Thursday, December 27, 2018

Best of 2018: Digest

*Jazz list.

*Metal list.

*All-genres-in-play list.

*Live list.

*All-genres-in-play top 10 list archive, 2005 through the present.

*Jazz-only top 10 list archive, 2008 through the present.

Thank you as always for your kind attention. Cool things are afoot for 2019 — stay tuned and take care!

Best of 2018: Live

Frank Mullen of Suffocation performs at Gramercy, November 2018.
Suffocation's Frank Mullen. Photo: Ignacio Orellana Alarcon



















Some great shows I saw this year:

Dan Weiss / Starebaby
Jan 5, 6 @ the Stone; Jan 13 @ Winter Jazzfest; April 1 at Nublu 151
Feature.

Demilich + Blood Incantation 
May 4 @ Saint Vitus
At long last. Worth the wait in every way. The openers, a band who hadn't quite clicked with me on record, were pulverizing and awe-inspiring.

Defeated Sanity + Behold... the Arctopus
May 23 @ Saint Vitus
This show was utter mayhem. Defeated Sanity are at the forefront of contemporary prog-meets-caveman death-metal insanity and I have a feeling whatever they release next is going to be a new benchmark in the genre. Behold played their most avant-garde music to date.

The Bad Plus
May 31 @ Blue Note; November 8 @ Village Vanguard
The highest compliment I can pay the new lineup is that these shows were as exuberant and dialed-in as any other TBP gigs I've caught over the years.

40 Watt Sun
June 16 @ Saint Vitus
DFSBP thoughts.

This Is Not This Heat
July 23 @ Pioneer Works
A band I never thought I'd get to see, in any incarnation. They managed to retain both the mystery and the brutality that made the original lineup so great.

Alan Braufman, Cooper-Moore, Ken Filiano, Andrew Drury
BarrSheaDahl 10th anniversary

August 1 @ Greene Space, Market Hotel, respectively
Dual DFSBP write-up.

Newport Jazz Fest
August 3–5
Review.

King's X
August 22 @Sony Hall
Such a warm, communal vibe. Humble masters with an enormous catalog that I really got lost in this year. King's X are one of a kind and should not be taken for granted.

Killing Joke 
September 12 @ Irving Plaza
Review.

Eyehategod
September 14 @ Brooklyn Bazaar
Review.

Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Chris Dave
October 7 @ Blue Note
The most state-of-the-art grooves imaginable. Chris Dave, dear God...

Bonnie "Prince" Billy
October 11 at Murmrr Theater
The most "scripted" show I've seen him do to date, and one of the most joyous too. Speaking to Will at length was a highlight of my year.

Clutch
October 26 @ Irving Plaza
Review.

Suffocation + Krisiun
November 16 @ Gramercy Theatre
Review.

Makaya McCraven
December 2 @ LPR
Review.

Flying Luttenbachers + Reg Bloor / Marc Edwards + Opening Bell w/ Tamio Shiraishi and Rob Mayson
December 7 @ Ceremony
New Luttenbachers were everything a fan might hope for. Rest of the night (that I caught) was a deafening brain-scramble. Loved catching Tamio twice in close proximity.


Esperanza Spalding
December 12 @ Town Hall
A multimedia, genre-transcending tour de force.

Stinking Lizaveta + Azonic
December 17 @ Saint Vitus
I only recently fully grasped how outstanding this veteran band really is. In terms of a grit vs. precision rock-music Venn diagram, they're among the most skilled practitioners on Earth. Buy all their albums. Nice spirit-massage from the openers too.

Clutch + The Messthetics
December 28 @ The Starland Ballroom
Back for more Clutch! There's been a good amount of Fugazi satellite activity going down in recent months, most notably the emergence of the Messthetics. A very cool band on record — call it the post-hardcore version of fusion — that delivered scrappy, undiluted intensity live. I'm really excited to hear where they go next.

Best of 2018: Overall top 10 + songs

Image result for 12 little spells

Here is my all-genres-in-play 2018 top 10, as submitted to two independent year-end surveys — neither of which is online yet — along with links to my coverage of each album.

1. The Bad Plus, Never Stop II (review)
2. Esperanza Spalding, 12 Little Spells (review)
3. Haunt, Burst Into Flame (review)
4. Dan Weiss, Starebaby (feature)
5. Voivod, The Wake (review)
6. Wayne Shorter, Emanon (review)
7. Peter Brötzmann / Heather Leigh, Sparrow Nights (review)
8. Tomb Mold, Manor of Infinite Forms (blurb)
9. Harriet Tubman, The Terror End of Beauty (track write-up)
10. Tyshawn Sorey, Pillars (review)

Some of these records also appear on my respective jazz and metal lists; some are unique to the above; all hit me hard. (See here for some thoughts on why the Spalding and Sorey discs did not appear on the jazz lists I compiled, despite their inclusion here.)

Here, for fun, is an archive of all my year-end top 10s stretching back to 2005, the first year I was employed as a staff writer-about-music.

And here is a playlist of some songs I really liked this year, some from the albums I've cited and some not.


Best of 2018: Metal

Image result for burst into flame haunt

Here is Rolling Stone's list of 2018's 20 best metal albums, as chosen and annotated by my colleagues Suzy Exposito, Kory Grow and Chris Weingarten, along with myself. My personal top 10 picks, many of which I wrote up for the main list, are as follows:

1. Haunt, Burst Into Flame
2. Voivod, The Wake
3. Tomb Mold, Manor of Infinite Forms
4. Deceased, Ghostly White
5. Immortal, Northern Chaos Gods
6. Turnstile, Time and Space
7. Judas Priest, Firepower
8. At the Gates, To Drink From the Night Itself
9. Portal, Ion
10. Corrosion of Conformity, No Cross No Crown

If I'd heard Messa's Feast for Water before the polls had closed, I almost certainly would have made room for it on my ballot. Really impressive album. Here are a few late-to-the-party thoughts.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Best of 2018: Jazz






















I was thinking it might be fun to dissect this whole year-end process a bit, for anyone that might be interested in the extremely unscientific, whim-driven process behind the various lists, polls and reckonings I participate in each year around this time.

Let's take the general topic of jazz first. So this year, I both published a top 20 list on behalf of Rolling Stone and also submitted a top 10 list to Francis Davis' annual Jazz Critics Poll, the full results of which I expect will be online soon the results of which can be found here, with the annual round-up essay located here and the full ballot tally here. For me, the RS list — the first time that I know of (though I could be wrong) that the publication has run a year-end list devoted exclusively to jazz — was an attempt to unify my own, often idiosyncratic tastes with a more general-purpose portrait of the "year in jazz," which, at least to some degree, took into account intangible factors like "reach" and "impact" (relevant factors, in my mind, given Rolling Stone's fundamentally mainstream-oriented purview) not to mention the perspective of the publication as a whole. (For example, Kamasi Washington, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Makaya McCraven, the Bad Plus, and the London vanguardists like Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia are all artists that other writers — including Chris Weingarten, Natalie Weiner, David Fricke and Will Hermes, among others — have covered/championed at RS in recent years, and given that jazz is still more or less a niche genre within the larger scheme of RS coverage, that kind of "track record of support" with regard to a particular artist matters, at least in my estimation.) Again, it's an inexact science, but I wanted this list to feel institutional, i.e., representative of the aggregate RS perspective, while at the same time — especially given that it was, in the end, written solely by me — inclusive of my own opinions.

As an illustration of the above principles, here is the RS 2018 jazz top 20 (again, the full annotated list can be found here), followed by the personal 2018 jazz top 10 that I submitted to the Davis poll. You'll note that the rankings do not correspond exactly, and that some titles that ranked highly on the RS list are absent from the Davis one. With the Davis list, there's of course no attempt made to represent anything other than my own tastes, and more specifically, the albums that I spent the most time with this year— specifically/ideally, time that felt purely pleasurable, non-"work"-driven; this is an elusive idea, because the two can absolutely blur together, but over the years, I've come to really privilege and take note of the new music that attains true "escape velocity" within the sphere of my listening, that is to say, becomes part of my collection, as it were; I've found that only a couple of albums a year, if that, really satisfy this criterion in a given year, let alone continue to do so after the year in question has passed. Put another way, my private, purely for-pleasure listening rituals are sacred to me, often centering on old favorites, or lesser-known releases by artists I already love, and it's simply not that often that new music really worms its way into that company. (Not surprising, given how much of this for-pleasure listening centers around artists I've loved for years, if not decades; currently, for example, I'm cycling through the Cannibal Corpse discography for the umpteenth time, apropos of nothing other than that I love the band and "celebrate their entire catalog.")

Anyway, here goes…

Rolling Stone's 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2018:

1. The Bad Plus, Never Stop II (Legbreaker)

2. Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)

3. Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note)

4. Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)

5. Brötzmann/Leigh, Sparrow Nights (Trost)

6. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note)

7. Various Artists, We Out Here (Brownswood)


8. Dan Weiss, Starebaby (Pi)

9. Ray Angry, One (JMI)

10. Houston Person and Ron Carter, Remember Love (HighNote)


 11. James Brandon Lewis and Chad Taylor, Radiant Imprints (Off)

12. Harriet Tubman, The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside / Early Future)

13. Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas Sound Prints, Scandal (Greenleaf)

14. Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)

15. JP Schlegelmilch, Jonathan Goldberger and Jim Black, Visitors (Skirl)

16. Hailu Mergia, Lala Belu (Awesome Tapes From Africa)

17. Anteloper, Kudu (International Anthem)

18. Kris Davis and Craig Taborn, Octopus (Pyroclastic)

19. Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM)

20. Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade, Still Dreaming (Nonesuch)

My personal 2018 jazz top 10, plus supplementary categories, as submitted to Francis Davis' annual Jazz Critics Poll:

New Releases

1. The Bad Plus, Never Stop II (Legbreaker)

2. Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note)

3. Dan Weiss, Starebaby (Pi)

4. Peter Brötzmann / Heather Leigh, Sparrow Nights (Trost)

5. Ray Angry, One (JMI)

6. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note)

7. James Brandon Lewis / Chad Taylor, Radiant Imprints (Off)

8. Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)

9. Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)

10. Houston Person and Ron Carter, Remember Love (HighNote)
Historical

1. Charles Mingus, Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden (BBE) 

[see review here]

2. John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse)

[see review here]

3. Beaver Harris/Don Pullen 360° Experience, A Well-Kept Secret (Corbett vs. Dempsey)

[see tweet here and related post here]
Vocal

Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)
Debut

Ray Angry, One (JMI)


/////

A few notes on the above. Just to drive home how arbitrary this whole year-end-list process is, how governed by moods, whims, memory lapses, etc., I'm already wishing I could revise the Davis list above, to bring it more in line with my actual "year in music," i.e., to make it just a bit more reflective of that "listening for pure pleasure" concept I cited above. To be clear, I very much enjoyed all the albums I listed above, but there are others from the RS Top 20 pool that probably hit me harder on a personal level, one being the Schlegelmilch/Goldberger/Black disc (see RS entry here) and another being the Harriet Tubman (see RS entry here). Don't quote me on this, but I think at the time I submitted the Davis list, I was feeling some compulsion to get a little stricter re: what I did and didn't consider to be "jazz," though now I realize that deeming both of those albums — which, very much to their credit, don't fit comfortably into any kind of genre-centric reckoning — to be "jazz" for RS purposes and not for Jazz Critics Poll purposes seems flat-out absurd.

Oh, well! Again, I can't stress how make-it-up-as-I-go-along this whole process is, and in a way, I celebrate that fact, as it only drives home how ultimately subjective and, in a certain sense, pointless these kinds of reckonings are. The one sense in which they aren't pointless, I'd argue, is that they actually do allow for some kind of spotlighting of great/worthy music made during a given time period, which, given how short everyone's cultural memory is these days, can't really be viewed as a bad/detrimental thing.

Anyway, yes, those two albums are outstanding, and if I had the opportunity to resubmit the Davis poll, I'd probably find a way to include them. While we're on the subject of exclusions, I ought to mention that two of the albums on my all-genres-in-play top 10, which I'll discuss in a subsequent post, were made by artists who have been known to work in the "jazz" field but who, in these particular cases, seemed to transcend it to the point that labeling these records "jazz" just didn't feel right to me. I'm referring to Esperanza Spalding's 12 Little Spells and Tyshawn Sorey's Pillars. I think that my reviews of each, linked in the prior sentence, give a pretty good idea of why I think these records transcend not only jazz but any kind of idiomatic thinking. (If pressed, I'd call the former some kind of baroque art pop — honestly, I'm not sure there's a single moment of improvisation on it, which, to me, is maybe a dealbreaker in terms of it being labeled "jazz" — and the latter some kind of long-form ambient trance improv?)

That said, this is just one writer's opinion; I've seen these albums popping up on many jazz lists thus far and expect to see both represented somewhere in the Davis poll, to which I say, cool! However anyone wants to classify them, they're worthy of celebration, and to sweat the details seems, again, petty and absurd. I just feel compelled to mention them here by way of explaining why these titles, both of which I loved, are nowhere to be found on the "jazz" lists that I personally compiled.

There's a lot of music cited above, so I'm not going to get too deep into an exhaustive honorable-mentions list this time around. But I will say that I wish I had been able to spend more time with Jon Irabagon's Dr. Quixotic's Traveling Exotics, an outstanding, suite-like album of long-form compositions for "postbop" quintet (maybe something like the 2018 version of Wayne Shorter's All-Seeing Eye?) that, like, pretty everything Jon does, reveals new facets of his border-less, frequently revelatory art. If the chips had fallen just a little differently, this could easily have ended up among the titles named above. Listening back to it now, I'm remembering how compelling and compulsively listenable this record really is. Related: Do not miss this fascinating interview with Jon on Jeremiah Cymerman's invaluable 5049 Podcast, in which he discusses this recording in some depth.

P.S. Speaking of the whole categorization question, I'm not sure I'd call Middle Blue's Love Chords and Brandon Seabrook's Convulsionaries "jazz records" either, but I really dug both!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Best of 2018: Quick links

*Here is the year-end jazz top 20 I put together for Rolling Stone.

*And here is RS' annual metal top 20, a collaborative venture that I contributed a few blurbs to.

More to come on year-end matters, including notes and honorable mentions re: the above, before too long!

Monday, December 03, 2018

Lately (12/3/18)

A couple articles on the intersection of jazz and the wider world of mainstream, or at least non-insular, music:

*Warren Smith reflects on Astral Weeks, 50 years later. See also earlier interviews with producer Lewis Merenstein and bassist Richard Davis dealing with these same sessions.

*Makaya McCraven, Shabaka Hutchings and the new wave of jazz-you-can-dance-to.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Year-end jazz top 10 lists: 2008 through the present

The below is an un-annotated survey of Hank Shteamer's jazz-only "Albums of the year" top 10 lists, stretching back to 2008, compiled for various polls and outlets. All-genres-in-play top 10 lists from 2005 through the present can be found here.

2018

1. The Bad Plus, Never Stop II (Legbreaker)
2. Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note)
3. Dan Weiss, Starebaby (Pi)
4. Peter Brötzmann / Heather Leigh, Sparrow Nights (Trost)
5. Ray Angry, One (JMI)
6. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note)
7. James Brandon Lewis / Chad Taylor, Radiant Imprints (Off)
8. Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)
9. Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)
10. Houston Person and Ron Carter, Remember Love (HighNote)

Read more.

2017

1. Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM)
2. Ornette Coleman & Various Artists, Celebrate Ornette (Song X)
3. Kate Gentile, Mannequins (Skirl)
4. Jason Moran and the Bandwagon, Thanksgiving at the Vanguard (Yes)
5. Matt Mitchell, A Pouting Grimace (Pi)
6. Chris Speed Trio, Platinum on Tap (Intakt)
7. Borderlands Trio, Asteroideia (Intakt)
8. Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts (ECM)
9. Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem)
10. Roscoe Mitchell, Discussions (Wide Hive)

Read more.

2016

1. Jack DeJohnette / Matt Garrison/ Ravi Coltrane, In Movement (ECM)
2. Jason Moran, The Armory Concert (Band Camp)
3. Ethan Iverson, The Purity of the Turf (CrissCross)
4. Peter Evans, Genesis (More Is More)
5. Masabumi Kikuchi, Black Orpheus (ECM)
6. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM)
7. Jasmine Lovell-Smith's Towering Poppies, Yellow Red Blue (self-released)
8. Andrew Cyrille, The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)
9. Billy Mintz, Ugly Beautiful (Thirteenth Note)
10. Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit, Ana (PNL)

Read more.

2015

1. Milford Graves & Bill Laswell, Space/Time Redemption (TUM)
2. Jack DeJohnette, Made in Chicago (ECM)
3. Henry Threadgill, In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi)
4. Mary Halvorson, Meltframe (Firehouse 12)
5. Joshua Redman & The Bad Plus, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
6. Stanley Cowell, Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive)
7. Wadada Leo Smith & John Lindberg, Celestial Weather (TUM)
8. Kirk Knuffke, Arms & Hands (Royal Potato Family)
9. Jon Irabagon, Behind the Sky (Irrabagast)
10. John Zorn, Inferno (Tzadik)

Read more.

2014    

1. Mark Turner, Lathe of Heaven (ECM)
2. Frank Kimbrough, Quartet (Palmetto)
3. Kenny Barron & Dave Holland, The Art of Conversation (Impulse)
4. Sarah Manning, Harmonious Creature (Posi-Tone)
5. David Weiss, When Words Fail (Motéma)
6. Johnathan Blake, Gone but Not Forgotten (Criss Cross)
7. Dave Douglas & Uri Caine, Present Joys (Greenleaf)
8. David Virelles, Mbókò (ECM)
9. Us Free [Bill McHenry / Henry Grimes / Andrew Cyrille], Fish Stories (Fresh Sound New Talent)
10. Louis Hayes, Return of the Jazz Communicators (Smoke Sessions)

Read more.

2013

1. Black Host, Life in the Sugar Candle Mines (Northern Spy)
2. Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran, Hagar's Song (ECM)
3. Aaron Parks, Arborescence (ECM)
4. David Ake, Bridges (Posi-Tone)
5. Aaron Diehl, The Bespoke Man's Narrative (Mack Avenue)
6. Matthew Shipp, Piano Sutras (Thirsty Ear)
7. Dr. Lonnie Smith, In the Beginning, Vols. 1 & 2 (Pilgrimage)
8. Kirk Knuffke, Chorale (SteepleChase)
9. Harris Eisenstadt, The Destructive Element (Clean Feed)
10. Kris Davis, Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear)

Read my Pitchfork review of the Black Host album.

2012

1. Billy Hart, All Our Reasons (ECM)
2. Steve Lehman, Dialect Fluorescent (Pi)
3. Jim Black, Somatic (Winter & Winter)
4. Darius Jones, Book of Mæ'bul (Another Kind of Sunrise) (AUM Fidelity)
5. Federico Ughi, Songs for Four Cities (Skycap)
6. Henry Threadgill, Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp (Pi)
7. Joel Harrison & Lorenzo Feliciati, Holy Abyss (Cuneiform)
8. David Virelles, Continuum (Pi)
9. Tim Berne, Snakeoil (ECM)
10. The Cookers, Believe (Motéma)

Read more: parts I, II and III.

2011

1. Branford Marsalis & Joey Calderazzo, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music)
2. Gerald Cleaver, Be It as I See It (Fresh Sound New Talent)
3. New Zion Trio, Fight Against Babylon (Veal)
4. Ben Allison, Action-Refraction (Palmetto)
5. Honey Ear Trio, Steampunk Serenade (Foxhaven)
6. Jeremy Udden, If the Past Seems So Bright (Sunnyside)
7. Bill McHenry, Ghosts of the Sun (Sunnyside)
8. Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel (ECM)
9. Wadada Leo Smith, Heart's Reflections (Cuneiform)
10. Tin/Bag, Bridges (MabnotesMusic)

Read more.

2010

1. Dan Weiss, Timshel (Sunnyside)
2. Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth, Deluxe (Clean Feed)
3. Harris Eisenstad, Woodblock Prints (NoBusiness)
4. Jason Moran, Ten (Blue Note)
5. Mike Pride's From Bacteria to Boys, Betweenwhile (AUM Fidelity)
6. The Cookers, Warriors (Jazz Legacy)
7. Weasel Walter, Invasion (ugExplode)
8. The Bad Plus, Never Stop (E1)
9. Jon Irabagon, Foxy (Hot Cup)
10. Chicago Underground Duo, Boca Negra (Thrill Jockey)

Read more.

2009

1. Ran Blake, Driftwoods (Tompkins Square)
2. Chad Taylor, Circle Down (482 Music)
3. Jon Irabagon & Mike Pride, I Don't Hear Nothin' but the Blues (Loyal Label)
4. John Hollenbeck, Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside)
5. Darius Jones, Man'ish Boy (AUM Fidelity)
6. Henry Threadgill, This Brings Us To, Volume 1 (Pi)
7. Borah Bergman, Luminescence (Tzadik)
8. Jim Black's Alasnoaxis, Houseplant (Winter & Winter)
9. Charles Evans & Neil Shah, Live at Saint Stephens (Hot Cup)
10. Loren Stillman, Winter Fruits (Pirouet)
 
2008
[seven new releases, three archival]

1. Harris Eisenstadt, Guewel (Clean Feed)
2. Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, Tabligh (Cuneiform)
3. Ideal Bread, The Ideal Bread (KMB Jazz)
4. Eivind Opsvik, Overseas III (Loyal Label)
5. Bill Dixon, 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (Aum Fidelity)
6. Ari Hoenig, Bert's Playground (Dreyfus)
7. Fieldwork, Door (Pi)
8. Andrew Hill/Chico Hamilton, Dreams Come True (Joyous Shout)
9. Anthony Braxton, The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic)
10. Don Cherry, Live at Cafe Montmartre 1966, Vol. 2 (ESP)

Year-end top 10 lists: 2005 through the present

The below is an un-annotated survey of Hank Shteamer's all-genres-in-play "Albums of the year" top 10 lists, stretching back to 2005, compiled for various publications and polls. Jazz-only lists from 2008 on can be found here.

Highlighted titles are ones that have really "lived on" for me beyond the year in question — each is an album I feel comfortable calling a modern classic.

2018

1. The Bad Plus, Never Stop II
2. Esperanza Spalding, 12 Little Spells
3. Haunt, Burst Into Flame
4. Dan Weiss, Starebaby
5. Voivod, The Wake
6. Wayne Shorter, Emanon
7. Peter Brötzmann / Heather Leigh, Sparrow Nights
8. Tomb Mold, Manor of Infinite Forms
9. Harriet Tubman, The Terror End of Beauty
10. Tyshawn Sorey, Pillars

Read more.

2017

1. Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
2. Vijay Iyer, Far From Over
3. Elder, Reflections of a Floating World
4. Mastodon, Emperor of Sand
5. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
6. Code Orange, Forever
7. Jason Moran, Thanksgiving at the Vanguard
8. Cheer-Accident, Putting Off Death
9. Morbid Angel, Kingdoms Disdained
10. Chris Pitsiokos Unit, Before the Heat Death

Read more.

2016


1. Esperanza Spalding, Emily's D+Evolution
2. The Hotelier, Goodness
3. Bob Mould, Patch the Sky
4. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke
5. Metallica, Hardwired... to Self-Destruct 
6. Deftones, Gore
7. 40 Watt Sun, Wider Than the Sky
8. Crying, Beyond the Fleeting Gales 
9. Billy Mintz, Ugly Beautiful 
10. Meshuggah, The Violent Sleep of Reason

Read more.

2015

1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
2. The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman
3. Henry Threadgill Zooid, In for a Penny, in for a Pound 
4. Title Fight, Hyperview
5. Blind Idiot God, Before Ever After
6. Krallice, Ygg Huur
7. Black Star Riders, The Killer Instinct
8. Laddio Bolocko, Live and Unreleased 1997–2000 
9. Mary Halvorson, Meltframe 
10. Revenge, Behold.Total.Rejection

Read more.

2014

1. Future Islands, Singles
2. Antemasque, Antemasque
3. Alvvays, Alvvays
4. La Dispute, Rooms of the House

5. Juan Wauters, N.A.P. North American Poetry
6. Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere Else
7. Mitski, Bury Me at Makeout Creek
8. Mark Turner, Lathe of Heaven
9. Run the Jewels, RTJ 2
10. White Lung, Deep Fantasy

Read more.

2013

1. RVIVR, The Beauty Between
2. Haim, Days Are Gone
3. Carcass, Surgical Steel
4. Diarrhea Planet, I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
5. Queens of the Stone Age, ...Like Clockwork
6. Suffocation, Pinnacle of Bedlam
7. Black Sabbath, 13
8. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
9. The Men, New Moon
10. Gorguts, Colored Sands

Read more.

2012

1.  Christian Mistress, Possession
2. Japandroids, Celebration Rock
3. Converge, All We Love We Leave Behind
4. Pallbearer, Sorrow and Extinction
5. Propagandhi, Failed States
6. fun., Some Nights
7. Loincloth, Iron Balls of Steel
8. Billy Hart, All Our Reasons
9. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
10. Corin Tucker, Kill My Blues

Read more.

2011 

1. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra
2. Anthrax, Worship Music
3. Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy
4. Drake, Take Care
5. Deceased, Surreal Overdose
6. Gerald Cleaver’s Uncle June, Be It as I See It
7. The Strokes, Angles 
8. Disma, Towards the Megalith
9. New Zion Trio, Fight Against Babylon
10. Ben Allison, Action-Refraction

Read more.

2010

1. Francis and the Lights, It'll Be Better
2. Drake, Thank Me Later
3. The Bad Plus, Never Stop
4. Buke and Gass, Riposte
5. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
6. Graham Smith, Accept the Mystery
7. Ludicra, The Tenant
8. Sia, We Are Born
9. Charred Walls of the Damned, Charred Walls of the Damned
10. Dan Weiss Trio, Timshel

Read more.

2009

1. Propagandhi, Supporting Caste
2. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
3. Ran Blake, Driftwoods
4. Julian Casablancas, Phrazes for the Young
5. Chad Taylor, Circle Down
6. Them Crooked Vultures, Them Crooked Vultures 
7. Dinosaur Jr., Farm
8. Sean Kingston, Tomorrow
9. Jon Irabagon with Mike Pride, I Don’t Hear Nothin’ but the Blues
10. Heaven and Hell, The Devil You Know

2008

1. Graham Smith & KGW, Yes Boss
2. Cynic, Traced in Air
3. Dennis Wilson, Pacific Ocean Blue [reissue]
4. Guns N’ Roses, Chinese Democracy
5. Krallice, Krallice
6. Andrew Hill and Chico Hamilton, Dreams Come True
7. Metallica, Death Magnetic
8. Josh Fix, Free at Last
9. Randy Newman, Harps and Angels
10. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend

2007

1. Pissed Jeans, Hope for Men
2. Muhal Richard Abrams, Vision Towards Essence
3. Sigh, Hangman’s Hymn
4. Thurston Moore, Trees Outside the Academy
5. Deerhoof, Friend Opportunity
6. Zs, Arms
7. Rob Crow, Living Well
8. Levon Helm, Dirt Farmer
9. Tyshawn Sorey, that/not
10. Ween, La Cucaracha

2006

1. Baby Dayliner, Critics Pass Away
2. Ocrilim, Anoint
3. Xiu Xiu, The Air Force
4. This Heat, Out of Cold Storage [reissue]
5. Melvins, (A) Senile Animal
6. Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar
7. The Lemonheads, The Lemonheads
8. The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers
9. Nels Cline, New Monastery
10. Joanna Newsom, Ys

2005

1. Deerhoof, The Runners Four
2. Orthrelm, OV
3. Matthew Welch, Dream Tigers
4. Sicbay, Suspicious Icons
5. Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Matt Sweeney, Superwolf
6. Big Business, Head for the Shallow
7. Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Mostly Other People Do the Killing
8. Sunn O))), Black One
9. The Locust, Safety Second, Body Last
10. Coptic Light, Coptic Light

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Lately (11/20/18)

*Frank Mullen's final NYC show as the vocalist of Suffocation (a band I've written about at some length on DFSBP) turned out to be a surprisingly touching event. I'm very interested in the idea of true mastery in a field like this (i.e., death-metal vocals), which to 99% of the populace would scan as pure absurdity. But Frank has put in the time, to say the least, and now gets the last laugh. In the end, I feel like mastery in a field like extreme metal, which when you get down to it, is a pure fan-powered meritocracy, is maybe somehow even more "authentic" than mastery in a more "legitimate," "respectable" artistic field. In short, Frank Mullen is a guy who simply got extremely good at something for which, during the time he was coming up, there was really no established rule book (let alone rewards or accolades). Insofar as there is a rule book for death-metal vocals now, he helped write it, along with a handful of others, like Chris Barnes, for instance. Anyway, yes, this was a hell of a night, and here is my attempt to convey why.

*Hemispheres is definitely in my personal Rush-albums Top 5, likely in my Top 3 and possibly in my Top 1. Here is my take on the new expanded reissue. Ryan Reed's Geddy Lee interview from a few weeks back, linked right up top, is essential reading.

*Some thoughts on a new David S. Ware archival release. David S. Ware was "breaking" (in Rolling Stone, for one thing) right around the time I was getting into "this music." I was engaged with his work then but not, I have realized and continue to realize, as engaged as I ought to have been. (To be more specific, I think I was still pretty immersed in the history of free jazz at the time, to some degree at the expense of the music's present, though I did get out there plenty.) The more I listen, especially to the quartet, on albums like Go See the World, the more impressed I am. This trio with William Parker and Warren Smith is a very different animal, but it's dawning on me that there is really no lesser DSW.

*Harriet Tubman are, at this point, something of an NYC institution. Their new album is fitting of such a group, in that captures a band fully at ease with itself, and with the fact that it will probably never fit neatly into any scene, let alone genre. As discussed in this track write-up, with commentary from the musicians, there are strong and sturdy Sonny Sharrock–ian overtones to the Harriet Tubman project, which manifest in a particularly gritty and transportive way in the Bob Marley cover under discussion. Given my Sharrock fanaticism, I do not point out the above lightly — since his departure, few have managed to even touch on his aesthetic zone / life force, let alone harness core elements of it. That's not to say that this is some kind of tribute band or copycat endeavor. Harriet Tubman are a whole universe of sound and sensation unto themselves, and this new album is an excellent demonstration of its scope and character.

See also: Heavy Metal Bebop with Melvin Gibbs.

/////

Also, re: Heavy Metal Bebop in general, if you have enjoyed past installments, please stay tuned. As always, the series is in glacial yet perpetual motion. We're heading somewhere with HMB, slowly, steadily, and I will share details when I'm able.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Lately (11/3/2018)

*I can't stop listening to Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh's new Sparrow Nights (out now on the prolific and consistently impressive Austrian label Trost), which I wrote up for Rolling Stone's weekly new-release column (scroll down to near the bottom). So many improv releases are simply recordings of gigs, and those have their place, but as I've written on here before, this music also deserves the proper studio treatment. The Brötzmann/Leigh duo, which I had the pleasure of hearing live in 2017 and which now qualifies as a proper band after several years of consistent performance and live recording, receives that here. I haven't heard, and probably never will hear, every Peter Brötzmann album, but I've heard a whole bunch of them, and for me, this one without question ranks near the top of the pile. Heart-wrenching and achingly desolate music — some kind of spooky ambient blues that sounds like it could go on forever, and maybe has been. It feels like Brötzmann has been waiting decades for a collaborator who could help him zero in on this particular zone of his playing.

Note: for background and context, I highly recommend this 2016 video interview with the duo.

*There is a major new Charles Mingus live box set out. For somewhat obvious reasons (e.g., no jazz artist enjoys Coltrane's level of quasi-religious icon-hood, which only seems to increase with time, a topic explored in depth in Ben Ratliff's masterful Coltrane book), this hasn't been remotely as well-publicized as, say, Coltrane's "Lost Album," but honestly it's probably afforded this listener even greater musical pleasure. My RS review goes into the reasons why.

*Clutch have been one of my favorite bands for going on 25 years. I reviewed their new album a little while back, but I'm glad I was also able to see a show on their current tour, because, as has always been the case, you can never get the full Clutch story from the records. This piece is my heartfelt tribute to a personal fave that I'm happy to say has become a bona fide institution.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Lately (10/21/18)

My takes on:

Esperanza Spalding's 12 Little Spells

and

Tyshawn Sorey's Pillars

These albums could not sound more different, but they're both the work of artists who we may have once considered within the framework of genre (in each case, a loose notion of "jazz") but who have totally outgrown that or any other conventional "style of music." These works are comparable to little other than prior work by these respective artists, and even those associations are tenuous; in each case, best to just let go of the guardrail and get lost.

Side note: Like Esperanza's two prior albums, 12 Little Spells is an excellent illustration of the idea that "prog" is ultimately an outlook, not a style or a genre.

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.

/////

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.

/////

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.