Ultimate Audio Entertainment & Relapse Records; February 22, 1999
Meshuggah are a pretty outre band to meet mainstream acceptance in the music world. I use that parameter loosely, of course--you'll never find "Future Breed Machine" in the Top 40, or "Concatenation" on the American Idol playlist. But their avant-garde approach to extreme metal has been surprisingly well regarded by both critics and devout metalheads alike, and there has been a bumper crop of bands inspired by the wild polyrhythms and atonal, brutal 8-string heaviness of this unique Swedish five-piece.
It's not too hard to see why. Meshuggah are one of those rare genre-breaking bands that have revised everything right down to the musical language. They represent a fresh break from most present-day metal--you will find no plagiarized Iron Maiden/At The Gates guitar harmonies, no Sabbath/Slayer/Metallica worship, no horrible clean vocals from some androgynous fuckhead in runny mascara and girl pants, and absolutely no teenage diary passages and roses 'n' razorblades imagery. They retain the core elements of pulverizing riffs and a foreboding nihilistic worldview, and then turn everything else upside down in a frighteningly technical, monolithic display of slowly fluctuating machine-like riffing behind Jens Kidman's inhuman roars; Tomas Haake's utterly baffling drumming; and Toki Wartooth lookalike Fredrik Thordendal's guitar solos, which are a mind-frying fusion of obscure virtuoso and jazz legend Allan Holdsworth and a supercomputer with epilepsy.
Let's linger a bit on that last point. Thordendal's work with a guitar has to rank as some of the most utterly creative I've heard on record, and if I had to stretch my mind hard enough to offer a weakness for Meshuggah, it's that there's never enough of Fredrik cutting loose.
Sol Niger Within is the remedy for that. Fuck yes it is.
Now, most solo careers from established acts (metal and otherwise) don't typically have a very good track record. While you'll occasionally stumble on some great solo albums (think Bruce Dickinson's The Chemical Wedding), most are forays into supreme self-indulgence, or are uninspired, rehashed affairs full of weak outside collaborators that only prove that the star's band of origin was greater than the sum of its parts.
Is Sol Niger Within self-indulgent? Well, let's see--in its original 1997 form pre-Version 3.33, Sol Niger Within was one huge 43-minute song titled "Antanca- The End (The Uncompounded Reality)" indexed into 29 tracks with bitchin' titles (to wit: "The Executive Furies Of The Robot Lord Of Death"). The Version 3.33 release axes a couple of those tracks and adds an 11-minute jam "Missing Time" and a rather pointless (both in length and title) bonus track "Ooh Baby Baby." Lyrically "Antanca" is basically a huge potpourri of every sci-fi theme Thordendal enjoys talking about (probably while smoking some most excellent reefer)--from alien abduction to the afterlife to evil Marvel demigod Galactus to the finite nature of the universe. This is mostly delivered through Thordendal's sinister and heavily distorted slithering vocal that is simultaneously less abrasive and far more disturbingly evil than Kidman's robotic growl. There are some spoken word passages as well.
So, self-indulgent? Sure, a little. But really, this album exists primarily as a showcase of ideas. Oh, and lots of blazing Fredrik performances. The man is all over his guitar neck here--one minute he'll be pounding out some excellent palm muted odd-time riffery (he overdubs his own rhythm guitar and bass), and then he'll spiral off into no-man's land with a staggering, alien solo that takes the ghost of free jazz and turns it into digital code, then a passage of faintly pretty but still discomforting minor-key guitar synth, and follow that up with a verse of sick existential musings while he plays an inexplicable imitation of a drill crossed with an air raid siren behind it. Suffice it to say, most contemporary guitarists will feel stingingly inadequate while listening to Sol Niger Within.
So will most drummers. Meshuggah skinsman Haake sits this one out, in favor of Morgen Agren of the Swedish duo Mats/Morgan. Lest you think Agren is some session hack chosen to make Thordendal simply look good, consider this--the man played with Zappa. Agren's performance is stupefyingly awesome. He combines Haake's internal metronome with a loose-limbed jazz/fusion delivery that makes short work of any complex odd-metered passage, layered fill, or elevator shaft-like time change. Agren functions as a supremely deft foil, trading off control and complementing Thordendal's wandering muse with rhythmic perfection. To add some flavor throw in some John Zorn-esque sax courtesy of Jonas Knutsson and discreet organ and synth touches by Mats Oberg on a few tracks, and you have an album for the ages.
This one-off (sorry guys, no Version 6.66 yet) wasn't just a springboard for Thordendal's apparent insanity either. A lot of ideas ended up being cannibalized for future Meshuggah albums--2005's Catch 33 revisited the 40+ minute song concept, and starting with 2002's Nothing the band opens up a bit more space for Fredrik's solos and a more organic feel to Haake's drumming. You can also hear ties to Meshuggah's prior work in selections like the conclusion "Tathagata," which revisits Thordendal's otherworldly guitar tonalities from Destroy Erase Improve's "Sublevels." In this light Sol Niger Within is best viewed not just as a standalone work, but as a lost Meshuggah album, and one that considerably advanced their evolution as a band.
... seriously though, were these guys separated at birth? Goddamn.
Sadly this album's been out of print for quite some time, though should you acquire the means *cough*internet*cough*, Sol Niger Within comes highly recommended to Meshuggah fans, along with listeners of other progressive rock and metal bands--Cynic, Gordian Knot, Atheist, King Crimson, Behold... The Arctopus, etc. etc. etc.
If any of the bands I just mentioned are Greek to you, start with Meshuggah's Destroy Erase Improve and spend some time rewiring that pathetic organic brain of yours. Then you might be ready to give this album a go.
Shimmy Disc (1990) and Tzadik Records (1996)
[Note: This review is for Torture Garden only. I only used the Black Box cover art because the original art is definitely NSFW. I've never heard the Black Box companion piece "Leng Tch'e," which is apparently a long-form sludge metal composition very different from Torture Garden, but has the same lineup.]
John Zorn is practically the closest thing the avant-garde scene has to a superstar. A saxophonist, composer, and producer from Brooklyn, NY and college dropout who founded his own performance art project Theatre of Musical Optics in 1975, he's been hard at work mentally scarring listeners ever since. He's composed music for films, documentaries, cartoons, chamber musicians, full orchestras, jazz bands, and avant-garde ensembles both large and small. If a genre exists, he's probably played it straight, dissected it, deconstructed it, and blasted it back at us in skewered form a few times over. His body of work is fucking massive--I guarantee that this is not the last time you will see Zorn in this column.
Born in 1988 and lasting in its original form until 1993, Naked City is quite possibly his most famous project and maybe even his most definitive. Featuring the hugely talented core personnel of guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, bassist Fred Frith, drummer Joey Baron and the mighty Zorn himself on alto sax, on Torture Garden Naked City play what can be basically described as the sound of a radio with a broken tuner--in a mental asylum. It's a huge noisy postmodern splatter of every genre under the sun, molded into mostly sub-minute "grindcore miniatures" executed with astonishing precision that sound almost totally improvised, but are actually sheet music. The 52-second "Speedfreaks" exemplifies Naked City's genre-bending mission, switching from style to style in bursts often lasting no more than 4 or 5 seconds, and the other 41 (!) songs on here are similarly manic and marked by Zorn's trademark sax screams, which sounds like Anthony Braxton or late-period Coltrane being raped by a bull.
If this isn't crazy enough, enter Yamatsuka Eye. Frontman of equally demented Japanese avant-garde collective Boredoms, Eye's vocals are anything but singing in the conventional sense. He howls, he gibbers, he yells, he shrieks, he roars, he laughs maniacally, he pretty much straight flips the fuck out over all 25 minutes of the record. Most of the time he just pushes the band over the top with a random interjection of vocal anarchy, but sometimes he duets with Zorn's atom-smashing blowing and the result is like having a cordless drill shoved into your face.
Despite the utter intensity of the material and the appropriately graphic, S&M-inspired song titles (which are sometimes strangely onomatopoetic), there is an irrepressible sense of fun and humor to Torture Garden not found in the vast majority of avant-garde recordings. Oftimes Zorn will spend a few additional seconds with a genre or play with a melody a bit, and the result is hilarious and entertaining--consider the honky-tonk break of "NY Flat Top Box," the quixotic and goofy charm of "The Prestidigitator," or the moody jazz opening of "Speedball." Even if this music is defiantly obnoxious to the outside observer, they can't deny that the sheer cartoony mania of it is good for a laugh or two. And open-minded jazz aficionados will appreciate the mind-blowing chops and interplay on display.
All told, not too shabby for a guy that looks like this eh?
For listeners into metal or punk (or Mr. Bungle fans for that matter), Torture Garden along with Naked City's considerably more sedate self-titled debut (which shares a few tracks from this album) are actually a pretty good point of entry into Zorn's work. Otherwise, newcomers might want to try out a few other recordings--The Big Gundown and Spillane, tributes to classic Western composer Ennio Morricone and French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard respectively, are both excellent and with much less ADHD. Either way, once you become a Zorn fan you will eventually end up here. It's just too good to pass over.
For a solid decade and a half, Canadian imports Skinny Puppy were at the forefront of a budding industrial scene. Compared to the art-damaged ugliness and depravity of Throbbing Gristle and SPK and the spine-rattling Germanic jackhammer stomp of Einsturzende Neubaten and Laibach, second-generation contributors Skinny Puppy may have sounded slightly lusher and more organized, but with tracks carefully stacked around collages of clever tape manipulation, disturbing samples, and angular, jagged beats over Nivek Ogre's heavily distorted serial killer vocal stylings, they were clearly not intended for the Top 40. Despite this, pretty much every good modern industrial act cites their music and their over-the-top, Grand Guignol live performances as an inspiration (especially Nine Inch Nails), and the poorer ones regularly rip off SP without acknowledging it.
They were the yin to Ministry's industrial metal yang, their rage inverted into attacks against the brutality of animal experimentation, the military-industrial complex, environmental destruction and drug addiction--not that Ogre, Cevin Key, and primary collaborator Dwayne Goettel were teetotalers by any means, all three had done more heroin and LSD in their lifetimes than a room full of Deadheads, and while their most fertile period of creative power occurred mostly while under *ahem* heavy influences, 1992's Last Rights was pretty much where they went completely off the deep end. To the point where by '96 and their last real album The Process (I refuse to count post-'96 Skuppy recordings) was released, they had spent four years as human chemistry sets, catatonic in the studio or on hiatus while constantly fighting with each other, and all this ended up claiming Goettel, who OD'd in 1995 two months after Ogre's short term departure.
As you can imagine from being born in an environment like that, this is one terminally fucked up album. Even by their previously high standards of fuckedupness.
Last Rights basically takes the already abrasive, darkly psychedelic and corrosive elements of the previous album Too Dark Park (a widely acknowledged classic) and abstracts them into walls of pulverizing, chaotic sound that bring industrial back to its noisy roots but still retain the beat wizardry that defined Skuppy's niche. Not many albums have achieved the balance between disturbing brutality, sonic experimentation, and sheer listenability that Last Rights has, and all without a single prominent guitar (unless you count the arresting acoustic chords that startlingly pop up in the intro of "Scrapyard" before the horror really starts).
The album is split into two general halves, front-loaded with the more concise tracks you could sort of call "songs," I guess, if free verse soundtracks to watching snuff films while having the worst acid trip of all time counts as such. The second half gets progressively more and more insane and less organized, culminating with the 11-minute opus "Download," which finally ditches the beats and any sense of rhythm or structure and launches into a totally unhinged collage of samples that will make you crawl under your furniture.
Only two tracks were slated to become underground singles--the smoldering creepiness of "Love In Vein," with its warped Victrola intro morphing into a crashing minimalist rhythm and a heavily reverbed wash of sinister strings and synths, and the most dance-oriented track and outcry against animal abuse "Inquisition," driven by the album's most propulsive beat (via torque wrench, natch). "Killing Game" is the most accessible after these (and in my opinion the finest song on the album)--backed by deceptively pretty minor-key piano juxtaposed with moody bass and synths becoming gradually louder and more fractured, Ogre rips into the most tortured, emotive vocal performance I've ever heard from him. It will make the hair on your arms stand up. Immediately following that is "Knowhere?," a determined, terrifying march of hallucinogenic noise--perhaps the most oppressive four minutes on any Skuppy LP.
Last Rights is the album Trent Reznor wished he could've made, once upon a time (instead he churned out the wildly overrated The Downward Spiral, which is barely harder than an average KMFDM album). To this day there is very little in the industrial genre that approaches this--a brainpan-scraping, horrifying tableau of 20th century ills in musical form, yet with a level of twisted beauty and sonic craftmanship that emanated straight out of Dwayne Goettel's scorched mind. It's a far cry from the fucking lame and regressive industrial dance pastiche of New SP, that's for damn sure.
Too Dark Park. Start there. If you can handle that, Last Rights is the next logical step.
Warp Records; April 30, 2001
Sean Booth and Rob Brown's brainchild Autechre is, in many ways, the standard bearer of "intelligent dance music" (IDM), which, along with being an embarassingly condescending and highfalutin label to apply to yourself, is basically code for envelope-pushing electronic music that only androids could dance to. While there are beats often shared by the likes of more conventional house and techno music, they are often in time signatures you'd have to send off to NASA to calculate. Often cold, oppressive, and not terribly fun, this is music for the left side of your brain to dissect, not for dry humping on club dancefloors.
The end result sounds like it would be boring. Confield, the duo's sixth full-length record, is anything but.
See, most IDM is indeed cerebral, but it still sounds like the programmed work of humans using a colorful palette of electronic beats and samples. Take Aphex Twin, for example--even on his most out-there soundscapes, Richard D. James' twisted humor still prevails in the form of a quirky sample or deliberately obnoxious noise and gives them a human grounding, even if somewhat detached. Autechre, on the other hand, don't so much make music as they transcribe the gray, monochromatic language of machines, and Confield is basically the sound of those machines flipping out on acid.
This is extremely abstract stuff. Ofttimes on Confield there aren't even BEATS per se, just spliced pulses of sound that falter and skip haphazardly throughout the track, or strange rumbling, grinding or twinkling noises (the first thing you hear is "VI Scose Poise"'s main synth line, which sounds like a metal ball bouncing inside a huge pipe). In "Pen Expers," an obscure melody gradually insinuates its way in only to be overwhelmed by the surrounding textures, flailing in its death throes against a merciless storm of chopped-up beats. The dissonant synths and distant tremors of "Eidetic Casein" eventually coalesce into the soundtrack of a horror film, circa 2105. The most challenging track "Lentic Catachresis" sounds like two computers having a very heated argument, glitchy screams getting louder and louder over the course of nine minutes and ending as abruptly as it started. Even the most accessible track "Cfern" has an ominous feel as its splintered beats and bell-like melody speed up and gradually mutate into something dark and foreboding. But there is still beauty in these fractured transmissions, albeit a very alien variety.
Despite its daunting inaccessibility, this is one of the least calculated-feeling releases in Autechre's growing oeuvre. Earlier releases like Tri Repetae have a more logical feel about them--beats and melodies the result of tried and tested formulas, resolving in a cold, predictable manner. While they are still excellent albums, they sound more sterile--music designed to evoke clean, modernist sculpture. Confield is dark, scattered, fucked up, the sound of breakdown and decay. It feels like electronic free jazz, you never know what to expect even on a third or fourth listen.
It's somewhat telling that the duo hit a wall after this polarizing album, and decided to add more a bit more structure and ambient leanings to future recordings lest they fall off the edge into sheer noise, territory better reserved for the likes of Akita Merzbow. But in the meantime, Booth & Brown have unwittingly (or knowingly?) created the soundtrack of a grim dystopian future--not the post-apocalyptic atavism of Mad Max, but a world where nanotech has consumed humanity and all that's left are the self-aware machines that have already begun their descent into mindless decadence and seething malevolence.
Yes, I know I'm not Philip K. Dick. I'll shut the fuck up now.
Hoo boy. This is a very tough album to like, considering it has functioned as a line in the sand for Autechre fans after nine years on the market. Good luck for anyone else.
If you're new to Autechre, I'd recommend starting with Tri Repetae++ (it includes the original album plus two excellent EP's, Anvil Vapre and Garbage). The albums before that (Amber, Incunabula) lean more toward the melodic and ambient side, while the albums after that get progressively tougher peaking with Confield, then a bit more accessible (but still pretty challenging). The 2008 release Quaristice is a nice synthesis of their latter-period sound with some of the earlier ambient leanings, so it wouldn't be a bad second choice. If you're new to electronic music however, Autechre is definitely not the first stop I'd recommend. Try some Squarepusher (Feed Me Weird Things is an IDM essential) or Aphex Twin (particularly Ambient Works Vol 1 & 2, and maybe the Richard D. James Album) before coming here.
Alte Oper, Frankfurt; Philharmonie, Berlin and Konzerthaus, Vienna
Frank Zappa was a legend among musicians, and even in my usual wild flights of shitty hyperbole, that is not a label I apply lightly.
You'd be hard pressed to find a composer ("songwriter" doesn't quite do him justice--he wrote SHEET MUSIC, y'see) more prolific, more talented or more genre-encompassing in the 20th (or any other) century. Since the mid-1960s to his sad death from prostate cancer in 1993, he had recorded albums of rock, doo-wop, jazz fusion, modern classical, musique concrete, soundtracks for film, solo guitar and everything in between--he had a staggering 57 live and studio albums under his belt while he was still alive, and the process of clearing out the Zappa vaults has resulted in an additional twenty-three posthumous releases (bringing the total to 80). 2Pac had nothing on FZ. With a discography like that, you can expect at least a few classics, and Zappa had more than his share. Which brings us to this review.
One of the man's last releases and the last live recording, The Yellow Shark is firmly in the classical genre, yet this isn't classical as most people know it. There are two kinds of classical music--the stodgy baroque composers of centuries past that made beautiful but somnolent music for Heaven's waiting rooms, reserved for music students, the old, the traditionalists, and the elitists who won't listen to anything made past 1900; and truly exciting, boundary-pushing, and defiantly unorthodox composition from the last century that shares only the instruments with Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Zappa belongs on the same page with greats like Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, and Varese (who was FZ's idol) with this album.
In other words, if you're looking for the Frank of "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow," "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes" or "Valley Girl," he ain't here. Don't expect a single kickass guitar lick, Eddie & Flo's vocal stylings, pastiches of pop music, or even much of FZ's own voice. His trademark vulgar and sociopolitical wit can still be found on a few tracks (most notably the spoken-word "Welcome To The United States") but it is strictly sidelined by the Ensemble Modern's stunning performance, which takes Zappa's music composed for synclavier from albums like Jazz From Hell and translates it to the human element with surprising success, considering it was not designed to be played by flesh-and-blood musicians in the first place.
That all said, this never feels cold or pretentious by any means. In the hands of the EM, Yellow Shark has Zappa's signature--a tight angularity juxtaposed with a goofy, off-kilter whimsy, with melodic yet dissonant arrangements that feel like they're wandering even when they're not. There are reworkings and reimaginings of his jazz-rock work ("Dog Breath Variations," "Uncle Meat," "Pound for A Brown," "Be-bop Tango"), full-blown modernist classical ("Outrage At Valdez," "Times Beach II & III," "Exercise #4" "The Girl In The Magnesium Dress"), a work for two pianos ("Ruth Is Sleeping") and string quartet ("None of The Above"). All of it is excellent, to the point where you actually get annoyed by the inclusion of the spoken-word pieces at the end of the album (though "Welcome To The United States" has an absolutely HILARIOUS musical quote from "Louie, Louie" that makes sitting through the goofy voices and lame humor a lot easier to swallow).
However, the real treat follows shortly after. The incongruously titled "Get Whitey" is one of the prettiest FZ compositions since "A Watermelon in Easter Hay"--as stately and beautiful as Zappa ever got. And the truly rousing and ridiculously hard to play (Zappa actually cautioned the EM from even trying it at first) "G-Spot Tornado" ranks as a fitting finale to FZ's 30-year career, as the audience rose to their feet with a 15-minute ovation. Musicians decades from now, classical and otherwise, will still find this album to be truly groundbreaking stuff, and FZ wouldn't have had it any other way.
Yellow Shark is just about the last thing you want to hand a Zappa neophyte... unless they really, really like classical. In which case it might be the first.
Still, Hot Rats is the starting point I recommend to everyone, so you might as well begin there if you haven't heard any FZ yet. Following that up with a dollop of his other early '70s fusion work (Waka Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo, Burnt Weeny Sandwich) and a few of his weirder ones (Lumpy Gravy, Jazz From Hell, Weasels Ripped My Flesh) is also a good idea. Yellow Shark is sometimes viewed as the culmination of the man's work and for good reason, but it's definitely not easy going. Once you're firmly indoctrinated in the Cult of Zappa though, you will fucking crave this album. Trust me.
Black Market Activities; October 16, 2007
Speaking of modern progressive rock... this trio of Brooklyn savants are exactly what the flagging, stale genre has been searching for.
Actually, before I get going let me qualify that statement--Behold... The Arctopus would be more accurately described as math rock, a very broad offshoot of prog often drawing equally from metal and jazz that consists mostly of winding, oddly metered instrumental passages, very little to no vocal presence, and akimbo, flurrying melodies that are more often a matter of suggestion before the next time change kicks in. Math rock bands aren't always loud, fast, and abrasive, nor does their songwriting even have to be terribly complex (see: June of 44), but they are often not particularly catchy by the very nature of the beast.
However, in my mind math rock bands have many advantages over more traditional strains of prog rock, to wit:
a) Songs rarely over 8 minutes
b) Minimal vocals or lyrics--the presence of either is always a seriously dodgy proposition in traditional prog
c) No conceptual bullshit
d) Very little repetition
e) Telepathic musicianship (that's Music Nerdspeak for "playing tighter than a nun's sphincter")
f) Yummy dissonance and not a tired blues progression in sight
g) Goddamn awesome song titles (see: Don Caballero)
Basically, if you like traditional prog bands but just wish that they'd bin the pretentious foof behind the microphone along with the silly keyboards and the cod-classical rambling and started over with a clean modern slate, math rock is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Skullgrid contains all of the above elements... give or take a few extra levels of technical wizardry that takes Dream Theater and other Berklee-schooled poseurs behind the wood shed and blasts them in the dome with a shotgun.
This album is seriously nucking futs. From the moment the music starts, you are assaulted with the title track's truly baffling and insane showcase of Mike Lerner's guitar, Charlie Zeleny's drums and Colin Marston's Warr guitar (think combination of bass, guitar, Chapman stick and the jealous droolings of every tool you've ever met hanging out 24/7 in a Guitar Center). This ends after one minute, but don't expect a respite. Skullgrid is only 33 minutes long, but is crammed full of enough notes and time changes to fill an entire Porcupine Tree discography (no offense intended to Steve Wilson). Yet somehow, it doesn't feel anti-musical or gratuitous.
Well, okay. Maybe a little gratuitous.
It's to this trio's credit that the music never really falls apart into disassociated wanking, thanks to that aforementioned wicked-tight interplay and some hooks loosely incorporated into the machine gun Warr/six-string dueling. Behold the truly awe-inspiring jazzy break at 2:15 in "Canada," or the thundering midtempo climax in the middle of "You Are Number Six." For a band dedicated to sounding like Atari games on crack, there is a surprisingly organic element here, especially considering there's no vocalist to give this hyperbolic math salad a human counterpoint. Not that it needs it, anyway.
Skullgrid is the go-to album for a quick, 33-minute shredding blowout of sonic mindfuckery; for when you're sick to death of basic power chords and riffs and preening frontmen; for those exceedingly rare moods when you dream of playing a Warr guitar (and promptly give up upon hearing Marston's staggering display of slap bass, jazzy noodling, and alien guitar synth); and for when you must have something as undanceable as possible to get that goddamn Lady Gaga song unstuck from your head. Oh, and if you must try dancing to this psychosis, please film it--just don't let your doctor see it for fear of endless prescriptions involving epilepsy meds and horse tranquilizers.
For what it is, Skullgrid is actually not without a degree of accessibility, mostly due to the lack of vocals. Similarly techy bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, Spiral Architect or Gorguts all feature vocalists that take some adjustment time to say the least. However, I wouldn't recommend getting into this album without some other prog and math rock bands under your belt, starting with the tried and true standbys (post-Red King Crimson, Slint, June of 44, Battles, Don Caballero, Hella, etc.). Even fans of those bands can find Behold... The Arctopus a bit much, so caveat emptor.
Warner Brothers; October 10, 1995
All Mr. Bungle albums are equally weird, but as the Orwell adage goes, some are more equal than others. Their final release was a tasty, full-bodied melange of sunny Brian Wilson pop, swing, lounge, bossanova, techno, klezmer, Gamelan chanting and New Age; and their debut was a maniacal, fucked up, dirty cocktail of funk, ska, metal, calliope, rap, dub and clown makeup.
Between those two poles, both chronologically and in a musical sense, lies Disco Volante--the kitchen sink. Not as catchy, well-composed and accessible (yet still goddamn strange) as the former, and not quite as twisted, explicit and menacing as the latter... but it makes up for it by being perhaps the most daringly noncommercial and eclectic album I've heard from a major label in the last two decades.
Consider the opening track, the cheerily titled "Everyone I Know From High School Is Dead." Resident mad scientist/master vocalist/sexy beast Mike Patton's vocals are a heavily echoed series of chants, while guitarist Trey Spruance lays down some Melvins-esque sludge which is punctuated by loud bursts of shrieky feedback and manic laughter. There is no chorus, no real riffs, barely any structure really.
This is probably the closest thing to a "normal" song you will get on the album.
Then Mr. Bungle stops taking his lithium: Wild blasts of lo-fi cartoon noise that sound like Karl Stalling after consuming a brick of cocaine and hallucinogens. Headbanging outbursts of unhinged death metal. Free jazz freakouts. Excerpts from old-timey Italian film scores. Blocks of musique concrete. Patton's grand mal seizures over a battery of microphones. And even some downright catchy '50s pop. Sometimes all of the above on the same song, like a radio with a busted tuner. Just listen to nine glorious minutes of "Carry Stress In The Jaw." The first four minutes or so are modeled loosely after the form of an obscure Poe poem. Supposedly. And then the loungy "Secret Song" kicks in, which is somehow even weirder (and completely hilarious).
And right after that is the band's take on Middle Eastern techno. You think I'm kidding.
All this wackiness almost overshadows just how accomplished the band is as a unit. As you can probably intuit, bending genres like a pretzel while remaining musically coherent to any recognizable degree is a fairly daunting task, and this is the last album before the band turned into the Mike Patton Show on California--not like Patton and his particular obsessions taking the reins was a bad thing, but even fans often forget just how much of Mr. Bungle is the vision of Trevor Dunn, Trey Spruance, and Clinton McKinnon and their formidable multi-instrumental chops, and Disco Volante has their smudgy fingerprints all over it. The surrealist Looney Tunes theme of "Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz" owes just as much to Spruance's compositional skill and the inhumanly tight performance of the band as it does to Patton's singularly manic vocal performance.
Disco Volante is also important as a signpost for the future careers of this amazing collective. You can hear heavy strains of Spruance's equally multifarious Secret Chiefs 3, Dunn's dalliances into the world of avant-garde jazz, and some of Patton's developing interest in film scores which would later blossom into projects like Fantomas and his even more outre solo records.
Bottom line, short of John Zorn or the almighty Frank Zappa, you are not likely to find another album that chews up decades of popular music and adroitly spits it out in a deviously inspired, unpretentious, funny, disturbing, raw yet always compelling postmodern mess like Disco Volante. All fans of the endearingly strange and experimental must have this in their collection.
"IT'S ALL ON TAPE!"
I actually recommend buying Mr. Bungle's albums in reverse chronological order, starting with the stone cold classic California and working back to this. The debut is a strong album with some iconic Bungle tracks, and probably an easier ride than Disco Volante, but once this album has thoroughly bent your brain you'll have more of an appreciation for the debut's particular brand of oddity.
If you're a devout Faith No More fan (... and why aren't you yet?! BUY ANGEL DUST NOW, FOO!) that somehow hasn't managed to explore the other projects that Patton has partaken in, Disco Volante is some truly next level shit, but not as intimidating as you might think thanks to a degree of perverted pop sensibility. Still, not for the unprepared ear. Once you've worn the shine off your copy of California, break out the hip waders and get this album.
Straight/Reprise; June 16, 1969
"A squid eating dough in a polythene bag is fast and bulbous.. got me?"
Ah, the '60s--while more often remembered for the rise of great musicians like Frank Zappa, Rolling Stones, Dylan, Velvet Underground, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, Hendrix etc. etc. etc., the latter half of the decade was full of nonsensical psychedelic dogshit that doubtless sounded great to hippies addled by massive quantities of acid, brownies, and ether in the middle of that pseudo-profound and highly overrated period of musical history. Needless to say, this has not aged well when separated from its original context. Want proof? Try playing a Jefferson Airplane record in 2010. In its entirety. Without rolling your eyes at least once.
However, a few records skipped all the silly artifice of "trippy" imagery, Lewis Carroll allusions, backwards guitars, stoned jamming, sitars, and New Age blather and attained a level of genuine weirdness that has never lost its edge.
... and Trout Mask Replica still makes all of those records sound fucking staid.
While listening to Captain Beefheart's (a.k.a. Don Van Vilet) most notorious opus for the first time, a few questions inevitably come up:
1) Are they trying to sound like that?
2) How much LSD was consumed during the making of this recording?
3) Did the sound engineer fall asleep at the boards?
4) WHAT THE FUCK?!
The answers are: Yes, the Magic Band spent countless hours practicing at these songs; None, apparently; Zappa produced the album, and I don't think the man slept until he was dead; and indeed. Indeed.
While it may initially sound like a bunch of instruments being tossed down a neverending flight of stairs, there is clear evidence of a guiding hand at work--recognizable if jagged and amelodic blues riffs show up and repeat at points, only to resolve as different riffs entirely; John French's drumming is polyrhythmic in ways entirely foreign to rock music of the era; and Beefheart's mighty Bizarro Howlin' Wolf voice is all over, growling, hooting, hollering, speaking, howling, reciting, talking, even singing--when he's not interjecting bass clarinet/saxophone blasts that sound like they were cribbed straight from an Ornette Coleman record. The few breaks from the insanity come in the form of spoken word or a capella renditions of the Captain's own Dadaist poetry. Oh, and this goes on for nearly eighty minutes. The endurance test reputation of this double album is somewhat deserved.
If the music isn't enough, further separating this from the vast majority of psychedelic dross is a unique sense of whimsy--not in the doofy, acid casualty Syd Barrett sort of way, but the kind that suggests that the band was just on the edge of playing it all off as a joke (listen to the endearing flubs in "Pena"'s spoken intro) if it were not for the Captain's incredibly vivid, witty, and sometimes sobering imagery. Lest you think it's all just random gibberish, here's an excerpt from "Bill's Corpse":
Quietly the rain played down on last of the ashes
Quietly the light played down on her lashes
She smiled 'n twisted she smiled 'n twisted
Hideously looking back at what once was beautiful
Playing naturally magically
O' her ragged hair was shinin' red white 'n blue
All 'n all the children screamin'
Why surely madam you must be dreamin'
You couldn't have done this if you knew what you were doin'
Well the gold fish 'n the bowl lay upside down bloatin'
Full in the sky 'n the plains were bleached white with skeletons
Various species grouped together according
To their past beliefs
The only way they ever all got together was
Not in love but shameful grief
And that's just one example.
Trout Mask Replica is still one of the most daring and utterly unique records ever committed to wax. Even now, its avant-garde pulping of blues and jazz is still startling and influential, and echoes of it can be heard in Pere Ubu, later Tom Waits, Beck, and countless other weird lo-fi acts. It will change how you listen to music if you let it.
That all said, this album is widely acknowledged as one tough nut to crack. I would highly recommend the Captain's previous album, the very bluesy (it features legendary slide guitarist Ry Cooder) and far more accessible Safe As Milk before even trying Trout Mask on for size. It's a classic, and contains some of my all time favorite Beefy numbers. A healthy appreciation of the blues (particularly Howlin' Wolf or Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and maybe even some Frank Zappa (I highly recommend Hot Rats, which has a Beefheart cameo) can't hurt either. Even so, very little can actually prepare you for just how goddamned odd and polarizing this album is, so definitely expect to commit some time with its idiosyncrasies before "Neon Meate Dream of An Octafish" and similar wackiness causes you to run out of the room screaming.
Willowtip Records; September/October 2008
Okay class, time for a show of hands. How many of you like post-rock? You know, long expanses of vocalless, languorous ambience and slowly building drums followed by loud climaxes designed to either leave you feeling like you were crushed under a giant boot or ascending into heaven?
Okay. Now, how many of you like technical death metal? Onslaughts of crushing odd-time guitar riffs, finger-flying wanktastic solos, relentless blastbeats and a vocalist that sounds like a cross between the Cookie Monster on a particularly aggressive bender and an African rhino in heat?
Fewer hands this time. How many of you like both?
Now, what that unnecessary and somewhat contrived opening was supposed to illustrate is that Kiwi 4-piece Ulcerate (somewhat lame name I know, but par for the course in this genre) are definitely not a band for everyone. Hardcore metalheads might be put off by the (relative) lack of technicality posed by the occasional medium-length breaks into doomy atmosphere, the total lack of solos, and maybe even the song lengths (all over five minutes, with the title track approaching eight), while the typical, more intellectual post-rock fan may dislike this band for... well, everything else.
BUT... if you're that fan of bands like Isis who lean toward the harder side of the post-rock spectrum and wanted to know what they'd sound like if their primary influences were Gorguts, Cryptopsy and Immolation instead of Godflesh and Mogwai, Everything Is Fire will leave you writhing in ecstasy. I haven't heard many albums this intent and purposeful in a long time, and from only a sophomore release, no less.
After hearing this album, I'm convinced that the problem that kills a lot of technical death metal albums is not so much what they're actually playing, it's how their music is mixed. Most place the largely incoherent vocals and the machine gun drums forward, which results in some excellent riffs being submerged by what are frequently the least interesting aspects of the music. Ulcerate, on the other hand, places emphasis on the guitars and their absolutely MASSIVE, all-consuming walls of distortion and thick bass, while the drummer (who is an utter machine) sits behind them and pushes the epic compositions along, switching through variations on three basic modes--minimalist ambient break, agonizing slow dirge, and blastbeat frenzy. Meanwhile, the vocalist, who is a fairly average mid-range growler, is placed deep into this hazy, hellish mix, leaving things like lyrics (which are actually pretty decent, if determinedly nihilistic and despairing) a matter of relative unimportance. I hate to use the worn-out cliche of "voice as instrument" but it applies here, and it's one more point of reference with post-rock bands that even bother to have a vocalist.
The end result of all this is thoroughly devastating in a way that most metal albums aren't. Whereas most death metal bands are loud and frenetic and busy, knobs always cranked to 11, the vast majority don't impart the single-minded atmosphere of doom and consuming hellfire Everything Is Fire attains on a regular basis (and all maintained through a very standard guitars/bass/drummer framework). And while the monolithic brutality is the first thing that comes to mind, subsequent listens reveal a surprisingly impressive degree of variety in the riffing--it's often very ominous, doomy and twisted, decaying and breaking down over the course of the song through many tempo shifts and key changes, but often eerie, slow and melodic licks will surface, as they do on parts of "Caecus" and "Tyranny." While every track is good, the primary standout (and a live staple, I'm told) is the title track--a truly epic showcase of everything this band excels in. From the gnarled opening salvo to the explosive tremelo riffing at 4:30 and the concluding roar of "EVERYTHING IS FIRE" three minutes later amid one final huge wave of distortion fading slowly into oblivion, you will shit your pants in awe.
Now that's all great, but what for the uninitiated listener?
Well, best thing I could recommend is to listen to a few songs from all the bands mentioned above--Isis, Cryptopsy, Immolation et al. Many connoisseurs of this genre would consider that a bit reductionist and lacking in the necessary context to appreciate something as extreme and specific as Everything Is Fire, but I say fuck all that. You don't have to plow through the entire history of metal for hours on end to understand this album (or particular genre, to be honest)--it's a rather visceral thing that promotes very visceral reactions, and listening to a few of those bands should be sufficient preparation. I've played this for people who normally dislike technical death metal and they've come away impressed by this band, so who knows? You may be one of those people.
Soapbox time: I think adjectives like “inaccessible,” “noise,” “heavy,” “weird,” “eclectic” etc. are rabidly and inappropriately abused copouts when it comes to describing music.
Think about it. Take the average Joe/Jane Q. Public you know from down the street. S/he has probably referred to Korn/System of A Down/Metallica/Slipknot/Killswitch Engage as token “heavy” bands; anything with a drop-D guitar, or bass-heavy beats with poetry over top, or less than forehead-slappingly obvious melodies in 4/4 time as “noise”; or anything that hasn’t crawled out of the swamp of horribly plodding post-grunge, Nashville pop with cowboy hats, booty-promoting R&B, limpdick adult contemporary, and brain dead “classic” album oriented rock as somehow “weird” or “exotic.”
Now I recognize that all sounds like total elitist prick generalities, but we live in a world where Nickelback and Avril Lavigne are called on to perform at Olympic ceremonies and rake in millions a year on corporate-sponsored tours promoted as “KICKASS RAWK,” so… yeah. We are surrounded by people who barely even comprehend what lies beyond the “on” position of their car’s FM radio dial, let alone the truly strange, trashy, demanding, dissonant, art-damaged and utterly fascinating fringe of popular music. And while it’s tempting for us embittered, obsessive music geeks to call the general public stupid and remain smug in our assumed cultural superiority, I’m sure many, many of these people hold down jobs, raise families, and live at least somewhat fulfilling and happy lives* without attending any music shows outside a stadium venue, spending hundreds of hours cruising Amazon review pages, or having the faintest idea of who John Zorn or Captain Beefheart are.
*Unless of course they’re Kid Rock/Ted Nugent fans. Fuck those guys.
This column is for both Us, and Them. I wanted to make the inaccessible accessible. To introduce anyone that happens to stumble upon this dusty little corner of the internet to something they’ve never heard of or only in derogatory tones by others as “unlistenable garbage” and put a face on it, make it knowable. I wanted to put the most out-there jazz, the most austere and unforgiving electronic music, and the hairiest of extreme metal all on the same artistic plateau. Maybe even make people wonder why “noise” was ever considered a bad thing.
Oh, and that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with accessible, simple, and melodic music from masters of that form. I have worn out at least one Ramones CD, Motorhead still gets daily play, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend and Ray Davies all share space with Wolf Eyes and Meshuggah, and good ol’ fashioned blues is still my bread and fucking butter. You can always come back to those standards, like your favorite pair of comfortably worn and broken-in loafers. But after hearing what’s out there on the fringe, you will come back with a broader and freshened perspective and cravings for some real weird shite. Or a screaming migraine accompanied by nosebleeds. Possibly both.
First review to come.