2007/02/17

Posted by othiym23 Sun, 17 Feb 2008 21:20:39 GMT

Sometimes a song will get so deeply ingrained in my head that it goes wrong. A catchy pharse will get stuck in a loop, and through sheer repetition will gradually degrade from a clever and bright bit of fluff into blockish and hateful sludge. This can be at its worst when, for whatever reason, I have to put the music on hold for a while and concentrate on something. Which, unfortunately, is what happened this week, when a routine upgrade of Mac OS X on my laptop went disastrously wrong. Whenever things go completely haywire with one of my machines, I’m more or less incapable of concentrating on anything else until it’s fixed, so I spent this week with bits of various old Cardiacs songs chasing each around my head, until it had all simmered down to a toxic residue of the “power pop bridge” from “Pilf” that had started out so delighting me at the beginning of the week.

On the other hand, I did pick up some awesome new stuff, about which I will post shortly; and my computer is restored to functionality without me losing anything important, so I can’t complain too much. Still, I’m ready to not listen to Cardiacs again for a little while.

a special (My Bloody) Valentine's Day message

Posted by othiym23 Fri, 15 Feb 2008 03:47:48 GMT

Yeah, it’s so played out it’s like the Bible, and yeah, saying it’s probably my favorite record of my youth (maybe of all time, if I had an all-time favorite) marks me as a 30-something sensi white boy as surely as the fact that I know Nation of Ulysses were once the Sassiest Band in America, but I will still admit that My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless makes me very happy after having heard it hundreds – thousands – of times. “Only Shallow” is the best lead song on any album I’ve heard, with its chugging rhythm (Colm may be one of the most comically inept drummers of the early 90s – although on the evidence presented on the album who knows, because Kevin is reputed to have completely resequenced the drums in post-production – but the combination of him and Bilinda got the job done), seasick piles of lurching synths and guitars weaving in and out of sync with each other, and Bilinda’s sweet, waiflike croon mumbling filthy nothings over the top.

Someday they’ll put out a remixed and remastered version of this album; of this I have no doubt (although please, for the love of all that is unholy, no “Deluxe Edition”! Moreso than with most classic albums, tacking bonus tracks and outtakes onto the end would just diminish the perfection of the thing itself). My hope is that they leave Kevin’s unrivaled engineering and mixing alone, boost the dynamic range, and bring out the bass, because I’ve always felt there’s a monster rock album lurking under all the gooey sheets of noise everyone loves so much. This record was like a supernova, burning out what created it and setting everyone else’s expectations for what came after unsatisfiably high, but man, it was so worth it.

Also, I love my sweet baby, yes I do. But she already knew that.

2008/02/11

Posted by othiym23 Mon, 11 Feb 2008 20:34:02 GMT

Stuck in my head this morning: “Pilf” by Cardiacs – who, I must once again stress, are the best band in the world – from their early cassette-only release The Obvious Identity. “Pilf” is an unusual song in a fathomlessly weird catalog, largely because it has a pitch-perfect late-70s power pop song – complete with a swaggering hard-rock guitar solo – dropped into the middle of another, much more typical (of Cardiacs, at least) prog-punk song that alternates between 4/4 verses and 7/8 bridges and sounds vaguely like the Buzzcocks. Cardiacs songs rarely finish anywhere near where they start, with the various bits strung together with a logic that owes more to dreams than traditional songwriting. I think that’s one of the keys to understanding the band’s hallucinatory intensity: they’re completely unafraid to violate traditional notions of structure in order to keep songs interesting, and they have the instrumental chops to make pretty much anything and everything work.

If downloading dodgy rips of even dodgier cassette-only releases from 28 years ago is not your thing, and you live in England, where there is some remote hope you might find Cardiacs records in stores, there is a flawless live version of this track, along with almost the entirety of the early Cardiacs catalog, on the two Special Garage Concerts CDs. There are maybe 3 not-so-great songs out of 32, and the rest are the sort of brilliant, convoluted pop genius that gets stuck in your head for weeks on end.

another day, another dollar: part 3 (of ∞)

Posted by othiym23 Sat, 09 Feb 2008 23:36:00 GMT

For another dose of record-label schadenfreude, check out this rant (check here if it’s been taken down – Victory’s lawyers have been chasing it all over the internet) by former Victory Records vice president Ramsey Dean. It’s an entertaining but unwieldy mishmash of legally actionable character assassination, insider’s memoir, hilariously hyperbolic tone, pompous word choices, and completely irrelevant Apocalypse Now quotations. I would quote some of the best bits, but I don’t want to get stupid (and lawyers) all over my blog.

If you have the patience to wade through Dean’s sludgy prose, his grandiloquent claims that Victory’s travails are in some way comparable to Joseph Conrad’s dark nights of the soul are pretty funny. Tony Brummel is no Colonel Kurtz. I think there are probably hundreds of dudes (and of course they’re all dudes) in the business who are functionally indistinguishable from Brummel; huge egos, bigotry and self-delusion are practically the defining traits of label heads. It may even be that the industry would grind to a halt without people like Brummel: Hawthorne Heights have very little to show for their time with Victory, but their CDs ended up in the hands of way more kids than the band’s quality merited.

Being nice doesn’t always help: Touch & Go Records, famous for being a humane label, with their “handshake contracts” and band-friendly accounting (as well as releasing most of Steve Albini’s records), ended up getting sued by the Butthole Surfers (who ought to have known better – they won the lawsuit but lost the war, in that a lot of people, like me, ended up convinced that they were egomaniacal dicks with a vastly overinflated sense of their worth in the wake of the lawsuit).

I have no opinion on the truth of Dean’s claims, except to say that bands should probably stop signing contracts with Victory (Thursday actually came back after leaving for Island) and fans of hardcore and emo should stop buying their records (which is tricky, because sometimes they do release some truly transcendental albums, like Refused’s Shape of Punk to Come – probably the best punk record of the last 10 years – not to mention records by Darkest Hour, Earth Crisis, Between the Buried and Me, and Integrity). On the whole, I’d just take the whole thing as a case study of how epically messed up the industry really is, from a not entirely reliable insider’s perspective, with more than a few grim laughs thrown in.

another day, another dollar: part 2 (of ∞)

Posted by othiym23 Sat, 09 Feb 2008 22:41:35 GMT

If we’re going to be talking about famous rants about the record industry, of course, we have to include a link to Steve Albini’s famous essay, The Problem with Music. If you don’t know who Steve Albini is, start here to get a quick understanding of why Albini might be entitled to an opinion on the subject. His importance and influence can’t be overstated, for all his claims of being a mere “recordist”. In the pantheon of independent rock, he is a Zeus-class godlike entity.

The essay is from its very start endlessly quotable, filled with Albini’s pithy cynicism and irrepressible annoyance at the mendacity and greed of the “industry” side of the music industry. You really ought to just go read it right now, even if you’ve read it before. It’s a genuinely important document. It’s also surprisingly restrained and extraordinarily educational, serving, in its hyperbolic and polemical way as a highly condensed version of All You Need to Know About the Music Business for bands. Here’s the punch line:

The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 millon dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.

Have you ever played Guitar Hero? If so, you’ve seen the cheeky summary screen that comes up after you play a song, enumerating all the expenses (“damage to venue”, “top-shelf liquor”) that get in the way of actually making any money for a live performance, which in its way restates Albini’s argument by showing how much even a good performance yields relatively meager rewards. The saddest thing is that for all of the hip, knowing “attitude” exuded by those screens, they actually significantly understate how bad things are. I mean, Guitar Hero is just a game, they don’t want to depress players with the grim reality, and if they were realistic you’d never get to unlock the Grim Reaper because you’d always stay broke. It’s very easy to be a hugely successful band and lose money at it, even without hookers and blow and puking out the windows of the tour bus every night.

If I sound cynical about the major labels, and the recording industry in general, this essay is a good chunk of the reason why. In my ideal world, every new band would be forced to read through it several times, carefully, before they sign their first contract. A lot of them would still push themselves into the whirling blades, but that just means the rest of us can point and laugh when the inevitable happens.

another day, another dollar: part 1 (of ∞)

Posted by othiym23 Sat, 09 Feb 2008 22:34:37 GMT

I’m a bit intemperate when it comes to the music business, but that’s only because I’m by nature fairly pessimistic when it comes to capitalism and market-based economics, and (probably excessively) jaundiced about the possibility that the intersection of capital and culture will produce anything worth caring about. Which is a highfalutin way of saying that the majors crank out huge piles of crap, I expect them to do so, and I don’t really care because I don’t listen to much major-label music anyway. So it’s nice to come across things like this blown-out rant in the Guardian’s weekend magazine.

A quote, just to give you the flavor of the writing:

Imagine the outcry if people working in a factory were told that the cost of the products they were making would be deducted from their wages, which anyway would only be paid if the company managed to sell the products. Or that they would have to work for the company for a minimum of 10 years and, at the company’s discretion, could be transferred to any other company at any time.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal investigated the industry and concluded that ‘for all the 21st-century glitz that surrounds it, the popular music business is distinctly medieval in character: the last form of indentured servitude.’

I don’t actually agree with the hyperbolic rhetoric on display here, as entertaining and schadenfreude-y as it is to read. For one thing, the analogy cited above is far from accurate, inasmuch as you’d have to take into account the factory-workers getting a huge chunk of cash dumped on them up-front. Advances are the best and the worst thing about major-label contracts; if you’re savvy and know what you’re getting yourself into, it’s possible to use that to your advantage. Whether any band smart enough to have that savvy would benefit from a major-label deal – especially today – is another matter.

the obvious identity

Posted by othiym23 Sat, 09 Feb 2008 09:04:38 GMT

Cardiacs are one of the best things ever. Back in 2006, I seriously considered making a weekend visit to London to see them play one of their legendary live shows at the Astoria, and only didn’t go because London is 8 time zones away from San Francisco, last-minute plane tickets would have been hideously expensive, and the shows sold out in like a day anyway. They are the greatest. For real. Unless you hate things that are fun, or never liked The Pixies or King Crimson or Queen or Sparks or any of a million other weird bands that are also fun. They are OBJECTIVELY GOOD.

So it is with considerable delight that I point out that Mutant Sounds has posted a rip of their nearly impossible to find debut cassette, The Obvious Identity. Some of this material was released on the (almost as hard to find) Archive compilation from five or six years ago, but it’s different when it’s all in its original setting. These songs sound a billion times more primitive than the refined mayhem found on Guns and Sing to God, but they do have their own weird allure, falling somewhere between Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Oingo Boingo and Madness.

I could spend all night writing about how great these guys are, but instead download the rip, listen to the free downloads on the Alphabet Business Concern’s pages for Cardiacs, and then engage in the not-at-all torturous process of trying to convince Tim Smith to sell you his music. He and his band deserve your money, but he sure doesn’t make it easy for people to give it to him.

when white becomes black

Posted by othiym23 Fri, 08 Feb 2008 05:32:46 GMT

The first time I ever ran across Swarm of the Lotus, I thought they had a really stupid name.

The first time I actually heard Swarm of the Lotus’s When White Becomes Black, I thought it was tune-free noise.

Now I think it’s one of the heaviest, loudest hardcore records I own, with all kinds of tricky riffs buried in the mix and a brutally tight rhythm section. It’s like they took the excruciating crux of Neurosis’s “Locust Star” (probably Neurosis’s most oppressive song) and turned it into an entire album, only noisier, faster and meaner. For sheer raw aggression and out-of-control sonic violence, it gives Converge’s Jane Doe a run for its money. It’s also extremely catchy, but you have to approach it on its own terms, because it takes no prisoners and isn’t really big on providing an easy way in, and the songs are a lot more complex than they seem at first. If you like loud, mean, fast music, though, the time spent with it is well-rewarded. I think of this record as a lost classic.

They did have a really dumb name, though.

uh-oh

Posted by othiym23 Fri, 08 Feb 2008 05:07:04 GMT

For a long time, “dubstep” was more or less a free signifier very loosely attached to the music made by a small group of British producers who all knew each other. It was mentioned in print – when it was mentioned at all – by electronic music cognoscenti like Simon Reynolds and Woebot, had a loyal, tiny internet following and was otherwise very much a London scene nobody else knew or cared about. A couple of years ago, though, it became a Thing – it got written about in music magazines, had its own club nights all over the world, generated a couple different series of compilations, and got a lot of breathless hype from Mary Anne Hobbs over high-profile remixes of indie artists. Its sudden popularity caused Simon to instantly pronounce it dead, the producers to start grumbling about how the newcomers just don’t get it, and all the other things kids in the underground do when they suddenly find themselves confronting an expectant public they were never particularly interested in meeting.

Still and all, it’s weird to watch people police dubstep’s margins, to watch fans and DJs try to issue decrees about what is and isn’t proper dubstep. It’s a warning sign that classicism is setting in, and that people are trying to own a style – something that’s patently impossible. That usually coincides with me losing all interest in the style for a while, because being obsessed with “the classics” gets tedious in a hurry. This happened in a major way to Detroit techno, and as a result, there’s been very little new music from Detroit that’s genuinely excited me for a long time. I’ve heard stuff that’s insanely well-crafted and that moved me, but none of it has struck me as all that innovative or different.

I bring all this up because I was reading Blackdown’s newest monthly summary of the dubstep and grime scenes, and something about it set off my bullshit alarm (emphasis mine):

There’s something very timely about Oneman’s selection. Between the rise of funky, Mala’s continuing “broken dub house” direction, and the return of the 2step influence to dubstep, be it through Burial’s beats, Geiom’s “Reminisin’”, most of TRG’s productions, Martyn’s selection or Kode9’s sets, the vital link from dubstep to “house and garage” seems to be rejuvenating (in an interesting parallel to the Berlin/Bristol dubstep/techno axis). Oneman is most definitely at the forefront of this, going so far back in the dubstep continuum that old becomes new, classic sounds fresh, when placed in relation to the dominant styles that fill the bulk of dubstep in 2008. Plus, to much of his audience, pre-2005 or even pre-2006 dubstep is new ground, and that’s not even touching the vast number of current fans who wrote off UK garage in its entirety.

and

To say TRG’s sound owes a debt to Horsepower and to a lesser extent, early Zed Bias, would be an understatement. But set in the context of dubstep’s recent output, there’s something refreshingly welcome to the re-emphasis of swing and rhythmic variation (2008 dubstep producer in “snares-not-on-the-third-beat shocker!”). Increasingly there is the sense that if someone doesn’t re-ignite this style, it might be lost from dubstep’s canon for good. 2002 it seems, is the new 2008.

Come on, dude, 2002 was only 6 years ago. There’s a ton of records coming out that are still obviously indebted to the old garage sound, and the free interplay between dubstep, grime and newer UK garage (funky house and bassline house most specifically – read his past columns for more details on those styles. Blackdown knows the score) makes it pretty clear that the only ghetto dubstep is in is one consciously created by its critics and fans. It’s a little early to be talking about dubstep having lost its hardcore.

At the same time, I think I see his point, or maybe a version of it. Specifically, there’s a whole crowd of drum’n’bass producers – most prominently Tech Itch, who should know better – who seem to hell-bent on translating their fun-free mechanical techstep idiom into something that sounds the same as their usual, idea-free crap but runs half as fast. UK garage was a reaction against exactly that kind of tedious one-note darkness, and although I love Tech Itch’s old drum’n’bass, I really wish they’d leave dubstep alone. At least until they actually engage with all the stuff that happened since dnb and dubstep ended up on parallel paths.

I do really enjoy the totally uptempo, dancefloor-oriented dubstep that folks like Skream!, Caspa and Rusko are making. It’s plastic and pop, and it ditches the weirdness and obsession with dubstep’s musical dialectic with itself that makes artists like Shackleton, Burial and Various Production so interesting. Rusko’s “Jahova”, Distance’s “Traffic” and Skream!’s “Check It” are all slick as whaleshit, and sound even slicker in the mix, but they’re all fun, bass-heavy dancefloor stompers. As DJs crews, Skream! and Caspa & Rusko are unapologetically prejudiced in favor of ass-shaking, and they put together very consistent, slick sets that still encompass a lot of dubstep’s diversity while still being clubber friendly.

I think the club-friendliness is probably the main thing that bugs Blackdown and people like him. It sucks to watch your special thing go mainstream, especially when the people doing the mainstreaming don’t seem to understand what it was that made it interesting or cool in the first place. Maybe it’s easier for me to not care because I’m only a casual bystander (although I’ve listened to a lot of dubstep and grime in the past few years). I don’t know. I’m just wary of the impulse to build a canon, to worship the classics. A good tune will remain a good tune forever, but if you fasten upon the classics of the past, you might miss the classics of the future.

2008/02/07

Posted by othiym23 Fri, 08 Feb 2008 00:31:47 GMT

Stuck in my head this morning: “Check It” by Skream!, perhaps the most irritatingly bright’n’cheery track currently popular in dubstep, with its martial rhythms and major-key plastic synths. It sounds like a particularly uptempo dancehall track from about 20 years ago and is brutally infectious. It would be unbearable were it not for the vocal break, with its combination of tough drumline percussion, rapidly stuttering bassline, and Warrior Queen’s MCing (which, like a lot of dubstep vocals, blurs the line between grime chanting and dancehall toasting). Skream! is mostly known for his “Midnight Request Line”, which is famous both on its own and a frequently-used grime riddim, but I think I would be much more likely to reach for “Check It” (which seems to pop up in mixes under a variety of different names) if I were still a DJ. “Midnight Request Line” has the catchy synths and is a much more traditional dubstep roller, but “Check It” is glossy, tough dance music of the highest order.

2008/02/06

Posted by othiym23 Wed, 06 Feb 2008 21:24:49 GMT

Stuck in my head this morning: “Who Say Me Done” by Cutty Ranks, from the more or less unique Soul Jazz compilation Nice Up the Dance. There’s a long history of crossover between hip-hop and dancehall, and the ongoing hype explosion of reggaeton is just a newer, more Spanish-tinged version of something that’s at least as old as Boogie Down Productions. What makes Nice Up the Dance different and effective is the way it emphasizes both the dancehall and the hip-hop parts of the equation. “Who Say Me Done” is a pitch-perfect example of this, as the beats seesaw between stripped-down hardcore hip-hop and dance-hall idioms in alternating phrases. A friend recently asked me for recommendations for similar sounds (which is probably what got it stuck in my head this morning), and it was tough to come up with anything too similar off the top of my head. There’s lots of hip-hop with dancehall influences, and lots of dancehall with nods towards hip-hop, but nothing else I know of that really has the same blending of flavors from the Five Boroughs and Kingston.

Voodoo Funk

Posted by othiym23 Tue, 05 Feb 2008 23:11:39 GMT

Voodoo Funk is a blog run by the single-named Frank, a Berlin-based DJ who’s spent much of the last few years traveling around west Africa in the quest for interesting local music. He’s a serious crate digger, and has a talent for finding records that sound very African, but still have broad appeal. He seems to bring something like a hundred records back from each of his shopping expeditions, along with a clutch of sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and often nerve-wracking stories. Western Africa is a very complicated place right now, neither the cartoonish post-apocalyptic Thunderdome painted by Western media nor a particularly easy place to live, and Frank has gotten himself into (and out of) some pretty hairy and / or affecting situations.

He’s also made available a ton of sets of the music he’s so painstakingly obtained. He takes a radio / soundsystem selector’s approach, so the results are neither continuously mixed nor left entirely alone; tracks are smooshed into one another but only abut for a second or two. Given the wide variety of styles and sounds he’s working with, this seems like a deft stylistic choice, and is – for all I know – probably the local tradition anyway. He’s got more sets up than I’ve had time to hear, but my particular favorite right now is Lagos Disco Inferno. I’m not particularly a fan of disco, after too many years spent in a West Coast rave scene that prized it much more highly than the astringent, reverb-soaked European techno I preferred, and even Frank describes a lot of these tracks as “shameless, sleazy boogie cheese grenades that only a few years ago would have had me running for shelter,” but I don’t really agree that’s what he’s got here. In fact, there’s a really weird, cosmic vibe on display that reminds me of nothing so much as early Steve Miller Band circa “Time Keeps On Slippin’”, probably due to the synthesized strings that work their way through a number of the tracks. It is both funky and groovy, and a lot of other things besides.

The rest of the sets tend towards a slightly more conventional mixture of Afrobeat, blues, funk, and African jazz, and he tends to stick to west African artists (with some exceptions made for Ethiopian and Eritrean jazz), but that makes what he’s doing sound more boring than it is. There is a lot of extremely high-quality music made in Africa, the vast majority of which people outside the continent will never know exists; Frank’s not exactly providing a service, but he is being very generous with his time and attention and exposing a lot of great music to a wider audience. He’s got a great ear and writes a good story. Check him out.

2008/02/05

Posted by othiym23 Tue, 05 Feb 2008 15:30:17 GMT

Stuck in my head this morning: two things, actually. At first it was Severed Heads’ “Kittenette” (from Op 2.0), with one of the winding, sinuous melodies Severed Heads have specialized in since Rotund for Success. It’s delicate and fey and I like it a lot.

Of course, by the time I made it to the shower, Turisas’s “Battle Metal” (from the album of the same name) had rambunctiously elbowed its way into my frontal lobes, and there it remained for the rest of the day. Turisas make cheesy, self-consciously epic Viking metal – it is utterly bereft of any awareness whatsoever of irony, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s desirable or not. I could have handled something a little less generic sounding, myself.

unexpected

Posted by othiym23 Mon, 04 Feb 2008 23:33:44 GMT

Sometimes the nicest surprises are the ones that come attached to no expectations. Every so often I’ll throw something on my iPod just because it looks sort of intriguing and end up liking it a lot more than I would with music I’ve been looking forward to a lot longer. Such is the case with Swallow the Sun and their engaging and thoroughly enjoyable Hope. They’re a metal band who have been around for a while, apparently (for as much as I love metal, you could write a couple fat encyclopedias about what I don’t know), and they have a varied sound that draws from death metal, doom metal, hardcore, and the increasingly ill-defined “metalcore” / “post-hardcore” continuum. They remind me a lot of the Ocean collective, in that they move between clean, gruff and shouted vocals as best suits the mood of the music, they know how to move between loud and soft parts of a song with actual dynamics, and they have a nice balance between melody, low-end chug and more prog notions of extended composition and weird sounds. They’re maybe not as ambitious as The Ocean, but I don’t get the sense they’re trying to be.

If you’ve ever heard a doom metal or death metal record, there’s nothing really surprising here, and folks looking for especially raw or harsh sounds should probably look elsewhere. In the unhurried way in which they play their songs and the confidence with which they do so, they remind me of Opeth, without succumbing to Opeth’s sometimes over-precious songwriting (but also without Opeth’s sometimes stunning grasp of structure). The only thing really unusual about them is their easy confidence and the grace with which they put their compositions together, but that’s a pretty big deal in my world. It’s often a goal but rarely realized. I’m going to have to seek out more of their work.

Yahoo discontinues subscription music service in favor of Rhapsody

Posted by othiym23 Mon, 04 Feb 2008 20:47:59 GMT

I’ll keep this brief, because I don’t want this blog to be about my day job, but Rhapsody America (a joint venture between my employers, Real; MTV Networks, a division of Viacom; and Verizon Wireless, a division of, uh, Verizon) and Yahoo! announced this morning that Yahoo! would be discontinuing its subscription music service and moving its users to Rhapsody. The timing of the announcement is a little weird, coming as it does in the middle of the gigantic foofaraw over Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo!, but I think Rhapsody is the best of the subscription music services (naturally), and I think consolidation of the subscription music space is probably necessary. This article from the LA Times lays out why in a concise and easy to understand way. Subscription music services are a good idea but an incredibly tough one to sell to the public at large.

2008/02/04

Posted by othiym23 Mon, 04 Feb 2008 19:41:18 GMT

Stuck in my head this morning: Dan Deacon’s “Okie Dokie”, the fourth song to get stuck in my head from Spiderman of the Rings in the last couple weeks. Now that I’ve had a chance to hear his older work, I’m even more impressed by what a wide-spectrum achievement Spiderman of the Rings really is. I like his older stuff, albeit in a much calmer way, but it comes from a much more academic / heady place.

While showering, some sort of monster complicated techno song barged its way into my noggin, and it took me a few minutes to figure out it was something from the new Clark. It stayed stuck in my head, too, even after I put on Autechre’s Untilted. I kept wanting Untilted to be beatier, like the Clark, but it wasn’t. Listening to it did lead me to wonder, though: why do Autechre bury all the pretty tracks at the ends of their albums?

Æ

Posted by othiym23 Mon, 04 Feb 2008 09:28:28 GMT

I want to say something about the music Autechre’s been making for the last five years, but it’s hard to find the words. Autechre defined, more or less by themselves, a pure, electronic sound that, after their first three or four records, was indebted only theoretically to the electro and hip-hop that originally inspired them. It is now something entirely other, although they have a legion of followers who together constitute a dotted line connecting Autechre back to the techno continuum. Their music is rooted at least as much in the process and tools used to make it as any residual notions of traditional songcraft, and this can give their music, even at its most turgid, a glossy, intellectual sheen. It can also make it feel fathomlessly recursive and inhuman.

I sometimes end up feeling about Autechre the same way I do about the more abstruse electronic works of Iannis Xenakis (RIP) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (RIP). A piece of music (or, really, sound art) can be an aesthetically unimpeachable artifact of an intellectual process, and it can intimidate you with its recondite structure and alien sounds, but sometimes that’s insufficient if the work doesn’t lend itself to interpretation. I believe that Autechre spend a long time working out the structures they use, and are conscientious about shaping their aggressively experimental music into songs, but sometimes I feel like I have to take that too much on faith.

I will say that I feel that they’ve pulled themselves out of the creative dead end they were in when they made Confield; that album is one of the most frustrating CDs I own. Excerpted, it sounds brilliant, but despite concerted, repeated efforts to wrap my head around it, I’ve never been able to get it to stick. 30 seconds after hearing it, I’ve completely forgotten what it sounds like. It contains an hour of sound that mimics music without ever coalescing into songs – with the exception of the obsessive quasi-Japanese melodic figuration and monotone rhythm of “Eidetic Casein”, which is the one part of the album I love without reservation.

Each album since then is another step back from the inaccessibility of Confield, but their last 4 albums are all easy to admire and hard to love. Draft 7.30 returns to the ghostly melodies of Garbage while keeping Confield’s arrhythmia. Untilted brings back some much-needed low-end heft and some discernible attempts to engage with Autechre’s electro legacy. And finally, their newest album, Quaristice, sees the return of the diversity and ambition of tri repetae (as well as its length).

But I miss the promise of Autechre’s middle period, when they were probably my favorite electronic musicians of all time, and when they knew a secret: they had figured out how to invert the figure and ground of music, and use their keen ear for ruthlessly pared-down melodies to create melodic lines that were sturdy enough to act as the backbone for their wandering, erratic rhythms. Just listen to “Laughing Quarter” from Envane, “Tewe” from Chiastic Slide, or “Under BOAC” from LP5 to hear songs that balance spastic rhythms with simple 4-bar melodies that somehow never get old. Sometimes, as in my favorite song by Autechre, “Arch Carrier” (also from LP5, what I consider their last fully successful album), both the beats and the melodies are kept on a tight rein, and they produce songs that are both rigorously constrained and classically beautiful.

I have to be careful when I talk about Autechre, though. I was completely disgusted with Envane and Chiastic Slide when they were released, taking them as yet more evidence that the whole IDM community had finally and irredeemably disappeared up their own asses. In fact, I was mostly reacting to the fact that tri repetae++ consisted of two brilliant EPs shackled to a wildly uneven album. Perhaps in reaction to the eventual near-total reversal of that opinion (at least when it came to Envane, Chiastic Slide and Cichlisuite), I tried to convince myself (and a few other people) that Confield was a difficult but ultimately brilliant record that would release its secrets in time. This lasted a few short weeks until I went to see them play in Oakland. Practically everyone in the Bay Area’s electronic music scene was at that show and were in the mood for something weird, challenging and transcendental; I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got the distinct impression that I was far from the only one who was severely disappointed. It was amelodic, rhythmically flat, and while technically live (and perhaps even improvised or generatively produced) sounded completely lifeless.

It’s possible that someday a key will turn in my head, and suddenly the most recent third of Autechre’s output will suddenly open up to me. I want to like it: I love difficult, esoteric sounds (see: rest of this blog), and it feels like a confession of failure when I ultimately just can’t get into work as clearly uncompromising and innovative as Confield and their subsequent albums. It’s never fun to see my limitations so clearly laid out. But I also have to be honest, with myself if nobody else: I don’t think my feelings are going to change. Somewhere along the way, Autechre lost me, and while I’ll keep my ears open, I don’t think they’re going to find me again.

Electric Bardo

Posted by othiym23 Sat, 02 Feb 2008 08:52:44 GMT

Electric Wizard’s Witchcult Today sounds, on record, like Bardo Pond used to sound live. Which is to say Witchcult Today is very good indeed, if not quite the monolithic monster of Satanic fuzz that, say, Dopethrone was. Which is also to say there was a time when Bardo Pond would come on stage looking like a bunch of scruffy MIT grads plus some random hippie chick they rousted out of the Haight and proceed to bludgeon the crowd half to death with some of the heaviest music ever played.

When I saw Bardo Pond play Terrastock in 1998, I swear the air started to congeal. That was the first time I really understood on a gut level why it’s called “heavy metal” (technically Bardo Pond aren’t a metal band, but songs like “Tommy Gun Angel” and “This Time (So Fucked)” are basically Jesu, made years before Justin Broadrick got his new religion). You can get some idea of what Bardo Pond were like live back then here, but listening to this is sort of like watching a phonecam recording of really hot sex. It gets the idea across while being entirely inadequate.

turn off the chorus, John

Posted by othiym23 Sat, 02 Feb 2008 01:48:09 GMT

I love any and all of John Fahey’s guitar playing, but he could really have stood to stay away from using effects. Nothing sounds nastier than 80s digital chorus.

a pocket knife, a captive bird

Posted by othiym23 Fri, 01 Feb 2008 21:26:33 GMT

I’ve had the following set of evocative descriptions of Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets by Rachel Kiel sitting on my computer’s desktop in a sticky since sometime in 2006, after reading it on Alex Ross’s blog:

The First Quartet is a blade of grass,
the Second Quartet is a pocket knife,
the Third Quartet is a captive bird,
the Fourth Quartet is an old train car,
the Fifth Quartet is a piece of blue glass,
the Sixth Quartet is a worn dress,
the Seventh Quartet is a red crayon,
the Eighth Quartet is a forest fire,
the Ninth Quartet is a paper fan,
the Tenth Quartet is the bottom of the ocean,
the Eleventh Quartet is a bullet,
the Twelfth Quartet is a sleeping lover,
the Thirteenth Quartet is a horse’s skull,
the Fourteenth Quartet is a strand of black hair,
the Fifteenth Quartet is an empty room.

I keep them around both to remind me to listen to Shostakovich’s work more, and to remind me of how much can be said about music in how few words.