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.