Monday, June 29, 2009

IQ—Frequency (InsideOut/GEP)

IQ are a rare example of artistic redemption in the music industry. In 1985, IQ ruled the world—my world, at any rate. They’d just released The Wake, a glorious, cinematic album filled with sinister energy. Songs like “The Magic Roundabout” and “Widows Peak” bristled with drama. They should have been at least as big as Marillion, but a couple of factors held them back. One, they didn’t have a gigantic alcoholic Scotsman to work the press, and two, they were basically a DIY outfit. Marillion had EMI backing them almost from the get-go, so they got credit for spearheading the prog revival. IQ played the Marquee a lot, staying firmly within the EU. In Canada, if you lived near a really good import shop, you might have been able to find one of their records.

The Wake was a really impressive album, though, and by 1987, Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein were handling IQ’s affairs, scoring them a major deal on their label, Squawk. IQ looked set to start ruling the world beyond Kerrang! magazine and my bedroom. Unfortunately the album, Nomzamo, was a turd. Original singer Peter Nicholls was gone, and the music had been sanded down, stripped of all malevolence and polished to an electro-pop sheen—prog-lite that Patrick Bateman could have filed next to Invisible Touch. It went straight to the delete bins.

IQ eventually took control, dropped a couple members, reconnected with Nicholls, and formed their own record company, Giant Electric Pea, through which they released Ever in 1994. By this time, lonely hearted prog fans were starting to find each other through the internet, giving the rejuvenated IQ a worldwide fanbase. It helped that Ever was an excellent album, a return to the atmosphere-laden epics of their first couple releases. They’ve been going strong ever since, with new albums every few years.

Frequency finds IQ down a couple more original members—keyboardist Martin Orford has fled, dismayed by the "free music" culture, and drummer Paul Cook’s gone missing—but still making music that’s true to themselves and their legacy. Right from Frequency's opening riff, one of those signature IQ "duh duh duh" constructions, I can’t imagine any fan being disappointed with it. Orford’s replacement, Mark Westworth (Darwin's Radio), may have more of an overtly prog/rock style, but overall you’d be forgiven thinking no changes had occurred. The first three songs are the strongest. “Frequency” is heavy as IQ gets these days, an alternately delicate and powerful number. “Life Support” recalls their legendary b-side "Dans le Parc du Chateau Noir" with its quiet buildup and guitar-drenched release. Mike Holmes is still one of my favourite guitarists. His sinuous lead lines continue to dominate IQ's sound. Third song “Stronger Than Friction” is the album's apex, simultaneously epic and catchy. Nicholls has always been a master of melodies, and he delivers a corker of a chorus on this one.

The rest of Frequency flags a little. "The Province" shows some flashes of newfound heaviness and would have been one of the best songs on the album if they'd kept the energy up. Unfortunately, it saunters into a requisite faux "Supper's Ready" section that drags the song down. "Closer," a simpler song built around a chiming guitar figure, makes for a nice closer, though.

My copy comes with a bonus DVD of a live set in Holland 2007, well shot and with a set list drawn from their entire career (save that Squawk Records period) and featuring an early version of “Stronger than Friction.” They're not a hell-raising bunch of chaps on stage, but their sound and back wall projections are both exquisite.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Marnie Stern—This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That (Kill Rock Stars)

Dabs of paint, like cells vibrating into place, coalesce into a portrait of the artist. The cover painting captures a lot of what Marnie Stern is about. Sometimes the brushstrokes overlap, and the paint runs together. Stern doesn’t like to colour between the lines with her music either, rendering it in frantic note bursts—tapping, slashing, rapid fire picking—avoiding any large fields of colour or convenient rest stops. Everything works to convey her music’s restless, relentless energy. These are pop songs blown apart, the glimmering, half-melted shards reassembled in an unexpected yet equally sturdy new three-and-a -half minute forms. The material comes out in a mad rush, with Stern’s keening voice commandeering the melee. When she asks “Is there no way out of my mind?” in “The Package is Wrapped,” you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s found a way out of it already. If, as she implies, she’s trapped in there, it’s nice that she’s letting us in for a visit; her mind is a fascinating place in which to spend 40 minutes. Sometimes she gives us glimpses of the conventional, where it sounds like she's about to embark on an indie-rock hit (as on “Vault” or “Roads? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads!”), but then it all goes thrillingly haywire. Stern and producer/drummer Zach Hill (Hella) make a fearsome team. Hill’s roiling fills and devious rhythms are a good match for Stern’s own playing. This album sounds like freedom, imagination, colour, fun, and the mysterious unmappable impulses that make us who we are.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Napalm Death—Time Waits for No Slave (Century Media)

Is life bumming you out these days? Yeah, me too. There's so much unwarranted hysteria, and it grinds me down. Families are “fighting to survive” in these tough economic times (known as TET in our house). Swine flu is back—I remember it from the ‘70s, and barely anyone died back then either. Poverty and disease now lurk in the middle-class chamber of horrors, joining the child molesters, junkies, and terrorists. I often think we live in a culture of narcissism and sloth, but really we live in a culture of fear.

This week, MP Lisa Raitt was forced to publicly apologize for describing (in a private conversation that was accidentally taped and left with a reporter by her idiot assistant) the shortage of radioisotopes as a “sexy” issue. “How dare she!” roared her rivals and the populace in general. Yes, shock, horror, etc. Honestly, are we so eager to be outraged that we can whip ourselves into a frenzy over the fact that a politician uses the jargon of a PR hack? That an MP might view an issue in terms of how it might affect her public profile?

Anyway, Lisa Raitt bowed to demands and apologized for her slightly tacky statements. You might as well ask a tiger to apologize for having stripes. Meanwhile, her party (and this is on the public record) cuts funding to the arts and strips our culture to the bone, and no one has to say they’re sorry.

I’ve been listening to this album all week.

Napalm Death—Time Waits for No Slave (Century Media)
First-time reviewer, long-time fan here. Napalm Death have been on a streak since The Code is Red...Long Live the Code and Smear Campaign, and this new album is another laser-guided missile plowing straight through injustice and ignorance. Napalm Death have never been afraid to try new styles, so long as said style meets their strident criteria. From setting the template for grindcore with Scum and From Enslavement to Obliteration (my first encounter with ND, picked up on vinyl during my NME reading days), to adopting death metal with Harmony Corruption, to adding some Swans and Voivod-style dissonance around Fear Emptiness Despair, to developing their rapid-fire groove style from the mid to late ‘90s, to having their asses kicked by Nasum and reapplying themselves to grind in the new millennium, it’s all been grist for the Napalm juggernaut. Working with Russ Russell at Foel Studios again, on Time Waits... they’ve thrown all these elements into the grinder and the resulting goop is corrosively compelling. They’ve honed their songwriting into three or four minute assaults of blastbeats, Celtic Frost breakdowns, old-school hardcore and crust riffs, and (most importantly) simple rock 'n’ roll catchiness. It’s a joy to hear Barney Greenway tearing into the choruses on “Life and Limb” and “Fallacy Dominion.” If his slogans are rather cryptic (“Prevention is better than a cure, however obvious or obscure”) their delivery is certainly memorable. Amazing songs abound—the opening cyclone of “Strong Arm,” the seamlessly switching grooves of “Diktat,” and the title track. There’s even what sounds like an unholy outbreak of black metal in “Work to Rule.” The key to Napalm Death’s fury is Danny Herrera’s blastbeats, which have a singularly panicky, chaotic quality. Some drummers play them too cleanly, with an anti-musical athleticism. Herrera’s blasts sound ragged and truly fucking fast, adding a dynamic element to the song where they set the stage for when the pace shifts down, and the band slots in an even heavier part. The effect is like letting off tear gas into an unruly mob—the crowd parts temporarily, mustering a greater fury for its next act. No other band can create that kind of rush. The other half of Napalm’s American contingent, guitarist Mitch Harris, has thrived since Jesse Pintado’s departure (from the band and from this mortal plane), offering a massive collection of devastating riffs. I can’t guess where they all might come from, but it’s obvious he’s working his ass off to hold his side of the Napalm sound together. He even gets to squeeze off a bendy solo on “A No-Sided Argument." Napalm Death are the soundtrack for lives and minds in anarchy, remaining volatile and vital as ever as they approach their fourth decade.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Steven Wilson—Insurgentes (kscope)

No one’s straying outside their comfort zone on Insurgentes—neither Steven Wilson or his audience. If you like Porcupine Tree’s recent output, then you’ll be more than happy with what is billed as Wilson’s first solo album (ignoring the fact that he oversees everything to do with Porcupine Tree, which started as Wilson’s one-man project). While the sounds and atmosphere on Insurgentes haven’t fallen far from the Tree, differences emerge with repeated listens. The album has given Wilson the chance to work with different musicians (including Tony Levin, Jordan Rudess, and Clodagh Simonds from Mellow Candle). PT drummer Gavin Harrison plays on nearly every track. Every time you think the album is going to settle into an intimacy typical of a solo album, Wilson throws in something to subvert it and take a song in an unexpected direction. Even a fragile little song like “Abandoner” is host to a series of what must have been painstakingly constructed textures. Likewise, the plain piano and voice format of “Get What You Deserve” is eventually consumed by crashing guitars and layers of noise. “Salvaging” moves from a heavy trance groove to a dissonant orchestral end piece. As with Stupid Dream’s “Tinto Brass,” Wilson celebrates another, erm, underappreciated director in tremendous fashion with album opener “Harmony Korine.” “No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun” opens with an unusually jammy feel based around a recognizably Levin bass line before an extreme quiet/loud dynamic takes over. I don’t know if Wilson would devote space on a PT album to a creepy little experiment like “Twilight Coda.” Open the booklet and you’ll find a photo of smashed and incinerated MP3 players, an unsubtle indictment of the prevailing lo-fi culture. In the face of this widespread indifference to audio quality, Wilson’s other response is to include an additional DVD containing 5.1 and 24-bit stereo mixes, which I’m sure would blow your head off on the right setup. However you choose to listen, new sounds and new voices make Insurgentes a more interesting album than the last PT outing, Fear of a Blank Planet. I hope Wilson brings more of his left-field impulses to the sessions for his main band’s next release.