Sunday, August 16, 2020

Irreducible: Colossamite live (finally)

I've been on an Alice Coltrane kick lately (working my way through the Impulses right now) and also going back through some of the late Coltrane material from when Alice was in the band (Stellar Regions, Expression, etc.). It occurred to me — esp. given how much great footage there is out there of the classic quartet — what a huge loss it is that there's no high-quality extended footage of that final group with Alice, Pharoah, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali. (This brief and fragmentary footage from Newport '66 is all we've got, as far as I know.)

The truth is that, in the YouTube era, we as fans are incredibly spoiled, in that we can dial up pretty much whatever we want at any moment, whether it's the Cecil Taylor Unit live in Paris in 1969, or Zeppelin live at a tiny teen club in Denmark that same year. It's incalculable how much this circumstance has enriched my musical understanding in the past 10 years or so, giving me the chance to lay eyes on countless bands — from Last Exit to '84 Black Flag, the Stanier-Bogdan-era Helmet lineup and Sabbath in their absolute prime — that whether due to age, geography or circumstance, I never got to see in person.

That collective archive extends about as far into the underground as you want to go — all the way to, say, a 1996 Karate show in my hometown of KC, where I was one of maybe 30 people in the audience. But somehow some bands seem to have slipped through the cracks, and for the longest time, it seemed like Colossamite was one of those. If you've heard of them at all, chances are you're about as obsessed as I am; if not, you're in the great majority. Though they put out two mind-searing releases on the great and relatively visible Skin Graft label in the late '90s — All Lingo's Clamor and Economy of Motion — they're barely remembered these days, even among those who might be die-hard fans of prior or later bands involving some of the same musicians (Dazzling Killmen, Deerhoof, etc.). 

Among a few friends and me, these records quickly became legendary for their combination of the calculated fury of bands like the Killmen and craw with the chaotic blurt of free improvisation and hints of esoteric and offbeat humor. In short, in my eyes, this was some of the most challenging, original and inspired music of its time. But the band sort of came and went and I never found myself near any of their performances during their too-brief lifespan.

All throughout the YouTube era, as the fossil record, so to speak, grew more and more comprehensive, I kept waiting for the day when some Colossamite footage might surface. When I had the pleasure of interviewing Colossamite guitar masterminds John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez — who first came on my radar via their participation in this band and then went on to well-deserved renown as members of Deerhoof — for my Heavy Metal Bebop series in 2012, we talked at length about Colossamite (see here and here), and Ed mentioned to me that he knew of a single show that had been recorded, and that he thought he might have a VHS copy stashed away somewhere. Well, apparently the person who filmed that gig recently dug it up and deemed it worthy of posting because — as Ed has just informed me in an email — it's now sitting there on YouTube for all to see. 

 

As I type this, I'm only about halfway through it but I wanted to take a second to document that feeling of joy and enrichment that comes with laying eyes on something you truly never thought you'd see, of witnessing a band in performance that you assumed you'd only ever hear. I tell you, friends, it's as awesome as I could have ever hoped for. Considering the vintage, the quality is excellent and, though John is sadly out of frame for a lot of it, the video really clues you in to what a fearsome organism this band truly was. 

Being a drummer myself, and having had the good fortune to see Colossamite vocalist-guitarist Nick Sakes play many times in later years in the outstanding bands Sicbay and Xaddax and guitarists Dieterich and Rodriguez play together in the mighty Deerhoof and separately in a handful of projects, a major focus for me watching this is the drummer, Chad Popple. Chad has been (at least to me) a bit of a shadowy figure in the years since Colossamite ended. From what I understand, he's been living in Europe since that time, and though he's been active this whole time in various experimental/uncategorizable contexts (including the great and underrated Gorge Trio with Dieterich and Rodrigez), he's been a bit harder to keep tabs on than his ex-Colossamite bandmates. Anyway, my first exposure to the Colossamite records came before I really had a grasp of the free-jazz/free-improv continuum but over the years, especially as I heard drummers like Han Bennink, Tony Oxley and Paul Lovens, it started to become clearer to me how ingenious Popple's style really was: the way he combined the startling aggression of the best post-hardcore and metal drummers of the '90s with a turbulent flow that seemed to have more in common with the Euro improv greats mentioned above or, say, Drumbo circa Lick My Decals Off, Baby. (Regarding the latter quality, it's interesting to note that my old friend Kevin Shea seems to have been thinking along similar lines around the same time, as heard in Storm and Stress and, later, Coptic Light.)

Anyway, all of these qualities discussed above, namely both Popple's terrifying force and precision and his warped, destabilizing eccentricity, are on full display in this video. And all of it is also evident in the entire band. From what I can tell, the material comes mostly from Economy of Motion, so we get the diseased lurch of "Mr. Somebody Does Something" along with the surrealist spoken word of "The Eagle and the Seal" and the tense build of "Arkansas Halo." (Listening further, I'm thrilled to hear "No Entran Moscas" from All Lingo's, with its endlessly unspooling chorus riff.) It's such a pleasure to watch the band tear into every aspect of this material, absolutely raging through the loud moments and relishing the wobble and fragility of the freer passages, and then smiling and joking nonchalantly between songs. 

I love how willing Colossamite were to send their audience mixed signals, never aligning themselves with any subset of metal or post-hardcore or the conventions of free improv or of more well-established avant-rock practices. They were just a thrillingly weird band that honed a beautifully organic writing style that implored the listener at every second to buckle up for what might be coming next. In my own mind, they certainly helped to redefine what a "band" could be, and helped to further drive home the idea that some of the music that would hit me the hardest and stick with me the longest would be the most personal, the least relatable to known styles or pursuits, but at the same time, the most carefully and meticulously engineered. I'm reminded a bit here of something that Dazzling Killmen bassist Darin Gray said to me when looking back on first encountering craw in the early '90s:

[From a 2015 Noisey interview; emphasis mine]

"…I think probably at the time, live, [craw] was the most unique band I had ever heard. There really isn't another band like craw. They're a completely unique entity. And I remember just thinking, like, 'Wow, someone has worked as hard as we have on a completely different thing.' It wasn't that craw sounded anything like Dazzling Killmen, and quite the contrary, really nothing like it. I could tell, I could hear that they had honed it and worked on it to the highest level. And at the time, there weren't a whole lot of bands out there touring that were like that, that had honed something to that high of a level. … The only reason I felt that they did hone their craft the way they did was because they felt they had to; they felt compelled to be great. And to be the best they could be. And for no other reason. There was no gain. There was absolutely nothing to gain, and I could tell they knew that." 

I feel the same things watching this, and am reminded why I was so drawn to this area of music — whatever you want to call it — in my youth and still am now. There was a compulsion to be great couple with, not a desire to alienate any potential audience exactly, but a distinct refusal to pander to one either, to put up familiar signposts of genre that might orient a casual listener. If you were dealing with this music, either on record as I was, or in a tiny venue, as was the case for these lucky attendees at this Knoxville, TN, Colossamite gig more than 20 years ago, you were dealing with it full-on. That, to me, is one of the great pleasures of underground music — that you might be standing in a room with, say, 15 other people and — as the idle drift of a pre-gig lull snaps suddenly into the crush and overstimulation of the show itself — suddenly have your consciousness forever altered by some shockingly powerful and carefully honed statement. 

I love bigger shows; I love more universal and relatable aesthetics (in addition to the Coltranes, I've been listening to a ton of late '70s and early '80s AC/DC lately); but I will always hold a special place in my heart for a band like Colossamite, who developed and refined such a personal language among themselves that it's essentially irreducible and incomparable to anything other than itself. As it is on the records, that achievement is frozen in time on this live video, and I'm thrilled that even after all this time, it still feels utterly alien, invigorating, and alive.

Friday, July 03, 2020

John Zorn's jazz-metal multiverse

Here is a long story I recently published on John Zorn. It focuses on his many projects over the years that have blended jazz/improv with metal/hardcore — from Spy vs. Spy through Naked City, Painkiller and others, on up to the currently active Simulacrum — and the considerable influence these endeavors have had on both communities. It's based on new interviews with John and around 20 of his collaborators, from Joey Baron and Bill Frisell to Mike Patton and Mick Harris. This was a lot of fun to work on and I hope you'll give it a read.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Heavy Metal Bebop Podcast: Jack DeJohnette

Honored to present this conversation with a true legend (recorded last summer, well before COVID-19). Listen via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Podbean. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 03, 2020

DFSBP lives

Hello, you may have noticed that DFSBP* is somewhat (OK, far...) less active than it's been in the past. This is mainly due to the fact that much of my writing now takes place via Rolling Stone. I still post here occasionally, though, so I hope you will check back as you're able and take some time to browse the archives.

Speaking of which, here are some past posts that I like:

-Interviews: Astral Weeks producer Lewis Merenstein, vibraphone magician Walt Dickerson.

-Spontaneous subgenre surveys: “math rock”, major-label post-hardcore of the 1990s.

-Remembrances: Cecil Taylor, Cleve Pozar, Charlie Haden.

-Impressions of live shows: Brötzmann/Leigh, Taylor/Oxley.

-Impromptu deep dives into this or that body of work or musical avenue: the compositions of Cecil Taylor (noticing a theme?); Paul Motian; Tim Berne’s early Snakoil records; death-metal conservatism.

-Reflections on the act of writing-about-music and why I’m uneasy with the idea of “criticism”: Kamasi Washington, Frank Ocean

And you'll find year-end top 10 lists dating back to 2005 here.

If you ever come across a dead link here or have questions or comments about a given post, don't hesitate to drop me a line. Thanks as always for reading. -HS

*If you’re curious where the name came from, have a look at this post.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Heavy Metal Bebop Podcast: Defeated Sanity

I've wanted to interview Lille Gruber, drummer, co-founder and mastermind of German death-metal masters Defeated Sanity, for a long time now. So happy that it finally came to pass — during a recent visit to New York by Lille and bassist Jacob Schmidt — and I hope you enjoy the results. Some context for those who might not be familiar: Lille actually started Defeated Sanity with his father, Wolfgang Teske, a fusion musician who learned about metal through his son. Wolfgang, who had introduced his son to Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and other jazz-rock staples early on, remained part of the group from its 1993 inception through 2008; sadly he died two years later.

In this episode of the Heavy Metal Bebop Podcast, Lille delves deep into that father-son collaboration and much more, and the episode also includes an interview with Jacob. Thanks for listening!

Apple

Spotify 

Podbean

Friday, March 06, 2020

McCoy

Update, 3/9/20: One more for McCoy and the quartet.

I'm no expert on his vast catalog, but the records I do know — mainly the Coltranes, the Blue Notes and a few of the Milestones — have brought me so much enjoyment. I tried to link to as many primary/authoritative sources as I could in this Rolling Stone obit. He was such a great talker (e.g., "I like to go on an adventure when I play," from Innerviews) so the quotes carry the day.

I have no good excuse for only having seen him play one full live set — I believe I caught other briefer appearances here and there — but at least I have that one memory. As far as the recorded legacy, Phil Freeman's deep dive into his '70s discography is a helpful guide to an overlooked period.

RIP, McCoy Tyner. He was one of the last remaining giants of those glorious 1960s that we'll obsess over forever.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Sultans of swing

Happy belated 50th to one of the best bands, full stop. I took the opportunity to delve into the jazz roots and swing tendencies of Black Sabbath, with help from Bill Ward, Henry Rollins and others. This one was part of a mini Sabbath bonanza of sorts over at RS, for which my friend and colleague Kory Grow, a true black-belt Sabbathologist, went all out, shedding new light on the circumstances of the iconic debut and the heretofore mysterious cover art. Hope you dig.

Thank you as always for visiting and reading. More soon!

PS: For anyone keeping track, the Heavy Metal Bebop Podcast is not defunct, just on a little break. In the meantime, please check out the 2019 backlog if you haven't already.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sunday, January 12, 2020

A farewell to the king: Goodbye, Neil Peart

Sure, I've put together a top 10 list or two in my day. But the practice of ranking and quantifying artists and artworks is generally not something I place much stock in. Let's just say, though, that someone were to ask me to name my favorite band. I've answered craw in the past, and I take nothing away from their towering significance within my personal pantheon. But if we're talking about the one whose music I've spent more time with than any other, whose output has provided me with the greatest amount of spirit food for the longest span of time, it has to be Rush and no other.

They've been my happy place for so long, I can't even remember a time before. Just about every album. (Honestly, the self-titled debut might be the only one I don't adore.) Nearly every song. Throughout all those records, there are maybe four or five tracks I don't outright love. (Strangely, two of them, "Chemistry" and "Countdown," happen to be on the same LP, Signals, which is otherwise maybe my favorite Rush album.) All the DVDs and live albums, which in recent years, I've gone back to as much if not more than the studio records. Five live shows, stretching back to April of '94, when I had my mind blown by the Counterparts tour, and including the Snakes and Arrows tour in 2007, the Time Machine run in 2010 (Moving Pictures front to back), the Clockwork Angels tour in 2012 and the phenomenal R40 in 2015.

But also, like, two half-marathons completed with predominantly Rush blasting in my headphones. Runs, walks, subway rides. Moments of hazy pre-sleep consciousness with Rush playing on the stereo or in my ears. A very fragmentary "Xanadu" cover learned with my friends and bandmates. The big "Tom Sawyer" fill, a good chunk of "Subdivisions" and a few other choice bits labored over and sketchily reproduced in the practice room. Countless nerdy conversations. Innumerable air-drum sessions. Recently, fledgling attempts to play a bit of "Limelight" on guitar. Just, like, a life with this music as the backdrop or, not all that infrequently, the central focus. The impact is indescribable, the debt unrepayable.

There is so much more to say, but here's what I pulled together in tribute to the great man on the occasion of his passing, inspired in part by this ancient DFSBP riff on the "Subdivisions" drum part.

Thank you for everything, and farewell.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

2019/2010s in review

*2019 all-genres-in-play list, plus runners-up, songs and shows.

*2019 jazz list.

*2010s all-genres-in-play list, plus runners-up and songs.

*2010s jazz list.

I've also updated the two archives of prior top 10 lists:

*All-genres-in-play lists, 2005 through the present.

*Jazz lists, 2008 through the present.

/////

This year, I released 10 episodes of the Heavy Metal Bebop Podcast, featuring interviews with Black Sabbath's Bill Ward, Living Colour's Vernon Reid, Jan Hammer, Dave King and more. Please check them out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Podbean if you haven't already. More to come in 2020!

And thanks to these and other music/etc. podcasts that have enriched and inspired me; I strongly encourage you to give them all a look/listen:

-The 5049 Podcast
-The Trap Set
-Kreative Kontrol
-The Heavy Hole
-Dean Delray's Let There Be Talk
-Radical Research
-Crash Bang Boom Drumming Podcast
-Burning Ambulance
-Noisextra
-Washed Up Emo
-Everything Went Black
-You Don't Know Mojack
-Henry & Heidi

I wrote a lot this year, but the pieces I'm most proud of were the King Crimson–related stories, namely:

*A Robert Fripp interview.

*A two-part deep dive into the history and influence of "21st Century Schizoid Man."

*And a career-spanning interview with Bill Bruford.

And thank you to anyone still making their way to this webspace! It's less active than it has been in years past as more of my work appears elsewhere, but it's still meaningful to me as a personal archive and occasional writing outlet.