Thursday, January 30, 2014

Demilich, reissued

Everything about Demilich is intriguing. Their name, which sounds like a German curse word, spat out of the mouth. Their penchant for jumbled words (Nespithe = "the spine") and absurdly elongated song titles ("The Planet that Once Used to Absorb Flesh in Order to Achieve Divinity and Immortality (Suffocated to the Flesh that it Desired...)"). Their Finnish origin and super-spiny logo. The putrid vocal belch of Antti Boman. They clearly get/got that extreme metal can be a space of pure fantasy and wild invention.

I remember leafing through the pages of Metal Maniacs as a young death-metal head in the early ’90s, spying ads and reviews that mentioned Demilich's Nespithe album. I don't think I even sought out the music back then—I just let those weird words roll around in my brain.

A couple of years ago, I actually bothered to listen to the damn thing. I grew even more intrigued when I realized that the prize, the music itself, was as enticing as the bait had been. I now look at Nespithe as one of those great underground missing-link math-rock texts—not generically "math rock," but an embodiment of what I was getting at here. The acrobatics of RIFF. If you get into that sort of thing, you need this record in your life. Forget the death-metal trappings—or, at least, consider that there might be more to the story. Nespithe is classic subterranean prog.

Here, via Pitchfork, is my review of 20th Adversary of Emptiness, a new Demilich 3-LP/2-CD release—from Svart Records, the label behind that awesome 2013 Convulse comeback—that bookends a remastered Nespithe with the demos that preceded it and a few tracks from the band's 2006 reunion. It's so gratifying when a curio like this receives the kingly box-set treatment it deserves. Long may the Big D shred/belch.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Jesus Lizard's essential 'Book'

The new Jesus Lizard book—titled Book, in classic Jesus Lizard fashion—is really something. I'd heard about the volume before it came out, and honestly, despite my intense fandom, it seemed at best like something I might want to flip through for a few minutes in a bookstore. I'm happy to report that I severely underestimated the concept.

Basically, Book (out 3/4/14 from Akashic) is an autobiographical coffee-table hardcover. It's beautifully illustrated with live shots from throughout the band's career, archival pics of all four members from childhood up through the 2009 reunion shows, flyers, candid Polaroids from the road, etc. There's a detailed band oral history, written by the members and other key players (Corey Rusk of Touch and Go, Steve Albini, the band's longtime booker and soundman, etc.) and presented serially, that takes you from each member's personal origin story to the band's endpoint. There are unabashedly biased notes on each LP by David Wm. Sims. (Among the revelations: He thinks Shot is the best Jesus Lizard album; he thinks Down—one of my favorites, incidentally—is the worst; and both he and Duane Denison still seem bitter over the fact that so many fans and critics dismissed their two Capitol LPs outright.) There are all kinds of great testimonials from peers (e.g., Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, Shudder to Think's Nathan Larson, Girls Against Boys' Alexis Fleisig, the great Mike Watt), critics, boosters and buds. There's a conversation between David Yow and Gang of Four's Andy Gill, who produced the final Jesus Lizard LP, Blue. There's a complete chronology of TJL live shows. Any fan will eat all this up.

But for me, what makes Book essential, is the window it provides into the innerworkings of a rock band and the camaraderie, both social and musical, that grows between the members. Interspersed within each member's narrative are testimonials from the other three re: what made him great. So we get, for example, Duane Denison's detailed run-down of why he feels David Yow was underrated as a lyricist, or a beautiful Mac McNeilly–penned tribute to his rhythm-section crony, Sims: "And that sound. It was an unmistakable mix of growl and the bite of steel that makes me think of being held in the air fifty feet high with one of David's bass strings whipping me back and forth." Anyone who's ever cultivated long-term relationships with bandmates will recognize this brand of reverence; what critics and fans say is one thing, but—at least in all high-functioning bands—the highest praise, the most perceptive appreciation always originates from within the group.

Along the same lines is my single favorite item in the whole book (p. 63, if you're following along): a sort of Jesus Lizard aesthetic manifesto by Duane Denison. Basically, this piece is him describing, modestly yet forcefully, the band's core strengths. Some examples:

"Almost all our songs were riff-driven. Finding a melodic phrase that bears repetition isn't easy, and a good riff should be repeated. Repetition creates motoric power, and a great riff should pick up momentum as it's played. That's what rock music is—energy, power, dynamics, excitement… I get fired up just writing about it! I always felt that focusing more on riffs and songs would better serve me than working on guitar solos and fancy licks. I think I was right."

"We all had a very strong sense of how we wanted our gear to sound. We had very specific tastes when it came to guitars, amps, and drums, and it wasn't quite the same as what was common at the time." [Ed.: Amen.]

"…in music, there's three kinds [of motion]: parallel, contrary and oblique. We used them all."

Equally as insightful are David Wm. Sims's frank essays on band economics. He talks about how all the members were able to buy houses after signing with Capitol, because they didn't waste money on fancy tour buses and other perks. And he walks us through the nitty-gritty of the major-label deal, discussing its various pros and cons. In the end, Sims makes it clear that he has no regrets about that chapter of the Jesus Lizard's history, or, really about anything else involving his musical career (except having once joined a band called Rapeman, a name he found abhorrent).

To me, the most poignant part of Book is the brief account of Mac McNeilly's struggle to balance family commitments with touring life, and his eventual departure from the band. Sims, on the impossibility of untangling this particular knot: "Part of me thinks we should have borne whatever career costs it would have imposed [i.e., to scale back so as to accommodate McNeilly]; another part is sure that it couldn't have worked. The more I think about it, the more turned around and sad I get. I'll never really know. Life can be like that."

Basically, Book suits the Jesus Lizard as well as, say, The Dirt suits Mötley Crüe. Because it's predominantly written by the four members, it captures their collective personally perfectly: sardonic and sometimes cynical but also deeply devoted to the art and craft of rock music, to carrying the guitar-bass-drums-vocals format forward, to adoring the underground but refusing to let it fence the band in. And, just as with much of the artwork that adorned the band's albums, shirts, flyers, etc., the visuals are all right on. (My only complaint is that Book isn't more portable—ever since I've gotten ahold of it, I've wanted to take it everywhere.) It's a satisfying period at the end of an exemplary career. Everyone I know loves the Jesus Lizard, and all those same folks are going to love Book. It's no substitute for the music, of course, but it's as compelling a companion piece as I could imagine. [Cue "Then Comes Dudley"…]

*Book info, origin story and endorsement from David Yow.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Amiri Baraka: Two works

Hope to be able to tune in to the webcast of the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Concert, going down tonight at 7:30pm EST. I believe you'll be able to watch here. In conjunction with the festivities, Josh Jackson posted a very welcome Richard Davis conversation. I was intrigued by their frank discussion of the "angry black man" trope. At the 18:00 mark, Richard Davis self-identifies as such, but adds, "I contain that type of energy because it scares people, and they won't listen to you when you throw out anger."

To judge by the content of his various obituaries—many of which have fixated on the "Somebody Blew Up America" controversy—Amiri Baraka scared plenty of people. I hesitate to speak for him, but something tells me this was intentional. Containment wasn't his thing.

I don't know Baraka's body of work well, but a few items really speak to me, among them "Dope."

There no mistaking the message here, nor the near-hysterical rage that underlies it. It's an astonishing performance, and, for me, one of the best illustrations I can think of for the idea that poetry is oratory, dramaturgy, as well as writing. You could see these words on a page and they might draw you in. Baraka wants to grab you by the throat, though, and to do that, he has to stand up, open his mouth and spit fire.

For me, the other key Baraka work is "Black Dada Nihilismus," which he reads on the great self-titled New York Art Quartet album (recorded approximately 39 years and 10 months ago). The words are terrifying—hyper-specific yet more oblique, message-wise, than "Dope."

I haven't heard a lot of jazz/poetry that speaks to me. This is a major exception. I heard "Black Dada Nihilismus" in the car yesterday (part of a Ben Young–hosted edition of WKCR's Jazz Profiles, devoted to Baraka) and was re-struck by the tension between the ominousness, tipping over at times into outright horror ("Come up, black dada / nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats. Black dada nihilismus, choke my friends / in their bedrooms with their drinks spilling / and restless for tilting hips or dark liver / lips sucking splinters from the master's thigh") of the verse, and the composure of the delivery. "Dope" is all sardonic, jittery catharsis. But this performance of "BDN" embodies an eerie chill, as though Baraka, making a recording for the ages, wanted to make very, very sure that emotional static didn't obscure the clarity of his words.

I'm bummed that I missed Baraka with Milford Graves at last year's Vision Festival—see here—but I'm glad I was able to see him read/speak a couple times over the years. He was a riveting presence. I'll never forget witnessing Baraka choking up while discussing his relationship with fellow poet Ed Dorn (some thoughts buried within this 2007 post). That was one of those moments when I really felt the weight of the artistic lineage, the procession of the generations, the obligation survivors feel to pass on the message of their contemporaries who die too soon. It's clear from reminiscences like Ishmael Reed's and Questlove's that Baraka's legacy is just as heavy.