Ralph Records; February 1976, September 1979
It could be argued that in a sense, The Residents aren't even a band so much as a bunch of like-minded weirdos. Their primary mission has always been Art with a capital A rather than just music per se. They don't have the chops of Zappa or the free jazz inclinations of Beefheart and others, or the po-mo genre salad approach of John Zorn or Mr. Bungle--hell to some listeners they barely qualify as musicians. Through their occasionally somewhat primitive methods and masked obnoxiousness, The Residents have always been about grand statements of oddity, proudly trumpeting the Theory of Obscurity--the less commercial, the better. They are self indulgent, and damn proud of it.
How self indulgent? Well, let's see--they made a recording in '74 appropriately titled Not Available that they locked away for almost five years, on purpose, with the concept that it would only be released after the members had forgotten about it. The group records under the moniker The Cryptic Corporation, and all of their live outings have been in costume (usually their classic eyeball masks)--to this day no one knows who the hell does what. The live shows themselves are chock full of insane props, multimedia showcases and elaborate stage production that would've made Peter Gabriel-era Genesis blush. Every single album they've realized since their official debut Meet The Residents (which almost got them sued by Capitol and EMI for the cover art) has been a conceptual work in some way or another. A three-sided album, forty tracks of one-minute mock ad jingles, a surrealist Elvis biography, live storytelling, suites about Bible characters? Yes to all of the above.
In light of all that the two albums featured here are probably the least strange entries in their oeuvre. All relative, of course.
The group's second release Third Reich N' Roll has one of the most iconic covers of all time--a young-ish Dick Clark in Nazi regalia holding a carrot, while crossdressing mini-Hitlers traipse all over the fluffy pink clouds behind him. The whole concept is a bit of silly musical Godwin, comparing the staid oldies of corporate radio to fascism but fuck, with a cover like that you have to wonder what's in store for the buyer of said vinyl. And this doesn't disappoint. Made up of two side-long suites ("Swastikas On Parade" and "Hitler Was A Vegetarian"), The Residents assembled covers of '60s and early '70s pop standards and then took a giant shit on them in the best possible way.
After a brief sample of the German-translated "Let's Twist Again" the album flies off into some kind of maniacal proto-industrial/punk/Krautrock/WTF concoction, the source material violated by a kitchen sink of toy instruments, garbled and bizarre vocals, evil minor-key synths and random sound effects to the point where they are only somewhat recognizable. Ever wanted to hear "A Horse With No Name" as a funeral march? It's here. A German version of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" with dying-animal trumpet bleats? Yup. "Yummy Yummy Yummy" warped into some Middle Eastern raga? Check. Also one of the weirdest versions of FM sacred cow "Light My Fire" you will ever hear, and a truly sublime mash-up of "Hey Jude/Sympathy For The Devil" that is a great payoff after almost forty minutes of total headfuck. On some versions of the album there's even a gloriously abrasive take on "(Can't Get No) Satisfaction" that predates the '77 punk boom by a year or so.
Eskimo might be even weirder, and sounds like nothing else they ever did. Here they abandon Western music signposts (or anything else really) and record forty minutes of tribal chants, synthesizers and the occasional homemade wind instrument in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture what Inuit life must've been like.
And despite the group's inherent goofiness--they couldn't resist inserting buried references to Coca-Cola and other things--they mostly succeed. Eskimo has a truly unsettling, cold and alien ambiance that no other artist or band could come close to, a couple decades of black metal and electronica recorded since then notwithstanding. Tracks like "The Walrus Hunt" and "The Angry Angakok" with their hypnotic gibberish chants along with the creepy sound effects could really wig a listener out under certain, uh, "conditions." At times Eskimo achieves an eerie splendor reminiscent of the better Brian Eno or Steven Roach albums, and the outro of "The Festival of Death" even manages to be sort of pretty, kind of an anomaly when it comes to The Residents but a nice retort to anyone who thinks they're just being weird and anti-musical for its own sake. And it all ends the same way it began--with the sound of freezing Arctic winds. You'd probably have to look to anthropological field recordings to get something more authentic, and even then it probably wouldn't be as subtly engrossing as this album.
Through their fifty year long career few groups have defined arty iconoclasm better than The Residents have, and while their embrace of kitsch may strike some listeners as a novelty their broad creative horizons place them in the same growing realms as other champions of the American avant-garde. Whether it's from the inspired amateurism of early period or their later adventures in the live medium, they truly embody forward-thinking artistry in an era where many pose as the real deal and fall way short.
If you want to hear oldies spoofed in some truly twisted and sick ways Third Reich N' Roll comes pretty highly recommended, obviously. Fans of Krautrock (some parts I swear sound exactly like Can) and early industrial would probably really enjoy this as well.
Eskimo is a bit of a harder sell. Despite being highly regarded among Residents fans it's one of those "your mileage may vary" albums, especially if you haven't heard any of the more notable ambient artists (the aforementioned Eno and Roach, and others). Try some of that first and see if it grows on you before coming here.
If you had told me at the end of 2010 that 2011 would be an amazing year for R&B mixtapes, I would've responded, "Maybe, but I don't listen to R&B, so that doesn't really affect me one way or the other". Well, it turns out that I would've been wrong, had that prediction been posited to me to begin with, because I do listen to R&B now and it's largely because "free" and "excellent" are two amazing incentives when it comes to giving a genre a shot.
Frank Ocean's Nostalgia/Ultra came first, so it gets the first review. Best known as the only member of OFWGKTA to not be completely hyped on rape, Ocean's disinterest in sexual assault automatically positions him as the best member of the group to make a pleasant, catchy and sweet if occasionally dark collection of infectious pop tunes. Luckily, there are higher bars than "not a rapist" to be considered when crafting good R&B, and Ocean manages to hit mostly all of them.
There's a pervasive wit to Frank Ocean's debut that helps transition some of the lewder moments in the album into coming off less crass and pompous and more like a natural extension of Ocean's sardonic personality(a verse about how filming a porno makes him feel like Stanley Kubrick, capped with the line "This is some visionary shit"). Indeed, while the production can sometimes seem like it's not filling out the song as well as it could be, the mellow sparsity gives Ocean's songwriting a chance to shine as he shifts from juvenile comedy to buttery seduction and even occasionally unmistakable sorrow with the ease of an artist twice his age. Whether you're chuckling at "Rolling around like I'm driving to a funa, roll" or becoming genuinely uncomfortable at "Can't let these boys see me crying/'Cause they ain't had no fathers neither, and they ain't crying", most every song has a line that's going to stick in your head. Ocean is a true lyrical craftsman, painting the Casanova lifestyle as being as glamorous as it is soul-crushing while never painting himself as a rake or a crybaby.
The Weeknd's House of Balloons, then, exists on the absolute opposite of the spectrum. Lyrics aren't the important thing here-production is, and oh my dear God is this album's production a thing of beauty. As opposed to Ocean's warmth and pervasive humanity, The Weeknd is a sex machine from beyond the stars, seducing not with sweet nothings but cosmic rituals that draw you in and flatten you with their otherworldly strength. The opening track's assurance that "You'll wanna be high for this" turns out to be one of the greatest instances of truth in advertising in the entire year of 2011.
If Krautrock were ever to be played in a club, it would probably sound something like House of Balloons. Project mastermind Abel Tesfaye's throbbing, eerie synthesizer production makes one consider Tangerine Dream as produced by Timbaland(or, if you like, Massive Attack producing Chris Brown) and the spacey autotune settings only compound the sense that The Weeknd's love is a cold, subtle, violent thing. Dreamy space rock and dream pop aesthetics combine snarling bass and club-ready beats to create an experience entirely removed from all of its influences, and the raw libido of Tesfaye's lyrics combined with the sterilized intensity of his production create an alienating experience for the listener, bringing you into a world where sex seems as passionate as it does robotic. Frankly put, from a purely sonic standpoint, I've never heard anything like it, not to this degree.
It's fitting, then, that with Nostalgia/Ultra's focus on songwriting and House of Balloons' focus on production, that they would both have the flaws you would expect of them: Uninteresting beats in the former and stupid lyrics in the latter. Neither crop up terribly often, but they're both persistent enough to lower the quality of their respective albums.
Occasionally, The Weeknd will mention "bitches" and "real niggas", and while that's expected, even appropriate, for rappers with a streetwise image, when you're the Jon Anderson of your respective genre you might wish to consider dropping the tough guy act and just focus on getting laid. Unfortunately, it crops up often enough to be distracting from the magnificent aural aesthetics, and occasionally Tesfaye will drop the ball in ways that defy the imagination. I played "Wicked Games" for my boss and when, in a passionate falsetto, he belts out "Let me seeeeeee that aaaassssssss" as though all the world hinged on his request, neither of us could resist cracking up right then and there. (Which is a shame, because otherwise it's by far the best song on the album)
At least The Weeknd is distinctly doing his own thing, though. Near the end of Nostalgia/Ultra, Frank Ocean displays a spectacular degree of laziness that threatens to derail the entire work upon first listen. "American Wedding" is, simply put, Frank Ocean singing over "Hotel California". He changes the lyrics, but he intones every line nearly exactly the same as the original song and doesn't make any alterations whatsoever to the backing track- it's hard to keep your jaw from dropping as he lets the entire song run from start to finish, with no changes, even down to the guitar solo, which he doesn't sing over. No shit, when he does the exact same thing with MGMT's "Electric Feel" for the closing track you're less awed at his contempt for anything resembling production ingenuity in these final moments than you are just glad that the song doesn't have an instrumental interlude that Ocean will allow to wail on totally without input.
Don't let the fact that I've spent the last couple of paragraphs detailing the relative flaws of these two albums sour you on them, however. They're both spectacular works otherwise, and I have a feeling they're both going to be on my top 10 for 2011 by the time the year wraps up. With Nostalgia/Ultra's captivating lyricism and House of Balloons' incomparable production, they're both strong testaments to the respective strengths of their genre and are well worth having in the collection of anyone looking for smart, memorable, creative music in an otherwise rather dire year. As long as you're not expecting total perfection-and you really never should when you go out looking for music-you'll find a truly worthwhile pair of albums in Frank Ocean and The Weeknd's respective debuts, and all it'll cost you is space on your hard drive.
With the recent releases of Indian's Guiltless and Witch Mountain's South of Salem I thought this would be a good time to give you the scoop on some of the free doom(or at least, doom-y) metal I've been downloading from Bandcamp. As you may know, Bandcamp is an incredible resource for wasting time and a surprising amount of unsigned bands that use the site are very talented. So without further ado, here's a list of doom bands/albums that you can scoop up with no damage to either your wallet or your conscience.
Dirty Knobs-Field Recordings From the Edge of Hell
Would you consider yourself a fan of avant-garde music? Maybe one who enjoys music that's somewhat intense, a bit off the beaten path? Well check this shit out, dude: Field Recordings From the Edge of Hell is Sunn O))) meets Arnold Schonberg meets My Bloody Valentine meets Skinny Puppy meets Nurse With Wound in an instrumental wall of sound that's as psychedelic and horrifying as it is beautiful. And how long is it, might you ask?
This is men-from-the-boys material, folks, and if you think you're up to it the baseline price is only one dollar. Grab your nuts and pony up a buck for one of the most singular musical experiences you'll ever hear. It's a more-than-fair cost to hear evolution in the making.
Arms of Ra-Arms of Ra
Now this is the kind of thing I was really looking for when I first set out on my doomquest. Arms of Ra have made an E.P. that's as intense as it is sonically interesting, mixing the fury and at times even the technical elements of the Dilinger Escape Plan with the bold, sweeping riffs of early Isis. The guitarwork is as sharp as a knife and the rhythm section, though layered, slow and sludgy, betray a captivating complexity upon multiple listenings. Arms of Ra is a promising young band with the potential to uproot most of their contemporaries with the threat of a full length release. Most excellent.
KOLOSS-END OF THE CHAYOT
END OF THE CHAYOT (and yes, the album and band name is in all-caps) makes a pretty compelling case for why some people don't like post-metal. If you've heard a Neurosis album, or even a Mouth of the Architect album, you've heard more captivating versions of the songs KOLOSS attempts to carbon-copy. Some vaguely interesting guitar work can't make up for the fact that this band adds nothing to a scene that in many ways is rightfully accused of borrowing too much from itself. Weak.
Wizard Eye-Orbital Rites
Wizard Eye makes the exact type of music you'd expect a band called Wizard Eye to make, by which I mean it's extremely goofy and pretty kickass. The vocals sound way too close to Phil Ansemlo for comfort and in truth there's not much here you haven't heard before if you have even a casual relationship with stoner doom, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't fuckin' kick on several occasions and that it wasn't a pretty fun listen. Don't expect to have your mind blown and you might come out the end of this album having had a pretty swell time.
Cleansing the Damned-Cleansing the Damned
A little bit industrial, a little bit doom and a lot okay, Cleansing the Damned is an album that often comes out a bit cornier than it does despairing or scary. The growled vocals have absolutely no heft and the lyrics aren't so much tortured as they are wimpy. The best parts of this release are the total left turns, like the song "Stimuli", which is more or less a spoken-word piece set over a gnarly riff and a drum loop, and the closing, eleven minute instrumental. The mechanical parts work better than the death parts, and I think if this guy (as this is a one-man operation) focuses more on his industrial stuff his future releases will turn out a lot better. He's a good technician but can't pull off the emotional highs needed to drag us into his world.
Agalloch is listed on Wikipedia as being "doom", and while I find that patently absurd I guess that if Agalloch can be considered to have doom elements Tempest can too. Passages is an intriguing mix of black metal vocals and huge, swirling riffs that come roaring out the gates with refreshing intensity. This is a band that was born to make a 15-minute opus, but the crust punk trappings on some of the songs, while great for energy, hold Tempest back from being the epic endeavor they should be. For a debut E.P., though? Pretty frickin' great.
Are you an artist who uses Bandcamp? Do you release your stuff for cheap, free or Name Your Price? No matter the genre, send me an email and I'll do my best to give you a review worthy of the time you spent making and distributing your work for little cost. If you're a Bandcamp artist who'd like to see your music reviewed on Styrofoam Boots, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll give your stuff a listen.
This was something I had originally purchased for my mom as a birthday present. I had previously had some interest in Patsy Cline, based on the meager 29-minute run length of a greatest hits collection lying around the house, and thought this would be an excellent way for me to jump in head first and see what was so enchanting.
I was expecting songs about drinking, cheating, breakups, etc., and I got all that. What I was not expecting was a typhoon of agony and woe that would make Morrisey himself look up from his trapper-keeper and marvel at the level of emotional self-flagellation that one can pack into two hours of music.
Listening to this two-CD set, one would think that Patsy had never in her life been in a relationship that amounted to anything less than total misery. One doesn't expect good vibes from the Nashville Sound, and certainly not from an artist that kicks off her collection with a single called "I Fall to Pieces", but the heartache here is relentless in a way that defies the surliest of early emo and would make the most ardent Fall-Out Boy fan shuffle uncomfortably and cast their gaze to the floor. Fifty one songs, and Patsy only seems happy in maybe four or five of them, and even then it's a happiness radiating from a ruthless desperation, not one that comes from any center of self-worth or achievement.
Hers is a bleak existence, and Patsy Cline sells it with such pathos as to make you think that her torments were your own. There's no filter here, nothing to separate audience from artist. "She's Got You" has got to be the greatest example of this phenomena. A song about being left with the physical remnants of a long and powerful love now broken to pieces, Patsy puts you in the room with her. She tilts your head to look at that signed portrait, she lets you run your fingers over that record she used to play with her boyfriend, and when she squeezes out "I've got your memory, or has it got me?", what reads like the pithy drivel of a lovelorn schoolgirl feels like a gun barrel in the mouth. Her voice has a similar effect as Matt Berringer's, in that sense: Her rich tone makes it seem like she's putting on a cloak of knowing sophistication in order to stave off an anxiety attack that's only going to hit that much harder once it arrives.
The absolute saddest track on the collection, though, has to be "When You Need a Laugh", a song about how Patsy's love for a man who cannot reciprocate it is so powerful that she will allow him to mock her foolishness in loving him just to see him smile. I have wracked my brain for days and for the life of me cannot think of a more emotionally crippling sentiment I've heard in a song than "At least I'm on your mind when you're laughing".
That is not paraphrasing. That is a lyric from the song.
I cannot think of another music artist who has been so brutalized by love, so debased by the human heart and so abused by their own emotions. There is no hope in the music of Patsy Cline. Not for happiness, certainly not for fulfillment of any kind. It's just forlorn memory after intolerable disgrace after unendurable emotional strife and it doesn't stop, ever. Not for Patsy.
And it stays with you, oh my does it stay with you, but not in the way you would think. All of this suffering and agony is delivered by a voice that, luscious and melancholy as it is, might just as easily be singing about the bounties of true love for all she seems troubled, supported by backup singers who wouldn't be out of place in a Max Fleischer cartoon from the '30s. The music itself doesn't seem to understand what it is, and that makes every song easier to digest, easier to absorb, until you're hearing Patsy's lamentations as Gospel truth. It slips in as banal vocal pop and then unsheathes its talons the minute you let it roost. It's dangerous for the sunny disposition, but right after a breakup or dead in the middle of another lonely night you'll have found your new best friend.
The music of Patsy Cline, for me, draws easier comparison to a band like Alice in Chains or Black Flag than the Johnny Cashes and Willie Nelsons of the world. It's music to crawl under the covers and flip off the world to, songs of loss and rage and frustration and incurable despair. It's theatrical in a way that is not to be mocked(well, for the most part: It's hard to stifle a guffaw during the vaguely ridiculous "Tra Le La Le La Triangle", as though you couldn't tell by the title) and in the way it plumbs the depths of the broken, beaten parts of the human spirit, raises them out of the body and in their absurd extremity makes them devastatingly understandable. This is music that you will relate to immediately, much to your own dismay. Anything less wouldn't be strong enough to break through.