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.