Wednesday, October 28, 2009

THIS WEEK IN CLEVELAND

Senses Working Overtime
Post-hardcore band hits the seven-year stretch

So your band has been around for seven years, releasing three albums and an EP. But your genre — screamo/post-hardcore — is one that attracts teenagers and young people, with little to offer older listeners — musically or lyrically. So there's no way to "graduate" to mainstream rock-radio airplay, and you're constantly struggling to hold onto your audience and keep them from moving on to the newest thing — in this case, wild-haired, skinny-jeans-wearing electro-crunk-screamo bands like BrokeNCYDE and 3OH!3. What do you do?

This is pretty much the position the guys in New Jersey's Senses Fail find themselves in as the touring cycle for their 2008 album Life Is Not a Waiting Room winds down. "It's easy when you've got a new record," says frontman James "Buddy" Nielsen. "You tour on it, and people want to come see you. It's hard when it's the end of a record cycle and you don't have something new, and we have to come up with something different — bring some cooler bands, or play smaller venues, or do different things to get people to come out."

Adjusting hasn't been easy.

"We're no longer a new buzz band, so you don't have that 'Oh my God, I gotta go see this' thing," he says. "You really have to work your ass off marketing-wise and touring-wise, and also being smart with your money, where you spend it and how you spend it, how you market yourself and how you tour. Right now is the busiest touring time of the year, so it's hard, because you're competing."

But the group hasn't let external pressures impact their music. Senses Fail started in their guitar player's North Jersey basement almost a decade ago, mixing the music of peers like Thursday and Saves the Day with Bad Religion and NOFX — "a lot of New Jersey stuff that was going on at the time but also a lot of Fat Wreck Chords/Epitaph stuff," says Nielsen. Over time, they've evolved, growing more sophisticated and slightly more pop-friendly without ever forgetting where they started.

Life Is Not a Waiting Room is a thematically unified, melodic post-hardcore album, with less sonic catharsis than the band's two previous full-lengths but just as much raw emotional despair. The whole record is about moving on from shattered relationships, overcoming a self-destructive past and heading toward some kind of future, alone or not. The one before it, 2006's Still Searching, was more concerned with issues of faith (and losing it), disillusionment and self-doubt, but retained the same focus. They're not concept albums per se, but they're utterly lacking in frivolity.

"When you write, you want to complete a thought," says Nielsen. "Overall, I try to keep a feel and a topic, and kind of tell personal stories and weave them in [so] that if you read it and listened to it, you'd have some sense of where this person was at in his life." He understands that not everyone demands this of a rock band — that some listeners hear emo bands and wish they'd just dry their tears and rock out — but he's uncomfortable with any other approach. "I got into this music because the lyrics meant something to me, and that's what I like about this, versus straight punk rock. Death-metal bands like Amon Amarth — they write shit that has no meaning. I can't relate to killing people and taking their gold. I've never killed anyone and stolen their gold."

The question of relevance — lyrical, existential — is one that dogs many punk-rock bands. How do you keep your audience from outgrowing you? The ritualized catharsis provided by metal bands appeals to a fan base that bonds for life; Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Metallica and Slayer play to crowds ranging in age from 14 to 50 and beyond. But a group that makes much of its money on the annual Warped Tour is unlikely to see thirtysomethings at its club gigs, and with each passing year, it risks losing the teenagers who used to buy its records. Screamo doesn't get radio airplay, MTV barely plays videos anymore and the next generation of bands coming up behind doesn't traffic in the same heart-on-sleeve, "Dear-Diary" mindset.

Surprisingly, Nielsen believes the frivolity of bands like BrokeNCYDE (whom he criticized from the Warped stage this past summer) and 3OH!3 works in Senses Fail's favor. "A band like us or Thrice or Thursday, who have been around in this music scene for awhile, have people who like music, not just 'listen to it at a party' people," he says. "People who love listening to music, they love collecting records, you know? 3OH!3 people, they don't go to shows, they don't know there are shows, they just know 3OH!3 is playing Warped Tour 'cause it's all over the radio. So they go to Warped Tour, which is good for us, because we can potentially get some casual listeners to check out our band, and maybe they'll become a fan. But bands like that, they have such a schtick that when the schtick is over, it's over."

THIS WEEK IN ST. LOUIS

Cuts Like a Knife
Lita Ford hasn't lost her edge — metal or otherwise — since stepping away from the spotlight

Lita Ford has been a professional musician since she was a teenager. As the tough lead guitarist with LA all-female hard rockers the Runaways, the statuesque California blonde held her ground onstage and shredded as ferociously as heroes Ritchie Blackmore and Jeff Beck. The group recorded four studio albums (and a live disc during a rapturously received tour of Japan) before disbanding due to creative differences. Guitarist (and, on the last two albums, lead vocalist) Joan Jett wanted to pursue a bare-bones, punky sound, while Ford's interest in the heavier, more metallic side of things was only growing. She made her solo debut in 1983, with Out for Blood, a ten-track blast of glam-metal fury with street-gang lyrics and screaming leads and solos. And on its cover, she swapped her Runaways look of T-shirts and bell-bottoms for a black leather ensemble that revealed the body beneath.

"Me and the bass player came up with that," Ford laughs, by phone from New York, when reminded of the Out for Blood cover ensemble. "That was quite a long time ago, so I had to think about that. The bass player [Neil Merryweather] made that outfit. He used to make leather stuff, and he was really good at it, like the gauntlet on my hand and the crotch piece, he actually hand-made all that stuff. So that was an easy one, having him in my band, he was a really talented guy as well."

In a way, Ford's come full circle since that album cover in '83. She has a brand-new release, Wicked Wonderland, and it's the heaviest, hardest thing she's recorded since her earliest days. And inside the lavish booklet and on her website, the 51-year-old married mother of two is pictured in a variety of leather and fetish ensembles and sometimes holding an axe (a real one, not a guitar) or a double-barreled shotgun. Lita Ford is badass, possibly more now than ever after fifteen years out of the spotlight.

Married since the mid '90s to Jim Gillette, former lead vocalist for the over-the-top glam-metal act Nitro, Ford and family have been living a secluded life on an island in the Caribbean — fishing, growing their own food and homeschooling sons James and Rocco. Even the album was a family affair: Gillette, who also produced it at their home, handles co-lead vocals on many tracks, and as Ford says with a laugh, "the kids were there when we were making it. You can probably hear them yelling in the background of some tracks."

When Ford walked away from the industry, she did so as decisively as can be. "I pretty much was a full-time parent," she says. "We did record some songs for my older son, just for fun, but other than that I didn't really play too much once I had my first son. I really hung it up for a while. I got bored with it, like some people get bored with whatever they do. But it's something that's also addictive. It's in my blood, and I'm not ready to completely hang it up. I've gotta give it another go-around for me and for my family. I want my kids to see me play."

Though the songs are hooky, with choruses you can pump your fist and sing along to, Wicked Wonderland strays quite far from the pop metal and radio-friendly hard rock of 1988's Lita and 1991's Dangerous Curves (the albums that sported hits like "Kiss Me Deadly," "Close My Eyes Forever" and "Shot of Poison"). It's a heavy, industrial-tinged album, almost closer in spirit to a Rob Zombie or Marilyn Manson disc, and Gillette's vocals are hoarse and grunge-influenced, not the high-pitched shriek of his previous work. "I needed somebody to hit the heavier side, which, being a female, I can't do," says Ford. "So I wanted him to be able to cover that side of the album.

"We just started jamming, and that's what we came up with," she says of the new sound. "We didn't want to do an album that was lightweight and adult contemporary, which is what people would probably expect from somebody who's 51 years old. But I just wanted to rock. I think a lot of Lita fans will listen to my stuff and say, 'It doesn't sound like her, but then again it does sound like her.' As soon as the vocals kick in or the guitar kicks in, you know it's me. It didn't lose the Lita vibe — my voice still sounds the same."

Almost all the songs on Wicked Wonderland are about sex — but not in the love-song-with-an-edge way Ford's earlier material was. These are raunchy anthems sung by a woman whose bedroom tastes run to the kinky side. "Bed" includes lyrics such as, "Tie me to the bed/Bow your head when you approach your queen...You give me pleasure with pain and always make me scream," and has been licensed to the fetish website Stockroom.com, where Ford and Gillette have a mini-store selling gear they personally endorse. "I love wearing their clothes and using their toys. They're just very classy, very wonderful, high-quality items," she says.

On the surface, such lyrical content might seem like a surprise coming from a woman who lives far from civilization, homeschooling her kids — and who's also included a song called "Patriotic S.O.B." on Wicked Wonderland. But Lita Ford hasn't transformed into a female Ted Nugent by any stretch. "I am a little bit patriotic/conservative," she says, "but I think Jim is more so. That song actually wasn't supposed to be a Lita song, but then I was like, 'Whoa! Wait a minute! This song rocks! We gotta use this song!' It absolutely fits because of our new president, and the way things are going with that. It's our first black president, you know? It's a very right-with-the-times song. So it's got its place on Wicked Wonderland, even though it's not sexual. It's one of my favorites."

Ford's currently on the road with Queensrÿche, whose new release is the self-explanatory concept album American Soldier. Rather than do a traditional opening set, though, she's appearing with the headliners, singing three songs with them as her backing band. "I'm gonna sing with Geoff Tate, we're doing 'Close My Eyes Forever,' then we're gonna do a couple of new songs," she says. "Jim's gonna come out and sing, too. So it's not like I'm the support act or they're the headliners, it's a team effort."

She plans to assemble a band of her own for festivals and other tour dates in 2010, and who knows? It might turn into a full-on family affair. As Ford explains, "James is now playing guitar, he's twelve years old, and he shreds. He's doing great. We gave him a Goldtop Les Paul for his birthday a year ago, and he uses it every day. Rocco is into drums; he's only eight years old but he loves heavy metal and wants to play drums, so he's working with that. Yeah, they're little rocker kids."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

THIS WEEK IN THE VOICE

The Great Jazz-Drummer Takeover of 2009
Here are four percussive big shots not too shy to run the show

Though devoutly worshipped by fans, jazz drummers don't often lead groups; the late Art Blakey's long-running Jazz Messengers are a prominent, if rare, exception. But all of a sudden in 2009, a clutch of drummers/composers are cutting records that demonstrate a broad range of approaches to music, leadership, and bashing the kit.

Brooklyn's Ben Perowsky shuttles between the worlds of jazz and rock, backing everyone from John Zorn to Steely Dan's Walter Becker. His solo nod, Opus Esopus, will register as a jazz disc to the casual ear, but it includes interpretations of Beatles and Hendrix songs alongside his own originals. Meanwhile, his band Moodswing Orchestra's self-titled release is a studio assemblage that combines jazz and trip-hop, with guest vocals from such luminaries as Miho Hatori, Bebel Gilberto, and Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman (another frequent Perowsky collaborator).

Those vocals were added last, and in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, the drummer recalls: "One by one, I got everyone on it. It was like me coming to their house with a microphone and setting up, or a church, or wherever I could get people." With its lounge-pop vibe (plus Gilberto), the resulting record recalls Mike Patton's Peeping Tom, while Opus Esopus, by contrast, features unorthodox instrumentation (saxophone or clarinet, accordion, bass, drums) and tunes that swing like a Balkan wake; the band's take on Hendrix's "Manic Depression" makes full use of the accordion's ability to lurch and wheeze.

Newark-raised Tyshawn Sorey started out playing piano and trombone, but now he's one of New York's most in-demand drummers, working with Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, and others. His playing is subtle and introspective, frequently choosing introspective dialogue with his fellow players over mere propulsion. His most recent CD, Koan, goes far beyond the bounds of jazz, featuring a guitar-bass-drums trio with a sound closer in spirit to recent work by the formerly drone-metal, now trance-Americana group Earth than to any jazz guitarist except maybe Bill Frisell.

"One of the [main] aspects of my composition now is mostly focusing on time and duration," Sorey explains, sort of. "Seeing two similar events, how they happen, and what is the noticeable difference between the two, and how the listener actually perceives that. Do they perceive those two events as being the same, similar, or completely different?"

Chad Taylor divides his time between jazz and indie rock (and between New York and Chicago); he performs with folks like saxophonist Fred Anderson and guitarist Marc Ribot, while also collaborating with trumpeter Rob Mazurek in various Chicago Underground groups and the Exploding Star Orchestra. But he's also a member of Iron & Wine, and appears on both of Sam Prekop's solo albums. "Doing the Iron & Wine thing is a pretty big challenge," he says, "because it's pretty much the opposite of what I do as an improviser. With that band, I'm playing the same thing over and over every night. I have to change it in very subtle ways that won't throw people off; it's a much more subtle way than I usually approach drums."

His new solo record, Circle Down, is a piano-trio session that avoids typical piano-trio clichés through rhythmic independence and "flipping the roles of the instruments." Each player has the opportunity to seize the spotlight at any moment, and the results are a kind of swinging chamber music, beautiful as a kinetic sculpture gleaming in the sunlight.

Chicago-based drummer, composer, and booker Mike Reed is in the middle of a three-part investigation/celebration of his hometown's jazz scene, past and present. Last year, his group People, Places & Things released Proliferation, which offered new interpretations of tunes by Chicago jazz composers, both famous (Sun Ra) and obscure (Tommy "Madman" Jones). The sequel, About Us, features brand-new work, including five tunes written by Reed himself. The core group features two saxophonists, bass, and drums, which forces the horns to play together more than they might otherwise. As Reed puts it, "Since there's no piano player, if one of the horn players is soloing, the other one acts as the piano player and comps behind him. If the guy who's comping gets excited, he can take it, and they'll switch back and forth like that. I always hate it when a horn player takes a solo and then he steps aside. And this way, people have to be engaged all the time."

As a booker (he's helped put together the Pitchfork Music Festival, among other high-profile events), Reed is keenly aware of jazz's precarious economic position: "There are no gigs, there are no places to play, there's no money to get paid, nobody buys the CDs." But his assertion of the music's innate value—not as history, not as something that's good for you, but just as highly enjoyable art—is both logical and contagious. "People say music education is about teaching kids how to play music," he says. "But it could be about teaching people how music is important to their lives. If you can do that, you're creating an audience." Also, you get to hit something.

FILE UNDER: HAWD-KOAH

From Altpress.com:

LIVING HELL
Oblivion
Eulogy
Jesus, what's there even to say about hardcore at this point? If Hatebreed's Satisfaction Is The Death Of Desire is your musical Year Zero, Oblivion will make you happy. Sure, there are a few tiny departures on Living Hell's sophomore album--the title track is built around an almost doomy riff and features a fair amount of guitar interplay--but the band are never gonna be mistaken for anything but a pure, inked-up, knuckle-dragging hardcore act. Just check out "122112," how it builds from an ominous half-speed intro (to give the muscleheads time to get their game faces on, as they start circling each other in the middle of the floor) to a double-time sprint (to give them an excuse to bounce off each other, shirtless, breathless and sweaty).

Oblivion is produced very well: the bass throbs; the drums are meaty; the guitars sound like the Jaws Of Life peeling the door off a wrecked car; and vocalist Craig Mack sounds like he's coughing up scraps of sandpaper. But none of those are stylistic choices as much as they are the price of admission, the rules of the game. If you play hardcore, you sound like this. Living Hell play by the rules, which makes their album serviceable but of little or no interest to outsiders.

Monday, October 26, 2009

TUESDAY AMG UPDATE

Fifteen new reviews up at the AMG site; enjoy!

The Almost, Monster Monster
The Company Band, The Company Band
Defiance, The Prophecy
Jesse Elder, The Winding Shell
Genitorturers, Blackheart Revolution
Gorgoroth, Quantos Possunt Ad Sanitatem Trahunt
Hardal, Nasil? Ne Zaman?
Hypocrisy, A Taste of Extreme Divinity
Krallice, Dimensional Bleedthrough
Nocturnal Fear, Metal of Honor
Arturo O'Farrill, Risa Negra
The Red Chord, Fed Through the Teeth Machine
The Devin Townsend Project, Addicted

Saturday, October 24, 2009

NOT QUITE REACHING THE HEART OF THE MATTER

I have just started reading Iain M. Banks' Matter, the eighth and most recent book in his string of novels (they're not a series, just related) about "The Culture." I didn't know much about his stuff going in, but apparently it's science fiction of the high space opera variety. I decided to take the leap after reading this io9 post, but rather than start at the beginning with Consider Phlebas (which my local library didn't have), I decided to jump into the newest one and if I liked it go back and scoop up the others.

So far, I'm not all that impressed. The most powerful reaction I've had so far is that I can't figure out why SF is always derided as a boys' club, because Banks' writing style is almost identical to that of your average historical-romance author, and I found the same thing to be true of Frank Herbert when I read Dune a couple of months ago.

Behold a sentence (it's both a sentence and a paragraph, actually; it kicks off Chapter Four) from Matter:

Utaltifuhl, the Grand Zamerin of Sursamen-Nariscene, in charge of all Nariscene interests on the planet and its accompanying solar system and therefore - by the terms of the mandate the Nariscene held under the auspices of the Galactic General Council - as close as one might get to overall ruler of both, was just beginning the long journey to the 3044th Great Spawning of the Everlasting Queen on the far-distant home planet of his kind when he met the director general of the Morthanveld Strategic Mission to the Tertiary Hulian Spine - paying a courtesy call to the modest but of course influential Morthanveld embassy on Sursamen - in the Third Equatorial Transit Facility high above Sursamen's dark, green-blue pocked Surface.


Even if I manage to get past the ultra-filigreed writing, the plot is shaping up to disappoint, too. It's basically a story of betrayal and royal intrigue with spaceships, and as is so often the case with space opera SF, it takes place at a lofty remove, where the only people who've shown up so far are aristocrats and their trusted servants (living and mechanical). Nobody is shown building or repairing or cleaning or otherwise staffing the vast empire - there's a battle, and soldiers are fighting and killing and dying - just not onstage.

I hope it gets better, I really do. Because I've got 532 pages to go, and I don't just want to be entertained - I want to figure out why this guy is so revered.

ALBUM REVIEW TWEET-THOLOGY II: THE TWEETENING

29 more Twitter posts about 28 albums, anthologized for your convenience.

Firebird, Grand Union: Ultra-retro bluesy hard rock (Free, Humble Pie, et al.) from ex-Carcass guitarist. Never liked Carcass. Like this.

Defiance, The Prophecy: reunited thrashers, second tier at best. The singer's other band, Skinlab, is rage-inducingly bad; this is...okay.

Nocturnus, The Key: A prog/death metal concept album about traveling back in time and killing Jesus. (Track 9: "Destroying the Manger.")

ZZ Top, Tejas: They didn't make even one bad album in the '70s. This isn't quite Tres Hombres, but the essential Top-ness is 100% there.

Bill Dixon, Tapestries For Small Orchestra: 2CD/1DVD; 8 pieces for 9 musicians. Kinetic sculptures in 1000 colors, all black.

Starting to think Tapestries For Small Orchestra might actually be a documentary DVD w/bonus music CDs, rather than the other way around.

Abstract Truth, Totum: South African flute 'n' bongo jazz-prog circa '70. Tunes by Dylan and Donovan...oh, and Gershwin and Mingus.

Face Value, Rode Hard, Put Away Wet: Cleveland HC kidz look back on '89-'93. Decent, if Token Entry-ish debut; rap-core frat-jams after.

Motörhead, Orgasmatron: Underrated, mostly because people are too busy overrating the title track. Check out "Mean Machine" instead.

Tangerine Dream, Ricochet: Live in '75, already playing w/ideas that reappear on Force Majeure (and in Risky Business) years later.

V/A, Go Go Crankin': killer 1985 compilation. Miles better than the Good To Go soundtrack, which blew my head off back in high school.

Underworld, Live In Tokyo 25th November 2005: rare-ish 3CD set, the Yessongs to Everything, Everything's No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith.

Godflesh, Streetcleaner: It's just a Godflesh kinda day around here, I guess. Man, do I hate Jesu.

Godflesh, Pure: My favorite GF album, remastered and crushing. Now boxed w/the "Cold World" single and the still-inessential Slavestate.

Morningwood, Diamonds & Studs: Fun power pop w/brassy frontbroad, occasional synths. Too bad about the semi-acoustic final track, though.

AGF, Einzelkämpfer: So austere it's like a grim parody of German electronic music. Guaranteed to drop any room's temperature 20 degrees.

ZZ Top, Double Down: 2DVD set, live in '80 and '08. They should've given up on the studio post-Eliminator, but they destroy onstage.

Ben Holmes Trio, s/t: Smeary, vaguely Balkan post-bop from a trumpet-bass-drums trio (a configuration I'd like to hear more often).

V/A, 5: 2CD Hyperdub anniversary comp. Dubstep often comes off like tired WordSound rehash to me, but these folks are onto something.

Chrome, Half Machine Lip Moves: This is another band I feel like I should like, but don't. I dig some of Helios Creed's solo CDs, though.

Rorschach, Remain Sedate: the Springsteen of HC - if you're from NJ, you're expected to love them. I am, and I don't (Springsteen either).

Gorgoroth, Quantos Possunt Ad Sanitatem Trahunt: post-lawsuit comeback w/Obituary's bassist, Dissection's drummer. Death-ier (but not better) than expected.

Eliane Radigue, Triptych: Ultra-minimal synth stuff from '78. Booklet photos of the room-filling ARP 2500 are awesome.

Nobuyasu Furuya Trio, Bendowa: I'd never heard of him before either. Ayler-ish/Brötzmann-ian trio blare/throb/thwack on Clean Feed.

Rammstein, Liebe ist Für Alle Da: Well, what the hell did you expect it to sound like? Regina Spektor? (Actually surprisingly varied.)

Leaves' Eyes, Njord: Can't believe I didn't hate this, but it's really pretty awesome. Does that mean I have to buy a ruffled shirt now?

Baroness, Live At Roadburn Festival 2009: Blue Record deluxe edition bonus disc. Scorching, extended versions of five Red Album songs.

Keith Jarrett, Testament: Paris/London: the liner notes ("my wife left me!") make this kinda critic-proof. Luckily, it's also beautiful.

Phill Niblock, Touch Strings: By mastering Protools, the modern composer can achieve previously undreamt-of levels of maddening tedium.

Friday, October 23, 2009

YA GOTTA MAKE YOUR OWN FUN

I, too, write for the Riverfront Times, but because I'm based in NJ, not Missouri, I never get to hang out with guys who launch anvils hundreds of feet into the air.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

THIS WEEK AT ALTPRESS.COM

I write a fair amount of reviews for Alternative Press; some of 'em make it to the print edition, while others are strictly for the website. Here are two of the latter.

SAVIOURS
Accelerated Living
Kemado
Saviours have the same crystal-meth energy, primitive riffing and throat-searing vocals as High On Fire; they're just not nearly as awesome. While HOF's Matt Pike follows in the footsteps of Motörhead's Lemmy, Saviours frontman Austin Barber owes a clear debt to Discharge vocalist Cal Morris, and his bandmates crank out songs that sound like pastiches of Venom, early Iron Maiden, and other, similar bash-'em-in-the-head '80s bands, with some hardcore and punk thrown in. That's not to suggest that there isn't raw pleasure to be found on Accelerated Living; there is, and plenty of it, especially on songs like the epic "Livin' In The Void" or the biker-doom anthem "We Roam." The latter track features some genuinely impressive guitar interplay, too. Ultimately, though, all three of Saviours' albums to date have sounded like demos by your buddy's metal band. They've got the energy and the power; now they just need to write some songs, and they'll be ready to join HOF and the Sword in the top ranks of American underground metal. For the moment, they're still just also-rans.

KILL HANNAH
Wake Up The Sleepers
Original Signal
Chicago's Kill Hannah could easily be summed up and dismissed as a watered-down, middle-American blend of Placebo, Garbage and Republica: They've got the buzzy guitars, fey vocals and hooks (which don't bite as deeply as they should); plus their willingness to dance (or ability to inspire others to do so) from time to time. But that would be cynical and unfair, ignoring how purely pleasurable Wake Up The Sleepers' best moments are. "New York City Speed" will make Shiny Toy Guns fans very happy, while "Radio" blatantly hijacks its verse melody from '80s footnote Kim Wilde's "Kids In America." Ultimately, Wake Up The Sleepers shifts moods too frequently for its own good, but many of the 13 songs are worthwhile on their own terms, if not as part of a coherent whole. Recommended, albeit in small doses.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

SO THIS IS LITERATURE

There's a story in this week's New York Times Magazine about author Padgett Powell, the reading of which has really brought out my inner (and not all that deeply submerged at the best of times) B.R. Myers.

Had I been familiar with Powell's work beforehand, I would have skipped the thing. Indeed, knowing the kind of writers and artists and musicians the Times Magazine covers, and the manner in which it covers them, I probably should have skipped it. But for whatever reason, I am powerless to resist this kind of crap. So I read it.

In some ways, it's almost hilarious. Powell is described as follows, in a paragraph I'd have thought better suited to a profile of an actor in an issue of Esquire:

Powell has a congenital allergy to proper zones. He doesn’t fit in them very well. He has taught at the University of Florida for 25 years but claims to be disinclined to talk too much about what he calls “literary hogwash.” He would prefer to go fishing or shooting or boating. He knows what makes a quality knife a quality knife and has strong opinions about college football. He has great affection for dogs and snakes and alligators and has kept the first two as pets. Gators, he claims, are just what you’d get if you could mate a dog and a snake — not really dangerous, though you do have to watch out for the tail.


Really? This was written by a (I'll go ahead and assume) handsomely-paid Times correspondent (Dan Halpern, who we are informed "last wrote for the magazine about bull riding"), and not by Padgett Powell's agent? Okay, fine. And yet. And yet. This man who disdains "literary hogwash" writes paragraphs like this one:

Yesterday a few things happened. Every day a few do. My dog beat up another dog. He does this when he can. It’s his living, more or less, though I’ve never let him make money doing it. He could. Beating up other dogs is his thing. He means no harm by it, expects other dogs to beat him up — no anxiety about it. If anything makes him nervous, it’s that he won’t get a chance to beat up or be beaten up. He’s healthy. I don’t think I am.
What kind of shit is that? That paragraph is utterly without rhythm, or if there's one there it's one I can't hear when I read the sentences aloud. But I must be wrong, for in setting up this example of modern prose magnificence, Halpern says "What Powell does with language and sound, with timing, rhythm and cadence, is a thing of strange precision." Strange, yes. Precise, not exactly. And it's the cadence of a man attempting to play the piano with his elbows, not because he's lost the use of his fingers, but because he hopes people are watching. This is showy crudeness, and literary critics — and New York Times Magazine correspondents, apparently — eat it with a spoon. But people who open books expecting to be told a story tend to shake their heads and walk away.

They are almost certain to do so when/if they learn that Powell's new book, The Interrogative Mood, lives up to its title by consisting entirely of questions.

Admittedly, this guy's not some literary darling, at least not anymore; Halpern describes his downward slide, reputation- and sales-wise, and writes:

With critics — and readers — deserting him in greater and greater numbers, Powell found himself practically unpublishable. Powell’s last book came out in 2000, and the two collections of stories he wrote over this last decade failed to find houses willing to print them. He began to claim he was retired.


He then begins to describe The Interrogative Mood, and Powell's upbringing (literary and otherwise). But he doesn't answer the one question I would like answered, which is, How did this new book get sold? It sounds, if anything, even more infuriating and anti-reader than the stuff he's already published, and the bits of that stuff included in the article are awful. It seems to me that for nine years, the publishing industry had the right idea — leave this fool in the Florida swamp where he can't waste anyone's time but his students'.

Oh, well. I guess it's back to genre fiction for me...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

AMG UPDATE

Eleven reviews of new albums and compilations up at AMG this week:

The Atlas Moth, A Glorified Piece of Blue Sky
Belphegor, Walpurgis Rites: Hexenwahn
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, The Audacity of Hype
Gojira, Terra Incognita
Immortal, All Shall Fall
Leaves' Eyes, Njord
Marduk, Wormwood
Various Artists, D-Funk: Funk, Disco and Boogie Grooves from Germany 1972-2002
Various Artists, Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds and Ghanaian Blues 1968-1981
Various Artists, Grind Madness At The BBC
Various Artists, Swedish Death Metal

I also wrote up Nile's Those Whom the Gods Detest, but they didn't use it, so I'll just put it here:

Nile
Those Whom the Gods Detest
Nuclear Blast
Nile’s schtick is pretty goofy, even by death metal standards – the band’s leader, guitarist Karl Sanders, is obsessed with ancient Egypt, and consequently the Nile discography is littered with Middle Eastern melodies and even vocals and traditional instruments, plus sound effects that seem sampled from the Mummy movies. With that said, they occasionally come up with some pretty decent riffs, and Sanders is a hell of a guitarist; his solos are fleet and relatively non-masturbatory – that is, they seem to have something to do with the song that spawned them. Nile albums tend to have one or two totally non-metal tracks, and Those Whom the Gods Detest is no exception; “Yezd Desert Ghul Ritual in the Abandoned Towers of Silence” features tribal percussion, creepy sound effects and voices, all intended to create an atmospheric lead in to the next round of blast beats and furious riffing. The title track and “4th Arra of Dagon” are probably the most successful at unifying the various elements of Nile’s style, as they combine traditional instrumentation (or specially tuned guitars, at any rate) with the band’s death metal roar. Overall, this is probably Nile’s best album, but it’s still not going to seem particularly attractive to death metal outsiders.

THIS WEEK IN CLEVELAND

Pitch Black
Taiwan's Chthonic return with a concept album

When you think black metal, you probably think Scandinavia: long-haired dudes wandering the frost-bitten forests of Norway and Sweden, their faces painted black and white, and their spiked boots sinking into the snow as they look for ancient churches to burn ... right?

In fact, black metal has spread across the planet like some new malignant flu strain, emerging in the U.S., the U.K., France, various South American countries and even Tasmania, with each territory offering its own spin on the sound. One of the most interesting black metal bands — and one that's been making a surprisingly powerful impact on the worldwide metal scene — is Taiwan's Chthonic.

Formed in 1995, the group went through numerous membership changes during its early years but settled on a relatively steady lineup by 2000, with only the keyboard slot remaining in seemingly permanent flux. Over the course of five studio albums, including this year's Mirror of Retribution, Chthonic has combined a melodic black-metal style reminiscent of Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir with lyrics — and face paint — derived from the history and mythology of their own culture rather than importing Scandinavian concepts. This insistence on asserting their Taiwanese character brought them support from the country's Democratic Progressive Party, which ruled Taiwan from 2000 to 2008.

"In some countries, they will encourage cultural groups to expand and express their music, their dance or their art all over the world," says bassist Doris Yeh. "The ruling party didn't care about cultural issues. But in the past eight years, the new [DPP] party formed by all Taiwanese started to encourage cultural issues. So they started to support Chthonic, a dance group and other art groups to express their art all over the world. But in the past year, the old government was restored, so it's a complicated political situation. They thought we were pro-ex-government, so they don't support us anymore."

Fortunately for Chthonic, they seem to be doing fine on their own. They took part in 2007's Ozzfest tour, they're currently on the road with Satyricon, Bleeding Through and Toxic Holocaust, and Mirror of Retribution is receiving glowing reviews throughout the metal community.

Yet they're not the only metal band in their homeland. "The [old] government didn't care about cultural stuff, but the Taiwanese party started to encourage that, so a lot of live houses and music halls started showing up," says Yeh. "They encouraged artists to record their albums, and when that happened, there started to be more and more bands, including metal bands. Ten years ago, there might have been 10 or 20 metal bands in Taiwan, but now there's over a hundred."

Just like their previous album, 2006's Seediq Bale, Mirror of Retribution is a concept record rooted in Chthonic's Taiwanese identity. The story revolves around the 1948 228 Massacre, where mainland Chinese troops murdered thousands of Taiwanese. In Chthonic's version, a psychic who lives in the Sing-Ling Temple (a real place) attempts to enter hell to retrieve the mystical Book of Life and Death to use as a weapon against the invading forces. This being metal, he fails and is sentenced by the gods to a suitably hellish fate. (It's much, much more complicated than that, of course; the full story can be found on Chthonic's Facebook page.)

Produced by Anthrax guitarist Rob Caggiano, Mirror of Retribution is somewhat heavier than previous Chthonic records. Yeh's vocals have frequently served as a counterpoint to frontman Freddy Lim in the past, but this time she only plays her instrument. "We wrote the same amount of female vocal parts as before," she says. "But when we recorded the album, we discussed it with Rob, and he thought that on this album, we should connect the riffs with the melody [so] the audience will get the point more clearly. So he took out some of the female vocal parts."

Yeh doesn't seem to mind, since the trade yielded a louder bass mix. "Our earlier albums were recorded in Denmark, and the producer didn't like to put the bass as equal to the guitar or the other instruments," says Yeh. "Rob likes the sound to be heavy and likes the album to be more aggressive and full of power. So he encouraged the sound of bass this time."

One of the most distinctive elements of Chthonic's sound is their use of the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-stringed violin. Its high-pitched, keening melodies add an emotional undercurrent to the blast beats and roaring guitars. Unfortunately, the band's erhu player, Su-Nung, left earlier this year and joined the army. He's been temporarily replaced by a laptop.

"Before he went to the army, he recorded his sounds into the computer, [which] our drummer plays onstage," says Yeh. "It's hard to train a new player, not only based on the music aspect — it's also the personality. We have to get used to a new member, and we don't have too much time."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

MEET THE NEW RUNAWAYS

"Shoujo S," by Scandal. They've released four singles and an EP since early 2008, and two of their members have already graduated high school, so they're probably gonna break up by Christmas. Enjoy.

43 SECONDS OF AWESOME

Friday, October 09, 2009

ALBUM REVIEW TWEET-THOLOGY

Slightly reformatted.

Assück, Anticapital/Blindspot +3: Why do non-grind bands insist on writing such long songs? If you can't say it in <0:30, don't bother me.

Vijay Iyer Trio, Historicity: I keep fixating on Marcus Gilmore's drum sound. That, and the awesome version of J. Hemphill's "Dogon A.D."

Living Hell, Oblivion: Q: Why don't hardcore bands' singers wear rings? A: Because they'd spark when their knuckles drag on the ground.

Saviours, Accelerated Living: High On Fire with half the riff-writing skills and a singer who wants to be Cal from Discharge, not Lemmy.

The Red Chord, Fed Through The Teeth Machine: Less overtly anti-listener than Clients. (I hated it so much I skipped Prey For Eyes.)

Miles Davis, Another Unity: If time travel existed, I'd sell one of your kidneys to see any show on Miles's 1975 tour of Japan. Any one.

Dethklok, Dethalbum II: Death metal that dies without its cartoon context. Don Kirshner knew better than to sing on Archies albums himself.

Gwynbleidd, Nostalgia: Brooklyn black metallers with good taste. Yeah, I like Opeth a lot, too, guys.

Marion Brown, Juba-Lee: w/G. Moncur III, A. Shorter, B. Maupin, D. Burrell et al. Freedom manifested through introspection, not shouting.

Christian Scott, Anthem: Late Miles x Nils Petter Molvaer + rock guitar + Aaron Parks' crushing piano. Picked based on a #jazznow blurb.

Erik Deutsch, Hush Money: Soulful jazz with almost Ribot-esque guitar and melodies Donald Fagen would happily steal.

Genesis, Seconds Out: Post-Gabriel/pre-hits liveage: slow-burning arena-prog. Should I look into the studio albums from this era?

Kobie Watkins, Involved: debut CD by Sonny Rollins's current drummer. Not bad but too many personnel shifts track-to-track. Get a band.

V/A, Swedish Death Metal: Like it says. Three discs' worth. Oh, and it's the audio companion to an amazing book...

Ben Perowsky, Moodswing Orchestra: Hey, remember trip-hop? Jazz gets its own Peeping Tom, with excellent horns.

Shrinebuilder, s/t: This is the first thing Al Cisneros has ever been involved with that hasn't bored me into a rage.

Derek Bailey/Steve Noble, Out Of The Past: unearthed duets from 1999. Pissed-off, raucous and Sharrockian; DB for metalheads.

Samuel Blaser Quartet, Pieces Of Old Sky: trombone/guitar/bass/drums semi-ambient chamber-jazz awesomeness. Clean Feed label = underrated.

Jello Biafra, The Audacity of Hype: The cover parodies Obama, but the songs are about Bush & Clinton. Quick, Jello: What year is it?

Immortal, All Shall Fall: Fantastic riffs and killer production, but Abbath still sounds like Popeye, and it's okay to admit it.

Nile, Those Whom The Gods Detest...they make listen to Nile. Actually/amazingly, I'm kinda into this. I bet they still suck live, though.

Sam Rivers, Contours: I don't think any band has ever balanced sparkling melody and landscape-scorching waves of fire better than this.

Nazxul, Iconoclast: Black metal with a pomposity way out of proportion to its recording budget.

Leyland Kirby, Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was: "Eraserhead" soundtrack + Morrissey-esque track titles = Brit critics' darling.

Jonathon Haffner, Life On Wednesday: alto sax, keyboards, guitar, bass, two drummers. Modern, electr(on)ic post-bop w/grit & groove.

Lita Ford, Wicked Wonderland: She can still play, but she still can't sing, and the production's more Rob Zombie than Runaways.

Marduk, Wormwood: This is really just a Funeral Mist album with Morgan et al. as de facto guest musicians. Which of course means it rules.

Arrington de Dionyso, Malaikat Dan Singa: tribal out-jazz drone-squonk + glossolalia. I used to hate this guy, but he's improved a little.

Austrian Death Machine, Double Brutal: I never thought I'd be saying "MORE fake Schwarzenegger, please," but the non-Arnie vox here SUCK.

V/A, Ghana Special: Soundway's bid for Afro-funk comp supremacy continues. Superb, if less berserk than the earlier Ghana Soundz sets.

Mike Reed's People, Places & Things, About Us: 2-sax 4tet + guests. Bluesy & swinging w/the occasional traffic-jam honk-spasm for spice.

Aaron Martin, Chautauqua: cello/banjo/organ/field recordings. Could score a documentary about stolen water rights or something, I guess.

Little Richard, King of Rock and Roll: the version of "Brown Sugar" might make this even weirder than Bo Diddley's early '70s funk albums.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, Classic Sides 4CD JSP box: not sure what I could possibly say about this. Why don't you just get yourself one?

Chad Taylor, Circle Down: Track 1 full of skips. All the others so far - delicate, swinging-on-tiptoe piano trio abstractions. Excellent.

Blue Öyster Cult, Agents Of Fortune: I no longer feel emotion. Hey, who started that fire?

Leyland Kirby, Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was: Not so much living in the past as going there to visit, then committing suicide.

Tyshawn Sorey, Koan: Super-placid gtr/gtr/drums (in)action; if these guys toured w/Earth, clubs'd have to pass out pillows and blankets.

Rose Tattoo, s/t: Sure, Australia, send us INXS and Olivia Newton-John and keep these guys for yourselves. THAT SEEMS FAIR.

Rodrigo Amado/Kent Kessler/Paal Nilssen-Love, The Abstract Truth: Twombly-esque tenor and baritone sax + out-but-swinging rhythm = yay.

Cecil Taylor, The Willisau Concert: live in 2000 on a 97-key Bösendorfer that really lets the low notes rumble and boom. Breathtaking.

John Blum, In The Shade Of Sun: piano trio w/William Parker, Sunny Murray; blindfolded, I couldn't tell it from Matt Shipp circa 1995.

Freddie Hubbard, Red Clay: Yeah, it slipped through the cracks until now. Damn hot, though I think I still prefer the Blue Note albums.

King Crimson, The Great Deceiver box: impressively barbed, austere improvisations, deftly sidestepping the messy anarchy of human-ness.

Baroness, Blue Record: this record makes me want to jump up and down in such a way that I can conceive no higher praise.

Om, God Is Good: Flutes are not metal. UPDATE: Handclaps are not metal either.

Pitbull, Rebelution: better than The Boatlift, not as good as El Mariel. The song "Juice Box" is so vulgar it's gotta be single #3.

Crucifist, Demon-Haunted World: If you think the Hellhammer demos are the pinnacle of human achievement, this is your new favorite CD.

Joe Morris Quartet, Today on Earth: not as ferocious as the appropriately titled Wildlife, but a slab o' pure pleasure nonetheless.

Fire! (punctuation in original), You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago: another day, another Mats Gustaffson album. Reasonably blazin', I guess.

The Black, Alongside Death: new black metal release on Pulverised, came in today's mail. I lasted eight seconds.

The Gates of Slumber, Hymns of Blood And Thunder: Karl Simon may have just replaced Wino as my biker-doom-metal god.

David Ashkenazy, Out With It: sax/guitar/organ/drums. Weirder than expected = good. They do a Beatles song, though; that might sink it.

David S. Ware, Live in Vilnius: double vinyl of the DSW4's last ever gig. Opening "Ganesh Sound" is crushing my world.

Natalia Lafourcade, Hu Hu Hu: brilliant, bombastic art-pop. Why do I love this and not Feist (easiest English-language comparison)?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

THIS WEEK IN THE VOICE

Scott "Wino" Weinrich's Year of Total Exhaustion
An underground metal titan juggles, like, 500 different projects

Scott "Wino" Weinrich is a lifer—an American Lemmy. (Sure, Lemmy's been living in L.A. for years, but you know what I mean.) An underrated lyricist with an instantly recognizable voice and guitar sound, he's been the driving force behind a fistful of bands that have reshaped stoner/biker/doom metal in his image: the Obsessed, Saint Vitus, Spirit Caravan, the Hidden Hand, and now Shrinebuilder. In January, after nearly 30 years in the game, he finally released his first true solo album, Punctuated Equilibrium. While his thick, fuzzy tone is as individual as ever (Wino's a major gearhead, devoted to tube amps and classic Gibson guitars), the record finds him expanding his stylistic parameters considerably, from ultra-heavy riff-fests to psychedelic instrumentals. It's also a journey through his entire life as a musician, with some songs and riffs dating back as far as 1979.

Supporting that release is just one of the reasons that Wino is making a string of local appearances this fall. Backed by former Dog Fashion Disco bassist Brian White and Clutch drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, he'll be opening for Clutch for two nights at Irving Plaza. ("I asked him, 'Are you sure about doing double-duty?' And he said, 'I love double-duty,' " Wino laughs, saluting the indefatigable drummer.) He's planning to give fans a wide-ranging journey through his catalog and sound, too: "In the Wino band, we play our originals, both those released on Punctuated Equilibrium and some new ones that we're working on, and we also play some of people's favorite Obsessed songs, and one Spirit Caravan song. People love that—they really wanna hear that."

Once the Clutch tour winds down, Wino will reappear in Brooklyn for a gig at Europa with the reunited Saint Vitus. He originally fronted the group between 1986 and 1991, appearing on their three best albums—Born Too Late, Mournful Cries and V. Legends today, Vitus were odd men out in the '80s, not just at their first label, SST (home to Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, and the Minutemen), but in the '80s underground as a whole. Punks didn't know what to make of their Sabbathy riffs, even if the alienation and despair of their lyrics came through loud and clear.

Wino thinks the current economic climate has brought doom metal back around. "The time is right," he says. "Basically, I think right now, the world's in shit. There's a lot of despair, a lot of economic problems. People have had a lot of misfortune, and the kind of music we play is music for the times. It's not happy fucking poppy-type shit where everything's groovy. It's more introspective, and I think it fills a void."

He's even hoping Vitus—featuring founding members Dave Chandler (guitar) and Mark Adams (bass) alongside new drummer Henry Vasquez—will get back into the studio. "We're working on some new stuff now," Wino says. "The band is coming my way to the East Coast on the 14th; we're gonna rehearse on the 15th and do some shows up the East Coast. Those guys are all convinced that Europe is the bread and butter, but I was like, 'If you can't crack your own country, then you ain't shit,' you know? So they agreed with me that we would do some American shows, and we got huge offers."

Wino's third and probably final project for '09 is an album whose mere announcement sent underground metal fans into paroxysms of joy. The self-titled debut by Shrinebuilder, to be released in late October on Neurot Recordings, is a summit conference of slow-and-low kings. Wino shares guitar and vocal duties with Scott Kelly of Neurosis. Al Cisneros of Om and Sleep handles bass. On drums: Dale Crover of the Melvins. The basic tracks were recorded in three days in Northern California, with Wino tweaking the results a little after the fact. "I felt it needed me to put down a couple more really heavy rhythm guitars on some shit, and do some more e-bow," he recalls. "So I had the files sent to Baltimore—I fattened 'em up, sent 'em back."

Shrinebuilder starts out sounding like a typical Wino project, but when Kelly's vocals come in midway through opening track "The Architect," it turns into something unexpectedly ferocious, even ritualistic. "We weren't sure if it was gonna work or not, but it really does," Wino says, laughing with pride. "It's like the first guy comes in and kneecaps everybody, then the second guy comes in and bludgeons everybody to death with a baseball bat." Cisneros adds deep, almost dubby basslines (along with some of the same quasi-mystical chanting he does in Om), while Crover's rhythms are as intricately concussive as ever. And while, at times, the music is as heavy as anything Wino's ever done, it's got a less bombastic and more meditative, even introspective side, too.

For a guy who was pondering retirement only last year ("I was thinking, well, you know, I've kinda made my mark—maybe it's time to hang it up"), Wino is exploding all over the place in 2009. But it's been a long journey, and not necessarily one he'd recommend to the faint-hearted. "I'll never, ever compromise my art," he says. "And when you have that kind of ideal, you can bet your ass you're never gonna be able to learn a trade, because you're gonna be out struggling on the road. You're gonna miss your kids' and your wife's birthdays—you can bet that the most important show you can get is gonna fall on someone's birthday, one of your kids or your wife. That's the kind of thing you've gotta do. If you're not willing to do that, don't do it."

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

KEITH JARRETT: AN EXPLORATION, PART 8 OF 8

And so at last we come to the end of our journey through Keith Jarrett’s ’70s Impulse! albums. This has been pretty fascinating for me; prior to this, I barely owned any jazz records from the ’70s. I own Sam Rivers’s Crystals; a couple of Alice Coltrane discs; a few by Pharoah Sanders; everything by the late ’70s Cecil Taylor Unit and a couple of his other releases from that period; everything by Miles Davis between A Tribute To Jack Johnson and Agharta and Pangaea; the first three Mahavishnu Orchestra discs; some Return To Forever stuff; the Mosaic box anthologizing Anthony Braxton’s Arista albums; various albums by Herbie Hancock and his sidemen (Julian Priester, Eddie Henderson, Buster Williams); and a Weather Report box. But compared to the huge pile of albums from the ’50s and ’60s I’ve spent serious time with over the years, that’s practically nothing. And given how many young (by jazz standards) players are claming to have come up on non-fusion ’70s stuff, I feel like there’s a whole lot more that it's incumbent on me to explore. So for me, this is probably as much a starting point as an isolated short trip. But let’s talk about the album in question, shall we?

There’s actually not that much to say. Bop-Be has seven shortish tracks, once again almost all composed by members of the band other than Jarrett. The pianist contributes only the title piece, and for the first time on any of these albums, an outside composition is performed – “Blackberry Winter.”

“Mushi Mushi” is a Dewey Redman composition, punchy and swinging, with an opening blues-blast from him which is followed by a rockin ’n’ rollin’, classical-meets-gospel solo from Jarrett and some excellent breaking down of the rhythm by Paul Motian and Charlie Haden in the track’s final 90 seconds or so. It’s a solid opener with vocal in-studio enthusiasm from the bandmembers that’s totally deserved.

“Silence” is almost the exact opposite, an ultra-tender ballad that pretty much lives up to its name. Redman’s blowing so softly he barely vibrates the reed, Motian limits himself to cymbals, and Jarrett makes simple melodic statements with little adornment. It’s a quick, placid three minutes.

“Bop-Be” is a swinging piano trio piece; Jarrett spins out long ribbons of notes, returning to the melody like a runner grabbing cups of water as he circles the track at top speed. It sort of reminds me of the standard “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” It’s seven minutes long, but seems to fly by.

The next track, “Pyramids Moving,” is another in this group’s series of Middle Eastern sound explorations. Shrill reeds, bowed bass slathered in a weird distancing reverb, equally echoey cymbals and percussion, piano that sounds more like a celeste or a spinet – this is actually one of the weirdest avant pieces the group has offered throughout this eight-album run. It’s like music from a horror movie set in Egypt; it makes me want to look over my shoulder in case a mummy’s coming.

The nearly 11-minute “Gotta Get Some Sleep” is up next, a swinging romp that does relatively little to distinguish itself, despite offering solos for everyone but Motian. Redman is in ’50s Coltrane mode, though the melody is bouncier and slightly more jagged than you’d hear on a Prestige date of that vintage.

“Blackberry Winter” is another trio piece, a ballad this time. It’s very pretty.

The album’s final track, “Pocketful Of Cherry,” is a Charlie Haden composition written in tribute to Don Cherry, his former collaborator in Ornette Coleman’s band from 1959 to 1961, and it’s very much in the vein of that group’s work. The melody leaps right out at you, and Redman’s solo has a lot of Ornette – and a lot of his own work beside Coleman – in it. Haden, too, sounds like he’s flashing right back to 1959 as he pops the strings and swings with ferocious energy. In keeping with the Ornette Coleman feel, there’s no piano on the track; Jarrett plays soprano saxophone, squeaking and burbling along in such a way that you can almost imagine a joyful, yet focused smile on his face. Motian’s solo reminds me a little bit of Ed Blackwell, but I also hear Max Roach in the way he plays melodies on the drums. The songs swings hard all the way to the end, and that’s all there is.

Bop-Be is a weird album, precisely because (“Pyramids Moving” excepted) it’s so straight-ahead. The two trio pieces and “Silence” could be played in a restaurant without disturbing anyone’s dinner, and “Mushi Mushi” and “Gotta Get Some Sleep” are like what you’d get if you asked someone who’d never spent any serious time listening to jazz, “What does jazz sound like?” Even “Pocketful Of Cherry” is so happy and eager to please it’s amazing the quartet didn’t show up on Sesame Street performing it for a crowd of madly dancing Muppets and small children. I’m left wondering why they chose to go out on such a crowd-pleasing note, and (because I’m listening to this stuff thirty-plus years later) what kind of numbers it actually did.

Monday, October 05, 2009

AS LONG AS YOU'RE HERE...

I'm sure some new readers have popped by this blog in the last week or so, so I'd like to take this time to once again draw your attention to my book Sound Levels, which features in-depth profiles of jazz players Ornette Coleman, Bill Dixon and Noah Howard, avant-rockers Oxbow, David Thomas (of Pere Ubu), Mike Patton, the Melvins and the Mars Volta, Calle 13, Café Tacuba, and others. It's only $15 plus shipping, or $5 for a download. Click on the button below (next to the book cover) to order. Thanks!


KEITH JARRETT: AN EXPLORATION, PART 7 OF 8

Well, we’re in the home stretch now. Only two albums to go in my/our dig through Keith Jarrett’s 1970s Impulse! albums, and they’re pretty substantially different from everything that’s gone before. Today’s entry is Byablue, released early in 1977.

The most immediately noticeable thing about Byablue is how many tracks it has, and how short they are. Where the last three albums (Death And The Flower, Mysteries and Shades) had only three or four cuts each, Byablue has seven, only one fewer than the super-accessible Treasure Island. This may have something to do with the fact that with the exception of “Konya” and “Rainbow,” all the pieces on Byablue were written by Paul Motian. And while it’s not an exercise in melody and finger-poppin’ rhythm like TI, Byablue is definitely one of this group’s prettier outings – for the most part, anyway.

The opening title track (one of two versions that bracket the disc) is seven minutes of somewhat fractured, Ornette-derived blues, supported by heavy bass drum work from Paul Motian – he’s really kicking hard down there. Jarrett’s piano is off-kilter, the most Monk-like I’ve ever heard him be, but without losing touch with the melody. Indeed, he hangs onto it with remarkable tenacity, looping around again and again. Dewey Redman’s solo is filled with raw, crying emotion, but there’s something peevish about it, too; it reminds me of a toddler demanding attention.

The second piece, “Konya,” is one of those mantra-like reed exercises this band does from time to time, with Redman and Jarrett both keening and droning at each other as Motian smashes the cymbals and little chimes flutter in the back. If I didn’t know I was listening to a Keith Jarrett album, this could easily be by Roscoe Mitchell the way both reed players seem intent on squeezing every molecule of air out of their lungs with each variation of the melody line they play. Charlie Haden’s bowed bass adds one more drone to the mix as the piece ends.

The album really kicks into gear with “Rainbow,” a nearly nine-minute piano trio piece that features some really strong, rippling piano work, plus the return of Keith The Singing Hummingbird. Seriously, this track swings really nicely, with Jarrett’s piano and Haden’s bass taking up almost equal space in the mix and Motian’s delicately brushed drums the perfect rhythmic foundation, like walking on a bed of fresh-mown but dry grass.

Redman makes a brief appearance at the beginning, but for much of its length, “Trieste” is another piano trio piece, and an extraordinarily beautiful one at that. Motian plays like he’s dusting the kit rather than attempting to actually get sounds out of it (though he’s still kicking the bass drum more frequently than one might expect for a super-attenuated jazz ballad), and Haden makes a late entrance, but eventually takes a solo at around the six-minute mark that almost sounds like he’s tuning the bass with the tapes rolling. When he settles into a groove, Jarrett comes in behind him with tiny right-hand ripples that build into a classical-style crescendo. Redman finally reappears about 90 seconds before the end, spinning out blues connotations to little effect. He’s playing fine, but saying so little that he’s the weak link on the track.

This is followed by the minute-long “Fantasm,” about which extended comment would be superfluous. It sounds like a finger-loosening exercise; Motian doesn’t even play, and it ends abruptly.

“Yahllah” begins by bringing back the chimes and the reeds and some woodblock percussion, and lasts eight and a half minutes overall. But don’t be discouraged. The droney Middle Eastern stuff only lasts about two minutes. Then Jarrett starts playing some extremely deliberate, very beautiful unaccompanied piano for a minute or so. Then Motian starts beating out a pretty interesting, almost funk-rock rhythm, whereupon…aw, crap! Bowed bass and more of that goddamn snake-charmer reed! The piano was a trick; we’re back to the desert. And then at the six-minute mark, we change up again, with soprano sax and chimes and some forcefully strummed bass, which is nice enough until the snake-charming starts again. I would never dare to second-guess these guys’ interest in Middle Eastern music, but I think they vastly overestimated the average listener’s interest in it.

Byablue concludes with a solo piano version of its title piece, with lots of really nice sustained notes that almost create a droning rhythm all their own as Jarrett picks his way through the melody much more slowly than at the album’s outset, delving very slightly into dissonance in his explorations and extrapolations. When he starts singing along with himself, it’s in such a high register and so much clearer than usual that it’s almost like a female vocalist has been brought in, and it’s the first time his voice has added anything to the group’s music. A really nice conclusion to a really solid album.

Back tomorrow with this group’s final Impulse! recording, Bop-Be.

Friday, October 02, 2009

FRIDAY AMG UPDATE

Got a dozen new reviews up this week, running the gamut from metal of several different types to classic jazz to gloomy semi-ambient electronica...

Asking Alexandria, Stand Up and Scream
Austrian Death Machine, Double Brutal
John Coltrane, Side Steps
Despised Icon, Day of Mourning
Diablo Swing Orchestra, Sing-Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious
Leyland Kirby, Sadly, the Future is No Longer What It Was
Latin Bitman, Colour
Nazxul, Iconoclast
Revocation, Existence is Futile
Erik Satie, 42 Vexations (1893)
Secrets of the Moon, Privilegivm
Shrinebuilder, Shrinebuilder

KEITH JARRETT: AN EXPLORATION, PART 6 OF 8

Today, our journey through Keith Jarrett's 1970s Impulse! albums takes us to 1975's Mysteries, the sequel to Shades (unless I've got the chronology wrong, which is a possibility). Four more longish tracks - three of 'em pass the ten-minute mark, with only "Flame" coming in at a relatively concise-seeming (until you hear it, that is) six minutes.

Mysteries kicks off with “Rotation,” a fast and free 11-minute track that feels like a rehash of stuff that’s come before, particularly on Shades. The melody’s not all that memorable, and Dewey Redman’s solos don’t really jump out from the whole. An inauspicious beginning.

“Everything That Lives, Laments” starts off well, with some deep resonant blowing from Redman over typically lush ballad playing from Jarrett and some free but not scattered drumming from Paul Motian. Charlie Haden gets a solo spot very early, only about a minute into the piece. Jarrett takes over pretty quickly, though, heading into cruise-ship dinner music territory as Motian sets up a shuffling, brushed drum pattern behind him. Soon enough, the energy builds, and the solo becomes something serious, with Haden digging a deep groove alongside. Right around the six-minute mark, Redman rejoins the party with a John Coltrane-ish (circa, say, 1964) solo, but a couple of minutes later Jarrett decides to kick things up a notch, doubling his speed and energy. It doesn’t work; just like when they've pulled this trick on earlier albums, it feels like a mistake, an inability to stick to one mood for the length of a piece that undermines the whole. The group returns to ballad playing in the final stretch, though, and manages to recover.

“Flame” is six minutes of keening flute and reed stuff over twangy bass and hand percussion and what sounds like steel drums. It’s okay as Middle Eastern-derived squawking goes, but it’s not something I’d be likely to listen to again.

The album concludes with the 15-minute title track, a super-lush ballad – music to slow-dance to in fancy clothes, except for the percussion (shakers, bells, that monkey-noise-maker) that throws unexpected and sometimes jarring notes into the mix, as it’s done throughout almost every one of these albums. (I just haven’t bothered to mention it.) Jarrett’s solo seems more like a collection of loosely related phrases, building to a stream of notes, than a considered and developed idea. Indeed, the whole track just kind of rolls endlessly on, never progressing to any real resolution, just going and going and going until eventually everyone but Jarrett stops playing, as though they’ve walked away bored, and then he dripples out a few final, timidly vibrating notes, and the track and the album are over.

I suppose I could program my CD player to skip “Flame” and this would turn into an enjoyable 35 minutes or so of music, but it’s very low-impact. Nothing jumps out, nothing makes any greater statement than “we all play our instruments very well and can read each other well enough to make seamless transitions and take the dominant or backing role with no stumbles or hesitation.” Which is the core of jazz technique, but there’s got to be some emotional resonance there, too, and on Mysteries there just isn’t any – it’s virtuosity without feeling, and it slides right by like balls of mercury on a marble floor.

I'm taking the weekend off from this project - back on Monday to talk about 1977's Byablue.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

KEITH JARRETT: AN EXPLORATION, PART 5 OF 8

We’re now into the second half of this journey through Keith Jarrett’s ’70s Impulse! albums. Only three to go after this one. Shall we?

Shades is another four-song disc, two per vinyl side, recorded in 1975 along with its follow-up, Mysteries. It begins with the semi-title track, “Shades of Jazz,” a fast 10-minute number on which Jarrett and Dewey Redman state the melody, whereupon the saxophonist does a fast fade, leaving the music in the hands of the core trio. And you know what that means – plenty of Jarrett humming and buzzing as he dances on the keys. The piano playing is excellent, but that damn dragonfly just won’t leave the studio. In any case, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian set up a powerful groove that swings so hard it’s almost dance music. Redman reappears just after the halfway mark, and tears into a solo that sends the whole thing rocketing skyward. There’s some free/avant-garde skronk to his solo, but for the most part it’s very bluesy, almost reminding me of John Coltrane’s 1950s Prestige recordings, and the rhythm section kicks it out as furiously behind him as they did behind Jarrett. This is a red-hot track, and a great start to the album.

The second track, “Southern Smiles,” is similar in structure, but in execution it’s less headlong and more relaxed and groovin’ than “Shades of Jazz,” as its title might indicate.

The disc’s second half begins with “Rose Petals,” a free ballad reminiscent of late Coltrane both in the way that Motian is all over the kit, Rashied Ali style, and in the way Redman launches straight from the melody into a wide-ranging, tonally exploratory and yet also quite introspective solo. When Jarrett takes over the spotlight, he’s subdued to a nearly cocktail-lounge degree, and Motian immediately settles down, switching to brushes and effectively turning it into a whole different song. At about the six-minute mark (of a nine-minute piece), Haden gets his first solo of the album, and he keeps it super-spare, letting each note ring out as the microphone captures every slide of his fingers up and down the strings and Motian and Jarrett support him with chimes and delicate, almost classical piano. The momentum and energy build very gradually, and everybody, Redman included comes together to take the piece out at a slow but intense burn, with Motian returning to free time as things wind up.

“Diatribe,” which closes the album, is sort of a combination of everything that’s come before. The melody is winding and herky-jerky at once, like a circus fanfare, but the band gets very free immediately after the initial statement, with Haden switching between rapid, forceful plucking and fierce work with the bow, as Motian and Jarrett tear it up on either side of him. Jarrett in particular is really pounding away, heading almost into Cecil Taylor territory. Redman’s solo is a festival of growl and skronk, basically prefiguring Charles Gayle, and there’s both drumming and other percussion behind him, making for a ferocious overall attack that reminds me of the title track from Archie Shepp’s The Magic Of Ju-Ju, where he rips and roars for something like 20 minutes over a never-ending stream of rhythm. Jarrett has another go at the keyboard at around the six-minute mark, thundering on the far left side in a way that’ll bounce you out of your chair if you’ve got big enough speakers. But rather than convulse and carom all the way to the end, they bring it home traditionally, returning to the melody and letting a few reverbed notes from Haden’s bass be the final sounds heard.

This is an excellent record, possibly my favorite of the run. It’s definitely the farthest out I’ve heard the group go so far (I don't think most people would even ID "Diatribe" as a Jarrett track if you played it for them cold), and it’s making me really look forward to Mysteries, four more tracks also recorded in 1975. But we’ll get into that tomorrow.