Friday, December 18, 2009

Woods of Ypres—Woods 4: The Green Album (Practical Art)

Woods of Ypres do things that metal bands are not supposed to do. Head songwriter David Gold writes in the first person, but doesn't indulge in any role playing. He battles inner demons, not supernatural entities. The lyrics encompass vulnerability and longing as well as anger—the latter arises out of the former. Musically, Woods tackles several genres within a single album, which is refreshing in a time when bands rewrite the same song 10 times and call it an album.

Woods 4 includes some "Peaceville 3"-style doom, some melodic, mid-paced Katatonia/Amorphis rockers, some orchestrated piano-and-strings sections, some blasting BM and DM bits, and a couple hammer-headed sludge tunes. So although the band's PR material labels their sound as black and doom, listeners looking for an earful of one or the other will come away unfulfilled. But for those who want variety and regard scene policing with contempt, Woods have delivered another enjoyable and highly successful album.

Thematically, the album that Woods 4 most reminds me of is Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood. Both albums begin with the death of a relationship and chronicle the personal journey that follows. In Marillion’s case, vocalist Fish loses himself in backstage debauchery and in various identity crises provoked by the touring life. For David Gold, the post-breakup journey is just that: he takes an opportunity to travel abroad (“Dive into exile!” as “Dirty Window of Opportunity” puts it), and deals with isolation and regret while finding a new life in South Korea.

Musically the band covers more ground than ever. The variety of the material is necessary to sustain the listener’s interest for a 78-minute album. The sequencing of songs helps as well. There are breaks between tracks (unlike Misplaced Childhood), but after a few listens to the entire album, I started hearing the songs as a series of suites. The opening of the album is consumed with gloom and sadness, and the tempos reflect this. The doom is quite My Dying Bridal on “Everything I Touch Turns to Gold (then to coal)”, with Gold's “whoa-oh-oh”s standing in for MDB’s violin lines. The opening movement ends with “I Was Buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery" (Gold’s favourite titling theme has a rhyming scheme) and the narrator's figurative death before he assumes a new identity as a single man in a foreign land. The most intriguing stretch of songs lies at the heart of the running order, from “Wet Leather” (the album's most immediately catchy song), “Suicide Cargoload” and “Halves and Quarters” (two brief but heavy rockers) and “You Are Here With Me (in this sequence of dreams)” a lullaby/lament with instrumentation by Musk Ox. This is where the album's depth and variety is really evident.

With all this going on, the album works it way from the personal to the universal, from the opening scene of a breakup to the closing track’s call for a tenuous truce between sexes: “Women move on. Men move on.” Tellingly, this is where the voice switching to the 2nd person, as if to impart some hard-fought wisdom to the listener. This song—"Move On! (the woman will always leave the man)"—also invokes the seasons, a nice reference to the themes from previous Woods releases.

Woods of Ypres have outdone themselves with this album, and again have demonstrated that metal doesn't have to be purely a vehicle for escapism. The plain-spoken nature of Gold's lyrics might throw some people off, but for me, Gold's words and images paint vivid, precise pictures. Each song is like a heavy metal Alex Colville painting, a scene revealed in unforgiving, relentless light.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bedlam from Belgium

A lot of the music I listen to comes from a dark place. I’ll lap up the guttural, gut-bursting fury of Suffocation, the blood-caked emotion of Neurosis, or Deathspell Omega’s dissonant, Dantean hymns and gladly return for more. But when it comes to true Musica in Diabolus, none of them are fit to touch the grim robes of legendary Belgian chamber rock/Rock In Opposition bands Univers Zero and Present. A lot of prog bands describe graceful arcs with their music. The Belgians slash and stab, grind and jab. I have no idea how music like this gets made. Sacrifice, poverty and hunger play a large role, I’m a buttload of rehearsal. Why doesn’t every kid who’s forced into piano lessons just flip out at age 17 and start making music like this? If I was a bitter child prodigy, with classical chops and a hate-on for mumsy and papa, that’s where I would have gone.

Univers Zero is led by drummer Daniel Denis; Present’s leader is guitarist Roger Trigaux, who was in Univers Zero for their first two albums. Each band reflects its leader’s instrument. Univers Zero’s music is abrupt and choppy, with riffs that sound like they’re based on drum rudiments. Present trolls similar dank, stony chambers, with the guitars of Roger Trigaux and his son Reginald providing additional menace. Both bands have monster drummers. In a genre where the standard was set by Christian Vander and Magma, it’s a must. Denis (who actually joined Magma briefly in the early ’70s) combines a free-flying Art Blakey and Keith Moon approach with a classical percussionist's discipline. Present’s Dave Kerman hits even harder—he’s a big fan of Gaza and other types of grind madness—yet he matches Denis’s orchestral approach in playing the entire kit at all times.

Univers Zero—Relaps: Archives 1984–1986 (Cuneiform)

Relaps collects Univers Zero live recordings from a difficult time in the band’s history, as documented in the liner notes. Although line-up changes and financial woes put the band’s existence in jeopardy, the eight tracks featured are bombastic and fierce—the sound of a band driven to survive by destroying all comers. For the sake of my nervous system, I hope I don’t hear anything more intense than the version of “The Funeral Plain” heard here. The extended ostinado solo section that sees Jean-Luc Plouvier and his demented DX7 work handing off to Michel Delory’s equally sadistic guitar solo is audio terrorism at its finest. It’s surprising to hear the audience applauding at the end, and realize that UZ hadn’t rendered the crowd into clumps of bubbling goo at Belgium’s Centre Culturel de Seraing that night. Some people evidently survived.

After this period and a final studio album (Heatwave), Denis retired the band until 1999's The Hard Quest.

Univers Zero: Evil Incarnate

Present—Barbaro (ma non troppo) (Ad Hoc)

Present took a similar path to UZ, releasing two albums in the early ‘80s before resurfacing with Certitudes in 1998. Their latest, Barbaro (ma non troppo), is a two disc set comprising three new studio recordings (44 minutes) and a DVD with nearly three hours of performances from 1994 to 2007. The new music is stunning. “Vertiges” is a 16-minute labyrinth of percussive insanity—pianist Pierre Chevalier hammers the piano like a man possessed—that builds to a couple climaxes. You might think they’ve given everything they had at the 9:30 mark, but wait, there's more to come. Chevalier’s “A Last Drop” has more of a sustained groove—albeit an off-kilter, juddering sort of groove—before it drops into a tension-building section that almost sounds pleasant and achievable by mere mortals. The final track is a little bit special in that it’s a remake of Trigaux and Denis’ “Jack the Ripper” from Univers Zero’s malevolent 1979 masterwork, Heresie. The older version was shrouded in the murk of a London fog; this new one gleams and flashes like a knife blade.

The DVD portion is just as alarming. The primary footage is well shot and edited, with the musicians’ craft as the main focus. Present in concert isn’t a heads-down noodle-fest, though. They do have a flair for the theatric. Witness the stern, gaunt figure of Roger Trigaux conducting the band through the first half of “Promenade au fond d’un Canal” like he’s casting spells. Cringe at the shirtless war-painted guy who takes centre stage to pound out time on a pipe. Thrill to Trigaux smashing his guitar at the end of “Promenade...” from a seated position, no less. Chuckle at the world’s unhappiest teenage girl sulking in the front row at the Gouveia Art Rock Festival in Portugal. Wonder at the sight of Kerman playing the drums with wooden spoons, chains, and Barbie dolls at various points. The highlight comes when the Barbie heads eventually come flying off and Kerman continues smashing the cymbals with the decapitated doll bodies. It’s official: Present are the most brutal band ever.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Guided by Voices: A Brief History, by James Greer (Black Cat)

I’d always imagined that unravelling the story of Guided by Voices would be a difficult task. Back when I was a SPIN-reading youth, before I’d heard their music, GBV’s initial appeal lay in their obscurity and the romance of their unlikely rise from the basements of Dayton. How would you get access to that? It’d be a task akin to archaeology, digging through the mountains of 4-track tapes and Bud Light empties. However, because author Jim Greer actually once played bass in GBV, he’s the man for the job.

I got into Guided By Voices with Bee Thousand and bought each new release on sight (except for Mag Earwig!, which I caught up with during their TVT Records period). I enjoyed the music without giving much thought to what was going on behind the scenes. That's where Greer heads right from the opening chapter, set backstage at the final GBV gig. With the dozens of lineup changes and the band’s indie-to-major-back-to-indie trajectory, there’s a heap of stories and intrigue—divorces, feuds, fistfights and drugs aplenty. Greer’s pursuit of the methods behind Robert Pollard’s prolific genius also provides plenty of fodder for the book.

Fittingly, this is not a straight-up chronological bio. Greer takes a scattered approach, and includes contributions (not just quotes) from Pollard’s son Bryan, Dennis Cooper, rock critic Richard Meltzer, and fuckin’ Bun E. Carlos. There is a thread of standard album-by-album rock band narrative—I almost wish there was more discussion of the music and the songs. Greer does include a chapter devoted to Pollard’s explanations of selected songs, some of which are more illuminating than others. It’s kinda refreshing to find out that some of them are just random nonsense (many songs can be boiled down to “doesn’t really mean anything.”). The stories behind certain song titles are interesting, though.

To sweeten the deal, Greer includes a discography, which even in its “selected” form takes up the last third of the book.

(Greer describes the last three GBV albums for Matador Records as “quite likely the best records of the band’s career.” I couldn’t ignore this claim, and went back to listen to them.)

Universal Truths and Cycles (2002)—This is a good record, but it’s probably the weakest of the last three Matador albums. It’s short of hits and the band sounds tired on MOR numbers like “Pretty Bombs.” “Skin Parade” has some drive, as does “Christian Animation Torch Carriers.” “Storm Vibrations” is powerful but too long. To me, “Everywhere with Helicopter” is the classic kind of GBV bopper you expect to hear. “Eureka Signs” too, with its grit and muscle and slashing chords, really invites comparisons to The Who. Where previous albums delivered the experimental, less successful tracks in minute-long bursts, here they’re lengthy and in your face with good production, like the droney “Car Language” and “From a Voice Plantation.” The last third of the album loses me. Maybe after having blown the doors off with their last TVT release Isolation Drills (a personal favourite), they had nothing left to give, and this puzzling, low-key release was their way of easing back into the indie world.

Earthquake Glue (2003)—GBV sound like they’ve found their feet again. Pollard’s collage cover art puts us at ease right away. His songs induce the characteristic GBV ecstasy: “I’ll Replace You With Machines” and “She Goes Off at Night” off the top are both brilliant. “Useless Inventions” tops them all; its mad rush recalling Husker Du. The band goes wistful on "The Best of Jill Hives," and gets proggy on "Dead Cloud" and "Mix Up the Satellite." This album touches on a number of different styles and triumphs every time.

Half Smiles of the Decomposed (2004)—In many ways this is the most conventional Guided by Voices record. Pollard avoids the song fragments and noise, and focuses on nothing but substantive, flat-out excellent songs. “Window of My World” in particular is a song for the ages. The album it most reminds me of is Mag Earwig! Pollard, as I learned from the book, was divorced and in a happy new relationship (“Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial” is about his new lady Sarah), which accounts for the general vibe of contentment. Half Smiles... saw the band making an unexpectedly graceful but satisfying exit.