Saturday, November 28, 2009

Marky's song #18: Voivod – "Missing Sequences"

My biggest complaint against metal music, regardless of the qualifying prefix (speed-, nu-, hair-, etc.), is that there have always been too many bands. It pains me to say that, because I am a fan. But seriously, go request a printed catalog from Metal Disc – you’ll get a monstrosity in the mail boasting triple-digit pages with an uncountable number of indistinguishable bands you’ve never heard of before.

So the story of metal has been since time immemorial. There’s always been a glut of bands and a dearth of innovation. Sure, metal has mass working class appeal, but it’s still ultimately a conservative-minded genre. Doing what’s expected and nothing greater is a perfectly acceptable way to ply the trade. And as soon as one band strikes an ore vein with a strong fresh idea, an endless amount of copycat bands almost instantly pop up.

It’s part of the reason why I love mid-career Voivod as much as I do. They started out as a fairly pedestrian thrash band, but their sci-fi obsessions and deep interest in progressive rock blended together to form a truly original hybrid of forward-thinking metal. It took them a while to find their stride (the first three albums are patchy) and losing key members late in their career saw a decline in quality (avoid the albums that don’t include Denis BĂ©langer), but when they were on, their music can stand the tests of time.

In the late 80s and early 90s the band released a quartet of amazing albums. This track comes from the second of the four, Nothingface (released in 1989). It’s my personal favorite both for being the height of their creativity and the height of their experimentalism. The album saw them incorporate more electronic drum triggers (handled by drummer Michel Langevin) and guitar effects as well as an increased ability to write memorable melodies. Voivod is probably the only band that could make a couplet like “bauxite double bind / forgetful retry” stick in your head.

This song is about, uh, sequences that are missing, I guess. It’s not the lyrics I care about here – it’s the song structure. Basically it's just two long verses, one of my favorite compositional devices in metal (“Excoriating Abdominal Emanation” by Carcass is another excellent example of this concept). This particular track is club-sandwiched between an intro, a coda and a killer middle break. The verse itself has four distinct segments before moving to the break that I love so much.

“I did, I didn’t know / I think I should go … GO!” The guitar solo is short and backed only by the bass – this was the album where Voivod decided to eschew rhythm guitar tracks and let bassist Jean-Yves ThĂ©riault handle holding the harmonic background down. The apex of the song is right smack in the middle: those four chords that follow the solo are amazing; go back and listen to them again. Then it jumps into the second verse. Going through the cycle again and on to the closing section, you can tell a lot has happened, but it's all easy to separate into bite-sized chunks.

Progressive metal that isn't navel-gazing nor a chore to listen to. What a novel idea, right? If only there had been more bands at the time willing to push themselves as hard as Voivod did. For those who don't already know, Voivod guitarist Denis D'Amour succumbed to cancer in 2005 and the rest of the band pieced together a farewell album from unused studio tracks that was released earlier this year. Thanks for the music, guys. What a long, strange trip it's been.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Marky's song #17: Dion McGregor – "Vulvina"

Dion McGregor (1922-1994) was a somniliquist.

Dion McGregor - "Vulvina"

Check your wife at the door. Check your child at the door with your wife. This is for men only. Come in and see Vulvina! Now, you must ask her all the questions you want. Vulvina will answer all your sex questions. Now ... step right up. Tickets are only five dollars apiece. It's your one and only time to see Vulvina. Check your wife and child at the door. Come back, ladies ... come back, ladies. In an hour or two, Vulvina will have answered all his questions. Now, if you have any questions you wanna ask Vulvina, write them out and hand them to him. He will give them to Vulvina!

Now, at the end of this show -- at the end of this show, Vulvina will do something that no one has ever done before. And don't ask your husband until you get home and in bed tonight, ladies. Maybe you can do it! Hee-hee-heeee.

Okay! Okay! Okay! Tickets going! Tickets going! Five dollars a head! Five dollars a head! Form a little line right there, form a little line right there. Okay! Okay! Okay! Vulvina! Vulvina! They're coming in!

Hmmm -- five dollars? Too much ... too much, too much. Now honey, we can't afford five dollars. You wanna know? You can't go in. You want me to go in and report? Come on now -- what does this Vulvina know that we don't know? It's perfectly silly, perfectly silly. I don't care.

Hmph, and if ... she looks ugly. Look at that picture. What? My boss is prettier than she is. Look at that. She's just got one eyebrow -- it goes from ear to ear. I ... Honey, five dollars -- that's a terrible waste, to look at her. Mmm, well it certainly is. Tell you what -- let's go home and I'll give you the five dollars. That's it. It ... it's worth it.

You've got ... no, now come on. You wanna know what she does there at the end? Oh, alright. Well, you wait there ... you wait there in the woman's waiting room. Honestly, I've never felt so ... seedy. Imagine joining that line to see Vulvina. Vulvina What?

Okay, okay. Bye, honey. Yes, here it is -- it's what? Nnnn, you didn't tell me it was five dollars and then tax. Alright, there it is. What a cheerless room. Hunh -- isn't she homely? Look at that face! Look at that face -- mmmm. Oh, yes! She looks like a wallaby bear. Ulff. Can you imagine this ... you can't even call her a woman. Imagine her, commanding that kind of ticket money.

Oh -- one zip and she's out of her dress. At least she's got a pretty body. Mmm -- but that face. Who could get near it, who could get near it? I don't know. Question: how many times a night, Vulvina? ... Any number? Humph -- old whore. I'll bet it too, I'll bet she does, I'll bet she does.

She wants a volunteer. She wants a volunteer. Umm -- oh -- alr ... I'll volunteer, I'll volunteer! Get up there on that stage -- the closer I get, the more like a walrus she looks. Oh, look at that. Unhn -- not even very young. I wonder why she doesn't sag.

Okay, now what do I do, kneel down? Oh, very well. Oh -- oh no, I don't want to do that! No. I don't wanna do that. You have pictures? What? Oh, no, no ... well, that's impossible. Put my head in there? My whole head?!

Uh ... uh. It's pitch black in here. It's pitch black in here. You know I'm not even touching the sides, or the back? That is incredible! Vul-vi-na! Let me out! Vulvina, let me out! Let me out, Vulvina!

I know this stretches the boundaries of what is considered a “song” for our purposes (do we have purposes here?), but McGregor’s story is interesting enough for inclusion.

So, yes – he talked in his sleep. I high recommend going here for the full story behind who he was and how his dreams got recorded. Long story very short, McGregor was living in New York City (note the traffic you hear in the background) when his roommate Michael Barr discovered his subconscious talent in the mid-1950s and started getting up early in the morning in order to commit them to tape. A record of these recordings was released in 1964; a book consisting of dream transcriptions shortly followed. In 1999 Tzadik Records released Dion McGregor Dreams Again, where this track comes from.

McGregor narrated his dreams in a way that was simultaneously funny and disturbing. Usually he would wake up with a start at the climax of the dream, but the tape cuts off this time. Listen to this track a second time and more things emerge; the phrases “five dollars a head” and “they’re coming in” have twisted double meanings once you realize what is happening in the dream. For a unique, surreal listen, I honestly can’t recommend hearing the full album enough. It’s not something you’ll listen to once and then file away. Hearing McGregor verbally paint his dream world is engaging enough to make one want to go back again and again to see if you missed any other plays on words. Too much, too much... indeed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Marky's song #16: Ornette Coleman – "Angel Voice"

Ornette Coleman did not invent free jazz; no one single person did. Free jazz was pushed forward by a collection of like-minded musicians willing to test acceptable boundaries. But Ornette did become the most visible proponent and spokesperson. More importantly, he was the first to be disseminated through the channel of a large label, beginning with his recording contract with Atlantic in 1959.

Paraphrasing from a small part of the liner notes from the Beauty Is A Rare Thing boxset: nowadays it’s hard to understand what was the fuss all about. What Coleman did reads simple enough: he ignored the chord changes. Whether this is a progression or a regression depends on whom you ask, but at the risk of sounding overly portentous, all will concede that jazz was changed forever.

By the time he took up his residence at Atlantic, Coleman already had a pair of albums out. The earlier of the two, Something Else (1958), was released on Contemporary (and eventually found its way to digital format through the Original Jazz Classics imprint.) In retrospect, his debut seems the least ambitious when held up next to My Name Is Albert Ayler (1963) and Jazz Advance (1956). But Coleman would eventually sail headlong into uncharted waters like the rest of them, with fascinating results. Coleman only recorded for Atlantic for three years, but released a walloping eight albums of material.

Like Ayler and Taylor, Coleman had to make his earliest records with musicians who weren’t always hip to what he wanted. And like those contemporaries, the music succeeds without sounding forced or like people unable to communicate with each other. Of the classic quartet, he had first mate Don Cherry in tow, but Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell were still giggin’ on the opposite coast.

Coleman wrote all the melodies for Something Else, which helps the cause; with all the attention his improvisation theories get, it’s easy to forget that he is a very good composer. Walter Norris deserves special mention, handling his piano role in the quintet admirably. Piano didn’t really fit into Coleman’s musical vision, and he would wait almost forty years before recording with a pianist again, but Norris’s keen ear and light touch suits the music well without inadvertently imposing excessive harmonic restriction on it.

Ornette Coleman - "Angel Voice"

The order of solos is as follows: Coleman, Cherry, Norris, bassist Don Payne, another brief solo from Coleman, and a quick solo by kit-man Billy Higgins after a return to the theme.

Although Coleman’s first solo is stronger, it’s his second, shorter solo that deserves attention. Notice how he pokes around the rhythm section, not really reacting to anything, just casually exploring – the sound of a guy both showing others what he’s looking for and working an idea out on the stand. Sure enough, he wedges the square peg into the round hole and directs the band back to the theme in a logical way.

If you've never heard Ornette before, this should be your springboard. Save the harder stuff for later, lest you dismiss the man as an insufferable avant-guardist. If all you know is The Shape of Jazz to Come and Free Jazz, you owe it to yourself to hear the early records, just to prove that his ideas didn't emerge fully formed. He earned his stripes the old-fashioned way: through dabbling and woodshedding. You know, like a jazz musician.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Marky's song #15: Aphex Twin – untitled track; disc 2, track 9 (“Lichen”)

Before I digitized and ipod-ified by music collection, I had a bulky stereo with a 3-disc tray. Never mind that the quality of the stereo was total crap; at the time, I was of the mind that bigger meant better and easily enticed by bells, whistles and flashing lights. Ahh, capitalism.

It took me about a year after leaving school to move out of my family’s house and take up my current residence in Massachusetts. For that year, I had a simple system for said stereo: CD slot one was whatever I was in the mood for at the time – keep it real and keep it rotating. Slots two and three, on the other hand, always held the same two CDs: Aphex Twin’s double disc – also available on triple vinyl – Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2.

Aphex Twin is the project of Richard D. James from Cornwall, England. A contrarian always more interested in the process of making and manipulating sound than in the promotion of product, James happily shuns trends and popular sentiment. His first Aphex album received plenty of positive reviews while the follow-up was divisive. I heard SAW 2 (Lynn Bousman, call your lawyer) before I heard the debut and couldn’t understand what the hubbub was about. It wasn’t until picking up the preceeding Selected Ambient Works 85-92 a couple years later that it made sense. While the first album is consonant and even danceable, SAW 2 is abstruse, standoffish and mostly beatless.

If you’re like me, my condolences you need a little music to get to sleep at night. Just climb into bed and start disc two on the CD tray; SAW 2 was the perfect late evening soundtrack after I got home from the late shift. The album progresses somnambulistically, one quiet claustrophobic track after another. It was a poke in the eye to those that raved – no pun intended – over SAW 85-92 while desiring to elevate James to some sort of superstar status within the world of electronic music.

Aphex Twin - untitled track

A generally acknowledged title for this track is “Lichen,” but officially it’s untitled. The insert booklet itself lists no song titles, but instead has close up photos of various commonplace objects taken by Mr. James himself. Further intentional difficultness from a man who loves to find out what the people want ... and then do the opposite. The word that pops into my head when trying to describe this track is ‘warm.’ As you listen, try to imagine the first moments of daylight in the Sonora, the sun just beginning to peek out from the horizon. Or, for those who have synthenesia, this track (much like most of the album) is a washed-out dusty orange. Even my mother, who is convinced everything I listen to is ‘weird,’ had to say, “this is beautiful.” Even when he’s confounding our expectations, Mr. James still knows how to deliver. Nighty-night.