Sunday, March 08, 2009

Various and sundry: STATS / Mastodon / Last Exit

A few disparate musical topics to blab about this balmy Sunday evening...

STATS (above, photo by Peter Kleeman) is up and running again after a month-or-so hiatus. Very happy to be rocking in this manner once more. In two weeks' time, on March 23, we will perform as part of the hallowed Precious Metal series at Lit Lounge. Come one and all. More spring shows are in the works and new recordings are coming soon.


I have heard the new Mastodon album, Crack the Skye, which officially appears 3/24. (It's already up for grabs in the file-sharing netherverse, but--strangely--sans the tour de force 13:00 album closer, "The Last Baron.") In fact, I've heard it like ten times. I'm utterly addicted to it. Though my reaction is extremely positive, I'm just a tad hesitant re: raving about it at this early stage simply because I remember having the exact same "Holy shit!" initial opinion of 2006's Blood Mountain. But after a few weeks, I remember feeling like I'd exhausted that album and that its appeal was distinctly ephemeral. Amid all the Crack the Skye buzz, though, I've been coming back to Blood Mountain (and Leviathan as well) and feeling pretty well-sated.

Anyway, re: Crack the Skye, a lot of the early press has cried, "Prog!" and I'm not going to disagree there. The album is one huge, epic mood piece, inviting all the usual BIG adjectives like "sprawling" and such. There's a wide array of dynamics, a smattering of Moog-ish keyboards and a continuation of Blood Mountain's heavy reliance on *sung*--i.e., as opposed to shrieked, bellowed or roared, as on Remission--vocals. The hooks on this record are simply monstrous. Nearly every song has at least one moment of grand-slam catchiness (behold "Divinations" and its solid-gold chorus here) and the singing sounds a good deal more natural this time around. It's very much a record of unabashed beauty, yet when the heaviness comes, it's massive and furious.

It's pretty safe to say at this point that Mastodon is a band for the ages. They may not be Yes and they may not be vintage Metallica, but at their best, they do provide some magical combination of the pleasures of both prog and epic technical metal. (Crack the Skye probably leans more toward the former pole.) They are pretty much the cream of Big (i.e., major-label) Rock these days, and I can't imagine a time when I wouldn't be extremely excited to hear a new Mastodon disc. I just hope I feel as psyched about Crack the Skye at the end of the year as I do now. That's all I'll say for now, but watch this space for more Mastodon coverage soon.


Before and between my Crack the Skye intake, I have been listening exclusively to Last Exit. Throughout my listening life, there are always a ton of bands, albums, artists, periods, genres, etc. that I know at some point I'll have to check out but that I just haven't quite gotten around to. I tend to mentally refer to such a scenario as having a date with an artist.

I've had a date with Last Exit for many years. It's not that I've never heard them before. Far from it; I've had plenty exposure to them ever since a co-worker handed me a cassette dub of Headfirst into the Flames one summer during college. But I've never before really wholeheartedly embraced them like I have over the past few weeks. In many ways, I'd always considered Last Exit a dream band, boasting as it did the twin towers of guitarist Sonny Sharrock and saxist Peter Brötzmann (the latter of whom I touched on a few weeks back). But it also boasted a player who for me has long been a stumbling block, namely bassist Bill Laswell.

I could write volumes on my wariness re: a fair amount of what is often termed downtown music and especially re: two of its signature artists, John Zorn and Laswell, but I'm not in the mood to rant (nor, to be fair, have I really put in the extensive listening that would be necessary to back up my lukewarm appraisal of each man's work). I will say, though, Laswell's funk- and dub-infused improv work--not to mention his production aesthetics, e.g., on this quizzical recording--has often struck me as heavily cheesy and dated.

But after my recent Brötzmann binge, I knew that I had to reckon with Last Exit in a serious way. This recent spate of listening--which included samplings from the self-titled release, the aforementioned Headfirst, The Noise of Trouble (with a very yet awesome Herbie Hancock cameo) and the hit-and-miss yet nevertheless fascinating studio disc, Iron Path--was the first time I really felt like I was able to appreciate the band as a totality, to hear it without wishing I was hearing Sharrock and Brötzmann with a more genuinely brutal--and less hokey--rhythm section.

And whatever anyone wants to say, however violent an ensemble Last Exit was, it could also be an extremely hokey one. Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson often defaulted to these sproingy, two-beat, almost rockabilly-like rhythms that sounded more goofy than menacing, all but negating the savageness of what was going on up front. But again, this time around, I was trying to hear more openly, less judgmentally, and I found myself embracing these more lighthearted--and even, at times, silly--aspects of the band. Sure there's part of me that wishes they were just balls-out all the time, but there's a really special sort of quirkiness to what Laswell and Shannon do in the band that adds a satisfying variety to the improvisations.

I guess if I could sum up what I'm saying it's that I stopped viewing Last Exit as a flawed dream band and started hearing them for what they were, which is very much a product of their time. Along with the transcendent rawness of their music, there's also a kind of '80s cheese thrown into the mix, a flashy, synthetic glitz that seems to creep into almost anything Laswell touches. But just as I've come to terms with the soupy overproduction of Laswell-helmed Sharrock discs like Highlife, I'm starting to dig and accept how that aesthetic plays into Last Exit as well. Don't get me wrong: L.E. never came anywhere near the bombastic lushness of Highlife, but there's definitely an element of grandstanding, fun-loving cheese about what they do, not to mention an element of perverse playfulness, evidenced--to name two aspects--in the band's cartoonishly macho song titles ("My Balls/Your Chin," anyone?) and Shannon's cryptic avant-blues vocal outbursts.

Nowhere is *all* of this more apparent than the band's killer Frankfurt gig from '86, which is viewable in several forms on YouTube (though, sadly, no longer in the brief version so aptly tagged by Weasel Walter with the phrase "mountains of cocaine"). Note the insanely kinetic, Bon Jovi-esque camera work, which only enhances the over-the-top-ness of the music:

[Note: These two vids depict the same gig, though I believe there's little or no overlap between them. Don't hold me to that, but either way, they're in no way identical and both well worth a peep.]

The whole gamut of the band is here in these clips. First one leads off with that inimitable free-time skronk they patented, with Laswell thrumming away and Shannon skittering behind him, both expressing nervous momentum rather than any metric structure, and Sharrock and Brötzmann just teeing off on top. Then comes a horrifically brilliant Brötz solo feature, where he sounds more like a fuming dragon than a sax player. And then comes Shannon caterwauling away on some free-soul scat madness. Second clip starts off with the "mountains of cocaine" cataclysm itself, then finds its way into a wacky ride-'em cowboy stomp before kicking into some of the most disgusting death-blues imaginable. The close-ups of Sonny around 4:00 are simply priceless, and when he pulls out the slide around 4:50, what was already a puke-inducing display of badass electric rawness turns into something molten. It's thrilling and monumental. From there things descend into horseplay--Laswell's manhandling of the bass seems stilted to me--but the spell never breaks. And that's what's so special about Last Exit: The quartet's project was all about mingling the sublime with the wanky, the profound with the vulgar. They weren't what I had originally idealized them as being--namely the most uniformly fearsome band of all time--but they were brash and awesome and hilarious and staunchly unboring. Hail Last Exit (even Bill Laswell!) and damn, does all this make me wish I'd gotten a chance to see Sonny Sharrock live before he died.

PS: In my YouTube trawlings, I turned up several more excellent related vids, including two (1, 2) bootleg recordings from a 1988 L.E. gig, the first of which begins with a jaw-dropping unaccompanied stand by Sharrock. And for the truly brave, here's Carlos Santana covering Sharrock's classic "Dick Dogs" (WTF, I know). And lastly, for the die-hard Sharrock heads, behold the man gigging with his unlikeliest collaborator, flutist Herbie Mann. This one is just a glorious enigma if there ever was one: A happy, sprightly groove-jazz vibe and then Sharrock comes and just capsizes the whole thing with his frenetic panther runs. I'd heard this juxtaposition on record, e.g. Live at the Whiskey A Go Go, but viewing it is even more disconcerting.

PPS: And finally, an appropriately irreverent Last Exit interview.


evan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
evan said...

Last Exit is tough man. Drummers and singers are the only musicians that can make or break a band. What if someone like Pheron Aklaff was in that group? Sooo much better.

But to add a new wrinkle, here's a link to a live conert of Power Tools, also with Ronald Shannon Jackson. I think he sounds pretty nice here:

Alex said...

YAY! more STATS is always good.

mixed feelings on the new Mastodon, but it sure has sparked a ton of conversation (i've done two posts on it myself). i feel like i'm in the minority of people who weren't blown away by it, though.

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