I feel pretty bad for sleeping on the recent record from Helms Alee – a slumber that would have continued indefinitely had it not been for my friend Nick, who misses Helms Alee’s forbears more keenly than me, I guess. The guitarist for this Seattle band was also a guitarist and the singer for those yeoman devotees of 5/4 sludge, Harkonen, who in Grizz released one of the most refined distillations of Hydra Head’s then-burgeoning sensitive yet hairy post-hardcore sound.
Some of Harkonen’s gutbucket punk survives in Helms Alee, but as the Melvillean band name indicates, the newer band isn’t so urgently straightforward. It’s a fairly skeletal 3-piece with the aforementioned guitar-singer and a drummer and bass player, both of whom are women, and both of whom also sing. Like a lot of the newer post-metal bands, their songs seem to grow out of jams and follow no particularly schematic path, but unlike a lot of the other recent Hydra Head bands, Helms Alee understand the value of concision, and the songs don’t ramble.
Night Terror is a near-perfect debut – it has a rough-hewn looseness I recognize from time spent hanging out in a practice space with a couple guitars, a big heap of effects pedals, and a stoned drummer (fans of Harkonen’s time-signature trickery will not be disappointed by Helms Alee), and it wears its influences unashamedly, without particularly drawing attention to them. Bits of Karp, the Pixies, Neurosis, Jawbox, Swans and the like knit themselves together without visible seams, and the band tries on a whole bunch of vocal approaches, ranging from the old urgent yawps of Harkonen to beautiful (if rough) multi-part harmonies. Whoever recorded the record clearly loves drums, and the engineering puts all three members of the band on an equal footing, which gives the performances a strong ensemble feel, which in turn reminds me of Fugazi and their ability to get a jazz feel out of punk songs.
In sum, this is the sort of record that’s practically guaranteed to get a sympathetic hearing from me, and combined with the evocative and poetic lyrics and a couple of sturdy, gorgeous post-rock singles (“A Weirding Away” and “Grandfather Claws”), this has me retroactively declaring this to be one of my favorite records from 2008, even though I didn’t hear it until this week.
It fits in neatly with 2 of my 3 other favorites from 2008, and for posterity’s sake I’ll give my unordered list of my 4 favorite records from 2008 here:
- Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life
- asbestoscape: s/t
- Helms Alee: Night Terors
- Clark: Turning Dragon
And here’s an unsorted list of other 2008 releases I thought were pretty great for one reason or another:
- Breeders: Mountain Battles
- Dusk & Blackdown: Margins Music
- Portishead: Third
- Vivian Girls: s/t
- Gojira: The Way of All Flesh
- Genghis Tron: Board Up the House
- Lil’ Mama: VYP: Voice of the Young People
- Arckanum: Antikosmos
- Avigail: The Other Side
- Boris: Smile
- Cadence Weapon: Afterparty Babies
- Earth: The Bee Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull
- Gas: Nah und Fern
- Hollywood Holt: Holt Goes to Hollywood
- Bannon: The Blood of Thine Enemies
- JME: Famous?
- Krallice: s/t
- M83: Saturdays = Youth
- Matmos: Supreme Balloon
- Meshuggah: obZen
- Omit: Interceptor
- Slagmaur: Svin
- Soilent Green: Inevitable Collapse in the Presence of Conviction
- Sparks: Exotic Creatures of the Deep
- Zomes: s/t
…but to put things that way misses what my 2008 was actually like. I started the year with the goal of listening my way through my music collection, but in February discovered the wilds of Blogspot’s MP3 blogs, and ended up spending a large chunk of the year listening to the esoteric detritus of about 40 years’ worth of underground (or at least underheard) music. I spent the better part of 2008 listening to hundreds of hours of music for the first time and then moving on to the next thing – a uniquely exhausting experience.
The most exhausting aspect of living in a state of perpetual novelty is the deeply frustrating recognition that an awful lot of what I heard (Mnemonists, Organum, Roland Kayne, HNAS, Sparks, the Flying Lizards) was sophisticated, complex music that would reward repeated, close listening and just not having the time to give it the attention it deserves.
It’s been said before and it’s going to get said a lot more: we live in an era of unparalleled cultural production, and unlike pretty much every prior era of human culture, we’ve got the means and inclination to hold onto pretty much everything we produce. Music is a much more populist concern than it’s been, historically speaking, and despite being a largely popular artform is also much less ephemeral. There is absolutely no way to stay on top of it anymore – you have to pick your battles, and I find it very hard to choose.
This year cracked the bindings on what’s left of my tastes (I even spent a lot more time listening to jazz, which has been my traditional blind spot), and I am now completely powerless to concretely describe what kind of music I like except in a very vague, Potter Stewart-ish way of saying I know it when I hear it. At the same time, spending so much time with stuff that was last hip – if it ever was – about 20 years ago helped me see with a crystalline clarity how much of the musical discourse surrounding us all is driven by fashion. I really could not give a fuck less about 90% of the music I see discussed, even by critics I wholeheartedly respect.
The difficulty I find in writing this blog is rooted in that fact. Thanks to the work of MP3 blogs like Mutant Sounds and No Longer Forgotten Music, I’ve been able to weave an impenetrable web of reference around myself, and to talk about it in ways anyone outside my head can understand, I need to develop a concrete vocabulary for talking about some very amorphous sounds. It’s a worthwhile task, but one that’s frustrating and exhausting, and it’s really been enough work just finding and listening to all this stuff (and, you know, living the rest of my life). All I can say is that I’ll keep working on it.
But enough of that. 2008 was a demanding year in a lot of ways (most having nothing to do with music), but I can’t help but feel that it showed the way to a more productive and interesting 2009 and 2010. I’ll do what I can to realize that promise, and I hope you have the energy to do the same.
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.
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.
I have sort of a disdain-hate relationship with Nick Denton’s would-be media empire. Over the years, I’ve read Gizmodo, Gawker, Defamer, Jezebel, io9, Fleshbot, Kotaku and Idolator. Sooner or later, all of them except Jezebel have started to really piss me off. Denton encourages an irreverent house style that’s reminiscent of a brain-damaged version of British tabloid culture: gossip reigns supreme, sincerity is toxic, and a cheap, facile presumption of auctorial authority oozes out of every page.
Jezebel makes it work. At least one of the editors is like a retarded kitten, and you want to pet her even as you kind of pity her, and the rest of the editors know how to be provocative (and funny) enough to get Jezebel’s thriving community going on a given topic. Their commenters have sort of taken charge of the site’s vibe, and they’re an interesting group. That’s the only reason I still read Jezebel, even though I probably shouldn’t.
Idolator, on the other hand, makes me crazy in the head. Maybe it’s just that they’re treading very close to where I live, but for all of their cheap cracks and flashy insider knowledge, they still come across as no-talent assclowns. They act like they’re letting you in on the scene, but it’s all written from the consumer’s side of the music biz firewall, so they never really offer you the economic analysis or industry context that would allow you to understand the larger forces at work – something I think is critical in understanding how and why we get the music we do. In place of thoughtful analysis (or useful criticism) we get the same tired-ass shallow celebrity gossip horseshit: who’s got beefs, who flashed their beaver in public, which famous person said something dumb or mean about some other famous person, Amy Winehouse is gonna die, Britney’s still alive, etc. And occasionally some totally insipid “pop” criticism from writers who I know are capable of much better.
That’s the thing that gets to me the most, I think: I know that Jess Harvell and Maura Johnston are die-hard music fans with interesting tastes. Anyone who will go to the mat for Scritti Politti is clearly on my team, and Harvell’s recent analysis of what internet hype is doing to the development of new artists was sharply written and perceptive. It’s just when they write to match the Gawker style that they piss me off, because it does a disservice to music, which I fervently believe deserves to be taken seriously, and it does a disservice to their own skills when every sharp insight is immersed in a sea of semi-pointless snark.
I only subjected myself to them (again) because I’m trying to keep a closer eye on the business end of music myself, and it sort of seemed like they might have some insight into deals like the recent flaps at EMI. But they’re using the same primary sources I am, and tossing it into Nick Denton’s Borg processor to be extruded as partially hydrogenated meta-cultural product, and it’s all terrible and makes me sad. Don’t support their asinine bullshit. Even Pitchfork is better, and that’s not something I admit lightly.
(NOTE to Annalee and Charlie, should they ever stop by: I like you guys just fine, and I wish you all the best in your new gig, but trying to read io9 just makes me sigh. No offense. I think I just come at fandom from another angle.)
I’m obsessed with musical metainformation, but I don’t really have much use for lists. Whenever I see those “random 10” postings that pop up on political blogs on Fridays like verbalized daydreams of leaving the office and drinking beers, I sort of sigh and click on to the next post. I need some context and some motivation to care about somebody else’s musical taste, and lists are more about the compulsive recapitulation of something that probably only means something to the person making the list.
Best-of lists are a compulsory ritual of music nerddom, though, and they do often provide a useful frame for a year, so I generally make some kind of gesture in that direction. Every year ends up being a little different: sometimes I list my favorite records that I bought that year, regardless of when they were released. Sometimes I list the most interesting records released that year (which can run upwards of 50 or 60 records in a year where I buy a lot of CDs – I tend to only buy music I know is going to be interesting in the first place, after all). I experiment with ranking schemes. I try to write reviews for everything (and inevitably fail).
This year, when my friends at Aquarius sent out their yearly call for best-of lists, I figured I’d keep things relatively uncomplicated. Here’s a few lists of albums released last year. Each one’s unranked and sorted alphabetically by artist, and each one consists of albums that were released, in some sense, in 2007. Each one gets a single sentence to explain why it’s on the list. Every release is wholeheartedly recommended, by me if by nobody else.
11 very interesting new releases from 2007
- A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Scribble Mural Comic Journal
- Simultaneously a sparkly pop record and a bent experimental playground without sounding at all artificial.[*]
- Bloody Panda – Pheromone
- The interplay between Yoshiko Ohara’s theatrical, dissonant singing and the rest of the music’s hollowed out doom-sludge continues to fascinate me.
- Burial – Untrue
- Burial takes every cliché of 10 years of UK dance music and uses them to produce something deeply moving and enveloping. [*]
- Dälek – Abandoned Language
- Even El-P’s most claustrophobic hip-hop soundscapes have never been this bleakly downbeat and close, nor this evocative. [*]
- KTL – KTL 2
- “Theme” is 27 minutes of slowly building drone that crescendos in a solid wall of shimmering, awe-inspiring noise.
- Larsen & Friends – Abeceda
- Larsen have always been careful craftspeople with a penchant for concept-driven work, and this musical depiction of a dada abecedary is their most cohesive and affecting album in years.
- MIA – Kala
- Like the Burial, this warps a lifetime’s (and a world’s) worth of dance, punk and b-boy culture into a set of meditative ass-shakers that neatly balance the personal and the political. [*]
- Nadja – Touched [remastered]
- Womblike doom metal that is heavy like the sun.
- Neurosis – Given to the Rising
- Another immaculate album of world-weary pagan hymns from my favorite metal band.
- Skull Disco – Soundboy Punishments
- Still the only collection of unmixed dubstep tracks I’ve heard that’s interesting all the way through, with tons of micro-variations in the percussion and non-gratuitous samples of Eastern music.
- Xasthur – Defective Epitaph
- Depression made manifest in sound; an apotheosis of its style. [*]
13 only slightly less interesting new releases from 2007
- Colleen – Les Ondes Silencieuses
- Naïve chamber music from a gifted amateur. [*]
- Dødheimsgard – Supervillain Outcast
- I love the way Dødheimsgard are able to just barely keep their bonkers and mean heavy metal under control.
- Dopplereffekt – Calabi Yau Space
- Contemplative, meditative and cold space music that’s rhythmic without being repetitive. [*]
- v/a – Dubstep Sufferah, Volume 3 (mixed by Grievous Angel)
- A tightly-edited mix of dubstep and grime that takes a disparate collection of sounds and makes them work together like meshed gears (and free).
- Durrty Goodz – Axiom EP
- Inventive rhymes coupled with tailor-made backing tracks; I’m hoping this is a promise of things to come in grime.
- Earth – Hibernaculum
- Dylan Carson’s been around for a long time and tried a lot of different things, so this collection of old tracks in his current style – a kind of rarefied instrumental country – is a fascinating glimpse into the development of an artist who’s had more than his share of ups and downs.
- Every Time I Die – The Big Dirty
- This album rocks hard and loud and is a hell of a lot of fun. [*]
- PJ Harvey – White Chalk
- Harvey always takes chances, but this is a big experiment in self-restraint, and it pays off handsomely. [*]
- LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
- James Murphy has a talent for making his professional, sophisticated Steely-Dan-meets-Talking-Heads-in-CBGBs-Bathroom-in-1979 schtick sound easy, which is a very neat trick.
- Neil Landstrumm – Restaurant of Assassins
- Neil Landstrumm goes back to 1992 and comes back with the freshest, most loose-limbed collection of messed-up breakbeat techno and bleepy dubstep he’s made in the 21st century.
- The Necks – Townsville
- Sublime and trancy minimal jazz; every album from The Necks is one of the most interesting in whatever year it’s released.
- Six Organs of Admittance – Shelter from the Ash
- The most focused and song-based Six Organs album, which works both despite and because of its marked restraint and conventional take on droned-out psychedelic folk.
- Weedeater – God Luck and Good Speed
- Pissed off, drunk and really loud.
4 notable reissues from 2007
- Current 93 – The Inmost Light: Hallucinatory Patripassianist Song
- Beautifully summarizes David Tibet’s preoccupations while broadening them; compiles All The Pretty Little Horses: The Inmost Light, Where The Long Shadows Fall (Beforetheinmostlight) and The Starres Are Marching Sadly Home (Theinmostlightthirdandfinal).
- Nico – The Frozen Borderline: 1968-1970
- A nearly complete archive of the haunting voice and harmonium work Nico recorded with John Cale and Joe Boyd (her best period).
- Gram Parsons & The Flying Burrito Brothers – Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969
- “Cosmic American music” is right; it’s hard to believe these immaculate recordings of folk- and rock-inflected country standards were made live.
- Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth [expanded]
- Nearly everything released by a singular group whose minimal sound created a world of its own. [*]
The Björkiest album from 2007
- Björk – Volta
- This album confused and (seemingly) upset a lot of people, and it’s hard to love, but there are few artists (none of them popular) who surpass Björk’s rigorous and deeply creative engagement with their work. I really enjoy it sometimes and respect it all the time.