Wednesday, April 30, 2003

New music around the place. I got a raise last week, so I dropped by Scrape and picked up the following:
Ulver: Lyckantropen Themes
I think the first Ulver album I bought was Nattens Madrigal, a deliberately perverse and unlistenable heap of black metal fuzz that was their one and only release on Century Media. The promo photos at that time showed the band in black suits and sunglasses, Reservoir Dogs style, with a big black American car in the background. These accessories, the story goes, are what they spent their advance on. Century Media made the best of a bad situation by claiming that Nattens’s “grimness of sound” was the result of it having been recorded live to four-track in the Norwegian woods. As such it was authentic, evil, and cult. Too bad it sounded like a miked-up sewing machine. I love Ulver. Lyckantropen Themes is the soundtrack to a short film by Steve Ericsson. The music extends the style they developed on Perdition City, their last full-length—it’s mostly ambient, wordless and beatless, flowing from one interlude to another. A chordal motif reappears at various points, but there’s nothing much to ground the listener. I’m pretty sure this will be one of those albums, like Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi, that sounds slightly different every time I play it. By the way, I bet my friend the Shockker could make an album like this in his sleep.

Katatonia: Viva Emptiness
Their previous album, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, was a great collection of death-pop and the soundtrack to my full-on summer of 2001. The sticker on the front of the new one has a quote from Chris Bruni (who writes for U! and Brave Words) declaring it “A masterpiece for the ages.” I’ll have to listen to it a few more times before deciding whether this is true or whether Chris was just overexcited at receiving the advance promo before everyone else.

Opeth: Damnation
So Opeth finally deliver the mellow prog album I’ve wanted from them since Morningrise. Am I wetting my pants? Is this a masterpiece for the ages? Well, at this point (having listened to it twice), it’s shaping up to be a fairly minor release in the Opeth catalogue. I expected more twists and turns…more drama. I hoped they’d bring the abrupt song structures of their heavy epics into a mellower arena. Although I’m struck by how low-key this album is, I can’t deny that the songs are memorable—I’ve got about eight different sections, lyrics and hooks bouncing around my head right now. My favourite tracks so far are the mellotron laden (both string and choir settings!) opener , “Windowpane” (an outstanding song), the middle piece, “Closure,” and “Weakness,” a surprising electric piano and voice duet that ends the album. Mikael Akerfeldt thanks his record collection for “making this album come true,” which is something I can relate to. From track to track, Damnation sounds like Porcupine Tree, Camel, and Nick Drake, all of whom Akerfeldt has namechecked in interviews over the years. Despite my semi-thwarted expectations, you know I’m loving this.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

This is what the Internet looks like
I can't stop looking at this thing [NSFW, at times]. "Exterminate all rational thought" may be overstating its potential to blow your mind, but it's still pretty cool.
In my capacity as cub reporter for Unrestrained! magazine, I interviewed Jim Matheos of Fates Warning and OSI a couple weeks ago. When I asked him if he listened to his own music much, I found myself totally relating to his answer.

“No, not much at all, really. And that’s one thing that I find interesting about OSI is that it’s one of the only records that I’ve done that I can listen to for enjoyment. I still put it on occasionally just to listen to and I think that’s partly because I didn’t have total control over it, and there’s still a lot of surprises to me. So I can listen to it as something fresh and kind of enjoy it as a fan. Whereas something with Fates Warning, I’ve been through it so many times it’s absolutely impossible for me to listen to it objectively.”

What he said made me think of the last Dead City Radio (Roadway) album. I recorded it with Greg and Adam in Edmonton in March 1999, then forgot about it for a while. When I visited Greg last spring, he had just finished putting the album together. On my first night there we sat down and listened to the whole thing. Apart from being reminded of how productive our sessions were, and being highly amused by what the drummer was trying to do, I was really impressed by how well these half-forgotten jams worked as an album.

So when I got back home I listened to the album some more. And some more. It went into heavy rotation. I even felt comfortable playing it around the belter. I’ve listened to it more than anything else I’ve recorded, written, or played on. It could be because it’s a mostly instrumental album, and vocals are the number one “run away and hide” factor with my own stuff. It could be the lush, homegrown mix, as inviting as the smell of fresh-baked cookies. But I’m sure a little distance—time, geography, and personal perspective—has also helped me enjoy the CD as much as I have.

These days I’m looking at the calendar and exchanging emails with Greg, making plans to go back out this summer.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

I was all set to take off to the D Room for some jamming today. Unfortunately I got an email from Sox in the morning that described circumstances that stopped me from going over. Sometimes the serious side of life intrudes on the Sunday scene.

For years and years at the D Room all we’d do was roll tape and jam. Taping everything is the way things are done there. The evidence is everywhere. Old cassettes spill out on to the floor. Dozens of unlabeled VHS tapes (from the days we recorded direct to stereo VCR) peek out from shelves and behind stacks of old LPs. The closet in Dogo’s old room is full of 1-inch reels. When I’m alone down there I like to sort through the cassettes on the floor, putting them back in drawers for safe keeping. I especially prize the tapes that date from before I knew the Logan boys. It does my heart good to find a tape from the mid-eighties labeled “Hellgrinder: Desecration of Surrey” or somesuch.

We’ve recorded hundreds of hours of jams, but no one listens to them. I’ve always thought it’d be a useful (but thankless) project to go through the tapes, extract the good bits, and put out a compilation of listenable material. I have no doubt we could scare a bunch of people silly with a release like that.

There must be hundreds of bands in hundreds of D Rooms across this continent. Look at the JPT Scare Band—three guys who recorded themselves with two mikes in their jam space in the mid seventies. Now they’re selling CDs of the stuff and recording new material for their newfound audience. I love finding out about bands like this, even if I’m underwhelmed when I inevitably fork out for their albums.

All you need to do is capture a certain musty mystique and sub-cult notoriety can be yours. And (this is the part I like best) you don’t even have to leave the basement.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

During game five of the Canucks/St. Louis series last Friday, we were on the ferry to Mayne Island. The belter and I sat near the kids’ play area. My attention alternated between my magazine and Cypress, who was eight feet in the air, clinging to a pole with one hand and holding an Archie Double Digest open with the other, serenely reading while the other kids fought and screamed below her.

A voice came on over the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, the score in the second period is the Canucks 4, St. Louis 1.”

I love it when that happens. I know it’s corny, but that kind of public hockey update makes me glad to be Canadian. People cheer and strangers talk to each other. Tourists roll their eyes or wonder what’s going on. It’s a rare moment of camaraderie in a country that actually seems to discourage bonding amongst its citizens. A lot of people around us probably wished they were watching the game right then—we were all in the same boat, so to speak, so a considerate BC Ferries employee took pity on us and told us the score. For a few seconds people enjoyed the fact that they had something in common…then they went back to separating their howling kids.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

On Sunday night the belter and I joined the parade of white hair up Granville Street towards the Vogue Theatre for the SFU Pipe Band concert. Besides a lot of bagpipes, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would they just stand there on stage for an hour and a half? Would they march in place? Would it be all bagpipes all the time? Well, it was more like a Scottish variety show than anything else, with a wisecracking host, audience participation, highland flingers, a tap-dancing fiddler, a drum corps solo, and uncountable bagpipers in every conceivable configuration. There was even a bass guitarist and regular drum kit on stage for some rockin' bagpipe numbers.

I think I was most impressed by the solo bagpipe tunes. Sometimes the piper would do some fancy trills or bend notes in a way I’d never heard before—like Yngwie McMalmsteen or something. The crowd (must have been a sellout) was pretty excited by it, and judging by the punches she was landing on my arm, the belter was too. I think I’m going to be taken out to be fitted for a kilt soon.

Monday, April 14, 2003

I went solo to the record sale at the Croatian Cultural Centre on Sunday. Sox wasn’t in the market for anything (ensuring more ELO LPs for everyone else), and neither was Scum… Even the Pantleg Guy skipped this one, I think. I wasn’t in a big buying mood but I had two or three really specific items I was looking for. I couldn’t find any of them. I overheard lots of kids asking for Iron Maiden albums. What’s up with that? Granted, Maiden are a quality outfit, but I’d think they had limited cross-generational appeal aside from possible irony/humour value. Maybe it’s because Sum 41 are always namechecking metal bands (these kids looked too hip to be Sum 41 fans, though) or maybe the twin-lead action of bands like Converge is inspiring youngsters to check out the forefathers.

I also overheard some amusing prog conversations. I could have jumped in if my need for anonymity didn’t override everything else. I also fear my own kind. I wasn’t there to make friends. One guy came up beside me at a table and asked the dealer, “Do you have any European prog? I’m looking for a Belgian band—they used to be Univers Zero, but now they’re called Present.” Now Present happen to be a favourite of mine, and a band that I’d never let a loved one hear in a million years. To have a stranger mention them within earshot was a little unnerving. I had to slowly back away.

At another table a guy started telling his dealer friend about the Baja Prog Festival. PFM were there and so were Focus, but Thijs Van Leer couldn’t play flute because his face was all paralyzed from a stroke, which was a drag. Apparently Ange, from France, blew everyone away and sold mass merch. Man, it’s painful enough reading about these fests on mailing lists and newsgroups, but to hear about it in person? I clenched my jaw and kept rifling through the bins. The other option was to yell “bastard!” and brain him with the nearest Bruce Springsteen live box set.

I left with a copy of The Toyko Tapes (Scorpions with Uli!), an old Alice Cooper album, and a severe acute case of album finger.

Saturday, April 12, 2003

Traffic up Main Street picks up after the hockey games. Tonight drivers are honking their horns and shouting a bit. Spirits are high. Apparently somebody let the dogs out.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Mike Watt at the Pic, April 5, 2003
I can never get comfortable at the Pic. The people who look comfortable at the Pic make me uncomfortable. The place is narrow, there’s seating room for about 12 people (and if you’ve got a seat, then you probably can’t see the stage), you’re always standing in someone’s way, and you can’t find anywhere to hide. At least they give you in/out privileges, which can save your bacon during a three-band bill like Smash and I saw last Saturday night.

First band was Esperanto, who alternated between brief instrumentals and acoustic-guitar-led rap numbers. I liked how their singer just sat off to the side during the instrumentals. The highlight of their set came at the end, when their guitarist led the crowd in a call-and-response rap tribute to the Career of Watt. “I say Minute, you say Men… I say Fire, you say Hose…” et cetera. It was cool, not to mention well-researched.

Next band up was The DT's, a three-piece (drums, guitar, keyboards) plus singer from Bellingham. Very impressive trad-kinda-MC5 rock with wailing female vocals. The keyboards drifted in and out of the mix, but the drummer was extremely killer and the guitarist had impressive chops in both the playing and the facial hair sense. Their effort to “stretch things out a bit” caused their last number to outstay its welcome, but a good showing all in all.

Mike Watt slept out in the van while all this was going on. Smash. Smash, who braved the rain to greet the groggy indie veteran, reports that Watt was pretty slow getting to his feet. Apparently his illness, an illness that’s both sapped his energy and fuelled his new material, has returned, and he was this close to calling off the tour. He certainly looked tired as he pushed through the crowd, got on stage, and unpacked his bass. When the gig started he gave it 100% instrumentally and vocally, but when he talked between songs, he sounded exhausted. He played with a drummer (another good drummer! Just once I’d like to see a drummer who totally sucks. It would make me feel better) and a guy on Hammond organ. Apparently they’re both from Pedro. I’m not sure how to describe the band’s sound…maybe ropey and muscular? The lyrics seemed to deal with assorted medical horrors: piss bags and catheters and so on. The off-kilter music occasionally induced as much discomfort as the subject matter. The songs got more streamlined as the set progressed, until by the end they were tearing through “The Red and the Black” (the BOC song that figures prominently in Watt/D Boon folklore) and “Sister Ray.” It was a good show, but I was left wondering whether Mike Watt can keep this up for much longer.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Greg Howard at the Jazz Cellar April 2, 2003
Smash and I went to the Jazz Cellar last Wednesday night. Chapman Stick maestro Greg Howard was in town for a one-off gig en route to a Stick workshop/retreat on Saltspring Island. A number of the workshoppers (from California, Chicago and elsewhere) were also there to see their guru in action. These kinds of freak scenes don’t happen every day, so Smash and I had to take full advantage. Dave, Hannah, Toshi, and Melissa braved it out, too.

The Cellar, whose colour scheme matches the Difficult Music template, was still filling up when Howard started his first set. As a Stick player he was impressive enough—I spent the first few minutes trying to work out where the backing tapes were coming from before deciding that, oh, it’s just one guy playing all those parts—but the drummer he was playing with took the show over the top.

The drummer’s name was Kyle. He was a big dozer in a slablike shortsleeved black shirt with a ninja motif. He looked like a drink-bubba-keg-then-paint-face-for-the-hockey game kind of kid. Well, maybe that’s what he gets up to when he’s not practicing, but he’s also the best drummer ever. From what we gathered, he was just some local guy the organizers floated in for the show, which made his playing even more impressive. A couple bare-bones charts, a few head cues and count-ins from Howard, and he was good to go.

The set list featured a handful of Latiny, fusiony originals, some jazz standards and some pop tunes. Howard covered a lot of ground. He devoted a fair bit of the first set to The Beatles: First, a nice arrangement of “Here There and Everywhere,” then a “Tomorrow Never Knows/Norwegian Wood” medley. I was liking it. The second set summoned Mingus (“Goodbye Porkpie Hat”), Herbie Hancock, and Dylan by way of Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower”).

If it all sounds kinda lite and safe, at various points he switched on a digital delay and ventured into the world of loops and space rock. I definitely felt the room levitate a few times, which is a desirable effect. When you’re playing the high-tech musical instrument of The Future, there’s little point in using it to simply rehash old hippie shit. You should go nuts with the thing.

The Saltspring Stick workshop people were at a table behind me. I couldn’t spy on them or eavesdrop effectively, although I met one of them, Smash’s email buddy Winston from California, during the intermission. On our way out after the show, Smash wished him well for the rest of the weekend. We shook Mr. Howard’s hand and thanked him for the music, and had much to discuss on the way home.

Both Bruno and David noted separately that Stick players and D&D types have a lot in common. It’s an insular nerd culture—music for nerds played on a nerd instrument for other nerds. I guess we were honourary nerds by being there. That’s the kind of guilt by association I can happily accept.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Letting some web site autogenerate my blog entry was a resounding flop. Let’s see if I can do any better.

“Eighties music.” I bristle whenever I hear some ponytailed, puff-jacketed whelp use the phrase. “It’s got cheesy synthesizers, like eighties music.” The cadence of the phrase, with the accent on the first syllable—“EIGHTies music.” God, I want to start swinging a machete.

I’m a little disturbed by how intensely it grates me. I’m also perplexed. Because I know what music they’re referring to, and I don’t like it either. I didn’t like it when it was brand new, when I was the target audience. The synthesizers were cheesy, the production values grotesque, the hair styles…structurally unsound. Everything on the radio made me cranky. I latched onto anything I could find, from metal to the abortive progressive revival of '82–'83, to avoid it.

So why am I now stung when I hear kids implying that Glass Tiger, Kajagoogoo, et al are the quaintest thing ever? Why do I feel compelled to defend Platinum Blonde from the gentle mocking of Daryns and Vanessas? I guess it’s because I have a small slice of ownership in that decade by dint of alive and aware at the time. I don’t like it when people tar whole decades with the same brush. They always get it wrong.

I just finished a superb book about eighties music, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. The book profiles 13 influential bands from the eighties, from Black Flag to Beat Happening—the bands who basically did the grunt work that enabled Nirvana to break big in 1991.

The book doesn’t advertise this fact, but almost every band profile is accompanied by the story of a record label, a subplot that I found as appealing as the main narrative. Bands and labels helped strengthen each other’s identities, strained each other’s loyalties, bickered and became estranged from each other with the same regularity as the individuals within the bands themselves. The Black Flag story is also the story of SST Records, The Replacements had Twin Tone, Minor Threat and Fugazi were synonymous with Dischord, Big Black and the Butthole Surfers kept Touch & Go afloat. Nearly every chapter ends with the band’s defection to the majors and their “inevitable” artistic decline.

I laughed out loud through the entire thing. Azerrad gets some priceless stuff from his subjects. There’s debauchery: several eyewitnesses gleefully recall Gibby Haynes’ drunken, violent (and naked) rampage at a Dutch Festival. There’s introversion: the Dinosaur Jr chapter is a hilarious litany of passive aggression, pettiness and insecurity. Even Henry “Garfield” Rollins and Ian MacKaye raise an eyebrow with their confessions of an arena rockin’ youth—“We would read about the Nuge and the thing that really rubbed off on us was the fact that he didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs… We thought that was so impressive.”

I admit I wasn’t a fan of most of these bands when they were around. I now wish I had been one of the eight other people in the club during one of their early tours. Most of these bands played Vancouver regularly. I found out about them too late, when they had already finished, or were within an album or two of breaking up. Maybe I was too busy hating stuff in the eighties to find out anything good (and truly contemporary) for myself. Maybe I wasn’t cool enough.

It’s easy to decide how good something was after it’s run its course. It’s often harder to objectively assess something in the present, to take a stand and decide what you like, really like, now. I think that’s what bugs me about the kids and their “eighties music.” It takes very little effort to deride the past, just as it’s very easy for them to glibly accept what TV and radio spoonfeeds them in 2003. You own your present. I owned the eighties when I was teenaged, somewhat sentient, and looking for cultural sustenance, but I was too chickenshit to try to improve the situation. I just hated it. Those kids own today. They’re the audience, they’re as responsible for all the mainstream crap we have to endure as anyone else. If people used their imagination and looked at what they have today with the perspective they’ll have five years from now, I’d hope to see riots in the street. But that’s just misguided old me, expecting people to care.