Monday, December 31, 2007

Planets—s/t (Distile)
The avalanche of quality math rock continues. I’ve never encountered an incompetent math rock band—some have clearly mastered more advanced math than others, but none have out-and-out sucked. Maybe all the potentially lame bands realize they won’t cut the mustard before they commit their naïve arithmetic to tape and embarrass themselves. Releases like this can provoke that kind of harsh self-contemplation. Planets are a number-crunching duo from Napa, California. Paul Slack handles bass, while Thomas Crawford covers “not bass,” which must equate to at least drums and guitar, based on what I hear here. I’d be interested to find out how the two of them wrote and recorded this stuff because the guitar is tightly interwoven with the rhythm section. If it was overdubbed onto bass/drum jams, it’s impressively executed. Most of the songs are the kind of skittering riff farms to which any fan of Dysrhythmia, Upsilon Acrux or Ahleuchatistas would be attuned. If I can pick out any distinguishing attribute amidst their undeniably excellent musical execution, it’s their commitment to rocking out. They’re not afraid to linger on a particularly blistering riff for a few seconds, or ride a groove for a couple minutes (as on “Return of a Dead Man”). The sound is suitably chunky as well. Rest assured, Planets will scramble your synapses (12 varied, intense tracks over 25 minutes will do that), but on a number like “Exercise!” they show they can write a tune you have a hope of recognizing on your second or third listen. The disc comes sewn inside a cloth pouch, so have scissors and a clean pant leg (to wipe the lint off the playing surface) handy if you get yourself a copy. The music’s well worth the extra prep.

Friday, December 28, 2007

OM—Pilgrimage (Southern Lord)
OM are one of those high-concept bands that proliferate nowadays. The duo—Al Cisernos and Chris Hakius (ex-Sleep)—plays stripped-down low frequency vision-quest music, with bass and drums leaning heavily on each other during longform spiritual journeys towards a kind of ambient-metal Xanadu where pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath commingle in a space/doom void. All in all, it's quite a contrast to former bandmate Matt Pike’s maximum rock and roll approach in the equally righteous High On Fire. OM's compelling power-through-minimalism approach also stands in opposition to more assaultive duos like Ruins, Hella, or Lightning Bolt. Judging by this and their previous full-length, Conference of the Birds, OM releases straddle a format between album and EP. Pilgimage lasts about half an hour, so OM are either careful composers or ruthless editors...probably both. Each of the four tracks serves a purpose and resides comfortably in the running order. We’ll not hear any complaints about “value for money” because such materialistic concerns have no place in OM’s realm. This particular saucerful of secrets opens with the title track (also reprised in shortened form to close the album), a hushed affair, with delicately plucked bass and muffled tom work, sounding like Waters and Mason jamming circa 1969. Cicernos’s whispered vocals work a stream of consciousness vibe ("Witness from mind and psychic sheath a guardian sun restrains the world projection") as do the riffs, which have an idiosyncratic internal logic that encourages acceptance instead of analysis. “Pilgrimage” fades to make way for the distorted churn of “Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead.” This startling transition, bridged by a mellow passage that plays with a few notes from the previous track, is my favourite moment on the album. Having delivered a quiet one and a loud one, “Bhimas’ Theme” mixes the two dynamics, making for perhaps the most approachable, deliberately structured piece on Pilgrimage. While nothing on the album quite matches the superb and memorable “At Giza” from Conference of the Birds, the overall flow and variety of the tracks shows some significant progression, making OM’s third major release a satisfying listening experience. Pilgrimage is a testament to their staunch focus. If they keep widening their field of vision, OM should be able to keep at this for years to come.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cortez the Killer—s/t EP (self-released)
Here’s more proof that the Vancouver music scene has entered a golden era. Though they take their name from Neil Young’s slow-burning epic, Cortez the Killer’s own music is a turbulent headrush more akin to Botch, The Refused, or forefathers Fugazi and Squirrel Bait. This fiery quintet shares a member with A Ghost to Kill Again, whose debut album knocked me on my ass earlier this year. The two bands also share a fanaticism for unpredictable action rock, although Cortez favour a harder punk rock edge compared to AGTKA’s shameless prog tendencies. Where AGTKA are sweeping and emotional, Cortez are taut and pissed off on this five-song EP. Each track writhes with rapid-fire lyrics—cryptic yet clearly imaginative political tirades whose stream-of-consciousness presentation in the booklet perfectly reflects their delivery. “Cocktails Mixed by Molotov” reimagines WWII’s Eastern Front as a hockey game while “East Vancouver Heart Attack” laments those being swept aside in the name of civic development (featuring the genius line “we all desire change but have none to spare”). Musically, flurries of hepped-up Iron Maiden licks and double bass (drummer Benjie Nesdoly turns in a heroic performance) pepper the spasmodic song structures—structures that still leave room for hooks in the form of gang-shout choruses and other vocal lines that get catchier with every listen. The songs seethe with debut-release excitement, and once Cortez the Killer catch their breath and hit the studio again it’ll be interesting to hear them stretch out across a full-length release.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Benzene Ring—Breathing Water in a Dream (Vortex Gang Records)
New York’s The Benzene Ring are easy to enjoy yet difficult to describe. The band appears comfortable with the “indie rock meets prog” tag, so, even if it doesn’t do them sufficient justice, let us go with that. (Aside: I often find that bands are their own worst enemies when they label themselves—there’s a local band that describes themselves as “alt-country with a hip-hop backbone,” a phrase that nearly sends me screaming and flailing into oncoming traffic whenever I see it tacked up on a poster in my neighbourhood.) The Benzene Ring have their own musical hybrid figured out, integrating all elements seamlessly enough that you barely notice transitions between fresh-faced poppiness, sinister ‘n’ sinuous Steve Hackett guitar lines and Tool-worthy heavy sections. Hometown boys Bend Sinister are operating in similar territory, I think, albeit with a different set of styles and influences. The overall approach is guitar-based and economical, refreshingly free of the musical bloat that affects too many bands these days. The murky CD cover offers no clues to the wonders within—I thought the colorful, detailed painting on the back of the booklet would have done a better job of conveying the music's sensibility. There might be a concept underpinning the album, but I‘ve become so clueless in my old age that unless the booklet is
emblazoned with “Welcome to our heavy concept album,” I’m oblivious. Who has time to figure it all out? Songwise, The Benzene Ring have a flair for the mini-epic, such as on the 7-minute opening track, “You and Me in the Absence of Predators” which travels from a sprightly catchy opening to a noisy guitar duel to a placid, watery section before reprising the introduction, producing a nice déjà vu effect. The second track, “An Old Man Dies and Finds Himself in Hell” is equally strong, a rapid-fire REM-to-Genesis-to-points-beyond structure, with a nice use of the devil’s interval during the song’s latter third. The vocals are particularly good throughout, as they manage to work in some strong melodies no matter how eccentric the instrumental backing. The album then fragments into abstract pieces and semi-songs—the sort of thing that got me thinking “concept album”—deep-space whooshing and hissing or Eno-esque ambient diversions. Of the semi-songs “The Magical Road” is a favourite of mine—just a single lyrical mantra chanted against a driving guitar riff, a quick guitar-solo release, then back to the chant, which builds and builds to the end; all done in just over two minutes. The album finale, “Pretend I’m Not Here,” has kind of a Canterbury feel (with Leslie speaker vocal effects straight offa Camel's Moonmadness), for a time at least. If they added a slightly harder edge to their sound, this band would be perfect for an adventurous label like The End. These songs, each a humble triumph of imagination, go to some interesting places, and I’d be pleased to see the Benzene Ring go places in the next few years as well.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

I was at Progressive Ears this morning, reading an unspectacular thread on power trios, when someone threw up a link to November, a Swedish trio who released three albums between 1969 and 1972. Holy crap—these guys were right up there with Night Sun in terms of obscure early '70s heaviness, and definitely on par with more famous acts like Captain Beyond and Budgie. I can hear a lot of their sound in Witchcraft as well (speaking of whom, I've been waiting for a review copy of their new album The Alchemist for a while. I'll probably just buy it, because hey, new Witchcraft!).

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Here are the Top 100 Canadian Albums, as voted by our nation's critics and documented in Bob Mersereau's new book. No list is perfect, and lengthy lists drawn up by critics are especially suspect, but this one avoids total blandness with some worthy and surprising choices. Here are some notes on the ones that I own.

1. Harvest, Neil Young (1972)
Strange that this would prevail on a critics' list, even if it is his most popular album. I thought the rock-crit junta preferred scragglier Young albums, like Tonight's the Night. As Sam Inglis writes in his book on Harvest (part of the 33 1/3 series), " would be fair to say that Harvest was a hit despite the press, rather than because of them; and it's not only rock critics who have expressed distaste for Young's most successful album. Ask serious Neil Young fans to name their favourite album of his and you'll hear votes for any one of ten or so, but Harvest is unlikely to be among them. If you love Young for the searing rock 'n' roll of Rust Never Sleeps or the raw emotion of Tonight's the Night, Harvest is too safe, too bland, too popular."

I think Harvest is a fantastic album, and a very worthy #1.

2. Blue, Joni Mitchell (1970)
Truth is, I bought this used from Neptoon's bargain bin because I wanted the original version of "This Flight Tonight." It gets a fair bit of early morning play here.

3. After the Gold Rush, Neil Young (1970)
After Harvest, this is probably Young's most hit-filled album. It's hard to beat that initial stretch of songs on side one.

9. Moving Pictures, Rush (1981)
Again, what a killer first side! An easy selection for the top Rush album here; Moving Pictures had a huge impact on a generation of basement-bar and backs-of-car dwellers across the country (sorry, I'm referencing the wrong album there). "Tom Sawyer" is pure jean-jacket poetry, while I'll always have time for "The Camera Eye"'s 10 minutes of elegance on side two.

16. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Neil Young with Crazy Horse (1969)
"Cinnamon Girl," "Down by the River," and "Cowgirl in the Sand" probably use up over half the running time on this album, the first Neil Young release to showcase the shambling, jamming side of his musical personality.

17. 2112, Rush (1976)
The album that pulled them out of the dumper...jeez, it's all about side one again. It always bugs me when it's called a concept album, or even when "2112" is called a side-long epic. No, it's seven little songs that tell a story that can only be properly discerned when you read the 'tween-song "narration" between the lyrics in the gatefold. Duh, you guys.

19. Whale Music, Rheostatics (1992)
I'd place Melville first in the Rheostatics discography myself (see more below). Whale Music has "Self Serve Gas Station," though, which is a whole movie's worth of depressing, soul-destroying, suicidal drama in five minutes.

22. Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young & Crazy Horse (1979)
This album is badass, though I don't think it has the depth of the previous NY albums on this list. I do think "Powderfinger" is one of his best-ever songs, and I have a soft spot for "Welfare Mothers."

30. Tonight's the Night, Neil Young (1975)
I got this after reading all the critical hoopla in one of those special Rolling Stone issues ("Best 8 Million Albums of the Mid-70s" or something), but I've never really gotten into it.

31. Decade, Neil Young (1977)
A greatest hits package makes the list? I have this, and I like to open the triple gatefold up and look at it. I rarely put it on.

38. Melville, Rheostatics (1991)
This is my favourite Rheostatics album. They were ON for this one, just brimming over with piss 'n' vinegar. "Record Body Count," "Aliens (Christmas 1988)," and "Horses" can reduce me to bubbling goo. Capped off with "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," it's a Canadian classic.

39. Love Tara, Eric's Trip (1993)
Great to see this underrated band make the list. This was their first album for SubPop, and the follow-up, Forever Again, was even better, IMO.

40. On the Beach, Neil Young (1974)
I really really liked this album when I first got it, but looking at the song titles, I'm hard pressed to remember most of it. I reviewed it briefly here back in 2004: "It’s Neil down in the dumps in 1974, dressing down Lynyrd Skynyrd (or perhaps Crosby, Stills and Nash) one more time ('Walk On') then embarking on a series of more stripped-down numbers, some of which are quite beautiful. 'See the Sky About to Rain' and the title track are two of my favourites right now." Some penetrating analysis there.

47. Harvest Moon, Neil Young (1992)
Having attained iconic status after Freedom and Ragged Glory, it was time for a sequel to Harvest. Like most sequels, Harvest Moon doesn't quite recapture the magic of the original. The subsequent Unplugged album was great though, and remember that video with Dale Crover as young Neil?

51. High Class in Borrowed Shoes, Max Webster (1977)
"a foot in the kitchen/a foot in the door/but the foot in your mouth/is so u don't get bored." Yeah, Pye Dubois is the people's poet, fuckin' A, and this is Max Webster's most rockin' album. Thanks to Martin Popoff's books for pointing me towards their catalogue beyond the s/t debut—five records and about 10 bucks got me endless hours of enjoyment.

56. Si on avait besoin d'une cinquieme saison, Harmonium (1974)
I remember our French teacher playing us Harmonium songs so we could read along with the lyrics. Little did I know at the time that there was such a thing as Quebec folk-prog, and that I would be buying Harmonium albums 20 years later when there was no other progressive rock left to buy.

62. The Trinity Session, Cowboy Junkies (1988)
I think I liked the idea of this record more than the record itself. They were well ahead of the mope-rock curve, as evidenced by those MOJO tribute albums where cutting-edge artists of today turn ebullient works like Revolver into dirge-fests.

64. Nothingface, Voivod (1989)
See, this is where this whole Top 100 exercise justifies itself. Voivod! Nothingface! Cyber-metal masterpiece at #64 with a bullet(belt)! I guess that "Astronome Domine" video really burned a few impressionable brain cells back then.

70. Love Junk, The Pursuit of Happiness (1988)
Moe Berg was clearly a young man relishing the prospect of a mid-life crisis when this CanCon power pop classic was released. While nobody needs to hear "I'm an Adult Now" ever again, there's a bunch of other songs here to pick up the slack. "Hard to Laugh" kicks pretty hard, as does "Killed by Love" (Berg's reply to Motörhead's "Killed by Death"?) and the immortal "Looking for Girls."

86. Smeared, Sloan (1992)
There were other Sloan albums further up on the list, but this is the only one I own. "Underwhelmed" (their own "I'm an Adult Now") is on here in its speedy incarnation, which I think I like a bit better than the lumbering EP version. I have to say the thrill of those days—when that DGC logo accompanied epochal releases by Sonic Youth and Nirvana, and our own Maritimes lads got in on it too—is long gone for me.

100. A Farewell to Kings, Rush (1977)
I remember getting this album from Woodward's and having it melt my face even when played on my folks' old faux-Victorian woodclad all-in-one phonograph/radio hi-fi (or mid-fi) unit. Only "Madrigal" flounders here, like "Tears" on 2112, and it doesn't matter anyway because "Cygnus X-1" tears apart every nerve afterwards, obliterating its feeble predecessor like so much space dust.

What about these, eh?
It would have been cool to see these albums make the list:
Sons of Freedom—s/t
SNFU—And No One Else Wanted to Play

Friday, October 19, 2007

"I was trapped into being alive." The Guardian profiles Robert Wyatt and his partner Alfie. As someone who has tried to sing in the past, I enjoyed this passage:
"Wyatt is brutally modest about his voice. Described by Ryuichi Sakamoto as 'the saddest sound in the world', it is limber and beautiful - yet Wyatt once likened it to Jimmy Somerville on valium. 'There's no deliberate or conscious input into the way I sing,' he says. 'It's more like damage limitation.'"

I saw his new album Comicopera in a store a couple weeks ago, and I stupidly didn't buy it right then and there.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I'm having problems managing my time and being productive these days. I start every day with the best intentions—get some work done in the morning, get out of the house before the hordes of SFU students swarm my transit route(s)—only to fritter away the time here at this machine.

This morning the time wastage was worth it, though. Check out this Metafilter thread about my second or third or fourth favourite band. It boasts a healthy 88 comments so far too, most of them witty and fond, e.g. "I enjoy annoying my sister, a huge Rush fan, with random outbursts of 'SALESMAN!'"

Now I must get dressed.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Roland Kirk with Jack McDuff—Kirk’s Work (Prestige)
Reading the liner notes to this Rudy Van Gelder remaster, I learned that Roland Kirk had a bit of “novelty act” stigma. I guess the sight of a big blind guy blowing on any number of wind and brass instruments out of any number of orifices was difficult for people to take seriously back in 1961. All I know is Roland Kirk rocked really hard. His flash, showmanship, and pioneering spirit definitely appealed to certain players on the adventurous fringes of rock in the late ’60s. I’m thinking of Ian Anderson, who borrowed Kirk’s vocalizing flute style and adapted a couple of his signature tunes, as well as the Kirk-style twin-sax attack of Van der Graaf Generator’s David Jackson. Rock music and Kirk’s brand of jazz also shared a blues foundation. It doesn’t get any more down and dirty than “Doing the Sixty-Eight” or “Funk Underneath” off Kirk’s Work. “Funk Underneath” is an especially interesting track, with its shifting moods. Kirk leads off on flute, tentative and coy. When Jack McDuff takes over on organ, working overtop the marauding bass line, the tune toughens up and turns into something that I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. McDuff shares billing with Kirk, and his Hammond lends a pervasive sense of menace laced with ’60s cool. (I’ve discovered recently that jazz organ is one of my favourite things on earth. Larry Young, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff—they’re all killer. I’m up for more recommendations.) The double shot off the top of the album features my favourite tracks. “Three for Dizzy” sounds like the theme to a spy flick, all dramatic sax stabs and slinky melodies. In contrast, the version of “Makin’ Whoopee”that follows defines the word “peppy” and I’ll throw in the term “shit hot” while I’m at it. It’s the kind of live-off-the-floor mayhem that makes you want to throw down your chosen instrument forever, knowing you’ll never rock that hard. At a little over half an hour, Kirk’s Work is like the Reign in Blood of jazz albums, making for the best jazz fix I’ve had in a while.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Kosmos—s/t (The End)
I don’t know if the late Carl Sagan liked rock music at all, but I think he would have appreciated Kosmos. Not only did this splendidly psych-rocking Montreal quartet borrow and mutate the name of the good doctor’s landmark TV series, they also make music that would have worked perfectly as that show’s soundtrack. I can picture Sagan guiding us around billions and billions of galaxies to the chilling Kraftwerk vibe of “Dream” or using the burbling synth raga of “Mothership” as a backdrop to a discussion of black holes. Kosmos play planetarium rock to be sure, but they pull in so many styles and musical colours that the album easily avoids becoming a drone-fest. Instead it’s a vital, concise cluster of Euro-prog explorations mixed with unexpected detours into heavy rock raveups and fuzz punk. Voivod drummer Michel Langevin powers the whole enterprise (along with copilots Jetphil, Alex Crow of Tricky Woo, and Vincent Peake of Grimskunk) with an authority befitting decades of laying down off-kilter rhythms for Voivod. He provides plentiful bombast and bluster for more extroverted tracks like album opener “Psycho,” “Messe Noire” and “Grand Grizou” where his bandmates provide thrills aplenty with their organ vs. synth vs. guitar battles. Some pieces bring to mind Heep and Purple sans crooning, as well as the vanished instrumental NOLA-scene side project The Mystick Crewe of Clearlight. Fans of Goblin, Zombi, Djam Karet, and Pink Floyd’s soundtrack work would also be advised to tune in and turn on. I suspect this album is the inevitable by-product of someone’s cool record collection and an attitude that anything’s worth trying once. From Red Giants to White Dwarfs, they’re all here in the Kosmos.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Neurosis—Given to the Rising (Neurot)
Neurosis have earned the right to do anything they want at this point. They release their own records, they tour when and where they want. If any other band was in this position, one might expect a certain laziness to creep into their music. This is Neurosis, however, so the only expectation is steadfast, indomitable excellence... Their releases since Times of Grace have seen the gradual introduction of a certain terse moodiness and quietude associated with post rock, a tendency that Neurosis acolytes Isis have embraced much more decisively on albums like Panopticon. The logical outcome of Neurosis's musical progression could result in an album entirely mellowed out and interchangeable with any mopey indie-rock outfit. But Neurosis music comes from the heart, so forget logic and the unimaginative reductionism that usually constitutes other bands' “artistic growth.” Given to the Rising slams the brakes on that stylistic trajectory with a batch of dark, heavy songs built upon riff after riff after riff. The album is full of those Neurosis terror moments, where a murky tangent suddenly explodes as the whole band unleashes one of those crusher riffs. This is nothing new for Neurosis, of course. The most novel aspect of Given to the Rising is that they’ve chosen to focus on the dark and heavy. They played one or two of these songs live when I saw them in November, but I was too busy trying not to die to file away the fine details of the new material. They’ve worked with Steve Albini again, who’s given them their best recording yet...perfectly spare and direct. Neurosis songwriting methods don't stick to any rules other than songs should have a beginning and end and be terrifying, so to try to describe the unpredictable tangents within each track would be the equivalent of spoiling the plot of a long-awaited film. I’ll just say that once you’ve experienced the opening title track—one of the greatest songs they’ve ever written—you’ll want, you’ll need, to stay seated and hear the rest. Those who’ve felt the exhilaration of a new Neurosis album know what I mean. You can write me afterward once you've recovered sufficiently and we’ll compare notes. With many bands of Neurosis’s vintage, the tendency is to point new listeners to an album four or five releases back, where the band made the big breakthrough. With Neurosis, however, their sense of quality control is such that you could start with Given to the Rising and immediately "get" what they've been about since they began their magnificent trek.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I'm guest blogging this week over at Heavy Metal Time Machine, where Metal Mark was kind enough to let me sound off on Voivod's Killing Technology.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Just as I'm playing favourites with the Porcupine Tree discography, ProgressiveEars has a poll going. Here are the results so far:

1 In Absentia
2 Stupid Dream
3 Deadwing
4 Signify
5 Lightbulb Sun
6 The Sky Moves Sideways
7 Fear Of A Blank Planet
8 Coma Divine
9 Up The Downstair
10 Recordings (b-sides compilation)
11 Metanoia
12 Voyage 34
13 Arriving Somewhere (DVD)
On The Sunday Of Life
Staircase Infinities

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Porcupine Tree—Fear of a Blank Planet (Atlantic)
I know the score with a new Porcupine Tree release. The music will be impeccably played and produced. Steven Wilson's melodies and songwriting will far outstrip any "prog" or "prog metal" outfit going today. I also know that it'll take me a few listens to fully appreciate the sonic richness that saturates every Porcupine Tree album. And Fear of a Blank Planet proves me right. So why do I feel a little underwhelmed? Maybe I'm feeling they haven't brought anything new this time. The gut-punching tech-metal moves they introduced on their Atlantic debut, In Absentia, still rise up at crucial moments. So do the searching, intense ballads, like "My Ashes" and "Sentimental," which reprises an acoustic guitar riff from "Trains," a standout track from In Absentia. There's a surging title track to open the album, just like the title track from Deadwing. But I'm looking back at the previous couple albums and realizing that "Deadwing" is a better song, and "The Creator Has a Mastertape" (a like-minded bit of mayhem from In Absentia) is more inspired than either of them. I'm thinking "Trains" is a better ballad than the more sedate songs on this new album. So why bother with ...Blank Planet then? Well, there's "Anesthetize," all 17:42 of it, where Porcupine Tree's Floyd-meets-Tool method reaches its apex. It's divided into three sections (almost songs within the song) of which I like the second—the heaviest—the best. Alex Lifeson adds some keening guitar textures as a bonus, and the whole thing zips by effortlessly. The album plays itself out on two strong tracks, "Way Out of Here" and "Sleep Together," the former distinguished by its tsumani of a chorus and crushing denouement (with drummer Gavin Harrison performing unspeakable wonders), the latter by its ingenious string arrangement. If you're a fan already, you're on board and nothing's going to stop you from diving right in, just as I did. There's 50 minutes of excellent music to enjoy. I just don't think they've bettered previous albums or hinted that they're going somewhere new in the future. I think this album and Lightbulb Sun are destined to be the dark horses of the catalogue, holding pattern albums ripe for rediscovery when I've spun classics like Stupid Dream and Deadwing one too many times.

Friday, June 29, 2007

I'm almost finished with another issue of Unrestrained! We've got some upcoming masthead shakeups that I hope will result in an even better magazine. I know I have some ideas...

For the second issue in a row I've interviewed a band that intrigued the hell out of me, only to have that band's new album get a drubbing in the reviews section. That's fine by me; I realize I'm hardly the typical U! writer or reader. The band in question last issue was Phazm, and this time it's Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

I'm a crummy journalist; something I realized during my Voivod junket in Montreal last year, watching Martin Popoff working the room with his voice recorder. Interviews fill me with dread, although I suspect I'm getting better at them—thinking on the fly and following up on morsels of unexpected information dropped by my interviewee. The best parts about writing for U! are clicking off my tape recorder after a good chat, then (much later) clicking Send after I've finished the piece. Getting the finished magazine is cool too...just to see how my article looks. I can't actually read it again very closely. The nonsense I spew is just too painful.

I knew Nils Frykdahl of Sleepytime would be one of the good ones about a minute into the interview. He was just a staggeringly cool and articulate guy, and I'm sorry my piece couldn't have been twice as long. Here are some of the outtakes (Gorilla droppings?) from the interview.

While explaining SGM's adherence to the principles of "Rock Against Rock" (which he described as "a recognition of the need to destroy rock music in order to preserve what have been the useful elements of rock music") he mentioned that the movement had a number of historical precedents. With that in mind, I asked him if these historical precedents had anything to do with Rock In Opposition.

"I would say any movement in rock that has ambition has been a precedent. Punk rock certainly had strong elements of that. The Rock In Opposition movement was a big inspiration for us. Actually we'd been using the Rock Against Rock name for many years before knowing the name Rock In Opposition. When I discovered that I thought, 'Oh my god, wait a minute!' But I knew the groups. We were big fans of Art Bears, Henry Cow and a number of those bands before we knew that they called themselves Rock In Opposition. I think Rock In Opposition is explicitly political whereas Rock Against Rock is not explicitly political, although certainly a lot of what we’ve done has political connotations. The Rock In Opposition movement had strong ties to a European tradition of anarcho-communism, which, incidentally, we could use a dose of in the United States. Rock Against Rock is maybe more philosophical and more reckless."

Bearing in mind how amazingly dense and involved their music is, I had to ask the inevitable question about their songwriting process: what does an SGM song sound like when it’s in its “first draft” form? Is the hyper-complexity built into it from the start?

"No, not at all. Actually, that’s not true. Sometimes it is. There’s very different writing styles that are the basis for the songs. Sometimes the hyper-complexity is there from the beginning and somebody comes in with a score, essentially, and passes out parts. Dan Rathbun [bass] tends to write that way. He doesn’t typically write a lot of material, but every album has a song or two of his, and his have tended to be that way, just conceived from the ground up. My tendency has been the opposite—to come in with the most bare-bones version of a song, almost something you could sing around a campire with a guitar part and some vocal refrains or something. I’ll bring these things in and I’ll toss them out to the wolves of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and they just get ripped apart and layered and built up until I’m saying 'Yes, yes, yes! That’s it.' So everyone writes their own parts on their very idiomatic instruments in ways that I certainly could not conceive of while I was sitting around the riverbank or wherever I was writing the song. That’s part of the process. Often those things will get built up very slowely, very rehearsal intensive, with very little going to paper. I’ll write the very minimum down to paper or one specific section that has an interlocking melodic thing that is easiest to work out on paper. Everybody is comfortable with that format, but that isn’t the way we end up working most of the time."

And then there's the video, which I hope you've all seen by now. Why did the band choose the very, very crazy “Helpless Corpses Enactment” when there were one or two more casual-audience-friendly choices on the album?

"The fellow who made the video, Adam Feinstein, chose that song. He was actually working on a video for 'The Companions.' He had the whole thing storyboarded out to the last detail, and it sounded like a really interesting video. Just as we were about to start production on that, our label, who was helping fund the whole thing, pointed out that on most video channels you can’t show anything longer than 4 and a half minutes. That song weighs in at around 10 minutes. We tried doing an edit to get it down to 4 and a half minutes, and we weren’t satisfied with it. We had just finished a mix of the Helpless Corpses song and said, 'Well, um, gee, this is a really different sounding song from that, but check this out. What do you think?' We weren’t finished with the album by a long shot at that point, so we didn’t have that many songs to choose from. So we sent him this mix of that, and he just loved it.

"Not having worked on metal stuff before and not having really listened to metal before, Adam was just excited at the idea of making a very non-metal video to a very metal song. That song is actually 6 minutes and it’s something very easy to make a 4 and a half minute version of. He immediately had all these ideas for it. He could right away picture the whole thing. Maybe someday we’ll make a little movie of 'The Companions,' but with today’s Internet-based video world you need to be able to make these little bite-sized packages, so… The video director had some strong ties with the lyrical material, to corpses. The song was—and I have to be somewhat cryptic about this—written by an Irish sorcerer, as we mention in the liner notes. He was well acquainted with that particular Irish sorcerer, so he immediately was excited about working on it. The song of course ties in lyrically very strongly with all of the other themes on the record—the themes of death and recycling of matter and rebirth and persistence of form and all those things...although it’s very hard to understand, I realize. We didn’t print the lyrics for reasons which I will have to leave undiscussed for now."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum—In Glorious Times (The End)
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s music is dense, tricky and ultimately rewarding once you get past its initial “what the hell?” factor. You plug this CD into iTunes and it comes up under the genre “Rock,” which is a woefully inadequate description of the tangle that tumbles out after pressing “play.” They claim to pursue something called “rock against rock,” a contradictory, negating slogan that actually suits their music better. They generate enough bombast and chaos to rival any metal band, but they manage to do it without the conventional metal weaponry—no power chords, no cod-classical/medieval melody lines, no climactic guitar solos. Instead they create an onslaught comprising odd homemade instruments, slashing dissonant guitars, percussion that skitters around every obvious possible beat, and vocals that range from Nils Frykdahl’s slavering rapid-fire rantings to Carla Kihlstedt’s beautifully plaintive singing. No matter how much the quintet piles on—and the songwriting does take an all-hands-on-deck approach—just when the clutter and counterpoint become too much to absorb, branches of musical accessibility eventually emerge as little handholds to which to cling. The folk/hymn opening of “The Companions,” for example, has a great deal of appeal, with Frykdahl singing beautifully and dramatically against a tinkling backdrop. But SGM can’t help themselves, they build and build upon that opening theme before finally exploding into the inevitable cacophony in the final three minutes. The next song, “Headless Corpses Reenactment,” is a more concentrated burst of dramatic ferocity, kind of like Univers Zero interpreting Suffocation. This, of course, is the song they blew their wad on a splendid video for. I would have thought they’d pick the user-friendlier Kihlstedt-voiced “Formicary,” a perfectly pleasant number that veers into King Crimsonville only at the end. As if the music wasn’t challenging enough, cryptic phone messages are interspersed between several tracks, inviting you to imagine and construct a storyline for the album. Who are these people and why are they saying these things? So many questions…some of which Frykdahl answered when I interviewed him last week. I won’t say anything more here. You should give this album some time, wait for the questions to come, and start chipping away at your own conclusions. The most important conclusion I’ve drawn is that this is one of the year’s best albums.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

If you ever need a laugh, read the Dinosaur Jr chapter in Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. It's a hilarious litany of passive aggressiveness, mutual loathing, interpersonal diasters and all-round bad behaviour. It's amazing that that classic, fractious trio is back together again, touring and recording. Their show at the Commodore last night was big and loud, probably much the same as when they got in the van to play gigs for six people 20 years ago. I last saw them in 1991 on the Green Mind tour after they'd ousted Lou Barlow by pretending to break up, then drafting in another bassist. Alterna-rock fever had hit, so the club (86th Street, I think it was) was pretty full. I was there alone and not liking the scene too much, especially after The Jesus Lizard (a band I'd learn to love) laid a bummer on everyone with an abrasive set. Fifteen years later, the atmosphere at the Commodore was much more mellow. J's Stonehenge-like semicircle of Marshall stacks gave out during the first song, but no matter—Lou and Murph just kept hammering away till the song's end. The rest of the set went by uneventfully, with a sprinkling of new songs amongst the older material, with the requisite murmured "thank you"s and awkward silences between numbers. The bonhomie between band members didn't exactly gush forth. Things seemed a little tense, but that's to be expected. They concentrated on throttling their respective instruments and, like most great bands, the sound they created—like Crazy Horse playing hardcore pushed through a fridge-sized distortion box—had that something that you can't attribute to any one element. They did "Little Fury Things," "Raisans," and "In a Jar" and not very much at all from Bug. I'd hoped they might do "The Post." The set ended with a powerful You're Living All Over Me double shot of "Kracked" and "Sludgefeast" before the band came out for an encore consisting of a speedy, perfunctory "Freak Scene" and "Forget the Swan" with an extended J solo. A solid show from a band I'm glad I got the chance to see again.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I got back today from Mayne Island, where I spent a fantastic long weekend with fancylady. The weather was just okay—rain, cloud, a sunny break or two—but we managed to get out for some walks to a couple points of interest. These were quite literally points: Campbell Point and Edith Point. There was wildlife around, but we had to wait for it to come to us. Our first stop was a bit disappointing, with only a river otter (or sea-weasel as I call them) darting around. Edith Point had a couple seals and an eagle that flew low over us as it went to raid some gulls' bounty (judging by the squawks that erupted after the eagle disappeared from view).
The eagle in question, in a photo that would suit a Jack Handey-style daily affirmation.

Mainly we pursued indoor activities. I recorded another hard-fought 1:30 of Mule music. Judging by my progress I'm afraid the next album will be nothing more than half-realized instrumental sketches. I read a really enlightening and enjoyable book about The Office ("a critical reading of the {British] series"), that not only shed new light on a fine TV series, but also served as a useful primer on contemporary British TV comedy. On night we rented Stranger Than Fiction from the gas station/video store, but the overwhelming a/v success was season one of Curb Your Enthusiasm (courtesy the VPL), with Larry David playing himself—basically a guy who shouldn't be allowed to interact with the outside world.

And music—you have to bring a load of music to the island. I don't think we even got through half of what I packed, but the hit parade included:
Falconer—Grime vs. Grandeur
Clutch—Beale Street or Oblivion
Archer Prewitt—Wilderness
Elvis Costello—This Year's Model
Duke Ellington and John Coltrane
A Ghost to Kill Again—s/t
Neil Young and Crazy Horse—Weld
The Decemberists—The Crane Wife
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—Moanin'

The aftermath of the Rack-O tournament. Everyone's favourite numerical order game takes a violent turn.

That's more like it. Fancylady, let loose on a game recommended for age 10 and up, cleans my clock.

No one's very keen on this place going in down the road from us.

Low tide at Campbell Point.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

JPT Scare Band—Jamm Vapour (Kung Bomar Records)
This album arrived while I was sick with a head cold that wouldn’t budge. I’d spent most of the week at home in an anhedonic torpor, trying to kill time with movies and records, and finding myself unable to enjoy anything. Anyway, once the illness broke, I threw this album on and inhaled some recovery-hastening Jamm Vapour…and I was back on my feet again. The latest from Jeff, Paul, and Terry is a collection of newish recordings from 2001, solidly in the tradition of the classic JPT material from the 1970s (see Sleeping Sickness on Monster Records, or their self-released mix of oldies and newies, Past is Prologue). They laid this thing down live and dangerous in the basement, and while their sound might not be as dark and volatile as it once was, they’ve clearly still got the fire. The pics in the CD booklet are ample evidence of some serious middle-age mania at play here. The JPT modus operandi is pretty straightforward: write a really cool ’70s-style rock song and jam it out to wring the maximum amount of music and excitement out of it. Take it up, take it down, drop out, drop in, and sprinkle liberally with Terry Swope’s mad-as-a-hatter guitar work. The really joyous thing about the whole enterprise is how it so obviously comes naturally to them. Unlike so many ’70s-themed projects nowadays, these guys are the real deal. The six songs average around 9 minutes apiece. “Amazons” is a real mid-paced bruiser with an opening charge that reminds me of Crazy Horse at their meanest…though that notion evaporates the moment Swope lets fly, leaving old Neil in the dust. If anything he’s gotten even noisier and splatter-happy as the years have passed. Things take a bluesy turn on “Ramona,” which works through some time-honoured changes in a very satisfying manner. There’s some great bass playing on this one as Paul Grigsby puts on a clinic on how to play bass in a power trio. “Rainbow Bridge” is a more emotional number that reminds me a bit of early Rush, specifically Rutsey Rush and the song “Here Again.” In fact I’d like to make these guys honorary Canadians for their devotion to righteously unpretentious guitar rock, and not necessarily ’cause Terry’s vocals recall Rik Emmett at times. The album peaks at an appropriate point, right in the middle with “Right Mind,” which is a great song by any definition. Drop out all the crazy soloing and you’d still have a winner. The only point on the album where they come close to losing me is an off-the-cuff number called “Gelo Jam,” an 11-minute free-form quasi-raga recorded at the end of a long, long day that gets a little silly lyrically. The loopiness is understandable, but it’s one of those tunes where you had to be there, I suppose. I will say it’s well-placed as the penultimate number—a palate cleanser before all-out rocker “Hungry For Your Love.” And after this last burst of energy, there’s a definite funk hanging in the silent air. Is it sweat, or overheated amp tubes, or stale beer? Whatever that Jamm Vapour might be, it’s certainly been a gas.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

This is more like it. Maybe the assholes don't always win, and it is possible to thrive as a self-respecting artist in a predominantly online environment. It's just that now you don't have to answer to The Suits; you have to answer to your fans...over and over again.

I've been thinking that the future for musicians might lie in touring. While I've noticed record stores growing more empty by the month, live shows are as popular as ever. People are still really gung-ho about going out and rocking out. The Net may be a lousy music-delivery system (to my Luddite POV), but it's a fantastic environment in which to promote yourself. I'd say more than half the shows I attend I read about on Blabbermouth or some forum or other. Half-full rooms are a rarity these days, and post-show scrums around the merch table are pretty common.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

We have a saying around our house: "The assholes always win." They cancel TV shows, they close music venues, they elect shifty politicians, they ignore science and co-opt art, they protect and perpetuate their own loathsome kind.

Now they get to decide the future of music:

Vered Koren, vice-president of content and business development for Hip Digital Media, said one way to capitalize on the internet is to associate artists with international brands, such as soft-drink makers.

The beverage makers would pay for rights to a certain number of copies of a track, which the drink's consumers could obtain by redeeming a digital code — an arrangement currently in effect between Pepsi and singer Joss Stone.

"Pepsi's a big company. It brings credibility to Joss Stone and vice versa," Koren said.

So while everyone's downloading their crap and feeling good about sticking it to the record labels and the media conglomerates, be assured that the assholes are working on a system way more insidious and corrupt than the bad old days.

Hey, kids, want to hear Gwen Stefani's new song? Eat this pizza pocket. Would you like to download Genesis's reunion track, "Turn It On Again (Again)"? Test drive a Lexus, and you can. Oh, you've already got a leak from Diana Krall's last session? We've gone and pre-registered you for a Yaletown skyhome. Enjoy the tunes!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I just got back from the Cafe Montmartre and the launch party for subTerrain magazine #46 (the "Bad Jobs" issue). All three winners of the Lush Triumphant contest were there to read. John Vigna read a chunk from his intense short story, "Hops," poetry winner Bill Pollett read a quick poem, and Michael Hall brought the house down with his non-fiction piece "Bukowski My Boilermaker."

Number 46 is sub-T's first full-colour issue, by the way, and it's a beaut.

Fancylady did her usual belting job as emcee and was even interviewed by Malcolm Parry from The Sun afterwards. I noticed Parry wasn't toting his camera and step-stool this evening, so don't look for any cleavage shots in the paper tomorrow.

To see and hear Fancylady in her true element, check out the Main Street Literary Tour Thursday evening as part of BC Book and Magazine Week.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Earth—Hibernaculum (Southern Lord)
Earth hit upon something brilliant with their last release, Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, on which Dylan Carlson recast his drone/ambient metal ethic in cleanly plucked Telecaster tones. The resulting music was spare and ominous, a compelling soundtrack for staring out the window and watching the clouds roll in. This EP applies the Hex method to three songs from the Earth back catalogue, along with the 16-minute “A Plague of Angels” that saw release as half a split 12-inch with drone disciples SUNN O))). “Ouroboros Is Broken” (reworked from debut album Extra-Capsular Extraction) lumbers forth with a single extended riff that stands up well over 8 minutes of repetition. Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies create the track’s framework while Steve Moore, Don McGreevy and Greg Anderson of SUNN O))) drape various colours and embellishments across it, using tones from Hammond B3, trombone, bass and synth. In its original context on Pentastar: In the Style of Demons (1996), I always thought that “Coda Maestoso In F (Flat) Minor” sounded like the end section of Yes’s “Starship Troopers.” The Hiberculanum version is slowed down and twanged up as to be nearly unrecognizable. This track is another exercise in single-riff dynamics with an extremely heavy payoff by the end. “Miami Morning Coming Down” is a piano-led piece incorporating some delicate fuzz guitar that builds into something jazzy and hypnotic. Possibly the least threatening (yet most intriguing) track on the EP, its placid demeanour is a tour de force of complementary tonal placement. The final track, “A Plague of Angels,” is the sort of Wild West death trip familiar to anyone who’s already basked in Hex’s dustbowl, making for a useful coda to that album.

Hiberculanum also contains a DVD with a documentary by Seldon Hunt entitled Within the Drone. The 50-minute film follows Earth on tour across Europe, with snippets of live performance (no complete songs, but enough to get a good feel for what they do on stage) and interview segments in which Carlson explains his fascination with slow music, touches on Earth’s place in the music scene and the band’s avoidance of convenient genre tags, and his own development as a guitar player. It’s a very nice companion to the EP, and one which matches the music quite well in its unhurried pace and straight-up presentation.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Class of '87
Having bought these albums during 1987, I arranged them on the living room floor, and photographed them—proof that I've always been a sad bastard with too much spare time.

Who else owns any of these? Bonus cred points for having the vinyl, of course.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Despite what I said at the end of my previous post, I don't think I've reached my live-gig saturation point. If I hadn't been sick last weekend, I would have gone to see Black Betty at Pub 340. I didn't even know about this band until a week ago, when I started to see posters for their show. I figured any band with the gumption to align themselves with Leadbelly and Ram Jam might be worth checking out. Then, while home from work and browsing the album reviews forum, I saw their name again, had a listen at their myspace site, and got all stoked about their show, which happened to be that very night. That kind of coincidence is a good omen. Unfortunately, the future Mrs. Mule provided the necessary sanity check. If I'd gone, my sinuses would have probably imploded as the first power chord was struck.

There would have been power chords, most assuredly. Black Betty are a heavy outfit, especially for a duo. They've got massive guitars, massive drums, and massive singing...yes, actual singing. Righteous [mp3]. I'll have to track them down soon to get the album and maybe do a little reviewage of my own here.

My big thing with attending live shows is avoiding regret, the kind that pierces me when I see old gig posters for bands like Husker Du, who played here in 1985 when I was a full two years away from having a clue, and then it was too late; they were gone. Or the kind of regret that nags me in the present, as it's doing these days as a reformed Van der Graaf Generator tours across Europe and England.

They've pared down to the trio of Hammill, Evans and Banton, having booted out David "Jaxonsax" Jackson at the end of their 2005 tour. The ousting was done with utmost secrecy from the band, which generated a tornado of speculation amongst the fans and making for a fractious few weeks on the PH/VdGG mailing list, let me tell you. For many people, Jaxon's multi-sax attack was VdGG's signature, and so the new "power trio" format was greeted with nervous anticipation. Hardly anyone dismissed them outright, however. And, bless them, they're making it work, with Banton cranking it to the max, keeping himself busier than ever on organ and pedals, and Hammill playing a lot more guitar than he's done in VdGG lineups past. "This is a f***ing brilliant grunge band with unorthodox instrumentation!" gushed a fan after one of their first shows. They've dusted off material like the fearsome "Gog" and personal favourite "Meurglys III (The Songwriter's Guild)," and even added two new songs to the set. While the 2005 reunion was imbued with a lot of nostalgia, this incarnation is something truly new, and they're pushing their playing and their music forward. It's progressive rock, after all.

I've thought about reviewing the whole VdGG catalogue here in an attempt to express how much this music means to me, but I've been finding lately that the more I plan, worry, and think about this blog, the harder it gets to sit down and write. Maybe I'll get down to it; that's the kind of difficult music I originally planned to chronicle here. As I've learned, though, this is no place for planning.

Friday, April 13, 2007

I've been a gigging madman recently. Here's a roundup of the latest.

Red Sparowes, March 20, at Richard’s on Richards
I bought tickets to this show on a hunch. It’s not often that a band on the esteemed Neurot Recordings comes to town. The hunch paid off hugely, as Red Sparowes are one of the most impressive post-metal atmospheric bands I’ve ever seen. Having three guitarists in one band is often a redundant exercise (hello, Iron Maiden), but the Sparowes guys had obviously worked really hard at arranging and orchestrating their parts. The projections—showing what looked like old Chinese propaganda films—were also a nice touch. As Smash wrote afterwards, “I'd go see that band five nights a week.” A scintillating performance.

The Mingler, April 4 at The Cobalt
I don’t normally hang out at The Cobalt on a Wednesday night, but a) it was Fake Jazz Wednesday, an event I’d been wanting to check out, and b) improv jazz/noise/metal trio The Mingler were on the bill. I’d never seen them before (indeed, had they even gigged before?), but with a lineup consisting of musical genii Jeff Younger, Alvaro Rojas and Mike Magnusson it was sure bet. They’ve got about 79 ongoing projects between them, and I’ve always been blown away by the few I’ve witnessed. The brief samples on Younger’s site had me expecting something structured around pre-written bass riffs. In actuality, they flew from idea to idea really quickly, favouring chaos over groove. This suited the vibe of the event, really. Rojas churned away while Jeff freaked out with his pedals, mashing strings, bursting into speed metal passages, and dropping down for more conventional jazz soloing.

Mmm, mingly.

A Ghost to Kill Again with Karen Foster and Bend Sinister, April 6 at The Waldorf
I hyperventilated about AGTKA’s debut album here a little while ago, and this gig was their long-awaited record release party. I’d never been to the Waldorf before, though I remember it as the premiere venue for the lounge scene when that was big for 15 minutes 10 years ago. It’s a nice room, actually. The bands just set up at one end on the floor, punk rock style. Karen Foster/Foster Kare rocked really hard, reminding me of an older, wiser Squirrel Bait overall. Their incredible energy got everyone primed for AGTKA, who proceeded to lay down the kind of beautiful destruction that makes life worth living. It’s rare to see a band tackle such demanding material and do it with such joy. Dominant and flabbergasting. Bend Sinister closed off the evening. Maybe it was the shot in the arm that AGTKA had just administered, but BS seemed a bit frantic in their approach. I remember their set at Richard’s opening for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum being a little more composed. Still, I love this band to bits. Knowing there’s a band in Vancouver running Supertramp and Gentle Giant through an indie rock cheese grater makes me very happy.

Unexpect, Anonymus, April 7 at The Balmoral
The turnout was small and disproportionately cretinous for these two bands who’d come all the way from Quebec. Anonymus were thrashy and a little generic, reminding me of DRI at some points. They were ready to have a good time and intent on giving the audience a good time as well. Unexpect managed to arrange all seven members on the multi-tiered stage and pulled off their set of crazy stop-start circus-freak metal without anyone getting hurt. I started feeling a little bad for them as the evening progressed, though. Here’s a world-class act playing a supposedly world-class city and all we could offer them was a gig in the grimmest neighbourhood in North America with a dozen people actually listening and being excited about their music, while the rest of the crowd sat in the smoking room or play-fought like silly buggers. Unexpect deserved better. Do Make Say Think, an equally art-damaged act that perhaps has the advantage of more “hip” press coverage, managed to fill a pretty big place like Richard’s, and I think Unexpect have that potential as well.

Dark Tranquillity, The Haunted, Into Eternity, Scar Symmetry, April 9 at The Croatian Culture Centre
From Quebec metal night, we move to Swedish metal night. Four bands and an all-ages gig makes for an early start time, so I only caught the last two songs of Scar Symmetry’s set. What I heard sounded quite a bit like In Flames, a realization that didn’t bring on the pangs of regret for missing them. Despite their sound misfiring, with half the drum kit missing from the mix, Saskatchewan’s Into Eternity went over a storm. Stu Block’s a born heavy metal frontman—we spotted his proud parents by the merch table—and Tim Roth is pretty much the ultimate guitar shredder. Extreme progressive death metal from Canada…what’s not to like? The Haunted just keep at it year after year, despite (arguably) never surpassing their 1998 debut. It’s good to see both Bjorler brothers and vocalist Peter Dolving back in the band. Not having kept up with the band’s output, most of the set whizzed past me in a big thrashy blur. The slower numbers had a good groove; perhaps Anders Bjorler’s Trouble t-shirt hinted at a more doom-rock sensibility at work in their newer material. Dark Tranquillity sounded huge, and their twin guitar work was the classiest thing I’d heard all night. DT also have a great frontman in Mikael Stanne…if only the man could do anything but growl. They did well with the crowd on their first gig in Vancouver and seem to have a following almost equal to In Flames, who’ve played here fairly regularly. After 45 minutes, I was feeling gigged out so I headed home for a bit of peace and quiet.

That ought to hold me for a while.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Heaven and Hell, with Megadeth and Down, March 11/07, Pacific Coliseum
The crowd was the kind of multi-generational bouillabaisse that you get at these old-guard rock shows. From my vantage point on the general admission floor, there were enough case studies to fill a sociology text. The seven-year-old boy with the massive "Michael Bolton classic" crimped mullet throwing the horns from atop his parent/guardian's shoulders would merit a whole chapter of his own. Most of the teenagers there had dropped their allowance on Megadeth shirts, so Dave Mustaine and co were obviously a big draw.

Down played a good set of swingin' sludge metal. Phil Anselmo was definitely feeling the love, oozing sincerity and appreciation between songs. Drummer Jimmy Bower has to be one of the heaviest hitters I've seen. He nearly levitates on the windup for each downstroke. And Pepper Keenan's one of tastiest guitarists and coolest dudes in rock. I can't see Down ever headlining a show this size, but they made a great warmup act.

Megadeth had a lot of sound problems distracting them during their 45 minutes on stage. They did their best, but the stream of puzzled techs peering behind the amp stacks definitely divided the band's attention. If the bursts of feedback and bass guitar cutting in and out weren't enough, then a set list heavily biased towards newer Megadeth material didn't do much for me either. I'm still in denial over Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson leaving the band, so the early appearance of "Wake Up Dead" got me going, and post-Peace Sells... classics like "Symphony of Destruction" and "Holy Wars/Punishment Due" were good to hear as well. During the rest of the set I amused myself watching a single spotlight follow Mustaine's every move, leaving Glen Drover to solo away in the dark!

Heaven and Hell's first-ever show (I believe these musicians played in a band called Black Sabbath for many years) went down a storm. By now I'm sure everyone's seen setlists from the tour, so I'll summarize by saying they played everything you might have wanted to hear except for "Turn Up the Night." Personally, I was stoked to hear "Lady Evil" and "Sign of the Southern Cross," two songs that sort of define the parameters of Black Sabbath's music during the Dio years. The former is a good old hard rock stomper, while "Sign..." is a majestic epic with a classic Iommi riff. Dio was in good voice, faltering only a couple times on single words up in the high registers. He can still do it; they can all still do it. Along with all the Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules essentials, they played selections from Dehumanizer and three heavy new songs I believe they worked up for the Dio Years box set. No songs from the Ozzy years made it into the set (disappointing a certain tenured Georgia Straight critic), but that was as it should be. Iommi and Butler are shucking the stumbling spectre of their most famous frontman and re-establishing a band that played a big part in metal's ascendance in the early 80s. A triumphant kickoff for a revitalized (let's not deny it) Black Sabbath.

Photos courtesy Mr. Bob Sox.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I'll try to salvage March by running down this month's shows.

Do Make Say Think at Richard's On Richards, March 5
The opening act was Westfalia—a kid with a laptop generating some cheery ambient music. That's about it. He could have set up anywhere in the venue and done the same thing. I think if you're going to get on stage with a laptop, you should hook up an LCD projector so the audience can see what you're doing...otherwise you'd better ensure your performance extends beyond looking like you're concentrating moderately hard at certain intervals. As you can tell, I'm not sold on the whole laptop performance genre. With eight musicians on stage (two drummers, a horn section, two guitarists, bassist and violinist), Do Make Say Think offered the packed house plenty to watch. The Torontonians did well to reproduce their recorded sound live, with additional force and ragged-ass noise. I've always liked that DMST don't neglect the "rock" in "post rock"and never miss an opportunity to add some crash/bang/wallop to their compositions. Another band might contently cruise through a similar set of riffs and grooves, afraid to break a sweat or be so uncool as to get "heavy." Still, DMST's set was more racous and jovial than I expected, on both the band's and the audience's part. I had to smile when the main theme of "Auberge Le Mouton Noir" got a big cheer of recognition. Who knew Do Make Say Think had "hits"? They played a good chunk of Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn and the new album, You, You're a History in Rust. Of the new tunes, "Executioner's Blues" and its huge climactic surge—reminiscent of "21st Century Schizoid Man"—really stood out. The crowd loved it, except for possibly the couple parked next to me, who were too busy either swapping spit or staring at their cell phone to listen to the fine music unfolding in front of them. After the show, the soundman played us out with Voivod's "Missing Sequences," in case I wasn't feeling patriotic enough at that moment.

To be continued...

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Still no fuggin' internet...reduced to posting a quickie playlist from a coffee shop.

1. Novembers Doom—The Novella Reservoir
2. Neil Young—Live at Massey Hall 1971
3. Martyr—Warp Zone
4. Marillion—Clutching at Straws
5. Mojo Presents Love Will Tear You Apart
6. Melechesh—Emissaries
7. Do Make Say Think—You, You’re a History in Rust

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Well, Telus has denied us the Internet all week, so I apologize for the lack of rock action lately. (I'm at a friend's place right now.) I'll be back posting as soon as they repair the series of tubes that lead to our house.

Lots to talk about, including the Heaven and Hell show I caved in and went to last week. Ruled.

Monday, February 26, 2007

To paraphrase the Dayglo Abortions, reading about Black Sabbath is lots of fun. Rat Salad: Black Sabbath—The Classic Years, 1969–1975 is a mad thing, that's for sure. I've devoured it like a handful of fig newtons. Wait, that doesn't sound very metal. Oh well, author Paul Wilkinson doesn't come across as all that diabolical himself. The book weaves together a few different threads. First, it's a dissection of Sabbath's catalogue, album by album, song by song...but only the first six albums. Wilkinson doesn't hold truck with anything post-Sabotage. I'd push for the remaining two Ozzy-era albums, but hey, it's Paul's book. Second, it's a Sabbath biography, pulling in material from a variety of secondary sources in time-honoured rock bio tradition. Wilkinson's innovation in this respect is setting Sabbath's career amidst the world events of the time—Vietnam, the oil crisis, Watergate, and so on. Finally, it's an autobiography. As the Sabs graduate from Hamburg's Star Club to the a-list touring circuit, our author savours his first kiss, cracks his head open and convalesces in hospital, experiences a death in the family (admittedly a very moving passage in the book), cops his first feel, and finally gets to see his heroes in concert (on the Never Say Die tour, where the PA packs it in after an hour).

The jacket blurb likens the book to Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head meets Spinal Tap, which is kind of a cheap shot. I'd drop the Spinal Tap reference, and leave intact the comparison to MacDonald. Wilkinson's musical analysis is extremely credible and thorough, and he doesn't skimp on the criticism. Underwritten songs, failed experiments, and bad lyrics are lamented almost as often as the classic songs come in for praise. While "Supertzar" "sits on Sabotage like a Sunday painter's worst watercolour in a room full of Vermeers," "Killing Yourself to Live" contains "a whole album's worth of music...that hangs together in a, quite literally, breathtaking manner."

Sometimes Wilkinson's footnote-heavy, chatty approach makes his book seem like it contains an entire lifetime's worth of writing, but really, I want to hand it to the guy for penning one of the most enjoyable and necessary rock books I've read in quite a while.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Ghost to Kill Again—s/t (self-released)
I’ve been having nightmares where I’m the drummer for A Ghost to Kill Again, strapped in behind the kit and trying to keep up with their furious algo-rhythms. I always wake up just before my arms fall off and my head explodes. Enduring this kind of nocturnal anxiety is a small price to pay to have AGTKA’s new album in my life. Their music is a juggernaut of jagged time changes, instrumental interplay, and catchy melodies, here captured in glorious detail at The Hive Studios in Burnaby. The guitars of Aaron Joyce and Alvaro Rojas ring out clear and loud, tying elaborate knots around each other with their complimentary lines. In Cory Curtis and Sam Cartwright they’ve got a superhumanly dextrous rhythm section able to throw down whatever the songs demand—and they demand a whole hell of lot, believe me. Imagine Fugazi playing Gentle Giant, or latter-day King Crimson attacking their material with the fire of men half their age. In terms of other bands playing unabashed prog these days, AGTKA can certainly rival the Mars Volta—56 minutes of AGTKA packs in twice as much musical goodness as 77 minutes of Frances the Mute—and songs like “Radio,” “Shots” and “Halo” are better than anything Tool coughed up on 10,000 Days. As someone who’s seen them live a few times now and fully expected a holocaust in the instrumental department, the album’s biggest revelation is the variety of vocals they’ve laid down. Aaron Joyce can certainly sell a song, but the massed singing that pops up at times—a good example would be the climax of “Radio,” where a typically twisted instrumental passage gives way to the catchiest line of the song (“You know they won’t stop till everything we have is gone” or something like that)—is a stunning addition. The shouted gang vocals on “The Mountain” and “Sands” are a nice touch as well. With bands like Precious Fathers, Mother Mother, Bend Sinister, and A Ghost to Kill Again going at it full bore, Vancouver is now truly a progressive rock town (I’ve been waiting about 30 years to write that sentence), and AGTKA have just put out Canada's prog record of the year. Suck on that, Rush!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

They've razed the Schmidts' house on Huxley Ave. Mike Schmidt played bass in our band until he bought a minibike and was never seen again. We spent a couple good years hanging out in his basement, reading Circus magazine and rocking out. It's no overstatement to say my life changed down there. That's where I first heard Rush (All the World's a Stage—"Ladies and gentlemen, the Professor on the drumkit"), and where the scorching debut album by a new band called Van Halen gave Mike and his brother Roy's stereo an unprecedented workout. I also remember Mike lending me this album called Close to the Edge because no one else he knew could make any sense of it.

I'm particularly sad to see this house gone because Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt worked really hard to keep it nice. Mr Schmidt was always fabricating something in his basement, muttering at us with his German accent, a damp cigarillo perched on his lower lip. I'd never seen such a tidy workshop. Even the nudie posters on the insides of his cabinet doors were tacked up with the utmost precision.

The main feature in their front yard was a pristine little rock garden. I don't remember seeing her working out there, but I think that was Mrs. Schmidt's territory. After they unloaded the backhoe at the house last weekend, my mom walked down and retrieved a few Snowdrops for her own garden.

The entire propery's now just a chewed-up expanse of earth between two fences, with a shallow trench dug out to mark the foundation for a new basement.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Using an idea nicked off of other people's blogs, here are my top 25 most-played tracks on iTunes (click to enlarge).

For this exercise, I had to use my iTunes from work, because at home I don't really keep a well-curated music library on iTunes. I use it mostly to burn albums and listen to random stuff I've downloaded from friends' websites. At the office, I've got over four days' worth of music; a fairly even split of new stuff I've acquired and classic older music I need on hand to keep me grounded.

So, what tale do these 25 songs tell? It starts with a quartet of Tarkake songs that I've listened to repeatedly for learning purposes. There's a bunch of Atheist songs from Elements as well—it's a great album, but the radio session tracks appended to the Relapse reissue are truly rip-roaring. Lots of Devin Townsend too. This time last year I was listening to Synchestra constantly before I interviewed Devin for Unrestrained! I still play it fairly often. I notice that the top DTB song is "Pixillate," which featured Land of Deborah to great effect.

I often listen to iTunes in Shuffle mode for the element of surprise and the weird juxtapositions from track to track that can occur...moments where I can pretend I'm running the coolest radio station ever. I want to believe iTunes plays songs randomly, but it seems to play favourites with certain "The Necromancer." I can't complain in this case, since I truly cherish that most messed-up of Rush epics. iTunes also seems to love Yob as much as I do, and I'll never pass up a chance to hear "Quantum Mystic." By the way, Mike Scheidt's new band, Middian, is releasing their album in March. I expect it'll be colossal.

As the catchiest song from The Great Cold Distance, I've often headed straight to "My Twin" to kick off a workday. I don't know if anyone else has drawn this comparison, but with their mopey lyrical content and Jonas Renske's Lou Barlow-like delivery, Katatonia are like the Sebadoh of heavy metal. I mean it as a compliment. That Early Man song is a surprise top-25 finisher. I'll have to credit Shuffle mode for that one. Interesting band, Early Man. They have a certain anonymous quality. It always takes me a minute to figure out who I'm listening to, but once I recognize an Early Man song I enjoy it all right.

King Crimson rounds off the list. In the Wake of Poseidon is the only KC album I've loaded into iTunes. It's kind of an underdog release, but "Pictures of a City" has to be one of their classic tracks, and the kind of comfort music I need all too often at work.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Today I finished Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. I bought it for my dad for Christmas, then my folks handed it off to me once they'd both read it. They promised me some laughs, and laugh I did. Unfortunately I read it on the bus and found it hard to maintain my commuter face during the funny bits. I ended up wheezing like a furtive pervert at certain episodes in the book, so apologies to my seatmates, whoever you were.

Creating laughter using just words on a page is a feat of utter magic to me, so I salute you, Mr. Bryson.

The book is billed as a memoir, but it avoids the simple pattern of "This one time I...and then this other time I..." Bryson makes it more of a memoir of American life in the '50s, with each chapter about some aspect of that era and its relation to his childhood. "The Age of Excitement" details the burgeoning technology of the '50s—convenience foods, television, cars with Strato-Flight Hydra-Matic transmissions, and The Bomb. "The Pursuit of Pleasure" rounds up the newfangled toys, candy, and comic book superheroes (including Bryson's beloved Asbestos Lady, with her "cannonball breasts and powerful loins"). He's put a fair bit of research into the book, discussing the crackdowns on comics and commies that blighted the decade, and examining the arms race, the space race, and race relations at various points.

Bryson ends the book with a lament for lost things, especially the family businesses in his hometown of Des Moines that have been bulldozed for chain stores and parking lots. "Imagine having all of public life—offices, stores, restaurants, entertainments—conveniently clustered in the heart of the city and experiencing fresh air and daylight each time you moved from one to aonther... Imagine having a city full of things that no other city had."

That last line reminds me of this fantastic thing, as can be seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery and in the new issue of subTerrain. I took it in last week and I'll probably go again very soon.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Phazm—Antebellum Death n’ Roll (Omose/The End)
It’s a bold move, naming your sophomore album after your chosen sub-genre. Seeing “death n’ roll” had me expecting an Entombed-style battering, but the “Children of the Grave” shuffle beat and honkin’ harmonica on album opener “How to Become a God” reveals a whole new wrinkle to the sound. These guys really could "play some Skynyrd, man" if they felt like it. Phazm are a weird French quartet (possibly now a trio, according to their website) whom I first noticed on the Osmose video compilation Noisymotions. Their song “Loneliness” featured visuals straight out of a cult Japanese gore flick, with the band members getting impaled and mutilated by sinister women. What’s wrong with being sexy? This new album comes with a DVD on the flip side (unfortunately not pressed on my promo copy), so some additional intense viewing awaits those who pick up the full package. Phazm’s sound here veers more towards the cosmic dissonance of Voivod and Enslaved than towards Entombed. The vocals especially have that catatonic snarl that Voivod’s Snake perfected a few albums into their career. “Hunger” is nearly as loopy as the opening track—not every band would have the nerve to pull off a slide guitar solo overtop blackened blastbeats. After “Black ‘n’ Roll,” another swingin’ number with another outburst of mouth harp, the album occasionally abandons its original premise for tracks like the strange and plodding “So White, So Blue, So Cold,” the sparse and creepy “Damballah,” and “Sabbath,” a jaunty acoustic instrumental. Overall, though, Phazm sticks to their mandate pretty well. This is twisted and heavy, thrill-a-minute stuff, with action-packed songwriting that avoids disorienting the listener with nonsensical technicality. Phazm succeed by knowing how to rock with imagination and grisly bucketloads of style.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Checking out the back cover of the Georgia Straight is a weekly ritual. For years, the paper has run a full-page A&B Sound ad there, where you can find out what's new in this week. It's a glorious 11 x 17 spread of thumbnail album covers and at least a couple substantial lists of newish stuff on sale for dirt cheap.

The ad's gone missing for the last few weeks. It's been replaced by a campaign for some new vapourware Yaletown "residences and Cityhomes"*. I can't find an A&B ad inside the paper either, though this week there's an HMV full-pager on the inside front cover (for the new Norah Jones album).

So is this it? I remember my pal Shawn from Zuckuss [MySpace] assuring me that things were still going strong at A&B. I believed it at the time, but subsequent visits have shown that they just aren't bringing new stuff in. I've had to buy things like The Decemberists' The Crane Wife and Blood Mountain by Mastodon at HMV—not because they were cheaper, but because they were simply in stock. Maybe A&B's well and truly done for. The whole act of buying CDs at a store, or even buying CDs at all, seems kind of quaint nowadays.

Or maybe the Straight's dropping me a hint to quit blowing my cash on music and instead drop my wad on one of those Cityhomes.

*The registration form at the web site has a field saying "I can't wait to..." and offers the choices "Move in" and "Add to my investment portfolio." I love this town!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Louder Than Listenable
The Guardian weighs in on modern CD mastering practices. The infamous Vapor Trails is singled out once again.

My favourite quote: "What might suit Whitehouse or Merzbow might not be right for Norah Jones."

See also this article (Chicago Tribune, via PopMatters), which is not about CD mastering per se, but highlights one of the reasons why bad sound is allowed to thrive these days. “We will integrate an iPod into a home stereo, but why would you want to do that? ... Less than one-tenth of the (music) information is available when you listen.”

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Titan—A Raining Sun of Light and Love For You and You and You (TeePee)
Titan play progressive rock stripped of all niceties and prissiness. While bands like Spock’s Beard and The Flower Kings have done their bit to keep the genre alive, their mega-polished albums and tidy chops obscure the fact that progressive rock was once underground music made on a shoestring by starving, spotty-faced lads. Where’s the scuzz? Where’s the musty cottage intrigue? Where's that creaky, overdriven sound that John Anthony got for Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator during their peak years? Titan have hitched themselves to that spirit and are plowing a wide, fetid swath across the prog landscape with it. The album opens with a short acoustic passage and a verse of warbling vocals before accelerating full-throttle into the song proper (titled "Annals of the Former World"), sounding like Black Sabbath jamming on the heaviest parts of “The Knife” or “The Musical Box.” Charge! The pace picks up and the sound's not a million miles away from the swirling, sustained freakouts that Comets On Fire reveled in on Blue Cathedral. The approach isn't overly mathy, but the band does execute some tricky runs and changeups. The second track recalls ELP at their nastiest (I'm thinking Trilogy-nasty, not Love Beach-nasty) along with the gnarly approach of Tony Williams Lifetime. The digipak sticker also references Mahavishnu, which I didn't hear initially, but it's present on this track for sure. Guitarist Josh Anzano excels with his noisemaking, but really the whole band is almost constantly going for it. They can play, no question. Dan Bates' bass tone alone is a frightening thing, and when combined with Kris D'Agostino's haunted, overdriven organ and Dave Liebowitz's drums, the chaos is beautiful to witness. There's no letup until the second track's spacey, ominous denouement. Track three begins with feedback and what sounds like throat-singing or didgeridoo before rocking out on a Hawkwind kind of feel under a blanket of phase shift. A quick gear change into a frantic 3/4 bulldoze and we're in danger of being ground up beneath the treads. Thankfully that lets up and we can remember how to breathe during the ensuing synth interlude and the segue into the final track, an insistent Can groove against a pulsing synth drone. Titan are a refreshingly rowdy take on '70s prog and its various offshoots—space rock, Kraut rock, and so on. You could probably throw in the entire Vertigo Records catalogue while you're at it. Like Zombi and Guapo, their enthusiasm for the more obscure tangents of the genre, coupled with pure instrumental bluster, has produced an album that pays homage to the past yet sounds cutting edge in this self-conscious and hidebound world.