Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dumb and dumber // Recently: Hill/Hamilton + Joni Mitchell + The Bad Plus + The Ultimate Warrior

Another week goes by, and I'm playing catch-up on here as usual. Let's see how we can move through all this. In a way, it's starting to seem sillier and sillier to me--or maybe it's just that I'm feeling more and more self-conscious about it--not to comment on current events on this site. Maybe I'll dip my toe in here or there, but I just don't feel qualified. I can't imagine it comes as much of a surprise to anyone that I'll be voting for Obama, and I'm certainly not going to offer any insight you won't get in a more informed and coherent tone elsewhere.

I can't help, though, watching a lot of the campaign coverage with a devil's advocate eye. For example, when I see Katie Couric grilling Sarah Palin (here and elsewhere)--and the latter did admittedly look ridiculous--I wonder if she's not playing right into the hands of those who favor the "smartypants liberal media" stereotype. I can't remember where it was that I read this, but a recent column discussed the frustratingly foolproof nature of the "They're not dumb; they're just like us" argument re: "folksy" or "unsophisticated" Republican politicians, wherein appearing unworldly will always be better than appearing pretentious.

For example, in one of the Couric interviews (viewable here), she asks Palin the by-now infamous question about why she didn't have a passport until recently. And Palin gives what I feel is a pretty politically brilliant answer: that she's not one of those (I'm paraphrasing) "rich people whose parents sent her to Europe with a backpack after college; I've had to work my whole life." How better to deflect that scrutiny than by--again--appealing to this notion that worldliness is at odds with the honorable provinciality she wants to project. I always try to keep in mind that to those people who are inclined to support Palin and politicians like her, she appears noble for precisely the reasons that she appears stupid to left-wingers.

I guess all this is my way of reflecting on my experience of digesting this campaign. I worry mainly about what's constructive, about what's actually going to sway undecided voters. Is practicing--to use Palin and McCain's phrase--"gotcha journalism" really going to convince anyone who's already inclined to support Palin that she's unqualified? It may only make them root for her more. Now I'm not advocating that she shouldn't be asked tough questions, but maybe that she shouldn't be asked them in such a strident and even nasty way. Couric is practically gritting her teeth--and I'm sure most of us wouldn't do much better if faced with Palin--and that seems like it will only play right into the hands of the enemy.

Same goes for the recent New Yorker profile of Cindy McCain, a smear job if I've ever seen one and one that's likely to leave you nauseated no matter what side you're on. And again, who are we trying to convince here? Do New Yorker readers really need another reason to think ill of the McCains? It can all just seem so petty and smug and even if it's all true, how is this going to help Obama win? How is the media going to reach across party lines and actually sway people who already have their mind made up? And more importantly, who in god's name *doesn't* already have their mind made up? That's my real question. It's hard for me to stay interested on a day-to-day basis, because *nothing* I hear is going to change the fact that I'm voting for Obama. And I'm sure that goes for nearly everyone who happens to be reading this post. Really, tell me this, do any of you know a single undecided voter? (Or even a single Republican voter?) I truthfully want to know who these people are. Living in New York and moving in arty-ish circles, they can be hard to find. I'd love to talk to one and have a constructive dialogue. Maybe all this preaching to the choir is getting us somewhere, but I don't see how. Is anyone's mind *really* being changed or even swayed by any of this? How could it be with issues as polarizing as the Iraq war and abortion rights? We're all waiting for Palin to make an ass of herself on Thursday, but it's worth remembering that to some, she'll look the most endearing when she's at her dumbest. Unfortunately there's no antidote for that; it's a frustratingly insoluble argument. It just can seem futile to tirelessly pick over nuances when you know the other side will constantly receive the exact opposite message from the exact same set of data.


And re: what I (ahem) actually intended to post about, here are a few things I've been enjoying of late:

1) The new duo record by Andrew Hill and Chico Hamilton. Yes, you read that right. This release--a heretofore unreleased session from 1993--seems to be totally slipping under the radar, but it's easily one of the best records I've heard this year. Here's how I argued that very point in Time Out New York (you can sample a track at that link there as well).

2) Joni Mitchell's 1975 full-length The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which I picked up on LP this past weekend. I'd long been fascinated with the *idea* of this one--not to mention its mindblowing title--and upon a first--admittedly superficial--listen, I'm not disappointed in the least. It appears to be one of her most sophisticated statements--a meditation on sociosexual relationships, privilege, posturing, authenticity, commerce, crime, etc.--though not at all overly intellectualized despite being explicitly literary throughout. It's just another reminder of how much incredibly intense and thoughtful artmaking was going on in plain sight in the '70s. Check out this fascinating track called "The Jungle Line"--the link takes you to one of those static-image YouTube videos--in which Mitchell sings over a field recording of African drummming (if you're anything like me, you'll hear foreshadowings of Paul Simon's "The Obvious Child"). (An interesting tidbit about this record is that in a 1985 Rolling Stone interview, Prince dubbed it "the last album I loved all the way through.")

3) Last Thursday's late set by the Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard. Joe and I were seated in the upper tier, right next to drummer Dave King and it was pretty phenomenal to watch him work. But what I was most impressed with is the unabashed dedication to groove and melody that this band has. The audience really connected with the set--they were whooping and cheering throughout--and I think it was because the music was very straightforwardly enjoyable. And though some pieces had an ostentatiously clever slant, for the most part it was a deeply emotive set. I loved the slow, steady and lovely cover of "Heart of Gold," for example, which featured a nice a capella vocal section to which all the members contributed. Along similar lines, a Reid Anderson ballad that I think was titled "People Like You" floored me with its poignancy. The more brainy and kinetic pieces provided nice variety and energy, but it was the slower, prettier stuff that hit me hardest. As far as the covers went--they did "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in addition to the Young tune--it's true what the anti-backlashers say: They were only a very small part of the set. That practice of covering recent (or simply non- or post-American Songbook) pop hits has obviously been a double-edged sword for the band--it earned them a ton of press but also the label of "gimmick"--but after hearing them live, I'd have to say that these pieces really didn't have that much bearing on the set overall. It was a jazz group--albeit a very fresh and contemporary one, for whom traditional or even progressive types of "swing" are only a very small part of their rhythmic vocabulary, most of which is dominated by backbeat-oriented grooves--that chose to season its original tunes with pieces more likely to be familiar to the audience. In other words, "standards" in the truest sense, popular tunes that functioned as palate cleansers and that created a bridge with the listeners. Along that line, what I admired most about this band was their ability to entertain in a very classy way; as Joe pointed out, hearing them was not unlike hearing a thoughtful and stimulating rock band or singer-songwriter. There's no sense of taxing experimentalism, just sophisticated--and remarkably passionate--entertainment. It was a lot of fun to hear something that enjoyable and enriching at a jazz club, and without a hint that you were experiencing a bygone mode of performance. With or without the covers, the Bad Plus are the best kind of modern pop group. Not that they're not a proper jazz group, but seeing them in the company of an enthusiastic crowd at the Vanguard really helped me tap into the sensation of what it was to hear jazz live at a club in the days when it *was* actually popular and not a rarefied art music. (I'm sure you don't need me to tell you this, but the band's pianist, Ethan Iverson--a subtly dreamy and extremely thoughtful melodicist--maintains an excellent blog here.)

4) This video of--and attendant blog post on--the Ultimate Warrior's astoundingly seething and hypernonsensical prematch hype proclamations. Dig the part at the end where he's vowing to literally bring down Hulk Hogan's airplane as he flies to Wrestlemania, and lines like "The family that I live for only breathes the air that smells of combat," and "All the fuses in the exit signs are burnt out." Eternal thanks to John A. for the tip on this one. (I haven't yet explored this blog further, but am very intrigued by post headings such as "Paul Bearer a.k.a. Faulknerization of the WWF" and "The Huck Finn-ing of Hacksaw Jim Duggan." It's just this kind of pseudointellectual flippancy--not to mention thematic consistency--that makes some blogs take off and others (uh, like the one you're reading) remain an acquired taste at best.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pop went Weasel

I finally made it out tonight to see Weasel Walter, playing at the Delancey, of all places--that once-trendy, now utterly deserted three-floor dance/rock/scene club at the foot of the Wmsburg Bridge. WW has been playing about town and in the region for the past several days now; I think he did a trio last Wednesday with the great clarinetist Perry Robinson and then this past Friday--when I scored Randy Newman tix at the last minute--he was at Zebulon w/ trumpeter Nate Wooley and some others. So this was the only gig I could make it out to, and I'm really very glad I did.

Simply put, Weasel has become an outstanding free-jazz drummer. There was a time, not too long ago, when I considered his free-improv activities as secondary to his brutal-prog-metal activities. I know that Flying Luttenbachers has gone through many incarnations and that several of them were working in a free-jazz-ish vein stretching back to the '90s. But I never knew those lineups well. The Luttenbachers I know--and on the whole, enjoy very, very much--are the late incarnations with Ed Rodriguez (now of Deerhoof, formerly of Colossamite), Mick Barr, Mike Green and others. Cataclysm is an album that's well worth your time (I'm still digesting it after owning it for quite a while), as is the final Luttenbachers album, Incarceration by Abstraction, which is an overdubbed all-solo disc, though w/ a very full, live-band sound that's vastly superior to that of an earlier solo-Walter FLs disc, Systems Emerge from Complete Disorder.

So that was mainly the way I knew Weasel Walter: As a composer of extremely intense progressive rock/metal. And due to his own constant insistence, I did consider him that way: as a composer rather than as a drummer. He often claimed that he wasn't really a drummer, that he was only really playing drums in FLs out of convenience. But then around the time that the Luttenbachers were winding down, he started getting into a lot more free-improv stuff. I got ahold of the first of this new wave of out-jazz WW stuff, Revolt Music, and I remember thinking it was decent--serviceable free jazz, but nothing out of the ordinary.

When Stay Fucked shared a bill w/ the trio of WW, Moe! Staiano and Kyle Bruckmann at 21 Grand last December, I definitely noticed that Weasel's drumming had become a lot more confident and intense. But after hearing him tonight in duo with Peter Evans--the other set he played was with a sextet co-led by him and drummer Marc Edwards, a distinguished Cecil Taylor Unit alum--I can say that his playing has progressed in quantum leaps since even then.

I wrote a little while ago about Tony Oxley, and how the power of his playing has so much to do with timbre, with choosing sounds that slice through the free-improv jelly. Weasel plays a very pared down kit, but it's built for maximum cutting: woodblocks, two rototoms, a triangle, no washy crash cymbal,s etc. In addition, he makes copious use of double-bass, drumming something you never see elsewhere in free improv (albeit on a tiny bass drum that can't be more than 16" and may even be smaller).

But the great thing is that even though he comes from an extreme-metal background, he doesn't just import that style wholesale into his free-jazz work. He takes what he needs and leaves the rest, yielding an incredibly--and at times even comically--dense style that's also extremely nimble. His kit is so crisp-sounding and his volume control so sensitive that he can blurt out these machine-gun barrages while still remaining completely attuned to what a soloist is up to. He's also got mean hands that allow him to totally cook on the ride or bust out a pulverizing blast beat, sometimes even throwing in the deadly gravity blast. (Talking to Weasel between sets, he mentioned how that technique in particular is perfect for free jazz because it actually yields a very low-volume, but ultra-high-density sound.)

So basically what we have here is something unprecedented, or maybe not unprecedented, but extremely rare: someone who's got a very hands-on know-how of extreme metal approaching free improv on its own terms, i.e., he's not just showing up to a free-jazz gig and playing death metal. At first blush, he simply sounds like a particularly dense and kinetic free-jazz drummer. But the more you hear him improvise, the more you realize that he couldn't do what he was doing without the extreme-metal knowledge. There's a very subtle sort of fusion at work in his playing. Again, what I love about it is precisely that it's *not* some cheesy transidiomatic juxtaposition thing. He knows the conventions of free jazz and doesn't really try to mess with them. But he has developed a style which addresses one of the core problems of the genre and at times, seems to basically solve it: namely how to achieve density without losing definition and without drowning out the horns. Zach Hill could play circles around Weasel, but from what I've seen, he hasn't really coped with that core problem. If you're going to be a good improviser, you have to figure out how not just to sound awesome, but to make that sound gel with others. Over the past two years or so, Weasel Walter has worked his way up to that point. He's one of my favorite free-jazz drummers currently playing.

So anyway, my bad for not discussing the particularities of tonight's sets. Basically the opening duo w/ Evans was outstanding. From what I've heard, Evans has been getting into a lot of amplified playing recently and tonight he used the mike to outstanding effect, shoving it into the bell of his horn and producing these unholy fields of hissing sound that I probably would've taken for guitar feedback if I'd've had my eyes closed. Other times, he was playing speedy freebop on the open horn and always with that searing clarity that has become his trademark. This was free jazz the way I love it: with starkly delineated timbral areas for each instrument and with no auto-pilot-ness. The pieces were short and eventful and I wasn't bored for a second. How often can you truly say that about free-improv sets? There's a new Evans/Walter LP out on Weasel's ugEXPLODE label that I'd really like to check out asap. Excellent Walter duos w/ Evans and Mary Halvorson are hearable here.

Re: the Edwards/Walter sextet set, it was pleasingly high energy, but a little exhausting and predictable in its blowout nature. We've all see those free-jazz shows that start at full tilt and just sort of gradually exhaust themselves, and this was pretty much one of those. Typically it's hard to hear the horns and that was very much the case tonight, Evans excepted, b/c he was fantastically, blaringly clear and loud. In addition to Evans, Walter and Edwards, the others were bassist Tom Blancarte, altoist Darius Jones of the mighty Little Women and tenorist Paul Flaherty. Blancarte was massively amplified and rumbling hugely in a very awesome way. Wish I could've heard the saxes better. Jones was tossing out some very tuneful post-Dolphyish lines that I loved when I could make them out, and also on the last piece, he was eliciting some crazily loud, odd sounds by just blowing into his cupped hands. Flaherty was, for me, the weak link, engaging in repetitive post-Ayler ululation and not doing much to aid the set dynamically or engage with the others.

My favorite moments were when players dropped out, leaving a minigroup to go at it. The three horns had a pretty nice trio tangle at one point and the second piece began with a smokin' Jones/Walter duo that I wish had gone on longer. For the finale, Walter suggested an Edwards/Flaherty duo, but it didn't come to pass. I always appreciate that sort of effort to atomize large groups. I think most large free-jazz ensembles would benefit from a little spontaneous organization, i.e., simply plotting out where each player will enter and drop out. It's not really "free" at that point, but in my experience, freedom rarely leads anywhere but to Freedom, i.e., a full-bore screamfest, and there are so many other possibilities. Anyway, Flaherty aside, I really enjoyed what everyone was doing; I just wish I could have focused a little more on what each player was throwing down.

So that late set was nice in an ear-cleaning way, but that duo set, it really gave me hope. Free jazz can leave you depressed if misplayed; this, though, was just straight-up entertaining, and drummingwise, it nailed all the right bullseyes.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Feeling like a Newman

Had the amazing opportunity to hear Randy Newman live at Carnegie Hall last night. I've had his latest, Harps and Angels, on repeat for a few days now, and I was extremely psyched to be able to check this out. I feel like Newman has been sort of rumbling in the background of my mind for awhile--maybe due to the amount of times that I watched the intro to Major League when I was young--but it's only recently that I've woken up and realized that I should be paying more direct attention. It seems like he's nestling into my personal pantheon, in a snug niche right between Bob Dylan and Steely Dan. And yes, this was a hell of a show.

He was solo at the piano, in the middle of Carnegie's huge stage. I think I was only there once before. I saw Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter play duo; it was probably about eight or nine years ago. I have no recollection of that show other than that I was in the nosebleeds. Last night I was only about 15 rows back, sitting with my Time Out buds Jay Ruttenberg and Steve Smith. (Across the aisle, interestingly were Bruce Hornsby and Pat Metheny.)

So the overarching impression I came away with was that Randy Newman is a true old-school entertainer, one of those disheveled, lovably curmudgeonly, rumpled-suit dudes who can get up alone on a stage like Carnegie's and treat it like a nightclub. He's just doing his act. (Fitting, then, that I was there with Jay, as he's one of our foremost connoisseurs of that type of entertainment, as evidenced by this sterling reappraisal of Joan Rivers that ran a while back in Heeb.)

And what is his act? I guess the way I think of it is that he's sort of like this doomsday prophet in the form of a lounge act. His between-song banter and the witty asides he throws in between lines reveal him to be a true master of the "But seriously, folks..." school of comedy. (After an awesome rendition of the brutally honest "Korean Parents," he said, "I used to worry about crossing the line--now I don't even know where the fuckin' line is anymore.") He can seem quaint or goofy, but then you realize how raw and real his emotional and political commentary is. Last night, I kept thinking about how his persona is often that of a dope, caught up in lust ("You Can Leave Your Hat On," of which Newman quipped last night: "I wrote this when I was 25 and I thought it was a joke, but the older I get, I take it more and more seriously. I think it's one of the saddest songs I ever wrote."), greed ("It's Money That I Love") or prejudice ("Short People"). But that dopeyness comes to seem a lot less dopey and a lot more endearing when he's singing a love song. Last night, "Feels Like Home" was heartbreaking: In a song like that--or like "Losing You," from Harps and Angels--the narrator comes across every bit as ignorant as the ones in those aforementioned songs, but the ignorance no longer seems like a vice--it just seems like beautiful simplicity.

It was very weird to see Newman, who sings most of his songs from a populist perspective, even if it's like a studied, devil's advocate type of populism, at Carnegie Hall, amid a whole bunch of obviously wealthy, limousine-liberal (I'm really loving that phrase these days) types. Newman's offhanded plug for Obama got huge applause, and his tunes about elitism got huge laughs, i.e., the line in "It's Money That I Love" when he sings, "Used to worry about the poor / But I don't worry anymore / Used to worry about the black man / Now I don't worry about the black man." Seeing Newman in that setting was almost like seeing one of those old-time court jesters, whom the rich kings would pay to make fun of them. Newman sang "It's Money..." and then commented on the recent travails of the market, saying, "But don't get me wrong, I'm no populist." Everyone enjoyed a good, haughty laugh.

I don't think I'm getting this point across so well, but it's that same sort of thing with Steely Dan, where the people he's singing to are the exact people that are lined up in the crosshairs of his satire. I think the irony is even more vast with Steely Dan, because they attract that breezy baby-boomer crowd that gets sent up so mercilessly on albums like Gaucho. With Newman there seems to be a little more recognition on the part of the audience that they're the ones being lampooned.

Anyway, an obvious highlight of the show was "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," a truly awesome and timely song that I've replayed constantly in recent weeks. (Great and definitive YouTube version is here.) That one truly gets at what I was saying before about the doomsday-prophet-as-lounge-singer vibe:

The end of an empire is messy at best
And this empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free

This and Newman's various other social and poltical satires are strange songs to hear at Carnegie Hall at an $80-a-seat concert amid a wealthy, all-white audience in these polarized election-year times where everyone you meet is either on exactly the same page or reading out of an entirely different book. Preaching to the choir is rampant, truly, and much of it takes the shape of "We Americans are truly fucked." (Witness such well-intentioned but ultimately pretty useless McCain disses and Obama endorsements as these from well-known avant-garde musicians on the Ecstatic Peace website. To be honest, I prefer the productive friction generated when Barack spars with folks like Bill O'Reilly. I'll be voting for Obama, no question, but enough with the love- and hatefests, please.)

I've muddled a few different points together here, obviously. But I'm talking about this weird, very New Yorkish phenomenon of people only interacting with other people who think the same way they do and how that discourse can completely absorb and defang even the most cutting satire. Take "Rednecks," a song I'd heard about via this excellent Rolling Stone interview, which contains a lot of the banter that Newman touched on last night. It's a vicious, scary song: a scorched-earth satire that seems to be sending up Southern ignorance, but ultimately turns the real firestorm on the North, discussing how urban racism may not be about using the word "nigger" or practicing those sorts of obvious, open forms of discrimination but about offering African-Americans the "[freedom] to be put in a cage in Harlem," and the South Side of Chicago and East St. Louis and all the other fabled ghettos.

So even if Randy Newman isn't telling anyone anything they don't already know--or reaching people who haven't grown numb to this kind of satire, even if they're not the least bit immune to the charges it levels--hearing the n-word spewed liberally and scathingly from the Carnegie Hall stage was truly intense. Like Becker and Fagen, he's built an outstandingly effective Trojan Horse, sneaking into pop culture on the strength of his Toy Story contribution and other cuddly, lovable tunes and then unleashing a flurry of low blows from the spotlight. It's a hell of a royal scam.


Here's an incredible vintage version of "Rednecks" (listen to the nervous laughter when Newman sings "some smart-ass New York Jew," and you'll get a sense of that tension I've been trying to portray above):

And here's a gorgeous "Feels Like Home," with some intro commentary on the background of the song:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sigh of relief

BB King Blues Club will most likely never *not* be an exceedingly weird place to see a metal show. But after a few years--I've seen Necrophagist, Enslaved and Morbid Angel twice--of going there, I'm starting to get used to it. For one, thing, it's hard to beat the combination of extreme metal and extreme punctuality (I'm looking at you, Marty DiBergi). Last night's Sigh show started precisely when the booker told me it would, at 9:30, and it ended not more than 45 minutes later. Some would say, "Pretty weak for a headlining band," but I felt totally satisfied.

There's always something a little comical about watching a band take to BB's tiny stage. I'm sure many of these acts play much larger and more roomy venues in other cities, with much higher stages. The low ceilings at BB's, the prominent club logo on the back wall, the booths, the coat check, everything is a direct affront to seeming intimidating and/or badass. But few bands that play there really seem to care. Sigh, for one, hasn't toured the states in a few years, and they just seemed happy to be back. The crowd was small, but very devoted.

As you might be able to tell from the pic above, Sigh thrives on theatricality. Onstage the band comes across as one part no-nonsense working metal band--namely guitarist Shinichi Ishikawa, shredding heavily in a Possessed shirt at stage right but totally outside the spotlight; bassist Satoshi Fujinami, clad in an old-school jean jacket with tons of metal patches; and drummer Junichi Harashima, longhaired yet modest in spectacles and playing a very classy and nonmetal Pearl single-bass-drum kit--and one part over-the-top campfest.

Vocalist-keyboardist Mirai Kawashima (see previous post for an interview)--second from left above--and new vocalist-saxist Mikannibal--far left--make an awesome team onstage. They came off like some sort of sadistic Satanic revival preachers, with Mirai in a frilly all-black corset and tails and Mikannibal in, well, fetish gear (she came out in a tight dress, which she promptly tore off as the first song--"Introitus" from '07's Hangman's Hymn--raged forth). The great thing about the two is how well their vocals complemented one another: Sigh's records make heavy use of panning and multitracking on Mirai's voice, making it seem like the shrieks are exploding on all sides of you, and live, Mirai and Mikannibal traded lines in rapid succession to approximate this effect. The awesome thing is that he actually handled the high screams while she took on the deep guttural growls. Her voice was absolutely demonic at times, and it was really surreal to watch her prancing around like an exotic dancer and even beaming at the crowd at times in between beastlike bellows. (You couldn't hear her sax at all during the set, but when she was testing her levels in between songs, she blew some pretty righteous bebop-sounding stuff.)

Both frontpeople had this awesome way of punctuating their lines with accusatory finger stabs at the audience, too, as though damning everyone in the place to Hell. (I was reminded of this awesome interview in which Mirai states, simply, "Long story short, I just want all the people to die... I hate 99.9% of people on this earth. I'm not pretending a misanthropist, I mean it. I just want them to burn in hell.")

Despite that sentiment, Mirai was very gracious at the show, thanking everyone at the show and offering assurances to the diehards such as "Don't worry, we're going to play a lot of old stuff tonight." The set offered a pretty good mix, including "Inked in Blood" and "Me-Devil" (MP3 in previous post) from Hangman's Hymn, plus the awesome "Shingontachikawa" from Ghastly Funeral Theatre (also hearable in previous post), the title track from Hail Horror Hail and a few I didn't recognize. The encore was a speedy, raunchy version of Venom's "Black Metal," from the band's latest record, a full-on Venom tribute. Mikannibal was nowhere to be seen during this one, but right at the end she strode out, poured some unidentified liquid in her mouth, raised a torch and blew a big fireball out into the crowd. Pretty intense for a Tuesday night in Times Square.


And quickly: Thanks much to the good dudes of Aa for inviting me to play w/ them at the Stone last night. Am always happy to be a part of that continually evolving endeavor, and I had an awesome time.

And very quickly: Don't sleep on the memoir excerpt from Alejandro Jodorowsky in the latest issue of Arthur. It's an incredibly creepy and intense account of big-time soul-searching and aesthetic-identity formation, with a heavy-duty Surrealist bent. Download the PDF of the issue here and skip to page 15.

And very, very quickly, I don't want to encourage any bad behavior, but I've garnered indescribable joy from the ALL albums available for download here and it would seem hypocritical not to invite others to do the same. Specifically I recommend the s/t remastered greatest-hits thingie and '93's Breaking Things, which I had way back in 8th grade but foolishly sold. Silly, silly me. (And man, I always yearn for that copy of Cannibal Corpse's Eaten Back to Life I hocked as well...) And if you haven't heard Allroy Saves and Allroy's Revenge, you're missing out on two of the weirdest, most awesome and most heartfelt rock albums of all time.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

DFSBP Podcast Series #1: Mirai Kiwashima of Sigh

Greetings, good people. This post kicks off what I hope will become a regular series on DFSBP. (But as with everything having to do with this blog, it would be silly of me to promise anything.) I think the podcast--which is, as I understand it, nothing more than a radio program in the form of an MP3--is a good fit with one of my main initiatives on this site, which is to provide in-depth interview content. And sometimes, it's cooler to hear the actual audio recording of a given conversation rather than simply reading the transcript. So here we are. I present you with a 25-minute audio interview I conducted with Mirai Kawashima, frontman of the long-running Japanese black-metal band Sigh:

DFSBP Podcast Series #1: Mirai Kawashima of Sigh

(Topics covered include: how the band got its unusual name, the challenges of speaking in Japanese yet singing in English, the band's relationship with the infamous Euronymous of Mayhem fame, the role of humor in heavy metal and Mirai's love of classical music.)

Please note that since I was reaching him in Tokyo, Mirai was good enough to speak with me at approximately 5am Japan time. His answers were brief, but extremely insightful; I really enjoyed this chat. His accent is a bit thick, but I don't think you'll have too much trouble understanding him. Please let me know if anything in particular is unclear.

NYC readers should note that Sigh is playing at B.B. King Blues Club (yes, that unlikeliest of shrines for extreme-metal in NYC) in Times Square this coming Tuesday, 9/16. They were supposed to come around last year, but it fell through. This month's U.S. tour is the band's first ever full trip around the States. And now a few words on Sigh--followed by a few MP3 links--for the uninitiated.


By way of an introduction, I'll reprint a brilliant "disclaimer" of sorts that ran on the back of Sigh's 1997 full-length, Hail Horror Hail (I discuss this particular message with Mirai in the podcast):

"This album is way beyond the conceived notion of how metal, or music, should be. In essence it is a movie without pictures; a celluloid phantasmagoria. Accordingly, the film jumps, and another scene, seemingly unconnected with the previous context, is suddenly inserted in between frames. Every sound on this album is deliberate, and if you find that some parts of this album are strange, it isn't because the music is in itself strange, but because your conscious self is ill-equipped to comprehend the sounds produced on this recording."


I remember first being exposed to this band by the heavy-duty experimental percussionist, vocalist and visual artist Fritz Welch, best known for his work in Peeesseye (say "pee-ess-eye"), info on which can be found here. (Interestingly, that band name was formerly rendered PSI, which could conceivably be pronounced "sigh.") I think he turned me onto their incredible Imaginary Sonicscape album four or five years ago. But I didn't really get into them until 2007's Hangman's Hymn--perhaps my conscious self was ill-equipped before this time!--which I reviewed in Time Out and which ended up making my Top 10 list for last year. I'm not really in the habit of quoting my own words, but since this seems like a pretty solid and concise description for the band overall, I'll make an exception: I characterized the record as "a ghoulishly extreme firestorm of symphonic thrash-metal lunacy." I'll stand by that.

Anyway, Sigh has been around since 1990, and Mirai, whom I interviewed, has been the frontman and mastermind of the group that entire time. Despite being from Japan, the band did have some contact with the infamous Norwegian scene, signing to Deathlike Silence Productions in the early '90s. (The head of that label was none other than Euronymous, the Mayhem guitarist who was murdered by his bandmate Varg Vikernes, a.k.a. Burzum, in what might be the most notorious incident in metal history. More info here for those who don't already know this grisly tale.) Sigh's excellent full-length debut, Scorn Defeat, came out on DSP in 1993, after Euronymous's death. It's a very strange and varied album, as you can hear from the crazy organ-and-voice invocation "Gundali" below.

The band only got weirder after that, seasoning its music with a wide variety of left-field influences, including psych-rock, electronica, classical, fusion and even Beatles-y pop. This eclectic approach culminated on the aforementioned Imaginary Sonicscape disc, released in '01, which can only be described as a trip. It's one of the weirdest and most enjoyable metal albums I've ever heard. After a while you come to expect the constant stylistic shifts, but they never get in the way of solid songwriting. Gallows Gallery, which followed, abandoned Mirai's trademark shrieking altogether for a headlong foray into boogie-rock, but then the band headed back into the intensely extreme territory of Hangman's Hymn. The latest Sigh release is a tribute to one of Mirai's favorite bands, Venom, which you can order from The End Records.

Here are four Sigh MP3s to get you started:

Shingontachikawa, from 1997's Ghastly Funeral Theatre

Scarlet Dream, from 2001's Imaginary Sonicscape

Me-Devil from 2007's Hangman's Hymn

Gundali from 1993's Scorn Defeat

And here are two other relevant links:

*Sigh's official homepage, The Slaughtergarden

*A brilliant blog post that Mirai recently contributed to the Headbangers Ball homepage re: the "Evil, Darkness of Classical Composers Schubert, Liszt"

*The band, at their most rock & rolling, performing live in Japan in '02:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The interim // Seconds

I will spare any explanation for the extended delay since the last post--I don't really have one, to be honest--and just say, "Hey, thanks for bearing with me."

Since we last spoke, I caught the mighty Cheer-Accident at Prog Day--I'm researching the band for an upcoming project to be revealed soonish--and took a very enjoyable weekend trip to Cleveland with my own band STATS to record a few tunes with the extremely hospitable and talented John Delzoppo, drummer for the highly ripping Clan of the Cave Bear, expert audio engineer and just plain nice dude to hang with. More info on that soon as well.


And the order of business on every respectable metal-inclined blogger's lips is of course... Death Magnetic, the latest from Metallica, which drops this coming Friday. Actually, who am I kidding? It leaked a few days ago, so if you're resourceful enough to type the album title and the word "blogspot" into a search engine, you'll be checking it out in no time. If you need some convincing, here is my long-ish review, from this week's Time Out New York (with an addendum of five of my favorite Metallica "deep cuts"):

Death Magnetic review

Of course, most other heavyweight sources have already weighed in, in one form or another. The Times' Ben Ratliff checked out the band in Romania and had some favorable, insightful words on the disc and what it represents in the context of the band'a career. Cosmo Lee over at Pitchfork administered what I'm sure won't be the last smackdown the disc is going to receive; the piece has its needlessly schadenfreude-ish qualities--see also the site's pointlessly withering string of Mars Volta reviews--but makes some fairly convincing points.

The most interesting commentary I've read, though, comes courtesy of Phil Freeman, whose post on the disc is entitled "Fuck You, it's Great." What I like about this entry is that it attempts something few critics ever undertake: namely a reassessment of one's past published judgments. Freeman admits to laying a major dis on St. Anger when it came out, but in this piece he takes a more accepting view of the record and attempts to jettison some of the critical deadweight that has accumulated around this not-great-but-certainly-not-crappy record over the past few years. I like that; more critics should be accounting for past work, stepping up and saying, "You know what? I was wrong," or even, "You know what? I was right, but maybe not quite in the way that I said I was."

I guess the latter is sort of how I'm viewing my own Death Magnetic review above. I wrote it a few weeks ago based on one listen. Yes, I heard the album exactly once, straight through without even a pause. I did check out the tracks that were floating around on the net--"My Apocalypse" and "The Day that Never Comes"--a few extra times, but for the most part, what was published in that review was my *initial* reaction to the disc. And I think that's a perfectly valid, if not necessarily ideal, way to approach a record review. (The ideal thing would be to have several months, or even years, to spend with a record. It's a total cliche, but it's true: The stuff I end up loving the most, I tend to not really get on the first listen.)

One of my most coherent reactions to hearing the record for the first time was that I really, really wanted to hear it again. I got my chance today, long after my published review had gone to press. Having spun the disc a second time through, I can say that I basically agree with myself, that is to say, Death Magnetic is--at least, according to the Time Out NY rating scale--a four-star record--in other words, "recommended" or "very good" but not quite "great."

But a few things jumped out at me this time around. Number one, the record is not *quite* as fast and brutal as I remember it being. Maybe it was that I was listening to it on mondo speakers at an extremely high volume, but hearing it today on headphones, it sounded more... manageable, I guess would be the word. On a first listen, I heard an impossible-to-parse blur of ever-unfolding parts. Today, I just heard some long-ish yet pretty-easy-to-follow Metallica songs in a style that sounds like the Black Album-era band trying--pretty successfully--to integrate their "mature" (i.e., poppy/alt-rocky) style with their progressive-thrash roots. In other words, it's not a return to form in that it sounds more like the '80s material than the later stuff. What it really is, is just a convincing reconciliation of the two eras, whereas St. Anger seemed more like an overprotesting forsaking of the old Metallica. On this second listen, I heard as much "Enter Sandman" as I did "...And Justice for All." And though it's easy to write off late Metallica as watered-down, it's also easy to forget how catchy the band has become. No song on "Death Magnetic" lacks convincing hooks, and that is really the record's greatest strength. (If I were to ID a greatest weakness, it would be lackluster riffs--as I said in the review, too often it seems as though the band is trying to mask the blandness of the fundamental material with chaotic arrangements.)

And even though it's not as coldly unrelenting as the mid-'80s stuff, it's still a very heavy record. Not Slayer heavy, mind you, but Metallica heavy, which has long been more stylized and less raw. I'd still be surprised, though, if any listener with any foreknowledge of Metallica didn't lean back at least once while checking out the album out and say to themselves, "Damn, this stuff is pretty brutal. I didn't think they had it in them."

Check out new Hexa audio and video here, including my favorite song by the band, the gorgeously bittersweet "Classes." The "Owl Is Yellow" video is pure homegrown pop fun. As I have indicated before on this blog, these are songs I would recommended to any person who is human and likes to feel.

Speaking of music that's for everyone, two old feelings-rock obsessions are cropping up big time of late, those being Action and Action and Used for Glue. Music like that makes me soar, and how postadolescently adorable are these videos? Another current jam, "If Only"--which "Stony Rock" Gedrich hipped me to--doesn't have a proper video, but as you can hear here, it's just as universal in its no-b.s. melodic-rockdom.

STAY TUNED: debuting very soon, the Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches podcast series!