MIDEM is apparently a huge music trade show that happens every year in Cannes, and it’s going on right now, so there’s a flurry of announcements of various significance coming across the wire from sources like billboard.biz and Coolfer. Many of these announcements demonstrate that digital music is finally going through its own little dotcom bubble. I know there’s a bubble a-borning because there are all kinds of businesses popping out of the woodwork that fail even the most basic bozo check.
Take, for instance QTRAX, the most recent attempt to take peer-to-peer filesharing legal. How do they intend to do that? By wrapping DRM around their “25 million” track library (which in actuality has nowhere near 25 million different tracks), so they can track media plays, so that rightsholders and advertisers can get paid – which, to me, presupposes that you’re going to have to use their client to listen to your music and view the non-optional ads. Which leads me to heave a huge sigh, because I just don’t have the heart right now to discuss the now-ubiquitous practice of using advertising to make your halfassed idea suddenly seem profitable. Ad-based business models are the beenz of 2008.
If Brilliant Media’s claims add up, they’ve got a pretty impressive team working on their software, because the initial version is using Windows Media for its DRM, yet they have a roadmap promising Mac OS X and iPod support by mid-April. There are all manner of technical reasons that make me skeptical that they’re going to be able to pull this off. For starters, the only supported library for accessing Windows Media content on the Mac is Flip4Mac’s, and it’s a buggy piece of crap.
On the other hand, it may be irrelevant, because I have a hard time seeing too many people using QTRAX. As this article in the International Herald Tribune makes clear, “free” music services are suddenly plentiful, and web-based services like last.fm’s are way easier to use. This leads me to conclude that the major labels have flipped from their former paranoid selfishness to a passionate desire to sign deals with everybody who’s not Apple, because they want to break Apple’s hold over the download business. I’m skeptical that this is going to do them any good in the long run, although it’s refreshing – if a little unsettling – to see the 4 majors coöperating, instead of continuing to try to corner the market themselves.
I’m also just plain ambivalent about the focus on Apple. I work for a competing music service (Rhapsody), so I’d like to see our business grow (if only because I think subscription music makes more sense for more people than its limited success so far indicates), but at the same time they’ve managed to create a download market by using the very tools (software-hardware bundling, platform lock-in, flat pricing, no DRM) that made the major labels crazy. Without Apple, there wouldn’t be a market for the major to take away. I don’t really feel sorry for corporations, and it’s not like Apple needs my sympathy anyway, but it’s off-putting to see how public and gleeful so many groups are about taking Apple down.
Dark White didn’t make much of a mark; they (or he, as only one guy is pictured on the sleeve) made 500 copies of an EP in 1985 and disappeared. There’s nothing that original about The Grey Area, either. If you’ve heard WaxTrax!-era Ministry or Visage or a;GRUMH you’ve heard the various pieces of their sound. Sometimes the vocals are out of tune, or not delivered with much confidence. The recording is clean but unremarkable. The songs have the bouncing-octave minor-key synth lines you’ve heard in a million industrial / electro / electroclash / New Wave songs.
Of course, I like old dance-industrial a lot (as long as it’s not the turgid, tuneless churning of Antler-Subway bands like Noise Unit), and the way Dark White put everything together is actually charming. “Charming” may seem like an odd word to describe death-obsessed darkwave, but the band that made these tracks was young, and as such all the moodiness comes across as direct and earnest, and the whole package is so utterly and obviously a product of its time and place. The total Americanness of it all appeals to me. Over at Mutant Sounds, the commenters compare some of the sounds on the record to Big Black, and I don’t really hear that, but I do agree that the vocal delivery is pretty damn Midwestern.
Apparently this record trades for hundreds of dollars on eBay, so grab it from Mutant Sounds while you can.
I’m pretty sure there isn’t a bad version of June Carter and Merle Kilgore’s “Ring of Fire” (which most people know as Johnny Cash’s most famous song), but if there is one, neither of Wall of Voodoo’s versions are it. The pulsing synths and spare, spaghetti Western guitars bring out the sublimated tension that was sitting there at the heart of the song, hidden in plain sight, all along. (Cash’s decision to swathe the song in mariachi horns was an act of genius, but at odds with the song itself. I don’t miss them when they’re gone.)
There are probably songs with more famous backstories, but there can’t be many: June Carter and Johnny Cash met while they were both married to other people and Cash was a total wreck, due to various booze and pill addictions. Carter fell in love with Cash almost immediately, but was wise enough to realize he was a walking disaster area and kept her distance. She wrote the words for “Ring of Fire” during this time, and transformed what must have been awful feelings of unrequited love into a set of lyrics that are right up there with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in their clarity and urgency. They just jump right off the page. (I’ve wondered for a long time when, exactly, Johnny figured out what, and who, the song was about, and how that felt.) Eventually he got his shit together, got right with God, and married June, and they lived more happily ever after than not. The whole story is several sizes larger than life.
Wall of Voodoo must have known they were onto something when they recorded their version, because they did it twice. The first version is slow, sparse, and tense, and is the star of their debut EP. The second version, which they released on a single with a medley of Ennio Morricone themes performed live as the B-side, is considerably punchier and features one of Stan Ridgway’s best early performances. Ridgway has a terrific and uniquely American voice, and it’s in peak form here. There’s also some near-perfect post punk guitar soloing here, all feedback and atonality, which cuts against the grain of the original song but is in keeping with the sublimated urgency of the lyrics. While Wall of Voodoo wrote plenty of great songs (“Can’t Make Love”, “Lost Weekend”, “They Don’t Want Me”), this may be their best performance.
While nursing my newborn obsession with all things Mordant Music, I appear to have found a whole new rabbit hole to fall down.
When I was poking around Boomkat looking at Mordant Music’s releases, this little bit of the Carrion Squared listing jumped out at me:
Apparently made up of offcuts from a Boosey & Hawkes library music album which the duo of Baron Mordant and Admiral Greyscale were commissioned to produce, Carrion Squared is the perfect record for followers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop desperate for a fix.
I know a little bit about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Delia Derbyshire, White Noise, the Dr. Who theme song, the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc), but what’s this “Boosey & Hawkes”? What’s “library music”?
It turns out that knowing a little about stock photography and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is extremely helpful when wrapping one’s head around the wide world of production music. Most photographers and designers know about royalty-free creative asset companies like Corbis, Getty Images and (on the hipsterish end) Veer. You want a stock photo of, say, a generically beautiful vaguely ethnic professional woman staring off into space while holding chic glasses in one hand in front of a blurry sunlit background, you go plug keywords into a search engine, add two or three images to your shopping cart, and buy a license to use them in your annual report or douche ad and you’re good to go. I have more than a couple friends who have sold pictures to stock photography agencies. It’s decent money if you have a knack for thinking like a corporate art director.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was the department responsible for music and sound effects for use in the BBC’s shows, and the reason so much of the stuff that came out of the BBC in the 60s and 70s sounded so futuristic and awesome is entirely due to their crazed improvisers, who were capable of extremely creative work on a tiny budget. Douglas Adams is funny and all, but without the Radiophonic Workshop (and, oddly enough, the Eagles, whose “Journey of the Sorceror” was the Hitchhiker’s Guide theme song) there wouldn’t have been a show.
Boosey & Hawkes is a company that allows production agencies that don’t have the BBC’s license fees to outsource their production music needs. They license music and musical cues to production houses for use in advertising and documentary work, mostly. Music libraries intend for their material to be licensed, so they make it straightforward for producers and broadcasters to work with them – instead of talking to separate publishers and labels and performance rights organizations, everybody just talks to the music library. If you’re making a David Attenborough documentary about cormorants on the Isle of Man, it’s a lot more cost-effective to license a couple discs from a music library than to send a production assistant on a wild goose chase to nail down all the rights to Coldplay’s “Clocks” or whatever.
Boosey & Hawkes own one of the largest production music libraries in the world, and my awesome discovery for the evening is that they’ve put a nice search UI on the front of it, and you can listen to pretty much their entire catalog online. The clips tend to be under two minutes and are organized by concept, description and keyword. Plug in “dark aggressive” and you get back four tracks, at least one of which is a brilliant miniature darkcore epic (Nick Tidy’s “Bad Situation”). The way everything has to be squeezed down to its essence brings back the old days of rave for me, when every song mutated every 4.7 seconds and there were more ideas per track than there are on most modern mix CDs.
In fact, most of the stuff I listened to tonight was pretty good. I’d pretty much like to have a copy of everything on Drone Continuum, which contains most of the Mordant Music tracks made for Boosey & Hawkes (one of which has the delightful title that heads this post). I’m a sucker for drone music to begin with, and the utterly synthetic short songs are tasty bits of ear candy. The combination of short tracks and analog synthesis also makes it sound startlingly like a less damaged version of Omit, and Omit is one of the most compulsively listenable purveyors of weird music out there. Which also helps explain why I respond so strongly to Mordant Music, actually, because they definitely have the Omit vibe, especially on Carrion Squared.
Hard on the heels of my post on Fucked Up and Kelefa Sanneh’s laudable efforts to get them noticed by New York Times readers, I bring to your attention this excellent article by him about dubstep’s ongoing half-assed attempt to penetrate the American gestalt. He does a great job with the nearly intractable problem of describing dubstep (a thing more defined by what it’s not than what it is) and he does it without talking down to the audience. He’s now my favorite critic writing for the Times.
Thanks to Nick, I now know that Fucked Up and Xiu Xiu (two bands who should never be mentioned in the same sentence) are suing Camel, Rolling Stone, and (potentially; see the sidebar) Rhapsody for, well, being asshats (more summary here):
Indie rock bands Xiu Xiu and Fucked Up today filed a class action lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (the parent company of Camel cigarettes) and Wenner Media (the publisher of Rolling Stone) alleging the unauthorized use of artists’ names, unauthorized use of artist names for commercial advantage (right of publicity), and unfair business practices, all in regards to the ‘Indie Rock Universe’ multipage advertising section that appeared in the 40th Anniversary issue of the magazine published on November 15. The class action, which was instigated by Xiu Xiu and Fucked Up but filed on behalf of 186 bands and artists featured in the pull out spread, accuses both the cigarette company and the magazine of engaging in “despicable conduct” that was “illegal under settled, unambiguous California statutory and common law.” The lawsuit demands Rolling Stone publish an admission that the artists’ names were used without consent in a spread equal in size to the original ad, as well as seeking actual and punitive financial damages. (Under California law, this could conceptually amount to $750 per issue of Rolling Stone, per band, or a whopping $195.3 billion.
Everybody’s favorite bit of that story is this line:
The 18-page complaint filed today reads partially like a Pitchfork review written by a music-nerd attorney.
but they actually back it up with
Xiu Xiu’s work is described as “often thematically dark, marked by non-narrative, evocative lyrics delivered in small fragments, and is varied in instrumentation, which can include koto, digital sound samples, and whistles, as well as bass, keyboards, percussion and guitar – or some combination of some or all or more.” Fucked Up’s work is described as “direct, sonically violent at times, and often characterized as hardcore punk, with the sometimes acknowledged influence of Spanish Civil War-variety anarchism, Viennese Actionism and the Situationist International.”
The attorney on the case, Christopher J. Hunt, is either really good at reading band bios, has a remarkable ear, has a well-developed sense of humor, or some combination of all of the above. Those are as accurate descriptions of either band’s sound as I’ve ever heard.
I’ve been trying to tell everyone how great Fucked Up are for a while now; I strongly feel that Hidden World is an outstanding achievement: fierce, loud, lyrically sophisticated, politically and metaphysically engaged, and immaculately recorded. Also, they have a totally hilarious name (check out the hoops Kelefa Sanneh has to jump through to get his review of their live show into the New York Times), and the members’ pseudonyms (10,000 Marbles, Pink Eyes, Mustard Gas, Concentration Camp, Guinea Beat) are overblown and dorky-offensive in the best punk rock tradition. I’d say they’re the best punk rock band from Toronto, but there’s actually an awful lot of really great punk and hardcore bands from Toronto.
I won’t rehash the details of the case, because there’s more than enough links up above, but I will say that I think the bands have a pretty good shot at a settlement. I find the type of advertorial shenanigans Rolling Stone and Camel engaged in distasteful (“advertorial” is, of course, a portmanteau word combining “advertising”, “total horseshit” and “editorial”). Somebody there should have known this was going over the line. I’d be pissed if I were either Fucked Up or Xiu Xiu too: Rolling Stone has as much to do with real independent music in 2007 as Rupert Murdoch does with decency or truth, and the cheesy “Indie Rock Universe” spread Rolling Stone published makes the bands mentioned look uncool just by association. I find the idea of Rolling Stone being forced to run a 4-page pullout saying “WE FUCKED OVER FUCKED UP” in gigantic type quite satisfying.
In the meantime, Fucked Up have put out a bunch of singles over the last year, all of them great (and some of them not at all what you’d expect from a Black Flag-style hardcore band), and have a pretty crowded slate of new releases coming out this year. And their latest blog post linked to a pretty good disco-house single from Hercules & Love Affair, featuring the vocals of the amazing Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons), which shows they’re nice guys – I mean, they’re looking out for my interests and all.
Writing this blog is leading me into interesting terrain, as this recent batch of additions to my library shows:
- The second half of Mordant Music's The Tower has been banging its way into my head far enough to make me take a leap of faith and buy the rest of their diverse and aggressively eccentric catalog.
- I realized that I was entitled to download a bunch of Severed Heads' Op series outtakes due to having bought Op 2 a while ago, so I grabbed those.
- Talking about Surgeon's awesome DJ sets reminded me to check his site to see if he had a more recent set than the ones I have, and indeed he did.
- Finally, I've been accumulating a pile of crud from Mutant Sounds, so I added all that to my iPod so I could get to know it better. There is some amazing music that's been dug out of obscurity by that blog:
- Tappi Tíkarrass, Björk's first foray into the post-punk sound that she refined in Kukl and the Sugarcubes, before she decided to become the most avant garde pop star ever;
- a bunch of long out of print Hirsche Nacht aufs Sofas (HNAS) records from a parallel universe where Nurse With Wound were actually German, instead of merely being obsessive fans of Krautrock;
- a whole pile of European art-damaged gothic post punk (Claustrofobia, Dark White, Epitaphe, Tango Luger);
- some early records by the fucking tremendous Wall of Voodoo, whose Call of the West combines the miserably American, empathy-drenched humanity of Raymond Carver or Robert Stone with Ennio Morricone's expansive sound and Kraftwerk's electronic pulse – anyone who thinks the Wall of Voodoo story starts and ends with "Mexican Radio" is very much missing out;
- a couple completely sui generis Japanese electronic / prog / jazz / avant garde records from the 70s, one of which was a collaboration between most of Yellow Magic Orchestra and the one Japanese Pop artist whose work I know well (Tadonori Yokoo – there was a semi-exhaustive survey of his work up at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo when I was there);
- and a pile of random singles from the Mutant Sounds archives, including an awesomely out of character John Duncan track and a deeply weird couple of tracks by Duppi, a Japanese band I'd never heard of and will probably never hear from again. Mutant Sounds is so awesome that there's no way it's going to last.
Here's the full list. I've appended links to sources for most everything. Downloading the albums posted by Mutant Sounds requires you to deal with quasi-filesharing services like Rapidshare, Zshare, Bodongo and Megaupload; these services' wack-assed stabs at business models make getting at the archives a pain, but I assure you that if you like boundary-pushing music, it's worth jumping through the requisite hoops. A lot of this stuff is begging to be put back into print, if only by somebody like Hyped2Death.
- Claustrofobia: Arrebato (Fobia) [ms]
- Dark White: The Grey Area (private) [ms]
- Epitaphe: Syndrome (private) [ms]
- HNAS: Melchior (United Dairies / DOM) [ms]
- HNAS: Music für Schuhgeschafte (Dragnet) [ms]
- HNAS: Willkür Nach Noten (Dragnet) [ms]
- Haruomi Hosono & Tadanori Yokoo: Cochin Moon (King) [se]
- Mordant Music: Baud With You / Shot Away (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Carrion Squared (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Dead Air (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Fallen Faces / Dead Air (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Filthy Danceheng (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Petri-Dish (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: The Tower: Parts I-XVII (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Travelogues: A Beautiful Vesta (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Severed Heads: Op 1 (sevcom)
- Severed Heads: Op 2.3 (sevcom)
- Severed Heads: Op 2.9 (sevcom)
- Surgeon: Neck Face (www.dj-surgeon.com)
- Tango Luger: s/t (Invisible) [ms]
- Tappi Tíkarrass: Bítið Fast í Vítið (Spor) [ms]
- Tappi Tíkarrass: Miranda (Gramm) [ms]
- Wall of Voodoo: Ring of Fire / The Morricone Themes (Index) [ms]
- Wall of Voodoo: Two Songs by Wall of Voodoo (Index) [ms]
- Wall of Voodoo: Wall of Voodoo (Index) [ms]
- Tsutsui Yasutaka & Yamashita Yosuke: IE (Fiasco) [ms]
- whacked-out singles from the Mutant Sounds archives:
- Drinking Electricity: Shaking All Over / China (pop:aural)
- Duppi: Velvet Night / はつねつのみやこ (Night Gallery)
- Électric Max Band: Mick and Max / Knives, Feathers and Fire (Reprise)
- Electro Static Cat: Lethologica (Freedom in a Vacuum)
- Eskaton: Musique Post-Atomique (Eskaton)
- John Duncan / Andrew Chalk & Christoph Heemann: The Elgaland-Vargaland National Anthem / Old Hive (Die Stadt)
- Kevin Dunn: Nadine / Oktyabriana (dB Records)
- v/a: Earcom 3 (Fast Product)
Stuck in my head this morning: Mordant Music’s “XII – On Cracked Hooves” from The Tower: VIII-XVIII, a song that somehow manages to remind me of Swans, “Small Time Shot Away”-era Massive Attack, and most of the good bits of mid-90s ambient techno. Mordant Music are really growing on me, to the point that I just went to Boomkat and bought the rest of their catalog as digital downloads. So far I am not disappointed. It’s all very different.
It doesn’t matter how many times I hear it, every time I hear “Polygon Window”, it gives me chills. Richard James made some genius music before he turned into techno’s very own Rumpelstiltskin.
I take an unseemly amount of pride in the breadth of my eclecticism, as well as my fondness for an inordinate amount of crap that nobody else has heard of. At the same time, I recognize that as music weirdoes go I’m actually pretty middle of the road. For example, I have nothing on the crew behind Mutant Sounds, a group MP3 blog. Of the MP3 blogs I read, they’re the ones I think are least likely to ever run into trouble with the law, because of the total obscurity of the music they post. Every so often they’ll post something I’ve heard of (a Brad Laner (Medicine, Electric Company, Savage Republic) project, the utterly fabulous Haruomi Hosono (Yellow Magic Orchestra) & Tadanori Yokoo record I’m listening to right now, the ill-starred final releases from Hirsche Nicht Aufs Sofa, a Wobbly 3” I could have bought at Aquarius if I’d been on the ball), but for the most part these are releases copied from old private pressings, out-of-print CDs from tiny indies in random corners of the globe, and more than occasionally from cassettes, which were the lingua franca of the international music underground before CD-Rs took over.
The posters are driven by a genuine love of the music they post, and while there’s no way I can keep up with the endless flood of their posts, the quality of the stuff I do recognize or have downloaded is exceptionally high. It can be a little intimidating to be confronted with so much completely unfamiliar stuff, but they’re conscientious about providing enough context to help you figure out if it’s your kind of thing or not, and just blindly downloading is likely to get you something good more often than not. Check them out. They’re not out to rip anyone off and they have amazing taste.
A Guy Called Gerald’s Black Secret Technology has always occupied its own niche in the drum’n’bass firmament. There were a lot of records that borrowed its basic elements (erratic sub-bass, chopped-up tinny breakbeats, sampled soul and R&B vocals) but none that capture its weird sound, which stands outside the continuum that extends from old UK hardcore through modern drum’n’bass. It’s a really weird mixture of cheap plastic retro-futurism and soul, with murky midrange and bass that goes from nonexistent to room-shaking with no transition, and vocals that are the furthest thing from slick. Even though seemingly everybody loves this record, people copied Goldie’s schmaltzy theatrics and pristine gloss and left AGCG’s much woolier (and more interesting) sound alone. Goldie was reaching for the stars, and AGCG wanted you to know that he made these songs for you himself, with his own hands.
Gerald evidently knew he had his hands on something special, because he kept tinkering with Black Secret Technology for years after it was initially released. I’m not really sure how many versions I own, because I have it twice on CD and once on vinyl, and all three versions sound different, even though there are only two distinct track listings. I keep both the CD versions on my iPod at all times, because I think it’s interesting to listen to the two of them back to back and try to figure out what errors Gerald thought he was fixing in the reissued version. I’ve never figured it out. Both of them sound pretty much perfect to me the way they are.
“Understand Me” is perhaps the best lead song off any Jon Spencer-related project. It is, in fact, the first song on Pussy Galore’s deeply unhinged blues-punk meltdown Dial M for M*th*rfucker, and I have loved it ever since I heard it on KBOO sometime in early 1990, with its erratically bleeped intro and all. It is a fantastic – and hilarious – song.
However, I have never been able to understand a goddamned word of what Spencer was singing, as he sings like Mick Jagger at the tail end of a three-week cough syrup bender. Nothing about Pussy Galore was ever particularly intelligible except their decision to cover the whole of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (they owe Keith and Mick a lot, in their way), but then again, that never got officially released. So never mind.
“Dick Johnson” is another great Pussy Galore song, but its title is not ironic. It’s only awesome.
Stuck in my head this morning: “Psychic Squirt” by Severed Heads, from their recent album Under Gail Succubus, mostly because of the way it bastardizes the lyrics to a Carpenters song:
MVRemix: On the track, ‘Psychic Squirt’, you use lyrics from an older song. What was this all about?
Tom Ellard: It’s a bit of ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose’ by Burt Bacharach. Listen to the original by The Carpenters and then, look at the city now. See how it changed, like a mutant growth. The track sings about mutant growths. Everything around the world now seems to be a mutation that has grown too big like the props from ‘Lost In Space’. The world is over ripe.
I had a hell of a time figuring out which of the nearly innumerable Severed Heads releases the song was on, having only the lyrics to go on, and when I was trying to narrow it down, I realized that my blithe assumption that Severed Heads’ music has settled down in the band’s old age was tragically, deeply wrong. They’re still at least as weird as the Residents, they just seem more normal at first because they use more recognizable samples and slicker-sounding instruments.
so yesterday i was all lastfm is giving away music for free and u were all no wai and i was all un hunh their dooin it and u were all their dum and watevr and then like today yahoo is all like hai guyz were dooin it 2 come look at our kool adz and ur all like wtf evar dood who cares im downloadin all that shit off pirat bay n e wayz an im like piracy is killin the music bizness and u r all \/\/ and really who cares cuz nobodys makin no $ on it n e wayz
This is an example of why I have John Darnielle, aka The Mountain Goats, prominently included in my diminutive blogroll. This is the sort of thing I wish I wrote:
These guys are from Minneapolis and they sound like they are pissed off about it. Singer is up on the early-90s screaming-at-mom-because-she-fucked-up-the-French-toast emo style. No not that kind of emo you worthless piece of shit. The other kind. Remember Gravity Records? No I didn’t think you did. I’ll be right back I gotta go put my head in the oven.
Now I gotta find some Ganglion. I remember Gravity Records. Shit. I’m old.
UPDATE: Ganglion have some free MP3 samples up on Interpunk, and their pleasant mess reminds me a lot of Circle Takes The Square, who doth rule. Quoting my own review of Circle Takes the Square’s first full-length, As the Roots Undo:
Overwrought sincerity coupled with music so intense it verges on breaking down throughout its running length makes for a chaotic tangle of gothic punk / hardcore that is a splendid mess from start to finish. Positively baroque. My favorite record from 2004.
and this other mention, from one of my paleoblogs:
I picked this one as the record of the year back when it came out at the beginning of the year, and I see no reason to change my opinion now. Sprawling and organic, heavy and anarchic, too emo to be punk, too punk to be metal, too metal to be emo: truly, it takes you in circles.
All of which is evidence that I need to get me some Ganglion bad, because I love this kind of post punk splatter.
Ursula K Le Guin, a very wise author, critic, feminist, anthropologist, and all-round God Who Walks, once wrote a spirited essay entitled Genre: A Word Only the French Could Love. At some point, I’ll discuss this essay in depth, especially as it pertains to music, but for now, the title is enough. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my time on earth trying to file the art I like into little boxes that are partitioned into subboxes that have little halo-like graphs of signifiers and tags rotating around them in a complexified hyperdimensional paraspace. It’s always been lots of fun, but I eventually decided I wasn’t sure how edifying it all was.
These days I’ve shifted to cleaving to another notion stolen from literary critics, which is that an interesting piece of art is a finished work that has something wrong with it. This notion of the problematic comes to me from a quote of Randall Jarrell’s (“a novel is a prose work of a certain length that has something wrong with it”) cited in an interview with Samuel R Delany, who was using it to point out that even The Dispossessed – Ursula K Le Guin’s most successful novel – was flawed, but it really gets to the heart of what is special about the music that has stayed with me the longest: it exerts a kind of Lovecraftian hold over my imagination because there’s something going on that just doesn’t quite work, signs of a reach exceeding a grasp.
Smoosh all that together and you get Mordant Music’s The Tower – Parts VIII-XVIII. They don’t seem to have any idea what they want to be when they grow up. There’s some bathtub electronic experimentalism in the vein of early Tangerine Dream, a hint of Mogwai’s bombastic instrumental post rock, some bass-heavy dubstep miserablist isolationism (Shackleton once put out a record on Mordant Music’s eponymous label), a lot of Glenn Branca’s rigorous and tendentious guitar drones, but none of it’s in the service of any kind of structured program. The net effect is as if they’ve somehow captured on disc music in the raw, a protean cloud of sound, but it’s more beautiful and affecting than most of the outsider electronica it superficially resembles. It’s remarkable, and surprisingly accessible, even though it’s far from perfect. It would be far less interesting if it were perfect.
Even though Surgeon got his start ripping off Jeff Mills, both in his production and DJ styles, his DJing sounds much better these days the further he strays from his hard techno roots. Listen to one of his DJ sets where he plays edgy dubstep like Vex’d’s “Fire” and straight-up industrial noise like Whitehouse (or even the bizarre punk-funk glitch edit of “Iron Man” he busts out in his live set from Emergency a year or so ago), and compare it to the sets where he stays within the confines of the techno ghetto, and it’s striking how much more fun and loose the former are.
About seven years ago, the Atlantic Monthly published a long, detailed article about the future of copyright and the implications of cheap and easy filesharing. Recently the Atlantic decided to open their formerly pay-only archives up for free access, and so we can read this article and all get bummed out when we realize that essentially nothing has changed in the interim, except that Ross and Bram Cohen came along and invented BitTorrent and basically made it so hard to selectively filter filesharing traffic that Comcast and AT&T are bringing down the ban hammer on their own paying customers in some weird, totalitarian effort to befriend the weird, totalitarian RIAA.
Some choice excerpts:
Within the music industry it is widely believed that much of the physical infrastructure of music – compact discs, automobile cassette-tape players, shopping-mall megastores – is rapidly being replaced by the Internet and a new generation of devices with no moving parts. By 2003, according to the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Investment Research Group, listeners will rarely if ever drive to Tower Records for their music. Instead they will tap into a vast cloud of music on the Net. This heavenly jukebox, as it is sometimes called, will hold the contents of every record store in the world, all of it instantly accessible from any desktop.
- Rob Glaser, the CEO of Real Networks and one of the driving forces behind Rhapsody, frequently makes reference to the “heavenly jukebox”.
- I sure do miss Tower.
Technophiles claim that the major labels, profitable concerns today, will rapidly cease to exist, because the Internet makes copying and distributing recorded music so fast, cheap, and easy that charging for it will effectively become impossible. Adding to the labels’ fears, a horde of dot-coms, rising from the bogs of San Francisco like so many stinging insects, is trying to hasten their demise.
That’s a fabulous line. I wish I’d worked for one of the cool stinging-insect dotcoms back in the day.
Last year the worldwide sales of all 600 or so members of the Recording Industry Association of America totaled $14.5 billion – a bit less than, say, the annual revenues of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance.
I love the brutal way this puts everything into perspective, especially because it’s likely that number is significantly smaller now.
After the show I asked [Chuck Cleaver of Ass Ponys] if he was concerned about the fate of the music industry in the Internet age. “You must be kidding,” he said. With some resignation he recounted the sneaky methods by which three record labels had ripped off the band or consigned its music to oblivion, a subject to which he has devoted several chapters of an unpublished autobiography he offered to send me. (He had nicer things to say about his current label, Checkered Past.) Later I asked one of the music critics if Cleaver’s tales of corporate malfeasance were true. More than true, I was told – they were typical. Not only is the total income from music copyright small, but individual musicians receive even less of the total than one would imagine. “It’s relatively mild,” Cleaver said later, “the screwing by Napster compared with the regular screwing.”
This is the essential problem with which the major labels have never dealt, and maybe never can resolve. They’re trying to get new artists to sign “360 contracts”, where the labels get a cut of touring and merchandise revenue in addition to whatever income comes from selling the artists’ albums, and it takes a pretty naïve (or, perhaps paradoxically, ambitious) artist to think that’s a good idea. Musicians have many reasons to distrust and detest the major labels, and ever-fewer reasons to rely on them.
Last year, according to the survey firm Soundscan, just eighty-eight recordings – only .03 percent of the compact discs on the market-accounted for a quarter of all record sales.
The only difference between then and now is that the number of discs sold is likely to be significantly lower. For all the talk of the long tail, the fat, thin end of the tail is still making the major labels an awful lot of money.
Anyway, the whole thing, while being the usual insanely long Atlantic Monthly / New Yorker ramble, is worthwhile, as it provides tons of historical context for the still-intractable situation in which we all find ourselves. The really sobering conclusion I draw from the article is that we’re no closer to resolving the copyright problem than we were at the turn of the century, and if anything, the big corporate interests have taken even more control.
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.)