Friday, October 28, 2005

#578469 IN A SERIES

I never thought I'd give a shit about the subject again, but this essay on the use of pop music in commercials is actually pretty well written. Some good lines/ideas:

Pop by its democratic nature has destroyed barriers and prejudices (good), yet by its capitalistic nature has always been available for cooptation by the power elites (bad). Pop stars inspire our best energies and make us feel alive (good); yet virtually all have committed personal offenses and ethical outrages we would never accept from those close to us (bad). Pop's consumers are able to select from a panoply of musical and stylistic options (good); but because millions of other consumers are also involved, engaging with pop often means putting up with other people's dumb infatuations, from The Bay City Rollers to "The Macarena" (very bad).

Pop was never pure, damn it: Colonel Tom Parker sent Elvis's Cadillac on tour, Brian Epstein signed off on Beatle talcum powder, and Rolling Stone once offered free roach-clips as a subscription premium. Today Shania Twain sings for Target and Bob Dylan has an exclusive deal with Starbucks. But wait, Target gives back to the community, and Dylan is Dylan … Pop-wise, you've got to grade on the curve: Hold the culture, its practitioners, and its consumers to too rigid a standard of purity, and we all fail.

We're holding bits of ourselves -- heart, values, viscera -- above the chaotic fray in the form of beloved songs. But in so doing, we're also demanding that everyone else recognize our personal bits as inviolate. Don't touch them. Don't even look at them funny. That's when cherishing music becomes a waste of positive passion, a miserly mission -- given, once again, the context that pop culture inevitably, uniquely constructs. What cultural commissar or committee of cool will decide which songs are available for exploitation and which are not? Which artists need defending from the taint of commercialism and which don't? Nike were once assailed for using The Beatles' "Revolution" to sell running shoes; but no furor broke when The Beach Boys' "California Girls" vivified a shampoo ad. Additionally, this anti-commercial bias is a very white thing: I can't remember any controversy over a black artist's music being used in advertising. In fact, back when those Budweiser frogs were crawling around to the tune of Bob Marley's "Jammin'," most people thought it was really funny.


Lately it seems like I can't get more than two CD reviews into a single issue of The Wire. I send 'em three, and one just vanishes. So I've decided to place two of those orphaned pieces here, for your "enjoyment."

Simulated Progress

Fieldwork started life as a three-way collaboration, but it’s beginning to feel more like the Vijay Iyer Trio, as he’s the only original member left on this second release. Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman has replaced Aaron Stewart, and drummer Elliot Kavee has departed since the recording, with Tyshawn Sorey taking his place. Simulated Progress is a muscular-sounding disc, produced and engineered by Scott Harding (best known as “Scotty Hard,” a former WordSound and New Kingdom collaborator). He gives Kavee’s drums a pleasing bit of extra thump, filling the low-end space vacated by the absence of a bassist. On the third track, “Trips,” there’s a weird effect applied that makes them sound pleasingly artificial. Ayer’s got a light touch on the keyboard; he’s been the gleaming center of a number of discs on which he’s guested, including several Burnt Sugar albums and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Mother Tongue. Without a bassist present, he’s required to indicate chordal structure for each piece while adding filigree and melodic ornamentation, and he balances both tasks with deftness and a quick intellect. His interactions with Lehman are high evolutions of the post-bop art form, reminiscent of the dances between Greg Osby and Jason Moran. The shortest track on the disc, “Telematic,” is also one of the most interesting, adopting an almost Latin rhythm that creates plenty of opportunities for each player to assume a temporary lead role, all in less than three minutes. Though there’s plenty of free playing here, no one in Fieldwork seems interested in the extremist clichés of free jazz; there’s no screaming, no pounding of the keyboard, no smashing and slashing of the drums and cymbals. Their music is a graceful, yet sturdy sort of chamber jazz, consistently surprising and unique without pressing the issue.


Out Of A Center Which Is Neither Dead Nor Alive
At A Loss

All metal is mood music, but a new mood is now being soundtracked. Many bands have recently begun to eschew rage, discovering in its place the pleasures of slowness, of grace and a morose, manly psychedelia. Neurosis and Isis are the two most commonly cited forefathers of this blossoming subgenre, but Minsk and other second-generation slow-throb acts are moving the torch a good distance down the road. What’s most striking about this music is how adeptly it subverts or sidesteps metal’s traditional insistence on catharsis. It’s New Age music of a sort: it fills the room, and it’s often quite beautiful, but its ebb and flow are so regular and smooth that it acts as a sedative rather than a stimulant. The drums don’t crash explosively, or batter the music forward – they maintain a steady rhythm that’s not fast enough to move an audience, but not slow enough to put them entirely to sleep, either. The guitars advance and recede like the tides, roaring and downtuned but, because of the near-total absence of blues, never truly “heavy” in the Sabbathian sense. (Go back and re-hear just how swinging a rhythm section Bill Ward and Geezer Butler really were.) And the vocals are indecipherable yet essentially melancholy, like a caveman racked by howling sobs. Even a guest appearance by Yakuza saxophonist Bruce Lamont on the album’s final track can’t totally blow the mists away. Minsk are happier being stately and beautiful (always in a chest-beating way, of course) than headbanging, or inspiring headbanging in others.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Two pieces in the Scene this week: Cryptopsy and Deftones. Both very much worth your money, whether you're in Ohio or not. (Cryptopsy will be in NYC on 11/7, along with Suffocation, Decapitated, Vader, Despised Icon, Aborted, and Dew-Scented - two tours coming together on a single night, for a totally gratuitous overdose of death metal. I can't wait.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


The UK music magazine The Wire has a back-page column called "Epiphanies," in which writers wax poetic/nostalgic about a major musical moment in their lives. In the October 2005 issue, it was my turn, and I chose to discuss Borbetomagus's cassette-only Live In Allentown release. Jim Sauter, a very good guy as well as 1/3 of Borbetomagus, saw it (as I kinda figured he would) and got in touch with me. Seems they'd been planning to reissue the long-vanished Allentown on CD, but the project had run out of steam...until they saw my piece and got re-enthused. They even wanted to use my piece as the liner notes. So of course I said yes, and sent them the following very slightly revised version, which will show up in a CD store near you probably sometime in 2006. In the meantime, enjoy the piece.

BORBETOMAGUS – Live In Allentown
Original version from The Wire 260, October 2005

Like many music journalists/critics, my listening habits are in continual flux, my tastes evolving and mutating day by day. There are some constants – anything that could be called Metal will get at least an idly curious half-listen, anything that could be called Indie will get binned without a backward glance. Jazz of the “free” variety (however one defines that), particularly 60s reissues, will get a warm welcome; post-bop or smooth fusion will have to argue much more strenuously for itself. But I’m always willing to be surprised. I was recently blindsided by the Kompakt label compilation Total 6, after years of ignoring techno. It’s important to always be ready to hear something that will totally change the way you think about music.

The first record I can remember pressuring my father to buy for me was Judas Priest’s Screaming For Vengeance, in 1982, when I was about to turn eleven. By 1987, I was a metalhead to the marrow of my bones, making an occasional side trip into punk – Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Bad Brains, the Minutemen. (Remember, this was America – suburban New Jersey, to be precise. To this day, I have not heard Never Mind The Bollocks in its entirety, and the only version of the Clash’s debut I know is the one with “I Fought The Law” on it.) I owned exactly five jazz records: Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue, Bitches Brew and Tutu, and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Meditations.

Spin magazine, which had recently supplanted Rolling Stone as my primary source for information about new music, featured Byron Coley’s “Underground” column in its record review section. It was the most interesting thing in the magazine by a long stretch. I couldn’t always decipher his prose to figure out what he was praising about the acts he discussed, and anyhow I’d never heard of a single one of them, but it was a fascinating, must-read section, month after month. It was there that I read about Borbetomagus, specifically their cassette-only release Live In Allentown. I don’t have the magazine anymore, so I can’t quote Coley’s prose, but whatever he wrote about this sax-sax-guitar trio from upstate New York, I had to hear them.

I knew there was no way my local record store was going to be able to get Live In Allentown for me. I was going to have to go somewhere that really catered to the obscure and outré – Bleecker Bob’s, in Greenwich Village. I’d never been there before, only walking past a few times on the way to a nearby comic store. But somehow I was certain that they would have this thing, if anyone would. So I made the tremulous journey into what I thought was the very beating heart of underground music. I walked in the store, awed by the vinyl sleeves that covered the walls and the surly, leather-and-black-denim-clad clerks who I was certain would beat my suburban ass and throw me back to the sidewalk, knowing how unworthy I was to sully their punk rock shrine with my presence. But they didn’t. And sure enough, in the glass case where they kept their cassettes, there it was. Red-and-black construction paper cover, white plastic case. I think I paid six dollars. I put it in my battered Walkman on the way out the door.

When the first hideously distorted shrieks and roars hit my ears, I almost fell over from the raw force of it. That couldn’t be a saxophone – it sounded like someone being torn limb from limb. Was that a guitar, or someone revving up a gigantic engine to the brink of explosion? In truth, it was hard to even discern one sound from the others. Nothing on the tape had any obvious reference points in anything else I owned, or had ever heard. Even Meditations, the screechiest album in my collection, sounded like lounge music compared to this. I was terrified, but I couldn’t stop listening. I had to hear what came next.

The first side of the tape contains a single long piece, ending in tape slice. The second side picks up with what might be the same piece. After eight minutes or so, there’s a brief burst of applause, and some shouts of “Encore!” from a very enthusiastic woman, then the next (and final) section begins. The Borbetomagus lineup documented is a quartet, with Adam Nodelman on bass in addition to saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich and guitarist Donald Miller. Nodelman actually plays some fairly straight low chords near the end of the second side, as though attempting to anchor the music and keep it from becoming total noise. Toward the end, someone (maybe a Borbetomagus member) begins vocalizing in a manner reminiscent of early Butthole Surfers, as Miller’s guitar and at least one of the saxophones continue to sputter, snarl and squeal.

I listened to Live In Allentown almost daily for a couple of years, even forcing it on friends who wanted no part. I began to memorize the subtle, almost intuitive shifts in what had initially seemed like an unceasing, undifferentiated roar. The interplay between group members revealed itself. And this repeated close listening began to alter the way I heard other music. I sought out harsher and more punishing sounds in general, yes, but I also started to pick apart all the music I heard, trying to understand what each player was contributing to the whole, rather than hearing a record as a solid mass with the vocalist slapped on top like a pizza topping. Live In Allentown taught me to listen like a critic.

I’ve still got my original cassette copy of Live In Allentown (which until now has been ridiculously rare, not even listed in many Borbeto discographies). To my amazement, it’s never melted down or spooled out of its case. I recently took it out and converted it to CD-R, and stuffed its two long tracks into my iPod. To this day, it’s my favorite Borbetomagus recording, and to my ear the best thing they’ve ever done. Now that it’s been reissued on disc, I can go back anytime I want and get whacked in the head by it all over again, just like when I was fifteen and first discovering that there was more to music than metal.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


The new Exodus album is really, really good. Not Top Ten of 2005, but Top Thirty no problem.

Monday, October 10, 2005


For some time now, a sizable percentage of the promo CDs I receive have been getting short shrift, because I do most of my music listening on my iPod. And in order to foil wily file-sharers (of which I am not one), record companies have been encoding their promo CDs as 99 tracks rather than 10 or 12 or however many songs the album in question actually contains. When you try and suck a song that's broken into 10 chunks into your iPod, you get a little one-second break, just long enough to annoy the hell out of you and totally break your rockin'-trance, between the chunks. So a lot of albums that would ordinarily have gotten a dozen listens have gotten at most one or two, because hearing them broken up that way is just too damn annoying.

Well, at the Meshuggah show Friday night, a buddy of mine pointed out that iTunes has this feature called "Join CD Tracks." It does what it says it does - it splices all these tiny tracks together, seamlessly, so you've got a whole song again. I don't wanna get all Mac-nerd here, but I got a tech stiffy when I spotted this feature on the "Advanced" menu on Saturday morning.

Needless to say, I immediately gathered up all those annoying promos (and a few DJ mix-discs that suffer from the same problem), and imported 'em all. So now, at last, I can fully enjoy the following fine, fine records:

Arch Enemy, Doomsday Machine
God Forbid, IV: Constitution Of Treason
Richie Hawtin, Decks, EFX & 909 and DE9: Closer To The Edit
Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz, We Run The South
Mistress, In Disgust We Trust
Origin, Echoes Of Decimation
The Red Chord, Clients
Various Artists, The Kings Of House

Three of these discs (Arch Enemy, God Forbid, and Origin) now have a significantly better chance of making my year-end Top Ten list than they did before this past weekend. Thanks, iTunes!

(Yes, I know I'm the last person in the world to discover this. That knowledge tempers my joy not one jot.)

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Meshuggah, God Forbid, the Haunted, and Mnemic (who I missed), BB King's, NYC.

The Haunted play extremely Slayer-indebted retro thrash, but with a singer who's a Napalm Death-esque barker/growler, and they're pretty good at it, but I don't need a whole lot of that in my life. As the second of four bands on a bill, they're fine. I never play the albums I have by them, though.

God Forbid got an abridged set because proceedings were running late, but they tore the place down nonetheless. They're from South Jersey, and their singer is a huge dreaded black dude who can roar until you're checking your shirtfront for bloody lung-chunks. (The drummer is also black, and the two guitarists are brothers and at least mixed-race; the only straight-up white guy in the band is the bassist.) Their music is metalcore with old-school power metal lead guitar parts, and the new album is great, might even make my Top Ten for the year.

Meshuggah are as inhumanly precise live as on their albums, which is impressive enough. But they manage to actually put on a show, instead of just staring at their fingers and counting in their heads the whole time, which makes them doubly worth checking out. (They hit the riffs on 6 and 8, and unison-headbang on 3 and's kinda hilarious to watch death metal crowds, used to a straight 4/4, try to mosh to this stuff.) Fredrik Thordendal's guitar solos tend to be him striking one note, then coaxing as many bizarre harmonics out of it as he can for a half a minute or so, then hitting another note, etc., etc. He defies all metal conventions, and does so brilliantly. The set was mostly material from their 2002 album Nothing, plus a couple of excerpts from Catch 33 (their new, one-long-song disc), with a few earlier tracks from Chaosphere and Destroy, Erase, Improve (which tend to be faster and slightly more rhythmically conventional than the Nothing stuff) thrown in to keep the lifers happy. I can't recommend Meshuggah highly enough. Technically brilliant, with the alienating precision of a robot beehive, but heavy as hell, too. And frontman Jens has a great sense of humor - when the crowd started chanting "Me-shug-gah, Me-shug-gah," he let them do it about three times, then barked "Stop that nonsense!" and launched into the next song. There were also repeated calls for mass audience nudity (fortunately, unheeded). Check 'em out if they hit your town.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Here are some notes on things I have recently purchased or otherwise obtained.

Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, At Carnegie Hall - a 48-year-old vault scraping that flat-out smokes every new jazz album I've heard this year. Sad, kinda.

Sunn O))), Black One - their last two, the twin White discs, made me worry that the robed 'n' bearded ones had gone hippie. They've returned to form with this ultra-dark slab. Crank it up loud enough to scare away every trick-or-treater for a ten-block radius.

Earth, Hex: Or, Printing In The Infernal Method - pretty good in an ambient-death-country kinda way, but most reviews are too nostalgia-sodden to admit that it just doesn't pack the same flesh-melting power as the old stuff.

Disturbed, Ten Thousand Fists - smart guys making arena metal for the 2000s. They're still ripping off KMFDM, the singer still reverts to chimpery when he's not wailing like a cantor, but there are genuinely stirring choruses here, and guitar solos too, which was always the missing ingredient in their sound. Believe, from 2002, is still their best album, but this one's very solid.

Natalia y la Forquetina, Casa - petite art-pop girl goes "rock" (less turntables, more guitars, production by a member of Café Tacuba instead of by some studio hacks). Just as much fun as the debut, but maybe a little more aggressive. Fuck yer reggaeton - "Ser Humano" is my Spanish-language single of the year.

Various Artists, Total 1-6 - ultra-cyborgy German techno. Yeah, I'm late to the party on this; bought Vol. 6 on the basis of a rare cogent 'n' convincing Pitchfork review, and loved it so much I sprung for Vols. 1-5 less than a month later, when some money arrived.

Aphex Twin, Analord - the whole series, on 3 CD-Rs, from a writer buddy. It's acid; if you liked that sound in the late 80s, or if like me (an electronic-music-ignorant metalhead) you recently discovered it via the Soul Jazz Can You Jack? compilation and dug it and wished you hadn't missed out back then, you'll like these tracks. He should make a nice official 3-CD set out of 'em.

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde - after watching big chunks of that two-night PBS thing, I had a friend mail me burns of these two albums, which I'd never heard end to end before. I never need to listen to "Desolation Row" again as long as I live, but other than that H61R pretty much smokes. I even like it better than the live 1966 discs, which I've had for a couple of years (I only ever play the electric one) - the studio album is more ramshackle, like Tom Waits trying to rave up. BOB is a little less of-a-piece, but also pretty good. This Dylan guy - overrated, yeah, but he's got his moments.