Saturday, July 24, 2010

Crazy for you: Takayanagi's Mass-terpiece

Mass Hysterism: In Another Situation, a 1983 record by the late Japanese noise-guitar hellion Masayuki Takayanagi (1932–1991) is one of those albums that always going to be lurking in my attic, so to speak. I can put it away for a while, but it never goes to sleep—it's always calling me. Even if it takes a few years, I'll be back. (As an illustration of this, I obsessed over Takayanagi in a February 2007 post as well.)

It's a bashing, clanging exorcism: two electric guitars (the other played by Ikira Iijima—anyone know his other stuff?) and drum set (played by Hiroshi Yamazaki—how ’bout him?). Been checking out a lot of the earlier Takayanagi stuff from the '70s—specifically, the Archive 1 box set—and I really enjoy it, but it doesn't take me where this does. The presence of flute or sax, or Takayanagi's sparse, Derek Bailey–ish stylings, grounds the '70s music in something I already know: it's "improvised music" or it's "hyperactive free jazz." Mass Hysterism, on the other hand is an explosion. It seems almost quintessentially extreme, like the kind of thing you'd play for someone just to shock them, or to prove how masochistic your tastes really were.

But the ears adjust quickly, and you warm up to the feedback dance like a pet near the radiator. Abuse of machinery. Squalling, elevating shapes. Engines priming. Zapped technology. Screaming light. Completely undifferentiated and yet mega-eventful from moment to moment. This is a musical exercise so easily described—a FREAKOUT in the classic sense, befitting the record title—but what makes it special is the sustained nature of the performance, the diversity of the soundspace, and the frenized love the players display. Throwing themselves violently at the muse and the music, over and over and over, for something like 40 minutes. So much so that when you listen, you don't see the men, can't possibly picture them existing and deciding to do this and then, doing this. Can you imagine what it would've been like to see this live?

There's definitely a historical perspective at work, i.e., this was extreme for its time. These days, you could go to No Fun Fest, or countless similar events in basements and art spaces all over the world, and see bands like Hair Police worshipping the same ugly vibes. Also, it helps the overall mystique that info on Takayanagi is so tough to come by for the non–Japanese speaker.

What scraps of info do come through are tantalizing—see, for example, this survey of recordings by both him and sometime partner-in-crime Kaoru Abe. For one, Takayanagi seems to have been almost insufferably outspoken, intent on alienating any musician not devoted to his ultra-extreme aesthetic agenda. NPR's Lars Gotrich gives some helpful background on Mass Hysterism here, and the temporarily out-of-commission-due-to-malware-attack Destination Out has also featured compelling Takayanagi posts. I can't find any video of Takayanagi working in Mass Hysterism attack mode. There are no readily available interviews online, or step-by-step journalistic accounts of his career. (Though on the latter tip, it's important to note that as with Derek Bailey, Takayanagi did come up playing straight-ahead jazz. For whatever reason this always lends a greater gravity to free music—think of Coltrane—even if that might be dubious logic, i.e., do you really have to prove your bona fides before going off the deep end?) Just a bunch of dauntingly expensive reissues—Mimaroglu seems to have just about every one—scattershot blog posts, etc.

But for starters, all you need is Mass Hysterism: only $8 from iTunes if you're the stand-up sort, or pretty easily locatable elsewhere online if you're not picky. There are so many RIYL clichés I could—and sometimes feel compelled to—trot out when listening to this record. ("If you worship Lightning Bolt...," etc.) But does that really help anyone? Better to say: go for it.

I spun about three fourths of Mass Hysterism yesterday, and while writing this, I checked out the rest. And now I am back to the beginning. Yamazaki has unfurled his jackhammer magic carpet, and Takayanagi and Iijima are singing their apocalypse hymn. I'm not surprised at all by any of this anymore, having heard it a bunch. I'm just pleased by it. You don't have to pretend that "experimental" music is a struggle every time out, that you're some kind of freak who goes back again and again even though it hurts. Try Mass Hysterism—I think you'll like it. May it lurk in your attic for years to come.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A man needs a "Shakey": Neil Young's bio

I need to say something very simple here: Thanks to Jimmy McDonough for writing Shakey. I'm not quite through yet, but I'm reading this book—a 2002 biography of Neil Young—with such awe. It's exactly the kind of work that one wishes existed re: every artist one loves.

It's unauthorized in the strict sense, yet with full access. McDonough interviewed Young himself exhaustively, but maybe more importantly, he interviewed just about everyone who ever worked with Young and brought their opinions to NY for consideration. It's a true 360-degree portrait. (More than 300 interviews—MORE THAN 300!) And all the personality study is in service of the music. There's not a single song or album or bootleg discussed here that you don't want to run out and hear. And McDonough tells it to you straight: what's worth checking out and what's not.

Some of the reviews quoted on the book jacket have been really bothering me. Two of them use the word "maddening." One of them says "unmanageable" and "overzealous." Overzealous? Would we prefer our biographies of monumental artists to be merely zelaous, or underzealous? And what exactly is maddening about leaving no stone unturned? About doing impeccable research and synthesizing it into something lengthy (but not unreasonably so, given that we're dealing with a four-decade career here) and eminently readable? As for unmanageable, how exactly? Maybe if you'd rather read a capsule review or a blog post.

It's so wonderful to check this book out and so sad to think about how alien it seems from most writing on the internet, i.e., most writing that people read. There's no need for a curmudgeonly rant here, but there's something so pre-internet about this book. McDonough flew out to all corners of the country to visit with the major players in Neil Young's life. He worked this thing out over something like a decade, even wrangling with Young's own mixed signals, which nearly sunk the project. This is not a deadline-driven thing. It was obviously open-ended in the best sense.

It might sound "overzealous" but I think this is a heroic act: to try to make sense of a life, specifically one that is not one's own. Not a life that's worth more than other lives, but simply one that is public, that has touched a lot of people as a result of what it has yielded.

What I'm saying is that every great, public artist—every great, public human, really—deserves a Shakey, a passionate and more importantly READABLE primary-sourced guide to the person and the work and the complex solar system of friends, associates, lovers, nemeses and whatnot that made it all possible. A work that's grounded in the facts but that doesn't burden you with them. A scrapbook compiled by a true fan with the wherewithal to speak objectively.

And now, back to the 1991 NY & Crazy Horse triumph, Weld...

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Earthbound: Goodbye, Fred Anderson

Photo: Fred Anderson, right, with Robert Barry—by Nathan Mandell

I realized last night that I did not say a proper goodbye to Fred Anderson. I wrote a brief, hasty obituary for the Volume, but there's more to say.

Like Bill Dixon, a contemporary whose death preceded Anderson's by just eight days, Anderson was an artist whose work I returned to obsessively. And as in the case of Dixon, what I kept searching out over and over was a sound. In Anderson's case, a very ripe, robust, steely thing that reminded me of liquid metal.

I also admired the no-nonsense-ness of Anderson's approach. He was a saxophonist who favored freeform improvisation but who was always careful to plot his own architecture as he went. When I listen to Anderson, I don't hear the quasi-religious questing evident in Coltrane and many of his acolytes. I simply hear a man working through some lines on his horn—spiraling off from metric time but always rooted in hard, hard swing and soul. It was as though he were saying to his capital-F, capital-J Free Jazz contemporaries and billmates (frequent partner Kidd Jordan among them): "I respect what you're doing up there in the stratosphere, but I have plenty of material to hash out right here on Earth."

That notion fits almost too conveniently with Anderson's status as a kind of blue-collar stalwart of the scene—staying rooted in Chicago, installing carpet or tending bar to keep his family going while his cohorts in the AACM (with whom, again, he shared very little in terms of style) brought their music to the world. But I think you can hear the humility in the playing. Anderson never doubled on another horn, never experimented much with bandbuilding or compositional form or extended techniques. He was content to write a few stark lines ("Dark Day," "Within," etc.), let those be the guideposts of his career, and just play and play.

My favorite Anderson context is the sax-drum duet. No disrespect to Interstellar Space, which I adore, but since that album has given way to so many carbon copies, it's amazing to hear an artist who approached the form in an entirely different way. And no disrespect to the Anderson's constant collaborator, Hamid Drake, but I feel that Anderson was at his best alongside two other percussionists: Steve McCall and Robert Barry. Vintage Duets, a 1980 duo session with McCall that came out 14 years later on Okka Disk, is a fine release, though the document that really gets me is an unreleased recording of the pair playing at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1986, passed to me by a friend, who got it from a friend. The music is tougher, bolder than the earlier date, yet still with this deep sense of calm. The opening 25-minute version of "Within" might be the finest single Anderson performance I've heard. I love how Anderson doesn't feel the need to ratchet up in intensity as he plays. In other words, there's no sense of that hackneyed free-jazz climax, which inevitably comes too soon and leaves the performance with nowhere to go. McCall cruises, Anderson cooks, and those are the simple revelations of the gig.

(Re: the recording mentioned above, I could easily share it online, but I'm wary of the ethics involved, especially so soon after Anderson's passing. Anyone have any thoughts on that?)

The other towering Anderson masterwork, for me, is Duets 2001, a Thrill Jockey disc featuring Robert Barry. I have pretty much zero awareness of Barry before or after this session. (I know he's worked with Ken Vandermark, but I haven't heard those records; here's a 2008 interview, which I'm going to check out as soon as I'm done with this post.) I can't even tell you how much I used to play this album. Haven't heard it for several years, but it's on now as I type. To me, this is the Truth. A center of calm. Barry heats it up at times, but the greatest moments are the sublimely laid-back tracks, like the opening "bouncing." This is go-where-it-may music, unfolding infinitely. Could stop now, could go on forever. Always swinging. It gives a feeling of air, of buoyancy—quiet, unassuming creativity that is its own reward.

Now I think I'm the one listing toward post-Coltrane-y mumbo jumbo, so I'll stop. If you haven't heard Duets 2001, though, please obtain it. It is jazz of *no school* whatsoever and yet it is most assuredly jazz. That was Anderson's gift to his musical sphere, to exist outside of stream and current and trend and yet not to deprive you of what you loved about bebop and free jazz alike. Taking the lessons he learned from Charlie Parker (seemingly his No. 1 muse), freeing them up and meditating on the results. For a long, long time.

P.S. If you like Duets 2001: Another underrated record that partakes of a similar buoyant, unhurried vibe is William Parker's Bob's Pink Cadillac, also recorded in 2001, and featuring clarinetist Perry Robinson and drummer Walter Perkins. I can't recommend this highly enough.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Work song: Keelhaul, household chores and the unthinking

"...with rock & roll, the more you think, the more you stink."—David Briggs, quoted in Shakey

I'm currently ensconced in the marvelous Neil Young biography cited above. In one of my favorite passages, Briggs, Young's longtime producer, rants about the pitfalls of modern recording practices ("People realized they could do their part... later. Play their part and fix it later"). Maybe there's cliché at the heart of this sentiment ("Turn off the brain" and whatnot), but is it not so true that rock comes from another place than the mind?

I have all this on the brain today—see? the brain again—at the outset of what promises to be a great holiday weekend. Watched Woody Allen's Alice this morning with my new fiancée (great movie), and then we launched into one of our epic cleaning fits. I always self-assign to doing-the-dishes duty and I actually love it. The reason is that it affords me the perfect opportunity to Rock Out to whatever music I choose for an extended, uninterrupted period.

Re: "the more you think, the more you stink," something I've noticed is that certain music can rule more the less you specifically concentrate on it—like, say, if you're doing the dishes or running on the treadmill while you're listening. Case in point: Keelhaul, a band whom I've often written about before (like here and here) and whom I've become re-obsessed with over the last few days after learning that they're playing Santos Party House in NYC on August 5 (with Unsane, can't wait). Today I blasted their latest album, 2009's Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity, as I soaped and scrubbed all the bowls, forks, knives, cutting boards, whatever. And though it was such a mundane domestic task, there was something beautiful about my ACTIVITY paralleling that of the music.

You listen to Keelhaul, in other words, and you want to work. Because what this band does best is work. They are riffsmiths, endlessly churning through labyrinthine math-metallic constructions—a practice that somehow transcends a conventional task like songwriting. Some Keelhaul songs are a minute long; some are seven minutes long. Some have vocals; some don't. Some are unrelentingly brutal; some are downright chill. But what unites all of their music is a sense of drivenness, of single-minded, less-you-think-less-you-stink MOTION.

Enslaving yourself to a riff. Is there any point to it? Well, the point is that it gets you out of your head. I've often found this at STATS rehearsals, as we cycle through repetition after repetition after repetition of a riff. It's not something you'd ever perform (unless you're Cheer-Accident doing "Filet of Nod"!), but you do it for the release, the pleasure of activity and motion and forwardness and non-static-icity and sculpting something out of sound.

That is so often the pleasure of making and listening to music for me—just being on a moving train, or somesuch. Exorcising the demons via vigorous movement. And if you're not playing music, DOING SOMETHING while listening is often the next best thing. So I wish you all activity—unthinking and nonstinking—as well as a great ROCK soundtrack this Independence Day weekend, and in that spirit, here are Keelhaul themselves, destroying the silence and the inactivity with pure WORK music in their hometown of Cleveland just a few weeks ago: