Monday, April 26, 2010

The fine art of saying no: A glorious new Rush documentary

Beyond the Lighted Stage, the new documentary about Rush that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend, is a near-perfect film that answers one simple question: Why is this band different from all other bands? As someone who's loved Rush for going on 15 years, it was thrilling and vindicating to see someone plead their case so lovingly.

Thematically, the doc focuses on the notion that Rush's sustained success throughout four decades boils down to the band's shrewd instinct, both as a trio and as individuals, for knowing when to say no:

*Alex Lifeson saying no to making his parents proud by getting a "real" job

*Neil Peart saying no to suppressing his bookish tendencies in the name of rock & roll, and later to the idea that he ought to make himself unduly available to obsessive fans

*Rush as a whole saying no to debauchery on the road (as no less a debauchery authority than Gene Simmons of Kiss, who toured with Rush in the early days, attests in the film)

*...saying no to the record label's demand for more concise, accessible material after the failure of Caress of Steel (Rush's middle-finger answer? a little album called 21-frickin'-12)

*...saying no to letting the band overwhelm the members' family lives

*...saying no to continuing as an epic-prog band after they'd outgrown that sound in the early '80s

*...saying no to continuing as a keyboard-drenched pop-rock band after they'd outgrown that sound in the late-'80s

*...saying no to hurrying back into working mode after Peart suffered the loss of his daughter and wife in rapid succession in 1997

There are many more examples, but you get the idea. And in case you don't, the film offers a parade of talking-head rock experts to hammer home its theses: Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan (who blew me away with his quiet poise and articulateness), Kirk Hammett, Rage Against the Machine's Tim Commerford, Tool's Danny Carey, Primus's Les Claypool, the aforementioned Simmons, Skid Row's Sebastian Bach (utterly hilarious), Pantera's Vinnie Paul (yes!) and many more, including a hammy but still sincere Jack Black. Counterbalancing these celebs are major behind-the-scenes players (longtime producer Terry Brown, Rush's early label and radio champions Donna Halper and Cliff Burnstein, etc.) as well as each member's loving parents and a few handpicked fans, who offer a crucial perspective re: how Rush speaks to the alienated teen in all of us.

And then there's the footage. Oh, the glorious footage. A vintage version of "Xanadu" (one of my most treasured Rush songs) that gave me chills; Rush's first-album lineup performing in a school auditorium; the band members warming up backstage; Lifeson and Geddy Lee scarfing sandwiches and signing autographs in a restaurant. And tons more gems.

I honestly have no idea how this will play to the non Rush fan. My love of the band is so deeply ingrained that it's impossible for me to take an objective view. (Though a sympathetic yet nonfanatical friend who accompanied me to the screening was riveted.) But I will say that I don't think this film could have been done better and that Rush geeks the world over are going to go wild. I'd enjoyed codirector Sam Dunn's previous feature, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (great metal 101 doc), but this is a much richer, warmer film, a beautifully wrought summation of a truly singular career. And the best part is, it isn't an epitaph. Rush is touring this summer and they've got new material on the way. Bring it on, I say. (Seeing the doc sent me immediately back to 2002's Vapor Trails, which is rapidly ascending the ranks of my favorite Rush albums.)

For more info on Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, check out my TONY colleague Joshua Rothkopf's recent Q&A with Lifeson.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Like a prayer: What "metal" can and should learn from Ludicra

Just returned from seeing Ludicra at Club Europa, a show I previewed for TONY. Late on a Sunday, feeling fried, but I'm so glad I went. I think I can say definitively that Ludicra's set was the most organically heavy performance I've ever witnessed by a metal band.

Too often, metal as it exists in my mind is not how it exists in the world. If you keep up with the genre, you know that over the past two decades, a sonic revolution has taken place, namely an abhorrent artificiality that sucks all the life out of the genre. Drum triggers, Pro Tools, noise gates -- it all adds up to fake, inanimate music. It might be a hackneyed argument, but it bears repeating over and over and over. Metal should be heavy. More and more, all this airless-sounding nonsense sends me screaming to my Zeppelin and Sabbath records, craving that fix of warm realness.

Ludicra's set was like a time machine to an era before all this nonsense. I encouraged my bandmate Joe to check out the band's magnificent new album, The Tenant (album cover above), and today he told me that it made him think of Kill 'Em All. I definitely agree that it takes you back via its holy rough fullness, its primal, thudding grace. The revelation that drums ought to sound like drums, the courage to have everything come at you in a real way.

I had a feeling they'd open their set with "Stagnant Pond," the lead track from The Tenant, and they did, and thus began 50 minutes or so of shock and rapture. I guess being a drummer myself I'm always going to fixate on the drummer, but I will tell you that Ludicra's percussionist, Aesop Dekker, is a master, worthy of any accolade. He drove the band with an unholy snare thwack which cut through the guitars like a gun shot, crystal-clear bell-of-the-ride accents placed with poetic accuracy, and a true patience and love of groove, whether that meant a speed-freak blast beat or a half-time trudge.

Bassist Ross Sewage alternately zoning out on the music's epic architecture and regarding the crowd with an unsettling scowl. Guitarist Christy Cather, a true metal hero with her curly blonde mane, Flying V axe and leather vest. The other six-stringer, John Cobbett, running his dancing fingers through their paces. And vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman... I don't even know how to describe it. You won't do better than Laal did, pegging her movements as theatrical and goblinlike. Her vocals convey genuine horror and despair. Not that generic black-metal, screaming-for-the-sake-of-screaming crap. There's no word for what comes out of her throat other than DIRE. She stomps around, contorts her body and face. It's almost but not quite cartoonish, a pantomime of evil, a stylized sort of possession.

The band charges as a team, headbanging in furious unison. Cather and Sewage shared one of those classic leaning-back-to-back guitar-tandem moments. The quintet had such a chemistry, such an effortless group choreography. I'm not sure exactly how long this lineup has been together, but you really got the vibe of a crew, of an "on-and-off-the-court" camaraderie.

And all in the service of maximum epic grimness, the epitome of what all metal really aspires to. This set was like a master class in the history of the genre, cherry-picking the awesomest aspects of all the various substyles. The neck-snapping groove of '80s thrash, as heard on The Tenant's "In Stable," which embodies the midtempo assault of Megadeth at their best. Holy, hymnlike interludes touching on the gothy beauty of bands like My Dying Bride. Hailstorm blast sections that could stand up against any of the Norwegian luminaries. Crawling-through-a-snowstorm-and-finally-glimpsing-the-sun, dark-yet-luminous doom metal. It sounds like a prayer.

I only know the new album so there were a few songs I didn't recognize, including a long, glorious encore. The crowd was so there, so present. I saw so much dancing, so much convulsing, so much screaming at the sky in response to the expertly orchestrated evil-ness of it all, and I was right there. Couldn't have sat down if I'd tried. Eyes closed, grimacing privately.

It was all poetry, all a reminder of why I'd had this music in my blood since my teens. You won't get this reassured feeling from very many bands. The genre is in vogue and it's overrun with... with itself really. With bands that hew closely to convention as if to a buoy in the sea. I say let it all go, unless it's something like this, that sums up the swelling emotion, the vastness, the power, the sorrow -- and served raw, please, without the spit-and-polish nonsense that passes for production, not to mention live sound, these days. Black Sabbath deserves a better legacy. Any band calling itself metal needs to provide maximum mood and maximum chops all filtered through a huge, gut-punching, organic sound. It should feel like getting flattened by a baroquely adorned tank and Ludicra did. Shock and awe indeed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Peter Steele, sardonic goth-metal genius, has died

I read the news today, oh boy. Peter Steele, frontman of Type O Negative, has passed away. I've loved his music since my teens. My friends and I once stood outside Type O's tour bus, waiting patiently for autographs, which each member kindly granted. I saw the above video on Headbanger's Ball in the early '90s and it spun me around. I had no idea what "goth" was or any of that. I only knew that I loved the sumptuousness of the sound, the combination of steely metal and deep-voiced, almost choral crooning. I loved the perversity of the lyrics (see: "Christian Woman," one of the most potent statements I know re: the carnality at the heart of Christianity), and as I investigated further, I came to understand that here was a man (Steele) who not only got the dark and gloom; he also got the hilarity of it all.

You wouldn't find that in, say, Nine Inch Nails, or any of the other well-known angst purveyors of the time. You had to go to Type O Negative to get a song called "Unsuccessfully Coping with the Natural Beauty of Infidelity (I Know You're Fucking Someone Else)" or to get an absolutely brilliant faux live album wherein the band sparred with merciless imaginary hecklers. (Hunt down the original cover art for that one, and you'll get a nasty treat.) Or to find out that your tortured hero had posed for Playgirl.

After losing track of Type O for a few years, I was thrilled to find that the band's most recent album, Dead Again, was every bit as sick and satisfying as their vintage work. I hadn't seen them play live since that show way back when (I think they were opening for Danzig), and I was really looking forward to checking them out next time around. Since there won't be a next time, please understand that this man was a genius. For a lot of reasons, but chiefly because he was brave enough to push buttons, to mix the dark and the light in utterly perverse and fucked-up ways that made you feel baffled and challenged and enthralled and spooked. And I haven't even touched on Carnivore...

We will miss you, Mr. Steele.

Monday, April 05, 2010

In full: Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart

Very happy to be able to link to my hot-off-the-press profile of Xiu Xiu on the TONY site, as well as the full transcript of my conversation with bandleader Jamie Stewart on the Volume. Re: the former link, don't miss the list Stewart compiled at the end of five albums that scare him: a classic assortment of the perverse and/or extreme, with records by Cecil Taylor, Diamanda Galás and more. Speaking of Taylor, jazz heads might be interested to hear Stewart's further thoughts on the maestro, which come right at the end of the unedited Q&A.

If you haven't heard Xiu Xiu, I'd probably recommend The Air Force, which landed on my 2006 top ten list. Imagine an almost surreally perverse Casio-fueled version of Scott Walker, only with much catchier choruses, and you'll get some idea of the strangeness and intensity of this project. The new album (Dear God, I Hate Myself) is outstanding, and you can hear it via that first TONY link above. For the totally uninitiated, The Air Force's "Boy Soprano" is probably my favorite Xiu Xiu 101 track.