Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Difficult 2012—Part One

Here's the first of five installments running down my favourite 25 albums of the year. I decided not to assign numbers this year, but let's understand that the stakes get higher the further we move along, okay?

Neil Young with Crazy Horse—Americana (Reprise)
Another kooky idea from Neil Young, wherein he tackles the songbook from my Grade 4 music class, and cranks up old chestnuts like "Oh Susannah" and "This Land Is Your Land" with that familiar Crazy Horse churn. It's sort of funny at first, then the spirit of the project asserts itself. It's enjoyable—Neil Young and band certainly sound like they've got some lead in their  pencils—and not a little clever. Actually, recording these public domain songs opens up a lot of very modern issues concerning copyright, fair use, the sanctity of recorded artifacts and the monetization of songs. The album opens up a wormhole where one era in which music was shared freely flows into another era where music is shared freely. Neil Young's notes detail each song's history and describe which arrangement Crazy Horse used for the album. Some of the details he digs up are fascinating. Who knew that "Gallows Pole" probably originated in Finland?

Royal Thunder—CVI (Relapse)
"That wasn't metal!" complained a friend after Royal Thunder's set opening for Pallbearer and Enslaved earlier this year. Well, no, Royal Thunder aren't metal, but I'm here to celebrate their magnificent otherness, not complain that they don't fit in. What they are is hard to pin down. They rock, yes they do, with lashings of Led Zeppelin and the blues and Mlny Parsonz's voice launching the whole package skywards. The way songs like "South of Somewhere" flex and breathe is absolutely thrilling. Yet they avoid power chords and most other stoner rock trappings. I hear a lot of early '90s indie rock in their sound, like they're exploring an alternate universe where Throwing Muses bought Marshalls and ended up on AmRep. CVI is a bold, successful statement, and I'm betting their next album will be a major event.

Mark Lanegan Band—Blues Funeral (Sub Pop)
Mark Lanegan albums live in the bad part of town, and dwell on the dark side of life. He's one of the greatest singers of my generation and, as with PJ Harvey (his peer and equal, to my mind), whenever he releases an album you know it's going to be a heavy trip. What does a blues funeral sound like? Well, the songs take many forms, from the raunchy stomp of "Riot In My House" to the despondent dancefloor beats of "Ode to Sad Disco." The sparse arrangements sidestep obvious rock moves and defer to Lanegan's gloriously musty voice. "These tears are liquor, and I've drunk myself sick," he intones on "St. Louis Elegy." I wouldn't wish a life of misery on anyone, but for as long as Mark Lanegan keeps making records, I hope he never cheers up.

Baroness—Yellow and Green (Relapse)
A couple schools of thought arose over Baroness's two-toned double-album. People decided that it was either as a daring collection of melodic, almost mainstream rock, or a lightweight, unmetal bag of shite. Although I found "Little Things" similarity to The Northern Pikes alarming, the rest of it gave me no problem at all. The band certainly aren't as heavy as they once were, but they're every bit as musicianly. None of the 18 songs sound tossed off, and the guitar tones throughout are damn tasty, especially on disc two's opening "Green Theme." It's like a roomful of boutique pedals battling it out for wicked tone supremacy.

Pixel—Reminder (Cuneiform)
Jazz doesn't usually equate to instant enjoyment or accessibility, but this Norwegian quartet's debut album is great fun. Bassist/bandleader Ellen Andrea Wang anchors this collection of tidy instrumentals and catchy vocal numbers with strong, inventive bass lines. Actually, it's the songs with vocals that really make the album for me, especially the sassy "Call Me" and "Wake Up," whose main melody reminds me a bit of White Willow, for whom Wang also plays bass. I imagine Pixel make a lot of new friends every time they play in front of an unsuspecting jazz fest crowd. This isn't music for a stuffy club; it's more suited to an outdoor stage on a brilliant summer day. Aw, now I'm wishing it was Jazz Fest season. I don't want to be that annoying Facebook fan, but here goes: Pixel, come to Vancouver!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Guapo—History of the Visitation (Cuneiform)

This is a welcome return for a band that made a huge impact on me with their Five Suns album in 2004. Their music was raw, unapologetically bombastic and disturbing. Having been primed by exposure to Univers Zero, Present, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the British instrumental trio aligned with what I was seeking at the time. Guapo’s next two albums completed a loose trilogy, and although each of them was superb in their own right, after the final album, Elixirs, came out I thought I could hear the band’s constitution beginning to fray. They’d been reduced to two core members, and the album sounded like a band searching for direction. It’s still a fascinating listen—I heard it in a record store last summer and was reminded how good it actually was.

This is a short but nevertheless eventful and satisfying album. The band’s current lineup, which includes new keyboardist Emmett Elvin and has guitarist Kavus Torabi taking a more prominent role, easily maintains that dark Guapo power. At 26 minutes, opening track “The Pilman Radiant” dwarfs its successors. One of its most outstanding qualities is that it doesn’t feel that long. It has remarkable time-compressing qualities, maybe because it achieves a dreamlike state at several points, beginning with an extended orchestrated drone, then moving along to a somewhat macabre groove halfway through, where the swirling mix of instruments contributes to the hall of mirrors effect. Even at its most raucous, the song has an elegant flow that helps insinuate itself into the subconscious. “Complex #7” is the creepy comedown, a collection of drips and scrapes against a background hum. “Tremors From the Future” releases the tension with its shimmering pulsations and celebratory guitar slashes. You’re never quite sure which tangent it’s going to follow. The pace never slackens, though, as it shifts from thing to thing and drives towards a frenzied peak.

But that’s not all! The band and Cuneiform Records have teamed up to add a companion DVD to this handsome set. Featuring two tracks, it’s definitely a treat for fans who haven’t a hope of seeing them live. The rendition of “Five Suns” from NEARfest 2006 is pretty amazing. It’s a multi-camera shoot presented in beautiful B&W that captures this eerie epic perfectly. I won’t spoil everything that happens during the song; suffice to say that Guapo are a band that cares how they present themselves on stage, and knows how to create a memorable experience for the audience. “King Lindorm” is a simple one-camera colour presentation from Rock In Opposition 2007 that again emphasises what a powerful live act they are.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Scott Kelly and the Road Home at the Railway Club, March 9

This was initially going to be a solid night of pickin’ and grinnin’, until those magicians at Nothing Is Heavy took it over the top and announced that they’d added Scott Kelly (Neurosis and Shrinebuilder) about two weeks before the gig date. I’d just seen Neurosis in Seattle in January and now one of their main singer/songwriters was going to grace our humble, hallowed Railway Club? This would be too amazing to miss.

Mike Hodsall was up first. He took a fairly self-effacing approach in his song introductions, which he didn’t need to do. He mixed up some dark, involved instrumentals and original songs, and despite admitting to being nervous in this intimate setting, he delivered superbly. The instrumentals reminded me a bit of Six Organs of Admittance in their phrasing and overall feel. He ended the set with a cool, somewhat jazzy interpretation of "Black Sabbath," a good choice seeing as there were a lot of metalheads in the crowd.

By contrast, Johnny Wakeham was real easygoing on stage. His material was decidedly more country-oriented, complete with bouncing bass lines and songs about trucks, motorcycles, and being faithful to your woman. The tunes were uniformly terrific and performed with foot-pumping verve. He chose a cover for his last number as well, going with the Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand,” which fit in perfectly with the rest of the set—Conway Twitty also covered the song, so it's already got a country pedigree. Thanks for the earworm, Johnny—I had it in my head for the rest of the weekend.

T. Nile brought along a full band of fiddle, drums and bass, while she herself alternated between guitar and banjo. Did they ever sound good, hitting a perfect balance between instruments, every musician understanding when and when not to play. Compliments to the soundman as well. Not only was the overall sound in the room great, he took the time to make sure every act was happy with what they were hearing on stage. T. Nile’s from Galiano Island originally, and that upbringing might have something to do with the free spirit she brings to the whole thing. She had a varied batch of songs that she performed wonderfully, and her band was tight-tight-tight while still looking like they were having fun on stage. The bassist gets Difficult Music bonus points for his Rush shirt. The peak of good times on the night.

More banjo, please! Gordon Smith and Blake Bamford brought their guitar/banjo sitdown duo next. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they’re from the band Percheron, whose tape I mentioned in a previous post. They played a low-key, enjoyable set. It felt pretty intimate, like they were a couple buddies playing in your living room, telling stories about near-death experiences and other misadventures, rather than playing in a club getting more packed by the minute in anticipation of the headliner.

First off, it was strange to hear Scott Kelly talk on stage, because Neurosis aren’t too big on between-song banter, choosing to focus exclusively on crushing you to death with their music. Secondly, I hope he didn’t hear my friend and I chuckling when he asked if anybody had been at the Cruel Elephant in ’92 when Neurosis and Sleep played there. Having seen our share of shows at that short-lived venue back then, we were instantly imagining what went down, and it was little much to take. Like I need another regret in life, now I know that I missed Neurosis and Sleep at the Elephant in 1992. I’d have to ponder this later, though, because here I was at a Scott Kelly show with the man not two metres away, acoustic guitar in hand. Flanked by Noah Landis (Neurosis keyboardist, here playing electric guitar and a midi keyboard/laptop setup) and Greg Dale on acoustic guitar and the aforementioned keyboard, Kelly proved that he’s a master of heaviness no matter what format he’s working in. Give Kelly an acoustic guitar, and he doesn’t suddenly turn into some casual strummer—he’s still Scott Kelly. The songs were as weighty and solemn as Neurosis material, only without the deafening crescendos. Compared to the material on his first solo album, Spirit Bound Flesh (the only one I’m familiar with), the new songs were a bit more tuneful and nuanced…beautiful, in fact. He ended the set with “We Burn Through the Night,” which he dedicated to the family he’d be going home to as soon as the tour was done. I left the club feeling enriched and, above all, thankful, during my own trip home.

Please check out Ted Reckoning's excellent photo gallery from the night. Thanks, Ted!

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Elephant9 with Reine Fiske—Atlantis (Rune Grammofon)

Trying to slot this fantastic album into a genre is difficult. Is it progressive rock with jazz structures? Or simply hard-rocking jazz? Why bother trying? Basically, this band rips. Elephant9 keep it loose and improvisational, for the most part. Riffs give way to jamming; riffs come back again, sometimes. The major tracks on this album all clock in around 10 minutes each. They really hurl themselves into their work. The album sounds urgent—it only took them three days to record, so obviously they weren't messing around. The rhythm section rumbles like a herd of 9 angry elephants charging at you. The bass guitar has an attack and tone that will stomp your puny frame into dust. It’s like Jack Bruce and Lemmy are tag-teaming the thing. The keyboards consist of burning Hammonds and raging Rhodes pumped through some huge speaker cabs. This is one heavy outfit. The opening to “Psychedelic Backfire” is pure doom metal malevolence. Atlantis features the Norwegian trio with guest Reine Fiske (Landberk, Dungen, The Amazing) on guitar on many of the tracks. Fiske integrates well with the rest of the band. He especially finds a kindred spirit in keyboardist Ståle Storløkken as they engage in some overdriven tradeoffs. The constant push-pull of the band’s approach doesn’t leave any room for virtuoso showcases. Everybody gets their licks in while managing not to get bulldozed out of the way. This sound may have crystallized in the late 60s, early 70s with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime, even The Band of Gypsys—check out the funky riff on “Freedom’s Children” that sets up Fiske’s initial solo flights—but it’s proven to be a timeless approach. Everybody likes hearing crack musicians playing off each other at top speed, right?