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Posts Tagged ‘Godspeed You! Black Emperor’

There are few things more satisfying than a truly excellent split album.  The options are fairly wide open, of course: One can find two bands that play very similar styles, and hope that a friendly spirit of competition will urge each of them to produce exceptionally good songs; one can find two bands whose styles don’t necessarily seem perfectly matched, yet when presented as a complement to the other featured act, make some curious sense together; or, of course, one can find two completely unrelated and bizarre bands to pair, and just revel in the strangeness.  All of these strategies can be used quite effectively.

Here are some of the successful splits I’ve got around the house that first came to mind:

Fen & De Arma


Cough & The Wounded Kings


Horna & Musta Surma


Horna & Behexen (the Finns must be quite good as this, because this is another phenomenal black metal split)

Most of these splits fall into that first category, I suppose, although the Cough & Wounded Kings split seems more like the second category.  Nevertheless, all of these are incredibly delicious splits.  Still, the entire reason I got to thinking about these split albums in the first place was because of a truly world-devouring split that didn’t happen.

Blut Aus Nord – Thematic Emanations Of Archetypal Multiplicity


The Axis Of Perdition – Physical Illucinations From The Sewer Of Xuchilbara (The Red God)


You see, these two EPs were originally intended to be released as a split album, and the more I listen to both of them, the more I am completely devastated that they were not released as such.  Now, I own both of these mini-albums on CD, so of course I can (and do) just play them back-to-back.  But that’s not really the point.  If these two monstrous recordings had been issued on the same disc (or as a split vinyl!!!!), I have little hesitation in saying that they would qualify for the title of BEST SPLIT ALBUM EVER.  Blut Aus Nord dipped into a completely new style of groaning industrial beauty on Thematic Emanations, closer in spirit to Ulver’s Perdition City than anything else in the French mystiques’ catalog (well, perhaps until this year’s mind-blowing 777 – Sect(s), but that’s another story…), while the Axis Of Perdition took the overblown insanity of their debut to new atmospheric and compositional heights.  The bands sound nothing alike, but it’s entirely natural to hear them plying these disturbed sounds in the other’s presence.

So, here’s my question to all of you brave readers out there: What are the most amazing split releases that weren’t?  I’m not actually thinking just of splits that were supposed to happen but didn’t.  I mean, use your imagination.  Think of some of your favorite EPs, and then think whether they could be even better in the context of a split.  Here are a few of my just thought-up dream splits:

Ulver – Vargnatt (demo) & Agalloch – Of Stone, Wind & Pillor (EP):



Gorgeous folk/black metal stirrings from both originators and inspired progeny.  Bonus points if we could convince Ulver circa Shadows Of The Sun to record their own version of Agalloch’s cover of Sol Invictus’s “Kneel to the Cross.”

Destruction – Sentence Of Death (EP) & Sodom – Obsessed By Cruelty (EP)



Two of the rawest, thrashiest, proto-black-iest sets of 20-ish minute madness from Germany in 1984.  Imagine these two slabs of influential metal history as one 38 minute album.  Then, imagine your brain slowly dribbling out your ears, and stupidly gleeful drool rolling down your chin.

Neurosis – Sovereign (EP) & Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada (EP)



This one’s a bit more of a stretch, but the corresponding influence of Neurosis on metal and Godspeed on indie and post-rock are similar enough, and the cinematic scope of both bands’ approach to texture and composition dramatic enough that I think fans of either band would find much to enjoy in the other’s output were these two excellent EPs to be smashed into one dreamy eruption of time-stretching bliss.

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Feel free to test out some of these split ideas on your own and let me know how they hold up.  In the meantime, what are your perfect splits that the cruel ravages of history and commerce have forever denied the world?

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Hot off the heels of last week’s inaugural entry into Spinal Tapdance’s ‘Listening Arc’ series, I was challenged to a new listening arc by all-around awesome dude Josh Haun of That’s How Kids Die.  The challenge: Get from Johnny Cash’s ass-walloping live album At San Quentin to Darkthrone’s third album, the ultra-grim Under A Funeral Moon.  As you’ll see in the comments section of that first arc, I was pretty confident I could make easy work of the challenge by way of Metallica’s St. Anger, owing to the fact that the video for the title track was filmed (unless I’m much mistaken) at the very same San Quentin Prison.

Two problems presented themselves, however: First, it made for a pretty easy out, generally bypassing the contortions necessary to get from outlaw country to black metal; and second, it would have required me to suggest that all you fine readers spend some 70-odd minutes of your life listening to St. Anger, and that shit just ain’t happening.  Thus, I present to you Spinal Tapdance’s Listening Arc #2: From Cash To Culto (in five moves) which completely disregards and papers over the Metallica Singularity.
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1. Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (1969)


The Man in Black has rarely been as imposing as on this rollicking live document from San Quentin Prison.  I constantly go back and forth as to whether I prefer this or the previous year’s At Folsom Prison, but basically, you can’t go wrong with either one.  Cash covers a wide range of styles on this album (for the record, the disc I’ve got is the so-called “Complete Live At San Quentin,” which cobbles together all 18 tracks, rather than the original 10 of the LP release), from crime and punishment barnburners to country-ish standards to straight-faced spirituals.  What I’m really going to pick up on here, however, to allow me to move forward with the listening arc, is the fact that the prison space itself becomes a crucial element in listening to this album.  That is to say, this is a fantastic album on most all counts – Cash is in fine form, tearing through his ‘hits’ at breakneck speed and letting loose deranged wolf howls when appropriate, his wife June Carter has a pitch-perfect sloppy Appalachian croon, and his backing band is on fire.

But what really makes this record stand out is the atmosphere.  Obviously, Cash revels in playing to the audience of inmates – he provokes a wild chorus of boos anytime he mentions the guards or the warden, and he even penned a tune called “San Quentin,” which he runs through twice to rapturous reception (“San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell / May your walls fall, and may I live to tell,” etc.).  Listening closely to this album, then, reveals that the space itself is an instrument, and I’m not just talking about the typical aural component of a live album.  This is a live album played to prisoners, and you can literally feel the electricity running through the audience as Cash tears through these outlaw tunes.  The concert was also filmed and broadcast for television, and while I’ve never seen the visuals, I almost don’t need to.  The audience noise swells and falls, and at times, you can tell there’s some commotion going on out in the audience that’s essentially unconnected to what’s going on onstage.  It makes for a crackling, dangerous sound, but more than that, it communicates a sense of the prison as a lived space and a living space, which is precisely how we transition into the rest of the listening arc.

2. Set Fire To Flames, Sings Reign Rebuilder (2001)


Musically, this debut album from this collective composed of members of the Canadian post-rock elite (Godspeed You Black Emperor, A Silver Mt Zion, Hanged Up, etc., etc.) shares very little ground with Johnny Cash.  This is a generally sparse, experimental album, featuring found sound snippets, ambient space, and flashes of chamber-esque classicism.  Here’s the connection, though: This album was recorded in a dilapidated house, and you can literally hear the house itself contributing to the sounds of the album.  Floors creak, strings echo, snatches of conversation are caught through hallways and around corners, police sirens pass in the street.  This house becomes as much another musical instrument as the brushed drum kit or the keening violin.  This is desolate, desperate music for slow urban collapse, with only the faintest shred of hope blossoming.

3. The Gault, Even As All Before Us (2005)


Heartbreakingly, this is the only album The Gault ever produced, and it is probably one of the most criminally underrated albums in all of metal.   I’ve never heard anything that sounds quite like it, and the atmosphere of unpretentious sorrow it evokes is absolutely unparalleled.  So, not a cheerful album, this.  I suppose it’s somewhat generally in the style of drone-soaked doom, but the wailing vocals are entirely their own beast, and the slow trudging pace and increasingly epic scope of the songs throughout the album bespeak a sepia-hued Americana that may just as well be the fog-drenched London of late 19th century industrial blight.  This album takes the last few shreds of hope from Set Fire To Flames and, well, burns them on the pyre of its unrelenting realism.

4. Weakling, Dead As Dreams (2000)


The Gault was a project that eventually grew out of the demise of a previous San Francisco band, Weaking, who also – tragically – only ever produced one album.  But what an album it is. Dead As Dreams is a true landmark recording in American black metal, taking the speed and grim intensity of all them damn Scandinavians at face value, but shooting it through with a touch of avant-garde melodicism and structural experimentalism.  Or, let’s put it a different way, shall we?  Wolves In The Throne Room would straight-up NOT EXIST if it weren’t for this album.  And again, unlike the forest-dancing escapism of their Northern European ‘peers’, this album has a much grittier feel, a grounding in the real lived experience of a major American metropolis.  This album defines epic black metal in a way that most folk-besotted frotteurs can only grasp in their wettest of wet dreams, and it really signified that American black metal need not bow to the aesthetic conventions of the genre’s originators.

5. Demoncy, Joined In Darkness (1999)


As we’re just about wrapping up this listening arc, we’re going to keep it in the American family.  Demoncy are a decidedly less experimental outfit than Weakling, but Joined In Darkness is nevertheless another landmark recording in the annals of American black metal.  It’s regressive and atavistic in all those primally satisfying ways, and the thing blasts ahead like a great hulking beast dragging the bones of devoured animals down into the deepest recesses of a lightless cavern.  This is reverb used not to intensify and kick around the shrill howls of a vocalist, but rather to sound a great black lake.  While not quite as primitive as true American black metal instigators like Von or Havohej, Demoncy is, to these ears, infinitely more satisfying.  And, beyond the sound of a phantom bulldozer plowing through a field of ghostly birch trees, the reason this stacks up as the perfect transition into Darkthrone is due to a nice sequencing coincidence: the penultimate track on this Demoncy album, “The Dawn of Eternal Damnation,” follows the same basic model of the final track on Darkthrone’s Under A Funeral Moon, “Crossing the Triangle of Flames”: it starts out brisk and blasting, twists its way around some gnarled-root riffs, and then settles into a stubborn, plodding death march to close out the album in a true dark dirge.

6. Darkthrone, Under A Funeral Moon (1993)


From the brittle, vampiric opening shot of “Natassja In Eternal Sleep,” to the aforementioned infinite-march-toward-a-corroded-horizon of “Crossing the Triangle of Flames,” Under A Funeral Moon is a bona fide classic.  The fact that is maybe my least favorite of Darkthrone’s absolutely untouchable black metal quadrilogy (A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Panzerfaust) says less about the weakness of this album (of which there is none) than about the strength of those albums that surround it.  Nevertheless, this is probably Darkthrone at their most white-knuckled, wide-eyed straight-ahead black metal dogmatism.  Sure, Transilvanian Hunger is arguably more ‘straight-ahead’ in certain ways, but it accomplished that feeling through a far more peculiar, almost avant-garde sense of repetition and minimalist melody than Under A Funeral Moon is a better analogue for such early black metal classics as Bathory’s Under (coincidence?) The Sign Of The Black Mark.  The closing sludge of this album, featuring a tolling bell crumbling and collapsing in quarter-time, should draw your mind back to the closing of Demoncy’s album, and back through other American landmarks, with a quick detour up to the Frozen North, and then back down, screaming through aeons of memory and tradition, to the true American outlaw, the true Black of the sorely-missed Johnny Cash.
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Okay, friends.  The first Reader Challenge has been answered, but it’s up to you to let me know if it’s been answered successfully.  Did I lose the plot at any point throughout this Arc?  Feel like calling me on any bullshit choices?  Pipe up, then; it’s hard to hear you over all this racket.  Thanks to Josh for a very worthy Listening Arc challenge.

So, then, you – yeah, you out there, with the soft voice and big thoughts and eager fingers: What’s next?  What’s your Listening Arc challenge?  Bring it on, the lot of you.

Cheers,
DHOK

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Nostalgia is a funny thing.

Whether we understand it as a fetishization of the past, or a wistful historicization of one’s own present, there is no denying the ability of our brains to gather up disparate circumstances and stray thoughts into these gauzy-edged bundles of nostalgia.  I think this might be part of the reason why one of our reactions to nostalgia is always some form of embarrassment; nostalgia represents one of those many mental states which escape the realm of our mastery.

Nostalgia, in some ungraspable way, targets us at precisely those points of our character which our pride and self-consciousness have worked so assiduously to protect.  You might even say that nostalgia is the anti-irony, or at least that which destroys irony’s pretense to humorous detachment.

Thus, I don’t expect that one need be a devoted Proustian to recognize the ability of the smallest thing to send one off in transports of fond or fell recollection, and that this ability is both an asset and a ridiculous nuisance.  An asset, because it mythologizes our own lives and grants them a heightened significance through tactile memory; a nuisance, then, because of the way it taunts and reminds us of those good and glorious days, never again to return.

Anyway, the point of all of this maudlin rambling is really just to segue into something that I’ve been feeling somewhat nostalgic for recently; namely, the absolutely blind acquisition of new music.

It used to be – “back in the good old days,” of course – when I was starting to explore more types of music (my early teenage years being largely devoted to ), that every now and then I would be browsing through a record store (early on, more likely to be a Best Buy than anything more street-cred-worthy, but hey, I grew up in the suburbs, so cut me some slack) and would come across something completely random and unknown to me, and just buy it anyway.

Now, in all likelihood, I’m sure I had some sort of unformed estimated-guess-work cranking itself out in the back of my mind, but still, these were, for all intents and purpose, bands whose names were totally foreign to me, and whose music I had never encountered.  You can sort of picture me, then, as an awkward, teenaged version of the compulsive, inveterate gambler, clutching a palmful of sweaty tickets at the horse track, always more and more sure that the next one was the one, this next one will be the last one, the big one, the promised one.

Which is to say, I imagine that in some small way I became addicted to the thrill of discovering new and wonderful music, no matter the attendant risk of shelling out hard(-ish)-earned money on some total fucking bullshit (Papa Roach, I still haven’t forgiven you for coaxing me into buying that first record of yours…).

Here’s a brief list, then, of some of the more notable albums that I can remember purchasing with absolutely no prior knowledge of what fresh hell or new bliss was in store:

– Cradle of Filth, Bitter Suites to Succubi.  I know, I know; for most of the metal community out there, this is hardly something to crow about.  I can absolutely fucking guarantee, though, that every metalhead out there has a gateway band which, no matter how embarrassing your complete love affair over them may seem in retrospect, was still the band responsible for opening new vistas of musical possibility.  Cradle of Filth was that band for me* – they were the first extreme metal band I saw live, and this was on a tour where Nile opened for them (Black Seeds of Vengeance had just come out), which fostered a huge interest in death metal.

*Well, after Metallica, I guess, which played a similar role much earlier on, but I suspect Metallica played such a half-initiatory role for many kids, inasmuch as they received widespread radio play.  Metallica wasn’t quite the band to tip me into extreme metal, though, which probably has a lot to do with timing; by which I mean, basically, that getting into Metallica circa 1996 or so (as it was with me) is a hell of a lot different than getting into Metallica circa 1982.

– Anathema, Judgement.  I picked this one up, actually, at the same time as the Cradle of Filth record, which had just come out in Europe, where I was traveling at the time.  I’m pretty sure this was at some major chain-type place (HMV, maybe, but this was quite some time ago), and, though the fog of adolescent memory is not to be trusted, I’m fairly sure there was a whole Peaceville highlighting display endcap there, with all that great early 90s death/doom stuff, plus the At The Gates reissues that Peaceville was doing at the time.

– Godspeed You Black Emperor, Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.  Holy shit, was this one of those finds which just blew me the fuck away.  I’m pretty sure they just hooked me with the relatively simple cover art.

– Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part.  So, sure, it’s probably like the most emo-est of all the emo Nick Cave albums, but it completely rules, and I can’t believe I hadn’t listened to any Nick Cave before buying this record.

– Jimmy Eat World, Clarity.  Fuck you, this album rules.

– Dream Theater, Scenes from a Memory.  Can you say “game changer”?  I should probably confess that when I was considering buying this album (from my local Best Buy, I definitely remember), I had a pretty good hunch that this was a metal band.  At that point, though, I wasn’t quite canny enough to think of things like checking to see what record label had released an album (though since DT was on a major, I guess it wouldn’t have done much in this case).

– Opeth, Blackwater Park.  Again, based on the artwork, I had a slight inkling (but certainly a desperate hope) that this might be heavy metal, but really had no idea the total and utter ass-kicking that awaited.

– The Dresden Dolls, The Dresden Dolls.  At this point, I was getting a little more sophisticated, because I remember hearing that The Dresden Dolls were going on tour opening for Nine Inch Nails, and that their album was out on Roadrunner, which I knew, by that point, was a metal label.  Someone dogmatically looking for metal, however, would have obviously found him- or herself sorely disappoint with this punk cabaret act (who totally kick your ass and mine, and pretty much established all the right bona fides by covering Black Sabbath – “War Pigs” – and Fugazi – “Blueprint” – when I saw them live a few years back).

– Rosetta, The Galilean Satellites.  This is probably the most recent (and maybe one of the only in recent years) example of making a more or less blind purchase of an album.  The fact that this was pretty much a blind acquisition is corroborated by the fact that I didn’t discover until months later that these two discs were actually meant to be played simultaneously, rather than as one album of jammin’ post-whatever-metal and one album of static, weird ambient bits, and space noises.  I still kinda like it that way, though.

So, yeah, I’m guilty of being totally nostalgic and self-indulgent about this.  Finding these remarkable new (to me) artists was a fantastic thrill, which felt all the more personal and triumphant because there wasn’t really anyone to share the credit.  It was just me, stomping around a few places in the Twin Cities (that’s Minnesota, folks) with my palpitating heart and my pockets full of as much disposable income as I could come by, and then racing home, and breathlessly ripping through the packaging and putting it on the stereo and, I’m sure, muttering futile and fevered incantations that my time and money would not have been wasted.

The whole point is, this doesn’t happen any longer.  I’m sure there are a whole mess of factors influencing this.  I’m older, so I’ve just been listening to and reading about music for a lot longer by now.  I’ve basically taught myself a ton of the history of various genres, so I can understand how you get from Blue Cheer to Black Sabbath to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to Metallica and Megadeth to Morbid Angel to Emperor to Anaal Nathrakh, and on and on.  Apart from brand new bands, it’s pretty unlikely that I come across an act that I know absolutely nothing about, or at least can’t make a few educated guesses based on what country they’re from, what label they’re on, what their songs are called, and whatever else.

This points, obviously, to another major difference: the ubiquity of great reference sources on the internet.  I’m obviously not old enough to bullshit you with some story about “the time before the internet,” but I was going through this phase of adolescent music exploration in the mid-1990s, when painfully slow dial-up connections and, y’know, like GeoCities and shit were the currency of the day.  I probably could have found more information than I had at my disposal if I had really tried, but I just didn’t have the sheer breadth of information at my fingertips that I do today.

A corollary to that, then, is that the music industry itself is so massively saturated these days.  This is an old and tired refrain, I know, but what it essentially means is that, precisely because there is such a massive amount of information available, I am exceedingly unlikely to take a risk on buying up something about which I have literally heard nothing.

This doesn’t even begin to touch on the prevalence of music downloading, which I don’t really want to get into; suffice it say, though, that when I started buying music on my own, you didn’t really have the ability (or, at least, I didn’t have the technological sophistication) to download an album wholesale to see if you might like it.  It seems likely that no one accustomed to the instant gratification world of downloading can ever really have that same thrill, that moment of anticipation where you wait for the music to peal out of your speakers, tolling out the worthiness of your instincts.

I’m sure there are a number of other factors contributing to this nostalgia, but the bottom line is, I’m pretty bummed out that I will probably never feel that same way about going out to purchase new music.  I suppose I could try to artificially recreate some of those earlier circumstances, but that, I fear, is the great lure of nostalgia, and the only reward for which can be nostalgia’s poisonous doppelganger, disappointment.

I’m embarrassed now, not just by the sheer joy I remember experiencing, but also by how much I miss that feeling; and also, moreover, by the pure, unadulterated consumerism into which I wholeheartedly threw my adolescent self, and am now eulogizing like some herald of a great extinction.

I guess if there’s anything useful to be gained from dwelling on nostalgia, it’s that no matter how mortifyingly embarrassing your current self may find aspects of your former self, there’s no getting to the one without going through the other.

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Altar Of Plagues, Tides (2010)

What are the Irish always so fucked off about, I wonder?

Following fairly hotly on the heels of last year’s excellent debut album White Tomb comes this hefty (36 minutes) EP from the Irish black metal band Altar Of Plagues.  Another of the almost uniformly-excellent bands on Profound Lore’s current roster, Altar Of Plagues wields a meditative, dense fusion of elemental black metal and the drawn-out song structures of insert-your-favorite-variety-of-“post-“-influenced-metal-here.  This EP, which I seem to recall reading was written on the road (the band thanks the Roadburn Festival in the liner notes), is a nice little teaser for future efforts, and thus is not quite up to the high standard set by White Tomb, but doesn’t quite seem as though it was intended to be.  To put it another way, I think that this band’s style is generally better-suited to the album-length statement, but these two tracks certainly show no precipitous drop in quality.

Of the two lengthy songs on offer here, I think opener “Atlantic Light” comes off slightly better, in large part due to its meatier feel.  (Somewhat ironic, innit, that the track “Atlantic Light” comes off as all-around heavier than the slightly more spacious “The Weight Of All”?)  The track kicks off with a nearly depressive black metal-styled plod, which eventually locks into that stretched-out, black metal/post-rock groove the band lived in so comfortably on previous releases.  The comparison is probably a bit played-out by now, but these guys probably sound closer than anyone else to the pissed-off progeny of Wolves In The Throne Room and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  “Atlantic Light” is also notable in the vocal department for throwing in some sludgey/noisecore-styled bellowing, which very nicely complements the more traditional post-BM rasping.  These touches, though slight, might even give the band a bit of crossover appeal to fans of the somewhat spacier cast of the sludge/doom/hardcore/post-fucking-whatever spectrum (particularly Minsk, Rosetta, or Mouth of the Architect).

“The Weight Of All” touches on a somewhat wider palette of the band’s sonic and textural repertoire, perhaps unsurprisingly given its nearly 20-minute running time.  Some of the nicest songwriting touches crop up towards the end, where the band goes from washes of ambient/noise drones, into a carefully-paced section of blasting, and then finally into a great momentum-gathering final push of double bass-led gravity.  This is a band which really takes its time developing its ideas, which may require a bit of patience from the listener, but offers a fine contrast to the current glut of tech/death blast-athons.  While we’re on the subject of blasting, the sections of blast-beating are generally few and far-between on this release, but when they crop up, especially in the penultimate  movement of “The Weight Of All,” they have a pleasantly organic, loose, and almost shambolic quality, perhaps attributable to the exceptionally rattle-y snare drum.  Where this slightly off-kilter blasting might sound sloppy if attached to your more garden-variety Satan-and-frostbitten-nipples black metal, I find it carries the the suspended, droning melody of these songs rather nicely.

The production on this EP is quite a bit muddier than on White Tomb, but for some reason it really works well with the songwriting.  The crisp, clear production of the full-length worked well for the band’s sound as well, so I don’t know if the slightly dirtier tone here works only because of the few touches of sludge vocals thrown in, or maybe just because this whole release has the feel of a really promising young band out on the road, impatient to get some new ideas thrown down to tape before the moment passes; regardless, this sounds much more live, and really puts the listener in direct conversation with the mournful hue of these patient, well-crafted songs.  All in all, though I’d much rather hear another full-length from this Irish band, these two songs whet the appetite nicely until the crepuscular, creaking world they apparently inhabit inspires them to further feats of sorrowful, avant-garde bleakness.

Overall rating: 75%, light & weight.

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