Monday, March 30, 2009

Major Label Respect

When I interviewed Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor prior to the release of Blood Mountain a couple years ago, I asked him, "Now that you're on a major label, do you think people will finally figure out how to spell your band's name?" (I can't remember his response; it was probably as lacklustre as the rest of the interview. Neither of us was on his game that day.)

After picking up Crack the Skye, their second album on Warner/Reprise, last week, I found this flyer tucked inside the jewel case:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jeff Younger Roundup

It's high time we caught up with the one-man jazz/noise juggernaut that is our Jeff. In addition to his steady string of live dates in the feast/famine dichotomy that is the Vancouver scene, his sick mind and fleet fingers have produced two recent releases I'd like to highlight here. Both of them serve as snapshots of a couple of his more difficult, freewheeling, ever-morphing projects.

First up, Jeff Younger's Sandbox's debut release The Nudger (Now Orchestra Records). The Sandbox are a five-piece jazz-type ensemble who team up to play Jeff's game pieces and cartoon scores. Actually, I have no idea what they do, but each gig is an off-kilter musical feast, as well as an exhibition of human frailty and emotion as the performers grin, grimace, try, fail, surrender, thrust, parry, and, I think, grow as people through the experience (as does the audience). The Nudger captures them on a couple 2007 dates at The Cellar running through seven Sandbox selections. I found it interesting to come at this purely as a listener instead of as an audience member. With nothing but the music before me, I felt more like a passenger, able to focus on and enjoy the "scenery" rather than worry about keeping tabs on the surrounding traffic. Nuances emerge; subtleties that get lost in the distracting (for me) flurry of onstage activity. The band's range is impressive. At one end, "Rug Stain Saint" is the kind of improv blowout you might expect when you unleash five monster players such as these. At the other extreme, "Silt" is a gentle, almost post-rock, meditation that, like its title, drifts and gradually settles into a heap. I don't know what it would be like to come at this music without having seen the Sandbox live, but I will say that it makes perfect sense once you've seen what they can do on stage.

Next, we have another debut artifact, volume one from Jeff Younger's Devil Loops. Devil Loops is Jeff's solo guitar project, and it's pure improv, on-the-fly, off-the-cuff, seat-of-the-pants, spur-of-the-moment stuff. In the liner notes, Younger claims he avoids thinking about what he'll play until he takes the stage for a Devil Loops set. It takes a brave performer to step into the abyss, not knowing whether he'll take flight or plunge to his death. Each of the five tracks is a single unedited performance, stretching from the moment Younger puts fingers to string or foot to pedal, to the moment he decides that the piece shall live no more. As the project name states, looping devices are employed, but the looped passages are lengthy enough that the music isn't overtly repetitive. Younger brings in some nimble jazz licks at times, but his diabolical nature ensures that they'll be buried by waves of abstract sound soon enough. It's not quite ambient, not quite jazz, and definitely not a Saturday night album, unless you spend your Saturday nights animating your own Quay Brothers-inspired puppet masterpiece, clawing at imaginary insects beneath your clothing, or imagining what it would be like to die in outer space. After listening to Jeff playing with himself for 70 minutes (hey, we've all been there), I now feel armed with enough gumption to revisit that soul-sappingly terrifying Cluster album a friend gave me a couple years ago. This release invites you to peer into a black, possibly bottomless pit...just don't be startled by the strange emanations from its depths. It's only Devil Loops. Show no fear, listen in the moment, and you'll do fine.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Musk Ox – s/t (Absurdist)

Musk Ox is one Nathanael Larochette, a young man from Ottawa who’s devoted himself to classical guitar in pursuit of bleakly pastoral sounds and atmospheres. Neofolk, I guess is the neogenre, but really, the sparse nature of Musk Ox’s music makes it a blank canvas onto which you can project your own sensibilities. Even before I saw the influence list on the MySpace page, I heard post-rock (Sigur Ros, Mogwai), prog rock (Anthony Phillips, Steve Howe), and moody black/death metal (Ulver, Opeth, Agalloch). If you’re attuned to any of that lot, you’ll find something to enjoy in Musk Ox. The epic song structures are quite metal—it strikes me as an all-acoustic variant on Opeth’s Morningrise—and the meticulous approach to performance and arrangement is very metal as well. Larochette finds the ideal mix of somber sonorities by mixing his guitar playing with other acoustic instruments: piano, flute, glockenspiel, cello, and voice. He might gild the lily a bit adding rain, birdsong, babbling brooks, and other “sounds of nature,” but it all works to emphasize the music’s connection to the landscape—specifically the vast empty spaces of Canada (as noted by Adrien Begrand in his Decibel review). Larochette definitely has a talent for creating substantive melodies that resolve perfectly, and after talking to him last January at The Energizer's memorial event, it sounds like he has some firm ideas about how Musk Ox will evolve. If he can expand his palette to include some full band arrangements, the results should be even more majestic. For now, for all its soothing qualities, I’m pretty excited about this flat-out beautiful record.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Abercrombie/Holland/DeJohnette—Gateway (ECM)

This is a great fusion album from 1975, recently reissued as part of ECM’s Touchstones series. I found it at HMV under "A" for Abercrombie, but never mind the billing—all the players seem to be equal partners on this album. Although Holland is credited with four out of six tracks, he doesn’t dominate the album. Everyone gets a fair shake. In fact, I detect a conscious effort to establish parity across both sides of the album. Side one is mostly Holland’s, while side two gives the guitarist and drummer the spotlight. The opener, “Backwoods Song” is about the tightest, most straightforward thing here, an easy rocking number on which Holland (who plays double bass throughout) produces a fantastic elastic tone. “Waiting” is a brief solo piece for bass; for balance, it’s countered on side two by “Unshielded Desire,” which amounts to a fierce drum and guitar battle by DeJohnette and Abercrombie. The lengthy “May Dance” sees the group locked in an intense conversation, while the album closer “Sorcery I” begins with a loose, improvisational opening, then coalesces into a slightly menacing lope in 7, giving Abercrombie some space for some wild soloing. And if that doesn’t jangle your pleasure centres, DeJohnette wallops the thing home with his own solo spot. Whew. This is an easy recommendation for anyone easing into jazz fusion after, say, discovering Mahavishnu. It’s a less regimented sound than McLaughlin’s outfit, but this versatile trio clearly had no difficulty igniting its own inner flame.