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Posts Tagged ‘Listening Arc’

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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So, everybody loves mixtapes, right?  I will assume that your silence indicates agreement.  Anybody who’s spent any time agonizing over just the right track to follow this other one, or trying to match tempos between songs, or create a mix that serves as a meditation on the theme of ‘the pterodactyl’ surely knows that making a just-so mix is nothing to sneeze at (Just-So Mix ain’t nuttin’ to fuck wit’, etc.).  Or, maybe you just fell asleep watching High Fidelity one time, and so you’ve still got a pretty good idea about how sackless losers the world over get themselves exercised over the most ridiculous things.

All this got me to thinking, though: What if, instead of making a mix of songs, one instead tried to put together a mix of albums?  Sure, it wouldn’t be a physical product any longer, but o! just think of the mood-setting (not to mention time-wasting) possibilities!

So, don’t call it a mixtape.  Instead, think of this as Spinal Tapdance’s inaugural entry into a feature that I hope to make a somewhat regular occurrence: the Listening Arc!  Note that this is a much different beast than the Listening Ark, into which one piles ones Beatles and Mountain Goats albums, two by two.

The idea behind the Listening Arc is essentially the same as that behind a traditional mixtape: To arrange different musics side by side in a fashion that nevertheless makes sense, whether sonically, aesthetically, lyrically, emotionally, or whatever else you like.  Another way is to think of it as the musical equivalent of Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (it’s a joke, asshole).  That is, given a starting record and an ending record that may be vastly dissimilar, how do we arrange a movement from one to the other than never seems abrupt or without rationale?

I thus present Spinal Tapdance’s Listening Arc #1, in which, if you so choose to listen along (assuming you have or can, ahem, acquire, the albums involved), I shall attempt to get you from a lush, naturalistic album of shoegaze-y black metal preciousness to a cold, burnt-out hulk of a sullenly industrial soundtrack to an amnesiac’s wandering throughout an urban wasteland in five albums.  Neat, huh?
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1. Alcest, Écailles De Lune (2010)


Our dude Neige is perhaps one of the busier Frenchmen since Napoleon, having been involved in a myriad of frankly awesome black metal acts, from Peste Noire to Lantlôs to Amesoeurs.  Alcest is perhaps his highest profile project, and on this, his second full-length, he continues down the path of somewhat post-rockish, definitely shoegaze-inspired metal that’s notionally descended from black metal, but has dropped essentially all the aesthetic and lyrical concerns which first animated the lurching zombie corpus of said genre.  Importantly for this listening arc, though the album is intensely melodic, it’s not ever so much about the melodies as it is about the melodicism.  People who can’t stand this kind of stuff use that point to suggest the lack of riffs, or balls, or some such nonsense, but this album is entirely about mood.  And that mood, it ought to be said, is warm and lush and awesome.

2. Eluvium, Copia (2007)


When it comes to my favorite Eluvium album, it’s typically down to this one or the previous one, Talk Amongst The Trees.  That latter album, however, isn’t quite right to transition between Alcest and the next album in our arc, so Copia gets the nod this time.  This is essentially an indie drone album, but flirts with classical music’s minimalists, with great heaping spoonfuls of pathos.  This ought to appeal to fans of Stars of the Lid, Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and any number of other like-minded musicians and composers.  It follows Alcest’s record wonderfully, though, because Copia is all about heart-expanding, chest-bursting warmth.  Yes, this is drone, but achingly beautiful, forward-moving, and occasionally crushingly suspended drone.  And just like Alcest, it’s never so much about specific melodies, but rather about the meditative beauty that is sustained and occasionally punctuated with dramatic chord and key changes.  An album for daydreaming, if ever there was one.

3. Tim Hecker, Harmony In Ultraviolet (2006)


The ambient/drone/noise washes of Tim Hecker’s best album are a transitional match from Eluvium not because of their tone or mood, but rather because of their structure.  The two men seem to conceive of their albums in whole arcs, where pieces are proportioned and arranged in very particular ways, to lead the listener from one place to another (just like this listening arc itself).  Where Eluvium is all about the warm, full-throated clean drone, however, Tim Hecker is all about creating light and contrast with different strands of static.  This album may well be a noise album for people who don’t like noise, because despite the fact that the music’s constituent elements are primarily harsh and atonal, they are arranged in dramatic and, to be honest, perfectly lovely ways.

4. Sleep Research Facility, Deep Frieze (2007)


While Tim Hecker’s static washes combined to produce an array of color and texture, Sleep Research Facility’s genius album Deep Frieze is all shades of white and grey and howling, arctic winds.  Nominally a dark ambient/drone album, few records are as evocative of their subject matter as this; each song is titled after a different set of geographical coordinates in Antarctica (e.g., “82ºS 62ºE”).  This is a dark, cold, spooky record, but it is also full of haunting beauty and, in spite of all its noise and bluster (which never aims to overpower the listener, for the record), suggests silence and vast distance more than anything else.  The best thing to do when listening to this album is to read H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness.  Maybe keep the light on, though.

5. Blut Aus Nord, Thematic Emanation of Archetypal Multiplicity EP (2005)


And now, an utterly disconsolate endpoint.  Take a look at that cover art.  That is exactly what the album sounds like.  A monochrome landscape of urban blight, bloated and sodden with a rain that can neither cleanse nor kill that which sickens it.  The beauty and warmth which had lingered, though in gradually decreasing quantity, through Eluvium, Tim Hecker, and Sleep Research Facility, are now completely absent.  This brief little mini-album is a soul-sucking black hole of slow, twisted, not-quite-metal industrial plodding, shot through with swaths of dark ambient creaking and croaking and half-glimpsed faces fleeing through jagged alleyways where the wind blows and the sky is darker than the night which never ends and you cannot wake up and you will not leave.

All of which is to say, it’s pretty fucking great.  It’s also not a particularly cheerful way to conclude this listening arc, but I think you’ll find, if you’ve played each of these albums through in order, that you got from Alcest’s Eden-esque naturalism to Blut Aus Nord’s light-draining pit of nihilism without ever being jarred too noticeably.  If you ever felt like you heard the gears cranking, though, or saw the oily, sinewy outline of the strings being pulled, let me know where I’ve erred.  Listening is always more of a collective act than we generally think it to be.  Or, at least it should be.
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This concludes my first stab at a Listening Arc.  If you’ve got suggestions for a theme for a future arc, please do let me know, as I’d like to make this a regular feature at Spinal Tapdance.  You could also think of it as a challenge, trying to find two records so disparate in sound, theme, age, or whatever, that connecting them seems nigh on impossible.  I may end up failing, but hopefully in interesting ways.

Cheers!
– DHOK / ST

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