Shock & Awe(ful)

So... Death Grips' latest album NO LOVE DEEP WEB is out. I haven't heard more than a couple of the group's older songs and they didn't seem too bad and yeah Zach Hill is in there being awesome as usual but this isn't a review because frankly I haven't listened to the thing. And it's going to stay that way in the future.

If you already know what's under that black square on the .jpg above this, you can probably guess why.

CJ's previous essay "No Homo" touched upon an important point--no one really has control over what offends them or where the line is until they find something that makes them truly uncomfortable. It doesn't have to be a logically consistent thing, it's all rooted in emotion and cultural taboos and other bullshit that don't really make much sense to me most of the time because I am ridiculously hard to offend. Hell, I like things that most would find distasteful in the process of consuming a lot of strange media, and nudity--artistic or otherwise--doesn't even make me blink.

What's objectionable--or not even objectionable per se, just lame--is how these guys are so desperate to wring a visceral reaction out of people that they'd resort to the common pastime of drunken frat dipshits texting pictures of their junk at 2:00 AM. It's not creative, or even all that provocative. It's just fucking lazy.

It's the kind of stunt that's sub-Odd Future or even sub-Insane Clown Posse. And yet the professional music journosphere being full of pretentious cockwads "in on the joke" will heap praise on an album cover featuring a boner with sharpie all over it precisely because it's not from musical bottom feeders in Hot Topic gear trying to rustle the jimmies of suburban housewives, but from a fairly interesting alt-hip hop group that recently signed to Epic and has been getting some good press of late. This kind of shit is beneath them but it will move records, no question, and their riposte to Epic and the ensuing faux-controversy is also such obvious bait that I'd be surprised if there isn't a hooked worm attached. A quote from P.T. Barnum would go here if that wasn't belaboring the point.

Yeah, the irony is thick here. Wasting my time lambasting an a puerile album cover, telling you why it shouldn't deserve the attention that I am already granting it, that it already wants. Played me good, they did. Time may be one thing, but sorry Death Grips. You won't be getting my respect or my money.

Suck my dick.


Swans- The Seer

August 28, 2012; Young God

It's not often that I feel compelled to write a review for a recent album that initially flew under my radar on release--after an album been in circulation a couple of months or more, most of the initial rush and novelty of writing about the contents of said record tapers off. In the rare times I'm spurred to write about music these days it either has to be something relatively hot off the presses or a lost oddity I feel the need to drum up as Something You Need To Hear Now. Everything else rapidly loses its luster.

Not The Seer. This is not one of those records you listen to a couple times and then feel compelled to spit out a load of typical music critic hyperbole for. Most releases that clock in at a daunting two hours or so have that effect, and doubly so when it's from an act that's been making music longer than some of its newer fans have been alive.

When Michael Gira at the tender age of 56 announced that he was bringing Swans back from the dead in 2010 with the emphatic disclaimer “THIS IS NOT A REUNION. It’s not some dumb-ass nostalgia act. It is not repeating the past," I immediately got very excited but also a little hesitant considering Jarboe would not be on a Swans record for the first time since Cop/Young God was released waaaay back in '84. Having regretfully little exposure to both the last few Swans albums or Gira's career in Angels of Light wasn't much help either.

That was okay because My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky (Jesus that's a long title I am not typing that out again) was largely a clean break. It didn't sound like the churning black sludge of their infamous '80s period that gave breath to the careers of myriad lesser acts--my favorite Swans era, incidentally. It didn't sound like the more melodic Goth-inflected records after that or the more streamlined psych-rock of The Great Annihilator. It wasn't a continuation of Angels of Light's dark folk direction either. It contained elements of all but was decidedly none of them. And it was great yet at 44 minutes, strangely unfulfilling. Not in the usual late-career mediocrity sort of way but I was seriously worried that this short burst of new Swans material would be a last gasp of creativity before Gira got bored and decided to fold it again.

Two years later and we get a double LP. Well played.

The Seer is just as big a break from the slightly more song-oriented My Father... as My Father... was from previous Swans albums. It's got all the darkness, minimalism, and dissonance of the '80s material but the focus is outward, more expansive and spiritual. Barked declarations of self-hating depravity are abandoned and Gira intones shamanic mantras like Nick Cave on peyote (that is far more positive than it sounds). The industrial vibe is also long gone--the credits reveal a kitchen sink of instruments ranging from lap steel to bassoon but, refreshingly these days, not a single obvious keyboard in sight.

The songs often stretch for post rock-like lengths."The Seer," "Piece of the Sky," and closer "The Apostate" at 32:14, 19:10 and 23:01 respectively are frigging epochs containing naturalistic expanses of organic ambience, guitar vamps, bursts of noise, tribal seances, and even a sardonic ballad midway through "Piece of the Sky" where an otherwise self-consciously grimdark line like "As the sun fucks the dawn" takes on a wry wit coming from Gira's wizened croon.

The shorter pieces are no less memorable. "The Seer Returns" has Jarboe returning for a truly spellbinding performance with an oddly catchy, bluesy shuffle despite its eerie apocalyptic aura. Taking up the WTF Cameo Spot from Devandra Banhart on My Father...'s "You Fucking People Make Me Sick," Karen O shows up with a surprisingly sweet and gentle vocal turn on "Song for a Warrior." Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low add their chanted vocals to the madness dance of "Lunacy," rivaled only by "The Daughter Brings the Water" for sheer skin-crawling effectiveness.

And then there's "Avatar," which simply defies description other than to say it effortlessly achieves the kind of effect that late-period Tool seems to be striving for minus any sense of that band's goofy pretension, or maybe a more subdued Neurosis. The teacher returns to school the young'uns, and it's easily the centerpiece of the record.

I've dropped all 120 minutes of The Seer twenty times since it came out and every time I hear something new. If that's not a hallmark for Album of the Year material, I dunno what is. Yet what would be a fitting epitaph to the careers of many long running, less creative bands is but one more marker here. Gira says it will not be the last of New Swans.

Fuck yes.



Some Thoughts on Metal, Distribution and Culture

One of the things I've noticed about my music listening habits is that I don't listen to very much metal at all anymore, and scantly any from this current decade-I doubt that I have more than 5 albums from the last 2 years in my entire collection. Considering how rapacious I used to be about listening to as much metal as I possibly could from all its myriad scenes and subgenres, that's saying quite a bit. I think there might be a couple of reasons for this, and both of them are  directly related to cost and competition. 

First of all, I simply don't have as much money as I used to. I recently moved to Brooklyn (hence the dearth of updates) and I'm living on my own without a steady cache of money I can go to to purchase new albums for the first time in my life(which is not to say that I mooched off my parents, but having a job while living at home leaves one with a fair amount of disposable income). For those of you asking "why should that be any obstacle?" you should know that my stance on free downloading is that I only find it permissible when the artist has given their explicit permission or the release has been out of print/will remain out of print for a considerable length of time. Also, it may sound strange to hear for those of you not familiar with both areas, but there isn't a record store anywhere in New York that I've been able to find that has both the breadth of selection and price range that Amoeba, my go-to record store back in California, used to have. The result is that even when I do manage to make it into one I usually can't find any metal, or if I can it's of the Converge/Isis/Agalloch variety, and more often than not at full retail price. Not that there's anything wrong with so-called "thinking-man's metal," as I count albums from all of the above bands as some of my very favorites, but by God a man needs his meat and potatoes every once and a while and I'll be damned if I've seen nary an Immolation or even a Megadeth CD the entire time I've been here.

The second reason is closely tied to the first, and that is that, as stated, I don't have very much money anymore, and other genres of music-namely hip-hop and electronic-are particularly tuned to the interests of budget-minded, college-age students these days, with some fantastic new mixtape being released every week and a slew of MP3s coming out every single day. They're both genres that, by nature, foster a sense that music should be not only readily available to, but creatable by, the average man and so to some degree it makes sense that they would be able to so easily eclipse their contemporaries in terms of available, cost-effective music. 

That stated, it's not so much that I don't have the time for metal anymore as much as the resources. I'd certainly be devoting as much time to it as I do to hip-hop and electronic music if metal had some sort of equivalent to the mixtape or the gratis single, but for whatever reason-maybe due to the effort needed to create it, maybe due to its status as an already niche, generally unpopular genre of music-metal doesn't lend itself as easily to being cheap and easily attainable as the previously mentioned other genres. Sites like MetalSucks and Decibel will occasionally offer a free album stream but good Lord, I don't want to listen to metal while sitting in front of my computer. I listen to it when I'm walking around, exercising, bringing things to bear in the dead of night. Even the greatest metal album isn't going to inspire what it should while wafting out of my laptop speakers at 128kbps. 

It may seem unfair to ask a genre, particularly one that needs as much support from its fans as it does to thrive, to essentially give me something for nothing, but as a ravenous consumer of music of all different genres, metal's relative lack of availability in the 2010s has or more or less knocked my attention away from it. The sad truth is that today's listener needs music placed in front of them in a way that much of the metal industry and creative community has been unwilling or unable to do. Maybe it's a situation that has more to do with my individual listening habits than any kind of seriously widespread problem, but for someone with as wide a palate as mine, more and more I find my appetite being sated elsewhere. I believe that metal has the ability to not only keep up with but elevate music culture from an artistic position; whether it'll be able to do so from a distribution position remains dubious and, to my mind, worrying.



Baroness- Yellow & Green

July 17, 2012; Relapse

If there's anything that'll seriously rankle metal elitists, it's any suggestion that one of their favorite bands is getting bored with having to be pigeonholed as metal. Blame the wave of extreme (and not unjustified) butthurt following Metallica's descent into Bob Rock-produced commercially viable hard rock--for a long time after that sordid episode, metal bands were largely scared shitless of showing any inclination of going soft, even as they tried to quietly incorporate more melody and depth into their sonic formula. However as a new wave of fanbase have discovered (or rediscovered) metal--a combination of mature adults who came back to the primal thrills of the genre after leaving it sometime after their adolescence, and younger hipsters who namecheck shoegaze-glazed black metal and sludgy riff throwbacks in the same paragraph as prime-era Sabbath and Motorhead--and have largely shoved the old loud/fast/heavy-at-all-times "authenticity" requirement to the wayside, a lot of bands have loosened up and started experimenting a bit more or branched out under different monikers to explore this outlet.

This is largely a good thing, but the outcomes are predictably uneven. Sometimes the results are great, sometimes outright terrible, but more often than not they are simply lukewarm. Opeth's recent retro-prog direction comes to mind. So do Baroness' Athens, GA peers Mastodon.  

Now I realize that our blog named Crack the Skye as one of the best albums of the 2000's, and I'm not here to argue with that judgment. But for me it marks the point where one of my favorite bands started jumping cartilaginous fish, and they were already seriously testing my goodwill with some of Blood Mountain's proggy digressions and goofy lyrics. I didn't like Crack the Skye at all, and I disliked 2011's The Hunter with its milquetoast-yet-trying-hard-to-be-quirky Adult Swim metal angle even more. Perhaps the reason for this was that they had lost their prior gifts in the process of leaving their tech/sludge roots behind, or they had just defined their niche so well that trying to branch out was bound to gut their sonic impact in some way. Whatever. Wasn't feeling it.

So when there was talk in interviews with lead guitarist/vocalist John Baizley of expanding Baroness' Southern-fried hybrid of classic Thin Lizzy-esque metal with a twist of sludge and punk into new territory, I was getting pretty suspicious that the band might lose it and that the special sauce that made both Red Album and Blue Record two of the best guitar-centric albums in the past few years was not going to be in evidence. AND on top of that it was going to be a double album, a classic sign of either supreme self-indulgence or throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks (often both).

I needn't have worried.

Yes, at 75 minutes and two discs, Yellow & Green is a bit lengthy at first go. And nothing here has quite the intensity of "Isak" or the instant earworm quality of half of Blue Record. But if this somehow qualifies as a disappointment (and yes there's already been a fair amount of backlash), then I can't fucking wait to hear what a failure from this band would sound like because Yellow & Green lands easily in best of the year turf. Period. Full stop.

If you liked Blue Record you'll feel right at home with Yellow, as it's a pretty organic progression of that album's excellent embrace of melody and hooks with meaty riffs and the best twin-guitar attack you'll hear today. Yet there's plenty of new tricks here, showcased to winning form with the best song on the release, "Eula"--a sweeping near-ballad that exudes the kind of murky grandeur that Mastodon used to excel in and features a bracing vocal performance from Baizley, who has tamed his midrange bellow into a fiercely emotive, sometimes multi-tracked instrument this time around. Then you have "March to the Sea," a quasi-rewrite of my favorite jam from Blue "The Sweetest Curse," this time backed with what sounds like cello (!)--a kickass combination. "Cocainium" starts with some dreamy keyboard-driven ambience and stretches out with ghostly vocals and a driving pulse courtesy of underrated drummer Allen Blickle. "Take My Bones Away" is the obvious single, both massively catchy and extremely dynamic it makes for a strong point of entry.

I'll bet the heavily instrumental and almost-jammy second half Green will inspire a lot of heated arguments over where this band is headed and whether it'll be any good, but you can lay that bitching to rest for the time being because if there's anyone out there that can make this kind of material more compelling right now, I've yet to hear them. "Green Theme" and "Stretchmarker" are staggeringly beautiful journeys that would render any attempt at words extraneous, leading into introspective anthems "Board Up the House" and "The Line Between" respectively which both fill that role admirably. From there Green does lose a bit of momentum but "Collapse" and "Psalms Alive" with their strains of psychedelia throw a welcome curveball, and the short yet melancholic and powerful "Foolsong" has the best lyrics on the album from a band that doesn't get nearly enough attention for penning some great ones, even outside the admittedly low bar set in metal.

Unlike many other transitional albums from metal bands moving out of their former element, there's nothing that Baroness does on Yellow & Green that sounds tentative or half-assed in any way. It sounds like the music they've always wanted to play, without betraying their previous works in the least. If this is the album that launches them into the realm of household name, it couldn't have been a better one.

Forget Mastodon--these are the Georgians you need to keep tabs on.



Movie Monday! #4: Making-This-Quick-Because-I'm-Packing-For-New-York Edition

I'm moving to Brooklyn and don't really have the time to write a bunch of movie reviews right now because I'm packing. Please enjoy the severely underrated kung-fu gem and Wu-Tang Clan inspiration Eight Diagram Pole Fighter in its entirety, in lieu of my musings this week. The kills at the end are some of the best in movie history.




Madvillain - Accordion

After a few stoned nights trying to freestyle with friends it occurs to me that Doom is showing off here. As he crafts a vague picture of the king of gangsters his rhyme scheme slips in and out of wild complexity in a way that only the most virtuosic could do with any style, and it's presented such a laid back ease as if he saying "this ain't even shit for me, I write this in my sleep." He starts by rhyming "ticks faster" with "sick blaster" leaning back on a half rhyme, mid line "Dick Dasterdly" (a 1960's cartoon reference) and right onto "sick laughter" and "mix master" before finally handing off to another sound. From there it's "E cold" to "be old" rhymed with "three fold" to another mid line half rhyme "he sold scrolls" straight into "behold" and then "story told". At this point he puts in third mid line rhyme "glory gold" but the end of the line starts the next sound, as if the "be old" rhyme was tagging off in boxing match. He meanders in off beat rhymes, twisting them around like they're toys, even pulling self-indulgent winks like rhyming "Freudian" with "accordion" while dropping his act and slipping into playful couplets. It reminds me of old painters needing to craft a masterful self portrait to show their skills for entry into a guild. But Doom needs no such acceptance because he's well aware that he's in a league all his own.

Belle and Sebastian - Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying

The first stanza was always a counter to arguments that this band was just empty sentimentality, when they are, in fact, harsh bitterness cloaked in sardonic catchiness. This song spews tails about the young scottish hipsters, how they seem so alive and happy and good looking and how the world is going to hit the like a fucking truck. "Think of it this way you could either be successful or be us". A take on the young beautiful/doomed theme, sure, but you start to get the sense that he doesn't even think him and his peers are all that beautiful, that he hates everyone, that his catchiness and good looks, that his smile is purely to mock you.

Evian Christ - Fuck It None of Y'all Rap

Taking hip-hop out of context and making it feel lost, alone. Floating in an empty space of loneliness and letting it flail. But of course, still with a heavy hitting beat pounding on your head, perfect for the car stereos late at night, to creep out the hoodlums roaming the streets of your neighborhood. They should know better.

Drive Like Jehu - Here Come The Rome Plows

Sometimes, as young kids in america, we forget how angry we should be. Especially now, as everything is telling us to be complacent, to not mosh as concerts because it's vulgar and our friends will get kicked and annoyed, when every raging liberal we know is more concerned with the nomenclature for various sexual identities than they are concerned with actually helping curb the oppression. We forget that people are being killed and crushed economically. We forget that our forests are being leveled and our concert venues are being raided by police. We forget that we are no longer allowed to sleep in the woods when we want to, to sit on our sidewalks or go to our public parks past 11. We forget that it takes the first one hundred hours of work at our minimum wage jobs just to pay rent on our tiny sublets, and we don't get sick days. And even at that we are the lucky ones, so many have it so much worse. That we just live our lives everyday with this knowledge. We forget that we are angry, angry, angry, angry, raging.

Burial - Kindred

Today there were thunderstorms in new york city and we live mixed them with this track.



Disposable Music

A few years ago me and my younger sister were crashing on the couch of a Harvard Graduate student in Cambridge. Though he was a remarkably accommodating host, he didn't have much time to show us around this unfamiliar as most of his time was committed to research and writing papers. I remember reclining in his living room reading some Wilde stories I had found on his shelf and hearing a stream of shuffled indie pop/folk/etc flow out of his room where he hunched over his desk. It was delightful. I had recently discovered the sugary joys of the New Pornographers and Apples in Stereo, not to mention a still constant flow of deeply effecting bands like Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin and The Shins, and found myself sitting there thinking, Damn, this stuff is amazing. There is so much wonderful indie pop in the world, I could just listen to it all the time, forget everything else. Look at how interesting and tuneful all of these sounds coming out of his stereo are. I listened closer. Occasionally I'd recognize something, So Says I and Young Folks, and more often I knew enough to place a band without having really listened to them before, Devotchka, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but most of the time they were the kind of unimportant but delightful bands that swarmed the scene at the time.

And through this closer listening I realized that most of the music coming out of his speakers was not that good. Most of it was derivative and catchy in an uninteresting way. Each song would use an instrument in a way I hadn't previously heard, sure, but had none of the power and depth of the great songs of the genre. There would be no, say, "Seeing Other People" or "I Woke Up Today". These songs were great, and the mix was superb, but they were disposable.

One blizzard and three days later I get back to New York and sit down to make a tape of indie pop songs that would be as amazing to listen too as the MA student's, but with only incredible songs. Only songs with the catchiness and the orchestrative playfulness but also containing incredible depth and power. Only the "I Am Warm + Powerful"s and "Death By Misadventure"s of the world. And I realized that I couldn't do it.  All told I had maybe ten or fifteen albums of indie pop that I loved wholeheartedly and to make this flow of music I would need so much more than that. And that perhaps the brilliance of the Cambridge mix outshone the dullness of each of its tracks individually. It created an emotion and continuity that couldn't be gained by a list of unique and striking songs. Perhaps the whole was greater than its parts.

This was the first time I ever understood the benefit of disposable music, worth in a scene that goes beyond worth in individual bands. This is perhaps a particularly internet age phenomena as previously mixes took hours to make, not to mention the expense of buying so many records in order to create this wash of music. Now with internet streaming and shuffle it's a natural way of hearing this. And it opens up worlds.

The ambient music scene is buzzing (/pun) like it never has previously, if there even ever was an ambient scene before. And though I doubt I could point you to many individuals that have blown my mind (besides, perhaps, Sean McCann and Noveller ) a quick stroll though bandcamp or youtube will show you few stand outs but and incredible wave of music that could bring wonder and definition to every summer afternoon. The same holds uniquely true for the worlds of dubbed out bass music and instrumental hip hop beats and free mix tapes, and certainly of the streams of violent garage bands and surf rockers and synth-pop textureists swarming the Brooklyn scene today.

It goes almost exactly against the Post-Punk ideal of forward forward forward and, at the end of the day, you probably won't be finding things that change your life. But with everything going on in the United States underground music oceans these days I've found brilliance in the whole what I couldn't find in its parts.