Thursday, November 11, 2004


First, some thoughts on the new Napalm Death album.

Now, drums.

I've been listening to a lot of late-60s Archie Shepp albums. Not just the BYG titles (Poem For Malcolm and Yasmina, A Black Woman and Blasé and Live In Antibes) but also the contemporaneous releases Black Gypsy and Coral Rock. I haven't dug too deeply into his slightly earlier Impulse! stuff; I've only heard Four For Trane and Live In San Francisco, and the latter was kind of a disappointment (I think the utter wankfest Three For A Quarter, One For A Dime, appended as a bonus track, was what ruined it for me). I'm planning to get around to The Way Ahead and Mama Too Tight, though - just not this week or next.

Anyway, the drum sound on Coral Rock and Black Gypsy and some of the BYG studio albums is what's been worming around inside my head for a little while now. Shepp's sax tone is impressive, sure, but the backing band as a whole is mixed so weirdly that when I'm listening to the records, it's all I can focus on. (It helps that a lot of the tracks are 20-minutes-plus, and feature lengthy stretches of rhythm section vamping with only a little chanting or whatever going on up front.)

The drums don't sound like drums. They sound like cardboard boxes stuffed with rags, being thumped by wooden rulers stolen from a nearby elementary school. No echo, no reverb, no crack of the snare. Just thump, thump, thump, like someone stomping on the ceiling in thick socks.

Before hearing these Shepp albums, the weirdest, most distinctive drum sound I'd heard was Ted Parsons' on Prong's Beg To Differ album. Again completely reverb-free, it was a dry crack like snapping tree branches in an airless room, and it totally matched their harsh but ultra-tight post-hardcore version of metal. I'm also fascinated by the way Sunny Murray, on his albums and other folks', attacks the cymbals like a three-year-old, just slashing away at them until the whole middle of the mix is a continuous white-noise crash, like tidal waves sweeping away seaside hotels. (I used that line in my first book, but I haven't thought of a better one yet, so too bad.) This thumping on all these Shepp records is something else again, though. Even the cymbals sound muffled, in a way, like they're made of thick tin, or stainless steel, rather than copper.

In a way, it adds to the primitive feel of the records - and make no mistake, Shepp's sax playing is downright Neanderthal at times, and I'm sure it's deliberate. After all, he once said, "I'm not a romantic - I'm a sentimentalist." Hand him an array of brushes, he'll grab the broadest one every time.

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