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Posts Tagged ‘Miles Davis’

In which are briefly chronicled some of the noises that have been stuck in my ears of late.

Darkest Era, The Last Caress of Light

This brilliant Irish outfit flirts with the best of traditional and folk metal, coming across like the beautiful love-child of Primordial and Atlantean Kodex.  Gorgeously powerful and emotive vocals, stirring rhythms, and twin guitar lullabies to tuck you right in.  If you’re missing out on this, you’re missing out on one of the best metal albums of this still-young year.

Negative Plane, Stained Glass Revelations

Oh my, is this ever an intoxicating sound.  Psychedelic without requiring drug use, with that old sound that might as well be the best new sound you’ve heard, Negative Plane’s shimmeringly melodic black metal is backed with some coarse black/thrash vocals and some seriously detailed compositional chops.  This is an album to get lost inside.

Crowbar, Sever the Wicked Hand

Still sorting out my thoughts on this one.  In most respects, it seems like quintessential Crowbar (though admittedly I’ve been tuned out since Odd Fellows Rest, so maybe the ‘quint-‘ in quintessential has changed in the interim), and while it’s on, and loud, I’m pulled in, but when it’s over, I don’t feel like I’ve got a lot retained in muscle memory.  Probably it just needs more spins, but for something so ostensibly formed around The Crushing Riff, the absence of memorability is a slightly worrying sign.  Plus, that guitar tone is like plexiglass when I want concrete.

Death, The Sound of Perseverance (3 Disc Deluxe Reissue)

Before snapping up this triple-disc reissue, it had probably been five years or so since I’d last spun The Sound of Perseverance.  Opinions seem awfully mixed on this one among Death fans, and while it’s certainly not my favorite of theirs, I also don’t think it’s their worst, and the fact that so many of these songs remained burned into my mind despite a five-year hiatus meant that this felt like the return of a long-wayward friend.  Two discs of bonus material is a bit much to handle, but the alternate takes and demos from 1996 with different vocalists on disc 3 are quite interesting.  Certainly worth a revisiting, particularly in advance of the long-promised sophomore album from Control Denied.

Belphegor, Blood Magick Necromance

Music this intentionally offensive shouldn’t work so well to relax me, but that’s what Belphegor does.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the last album, but so far, I’ve really been digging on Blood Magick Necromance.  Nothing at all is one bit different, so if you’ve never been on board with the melodic sheen slapped over the Behemoth/Arkhon Infaustus black/death hybrid, today will be just like every Belphegor-free day before for you.  All I know is, this shit really hits a very particular kind of spot, and yeah, it’s kind of soothing.

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew Live


Man, this is some deep intense grooving from Miles in his electric prime.  Phil Freeman over at Burning Ambulance wrote a great review of this a few weeks back, so check that out for the real dirt on this fantastic release.  For as much as I love the spooky atmospherics of Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, the two live gigs documented on this disc are all about the hard, spitfire jam, not the drawn-out meditation.  Turn it up loud and drink in those colors.

Årabrot, Revenge

Spazzy, noisy, occasionally jazzy and off-kilter rock with hints of sludge from Norway.  Not bad, eh?  Årabrot sounds like a mathier, more metal version of The Jesus Lizard, maybe (or at least the vocals are a dead match for David Yow, or occasionally Mike Patton), with all manner of toxic skronk.  This album is strangely addictive for something so initially abrasive.  Check it, let it wreck you.

At The Soundawn, Shifting

I missed out on this one from last year, but it’s really been satisfying lately.  Sure, it’s a bit soft for the true METAL hearts among you out there, but to my ears, it sounds like At The Soundawn has sketched a great triangle of sonic influences, with Burst (r.i.p., waaaaaaaah), Thrice, and Sigur Ros as the corners.  Toss in some classy trumpet and some of the jazzy/fusion touches in the drumming (a bit like Intronaut’s Valley Of Smoke, I guess) and some tabla drums and hell, you’ve got yourself one right proper mess that nevertheless works.

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That’s what’s been bothering the ears over at Spinal Tapdance HQ lately, friends.  What’s cracking around your cranium?
– dhok

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In addition to my regular dose of all things vile and extreme in metal, I’ve been listening to quite a bit of jazz lately.  A few weeks back I was spinning Miles Davis’ record My Funny Valentine, which is a live concert recorded at the Philharmonic Hall in New York in early 1964.  One of the great pleasures of listening to live music, but especially to jazz, is following the back and forth of communication between the band members.  The particular track which stopped me dead in my tracks was the quintet’s run-through of the Cole Porter jazz standard “All Of You.”

This is a band set to 'slow burn'

Here is the audio (in two parts) of that same quintet playing “All Of You” in July of 1963, which appears on the album Miles Davis in Europe.  I couldn’t track down easily accessible online audio of the version which appears on My Funny Valentine, which is unfortunate, but this rendition still gives great insight into the near-telepathy of the band – especially the astonishing rhythm section of Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.

Tony Williams is an incredibly active, almost aggressive drummer here; check out his ability to highlight Miles’ most strenuous phrases without stepping on them (from about 3:00 to 4:15 on the first half of the track).  But what really gets me hooked listening to the band play this tune is the lightning-fast communication between Carter on bass and Williams on drums while Hancock is laying down his piano solo (this is the majority of the second half of the track, all the way until Miles comes back in for the chorus around 5:30 or so).


If you’ve got yourself a copy of My Funny Valentine at hand, I prefer the version on there, but both versions demonstrate the single-mindedness of the ensemble.  All of this got me to thinking, though, that the type of collective improvisation on display with Miles’ quintet is an exceeding rarity in heavy metal.

Of course, improvisation plays a fairly large role in many types of heavy metal.  The most obvious example of this is the guitar solo.  We know, too, however, that not all guitar solos are improvised – if you see Metallica playing “Fade to Black” or Slayer playing “Raining Blood,” I think there’s an expectation on the part of the fans that the solos, which may at one point have been largely improvisational (though I have my doubts about that), will be played more or less true to the way they have been burned into their brains through years’ worth of listening.

Still, the guitar or other instrumental solo break is the most obvious example of improvisation in heavy metal.  In the classic structure, the guitar solo is a type of compositional break, used much in the way a pre-chorus or bridge is used to transition from one part of a song to another.  A solo will often occur on top of a basic riff structure which has already been introduced in a verse or some other section of the song.  It serves, in this way, to introduce novelty within an already-recognized framework.  The essential structure of the song would be unchanged by the removal of the solo, in most cases.

Then, of course, you get into all sorts of avant-garde stuff, with manipulated feedback, distortion, and the detritus of found-sounds and other oddities.  I don’t think most people going to see Merzbow or Skullflower, for example, have exactly the expectation of hearing recognizable “songs” from these groups/dudes.  In these cases, then, improvisation is less a decorative addition to a predetermined structure (as Hammett’s whammy-fondling is to a Metallica jam), and actually becomes the basis of composition.

Both of these models, however, are entirely separate from what goes on with Miles Davis’ group from 40-odd years back.  Certainly, there is a basic structure to the piece.  The melody of the original tune serves as the most skeletal reference, but the essential building blocks of the song are the tempo and the chord changes.  Beyond that, however, as you can hear in this recording, pretty much anything goes.  Sure, there’s a design in the order of solos – Miles introduces the theme, then launches off into a fantastic deconstruction of it, before it gets handed off to Coleman on the tenor saxophone.  After the tenor break, Herbie Hancock takes over on piano, before Miles comes back in at the end to revisit the melodic theme and bring the piece to a close.  By that description, then, it would seem that this follows the first model of improvisation, where there is a predetermined structure upon which soloing sits as a purely decorative flourish.

But to interpret the collective improvisation of Miles’ group here as a rote reading of a standard tune with traded riffs on the theme would be to do them a great disservice.  The crucial thing to follow in this live recording is the absolute vibrancy of the communication between all of the different members.  I find it easiest to pick out when following the interplay of the rhythm section – bass, drums, and piano – which is especially vital during Hancock’s solo break.  See, whereas the Metallica tune would be played exactly the same way without the solo included, if you remove any one of these three lines from “All Of You,” you would miss out on how these three guys are structuring and restructuring the rhythm and melodic texture of the song as they play it.  When they slip into a half-time swing beat for just a few measures, and then seamlessly back into the regular tempo, you have to wonder: If one of those components were absent, would it have the same impact?

The crucial element of the improvisation which goes on in “All Of You” is precisely that it is a collective improvisation.  There are five guys up on stage, and they are essentially having a conversation with each other.  Miles brings up the topic and swishes it around in his mouth for a while to see how it feels, but then he opens up the floor for comments.  Coleman agrees with Miles, for the most part, but elaborates on a few points.  It goes on like this.  The timing of Williams’ cymbal hits is dependent on what he hears Carter playing on the bass, or how he imagines Hancock will shake up his rhythm in the next two bars.  Carter walks his bass along quite amiably, but listens for Williams’ emphasis, and tracks along with him when it feels right.  If you take away one of these speakers, the conversation crumbles.  Balance is lost.  The nays have it.

To extend this somewhat-tenuous metaphor further, most guitar (and other) solos in heavy metal are basically like some guy yelling while everyone else carries on a conversation.  Take out the dude’s yelling, and the conversation continues apace.  You might be getting the impression, by the way, that I don’t at all care for guitar solos, which is not actually my point.  I think guitar solos can be pretty rad, and I enjoy a face-melting shredfest just as much as the next metal fan.  What I’m trying to stress, though, is that heavy metal might find itself expanded in interesting ways if it made room for this type of collective improvisation that one is likely to find in good jazz.

If I had to take a stab at figuring out why this is the case, I suspect it has something to do with the aesthetic of transgression and personal triumph which is so widespread in heavy metal.  The lyrics and topical concerns of much heavy metal are about strength, overcoming adversity, having the courage to be different, and so forth.  Obviously, these themes are expressed in vastly different ways, whether we’re talking about the hardcore youth gang pep talks of Hatebreed, or the motif of Nietzschean haughtiness and individual superiority common in black metal.  When it comes to expressing these ideas musically rather than textually, a fairly obvious way to do so is by highlighting the virtuosity of individual musicians.

Jamey Jasta's Seven Habits for Highly Effective Backstabber Overcomers

For the most part, the closest one might come in heavy metal to collective improvisation is with dueling guitar solos (or dueling guitar-keyboard, guitar-bass, or whatever else).  The problem is, these flights of multi-musician fancy don’t typically involve the same type of musical conversation as in jazz.  Instead, if you see Dream Theater live, for example, you will find John Petrucci doing a back-and-forth with Jordan Rudess on keyboards, where they trade off several bars, each trying to out-play the other.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that sort of coupled soloing; in fact, it tends to be quite entertaining.  Still, the model remains that of the individual virtuoso (or of two individual virtuosos, in which case the number ‘1’ remains a more important signifier than the number ‘2’), struggling heroically against all odds to emerge victorious, having slayed all rivals with the intensity and sincerity of her skill.

As a sidebar, I don’t mean to play too much into the hands of those who believe that heavy metal is about nothing but virtuosity.  I think that’s far from the truth, and that’s actually one of the main problems I had with the otherwise quite interesting book by musicologist Robert Walser, entitled Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.  Apart from seeming quite dated now (it was originally published in 1993), I think Walser relies too heavily on the notion that the primary mode of transgression in heavy metal arises from instrumental prowess.  Still, it’s an interesting book, and one of the (very) few academic books on the subject of heavy metal, and may well be worth your time to wade through some of the overwrought passages to discover the musicological and critical theoretical insights.  It’s available here from Amazon, and certainly plenty of other places, too.

Sorry for not giving a shit about Van Halen

Well, I’ve definitely banged on about this too much already, so I’ll try to wrap things up.  I think where Walser has it wrong, and why I don’t want to overemphasize this highly atomized, individualistic reading of heavy metal as sheer virtuoso performance, is that there are plenty of metal bands out there that succeed precisely because they avoid emphasizing one musician’s skill above that of another, and instead focus on working as an entity.  Neurosis comes to mind first, primarily because I’ve been rocking their new album Live at Roadburn 2007 recently.  Here is a band, though, which seems less like a collection of individual voices, and more like a collective, through which different voices occasionally speak.  That model is all fine and good, and obviously the amount of reverence shown a band like Neurosis is an indication that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

What remains un- (or at least under-) explored in heavy metal, though, is exactly this kind of collective improvisation, this quickly-shifting musical conversation between members of the band that I find so thrillingly present in these live recordings of Miles Davis and his band.  I’d like to see metal bands able to move from these two poles of either playing completely as a pulsating organism (the ‘Neurosis Model’, say) or as a preconceived structure atop which the Nietzschean Over-Man dazzles with his unfathomable mastery (the ‘Metallica Model’, say – I’m not claiming that Kirk Hammett is the pinnacle of guitar wizardry, it’s just the example already in play).  Instead, there remains this tantalizing third way, in which a band locks in the skeleton of a song structure – a set tempo, maybe, or a flash of half a guitar riff – and then launches into an actual conversation between equals.

This is, for the most part, far less flashy than a Steve Vai guitargasm, and requires more patience and closer listening than the monolithic heft of Neurosian song-mountains.  It’s as much about listening as it is about speaking, but if the bands can learn to listen, and we listeners can learn to listen to the ongoing conversation, heavy metal can yet achieve a more intimate sense of community; a community not just of fans who listen to the same music, nor of individuals who gain access to community by virtue of technical merit.  A community always in the process of creating itself; an improvised community.

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Friends, I’ve got a bit of a bone to pick with stoner metal.  Sort of.

You see, it’s not that I actually have a problem with the music itself.  In fact, lately I’ve been listening to tons of the stuff: Sleep, Electric Wizard, Om, Kyuss, Boris, YOB, (old) Monster Magnet, Orange Goblin, High On Fire, even the stoner/grind histrionics of Cephalic Carnage (getting pumped for their new album).  I fuckin’ LOVE me some fat, juicy riffs wearing concrete boots walking a tightrope made of my corpus callosum.

Riff my face off, please

Thing is, what drives me totally fucking bonkers is the frequent claim one hears when talking with ardent fans of these drug-addled noisemakers: “You’ve never really experienced Such And Such An Album unless you’ve heard it stoned.”

Oh really?  Well, let me tell you, friend, that you’ve never really gotten the obituaries page of the New York Times unless you’ve read it while tweezing out your leg hairs and listening to Tom Jones.  I mean, you totally start, like, reading between the newsprint lines and seeing Victorian-era portraits of all the other dead people whispering recipes for minestrone.

Granted, I know that part of the rationale here is that if the band was under the influence of certain mind-altering substances during the creation of the music, then perhaps the fullest appreciation of said music can only be gained through achieving a similar mental state.  Fuck that shit.

Obviously, a lot of this kind of music is shot through with healthy doses (har har) of psychedelia, which typically means densely layered production with lots of different buried textures and widdly sound effects.  Seems to me, then, that what these lit-up listening enthusiasts are likely experiencing is a monomaniacal attention to one particular detail which seems somehow to overwhelm the rest of the musical palette and offer them some new, strange vista of drugged-out bliss or paranoia.

Well, folks, do me a favor and try out the same thing with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.  Listen to that bad boy for a while, stoned or not, and try to follow just one instrument through those winding, righteously spooky jams.  Not too different, really, from that one time you saw the Virgin Mary in your Doritos while zoning out to “Sweet Leaf.”  Or, to be more direct: It’s not about the drugs, it’s about how you listen, and I’m not willing to admit that “listening stoned” is a mode of listening distinct from any other.

More seriously, I think this claim is incorrect from two directions: objectively and subjectively.  As I’ve just suggested, from an objective perspective, I think that a lot of what goes on with stoners claiming that the music “speaks” to them differently when they’re stoned is simply an artifact of listening more intently to the music.  In fact, it may well be the case that the biggest difference between listening stoned and listening sober is that if you’re stoned and listening to music, chances are, you’re not doing much else, whereas I think it can generally be agreed that most people’s listening (sober) habits have become but one aspect in a multi-tasking three-ring circus.  In that case, if we sober folks were just sitting down to really listen to something, without doing anything else, we might find that it’s the act of focusing that yields notably deeper results.

From the completely opposite end of the argumentative spectrum, though, I would respond to these stoned-music-is-better-music partisans with an argument for a completely subjective, relativistic approach to music.  That is, no one person’s listening experience can ever approximate any other person’s listening experience because of the multitude of prejudices, experiences, knowledge, preferences, and attitudes that inform and color our ability to hear certain things.

Which is to argue not that a sober person can experience the exact same depth of appreciation for music as the stoned person (which is what I’m calling the ‘objective’ argument), but rather that two people, stoned on the same herbs or buzzed on the same drinks, listening to the exact same music, will never hear that music the same way.  Neither will two sober people.  Listening to music is necessarily an intensely personal, interiorizing phenomenon which cannot be shared, no matter how socially it is pursued.

So, sure, friend, I will perhaps grudgingly admit that I will never hear Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone the same way you heard it, through a cloud of smoke or a labyrinth of acid dreams, so long as you admit that you will never hear Dopethrone the way I heard it, sitting on my couch reading a book, or driving in my car to get my tires rotated.  Either everyone can hear it the same, or no one can hear it the same; I’d like to think it’s both.

I should clarify: this is not coming from some puritanical anti-drug perspective.  Feel free to ingest, inject, or imbibe whatever you like; that’s not what this is about.  Rather, this is about a bunch of folks trying to fuck with my ability to appreciate music, and THAT’S what’s likely to get me feeling awfully witch-burny, awfully fast.

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