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.

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.

/////

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.

Goodbye, Vinnie Paul



Never gonna be another groove like Vinnie Paul's. His playing style + Terry Date's production = a crucial element of a new metal paradigm for the '90s. These Pantera records just slice right through you and Vinnie's kicks are the razor's edge. So long to a legend.

I contributed a bit to the in-progress Rolling Stone obit. Dan Epstein's piece on the band's influence and legacy is well worth you time.

Postscript: I listened to Far Beyond Driven the day after the news broke and honestly was in disbelief over how vibrant it still sounds, particularly the first four tracks, which in my opinion are flawless. I'm not sure that we've seen that level of talent, passion, recklessness, arrogance (the kind that can make for great metal) and songwriting smarts bundled into one band since.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Music vs. the Moment: On "Criticism" and attempting to get a clear look at Kamasi Washington's 'Heaven and Earth'




















I have written before on this blog about my ambivalence toward that thing we call Criticism, and counting myself among those people we call Critics. Those mixed feeling have been swirling around again in light of the new Kamasi Washington album, Heaven and Earth, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.

If you follow Jazz or simply Music Discourse on the Internet, you will already know that this record is having one hell of a Moment, much as its predecessor, a highly acclaimed triple album called The Epic, did back in 2015. I did not engage deeply with that album at that time, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that it just didn't draw me in after several listens.

This sort of tepid response put me in the minority among my fellow writers-about-jazz, or writers-about-music period. The album was showered with effusive praise, and suddenly Kamasi Washington became something more than just an artist with a new album; he seemed to transform into a Moment, a condition that's exceedingly rare in jazz.

With jazz, I'm used to sort of moving through the music in an intuitive way, hearing as much as I can, reserving special attention for the music that really grabs me, and setting aside the rest, not in a dismissive kind of way but in a straightforward there-are-only-so-many-hours-in-the-day one. Looking back at my best-jazz-of-2015 ballot (scroll down alphabetically here), I see some records I've gone back to here and there since (Jack DeJohnette's Made in Chicago; Henry Threadgill's In for a Penny, in for a Pound; The Bad Plus Joshua Redman) and some that, frankly, I forgot even existed. So it is with listmaking, and with music — we in this general line of work hear a lot of albums every year, and very few of them, as much as they might impress us at the time, really end up finding a home in our collections and/our brains/hearts the way our Actual Favorite Music does. That's just the way things go.

I've gotten a bit off track here, but what I mean to say, really, is that, of the hundreds (thousands?) of jazz records that came out that year, it just so happened that the album that had become a Moment, or was part of a larger one that orbited around Kendrick Lamar's excellent To Pimp a Butterfly, wasn't one that ended up meaning a whole lot to me. And that, in the end, should be no big whoop. As is almost always the case, I felt very little need to weigh in either way: I am vastly more comfortable and content writing about things I like, or, ideally, love, than about things I dislike or feel iffy about. The world does not need another "takedown" or even meh opinion, at least from me.

But this year, I find myself in a different position — frankly one I feel very privileged to be in — namely that I'm writing about jazz (and other music too, I should add) regularly for the publication where I work, which is Rolling Stone, a publication where reviews have been part of the lifeblood of the magazine/website for decades now. Criticism is still alive and well at RS, which is honestly great. But since I am in some respect The Jazz Guy there at this moment in time, or at least A Jazz Guy, and since RS focuses on artists who are impacting the mainstream of American culture in some way, it was perhaps inevitable that at some point I would no longer have the luxury of taking a polite "no comment" stance on artist like Kamasi Washington.

So I took on the assignment. And... what do you know? I liked some parts of album a whole lot! I liked other parts less. And I attempted to explain why, yielding what some might call a Mixed Review — interestingly, according to Metacritic the only less-than-effusively-positive review the album has received thus far. (And to be very clear, my review did not even remotely resemble any kind of "pan"; to give just one example, I labeled the album's strongest moments "truly transcendent.") Here's a sampling of what others had to say:

"A series of near-overwhelming musical epiphanies." —Mojo

"Despite the sheer weight of material on offer you’ll struggle to find an inch of fat." —Record Collector

"An exceptional record from one of the music world's brightest talents. " —No Ripcord
In short, rapture. Such that, a review like mine, which is generally positive but not breathlessly so, becomes almost irrelevant. Due to the phenomenon of Kamasi, his harmony with the zeitgeist, his having become a Moment, there is basically only one way to receive him now: as a kind of savior figure (a concept that Ted Gioia's review grapples with a bit).

Listen, I get it. I can easily see how the sheer scale and ambition of his art — and the flashes of true brilliance therein, as well as the fact that regardless of quality, pretty much everything on his records just sounds really damn good — could inspire such fervor. It's just that it leaves one in a somewhat strange position if one happens to feel not exactly that level of ecstatic enthusiasm for what he does. If you're not a zealous booster, in other words, you can start to feel like a hater. That's the weird, unnatural, frankly suspect binary condition that these Moments tend to create. You're either riding on the bandwagon, or you're standing to the side with your arms crossed. (There's an obvious political dimension here too: Obviously the overall message and intent of Kamasi's music, and by extension, Kendrick's and this entire wave of new black art, is immensely appealing and energizing and impactful, especially given the State of Things, and in expressing even the slightest reservations about the actual music, or its reception, one would never want to be seen as taking some kind of fucked-up Wrong Side of History stance.) Again, I reiterate: I got a lot of joy out of this record. But simply because I didn't feel compelled to anoint it as some borderline-holy instant classic, I worry that I'm tsk-tsk-ing or being the insufferable "Actually..." guy. (There's also the question of what to do with, you know, the fact of having loved / written about jazz since well before Kamasi came along, and finding a way to bring that knowledge to the table without being all Comic Book Store Guy about it.)

For many writers, feeling this way is probably not something they'd even mind; it might even be something they'd relish or take pride in. But I guess so much of this just has to do with my own attitude toward what this profession / calling / what have you. To me, it's simply, writing-about-music is simply a channel for my often overwhelming, insatiable enthusiasm for the topic, period. I have very little interest or investment in some kind detached idea of "where music is going." If music doesn't excite me, I tend to ignore it, or to engage with it only insofar as it affects my day job.

But I realize that sometimes, now being one of them, when an artist associated with a genre that one happens to specialize in attains a certain level of acclaim and/or media saturation, the Critic's role is to Weigh In. And honestly, in this case, especially since I didn't really comment publicly on the Kamasi-wave the first time around, a part of me was happy to share my thoughts.

But, maybe because of the principle outlined above, the fact that I'm a writer guided ultimately by passion, and not by some abstract Critical Impulse, I in some ways had a better time reading coverage of the new Kamasi album by other writers who seemed to enjoy it more I did (writers who I respect, and who had very insightful things to say about the album, among them Marcus J. Moore, Phil Freeman, Nate Chinen and Giovanni Russonello) than I did writing about it myself. In terms of my own review, I couldn't help but feel that I was writing more about, or reacting more to, the Moment than the music. Which I think is weird and probably somewhat unhealthy.

But let's be real for a second: How, exactly, are you supposed to strip that all away? Especially when one of the points I was making — this idea that Kamasi's Kendrick / Flying Lotus affiliations seem to somehow obscure what his own music actually sounds like (an idea that the ever-sharp Seth Colter Walls was onto right from the get-go), and the fact that the one name on his résumé that seems so fundamental to understanding where he's coming from, Gerald Wilson, is the one that never seems to get mentioned — seems to me like a pretty fundamental matter to clear up before giving the music a clear, fair listen. In other words, there's the Moment, and all these sort of buzzwords and received notions that build up around a given artist, and then there's the Music, and the two can start to seem hopelessly intertwined to the point that, especially on a tight deadline, you're not even sure which you're writing about anymore.

Am I overthinking all this? Of course! But that's because this whole business, this idea of somehow objectively evaluating music, rather than simply putting into words why I love it, or telling an artist's story using their words and mine, feels fundamentally odd to me. I will probably never be comfortable with this concept, that I have any kind of authority to "judge" music. Have I spent a good portion of my life listening to and learning about music? Absolutely. Does that qualify me to write and speak about it with some authority? Sure. But that is not the same as some sort of credential of correctness. I would never, ever want a review published under my name to read as anything other than my opinion, inherently compromised by tastes, knowledge gaps, time constraints and a million other factors that can come between a listener and a clear view of the music in question.

I remember tying myself in knots a bit when Frank Ocean's Channel Orange came out. The situation wasn't identical but it was somewhat similar: I had turned in a mixed first-day review, and then the raves started pouring in. And either because I felt like I had rushed my process, or felt self-conscious that I was seemingly the only one who was feeling anything other than breathless enthusiasm for the album, I actually revised my review in time for the TONY print edition and presented a more positive take. Am I feeling like I would do that here given the chance? Probably not. A record review is simply a snapshot of a moment in time; in this case my Kamasi review was the clearest, most honest reflection of my feelings about the album (and, yes, to some degree, my feelings about the Moment) that I could pull together at that juncture. Maybe I'll spend more time with the record and start to dig it a whole lot more — possibly because I won't have the Critical Task hanging over my head, a circumstance that can be a real vibe-killer, especially if you're not simply being carried along by native enthusiasm for the topic at hand — or less; or maybe I'll continue to dig the aspects of it that I already think are great; or maybe I won't return to it all and will instead continue to fixate on some of the records, jazz or otherwise, that have already emerged, for me, as strong year-end-list contenders, one of them being the Bad Plus' Never Stop II.

Whatever the case, I'm pretty sure the world will keep turning! So much of the above is really just an attempt to work through, or even just air, these notions for my own benefit, a kind of dialogue with myself about what it is that I do, a weighing of the enormous privilege of writing about music in a professional capacity versus the occasional difficulties that can arise when what you do for the love of it mingles with what you do for a living. Make no mistake, I couldn't be happier with where I'm at as regards to any of it. I'm just looking for a way to navigate these Moments that feels honest and wholesome, for a way to say what it is that I think, and to engage with others' opinions or with an overall Critical Consensus, without coming across as bitter or close-minded. I'm aware that it's all a work in progress, and honestly I'm glad that there are no easy answers here.

And now, I think I'll shut up and throw on my favorite track from Heaven and Earth, "The Space Travelers Lullaby," because that shit is just plain gorgeous...

Still I'm sworn: Morbid Angel's 'Covenant' at 25

 Here's my 25th-anniversay tribute to my favorite metal album of all time. Paradoxically, this "41-minute blast of white-hot satanic rage" still fills me with immense joy. I'm not sure I've ever been so instantly frightened, awestruck and captivated by music as when I first heard "Rapture" on Headbanger's Ball back in 1993. (The eerily evocative video by Tony Kunewalder certainly played into that reaction.) This was some kind of new frontier of extremity that I had been searching for without even realizing it. I listened to the album twice through in recent days, and it has lost none of its savage majesty.

As I discuss in the piece, there is one line on the album that could be termed problematic, to say the least. The following is hopefully self-evident, but my praise of the album as an artistic statement should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of the perspective(s) that may have played into its creation. I take away from Covenant what I take away from most heavy music I love: an idea of pushing one's self toward some new threshold of intensity. Speaking strictly in those terms, I still haven't heard much else that can rival it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Enormity of song: 40 Watt Sun live at Saint Vitus













Saint Vitus, Brooklyn's temple of metal, was about as sparsely populated as I've seen it for last night's 40 Watt Sun show. I arrived with some friends a little before the band went on, and ran into some other friends, and the size of the crowd suggested a chill weeknight show rather than Saturday prime time. But to judge by the reactions at the end of the concert — in terms of, if I may, impact per capita — this was one of the more powerful performances I've attended there, or anywhere else, in recent memory.

If you're not familiar with 40 Watt Sun, a) please stop reading this immediately and listen to their latest album, 2016's absolutely exquisite Wider Than the Sky (see here for more on that one). But b) for description's sake, I'd characterize their music as a sort of poetic, gradually unfolding dirge rock. It seems relevant to note that the project is vestigially related to metal in that the singer/songwriter/bandleader, Patrick Walker, formerly fronted (and sometimes still does) Warning, a band that shares certain traits with 40 Watt Sun but had a more overtly "heavy" presentation.


But in another sense, it seems absurd, reductive, crass to associate this band with any genre, especially one as codified, plotted and ultra-taxonomied as metal. As last night's relatively brief, utterly extraordinary concert was nearing its end, I found a frustration welling up within me that things had to be this way. Why can't songs just be songs? Why is music, or any art, fragmented in such a way that music that I would consider to be objectively beautiful and moving has to be somehow stunted in terms of audience, lumped in with a genre where it will forever be an alternative to something (i.e., not your usual "doom metal," etc.)? Rather than considered simply in terms of what it has to offer, which is a vast expanse of feeling and transportive resonance.

Walker has aired similar frustrations. Consider this exchange, from a 2011 Scene Point Blank interview with Cheryl:

SPB: You were saying that Codeine were a bridge to other types of music - they're kind of lo fi...

Patrick: I don't know what the hell that is. I've heard that thrown around - lo fi, slowcore, sadcore, post rock. All these fucking terms thrown around. It's just nonsense, it's all music. It's Western Popular Music at the end of the day, isn't it? There's no point in getting hung up on things. There's no difference between that [Codeine] and anything else that people are gonna hear. It's sub-genres within sub-genres.

SPB: Not a fan of labels ?

Patrick: No.

SPB: Obviously you guys get classed as doom...

Patrick: Yes, but that's because I was in Warning. You can't escape it can you?

Anyway, right now, I'm revisiting "Another Room," from Wider Than the Sky, which the band opened with last night, and which is a perfect example of the 40 Watt Sun aesthetic, in the sense that it unfolds extremely gradually, asks everything from the listener in terms of attention and patience and stillness, but rewards that focus with such intense clarity of emotion, a sort of time-release shot of feeling that seems to almost enter your bloodstream and slowly flow out to your extremities. Once you are in the space of this music, the conventions of any other music immediately recede, so that you are simply existing with, and even within, these songs. There is not ever the slightest sense of wanting them to "pick up the pace" or "get on with it"; the idea of room is so essential to the power of what they do that, standing there in the physical presence of these songs — I think of the sort of majestic trudge of the verses of "Another Room," wherein the downbeat on the snare seems to take forever to arrive — it's almost hard to imagine a music that doesn't behave in this manner, doesn't treat space and time with such care and delicacy. ("I like sparsity and space in music," Walker told Noisey in 2016. "I like to be able to feel what I'm playing and to think about what I'm singing.")

Walker's songwriting is extremely skillful, built around repetitive but deeply elegant chord changes, sections that cycle over and over without losing a deep sense of purpose, and then opening into these grand and majestic sort of turnarounds. I hesitate to even call them choruses; they're more like sacred arrivals. I think of the "I'm standing on the inside" refrain in "Another Room," and how just inexpressibly right it feels when it comes around — like, yes, this is exactly where this song needs to go at this moment. And the compositions too often pick up in intensity near the end, with a relatively hard-hitting instrumental section that acts as a kind of release for the ocean of feeling that has been building and building throughout the song.

And what is that feeling? Again, just as I bristle at the idea of this band being classified or ghettoized — and, not being a member of the band, really what I'm bristling at is the idea that the band's potential audience would be somehow limited by this notion, that people who might otherwise discover it and treasure it the way that I and the others in that room last night clearly do might somehow never even find out it exists — I shy away from using reductive or banal terms to describe the emotions their music expresses. I guess I could frame it another way and discuss the quality and affect of Walker's voice, which is stunning on record and something considerably more than that in person. He sings with such purity and grace and humble potency. (All those clichéd terms, from "croon" to "howl" seem to fall pitifully short in the face of his delivery, in much the same way that words like "melancholy" or "forlorn" seem to give only the faintest approximation of the moods Walker's songs conjure; the best way I can describe it is as sort of this direct emission of melody. His melodies are winding and ingenious but extremely fluid and logical, moving in long, orderly arcs; sometimes he'll sort of reach for a climactic note but he's not an overtly dramatic or demonstrative singer; all the affect is there in the line itself.) There are singers who seem as though they're actively trying to break your heart, and depending on their degree of skill, sometimes they will succeed through this concerted effort, but in Walker's case, there is a very different quality, almost a humility. He does not appear to be trying to have any particular effect at all on the listener; his service is only to the song. There was communion going on at last night's concert, and by that I mean that people were absolutely rapt, embracing their partners and mouthing every word, but there was not that sort of tedious and creepy sense of hero worship flowing from audience to performer. And that is, I think, due in part to Walker's uncanny degree of unpretentiousness and lack of ceremony or drama onstage. He wants and needs to get inside this music, and he will do so — aided greatly, I should say, by the consummately sensitive and unassuming playing of 40 Watt Sun's rhythm section, consisting of, on record, at least, drummer Christian Leitch and bassist William Spong, though I'm not 100% sure those were the two musicians who accompanied Walker last night (Note: Walker helpfully informed me that it was Andrew Prestidge on drums and Alasdair C. Mitchell on bass at Saint Vitus)— but he will not visibly emote or "perform" beyond what the song itself needs or demands. Frankly, seeing him deliver this monumentally moving music without seeming to "sell" it in any way to the audience only made it that much more affecting.

Which brings me to his between-song banter, which was disarmingly casual and funny and, again, only served to intensify the spotlight on the real focus of the evening, which was the songs. Before the band started playing, after Walker thanked the audience for being there, someone yelled out that they "wanted to be sad" or "were ready to be sad," or something to that effect. "You can stay at home and be sad, mate," Walker cracked with classic dry British wit. And in between songs, he told various stories of what I'd describe as misguided fandom. (Like the time a guy came up to him after a Warning show and told him very earnestly that a given song of theirs was "the second-greatest song of all time," the first being by Tori Amos.) Make no mistake, Walker clearly appreciates his fervent fan base, but he also can't help but, in his words, "take the piss," out of listeners who can only view his art in a single dimension. He described several attendees of past shows expressing dissatisfaction with his stage demeanor, saying of one fan that he was (I'm paraphrasing here) "upset that I didn't seem depressed."

Now this whole concept, i.e., that just because a given artist's music projects a certain emotion doesn't mean that this artist personally embodies that emotion, or ever did embody it, is one that should be self-evident to any mature music fan but that also is easy to lose sight of when the music in question is as affecting as Walker's. A fan might like to imagine him perpetually staring out the window at a rainy English countryside, nursing his melancholy for months on end as he prepares to slump over to his guitar and compose a new dirge. But the simple fact is that he seems like a normal, well-adjusted guy who just happens to write intensely poignant songs that seem to practically glisten with the residue of loss and the yearning and alienation that can accompany human love.

As his career has progressed, Walker seems to have only moved further from any kind of generic expression. If Warning was all about crushing loss, 40 Watt Sun expresses a deeply shaded range of feeling. In comparison with other 40 Watt songs, "Marazion," the relatively brief closing track of Wider Than the Sky, and a highlight of last night's set, embodies a kind of lightness and hopefulness, a sense that yes, we've been through the ringer here, but maybe it'll be alright. And anyway, even if not, we still have to be moving on, don't we?

The sort of normalcy of the whole event last night — Walker squeezing honey into his mouth out of one of those bear-shaped bottles at various points; misplacing his capo and asking his companion in the audience to go downstairs and check if it was in his "trousers"; or just striding casually through the crowd to the bar after a devastating unaccompanied encore — seemed so beautifully at odds with the transcendent nature of what were all witnessing. Walker seems to at once understand that his music inspires great fervor and to appreciate this fact greatly but also to intent to express to his audience that he doesn't have any answers for them beyond the songs themselves. From the Noisey interview:

Noisey: Many times you've voiced your distaste for interviews, so I really appreciate you giving us one. To be honest, I appreciate your minimalism. Interviews can be gratuitous, and with a cult of personality surrounding many artists, it gets annoyingly beside the point sometimes.

Patrick Walker: I can't overemphasize how much I agree with you on the "cult of personality" and gratuitous nature of so many interviews; reading "artists" indulging in their own myth-building and so forth. I find it all repulsive.
There wasn't even any merch for sale after the show (apparently some LPs had sold out before the band's set). Just a relatively small group, maybe or 50 or milling around in the bar, sort of happily stunned. "That's why you do music," my friend Nick said, summing up what we were all thinking. The words, the sounds, the unadorned splendor of that voice, so clear, luminous and laden with feeling, like a blessing descending upon us all for a too-brief hour or so, to be relished if not recaptured. To re-immerse in reality after a show like that is, frankly, somewhat painful. But I'm thankful that some shadow of the experience lives on the records. And that I got to be there in that little room, with those relatively few others, soaking up that enormity of song.

/////

*I'm very intrigued by these two playlists that Patrick Walker put together — one from this year and one from 2016 — that might give some insight into what speaks to him as a songwriter and fan. It will quickly become clear on checking these out just how far Walker's aesthetic values stray from "metal" or any other reductive notion of genre.

Monday, May 28, 2018

"You go and you play": On Paul Motian's limitless jazz

















[Postscript, July 2018: After writing the below, I saw a rough cut of Michael Patrick Kelly's thorough and enlightening documentary on Paul Motian, Motian in Motion. Keep an eye out for news on its official release. If you are a Motian fan, you need to see it.]

[Photo above borrowed from the website of Uncle Paul's Jazz Closet, a wonderful Paul Motian–centric podcast and info source, hosted/maintained by his niece Cindy McGuirl, that I can't wait to delve further into.]

Ted Panken's jazz interviews are invaluable, and lately I've been going back to one of my favorites, a conversation with Paul Motian from 2008. I've been deeply immersed in the Motian discography, and I find that the late drummer-composer's words, as self-effacing and even terse as they can be, serve as a great complement to the music.

[Emphasis mine.]

TP: Can you speak about the dynamics of playing with a bass player vis-a-vis playing without one?
PM: That was going through my head last night as I was playing. Without the bass, I can do whatever I want. I can change the tempo. I can play free, without a tempo. I can play free for a while, and then play in tempo for a while, and not play, and lay out. I’m totally free, and it’s totally open for me to do whatever I want. ...

...

TP: So in 1963, you’re playing with Bill Evans, and in 1964 you’re playing with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler and Gary Peacock. Opposite ends of the spectrum. Why did this happen?
PAUL: I don’t think of it as being that far apart. They were gigs, and it was music. Just playing music, man. Continuing, going forward.

In jazz, as I have experienced it, there is this great divide, such that one often feels the need to pick a side. You will hear about "inside" and "outside," "straight-ahead" and "avant-garde," and all the rest. (Funny, because the aesthetic that eventually came to be seen as the conservative center of jazz, bebop and its offshoots, was once reviled as its own kind of blasphemous perversion of what came before.) When I was first getting to know the music, it was what I perceived, and what was often termed, as the fringes that drew me in. Kind of Blue didn't stick at first, but The Shape of Jazz to Come did; I was a serious Albert Ayler fan before I really came to appreciate the Ellington canon, and so forth.

These divisions persist and are still frequently invoked in the discussions that surround jazz. I of course missed the "anti-jazz" melee that sprung up around Coltrane's late work, and I was still a neophyte at the time of the whole Ken Burns Jazz controversy (not to mention the tensions surrounding the "Young Lions" movement, the uptown/downtown divide, etc.). But nonetheless there was a time when I bought into all that wholesale, i.e., that the idea of a turf war was inherent in this music.

And there's no doubt that for some, it was, and perhaps still is. No doubt prejudices regarding certain styles and aesthetics, or even vague affiliations, have prevented, and likely still do prevent, certain artists from getting gigs. (I think of Sunny Murray, quoted in Val Wilmer's As Serious as Your Life: "Working with Cecil Taylor was the worst thing that ever happened to me. ... I became stereotyped in that role and no one wanted to hear me play. I was a good bebop drummer before Cecil. Really – I should have stayed with that.") Of course, the opposite can be true too, where an artist takes on a certain cachet or cool quotient because of one or two "out" record dates they did decades ago that have very little to do with the sort of musician they ultimately became.

But the more time I spend with Paul Motian's music, particularly his extensive body of work as a leader, the more I feel like he was one of the rare figures, not just in jazz but in any music, in recent memory, who was able to really get free of all that. Ted Panken makes reference to "opposite ends of the spectrum" and Motian counters with: "They were gigs, and it was music."

It's worth repeating: "They were gigs, and it was music."

He's not diminishing the scope of anything, or, I think, chiding his interlocutor for over-analysis. (Nor does he do so in this 2010 New Sounds interview with John Schaefer, though by the show's conclusion, the host seems somewhat at his wit's end; for a comedic take on same, see drummer and Motian superfan Vinnie Sperrazza's hilarious account of attempting to engage his idol at gigs over the years.) He's merely stating plainly — and reiterating when necessary — his thought process, or more accurately his lack of one.

There's a great exchange in an earlier Panken/Motian conversation, from 2005, which I'll quote at some length. We cut in as Panken is inquiring about Motian's gear...

[Again, emphasis mine.]

TP: So you don’t give Gretsch specifications?
PAUL: No. As a matter of fact, James Farber asked me when I got my drumkit, and I couldn’t remember. Then he remembered because he said it was on Bill Frisell’s first record on ECM; I had the same drumkit. That means I’ve had it for 15 years or so, and I didn’t realize that. I just went into a drum-shop and bought it.

TP: You’re so matter of fact when you talk about these areas of your career…
PAUL: Yeah! It’s not no deep fuckin’ secret! People talk about this shit like it’s some kind of…

TP: But you were involved in a lot of cataclysmic events. The Bill Evans Trio, which influenced every pianist who came after. You’re involved in the Keith Jarrett Quartet, and a ton of people are still drawing on that vocabulary. You came in on Albert Ayler and Paul Bley and a certain way of organizing that kind of thing. Frisell and Lovano, that trio set a template for everybody under 40 (who went to a conservatory anyway). So that’s at least four major shifts in the music that you’re part of.
PAUL: Well, okay.

TP: Well, you know this. It seems to be part of following your instincts, the quotidian thing of being a working musician in New York. “I like it, I go there, I play it.”
PAUL: Yeah-yeah. That’s it, man. There’s no…

TP: But wasn’t it a conceptual leap to play behind Albert Ayler after you’d been playing with Bill Evans?
PAUL: No.

TP: Maybe Scott LaFaro prepared you for that.
PAUL: Nobody prepared me for… No. No! No, man. None of that stuff is true! Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music. You try to make music with the people you’re playing with, and then play a certain way, so you might play a certain way just to make it musical or make it magic or make it something that’s worthwhile.

TP: Then it becomes part of your style, doesn’t it.
PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: You don’t let it go. It becomes part of your muscle memory or your brain memory…
PAUL: I don’t know! [LAUGHS]
Again, I do not single out these passages to take issue with Panken's line of questioning, which I think comes out of a completely genuine and perfectly understandable curiosity re: how one musician could cover so much meaningful musical ground. I just mean to emphasize the sort of Zen-like wisdom in Motian's responses. It might seem as though he's being "difficult," but I think he's simply trying to sort of set the record straight. I think that he really and truly does not believe in these divisions within his chosen music, that he recognizes the individual genius of, say, Bill Evans and Albert Ayler but does not see their aesthetics as somehow contradictory, or mutually exclusive.

"Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music."

I think it's hard for us as listeners and fans to realize sometimes that music we hear as innovative or inspiring or groundbreaking or transporting simply happened. I wasn't there, but I'd wager that there was no great flash of smoke at Van Gelder Studio at the outset of the recording of A Love Supreme; it was another day at work. Deeply creative, spiritually engaged work, yes. But it happened the same way all other music happens: "...you go, and you play."

I've savored a wide spectrum of Motian recordings in recent weeks, nearly all of it absolutely sublime. The '87 quintet album Misterioso; Lost in a Dream, the 2010 one-off with Chris Potter and Jason Moran, which, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the most poetic and category-transcending musical documents I know; and hours and hours of music by the famed trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, which might just be the fullest realization of the principles I'm skirting around above, the idea of this sort of division-less space where, in Motian's words, "I can do whatever I want." (And I should note that much of Motian's commentary above revolves around the idea of working as a sideman, a far less thought-out circumstance than his leader scenarios, which showcased the fruits of decades of private labor as a composer, but I think the basic principles still apply.)

I've been spending time today with this extraordinary footage of a 1986 concert by the trio and then I switched over to a recent acquisition, the 1995 live album At the Village Vanguard: You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart. Right now I'm listening to a particularly hard-swinging passage of the track "Yahllah" — an often-revisited Motian piece that I believe first surfaced, in a very different incarnation, on the Keith Jarrett album Byablue — from the latter, with Lovano riding Motian's deep, sloshy groove, and Frisell plucking along like a steady-rolling locomotive behind them. It's total trance-blues ecstasy, an episode of communion and propulsion that sounds like it could go on forever, and maybe has been.

And it's such a profoundly different musical space from the one we hear on, say, the "Folk Song for Rosie," another Motian classic, from this album. Motian is playing a kind of tempo here, delineating the barest essence and contour of the music on ride cymbal and bass drum, but the centerpiece is this sort of endless circular chant that you hear in Motian's music, something I explored in some detail in this 2015 post, wherein Lovano and Frisell sort of build up the melody like a mantra, sometimes singing it back and forth to one another, sometimes phrasing it together in ghostly rubato. The songs, and Motian's compositions, especially the "ballads," lend themselves so beautifully to this treatment, just sort of hover and cycle and accrue more and more tenderness and pathos with each rendering. ("Every [one of Paul's compositions] was a little different, but they all had a real folk-song feeling," Lovano told me when I interviewed him for a posthumous Motian tribute in 2013. "You could play his melodies over and over again for hours and express them in different ways. Paul wrote some really strong, powerful, beautiful, simple melodies. And some tunes had more structure, more harmonic sequences; some tunes just had a mood and a very simple little phrase. Paul could sustain a mood like no one else and create so much inner music within that.") There are "solos" in this music, episodes when it's clear that one of the three players is taking the lead, but there's never that sense, that can be prevalent in some jazz, that the raw material of the song, the launchpad, if you will, is being dispensed with once it's stated at the outset. The material of a given song suffuses the entire performance. All three players are there to sing it — to abstract it perhaps, stretch it to the point of pure ambience, but never to get free of it.

And the fact that this song material is so incredibly pure and powerful and memorable and achingly poetic is a large part of why this music feels so free. You can do whatever you want to these songs, and they still sound like themselves, their essence still dripping from every pore of a given performance. Every extemporization, from any of the three players, seems not like a glorification of that player, or an invention of his ego, but an impassioned paean to the song itself. (The same is true in the band's treatments of standards and showtunes, though I'll admit a preference for the originals.)

So it's not that there's no thought or intent behind this music; quite the opposite. It's more that the thought and intent is so completely expressed within the music itself, both in its conception by Motian, and its performance by the trio, that explanation seems superfluous. The "freedom" in this music is so inextricably braided together with the songhood of it, and vice versa, that its very existence seems like a refutation of easy, outwardly imposed dichotomies or divisions within jazz. (A lesson Bill Frisell seemed to learn the very first time he played with Paul Motian: "What surprised me, when I first went over to his house to play, the very first moment…I guess I was expecting that we were going to play some completely free, crazy, wigged-out avant-garde stuff," the guitarist told me in 2013. "But ... we played that George Gershwin song ['My Man's Gone Now,' which Motian had played with Bill Evans]. And everything we did, there was such a structure and a clear intent with it. And so many of his own tunes were very open, but they were very particular. I could tell he was really struggling, in a way, to find his own way of writing music."*)

Classify if you must, the trio seems to say, but whatever arbitrary distinctions you settle on, leave us out of it. From moment to moment, this band can be heartbreakingly tender, forbiddingly tumultuous, charmingly quirky or just plain fucking strange:



If there is a name for what that music is, other than Paul Motian Trio Music, I don't know what it is, or care to know. It is simply itself.

"You go, and you play."

/////

*Bill Frisell elaborated further on Motian's range, wisdom and almost mystical presence on the bandstand:

"It sort of aggravates me how people still view [Paul] as this 'free,' 'abstract' [drummer]—all that kind of stuff. So many people miss that he had the heaviest, deepest beat I ever heard in my life. At this point I've played with some pretty extraordinary drummers. With Paul, no matter how abstract it got, his time feeling, the beat was just unbelievable. You could hear that, Wow, he's played with Coleman Hawkins and Monk and Oscar Pettiford. [His playing] had that direct artery going right back to that stuff. He's more known as—whatever the words they use—a 'colorist.' But somehow it all comes from that depth of the beat. The time feel is so deep that no matter how abstract he was, that was always there. I've never had a blood transfusion, but playing with him was always like I was getting filled with juice.

"There was such a wide range of dynamics. He'll go from almost a stadium-rock-band thing [Ed. note: Check out his incredible whomping tom fill at 3:17 in the aforementioned live video.] to just whispering. I experienced that a lot. Sometimes he would have me play things by myself. On all the records, there's usually one song that he'll just have me play alone, and sometimes I'd do it on the gig. But even when he wasn't playing, he was affecting the music. One time, he had me play something by myself and he's sitting there at the drums but he's not playing. And I'm playing this thing, and in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, Wow, I sound really good. And then I tried to do that somewhere else when he wasn't there and nothing happened. So whether he was making a sound or not, he was still making the music."

*This beautiful John Rogers recollection also touches on the Paul Motian Effect, that guru-like way he seemingly had of elevating the activities and ambitions of everyone around him.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Recent raves: Immortal, Pat Metheny and more

Happy spring! A few recent musical obsessions and raves:

Immortal
I'm generally not a fan of the endless microdivision of music into various subcategories, but I guess that looking back at my consumption of metal in its various forms over the years, I could generally say that I haven't gone that deep with the movement they call "black metal." Of the various canonical groups, the one I'd spent the most time with before the past month or so was Mayhem, whose shadowy, esoteric vibe (both re: the classic stuff and the more current releases) I dig very much. Recently, though — prompted by the announcement of a new album, Northern Chaos Gods, out in July — I dove into the Immortal catalog and made my way through their eight prior full-lengths. I took a backwards route, and while it was fun to hear the sound grow more and more primitive, as is often the case for me, I gravitated more toward the band's "mature" sound, where they'd dispensed with the seemingly central black-metal value of sounding harsh and lo-fi for the sake of pure extremity and moved on to a place I could relate to more: where it's simply about the songs.

The 2002 album Sons of Northern Darkness, the band's final album before their initial breakup a year later, particularly struck me. What I love about this record is the way that the material just sort of instantly obviates those subgenre distinctions I was referring to above. Yeah, the dudes like to paint their faces and dress up in leather and spikes; yeah, the vocals take the form of an otherworldly croak. But when you get right down to it, this stuff is just heavy, anthemic rock and roll, built around extremely sturdy, memorable riffs and designed for maximum live efficiency. I watch a performance like the one below, of Immortal playing at the 2007 edition of the legendary Germany fest Wacken Open Air — and I highly recommend checking out the entire concert, released in audio and video forms as The Seventh Date of Blashyrkh — and I see and hear the purest essence of heavy metal: a gloriously over-the-top, turn-off-your-brain-and-rage spectacle. So much metal, especially "extreme" metal presents itself as some kind of insular rite, where the spectator is merely an incidental presence. That kind of thing can be cool in the right hands, but to me, there's something really joyous and inspiring about Immortal's total commitment to pure heavy-metal entertainment.



This 2008 Guitar World interview with Immortal co-architects Abbath and Demonaz only drove home the band's deep connection — seemingly denied by so many in the metal underground —  to the rock and roll tradition:

Abbath: "Me and Demonaz are true. You can’t find truer people than us. But what’s true? We’re true…to rock and roll. It’s not about being evil and nasty to the rest of your fellows; it’s about showing those who think that rock and roll is a bad thing that, yeah, it is a bad thing: It’s baaad, in an all right way. It’s good. It’s freedom. Metal? Sure. But it’s rock and roll! If you don’t have the rock and roll attitude and vibe, you’ve got nothing."

Pat Metheny
What can I say? The man's discography has brought me an extreme amount of joy over the years, and periodically, I get swept up and totally lost in the insane quantity and variety of sound he's brought into the world over the years. I can't remember what set off this latest immersion, but I started out by traversing many of the Pat Metheny Group recordings both vintage and more recent. That band's 1978 debut has become a major touchstone for me in recent years. I poke fun at the Group's smoothness sometimes — let's be honest, for pure frictionless breeziness, that ensemble has often rivaled the most unabashed practitioners of so-called yacht-rock — and among friends and bandmates I've taken to labeling their aesthetic "elevator shred," but in the moment, while the listening is in progress, there are no qualifiers or disclaimers: I adore this stuff, plain and simple. As with Immortal above, I'm just extremely attracted to the unabashed quality of this body of work: Metheny and Co. seem concerned with nothing but making the most purely beautiful and epic music they can conceive of, completely irrespective of genre or fashion. At times does the Group ride a certain line of blandness that dampens my enthusiasm? Yeah, certainly — I'll admit that some of the mid-period output loses me a little bit. But at their best, and my three faves are probably that self-titled debut, the Travels live album from a few years later and the most recent PMG set, The Way Up, I find this band to be an inexhaustible source of transportive joy.

And what's so impressive to me is that the PMG aesthetic, which for some musicians would be the basis for an entire career, is only a sliver of what Pat Metheny is about. He's got this whole other, more capital-J Jazz side of what he does (I talked a bit about this duality in a 2008 DFSBP post), collaborating with the greatest musicians in the world in that style — "hanging," to speak with that circle, but never losing his core identity as this sort of Midwestern maverick, endlessly committed, yes, to chopsy virtuosity but also to a certain soulfulness and, again, the unabashed projection of the ecstasy of each musical moment. I've been returning to many of the established classics, from 80/81 to Rejoicing, and, again, just finding them to be so radiant and loose and enjoyable and free of pretense.

Another project that's been really grabbing me is the Unity Group (which grew out of an earlier project called the Unity Band), one of Metheny's latest ventures, which seems to be an attempt to reconcile various strains of his work, from the PMG "pastoral prog" vibe to the hardcore jazz stuff to the whimsical Orchestrion project, into one kind of superband. I highly recommend checking out both the 2014 album Kin and the live-in-a-black-box 2016 follow-up The Unity Sessions. The depth of the band (featuring Metheny's current drummer-of-choice Antonio Sanchez, monster saxist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Giulio Carmassi) allows Metheny to revel in all sides of what he loves to do in turn, from tender ballads to epic, quasi-proggish, through-composed suites to fiery extended solos, in settings ranging from reflective unaccompanied guitar to the full band's mini-orchestral lushness. I think of The Unity Sessions in particular as a sort of sweeping celebration of the Pat Metheny Sound in all its splendor. (Appropriately, the material ranges from pieces specifically written for the Unity Band/Group to classics from '80/'81, Song X and more.) For the full experience, I highly recommend checking out the concert-film version of the release, which is available in full on iTunes. Here's a preview:



Another recommended Metheny document: this excellent long-form interview conducted by Willard Jenkins last year. It really drives home for me the sort of pleasure-principle aspect of what Metheny does. He seems sort of marvelously unconcerned with how anyone might sort of classify or evaluate the various strains of his output, and on the contrary, marvelously concerned only with how much happiness and fulfillment a given musical endeavor might bring him. (Some might dispute me on this, but in my mind, his pleasure-principle attitude almost seems punk, a quality that aligns him directly with his similarly prolific and eclectic onetime collaborator John Zorn.) I have to say, though there are albums and projects of his I respond to more and less, that spirit of sort of innocent enthusiasm seems remarkably consistent throughout his body of work, from the Bright Size Life days up till now.

Demilich + Blood Incantation at Saint Vitus; May 4th, 2018
Speaking of joy, this show was just a goddamn blast from start to finish. I'd been wanting to see Demilich live for years. I have such a deep reverence for their lone 1993 album, Nespithe, which I went deep on when it was reissued a few years back, and that reverence has only grown after seeing Antti Boman and Co. rip through this material with no-nonsense passion and precision. The quarter century in between has not dulled the singularity and strangeness of this material in the slightest. Those stupendously grooving, asymmetrical riffs; that odd, bubbly belch of a voice — there's just nothing else like it in metal, and it's so inspiring to see that they're still commanding such respect and adoration this many years later (two sold out shows in one night at Vitus!). As I wrote on Twitter the other night, this sort of weird, roundabout cult success story could only happen in underground metal.

And Blood Incantation just absolutely blew me away. I'd read the raves about their 2016 release Starspawn, and while I've revisited in recent days and can confirm that it does indeed rip, I have to say that it doesn't even come close to approximating (for me, at least) how overwhelmingly captivating and intense this band was live. Their set just felt absolutely possessed and commanding, like they'd been locked in some underground bunker for years just drilling this stuff over and over (maybe just a.k.a. "on tour a whole fucking lot"), and when they emerged it was just pure internalized ritual, and channeling of some expertly honed force. They left me floored with how skillfully they covered the full spectrum of metal values, from a truly feral feel and energy to a truly grand, majestic compositional vision. Next time they play here, I will be dragging everyone I know, because this set was a fucking marvel to behold.

And shout-out to Artificial Brain as well! I'm deeply into their frontman's sort of good-natured ringleader vibe, and the band's highly appealing/effective blend of the slamming and the spacey.

Dave Holland / Evan Parker / Craig Taborn / Ches Smith, Uncharted Territories
I'm still digesting this (extremely long!) album, which comes out May 11th, but I'm absolutely loving it so far. Old Spontaneous Music Ensemble buds (btw, did you catch that phenomenal Karyobin reissue from last year?) Holland and Parker join up with two new-school leaders for a deep, varied free-improv excursion (rounded out by a select few compositions). As previously stated, there's an almost absurd amount of music here, but what I dig about the release is that that tracks themselves are relatively compact and digestible. I've been enjoying putting this one on shuffle and just sort of savoring whatever comes up. Given that the album includes basically all combinations of the four players, there's a ton of variety in the sound and the texture. Beautiful recording quality too. Don't miss this excellent Holland interview by Steve Smith, in which Dave tantalizingly alludes to a possible tour by this fine ensemble.

More on the Holland here, via RS.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

HMB 14: Ben Monder + The Starebaby outtakes

I'm proud to present the 14th installment of Heavy Metal Bebop, a series of conversations about the intersection of jazz and metal. The subject this time around is guitarist Ben Monder, who I've been wanting to speak to about this topic for some time now. A big thanks to him for a great, in-depth interview. Check it out here.

I've also posted extended conversations with Dan Weiss, Matt Mitchell and Trevor Dunn, outtakes from reporting I did for the aforementioned Times feature on Dan's Starebaby project. (I also spoke with Craig Taborn for the piece, and I hope to be able to post that interview soon.) Enjoy!


Photo: Stephanie Ahn

Friday, April 06, 2018

The fuchsia-colored awning: What Cecil Taylor taught me















[Update, April 6, 3:55pm ET: See also this CT appreciation for Rolling Stone.]

I thought about Cecil Taylor often during the past couple years. After the Whitney concerts in 2016, there was a lengthy period of no-news, and I often found myself wondering how he was doing. Whenever I was in Fort Greene, I would walk by his brownstone, at which I spent one unforgettable afternoon (then: baffling; now, in retrospect: invaluable) in the summer of 2008, and just sort of pay my silent respects. There was always that question of when he, that seemingly eternal, towering, incomparably enriching presence, both in the larger culture and in my sound-obsessed brain/heart, might no longer be there. And the answer to that is, really, never, because — after a partial spin through his early-'80s solo classic Garden on the train yesterday, after I got wind of the sad news that we're all still coming to terms with — he seems as alive to me now as he ever did.

Aside from a few close friends, ones I met shortly after I arrived here for college just shy of two decades ago and who at this point I'd simply consider family, Cecil Taylor has been one of the few unwavering constants of my life in New York. I now wish I had a complete record of the times I got to see him in concert, but here's what I can piece together from memory, and from the backlog of this blog you're reading, which, in many ways, has often resembled a Cecil Taylor Fan Site more than anything else (I was apparently owning up to that fact as early as 10 years ago):

*Duo with Elvin Jones at the Blue Note. Probably fall 1999. Maybe even this show. [Oh, to re-hear this concert. At the time, I barely had any idea who either musician was, and hadn't really begun to cultivate what would become my respective obsessions with the soundworld of each.]

*Duo with Max Roach at Columbia University. June 2000

*Trio with Albey Balgochian and Jackson Krall at Castle Clinton. July 2004.

*Trio with Albey Balgochian and Jackson Krall at the Blue Note. Probably February 2006.

*Solo at Merkin Hall. October 2006. Thoughts here.

*Trio with Henry Grimes and Pheeroan akLaff at Iridum. October 2006. Thoughts here.

*Duo with Tony Oxley at the Village Vanguard. July 2008. Thoughts here. [I will say that this stands as one of the greatest sets of live music I've ever witnessed, period, and it is my constant regret that I didn't go back and hear them every night they were there.]

*Trio with William Parker and Pheeroan akLaff at the Blue Note. February 2008. Thoughts here.

*Solo at the Highline Ballroom. August 2008. Thoughts here.

*Trio with Min Tanaka and Tony Oxley + [I think] Octet with Bobby Zankel, Elliott Levin, Albey Balgochian, Tristan Honsinger, Jackson Krall and others at the Whitney. April 2016. Thoughts here.

*Quintet with Harri Sjöström, Okkyung Lee, Jackson Krall and Tony Oxley at the Whitney. April 2016. Thoughts here.

There were plenty of other opportunities that I should have availed myself of. I never caught, for example, the orchestra that he would often bring to Iridium. Nor did I make those 2012 solo shows at Issue Project Room and the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, respectively, which have taken on a sort of mythic quality in my mind based on the rapturous testimonies of those who were there. (Though I did attend the 2015 Taylor tribute at the Gatehouse, and as good as it was, like everyone else, I was bummed that the man himself didn't make it.)

It now seems strange, given the relative scarcity of Cecil performances, both in NYC and elsewhere, during the later years of his life, that for a while there (and this could very well have been going on long before I arrived in the city), his presence, both on various stages and on "the scene," was common, expected. (Chris Felver's revelatory and now hard-to-find documentary All the Notes, with its window into Cecil's day-to-day life — holding court at home, heading out to his frequent haunt the 55 Bar — will stand as a key document of this period.) We have a vision of him as perhaps the ultimate musical eccentric, but he was by no means apart from society. I'd always hear stories from various musicians who had hung out with him either at his place or elsewhere (Howard Mandel's Miles Ornette Cecil book is another great reference for this kind of lore), and I remember seeing him out at a show at least once, at the 2003 Sunny Murray performance at Tonic documented here. During the afternoon I spent with him in '08, we strolled from his home to a neighborhood café and then to a local food market, and he exchanged friendly, neighborly greetings with employees and pedestrians.

All I mean to convey here, really, is that I feel extremely fortunate that my time on the planet, and especially in New York, overlapped with that of this creative giant, whose work sparked in me seemingly unbounded interest.

Beyond the live shows, I developed a whole other private relationship with the recorded work. Following my first exposure to CT, probably around the time of that '99 Elvin Jones gig, his albums, plus whatever videos, bootlegs or other documents I've been able to turn up, gradually became cyclical listening staples for me. For something like 15 years, I've moved in and out of various phases, but I've always, eventually, returned to Cecil and fixated on some new period or wrinkle. Here I was in '08, trying to devise a sort of DIY taxonomy for his piano language (even last night, revisiting Garden, I still found myself thinking in terms of the Lick and the Flurries); and here, in 2014, following a relatively quiet period for CT, going deep with the mighty Nailed; and here, in 2016, trying to make sense of Cecil Taylor, the Composer. The latter is one of my favorite posts on DFSBP, not because I think it's some sort of brilliant analysis, but because, looking back on it, I feel that it at least captures my level of immersion and, let's face it, obsession. As with any great art, especially art that exists in such vast quantities as Cecil Taylor Music, there is no "getting to the bottom of" this body of work. But there is a certain pleasure that comes, for me at least, in drinking it in and trying to make sense of it. Not sticking pins in it and displaying it under glass, but simply concentrating on it, recording impressions, maybe even formulating wild theories. Just sort of reveling in it, really, and relishing the fact that you're never going to apprehend it, so you might as well just stand underneath the waterfall and let it engulf you.

I feel this anew, now, just sort of taking stock of the Cecil Taylor music I have at hand — dozens of CDs, a handful of LPs and a daunting amount of digital files — in light of the news of his passing. Honestly, since around the time of those Whitney performances in 2016, I haven't gone through another one of those heavy CT listening phases. It's been a while since I've felt truly, presently immersed. But browsing the collection now, I feel like I never left. Because what is music, or any kind of art, but an invitation to concentrate. With Cecil, there was always that sense of "Could I ever hope to match, in my beholding of this, the level of engagement he's bringing to this performance?" I can vividly remember sitting in my seat at, say, the Merkin Hall solo concert mentioned above and feeling a great sense of almost physical exertion in trying to take in all the musical information that was rushing past me. I would leave these performances completely wired, in an almost frantic state, feeling utterly compelled to rush back home and record what I'd heard, seen, felt. And again, this has so little to do with the idea of "reviewing" something; this was and has been and I believe always will be an exercise of pure play.

Which, in a sense, it seems to have been for Cecil. This quote from All the Notes: "It's fun, if you don't let them make you write-all-this-stuff-down-forever, when all that shit'll drive you mad. Cause that's not fun, and everything should be fun, it should be a celebration of life."

And then this:


"You practice so you can invent. Discipline? No. The joy of practicing leads you to the celebration of the creation."

And so it was with listening to Cecil. The more time I put into it, the more astonished I was and, crucially, the more fun I seemed to be having. And that was, I think, a direct byproduct of the enormous, unthinkable, seemingly unprecedented investment Cecil Taylor had made in his own art. "It seems to me what music is, is," he says in Ron Mann's Imagine the Sound, the other great CT documentary (which also features Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon; I highly recommend renting or buying the film here if you haven't seen), "everything that you do... "

He continues: "Hopefully, everything that I try to do in this situation has the same kind of control over the senses that the making of the particular art of music is. So to read, or dance, to converse, is all a part of the making of music. So that when one walks down the street and one looks, and if there is a fuchsia-colored awning sticking out on the 30th floor, one says, 'Oh, wow...' So that, to me, what it is, is, everything one does."

What he's really talking about in these passages is the cultivation of a fertile artistic mindset. Whether you're creating or beholding, the act is essentially the same: putting yourself in the best possible position to receive and channel inspiration, which then gives way to "the celebration of the creation." For me, as a Cecil Taylor devotee, what I was relishing, through the constant hours of "disciplined" (a.k.a. wildly enjoyable) listening, through the practice of getting the thoughts down, was the sonic equivalent of that fuchsia-colored awning. Walking one day, you noticed it — and it's hard not to think of Cecil's penchant for flamboyant, brightly colored dress here — and it fascinated you, and you wanted a closer look. And you entered the building in question and you began to climb the stairs. And maybe today, close to 20 years later, upon hearing the news that Cecil Taylor, the man, had passed, you realized that the awning was still out of reach, and maybe always would be, but that its obvious brilliance, richness and singularity still captivated you, drove you, and made you want to know more, to push toward that space of wonderment and rigor and exactitude and abandon. An ultimate free space achieved, paradoxically, through ultimate devotion and commitment. And you realized that you'd always keep seeking out that feeling, and that what he left you with was a kind of infinite curiosity.

Those performances, those records, those bits of spoken wisdom or poetic abstraction (I still think of the endless notebooks displayed under glass at the Whitney exhibit, among countless other ephemera from a life lived in the throes of intertwined celebration and creation) were all just parts of the same invitation, saying, essentially, not with admonishment but with a twinkle in the eye, that the music doesn't have to end just because, well, the music has ended. Look, listen closely, and, like that awning high above you, or anything you might behold with wonder — even, maybe even especially, now that Cecil Taylor, the human, the artist, the teacher, is gone from the Earth — it's still there, all around you.

/////

A wealth of great CT commentary and materials has surfaced in the past 24 hours. It's striking how many people he touched.

*I found this installment of Piano Jazz to be one of the most illuminating primary sources on Cecil Taylor's art that I've ever encountered. What lovely company he was when he was at ease with his host. His breakdown of his working method to, essentially, the "pleasure principle" is both disarmingly simple and utterly profound.

*Richard Brody at The New Yorker

*Ben Ratliff at the Times

*Nate Chinen at NPR

*Matt Schudel at The Washington Post

*John Fordham at The Guardian

*Ethan Iverson at Do the Math

*Seth Colter Walls at the Times