recent Dead Meadow albums, but their combination of midtempo sludge, fuzzed out guitars, and wah-wahed droning feedback is instantly recognizable. These guys are like comfort food for me. Now I gotta go pick up the other reissued old album and their live CD. I can’t believe I passed up the chance to see them live. Stupid tinnitus.
Pinch’s Underwater Dancehall seems to be another in a long series of dance music albums that’s intended to bust out of the artistic ghetto from which it emerged. The production is bright and sparkly and about half the guest vocals are the kind of melismatic R&B that producers have been using to appeal to an imaginary “mainstream” since Soul II Soul, if not since Giorgio Moroder started working with Donna Summer. More damningly, since both the vocal and instrumental versions of the tracks are included on the album, it’s possible to hear just how gratuitous those vocals really are. There’s nothing wrong with being tooled for a broad audience in theory, but in this context (and maybe it’s just how it’s striking me tonight) it comes across as possibly a little over-eager and most definitely too busy (“Brighter Day”, for instance, works much better – works perfectly, in fact – as an instrumental, which is too bad, because the vocal would be appealing in a less crowded setting). About a third of the album is spooky and compulsive listening, a third doesn’t do much for me and a third is plasticky faux-soul / faux-dancehall / faux-R&B that makes me itch. I think I’d like it twice as much if Pinch had chosen one each from the vocal and dub versions, and had jettisoned the wailing divas.
1: that this produced “I Feel Love”, quite possibly one of the finest dancefloor tracks of all time is, uh, HEY LOOK OVER THERE IT’S A BEAR.
I always knew on some vague level that I “should” like Gram Parsons; he’s one of those names you can’t escape if you grow up with your nose buried in old Rolling Stone books, and The Flying Burrito Brothers were one of those California bands, like Little Feat or Quicksilver Messenger Service, that get namechecked frequently by Deadheads. I probably avoided them for exactly those reasons – they were eminently worthy, I was surrounded by Deadheads and I really, really hated the Grateful Dead with a passion. While I’ve since decided that’s pointless, because (among other things) the Dead wrote “Ripple” and a handful of other gorgeous songs, I don’t apologize for my former disdain; Deadheads did (and still do) drive me crazy with their blinkered way of assuming that a band didn’t exist if it didn’t share a stage with Jerry Garcia at some point.
And what do you know, Gram Parsons & The Flying Burrito Bros’ Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969 was recorded at a couple of live dates with the Dead in 1969 and I love, love, love it. Apparently these recordings had to be carefully pried from the suspicious hands of Bear, the Grateful Dead’s most dedicated recordist and custodian of the closest thing that exists to a comprehensive Grateful Dead archive (somebody should write a good, non-Deadhead biography of Owsley Stanley, because the dude has lived like three lives, all of them fascinating). I can only imagine why he took so much persuasion to allow Amoeba Records to turn these recordings into a widely-released double CD, but the quality of the recordings is amazing. It sounds like it could have been recorded last week.
Getting wanky about tape quality is one of the things I detest about Deadheads, so I’ll just move along and say the sound quality would be irrelevant if it weren’t for the fact that the band play astonishingly well. They make what they’re doing sound so easy, which is remarkable given that Parsons & Co more or less invented the style of country-fried psychedelia and R&B they were playing. Parsons famously coined the term “cosmic American music” to describe his sound, and it fits like a glove. It’s not a million miles from the Dead in sound, but it’s on a completely different spiritual plane. The fluid, confident guitar playing meshes perfectly with a set of classic high & lonesome country standards and is a bizarre and completely apt merging of Californian and Texan sensibilities. This sounds more graceful and assured than most studio recordings (of anybody) from the period, and I could listen to it all day.
Doesn’t it seem like every song from the 80s had a sax solo in it? Where did that come from? Why did it stop?
Severed Head’s last album with significant distribution in North America was 1991’s Cuisine (with Piscatorial), and their last album to be released at all in the United States was Gigapus, which was released by tiny indie Decibel all the way back in 1995. Severed Heads didn’t disappear, though, “they” – Severed Heads has been Tom Ellard alone for quite a while now – just moved on, without looking back to see if we were keeping up.
Back around the turn of the millennium, you could download low-bitrate MP3s for their entire catalog from sevcom.com. You could buy their albums as shareware, although the purchase interface was clunky. Then, once the rights to their recordings had reverted to them, Sevcom started selling CD-Rs of their albums, but still offered streaming audio for the curious or chintzy. Now, digital distribution has finally caught up with Tom Ellard, and you can buy a large chunk of their catalog through iTunes, most of it as “iTunes Plus” DRM-free AAC files. Or you can buy them as MP3s straight off sevcom.com and get, as a free bonus, Tom Ellard’s demented liner notes included as PDFs.
I highly recommend you do so, because there are few experimental pop musicians at the level of Severed Heads, and even their oldest, most primitive material still sounds pretty fresh. Also, I’m sure Tom Ellard could use the money. I’ve always thought of Severed Heads as being like Wire: both are artists who outgrew their original style (in Severed Heads’ case, tape-loop based experimental industrial), developed an ear for sickly-sweet melodies that play on in your head for days, write stream-of-consciousness lyrics that have no relationship with reality, and are driven by irascible eccentrics.
Severed Heads have released 9 albums since they last had a distribution deal in North America. Well, actually, that’s not quite right: they’ve put out 4 standalone albums, a couple remix collections, a side project (Coklacoma, a purposefully awkward electro-pop project which doesn’t do much for me), and one continually mutating, versioned release, Op.
The Op releases are intended to be sketchier and looser than the “full” albums. In reality, they’re also punchier and contain more of the loopiness and elusive melodies that have kept me a dedicated fan of Tom Ellard all this time. My favorite is Op 2.0, both for “Symptom Symphony 2.0”, with its Autechre Lite breakbeat (turnabout is fair play, and anyone who thinks Autechre doesn’t owe a huge debt to Severed Heads needs to hear more Severed Heads) and nonsensical lyrics, and the “Hank” half of “Pinagoal / Hank”, which is a disorienting, almost melodic looping blurt. It also features “Kern That Bembo Tighter 2.0”, which is about the nerdiest type-related title I’ve ever seen. They all have their moments, though, and Op 3 is free.
While you’re over there, grab Gashing the Old Mae West / Kato Gets the Girl (which is also free), and then buy some stuff. I recommend Come Visit the Big Bigot or Viva Heads!, but all of it is worth hearing.
Red Mecca is a Cabaret Voltaire album I only picked up a month or so ago. It’s from the early “industrial” phase of the group, which is to say that it’s a mixture of experimental electronic sketches and tense, treble-heavy garage rock submerged in an acid bath of electronic squelch and unusual treatments (this perspective on their sound is also something I picked up only recently). Every so often they managed to float across some well-concealed rocking, too, like “Red Mask”, a droning, insistent and somewhat aimless song that misses being a goth club track mostly due to its compressed, reedy sound and the messy synth blurts and scribbles over the top. The song is constantly on the verge of falling apart, but instead the music and Stephen Mallinder’s near-chanted, surly vocals combine to hold each other together, making for a memorably crabbed and sketchy version of rock and roll.
There’s something vaguely insulting about the widespread conviction (at least among those who care about this sort of thing) that The Tuss is exclusively a secret Aphex Twin project. The Tuss, for those who aren’t obsessive e-music nerds, is a recent RePHLeX signing who claim to be husband-wife pair Brian and Karen Tregaskin. Googling “Tregaskin” reveals only that it is a name that exists almost exclusively in conjunction with The Tuss and RePHLex (it is also a relatively uncommon Cornish surname). So far they – whomever they turn out to be – have released an EP and a short album of mildly disco-influenced squelchy techno. Everybody’s assumption that The Tuss is “obviously” Richard James rests on the Tuss’s choice of labels, James’ known fondness for one-off aliases and running weird headgames on his cultishly patient fans, and the very real and strong similarity between The Tuss material and James’ recent Analord releases.
People have been wrong about this sort of thing before. In 1996, Warp released a limited edition one-off single by an artist known simply as Woodenspoon, and seemingly overnight it was accepted as fact by a disturbingly large number of people that this was the clever Mr. James releasing a secret followup to his recent Girl / Boy EP and Richard D James album. This is despite the fact that on the one hand, the Woodenspoon single sounded nothing like anything James had released for years, and on the other really wasn’t very good.
The pointless and feverish drama that ensued ultimately resulted in perhaps the most hyperbolic and regrettable flamewar I’ve ever been involved in, and right around then I decided that the IDM list had disappeared up its own ass and stomped off to do my own thing. On the balance, this was a wise decision, because there’s only so many times you can argue over which Autechre album is best before you completely lose all connection to reality. At the time, it was bruising, personal and ugly in only the way that a truly pointless internerd war can be. It was not my finest hour.
Some time later, it came out that Woodenspoon was in fact Mark Clifford of Seefeel and Disjecta, so the whole thing was an early case of Acute Internet Drama based on nothing more than a very small number of peoples’ desperate need to believe that Richard James is the savior of electronic music now and forevermore. Like I said, the Woodenspoon single wasn’t very good, but if I were Mark Clifford, who’s made a lot of very good music over the years, I would have been an equal measure of amused, angry and disappointed.
Back to today. The Tuss material has more than a passing familiarity to old Aphex Twin material, but it’s qualitatively different than anything James has been doing for a while. For one thing, it’s busier. There’s a lot of material in the Analord series (three and a half hours’ worth, in fact), and much of it’s quite good, but each track tends to explore a single idea and use a consistent and restricted sonic palette. Rushup Edge, by contrast, is all over the place, and feels more like the chockablock early UK hardcore tracks (albeit in a stoned and low-key way). In fact, quite a bit of it reminds me of Chris Jeffs’ early material as Synesthesia (which is some of my favorite music on RePHLeX), and there are hints and intimations of other RePHLeX artists in other places on the EP. There’s lots of bouncy synth-funk, some anodyne, dry rhythm tracks, and plenty of the analog squelchiness that seems to be RePHLeX’s defining trait at this late hour in their existence. The results are pleasant, satisfying, and not at all worthy of the ridiculous levels of hype the project has received.
My guess, based on my fallible ears and this bulletin board thread, is that The Tuss is some kind of RePHLeX All-Stars project. The odds are good that this a bunch of collaborative material (like the regrettable Mike & Rich album put out by Richard James with Mike Paradinas of µ-ziq) that’s been kicking around on James’ hard drive for a while that he eventually packaged up and put out. The only reason it matters to me is because I keep hearing very familiar things on Rushup Edge, and for some obscure reason it matters to me whether it’s an established artist pulling some good stuff out of the archives (and screwing with people’s heads for the sheer contrary joy of it), or an extremely talented mimic cranking out rip-offs.
Nobody told Torche that stoner metal’s never going to make the top 40, no matter how huge the sound, or impassioned the vocals, or tightly-wound the songwriting. This is metal geared for AM radios and huge arena crowds, and I can only hope they pull it off, although I already know in my heart they won’t. They’re neither troubled nor insincere enough to go huge with today’s audiences.
There is absolutely no flab to any of In Return’s 7 short songs, and while there’s nothing as instantaneously perfect as “Erase” from their debut album, with its amazing and perfectly placed string-bombs (I swear, that song makes me feel like a kid again), Torche finally appear to have gotten a grasp on their sound, and this is as pure and clean a pop-metal EP as I’ve ever heard. The music is as immaculate and gorgeous as the packaging.
In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I had to investigate one of Andee’s claims, and after a quick experiment I can confirm that playing the vinyl for In Return at 45 does bring into existence something that sounds remarkably like a mutant, grind-punk version of Queen. The solos, in particular, become totally face-melting, but somehow the doomier parts still sound pretty heavy. Curious.