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Well, hello there! Before we get to the matter at hand, I should probably apologize for having posted nothing new here for a full year. In case you’ve just been idly refreshing the home-page every day [Ed. No one has been doing this] you should probably know that I do most of my word-tossing elsewhere these days. Mostly at Last Rites, periodically at Backlit Zine, and, as of a week or two ago, at Invisible Oranges, too.

The reason for this (sure-to-be-short-lived) Spinal Tapdance renaissance, however, is a challenge. Fellow wordsmith and all-around exuberantly verbose music chap Ian Chainey and I were talking on Twitter the other day (him at @flahFBL, me at @spinaltapdance) about the creaky, overstuffed 1995 Smashing Pumpkins double album, Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness.

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The challenge: take the two-hour-plus, 28-song double album and whittle it down to ten tracks, resequenced for optimum impact.

Ian, being the word wizard that he is, has already launched his opening salvo in this challenge. Please wander over to his Rubiconcerto post and check out his song selections (& justifications), and then report back.

Still with us? Great.

So, at Ian’s request, the first step is to critique his choices.

Well, the cool thing about cutting 28 songs down to 10 is that it allows for almost endless permutations. Maybe that’s a cop-out way of saying “Oh, gee, everybody did such a great job today!”–a very anti-grunge sentiment, I suppose–but I digress. I like the choice of opening with “Muzzle,” because it has that big, juicy, power-chord feeling that might remind the listener a bit of “Today” from Siamese Dream. It opens the album with a nod to the band’s past, instead of with a tandem piano instrumental and theatrical ballad/jam (“Tonight Tonight”).

After that, Ian’s A-side still flits around, but mostly nestles in a soft(ish) spot. “1979″ is the only of the album’s actual singles to survive the cull (as it–SPOILER–will be with my list), but “Here is No Why” and “Stumbleine” are interesting back-to-backers. Closing out the side with “Thru the Eyes of a Ruby” is also a smart move, and it puts the spotlight on one of Mellon Collie’s weirder and frequently overlooked rockers. (Did you remember that trippy midsection that sounds like it’s about to bust out a sitar solo? Me neither.)

I also love opening the B-side with the revved-up aggro of “Jellybelly.” From there, though, Ian’s second half gets loopy. Makes sense, of course, because the second disc of Mellon Collie proper is a weird, dense slog that refuses to give you anything heavy past “X.Y.U.,” meaning that the double album’s final twenty minutes are a bit of a sleepwalk. I chose to do things a little differently with my picks, as we’ll soon see. Turns out Ian and I both put “Porcelina” in the penultimate spot, but he follows it up (and thus closes out the “album”) with “Cupid de Locke,” which is a harp-drenched peculiarity. I like putting it at the close because it reminds me of Kid A‘s closer “Motion Picture Soundtrack.”

Ultimately, I agree with Ian’s self-assessment that these ten tracks make up a pretty cool cross-section of the album, but focus on the snappier, power pop cuts, leaving aside nearly all of the original album’s fundamental angst. I’m curious to hear whether that’s what Ian wanted the album to be at the time, or if it’s mostly what he thinks the best editorial choices would be given the current state of his musical interests now.

Time to both put up and shut up, though. Here’s my ten-track Mellon Collie reimagining:

1. Jellybelly

I love this song to open an album, because beneath the aggro feint and squall of its opening, it’s still a great pop song, just buried under an aggression that’s been kicked up several notches from Siamese Dream.

2. Fuck You (An Ode to No One)

As before, but harder, meaner, angrier. Plus, I never could get enough of that a cappela “coil my tongue around a bumblebee mouth” absurdity, and how it dips into a quick chamber piece before revving back up.

3. Tales of a Scorched Earth

Angriest the band’s ever been, right? (At least on record.) Corgan’s vocals are so distorted here, it’s still a bit of a shock after, what, eighteen years?

4. X.Y.U.

This was the closest the Pumpkins ever got to the Melvins, and I think that’s swell.

5. 1979

Alright, so here’s where I start narrating my choices for real. I love the idea of starting the album with that 1-2-3-4 count of spiteful, loud stuff, because 1) we all need to remember that Billy Corgan is pretty fucking good at the guitar, and that the Smashing Pumpkins were (are? I honestly haven’t heard any of their albums post-Machina. S.O.R.R.Y.) a pretty fucking good rock band that enjoyed making people hear loud guitars playing interesting things. That was apparently a point of some cultural contention at the time? I don’t know, man, I’m mostly into heavy metal and I don’t really care to dive into grunge/Gen X politics.

Anyway, I like the notion that the album could have started with this wall-to-wall noise, but that eventually it would have to burn itself out. “1979″ is a brilliant, if somewhat transparent, attempt to bottle up nostalgia. (If you haven’t watched the music video in a while, please do, because it drives the point home ever harder.) Regardless, it feels like a nice transition piece. “Hey, why am I so angry all the time? Remember what it was like growing up, feeling young and desperate but also hopeful?”

He’s talking about growing up in suburban Chicagoland, but he’s really talking about growing up anywhere. Or just growing up. It’s a neat hinge to spring into a second half which plunges yet again into a different sort of angst.

6. Lily (My One and Only)

So, I read this alternate B-side arrangement as a progression of love. Despite the fact that the music to “Lily” is mostly sweet, I’ve always found it a bit creepy and unsettling, that simple drum shuffle like the scraping of a menacing footfall. The lyrical turn here is brilliant, too. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d like to think that Corgan is leaving the lyrics intentionally vague. There are two key lyrics: “Cause I’m hanging in this tree,” and “Cause as they’re dragging me away.” Because of the mid-song inclusion of the line “an officer is knocking at my door,” I think it makes more sense to read these lyrics as about someone spying on an infatuation while perched in a tree outside her window. However, reading these as an 11/12-year old, and then into more full-throated, goth-moping teenager-dom, I certainly imagined the narrator had hanged himself from a tree outside her window, and that at the end of the song, they were dragging his body away, not arresting him.

Either way, it’s a sweet song that rings a bit dangerously, which leads to…

7. Bodies

I said it yesterday, too, but “Bodies” was a wicked song to put into the hands of a desperate teenager such as myself. (Side note: Simple as they are, those opening chords give me the same chills as Megadeth’s “Hangar 18.”) I suppose for this song to make sense after “Lily,” we have to think that the narrator hasn’t actually killed himself, but is instead driven to even further desperation. That chorus, though, man: “Love is suicide.” Easy to shrug it off as teenaged foolishness, but do you remember the time in your life when songs like this, and overblown melodramatic thoughts like this were just the realest damn thing ever?

Hush your mouth if you just said no; we don’t need your lying condescension. 

8. Galapogos

“Galapogos” is another meditation on the desperation of love, but here the desperation is in the perfect satisfaction of being with someone you’re meant to be with for all time: “And if we died right now, this fool you love somehow is here with you.” It’s basically the same desperation of “Bodies,” but expressed in the context of a relationship.

9. Porcelina of the Vast Oceans

“Porcelina” is just a great goddamn song. That should be all the reasoning necessary. But really, it’s also one of the Pumpkins’ most complete songs. Heavy riffs, proggy textured verses, slow build, obscure but affecting lyrics, and a perfect sense of pacing. I like sequencing it here with this B-side selection because when in “Porcelina,” Corgan sings “On a distant shoreline, she waves her arms to me,” it feels like that wave is a beckoning comfort. It’s the brief happy bits of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a direct contrast to the final line of “Lily”: “As they’re dragging me away, I swear I saw her raise her hand and wave (goodbye).”

Love grows, and people grow with it, and “Porcelina,” for all its proggy, Floyd-y spaciousness and world-crushing happy-riffing, feels like a reflection of a deep inner calm. I like opposing that to the grind and crush of those opening four songs.

10. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

So, this is probably just me being a too-clever dick, but I think it speaks to the strength of this simple piano theme that it could work effectively as either an opener or closer. Just a lovely, lilting tune. Of course, it’s impossible to listen to it now and not expect the string cascade of “Tonight Tonight,” but we’re doing our best at musical counterfactuals here.
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Phew, that was a lot of words. Okay, Ian, how far up my own ass did I jump with that Mellon Collie edit?

Anyone else out there feel like suggesting a ten-song reimagining of this album that, the more I think about it, is almost the most perfectly emblematic representation of mainstream rock music in the 1990s?

Chances are, somewhere along the way you’ve gotten cynical. I don’t know where you’ve come from, and I don’t know where you’re going, but I’ll bet you’ve found yourself staring straight at the concrete slab of ennui. There’s nothing new to hear, no new depths of extremity to be sounded. There’s no more ‘more’, anymore; no more ‘other’ or ‘also’ or ‘what?’ You start walking enough miles in this mucky thicket of heavy metal, or even its motherland – ‘extreme music’ – and many tributaries, and the dull sting of your own soured imaginings is bound to raise its grizzled countenance.

This earth has life, though. New things will stir; bold sapling shoots of equal parts frailty and reckless invention are pushing even now through the cakey topsoil, audacious and recombinant.

Cover art for 2012 album ‘Ursus Americanus’

Enough with the bullshit: Author & Punisher is the mantle adopted by San Diego’s Tristan Shone. Shone has designed and created all the instruments – all the machines – you hear in his one-man outpouring of precise mechanical destruction. Watch a few videos of him recreating these widescreen dystopias in the live setting, and you wouldn’t be alone in picturing Shone as a bleak 21st century version of Dick Van Dyke’s one-man band carryings-on from Mary Poppins.

Spinal Tapdance sent the following questions to Tristan Shone’s techno-bunker; SkyNet obliged to let through the following responses.

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Spinal Tapdance: Which came first for you, an interest in building machines or making music? Did you start out wanting to make music only to discover that you were limited by the equipment available to you, or did you start out tinkering with machines and then realize some of them could be turned toward songwriting?

Tristan Shone: I have always made gadgets (since like 2nd grade) and started piano around the same time.  I started writing songs on piano in high school, and shortly after picked up guitar and bass.  It wasn’t until I had really learned to design and fabricate real machines and robots that I even began thinking of combining the two, which was maybe 10 years ago.  The moment of clarity came in art grad school after working in high tech cubicle cleanroom hell (not all boiling hell) for 5 years when really had the chance to reflect on my connection with my own music.  I spent a lot of time with my bass, guitar, laptop and a huge soundsystem.  I was playing along with sequences and although I enjoy that and still do that now form time to time, there wasn’t enough of my own live, instantaneous, live input; the spastic, “create a clusterfuck in that exact moment” involved with the sequenced setup. I then got rid of my guitar and made a machine that I had to move to make sound…and then another…and then another.  They all had a specific purpose and design aesthetic.  That was it.

ST:  Much of Author & Punisher’s music obviously has more in common with some of the heavier styles of electronic and experimental music (dub, drum and bass, dark ambient, industrial, and so forth) than it does with metal. Do you think of A&P as having a closer affinity to one style or the other?

TS:  My base will always be the 80s/90s doom of Neurosis, Melvins, Godflesh, as I broke my teeth on that stuff and never got it out of my system, but since like ‘98 or so I have been focused mainly on all sorts of dark electronic, as you mentioned.  It’s much harder for me to find a good, innovative metal band these days, but then again, there are so many goddamn doom bands with crosses on their heads, it’s hard to pick through. :)

ST: Your previous full-length album Drone Machines was an all-out assault for nearly its entire length; Ursus Americanus has a bit more ebb and flow, with songs like “Mercy Dub” and “Below and Above You” providing a less oppressive (though still menacing) atmosphere.  Was that an intentional songwriting choice, or is it a result of using different hardware for each album?  More generally, I suppose, does your songwriting process dictate the types of machines you build, or do your new constructions open up new possibilities?

TS: Good question.  Each album is dictated by the machines: Drone Machines are very heavy and slow to move, so the sound is a bit more drrrroooonnneeee and heavy, whereas the new album Ursus Americanus was played on the Dub Machines, which were designed to be lighter, enable a quicker dynamic, and give me to wider spectrum.  I wanted Ursus to really be an album representing exactly what I would play live with little to no overdubs.  I love how raw and simple Ursus sounds to me; it is not clogged, and that really works out well in a live atmosphere, because with too many sequences and things that I can’t really control, the live performance loses punch.  The reason I bring this up, is that Drone Machines has some songs that I love, like “Doppler” and “Burrow Below,” that were written before I started making machines and have a lot of layering, giving them a unique sound, yet a conflicting live setup for me.  Half of the DM album is exactly like the Ursus album, all live, no sequence…When I tour the vinyl release of Drone Machines next year, I may bring my bass and do those two songs, because I miss their heaviness.

ST: Your vocals also take a much less prominent role in Ursus Americanus than they did on previous albums.  Was that a conscious decision, turning your voice even more into a supporting texture rather than a rhythmic or storytelling vehicle (as on “Lonely” and “Set Flames,” for example)?

TS: Yes, I just didn’t want to be forced to write lyrics for song structure-sake and I guess I didn’t have much to say on this album other than “Lonely”, ha.  I feel much more meaning in the mood of my music and effect of the sound.  That being said, I probably use my voice more on this album.  I like to think of it like a good dub or hip hop track where maybe there is one line and then a string track and you think: “yeah it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m going to eat fried clams,” bam. No lyrics necessary.

ST: Godflesh seems like an almost unavoidable comparison, but were there any other acts in particular that originally piqued your interest in this type of metal/heavy electronics fusion?  The absolutely massive climax of album centerpiece “Set Flames,” for example, reminds me a bit of Neurosis, albeit fed through some horrific digital wood-chipper.

TS: Exactly.  I mean, I liked those aforementioned bands a lot, along with His Hero is Gone, Jesu, Nile, Meshuggah, but I it was always alongside a lot of drum and bass, dub, dubstep, electro, some industrial.  One that sticks out was Ed Rush and Optical, they had some great dark simple tracks. I really like some gabber stuff, but I really missed the boat on that as I was listening to US metal and hardcore.  I really wanted my high school band, which was a blast and I will always remember, to play super heavy slow stuff, like the last track off of every Godflesh album that lasted 20 minutes, but it was actually really hard to find people to play with that were into that. I kind of gave into it from like ’96 to ’03, until I broke up with the last band and knew that was it, A&P from then on.  I’ll just walk around a lot of the time and come up with all sorts of different heavy riffs…the shower is a good place for that.

ST: The aesthetic appeal of Author & Punisher seems pretty clearly tied to the fusion of the human/organic and the mechanical.  What is it about that fusion that appeals to you?  Is it about surpassing the limitations of the organic? Is it a fetishization of machines and industry?  Is there anything about it that’s cautionary or anxious about the impact of technology on humanity?

TS: I am trying to be as natural as possible with my designs, meaning that I like to avoid relational aesthetics as a practice.  I like quality materials that and I like machines that are made with extreme prejudice and precision and attention to detail so that they function flawlessly.  This can be a shaft spinning smoothly on a bearing so that there is no slop, or a handle that feel cold in your hand, so you know it’s steel or brass, etc. etc.  If this is fetishistic, then I guess that can be said, but for me, as an engineer and musician, it is good engineering practice applied to the world of electronic music where things are fabricated out of total shit plastic.  I have said this before, but if I had more time I would release A&P vacuum cleaners and blenders because they are also total pieces of shit and can be designed out of better stuff.  In terms of human machine, that is also just simple HCI design (Human Computer Interaction), where you try to improve that relationship so it works better.

ST: I mean, let’s be honest: isn’t this whole machine-music thing just your attempt to be shown mercy by our new robotic overlords following the inevitable technopocalpyse?

TS: I’m afraid my robots are too simple to be even shown the slightest bit of mercy…the robot oppressors will be bacteria-powered, virus-driven, super-efficient bio-machines that will just urinate and destroy all.

ST: Is there any particular machine you’ve invented of which you’re the most proud, or maybe one that was the most difficult to get just right?

TS:I have a special relationship with all of the machines, but probably like the Rails the best: rock solid.  The Throttles is a pain the ass and needs some work internally to fix the motors and linkages, which will need to happen soon before the Spring DM tour!

ST: Do you think of your studio albums and live performances in mostly the same terms?  That is, do you think the experience of hearing Author & Punisher in the live context is a significantly different experience from listening to the album?

TS: I think of them as the same, but the listener can’t possibly, because live you are watching the sound be made by the movement or hit, meanwhile getting knocked in the gut by a wall of sound. Listening to the album you have to imagine this and you may not get the same effect, however the albums are a somewhat “perfected” version of the live songs, so that can be a more balanced experience.

ST: Are there any current plans for touring the Ursus Americanus material?  Do you think it’s any more or less difficult for you to tour than for a band with a more traditional instrumental set up?

TS: Touring is increasing exponentially right now with a few shows on the East Coast and fests coming up.  Stay tuned.  It’s pretty easy for me to tour actually, since I don’t need speakers since a lot of clubs have good sound.  I do bring my sound system for the odd bar that has tweeters blown or douchebag sound guy :).

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Many thanks to Tristan for answering our questions, and to Kim Kelly of Catharsis PR for wrangling and mediation.  Author & Punisher recently released a professionally-done (and quite unsettling) video for Ursus Americanus‘s “Terrorbird”:

For more information on Author & Punisher (and Tristan’s other exploits), head to the man’s website.  You can purchase Ursus Americanus from Seventh Rule Recordings here, or stream and/or purchase it and previous A&P albums at Tristan’s Bandcamp page.

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There’s something inherently enjoyable about a band lovingly twisting old sounds into new shapes, which is precisely what Alabama’s Ectovoid does on its debut album Fractured in the Timeless Abyss. The album’s production and delivery is cut mostly from death metal’s rancid cloth, but there are frequent enough stylistic digressions – into melancholic tremolo, thin-drawn blasting, and so forth – to point also to a clear black metal heritage. In the interest of shorthand, let’s call it Autopsy and Incantation by way of Demoncy and Inquisition. But more importantly, let’s call it righteous metal and leave it at that.

Genre nitpicking and name-dropping aside, what sets Ectovoid apart as a serious proposition is the band’s twin focus on swirling, punchy riffs and an unbroken atmosphere of subterranean gloom. Michael Stewart’s guitar tone is thick and raw, occasionally pulling some Soulside Journey tricks to lead the whole band pulsing forward in a piledriving mass, which is precisely what is reminiscent of perennially underrated American black metal pioneers Demoncy. See the great album opener “Transcend into the Moonless Night” for a great example of this, as Stewart’s guitar twins with Chuck Bryant’s bass in a nimble pre-verse bridge before barreling forward as one; his twitchy soloing late in the song offers a brief glimpse of lightness, but it remains ephemeral. The earth swallows all its children.

Chuck Bryant’s vocals are typical but extremely impressive gut-scraping death growls, and his dank bass tone is fantastic, as is the way the instrument is used throughout the album. Bryant’s vocals are particularly notable because, given how well their tone fits in with the instrumental production, they easily blend into the background if one chooses to ignore them; however, it one chooses to focus on the vocals, the lyrics are extremely understandable, which is quite a feat for this sort of coarse delivery. Chris McDonald’s drumming manages to be surging and restrained, hungry yet understated. His cymbals gently crest the band’s wave, while the deep, loose toms sound the echoing depths.

Some of the album’s best moments occur when Bryant’s rumbling vocals are backed by a higher-pitched heaving (see “Chewing through the Membranes of Time and Space” and “Murmurs from Beyond”). Because the album’s atmosphere is so uniform, the extremely judicious use of this additional vocal style makes a huge impact the few sparse times it is employed. The midsection of “Chewing through the Membranes of Time and Space” points most clearly to the band’s black metal influence and the sickly doom that opens “Locked in Dismal Gaze” points most fervently to Autopsy, while “Splintered Phantasm” is one of the best examples of Ectovoid’s very attractive blending of black and death metal.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Ectovoid’s drummer Chris McDonald is a colleague of mine at MetalReview.com. That having been said, no amount of collegiality could’ve convinced me to not call Ectovoid dog balls if it was dog balls; Ectovoid is not dog balls. Ectovoid is a grimy, slithering thing, and with Fractured in the Timeless Abyss, the band has crafted a captivating set of songs that are sure to draw your soul to dwell with the wraiths in Christina Casperson’s tremendous artwork. To dwell with the doom that abides.

Overall rating: 80%.  Something something abyss Nietzsche.

Fractured in the Timeless Abyss is out now on Hellthrasher Productions.  Listen to it here.

Beneath Oblivion, From Man to Dust (2011)

Intentionally ugly, yes?

My review of the second album from Ohio’s sludge-botherers Beneath Oblivion is up now at MetalReviewFrom Man to Dust is a massive document of punishing doom that could sorely use some editing, but still succeeds despite (or perhaps because of) its flaws.  From Man to Dust is out later in September on the Mylene Sheath.

Caïna, Hands That Pluck (2011)

A cosmic distance

My review of Caïna’s final album is up now at MetalReviewHands That Pluck is dense, frequently off-putting, and also excellent.  Give it some time and you’ll find yourself rewarded.  Hands That Pluck is out now on Profound Lore Records.

Avichi, The Devil’s Fractal (2011)

A bit Weapon-ish, yes, but sufficiently fractal

My review of the second album from Illinois’s Avichi is up now at MetalReview.  The album prompts me to spin out all sorts of nonsense about whether or not black metal has to be ugly and dangerous to be effective, and whether so-called orthodox black metal is self-defeating in its attempts to be seductive.  Anyway, regardless of my bullshit, The Devil’s Fractal is out now on Profound Lore Records.

Midnight Priest, Midnight Priest (2011)

An album cover incomparably more interesting than the music within

My review of the debut full-length from Portugal’s Midnight Priest is up now at MetalReview.  Perhaps I’m a bit harsh on their raw, Mercyful Fate-ish NWOBHM style, but I found the album tiresome, grating, and almost wholly unoriginal.  Plus, despite their drummer’s insistence to the contrary, I remain at least halfway convinced that “Sábado Negro” means black sabbath.  I mean, Google Translator says it means ‘black Saturday’, which is completely understandable, but translating ‘sabbath’ from English back to Portuguese yields ‘sábado’, so…  Either way, Midnight Priest is out now on Stormspell Records.

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