Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Lately (10/2/18)

*Will Oldham: My Life in 15 Songs, a.k.a. Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Palace Brothers mastermind, etc.) on 15 songs spanning more than 25 years. This was a special one for me. I've been a fan of Oldham's since around 1993, but I've never had a chance to interview him before. We talked for a long time, broken up into several conversations, and he couldn't have been nicer, more forthcoming or more insightful. I had to cut a ton of great material, but I'm really happy with how this turned out nonetheless. As part of my research, I re-read Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy — Alan Licht's 2012 book of Oldham interviews, which I reviewed for Time Out back then — and was reminded of how insightful it is. If you're a fan and haven't yet checked this out, you should remedy that asap.

*My take on Tom Surgal's new free-jazz doc Fire Music, which premiered at the New York Film Festival this past weekend. This one's been in the works a long time and it's great to see it finally being released. As I say in the piece, the interview material is really special. It's not a comprehensive film by any means, and at least in this cut, I don't think it's trying to be. Still, I think it works really well as a 101 intro to the movement. Seeing this made me realize what a robust array of free-jazz/"avant-garde"–related docs we now have to choose from, spanning close to 40 years. I ran down a few of those near the end of the piece. Imagine the Sound is still my personal gold standard, but having recently watched Ebba Jahn's 1985 film Rising Tones Cross — which documents New York's 1984 Sound Unity Festival, the predecessor to the Vision Festival, spearheaded by Patricia Nicholson and William Parker, and features those two along with Charles Gayle, Peter Kowald and many others — I can say that this film is another absolutely essential part of the canon of free-jazz cinema, not to mention a gritty and intimate portrait of a bygone New York.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Lately (9/26/18)

*A few words on why I'm obsessed with Radical Research, a hyper-niche metal/etc. podcast co-hosted by Jeff Wagner, who I shouted out back in 2010 when he released his essential progressive-metal history Mean Deviation.

*A write-up on a new project by Brandon Seabrook, which places his trademark avant/punk/jazz guitar convulsions in a striking new context.

*A review of Voivod's new album, which I absolutely adore. Their "One idea, three ways" aesthetic has never felt sturdier.

*A tribute to one of my favorite live bands (and heavy bands, period) Eyehategod. I wrote about EHG briefly in 2010 when their former drummer Joey LaCaze passed away.

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A quick note on the "Lately" format...

Due to various factors, I've have been writing more for Rolling Stone in general, which, fortunately, has meant covering topics that are important to me with greater frequency. In other words, some of the things that I might have previously covered here, I am now covering there, which, to me, is only a good thing. I make no pronouncements about the future, but for the time being, you might see more digest-type posts here than you would have in the past. I hope you'll check out these links as you see fit — it's been wonderful to cover everything from Eyehategod to Anthony Braxton in a somewhat more visible forum.

Thank you as always for reading!


Friday, September 14, 2018

Lately (9/14/18)

*Killing Joke were incredible on Wednesday at Irving Plaza. Here's a review/appreciation for RS. I've been having a blast immersing myself in the discography, particularly the super heavy/massive 2000s-era stuff. Just spun Absolute Dissent this morning and was re-floored. I mean, come on:


For an comprehensive rundown of KJ history, I highly recommend Kory Grow's 2013 Revolver piece. Also, this Someone Who Isn't Me podcast interview with Jaz Coleman is a total trip — such an enlightened dude.

*Emanon, the new Wayne Shorter release is glorious. Here's my review. Michelle Mercer's excellent Wayne bio, Footprints, was the perfect complement to the new set. I have no good excuse for not picking up Michelle's book till now, but I'm so glad I finally got there.

*And did you know Barre Phillips has a new solo bass album? Scroll down to near the bottom here.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Lately (9/8/18)

For Rolling Stone:

*An appreciation of Forces in Motion, Graham Lock's 1988 book on Anthony Braxton, which is out now in a new 30th-anniversary edition. I've loved this book for years and years, but it really struck me this time around just how much wisdom is packed into this thing, about creativity, perseverance, race in America and so much more. In my opinion it is a gold standard of engaging-with-art, the practice of a writer or "critic," or what have you, and how that entire endeavor ought to stem, first and foremost, from enthusiasm and curiosity, and a willingness to engage the subject, and their output, firsthand. And also, and I think this is is crucial: a willingness to be up front about not always getting it. Lock is never shy about acknowledging when some aspect of Braxton's art is outside his grasp, and that helps make Forces a refreshingly humble read.

*Reviews of the new albums by Clutch and Krisiun (scroll down to near the bottom for the latter). Clutch are a band I've loved for at least 25 years, maybe more. I have my favorites among their many, many releases, but my admiration for the entirety of what they've built — a sort of grassroots rock & roll empire — is intense. I'm so glad they're still here, and thriving. Krisiun are a more recent discovery. I picked a good time to come on board: As evidenced by Scourge of the Enthroned, they're currently making the strongest music of their career.

*A write-up of the ongoing Silenced project from drummer Donald Sturge Anthony McKenzie II, a series of one-take, no-edits improv duets. This is fierce, exploratory music, coupled (as you'll read) with an unflinching statement on the terrors of present-day America.

Friday, August 24, 2018

'Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor' and the question of the maestro's influence

Here is my Rolling Stone review of the new Tzadik release Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor, on which six pianists — Anthony Coleman, Sylvie Courvoisier, Kris Davis, Brian Marsella, Aruán Ortiz and Craig Taborn — pay tribute to the late maestro with respective solo pieces.

I enjoyed this one a lot, and it made me think about how Cecil's legacy will be preserved and/or carried forward in the future. Playing Changes, Nate Chinen's excellent new up-to-the-minute history of contemporary jazz, concludes with an overview of last year's Monk@100 festival, which, by the sound of it, reaffirmed the already well-established inexhaustibility of the Monk songbook. As I point out in the review, Cecil wrote an enormous amount of music, but precious little of it has ever been performed without him present. (In addition to the Steve Lacy and Vandermark 5 examples I linked to there, this is the only other instance I'm aware of, outside of his actual funeral, at which a band of his associates played the piece "Womb Waters Scent of the Burning Armadillo Shell.") A lot of this likely has to do with the sort of learned-by-ear method he seemed to favor within his own groups, which is described in many accounts of his working process. Still, though, there's a lot of Cecil music out there, and I'm curious to see if anyone, either his former collaborators or those who simply love his work enough to want to internalize and interpret it, will take up that challenge.

Will there ever be, in other words, an enshrined and constantly renewed culture of Ceciliana, the way there is with Monk, Ellington, Mingus, even, increasingly, a figure like Wayne Shorter? Can Cecil's music exist without him?

And beyond a project like Six Encomiums, where exactly will we see evidence of his influence on other pianists? Certainly plenty of musicians not featured on this album have cited him as a key influence: to name just three, Vijay Iyer, Marilyn Crispell and Jason Moran (who performed his own Cecil-inspired solo piece at a 2015 tribute to Taylor held while he was still alive at HarlemStage).

His actual presence and the specific sensation and content of his performances, especially the solo ones, seems almost impossible to recapture, though, again, I wonder if anyone will try.

The question is, really, how do you carry on the legacy of a figure who, especially by the later stages of his career, stood entirely apart from genre, who carved out a new niche in American (and global) culture that only he could fill, right down to his dress and his manner of speaking. Outright imitation is generally ill-advised anyway, but what about even some kind of respectful emulation? How would an admirer of Cecil Taylor express that in his or her own endeavor? And more broadly, what will a post-Cecil reality look or sound like? I'll certainly be staying tuned.

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Note: Ben Ratliff's Times piece on CT from 2012, which arrived in advance of a 2012 Taylor-centered mini-fest that included a tribute concert with Iyer, Taborn and others, probes into some of these same questions. Essential reading.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

New Thing at Newport

Me after getting completely drenched while watching Pat Metheny during a downpour at the 2018 Newport Jazz Fest.
For many fans and writers-about-music, festivals are a way of life. But I'm in the minority there: Aside from annual trips to Winter Jazzfest, I simply haven't attended very many of them — and I've only formally covered a tiny handful. (One of them being the 2012 Maryland Deathfest.) 

When it comes to the coverage part, I've mainly steered clear because the act of writing about a festival can really be a to-do: You're, in theory, seeing music you love, but you're also traveling a lot in a brief time span, hustling around between sets, staying out late, waking up early to process what you saw the prior day before heading straight out to do it all again, and trying to get yourself home and resituated in your life while on a tight deadline to file your copy. 

But when I saw the lineup for the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, I knew I had to simply power through all that and deal: It looked too good to pass up. As it turns out, it was even better than I hoped. Honestly, the music was phenomenal, an absolute feast, an exceedingly rare concentration of world-class talent. Not to mention a chance to reconnect with various friends in the scene and to make a few new ones. 

Here is my rundown of fest highlights for Rolling Stone, in which I tried to touch on as many sets as I could. (I probably caught something like 40 acts in total, so this was a major challenge.)

I'd like to thank fest publicist Carolyn McClair for her above-and-beyond assistance with this endeavor, as well as my employer, Rolling Stone, for sending me. I won't soon forget what a treat this was.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Two New Yorks, one epic night: BarrSheaDahl's 10th Anniversary Special Large Ensemble + Alan Braufman's 'Valley of Search'

My ears are still ringing from the second of two shows I saw tonight, a 10th-anniversary improv blowout by the trio known as BarrSheaDahl (consisting, respectively, of MickKevinTim) and 12 of their closest friends. The glorious happening they staged at Bushwick's Market Hotel was something like a post-jazz/noise/metal version of Ascension, or maybe more accurately, Free Jazz: five guitar-bass-drums trios situated throughout the room and playing a loosely structured 47-minute piece governed by a simple yet ingenious Tim Dahl score, consisting of a series of timed cues.

So, for example, one trio would play alone for around five minutes, then another would either join it or take its place. At other times, you'd hear only the guitars, or only the basses. Sometimes the entire 15-member ensemble would rest. Or (more frequently) blare forth in a single writhing mass. You would roam around the room, shifting your focus, paying special attention to, say, the way the relaxed yet focused drumming of Oran Canfield (an excellent local mainstay mainly known for his work in the bands Child Abuse and Chaser) contrasted with the full-bore blasting of Nandor Nevai, or the way guitarist Brandon Seabrook's furious right-hand trilling differed from Colin Marston's more fractured attack.

Mostly, though, you were just soaking in the spectacle, the density, the cacophony, the microdetail, the spatial disorientation, the "happening"-ness of it all. It was, at times, literally painful (on the ears); it was simultaneously joyous. I wasn't the only one seen grinning with a sort of dazed disbelief. To me, the event felt like one big toast, an homage to a scene, a community, a movement that has taken shape during the past decade or so in New York. It is a collective without a name, without even a unified purpose other than a sort of absolute conviction and a kind of roll-up-your-sleeves aesthetic extremity. There is no one sound, one background, one intent. There is only the sense that none of these musicians really belong anywhere else, so they might as well band together. (I wrote a bit about this loose community a few years back as well, after hearing Krallice at the Stone.)

I'm talking, in part, about the specific participants in tonight's event: clockwise from the center, those would be, taken by trio and listed as guitarist, bassist, drummer, respectively, Barr, Shea and Dahl; Ava Mendoza, Erik Malave and Nevai; Seabrook, Evan Lipson and Walter; Marston, Shayna Dulberger and Canfield; Kevin Hufnagel, Johnny DeBlase and Shayna Dunkelman. Among these musicians are current and former members of Child Abuse, Krallice, the Flying Luttenbachers, Dysrhythmia, Xiu Xiu, Orthrelm, Lydia Lunch's band, Pyrrhon, Seabrook Power Plant, Behold... the Arctopus, Cellular Chaos, Coptic Light and on and on. Some images from the event:







And the circle extends ever outward from there. I'm proud to call myself a member of this loose, unofficial confederacy, having shared bills with these musicians' various projects and in some cases even collaborated with them, for roughly the past 15 years.

Tonight's event was far from definitive, in terms of being a summation of these players' activities. But it was sort of a marker in time, a statement that yes, something has been built here in NYC that is distinct from what was built here in decades' past. It has no catch-all name (No Wave or Energy Music or 2001 Rock Revival or any of the others we know from the history books), not yet at least. It's a scene still in the making. But as tonight's event reaffirmed, its roots are deep and intertwined, stretching from Saint Vitus to the Stone to the late, great Death by Audio to all those defunct mid-2000s spaces whose names I can't remember. Yet another chapter in the continuing saga of American DIY.

And earlier in the evening, in downtown Manhattan, I caught a glimpse of another New York, via a combination concert and talk celebrating the recent reissue of Valley of Search, a 1975 album by the alto saxophonist Alan Braufman. I'd only done a quick needle drop on the album before catching the show, so I was coming in mostly fresh. But as soon as I entered WNYC's Greene Space, where the gig took place, I felt right at home.

Braufman's band, which featured pianist Cooper-Moore from the original album, along with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury, were in the midst of a surging free-jazz invocation when I arrived. I've had the good fortune of seeing Cooper-Moore and Ken Filiano play many times, but I was struck anew by their intensity and precision, and by the poise and tastefulness of Drury, who I've caught in a few different contexts over the years. But the real surprise was Braufman himself, a player who was entirely new to me before I got wind of this reissues. His playing was extremely forceful yet full of song, clear and radiant and agile and proud, with hints here and there of the familiar free-jazz "scream" but refusing to lean on mere aggression as a crutch.



And best of all, the band's churning improvisation gave way at several points to Braufman's catchy, ingenious themes. Repetitive, folk-like, minimal, but extremely nourishing. The perfect launch pads for further excursions into more open territory. This was a music clearly redolent of Pharoah (of whom Braufman spoke reverently during an illuminating post-concert talk — moderated by my friend and fellow writer Clifford Allen, who wrote the liner notes to the new edition of Valley of Search, and also featuring Braufman's nephew Nabil Ayers, the man responsible for the reissue), of Coltrane, at times perhaps of Ayler, but it very clearly represented a '70s aesthetic as opposed to a first-wave '60s one. It's hard to put my finger on what the distinction there is, but there was a sense of that initial spark of '60s being reined in, sublimated, refined, so that the end product was perhaps more song-driven, more streamlined. (Hear for yourself when the band, with the additional of the outstanding young saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, plays National Sawdust on Friday.)

I'm generalizing of course, and these are minor distinctions, really, but I really felt like I was being transported back to a time and place. And, as Braufman and Cooper-Moore laid out during the talk — and as Patrick Jarenwattanon explains in his excellent Bandcamp Daily piece on Valley of Search — that time was the mid-'70s, when you could still rent an entire multi-story loft downtown for around $500, and the place was 501 Canal Street. There was no heat. Braufman pointed out that during the winters, the the warmest place on the floor he shared with the late, great David S. Ware (who around that time was one third, along with Cooper-Moore and the great drummer Marc Edwards, who was in attendance tonight, of a trio called Apogee) was inside the refrigerator. They would cook up brown rice and vegetables, one pot for the entire week, and simply live the music, day in and day out. They had firsthand access to the giants of an earlier generation: Miles, Mingus, Rahsaan, Sam Rivers. To hear Cooper-Moore and Braufman tell it, it was hand-to-mouth but it was also heaven. (Cooper-Moore asked Braufman at one point the rhetorical question of why he put up with all the hardship, and answered it with the obvious assertion that it was, in so many words, for the sake of the music.)

And all of that joy and struggle is in the music, the same way the sort of keyed-up, frenetic, boiling-over, polyglot insanity of the New York of the past decade or so was in the BarrSheaDahl jam/exorcism/sound-mass. A great divide separates these two New Yorks — the latter performance, for example, felt distinctly post-punk, while the former was more like an echo of free jazz's original Edenic moment. But both events were manifestations of the strange artistic Petri dish that this city is and has been for decades upon decades. (I'm reminded of Off the Wall, Calvin Tomkins' excellent book on Robert Rauschenberg and his circle — Cunningham, Cage, Jasper Johns and so many others — a chronicle of a whole other New York school that flourished in the '50s and '60s.)

Every era, seemingly, has its project(s). It's not a unified, directed thing — though as tonight's BarrSheaDahl event, or certain pivotal group shows described in the Tomkins book, for example, demonstrates, sometimes you do have these moments of dedicated convergence. It's more like this sort of self-sustaining ecosystem operating within, either in harmony with or in opposition to or a mixture of both, the larger struggle and grind of this insane and wonderful place. Tonight these moments, these movements criss-crossed, overlapped, cross-pollinated — and not just in my mind; indeed, the poet and consummate scenester Steve Dalachinsky, in the words of Steve Smith, "as consistent an indicator of a high-quality concert experience as any I have found during 20 years of concertgoing in New York," could be seen digging the sounds of Braufman's band and then a few hours later walking around the BarrSheaDahl happening wide-eyed and giddy, as we all were.

Two New Yorks, two generations, two worlds converging. Or maybe they were one and the same.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Perennial quest: On new doc 'Death by Metal' and Chuck Schuldiner's peerless metal evolution




















Toward the end of Death by Metal — a new documentary on the life and work of Chuck Schuldiner, the mastermind behind the band Death — Schuldiner lays out pretty clearly, via two brief snippets from archival interviews, the conundrum that defined his career:

"[Death is] a pretty brutal name, definitely. At the time, I wanted something extreme, brutal, shocking to go along with the music. Now, I would probably call it something different, but it's kind of stuck with us."

"I think the name definitely hinders the band to a certain point but at the same time, people really dig it, and hopefully they just take it as a name describing the sound that we started with."

One of the things that made this doc so fascinating for me, beyond the fact that it offers a window into the mind of a man I consider to be one of the greatest auteurs metal has ever seen, is how well it demonstrated the sobering reality that whatever your medium might be, even an art form as esoteric as death metal, if you're making a career out of it, you still have to navigate the pressures and demands of the marketplace — not to mention the constraints of genre — on a constant basis.



The quotes above come during a brief but illuminating section of the film that deals with Control Denied, an offshoot band Schuldiner launched in the mid-'90s, and which seem to grow out of the frustrations described above, i.e., frustrations that could be summed up, more or less, by the question of, "What do you do when you outgrow the medium that you made your name on?"

In the film (which is out on DVD now), the brilliant drummer Gene Hoglan, who worked with Schuldiner in the period leading up to Control Denied, and recorded two phenomenal albums with Death, 1993's Individual Thought Patterns and 1995's Symbolic, recalls Schuldiner's frustrations during that period, specifically how he felt constrained by the signature growling / deliberately pitch-less vocal style that he had helped bring into fashion with Death's early work, specifically their remarkably fully formed 1987 debut, Scream Bloody Gore. According to Hoglan, Schuldiner was, at the time, attracted to a vocal style reminiscent of Queensrÿche's Geoff Tate, and other frontmen who, in the drummer's words, "grasped the invisible orange" when singing (think Ronnie James Dio or Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson). So much so, apparently that he confessed to Hoglan that "I wish I didn't have to sing on this music."

I've been spending time with the lone Control Denied album, The Fragile Art of Existence, released in 1999, and it's excellent, a sort of more overtly prog take on the sound heard of Death's final album, The Sound of Perseverance (which, as Shannon Hamm, guitarist on both that album and Fragile Art, suggests in the doc, really began life as a set of Control Denied material, before his label encouraged him to record another Death album, and might not have even have come about if Schuldiner had felt free to really leave the Death brand behind and pour all his creative energy into the new project). Vocalist Tim Aymar seems to provide exactly the invisible-orange-grasping drama that Schuldiner was looking for, and that Schuldiner even demonstrates himself on demos for Fragile Art demos (heard on a handsomely expanded reissue of the album) where he sings lead.

Death by Metal, written and directed by Felipe Belalcázar, does a good job of portraying this sort of central fact of Schuldiner's relatively brief, incredibly productive career — which began in the early '80s, when he was a Florida teen leading the band Mantas and going by the moniker Evil Chuck and was sadly cut short by brain cancer in 2001— i.e., that he felt a constant need to shed his creative skin.

As metal historian Jeff Wagner (author of the excellent progressive-metal history Mean Deviation, as well as an equally worthwhile biography of Type O Negative's Peter Steele) pithily puts it, "You're not getting the same Death album twice."

Revisiting the Death catalog in recent days, I've been re-struck not just by the speed of Schuldiner's remarkable evolution (his perennial quest, if you will), by the fact that, for example, just four years after the lean and single-mindedly aggressive Scream Bloody Gore, he would release the prog-steeped landmark Human (which I was proud to blurb for Rolling Stone's Greatest Metal Albums list), but also by just how thoroughly he seemed to master each "stage" before moving on to the next. Scream Bloody Gore, for example, might be a relatively straightforward document of the '80s underground, complete with plenty of adolescent lyrical extremity ("Regurgitated Guts") but it's in no way a primitive-sounding album. With that record, Schuldiner seems not only to have pioneered what we now know as death metal, but to have perfected it. The same goes for pretty much everything that would follow. There are periods of more slight adjustment — between, say, 1988's Leprosy and 1990's Spiritual Healing, for example, or Individual Thought Patterns and Symbolic — but at every stage, you can hear Schuldiner simultaneously making mini breakthroughs, mastering his new turf and plotting his next quantum leap. (Note: Remastered/expanded versions of all the Death titles except Symbolic are now available on Bandcamp.) In some ways, The Sound of Perseverance is a summation of everything that came before — not to mention an ingenious reconciliation of "extreme" and more traditional metal styles — and a tantalizing look at what might have been. There's not a dud among these seven albums, a feat that very few other bands with similarly sized discographies, metal or otherwise, have matched.

As the documentary makes clear, Schuldiner's journey was never a smooth ride. No two Death albums feature the same lineup, and even some of Schuldiner's closest associates describe in the film how trying it could be to work with him. For one thing, he had a penchant for pulling out of tours, either just before they were about to happen, or while they were actually in progress, which seems to have caused his bandmates and intrepid manager Eric Greif no small amount of, well, grief. (Hoglan also recounts a very telling incident where Schuldiner took his label to task for lumping Death in with other death-metal bands in a magazine ad.)

But the film also captures an enormous amount of love for Chuck. Pretty much everyone who appears on screen, from his family members — whose support of his artistic passion seems to have been, right from the start, unusually committed — to his collaborators, expresses what a caring, down-to-earth dude he was, and by extension what a tragedy his premature death at age 34 was.

The doc has its flaws, mainly a narrative structure that can at times feel hard to follow and overly granular (I imagine this would be even more of an issue for a viewer who wasn't already a Schuldiner superfan, such as myself) and some disappointing omissions (I would have loved to hear from, for example, key Human-era member Paul Masvidal, who doesn't appear, though we do get valuable insight from his Death contemporaries Sean Reinert and Steve Di Giorgio). But overall, it's a trove of Schuldiner-iana (many archival interviews, outstanding live footage spanning pretty much all eras of the band from the Leprosy lineup onward) and lore. I loved watching the ever-charming/-humble Richard Christy, drummer on The Sound of Perseverance and The Fragile Art of Existence, reminisce with deep fondness about Schuldiner's excitement over the new direction he was taking with Control Denied; or hearing Decibel editor Albert Mudrian cite Schuldiner's wearing of a shirt adorned with kittens on Headbanger's Ball, a move that Mudrian interprets as a sly "fuck you" to the overly rigid death-metal scene, and then seeing the clip just after; or listening to Scream Bloody Gore–era drummer Chris Reifert recount his final phone conversation with Schuldiner, where the two quoted a favorite passage from Italian cannibal flick Make Them Die Slowly. The film is also a tribute to Schuldiner's constant interrogation of, and — somewhat ironically, given metal's core anti-authoritarian ethos — rebellion against his native genre's constrictive tendencies. If you're a fan, I highly recommend it.

Aptly, at one point in the film, we near a snippet from the Individual Thought Patterns track "Out of Touch," which in retrospect seems like some sort of manifesto:

Trapped in a lost world of brutality
So weak are the ones that must rely on shock
To push this so called force that inspires their call
To be extreme so it seems is a mental crutch
To cover up for those that are completely out of touch
I interpret this song as a sort of meta–death-metal diss track (and simultaneously an exquisite example of progressive death-metal aggression, in and of iteslf): Schuldiner's remarkably clear-eyed critique of a set of rapidly calcifying genre conventions that he himself had helped to define during the prior decade. As of Human, and even earlier, he was far beyond all that.

Discussing his turn away from blood-and-guts themes and toward more socially conscious lyrics (roughly around the period of Spiritual Healing) in the doc, Schuldiner says:

"Death is a band that I can put my personal outlook on certain things in life into. And I think it means a lot more when you're singing about something other people can relate to. That's why you don't hear Death singing about demons flying down and plucking nuns from the earth. That's idiotic... That's putting a limit on people's [points to head]..."

Been there, done that, in other words. "Evil Chuck" had had his day. So long to limits, both lyrical and musical: an ethos that's encoded into every single album Chuck Schuldiner ever made. He wanted more, not just out of metal, but — as the film's window into the personality of this gentle yet relentlessly driven soul demonstrates — out of life.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Back on the Trane: 'The Lost Album' and more



















Here is my Rolling Stone review of Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, a newly released John Coltrane session from 1963 that's officially out Friday.

I'll admit, maybe in line with the Kamasi situation, that I felt a little hyperbole fatigue kicking in once the advance buzz started kicking in for this one. (I found this Destination Out tweet to be extremely apt.) The historical-recordings industry knows no modesty, especially when it comes to Great Men. And what we have here, as Nate Chinen points out in his deep, detailed analysis, probably isn't anything so deliberate as a carefully plotted album — or some instant classic tied up in a bow.

And yet, it is Coltrane in the studio in 1963 with the Classic Quartet. The more I listen to this, the more it seems unlike, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, what's already out there. The frequent piano-lessness is one signal feature; the overall looseness of the arrangements is another. You really can hear the band trying out very different ideas from take to take.

Best of, it just got me re-immersed in the Coltrane thing in general. I hadn't had a phase in a while. But I've derived so much enjoyment from simply throwing on Coltrane or Crescent or Live at Birdland, to name a few that date from around the time of The Lost Album. This one isn't going to replace any of those, but it does slot in very nicely beside them.

Also, I re-reread, for maybe the third time, Ben Ratliff's Coltrane book (first discussed in this space in 2007). It gets better every time. It's such a learned yet readable and engaging tour through a daunting body of work — and through the strange afterlife of an icon, which can sometimes seem entirely divorced from the work itself. And the more I read it, the more I pick on the deep curiosity that inspired it. These interrelated questions of: How did Trane accomplish so much in such a short period of time? And why? What exactly was he after? And why does he still loom so large?

In a way, the excitement that has greeted The Lost Album is only further proof of some of the ideas Ben explores in that book. No other jazz musician inspires that kind of fervor, and it isn't just some vague notion of icon-hood. The music really is that special. Once you're in it, it's a lifelong thing.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

"You have to create yourself a new language": Gorguts' 'Obscura' at 20



















 
It was well received, but it was a very small audience. It took a while. And people were like, 'What the fuck is this?' Now, when I say 'Obscura,' everybody has their fist in the air, it’s like, 'Yeah, bring it on!' [laughs]. It's time, you know? It just happens with time. The sound was able to find its right place. —Gorguts' Luc Lemay on the band's 1998 album Obscura
It just keeps coming back to Obscura. During the past 10/15 years, as I've moved through interlocking communities of forward-thinking New York musicians (metal, jazz and beyond), both as a writer and as a player, the third album by Quebecois death-metal band Gorguts — released 20 years ago today — has become sort of gold standard for stubborn individuality, for the idea of placing absolute trust in one's muse, even if it leads you to a place of what seems at first like pure insanity.

As Lemay explains in the above interview with Metal Assault (well worth your time in full), the album came about through a process of sort of forced experimentation, with the band deliberately walling itself off from its trusty methods of writing and composing.

['Obscura'] came about because we made a very clear decision, everybody together. The three writers in the band [Lemay, his late fellow guitarist/vocalist "Big" Steeve Hurdle and bassist Steve Cloutier], of course the drummer included, Steve MacDonald, was writing with us in the arrangement department and everything. [Note: MacDonald helped compose 'Obscura,' but it was actually Patrick Robert who played drums on the album.] But the thing is, we did some kind of [manifesto] together. This was right after 'Erosion' [a.k.a. the band's more-conventional 1993 album 'The Erosion of Sanity'], so we said okay, writing a new record: no fast-picking riff is going to be accepted in the music, no scat beat, which ‘Erosion’ is all about. So none of those mentioned were going to be allowed, everything else, but none of those other ones. And then we’ll start from there, and see what happens. The band also decided to do both vocals as well, so those were the main lines.
I believe no tremolo picking as well, as you mentioned in an interview a long time ago.
Exactly! Good point, that was another one.

Why were those ‘limits’ set in place?
Because, if you stay in your comfort zone, it takes forever just to incorporate a new thing in your sound. But if you force yourself not to use everything that you’re comfortable with, then you have to create yourself a new language that you’re happy with. So it forces you to explore, to touch the instrument differently, and approach the music differently as well, to get new sounds out of it.
The results speak for themselves. The album is so perverse, so chaotic and discordant, yet at the same time so logical and deliberate within the parameters it sets for itself, that it achieves sort of strange counter-intuitive serenity.


This is in some ways an ascetic sound, the product of walling one's self off from the world outside and creating a new, insular one within. But it's also the sound of pure, unfettered discovery, of a kind of seething, ecstatic creativity. (During an intense period of Gorguts immersion, I once described the record as "...one of the most pungently progressive albums ever made, in or out of metal. Obscura didn't just register as technical; it sounded downright excruciating, as if its shuddering blastbeats, doleful bellows, and deliriously inventive guitarwork were being torn straight from the chests of its makers.")

As fans know, Gorguts are in the midst of a glorious renaissance, which kicked off with 2013's outstanding Colored Sands and continued with 2016's equally impressive Pleiades' Dust. The gradually snowballing influence of Obscura helped set the stage for this moment, when one of extreme metal's most challenging bands could also be one of its most beloved.

In honor of 20 years of Obscura, here are a few thoughts on the record drawn from interviews in my Heavy Metal Bebop series, which began as the result of seeing pianist Craig Taborn (who would eventually meet and collaborate with Steeve Hurdle) at a Gorguts show.

Ben Monder (2017)

How would you describe what's happening on Obscura? I'm not a guitar player, so I can't necessarily verbalize it?

It's not about guitar at all. There's nothing really virtuosic on that. It's just like, there are sounds that he was getting — I don't know technically what you would even call it, like pick-scraping type things. I had never heard that before. It was more about the mystery of what was happening. I had never heard those elements put together in that way before. You know, when you first heard a record like that, you just don't know what's going on; there are all these novel ideas swimming around and colliding. And it almost seems like it shouldn't even work, but it's perfect. And it's also very integrated. It doesn't sound clever or contrived; it sounds like this integrated language that is just natural, but it's the result of all these technical elements. I like that aspect in music where it's mysterious and sounds correct and yet you have no idea how or why it works. And of course it has the darkness, and it's got "Earthly Love" with the violin. Where else is a death-metal song going to have a prominent violin feature that sounds perfect, you know? That's one of my top five metal records.

Matt Mitchell (2016)

Man, Obscura came on the other day. I've had that album for almost 20 years, since it came out, and it struck me how totally [crazy] that album is. It's so bizarre. [Laughs] It's really out there, man. And I basically live off of weird music, and that's, like, still... even in metal, there's nothing that quite goes that far.

Craig Taborn (2011)

There are a few metal albums that really intrigue me, and Obscura was one because it kind of came out of nowhere for me. That was such a weird little blip when it came out. Nobody knew what it was. It was too out. A lot of metal guys hated it. It was all wrong. The doom thing wasn’t big, and it had these things that were super-slow, and everybody hated that. Not everybody – obviously people liked it. But it was so dissonant and so dense; it was like Beefheart-metal.

Dan Weiss and I also talked about Gorguts extensively, during the first HMB interview back in 2011. He has some fascinating things to say about the drumming on the band's masterful fourth album From Wisdom to Hate.

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I'd like to thank Chuck Stern, Tim Byrnes and Colin Marston (now a member of Gorguts!), fellow travelers in the NYC scene, for introducing me to Obscura sometime in the early 2000s. I had heard The Erosion of Sanity in the '90s, but it didn't really stick. When I caught up and heard how completely the band had transformed itself, I was stunned and amazed.