A Token of My Extreme: Ulver- Nattens Madrigal: Aatte Hymne til Ulven i Manden (1997)

March 3, 1997; Century Media

Although Norwegian band Ulver still exists today and is still led by Patton-esque mad scientist and vocalist Kristoffer Rygg (A.K.A. Garm, Trickster G, God Head), the Ulver of the mid-nineties bears zero resemblance to the band that released coldly atmospheric electronic/industrial albums like 2005's Blood Inside and 2007's Shadows of The Sun. Instead they shared a place in the mid-period Scandinavian black metal scene, a musical movement best known for collectives of church-burning paganist misanthropes such as Emperor, Mayhem and Darkthrone. However Ulver's aims were always considerably less about the corpse paint/inverted cross/battleaxe image and more about artistry (which is not to say Emperor weren't seriously badass in their own way, but I digress), releasing a "trilogie" of albums with a high degree of craft and conceptual trappings. Their first LP, 1994's Bergtatt, was a landmark in the genre for incorporating olden Scandinavian folk forms, right down to the use of archaic Danish lyrics. They followed that with an album of classical folk titled Kveldssanger. However Ulver's third album Nattens Madrigal: Aatte Hymne til Ulven i Manden (Madrigal of The Night: Eight Hymns to the Wolf in Man) totally rejects any clean vocals and almost all of the acoustic guitar in lieu of an utterly savage, necro as fuck 44-minute blast of black metal.

Now, traditionally black metal has prided itself on a very lo-fi, primitivist aesthetic, rejecting clinical studio sheen for sound quality that often sounds like a demo. Most "kVLT" bands in the genre say this raw approach adds to the authenticity and "evil" atmosphere of the recording but frankly it usually just sounds like what it is, which is poorly recorded shit. Take for example Darkthrone's overly lauded "classic" Transylvanian Hunger. The instruments have zero power--the amateurishly played guitar sounds like a tinny buzzsaw, the drums have all the weight of pencils tapping a desk, the bass is totally inaudible, and the vocalist shrieks about Satan and evil and things that bump in the night while sounding like a cartoon goblin. Purists might cream themselves over this, but the neophyte will probably find this approach more laughable than sinister.

Nattens Madrigal is no exception to the lo-fi sound quality. Legend has it, the band took the label's money, put an 8-track in the middle of the Scandinavian forest, recorded the album, and then spent the rest of the cash on Armani suits, whores, booze and nice cars. Even if this wasn't the case, the album totally sounds like it. The production quality is so trebly, so harsh that it fundamentally changes how you listen to the music, and will actually take you aback the moment "Hymn I" tears through your speakers. It's the sonic equivalent of bleeding rare meat. The tremelo riffing of the guitars and Garm's horrific foreign-language shrieks dominate all generally leaving the drums a distant din of crashing cymbals and snare, and the bass, when heard, has virtually no punch to it.

However.... Nattens Madrigal is the total antithesis of goofy. It actually totally accomplishes the brutally cold and grim feel that most black metal bands strive for and generally fall short of, and not only that, it's packed with riffs and melodies that those bands would kill for (probably literally). Just to put an exclamation point on Ulver's astounding talent, the initial minute-long assault of blacker-than-black riffing in "Hymn I" quickly gives way to a beautiful and peaceful interlude of acoustic picking--the only one on the whole album--and then shifts into an electric variation on the same melody that will knock you out of your fucking chair.

The whole album is a formidable blurred maelstrom, with only the aforementioned acoustic break and the occasional nocturnal segue between tracks functioning as breathers. Tracks burst in with a few squeaks of feedback and end arbitrarily, often still blasting along after five minutes. There are no solos and few leads, and the ones present are usually squelched by the stormy production. However, despite the generally monolithic structure, there are plenty of noteworthy moments. The fade-in intro to "Hymn IV," accompanied by Garm's feral vocals is truly epic. "Hymn VI" begins with a triumphant major-key riff that sounds like something that would be played in Valhalla, while the main riff of "Hymn VIII" will incite rabid headbanging in even the most staid listeners. The album closes out on a magnificent crescendo of distortion and crashing drums that fills you with a feeling that you've listened to something truly immense, and all accomplished without a single cheesy keyboard or silly orchestral flourish (Cradle of Filth, I'm looking at you).

Nattens Madrigal (along with the previous two releases in the trilogie) is the embodiment of black metal excellence, its naturalistic atmosphere the result of careful craft and played with a precision that defies the genre. Ulver's early work remains incredibly influential and has been drawn on by a number of more ambitious genre-busting bands such as Agalloch and Wolves In The Throne Room, both of whom have gone on to release their own masterpieces. This is a necessary album for fans of boundary-pushing metal, totally worth the insane import price.


Anyone new to black metal should probably try out Emperor, Immortal, Enslaved and Bathory first. Despite the relatively recent Pitchfork fascination with the genre, it still remains a tough listen for most and the over-the-top trappings of the scene don't exactly help, so bear that in mind. Ulver's Bergtatt is also a perfect warmup for this album, and an excellent release in its own right.



Radio Free, a thought on music pricing.

The third annual Record Store Day took place on August 17th this year. In observance of it hundreds of new records and rather exciting reissues were being released exclusively to independent record stores, as well as tons of free performances, give aways, etc. - and hey, with the closing of the Virgin's last year almost every record store in New York City was an independent. There was a big hunting ground. Most of the releases were centered on vinyl, and with a little time spent saving up I had a few in mind for myself. A long-coveted pressing of the Moon and Antarctica on vinyl, REM's debut Chronic Town EP, a split single with Mogwai and Fuck Buttons covering each other, SoundGarden's amazing first single repressed, new 7" singles by Japandroids, Blur, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fucked Up. Sixty Nine Love Songs got its first ever vinyl pressing. I knew I only had only saved the money for, maybe, three of these discs, but I was excited none the less.

I showed up to my favorite store fifteen minutes before its special early opening, there was a line around the block. I thought, ok, there are maybe fifty people in front of me, big deal.... By the time I walked in the door The Moon and Antarctica was sold out. Chronic Town, a twenty five year old EP reissue, was sitting on the wall for more than 15 dollars. The Mogwai/Fuck Buttons split, just two songs mind you, cost more than 10. Sixty Nine Love Songs cost almost 100. There was nothing I could afford. I looked around. In the arms of most people in the crowded store I could see my coveted M&A disc. And further more, in there arms were five or six or eight or ten other over priced records as well. I realized I was beat. I lost because I came to celebrate with thirty dollars while they came with two hundred.

Sitting on the subway heading to another shop to try again, I realized that I had gotten hugely excited for all three Record Store Days so far, I had even told most of my music loving friends about them, effectively advertising for the cause, and yet I had never walked away with any Record Store Day specific release at all. And I thought about when I had gotten into vinyl, how it was the most amazing format in the world because I could find Led Zeppelin IV for six dollars. I could pick up a beat up copy of Cream's Disrali Gears for two. The White Stripes' White Blood Cells cost me eight bucks, a new copy of Minor Threats 12" on bright green wax cost me nine. I could forsake convenience for quality - and for quantity.

That was only four years ago and yet.... vinyl isn't made for me anymore. I tear my hair anytime a deluxe x2LP 180gram record comes out, because I know they'll try to make me pay 25 dollars for one album, and I know I won't be able to. I hide my head when they speak of good packaging and pristine sound, because I know I won't be able to see and hear it. Vinyl is now for the rich who can afford to love all the high quality pressings, or for the stupid, too rapped up in the hipness of the format to realize they're being ripped off. This is a hard thing for me to realize. And I feel like because of the rampant theft of music online is putting so many bands and record labels in a tough place, they're taking it out on us - those who have been committed to paying for their music. And I don't know what to do about this.

A Token of My Extreme: Wolf Eyes- Human Animal (2006)

2006; Sub Pop

It took me a very long time to really appreciate what Wolf Eyes do, possibly because they are often placed under the broad umbrella of noise and power electronics, a genre I typically have little interest in despite my general enjoyment of outre music designed to clear rooms, break windows and alienate people. The works of noise artists like Akita Merzbow, Masonna and the like are frankly just dull and formless to me most of the time. Unending and undynamic sheets of everything-louder-than-everything-else electronic drone, screeches, screams, what have you is just so extreme and unyielding that it ends up having the opposite effect--boredom. Without any concessions to mood, atmosphere, rhythm, improvisation or composition you end up sitting there, staring at your watch and waiting for it to end. The few artists, mostly from industrial's formative years, that have succeeded at making listenable "noise" (hint: it's not) such as Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse, SPK and early Einsturzende Neubaten have all recognized the value of these elements in their approach.

You can add Ann Arbor freaks Wolf Eyes to that list. All of their albums have combined hardcore screams, industrial clanking, creeping synth noises, blasts of cathartic feedback and even some wild saxophone skronk with careful pacing and skeletal rhythms to produce fascinatingly twisted mindfucking soundscapes fit to adorn avant-garde horror films. Human Animal, one of the few widely distributed CD releases out of a dauntingly huge and obscure discography, captures the team of Nate Young, John Olsen, Mike Connelly and former member turned producer Aaron Dilloway at the height of their necromancing powers.

Opener "A Million Years" is the huge ghostly monster on the cover slowly rising out of the swamp, a distant din of metallic crashes slowly getting louder as it approaches, accompanied by wounded animal squawks on sax and a piercing, inhuman screech that reaches directly down into your soul and tears it out. This track lets you know in no uncertain terms what you're about to get into.

Ready? Good. The end cleanly segues into the short high-frequency loop/drone bath "Lake of Roaches," followed by the eight-minute "Rationed Riot." Eerie high-pitched synths float in and out of a soupy lo-fi mix, barrel-like drums and the sounds of bubbling muck and blowing winds. The first recognizably human voice comes in, reciting some creepy passages of gore and decay obscured by the surrounding soundscape. The hideous wailing sax returns to usher this track to a close.

Then the title track hits, and all hell breaks loose. Heavily processed screams, crashing gongs (played both normally and backwards masked), feedback, and a thundering beat accompanied by baritone wordless chants that sound like they were sampled from an occult ritual give way to the utterly demented skullfuck that is "Rusted Mange," where human voice, synths and saxophone all compete to drown each other out, recorded in the ugliest, most distorted way possible.

The monster's attack ends, and now drifts in the pervasive fear of "Leper War." Basically a continuation of "A Million Years," but even more claustrophobic and dense. "The Driller" is the creme de la creme of brutal industrial noise, the soundtrack accompanying the marching deformed mutant armies of Hell as they emerge from the earth to consume and destroy everything in their path. Four minutes of pure ear rape. The album ends with a snarky, noise-punk cover of No Fucker's "Noise Not Music," which compared to the concentrated doom that came before is almost accessible in its instantly gratifying slap upside the head.

If anyone is to be named a worthy successor to the likes of late '70s and early '80s industrial, Wolf Eyes are in the front running. Not only have they added a degree of structure and accessibility to the avant-garde realms of power electronics, their attempts have also paradoxically managed to increase the intensity and atmosphere tenfold, pushing the bounds of the art. Human Animal (along with their previous album Burned Mind) from the music right down to the brilliant cover art is an organic, cohesive exercise in aural terror rivaled only by the likes of future column fodder Khanate and Today Is The Day.


Um... well... try some Throbbing Gristle. If you somehow manage to survive the experience without running out of the room screaming or shitting your pants than this is probably the next logical step.



High on Fire - Snakes For The Divine

2010; E1 Music

Is High on Fire's latest opus Snakes For the Divine the right album for you? Take this handy quiz to find out!

1. I am a:

D)Creature of Myth

2. For transportation, I use a:

D)Carriage, pulled by the wives and children of men I have slain

3. Tonight I will:


4. This is a completely awesome name for a song:

A)Bastard Samurai
B)Fire, Flood and Plague
C)How Dark We Pray
D)Holy Flames of the Fire Spitter

5. Bring me:

A)My sword
C)His head
D)A jewel-encrusted chalice, plundered from the treasury of Hyperboria, so that I may drink my wine as an emperor does

6. This is important to me:

D)Seeing my enemies destroyed under my axe



8. I would like to meet:

A)The Devil
B)Matt Pike
C)A cyclops(so that we may speak of sport and combat)
D)A lord(so that I may slay him)

9. Wenches or glory?

C)Wenches and Glory
D)Incredible acts of murder

10. H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard?

A)H.P. Lovecraft
B)Robert E. Howard
C)Books are for those who are learned, those who are foreigners to war, that I may call them coward, that I may take their wives and plunder their homes as they concern themselves with a knowledge of things unconcerning the battlefield, which will give them no aid as my sword sends their jaw clattering onto the floor
D)Whichever has inspired the metalest lyrics

Now for the results!

If you picked mostly A: Get Snakes for the Divine
If you picked mostly B: Get Snakes for the Divine
If you picked mostly C: Get Snakes for the Divine
If you picked mostly D: Get Snakes for the Divine
If you declined to answer: Reconsider the choices that you've made in your life that made it so you wouldn't find any of these answers appealing.

And then get Snakes for the Divine.



The National - High Violet

2010; 4ad; Ohio, via Brooklyn

I was sitting here on a corn flake waiting for the National to slip. Because it made sense. Because as rock history dictates, you work your way up, promising album, good album, masterpiece, and then you can't hit that mark a second time. Because every other amazing band in this year has far exceeded themselves, I thought there is no way there can be another surprise. One band has to slip. Because a year can't be consistently great straight across. Because no one can top Boxer. So, as much as I hated to predict doom, I thought this was fated to be the band's The Great Escape to follow Parklife, their Humbug from Favorite Worst Nightmare, their Get Behind Me Satan that would never live up to Elephant. It made sense.

It also made sense when I herd their first single from the album. 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' was a lot of things, but what I herd was something a bit more complex, a bit muddier than the simplicity of the loud-drums-and-vocals-over-undermixed-dissonant-guitar-soundscapes that populated the most accessible tunes on Boxer. And yes it was catchier than almost anything they'd ever done before but it was catchy in a less distinct way, in a less desperate important way. The lyrics preferred a more traditional straightforward meaning over their trademarked lost harshly unfocused abstractness. It favored a more colorful ambiance over their previous garage sensibilities. His voice was the same, but this was not the band I knew.

Everything I feared and disliked from Bloodbuzz Ohio carried over to the entirety of High Violet. And this was actually more than a good thing.

High Violet glows. And it does this with drawn out guitars and heavy piano lines and with horns and somehow uncorny strings and really when it comes down to it I don't know how this album glows like it does. but there it is. It glows with the uncertain luminance and the warmth of coals, fresh from the fire.

This is the most accessible album they have ever made, and are ever likely to make. And somehow that's a good thing too.

From the slow paced march of Terrible Love through to the strained crys of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, The National have created something with vitality and with power, and to achieve this it seems they needed to abandon their troubled detachment. This is no longer the sound of someone running away, or of someone biting their lip and screaming in their mind but keeping their head down, this is some trying honesty, someone caught up or frantically fighting back. The National have recaptured a passion and life that they morned during the course of Boxer. They even begin to border the Arcade Fire's my-god-the-world-is-ending aesthetic, without the self satisfied leanings that mar that band's output. This is the honest fight. No more trying to look cool, no more hiding behind poetry, this is the time for the National to say what they mean, and say it straight.

What makes this harder is how much this music means to me, and how much the National in general have meant to me in the past, but really there is more than that. A lot of music means a lot to me, a lot of people have various music that holds for whatever reason a lot of meaning for them. This has surpassed that, beyond my own subjectivity. High Violate means a lot, not just to me - it holds meaning, period. This is instant classic, this is immediate effect, we will look back in years to come and remember the third week in May when these notes pulsed through our veins.

Something is happening in 2010. I don't know why. For the last few years there has been consistently great music, but you knew and I knew something was off. Something we couldn't completely get behind. A lack of confidence or real seriousness, a lack of violence perhaps. Something was missing, enough for us to stand with the new music world, but not quite. And somehow in the four and a half short months since the decade turned bands have started again going for the throat, digging their heals in. We've gotten back the wild desperation, along with the anger and the passion and the wry confidence. We've gotten back bands that don't apologize. Something is happening.


The Importance of Being Metal: Megadeth-Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?

1986; Capitol Records

1. Is It Any Good?

Fans will argue until they're blue in the face about the merits of Megadeth over Metallica, and vice versa, but with the possible exception of Metallica's first two albums, there's never been any question that Megadeth has always thrashed harder. Peace Sells...But Who's Buying may not be Megadeth's masterpiece(that honor has to go to Rust in Peace), but it's probably the most consistently solid album in Megadeth's discography, and maybe of the mid-'80s thrash movement in general.

Things start off at a nice gallop with "Wake Up Dead", the best song about infidelity not to come out of the American south, with the last minute transforming the fairly standard thrash tune into diabolical sounding war march. The beginning of the album suffers far more than the end, due to the clunky and dated "The Conjuring" and the outright boring "Devil's Island". That said, sandwiched between these two songs is "Peace Sells", an anthem that ranks up with "Ace of Spades", "Balls to the Wall" and "Raining Blood" as one of the defining heavy metal tracks of the '80s. Hilarious lyrics, intense guitar work and possibly the greatest metal bass riff of all time ensure it'll be a song remembered long after people stop playing "Rock Band 2".

Side 2 of Peace Sells is pure gravy. "Bad Omen" starts off slow but features a guitar solo that literally makes the guitar sound like it's melting and has to be heard to be believed. "I Ain't Superstitious" is a hilarious attempt at mixing thrash metal with the blues that, in a turn of events that you'll see becomes a pattern with this album, goes utterly apeshit in the last third. And "My Last Words" is an exhilarating ode to Russian Roulette and a fine way to cap off the album. It's a good chunk of music, and many lesser bands of the era would've killed to have a run of songs so excellent on one album.

But the centerpiece of the whole album has to be "Good Mourning/Black Friday". Starting out with a moody, haunting atmosphere, launching into a guitar solo that can only be described as "desolate" and progressing into one the most off-the-walls-insane-with-energy odes to mass murder ever recorded in the realm of metal, this song is easily one of the most underrated of Megadeth's entire canon and should have come to be known as one of the defining tracks of the thrash era. "Blistering" doesn't even begin to describe the last two and a half minutes of this song, as the drums start pounding like thunderclaps and the Dave Mustaine and Chris Poland's guitars start swirling around each other like they're eating each other from the inside out. Not until "Grand Theft Auto III" came out were killing sprees this fun.

The lyrics deserve a passing mention, as well. From infidelity to the occult, from global war to good old fashioned every day nihilism, Mustaine and company never stay on one subject for too long. While lyrics often took a backseat to the actual musicianship in thrash music, and still do on this album as well, it's refreshing that Megadeth decided to mix it up for this release, and it gives the music a freshness that's lasted to this very day.

Peace Sells...But Who's Buying is an essential recording from the thrash period. Funny, whip smart and as intense as all hell, any metalhead's discography is incomplete without this, one of Megadeth's finest efforts.

2. Is It Influential?

It was an album released by one of the Big Four, and one of their most well known ones at that. Even Megadeth's later guitarist, Jeff Young, was inspired by the playing on this album. I have no doubt that it served as a firm benchmark for quality metal for many future metal musicians, as well.

3. Is It A Good Starting Point For Beginners?

Absolutely. Peace Sells is a great microcosm of the entire thrash movement: From lyrics to lightning-fast musicianship, everything you need to know about thrash metal is right here in 37 minutes. Guaranteed to blow a newbie's lid off without sending them running away.



I know this was a couple of days ago, but on Sunday Ronnie James Dio passed away. While I was never a fan of his solo work or his tenure with Black Sabbath, he did some good things with Rainbow, had an impressive voice and seemed like a great guy besides. And hell, the dude gave us The Horns. So even if I wasn't a particularly huge fan of his music, he inspired close to every metal group I enjoy, and that by itself is worth honoring, I think.

This installment of The Importance of Being Metal is dedicated to the memory of Ronnie James Dio. Here is a totally silly picture in his honor. Keep on rockin' in the Underworld, Dio!


Odessey and Oracle

1968; Abbey Road Studios; CBS/Date Records

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time may recall my review of Thin Lizzy's Black Rose: A Rock Legend and how I essentially spent the entirety of the piece gushing and screaming about how it was some of the best music I'd ever heard in my life, essentially throwing all sense of professionalism and objectivity to the wind. It stands to this day as simultaneously the most embarrassing and the most accurate music review I have ever written.

I bring this up because while this is not precisely going to be more of the same, I am going to be making the claim that Odessey and Oracle is the best pop album of the '60s, maybe the best pop album of all time, and I am going to try and explain why this is the case, which is going to involve a lot of gushing still, but hopefully I'll be a little bit more eloquent this time than in my previous efforts to explain why this is like THE BEST ALBUM EVER ZOMG.

Seriously, though, this is one of the best albums ever.

Pop music has this thing where it exists in kind of a vacuum, song by song. The situations described in the song, no matter how filled with passion or moving they may be, only exist for the duration of that song, have no roots in the immediate or long-term past and will not continue into the future.

What the Zombies manage to do with Odessey and Oracle, and this is something I didn't even realize I was missing until I heard it here, is give their music the weight of history, a sense that these songs came from somewhere real and might continue to exist outside of the immediate circumstance of the song itself. This is no more apparent then on the opening track "Care of Cell 44", where the protagonist of the song describes how excited he is to see his girlfriend after a long time...because she's been spending a few years in prison. This simple twist does a few things very effectively: It takes the standard "I can't wait to see my baby" trope and turns it on it's head by giving it, if not dire, at least very serious implications about the past and future of this couple. It also makes it so that when the singer sings about how excited he is to see his girl, his voice practically aches with joy at the prospect of his love leaving a place so hideous as a prison and walking into his arms. The lush pop melodies contrast with the nervous joy and almost tangible relief of the lyrics and the song becomes something that you feel you could relate to, a story that you suddenly have more than a passing interest in.

Every song on the album has an effect such as this, making you care about the song outside of the song itself. "Brief Candles", one of the greatest breakup songs ever written, describes three people: One who has accepted the breakup, one who is heartbroken and one who is completely and utterly devastated to the point of numbness. With just a few lines each, these brief candles connect with each other, not in person but in spirit of a sort, and form one overarching narrative about how people deal with their broken hearts. Similarly, "Maybe After He's Gone" has a sense of understated desperation that connects the listener to a familiar situation: a boy and a girl love each other, but one is already taken. It's hard not to feel for the guy as he wistfully hopes that "she'll come back, love me again." It has an air of classicist romanticism to it that helps emphasize the timelessness of the story.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that no other album in rock history has blended classical musicianship with such divine pop sensibilities. Not Genesis, not David Bowie, not even the Beatles. Nobody. At its absolute finest, listening to Odessey and Oracle is like biting into a sweet tangerine and letting the juices run through you, so lush are the melodies and so beautifully does the Baroque meets the modern age. "Brief Candles", mentioned above, is the best example of this synergy, with a violin, piano and guitar that swirl together and become swooningly beautiful, tossing the listener into a cosmic cyclone of vibrant colors and fierce emtions. "A Rose for Emily" works in this way, too, with a simple piano riff telling a story of loneliness that draws comparisons to "Elanor Rigby" and rests in the same league in terms of bleak, elegant storytelling. And "Changes", with its piercing flute and minimalist-but-driving bongo rhythms simply needs to be heard. The simple beauty defies explanation.

The less ambitious pop songs work well, too. "This Will Be Our Year" is simply delightful, and continues the trend of giving the songs historic weight with the line "This will be our year, took a long time to come". It only takes little things like that to turn a song into a confession, a piece of music into an object to store next to your heart. "I Want Her She Wants Me" functions as a by-the-numbers if expertly made story of found love, and "Friends of Mine" is infectiously silly and jubilant. And while "Time of the Season" feels like a single tacked on to move copies in the context of the larger album, by itself it is, of course, one of the defining songs of the late '60s.

There's not enough space in the world to extol all the virtues of Odessey and Oracle, and at the same time words seem pointless. I compared it to Black Rose at the beginning largely for that reason. It's the sort of album that makes you happy you listen to music, that strives for a certain goal and, while accomplishing it, sets a bar that all others will tremble at being forced to reach. If you passed this by for any reason, be it in favor of the greater-known works of the '60s or simply because psychedelic music isn't your avenue, give it a listen: It obliterates genre barriers and utterly flips the script on pop music, simply by finding small things to stand it up with, like filling in the cracks of an aging sculpture with little pieces of gold. The Zombies have created a masterpiece that is all at once timeless, gorgeous, thoughtful and astonishingly, enviously intelligent. I rarely think this, but I am a better person for having heard this album. You might be, too.



A Token of My Extreme: Swans- Cop/Young God/Greed/Holy Money (1984/1986/1987)

1984, 1985, 1986, 1999; K.422/Young God Records

"Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments." -Michael Gira

It's hard to come up with a more apt description of the material NYC band Swans released in the '80s. Often sharing the No-Wave scene with Sonic Youth in their young noise terrorist days (it's rumored that Thurston Moore played bass on the first Swans EP) and Lydia Lunch's Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Swans was about as confrontational and challenging as you could get. As Michael Gira disdained the metalheads that started coming to shows, they would later temper their bleak piledriver assault with cerebral Gothic leanings in the form of Jarboe's melancholic feminine vocals and more refined instrumentation with distinct gospel and folk flavors, but 1984's Cop and Young God EP are an undiluted shot of what made early Swans so great and influential, even if their single-minded depravity left them unpalatable to 99% of the Earth's population.

The very definition of brutal, early Swans' MO was basically an exercise in industrial sludge, a few doomy chords repeated incessantly behind a series of utterly nihilistic and angst-ridden proclamations which left absolutely nothing to the imagination. With song titles like "Cop," (sample lyric: "The punishment fits the crime/Nothing beats humiliation/Humiliation's a disease/Nothing beats them like a cop with a club") "I Crawled" and, most controversial of all, "Raping A Slave," the band laid out themes of domination, despair, and the perversion of power with all the subtlety of a bloody shovel to the head. Listening to Gira's growled mantras and Norman Westburg's slow, tortured guitar is an experience akin to overdosing on barbiturates while sinking into a burning tar pit, helpless to escape. The Marquis de Sade would be proud.

Released a couple short years later and featuring Swans mainstay Jarboe, Greed and Holy Money were a slightly more approachable and refined expansion of the band's artistic palette, but no less determined and harsh for it. "Time Is Money (Bastard)" features a machine-gun rhythm that wouldn't be out of place in an underground S&M club, if the first twenty seconds don't beat every single tooth out of your fucking head. "Coward" opens with the startlingly direct line "I'm a coward/put your knife in me" before pouring on the deliciously painful feedback, and "A Screw" (NSFW!) juxtaposes a thunderous trumpet sample with the usual jackhammering and seriously damaged guitar "solo." However, there are early signs of Swans' later sophistication--"Blackmail" and "You Need Me" are disarmingly pretty vocal showcases from Jarboe accompanied by piano, and the absolutely apocalyptic "A Hanging" with its demonic choir touches on the religious themes they would expand with later recordings.

Reissued in 1999 as a double CD, Cop/Young God/Greed/Holy Money's impact at the time of their release was far reaching--it's hard to imagine Justin Broadrick's Godflesh and their genre classics like Streetcleaner without Swans paving the way, and certainly today's doom metal acts like SunnO))) and Khanate draw heavily on the uncompromisingly dark aura and extended dirges of these early records. After Swans broke up in 1997, Gira went on to form the much lighter, Americana-influenced Angels of Light and Jarboe pursued an avante-garde solo career of her own, but there's been much talk of a reunion. Personally I can't wait. [Update: As of January 2010, Michael Gira has reformed Swans and they are recording new material. I repeat: HOLY SHIT]


Enjoy doom metal, or anything remotely minimalist/sludgy? You need this. Now, dammit.

If not, I would highly recommend approaching this after a few Godflesh, Killing Joke and Ministry albums. Some later Swans records wouldn't be a bad idea as well--1995's The Great Annihilator is probably the best place to start.



A Token of My Extreme: The Dillinger Escape Plan- Calculating Infinity (1999)

Relapse Records; September 28, 1999

It's hard to believe that NJ noisecore miscreants Dillinger Escape Plan are over ten years old. Now down to only one founding member, guitarist Ben Weinman, their latest album Option Paralysis just hit the shelves about three weeks ago. Having heard it, let me tell you--it's a mild disappointment for people who knew this band when they were deadset on peeling your fucking skull open. It's not really the lineup's fault; Greg Puciato may be a Mike Patton clone, but he's a pretty good one, and it's not like the rest of the band members both new and old are technically deficient. Besides, the band's lineup has always been something of a revolving door since its inception thanks to a mix of piss luck (original bassist Adam Doll suffered a spinal injury in a car accident, for starters), conflicting career paths and the time-honored standby, "creative differences." No, the real problem is that since their best-selling 2004 release Miss Machine, they haven't made up their minds over whether they want to be darlings of the tech-metal set or be popular on MTV, as evidenced by relatively tame excursions into verse-chorus-verse like "Unretrofied" and "Milk Lizard."

Present-day bitching aside I figured it was high time to revisit DEP's first full-length, their benchmark '99 opus Calculating Infinity, the album that really built their reputation as one of the most extreme experiences in underground metal and spawned a host of technically worthy but somehow lacking imitators (Psyopus, Ion Dissonance, Into The Moat etc.).

What does DEP have that they don't? It's the songwriting, stupid.

Yes, believe it or not what sounds like an insane multicar pileup next to a bunch of screaming burn victims is actually meticulously assembled and played with ridiculous prowess, full of maniacally jagged guitar riffs, lashing and abrupt tempo changes and time signatures that are downright fucking inscrutable. As wild as it is, the hardcore punk aesthetic still carries through in the total absence of solos or extraneous wankery--this is a truly efficient brain-splattering machine that has not been replicated before or since. Not even by DEP themselves.

I still consider it a shame that vocalist Dimitri Minakakis stepped out after this album. Sure he doesn't have the versatility of Puciato, but what he lacks in that department he makes up for in unfettered wallpaper-peeling ferocity--his scream manages peaks that are beyond rage, so deranged and caustic that the murderous stream-of-consciousness lyrics he spits aren't even important anymore. When combined with the band's bricks-in-an-F5 tornado assault, the end result is pure whoa. Also noticeable is drummer Chris Pennie, whose metronomic precision and fluency behind the kit are a constant highlight in this polyrhythmic madness. Switching from jazzy cymbal work to brutal blastbeats to breakneck snare rolls and everything in between at the drop of a hat, Pennie deserves his place among metal's elite timekeepers.

Stuttering midtempo slabs of abrasion as in the opening of "43% Burnt" (the album's longest real track at 4:31) last only a few bars before they quickly give way to instrumental passages that sound like tapes stuck on fast-forward before switching again to relatively mellow jazz guitar; and then there's spazzed-out thrash like "Jim Fear" and the pure fucking destruction of "4th Grade Dropout," the climax of which is like being strapped to the front of a bullet train colliding into another bullet train. Every now and again the peaks trail off into hallucinatory, sample-fueled instrumentals like "Weekend Sex Change" which are a welcome comedown from the adrenalized bludgeoning, but they don't last long. Throw in a cryptic and disturbing bonus track, and you have a just about perfect 37-minute showcase of technically proficient ultraviolence for the ADD in all of us.


Yeah... this is definitely not for beginners. However, as DEP's mainstream profile has risen in recent years, the aforementioned poppier songs from more recent albums have made it into some adventurous radio formats and similar noisecore bands have become more widespread, Calculating Infinity may not be quite as hard a pill to swallow these days. Barring that I would recommend starting with the excellent Irony Is A Dead Scene EP, which is a superior initiation for the following reasons: 1) Mike Patton is the vocalist on it, 2) it's only about fifteen minutes long and bargain priced, 3) it's not quite as batshit crazy, and 4) see #1.




2010; Columbia Records

It's stunning to me what some people will regard as "experimental". Skinny Puppy's Last Rights is experimental. William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops is experimental as hell. Christ, I'll even go so far as to say that David Bowie's Low is experimental. Congratulations? Congratulations is not an experimental album by any stretch of the imagination. At most it could be considered "interesting". At least it could be considered extremely similar to MGMT's first album. And despite the negative buzz you might have seen surrounding this album, neither of those are by any means a bad thing.

First, let's get this out of the way. As I eluded to above, there is nothing even vaguely groundbreaking or even odd about this album. The way you'd hear the music press talk about it, you'd expect Congratulations to be a collection of dissonant post-industrial soundscapes. The reality is that this is an album that is incredibly pleasing to the ear, with plenty of catchy hooks and hyper-enthusiastic vocals and keyboards. What can be said is that the tracks do mix their influences and they wear this fact on their sleeves. There's a definite surf rock vibe to the opening track, "It's Working", and as angry as it may have made people who were expecting another "Kids", "Flash Delirium" is a totally approachable dance track. "Brian Eno", a tribute to the titular musician, seems like it could be an anime theme song and the prog influences on "Siberian Breaks", the only track that resembles anything out of the ordinary for an indie-tinged electronica song, are impossible to ignore.

That said, the people who say that there is nothing on Congratulations that you could release as a single are wrong. This is all very standard issue synthpop: I can't imagine a radio DJ recoiling in horror from a single track on this album(except for maybe "Lady Dada's Nightmare", but it's just sort of a crappy filler instrumental anyway). True, it's not very radio friendly compared to Oracular Spectacular, but you'll recall that that was an UNBELIEVABLY radio friendly album. If Congratulations had come out first you'd hear armchair experts the Internet over scream about how OS was MGMT's "sellout" album, and instead you get these very same pedants becoming enraged that there's nothing as screamingly poppy and polished as "Time to Pretend" on their sophomore effort. Astounding.

Of course, I'm reviewing the album, not the reaction to the album. So how is it, in the final analysis? It's pretty good, honestly. There's nothing mind blowing about it but it serves as a perfectly poppy slice of psychedelica for those who like their hazy, drug-induced adventures to be on the dancier side of things. The vocals become as much of an instrument as anything else on Congratulations. Much has been made about the fact that this is an album about how the duo has become uncomfortable with their new found fame, but the lyrics truly don't matter too terribly much. This is one of those albums(and one of those bands, for that matter) that's a lot more about the sound than the meaning, and if you're fine with that then you should have no problems with this release.

Congratulations is an album that is occasionally eccentric but never off-putting, one that's just different enough from its predecessor to avoid comparisons and similar enough to fit in with Oracular Spectacular pretty comfortably when you put your Ipod on shuffle. If you find this at all abrasive or confusing, I'd venture to say that you have a pretty pedestrian idea of what makes music abrasive or confusing, but I honestly don't think that most people will. This is one album where the content spits on the hype, in the best way possible.



In The Valley of the Shadow of Rush: Liveblogging "Moving Pictures"

1981; Le Studio(seriously), Morin Heights, Quebec; Mercury

So on the drive back to my dorm today, "Limelight" came on the radio, and as that song tends to do, it brought back a lot of old memories of cruising through town with my dad. It is on this whim that I have decided to attempt to liveblog my listening of Moving Pictures, Rush's most successful and popular studio album.

If you've been reading this blog, you may recall that I've given Rush's other works a shot before, and it didn't work out so well. I'm really hoping that this time will be different since, I must confess, I do sort of want to like Rush. I like progressive rock, I like goofy high concepts, but a myriad of factors seem to keep these things from working for me in the context of Rush's music. I'm going to enter this record objectively and see if there's something here I can find value in. This is a liveblog, which means that I'll be posting my thoughts as I listen. Here we go!

So we're starting off with "Tom Sawyer", and fuck, there's nothing I can really say here that hasn't been said before about this song. It's been saturated into classic rock radio rotation so thoroughly that it's essentially part of the collective unconscious at this point, but I can imagine that hearing this for the first time in 1981 would've been quite a thrill for a young prog-head. It's much more atmospheric than I remember it being and it's a good way to start off an album. The synthesizers are overbearing and silly, but that's to be expected somewhat.

"Red Barchetta" is a song I have no experience with, but I'm not thirty seconds in and it's already the sonic equivalent of something Magnum P.I. would drive, and not in a good way. This is absurdly '80s. And it seems like the guitar and drums are fighting each other:Peart wants this song to be peppy and Liefson is like "fuck that, we're doing moody". It goes without saying that Geddy Lee has no bearing on the sound other than to shrilly spit out nonsense. This guitar solo three minutes and thirty seconds in...is this actually happening? Did Liefson actually play that guitar solo and then a producer said, "Let's put that on an album"? Who thought this was a good idea? I don't mean to be ripping on this album so soon into the experience, but Jesus Christ these guys are not making it easy. "I leave a giant stranded at the riverside, I race back to the pond to drink with my uncle at the fireside". I bet you do, Geddy Lee, I bet you do. An inauspicious continuation of a good start.

"YYZ" is a song I have decided to stop liking. It tries to sound cool and powerful but there's no weight to it, there's nothing to ground the spacey keyboards and flighty guitars and it seems like every member of the band is trying to play a different song. Admittedly, that "wickawickawah-wicka-wickawickawah" thing that Liefson does at one point is pretty cool. And yeah, let's let those keyboards breathe, I can never get enough of those fucking things! God. Second part is the same as the first part, aaaaand...done. Bleh.

Now we get to "Limelight", and I think I've figured out what it has in common with the only other two Rush songs I sincerely enjoy, "Spirit of the Radio" and "New World Man". There's this sort of mysticism to it, a kind of romance about the way that things get built and the way things reach people, and it's got a real sort of "standing on top of a building with the wind rushing through your body" feel to it. I almost want to call it innocent, it's got such a profound sense of wonder to it. I may take shots at Rush a lot, but I'll defend this song 'til my dying breath. It's a perfectly built little prog anthem and if I could hug it I would do so.

"The Camera Eye" is 11 minutes and at this juncture I'm not too optimistic. These keyboards and traffic sounds aren't doing me any favors, either. Buildup is a little long, but that's standard stuff for a 10 minute+ prog song, I won't hold that against it. What I will hold against it are these motherfucking Goddamn keyboard riffs that make Keith Emerson look like a bastion of good taste and restraint. Ooh, nice little peppy guitar line, let's hope nothing screws this up...aww, I think Geddy Lee is singing about the wonder of Manhattan. Kind of cliche, but still cute, and I say that totally without snark. Hey, whattaya know, I sort of like this song! Or at least I did until it slowed down and holy shit KNOCK IT OFF WITH THE FUCKING KEYBOARDS!! Alright, we're back to the song proper and I'm happy again. Heh, okay, that's...long enough, fellas. Lee's voice is getting on my nerves now, let's move on. Okay? Guys? Wow, two more minutes to this song, really? Man, it's not the most long winded prog song I've ever heard but there's no call for the 11 minute runtime. And are we fading out with a minute of soft keyboards? Looks like it. Goddamnit.

"Witch Hunt" opens with some kind of xylophone thing, which isn't a good sign. Here are some crowd sounds now, they seem mad about something, and our good old friend the Dipshit Keyboard Riff is back to visit us. Cool guitar riff, but God Almighty can Geddy Lee not sing menacingly to save his life. "Faces are twisted and grotesque" is okay when you read it but sounds really clunky when sung, which seems to be a Rush tradition. Two and a half minutes and I'm pretty bored. Lee's attempts to sound scary are getting a good chuckle, though, so I guess there's that. Oh fuck, is this another one of their Rayndian parables about overbearing government? I think it is. Son of a bitch! We almost went the whole album without one of those.

"Vital Signs" starts out with a "weedledeedledoo" type keyboard riff and Geddy Lee is doing some sort of stupid echoy robot thing with his voice and I think this slap bass is trying to give me heartburn and I sort of want to die. Other than that, this is failing to have any kind of impression on me. Are they trying to do a reggae thing? Yeah, that's what I think of when I listen to Rush, is first progressive rock and then reggae. Fuckin' Toots and the Maytals, these guys are. Jeeeeeesus. This bass is really trying my patience. "Ev'rybody got to elevate from norm". Saying that over and over doesn't make it less idiotic sounding. And...we're done. The album is over.

Moving Pictures is not the pretentious bullshit festival that Permanent Waves was, and it is not the sheer aesthetic war crime that 2112 inflicted upon the world. This is what is known as "damning with faint praise", however, as it is still by no means a good album. Overstuffed with ideas both good and bad as well as being muddily written and featuring instrumentation that ranges from being long-winded to downright obnoxioius, Moving Pictures is a microcosm of progressive rock's worst aspects.

All that said, I did enjoy it more than I thought I would, and it's not completely without value. There is a prevailing sense of optimism that could be described as charming, and to their credit the members of Rush do manage to reign themselves in and keep most of their songs at reasonable run times in most instances. You can see them moving away from ostentatious prog epics and more towards digestable radio rock, a direction that doesn't suit many bands but one that Rush definitely benifited from.

Moving Pictures is not a masterpiece. It's certainly not something I'd choose to listen to again. But it is listenable, and I do not regret taking the time to hear it. Sometimes that's all I can ask for.

...It should also be noted that the album art is pretty funny.



Needed: A Good Spot For Free Streaming Music

I don't know if you've heard of lala.com, but if you haven't it doesn't make much sense to check it out now, since it's shutting down in a month. If you have heard of it, and especially if you've used it in the past, you might be finding yourself a little bit pissed off. First imeem gets folded into Myspace Music and decides to dick up their audio quality, and now Lala falls down completely? Bunk.

This concerns me. Imeem was a great service for introducing people to music, and to test out music to see if you liked it. Lala was slightly inferior, but still serviceable. The only thing that comes close to either at this point is playlist.com, and I'm worried it's going to get the axe or get swallowed into a bigger company, as well. Why wouldn't it, at this rate?

So I'm just throwing the question out there: Does anyone know of a good audio service that lets the user listen to music at their leisure without paying, isn't a radio website and isn't Youtube? Any tips would be greatly appreciated.