Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Five Founts of Ethereal Weirdness: Ólafur Arnalds, Es, Ville Leinonen, and Paavoharju

Ólafur Arnalds is a young Icelandic composer who's worked with 65daysofstatic and performed live with a string quartet across Europe. His debut CD, Eulogy for Evolution, mixes past and future, combining piano, strings, and subtle electronics into a swirling eight-track suite with numbers instead of track titles ("0952," "3055," "3704_3837," etc.). It builds and recedes like a cross between Clint Mansell's Requiem for a Dream score and Philip Glass's less-synth-driven work; it's so relentless (OK, maybe "gently persistent") that when a sudden swirl of notes rises out of the main melody, it's like a Roman candle going off in a library. Arnalds's latest release, the Variations of Static EP, is much more about electronics (beats, even) and delicate, digital sound manipulation—glitchy clicks and pops skitter across the headphone space even as the strings surge romantically. At one point, a computer speaks in a childlike voice, adding an off-kilter pathos that saves the music from sappiness.

Meanwhile, in Finland, Fonal has reissued three albums from 2004 to 2007 that, collectively, make me think there's some kind of tech-savvy hippie insurgency taking over their independent-music scene...[Read the rest here.]

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


London Zoo
Ninja Tune

London's hip sound of the moment, dubstep, is in large part a rehash of what artists affiliated with the Brooklyn-based Wordsound label were doing in the late '90s: mixing floor-shaking dub basslines with eerie, atmospheric keyboards and cryptic spoken samples. So it's no surprise that Kevin Martin of Ice and Techno Animal is exploring the same territory on his latest album as the Bug. His first release under that name, 1997's Tapping the Conversation, was on Wordsound, after all: an instrumental "alternate soundtrack" to Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film The Conversation, made in collaboration with DJ Vadim. Since then, Martin's used the name solo, producing another full-length album (2003's Pressure) and a string of singles and EPs offering crushingly heavy backing tracks for dancehall deejays like Paul St. Hilaire, Cutty Ranks, and his own discovery and favorite foil, Warrior Queen. The industrial-strength beats and blasts of atonal synth that Martin favors have almost nothing to do with "conventional" dancehall, but the bass levels are concussive/disruptive enough to provide a perfect foundation for the gun talk of which his guests seem inordinately fond. [Read the rest here.]

Monday, July 21, 2008


from Huffin' Rag Blues (United Jnana)

Even taking the always unpredictable nature of Nurse With Wound into account, “Ketamineaphonia” still sounds a bit confusing. It doesn’t really resemble any of Steven Stapleton’s previous efforts, though it kinda sounds a little bit like the source material for 1985’s Sylvie And Babs’ High-Thigh Companion, pre-mangling. The majority of umpteenth album Huffin’ Rag Blues is lounge-y jazz, with a few weird/unsettling female vocal cameos (a little Julee Cruise here, a little Ellen-Burstyn-in-Requiem For A Dream there) and occasional brief ’n’ cryptic sound effects to throw your cocktail party just slightly off balance.

“Ketamineaphonia” opens with echoey, ’50s-soap-opera organ before a looped bongo-and-hand-claps pattern comes in, briefly doubling in speed after a weird steam-radiator hiss gives the signal. Other, unidentifiable sounds skitter and crunch as layers of keyboards create an ominous glow. The mood is almost out of David Lynch, as kitsch becomes paranoia and vague disquiet. It’s reminiscent of the quieter moments of J.G. Thirlwell’s Steroid Maximus and Manorexia projects, taking lounge and exotica sounds into the realm of night terrors. A smoky Lydia Lunch vocal would be the icing on this subtly distressing cake. [Click here to listen/download.]

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Well, I paid my six bucks (10 AM Sunday screening) and sat through it. All two-and-a-half hours, plus the trailers for Watchmen and The Spirit and a few other things that look substantially more entertaining, like Bolt, the animated movie about a dog who thinks he's super-powered (he's actually just the star of his own TV show).

The Dark Knight gives you a lot to think about. Unfortunately, most of what I wound up thinking was, "Really? Really?"

I'm starting to really hate comic-book movies, and I'm not just talking about superhero stuff - Sin City and 300 fall under this umbrella, too. Comics have engaged in a decades-long effort to be taken seriously as Aaaahhht, and they've finally got Hollywood studios convinced. The trouble is, they haven't got critics convinced. Critics are still skittish about praising comic-book movies, for fear the innate silliness of the whole movie-critical enterprise will be revealed. So the ones that get the best reviews are the ones that suck the hardest, because the critic hive-mind POV is that the darker and more bleak your movie is, the better it is, and their intellectual paranoia means that goes double for comic-book movies.

The Dark Knight pushes pretty much every movie-critic joy-button. It's long, dark (both thematically and literally, taking place almost entirely at night or in unlit buildings), and it's got a massively overwrought performance at its core. Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker had me almost literally scratching my head in the theater, wondering, "This is what scares you people? This? What are you, some kind of pussy?" Maybe this just means I'm a depraved sociopath myself, but his antics were never scary, and only amusing maybe twice: When he made the pencil disappear, and when he was pulling out bigger and bigger guns to get into an armored truck, eventually graduating to an RPG. Otherwise, it was a tic parade (limp, constant lip-licking, hair-flipping, blah blah blah), and if he is nominated for a trophy at the big trade show at year's end, it will almost certainly remind me of an Entertainment Weekly writer's famous joke, from when John Lithgow won an Emmy for Third Rock From The Sun in 1997: "I thought the award was for the best acting, not the most acting."

Christian Bale, who I've liked quite a bit in other roles, is just as bad: As Batman, he huffs out his words in a voice one step removed from the "Cookie Monster" style familiar to death metal fans, and as Bruce Wayne, he's the emptiest of empty suits, like a Hallmark Channel version of Patrick Bateman. Aaron Eckhart, as Harvey Dent, was better, but still far from the peaks he hit in Thank You For Smoking, his best performance to date and one that could have informed this one, had he gotten better material to work with. (The less said about the replacement of Katie Holmes - with whom Eckhart worked in TYFS - with a sad cartoon turtle, the better.)

I feel like I'm devoting more typing time to this movie than it deserves, so I'll wind up by saying: Too long by at least 45 minutes and three or four plot twists, staggering under the weight of its own pomposity, nice-looking at times but way too earnest about repeatedly hammering the audience with slab after clanging slab of pseudo-philosophical dialogue about how bad, and venal, and stupid, people are. I was honestly surprised the director didn't throw some kind of ham-handed criticism of people's taste for onscreen violence in there, too, but I guess if you're gonna be as obsessed with delivering what you're convinced are "shocking truths" to your viewers as director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriting partner/brother Jonathan apparently are, you've gotta be equally sure that they're gonna be interested in sitting there and taking their punishment, which requires thinking of them as more than just a set of nerve endings and sensory appetites to be probed and sated.

The best superhero movie of recent years has been The Fantastic Four, because it didn't feel the need to be deep and dark: It was funny, and entertaining, and took the sheer coolness of super-powers for granted, and its writers and director knew that was enough. Instead of spending your money on this, go back and give TFF another look. And when you do, remember that it got crushed by critics, precisely because it wasn't "gritty."

It seems I'm not alone.

Friday, July 11, 2008


"Feed The Horse"
from We Are Above You (Hydra Head)
Clouds fall somewhere between Clutch and Torche on the “stoner rock with melody and wit” scale, with a bit of Brant Bjork’s loopy humor thrown in (but none of his taste for new wave synth sounds—go find a copy of Brant Bjork & The Operators, like, right now). Their last release, The Legendary Demo, ought to have engendered more ill will than it did, given that it included an uncredited (and retitled) cover of Frank Zappa’s “Willie The Pimp,” not to mention a long-ass saxophone solo. But as both the Stooges and George Thorogood have ably demonstrated, there’s plenty of room for saxophones in rawk.

There is no saxophone on “Feed The Horse.” There is a big (one might almost call it Mountain-ous) beat and a thunderous, desert-rock riff that shifts slightly after about a minute, becoming something Fugazi might have played, had they been stoners. If all guitar solos are ultimately about establishing bragging rights, the one offered here is more “check out my awesome pedal” than “look how fast I can move my fingers.” The vocalist has too much command of his upper range, and not nearly enough lumberjack-drowning-in-his-own-phlegm gurgh for this music, though. He sounds like he’s singing instead of dying of TB, and the stoner masses can be unforgiving about stuff like that.

Not like they’ll care: Clouds are a band of many moods. We Are Above You offers crushing Melvins-like riffola on “Empires In Basements” and “Motion Of The Ocean,” but “The Bad Seat” is a piano-led stroke-job that, placed alongside the droney dream-psych of “Glass House Rocks,” would have the members of Panic At The Disco thinking they could pants these guys on the playground. Oh, and the last track on the album, “Garbage In, Garbage Out” ends with 10 minutes of silence and a little bit of nothing, ’cause that was so fucking cool and unexpected back in the ’90s. [Click here to read this review again, and listen to the song, or even download it if you want.]


Yellow Hand
This impossibly rare 1969 album, newly reissued on the ethically dubious Fallout label, is worth your attention for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's an excellent example of late '60s/early '70s West Coast country-psych-rock, á la Buffalo Springfield or the Byrds. But more importantly, it's a treasure trove of lost songs by two of the biggest names in that genre, and indeed in rock of the '60s and beyond, period. For reasons lost to history, this barely-released disc by a bunch of never-was talents contains two otherwise unrecorded Neil Young songs, and four equally forgotten tracks by Stephen Stills. These songs were written and demoed during the Buffalo Springfield era, but never released by that band, so this CD is your best chance to hear lost Young and Stills material, played well by a group you've never heard of. The album's other four songs are pretty good, too.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


[The Cleveland Scene and the Cleveland Free Times are merging into one paper in two weeks or so; I'm hoping to still be a contributor when the process is complete. In the meantime, here's the last thing I wrote for the possibly outgoing music editor.]

Nachtmystium returns in a different shade of metal

Black metal is a harsh mistress. Between the genre's reputation for attracting violent criminals and racists — like the murderers and church-burners who came with the pioneering National Socialist black metal scene in Norway* — and its fans' intolerance for sonic innovation (particularly when that innovation takes the form of melody), you have to wonder why anyone would even want to be associated with it.

Let's not even get into the whole "corpse paint" thing, where grown men daub their faces like they're overly obsessive Kiss fans vying for a role in Ghosts of Mars. Plus, bands and fans alike sport leather-and-spikes ensembles that even Rob Halford would find excessive.

Chicago native Blake "Azentrius" Judd has been stretching the boundaries of this combative, alienating genre for years as leader of Nachtmystium. In the process, he's won a surprisingly diverse base of fans.

"Black metal is only limiting if you allow it to limit you," says Judd. "We do not feel that music that categorically would be deemed black metal has to fit some cookie-cutter mold. There's no freedom in that mentality. Herding and preconceived notions of what things should and shouldn't sound like, for any musician in any genre, are purely limitations and are a sign of weakness and fear of expanding upon one's own ideas and truly having an individualistic expression."[Read the rest here.]

*Please note: This elision was performed by the editor, not me. I am well aware of the difference between the early Norwegian black metal scene and the later NSBM scene.

Friday, July 04, 2008


I'm spending this Fourth of July evening watching Cannibal Corpse perform in Toronto - a set recorded 11/15/06, and available on their new three-DVD set Centuries Of Torment: The First 20 Years. Disc One is a three-hour, two-part documentary on the band's history, influence (first singer Chris Barnes was one of the inventors of the ultra-guttural "Cookie Monster" death metal vocal style, and current frontman George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher is one of its paradigmatic practitioners), and sound - bassist Alex Webster finally gets his due as one of the truly great players of this music. Disc Two offers 30 live tracks from seven different live shows dating all the way back to a 1989 hometown show in Buffalo, and seven music videos (including a live version of "Stripped, Raped And Strangled" with the Black Dahlia Murder's Trevor Strnad on guest vocals). Disc Three is a bunch of bonus crap I'll probably never watch.

I think Cannibal Corpse represent what's great about America. Here's a band that records songs like "Fucked With A Knife," "I Cum Blood," "She Was Asking For It," "Five Nails Through The Neck," "Hammer Smashed Face," "The Spine Splitter," the aforementioned "Stripped, Raped And Strangled"...truly, the list goes on and on. And their album covers have to be seen to be believed. Butchered At Birth, which appears at the top of this post, is my favorite, and probably their most famous, but they're almost all at least that good (only The Bleeding and Kill go for subtlety instead of the all-important "holy fucking shit" factor that makes death metal great). Anyway, somehow this band managed to get into Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, one of the biggest movies of its year, and become semi-household names in the process. (Having a name as awesome as Cannibal Corpse helps that process along, of course.) These guys have gone from being a clownish "can-you-believe-that" freakshow to being one of the most respected bands in American metal, a relentless recording and touring machine that consistently delivers killer live shows and music that does exactly what it says on the label. I mean, what do you think a song like "Five Nails Through The Neck" is gonna sound like? Well, that's how it sounds. And though all the bandmembers are absurdly talented - bassist Alex Webster in particular - their technical skills always serve the larger purpose of the song. In their own way, they remind me of Nashville session players. Death metal, because of the particular frequencies and varieties of distortion on the guitars and the vocals, not to mention the speed, just can't ever be all that innovative. It can be a fairly limiting genre, in fact. But the truly great death metal bands, like Cannibal Corpse, have an instantly identifiable sound, and never seem like they're running out of ideas. They wring endless variations on a simple theme, and as long as they keep putting out albums, I'll keep listening to them. They haven't made a bad one yet (though I'd argue Live Cannibalism is ultimately unnecessary, just because of the minimal difference between the studio and live versions of death metal songs - not a lot of jamming going on in death metal).

Happy Fourth of July. Go listen to whatever music represents America to you - Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Britney Spears, whatever. At least for today, I'm sticking with Cannibal Corpse.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends

Coldplay's career is a lot like Barack Obama's presidential campaign: It's all about rejecting old frameworks — just replace "liberal vs. conservative" with "cool vs. uncool." Just as Obama succeeds by ignoring baby boomers' narcissistic squabbling, Coldplay's music — which was already plenty adventurous before Brian Eno showed up to produce Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends — floats blithely above arguments about the band's cred. Chris Martin and the other guys have sold millions of records, packed arenas, and now place themselves within their very own context: It's OK to like Coldplay, even if your boss and mom likes them too. [Read the rest here.]

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


The Topography Of The Lungs

This was the first release on Incus Records, a label co-owned by Bailey and Parker for a while, but then they had some kind of nerdy-British-guy spat. Bailey kept the label, but this record went out of print, and he insisted that it not be reissued during his lifetime. No sooner was he in the ground than Parker reissued it on his label, Psi, with a different cover and billed to himself rather than the collective trio. Stay classy, Evan Parker.

Anyway, this last week, and have been listening to it in an attempt to get a grip on its legendary status. After a few run-throughs, I like it a lot, but I don't love it unreservedly, and that's mostly due to my strong distaste for Parker's playing. His choked-off style just really rubs me the wrong way; he extrudes these little squiggles and squawks like he's afraid he'll shit his pants if he blows too hard. But at the same time, it's not exclusively his fault - I think that's my problem (my musical problem) with improv as a whole. Since nobody knows what the next phrase is going to be, or where they're "going" or how long it'll take for them to "get there" (in theory, anyway; in reality, every player's got his or her bag of tricks - you can walk into any John Zorn show, for example, with the thoroughly reasonable expectation that at some point he'll press the bell of the saxophone into his pant-leg, blow into the mouthpiece alone, and release long shrieky streams of extremely high-pitched tones), there's no way to build up a head of steam. It's all people listening carefully to each other, instead of settling on a collective goal and going for it. That's why Peter Brötzmann's best stuff, to my ear, is Die Like A Dog or Last Exit, where he's working with jazz- or even rock-based improvisers who are interested in setting up a groove (or at least a riff) and beating the audience about the head and neck with it for 10-15 minutes, or more. The best parts of Topography are the interactions between Bailey and Bennink, like the stretch of feedback and rattling about seven and a half minutes into "Für Peter B. & Peter K." That long moment of near-noise actually sparks Parker's best solo turn on the whole disc; it's an almost foghorn-like maze of twisted tones that, for once, doesn't sound like he's afraid of the horn. Of course, when "Fixed Elsewhere" launches, he's right back into his squiggly (dis)comfort zone. Meanwhile, behind him, Bennink is attacking the kit like it owes him money...which can get tiresome too, I bet, though it never has yet for me.

I don't count this as a life-changing experience or anything (though it might well have been had I heard it back when it was released, or if it was the first thing by Bailey, Bennink and/or Parker I'd ever encountered), but it definitely belongs on the short list of required Bailey listening that I posted a month or two back.