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Archive for July, 2010

Anneke van Giersbergen & Danny Cavanagh, In Parallel (2010)

Ceremony of (Non)Opposites

The operative word here is warmth.  This 2010 release presents recordings from two small (and quite intimate sounding) shows played in the Netherlands in early 2009 by Anneke van Giersbergen (of Agua de Annique, and ex- of The Gathering) and Danny Cavanagh (Anathema).  The sound is clean, simple, and yes, warm, as the two singers trade off singing songs from their separate concerns, as well as a handful of well-selected covers.

The instrumentation throughout is primarily acoustic guitar (with both Cavanagh and van Giersbergen playing), with Cavanagh’s occasional piano accompaniment.  Followers of either of these two singers’ bands know well enough that these folks have been circling the world of Metal with only the widest of orbits in recent years, but that’s not really the point.  Metal is a wide church, and these two friends are among the most golden-voiced ever to have graced its quietest rectories.

The sheer pleasure of listening to this album is not in the revelation of any hitherto-unexplored realm of sound and expression; this album proceeds so winningly because of its striking comfort and familiarity.  Some might argue that such conventional attributes are antithetical to the project of heavy metal, but then again, one can only listen to so much powerviolence or harsh noise before retreating to sunnier climes.  Which is to say, certainly every Skullflower fan could use a little Sonata Arctica in their life from time to time.

Most of the songs sung by van Giersbergen are from her Agua de Annique project, although The Gathering’s “You Learn About It” (from 2003′s Souvenirs) gets a stirring reading.  The set also opens with a delightful version of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” and later features van Giersbergen leading a beautiful rendition of Damien Rice’s great song “The Blower’s Daughter.”

This latter track is one of the most interesting here, because van Giersbergen sings the male lead, with Cavanagh joining in to harmonize where Rice’s version adds female vocals.  I have a sense that a bit more playing around with ‘who sings what’ could have yielded extremely pleasant results – van Giersbergen singing Anathema’s “Are You There?”, for example, or Cavanagh singing Agua de Annique’s “Day After Yesterday” – but this borders on churlish quibbling.

The Anathema songs are primarily taken from A Natural Disaster, with only “One Last Goodbye” digging (slightly) deeper into their past.  One small disappointment, then, is that there is essentially 100% overlap between what Cavanagh plays here, and Anathema’s 2008 acoustic release, Hindsight.  Still, these are powerful songs, and they lose very little when featuring just guitar and voice.  “Flying” is particularly notable for what sounds like Cavanagh accompanying himself with a delay pedal.  It’s tough to pick out exactly what’s going on, but towards the end, I can hear three, or maybe four separate guitar lines winding round and round themselves.

My only complaint (well, I suppose it’s really more of a suggestion) is that with these two fantastic singers playing together, I feel like they could have actually sung together a bit more frequently.  When they do harmonize with one another (as on “The Blower’s Daughter” or Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”), the timbres of their voices work sweet magic, and thus feels rather underutilized.

In sum, this record is a real treat for fans of either singer, and an especial treat for those (such as myself) who are fans of both.  Don’t expect anything earth-shattering here, though, as this really does play like good friends getting together to run through songs whose memory is imprinted in the callus of the finger, and the familiar vibration of a particular note.

This album, I will say again, is above all else warm: this album is a broken-in leather arm chair in a hearth-lit study; it is a glass of ruby red wine; it is a walk along the river with old friends, where the words and meanings are only figural, gestures at an unspoken bond.

Overall rating: 80%.  Old friends / Sat on their park bench like bookends…
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In Parallel is out now on Aftermath Music.  Find it here, or maybe somewhere else.

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Indulge me, folks (or don’t), but my brain, it is on a Jag.

So, I must have totally missed the boat, because all of a sudden it seems like our entirely electronic universe has become ghettoized into those things which are Safe For Work and Not Safe For Work.  Seems like probably the whole reason to invent the term was, just so we could have ourselves a nice time with all o’ these, not quite acronyms, but abbrevs: SFW, NSFW, etc.  Never mind that err’time I see ‘NSFW’ spelled out, I think I’m about to encounter some particularly risque news item out of New South Wales.

This is pretty moot for me, since I work from home most of the time, and if every now and then my web browser shows me a rhinoceros mounting another rhinoceros, or a Photoshopped image of Oprah just cussing up a goddamn storm (“Please welcome Nancy Motherfucking PeLOOOOOSI”), or my favorite William Shatner Erotic Fiction site, well, that’s my own business, innit?

Still, I think if we want to really find the culprit, we’ll have to reach a bit further back.  Say, to good ol’ Woodrow Wilson, or He Of The Fourteen Points.  You see, Woody has this ambition to start up a, not quite a Covenant, but what I suppose you could call a League Of Nations.  And this League, as it were – along with that nasty little war which preceded it (hint: folks used to call it Great) – was going to make our world Safe For Democracy.  Which presumes, of course, that the world was, at the time, Not Safe For Democracy.

Dude was, for the most part, SFW, and only pretty SFD

Two options, then: Either a) we quit with this silly SFW/NSFW classification, and instead start judging your favorite websites as to whether they Are or Are NOT Safe For Democracy (SFD/NSFD)*; or b) we sit around and wait for the inevitable failure of our very own League Of Nations to reveal the underlying bankruptcy of NSFW.  Y’know, like if Janet Jackson’s boob just up and lays itself out on computer screens all over the country, and the arbiters of Work Safety do NOT A DAMNED THING.

This nonsensical post brought to you by: too much iced coffee this morning, not quite enough sleep, and the psychedelic genius of the Harvestman/U.S. Christmas/Minsk 3-way covers album Hawkwind Triad (out this year on Neurot Recordings).

*Maybe it seems like WikiLeaks is in the back of my mind here, but I promise you it is not.  Serendipity, etc.

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Okay, friends – things are getting serious.  The question I am about to pose to all of you may just be one of the most vexed in all of heavy metal history.  Abandon hope, all ye who enter, et cetera.

Which of these is the best classic heavy metal live album:

- Judas Priest, Unleashed in the East (1979)
- Motörhead, No Sleep ’til Hammersmith (1981)
- Iron Maiden, Live After Death (1985)

????????

I know, I know; this is some next level, Sophie’s Choice shit, right?

The contenders:

Fall to your knees and repent (if you please)

You see, my first inclination is to say that Priest’s live album from Japan is the best of the three.  Downing and Tipton are in lockstep precision throughout the entire set, and Halford’s vocals are absolutely on fire.  I think the thing that really sells this one more than anything, though, is how different these tracks sound from their recorded versions.

Now, I don’t mean that we’ve got any 20-minute “Moby Dick” masturbatory drum solos, or patient explorations of the tonality of the sitar; instead, what I mean is, this album came out in 1979, meaning that the material represented is largely from 1976′s Sad Wings of Destiny through 1979′s Hell Bent for Leather (which is really 1978′s British Killing Machine, but nevermind that).  For this earlier stage in their career, Priest still sounded very much like a 1970s metal band, meaning that the production never quite gave them the same bite they were able to achieve in the live arena.

As such, even though the live renditions are quite faithful to the originals, they sound bigger, bolder, and more filled with the righteous flame of heavy metal’s essence.  Check “Victim of Changes,” especially, for one of the most awe-inspiring tracks ever to have been put to tape, to wax, to indelible brain-grooves.

Snake eyes watching you

Now Motörhead live are a completely different proposition.  Where Priest gain power live, it is primarily because of the intensification and clarification of what I imagine must have been their original vision of those songs; where Motörhead gain power live, it’s for no other reason than that the hellish racket made by these three dudes absolutely personifies everything dirty, gritty, fast, ugly, and wonderful about metal, punk, rock, and just basically loud fucking music.

The set list (my single-disc CD version has got 14 tracks, though the original issue was just the 11 tracks, “Ace of Spades” through “Motörhead”) is chock full of classics: “Ace of Spades,” “Overkill,” “Bomber,” “(We Are) The Road Crew,” “The Hammer,” “Iron Horse/Born to Lose,” and on and on.  The primary reason that this album vies in such close competition for the vaunted status of  Best Heavy Fucking Metal Live Album Ever is that it is louder, faster, and more shot through with the supernatural power of ROCK than just about anything else.

Seriously, once you’ve got this album into your greedy little clutches, it will most likely ruin you for the original recorded versions of these songs.  They will seem slow, and they will seem quiet, and they will pale in comparison to their livid, whiskey-fueled live bastard children.

Woe to you, oh Earth and Sea...

So, now that I’ve done worked myself into quite the lather over Priest and Motörhead, how could poor ol’ Iron Maiden hope to stack up?  Oh, I don’t know, maybe by BRINGING THE GODDAMNED ROCK AND ROLL SO HARD INTO YOUR EARHOLES THAT YOUR EYEBALLS ROLL BACK INTO YOUR HEAD LIKE IN A CARTOON, BUT INSTEAD OF DISPLAYING SLOT MACHINE ICONS, ALL YOU SEE IS EDDIE SPINNING ROUND AND ROUND, DANCING A HEAVY METAL TARANTELLA WHILST CLUTCHING THE ASHES OF YOUR SANITY.

Ahem.  What I mean is, of these three live albums, Live After Death has the widest selection of absolutely classic tracks.  Yeah, it’s a shame that they didn’t wait a few years so that they could include tracks from Somewhere in Time or Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, but that’s really just splitting hairs.  Here you get some of the highlights of Powerslave and Piece of Mind, plus all the old bangers you’ve come to know and love.  Bruce is on fine form, and the crowd(s – the first disc was recorded in Long Beach, CA, and the second disc, coincidentally enough, was recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon, the very same venue at which Motörhead promised no sleep until) is fired up.

Apart from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (a real treat to hear the whole thing live), a few of the lesser-heard gems are “22 Acacia Avenue” and “Phantom of the Opera.”  But really, apart from the specific track selection, this entire recording just oozes the class and professionalism of a band on the top of their game in 1985, and a band which continues to be on the top of their game 25 years (!!!) later in 2010.
———————

Moral of the story is: I can’t choose between these three records, friends.  Each one is perilously close to being too excellent for its own damn good.  In a perfect world, then, we’d each have, oh, say, four hours or so each day to play all three back to back for MAXIMUM HEAVY METAL DAMAGE.

But what about you?  Are you able to choose between these three?  Have I forgotten any other heavy metal live albums of equal importance and stature to these?  (I should point out that I intentionally left off Black Sabbath’s Live Evil, not out of any disrespect for RJD His Damn Self, but because even though it stretches back and cherry picks some of the Ozzy-era classics, it’s not a representation of the classic band at the height of its powers, like are these other three.)

Which live albums strike that holy terror in your soul, and lead you by the hand, ineluctably, to the Spinal Tapdance?*
—————–

*In case I have not yet specified, a Spinal Tapdance is what happens to the body when it is consumed with the all-purifying fuck-thunder of HEAVY METAL.  Think not of dancing ’round a midget Stonehenge, but rather of the real life Stonehenge – y’know, all those fucking giant ROCKS in the English countryside what with them Druids used to get funky – DANCING ON YOU.  Your body twists and thrashes uncontrollably, and your hair stands on lightning-kissed end; this is the Spinal Tapdance.

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Oh my goodness, I can hardly control my excitement (I am using understatement to emphasize my point).

Your friend and mine, Michael Gira, has reformed the band that made us all love the sound of abjection, Swans.  I was sadly unaware of the brilliant music of Swans until some time after they first disbanded (after 1997′s final full-length Soundtracks for the Blind), so I am super-hella-crazy-mega-pumped to finally see them live.

A charming sort of fellow

Of course, the unfortunate thing about it is that, at least as of now, it doesn’t seem that Jarboe is going to be a part of this reunion.  It was probably overly wishful thinking to hope for such a thing in the first place, but I guess I’ll just have to be content with the fact that Jarboe has continued to make excellent and challenging music, both on her own, and, especially, with an extremely notable list of collaborators throughout metal’s avant-garde: Neurosis, Justin Broadrick, Byla, Phil Anselmo & Atilla Csihar on the astonishingly good Mahakali, and Kris Force on the soon-to-be-released soundtrack to some random video game.

Anyway, if you have a love for all that is good and righteous in music, you would be well-advised to seek out the music of Swans, and to attend their upcoming concerts.  Here’s the complete list of tour dates for the U.S. leg of their tour this fall, with more information on European dates available at Gira’s label, Young God Records:

Sept 28 Philadelphia, PA – Trocadero Theater
Sept 29 Washington, DC – Black Cat
Sept 30 Boston, MA – Middle East downstairs
Oct 01 Montreal, QC – Le National – Pop Montreal fest
Oct 02 Toronto, ON – Lee’s Palace
Oct 04 Detroit, MI – Crofoot Ballroom
Oct 05 Chicago, IL – Bottom Lounge
Oct 06, Columbus, OH – Outland Live
Oct 08 Brooklyn, NY – Masonic Temple
Oct 09 New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom

I’ll be kicking it Swans-style here in Chicago October the 5th.  In the meantime, how’s about a few videos to whet your interest?

Here’s a rather unfortunately seizure-inducing video for the title track off of Love Of Life (interesting tidbit: try to see how many of these photos will end up being used as cover art for Gira’s albums as Angels Of Light):

And if that one was a bit soft for your taste, have a nice little palate-cleansing bludgeoning from the much rawer Swans circa 1987:

Go get your tickets, before the tickets get you.  Or whatever.

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So, I must admit that I’m a complete sucker for the bizarre black metal ramblings of Tasmania’s own Sin Nanna, otherwise known as the one-man treblefest Striborg.  I own all of the official full-lengths, and several of the reissues which combine previously unreleased demos.  The sound quality varies from each release, careening from hideous, to god-awful, to subterranean, to wind tunnel, to tinnitus-inducing, and so forth.

Something about this guy’s single-minded devotion to the pursuit of black metal’s bleakest core really appeals to me; no doubt a great deal is added to the experience of the music (which can be quite surreal, particularly at either high volume, or, sometimes even more so, at volumes just low enough so that you can’t quite tell if the sounds are coming from your speakers, or are being whispered into a static ether by shades just beyond your ability to perceive them) by Sin Nanna’s deliberately reclusive persona, which suggests that he lives alone in a desolate forest in the midst of the Tasmanian wilderness with nothing but a 4-track to record his frequent and misanthropic outbursts.

All of this to say, really, that Striborg is fucking awesome, and epitomizes the monomaniacal need for extremity in black metal’s least accessible enclaves.  A somewhat less raw Ildjarn (minus the punkish influences, too) might be the best touchstone, but Striborg is, to these ears at least, infinitely more listenable.

The most recent release on Sin Nanna’s label Finsternis Productions is a “split” release between Striborg and Sin Nanna’s dark ambient alter ego, Veil Of Darkness.  This brand new release collects Striborg’s 1997 demo Cold Winter Moon and Veil Of Darkness’s 1997 full-length album In the Valley of the Shadow of Death (omitting the brief intro track from the original release) on one compact disc stuffed to the gills with good times for the whole family.

Striborg’s side of the split is more or less what we’ve all come to expect, albeit with a markedly less trebly sound than many of his other recordings.  Demented black metal ravings and overdriven, humid-sounding ambient interludes are the order of the day.  Veil Of Darkness ply a similar pitch of blackness, but drop the metal and amp up the ambient, producing something not too unlike some of the dark ambient experiments of the much-vaunted (and still somewhat ridiculous) French LLN (Les Legions Noires, or the Black Legions) scene (particularly Aäkon Këëtrëh or Amaka Hahina).

The closing track “Pure Black Energy,” however (apart from possibly recalling the two lengthy dark ambient pieces which closed out Ildjarn’s Strength & Anger, which were titled “Black Anger”), breaks from strictly creepy dark ambient strictures and layers feedback and looped drum noise in a way not dissimilar to a less mechanized Merzbow.

So, anyway, it’s pretty great – if you’ve never heard Striborg, I suppose it’s as good a place as any to start (though I might humbly recommend Mysterious Semblance, Trepidation, or Spiritual Catharsis as perfectly excellent starting points as well).  This CD reissue is limited to 500 hand-numbered copies, and while I can’t say they’ll go quite like hotcakes, I suspect there are enough similar-thinking maniacs out there in the world that you may want to snap one up while you can.

All of which brings me to my original point, which was, in fact, simply to be the juxtaposition of these two images:

Dark, spooky, altogether GRIM, right?

Dark, spooky, and altogether GRIM...WOMBATS?

This dark, spooky, and altogether grim split album of black metal and dark ambient musics arrived at my doorstep lovingly packaged in a padded envelope adorned with this charming Australian stamp featuring what I can only assume is meant to be a Momma Wombat and a widdle cutesy Baby Wombat.  Aw shucks, ain’t it so sweet?

The first thing that jumped out at me, of course, was the extremely ironic juxtaposition of this intentionally off-putting and anti-social music with this reminder that the primary reason the rest of the world loves Australia is that, beyond ridding us of some of our most troublesome prisoners, it is home to an abundance of super cuddly creatures.

This experience was more than a little reminiscent of the strange experience of ordering Xasthur’s latest (and, sadly, last) full-length album, Portal Of Sorrow, directly from Malefic (A.K.A. Scott Conner) himself via eBay.  Or, rather, the really jarring thing was, after receiving the album in the mail, finding Malefic’s promptly submitted ‘buyer feedback’, in which it was explained that I “made payment quickly, [and am an] honest and responsible e-bayer.”

If I were some black metal militant or ideologue, I suppose it would be easy to decry this intrusion of the modern world and its trappings of commerce and fuzzy marsupials, but instead, I think it serves as a nice reminder that no matter how much the extreme forms of music we seek out with great and fevered intent try to present themselves as cold, distant, alien (or at least alienating), there is no escaping the common world we share.  Frankly, I’m really glad to live in a world where both the harsh black noise of some secretive Tasmanian introvert can coexist with living, breathing, pouch-borne teddy bears.

In some ways, focusing on that shared world, with all its manifold evils and its frequent sweet succor, means that the extreme music we love and continue to support can continue to represent something extreme.  That is, if the world really was shit through and through (as so many of our paragons of metal insist), this music would cease to be an atavistic and artistic outlet worth pursuing, because it would merely be a pale mirror’s reflection of the dull gray cast of the world and all its miserable tenants.

Bring on the goddamn wombats, I say.

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The first time I encountered Lester Bangs’ writing was in college, when a musicology professor assigned a shit-kicking little essay called “James Taylor Marked for Death,” which, while threatening grave bodily harm to said folk musician, is primarily a paean to the rock and roll atavism of The Troggs (yes, they of “Wild Thing”).  I don’t really have anything intellectually notable to say here, I just wanted to highlight for you the brilliance of this man’s writing, and suggest that you go out and learn yourself just how thoroughly it is possible to experience music.

Here’s a particularly inspired passage from the above-mentioned essay, which is not what I intended originally to quote for you, but, things being what they are… :

“I could listen to Chicago or Santana anytime… I don’t think anybody as crass and commercial as they are could possibly be the Enemy.  My spleen is reserved for Elton John, James Taylor, all the glory boys of I-Rock.  I call it I-Rock, even though I just made up the name, because most of it is so relentlessly, involutedly egocentric that you finally actually stop hating the punk and just want to take the poor bastard out and get him a drink, and then kick his ass, preferably off a high cliff into the nearest ocean.

Matter of fact, if I ever get down to Carolina I’m gonna try to figure out a way to off James Taylor.  Hate to come on like a Nazi, but if I hear one more Jesus-walking-the-boys-and-girls-down-a-Carolina-path-while-the-dilemma-of-existence-crashes-like-a-slab-of-hod-on-J.T.’s-shoulders song, I will drop everything (I got nothin’ to do here in California but drink beer and watch TV anyway) and hop the first Greyhound to Carolina for the signal satisfaction of breaking off a bottle of Ripple (he deserves no better, and I wish I could think of worse, but they’re all local bands) and twisting it into James Taylor’s guts until he expires in a spasm of adenoidal poesy.

EXTRA! TRAGEDY STRIKES ROCK! SUPERSTAR GORED BY DERANGED ROCK CRITIC!! “We made it,” gasped Lester Bangs as he was led by police from the bloody scene.  “We won.”               — Rolling Stone

But fantasies and jokes – none of that is really any good.  If they just don’t seem to be playing your song much right now, well, stop feeling sorry for yourself, scout the terrain and see if we can figure out where to go next.  Because there’s always gonna be something around in the tradition.  But fuck the tradition, I want the Party!” (Bangs 1987, ed. Greil Marcus, pp. 71-72)
——————————

Mighty entertaining stuff, right?  Well anyway, what I really wanted to direct your attention to was the following inspired burst of writing, from a 1971 essay entitled “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: A Tale of These Times.”  Reading this passage really struck a chord with me, and perhaps it might resonate with you as well:

“…nothing more nor less than a record, a rock ‘n’ roll album…could ever pulverize my lobes and turn my floor to wormwood.  I knew, ’cause I had a brief though quite similar spell of disorientation once over the Question Mark and the Mysterians album!  I was at a friend’s house, and I was high on Romilar and he on Colt 45, and I said: ‘Yeah, I bought the Question Mark and the Mysterians album today,’ and suddenly the equilibrium was seeping from my head like water from the ears after a sea plunge, a desultory vortex started swirling round my skull and gradually spun faster though I couldn’t tell if it was a breeze just outside or something right between the flesh and bone.  I saw my life before my eyes, and that is no shit – I mean not that I saw some zipping montage from birth to that queasy instant of existential vertigo, but that I saw myself walking in and out of countless record stores, forking over vast fortunes in an endless chain of cash-register clicks and dings at $3.38 and $3.39 and $3.49 and all the other fixed rates I knew by heart being if never on the track team unquestionably an All-American Competitive Shopper, I saw litter bins piled high with bags that stores all seal records in so you won’t get nabbed for lifting as you trot out the door.  I saw myself on a thousand occasions walking toward my car with a brisk and purposeful step, turning the key in the ignition and varooming off high as a hotrodder in anticipation of the revelations waiting in thirty-five or forty minutes of blasting sound soon as I got home, the eternal promise that this time the guitars will jell like TNT and set off galvanic sizzles in your brain ‘KABLOOIE!!!’ and this time at least at last blow your fucking lid sky-high.  Brains gleaming on the ceiling, sticking like putty stalactites, while yer berserk body runs around and slams outside hollering subhuman gibberish, jigging in erratic circles and careening split-up syllables insistently like a geek with a bad case of the superstar syndrome.

But that’s only the fantasy.   The real vision, the real freaking flash, was just like the reality, only looped to replay without end.  The real story is rushing home to hear the apocalypse erupt, falling through the front door and slashing open the plastic sealing ‘for your protection’, taking the record out – ah, lookit them grooves, all jet black without a smudge yet, shiny and new and so fucking pristine, then the color of the label, does it glow with auras that’ll make subtle comment on the sounds coming out, or is it just a flat utilitarian monchromatic surface, like a schoolhouse wall…?  And finally you get to put the record on the turntable, it spins in limbo a perfect second, followed by the moment of truth, needle into groove, and finally sound.

What then occurs is so often anticlimactic that it drives a rational man to the depths of despair.  Bah!  The whole musical world is packed with simpletons and charlatans, with few a genius or looney tune joker in between…

I realize that this sounds rather pathological – although I never thought so until laying it out here – and this Freudian overtones are child’s play, I guess.  But what I don’t understand is what it all signifies.  Don’t get the idea that my buying of and listening to records per se has always been marked by such frenzy and disorientation, or even any particular degree of obsession and compulsion.  It’s just that music has been a fluctuating fanaticism with me ever since – well, ever since I first heard “The Storm” from the William Tell Overture on a TV cartoon about first grade… and hearing for the first time things like John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and the Stones and feedback and Trout Mask Replica.  All these were milestones, each one fried my brain a little further, especially the experience of the first few listenings to a record so total, so mind-twisting, that you authentically can say you’ll never be quite the same again… They’re events you remember all your life… And the whole purpose of the absurd, mechanically persistent involvement with recorded music is the pursuit of that priceless moment.  So it’s not exactly that records might unhinge the mind, but rather that if anything is going to drive you up the wall it might as well be a record.  Because the best music is strong and guides and cleanses and is life itself” (Bangs 1987, ed. Greil Marcus, pp. 11-13).
———–

Anyway, if you ask me, that’s some pretty white-hot writing, and it’s pretty much exactly the kind of thing I was thinking about recently when I wrote this post.  It seems to me that although Bangs never uses the word ‘nostalgia’, his phrase “the pursuit of that priceless moment” is a way of getting at the same sort of thing.

The anthology of Bangs’ writing from which these quotes are drawn is available here, and surely loads of other places.  Good music writing, I think, can approximate (if not quite surpass) the experience of good music, and music writing rarely gets better than this, so check it out.

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So, I just saw this news item over at Blabbermouth, and my initial reaction was:

“What.  The.  Fuck.”  Followed by a fit of stomping around and blasting “Overactive Imagination.”

A secondary, and slightly more measured reaction, was as follows:

If’n you don’t feel particularly inclined to follow random links, the gist of the post is that a concert is being held this weekend in New York which is billed as a “Chuck Schuldiner Benefit.”  Now, I mean absolutely no disrespect, because Chuck’s legacy in heavy metal is absolutely without question.  Mantas, Death, and Control Denied deserve all the respect and accolades in the world, and Chuck’s status as one of the prime movers of the early American death metal scene has been well-documented.  The thing is, Chuck Schuldiner died of cancer back in 2001.

This was obviously a great tragedy for his family and friends, and I always feel a little iffy suggesting that adding my condolences as only a fan of the man’s music can really amount to anything meaningful, but still.  Whether or not I am qualified to comment on the loss to the metal community represented by Chuck’s passing is somewhat beside the point here.  What I would really like to put out there, actually, is an open letter to the concert organizers:

To Whom It May Concern (A.K.A., Event Planner With An Unfortunate Choice Of Words),

Hello.  Are you well?  Just a few friendly words from your pal here at Spinal Tapdance.  If you are going to plan a concert to honor the memory of a well-respected and massively influential heavy metal musician who has been gone for nearly a decade, STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM THE WORD ‘BENEFIT’.  THIS IS NOT WHAT YOU MEAN, AND THIS IS NOT WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY.

I’m thinking that a better word to have used is probably ‘tribute’.  See, “Chuck Schuldiner Tribute Concert” has a perfectly wonderful ring to it.  You can still have it headlined by the (officially-sanctioned) Death tribute band (see how that works doubly there?), and you can still use it to showcase local talent.  All of these things are good.  All of these things are right.  But if you carry on calling your show a “Chuck Schuldiner Benefit” without further specifying precise what or who stands to benefit from it, I suspect that the very canny and cagey heavy metal community will begin to question your bona fides.

They might even get irritable.

Now, maybe I’ve got this all wrong.  Maybe what you actually meant to specify in your press release is that this is a benefit concert for Chuck Schuldiner in the sense that some of the proceeds will go to his family, or perhaps to a scientific foundation which researches rare brain tumors.  If this is the case, here’s a pro tip: Tell us that.

Otherwise, with all due warmth and affection, might I kindly ask of you to fuck right along with this ‘Benefit’ language?

I remain, as always,
Your friend in heavy metal,

Spinal Tapdance.

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Hello, friends.  I hope that you are well, off in your corner of the internet.  Things are off to a bit of a slow start this Monday morning at Spinal Tapdance HQ, as your humble narrator recovers from last night’s heavy metal ass-kicking courtesy of Dream Theater and Iron Maiden.

Dream Theater’s opening set was relatively short and to-the-point, dealing mostly with the harder-edged, less progressive tracks from their most recent albums (“As I Am,” “A Rite Of Passage,” “Constant Motion,” and “Panic Attack,” with a tasteful rendering of “Home” providing the only real “epic” track), with only “Pull Me Under” closing out the show to great acclaim from the old-school fans.  Jordan Rudess on the keytar battling John Petrucci’s guitar wizardry was manna from heavy metal heaven, and James LaBrie busted out some of his gruffer vocals to suit the no-nonsense material.  Killer stuff from one of the most universally-talented bands in all of music.

Iron Maiden, of course, was IRON FUCKING MAIDEN.  I know there’s been quite a lot of grumbling ’round the internet about the setlist for the current tour (of which Chicago was the second-to-last stop).  Many folks have complained that the set is too focused on Maiden’s post-millennial output, which is absolutely true (only six of sixteen tracks would likely be considered “classic” Maiden), but I for one thought the set was fantastic.  It basically goes without saying at this point, but Bruce Dickinson is perhaps the most energetic frontman in the history of metal, and his theatrics and humor presumably won over even those fans who were less familiar with Maiden’s post-reunion-with-Bruce output.

Here’s what they played (which has two alterations from what was posted on Iron Maiden’s official tour website, but I think this has been the case throughout these U.S. dates):

1. The Wicker Man
2. Ghost of the Navigator
3. Wrathchild
4. El Dorado
5. Dance of Death
6. The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg
7. These Colours Don’t Run
8. Blood Brothers
9. Wildest Dreams
10. No More Lies
11. Brave New World
12. Fear of the Dark
13. Iron Maiden

Encore:

14. The Number of the Beast
15. Hallowed Be Thy Name
16. Running Free

Obviously, it was the classic tunes that elicited the most drunkenly exuberant response, but several of these newer tracks came off really well live.  “No More Lies” was especially improved; I actually really dig the song on Dance of Death, but it’s a bit too long (like many of the songs on that record) and labored.  Blast that tune in the sweltering summer heat to thousands upon thousands of metalheads, and it’s one hell of a shout-a-long.

I know there’s been a fair bit of griping, too, about the first single to be released from Maiden’s upcoming album (The Final Frontier), “El Dorado,” and yeah, I get it.  It’s a little weak for a single, and Bruce’s vocals sound a bit strained (we can only hope that it’s an issue of mixing, especially since his vocals were in stellar form last night).  Thankfully, though, in a live setting, the band sped it up significantly, meaning that the choruses came and went quickly without grating (as they do in the recorded version).  I still can’t quite jive with “Benjamin Breeg,” but basically everything else went down a real storm.

All in all, a magnificently entertaining performance by a completely unfuckwithable, world-class band.

Also contributing to the need for recovery was my (admittedly odd) decision to blast Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz at extreme volume while driving home from the concert.  Anyone out there who’s been losing their shit lately to the double-drumming acrobatics of the metallic likes of Kylesa and Melvins (w/Big Business) really ought to check this out right quick.  Coleman’s take on free jazz isn’t as mesmerizingly dense as Coltrane’s Ascension, but the greater sense of space allows the lightning-sharp communication between the two groups (Coleman is billed here as leading a ‘double quartet’, with one group mixed in each speaker) to come through like the inerrant voice of God striking down the wayward and the unrighteous.

I’m off to continue nursing myself back to health after nearly overdosing on pure rock fury.  Have a pleasant day, and hey, why not play some Iron Maiden while you’re at it?

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Hey, why not have 26 more or less random recommendations?  With many of these, I may try to highlight slightly lower-profile acts that I think are deserving of more attention.  With some of them, I’m just stricken down by the almighty power of the fucking riff thunder, and thus find myself unable to do anything but recommend them whilst my arms flail frantically in uncontrollable air-drumming.

1. Across Tundras, Dark Songs of the Prairie.  This album is bleak, desolate, and totally awesome.  If you’re looking for a companion piece to Earth’s Hex album, or especially to The Gault’s sole (and magnificent) album Even As All Before Us, look no further.  A perfectly evocative title, some pleasingly tough-to-classify jangly-type doom, or maybe post-metal-ish drone?  Hard to say, but the vocals are slightly off in that way which suits the music just right.

2. Black Witchery, Upheaval of Satanic Might.  I’m not in the mood for this very often, but when I am, blasting Black Witchery is the fix for just about any funk.  Completely trashy, crypt-sodden black/death metal which sounds like it wasn’t produced so much as heard over a rusted-out radio through a neighboring building, recorded to a dubbed-over tape, which was then pissed on and set ablaze.  Filthy metal for bastards.

3. Control Human Delete, Terminal World Perspective.  A black metal and industrial/electro hybrid which, instead of aiming for the grimier, urban blight soundtracks of The Axis of Perdition or Blacklodge, paints a slick modern sheen with its grand gestures at futuristic rage and decay.  More Blade Runner than Rust Belt, let’s say.

4. Doomriders, Darkness Come Alive.  One of last year’s absolute best face-melters.  I’m not so much interested in quibbling over whether this is more hardcore or metal, punk or classic heavy posturing.  This is Converge goes Motorhead.  This is song after song of relentless metallic glory, and your ears are begging for it.

5. Ewigkeit, Conspiritus.  This project from James Fogarty, ex-of Meads Of Asphodel, is actually fairly poppy, but features some really tasteful electronic and experimental heavy/vaguely-black metal.  A bit like a more contemplative Control Human Delete, in terms of this here list, but with more space to catch one’s breath.  Maybe think of a more heavy metal latter-day Frontline Assembly, plus a bit of Devin Townsend.

6. Frost, Cursed Again.  Complete and utter (DMDS-era) Mayhem worship from Mick Kenney (he of Anaal Nathrakh, Mistress, etc., etc.), which even features Attila on vocals here and there.  Whereas Anaal Nathrakh took the basic blueprint of Mayhem’s foundational black metal blasting and amped up the filth by adding a layer of industrial atmosphere and grinding intensity, Frost put that filth back where it started, with some seriously no-frills blasting and doomy stomping.

7. God Dethroned, Passiondale.  This band didn’t get nearly enough love for this World War I-themed album of supremely classy and melodic death/black metal.  The title track, in particular, is apt to get stuck in one’s head for days upon days of musical trench warfare (eh?).

8. Havoc Unit, h.IV+ (Hoarse Industrial Viremia).  This band is the successor to …And Oceans, but where that band’s slicker electro-leanings (particularly on Cypher, which had that mid/late-90s cyber-goth feeling about it) proved occasionally wearing, Havoc Unit are full-on harsh and experimentally noisy black metal.  Rabid density is the order of the day here.  Somewhat akin to a metallic version of Venetian Snares’ harsher albums.

9. In The Woods…, HEart of the Ages.  Okay, so I was going to pick Iperyt’s Totalitarian Love Pulse for my ‘I’ recommendation, but figured I was already leaning a little too much on the avant-garde industrial/black hybrid.  Chances are it’s been too long since you played this album.  Compared to their later works Omnio and Strange in Stereo, HEart of the Ages occasionally comes off as clumsy and over-ambitious, but this actually increases its charm for me.  These folks were at the very forefront of the black metal avant-garde: this album was out in 1995, the same year as Ved Buens Ende’s Written In Waters and Fleurety’s Min Tid Skal Komme.  Not a fucking bad year, right?

10. Jarboe & Justin Broadrick, J2.  So, this collaboration doesn’t come off quite as successfully as Jarboe’s collaborative album with Neurosis, but she, ex- of Swans, and he, ex- of Godflesh and current of Jesu, Greymachine, Final, and God knows what else, work quite well together.  If you’re expecting this album to sound like any of JKB’s heavier projects plus Jarboe’s unearthly vocals, you may be a bit disappointed.  To their credit, I think, this album sounds like an out-and-out collaboration, rather than Jesu + a different singer.  Well, maybe except “8mmsweetbitter.”

11. Kvist, For Kunsten Maa Vi Evig Vike.  I just can’t plug this album enough.  It’s got that perfectly compressed production feel, where the drums just rip along effortlessly.  Folks here went on to form Urgehal, so there’s clearly a great legacy, but for me, this is where it’s at.

12. Lysergene, Critical Mass.  Okay, so this one’s not really metal.  This is a side project from one of the guys in British extreme/funeral doom stalwarts Esoteric.  This is a collection of lengthy, thick pieces of various kinds of electronic experimentalism, from dark ambient to drum and bass and industrial soundscapes; it actually makes a pretty decent companion to some of Esoteric’s work (particularly their earlier pieces of soul-corroding bleakness, Epistemological Despondency and The Pernicious Enigma).

13. Menace Ruine, The Die Is Cast.  Second album from these weirdos.  The first record was a lot more industrial and harsh noise.  This one trades in a bit of that, but throws in vocals that recall none other than Nico, were she to be wrapped in power lines and thrown into a bottomless pit, left to cast her songs up out of the vanishing darkness.  They’ve got a new album out, too, which I’m hoping will eventually drop to a more reasonable import price.

14. Nasheim, Evighet/Undergång.  Compilation of the demos from this Swedish black metal band.  Nothing groundbreaking here, but these are artfully crafted pagan black metal anthems for connoisseurs.  Plus, this release tacks on a faithful cover of Bathory’s “Blood Fire Death.”

15. Orange Goblin, Healing Through Fire.  A previous rant on stoner metal notwithstanding, this album absolutely RIPS.  Messing with these guys would be like just plain asking for a broken bottle kiss on your ribcage.

16. Pyramids, Pyramids.  See my review of Pyramids’ collaboration with Nadja for a sense of what they might sound like.  But then, throw out any thoughts of what you think they might sound like, and just listen to ‘em, because I guarantee they don’t sound quite like anything else you’ve heard.  Truly mesmerizing stuff.

17. Primordial, The Gathering Wilderness.  Yeah, I know – fuck you.  I don’t own any metal that starts with ‘Q’.  Sure, I could have plugged a recommendation for Queensryche, or even Queen’s Night at the Opera, or maybe even post-Kyuss groovesters Queens of the Stone Age, but instead, I’ll use this poor under-utilized letter’s slot to plug Primordial’s best album.  Hands down.  This album is damn near perfect.  If you haven’t heard it, well, I’m not going to be overdramatic and suggest that your life has no meaning, or that we’ll have to revoke your metalhead credentials or anything, but please: Go listen to it.

18. Reverend Bizarre, In the Rectory of the Bizarre Reverend.  Long, slow, drawn-out classic doooooooom from Finland.  I waited way too long to check these guys out because I thought their music would be boring.  Turns out my brain just wasn’t ready to be dragged down to experience the world on the Reverend’s terms.  But I am ready now.

19. Stormlord, Mare Nostrum.  Truly epic blackened power metal from Italy.  I can’t believe you aren’t listening to this right now, as you read these words.  This shit is so tasty.

20. Thralldom, A Shaman Steering the Vessel of Vastness.  Final album from Thralldom, one of Ryan Lipynsky’s many filth-encrusted metal ventures outside of Unearthly Trance.  It’s frankly astonishing, the number of moods and textures that are presented in each of Thralldom’s uniformly brief albums.  Less driving and Celtic Frost-y than Unearthly Trance’s last two albums, but never quite losing the plot in a thicket of ambient sound effect fuckery.

21. Unholy, The Second Ring of Power.  More slow, slow doom from Finland, but this from the mid-90s, and sounding altogether possessed by evil static demons.  You can call this doom/death if you like, M-A.com, but there’s way too much avant-garde weirdness going on (especially for 1994!) for such a conventional label.

22. Void, Posthuman.  Another black/industrial act, this time featuring Czral and Kvhost from Dødheimsgard, whose 666 International is not a bad point of reference, though that album is slicker and more futuristic.  Void’s sole album (to this point; let’s work on that, please, chaps) is altogether colder and meaner, sounding very much like a grey autumn’s walk through London’s seediest alleyways and deserted Underground stations.

23. Worms of Sabnock, Dark Harmonies.  Another Meads Of Asphodel-affiliated project (should be enough of an endorsement there); this one plays a bit more straight-ahead, highly tremelo-ed second wave(-ish) black metal, but sits quite nicely alongside some of the earlier Ludicra records, especially in the percussion department.  Quite tasty stuff.

24. Xasthur, Telepathic with the Deceased.  Right, not particularly ‘underground’ here (which, when you think about it, is really odd, given how antisocial and offputting Malefic’s music should be to most people), but I didn’t really feel like dragging Xibalba into things.  This album gets some bad press, I think, but it remains one of my favorites of the (now defunct) Xasthur project of one-man fuzz-drenched melodic black metal carpet-bombing.  The interlocking guitar and keyboard melodies have rarely sounded so twisted and sickly as on this one.

25. Yakuza, Of Seismic Consequence.  Truth be told, I’m still undecided about this record.  Plus, I know everyone and his grandmother is recommending this.  Anyway, I’m a little light on “Y”s, so it was either this or the released-without-a-splash album by YcosaHateRon, a dark ambient/industrial/noise project featuring, oh, who can I remember, Killjoy from Necrophagia, Attila from Mayhem, and some dude from Aborym.  Problem is, I recently decided that I hate that record, so despite the fact that I can hardly tolerate the vocals on the new Yakuza album, I’ll throw it up there.

26. Zozobra, Bird of Prey.  This album is heavier than you.  It is also criminally overlooked sludge/hardcore/doom with that classic Hydra Head touch.

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I know we’ve all got a few of those bands kicking around in the back of our heads; you know, the bands that you absolutely love, just can’t get enough of, and you want the rest of the world to sit and glory in their music.

Allow me, then, to offer you heartiest recommendation of the Finnish band Tenhi.

As far as I’ve seen them discussed, these guys usually get grouped under the genre heading of neofolk*, which is, apart from its sometimes dubiously nationalist leanings, a completely atrocious and vague set of musical, lyrical, and even visual signifiers.  Which is to say, I don’t put too much stock in the name ‘neofolk’, but that shouldn’t prevent you from running out just as quickly as you can and buying up as much music by Tenhi as humanly possible.

The band plays a rich, deep, gorgeously melancholic sort of folk-inspired music that seems to hew perfectly to my own imaginings of the landscape of Finland.  Acoustic guitars, piano, cellos, wonderfully deep male choral vocals and surprisingly muscular (but not aggressive) drums are the key ingredients to Tenhi’s sound, but there is an odd bit of alchemy going on in the songwriting that seems to result in an entrancing sort of melodic and rhythmic magic.

The entire reason I bring this up, really, is to share with you all how excited I am for these dudes to put out their new album, entitled Saivo.  Their last studio album, Maaäet, from 2006, was probably their best yet, and although they have continually tantalized me since then, with the reissue of the much more piano-based Airut: Aamujen and the phenomenal three-disc collector’s piece Folk Aesthetic 1996-2006, I’m more than a little eager to hear new material.

A recent update on their website suggests that the new album will be completed sometime late summer or early fall, but doesn’t yet give much information as to a release date.  Take it as your assignment, in the meantime, to familiarize yourself with the wonder of this brilliant folk music.  For metalheads not quite sure if they’d like to take the plunge, Tenhi will sit quite nicely alongside Ulver’s Kveldssanger, Dornenreich, Agalloch, Empyrium, Wyrd, or any other dark/folk metal act you care to bring to mind.

If you need further convincing, here are a few videos to watch (the first an official Tenhi production, the second a YouTube user’s creation, featuring pitch-perfect photography):

So, what in the hell are you waiting for?

*For the curious, you could do much worse than checking out this astonishingly good (and wide-ranging) compilation, Looking For Europe, released a few years back on Prophecy Productions, who also handle Tenhi’s releases.  Coincidence?

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