Stuck in my head this morning: “The Sideways Man” by the Digital Dinosaurs, a throwback to 60s-era Kinks disguised as a late-70s DiY tune. The bit that gets stuck in my head is the “ba ba ba ba bababa baa” backing vocals, which is also the bit that reminds me of The Kinks. You can find this song on the Angst in my Pants compilation or on Messthetics’ Greatest Hits (which I highly recommend). It’s less catchy than the usual stuff that invades my head while I sleep, but is insidiously accessible all the same.
Hyped 2 Death has more on the Digital Dinosaurs.
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.
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.
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.
If I had to choose a single word to describe Anaal Nathrakh’s style of heavy metal, it might be “unyielding”. Another good choice would be “totalizing”. From the very start, their music has been dense, noisy, seamless, enamored of production tricks that saturate the sound field. Whether it’s driving every single channel on the mixing board into the red or expanding and compressing the masters so whispers are at the same volumes as shouts, they don’t miss a trick to make their albums into massive stone walls of aggressive, violent noise. There are even a couple moments on Domine non es Dignus where a trailing sibilant in one of the vocalists’ words completely blows out the rest of the music, the compression’s amped up so far.
What this does is provide a Procrustean sonic frame into which Anaal Nathrakh can stretch the rest of their hyper-extreme music without you noticing how many different things they’re doing at once. They’re sonic magpies (or should I say stormcrows?), scavenging elements and tropes of just about every form of extreme music out there to create something that is both sophisticated and ineluctably British.
“Sophisticated” is not a word that immediately suggests itself when it comes to Anaal Nathrakh; the only time you can clearly understand the vocalists – when they break out into the declamatory tones of operatic power metal – the lyrics become clear in all their blunt misanthropic eschatology and pessimism. Consider narrative song titles like “Between Piss and Shit We Are Born” and “When Fire Rains Down from the Sky Mankind will Reap as it has Sown”. And the compression and unyielding sonic attack of their songs can make listening through entire albums a bit of a slog if you’re in anything other than the most amped-up frames of mind. The blown-out volumes create a sustained noise assault that erases any notion of narration, that creates an eternal suspended Now where a time before or after you were hearing Anaal Nathrakh did not exist.
However, when one of their albums comes up on my iPod, I tend to end up listening to the rest immediately thereafter. Part of it is that all of their albums have at least a couple songs that are brilliant at evoking precisely the frame of mind that makes their music sound good – they’re catchy and get you pumped. An important part of it, though, is that their magpie approach makes listening to any of their three most recent albums – Domine non es Dignus, Eschaton and Hell is Empty, and All the Devils are Here – akin to hearing a kind of greatest hits of extreme metal for the last 20 years. There’s a great deal of variety buried within the churn.
Considering the way they join chromatic, atonal death metal guitar solos (reminiscent of later Carcass) to overdriven drum machine blast beats (redolent of Brutal Truth), for instance, points to the fact that grindcore was just death metal with a punk attitude and a fascination with pathology textbooks. Or the way a soaring, epic power metal vocal (a lá Ulver at their most soaring) immediately followed by hoarse death metal growls (along the lines of Deicide) makes clear the dialectic between the majestic and the abject throughout metal. It’s pointless to try and hang a specific genre around Anaal Nathrakh’s neck: each album builds on ideas from the album that preceded it, and they move fluidly between styles within the same phrase, much less between songs.
What makes this all a very British phenomenon is the way a dour pragmatism seeps out from the edges of the frame: while there are frequent stabs at the epic in Anaal Nathrakh’s composition, they seem categorically incapable of pomposity. This is the main thing that separates their newer albums from the progressive metal madness of the last two Emperor albums (IX Equilibrium and Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise): those records are full of fantastic compositions and heroic playing by some of the most talented musicians heavy metal has ever seen, but the whole enterprise is fatally undercut by Ihsahn’s irrepressible need to portray himself as the omphalos of Creation. By contrast, Anaal Nathrakh’s songwriting, production and musicianship, while not quite as accomplished, have a lived-in quality that evoke Blake’s 7 or Warren Ellis’s recent portrayal of the Battle of Crécy. Heavy metal as medieval trench warfare: a metaphor I think Anaal Nathrakh could appreciate.
What Anaal Nathrakh remind me of most, though, is something that is also deeply British, and probably close to the hearts of quite a few of Anaal Nathrakh’s English fans: their relentless downbeat cynicism, pessimism, and misanthropy-as-ideology reminds me of nothing so much as the miniatures-based wargame Warhammer 40,000, a game that impresses me more for its ambitious envisioning of a universe of eternal dæmonic conflict than the reality of the game itself. Warhammer subsumes the pan-dimensional evil and intergalactic deicide of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into a world of Roman prætors and legionnaires, and it’s easy to read Anaal Nathrakh’s eschatological death-lust as a soundtrack to neverending, metaphysically fraught strife.
There’s a small circle of musicians making a very specific kind of drone music that sits somewhere between processed field recordings and pure electronic ambient. It’s never quite clear what made the sounds you’re hearing, and this mystery, as well as the way that elements shift, emerge and disappear keeps it from being sonic wallpaper. Most of this artists in this circle (Andrew Chalk, Jonathan Coleclough, Colin Potter, the modern-day Hafler Trio, Andrew Liles, Christopher Heemann) know each other, and they all cultivate their indifference when it comes to finding an audience: Mirror, one of the most talented of these groups, spent a long time putting out 2-500 records at a time (and I do mean records). There’s something weird about buying a record with sides that are more silent than not. It’s somewhat disquieting and anonymous.
Andrew Chalk was in Mirror (along with Christopher Heemann of HNAS), and right now I’m listening to his Shadows from the Album Skies, which has a peculiar name but is a beautiful record. It’s more static and mysterious than most of these lowercase drones, with the only recognizable sound on the whole release being some microphone feedback subtly woven into the first track. It’s subtle and unchanging enough that it draws you in, forces you to listen closely to hear the variations and textures. Moreso than most ambient music, it creates a numinous aura of sound. It is quietly sacramental.
Chalk’s stuff can be hard to find, but it’s worth digging up. Without really meaning to, I’ve collected 7 of his releases and find them all beautiful, soothing and deeply strange.
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.
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.
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.
So one of the areas where my preferences intersect with Planet Pitchfork is that I have a serious weakness for the whole freak-folk scene (which is only intensified by my recent discovery of the world of Joe Boyd-produced folk/rock). While I liked Joanna Newsom live back 2004 (when I saw her opening for other freak-folk heavyweights Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and Brightblack Morning Light), I resisted picking up Ys because the reviews made it sound like overindulgent prog wankery (as a side note, I have no idea why I decided that was a bad thing, as I have acres and acres of overindulgent prog wankery in my collection – maybe it was that it was popular, much-hyped prog wankery).
As it turns out, Ys is a meticulously crafted work of genius, and is only overindulgent if you are a frowny-faced fun hater. Its five tracks are overflowing with song, and are almost embarrassingly rich in beautiful melodies and flawless couplets. I’ve listened to it countless times and “Emily” and “Sawdust & Diamonds” still – still – make me tear up every time I hear them. This is not an easy thing to do, people. I was genuinely delighted it when Ys came up on my iPod just now.
Newsom’s masterful poetry (seriously, I think I know good poetry, and for all of Newsom’s four-dollar words, this is as elegant and concrete as poetry gets in 21st century English), distinctively girlish voice (WARNING: her breathy, raw delivery is a deal-breaker for some) and harp playing combines with Van Dyke Parks’ ornate, varied orchestration to create something that has all the subtlety and restraint of a sledgehammer to the forehead. In a good way. Next to this, Joni Mitchell’s experiment in orchestrated folk-pop, Travelogue, is a miserable failure, and the songs on Travelogue are some of the best songs chosen from a 40-plus year career of one of America’s greatest songwriters. I cannot praise this record highly enough.