Saturday, February 23, 2002

Today’s music-industry vets are mad as hell, and they’re not taking it anymore… Besides, I like reading a good rant.

Ooh, the music industry is a dank, seedy place populated by sharks, snakes, and the odd weasel. For every chart-topping act, there are a thousand careers that never get off the ground. The delete bins are filled with broken dreams, squandered talent, bad advice, and debt. The allure of becoming a “major label” recording artist is too powerful to resist for most performers. Thankfully, there are other options nowadays, options that the Internet has opened up.

The Majors Get a Good Shellacking
First, here’s The Problem With Music, an excerpt from an article by Steve Albini. Albini is probably most noted for his recording and engineering skills—I don’t think he likes the term “producer”—and his work with Nirvana (In Utero), PJ Harvey (Rid of Me), and The Pixies (Surfer Rosa). He’s always railed against the accepted practices of the music industry. For example, instead of taking “points” on an album he works on (in effect taking a cut of the eventual sales), he prefers to be paid up front for his work. This article points out the economic realities inherent in a typical major label record contract. Watch out! In the end, says Albini, most bands would have been better off keeping their day jobs at the 7-Eleven.

Courtney Does the Math
Courtney Love isn’t shy about letting her feelings known. She’s used the net many a time to issue diatribes of one sort or another. When Napster exploded and Metallica (or, more specifically, main mouthpiece Lars Ulrich) hired some lawyers to recoup their losses*, Love weighed in with her take on the situation. But, hey, look at this: at the end of her little economic analysis, she says, “the band may as well be working at 7-Eleven.” Given that Albini’s rant dates back to 1994 (when Napster’s creators were probably still in, uh, nappies), can we say that Love has indulged in a little piracy of her own?

Love’s most valid point is that major labels aren’t doing their job. They control the distribution of music—or they desperately want to control its distribution—but they’re doing a half-assed job. They aren’t helping artists find audiences. Says Love, “The present system keeps artists from finding an audience because it has too many artificial scarcities: limited radio promotion, limited bin space in stores and a limited number of spots on the record company roster. The digital world has no scarcities. There are countless ways to reach an audience. Radio is no longer the only place to hear a new song. And tiny mall record stores aren't the only place to buy a new CD.”

* I think Metallica owes far more to the fans who, under the impression that they were going to hear some heavy metal, bought Load and Reload.

Some Much-Needed Discipline
Indeed, record stores aren’t the only place to buy CDs, and artists can find their audiences without the help of major labels. Case in point, Discipline Global Mobile, the record-label arm of Robert Fripp, King Crimson, and related musicians. Read DGM’s mission statement and get a sense of the alternatives that exist for musicians in the 21st century. Briefly, DGM's aim is "to be a model of ethical business in an industry founded on exploitation, oiled by deceit, riven with theft and fuelled by greed." Hurrah! I have a lot of respect for this approach, and I also like that DGM isn’t some hermetically sealed virtual society. They make an effort to reach out to the real world, getting their releases into stores and getting their artists out on tour. Whether a business can, "operate in the marketplace, while being free of the values of the marketplace" (as DGM intends to) in perpetuity, I hope they can prosper for a long time.

Sunday, February 17, 2002

Most of today’s installment deals with that obsession of all nerdy music fans…

Beautiful and Concise
Thanks to High Fidelity and other peeks under the mossy stone that conceals my subculture, list-making amongst music geeks has been exposed as the sad cliché that it is. But the practice still thrives, because the crux of the matter is that lists just say so much, so quickly, and so honestly. A dear friend of mine had a dream once where the phrase “information is beautiful and concise” popped out at her. We’ve spent a long time trying to decipher that statement, and now I think it was talking about lists.

Do You Like Dido?
I don’t think you can hide anything in a list. Every listed item is like a pair of gonch hanging from your clothesline. Show me your grocery list, and I’ll know your marital status, whether you have kids, if you need more fibre in your diet, and how much time you spend on the couch. Show me a list of 25 CDs in your collection, and I can tell if you’re a Dido fan or not. At least that’s the premise of this list from The Guardian. Are you in your thirties and clinging to the notion that you’re hip while still feeling rather threatened by today’s music? Check your CD collection against this list and see how you’re doing. (I’ll cop to owning The Joshua Tree, though I can’t find it in the house. I think my sister took it. Oh, and I've got that Oasis album, too.)

Best of 2001
I’m so chuffed—I’m getting my "Top 15 Albums of 2001" list printed in the new issue of Unrestrained! magazine. I know it’s not the most stunning literary achievement, but hey, the boys at U! seem to value my copyediting services, and they’re good sports about letting me in on their year-end roundup action. For the morbidly curious, here’s the list (artist, title, and record label):
1. Opeth – Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/Koch)
2. Katatonia – Last Fair Deal Gone Down (Peaceville)
3. Nick Cave – No More Shall We Part (Reprise)
4. Neurosis – A Sun That Never Sets (Relapse)
5. Bjork – Vespertine (Elektra)
6. Amorphis – Am Universum (Relapse)
7. Transatlantic – Bridge Across Forever (Metal Blade)
8. Devin Townsend – Terria (HevyDevy)
9. Porcupine Tree – Recordings (Snapper)
10. Mammoth Volume – A Single Book of Songs By… (The Music Cartel)
11. Anathema – A Fine Day to Exit (Music For Nations/Koch)
12. Miriodor – Mekano (Cuneiform)
13. Sigh – Imaginary Sonicscape (Century Media)
14. Solefald – Pills Against the Ageless Ills (Century Media)
15. Djam Karet – New Dark Age (Cuneiform)

But that’s just my list, and I’m a bit mental. For a better sense of what constituted good pop music in 2001, visit The Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop Poll. I think Nick Cave and Bjork are there, but as for the rest… Well, you’re as likely to see Sigh there (check out their official website, created by local lad Dennis Leong) as you are to see Michael Campbell at Blunt Bros. puffing on a big ’gar.

Roadbed…I Like
My local music installment of a couple weeks ago had a serious omission. I forgot to mention my friends Roadbed, and their official site by gforceCreative. Roadbed are a kind of jazz-pop-indie-rock trio who never fail to put on a top-notch show. Like all great bands, each member has a distinct personality. If you replaced any one of them, it would be a totally different band. On drums, you’ve got Two-Sticks—one suave MF with a feather-light touch that drives the ladies wild. On guitar, there’s Shockk—the embodiment of all things caffeinated and rocking, able to switch from Metheny to Slayer and back again in a click of a stomp-box. Finally, on bass and vocals, we have Super Robertson—man-mountain and mountain-man, poet, diarist, facial-hair experimenter and They Might Be Giants fan. They’re friends, we’ve collaborated in the past, and I’ve seen more of their gigs than I’ve had hot dinners (guess that makes me—gulp—a “Roadhead”). Go see ’em at a fine venue near you.

Saturday, February 09, 2002


A brief survey of album review sites
Man, did I feel like a twit. I mean, I feel like a twit nearly every minute of every day, but in this case I clearly remember what sent my self-respect plummeting.

I was at the group interview prior to being accepted into Print Futures. Pat Witwicki was there, FX Sabanes was there. We were being poked and prodded (in a purely figurative sense, you understand) by Lorna McCallum and Diana Wegner. A question went around the table: "What kinds of things do you like to read?"

If I'd have known then what I know now, I'd have said, "Well, I enjoy reading an eclectic mixture of genres: annual reports, user manuals, brochures, press releases and media advisories, and, when I can't get my hands on those, I like to unwind with some Foucault, Derrida, and back issues of Harper's."

But instead, I thought for a second and said, "Well, I really like reading record reviews."

I felt a bit of a wally, but it was the truth. I do like reading record reviews. Plop a book full of reviews on my lap and I’ll happily while away the hours. I’ll probably even forget to eat. A good review (or reviewer) can make me think about a familiar piece of music in a whole new way, or introduce me to an artist or genre that I’d always been curious about but never had the courage (or finances) to check out myself.

While I’ll always prefer the feel and portability of an actual book—I’m thinking of my two Bibles, The Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, and The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal—there are a number of websites that have become invaluable sources of record reviews. They’ve pointed me in directions I couldn’t have predicted.

So this week’s blog entry is a quick tip o’ the hat to the sites that have shown me the future and uncovered the past, affirmed my worldview and torn up some of my long-held assumptions.

Last week’s entry had a link to John Chedsey’s Satan Stole My Teddybear. Sorry about the redundancy, but I wanted to give it another plug because I think so highly of it. It bills itself as “your online source for reviews on heavy metal, punk, industrial, progressive, ambient and other music guaranteed to upset your folks.” That’s a good description. John and his team of able reviewers cast their nets wide, and I heartily approve. You’ll find reviews of prog-crusties like Genesis and Gryphon (I was very happy to find a review of Red Queen to Gryphon Three there—“This album is so cool it should be illegal to dislike it”) plus a huge assortment of underground metal reviews.

Then there’s Prog-Net, which was a fabulous site of visitor-submitted reviews. I use the word “was” because, while the site remains online, it is no longer being updated. I’m still bummed about it, because I’d just started submitting to it last summer. Then one day I visited, and read this message from site founder Chris Dixon: “I hate to do this, but at this time I am going to stop the daily postings for Prog-Net. Without going into too much detail, I can only say that there continue to be abuses of this site that are beyond my control and often without my knowledge. For now, at least, I will leave up the archive. I want to thank EVERYONE who has put in the time to participate and contribute to this site. I hope that some day it will live again in some form, but for now, I think it just needs to come to a close. Keep on supporting prog!”
Major bummer. I think the site abuse took the form of a “review bombing” campaign by fans of a certain band. They took advantage of the site’s “all-comers” policy and ruined it for everybody else. I’d certainly like to see Prog-Net open and active once again. For now, its archive of reviews is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in progressive rock/metal and jazz.

Next up, we have musique [machine]. I have to thank my friend Bruno for pointing me to this good-looking site. The music they cover falls under the metal-ambient-experimental umbrella—cutting-edge stuff. I feel a bit out of my depth when I come face-to-face with reviews of artists such as Braaxtaal and Tactile Gemma, but exploring little-known corners of the musical universe is what I live for, so full marks to this site for opening up the nooks and crannies.

Last summer was a fairly shattering time for me. Various circumstances were forcing me to look at issues I had surrounding my self-confidence, my abilities, my ambitions, my desire to commute to Richmond on a daily basis… The War Against Silence shook me up pretty badly, too. This is ostensibly a music review site, but it’s much, much more. It’s the weekly diary of Glenn Robinson, a user-interface designer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Like me, Glenn buys a lot of music. Like me, his entire life is filtered through the music he listens to. Like me, he likes a lot of music that no one else pays much attention to. We even like a lot of the same bands: Marillion, IQ, Guided By Voices, amongst others. On the other hand, he likes a lot of stuff I find abhorrent: Ani Difranco, Roxette, Alanis Morissette. I like the fact that Glenn sits down once a week and pulls an all-nighter to write his column. I should have such a work ethic. I like Glenn’s writing. It’s convoluted and brainy. The man’s clearly brilliant. Here’s what he does in The War Against Silence: “I write about music, and about other things by way of music, because music transforms everything I contact, and maybe I can give you some tiny fraction of that by example. If you can't love Big Country or Tori Amos the way I do, maybe my explication of how and why I love them can help you love whomever you love better. I call these things music reviews because they try to answer the questions I think music should be construed as asking. Writing about music without writing about how it affects your life is, to me, an exercise in surreal opacity, like writing about sex or child-rearing without talking about love, or writing about food without eating.”

I think Glenn is a lot like me. Glenn does what I want to do so much better than I could ever do it. I don’t know if I like Glenn.

Saturday, February 02, 2002

Here's a musical area that's caused me a whole lot of difficulty over the years:


Too young for punk
The first local music that I became aware of was punk rock...and my friends and I hated it. We thought groups like the K-Tels (who later became The Young Canadians) were a joke. KISS or AC/DC could kick their asses. But what did we know? We were, like, 12.

It's too bad, because I lived through the heyday of Vancouver punk rock, and I have nothing to show for it. I was too young to go to shows, I'll grant you, but I could have scored some insanely collectible albums and singles if I'd been spending my allowance at the right record stores back then. (note: I don't subscribe to the "collector scum" mentality. I buy records for the music, not any imagined resale value, I swear.) Alas, my punk rock alter-ego hadn't quite been hatched yet. I liked Rush too much (and still do).

Despite my initial aversion to punk, I've always liked D.O.A. for their humour, their blend of hoseheaded hedonism and sincere activism, and "World War 3," the best punk single ever. Here's a link to their oral history at Joey Shithead's own Sudden Death Records website. It looks like a pain in the butt to read--the centre-aligned text is nasty--but it's bound to be a lively tale nevertheless. Joey's a good Burnaby boy, and probably the only person who's lived there longer than I have. In fact, his place is just up the street from mine.

Are they local? Does Victoria count? I think they all live in the Lower Mainland now anyway. Are they punk? Are they jazz? Are they art-damaged, Oedipal geeks who haven't made a bad recording in their 20 years of existence?

All of the above. Armed with a TEAC four-track, the Wright brothers joined forces in the basement, took their music to the world, and became my favourite local band of all time. I haven't the space or time to describe their stellar discography (I'll let John Chedsey of the equally stellar Satan Stole My Teddybear give you his critical appreciation instead), but I will say here that their music has always inspired, scared, informed, and disturbed me during the 15-plus years that I've been listening to it.

What about the metal and the prog, Rob?
Don't get me started on how the Vancouver media, especially The Sun and The Province, have been utterly hostile to heavy metal since the beginning of time. Same goes for their attitude towards progressive rock. Tom Harrison, Fiona McQuarrie, Vaughn Palmer (hard to believe that this lumpen politco once wrote concert reviews), John Mackie, Greg Potter--the list of evil hacks goes on and on. Their ignorance and hostility only fueled my loyalty to the music I loved.

Back when the metal underground was exploding in '85, I could follow the local scene via CITR's Powerchord show (where Metal Ron and the Rattlehead hold court to this day, God bless their fraying bullet belts). I got to hear bands like Sacred Blade (I can't believe these guys are still going), Karrion, Mission of Christ, Dioxin and Fratricide. Wish I'd scored demos from all of them, but I didn't get out much in those days.

On the progressive front...well, there was no progressive rock in Vancouver that I knew of. Recently though, I've been introduced to Mind Gallery (who do quite well internationally, but I've only seen one article about them in the local press) and Earthbound, a Yes tribute act who manage to scrape together shows now and then (they also feature the Douglas College music department's own Bob Caldwell on drums). Their website has disappeared, I'm afraid, but here's a live review. I've had a pretty hit-and-miss history when it comes to catching shows by either of these bands, but I do my best. Gotta support the prog.

Shameless self-promotion
I like to think I've done my bit to clutter up the local scene with my thoroughly average musical talents. Two bands I've played in currently have a presence on the web--Stoke and KLAGG (there should be an umlaut over that "A", but I can't do it on this computer).

I'll go with KLAGG first, because it's been around the longest. KLAGG (pronounced "clog"--name taken from an SCTV skit starring Harold Ramis as a Swedish cop with an attitude) began when my friend Ian (bass, mostly) and I (drums, mostly) invited our friend Alick (guitar, mostly) to jam with us back in '95 or so. Man, did we jam. And we rolled tape. And we jammed some more. And we taped some more. After a few years, we decided to go back to the tapes and write some real songs with all the good bits. Long story short--two CDs, a couple shows, a bunch of fun. Ian's partner Rob built us our official website. I was supposed to supply most of the content, but I'm a busy guy. It's not quite the promotional powerhouse it should be. We also have an site, where the world can enjoy our painstaking craftsmanship.

Stoke came out of another jamming project where I teamed up with my friends Bruknow (bass) and Scum (guitar). It was kind of directionless (but still fun), and when Scum jumped ship, we drafted in Alick (of the aforementioned KLAGG). Alick, a master songsmith, gave us some direction, and before I knew it, we were in Vogville Recording Studios recording an eight-song CD. I had to leave the band because of my Print Futures workload, and they carried on to bigger and better things. Here's Stoke's site, where Bruknow's done a bang-up job of keeping the fanbase up to date. As Nardwuar the Human Serviette said, "Wicked!!! ... a total 21st century blast of rawk!" (sic). The man speaks the truth.