Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ian Songs #8, In Praise of Bacchus

Inventive prose be damned, let's hit this like a fan: There are few litmus tests in metal like Type O Negative. Born from the ashes of underrated thrashers Carnivore and with enough balls to dive headfirst into a goth scene that had, and let's be honest now, peaked with the first few Christian Death albums, Type O gloriously lampooned their subject matter with a straight face, dedicating turgid doomers filled to the brim with ironic Beatlesque twists to high-school notebook fodder; death, sex, depression, death, Halloween, and death. On the surface, they exuded an ultra-serious vibe, but like all good metal, when you dug a little deeper, it played out like a nod and wink, a veiled punchline to be enjoyed by the discerning listener. So, like most Metal Mosi (Manowar, Darkthrone, and...well, shit, power metal and black metal in general), they parted the seas of listeners; those that believe in an oh-so sober intent and those that recognize the inherent ridiculousness of it all. Of course, there's a natural urge to push Type O into the realm of parody, and there's an awful lot of evidence that can be brought up as support (Almost all of it stemming from generously-dicked frontman Peter Steele), but the insanely well-written music pushes it past just a joke into Ween territory; loving pastiches. Case in point, In Praise of Bacchus.

From the band's most commercially viable album, October Rust, and one that features maybe their definitive song, Love You to Death, sits Praise. Melodic and with a wall-of-distortion guitar-sheen that is downright shoegazer-inspired, Bacchus couples Fab Four with Iommi, building to an insane climax that's surreal. It's moments like these that the band revels in, making you feel uncomfortable without the use of the grotesque, making you feel uneasy as a listener. But, then again, this ain't Wagner predilection for unresolved progressions, this is trading pop licks and then dropping back into metal at the turn of the dime. From either side of the spectrum, it just feels wrong. It's so seamless, though, that it gets lost underneath the waves of sound, burying in your subconscious the sense that we're dangerously off-kilter here. And then, there it is, an actual crescendo that is not frustratingly cut short, AND WITH LATIN NO LESS. To this day, and it's an album I've listened to every Halloween for a decade, I don't know whether to laugh or be blown away. That, in essence, is Type O Negative.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Marky's song #14: Hüsker Dü – “Somewhere”

(Hüsker Dü, part tü – read part one here.)

Though they would go on to bigger (if not necessarily better) things, the strongest music this Minnesota trio made occurred when they were still on independent label SST. Hüsker Dü is also notable for being the first ‘underground’ band to switch from an indie to a major label (Warner), flaring a debate concerning the appropriateness of such a move that still simmers to this day. Without getting deep into an indie versus major argument, let me present a counterfactual: if Hüsker Dü’s stint at a major label had been a thoroughly positive one – replete with improved albums and the lack of heartbreaking implosion, would certain segments of indie rock nation look upon major labels with as much derision as they justifiably do? Food for thought. Even those who talk about it disparagingly refer to the action of bands moving from smaller, independent labels to larger ones in an upward fashion. “They jumped to a major label” implies ascending, not downward or lateral, movement.

It seems that Hüsker Dü won me over despite bucking my preconceived notions at the time regarding supposed virtues and sins in music. Believe me, even though I loved the previous EP, I was very skeptical the first time I put Zen Arcade on. Think about what it is: a concept double album. Do they really expect to hold my attention that long? And what’s the deal with this last song being 14 minutes long? I still have some minor objections to the concept album claim. The story is about a boy who runs away from home in order to escape his tumultuous family life, only to discover the life outside of home is just as hard. This I cede, but where does “Standing By The Sea” (an earlier version of which was recorded during the Metal Circus sessions) or “Beyond The Threshold” fit into the narrative?

Oh well, no matter. Nowadays, the cult status of this album goes rightfully unchallenged a quarter of a century after its initial release. A legendary recording recorded in legendary fashion, Zen Arcade is an album that honestly does need to be listened in its entirety. The songs lose a little when plucked out of context. But this blog is called 500 Songs, not 500 Albums, so we have to stick to the game plan here.

Of the four sides of vinyl that comprise Zen Arcade, side two is my least favorite. (I realize this is sort of like complaining about what your least favorite way of winning the lottery is.) The first half of it comes across as senseless ruckus-making, the second half sounds like a collection of tunes that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. “What’s Going On” and “Masochism World” both conclude by devolving into noise; “Standing By The Sea” is a slow drift meant to mimic the soothing rhythm of ocean waves. I am being overly-critical here; don’t get me wrong – this is all great music I love dearly, but in hyper-analysis of the album it’s a bit of a lull, and I distinctly remember being in kind of a drowsy haze when I took side two off and replaced it with side three.

I was instantly snapped out of that haze with the bright and shiny attention-grabbing chords to “Somewhere.” The only song on the album written by one member of the band (Mould) but sung but another (Hart), this is the point where Hüsker Dü delivers on all their promise. Lyrically, this is classic Hüsker Dü emotional turmoil, contrasting desires with actuality. Furthermore, the songwriters make the concession that not only do they not know what they want, but that there might not be anything in particular that would satisfy them.

Searching for the truth but all I ever find is lies
Trying to find identity but I just find a disguise
Looking at the nightmare when I try to see the dream
Finding a reality as perfect as it seems

Somewhere the dirt is washed down with the rain
Somewhere there’s happiness instead of pain
Somewhere satisfaction has no name
Somewhere I can be the same

Looking down on everything it seems a total bore
Missing all the people that I’ve never met before
Trying to find an unknown something I consider best
Don’t know if I’ll find it but until then I’ll be depressed

The backwards guitar after the second chorus that continues through the rest of the song (and into the next) is gorgeous. And it’s worth pointing out that this song is just the beginning: the entire second disc of Zen Arcade is amazing song after amazing song, all the way to the final feedback whine of that aforementioned lengthy final instrumental.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the album, I hope all this chatter piques your curiosity and that the sound sample whets your appetite. You can find all the other songs on the album on YouTube as well, but it is not available as digital download. The band has not gone back and re-mastered any of their SST output. The only way to get it is by way of the hard copy. But that’s fine, it’s not hard to track down and you can pretend to be the indie diehard that still clings to vinyl CDs.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ian Songs #7. Mary Go Round

Let’s fire up all the clichés.

Lightnin’ in a bottle. Always loved that phrase. Backhanded compliment? Sure, but I’d rather catch lightning then catch shit for continually banging out mediocre records. Of course, mediocre is in the, ahem, eye of the beholder. Case in point, Victims has had a nice career, crustily maximizing this d-beat n’ roll that has been eyeing an audience for some time now. But, they never seem to rise above the authentically leather-clad and the be-studded to hit the ears of folks that only have a passing familiarity with Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing (odd how that title sums up the up-to-now proliferation of the genre).

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because Victims best work, the album of theirs' that is worth the time/effort to track down is a ridiculously hard to find demo EP. From the opening feedback to the final chug, Harder Than it Was Meant to Be is delightfully free of battleworn self-doubt, the kind of limitations that a band lumps upon their songwriting when they’ve done enough road testing to see what works and what doesn’t. Duders here are just plain pissed with phlegm covering every blown-out microphone, every amp reduced to rubble, and every drum head thoroughly smashed. And the production is endearingly shoddy, which, ultimately makes this recording. Instead of hiding the flaws behind a wall of sound, it presents them up front, bobbing on the waves of coursing adrenaline and without the anchor of self-control. You can only get a recording like this on the first go-’round, which is why most demos, for whatever reason, are music’s lightning rod atop the Empire State Building.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Marky's song #13: Hüsker Dü – “Diane”

(Hüsker Dü, part one)

Hardcore songs are supposed to be valued for their speed. A genre based on aggression naturally veers in that direction. So much so that when a song is presented that advances at a milder pace (like “Public Defender” by S.O.A. or the bridge in Minor Threat’s “Screaming at a Wall”), it immediately garners attention: the monotony of velocity is broken up. That’s the first thing I noticed about this song when I first heard it, but what happened about 1:10 in was much more jarring.

We already have one song tangentially related to the band in question, and I have a second one on the brain to follow this post up with eventually. That’s the amount of influence Messrs. Mould, Hart, and Norton had on the collective conscious of underground rock. Anyhoo, this track is from the Metal Circus EP, a 45-RPM slab of vinyl that chugs right along at the expected pace until this, the middle cut on the three-song B side.

I’ll try to describe the scene here: a shy kid by himself in his room on a late autumn afternoon. He notices that this one song clocks in at nearly twice the length of any other song on the record. His ears perk up a little at the opening mantra-like drumbeat, followed by a bass part played through a flanger pedal. And then he catches these opening verse lyrics:

“Hey little girl, do you need a ride?
I’ve got room in my wagon, why don’t you hop inside?
We can cruise down Roberts Street all night long
But I think I’ll just rape and kill you instead…”

OK, so you figured out that the kid in question was me. There’s no prize for that. The lyrics are printed right on the back of the album cover (those of you too young to have owned vinyl will have to simply trust me on this) and I still missed it. I was lying on my back on the bed with the album jacket on my chest and not looking at the lyric sheet. So I sat up and said to myself “wait…what? What the fuck did he just say? I picked up the needle and restarted the song, as if I was just not hearing right and he’d say something different the second time around.

This song is about the murder of Diane Edwards, which occurred in the Minneapolis area in 1980. It’s not the kind of topic I’d come to expect from a hardcore band. This was far too disturbing, far too vulnerable for hardcore – or was it? This EP is pointed to as the Great Leap Forward for Hüsker Dü, where they began to leave their hardcore sound (but not their ethos) behind and move towards a poppier approach. “Diane” is not the first truly classic Hüsker Dü song (that would be “In a Free Land”), but it’s the one that got them noticed outside hardcore circles and played on college radio stations back when getting played on college radio stations actually meant something. Yet, this song is not the one that clinched them for me. That song will be the topic for my next post. Suspense! (Sort of.)

Partially because it's such a good song and partially because it's a simple three chord pattern that repeats through the entire song, “Diane” is an oft-covered indie rock epic that keeps getting tinkered with re-imagined. For the story so far, a search of YouTube found the following versions:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Marky's song #12: Charles Ives - "The Unanswered Question"

In Poland, the 5000-zloty banknote has native composer Frédéric Chopin on the front. If the United States were to do something similar, Charles Ives would have to be included somewhere. (And not on the never-used $2 bill, dammit – though that gives new meaning to the phrase “two buck Chuck.” Ahem, anyway.)

Ives’s goal (insofar that he had a single ‘goal’) was to create a body of work that was distinctly ‘American.’ Ives was adamant that American musical culture could not advance if composers didn’t move beyond mere imitation of Germans. Lazy writers often slot him as a postmodernist, but in reality he had stopped composing long before the postmodernist movement began and he hardly considered himself part of the avant-garde.

His body of work sounds nothing like composers that preceded him and very little like the actual modernists that followed. Ives’s music distinguishes itself with its borrowing from other sources. His compositions are peppered with melodies referenced from folk tunes, church hymns and early ragtime melodies as well as Beethoven and his beloved Brahms. Motifs are swiped, altered and offered back with bristling and energetic polytonality. His compositions are emotional and earthy, a far cry from the academic steeliness of real postmodernism.

“The Unanswered Question” (written in 1906, revised in 1934) is a program piece scored for one trumpet, four flutes and a compliment of strings. The strings are supposed to represent silence (wrap your head around that) while a solitary man contemplates the meaning of life, the perennial question of existence, or some other weighty matter. The trumpet asks a five-note theme that is slowly answered by the flutes. Unsatisfied with the response, the trumpet repeats its plangent query. The flutes respond again, more frantic and dissonant than before. This process of question and increasingly discordant answer continues over and over until the flutes, exasperated, can do nothing more but blurt out incoherence. The trumpet concludes with the original theme that is not responded to; the question remains unanswered, The Unanswered Question.

Because of the simplified instrumentation and relatively digestible content, “The Unanswered Question” is one of Ives’s most often performed compositions. But a single piece is obviously not enough to give an accurate depiction of a composer. For the curious listener, I’ve uploaded some more performances into one convenient folder HERE for you to peruse at your own leisure. Included are the companion piece “Central Park in the Dark”, the Symphony of Holidays, Orchestral Sets #1 and #2, and for the really adventurous, his Fourth Symphony. Enjoy. It’s about time we got a little classical music into this blog.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Marky's song #11: Boredoms - "Super Going"

I’ve read that it takes courage to admit one’s mistakes. Not that I expect a Medal of Honor for this one, but truth be told, I gave up on the Boredoms too quickly. I wound up passing on giving their best album a chance for a few years simply because a small handful of earlier releases tried my patience too much. My bad.

A little background history. Back in the day (and by that I mean 1988), the Boredoms arrived from Saturn Japan to unleash incomprehensible music on unsuspecting audiences. Their albums were both aggressively flashy and violently hilarious. The best part about it all was that the uneasy chuckles their music provoked came from both those in the know as well as those who simply wrote the band off as adorable but clueless foreigners. Soul Discharge (1989) and Pop Tatari (1992) were masterpieces of fractured cultural blender-ism; its noise-making tantrums being both amusing and terrifying, yet a surprisingly large amount of the music sticks to the wall once all is said and done. The latter album in particular deserves additional mention; it was released on Warner’s Japanese imprint, which lead Spin magazine writer Mike Rubin to comment that it was probably the least commercially viable album released on a major label since Metal Machine Music.

But all winning streaks have to come to an end sometime. 1994 saw the release of Chocolate Synthesizer, which was only so-so, and then the Super Roots series began to see the light of day and that’s when things started to get tedious. #3 and especially the monolithic #5 were the hardest pills to swallow; the former being a half-hour hardcore stomp and the latter being over an hour of a cymbal wash and open guitar strings. The band called the music “ambient hardcore”, I called it a drag. More than anything, these albums left me sad: my beloved Boredoms had lost their way.

And so, it wasn’t until 2003 when I finally got around to picking up Super æ (pronounced ‘super eye.’) What a boo-boo I made. It’s an awesome album, but for reasons very different from what made Soul Discharge and Pop Tatari so awesome. The band traded thrashcore freak-outs for blissful sun-worshipping voyages.

In order to fully convey the impact of this song, I need to talk a bit about what leads up to it on the album. The opening track, “Super You”, is a pile-up of spliced chords; seven minutes of a band’s jam presented out of sequence with occasional modifications to the tape speed. A tiny beat finally pops up near the end, but it’s practically incidental to the confusing (and confused) instrumental track. If you’ve never heard the Boredoms before, this song is as worthy an introduction as any, but in the context of the album it makes perfect sense. It has to be the opening track – and only on this album.

From there, the album moves on to “Super Are.” It starts with a couple minutes of blocky chords played on what sounds like a Hammond organ. After a while, it gives way to some soft tribal drumming and – what’s this? Actual singing? With harmonies?! On a Boredoms album?!?! It’s true and it’s surprising how well they swing it. The band never gave us any inclination they had this stuff in them. When the first power chords come crashing into the song, it’s the most arena-rock moment the Boredoms have ever created. The track then busts into a sort of primitive stomp punctuated by trumpet runs. An ear-splitting screech brings it to a halt before slamming into our track in question.

Boredoms - "Super Going"

From here, the album soars into the stratosphere. “Super Going” is actually not all that complicated of a song: it mainly just seesaws back and forth between two chords; about eight-and-a-half minutes (!) in, a primal scream causes a few more chords to get tossed into the equation, eventually giving way to one final drumming climax and the word SHINE! Reading the description, you might thing it's the recipe for the most boring song ever. But in the hands of the Boredoms, it's a breathtaking magic carpet ride. “Super Going” does what all truly great songs should do – immediately demand you listen to it again once it has ended. It’s a challenge for me not to simply hit the previous track button when I’m playing the full album.

(Here's an edited version of the album with a cool video included.)

The rest of the album is just as fascinating, but it was this song that won me back over. Apparently, the only substantial difference between a spazz-rock band and a trance-rock band is how long they spend focusing on each idea! Subsequent releases have mined similar trance-like territory to lesser effect. Even the live Boadrum experiments didn’t capture my attention as much. I guess the main problem for a band that releases so many wonderful albums is that the bar gets set very high. But really, I should cut the Boredoms some slack – the vast majority of bands never release even one classic album. The Boredoms have blessed us with three.