Thursday, May 10, 2018

Recent raves: Immortal, Pat Metheny and more

Happy spring! A few recent musical obsessions and raves:

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.

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