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Posts Tagged ‘Neurosis’

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

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

Cover art for 2012 album ‘Ursus Americanus’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There 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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I have this on a t-shirt. It makes me feel big and strong when I wear the t-shirt.

My review of the 2011 reissue of Neurosis’s third album (the official release date for which is, handily enough, today), 1992’s Souls At Zero, is posted now over at Metal Review.  Please forgive my having waxed long-winded, but Neurosis is the kind of band that just does that to a guy.

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Friends, if you’ve stayed with me throughout these trying times, you are all saints.  We have at last reached the end of these old reviews I found sitting around on an old external hard drive, meaning that we will shortly be returning you to the regularly-scheduled amount of overwrought verbiage and incomprehensible sarcasm.  I am just as relieved as you.

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Converge, You Fail Me (2004)

Is that supposed to be an ape hand or something?

Although Converge had long been one of extreme music’s most respected and hard-working bands, the landmark acclaim and success they achieved with 2001’s Jane Doe guaranteed that crafting a follow-up that satisfied fans and critics without sacrificing their creative progression would be no small task.  With You Fail Me, however, Converge has again succeeded admirably, delivering a swift kick to the head of all those who would doubt their conviction or ability to continue producing scathingly intense music with a very real emotional core.

For the most part, the songs on You Fail Me display many of Converge’s trademarks: furiously churning guitars that duel and collide with the drums to form chaotic, echoing rhythms, Jacob Bannon’s tortured, animalistic wailing, and breakneck tempos.  Nowhere is this tradition better upheld than in standout tracks such as “Black Cloud,” “Eagles Become Vultures,” and “Heartless,” with its stuttering, chanting finale.  What truly makes this album stand out from the rest of Converge’s thoroughly accomplished oeuvre are the small refinements of their sound.  For example, the mesmerizing guitar melody that carries the latter half of “Drop Out” helps to elevate the lyrics above the whipping maelstrom of the drums and bass.  “First Light” begins the album with a melancholic solo guitar line so languid that it threatens to dissipate into pure feedback.  “Last Light” offers another unique take on Converge’s often barely controlled chaos: more so than on any other song, it is the propulsive drums that carry this piece all the way through, from the simple guitar chords of its intro to the convulsive breakdown at its conclusion.

The true heart of this album, however, must be the back-to-back ordering of its two longest songs, “You Fail Me” and “In Her Shadow.”  The monstrous title track is deceptively simple, but its power comes from its sheer bludgeoning force.  Though a simple, plodding rhythm forms the song’s foundation, more layers are gradually added, and when the song reaches its peak, the results are truly massive.  “In Her Shadow,” as it opens with a gently strummed acoustic guitar, would seem to be a welcome respite from the blistering title track.  Gradually, though, it becomes something much more sinister.  The vocals throughout are ghostly, mirroring the feedback in which the whole piece is awash.  As the song progresses, it builds and builds, always threatening to overtake itself.  Once the drums enter, they lead the song into martial disarray, and by the time the song reaches its climax, the drums are about all that can be reasonably distinguished from the underlying chaos; in fact, certain moments of this song wouldn’t be out of place on a Neurosis album.

In the end, though, what makes this album so convincing, like Jane Doe before it, is that it brutally pummels the listener not just with aggression, but also with emotion.  You Fail Me is significantly shorter than Jane Doe, however, and the emotional tone is markedly different as well.  No matter what one may be able to decipher from Jacob Bannon’s excellent lyrics, it is indisputable that there lies at the core of them some real anguish.  Although Jane Doe had its fair share of anger, there was hope, too, perhaps most notably in the way the closing track faded out amidst Bannon’s glorious shouts of “Run on!”  By contrast, the anger throughout You Fail Me feels a bit more resigned, a bit more desperate.  On the closing track, “Hanging Moon,” Bannon begins his entreaty of “Be my light in this world of darkness,” but the song, and the album, cuts him tragically short, allowing only for the words “Be my…”  Perhaps there is hope in that, too.  What is certain, however, is that Converge has made another haunting record that is just as likely to make you weep as it is to kick in your teeth.

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Okay, well maybe that one wasn’t so bad.  Back up to my typical standards of pretension, at least.  Seriously, though: Can you imagine many other bands, following up an album as thoroughly-masturbated-about as Jane Doe, putting out such an abrasively honest, emotionally-damaged statement as this?  You Fail Me remains, in my opinion, a criminally underrated episode in Converge’s rightly-feted discography.

Anyway, that’s it for my vault-plundering exploits.  Thanks for coming along for the ride; sorry about all the sick in the passenger’s seat.  Occupational hazard of reading old writing, I figure.  Be my light in this world of darkness, won’t you?

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Have you been flinching as much as I have on this trip into the time when words were small, and ambitions smaller, and opinions surprisingly timid?  Have you recalled the follies of your own former selves in the process, or has the calcifying march of time so blotted the stains of memory as to render them fuzzed and vaguely pleasant?

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Mastodon, Leviathan (2004)

Still some of the coolest fucking album art in, like, ever

Certainly among the most highly anticipated releases of 2004, Mastodon’s sophomore full-length Leviathan has already been subjected to endless hyperbole, so I will do my best not to add to the prattle.  As in any case where the expectations are so high, it is inevitable that many will be disappointed with Leviathan.  Those who are most likely to be disappointed, however, are those who were expecting Mastodon to release Remission – Pt. II, with little or no alteration to their already crushing and well-developed style.  Instead of treading water (pun only slightly intended), however, Mastodon has incorporated more melody, especially into the vocals – which are no longer hoarse barks, but rather tuneful bellows – and has polished the production up a bit.  Neither of these developments, though, has made their overall sound any less punishing.

Despite these modifications, Leviathan may be easily compared to Remission due to the fact that Mastodon has again written an incredibly strong group of songs, and simply plays the hell out of them.  Brann Dailor’s drumming is still the most easily recognizable and unique facet of their sound, as he whips through churning, chaotic rhythms with a subtlety and understated flair borrowed from jazz and progressive rock.  “Blood and Thunder” and “I Am Ahab” kick off the album furiously, while introducing the aquatic theme (much of it taken from Melville’s Moby Dick) of the record.  Far from being a mere pretentious bid for intellectual and musical depth, Mastodon’s sound is indeed massive enough to deserve the theme it claims, easily evoking visions of monstrous creatures rising from the watery deep to feed on the hearts and flesh of man.

Other album highlights include “Naked Burn,” in which Mastodon’s new found sense of melody is used to great effect; “Aqua Dementia,” which features throat-tearing guest vocals by Scott Kelly of Neurosis; and the positively epic “Hearts Alive,” which is able to suggest both crushing weight and transcendent beauty, as a ray of sunlight pierces the murky abyss.  Throughout Leviathan, Mastodon’s playing is fluid, inspired, and inspiring.  Although this attempt to avoid hyperbole has clearly failed, this is one band whose hype and acclaim is more than well-deserved, given that over the course of just two full-length albums they have managed to discover new ways for heavy metal to be heavy.

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Dry, right?  Although there’s probably something to be said in favor of this more straightforward writing style.  Generally folks aim to get less pretentious as they age, but I seem to by doing my utmost and damnedest to reverse that pernicious trend.  Don’t encourage me, then; I’m incorrigible.

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Resistant Culture, Welcome To Reality (2005) & All One Struggle (2008)

Pissed off, and ready to grind (Apologies to Darkthrone)

The ever-charming folks on the Texas Board of Education have recently reared their curmudgeonly heads once more, introducing a resolution which would, according to the New York Times, send a blunt message to textbook publishers: “Do not present a pro-Islamic, anti-Christian version of history if you want to sell books in one of the nation’s largest markets” (New York Times, 9/22/10).

What any of this may have to do with tribal crust death/grinders Resistant Culture may be a little oblique, sure, but the point is this: historical revisionism is alive and well in our fair land.  The same sort of revisionism, say, that gives us a first Thanksgiving in which the pilgrims just came ‘round to offer the indigenous peoples of the New World a nice cup of tea, or through which our collective relief at the peaceable collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War allows for the gradual erasure of the myriad tyrannies and imperial ventures underwritten in the name of freedom.

Righteous indignation at the brutal treatment and oppression of indigenous peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere is, in fact, the spark which lights the raging fire of Resistant Culture’s seriously pissed-off grind attack.  While much bandied-about in discussions of Resistant Culture, the influence of indigenous folk music instrumentation and chants is relatively subdued.  The band’s two full-length albums are being reissued and repressed in advance of their upcoming American tour, providing a choice opportunity for having one’s head amply knocked around by the sort of politically-inclined metal that seems, sadly, to be in shorter supply these days.

2005’s Welcome To Reality and 2008’s All One Struggle both provide ample evidence of the band’s tight grasp on the classic everything-in-the-pot style of the early development of grindcore and death metal, when neither had exactly coalesced into ruthlessly ghettoized genres stuffed full of stock ideas and tired riffs.  Resistant Culture straddles perfectly these lines between grind and death in the same fashion as genre progenitors Napalm Death, Terrorizer, Bolt Thrower, and all the other usual suspects.  In Resistant Culture’s case, rather than tilt wildly from grind to death in separate songs, the overall approach seems to show songwriting chops and an instrumental attack that is rooted in classic grindcore, but with a guitar tone and riff construction that leans more toward the fetid tonalities of death metal.

Vocalist and long-time band mastermind Anthony Rezhawk (he, also, of vocal duty on Terrorizer’s long-delayed sophomore album, Darker Days Ahead – hence the participation of the late Jesse Pintado on 2005’s Welcome To Reality) demonstrates a much more varied vocal approach than many other acts in this style.  Rezhawk’s most frequent style is a low-pitched yet strikingly understandable grind/punk bellow, yet he also occasionally pushes into higher-pitched rasping, and every now and again breaks out a deep, almost gothic style of clean incantation.
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Welcome To Reality

Of the two albums up for review here, it’s 2005’s Welcome To Reality that really grits its teeth and gets right down to the serious business of wrecking your ears.  The guitar tone is thick, but its attack is clean and clinical, whether trading in three-chord punk blasts, nimble grind explosions, or stolid, occasionally tremolo-ed death metal stomping.  The bass tone oozes through in a delectably thick outpouring, like molten lava forcing its way through cracked tectonic plates.  See “It’s Not Too Late,” especially, or the opening passage of “The Gathering” for some real floor-rattling bass thunder.  The drums roll and clatter along with the requisite punk fury, slipping into blastbeat passages here, or verging on the classic Discharge d-beat there.

“Forced Conformity” locks into a wonderfully gritty, grooving pace with some sweet guitar noodling.  If only more followers of Sepultura circa Chaos A.D. or Roots would have taken the their Brazilian lessons in this direction rather than resorting to the widespread pilfering of the knuckle-draggingly unattractive components of the tribal thrashers’ sound, maybe we wouldn’t now look to Sepultura’s mid-90s experimentation as pivotal in having incited the life-sapping abominations of nu-metal.

It’s not until the track “Elder Wisdom” that the much-touted indigenous folk music influence is on display in a way other than brief sections of native chanting.  The acoustic guitar and flute interlude is a nice breather between the no-nonsense brain-stomping of the rest of the album.  The rest of the album keeps things classy and well-apportioned, in equal measure causing the listener to pump her fist furiously to punk shout-alongs (“Victims of a bloody system!!” is just insanely fun to bellow alongside Rezhawk) and headbang recklessly to thrashing death metal riff-splosions.  Hell, on “Civilized Aggression,” Rezhawk even sounds vaguely like Abbath gone crust, while on “The Gathering,” we get that deep, gothic delivery in the vocals to match the Eastern-scaled doom/death march.

In grindcore’s great tradition, the album makes effective use of sampled dialogue and other found sounds, without ever quite lapsing into overreliance.  The sound here is much thicker than most crust metal, although the ethics and aesthetics underwriting the music have a much clearer kinship to crust and punk than to the varied lineages of death metal.  After thrashing through a grin-inducing cover of Discharge’s “Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing” and one of the album’s highlights in “The Gathering,” it’s finally on album closer “Land Keeper” that the indigenous folk is blended organically with the heavy metal, where on most of the rest of the album, the folk influences were generally sequestered into interludes.

Seventeen tracks in thirty-four minutes is just about perfect for this sort of classic grinding attack, and leaves the listener winded and shell-shocked

Overall rating, Welcome To Reality: 80%.  Not reinventing the wheel, but careful saying that ‘round them, as you may find said wheel quickly and unceremoniously shoved down your throat.
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All One Struggle

The follow-up to Welcome To Reality came three years later, with 2008’s All One Struggle.  In comparison to the incendiary 2005 album, this one comes off slightly the worse, but for somewhat paradoxical reasons.  See, All One Struggle actually features a fair portion more of straight-ahead blasting than did Welcome To Reality – album opener “Beneath the Concrete” does nothing to announce its presence before barreling into being, which ought to mark it out as ferocious and unexpected.  Instead, it seems predictable.

The biggest problem, really, is that the album takes far too much time to gain any real, sustained momentum.  An interesting riff pops up here and there, and the drums frequently lock into a furious blasting groove, but there is little use of the tension and contrast between the songs that made Welcome To Reality’s similarly straight-forward metal approach add up to a greater whole.

Still, by the time “Mending the Hoop” and “Natural Law” swing around, it’s time for some clenched-jaw mayhem.  “Generations” is another brutal grinder, but it’s actually not until the pairing of “Stagnation” and “Rise Above Despair” that the tenor of the album finally switches the unrelenting pace I’ve been craving all along.  And for those of you keeping score at home, that pairing doesn’t pop up until tracks 13 and 14 out of 17; too long to keep the expectant grind freak in ‘standby’ mode.

None of this is to suggest, however, that the album is some sort of unmitigated disaster (the “St. Anger Singularity,” we might say).  “Contamination” whips up my appreciative ire with sections of tremolo-picked harmonies that flirt with the darkness and flair of black metal, capped with an ambient outro that leads quite nicely into the folk-tinged “New Sun.”

The overall sound of Resistant Culture remains essentially unchanged here from the previous album.  If you imagine combining the thick, ritualistic tom abuse of Neurosis with the early thrashing fits of death/grind in the 1989 mold: Terrorizer’s World Downfall, Bolt Thrower’s Realm Of Chaos, and even whatever you’d care to call the midpoint between Napalm Death’s From Enslavement to Obliteration and Harmony Corruption (which, out in ’88 and ’90, respectively, give us an average of 1989, natch).  I still feel a bit iffy about using the term “tribal” to describe the band’s drumming and use of indigenous folk musics, but the band itself embraces such language in its own press materials, so I shan’t protest.

Where Welcome To Reality was masterfully sequenced and paced, this album takes far too long to get into gear for my taste; when it finally does hit that sweet spot towards the end of the album, though, it throws another batch of classically-structured and well-hybridized grind/metal/punk right in my scoffing, skeptical face.  Serves me right.

On a rather odd note, the final track of the album is most strikingly reminiscent not of anything on Earache’s roster from two decades ago, but rather of Sweden’s own completely unfuckwithable malcontent, Bathory.  For starters, the track is called “The Return,” which obviously makes me want to climb a great craggy mountain and proclaim “It’s the RETURN of the darkness and evil!!!”  Apart from the nomenclature, though, take a second to just let the Resistant Culture track sink in.  It’s a fully ambient track, featuring a bed of flute, wind sound effects, along with sparse chanting and tribal percussion.  In the back, though, is a muted yet insistent bass drum beat.  Got it in your head?  Okay, now run and grab your Bathory records.  Take a spin through that outro track on nearly all of them (it’s on the debut through Twilight of the Gods, and again on Blood On Ice and Nordland II).  Of course it’s not exactly the same thing, but the Bathory outros all feature a single ambient tone, while in the distance, a single bass drum tolls out a slow recitation of doom.  I can’t help but think of this as an homage, even if it was unintentionally done.

After all, everyone needs more Bathory in her life.

Overall rating, All One Struggle: 65%.  If you dig the former, you’ll still dig this latter platter, though I find the former warmer.
———————————————-

Resistant Culture is currently gearing up for what they are calling the Sacred Fire Tour throughout these United States.  The tour coincides with reissues on Seventh Generation Records: All One Struggle on vinyl, and a third pressing of Welcome To Reality on CD.

The Sacred Fire Tour kicks off next week, with dates as follows.  If you happen to live in the Chicago area, you would be especially well-advised to check out Resistant Culture’s date here on October 9th, as they are participating in the fourth iteration of the Apocalyptic Crust Fest.  Resistant Culture will be playing the third and final day of the festival, alongside Phobia and Dropdead.  Check out more information on Apocalyptic Crust Fest here.

9/30 Wandering Goat
Eugene, OR

10/1 Satyricon
Portland. OR

10/2 The Morgue
Seattle, WA

10/5 Roman’s
Rapid City, SD

10/7 Rathole
Minneapolis, MN

10/9 The Black Hole
Chicago, IL

10/12 Token Lounge
Detroit, MI

10/13 Hexagon Space
Baltimore, MD

10/14 Millcreek Tavern
Philadelphia, PA

10/15 The Lake Underground
Brooklyn, NY

10/16 AS220
Providence, RI

10/17 Cambridge Elks Lodge
Cambridge, MA

10/19 Volume 11 Tavern
Raleigh, NC

10/20 Lenny’s
Atlanta, GA

10/21 Marauders
New Orleans, LA

10/22 Broken Neck
Austin, TX

10/23 No Thanks Fest
Emory, TX

10/24 The White Swan Live
Houston, TX

10/26 Blast O Mat
Denver, CO

10/27 One Mind Studio
Salt Lake City, UT

10/28 Lucky Lady
Las Vegas, NV

10/29 Gilman
Berkeley, CA

11/6 Common Ground
Riverside, CA
—————————-

One cannot help but be reminded and enraged, after working through these Resistant Culture albums, of the plight of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples (First Nations, or whatever else you’d like to call them).  This history of ruthless political exploitation and callous disregard is clearly a topic ripe for the politicized fury of punk and grindcore, but it also seems that the musical and cultural influence of these diverse communities has much to offer to heavy metal by way of artistic and aesthetic exploration.  There are only a few contemporary albums that bring to mind these influences, most notably Tomahawk’s Anonymous, and Nechochwen’s brilliant 2010 album, Azimuths to the Otherworld.  Resistant Culture is absolutely dissimilar in musical approach to either of those acts, of course, but I suspect this is fertile ground for a shared ethical and aesthetic approach.

The challenge, of course, is to pay tribute to this history and to the heritage of these indigenous peoples without coopting or tokenizing them.  Heavy metal may not be particularly well sensitized for such a task, but the political and artistic potential is tremendous.  Historical revisionism, after all, can only succeed when a complacent mainstream culture grows tired of calling ‘bullshit’ on the lies and omissions of officialdom.

The New York Times ran another story, just the other day, on what seems essentially like racial segregation and the production of guilt-allaying ‘native’ pageantry at the Pendleton Round-Up rodeo event in Pendleton, Oregon.  The author of the story writes, “A century later [from the beginnings of this event], the mill still provides blankets, and families are still paid to appear, $5 per person each day at the arena. Beef and vegetables are provided, as are tokens for other food. The winner of the ‘Best Dressed Indian Award’ at the parade gets 50 silver dollars” (New York Times, 9/23/10).

Blankets.  Think about that.

"Get the fuck outta here," says the horse

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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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