A Token of My Extreme: 2011 Halloween Edition

Normally my 10/31 tunes are a lot more kitschy--Cramps, Misfits, Screamin' Jay etc. etc.--but this year my sights are set on complete skullfucking terror, something more Lovecraft than Roger Corman, and so I dug up some perfect sonic hellscapes to match. Figured I'd share:

1. "Sacred Rites of the Left Hand Path" by John Zorn
2. "Rosemary's Baby" by Fantomas
3. "Nature's Revenge [B-Sides Collect version]" by Skinny Puppy
4. "Napalm (Terminal Patient)" by SPK
5. "Hamburger Lady" by Throbbing Gristle
6. "Rattlesnake Shake" by Wolf Eyes
7. "A Hanging" by Swans
8. "Even The Saints Knew Their Hour of Failure and Loss" by The Body
9. "Bathory Erzsebet" by Sunn O))))
10. "Origin of Supernatural Probabilities" by Tangerine Dream
11. "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" by Krysztof Penderekci
12. "I Live to See You Smile" by Today Is The Day
13. "My Heaven [Silent Hill OST]" by Akira Yamaoka

A little on the short side, but if blasting this on repeat won't make trick-or-treaters skip your block I don't know what will.

Sleep tight!



The Cabs - First Incident (Ichiban Hajime no Dekigoto)

2011; Zankyo Records; Saitama, Japan

Until recently, I had yet to find a band that I really wanted express my opinion of in an actual written review. The band that spurred this change were the cabs. These three musicians hail from Saitama, Japan, and stylistically, exhibit many characteristics similar to their contemporaries on their label, such as Te, This Town Needs Guns, Maps & Atlases, and 65daysofstatic. Although I personally enjoy listening to most of these bands, I have a lot of problems with fundamental characteristics in their music, some of which include songwriting, melody and the reasons behind why they play technically, or why they chose to be dissonant. When I found the cabs, I felt that all the issues I've had with their contemporaries had been resolved by their first release.

The second track Soldiers of February enters the holy land of pure math, and defines much of the merit of the band. Upon first listen, the intro reminded me immediately of bands such as LITE or Te, which lead me to wonder: is this just another well produced modern japanese math rock band that's pretty good but not really original and won't really amount to anything? Once the first verse kicked in, my worries completely dissipated.

A fundamental issue I have with math rock bands is their disregard for song structure and actual progression of phrases that draws the listener in ways that vocal based bands do- in a way, their music expresses emotions through musicality, but not through writing (despite calculated riffs) and lyricism. Then there are bands of a similar sort to the cabs, such as This Towns Needs Guns or Maps & Atlases, who try to integrate more experimental and technical styles derived from Owls or Hella or Miles Davis, with accessible elements such as melodic instrumentation and singing. To me it has always seemed like these bands were struggling with the desire to write legitimately well conceived songs over the need to play crazy and often times unnecessary shit all the time.

the cabs don't have this problem. Although Soldiers of February is a song that might remind you of the angular and trebly japanese mathy guitar playing and drumming reminiscent of LITE or Rin Toshite Shigure, the actual structure of the song and melody is what distinguishes it from the rest. Honest and unadulterated vocals carry you through the song, over arpeggios and hammer-ons, into extremely dissonant chordal strumming (notably utilized in ways I haven't heard before) in the chorus that is somehow at the same time incredibly melodic and adds a distinctiveness that is incredibly subtle but apparent. Verses move into choruses seamlessly and there isn't the misuse of excessive bridges to link together different segments of the song, and when they are used, its usage is individual and really pays homage to their roots while still defining their own style.

Their influence and sound aren't limited to the math rock bands on their record label, Zankyo Records. A huge influence from post-hardcore and screamo is taken with tracks like For Charles Bronson (the name itself probably a homage to the screamo tradition of naming songs after trivial celebrities) and Haiku For Kydla, which actually sounds like something in the vein of The Blood Brothers combined with Slint. In retrospect, none of these influences really characterize the cabs, because as said before, although you can hear the screamo and post hardcore and math rock tendencies, they integrate it into their own style of songwriting, which makes their music something special considering that bands from obscure subgenres (or really most bands in general) usually repeat the structures and styles of previous bands instead of defining their own brand of songwriting, more typically found in less technical and punk influenced styles.

Being a completely new band, however, It'd be near impossible for them to be as perfect as I'm making them out to be. But maybe I'm just being nitpicky. Although the songs are awesome within themselves, the vocals and bass are far too bright and clear for the rawness of the songs, which also decreases the cohesion between some of the screaming songs versus sung songs, which a producer like Steve Albini could probably work wonders for.

What the mini album is about, I do not know. But if their songs have anything to do with "not empathy, but a lack thereof in the bitterly and wretchedly heartbroken city of Tokyo", (as stated on their brief biography on Zankyo), it makes perfect sense. The torrential downpour of precise but ruthless drumming, arpeggiated guitar that transitions into subtle chordal dissonance, chordal transitions that range from seamless and smooth to angular and explosive (ala dillinger escape plan), and vocals that range from fragile to borderline deranged screaming all contained within incredibly well written songs lets you know that these are kids making real music that matters to them, not just music for musics sake, like many of their contemporaries. I can only anticipate future releases from a band with this much potential- hopefully enough to branch out past their limited demographic and really get recognized.


Opeth- Heritage

September 14, 2011; Roadrunner

[Long and rambling review ahead, get comfortable.]

This reviewer admits a special attachment to Opeth, as they were one of the bands that helped rehabilitate my increasingly shitty opinion of the metal genre going into the early '00s. By that point nu-metal held an absolute death grip on the airwaves, and off the airwaves was a neverending and deadening flood of testosterone-addled hardcore and a horde of brainless, atonal death metal bands all cloned from the same Deicide/Morbid Angel/Cannibal Corpse DNA--or so I thought. Black metal and Gothenburg were both relatively new and alien to me, and as a teen with interest in relatively old-school thrash and doom/stoner metal (Pantera was probably the most recent band I would even countenance listening to at the time--yeah, I know) among other things a lot of good shit was flying under my radar while I was waiting in vain for the next Master of Puppets to show up.

My first listen to a friend's battered import copy of Morningrise was a real revelation for me. Here was a band that embraced both beauty and fury, with a sepulchral atmosphere, epic and constantly shifting songwriting and lots of acoustic and electric instrumental shading that I'd never heard in the genre (or anywhere else) before. And the riffs, oh damn. Being a staunch hater of extreme vox at the time, I still occasionally struggled with Mikael Akerfeldt's blackened growl on that album but once the taste had been acquired the quest for more Opeth continued at a fast pace. I quickly counted them among my favorite bands, devouring everything from their masterpiece My Arms, Your Hearse (my current favorite) to the growl-free folk/fusion/prog outing of Damnation with relish. Opeth also introduced me to another future staple, the excellent neo-prog band Porcupine Tree fronted by producer/musician/songwriter Steven Wilson who had contributed both instrumentation and production to several Opeth albums. Without getting too sycophantic, I can honestly say that I owe a lot of my omnivorous musical perspective and tastes to Opeth.

Now with all this goodwill in mind, let me tell you why Heritage is an album best left on the shelf.

The biggest controversy over this album is the complete rejection of any and all metal elements. Akerfeldt is on record stating that death metal is "over" and reflecting a disdain in being pigeonholed as such. That's both fair and not unexpected, as the band's classical prog influences were always just as prominent in their work as the metal ones were and previous effort Watershed generally pushed full-on headbanging aggression to the back burner (save for "Heir Apparent," the only all-metal song they've released to date). The band has also seen a number of lineup changes since signing up to the Roadrunner label in 2005, such as the inclusion of a full-time keyboardist (Per Wilberg, who left the band right after Heritage) and the departure of long-time members Peter Lindgren and Martin Lopez who both contributed a lot to the band's overall sound, if not to its songwriting. They have since been replaced by Martin Axenrot and Fredrik Akesson on drums and guitar respectively, who while not untalented seem slightly less subtle in their playing and overall feel than their predecessors.

But ultimately these surface changes are relatively unimportant to Heritage. What does matter, however, is how fucking boring the result is.

It's not that the music is overtly bad. The band is playing more or less up to par, channeling the odd meters, wild syncopation and organ blasts of prime '70s prog heroes such as Mk I-IV King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator perfectly on pre-release "The Devil's Orchard" and "Nepenthe." The medieval melodies of "Folklore" could pass for Gentle Giant or early Genesis , and there's mellotron all over the place on the moodier "I Feel The Dark." The bizzare, psychedelic "Famine" drops in some exotic instrumentation, including Afro-Cuban flavored percussion from Weather Report alumnus Alex Acuna and even a goddamn flute solo that gave me very unwelcome Jethro Tull flashbacks. All this coupled to a warm production quality with deliciously smooth low-end worlds away from the common sterile and overcompressed digital sound of new releases lends this album a very retro, analog feel.

That's the problem, really--Heritage rarely rises above more than mere homage to Mikael's musical idols, and even when that vision is executed competently it has little else to say. At best, this could be the work of an anonymous neo-prog band; and at worst, like in "Famine" and "Nepenthe" it feels like a disjointed jam session. The only track that I find entirely successful and not a stale rehash is "The Lines In My Hand": a surprisingly concise, driving and well-executed song that comes in a tidy 3:48, features some nice Spanish guitar alongside great throbbing basslines and would've made a superb single if Opeth was inclined to do such plebeian things. Most of the old transitions and shading, Opeth's biggest selling point, are gone and in its place is a steady undynamic flatline. They try to hide this fault with eclecticism and snazzier playing, but after listening to something as passionately stormy and foreboding as "Demon of The Fall," "Moonlapse Vertigo," or "By the Pain I See in Others" it becomes glaringly obvious.

Then there are the lyrics, which have notably degraded as Mikael's voice has gotten ever better. Since Ghost Reveries I'd noticed an uptick in their use of explicit Satanic references, a rather silly device that they never really resorted to in past albums. Most of that is fortunately gone in Heritage, but some truly hackneyed lines remain. Hearing Mikael drop clunkers like "God is dead!" in the chorus of "The Devil's Orchard" or "Feel the pain in your brain, insane" on "Folklore" in that newly scrubbed angelic intonation is just cringeworthy. It makes you wish for a dose of that insidious and darkly majestic growl to purge it from memory.

The saddest thing is that Opeth has already released a far, far superior prog album that's over seven years old and still sounds like Opeth--that album would be Damnation, and for all the spontaneous menstruation that release produced within the metalhead fraternity it remains a more emotive and convincing listen that anything Heritage has to offer. So while ultimately I respect Akerfeldt's vision and what he was trying to do here, if this is the vein that Mikael wants to pursue he needn't have dragged the name of his current band into it. Go start that joint Steven Wilson project I'm sure you've been waiting to do forever Mikael--maybe you'll stir ol' Steve out of his post-The Incident malaise. Or, y'know, fold Opeth and go solo like many brave metal vocalists that have gone before, abandoning the old expectations entirely.

But Heritage, from the doofy cover art (seriously, look at it) to the light and inconsequential music, remains one thing my inner fanboy wishes I'd never have to call an Opeth album--a misfire.



Dir en Grey- Dum Spiro Spero

August 3, 2011; Firewall/The End

Dir en Grey are a hard lot to pigeonhole. Formerly one of the establishing bands of the visual kei scene in Japan, a subgenre defined by flamboyant (some would say downright fruity) dress as much as the distinctly Japanese mishmash of post-hardcore, goth balladry and metal most of those largely mediocre bands play, Dir en Grey have since expanded to Western shores and have gradually evolved into something distinctly different and far better. They are often unfairly shoved into the Hot Topic/nu-metal/metalcore ghetto for their dramatic (at times bordering on overwrought) and bleak lyrical imagery and videos, or more recently dubbed as pandering sellouts by many of the fickle J-fetishists who originally popularized them here for their more metallic stylings starting with the 2003 album Vulgar.

All this static aside, Dir en Grey are unusually popular for a foreign-language band in the U.S., and they make pretty damn good albums to support that popularity. Dum Spiro Spero is one of them, continuing the development into transcendent sonic juggernaut began by its predecessor Uroboros while possessing its own darker, thornier and more complex nature.

From the eerie minor-key piano and disturbingly hellish distortion of intro "Kyoukotsu no Nari," a direct antipode of Uroboros' "Sa Bir," this intention is announced pretty early on--and then it launches into "The Blossoming Beezlebub," which sounds like nothing else prior from this band. Superhuman frontman Kyo displays the full extent of his vocal range here, from choir-like, barely lucid chants to a freakish shriek and strangled moans over dark, sinuous guitar melodies courtesy of adept duo Kaoru and Die, all rendered with a washed-out, nightmarish mix. It feels far shorter than a seven-minute song has any right to.

I was initially somewhat disappointed with following track and single "Different Sense"--it begins much like a fairly average deathcore song, right down to Kyo's new deep gurgling vox, blastbeats, and even full-blown guitar hero solos (a first for this band)--yet by the middle it has evolved into a "typical" Dir en Grey sound, with the powerful soaring vocals fans have come to expect. It breaks interesting new territory for the band, even if it seems a little derivative on first blush. Both "Juuyoku" and ""Yokusou ni Dreambox" Aruiwa Seijuku no Rinen to Tsumetai Ame" (don't ask me to translate that) are more successful, the latter a miasma of churning midpaced sections punctuated by eccentric thrashing breaks with Kyo once again going fucking nuts. Anyone that can draw frequent comparisons to Mike Patton is doing something very right. "Lotus," the other major single, is a traditional Dir en Grey ballad filtered through their latter-day sophistication--among the best they've done in that style, and one of the few tracks on here that clearly falls into such easy labeling.

Then there is "Diabolos," the token schizo epic in the vein of the previous album's "Vinushka" or Macabre's title track (still one of the best things they've ever done), and while it's a strong track I don't think it quite makes it to that esteemed level. It isn't formulaic by any means, but other than a few new vocal turns and a beautiful, shimmering section close to the end it doesn't feel especially innovative. Still even an "average" DEG epic shits on most bands, and "Diabolos" hardly impairs the momentum of the album. After a few quicker, thrashing numbers that somewhat blend together, the last two tracks end Dum Spiro Spero very strongly--the somber and gorgeous "Vanitas," and "Ruten no Tou" which effortlessly blends soaring choruses, creeping verses, some blasting sections and a stunning outro in a way that makes it more representative than anything else on the album and would've made the most logical single in my estimation.

Bottom line, Dum Spiro Spero is another solid entry in DEG's growing oeuvre, and if it falls short of the excellent Uroboros in accessibility and standout tracks, its uniquely murky and cryptic ambience and full embrace of metal influences combined with the darker, heavier feel of earlier albums like Vulgar and Marrow of A Bone make it an inevitable grower and show that the band is committed to the experimental path they've forged for themselves. At this rate their future material promises to be something to behold, and here's to hoping that next time it doesn't take three goddamn years to drop.



Harmonium-Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison

1975; Polygram(defunct)

(Hey folks-it's been a while since I've reviewed something-2011 hasn't been blowing me away and I haven't talked about progressive rock in a while-so I decided to put up this review of one of my favorite prog albums from back in the day. This appeared slightly earlier on progarchives.com, and while I don't think anyone who reads this blog visits that site, I felt it was best to tell you just so you don't think somebody else ganked this if you ever wander across it on Google or something. Also, this one might be changed slightly for language and grammar and whatnot. Enjoy!)

Si On Avait Besoin D'une Cinquieme Saison, besides having one of the hardest-to-type titles of all time for non-native French speakers, is the rare album that deserves its lofty reputation and more, a work that is all at once grand, sweeping, warm and intimate. Virtually unknown outside of its native country of Quebec and hardcore prog circles, it is without question one of the most overlooked albums of the '70s and a triumph for folk music as well as of progressive rock.

Harmonium takes the folk elements of a group like Simon and Garfunkel and distills the weepiness from it, adding shades of jazz as well as symphonic elements that are fittingly august but tasteful and nuanced, leaving music that is emotionally charged but never overwrought or pitiful. Saison is a record that is truly joyful in places, with a coat of melancholy that keeps the experience layered.

More than that, it is an album that feels strangely private, like the band is putting on a special concert just for you. The vocals are often borderline whispered and even at its most grand the lack of percussion leaves the album feeling oddly compressed, as though it were composed in an open field but preformed in a small room. It leaves the music with a wistful quality that's hard to describe: The music feels like it was made to be bigger than the album that contains it, so instead of merely bursting to get out it scales itself back and translates all of its drama and glory into a form that's more easily expressed for recorded musical purposes. The effect is often nothing short of magical.

Speaking of magical, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the album's centerpiece, and Harmonium's magnum opus as a band, the side-length "Histoires Sans Paroles," or "History Without Words." It's an apt title as the song proves to be a mesmerizing instrumental work, immaculately composed and lushly preformed, something akin to Pink Floyd's "Echoes" as played by Nick Drake. Cosmic yet pastoral, harrowing and somehow comforting at the same time, the song is one of contemporary music's most overlooked epics and the quickest 17 minutes of your entire life.

In a pair of genres rife with unambitious groups who are content to ceaselessly mimic their inspirations, Saison is the rare progressive rock album that is as beloved by diehards as it is by the casual listeners who stumble upon it; it's a testament to the creativity and innovation that can inhabit both the progressive and folk genres simultaneously, an olive branch between complexity and emotional resonance, and a heartwarming work that quiets troubled souls and puts worries at ease even as it supplies a stage for its own enthralling emotional ride. It's the musical equivalent of a soft kiss and it's an album that nobody who desires a balanced music collection can afford to miss out on.



1,2,3 - New Heaven

2011; Frenchkiss Records; Pittsburgh, PA

I think it would be apt to discuss how I came upon 1,2,3 and their debut LP “New Heaven” before I really dig into the record. It was late, I was a little bit high, and I happened to be hanging out in a turntable.fm room hosted by The Antlers. There I sat, nervous and just a bit sweaty, keenly aware that I was chatting (oh so casually) with two of my favorite musicians, and getting a first hand taste of their respective music collections. The room, as far as I could tell, consisted of Peter Silberman (the Antlers’ frontman) Darby Cicci (their keyboardist) a Frenchkiss Records staffer, an odd assortment of fans and lurkers, and Holly Miranda who popped in and out sporadically. Count me old-fashioned, but none of this felt right to me at the time- like the rest of us of course, I’ve become accustomed to the internet’s slow euthanization of pop-stardom, but this, this direct contact, made me feel predominantly… queasy.

Seven odd years ago when I first downloaded The Shins’ “Chutes Too Narrow” from Limewire (and subsequently launched my first flat-out band mania) I never imagined that via the internet I would one day interact so flippantly, so casually, with one of my favorite bands. The whole Antlers thing felt so run of the mill, so banal, that in retrospect, it was almost boring- that’s not how the prospect of meeting and greeting my idols used to feel. When I think about just how normal and how boring the whole thing really was, I feel a very palpable malaise, and I’ve since lapsed into a spell of cynicism with regards to the pop music, and the popstar-killing blog culture that surrounds and defines it.

Putting aside the distress that this whole phenomenon has caused me (and the difficulty of reconciling the Antler’s extraordinary music with the reality of their overwhelmingly ordinary lives) it’s worth saying that it was in this very turntable.fm chatroom that I first encountered 1,2,3’s absolutely infectious single “Confetti.” And so I promptly opened a new tab, and quickly discovered two things: a name like 1,2,3 is infuriatingly “un-googlable” and 1,2,3’s “New Heaven” is a deliberate, cohesive, more-than-impressive debut LP that has me convinced of band’s talent. In my mind, good pop music should do a number of things: it should establish a new, unique voice that’s at once recognizable but inimitable, it should be simple enough to hook you within a listen or two but complex enough to take on a new character with each new listen, and it should have lyrical focus and depth that’s at once nuanced and general. 1,2,3 hits the mark on all counts.

Let’s not pretend for the sake of “journalistic integrity” that I didn’t glance over several reviews of “New Heaven” before sitting down to write this piece- especially today, when online critical outlets posses the eminent ability to make a band likable (more so, arguably, than bands posses themselves) critical reception is fair game for criticism. Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen writes of “New Heaven” “it's pure populism down to their lyrical concerns: girls, drinking, or being broke as fuck…” The drinking, the girls, the poverty- it’s all there, but its not as general, or as trendy sounding as Cohen would have you believe. It all feels real- everything on “New Heaven” rings true, as Snyder’s lyrical style deftly blends a gentle wit with keen observation, a bit of paranoia, a fear of stagnation and finally, cautious optimism. Most importantly, the record’s lyrics convey a clear and direct sense of uncertainty that lucidly elaborates the paradoxes of blog-pop, and displays an understanding of personal insignificance that is rarely- rarely- coupled with such satisfying pop music. At its best, the lyrical style of “New Heaven” seems to articulate exactly how it feels to be both a mostly unknown musician, and a bored, confused kid. The nuance of the lyrics, which require a bit of effort to pick out (especially because none of 1,2,3’s lyrics are available online [a rare thing, these days]) will not be lost on any aspiring musicians.

And that’s just the thing- the ears to which New Heaven will probably find its way, will largely belong, I predict, to aspiring pop musicians and/or critcs- it’s funny, but doesn’t it feel like that’s the way it goes these days? As pop music become easier and easier to make, produce and share, the people who really enjoy pop music are making it themselves, and sharing it, and for the most part its not half bad. So as the internet democratizes the sharing process, records like “New Heaven” seem to get lost in the noise; but it feels like 1,2,3 realizes all of this, and accepts it, and as a result, the record is infused with a knowing sadness, a kind of heavy shrug, that’s truly surprising and delightful. I count New Heaven among the best LPs of 2011 so far.


Tyler, the Creator - Goblin

2011; XL Recordings; Los Angeles, CA

Held up to his peers in the hip-hop world Tyler is a wimp. He talks extensively about his feelings, his unrequited love interest, jacking off, how he cuts himself, contemplates suicide, how he hates school, his missing dad. He appears on every single other indie music website, favorably or otherwise. White people may hate him, but white kids love him. He's skinny, wears skinny jeans, high socks, listens to Arial Pink, supports an off kilter fashion sense and green hats, talks about his asthma, plays piano, and hands out cupcakes to anti-violence organizations at Pitchfork Fest. He apologizes, acknowledges critics, adds disclaimers, talks to therapists. He breaks character as much as he has character in the first place. He has a tendency to swear on his life that he's a fucking unicorn.

Held up to his indie music peers (Goblin dropped on the same label as The XX, Vampire Weekend, Radiohead, M.I.A., Dizzee Rascal, and more), he's immature. He sports punk passion, minus the punk ethics, that went out of style with Nirvana, and shock tactics unseen and unwanted since the Butthole Surfers. His calling card, along with the rest of Odd Future, is the childish "Kill People, Burn Shit, Fuck School" and screams of "Swag". He his emotional self indulgence places him, in many's minds, alongside Insane Clown Posse. He has wild violent fantasies, and a heavy irresponsible streak, "I want to see a fucking mosh pit tonight. Fuck security. I don't give a fuck!"

Held up to normal human being standards, he's disgusting. He focuses his lyrics mostly on misogyny, date rape, ultraviolence, murderous rape, casual homophobia, and rape. He speculates about killing, in order, women of all sorts, his mother, any other authority figure, 2dopeboyz, Jesus, B.o.B., Bruno Mars, his friends, himself, and you. He pops Xanax like it's Tylenol and drops the term "faggot" more often than he drops the word "the".

He's also the only complete person in music today. And one of the only complete people in music ever, period. It always baffles me how we beg for multi-faceted characters in movies and one dimensional characters in real life. Pusha T is never gonna show the kind of internal conflict that Tyler does, and for good reason, he'd be laughed off stage. We want him to be one thing, one mood, a commodity that we can put on and always know what we're gonna get. But Tyler is a real person, and he doesn't censer himself. There's no real act. He's a fucked up kid so he writes lyrics about destroying everything, about rape and murder, but it also crosses his mind about how fucked up that is, and so that goes in the lyrics as well. And more often than not, especially on the title track "Goblin" you find yourself wandering around in Tyler's head, even more so than on "Bastard" before it, seeing everything that's going on. He snaps with incredible ease between his violent fantasy world, and the real world of girls that don't want him and critics coming down on his head and deep seeded depression. The man's fighting all the time.

And of course there's always a flip side with him, he is, famously, "A FUCKING WALKING PARADOX." And the flip side is that, despite all his emotional problems that bring this about, he is really fucking angry. Really fucking angry. At everything. And I can legitimize this through the rock cannon, site the Sex Pistols and Minor Threat and Fight Club and No Children and Doin' The Cockroach, but that would be backwards. Tyler is young and wants to burn down the fucking world, and no matter how immature that is, there is something vitally important in it being expressed. And he does it here in such an honestly fiercely angry way, the likes of which have been unseen in over a decade.

Now of the particulars of the album? Tyler consistently shows himself to be an incredible producer, creating thick ambient atmosphere to circle his off kilter beats over. And truly there are some incredible tracks. Surly you've already listened to the immaculate Yonkers, and if you haven't I urge you to run out and watch the video immediately. But there are downs to the album, you've probably heard already. It drops in the middle, with useless cuts like "Boppin Bitch" and "Fish" and sometimes it feels like the album as a whole has a hard time staying together. Bastard remains the better album. This is shit I would surly get on any rock band's case for, but here it hardly matters.

I often argue with people about the difference between skill and value, and truly a quick scan through every major genre of music will give you scores of people talented enough to do anything well, who just set out to the wrong goal. And doing crap with a high level of craft and skill is still crap. With Tyler the opposite persists, what he's trying to do is so novel and worthwhile that the fact that the album is poorly put together is almost a small technicality.

Goblin ain't an easy listen. It's not beautiful or quietly powerful or strained and moving. It's not a party album, and while it is fun, it's fun in a horrible, detestable way. It's not mature or melodically interesting. It's certainly not badass. But it's the most real and important thing out there right now.


Quick Thoughts on Amy Winehouse's Death and the Vultures of the Rock Canon

It's hard for me to know how to feel about this.

On the one hand, I didn't care for Amy Winehouse's music particularly(she didn't drive me up the wall or anything, though) and I have no real connection with her work but it's always sad, for me at least, to see an artist die. Fewer voices in the world is never a good thing and it's always difficult to see someone spiral out of control with such finality, even if the writing had been on the wall for some time.

But my God are lazy rock journalists going to have a fucking field day with this. You know what's going to happen now, right? Back to Black is going to be lionized as a record for the ages, and dollars to donuts somebody at Rolling Stone is going to call her "this generation's Janis Joplin" or some other nonsense like that within the next year, and once that goes to print you're going to hear it parroted from coast to coast. A woman who had spent most of her career as a walking tabloid punchline is going to be a rock icon because she died at the same age Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain did.

I know this is going to happen, because I know that codger-rock journalists thrive on nothing if not comparisons, and even the flimsiest ties to their boyhood idols(let's face it, most of these people are dudes) helps them settle into their own tastes more comfortably, serves as a way of reviving the mysticism they perceived their generation's music had, and what they believe is absent from ours. It's not that I have a problem with this because I have some notion that she doesn't "deserve" to be placed at the same table as other music icons who died at the same age; rather, I'm disgusted at the hypocrisy of music journalism as a whole, and that such a table has so much power to give credence to one's career. In a lot of ways I think that's more disrespectful to her memory than any smarmy joke about her crack habit; it's like saying she wasn't worth being valued before she died at the same age "proper" rock icons did, therefore making her a "proper" rock icon herself. Nobody gave a Texas shit about her drug addiction before she kicked the bucket, except maybe to laugh at it, and now that she's dead we've all gotta trade in our chuckles for thoughtful grimaces, now that we've got some of that old-school rock 'n roll mystique to wallow in. If rock mythology has taught us anything it's that there's no type of self-destructive behavior we can't glamorize, once we don't have to feel responsible for it anymore.

I think if you cared about her and want to honor her memory, or even if you don't but just have the slightest sense of decency, cut the 27 Club bullshit and let the woman's work live and die by its own merits. Quit trying to turn a tragedy into a championship. If it takes someone's death to bring that classic rock radio magic back into your life then there is something seriously fucking wrong with the way you listen to music. There's a disconnect between who Amy Winehouse was when she was alive and who she is, and is going to be, now that she's dead, that I find extraordinarily unsettling. Why are our idols only worth showing some humanity towards once we see them as corpses?



New Music From Zac Bentz!

Sorry I haven't been around too much these last few months, folks; work and other writing obligations totally got in the way of my amateurish list-making and petty ramblings, along with the fact that more or less nothing in 2011 is really interesting me so far. I'll have a pretty neat essay for you to read up soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, check out some new music from quintessential Styrofoam Boots darling Zac Bentz. One is a 40 minute remix of a Zoe Keating song(and frankly I can't think of two artists that would go together better than Zoe Keating and Zac Bentz) and the other is an ambient/drone reinterpretation of five songs from Portal 2. We love this guy over here at SB and these two new releases are completely free, so check them both out and give a relatively unknown but sure-to-be-rising talent some love.



Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight

2008; Fat Cat Records; Glasgow, Scotland

"Is that you in front of me, coming back for even more of exactly the same?" sings Scott Hutchison on the leading track of the album. "You must be a masochist."

Is this indie pop? I've been wondering. Because there's nothing beautiful. There's nothing that could end Frightened Rabbit along side late decade main examples Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, and of Montreal. There's nothing beautiful. This is not music for warm days lying on the grass with your girlfriend. There's nothing cute.

And I don't want to spew rhetoric here, but sometimes there's nothing else you can do. Frightened Rabbit have a way of turning every instrument into percussion, mimicking the hard beating heart of the singer, wishing himself death and ruin. Trying to rip his arms off. Begging girls to leave him and declaring war. Hutchison sings with such a desperate calmness, like the pursued in a foot chase, pausing for half a second to choose witch way to run. Sure the songs are catchy but their more involved than that.

The music perhaps sets them alongside Los Campesinos, causing a cacophonous row using only indie pop techniques. But there's something about Frightened Rabbit, something about the modest and difficult honesty of the songs, or maybe it is just all based from Hutchison's delivery, but

It's hard to separate this album from your life. Its hard to look at this music. It seems almost self evident, part of the street outside, of the furnishing of your house, something thats there, undeniably, that's true without you trying to make it so. It should be so hard to listen to but it's just so easy. Something that's just part of life. That's what these songs are.


The Twenty Best Hip-Hop Albums of The '90s: A Retrospective

So it's been a crazy ass summer for all involved at SB, and we return from a month and a half long hiatus with... a list, and not even taking aim at another publication's online poll-influenced pile of failure this time.

No, this time the reasons are somewhat more personal. I was asked recently by an online acquaintance as to why we have so little hip-hop represented here despite our general embrace of everything under the fucking Sun. After all it's not like we dislike the genre--we had several excellent entries in our Best of the '00s list, including Can Ox, El-P and Madvillain. It's just that as a collective we don't listen to a whole lot of it, particularly the more recent stuff which outside the depths of the underground (and even there, too) seems to be rather hit or miss in terms of overall quality. If someone can enlighten us as to what we're missing, some more records in the past eleven or twelve years that flew under our radar, I'm sure we'd give em a shot.

However as a jaded country kid that grew up in the '90s with indiscriminate tastes and rediscovered just how awesome that decade was for hip-hop about eight years after the fact, this list was a long time coming; and even though I'm enabling this blog's addiction with putting things in a numbered sequence (".... hi, my name is Chris, and I'm a listaholic") I also hope to raise awareness for some fucking prime rap here, even if the selections are somewhat obvious to more educated heads.

Before I get started, some biases are freely admitted in the form of, you guessed it, another goddamn list:

a) I'm an East Coast kid, always have been.

b) As such, G-Funk is generally not my preferred production style.

c) I'm basing my selections on release date, not the timeframe in which they were recorded, so a couple albums here may be questionable as representative of the '90s.

d) I'm 27, white, and male.

e) I hold no particular reverence for '80s rap as a whole. Sure, I will rock your copies of Paid In Full, Nation of Millions, Critical Beatdown and even Paul's Boutique (see d) all day and all night, but the backpacker fetishizing of that era and putting down most '90s rap as "gangsta shit without a message" is kinda perplexing to me. You don't have to identify with or like the subject matter to see the genius involved in any of these albums and besides, most of those '80s records were hardly wholesome and/or conscious even by today's standards. A play of any Slick Rick or Kool G Rap will set you straight on that.

f) Eminem can shampoo my area.

Anyway, without further ado:

20. Company Flow- Funcrusher Plus (Rawkus Records, July 28, 1997)

"Independent as fuck"--rapper Bigg Jus, DJ Mr. Len and producer/MC El-Producto lived and died by this credo, and Funcrusher Plus reflects their cutting-edge ethos both in production and topic matter. Serving up a dramatically different slice of hip-hop from their contemporaries on the Rawkus label (whom they later had a catastrophic falling out with), Company Flow dealt in sinister paranoia and bleak dystopian imagery, along with shout outs to graffiti artists and intense battle raps all backed by the futuristic beats of El-P establishing the group at the top of the underground game. "8 Steps to Perfection," "The Fire In Which You Burn" and "Krazy Kings" all set a high standard for the strains of indie rap that would follow Co Flow's example, and El-P himself would go on to establish the excellent Definitive Jux label and push the bounds of hip-hop production even further.

19. The Pharcyde- Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (Delicious Vinyl, November 24, 1992)

One of the few West Coast groups of the era that didn't embrace the gangsta image, Pharcyde's classic debut places them in the same league as their East Coast counterparts De La Soul as court jesters of hip-hop. Slimkid, Imani, Bootie Brown and Fatlip sound like the four smartass kids you probably knew back in high school, trading in gleefully obnoxious, hilarious rhymes and playing the dozens with each other on "Ya Mama." However there's introspection here too, with "Passing Me By" and "On The DL" sincerely revealing self-effacing aspects of their personal lives that most rappers would never dream of doing. But positivity is largely the order of the day here and J-Swift's bouncy production only adds to the street corner vibe.

18. The Roots- Things Fall Apart (MCA, February 23, 1999)
Philly's resident hip-hop/neo soul band expanded from hometown heroes to a movement with their fourth album Things Fall Apart, with appearances from Common, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Dice Raw and beatbox extraordinaire Scratch. Yet even with all the collaborators the album generally avoids feeling busy or top-heavy, with the live grooves of drummer ?uestlove underpinning the impressive wordplay and rhymes of Black Thought and Malik B. still being the central focus. The Grammy-winning "You Got Me" is one of hip-hop's few truly touching love songs, but head-spinning raps on "Double Trouble," "Step Into The Realm," "Adrenaline" and "Ain't Sayin' Nothin' New" prove that they haven't gotten too soft. Although Things Fall Apart has a fair amount of padding (including the obligatory middling spoken-word track), the album's highlights easily outweigh the cheese and live up to its reputation as the release that broke The Roots into the big time.

17. Jay Z- Reasonable Doubt (Roc-A-Fella, June 25, 1996)

Hova was always the consummate businessman and slick purveyor of mafioso rap even before the days he became a mogul, and his debut Reasonable Doubt reminds us of a time when he was hungry and rising to the top. Jay reflects back on both the good and bad times of criminal living with "Can't Knock The Hustle," "D'Evils," "Regrets" and "Dead Presidents II," while the Biggie-featuring "Brooklyn's Finest" and blistering "22 Two's" (my favorite on the album) prove that he was no slouch with a mic. With a slate of producers including Ski, Clark Kent and DJ Premier supplying excellent R&B and jazz-flavored production, this is Jay at both his most consistent and most musical, and the album everyone inevitably gravitates back to after listening to his less satisfying subsequent efforts.

16. Mobb Deep- The Infamous (Loud/RCA/BMG Records, April 25, 1995)
Unrepentantly brutal and nihilistic even by the standards of '90s gangsta rap, Havoc and Prodigy would have made it into the annals of hip-hop legend for only one track--the haunting "Shook Ones, Part II," the power of which needs little explanation. Even without that track, the rest of The Infamous lyrically paints grim pictures of an urban war zone, where no allegiances can be trusted and any day could be the one you're staring down a barrel of an enemy's nine. The Queensbridge duo make absolutely no apologies for their anti-life stances, and "Drink Away The Pain (Situations)" produced by and featuring a verse by Q-Tip may be the lightest they ever get. Not for weak stomachs, but unrelenting and masterful in its dark focus.

15. Common Sense- Resurrection (Relativity, October 25, 1994)

Common in the days before he dropped the Sense from his name and before he was tainted by lame neo-soul posturing and show business was Chi-Town's finest rapper, a thinking man's MC that preferred witty double entendre and metaphor through his smooth, sometimes half-sung delivery. "I Used to Love H.E.R.," an allegory of hip-hop's life from its humble beginnings through the Golden Age and the gangsta era is still one of the most widely admired and quoted tracks in all of hip-hop, and No I.D.'s piano-heavy gorgeous production on Resurrection lends a soulful vibe throughout. Even at the age of 22 Common had a maturity beyond his years, eschewing the usual hardcore posturing of the era for rap that attains the ideal of street poetry on a higher level than most of his contemporaries.

14. Big Punisher- Capital Punishment (Terror Squad/Loud Records, April 28, 1998)

Ok, so Capital Punishment suffers a bit from being skit-heavy and the production, despite a few hot beats dropped by big names like RZA and Dr. Dre, is more accomplished than impressive. But once the mightly Pun (R.I.P.), all 400+ pounds of him latched onto that beat, it was fucking over. Just listen to "Super Lyrical" (guest Black Thought of all people gets totally upstaged here), "Beware," "Deep Cover '98" and "The Dream Shatterer" where Big Pun's Bronx-bred, lightning fast battle rapping makes everyone else just sound lazy and sloppy. And when he turns his machine gun delivery down to suit slower club jams like "I'm Not A Player" ("... I just fuck a lot"), his humor and choice of phrase still comes through. With his Terror Squad mates and other guests like Wyclef, Inspectah Deck and Prodigy on board and all dropping in fine performances, this is one of the best Latino rap albums ever and a lyricist's treat.

13. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth- Mecca and the Soul Brother (Elektra, June 9, 1992)

While their works were widely slept on by listeners at the time, the Mount Vernon NY duo of producer wunderkind Pete Rock and silky MC C.L. Smooth were dropping brilliant jazz/soul raps that were philosophical without being particularly Afrocentric, and street without being thug (C.L. had a early Rakim-esque aversion to profanity). Mecca and the Soul Brother was the best embodiment of their style, embarking on sixteen 4-6 minute bangers that never wear out their welcome, and what it lacks in distinct highlights (barring the soulful dirge and future genre staple "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)") it makes up for in workmanlike consistency. There's not a single bad song or wack skit to be had, making this mandatory for fans of late Golden Age rap.

12. Cypress Hill- self titled (Ruffhouse/Columbia/SME Records, August 13, 1991)

Though they would later become West Coast hip-hop's resident Latino stoners, Cypress Hill's revolutionary debut is the only time they've managed to be hardcore and hilarious simultaneously. Bear witness to B-Real's adenoidal flow over the skronky guitar noise of "How I Could Just Kill A Man" and "Pigs" or the abrasive bump of "Hand On The Pump" which inspired hordes of copycats, while other tracks extolled the virtues of the good leaf with the deeply addled thump of "Stoned Is The Way of The Walk" and the more uptempo "Light Another" being highlights. It may sound a little dated now but Cypress Hill's debut still bangs with the best of them, and laid down a template for many West Coast groups to follow.

11. Outkast- Aquemini (LaFace/Arista, September 29, 1998)

As one of the founders of a nascent Southern hip-hop scene in the '90s, the duo of Andre and Big Boi brought something new and fresh to the table with their distinct ATL drawls, deep strains of instrumental blues, funk, reggae and soul meeting up in a huge melting pot and general rejection of the usual flossin' and shallow materialism that was legion among groups at the time. And with the third album Aquemini, they went from being regional heroes to one of the best groups in the country. While Outkast are no doubt nice with a mic and bring rhymes loaded with content and substance, they're less about the lyrics and more about verbally complementing the big, Southern fried grooves and varied beats as showcased perfectly by bangers "Rosa Parks" and "Skew It on The Bar-B." Along with the seven-minute slow funk centerpiece "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" and loud, wah-wah guitar heavy "Chonkyfire," Aquemini's earthy musical backdrop could speak for itself. Damn is this record beautiful.

10. Public Enemy- Fear of A Black Planet (Def Jam/Columbia, April 10, 1990)

After dropping one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time in It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Chuck D, Flavor Flav & Co. would suffer a long slide into irrelevance throughout the following decade as gangsta rap groups won acceptance over more socially conscious artists in the mainstream. But in 1990, P.E. were still at the top of the rap game and so was Fear of A Black Planet.

An angry, impassioned cry against racial inequality and the critics that began to take more shots at them after Minister of Information Professor Griff's antisemitic statements to the press, Fear of A Black Planet blasted myriad cultural enemies both new and old while cranking up the Bomb Squad's dissonant wall of sample-heavy noise to 11. Miscegenation (the title track, "Pollywanacracka"), Hollywood ("Burn Hollywood Burn"), record labels ("Who Stole The Soul?"), the media ("Welcome to the Terrordome") and even Elvis ("Fight The Power") all get hit by lyrical broadsides from Chuck, while Flav drops his most enduring track "9-1-1 Is A Joke" taking a lighter-hearted shot at the lack of police support in black neighborhoods. Amid the rage are calls for black unity like "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" and an urge to stop communities from cannibalizing themselves, making this a protest album that seeks to empower a staid and despondent black America as much as it targets the white status quo.

Unfortunately P.E. would never be this vital again, what with Flav clowning on reality shows and a lack of musical inspiration from the group they've become all but a pop culture joke in recent years. However albums like It Takes A Nation and Fear of A Black Planet make that reputation completely unwarranted and still sound visionary, urgent and powerful--the aural equivalent of a clenched, raised fist.

9. Ice Cube- Death Certificate (Priority/EMI Records, October 29, 1991)

Long before Ice Cube started showing up in cuddly family flicks like Are We There Yet?, he was one hostile motherfucker. Dropped less than a year prior to the Rodney King riots that ripped through L.A., Death Certificate is gangsta rap at both its most conscious and its angriest. Formerly the soul and brains of NWA, Cube's first two solo albums took on issues of race, poverty and government disenfranchisement from a street level perspective, facing down the white establishment with a uncompromising gaze. Switching from the hard beats of the Bomb Squad on Amerikkka's Most Wanted to a more West Coast-oriented, funk-intensive production, Death Certificate still loses absolutely nothing in terms of intensity or skill behind the mic.

The album is split into two sides--starting with the Death side, according to Cube a mirror image of where the black community was (and still is) and discussing inequality and depravity's ravages on the inner city, culminating in "Alive In Arrival," Cube narrating the story of a young man caught in a gang shootout and bleeding out in a hospital bed while being questioned by police. The Life side, "a vision of where we need to go," focuses on the racism of institutions ranging from the U.S. military to Korean shopkeepers and curing the black community through violent self-empowerment. And it's all capped with a scathing hit piece on NWA, "No Vaseline."

The source of much controversy upon release for its racial politics and brutal rejection of White America's social mores, Death Certificate is as pissed off as any punk or metal album and more focused than even Fear of a Black Planet, and whether you agree with Cube's fury or not it's hard to argue with the album's relevance as its targets persist even twenty years on.

8. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (Rawkus/Priority/EMI Records, August 26, 1998)

Named after Marcus Garvey's Black Star shipping line founded to repatriate blacks to Africa, seasoned conscious rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli created a real milestone together--behold, an Afrocentric album that isn't preachy, isn't overly PC or corny (the love jam "Brown Skin Lady" being a possible if well-intentioned exception), isn't trying to scare white people away, and is fully in touch with the basics of rap and sharp performances behind the mic that keep this far away from boring radio fodder. It's the perfect happy medium.

A huge celebration of hip-hop and black culture as a whole, Mos and Talib draw from two decades of the genre, from the early B-boy days to the East v. West feud and life in the streets of Brooklyn circa '99 for their observations, taking on the deaths of Biggie and 2Pac in the Boogie Down Productions-referencing "Definition," and the anti-culture of nihilism and conspicuous consumption in "Thieves In The Night" (still one of hip-hop's most eloquent and incisive tracks) along with a funny and smart Mos remake of Slick Rick's classic joint "Children's Story."

Of course this wouldn't be a Mos/Talib venture without some fiery spitting, and there's plenty on "Re: Definition," "Hater Players" and posse cut "Twice Inna Lifetime" with awesome guest verses by Wordsworth and Jane Doe along with Common on "Respiration" adding to the wealth of lyricism on the album. Add catchy-ass beats from producers Hi-Tek, J. Rawls and 88 Keys and you have a pre-millennial classic. We're overdue for a reunion.

7. Raekwon- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (Loud/RCA/BMG, August 1, 1995)

The first run of Wu solo albums was a watershed in hip-hop with RZA's stint in Gravediggaz and Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man and Ghostface all dropping classics. But only two releases enjoyed full RZA supervision behind the boards and rose to the level of masterpieces. Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was the first half of the pair, with Rae's intricate criminal narratives and Five Percenter knowledge accompanied by Ghostface Killah's stream of consciousness rapping and RZA's backdrop giving a big injection of life to the dying mafioso rap subgenre.

A loose concept album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the tale of two gangsters returning to the drug game to make a quarter mil and get out before it kills them, and finding out it ain't so easy. Inspired by stellar source material like Once Upon A Time In America and John Woo's The Killer, "Incarcerated Scarfaces," "Gullotine (Swordz)," "Criminology," "Rainy Dayz" and "Heaven & Hell" feel like immaculately produced scenes from a crime film, and lighter cuts like "Ice Cream" and "Wu-Gambinos" (which started the group's trend of aliases) threw in defining performances from Method, Masta Killa and Cappadonna. Even Nas shows up and drops an epic verse on "Verbal Intercourse," which heads still often call his best performance on record. Ending with the closing credits roll of Popa Wu's "North Star," it all rounds up to one of the most complete experiences in hip-hop.

Yep, it's a Wu masterpiece, rivaled only by one other.

6. GZA- Liquid Swords (Geffen/MCA Records, November 7, 1995)
It's one of the hardest hip-hop debates of all time--Liquid Swords v. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx--and much ink has been spilled over the topic trying to figure out which of the two RZA-produced efforts is better. Here's my take: Raekwon's is a classic and undisputably equal to Liquid Swords in rapping and production, but GZA's has it all over Cuban Linx in one important category: Atmosphere.

This is by far the most consistently dark, somber album on the list and that quality along with The Genius' dominance on the mic makes it the perfect kingpin album, his thick Brooklyn baritone building elaborate and carefully constructed metaphors and tales of fucked up deals over icy strings and grim bass--all linked together by excerpts from Shogun Assassin. Even the other Clan members that show up seem completely attuned and sympathetic to the wavelength GZA and RZA are on, with Inspectah Deck's narrative verses on "Duel of the Iron Mic" and aptly titled "Cold World"; Ghostface's blast of free associating and religious imagery on "Investigative Reports" and "4th Chamber"; and Method Man's effortless boast-laden roll through "Shadowboxing."

In typical early Wu fashion, this is more of a group rallying around one member (and RZA) rather than a true solo effort, and yet GZA manages to put his own indelible stamp on the proceedings with tracks like "Labels," a vicious dissection of the record industry widely admired and imitated to this day (sample lyric: "TOMMY ain't my motherfuckin' BOY/When he fake moves on a nigga you employ/Well I'll EMIrge off ya set, now ya know God damn/I show LIVIN LARGE niggaz how to flip a DEF JAM"). For all the spectacular performances on here, there's no doubt Liquid Swords is GZA's show as the sharpest lyrical sword in the Clan.

5. Big L- Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (Columbia, March 28, 1995)
Big L is that "other Big" from NYC that seemed to get a lot less recognition outside serious hip-hop circles, and that's a damn shame as Lamont Coleman was easily one of the finest mic technicians in his generation, gifted with a cutting multisyllabic flow that runs circles around most rappers to this day. His unparalleled skills and nearly relentless barrage of over-the-top imagery lent him more to the world of hardcore battle rap than the relatively mellower (but just as violent) gangsta material of the day, which probably accounts for his profile under the mainstream radar.

One thing is certain, though: Big L is the undisputed master of punchlines, and he drops a treasure trove of them hilarious and hard hitting all over Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous. "So don't step to this, cause I got a live crew/You might be kinda big but they make coffins yo' size too" ("All Black"); "My rap's steady slammin, I keep a heavy cannon/It's a new sherriff in town, and it ain't Reggie Hammond" ("Put It On"); "I'm looking nothing like your poppa/I wouldn't give a chick 10 cent to put cheese on a whoppa" ("No Endz No Skinz")--it goes on and on and on. But L wasn't just bragaddocio and bluster, he also dropped the occasional conscious track like "Street Struck" and let his pretty talented friends get a turn--seven of them--on "8 Iz Enuff." Verse for verse, song for song, he was probably the finest MC going and Lord Finesse's lo-fi but solid beats make excellent wallpaper for L's unrivaled flow.

For all the horrorcore posturing L was a rapper, not a gangsta; which made his death from a shooting in 1999 right before he signed to Roc-A-Fella and dropped another album all the sadder. No doubt he should've been a household name. In any case, there may be better, more versatile hip-hop albums out there but I can think of precious few that speak to my musical sensibilities or that I've listened to more than Lifestylez, and that is high praise indeed.

4. Notorious B.I.G.- Ready to Die (Bad Boy, September 13, 1994)

Maybe it's just my personal regional slant talking, but what separated NYC gangsta rap of the era from its Western equivalent was a sense of doom and fatalist gravity amid the bullets, drugs and misogyny. 2Pac (for all his unquestionable talents) and other Death Row rappers made the outlaw life sound like an invincible and calculated pose, something you do to pass the time between fucking hoes and smoking weed, whereas Biggie could lace his quotably toxic rhymes with grim humor, world weary struggle, paranoia and even vulnerability--sometimes all in the same song. Even at his most vulgar and ridiculous, Biggie always sounded real. Like Hemingway, he wrote (and rapped) what he knew about.

And Ready to Die showed Biggie at his peak, narrating the life of a rising gangster from birth to suicidal death with cinematic and emotional breadth. Perhaps the only rapper that can lend full life to the thick-like-molasses, sample heavy production by Easy Mo Bee and Sean Combs (ugh) Biggie flexes his lyrical ability, preferring a clear yet complex storytelling style over the rapid flows of most of his contemporaries in the East. All the better to lay down threatening yet hilarious lines like "There gonna be a lot of slow singin' and flower bringin' if my burglar alarm start ringin" in that rough baritone. Biggie is probably the most bit-on MC of all time, and it's not hard to figure out why. Anyone who can sum up twenty years of social decay and the crack epidemic with one track, "Things Done Changed" ("Back in the days our parents used to take care of us/Look at em now, they even fuckin' scared of us!") without turning preachy is truly next level. A cameo by Method Man on "The What" is just icing.

It's too bad his second album Life After Death went fully down the overproduced, more radio-friendly road this album hinted at with tracks like "Juicy," because there was definitely more life in Ready to Die's rawer, bleaker vein. It makes you wonder how much better Biggie would've been without Puff Daddy. Either way the death of Christopher Wallace in '97 was truly a loss and even the necrophiliac post-mortem releases do nothing to change Ready To Die's nearly flawless depiction of a hustler's struggle.

3. A Tribe Called Quest- The Low End Theory (Jive, September 24, 1991)
You knew you were going to see this one eventually.

Exemplars of the Native Tongues school of hip-hop, Q-Tip/The Abstract, Phife Dawg and producer/DJ Ali Shaheed Mohammed weren't militant like Brand Nubian, weren't goofy like De La Soul and weren't hippies like Digable Planets or Arrested Development. What they were was better than all of them put together, combining low-key consciousness with a skeletal but thumpin' production designed to move rumps and none of their albums embodied that ideal better than The Low End Theory. Spread across fourteen tracks of buttery flow, witty and smart yet not preachy lyricism and an aura of pure class is a feeling of effortless accomplishment and expertise that belies that the group was only on their second album.

Marry this honed sense of purpose to slick jazzified beats and thick basslines sported by the likes of "Jazz (We Got The)," "Excursions," "Check The Rhime" and "Verses from The Abstract" and you have perfection. And even the guest appearances on "Show Business" (Brand Nubian) and the classic closer "Scenario" (Leaders of the New School) are highlights, including a hot verse from a young Busta Rhymes on the latter. One of the best things that can be said about The Low End Theory is that it's an all-purpose album with a universal appeal that will hook the most casual of hip-hop heads, and even people who otherwise spell rap with a "c." It's the Kind of Blue of its genre, and there are few compliments higher than that.

2. The Wu-Tang Clan- Enter the 36 Chambers (Loud, November 9, 1993)

You're staring at the genesis of one of hip-hop's most enduring and idolized franchises; at LEAST ten solo careers and Christ knows how many other affiliates; an entire school of rapping and production; many additions to the hip hop lexicon; and even a clothing line. When you listen to Enter the 36 Chambers it's like an audio time capsule from an older world--a world caught sleeping by nine hungry young men, each a deft MC in his own right, forming like Voltron and stomping their way out of Shaolin with their comic book aliases, crack stash and martial arts flicks in tow.

This album has close to zero emotional range from raucous and blustering (the cautionary tale "Tears" probably being the only exception) with almost every line either about the drug game, Five Percenter references, barely veiled threats of violence or hardcore braggadocio, and the low budget production values make this one of the rawest hip-hop albums ever to hit platinum. And herein lies its charm, as later outings as a group of seasoned professionals from Wu-Tang Forever onward haven't hit anywhere near as hard nor as consistently.

Excerpts of radio interviews with the group and violent street chatter along with scattered kung-fu and gritty soul samples paired to the hard thump of Clan leader RZA's landmark beatcrafting all tell of a ruthlessness and ambition that far outstrips its status as a debut. And the voices over this background, from Ol' Dirty Bastard's cracked-out soul man to Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and Ghostface's distinct and technical flows to Method Man's hazy drawl and GZA's calculating master delivery, peel off verse after shouted verse in their own indomitable fashion. Even U-God and Masta Killa's brief appearances on "The Mystery of Chessboxin" are lethal. For pure verbal dexterity and rugged street vibe along with that indescribable Clan X-factor, influence on the genre and even humor, this album still ain't nothin to fuck wit after nearly twenty years.

1. Nas- Illmatic (Columbia, April 19, 1994)

When Nasir Jones dropped his debut, he was barely in his twenties and was already being hailed as both a prodigy on a level with Rakim and the savior of the flagging Queensbridge, NY scene. He managed to net what is to this day a dream team of producers--DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Large Professor--supplying their finest beats and the result was a 10-track paradigm shift in the foundations of hip-hop.

There are so many things fucking remarkable about this album--how it synthesizes hardcore street rap with the conscious lyricism of alternative rap, both aware of the harsh realities and tragedy of crime and the projects on half of the album and then finding a fatalistic optimism with "The World Is Yours" and "Memory Lane" without seeming contradictory at all. How lean the album as a whole is--an intro, nine songs, only one guest rapper (the sorely underrated AZ on "Life's A Bitch"), no skits or filler whatsoever. The whole of "One Love"--a shoutout to locked up comrade Cormega and others wrapped up in a slick tale of age and experience meeting prison-bound youth, anchored by Q-Tip's smooth vocal hook and a plinking beat. How Nas' kaleidoscopic lyricism and razor-tongued flow almost singlehandly forced everyone in the industry to step up their game from the moment "It Ain't Hard to Tell" dropped. The overall vibrancy and love of hip-hop and the streets that bred it that still resonates over a decade after its release. Even the widely copied, iconic cover art (look at #4 and tell me you don't see a resemblance--Raekwon did). Hell there's an entire catalog of lesser classics, even on this list, that sample lines from this album. If you were a fan of hip-hop in '95, you were a fan of Illmatic.

The fact that Nas' consistency as a rapper fell while his star rose doesn't even seem to matter. There is still only one Illmatic and that's more than anyone else has.



A Token of My Extreme: Zac Bentz on Field Recordings From The Edge of Hell

I got a chance to interview Zac Bentz, the mastermind behind Xero Music/Dirty Knobs' eight-hour dark ambient opus Field Recordings From The Edge of Hell. A prolific musician, graphic designer and writer for a veritable horde of online publications, Zac remains one of the most interesting artistic personalities I've come across and we are greatly honored to feature his thoughts on the aforementioned album and career.

A big thanks to CJ also for making this all possible.



Recently I had the distinct pleasure of knocking back all eight hours of Field Recordings in one day. Prior to that I think the longest track I'd ever heard was either "Dopesmoker" by Sleep or the first Disintegration Loops album. What gave you the ambition to make an album this long, was there a sense of one-upmanship involved, and how did you develop the concept?

ZB: Well, I wasn't trying to break any records or top anyone else. I started looking into these hyper-extended songs when I heard some super slowed-down versions of pop songs. Like people taking a Justin Bieber song and slowing it down by eight or ten times. That's how I found out about this tiny little program called Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch. Basically people were just taking the original track, running through the program and posting the results. It would turn these ordinary songs into massive, ethereal dirges. It didn't always seem to work all the well, but it did have some interesting results.

So I figured if it can make Bieber sound, you know, interesting, what would happen if you wrote songs specifically with this extreme length in mind? I did a lot of experimenting and it just took off from there.

Have you gotten any complaints about the length, and do you care?

ZB: No, actually I don't think I've seen any negative reviews. I guess people just don't have the time to be bothered with it if they don't like it. I already know it's not for everyone, that's sort of the point. So no, I wouldn't be surprised if someone didn't like it. To be honest I'm still surprised that it's found such an appreciative audience. The reaction has been nothing short of stunning.

How long have you been making music?

ZB: I first started around 1993 when I was still in high-school. I was a drummer in a normal rock band (and have been ever since then). We rehearsed in the basement at my house. At night I'd start hooking things together and recording my own music. Really primitive stuff. Just basically loops and industrial noises recorded with a 4-track cassette machine. I was deep into Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and Skinny Puppy at the time. Through the years it evolved into more listener-friendly techno (I was a house and trance DJ from around '95 to 2002) and then back into more experimental glitch territory. For the past few years I've been writing music for my new-wave/electro-rock band The Surfactants.

For an album that is conceptually about Hell, there's a lot of natural beauty and subtlety in the sounds you've made that I wouldn't have expected. What do you picture in your mind when you're coming up with this?

ZB: It's interesting...a lot of the concept didn't really come into the picture until I started naming the tracks. I knew it was dark, that's what I wanted, but it wasn't until I started listening to the tracks over and over that the images of this sort of scientific expedition into Hell started to form. I tried to get my own visions across as best I could in the titles without going overboard. I think that's what makes the album so attractive to people, that it's almost completely open to individual interpretation. I always get the most inspiration out of music that's open ended like that, stuff that isn't just about the person making it, you know? So I wanted this to be almost impressionistic. Just enough color and shade to let people's minds wander into their own dark places.

I'm in awe of some of the tones and textures you get here--especially in "Falling Upon the Darkened Shore" and "The Monks' Infinite Machine." What instrumentation do you use and how did you tweak it for such monumental results?

ZB: In a way, the songs are written two or three times. First I'll just write a "normal" version of the song that's anywhere from two to six minutes or whatever. I mostly use just one synth, a small Nord Rack. Some of the songs were actually older things I never finished. I dusted them off and got them back into shape, adding, subtracting and rearranging stuff. So those had some sounds from this giant Roland XP-80 I still use as a sequencer and some other more messed up and effected sounds from who knows where.

So that's the first pass. Then I'd work on stretching them out and that would be a much longer process of trial and error. Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch does weird, unpredictable things and when you're working with a dozen or so 50 minute tracks things get complicated quickly. So I'd just have to immerse myself in this wall of sound, picking out things that were working (whatever that means) and things that weren't. A lot of the time I'd have to go all the way back and re-record parts to get the right sound in the end. Mostly I did a lot of sitting in a dark room making the windows rattle...

It's interesting to hear songwriting done in a macro sort of way--lots of tiny variations, subtle shifts until you realize the track's mood has completely changed by the end. This is clearly more than just drone. Did you employ this same method on shorter works before making something this ambitious?

ZB: I don't think I've ever done any sort of pure drone before. Maybe one or two songs. I have another album available called Shobute that's more glitch oriented. (I've got a ton or older music but it's probably best kept in a well hidden box.) It's the same idea in a way but in a micro direction. I guess I see the similarity, it's just micro taken to marco lengths. Stretching the tracks out reveals all this subtle stuff you'd normally miss. For me it's about the feel and environment that the song inhabits. I guess I often think of songs in a visual way. Nothing specific or like synesthesia, but I can almost envision a scene or a mood that the songs would be the soundtrack for, so I try and work out that feeling through the overall sound.

Do you listen to a lot of other drone/doom/dark ambient artists? Any faves?

ZB: Merzbow is easily my favorite, though I can't say that I listen to his stuff very often! I did go though a phase where he was all I listened to, but I think I got that out of my system. I also really like Pan Sonic. Actually, those two did a live show together that was really incredible so i guess that was a pretty big influence. I also love the early ambient stuff Aphex Twin did. Selected Ambient Works Vol.2 is easily a top album of mine. Back when I was a college radio DJ I would do one night a month that was all ambient. The mid to late '90s were a great time for electro ambient albums. As a kid I remember falling asleep to Hearts of Space on the radio. But I'm not a drone or ambient expert by any means.

Have you gotten any interest from Southern Lord or any of the other big names yet?

ZB: Ha, no. But it's not for a lack of trying! I've sent an embarrassing number of emails out. I have gotten a ton of great reviews though, with writer Warren Ellis being an early champion of the album. The reaction from his fans was overwhelming. I also recently did a remix of cellist Zoe Keating's track "Escape Artist." It was basically just a fan-boy thing I did, but it turned out that she really loved it. She tweeted about it a few times (she's got 1.3 million followers) so that was nice! It's now available as a free download.

I think most record labels and more traditional media just don't know what do with an eight hour album. It's almost impossible to release in physical form (though I have mulled it over) and most of the bigger media outlets have better things to do than devote space to reviewing some crazy, monolithic monstrosity. But really that's fine. Like I said, the reaction I HAVE gotten is from people really devoted to the music and new ideas and who, for lack of a better term, GET it. That's not something you'll find in most main-stream outlets anyway.

Any upcoming projects?

ZB: Right now I'm just trying to get the new album from The Surfactants done. It's a bit like herding cats since we're spread out over two states. But that's what computers are for, I guess. I'm already working on more Dirty Knobs tracks in the same vein as Field Recordings, but I don't want to just repeat myself so it'll probably take a while to figure that out, though there's a lot of ideas bubbling away already. I also have an electro-pop project and something much more harsh in the works, but those are mostly still just on paper and in my head. I figure I have enough ideas to keep me going for at least nine or ten years...

Thank you for your time, and for an incredible album. Best $5 I've ever spent.

ZB: Thank you very much for the support!