Wednesday, December 31, 2008


The annual Village Voice Jazz Critics' Poll results are in. I voted based mostly on stuff I'd written about during the year; I didn't spend much time listening to new jazz in 2008, to be honest. But I managed to cobble together a Top Ten, so here 'tis:

1. Anthony Braxton, Milford Graves, William Parker, Beyond Quantum (Tzadik)
2. Aaron Parks, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note)
3. Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, Holon (ECM)
4. Bill Dixon, 17 Musicians In Search of a Sound: Darfur (AUM Fidelity)
5. Bill Dixon & Exploding Star Orchestra, s/t (Thrill Jockey)
6. Stephen Haynes & Taylor Ho Bynum, The Double Trio: Live at the Festival of New Trumpet Music (Engine Studios)
7. Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, Tabligh (Cuneiform)
8. Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Doxy/Emarcy)
9. Jeff Gauthier's Goatette, House of Return (Cuneiform)
10. Totem>, Solar Forge (ESP-Disk)

Anthony Braxton, The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic)

Monday, December 29, 2008


[This is a column I wrote for the New Times/Village Voice Media chain; it was printed last week on the blogs of a bunch of papers in Denver, L.A., Dallas, Phoenix, Miami, Nashville, Kansas City, etc.]


In a year worthy of your rage, metal delivered in spades. What with the economy circling the drain and Sarah Palin coming down from the tundra and then refusing to go back, 2008's been the kind of year that really makes you want to smash your head into walls or punch random strangers in the face. Good thing there were so many awesome records available to serve as a soundtrack for exactly that kind of behavior. The ten discs below are just the tip of a very big, very heavy iceberg. Metal seems to grow stronger each year; 2009 will bring new albums by Mastodon, Deftones, Lamb of God and more. In the meantime, check these out.

Death Magnetic
(Warner Bros.)
Five years after their last comeback, they did it right. Combining the punishing thrash of their early glory years with the thick, bluesy grooves of their 1990s output, the members of Metallica reclaimed their throne as America's kings of metal. Songs like "That Was Just Your Life," "My Apocalypse" and "Cyanide" are made to be heard blasting through speakers bigger than your goddamn house, but even on an iPod, they'll have you clenching your fists and banging your head like a fourteen-year-old amped on testosterone and Red Bull.

Opeth's last album, Ghost Reveries, took its progressive black/death-metal sound to its logical endpoint. So the band took a sharp left turn, incorporating a new guitarist and drummer, psychedelic studio trickery, odd rhythms and even a female vocalist on the folky, emotionally affecting opening track, "Coil." Of course, none of this means that Opeth has forgotten how to bring the heavy: "Heir Apparent" is one of the most assaultive songs of its career, including a drum solo that announces its evolution quite capably.

Twilight of the Thunder God
(Metal Blade)The Vikings have returned. Over the course of their last four albums, these burly Swedes have earned the devotion of an increasing (and increasingly rabid) fan base. This time out, they bring guests on board their wooden ship for the first time, including Entombed vocalist L.G. Petrov, Children of Bodom guitarist Roope Latvala, and, on "Live for the Kill," the cellists of Apocalyptica. Oh, and there was a limited edition that came with bobblehead dolls of the entire band.

Black Ice(Sony)
A lot of veterans returned this year - Metallica back after five years, Guns N' Roses after fifteen. AC/DC took an eight-year break after 2000's Stiff Upper Lip, and the downtime did the band good: The fifteen tracks on Black Ice are among the strongest of its career. The group's members have somehow managed to remain totally unaffected by their legacy, cranking out one riff-heavy slab after another as though being one of the world's greatest hard-rock bands were no big deal. Well, it is, and songs like "Decibel," "War Machine" and "Money Made" prove that Angus and the boys will be kings as long as they feel like it.

Chinese Democracy
(Black Frog/Geffen)
Was it worth a fifteen-year wait? Not really. Is it great? Yeah, it kinda is. Axl Rose is a perfectionist, and every second of Chinese Democracy sounds amazing. And musically, even though some of the songs date back to the Use Your Illusion writing sessions, it holds together as a cohesive work of art. The band's new high-tech, industrial-metal sound doesn't sound dated or cheesy, and Axl's vocals, though slightly roughened by age, are as powerful as ever. This is one hell of a welcome comeback.

The Way of All Flesh
Calling a group "France's best metal band" might have been enough to get you punched a few years ago, but lately the French have been stepping up to the plate, and Gojira's no joke. Environmentally conscious lyrics mix with riffs that are Meshuggah-esque, if the members of Meshuggah were human and not, you know, evil cyborgs from the future. The rhythms are intricate but thrashy, and the production is absolutely impeccable. The bigger your speakers, the better this album sounds, and if you can catch Gojira live, it'll make your year.

The Thin Line Between
Gorguts, Voivod, Cryptopsy: There's something in the water in French Canada that makes dudes go berserk and join ultra-complex technical metal bands. Neuraxis changed vocalists in '07 and labels in '08, and the combination resulted in its catchiest ("catchy" is a highly relative term here) album to date. The riffs are almost simplistic enough to headbang to without a calculator, and the drumming will make you want to climb a concrete wall using just your teeth. Fair warning: Frontman Alex Leblanc is a wrestler, and not the WWE kind, so hecklers beware.

The metal gods' first album with returning frontman Rob Halford was just okay, but they went big on this one. Nostradamus is a double-disc concept album about the prophet of the same name. There's no need to follow the "story," though; you can headbang straight through, only pausing to giggle when Halford sings in Italian. The occasional synth patches are made up for by awesome guitar solos, and watch out for "Death," possibly the heaviest song in the entire JP discography. These guys helped invent metal, and they're still leading the pack.

Gods of the Earth
The obnoxious term "hipster metal" was slapped on these guys early, but this sophomore full-length is all the proof anybody should need that the Sword is 100 percent for real. Fuck, the band is opening Metallica's U.S. tour, and those guys know their metal. Sword songs are fist-pumping, headbanging anthems with fierce guitar riffs and skull-cracking drums. There's plenty of room in the club for a group this heavy and aggressive.

(Profound Lore)
These guys play a classicist, fantasy-minded blend of doom metal and biker rock; their album cover depicts Conan holding a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other, and looks like it could have come straight off the side of a custom Chevy van. The riffs are thunderous, the vocals raw-throated and powerful, and the songs epic. Don't sleep on this obscure but deserving album.


A Map Only Tells Me What I Already Know: Live In Europe 2001
David Thomas's onstage persona is an unsettling mix of shaman, performance artist and working class crank. His lyrics revolve around images of closed factories, lights in the distance and long midnight drives through what's frequently described as 'flyover country' - not so much 'the old, weird America' as 'the slowly dying America.' These live recordings are not songs as much as onstage improvisations around the aforementioned themes (also explored on the Pale Boys' studio album Surf's Up! and its predecessor, 1999's Mirror Man). There are two versions each of "Night Driving" from Surf's Up! and "Lost Nation Road" from Mirror Man, as well as run-throughs - the former relatively straightforward, the latter apocalyptic - of the Pere Ubu tracks "Non-Alignment Pact" and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," but everything else is improvised and all the more compelling for it. Instrumentalists Keith Moliné and Andy Diagram, on guitar and trumpet respectively with a host of effects, create the illusion of a much larger group; over their swirls of sound, Thomas mutters and howls about bridges, drunk driving and shooting out one's television set. The lyrics are elliptical but, taken together, embody a worldview that's part Springsteen, part Bukowski, while remaining piercingly aware of the performative aspect at all times. "That's not much of a song," he croons at the end of "River," and the drunk driving talk on "Lost Nation Road" inspires a great bit of stage banter, as a deadpan Thomas informs the audience that the Dutch government requires him to state that his exhortations - "Let's get drunk and drive real fast" - are merely metaphorical and not behavior to be emulated. The last words heard are "I hope you're satisfied now." Yes. Yes, we are.

Trumpeter Ted Daniel is best known for his work alongside David S. Ware in Andrew Cyrille's 1970s group Maono, and a brief partnership with Sonny Sharrock that began with the guitarist's appearance on the sole album by Daniel's group Brute Force, and continued on Sharrock's Black Woman. Tapestry, recorded in 1974 at Ornette Coleman's Artists House and produced by Noah Howard, features Daniel's brother and Brute Force bandmate Richard on organ, Khan Jamal on vibes and Jerome Cooper on drums. It's pretty much an archetypal early '70s loft session, three tracks in 35 minutes with a new, 15-minute bonus cut opening this CD. On that track, "Asagefo," Daniel's trumpet lines ripple the air as Jamal's vibes, Richard Daniel's organ and Cooper's percussion create a churning storm of sound. But the title track is spacious and billowing, swinging occasionally but also storming softly like a cross between In A Silent Way and Joe McPhee's CjR albums, until Cooper takes over the second half with a five-minute drum solo that builds from gentle to crushing. "Sweet Dreams (For Your Eyes)" and "Mozambique" amplify the album's mix of fusion and freedom.


The End
The uroboros is a mythical snake eating its own tail, hardly an appropriate symbol for Dir En Grey's latest album, which finds the band progressing further down the deep, dark tunnel that is their aesthetic instead of simply rehashing their past musical accomplishments. Overconfident in some ways (the album passes the one-hour mark with ease), the band do make a few concessions to a growing U.S. fanbase on Uroboros, singing in English on "Glass Skin" and "Dozing Green." It'd be hard to tell, of course, without reading the lyric booklet - vocalist Kyo's accent and expressionist delivery translate all languages into Kyo-ese. Good thing the postpunk-meets-hardcore guitars, thunderous drums, and depressive, hallucinatory ballads work on universal levels. If you've ever worn black or cried tears of rage (never mind both at the same time), Uroboros could score your year.

Too Pure To Die vocalist Paul Zurlo sounds like he'd punch us in the side of the neck really hard if we ever met, especially if we tried to explain in person just how boring and rote this album is. Honestly, who needs the stress? Okay, maybe that's overstating the case a little; TPTD may be happiest barking out Hatebreed-esque moshpit anthems (Jamey Jasta and Zeuss co-produced Confess), but they throw some very gentle sonic curveballs the listener's way, including dribbles of synth and Mudvayne-ish choruses. Still, their preferred mode of expression is the breakdown, and there's only so much of that even the most testosterone-poisoned knuckle-dragger needs before he furros his prognathous brow and mumbles, "Didn't you just play this song?" But he'd almost certainly return to punching at the floor with his bros moments later.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I have nothing to offer at this time, so here's a typically interesting and worthwhile interview with Joe Carducci: Part 1, Part 2.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


[I've been writing for Jazziz since 2002 or so, but this is my first cover story for them. I think it turned out pretty well.]

Pianist Aaron Parks brings an alt-rock attitude to his Blue Note debut.

Aaron Parks’ long blond hair falls around his face, framing startlingly blue, long-lashed eyes. The nails of his sandaled feet are painted alternately turquoise and pumpkin-orange. It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon, and Parks’ debut disc as a leader, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note), has already been out for two days, but the Virgin Megastore in Union Square isn’t stocking it yet. If the pianist is disappointed, it doesn’t show. We retire to a park bench across the street, attempting to make ourselves heard over passing trucks and the supplications of the homeless.

Parks’ fingers wind around each other restlessly as he talks. He pops his knuckles, bending the joints back and forth like a fighter preparing to be taped up. But the 24-year-old doesn’t possess a fighter’s aggressive demeanor. Instead he comes across as a genial hipster, a transplant from Seattle who now lives in Brooklyn. His conversation reveals the restless, questing mind of the boy he was not so long ago – a boy who, at the age of 14, left high school through an early-entrance college program to enroll as a triple-major (math, computer science and music) at the University of Washington.

At 16, Parks transferred to the Manhattan School of Music. During his final year of studies there, he began touring with Terence Blanchard. Subsequently, he appeared on three of the trumpeter’s albums – Flow, Bounce and A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) – as well as on the soundtracks to the Spike Lee films Inside Man, She Hate Me and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. He continued touring with Blanchard for five years before partnering with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.

“I really, really love the sound of guitar and piano in unison,” Parks says. “There’s this certain thing that happens when you meld those two instruments together, and it can create a third – in the same way that saxophone and trumpet sometimes meld into one instrument. I’m really addicted to that sound. It makes the melodies able to sing a bit more than a piano trio might be able to on a song. Plus, it gives this extra level of intensity you can build up to. You can get to a certain point with a piano trio, but then having another instrument that you can elevate beyond it, that’s one of the things I really love.”

Along with guitarist Lionel Loueke, Parks was a driving force in Blanchard’s band, and the trumpeter recalls his former pianist fondly. “Aaron always brought freshness through his compositions, unique writing, and use of different vehicles,” Blanchard says. “His playing has developed over time, and he has his own touch and unique sound, with a distinctive harmonic and rhythmic approach to music. I have no doubt about Aaron as a leader. He has vision and is creative. He's been on a path of personal growth for years, even as a young musician.”

That vision is apparent from the first chords of Invisible Cinema. “Travelers” kicks off the album with an intricate rhythm reminiscent of the programmed drum patterns on Radiohead’s Kid A. Parks’ right hand pounds the music forward, as his left dances with an agility that’s reminiscent of McCoy Tyner. But it’s the disc’s third cut, “Nemesis,” that serves as a sort of manifesto and as a microcosm of the whole album. Its combination of groove and grandeur defines Parks as both a musician and composer. He laughs when I compare the song’s melancholy opening figure to the current theme music for the TV series Battlestar Galactica, which he hasn’t heard.

“A lot of my melodies have that thing where they could almost be battle anthems,” he says. “I go for that. I’m drawn toward the archetypal, toward the big sweeping grand statements.” Mike Moreno’s electric guitar also contributes considerably to the piece’s impact. His strings of notes aren’t especially jazzy. Rather, they’re bluesy and loud, with a barbed twang somewhere between Larry Coryell and Lonnie Mack.

Parks enjoys employing odd time signatures – as long as he can sneak them under the listener’s radar. “People aren’t talking about the fact that almost every song is in an odd meter,” he says with a grin. “They don’t notice. But ‘Travelers,’ that’s in 15/4. The solo section in ‘Peaceful Warrior’ is in 9/4 for most of it…I love odd meters, but I love them when they happen organically, where you don’t even need to think about, ‘Oh, this is a weird meter.’ It just feels right.”
For this reason, Parks frequently leaves the most intense playing to his bandmates, whether it’s Moreno on guitar or hard-rocking Eric Harland on drums. “I’m much more in a role of trying to create subtlety in contrast to what the guitar is doing,” he explains. “That’s what I set out to do. But live, the music opens up and growls and becomes gigantic and angry. And the tunes become like rock anthems.”

Parks, though, is after a particular kind of fury, one that has more in common with King Crimson’s austerity than with, say, Metallica’s cataclysmic roar. And he’s no fan of grandstanding jazz players. “Discipline – that’s a huge concept,” he says. “And that’s something that is lacking in the current jazz culture. Everyone wants to be a showman, everyone wants to get house – take the long solo, build up to the climax, the crowd goes wild. They’re trying to be rock stars as jazz musicians. But I’m more interested in bringing the feeling of a rock concert without doing a showboating rock star-style solo. I think the music can take you there without having to be so singled out as an individual.”

Aaron Parks has made a jazz record that sounds a lot like an alternative-rock record. Clearly, jazz as it’s been largely understood for more than 70 years – acoustic instruments, blues-based swing, tunes from long-forgotten Broadway shows – doesn’t mean much to him. He posts poems and sketches on his MySpace page; he’s as fascinated by Brian Eno’s Ambient IV: On Land as by Wayne Shorter’s discography; and he understands in a way few musicians older than 40 can that the imperative to “make jazz relevant” doesn’t mean – can never mean – returning it to its pre-rock and roll status in American culture.

“The jazz tradition is about incorporating popular culture, all the time,” he explains. “Those show tunes, those were pop tunes at the time. But [musicians have] continued to record them for 50 years, and as a result jazz has stopped being a music that people identify with because it’s not reflecting what’s going on in the culture. People are stuck in the past. You can really love and respect the past, and try to study it and understand it, and that’s great. But I don’t think trying to duplicate it is a very good idea.”

This logic would seem to put Parks at odds with many of his predecessors, but in line with many of his peers. “In a sense, I would say that for a long time we were going through the ‘Wynton generation,’” he says. “I don’t think we’re there anymore. I think Brad Mehldau has assumed the forefront, in a sense, in terms of what the young musicians are paying attention to, who their role models are – a certain type of openness to other forms of music. And that’s shaped – and is shaping – a new culture of jazz, which I think is a good thing. And the media and the record labels and all those different things are finally starting to come around to this.”

Terence Blanchard agrees, saying, “Aaron is part of a movement of younger musicians who have a unique approach to music based on their cultural upbringing. He has grown up in different times from us, which ensures us that his approach will be and should be different than ours.”

“One of the things that I give thanks for is that I didn’t jump into leadership,” Parks says. “It was possible. I’ve been talking to Blue Note since I was 16 or 17 about doing things. But I wasn’t ready then and I knew it. And with my apprenticeship in Terence’s band for five years and in Kurt’s band for the last two years, I learned so much. Without those experiences, I would have never been able to make a record that I can stand behind, like I did with this one. It would have been a record of some standards, with some haphazardly chosen originals – just the new young guy who’s got some technique and whatever. But to me, that’s a pretty boring story. It’s been told over and over, and it’s not interesting anymore.”

“The whole young lions thing, I mean, that formula should have died in the ’80s, and I think it really did die as far as listeners are concerned,” he continues. “They’re not interested in that anymore. But that’s the thing that’s worked in the past, and everybody’s reluctant to abandon it. So everybody’s still looking for the next hot young thing.”


[From the SF Weekly.]

"We will always be a Bay Area band till the day I die," Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett says with heartfelt emphasis. "We pride ourselves as being part of the musical history of the Bay Area."

As the metal titans play their home turf this week, they do so in triumph on the heels of new album Death Magnetic, which what many are calling the group's best in 20 years. Good thing, too. What with drummer Lars Ulrich's anti-Napster testimony to Congress and subsequent lawsuits against file-sharing fans; the self-pitying documentary Some Kind of Monster; and 2003's St. Anger, with its trash-can drumming, 12-step lyrics, and general sonic ugliness, the group has some ground to make up. Hammett is philosophical about Metallica's ups and downs with fans. "We are a band that means so many different things to so many different people, and everyone wants their version of Metallica to be the predominant one," he says. "That's something that we're aware of, and it's also something we're aware that you can't really fight or try to change."

He's right: Some folks say Metallica lost it after 1990's Black Album, while others say the fall started after 1988's ...And Justice for All, and still others draw the line at 1986's Master of Puppets. But by blending the intricate thrash of the band's early years with the powerful groove of its underrated '90s discs (aided by new bassist Rob Trujillo, formerly of Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne's band), Death Magnetic has made Metallica an act to be worshipped again. Songs like "My Apocalypse," "All Nightmare Long," and "Cyanide" pummel the listener with crushing riffs, fleet solos, and fist-pumping choruses.

Hammett looks back at the sessions, helmed by career-resuscitator-to-the-stars Rick Rubin, with fondness and pride. "I think we needed to be in the studio with just the four of us writing music, and then going in and working at our own pace, just hashing it out among ourselves," he says. He adds that Rubin kept Metallica focused on a very specific concept: Making music "like we did ... in the '80s."

Death Magnetic also marks the end of Metallica's major-label contract. So what does the future hold? "At the expense of looking like some kind of fuckin' asshole, I'm not gonna answer that question," Hammett says with a laugh, "because there might not even be a record industry five years from now. There might not even be a CD format anymore. Everything might go directly to our cell phones. Who fuckin' knows, man?"

One thing the guitarist does know for sure — his band is just one part of a major resurgence of American metal in 2008. Some of the best U.S. metal bands are currently opening Metallica's tour, including (on various dates) fellow Bay Area stalwarts Machine Head — whose members have been reviving their own careers in recent years — New Orleans doom revivalists Down, Texas-based stoner groove monsters the Sword, and Virginia's politically aware crushers Lamb of God. "I was watching them the other night, and thinking, 'Fuck, man, it was my idea to get 'em on the bill, and I think we've got our fuckin' work cut out for us,'" says Hammett of Lamb of God.

He shouldn't feel threatened, though. Metallica is as good as it's been in two decades. Now, if the band could just stop taking more than five years between albums...

Thursday, December 04, 2008


[From the Cleveland Free Times.]

After 15 years, Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy has finally arrived. We couldn't think of anyone better to discuss it with than Chad Atkins (a.k.a. "Notquiteaxl"), frontman for Appetite for Destruction, the nation's premier Guns tribute band. They're currently on tour with AC/DC tribute act Back in Black; both bands will be at House of Blues this weekend for a blowout show. In a recent phone interview, Atkins spoke about the new G N' R album and why his band sticks to playing the classic stuff.

So have you heard Chinese Democracy? What do you think? Worth the wait?
It's sitting right in front of me. I've got mixed emotions. Generally, I'm happy it's out, and I think it's a pretty good record. There's some songs on there that kinda go over my head right now, but that doesn't mean that I won't eventually like them or appreciate them anyway. But I would say the majority of the songs are good. "Better" is a nice song. "Chinese Democracy," I think anybody that's cared to hear something has heard that by now. There's a couple of piano songs on here that are really good, there's a "November Rain"-esque song, "Street of Dreams," that's pretty cool. I think that you're gonna have some people that are gonna pick it up and go, 'Oh, it's stupid, there's no Slash,' or something like that. But the truth is, it's been a decade and a half since you heard anything these guys did, and it's just one [original] guy now, so it's not gonna sound the same.

Some of these songs have been played live for years and demo versions have leaked, so people have heard a lot of it already.
Oh, yeah. "Street of Dreams" used to be called "The Blues," and it was gonna be on Use Your Illusion. I mean, it's an old song. Between having fans give me stuff and then finding things on my own, I think I've heard most of the songs already, but it does them justice to listen to a final production. It changes significantly.

But you guys are gonna continue doing the '87-93 version, right? Can you see yourselves adapting some of this material to the live set? Can you foresee a demand for that from your audiences?
Never say never, but I don't expect to do it. Honestly, the amount of people we see out there that really say anything about this album or pay attention - this weekend, last weekend and the weekend before, I've been going out there and trying to push the idea, saying "Hey, it's coming out, make sure to pick it up" and all that stuff, and most of the faces look kinda lost, like, "What are you talking about? Chinese what?" I mean, it's funny, but people don't even know that it's out. 'Cause you've got a handful of people that are there because they're huge Guns N' Roses fans and want to see a tribute band, and then you've got the rest of the crowd that's just like, "Yeah, Guns N' Roses, I like that song 'Sweet Child O' Mine,' let's party." I think that if we played a song like "Chinese Democracy," most of the faces in the crowd would be blank.

Your website says your show even includes stage banter quoted from live albums and bootlegs. So do you end the set by throwing a tantrum and storming off, or jumping into the audience and pummeling some random dude and then bailing?
Well, you know, we've joked about that, and a lot of people have actually said, like, "You oughta do that, set something up and freak people out," but I'm like, "You don't realize how many people don't get things." They'll think it's totally fuckin' real, and think I'm just being an ass. Twenty-four hours later they'll get it, but for the time being it'd be like, "What is he doing?"

Have you ever heard from anybody within the Guns N' Roses organization about what you do?
Well, Dizzy Reed's played with us a few times, and I kinda kept in touch with him a little bit for a little while. But as far as Axl himself, no. I met Slash years ago, before we were doing this. He's an awesome guy, completely not a rock star at all, we just sat there and talked. But there's been things said. I know a lot of them know about it.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Guns N' Roses Finally Issue Their Long-delayed New Album

[From the Cleveland Free Times.]

Well, it's here at last. Maybe the Olympics gave Axl Rose the kick in the ass he needed. Maybe it was the rumbles that Velvet Revolver was breaking up (they've been dropped by their label and bassist Duff has a new band), which are bound to start a new round of "will the original G N' R lineup reunite?" rumors. Whatever the reason, after 17 years, Rose has released his long-rumored opus and…it's pretty goddamn good.

If you've been harvesting the leaked versions of Guns N' Roses songs over the past year or two, you have nine of Chinese Democracy's 14 tracks already, more or less. Despite Rose's spin about how those versions were substandard demos, they don't sound that different from the final release. "Street of Dreams" was known for years as "The Blues," but the song itself is the same. The title track, "Better," "Madagascar" (which he's been playing live for years), "I.R.S." and "There Was a Time" haven't changed much, aside from elements moving up or down in the mix. But the genuinely new songs - "Shackler's Revenge," "Sorry," "Scraped" and "Prostitute" - will reward your patience.

If you haven't been paying attention to the rumors and the leaks, and you're just kind of popping your head up now, saying to yourself, "New Guns N' Roses album? Jeez, I haven't thought about those guys in years," you won't be disappointed by Chinese Democracy either. On the one hand, it doesn't sound like anything from the band's back catalog. On the other hand, it doesn't sound like Axl's been listening to any music made outside his bunker in the past 15 years. OK, "Shackler's Revenge" seems more than a little indebted to Nine Inch Nails and the solo work of Rob Zombie, but the post-grunge "alt-rock" movement that's given us stumblebum bands like Nickelback, Alter Bridge, Staind et al. has exerted absolutely no influence on him.

Somewhat surprisingly for a guy who's spent more than a decade in virtual isolation, Rose doesn't seem to have developed a taste for self-pity or introspection of any kind. He likes guitar solos. He likes thunderous drums and as many as five guitarists riffing away in unison. He likes epic, sweeping anthems that enthrall the arenas full of screaming fans inside his head. And he likes the piano, but even the ballads here eventually get up to a full, impressive roar.

This album won't reshape hard rock the way Appetite for Destruction did, but it's still quite an achievement. Despite the army of shifting personnel and the years-long recording process, it sounds unified and not tied to any particular time period. It's classicist and futuristic, angry and world-weary, but never rote or enervated.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I posted this in 2006 but didn't have the video that time. So here it is again.

Thanks for the wild turkey and the passenger pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts.

Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison.

Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger.

Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin leaving the carcasses to rot.

Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes.

Thanks for the American dream, to vulgarize and to falsify until the bare lies shine through.

Thanks for the KKK.

For nigger-killin' lawmen, feelin' their notches.

For decent church-goin' women, with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces.

Thanks for "Kill a Queer for Christ" stickers.

Thanks for laboratory AIDS.

Thanks for Prohibition and the war against drugs.

Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind their own business.

Thanks for a nation of finks.

Yes, thanks for all the memories - all right, let's see your arms!

You always were a headache and you always were a bore.

Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


I bought my copy of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy today. It leaked last week, and I downloaded it then, and of course I'm sure I could have the label send me one this coming week, but I still felt like it was worth a trip to Best Buy to pick up the physical object. So for $11.99 plus NJ sales tax, I got myself a copy.

The first line of Chinese Democracy's album-opening title track is "It don't really matter." And that's what I've been thinking about for months now, as the album's release date approached: Does it matter?

I think it does, but in more of an Animal House way ("I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part") than anything else. Axl Rose, like Michael Jackson, is a man who creates his own context, and Chinese Democracy does the same thing. It can't be compared to the other five Guns N' Roses studio releases (Appetite For Destruction, G N' R Lies, Use Your Illusion I and II, The Spaghetti Incident?) because Rose and keyboardist Dizzy Reed are the only people to appear on those records and this one. Also, it doesn't sound much like the band's earlier work. Some things are the same - it's bombastic, and his yowl is unmistakable, if coarsened by time. He's still got a taste for power ballads, too. But there's a cyber/"industrial" edge here that's a little bit Rob Zombie, a little bit Nine Inch Nails, and a little bit J-pop. When I first started hearing leaked tracks in 2007, one of my strongest impressions was that you could replace Rose with Ayumi Hamasaki and the songs would lose none of their power. Chinese Democracy doesn't sound dated, but it doesn't sound like anything else on the radio in the 21st Century. (Which is a good thing; no matter what one may think of CD, anyone with ears can admit that an album of Axl Rose attempting screamo, nü-metal or post-grunge mopery would have been infinitely more cringe-inducing and horrible.)

But again, context matters. MTV, which Guns N' Roses used to rule, ran a documentary this week explaining to their current viewership who this band was and is (and, presumably, why they should care more about this album than, say, the new Fall Out Boy disc). But MTV is dying. So is the record industry, which will never again spend on anything the kind of money they gave Rose for this project. The biz is flailing around, attempting to come to grips with the Internet and declining sales through stunts, "deluxe editions" of albums, 360 deals, et cetera. But Axl Rose, like Michael Jackson, continues to live and work like he thinks it's 1998. Look what you get for your 15 years of waiting - a single CD. No bonus DVD with a documentary on the making of the album; no videos (yet); no exclusive tracks on the digital-only edition; no link to buy Guns N' Roses ringtones. I guarantee there will not be a deluxe edition of this album in six months with three more songs and a T-Pain cameo. We'll have to wait and see whether, as Sebastian Bach (whose Angel Down is a pretty goddamn terrific hard rock record that deserved to sell better than it did) told me and several other journalists in 2007, it's the first volume in a trilogy to be released between now and 2012. But for now, this is what we've got, and it feels like the last blast of the Music Industry That Was. Axl Rose is the last rock star; whatever one may think of what he did with them, no one will ever again have the opportunities he was given.

But I'm left wondering who's impressed by that stuff? I was drawn in by the egomaniacal bombast of it all, but I'm 36. When Appetite For Destruction came out, I was 15. I saw the video for "Welcome To The Jungle" when MTV was only airing it late at night, as part of Headbangers' Ball. Do kids these days - those who are 15 now - give a crap? I doubt it; I certainly didn't care the year before Appetite, when the Rolling Stones put out Dirty Work, their first album in three years. Is Axl Rose hoping there are a few million guys in their mid-30s or early 40s who are gonna buy this record? If he is, he might just be proved right. A lot of them are probably listening to more country than metal these days, but they'll come back - maybe on Friday, when they're at Best Buy shopping for the kids' Christmas presents.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Shape-Shifting Boris Mixes It All Up
[From the Cleveland Free Times.]

Japanese power trio Boris has captivated hipsters and headbangers alike for several years now. The metal cultists have been onto them since 1996's Absolutego and 1998's Amplifier Worship, while the skinny-jeans set climbed on board the Boris bus with 2003's Akuma No Uta (with its cover art paying tribute to Nick Drake's Bryter Layter) and/or 2006's Pink. The band's sound changes from album to album, though high volume is a constant. Pink offered a heaping dose of distortorama garage-rock a la Mudhoney, while Amplifier Worship was a slow, skull-crushing exercise in stoner doom and Absolutego was a single rumbling 70-minute drone-metal track (with one bonus song on the U.S. version). They've also collaborated with Sunn 0))) and Merzbow, among others.

The sheer size of the Boris discography is quite astonishing. In addition to their "major" albums, they've released a slew of limited-edition vinyl-only items like the punky Vein, a trilogy of EPs under the name The Thing Which Solomon Overlooked and the soundtrack to the film Mabuta No Ura (of which there are four different versions, two Japanese and two Brazilian, each with different artwork and packaging, and somewhat varied track listings). They seem to stop recording just long enough to run down to the pressing plant or go on tour.

"I'd rather keep working, since I always feel bored and am looking for stimulations," admits the band's drummer and lead vocalist, Atsuo, through a translator, "though I am getting bored with new stimulations quickly. I [feel like I] just repeat myself." He confesses that the band's productivity can occasionally become problematic. When asked if there are some songs he wishes had received a higher-profile release, rather than being tucked away on a limited-to-600-copies, sold-out-instantaneously cult item, he admits that "we have had a bunch of materials." Almost regretfully, he says, "We never consider anything before recording sessions how we put it out or what is the best format for that song."

The band's latest album, Smile, is simultaneously an apotheosis of its maturing sound and a perfect example of its philosophy regarding releases - the U.S. and Japanese versions offer not only unique cover art but totally different versions of the disc's eight tracks, including some title changes. But the songs retain enough melody and power across both versions to have earned rave reviews across the critical spectrum, and Boris' shows have gotten correspondingly bigger and more enthusiastically attended with every visit they make to U.S. shores.

It helps that their live shows are awesome. The two players up front - petite female guitarist Wata and bassist Takeshi - work away impassively at their instruments, cranking out thunderous riffs and waves of distortion. Ironically, it's Atsuo who's the biggest showman of the group, slamming his kit like an Asian version of Grand Funk Railroad's Don Brewer - raising his arms high, standing up to incite the crowd, bashing away at a huge gong. "For me, those two ideas are totally different," he says. "I am not so interested in 'OK' or 'cool things' in typical rock music methodology. On the other hand, clichés like exaggerated gestures or hitting the gong are far from 'cool things' these days, so I am thinking those behaviors are OK for me."


Currently watching Death Proof on one of the cable channels. I bow to no one in my admiration of Kurt Russell, but this movie is a piece. of. shit.

To clarify, it has some good stuff in it, but Quentin Tarantino should never be allowed to write dialogue. Ever. His jokes are lame, his popcult references are just as lame and twice as shoehorned-in, his taste in music is about 80 percent for shit (the only good song on the whole damn DP soundtrack is "It's So Easy," by Willy DeVille), and he has absolutely no ear for the rhythms of actual human speech. He should never be permitted to write dialogue. He should, at best, be allowed to direct action sequences, second-unit, for directors who have the ability to get convincing monologues and conversations and scenes with emotional resonance out of their actors.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


[From this week's Cleveland Free Times.]

Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder
(Roadrunner) Listeners unfamiliar with the band might say every song by norteño kings Los Tigres del Norte sounds the same; and to a first-timer, they probably do. But a devotee understands the value of subtle changes on a theme. For the same reason, an album as utterly lacking in dynamic fluctuations, rhythmic shifts, hooks and catchy choruses as Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder is probably exactly what a Cradle of Filth fan is seeking. And if everyone else on Earth is repelled, that's fine - indeed, for some, it could be part of the appeal.

Godspeed suffers from all the usual Cradle weaknesses, starting with Dani Filth's voice, which is so harsh and caustic it makes the listener's throat hurt in sympathy. It kicks off with a faux-orchestral overture that sounds like a Chiller Theatre reworking of the theme from Requiem for a Dream. It seems interminable - more than a dozen songs, nearly 78 minutes of music. And it's pretentious beyond belief: A concept album about the life of medieval aristocrat/serial killer Gilles de Rais, it features between-song poetry bits read by Doug "Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies" Bradley. But if you're already a fan, you'll probably love it.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


[From the SF Weekly.]

The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton

Saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton's reputation as one of jazz's most intellectually rigorous avant-gardists was well established by 1974, but Arista signed him anyway. He recorded nine albums for the label; two more titles, licensed from the Freedom imprint at the time, are not included in this set. Almost all of this material has been out of print since debuting on vinyl three decades ago, and much of it's among his best work.

The music runs the gamut from solo saxophone excursions to small-group sessions (duo, trio, quartet) to a single epic composition performed by four 39-piece orchestras playing simultaneously(!). It's great to have this material back (with the possible exception of that orchestral piece and For Two Pianos, neither of which feature Braxton playing an instrument).

No potential listener should be warded off by Braxton's dry, academic image, or this box's price tag. Albums like New York, Fall 1974, and Five Pieces, 1975 are strikingly accessible. Any fan of Ornette Coleman's 1959-1960 recordings can hear the beauty in the musicians' four-way interaction. The live The Montreux/Berlin Concerts is suffused with a joyous vitality, belying Braxton's reputation as a chilly avant-gardist. The somewhat more forbidding material on Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 and For Trio offers a rarefied, ascetic type of beauty, but won't scare away fans of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEOC hornmen Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman turn up as guests on the latter album). This box isn't all the Braxton a serious jazz fan needs, but it's a tremendous collection.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Today's mailbag prize: Peace, Love and Total Fucking Destruction, the new album by Total Fucking Destruction. As is often the case with grindcore, the song titles are half the fun. The highlights, at first glance:

"Non-Existence Of The Self"
"Let The Children Name Themselves"
"Nihilism, Emptiness, Nothingness and Nonsense"
"Seth Putnam Is Wrong About A Lot Of Things, But Seth Putnam Is Right About You"
"Trilogy On The History Of Strongmanism"
"Youth Apocalypse Right Now"
"Pig Of Knowledge"
"Last Night I Dreamt We Destroyed The World"

Oh, and there's a secret Rush cover buried on this album. Awesome.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


My downstairs neighbor is a nice guy who loans me movies he's rented before they're due back at the video store. This week, he rented The Happening.

I know you've heard how shitty it is. All I'm gonna say is, you have no idea how shitty it is until you actually sit through it. It is indescribably shitty. It's like the exact reverse of "The Entertainment" from Infinite Jest: You pop it in and then you sit there, paralyzed by the utter sucking void, the total lack of entertainment. It's not even a bad you can really laugh at. It's just vaguely depressing. It makes you regret the existence of the human creative impulse.

(Note: His taste isn't always bad. Last week, he loaned me Street Kings, the latest James Ellroy hate-valentine to the LAPD. That one was pretty good - maybe better than the overrated Training Day, if not as good as the underrated Dark Blue. But even with some extra aging-bully weight on him, Keanu Reeves is no Kurt Russell.)

When I returned The Happening to him, I loaned him two DVDs from my own collection: the recent two-disc edition of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and John Carpenter's Prince Of Darkness, which I maintain is one of the hidden gems in his catalog, and one of the scariest movies of the '80s.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


[From Westword.]

Tuesday, October 21, 3 Kings Tavern
A North Carolina-based outfit intent on keeping the Southern sludge-doom sound of Eyehategod et al. alive, Sourvein hasn't released a full-length CD since 2002's The Will to Mangle, but despite revolving-door lineup changes (vocalist Troy Medlin is the only original member left), the band has managed to record three four-song EPs for as many labels since 2005, the latest being Imperial Bastard. In a way, the group is like the Fall: No matter who's actually playing guitar, bass and drums, it's Medlin's vision that prevails, and that vision is loud, slow and ugly, more about relentless punishment than the catharsis most metal bands pursue. Listening to a Sourvein song is like being beaten with a sack full of softballs that's been dipped in tar and motor oil: It hurts, and it'll leave stains on you for a long time afterward. Live, the group's blend of feedback, distortion and misanthropy is bound to be even more vicious. (N.B.: Photo does not reflect current Sourvein lineup.)

Monday, October 13, 2008


[Originally published on]

Calle 13 started out as the court jesters of Latin music, throwing witty social satire atop reggaeton and hip-hop beats. But on their second album, 2006’s Residente o Visitante, they exhibited a political consciousness as sharp as their black humor, as well as an expanded sonic palette that incorporated music from all around the Latin world. On their brand-new third release, Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo (The Ones Left Behind Are Coming With Me), rapper Residente and multi-instrumentalist/producer Visitante venture even farther afield, exploring sounds from Dixieland jazz to the Balkan chaos of Emir Kusturica. We spoke to Residente on the eve of the album’s release, and a New York concert with Mexican electro-funksters Kinky.

What's the song “Que Lloren” about?
Well, I think it’s not the best song on the album, but I don’t know, some people like it. I’m criticizing some of the reggaeton artists who try not to give us space in the urban community. I think there is a misunderstanding about the words ‘urban music.’ I’m explaining in that song what is urban music for me.

Are you perceived as art school kids playing around with reggaeton?No, but – they see us as crazy people, making alternative whatever. They don’t know what we are doing. I don’t think they see us as art school kids making urban music. They know that we are for real, and they know that we have good lyrics the thing is that some of them criticize us because they don’t understand some of the things we’re doing. That’s what I’m talking about in the song.

If you’re seen as weirdos, working on a track with Café Tacvba probably isn’t gonna help.
Yeah, well, it depends on the people, you know, and how – if you know about music, you know that Café Tacvba is one of the greatest bands, if not the greatest band in Latin rock music. So the thing is, maybe they don’t know about Café Tacvba. Not every one of the reggaetoneros - maybe some of them do.

Didn’t you record a collaboration with Juanes for this album, also?
Yeah, but right now it’s not on the album because of problems with the record label. So I have Café Tacvba and I have Ruben Blades. I still have the song with Juanes, but my little sister is singing [his part]. She’s got a great voice.

How did you manage to get Ruben Blades to rap on “La Perla”?
He just did it by himself. He wanted to try it. He raps and also he sings. It’s nice, because rapping sometimes can be difficult, if you try to push the bar to the limit. It’s difficult to write, also. The way he was writing, it’s difficult because he’s putting a lot of words into one sentence.

Yeah, but I’ve heard his old records from the ’70s and his vocal delivery from back then was almost speaking, sometimes.
Yeah, he used to do that all the time, and also the music on that track is like – we tried to maintain that old-school sound. It’s not salsa, it’s candomble from Uruguay, the rhythm, but also has, like, the drums, the electronic drums that you can hear on the song are old-school, like from his band.

“Electro Movimiento” features lyrics in English; can you see yourself rapping in English in the future?
I’ve thought about it, but the thing is right now I can barely have a good interview with you in English. I have to learn more English. Maybe this year, I want to have a tutor or teacher to teach me a little bit more. And I need to have the street thing going on, otherwise I’d be a rapper with words from the dictionary only. I need the slang. I have a little bit of that, and I know it could be interesting – if I rap the same way I rap in Spanish, it could be huge.

Sometimes you’re rapping really fast on this album. I admit my Spanish is not that good, but I’m completely lost. Do you worry about losing people?
No, no, because the people in Spanish they understand everything. And also the music is so great that even if you don’t understand, you’re gonna like the music. Especially in live performance, there’s a band – we’ve got eleven people, horns, drums, guitar, bass, piano, everything.

Yeah, I was wondering how big a band you have now to play music this complex.
On the stage we are 11. With me, my brother and my sister, and eight band members. We have two trombones and one trumpet, timbales, conga, drums, guitar, bass, piano and my brother plays piano but also plays other instruments like accordion, Theremin…I don’t know.

Did you always have that many? I thought you had fewer people, around the time of the first album.
Yeah, we always perform with a huge band. The thing is, sometimes we bring the horns and sometimes not.

Your last album was more political than this one. Was that a deliberate choice?
This one is mixed. I have political things going on, but at the same time I’m using a lot of black humor on this album. I’m talking about everything – politics, religion, sexual things, and just regular stuff for dancing. But even if I make a song just for the club, I say things also. I take sentences to say things.

In one song you call people out by name, like Don Francisco. When people start to think Latin society is in decline, do they blame you?
Not all the time they wanted to, they tried to do that once with “El Tango del Pecado,” but then they figured out that this is not the case, that Calle 13 is not to blame for things that happen in Latin America. It’s the opposite. As soon as they started knowing the group better, they started figuring out what Calle 13 is, that I’m making fun of the things that are around us. They stopped blaming me for things.

The song “Un Beso de Desayuno,” from the last album, was very soft there’s nothing like that on this album. Was that deliberate?
I wanted to have a song like that on this album. Maybe I can do it later on. I always like to have those types of songs on the albums. The good thing about this album is that it’s very fast. Even the song with Café Tacvba that is a pretty song – the lyrics are very nice, it’s a good song – is fast, also, the rhythm. The first thing we talked about before we did it was to make an album packed with fast rhythms. The last one was slower.

It seems like you’re taking not only rhythms from various parts of Latin America, but electronic music and things, and I heard the same thing on Tego Calderón’s last record. Do you think that’s happening more now, that even people who are affiliated with reggaeton are moving past the clichéd reggaeton rhythm and doing more interesting stuff?
Maybe. The thing is that with us, we are not with reggaeton all the way. We’ve never been that way. On the first album we had three reggaeton songs, on the second album we had two, and on this album we have none, or we have one, but you don’t feel it because it’s funk, we have horns and live drums playing along with the reggaeton beat, so you don’t feel it. But yeah, we experimented with more North American rhythms this time, like Dixieland from New Orleans, because we performed at a jazz festival there last year or earlier this year, and we just took the rhythm and made “Ven y Criticame.” And we have funk also, because we performed in Spain with Jamiroquai. It depends on our travels when we travel, we make songs. That’s the way it is. On the last album, a lot of the time we were in Latin America, so we used a lot of Latin American rhythms. Last year, we were in the U.S. and Europe, so that’s why we mixed it.

I know hip-hop producers listen to each other and compete with each other to see who can come up with new sounds is there anyone you listen to that makes you think, We need to step our game up and beat this guy?
We’re not trying to listen to – like, we listen to music, to hip-hop and everything, but we’re not trying to do the same thing ever. Like, last year I was listening to Emir Kusturica. That’s not hip-hop, it’s Balkan music. We took his music and made a song, “Fiesta de Locos.” That’s the way we work. We’re trying to avoid hip-hop also, the rules of hip-hop in terms of music. I like it, I like hip-hop, but there’s a lot of music in the world, and you can mix it and rap over it all.

Friday, October 10, 2008



Along with Mastodon, Kylesa and Harvey Milk, Baroness is part of a mini-wave of terrific metal bands currently roaring out of Savannah, Georgia. The group's mix of psychedelia, doom and raw '70s riffage makes it one of the most potent combos in contemporary heavy music. Early EPs showed a fair bit of promise, but it wasn't until issuing its full-length debut, last year's Red Album, that the act's sound truly bloomed. It doesn't hurt that Baroness's albums also look amazing; guitarist/vocalist John Baizley designs them all, and has also done work for Darkest Hour, Pig Destroyer, Torche and the Red Chord, among others. The band recently hired guitarist Peter Adams to replace drummer Allen Blickle's brother Brian, who's headed to law school. Consider this tour a trial by fire, as Baroness serves as the mind-altering, arty but crushing bridge between Opeth's tightly controlled prog-death epics and High on Fire's raw blasts of thunder.


[Reproduced with permission.]

Date: Fri, 10 Oct 2008 16:17:30 +0100
Subject: FW: FAO Stefano Isidoro Bianchi
From: Tony Herrington
To: Phil Freeman


Thought you'd be interested in this correspondence. If they get in touch I will let you know. But note this is not the first time Blow Up has lifted content direct from The Wire without credit (let alone compensation).

Italians are unbelievably cavalier when it comes to intellectual property rights. Other peoples' that is.


Tony Herrington
Editor-in-Chief & Publisher

------ Forwarded Message

From: Tony Herrington
Date: Fri, 10 Oct 2008 16:13:47 +0100
To: Blow Up Magazine
Subject: FAO Stefano Isidoro Bianchi

I write from The Wire.

We received the following mail from one of our Italian readers.

Would you care to comment?

I will wait to hear from you.


I have recently noted a very curious analogy among some sentences in the article written by Phil Freeman on Bill Dixon (particularly when he was describing the new record, 17 Musicians in search of a sound: Durfur)in the July number of the WIRE and a review just released by the Italian magazine BLOW-UP and written by Dionisio Capuano. Indeed, the Author of the review were highlighting that the record bears some resemblance to other jazz orchestra masterpieces from decade past (namely Alan Silva\'s Season and JCOA\'s Communications) as Freeman noted and used a very similar expression about the division of the music in subgroups. Moreover, Capuano reported quite entirely the Dixon\'s point of view about the political background of the date but without indicating that the sentences were taken from the Wire article (as he confirmed to me afterward). I have contacted by e-mail the Italian Editor (Stefano Isidoro Bianchi) and the Author who surprisingly whereas they both recognize the analogies (and at least, the Author apologised for them) were not apparently considering the fact worthing of a future errata corrige . I wonder to know your feeling about that because , at least to my unexpert view, this sound quite close like a little case of plagiarism.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


[From the Village Voice.]

Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo
Sony Latin

On their self-titled 2005 debut, Calle 13 were hilarious and musically innovative, vocalist Residente's lyrics poking fun at every aspect of contemporary Latin culture while his cousin Visitante's beats combined reggaeton, hip-hop, and funk into a swirling, irresistible groove. The follow-up, last year's Residente o Visitante, was more thoughtful and musically broad-minded; guests ranging from Cuban-expat rap group Orishas to Latin über-producer Gustavo Santaolalla and his Bajofondo Tango Club added flavors from all over the Latin continuum, and if it occasionally stumbled into arty pastiche, overall it was a sure-footed next step. The album also offered Residente a platform for a more explicit political consciousness than some might have predicted: "Pal Norte" was an immigrant's rant, and "La Cumbia de Los Aburridos" was, as its title might suggest, dedicated to bored/frustrated Latin youth.

Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo (The Ones Left Behind Are Coming With Me) is more fun than its predecessor. Café Tacuba and Ruben Blades are the big-ticket guests this time, the former serving as backing band and chorus on a relatively straight love song ("No Hay Nadie Como Tu"), while the seven-minute tropical jam "La Perla" finds Blades not only singing but rapping, and holding his own—which may not surprise those familiar with the talk-singing on his own classic '70s albums. Visitante's compositions—calling them "beats" or "tracks" now is ridiculously reductive—grab sounds from across the globe this time, including New Orleans second-line rhythms and Dixieland on "Gringo Latin Funk," early-'80s electro on "Electro Movimiento," African guitars on "Esto Con Eso," and a crazed Balkan whirl on "Fiesta de Locos." Though his vulgarity remains unrestrained, Residente's apparently sick of being Latin culture's whipping boy: "Que Lloren" and "Ven y Criticame" are direct responses to critics, from within the reggaeton scene and outside. (The chorus to "Que Lloren" translates as "I love it when they cry," and the latter track's title means "Come and Criticize Me.") Combining the fun of the debut with the sonic adventurism of the follow-up, this is a genre-redefining—if not genre-shattering—triumph. Formerly Latin music's court jesters, Calle 13 have become its future kings.

Friday, October 03, 2008


New England Band Was Metalcore Before Metalcore Was Cool

[From the Cleveland Free Times.]

It's tough being a metalcore band these days. The term has almost become an insult, a way of dismissing a group as more interested in roiling the mosh pit than musically evolving. Unearth vocalist Trevor Phipps understands where that dismissiveness comes from.

"When a certain subgenre kinda takes over as the main influence of all the younger bands, it gets oversaturated … so people get burned out on it," he says, phoning from his Massachusetts home.

Still, the fan in him doesn't like it.

"I think people put too much emphasis on what genre of metal a band might be. I think there's only so many fans of aggressive music out there, so to actually put down bands for being in a certain genre is kinda stupid. Back in the day you had bands like Maiden, Metallica and Slayer, and it was all metal, even though it all sounded very, very different."

"All metal" is a good way to describe The March, Unearth's fourth studio album. The disc's 10 tracks demonstrate consolidation and advancement at once. While the hardcore-derived riffs and moshpit-ready rhythms of its first three albums remain, the salient feature of songs like "My Will Be Done," "Hail the Shrine" and "Grave of Opportunity" is the presence of screaming guitar leads.

"There's a lot more solos, and there's a lot more guitar harmonies on there - just better guitar playing overall," says Phipps. "That was definitely a conscious effort because Buz [McGrath] or Ken [Susi] are great guitar players and they really wanted to add more to our sound. Also, I think it was a lot easier for them to play with Derek Kerswill on the drums."

Kerswill is the newest of a string of people who've served as Unearth's drummer. While the rest of the band's lineup has remained mostly steady over the band's decade of existence, the drum kit has changed hands several times.

"It's like Spinal Tap shit at this point," laughs Phipps. "I think it's 'cause drummers are all fuckin' weird. They're all just a little bit different. It's just bad luck."

Original drummer Mike Rudberg, who played on two EPs and the group's debut album, quit after suffering some kind of meltdown at the 2003 South by Southwest music festival. He was replaced temporarily by Sworn Enemy's Paulie Antignai; eventually, Mike Justian of the Red Chord joined. Justian lasted until mid-2007, but by the time the touring cycle in support of Eyes of Fire was underway, his bandmates were ready to move on.

"We didn't really take the time to get to know him as a dude, and we had most of [The Oncoming Storm] written already," says Phipps. "So it wasn't until we were on tour with him for a long period of time that we realized that our personalities kinda clashed, and for the writing of In The Eyes Of Fire, our writing styles kinda clashed. We had to fire him right in the middle of a tour because things got so bad between us."

There's a bright side, though: "We're actually better friends now that he's out of the band. I actually got drunk with him the other weekend." After some shows with the man-mountain of metal, Gene Hoglan (Dark Angel/Strapping Young Lad), filling in, Kerswill's been the man in back since the 2007 Download Festival last June. Interestingly, he's someone with whom the band has history. "We wrote a song off The Oncoming Storm called 'The Great Dividers' with him," says Phipps. "Mike had just joined the band, but he was on tour, and we had a session drummer come in, and that was Derek.

"He did all the touring for the past year, he wrote, played on the record, he's signed on to do this whole touring cycle, and we're hoping we can announce him as a full time member soon, but I'm thinking that both sides don't want to get too far ahead of themselves just yet. But I'm thinking that pretty soon he's gonna be the drummer of Unearth for real."

The band worked again with Killswitch Engage's Adam Dutkiewicz, who produced their first two studio albums as well as their The Endless EP. (Terry Date produced 2006's III: In the Eyes of Fire). "He's a friend of ours, he knows our band inside and out, and he's actually played as a fill-in on drums for us back in 2003, before we got Mike Justian in the band," explains Phipps. "So he's like an extra member of the band. Working with Terry was a great experience, but Terry's not that extra member of our band, and Terry's not a musician, which is something Adam can add to our sound as well. He's a great guitar player, so he might hear one harmony a bit different than Buz or Ken are, and he'll make or at least suggest a slight change, and that can make a big difference."

The members of Unearth feel a tight bond with Dutkiewicz and the other members of Killswitch because they all rose up together in the New England hardcore and metal scenes, creating metalcore before that term was a pejorative. "Back in the late '90s, it was difficult to get good metal shows," recalls Phipps. "Kids just weren't going to metal shows anymore, so we had to play with heavy hardcore bands. That's where the metalcore scene came from - bands like us, Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage playing with hardcore bands."

But can they break out of that scene to mainstream success? Can any of the young bands of today, even ones with a decade in the game like Unearth, become the next Judas Priest or Iron Maiden? Phipps isn't even sure such a thing is possible. "I think it's tough to get to that point again, 'cause there's not many bands signing to major labels," he says. "They're all on independent labels, and I think the biggest band within our scene is Killswitch Engage, but they've only sold 500,000 records for their biggest release. That's not a couple million. That's a big difference.

"I don't know what it's gonna take," he concludes. "But I think people are gonna have to realize that metal is metal. You shouldn't dislike it because it's a subgenre and be a snobby, ultra-picky metalhead. If it's heavy and you feel like going to a show and having a good time, go to the fuckin' show. Don't be like, 'I don't like that part' or 'I hate solos' or 'I hate breakdowns.' There's too much elitism within the scene that I think has to disappear."

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


[From the October 2008 issue of The Wire.]

Runhild Gammelsaeter

The vast majority of musicians have day jobs, but few are as open about that fact as Norwegian vocalist/composer Runhild Gammelsaeter. "It's never been a goal for me to sell many records, which is contrary to many bands," she says, "but that's because I have a job so I don't need to make money on this. I can afford to make the expensive choices of not performing and keeping a low profile."

Gammelsaeter has always been a somewhat mysterious figure within Metal's avant garde. As a teenager, studying in the US, she sang for Thorr's Hammer, a short-lived Doom quartet featuring future Sunn O))) members Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley; her ability to shift instantly from a clear, plainsong-like vocal style to guttural growling, when combined with her icy blonde beauty, made an immediate impression. But she vanished into the lab, getting her PhD in physiology from the University of Oslo. She didn't make music again until 2003, contributing vocals and abstract breathing sounds to Sunn O)))'s White 1. Then she disappeared again, re-emerging as half of Khlyst, alongside producer/multi-instrumentalist James Plotkin on the 2006 Hydra Head release, Chaos Is My Name (Khanate drummer Tim Wyskida performed with the pair live). And now she's making her debut as a solo artist with Amplicon, a limited edition release on Utech.

Label head Keith Utech had envisioned a series of eight releases, each with a cover painting by Stephen Kasner (whose paintings for Chaos Is My Name Gammelsaeter eventually purchased). "Because [Kasner]'s very interested in understanding the material, I sent him the lyrics and talked to him on the phone about the concepts, so the art he creates is always very special," she says. It was partly the opportunity to work with him for a second time, and partly the absolute freedom of the project, that convinced Gammelsaeter to make a solo album, despite early reservations. "A bigger label would want to be involved, where [Utech] just said, deliver a record by 1 May. Which was amazing. You don't get that kind of freedom."

Gammelsaeter clearly values the ability to come and go as she pleases, for professional and personal reasons alike. "When I did my PhD, I had a scholarship and I went to the States and worked in different labs, and I had some professors react very negatively to my association with Black Metal. So I started to discover that I needed to step carefully and be reflective about what I say and do and how I mix my things." At the same time, she says, "I've always liked underground scenes, cult-type music, and it's been somewhat purposeful for me to not make it so accessible, and not expose myself very much. Not really to be a mystery, but to make it so inaccessible so that you don't push it in anyone's faces. People have to discover it for themselves. And I'd rather have my four fans who really love what I do and who spent the time to discover it than to have 100 people who just think it's funny, who saw me live or read about it in the newspaper or something like that."

Amplicon is a record made for cult appreciation and mass apathy, if not revulsion. Its 11 tracks follow a sequence modelled on the cycle of life (titles include "Incubation," "Birth," "Coming To," "Love," "Senescence" and "Dying"), and the disc's title relates to Gammelsaeter's day job - an amplicon is a piece of DNA that has been synthesized using amplification/gene-duplication techniques. The music is pretty dependent on advanced technology, too. It's an intricate collage of cacophonous voices, acoustic and electric guitars, synthesized heartbeats, drones, organ and more. Gammelsaeter croons, mutters, howls and roars in English and Norwegian, sometimes singing what sounds like a murder ballad, other times ranting about genetics and physiology. It has antecedents in both Nico and Jarboe (particularly the latter's vocal shapeshifting and emotional rawness), but is ultimately a unique and personal document. It's an unsettling experience, not just because of the competing and overlapping voices, but the jarring transitions between acoustic and electronic, between silence and sudden bursts of sound - there's never a moment where expectations can be comfortably set. Gammelsaeter describes most Metal as "like Mozart, you know what's coming," but the music on Amplicon, while logical, is anything but predictable.

"I basically went home at night and got myself Logic and sat down and started working, and it ended up being a creative process where I got so pulled into it that I couldn't involve anyone else," she says. "I would sit down for an hour and do clean vocals and acoustic guitar, and then I would do some mixing sounds or effects or something like that. And I would clip it together, keeping the best of it, and I would end up putting on stuff like screaming or effects of different kinds. It just became like a patchwork of things, where you pick out your own favourites of the different elements that I thought the song should encompass and gluing it together in some way. And I liked the sharp breaks, that was very purposeful of me. I didn't want to make it gentle. I really liked the jumping effect of the switching from one thing to another.

"It's intimidating and it's frustrating, but afterwards, I told my friends, everyone should make a solo record," she continues. "It forces you to become very organised, this large project that you have to complete and make a totality out of all your own ideas. There are a lot of choices involved, choosing what you like of your own things and what you don't like, choices in how you're organising it, producing it, structuring it - it's kind of a huge thing. I did my PhD previously, and I thought of it sort of the same way. You start off with all these blank pages and different kinds of results, and you have to amass them into this complete thesis that you deliver in the end."

Thursday, September 25, 2008


[From Westword.]

Year after year, Unleashed unsheaths steady Swedish metal

Unleashed bassist/vocalist Johnny Hedlund is a cheerful, friendly guy who happens to play in one of the most ferocious and consistently powerful death-metal bands ever to emerge from Sweden. Since 1991, the act has released nine studio albums full of pummeling drums, grinding guitar riffs and lyrics that excoriate Christianity and extol Viking mythology. Perhaps even more impressive, the group has done it with only one lineup change: In 1996, guitarist Fredrik Lindgren was replaced by Fredrik Folkare. "They look very much alike," says Hedlund with a laugh. "So to be honest with you, a lot of people don't really know we did switch."

Like Motörhead or Slayer, Unleashed just keeps doing its thing. Hedlund makes sure the outfit never sinks into a rut of playing to its existing fan base, though; he's always conscious that this year could be someone's first encounter with his music. "You've gotta make the music and lyrics as if this was the first year of the band's existence," he says. "Of course you don't want to lose the roots, you don't want to lose everything you've done in the past, but you've gotta be on the edge all the time. You've gotta be very energetic all the time. And that's a very inspiring thought." Indeed, the band's latest release, Hammer Battalion, seethes with a raw power and disciplined attack that makes younger acts look like chumps. Commonly cited as the fathers of Viking metal, Unleashed hold onto its throne with furious, anthemic songs like "Entering the Hall of the Slain" and "Warriors of Midgard."

For his part, Hedlund has nothing but respect and affection for those who've come after him. In his view, the recent popularity of Scandinavian folk metal and Viking-themed lyrics (see last year's Paganfest tour) are undeniably good things. "I think it's really nice to see all those different directions — folk and all kinds of styles," he declares. "We headlined a festival called Ragnarok in Germany in the spring, and it was like 5,000 people there for a Viking festival. Folk metal, Viking metal, death metal, all kinds of metal, but it was Viking. It was pretty amazing. And so it's really exploded. You could see the buttons and badges on the fans there — the same people had a [folk band] badge, and they'd have an Unleashed badge on top of it."

Despite the group's veteran status, Hedlund feels like Unleashed's glory days are in the present. "I think our tours are more fun than they have ever been, and writing music and lyrics has never been more fun than it is right now," he enthuses. "If you stop having fun, then you should just go home. It's better to stay home and do something different. Anybody that will come to our show in the United States, in any city — if Unleashed has a good time on stage, they will feel it. And the minute we play a show and it doesn't look like we're having a good time, I will definitely take full responsibility and go home."

Monday, September 22, 2008


House Of Return
When attempting to get an indie avant-jazz band recorded, it helps if you own the label. But Jeff Gauthier's goatette could stand on its own even if Cryptogramophone weren't his imprint. The violinist's group features pleasingly omnipresent guitarist Nels Cline and his drummer brother, Alex, alongside bassist Joel Hamilton and keyboardist David Witham.

The gentle, soothing opener, "Biko's Blues," predicts a relaxing trip drifting downriver. But the second track, "Friends Of The Animals," quickly demonstrates why Gautier, Witham and Nels Cline are all credited with "effects," as the ensemble transforms into an unholy, heart-pounding amalgam of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Sonic Youth. Cline's distorted guitar lines meld with Gauthier's electrified violin and liquid organ lines from Witham, while Alex Cline's home-run swing drives it all.

Unfortunately, "I.O.A.," "House Of Return," and "Dizang" follow and taken together, create a pastoral atmosphere that lingers for the next half hour. But eventually, the album regains momentum with "Satellites And Sideburns," so named because it sounds like a combination of '70s Miles - Gauthier's violin imitates a wah-wah trumpet quite well - and instrumental Frank Zappa. Finally, a drum solo by Alex Cline concludes the album with something between an avalanche and a demolition derby. Members of the Goatette wore their influences like merit badges while producing this highly rewarding work.


The Marcin Wasilewski Trio's Polish jazz invades America
[From Jazziz.]

Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski and his partners - bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz - make up one of the most interesting trios on the ECM label at the moment. Originally known as the Simple Acoustic Trio, they're now named after the pianist - for reasons of convenience.

"It was the suggestion of the producer [and ECM label head] Manfred Eicher, to put my name as the band name, but nothing changed really between us," Wasilewski says. January is the group's second ECM release, following five hard-to-find, Poland-only discs and 2005's label debut, Trio. Devoted fans of Polish jazz, though, will know these three musicians quite well: They've backed trumpeter Tomasz Stanko since 2002, appearing on The Soul Of Things, Suspended Night and Lontano.

Stanko's influence weighs heavily on the band, although the lessons the've learned from him assisted in developing their own group identity. "We played many, many years together, so Stanko was very important for us, and still is, as a great artist and a great musician," Wasilewski says. "We had the opportunity to play a lot with him onstage, practicing by playing concerts, of course, which is the best and fastest way to be a better musician. It's almost the same but not the same, the music [we made] with him and as our own band. Of course, we use the same ways of improvising that we learned with him, but there's no trumpet and there's no Tomasz Stanko music."

The quality Wasilewski and company share most strongly with their former boss is a meditative, almost somnambulistic approach to melody and rhythm. Their compositions drift slowly along, building like mist rising off the ground at midnight. The difference between European jazz and American jazz has been discussed at length in many venues, but January is a particularly crisp example, making melodic improvisation rather than muscular swing the point of the exercise. Does Wasilewsky think there's a fundamentally different approach to the question of swing in Europe?

"I think there is, but I don't know if it's good or bad," he says. "It doesn't matter, because now jazz is very international. Of course, it started being played in the States, it's original American music, but it's a mix of European culture - and European instruments, of course. There are some differences, of course, in the rhythmic approach, especially by black musicians. They're more focused on playing rhythm, which is very important when you play jazz. But at the same time, jazz is not only rhythm, so European players put a little bit of rubato tempo and more connection with classical roots and classical music. So I think it gives us a lot of interesting mixtures to connect to things."

Despite their somewhat restrained, archetypally European (not to say archetypally ECM) approach to jazz, the trio has a few surprises up their sleeves. One of the biggest is their version of Prince's "Diamonds And Pearls," which undergoes a thorough and revelatory transformation on January.

Why Prince? "It was a very spontaneous thing," Wasilewski says. "A couple of days before I left to record in New York, I bought the CD Diamonds And Pearls, thinking, 'Yeah, I remember this from the past.' So I put it on a tape recorder, and I was so excited to listen to this. I was dancing, packing my stuff, preparing some music notes, and I thought, 'Oh, maybe I'll play this melody.' I asked my sister, and she said to just learn the simple main melody. I added some chords, and on the second day of session, I said to Slawomir, 'Let's hear this song "Diamonds And Pearls,"' and Manfred asked, 'Do you have something else you want to do?' So we got it on the second take. We did the main theme, 'Okay, let's play solo on this chorus,' and it was done on the second take."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


In case you missed my thrilling appearance on WNYC radio today, debating Pitchfork Media's Ryan Schreiber on the merits of Metallica's Death Magnetic, you can download an MP3 of the segment here.


I recently got a record in the mail by a UK band named Blood Ceremony. It’s not terrible; it kinda sounds like the first Black Sabbath album, with a little bit of Uriah Heep organ and some Jethro Tull flute-tooting. The lyrics are all about Satanic rituals and the occult, and the achingly retro sound would make Witchcraft drool with envy. The band has one major weak point, though: the vocalist. She’s flat and tuneless, moaning like she’d been put into a trance by some dark priest right before the producer pressed ‘Record.’ This drove me away from the album, and sent me on a quest to hear the bands from which Blood Ceremony had quite clearly hijacked all their ideas. Not just Sabbath, Heep and Tull – I have plenty by the former two in my iPod already, and haven’t felt the need to hear Ian Anderson et al. since junior high. No, I decided it was time I finally heard Coven and Black Widow.

Coven had two different types of fame. On the one hand, they had a hit single from their second album – 1972’s “One Tin Soldier,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the movie Billy Jack and still crops up on compilations like Freedom Rock and the like. But three years earlier, they achieved an underground notoriety (which persists to this day) with their debut disc, 1969’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds And Reaps Souls. The cover art, which depicts three of the four bandmembers staring zombie-eyed at the potential purchaser, makes it look like some kind of dark Satanic epic. The gatefold features a shot of the lead vocalist, a hot-ish blonde woman named Jinx Dawson, stretched naked on an altar with a skull between her legs as the other members gather around for what one assumes is a Black Mass. And sure enough, the last track on this album, “Satanic Mass,” is a 13-minutes-plus recording of a ceremony – lots of chanting and dramatic recitations rather than, you know, a song. It kinda reminds me of one of those Halloween sound effects albums they used to sell when I was a kid, with the wind blowing through the haunted house and ghostly moans and the rest.

On their actual songs, Coven are far from a proto-metal band; the Stooges and Blue Cheer were much heavier than this. The music is almost jazzy prog-psychedelia with loads of organ, drum breaks DJ Shadow would probably sample, and the occasional Cream-y guitar solo. Plus Jinx Dawson’s vocals, which are somewhere between Janis Joplin and Grace Slick without the power of either. So the album basically exists as an artifact with a few weird bits of trivia attached to it (the first song is called “Black Sabbath,” and the band’s bassist was named Oz Osborne). Don’t bother.

Black Widow, on the other hand, are pretty solid stuff. Like Black Sabbath, they arose out of the English blues-rock scene, and their debut album, 1970’s Sacrifice, was loaded with track titles like “Come To The Sabbat,” “Conjuration,” “Attack Of The Demon,” and their album-closing epic, the 11-minute title track. I like these guys better than Coven by a long stretch. With their swirling organ and saxophones, they remind me of a cross between Atomic Rooster and Uriah Heep or Procol Harum, throwing in touches of jazz and folk here and there. They’re not heavy in the metal sense, but you can definitely hear them doing something interesting within the basic post ’60s rock format. If you’re as big a fan of late ’60s/early ’70s rock as I am (I believe rock music had its period of greatest creativity between 1969 and 1975), Black Widow’s Sacrifice is worth checking out.