As I seem to do every so often, I wandered off into the weeds for a few months there. But it’s fall, and the election is almost past (PRAISE BE), and I can start to think about things other than politics, economic misfortune, and the unfortunate impossibility / undesirability of revolution in a post-industrial, media-driven and self-aware society. And Sarah Palin. Fucking Sarah Palin.
I’ve continued to trawl the MP3-blog depths, and am no closer than I was six months ago to figuring out how to describe what I’ve found. I’ve heard a lot of music that’s new to me this year, and I’ve found an intimidating amount of it interesting, entertaining, or weird enough to hold my attention. I’ve been emitting little drips of information on my Twitter feed, but I’m not sure there’s enough context there to make it interesting to anyone other than myself. In the end, I’ll just have to start writing here every day again, and see if that knocks loose anything interesting.
Of course, I’ve been continuing to buy music. I’m enough of a completist that I’ll probably provide a complete dump of everything I listened to over the summer at some point, but for now, here’s what’s most interesting to me, my October shopping trips to Amoeba:
- Antony & The Johnsons: Another World
- Arckanum: Antikosmos
- The Breeders: Cannonball
- The Breeders: Divine Hammer
- The Breeders: Pod
- The Breeders: Title TK
- Darkthrone: Soulside Journey
- Ladytron: Velocifero
- A Minor Forest: Flemish Altruism (Constituent Parts 1993-1996)
- The New Year: s/t
- Sparks: Indiscreet
- Sparks: No. 1 in Heaven
- Sparks: Propaganda
- Sparks: A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing
- V/A: Dubstep Allstars, Volume 6 (mixed by Appleblim)
- V/A: Uproot (mixed by DJ /rupture)
- Vivian Girls: s/t
- Akimbo: Jersey Shores
- Antaeus: Blood Libels
- Bass Communion: Molotov and Haze
- Loren Chasse & Michael Northam: The Otolith
- Coelacanth & Keith Evans: Wrack Light in Copper Ruin
- Darkspace: Dark Space III
- The (Fallen) Black Deer: Requiem
- Daniel Menche: Creatures of Cadence
- Slagmaur: Svin
- Urfaust: Drei Rituale Jenseits des Kosmos
- New Egypt: White Magic
Aside from the limp and lifeless new album by The New Year, these are all interesting records, worth further discussion, and if I can, I’ll say more about them. Right now, I’m listening to the Darkspace record as the band seems to have intended (i.e. listening to Dark Spaces I through III straight through, at which point they becomes something more than a churning blackened crust-metal soundscape and start living up to the grandiose, symphonic concept indicated by the album and track titles). And last night, I listened to the A Minor Forest record, and was delighted to know the songs deeply and immediately, despite never having heard this record before. A Minor Forest were a shambling mess at times (especially for a math rock band), but they put on a great show, and their studio records sound more live than not.
Also, since I last wrote here, I saw Polvo and My Bloody Valentine play live. Polvo were OK and deserve credit for trying to wrap their weirdness around “Mexican Radio” (one of my favorite songs), but My Bloody Valentine did things with sound I didn’t know were possible, and the experience was more satisfying to my inner 19-year-old than I really had any right to hope going in.
I’ve been busy, and I continue to be distracted, but it’s a really good time to be a music fan.
And oh yeah, if you don’t have these records, your musical experience of 2008 is sadly incomplete and you are probably a hollow shell of a person:
- asbestoscape: s/t
- Clark: Turning Dragon
- Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life
Courtesy of Joel Johnson, I found out that Paul Robertson has a new animation out. It’s a hearty 320MiB AVI file (I recommend downloading it via BitTorrent) and is a worthy sequel (this time in color) to Robertson’s indescribable masterpiece Pirate Baby Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006. To describe both videos as unholy apocalyptic freakouts is to do them inadequate justice; anyone who ever played Dodonpachi or Metal Slug X and felt that the boss battles just weren’t ridiculous enough needs to give this a look. It really makes former brainbursters like the Emergency Broadcast Network and Tetsuo: The Iron Man look tame. Impossibly dense seas of pixelated pop trash iconography flit by on torrents of blood at 30 hallucinatory, psychedelic frames per second; Paul is quite possibly the most skilled artist of Generation x-chan.
Integral to Robertson’s complex eschatological imagery is the soundtrack, both to Pirate Baby and (especially) to Kings of Power 4 Billion %, and fittingly enough, Robertson gives full credit to the soundtrack’s creator, Cornel Wilczek. Wilczek really goes balls-out on this one, producing disjointed industrial prog-metal electronica that wanders between amped up Clark and something like a more traditionally death metal version of Meshuggah. The guitars are a little rudimentary, but occasionally reach for a sort of Robert Fripp lunacy that, combined with the rest of the swampy, dense electronic mix and the eyeball-searing, brain-violating visuals creates a pure gestalt, a solid block of crushed and compacted pop culture that requires time, attention, and no predisposition towards epilepsy to decode.
Wilczek and Robertson are a natural team, and for a case study that is slanted more towards the Wilczek side of things, check out Devil Eyes. Left to his own devices, Wilczek has a much more pastoral folktronic sound, equally reminiscent of the aforementioned Clark and Dwayne Sodahberk’s second, superior album. Combined with Robertson’s sterile, disturbing vision of supercute zombies filtered through Alien Syndrome, the work as a whole strikes me as deeply melancholic and curiously affecting. There is no subject in these videos, only objects, and it strikes me that Robertson incidentally accomplishes what eluded Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick in AI (a movie that would itself work much better without dialogue): an evocation of a world where only our toys survive to carry out a degenerate pantomime of conscious existence.
(On a tangential note, for another, very different example of someone using gamer and anime culture to produce deeply personal pixel art, check out Jennifer Diane Reitz’s Unicorn Jelly. Almost nobody takes me seriously when I make this recommendation, but if you can get past the somewhat slow and obtuse beginning, you’re in for a novelistic experience of incomparable metaphysical depth. It’s very user-unfriendly, but it genuinely changed me, which is more than I can say for almost any other webcomic.)
…but one thing is for sure: when I start wading through the thickets of accusations and counteraccusations, rumor-mongering, sectarian and factional grudge-slinging and post-Situationist po-faced “pranksterism” around the neo-folk / neo-pagan scene, I get the exact same headache I used to get when I was a teenager trying to figure out the American Communist left by reading RCP and SWP newspapers (if you don’t know those acronyms, good for you – all you need to know is that they were / are both claiming the True Marxist mantle for themselves, and they loathe each other).
Out on the fringes of politics and ideology there lies a sticky morass of extremism and paranoia that manifests itself in seemingly incomprehensible shifts in belief, where people will go from hard, statist left to hard, individualist right, without stopping at any point in between. It’s the same phenomenon that produces former-Trotskyite neocons like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, only with much less disastrous consequences (Douglas P may be a jerk, but he hasn’t (successfully) started any land wars in Asia lately). In the case of neo-folk, though, art is involved, and art necessarily involves ambiguity. The problem of figuring out who actually believes what and who is a lying sack of shit becomes completely intractable, so there’s this peculiar Schrödinger’s box, within which a group like Sol Invictus is either a bunch of neo-Nazi meat puppets or kindly, misunderstood friends to Jew and puppy alike, or Death In June are either in hock to Croatian war criminals or bemused visitors to the region who donated money to innocent victims of the Balkan war. If you care about not giving your time and money to people whose principles you abhor, sorting through these messes can be troubling and maddening in equal measure.
To get a flavor for the complete vacuum of truth this sort of churning strife engenders, first read this hatchet job on Sol Invictus by Stewart Home (his Wikipedia talk page is more germane than the Wikipedia entry itself), and then read this confused atttempt to grapple with it on the blog of some innocent bystander caught in the crossfire. To me, it seems inescapable that the neo-pagan crowd has an awful lot invested in keeping their politics as amorphous as possible (mostly to keep their audiences from devouring themselves in an orgy of mutual loathing – fans of neo-folk run across the political spectrum. Black shirts and jackboots for some, tiny pagan flags for others!); it’s more telling to me if (IF!) Albin Julius of Der Blutharsch is an admirer of Jörg Haider than if he’s gone out of his way to make friends with SOME Israelis (as my good buddy Joel forcefully pointed out to me recently, it’s possible to find Israelis who are fans of just about anything, which means that you can’t exactly treat Der Blutharsch having Israeli fans as being equivalent to them getting [K] stamped on their asses by the Rabbinate of Jerusalem).
More materially, Home wrote a foreword for a booklet of Sol Invictus lyrics in the 90s. If he thinks Tony Wakeford is a tubby sack of Nazi shit (he seems to be very fond of calling Tony Wakeford a fat man), what’s that all about? And then there’s the Green Anarchism controversy (search for “stewart home” down the page)… it’s all a big fucking mess, and I’m thankful I don’t have to care.
The thing to take away from this is the disorienting sensation that you have fallen completely through the rabbit hole into a world where nobody ever tells the truth if they can wrap it up in a few layers of obfuscatory ideological nonsense first. I’m no closer to determining whether or not Death In June, Sixth Comm, Sol Invictus and a bunch of the other World Serpent neo-folk bands are closet servants of Space Hitler. For now, the fact that nothing conclusive presents itself is probably good enough; I can’t plausibly be a fan of black metal and own records featuring participation by convicted hate criminals and object too strenuously to artists who at least attempt to keep their politics private. (To completely muddy the waters, the most entertaining English-language source on the violent origins of Scandinavian black metal is Lords of Chaos, written by Michael Moynihan, member of Blood Axis and himself despised as a fascist neo-pagan by much of the far left.)
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that my whole train of thought initially started from investigating Death In June’s use of the totenkopf as part of their visual identity – a symbol, paradoxically, that is much more loaded when it is adopted by an English musician than by a German of any stripe, even though its use is illegal in modern Germany. For good and for ill, the totenkopf is part of German cultural heritage, and is much more plausibly adopted as an ambiguous / problematic / “reclaimed” symbol by someone who inherits from that culture than a self-styled “history student” from outside the context – particularly when that same person, like Douglas P, carries around a four-foot-tall metallized version of the logo on a banner he carries with him when he plays live to this day.
Which illustrates, finally, a point that is obvious to me now but wasn’t when I got into the spooky stuff as a curious and alienated teenager, which is that one of the risks of being a fan of dark, marginal and extreme art is that it is easy to fall prey to mental contamination. For every romantic who finds passion in extremity, there is someone much colder seeking to speak to the darkness in others and manipulate it for their own ends. Some dark art is beautiful and much of it is compelling, but it requires confrontation and self-analysis if you’re to avoid succumbing to the bullshit that comes along with it. Just appreciating it for what it is and not paying attention to the context isn’t enough, if you want to keep your hands clean.
Stuck in my head this morning: “Carpe Diem” by The Fugs, from their Second Album. By the standards of The Fugs, this song is eminently gentle, being a delicate meditation upon the certainty of death and the need to do something with yourself now rather than later.
I stress its gentleness because The Fugs are one of the filthiest, most scabrous, and straight-up entertaining bands of the 1960s. Their unhinged hooliganism, coming from a bunch of Jewish East Village Beatnik libertines, is as fresh – and startling – today as it was when their records were first released, over 40 years ago. Songs about mutants with 9-headed penises porking watermelons and farmers having hard times raising them hemp plants and poppy flowers are the rule of the day on Second Album, and there’s a sharp, wild-eyed sensibility to The Fugs that got badly diluted by the time the hippie explosion made it to San Francisco. Everybody name-checks the Fugs, and it’s pretty obvious why. Highly recommended, especially to fans of the Velvet Underground or Tom Lehrer (I bet you don’t see those two put together very often, do you?).
Cold Sun’s Dark Shadows does not do what it says on the box. The band and album names suggest some kind of kohl-eyed coldwave from the late 80s, not an amalgam of the Grateful Dead, Pavement and Built to Spill, full of sinuous, meandering guitar lines and aggressively Aquarian lyrics drawn from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It was apparently recorded in 1969 but not released until 1989, and even then on a tiny little label. It’s not precisely an overlooked gem, because it’s definitely a creature of its moment, with the stilted vocal delivery (which really does seem like an awkward hybrid of Jerry Garcia and Stephen Malkmus’s styles) and the somewhat overfamiliar psychedelic doodles draped all over the songs, but there’s something about its aggressive oddity and potentially laughable earnestness that got it deeply enough wedged in my head that I woke up this morning humming it.
And you can check it out for free, so if that sounds like your sort of thing, you should check it out.
Some things happened, and then they stopped happening, and here I am, back again, with a huge pile of new music to hear and perhaps the cleverest recording I’ve heard in a long time currently on the stereo. I’ll get to talking about the huge pile in a little bit, but I wanted to urge anyone who likes their out-rockin’ both clever and loud to go check out this awesome Nurse With Wound / Spasm split 12” at The Thing on the Doorstep (yet another way-too-awesome MP3 blog I’ve discovered).
Its ability to be musical and strange in equal measure frankly confuses me. One side features Steven Stapleton’s / Nurse With Wound’s usual high surrealism (although more linear and rhythmically coherent than usual), and the other is a slab of slowly building, hard-rockin’ tribal psychedelia that reminds me of the Krautrocked heaviness Julian Cope tries so hard to harness, or maybe Electric Wizard in a particularly blown state of mind. It gets genuinely heavy, and Stapleton’s predictably unpredictable interventions just ratchet up the intensity by throwing things in new directions every few phrases. It remains curiously unadorned and unsentimental for all that, and so it stands pleasantly outside of time, sounding like it could have come out at any time in the last 40 years. Nurse With Wound makes this kind of mercurial mutability seem so easy, but I know it’s anything but.
I’m going to have a terrible time trying to find a copy of this for myself (United Dairies vinyl is deeply collectible and hence tough to find), but I’d really like one.
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.
Following up on my note about last.fm offering free / ad-supported streaming of full tracks, everyone should read this missive from Rogue Amoeba, the authors of Audio Hijack Pro and Radioshift, two very useful tools for internet music fans. It’s difficult to concisely describe the very delicate balance of competing forces that makes legal on-demand streaming possible. I honestly think Rhapsody and Napster owe their continued viability at least partially to a need by the major labels to not look like they’ve been chumped by Apple (the iTunes Music Store looms very large when it comes to music and the internet). I really like last.fm and I’d like them to succeed, but what they’re doing is increasing the volatility of an already fluid situation.
Today marks the rollout of last.fm’s on-demand streaming music service. This is and isn’t a big deal. On the one hand, it’s free, and they got the agreement of the four major labels and the largest indie aggregators (IODA and the Orchard), so there’s a lot of music, and it’s all available now. You should go check it out. On the other hand, Napster did more or less the same thing over a year ago as a way to drive potential paying customers to their site (and their higher-quality paid offering) and doesn’t appear to have benefited from it; analysts keep saying they’re doomed, and Rhapsody, my employers, have been steadily pushing our integration with social networking sites like Facebook. On a third hand, last.fm has been offering free internet radio for a long time now, and the difference between “internet radio” and “on-demand streaming” means a lot more to people trying to market (and profit from) those services than it does to your average music fan, I suspect.
I think it’s interesting that this is the first big change last.fm has made in the wake of selling themselves to CBS (which has no relationship to the old CBS Records label they sold start Sony back in 1988, although confusingly enough, they did restart a new CBS Records label at the end of 2006 to push music tied to their television shows). Subscription streaming is a tough, and so far unprofitable, business, and CBS must really believe that it can create a big market for last.fm’s advertisers if it hopes to make its money through advertising alone. It baffles me that so many executives think they can save the music business by giving its primary product away for free, especially because one of the main lessons I’ve taken away from watching the onward march of filesharing is that people vastly prefer having the music in their possession, legally or not.
In any case, I’ve been using Audioscrobbler to keep track of my listening for several years now, and after some growing pains, last.fm has turned into a smooth and professionally-run service. I wish them luck. We’re all going to need it.
I am no longer even pretending to be in a band, but this makes me want to start a new one:
Like most Metasonix gear (they have a long history of this sort of thing), this is a totally uncompromising, experimental piece of gear that might destroy anything you plug into it and probably requires great ingenuity to make not sound like butt. Also it’s a custom build and will “probably” cost around $5,000, which is insane for something using tubes repurposed from television tuners and old microwaves. It also has a very rude, yet awesome, name.
I bet it’s a ton of fun to play.
(H/T Joel Johnson)