Saturday, April 25, 2009

Riff Salad and Music Cake

The prog revival’s been going since 1983, and it’s all coming good now, trust me.

Wobbler—Afterglow (Termo)
Norway’s Wobbler were signed to the Laser’s Edge a few years ago, releasing Hinterland to some good reviews, and making their U.S. debut at Nearfest. Afterglow is the follow-up...of sorts. It features rerecorded versions of the two tracks from their demo (long available via the band’s website) surrounded by a few minor instrumental pieces. Although at 34 minutes it barely attains status as an album (it’s the same length as Per un Amico!), it’s a valuable addition to Wobbler’s brief discography. Wobbler aren’t the most cutting-edge band, and I think they’re quite proud of that. Their sound is straight from the early ’70s, when Genesis, PFM and Banco had their mellotrons going at full pelt. Each member of the band is an excellent player, but the true star of the show is keyboardist Lars Fredrik Frøislie’s collection of vintage ‘trons, Moogs and organs. Wobbler seem intent on taking the baton from Anglagard with regards to being a modern band working with ancient sounds. The two bands’ approaches are quite similar—“organic” analog tones, restless structures, constant shifts between light and shade, and minimal vocals. Wobbler are more aggressive overall, but this is sometimes their downfall. The songs lurch from riff to riff, with barely any respite, and while you’re wowed by what’s happening, it's hard to retain anything afterward. Little is allowed to build and develop, or repeated to any effect. “Imperial Winter White” does have an introductory motif that comes back at the end, but when it does, after 12 minutes of riff salad it’s too late to have any impact. Compositionally, “In Taberna” (formerly “Leprechaun”) works better, and anyway, it’s a couple minutes shorter than “Imperial...” so it has fewer chances to get lost during its travels. Don't get me wrong; I love me some Wobbler, and I’m glad to have this material in its new format (Frøislie himself painted that dandy cover). The whole enterprise is so true to itself I can almost forgive the lack of flow in the songs. I just have to remember that this is early material (10 years old now) and hope that the band, regressive as their style is, will show some progression with their new material.

Diagonal—Diagonal (Rise Above)
Rise Above describe Diagonal as a “musical cake,” so I’m helping myself to a big slice of whatever this barmy army has got cooling in the kitchen. The British septet have angled themselves toward the jazzy sounds of Caravan and other Canterbury bands, as well as English psychedelia and proto-metal. Like Caravan, they have a keen sense of pop songwriting and melody while being unafraid to swing a heavy hammer and smash polite convention to pieces. There aren’t a lot of bands with one foot in the metal scene (via their label) mining this vein of influences, although Kosmos and Dead Man have dug into it a bit. “Semi Permeable Men-brain” lays out all the elements in aggressive and eccentric (aggressively eccentric) fashion. It kicks off with some heavy riffing in 5/4, lays back for a mellow verse in waltz time, revs up for some cosmic boogie, and then everybody solos, including a phase-shifted drum workout to end it off. It rules. “Child of the Thunder-Cloud” has a gentler approach, reminiscent of Cressida and Spring, before taking off for a high-energy excursion in 9/8. Sometimes they’re mellow, as on “Deathwatch” or bluesy, as on “Pact” which features a pants-wettingly effective electric piano solo. In contrast to Wobbler, the arrangements are loose and groovy, adaptable enough to contain both tight technical passages and stretched-out soloing. The verve and force Diagonal brings to this style makes them a good fit with the Rise Above label. Anachronistic they may be, but they clearly know and love what they’re doing. This music may have been underground back in the day, but at least a few of its adherents got a crack at the big time. To play in this style now is a virtual guarantee of indifference from (what’s left of) the industry at large. Bless them for getting out of their collective heads and making this fantastic noise.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Crack the Skye-lights

Because I’ve been listening to it quite a bit.

1. "Oblivion"—the highlight here has to be the solo section from 3:33 to 4:30. It’s very Rush-like in that it forms a distinct section of the song. I love how it drops into an entirely different timing and changes the song’s mood. It’s clear that Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher put a lot of work into these shifting, building passages, capping the whole thing off with some dual string bends. It’s not your typical “solo over 8 verse riffs” sort of thing. I could listen to this section over and over again.

2. "Divinations"—this is the shortest, punchiest song on the album. The way the middle 8 takes the song to a new peak is cool, but the nicest touch is the subsequent lead in to the solo; a rapidly picked low E riff from 2:10 to 2:24 that foreshadows the solo itself. The choice of a fairly clean tone helps it pop out of the mix, making for a nice sonic surprise.

3. "Quintessence"—choosing a top moment is difficult, for this song is an embarrassment of riches. I’m fond of the weird sandwich of “these wild hearts run” stanzas between “let it go, let it go” parts that constitutes the chorus (first heard from 1:32 to 2:10). This section always reminds me of something Devin Townsend might come up with, because it betrays an inability to resist a catchy vocal line when it falls in your lap. There's also the doomy Taurus pedal part from 4:29 to the end that makes such a satisfying release from the preceding tech-metal explosion from 4:10 to 4:29. And this latter passage is my choice for best moment in the song. As I noted below, during my first listen to the album, this is where it became clear that Mastodon were as heavy as they ever were.

4. "The Czar"—Although Troy Sanders puts on a clinic with his bass lines in 'The Usurper' section, the riff that kicks off the next part, 'Escape,' is the highlight for me. On an album with dozens of fiddly, intricate riffs, this particular instance is refreshingly direct and classic sounding, Scorpions-like in its aim to rock. The riff’s reprise at 5:19 is all the sweeter.

5. "Ghost of Karelia"—not the most immediate song on Crack the Skye; it’s a solid “album track” nevertheless. The middle section from 2:37 to 3:15 really stands out with its punchy vocals and spiraling solo section.

6. "Crack the Skye"—lots of great vocals on this one, including a soaring Mastodonian choir, Scott Kelly from Neurosis in his customary cameo appearance, and some cool vocoder Cylon voices. Kelly’s cry of “momma, don’t let them take her!” is kind of the emotional peak of the song, if not the album, so that’s my choice right there.

7. "The Last Baron"—this song is just ridiculous. It would be cheating to pick the entire 13 minutes as a highlight. There isn’t a section that I don’t love, from the quavery acoustic intro with the melodies that stick in my head all day, to those 1-second guitar breaks before verses, to that lead line that creeps in at various points until the last time, when it charges onward into the concluding guitar solo. But the capper is the funky section at 8:19 that leads to the reprise of the intro and the song’s lengthy conclusion.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mastodon—Crack the Skye (Reprise)

I was initially a little disappointed with Crack the Skye. I’ll admit my listening strategy—following along with lyrics in hand—was part of the problem. I should have just cleared my mind and let the music wash over me without the lyrics to impose structure on what I hearing. My first impression was that the album was very slick and commercial. Even the epic tracks seemed to be smoothed over, and peppered with some corny rawk moments. The white-knuckled wild-ride metal of their earlier work was gone. It wasn’t until two-thirds of the way through the third track, “Quintessence,” that the band let loose with a truly heavy passage. I suspected what I feared might happen at this point in their career: that major label poachers had ambushed the Mastodon and thoroughly de-tusked the poor beast. After all, their Reprise debut Blood Mountain, with its wilful perversity and awkward stabs at moderating the chaos, hadn’t set the world alight. Perhaps a conscious effort to clean up and calm down for the next album would suit the suits.

After further listens, though, Crack the Skye’s true nature emerged. In essence, the new album is not a huge departure from the burly art metal of yore, but the refinements are significant and plentiful. I won’t declare, as some have, that this Mastodon’s big prog breakthrough album, because Mastodon were prog as hell to begin with. I will say that it’s catchy, and crafted with admirable care and confidence. Clever sequencing makes the album an increasingly musically challenging trip; putting the easily digested hard chargers out front before the first epic looms up, then two mid-length head-scratchers maintain the trippy mood, then another slowly unfolding epic, “The Last Baron,” concludes proceedings with some of the most exciting music on the album. The only thing Crack the Skye lacks is a palate-cleansing rager like “Blood and Thunder” or “The Wolf is Loose.” Maybe next time.

Brann Dailor’s Trailer Park Boys obsession notwithstanding, I’m sure these southern boys would be appalled by this idea, but certain sounds on this album reveal Mastodon as secret Canadians. “Quintessence” has that soaring, sweeping Devin Townsend sound, while “Ghost of Karelia” reminds me of Voivod circa their unheralded masterpiece The Outer Limits. And is that a “YYZ” quote in the midst of “The Last Baron”?

Guitar-wise, there’s a slight shift away from chunky power-chords in favour of fiddly Robert Fripp-plays-banjo arpeggio riffs (this may be because Brent Hinds wrote most of the music, with Bill Kelliher on the sidelines). Remission and Leviathan pulsed with new band excitement, while Blood Mountain thrived on experimentation and adrenaline-fueled haste. Now, 10 years since they first jammed together, Crack the Skye is the work of a relaxed, mature band whose hard graft has bought them time to work on their craft. Looking back on my first experience with the album, my main problem was that Mastodon had leapt forward further than I thought they would. They’ve delivered their Moving Pictures when I was expecting their Farewell to Kings.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Kiss, by Kope

The ever-cunning Julian Cope sidesteps his monthly task of cherry-picking some long-neglected classic for his Album of the Month by making his own compilation and deeming it to be the AotM. It's not the first time he's done this, but to me, this month is a cannonading classic because he's done and compiled his ideal KISS album, KISS Krossword, complete with an actual KISS Krossword!

Cope's essay is a must for any grown-up KISS nerd. For example:
"Anyway, what made The Gene & Co. so smart, was how well they understood what mid-70s US youngsters DID NOT WANT! For, just as young white 60s kids were quite happy to hear rampant declarations of impending fucking just so long as those songs were sung by pretty young white boys, and not by the scarily horny mid-40s Negro originators, so were mid-70s white kids still quite happy to receive a carbon copy of their older siblings’ Heavy Music just so long as it was delivered to them not by Sweaty Arsed Leslie West and Leicester’s Graham Barnes, oops, sorry, Alvin Lee, but by the Rock equivalents of Batman and Spiderman."

As for my Kompilation Kredentials, here is the Cheap Trick/KISS Maxell XLII 90:

Thursday, April 02, 2009

My So-Called Sludge

I wouldn’t say sludge is a valid metal sub-genre—it’s more of a sensibility, or an ingredient to spice up better defined styles like stoner rock or doom—but I know it when I hear it. Sludge is a good sound for bad times, bearing in mind its direct lineage from Black Sabbath and the blues. It’s music to wallow in, and there’s lots of it around these days. But sludge can be elusive and complex. It ain’t just about tuning down to L-flat and dropping the tempos the way a yogi drops his heartbeat. Like Eskimos and their damn snow and sommeliers sniffing and sipping their way through some new vintages, the discerning ear can identify many varieties of sludge, each festering in its own peculiar malignancy.


Lord Mantis—Spawning the Nephilim (Seventh Rule)
This is evil, nasty music, soaked in black bile and bad vibes. Spawning... is a traumatic, almost gleefully grim record. The Chicago quartet have an ex-member of Nachtmystium in their ranks and are recorded by Sanford Parker, who has dozens of crushing albums on his résumé, and knows what he’s doing. The album bludgeons from start to finish, encompassing some “Children of the Grave”-style churn, a few stretches that recall High on Fire, and some momentum-draining Incantation-ish ultra-doom passages, stitched together into song structures that lurch with demonic (il)logic. Nothing is clearly telegraphed; everything can change in an instant. Much twisted thought and intense rehearsal undoubtedly went into shaping such mutant material. Every band should have their own theme song, and Lord Mantis have a doozy. “Lord Mantis” is probably the most hair-raising track here, while the final song, "Zealot," really crosses the line into outright sadism, pounding you flat before dwindling to a drone while you contemplate your sorry state. The vocals spit pure psychotic hate in a manner that, while not adding much to the songs, bolsters the notion that it’s best not to fuck with this band. (Lyrically, I can relate to "Hit by a Bus"—perfect for the iPod on the #410 through the armpit of Richmond.) Despite the blatant intimidation tactics, Spawning the Nephilim’s ferocious whorl of negativity has drawn me in again and again. Lord Mantis truly know where the slime lives.


Kylesa—Static Tensions (Prosthetic)
Kylesa rock like hell. Everything on Static Tensions is superbly executed, with groin-kicking production across 10 songs; no duds. In a novel move, they employ two drummers (one per stereo channel!) to pound away and pierce the soupy din of guitarists Laura Pleasants and Philip Cope (who also produced the album). The vocals are actually integral to the songs, and are delivered in an appealing punk rock holler, like Fugazi and Turbonegro—while not as poppy as that Norwegian gang, this album carries a similar energy to, say, Apocalypse Dudes. And not everything is in the Motörhead-ish “heads down, see you at the end” vein. There are dynamics and varying instrumental textures like the eerie echo-chambered guitars of “Unknown Awareness,” or the piano intro, middle-eastern modalities and twin leads of the album’s highlight “Running Red.” It’s for good reason that they recently appeared on a Syd Barrett tribute album, doing “Interstellar Overdrive.” The band are definitely secreting an adventurous prog tendency beneath all that fuzz. It’s a thrill to catch a band in full flight like this, and it’ll be fun to see how they deliver these punishing, intelligent songs live on the Mastodon tour next month. The best thing about Static Tensions is that it doesn’t sound like anyone else, admirably free of obvious influences and clichés. This is bound to be one of the year’s best releases.

Enlarged-Prostate Sludge

Harvey Milk—Life... The Best Game in Town (Hydra Head)
I’m an idiot for leaving this off the Best of 2008 list I submitted to Unrestrained! last year. In my defense, I’d maybe just acquired it and hadn’t yet succumbed to its shabby charisma. Now it’s speaking to me in a loud drunken voice. Harvey Milk have a patchy recording history, but have been around since the early '90s, with Life... being their second album since their 2006 “comeback.” Alternately harrowing and hilarious, Life... is what happens when the rush of youth subsides, when you’re stuck at home too long, drinking bad beer, watching bad TV, wondering if you should get that stupid band together and write some more stupid songs. This is the impression I get from bassist Stephen Tanner’s hastily scrawled liner notes anyway: e.g. “another mighty turd I contributed, it’s about nothing... total filler... fuck this I’m watching Janice Dickenson’s Modeling Agency—I want to die—or win the lottery.” Yes, this sounds a little like Melvins (ex-Melvin Joe Preston plays on this), but with a more human, communicative slant to the slo-mo trudge. The album’s main difficulty is that it’s hard to get past the stunning opening track without skipping back and listening to it again. “Death Goes to the Winner” melds the coolest mellow section you’ve ever heard to the coolest heavy section you’ve ever heard, before devolving into an extended thudding second half with lyrics that dare to quote the Velvet Underground and The Beatles, all converging to create the kind of finale that dares you to carry on with the rest of the record. But that’s how this band works, apparently. To end the album with “Death Goes to the Winner” would have been too obvious. Once past that, there are other delights to be had, like “Motown” (I agree with Tanner: sounds a lot like B.O.C.—but not “Black Blade”), or Fear cover “We Destroy the Family,” or the insane, wondrous “Roses,” which sounds like some Brian May/Melvins collaboration. Harvey Milk may creak and groan and leave you in doubt whether they’ll be able to pull off another album ever again. They can’t sing, they ain’t pretty and their legs are (probably) thin. Their record, however, is brilliant. Returning to my 2008 list, I’ll put it at...#3, I guess.