Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Led Bib—Bring Your Own (Cuneiform)

To adapt a line from LA punk legends Fear, Led Bib’s alright if you like saxophones. Fortunately I do—I haven’t always, but I came around to them. As a staunch rockist, I regarded them as poisonous garnish (the sax on IQ’s Nomzamo in ’87 filled me with rage). All I needed to hear was saxophone being properly deployed. After Van der Graaf Generator opened the gateway, the sax and I were good to go. A bit of skronk is good for what ails ya.

Led Bib’s got two wild, battling saxophones capable of erecting walls of sound, then crashing right through them, raining blows down upon each other. The British quintet play jazz…of a sort. Their music marries the attack of rock with jazz’s freedom and exploration, which I admit reads like marketing copy, but that’s how I hear it. It’s two great tastes in one. The prominent Fender Rhodes tints everything with a bit of the’70s jazz-rock/Canterbury sound. It’s not ’70s-style fusion and it’s not techy like Zevious, for example.

They’ve made their own rules. They’re sometimes quite heavy, as on “Is That a Woodblock?”, where the bass growls away, or the menacing opening of “Little X”, one of the few tracks not composed by drummer Mark Holub. The tracks often start with an ultra-catchy head played at full-tilt. You can parp along with them, if you’re given to parping. But Led Bib don’t milk their themes; they get on with it. Where they’ll go after establishing the head is always open to question. On “Shapes and Sizes” the band races each other like a grid of F1 cars heading towards the first corner. They strike a more placid mood on the brief “Hollow Ponds,” or on the occasionally mournful “Winter.” Sometimes the whole endeavour collapses, and you’re left wondering how they’re going to claw themselves out of the pit they’ve fallen into, as on “Moth Dilemma.” But they always do.

Like their Mercury Prize-shortlisted Cuneiform debut Sensible Shoes, Bring Your Own brims with action and adventure. It’s a blast, in short. With duel-to-the-death saxes, great riffs, and crack musicianship in service of exciting, frequently weird, songs, what’s not to love? If you don’t like saxophones, well, grow up! You’re missing out on some stirring modern music.

Friday, May 20, 2011

25 Years of Powerchord

This Saturday we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of Powerchord on CiTR with a gig at the Rickshaw Theatre. The bill includes Woods of Ypres, Titans Eve, Scissortooth and others. It should be quite a night.

Powerchord’s been on the air since 1985, always in the same Saturday afternoon 2-hour time slot (with one or two deviations). It speaks to the dedication of the local scene and CiTR staffers that it’s stayed on the air this long, moving through various hosts, the latest of whom are Geoff, Andy and the Mistress of Metal.

The first and most beloved Powerchord hosts were, of course, “Metal Ron” Singer and Gerald “Rattlehead” Yoshida. They deserve a lot of credit in building up the Vancouver scene from virtually nothing in the mid-’80s to the thriving scene we have today, with a huge number of bands toiling away in every sub-genre, and a handful of artists attaining genuine international prominence.

Vancouver was not a metal town at all in 1985. In fact, it was downright hostile to the genre. Ontario had Anvil, Razor, and Exciter; Quebec had Voivod and a zillion other bands. Toronto also had a more open-minded media, with CITY TV’s New Music and (later) Much Music regularly dedicating airtime to metal acts.

Here in Vancouver, our cutting-edge local community access video show, Soundproof, was a hive of snobbery, championing power pop and politico art/punk slop (basically anything on Zulu, MoDaMu, or Nettwerk) while sneering at anything suburban and scruffy. For example, Vancouver Province critic Tom Harrison reviewed records every week on Soundproof. Oh boy, it was a banner week when he pulled out Mercyful Fate’s Melissa and declared it the worst album he’d ever heard: the band couldn’t even play metal properly and the singer had a ridiculous falsetto. For months afterwards, records were gauged against the standard set by the “Melissa-Meter.” Metal provided no end of amusement and mockery amongst Tom and the Soundproof hosts, especially when Tom discovered Venom’s At War With Satan, a record he deemed even more of an insult to good taste. Thereafter, the Melissa-Meter became the Venometer, and the laughs at metal’s expense continued…

(Incidentally, both Venom and Mercyful Fate have had albums inducted into Decibel magazine’s Hall of Fame; Venom for Welcome to Hell, and Mercyful Fate for, of course, Melissa. It’s safe to say those albums have had a greater impact on the history of music than anything that, say, The Animal Slaves ever released.)

It was into this environment that Ron and Gerald arrived. It came as a surprise too, because CiTR seemed to be in the same anti-metal camp as Soundproof. I remember reading a profile of the station in the paper that discussed the station’s “anything goes” approach, except when it came to metal. “We’ve had someone approach us wanting to do a metal show,” said a spokesman (I’m paraphrasing from memory, but trust me, do I ever remember this stuff). “We showed him the door.” I’m not sure how Ron and Gerald cracked it, but there they were, bringing us the latest albums, demo tapes, gig listings, and metal news.

They made a good team. Neither of them were natural-born broadcasters. Gerald had (still has!) a nasal drawl and was prone to fits of giggles. Ron had a high, sort of reticent voice that occasionally sounded resigned against Gerald’s onslaught of babble. Their chemistry made them endearing and approachable. They were just two nerds, same as me but with better connections. Despite my shyness and hatred of phones, I’d sometimes ring Gerald during the show to ask about upcoming release dates or to make a request. He was never less than friendly and ultra-enthusiastic.

CiTR was powered by a hamster in a wheel back then, so there was no way I could tune it in at my parents’ house in Burnaby. However, CiTR was on cable too, so once I figured out how to rig a coaxial adapter to my boom box I was in the Powerchord club. The first show I caught was a revelation. These guys had the stuff! Things I’d seen mentioned or advertised in Kerrang! but never had a hope of hearing came blasting out of the radio. Hearing Megadeth for the first time (a demo of “Loved to Deth”) nearly popped my head clean off. Bands like Watchtower and Fates Warning fused metal and prog in ways that made me an instant fan. The Energetic Disassembly tape got a lot of play. “One of those bands that’s good if you’re into Rush and bands like that,” Gerald would say. Duly noted.

After a few weeks it became clear that each host had his own specialty. Ron was into what he called “class metal”—Helloween, Agent Steel and so on. Power metal before power metal sucked. Gerald was obsessed with “crossover” at the time. Any bands with three initials for a name got the nod. The day Speak English or Die arrived was like a dozen Christmases rolled into one for him.

If I could cue up a tape in time, I’d tape away; otherwise I'd make notes of what I liked, and hoped it would come out on Banzai Records soon. It was a good time for me, becoming aware of the local scene—bands like Genghis Khan, Karrion, Mission of Christ, and a few others—and realizing that there were other people in this city who cared about the same things I did. I can’t say I made new friends directly because of Powerchord, but I did eventually fall in with a crowd who were avid listeners. The show was just another thing we bonded over. What it did make me realize is that if you love something, no matter how strange or obscure it is or how much it marks you as a freak, you should let people know about it, just in case they find the same spark in it that you do.

Once the ’90s hit their stride right up to the present day, Vancouver’s been doing really well metal-wise. The old guard and the former tastemakers have faded away, and more open-minded folks have taken their place, to the point where all kinds of people mingle at metal shows now, and metalheads worry more about their scene being infiltrated by hipsters than about having a scene at all. Gerald and Ron, our unassuming metal gurus, led the charge. Thanks, guys, for helping my city open its ears, pull the stick out of its arse, and finally learn to rock.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mitochondrion—Parasignosis (Profound Lore)

Listening to this album is a hellish experience. That’s not a critique; that’s just how it is. Parasignosis is grim, oppressive, and gruelling, a torture chamber in which twisting tendrils of death metal slither, entwine and ultimately suffocate whatever sensibility you had when you entered. You’re compelled to explore this black pit of sonic horror just in case a sliver of light finds its way in, giving you a glimpse of its terrible mystery.

Victoria’s Mitochondrion are furthering the distance between metal and rock 'n' roll, extending the line drawn by Hellhammer’s primitive expulsions, Incantation’s abstract death metal, and Gorguts’ fractalized dischord. Every element seems designed to confuse. Riffs—so many relentless riffs—coagulate and break off, overlap, and mutate. Songs merge to form time-dilating expanses. Cyclic song structures are mostly absent, giving us few cues with which to orient ourselves. The production smothers details—vocals are subterranean gurgles, and reverb blurs any fine lines that might have existed. It’s a triumph of atmosphere over clarity, yet it works for their style.

However much Mitochondrion revel in metal’s inversion of values, there are genuinely outstanding elements to celebrate. The drumming, full of militant beats and blasting, has advanced quite a bit from their first album. K. Godard’s use of the entire kit is particularly striking; skittering under, over, and between the guitars. The packaging is a masterpiece of cryptic writing and symbolism. I know not what it all means, but it, like the music, is clearly the product of advanced thought and dedication. Having released this daunting work, it’s intriguing to consider where they might go next. If there’s a more depraved, extreme form of metal that lies beyond Parasignosis, then I’m sure Mitochondrion will be the band to find it.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Six Organs of Admittance—Asleep on the Floodplain (Drag City)

It’s a credit to Ben Chasny’s abilities as a guitarist and songwriter that his work sounds so effortless. It has the flow and spontaneity of conversation, making the listener feel like a privileged eavesdropper. Listen to the exchange of phrases on the opening track “Above a Desert I've Never Seen”: tentative at first, then faster, as the discussion heats up, trills jabbing back and forth, then resolution and a calm parting of the ways. It’s surely the product of intense concentration on the part of the artist, but sounds easy as breathing.

Asleep on the Floodplain takes a more intimate, acoustic approach than recent Six Organs of Admittance albums such as Luminous Night or The Sun Awakens. Four of the tracks are solo guitar, with occasional harmonium overdubs. The combination works very well—the guitar paints a compelling line in the foreground; the harmonium provides the background element; that other dimension.

Sounds both placid and haunting dominate, like the low thrum that underpins “Brilliant Blue Sea Between Us” or the synth that curls like smoke around the memorable “Hold But Let Go.” “S/Word and Leviathan,” the longest track, establishes an uneasy atmosphere, vibrating like a dozen hammers pounding on power cables for several minutes. A chord progression emerges, then some vocals, before an electric guitar slashes through and obliterates all the chatter. “A New Name on an Old Cement Bridge” follows, a bluesy guitar piece to balance the mood after its predecessor’s cloudburst.

The album abounds in water imagery, which suits the flowing qualities of the music on Asleep on the Floodplain. These are small-seeming songs that resonate much larger, like the chain of ripples forming behind a skipping stone.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

21 Tandem Repeats—One Little Dream (Canada Lynx)

Super Robertson is his own man, and he does what he does with no concern about what’s cool and what might "rock." We should all be so unencumbered by cultural baggage. If this makes him an outsider, never mind; he’s got larger concerns. He’s got kids to raise, a Supper Show to organize every week, a garden to tend, bee survival to worry about, and songs to write.

Dreams have become a theme in his work as 21 Tandem Repeats. On “Robertson’s Dream Orchard” (from No Junk Mail Please) he sang about a fantasy of small-town life amongst the trees and bees. He expresses the same urge to escape the city on “Bold Point Road,” where he once “went to learn about the farming life” on Quadra Island. “One Little Dream” is about having the spirit required to help that dream survive in the face of challenges to our creativity and growth—“You gotta be bad to be good.” As ever, Super’s got ideas and opinions packaged up in these dreams-turned-songs.

With his last album, I gave him some stick over what I thought were less-than-definitive versions of songs that I’d been enjoying live. Timid arrangements diminished the material, I thought. This time, he’s assembled a crack team that has injected a lot of style and personality into the album. Alvaro Rojas (Cortez the Killer, Big Buck, etc.) and Willingdon Black handle electric guitars, adding twang and raunch when required; Johnny Wildkat (Mongoose) plays bass; Shawn Killaly—an irrepressible showman and incredible musician—is on drums, cracking the whip and giving the songs a boot up the arse. The MVP trophy, though, might have to go to C.S. Rippin for his piano playing, always rollicking away in the background, providing bounce and some humour—do I hear “Sweet Home Alabama” licks in “The Last Honey and Toast”? Jesse Gander’s mix buffs it till it sparkles. It’s a great leap beyond 21 TR’s handmade origins.

Quirks and characters populate 21 TR’s folk music. A song about a photographer friend (“Moustache Man” ) leads to a tune musing on Robertson's own neighbhourhood notoriety (“Famous Person”), followed by a slice of road-trip life from Robertson’s Knocking Dog days (“I was thinking that this ought to be in a movie” he thinks, as they drive through “Saskatchewan”). A minor gardening accident inspires “Rage Hero Episode #37,” a rambling narrative that Genny Trigo sings with the rage-negating chipperness of a children’s entertainer. Best of all, though, is “Nothing is Heard” a protest song that reminds me of Neil Young whipping up a storm with Crazy Horse. This version far eclipses what I’ve heard on stage. Based on this song alone, I’d declare One Little Dream a success, but considering everything else—the fine playing, the production, and other songs like “The Recurring Hurrah” and the title track—it’s clearly the best 21TR effort yet.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Red Fang—Murder the Mountains (Relapse)

What’s the angle on Red Fang? Well, there’s the beer-fueled, Pythonesque hilarity of the “Prehistoric Dog” video. I got on board after catching that, I’ll admit. There’s the Portland angle. Who doesn’t like Portland? Place is awesome. There’s the “produced by a Decemberist” angle, but that’s hardly an angle. It’s not like Red Fang are suddenly writing fantastical folk songs to be savoured by NPR listeners (and me). They rock, and hard. How about the fact that they’re on Relapse Records, purveyors of fine grind? Nah, Relapse embraces all genres of fine music these days. Fact is, Red Fang don’t need an angle. You just gotta hear them. I’m feeling pretty evangelical about Murder the Mountains, similar to how I felt about Harvey Milk’s Life…The Best Game in Town. The resemblance is superficial—the two bands’ demeanours are quite different. Red Fang are more sociable than Harvey Milk, but in terms of big American rock with great riffs and unexpected, unabashed catchiness, I get the same feeling from both albums. Red Fang mainly operate in two modes, combining a thudding, Melvins-like approach and a breezier, QOTSA kind of feel. One mode often dominates a song. “Into the Eye” and “Throw Up” are two of the most bruising tracks, while “Wires” and “Number Thirteen” have the shuffle going on, and are massively catchy. The alternating styles mesh well, and give the album that most valuable, old-fashioned quality of being able to tell the damn songs apart. The best thing about these songs, however, is that they go interesting places. Although they follow a three- to five-minute verse/chorus format, there’s always a cunning segue into an instrumental break or other digression that wakes me up from my rock trance thinking, “Wait, how did we end up here?” The best example might be “Wires”—the scuffed-up glam stomp heads into the orchestra pit, where guest Jenny Conlee’s keyboards take over and we’re suddenly prog-rockin’ for a stretch until another colossal riff—the kind of riff that can only end a song because it cannot be topped—breaks out. Sure, Red Fang can write memorable riffs and vocal lines, but this drive to explore what can happen within a song provides the X factor that’s made this one of my favourite albums of 2011 so far. Beyond the bearded, beer-swilling trappings there lies the souls of true rock ‘n’ roll craftsmen. And I’ll hoist a tall can to that.